Centralia in the Sky

Denise S. Robbins

Something’s gonna happen. I can feel it in how my toes wrinkle when I get out of bed. Like something in the air is making them shrivel. A pinch at the back of my neck. The air feels lighter, grabbier. It wants something. It tells me: Today.

Sixty years now the town of Centralia has been burning. Some folks say it’ll take two hundred years more to burn itself through. The maze of coal mines underneath us caught fire and there’s enough kindling there for centuries and air will always find its way through the cracks of the earth to keep it going.

In the first year, they had Papa try to put out the fire. At year two, they gave up and everyone forgot. At year six, I was born. At year eight, Mama died. At year twenty, a boy nearly fell into a gassy pit and everyone became concerned about the fire all over again. At year twenty-two, federal government men tried to get us all to leave; some people did leave, but Papa said he’d wait until the city burned clean off the ground into the sky before leaving Centralia. At year twenty-three, I convinced them to let us stay; one of them—I forget his name—one of them not only let me stay but gave me a daughter named Cherry. At year twenty-four, Papa got fired. At year thirty-one, he got the cough that killed him. At year thirty-two, Cherry didn’t wake up.

In the years since, all the people that left Centralia came back in boxes, joining Papa and Mama and Cherry. The town keeps growing in funeral population. The mortician brothers down the road, Bobby and Eli, they’re thriving. Now it’s just them, me, and the bluebirds in my backyard that have babies every year on the first of May.

I’ve learned to take care of most everything myself, but I have a repair guy named Jethro who’s all bones. He comes in once every couple years to fix a leaky pipe or busted oven. I’ve seen his hair go from light to white. I send him a Christmas card every year but the latest one just got back to me with a return to sender sticker. Two more people get cards from me. There’s the guy who runs the farmers’ market where I sell my quilts in Allentown. He doesn’t care to talk and I like that; he accepts my stand renewal without any chitchat. And there’s the old grocery store clerk named Patsy who looks even older and more stubborn than me and doesn’t let anyone get away with anything. I don’t know their addresses so I send Christmas cards to their businesses instead.

They said it’d burn for two hundred more years, the big who-knows they who told us we had to leave Centralia or else we might die. But I’m still alive and I know better. Something’s gonna happen soon, you can smell it in the air that usually smells like nothing, but today, there’s something. Something wet, a hint of a cloud.

So I put up all the signs I keep in the shed on every road that leads into town. Big signs, EXTRA DANGER KEEP OUT. People often ignore them and I can’t blame them, so I put barbed wire on the ground too. It’s now late morning and the bluebirds are fetching food, the chipmunks are racing each other, but other than that it’s real quiet, every other animal knows to stay away.

Then I bring my translucent nylon to the center of town so I can unroll it piece by piece. I have six square miles of the stuff; I’ve stitched it together into a circle, nice and big. I grab the first edge of it and walk to the edge of town where that boy almost fell into that pit. Every step of mine is sound. His name was Todd, the boy who fell. His cousin Rob and I were by the crick throwing jagged rocks into the water when we heard him yelling. Rob ran faster than me, yelling back, Todd where are you. I ran after him; I couldn’t see anything at first. Then I saw. The ground had opened up beneath Todd and had him down over his head, hanging on to a tree root. Smoke was rising up around the hole with Todd inside. The air around him was hot, the ground that grabbed him was hotter. Rob pulled Todd out of the pit with both arms.

All kinds of things have happened down there—are still happening—beneath the surface of the earth. Todd was pulled into what was an old mine shaft, filled in with stuff that got loosened in the heat of the fire. The roads look like earthquakes came through, all split and janky, but there are no tectonic edges near here. Just earth and rocks trying to escape the heat.

There’s a broken road here by the pit, covered in graffiti. People come from all over to write their names here, thinking they’ll be a part of something, then leaving. I attach the bolt of translucent nylon to a ground spike in the middle of the word LEILA. I’ve put these spikes along the whole perimeter, just before the edge. The edge of town wants to fall away. There’s a split in the ground right on the town line. The spikes are within the limits. The spikes will hold the translucent nylon taut until it covers the whole town. Right now it just covers this one section from the center to my house to the edge.

This part is the easiest: the first connection. After that it’s tough. I have to throw the fabric over each tree until I can get it to the next spike, then go all along the center to do the same. The fabric is heavy and I’m not very strong, but I set up a mobile pulley that does the trick.

The bluebirds seem a little confused at the fabric stretched over their treetop homes; they keep chirping laughs and flying in circles. It’s clear enough they can still see the clouds, and they’ve lived through stranger times than this, so I think they’ll be all right.

It’s nice here, once you know which parts could kill you and which ones are fine. I’ve been here decades and tested every inch with a thermometer. One time, on a cold winter day when Papa was alive, we walked through the white-bleached trees and dropped a Texaco thermometer into an open hole like we were ice fishing. It came back up saying 850 degrees. We warmed our mittens on the tin thermometer casing, then ran like hell back home.

This was after he was fired, after the coal company blamed him to take the heat off itself. All Papa wanted to do then was play with me and Cherry. He was sad he lost his job but I was glad he was home all the time. He taught me everything about taking care of Cherry. He even loved doing the diapers. I only washed them; he did all the changing and wiping. He taught me how to make her good things to eat and how to teach her things like spelling when she was old enough. He would take the two of us out on the weekends to the old mines where he used to work. He loved the mountains and the people who worked there and everyone else still loved him, they all patted him on the back and gave candied cherries to Cherry.

