From the author: In Coober Pedy, the opal mining capital of the world, it pays to watch where you're walking.
An audio version is available for this chapter. Listen online →
Fella down a hole, fella down a hole. I can't keep the words out of my head, not even when I concentrate on the pain in my arm. It's broken, I think. The words mock me, 'cause every kid grows up in Pedy knows you don't walk around looking at the sky instead of the ground. That's the surest way to get yourself killed, out here where shafts mark the landscape like so many tunnels down to hell.
The words won't leave me, so I stop trying to make them go. I turn them over in my head so they tumble and click together like opals in my pocket, sing them to myself until they blur and lose their meaning.
"You know their meaning, Sarah Anne," says Miss Ames. "Kupa piti, words that became a town."
"I know, Miss Ames," I whisper. "Kupa piti, Coober Pedy: 'Fella Down A Hole,' they called the place, fair warning. That don't do me much good, though, does it? I'm stuck."
"Doesn't do you any good, Sarah Anne," she says automatically. "But you never know when the answer might come to you. Or help, if you know how to ask for it."
"I can't hardly talk no more, Miss Ames. I don't have no . . . I don't have any water and my voice is almost gone. I've been calling and calling and nobody comes."
"Here and gone, here and gone," she sings. "You thought I was gone and I'm here, Sarah Anne."
"You left, Miss Ames," I say. "You left just like all the other teachers. Only you didn't say anything, just didn't come back after the holiday. The little girls were crying, and my brothers would've cried too if they weren't boys. I'm too big to cry, and besides, I was mad. I don't blame you anymore, though. I wouldn't have stayed in Pedy either if I was you. There's nothing to do but noodle for potch and wait to see if some boy wants to get married, one with enough money to dig out a house."
"Oh Sarah Anne, didn't I teach you better than that?" she says.
I start to cry. Guess I'm not too big after all. Right now noodling for potch and waiting for a boy to marry sounds pretty good. I'm only fifteen and I don't want to die just yet.
"Hush, Sarah Anne, it's alright," says Miss Ames. "I won't leave you alone."
I fall asleep again, to Miss Ames' humming. Sleep until my arm wakes me up, stay awake until Miss Ames puts me back to sleep. She tells me to have sweet dreams while I wait for help.
I dream about yesterday, or maybe the day before. All the days are just about alike in Pedy. Days so hot you blister your skin touching metal. Heat that drives you into the cool underground of the house 'til the noise of too many little brothers drives you back out. Least I kind of have my own space now, since Daddy found that vein that paid enough to dig out two more rooms. I was bored when yesterday happened for real, but now I find the sweet in it.
The next time I wake up, the sun is right overhead. It's strange being stuck in this hole. I don't reckon I'm more than six or seven meters down, but it's still deep enough to mean a heap of trouble for me. I'm wedged in here good, and even if I didn't have a bad arm, there's no handholds to pull myself out. Probably wouldn't be strong enough even with two good arms. There's something under me, an old oil drum, I think. Kept me from falling all the way down, so it's a good thing.
I think again about fella down a hole. Is it "fella" like "fellow," or is it the verb, like "he fell-a down a hole?" Miss Ames only laughs when I ask her, maybe because it's a girl fella this time instead of a boy. That's kind of unusual. More boys than girls get lost, I guess because girls don't wander so far. In fact, I'm not sure there's ever been a girl lost in Pedy. They thought Nancy Johnson was lost once but she'd just run away with her boyfriend 'til his daddy's utility ran out of gas on the other side of the Dog Fence. I guess that makes me the first.
"Perhaps not the first, Sarah Anne," says Miss Ames.
"So some other girl was as dumb as me?" I ask around a mouthful of mine dust. "That's not much comfort, Miss Ames."
"I suppose not. But tell me about the opals, Sarah Anne," she says.
"My daddy says that opals hold the Dream Time," I say. "There's nothing good or bad that's not inside some opal somewhere. The white ones catch sunbeams and the black ones flecked with gold catch the stars that fall to the ground. And opal stars can call a man to his death."
"Maybe they can call a woman to her life," says Miss Ames.
"My ma says that one good opal is a ticket out of town, unless you catch the fever and think you can always find one more better. I already found mine, though, my ticket out of town. You want to see?"
With my good arm I pull my opal out of my jeans pocket. I'm lucky I didn't lose it when I fell down this hole, but then this opal is already lucky 'cause it's a floater. There were lots of floaters in the early days, just lying around on the ground waiting to be found, but there's hardly any left. My friend Janey's dad says it might even fetch five hundred once it's cut. That's more than enough for a bus ticket to Adelaide. I know 'cause I looked it up. Other girls would've sold the stone already, and spent the money on clothes, but I'm waiting for something better.
Besides, I like to look at it. It's not as pretty as a cut opal yet, but I know there's light inside it, waiting to be let out. Opals don't have their own color to begin with, so they steal light and make color from it. I think maybe they keep a little bit of light for themselves, hoard it 'til they're good and ready to give it up. Maybe the bit of light that'll come out of my opal someday was trapped in there millions of years ago, and it's been waiting for me all this time.
The sun shining down the shaft will slip over the edge any minute, but before it goes I hold my opal up to the light. If I squint I can almost see its veins waiting to bleed every color there is.
"Let it go, Sarah Anne," Miss Ames says.
Drop my opal? Why would I want to do that?
"Now, Sarah Anne."
In Pedy we're taught to do what teacher says, and besides, I love Miss Ames. I'm about to drop my opal but then I decide to throw it up instead, so maybe it can be a floater again. It's hard as anything to swing my good arm in this space. I wrench my bad arm and it hurts something fierce, but still I throw the stone up with all my might. It clears the shaft and floats in the sunlight, bursting into a million fireflies. Some of them fly away and others rain down on me just as the sun disappears and darkness climbs down the shaft. One firefly hits me on the head, and then I realize it's my stone and try to grab it. But it bounces past me and falls forever. I listen but I don't hear it hit bottom.
"It's gone, Miss Ames," I whisper.
"It's your ticket, Sarah Anne," she says, but her voice sounds different now, higher and further away. I hardly hear it, because her humming has almost put me back to sleep, and I start to dream my little brothers' voices calling my name.
This story originally appeared in Strange Horizons.