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.”

            “Sorry.”

            “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.

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