Volume 34, Number 4


Ron Hartley

When Etta’s husband was alive the extended family on his side was so large she likened the nieces and nephews to pickets in a fence. But after he died and her own children were grown and out of the house, the cousins and their kids all seemed increasingly self-absorbed and distant, with little in the way of thoughts for Aunt Etta. It might have been that she was Episcopalian in a mostly Presbyterian clan and that the Episcopalian liturgy was too close to that of the Roman Catholic church, or maybe because she’d always seemed a bit strange, a shadow behind an out-front man, and beyond that a bird watcher, of all things. She was also an imitator of bird calls and could utter sounds shrill enough to make the skin crawl of anyone in earshot who suffered from ornithophobia. Her sister-in-law, upon hearing Etta whistle the song of an indigo bunting, feinted from rapid heart palpitations and had to be taken to the emergency room of Scranton’s Mercy Hospital for a sedative and observation.

But bird people were beginning to come out of the closet. Watchers could go to a dial-a-bird phone number to get the latest sightings in their area, and bird callers from around the country had appeared every year on the late night Johnny Carson TV Show. With no husband around anymore to keep her in line with the company she kept, Etta busied herself with a group of like-minded eccentrics for whom the sights and sounds of birds was a source of constant intrigue. Whatever else such folks had or had not achieved in their lives, they could tell the difference between the modulations of a tweedle from one bird call to the next in a few seconds, and they would all tell you flat out that Etta could whistle and vocalize bird songs better than the birds themselves. Aside from the everyday sounds of sparrows and robins Etta’s repertoire included the plaintive and intermittent call of a dark-eyed junco, the lively complexity of a purple finch and the rapid-fire pulsations of a yellow-shafted flicker. They were all visitors to her backyard and to Scranton’s Nay Aug Park where she often went armed with binoculars and a well-worn copy of the Field Guide to Birds book compiled by the National Audubon Society.

Etta had never gone to college. She lived in Scranton her entire life and resided in just two houses in all that time, the cramped half of a double clapboard house she was born and raised in and the more spacious single home of the widower twice her age she'd married, two blocks away. Down through the years hardship often resided as close as next door as everyone felt the shock waves of a coal-mining town without much coal to mine anymore. Lackawanna County was becoming an ecological disaster of flooded mine shafts, strip-mined landscape and mountainous dumps of burning black waste spewing sulfur into the air that smelled like rotten eggs. But it was the unemployment that sickened and killed. In the dead of winter she often read articles in the Scranton Times about the many dehired minors whose lives had spiraled downward and were found homeless and asphyxiated while sleeping in the smoldering warmth of such mountainous dumps of gaseous debris.

When the coal barons left family members began to leave too. Many of those who went away to college never came back permanently and newly marrieds headed out to more happening places across the country, followed later by the older folks wanting to be closer to their grandkids. Etta had been mostly out of the family loop to begin with and then there wasn’t even much of a loop as the population of the town dwindled from 143 thousand to 76 thousand. Her son was about to take his wife and two children to a town called Poughkeepsie in upper New York state. The son invited his mother to sell and come along but Etta recognized a hint of reticence in his voice and answered back that she needed her own walls around her. She said she’d be as close as the telephone on her kitchen wall and they left her with hugs goodbye and words of endearment laced with the inference that someday when things worked out they’d all be together again.


“She fell through the family cracks,” was how a neighbor put it. She was left alone in her dead husband’s eight-room house to play the piano and sing her favorite Lutheran hymns, spiced now and then with an old standard that had been sung on TV by Perry Como or Dinah Shore. Her audience was a gallery of framed family photographs on the fireplace mantel and in diagonal alignment on the wall up the staircase. Missing from the mantel and wall and tucked away in the bottom of a drawer somewhere was the confirmation photo of her in an embroidered white dress. She was standing next to a boy wearing a gray herringbone suit and a smile that was worth more to her when she was a teen than all the coal in Appalachia. Such a photo in open display would have been an awkward reminder that there had been someone else before His Lordship, the husband.

Ethan was so long dead it was almost like he had never lived, but every now and then while playing and singing Etta would come across something in her old church song book that would remind her of him. “God Be With You Till We Meet Again,” she sang, and she remembered sharing a hymnal with her mother at Sunday morning services. Ethan would always be three rows behind her in the pew his family sat in every Sunday. During the second verse he willed her to look back at him by staring intently at the back of her head, the same way he willed her to look back during the minister’s sermon on the six sorrows of St. Paul and again during the passing of the collection plates. When Etta finished the hymn and stopped playing the only sound to be heard was the tick of a grandfather clock in the corner that was like a metronome continuing to keep time.

She closed the keyboard cover slowly, putting the memory away as carefully as she might put her best china back in its cupboard. She went into the kitchen to prepare her dinner, a fried pork chop, one boiled potato and a small side of applesauce from a jar. She sat there taking small bites and eating slowly, thinking of the birds she heard early that morning outside her bedroom window and of the first red-eyed vireo she’d ever seen in her back yard that afternoon.


