Excerpted from THE HOLLOW GROUND by Natalie S. Harnett
We walk on fire or air, so Daddy liked to say. Basement floors too hot to touch. Steaming green lawns in the dead of winter. Sinkholes, quick and sudden, plunging open at your feet.
Where the hollowed out ground didn’t burn, it collapsed or sank. Here is what’s known as the Anthracite Coal Region of Pennsylvania, fed by the largest vein of anthracite coal in the world. That coal was blasted, hauled, breathed and swallowed by our daddies’ daddies and by theirs before them. And when those mines shut down, those snaking, black tunnels were left to flood—to shift. They were left to burn.
Burning more than coal, I’d tell you. When I was still curled and wet in my ma’s belly, those mines burned my memory. Burned me with the want to see them for myself. To enter their long sloping darkness and know what my daddy went through before whatever it was got broke inside him.
I’m not saying I knew what I’d uncover when I crawled and scraped my way into that narrow monkey shaft. I’m not saying I knew the secrets I freed from there would change us permanently for worse or better. I’m just saying that sometimes what we seek is something we hope, with all our blood and bone, we’ll never find.
When Ma was seven years old her heart turned sour. She said it never turned sweet again, but I remember a time, long before the mine fires burned beneath our towns, when Ma’s eyes glowed like sunlit honey, when her voice rose and fell as pleasantly as a trickling creek. While Brother was swelling up Ma’s belly, or flailing around in the crib, or crawling on the brown linoleum of the trailer over by Mercher’s Dump, we were happy. The thing that changed Ma wasn’t there. But I remember the moment it arrived. Me and Ma were playing tiddlywinks at the kitchen table. Daddy was still in bed, watching us from his cot in the living room and telling a story about the tiddlywinks queen and princess. Back then I was so young and stupid I thought all daddies slept that way, separate from the rest of us, dozing till noon. Brother scribbled chalk on the kitchen floor, trying his best to make that cruddy linoleum look pretty.
Through the kitchen window came this light, the color of swallowtail or goldfinch wings. I’ve never seen a light like that again. It felt like it shot through the slats of my ribs, searing me with a kind of happiness maybe all kids feel ‘cause they don’t know any better. But then deep in Brother’s plump little throat formed this squeal of delight. Within seconds he was up, standing all on his own, and charging toward us with his first steps.
Ma turned, spreading her arms, cooing like a mourning dove. But when he fell into her, sobs shot from her mouth like the fire itself had flamed up through the floor and singed the skin from her bones. I lunged from my chair and pulled the baby from her arms, thinking he’d hurt her. Which I guess he did. Because right then her eyes went from liquidy amber to the scratchy dull color of sassafras bark. Her voice ever afterward bobbed with nettles.
Whenever I reminded Ma of this moment, she said her heart forgot it was broken but then remembered. How can you make it forget again? I’d ask. Over and over, I’d ask. But her mouth merely pressed into that tight squiggle that made me think of the worms I dug up for fishing. The worms still lived after you cut a piece of them off. I guess that’s how it was for Ma. A piece of her was gone and for a little while she forgot about it.
When I woke that February morning, the morning that changed our lives, the pinkish air pushing in the opened window told of snow. I snuggled closer underneath the covers toward Auntie and pictured the mine fire flaming along the veins of coal beneath our town, veins as numerous and intricate as the blue ones on Auntie’s legs. The fire lived by sucking air through the ground and burping up gases through our walls. I sucked in and blew out to see my breath form a cloud, which made me think of the Holy Ghost. A white blob was how I pictured Him, a white blob hovering over the apostles’ heads before burning them all with tongues of flame.
Auntie used to say the flames gave the apostles more than the gift of language, the flames gave them understanding. I thought if that was true, perhaps the fire eating the underground mine shafts of Centrereach was trying to tell me something—to give me its own kind of wisdom. I’m Brigid, named after Saint Brigid, who was named, some say, after the pagan goddess of fire. A saint who made the sores of a leper disappear. Smoothed the cracks in a madman’s mind. A healer, like Auntie, though Auntie never allowed anyone to call her a healer. Something healed through her, she said, explaining that she was something like a messenger.
