Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Coal Dust On My Feet ~ part 8

~~~Thursday, April 23, 1953~~~

            “He must be a new hire!”

            “Let’s roll him!”

            “Teach him not to take our jobs!”

            The 1947 Ford truck bounced and crashed down through a different grove of trees and brush this time. Having been removed from their previous headquarters, the striking men found a steeper embankment than the Widen hill to roll cars. Each company man rolled narrowly escaped with his life; many nursed wounds months later. Scars and broken bones were not an uncommon sight in Widen. Doctor Vance had a new patient in his office nearly every week from a fight or a car having been shoved to the bottom of a gully.

            Jonas Zirka bounded down the hill toward the truck to scare the man inside with a few pot shots and a laugh, hoping to watch him run like a coward into town—same as he’d done with the rest of the men they had rolled.

            He yelled to the men back up the hill, “You see this feller get out of his truck?”

            Somebody shouted. “No! Where’d he go?”

            “Nobody here. Not a trace of him. Nothin’ in the truck to say who he was.”


            The air was agitated and humid, rough as tree bark in the lungs. Coal dust filled the afternoon sky. Static disrupted the gospel songs of Mom and Dad Speer on the radio. An early afternoon storm rumbled in the distance. Inside, the house became dark. DeDe lit two kerosene lamps that held their flames like shivering butterflies. She thought of Savina.

Last night’s prayer meeting phenomenon had kept her awake until morning. Drowsy, she rested her head against the back of her chair. Dreamy and drifting into slumber, DeDe jerked awake in the midst of a strange dream when she heard the knock. She moved in slow motion as if wading through waist-deep water. Thunder rolled again, nudging the storm closer to the valley.

When she opened the door, it sounded as if a seal had been broken.           

“May I help you?” DeDe attempted to smother her yawn.

            “Howdy-do, ma’am. I’m looking for Odie Ingram’s place. Do you know Savina Ingram and where I might find her?”

Despite the smell of the oncoming storm, DeDe inhaled the wood-smoke of his voice followed by the fragrance of apple blossoms floating through the screen door.

“I know her, yes. May I ask who you are?” Her tone was soft and clear, with a slight touch of fascination.

He grabbed the rim of his black felt hat and tipped it. “Sorry, ma’am.” Nodding his head curtly, his rugged voice and apology drew a small smile from DeDe. “My name’s Herald. Herald Wingate.” He was an odd-looking man, thin, tall, and handsome in an out-of-the-ordinary way. His colorless eyes, long elfin nose, unshaven face and powerful hands were pale against his ragged and dirty clothes. His tattered pants ended at scuffed leather boots. High cheekbones suggested Cherokee blood, but his presence was like an offensive profanity against the backdrop of  the pink impatience in her flowerbed behind him. It was comparable to finding lice on a little girl’s head.

            “I’m an old friend of her mother’s,” he said. I want to check on the child and see how she's doing.”

            “So you’re from …”

            “Bethlehem, ma’am.”

            “Oh, yes. I remember now. Jo lived in Pennsylvania before she moved here with Odie. ‘Bout the same time Thirl and I moved to Nicholas Street in Widen.”

            “That’s right. I promised her mother I’d check on her now and then. I knew Missus Ingram was dying and I’d had a few conversations with her. She really didn’t want to leave Savina alone to take care of Mister Ingram. But these things can’t be helped sometimes.”

The brim of his hat was pulled down low enough to hide his strange-looking eyes again. Long dark hair grazed the shoulders of his blue wool jacket with holes in both elbows.

            DeDe recalled the Depression years when her mother befriended many a man walking through Matewan with his family, or alone. Ragged men, poor men—her mother had fed them and sent them on their way with a sack of salt pork and biscuits.

            All of a sudden she found herself standing in the middle of her front room with a stranger.

            “Would you like a bite to eat? I have some leftover ham from breakfast. I could fry you a couple eggs.”

            “That’d be nice, Ma’am. I thank ye kindly.”

            “You can wash up in there.” She pointed to the bathroom.

            DeDe cracked two eggs in the skillet and listened for her guest to return to the kitchen again. She propped her purse on her cutting board, just in case. When he emerged, his hands glowed raw and pink from the scrubbing he had given them, and he smelled like lye soap mixed with apple blossoms. He nodded and took a seat at the table. His left hand rested against his leg with the palm turned out and a New Testament held loosely between his thumb and two fingers.

“Smells mighty good, ma’am.” He ate slowly and articulated words that sounded like music, his voice echoing through the house. For the next hour Herald Wingate pulled topics of religious conversation from thin air and made DeDe a verbal bouquet of Biblical subjects irresistible to her. She’d never met a man with knowledge of the scriptures like this man.

DeDe stood near the stove, looking down at the dusty, bedraggled stranger. The first stranger she couldn’t peg. Her back remained gracefully straight, but the loose knot of hair at her nape quivered with her indecision. Who is he, really? Should I tell him where Savina lives?

~~~Sunday, May 3, 1953~~~

            As night faded and the morning sky drowned the stars, Thirl heard the screen door stretch on its rusted spring.

            “DeDe home, Thirl?”

            “No, Pearle … she leaves early on Sunday. Teachin’ Sunday School this mornin’.”

            “Oh, right. I suppose she told you about our prayer meetin’ last week?”

            “Sure did.”

            Pearle walked back out the door. “Guess you know then, it’s the women in this town that God talks to.”

            Thirl and James Curtis smiled at each other across the table.

            Pearle's eyes riveted on James Curtis. “Your mama tell you anything about this strange new fella, Herald Wingate? I heard he’s been spotted several times around town the past week. But seems only the women have met him. Word has it he’s a guest at the Ingram farm. An old friend of Josephine’s. You meet him?”

            James Curtis stood and walked toward the door. “No, ain’t met him, but I’m sure Odie wouldn’t let him stay there unless he knew him. Kind’ve makes me a little uneasy though.”

            “Why’s that?”

            “Savina says he’s been preaching to the women. Even been up to Colored Holler. Telling them to pray for the peace and safety of the town. To reach out to God, trust and obey Jesus. That this town is on the verge of destruction unless the women pray harder because the men, with the exception of Pastor Jessie, don’t pray at all. Just make a mess of things.”

            Thirl laid his hand on his son's shoulder. “Next time this Herald fella comes to the house, I want to meet him.”

