Erin McKnight: “Absolution”

Erin McKnight, assistant editor at the literary e-zine The Rose & Thorn, has a beautiful essay in their Spring 2007 issue about her coal-mining ancestors:

I have greedy eyes. They scan photographs hungrily, brown irises flaring while trying to determine whether an unusual color or angle is new. When they realize that what they have found is something they’ve seen before, something that belongs in the picture, they drop back into shallow pools. These eyes don’t look; these eyes search.

When they move across the photo taken on the day of my Christening, they hunt for what they can’t see. They register the flush of youth on my parents’ cheeks, the creased gown shrouding my new body, and the cake with buttery layers promising to announce my entry into the world, but they aren’t finding what matters. Tucked into corners, and folded behind furniture are people in shadow. I suppose it doesn’t matter that I can’t see their faces, because I wouldn’t recognize them if I could. I like to imagine there would be a fuzzy sense of familiarity, but I know better than to believe we’d look alike. For the visitors in this photo all that matters is their sense of purpose, which I know is to claim me.

On this day, they pressed a stain of black into the soft skin on my forehead. I know it now to be an ‘x,’ because there’s nothing else this mark can be. It reminds me of the greasy cross I received each year as a child on Ash Wednesday. This sign transformed me for the duration of its wear and even now, privilege and responsibility smell to me like heavy incense and palm ashes.

The ‘x’ is thick and heavy in its certainty. No delicate lines form my obligation to them. Perhaps the shape lies so deep because its outline was traced numerous times by their dirty fingers. I choose to believe, however, that in death they no longer feared their own hands, and found the confidence to push into my flesh.

They made this ‘x’ with coal––the ink that has stained generations of Scottish bodies––when they smeared their signatures across my head….

Read the whole essay here.

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