When she opened her eyes again, he was climbing out the far end of the pond, hunched in the rain, lank and panting, his black hair hanging in a wedge.
"See," he said when he reached her, "it was okay." He was smiling triumphantly, water pebbled on his chin.
"Idiot," she muttered.
Delmar shook his head in disgust and left the blanket and headed up the trail for home. The rain was slackening, passing to the south. She gathered the ends of the blanket about her shoulders and left, too, Gianni trailing behind.
They walked single file up the slope past huddled cows. No one talked. The wind was sharp, harrowing the wet pasture grass and trembling the cottonwood trees. Gianni's teeth were chattering, his arms bracing the bones of his chest, trying to warm.
When they reached the Lick Creek Road, Gianni turned toward the coal camp.
"Come," he said to Emily. "Kiss to make up."
"I hope you get struck by lightning."
He flicked the hair from his face and grinned. "Come on," he said. "You got scared, didn't you?"
Delmar had gone ahead and was waiting in the road, etching something in the mud with a stick.
"Come on, say you were scared for me." He said it with his chin, provoking.
"Jackass," she said.
Before she could turn to go, he grabbed her elbow and pecked her on the cheek and said, "There, now we are friends."
Emily colored and swung around and belted him in the stomach. He tried to laugh but couldn't catch his breath. Up the road, Delmar was smiling.
On the way home he said, "I told you them I-talians are all dumber'n shithouse rats. Don't even have sense enough to come in out'a the rain."
He struck a tree branch with his stick, knocking crystals on the road. "Why, they'd rather climb a tree and tell a lie than stand on the ground and speak the truth."
"Hush," Emily said.
"They're all half muscle, and the other half's fool."
"Why, that boy's dumber'n a bucket of hair," he said. "Dumber'n -- "
She didn't let him finish. Before she was aware of what she was doing, she hauled back and belted him. The disbelief equal on their faces, he falling in the road, his nose already blossoming a rosette of blood.
A kettle bottom is the stump of an old tree, petrified millions of years ago. It sits in seams of coal, suspended like a loose fossil in the soft bituminous rock. Kettle bottoms can drop from a ceiling seam unexpectedly when undercut. They weigh about five hundred pounds, and when they fall they crush men. The miners call them widow makers.
Emily has never seen a kettle bottom but is haunted by them. She's learned of them through Delmar. He tries to make the mines seem romantic, so she's jealous.
"Do you know what it's like being under a mountain?" he asks.
"Just on top."
"Below," he says, "is even better."
Every mountain has a secret, he says. Fossils, bones of old animals, ores, a vein of crystal quartz. No one on top would ever know this, he says. There's a power inside the earth, he says. You and the mountain. One million tons of weight above you. The coal hasn't seen light in 250 million years. You are the first to discover it. You are its savior.
She watches him say this and knows he's picked it up from some old miner he's overheard and is trying it out on her like a new pair of trousers. Still, she is jealous. She imagines the kettle bottoms, the crosshatchings and tunnels, the ribbing of poplar buttresses, the headway and gob pile where the miners meet for lunch. Each face like a room in a palace, this place underground where they sit and work, the earth with chambers of its own no one but the miners know.
He's told her about the mules they lower into the shafts half-crazed, their legs lashed so they won't snap and their eyes blinkered. How the first nights of April are always the worst, when the odor of green onions blows through the brattices and the mules kick and scratch to get outside, and how the mule boss has to beat them back, and the mad ones are shot. After one season in the mines, they usually die.
Copyright © 2001 by Brad Kessler
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