Chapter XXXI – Lillian Has A Dream

Coal Dusters

Chapter XXXI

Lillian

Has A Dream

The remaining people stepped back as the fire truck from the mine pulled up. The water pressure was much stronger than the hand pump the men had been using and the remaining flames were quickly doused.

The fire did spread slightly to both buildings on either side of the company store but the men managed to keep the damage to a minimum. As the fire cooled there were abrupt pops and small explosions from the charred debris of the store.

“Canned goods.” her uncle explained.

He left her and went to talk to the men who were containing the blaze. All that remained of the store was a portion of the front under where the windows had been and the metal front door frame. 

“Where will you go?” Lillian asked Mrs. Seldon.

“I … I hadn’t thought of that. I’m sure Mr. Bowden will be able to find accommodations for us.”

“And after this?” Father Patrick asked.

“We lost everything in the fire.” Mr. Seldon wiped soot and sweat off his face. “So packing our possessions to move won’t be one expense we’ll have to face. I don’t mean to sound bitter, Miss McTavish, but it’s not as if I’m responsible for company decisions. The place they should have set fire to isn’t even on this continent.”

 

Fatigue washed over Lillian. More than anything she longed to go up to her bedroom in Boston, draw a hot bath and wash off the grime of the day. 

“I will return to the rectory now Father Pat.” she told her uncle.

“Yes, do so my child. Your fortitude impresses me when I least expect it to. We will have much to talk about in the morning. Can you manage to get home on your own?”

“I’ll see to it that she gets back safely Father Pat.” Manny O’Dowell approached them dabbing at his face with a kerchief he pulled from his back pocket. All it did was move the grime around his eyes. 

Similar to most of the men around her Manny was smeared with soot. His clothes were wet from helping with the pumper that had doused the flames. The fire was contained now.

“Sorry about m’appearance ma’am.” Manny said.

“Lillian?” Father Patrick asked nodding at Manny. 

“Yes uncle he’ll do fine, that is if you aren’t too tried from helping here.” Lillian took a clean rag from her apron and wiped some of the soot off Manny’s face.

“No ma’am. It isn’t that far, really.” He grinned.

She and Manny walked along Chestnut Avenue to the turn that would take her home.

“That a mighty brave thing, miss, that you done.”

“Thank you, Mr. O’Dowell.”

The sky was cloudless above them.

“The stars look so close.” Lillian said stopping to looking up. 

“Yes, miss. But a clear sky is often a sign of a storm coming soon.”

They continued on their way.

“You can tell?” she asked.

“Something you learn to see.” Manny explained. “Some can read signs in their bones. The way they ache moments before a thunderstorm.”

“I expect there’ll be a many aches tonight after what’s happened.”

“Too true there miss. But the color of the sky … ”
“How long have you been in the mines Mr. O’Dowell?”

“A few years now Miss. Pa said I had to know how the men earned their money so I could value it more when they spent it in our stores.”
“Do you know a … Birk Nelson?” she asked.

“Sure Miss. His pa, Blackie is in charge of the boilers at the colliery. Blackie’s a decent man but that Birk is a true Christer. Sorry miss … sorry about my language.”

“We’re all a bit tired from the day, Mr O’Dowell.”

“That’s no excuse. Why you asking about that ch … I mean … Birk. He thinks with his fists, if you understand what I mean. He acts reckless but he’s a decent sort, I suppose, for an orange bast … for a Protestant, I mean.”

“It was he who rescued me from the fire.”

“Wished it was me, miss.”

“He lives in the … “

“Bloody Mudder … I mean Mudside. That’s what we call their area Miss, cause it turns to mud when it rains. Yes, he lives there.”

“I suppose he’s one of the one with two kids already, too.”

“Oh, no miss. Lives with his folks. His brother Geo got hitched a some … a few months ago. Moved to Alberta for real work. Things so bad they had to take in a roomer too. Clancy … not sure what his last name is. He’s a mainlander, so I don’t even know who is father is.”

“Works in the mines too? Clancy, I mean.”

“Yes miss. He got my old job workin’ as Birk’s rake man. Birk as some sore about that. Me getting out from under the ground. His sport was born a mine rat and will stay a mine rat forever, if you ask me.”

“Mine rat?” Lillian hadn’t heard that expression before. 

“Yes miss. The mines is full of vermin that gets born down there. Sometimes they are born blind, they don’t need to see anyhow just smell.”

