The Iron Throat, Tillie Lerner

from Proletarian Literature in the United States: An Anthology (1935)





THE WHISTLES always woke Marie. They pierced into her sleep like some guttural voiced metal beast, tearing at her; the sound meant, in one way, terror. During the day if the whistle blew, she knew it meant death – – somebody’s poppa or brother, perhaps her own – -in that fearsome place below the ground, the mine.

“Goddam that blowhorn,” she heard her father mutter. Creak of him getting out of bed. The door closed, with yellow light from the kerosene lamp making a long crack on the floor. Clatter of dishes. Her mother’s tired, grimy voice.

“What’ll ya have? Coffee and eggs. There ain’t no bacon.”

“Don’t bother with anything. Haven’t time. I gotta stop by Kvaternicks and get the kid. He’s starting work today.”

“What’re they going to give him?”

“Little of everything at first, I guess, trap, throw switches, maybe timberin’.”

“Well; he’ll be starting one punch ahead of the old man. Chris began as a breaker boy.” (Behind both stolid faces the claw claw of a buried thought – – and maybe finish like him, buried under slaty roof which an economical company had not bothered to timber.)

“He’s thirteen, ain’t he?” asked Marie.

“I guess. Nearer to fourteen.”

“Marie was tellin’ me, it would break Chris’s heart if he only knew. He wanted the kid to be different. Get an edjiccation.”

“Yeah? Them foreigners do have funny ideas.”

“Oh, I dunno. Then she says that she wants the girls to become nuns, so they won’t have to worry where the next meal is comin’ from, or have to have kids.”

“Well, what other earthly use can a woman have, I’d like to know.”


“She says she doesn’t want ’em raising a lot of brats to get their heads blowed off in the mine. I guess she takes Chris’s … passing away pretty hard. It’s kinda affected her mind. She keeps talking about the old country, the fields, and what they thought it would be like here – – ‘all buried in da bowels of earth,’ ” she finishes.

“Say, what does she think she is? a poet?”

“And she talks about the coal. Says it oughta be red, and let people see how they get it with blood.”

“Quit your woman’s blabbin’,” said Jim Holbrook, irritated suddenly. “I’m goin’ now.”

Morning sounds. Scrunch of boots. The tinkle of his pail, swinging. Shouted greetings to fellow workers across the street. Her mother turning down the yellow light and creaking into bed. All the sounds of the morning weaving over the memory of the whistle like flowers growing lovely over a hideous corpse. Mazie slept again.

Mrs. Holbrook lay in the posture of sleep. Thoughts, like worms, crept within her. Of Marie Kvaternick, of Chris’s dreams for the boys. Of the paralyzing moment when the iron throat of the whistle shrieked forth its announcement of death, and women poured from every house to run for the tipple. Of her kids. Mazie, Will, Ben, the baby. Mazie, for all her six and a half years was like a woman sometimes. It’s living like this does it, she thought, makes ’em old before their time. Thoughts of the last accident writhed in her blood. There were whispered rumors that the new fire boss, the super’s nephew, never made the trips to see if there was gas. Didn’t the men care? They never let on. The whistle. In her a deep man’s voice suddenly arose, moaning over and over, “Gawd, Gawd, Gawd.”

The sun sent its grimy light through the window of the three room wooden shack, twitching over Mazie’s face, filtering across to where Anna Holbrook bent over the washtub. Mazie awoke suddenly, the baby was crying. She stumbled over to the wooden box that held it, warming the infant to her body. Then she dressed, changed the baby’s diaper with one of the old flower sacks her mother used for the purpose, and went into the kitchen.

“Ma, what’s there to eat?”

“Coffee. It’s on the stove. Wake Will and Ben and don’t bother me. I got washing to do.”

Later. “Ma?”


“What’s an edication?”

