THE FRACTURED OBELISK
Back in my grandpa’s day, all the coal was taken out of the mountains by men covered in black dust and sweat, extracted with picks and volatile sticks of dynamite. Sometimes the mountain took the men instead. But there were always more men who came along and took more, and the mountain never seemed to run dry. Sure, they would hit a thin vein here or there, but there was always more coal
“in them hills”, as Grandpa always referred to Appalachia. And it seemed was a pretty well accepted truth that the coal would always be there.
Then the strip mining started. Instead of digging holes and tenacious tunnels, the big companies ripped down all the trees, cleared off as many obstacles as they could, then blew the tops off the hills and gathered all the coal they wanted. They considered it more efficient and less dangerous on the whole. When they had plundered all they could, and blown up as much earth as they could legally blow up, they put down thin layers of dirt, a few grass seeds, planted a tree or two and called it good.
But it wasn’t.
Those of us with ties to the mountains, whose blood relatives had worked themselves to death to scratch out a meager living on the side of the hills, knew it wasn’t good. We could feel it in our bones, in our souls. Standing on the porch at the family home place, looking across the holler just to see a razed mountain, looking like it had been decapitated; it hurt my heart. And to know that the same company was hoping to do the same thing to this mountaintop was unthinkable.
They had already taken possession of the mountain between that skinned, leveled land that had been a majestic peak and my family’s own piece of the Appalachian chain. My grandfather was old and failing, and they knew those of us who still came to his home lived elsewhere, off the mountain. They were simply biding their time.
Grandpa had asked me to come stay with him for the weekend, knowing that the next mountain was about to be taken, and not wanting to be there alone when the rape of his beloved neighbor happened. He had grown up with the Reedlands that had lived there, run up and down those hills as a child, and had lost three fingers in the family coal mine there, thanks to an unstable stick of dynamite and an antsy teenager. Knowing how deeply he felt about the ugly process, I had arrived a day early, so we could toast it properly before the fall.
We sat with our steaming coffee mugs on the wooden porch at six the next morning, witnesses to the execution. The last of the flatbed trucks, hauling away one last tree for the sawmill, trundled away just after we sat down. We could see folks scurrying over the steep hill, setting and checking charges I presumed, slowly thinning out until a tiny group, holding up papers and pointing here and there, were all that was left. We had just started our fourth cup of coffee, and the last of the store bought doughnuts, when the miniscule crowd dispersed.
It was time for the sanctioned murder to begin. Grandpa sat down his cup and reached for my hand. I took it, holding onto his stump, feeling the small bits of coal still embedded under his skin against my palm. Time seemed to slow to a snail’s pace.
The first explosion must have been far underground, because we felt it more than heard it. My nearly full cup sloshed coffee onto the small iron table it stood on. Grandpa gripped my hand harder with his index finger and thumb. Soon after, I started seeing the remaining trees begin to topple over, seeing the ground begin to ripple, as if the world’s largest mole was rooting under it. The crashing sounds of falling rock and trees took over the air, silencing the birds and insects all through the hills.
I felt tears on my face and turned to look at my grandfather, to see if I was overreacting. His face was wet with tears as well, but the worst was the look of despair covering his countenance. The bravest, strongest man in my life looked like a small child now, watching as his history was destroyed. He turned to look at me and tried to smile bravely. Neither of us uttered a word.
When the last of the rumbling faded away, we broke our eye contact and looked back to the mountain. The dust was thick, filtering the morning sunlight to look like dusk. As more rays broke through the haze, my grandfather dropped my hand and gripped the porch rail, standing and moving his head as if trying to find a better focus on the land. When I looked toward where he was staring, I also stood, trying to decide if what I saw was an illusion of light or truth.
Instead of a cracked and broken landscape, covered with dirt and shards of wood and granite, it looked like the mountain was still there. It was at a steeper incline than before but I would have sworn the mountain still stood. As our view cleared further, I could see was held the shape of the mountain, but it was definitely not the mountain.
Where a tall, wide peak had stood, there was now a tall, thin slab of shiny black rock, gleaming in the morning sun. It had the look of a polished onyx, majestic and the darkest pitch nature had to offer.
