Recently I started work on a new piece of short fiction. For years, I’ve been struggling with the idea of how to turn the really amazing material of my family’s many ghost stories into something fictional. Despite having these stories lodged in my mind for my entire life, it wasn’t until very recently that I realized how important not just the plot of them, but their setting was. Generations of my family lived and died in NE PA’s coal country. Working in the mines, buying at the company stores, dying of what they called “blacklung.” And I had spent my teenage years wandering around the wreckage of these mining towns, hiking out to the woods to the burnt-out shells of former company houses, taking class trips to mining villages. It’s only taken me about three decades to figure out how important the setting was to the stories.
Anyway, I started writing this epic piece of short fiction spanning four generations of a mining family. Here’s the beginning:
PART ONE: Mayme
Bone on stone, she thought. She pictured long fingers stripped of flesh, tapered down to dirty grey points, dragging across the cold concrete wall of the small house, etching parallel lines into the brick red paint, trying to find their way in. Even half-asleep with the image in mind, Mayme felt no fear. Not for herself, not for her husband who lie spent and sleeping as he did every night in the few hours between the end of his work day and the beginning, and not for their infant daughter, Anna, who slept on the small, thin mattress across the room. Even with the image in mind, she remembered the words her mother had told her again and again when she had been a child frozen with fear of that which could be felt like cold on her spine but never seen. Fear the living, not the dead. She did not fear the dead.
Mayme sat up in bed, brushing her fingers over her face and through her hair as if freeing herself from the strands of a spiderweb she had accidentally walked through. She rose up slowly in bed, and despite the chill in the early spring night air, walked to the window. In front of her stretched the long dirt road that ran between the other small houses built exactly like the one her family lived in. Off beyond the road, up against the black sky, was the even blacker structure of the coal breaker, silent now but still looming against the starry sky like a black cloud across the moon. Mayme looked at it for a moment before shifting her gaze to the night windows of the houses across the street. Not so much as a single candle flickered anywhere. The stillness of the night in the small village was unbroken except for the scratch of the still-bare branches of trees on the concrete walls and wooden roofs of the houses she and the other coal miners’ families lived in.
Her gaze moved upwards to the sky then, to the spring constellations that stood startling bright against the black sky. They were not the same as they would have been in the old country at this time of year, back across the portal of New York, back over the ocean and over the expanse of Europe. But she had become accustomed to the new patters of the stars, and they had begun to speak to her the way the stars always had. Now they told her that it was the early hours of morning. Around the same time she had awoken the last three nights.
At the edge of Mayme’s vision, she thought she saw a flicker, then, out near the summer kitchen of one of the houses across the dirt road. A glimpse of peach floating near the ground, billowing out like the blood from a cut hand placed under the water of a clear brook. Mayme fixed her eyes upon the spot the cloud of color had appeared in, her mind curious but calm. She waited, but the flash did not come again.
On the bed near the window, the baby began to fuss in her sleep. Mayme moved from the window and looked at Anna, wondering if skeleton fingers were drawing across her dreams. Anna’s smooth infant face and puckered pink mouth drew together in consternation as if she would erupt into the ferocious cries her miniature form could emit when distressed. But whatever had troubled her sleeping mind passed and she returned to her previous state of deep slumber, her small stomach rising and falling with her heavy breaths.
As the baby settled back into slumber, Mayme moved towards the hole in the lofted bedroom where they top of the ladder rested. She felt the coldness of the floor beneath her feet. She did not know why she was moving from the loft as she was. She felt certain of what awaited her once her feet had moved down the cold rungs of the ladder, over the carpet that lie on the concrete floor of the first story of the house. She knew what she would see when she went out the front door. It was the same sight that had awaited her the last three nights. And still she walked the same steps she had those previous nights. Still she found herself standing, barefoot and shivering, in the dirt in front of the house.
In the chill of the night, Mayme turned slowly, facing back towards the house. It was not much, two rooms and a lofted bedroom inside and the small summer kitchen and outhouse behind it. Though she was happy to have what she did, it was not the life she had pictured for herself when she had left her family behind to come to a land where opportunity supposedly abounded. Mayme did not mistake the allowance of the house for generosity on the part of the coal mining company. She and her husband and their daughter never left the confines of the mining town, be it for work, church, doctor visits, or to shop. What little money he made while he worked, he more than spent at the company store. She knew that when the day of her husband’s death came, he would likely be carried right from the mine to a small wooden box in the graveyard behind the coal company’s church. If there was enough left of his body, that was. No, the small house so near the site of his labor was not generosity. Fear the living, not the dead, Mayme thought again.