This excerpt, “Preface,” is from The Blue Line Down by Maris Lawyer.
Copyright © 2021 by Hub City Press. Used by permission of Hub City Press.
Jude sat on the doorstep while Willis was being born. All he could hear was Ma inside screaming, and the other woman talking to her in a quiet voice. Pa was not home. He was still in the mines.
The screaming did not stop for hours. Jude sat on the doorstep during that time, the stillest he had ever been in his life. He watched the littlest children leave the schoolhouse and chase each other home, some starting up games of marbles in flat patches of dust. Most of the older children were in the mines, and hadn’t come out with the other men yet. Pa hadn’t told Jude to come to the mines yet, and he sometimes wondered how many years he had left. Jude never went near the black maw of the mines, gaping like a raw bullet hole in the side of the mountain, where the men shambled in each dawn and shambled back out at dusk, filthy from head to toe.
Jude could hear Ma whimpering, followed by more cries of pain and the midwife shushing her. Jude began to wish he had not skipped school. He had never been so still in all his life.
The men came out of the mines past dark, and Jude saw Pa with his lantern making his way home. Jude took his chin out of his hands and sat up straighter. Ma was groaning in the house, and Pa heard it. He dropped his things and ran inside.
Jude rose to his feet and followed. The other woman helping Ma had her hand on Pa’s chest, blocking him from the bedroom, speaking low and fast. Ma started screaming again. The woman turned and ran back in, and Pa followed. They did not close the door, and Jude approached the door slowly to look inside. Ma was laying on her side with her back to him, and she had one leg propped up on the footboard of the bed. Her white nightgown was wet and streaked with red around the bottom. Jude put both hands over his mouth, afraid they would hear his breathing.
It got quiet then. Ma’s cries cut off, like when someone presses a hand against a guitar’s strings to stop the sound. Pa’s hand was on Ma’s forehead, and the woman’s hands were inside the nightgown. She pulled out a big, purple baby, and Willis broke the silence with his squalls.
Ma wasn’t moving. Her head lay back stiff on the pillow, her eyes watching the ceiling. Jude could not move, could only look at her still, white face from across the room. Pa stroked Ma’s forehead, his black hands leaving streaks of coal dust on Ma’s skin. The midwife was putting Willis in a towel and came up to Pa.
“It’s a boy, Hezekiah,” the midwife said.
Pa did not reach out to hold the baby. He would not look at it.
An Irish girl started coming to the house. Her name was Linnet Myers and she was only nineteen years old, and looked even younger, but she was married and had a baby and was already pregnant with another. She nursed Willis and took care of him during the day when Jude was at school and Pa was in the mines.
Linnet Myers told Jude he could call her “ma’am,” which made him wrinkle his nose, and she was always scolding him for snatching dried apples from the pantry or digging holes in the front yard looking for worms. Ma had rarely scolded Jude—if he stole a treat from the pantry, she’d utter a harmless fuss and ruffle his hair, shooing him on his way. Jude used to sit on the kitchen stool to watch Ma cook, but now he spent most of his afternoons leaning against the side of the woodpile, watching beetles crawl between the logs. On bad days, days when he didn’t understand why Ma had died, he would find stones in the yard and hurl them at the yard crows. But he didn’t mind Linnet Myers too much, because she took care of Willis as tenderly as her own baby. Linnet’s little girl called her mother “ma’am” too—Jude found this ridiculous, until he realized it was the same word for mother. He kept calling Linnet Myers “Mam,” but now he no longer minded.
Pa didn’t pay any attention to Willis. Right after Ma died, Willis would raise Cain because he was wet, but Pa wouldn’t do anything about it. But the crying would continue till finally Pa got up, his face red as dynamite, and Jude felt sure he’d hit Willis, or yank him up and fling him out the window. Jude would run forward and scoop Willis up, crying, “I’ll change him! I’ll change him!”
When Willis started growing teeth, Pa wouldn’t come near him because of his wailing. At the end of the day, Mam Myers would beat on the locked door, yelling, “Hezekiah Washer, you take your boy in! I’ve got a husband and babe of my own. You take your boy in!”
Pa would stare at the fire, the flames reflected in his black eyes. Jude crossed the room and opened the door as quietly as he could. Tears shone in Mam Myers’ eyes when she saw him. Even with her belly getting big with the second baby, she looked like a kid. She bent down and put Willis, whimpering, into his arms, and pressed her lips on Jude’s forehead.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’ve got a babe of my own.”
Jude took Willis inside to his own room, away from Pa. He wet a clean rag in the water basin and gave it to Willis to suck on. Willis was a big, fat baby, with cheeks round as baseballs and bumpy rolls of pudge all up and down his legs and arms. Jude always laughed when he looked at him, because he had never seen anyone so fat. Everyone was all bones and muscle at the mines. Jude pushed his finger into Willis’s cheek, watching the flesh dimple, and he smiled. It was a sign of excess; a sign that somehow, Willis was getting what he needed.
Pa still didn’t ask Jude to go to the mines. He knew they could use the money, even the paltry scrip given to the child laborers. Jude would watch the miners—some of them Jude’s own age—climb up the hill in the thin pink morning light, and he’d see them disappear into the mouth of the mine. Jude wondered if Pa kept him in school because he would be able to take care of Willis at the end of the day. Pa didn’t like being beholden to the Myers. Or, maybe he didn’t want Jude in the mines. Sometimes Pa would go into long tirades about the way the miners were treated, with the owners never setting foot below ground.
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