“Poppa, what it that?” I asked, the awe I was feeling coming through my voice.
He stood there for several long moments, as if trying to think of an answer. Then he turned and went back into the house, coming out moments later with his bird watching binoculars. Adjusting the focus, he scanned the shiny black monolith that had taken the place of the mountain. When he put down the glasses, his face had drained of color.
“Poppa?” I said, suddenly worried about him. “What’s going on, Grandpa?”
He looked at me and blinked quickly, as if coming out of a trance. “It’s real,” he said in a dreamy voice. “I didn’t none believe it, but it’s real.”
“What, Grandpa; what is it?”
His eyes got very large and he looked like a madman. “They won’t know!” he shouted, causing me to step back and totter on the edge of the stairs. Before I could actually fall backwards, he grabbed my coat, pulling me back to him. “Them fools! They won’t know! We gotta go stop ‘em, Tim, right now!”
He released me and turned on his heel, running as much as he could. I watched him go, then turned back to look at the black needle piercing the ground. I stared at it, fascinated by the glistening surface, dazzling in the morning light. The front door slammed behind me, startling me back to myself. Grandpa grabbed my arm and started dragging me behind him down the porch steps.
“Pops, wait!” I said loudly, resisting him. When he stopped and looked up at me, I didn’t like what I saw. His eyes looked too white, his teeth were bared and it looked like his hair, already thin, was missing in several spots on his head. Had he pulled it out? “What is going on? You look like a wild man and they aren’t going to listen to you if…”
He cut me off. “That…that thang, that black abomination! I heard my granny telling tales when I was a boy about the gods of the mountains, about them putting their marks on what was theirs. They put ‘em there and we served ‘em, didn’t much matter if we knowed it or not. But they’s supposed to stay in the mountain!” He grabbed my coat again, pulling me down to the ground level so he could look into my eyes. “They is supposed to stay in the dark, under the mountain! Those fools dug it up and they ain’t going to know it, how bad that is going to be!”
I gently put my hands over his, trying to calm him a bit. “Okay, and what would Granny Oni say that thing is?” I was trying hard not to let his panic transfer to me.
He took his hands away, turning to look across the expanse towards the dark blot against the blue sky, where workers were now gathering to look up at it. He wiped his mouth several times, his hands shaking. His voice was quieter when he spoke, but his eyes continued to jitter.
“She said that them gods were asleepin’ in the mountains and their markers told where they were. They was a green marker, green as the biggest fir, that guarded the mountain god hisself, and he was the god of the grasses and trees around us. They was a red marker, the god of blood and animals, who watched over our deer and bears and cougars and all the animals in the hills.” He paused, swiveling his head from the mammoth stone and my face. “And they was a black marker, for the god of the coal, who always made sure they was a’plenty of black dust and rock for us to find and use to heat our homes, pay our bills. But them markers, they is supposed to stay in the mountain!”
His voice was full of desperation, begging me to believe him. I tried to be gently. “Did she say what would happen if they were dug up?”
“It has to be buried or the gods will take away their gifts. They went to rest and must stay at rest, don’t you see? If they get woke up, if that marker gets hurt by those blasted company fools, the coal will be gone. The gods will take it away, maybe take more than that!”
I was shocked to hear the conviction in my grandfather’s voice. He was a lay preacher for the Old Regular Baptist churches and had traveled through the mountains for years, expounding the virtues of his faith and the doctrine. To hear him speaking in those same tones about an ancient myth spooked me.
“Grandpa, you know those are just old wives’ tales,” I said slowly. “If Granny had ever heard you talking like this, she would have boxed your ears for you.” I tried to smile.
He looked at me with his lips pressed tightly together before throwing up his hands in dismissal.
“To hell with ya,” he said. “I can get there myself.”
He turned and started down the slope towards the two vehicles parked across the creek. I quickly followed him down, only catching up with him when he reached the small footbridge. When I took hold of his arm, he turned, his face red and angry.
“Grandpa,” I started.
