The man, a Cousin Jack, lost his left hand in the explosion and bled to death before they could raise him to the surface. Niklas was working further down the drift when the accident occurred. He heard the percussive rumble of the blast, and his mood lifted in anticipation: the blast meant his shift was nearly over. They blasted at the end of each shift to loosen rock for the next crew. Niklas straightened, his back a hard knot of pain, and for a moment the mine seemed almost beautiful: particles of ore shimmered through the candlelight. Then Niklas heard the pop of a lone powder charge. A hoarse shout. More shouts, and Niklas let his sledge fall and stared up the drift toward where the shouts were echoing.
They rushed past Niklas, two Swedes hauling the man’s slack body and a sweating Pole guiding his ankles like he was steering a wheelbarrow. Candles on their helmets flung shadows against the drift’s walls. A blood-wet stain glistened on the man’s ore-blackened jacket. They hustled to the shaft, shouting anxious Swedish phrases, then began the slow climb up the rusted ladder. The man would die, Niklas knew, before they reached the next drift. The feeling was like a cold stone in his stomach.
He squatted beside a pile of trap rock and tamped down a pipeful of tobacco and smoked with his crewmates until he heard the steam whistle’s low moan. There. Now the entire town would know there had been an accident—nothing else caused the whistle to sound in the middle of a shift. Niklas imagined his wife, Milla, rushing from their cabin and peering up the road toward the mine, hugging herself against the cold. She’d search for her husband, praying she wouldn’t instead see a bespectacled, red-faced representative of the Majestic Mining Company. Niklas felt bitter fear rise like bile inside him, and he spat and started toward the shaft, to begin the climb to the surface.
At home, Milla was bent over a bowl of peeled turnips when Niklas opened the door. Her face was flushed from the heat of the cast-iron stove in the small room; she wiped a damp tendril of hair back from her forehead and attempted a smile.
Niklas set his cap and pail on the table and kissed his wife’s cheek. It’s warm in here, he said. Sit. Take a rest.
I heard the whistle, Milla said. I prayed you weren’t hurt, and then a bird, one of those strange dark ones, landed on the sill. I thought it was . . . I didn’t know. A sign.
A Cornish man, Niklas said. The powder exploded late, when he was too close. An accident.
Milla nodded. She gripped the paring knife, her hand trembling, then set it down. The tears on her cheeks shone like quicksilver in the wan lamp light. It was the second death in their two months in Iron Harbor. Pray with me, she said. Please. We’ll give thanks that you’re safe.
Niklas followed Milla into the bedroom, and they knelt together on the cold puncheon floor. Milla bowed her head and began the familiar recitations, but when Niklas closed his eyes he saw the dying man’s face: eyes frozen wide and mouth open, as though he desperately wanted to speak but could not form the words. Milla murmured the Lord’s prayer. Tomorrow would be the funeral, hushed except for sobs from the broken widow. After the funeral, while other miners were drinking flip and whiskey in Jacob Wright’s Saloon, Niklas would walk along the Pickerel River to where it churned into rapids, and spread his paper and brass ruler and compass on a flat-sawn stump and struggle against the theorem, his theorem. His mind drifted toward the river: swirling elliptical currents rushing white over slick black rocks. Arcs and parabolas spun and eddied through Niklas’ mind, and he felt a glow of excitement beneath his fear and anxiety. The sensation calmed him. He bowed his head and held the river in his mind and let his wife’s soft voice wash over him.
They’d married on the morning of Milla’s 18th birthday and boarded the Independence, bound for upper Michigan, four days later. Iron Harbor: the name spoke of ore glimmering everywhere, even in the harbor’s icy depths, and there were stories of men pulling soft yellow limonite from the ground with their bare hands. The Independence was crowded with Swedes and other Finns and a group of pale, silent Germans, and Niklas and Milla huddled beneath a woolen quilt on the steerage deck and listened to the groan of the hull and the low, nervous conversation of the other passengers. Smoke from the first-class kitchen lingered over them. They’d brought food but felt continually hungry. They clung to each other beneath the quilt, and Milla’s hands clenched every time the ship pitched into the jagged sea. Niklas fixed his gaze on the horizon, willing himself to be steady in front of this woman, his wife.
