Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Buck’s Baksheesh

by Maureen Kingston

The tar lake that was once our mountaintop is now a vast fly trap, catcher and dissolver of all that passes by. “Our dues have been paid,” the mine owner says on closing day. “Let reclamation commence.” He waves a red flag. A top lander in the distance kneels at the lake’s edge, dumps a load of bait into the slag. As though on cue a buck skull surfaces nearby, offers itself to the crowd: a form of alms, a corroded coin bobbing in an earthen begging bowl.

The brandling worms go to work, lovingly bristle industrial gunk from the skull’s black planes. We watch transfixed as the coal-ash apple is polished slick, as wriggling minstrels tell tall tales of healing in spit gleam, in slime rings, their sole mission to revamp vile with splenetic sieve and shimmy. The script they leave behind unsettles our settled notions of death and decay. And for an instant we almost believe in extended warranty—that deer herds might once again browse our vale; that our gardens might grow deformity-free.

Hope spasms through us, waves of insurgent murmurs, phantom lures, the flutter of old flames we can’t help pining for. We know better. The composter’s creed’s just another in a long line—a salvage come-on—no different than the saloon god’s many promises to intercede, his prayer cards always written in gin song and bluffer’s ink. Or worse, penned the morning after, too late to save enlightenment from its shot-gunned fate. We know. We don’t want to know.

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