She wakes in winter to the scrape of iron in the stove, her mother bringing embers back to life from their night's dying. She watches later through frosted panes her father and brother lean into darkened snow, each with his own tin bucket, the two like cutouts of each other, one smaller but with the same stooped back. Their lanterns swing into dark. In April, when the mornings warm, she blankets the pony and trails them from a distance downhollow, all the way where the Lick Creek Road meets the Two Mile Road. She paces the pony so they won't see her behind, and she watches them descend the talus toward the coal camp, and there she'll wait in a copse of poplars, looking down at the rows of homes with men filing from them. She tries to keep track of her father and brother, but they become lost with other lanterns, flitting and wheeling through trees, like a procession of pilgrims carrying candles toward the mouth of the mine.
She found her hollow once on a map of West Virginia. Lick Creek was the thinnest scribble of blue, a crack in a porcelain cup. Nothing like the cold waters and salted boulders she knew or the spring water that tasted of sulfur. On the map in the schoolhouse, she traced the creek with a finger as it fed thicker rivers, spidered south, then west. She memorized the names of the rivers it became and on April nights, lying awake in the dark, she whispered the words like a prayer: The Greenbrier, the New, the Ohio, the Mississippi, traveling them all in a trance, half-asleep, slipping past Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and down the Delta into the Gulf of Mexico. When she woke again in the night, she could taste ocean on her tongue.
She first met Gianni when she went to buy the goat with her father. Gianni Fermini, his name was like a noodle in her mouth; it kept slipping out. They argued about the kid. He called it a capro. She said, Huh-uh, he's a goat. The hair on Gianni's head was black as a raven, so iridescent she wanted to touch it. He was wearing no shirt, holding the kid in his bare arms, the white wool against his brown chest as if they belonged together. Her father stood back and surveyed the kid, sucked his teeth and rubbed his chin and changed positions to get a better view. His father pushed out his lips and said, "He be a good one for the ladies."
Her father nodded noncommittally and checked the hooves, held open its mouth and studied the small teeth. He stood back again and they both looked at the sky, talked weather, then came back to the goat, circling the deal like dogs before lying down. While they were bargaining, Emily said to Gianni:
"You're an Injun, ain't you?"
"No," he said, shaking his head, his lids half-closed. "Italian."
Emily didn't like his confidence, the way he was handling the kid as if he still owned it.
"You're holding him all wrong," she said, and grabbed the goat from his arms, so it nayed, and gathered it under her chin and said, "See you're supposed to hold'm like this."
He was four years older. He smelled of dried grass. She called him John.
"No," he corrected her, "Jee-ah-nee."
"Bye," she said as she was leaving, "John."
A few years later she'd steal down to the coal camp with its cluttered new houses painted impossible colors -- greens, blues, and yellows. A town of secrets and foreign tongues, where she always felt illicit, observed, a stranger in her own country. Gianni's parents owned a Victrola they kept polished and oiled, the rosewood so shiny she could see herself in it. On Sunday afternoons, while his family sat on folding chairs in the backyard, she and Gianni lay on the cool planks of the floor, listening to records. They were Italian mostly, the plates as thick as china, the sleeves yellowed and crisp with age. He taught her the popular tunes, the names of the great composers: Puccini, Rossini, Verdi. To her they sounded like a litany of flowers. She pictured Puccini as a moss rose, something delicate, a succulent that would last only a day. Verdi was hardy, a kind of vine. Donizetti, a daylily.
Copyright © 2001 by Brad Kessler
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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