‘The source of our fears’
Over the years, a number of people have asked why I’m so jumpy and nervous all the time. I’ve even been described as uncomfortable in my own skin. While unflattering, that characterization is pretty valid. If I’m not feeling particularly generous with my personal explanations, I just make up an excuse about it being a normal part of my temperament. That usually ends the conversation. I presume my brother and sisters have fielded the same question. It’s a reasonable thing to wonder about four paranoid adults like us but the disturbing truth comes with a tangled answer.
As my Papa ‘came clean’ to us years ago about a grave mistake he made in a moment of spiritual weakness, I’ve decided to share his story with you. Suit yourself over whether you believe it or not. Frankly I wouldn’t believe it myself but Papa had no doubt at all. Over time, his ironclad defense of the story went a long way toward convincing my siblings and I to keep glancing over our shoulders.
I was raised in less-than-ideal circumstances. Born into abject poverty in a rural part of Eastern Kentucky, my teenage parents struggled to make ends meet. Life was deeply religious in our part of the country back then. In that way, I suppose my upbringing wasn’t so different from others around me. Pa got work in a coal mine and Ma did housekeeping for rich people. My three siblings and I had plenty of chores ourselves to do around the tarpaper shack. It was the first thing we did after school in the evening. Papa didn’t have time. He didn’t get home until late. He was always covered in coal dust and coughed up copious amounts of blackened phlegm. It was the Appalachian working man’s burden.
I always felt bad for both my folks. The mine dust was rough on Papa, and Mama worked her fingers to the bone washing and cleaning. Then after working all day long for other folks, they came home and still had countless things to do. My brother and I couldn’t tote the wheelbarrow up to the house. It was too heavy. We just chopped the firewood and filled it full for use in the stove. Papa still had to bring it up to the house when he came home. Both of my sisters cooked and cleaned while Ma was working but washin’ clothes at the riverbank was something she had to take care of. Every day, the cycle of responsibilities would start over. The only day they ever had off was Sunday, and that was set aside for religious things at the church. They were very devout back then.
One Tuesday morning there was a horrible collapse at the mine. We all feared the worst. The story made the national news. Mama prayed for Papa to make it back to us but the mining company spokesman said the shaft was completely shut off. They had no air to breathe. In all, there were 23 men trapped in the mine for eight days. 23 households awaited a miracle but in the end, only one family got ‘the man of the house’ back. Ours. The other miners died. Either from the deadly collapse itself, starvation, fear, or from slow asphyxiation. There are no pleasant ways to pass on, but dying in a pitch black coal mine was surely one of the worst.
We were so grateful that he survived but at the same time, we felt terrible for the others. I went to school with several kids who lost their Papa. It was very awkward to celebrate our good fortune in the presence of the bereaving families. Ma warned us to be solemn and respectful around town, to avoid stirring up emotions in the less fortunate. We didn’t know it at the time but there was another reason for her call for discretion.
Reporters came a callin’ but Papa refused the speak to any of them about his harrowing ordeal. As a kid, he’d been locked in a closet by his old man as punishment for bad marks in school. He’d been terrified of the dark all his life but toughed it out every day to put bread on the table. We assumed the disaster was too painful for him to think about; or he was keeping quiet out of respect for those who didn’t make it. The truth was infinitely more sinister.
In a time when most people would assume my parents would become even more strong in their faith, they stopped going to church altogether. The folks around town started gossiping. Tongues wagged at our apparent lack of appreciation for him being spared. Instead of them being angry at the damn mining company for dangerous, unsafe working conditions, they resented Pa for being the only survivor! No one was willing to hire him after that. He was cursed in more ways than one. He had the ‘nerve’ to walk out of a collapsed mine shaft with no apparent contrition, while others paid with their lives. They had no idea of the truth of the matter.
My siblings and I couldn’t help but notice my parents’ unsubtle shift away from religion. Ma kept telling us to ‘let it go’ but finally one night, Pa broke his silence. He confessed to us that like all the other doomed souls trapped in that dark shaft, he prayed to the lord to be spared. He wasn’t ready to die and didn’t want to leave us financially destitute. No matter how fervent any of them were in their pleas, their prayers went unanswered. One by one, the others succumbed to injury, deadly mine gases, hunger, or a lack of oxygen.
Completely alone in the madness of death’s belly, Pa lost all hope. In his moment of greatest weakness and desperation, he gave up his faith, forever. He cast it aside like an old unused shovel. All the years spent praying in church for unity with God had been useless. The lord didn’t answer any of his pitiful cries. The miners were abandoned and in their tomb. For Papa to die alone in the cruel, closet-like darkness terrified him more than anything else in the world. Many of the perished men in the trapped crew were pious, God-fearing folks; and yet they had been forsaken in the end. If it was a test of loyalty or faith, their final reward was death. Their families were now fatherless. Papa grew frustrated and angry. In a pivotal moment of spiteful retaliation, he reversed the recipient of his pleas. He prayed to ‘the great adversary’ to spare him.
We were wide-eyed in terror at his startling confession but then it grew even worse. He began to sob and shake. He realized that his own life held no collateral value to strike a bargain with since he was near death. Through tears of shame and regret, he admitted that he offered ‘the lord of lies’ one of our lives in exchange for sparing his own! There was no verbal affirmation from the Devil in the encompassing darkness but immediately afterward, a rescue party reconnected the collapsed tunnel. No sooner than the betrayal escaped his lips, they freed him. Pa accepted that ‘coincidence’ as an undeniable confirmation; and that there was no backing out of their diabolical agreement. He firmly believed that at some unknown point in the future, the hammer would drop and the ultimate price would have to be paid for his freedom, by one of us.
To the day Pa died of black lung disease and Cirrhosis of the liver, he begged our forgiveness. Ma didn’t blame him and neither did any of us. Under unimaginable circumstances like those, many would’ve given into temptation and offered up horrible things to save themselves. As a man who kept his word with unwavering commitment no matter what, he fully accepted the consequences he believed that he brought upon my siblings and I. We all did. He and Mama turned their backs on the Bible from that day forward. Despite being an unrepentant prodigal to the very end, I think Papa drank himself to death as a form of subconscious penitence. He never forgave himself for “failing to accept death like a man.” Ma died soon afterward from a broken heart. They were interred beside each other at the town cemetery.
It’s been more than twenty years since the mine disaster. All of my siblings are still alive but we never talk about ‘the pact’. We’re older now and have experienced a much broader world than the fragile one we grew up in. I’d like to believe we’re immune from believing in the trappings of folktales and curses but the nagging fear still lurks in the back of our minds. It haunts my thoughts and colors my perception of seemingly innocent events. If I hear a strange noise or disturbing shadows on the wall, I wonder: “What if this is it?”, or “What if ‘he’ has come to collect his debt?”
We may never talk about it but I know my brother and sisters have the same lingering superstitious affliction. The irrational fear is inescapable. We’ll always worry that the reckoning day has arrived for one of us. It’s the source of our fears.
Submitted July 10, 2018 at 10:37PM by OpinionatedIMO