“An edjiccation?” Mrs. Holbrook arose from amidst the shifting vapors of the washtub, and with the suds dripping from her red hands, walked over and stood impressively over Mazie. “An edjiccation is what you kids are going to get. It means your hands stay


white, and you read books, and work in an office. Now, get the kids and scat. But don’t go too far, or I’ll knock your block off.”

Mazie lay under the hot Wyoming sun, between the outhouse and the garbage heap. From the ground arose a nauseating smell. Food had been rotting in the garbage pile for years as there was no such thing as a garbage collection. There was no other place for Mazie to lie, for the one patch of green in the yard was between these two spots. She pushed her mind hard against the things half known, not known. “I am Mazie Holbrook,” she said softly, “I am a knowen things. I can diaper a baby. I can tell two ghost stories. I know words and words. Tipple. Edjiccation. Bug dust. Superintendent. My poppa can lick any man in this here town. Sometimes the whistle blows and everyone starts a runnen. Things come a blowen my hair and it’s soft, like the baby laughin.” A phrase trembled into her mind, “Bowels of earth.” She shuddered. It was mysterious and terrible to her. “Bowels of earth. It means the mine. Bowels is the stummy. Earth is a stummy and mebbe she ets the men that come down. Men and daddy goin in like the day, and comin out black. Earth black, and pop’s face and hands black, and he spits from his mouth black. Night comes and it is black. Coal is black. It makes a fire. The sun is makin a fire on me now, but it is not black. Some color I’m not a knowen, it is,” she said wistfully, “but I’ll have that learnin someday. Poppa says the ghosts down there start a fire. That’s what blowed Sheen McEvoy’s face off so it’s red. It made him crazy. Night be a comen, and everythin becomes like under the ground. I think I could find coal then. And a lamp like poppa’s comes out, but in the sky. Momma looks all days as if she thinks she goin to be hearin somethin. The whistle blows. Poppa says it is the ghosts laughin cause they have hit a man in the stummy, or on the head. Chris, that happened too. Chris, who sang those funny songs. He was a furriner. Bowels of earth they put him in. Callin it dead. Mebbe it’s for coal, more coal. That’s one thing I’m not knowen. Day comes and night comes and the whistle blows and payday comes. Like the flats runnin on the tipple they come, one right a floowen the other. Mebbe I am black inside too. The bowels of earth … I am a knowen things, and I am not knowen things, and somethings I know, but am not knowin … sun on me, and bowels of earth under.. . .”

(Andy Kvaternick stumbles through the night. The late September wind fills the night with lost and crying voices, and drowns all but the largest stars.

Chop, chop, goes the black sea of his mind. How wild and stormy inside, how the shipwrecked thoughts plunge and whirl.


Andy lifts his face to the stars and breathes, frantic, like an almost drowned man.

But it is useless, Andy. The coal dust lies too far inside, it will lie forever, like a hand squeezing your heart, choking at your throat. The bowels of earth have claimed you.

Breathe and breathe. How fresh the night. But the air you will know will only be sour with sweat, and this strong wind on your body turn to the clammy hands of sweat tickling under your underwear.

Breathe and breathe, Andy, turn your eyes to the stars. Their beauty, never known before, pricks like tears. You belong to a starless night now, unimaginably black, without light, like death. Perhaps the sweat glistening on the roof rock seen for an instant will seem like stars.

And no more the sweet rain, Andy, child now of the earth’s bowels. Soggy water slushing underfoot, water dripping through a niggerhead, these are yours. No more, Andy, rain for you, or wind, or stars, or clean air.

And no more can you stand erect. You lose that heritage of man too. You are brought now to fit earth’s intestines, stoop like a hunchback underneath, crawl like a child, do your man’s work lying on your side, stretched and tense as a corpse.

The rats shall be your birds, and the rocks plopping in the water, your music. And death shall be your wife, who woos you in the brief moments when coal leaps from a bursting side, when a crosspiece falls and barely misses your head, when you barely catch the ladder to bring you up out of the hole you are dynamiting.

