Cloud of Witnesses

Jane Hertenstein

“Watch out now, Granny.”

I had a sheet of wrapping paper spread across the living room floor. It was Christmas Eve and I was busy wrapping up a present for Mama.

Our trailer was decorated with homely ornaments, either handmade or bought cheap at the dime store. Mama had tried to spruce the place up by hanging garlands of evergreens and sprigs of holly berries around the room. Draped across the front windows was a strand of colored lights, of which about half worked. When the bulbs got really hot they blinked off and on, and I had to quick unplug them before they blew a fuse. In a corner on top of my plywood desk was a little plastic Nativity scene. It, too, had seen better days. The tiny heads of Mary and Joseph had snapped off. Their decapitated bodies leaned lovingly over a trough holding a glitter-strewn Jesus. Often at night beneath the soft glow of the colored lights, I’d gaze inside the barn, a lowly place, at the babe in the manger. If Jesus could be born in the wrong place, why not me?

My kin found me peculiar. “You got a way about you, Roland,” my mama liked to say. “I can see it in your eyes, a hunger. You’re different from the rest of us.”

Granny tramped across my paper, leaving four round peg-holes where her cane had poked through. I bit my lip and silently repaired the tears with tape.

I knew what Mama meant. I was different. Different from Gary, my oldest brother living up in Vinton County with his family, or Larry, who was always fiddling with motors. Different from Angie, who lived in town with her husband and worked at the Curl Up and Dye hair salon. Angie would just as soon slap you as to look at you. She was meaner than dirt, dirtier than a dog, and dog gone difficult to boot. Often I felt like a stranger.

When the county ran the phone lines out to our trailer I was ever fascinated by the idea that right outside my door, through those tiny wires, people from far away could communicate to one another. I used to go outside in the dead of night when everyone else was asleep and lay down beneath the wires and listen. Above me the wires sizzled and hummed. I imagined a woman in New York City talking to her boyfriend in Parkersburg, West Virginia or perhaps a man in Columbus talking to his son in California. In the mornings I’d awake stone cold and shivering, my body soaked from the heavy dew. I’d stretch my muscles, unable to rid myself of the awful aching inside of me. A part of me wanted to get away, leave Athens County and the ridge in southeastern Ohio where I had been born, and escape through those wires to cities far away.

“Whatcha wrapping up there?” Granny asked, heaving herself into her old vinyl chair.

“A present for Mama.” I held up a lopsided wooden block. “It’s a paperweight.”

My answer didn’t shed any more light on the subject than if I’d said it was the by-product of nuclear fusion. Granny leaned over and gingerly picked up the paperweight as if it were fragile. I couldn’t tell if she was impressed or perplexed by it.

She handed it back to me. “I got her a gift, too, the other day when I was up at the Woolworth store in town.” She pulled a wad of toilet paper out of her housecoat pocket and handed it to me. “Wrap that up for me, honey, will ya?”

“Sure, Granny. What is it?” I undid the folds to find nestled in the tissue a small ruby-red glass bird. I held it up to the light and looked through it. “This is right beautiful, Granny.”

“Yeah, I thought she could put it in that raggedy bird’s nest of hers she sets so much store by.”


While Granny slept in her chair, I wrapped up the few presents I had managed to make or pick up here and there. I had the TV turned on low lest I awake her. Every once in awhile she’d twitch, involuntarily flinging her hands in the air, only to settle back into loud snoring. The evening news was on. “This is one of the holiest days of the Iranian year,” the announcer said, “marking the end of the first ten days of the holy month called Muharram.” It was 1979 and every night it was the same thing: In Iran 53 Americans were being held hostage. The words students, militants, and terrorists were used interchangeably, and always the Ayatollah Khomeini denounced America as the Great Satan.

A throng of men and boys wearing black shirts marched across the screen. As they walked they swung a chain back and forth across their shoulders to the rhythm of beating drums. Women robed from head to foot lined the street crying and moaning. They seemed to tremble as if in a frenzy. As the camera zoomed in, I saw that the black shirts of the men and boys were stained crimson from the razor-tipped whips they used to beat their backs. “The distinct salty smell of blood mixed with the scent of rosewater sprinkled from the crowd permeates the air,” observed the reporter.

A sudden banging and scuffling outside our screen door startled me. Angie burst in with an armload of stuff that didn’t look like presents. “Where’s Mama?” she demanded.

“Merry Christmas to you, too,” I said.

“Here I am, baby.” Mama lumbered out of her bedroom with her hair standing straight up like she’d been napping. She stopped when she saw all that Angie was carrying. “What’s going on?”

