Daddy wore coal dust like a fine suit. Every day when the 4:45 whistle blew, Mamma’d lay out a fresh white towel and tell me to fill the tub. Ten minutes later, Daddy’d walk in smiling, his teeth white as the fine Sunday china locked in the cabinet. He’d never kiss Mamma ‘til after he’d ringed the tub with the grit I learned to write my name in and left a gray shadow on the towel. Daddy always said Mamma’s skin was like sweet butter cream that couldn’t be spoiled, but he’d pick me up and black my cheek with coal dust kisses and call me his “Dirty Little Boo.”
Daddy never did care that the other miners called him Shorty. Before the Scratch Back Mine explosion closed the main shaft back in ’55, a year before I was born, he was the only one who could stand up under there without hitting his head. He told me once the story about the blast that killed twelve miners and nearly killed him and Granddaddy. Dusty Miller was packing a charge, and when he slid the rod in to pack it, it must’ve sparked. The blast set Daddy’s clothes on fire and Granddaddy had to roll him in sulfur water to put him out. For weeks after that Daddy seeped puss so bad Mamma’d have to change the sheets every morning. Daddy told me that Dusty and the eleven other men will haunt the earth ‘til they find a way out.
Daddy’d always have some story or other for me about the underground. Stories about when the land was all under water. Or stories about how coal was made out of dead plants that had been packed together by the weight of the world and how some miners found seams that glittered with fossilized plants they called “coal flowers.” He’d end every story by saying that one day we’d all be crushed into coal and people a million years from now would burn our bones to keep warm.
It used to be that every year on my birthday Daddy’d give me a fossil shark tooth he’d found below. The edge was always sharp, even after a million years of trying to bite its way up out of the ground. “There are sharks still swimmin’ in the ground,” he’d tell me as he’d rub the tooth across my palm. “That’s why we wear lamps on our hats. The light scares ‘em off. Too bad you weren’t born a boy, Boo, so you could fight the sharks, too.” Daddy never did like the name Mamma gave me, Elizabeth. He said it was too much of a girl’s name for me. I guess I always knew Daddy wished I was a boy so I could work the underground with him like he did with his daddy. Even so, I still keep all twelve of the shark teeth he gave me in a blue Mason jar under my bed.
What I didn’t know then was how life can change as quick as one spark can bring the whole world down on top of you. My spark lit one day when Daddy brought home a long flat rock. He carried it careful, like a platter of roast beef, and set it on the kitchen table. When I went to pick it up, Daddy yelled, “Don’t touch it, Boo. It ain’t for you. Fern? C’mon on out here. Fern?” When Daddy turned to look for Mamma, I thought I could look at the rock real quick. Just as I reached out to touch the rock, Daddy turned back around and smacked my hands away. “I said don’t touch it. It ain’t for you. I found it for your Ma.”
* * *
Daddy’d never smacked me before. He’d gotten mad at me plenty of times, but for things he should’ve gotten mad at. Like the time Mamma bought me a new white dress. It was just before the Easter weekend and Mamma called me into the bathroom where she was getting ready for when Daddy got home from his shift. When I went in, she was plucking the hairs that grow between her eyebrows. Her eyes were screwed tight.
“Why do you do that Mamma? Daddy’s got hair between his eyebrows and he don’t pluck those off.”
Mamma wiped a tear away. “I like your Daddy’s hairs, but he doesn’t like mine. A lady should be smooth and pretty.” Then she got close to the mirror and plucked off the three little hairs that grow on her chin.
“Why don’t you just shave? I can do it for you. Daddy showed me how.”
“It’s not right for a woman to shave, Elizabeth.”
“Why not? It’s easier.”
“I’ve told you before, Elizabeth, if a woman shaves, more hairs will grow back and they will be ugly black hairs.” She plucked a hair then opened the linen closet and pulled out a white box. “I got you a present,” she said as she handed me the box then looked close in the mirror again and started plucking her eyebrows.
I shook the box. It was light and didn’t make a sound. “What is it, Mamma? Is it Raggedy Andy?” Inside was a white dress trimmed with lace. There was no color to the dress at all. Even the little bows on the collar and cuffs were white. I suppose it was pretty in a very white way.
