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Plumage from Pegasus
by Paul Di Filippo

Soul Mining

"Rex Miller taught me more about the creative process than any writer I have ever known. Working with him, I came to understand that creativity is a black and terror-filled realm into which the artist plunges, loads his bucket with howling madness, and hauls it to the surface where he then, somehow, must shape it in the cool light of rationality. [T]he challenge of taming this material for publication must have been like training a dragon to prance on a leash like a toy poodle."
—Richard Curtis, eulogy for Rex Miller, Chronicle, September 2004.
I GRABBED my lunch pail, my soul bucket, and my hard hat and headed for the door of the humble, drafty, company-owned shack where my family and I lived. I had intended to slip quietly away, while my wife and children were still sleeping, but their love and concern for me brought them instinctively awake before I could get out the door.

Clematis, my beautiful wife, had never looked more alluring than she did this morning. But the fear that she fought to control lent her features a twisted cast.

"Rex, dearest, must you really return to the story mines so soon? After all, you've barely recovered from that incident with the wild metaphor."

I flexed my formerly dislocated shoulder and winced. Although I didn't have my full range of motion restored, I felt much better and was convinced I could handle any combative story elements that I might encounter today. More to the point, I could hardly afford another week out of work. Amalgamated Fiction Mining was hardly going to extend us credit on our rent or at the company store. If I didn't earn some royalties soon, I and my family would be out in the streets.

"That incident was all my own fault, Clem. I never should've tried fastening that dog collar on a dragon in the first place, never mind taking it for a walk on a leash. But you can rest easily, for I'm only working the Limerick Face today. The money's not great, of course, but I thought I'd take it slow at first—"

Clematis clapped her hands together and grinned.

"Oh, Rex, I'm so relieved! The worst that can happen to you there is for your distich to get enjambed!"

The twins—Ricardo and Ricardina—had been watching wide-eyed and tremulous while their mother and I talked. But now that everything seemed fine, they broke into shouts and happy farewells.

"We'll miss you, Daddy!"

"Come back safe!"

"Will you bring me a synecdoche! Pretty please!"

"I want a periphrasis! Just a little one! Please?"

I tousled their heads and said, "We'll see. I can't make any guarantees."

The children looked so crestfallen at my refusal to promise them a few castoffs from the pit that I relented instantly.

"Oh, all right, maybe just a little parable. But you have to share it!"

"We will, Daddy, we promise!"

Feeling much better, I left my cottage behind.

It was a short walk through the lanes of identical cottages to the minehead. Along the way, I picked up my companions in the soul-mining trade, grim, work-worn men and women all clad alike in soiled coveralls, carrying their clanking soul buckets on the way to another day down the narrative shaft.

Eventually, having become part of a crowd of over fifty workers, I arrived at the elevator that would carry us downward into the depths of the psychical earth, deep into the fossilized subconscious, where we would hack at the uncooperative substance of our dreams, hoping to release at least a small soul spurt that would fill our buckets for later manipulation back on the surface, in the cool light of rationality.

The rattletrap rusted wire cage of the elevator would hold only ten people at a time. I managed to crowd forward into the first batch of miners.

I found myself among a host of familiar faces, most of them bearing scars.

Bill Collard, who still limped from a broken leg received in a subplot cave-in last year.

Susy Granville, who had lost three fingers on her left hand to a raging sonnet.

Ilona Rhinebeck, who sported an eye-patch, thanks to a confused denouement.

Wembley Kingman, whose hair had turned entirely white when confronted with an out-of-control trilogy.

The only one among us who didn't exhibit the marks of long labor at the narrative interface was young Gifford Goodenow, who had joined us only last month.

Now Gifford piped up in his nave way.

"Boy, have I got a swell feeling about today's shift. I think I might even discover a new subgenre!"

Bill Collard snorted through his walrus mustache. "Pshaw! Last time thet happened was nigh on twenty years ago, when thet there lanky feller hit upon the cyberpunk lode. Retired right after, lor' bless 'im!"

