October 22, 1913 3:15 p.m.
A few seconds after the house rumbled at the force of an explosion, Elena Bianchi hoisted her screaming baby on her hip. Roberto, she screamed silently.
Berto, her oldest, came running into the house. “Mamma!”
Giulietta wept quietly. As the middle child and a girl, most of the time she was timid, allowing her brothers to have all the attention. Beside her, Angelo wailed. Elena’s mind shuddered with the echoes of the blast, but she must calm the children. Chaos reigned in her small kitchen at the rear of the four-room company house.
She set the baby in his chair. “Hush, Pietro. Silencio.” Her tone was quiet. If she fell apart, the children would be lost.
As if the seven-month-old understood, Pietro sniffled and stopped his piercing scream. Next, she took Angelo’s hand. At three, he had no idea of what just happened, but whenever any of the others cried, he made sure his wailing was the loudest.
“Mamma needs you to be a big boy. Look at Berto. See? He’s not crying.” While she wiped Angelo’s tears, she gave a grateful glance to Berto, her little six-year-old rock.
Angelo hiccupped, which interrupted his cries and Elena held her breath, but as soon as he looked over at four-year-old Giulietta’s quiet tears, the screeches continued, no softer than before.
Elena kissed his cheek. “Please, Angelo. Sh.” With her other hand she put an arm around her daughter. “I know you can stop crying.”
Giulietta’s big eyes rounded, and she nodded solemnly. “Si, Mamma.”
“Grazie.” Elena squeezed her hand. “See, Angelo? Giuli is being a big girl.” Finally, in a last effort to make her son stop, Elena turned away from him. He could not stand being ignored, and she counted on that to finish him.
Instead, she raised Pietro in her arms and took her daughter’s hand. She nodded at Berto. “Let’s go find your Papà.”
By the time they reached the door, Angelo was running behind them. “Wait for me, Mamma.”
Only then did she give him any acknowledgment. “Take your brother’s hand. We stay together.”
Her little family stepped into the street. During the rush to the mine entrance, she fought against crying out in panic. The Italian women from their section of Dawson moved as a group down the street to the edge of town, following the road to the Number Two mine. Their cries spread out over the streets in a shriek of horror and grief.
Elena refused to join them. She would save her tears, be strong for her children. If she didn’t give in to the fear, Roberto would find his way out of the mine, back to his family. Per favore, Dio. Keep Roberto safe. Bring him back to us. The mantra repeated over and over in her head as she shut out the other women. Roberto would be proud of her when he returned. Proud she didn’t fall apart, proud she took care of the children and proud she kept her faith. Her strong faith was both a blessing and a curse for Roberto, and had been since they were young. She remembered him appearing at her home late at night, calling her to go walk with him through their village. She had shaken her head and told him no, she was a good girl and besides it was time for her evening prayers. He had laughed so hard at that. “Your prayers have been answered already, Elena. I am here.”
She could still feel the warmth that heated her cheeks that night. At the time, she turned her face into the shadows so he would not see her blushing. If he saw, he would know his feelings for her were returned. She loved this boy. His generosity, his gentle soul had captured her heart, but his dreams had scared her.
When they walked after Mass on Sundays he spoke of faraway places. “I’m going to America. There is work and so much money you can’t hold it all in your pockets. Luigi sends money home to his family every month. If he can send so much money, there must be lots of it.”
“It’s so far away from our family.”
“Sì. It is far away, but maybe we can come visit,” he promised.
And yet in all the time she had been in America they hadn’t returned to Italy, not since Roberto brought her here as his pregnant bride nearly seven years ago. Always too little money, and her husband worked every day to care for their growing family.
“Don’t be afraid, I’m with you,” Roberto said. “We will have a healthy handsome son, like his papà.” He was always sure they would have a son, and God must never disappoint Roberto. Her husband would not stand for it. His stubborn nature aggravated her to no end most days, but this October afternoon it brought her hope. If anyone survived this terrible tragedy, Roberto would. He wouldn’t allow for anything else.
The thought gave her the strength to continue toward the mine. At the yawning gash in the rock which opened into the mine shaft, splintered wood was tossed about, thrown from its position as a brace for the tons of dirt and rock it had supported.
Several men hunched over coughing, their faces smeared with coal dust and dirt. Several had scorched clothes.
Elena listened to the women who arrived earlier.
“The flames shot out of the mine,” a woman she recognized from church said.
“Over a hundred feet, the men said,” another added, spreading her arms out wide.
Another moan went up from the women.
