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  • The Island in the Gorge of the Great River
  • Matthew Neill Null (bio)

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[End Page 26]

in september, the county sent the dying to the island. This scrap of ground, ten or twelve acres, would have been unremarkable if not for the fact that it was surrounded by water. The island was in the gorge of a brute river, the New, so unruly that the coal had to be hauled out by rail. The track had taken four years to build, including tunnels.

There was talk—courthouse talk—of stringing a cable-ferry to send the dying across, but in the end, rafts and pirogues were made to do. To build any bridge over from the mainland would be foolish—what if a heedless patient ran it back some night and brought society her disease? The New River boatmen tied bandannas about their own mouths, all the way up to the eyes, and took pains not to inhale too much, despite their rowing, despite the shortness of their breath. They wouldn’t look at the dying people who reclined in their boats. Drawing close, they heard the puttering of a weird machine: the steam autoclave into which the doctor stuffed bandages. Afterward, their hard money won, the boatmen washed down their hands and implements with burning lye.

the island had been timbered over like the rest of the lands, so from the far shore, you could see the dying who milled about. It was thirty yards out in the river—just enough to render the people blurry mystery—near the mouth of Pinch Creek, where it spilled coal slurry into the New. A tote road gave way to a muddy landing where boatmen had tramped down the bank.

Across the water, the dying and their nurses slid from building to building, digging graves, washing laundry, unhooking themselves from voluminous greenbrier, wincing at the powerful sun. Not that anyone on the mainland stared. That would be in poor taste. And the region was thinly populated anyhow. The nearest settlement was the coal-camp of Pinch, four miles up hollow, and the miners of Pinch never left. Few had call to pass by the island.

Except for the roaming gang of boys. They wished they had field glasses to look through, or even a tube of parchment paper. They left the landing to get a better look, finding the fisherman’s trail that ran for miles along the river, a mere ditch through weeds and the rank, green smell of life. They waved to the islanders. Now and again, an islander waved back.

“I know that one,” said a loud boy named Burl.

“Oh no you don’t,” the others said. To deny him this glamour.

“Yes I do. Look.”

One islander was a girl their age, nine, ten.

She lifted her skirt and shrieked, a joyful sound that cut through whitewater roar. The boys couldn’t see much, but the pale flash struck them. She wore nothing beneath. At first they were shocked, then fell to the ground in laughing piles. She turned around and let the skirt drop. [End Page 27]

The boys would remember it all their lives—or John Drew would anyhow. He felt things more than most. The greatest day.

John Drew, sheepish, turned away. He couldn’t believe what he saw.

The girl ran off to the infirmary building. There were two or three other dying on the far shore, but none paid the girl’s antics any mind, absorbed as they were in the end of time.

“John Drew loves a dead girl,” Burl chanted. “John Drew loves a dead girl.” They laughed at his blushing. They skipped stones, seeing if they could make it to the wretched island.

john drew kept thinking of that girl across the waters. She lifted her skirt at him, only him.

He returned to Pinch, waiting for the mine whistle to break the day into pieces. When it did, the miners surfaced with empty lunch buckets, leaving the portal, walking the narrow main drag with its bank, commissary, and post office. They found their own company shacks in straggling rows three deep...


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pp. 26-32
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