Wednesday, January 13, 2016
Thine Is The Kingdom by Marilyn Gardiner
When the mine waste dam above them broke, it scoured the entire valley clean of all vegetation and many habitants. Almost every family lost a loved one or more, as well as their homes, gardens, and live stock. Worst of all they lost a sense of dependability and security. Life would never be the same. Clary Gibson was determined that her son, Ben, would not spend his adulthood deep in the coal mines of West Virginia digging for coal—like his ancestors. Her husband, a proud miner, wanted nothing more than having Ben join him in the mine. The marriage which had been rock solid, took a near fatal blow while they tried to put their lives back together, as well as cope with opposite dreams for their children.
The seven o'clock whistle from the mine split the early morning fog. I smiled. Gib would be home soon from the third shift. Putting an apple in the lunch box I was packing, I called over my shoulder, "There's the whistle, Beanie. You better hurry. First graders are called tardy same as everybody else when they're late."
"It sure is pretty, Mama. Thanks a heap for the buttons." She stood in the middle of the room proudly holding out the skirt of her new dress and fingering the tiny, blue, heart-shaped buttons at her neck. She twirled herself around in a giggling lopsided pirouette. "It's the prettiest dress you ever made."
Laughing, I caught her as she staggered off-balance. Beanie straightened her small shoulders and lifted her chin a fraction. "Nobody else at school has ruffles and heart buttons."
“Pretty is as pretty does, young miss. And don't you be forgetting it." I gave her a love pat on the starched ruffles of her skirt. "And, button your neck, you hear? The rain's stopped but that wind is feisty this morning."
Across the room a chair crashed to the floor. Embarrassed, Ben picked it up and straightened the rug. At going on fifteen, his feet were growing so fast he didn't know how to handle them. "My lunch ready?"
"Ben, if you don't get your growth before long, we'll not have a whole chair left in the house." But I smiled as I held out his lunch box and he grinned back, Gib's grin--his daddy's--stretching around the corner of his face.
As Beanie opened the door, the wind gusted and flung the screen back against the wall. She laughed and giving me a quick hug pelted down the steps and through the yard, leaning into the wind as her curls flew wild. Ben brushed past me too quick to grab, and disappeared into the fog before Beanie. "See you," drifted back through the gray mist.
I stood on the tiny porch watching her small form disappear into the wet thick February morning and then listened to the squish of her boots slogging through the mud. A shiver rippled up my back. The walk down to Fern Gully and the school was long but it was fun, picking up a friend at every path they crossed, laughing and skipping stones in the creek. By the time they arrived at school, they were a pack of twelve or more.
I moved to the edge of the porch and wrapped my arms in my apron against the chill. Another month and the birds would be arriving to fill the woods with their chatter, and with them the first frothy tentacles of spirea would burst into bud.
Spring was my favorite time of the year. I had watched sixteen springs come to the valley from this house, one after the other. Summer flowing into fall, fall dying into winter, winter melting into spring. I felt at peace with the valley, the house and the hillside. I belonged as an arm or leg fits a socket fashioned for it before birth. I had been made for this place, or it for me, before the mountains of ice pushed the hills together and made West Virginia. I couldn't imagine breathing other air, looking out a window and seeing something else. Contentment filled me like pudding in a dish. Thick and smooth and nourishing. Gib, my babies and the mountains. I felt, in the true Biblical sense, blessed among women.
The house was still unpainted, as it had been when I came to the hollow as a bride. I remember standing in the door that morning thinking, "No more Clarissa Jacks. I'm a married woman, now. I'm Clary Gibson. I'm Gib's woman."
There had been honeysuckle in bloom blanketing the hillside and filling our bedroom at night with sweetness, jonquils growing on the south side of the house close to the foundation, hiding the uneven boards, and the hollyhocks, even then, were stubbornly trying to bloom in the hard-packed clay beside the tool shed. I had added peony bushes over the years, and a rambling Paul Scarlet rose bush, and this year Gib promised to transplant a lilac bush from the woods to the back yard.
Sad, I thought, that Yancey couldn't feel what I did. Gib's young sister could have a house of her own nearby whenever she said the word to Lyle. We could be neighbors. Every bride needs a good neighbor. I'd had Gran. Gran said living with us, the way Yancey did, wasn't natural for an eighteen-year-old girl but Yancey wasn't ready yet for babies and meat loaf and I wouldn't push her.
I told myself that Yancey wasn't my problem. My heartache, maybe, but the decision was hers. Chores waited for me inside but still I lingered in the chilly morning while fog dripped from the trees and the radio drifted music from the kitchen.