            Pearle laughed. “If you can see him. Hardrock said Sylvia was talking to the air out in the yard a day ago, and he asked her what she was doing. She said, ‘I was talking to Herald Wingate. What—you think I talk to the trees?’”

~~~Thursday, May 7, 1953~~~

Savina stood with her colorless lips apart, while a shudder ran through her frame. “What?”

Herald Wingate sat on the steps that led up to her porch. He held his Testament in his hand and pointed in the direction of Dille. “I said your father’s in danger. The next shift of men driving into Widen for work, they’re all in danger. There’s a group of pickets at the cook shack, laying in wait. Your father’s one of them. This violence must stop, Savina. God is not pleased.”

“How can I stop it? Why don’t you stop them? How do you know?”

“Heard voices while I was praying in the woods yesterday. I came here, to Widen, for three reasons: to preach to those with open hearts and minds—turns out that’s the women, to check on you for your mother, and to warn your father. My work is done; it’s time for me to take leave.” He closed his Testament and stuffed it into his coat pocket. “I advised your father not to go to the cook shack today. He told me to mind my own business and that it was time I vacate his farm. Savina, all you can do is gather with the women in town and pray.”

“But you just got here. Is it too cold in the barn for ya? It’s not as good as the old one that burned down. What we have now is just temporary ‘til we can afford to build a new one. I'm sorry, but Daddy won’t let strangers in the house. He always sends drifters in need of a meal to the barn to sleep.”

“No, the barn was fine. The horses were pleasant company. I thank ye both for your hospitality.” Moving toward the fence gate, he pulled his hat down over his forehead.

“But ... I want to talk to you more about Mommy. Please stay a few more days.”

“Can’t. I told you everything I know about your mother. She’s in heaven now—you’ll have to be satisfied with that.

Savina strolled to the gate, dismissing his warnings. “You said you knew Mommy from the time she was born. How old are you?”

“Old enough. Too old.” He smiled. His voice was like music.

“You sure don’t look it.” A bittersweet smile eased across her lips. Lightning flashed in the distance. Savina pulled her sweater closer to her neck and shifted her gaze to the lowering sky. “I think another storm is comin’ over the mountains. I need to bring daddy home. I can take you as far as the cook shack, Mister Wingate.”

“You shouldn’t go. Go to town and pray with the women instead. My talking to your father hasn’t done any good. You’ll not bring him home, Savina. Men are creatures of free will. These men won’t stop until innocent blood is shed—the town will not recover from it. I’m off to Widen to say goodbye to Missus Nettles and a few other ladies gathering for a prayer meeting this morning.”

Savina pulled at his coat sleeve. “Maybe you should meet some of the other men in town. Try to convince them.”

“Like I said, my business here is done.”

Savina hugged him quickly, ran up the porch and into the house to grab her purse and her daddy’s car keys. When she came back out she wanted to ask him to please stay for church on Sunday. But he was gone.


            “Signs and wonders follow them that believe,” Pearle raised her hand. “I believe I have a testimony.”

The ladies that gathered in DeDe’s front room shouted, “Bless God, tell us, Sister Gibson.” “Yes, speak to us, Sister Gibson. Go on and testify, Sister.”

“I believe in miracles. I believe God is going to end this strike soon. I believe he’s given me the strength to endure until the end. Union or non-union. We’re all God’s children. I want to testify to the strength I’ve felt since the night we all heard the angels sing ...”

“We don’t know for sure what that was, Pearle!” Sylvia Dodrill shook her head.

“Oh ye of little faith.” The voice startled the women, causing them to jump and turn their heads to the screen door. Herald Wingate stood on the other side, curling the brim of his hat in his hands. No one had heard the usual sound of footsteps stomp up the clapboard porch.

DeDe stood. “Mister Wingate, you shouldn’t walk up on people like that. Would you like to come in and join us?”

“No, thank ye. But keep praying ladies; my time here is up, I have to get back home. I came to say good-bye and that there’s a storm coming. And to pray for Savina Ingram.”

DeDe felt her insides turn to mush. “Why? Herald, is Savina alright?”

“She’s gone to warn her father. There’s danger on the roads this morning, ladies. Remain here and pray through to victory. Call on the forces of Heaven to hold back the darkness that’s coming.”

“Don’t! Don’t scare us like this anymore, Mister Wingate!” Sylvia stood and stomped to the door. “He’s an old beggar that’s waltzed into town and you ladies think he’s the voice of God!” Sylvia glared at him on the other side of the screen. “Stop it! Stop scaring us. Go home to wherever you’re from. Leave us alone!”

“Sylvia!” DeDe shrieked. “Sit down!”

The sky had grown as dark as a fresh bruise beneath the skin. Lightning flashed in the distance and thunder rolled through the hollow.

            “Sorry to bother you, good ladies. Good-bye again.”

“Wait, Mister Wingate!” DeDe ran out the screen door and down the porch following him into the street. “Please forgive Sister Sylvia. Her husband’s been sick and ….”

“He has black lung. I know Missus Nettles. Mister Dodrill is dying. Somebody has to have faith for him. His wife does not.”

“Won’t you stay a while longer?”

“Actually, ma’am, my work here is done. I’ve got coal dust on my feet. It’s time to shake it off. You’ve been kind to me. I thank ye. Good-bye, now.” He tipped his hat one last time, walked down Nicholas Street and disappeared around the corner.

DeDe stood in a solemn gaze, watching Herald Wingate walk away carrying no pack, sack, or piece of luggage. Only the top of his New Testament stuck out of his pocket. Her mouth moved whispering the scripture that flowed off her tongue. “And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear you, when ye depart thence, shake off the dust under your feet for a testimony against them. Verily I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah in the Day of Judgment, than for that city.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Coal Dust On My Feet ~ part 7

~~~Saturday, April 18, 1953~~~

“Can we come in?” The woman said with a sheepish smile and her hand on the door. “It’s rainin’ fit to start the second flood out heah."

            DeDe stared at the two faces on the other side of her screen door.

“I'm Hephzibah Kelly, and dis mah husband, Jabo.”

            “Of course, where are my manners? I wasn’t expecting guests. Today being Saturday, and the men out doing whatever it is men do on Saturdays.” DeDe smiled.

Jabo returned her smile, but Hephzibah held a steady gaze into the house.

DeDe opened the front door wide, while her unexpected guests pulled open the screen door.

Tall and wiry, Jabo stooped over walking through the doorway. His eyes registered everything immediately. “Sho is uh nice place y’all got heah.”

“It’ll do until we get our mansion up yonder,” DeDe said. Neither Hephzibah nor Jabo registered a grin. They stared instead at the furniture, the buck head on the wall, and the kitchen linoleum. “Well, please, come sit at the table. Would you like anything cold to drink? It’s gettin’ warmer. Summer’s just ‘round the corner.” DeDe’s instant politeness smoke-screened her quest to find out about a person. The minute she talked to anyone her eyes were everywhere—glaring into their soul. Within seconds she had strangers pegged. It had always scared the hell out of James Curtis, but fascinated Thirl.

