The Lorelei Signal

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Blanche's Last Spike

Written by Holly Schofield / Artwork by Marcia Borell

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The dirty November snow had hardened overnight into iron ridges where cart wheels, boot tracks, and the occasional long-tailed snowshoe had passed. Blanche slipped and slithered along the ruts that ran between the rows of white canvas tents and makeshift wood-framed buildings. She kept her gloved hands in her skirts for warmth although she longed to rub her aching temples. Her torment had increased all night as men worked around the clock on the nearby railroad tunnels, their misery, which accompanied each dynamite blast fed the demon fires that lurked between her ears.

 

Morning sun cut over the top of the Selkirk Mountains, bright but without heat. At least she still kept frostbite at bay. Blanche had been warm enough in the freightman’s bed last night and his groping—before he fell into his usual alcoholic stupor—tolerable. At fourteen, she wasn’t yet a whore and, despite Mama’s plans to deed her the brothel back in Falwell, she wouldn’t become a madam either.

 

She kept reminding herself she hadn’t run away, like a sullen child—she was running toward something. Toward the absence of pain.

 

 Her plan hadn’t worked so far. Here in Eagle Landing, dozens of miles from Falwell, Blanche was exposed to more raw misery. Pain roared into her head the closer she got to the workmen who were building this Canadian Pacific Railway, this monstrosity of metal and blood that slashed across the river valley.

 

And she had other problems. If she didn’t get to the cook tent soon, Cookie wouldn’t have time for her. Workmen clad in canvas coats tramped past, off to the current construction site half a mile from the makeshift town. Several freightmen harnessed their wagons for the day as they stamped their feet in the cold; their mules’ breath in huge white clouds around them.

 

Blanche skirted an Indian squaw then staggered as the woman’s suffering converted into Blanche’s fiery mental torment. The woman’s step grew lighter.

 

A Chinaman scuttled past in cotton slippers; his muffler wrapped tightly around his head. She’d heard tales of the Chinese camps—the bad food, the injuries, scurvy, and lice. Even if they would welcome a half-Chink whore’s daughter in their camp down closer to the river, she figured her head would explode from her accumulation of their collective agony, should she get too near. The Chinaman’s shuffling step didn’t change as some of his misery became her fiery pain. Some troubles were so great her effect was minor.

 

She hurried by two men discussing the upcoming celebration, a ceremony to mark the occasion of the CPR railroad finally reaching its end. One of them shot her an interested glance. She darted behind a reeking outhouse to wait until they moved on. Teeth chattering, she listened.

 

It seemed the railroad bosses were throwing a joining-up ceremony of the two bits of railroad—east and west—today, here in the middle of Eagle Landing. She pictured the tracks as a bird might see them, a narrow scar winding west all the way from Ontario, across a vast prairie, through the Rockies, ending here at the eastern edge of town. From the far western edge of Canada, over years, the soon-to-be-joined tracks had forged through a valley of green then tunneled in and out of the Monashee mountains, arriving yesterday at the western edge of town.

 

Eagle Landing was a curious place for a ceremony. It’d be more fitting to hold the celebration several hundred miles west, where Canada met the ocean—away from the mountains, away from the constant cold—a wonderful place called Granville where, they said, there was less struggle in every day. A place where the ground never froze and vegetables grew year around. A place where, perhaps, the reduced agony of those around her might lessen her own demon fires.

 

A place she was determined to reach.

 

~ * ~

 

She eased the cook tent flap aside and peered in. Cookie’s bulk hunched over the woodstove. She sidled closer and waited until he turned.

 

“I’ll make you a sausage if you give me a chunk o’ bread.” She forced a smile, suiting her action to her words. His crotch, under its wool layers, hardened against her hand.

 

“Get on wit’ ya.” He grinned lopsidedly and handed her a heel of bread topped with a smear of pork fat. She scooted to a bench in the corner, cradling it in her hands.

