Chapter 7

The story so far: The miners go to work; Lily and Katka start typing.

 

Milo Blatnik remembered the first day he saw Katka. She was standing at the top of the stairwell looking bewildered, dirty and so skinny that her dark brown eyes seemed two or three times their actual size. Her cheekbones jutted out like a skeleton. She reminded him of a starving deer. The gray dress she was wearing hung over her like a horse blanket.

Had he looked that ragged when he first arrived more than a year ago in Minnesota? Probably worse, he figured. Milo’s parents had sent him to the new world, because, as Milo’s father had said, “No son of mine will become a soldier for the Czar.” Two weeks after Milo left for America, the Russian army arrested his mother, a poet, and his father, a famous cellist, for political agitation. They were taken to Siberia and, as far as Milo knew, they were still there.

On Milo’s passage, a Slovenian named Leo Zalar befriended him on the ship. Leo had been offered work at the Belgrade mine in Biwabik and he assured Milo he could get work there too. So Milo accompanied Leo, his wife Ana, and their four-year-old son, Danko, to Biwabik. They moved into a company shanty in the Belgrade location, just outside of town, right next to the mine, offering to share their quarters with Milo for a piece of his paycheck. The first night, as they sat down to a dinner of warmed beans and day-old bread from the company store, the ill-constructed shack of a house began to shake. The few belongings they had unpacked fell off the shelves and clattered to the ground. They heard a giant explosion, and dirt and debris fell from the ceiling. A chunk of wood that had served as a roof patch landed on a pink, wood-fired plate Ana had brought from the old country. She had kept the set of plates safe throughout her long journey, thinking if she could keep the set together, she herself would remain intact.

They heard a low rumble. “Take cover!” Leo yelled, and the four of them scrambled under the flimsy pinewood table. The boy cried and Ana held him close to her chest. The second blast was even louder than the first, but the impact was not as shattering. Nothing else fell from the ceiling. Then the rumbling stopped.

“What in the name of Mary was that?” Ana asked quietly. “An earthquake?”

“Dynamite blasting from the mine,” Leo said. “I suspect we’ll get used to it.”

“I’ll never get used to that,” Ana said gravely. But she did. As the months progressed the blasting became as much a part of her landscape as the giant oak and pine forest that she could see from her window. She’d hear the rumble and move with her boy to the corner of the small shack, next to the shelves. She had packed away what was left of her mother’s dishes and replaced them with tin cookware bought at the company store on credit. If a blast was powerful enough to knock a dish off the shelf, she’d catch it, replace it, listen intently for a possible encore and, if it didn’t come, smoothly resume her tasks. It was like a dance between two partners, one of whom could anticipate the moves her partner was about to make.

On the morning of their first day of work, Leo and Milo put on overalls, boots and cotton hats. They grabbed their lunch boxes. Each had a band tied around his hat to hold his candle. In their pockets they carried matches. They exited the shack and fell into a steady stride, easily blending in with the other workers. When they reached the mine, Milo and the other miners headed for the cage. There were actually two cages, attached by a pulley system. As one metal crate descended into the depths of the underground mine, the other ascended. The cage was aptly named; it looked more fit to carry livestock than men. The one at the Belgrade mine was standard size, perhaps four feet by three feet. Six miners could ride comfortably, but comfort was not efficient. The company required no fewer than eighteen men to ride per trip. The miners packed in like sardines, holding their lunch boxes atop their heads.

When the cage was loaded and on its way down, the darkness was all-encompassing. Milo held his hand directly in front of his face. He could not see his fingers. He was disoriented, and felt as if the men’s bodies pressing against his skinny frame would surely suffocate him. When he got to the thirteenth floor underground, he and Leo exited the cage with a group. A miner who looked a hundred years old was waiting with a lantern. For a moment, Milo was transported to his youth. He remembered his father, who loved to read, making him memorize passages from Dante’s Inferno. The miner with the lantern was like Charon, waiting to deliver the shades of the dead to their eternal punishment. The Iron Range Charon swung his lantern to the left, and the miners shuffled in that direction. They loaded into rail cars, six men per cart. The rail cart operator yelled something in English and the cars began to move away from the light and into the darkness, until once again, there was nothing.

Milo’s head began to spin. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t see. Was he disappearing? He bit the inside of his cheek and felt reassured by the pain and the taste of blood. Then he felt himself falling again. Even on the darkest, moonless night, his eyes had been able to adjust. This was something altogether different, surreal. He reached into his pocket for a match. He needed to light his candle, regain his bearings. The man sitting across from him could not see Milo, but somehow he knew what he was doing. “Don’t do it, son,” he said. Milo replied in Slovenian that he did not understand. The miner responded in kind. “They deduct every match you use from your pay. Every candle. Even your dynamite. Everything. Don’t waste your light here. Your work day doesn’t even begin until you exit this cart and pick up the shovel.”

Milo lit his candle anyway. With the light he could breathe again. Breathe the dusty, old air in this godforsaken underground tunnel. He heard the other miners laughing. He heard a few people mutter, in English, four words: “Fresh off the boat.”

 

Tomorrow: Chapter 7 continues.