On monday, washday, the two boys standing outside the white frame house looked like wizened old men. They're old enough to stop speeding mine cars with wooden sprags, Emma thought. Old enough to chew their daddy's tobacco, they stood in the middle of the dirt road, their slate eyes searching for her inside her family's front window. The taller one had burned a black "Made in Poland" tattoo into his right forearm. The shorter one lacked a forefinger and thumb on his sooty left hand.
"Go stand in the window," Emma's mother said. "At least let them get a look at you."
"It's just a couple of spraggers," Emma said. "They should be at work."
"Maybe they're still in school." Her mother frowned, for a girl should be seen and not heard. But Emma was sixteen, old enough to work like a woman alongside her mother and speak her mind.
"They're too old for school," she said.
Turning away from the boys' longing eyes, Emma followed her mother out to the crumbling brick oven beside the rusted train tracks to boil water for the washing. It was late August, a cool morning. The red rising sun burned the dingy fog above the coal camp until the narrow sky turned indigo, the color of birdhouses behind the Poles' and Italians' houses down in the foreign place. Emma poured boiling water into the wooden tub as her mother tied ragweed into a handkerchief, dropped it down into the water, stirred in her father's and brothers' blackened work shirts. When her mother lifted them out with a broom handle, the shirts glowed white above the deep green water. Emma carried the wet bundles to the line strung between the sugar maple and hemlock. Warm and heavy in her arms, the clean clothes steamed and soaked the front of her dress.
She wished it was Wednesday, baking day, when the smell of bread filled the hollow, rising all the way up to the church cemetery on the ridge above the camp, and Emma's mother sent her down to the foreign place to help her Aunt Maria with the baking. When she was a little girl, Emma prayed for an older sister, and secretly she believed that her father's youngest sister was the answer to her impossible prayer. Maria kissed Emma on both cheeks, called her "Bella," making her feel shy and pretty. In her far-away accent, Maria gently bossed her around, teaching her how to stuff zucchini flowers with homemade ricotta and fry them in the skillet. In spring, Maria made rose hip pastries that tasted like perfume and melted against the tongue. In summer, Maria refused to make the heavenly pastries, claiming her hands were too hot for the delicate dough. Instead, she taught Emma to hunt for skullcap on the shale barrens beside the house, claiming the rugged landscape reminded her of Sicily. Believing the skullcap relieved nervousness and melancholy, she added it to the bread flour, extending it, making twelve loaves instead of ten.
Maria never wrote down any of her recipes. She measured out ingredients with a hand or fist. When she asked Emma to add flour, she said, "Quantobasta," as much as is enough.
"Enough for what?" Emma said.
"Enough for it to feel as it should."
"How much water then?"
"It is a dry day. Your flour may want more water."
Maria stuck a piece of paper into the wood oven, and when it came out the color of chestnuts, she put the bread in to bake. She drenched a slice from the first baked loaf with olive oil brought over by a brother who ran a longshore ship from the Bay of Naples, salted it, and gave it to Emma. The herbed bread sank like a stone in Emma's stomach, making her head spin, making her forget all hunger for days. Maria sold her bread to the single miners, made sure the newest schoolteacher got her share, gave away slices sprinkled with sugar to the Italian children who hung over her fence. Once a month, Maria sent Emma down to stop the train and trade bread for ice and lemons with the Norfolk and Western man.
Excerpted from In the Garden of Stone by Susan Tekulve. Copyright © 2013 by Susan Tekulve. Excerpted by permission of Hub City Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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