Yield by Kristi Nimmo

After years of mixed feelings about her family's history, recent divorcee Leonie reads the diary of her Belgian coal-mining grandmother.

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I knew I could have gone into the coal mine, like other women before me, but it was a dirty place. Outside of the mine, coal dust escaped from a steady flow of transportation trucks, and it was stirred up when ground was dynamited to get at the coal seams. The dust drifted over the town, dirtying everything in sight, then sifted into the houses. Curtains and wallpaper were cobwebbed with the potentially explosive powder that could also contain silicates and sulfur oxides.

Coal being friable, the dark powder was unavoidable inside the mine, and to prevent disastrous fires, rock dust, such as gypsum and limestone, which didn't cake when wet, was applied to surfaces, diluting the possibility that powdered coal suspended in air might ignite.

If mining took place on the surface of a mountaintop, the disturbed land appeared shaved and scarred, like something out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. To get at the coal the basic strip-mining techniques couldn't reach, an auger came into play. An auger meant large holes, drilled hundreds of feet deep into a seam, which invariably still left coal behind that could one day spontaneously combust.

In addition to the filth and perils, none of my girlfriends decided to become a miner, and I would have faced lonesomeness and harassment by miners of the male persuasion. When I was growing up, I heard, "Women are supposed to be the womb, not in it!" Where the men picked up the slogan I don't know, but the memory of it stuck with me. And although my mother had been a coal miner, I wanted clear of anything to do with mining. No, the mine wasn't for me.

All of it made me feel befouled and contaminated, which probably had something to do with my splitting up with my husband. I needed to get out of the coal environment. Nevertheless, after the divorce was finalized, I took with me a late-nineteenth-century diary that I owned and had never read, in spite of the fact that it was penned by my five-generations-removed Belgian grandmother, who lived in the coal-mining Walloon region of Belgium. Her name was Leonie, my name also.

After I settled in the dove-white house I bought in an exurb, in a small subdivision called El Dorado (here it was doubtful anyone gave a single thought to coal), I mulled over the translation of the diary. I hoped Leonie's voice, unleashed from the distant past, would carry me against the grief I felt myself bashing against, like a bird trapped inside of a house, beating the windows as it looks for a way out; and I hoped that, besides placating the sorrowful din of the divorce, Leonie's voice would lessen my uneasy burden of having been the daughter of a mother who was a coal miner - a distinction that to me imparted sensations which bore a resemblance to an unkept wheel without an axle. All in all, I was unsteady, indecisive, and out of sorts.

Leonie and her husband and their two children worked in a coal mine. There were other industries they might have chosen - brick making, textile, glass, chemical, iron - but coal must have looked to them the obvious choice, what with their environment dotted with slag heaps, coal trains, and smelters; moreover, their social circles were inhabited by friends and family whose livelihood was underground.

Her husband cut coal, and she and the children loaded the coal into carts or dragged and pushed the carts out of the tunnels. Apparently, Leonie was unconcerned about rickets and life expectancy and was unaware of the burgeoning sentiment in England and France that children did not belong in mines and neither did women, although the tradition of Belgian women working in coal was age old, perhaps going back as far as the twelfth century.

Leonie was most expressive when she was at home lying in bed with a new child. The birth had been difficult: "I miss working with all the others. I miss the shadows. I nurse the baby and wonder when I will get out again to the bars after work. It is easier for me to clean the coal dirt out of my clothes than the diapers." Three months after that entry there was an accident in the coal mine. She wrote, "Roof caved. Husband killed." She left a page blank. To me, it was resignation, summed up with: "Many friends have come to help me. Joseph buried. No expense spared." She tried to brush off what happened, detailing the amount of coal she estimated she had piled into carts while married and pictured her return to the house after a happy day's work "sloughing off dirt as one walks home, brittle feeling at first, until one realizes the legs and arms are swinging and a gentle feeling overcomes one's spirit and soon there will be laughter about which so and so is the weakest." She credited the journey home from physical work with restorative powers.

