Excerpt from Lick Creek by Brad Kessler, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Lick Creek

by Brad Kessler

Lick Creek by Brad Kessler X
Lick Creek by Brad Kessler
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2001, 256 pages

    Paperback:
    Mar 2002, 256 pages

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Emily imagines Gianni down there as well, left alone to handle the insides of the earth. He himself with pick and shovel, in a room he can claim his own. A kingdom of coal. He's brought her fossils from there. Trilobites. Tracings of ancient ferns, beetles carved in traprock. Treasures from the deep where he is a diver. She knows the instruments he works with inside the planet, the pickax, breast auger, the black powder, the shovel. He's lit his lamp for her, popped the acetylene in his palm, and placed it upon her head, yet the life there remains a mystery, full of rumor and darkness, like the way she turns over rocks and finds insects she's never known before or how, in her dreams, she opens a door to a closet and discovers an ocean or a room in a city in a country she never knew existed. She knows she'll never see his world, for the taboo against women in the mine is too strong, and at Branton when a girl fled into the tunnels once, the miners wouldn't go back for months, afraid that ill fortune would follow them ever after. All she knows, then, are the edges of things, the way Gianni smells in the evenings before washing, an odor of damp from his body, like her brother's, only sweeter. Their fingernails dyed with blackness. Gianni's told her the name of the people who used to own the mine and the coal camp but no longer do, the family from New York City. A funny name that sounds like laughter. They're called the Guggenheims.

She knows, too, that the limestone beneath her farm is like a cake of soap, soft, chalky, white as porcelain, with sinkholes here and there, places where the earth has opened like a lamprey and sucked everything in sight. Yet the limestone is relatively benign and brings forth musk mallow and cresses and trout lillies in early spring. She knows that farther downhollow the limestone becomes larded with anchors of coal, and the coal crops thicker and thicker like coral until they form a great reef that furrows to the west. They say the coal is a blessing, but she knows it's a curse as well, too close to ignore, the wage work too enticing, that it lures her father and brother half the week. Not like others in Lick Creek who stay away from the mines, who have not want of its dark, despite the extra cash. Her father can't help himself. That Val Jenkins, they say, never could stay out of a mine.



Delmar is learning to shoot coal from his father. He must learn about the cleat of the coal, how to blast it so the seam breaks evenly and will be easy to work afterward. He must decide where to drill his holes for the blasting and how deep and at what angle. If he uses too little powder, the coal will break too big and he'll have to hammer it afterward by hand. If he pours too much, the seam will blow to slack and dust and will be worthless.

He curls a page of the Beckley Herald into a cone. There's an advertisement for a corset, a hairbrush, a bottle of cough syrup. He uncorks his tin and taps a forefinger so the black powder spills inside the cone. Val Jenkins watches, gestures to pour a little more. Delmar taps the tin again, corks it, hooks it to his belt. He carefully twists the cone and fits it in a drilled hole in the seam. Water is dripping somewhere in the tunnel. He looks back at his father, who points a finger at an iron rod leaning against the wall. The rod is about four feet long and has a needle at the end. Delmar takes the rod and pushes the needle end into the center of the cone, stuffing the newspaper and the powder deeper into the hole. He rests the rod on his shoulder, steps to the hole, packs dirt around the needle, spits on it, and fills it again. He can hear someone whistling far off, the sound echoed in the chambers. He steps back and slips the needle from the packing.

Behind him Val Jenkins's breath is labored, like that of a man twice his age, and the creases on his forehead are a script of fine soot. He nods approvingly at his son, and Delmar snakes a piece of waxed string into the hole and lets it hang by a few inches. A blast goes off in another section, a muffled pop, the pressure in their ears changing by the slightest percentage. Delmar looks at his dad again, who waits, sniffs the air, then gestures Delmar back to the fuse. They can hear the faint scratching of rats now out by their lunch buckets. Val Jenkins leans on his shovel, watching his son, then nods him to go ahead.

Copyright © 2001 by Brad Kessler

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