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Authors: Andrew Krivak

The Sojourn

BOOK: The Sojourn
Table of Contents
For Irene
... That was how things were back then. Anything that grew took its time growing, and anything that perished took a long time to be forgotten. But everything that had once existed left its traces, and people lived on memories just as they now live on the ability to forget quickly and emphatically.
—JOSEPH ROTH, The Radetzky March
It's difficult with the weight of the rifle.
Leave it—under the oak.
—DAVID JONES, In Parenthesis
She rises before sunup without waking her husband or the child still asleep in the Moses basket at their bedside and walks through the dark of the small shack into the kitchen. At the stove she rocks the fire grate, takes kindling and three quartered aspen from the wood-box, wraps them in newspaper and dried bark and heaps them on the nearspent embers, slides the vent for draft, then waits as smoke and threads of flame rouse and lick the underside of a worn and atramental gloss. From a pitcher she fills the kettle and places it over the heat, sits down, and stares absentmindedly in the dawning at an icon of Saint Michael the Archangel resting on a shelf cut into a corner of the wall, until she catches herself drifting, shakes off sleep, stands, and takes up another log to feed the blaze.
Her husband emerges from the bedroom and walks somnolent into the cramped water closet. She waits, listening through the walls (no more than partitions of pine crates cobbled together) as he hawks and spits and rinses the basin, then stands for a long while to relieve himself. He steps into the kitchen toweling his face, leans against the window, and peers blankly out at slag heaps and a smelter, all they can claim for a view.
Dobré ráno, she says, not slipping out of the Slovak in which she dreams and thinks and speaks when she is tired.
Hell of a racket, he says, and dabs behind his neck and the backs of his ears. You couldn't stay quiet for another half hour? Christ, a man can't even rest on the Sabbath. And I don't want to hear that damn language when it's just us.
But she is silent and doesn't move until the kettle begins to roil and she rises from the table, smooths her apron, and walks to a cupboard by the sink.
Coffee is ready soon, she says.
He hangs the towel on the back door of the closet and sits down in his own chair at the table, watches her slide a paper filter into a small steel funnel, place the funnel over what had once been used as a teapot, open a mason jar and dole out fresh grounds like a prospector handing flecks of gold over to the buyer's scale of weights and measures. She turns back to the stove, wraps a rag around the kettle's handle, and pours hot water through the apparatus. He bought the funnel in Leadville, where they lived before she became pregnant, and the coffee is black-market, beans siphoned off and sold or sometimes bartered by an old Hungarian man who had worked for years on the train from St. Louis bound for the hotels of Denver and San Francisco. She places the brew, black and steaming, in front of him, and he sips slowly and knows in spite of his mood that some manner of restiveness holds her.
I want to go out today and take the boy, she says, almost whispering but insistent. Just a short walk. Across the river.
His hands cup the drink before him as though it were a small world he might contemplate the fate of, and all of the enmity with which he rose dissipates with her request. The birth had been hard. The fetus was inverted but ill-positioned, and he nearly lost his wife from bleeding and
his firstborn from suffocation. But he had heard of the doctor who had been trained in Philadelphia (an easterner come west for anonymity) and lured him with payment in gold into the Pueblo shantytown on Good Friday, the last night of March 1899, and the man, stinking of ether, assisted the child with forceps and sutured the woman where she had torn. Eight days later, the priest came to the house, and the boy was christened Jozef.
For the next three months, she was housebound, sleeping, taking what food she could, and suckling the child. She stood to do little more than shuffle across the sloping floor of the house, make toast, drink water, or go to the toilet. And these only when the child slept and she couldn't, for he seemed to bear his waking hours with a grief that was more than a newborn's discomfort with cold, hunger, and separation. When the boy cried, it sounded to her as though he was pleading with the body that bore him to remain.
The man nods. You two missed most of spring.
If spring is what they call it here, she thinks. The late snows and quick thaws, the mud that seems to grow and move as if it were some lower form of life itself, and the unbroken view of the industry that feeds them. The only beauty visible is as distant as the Spanish range to the southwest, which she found when they first arrived could be seen from the raised elevation of the railroad trestle over the Arkansas, but which she hasn't been able to walk across for almost a year.
It is morning now and she looks beyond her husband to the sky filling the top of the window behind him. A clear and cloudless blue matte, like it has never been since the coldest morning of midwinter, when she held the taut swell of her belly and wondered in her waking what kind of child it was that was being prepared for her.
The sleep was good, she says. I feel well. And she feels, too, the tension between them, born of where they are and where they wish to be, easing.
We have the meal with my sister and her family after the liturgy, he says. Go when the others are washing up. They'll understand.
You'll come with me?
No, he says, his eyes avoiding her to search his coffee again. I have to go up to Leadville tomorrow morning for a few days and I need to look over some maps. Clean my rifle. Mr. Orten wants to talk about the camp. Maybe do a little hunting.