Long ago the fog had brought bad luck, but I pushed the memory down, back in its hidey hole. It had nothing to do with today. There was something hidden and private about fog. The blank grayness seemed a threatening thing, when life was held still by temporary blindness. It gave the feeling of standing on the brink of something unknown, each minute waiting, oozing into the next, not wanting to give up a hold on the moment. Fog wasn't to be trusted. Taking a big breath, I sighed. Dreaming wouldn't get Gib's breakfast, nor clean up the kitchen. I went in.
I flipped the radio louder and put on Gib's coffee. He'd be home in a few minutes ready for eggs and fried potatoes, and a whole pot of coffee. Then he'd want to wrestle on the floor with Junior and tell Gran and me about the night's work before he went to bed. The baby was still in his crib, but he was bound to be wet and hungry. And there were Yancey and Gran to check on. Gib's grandmother was still spry, but she was usually up and stirring by this time.
Turning down the flame under the coffee and reaching into the basket for potatoes, I was humming with the radio when the weather announcer broke into the music. He forecasted more rain and warned of flood danger in some areas due to a sudden rise in temperatures and melting of the unusual quantity of snow that had fallen in the winter. We'd also had heavy rainfall of the past three days. I stopped humming.
Sunday night Gib and I had lain in bed listening to rain peppering on the roof. His chest hair tickled my nose in a pleasant way and beneath my palm I could feel the driving beat of his heart. Nothing existed inside the circle of his arms except the love we shared. Nothing but us. It had been that way from the first and I knew from other women that what we had was rare. I smiled and snuggled deeper. But suddenly he rolled over and looked at the ceiling as if by staring hard enough he could turn off the wind and rain. "Just listen. The dam up at the mine don't need more rain. The lake's higher now than I ever seen it."
He was worried. The thought startled me, for Gib was about the easiest-going man in the hollow. The dam was one of the countless mine-waste dams just like it, scattered all across West Virginia, built by dumping the useless slag from the mine across a handy hollow to hold the acid mine water. It was a mile-long cesspool of slimy mine-waste. Nobody wanted to think of it springing a sudden leak. I raised on one elbow and looked at Gib.
"Inspectors came last night," he said. "Three of them."
"Did a lot of talking and big drinking but not one of them went down to inspect anything."
"Not even the dam?" I asked.
He was bitter. "Didn't stick around till daybreak. Said to let them do the worrying." Releasing me, he ran a hand through his hair, standing it up in a bristling mop. "I got men down there. Clary, if it don't stop raining...."
But in the light of morning his fear seemed foolish. The dam had held all these years. We'd had rain before. The dam would still be there tomorrow.
An impatient wail came from the bedroom. I turned off the coffee. On my way down the hall I stopped at Gran's door. She was tying an apron around her waist, her room already neat and ready for the day.
"The radio's sure talking flood this morning, Gran," I said.
She grunted. "Ever' year it's the same thing. 'Leave your home before the water gets you. Run for the high ground.' Bunch of skeerdy cats they got on the radio."
I moved on down the hall. I called, "It's that dam up there they're fretting about down in Fern Gully. They're right in line...."
"That dam's a horse of another color." Gran raised her voice to call after me, "I been watching that dam ever' since the black-lung took Grandpa, and sure's God made goose bumps..." Gran was forever prophesying doom and I already knew what she'd say next. I stopped listening.
A shaft of sunlight speared through the murky light of the bedroom. Junior bounced at the foot of the crib, and I smiled at him. "See, honey bunch, the fog's lifting. Maybe it'll be a pretty day after all."
The window pulled me, and I turned my face to the square of yellow light falling on the floor. My daddy always said if you couldn't make a living off the mine you could always fill your belly with feasting on the beauty of the hills. And he was right. The peaked heavy-wooded hill rose steeply behind the house until it was lost in the fog. Somewhere high up the face of the mountain was the tipple and at its feet lay the mine where Gib spent most of his nights, working. Standing there admiring the upward view of the mountain as I did every morning of my life, I felt the floor shift slightly beneath my feet. I hesitated in mid-thought. What? And, then I heard it.
The sound was like distant thunder, only there was no end to it. A curl of fear twisted in my stomach and I ran to the window and looked up. At that instant the disaster whistle at the mine blew. My breath caught in my throat. Thank God, Gib’s out.
From the hall Gran shouted, "Oh, good God in heaven--the mine!" and Junior in his bed stopped bouncing, his eyes watchful on my face.
The thunder went on and on, getting louder. For some reason I couldn't get enough breath. My lungs began to ache. Suddenly, coming around the bend in the hollow, still high up the valley, I saw trees moving. Trees and rocks, "Gran! Gran, the rocks...the mountain.... Gran!"
A towering mass of boiling, churning debris came steadily on, gaining speed. I felt Gran run into the room behind me. "It can't be," she whispered.