She led the Kellys to her kitchen table and motioned for them to have a seat. DeDe didn’t remember Hephzibah being so pretty. Her hair was dark as a crow’s wing, smoothed back, but frizzed out around her forehead. Her licorice smooth skin contributed to her looking younger than her years. A blue cotton waistless dress hung from her shoulders to her knees, and her stockings were rolled down to her ankles. “We came heah, Missus Nettles ….”

“Oh please, call me DeDe.”

“Miz DeDe, we came heah ‘cause we good friends of Savina. Your James and Savina aimin’ to marry. I knows that ain’t no secret.”

“No, but I believe it’ll happen later than sooner, with the strike and all.”

“True, Miz DeDe. Tha’s fuh sho.” Jabo dropped his head wearily. His gray hair curled in tight clumps around his ears. A frost of unshaven stubble smudged his chin, and his eyes were light blue to the point of grayness. Veins ran along the top of each thick bicep. His pants hung loose and rumpled.

Hephzibah eyed her husband and continued. “You knows I work for Mist’ Bradley.”

            “Yes, I heard that.”

            “I try to stay outa the white man’s business. I do. But Jabo and me, we love Savina like our own. And we love your boy, too, Miz DeDe. He’s a good boy. Savina say we can trust you.”

            “Thank you, Hephzibah.” DeDe smiled. “How long have you known James Curtis?”

            Jabo stared at his wife. “Oh … well, me and James Curtis shoot da breeze sometimes when da women folk visit … after they finish work over at da Bradley house.”


            Hephzibah cleared her throat. “I’ll state the reason for our call. Jabo do it better though. You tell her. You tell Miz DeDe what you heah.”

            Jabo slid down in his seat, steepled his fingers and looked across the table to the wall. “When ah retired last year from da mine, Mist’ Bradley offer me a handyman job at his house. Fixin’ whatnot ‘round his place. Big place, you ever seen it?”

            “No, I’ve heard it’s lovely.”

“Yes’um. Anyway. Ah was layin’ a new rug in they dinin’ room two days ago and ah heah Mist’ Bradley talkin’ on da phone. Comp’ny men ought not to make da strikers mad. They gone start a war, Miz DeDe. It gone be a bad one. Strikers took over da garage in Dille as a new headquarters and made it a cook shack too.”

            DeDe grabbed her throat, and her eyes filled. “What else do you know, Mr. Kelly?”

            “Only reason Ah’m stickin’ my ole’ neck out, is ‘cause Savina love James Curtis. She loves her daddy, too. Hephzibah and me jus’ want yo family to be safe. Tha’s all.”

            “Anything else?”

“Someone at da FBI owes Mist’ Bradley a favor. He calls Mist’ Bradley from time to time. Sent two deputies—askin’ da strikers lots of questions. Pretty rough stuff, what they say to each other.” Jabo paused and lowered his voice.

            “Mist’ Bradley say, iffen he could fine a way to split ‘em, to make all Widen men see that da UMW’s jus’ a bunch of lef-wing troublemakers, don’t have their best interests at heart, well, then, this strike be over in a week.” Jabo paused again and stared out the window this time. “Ain’t gone happen, tho’.”

“He say, the UMW sees Elk River Coal and Lumber as a test case. Win heah, they win da whole state. They dug in for da duration. As long as it takes. Now, ‘cause of da comp’ny men shovin’ pickets off da hill, the union is cocky as hell. ‘Cause of they threats, they think Mist’ Bradley gone throw in da towel, jus’ give them whatever they damn want. Mist’ Bradley say it’ll go on for a while, and probably be some men gettin’ hurt or worse.”

“Later, ah heard two of them union fellas walkin’ in da woods near my place. They been collectin’ lots of guns. They laugh and say they gone shoot the first man drivin’ in the comp’ny convoy one mornin’ this week. Don’t know what mornin’. Could be this town be havin’ a few funerals next week, he say.”

“Why didn’t you tell this to Mister Bradley?”

“Ah jus’ a handyman, Miz DeDe. We don’t speak much. Like ah say, ah don’t stick this ole’ neck out for jus’ anybody. Still, it gone on too long. Them comp’ny mens, they cain’t take they family in and out of Widen. Been months for mos’ of ‘em, ‘ceptin on Election Day. Da only day they able to get out of Widen. Thank da Lawd, nobody got killed.”

“Worse part, Savina’s daddy, Mist’ Odie, he sent word to Mist’ Bradley at da house today. He say he die before he work in non-union mine, and he say he take a few Comp’ny men wid him.”

            DeDe straightened in her chair. “I’ve been sitting here thinking, I’m going to have a special women’s prayer meeting at my house this Wednesday evening. I’m inviting every woman in this town. Hephzibah, you and Mama Ola are more than welcome to join us.”

            Hephzibah crossed her arms in front of her. “That’d be nice, but I don’t know how the white ladies in your church take to coloreds invadin’ they prayer meetin’.”

            “You have as much right to divine protection as the rest of us. I want you here, praying with us.”

            Jabo chuckled. “Oh we protected. We do like da Hebrews. We sprinkle da blood over our door, tell da Angel of Death to pass over this house. It work too. You should try it.” He pushed his chair back from the table and grinned as one does when disclosing an unsettling secret. “Da rich man thinks we’s all niggers, Miz DeDe. They call my home nigger holler. But all Widen is nigger holler. You and yo’ kind well as me and mine. You jus’ got a little more jiggle room, tha’s all.”

DeDe caught Hephzibah’s eyes darting around her kitchen. “We’re not rich, Mister Kelly. Nobody in this town is rich, except Mister Gandy and, of course, Mister Bradley.”

Hephzibah stood and pushed her chair into the table. “Jabo don’t see what I see. They’s not rich, neither. I sees they socks, they underwear. I wash they clothes and I sees how Mist’ Bradley worry over his bills. Some days don’t even get home ‘til way late at night. And his wife is sick. Always a guard there protectin’ his home with a gun. Nah, he ain’ no rich man.”

            Jabo held out his hand. “Was nice talkin’ to you today. Ah hope we didn’t put yuh out none.”

DeDe smiled. “I enjoyed the company.” His touch was warm, firm, and yet gentle. A double-handed shake. Preachers always grabbed you with both hands, one squeezing your palm and the other squeezing your wrist. “You’re a minister of the gospel?”

“Yes’um. How you know that, Miz DeDe? Lawsamercy,” Jabo chuckled. “Ah preach every Sunday in our church up da holler. Come visit sometime?”