Lillian shuddered. “Not an easy life for them. From what I’ve heard the miners never had enough of anything.”

“Those in Mudtown gets what they deserved does them orange bast … sorry miss.”

They were at the front door of the rectory. The church hall doors were still open and the lights were on.

Lillian didn’t feel it was her duty to worry about these matters. She wanted to rest. Perhaps finish that letter to her brother. She had so much to tell him. The fire, the daring rescue. Then she remembered she was dead.

“Thank you for seeing me home Mr. O’Dowell.”

“Manny, if you please.”

“No, for the present I think it will remain Mr. O’Dowell.” Lillian recognized that look in his eyes. What was it about men that even a casual conversation with a woman would lead them to believe any further familiarity was invited or even wanted?

“Yes Miss McTavish.” His shoulders slumped. “It’s been a great pleasure to … have a … conversation with you.”

He shook her hand and walked into the night. She forced herself to go into the hall to turn the lights off and close the doors. There were papers, empty bottles, cigarette littering the floor but she would leave those for the church’s clearers to tend to. She left the windows open to allow the night breeze to clear away the smell of cigar smoke.

In the rectory she went up to her room intending to rest a moment before washing for bed. Her shoes smelled of smoke as she pushed them off. She lay on the bed and fell asleep immediately.

She dreamt that she had taken the train back to Boston. One off the train she ran from he station to her house but it wasn’t on the street where she remembered it was. She asked strangers where number 56 was and they looked at her blankly.

She up and down the street but there was no number 56. She saw people she recognized but none of them knew her. Over the shoulder of one of them she saw across the street to the front steps to her house. She rushed dupe the steps and put her key inot the door.

When door swung opened she was greet by the familiar smells of fresh cut flowers from the sitting room, the smell of cooking from the kitchen. She called out that she was home from Cape Breton, That she’d brought gifts of bread and jam for every. She’d baked the bread herself. 

Her mother appeared from the living-room dressed in black.

“Lillian is that you or is it a ghost?” Her mother stepped back fearfully.

“No Mother it is Lillian. I’m very much alive. Learning to bake bread didn’t kill me after all.” She reached out to embrace her mother.

“What do you think you are doing Lillian McTavish.” The figure of her mother had become Father Patrick. She was no longer in her Boston home but in front of the alter at St. Agatha.

Father Patrick was addressing the congregation from his lectern and pointing to her. All the parishioners were looking at her.

“She that has tasted of sin will never receive the life everlasting.” Her uncle was shouting. Spittle flew from his mouth, dribbled down his chin. Smoke rose around her. 

She woke gasping for air and pulling at the neck of her night-gown. She sat up in the bed and saw where she was. It was her room in the rectory. The smell of the fire on her clothes was strong. She got up and opened the window to let in some fresh air. Back in the bed she fell back to sleep.

The morning light was coming through her window when she awoke with a start. The clothes she had slept in itched. The room still smell of the fire.

She could hear noises from below. By the quality of the light she knew it was well past her uncle’s breakfast time. 

She shoved her feet into her shoes. The backs of her hands where slightly burnt. She hadn’t noticed that in her excitement during the fire.

She went downstairs to the kitchen. Her uncle was seated in his usual chair at the kitchen table.

“I’m sorry Father Patrick … I …”

“That’s quite all right my dear. After the ordeal of yesterday anyone would need a good night’s sleep. The people of Castleton Mines have been expressing their gratitude for your daring act last night. Sit.” he vacated his chair for her.

She sat. 

“Let me express my own gratitude by serving you.” He place a cup of tea before her. “It is the English, which I know you prefer over the Ceylon. Your egg will be ready in a moment, as well.”

“Father Patrick!”

“Your actions last night have made me aware that my judgements of you may have been harsher than necessary. You have changed greatly from the sullen, silly girl who arrived here some months ago. The Mother Superior believes you have all the qualities needed to be a fine nun. At first I wasn’t so sure but now I am convinced. Your brave willingness to sacrifice your life in order to save that child is what true martyrs are made of.”

“Martyr!” Lillian blushed. She wasn’t interested in becoming a martyr. “I didn’t do that to be a martyr but to … I want to be seen as a person, not as a burden. Not a daughter whose innocent indiscretion is such a family shame she is dead to them. I want to be free to be myself.” She gulped her tea.

“Granted, but one can only truly find themselves though the intercession of Our Saviour.”

Lillian wanted to laugh, to scream but contained herself.

