Hollow Mountain

by Wren Awry

At home, by the river, dishes pile up in the sink and the front steps are cracked and littered with Pall Mall cigarettes. It is chaos there: filthy with too many people living in too small of a space. Here, in the woods, it’s calm. At least it is in this stretch of twenty feet, with nettles and rhododendrons and tulip poplar leaves crunching underfoot. I chew on spicy sassafras, let it fill my mouth with the taste of this place: earth and green, unbearable green. Almost heaven.

Almost. Large portions of the mountain underfoot are hollow. Throughout the twentieth-century, it was mined out bit by bit, its coal shipped to cities like Pittsburgh and Washington, DC.

Ali Baba’s mountain held forty thieves; in the Grimm Brothers version, a girl attends an elven baptism in a mountain and learns that her three-day stay was actually seven years. Appalachian trickster Jack slips through a hole on a mountain slope. He finds a mirror world down there, with a house and a barn and a woman to wed.

This is not that kind of mountain. A few ridges over, billions of gallons of toxic coal sludge are stored in a slurry pond on the mountaintop. The pond is built over a network of abandoned underground mines. Massey Coal is blasting rock just two hundred feet away, further destabilizing geology. [1] For those who live downstream, the slurry pond is an ever-present threat: a dam break could send forty feet of water through the narrow Coal River Valley. [2]

(I do not live downstream, not really. I am a stranger here: an idealistic twenty-year-old trying to “save the mountains.” I will move back to New York as soon as it becomes untenable. I will take my memories with me, turn them in to metaphors.)

There’s an old mine entrance on the trail, a stone archway half-hidden by twisting rhododendron limbs. If Jack came along, I wonder if he’d skip right in, try his hand at tricking a giant and eating off of his subterranean table. Times have changed, Jack. You will only find darkness, bitumen, rusting tools, the occasional drip, drip, drip.


Wren Awry studies Creative Writing at the University of Arizona. Their creative nonfiction has been published in Loom Art Zine, and they occasionally write criticism for the Anarcho-Geek Review.


[1] “Renewable Energy on Coal River Mountain.” Journey Up Coal River. Aurora Lights, n.d. Web. 20 Mar. 2015. <http://auroralights.org/map_project/theme.php?theme=wind&article=14>.

[2] “Land Use: The Brushy Fork Slurry Impoundment.” Journey Up Coal River. Aurora Lights, n.d. Web. 20 Mar. 2015. <http://auroralights.org/map_project/theme.php?theme=crm&article=2>.