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The Green Age of Asher Witherow by M. Allen Cunningham {Excerpt}

The Green Age of Asher Witherow by M. Allen Cunningham {Excerpt}

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Supplying a quarter of San Francisco’s coal, Nortonville of the 1860s-70s is a flourishing empire in small, seeming to promise unending prosperity and a better future. But beneath the vibrant work ethic of its Welch citizens lies an insidious network of superstitions.

Supplying a quarter of San Francisco’s coal, Nortonville of the 1860s-70s is a flourishing empire in small, seeming to promise unending prosperity and a better future. But beneath the vibrant work ethic of its Welch citizens lies an insidious network of superstitions.

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Publish date: Oct 1, 2004
Added to Scribd: Feb 07, 2013
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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no longer young, to say the least, and these recollections havecome whistling through my ancient brain like wind-wraiths. Even theseearly years, though I thought I’d get them down without much trouble,perturb me in some faint manner. Might it be that even back then weshould have caught the malignant whiff in that valley air? But if so, how? Ah, I mustn’t get started on that—that’s idle thinking. There’s norearranging things now. Though the slightest recollection stirs up aterrific haunting, I know one can’t expect much of memory, whose utilityis limited. In my old hands I turn the pages of a book where a Greekpoet writes that every day on this earth begins and ends in the mind, thedawn occurring on one side of your head, dusk on the other. And I thinkit must be a good thing that I’ve read this only toward the end of my life,for how lost it might have made me in my years of learning.My earliest Nortonville memory is father’s smell as he entered thehouse at night, an odor like wet burlap and dead animal. I remember thegrind of his washing barrel as it scudded across our floor: wood againstwood; his naked perch on the barrel’s rim, black above his neckline,white beneath, scooping water from between his knees; the plashing asmother washed his back.I remember the growl of the breaker. I woke each morning to itswheel-and-shaft clamor, like a terrible grinding of teeth. I remember thegray smell as mother shoveled the coal in our stove. And I remember the culm banks, steaming in the June sun, slothing from here to there.They rose on the edge of town like charred monuments: black lopsidedpyramids. Mother loved the shimmer-sound those banks made whenthey moved. She said it reminded her of the beaches in Wales, theseawater ebbing back from the rocky shore. She closed her eyessometimes and listened to it, muted as it was beyond the squawk of chickens.Early one April morning, 1863, father had awakened to find mother standing at the window in her peach chemise, shuddering with a horror she couldn’t name. He coaxed her back to bed and bore her convulsions the whole night through. The next evening when hereturned from the works he found her seated on the stoop. She waspawing her belly and weeping tearlessly but with abandon. Believing itto be a spiritual ailment, he read to her from the letters of the Apostle:
But though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day 
by day 
,” and she strained to find comfort in the old cadences. But her melancholy was incurable and the paranoiac fits bulged in time with her growing belly. She had believed herself fruitless. The new roundness of her stomach could barely convince her that this
, as she calledit, was maternal and not demonic. For the next seven months mother quavered, soothed only by readings from the New Testament. Her torment would not fully subside till I was delivered from her womb.Under the shadow of Mount Diablo, with a terrible warble which filledthe little company house, Abicca Witherow squeezed me into the world.The labor began one indigo morning when she spasmed awake in tears.Then she struggled an entire day and night, clear to the followingafternoon. The midwife, Sarah Norton, darkened my parents’ door as abulk of shadow. She had the stout hands and mannish arms of one whopried at wombs for hours on end, and wore a string slung crosswise onher breast, dangling with pouches of fresh and dried herbs. Tisanes,roborants, analeptics, caustics, tonics, and salves—all of old-world or Indian concoction. She put her mouth to mother’s twitching ear.“First thing is to calm those nerves, dearie.” She gave four pouches tofather. “Each in a separate pot. Boiled.” And as he dashed out, shestood smiling down upon her tremulous patient. “We’re bursting, aren’twe, dearie? The little thing’s eager for air. Here’s a comfort for you.”Her black hair stranded downward as she bent and slipped hooksfrom eyes, spread open the belly of her own blouse, bunched theundershirt clear. She moved into the light and showed mother the longblue scar running from her navel to the dark pubic swatch.“And still the child was lost,” she said. “But yours won’t be anything asbad as that. Yours wants to come, so don’t shudder, sweet.”Mother’s head thrashed on the damp pillow. Years later she told me:“I just had to give myself up to her, shadowy though she was. And shedelivered me well, but I was happy to have her gone.”Finally at dusk I was born. Father—who knelt by the bed with his lefthand cracking in mother’s grasp till the knuckles nearly broke, and withhis right hand wiping her nose, which bled as eagerly as her womb—hesaid the room seemed to tremble at my coming. But both my parentsassured me that once I kicked free of the belly I glowed with a healthyinfant-light which healed the nine-month malaise.They named me Asher. I never learned why, but now I think it a goodname for someone born in the night amid culm banks and black-water drainage bogs.

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