“Yes Father Patrick. The way is becoming clearer to me.”

“As I prayed it would. I have tended to the water heater so there will be ample hot water if you wish to avail yourself of it before you attend to your household chores.”

“Thank you Father Patrick.”

She went into the bathroom and filled the tub. While it was filling she went to her room for clean underthings and a fresh pinafore. She unwrapped the last of the Castile rose soap she had brought from Boston. Another tie to her past now washed away.

She sat in the tub and undid her hair. She lay back allowing it to float on the water. 

The water quickly darkened with the soot from the fire, with the oils of her hair. When had she last washed it? Weeks? Months? She had no reason till now. She was sure that Birk Nelson would enjoy the smell of her hair.

One she was dry she rubbed lotion onto her burned hands. Refreshed she luxuriated in clean clothes. She went to the bin of cast-off clothing collected for the miner’s families. On the top of it were some shirts and trousers of her uncle’s. Clothes she had recently repaired even though they no longer fit him. She selected a shirt and a pair of dark grey pants. 

She wrapped them in brown paper with a note. One the package she wrote “Birk Nelson.” Finding his house shouldn’t be too hard for as brave lass as her.

 

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Chapter XXX – Lillian to the Rescue

Chapter XXX

Lillian

to the Rescue

From the front parlour window Lillian watched the men gathering at St. Agatha Hall for the union meeting. She wondered why it was only men who went into the Hall. Why were their wives made to wait outside at such times? After all the decisions made here would effect their lives as much as the men’s. 

She hoped to see the hairy miner in the crowd but didn’t notice him. Her memory of him was vague at best. She had been unwilling to actually focus on him the few times they had met in passing. It wasn’t fitting for her to pay much heed to any of the Protestants in Castleton. His dark eyes and unshaved face made her shudder. What if he was too … animalistic for her purposes. Perhaps the Convent would be a better option. No! That decision could wait until she’d had a good look at the man himself.

Without changing out of her apron she left the rectory and went around the back of the Hall to a spot near one of the open windows of the Hall to hear what was being said. She couldn’t see over the heads of the man leaning on the inside sill. She recognized voices. Her uncle’s, that union man. If Birk spoke up she doubted if she’d recognize him. It was clear they wouldn’t be going back the mine that very night or in the near future. She hoped the rectory had enough fuel for the hot water heater. 

After confused, angry shouting the men began to move en masse. They went from being a disorderly but listening crowd to a mob. She joined some of the wives who had been stationed outside, to follow at a safe distance. A few men at the edge of the mob were drinking, shoving and fighting among themselves.

Father Patrick and Reverend Brown stood at the hall doors calling for the men to come back to finish the meeting. 

The men were chanting. “The Pluck Me. The Pluck Me.”

The mob gathered in front of the company store. She had been in the store several times before the strike began but only once since. Mrs. Seldon, wife of the store manager was also from off-island and had never gelt the local had accepted her. She had given Lillian a much needed listening ear when she first arrived in New Castleton. If there was some new patterned fabric she would send for Lillian in hopes of selling her some. Lillian loved to look at and handle the material but could only afford to dream.

They had spent evenings going through the Eaton’s catalogue looking at and longing for the various shoes, dinner wear and household items. They both were taken by the new washing machine that would reduce the amount of work needed to wash and wring out the clothes. With the birth of her son, Charles, Mrs. Seldon said she could use two of those machines to keep up with dirty nappies.

She felt a surge of powerless as she saw Mrs. Seldon shout from the second story window to discourage the men from taking any violent actions. When the men began to tear the boards protecting the plate glass windows she was faint. The men had gone from humans to animals as they attacked the front of the store.

  Boards were quickly pulled loose, the windows broken and the men clambered into the store through the sills, heedless of the crunch of glass underfoot. They were ants swarming over an apple core in the garden. First one, then two, then what seemed like hundreds of them. Like the ants with crumbs, the men were departing with bags of flour, bolts of fabric, barrels of things; carried in their arms, on their backs. The women joined in the clearing tins of food off of the shelves of the store.

She could hear Mrs. Seldon weeping and pleading with them. A couple of the wives dragged her out of the store and shoved her into the lane between the buildings opposite the store. The Seldon’s new born was wailing from the upstairs room. A fire broke out in the back of the store. The men were heedless of danger as they continued to pull out goods and disappear into the night with them.

She could no longer see Mrs. Seldon. The wails of the baby got louder. 