Everybody told Papa they missed him, I remember. But they never talked about what happened. The only times I’ve seen Papa mad were the day he was fired, and the day I asked him what went wrong. He hit me with a belt and told me to never ask him that again.

The fire began before I was born, so all I’ve been able to gather is gossip and secondhand stories. There are more stories running around town than people now. A crack of lightning set the first spark. It was a cult-induced bonfire lit by outsiders. A daily trash burn was picked up by the wind and blown into an open mineshaft. A coordinated burn of an old strip mine would clear the way for a new landfill. The Centralia city council claimed not to know what happened, but they did hire firefighters to clean up the strip mine before the fire happened. Clean it up from what?

What matters is this: the fire took root in the web of coal mines beneath us, and at a certain point, people wanted payback from the coal company that ran all the mines. They wanted to know they were doing something. So the company fired my father, who was in charge of the impossible undertaking of putting out the fire.

Aside from that, Papa was the happiest man I ever knew. He didn’t get mad when I got pregnant; he cried with joy the day Cherry was born. He would pick her up and wheel her over his head and bring her down quickly to the ground, so quickly I thought Cherry’s legs would crumple, but he always caught her by the armpits at the last moment. He had enough from his severance package to retire early. That’s when he learned how to keep up the house and taught me most everything else too. He put up brick buttresses so even if the earth shook, the house would stay steady. He built a garden in the backyard and fixed our water well until it was clean as a cloud. He laughed every time he woke up like his laughs were his own alarm clock. He made Cherry giggle. He made my toes feel like they could smile. The three of us were as happy as the newborn bluebirds in our backyard, discovering being alive.

Everyone started moving away once the government paid them well to leave. Not Papa. Not me. We watched our neighbors’ homes get demolished; we watched the woods retake the streets, new grasses spring through the cracks, baby sycamores shoot through cement. He told me and Cherry the town would have to fly into the sky before he’d ever leave. Then he got a cough and he coughed until he died, and Cherry joined him a year later when in the middle of the night she stopped breathing. We’d just celebrated her ninth birthday, Cherry and me, by visiting Papa and dancing with his grave. She didn’t know the difference between him alive and dead, and I didn’t let her cry. I didn’t let me cry. I filled Papa’s shoes. I picked her up underneath her armpits as far as I could, a few inches off the ground, and we ate funny cake, part pie part cake part chocolate. I bought the ingredients specially for this. We watched it bake in the oven, as the cake and chocolate layers went and flipped themselves in the middle of baking, something with the heat and how they cook makes the cake rise above the chocolate. Even though the oven light was on and our eyes were peeled, we didn’t figure out how it happened, and I don’t ever want to learn. It was the best day, it was her last day, her beautiful eyes were red like hearts. I never learned why she stopped breathing and I don’t care to. That won’t change a thing.

Now that a big sinkhole has opened up in the cemetery, it’s time.

I found it two months back, when I was doing my yearly temperature check. I brought a match to the edge of the hole and it lit without striking. The sinkhole is approaching his and Mama’s and Cherry’s graves. I don’t want them to get sucked into the earth like poor Todd almost did. So we’re going to learn what the bluebirds dream of. We’re going to move into the sky.

Bobby and Eli, the mortician brothers down the road, aren’t going to join. They like being where they can bury things; now that they’ve run out of people, they’ve moved to squirrel tails, deer bones, time capsules. They’re descendants of their father, lean and tan from spending all their time in the sun. They only want to hunt and chop wood and feel dirt, which has been real nice for me, because they always give me extra logs and I have a huge freezer full of venison right now. They built a cabin across the town lines where they can retire, but they’ve been helping me out. They surveyed the ground—a hard shale—and agreed it would hold together well. They even got a geologist friend to help me with the specifics. After I finish staking down the translucent nylon, it covers the town and begins to fill. It’s filling up with the hot gases rising always from the earth. The fabric stretches high and pulls at the stakes. And then I hear a crack.

The burning shale breaks free from the rock below. We lift with a fire beneath us, beneath twenty feet of shale—beneath Papa Mama and Cherry’s six—it’s burning down below the rock, flames so hot the air will want to keep rising. We lift with the gases within us, pushing up the nylon until it’s full. Papa and Cherry and Mama and hundreds of others in the cemetery, and me, we all lift into the sky. The fires that have been burning for sixty years now push up on the quilt and lift up Centralia. It will keep burning for two hundred more as we sit in the clouds and see the world.

I wish I knew my Mama. I didn’t even have a picture of her. I only knew her by the quilts she made and the sewing things she left behind. I tore apart her quilts and stitched them back together a hundred different ways. I learned about her through all the different ways she weaved pieces of fabric together. Which colors went with which. How a tiny thread can become stronger than bone. I’ve sold all my quilts now except one, the one I stitched together from all of hers.

And the nylon quilt in the sky, the one that’s stretched over me now, that’s strong as steel and lighter than air. We reach a nice fat stable cloud and settle in. Up here there is nothing but Centralia and blue. The bleached-white trees blend in with the clouds. The bluebirds blend in with the sky.

Papa always told me he’d leave town only as soon as Centralia flew into the sky. I’m with him. Centralia’s the only heaven I ever knew.