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

    Mar 2002, 256 pages


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Delmar removes his helmet, cradles it in his hands, and touches the acetylene lantern to the fuse. A flame sputters and catches and sparkles white. Delmar scrambles out, trying to get his helmet back, yelling, tentatively because it is his first time: Fire in the hole! He joins his father, crouched against the wall, chins against chests, the two of them together, tucked under earth.

Emily's mother, Ada, had a way of knowing things before they happened. People said she had a gift. They'd go to her when they misplaced a pearl hatpin or a suitcase key. They'd make their way up Lick Creek Road and climb to the clapboard house with the Norway spruce spread in front and sit on the blistered porch swing and sip sassafras tea. Eventually they'd come around to the topic at hand. A lost photograph. A ten-dollar bill. A tuning fork. They'd consult her, and that night she'd dream the lost thing into finding. Wherever she saw it in her sleep was where it would be. She was rarely wrong.

It was June the day the mine blew. Emily and her mother were on the high pasture picking clover for tea, plucking the soft pink ends into burlap sacks, her mother humming some song. It was a clear day with clouds starched and high and the locust trees heavy with bloom. The cows were hanging their heads in the new clover, and suddenly her mother stopped humming and dropped her sack and looked stricken. She seized Emily's arm. Her hand was cold as a spoon.

Emily said, "Mama, what -- " But Ada hushed her and waited, eyes unfocused, ears set to the breeze; and then, closing her grip tightly around Emily's arm, they heard it.

In the hills, sound carries far. You can hear a rooster or a man's voice or an engine idling a mile off as if it were a few feet away. Up on the pasture they could plainly hear the explosion. A muffled boom, something dreamy about it, as if the earth paused a second to sneeze. It sounded like a mattress falling in a meadow.

Emily thought it was the cows bolting and she looked back, but they hadn't moved, only their heads were lifted now, testing the air. Then she turned toward her mother who was already hurrying back to the house, running through the pasture, her sack on the hillside where she'd dropped it, the clover spilled on the pasture like seed.

By afternoon the whole county was at the mine. Ash drifted over the coal camp, a strange snow in summer. It covered fence posts and porches and fell on white sheets hung that morning to dry. The air smelled of smoldering leaves and coal ash.

All afternoon rescue teams arrived by train. The survivors shuffled about, stunned and collapsed, their clothes torn, faces black and bleeding. Guards with bayonets kept kin from entering the mines. By dusk the governor arrived.

Emily dreamed that night she was on the high pasture and could see all the way over the hills to the Gulf of Mexico. The water was copper, like a coin, flashing in the far distance, and she could see the rivers running blue as cobalt, and a harbor bristling with boats and people on the docks wearing dresses and bowlers, and she wondered why she'd never been there before. Then she turned, and Gianni and Delmar were climbing up from the pond, their shirts off, arms around each other. They were singing a song she faintly recognized, the bandera rosa, and she watched them stagger up the slope; but they didn't stop for her, and couldn't hear her cries, and she saw their cheeks were blue and lips loose and their mouths hung like marionettes, and their song wasn't a song at all, but the wind rustling in the reeds.

She woke in a cold sweat. The moon spilled on her sheets. She rose through the empty house out into the moonlight. Tree frogs were beating in the grass. The wind pushed scraps of cloud high above the hollow and blew inside her nightshirt and between her legs. It brought the smell of ash up from the mine, and she pictured the sacks of clover they'd left on the high pasture, how they'd be dusted now with soot.

Copyright © 2001 by Brad Kessler

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