Iron Harbor lay on the leeward side of the Huron range, in the middle of an ore belt everyone hoped was a hundred miles long. Hills blocked the view inland; the town was surrounded by the Hurons and a low smoky sky and a bristle of timber lining the shore. A clutter of hastily-erected stores bordered a single road, their signs a series of bright mysteries: John Stevenson’s. Chandler and Cooper. Mercantile. Stray hogs snuffled in the gutters, their hides a mottled reddish-brown from the hematite-rich dirt. It was true: ore was everywhere, even in the streets.
That first morning in town, Niklas stood in the office of the Majestic Mine’s captain, a man named Prout. Prout wore a drained, angry expression, and stooped when he walked, as though he was forever ducking beneath a drift’s low support timbers. He sipped coffee from a tin cup and squinted at Niklas, You speak English?
Niklas stared at the man, Prout pointed at his ruined teeth. English. Yes?
Niklas nodded. Some. He pronounced the soft vowel carefully.
Prout pursed his lips. Ore’s soft, see? Don’t need to know nothing, only be smart. Hold the steel, your partners swing sledges. Load the shot, spool the fuse, walk away. See? Keep your candle lit, you’re fine. Pay seven dollars a week.
What if rock falls? Niklas asked. He immediately wished he could take the words back, but they were out, plain.
Prout swished the coffee’s dregs in his mouth and spat onto the floor. Rock wants to fall, he said, with a shrug. Keep out from under when it does.
Niklas nodded. His new canvas shirt and trousers were stiff against his skin. From outside the office a dull pounding echoed. Right, Prout said. Let’s go. Time to work.
The first thing Niklas noticed about the mine was the damp: water slicked the shaft walls and hung in the air. It was warm in the mine, even in October, and as Niklas descended the chain of ladders, watching the shaft’s pocked face ribbon past, he felt he was traveling down the throat of a sleeping animal. The mine’s groans and tremors seemed to be the animal’s nocturnal rumblings.
Down in the raise, there was the plaintive ring of sledge against chisel, and there was darkness: the darkness seemed tangible, a thing itself, as dense and malleable as the ore they gouged out. Its thick presence surrounded Niklas. He hunched beneath a massive stull, eyes closed, listening to his heart’s skittish throb. He drew a long breath and then another. He imagined himself lying in the sedge behind his father’s house in Oulu, connecting the night’s stars with curves and brilliant line segments. He imagined himself capturing a bright jumble of stars and flinging them against the high ceiling of the raise. When his breathing had settled, he opened his eyes and ventured slowly into the darkness, like a swimmer into frigid water.
That night, he stepped into the company cabin to find his wife sitting at the sawbuck table. His face was a maroon-black mask of hematite. His joints were tugged loose by the eight-pound sledge. Milla looked up, bewildered, then rushed to Niklas and threw her arms around his neck. Niklas buried his face in her hair, stroking the back of her neck, the way he’d soothed his father’s hunting dogs when they’d had distemper. Finally he held her away from him. Her eyes searched his face with a desperate intensity that made Niklas wonder if she’d forgotten who he was.
Later, in bed, after Milla’s breathing had deepened, Niklas slipped from beneath the quilt and paced across the frozen floorboards to the kitchen. He closed the door and lit a lamp and set it on the bare table. From beneath the pine sideboard he slid a chest, then reached into his nightshirt and withdrew a small key on a leather strap. He unlocked the chest and removed a sheaf of penny paper, a vial of ink, a set of pens, a long brass ruler, and a worn compass. He smoothed the paper against the table and closed his eyes, ignoring the blunt ache in his shoulders, and steered his mind toward the problem, his problem. Like all geometry it possessed great beauty, but its simplicity had first drawn Niklas:
Construct a square, equal in area to a given circle.
At times he imagined the solution as a brilliant arc, gleaming like native silver. When he closed his fist around the arc it disappeared, yet Niklas did not feel disappointed; instead he felt a curiously pleasant hunger.
He felt he understood the problem’s point of weakness, and although it might require months of struggle, Niklas knew the problem was assailable. For that was how he viewed mathematics: as a war of attrition between the problem and his will, a long, tranquil siege. Niklas recognized in himself a minor gift for translating elaborate shapes into simple, precise descriptions, and although he hadn’t studied mathematics in school, the cover of his Cranston’s Geometrical Primer was stained black from the oils of his fingers. The pages were worn as smooth as skin.