DeDe’s eyes opened wide, her mouth quivered for words. She’d never received an open invitation from a colored church, nor had anticipated attending a service surrounded by Negros. But there was always a first time. “Yes, when the strike is over, I’ll be glad to visit. Thank you for your kind comments about my son, and thank you for warning us. I hope my emergency prayer meeting will reach God’s ear.”

“Ah be bringin’ Hephzibah and my mama by Wednesday long ‘bout seven. They’s prayin’ women. Prayer warriors. It be after dark, that way nobody sees. That be fine wid you?”

“Yes, of course.” Her eyes met Hephzibah’s and the two women embraced. Another first.

~~~Wednesday, April 22, 1953~~~

Opposing sides filled DeDe’s house quickly. Women sympathetic to the union and company women, who wanted the strike to end, managed to exchange a few polite nods, stares and smiles. The ladies, lacking for words, gathered in opposite rooms of DeDe’s house—company women in the kitchen and union women in the front room. Despite the heat, tension chilled the air. Some hadn’t seen or spoken to each other in months. It wasn’t until a tiny, elderly lady named Ossie Casto, whose flesh was the color of toadstools and whose memory was so eroded she thought they’d come to pray for President Roosevelt, stood and sang the wedding song Oh Promise Me that giggles erupted throughout the house.

Stifled words longing to be said spilled out of their mouths and the rooms converged on one another. Long hugs, apologies, and passing the tissue box—DeDe heaved a sigh of relief and put her purse away. The healing was long overdue.

            Opal Hamrick arrived late. A wide-bottomed, pale, hard-looking woman of forty-five or so, she carried a Jello mold in her hand. Her husband, Jack, had remained on the strike line despite being fired by the company. Opal hugged DeDe so hard her hair had to be combed again. “DeDe, you’re so skinny, I’ll bet you have to squat to fart.”

            Tessa Butcher, Bonehead’s wife, was nine months pregnant with her fourth child. Her swollen bare legs above tight ankle socks held the interest of every woman in the room. A topic of conversation, along with possible remedies, it was a welcome diversion from the strike.

Each woman searched for conversation to divert themselves from the past months of living in a war-torn town. Sylvia Dodrill complained she’d lost her shape with her last child. But Fleeta Thigpen disagreed, stating the only thing wrong with Sylvia was her faded yellow hair that clung too close to her skull like some giant ear of corn with not enough silk. The Digg sisters, Lottie and Goose, busied themselves in DeDe's kitchen, making lemonade and cutting the crust off cheese sandwiches. Tootsie Barrow, Imogene Sanders, and a heavyset woman with thin legs and wide fee, Edith Holcomb, exchanged recipes. Pearle Gibson arrived late with her Bible-toting Aunt Hattie Mae from Summersville.

The old woman walked over to DeDe and immediately knit her brows together. She gave DeDe’s hand a gentle squeeze. “The Lord holds a flashlight as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, dear. He helps us find new life in the midst of the valley.”

Embarrassed, Pearle grabbed her arm and pulled her to a seat in the corner. She mouthed a “sorry” to DeDe. But DeDe smiled. She smiled because it was all she could do. Chilled for a moment as Hattie Mae’s words shook her to the core, DeDe turned her attention to the other women in an attempt to rid her mind of the old lady’s words and to remind herself that the room wasn’t cold. In fact, she had opened all the windows. The temperatures had broken records that late April evening. The heat and humidity inside the house caused some to stand and catch a breeze while their dress hems lifted in the hot air and moved around their legs like a sigh in church.

When DeDe answered the door, and Hephzibah and Mama Ola stepped into the house wearing their best clothes and holding their Bibles in the crooks of their arms, the room shut down. Not one woman’s chin quivered. A dozen pairs of inquisitive eyes glared at their hostess.

DeDe spoke in a commanding voice. “I invited Hephzibah Kelly and her mother-in-law to visit with us this evening. You all know Mama Ola. I prayed hard about it. I believe God laid it on my heart for them to be here. We are all women, women of faith, women who want an end to the strike, but above that, we are women who know how to love. Women who want our families safe. These women do too. And they have voiced their love for my family. I am proud to have them in my home tonight. I want you all to welcome them.” The words dashed against her teeth, the wave of emotion unable to carry them farther.

Mama Ola’s wide smile showed a mixture of gaps and brown teeth. Her white hair glistened against her dark brown skin.

            DeDe’s pleading glance fell on Opal, who chewed her gum in short, irregular snaps. If Opal would accept them, the rest would follow. Opal stood and walked over to Hephzibah. “Your boy, Highpockets. He did a fine job buildin’ my hog pen last summer. Got good manners. It’s nice to meet ya both. C'mon ladies, meet DeDe’s guests.”

            DeDe breathed deep. A breeze moved against her sweaty back. She pulled her sticky blouse from her skin, and decided to stand still--allow the air to dry her clothes while the rest of the women surrounded her two new friends from Colored Holler, welcoming them in the name of the Lord.


The social hour passed. DeDe intended to devote the next hour to the scriptures, reading and praying. She scarcely found her voice as she preached. “I’m going to read the scripture Pastor Jessie read last week in service. Please turn to Ephesians the sixth chapter, verses ten through seventeen. I believe it’s appropriate for this evening.”

Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might. Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

The room fell into a weighty hush. Darkness seeped in from the outside and filled the house, even with DeDe’s single lamp that sat on her bookcase. The night sounds of frogs and crickets and an occasional dog’s bark were the only noise. Then, as if on cue from God, these sounds also ceased.

There was no breeze to speak of. The air around them felt heavy and dead. The screen door to the porch was open and DeDe’s white chiffon curtains at the windows suddenly blew gently inward and billowed like angel’s wings, as if some supernatural being had glided into the room. Lottie put a hand to her mouth. The breeze stopped, the women froze, and their fanning ceased. Nothing moved, not even the wind.

The singing came from outside. As if a choir were floating up Nicholas Street. A soft carol of voices. The song escalated in strength, grew stronger, louder, and became recognizable—a chorus. A mass of voices singing in a heavenly language. The sound grew as if someone had turned up the volume on a radio. It floated through the doorway and as it did, a light came with it, filling the room. It expanded and appeared to seep into every mind and heart. And then, just as it came, it descended out the west window, as if someone opened a vacuum and the singing was sucked out.

No one could speak for a period of unknown time, as every watch on every wrist had stopped. Even the mantel clock on DeDe’s bookcase ceased to chime the hour. Sounds of murmured praise came first from their lips. Hephzibah whispered to Opal that she saw tongues of fire over each woman in the room. Opal reached for her hand and smiled. “I see ‘em too.”

Questions oozed from every mouth … “Did you hear it?” “Yes, what did you hear?” “What was it? A choir?” “Angels, yes it was angels singing.”

Sylvia and Tessa believed it was the radio next door and an electric surge. Lottie and Goose cried. Ossie, Opal, Tootsie, Imogene, Fleeta and Edith sang, “Praise Him, Praise Him, Praise Him in the mornin’, Praise Him in the noontime, Praise Him when the sun goes down …”

One by one, the ladies bid their teary good-byes. Pearle pulled DeDe aside after most had gone and a few waited for their rides. “Was it a sign? A good sign or a bad sign? What’d it mean?”

Hattie Mae couldn’t hold back any longer. “It was a sign of the second comin’.”

“Oh, hush, Hattie Mae! You don’t know that.” Pearle shook her head at her elderly aunt.

“I know somebody’s comin’,” she said.

Hephzibah looked at Mama Ola. “What you think, Mama?”

The old black woman stared at DeDe and grinned. “She know. She know what it was.”

Pearle’s hand, still on DeDe’s arm, trembled. She asked her again. “What do you know, DeDe?”

“I know it’s late. Thank you all for coming.”

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Coal Dust On My Feet ~ part 6