“Well, Elizabeth? Do you like it?” Mamma asked, screwing her eyes shut as she plucked one last hair. “I want you to put it on for your daddy before he gets home so we can both be pretty for him.” Mamma always said that. Every day she would call me in before Daddy’d get home to wash my face so we could both be “pretty for Daddy.”
I took the dress to my room and stripped out of my overalls. I looked at myself in the mirror. I looked real close to see if I could find any hairs on my body, but there wasn’t any except for what Mamma called “peach fuzz.” I felt smooth and soft. I pulled the dress over my head and looked again in the mirror. Daddy always told me that I turned “brown as a coffee bean” in the summer. The new dress was so white it made my skin look even darker.
When Daddy got home I ran to the kitchen to show off.
“Don’t I look pretty, Daddy? Mamma said I’d be pretty.”
He took one look at me yelled for Mamma. “Fern, what’d you spend good money on a dress for Boo for? And a white one at that.”
“She didn’t have a decent Sunday dress, John,” Mamma yelled from the bedroom. “She needed a proper white dress.”
“It’ll be dirty and torn to pieces before she ever makes it to church,” he yelled back. “Might as well be puttin’ a dress on a boy. Ain’t that right, Boo?” He yanked off his boots and set them on the newspaper in the corner. “Go on and change before you ruin that dress.”
I watched him walk out of the kitchen, then ran outside to the barn and climbed up into the rafters where I liked to go when I wanted to hide. On the way up, I ripped the lace hem clear off on a rusty nail. When I missed supper, Daddy came out looking for me. When he saw the dress, he shook his head. When he pulled me down I started to cry. All he said as he carried me inside was, “I told your mamma so.” I haven’t worn a dress since.
* * *
Daddy had gotten mad at me before, but he’d never smacked me.
“Now don’t touch the rock, Boo. Just wait’ll your Ma gets here.” I wanted to knock that rock onto the floor and bust it into tiny pebbles.
“Fern, get in here. I found somethin’ for you,” Daddy yelled.
When Mamma came into the kitchen, Daddy grabbed her and kissed her face. “I’m sorry, Sweetie,” he said, taking out his handkerchief. “I didn’t mean to muss up your face.”
“Stop, John. You’re just making me messier. Now I’m gonna have to re-do my face. You know no sugar ‘til you take your bath.” Mamma always fussed over herself. She wouldn’t come out of the bathroom ‘til every hair was in its place and make-up hid the shine of her face. She won the Crockett County Beauty Contest three years in a row before I was born.
“Look, Elizabeth. Look what your daddy did to my face.”
“You won’t mind when you see what I found,” Daddy said. “She won’t mind at all, will she Boo? It’s the best thing yet, Fern. And you’ll see I was meant to find it just for you. Open it.” He pointed to the rock on the table.
“Open what? Open the rock? How do you open a rock?” Mamma said, as if Daddy were tricking her somehow.
“See that crack? Just pry the top off.”
“I’ll help you, Mamma,” but when I reached for the rock, Daddy smacked my hands again.
“John!” Mamma yelled.
“She might break it. It’s real breakable,” Daddy said in the high voice he got when he was excited. “I’m sorry, Boo. I didn’t mean it. I just don’t want it broke. I even busted Kermit Sarvis in the chops ‘cause he tried to pick it up.” Daddy stroked my hair the way he did when he told me stories.
“It’s o.k. Elizabeth, I can get it.” Mamma rubbed my red hands. I couldn’t understand what could be in that rock that only Mamma could see. I didn’t know what was so special inside that Daddy couldn’t have given it to me.
“Open it Fern. You won’t believe what’s inside.”
Mamma let my hands drop and reached for the rock. I wanted to smack her hands. “It’s for me,” I wanted to say. “Daddy got it for me. Don’t touch it.” When she lifted the top off, she gasped like she did when her and Daddy would lock themselves in their room.
“What is it? Is it a shark tooth?” I yelled. “Show me. I wanna see.”
“Well, Fern, do you like it? Did I tell you I found it for you?”