“You have to do something!” she grabbed one of the miners. “There’s a child up there.”

“Not my look out.” The man pushed past her. “I didn’t leave it behind.”

Lillian scrambled up the outside stairway that led to the rooms above. The unlocked door opened into the living-room. Smoke had filled the room. It stung her eyes. She covered her mouth with her apron and made her way to the corner where the crib was. She grabbed at the writhing child, wrapped him in a swaddling blanket and got him into her arms. The baby kicked and cried even louder.

Flames were now spurting through the floor boards around the edges of the carpet. As she got to the door, the floor began to collapse under her feet and into the store beneath. She prayed at least one of the miners would be caught in the inferno. The thought made her shiver with guilt.

Her apron caught on the door frame and she couldn’t pull it loose. She couldn’t let go her hold of the child as she tried to protect it from the sparks that rained on them. The smoke and heat made it impossible for her to see where the apron was caught. Her heart raced. She feared this was her doom. The landing where she balanced on the outside stairs began to smoulder. Another section of the floor in the room behind her crashed into the store. 

Clutching the baby in one arm she fumbled at the apron to see where it was caught. Maybe if she could untie it she could get loose. Struggling she began to mutter, “Our Father who art …”

A man appeared beside her out of the smoke. She couldn’t see his face.

“Oh! Thank God. My apron …” 

He reached behind her, ripped the apron free and dragged her down the stairs while trying to shield her and the baby from a new barrage sparks that fell on them as the roof collapsed into the building.

She glimpsed flames darting through the very stairs and around their feet as they stumbled down. The hem of her skirt began to smoulder. Flame burned her ankles. As they leapt from the next to last step the stairway collapsed and was swallowed by flame.

Hands grabbed them the moment they were off the stairs. The man kept her close to him until they were in the crowd. There was a scattering of applause as the mob parted to let them make it to safety. They were steered to a bench in front of the iron foundry across from the company store.

“Thank you. Thank you.” Lillian said to the man as she sat down. “I was preparing to meet God.” She gasped for air and coughed as she breathed in the smoke around them.

She set the baby on the bench beside her and opened the covers to make sure it was alright. It starting kicking and giggling as the swaddling was loosened. She picked it up and began to rock it gently.
“As was I, miss, as I ran up those steps. The closest I ever wants to come to the mouth of Hell.”

She rubbed her eyes with the sleeve of her free arm. They were clear enough for her to look at the man who had rescued her. His soot streaked face was familiar to her. It was her hairy miner.

“Thank you again.” She paused trying to recall his name. “I … we’ve met before, I think?”

“Think nothing of it, Miss. If it weren’t me, one of the others would have done the same.”

“What is your name? Please, so …. my uncle will be anxious to thank you himself, I’m sure. Father Patrick.”

“We have met a few times afore Miss, but were never prop’ly introduced. M’name is Birk Nelson.” He shook cinders out of his hair onto the ground. 

“I’ll most probably need a hair cut after this.” He grinned foolishly. “Thought it was going to burn off my head for a bit there.”

The very man she had been thinking of earlier in the day had rescued her! Was this God’s answer to her prayers for a way out of her situation? What clearer sign could one ask for? Moses had his message written in flames for him, too. Here was her’s. A commandment to marry.

She saw her uncle at the edge of the crowd. She waved to him.

“You must let me …” 

“Miss, I must be going. I sees that you and the babby are safe. I’ll let your kin look after you now.”

“No. Where … ”

He was gone before she could find out where he lived. She knew it had to Mudside. It shouldn’t be too difficult to find him there.

“Lillian!” Her uncle put his arm around her shoulders and helped her stand. “Are you all right?”

“I had to … to save Charles, the baby.” She loosened her hold on the infant. The child began to cry. “It is the Seldon’s.”

The Seldon’s weren’t parishioners of her uncle’s so she had kept her friendship with them to herself till now.

“You mean you went into that inferno to save their child?”

“Yes, Uncle. I was caught myself on the door by my apron and was in need of rescue. One of the miners risked his life.”

“Considering this was all their doing, it was the least one of them could do. I can’t imagine they wanted to add your death to their ill-considered actions.”

“Lillian!” Mrs. Seldon pushed Father Patrick aside. “Charles! You have saved Charles. I was so afraid he had been trapped in the fire.” She began to weep. “I tried to get back in but they held me back.” She took her child and began to rock it. 

