by Edward Moran
Christmastide was once again disturbing the deep and dreamless sleep of Coaldamp, Pennsylvania.
The signs were unmistakable. One by one, in the days leading up to the holiday, scraggly trees bedecked in lights were beginning to materialize precariously atop the dark, satanic breakers that simultaneously brought life and dying to the patch towns of the northern coal fields. The trees were always slightly askew, serving as both beacon and memento mori, warning the residents of the sure imminence of catastrophe.
Askew or not, the trees were faithfully welcomed by grateful patch-folk as a kindly incarnation—an intrusion, even—by the coal barons who lived leagues away, in another universe far beyond the pale of the festering culm banks that loomed like stranded whales around their meager village. In ordinary time, the culm banks were recondite and unyielding; only at Christmastide did these suffocating slag heaps lose some of their impenetrability. Like black holes in reverse, they allowed no light to penetrate the miners’ hovels and company stores that clustered around the breaker, like planetoids in sackcloth and ashes orbiting a dark sun. The culm banks were billowing and aloof, rarely allowing any shards of Christian benevolence to be birthed among the minions who labored in these baronial mineyards.
Christmas, thus, even more so than Halloween, was the great feast of fools in the coal regions, the time when the natural order of things could be upended if only for a few days, until the page should be turned from the sweet Gospel of Luke to the bitter Gospel of Baer, with its kindly benediction to the Christian men of property that God had preordained.
It was Mary Grace Foy’s father who had been tasked with placing the tree atop the Coaldamp breaker the previous year. She was proud of his election, for it signaled to the townspeople that its workingmen could yet be sound in lung and limb, still agile and full-fingered. But most of all because a tree-topper proclaimed by his agility that his adventuresome spirit had not been cramped by the sixty-hour-a-week shifts underground. In their brief season of bravado atop the breaker, the tree-toppers announced to their long-suffering neighbors that there was something to see beyond the squinted ken of the coal patches. It was their moment of Everest, a rare epiphany that lifted them above their brutish Calvaries.
When he had descended to earth after planting the tree atop the breaker the year before, Mary Grace accepted without question his explanation that he had not positioned it askew on purpose to spite the mine owners, or even to create a memento mori. He swore to his family that his nimbleness was a purely practical thing. He needed to act as deftly and as quickly as possible for two reasons only: he was doing this on his own time, after all, and he had no insurance coverage to support his family in case he were to lose his balance and plunge over the side of the breaker.
Mary Grace cheerfully accepted this as gospel truth, accepted her father’s word, accepted her station in life, as most children would.
But that was last Christmas, an eternity ago.
Shortly before Easter, just as she was turning fourteen, Mary Grace’s father was already in the ground. His final plunge had been stricty earthbound: not from the pinnacle of a breaker at Christmastide but deep in the honeycombed earth below.
How can they call it a honeycomb? Honeycombs are sweet, she protested at his wake, unashamed of the bitter saline tears that were drenching her tongue.
Even in her fitful sleep, Mary Grace could not escape the haunting, told by the slow keening of the colliery whistle that had been the annunciator of her father’s demise. She had not stopped weeping since the moment his broken and bloodied body was deposited on her front porch by the coal company. She wanted to float away somewhere, far from Coaldamp, to the sea that her tree-bearing father had briefly glimpsed from his perch atop the breaker that last Christmas.
But it was now Christmas Eve of another year, and Mary Grace was hopeful as she prepared to hang her new silk stockings over the coal stove’s mantel. Month by month, since that dark Easter, she had grown more and more sanguine. She was thinking oftener of what it would be like to flee Coaldamp for good and plunge into a world that was thoroughly wet—not half-heartedly so—drowning herself in an ocean leagues away from carbon and its residue. She was no longer content to live in the shadow of the barons and their desiccated whales.
It had, after all, been a year of fretful annunciations for Mary Grace. Not only had her father perished, but something inside her had been transformed as well. Something deep and dark and delectable, as though her coal-clotted veins were billowing. Something new and disturbing and pregnant with meaning, something unmanageable and askew. At their father’s wake, Mary Grace’s younger brother Joey, ever the trivia collector, had tried to convince her that Jesus was born not in a stable, not laid in a manger, but that He had descended to earth in a chalk cave.
