Saturday, October 20, 2012

Samedi: Ghost Stories

Today's story comes, not from my family tradition, but from my husband's. My father-in-law grew up in the south-east of Pennsylvania where coal mining is a long-standing profession and a burden at the same time. The seams run deep in that most northerly portion of Appalachia, and even those - like my father-in-law - who never went down into the darkness, were touched by the gritty stories that came out of the collieries.

This tale tells of a young man named Daniel whose family had, since time-in-memorial, been coal miners. Dan had no desire to descend into the pits, but time and circumstance caught up with him. When things went bust in Hazelton after the coal miner's strike, Dan lost his job as a clerk at the company store. He and his young wife Mary had just bought a small cottage along the main road and Mary was expecting in the fall. The bosses brought in men they knew would side with them if trouble arose again and left the hard-scrabble job of mining to the upstart locals.

Dan had no choice. He gathered up his uncle's gear and followed his two brothers into the mine.

Dan's brothers, Lew and Jerry, were both older and Lew had made his way up to the more lucrative position of fire boss. They took their baby brother under their wing knowing that their long dead parents - God rest their souls - would haunt them if they didn't look after Danny. Lew made sure Dan worked at Jerry's elbow in the bottom pit where you had to stoop all day for the low ceiling and you stood in water up to your ankles.

The two were happy together though, telling jokes and reminiscing, and they always tried to stop for dinner just when Lew could join them. They'd pull the cold roast or chicken that their wives wrapped in waxed paper out of their dinner pails and chuckle together as they ate. One evening, after Dan had been in the mine for some weeks, Jerry ventured to ask a question.

"You ever heard of the death watch, Danny?"

Lew's expression changed. His dark brows met over his falcon nose. "Jerry..."

"He should hear about it. What if - "

"Jerry!" Lew's voice echoed down the seam.

"What's the death watch," Dan asked through a mouthful of baloney. "Some of you stand up for us all?"

"Nothing like that. It's a watch." Lew pulled his pocket watch out of his threadbare tweed coat. "Lost they say by an old timer."

"A-yeah," Jerry continued. "He got blown to bits in the closed seam when Dad and Uncle Hugh were here. They found every scrap of him, but not his watch. Now they say, men about to die here a ticking that doesn't match their own watch. Within twenty four hours..." Jerry made the sound of dynamite ripping the earth in two.

"Enough, Jerry." Lew could see the terror on his youngest brother's face. "Nerry ya mind, Danny," he took another bite of his apple. "Didn't I say I'd look after ya? Wouldn't Ma and Dad want it that way?"

"God rest their souls," Jerry and Dan said simultaneously. "Besides which," Dan added. "You're pulling my leg and no mistake. I never heard Dad speak of - "

Just then the whistle blew. "Dinner's done," Lew said, closing the lid on his pail. "Back to work you loafers."

And so the days turned into months and years. Dan came not to love his job but to tolerate it. Seeing Mary happy and his son David growing by the day made it worth the while. But stories started to pile up of men who had died, and then men Dan knew became part of those stories. Henry in the three seam was buried in a cave-in after telling his partner that he'd heard a weird ticking sound. Henry, it was revealed after his death, had never carried a watch. Then Henry's partner said he heard the ticking too and sure enough a day later an explosion took his life.

No one talked about it much, the death watch: how it had no set pattern, how it popped up all over a ten acre mine, how it didn't spare young or old, how death stalked them all. The men just went to the funerals and held their hats in their hands. But everyone kept their ears peaked for that dreaded sound: tick... tick... tick...

Dan continued a non-believer, though. The very idea of a death watch made him wonder if too much time in the mine made a man go daft.

Three weeks after Henry's partner's funeral Dan found himself on his own. Jerry was sick in bed with the influenza and Dan didn't mind pulling double work. The sickness was bad. Men died just as surely of flu as they did of cave-ins. "There's been no sign of that horrible sound though," Dan murmured to himself as he shuffled to his spot. "Jerry will be -"

"Dan!" The sound of his brother's voice almost made him drop his dinner pale. "Danny! You gotta go home."

"Lew, what the hell?"

"You gotta go home," Lew said through gasps for air. "You gotta go home."

"Is it Mary? David - "

"No," Lew shook his head. "Listen now. I heard the watch on my rounds this morning. Before dark, Dan. I heard it. The watch ticking right here."

"Lew, com'on now. I can't miss a day's wage on a -"

"I heard it!" Lew's voice echoed down the seam. "Go on now. You're sick, you hear? Fever. Tell Mary too."

Dan saw the sheer terror in his brother's onyx eyes. "OK," he nodded, picking up his pail. "OK." With that he left, straight up the lift and home.  He ran through the heavy, gray fog of a fall morning, wanting nothing more than to hug his wife and son and sit near the hearth in his cottage.

But when he got there he found the place empty. After looking around he saw a note. Mary's writing was lovely and small: "Gone to Jerry's. He's worse than ever. David is with my Ma. ~ M."

Dan panicked. His brother, his closest brother, was near death and here he was home from work over a stupid legend. He pulled on his coat and ran out of the cottage, straight down the main street toward the train tracks. His brother's house was just on the other side but...

The coming train had tripped the lever and the barriers were down. Dan hesitated. The fog was thick but he couldn't see the train's light. Surely he could make it. Why stand here and wait? He dipped under the barrier, stepped onto the ties and -

Witnesses would later say that they thought the 7:30 flyer seemed to come out of nowhere that morning, straight out of the fog and gone. It wasn't until a search party, looking for Dan after his brother died after noon, found his boot near the tracks that the truth was discovered. He'd been hit by the train, and all that remained was his left foot and ankle in his boot on one side of the tracks. And his silver watch on the other.

Header: Men Leaving a Colliery by Gerald Palmer c 1914 via Wikipedia


Blue Lou Logan said...

That, my dear, was some fabulous storytelling!

Pauline said...

Creepy, isn't it? As if it wasn't bad enough working in a mine...

Timmy! said...

Great story, Pauline. My dad would have liked it too...