[img_assist|nid=678|title=Industrial by Thomas Johnson © 2007|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=134|height=150]
The house, so full with the heavy breath of prayer and the shifting feet of the waiting, settles another inch and the long vigil is suddenly over. Ona’s mother is dead. One after another, the women untangle their hands from their rosary beads and feel relief in knowing that now there will be more productive things to do than pray.
Ona’s young brothers are sent up the hill to wait for their father and uncles to emerge from the mine. From there the men and boys will spend the evening and next morning in a tavern near the colliery, leaving the women to their preparations. In such situations the barkeeper is made doctor and priest. He will administer boilermakers throughout the night until the Holy Ghost manifests itself, laying every man on the floor and covering each in forgetful sleep.
It is this way in a valley in Pennsylvania, between the Wyoming and Back Mountains where the land dips down a thousand feet or more to meet the mines. The Northern Coal field runs for miles underground and all of the immigrants in the patch towns along the Susquehanna River have in common the one industry of mining the hard, long burning, Anthracite coal. The people here call the mines the Shades and the carts that take the men down there are known as the devil’s train. There is a story that is told almost like a joke that goes around with many embellishments: A miner tells a priest that the mines are damp and cold and unlike any picture of hell he has ever seen in his prayer book. The priest makes the sign of the cross over the man and whispers to the miner saying, “You haven’t dug deep enough yet.”
Ona’s aunts, grandmother and the neighbor women, speak in Lithuanian and short bits of English as they move around her mother’s body. They gently remove pieces of her clothing, and begin to wash her. Her grandmother, Urszula, a woman about as wide and as tall as a coal stove, summons the girl and says, “Ona, bring me the rags from the cellar we use to tie up the tomato plants.” But Ona stands looking up at her grandmother, her mociute, wondering if she misunderstands what the old lady is saying. Urszula points to the cellar door and shouts. “Get! Now!”
Ona is afraid of the cellar, believing that the ghost of her grandfather is tucked into a corner of the coal bin. It was only two years ago, when Ona was ten, that the company men emerged from the Black Maria, the company hearse, and laid her grandfather out on the front porch as casually as the dairyman delivers the milk. His hobnailed shoes and lunch bucket still wait near the cellar door, hoping someday he will hear the breaker whistle and rise up to go back to work.
Urszula’s glower alone seems to draw the door to the cellar open. Ona runs down the stairs wasting no time and finds the strips of old flannel shirts on a shelf filled with empty canning jars. Her mother’s red apron is there too, hidden in the basement months ago to keep from tempting the young mother from getting up from her sick bed and doing the household chores. Ona wants to touch it. She wants to pick it up and smell the strange mix of the peppermint candy her mother kept in its pockets and the years of flour that no amount of washing will take from its fibers. But Ona’s fear of the cellar and her grandmother’s impatience do not let her stop to do this. She is about to fly back up the steps when the door at the top of the stairs opens again. Above her, descending the steps sideways in order to clear the narrow stairwell, are the burliest women in the patch, Mrs. Degutis and her sister-in-law. Without searching the cellar at any great length, they find a heavy wooden door that is propped against the foundation and carry it up the steps. Ona closely follows the sturdy pair back upstairs.
[img_assist|nid=679|title=Derelict Pool by Summer Edward © 2007|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=149|height=105]The women take the door and set it on two small tables in the front room and drape a clean, white sheet over it. Ona follows the women as they lift her mother from the day bed near the coal stove and carry her to the cold parlor where they lay her on top of the door. Urszula takes the rags from Ona’s hands. She lifts her daughter’s burial dress to just above the knees and ties her legs together with the soft strips of flannel. At first it is only a slight shudder Ona can see running through her grandmother’s hands and then the tremor overtakes the old woman. Ona’s grandmother, no longer able to hide her sorrow, buries her face in her handkerchief and weeps while Ona’s aunt binds her dead sister’s hands with rosary beads to keep them twined in prayer. One by one, the women go home, leaving Ona and Urszula alone in the house.
“Ona, stay here and sit with your motina.” Her grandmother orders as she slides the parlor doors shut and leaves the girl in the front room alone. “It is very important that someone sit with her now.”
