Chapter 23 continues
The story so far: Lily hints “something big” is going to happen.
When they got to the hallway near the back door, Lily gestured toward the rug that covered the entrance to the secret cellar.
“You can’t go down there, Lily.”
“I know. But you can. There’s someone down there who wants to see you.”
“Me? Who would want to see me?” Katka bent over and carefully pulled the rug aside, revealing the latch while Lily kept watch. She opened the entrance. The ladder was already propped up. She gingerly stepped down, carrying an unlit lantern. She had done this enough times to be comfortable navigating her way in the dark. When she landed with her feet on the ground, she put the lantern on the table and pulled the string, which replaced the rug up top.
In complete darkness, Lily lit the lamp on the table and the tiny cellar became eerily illuminated as red shadows danced across the bookshelves, the guns, the crates of alcohol. The three chairs were still around the table and the typewriter, paper and dictionary laid just as she had left them earlier that morning when she had come down to write about the church bake sale.
But something was different. It was a smell. The smell of salt and wind. She heard slow breathing coming from behind her. She turned quickly and gasped.
There, seated and leaning against the back wall of the cellar, was a man. His clothes were dark. His hat was pulled down low, shielding most of his face. He wore a handkerchief around his neck. His right hand was bandaged and his left hand was resting gingerly upon it, as if to protect it.
“Hello?” she whispered, tentatively.
The man snorted in his sleep.
“Wake up,” Katka whispered. She gently shook the man, who woke with a start, his good hand reaching for the gun hidden in his coat.
“Don’t shoot!” Katka said.
The man quickly put the pistol back in its holster. He stood up and pulled his handkerchief down. He looked at Katka’s feet and his gaze slowly drifted up to her face, where it remained fixated. He took off his hat and black, curly locks tumbled down, partially covering his left eye.
He smiled broadly at Katka. “Hey, Kat,” he said. “My cousin treating you all right? She talks a lot, but other than that, is she good to you?”
It was Paul.
When she was too little to work, but old enough to wander unattended, Katka used to stuff her pockets with bread and cheese and skip to the Creek of Lingering Love.
She would stand on the north side of the rickety, wooden bridge and throw a stick into the swirling water. Then she’d run across to the south side, watch it emerge from underneath her feet and marvel as it disappeared into the current.
The old ones warned against going there. “Bad luck,” they said. And they told her the story of a man who loved a woman so much that her name was like “sweet bread” in his mouth. When she rejected him, he drowned himself in the creek.
“Katka?” Paul said, raising his voice slightly to bring her back from her daydream. He had dragged himself to his feet and was standing in front of her. “Are you all right? You were staring at nothing for a moment. It was as if you disappeared.”
“I love you, Paul.”
“I love you.”
“Your name is like sweet bread in my mouth.”
He smiled. “Sweet bread, huh?” They were face to face, not touching. With his good hand, he grabbed hers. “I have loved you for one year and five days.”
• • •
Paul and Katka stayed underground for hours. They stayed there long after the last miner left the tavern, long after Anton had washed the last glass. They sat on the ground, his arm around her shoulder, with a blanket covering them both. She opened some wine from one of the crates and they drank it straight from the bottle. “Where did they take you when you were detained?” she asked. “Were you imprisoned for a very long time? How did you get out? Why didn’t you write to me?” He put his fingers on her lips to stop her speech. It didn’t work. “Who was the woman with the blue eyes? The one who told me you’d been detained? Was she your sweetheart? And if you’re Lily’s cousin, why are you hiding down here instead of being waited on in the living room?” He kissed her. Both hands were on her face. She felt faint with pleasure. “Kat, I will tell you everything I can tell you. But not here, not now.”
“I know a perfect place.”
“In the fields?”
She looked at him, oddly. “No. Stay here. I’ll be back in a little while. Rest while I’m gone.” As Paul closed his eyes, Katka noiselessly climbed the ladder and exited the cellar. She put the rug that covered the underground space back into place. Then she walked out the back door, past the barn and the smokehouse. The moon was out. She took the tiny trail that led to the sauna, which a friend of Anton’s had erected near the cold creek that ran to Merritt Lake. It was impossible to see the sauna from the main house, but anyone who was traveling would be able to see the smoke. Who would be traveling at this hour? It was after 3 a.m.
Tomorrow: Chapter 24 continues.