Lick Creekby Brad Kessler
Set in the remote mining country of West Virginia in the late twenties, Lick Creek is the compelling story of a fiery young woman, Emily Jenkins, and what happens when progress -- and tragedy -- comes to her family's farm. Brad Kessler has a generous and keen eye for natural landscape and its power in human life. In his profound, dramatic first novel, he/i>
Set in the remote mining country of West Virginia in the late twenties, Lick Creek is the compelling story of a fiery young woman, Emily Jenkins, and what happens when progress -- and tragedy -- comes to her family's farm. Brad Kessler has a generous and keen eye for natural landscape and its power in human life. In his profound, dramatic first novel, he explores the complex intersections of faith, tradition, and innovation.
After the coal mine deaths of her father, brother, and the first man she loved, Emily struggles to support herself and her mother. When construction begins on the power lines, she blames the intruders for everything that has gone awry -- for her mother's increasing withdrawal from life and for lives already lost. Then, an electrical worker is struck by lightning. Brought to their farmhouse unconscious and badly injured, Joseph is taken in by Emily's mother, and Emily is seduced by the mystery of his past, his immigration from Russia, his mother's deportations, and the world of immigrants forced to flee persecution in their homelands.
Moving from romance to high drama, Kessler illuminates the role of electricity in the transformation of rural life and the particular electricity between two vastly different people whose worlds and passions collide.
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Read an Excerpt
She wakes in winter to the scrape of iron in the stove, her mother bringing embers back to life from their night's dying. She watches later through frosted panes her father and brother lean into darkened snow, each with his own tin bucket, the two like cutouts of each other, one smaller but with the same stooped back. Their lanterns swing into dark. In April, when the mornings warm, she blankets the pony and trails them from a distance downhollow, all the way where the Lick Creek Road meets the Two Mile Road. She paces the pony so they won't see her behind, and she watches them descend the talus toward the coal camp, and there she'll wait in a copse of poplars, looking down at the rows of homes with men filing from them. She tries to keep track of her father and brother, but they become lost with other lanterns, flitting and wheeling through trees, like a procession of pilgrims carrying candles toward the mouth of the mine.
She found her hollow once on a map of West Virginia. Lick Creek was the thinnest scribble of blue, a crack in a porcelain cup. Nothing like the cold waters and salted boulders she knew or the spring water that tasted of sulfur. On the map in the schoolhouse, she traced the creek with a finger as it fed thicker rivers, spidered south, then west. She memorized the names of the rivers it became and on April nights, lying awake in the dark, she whispered the words like a prayer: The Greenbrier, the New, the Ohio, the Mississippi, traveling them all in a trance, half-asleep, slipping past Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and down the Delta into the Gulf of Mexico. When she woke again in the night, she could taste ocean on her tongue.
She first met Gianni when she went to buy the goat with her father. Gianni Fermini, his name was like a noodle in her mouth; it kept slipping out. They argued about the kid. He called it a capro. She said, Huh-uh, he's a goat. The hair on Gianni's head was black as a raven, so iridescent she wanted to touch it. He was wearing no shirt, holding the kid in his bare arms, the white wool against his brown chest as if they belonged together. Her father stood back and surveyed the kid, sucked his teeth and rubbed his chin and changed positions to get a better view. His father pushed out his lips and said, "He be a good one for the ladies."
Her father nodded noncommittally and checked the hooves, held open its mouth and studied the small teeth. He stood back again and they both looked at the sky, talked weather, then came back to the goat, circling the deal like dogs before lying down. While they were bargaining, Emily said to Gianni:
"You're an Injun, ain't you?"
"No," he said, shaking his head, his lids half-closed. "Italian."
Emily didn't like his confidence, the way he was handling the kid as if he still owned it.
"You're holding him all wrong," she said, and grabbed the goat from his arms, so it nayed, and gathered it under her chin and said, "See you're supposed to hold'm like this."
He was four years older. He smelled of dried grass. She called him John.
"No," he corrected her, "Jee-ah-nee."
"Bye," she said as she was leaving, "John."
A few years later she'd steal down to the coal camp with its cluttered new houses painted impossible colors -- greens, blues, and yellows. A town of secrets and foreign tongues, where she always felt illicit, observed, a stranger in her own country. Gianni's parents owned a Victrola they kept polished and oiled, the rosewood so shiny she could see herself in it. On Sunday afternoons, while his family sat on folding chairs in the backyard, she and Gianni lay on the cool planks of the floor, listening to records. They were Italian mostly, the plates as thick as china, the sleeves yellowed and crisp with age. He taught her the popular tunes, the names of the great composers: Puccini, Rossini, Verdi. To her they sounded like a litany of flowers. She pictured Puccini as a moss rose, something delicate, a succulent that would last only a day. Verdi was hardy, a kind of vine. Donizetti, a daylily.