 

A short man in an unusually clean suit sat primly at the other end of the bench, working his way through a decent slab of salt pork and last night’s beans. She sized him up, like Mama had taught her. A dandy like this man wouldn’t be interested in Blanche’s half-breed “goods”. She didn’t have the nice blonde hair of Sweden-born Mama nor her creamy pale skin.

 

Everything had changed since her monthly bleeding had begun last year. Men kept staring at her, her head had begun this unbearable agony, and Mama had insisted on renaming her “Blanche” since it fit the bawdy house image better than her birth name of “Gunvor”.

 

The short fellow had pins stuck through his cuffs. Silver pins! Blanche’s breath caught. So precious, all the way from the east, over the mountains. They would have to last this fellow, who must be a tailor, until spring.

 

Only silver could relieve her demon fires, drench the suffering that gathered in her head, the sum of the torment that surrounded her.

 

She edged closer to him, as if craving the stove’s heat. The tent flapped opened and several men strode in, talking and gesturing. The last man, a very thin, very tall white man clad in furs like a Malakwa Indian, exclaimed, “Blue Jesus, it’s cold!” before joining the other men around the stove.

 

Blanche laid one hand on the tailor’s arm and pointed with the other. “Oh, looky, the president of the CPR!” It came out smoothly, sincerely, just the way she intended.

 

“Silly git,” sputtered the tailor. “It’s just that surveyor, MacDougall. Come in last night down the tote road.”

 

“Oh, I’m terribly sorry, my poor eyes led me astray,” Blanche simpered. She stuffed the rest of her bread in her mouth and squeezed past along the tent wall.

 

A minute by the stove to gather some warmth and then she stepped lively, past the gamey-smelling, fur-clad gentleman—even his boots were thick, warm fur!—and out the door.

 

It wasn’t until she was across the main clearing and on the narrow path towards the river she dared open her hand to confirm what she’d lifted. Silver-plated pins, three of them. She almost cried with relief. The demon pains could be sent away and her accursed suffering could stop.

 

At least for today.

 

~ * ~

 

The river roared by, almost loud enough to drown out the construction noises. Thirsty, but afraid the Chinamen’s camp upstream had dirtied the water too badly, Blanche ate a small clump of the freshest-looking snow.

 

She kicked clear a spot of snow next to a young hemlock then hitched up her skirts and bent down. With effort, she stuck the pins into the frozen dirt, a few inches apart. She focused, muttering under her breath “back whence you came” and other phrases she’d garnered from bible thumpers and such. Praying did nothing, of course, but the rote mumbling did help her concentrate. A deep breath, a hand spread across the pins, and she gathered the maelstrom in her head, a burning ball of flame.

 

After a long while, the evil fire flowed down her neck and then into the silver pins. She rocked back on her heels. Her sweat-covered forehead stung in the cold, a clean feeling—like peppermint tea.

 

The pins would only hold so much. Some of the burning pain still hovered in her brow, skulking, waiting to gather again the minute she came close enough to someone to absorb their miseries.

 

Since the demon fires invaded her skull last year, the hunt for a cure had consumed her. Mama’s whiskey only dulled the agony for a while. Sleeping draughts were hard to come by and left her weak and unable to do her chores. In desperation, three months ago she’d carried Mama’s best carving knife into the woodshed, figuring one type of pain might cancel out another. Despite her efforts to keep still as she drove the knife into her foot, she flinched and it merely sheared off a chunk of skin before it struck deep into the loose dirt. Desperate to yank it out before Mama missed it, she grabbed the silver-inlaid handle and felt the lessening, the easing, the draining of her torment, downward into the soil. She ran into the house, waving the dirt-covered knife, screaming. Mama seized her wrists and forced her to drop the knife.

 

“You remember this, ja,” she said. “My mama and her mama and all their mamas back for as far as anyone can remember, they have the burning pain. They lived with it and you will learn to live with it, too.”

