By Sandra P. Aldrich
Published by Bold Words, Inc.
Chapter Three of Zetta’s Dream
Zetta watched Asa swing the ax against the tender bark of the saplings near the creek. His back muscles rippled beneath his torn shirt as he struck each thin trunk. Then in one swift motion, he swooped up the timber and tossed the entire stack onto the mound of fresh dirt beside him. A cold wind rustled the leaves, causing the saplings to moan, Too soon. Too soon. The fresh sap on the blade glistened and then turned red as drops of blood fell onto the soil. Asa lifted his face and looked longingly at her.
Zetta awoke with a start, her heart pounding.
For a moment, she gulped air, disoriented and frightened as she tried to shake off the mountain belief about dreams of new timber and fresh soil being signs of coming death. She looked toward the window but the light from the waning moon offered no comfort. Then Asa’s gentle snore pulled her to full consciousness, and she moved closer to the warmth of his back as she whispered, “Lord, thank You that Asa is right here. Protect him—and us—please. Help me know I dreamed about the trees and dirt because I’m homesick, and nothing more.”
Asa turned in his sleep then, rolling onto his back. Zetta eased away to give him more room, then bent to kiss his cheek before pulling the quilt over his bare chest. Even though she wanted to snuggle against him, she could tell from her longtime practice of early rising that it was close to 5:00—getting up time for the miners. She looked toward the little bed just an arm’s reach away where Rachel and Micah slept, their breath coming in unified puffs. Rachel’s arms were folded around the rag baby doll.
Well, I’d better get a jump on fixing breakfast and packing the dinner buckets before the whistle blows, she thought as she changed from her nightgown into a shapeless dress.
At the kitchen window, Zetta rubbed her arms for warmth as she looked toward the outhouse standing in the eerie shadows up the lane and was thankful Asa had thought to buy the chamber pot. Then she lit the lantern on the table and pulled kindling from the wood box, which she poked into last night’s embers in the cook stove. As those caught fire, she added small chunks of coal.
Trying to stay ahead of the whistle, Zetta filled the gray enamel coffee pot from the water bucket near the door and set it on the back of the stove. As she mixed biscuit dough, the mine whistle blew. At its shrill cry, Zetta shook her head, knowing she was going to hate hearing that sound every morning.
She looked in on Rachel and Micah, concerned the whistle had awakened them. But Asa was leaning over their bed rubbing their backs and whispering, “It’s all right, Babies. Go back to sleep.”
As Zetta turned back toward the stove, she heard the corn shuck pallets on which her brothers slept rustle as the men stretched and yawned. She sliced fat back into a hot skillet, then cracked six eggs directly into the hot grease. One egg had a double yolk. She would put that on Asa’s plate.
The three men made quick trips up the lane, then splashed cold water on their faces at the wash bench. By the time they sat down at the table, the biscuits were ready.
With his elbows on the rough table, Asa leaned his head against his folded hands. “Lord, thank You for the good night’s sleep,” he began. Zetta, standing at his shoulder, clinched her hands together, remembering her disturbing dream.
At Asa’s Amen, Zetta set their plates before them heaped with fried apples, fat back and eggs. She turned the biscuits onto another plate and set a jar of her blackberry jam next to them.
The men ate in silence for several minutes but occasionally made smacking sounds to let her know her cooking was appreciated. When they were finished, each man wiped his plate with a final bite of biscuit.
“What did y’all eat before I showed up,” she asked.
Asa smiled. “Nothing nearly as good as this.”
Loren stood up and stretched until his fingertips touched the uneven ceiling.
“I’ll fill the lamps and see if I’ve got clean shirts for work this week.”
The hint was not lost on Zetta. “Haven’t y’all done any washing?” she asked.
Loren smiled. “You know I’m not about to do women’s work,” he said. “Perton’s wife used to take in washing, but now that she’s in the family way I reckon she won’t be doing that. It’s a good thing Asa had you come here.”
Zetta turned toward Asa, but he shook his head.
“You know better than that,” he said. “But if you reckon you feel up to washing the shirts today, Luttrell and I will get the wash kettles out from under the back porch and fill ‘em for you.”
