by Shelley Chernin
The Vigil © 2012 by Shelley Chernin
front cover art © 2012 by Jessie Herzfeld
first published 5/24/2012 as a small chapbook
(CC#24) by Crisis Chronicles Press
Lord Buddha attained enlightenment in Bihar
near ISM, the Indian School of Mines, in Dhanbad,
eastern Jharkhand state, Damodar River valley,
“The Coal Capital of India.” A city at the heart
of the coalfields of Jharia, its pulmonary veins
carry blood money to Tata Iron and Steel Company
Ltd. Its ground exhales the smoke of coal fires,
burning in the viscera, perpetual dyspepsia in
the second most polluted place in India.
In West Virginia, the Sago Baptist Church was founded in 1856 by Lucy Henderson, Hester Summerville, and others. Seventy years later, historian E.R. Grose would write:
This church has wielded a large influence in the lives of the Sago people. It has never been large in numbers but has stood faithfully for the best things in life; and only eternity can tell the influence it has exerted.
That’s a long time to wait, congregate. Youngsters in the first Sunday school competed to memorize scripture. L.B. Moore once recited two chapters of Matthew, left no time for the other children. At age twenty, Moore entered the Union Army, fought with Company B of the Tenth West Virginia Volunteer Infantry for three years. Wounded on the last day of the Siege of Petersburg, he returned home on crutches, joined the Baptist ministry ten years later. Company B lost fourteen to injuries and disease in the war. Moore founded a temperance society, preached against hard cider. Others went out as ministers from Sago Baptist, which first held services in the old log schoolhouse, on the river bank, at the chestnut tree. Many hearts beat there, and in the 1873 white painted church-house that became Mr. Burner’s barn twenty years later.
Rutajit studies mining engineering at ISM, plays
cricket on collegiate fields. His stomach growls
on fasting days; he snacks on sabudana khichdi
made from sago, pith of cycas revoluta, pearls of flour
leached of natural toxins. The recipe is simple:
Soak the sago overnight, melt ghee, brown chiles
and cumin seeds and maybe potatoes too, add soaked sago,
cook until crisp. Garnish with coconut and cilantro.
Do not cover the pan or the sago conglomerates
into one lump. Sago thickens like tapioca and plots.
Despite popular myths, white sago is no purer
than the light cream variety. Rutajit feels full.
Sago Baptist Church is the point where trapped miners’ families gathered on pins and needles to wait for their loved ones to surface. Neighbors brought glazed hams, potato salad, and homemade black walnut apple cake with vanilla icing. The children ate. Red Cross workers brought cots, blankets, and Tylenol. Pastors Day and Barker, joined by Pastor Murrell of The Way of Holiness Church of Buckhannon brought hymns and scriptures, read Romans 8:28:
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.
Families watched the mine entrance across the street. President Bush offered his prayer: May God bless those who are trapped below the earth, and may God bless those who are concerned about those trapped below the earth. Bush, Murrell, and Day asked us all to pray, so prayers circulated like oxygenated blood down through the national arteries, branched into our capillaries, in search of miners’ cells.
Rutajit’s name means “Conqueror of Truth.” Hindus permit
debate on the existence of God. His parents congratulate
their future mine safety expert. A “mining accident”
is any accident that happens in a mine. If five or more
people die, the accident is called a “mining disaster.”
Rutajit loves science and his girlfriend, not words. His heart
pounds, but he does not pray the first time
his class enters Bagdigi Mine. Twenty-nine men died
in a flood there in 2001, he learns. Inside the mine are signs
of concern: Coal dust hai kahtray ki naani, is mein chheeto
hardam paani. (Coal dust is the grandmother of all dangers,
always sprinkle water on it.) Dust and ashes
are cognate. If footprints are visible on the mine floor,
fine particles can explode, produce 200 mile per hour winds,
dispersing additional dust from walls and overhead
beams. There can be secondary explosions, fires. Anything
that can burn in bulk can explode when powdered
and mixed with air. Coal, wood. Churches.
Westboro Baptist Church is down in the basement of Reverend Fred Phelps’ home in Topeka. Twenty members trekked to West Virginia for the miners’ memorial service. A holy pilgrimage. Their leaflets blasted Sago Baptist Church
for blasphemously misrepresenting the sovereign, predestined providences of The Almighty in the Sago Mine matter.
They proclaimed God’s absolute power to cause or prevent tragedy, abused the bereaved for the sin of failure to rejoice in God’s tragedies. Human compassion ignores the logic. At the core, faith is thick and dark as a coal mine, burns like fossil fuel. When the dead miners’ families misbelieved that all but one lived, they celebrated their miracle, danced and sang. Pastor Murrell said after that it was like they had experienced The Resurrection.
In the month after the Sago disaster, four more
miners died in mining accidents in West Virginia.
Like miscooked sago, the flow of names congeals.
Rutajit knows a story. On May 28, 1965, an explosion
and fire in the Dhori Colliery in Dhanbad killed
more than 400 miners. Deep inside, heat blasted the mine
to darkness, blew off eyeglasses, burned off brows. The air
coagulated. The men died in denseness, unable to see
their own hands. Thick in prayer.
Shelley Chernin is a 59-year-old freelance researcher, writer, and editor of legal reference books. She lives in Russell, Ohio (aka Novelty, proving that the US Postal Service once had a sense of irony). Her poems have appeared in Scrivener Creative Review, Rhapsoidia, What I Knew Before I Knew: Poems from the Pudding House Salon-Cleveland, the Heights Observer, the 2010 through 2012 Hessler Street Fair poetry anthologies and the Cuyahoga Burning edition of Big Bridge. She received the 2nd Place award in the 2011 Hessler Street Fair Poetry Contest and Honorable Mentions in the Akron Art Museum’s New Words Poetry Contest in 2009 and 2010. Her latest book, Oct Tongue -1, (2014, Crisis Chronicles Press) is a collaboration with Mary Weems, John Swain, Steven Smith, Lady, John Burroughs and Steve Brightman, Yes, of course, Shelley plays the ukulele. Who doesn’t?