John Henry had a sweet little wife,
Her name was Polly Ann;
When Johnnie got sick and
He had to go to bed,
Polly drove that steel just like a man;
Polly drove that steel just like a man.
He's as big as a house and rough as a lump of coal, but Myrna wouldn't trade him for the world.
They've known each other since old times, when she'd go to school carrying her dinner packed inside a big tin bucket. Barret never went along with her all the way - he was too busy taking care of his family, from the time he was old enough for schooling onwards - but he'd sit by the side of the dirt track and wait for Myrna to pass and accompany her as far as he could. Those were good mornings, all birdsong and dew on the pines and rocks skipped along the surface of the road into the high grass beyond. Occasionally she would share her meagre breakfast of stale cornbread and molasses with him, and the grateful looks Barret always gave her for these small kindnesses stayed with Myrna until her dying day.
When she had to walk back home at night he was there too. Sometimes, when they finally got to her daddy's little shack, the old man would be dead drunk on bathtub liquor, passed out in the front yard like a sack of flour. On these occasions Myrna stayed the night at Barret's house - one more child didn't catch much notice from his mother, and Daddy never seemed to care that she was gone anyways. He stayed in a near-perpetual state of drunkenness, and noticed very little but how likely the moonshine still was to blow up in his face.
Myrna eventually grew up into a buxom and broad-hipped young lady, just like her mamma before her. Every boy in Corel wanted to walk her home then, but Myrna didn't give two whoops in Hell for any of them. Her heart belonged to the hulking young giant who waited for her outside the mills every day, helping Myrna tote her belongings when she was a mass of aching feet and cramped, twisted fingers. Later in their courtship he'd simply pick her up, carrying his future bride in the crook of one arm as easy as you please.
She loves him as much now as she did all those years ago, and if Myrna can't hoist him onto her shoulders and carry him home from the mines, she can at least be there waiting when the whistle sounds and men spill out of the ground like a black spring. And she is, without fail.
When Myrna hasn't got her hands full with the full-time job of being a miner's woman, she acts as a midwife to the ladies of their little neighborhood. Miner's wives are forever popping out children, and there's always the chance of complications. Since the coal-diggers can ill afford pretty luxuries like real doctors, Myrna stands by and makes sure things go smooth as cream, boiling the water and smacking the bottoms and doing all the things that need doing when a new life comes into the world.
Barret says she's just as good as any goddamned city sawbones. She remains as stony-faced as Mount Corel every time he says it, but inside her heart's glowing away like a live coal.
There are times when Myrna still gets nervous, though. The day she has to go help with Eleanor's birthing she's as jittery as the proverbial long-tailed cat in a roomful of rockers, even though the carrying has been smooth and Eleanor is a big, strong girl with enough hip-space to pass an equally strapping babe if she has to. That's her best friend lying there groaning and straining on the pallet, and Myrna can't help it if she's a touch anxious. She nearly bites poor Dyne's head off before Barret wisely takes the father-to-be out onto the front porch for a shot of liquid courage and some idle chatter.
All their worries turn out to be unfounded. Eleanor pushes forth a fine daughter into Myrna's waiting hands, with good colour in her cheeks and as healthy a set of lungs as you could wish for on a newly-birthed baby-child. Dyne's so proud when she plops the swaddled bundle into his lap he seems just about ready to pop, grinning like a loon and laughing like one too when he can finally bring himself to make a sound. Eventually he hands the little one off to Barret, pride dictating that everyone see and admire the fresh life he's brought into the world. New fathers, Myrna thinks with mild amusement, are pretty much all the same.
She watches her big husband (far too big for this tiny room; when he tried to gingerly ease himself into one of the wicker chairs it cracked and popped so alarmingly he settled on standing in the corner looking conspicuous instead) and, as she always does, Myrna marvels at the gentleness in Barret's massive paws. Her old man can bluster and bluff like a strutting Cockatrice rooster all he likes in front of other folks - at heart he's as soft and malleable as marshmallow creme, and his careful, gentle hands show it. He holds the infant like she's made of bone china, the flash of a grin cutting through his features in a radiant half-moon.
