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May 152012
 

by Blake Ray

1

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.

 

2

They thought the fire was out.

The night it caught

they dowsed it with water

and they thought the fire was out.

 

3

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.

 

4

The mines are alive

with pagan fire.

Deliberately it

moves toward the graveyard

boiling ground water—

filling the mines with

steam and poison gas.

 

5

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.

 

6

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.

 

7

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.

 

8

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.

 

9

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.