by Blake Ray
The fire could have been burning for years
before anyone noticed the gas leaching
up into the homes of the miners and
their families, because anthracite burns
longer and hotter than regular coal.
The fire may have started one night
in May when embers thrown off by a fire
in one of the abandoned pit mines caught
a vein of coal that ran down under the
quiet streets (most of the mines had closed years
before taking with them jobs and people).
Maybe, as the methane bubbled up through
the dirt for the first time, the people still
in town caught a whiff of coal smoke mixing
with the sick-sweet smell of burning garbage.
They thought the fire was out.
The night it caught
they dowsed it with water
and they thought the fire was out.
The gears that drive the world
get older and more choked with rust
every year. As they slip and catch,
its easy for a person, or a whole town, to be
forgotten—for the memory of a place
to drift away like ashes flicked into the breeze
by a smoker’s nervous fingers, and there
isn’t anyone to notice or care that anything has
been lost. The only witnesses are
the distant stars that hang meaninglessly
in the night sky, dead before
their light haunts the empty
forgotten places that lay below.
The mines are alive
with pagan fire.
moves toward the graveyard
boiling ground water—
filling the mines with
steam and poison gas.
When the government came to install the
monitors that detect the gas,
they said everyone would be
safe. That was twenty years
before the ground crumbled away
under the feet of a twelve year old boy
and nearly dropped him into the fire.
A woman sits quietly
on a worn floral couch
in a room with faded wallpaper
and listens to a canary sing.
The windows are open,
despite the cold autumn wind,
and the steady electric eye
of a carbon gas monitor
gazes unblinkingly past her
from the far wall. Her children
are asleep and she wonders
if they can hear the canary’s song
cutting into their dreams.
They know that if he stops
the air is bad and they must leave
the house. She has told them
over and over what to do,
but still she worries. The night air
cuts through her thoughts as—
for one tense moment—the bird pauses
and then begins its song again.
They dug a trench
just past the cemetery
to pour slurry on the fire.
If they had worked faster,
and worked through the
holiday, it might have worked.
It was Valentines Day when Todd fell.
Smoke was rising from his grandmother’s
lawn in slow lazy tendrils that were
perfectly suited to encourage
the natural curiosity
that exists in all boys of that age.
Todd was just twelve years old when he fell.
The rock beneath his grandmother’s lawn
had been burned away by the slowly
spreading fire that lived in the mines,
which twisted and turned like big snake holes
under the streets and houses in town.
Todd grabbed a thick tree root as he fell.
His cousin saw him fall from inside
and was able to pull Todd back from
what would have been his cremation
if he had fallen just a few more feet.
The government bought out the few people
who still had homes or businesses in town.
That was their answer to the signs hanging
in windows and posted on cars that read
“Save Our Town” in red, hand-painted letters.
They put a detour on the highway so
that cars could make it around the sections
of Route 61 where the asphalt had
buckled and erupted from the pressure
of all the steam from boiling groundwater.
They put up a sign on the edge of the
brown field—where the carbon monoxide
coming up from the mines have killed everything—
with a warning about unstable ground.
Most of the buildings in town have succumbed
to government bulldozers. The few that
survived stand rotting along empty streets.