~~~Tuesday, April 14, 1953~~~

            DeDe woke up, ran her tongue behind her teeth, and tasted bitter anguish. A taste as unpleasant as chicory that melts on the tongue. Another storm had moved into the valley, the wind whipping pine branches across her bedroom window. Too windy to hang out clothes and sheets, her laundry would wait another day. She hated wind with no rain. At least the rain washed the air. But this was a wicked wind that picked up the coal splinters and hurled them at your skin. She felt an uneasiness in her spirit, and the top of her head tingled.

            Thirl’s Vitalis on the pillow greeted her as she stirred. Out of habit she moved her hand along his side of the bed, feeling only the lingering warmth of the empty spot. He was always up first. Hugging the abandoned pillow to her chest, she inhaled the scent of his hair, letting herself drift a while longer.

Mornings like this one she was grateful for the bathroom Thirl had built. DeDe reckoned the only thing outhouses were good for was to know the bathroom habits of your neighbors. She heard Thirl maneuvering his stiff leg through the kitchen and lay his Bible on the table, his usual morning routine. Through the curtain that separated the bedroom from the kitchen, she watched as he limped into the tiny bathroom and filled the basin with warm water to shave. It was time to get James out of bed or they’d both be late.

The morning's chill clung to DeDe through her chenille robe. Preparing both lunch boxes for her men, she filled each Thermos with boiling coffee. After stirring the coal in the stove, she glanced out the front room window at the first drops of rain pinging the panes. Her heartbeat quickened at the sight of two men rushing up to her front door.

The screen door was yanked open, causing the spring to emit a startled twang. They knocked hard and fast. Whoever it was on the other side of the door clearly wasn’t worried about disturbing the household.

Thirl poked his head out of the bathroom—shirtless, wiping the remains of shaving cream off his face with his towel. DeDe heard him pulling on his pants, his belt buckle jangling. “Who is at this time of the mornin’?” he asked.

“Company men, I’m sure.” DeDe opened the door and found Dewey Wilson standing behind Jugg Pyle. The wind flung rain in their faces like cold spit.

“Morning,” said DeDe.

“Thirl inside?”

“Getting ready for work. You need to talk to him now?”

“Yes, Ma’am,” said Jugg. “We …”

            Dewey interrupted with a cold stare, “We ain’t got time for pleasantries. Didn’t come fer no tea party … we gotta talk to Thirl.”

            “Hold on, gentlemen. I’ll get my husband.” She opened the door and led them to the kitchen. DeDe knew Thirl was listening and probably dressed by now. James Curtis hadn’t stirred from his room. She peeked her head inside his door. “Get up, son; we have visitors.”

            A groggy voice squeaked in the darkness. “Who is it, Mama?”

            “Company men here to see your daddy. Get up now. You’re both gonna be late as it is.”

            Thirl had walked into the kitchen to find the men standing by the stove with their hats in their hands. “You fellas want some coffee?”

            “Ain’t got time for coffee,” said Dewey.  

            Jugg stared at Thirl’s clean face, rubbing the stubble on his own. “Some of the men had a meetin’ at the church early this mornin’. We knew you wouldn’t want to be a part of this, but me and Dewey thought we’d at least let you know, on account of you bein’ shot and for all your misery.”

            “Just tell him, for Christ sake.” Dewey blew a wrathful breath from his nostrils, while his huge brown hand came thundering down on the table. “It’s like this. From the start, the comp’ny has admonished us to avoid any action that might be construed as retaliation against the strikers. But we’re tired, Thirl, tired of turnin’ the other cheek. You know it weren’t comp’ny men that burned Odie Ingram’s barn. Strikers did it to their own to make us look like a bunch of vigilantes. Here’s the deal. Bosses don’t know yet, ‘cept you. A group of the men are takin’ a bulldozer up to the head of the Widen road. They plan to plow the striker’s headquarters off the hill. We’re through with ‘em. We want to get back to work. Comp’ny’s losin’ money, and it might destroy the town if the strike goes on any longer. We ain’t safe in our own homes. Time we did somethin’ beside sit by and let them take pot shots at our cars and our families. Tub Perry’s got a dozer he used when he worked on the roads. He’s on his way now.”

            James Curtis bounded out of his room, his shirttail hanging, one boot on and holding the other. “Y’all cain’t do that! Somebody’s gonna get killed!”

            “Son! Calm down. Get yourself some breakfast.” Thirl threw a glance at DeDe to keep James Curtis out of the conversation.

            She laid her hand on James’ shoulder. “You men ever lost a loved one? Other than your parents, have either of you laid a dear soul into the ground? I’m not prepared to lose my husband or my son because you boys want to act like a bunch of John Waynes and plow the strikers into the dirt.”

            Dewey Wilson spit a stream of tobacco juice into the pop bottle he pulled out of his pocket. A steel-eyed glare was his only response.

Jugg, the town’s undertaker for the past ten years, quoted from the book of Job, “The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away.”

“I prefer Deuteronomy,” she said and looked hard at the men. “I will render vengeance to mine enemies. Vengeance is the Lord’s work … not ours!”

Suddenly, Dewey pulled an ancient gun out of his side pocket and spun the barrel like John Wayne in Red River, making a crooked aim out the window. His eyes were loose-closed; a trembling rim of white showed between his lashes. The tip of his tongue stuck out of the corner of his mouth. His red finger tightened on the trigger. “I’m ready to help the Lord out, what about you, Jugg? I think you need to calm your wife down, Thirl, this here talk is between the men.”

DeDe picked up a dishtowel and pretended to clean off the table. “And who do you think suffers the most? The men?”

