Chapter Five of The Emblem
The Emblem is told in two time periods, the 1930's and the late 1880's. Here's a passage that follows one of the first Black miners to Roslyn, WA. His name is David Ward.
When David saw the letter left on Bella Johnson’s kitchen counter, he sought the privacy hard to come by in the boarding house. Bella’s husband, Gerald, offered him a bowl of soup, but he couldn’t hide the fact that Georgina’s words were to him more satiating than a hard-earned meal. He set the bowl down quickly, wincing at the spill of minestrone he left on the counter. Bella pick up a rag and wiped it away without the slightest complaint. He murmured his thanks to her. His hands were shaking and he didn’t want anyone to see how nervous he was about what she might say. Bella, Gerald, the boarders Charles and Willard—they had all stopped talking once he dove for the letter. Now with it in hand, he sought a place where he could drink in Georgina’s words, and set off into the darkened hallway.
Unseen by him, a fellow boarder edged up and tried to flick the letter from his waiting hands. “Back off, man,” he said, not realizing how angry he sounded until he saw the man’s questioning eyes peering back at him.
“I’m sorry, Robert,” he said softly, feeling bad that he’d flung his aggression at the younger man. “Got a letter from my wife here, and just between the two of us, I’m not sure, what she’s gonna say. Think you could give me a minute?”
In recent months he hadn’t been able to tell her that his move west had left him with serious second thoughts. The Cascades were beautiful, there was no contesting the draw to this place where the Natives once gathered to hunt and fish and pick huckleberries. The endless blue sky stunned. The grass, when warm, showed its green splendor. But the living arrangements hadn’t been ideal as Mr. Simonson had mentioned they’d be. He and the other men knew they’d bought a 25 dressed-up lie. What could they do about it when whatever remained for them in the east or the south held even less promise? Out west, they’d been told, blacks could make a name for themselves. They could be the men and women they’d been created to be, escape the confines of those still bent on oppression. If only it were that easy. He rubbed below his eye and could feel the faint bruise there.
Robert nodded. Warmth and understanding washed over his face as soon as he heard David’s request for solitude. He clasped a hand on his friend’s shoulder and left him to the silence of the hall, where David was finally able to tear the envelope open in peace. He drew the page close to the flickering candle Mrs. Johnson had lit on a small table, noted the irretrievable dirt imbedded beneath his fingers. Hadn’t it always been there?
He held his breath until he read her words. We’ll be joining you in April, David. Please forgive me for not making our way to you sooner. I shouldn’t have placed my performances here over a new life there with you. Liliana asks for you every night. A dash of water struck the page before he even realized he was crying.
David straightened up. He folded the letter back into the envelope, slipped it in his pocket. Only when he looked up to the mirror did he see the mottled swelling below his eye, a mark an angry white miner had given him on his walk home, but two nights before, with a glass bottle. The attack was unprovoked. He’d never seen the man before in his life, though the hatred pouring forth from the man’s eyes was hard to forget. David could have laid the man out flat, but once he’d risen to his feet and saw the miner toss the bottle aside, he clenched his fists and told himself to breath. By that time, Frank Jacobson noticed something amiss. “There a problem over here?” he asked, approaching David, who was still breathing from his nose. David wouldn’t pummel the man unless he tried to strike him again.
“More than a hundred of us are leaving town since you’ve tried to replace us,” the miner said before spitting on the ground. A sneer written on his face, he stormed off, kicking up plumes of dirt with his work boots.
Though David could see that Frank was about to take a step after him, David shook his head and clutched Frank’s forearm. “Let him go,” he said, wincing from the pain of his wound. “We won’t be working with him. The fool said he’s leaving.” He let out his breath, as he saw Frank give a nod. Some of the white men were joining them in the mines already now that the strike was over. The ones who couldn’t abide Northern Pacific’s mandate—or working alongside colored men— planned a mass exodus.
He hadn’t remembered a mirror there at the end of the hall. Wished Bella had put it elsewhere. He drew a hand up, as if covering his wound would diminish its significance. Georgina didn’t know of his difficult reception to this place. If she gleaned anything of Roslyn from his letters, she still thought it was a treasure in the mountains—a retreat from haphazard living they sometimes knew.
They could still make a life here, he knew, and if Georgina didn’t favor the dusty roads, the blue-collar work that surrounded, there was always Seattle to consider. He’d talked with enough of the other miners to know that black families were settling into the western Washington city and making a name for themselves now that they had the chance. He spent most of his extra hours looking for a place his wife and daughter could live. His pay, though higher than back east, wasn’t substantial. He’d crossed a series of more desirable homes off his list. Forget indoor plumbing. Homes with two floors weren’t feasible. Houses overlooking the plunging blue Lake Cle Elum came at too high a cost. Georgina knew she was moving to a mining town, but even so, he wasn’t about to take her home to an old, decrepit shanty—its porch slanted, its foundation nonexistent, the rats scurrying at their feet and keeping them up at night with their incessant gnawing.
The mine boss, who admired his work ethic, mentioned promoting David to a safety officer position on several occasions. But David wasn’t one to to count his dollars before the actual check was in hand. He put in a word for a cabin close to the No. 3 mine and tried not to bank his hopes on it. ***