Breathe and lift your face to the night, Andy Kvaternick. Trying so vainly in some inarticulate way to purge your bosom of the coal dust. Your father had dreams. You too, like all boys, had dreams, vague dreams of freedom and light and cheering throngs, and happiness. The earth will take these too. You will leave them in, to replace the coal, to bear up the roof instead of the pillar the super ordered you to rob. Earth sucks you in, to spew out the coal, to make a few fat bellies fatter. Earth takes your dreams, that a few may languidly lie on couches and trill, “How exquisite,” to paid dreamers.

Someday, the bowels will grow monstrous and swollen with these old tired dreams, swell and break, and strong fists batter the fat bellies, and skeletons of starved children batter the fat bellies, and perhaps you will be slugged by a thug hired by the . fat bellies, Andy Kvaternick, or perhaps death will take you to’


bed, or you will strangle with the old crony of miners, the asthma.

But walk in the night now, Andy Kvaternick, lift your face to the night, and desperately, like an almost drowned man, breathe and breathe. “Andy,” they are calling to you, in their lusty voices, your fellow workers; it is an old story to them now, and they are strong men. “Have a drink on us?” The stuff bums down your throat, the thoughts lay shipwrecked and very still far underneath the black sea of your mind, you are gay and brave, knowing that you can never breathe the dust out. You have taken your man’s burden, and you have the miner’s only friend that earth gives to her children, strong drink, Andy Kvaternick.)

For several weeks Jim Holbrook had been in evil mood. The whole household walked in terror, he had nothing but heavy blows, for the children and he struck Anna too often to remember. Every payday he clumped home, washed, went to town, and returned hours later, dead drunk. Once Anna had questioned him timidly, concerning his work; he struck her on the mouth with a bellow of “Shut your damn trap.”

Anna too became bitter and brutal. If one of the children was in her way, if they did not obey her instantly, she would beat them, as if it were some devil she were exorcising, in a blind rage. Afterwards, in the midst of her drudgery, regret would cramp at her heart at the memory of the tear‑stained little faces, “twasn’t them I was beating up, something just seems to get into me, when I have something to hit.”

Friday came again. Jim returned with his pay, part money, most company scrip. Little Will, in high spirits, ran to meet him, not noticing his father’s sullen face. Pulling on his pants, Willie begged for a ghost story of the mine. He got a clout on the head that sent him sprawling. “Keep your damn brats from under my feet,” he threatened in a violent rage, while Anna only stared at him, almost paralyzed, “and stop looking at me like a stuck pig.”

The light from the dusk came in, cold, malignant. Anna sat in the half dark by the window, her head bent over the sewing. Willie huddled against her skirt, whimpering. Outside the wind gibbered and moaned. The room was suddenly chill. Some horror, some sense of evil, seemed over everything. It came to Mazie like dark juices of undefined pain, pouring into her, filling her heart in her breast, till it felt big, like the world. Fear came that her heart would push itself out, roll out like a ball. She clutched the baby closer to her, tight, tight, to hold the swollen thing, inside. Her dad stood in the washtub, nude, splashing water on his big, chunky body. The menacing light


was on him, too. Fear for him came to Mazie, yet some alien sweetness mixed with it, watching him there.

“I would be a cryen,” she whispered to herself, “but all the tears is stuck inside me. All the world is a cryen, and I don’t know for why. And the ghosts may get daddy. Now he’s goen away, but he’ll come back, with somethin sweet but sicklike hangin on his breath, and hit momma, and start the baby a bawlen. All the world, and I don’t know for why. If it was all a dream, if I could just wake up and daddy be smilin, and momma laughin, and us playin. All the world a cryen…. Mebbe daddy’ll know why, he knows everythin.” Some huge question rose in her, impossible to express, too huge to understand. She ached with the question. “I’ll ask daddy.” The desire came to ask him, to force him into some recognition of her place, her desire, her emotions.