“Dewey, put your gun away. My wife is privy to all I know. She has a say in what goes on in this house, gentlemen. I believe she’s fixed breakfast for your families a time or two. And if you want to discuss business in my wife’s kitchen, you’re gonna have to listen to her.”

Jugg nudged Dewey toward the door. “We’re sorry, ma’am.” He nodded to all three of the Nettles family. “We just wanted to let you know what happened at the meetin’. But ya cain’t stop it, Thirl. It’s already started.”

Dewey slipped his gun back in his coat pocket, spit in his bottle again, shoved his hat on his head and stormed out the door.

“Good thing he ain’t a union man.” Jugg’s nervous chuckle brought no reaction from DeDe or Thirl. “I apologize for Dewey; he ain’t been himself lately. Strikers rolled his car down the hill last week. He’ll settle down. I don’t see this as an act of violence, just us peaceful men bein’ fed up. That’s all. Rest easy, ma’am. Ain’t gonna be any killin’.”

“And a cat’s butt ain’t puckered,” said DeDe, throwing her kitchen towel on the table and leaving the room.


Off the state highway, in the middle of the company road at the top of Widen hill, the strikers had set up their field station. Benches and old automobile seats ringed a cluster of fifty-gallon drums. James Curtis had heard Odie refer to them as fire barrels.

As men for the union scattered right and left to safety, the bulldozer tracked into their camp, pushing barrels, benches, lunch boxes and accumulated trash across the road and over the lip of a deep gully.

Whooping and hollering, Dewey, Jugg, and a hundred company men drove back into town, honking their car horns and lighting firecrackers as if they deserved a parade. Their celebration could be heard from one end of town to the other.

“They’re rejoicing for the wrong reason,” said DeDe. “Strike’s not over, the battle’s just begun.” She rocked back and forth on her porch swing.

Her neighbor Pearle squatted on an apple crate and broke pole beans. “If ya ask me, I’m hopin’ that’s the end of it. I ain’t been to Strange Creek to see my grandbabies since this thing started last year.”

The people of Widen walked out of their homes that evening, gathered on porches talking and feeling free to move about. They allowed their children to roam the streets once again. A few young boys carried baseball bats and gloves toward the baseball park. A young girl rode her bike toward the Grille.

DeDe sensed the tingling in her head again … and thunder rolled in the distance.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Writing Fiction From Your Family's History

Taking a little break this morning from Coal Dust On My Feet. I received an email yesterday from a writer who asked, "How do I weave my past into my stories?"

Every writer has a past, a family (good, bad, or ugly.) You possess your own personal turmoil from years gone by. The rain falls on us all. Heartache, heartbreak, hardships ... go back and visit those dark places, if you dare, and if you do, you'll find honest writing that tugs at the emotions of your readers.

In writing Coal Dust On My Feet, I went back into my early years. As the eldest daughter of Darrel King, I was still too little to remember anything about the coal strike. But I do recall the emotion on Grandpa's face when he talked about it. For the majority of the story I drew from those memories. Specifically, my many visits to Widen as a young girl. A sense of place rooted and grounded me into the story. I remember Grandma and Grandpa's house. It's still there and remains in the family's possession today. (See picture below.)

It seemed so big to me back then with its wide front porch and creaking swing, as well as a smaller back porch off the kitchen where Grandma washed clothes on Mondays in a wringer washer. There was always a broom or two in the porch corner and a box for coal. A clothesline zigzagged up the hilly backyard. A cloth bag made from a tattered housedress, full of wooden clothespins, dangled from a clothes hanger. The bag scooted across the line as my mom hung out our bed sheets. One small working bathroom was added on later, and in my mother's opinion it was never clean enough.

I can still smell the coffee, bacon, and fried potatoes and eggs Grandma cooked for breakfast; the tinny smell of squirrel meat as Daddy and my aunt skinned a few from the morning's hunt, and the lingering scent of coal floating through town--especially on foggy mornings. The way the creek gurgled in the heat of the day. The feel of Widen's soft dirt roads on my bare feet, and the safety (or so we thought) of being surrounding by nothing but mountains. Nobody had money, everybody was in the same boat, and there really was a "Colored Holler." The town was segregated. It was the late 50s and early 60s. Nobody crossed those lines back then, sad to say.

Those memories shaped the story. The town was clearly in my head as I wrote about it. DeDe's house was Grandma's house. Even the deer head in the living room. The coal dust in the furniture. The lone light bulb over Thirl's bed. It's all from memory.

But it's when you write about the heartbreak in your life, when you draw from those deep and often tortured emotions ... that's what touches your readers. When you cry, they cry. Your readers will not feel the pain of loss unless you do. They will not care a bit about your characters unless you do. You, as a writer and a human being, have a wealth of information to pull from. If you're a storyteller, you can ask yourself ... what if? What if Uncle Percy robbed the store and got away with it? What if he hid the loot, got drunk, and told me as a kid where he stashed it? Think about different twists and turns in your own past, different endings to what really happened. Believe me, your plot will take off into directions you never knew your brain could conjure. It's an amazing ride.

And of course, be considerate. Don't write something about your mama that will upset her later. Or at least twist, turn, and bend it so she doesn't recognize the incident. Some of us hesitate to raise the stakes because of not wanting to hurt those we love. I can understand that. But just remember, you own everything that happened to you. Or so says Anne Lamott. And if your family knows you're a writer, they should expect that at some point, they may end up in a book somewhere.

Above everything, have fun writing. The process of putting words on paper is pure pleasure for me. It only becomes work after the book is published. So while you're in the moment, wrap yourself in words and emotion and especially the memories of your lifetime. There is where true originality comes from. No other writer has walked in your shoes. Remember that.