He covered the paper with line segments and arcs and scrawled Greek notation until he could no longer hold a shape in his mind, then leaned back from the table, exhausted, his mind abuzz. He felt wonderfully calm, as though he’d crossed into an exalted plane of weariness. He arranged the tools and papers in the chest and slid it beneath the sideboard, then snuffed the lamp and tiptoed into the bedroom. Moonlight filtered through the curtains and illuminated the slope of his wife’s shoulders beneath the quilt. How beautiful she was, his Milla; a pang of desire rose in Niklas’ chest. He would tell her someday, he thought, and she would understand the glowing arcs in his mind, the rays of cool white light. She would not think him lazy or impractical, or a fool. His Milla. Niklas eased into bed and laid his arm across his wife’s shoulders, and in a few moments he was asleep.
Milla had grown to dislike Eva Prout during their first months in Iron Harbor. She disliked her pursed glances, full of disapproval; she disliked her voice, the archness that lifted the ends of her sentences, giving each question a mocking tone. Milk’s English wasn’t good enough to understand everything Eva Prout said, but she understood that Eva Prout thought she was young and a fool, and although Milla felt guilty for disliking Eva Prout she was tired of feeling like a fool. Besides Eva Prout, though, Milla did not know a single woman in Iron Harbor.
On Monday after the accident Milla found herself in Eva Prout’s parlor, sitting in a slat-backed rocker with a cup of tea and her leather-bound Bible balanced on her lap. Eva Prout was speaking about the man who’d been killed.
A good Christian, I hope, she said. I always recall Matthew: Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. She cleared her throat. I pray for the poor man’s soul. So many wayward men in this town.
Milla nodded and thumbed her Bible open to the verse Eva had recited. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household. She traced her finger along the soiled page. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Milla looked up: Eva Prout was fixing her with a tight smile. Eva stood and excused herself to the kitchen, and returned with a plate holding a glistening ivory wedge of pear. Here, Eva said. Dear girl. With your tea.
Milla hesitated, then thanked Eva Prout and set the plate on her lap, resisting the urge to eat the entire wedge at once. Her gaze traveled up the oak mantle to a daguerreotype of a gaunt, somber man, Eva’s father. He’d been a tin miner in Cornwall, and as Milla savored the pear’s sweetness she wondered if he’d been killed in a mine. She considered the question with numb clarity. She feared that one cold morning the steam whistle would sound, and suddenly she would be alone in this vast, godless country. Niklas had never spoken about his work, but she sensed in him a current of fear; this created in Milla’s stomach a constant nervous flutter.
Often she found herself watching Niklas. She watched his hands across the table as he spooned onion soup; she watched the slow play of his lips as he whispered evening prayers. He didn’t pray often or with great fervor, and this troubled Milla, although his silence held a gravity that she thought must be near to prayer. He was the quietest and most gentle person she had ever known.
On their wedding night, in Niklas’ father’s house outside Oulu, Milla had hunched on the bedroom floor and hugged herself against a chill that wouldn’t stop. She was wearing her best linen dress and a borrowed beaver fur wrap. She was afraid to open the bedroom door, where Niklas was waiting. She began to cry. She loved the way his hair curled where it reached his brow; she loved the way he touched her cheek without speaking, as though he’d been rendered inarticulate by her beauty. But she feared what he would do when he entered the bedroom.
He tapped at the door. Milla. Open the door. I won’t hurt you.
I know, I’m sorry. I know.
She heard him rest his head against the door. Open the door. Please, Milla.
She knew little of men besides what she’d seen in her father: the sudden temper; the shockingly coarse hair on his hands; the tread of his boots which had always struck in her heart a queer note of devotion and fear. She’d watched her mother expressionlessly mend her father’s undergarments and knead his shoulders and pinch the hard white nits from his head, and she wondered if her parents’ indifference was a faded form of love. It disheartened Milla: her idea of love was so much closer to grace.
Milla, Niklas said. We don’t have to do that. It’s fine.