We all contemplated making such a rich strike as the elevator rattled downward.

When the cage reached the bottom and we piled out, we found our shift boss awaiting us. Amid the claustrophobia-inducing shadows and chthonic heat and flickering low-watt electric lights, Hank Huntsman presented a reassuring albeit admonishing sight. A grizzled old coot who had once been the deftest hand at shaping soul spurts into rip-roaring tales that Amalgamated Fiction Mining had ever employed, nowadays Huntsman, after the ravages that wrestling with the monsters of the id had inflicted on his mind and body, was fit only to supervise us. Nonetheless, his vast experience served to make our harsh lives a little safer.

"Collard," called out Huntsman, "you're working the Romance Vein today. Granville, you're in Metafictions. Miller, you signed up for Limericks. The rest of you head over to Legal Thrillers. Got a big call for them, we do."

We split up as dictated. Already the cage to the surface was heading up for another pod of soul-miners.

I found myself alone at the Limerick Face, which was just as I liked it. Collaborating was never my strong suit. I grabbed one of the picks left on the gritty floor and swung it into the rock. Chips flew, but no soul stuff spilled out.

Three hours of hard work intervened before I got my first soul spurt.

Hastily dropping the pick, I grabbed my soul bucket and positioned it under the dribble of gooey black bile that jetted feebly from the wall. When the spurt tailed off, I had about four inches of churning, turbid matter in my bucket. I tentatively dipped my fingers into the greasy roiling plasm, trying to sense the shape of the limerick that I would have to pull with much exertion out of the vile mass, once aboveground. I got a faint sense of the rhymes—something about "patches" and "Natchez"—before I withdrew my fingers.

Well, it wouldn't earn me any literary prizes, but it might help pay the rent.

Around noon, just as I was eating my lunch, Huntsman came galloping down the narrow corridor and I knew there was trouble.

"It's that damn young fool Goodenow! He's got ahold of an allegory and won't let go!"

Huntsman raced off in the direction of Christian Literature, and I hastened after him.

A whole crowd of soul miners had formed a human chain in an attempt to rescue Goodenow from his fatal connection with the allegory. They were pulling with all their might, but having no success budging Goodenow or his tainted catch.

At the far end of the chain, Goodenow himself grasped the spiky tail of the amorphous allegory, which was half-buried in a fracture of the rock, seeking to escape deeper into the strata of the mythic subconscious.

"Gifford," I shouted, "let the damn thing go! Allegory's been the death of many a finer writer than you!"

"No, Rex, I can handle it! I just need the right protagonist to tame it—"

The youthful fool had more ambition than common sense, but you had to admire his spirit. I remembered when I had been just as full of zeal. But that seemed an age ago.

There must have been an irony leak nearby. Because at the exact moment Gifford made his boast, the allegory poured on more power and pulled Gifford Goodenow right into the crack before he could let go of its sticky skin. The resulting messy compression and exsanguination of Gifford's body was not a pleasant sight. We were just lucky not to lose anyone else.

Well, needless to say, the rest of the shift passed under a definite pall. I doubt that anyone brought more than a vignette or an aphorism out of the soul mine that sad day.

As I was riding the elevator up, clutching my pail with the lone limerick in it, I pondered the twists of fate that had consigned me to the narrative pit. I began to feel a little self-pity and even shame.

Sensing my downcast mood, Ilona Rhinebeck dug into her own soul bucket, grabbed a mass of sludge, and dumped it atop my limerick.

"For the kids," she said.

When I got home and the hearty family greetings were over, I disentangled Ilona's contribution from the limerick and handed it to Ricardo and Ricardina.

It turned out to be an embryonic Young Adult fantasy novel.

Watching their happy faces as they poked and prodded the squealing juvenile, I realized I wouldn't really want to work anywhere else.

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