"I'll give you the ice if you tell me your name," he'd said, the first time they met, and when she replied, "Tell me your name first," he'd teased, "My name's Caleb Sypher. I'll bet you loved ciphering in school. Matter of fact, I'll bet you're smart enough to be the schoolteacher down here." Emma had blushed, her sweaty hands melting the ice block down to half on the way back to her aunt's house. After the baking was done, Maria squeezed lemons over the ice and wild stevia, making lemonade that was cold, grassy, and sweet.
But it was still washday, and Emma's mother's face pinched over the dirty wash water cooling in the tub. Her slender, piano player fingers were chapped, red and knobby, her stiff thumbs turning inward with rheumatism. Emma had been wondering lately when her own hands would look this old. Her fingers had stiffened from the cold, and her back ached from carrying waterheavy wash to the line all morning. Her arms felt rubbery, and she shivered in her damp dress. Her mind had emptied from the long, quiet hours of washing, filling again with the single desire to keep the laundry clean until it was dry enough to take down from the line.
Her mother's mind darkened with the rinse water, and she told the story of her Aunt Maria's unfortunate past, calling her sisterin- law "the siren," because she'd once hennaed her hair and hung her nightgown on the line on a Friday night, luring a Sicilian miner to her bed. They ran off to Detroit the next morning to look for work in the Ford factory.
"She was never careful enough about her comportment with men," Emma's mother said. "She got into some kind of trouble up there and came home alone."
"They always come back. They have no family up there, and your family is your home, and if it's your home, even working in the camps is better than doing something anywhere else."
Now, Maria lived in her parents' house, renting rooms to single miners and caring for her aging father, a tiny man with hair shocked white from sunstroke. His birth certificate had been lost long ago, nobody knew how old he was, and he sat all day in a rocker on the front porch with a water glass of the dark, young wine he made in the shed. While the bread baked, Emma liked to sit next to him. Unsure of who Emma was, he called her Nina, held her hand as he talked in the old language of meeting Garibaldi, warning of dragons that lived beneath the Straits of Messina. When he tired of talking, he gently pinched one of Emma's arms, murmuring, "C'era una volta," until he fell asleep. Emma always thought he was saying, "I don't wanna," until Maria assured her that he meant, once upon a time.
Coal dust blew over the fence. A clothespin dropped from the line, and the water-heavy clothes sagged dangerously close to the earth.
"Can't keep anything clean here," her mother fussed.
The tightness in her mother's voice made Emma's stomach clench. The inevitable sadness of coal dust on clean laundry could send her mother to bed for days. Buried beneath a quilt scattered with books of saints and prayer cards, her mother took her own journey to a dangerous place in her mind, leaving Emma alone for days, the terrifying silence in the house echoing louder than a mine siren. Now Emma went inside for a slice of Maria's herbed bread, hoping it would raise her mother's spirits. Her mother refused to eat, calling it "demon bread." Quickly, Emma picked up two empty pails, followed the rusted train tracks beside the house, gravel tumbling beneath her feet as she headed toward the water pump in the middle of the camp.
At the culm bank, the two spraggers were stealing coal. The shorter one whistled low, murmured in harsh Polish, dipped his good hand into his pail. Before she could duck, a grease ball covered with coal dust slammed against her chest, leaving her breathless. She turned, running as a second grease ball smashed against her back, pushing her to her knees, her pails skidding across mud and slate. She stood, collected her pails and ran, chest and back aching from the grease bombs, balancing on the wooden planks leading through the muddy streets, slowing only when she no longer heard the boys' cruel laughter, their harsh, shushing language.
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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