But then a wall of water rounded the bend, pushing a mass of uprooted trees and jagged rocks before it. Gran's fingernails bit into my arm. "It's the dam," she screamed. "God save us, the dam's give way! Run girl!"
Snatching Junior from his crib, I ran for the door. "Yancey!" I shrieked. Yancey was asleep, but there was no time. "Yancey! Wake up! Yancey! The dam's gone!"
Gran was ahead of me and together we struggled across the yard toward the hillside. The mud sucked at our feet and the wind clutched at our bodies as we strained forward. I was afraid to look up the hollow and afraid not to. I grabbed at trees, branches, brush, roots, anything to help pull myself up, higher, away from the danger. Trying to shield Junior from the worst of the brush I slipped and fell, sliding backward until I caught myself on a bush of dead sumac. I scrambled the last few yards on my hands and knees, pushing Gran ahead of me. We crouched there, Gran and I, panting. We were at the crest of the ridge. There was nowhere else to go. I turned.
"Yancey!" I screamed, but there was no sight of her. "Yancey!" But the sound of my voice was lost in the growing rumble.
And then, a gigantic wall leaped into our clearing. I flinched like I'd been struck with a bucket of cold water.
It had grown. The heap was higher than the roof of our house. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. The Mabry's, Mopey and Sarah, their house above us up the mountain, was only a pile of rubble being carried downhill. I recognized one of the shutters I'd helped Sarah pick out of the catalog last summer. I heard myself whimpering and beside me Gran chanted, "Yeah, though I walk through the valley of the shadow..." Junior didn't make a sound but both fists were buried in the folds of my dress.
The roar of grinding rocks and pounding water was deafening. The mass came downhill like pictures of a volcano erupting. A chicken coop was flung into the air and fell back to disappear. A battered metal washtub, gobs of black soil with dead growth clinging to it, rolled and was sucked under.
And then the water came. There was a thunderous slam as black slimy water was vomited into the hollow. I tried to close my eyes. I didn't want to see it but looked anyway. The water swallowed everything in sight. A terrified white-tailed doe went down screaming. I saw my house, far enough up the hillside to escape the full blow, tremble in the side lash of current. I saw it twist on its foundation as the water rose to the windowsills. I saw a plume of smoke and steam shoot high in the air as water reached the coal stove. I saw the front porch, new last summer, torn off and the support poles swirl away. I saw a horse, somebody's horse--who above us had a horse?--trying to swim, its eyes rolling wildly as it swept by. I saw Beanie's doll house slide by drunkenly with a piece of cloth clinging to the chimney.
"Beanie!" I shrieked to Gran. Sudden fright sluiced over me as strong as the force of the flood. "Ben and Beanie are on their way to school!"
Junior screamed and held on tighter as I tried to hand him to Gran, but I tore his hands loose and staggered to my feet. I ran along the ridge, looking down into the valley, pacing the hideous river of destruction. I ran, arms and legs flailing, eyes straining ahead. From the next bend I could see the town, for the creek took a straight shot downward before entering Fern Gully. I had to see the town. My babies....
Animals were everywhere, gazing about with stunned, dumb eyes. I put my foot down so close to a raccoon’s nose I could feel the coarse hot breath on my ankle. It didn't move. Two feet away sat a red fox, blind to both me and the 'coon. They were enemies clinging to one another, and I felt kin to them.
I fell once, my foot caught in shin-tangle, and scrambled up to claw my way onward. The continuous roar of the water was in my ears, filling my head, tasting putrid in my mouth. Finally, exhausted, I stumbled to the bend in the ridge and, holding to a sturdy elm for support, I looked down into the town of Fern Gully.
It had been a pretty town. For as many years as I could remember three church spires had pointed the way to heaven. Uncle Amos's Drug Store, on the corner, was where Gib and I had done most of our courting. The Five and Dime was completely gone, and while I watched, the General Merchandise was wrenched from its foundation next to Uncle Amos's and ground into splinters against the Baptist Church. The current of Tidler's Creek swirled, choked, and swelled.
"Thank the Lord." My words trembled in the air at the sight of the school house still standing, and then fell like separate rocks into nothingness when I realized the children couldn't possibly have gotten there.
There was very little else standing. All landmarks were gone. "Ben? Beanie?" I heard myself screaming. "Where are you? Answer me!"
The new bridge was still there, but the concrete pillars spanning the Guyandotte River just below where the creek emptied into the river were clogged and was forcing a backup. I saw a ragged section of picket fencing, battered cars, drowned animals, trees with their roots reaching blindly for the sky, and what must have been the entire contents of the gas station and drug store, all churning together in mud and slime.
I tried to close my eyes. Where were Ben and Beanie? "Dear God, please not my babies. Please...."