She knelt on the bedroom floor and crossed herself and murmured a rapid petition for strength. She wiped the tears from her swollen cheeks and opened the door. She couldn’t look at Niklas. He took her hand and led her into the room, then faced the curtained window as she unfastened her dress and slid into the cool, broad bed. Niklas extinguished the lamp and crawled in beside her. How strange, she’d thought. In the darkness she could not see his face, so she squeezed her eyes shut and imagined the smooth planes of his cheeks, his chin, his nose. How strange, how strange, how strange. She turned and pulled him toward her, gently at first, then with increasing strength.
You’re nervous, Eva Prout said. She’d watched Milla slowly eat the pear. You seem to have trouble on your mind.
Milla fidgeted in her chair then willed herself to stop.
I did wonder, Eva Prout said, if everything was right in your house. I was ill last night, from those horrid potatoes at the mercantile, and I woke and noticed a lamp burning in your window. Were you ill as well?
Milla shook her head.
Odd, Eva Prout said. I thought it odd to see a lamp burning so late. Thought you must be ill.
The mantle clock ticked patiently. Milla said, Maybe you saw the wrong window. Maybe next door.
No, no. She leaned toward Milla, grinning. I thought you and your young husband must be quarreling.
Milla stood and murmured her apologies, that she must return home, and thanked Eva for the pear. Eva Prout took Milla’s teacup, smiling. Of course, she said. Dear girl. Of course.
Back in her cabin, Milla knelt beside the bed and prayed the penitential Psalms, then a petition to Saint Barbara, patron of miners. She prayed for strength against her temper and suspicions, and for Niklas’ physical and spiritual health. But the prayers did not calm her as they usually did. She rose with the taste of stale tea in her mouth. She unscrewed the kitchen lamp’s bulb: the oil was nearly gone. The sight unnerved her, but she shook it from her mind and refilled the lamp, then fetched the wash basin and began sorting the afternoon’s laundry. Eva Prout, that angry woman, with her pears and oak mantle. She pulled Niklas’ shirt from the basin, inhaling the thick odors of earth and sweat. An image formed in her mind of Niklas’ ore-darkened face in the darkness of the mine. She wondered: Could you care for a person as much as you cared for your own soul? Could that truly be sin?
The announcement in the Gazetteer occupied a single square inch at the bottom of the second page: Renowned Mathematician and Geometrician G.Craige to Address Young Men’s Society in Halton. Niklas sat in the dim change-house with the paper folded double. A dryness crept into his throat. Famous Author of Over 100 Mathematical Proofs to Lecture on “Modern Analytical Geometrical Methods.” Niklas wove his way hurriedly through the crowded room, then stopped, stuffed his hands in his pockets, and sat on a bench near the door. He re-read the announcement. Just then the steam whistle sounded, and Niklas folded the newspaper carefully and placed it inside his shirt, then started toward the mine shaft’s massive oak bracing.
That night, as he knelt with Milla in their bedroom, his mind strayed toward circles and ellipses, the austere perfection of conic sections. Construct a square equal in area to a given circle. His wife’s voice was steady as a metronome. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen. Niklas crawled beneath the heavy quilt. He was too anxious for sleep, and Milla must have sensed this: she turned to him and grasped the hem of his nightshirt.
Later he sat before a smudged diagram, the tip of his ruler pressed against his chin. Beside the diagram a column of notation spilled halfway down the page. How to proceed? The way was as dark as an unlit mine shaft. He sank the compass into a clean sheet of paper and twirled a sleek arc. He remembered as a boy sitting beneath a weeping willow near his father’s house, watching fireflies carve parabolas into the dusky night. The curves had remained lit-up in his mind for hours, and sometimes even now he saw forms as if they’d been etched by a brilliant-light. The curves glowed in his mind.
He struck an arc, then opened the compass and struck a second arc and labeled the intersections α and β. He took up the ruler and transected the first arc, extending his line to the edge of the page, then carved a large, slow circle. Yes. He ruled another line, then another. On a second page he began describing the angles and line segments, one equation following the other like freight cars behind a locomotive. He felt euphoric, full of light. His hand began to cramp but he didn’t stop writing.