 

“But, Mama, the knife, it drew out the pain! It drew it right out, like…like sucking poison out of a snake bite!”

 

“Foolish child, there is no cure. The burning pain is always with us. It’s our female penance, our curse. I prayed you would be a boy but the gods didn’t listen. Somewhere in our past, we did wrong to the Trollkärringar or maybe the Huldar, and there’s no righting it. It only stops when...”—Mama paused—“when you give birth to a daughter.” Then she had beat Blanche with a stick of kindling to reinforce the lesson.

 

The discovery of silver’s power was worth the beating and the scar that gleamed whitely against her brown foot. Since then, Blanche had experimented with coins, hinges, and once a belt buckle that had cost her a good licking, but only long thin pieces of silver worked.

 

Blanche got to her feet, chilled by the breeze off the river, lightheaded the way the demon-clearing always left her.  Her stomach growled but what was a bit of hunger when demon fires always threatened to overwhelm her? If only she could get to Granville, her troubles would be over.

 

There was no going back. Eventually, in her quest for silver, she’d stolen a handful of fancy hatpins from Falwell’s fanciest dressmaker. The demon fires had stayed away for a whole week but she’d had to catch a ride down the tote road to Eagle River. No one, not even Mama, could have kept her out of jail after the mounted police laid charges.

 

Voices came from up the bank, above the river’s roar. The ceremony was getting itself together.

 

She scuffed snow over the three pins and their dark evil. The demon fires would disappear out of the pins into the soil over the next hour or so—sly as a snake slipping between two rocks. She could push the pins in the ground farther with a bit of hurt and the earth would grab the evil that much faster but why bother? No one was likely to find them today, and they were of no more use to her—they would never have power again.

 

She blew out a breath, long and white. There was no choice but to head back to the railroad town. Across the river, spruce and hemlock crowded together, all the way to the shoulders of the mountains. Silent green forests, with nary a person, empty of emotion and despair.

 

She rubbed her cold hands together. Even if she could build a cabin and get tools and seeds, she couldn’t really be a hermit. No one could live in the mountains for long, not when it got so cold a bucket of water left out at night would go solid by morning. Not when the growing season was two months long and potatoes froze in their beds by early September.

 

And she couldn’t live with the Indians, eating pemmican and berries. She’d tried just that, last year, stumbling between shrubs and into the Indian village. The squaws had stroked her skin, probably pleased with the brown color, and an old woman with just one eye had braided some fish grease into Blanche’s thick black hair. The Indian men had watched suspiciously, muttering in their language, a couple of them swigging from liquor bottles. A baby in one of the pit houses had cried incessantly.

 

Mama, flanked by two of her bodyguards, had strode into the village hours later. Blanche’s head had been so full of fiery agony by then, she had sat rocking back and forth, keening like the baby. Mama made her stern face and had a bodyguard carry Blanche all the way back to the bawdy house. Another licking, worse this time.

 

Somewhere, people must live without so much suffering. Somewhere, there must be a place of hope and goodness.

 

Granville.

 

But how was she to earn the fare to head farther west, when she couldn’t even keep herself fed or the demon fires at bay?

 

Maybe the ceremony would have an answer. She headed up the bank, her skirts catching on rose thorns, slipping in the snow.

 

~ * ~

 

In the clearing, important looking gentlemen in beaver top hats and fancy overcoats milled around, all sharp gestures and loud instructions. A better dressed man with a notebook stood scribbling as a photographer set up his tripod. Carpenters pounded nails in fresh-cut lumber, building a platform with stairs.

 

At the end of the west-bound track, next to a fancy private rail car, a large blond security man watched over everything. The car looked as warm as toast. Blanche edged nearer.

 

The rails were still about a quarter mile apart. Work crews frantically laid ties on the growing gravel bed then pounded in spikes, trying to close the gap.

 

“Outa da way!”  A crew boss yelled and waved a fist. Blanche scooted to one side, nearer the tents.