Ona does as she is told and sits in a far corner of the parlor and begins to fret over what else her mother might need from her. Before her illness, her mother seemed like a child to Ona playing simple games with her children and secretly giving each the sweets she hid for them in her pockets. More like a sister than a mother, she rarely scolded Ona for her childhood indiscretions; it was always her father or grandmother who did these things. Ona studies her mother’s face now rigid and stern but still framed in soft brown hair. For the first time Ona is afraid of her. She waits for some movement. Staring at the body before her, she begins to think she can see her mother’s chest rise and fall with faint breath. A rattling of pots in the kitchen sends her running to the parlor doors. She slides them open with such force that a picture jumps from its nail and tumbles to the floor.
“Mociute! Mociute!” Ona screams, “Mama is breathing! She is breathing, I can see it!” Urszula barrels across the creaking floorboards. With a cast iron pot and dishtowel in her hands, Urszula’s concentration has shifted from her daughter to the more pressing matters at hand of cooking and housekeeping. She makes a hook of her index finger, catches hold of the girl’s collar and drags her to the kitchen. She is about to reprove the child for the disruption and her seeming disrespect, but all of a sudden, she steps back and can little recognize the motherless girl that now stands before her.
[img_assist|nid=680|title=After the Dream by David Foss © 2007|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=150|height=168]“Oh, my Ona. Come. Come here. For certain, my daughter, my dukte is dead. I know this.” And she pulls the girl to her side until Ona is nestled deep in the woman’s embrace. “Leave your motina to herself for now, before the priest gets here and her soul will be gone from us for good.”
Urszula gently runs her plump and callused hand over the girl’s face and takes a piece of flannel from her apron pocket, tying Ona’s hair back.
“Ona, you have never baked bread, have you?” asks her grandmother. Before the girl can answer, Urszula takes another strip of flannel and blindfolds Ona until she can no longer see what is in front of her.
“What are you doing, Mociute?” Ona protests and grabs at the cloth.
“Be still, Ona. We are going to bake bread. I will teach you just as I taught your mother, the way my mother taught me, the way you will teach your daughter. Tomorrow, you will see, they will come with cakes and ham but no bread. It is the simplest of things and that is why no one will think to bring it.”
“But why are you putting the rag over my eyes?”
“Because it is the best way to learn. You mustn’t take it off until I tell you.”
She leads Ona by the hand to the center of the kitchen where there is ample room for the task and puts a big porcelain bowl on a chair. She drags a can of flour over to the girl’s side and gives her a teacup. “Now, start scooping up flour into the bowl and keep scooping until I say stop.” Urszula then tells her to add varying sized pinches of yeast, sugar and salt and each granule scores its memory into her fingertips. Urszula lifts the water pitcher down from the warming cupboard in the stove and hands it to her granddaughter. Ona pours the water into the flour until her grandmother impatiently shouts, “No more!”
The old woman places her hands on top of Ona’s and rocks out the motion that is required for kneading. Soon, the heel of Ona’s hand is pushing the dough away and her fingers bring it back, and again the heel of her hand pushes the dough away and the fingers roll it back.
“Good, Ona. Very good! Now, keep doing that until your arms hurt just a little.
Then we will cover it with a blanket and wait.” Urszula wipes flour from the girl’s cheek and she checks the blindfold to make sure it is secure.
Before long Ona calls out, “Mociute, can I stop now?”
“Yes, Ona, you can stop.” Urszula says and leads the girl by the arm to a chair.
“Can I take the blindfold off now, Mociute?
“No, you must sit here and learn how long it takes for the dough to rise. I will let you know when it is time for the next thing to be done.”
She listens to her grandmother move around the kitchen, too tired to contemplate the events of the day. It is late and the rhythm of Urszula’s movements and the darkness provided by the blindfold lulls her into a deep slumber. After a time that she cannot gauge, her Grandmother begins gently to nudge her shoulders and calls out to her saying, “Ona, Ona! We need more coal for the stove. It is almost all ash.” Ona can hear the handle of the bucket rattle against its side as it is handed to her. “Go and fill it.”
“No, Mociute.” Ona pleads pushing the bucket back into her grandmother’s hands. “Please don’t make me go to the cellar.”
“I can’t go!” Urszula protests. “My legs are too swollen today. You go. The house will get cold. And the bread, it has to bake!”
“I’m scared of the cellar.”
“Ona, there is nothing in this house that you should be afraid of.”
“But I am scared. I don’t like it down there.” Ona says as she grips the seat of her chair.
“I will stand at the top of the stairs and I will wait for you. Let me take that rag off your eyes for now.” Urszula assures her and leads the girl to the cellar door.
