Rose Hill Cemetery
Black Diamond Mines, California
Hello stranger. I almost didn’t see you there –
perhaps it was your staring at the broke off base
where once my marker stood that caught my poor attention.
You see, I’ve rested here upon this hill since near
eighteen-seventy-five. I was but thirty-five
when the mine collapsed far underground and sent me here.
It was quick enough, that sand-stone block crashing
on my chest, an instant’s crushing pain and then
my life swept up and trundled off like all those carts
of coal my eight years there had filled and trucked away.
I came from Wales in eighteen-sixty-five, brought to
this land by the promise of fortunes in gold – a man all
of twenty-five with fifteen years of digging English
coal until I yearned for more of life. And so
I came, and so I found I was no good at seeking
gold. And so I stood before a California
coal mine boss to state my case and pledge to do
what I knew best…digging out his veins of coal.
I earned my keep twelve hours a day, six days a week,
digging black carbon rock to stoke the fires
of my new land and build the towns that rose to serve
the miners here. The towns were crude when I arrived,
but more miners came to take my place, and families
too. I know because, later on, others came
to share this graveyard space and on mild Sunday days,
people came quite often just to sit and talk
of their late family, mates and friends. Other days,
the winds that almost always blow would sing to us
and ripple green grass waves in Spring and harvest Summer
seeds to lie among the dry-brown thatch of Fall.
But then, sometime around nineteen hundred and five the mines
shut down and the towns closed up and almost seemed to blow
away. Anchored here, I couldn’t leave to see
the world outside and couldn’t know why there was
no more need for coal or even why, later on,
they mined for sand or why again, in forty-five,
they stopped. I could be wrong about the year, sometimes
I lose my sense of time as seasons pass bringing
change with only wind and rain and sun to touch
us here. I didn’t even notice the toppling of
my stone, broke and carted off to where I just
don’t know, but not here anymore. Others share
my fate and more, their markers gone with not a base
or line of brick to mark their meager turf. Some
survived, the larger stones and others plucked upright
again, repaired, reset, bearing silent witness
of our fate once more. The best preserved was set
last in nineteen-oh-five for someone coming back,
returning to lie with family and friends gone before,
remaining here still. Don’t know I even knew him, being
early here. Most came in between, like babes
and children from scarlet fever and women dead from bearing
young and men mostly from the mines caught
like me underground, crushed by broken stone
or drowned. Lying here, together – each story caught
on silent lips – the only sounds are from the wind
on trees and grass, or birds at rest on fence and limb.
And upon occasion, the curious, like you,
who climb our hill to trod upon our weathered ground and wonder
if we are all that’s left of four million tons
of coal and more of sand taken from these hills.
The towns are gone and even mines are underground
and out of sight, their miles of tunnels dark and cold
the same as us now sheltered here. Sometimes I wish
that I could see the land beyond my fenced off plot.
But would I understand your world more than I
do those thin-white streaks of clouds that etch the skies
like wakes of ships at sea; or those horseless wagons
that sometimes come bearing men and tools to tend
our lonely ground? No, Stranger, I think not.
Besides, it’s peaceful here with Spring come once again.
And birds yet sing their morning songs; and in the night,
the stars still chart their ancient course heavenward
while here I rest in God’s own grace and peace eternal.
Did you just stumble on my last sandstone brick?
That one is all the still remains of those that John
set here to mark our resting place. He brought one
or two each week, dug by his own strong hands
out of the sandstone core of the cold, dark underground.
He wanted me to be his wife, but my Pa would not
approve. Pa knew a miner’s life was hard and said
that I should save myself, move on and find another.
If not for John, I might have gone, although I really
don’t know where. Most women’s lot is to have kids
and raise them for their man. And anywhere I might
have gone, my task would have been the same – besides
I liked John and he loved me (he told me so,
so many times). With Mother gone, I had Pa’s
son and my two sisters yet to raise, so I
told John that we would have to wait. That winter, when
the fever came, my brother and youngest sister took ill.
Pa had to work the mine, so I tended them
day and night. It was harsh with so much else
to do, but I knew it would kill my Pa
to lose his only son so I did what I had
to do. It was hard, but he and my sister survived.
I was so tired – that must by why I caught it then
and why it took me so fast. I had no strength left
to fight it off and spent my last breath calling
John. My Pa had nothing much to pay a proper
preacher, so John and him dug my grave and built
the box to put me in and laid me here among
the rest. Each Sunday afternoon, John would come
to sit and talk about the week just past. And he
would bring a stone from the mine, dug and shaped
by his own hand to mark a square for me and,
he said, for him. It was hard to tell, but when
he left me there each Sunday, his step seemed lighter, his heart
less heavy. Through spring, summer and early fall he came
until, in late November, he brought the double stone
to set up in our square. On my side he had carved
my name, date of birth and date of death. The other
side he carved his own name – reserved, he said, for later.
That winter it snowed a bit, but every Sunday he
was there and I would stir against his presence and bade
the wind to speak his name. And then one Sunday nearing
spring, he came a final time. They bore him up
beneath a bright warming sun and sky of frosted
blue and laid him down at my left hand. And so
in death, we have lain together here as we
had not in life for near a hundred-twenty years.
Laura lies at my right hand – I insisted
that it be that way. So when the mine caved in
and laid me out, they brought me here and put me down.
In truth, my heart was here already – my love possessed
of her. And though my body walked and worked and prayed,
my mind was full of Laura’s soul. Her father was
a miner too and wanted better for his girl,
but there weren’t many better here than us the worked
the veins of coal. Five towns grew up within an hour’s
walk to house our folk, a company store and workmen’s
bars but not much else, for few would come so far
away from better places. And so we’d meet on Sundays,
she young and fair and me not too much her elder
so that I could hope that she would someday be
my wife. It was winter when the fever came
and medicines were scarce. She burned her life away
saving her brother and youngest sister. The last words
upon her lips, her father said, had been my name.
All were poor here abouts and I had little
to help her father out. I cut her name into
a board and set it at her head to mark her grave.
Each Sunday I would come bearing a sandstone brick
from the mine that I had cut and shaped to place
upon the ground to mark what would be our square.
Then I would sit a speak awhile and share the news
as I had heard of all that happened in our towns…
a poor replacement for her life but all I had
to offer her. Yet slowly I saved enough ‘til
finally I could buy a stone to proper mark
her resting place. I brought it here and set it up
myself and finished marking out our square. I must
have know what time I had – or else had held it off
so I could consecrate our space before the tunnel
ceiling fell. And so we rest together now in death
as we had not in life. Yet I am content,
Laura lying at my right hand side, awaiting
love’s renewal bright in God’s redeeming light.