One afternoon, in his broken English, he tried to teach her the story of La Traviata. It was October, the trees changing in the hollow. Outside, his parents were drinking jugs of wine. The recording was scratched and noisy. The music sounded rich to her, like brocade or lush curtains, something plush and prohibited, an odd religion. It made the new hairs along her legs tingle. The sun was scuffed in the windows, shafting the bare boards of the house, and Gianni was acting out parts for her. He tried to explain Violetta, the prostitution part, but couldn't find the correct word in English.
"Prostituta," he said. "You know..."
He hiked his pants and pretended a garter belt and batted his eyes.
She didn't understand. The family was laughing through the screen door. Glasses clinking. The music was too much, suddenly suffocating, and she was seized with the urge to run.
"Wait, wait, listen," he said, and closed his eyes. A woman was singing:
Addio, del passato bei sogni ridenti...
Afterward, as she walked home on the Two Mile Road, the music was still about her. The first leaves were shredding from the chestnuts, the evening beveled in the branches. She had no idea what the opera was about, but the music clung to her like a washcloth, something warm she couldn't shed. She heard it in the alders and the larch; she heard a whippoorwill whistle in the forest; she remembered Gianni's face, singing, and she hugged her shoulders and began, suddenly, to shiver.
Gianni and her brother, Delmar, both work the mines. They enter at the same time and leave at the same time, but each works with his own father on a different face in a different part of the mine. When they do see each other, it is with Emily, and they argue about everything.
"America," Gianni says, "is Italian."
"Horseshit," says Delmar.
Her brother is moonfaced and pale, a scratch of mustache above his lip. His name means "of the ocean," though he seems to Emily of the earth, white and loamy. Standing next to her brother, Gianni looks as sharp as a knife.
"You are named after an Italian," Gianni tries again.
"To hell I am."
"Amerigo Vespucci, he was Italian. He is America."
Delmar rolls his eyes and spits. "Sure, chief. Whatever you say."
One Saturday they all went swimming in the pond below the high pasture. Thunderheads had been stacking all morning, and by afternoon the sky turned slate and lowered and the first drops emptied over the pond. Emily and Delmar climbed from the water and toweled themselves and waited for Gianni. He was still making loops in the pond.
"Come on, John," Emily yelled. "Lightning's coming."
He was treading water, smiling. "It's okay," he yelled, waving to her.
The rain picked up, swung over the pond. She and Delmar covered themselves with a blanket, holding it above their heads, like two tent posts.
"What the hell's he doing?" Delmar said, and laughed, but didn't know why. The thunder was nearing; they could hear it cracking downhollow, working its way along the ridgetops. She yelled to him again.
"It's not okay! Come on in!"
He swam in a circle, fountained water from his mouth, grinned. She pleaded with him. She knew he was doing this for her sake.
"See, it's all right," he yelled, lifting his arms. "No problem."
They watched Gianni in the water, incredulous, Delmar muttering "Dumb shit" over and over and Gianni with his hair slicked and creased and the bones of his shoulders popping above the water like two brown buoys that followed him wherever he went.
The thunder was now overhead. Rain misted the water, and Gianni was small and blurred, a black dot surrounded by dropping silver. A wire of lightning crashed above and the air jumped and brightened and Emily screamed. They could feel something electric crawl their skin. She peered at the pond but couldn't see Gianni anymore. His head was gone, the pond empty, the surface stuccoed with rain. She hid her face in the blanket, yelling. The thunder rolled back into the hills.
When she opened her eyes again, he was climbing out the far end of the pond, hunched in the rain, lank and panting, his black hair hanging in a wedge.
"See," he said when he reached her, "it was okay." He was smiling triumphantly, water pebbled on his chin.
"Idiot," she muttered.
Delmar shook his head in disgust and left the blanket and headed up the trail for home. The rain was slackening, passing to the south. She gathered the ends of the blanket about her shoulders and left, too, Gianni trailing behind.
They walked single file up the slope past huddled cows. No one talked. The wind was sharp, harrowing the wet pasture grass and trembling the cottonwood trees. Gianni's teeth were chattering, his arms bracing the bones of his chest, trying to warm.
When they reached the Lick Creek Road, Gianni turned toward the coal camp.
"Come," he said to Emily. "Kiss to make up."
"I hope you get struck by lightning."
