Direct download — Anthracite Weddings (audio) by John Zaharick

5020 WORDS

It is an honor to protect the bride. Mother and Father repeat this, but I don’t believe it just because of them. The happiest day of my life was when I was asked to serve as Elisha McCormick’s bridesmaid.

My family is of modest means. However, we have something that even the McCormicks, who control all the coal lands in the county, notice. Me.

They require girls that resemble Elisha as much as possible. Luckily, Elisha McCormick is fat. She is a pudgy girl with long brown hair and blue eyes. I am not as fat, no, but still a little larger than the other girls in town. My hair and eyes are also the same color as Elisha’s. Other than that we are very different. I will fawn and compliment in public, but I know her nose is bigger and her ears stick out too far. Elisha has her family’s fortune, and will marry into the Gowen railroad empire. The spirits know this is enough and have been kind enough to allow me the luxury of beauty.

It is a better deal, in my opinion.

Despite Elisha’s flaws, in the same dress and makeup, with our hair done up, we may resemble one another enough to be sisters. The McCormicks have already found three other girls of similar appearance. They vary in age, slightly younger or older. Mary has green eyes. Rachel has blonde hair, but it can be dyed. Of all the bridesmaids chosen so far, I resemble Elisha the most.

There is some risk involved. We must imitate the bride to confuse any foul spirits that may lurk about. A wedding is a holy union, and the Blind Ones wish to disrupt all that is good in this world. Evil spirits have trouble discerning our world, but holy events are like a beacon to them, a lantern at an inn for a night traveler.

The bride will have bad luck the rest of her life if a spirit finds her. But I have seen many weddings, and there have never been problems.

I am excited to see the dresses we shall wear. Even better, we’re allowed to keep them afterwards as part of our payment. It will be the finest article of clothing I’ve ever owned. I will be so beautiful that maybe the guests will mistake me for Elisha. I might entertain such confusions for a little while. Just a little.

§

The seamstress comes to our house to measure me for the dress. Before I was born, Father lived in one of the shacks on the outskirts of Collierburg. He has been here long enough though that we may have a house for the family. We live one street back from the main road and three streets from the rail line that crosses it. I’m glad the commotion of the last year is over. In July, there was such noise as the miners crowded onto the tracks, refusing to let a train pass. The Commonwealth’s militia had to shoot some of the rioters. Luckily, Father didn’t join that nonsense.

“You have such lovely hair,” the seamstress says as she wraps me in measuring tape. We stand in the common room, Mother watching. Father is at the mines, while eldest Brother is helping at the company store. Everyone was so excited when he received that job. I’m glad I never have to be threatened with going into the holes.

“Do you know what color the dresses are to be?” Mother asks as I hold up my arms.

“Red and green with white trim,” the seamstress says. I imagine game fowl hung upside down from porches. I’m sure she’ll handle the colors better than that.

§

We practice in the chapel during the day, but the actual ceremony will take place at night, lit by hundreds of candles, to symbolize the Burning Ones. The ceremony will be surrounded by good spirits to keep out the bad.

Two bridesmaids stand to either side of Elisha at the altar while the priest explains the ceremony to us. I have the right end. I should be next to Elisha in place of Mary, but I should also be thankful I’m here at all.

Colored sunlight from the stained glass speckles us like pheasants. Rachel now has brown hair. Molly is two inches taller than the rest of us, so doesn’t wear heels.

Elisha’s sister Emily will be the flower girl. She watches us alongside Martha McCormick, their mother. The youngest daughter looks so adorable. I’m sure she will make a beautiful bride someday.

“I want to thank you all for being my entourage,” Elisha says after the priest finishes. We exchange hugs, reflections reaching through mirrors.

Our dresses are tight–fitting as is the new style. My bodice stretches down and hugs my hips with baleen. I had so hoped we’d have full skirts as the wealthy women wore until just recently. Even my sleeves are tight. I still manage to raise my arms and embrace Elisha. The colors are handled well, at least.