“Boy, you don’t know nothing about what is going on up here! They won’t stop nor bury that rock back. They will try to blow it up, thinking it’s that good black coal, that anth-ra-cite,” he elongated each syllable of the word, “that they want so damned much. And what happens when you go waking up an angry god from eons in the mountain, do ya reckon? It comes back mad as a bear in a shithouse covered with yeller jackets, that’s what! They going to get us all kilt, boy!”
He pulled away from me again and stomped across the bridge and I followed. As he opened his ancient truck’s door, I stopped him again. “Pops, listen. If you go over there, shouting about ancient gods and curses and whatnot, they will just have you removed from the site, or arrested. If you think about it, you know it’s true.”
He stood there, glaring at me, then looked over my shoulder. I turned and found I could see a sliver of the dark tower from where we stood. I waited for him to think about what I said and, after a minute or two of chewing at the inside of his cheek, his jaw tightened. Then he shifted his eyes back to me.
“So what do we tell them to get that thing back where it belongs?”
“I don’t know just yet, but let’s go over and see what it is up close, first off. Maybe it is just a super vein of coal or…”
“Bah,” he said loudly, shaking his head.
“Or maybe it’s just a big piece of granite that’s covered in dust. If we see it up close, it might look different.”
“It ain’t goin’ta,” he said, “but since you ain’t gonna listen, let’s go on over there.”
We hadn’t been the only ones to see the large slab of rock and, as we wove our way down the narrow road of Maitlin Hill, we became part of a convoy of other mountain residents heading toward the company site. When we finally arrived, the bare patch of ground at the bottom of Reedland Hill was full of farm trucks and small cars, their windows rolled down so those inside could talk to their neighbors and friends.
A company spokesman was standing with four burly workers at the bottom of the road up the hill, preventing unauthorized visitors from traveling further. The megaphone he was holding was no match for the many voices and horns filling the valley area. I pulled as close as I could to the base of the hill and got out, pleading for Grandpa to stay in the car for a minute. I wanted to talk to the man first, before my grandfather presented his theory.
As I approached, one large man stepped forward with his arm out. “No one allowed beyond this point, sir,” he said, his voice monotone.
“I just want to know what that thing is, like the rest of us,” I said in the direction of the spokesman.
“As I have been trying to tell them, it is just an overlarge portion of lignite that we are going to have to break down. Our crews are working on getting the charges set around it, but we do need these people to disperse for safety reasons.”
“That’s bullshit,” my grandfather announced behind me. I turned and found him standing with his hands in the pockets of his faded overalls, eyeing the man as if he was a rat in the corn crib.
“Sir,” the spokesman said, sounding indignant.
“That ain’t no brown coal and don’t none of us believe such nonsense. We know our coal, boy, and that ain’t worthless brown coal. You have to put that back under the earth or you are going to come to bad ends, all of us are.”
I was surprised to hear several loud shouts of agreement come from the crowd that was gathering behind Grandpa. I even saw one of my uncles standing with the preacher from Grandpa’s church.
“This is private property and you are all trespassing,” the man said into his megaphone. “The authorities will be notified if you do not leave immediately.”
“They are already here,” a man in the blue uniform of the Kentucky State Police said, stepping out of the crowd. “And I will be going up to look at this so-called lignite.”
“Officer, you would need to have court order,” the spokesman stammered, suddenly flustered.
“You have about forty agitated mountain people here and I know these four guys you have could stop some of them, but not all of them. You know how us mountain folk are…”” I interjected, letting the implication linger in the air.
Before the man could say anything else, the ground rumbled underneath our feet, feeling as if a giant wave had crashed into the earth. Several people fell, including one security guard, and more cried out as flying debris struck them. I turned and grabbed my grandfather, trying to shield him from the rocks and limbs falling around us.
Before I could register what had happened, I heard screams and shouts from atop the mountain, horrible high-pitched sounds of agony and torment rolling and echoing through the trees. There was a roar then, louder than any I had heard in my life, like a mammoth lion announcing his triumph. It made the very mountain quake.
My grandfather put his arms around me now, just like when I was little. “My boy, my boy,” he said, “they done woke up the old gods. And those gods of the brimstone and fires are coming for us all now.”