They Wore the Mines
Honorable Mention, 2014 Bethesda Magazine Adult Short Story Contest
The locomotive whistled as the steam train decelerated, approaching the wooden railway platform. Helen sat across from curly-mustached Mr. Martinek, who wore a wrinkled linen suit and a straw boater hat. For most of their journey, he was just a newspaper with appendages. Occasionally the rustled pages would flop forward, exposing his frowning mustache. Mr. Martinek would quickly recover, again restoring the paper screen between them. They had only exchanged a few words since he had met her at the pier. Helen was grateful to be left alone with her thoughts.
She turned towards the window, taking in the unfamiliar panorama of her new life, cringing at the filth of her surroundings, and longing for her distant homeland. It had made Helen’s parents nervous to see the way that the imposing men in uniform looked at her when they passed through Slovakia. More soldiers seemed to trickle in as the weeks passed. The men’s very presence threatened their daughter’s honor. Her cotton dresses strained to hold her pillowy bosom that threatened to burst open the stretched fabric. The sight of her leaning down to milk a cow in the morning light, brushing the sweat from her soft virgin face, was enough to unknowingly lure the men, prompting Helen’s father to write a letter to Mr. Martinek, a family acquaintance who had settled in America.
In exchange for buying Helen’s passage to America and providing her with food and a bed, she would become the Martinek’s live-in servant upon arrival, slowly repaying the debt by performing domestic duties six days a week. There in western Pennsylvania, soot-stained houses protruded from the slanted streets, decaying like crooked cavities. The rolling hills in the distance were cluttered with birch and maple trees, but rock dumps of coal waste appeared continuous with the rugged landscape.
When the conductor bellowed the name of the station in a language that Helen could not understand, she rose from her seat, her limbs stiff, following Mr. Martinek who carried her dresses and the few family mementos that she had wrapped in an old bed sheet and tried to use as a makeshift pillow on the sleepless nights aboard the ship. As Helen stepped down from the train, she was met with coal dust wafting through the evening breeze. The temperature had dropped considerably since she had boarded the train hours before. She pulled the shawl that her mother had crocheted tighter around her shoulders, but it offered little warmth. She held her father’s Bible with its crinkly pages closer, pressing its spine, her backbone, deeper into her chest. All she had left to hold onto was her faith.
The Martinek residence was nicer than the houses that she had seen from the train window, but still quite modest with its low ceilings and creaking floorboards. Mrs. Martinek took a generous step backwards, away from the threshold as Helen entered, letting Helen know that she was repulsed by her. Helen’s tattered dress resembled an oversized rag that hung from her thinning frame that had started to lose its curves on the voyage. Her usually silky blonde hair was a greasy bundle of knots, flattened against her scalp. She knew that she must smell awful, but after a few days at sea she had almost become immune to the potent body odor that filled the stale air. Instead of sympathy, Mrs. Martinek maintained a look of disgust as her beady eyes scrutinized Helen. She had the rump of Helen’s cow back home and a tightly pinched mouth as though she had just tasted something sour.
Mrs. Martinek dictated all of Helen’s endless chores before even showing her where she might later bathe or rest her head after such a grueling voyage. She tugged the Bible out from Helen’s grasp, carelessly tossing it on the kitchen table and thrusting a broom in Helen’s direction. Inside, Helen was weeping, but she steadied herself, leaning into the broom like it was her crutch. The porch needed sweeping before nightfall, and she would need to hurry so she could also start preparing supper.
Each day of ironing, dusting, cooking, washing and hanging laundry, folding, sewing, and sweeping blended indistinguishably into the next. Except for Sundays and Fridays. On Friday evenings, Helen was sent to the company store to fetch a list of household items that Mrs. Martinek had scribbled in her chicken scratch. The items could be added to Mr. Martinek’s credit. Helen was warned not to dawdle; she was to head directly to the store and not to talk to anyone. Still, Helen looked forward to this weekly errand because it was her chance to stray from the house and watch people. For the occasion, she would iron her least shabby housedress, the one with the lace collar trim, and tie her unwieldy hair in place with shreds of cotton fabric from a frayed undergarment.