§

My regular clothes are plain, but at least I can breathe in them. Walking through town, I take time to enjoy the feeling of moving easily, but imagine what it would be like still bound in the dress.

I lose my relief when I arrive home. There is Indian pipe in the bedroom, growing from between the floorboards. I pluck one of the white plants, its closed flower drooping like its name, and wonder how they got here. I have never seen weeds in the house, let alone this, which is only found in the woods in summer.

Mother works hard to keep the mice out of here and will not like seeing other wild things sneaking in. I tear up the plants and throw them outside. When Mother returns home, I’m busy mending clothes. I help her start cooking, and later, when we eat, Father asks about the practice.

“Do a good job and you could be asked to be a servant,” Father says. “This is a great opportunity for you, Katherine. Like Edward and the store.”

I’m excited for the wedding all evening. In bed, I can’t sleep and stare at the dark room. It looks like something is in the corner. I’m used to my siblings rising in the night, but this looks more like a mule or small horse. I sit up to obtain a closer look, but the shadows shift and nothing is there. When I lie back down, the shadows don’t reform.

§

Elisha McCormick has vanished. The dresser had just pulled my hair back and begun fashioning the ringlets when a cousin of the McCormicks came into the room to tell us.

“What happened to her?” Mary asks.

“They say the Blind Ones took her,” the girl says.

“How? Isn’t that what we’re for?”

Mrs. McCormick says the same thing later.

“She disappeared from the house in the middle of the night, and all her belongings are untouched,” Mrs. McCormick yells like a cornered turkey while her husband glowers. “There’s foam around the bed. They took her. That’s the ectoplasm!”

Mary and Rachel look at their feet. Molly seems about to cry. I simply watch the woman panic. I’m ashamed to admit to myself that I’m disappointed I won’t get to be in the ceremony.

“You!” She points at the group of us. “You were supposed to be here to protect her.”

“At the wedding, Martha,” Donald McCormick says, deep and condescending. He wears a suit and his beard is neatly trimmed for today. “They weren’t holed up with her for the night.”

“Don’t you care that your eldest daughter is missing?” She moves her fury onto her husband. He only stares at her. I use the moment to slip out of the room, crinoline crinkling with each step.

§

The beast appears in the bedroom again that night. It doesn’t vanish when I sit up. It takes on detail.

It stands on four legs, the front pair longer than the rear. They are thin and knobby like an ill–fed horse, but the body doesn’t have the depth of a horse. It’s wide and shallow, like a person. The skin covering it is hairless and gray as cracked mud in a drying pond.

My brothers don’t stir in their beds. I want to call to them, but feel too exhausted to do so. It takes all my strength not to fall back into bed.

From the shoulders sprout two jaws. No head, no eyes, just a snout half as long as the legs, ending in flaring nostrils, with a jaw beneath, slightly wider to roll beyond the edges of the upper. Two tusks jut from the ends of the lower jaw, and two large teeth fall from the front of the upper to fit between the lower tusks.

The Blind One sways about in the shadows, never approaching me, just observing with its mouth. I’m scared, but at the same time excited. I tricked it. It came for me, not Elisha. That means she hasn’t been taken. If I can just get through the night, I can tell the McCormicks. They’ll be so happy to know.

§

Two women come to our house the next day to retrieve the dress. Since the McCormicks think Elisha was taken, we will not be paid for protecting her. I convince the servants to let me return to the McCormick residence with them.

“She clearly wants attention,” Martha McCormick says after I tell my story. “She didn’t get to parade in finery for my daughter’s wedding, and this is her way of making up for it.”

I’m standing right there, but she talks to her servants as if I wasn’t. The two women who picked up the dress look on, one fearful at the subject matter we speak of, the other bored.

“She’s disappointed that I won’t let her keep the dress and that she has to go on wearing rags.”

“I’m not speaking falsely,” I say. “I’ve seen it at night. And there’s the Indian pipe.”

“Oh, I suppose Indians took my daughter.”

