As soon as I was old enough to walk and talk, mother sent me out by morning to climb the banks and pick the shards of coal from the slate and shale. I would sometimes get up with father and go with him and the men just as far as the banks, then watch them shamble on toward the works, dark shapes before the dawn. The squeak and thud of boots, the rattle of lamps, the glassy shake of the mule riggings, voices murmuring in Welsh. The men spoke of adits and pillars and collars and goaf, talked of the fire-boss, who seemed to me a kind of magician. Boys not much older than I tromped along the road with them, their mouths thick with tobacco. One day I would walk to the pits myself. Patience was hard. I could barely muster disinterest in the face of marvelous words like fire-boss.
The culm banks were known to shift without warning. A child picking coal always hazarded stumbling into some disguised cavity, unsettling the whole mound, and ending up entombed under the chunks of slag, all air squeezed off overhead. The company had issued plenty of warnings to this effect tales of boys gobbled up in the dumps for their thievery, as if by the unforgiving mouth of justice. But always leery of the company's tight-fistedness, mother saw straight through the moralistic pretext of such warnings and relished the subversion of sending me out with an empty pail.
So I scurried up the jagged banks and combed the lumped tops for the chunks with the dull sheen. Those were the coal. The slag gave rise to a blackish dust that caked my shins and fogged my mouth. Shadowy taste. From atop the banks I could see over most of the buildings along Main Street, gossamered with dark smoke. And almost parallel to Main Street: the railroad, car after car jittering up and down its incline.
Now and then I ducked over the backside as a brakeman rode by, or I lay flat on the rubble when a watchman patrolled below. Spread there with my chin chafing on slate, I watched the sun splinter atop the hills and pour its first light into our valley.
Father, for the trouble these culm pickings posed him should the bosses learn of them, opposed them with a stance of high ethics. But mother knew her husband feared the company, and worse was willing to bow to its stinginess. She sent me out despite him. Like Elidyr of the Welsh legend, who stole the gold from the Little Folk, I only sought to do my mother's bidding.
In all my mornings at the dark banks I was collared only half a dozen times, but always by the same captor: an irascible watchman named Boggs. The mottled Irishman was arrogantly alert at his post. I believe it delighted him in some sadistic way to ensnare me and other coal pickersand he had a brutal grip. "Witherow!" he would bellow. And if he had not yet locked my eyes, I would try to creep down the back of the bank and come running out the side opposite him. But flight was futile, for not long after I'd reached home and ditched what little coal I'd found, Boggs would come swaggering up to our stoop. Finding mother at work in the yard, he would proclaim in his curious official manner: "Abicca Witherow, your young Asher has pilfered sellable goods from the Black Diamond Company, the return of which I herewith demand."
Then the charade would begin, variations on a scene familiar enough to seem scripted.
"Mr. Boggs," mother might say, smoothing out her apron or pressing a forearm to her brow tired gestures intended to show that the watchman was interrupting something important, "my husband, as you well know, is a miner in one of your shafts. He tells me the Black Diamond Coal Company conducts its business with the utmost care. He's right in this, isn't he? And he tells me that when the cars are lifted from the shaft their coal is sifted and sorted to determine waste as waste and goods as goods. That's what that god-awful breaker house is for, isn't it? Now, as long as the company knows waste for waste well enough to litter our town with big black dumps of it, then we folks who have to live next to the ugliness should be entitled to use what the company cannot."
From The Green Age of Asher Witherow by M. Allen Cunningham, pages 1-14. All rights reserved, no part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher, Unbridled Books.
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