In my own crisis, I wondered if her words were honest, or if she wanted to be perceived as resilient; her tone vacillated between the ordinary and nearly poetic, so that there was slight chance a reader of her diary would think, "What a pity, a poor woman having to work underground day after day."

But I'm cherry-picking her words. A few months went by, with little written, and her handwriting was riddled with mistakes she didn't correct. It appeared she had symptoms of pleurisy, and she wrote of her desire to give her life in the mine.

Her disease of the lungs progressed, and the work underground became too difficult, forcing her to sift for coal above ground in the slag heaps. With permission, the coal she found she put into a sack, and when it is was full to the point of breaking, she hauled it slung over her back and head, into town, to sell. She was virtually self-employed. She didn't write of the baby or her two other children. She seemed to have amputated herself from her family. She worked to get by.

Somehow some of my ancestors made their way to West Virginia. I imagine it was the coal that called them, but unlike in Europe, which had over the course of a few centuries its share of women and children working below ground in coal mines, in the fifty states women had not, to my knowledge, been welcomed into the floor area of an excavation, except when temporary help was a necessity, or legislation forced operators to hire women, or a family worked its own pits.

Yet, in North America, women had found places rich with gold and silver and rushed to claim them. They invested in mines. There were women who in the wake of the Gold Rush set up ancillary businesses, profiting from the eagerness of those in search of gold, and more of their stories will surface, and I suppose there will one day be a collection of women's mining stories read with the kind of mental interest that early women's colonial narratives or captivity narratives spark. Even so, enterprising as many women had been, when my mother went to work for the mine she had to deal with the insults and stigmas and the harassment that came with the territory of a woman working in a mainly male environment. The women miners had to be tough.

My mother was a single parent, her husband had gone missing, and she was too proud to ask for help from her family. In a black-and-white photograph, maybe a publicity shot taken at a mine, my mother had inserted herself between two men twice her size. Her legs had been driven into the ground in that timeless realm of a photograph, as if they were spurs on a tree, growing out of a crag, and her brilliant eyes stared dead ahead. The miners' helmets and clothes, smudged with coal, looked afflicted with liver spots, their faces too; on her, the black spots seemed a totem for sacrifice, whose very presence hewed insecurity into my place in the world.

To top it off, she called herself a "laborer" when I was ten years old and asked her why she always looked so tired. She explained to me that she used a shovel and put together and pushed around equipment. What bothered me was she presented herself as nobody special. Thereafter, I believed by association I was the same. It gnawed on me, while a voice inside of me screamed, "Get away from coal mines!" But I didn't let on how I felt. I kept my sense of disgrace to myself the best I could, though I'm sure it showed to her. I helped around the house, usually had my nose stuck in library books, rereading what little was available, and gave her no trouble.

It wasn't a happy house, and when I was thirteen, she sent me to live with her sister, Louise, who spoke some French and told me my mother put up with men who acted as if they were hibernating bears that got woken up every time she happened by. "Where your mother works, she's blamed for anything that goes wrong even if she isn't there on the day it happens."

"You've got a mind. Use your mind," was a favorite Louise reminder to me, as if to contrast me to my mother.

By the time I graduated from college, my mother wrote me a letter with the news she was at last a roof bolter. I wrote her a letter of congratulations. But I made the mistake of asking her what a roof bolter did. "So much for what you've learned," she wrote back. I felt the burn of the remark. I had little interest in channeling what my mother was going through ever since she had shipped me off to live with her sister, and I put forth no effort to understand her. If she lamented how little I cared for her life, I wanted to ask why she had removed me from what she was so proud of? I didn't ask. I kept my mouth shut.

By the time I turned fifty, my attitude towards her had considerably softened. She had already passed away from silica exposure, which only had made me more hardened, but about a year later, while going through her financial statements, I discovered she had paid for my room and board at her sister's, and she had made a good wage, not as much as the men around her who did the same jobs but slightly more than my teacher's salary. For most of my childhood and adult life, I'd believed myself to have been an economic burden to my mother, and my heart lightened considerably to find out money wasn't the reason she'd sent me away. Looking back, a precocious, questioning child had more power than I realized.