Near morning, eye-weary from the guttering lamplight, Niklas drew three dark lines beneath a lone equation. His heart was pounding so intensely that he wondered if Milla could hear it in her sleep. He rolled the papers together and placed them in the chest, then slid the chest beneath the sideboard. He extinguished the lamp and opened the bedroom door and slipped into bed beside his wife. Milla shuddered, then relaxed. Niklas had a sudden, ecstatic urge to wake her and show her the papers, to explain what they meant—but no, not yet. He kissed Milla’s shoulder and closed his eyes, inhaling her rich scent. The image of his wife’s face glowed in his mind as if traced by fireflies.
Milla had run out of matches and could not light the stove the next morning. The fire had died during the night, and she woke in the chilly cabin to find the tin matchbox empty. Niklas said nothing, stuffed three cold pork biscuits in his pocket, kissed Milla and trudged out into the gray morning. Milla wrapped herself in a wool shawl and laced her cornette under her chin. She did not want to wait for the mercantile to open, and she did not want to borrow matches from Eva Prout. She did not want to borrow anything from Eva Prout.
She vaguely remembered a box of phosphorous matches in the chest beneath the sideboard, so she knelt and dragged the chest to the middle of the floor. Locked. She didn’t have the key; Niklas was surely carrying it, for safekeeping. The thought produced in Milla a swell of pride in her husband’s prudence, but beneath that a prickle of annoyance. She rattled the lock, then rummaged in Niklas’ steamer trunk and fetched a hammer and a thin nail. She buttoned her shawl and stepped out into the eye-watering cold, and held the nail against the boot stone while she rapped it with the hammer. Her breath ribboned out in pale clouds. She battered the nail into a rough L, then stepped inside and worked the nail into the lock, eyes closed, probing for the single tumbler, until finally the lock gave way with a sharp click.
Inside, there was a small tin of matches and a sheaf of papers, pens, a small book, some brass tools. She removed the tools and book and placed them on the table. She fanned the papers, and as she saw the arcs and strange symbols a queer sense of dread crept over her. It was Niklas’ penmanship. The lines and curves were arranged with strange precision, in a way that Milla had never seen, had never imagined. There were letters but the letters spelled no words, and the thought entered her mind that the pages were meant for another woman, a secret code—but that was impossible, it must be impossible.
She leafed through the papers, her heart fluttering like a trapped pigeon. She’d heard rumors of foreign men who wrote in strange scripts and spoke in tongues, whose lives were full of deceit and carnality—and Eva Prout’s warning, of the godless men in Iron Harbor. She stuffed the papers into the chest and paced to the far side of the kitchen. A bitter, metallic taste rose in her mouth, and for a moment Milla thought she might be sick. She spat onto the floor. Her mind was crowded, full of noise, and she crossed herself and recited the Lord’s prayer but the words seemed to disappear as they left her mouth.
She slumped into a chair and imagined Niklas’ calm, curious gaze melting into a vacant stare, a stranger’s stare. She thought: his soul. She rushed to the bedroom, and just as she reached the chamber set she was sick, a series of deep, choking heaves. Please, she thought, please, please, please. She swallowed a cup of water then sat on the kitchen floor with her Bible opened to Saint John: the great crusader, the martyr in a hostile land. Behold, she read, the hour cometh, yea, is now come, that ye shall be scattered, every man to his own, and shall leave me alone: and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me. Her finger trembled against the page. In the world ye shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.
The words did not calm her. She would do something, she thought—she must save him. She must save herself. She opened the stove door and from the woodbox fetched birch twigs and a chunk of pine, then struck a match and watched as flames crawled over the dry wood. She gathered the papers into a bundle and tied them with string, then opened the stove door and placed the bundle inside. Pages peeled away, flames painting the symbols and diagrams brown, then a sudden, brilliant orange. Milla knelt before the stove, her lips pursed as if against a driving wind, and watched the fire burn.
That evening Niklas hurried down the long, sloping road to town, outpacing the other miners, and as he passed the lit-up windows of the mercantile he stopped. He peered in at the brimming barrels of sugar and dried beans and saleratus. He stepped inside; Henry Johnson nodded at him, his hands clasped over a smudged white apron. Niklas pointed at a barrel of small green peaches.
Peaches, Henry Johnson said. Niklas nodded.
Johnson took four peaches from the barrel, glancing back at Niklas after each one, until Niklas said, Enough. Niklas paid thirty cents for the peaches, pausing for a moment at the cost, then placed them in his coat pocket and smiled at Henry Johnson. Johnson nodded again.
