By E. Gail Chandler
Joey Tackett stretched his lanky teenaged body, reached behind his head and readjusted the pillows. As he eased back, the headboard on the narrow bunk wobbled. The thing was made of fiberboard covered with photo finish plastic. Like the walls of his room. Like the whole damn trailer. And he lived a hundred feet from a forest of oak and poplar.
His watch said midnight. If he made some coffee, he might find the energy to write the essay on Beowulf due for AP English tomorrow. If he got up early enough, he could do it then. Or not. Besides, he didn’t have money to go to college and his mother needed him. What good was Beowulf on this Appalachian hillside, anyway?
He would rather write about Dante’s Inferno where he could imagine torture for the officials of Troublesome Creek Coal Company, and where, a mile away, they’d turned his beautiful mountains into the ninth region of hell. Not bothering to set the alarm, he tucked Stranger in a Strange Land under his pillow and fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.
He awoke to thunder.
The trailer shook.
An explosion? It wasn’t thunder. It was blasting.
A louder blast. Gravel hit the roof like shotgun shells. He pulled the pillow over his head. Something hit the roof just above him.
His mother’s screams echoed down the hall.
Bruno howled outside.
Id, the black cat, streaked from under his bed.
He really was in Dante’s Inferno.
His mother, Edna Mae, arrived at the door. “You okay?” Her voice was soft. She flipped the light switch but it didn’t work.
“Looks like the bastards got the electricity this time,” he said to the dark.
“Shhhh. Don’t cuss.”
Joey reached into his nightstand and fumbled until his fingers felt a lighter. He flipped it on and held it aloft.
The flame lit the room, revealing his mother in a long white nightgown, a tight expression on her face. But she didn’t ask him if he’d been smoking again. Instead, she led him to the kitchen where she pulled out a candle from the junk drawer.
He lit it quickly, as the lighter was growing hot in his fingers. A glow filled the room. “I guess they didn’t get the gas lines or we would be sky high by now,” he muttered and set the candle on the table. His school books and a stack of mail covered the end against the wall. A pair of ceramic salt and pepper shakers he’d made in grade school stood before them and between plastic placemats decorated with maps of the continents. He had Europe and she had Asia.
Reaching for the wall phone, he asked her to make some coffee while he called the electric company. He had been taking care of things like this since he’d been ten.
His mother wasn’t stupid; she was just kind of dreamy. His practical Aunt Mavis said she was square. But he’d take his mom and her Emily Dickenson poetry any day of the week to Auntie and all her home canned green beans and Pentecostal talk.
The sleepy woman on call at the electric company said that she would get someone on it. They’d be there adder-while, prolly an hour or two. He liked the way the woman talked although he knew his AP English teacher would be gritting her teeth. Sometimes, he’d let himself lapse deep into the language just to annoy her. But he listened carefully to TV newscasters, not the ones from Harlan or Hazard but those with the bland Midwestern accents.
He remembered that years ago relatives, a man and his daughter from Cincinnati, had visited his grandmother. She’d taken the child onto her lap and began to undo her pigtails, talking to her as old women do. The man imitated his granny, said, “Come heeear, little girl. You want yore hair breashed?” stretching the words out, making Joey ashamed for Granny, for himself. He could never again be neutral about these east Kentucky mountains; his love and hate were braided into his identity forever.
After Edna Mae filled the percolator basket, she walked to the sink, pot in hand. “Good thing I kept this old aluminum thing. We’d be out of luck. All this blasting. All these days without electricity.” She turned on the faucet. The pipes, even the sink vibrated. A second later, the water rushed out the color of blood. She jumped back. Dropped the pot. Gasped.
Joey jumped up to stand beside her and watch the thick water run down the drain. “Bastards. Sons of bitches. They’ve split the water table.”
She stood there — the pot lying in the sink, the blood red water splashing — wringing her hands, moaning softly. “Coffee. You wanted some coffee.”
He turned off the faucet. “Hush, Mom. Sit down. We’ve got a gallon of store-bought water.” He guided her to the table and pulled the water from the refrigerator. “When it gets daylight, I’m climbing up the ridge and see what they’ve done.”
“You’ve got to go to school.”
He rinsed and filled the pot. “Not today, I’m not.”
“They’ll send the truant officer out here.”
He rolled his eyes. “I’m seventeen. Nobody gives a shit.”
