Chapter 23

The story so far: Katka lands a prize buck; a kiss falls flat.

 

Katka and Lily were knitting by the fire. Milo and Old Joe strummed on their guitars, getting ready to play. Milo was humming bits and pieces of a Slovenian lullaby, as if trying to remember it. “You sing so solemnly, Milo,” Lily said. “I feel homesick for a place I’ve never been.”

“You may not know Slovenia, Lily, but Slovenia knows you,” Old Joe said, tuning his strings. He turned to Milo. “Cebula glava. You forget the tune?”

“Found it now,” Milo said, playing quietly. When he came to the melody, which Lily remembered from her childhood, she sang along. When the words eluded her, she hummed.

Old Joe turned back to Lily. “You are the same as my wife when she was young. Stubborn as goat but beautiful, voice like the Virgin.”

“Didn’t know the Virgin could sing,” Milo said, smiling and strumming softly.

“Course she can, you onionhead,” Old Joe retorted. “She the Mother of Christ, for Christ sake. You, on the other hand, sing like dying cow.”

“Let’s play, old man,” Milo said.

Two other boarders, Samo and Dusca, were sprawled on the wood floor. Samo had a harmonica. Everyone sang. Soft songs, thick with remembrance. Flying carpet melodies, swooping listeners from the ground and transporting them beyond the mine pits, past the port towns, across the sea and to the mountains or farmlands of childhood. They sang.

Tonight, oh tonight

When the moon shines over the earth

I will leave

But don’t cry my love

I will be back in seven short years.

It took them back to a land where they had worked, not in the darkness of the underground mines, not in the extreme hot and cold of northern Minnesota, but under the soft breath of the golden Slovenian sun.

One of the miners in the tavern tried to open the door that separated the tavern from the house, attracted to the music. “Stop him,” Lily said to Milo. “Doesn’t he realize this is my home? And tell Anton to get in here.”

Milo stopped playing, grabbed his guitar and walked through the door to the tavern, talking to the customer who had almost broken Lily’s sacred separation of tavern and boarding house. Anton appeared moments later. “You. Old Joe. In the tavern. Bring your guitar. You’re stealing my customers, I tell you. I’ll get my button box and we’ll play some happy music. Music that will make men want to drink, not cry like girls.”

“Lock the door,” Lily said. “I don’t want any more of your hoodlums sneaking into my house.”

“Anything for you, my precious flower.” Anton bowed low. He locked the door from the inside, grabbed his accordion and went out the back door and around the house. He made a grand entrance through the main door of the tavern, playing a bawdy drinking song. The men applauded loudly and began to sing boisterously. Milo and Old Joe’s guitars could barely be heard over Anton’s accordion.

The women continued to sew until the men finished their second song, easily audible through the locked oak door.

“Matchka,” Lily said, “I have it on good authority that something big is about to happen.”

“The door’s locked.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about.”

“What do you mean?”

“The whistle blew three times in the last three weeks. The workers are stretched so thin. With this war coming, the company started making the blasters work alone. There’s no one to spot for them. Seven men injured and two dead at the St. James underground.”

“Yes. I know. Maki and Hill. I brought food to the Maki household. He had three children. I thought he only had two.”

“The Hill man had five children, all orphans now. His wife died last year of pneumonia. The company will give them a settlement, of course, but it won’t feed those kids for a year. And Luka Vlasic, you know him. He comes into the tavern. They say he might lose his leg.”

“What’s going to happen?”

“If they strike, we must be prepared to help.”

“We?”

“Especially you. I will have the baby to look after. You must manage the other things.”

“The meals. The wood. The cleaning. You know I can do it.”

“The paper,” Lily said. “You must manage the paper, which means you’ll have less time for hunting. You must write about the strike. Give the miners’ side. The company paper will only print lies and the other papers, they will be no better. If there is a strike, the mining company will buy them off. I will do what I can to get information, but it will be harder when the baby comes.”

“What makes you so certain something’s going to happen now?”

“A little bird told me.” Lily looked around the sitting room. No one was there except for them. The men were still singing loudly in the tavern. “Follow me.”

 

Tomorrow: Chapter 23 continues.