“No, I…” I realize Martha McCormick has most likely never stood on ground that wasn’t cobblestone or marble. “They’re white plants that grow in the forest. They appear from the floorboards in my home.”

“If they grow in the forest, why are they in your home?”

“That’s my point! They must be a sign of it.”

“You already told me that it was a four–legged beast in the dark. Which is it, child?”

“Both, I guess.”

She scowls at me. “I told my husband not to scrounge among you, especially with the ungrateful strikers trying to shut down our mines, but he insisted there was nowhere else to find bridesmaids. And now my daughter’s gone. I should have your father fired for your failure. Get out of here, you filthy child. Don’t ever set foot on our property again.”

I’m so shocked I can’t move. Martha McCormick continues to glower. One of the servants picks at dirt on her dress. I turn and hurry away.

§

The Indian pipe appears out of the floor of the bedroom, grows from the furniture. I uproot them and throw them away, but they leave no marks on the wood. If I am standing still and not paying attention, they appear in a circle around me.

I leave them in the house for Mother to see, but she says nothing of them. Neither do my brothers or Father.

“Something comes in the bedroom at night,” I tell them. “The Blind Ones are haunting me, not Elisha.”

My mother grows terrified. She prays over me. My little brother Stephen stays up all night, out of curiosity and excitement. “Do you see it now?” he whispers every so often in the darkness.

I do.

“I can’t see it. Is it like the flowers?” he asks.

“If you see nothing, then yes. It’s strolling past our beds as we speak.”

Stephen sits up and recoils against the wall, but it’s my bed that it’s near.

§

Father tells me to go to the chapel and explain my story to the priest.

“I understand what it is like to be young and feel neglected,” the priest says. He doesn’t have to say anymore. I know what he thinks from his tone. I want to cry as soon as I realize he doesn’t believe me.

“Sometimes we make things up. I’m sure you think you’ll never have another opportunity like this wedding in your life, to dress up, to be noticed. But there’s no need to want for unnecessary attention. You are young and there will be much more excitement in your life ahead.”

“It comes into my home. I don’t know what it wants. Aren’t you supposed to help me? Can’t you give me the blessings of the Burning Ones?”

He smiles sympathetically, as if telling a birthing woman the pain isn’t that bad. “Their power is not called upon lightly. This isn’t a game, Katherine. Speaking of the Burning and the Blind should only be done in ceremony and sacred spaces.”

As I walk home, I can’t hold back the tears.

§

Donald McCormick’s Pinkerton spies have found his daughter. She eloped. Not stolen by spirits. Not kidnapped for ransom. Not anything that is the fault of her bridesmaids.

She despised her fiancé. I don’t blame her. Forced to marry him to unite her family with a rail baron. She ran off with James McKinnon, a miner wounded in the riot. Not the most handsome bachelor, but at least freely chosen.

Elisha and James are safe though. They’ve fled the Commonwealth. They must have intended it to look as if she had been taken by the Blind Ones so no one would follow, but her father looked anyway. He is so enraged at her betrayal that he’s disowned her. No need to force her back home. She’s abandoned her family, so her family will abandon her.

The priest still won’t believe me.

Nor anyone else. I see Mary on the street while I’m carrying a bag of flour home and try to talk to her.

“Why are you making up these stories?” she says.

“What stories?” I haven’t mentioned the Blind One.

“Your mother is complaining about how horrible your family has it. They let your brother work at the company store and you into the wedding. Do you have any idea how everyone else around here lives? My father lost his leg in the mines and now my little brother has to work so we have enough to eat. You’re so self–absorbed.”

I turn away from her and run home, white flowers forming a path back to my house.

§

If the priest won’t help me, I can find others. Marie Stein lives three roads from the main road and one from the rail line. Her house must rattle a lot. The priest may have the McCormicks to thank for building the town chapel and their tithe, but Marie prepares poultices and delivers babies in her home by her own means.

