Reaching the mountain's flank, she found a ridge steep enough to lean against and rested. Her chest throbbed, and her back still ached, but she knew better than to go home to her mother emptyhanded. The spraggers might not get their fill of stolen coal for hours, so she decided to fetch the priest's laundry while she waited. Raised a staunch Methodist, Emma's mother became a staunch Catholic when she married an Italian, and she often vied with the Polish and Italian wives for the privilege of taking in the priest's wash for free. Emma reasoned that the sight of the priest's coveted laundry would cheer her mother more than clean water from the pump.
The ridge's uphill path led through the church cemetery. Traveled only by widows and old miners, it smelled of laurel and decay, but it was safe. Sundays, when her father wasn't too tired for church, he walked this path with Emma and her mother, reciting names of shrubs and flowers that made them laughdog-hobble, toothwort, Dutchman's britches. In the middle of the graveyard, Emma rested beneath the old maple that grew into a hemlock. On one side of the entwined trees, blank plaques slid down the hillside, marking the graves of miners trapped and killed in a shaft fire, their anonymous bodies washed out of the mountain with fire hoses. Emma wandered down the other side of the slope, where tall tombstones were dug right out of a coal seam, etched with words in Italian, Polish, and Cyrillic. Here she found the small sarcophagus, the picture of a toddler brother who died in the pandemic before Emma was born, sealed beneath oval glass. They didn't have a photo of him when he died, so the women of the family had leaned his coffin against a coal seam, opened its lid and posed with his body. The brother's eyes were closed, one hand hanging from the open coffin, as though he'd fallen there exhausted by play. Emma's blond mother stood behind the coffin, flanked by her dark aunt and her grandmother, glaring straight ahead.
In early May, her living brothers, Michael, Carlo, and August, had followed the young priest from the white church through the cemetery, carrying the statue of the Virgin Mary on their backs. Wearing a thin, white robe, the priest swung a gold ball of incense from a chain while the statue teetered on their shoulders. Emma and her mother followed her brothers, singing, Mary, full of grace. Purest of our race. Spring frost thickened her breath as she circled the graves, her feet sinking through the soft snow, her heels hitting hard against the frozen coal seam.
Raised in a saint-haunted country, her father said the saints' stories were fairy tales for grandmothers and children. He believed only his own legends of how he came to America and met his American wife. On mornings that Emma fainted from the fast in church, he took her outside to sit on the steps, telling how he fell in love with her mother. Fresh from Palermo, he'd spoken no English, so the company put him in Emma's mother's second grade class with the eight-year-olds. Whenever his young classmates became unruly, Emma's mother would say, "Massimo, please stand," and her dark father would stand silently, in awe of her mother's blond hair and blue eyes, her proper manners and command of English, his height ending the unruliness of school children.
"She was a lady," he said. "She was so beautiful I could only look at her."
Her father always told Emma she favored her mother, but she knew better. Wide-shouldered and thick-waisted, she was built like a farmhand. Her face was round, even when she stood before the mirror beside the coal stove and sucked in her breath, searching for her mother's high cheekbones in her own face. She pulled her lank, brown hair into a braid that hung to her waist. She'd inherited only her mother's schoolteacher vocabulary and the habit of saying going to instead of gonna, which proved such a constant source of ridicule and amusement for her schoolmates that she stopped talking proper and dropped out to help her mother with the housework.
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.
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