The grandfather woke from his nap, walked outside, his faded eyes blinking against the late afternoon sun, his thin white hair flying. He touched Emma's shoulder gently with his bony hand.
"Ancora sa qui?"
Emma nodded, "Yes, I'm here again."
"She is gone."
Emma's stomach flipped with the terrifying thought that Maria had left for good, gone off to Detroit to find the man who abandoned her long ago.
The old man shrugged, looked over to the wash lines beside the house. "Today is washday. Maybe she goes to the pump." In all these years, Emma had never imagined her once-beautiful aunt doing laundry, but men's briefs and work clothes and socks were draped over four militant rows of laundry lines, a single bed sheet snapped flat and pinned against the house. The sight of her aunt's loneliness filled Emma with such disappointment that she stood quickly, fled back to her mother's house.
At home, Emma's mother glanced over her dirty dress, the water pails filled with more laundry. She looked at the sun, measuring the time left before dusk.
"Those spraggers threw grease balls at me on my way to the pump," Emma explained feebly. "I went to fetch the priest's laundry. I know how hard climbing those steps to the church is for you."
Her mother nodded, took the laundry from the pails. "The men will be home soon. Wash your face before you go to the pump."
Standing at the end of the water line, Emma set the buckets at her feet. Recalling how her mother always claimed that many girls met their husbands at the water pump, she studied the worn faces of the women standing before her in line, the front of her own sodden dress. She couldn't imagine a man coming to this pump for anything but water. She looked for her aunt, thought of how Maria once hung her clean nightgown on the line, calling her lover to her on a Friday night. She couldn't remember a time when any part of her own clothing was clean or bright enough to call a man to her day or night.
When she got home, her father and brothers were already in the backyard, peeling off their dirty clothes outside the house. Standing naked in the back yard, they took turns hunching over the tin tub, their pale shoulders and tired arms polished by moonlight. Emma helped them wash their backs with torn pieces of old underwear, listening to them discuss a roof fall in their shaft. Though the fall happened over a week ago, her father's voice remained hoarse from calling out to her brothers, and the fear remained inside of them as they talked it out over their bath.
"I was walking like a duck as fast as I could to get out," Carlo said.
"The mountain was falling down behind me," August said.
As her father and brothers talked of the hazards inside the mine, Emma watched her mother's face, thinking of how her mother carried the mine inside of her all the time, always waiting for the siren to sound, for a son to come home too late, for that knock at the door in the middle of the night. When her brothers finished bathing, Emma hung their work clothes to dry behind the coal stove in the kitchen. Their trousers were heavy with dirt and water from kneeling in the mines all day, but they would wear them for several more days. Cleaning them before the next washday was pointless.
After the meal of pasta and butter, her father went back to the mine to work a night shift, and her mother climbed up to the garret to sleep in the wrought iron bed beside the empty cradle. Her three brothers slept crossways on the bed, pulled out in the middle of the kitchen. Lying on her bed tick beside the coal stove, surrounded by a curtain of black and sodden work clothes, Emma pulled out the priest's book of statues, split it open, studied the picture of David by the acetylene lamp. There dark, ropey veins were visible in his arms and legs, and his toes looked smudged. Only his pubic hair looked clean. In 1808, she read, the middle finger was stolen from his right hand, and a lesser-known artist was charged with replacing it. But the new finger was too large, distorted, and David would never be perfect again. Emma turned to the book's title page and read the inscription: For Edward Winnis, bought at the Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., 1920.
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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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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