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The black victims of the Gauley Mountain industrial disaster, excluded from white cemeteries, were buried in a cornfield. Doctors, paid by the company, sent home to the men’s wives false lung diagnoses of pneumonia, tuberculosis, pleurisy; anything but silicosis. In the middle of the night, the funeral director drove the bodies in his hearse into an open field. Rukeyser writes: blind corpses rode / with him in front, knees broken into angles / head clamped ahead… / He buried them in rows of five.
In the Jewish tradition, there is no Egypt, only Mitzrayim, from the Hebrew word for narrow. On Passover we tell of our journey out of Mitzrayim, that narrow place of rules and force. The plagues cracked open that narrow world and we walked to freedom across a wide desert, stopping along the way at Sinai to receive the knowledge of the world.
The rabbis tell a midrash about this moment, the giving of Torah at Mt. Sinai. After so many years in slavery, we could no longer understand Hebrew, only the language of our oppressors. Thus the first words that God spoke to Moses were in Egyptian, switching to Hebrew to signify the change from slavery to liberation.
The words that God spoke, in Egyptian, were I am.
The funeral is well attended, despite a late spring heat wave that has joined us from over the West Virginia mountains. There are many graveside mourners, but the deceased woman’s brother catches my eye. He sits quietly under a shade structure erected for the closest family members, right next to the open grave, while the rest of us loosen our ties in the hot sun. His face is tiny, wrinkled — like that of a little Jewish gnome who has crawled out of the forest to bury his sister. He looks at the casket with sad eyes.
By contrast the widowed husband is stoic, impassive. All of this is just washing over him. He is so calm that he is making people nervous. Everyone wants more.
There are many different ways to mourn.
As my wife leads the funeral, the brother loses his composure. He sobs quietly as her friends cite her generosity, her giving to the arts and social services, her steadfast friendship as they themselves lost husbands or wives to divorce or death. He cries, his beard bobbing, as he stands and stumbles through the kaddish. He cries as he turns over the shovel and throws dirt into her grave and cries when he hands the shovel to his brother-in-law, as a single coffin is lowered into a single grave. Beneath the mask of his heavy brown beard he looks much like his dead sister.
After the funeral, we pick up the children from school to attend shiva. This too is part of their education.
Who died? My son asks from the back seat.
His good friend?
His very good friend.
Oh, my son says. He looks out the car window at the blue spring sky.
I had three sons who worked with their father in the tunnel, a mother tells us in Rukeyser’s poem “Absalom.” Shirley was my youngest son; the boy. Shirley’s father dies from silicosis, then his two brothers as well, an entire family choked to death in a few months time. After eighteen months working in the tunnel, the boy, 17, can no longer breathe well enough to stand up. I would carry him from the bed to the table, his mother says, from his bed to the porch, in my arms.
An unnamed speaker in Rukeyser’s poem says I open out a way, they have covered my sky with crystal … I force a way through, and I know the gate / I shall journey over the earth among the living.
Two days before Passover, in the basement of the synagogue, my wife stumbles upon a little box of Jewish kitsch. She was downstairs looking for a water leak — this is the rabbi’s job in a small town — when she found a cardboard box of items from the Lost Age of Hebrew School. Inside the box, unopened for many years, lay felt menorahs and make-your-own dreidel kits and holiday flash cards, and there, at the very bottom, a bag of children’s masks, ten total, one for each plague. She brings them home and we take them out of their cellophane wrapping.
There is a green mask with rolling froggish eyes, a red mask in the shape of drops of blood. The mask for darkness is a black cloud over a burning orange sun; hail is a line of fire, like a science fiction invasion, charging across the forehead. The masks, despite their undeniable strangeness, are cute. The mask solemnly labeled ‘First Born’ indicates death with X’s over the eyeholes, like a 1930’s comic strip.
My wife calls the children and they grab the masks, eager to play. They run around the house wearing the plagues as their faces. They are the hail that burned the Egyptians. The darkness that smothered them. And they have been liberated by these disasters, freed from Egypt thousands of years ago.
The company that sent the men into the Gauley Mountain tunnel was the Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation based in Chicago, and whose operations, at that time, were limited to the United States and Europe. Later they would open a plant in India.
This is the region of the breastbone, Rukeyser writes. This is the heart (a wide white shadow filled with blood).
According to Rukeyser’s FBI file, 121 pages long and initiated because of her association with writer’s groups of ‘Communistic’ tendencies, The Book of the Dead “deals with the industrial disintegration of the peoples in a West Virginia village riddled with silicosis … she is against everything in any organization which represents the brutal life of enforced regimentation and national slavery.”
The night before Passover, my children sit on the floor of the living room, their plague masks hitched high on their heads, ready for use. They have safety scissors in their hands and they are cutting sheet after sheet of snowy construction paper into tiny shards. We’re making hail, my son reports. He holds up a bit of paper and squeezes it until it is hard as a small marble. Passover is coming and he wants to do his part for the plagues. He and his younger sister carry their armfuls of hail into their room to demonstrate their activity. They climb on chair and dresser and reach for the ceiling, holding piles of crumpled paper in their hands. With their free hands they lower their masks and ready themselves to act out a miracle.
Gauley Mountain in West Virginia was narrow and there was nowhere for the dust to fly except into the workers’ throats. The miners’ breathing grew short and tight and their lungs sharpened into fibrous nodules. X-rays measured their life spans in months, days. Their chests bled silica white: A snowstorm struck their lungs.
My children open their hands and hail falls from the sky.
Eighty years ago, at the end of each workday, hundreds of Gauley Mountain miners would drink from cups of water thickened with white dust, slap the dust from their clothes and hats, and empty their pockets of the dust as they walked to their houses. They left trails of silicate snow behind them wherever they went. When they came out of the tunnel, that narrow white place, they were not liberated. They walked home dying.