That night he devoured his fried pork and cabbage and waited impatiently as Milla cleaned the dishes. When she’d finished he went to his coat and reached into his coat pocket, then held his clenched fists behind his back. He smiled at Milla, A surprise, he said. Guess.
She looked up from the table, expressionless.
Guess, Niklas said: Please.
Milla rose and stood before Niklas, eyes downcast, and shook her head.
Niklas brought his fists from behind his back. Peaches, he said. Last of the season. Milla smiled, still not looking at him, and set the peaches on the kitchen table. She kissed Niklas’ cheek then turned and walked slowly into the bedroom, closing the door behind her.
Niklas started after her—was she unhappy? Perhaps the cost, or the smallness of the fruit. . . . He shook his head. He took a bowl from the sideboard and placed the peaches inside, then snuffed the kitchen lamp.
In the bedroom, he pulled on his nightshirt and crawled into bed, the frame groaning against his weight. His muscles were sore from sorting rock, but Niklas felt as though he could work until dawn: tomorrow Craige would be in Halton; he had one night to complete his proof. Milla turned to him, her small fist pressed against his chest. She buried her head against his shoulder and her entire body seemed to shudder.
What? Niklas asked.
What is it?
Nothing. Niklas lay very still. He felt detached, his body a limp useless trunk but his mind so restless, so vast. He would finish the proof tonight. Niklas stroked Milla’s neck, soothing her toward sleep, and finally her fist relaxed. He waited until her breathing had deepened into long, distant sighs, then slipped from beneath the quilt.
The puncheon floor was cold beneath his feet. He padded into the kitchen and closed the door, then knelt and slid the chest from beneath the sideboard. He set the chest on the kitchen table and from around his neck removed the key. With a snap the lock opened.
Gone. A shiver raced over Niklas’ skin. He removed the textbook, compass, ruler, ink, blotting paper, pens, and finally turned the chest upside-down and watched crumbled bits of paper flutter like moths in the dim lamplight. Gone.
He paced quickly around the kitchen, then took up the chest and ran his fingers along the empty inside. He crouched on the floor and hugged his knees to his chest and bowed his head. Milla had found his papers—what did she think of him now, her husband? A sob rose in Niklas’ throat. And what of his proof? He could reconstruct part of it—perhaps Craige could examine the fragments, perhaps he would see potential. . . . He heard a rustle of bedsheets as his wife shifted in her sleep. And what of Milla?
He sat motionless on the floor for a long time, then dragged himself to his feet and took a wrinkled newspaper from his coat pocket. He would show Craige—he must. He took up a pen and ruled a heavy black line overtop news of ore assays and shaft depths and ship tonnage. He would steer him through the subtle currents of his proof. And when Craige had recognized his struggle as something notable—something extraordinary, even—he would explain everything to Milla. He would introduce her to his problem, just as a depraved man might introduce his wife to his lover.
The next morning they woke together. Milla shuffled to the kitchen to raise the fire and heat yesterday’s biscuits for breakfast, and Niklas slumped on the bed, his arms and legs feeling as though they were submerged in syrup. He had slept less than an hour. In his coat pocket was a scrawled but finished version of the proof. Construct a square, he found himself thinking, equal in area to a given circle. The thought made him queasy, like the smell of whiskey after a two-day drunk.
He dressed in the chill of the bedroom and drank a cup of tea, and as he warmed and his mind cleared he felt a stir of excitement. Craige was here, in this state. On this godforsaken peninsula. He kissed Milla, his stubbled skin rough against her smooth cheek.
I’ll be late tonight, he said. Prout wants to raise the main brace on a new shaft. Says it’s going to pay fifty cents overtime.
Milla nodded, her head lowered against her chest.
Hey, he said, are you feeling right? He laid a finger beneath her chin and raised it; her eyes shone bright with tears. Don’t do that. Please.
I’m fine, she said, blotting her tears with the back of her hand. I’m having woman troubles, is all.
Niklas nodded. Rest today, he said. I’ll bring something from the mercantile. He kissed her again and pulled on his coat, then stepped out into the dim morning light.
He walked to the mine site but instead of going to the change-house stopped at the captain’s office. Prout was sitting at his desk touching a match to his pipe. What? he said.
