A short story by Annie Kirby (winner of the Asham Award 2005)
Nina Hägerstrand dreamt that something black fell over the school.
“Like a big, black wing,” she says, wiping a smear of pistachio ice-cream from her chin.
Nina and Callie, shiny in their patent leather shoes and the red coats made with fabric salvaged from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, are sitting in the ice-cream half of Joe and Gianni’s ice-cream-parlor-cum-barbershop scooping up Gianni’s special Pistachio and Turkish Delight with fan-shaped wafers. The sunlight filtering in through the arched windows is fan-shaped, too, dancing around the edges of Callie’s pageboy bob. Their red coats are nearly matching, except Elsa Hägerstrand added scalloped flaps to the pockets and I used the white mother-of-pearl buttons from my wedding suit.
“Don’t be silly, Nina,” I say. “Eat your ice-cream. Quick, before it melts.”
“My throat’s ever so much better,” says Callie, the corners of her grin twitching over alternate scoops of pink and green. “I think I’ll be able to go to Show and Tell.”
There’s a smudge of black dust on Callie’s brow and I wipe it away with my thumb. When Callie was Mustardseed and Nina was Titania they’d had wings made out of coathangers and pantyhose.
The Mazzini brothers came to Battstown in spring, when the tulip trees were in bloom. Joe was the older, quieter brother, in charge of the barbershop side of Mazzini’s. He had broad shoulders, a straight nose and a single, audacious streak of white hair like a badger. I liked his slow smile and large hands, hands that looked too big to cut hair. Best of all, he wasn’t a miner.
Getting Joe was easy. I took him a canary, in a little gilt cage with a swing and a mirror.
“You have to have a canary,” I told him, as he brushed hair away from Nils Pedersen’s collar. “It’s practically the law in Fallam County.”
It was nearly the truth. It had started as a joke, one that Grandpa Tyler used to tell sitting in his porch on Grant Street, something to do with canaries and miners. Now everybody had one and Bob Jacobsen who ran the pet store had bought a Chevy Nova convertible with powerglide transmission.
“I shall call her Lena,” said Joe, coaxing the bird out of its cage to perch on his finger.
“It might be a boy,” I said. “It’s hard to tell.”
George Johnson jangled into the store for his two o’clock appointment and Joe wrapped his hand around the canary to stop her flying away.
“I can feel her little heart beating,” he said.
“Did you bring a canary for me, Lena?” Gianni was leaning hip first against the sliding partition door that separated the barbershop from the ice-cream parlor, an abstract pattern of blackberry stains on his apron.
Joe blew, ever so gently, on the canary’s chest, ruffling her feathers.
“Little Lena will sing for us both,” he said.
Not long after that, I stopped being Lena Roberts, miner’s daughter, and became Lena Mazzini, barber’s wife.
Joe is shaving carefully around the edges of Gil Gilbert’s sideburns and Gianni is washing glasses for the knickerbocker glories, hurling friendly abuse at his brother across the open partition, the way he always does. I’m jittery, my fingers trembling as I trim Martha Patterson’s bangs to just above her eyebrows. I wonder how Gianni can be so calm.
“It’s longer on the left, Lena,” says Martha. “What’s the matter with you today?”
We feel it before we hear it. It shudders up through the linoleum, through the soles of my impractically strappy sandals, into my ankles and knees. My scissors bounce off the metal arm of Martha’s chair with a dull clink. Then comes the noise, an endless, pulsating rumble that makes my temples throb. Gianni drops the glass he is drying and I see it shatter and spray out across the partition divide. See it, but don’t hear it, because nobody can hear anything anymore.
There is a moment of total, utter silence. I press on my ears, to see if they are bleeding. Joe is motionless, the razorblade still between his fingers. A line of blood is blossoming along Gil’s cheek, curling pink through the shaving foam.
I run out into the street. At first, I think there’s been an explosion at the mine, the light is so bright. But it isn’t an explosion. The reason there is so much light is because the mountain that usually casts a shadow across Battstown is gone. I stand there stupidly, not able to comprehend what I’m seeing. The top of the mountain isn’t the only thing that’s gone. A river of black dust and sludge has flowed over the school.
Gianni was in charge of ice-cream. He was the reckless brother, the artistic one. He had wanted to be a sculptor, or a poet, or a dancer but Joe had persuaded him there was big money in frozen confections. So Gianni directed his creative talents into ice-cream and became a master. Amaretti coffee, chocolate hazelnut, chili pepper, vanilla almond, raspberry swirl. Gianni’s cactus fruit sorbet raised eyebrows from Fallam County to East Liverpool.
It was hard to believe they were brothers. Where Joe was leisurely, measured, meticulous, Gianni was fizzing with energy, quick to laugh, short-tempered. He let his hair grow wild and curly in a town where anything longer than a number one meant you were a queerboy. All the girls in Battstown wanted him anyway, but he didn’t want any of them. Or, rather, he wanted them all, but only temporarily.