Mamma just stood there looking at the rock like she was afraid to move.
“What is it, what is it?”
“Look, Elizabeth. Look what your daddy found for me.” She tilted the rock carefully the way she would tilt the family Bible to show me a relative’s name. In the rock was something I couldn’t believe, something more beautiful than I ever imagined could be inside anything. In the rock was a fern frond just like the ones you find in the woods, except this one was silvery and beautiful and glittered when Mamma moved. The whole frond looked like a tiny tree of shark teeth. It was like a treasure in a stone chest, and Daddy’d found it just for her.
“Did you find any shark teeth for me?” was all I could say.
“None today, Boo. Maybe tomorrow. Do you like it Fern?” Mamma had tears in her eyes, and when she kissed Daddy, little streaks whitened his cheek like the letters of my name in the grit on the tub. “It’s a real coal flower. I’ve heard some of the old timers tell of seams covered with ‘em, but this is the first one I ever saw. And the week of your birthday, no less.”
Mamma took Daddy’s hand and they started off to their bedroom. I knew Mamma was going to tell me to go outside and play until dinner, so I ran out without being told. Daddy yelled after me, “Be back before supper, Boo. I’ll tell you the story of how I found your mamma’s flower.”
* * *
As I ran across the road, I thought about the time I had snuck into Mamma and Daddy’s room while Mamma fixed supper and Daddy sat in his favorite chair and listened to a ball game on the radio. Mamma’s quilt was heaped in a pile on the floor. I looked at the white sheets on the bed. On Daddy’s side was the coal dust shadow of his body that had seeped out on the sheets. I ran my hands along the shadow. It was cool and damp like the mossy bark of a shade tree. I smelled my fingers and the smell was sweet and sour at the same time, like wet leaves.
When I heard Daddy walk in I clenched my hand into a fist and hid it behind my back.
“What are you doin’ in here, Boo?”
“I was just lookin’ at Mamma’s pictures on her picture table.” Daddy picked up the quilt and threw it over the sheets, then sat on the bed.
“Well, here’s the best one. Climb up here and I’ll show you,” he said, patting his knee. “This is the first time your Mamma won. She sure was a beauty, wasn’t she, Boo?” I nodded, burying my fist in my lap. “Do you want to hold it?” Daddy asked, trying to hand me the picture. I shook my head no. “All right,” Daddy said, setting the picture on the dresser. “I’m gonna see if supper is ready.”
When Daddy left, I pulled back the covers and wiped my hand off. I picked up the picture of Mamma. Daddy always told me I looked more like a little monkey than I looked like him or Mamma, so I took the picture and held it next to my face and looked in the mirror. I thought I could see something in the eyes that looked like them, but I guess he was right.
* * *
After I crossed the road, I ran past the steaming slag pile where Daddy’d told me the Devil was buried, the slag pile that wouldn’t hold snow in the winter, past the torn up tracks and Daddy’s deerblind tree, to the mouth of the Sulfur Springs Shaft to look for shark teeth. Daddy’d told me never to go near those old mines, and I had done a good job of listening to him ‘til then, but something inside me was telling me I need to go in. Smoke floated out of the mouth, and I wondered if it was the ghosts of the twelve miners breathing somewhere in the dark.
I didn’t have a light to scare off the sharks. I could have run home and got one, but I wanted to surprise Daddy. I had to find a shark tooth on my own to prove to Daddy I didn’t need him to do it for me. So I stepped in. Water dripped from the dark into little ponds on the ground, and I thought, “That must be where the sharks swim.” I picked up a handful of coal dust and blacked my face so the sharks wouldn’t be able to see me, then jumped over the shark ponds one by one, wishing I had a light to keep them in the water.
The farther I went in, the darker it got. Behind me, the mouth got smaller and smaller, and the light from outside got dimmer and dimmer. Before long, I could hardly see to dodge the shark ponds. Creakings and moanings came from everywhere in the dark. I looked hard for Dusty Miller’s white eyes floating in the dark. I started breathing faster and faster. When my arm scraped against something rough, I froze. I could feel the sharks all around me moving closer. I had to get out.