Ona descends slowly as her hands reach out to the protruding fieldstone of the foundation for balance. She walks towards the front of the house to the coal bin, a room about the size of two large closets that is filled waist high with coal. When it is delivered, the children run to the front of the house. They stand leaning on the railing as the men insert a long chute from the truck to the hatch below the porch. Here, they can watch as the men let tumble the shiny, black coal in a jangling rush.
“Mociute!” Ona yells out when she reaches the door of the bin. “I’m scared.” But all she hears in response is her grandmother’s stomping foot on the kitchen floor.
Ona opens the door. The air is cold and sulfurous as it pours over her. She quickly scoops up a bucketful and turns to run up the stairs but feels a tug at her wrist. It is her grandfather. Ona believes she is screaming but all she can hear is the wind blowing through the opened hatch of the coal bin.
“Look, Ona, I have left that hatch open again and the snow is getting in the house,” her grandfather says shaking his head from side to side.
She tries to speak and pulls away, but his grip is firm.
“Ona, please, don’t leave so quickly.” He straightens up, still holding Ona by the wrist and pushes the small metal door of the hatch shut. Her grandfather looks weary to her and in need of a chair to sit 1n.
“Look at this snow! Ona, have you ever seen the men come out of the mines in the early morning when it has been snowing all night? Their eyelids flutter like moth’s wings in all the whiteness that is lying on the ground. The light of day is painful to them after being in the dark so long.” He pauses. “Well, there is some good and bad mixed into all things.”
Ona trembles violently and is unable to pull free of her grandfather’s grip.
“I want to tell you something,” he says. “The priest is right, you know. Hell is at the very center of this earth. It’s true.”
“Yes, Senilis. You have told me this story many times,” Ona replies trying to appease the specter before her. “And the miners are men of God who little by little steal the devil’s coal so that one day his fires will die out and there will be no Hell.”
“But Ona there is one question the priest never answered.” Her grandfather continues. “It is a child’s question really—a very simple one.”
“What question Senilis? What do you mean?” Ona asks.
“What will happen when there is no Hell? Where will all the badness of the world return to?”
Before Ona is able to take a breath, she finds herself standing in the center of the kitchen holding the coal bucket unable to recall climbing the stairs.
“Mociute, Senilis is in the basement. In the coal bin!” Ona points to the cellar steps.
Urszula begins to laugh. “Ona, please, keep your head on what needs doing.”
She takes the bucket from Ona and puts more coal on the fire. Then she leads her granddaughter to a chair.
“Ona, you are shaking so! What is the matter?”
“I told you, Senilis is in the cellar! I just saw him there.”
“Oh, Ona, I told you, there is nothing in this house to be afraid of.”
“But he is in the basement! Go to the cellar door and call to him. You’ll see.”
“Ona, I am an old woman. I do not need to do that! I know the twitch of every whisker and tail on every mouse in these walls.” Urszula takes a fist and gives the nearest wall a rattle. “This is my home. Do you believe there is anything I do not know about it? Now settle yourself. I have too much to do.” Urszula sets Ona down in the chair and ties the blindfold with a firm knot at the back of her head.
“Mociute, why are you putting that rag over my face again? You’ve already taught me how to make the bread.”
“So you have learned so much, so quickly? The bread is simply rising. Are you sure that is all that is happening?”
“I don’t know, Mociute.” Ona’s voice is shaky. She is almost crying. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Ona, I told you already. I am teaching you just as my motina taught me. And haven’t you told me many times, ‘Mociute, you bake the best bread of all’? When you are older and I am no longer on this earth, you will remember everything I taught you tonight.”
“Alright Mociute, I will sit here but will you tell me something?”
“What? What is it Ona?” Urszula lays her hand on her granddaughter’s shoulder.
“Why didn’t the priest come here when Senilis died to give him the last rites? Ona can feel the floor give with each step Urszula takes as the old woman abruptly turns from her.
“Ona, please. It will be morning soon.”
“Why didn’t the priest come, Mociute?” Ona asks again.
Urszula’s chest lets go a long sigh. “Alright, alright, I will tell you, but first I’m going to ask you a question.” Urszula stops for a moment and draws in a deep breath. “Tell me, which are the biggest and most beautiful buildings in this Valley?”
“What?” Ona asks wondering what this has to do with her grandfather.
“Answer my question, Ona. Which are the biggest and most beautiful?”