As Jim Holbrook strode down the dirt street, he heard a fine patter, patter, and a thin “Pop.” He wheeled. It was Mazie.

“You little brat,” he said, the anger he had felt still smouldering in him. “What’re you running away from home for. Get back or I’ll skin you alive.”

She came toward him, half cringing. “Pop, lemme go with you. Pop, I warma know, what … what makes people a cryen. Why don’t you tell us ghost stories no more, Pop?…” The first words had tumbled out, but now a silence came. “Don’t send me home, pop.”

The rough retort Jim Holbrook had meant to make vanished before the undersized figure of Mazie, outlined so clearly against the cold sunset. In some vague way the questions hurt him. “What call’s a kid got,” he thought, “asking questions like that.” Though the cramp in his back from working, lying on his side all day, shot through him like hot needles, he stopped and took her hand.

“Don’t worry your head about those things. Wait’ll you grow up.,,

“Pop, you said there was ghosts in the mine, black, not white, so’s you couldn’t see them. And they chased a feller, and then when they got ’em, they laughed, but people think it’s just the whistle. Pop, they wouldn’t chase you, would they?” The fear was out at least.

“Why,” chuckled Jim, “I’d just throw ’em over my shoulder, like this.” He lifted her, swung her over his shoulder, set her down. “My right shoulder, or it wouldn’t work. And then I’d pin ’em down with the crossbar. Now, how ‘d you like to ride to town on poppa’s horse and buggy and get served with a sucker?”

Mazie smiled, but her heart was still sad. “Pop, does the boss man honest have a white shiny tub bigger than you too was in, and he turns somethin and the water comes out? Or is it a story? And


does he honest have a toilet right inside the house? And silks on the floor?” She held her breath.

“Sure, Mazie. And they eat on white tablecloths, a new one, every night.”

“How come he ain’t livin like we do, how come we ain’t livin like him, Pop?”

Why, indeed. For a moment, Jim was puzzled. “Cause he’s a coal operator, that’s why.”

“Oh,” another wall of things not understood gone up. Something made the difference. A big word. Like what happened to Miss’ Tikas when she was cut up. But how could he cut up a mine, his knife would have to be awful big.

“Pop, you could lick him, couldn’t you? Couldn’t you lick anybody?”

“Sure.” He launched into an elaborate story of three dogs fought, each big as a horse, and, quite happy at the child’s excited face, finished triumphantly, “Now, do you think anybody could lick your daddy?”

“Pop, I can make the bacon when I stand up on the box, and I can wash the baby, honest. Pop, momma sez I’m gonna get a edjiccation, and my hands be white. Is that a story, Pop?’

Fillin the kid’s head with fool ideas, he thought wrathfully. But she could become a teacher. Smart rascal. Guess she gets it from Anna’s kike blood. Then aloud. “Sure you are. You’ll go to college, and read books, and marry a – – “ his stomach revolted at the thought of a mine boss ” –  – a doctor. And,” he finished, “eat on white tablecloths.”

She trotted along. Somehow the question she had meant to have answered could not be clamped into words. They reached the one street. Her dad went into the company store to buy her a sucker. Afterwards, when he went into the saloon, she slipped out to the culm bank that rose like an enormous black mountain at the end of the street. One side was on fire, and weird gorgeous colors flamed from it. The colors swirled against the night, reds and blues, oranges and yellows. “Like babies’ tongues reachin out to you. Like what happens to the back of your eyes when you close ’em after seein the sun, only that hurts. Like all the world come a colored,” she whispered softly to herself. “Mazie Holbrook is a watchin you,” she whispered, “purty tongues.” And gently, gently, the hard swollen lump of tears melted into a swell of wonder and awe.

It was cold and damp. Mazie shivered a little, but the shiver was pleasant. The wind came from the north, flinging fine bits of the coal dust from the culm against her face; they stung.  Somehow it


reminded her of the rough hand of her father when he caressed her, hurting her, but not knowing it, hurting with a pleasant hurt.



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