When I turned to run, I stepped into a puddle and sulfur water splashed up in my face. I screamed, “Shark spit! Damn you sharks!” The light seemed miles away and I was sure Dusty would outrun me and block my way out. I fell, and my mouth filled with sulfur water. I gagged and spit, but the taste wouldn’t go away. I ran faster than I ever thought I could run ‘til I got close enough to jump out of the shaft’s mouth into daylight.
I sat in the grass coughing and hacking like Daddy when he woke up in the morning. I checked myself for shark bites but couldn’t find any. Every part of me was black, and I knew I couldn’t let Daddy see me covered with soot that he didn’t smear on me himself.
* * *
I ran to the falling down barn on the old Miller farm to try and figure out what to do. I threw myself into a hay pile and started scrubbing myself clean.
“Who’s that in my barn?”
I froze for a second, then looked all around but couldn’t see anyone. A little cloud of hay dust floated down from the loft. “I didn’t know this was anybody’s barn anymore,” I said into the air. “I was runnin’ from the sharks. Who are you anyway?”
“Lizzy Miller. What sharks?” A skinny black girl in ripped-up overalls jumped down into the hay pile next to mine. She had a look on her face like she owned the world. “There ain’t no sharks ‘round here.” She looked me over from head to toe. “God almighty girl, what you been up to? You’re dirty as a pit boy.”
“I went into Scratch Back Mine looking for shark teeth. My daddy’s gonna whip me when he sees me,” I said, scrubbing at myself again.
“You were in Scratch Back? That’s where my pappy got blowed up. What were you doin’ in there?”
“I told you, I was looking for shark teeth. I had to find a shark tooth, but a shark started chasing me. Didn’t think I’d make it out.”
“Looks like all you got was a skinned-up knee and a face blacker’n mine.” Lizzy licked her thumb and wiped a splotch of dirt off my face. “Least yours comes off.”
“Maybe Daddy won’t be so mad. He likes to black my face.”
“Maybe. What’s your name, anyhow?” Lizzy fell back into hay pile next to me.
“My mamma named me Elizabeth, but my daddy calls me Boo.”
Lizzy sat up quick and started laughing. “He calls you ‘Boo?’”
“Sometimes he say’s I’m his ‘Dirty Little Boo,’ but mostly just Boo. What’s so funny about that?”
“And you proud of that?”
“Why not? My daddy loves me.”
“All I know is that my pappy thumped a man for callin’ him a boo. My daddy say don’t ever let nobody call you a boo. It ain’t a good name to be called.”
I stood up to brush off my legs. “That ain’t what my daddy means. What do you know, anyway?”
“I’m almost fifteen and know a whole lot more than a cracker girl named Boo.”
“You don’t know anything. My daddy tells me stories about the mines, about the sharks still swimming in the ground. If you know so much, how come your daddy got blowed up?” I said, turning away to brush off my backside.
Lizzy flopped back in her hay pile and stared up at the loft. “I know about stories. My pappy told me plenty. You know what coal is, cracker girl? My pappy told me coal ain’t nothin’ but dead things pressed together by the weight of the world. He told me all the white folk in Dugan’s Cemetery are bein’ pressed into coal and people a thousand years from now gonna light stove fires with their bones. Sometimes I watch smoke curl out the chimneys and wonder who that is floatin’ to Heaven.”
I stared at her, then tossed away a fistful of hay. “You don’t know,” I said in almost a whisper. “I gotta get home,” I said, and ran out. I could hear her laughing and calling at me as I ran, “You come by anytime, Boo.”
* * *
Back at the house, Daddy was in the tub and Mamma was changing her clothes in the bedroom. I looked in the mirror Mamma kept over the kitchen sink. My face was black, blacker than when Daddy kissed me. I heard Daddy get out of the tub and squish down the hall to his and Mamma’s room.
I went into my room. Through the wall I could hear Mamma and Daddy. I reached under my bed for the Mason jar, found it, and fished out the biggest tooth I had. The edge was sharp and the tip was pointy like a knife-tip. I looked in my mirror at my black face. I bit my lip, screwed my eyes tight so I wouldn’t scream, then took the tooth and cut my cheek. When I looked in the mirror again, I had a gash about an inch long just under my right eye that was bleeding awful down my face.