“The Blind Ones have no presence in the physical world,” she tells me. She looks into a wooden bowl as she speaks, tapping the black liquid inside with a twig, watching the ripples. “They move through mental spaces, projecting themselves into our senses. They are like color or pain, having no material substance, but still real. They can drive a soul to madness with voices and visions. Yours seems to be waiting. This gives us time to work.”

She waves a hand over the bowl and raises her head to me. “I’ll pick the necessary herbs to brew a tea that will rid you of the foul one. You must fast for three days beforehand. I can have the drink ready if you return in that time.”

“I will come to you then,” I tell her.

A woman spits on the ground as I walk home and glares at me. Two boys make rude gestures. I can’t wait to be rid of this wretched creature that spoils my fortune and makes the town hate me.

§

It’s easy to go without food during the day, as long as I have work to do, as long as I keep moving. In bed though, my stomach aches. I curl up and tense my muscles to focus on that feeling instead. My family has been hungry before, so I can endure.

I hear footsteps in the house as I try to sleep. The Blind One strolls about, wishing to disturb my rest. If I can ignore rodents, I can ignore it.

§

Fog drifts through Collierburg. Candles glow in the mist and outline doors, but not much else. In the distance, on the hillside, the mines are clear and bright. A hole is punched in the fog and I see men moving about like mice.

I raise my arm and find a lantern in my hand. It dispels some of the fog. I smell horse and blood, and a foal comes out of the murk alongside me. It wobbles a bit on its new legs, some of its hair still wet. I scratch behind its ear and feel hot breath blast on my other hand.

“Where did you come from?” I ask it. I hold the lantern high and the gray hovers around us. As I walk through the street, the foal follows me.

§

When I wake in the morning, the real Collierburg is clear and filled with people. How strange will my dreams become the longer I fast? I dress and take a stack of clothing to the Bergmanns, stepping around horse chips in the street. The Bergmanns make soap to trade so people can spend less scrip in the company store.

While I wait in their house, Hannah’s son argues with her in the rear room.

“The Sewards mend your clothes when I don’t have time,” Hannah says.

“Her father sucks up to McCormick while we give our lives trying to better things for everyone,” her son shouts back. Didn’t he know the thin wooden walls wouldn’t hide his scorn? “Gets his little girl in their fancy wedding too, trying to help McCormick take over the rails. James did us all a huge favor running off with the bride.”

I look at the floor when Hannah returns, pretending not to have heard. She smiles and hands me a block of soap wrapped in paper.

§

When I arrive home, Mother is crying and Stephen and Edward look solemn. Father is dead, his head crushed by falling rocks in a mine.

“They killed him,” Mother yells between sobs.

“It was an accident, Mother,” Edward attempts in comfort.

“They hated him for not joining the strikes. That’s what they do. Kill anyone who they think helps the owners.”

The soap falls from my hands and bangs on the wooden floor. My visions blurs as tears well up. I hear Hannah Bergmann’s son in my mind, hear Mary, and I know Mother is right.

§

I dream of the foal again. It stays by me as I wander the empty streets, casting light.

“This is why we can fool you with dresses and makeup,” I say to it, making my way through the fog.

Whenever I walk in a direction away from the mines on the hillside, it whinnies and bumps its head into my side.

We walk out of town and find the main road. There are patches of trees about, but the main hillside is a barren culm bank.

The dream town is empty, but miners wander about at the top of the hill. There is no fog here and I can see the entire area, rail tracks emerging from wood framed shafts, the breaker looming on the horizon, pouring out slate.

I pause when I see my father. He pushes a cart of coal and looks tired. I am so happy to see him. Mother will be overjoyed when I tell her he’s alive.

Then another miner strikes my father in the back of the head with a stone, and he slumps forward into the cart. The miners gather around and push him into a dark tunnel.

The foal whinnies. I turn to look at it, but it has grown jaws where its head once was and its skin has turned gray. In the distance, the fog is gone and the entire town is open before me. The Blind One breathes out a great, rushing wind. Warmth flows into me, and in the house–speckled valley below, I see the land change.

