The Captain asked Clemmie if she was ever in the city for he could not recall a time when she was.
"Yes," she said. "One time."
They were stopped to let the horses blow. All about was the sound of a hollow wind running the land, but it was not the wind. It was the sound of the thaw, as what grew on the earth and clutched to the rock gave up the cold in an aching perceptible gasp.
"No," Clemmie said, reconsidering. "I guess I never was. I guess I just took that I was."
Her horse scuffed at the cobbled trail. Though noon, it was now dark again as if early in the morning and would be light for all but another few hours of the day as the cut where they stood was so deep and precipitous.
"Wherever you are, you will always think of me," the Captain said to Henry, his voice seeming to break with regret.
The trail became a road rutted with threadlike rivulets and late that day they came to the swollen Twelve Mile. They would have to make a dangerous crossing on a rickety footbridge and the Captain seemed to hesitate, but then he did not. Fog enveloped their path and Clemmie commented on how strange it was, the cold and wet about her legs and ankles, while her upper body was warming to the light.
The Captain held the reins of the coal black horses as they unlashed their bundles and shouldered them. First Clemmie and then Henry embraced the old man and then they turned and made their crossing over the swaying bridge that would soon be washed away with the melt.
"Don't look down," she said, as if it were something she'd heard and now was telling him. When they reached the other side, Henry looked back. The Captain was still there, astride a coal black horse, the other two in hand. He raised his other hand, stretching forward his arm. Henry made the slightest of gestures, a nod in the Captain's direction, and the Captain stood in his stirrups, his old body arched in fierce salute.
They went to live in the city and Clemmie took a job working at the veterans' hospital where they got their cast-off towels and bedding and soap. She also saved for Henry the newspapers and magazines and books that were left behind.
It was near impossible to imagine not being in the mountains, but in the city the earth became the land at Henry's feet. To the west he could see what lay between himself and the horizon and it was without hollow, valley, defile, ravine, or stony turret. The mountains were never far away, but the site of the city was like something made by an originator, the mountains seemingly split open and pushed back by hand and then coved and held in place. He'd never walked so far in a straight flat line and felt turned out and naked.
Clemmie fell from a station in life she'd not known she occupied. Never before did they have to pay for water, heat, and a roof. They had a small house with a sun-filled kitchen and the hospital had a cafeteria where they often took their meals. On Saturday mornings Henry would go to the library with his mother. They'd walk through the back streets where clothes were hung on the lines to dry. The clothes wore a yellow hue from the burning of coal and they'd go to the library so he might pore over maps, atlases, and books of natural history, as if assuaging the privations of childhood. Then in the afternoon they'd purchase Italian ice sodas, almond, orange, or banana with shaved ice in tall, cloudy glasses. In the evenings Clemmie went to school and in time she became a nurse.
Sometimes they had visitors, relatives he'd never met before who'd been shunned by the Captain for having given themselves over to the life of the wage earner in the coal mines.
These relatives now lived in the city, or passed through, returning whenever they could. Uncle Golden came through when he was flush with money, and Aunt Adelita stayed with them for a time after her husband and two sons died in the Bartley No. 1 shaft mine. Ninety-one men and boys died that day, killed by explosion and fire, and his mother told him Aunt Adelita had been one of God's wandering souls ever since.
From The Coldest Night by Robert Olmstead. © 2012 by Robert Olmstead. Excerpted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. All rights reserved.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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