Cradling a bag of flour in her arms as she left the company store one evening, Helen paused when she saw a slump-shouldered man with sad grayish green eyes and ears that stuck out slightly who was taller than his hunched-over posture suggested. He hoisted a frayed brown leather strap over his shoulder, plopped on the brick stoop, and balanced an accordion on his left knee. Helen watched his sooty nimble hands scurrying up and down like a black spider as he tickled the buttons with the tips of his calloused fingers, without any hesitation, without any notes. His left hand expanded and collapsed the pleated bellows, a lung that he could freely will to breathe.
Beside him a man in a newsboy cap and suspenders pierced a maple wood violin with his gaunt chin as he ironed the strings with his trembling bow. Weary workers strolled by, swinging their empty tin lunch pails, pausing near the stoop of musicians to sway in place to the melody. The music had a transcendent quality; it did not merely echo a longing for the past, but carried a plea for a hopeful future in its crescendo.
Though she was due back at the Martinek home, she lingered on the sidewalk, taping her weathered shoe against the wood, song after song. The music soothed her. The Bohemian Waltz reminded her of Slovakia. She knew that these men had harder lives. Sophia, a young widow who she began to sit with in church on Sundays, had lost a husband in a mining accident. She had told Helen what the conditions were like for the men and the boys in the mines. Sophia confessed how part of her was grateful that she and her husband hadn’t had any children. If they’d had boys, they would have inevitably followed their father into the mines someday and likely met a similar fate.
Underground, chilly and dark, the seasons did not change for the men and for the boys old enough to venture inside the mines, where it was always winter. They descended into the cold mines and ascended, soot-covered, wearing the mines. It felt like the walls of the mines were collapsing in on them as they worked, suffocating them, swallowing them until they could no longer stand up straight.
Hunched over, they worked with coal all day, finally abandoning the mines in the evening only to seek warmth from the coal stoves in their kitchens, near the galvanized bucket where they had tried to scrub off the ever-returning soot, at night. Always they gravitated to and away from coal, cold coal, warm coal. Coal. Always coal.
But that year winter lingered above ground too. The falling snow blanketing the homes was welcome, adding a rare, transient whiteness, covering the town's grime. But as the snow melted, the town was reminded that the blackness was always there, just underneath, even when they couldn't see it. It t was omnipresent. The stripped trees fought to regain their lushness, restoring green to the hillside, competing with the blackness, suggesting that life would go on as it had before, even if they wished it wouldn’t.
And life did go on, and sometimes the full burden of their lives was momentarily suspended when Helen and the other gatherers listened to the worker musicians, allowing themselves to become immersed in the melodies. Helen was particularly drawn to the accordion player and his sad eyes. She had overheard him speaking in her native tongue before. Sometimes their eyes met when he played. She had missed those sad eyes in the winter months when it was too cold for everyone to assemble outside, when everything felt like it was in slow motion.
The spring months passed much more quickly with the Friday evening music to look forward to and soon it was summer. The company picnic was approaching and Helen would be helping to set up the overflowing platters of chicken, potato salad, and freshly baked rolls. For the children, there was ice cream. For the men, there was whiskey. The coal operators organized a baseball game. Children hopped by, racing in burlap sacks. It was a day of rare celebration, of collective laughter echoing into the distant hillside.
There was music too, provided by the worker musicians. Helen and Sophia took plates that they’d fixed for themselves and wandered over to the grassy knoll where the men played. The accordion player was among them. He looked over at Helen, and stopped playing in the middle of a song, gently placing the accordion down and whispering something to the violin player. Helen was convinced that he was walking towards her. Sophia took Helen’s half-empty plate with her as she retreated to a circle of women chatting nearby, leaving Helen alone and approachable.
The accordion player paused in front of Helen.
“Would you like to dance?” He spoke in her native tongue.
“Alright.” Helen offered him a calloused hand.
“Helen,” he repeated with a smile.
They danced several songs until Helen kicked off her clunky shoes, wanting to feel the overgrown blades of grass against her bare ankles. As he spun her, she thought of how the last man she had danced with was her father. She quickly pushed him from her memory, preferring to concentrate on the way that Joseph’s hand, the same one that played the accordion, felt pressed against her back. His long fingers gently pinched creases of her dress in his grasp.