“That would at least be better than a dark coal mine,” she told him, dismissively, but not after carefully permitting this unstable and stupendous fact to circulate through her veins. It brought a shudder to her body, already distended by grief.
But here it was Christmas Eve, and Mary Grace was dutifully hanging her new silk stockings over the coal stove. She gasped for an instant when they suddenly billowed upwards in the warm currents of air, like a pair of bloated fish bladders rising from the deep. In that comfortable moment of reverie, she peered through the silken strands that formed another layer of isinglass shielding her from the coal fire, so blue and so hearty. She realized in an instant that these were the selfsame threads she pulled over her ankles every workday and day of rest. The stockings that made her feel special, not like other roughshod and ill-clad girls in their woolen socks and frocks cut from flour sacks.
Then she remembered, with glee and guilt, that they were stolen.
And she remembered that it was she, Mary Grace Foy, who had stolen them, stolen them from the silk mill where she’d gone to work the very day after her father had been laid to rest in the parish graveyard. She had stolen them but she also deserved them, just as he deserved to survive and be the herald of new horizons for the huddled masses of Coaldamp.
As she caressed the stockings before hanging them, Mary Grace savored her memory of the deed. She deserved her plunder, every last strand of it. After all, the mining barons owned the silk mill, too, and the dress factory, and the wire works, and the company stores and every other enterprise in damnable Coaldamp. In her rage and delight, she remembered the delicious moment when the forelady had turned her back for an instant, and Mary Grace, quick with her father’s agility, had grabbed the stockings and stuffed them into her shirtwaist, praying it wouldn’t make her look pregnant till she clocked out at dawn.
After hanging the stockings on the mantel, she fell into a deep sleep on the floor in front of the coal stove, oblivious still to their silent billowing in the warm updraft. When she awoke at sunrise, it was to a chilling quiet. The clock above the mantlelpiece had stopped ticking, and the fire in the stove had gone out. Of course it was her fault—in her thoughtless reverie, she’d neglected to wind the clock and bank the fire for the evening.
But she still had hope that someone – Santa or perhaps the Christ Child in his chalk cave or even the ghost of Christmas past – had come to visit. Sure enough, she was thrilled to find her stockings were heavy and distended, like a confined woman about to go into labor—though in mill or nursery she could not tell. To her surprise, though, the stockings were laden not with fruit but with coal.
Coal. Two enormous chunks of coal, one in each leg.
Mary Grace crossed her legs, bowed her head across her stomach, and let a long lament ooze from her lips. But then, in an instant, she was seized by another emotion, an opposite emotion, one that was startling and sanguine. Yes, she had been given coal for Christmas, but it was an abundance of coal. Coal that made your buns dance with its abundance. She laughed at the absurdity of the word that was taking flesh in her: abundance, not scarcity in the scarred city where she was fated to live.
She imagined bright, wet shards of coal pouring down the chute into the cellar. Coal that would be left over even for a distant summer, suffusing the floorboards and generously imparting its aging bouquet to seasons when it was not needed. Coal for the lamp of a foolish virgin. Coal that could be broken like loaves and shared or kept for another day.
Eagerly and now with a sanguine air, Mary Grace took the kitchen knife and slit her beloved stockings, allowing the twin lumps to drop like a eucharist over the dying embers. Then she took the Christmas candle from the window and coaxed the fire back to life. She smiled as the coals slowly erupted into flame and there was warmth again, warmth for her, for her mother, for Joey, even for her father, wombed in the earth.
She next shredded the stockings. Laughing and foolhardy, she flung the frayed scraps into the fire. Billowing up from her own womb, a sense of warmth now radiated from her veins, pervading the room. She no longer felt cramped, no longer entombed like her father had been. As Mary Grace looked out the window, she noticed how a light dusting of snow was already transforming the sombrous leviathans of Coaldamp into agile whales, wet and wondrous at last.
©2020 by Edward Moran
Born in Wilkes-Barre, Edward Moran grew up in a working-class family and graduated from the former St Leo’s High School in Ashley.
Also by Edward Moran: On Suffocation; Coal and Its Discontents