Most of the mob had dispersed, satiated by their stolen goods. Some remained to bask in the glow of their handiwork. Lillian found it hard to breathe in the smoke and heat.

Mr. Seldon arrived with several other men. Lillian recognized one as Mr. Bowden, one of the mine managers.

Another group of men appeared pushing a large cart with a some sort of pump apparatus. A hose ran from it to the harbour. They began to pump and water trickled out in spurts to put out the flames.

“The best pumper is on company property.” Her uncle explained. “The miners won’t cross their picket lines to get.”

More men appeared with pails of water that they were throwing on the walls of the buildings on either side of the company store. Mr. Bowden motioned two of the miners over and they ran to the colliery with him.

“With the strike no one has been able to get to it.”

“Too late. Too late.” Mrs. Seldon sobbed. “We lost everything, for what! No one can make a profit from destruction.”

“It’ll be all they can do to keep the fire from spreading.” Mr. Seldon said. 

“How could men do something of this nature?” Lillian asked. “To make things worse solves nothing.”

“Often human passion can even drown out the voice of our Creator.” Father Patrick said.

“Some of these were men I’ve seen at Mass. I would never have imagined them capable of this kind of action.”

“Hunger, Miss McTavish.” Mr. Seldon said shaking his head sadly. “Can’t say as I can blame them but this isn’t going to help there cause.”

She watched in dismay as the back wall of the store wavered then crumbled in on the fire. 

The air hung heavy with the smells of burning mixed with the odd sweetness of things that had been incinerated in the store as it burned. 

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Chapter XXIX – Birk to the Rescue

Coal Dusters

Chapter XXIX

Birk to the Rescue

When Birk and Clancy got to St Agatha’s that night the meeting hall was jammed. Men were standing squeezed in all around the room. The windows had been opened to allow for some air. But the breeze barely moved the cigarette smoke that hung over their heads. There wasn’t room for the tea trolly even if the men had wanted tea in the heat. Some were drinking and sharing from their own bottles of refreshments. 

Alf Landen, the MLA was there once again, so every one knew this was to be more important than the last few meetings. He was talking quietly with William Gregory, Father Patrick and Reverend Brown in the front row. There were no company representatives there. 

Gregory stepped to the small stage. “Men I think you all know Alf Landon.”

“Yeah,” came a shout from the back “Some of us were made drunk enough to vote fer him!”

There was laughter and cat calls.

“Save it.” Gregory motioned for them to be silent. “He has some news for us from the cabinet.”

Alf stepped up to the stage. He hooked his thumbs under his suspenders and cleared his throat. “Thank you Will. First I want to reassure you that I am on your side, men. I think the way the coal corporation is treating you is shameful. But I am only one voice in the house. Not everyone agrees with me. Also, let me say how pleased I am that the strike has remained peaceful.”

“Not fer much longer.” someone shouted.

“I wish I had better news for you but we, at the provincial level, are at an impasse with both the union and the mine management. In cabinet we discussed the issues and after heated augments I can assure you we can see no way to force a change in company policy. We’ve taken it to the federal level as well.”

“We know how the feds deal with unions.” someone shouted.

“How?” someone else called out.

“They send in the troops to trample the miners and their children.”

There were more cat calls from the audience.

“Men!” Father Patrick got to the stage. “This isn’t going to help your cause in any way. If both sides remain … unmoved … ”

“Yeah! What will help?” someone shouted over him. “Praying to the Lord Jesus only hurts m’ knees worsen workin’ in the mine for twelve hours.” One of the miners walked up to face Father Patrick. “At least I sees some coal for that.”

“Men. Men.” Alf stood on a chair. 

They silenced.

“There is something you can do. You can go back to work on the company’s terms. That has to be better than letting your families suffer. ”

“That isn’t goin’ to happen.” Someone shouted. “They was suffering on what we were making before, anyhow.” Another of the men said.

“Okay. Okay.” Gregory got the men’s attention. “Alf you know that is unacceptable.” He pulled Alf off the chair and got up on it himself. “There will be a march in Glace Bay on Saturday next. That’s eight days from now. We have union members coming from the mainland to show their support. The steel plant will be closed down for the day when our brother members there put down their tools and join us. We have to show them we mean business.”

“What we been doing these past weeks?” Birk asked. 

“You should talk,” one of the them men said. “Yer pa Blackie still goin’ in there, isn’t he. Shutting down them boilers will show them we mean business, too. Won’t it?”