Blessings to you and yours.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Coal Dust On My Feet ~ part 5

~~~January 1953~~~

Winter came and stayed. Blizzard followed blizzard, each day gray with a fierce wind from the North. The hollows were deserted of man and beast, empty as any wasteland; the creeks were a perilous pile of ice. Coal trains couldn’t get through, water pipes cracked; all of West Virginia was locked in, the air as brittle as kindling.

Snow fell at daybreak. Later a charcoal film would cover the day-old snow. January’s drifts banked the windowpanes before it let up, the streets leveled, and the mountaintop above Widen faded like smoke. When the storm petered out at noon, the town lay steeped in fog—the ground-hugging kind that usually follows snow in valleys where coal camps nestle between the mountains. Fog by itself did not deter the citizens from carrying on with their lives, but fog with snow was something else. A person stayed inside, worn down by cold trips to the outhouse and restless sleep. Beneath this rag-and-bone sky, the only shadow cast was the violence of the strike. The snow smothered every inch of ground where the land bordered Buffalo Creek.

James Curtis followed a deer path over the mountain. Rabbits scattered into thickets of rhododendron. Bobcat tracks pocked the snow. He threaded his way over and through the mountain trails with less difficulty than a sliver of soap through his fingers. Her love pulled him like a solar eclipse—breathtakingly beautiful, spellbinding, and able to make him blind. Blessed with a young man’s body, the coal dust had yet to bite at his insides. Passion and pleasure waited for him at the end of his path in a feather bed, in a secret place, a place they could be alone. A place where they’d made a pact to meet one night a week. Savina would tell Odie she was staying with Hephzibah, and Odie would never check on her for that one night, especially in Colored Holler.

The tiny cabin was warm and dark, and smelled of wood and pine. Once occupied by escaped slaves, it lay hidden under thistle brush, pine boughs, and rhododendron for the past hundred years. Jabo told stories of how it had been a small farm hidden in the hills of the federal state, long before Widen and its coal was an idea in the mind of a young man named Joseph Bradley.

Succumbing to his wife’s nag, Jabo allowed the two young lovers to use it. The Kellys loved Savina. A white girl who had claimed them as her best friends. Nobody but Savina ventured into Colored Holler. Mama Ola, Jabo’s mother, had tended Savina’s sick bed months ago, bringing Hephzibah with her. The women became friends. An unusual relationship in Widen, which Odie Ingram tolerated and for which James Curtis was forever grateful. A relationship only a few families in Colored Holler knew about.

Savina had scrubbed the cabin until the skin on her hands bled raw. Highpockets and Percy, Jabo’s sons, assisted James in making repairs to the cabin for the better part of three weeks, turning it from a shack into a one-room hideaway complete with a working fireplace, feather bed, table, oil lamp and a chair.

Careful not to be followed, James wended his way up a steep and snowy hill, eyeing the thicket of pines that held the cabin in its midst. He stood quietly for a moment, breathing deeply, his breath pluming in the frigid air. He picked up his heavy snow-covered boots, one after the other, stepping over and crunching into two feet of snow that blanketed the area. Smoke curled out of the chimney; she was already there. Savina’s footprints, followed by her dog’s, left a trail for him to follow. Rascal barked when James Curtis opened the door.

“Hush, boy … it’s me … shut up, boy.” The old beagle panted and whined; his tongue, as pink as raw bacon, hung out of his mouth.

            James Curtis stomped the slush from his boots and walked over the threshold, tall and strong, like an oak tree covered with snow. Breathless, his nose dripped and ice crusted his hair. His cheeks were as red from the cold as maple leaves in autumn. James felt his chest and stomach constrict in a slow concussion of affection at the sight of her. She had told him he was always rushing her, pushing her into bed. His plans to keep the conversation light and move a little slower faded with each glance at her face.

He smiled, took off his coat and boots, laying them near the fire that warmed the room and cast a throbbing red glare on the bed. But her words fell soft on his heart like winter snowflakes.

“I hope you’re hungry,” she said. “There’s fresh bread and butter I bought at the store this mornin’. And some candy bars … and I threw a couple Cokes out back in the drift.”

            His love for her kicked him hard in the chest. All he could utter was a squeak.

Savina stood by the fire, wearing the thin gold band she’d pulled out of its hiding place. A wedding ring he’d bought her from the Sears and Roebuck catalog. She wore it only in the cabin. Her faded dress hung below her knees and the pink of her elbow showed through the hole in her sweater. But James Curtis imagined she could wear a feed sack and be beautiful. Except most of her dresses weren’t much better than the one she had on. His mother had offered to take her shopping in Summersville on more than one occasion, but Savina had always refused. It wasn’t her apparel he cared about anyway. After they were married he’d make sure she had better dresses than the threadbare garments she owned.

Her face was flushed from the fire. Tears started in her eyes, but she blinked once and they were gone. Still breathless, James cupped her chin and pulled her hair back. He lifted it from her back to the top of her head and kissed her bare neck. Her face was so pretty. An angel face with a perfect nose and round cheeks, big wide blue eyes like her father’s, and full lips that melted him with her kiss. Her hair was pretty, too, a light coppery brown, a shade lighter than his own, shining near the fire like a new penny.

Her head barely came to his armpit. The first time he laid her naked on a blanket in the woods, Savina’s adolescent body splayed out tiny and shapeless on the ground. He had made love to her at sixteen. Her body was like a child’s: no hips, bony legs, and breasts the size of fried eggs. But her breasts and hips had rounded and become ample in the two years they had been meeting secretly at the cabin. He looked forward to her eighteenth birthday. In five months he would remind Odie of his intent to marry his daughter, no matter how the strike turned out.

Savina slipped her shoes and socks off and sat on the floor. She propped her feet on a dry log, pulling her knees up to her chin. Her dress rode up, exposing her white panties. They glowed in the dim orange light of the fire. James sat down beside her crossing his legs, trying not to touch her. Suddenly, her hands were on the buttons of her dress.

Next to the heat of their blazing fire, the two wordless lovers stepped out of pools of clothes left on a makeshift wood floor, springing for the warmth of the feather bed and mounds of quilts.

James’ hands skimmed over her skin. Her nails dug into his back and urged him closer. He found he could not think at all. His body, long and lean, moved over her tiny frame. This was not their first time, but his need for her was as continual as the snow falling outside the cabin’s window. His touch as light as the promises he whispered. She followed his lead through the moment when he was certain he would not stop to do what was right, and by the time their limbs were tangled together, James could not recall even one fornication scripture.

He kissed her until she was shaking for him to settle. When he did, when his mouth came over hers, she arched into him and closed her eyes. James moved as if nothing existed but the darkness of the cabin. Then, just as he could not hold on any longer, he was suddenly forcing her to look at him. “Nothing will ever keep me from you,” he said.

She smiled and he filled her.

Their bodies lay woven together, rocking to the rhythm of their own love song and fiddle tune. Savina had lost every inhibition her world had bestowed upon her. Their world existed only in secret. She fell asleep heavily in his arms, curled up against him. He tried to memorize the way she held her mouth, the way her dimple twitched when she slept, and the crooked part in her hair. Just like his mother’s. He smelled her on his skin.

The moon rose full from behind the ridge, its light casting bright shadows of trees on the snow. He held her petite hand up to the pink sliver of moonlight that fell diagonally across the quilt, illuminating the tiny gold band. He smiled again. Someday, he could call her wife and she could wear the ring in public. He held it against his lips, forgetting everything but Savina and the path to Colored Holler.


            In the early morning, the clouds broke open to clear sky and bright sun. The snow began to melt as it dropped in clumps from the bent limbs of trees; the sound of water ran in the creeks again. They lay under the warmth of quilts for some time, spooning and drowsy.

Savina inched back the covers, slid out of bed, careful to walk around the few floorboards that moaned in the morning's cold. She laid a log on the empty grate. Pulling a quilt off the bed she curled up next to the hearth and poked at the red coals, hoping the sparks would ignite the log.

            His voice was so quiet, it tipped over Savina’s shoulder.

            “Stop thinking, it gets your mind all tied into knots.”

            She jumped. “You scared me. And I ain’t thinkin’.”

            “All liars will burn in the lake of fire … ain’t that what Pastor Jessie says?”

            “In that case, we’re gonna fry.”

            He tried to swallow around the knot that had lodged in his throat. The truth sat in his stomach like something indigestible—a stone, a nickel. “In a couple months, this will all be over, maybe sooner. We’ll be married and on our way to Ohio. I’m sure I can get a job with one of the rubber companies in Akron. We’ll come back to visit, you and me and all our young’uns … it’ll work out, wait and see.”

A flicker of doubt crossed her face. Savina couldn’t speak.

James crawled out of bed and stoked the fire hot so Savina could dress and not freeze. She was always cold. She hated winter. After pulling her sweater over her dress, Savina stepped into a pair of leggings made of thick wool and lined with flannel. She sat back down on the bed and smoothed her dress over the Confederate gray fabric.

            “What are you laughing at?” she asked.

            “Where’d you get them things?”

            “They were Mommy’s. Stop laughin’. They’re warm.”


            “No, you’re not.”

            He squatted down in front of her at the edge of the bed, his limbs hinged like grasshopper legs. “They just remind me of how old-fashioned you are.”

            “I thought you liked that about me.”

            “I do. I love that about you.” He took her hands and kissed them, then sang two lines of her favorite hymn, “I’ll fly away …”

She stood and pulled his head into her breast. “It’s better when your daddy sings it.”

“Lady, you ain’t marrying me for my singing.” He kissed her one last time. “I’m late and I have to go.” He stood, pulled his jacket on and watched her take off the gold band. She hid it again, under the stone beside the hearth. It would lie there until next week.

“There’s going to be a meeting at the Grille this morning and Daddy wants me to go with him. Wants to make sure I’m not being swayed by the strikers.”

            “When’s it gonna end?” Savina tucked her scarf inside her coat and pulled another over her head as James held the cabin door open for her.

            “Not soon enough. FBI says the union is violating the civil rights of miners. They say it’s a federal offense to hinder anybody from going to work. I heard they been telling the strikers to get themselves a lawyer.”

            Savina pulled on her gloves. “Daddy said some of the men are askin’ for their jobs back. But I say the strike ain’t gonna end as long as the UMW gives the strikers free groceries. Only about fifty men left at the top of the hill.”

            “The worst fifty,” James said.      

            “Daddy’s just blind. He’ll come around, soon as we’re married. He won’t want hard feelin’s between the families. ‘Specially with him and your daddy bein’ old friends.” She giggled. “James Curtis, what are you doin’?”

            “Making a snow angel. That’s what you are, Savina Ingram soon-to-be Nettles. A snow angel.” He had fallen back into the drift by cabin’s door, his legs and arms moving like a cartoon character in the snow.

            It didn’t occur to her not to get her dress wet. A second later she joined him in the snow, flapping her arms and legs up and down … creating her own angel, while Rascal, revived by the cold, barked and jumped through the drift, enjoying the romp.

            Laughing, James pulled her up.

            He looked down at the snow where their bodies had laid side-by-side, perfect angel depressions in the earth. Savina stepped over them with the utmost care, and seeing how careful she was, he stepped over them, too, and then hugged her while their clothes were frozen, covered with ice crystals up and down their bodies.