§

In the morning I don’t feel comfortable in the house and go for a walk through town. Everyone on the street is smiling and laughing. My father is dead, but their lives continue as normal. When they see me, they look away. I could understand if they laughed out of ignorance, but they really do hate us.

I know what the Blind One wants now, all it ever really wanted. Such a simple task, and I would benefit, too.

That evening, I go to Marie Stein’s house. I stand outside, staring at her door, listening to the sounds of people in the street. I’m so hungry. Mother promised stew for me when I returned. I look around the street, candles burning in windows, and feel alone.

At my feet, a single white flower grows. I pluck it and put it in my hair.

When Mother asks about the ritual, I tell her the tea was bitter, but the Blind One is gone. I must be careful that my family doesn’t see me continue to notice it.

§

There are a few miners on the surface. Most are probably underground. I look toward a shaft.

There, I tell it. All the coal you could ever need.

“You looking for someone, miss?” a man covered in coal dust asks. The Blind One walks towards the man as I turn to face him. It circles the miner.

“I’m just curious about the mines. I wanted to see what they looked like.”

“It’s dangerous around here. This is no place for a woman.”

“I’m sorry. I’ll leave.”

“Spirits, you’re Brian’s daughter, ain’t you?” he says, suddenly aware.

I keep walking. My Blind One will find its own way back. I can’t lose it that easily.

Good spirits are called the Burning Ones because they appear as colored, cool flames that crawl along walls and furniture. They fill the eyes of lucky individuals with light and impart knowledge of the world.

And yet this Blind One will burn them all.

§

It’s easy to disappear. I perform my chores each day and don’t worry about the other people in town. Edward now manages the company store. He makes enough money to support us, for however long things last here.

The tunnels are becoming hot and miners are choking on smoke. Edward hears the talk, the rumors of the fire underground. The McCormicks deny there’s anything wrong.

“They say it’s just coal dust being kicked up,” Edward tells us at home. “Everyone’s always gotten coughing fits from working there.”

“Do you think that’s true?” Mother asks.

“No,” Edward says.

It’s annoying to hear people guessing about something I fully understand. I walk into the bedroom, but something is floating in the air. I scream at the man dangling from the ceiling, the same one who spoke to me outside the mines, face dark with dust, clothes like my father wore to work. James and Mother run in.

“What’s wrong?” Mother asks. A rope cuts into his throat, but she ignores the body and looks to me instead.

“I… I think a splinter stabbed me,” I lie, realizing they can’t see.

“Show me where it is.”

“It doesn’t seem that bad. I’m just… I’ve been scared a lot since Father.”

Mother begins to sob and hugs me. The body keeps dangling.

It’s still there when we go to sleep.

§

The hanged man is gone in the morning. In the evening, Edward brings more gossip from the company store. A man actually hanged himself in his home last night. I’m not sure if the Blind One drove him to it, or if he chose to kill himself for starting the fire.

I did the work required of me, but it still appears in the night, making the wood creak under hoof, snorting. I wake to its hot breath on my neck. During the day, the ground turns black under my feet and smokes. Dead bodies litter the street. I freeze, the houses fading away. Collierburg is gone, the valley nothing but smoldering dirt. Then the town reappears and I realize people are staring. Let them mock. I know their fate.

§

I try to speak with Marie Stein again. If the Blind One won’t leave on its own, I’ll chase it with magick like I originally intended.

“Where have you been?” Marie asks. Sunlight fills her one room house. She stands over me with crossed arms.

“It vanished,” I tell her. “After we met. I thought we had frightened it, so I didn’t bother to come.”

“And why are you here now?”

“It’s returned.”

Marie laughs. “I don’t need to scry to know you’re lying.”

Pressure hits my chest and head and they’re all accusing me again. “No, I’m not. Look like you did before. It’s—”

“It didn’t go away,” Marie said. “What did it tell you?”

“It hasn’t told me anything. It’s just been appearing at night.”