What about work?
They'll have to do without me. It's slow, he says, and lingering between them is the memory of his nearly having lost this job for a similar absence just after she gave birth, the smelter boss having decided not to fire the new father. But he looks up at her and says in a tone that means he will say this much and no more, I think it's time we turned the land that camp's on for a profit, while there's profit to be turning. We could move away from here, Lizzie. California. Montana. We could move away.
She stands and moves to the other side of the table, holds her husband's shoulders from behind as though a boy himself too grown to cradle, kisses him on the top of his head, and in the other room the child wakes and begins to cry. She waits as the shallow bleats become sobs, then wails.
Go to him, the man says. And so she goes to him.
When he drank and someone was there to listen, he'd say that the Slavs of Pueblo had only exchanged life in one poor village for another, even if the journey to America,
and then out west, promised to reveal a paradise. They had come for that purpose, and in the end it assuaged what hardship they found with the two things they knew well this side of the kingdom of heaven: work and family, lone virtues that reminded them of what was good about the old country. They clung to both so fiercely that a shirked responsibility was akin to what scripture called the sin against the Holy Spirit, and this fear bound them, because faith reigned like the quiet yet exacting old Rusyn priest, who had long ago come out to Colorado from Pennsylvania after his wife and five children died in a fire. Invisible to all but the old women throughout the week, he presided over the divine liturgy every Sunday and then remained with his small, obedient flock to share the midday meal at some parishioner's house, always sitting at the head of the table like a bearded and widowed grandfather to the disparate, self-exiled clan, and no one knew for sure that he wasn't.
Ondrej Vinich could just as well have lived out his days prospecting for gold and silver in the Sawatch, but this was the dream of a bachelor and the life of men in Leadville who were intimate with prostitutes and the ground. He had a wife and a child now, and they needed to eat, so his brother-in-law, a too-cautious man suspicious of any and all dealings that came out of Leadville, secured for him a position in the smelter and a vacated flat above a tack shop. Weighing what precious metal of ambition he had left against the rising sands of disappointment, Ondrej Vinich and his wife packed a trunk and came down out of the mountains, and John Hudak never let them forget who had delivered them from what he called a filthy town of gambling Protestants.
This Sunday she feels strong throughout the morning
and the service, until after the meal of dumplings and a chicken boiled in carrots and parsnips, when the nowfamiliar wave of fatigue overtakes her. So, she is given a reprieve from the dishes at her sister-in-law's and sent to lie down in a small room built like a porch off the back of the flat.
But she doesn't sleep, only lies listening to the women banter in their slangy • ari• and the dull clack of ceramic china as they dry and stack plates. Occasionally, like a breeze rising and falling at unexpected intervals through an open window, the laughter of children playing rises from the street, along with the metronomic clop of a horse on which rides some stranger inattentive to the Sabbath. Who could afford a horse on this side of town? she wonders. Or even want to ride it here for leisure on a Sunday?
Sunday is the only day the air isn't ashy and sulfurous, and on this day the weather remains pristine, even in the afternoon, when cloud cover often crests the mountains and sweeps down toward the plains. She stands, moves the child carefully as he dozes from his basket to a sling she wears across her chest, and steps out into the kitchen to say that she is going for a walk.
Tobias, the youngest Hudak boy, hears this as an invitation for the family in its entirety to go out, and he tugs at his mother's dress.
Matka, pod'me!
But his mother tells him that they can't go because there is work still to do, and it is Auntie Liz who wants to go with baby Jozef so that the two can get some air.
If he's underfoot, she says to Anna, I don't mind taking him with me.
Oh, Lizzie, he's always underfoot, Anna says, wiping her hands on her apron. She is pregnant, too, now, and
near term, and bears her condition heavily not just at the hips but in her face and eyes with a visible disquiet. Go by yourself before it gets too late.
Tobias insists. Prosím, Matka. Pod'me, he pleads.
Anna wonders why the pull is so strong. If she hasn't paid him enough attention in the last several months? Or if it's her sister-in-law to whom her son is attracted, which is likely, she thinks as she considers the young woman before her as though for the first time, a face that shows no lines yet of age, a voice that speaks in notes of affection, which grace her infant son continuously and without conscious effort, and the angelic quality of possessing strength beneath a slight beauty, so that she seems to become a different woman altogether whenever she so much as turns her head or changes position.
At the table, the men talk and drink as though in another room, and Ondrej Vinich, who is indifferent to their company, rises and excuses himself. He hears the conversation between his wife and sister, sees them through the open curtain, and for a moment wonders who the beautiful woman with the sleeping child is. The distance between them pains him, and he regrets his harsh tone that morning and other mornings, so that he feels for an instant the desire to forgo his trip to Leadville and to walk with his wife for the few hours of quiet she seeks, but the thought dissipates. He says good day to the men and leaves the women and children to themselves.
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