23 MINERS DEAD AT CENTURY MINE
Thursday, March 22, 1906
No. 1 Shaft Mine
Century, West Virginia
The first trip out fetches ten men,
five alive, five dead.
None of the living look like Tata.
As Mama shadows the stretchers,
I clutch the sleeve of her dress.
Some women snatch at the sheets
covering the bodies, the faces
raw blurs of hair, blood, and bone.
In the tipple office,
where they row the bodies,
a mine boss Mama knows
shakes his head, Naw, he ain’t here.
Later, twenty fire-blackened men
crawl out of the smoky hole
into the chaos of wives and mothers,
their accent-slurred English giving way
to the comfort of Lithuanian, Polish, or Italian,
until four more bodies. Then silence.
All night, we wait at the entrance of the shaft.
After the parish priest recites De profundis,
he reminds us Christ rose from the depths
of the tomb. Me, I cannot comprehend.
I can only hope
Jesus raises Tata like Lazarus.
Old women pray. Their rosaries
dangle, weeping willow branches
beaded with frozen rain.
When a higher death toll is announced,
a newspaper reporter curses,
too late for the morning edition.
My head on Mama’s aproned lap,
I smell the supper we will never eat
and fall asleep to a Polish lullaby.
Near dawn she wakes me,
tells me plain, the last trip brought up
the last dead miner, the twenty-third,
Tata’s favorite Psalm. I cry
when I imagine I see him walking
away, toward the valley of the shadow.
A company man tells Mama
to stop by the office for the insurance,
$100, minus store bills, rent, and burial.
Uncle Michal rigs a hasty coffin
of spalted wormy elm planks
yanked from a swaybacked barn.
When my cousins set up the narrow box,
the sitting room becomes smaller.
When they bring in the body, I cannot breathe.
Mama prepares a basin of bathwater and lilac.
After washing Tata’s face,
the comb snarls, a briar in his matted hair.
I wash his hands best I can.
Under the nails, quarter moons of coal dust
linger in endless eclipse.
On the porch, surviving miners huddle.
One by one they enter. I shake their hands,
large and hard as lumps of anthracite.
My older brother, Jozef,
now the man of the house, offers whiskey
from a half pint, half full.
When the mourners leave, Mama mopes
by the casket, fussing with Tata’s clothes.
After trimming the char, I lower the lamp wick.
Saturday, at the cemetery, rain
and thirteen other gaping graves
shorten the words spoken over Tata.
That evening, after Mama mends
and hems all of his work clothes,
I scrub them on the washboard
and hang them on the line.
Next morning, frost stiffens them
like frightened scarecrows.
On Monday, Jozef quits school.
While Mama fixes breakfast,
I pack him Tata’s lunch bucket.
The Century Coal Company is hiring.
—from Rattle #72, Summer 2021
Tribute to Appalachian Poets
donnarkevic: “In 1979, I moved from Pennsylvania to teach high school in West Virginia. In the last 41 years, I have witnessed the poverty, the resilient spirit, and the crass theft of the state’s extraction-riches. Too often, the papers are filled with the obituaries of people who tried to work hard and honestly in order to support their families. I believe God resides in West Virginia, so he’s used to suffering. The only solace I can offer is to write it down. No one dies here. Someone always remembers to mention the name of so-and-so. Thus, the people of West Virginia live forever.”