 

With sick fascination, Blanche’s eyes were drawn to the Chinamen endlessly trundling wheelbarrows of gravel, back and forth, back and forth, like ants from a drop of honey. Stone by stone, rail by rail, tie by tie, the steel line used the Chinamen’s torment to inch across the land. Blanche’s head began a familiar hot thrum.

 

Chinamen suffered more than the Indians. They had come over the sea by the thousands in fetid, dark ships—crowded like cordwood. They worked like the dickens despite their small size and haunted eyes. For they all had haunted eyes.

 

Even her father.

 

She wasn’t completely sure Wing was her father but Mama had acted all fidgety when they’d passed him on Main Street last year. He was a tall, strapping Chinaman with smooth bronzy skin and clean black hair—no braided queue for him. Blanche had heard Lily and Tanya at the brothel gossip about his size after one of his midnight visits. She asked the butcher and found out Wing was a prospector, and a fairly successful one, despite getting paid less than a white man got for each ounce of gold.

 

Then, a month later, Wing stopped Blanche in the street as she ran errands for Mama. He’d silently handed her a small, brown candy. She’d stared after him, long after he’d strode around a corner. The sweet tasted nasty and she spit it out but kept what it was wrapped in. The waxy paper and its funny squiggly symbols were one of the few things she regretted leaving behind when she had run away. But that loss, and the increased demon pains here in Eagle Landing, were worth it if only she could get to Granville.  Easier living in the warmth of the coast, fish for the taking, potatoes as big as her fist: all that had to mean less misery for everyone, which meant less demon pain for her.

 

A foreman in a cloth cap was pointing to the iron rail in front of the scaffolding. A shiny spike jutted about seven inches above the rail, stuck loosely into the metal plate next to the tie: a solid rod, clean and bright against the dirty snow. “Give it a little tap, just so’s it stands up. It’s silver-plate, so not too hard, now.”

 

Blanche clutched the nearest tent rope. Silver!

 

The worker, a little Italian with muscular arms, swung his maul in a short, restrained arc. The spike sunk in an inch or two and the worker looked up, enquiringly.

 

“Good. It’s ready for Mr. Smith.” The foreman gestured with a gloved hand. “Move the extra rails back to the construction car. Quick, now!”

 

Blanche peeked around the corner of the tent until the clearing was momentarily empty. A sparrow called from the woods, and the heavy clang of the mauls played counterpoint a few hundred yards away. The demon fires seared through her head. The spike shone up at her, almost with a light of its own.

 

She shifted closer and drew her hand down the shaft of the spike. Cold as ice, a soothing, pleasant cold. Dare she? She bent nearer, almost touching her forehead to the wonderful spike. What sweet relief it would be, to push the demon fires from her head down that shaft into the sponge of the Earth.

 

Before she even realized it, she gathered the fires in her head, forming a pulsating ball of flames, throbbing like never before. All that was evil for miles around—the bloody heaves of the Chinamen with scurvy, the agony of a hand caught by a maul, the inner cries of the Italian who knew he’d never see a tree called an olive again. She thought her head would split wide open. With a sharp cry, she threw the dark mass downward into the spike. It seemed to shudder under her hand for long, long moments.

 

And then it was over.

 

She sat up, wiped the sweat cascading down her forehead. The sparrow still called from the woods. The men still worked a short distance away. It was as if nothing had changed.

 

Yet, the men’s voices sounded lighter, their burdens not so heavy. A laugh, then a second heartier one. A workman broke out into a cheery whistle.

 

Blanche leaned against the platform, frozen to the bone, hungry again, without a coin to her name or a bed to call her own—and she smiled.