“Can’t you call someone?”
“Who?” He shrugged his shoulders, not sure if she meant the school or someone about the blasting so he answered the important one. “They’s a pretty militant bunch living on this mountain. John Briscoe and his brothers have been to see the state senator, the representative, the judge executive. John even tried to take out a warrant. The sheriff laughed at him.”
“I know. I know.”
He turned on the stove and set on the percolator. Next time, it would be the gas pipes, then what would they do? “The coal company owns everyone,” he said. “Prolly the Governor, too.”
“I got less power than a piss ant,” he said, setting mugs on the table.
He started up the mountain a couple of minutes before seven. Daylight had arrived sometime ago but the mountains obstructed his view of the sun. It was a fine, cool October day. The blasting had opened Halloween with a bang. He wore no jacket, only a black tee, jeans and worn-out sneakers, the Wal-Mart brand.
Just above the trailer, he ducked into the woods, mostly oak and poplar, a few shag bark hickory. An oriental bug was killing the native pines. Some still stood straight, others were dead, fallen or leaning. The same thing happened to the American chestnut when they all died a century or ago. This wasn’t virgin forest but the trees were huge. He didn’t think anything had been cut for maybe eighty years, back when they still floated logs down the river.
His great-grandpa had even raised corn on this hillside but it didn’t come to much. Then his grandfather had raised cattle. He’d kept an old cattle path open so he could walk through the forest without stumbling over underbrush. Deer had come back and helped with the trail. Sometimes he saw wild turkeys and he’d heard someone had seen a bear. Some days he spent the whole day here. He brought a shotgun so he would look like a hunter but never killed anything, not even squirrels.
He figured that they had a right to be about their squirrel business, the same as he had a right to drink clean water out of the well. Every time he thought about the coal company, he saw red water coming out of his faucet.
Just before the summit, a crimson sun streamed through the trees. There was too much light for this spot. As he climbed, he saw a grandpa oak lying on its side, the monster roots higher than his head. And more trees, jumbled like pick-up sticks. And boulders as big as a truck. Then piles of dirt. He decided he would not look at anything but the ground until he reached the top. It would be like that dog tail thing, where someone cut it off an inch at a time. The ground was a jumble of topsoil, leaves, roots, stones, clay. He spotted an arrowhead, picked it up and rubbed it. What would the Indians think? He’d heard that this was a sacred hunting ground. He wondered if their spirits still lived here. They’d probably left now that the water was red, the fish and crawdads gone. A breeze came up the mountain as if to answer, as if to keep him company. He stuck the arrowhead in his pocket.
He took one last step onto the summit. Down below, the ground lay bare and dead for as far as he could see. Not a tree. Not a sprig of grass. Nothing. Bare as the Sahara. More so. Bare as the moon. The mountaintops had disappeared. And the sunrise was as red as hell itself.
He heard the trucks and earthmovers in the distance. They must be coming to dig the face of his mountain where they had blasted last night. And tonight, the crew would blow up what was left of the mountain. The mountain and the forest between his home and this wasteland before him. He wanted to vomit.
The vehicles parked in a group below him. Three bulldozers. Two coal trucks. A couple of company pickups. A van. No one got out. A nest of vipers taking their coffee breaks before they took down his mountain.
The earth trembled. What was that? The vehicles weren’t moving. It wasn’t dynamite because they’d blown off the charges last night. The mountain quivered under his feet. If he was in California, he would think it was an earthquake. It couldn’t happen here. There were no plates under this area. Joey looked distrustfully at the ground below him. It rocked and shook like a carnival ride. He flung himself down and stared at the valley below.
The earth opened. Fire and molten lava poured out. The men, the trucks and the bulldozers fell into the enormous crack. It was like Pompeii, he thought. Unexpected. An unpredicted geological event.
Then he saw the Demon with black bat wings exactly like the ones conceived and drawn by Gustane Dore in the illustrated Dante’s Inferno. The dark spirit followed the last bulldozer and the earth closed.
Joey blinked his eyes and sat up, uneasy, wondering if it was a dream. Perhaps he had to become a Pentecostal. Surely God was speaking to him. His hand moved to the ground as if it had a life of its own. His fingers surrounded a fist-sized stone. He picked it up, looked, then grinned. A trilobite fossil. Better than a burning bush any day of the week.