Pillars of Flame

Pit clothes is heavy. Coal mines laid in and around all these parts. Shaft mines. Coal seams where a boy can’t grow up like a man, except on his insides, my own man says. A cage takes the miners down before dawn, me shovelin’ biscuits into a husband’s bucket. The men are lowered quarter way, half way. The cages are heaved back up outta the shaft, come nightfall. There’s another shaft controls the air goin’ down. Come a cave-in, arms and legs go scrabblin’. The body goes wild, blind, and crazy against the belly of earth. Dirty clothes around here are all weighed down in fine powder. Pit clothes is heavy.

Monday is wash day. Zinc tubs are set up in the yard. There’s the one big tub and then the three smaller ones for each load. The big tub is for washin’, the others is for scrubbin’, rinsin’, and bluin’. A pan can be brought out last for the starchin’, if need be.

Then there’s always at least four sets a’ wash. The sheets is done first, then the shirts and other white things. Next is the pants and colored clothes. Dishrags come last. Water for four washes. All the tubs need fillin’ for each wash. My man goes down for the first of it a’fore dawn. Come Monday, comes wash day.

The water has to be hauled. The water for each home, it’s hauled, buckets blisterin’ the hand, stones catchin’ at the undersides a’ feet. There was this once when the water down under broke clean through. A lake bottom runnin’ parallel with the mines broke through a shored-up wall a hundred feet thick. Water poured in on men and boys. They all drowned. New water has to be hauled for each a’ the four washes. Come mornin’s whistle, I’m on my own. Daylight catchin’ yet another shadow stoopin’ as all the miners’ wives scuttle up and down the path. New water has to be hauled for each wash.

Ev’ry Monday is wash day. The big pot is hung over a wood fire, and the embers is fanned to a blaze. The clothes around here are all filled with fine powder. The water has to be made to boil. Come a thick July, ashes rise to the eye, bitter smoke. The flies sting. They stick. Ev’ry tub has to be filled, in turn, for each wash. Leastways, four washes. Four tubs, four washes. The water in each, each time, it has to be made to boil.

Ice is what my man tells me. Glaciers was laid down over this land long ago. They made it so shafts, they have to be dug deep in the earth to get at the coal. First the clothes then, they have to be scrubbed. Scrub a piece on the washboard to get the dirt out. Knuckles scrapin’ over the board laid down in the first tub. There will be blood. The clothes have to be scrubbed first, then lowered with a paddle into the bigger tub a’ boilin’ water. Worked-in dirt don’t come out so easy.

Pit clothes have to be punched. Press each pair a’ pants, each shirt up against the sides a’ the pot. Use a paddle to punch and press each piece a clothin’ up against the side. The water turns dark. Arms, they turn sore. Once a pair of pants is scubbed and washed, they have to be lifted wet and heavy from the boilin’ water. Let the dirt drip out over grass, as if all the dirt would. Dark rivulets runnin’ out over green grass. There will be blood.

The men go down in the cage before dawn. The ropes heave. A trapper boy is the worker who opens the doors for the mules. The trappers are boys, maybe ten, twelve years old. Then the mules, to go down into the earth at all, they have to be blinded first. Down at the workin’s, a wall is sheared, then holes drilled. Lit powder bursts a seam wide open. First day a’ work last year, a man had his eyes blasted clean out.

Tracks are laid down under. The workways and airways cut. Crossbeams and cribs are built up below the veins breakin’ in these feet. A dime a ton, my man’ll make this particular year. One thin dime per ton, every ton, all year long. Every day except Sundays, dawn to dusk. Plunge the clothes into the rinse tub. The steam rises.

Miners dodge the fallin’ rock roof and go at the face a’ the wall with pick axes and pry bars. Our coal, then, it’s heaved back out toward the main tunnels with shovels and loaded up into cars. The cars are pulled out along the tracks by the mules. Mind a coal car’s bearin’s don’t heat up. Mind somebody’s legs don’t get tangled up beneath the car’s wheels. A limb sheared off, a hip dislocated.

A body grows drenched come noon. Wash days, a body is wrapped all ’round in smoke and in gloom, or the yellow sun beats down like a sledge hammer. Once our clothes is scrubbed and washed, they have to be lifted out and let drip, then plunged into the rinse tub. Worked-in dirt don’t come out so easy. Birds’ wings loom overhead. Become great, dark shadows scorched into a woman’s brain. Shadows become part of a woman’s insides. $1.00 ev’ry day or so my man gets when times are good.

Each piece a’ clothin’, it has to be rinsed. Each piece a body has. The steam rises. Our coal mines come from peat bogs settlin’ in. These coal seams, they’re hundreds a’ years old. Every shaft roof down under has to be tested. The miner’s got to do it barehanded. He taps with an iron rod. A solid roof has a ring to it. Hollow ground, it shakes underneath the fingertips. The roof shakes overhead. Could cause a cave-in. Then the marsh gas, that’s methane surroundin’ the coal, it can collect up in pockets. Methane rises to the roof, and it’ll catch fire offa any miner’s lamp. A miner can be liftin’ his lamp, just to see up ahead. Methane, the gas what catches fire so easy. A body turns to kindlin’.