One man of the small group who had stumbled out of the mine stood up straight and walked into a waiting woman’s arms. A cheer went up from the crowd. The couple embraced, the woman kissing the man’s face all over. Elena hoped she might be so fortunate in the coming minutes. Yet, staring at the mine opening until her eyes filled with water and she was forced to blink didn’t make him appear. None of her silent prayers made him walk out into the sunlight.
Berto said, “Mamma, he will be all right. I know this.” His little face almost glowed in the afternoon light. So like his father, and yet he possessed an innocence of the child he was.
How her son could know anything was beyond her and the certainty of his belief was also out of her reach, but she held on to the thread of hope his words gave her. “Sî, my son. He will be. We must pray very hard.”
“Stay back.” A large man covered in coal dust held his arms out, blocking the women from approaching. All around them women screamed out for their husbands. The children cried for their papas and their uncles. The shrieks echoed against the mesa, competing with the clanging of equipment as the men set to digging through the earth.
After a while, the yelling and shouting quieted and they waited.
The baby in her arms rested his head on her shoulder and slumbered. Angelo and Giulietta wandered off to join other young ones who started a game of hopscotch. The children’s reaction to the tragedy seemed inappropriate, but her maternal intuition was grateful for their diversion. Elena wondered how much they understood, not that she understood any more than they might. When was it that adults became the people who knew everything? She studied the people around her, all speaking in different languages, the dread on their faces never left. No one had any understanding. The bosses all spoke in English. It took long moments for the translations into Italiano.
Never had she regretted the lack of language more than now when she needed to understand everything about what was happening. All these thoughts sidetracked her mind from the place it wanted to go. She wanted to delve deep into the earth to that place Roberto spent every day, but rarely spoke about, aside from telling her how much coal he transported via mule.
“You care more about the mule than me,” she teased him once.
He shook his head, smiling. “No, tesoro mio. The company prizes the mule above the men, but I know who I love most in all the world.”
Would his job as the mule driver keep him in a safer place than other miners?
Mrs. Serafine, who Elena knew from church, came up to her. Heavy with a child in her womb, Mrs. Serafine held one hand on her back for support. “Do you think we will know more before dark?” she asked in rapid Italian.
Elena didn’t answer. The question was pointless. They would know when they knew and not before. “There is nothing to be done, but wait.”
“How many men do you think are still down there?” asked another woman, but Elena couldn’t remember her name.
Elena shook her head.
“I heard two hundred, maybe more. What will I do if Anselmo is gone?” Mrs. Serafine asked.
Elena had no answer, and she would not guess about her own situation. “We must pray.”
“Why would God let this happen?” Mrs. Serafine ran a hand over her belly.
Again, there was no answer Elena could give that would not sound trite or blasphemous so she kept quiet.
Across the crowd, she saw a familiar face, Cassie Roundtree, the laundress. She stood apart from the huddle of people, worry etched on her face. Their gazes met, and Elena recognized the fears haunting the other woman. Cassie pressed her lips together and turned away.
Mrs. Serafine was talking again. “Ay, Dio, what about Anselmo?”
Elena gripped the baby tighter, refusing to let panic overtake her. “I must gather the children. They must eat. Berto, go get your brother and sister.” After so long, the baby got heavier by the minute. Her arms were stiff. Maybe if she went home, Roberto would open the door just about dark the way he always did.
The children returned. Angelo was whining. “I want to play.”
“It’s supper time.” She watched Giuli’s eyes get rounder as she took in the women who stood in small groups weeping, comforting one another in a time when consolation was not possible. How could her daughter understand the women’s grief? Did she wonder if one day, she might be in a similar position, waiting for her husband to return to her out of the darkness?
When Elena was little, her grandmother had spoken about a grandfather who died long before Elena was born. Grandmother waited for days and days, weeks went by and they had no news from Bezzecca and the war. Nothing. Finally, in September, they brought him home. It was too late. The gangrene had set into his bones. Grandmother did all she could with her teas and medicines, but nothing could help him. She waited in the candlelight, wiping the sweat off his fevered head. His moans grew weaker, and then with one final gasp he left her. Elena’s mother had been only two. Elena’s father died when a wagon ran over him. She was only five. One day he was there, the next he wasn’t. Was that the fate of all women, to wait in the shadows between life and death with only prayer and worry for her loved ones?
Why had she thought of that old memory of her grandmother, a scarf tied around her hair as she scrubbed the pots, talking about her long dead husband? Once more Elena shut her thoughts away. Nothing could interfere with the good thoughts she would think until Roberto came home. There could be no other ending.