He flicked the hair from his face and grinned. "Come on," he said. "You got scared, didn't you?"
Delmar had gone ahead and was waiting in the road, etching something in the mud with a stick.
"Come on, say you were scared for me." He said it with his chin, provoking.
"Jackass," she said.
Before she could turn to go, he grabbed her elbow and pecked her on the cheek and said, "There, now we are friends."
Emily colored and swung around and belted him in the stomach. He tried to laugh but couldn't catch his breath. Up the road, Delmar was smiling.
On the way home he said, "I told you them I-talians are all dumber'n shithouse rats. Don't even have sense enough to come in out'a the rain."
He struck a tree branch with his stick, knocking crystals on the road. "Why, they'd rather climb a tree and tell a lie than stand on the ground and speak the truth."
"Hush," Emily said.
"They're all half muscle, and the other half's fool."
"Why, that boy's dumber'n a bucket of hair," he said. "Dumber'n -- "
She didn't let him finish. Before she was aware of what she was doing, she hauled back and belted him. The disbelief equal on their faces, he falling in the road, his nose already blossoming a rosette of blood.
A kettle bottom is the stump of an old tree, petrified millions of years ago. It sits in seams of coal, suspended like a loose fossil in the soft bituminous rock. Kettle bottoms can drop from a ceiling seam unexpectedly when undercut. They weigh about five hundred pounds, and when they fall they crush men. The miners call them widow makers.
Emily has never seen a kettle bottom but is haunted by them. She's learned of them through Delmar. He tries to make the mines seem romantic, so she's jealous.
"Do you know what it's like being under a mountain?" he asks.
"Just on top."
"Below," he says, "is even better."
Every mountain has a secret, he says. Fossils, bones of old animals, ores, a vein of crystal quartz. No one on top would ever know this, he says. There's a power inside the earth, he says. You and the mountain. One million tons of weight above you. The coal hasn't seen light in 250 million years. You are the first to discover it. You are its savior.
She watches him say this and knows he's picked it up from some old miner he's overheard and is trying it out on her like a new pair of trousers. Still, she is jealous. She imagines the kettle bottoms, the crosshatchings and tunnels, the ribbing of poplar buttresses, the headway and gob pile where the miners meet for lunch. Each face like a room in a palace, this place underground where they sit and work, the earth with chambers of its own no one but the miners know.
He's told her about the mules they lower into the shafts half-crazed, their legs lashed so they won't snap and their eyes blinkered. How the first nights of April are always the worst, when the odor of green onions blows through the brattices and the mules kick and scratch to get outside, and how the mule boss has to beat them back, and the mad ones are shot. After one season in the mines, they usually die.
Emily imagines Gianni down there as well, left alone to handle the insides of the earth. He himself with pick and shovel, in a room he can claim his own. A kingdom of coal. He's brought her fossils from there. Trilobites. Tracings of ancient ferns, beetles carved in traprock. Treasures from the deep where he is a diver. She knows the instruments he works with inside the planet, the pickax, breast auger, the black powder, the shovel. He's lit his lamp for her, popped the acetylene in his palm, and placed it upon her head, yet the life there remains a mystery, full of rumor and darkness, like the way she turns over rocks and finds insects she's never known before or how, in her dreams, she opens a door to a closet and discovers an ocean or a room in a city in a country she never knew existed. She knows she'll never see his world, for the taboo against women in the mine is too strong, and at Branton when a girl fled into the tunnels once, the miners wouldn't go back for months, afraid that ill fortune would follow them ever after. All she knows, then, are the edges of things, the way Gianni smells in the evenings before washing, an odor of damp from his body, like her brother's, only sweeter. Their fingernails dyed with blackness. Gianni's told her the name of the people who used to own the mine and the coal camp but no longer do, the family from New York City. A funny name that sounds like laughter. They're called the Guggenheims.
She knows, too, that the limestone beneath her farm is like a cake of soap, soft, chalky, white as porcelain, with sinkholes here and there, places where the earth has opened like a lamprey and sucked everything in sight. Yet the limestone is relatively benign and brings forth musk mallow and cresses and trout lillies in early spring. She knows that farther downhollow the limestone becomes larded with anchors of coal, and the coal crops thicker and thicker like coral until they form a great reef that furrows to the west. They say the coal is a blessing, but she knows it's a curse as well, too close to ignore, the wage work too enticing, that it lures her father and brother half the week. Not like others in Lick Creek who stay away from the mines, who have not want of its dark, despite the extra cash. Her father can't help himself. That Val Jenkins, they say, never could stay out of a mine.
