Long piggish snouts and goggles appear in and out of focus as she readjusts the lens, the image remaining grainy and pixelated against the night. The men work in crown-to-ankle starch white suits, the material disappearing beneath elbow-length gloves and rubber boots. Tall portable construction lamps encircle the shallow pit’s perimeter, casting light on dump trucks and large oil drums, nondescript and devoid of hazard warnings. The men guide the barrels deep into the earth, an enormous crane lifting each barrel into a cavernous hole along the basin wall.
She needs to get closer for a clearer shot but is wary of sinkholes hidden and scattered throughout the black meadowland stretching over the abandoned mine. The drop, extending hundreds of feet underground, would be sudden and fatal. Still, she advances through the tall grass, the machinery’s hum pulling her forward.
Some of the barrels moan as they descend, their metal edges scraping against unseen rock until reaching bottom, where they’ll degrade and loosen, their contents seeping out. In her small Sicilian town nearby, accounts grow of goiters growing in necks, and bodies wracked with thyroid cancer and intestinal cancer and cancer of the throat. The dioxin found too late in her father’s blood. Without proof, no one will listen, and so she is here, edging closer until one of the masked heads looks up and shouts something garbled by the crane’s engine. Others turn to her and point.
Securing the camera in her bag, she races back toward the closest adit still distinguishable in moonlight. Inside the mine, she stumbles down an earthen stairway, bruising her head and legs, unable to find her footing. Pained, she crouches forward beneath a wide, low-ceilinged tunnel. Her phone’s flashlight reveals a passageway without end. She ventures further inside, as deep as she can go until footsteps crunching overhead stills her. Holding her breath, she shuts off the light and is absorbed by darkness, the sounds slowly fading until she can no longer distinguish between the men and the blood coursing through her brain. She leans against a wall of rocks and waits. Between bursts of sleep, she imagines the tunnels alive with tiny movement—the scratch of an animal’s claw burrowing, its mouth resisting dirt.
The early morning city bus lumbers into view, and she waves her hands from where she stands along the road, shouting for it. The driver narrows his eyes at her once she’s inside. Her hands trembling, she feeds coins into the metered slot. Gripping her arm gently, he leans closer, cups a hand on her shoulder, pulls at the fabric of her blouse. She flinches as he holds up a fat centipede, frantic with life, its endless hairy legs spiky to the touch. Laughing, he flings it out the side window. “They bite only if you entice them,” he says.
Sitting up front, her hands shaking, she inspects her hair and ears, the bus moving across sloping countryside, moving past olive groves and tomato fields, moving slowly toward a green horizon. Two tourists nearby point at something outside: an area where famous heirlooms grow to be harvested. They trade remarks on topography, the richness of Italian soil, and how the sediment is forever pushed up and turned over layers of ancient earth, folded and unfolded. All that is buried returns aboveground.
Between her hands, she swipes through images of white-smocked men, of industrial barrels awash in construction lights’ sleepy orange glow. She settles on an image, one just clear enough, and a piece of sky opens inside her chest.
The tourists lean forward, their camera phones ready. One points out another vineyard rushing by in a shimmering patchwork of rolling hills and bronze-studded trees.
“Look!” he says, the landscape a green square on his screen.
Olivia Kate Cerrone is the author of The Hunger Saint, which won a 2018 American Fiction Award for best novella. Her fiction, essays, reviews and author interviews have appeared in Psychology Today, Publishers Weekly, The Rumpus, The Brooklyn Rail, The Huffington Post, and elsewhere. Cerrone earned an MFA in fiction from New York University.