Emma continued scratching the underside of her mother's wrist, waiting for the last wakefulness to leave her mother's body. Yearning for sleep, she became uncertain if she was awake. She heard the train pulling itself through the hollow, heaving its weight through the mountain, its metal wheels grinding against metal tracks, its whistle sounding like an off-key church organ in the distance. As the train approached the house, she held her breath, waiting for it to pass. Suddenly, she heard a thundering crash, a rumble across the front porch, sudden footsteps, as though someone was running around outside to collect the laundry before the rains came. Lying back, Emma rested her head beside her mother's, on the pillow. Her mother's eyes began moving beneath their closed lids, her body sinking into sleep.
Relieved that her mother was finally asleep, and that one of her brothers thought to save the laundry from the rain, Emma went back to her cot. It must have been almost morning, because the stove was cold, but the shutterless window remained black. She burrowed toward the remaining warmth of her quilt, tried for a few hours of sleep before her mother came down to the kitchen to tell her to heat the stove and prepare for a day of ironing.
She woke again to the sound of shoveling outside on the porch, imagined the first snow fall, how she loved to run up the mountain with her youngest brother, Carlo, to play in the new snow before the coal dust settled over it. Rising from her cot, she stepped into the front room, found her brother lying precariously on the edge of the narrow bed, his corner of the blanket tied to the end so nobody could steal it. Anger pricked her temples as she imagined him sneaking outside without her in the middle of the night, to play in the immaculate snow beneath a moon blazing like sunlight. Outside, the valley was train-haunted, snowless, and the blue air was thick with coal dust. Beside the house, a coal car had tumbled onto its side in the gravel, the coal spilling from it drifting over the yard and across the porch, rising over the windows of the house. Her father and two older brothers had shoveled the coal away from the door, and now they were digging out the coal that had drifted over the windows. They'd started a fire in the brick oven, and they stepped toward the flames every so often to warm their frozen hands. Though Emma couldn't see her, she heard her mother weeping in the shadows beyond the fire. Coal pricked her bare feet as she followed the eerie sound toward the brick oven, found her mother sitting cross-legged, rocking a dark bundle in her arms. The fallen wash line snaked through piles of coal all around her, half a shirtsleeve waving like a white flag from beneath one black heap.
Emma's eyes burned from the greasy dust. Her chest tightened beneath the weight of her mother's grieving, and her arms and legs shook with a raw, empty fatigue. Crushed by the thought of washing everything all over again, she picked through the first mound, unburying the waving shirt. A man walked toward her, tall and blond in the dim, blue light, and she recognized the Norfolk and Western man who sold her ice and lemons on baking day. Suddenly, Emma knew she'd give anything to be pulling soft loaves of warm bread from her Aunt Maria's oven, to be drinking lemonade cooled by the ice this railroad man brought to her all summer long.
The man squatted beside her, so close she could breathe his scent of sweet tobacco and clean sweat.
"Are you all right?" he asked, looking closer at her face until he recognized. "Why, it's the schoolteacher."
Emma nodded, her throat too dry to respond to his teasing.
"I'll tell you one thing," he said. "You all are sound sleepers. I waited a long time for somebody to answer me. I thought you all were dead in there."
Her foot throbbed, and she looked down, slowly noticing the cuts in the soles of her bare feet. She could take the pain in her body, but this man's kindness made her want to sit cross-legged on the ground and weep. She sat on a cleared patch of grass, but she wouldn't allow herself to cry in front of him. Following her glance, the man pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, set her foot on his knee. She stared at the white handkerchief, as though he'd just pulled a dove from his sleeve. As he began wiping the blood and grit from her foot, her body warmed and softened with the pleasure of his hands against her skin. She marveled at how well she already knew the back of his neck, his scent, the precise, lanky movements of his fingers. Then she looked down, noticed she was still in her nightclothes, remembering her Aunt Maria's nightgown and the illicit flight to Detroit. Emma shivered, knowing that only this thin piece of linen hung between this man and her naked flesh, and she couldn't help but think that she'd called him to her. She wondered, Is it the leaving or the return that will be my sin?
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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