Niklas curled his lips and winced, clutching the right side of his stomach. Sick.
Prout drew a dense puff of smoke. You’re sick you don’t get paid. What’s wrong with you?
Niklas stared blankly at Prout.
What’s wrong? Prout shouted. He sighed. Work tomorrow. He pointed at the ground. Tomorrow morning. Work.
Yes, Niklas said, tomorrow. Thank you. He winced again and hobbled from the office.
Fifteen minutes later he stood at Iron Harbor’s depot, a raised plank platform between the temperance hall and barber shop. The morning train would arrive soon: he would reach Halton by noon. Later he could catch the evening train and be home before nine. He stamped his feet against the cold and stared down the curving narrow-gauge tracks, a sharp pang in his stomach reminding him he hadn’t eaten breakfast. He pulled a cold flour biscuit from his pocket and chewed it slowly. Finally he saw a thread of smoke in the distance, then beneath it a tiny black locomotive. He touched his breast pocket, where the proof was folded, and waited for the train to rattle to a stop.
In Halton, Niklas went to the first boarding house he saw and paid two cents to use the bathtub. He stripped off his clothes and from his lunch bucket removed a clean shirt and a pair of balled-up trousers.
His boots were caked with dirt, but although he rubbed them until the washcloth was blood-colored the boots didn’t gain any shine. He worked for a few minutes then gave up. A comb was chained to a brass ring in the wall, and he wet the comb and slicked his hair against his skull, then scrutinized his reflection in the cloudy mirror. Then he stuffed his soiled clothes into his lunch bucket and re-emerged in Halton’s downtown.
A breeze sliced in from the lake and froze Niklas’ hair against his neck, and he shivered, wishing he had an overcoat. It was past noon but he was too nervous to eat, so he walked to the library where the Young Men’s Society was to meet. He paused with his hand on the wrought-iron railing. The library was a tall brick building with a portico and a row of fluted columns, and Niklas let his gaze travel up a column to the capital: arcs and whorls were carved in the stone, the large whorls containing increasingly smaller ones, the smallest ones curling into nothing. The sight of such unexpected beauty lifted Niklas’ heart, and he took a deep breath and climbed the low steps and pulled open the door.
Inside, the library was warm and smelled richly of cedar, and there was a crimson carpet and a pair of high bookshelves half-filled with volumes. At the far wall he saw an open door and through it a row of chairs, and then he noticed a handbill announcing Craige’s lecture. Niklas slipped into the empty room. He was nearly three hours early and exhausted, and hungry, but he took a seat in the chair nearest the podium and set his lunch bucket between his feet. He would wait.
She had sat at the kitchen table after he’d left, sipping tea and staring at his empty cup. The stove had pushed the chill from the room, and she took off her shawl and busied herself sweeping and cleaning the sooty lamp bulbs and drawing a tub of water for wash. She set the kettle on, and as she waited for it to warm she knelt beside the kitchen table and prayed. But even as her lips moved she found herself thinking about Niklas’ papers, and those strange symbols.
She believed he was needed at the mine, yet at the same time she allowed herself a sliver of disbelief. She did not want to be made a fool. She supposed she was as foolish as any woman, but she did not want the entire town to think her a fool: she did not want Eva Prout to think her a fool. She rose and stood in the middle of the small room, surveying the coarse pine walls, the pitted table, the bowl of hard green peaches. Then she took the kettle off the stove and tied her cloak at the neck and stepped out into the cold morning.
The sky was low and gray-white, the color of wood ash; it had snowed the night before and the streets of Iron Harbor looked as though they were dusted with flour. Milla walked slowly past the schoolhouse and the Methodist church, and at the mercantile bought a pound of buckwheat and some dried navy beans. Henry Johnson weighed her purchases on the scale then silently tallied the bill. She paid and stepped outside, gathering her cloak against the wind, and then she saw her husband.
She froze. Niklas was leaning against the temperance house, on the far side of the street, gazing down the railroad tracks toward Algoma. Milla stepped quickly back against the mercantile. He was wearing mine clothes but was waiting for the train, headed—where?—to Johns Corner or Halton or as far as Marquette. He began pacing in a small circle, head bowed, and Milla sensed in him a restlessness that started a tremble in her stomach. She recalled his smile the night before, when he’d stood with his hands behind his back. Guess, he’d said. A surprise. Those peaches: what had they meant? What had his smile meant?
