Chapter 20 Continues

The story so far: An act of rebellion costs one miner his life.

 

The people of the Range enjoyed an Indian summer until they didn’t. Winter arrived with a fury during the second week of November. Temperatures dropped into the teens and Lake Superior froze. Because the ore boats couldn’t get out until more icebreakers arrived at the port town of Duluth, production slowed at the mines. Men were furloughed. A few of the boarders left to work in the forests with the lumber companies. Those who remained hunted or worked odd jobs in town to make their rent until the mines took them back. Life became easier for the men and more difficult for the women.

With each week that passed, the temperature plummeted. The sky dropped white flakes as big as a newborn’s hand, until all the earth was covered in white. Some days, Katka stood outside surrounded by the abyss of white and felt as if she were trapped in an eggshell. But never for longer than it took to complete her chores, for the wind hit hard, like a slap against her once-soft skin. Anton had told her that the northern air chilled a man to the bone. Although Katka had never heard that expression, she now knew what it felt like. The frigid blasts grabbed hold of her bones and sank their sharp teeth into the hardest, sturdiest parts. Many days, she thought the wind would break her into tiny shards. Then she would rush inside, shake the snow off her wet clothes and huddle by the woodstove, wondering if she would ever feel the tender warmth of the sun again. Katka’s chores intensified with the cold. She and Lily gathered more wood from the pile Anton had neatly stacked to keep the fires blazing. They had to let the wet wash freeze-dry outside, so that the clothing would not drip onto the floor indoors and create a skating rink inside. Then, they would wring out the frozen fabric with their raw, red hands and hang it again near the stove. When Anton emptied his traps, the women carefully sewed fur into hats and made liners for their coats and boots. They spent hours knitting warm mittens and socks for the boarders. They traipsed through several feet of snow to haul the water from the pump. They milked the cows, gathered the eggs and prepared the meals. Often exhausted, they had less time to work on the paper.

On occasion, Katka’s thoughts drifted back to her homeland, or to her trip to America. But compared to the reality of her chapped hands and constantly cold feet, her past seemed ephemeral. It was as if it had belonged to a different person. Her memories were fading and if she hadn’t brought the photograph of her parents from so long ago, she was certain she would have forgotten the shapes of their faces. She did, however, still retain a clear memory of Paul Schmidt. She wanted to ask her uncle if he had heard anything about him, but she did not. When she was with him on the boat, she had been too excited to think. She just lived. And she was happy. And then he disappeared. If he was still in this country, he would have contacted her by now. If he was in this country and hadn’t contacted her, well, that was a reality she didn’t care to face. So she pictured him back in Slovenia, in a field of wild lavender surrounded by the Julian Alps.

In December, she experienced the first of many blizzards. The storm dumped so much snow on the log house, it was impossible to see out the windows. Although there were twelve-foot drifts to shovel and flakes were still coming down, the miners could not risk being late to work. “Lily. Kat,” Anton said. “You will have to help me shovel.”

Katka pulled on her galoshes and grabbed her coat and scarf, but Lily did not move. “Lily,” Anton said. “Get going, my precious flower. The dishes can wait.”

“No. They can’t.”

Anticipating an argument, Katka put on her mittens, grabbed a shovel and walked outside to begin clearing a path. A few minutes later, Anton emerged. He rested his shovel against a drift, looked up at the snowflakes melting onto his skin and smiled.

“What, Uncle?”

He ran toward Katka and hugged her. “She’s pregnant, Kat! Dr. Payne said she’d never have another child, but he was wrong, he was! I always knew that guy was a quack.”

Katka’s life became more difficult after Lily announced her pregnancy. She awakened every day at 4 a.m. and, covered with a thick wool shawl, hauled in the wood that Anton had chopped the day before. She started the cook stove and the fireplace in the dining room. Carrying a lantern in one hand and a basket in the other, she walked out to the barn and milked one of the four cows. She gathered the eggs needed for breakfast, boiled them and laid them out to cool. She sliced the day-old bread for toast and began to fry the bacon. Finally, she placed the pre-made pasties in the oven so they would be piping hot when she packed them in the men’s lunchboxes.

Lily awakened at 5 a.m., strolled into the kitchen, sat down and started peeling eggs.

“Coffee for you, Teta,” Kat said, laying a cup in front of her aunt.

“Thank you. Tomorrow, I will let you sleep in. Tomorrow, Kat, I will haul the wood, make the breakfast, do the morning chores. It isn’t fair to put all this on you.”

“Isn’t that why you sent for me?” Katka said, teasing. “Indentured servitude?”

Lily smiled. “I cannot tell you how glad I am that you came here. Truly. But I hate watching you work.”

“Anton would have us both strung up if he saw you lifting a finger this time.”

“I suppose.” She drank from her coffee. They had the same conversation every day since Lily announced her pregnancy. Last August’s miscarriage had left Lily weak and depressed. The news of a second pregnancy within months of the first made Anton jubilant but protective. His wife was to do embroidery, cooking and nothing more. She would rest until the day his son was born. The hidden cellar with the red light and the typewriter was definitely out of the question. Katka still worked down there, but more times than not she found herself nodding off and dreaming about Paul. She had the will to block him out of her mind during the daytime, but she was powerless in her slumber.

 

Tomorrow: Chapter 20 continues.