Chapter 20 continues

The story so far: Winter sets in; Lily has some good news.

 

Although Katka’s first winter on the Iron Range was brutal, there were always things to do. Helen Cerkvenik had introduced Katka to so many people. She received invitations to social gatherings almost every weekend. She attended bonfire parties on Merritt Lake, where she and the other residents roasted venison over the dying embers. Also, Lily gave Katka a pair of blades to attach to her boots and Helen taught Katka how to skate.

One day, she and Helen were on the lake, holding hands. Helen gracefully skated backwards, while she clumsily glided forward. When Helen let go of her hands, Katka couldn’t stop. She barreled right into Milo, who sat unawares on the side of the clearing, attaching the blades to his shoes. Soon after, Avi Nurmi’s cousin Maiah asked Katka to accompany her to Laskiainen, the Finnish sliding festival. She was thrilled and wrote about it in the journal.

Laskiainen was one of many traditions carried over from the old country. In addition to crowning a young Finnish girl “Miss Laskiainen,” and demonstrating sewing and cooking techniques, there was also a great deal of sport. She and Maiah got dizzy as two young Finns hurled them about in the “whip sled.” They also tried the toboggans. The men iced narrow luge tracks on a steep hill leading to the lake. Men, women and children of all ages competed to see whose toboggan would travel the fastest and farthest. According to Finnish tradition, the farther the toboggan would fly across a frozen lake, the higher the flax would grow in the summer. As she sat on the toboggan at the top of the icy slope, with Maiah sitting behind and holding her waist, Katka felt happy. When a villager gave them a push and they went careening down the ice track, she felt invincible. Afterwards, they ate fish-eye stew and lefsa. She was beginning to love this land where people embraced the outdoors no matter what froze, burned or fell from the sky.

Later that month, there was another cave-in at the St. James. Katka helped lay out two dead miners on the dining room table and dress them for their funerals. They had been boarders in the house. She wrote letters to their families back home, then printed their obituaries in the journal. Replacement boarders arrived within a week.

One Saturday in early March, Katka was in the kitchen, doing the morning dishes. Anton and Lily were seated at the kitchen table. Anton was scrubbing his boots and Lily was reading from the Company Chronicle, the Oliver Mining Company newspaper. Lily was reading aloud, “The war in Europe will increase the importance of the work we do. The workers who labor in our mines are true patriots,” Lily read.

“If the workers are the patriots, why aren’t they getting a raise? What does that company think these men are, a bunch of thick-skulled nincompoops? We immigrants do the work and they get the money. No wonder the men talk strike when the winter breaks. The men have been asking for a raise for a year now, I tell you. With this war, there’s no more workers coming in, but more demand for ore. They make men work twice as hard for the same pay. How could they not expect revolt?”

“They expect very little from immigrants,” Katka ventured cautiously. “I haven’t been here long, but it seems to me that in this country, the more languages a man speaks, the less respect he gets. In Slovenia, we were taught that a man who speaks many tongues is a wise man indeed.”

“You were taught well, Kat,” Anton said.

“And she speaks four languages,” Lily said. “Slovenian, Croatian, Russian, and now English!”

From the hallway, someone cleared his throat. All three Koviches turned their heads to the doorway. Milo Blatnik was standing in the entrance, slouching slightly so his head would not touch the archway. Lily had indicated that Milo had a secret spot in his heart for Katka, but Katka didn’t see it. They had played cards a few times in the summer. But he worked so much, picking up extra shifts every week. Said he was saving for something, but she didn’t know what. His attentions were given too sporadically for her to take much notice. They were friends, but not close. So it was odd to see Milo in the kitchen, an area that was unofficially off limits to boarders.

“Excuse me, Anton. Teta Lily.” He looked uncomfortable.

“Come in, Milo! Did you wish to discuss the state of the world with us?” Anton asked, good-naturedly. “Katka seems to think the folks in this country have low expectations of us foreigners. What do you think of that theory?”

“She is, I think, right,” Milo said.

“Go on,” Lily said, intrigued.

“We foreign-borns have low expectations of ourselves in this country. If we wish to see our conditions change, we must be brave and make sacrifices for the good of all. What can one ant do? Carry more than fifty times his weight, until his back, it breaks. But many ants? They work together, create peaceful colonies thousands of miles long. The jobs they have, they are different. But everyone benefits from organization. Not just one ant.”

“Are you a full-fledged Wob, now, Milo? Are you part of that?” Lily asked outright.

“The working class and the employing class have nothing in common,” Milo said, as if reciting a poem. “There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people, and the few who make up the employing class have all the good things in life.”

“Where did you hear that?” Lily asked.

“Read it. In the constitution of the Industrial Workers of the World.” Milo responded. He smiled. “They sent me a card.”

“So you are a Wobbly. I heard that those IWW men are atheists. Are you an atheist?”

He leaned toward Lily. “For the record,” he said quietly, “not all anarchists are atheists.”

“So you still pray like a good Catholic?”

“Matter of fact, I prayed last night, for at least thirty seconds.”

“What did you pray for?” Anton asked.

Milo gestured toward Katka. “I prayed that your niece over there would say yes to my next question.”

 

Tomorrow: Chapter 20 continues.