They brought Jamie home in the shirt Addie had mended, the tiny stitches on the right cuff black with soot. The socks she had darned the night before, the heels having grown thin, were scorched and ragged. His work boots had been blown off, the men said. But it was the watch that broke her. The silver disk was still tucked in Jamie’s shirt pocket. Tucked over his heart, he’d often quipped. The time tick-tocked, the tiny wheels and gears still turning as if nothing could stop them. Not a mountain or explosion or terrible fire.
They brought Jamie in and laid him on the kitchen table. Gus McMahon and Russell Price. Big men, the two of them barrel chested, their sooty faces streaked with sweat, laid her boy down gentle, being careful with his head. One arm dangled over the table edge. Gus took care of that, rearranging the boy’s arms and hands until they were neatly crossed on his chest. But for the dirt and blood, the boy could have been napping, dreaming the way boys do.
Then Gus told her about the watch, how he discovered it unscathed in Jamie’s pocket. Recognized it right off because Jamie was proud of the timepiece. He’d flash the watch for the boys and men when there was grousing over a hard, never-ending shift. Jamie would rally them. Just two hours more, he’d shout. Two hours twenty. The winnowing down, that precise handle on the hours and minutes made it bearable somehow. Gus stammered over the words. He didn’t look her in the eye but she knew the sorrow was as real as the burden of time.
Russell said the women would be by shortly to help with Jamie. If she had no objection, he’d start on a proper box. He owed her and Cos, he said, for all their kindness when his own son passed.
She nodded. She watched the men shuffle out, then looked at Cos standing now outside the door. He braced the doorframe, his long arms stretched up, hands on the head casing. His face was gray and ashy. The pallor showed beneath the black dust that covered him, the floor, the whole world for all she knew.
He opened his mouth, ready to say something but she put her hand up, fair warning. She wanted nothing but quiet now, some peace in the moment. It was old news, her fight about Jamie taking to the mine, even if they needed the money and God knows, they did. It was an old, bitter story, her cleaning black dust off boots and backs and scrubbing clothes that never came clean. It was yesterday’s sorrow that pinched her with worry about a boy with a mountain strapped to his back and a husband wheezing through the night. It was old but new again, fresh from the underground — a boy’s broken body and a father’s regret. She wanted no more of it.
Still, she turned to Jamie. She moistened a cloth from the morning’s water bucket. She wiped his face, the way she had from the day he was born, rubbing gentle but high into the hairline. The black grime was everywhere. Once his face was clean of soot and blood, she inspected the deep gash above his ear, straight through to the skull, the bony cap no protection for a methane explosion. She suspected the back of his head was worse but she wasn’t ready to turn him over. The boy smelled of sulfur and smoke, a trip to Hell and back.
Jamie wasn’t the only loss. There were sixty men missing and a half-dozen boys — trappers, brakers and mule tenders. The women who would come by and help her wash and dress her son would see more than their share of grief. They would tuck this moment and all the rest deep inside themselves because that’s where women carried their darkness.
She stroked Jamie’s cheek. She reached inside his pocket and pulled out the watch. Gus had said it was undamaged but she immediately felt a divot in the back casing, the size of her thumb. She put the watch to her ear. A steady tick, tick, tick, sure as a heartbeat.
“You could give the watch to Carla,” Cos said. “She swears she’s having a boy. You’d be passing it down the line like your Pa wanted.”
Like her Pa wanted? He’d wanted a son, took every opportunity to remind her mother of that sorry fact. His complaining bought five girls, she the eldest. Pa said the watch had been passed through the family, father to son for a hundred years or more. Said the watch came from the old country, a small mining town in Wales. Years after the old man died her mother confessed he’d won the timepiece in a drunken card game.
She clutched the disk in her fist. The motion of its innards whirred; the ticking grew monstrous. She shouted though it sounded more like a shriek. “No! No! No!” And with that, she heaved the watch against the wall. It thudded, bounced and rolled along the floor. Tiny springs, levers and ragged-edged wheels flew in all directions. The casing landed near her foot. She stomped it. She pounded the casing again and again. She ground the metal with her heel, wanted all the lies, all niceties and platitudes, the God knows bests smashed, pulverized, made as useless as a life undone.
Cos caught her by the shoulders. He rocked her in place, held her head against his chest until the struggling stopped.
After that, the women arrived. Still hanging onto Cos, she pushed back, nearly lost her balance but righted herself, sure and solid. She pressed her eyes with the heels of her hands, took a deep breath then went about doing what needed to be done.
Margaret A. Frey writes from the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. Her work, fiction and nonfiction, has appeared in: Notre Dame Magazine, Thema, By-Line Magazine, Kaleidoscope, Cezanne’s Carrot, Foliate Oak, Camroc Press Review, Apollo’s Lyre and elsewhere. Forthcoming work is scheduled for Used Furniture Review and The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. Margaret lives with her husband and the ghost of her canine literary critic Ruffian, who always preferred walking to writing. When not at the keyboard, you might find Margaret in the garden, hoping to lure those ruby-throated hummingbirds in for another seasonal stay. A native of New Jersey, she’s still acclimating herself to her adopted mountain state, one without an ocean. She keeps a shoebox filled with sand in her closet because the past is never dead.