“What is the human part of the mountains’ destiny?”
Coal is a diamond waiting to be born, some people say. Just heat it up and wait. I’ve been watching it burn my whole life and I never seen a diamond pop out of the coal stove yet. And I don’t know anyone ever has. The day I was born, three hundred tons of coal caught fire on the side of Hamlin Ridge. It burnt for weeks, hanging a thick black cloud that made people squint and cough. Not one diamond appeared in the smolder, none turned up in the gray ash. Nana said the only precious thing that came out of that fire was me.
Mama was eight months pregnant, and on her way up to the Hamlin mine to pick up daddy from a double shift underground. It was just before sunup when she rounded a curve going up the ridge and met an overloaded truck coming down. They say the driver braked too hard, cut the wheel too sharp, slid the back end around, laid that truck down, and dropped all that coal right in front of her. When the police showed up, everything was on fire—Mama’s car, the coal truck, and a mountain of coal. The driver burnt up in the truck cab, and they found Mama on her back 100 yards down the road, already dead with me on her chest. They thought I was dead at first because I was so still and quiet. When they went to cut the cord, the paramedics found a wedge of coal sticking half in, half out. They say I never cried the whole time, just laid there looking at the flames.
No one would believe me if I told them, but I remember. I wasn’t looking at that fire, I was looking at her. Mama’s skin coated in a layer of coal grime and smoke, her eyes so light blue against it, like chips of ice just starting to melt. Belly to belly, I felt the rumble of her humming, her one and only lullaby to me. She stroked my head and back until her song slipped away and her eyes turned from clear blue to black. A tear trailed down each cheek, baring two thin lines of fair skin that flashed like white-hot sparks, and filled the hillside with darkness.
The day Mama died, Daddy swore he’d never touch a coal rock again. After we buried Mama, he went up north to work in steel and never looked back towards Kentucky as far as we know. The only thing I have of him is a card he sent on my first birthday. I keep it in a shoebox under my bed and only get it out to look at it when I wonder about him. In it, he wrote Let your heart shine. When I touch the words, it’s like I can see him there trying to write it—a shadow slumped over a table with tired eyes, bloodshot and rimmed in too many wrinkles for his age, reflecting his memories of Mama’s face full of laughter and then still as stone.
Nana says they named me Crystal because I have the same clear eyes as Mama. All the pictures of her could be pictures of me, except our hair. Her curls were pale blonde and Papaw says they glowed like a halo in the sunlight so he always called her his little angel. But mine is poker straight solid black like my daddy’s. It holds in all the sunlight and makes my hair hot to the touch, so does the fire from the coal stove if I sit too close. The sun makes it damp and salty, but the coal fire fills my hair with oily smoke like warm earth. When Nana lets me dry my hair by the stove, I go to sleep with my hair wrapped around my face, humming low in my belly.
I keep that wedge of coal rock they pulled out of me and Mama in the shoebox next to that card from daddy. It’s grayed up everything in that box, but I don’t care. That rock is more mine than anything else in this world. I’ve turned it over in my hand, feeling the sharp end against the tip of my thumb and memorizing every line and sparkle along its edge. When I close my eyes and squeeze it close to my heart, I feel the rumble of Mama’s hum against me and feel the earth burn around us. I try to look into her blue eyes, but all I see is the reflection of the flames. Then the rock warms up my hand and pulses with a red glow that slows with each beat until it is coal black again. When I put it away, my hands are just as solid black.
On winter mornings, I get up early with Papaw to fill the coal bucket. I pull on my coat over my nightgown and we step into our rubber boots before we crunch across the back yard towards the pile laid up against the hill. Papaw always lets me carry the empty bucket and he carries the shovel. I love to climb the coal pile all the way to the top so I can shield my eyes with my hand and look out. Early in the winter, the pile is so high I can jump up on the hillside and see all the way down the valley. The CSX train follows the curves of the river, its yellow engine hauling a string of loaded down black cars that never ends. As Papaw pushes and lifts the shovel loads of coal, its frozen edge scratches between the black rocks and sets my teeth on edge. But the plink of rock into steel is like rain on the porch roof that hums to static. So far from the train, I can’t hear its even rumble and clack against the rail, but the scrape and tumble of Papaw filling the steel bucket is just as steady.