I put the tooth back in the jar and rolled it under my bed, then opened the door real quiet and walked out to the kitchen. I opened the screen door to the porch, slammed it as hard as I could and screamed “Shark bite!” The door to Mamma and Daddy’s room flew open and Mamma came running out still wrapping her robe around her.
“Elizabeth, what happened?” she screamed. “Your face. My God, what happened? John, get out here. Elizabeth is bleeding.”
Daddy came out of the room wrapped in his white towel. I ran to him. “Daddy, Daddy, a shark bit me. I fell on a shark and it bit me. Look at the bite,” I cried.
“Where’d it bite you, Boo? Where’d you see the shark?”
“I went hunting shark teeth in Scratch Back Mine and fell and a shark bit my face. I got out, though. He didn’t get me.”
“I thought I told you never to go in those old holes. You can get killed.” He grabbed my arms and lifted me up to his face.
“Careful, John,” Mamma pleaded, trying to take me from him.
“I’m just lookin’ at the cut.” He stared right into my eyes. “Why can’t you act like a nice little girl?” I thought his eyes would burn me up. “Well, you don’t look too bad. Gonna have to clean it out so it don’t seep, though. You’re damn lucky. That whole shaft could’ve come down on you.”
“Dusty Miller’s ghost was after me, Daddy. But I outran him. I swear I could see his eyes floatin’ in the dark.”
“Damn it, girl, there ain’t no ghost. This ain’t about Dusty Miller, or sharks, or ghosts. This is about you gettin’ yourself killed.” Daddy was madder than I’d ever seen him. He kept looking me in the eyes, and when I would try to look away, he’d lift my face so I had to look at him.
“She’s okay, John. Let me clean her up,” Mamma said, pulling at my leg.
“Oh, my Dirty Little Boo. What were you thinkin’? Did you even find any shark teeth?”
I looked into his eyes and started crying. “No, Daddy. I’m sorry.” I rubbed my face against his and blacked his cheek. Daddy set me down, shook his head and walked back into the bedroom.
Mamma took my arm and led me to the sink. She turned the cold water on and washed my face off with a clean white rag. It stung and felt good at the same time. Gray and red water stood for a minute in the sink, then swirled down the drain. When she was done, coal grit ringed the sink. I looked in the mirror. My face was clean and shiny, not fake and pasty like Mamma’s face. I smiled, and for a moment I thought I looked pretty.
* * *
After that, Daddy stopped bringing home shark teeth for me. He even stopped telling me stories and wouldn’t black my face with kisses. Even so, I wore that cut like a medal for weeks. It was mine. I’d gotten it all by myself. I was as proud of it as Mamma was proud of being a beauty queen, as proud as Daddy was of being a miner.
One day a few months later, when Mamma and Daddy had locked themselves in their bedroom, I opened my door as quiet as I could and tiptoed out to the den. I climbed up on the sooty hearth and looked at the rock on the mantle where Mamma showed it off like a trophy. I reached up and traced my finger around the fern. Somehow it was powdery and rough at the same time. I traced the leaf-scar on my cheek then climbed down and snuck back to my room. When I looked in my mirror I said, “Beth. My name is Beth.” The leaf on my face glittered silver with fern dust.
Kip Knott spent many summers living with his grandparents in Hemlock, Ohio, a coal mining ghost town in the heart of the Rust Belt. Located in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, this economically depressed area of Ohio is a cultural crazy quilt spread out upon a landscape shaped by the Native Americans who first lived there and the immigrant miners, loggers, and farmers who settled there over the past 200 years. All of these peoples have influenced Knott’s writing in some way, shape or form over the years. In addition to being a previous contributor to Halfway Down the Stairs, Knott’s writing has appeared in numerous magazines and journals, Knott’s first full-length collect of poetry—Tragedy, Ecstasy, Doom, and so on—is forthcoming later in 2020 from Kelsay Books. More of Knott’s writing can be accessed on his website.
© 2020, Kip Knott