~~~April 1953~~~

            The color of old bones, the sky appeared cold and lifeless. Some of the trees hadn’t bloomed yet. The bare, gray maples and elms behind Widen were topped with tight red buds. From a distance they stained the hillsides a ravenous dark pink.

            Thirl had recovered slowly over the winter, but his limp dictated his need for a cane. He’d gone back to work after Christmas as the picket line dwindled and the terror eased up, spreading itself into the surrounding countryside. When Odie’s barn burned down the first week in April, Savina lit out the next morning to tell James.

            “We lost two horses and our cow. The tractor was blown up. Daddy’s been excused from the picket line for the week. I have to get home before he knows I’m gone. Lord, he’s taken to carryin’ his gun ever’where. Even to the outhouse. He’s guardin’ the farm, like some ole’ chicken sittin’ on her nest of eggs. It’s doubtful he’ll spend much time joinin’ the strikers on the line. He’s sure some poacher’s gonna kill the rest of his horses and burn down the house. If I’m out of his sight for long, he comes lookin’ for me.”

James Curtis ran his hand through his auburn hair, tarnished from the mine’s dust of working a double shift. He kissed her softly. Her mouth tasted of milk and berries. “I can’t stand this any more. Why can’t we be together, like we planned?”

            “Won’t be for a while … not ‘til this damn strike’s over.” Savina said. “He knows when I leave for Colored Holler and he knows what time I’m supposed to be home.”

            DeDe overheard Savina’s last statement from inside the house. She opened the screen door to serve her a glass of lemonade. All hugged up on the porch swing, Savina and James sat up straight as DeDe sat the glass on the railing and smiled.

“Thank ya, Missus Nettles,” Savina said. She eyed the glass but pulled her heels up to rest on the swing instead, wrapping her arms over her knees and smoothing her skirt to her ankles.

            “Why are you going to Colored Holler, Savina? If you don’t mind me asking.” DeDe noticed the sadness stuck in the corners of Savina’s eyes, like little bits of sleep.

            Savina and James looked hard at each other, but she found her answer and quickly blurted it out. “You know old Mama Ola and her daughter-in-law, Hephzibah … they’re my best friends.” She took a sip of her lemonade and stepped over her words with caution. “Hephzibah cleans the Bradley’s house over in Dundon and washes Mister Bradley’s laundry. Mama Ola’s son, Jabo, he fixes things ‘round the house for Mister Bradley’s wife. Jabo retired from the mine last year, with thirty years of service.”

            “How does she get over to his house? I know Jabo don’t drive.”

            Savina scooped a mosquito off her arm and rubbed it between her palms. She hesitated, avoiding DeDe’s eyes. “Ever notice how mosquitoes are like little butterflies, so dainty and easily broken?” She took a deep breath. “Mister Bradley’s man picks her up. And sometimes I ride along to help her. Every other day or so. Jus’ to make a few dollars and help Daddy make ends meet.”

            DeDe nodded then walked back into the house. She wouldn’t ask how she got to be friends with Hephzibah or Mama Ola. Or why. Most folks in Widen stayed clear of Colored Holler.