Emma had bathed men since she was seven, scrubbed their naked, sooty flesh as she would their pants and shirts, but as she thought of the priest's eager face as he slid the book between folds of his laundry, his careful hands moving gently over the mural in the church, her stomach cramped. She recalled the Norfolk and Western man's gentle teasing, I'll bet you loved ciphering in school, and at the sound of her name used in the same sentence as the word love, a surprising heat bloomed between her legs, rising, spreading, until her whole body burned and ached pleasantly. Then she recalled her mother's story about her aunt's careless comportment with men. Terrified of becoming a siren, she slammed the book shut, slid it beneath her cot, turned down the lamp, promising herself that she would return it to the priest first thing in the morning.
A draft blew through the knotty pine wall, over her face and hands, and she breathed in the smell of mine water drying on her brothers' clothes. Waiting for sleep, she thought of men emerging from stone, and imagined being the nameless artist charged with replacing the missing finger of the most perfect man. She thought of her own father, handing him his dinner pail as he left for his night shift.
"What will you think about all night?" she'd asked.
"I don't think," he'd said. "If I let my mind wander, I'd lose an arm, or worse." Then her father rubbed her head, kissed her.
"Every night, before I go down into the mine, I say a prayer."
The family's Christmas goose clucked softly behind the house. Her mother had nailed boards to its feet, making it swallow corn so that it would fatten, rubbing its throat until it swallowed. Emma remembered last Easter, when her father boiled and colored a dozen of its eggs, hid them out in the yard, inside the pots on the stove and in the empty cradle beside her parents' bed. When she'd found them all, her father told her to close her eyes, and he hid them all over again. Didn't he know she was too old for such games? she'd thought. Didn't he know that gathering the eggs felt like work? She didn't have the heart to tell him she was too old for this game, and they played until it was too dark to see the bright eggs.
It was after midnight, and her mother wavered slowly in the dark kitchen, in her white linen night shift. For a moment, Emma mistook her for a curtain billowing in the window. She held her mother's arm, led her back up to the garret, helped her into bed.
Her mother's faded blond hair was unbraided, tangled at the waist of her damp shift. The joints of her fingers were hot, knobbed, hard as ginger roots in Emma's palms. She turned her face to the wall, as though ashamed of her ugly hands, her failure to bear the violent tearing aches in her swollen joints and ligaments.
Emma went out to the brick oven, melted beeswax, and boiled the remaining wash water, carried the tub up to her mother's room. Kneeling beside her, she wrapped her mother's hands and feet in wool, poured melted wax over them, letting her sweat out pain. She winced as she touched her mother's hot, sore joints, feeling the phantom pains in her own fingers. Her mother called out, accusing her daughter of piercing her hands and feet with flaming arrows, but Emma continued to nurse her mother's failing body until she forgot her own.
Her mother's eyes fluttered shut. As Emma stood to leave, she grabbed Emma's forearm, pleading softly, "Stay here for a while. Please." She showed Emma how to scratch the soft skin above her wrist with a fingernail. "My mother used to do this when I couldn't sleep." Emma wanted to leave the drafty garret, the smell of her mother's night sweat, but she knew if she pulled away too soon her mother's eyes would fly open, and she'd have to stay even longer. She searched through the book-filled cradle still at the foot of the bed, looking for something to read. She found the Dialogue of Catherine of Siena, her Mother's favorite saint. She pulled out the Dialogue, opened it. Catherine's voice was immediate, comforting, a girl her age speaking of fountains: It is just like a vessel that you fill at the fountain. If you take it out of the fountain to drink, the vessel is soon empty. But if you hold your vessel in the fountain while you drink, it will not get empty: indeed, it will always be full. Her mother's eyes opened. She swatted the book out of her daughter's hands.
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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