Papaw never fusses at me to come on inside when he crunches back across the yard to stoke up the fire, so I just stay out there. All that shoveling works up a dust that hangs in the air in the first hints of sunlight, sparkling like a curtain of black glitter. When I see it I can’t help but reach out, and the coal dust moves towards me like it can’t help but reach back. It disappears when it touches my skin, leaving warm freckle-spots that shine. My coal-sparkled hands want to pick through the coal, to feel how no two are the same. Most are just cold black rocks with their own pattern of edges and dents and sparkles. But sometimes, one of them heats up my hand like my wedge of coal, though I don’t see Mama’s face.
When I come in, Nana shakes her head at my sooty skin and the black handprints on my nightgown. “Child, you need to quit playing in that coal pile.” I nod and let her scrub a soapy wash cloth against my skin. “How you get that coal worked down so deep, I’ll never know.” Nana says coal’s a nasty thing to have around, that it stinks to high heaven and filths up everything. As early in the spring as she can, she cleans out every bit of ash in the stove and then makes up some bleach water to scrub down the ceiling and walls. Nana never says she doesn’t like coal because it’s to blame for Mama dying, but I can see it in her eyes.
In the spring, me and Nana take walks up behind the house on Mount Sweeney to hunt up some ginseng and sassafras for tea. She tells me the story of Mutsmag sometimes because it’s my favorite. When Mutsmags’s mama up and dies one day, all she’s got in this world is a little pocketknife and her sisters. When a giant tries to eat them up, Mutsmag saves them all. One day, we walk all the way up to the top where the slant of the hill ends in a flat ridge of bare rock. We walk out to edge, and I think we must be able to see the whole world from there. The trees are all leafed out on the mountains, like green waves cresting in splashes of laurel. Nana puts her hand on my shoulder. “When I was little, I played up here all the time. It was so peaceful, it was like this whole hill was just mine.”
I look up at her. “Did Mama play up here when she was little?”
Nana’s chin scrunches up real fast and she blinks a minute before saying a word. “Me and her walked up here sometimes too.” Nana pets my hair a long time before she half-smiles. “You know, she somehow got it in her head that if you have a wish, you have to climb up as close to Heaven as you can get, so the angels can hear.”
“What’d she wish for?”
“Well, I only know of one.” Nana said. “She wanted to be a mama so bad, but she had a hard time with it. She got to talking about babies one day and then jumped up all of a sudden and run out the back door. I didn’t know where she went off to, but when she come back, she told me…She’d run straight up to the top over there and wished with her whole heart for a pretty little daughter. Right after that, she got pregnant with you.” Nana kisses the top of my head and I wrap my arms around her belly.
We walk slow and quiet and close towards the highest part of the ridge. Nana sniffs here and there, then clears her throat. When we get to the edge, I shield my eyes and squint out towards a brown space that looks out of place next to the other hills and hollers around it. At the top, something cracks and rumbles like a tree coming down after centuries of standing. Dust flies out into a cloud of fingers reaching up towards the sky. “What’s that, Nana?”
Nana sniffs again. “Black Mountain. Used to be, it had the highest point in Kentucky.”
“What are they doing to it?”
“Strip mining the coal out.” Nana shakes her head and doesn’t look at me.
Black Mountain looks like the pictures of mesas on the covers of Papaw’s Louis L’Amour books. All that’s missing is the silhouette of a man on a horse. In its place is the silhouette of a giant monster, its claws hovering over a pile of rock. When the monster’s claws dig into a black vein and carve out a fistful of coal, I hear its low grumble in my gut. It turns and coal rocks fall from its grip, a small trail of black drops that flow out from the vein towards the bucket. The crack of the rocks against steel works up a black curtain of coal dust that hides the monster. But I can still feel its rumble when me and Nana make our way home with no words between us, her cheeks like dry river beds ready for a big rain. All the way down the hill, the hearts on the big redbuds blaze around us like purple flames.
I go back to the top of Mount Sweeney by myself every day I can, to witness. I carry my wedge of coal in my pocket, its sharp edge warm against my thumb. I sit on the ridge top and hold it in my hand, running my fingers across its black sparkles, watching Black Mountain’s vein collapse. I can feel the grumble of every gouge of the monster’s claws. I can feel the stutter of every dropped fistful of coal in my belly.
I find the spot on our mountain where I think Mama wished me down from Heaven and lay back against the warm rock, my coal wedge tight in my hands folded across my chest. With my eyes closed, I feel the rumble of the coal deep in the mountain reaching up towards me, pushing up through layers of rock, through the soil and the roots and the plants all the way to me. The wedge of coal on my chest warms up my hand and pulses with a red glow and makes my chest heavy with each beat until it’s coal black again.
