Chapter 24 continues
The story so far: A reunited Paul and Katka declare their love.
The sauna was the cornerstone of Finnish life. On the Iron Range, Finnish immigrants who homesteaded usually constructed one before they built their houses. Families used the steam bath as a spiritual place that enabled them to regenerate their sisu or life force. Because the sauna had no windows, it was also an exceedingly private place.
Anton was one of many non-Finns on the Iron Range who had embraced the tradition of the sauna. Iron Range saunas varied in size, but most included two rooms: the steam room and the changing room. Anton’s sauna easily could accommodate eight men. He wanted to efficiently enable his boarders to bathe on a regular basis, for he had been convinced that cleanliness, above all else, prevented the spread of disease. He had first discovered this on his passage overseas. Later this theory had been confirmed as he spent many nights on filthy beds in the lumber camps. His boarders bathed in the sauna every Sunday.
As Katka approached the sauna, she noted with satisfaction that the previous bathers had indeed left the woodpile well stocked. She filled her apron with wood and opened the door.
The walls of the steam room were constructed of cedar. Katka knelt down and started the fire in the small, metal furnace. On top of the metal fire casing, flat rocks were arranged like buns in a bakery. They would heat up quickly and eventually provide the steam when water was drizzled on them. Two sturdy benches faced the fire. After lighting the fire, Katka took two empty buckets down to the creek and filled them with the ice-cold spring water. Then she dropped them off in the changing room and went back to find Paul.
“Where were you?” Paul asked quietly, when Katka finally got back to the cellar. “I was starting to worry.”
“Let’s go for walk.” She beckoned him to follow her up the ladder.
“Not safe,” he said. “I told Anton I’d stay here until the miners left for their shift in the morning. Things will be less complicated when we figure out what my role will be in the uprising and if they plan to identify me or have me work underground.”
“Paul, I don’t understand anything you’re saying. But you’ll be back before he arises. Believe me, I know his sleeping habits. He won’t wake until the cock crows.”
“I could use some air.”
“This way,” Katka said. He followed her up the ladder, using his good hand. When they both were in the pantry, she took the necessary precautions to keep the cellar hidden, and they noiselessly walked into the back yard, under the light of the moon. They ran, first from the back door to the barn, where they stood and caught their breath. Then they ran from the barn to the smokehouse and finally from the smokehouse to the safety of the woods. There was less moonlight in the forest, but their eyes adjusted rapidly. They walked down the trail in single file, Katka in the lead.
“Know where we’re going, Pocahontas?” Paul asked.
“’Course I do.” She beckoned up ahead, where smoke could be seen drifting near the treetops. Who was Pocahontas?
He stopped. Hearing no footsteps behind her, Katka stopped too and turned around. “You ain’t leading me into no trap, here, are you Kat?” His voice was playful, and at first she thought he was joking. Then she realized he truly was uneasy.
“No traps, Paul.” She walked back to him and took his hand. “Why would you ask that?”
“I’ve seen some things. Things that make you question everything, even the things that seem most good and pure. The things that you know in your gut have to be true or you couldn’t go on living. I saw the smoke. Is anyone out here?”
“Where are you taking me?”
“To soap and water. You have a grand looking face, but you smell something awful.”
He smiled. “The sauna! I forgot it was back here. I was around when it was being built.”
When they arrived at the sauna, Katka waited outside. Paul went inside the changing room, removed his clothing, grabbed the soap and one of the buckets of water, and entered the steam room. It was hot, but not sweltering yet. He splashed some of the cool water on his face, then knelt down by the fire. He added some wood, lining up the sticks like he was building a log house. A moment later, she entered.
Katka was carrying a bucket in one hand and a dipping stick in the other. She poured the water over the rocks. Steam immediately surged up and the temperature increased.
“You’re naked,” Paul said.
“We’re in a sauna,” Katka replied. She put the stick back in the bucket, staring at the rocks and the evaporating water that singed on contact.
She dipped a cloth in the bucket, lathered it and began, very gently, to wash his hair. She dug her fingernails deep into his scalp, scratching away dirt and small stones. Then she lathered his shoulders, his back. She rinsed him with the cool water.
“Feeling better?” she asked.
“No words,” Paul said.
Tomorrow: Chapter 24 continues.