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Half-Life: Pittsylvania County, Virginia


CHATHAM, VA., JANUARY 2, 2008—Underneath a plot of farmland used
to raise cattle, hay, and timber in south-central Virginia lies what is thought
to be the largest deposit of uranium in the United States.

Uranium was discovered by eighteenth-century chemist Martin Heinrich
Klaproth, who called it "a strange kind of half-metal" and named it in part
for the recently discovered seventh planet, Uranus, one of the so-called
"ice giants."


That some slow, cold distant planet formed
           with a core of ice and stone and named
for the embodiment of sky and heaven
           should have anything to do with it seemed wrong—
given its rumored rise from pitchblende to the surface
           of fields and pastures, its dissolve into the wells
dug and the ponds made for the animals,
           or its decay into the brief, more deadly

daughters—an old explosion's persistent, widening
           wake—and now even more wrong given its ungodly
worth to the men who had already sold
           the rights to it, ignorant of the worse cost
of confusing what chooses us with what we choose,
           the near-infinite half-life of remains.

           •

And the worry that cancer simply ran
           in families had been replaced by suspicion
of a greater cause: the massive vein
           of uranium found just a few miles
outside of town on farms where in the 1950s
           scientists had come to look because
of a known fault, restless in the rock.
           The percussive, intermittent tick
of their Geiger counters had escalated
           to something measureless—the place itself
a worse genetic element, the very land
           guilty. In the small sanctuary
of the Presbyterian church where I was raised—
           the women's whispering soft and steady
as the beat of moths' wings—their purses
           still closed around tissues, lozenges, the same

thin tithes and offerings. Among them, I could recount
           losses so common it was no wonder
they had come after time to believe
           predestined sacrifice: of the easily
stricken elderly, or a son in middle age,
           an infant or toddler daughter.

The cancers: both common and rare—
           of the lung, stomach, brain, pancreas, liver,
breast, of the ovary, the blood itself,
           the houses on the street where I grew up
marked with its slow plague—patient,
           insatiable—not one passed over.

           •

My father recalled a story about a family
           who lived in the oldest house on some of that land,
the structure built of brick, slave-made on the place,
           he said, of the place itself—and about one
of the women stricken with a tumor of the brain
           before there was an instrument to see it,
long before anyone knew what uranium was.
           The story misremembered, half-lie

or whole, I imagined again that house,
           her body-driven madness appearing
first as headache—the one pupil eclipsing
           its iris before auras around the windows,
around the children's heads, the chimney ciphering
           like the church organ pipe, one long note

unplayed, the sound unaccounted for. She would have been
           bound inside herself to a stake—burning at it,
the rope around her wrists giving way a little
           every day to the stronger bonds of invisible fire;
what if it were in the walls, the brick laced with it,
           the water, the melons and eggs, the milk; what if

she sifted it with the salt into the flour and fried it
           in the pan, telling her daughter to run away
from her, to go, you go, every day,
           as far as you can.
But what if it were
in her apron with her little knife;
           she could see clearly herself in its blade.

           •

We had already memorized the three-bladed
           black fan, symbol for the fallout shelter
the men had built under the post office,
           beneath its thick-combed walls of letter boxes—
small-windowed, gilt-numbered doors with bronze
           combinations we would inherit,
thresholds opening to promise and debt.
           It was somewhere beneath the cases

where the rural carriers sorted their routes,
           long days of gravel back roads, orbits
relentless, the sinuous dust of retraces.
           I never saw that shelter, never met
anyone who had, but believed in deep shelves
           of syrupy pears and peaches as I had been taught
to believe in heaven, safe, dreaded
           place I was told I would go, not meaning

for my soul to be taken in my sleep,
           not meaning to drift past the moon, past
the farthest planets, the slow, dim one ringed
           with dust and ice. It glowed the palest green
of opaque glass, a globe at the end
           of an empty street, so far from the source
it appeared bioluminescent origin,
           half cause, half sanctuary of last light.


Claudia Emerson

Secure the Shadow
Louisiana State University Press


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