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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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By the next night the first bodies came out without arms, or legs, their faces grotesque with gas. They were carried on bare pine planks and tied with baling wire, some carbonized to husks. Others were already bloated and puffed with gas, their clothes popped where the flesh had risen.

They found Gianni that first night on a rock face with his father and a group of other Italians and two Russians and a Pole, in the southwest corner of the mine, where the fire had burned through the brattices. Delmar and his father were found on a north face, where the ventilation fans hadn't worked and the gas had choked them.

The following afternoon Uncle Garvin drove to camp to collect their remains in black cherry boxes. It was evening when he returned to Lick Creek. Swallows were taking their turns in the remaining light. The honeysuckle was in bloom, the air heavy with cut hay. People from the hollow had followed behind Garvin's buckboard and shambled into the drive, hats in hand, dressed in dark suits, the women in homemade cottons. They had little to say, and some helped Garvin, while the women stood on the porch. Emily sat in the porch swing in a daze. She'd been there since morning. She heard a low murmuring come up the road, and saw the procession of people climbing up the drive. They were foreigners from the coal camp. They carried candles of beeswax, and sang a hymn she'd never heard before, something Italian, and it made her think of all the songs Gianni played and how they seemed like brocade to her, like draperies of music, but now were nothing more than funeral cloth.

The procession swung into the drive, thirty of them, the men in long black coats and vests and the caps of their country, the women in silk head scarves, their candles guttered beneath faces. Gianni's mother stood in the middle of them, supported by two women, one at each side. They made their way to the front of the group and reached the flagging; the women left Gianni's mother alone, and she climbed the porch steps, where Ada nodded, and she walked past and sat beside Emily in the swing. She was wearing a lace veil, a piece of Venetian point lowered over her eyes, pinned in place with a hawthorn clasp. She held four gardenias in her hand.

They sat for a moment in silence, the swing shifting with the new weight. Emily stared up into the evening, where the clouds had blackened and the first stars were forming above. Gianni's mother said something in Italian, leaned over and kissed Emily's forehead and laid three gardenias in her lap. Emily looked down and saw the flowers for the first time, and it was then her shoulders began to shake.


She has touched Gianni's skin, and his flesh felt like the burnt husk of corn. His body smelled of creosote, his fingers charred and clawed like a chicken's. They left three streaks along the underside of her arm where she accidentally rubbed against them. She hasn't washed them off, and her skin has grown around the stains the way an oyster entombs a pearl, within its own mucus. And so it remains, this mark of coal, and even in the cooling rains of summer, under the curtains of water that fall from the eaves of the house, it does not wash away. As hard as she tries, it outlasts the flesh.

She carries him, through seasons.

Copyright © 2001 by Brad Kessler

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