Joyland

a hub for short fiction

Excerpt from “The Lighthouse Road”

The Lighthouse Road is available now from Unbridled Books.

1.

(November 1896)

Some ancient cold had taken root in Thea Eide’s belly, a feeling she’d not yet had but one she knew meant the time was nigh to deliver her baby. She wanted to walk, felt she must walk. So she rose and stepped into the mess hall and lit a candle. She steadied herself with one hand on the long table, cradled her belly with the other, and began pacing up and down the hall, measuring her contractions by those laps around the board. The contractions started in the small of her back and reached around to her belly, where they paused and clenched. She paused, too, when the contractions burrowed in, and in the throes of each the absolute chill of the large room was brought down on her. In Norwegian, her mother and only tongue, she said, “My God, what now?”

She decided to start a fire. From the tinderbox she took the last scrolls of birch bark and set them under the wood already piled in the stove. She struck a match and lit the birch bark. The fire flared directly and before her next contraction the room was already warming. The mice sought the heat beneath the stove without the least fear, gawking at her with eyes the size of pencil tips.

She heard the wind raging outside but was unaware of the snow until she unlatched the door and pushed it open. The dark night was gleaming with snowfall. So much snow that she realized the impossibility of crossing the camp to the jakes. She said, “Mercy,” then hiked up her nightdress and leaned against the mess-hall wall.

When she stepped back into the mess she saw Abigail Sterle readying water for tea. “I’ll wake the brothers,” Abigail said. The sound of the old woman’s voice was a revelation. For more than a year Thea had worked beside Abigail without having heard it plainly. Abigail said no more, only braved the blizzard herself, leaving Thea to wonder why the brothers needed to be woken.

Since Thea discovered her pregnancy, she had avoided its consequences entirely. She had not made plans of any sort, had not prepared herself for the child’s arrival, had not considered how she might keep cooking for the jacks and raise an infant, much less how or where she might deliver the babe. Pacing the mess hall again, the candlelight casting eerie shadows over the pine-board walls, the fire rasping in the stove, she realized how imprudent she’d been. She thought, I’m foolish. Even as she reprimanded herself, another contraction—the strongest yet—clutched her womb.

What little she knew of these goings-on came from two memories. The first was of her mother in labor when Thea herself was but five years old. This was back in Norway, in their hovel on the treeless banks of Muolkot, across the harbor from Hammerfest. Candlelight flickered there, too, and her mother braced herself in bed, alone, while she labored. Her mother never made a sound beyond her harried breathing, and when the child was born still, she merely wrapped it in a blanket and set the corpse on the puncheon floor.

The second memory was more recent. As Thea voyaged across the Atlantic just more than a year before, her cabinmate had gone prematurely into a terrible labor. Thea fetched the ship’s surgeon herself, and during the tailing hours of a rough storm, she watched that child come into the world stillborn, too, so small the mother could hold it in the palm of her hand while she wept. In the early throes of her own labor, Thea understood the silence of her mother and the ululations of that woman aboard ship equally.

Abigail Sterle returned, bringing with her a gust of cold air and snow. She paused to feel Thea’s forehead, to make them each a cup of tea. “Drink this,” she instructed, then slunk into their chambers. When she returned to the mess hall a moment later she came carrying Thea’s eiderdown, her cape, her woolen hat. “Dress,” she said. “We’ll cover you with the goose feathers for the ride to town. I forgot your boots.”

Thea was about to take another step in her birthing march, but stopped. There was a sluice between her legs, an almost audible pop, and her socks were soaked with something warm and thicker than water. And then there was mud on the dirt floor. Abigail came with the boots, knelt before Thea, and said, “You’ve broken water.” She pulled Thea’s wool socks from her feet, put on her boots, and laced them up.

Outside, the camp foreman’s horse stood harnessed to his sleigh in the first inkling of light. The snow had buried everything. Thea was set in the sleigh, Abigail sat next to her, and the taller of the Meltmen boys took the reins and stood between the women’s four feet. His brother went into the mess to start the baking. As the horse pulled the sleigh past the jacks’ quarters, Thea saw the old bull cook walking toward the mess. No doubt on his way to help with breakfast in her absence. He was the last thing Thea saw before they turned up the ice road and into the trees.

She didn’t open her eyes again until they reached Gunflint a half hour later. Closer to the lake, the blizzard had a different shape and unruliness. Snow had drifted into sharp ridges all along the breakwater. In town—or what passed as town—the roads were covered in snow, so even the horse had trouble passing. There was no sound from the mill. The lights in the Traveler’s Hotel lobby were unlit. Even the dogs that usually ran the streets were nowhere to be seen. At Grimm’s apothecary, though, the large front window was aglow. The only sign of life in town. Frost crept down from the corners to cloud the glass.

Thea was by then in agony, but still she bore it. The Meltmen boy picked her up and trudged through the knee-deep snow to Grimm’s door, where he hammered on the glass. Before a minute passed he hammered again, and Hosea Grimm’s daughter, Rebekah, came hurrying across the storeroom floor. She opened the door and said, “Oh, dear,” and turned and hollered, “Hosea! Hosea! It’s Thea. Hurry.”

Inside the store the smell of roasting capon hanging in the air sickened Thea. She said, “Stink.” To which Rebekah replied, “That’s Thanksgiving dinner already in the oven.”

The Meltmen boy set Thea on her feet, tipped his hat, and left as though he’d just delivered a parcel.

Hosea Grimm, dressed only in his union suit and a matching toque, came down the stairs two at a time. “None of us was sure we’d get you here in time, Miss Eide. How far along are you?”

Thea, answering, fell into Grimm’s ready arms.