Delmar is learning to shoot coal from his father. He must learn about the cleat of the coal, how to blast it so the seam breaks evenly and will be easy to work afterward. He must decide where to drill his holes for the blasting and how deep and at what angle. If he uses too little powder, the coal will break too big and he'll have to hammer it afterward by hand. If he pours too much, the seam will blow to slack and dust and will be worthless.
He curls a page of the Beckley Herald into a cone. There's an advertisement for a corset, a hairbrush, a bottle of cough syrup. He uncorks his tin and taps a forefinger so the black powder spills inside the cone. Val Jenkins watches, gestures to pour a little more. Delmar taps the tin again, corks it, hooks it to his belt. He carefully twists the cone and fits it in a drilled hole in the seam. Water is dripping somewhere in the tunnel. He looks back at his father, who points a finger at an iron rod leaning against the wall. The rod is about four feet long and has a needle at the end. Delmar takes the rod and pushes the needle end into the center of the cone, stuffing the newspaper and the powder deeper into the hole. He rests the rod on his shoulder, steps to the hole, packs dirt around the needle, spits on it, and fills it again. He can hear someone whistling far off, the sound echoed in the chambers. He steps back and slips the needle from the packing.
Behind him Val Jenkins's breath is labored, like that of a man twice his age, and the creases on his forehead are a script of fine soot. He nods approvingly at his son, and Delmar snakes a piece of waxed string into the hole and lets it hang by a few inches. A blast goes off in another section, a muffled pop, the pressure in their ears changing by the slightest percentage. Delmar looks at his dad again, who waits, sniffs the air, then gestures Delmar back to the fuse. They can hear the faint scratching of rats now out by their lunch buckets. Val Jenkins leans on his shovel, watching his son, then nods him to go ahead.
Delmar removes his helmet, cradles it in his hands, and touches the acetylene lantern to the fuse. A flame sputters and catches and sparkles white. Delmar scrambles out, trying to get his helmet back, yelling, tentatively because it is his first time: Fire in the hole! He joins his father, crouched against the wall, chins against chests, the two of them together, tucked under earth.
Emily's mother, Ada, had a way of knowing things before they happened. People said she had a gift. They'd go to her when they misplaced a pearl hatpin or a suitcase key. They'd make their way up Lick Creek Road and climb to the clapboard house with the Norway spruce spread in front and sit on the blistered porch swing and sip sassafras tea. Eventually they'd come around to the topic at hand. A lost photograph. A ten-dollar bill. A tuning fork. They'd consult her, and that night she'd dream the lost thing into finding. Wherever she saw it in her sleep was where it would be. She was rarely wrong.
It was June the day the mine blew. Emily and her mother were on the high pasture picking clover for tea, plucking the soft pink ends into burlap sacks, her mother humming some song. It was a clear day with clouds starched and high and the locust trees heavy with bloom. The cows were hanging their heads in the new clover, and suddenly her mother stopped humming and dropped her sack and looked stricken. She seized Emily's arm. Her hand was cold as a spoon.
Emily said, "Mama, what -- " But Ada hushed her and waited, eyes unfocused, ears set to the breeze; and then, closing her grip tightly around Emily's arm, they heard it.
In the hills, sound carries far. You can hear a rooster or a man's voice or an engine idling a mile off as if it were a few feet away. Up on the pasture they could plainly hear the explosion. A muffled boom, something dreamy about it, as if the earth paused a second to sneeze. It sounded like a mattress falling in a meadow.
Emily thought it was the cows bolting and she looked back, but they hadn't moved, only their heads were lifted now, testing the air. Then she turned toward her mother who was already hurrying back to the house, running through the pasture, her sack on the hillside where she'd dropped it, the clover spilled on the pasture like seed.
By afternoon the whole county was at the mine. Ash drifted over the coal camp, a strange snow in summer. It covered fence posts and porches and fell on white sheets hung that morning to dry. The air smelled of smoldering leaves and coal ash.
All afternoon rescue teams arrived by train. The survivors shuffled about, stunned and collapsed, their clothes torn, faces black and bleeding. Guards with bayonets kept kin from entering the mines. By dusk the governor arrived.
Emily dreamed that night she was on the high pasture and could see all the way over the hills to the Gulf of Mexico. The water was copper, like a coin, flashing in the far distance, and she could see the rivers running blue as cobalt, and a harbor bristling with boats and people on the docks wearing dresses and bowlers, and she wondered why she'd never been there before. Then she turned, and Gianni and Delmar were climbing up from the pond, their shirts off, arms around each other. They were singing a song she faintly recognized, the bandera rosa, and she watched them stagger up the slope; but they didn't stop for her, and couldn't hear her cries, and she saw their cheeks were blue and lips loose and their mouths hung like marionettes, and their song wasn't a song at all, but the wind rustling in the reeds.