Groaning, Auntie sat up. She reached for a mug of water on the nightstand and with a spoon tapped at the film of ice that had formed during the night.
“Auntie,” I asked, “how can you make a heart forget?”
Auntie took a sip from her mug, wincing at the sting of the cold water on her teeth. Slowly she shuffled to the closet where she stretched to unhook the shaggy bathrobe that hung on the door. As she slipped into the robe, a hidden smile tugged at the sides of her mouth. The story of “The Great Forgetting” was one of my favorites and Auntie savored the retelling of a town in the Carpathian Mountains where the people had been pillaged for so many centuries that they knew no joy.
Tugging the belt snug on her robe, Auntie spoke and as she did the white hairs on her chin glistened in the dresser lamp’s light: “They prayed for years to forget the past until they no longer believed God listened. Then one day the youngest child in the village awoke to find a perfectly round egg in his crib. Word spread of this marvel. Within hours, the villagers forgot everything—not only their grief, but the curves of their beloved’s face, their children’s names. They stumbled through the streets, meeting neighbors, childhood friends, their very own father or mother, as if meeting that person for the first time. Their only memory was of the babe finding the oddly shaped egg. ‘Don’t hurt the child,’ a big fat shiny black crow squawked.”
Auntie bent her arms like wings and flapped them. We both smiled in pleasure. Auntie loved telling the story and the way she spoke I loved to listen. When Auntie came to America as a little girl, her grammar school trained the Ukrainian accent out of her, a different kind of forgetting. But if you listened carefully you could still hear the sounds of her first language lilting her words.
Auntie dropped her arms and continued: “But as soon as the snows melted, the healthiest of the young men carried the tot to a mountain crag. There, they left him to die and by the following dawn marauders conquered the village, slaying every person, young or old. Now only the story of what happened to the town remains.”
Auntie touched one of the colorful wooden icons on her dresser top and made the sign of the cross backwards. Auntie was Great Uncle’s wife and we loved her, but she wasn’t raised Catholic. Daddy said that wasn’t her fault because the place she was born was so horrible even God left it. But Auntie said her hometown in the Ukraine was a Garden of Eden until an iron curtain closed around it, making it impossible to go back. “They say home is where the heart is,” Auntie often said. “That means I’ll never see my heart again.”
While Auntie rummaged in her top drawer for the heavy woolens she wore under her housedress, I charged out from the covers, reaching for my red woolen coat on the chair. Slipping into it, I waited for the magic of its heat as I stood by the window watching the early morning twilight give way to dawn. In the distance, hovering above the fields, was a mist that I imagined was the ghost of the family curse coming to get us, even though I knew the mist was caused by the fire burning beneath the ground. Thinking of ghosts made me think again of the Holy Ghost with its tongues of flame and I quivered with excitement at the thought that something important might happen that day.
Once the chill was off my skin, I crossed the hall to Brother’s room. Brother’s little body nestled cocoon-like under Auntie’s brown and lime green granny-square afghan. With his back to the wall, his pink mouth sucking the cold air, Brother’s slender Ma face had a kind of sweetness to it that only little kids get.
“Come on,” I said, kicking at the mattress. “Take off your pajamas and put on clean underwear. Then put on your clothes.” If you didn’t tell him exactly what to do, it was your own fault when he screwed it up. We’d all learned that lesson.
I handed him fresh clothes, then shuffled to the opposite end of the hall to peer into Ma and Daddy’s room. Ma and Daddy slept with their backs to each other, aimed for escape, exactly the way all Howleys sleep. This, I thought, was Auntie’s magic. Before we moved in with her, Ma and Daddy never slept together. But as soon as Auntie invited us to move in, she started brewing a remedy to sneak into Ma and Daddy’s morning coffee. Within weeks they started not only sleeping together, but eating together too.
Head cocked, I listened until I was certain I heard Ma’s breezy sighs in between Daddy’s rasps. Then I rushed down the hall to pound on Brother’s door. “It’s Saturday, stupid,” I growled. “My favorite day. If you mess with me, I’ll let you-know-who into your bedroom tonight.”