"Would you jez look at this itty-bitty lil' bebbe girl?" he says wonderingly, looking down at her with almost as much pride as her own father. "Ain't nothin' big about her 'cept her yell!"
Myrna wonders sometimes if Barret resents her for giving him no children of his own. They've tried, on and off through the years, but nothing ever came of it, nothing but heartache and disappointment. Myrna's had quite enough of that pair in her time, thank ya kindly, and so to numb the pain she says that they are all her children, each and every one she watches come squalling into life. Occasionally, if she tries hard enough, she can even convince herself this is true. Barret, however ...
There's nothing to be done about it, so she lets the matter drop from her mind and goes to join her husband in cooing over the baby. As her mamma once said before the black lung carried her off, worrying didn't get nothin' done that hoping couldn't do just as easily.
She dislikes the woman the moment she claps eyes on her, and not just because she's wearing a dress that probably costs as much gil as Barret earns in a flat year.
Barret says they've come to make life easier, but Myrna suspects, with more than a little guilt, that his devotion to her is blinding him to how damned shady the whole operation seems. Every time he sees her on her knees scrubbing away at the floorboards that won't come unblackened he looks stricken; Myrna tries to reassure him time and time again that it's alright - that she's been helping clean coal dust off things since she was able to toddle - but her words never seem to smooth the furrows from his forehead completely. He worries, and that worry is affecting his feelings on the Mako Reactor in a big way.
Myrna doesn't know how she feels about the whole bedevilled mess herself. She trusts the damned Shin-ra company about as far as she can throw her husband, true enough, but a world in which beating the rugs doesn't produce a cloud black and thick enough to choke the air from your lungs sounds like the eighth wonder of the Planet, and an attainable one at that. New houses would be built with the funds that were sure to roll in from the new jobs, sturdy things made of brick and not cheap clapboard. Pollution would be non-existent. Blacktop could be laid down over the roads, replacing the rutted, dusty things that turned to mire each time a rainstorm passed overhead. The Shinra woman lays all her cards on the table, and against these claims not even Myrna can stand firm for long. She lies in bed tossing and turning for most of the night after the initial meeting, trying to measure the cost of letting the power company into their lives versus the possible changes it may bring.
It would be an easy decision if it were merely Myrna's way of life at stake - not worth the risk when she'd been living as best she could without much fuss for the better part of thirty years - but there are the children to think about, and not just those of her friends and neighbors. As if in response to her thoughts a fluttering sets up in her abdomen; she lays a hand on top of it and feels the tiny movements in wonderment until they slow and cease. No. This is no longer just her choice to make. Myrna's gotta be thinking for two now.
Barret doesn't know yet, and she's loathe to tell him. Not because he'll be unhappy with the news - Barret loves the young'uns; if he could get away with it the big bear would give horsey rides to the neighbor boys and girls from sunup to lamplight - but because this has happened before, always with the same outcome. She's managed to carry this one far further than any of the others, though, so maybe there is hope. Hope for the town, and hope for their child, all tied up together in Myrna's mind.
A world in which a son wouldn't have to go down into the mines and die with blackened spittle running from his lips. A world in which a daughter wouldn't be forced to clean and clean until her fingers were calloused and bent. A world in which education was readily available, so these unborn spectres could get schooling and make something of themselves outside the town's boundaries. The baby quickens inside her belly once again, and Myrna's lips set in a firm, immovable line. Her decision is made. The penny drops.
She falls asleep without any further trouble, Barret's solid snores lulling her into a peaceful, dreamless slumber.
When the village goes up, it goes up like it's built out of oily rags and kerosene. The flames find more than ample fuel - in the clapboard houses with their tarred roofing and newspaper insulation, in the piles of coal stacked in each and every household's hod - and quickly spread out of control across the city. Even if there weren't armed soldiers waiting at every door it would be pointless to try and fight the conflagration; Corel, remarkably and rather ridiculously for a coal-mining town, has no organized fire department. Myrna has always said that would come back to bite them in the ass someday, and lord has it ever.
