Chapter 20 continues
The story so far: Milo sets his cap for Katka.
Anton and Lily laughed loudly, eagerly anticipating an amusing scene. Katka put the plate she was washing back in the sink. She wiped her hands on the dishtowel and looked at Milo, expectantly.
“Miss Katka, I would like to teach you to shoot. Could you spare a few hours? I am a good teacher and it is a resplendent, warm day.”
“Shoot?” Anton yelled, laughing. “That’s what you call a date? You were right, Milo. Foreign-borns do have low expectations!”
“Anton took me to the Socialist Opera House in Virginia on our first date,” Lily said fondly. “Carmen was playing. It was the most wonderful night of my life.”
“My precious flower says that every night,” Anton teased. “Unlike you, Milo, I am a woman-pleaser. Before I got married, the ladies, they would line up just to get a glimpse of me and my burly lumberjack good looks.”
“How much did you have to pay them?” Lily asked.
“They paid me. Don’t you remember? As I recall, your first glimpse of me cost your ata an acre of land.”
“I would love to go,” Katka said, interrupting. “That is, if it is alright with you, Uncle.”
“Do what tickles your fancy, Kat. You want to waste your first date with this knucklehead, shooting the heads off small critters, that’s your problem.”
“Very well,” Milo said. “How about in an hour?”
They walked through the back yard to a well-trodden path emerging from the forest. The pine trees were as tall and well adorned as ever, but the giant oaks, the birches and the maple trees were naked. The spring sun still lacked the strength to warm Katka’s face, but it was certainly bright enough to shine through the leafless canopy and reflect light off the melting snow that lay at their feet like a carpet of white fox fur.
“Love this time of year,” Milo said to Katka in Slovenian. Speaking and hearing his native tongue intensified his feelings of freedom. He walked blissfully along, breathing deeply, happy to trade the stale air of the underground mine for the fresh air of Anton’s land. His rifle was slung over his right shoulder. “The time just before spring comes. It’s like a song. Or a poem.”
Katka looked around. “A sad poem, maybe. Look at the branches, so brittle. They look lonely, like they are waiting for a coat.”
“Yes,” Milo said. “But they know the coat is coming. They stored the memory of it, right in their trunks. They are filled with hope and visions. Visions of how beautiful that coat will be.”
“I prefer summer. When the branches are covered with a hundred shades of green and flowers are bursting. When their fragrance is so strong you can practically taste it. That’s the poem, Milo. When the waiting is over.”
He stopped. “Look at this oak tree here. Must be two hundred years old. Its branches, like a grandma’s gnarled fingers, reach out toward the light in the sky. In the absence of snow, leaves or color, we look more closely. We see not only the tree, but also ourselves more clearly. In a naked tree, we see the hues of our own emotions. We see what is missing in our world and we must look within to fill it.”
“That’s beautiful,” Katka said softly. She touched the tree. “Look there,” she said. “Her arm was blown off in a storm.”
“Yes. We wouldn’t notice that in the summer. We wouldn’t be able to see what she overcame, how strong she is. When the poets write about her like this, she will not be mistaken for another oak. And the poet will find himself worthy of her.”
“Will you write about this oak? Are you a poet, Milo?”
“My mother was a poet. Always trying to make melodies out of letters.” He shook his head and smiled. “Between me and you, it didn’t usually work. It’s easier if you add a violin, a cello, an accordion or a guitar. People pay more attention to words when there’s music.”
They walked three miles into the woods before they stopped again in a flat area about five hundred yards long on the edge of a hill. It had been cleared. Several logs were stacked against the hill. This man-made barrier was approximately ten feet tall. “Here we are,” Milo said. “Anton’s range. Rumor says his father-in-law built it and Lily learned to shoot when she was just a girl.”
“Of course. She’s Biwabik’s Annie Oakley.”
“Who’s Annie Oakley?”
“A woman who can shoot better than most men.”
“In truth? And you compare Teta to her?”
“Ask her if you don’t believe me. You know Anton comes here most days. He practices. See that paper, with the bull’s-eye? You’ll be hard pressed to find a hole in that paper that is not dead center. He’s a hell of a shot, your uncle. He took us men out here, when we had the lay-offs. Let us practice all we wanted, hunt his land. I got two deer and sold them at the meat market for cash. If I hadn’t shot those, I might not have been able to pay my rent that month. Course, Anton knew that, I suppose.”
“Does he treat you boarders good?” Katka asked.
“Best boarding house in town. And there are some bad ones. One joint kicked out the whole lot one day after rent was due. But none could pay, see, because the mine didn’t pay them. They were punishing them because they heard a rumor they were trying to organize.”
“Of course. Foreman said, ‘If you Slavs, Finns and Italians don’t like your pay, we’ll keep it for ourselves.’”
“They can’t do that,” Katka said. “Not if you worked for it.”
“What were we supposed to do? File a complaint? Not only that, Foreman said if we wanted our jobs back, we’d have to pay him five dollars cash. And people did it too. One guy — Lucky was his name — he didn’t have no money, but he had a wife, real pretty. He let the foreman alone with his wife instead of paying the five dollars.”
“How could he … you don’t speak true.”
“They had five kids, Kat. If he hadn’t paid somehow, he would have been labeled a union agitator, put on the blacklist. How would they have fed those kids? Lucky said it was her idea.”
“Happens more than you think, Kat. The things they make us do. I don’t expect you to believe.”
Tomorrow: Chapter 21 continues.