 

By the time the bigwigs had gathered a short time later, ready for the formal celebration, Blanche was almost giddy. The demons’ fire glowed only faintly, more damped than since blood had first stained her undergarments last year. The workmen still laughed and a few had burst into joyful singing. The crowd’s murmurings were full of hope and pleasantries. Blanche’s heart was light even as her stomach ached, hollow with hunger. Maybe part of the celebrations today would involve food. She pushed through the crowd, past a plump man in a waistcoat, and peered around another man clad in brown pelts.

 

“Stay back, girl.” It was MacDougall, the surveyor from the cook tent. He smiled as he shoved her with one large hard hand and commented to the beaver-hatted man next to him: “A woman is no different than a horse or a dog. Treat them firmly and they follow direction.”

 

The other man laughed and clapped him on the back. “Indians and half-breeds are no different, good sir.”

 

What would they compare her to if they knew she was half-Chink? She forced her way through a knot of foremen gathered a bit farther down the track and managed to squeeze her way to the front enduring only what Mama called a fanny pat. Easy joking surrounded her.

 

A large black-whiskered man in a fine overcoat, introduced by a nervous foreman as Mr. Van Horne, said a few fancy words from the platform before joining the crowd. Then a tall man with a white beard—the Mr. Smith the workmen had mentioned—stood by the bit of rail that was to join east and west. He droned on for a bit, something about this being the last spike. There was still no sign of food.

 

Finally Mr. Smith picked up the maul, staggering a bit at the weight. He approached the silver pike. Blanche gasped. All the bad feeling would still be in that spike—it would probably burn a person’s mind up if they touched flesh to it just now.

 

Mr. Smith hefted the maul onto his shoulder, waved off an offer of help, and swung. The head of the maul hit the spike awkwardly, sliding sideways onto the rail itself with a loud off-key clang. The spike bent and several of the men cursed.

 

“No matter,” declared Mr. Van Horne. “Place another spike, Mr. Johansson.”

 

“Yah, Mr. Van Horne, sir.” The big Swedish security guard stepped forward and used a long forked tool to pry out the bent silver spike and lay it to one side, leaving it still clasped in the arms of the tool. Blanche held fast to her spot in the crowd, watching the bent spike, during the short delay while a new spike—a regular iron spike—was found. Mr. Smith, red-faced, swung harder this time, pounding the new spike home with a solid blow.

 

The bigwigs held their positions for a long minute as the photographer captured the scene in a burst of light. Everyone surrounding Blanche clapped. The bent spike lay where it had been placed, ignored, until Mr. Van Horne finally picked it up. He grimaced and almost fell but caught himself and placed it in his overcoat’s large pocket. He cleared his throat before he spoke to Mr. Smith. “A historic day indeed. We’ll make some fine ornaments for our wives and daughters with this.”

 

Within minutes, the crowd dispersed. The bosses and workmen got back to work.  Mr. Van Horne and the other gentlemen entered the fancy rail car with the big guard, Johansson, trailing behind. A bitter wind swept brown leaves through the now-empty clearing.

 

~ * ~

 

Blanche wandered through the rail town for hours. Colors were brighter and even the distant mountains were clear and sharp. The absence of the demon fires was so unfamiliar a sensation she kept having to remind herself that she wasn’t dreaming; She thought her head might float off into the sky. She almost laughed aloud until she recalled the bent spike in Van Horne’s pocket, oozing black fumes of evil.

 

There was nothing she could do to stop the evil fires transferring out. And why should she care about some rich men? Besides, they wouldn’t listen to someone like her. She would only get kicked at like the whore’s daughter she was.

 

She finally sat on the lowest step at the back end of the private car. The town, a hundred yards away, bustled with activity as the work site was dismantled, even as the sun began to lose color behind the darkening mountain range. She tried to focus on the drinking toasts and happy shouts erupting from the rail car, sharing in their joy as best she could.

 

At last, the moon rose and cheery lamp light shone out the windows of the car. She picked clumps of frozen mud off the hem of her skirt. She should really go to find a tent to spend the night in before the temperature dropped further. She’d just rest for a minute first.

