Fugue For Miners Dead
“Look at the dead,” my dad said from his nest on the sofa. The bodies lay in envelopes of white cloth, some half-length, under the awning of a makeshift morgue. Their faces informed the sheets with almost-recognizable profiles. He brandished the photo before us. Mom shifted in her chair. The longer he held it, the more pains she made to ignore it.
Our town’s hills looked like lopsided breasts under a green apron. Three miles north was the town where the famous thing happened. Both towns, like several others in the Illinois coal belt, sprang up as mining camps and bustled into little metros of merry trolley hullabaloo in the shade of these slag breasts rising in obscenity from the prairie, and that town had the same hoists going up and down, up and down, coal-laden, hay-laden, mule-laden, men-laden, the same something of a Babylon below — Scots, German, Italian, Slavic, French — employed in lightening the seam of its coal burden, except it was in that other town instead of ours where some baled hay for the mules caught fire. Over two hundred miners died. Someone put a sign at the place so passersby have coordinates to fix their fascination to.
When he came home from the hospital, Dad kept a white handkerchief like a flag of defeat tucked into the pocket of his robe. He was frail, perpetually scrubbed, with elbows that seemed to me like shiny knobs, and from the sofa he plumbed the miners’ hearts. He told us with grim theater that when the bigwigs sealed the shafts to stop the fire, entombed men survived for a week more with only a make-do wall between themselves and the poisonous clouds beyond.
As he talked, I watched his jaw demarcate the orange makeup he applied every morning as though staging his body for its own funeral. Below, pallor swept down into the collar of his nightshirt where scraggly hairs lay in the plaster of his chest.
In dreams, I went down the shafts on groaning hoists to the smog of creeping death. Black damp. The men extracted the marrow of the earth, and raw ore lined the tunnels. The mine smelled of char. I began to gather the bodies positioned as burnt manikins in the tunnels: crawling, reaching, but the worst were the resigned ones who sat against the walls, faces directed forward towards the void of tomorrow.
Growing up, I feared dying in some embarrassing way, with an idiotic expression plastered across my face, going into a spastic seizure, soiling myself, losing my head. The last seemed to be the worst, for it somehow guaranteed all the others. At night, I posed myself carefully under the covers so that in the event of my freakish death, I’d have some amount of say-so in the matter.
The cancer moved from his lungs into Dad’s brainpan where it boiled his thoughts, evaporating everything but the disaster he’d appropriated. I was ashamed he wasn’t more dignified in dying. He crawled around the floor in his pajamas, slogged through carbon-black waters, spread his fingers against the coal-heat smoldering in the walls of our house. When he gasped for air, Mom lifted him to the sofa. He trembled as he coughed into his flag and then thanked her for dragging him from the mine.
“What were you doing down there?” she asked.
“I cut their hair.” He panted.
I went up our hill. Birds throttled the air. I hated them, their cool disregard, taking anything handy for a perch, bombing us with shit, circling in taunts overhead.
I locked on a cardinal and threw a rock. With an iron staple, I fastened the bird to a tree.
The day of my father’s funeral, it rained. It had rained in the night, soaking our walls to pulp, refluxing sewer gas from the drains. From the moment my mother switched on the glass tit of my ceiling lamp until they lowered my father’s casket in its silly bib into his grave, I listened to various relatives compare their patent leather, fuss over forgotten umbrellas, harangue each other’s parenting. They’d come in special for this and seemed to welcome any diversion from actual mourning. The humidity of their bodies clung to every surface.
But particles of my father remained in his wake, in the driveway, for example, or hovering around his favorite chair, an abused plaid thing that seemed to converse with his personality in the empty room. I could not see these particles, but they were there, nonetheless.
The staple forced one wing askew, and the cardinal’s head drooped against his breast. He looked out of the glass of one eye, and with this he accused me. What a wicked child. I pried him loose with the same rock I used to hammer the staple in.
I curled his feet over my knuckles. I ruffled his feathers. I felt the broken place in his head. He was an empty purse, free of whatever soul a bird might or might not have; the thing that chose when to fly, to land, that part had left in opposition to the stone. I imagined him in a pile with other dead things at the foot of God waiting to be sewn into that eternal garment from which all things are fashioned. First, He drops in the intestinal twists; then, the appetite; last, Adam’s regret.
I buried him in a shallow pit.
In dreams, I stumbled behind my father through the makeshift morgue in fear. Women shrieked and sobbed around us. Men in conspicuous uniforms carried bodies, smoked cigarettes, shouted to each other with excitement in their eyes. My father lay down at the end of a row and pulled a sheet over his body.
How I mistook the white sheets then for furled wings I don’t know. But the sheets rustled. The bodies moved. They all rose up as if in rapture, like a flock startled skyward. All the men, all the boys, flew away in a chaos of departure. I know there’s a caged flight in the beating of the heart.