“She fell through the family floorboards,” was how another neighbor put it after a decade had passed. In her 92nd year Etta found herself pressed against the wall of a nursing home corridor, edging her way past the mayhem of gurneys with Covid-19 bodies on board. She made it to the elevator and pressed the same down button infected fingers had pressed all morning. Two staff workers in a hurry got on behind her, anonymous in their face masks and working whites and breathing heavily with exhaustion from lifting, carrying and moving so many seniors suddenly stricken on the second floor. Etta was standing behind them in a light cotton nightgown and flipflops, but if they noticed her at all they noticed an elderly resident who was breathing normally, standing upright and with no apparent need of immediate lifesaving assistance.

When they got off on the main floor she followed a man zippering up his jacket, a sure sign he was leaving the premises. She went out the front door a few steps behind him into the chilly air of midtown, her long thin strands of white hair blowing in the breeze, her wispy knee-length nightgown wind-pressed against her breasts and an abundance of varicose veins showing on her lower legs. She kept on moving steadfastly forward like an automaton on low batteries, emitting squeaky whistles through her upper dentures as if she was in need a lube job. Any attendants observing her escape might have said she was doing them a favor, committing an act of self-disposal before the weight of her dead carcass would have to be added to the already heavy burden of body bags waiting to be carried out for curbside pickup.

She wouldn’t have remembered the name of the street or neighborhood she was trying to make her way through or which of the many decades she had lived in was the one she was living in at that moment. Her hope and navigational mode were of a more spiritual kind, wherein God would instill in her the instincts of a homing bird. When she got to the first intersection she had already walked farther without turning a corner than she had in eighteen months at the nursing home. She searched the sky for signs and began to follow the flight of a red-tailed hawk, one of the largest raptors of its genus, she noted, with a wing span as wide as a yardstick and a half. The hawk was headed toward the mountains just outside the west side of town and she was so distracted by it she found herself shuffling down the middle of a heavily trafficked main drag in a zig-zag pattern of jaywalks while confusedly looking up at the hawk and then from side to side for a glimpse of sidewalk somewhere behind the endless rows of parked cars. She looked like something akin to a Covid angel of death, hellbent on ensnaring the lives of pedestrians out and about that day. The blast of a horn from behind made her stagger a few steps as a car swerved to miss her, almost hitting a cyclist in the bike lane. The driver over compensated his turn back, causing an oncoming van to react and sideswipe a parked SUV on the other side. The car and van stopped and the drivers got out. One yelled “What the hell” and the other “Nutcase” in Etta’s direction before they began arguing with each other. Etta kept going, still cogent enough to know cops were likely to come and harass her with questions she couldn’t make head nor tail of before they’d haul her in to a facility of one kind or another.

The sudden scare of the traffic incident had jogged her memory. Snippets of blue sky with patches of pastoral green, brown and gold began to edit themselves into a vision of a bucolic open space with fields of tall rye grass somewhere in the mix. Her mind’s eye honed in and she could once again sense the minuscule ticks that laid like dandruff on the long strands of grass, waiting to hitch rides on the white-tailed deer passing through.

Each crystallized memory led to others in turn and she could remember how the fields sloping down into an overgrown strip-mined landscape of steam shoveled craters and mounds of fossilized shale. Etta remembered how as a child she picked through and discarded endless layered pieces imprinted with images of fern that had existed millions of years before in landscapes of unfettered beauty she’d seen in books at the school library. She would keep searching in the hope of finding more creaturely kinds of fossils that would remain more imagined than ever found. She remembered the wetland patches rife with pussy willows wherever water channeled up from a flooded mine below, and she could see the path again that meandered around the perimeter of it all and led to the Cayuga Colliery, a kind of coal-mine outpost. On its premises was a deep mine-entry point and a group of utilitarian structures so devoid of aesthetics there wasn’t a dab of paint on raw wood to be found anywhere. The most imposing was a huge coal breaker constructed with roughhewn timber hammered into a complexity of diagonal shafts and almost windowless walls rising over two hundred feet upward, its coal-dusted wood like a big dark stain on the sky. The men inside would yell out to each other with such strained voices over the incessant noise of conveyor belts, a stranger passing by might think there was a network of torture chambers inside.

Etta remembered many strained voices from her childhood, but especially the one of a woman next door railing over the fence to Etta’s mother about the Cayuga. Her husband had worked there for a long time in almost every capacity but mostly as a miner before he died from silicosis, the most common kind of black lung. As the woman ranted, her wrinkled forehead and wide-eyed fierceness had the aura of a demon capable of inciting terrible deeds by any equally crazed soulmates in earshot. ‘A match struck to a tiny douse of gasoline anywhere on the dry wood of that old breaker,’ she said, ‘would light up the whole goddam thing in minutes and burn it to the ground in less than an hour.’ If the deed had ever been done the tons of anthracite coal being processed inside would probably have burned for months on end, its blue flamed fire lighting up the sky each night in homage to the woman’s husband and all the black-lung dead. ‘Fire doesn’t burn just in hell,’ Etta remembered her wailing, ‘It burns in the hearts of mothers with fatherless children.’