Ona knows that the biggest buildings in the Valley are the coal breakers. The buildings where lumps of coal ride up a steep, roller coaster incline and then tumble down and break into small chunks that are loaded into waiting railroad cars at the tipple. These are dark, mammoth buildings whose crooked hodgepodges dwarf even the tallest church steeples. But Ona knows that the most beautiful buildings in the Valley are the churches and her mother always told her that it made her feel as if she were entering a palace every time she crossed the threshold of St. Casimir’s.
Ona finally answers. “The churches, Mociute. They are like palaces”
“And what makes them so beautiful?”
“Everything about them, the marble and the colored glass in the windows, the carvings, the statues…”
“Yes, and those things are very dear, Ona. Who do you think pays for that?”
“People put money in the baskets at every mass, Mociute!”
“Ona, look at our house.” Urszula continues almost laughing. “It is very simple. Look out the window. All the houses are the same here and everyone is poor. The miners don’t make enough money to pay for all of that marble and colored glass.”
“Let me finish, Ona. I’m going to tell you something that I never want you to forget. The mine owners, they give the church money. They give the church a lot of money. I know you may not understand all this, but the Pope himself has told the priests that it is wrong for the miners to ask for certain things. Many priests do not want the miners to have a better life because that would mean that the mine owners would not have as much money to give the church. Your senilis believed that this was a sin that could not be forgiven. When the miners in the Valley stopped going to mass, he was one of them. The priests gave lists of names to the Cardinal who wrote to the Pope asking that they all be banished from the Church. Do you know what that means? No last rites. No prayers of intercession. There is no resting place for that kind of soul. That is all I can say about the mice that stir in my house.” Urszula pats the top of Ona’s head. “I have no more time for this. I must see to your motina.”
“No, there is no more time for talking now. The sun will be up soon.”
The blindfold is taut around Ona’s face and she can clearly hear Urszula’s labored footfalls test the strength of each board as she slowly makes her way to the front room to pray. Ona sits next to the rising dough and the yeast begins to make the kitchen smell like a beer bucket. Her grandmother’s rosary beads start to click out familiar prayers in a circuitous path around the chain. Ona, tired and unable to do anything but sit and wait, begins to whisper the prayers she can hear her grandmother reciting in the other room. One by one each prayer rolling into the next, but Ona cannot surrender herself to those prayers. The vision of her grandfather and his questions begin to trouble her. But beyond it all is the forsaken feeling of her mother’s absence and having no one left in the world to make it a joyful place. She drops her head to her chest and wraps both arms around herself and tears begin to soak the cloth of the blindfold. Then, without warning, something is dropped into Ona’s lap.
“Mociute?” Ona calls out, but her grandmother does not reply. She can still hear her lost in prayer in the parlor at the front of the house.
“Mociute?” She says again, more insistently, but she can still hear her in the other room. She removes the blindfold and sees her mother’s red apron lying before her.
“Ona, it is not good to look yet!” Her grandmother says as she makes her way to the kitchen. Then in a lighter tone almost laughingly she adds, “Sometimes the eye wants to hear and the nose wants to see,” and she takes the piece of cloth and again blindfolds the girl.
“Who brought this apron to me?”
“It is your motina’s apron.”
“Yes, I know Mociute. But who put it in my lap?
“That doesn’t matter. You do need an apron. Isn’t it so? Now, is the bread ready to be kneaded again?”
“I don’t know, Mociute.” Ona is too tired and confused to push her grandmother for any more answers.
“Well, get up from the chair and let me tie your motina’s apron around you.” Urszula guides Ona to her feet and wraps the red apron around her waist. “Feel this.” Urszula instructs and lightly rests the girl’s hand on the blanket and through it she can feel the spongy, swollen dough pushing well beyond the rim of the bowl.
“Now you can knead the dough again.”
This time, Ona’s hands are surprisingly swift and she kneads the dough until it becomes strong enough to resist her push. Without instruction, she divides the dough and places each piece in a pan and covers them with the blanket. Again, she sits blindfolded in the kitchen and waits. Urszula returns to the parlor and resumes filling the house with prayer.
After about an hour, the kitchen is noticeably cooler. Ona pushes herself out of her chair. She reaches out in front of her and can feel the diminishing warmth of the stove as she shuffles toward it knowing that it must need tending. She is certain that by this time, the red coals must be covered in a blanket of ash. She thinks of calling out to her grandmother, but instead she removes the blindfold and makes her way to the cellar with the bucket in hand.
