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  • Spindle, and: Letter to a Jesuit: On the Murder of Sister Valsa in India by Hired Killers for Big Coal, and: The Book, and: Instant in Time, and: Ursuline Convent
  • Rachel Jennings (bio)


His men will not,says King Coal, blowthe whole mountainto Kingdom Come,but only the teeny-tiny top—a cruel, sharp tipas on a pentagram,a devil’s horns,or the spindlethat pierced the fingerof Little Briar Rose.We all will be saferfrom Maleficent’s curseor at least tetanus,he tells us, with no peakof a mountaintopto threaten us.

He will not mushroomcloud the mountain,King Coal croonsas if rocking usin the cradle.Our elders, wisewomen with magicalnames like Beryl,Ruby, and Opal,try with talkand ancient spellsto rescue homes,family graves,and schools. [End Page 186] All the while,King Coal singshis soothing lullaby.In dreams, we feelthe fire of the mountain.To dragon’s breath,we waken,roses and blackberrieswithered and burned. [End Page 187]

Letter to a Jesuit: On the Murder of Sister Valsa in India by Hired Killers for Big Coal1

(Sister Valsa John (1958–2011) was a nun who organized protests against Indian coal-mining operations that displaced villagers and destroyed their land.)

Her death hits me hard, Father,though I had not heard of her until this news.What I know now is just that she was a nunhacked to death by a merciless mobfor supporting the rights of the Santhal peopleagainst the avarice of a mining company.Your question was whether I believe in the Devil.You are serious, and so am I. In Appalachia,growing up, we had few doubts about the Devil.We knew why we could not pay the rent,why our mother had cancer,why gas built up in a mine.And if the Devil is not incarnate in coal companiesor coal bosses, a notion you warn me against,we all being creatures of God, let us agreewith Baudelaire, whom you quote,that the Devil’s “most clever trickis to convince us that he does not exist.”My friend Marie, who suggested I write,agrees the Devil roams but begs meto focus on holy saints like Sister Valsa.That is, the good in the world.I must try to remember her counsel.Thank you for responding, Father.The murder of the sister hits me hard.For your insights, your guidanceon this topic, accept my thanks.I see you are right. [End Page 188]

The Book

Six weeks before my parents’modest weddingat St. Joseph Methodist Churchin Pikeville, North Carolina,John F. Kennedy, second sonin a big family like their own,won on Election Night.Though the race was close,there was no going backin the Age of Sputnik.Twenty-three daysafter their vows, Kennedytook the oath of officeon a freezing January noon,becoming as he spokethe first Catholic President.Thus, on the cuspof one year and another,one decade and another,my parents wedged their weddingbetween John F. Kennedy’stwin triumphs, all occurringone Appalachian seasonafter they had earnedsummer pay and exercisedtheir cultural chopsby working as counselorsat a Jewish summer campin the Great Smoky Mountains.They met and wroteawkward letters thereas if with the helpof a kindly marriage broker.At Camp Pinewood, they learnedabout bagels and latkes,menorahs and mezuzot,and exotic accents from Philly,Brooklyn, and Long Island.Young American newlyweds,they were broadmindedand in love with the world—readers of the Black Mountain Poets, [End Page 189] admirers of the Highlander Folk Schoolfor labor organizing in the South.Between Kennedy and Shabbat,life seemed one long volunteer programfor giving to one’s country.

A week or two after the Kennedysmoved into the White House,my parents conceived my oldest sister,who was born in early Novemberin Oak Ridge, Tennessee,home of Y-12, the uraniumenrichment facility.Everyone was having babies.Wages were growing higher.Before 1962 ended, my...


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