“I’ve left him, Mama. I swear to God I’ve left him for good.” Angie left her husband Bill about every other month. Angie and Bill lived in town, off of Court Street, above Pony’s Pizza where Bill worked delivering pizzas and just down the street from where Angie cut hair.

Mama heated up a cup of coffee for Angie and sat down at the kitchen table with her. Angie immediately began to wail, “He never listens to me, Mama. He don’t love me no more.”

“Who can blame him?” I muttered under my breath as Angie carried on and on.

“Roland,” Mama interrupted Angie, “Go out to your sister’s car and help bring in her stuff, will ya.”


Later that night just as Angie was settling down, Granny started getting riled up. She was in one of her moods.

“For heaven’s sake what is that smell?” she bellowed from the depths of her chair. “Someone fart and set it on fire?”

“Shut up, Granny.” Angie knew how to give it right back at her.

“Angie’s giving Mama a pedicure,” I said. The smell was making me nauseated, too.

“A what?” The pitch to Granny’s voice was an octave above normal.

“Painting her toenails,” I explained.

“Oh, for Pete’s sake. Cut it out, you’re making me sick.”

“Tell us a story, Mama,” I said, hoping the distraction might do us all some good.

Angie leaned over Mama’s big toe with her teeny, tiny brush. “Yeah, Mama.” It must be a miracle—Angie agreeing with me on something. “Tell us one from when you were a girl.”

Granny made gagging sounds like she was going to throw up.

Mama examined Angie’s handiwork by holding her foot up to the kitchen light. “This looks right pretty. Thank you, baby girl. Well, I don’t know if I got any stories to tell.”

“A Christmas story,” I suggested.

Mama thought a minute. “There was this thing that happened. Ain’t sure if it’s true or not, but it still makes for a good story.

“Go ahead,” Angie and I urged.

“I reckon I was about eight years old that Christmas. The snow was falling like feathers out of a pillow. We could barely make out the lights down below in town where the mines were open all night long. The men who ran the mines were tight-fisted. They rarely took into account holidays and time off. The owners figured they had to give the miners Christmas, but they weren’t about to let them have Christmas Eve, too.

“My daddy’s shift had ended at about noon and the last shift of the day was still down in the mines as midnight came on. It was getting to be about quitting time and I’m sure each man was thinking about his family and spending Christmas with them. Maybe they had already bought a piece of candy, a spinning top, or even a doll on credit from the company store. A doll was a big present for those days.”

Mama looked in Granny’s direction, but Granny shifted her body toward the wall. “Humph,” was all she said.

“They were just fixing to come up from below when the mine caved in. The horn in town blew, which meant that there was trouble in the mines. People poured out of their houses. It was the worst sound a woman could hear, thinking that her man might be trapped hundreds of feet below the ground. There wasn’t a single family in town that hadn’t lost a loved one down in those mines.”

The wind outside had picked up and was rattling the loose piece of aluminum siding on the trailer.

“Me and my brothers and sisters came outside all bundled up in our sweaters and jackets to have a look. Like I said, the snow was coming down hard. A layer of coal dust darkened the snow around the elevator leading down to the mineshaft. Women stood around the opening. Some of them cried into their hands and shawls. No one wanted to scare us children, but we already knew the truth. Those men might not get out.

“A rescue crew came in and asked us to back off. I was cold and hungry anyway. Mama and Daddy took us home to lie down and wait for morning.

“That morning, long ago, I remember waking up and thinking something big had happened. I thought and recollected it was Christmas. Yonder by the window on my little wooden chair that Daddy had made me was a doll. She had beautiful golden hair and little painted-on red cheeks. When I tipped her over she mewed just like a wee kitten. I jumped for joy.”

Granny craned her neck around to give Mama the evil eye.

“Mama gave me a stern look. Then I recollected, too, there were men buried in the mines. I pulled on my coat and ran down the hill to the mineshaft.

“They were just beginning to report that they might have found something. There was a rumble of hope throughout the crowd. One of the rescue crew thought he heard a man calling beyond a wall of rock down in the hole. Everyone got excited. I whooped and danced around because it was Christmas and because my toes were cold.”

I tried to imagine Mama as a skinny little girl, with her hair going ever which way. “A little later they pulled a man up out of the mine hole. He was covered from head to toe with coal soot. The only thing you could make out was the whites of his eyes and his teeth (and even then he didn’t have many of those). His wife and kids clung to him and cried. He pushed them off and spoke to the crowd.

“‘I saw him,’ he said to all around him.

“‘Who?’ the women asked, each one hoping for word of her man.

“‘I seen the Christ child asleep in his little manger.’

