“I Wake Close to Morning” by Mary Oliver
“Why do people keep asking to see
God’s identity papers
when the darkness opening into morning
is more than enough?
Certainly any god might turn away in disgust.
Think of Sheba approaching
the kingdom of Solomon.
Do you think she had to ask,
“Is this the place?”
Oliver also wrote, “I don’t want to be demure or respectable. / I was that way, asleep, for many years. / That way, you forget too many important things. / How the little stones, even if you can’t hear them, / are singing.”
We head East and my man gets a dreamy look. I have seen it every drive home, from our first visit to our last. The look of shrugging on an old flannel, pushing back the seat, grabbing a ball cap.
He promises me the trees are prettier here. “They don’t look like this in Cincinnati,” he says, shakes his head. When the trees along the shoulder stop short and a panoramic vista opens wide, he points, “look.” He means the standing cows and the green grass and the green trees. The sky like a quiet pond. He points out the exit to his Pap’s farm every time we pass it. He knows the grown grasses in the first and second fields of that land are waving. He notes his old elementary school as we cross the state bridge, always anxious I should see it.
Time is not the same everywhere. It does not feel the same or treat us the same in all places. Some places time is slow, like the tide, taking tiny bites out of rock so that it hardly notices until it is smooth. Time is like that in Wheeling, West Virginia.
Cody says the land is theorized to be an outlier of the Scottish Highlands, back when the world was one big continent – Pangea. The hills and rocks have weathered down over time. Mountains have become mounds; the valleys still dip low. The land is wild, same way a stallion is still fierce with a bridle. People sit houses over every peak and ravine and the land bucks at them relentlessly. Abandoned foundations crack in Tetris chunks, portions sliding down the hill while the rest keeps a lop-sided claim on more even sod. And the trees. Lush, thick as fleece. You know a taste of the Scottish Isles in that depth, the way jaunty stone chins jut out proudly over the highways and byways. The way industry makes a home on the water.
Glance sideways and an industrial plant comes into view; glance anyway, someway, and a mill lies along the ground with rusted spines and smoking stacks. No place more than at the bank of the Ohio River. The spider-legged trusses of a rusted brown bridge spread across the water like a Strider, its last appendage, connecting the road to Ohio, long ago severed. From the highway, the startling drop-off hangs high in the sky: a lonely bridge leading to Nowhere. In the night, a warm glow rests its chin over the black hills East of the water. It is hot and muffled, like a sunrise, except it can only be seen in the evening, where the long fire of an industrial plant burns the midnight oil.
There was a steel mill here some time ago. It went down when the higher-ups sold the jobs to China. How many people lost jobs? But now fracking has its deep wells in peoples’ private property, sending them checks in the mail for their families. And the bright blue waterslide of a coal shoot still bends over the side of the West Virginia riverbank, keeping people’s lamps lit.
Many unkind things have happened here. Happen still.
I am no West Virginian and do not know much about these things, only brushing shoulders with stories. What I do know is that no matter the season, warm round lights hang above the coal mill like strings of Christmas lights, reflecting off the black water. The old bridges look strong over the river; they are imbued with dignity, standing, still standing, after Time has tried her hand at sweeping out their feet. Much like the people who live here.
The stones lining the river floor are singing. Have been for some time. Loud as ever belting songs, though not all can hear them. The open sky shouts praise. Trees make harmony. Rocks a chorus of jubilance, stomping their feet. A holy Fingerprint lingers on.
What a land, what a land, my husband’s West Virginia. And also, what a song.