Just then she heard the faint airy whistle of the locomotive. She watched the train lurch to a halt, then saw Niklas hurry to the first car and step inside. It was a cargo train mainly, with two small passenger cars and no ladies’ car. Fine: she would sit with the men. Milla rushed across the street, head low, and opened the second car’s door and sat on one of the hard oak benches. When she craned her neck she could glimpse Niklas’ blonde curls through the door’s glass panel.
At Johns Corner the train rattled to a halt, but Niklas didn’t move; a half-dozen passengers disembarked and a single portly man wearing muttonchop sideburns climbed aboard and sat beside Milla. He smelled powerfully, of tobacco and sour sweat. He regarded her silently. Milla sat with her eyes closed, reciting Ten Apostles’ Creeds using her knuckles as counting beads. The train shuddered over the iron straps. At Halton, she rushed to the side of the car and peered out the window, and saw Niklas step down onto the platform and begin walking quickly toward the center of town.
She followed him across the street and watched as he disappeared into a whitewashed boarding house. A wave of cold nausea rushed through her. She thought: He does not love me. She thought: He has never loved me. Milla stared at the closed boarding house door, willing herself to stand erect, to not falter. She thought: I am alone, and this notion struck her with the force of a slap.
There were no stages back to Iron Harbor and no train until evening. She stood on the sidewalk, ignoring the stares of passers-by, and was about to begin the long walk home when she saw Niklas emerge from the boarding house in clean clothes, his hair combed, and hurry toward the far end of town. He’d been inside only 15 minutes. Milla hesitated, her body tensed as if ready to sprint, then started after him.
He stopped outside the lending library and stared up at the stone pediment, then climbed the low steps and went inside. A library, Milla thought. My husband is going to a library. She counted to 20. When he hadn’t appeared she counted to a hundred. Then she climbed the steps herself and pulled open the heavy door and stepped inside.
There was an open door at the back of the room, and through it Milla saw her husband as if she was seeing a stranger: a young man sitting in a library, in his Sunday clothes, alone, waiting. A sudden image flashed into her mind: her forgotten parcel, 11 cents worth of buckwheat and dried navy beans, on the empty train seat headed to Marquette. Milla untied her cornette and sat at the reading table and clasped her hands in her lap. Her mind felt clouded, disturbed, but she told herself to be patient, to wait and see—she hadn’t lost him. Not yet. So far all she’d lost was 11 cents.
Later, after the door had been closed for a long time, men in waistcoats and boiled shirts and thin leather boots began filing out, some in deep discussion but most wearing expressions of torpor. Milla rose, and when her husband did not appear she moved to the door: he was standing near the podium, gesturing to a tall, stooped man with a trim beard and spectacles. They were looking at a paper Niklas was holding, and Niklas was pointing at different parts of the page. Look here, he seemed to be saying. And here. And here.
She had never seen him so agitated. His voice held a slight tremor, and even from across the room she could see a sheen of perspiration on his face. Behind the podium, symbols were scrawled on a large slate—those strange symbols, but above them were the words Young Men’s Society and Modern Analytical Geometrical Methods. Young Men’s Society: the words caused in Milla a twinge of confusion and relief. She unconsciously took a step toward Niklas. The tall man was leaning away from her husband, as if cowed by the force of his words, and Niklas pointed again at the paper then looked up at the man and fell silent.
The bespectacled man raised a finger. Wait. He pointed at the page, and said nothing for a moment. Then he removed his spectacles, wiping his eyes with one hand, and began speaking, pausing to draw invisible lines in the air. Niklas watched his lips, nodding. The tall man laid his hand on Niklas’ arm and shook his head. He smiled genially. Niklas stared at him and mouthed the words, Yes, I see. Thank you. The tall man turned and began gathering papers from the podium.
She watched her husband until the tall man had departed and Niklas was the last person in the room. He sat alone in the front row, shoulders slumped, head bowed to his chest. How could she ever know him? Milla felt her heart welling with hope and despair—an astonishing, unbearable fullness—and she moved toward her husband, and saw in an instant the grace of his bent arms, his neck, the line of his chin. A perfect form, eternal, as if chiseled from stone.