I waited. He had a morbid fear of the Boogeyman. Being a little kid, Brother believed the family curse made him more susceptible to monsters and ghosts coming into his room at night. I was five years older and knew the curse usually came from somewhere you’d never expect.
“Breakfast, Auntie,” I called as I pounded down the stairs. I set the oatmeal to boil and by the time Auntie came down, I had her apple sliced and her hot water with lemon ready.
Auntie squeezed my shoulder. “What a good girl,” she said, bending near enough so that her wiry hair brushed my cheek, the closest she ever came to a hug or cuddle. As much as I craved to be near her, Auntie’s love didn’t come by way of touch.
I poured Brother and me two glasses of milk and as we settled down to eat, Auntie told stories, real ones about gruesome farming accidents, starving winters, rivers that made towns into lakes. Stories from before she came to this country and after. Long ago, before World War I, Auntie married Gramp’s brother. She married into the curse, yet you wouldn’t know it to hear her tales of woe. Still, her stories usually ended with the town paying some cripple’s doctor’s bills or repairing some widow’s house. “It was a time,” she’d say, always with a whistle of regret, “when everyone helped everyone. When things were getting better, not worse.”
After finishing her stories, Auntie left to deliver a remedy to the Clarks—our neighbors who’d nearly died from carbon monoxide poisoning while watching TV with the windows shut—and minutes later, Ma and Daddy made their way downstairs. Barely awake, Ma didn’t even nod at me as she passed through the kitchen to step out onto the sun porch for her first smoke of the day. Through the glass door I watched her, the pom-pom on top of her striped knit hat bobbing, her long stringy light brown hair snagging the watery February sunlight and shimmering golden. Golden was the color Ma said her hair used to be when she was little, the color I always wished mine was. Mine was a color neither blond, red, or brown. Mouse color, Ma said. But I would have done anything to have hair the rich brown of the field mice who darted through our cupboards.
Daddy sat on one of the wooden kitchen chairs with his bad arm resting on the table. When Daddy was young his arm got smashed in the Devil Jaw mining disaster and it ached him ever since. When I pictured Daddy in that disaster I thought of the tunnel as a gaping mouth and the chunks of coal jutting like teeth closing down on him. Daddy’s brother was killed that day and Ma said a part of Daddy died with him. I used to like to think about that dead part of Daddy and what Daddy would be like if all of him was whole and alive the way he must have been before the disaster. Daddy rarely talked about dead Uncle Frank or the disaster but when he did his eyes darkened over like dusk fell inside them.
That morning Daddy complained about the cold, wondering when the government would give us the gauge meters they’d promised so we could monitor the gas levels in the house and not need to leave the windows open. Then he nodded toward the porch and said, “Time to get moving, Princess.” It was in everyone’s best interest for me to get Ma’s breakfast ready fast. Ma was a heavy smoker and could barely function till she had her first smoke, but she was already coming out of her haze, sharpening her tongue on the icy air.
“Don’t go giving her no swelled head, Adrian!” Ma shouted. “She ain’t no princess and the world won’t treat her like one. You just make things harder on her thinking it will.”
“Ah, what a bite on that Irish tongue,” Daddy said, kidding because that tongue was nothing like it usually was, dulled by the nicotine coating her mouth and the exhaustion she always felt by the week’s end.
Ma swung open the door and tramped to the table. Dutifully I heated up the pan, thinking how the way people liked their eggs matched their personalities. Ma all folded with the center golden part cooked and flattened. Daddy, raw and drippy, running all over with just a flick of a fork’s tine.
“Goddamn it, Brigid,” Ma shouted, pointing at where I’d glopped egg onto the stove. “That’s what happens when you don’t pay attention. When I was your age, they wouldn’t give me nothing to eat for the whole day if I’d wasted good food like that. Accident or not!”