“If you really want me to help you, I need to know what it’s doing. I’ll see anyway if we perform the ritual. We both drink the tea and enter a trance. Then I can confront the foul one and perform the banishing rites. I wasted herbs last time when you didn’t show. I need to know you’re serious.”

She’ll find out about the fire. And the miner whom I let it prey on. “If you’re not going to help me, then don’t!” I run from her house as she yells after me, telling me to come back.

§

Sometimes I stare, a shirt on my lap, needle in hand, too tired to keep sewing, but not able to sleep. I wonder if this is what happened to the hanged man. I’ve been through this a lot longer than him though.

It’s taken two years, but the McCormicks have finally admitted there’s a fire in their mines. Smoke leaks from the hillside. They’ve closed the burning tunnels, but are still working others. Some families have left, but most of the miners are still here, striking again. Thanks to Edward, our family has the means to move before things grow worse.

We’ve all been different since Father, so no one really notices something is wrong with me, notices my fatigue from the nights it ruins. I’m not as jumpy when it presents the dead to me, at least.

Father comes home, places his helmet on the floor, and begins untying his boots.

“Are we packed?” he asks.

“I’m going to sell newspapers when we get to Pottsville,” Stephen tells him with a grin.

“There are more mines there. Don’t be a coward like your brother.”

“When is the carriage coming?” a second Stephen asks me. I look over my younger brother’s shoulder at his twin and my father. “Katherine?”

I snap away from the fake family and look Stephen, the real Stephen, in his eyes. “I think Edward said the carriage should arrive sometime after noon. We’ll have plenty of time to finish packing everything in the morning.”

If they can’t put the fire out, it’ll consume all their anthracite, destroying the source of Donald McCormick’s fortune. Better, the naturalists say the coal seams stretch under Collierburg. The heat and poisonous gases will rise and destroy the entire community.

So why does it still come to me?

§

The McCormicks never lived near the mines. They never were in any danger when the poison poured forth from the hillside and killed a third of Collierburg in her sleep. It was still beneficial for them to move and escape the anger of the survivors.

I ride a train for the first time to reach Reading where Emily McCormick will be wed. Where Donald will sell his youngest daughter to the Gowens, now that she is of age, having failed with his oldest. The McCormicks will recover their loss by allying with the railroad and all will be well again.

I still carry a favor from that first wedding. I haven’t forgotten Martha McCormick’s words to me or her influence over the priest. I will burn her family like coal.

Indian pipe grows in clusters in an empty space of a pew. I take my reserved seat in the back corner, hidden from Martha in the front. The Blind One slinks in behind, like a mountain lion, slides past guests, sits with one hoof on the side of a pew in the aisle, pretending to be in the material world.

Emily McCormick’s bridal party enters the church, dressed in cornflower blue. Donald McCormick leads his daughter, while identical copies flank her. Benjamin Gowen waits at the altar, candles burning, as if their symbolism could offer any kind of defense.

There she is, I tell it. The jaws turn. I direct my attention to the new bride, the little flower girl now in bloom. Other than their single flaw, the Blind Ones are very effective. They just need a little help. They just need to be aimed.

You don’t need me anymore. Leave. Please, go to her, I tell it. I am so tired. Tired from being woken in the night. Tired of visions of death. It is time someone new suffered. Emily passes my row, her face a beaming smile. I glance from the side, keeping my face hidden from Donald. The entire party is encased in a cloud of perfume. The Blind One sniffs a dress. Please.


More from John Zaharick:

image002John Zaharick grew up close to a mine fire destroyed town in rural Pennsylvania. He has worked as an assistant editor for a weekly newspaper, earned a master’s degree in ecology, and currently lives in Minnesota where he supports the Baltimore Science Fiction Society long distance. His fiction has appeared in several magazines, including AE, Not One of Us, Stupefying Stories, and Plasma Frequency and his poetry in Strange Horizons and Silver Blade. He can be found online at www.johnzaharick.com.

 

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