 

The creak of the car door woke her. Johansson came out, releasing a burst of warm air and the scent of kerosene lanterns. He stood at the far edge of the railcar’s platform, not seeing her in the darkness, and began unbuttoning his trousers.

 

“Sir?” Her voice was rough after hours without water. “Mr. Johansson?”

 

“Yah startled me, girly. What do yah want, then?” He occupied himself with pissing noisily onto the tracks.

 

In her sleep, she’d made a decision. She didn’t like it but, as Mama would say, that was that. Nobody, not the beat-down Chinamen, not the angry Indians, not even the rich gentlemen playing cards, should have to suffer one whit more than they had to. If she had a chance to reduce the world’s misery by even one tiny scrap, she should—no matter how hard it might be.

 

She gathered her courage. “I’ll do anything, anything you want, and…you can do anything to me that you want, if only—” She finished in a rush. “If only you’ll give me the spike that got bent.”

 

He tucked himself back in and laughed, not unkindly. A gold tooth gleamed as he turned toward her. “What would yah want with that, then? The offer’s mighty tempting but that silver spike is worth more than my job, ja? Stay here and I’ll grab yah some white cake, how’s about that, then.” The door swung shut behind him.

 

She sighed. What it must be like to have enough. To possess that luxury he had—the luxury of kindness.

 

Perhaps she’d have it someday. Maybe, if she could earn the fare, she’d get to Granville, where it never snowed and men didn’t die pushing iron rails through a mountain. Maybe such a luxury—to give when she could have taken—would be hers someday. She, a thieving two-bit almost-whore, would make a first step in that direction, right now. She stood and stamped her feet to get the feeling back in them.

 

He returned in a minute, handing her a small square of powdery white cake in a rough man’s handkerchief. “Go home, girly. There’s no place for you here.”

 

She brushed his hand aside, burst past him, and flung open the door. Several men, Van Horne and Mr. Smith among them, looked up from their table, playing cards in their hands. She spotted the bent spike next to Van Horne’s sleeve, and, amid the startled shouts, grabbed it and kept running. A quick palm to the far door, smacking it back against the wall, and she was out. The railing slammed into her hip as she scrambled down the metal stairs, the spike like hot coals in her clenched fist.

 

Shouts echoed after her as she raced downslope towards the river, following the path she’d taken that morning. In the darkness, branches smacked her face and brambles clawed her skirts.

 

~ * ~

 

The shouts diminished as she went along the shore, downstream into the pitch black where the moon couldn’t reach. They’d likely send Johanssan after her or some workmen, but it would take time to get lanterns lit and a team together. Hastily she scraped aside snow and grabbed a fist-sized rock as soon as her eyes adjusted to the gloom. She held the bent spike over the frozen ground and pounded it as hard as she could. Needles of fire pierced her brain, sending her reeling. She braced against a log and tried again. One hit with the rock, two, and the spike sank a bit into the hard mud.

 

Finally, the spike stood by itself. She let the rock fall, surprised to see blood dripping from a cut on her palm. Her only handkerchief, packed with snow and tied tightly, made a good tourniquet. She paced back and forth on the gravelled shoreline for hours until she judged the spike had cleansed itself. She wiggled it loose from the soil and hooked it over her wrist. A fold in her coat kept the icy touch from her skin.

 

Exhausted, she manoeuvred up the rise back to the railcar, clutching shakily at branches, sliding down a step for each two she took.

 

The gentlemen still played cards, to judge from the lamplight and the exclamations floating out through a small window cracked open for air. Farther away, in the tent camp, voices of various nationalities sung bawdy songs and gave joyous shouts. Blanche had made Eagle Landing a town without pain, for a while.

 

She crept toward the back of the railcar, feeling exposed in the moonlight. Another few feet to the first metal step. She’d lay the silver spike there where they’d see it in the morning.

 

Another few inches forward. The hand on her arm almost made her scream.