In the mornings, I washed and cut ladies’ hair, mixed tinting lotion and swept up hair and coal dust. In the afternoons, I served ice-cream in glass dishes and wiped coal dust off the countertop. In the evenings, I bleached and starched white towels and tablecloths. My hands grew cracked with bleach and perm lotion. Coal dust burrowed into the fissures, tattooing my knuckles and the soft skin between my thumb and forefinger with root-like patterns of delicate blue lines.
“My sweet, little Lena,” said Joe, stroking his fingers through my bob. “Perhaps we should curl your hair, to encourage more custom.” He blew into my scalp, his breath hot, but he couldn’t blow the dust away.
“Don’t,” I said, twisting my head out of his grip. “I have to see to Callie. Can’t you hear her crying?”
It isn’t a real mountain, the one that’s fallen on the school. It’s a coal waste tip, a black mountain formed out of things that were supposed to stay hidden underground. It’s been here for so long we all think of it as a real mountain. Now there’s just blue sky, beautiful blue sky.
Nearer to the school the newly released sunlight is shot through with miniature whirlwinds of black dust. It gets into my eyes and throat as I run and I’m already coughing when I fall down into it, screaming Callie’s name. Gianni grabs my arm, closes his fingers tight around it.
“Go and ring the bell, Lena. We need to get the miners out of the pit.”
But someone has beaten me to it and the bell starts to ring anyway.
“I need help, Lena.”
Gianni was sitting on the countertop, five glass dishes of ice-cream in a neat line. He kicked his heels against the Formica.
“If it’s help with ice-cream you want, ask Callie.”
“Callie’s palate is not, how shall I put it, refined enough. She will adore them all and make herself unwell.”
“Ask one of your girlfriends, then. I’m sick of ice-cream.” I smoothed the final linen tablecloth over the last table, ready for the next day’s trade.
“I’m asking you. Come here.”
I relented, reached out for a spoon. He brushed my hand away.
“Close your eyes please, Lena. This is to be a blind taste test.”
Gianni folded a freshly starched napkin across my eyes and tied it behind my head, his fingers moving through my hair. He pushed a spoonful of ice-cream into my mouth. The coldness leached into my teeth and temples.
“Macadamia nut and white chocolate.”
“Very good,” said Gianni, “but what do you think?”
“Take a sip of water. What about this one?”
“Peanut butter and banana. Not sweet enough.” The bright whiteness of the blindfold, the cold metal spoon, eating ice-cream standing up, it was all thrilling somehow. Reckless. I could hear Joe’s slow steps in the apartment upstairs. “Cinnamon, apple and walnut. The one you made last month was creamier.”
Gianni dabbed ice-cream from my lip. “I forgive you, Lena.”
“Forgive me for what?”
He reached around the back of my head and unknotted the blindfold. “For not bringing me a canary.”
They bring the eighth graders out first. They were playing baseball in the yard but didn’t have time to run. Gianni joins one of the digging teams, rivulets of coal dust and sweat running down his white tee-shirt. He is still wearing his apron and now coal dust mingles with the chocolate sauce stains. I haven’t seen Joe, not since I ran outside leaving him standing with the razorblade in his hands. Watching the rescue operation is like watching a movie with the sound turned down. It’s chaos, hundreds of people digging, crying, searching, listening. Yet everything is so quiet.
There’s a muted cheer when they find the first ones, until we realize they are all dead. I watch in numb silence as the miners carry the bodies out one by one. I’m certain Callie’s still alive, trapped in an air bubble, crouched beneath her desk. I hope Nina is with her.
I see Gianni carrying a body, a child. He doesn’t look at me.
It went on for months, a year perhaps, the seduction by ice-cream. In the end, it was me who broke the stalemate. Happy Days was on upstairs and I could hear Joe and Callie’s laughter wafting through the thin ceiling.
“I love Joe,” I said, spooning marshmallow and vanilla semifreddo into Gianni’s mouth.
He swallowed. “I know. So do I. Try this one.”
His smiled dipped a little. “No?”
“I’ve had enough ice-cream.”
He folded his arms and looked at me. Kept looking at me.
I kissed him. I leant across the table and kissed my husband’s brother on the lips. It was a chaste kiss by most standards, but I parted my mouth at the end and tasted marshmallow and tobacco on his tongue.
We did it right there, to a gale of canned laughter from the TV upstairs, the pristine, white tablecloth crackling underneath me, my stilettos denting the leatherette stool.
Later, when I was lying next to Joe, I tried to listen through the wall and hear the sound of Gianni’s breathing. Joe moaned and turned over in his sleep, his white streak of hair luminous in the glow from the streetlamps.
They lay the bodies out in the chapel. We push the pews to the edges to make space. One of my sandals is broken but I don’t remember how it happened. I limp up and down the neat rows of bodies, searching for Callie. The bodies are black with dust. They line them up a grade at a time, more or less in height order, so it’s like looking at Russian dolls. I want to scream, but there is no sound in me.
I go back up Main Street, thinking they will probably be bringing Nina and Callie out soon, sole survivors, Callie clutching the rag doll she made herself and took to school for Show and Tell.
