October 26, 1933
It was 3:30 in the morning when my mother woke me up. “Get dressed within ten minutes, because your father is waiting for you!” she said.
I looked at my mother with my eyes wide open and obeyed her without saying any word. I got dressed and went down to my parents’ bedroom where my father was waiting for me. As soon as I entered the room he took his revolver from the closet and loaded it with six bullets. Then he fastened his cartridge belt around his waist. Then he put on his blue hooded cloak and buckled it near his neck. At last, he took his double-barreled gun from the closet and slung it over his shoulder.
“Now we are ready to go,” he said with his grim face.
I was breathless. I couldn’t imagine what was going to happen. I had a bad feeling, but I didn’t have the courage to ask my father what he was going to do with those arms. I followed him down the inner stairs that led to the stable. The light of the lamp was feeble, but here and there I saw some mice running though the straw. My father took the
packsaddle that was hung on the wall and put it on the mare, which was startled. Finally, he pulled the girth tightly.
“Take the reins and the saddlebags,” he said.
I did as he asked, and then he ordered me to get a small barrel of wine, a bottle of water, and an acetylene lantern. We would use the lamp on the road.
He lifted me with his strong arms and put me on the front of the packsaddle and walked the mare up to the exit of the vegetable garden. He closed the gate and leapt back into the saddle. Our mare walked briskly through the empty streets of Enna. The streets were illuminated until we reached the Janniscuru Gate, but little by little as we advanced along the country road it became darker and darker.
My father took the acetylene lamp and lit it. “Hold it!” he said.
I grabbed the lantern from the hook, and I have to say that it actually lit the road in front of us very well. It wasn’t very heavy, but the smell that it gave off was disgusting!
I had heard from my mother that there were bandits along the roads who mugged passersby, but I blindly trusted my father. He is very strong and nobody dared confront him. My only worry was what my father would do to me. I was sure that my mother had told him that I was a bad student, so I expected punishment, but I couldn’t figure out what kind. At last, I summoned up my courage to ask him.
“Where are we going, Father?”
“Shut up!” he said with a voice so firm that it made me shiver with fear. We kept going through the pitch-black night, while I kept holding the lantern.
After an hour of riding, I saw a long line of men, young men, boys, and ragged children walking slowly on the road with their lanterns in their hands. They looked as if they were souls that were heading for the Valley of Jehoshaphat near Jerusalem on the day of the Last Judgement.
Where are all those people going at night? I thought. I could never have imagined so eerie a scenario. It was as if I was dreaming, but the lantern in my hand, which was now getting heavy, dispelled all my doubts. I was awake, as were all those people walking along the edge of the road.
It was almost dawn when we arrived at a place with many cylinder-shaped stone mounds that gave off smoke on the top, while below a yellow liquid leaked through a crack in the stones. We had arrived at a sulfur mine.
As soon as they saw my father, three mine laborers headed for us. They all bowed to my father and kissed his hand. One of them took the reins of the mare, while another laborer took my father’s cloak. A third workman was waiting for my father’s orders.
“This is my son, Vincenzo. I want you to show him the mine, both inside and out,” my father said with a commanding tone. The laborer nodded. “It will be done!” Meanwhile, he helped me dismount. Holding my hand, he led me to the smoking stones that I had seen at the entrance.
“These are furnaces,” he said. “We put the sulfur ore inside and smelt it. At least two-thirds of the molten sulfur is lost in the air as sulfur dioxide. The remaining third flows into wooden casts. We wait until the sulfur is cold, then we take it out of the wooden casts and load it into trucks. We export sulfur all over the world. It is used in agriculture as a fertilizer, to make gunpowder, as an insecticide, a fungicide, and so on. Nevertheless, I have to say that all the people that work here breathe toxic fumes due to high levels of sulfur dioxide in the air. Sooner or later we all get sick. We are doomed to die young. Therefore, I advise you to stay as far away from this sulfur mine as you can.”
We kept walking around the area until we finally arrived at an entrance that had been dug into the ground. The upper part of the tunnel and the walls were propped up by wooden piles and beams, and a narrow staircase led underground.
“Is it not dangerous to go underground? I don’t think these wooden posts are stable enough,” I said.
“Actually, accidents happen every now and then, but we must go down, otherwise your father will reprimand me. Anyway, don’t be anxious. You are safe with me,” he said, holding my hand tightly.
We went downstairs for about a hundred meters. Then the stairs became steeper and slippery. Little by little, as we went down it got hotter. We kept going until we arrived at a wide area from where many tunnels branched off. They were propped up precariously.
Along the stairs and the galleries I saw an uninterrupted line of children who were carrying that nauseating acetylene lamp in one hand and a heavy weight on their shoulder. The ore was stuffed into canvas bags or baskets. The children wore small bags stuffed with rags on their shoulders and heads to soften the harshness of the ore. Stooping under the weight and with labored breathing, they went upstairs slowly, giving out a painful moan with every step. I had the impression of seeing human-shaped moles which didn’t like to come out in the daylight.
“What is the average age of those children?” I asked.
“Their age ranges from seven to eighteen years. They cannot grow well because the air here is too rarefied and humid. Moreover, they carry weights that are too much for their young age. They cannot stop on the stairs to take a rest or the entire long train of carriers would stop. Their bodies are misshapen and they will never grow taller.”
We kept going down, and finally arrived at the end of one of the galleries. The air there was hot and unbearable. I saw that a few men were completely naked because of the stifling heat. With picks in their hands, they dug out the ore. Near them, a few children filled baskets and canvas bags with the ore, while other little laborers helped other children put the loads on their shoulders.
“Every pick man has at least three children at his disposal. He cannot do his work without children that carry out the material that he digs out. For this reason, he makes an agreement with children’s parents. The pick man gives the parents money in exchange for their children’s work.”
I was itching to leave that goddamn, underground place. I wanted to breathe freely in daylight, but the laborer, who had to follow my father’s orders, took me all around the mine to see more naked laborers and misshapen children.
“One last thing,” the laborer said. “You have to know that accidents are not infrequent in this mine. Some are caused by the accidental collapse of the props, but the most serious tragedies happen when the laborers come across firedamp, which explodes when it comes in contact with the flame from the lanterns. A considerable number of both pick men and children, sometimes dozens, are left trapped in the bowels of the mine. Their deaths are appalling. The oxygen runs out little by little and they die of suffocation.”
When I got out of that infernal mine, my legs were quaking. My mouth was dry and my face was pale. The hand gave me some water and we both sat down on a bench near my father’s office. From there I could see the people who set fire to big logs below the furnaces, while other laborers loaded the blocks of melted sulfur into wheelbarrows and then carried them to the trucks. My father didn’t allow me to enter his office, so I had to wait outside on the bench. Two hours later a hand came with our mare. It was the sign that we could go home.
On the way back home my father broke his silence. “Did you visit the mine?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Did you see all those children working hard?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Well, now I’ll give you an option—you either make progress in your studies, or you will come and work inside the mine like those children you just saw. You can be sure that if you fail as a student I will take you to work in the mine!
“You can consider yourself a privileged boy,” my father continued, “because you are given an option, while those unlucky children have no choice. They belong to large families with six, seven, sometimes twelve children. Their parents cannot afford to support them, so they entrust them to the pick men for a handful of money.”
“Okay, Father, I promise from now on I’ll be a good schoolboy!” I said.
This is an excerpt from A Hidden Sicilian History by ETTORE GRILLO
Ettore Grillo, author of these books:
– A Hidden Sicilian History
– The Vibrations of Words
– Travels of the Mind