Laura Leigh Morris is an assistant professor at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, where she teaches creative writing and literature. Before that, she spent three years as the National Endowment for the Arts/Bureau of Prisons Artist-in-Residence at Bryan Federal Prison Camp in Bryan, Texas. She’s previously published short fiction in Appalachian Heritage, the Louisville Review, the Notre Dame Review, and other journals. She is originally from north central West Virginia. Jaws of Life, now available, is her debut book.
I sat in the backseat of my parents’ car, my eyes on the road, an attempt to stave off motion sickness on the winding roads between Wetzel and Marion Counties. We were on our way back from visiting my great-aunt and -uncle in Rymer. We rounded the hundredth curve only to be blinded by lights—1000+ watt industrial lights that allowed hydraulic fracturing to continue 24 hours/day.
Hydraulic fracturing, fracking, West Virginia’s newest industry. Those who owned tracts of land within the Marcellus shale band had become rich overnight and continued to see their bank accounts grow as more natural gas was pumped out of the ground. Those who didn’t own land lived much the same as they had for years—except that now they had to contend with trucks driving too quickly over narrow roads, those same trucks too heavy and causing those roads to crumble at alarming rates. If they lived near a fracking site, they had to deal with the sounds the industry brought with it and, as I had just learned, the blinding lights that were turned on as soon as the sun dipped below the horizon, which is early in most hollows.
My mom slammed on the brakes, blind. Nine at night, pitch black everywhere but here, and she flipped down the sun visor, donned sunglasses, and crawled past the site. “I couldn’t even see the road,” she said, breathless. “I thought I’d wreck.” I’m sure she wasn’t the only one. This road was the only way into Mannington, the closest town. Daily, the people who lived out here contended with the light pollution that came with this new industry.
And that quickly, two thoughts came together: light pollution and my own short fiction. You see, since fracking had first arrived in North Central West Virginia, I’d wanted to write about it. The problem is, a story that proclaims “fracking is bad” isn’t a very good story. I needed people. I needed personal conflict. I needed something other than poisoned groundwater. More than earthquakes in Appalachia. That my mom was blinded by the light—that was my story.
By the time I’d arrived back at my parents’ house, the story was taking shape: Mabel is one of those instant millionaires, having sold some land to the frackers, but by the time the story begins, she’s realized her mistake. The industry was neither as unobtrusive nor as positive as its spokespeople had led her to believe. Instead, she no longer sleeps, her house lit day and night. So, she creeps out late one night, crawls the distance between her house and the fracking pad, and shoots the light bulbs out with a bb gun. It’s the first night’s sleep she gets in a long time.
This serves as the opening of “Frackers,” the first story in Jaws of Life. In its own way, it’s my own small form of rebellion, but with words rather than a gun.