It’s the most beautiful day of the year so far. Sun and breeze licks through my hair and the branches of the tulip trees are crowded with greenish-yellow flowers. Gianni is sitting on the sidewalk, his face swirled with dust and sweat.
“We missed our bus,” he says. “It left…” he wipes dust off his watch with his apron, “fifteen minutes ago.”
His body starts to shake, as if he’s either laughing or crying, but I can’t tell which.
“Stop it,” I say. “Just stop.”
“We shall go to Venice,” said Gianni, rubbing his thumb around the lace edging of my garter belt. “Or Rome, or Milan. To England, if you like.”
“Callie would like to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa,” I said, “and perhaps Trafalgar Square.”
I shivered, partly from the cool breeze that rippled through the cemetery, mostly from Gianni’s hand on the silky inside of my thigh. I liked the burning sensation of it there, branding our intimacy into my skin.
Later, when I was pressing towels and tablecloths and dreaming of piazzas, frescos and gothic cathedrals, Joe twisted a strand of my hair between his thumb and finger
“You’ve styled it differently,” he said. “I like it.”
I held my breath, the place on my thigh Gianni had touched still flaming.
“Don’t forget Jodie Anderson is coming in for her tint tomorrow.” Joe kissed me on the neck, blinked, turned away.
I look for Joe in the barbershop, as if he might still be standing there with the bloodied razor in his hands. I need to change my broken sandal but I can’t face opening the packed suitcases hidden under the bed upstairs. I left the address labels on the cases blank because, after Boisville, we didn’t know where we were going. The bus tickets were for yesterday but I made Gianni change them so Callie wouldn’t miss Show and Tell.
I find Joe in the chapel. Mothers are running up and down the rows of bodies, searching for their children. There are bodies of adults, too, teachers and people who’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Gil Gilbert is counting bodies, thirty-five, thirty-six, thirty-seven and tallying them off in a grid in his notebook. Even with the grid, Gil keeps losing count and having to start again from the beginning.
Joe has folded his large frame into the ground and is kneeling beside the body of a child, a boy. I don’t understand what he’s doing, not at first. He’s cleaning the boy’s face with a wet handkerchief. When Joe has finished he combs the child’s hair with his best salon quality comb. Joe takes his time, carefully smoothing out all the tangles, his thick fingers moving gracefully through the dead boy’s hair. Enough black dust comes out so that I can see he’d been blond. It’s Peter Hallstrom, and underneath the coal dust his face is blue.
It takes me a moment to grasp that Joe is talking to me.
“I need more water. And towels, bring me some towels.”
I want to laugh then, out loud like a lunatic, because what Joe just said makes it sound as if he is about to deliver a baby.
“I can’t find Callie,” I whisper.
“No,” he says, gently, keeping his eyes on Peter’s face. “They haven’t brought her out yet.”
Upstairs in the apartment I grab tablecloths by mistake. Out of the bedroom window I can see the cemetery where Gianni and I made love, glimmering as the streetlamps stammer on. There won’t be enough room, I think, for all the bodies.
Lena, our fifth or sixth canary, is in her cage, twittering to her reflection. I close the curtains and she hops up on her swing to sleep. It’s a game Callie loves to play, closing the curtains against the sunlight in the middle of the day and sending Lena the canary to bed. In the ice-cream parlor, somebody, Joe I suppose, has switched off the freezers and Gianni’s creations are melting in colorful puddles across the floor.
On my way back to the chapel I see Tabitha Simpson wandering across Main Street in her pajamas and my stomach rolls. She’s in Callie and Nina’s grade.
“Tabitha,” I shout, “Tabitha, did you go to school today?” but she totters right past me in a daze. I snatch at her arm, nearly dropping the bundle of tablecloths.
Tabitha starts crying, but she can’t speak. She’s caught the laryngitis that kept Callie off school last week. Tabitha’s momma Claire runs out of her house and gathers Tabitha up. Claire Simpson keeps her eyes down, can’t look me in the face. She must know she’ll have no friends left in this town, just like poor Tabitha.
Joe and I wash the faces of dead children. We know them all, through haircuts and ice-cream. We wash faces and comb hair all night until they bring Callie out. Gianni carries her into the chapel, kisses her forehead and lays her down next to Nina. He touches Joe’s shoulder, but Joe doesn’t look at him. Joe washes Callie’s face with a clean tablecloth he’s saved just for her and I comb her hair, part her bangs the way she likes them. If her face wasn’t so blue she would look like she was asleep, dreaming.
“You should have taken her,” Joe says, softly. “You should have taken her yesterday like you planned.”
He starts to unpick Nina’s pigtails, so he can comb the dust out of her hair.
Gianni is waiting outside, leaning against a tulip tree. He puts his hand around my wrist, the way I like it.
“There’s nothing here for you anymore, Lena.”
I want to tell him he’s wrong, that everything is here now, but I’m too empty for words. I unwrap his fingers, prizing them away from my arm. The bright disc of his cigarette dims as the sun rises and floods into the space left by the fallen mountain.
It takes me by surprise, the sun coming up. It doesn’t seem right.
(c) Annie Kirby 2018