Ethan of the herringbone suit suddenly appeared as if in the flesh before Etta, but in the dirty work clothes he wore to the Cayuga each day. He was looking at her like he looked at her once when they were sitting at the piano together, and he had just shown her how to play chords to accompany her singing and she had taught him how to sing in a way that accompanied his chords. Their eyes met and they knew in that moment that beyond the things they had just learned they were, in fact, instructing each other in the ways of first love.

She once went to meet him at work, disguising herself as a coal-breaker boy, her long auburn hair tucked beneath a borrowed work cap and her face blackened with a bit of the coal dust that permeated the air inside the breaker. He took her through the din and assemblage of the second shift where she could see first-hand how mined rock got broken down and how the latest machinery had replaced human hands separating coal from shale. Etta wondered at Ethan’s cavalier way of walking backwards sometimes while talking to her, especially in the midst of such a massive movement of coal down shoots and such clanging of metal on metal, impervious to the safety of human flesh that might get caught between the moving parts.

“Be careful,” she said but he paid her no mind and continued on, showing her the fierce mechanical toothed crushers that broke lump coal progressively down into pieces called black diamonds.

“Look at the luster they have,” he said, and he told her how anthracite was the hardest of all the coals and had the highest carbon content and longest burn time.”

For many days after Etta would still feel the thinness of the arm she had clung to that day, part of an overall delicacy of stature that was in question when Ethan hired on. But he had a serene way in the midst of clamor that insinuated itself into acceptance by other workers and by the foreman, the same serene way that made the self-aroused moments of Etta’s sixteenth year ever more intense. The progression of their wavelengths over the course of the summer was such that they were beginning to have the same kind of dreams on the same nights: of being lost together in the dark bowels of the Cayuga coal breaker, of being levitated together over the high steeple of their church wherein the tip was a Delaware Indian arrowhead, “aiming to shoot us out of the sky,” Ethan said.

“But I saw a sharp-pointed steeple that was more like the tip of an ice pick,” Etta said, “ready to impale us one over the other if we fell from the sky.”

“Then we mustn’t ever fall from the sky,” Ethan said, but in real time he fell into the gears of a conveyor belt in late October, 1964.

When told of the fatality Etta could picture him taking a misplaced step forward while looking back in that distracted way of his to talk to someone behind him. It would have been the same way he looked back at the singular call of a bird he thought he heard when they were hiking through some forested acreage just outside the city limit. He said such pitch and pattern wasn’t native to that neck of the woods, that it might be a red-winged blackbird migrating south.

“Most folks just call them redwings, and they’re mythical in these parts,” he said.

“What do you mean, mythical,” she asked.

“I’d say it’s something so longed for you can reach out in your mind and touch its feathery wing.”

“And touch its feathery wing,” she said, as if to the trees.

“Do you mock the way I tell it?”

“Oh, no Ethan, I love the way you tell it. Tell me more.”

He told her how the story of the redwings was born of miners talking in claustrophobia-induced delirium while hunkered down over lunch pails three hundred feet below the surface of the earth. One of the more informed men in the group said the male redwings were known to make it with up to twenty or so females in mating season, that in spite of their small size they were blessed with a force that could make them fly so high their red bodies were burnt black by the unfiltered rays of the sun. As myth would have it the remaining epaulets of red adorning their shoulders were said to be heat resistant and able to guide them to gentle landings on tropical palm trees in sun-drenched islands of the Caribbean. Ethan said that of all the birds cavorting among the trees around Scranton they were the most beautiful, but he said that as suddenly as they came they would be gone again into the sky of an Indian summer day, that the story they left behind would one day be so pervasive someone might tell someone she loved his red wings and it would be the ultimate compliment for anything he would ever like to be complimented about.

Etta tried to hold onto the profile of Ethan’s face as he looked back again, waiting for the redwing to call out once more, but the dappled light blended him ever more into the forest and then into the distant horizon of the present. She had forgotten to take her medication that morning but was oblivious to the quickening beats of her heart as she shuffled along the edge of town. Its deep underground world of dark tunnels beneath her was empty but for the countless footprints there, and it was a quieter town than the one of her growing years, a town with many less people but more with different complexions. Beyond was an encirclement of development with its highway overpasses, merges and six lane straightaways with off-ramps to shopping malls and fast-food drive-ins.

Etta looked back over her shoulder, wondering where she had come from and where she was going. She suddenly stopped and listened to the birdsong coming from trees across the way. Ethan once said that birds were descendants of the dinosaurs, that every one of them had the heart and soul of a Tyrannosaurus rex. And so it was that she had always been awestruck by the sight and sound of them. In the last minute of her life she stood there on a slate sidewalk made from the shale of a coal mine’s walls. Her head was cocking and turning in rapid little movements as her birding radar honed in, trying to ascertain which among the chorus of calls might be might be that of a redwing.