 

“Vat you doing, girly? I ought to tan your backside!” Johansson smelled of whiskey and meat.

 

“Here, take it. I’m done with it!” She thrust the spike at him.

 

“Vat? Yah don’t want it anymore?” He fumbled the spike in the half-darkness, then tucked it away in his coat. “Yah are a funny one, ja?”

 

“Tell them you caught me. Tell them you beat me. They’ll like that.”

 

His grip on her arm tightened. “Yah caused me a lot of trouble!”

 

“Tell them you found the silver spike. Let them reward you!”

 

Johansson brought his hand up to his mouth.  His gold tooth flashed as the moonlight shone on the chicken leg he held. Another bite, and another. Blanche’s stomach clenched.

 

“All right, girly. I’ve no mind for beating little girls. Off with yah now.” He waved the chicken bone dismissively.

 

Hunger made her reckless. “Is there any more chicken? I can, um, pay you? With…”

 

With what? Somehow, she had to resist doing what Mama did. Somehow, it was important to keep on not doing that thing—that would be a luxury, a kindness to herself. But what else, besides her body, did she have to pay with?

 

Some men liked to hear the language of their homeland. But Mama had never taught her Swedish; her face had darkened whenever Blanche had asked about the “old country”. Some things were made to be left behind, Mama usually answered.

 

“A story! I’ll pay you with a story! I know the Swedish folk tales from my Mama! Do you want to hear about the troll at the bottom of the lake?”

 

Johansson chuckled. “A Swede, ja? Yah don’t look like a Swede. But yah have the pluck of one, girly.” He reached onto the car platform and pulled a plate of golden-brown chicken legs into the light. Blanche’s legs wobbled at the sight and she sat on the lower step before launching into the tale, half-remembered from her mother’s not-quite-sober bedtime ramblings. Before long, Johansson was correcting her and she listened, munching on the chicken.

 

~ * ~

 

The next day, snow drifted down in small dry particles. From her perch on the back of the wagon, Blanche watched the freightman urge the mules down the trail with a phlegmy “Hee-ya!” She’d paid him the fare with a series of bawdy jokes, promising him saucier ones tonight. With a clearer head, free of the demons, the jokes came easily. She’d keep the coins Johansson had given her for fare to Granville for when she got there—splurging one on a fresh peach, maybe, sweet from being bathed by the warm coastal sun.

 

She looked back at the ramshackle town. Canvas was being stripped off tent poles. Dunnage bags were everywhere, guarded by sullen men who would soon be out of work. She had the tiniest of headaches—a warning that her demon fires would soon return.

 

As the townsite shrank behind her, she could just make out the surveyor, MacDougall, as he burst out of his tent, bare feet hopping on the snow, furs wrapped around his long johns. He shook his fist at her and shouted something, too far away to hear. She let his curses and his anger fall away like snowflakes from her hair.

 

She tucked her feet, cozy in their new thick fur boots, under the Hudson’s Bay blanket, and craned forward. Past the freightman’s shoulder, the Monashee mountains lay sheathed in clouds. The next fortnight, going west in the winter, would be rough travel. But, somewhere on the other side, was Granville.

 

More sunshine, more food, less snow and hardship. People in Granville would be nicer there since life was kinder to them. It only stood to reason. The demon fires would be smaller and easier to keep at bay. She could work toward that luxury of kindness she’d glimpsed. It was the best she could hope for.

 

And—whatever happened—at least she’d be warm.

Originally published in Neo-Opsis in 2016

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Holly Schofield.jpg

Holly Schofield travels through time at the rate of one second per second, oscillating between the alternate realities of city and country life. Her speculative fiction has appeared in many publications including Analog, Lightspeed, and Escape Pod, is used in university curricula, and has been translated into several languages.

 

She hopes to save the world through science fiction and homegrown heritage tomatoes.

 

Find her at hollyschofield.wordpress.com.