I've not yet forgotten the almost incident. For the short time we lived in a true company town, there was only one grocery store we could shop at, and I was tired of listening to her complaints about the price of canned peaches and a tin of pineapple. I suggested that we go over to another town and buy from there.

"Don't you understand," she said, slapping me about, "they'll burn the house down. You'd lose your head. It happens." I learned right then and there it was best to play it safe. Don't go anywhere. Don't do anything. Don't speak badly of the mines. Don't eat anything but company food.

I now wanted to believe she removed me from the environments which were all about coal, much like a parent might remove a child from a friendship group in which using drugs and drinking alcohol was acceptable, not because she thought the places where we lived were unhealthy, but because she could no longer trust that I wouldn't advertise the grievances she accidentally grumbled in my presence. I had become a danger to myself and to her, and everybody in a mining town has a long memory.

I went wild in my own way. I met Julien when I was twenty and he was twenty-nine, in New Canaan, Connecticut. It was summer, and I decided to visit houses of literary persons. I sized him up as being thirty. It was raining, and we were sheltering under a canopy attached to a storefront. Julien was toting the same Patagonia backpack as mine. I talked too much. My glasses kept falling down my nose. I was afraid he thought I looked ugly with bedraggled hair that needed a wash. We ate sandwiches from our backpacks, trading peanut butter for peanut butter, and laughed at it.

Despite his lankiness, he was handsome. His hair was blonde and curly and was a magnet for things from weed patches. He worked for a coal mining magazine. "A writer-editor kind of job," he told me. When he found out my mother worked in a coal mine, his interest in me was set in stone, and, at the end of the summer, we married. I taught history in a high school, and, eventually, he became the chief editor of the magazine.

Having turned my back to mining, I had made an effort to avoid all topics on it, but I couldn't completely escape it, not with Julien's professional allegiance to the industry magazine and our location in a mining town. Coal ended up looking at me on the blotchy cars parked in the school lot, and its vicious nature slackened the faces of parents whose lungs struggled to get air. The doctor who gave community talks on black lung disease, and received threats for advocating for safer mining practices, couldn't cure the occupational disease.

Louise had handed Leonie's diary over to me when my mother died and said I should keep it for the family. She thought Leonie might have been a miner and laughed irascibly when she gave it to me, half afraid, I think, I'd trounce the diary. Instead, it sat on a shelf, and I was determined not to give it attention. Julien thumbed through it a few times. He knew some French. Then a graduate student in women's studies and engineering contacted Julien to see if he could put her in touch with people who might have stories about European women who worked in mines in the nineteenth century. He got my permission to let her read Leonie's history, and, in return, she would give me a full-fledged translation. When the translation and original were returned to me, after making certain the diary was intact, I put them away. Julien passed on the thanks from the student who had borrowed it. "She found it interesting," he said.

Alone, in the El Dorado house where I had withdrawn like a leaning fence picket detached from its neighbors, I had read Leonie's thoughts.

In a moment of weakness, I opened a kitchen drawer. At the rear, alongside the potato peeler and cheese grater, I withdrew the wad of fissured tissue paper, partly concealing the wedding band, unornamented, no more than a narrow ring of white gold, not of use to me.

The ring fit like a barely-there undergarment. I had worn it as if it were a tonsil that one never feels until it's inflamed. In my marriage and employment, I hadn't felt anything like Leonie had for her work in the mine and the camaraderie that came with it.

I sought refuge at the pond at the bottom of the long hill. There was short access to it through the backyards of people whose property had an easement tacked into their lots. There was also a road you could bicycle on. I had gotten a flat tire the first time I tried. It was too long to walk on foot. I was not a jogger. I was not brisk. The unathletic type. I felt awkward with the barking dogs giving warning.

The pond, like the houses, was human made, with a shelter belt of pine trees to buffer the sounds of the highway. I sat on the moist earth, my knees drawn to my chest. It was uncomfortable to sit like that. I breathed, hoping to relax the tight, inner thigh muscles. I had never been the outdoor type. I knew a lot about what I had never been. What I had been was too immediate, too alone, and too Spartan.