“Lores,” Daddy said as if he’d swallowed the “Do” of Ma’s name. Dolores means sorrow and Daddy always tried to take some of that sorrow from her and hold it inside him. As he sat across from her at the table, you could see it in him—the sadness with Ma’s name on it. Brother probably saw the sadness too because he came over from where he was playing with his cars on the kitchen floor and nestled his head to Ma’s chest, her breasts just as pointy as all the features of her face, and it struck me that this was all Brother probably remembered—Ma and Daddy joking and eating together. He was only six years old so he probably didn’t remember the trailer over by Mercher’s Dump or home being anything but Auntie’s house.
I flipped two eggs and served Ma. Then I did Daddy’s breakfast. The two yolks on the plate looked up at him like gleaming eyes in a ghost’s face. Daddy slopped with his toast at the yolks, letting the yellow ick drip down his chin—a family joke. We always pointed and gagged, watching him perform this disgusting feat like he was a circus performer. This time he played it up special and my stomach clenched like so many fists. He was supposed to take Brother to Katz’s Department Store for their end-of-winter coat sale, but afterwards he must have been planning to go to Pete’s Pub. Ma must have been able to tell too because she said, “Take your time today, Adrian. I’m thinking of having some of the girls over to play cards.”
I knew Ma didn’t want Daddy around when her girlfriends came over because she was ashamed that he had no job, which was crazy because most of the daddies around had no job. I guess Daddy knew too because he said, “I’ll take all the time I want.” And then he looked her dead in the eye so she knew not to start with him. For me, I didn’t mind if Ma had some of her friends over, even though it meant I’d have to clean up and serve coffee and cake. I didn’t mind because while she was at work and while Daddy and Brother were shopping, me and Auntie would have the house all to ourselves. And whenever me and Auntie were alone together we’d sit on the couch, sucking on candies, Auntie reading her mysteries and me reading whatever historical romance I was into at the time.
When Brother and Daddy were finally ready to go, Brother swung open the front door and rushed out into a choke of cloud caused by the fire heating the wet ground. Daddy shrugged into his peacoat, grimacing with pain. When he got back home, I told him, Auntie would make him a remedy to get the damp out of his bones. “Okay, Daddy?” I said.
But Daddy said nothing. His eyes were that icy blue they got when they were looking off to that other place, the place that turned him empty inside. The place he thought he could fill with dice and whisky.
When he stepped out onto the porch, he turned first one direction, then another, squinting into the gathering fog like something was out there to get him. Brother beckoned from where he stood near one of the boreholes in the street, the long pipe smoking as it vented out of the ground. Brother waved his little knit hat that he’d crushed in his hand, but Daddy jogged down the steps, hands thrust deep into his coat pockets, and walked away from him.
Ma thrust her head over my shoulder and yelled, “And pick up some milk for god’s sake,” but her words sunk in the heavy air. Sighing the way she always did before heading off to the mill, she tilted her head. Gleaming in her eyes was something as timid as a baby deer. Every now and then the shy, tender part of her surfaced. “I know you want to go reading with Auntie,” Ma said to me. “But don’t forget your chores. Don’t go having no fun first.”
“Yes, Ma,” I said, but as soon as the door closed behind her, I headed to the kitchen and brewed a pot of tea. When me and Auntie were alone together, before we settled down to reading, we always sipped a cup of tea and Auntie told me things she’d never told anyone else.
That morning me and Auntie sat on the sofa and sipped a peppermint tea that we’d picked and dried ourselves. “Listen now,” Auntie said. “Remember our family picnics at Culver Lake? And the afternoons we all spent ice-skating on Adam’s pond? Weren’t they fun?”
I nodded. Auntie knew I loved it when Ma and Brother and me hunted crayfish along the lakeshore or when Daddy and I skated backwards across the pond with Ma doing figure eights around us.
Auntie put a finger to her chin and looked off toward the window. From the way she opened and shut her mouth several times I could tell she was searching for the right words. “And then there were all the times when something good happened out of the blue. Like when your ma found fifty dollars just lying on the ground or when your poem was chosen best in class. You know what I mean? If you only think about what’s bad, well then, life’s bad. You see what I’m saying?”