I come down off the mountain one day and see a slick black Cadillac parked in front of the house. A man in a fresh suit is sitting with Nana and Papaw on the porch, sipping on an iced tea. I can’t hear what they’re saying, so I slink down the hillside out back and drop down real quiet on top of the coal pile. I step soft along the side of the house until I get to where I can crawl under the front porch and listen.
“…this would be good for y’all, set y’all up for the rest of your life.”
I look up through a crack and can see Nana folding and unfolding her hands while the man in the suit talks. Papaw raises up his hand to stop him. “This is our home. I won’t hear any more.”
The ice cubes jingle against the glass as the man in the suit sets his tea down on the porch slats. “Look, folks, I understand. You weren’t expecting this. But you can take this money here,” I hear a small flapping sound, “and buy twice the house, take real good care of your granddaughter.” Nana and Papaw don’t say anything back. I creep over so I can see the man in the suit through the slats. He’s bouncing one of his legs up and down real fast and holding onto a stack of papers. When he leans forward, his chair squeaks. “Your neighbors have sold out every other side of this hill and we already have the permits lined up. It’d be much better for y’all if you didn’t live right under a mine site.”
Under a mine site? My heart starts beating fast. I hear Papaw say, “It’d be much better for us if y’all didn’t mine here.”
The man in the suit wipes a piece of his hair off his eyebrow and fidgets with the stack of papers. “Look, I know this is a hard decision, but I’m going to leave y’all with the offer to read over. I hope you’ll have signed it when I come back tomorrow.” He holds out the papers towards Papaw, and when Papaw doesn’t reach up to take them, he sets them down on a side table. “You folks have a good day now.” Then, the man in the suit steps off the porch and into his shiny car.
Before the dust on the driveway settles, Nana’s voice shakes above me. “What are we going to do?”
“I hate to say it, but he’s right,” Papaw says, “we can’t live here if they’re gonna mine. Ain’t anybody who lives near a mountaintop mine can drink the water.”
Nana starts to sniffle. “I just can’t imagine it gone.”
Papaw stands up and I see him lean down and put his arms around Nana. They hold onto each other with no words between them, then walk in the house, papers in hand.
When I hear the screen door clap shut, sweat runs into my eyes and my heart beats so loud I can’t hear right. I crawl out from under the porch and lean against the side of the house, looking up at Mount Sweeney. The greens and whites and purples of the woods fade away until all that is there is a bare mound. The ridgeline curves from the high point down deep into itself at the center, then curves back up to the low side, the flattened top of an uneven heart wedged in the ground. The dirt melts away, layer after layer, until the thin vein of black is on top and begins to trail down the sides of the mountain in black streams until nothing is left.
I put my hand in my pocket and press the sharp edge of the coal wedge into my thumb. Mount Sweeney is in front of me, pulling me towards it. My feet follow the curves of the mountain laid down on the riverbed of coal. All I hear as I run up the hillside is the gasp and pant of my breath, steady as the CSX train down in the valley. When I get to the highest spot on the ridge, where Mama wished for me to be born, I can see out over where Black Mountain used to be. The silhouette of the monster is gone, a big nothingness stretched in a quiet flat line against the horizon.
When I close my eyes and squeeze my wedge of coal close to my heart, I feel the rumble of Mama’s hum inside me and feel the earth burn around us.
The black rock deep below rumbles and reaches up towards me. I feel it shift and push up, heat and expand as it moves through the layers of rock, through the soil and the roots and the plants all the way to me. The wedge of coal warms up my hand and pulses with a red glow that beats faster and makes my chest heavier until the black vein shatters. I open my eyes as coal dust flies out of the mountain and spreads over me like a curtain of black glitter. I am looking at her, Mama’s face coated in a layer of dark sparkles, her eyes like chips of ice just starting to melt. We are belly to belly, the low hum of our lullaby pulling us together. She strokes my hair until my song slips away and my eyes turn from clear blue to black. A tear trails down each cheek, baring two thin lines of diamond that flash like white-hot sparks and fill the mountain with light.
This story was published in 2013 in Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel 15: Apocalachia: Apocalypse in Appalachia. I’ve read it on WMMT to a worldwide audience (in a lineup with Ky Poet Laureate Gurney Norman) and at the Appalachian Studies Conference in 2013 in Boone, NC.