Our soap is made outta lye. Come soap days, the lye, it’s made from the rainwater tricklin’ down through wood ashes. Use the hardwood–hickory, ash, or maple. Scoop a pit in the ashes and fill it with water heated to a boil. Then let the lye seep through. Catch it and mix it with rendered fat. Sparks is always a danger. Sparks, my man says, plus the wrong amount a’ methane per cubic foot a’ the air. There’s gotta be a right balance.

Come a fire down below, the flames can rage for hours, days, weeks at a time. A savage rush a’ heat moves before a fiery flame and after. A survivor in hopes a’ rescue has to build up a wall all ’round for protection. A barricade. One time, though, the fires down under, they raged for over a year. The shafts, then, they had to be sealed to smother such a fire. Keep out the oxygen. Oxygen feeds a fire. But a shaft sealed means no rescue possible. Then after the fire finally burns itself out, the seals before openin’, they have to be tested. Smoke pours up. Monoxide, that’s the gas left after the fire. The smotherin’ gas. Monday is wash day, all year long.

Lye soap is made up from ashes. The yellow in our clean clothes comes from usin’ lye. Each piece from a home, it has to be rinsed. The third tub a’ water in the yard is for bluin’. It’s the bluin’ will take the yellow out. Then the clothes, they have to be wrung. Each piece is squeezed real tight with both hands. Wrap and wind ’em all around. All that’s left drips out. Dust to dust.

Anyone livin’ near a coal mine is used to breathin’ dust in, way down deep. Deep into the lungs. Our coal is pulled way up outta these hills, though, in rail cars. Pillars is what’s left behind. The roof a’ the mine, it’s bolted and left hooked to pillars, so the land left beneath our feet don’t sink. Our coal is hauled out across the yard to the platforms. It’s poured sparklin’ and shinin’ into rail cars. Then the steam engines carry another load off. The trains go on up and outta this country into city after city.

Cleanliness is ev’rything down in a mine. Rock dust is what’s spread so the dust from the coal, it don’t build up. When there’s the wrong amount a’ dust in the air, the rest, my man says, it happens “spontaneous.” There’s not so much a spark first, as just this sudden explosion. Worst, I guess, is when the dust, the methane, and the spark, they all meet up. Come an explosion, the men, the mules, and the machinery too–them that’s lucky in death–they’re blown to pieces. Earth, fire, gas, then, all just waitin’. Don’t be choosin’ a path down any a’ the tunnels.

Come an ordinary shift’s whistle, the cages will hoist the miners back up outta the mines. The mine owners, they live off in big cities. Cities where coal is bought and sold. Our coal is judged by its luster. The miners call ’em coal barons, they’re the ones who get rich. My man gets paid in scrip’. We trade his scrip’ for fam’ly’s groceries down to the company store.

Starch can be added last to a family’s clothes, if need be. Starch to the cuffs and collars in the Sunday shirts, a woman’s skirts. Starch is made from the boilin’ offa plant roots. Potatoes, maybe. More often, the maize. We have our dreams, my man and I. Methane is colorless, odorless, tasteless. Starch can be added last to a fam’lies good clothes. Their church clothes.

Canary birds are used to test for the monoxide comin’ after a disaster. Yellow birds, I hear, from the Azores, the Canary and the Madeira Islands. Many a long, long day after that shrill whistle lettin’ a fam’ly know that somethin’s gone wrong– after that whistle, long, short, then long again –and after the seals to the graves, they’re let loose–why, if the bright bird is loosed and can fly through the shafts, and then the canary, it breaks free . . . . Well then, a coal mine is safe and what’s left a’ the men, what’s left of a man, can work again tomorrow. We have our dreams, my man and I.

The clothes they have to be hung. In what’s left a’ light out amidst a wind whippin’ yard after yard full a’ stingin’ clothes, all shapes and sizes is pinned to the clothesline. Shadows whip in the wind. A body listens for the whistle. Come tomorrow is the ironin’. A flat iron weighs a’ might.

Come an ordinary soundin’ whistle, the cages will hoist the miners back up on top. My man will see sky again. The flat irons have to be heated to a red hot glow. Burns sear the fingertips of a bare hand.

A hot rush of air blows before and behind an explosion. Pillars of dust. Pillars of flame. To live with no work in the coal fields means a body’s young-uns, the old’uns all clamor ’round hungry. To live with no man in the coal fields means no good wages at all, no company roof over a fam’ly’s head, no supper on the table. Evenin’s loom large. Mornin’s die young. For a widow in the coal fields, ev’ry day can be wash day all year long. She’s paid pennies per load. Pity and pennies.

Come that shrill whistle–long, short, then long again–the body crouched down beyond a barricade is figurin’ there has to be one cubic yard a’ good air left, come ev’ry hour of survival. A miner has to breathe shallow, breathe quiet. Will rescue come? Meanwhile, the body caught turnin’ up in some blue forever noon a’ flappin’ shadows seizes to that line strung out thin over ground and now slippin’. Can a partner’s strength hold up? In the coal fields, pray who is, and who is not, buried alive?