She woke in a cold sweat. The moon spilled on her sheets. She rose through the empty house out into the moonlight. Tree frogs were beating in the grass. The wind pushed scraps of cloud high above the hollow and blew inside her nightshirt and between her legs. It brought the smell of ash up from the mine, and she pictured the sacks of clover they'd left on the high pasture, how they'd be dusted now with soot.
By the next night the first bodies came out without arms, or legs, their faces grotesque with gas. They were carried on bare pine planks and tied with baling wire, some carbonized to husks. Others were already bloated and puffed with gas, their clothes popped where the flesh had risen.
They found Gianni that first night on a rock face with his father and a group of other Italians and two Russians and a Pole, in the southwest corner of the mine, where the fire had burned through the brattices. Delmar and his father were found on a north face, where the ventilation fans hadn't worked and the gas had choked them.
The following afternoon Uncle Garvin drove to camp to collect their remains in black cherry boxes. It was evening when he returned to Lick Creek. Swallows were taking their turns in the remaining light. The honeysuckle was in bloom, the air heavy with cut hay. People from the hollow had followed behind Garvin's buckboard and shambled into the drive, hats in hand, dressed in dark suits, the women in homemade cottons. They had little to say, and some helped Garvin, while the women stood on the porch. Emily sat in the porch swing in a daze. She'd been there since morning. She heard a low murmuring come up the road, and saw the procession of people climbing up the drive. They were foreigners from the coal camp. They carried candles of beeswax, and sang a hymn she'd never heard before, something Italian, and it made her think of all the songs Gianni played and how they seemed like brocade to her, like draperies of music, but now were nothing more than funeral cloth.
The procession swung into the drive, thirty of them, the men in long black coats and vests and the caps of their country, the women in silk head scarves, their candles guttered beneath faces. Gianni's mother stood in the middle of them, supported by two women, one at each side. They made their way to the front of the group and reached the flagging; the women left Gianni's mother alone, and she climbed the porch steps, where Ada nodded, and she walked past and sat beside Emily in the swing. She was wearing a lace veil, a piece of Venetian point lowered over her eyes, pinned in place with a hawthorn clasp. She held four gardenias in her hand.
They sat for a moment in silence, the swing shifting with the new weight. Emily stared up into the evening, where the clouds had blackened and the first stars were forming above. Gianni's mother said something in Italian, leaned over and kissed Emily's forehead and laid three gardenias in her lap. Emily looked down and saw the flowers for the first time, and it was then her shoulders began to shake.
She has touched Gianni's skin, and his flesh felt like the burnt husk of corn. His body smelled of creosote, his fingers charred and clawed like a chicken's. They left three streaks along the underside of her arm where she accidentally rubbed against them. She hasn't washed them off, and her skin has grown around the stains the way an oyster entombs a pearl, within its own mucus. And so it remains, this mark of coal, and even in the cooling rains of summer, under the curtains of water that fall from the eaves of the house, it does not wash away. As hard as she tries, it outlasts the flesh.
She carries him, through seasons.
Copyright © 2001 by Brad Kessler
Meet the Author
Brad Kessler’s novel Birds in Fall won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. His other books include Lick Creek and The Woodcutter’s Christmas. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Nation, The Kenyon Review, and BOMB, as well as other publications. He is the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, and the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
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The lyricism in Brad Kessler's first novel is a joy to read. The writer invokes all the senses, imbuing his work with an electrifying realism. The reader is right there - immersed in seeing, touching, hearing, feeling, even 'smelling' the action. It is a very wise book with a cosmic view of life. Kessler's lush,descriptive writing crackles with energy, revealing a love of environment and music, and much more. A gorgeous book.
Lick Creek is a rich mixture of love, electricity and life poetically told by one practiced in the art of alchemy. The story is woven with such vivid and etherial description, I finished the novel feeling as though I had just watched it on the sliver screen. Although comparisons are never quite fair, Kessler's style brings to mind shades of Robert Penn Warren, Cormac McCarthy, Michael Ontaatje and Alan Lightman. His descriptive metaphor bring all five senses into the reading of this novel. A sensuous treat. The characters step off the page with a realism that is nearly tactile. Though the setting of the action is cheifly the 'hollows' of rural West Virginia during the electrification of the US, the novel also takes you along wonderfully descriptive tours of select ethnic settings including New York and Russia. As you can tell, I really liked this book. Give it a lick . . . . I think you will find it tasty.