“Men!” Alf said. “Damaging the pits themselves won’t do you any good. You won’t have anything to to go back to if the mine closes down because you did something foolish to the boilers and let the mines flood.”

“Easy for you say,” someone shouted. “You don’t have a wife and three kids at home with nothing to eat.”

“I knows one place where we can something to feed our families.” Jim McKlusky said. “We all do! The Pluck Me.”

“The Pluck Me.” The men took up the phrase and started to leave the hall.

“Wait! There’s decisions to be made.” Alf shouted.

“We made em. Answer is no.” one of the men said. “No! No! No! To same work for less pay.”

“The Pluck Me. The Pluck Me.” The men chanted as they left the hall en masse. They marched in a ragged mob along Chestnut Avenue to the company store.

Clancy and Birk followed at the back of the shouting men. McKlusky was pounding on the front door of the company store. Two other men had gone around to the back to make sure the manager, Daniel Seldon, didn’t slip away, down the outside side stairs. The front windows had been boarded over the week before. The only light came from a window on the second floor.

“He ain’ going anywhere.” Birk muttered. “Too much stuff inside. He’d never step away from a profit.”

“Open up, Seldon. Man, we know you’re in there.” McKlusky shouted. “We don’t want to harm you. We know it ain’ your fault wha’s goin’ on but we have families to feed too you know.”

The window on the second floor opened. It was to the left of the front door. A woman’s head stuck out. “Dan’l t’ain’ here.”

It was his wife.

“He’s gone up to the big office. He was sent fer at supper time. He ain here.”

“Then let us in mussus.” McKlusky stepped back to call up to her. “We means no harm to you and yours.”

“I canna let you in. It’d be the end of me. He dinna want this to happen. But he’s got no choice He’s sorry he ever let his brother talk him inta runnin’ the cump store. Swore it was easy money. But it isn’t. It isn’t. We has to pay for everything same as you do. Even if it don’ get bought and goes bad we still has to pay for it.”

Birk had never heard Mrs. Seldon talk for so long.

“In that case we’ll have to ….” McKlusky reached along the edge of a piece of the wood that boarded up the windows and gave it a strong heave. It creaked and started to come loose.

The other men joined him and the boards were quickly all torn off. The windows behind were then shattered. Three men kicked in the door and they streamed into the shop.

Birk glanced at Clancy to see if they were going to join in the pillaging. Clancy grinned and muttered, “Well, guess we might as see what tea they got stashed there, eh? Or you enjoying that lilac leaf tea?”

“I don’t know. Don’t feel right to me.”

He looked up and saw Manny O’Dowell struggle out of store clutching packages of cigarettes.

“If the mick’s are doin’ it I guess we might as well too.” Birk said.

“Stop! Stop!” Mrs. Seldon was screaming as she rushed down the stairs into the store. She was pulling at the shoulders of the men to get them to stop. “Please stop.”

Some of the wives had joined the men in going through the shelves. One of them went to Mrs. Seldon and smacked her and shoved her to the front door.

“You had that comin’ for a long time.” she said to Mrs. Seldon. “Be quiet or we’ll tie you up and leave you.” 

“There’s more in the root cellar.” The woman turned to the crowd. “That door is over here.” Two of the women yanked the door open and one of them went down and began handing up sacks of potatoes.

Birk and Clancy pushed their way to the section of dry goods, beans, flour. Things Birk knew his mother could make use of. With their arms full they shouldered their way back outside. There was a flicker of flame near the rear of the store. The flicker quickly got larger.

Men where pushing and shoving each other out of the store.

“Watch my beans.” Clancy put his arm load of cans down and dashed back into the building. 

Flames spurted out of the roof. A baby was crying loudly. Dogs were barking. 

Clancy came stumbling out in a billow of smoke. He was clutching two jars of penny candy under one arm and a can of tobacco under the other.

“Something for yer sisters. Something for us.”

“You …” Birk had been fearful that Clancy wouldn’t get out of the fire. “You got a nerve Clancy Sinclair. True nerve.”

He saw a woman dash up the side stairs of the store that lead to the second floor and into the building. She appeared moment later holding something and trying to shelter it from the flames. Her skirt got caught on the door jam and she couldn’t get it loose.

Without thinking Birk bolted up the stairs, tore her skirts free and rushed her down the stairs. Sparks showered on them as the roof began to collapse into the building. He could smell his hair burning as it was singed in the heat. There was some applause as he got her safely into the crowd.