She hears the gunshots before she even smells the smoke. The screams reach her ears directly thereafter. One glance out the window is all it takes to tell Myrna they are in some 'deep mothafuckin' shit', as her absent husband would say. More than anything she wishes he were here right now, to take charge of the situation and to make her brave simply with his presence, but he and Dyne left months back for Midgar, to discuss the continuing construction of the Mako Reactor at Shinra HQ. There's no telling when they'll get home, and so Myrna is left to handle the situation on her own. For Eleanor and baby Marlene, cowering in the kitchen as tendrils of smoke begin to work their way in, she will have a backbone of pure iron.
It's obvious what's going down, even if the reason for it isn't quite as clear. The fire will drive them out like rats from a burning haystack, right onto the guns of those lurking blue-clad soldiers she sees through the window. It's a good plan for mass extermination, Myrna can't fault them for that, but the thing they never reckoned with was someone actually keeping their head and fighting back in the middle of all this chaos. Human panic is as useful a weapon as any blade or bullet yet molded, and their attackers know and are relying on that fact to help finish the job the lit match started. Myrna plans on making that assumption backfire in their faces, for at least as long as it takes to get Eleanor and the infant to safety.
The double-barrelled shotgun that once belonged to her father is oiled and wrapped in a quilt under the bed; Myrna retrieves it and makes sure the old scattergun is loaded and ready, steadying her nerves even as the air inside the house becomes harder and harder to breathe. Marlene is wailing like Corel's non-existent fire engine, oblivious to her mother's desperate ministrations and soothing shushes. The noises trickling in from outside are less than encouraging, a perfect din of harsh Midgarian accents barking orders, agonized screams crying for mercy, whining bullets ricocheting off buildings, and above all the roar and crackle of all-engulfing flames. Myrna feels her resolve quail for a moment before she gathers it back like a mother hen calling her chicks to roost.
The roof begins to cave in behind them. Myrna takes a deep breath, positions herself in front of Eleanor, and kicks open the door with a booted foot.
In the brief seconds before things begin to happen, Myrna entertains a fleeting thought of what the soldiers must see - a coffee-and-cream coloured valkyrie with burning eyes, a shotgun roughly the diameter of the Sister Ray, and a swollen baby-belly protruding from underneath her gingham skirts, bursting out in a blast of black smoke like Hades summoned from his pit. She'd laugh at their shocked faces if she had the time, but she doesn't. Instead she just fires both barrels of her gun and hopes for the best.
Two go down with that surprised expression still plastered on, incredulous to the very last. Myrna's aiming for a third when the bullet catches her in the chest, spinning her around like a wooden top, sending her to her knees in a spray of blood. Another slams into her shoulder - faintly from nearby she can hear Eleanor screaming; she prays the woman has the good sense to run and hide and doesn't waste the chance Myrna has given her - and something warm and wet begins to bubble into her throat, something that tastes like iron and salt. Blood. Her own blood, dripping out of her mouth and down her chin onto the ground below. Now there's a taste that takes her back.
She tries to stand, but a third bullet tearing through her backbone makes short work of that effort. Myrna is still trying to push herself off the ground through sheer force of will when the rifle butt connects with her temple. The dirt rushes up to meet her, and this time she embraces it, appreciates how warm and comforting it feels against her cheek. Late afternoon sunlight the hue of honey streams down into her eyes in a golden haze.
It's getting hard to think. Words and ideas are becoming too damned slippery to hold on to for long. Myrna knows she's dying - she's not a blasted fool; even in its current addled state her brain knows very well you can't take that many bullets and survive - and is thankful she has very few regrets, hopes Barret won't be angry with her for hiding the pregnancy for so long.
Her last conscious thoughts are of him, and of how proud of him she has always been. Then there are no more thoughts at all, only endless green and a blessed peace.
'Room and pillar': a hard-rock mining system, often used in coal mining and underground quarrying, in which material is extracted across a horizontal plane while leaving "pillars" of untouched material to support the roof.'