I smiled and stirred my tea, tapping the spoon dry on the edge of the cup. I had no idea what Auntie was getting at, but I always wished to please her. I lifted the cup to my mouth.
Auntie continued, “I guess what I’m trying to say is that even though both my boys were killed, one on Okinawa, the other in the mines, I don’t believe in the family curse.”
Shocked by her words, I gulped the tea, burning my tongue. The curse was as real and basic as sunlight or water. I couldn’t imagine our lives without it. Scalded, my tongue felt puffy as I said, “How can you say that, Auntie?”
“There isn’t a family curse,” Auntie explained. “Or that’s not exactly what I mean. There is one. But it’s not out there,” she said, pointing out the window. “It’s in here.” She aimed a thick, slightly crooked finger at me and prodded my chest.
“Inside me?” I said, pulling at the cable knit of my sweater as if the curse was hiding somewhere underneath my clothes.
Auntie sighed. “Not just you. Inside each one of us. You see we make—” But Auntie was cut off by an explosion deep in the ground and she completed her thought by saying something in Ukrainian that I knew was a bad word because she’d said it before and would never tell me what it meant. The explosions were something we’d gotten used to because they happened sometimes in winter when the outlets the fire used for air froze over, but Auntie was clearly thinking about the damage the explosion might have caused. She stood and said she’d check on the shed which, with each explosion since Christmas, had started tilting farther toward the left, slowly sinking like an absurd shed-ship into the ground. I didn’t see what the bother was. It was an ugly shed and we didn’t even store anything worthwhile in it, but I’d learned not to stop Auntie from checking on it. That crumpling old shack meant something to her.
Not bothering with a coat, Auntie tramped through the kitchen and banged open the porch door. Through the little window over the sink I watched her walk the gravel path. Flakes of snow so small they resembled ash wafted down around her. I spread some of Auntie’s elderberry jam on a heel of bread and stood at the counter working my jaw hard to chew it. When I next glanced out the window, the snow had so thickened the fog that I couldn’t see a thing. Absently I began peeling the potatoes Auntie and I had planned to boil for supper. I’d been reading a book about Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII, who was said to have had an extra finger. I wondered if she’d used that extra finger for a special purpose, like playing the harp or picking locks, and I tried to picture the various ways it might have grown out of her hand—directly out the side or stuck like a twin to her pinky. I reasoned that if I were a king an extra finger would interest me since I’d probably be bored by everything ordinary. It wasn’t until I’d nearly finished peeling the potatoes that I realized Auntie hadn’t returned.
“Auntie?” I shouted through the sliver of screen visible where the window was open. There was no answer. The flecks of snow had thickened to flakes that had a tinge of yellow to them. The color was odd and pretty all at once and I couldn’t decide if it reminded me of something sick or of something lit up just barely by sun. Dying light, I decided, remembering a poem Auntie had read to me. And then I got afraid.
Slowly I made my way onto the sunporch. With just a push on the back door, it opened wide and I gagged on the sulfur smell the fire sometimes caused. I stared toward the corner of the yard where the shed stood, but the air was so steamy I could only see a few feet in front of me. Fear cracked my voice as I called, “Auntie? I can’t see you. Auntie?”
Cautiously I took first one step, then another, the fog growing hotter. “Auntie?” I called again, my voice now a squeak. I took a few more steps and then just stood there gawking at the gaping hole where the corner of the yard used to be. For what seemed like forever I stood there silent, when I could have been shouting for help, when I could have been saving Auntie.
It wasn’t until flames burst up from the pit that the first scream escaped my throat. I screamed to Auntie, I screamed to the fire. I screamed so that God would have to hear, would have to listen.
I don’t know for how long I stood there, but by the time a fireman picked me up, my mouth was as dry as dust and hardly any sound came out. “She’s gone,” he said. “The ground gave way.” He carried me out the alley to the front yard, my skin singed from the smoke, my eyes stinging.
“My fault,” I whimpered.
“No,” he said. “There was nothing you could do. Hush now.”
But I knew it was my fault. Already I knew. It was my fault because Auntie had told me the curse’s secret—that it lived inside each one of us—and for that the curse had taken her away.