“It takes a lot of coal to keep the stove hot enough to bake bread,” her grandfather says.
“Yes,” she says. “Senilis, the question you asked before…I want to know. What will happen to all the badness in the world?”
“Ona, have you ever noticed that crooked old man that comes by every once in a while?”
Ona shakes her head.
“No? Well, maybe you will.” Her grandfather continues. “He knocks on this hatch with his swollen knuckles and asks for coal. I open the door and hand him a couple of pieces and then he is on his way. He goes along like this from house to house all through the valley. Every miner knows about him. Some people open their doors and others do not, but there is always a consequence for doing either.”
“A consequence?” Ona asks. “This man, do you mean he is the devil? He is tricking you, Senilis. You give him our coal to save us, but do you know that my motina died last night and is laid out in the front room upstairs? He is tricking you.”
“I did not say that that old man is the devil. There is good and bad in all things.”
“Still, whatever it is you are doing with this old man has not spared us.”
“Wait and see.” Her grandfather points a shaky finger to the ceiling. “When the priest comes today, your motina will fly from this house.”
Ona turns from her grandfather and walks back up the stairs. Urszula is waiting for her and again ties the strip of flannel around her head. She takes the coal bucket and says, “I will tend to the stove. Then you put the loaves in the oven and open the door only when they smell so sweet that you can taste them here.” She puts a finger on Ona’s throat. When that moment comes, Ona calls out to her grandmother. The old woman opens the door and is pleased to find perfectly formed loaves baked to a honey color. She removes Ona’s blindfold and tucks it in Ona’s apron pocket. Urszula takes the pans out one at a time with bare hands, showing no discomfort in their heat. She places the loaves side by side on the table and they are left there to cool.
She then takes Ona by the shoulders and leads her into the front room. Urszula, shaking her head, stands over her daughter trying to make the sign of the cross but instead grabs a hold of her daughter’s ankle and begins to speak to her.
“I could never keep your feet clean when you were a little girl. You were always off somewhere and always with no shoes. Always with no shoes! The neighbors used to laugh and say you had been walking through the mines again. Your little feet, always so dirty, so, so, dirty.” Urszula's voice trails off with a shake of her head. “Come Ona. You come and talk to your motina before the priest gets here.”
Ona tries to speak but her body curls in on itself and she begins to sob. Great droplets of tears fall from her eyes to the floor and she is unable stop them. A tapping begins beneath her feet. The floor under her is like glass and Ona can see the miners with their pickaxes spread out like ants in the veins of the Northern Mine Field below her. For one moment, the railroad cars stop loading at the tipple and everything is still. The miners look up, but there is no trouble in the mines today. They point to the church and to the sexton, and can see the crooked old man, who stokes the furnaces. The snow melts from the steep pitched roof and begins to trickle down to the thick icicles that hang from the eaves of St. Casimir’s. The priest opens the church door with a rattle that causes one icicle to fall silently and bury itself deep in the snow. The tipple roars up again and the men, one by one, slowly bend back into to their work.
When the priest arrives at the house, he is already throwing long, shallow arcs of holy water as Urszula opens the door and allows him in. He says the prayers for the dead and traces out small crosses with his thumb over the young mother’s lips and feet. He finishes quickly. The priest turns his back to them and stands waiting for one of them to open the front door to take his leave. Ona dutifully jumps forward but Urszula grabs hold of her arm and stays her granddaughter. With a jerk of her head, Urszula orders Ona to her mother’s side.
“He will see himself out. Now, give your motina a kiss,” Urszula whispers.
Ona leans over her mother and kisses her on the forehead.
A breeze starts from somewhere deep in the house and blows past Ona and Urszula filling both their aprons. The door swings open hard in front of the priest. He looks unsteady at first but leaves the house quickly and his footfalls land heavy on the front steps. The front door stays open and the house is suddenly empty and still. All the preparations are done. The neighbors will be here with their baskets of food and soon the boys will shepherd the men home in their dirty overalls. But for now, for this moment, Urszula and Ona lean into one another. Indifferent to the cold that blows through the door, they stand and listen to every swoosh and thwack of the priest’s woolen cassock as he negotiates the rutted and steep icy roads of the patch.
Marie Davis-Williams grew up in Wilkes-Barre,
Pennsylvania. Currently she works in New York City’s Chinatown as a Registered Dietitian. This is her first published story.