“No one said a word. I wasn’t sure at all what the miner was talking about.

“‘After the walls came down we all thought we was goners. I couldn’t see nothing; it was pitch black. Not even my hand in front of my face. I prayed to God to help me. I prayed all night long. I never heard nothing but a few groans from the others’n down there with me, and after awhile that stopped too.’

“So they were all dead except for this man.

“The man went on, talking excitedly. ‘I musta fell off and slept some ’cause I was awoke by a light at the other end of the tunnel. I crawled down to it and there crouched next to a coal seam was a baby boy all wrapped up in rags.’

“I felt sorry for the man and his family. He must have lost his mind down in the darkness for so long. They were fixing to carry him off to the hospital in Wheeling about two hours away. The whole time he kept saying over and over again, ‘I seen it; I seen the Christ child.’”

The colored Christmas lights in the room began to blink. Green, blue, yellow, red. I jumped up to shut them off, but before I could get to them there was a sound outside. I was a bit spooked after hearing Mama’s story, afraid it might be the mad miner come back to us.

“Angie! Angie, come on outta here, now.”

I peeked through the curtains. Sure enough, it was a crazy man—Angie’s husband Bill. He was outside in the snow calling for her. Bright moonlight lit up his long Lynard Skynard hair.

Angie whipped open the screen door and hollered back, “Make me, you son of a bitch.”

“Baby, I’m a sorry about ever thang.” He had a rough voice smoothed over by one too many beers.

“Don’t make no difference. We’re through.” Angie slammed the door shut. The whole trailer shook.

“Something smells bad,” Granny complained.

I sniffed the air. I smelled it, too. It smelled like . . . spilled nail polish and grilled evergreen garlands.

I looked up just in time to see the Christmas lights sputter and spark, catching the living room curtains on fire. Flames began to consume the flimsy fabric. Within seconds the front room was full of putrid yellow smoke.

“Fire!” yelled Angie, rushing for the front door. She jumped into Bill’s arms.

I grabbed Granny and hauled her out the door. “Put me down,” she yelped, beating me on the back. “Put me down, I say.” I plopped her into a snowdrift.

“Where’s Mama?” I managed to ask while leaning over, hacking and spitting to clear my lungs.

Without waiting for an answer, I ran back in after her. “Mama,” I screamed, “Where’re you at?”

Mama appeared like a ghost right in front of me. “Right here. I just needed to get my old doll and bird’s nest. These are my treasures. I didn’t want ’em to burn up.” I shoved Mama through the open screen door and out into the yard.

Before going out the door myself I reached up and yanked on the curtains or what was left of them. Whuff! The material not yet completely engulfed plus the rod came crashing down. I stomped on the burning cinders with my stocking feet. Carefully, using the curtain rod as a poker, I lifted the smoldering strand of hot lights and tossed them out into the snow where they sizzled like meat on a spit for a few seconds.

Angie and Bill by this time had made up with each other and were rolling around in the snow kissing and hugging. “Baby, baby,” he kept saying over and over. “What would I’a done without cha?”

Granny, her bare legs under her housecoat all askew and red from the cold, croaked at me. “Get me out of here, dang it. Roland, if I get my hands on you . . . I’m . . . I’m gonna kill you.”

Mama danced around in her bare feet, clutching her old doll baby to her chest. She probably looked just as she had when she was a little girl, skipping and bouncing in the cold because she was happy to be alive and, most likely, because her feet were freezing. Her toes with the red-painted toenails were turning blue. “Let’s get on back inside and see what we can clean up,” she said.

The whole house stank like scorched synthetics. We opened the windows, the glass panes blackened, to let in fresh air. Bill threw the rest of the singed curtains outside with the dead Christmas lights. The outlet the lights had been plugged into was charred and the plastic cover had melted. The veneer on the fake paneling around the doorframe had bubbled up and peeled back. Granny dusted off her vinyl chair and sat down. A gust of gray ash whooshed out from between her legs. Mama toted her treasures back to their shelf in her room.

There wasn’t much for me to do but put salve on my hands and clean socks on my feet. I retreated to my bunk bed off the living room. A cool cross-breeze from the open windows and door blew over me. Mingled with the odor of new-fallen snow was the aroma of wet smoke. Angie and Bill slow danced to Christmas music coming from her portable transistor radio.


Sometime in the middle of the night, I awoke, my hands throbbing. Angie and Bill were asleep on the foldout couch. I lay there listening to the seesaw rhythm of their breathing, and something else. Words on the wind blowing across the hills. In my dreams I saw a crazy man with long hair beating his back bloody and raw, crying out over and over again, “I seen the Christ child, I seen ’im.”


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