She thanked him repeatedly staring into his face. Even darkened by soot he knew it was the priest niece. She insisted on getting his name. He told her. When she was waving her uncle over he slipped away.

“Didn’t think you had that in you Birk.” Clancy brushed ashes off Birk’s face.

“Think I’d stand here and watch someone burn up?” 

They gathered the stuff they had taken.

The crowd stood silently and watched the flames destroy the company store. Mrs. Seldon stood to one side sobbing as she rocked her baby.

The fire was still going when they went back to Birk’s house. 

“Say nothing of what happened.” Birk said.

“You mean you playing the hero? It was a good thing.”

“I don’t care. There’ll be no end of it once Ma knows.”

In the kitchen they laid out what they had grabbed in their haste. Mrs. Nelson sorted through the various cans and stuff they had.

“I don’t know Birk Nelson. I didn’t bring you up to be … a… hooligan who’d take advantage of people in this manner.”
“But Mrs. N. what good would it have been to let this food go up in flames. Ashes don’t do anyone any good.”

“Wise words Clancy. Rest assured those ashes aren’t going to do any one any good when word gets back to the coal company what was done.”

“Yes Ma’am.” 

“Best wash off that soot before you go to bed. Yer almost as black as ya are after coming from the pits.” She smiled and rubbed Birk’s forehead.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License


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The Great Fire

For the summer I’m going back to the series of pieces mythologizing my growing up in Cape Breton.

The Great Fire

we were awakened

but the resonant howl

of the harbour foghorn

deep endless 

blasts so rapid they overlapped 

 

away to the window I flew like a flash

the black of night was blacker

than the print in the red bible

no stars or moon to be seen

then

at the edge of my vision

I saw the flames

scatter sparks like leaves

into the sky

‘fire fire’

someone below was shouting

‘the great cathedral is aflame’

 

my father dashed out of house  

men from other houses followed suit

‘fire fire

we must save the relics’

I had this terrifying image

of the Moose at the foot of the cross

melting into a golden puddle

at the feet of the blessed one

everyone in our village

gathered to watch and pray

as the firemen did their job

the choir spontaneously burst into song

singing ‘The Moose and The Saviour’ 

 

the hoses were attached to the hydrants

only a trickle of water appeared

this was also the hour

the fission plant

was flushing out the their flow valves

when contacted

they refused to stop

because if the flow valves

were not flushed 

there would be hell to pay

 

we stood and watched

as our beloved

centuries old cathedral 

paid the price of prosperity

while the acolytes 

darted in and out of the flames

rescuing all they could

up and down the 10001 steps

like an army of ants

 

then from out of the smoke

the men from the Whistling Wood appeared

they danced around the fire

chanting

arms linked

the flames flickering & illuminating

their private parts

as a group they coiled up the steps

stopped

faced the flames

holding their flame framed privates 

began to piss on the fire

 

the stench of their burning urine

made many vomit

the naked men

began to pelt the fire

with moose dung

the stench of the burning shit

made many vomit

the flames began to die down 

in the steaming smother

of piss and moose shit

that oozed down the 10001 steps

 

the fire stopped

the naked men 

vanished into the mist

 

the next day

when the water pressure returned

the fire department

hosed down the ashes 

to wash it clean of the shit and piss

to reveal

no scorch marks

only glistening golden surfaces 

 

the cathedral

was whole again 

In Sydney we lived one street away from a fire station. We were occasionally awakened by sirens. There were a few big fires but none that we ever saw, unlike my hero. The worse, which happened after I left, was when Moxham Castle burned down – actually it was gutted by flame & then the brick shell collapsed. My experience of fires comes from movies. 

This entry in the Village Stories pulls on many threads of the mythology: the choir, the moose, the 10001 steps. I recently saw a documentary on the Windsor Castle fire in which people were rushing in & out of galleries saving the art. They weren’t regarded as reckless but as heroes. Oh no not the Faberge egg collection! 

I also had to take another poke at the fission plant and water. I have read of cases where, in some cities, the water pressure was so low thanks to ‘industry,’ fires couldn’t be put out – hence the invention flame suppressant foam. Yes I know fire engine pumpers supply the pressure but if there’s not enough water they are useless.

The praying & singing villagers make me think of those politicians who sent their thoughts & prayers at a time of crisis but that’s it until they tell people to be strong: i.e. don’t moan & bitch about your losses because we’ve done all we can by praying for you. Cheer up because your unhappy faces won’t make things better, neither will we.

