Ghosts on the Coal River



I hadn’t realized my friend’s dad was still living.
But he is, she tells me, he’s eighty-three.
You know where the high school burned down?
He lives across the river there.
Her mother died three years ago. How is the dad doing now?
He’s alright, but he sees these ghosts.
He lives across the river from where the school burned down.
Now in the evenings with the lights of the coal processing plant,
everywhere around him is lit up like a big
empty city. Like a house where everyone went out
but left all the lights still burning on.

Before it burned, the high school was “consolidated,”
shut down, since only a handful
of students were left by the end.
A familiar story for towns in these mountains,
a story that seems to flow
right along with the story of the mountains being scraped for coal,
the valleys smothered in rubble, the streams going sterile,
stories streaming as naturally together as the river,
all carried by the same cold current.

Four hundred people crowded the gym
for the public hearing about shutting down the school.
They stayed to speak till two a.m., which is when the superintendent
called them all “river rats,”
said “Come up the river”—to the city school—
“and be a winner for once.”

“How often do you see him?” I ask my friend.
I’m talking about her dad, but at first she thinks I mean the ghost.
We both laugh, but the truth is
I believe in ghosts on this river.
Or, I believe in unseen things that are part of this air
and will not let us forget what has happened.
I almost want to talk about how good it is
that they agitate us to make us look to the living,
to the bittersweet of the here and now,
and dig in our heels while we still have them.
I want to talk about how I also believe in the living,
but I need to keep thinking about ghosts.

You cannot know when they will appear,
sometimes days can pass, weeks, or months before they do,
but then other times it might happen daily.
When a ghost slips in around the side of the doorframe,
I want to stand still in the middle of its famous chill
and feel it go right to my bones.
I want to feel nothing but the shiver
of what isn’t here,
of what has gone.


Julia Sendor helps run a small farm in Hillsborough, North Carolina.  After working as a journalist and community organizer in southern West Virginia, she returned to her home county to grow vegetables, milk cows and goats, and freelance for The Charlotte Observer.

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