As Asa and Luttrell went out the back door, Zetta watched Loren pull a box from the back of the top shelf and line up three brown canvas caps on the table. On the front of each cap was a rectangular metal compartment into which he carefully poured tiny black granules.
“What’s that?” Zetta asked.
Loren never looked up. “Carbide,” he said. “We’ll add the water at the mine to get light.”
“That’s about as clear as mud to me,” Zetta said as she put fat back meat between biscuit halves. “But I’m glad you know what you’re doing.”
After she cut three large chunks of gingerbread cake for each man, Zetta sliced raw sweet potatoes and folded them into a small piece of wax paper. Those would go into Asa’s bucket. She turned to Loren.
“There are only two buckets here,” she said.
Loren nodded, “Since we work the same section, Asa always packs his dinner in our buckets.”
“He does? Why?”
“Oh, you know Old Gotta-Save-Every-Penny Asa,” Loren answered. “He said he’s not paying for something just to haul his food. I swear he’s been saving every extra cent—except for what he bought for this house and that Christmas surprise for you.”
At Zetta’s startled look, Loren tried to cover his telling of Asa’s secret.
“A while back, that man of yours wouldn’t go to the new Tom Mix flicker show over in Hazard,” he said. “And that was even after I offered to pay his way. He said he druther not waste any money. Not even mine.”
Zetta reached for the little basket that had held the chicken and hoe cakes for yesterday’s trip to the camp.
“Well, I’ll just put his dinner in this basket,” she said.
Loren stood up to put the carbide back on the top shelf.
“Nope, can’t do that,” he said. “The rats will get into it. That’s why our dinner buckets are metal—and covered.”
Zetta stopped, stunned, “Rats? In the mine?”
Loren nodded. “Oh, yeah,” he said. “And it’s bad luck to kill one. In a cave-in they’ll run for the opening. If a man’s trapped, he can follow the rats out by listening to their scurrying even in the dark.
Yeah, I won’t kill a rat, but I ain’t about to share my dinner with him, either.”
Zetta paused, the biscuits and fatback in her hands.
Loren shrugged. “Go ahead and put Asa’s dinner in my bucket,” he said. “But put it all on the top tray. Drinkin’ water goes in the bottom. I’ll see about getting him his own bucket since you’re liable to be packing more than what the boarding lady did.”
Luttrell stepped into the kitchen just as Zetta closed the dinner bucket lids.
“We got both wash kettles filled,” he said. “Asa’s lighting the fire under the one now.”
Loren picked up his bucket. “I saw a jar of blackberries in one of the crates,” he said. “If you took a notion to make cobbler for supper, I reckon I could choke down a bite or two.”
Zetta smiled and patted him on the shoulder. “You stay out of trouble today,” she said.
Loren winked at her and went out the front door just as Asa walked in the back. Zetta watched him position his cap.
“I put sweet potato slices in the bucket for you. The boys don’t like them raw,” she said.
Asa nodded. “Yeah, buddy. Sweet potatoes from our ground beats any store candy.”
“I appreciate you filling the kettles for me,” Zetta said. “I just hope the weather stays clear enough so I can hang everything on the line.”
“Well, you’ll find the work duds piled on the back porch, under the wash bench,” Asa said. “Don’t try to get all the coal dust out of ‘em, they’re pretty bad.”
He leaned over, kissed her and then hurried to catch up with her brothers. As Zetta stood at the open door, she could hear the conveyor belts starting their loud rumbles at the tipple. She watched the three men trudge toward the mine and disappear into the predawn darkness.
Thinking of her bad dream, she whispered, “Oh, Lord, please keep them all safe.”
* * * *
After feeding Rachel and Micah, Zetta pushed the disturbing dream aside as she poured boiling water over the dishes in the pan until later. Then she put the children’s coats on them and handed Rachel her doll.
“Now, Mommy’s gonna wash the shirts, so I need you to stand right here in the doorway and watch,” she said. “If you mind, I’ll give you a sweet later.”
Zetta pulled her work apron over her dress and stooped to pull the men’s shirts from under the bench. As she straightened, she saw a woman with braided silver hair coming down the lane. A bright blue apron showed below her open brown coat. Even though Zetta didn’t know who she was, there was something strong about the older woman that made her watch as she descended the steps toward the kettles. The woman carried a canning jar of milk in the crook of her arm and poked a twisted walking stick in front of her with each step—more like it was a snake-killing club instead of a cane. Her bonnet hung down her back, and she looked up at the sky, ignoring the noise from the coal cars at the tipple.
