The Air Lit Afire
For the 216 men and boys killed in the 1902 Fraterville Mine explosion
This is how they died: while a boy held a pocket watch
in the near-dark, while the lantern lit up bituminous
veins, their chests took flame and their bodies slumped.
A few of them with paper and coal nubs scrawled letters
for their loved ones, marked them 2:35 in the afternoon.
Rescue crews reached the tunnels an hour later.
Some were found on their knees in caves having died
in the act of prayer. One was found pinned, his nose
gone, clawed from his own face as he tried to breathe.
The grandfather I never met mined Anthracite in the North,
bore the wound of a pick-axe let loose down a chute, coal dust
never cleaned from skin scarred him on the brow. He would
have lost an eye for a matter of inches. If the axe had fallen
with greater force, his nose could have been cut from his face.
My grandfather died later of black lung, in a hospital bed
before I was born. For the rest of her life, my grandmother
received monthly payments from the mining company.
She was luckier than the widows of Fraterville.
For the miners' widows—three men left in town—it was curtains
to sew new dresses, handouts to eat from neighbors.
Their bodies became shriveled cages clad in faded gingham.
Nights and days, equally endless. But not every hour
was tragedy. Now and then, a small bird, too small to wish
for a meal, would light on the drying clothes, cock its head
and chirp, or peck a worm, dig something alive and wriggling
from the earth. And one of them would smile to think,
Wouldn't Eddy, my son, have liked to see that bird? Or
Bobby would have used a worm like that for fishing.
Some took these sightings for signs and were comforted,
spent more time in church than with their children, each feeling
certain it had been her husband out of the men now buried
on the hill who had been on his knees in prayer when he died.
Only the donkeys knew which men, out of God's sight underground,
had been among the pious, which would feed them tobacco to speed
through the squeeze points, and which used sticks and kicks.
The mining company brought in mules from nearby farms
to haul coal carts full of bodies to the surface. The grieving
of women and children drowned out the screech of brakes
on iron rails as carts nearly jumped the track at the turn:
a load of human bodies was so much lighter than coal.
The pack mules housed in the mines, also lost in the explosion,
were all blind after years in the dark. But by then they knew
everything they needed to know: the turns of the tunnels,
the height of a man's chest and its feel on a hoof, how to stay
centered between the cold air on either side of the mine coming
from deep cuts in earth. How darkness gathers everything to itself.