Sunday, October 10, 2010

Listen ...Appalachian Justice

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Cedar Hollow, West Virginia, 2010

The stairway was much steeper than she remembered, dark and narrow, and the railings were not secure. Some of the anchoring bolts were missing and the banisters wobbled under the slight pressure of her hands. In the stifling humidity, paint was peeling off the walls, the same dark green paint she remembered from seventy years ago, the first and last time she had climbed the bell tower.

She was a slight woman, stooped gently by age, fine wrinkles mapping out a face that was still pretty in spite of the passage of time. One trembling hand gripped the unsteady rail and she paused to catch her breath, faintly dizzy from the exertion. She felt claustrophobic in the tower, as if the surrounding mountains were closing in, pressing down on the little hamlet, squeezing the very air out of the narrow access. From a distance, she could hear disembodied voices floating outside in the late spring evening. The funeral was over, but people still mingled, reluctant to leave.

Leaning against the rail, she smoothed flyaway strands of silver hair away from her face, tucked the wayward tresses back into the low bun she had worn nearly the whole of her adult life. In her memory, the locks were blonde, and it was pigtails into which she tucked them.

She had just placed her foot on the next step, preparing to resume her climb in spite of her misgivings, when she heard movement below.

“Good God almighty, woman! Have you gone plumb crazy?” The voice echoed in the narrow stairwell. “What in the hell are you doin’ up there?”

Recognizing the voice, she glanced down to see the worried faces of two old men peering up at her through the shadows, their expressions nearly comical in exaggerated concern, what was left of their remaining hair mirrored in identical shades of gray. Seventy years ago one had had hair as black as the coal that was mined throughout the mountains, while the other had been shaved bald, a consequence of a recent lice infestation in the village. She smiled to herself as she remembered that even then, both had been afraid of the bell tower.

Facing forward again, she surveyed the steep climb ahead before responding. “I have to ring the bell,” she answered finally, irritated that they hadn’t known. “It’s the right way to end it.” Resolute, she tightened her grip on the rail and coaxed her stiff knee joints to advance another step.

At the bottom of the rickety staircase the two old men looked at each other. One shrugged and the other sighed, adjusting the straps of his oxygen tank. Without a word they, too, began to climb, muscles quivering with the unexpected exercise. They paused often to rest; after a lifetime of mining, the coal dust made breathing difficult. Slowly but steadily they followed her up the precarious passageway, praying the steps would hold all the way to the cupola. In spite of the difficulty of the climb, they were determined to make it to the top.

She was right, of course. It was the only way to end the story.

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