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
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]
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 othersister saw light. How busymy mother and father werewith two lively daughters.Devoting spare time to television,they watched The Beverly Hillbillies,which they knew was #1,every Wednesday,but only in anticipationof The Dick Van Dyke Show,Laura Petrie a variationon a Jackie theme. Otherwise,the programs were a long paradeof variety funny menlike Jackie Mason, Buddy Hackett,and a new comedian, George Carlin,who offered his own impressionof the President’s Boston accent.
My parents were occupiedwith teaching and childrearingin 1963, a gruesome time,arousing my father’s griefand mother’s shudderseven decades later.The Birmingham arrestsof protesters,Bull Connor’s fire hosesand German shepherds,the murder of Medgar Evers, [End Page 190] and the deaths of four young girlsat Sixteenth Street Baptist Churchdrove my parents into depression.Then Lee Harvey Oswaldshot President Kennedy.
My parents, who once had desireda large family, stopped conceiving childrenuntil months into the Johnson administration.Thus, my origins do not fit within the safe spacebetween Kennedy’s election and his assassination.My birth lies outside the carved bookendsbetween which sits the multi-volume taleof Camelot and Le Morte d’Arthur.In 1963 and most of 1964, I existedonly as some anxious thoughtin my mother’s head,some unspeakable worry about the futureand, come to think of it, the past.I was the enigma in her unconscious,the terrible puzzle she could not work out.I was the lone book that laybetween the King James Bibleand the bottle of Valiumon her nightstand—Ben Spock’s Freud-drivenBaby and Child Care, perhaps,or some New York Times bestsellerby Saul Bellow, Philip Roth,or Irving Wallace. Some volumethat even today likely dwells,worn out and widely circulatedbut not unconfident,on the public library shelf.Yes, I am the thick,rough cut, hardcover bookmy mother paged throughand fingeredto relaxa littleand soothe herselfbefore fallingwith reliefinto another region. [End Page 191]
Instant in Time2
When the coffeemaker brokethis last time, I tossed it out,switching back to instant,which I drank as a teenagerfrom the age of twelve.How proudly I drankmy mother’s brew, too bitterand caffeinated for my fathereven with milk and sugar.So simple—a teaspoonfuldissolved in boiling water.
At twenty-two, in my ownapartment, I boughta coffeemaker, some filters,and 11.5 ounces of drip coffee.The flavor was much richer,fully satisfying. The aromawas a tight embrace,the machine’s warm gurglea loved one’s sighs in sleep.
At forty-seven,I am weary of shovelingthree teaspoonfulsat a time into bleached filters,the dark grounds scatteringlike roach droppingson countertops and linoleum.I am tired of gulping stalecoffee, sticky with creamer,from a dirty mug.All I want is coffeethat makes me feel goodlike a brisk winter day.I think of my mother’sclean kitchen, the glass jarof crystals on the backof the stove. What circledin my mother’s hot brew? [End Page 192]
The scaffolding tarp is rentin two at 8:37a.m. on a Fridaymorning in April in San Antonio.Nothing happens. No sun floodsthe tunnel. Though a large crowdseeks entry, the wrathful guardcan see the guilty face is mine.Cast out from the Gates of the CityLibrary (until 9), I enter the courtyardof the Ursuline Convent, reconfiguredin recent years as the Southwest Schoolof Arts and Crafts. I am out of placehere. At any moment, a mastersculptor or plaster cherub may banishme from the fountains and foliage.Jesus, this day has started badly.Why must I sit in this grottolike a child in time-out, gazingdumbly into Mary’s pale face?The stone goddess does not give a damn.She is no more my mother than a poutingBarbie doll or a wire-mesh torsowith a rubber tit. My mother is 1200miles distant, 76 and arthritic.If I were home, she would strokemy hair and bake a meatloaf—she would hum an old hymn.Now she mails couponsfor Cheerios and deviled ham.Only the black cat, severeand inward-looking, understands.He nuzzles his head against my calf. [End Page 193]
Rachel Jennings received her B.A. from the University of Tennessee, before earning her M.A. and Ph.D. in English literature at the University of Texas at Austin. An English instructor at San Antonio College in Texas, she also volunteers at the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center. She has published three books of poetry: Hedge Ghosts (2001), Elijah’s Farm (2008), and Knoxville Girl: The Walk to the River (2011). Her poem “Going Places” appeared in Improbable Worlds: An Anthology of Texas and Louisiana Poets (2011). In addition, her work has appeared in the Texas Observer, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, San Antonio Express-News, Austin Chronicle, La Voz de Esperanza, Appalachian Journal, and other publications. She can be reached at email@example.com.
1. “Letter to a Jesuit” was published in 2011 in NOLA Diaspora (12 : n.p.), and again in 2013 in La Voz de Esperanza (26 : 20).