The summer I turned sixteen, the summer they mined out the mountain, our inn was full each night of men. Our tables overrun with them, soot-faced men, sparring and teeming like ant colonies, and not enough chairs.
Our town, Jeune, sat on the nosing slopes below Mount Navassa and stayed, even in summer, mostly cold. My mother gifted blankets to the men, knowing they would not have brought their own, knowing they’d expected sunshine, warm nights, a summer’s work. She sewed wool lining into their clothes and fleece into their boots. To the smaller ones, the ones hired to crawl down into crevices to set charges, she gifted my old button-downs.
And I, each morning I made their breakfasts, washed their dishes, and each evening I brought them drinks. They drank more than they ate, feuding constantly about who had the worst work, or who had worked more than the others, even though they all left in one hazy huddle each morning and returned the same each night. When they went finally to bed, their snores were like avalanches. Some talked in their sleep. They said the names of wives or other girls.
More than once someone would let out the name of my Gen.
More than once they leered at Gen when she arrived in the morning with the day’s milk, raising their voices, hooting, hollering disappointment when she asked, “Pari’s mom, can I please borrow Pari,” which is not my full name, which is, when shortened, a girl’s name, but which is what she has always called me. My mother would thank her for the milk, and give us leave for the afternoon; I flopped the dishrag down in the kitchen, and hung my apron on its hook, which always made them laugh and pucker their lips at me. Gen came and took my hand, and the mining men cooed us goodbye, calling us girlfriends, dollies, playmates.
That summer, the men injured from work on the mountain had stolen up my usual odd jobs from the neighbors, and the teachers weren’t coming back anymore for school, so I had no obstacles if I wanted to go with Gen every chance she gave me. We sat on the edge of the well and ate lunch together in the empty square, talking and talking while the men went up in the mountains to do their work. She asked questions about what the men did up there. She asked what I thought they were mining. She asked if they had said anything about the town, or about me, or about her. She wanted to know what they thought of this and that.
I told her the men ate and drank, that they fell asleep late and rose from bed early, before the light lifted over the mountains. I told her that whatever they were doing was dirty work, that they didn’t apologize when they smeared my mother’s mugs and my mother’s blankets black with their thumbprints. I told her they would leave as soon as they were done and she should stop wishing for outsiders to come and make a hostage of our town.
I was opinionated, then.
She asked what I thought I would do, when I became a man.
I always gave her the same answer. I said I would probably run the inn. I didn’t understand why she kept asking.
The sun climbed, melting the fog that clung to the peaks of the mountains. That summer, we spent so much time in the sun that we browned. Gen’s freckles got more vivid—dark dots scattered beneath her eyes. Mine disappeared.
If I asked Gen the same question—what she would do when she became a woman—she had answers that changed every day.
The big house at the north of our town belonged to the man who had put up the money for the men to come and do whatever they were doing to the mountain. He was never in residence; the lights were always out. No one knew where it was he was always off to. My mother only ever said he had many fingers in many pies.
As the other adults told it, he had been a land grabber, buying up farms and houses in the cheap parts of the continent in hopes of someday making a big sale. Furthermore, the rumor went, he had fathered many children on his way through. There was a story he’d left a child alone in the big house, heir to the impossible fortune, crying so loud it could be heard on the winter wind. Yet you’d think if there was a child in the mansion that there would be some lights.
Gen had a theory, growing up, that the child was secretly one of the girls of the village, adopted out and dressed down to hide her wealth, that if we paid enough attention to the bearing of the girls—whether they slouched or sat up straight in the schoolroom, whether the stalks of wheat they bound at harvest were even or poky, whether they jostled or waited their turn to pick up flowers from the street at May Parade—we would catch the marks of a girl born rich. One might tell an heiress from the manner of her milking, or her posture at the milking stool, or her care in carrying the cream down the steep path up to the larder. A princess might be found, unknown even to herself, in the guise of a mere milkmaid. Gen, who was orphaned, whose parents had left town when she was a baby, had a lot of incentive to invent this theory. I, fatherless myself, could understand the appeal.
In the time between devising the theory as a child and trying to live up to it, she grew surprisingly fine-mannered. She gained a certain posture, a certain imperiousness. She taught herself things our classmates didn’t bother with—money, medicine, and arts, like the piano. Another summer—one year before the men came—she sat at the piano, her legs tucked queenlike, her spine adjusted just so. Her chin borne up so her neck drew thin and long, loose waves, thick, dark like molasses spilling over the shoulders she kept bare in her overworn, see-through housedresses.
She played very pretty, though she only ever learned one song. It had a lot of long notes and some plinky chords like raindrops and a part near the end that sounded sadder than the rest, like someone had walked up and onward into the mountains until they caught their death, the way it happened in all our childhood ghost tales. Why didn’t she play something else, and who was she playing for, to play something so sad; why didn’t she ever put something warmer on. I couldn’t muster courage to ask her these things. I let her do as she wanted.
Mid-day, the sun passed over the mountains and over our heads, and we went out to eat our lunches and to ask each other about everything, like when it would come up some rain, and which crops would grow well this year, and whether I thought we’d talk always and eat our lunches here when we were old. I did not know what we would do, I told her. No one can know the future. I was too afraid to tell her what I hoped.
She asked why the teachers stopped coming out to teach us, and I repeated what we’d been told: that there were not really enough of us left at the right age to teach, and that the journey was too hard for them to keep making the trip. But, she pointed out, the men had come to us soon after that, had traveled here with all their baggage and carts filled with dynamite, and now the one road out of town was blocked off by their work, sledgehammered and blown apart. I asked Gen when she thought the road would be rebuilt. She looked prettier than ever, and maybe secretly rich, when she asked me:
“Since when have you ever wanted to leave?”
Well, this bit at my blood. For days her challenge hung around me like an ill-meaning spirit, echoing in my ears every time I tied my apron, shook out the rugs, allowed my mother a kiss. The men cooed my nickname, slapped my shoulders to prove them weak, and I formed a plan I had no interest in beyond saying it to Gen, beyond getting her to see I was willing to take a risk.
“Let’s go into the mansion,” I said.
“Why?” she said.
I laid out a plan. The man who owned the mansion was gone—she could see for herself his lights were always out. It would be easy, I told her, to climb over his iron gates, to drop down into his gardens, to run unseen among the improbable luxury of lawn ornaments, of overripe and forgotten trees. It would be easy, next, to pry open the window to his basement, to crawl into his underground rooms.
“Why, though?” she asked again.
“There’s got to be something great in there, valuable. And it’s just sitting there. Why not?”
She looked at me with her mouth cinched, the way she did when she was sizing up whether I was lying.