Leonie didn't completely resemble the pictorial hiercheuses - the Belgian women who carted coal to the surface - often depicted in white linen, or descending into a mine, or taking a break. She lacked the apple cheeks and wide haunches.

She described herself before she married: short, thick mouth, fierce eyes, pale, flat-chested, and friendly with the girls she'd grown up with, and liking the feeling of the men's mining clothes - the trousers and shirt - and preferred the paintings of the artists who romanticized the hiercheuses, to those showing them blackened and nearly naked or looking like hags.

Though I don't know at what age Leonie died, it was unlikely that she had lived a long life, and I was vividly aware that I was no longer young. How much time had I lost by allowing Julien's life ambitions to direct me to live in a morbid town of coal dust? I wondered. I sat deep in thought at the pond, and an uncomfortable warmth crept into my throat. As a balm to the quickened despondency, I called to mind what Leonie had written near the end of her diary: "What I dream is mine. It is not the dream of the idle girls in the paintings. I dream I'm conquering the world. I see the faces of several girls and see their youth in their old faces. There are times these artists who paint us go too far to intimate there is a fertile woman lurking underground, writhing and straining to do what she is paid to do. I think the ones who depict us heavy with stoicism and above ground with our simple implements do so because they have not felt what it is like to work with friends and family. How lonely it is to stay in the house. It is exciting to know one day may be the last, for how can one go to bed sullen and despising friend or enemy if it is possible the next day might bring tragedy."

As if Julien were chasing the thought, I saw a text appear. Hello.

It was the first time he'd communicated with me since I'd left. I wondered if I should answer or ignore. While I was pondering what to do, he sent ?.

Answer or ever more remain silent, I said to myself.

Julien was typing again. How are you. Without a question mark. I could feel it was his last attempt to reach me. For him to say more would not be dignified.

I typed, I read Leonie's diary.

I realized when I had lived with my mother, I asked myself what I wanted, but I didn't ask myself if I were loved.

I added, I'm OK, and I sent the message.

"I love you, too," I whispered.


  1. I found “Yield” to be quite a powerful story of a woman who has been somewhat misplaced in her culture. Rebelling against the mining industry which has been so demanding and so endemic in parts of the States and in other countries, she becomes a school teacher and is then surprised to discover that her mother, who toiled thanklessly in the mines, actually earned more money than she. As she notes in the narrative, the scourge of black lung is real and is common among miners (my father was a miner as were many relatives from coal-rich Southern Illinois). The story ends on a note of optimism, which made me happy for Leonie. This is yet another excellent, thoughtful story appearing in FOTW. Thank you, Kristi, and thank you, Charlie.

    1. Bill, your comment is very meaningful to me given that you have a family with many miners.

  2. This is a wonderful meditation. It settles into several places and times, all related. One is drawn in by the mood, and the revelations. Beautiful.

    1. June, thank you for allowing yourself to be drawn into "the mood, and the revelations." Kristi Nimmo

  3. A beautiful piece of writing. Thaank you.

    1. Rozanne, thank you for reading "Yield" and thinking it is "beautiful."

  4. I love how this narrative explores themes of heritage and identity. The protagonist's aversion to coal mining, shaped by her mother's harsh experiences, juxtaposes with her ancestor Leonie's resilient acceptance of mining life. The story is a poignant reflection on the interplay between past and present and between legacy and self-acceptance.

    (As a reader, I am however curious as to what various factors were involved in the divorce between the protagonist and her husband. Is there hope for a reconciliation at the end? An acceptance?)

    1. Hi, Adam. Thank you for reading the story! As you said, it's a "reflection on the interplay between past and present and between legacy and self-acceptance." You are right that the narrator's relationship with Julien isn't fleshed out in the way you would like, to satisfy your curiosity. I don't think she would be able to transcend her need to flee from the mining community. It was a deadend relationship, sadly, but anything is possible . . . and if I had gone in that direction in the story the character might have surprised me. The curiosity about the marriage is probably material for a something much longer than a short story. :)

  5. I really identified with the narrator of the story. Thank you for creating such believable, very relatable characters