She smiled when she saw Zetta. Still on the path, she raised her stick to point at the largest wash kettle over the wood fire.
“I’m glad you know to fill the kettle before you light the fire,” she said. “We had a woman here last year who thought she’d get the fire going while she toted water from the pump. By the time she poured the water into the hot kettle, that metal popped open like a hog’s bladder on butchering day.”
Zetta just stood there, not knowing if she should say thank you for the compliment or cluck her tongue over the ruining of that other kettle. Then while she was deciding if she should confess Asa and Luttrell had toted the water up from the camp pump, the woman leaned forward.
“I’m Clarissa Farley,” she said. “But folks call me Clarie. Asa told me you’ll be needing me come next month. I catch babies around here. Been doing that even before my man was killed by slate. I own my place up the holler, so the boss lets me hang around as long as I’m some use. If I lived in the camp, I woulda been turned out. A man getting hurt or killed means his family leaves, too.”
Suddenly her smile widened, and the lines at her mouth and eyes seemed to run together into a pattern.
“Lands, I haven’t let you get a word in edgewise,” she said.
Her gray eyes reminded Zetta of the morning mist rising out of the hills around the farm at home, and she smiled back.
“I’m Zetta Berghoffer,” she said, shyly.
Clarie handed Zetta the jar of milk.
“Why, honey, I know,” she said. “Asa asked me to bring milk around whenever I’ve got extra. He’s already paid me so’s you don’t have to worry.”
As Zetta stammered her thanks, Clarie nodded toward Rachel and Micah peeking around the door frame.
“And that’s the youngins,” Clarie said. “Asa thinks right smart of them.”
While Zetta was trying to think of something to say that wouldn’t make her sound addled, Clarie stepped forward and took the shirts Zetta was clutching in one arm. Seeing the older woman’s wide hands wrapped around the material comforted Zetta as though she was seeing them helping her new baby into the world. Clarie poked the shirts into the kettle of boiling water with the wash paddle then turned back to Zetta.
“This your first time in a coal camp?”
Zetta nodded as she shifted the jar of milk to her other hand.
“Yes, but we don’t aim to stay long,” she said.”
Clarie looked down the hill toward the tipple.
“Well, it’s a hard life no matter how long you’re here,” she said. “We always say the man works the mine, but the woman carries it inside. I worried about my man being under that mountain every day. I prayed to the good Lord, of course, but it helped me do things just so for him. I’d fold his clothes across the back of the bedroom chair—pants always on the bottom—and I’d always try to have a little twig of spearmint to add to his dinner bucket, since he liked it. Doing all that made me feel better—like I was helping him be safe.”
Zetta smiled, remembering the sweet potatoes in Asa’s dinner bucket.
Suddenly Clarie frowned as she looked down the lane. Zetta turned, but saw only a little blonde girl, about 8-years-old.
Clarie lowered her voice.
“That’s Julia, the supervisor’s girl,” she said. “Don’t tell that child anything you don’t want the whole camp to know in sight of ten minutes,” she warned.
“I’ll go check on one of my other girls,” Clarie decided. “Polly lives just below. She’s not bound to have her youngin’ until long after you but this is her first one, so she worries a right smart. I boil her up some red chestnut tea now and then and just talk to her. A good birthing needs a calm mother, so I try to encourage the first-time ones. Seeing how this ain’t your first one, I reckon you’ll do just fine.”
She pulled her dangling bonnet onto her head.
“I’ll bring Polly to meet you directly,” she said. “Mind what I said about this child coming up the path.”
Then with a nod, she thrust her walking stick in front of her.
Suddenly the little girl was right in her way.
“Well, Miss Julia. How you this pretty morning?” Clarie said.
The child stopped and thrust both hands onto her own scrawny hips. “You delivering a baby today?”
Clarie laughed. “No, child. Not today,” she said.
Zetta watched the tall form meander down the path, then turned to face the little girl’s muddy green eyes glaring at her.
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