I was happy to see a reappearance by the naked men of the Whistling Wood. They present a facet of male magic that isn’t destructive while at the same time isn’t pleasant. Often the things that rescue us have a cost one doesn’t expect. Like the dentist’s freezing – slurring & drooling for an hour is a cost. I also couldn’t resist that image of male private parts illuminated by the fire.

I love the way this ends with a miracle. The Villagers prayers were answered by the outcasts of the Whistling Wood. These men pissing on the cathedral have magically restored it. 

Hey! Now you can give me $$$ to defray blog fees & buy coffee in Washington at 2018’s capfireslam.org – sweet,eh? paypal.me/TOpoet

Fire

There’s nothing like a fire engine to wake me out of a sound sleep at 3 a.m. in the morning, especially when the siren stops right in front of one’s house. My window overlooks the street so I can’t escape the flashing lights. I get up & look out thinking what’s going on. I figure its the guy cross the street – he had a stoke a few years ago & the fire department came for that. I look out the window & fireman are coming up the walk to my house.

I get dressed & go down stairs. The front steps of my house are smouldering! The fireman tells me that there’s been a couple of fires set on the street. I get my partner out of his room. He comes down as the fireman deals with the smoulder. I think that because of the rain earlier the turf carpet on the steps was too wet to ignite. We check around the house, backyard, garage to make sure nothing else is smouldering.

stairs01

We give ‘statements’ to a policeman (would you lie a cool drink officer?). The fires are contained & the trucks pull away by 4 a.m. I take some Vitamin B, good for stress & fall asleep. I’m wakened by a radio reporter in his car across the street phoning in his story – yes he was that loud. Seems they were set within 30 minutes, one of which gutted an SUV. I check on line later in the morning & at that time, there were 6 reported fires in our area.

stairs02

During the morning CBC TV/Radio comes by to interview us. Do we feel violated? Do we feel safe? I get out for a little walk once the rain is done. Our mail deliverer has mail for us & tells us many of the houses have a 6 in their address – are we talking the plot of a CSI episode? I’m a writer so everything turns into story line.

stairs03

Later City TV comes by for an interview. I get more of the events from them than I knew. Fires started on our street, moved east &  south – some in recycle bins – some with real damage but no injuries. So far seven reported incidents. Suspects on bicycles, but no security camera footage found, yet, of them. First call was made by someone on our street who noticed my smouldering steps so perhaps this was the first house targeted. City asks: Do we feel violated? Do we feel safe? Actually I feel deeply grateful to the neighbour who called. I’ll sleep well tonight, living in fear isn’t for me.

sample

this is an old piece that seemed right for the occasion:

hard core porn

the fireman drags

a smouldering victim from

the raging inferno

a reporter arriving on the fire engine asks

how do you feel

how do you feel saving these lives

asking the people watching

how do you feel

how did it start

healing can’t begin

till you have been seen

on the morning news

 

media stalking

the shuddering shouldered parents

whose child has just dropped

ten stories to death

how do you feel

how did this happen

the world needs to know

tell us – you have to tell us

you can’t keep it to yourself

we have a right

freedom of the press

don’t hide behind your jacket

don’t shut the door on us

we’ll talk to your neighbours

you might as well give us the exclusive story

how deep is the wound

does it merit more than

sixty sexy seconds on the noon report

 

did you feel

shock disgust fear

what were you first thoughts

what are your thoughts now

I know we asked five minutes ago

isn’t that enough time

for you to feel completion

 

why aren’t there more cameras

why isn’t a reporter interviewing

the reporter who interviewed

the man who called the police

why didn’t he call the press first

 

how long have you been trapped under the car

how much blood have you lost

how does it feel to bleed to death

speak up

so our viewers can hear you

I’m sorry we seem to be losing contact

how does it feel to lose contact

with a interviewer

we have experts to fill you in

are last gasp comments

to be taken literally or merely

as the ravings of a dying mind

demanding to be left alone

 

here is footage of the actual event

watch and tell us how do you feel

as they suffocate

in that airless box car

without water or food for six days

the security camera caught it all

how does it make you feel

next we’ll talk to the makers of the camera

to the makers of the box car

what could have been done

to prevent this tragedy

 

how can healing begin

when you keep scratching at the wounded

picking for fresh sound bites

for the ten o’clock news

 

November 1 – 30 Participating NaNoWriMo
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