One week after the fire claimed her grown son and English setter, her horses and wagons, her rifles and ledgers, her personal library, her precisely calibrated lab instruments and voluminous notebooks in which she’d recorded her secret chemical formulae, Hilda Whitby stood with her back to the riverbank and surveyed for a final time the scorched two-acre parcel where the house, barn, and lumber mill once stood. Despite the warm weather, she wore a heavy cotton dress that reached to her ankles, one of the few garments that had survived the explosion and the one she wore to the funeral held in the Methodist churchyard overlooking the valley. To a leather leg strap under her skirt, she fastened a dissection knife salvaged from the smoldering pile of debris that once served as her private laboratory. The seven-inch blade might prove useful should she happen upon one of the desperate highwaymen known to roam the locks after sundown. While the canal had brought prosperity to the valley, it had also brought plenty of mischief.
Using the same horse blanket she’d been beating with a leather strap outside the stable moments before the explosion, she bundled a change of clothes and adequate provisions for a journey of three or four days. Without the faintest idea of where she might go, Hilda slung the blanket over her shoulder and began walking north along the towpath. By then, the morning mist had already lifted, and she could see the stooped silhouettes of her neighbors as they toiled in the fields. She did not dwell for long on the scandal her sudden absence was bound to create.
The evening before the burial, she stepped outside the inn where she’d taken up residence. She limped as she walked, her swollen right leg having been grazed by a hemlock beam when she charged into the lab and tried to rescue her son from the flames. She barely noticed the pain. Her rage took care of that. She’d wanted to scatter her son’s ashes in the river but, given the circumstances, opted to bury his remains according to custom. From a ridge overlooking the valley, she had an unobstructed view of the canal. When completed, it would connect dozens of frontier outposts and mist-shrouded hamlets, creating the first direct route between the Ohio River and Lake Erie. A marvel of modern engineering, or so she once believed. As she traced its future path and watched the laborers digging the shallow trench inch by inch toward the distant forest, she regarded the canal as an unsightly scar maliciously carved into the valley’s delicate spine. The sun had just set, but the men, painfully thin, grotesquely muscled, continued to drive their pickaxes and shovels through layers of shale and into limestone. Teams of mules hauled away cartloads of fossilized plants and animals. Things of unknown origin, of incalculable age, of deepest mystery. When she returned to her room, she had decided on an epitaph for the slate headstone. What we know is very little, but what we are ignorant of is immense.
After the services, she removed the borrowed black veil and marched into town to confront the engraver in his workshop. She accused him of having deliberately mangled the inscription so that it read Those who are ignorant of the Lord know very little. Without setting aside his chisel and hammer or paying her the respect of looking her in the eye, the engraver bent over a marble slab and blew away a pyramid of dust from the face of a half-finished cherub. “May I remind you, Mrs. Whitby,” he said, “that the markers for which I am paid stand in a Christian cemetery, not outside a university library. Or some heathen temple.” After a brief, heated exchange, he begrudgingly refunded her the five dollars. It was the only cash she carried on her person.
Now, having walked more than ten miles along the towpath, Hilda no longer thought of the headstone. Brought on perhaps by the irregular rhythm of her footfalls, she entered into a kind of trance. Her mind was blissfully empty; her body felt light. Rather than endure the torment of stuffing her swollen and blistered feet into her boots, she went barefoot in the style of the laborers and soon learned to tolerate the sharp sting of stones grinding into her heels and wedging between her toes. She grew accustomed to the crude jokes and muttered propositions. Never once did she consider wearing a black veil.
That night she took shelter among the laborers in their derelict camp. Those who could read and write removed their hats after she introduced herself. They had seen her name in the newspapers and offered their condolences in solemn tones. A few gently berated her for her act of bravery, extraordinary though it was. She was fortunate, they said, not to have been pinned beneath a falling timber and burned alive. Hilda ignored these remarks and accepted their hospitality of food and drink. Around the campfires, the men spoke of their own mishaps and tragedies. Some regaled her with the myths and legends of their homes across the sea. Like everyone else in this world, they had their share of gods and devils, so many that Hilda had difficulty keeping track of them all.
One man, a pitiable fool if ever she’d seen one, jittery, already balding in his youth, his vacant eyes riveted to the flying embers, told her how he’d spent his childhood on a dismal little rock pile in the middle of Lake Erie. From his coat pocket, he withdrew a small silver anchor festooned to a chain, and in a small, raspy voice that slowly worked its way into an agitated squeak, he described how early one morning, before the first rooster crowed, he once saw a whirling disc of color descend from the fading stars and hover over the dark waves.
“Sailors tell of strange machines that visit the lakes when the water is calm and the sky clear. Electric skyships, they call them. I have no opinion about the origin or purpose of these luminous objects. I only know that, on my island, they seemed to be attracted to the sea caves along the cliff walls. When I was a boy, my mother warned my sister and me to watch for the Travelers who gathered in the caves to plot their nightly mischief. My mother loved that view. She’d walk along the cliffs and stare for hours at the waves crashing into the rocks below.”
The man leaned forward, the firelight gleaming on his high forehead, and let the chain swing in bright flashing arcs between his fingers.
“Well, early one morning, the entire town heard my mother’s screams. Not the usual sorts of screams you’re likely to hear behind closed doors. In a village like ours, there are no secrets. Thirty cabins crammed along a single street of mud. A schoolhouse that never opened. A saloon that never closed. A lighthouse, a church, a jail. At the sound of her shrieks, everyone came running. When she was finally calm enough to speak, my mother kept whispering the same word over and over again. ‘The Travelers, the Travelers.’ ”
The man rocked back and forth on his haunches and dragged his fingers through his thinning red hair.
“The entire town helped search for my sister,” he said. “Five years old she would have been at the time. We slept in the same bed in the back of the cabin. My father asked where she’d gone, but I didn’t know. He shook me so hard I thought my head might snap from my neck. Now here was a man that survived storms on the lake and nearly froze to death one winter when his boat capsized far from the nearest ice floe. What choice did he have? We were hungry and desperate for food. But courageous though he was, there was no mistaking the terror on his face.”
The man filled his tin cup with more whisky.
“The neighbors checked every cabin. They looked under every jetty and searched every vessel. By then, the constable had come riding up the road. Someone must have summoned the law, not because they suspected my mother of any wrongdoing, but because they held a grudge against her and wanted to watch her suffer. Small towns can be like that, you know. Resentments last a long time.”
Hilda nodded. Yes, she knew what he meant.
“The constable prided himself on his education. Studied law, he said, somewhere back east, natural philosophy, too, and he didn’t put much stock in the silly superstitions of a fisherman’s wife. For thirty minutes, he interrogated my mother. When he was finished, he stood on our porch and announced to the entire town that a hideous crime had been committed. He dragged my screaming mother, still in her nightgown, from the cabin. No one, not even my father, spoke a word in her defense. It took three men to wrestle her into the back of the wagon and hogtie her. You’d think I’d start wailing, but to be honest, the thing hissing and thrashing in the cart and raving about bright spinning orbs didn’t look like my mother. Her face had changed, and I thought she was someone else. Last I heard, she was still alive. Locked up in some big clinic in Cleveland. I guess the doctors use the latest scientific treatments there.”
Around the fire, there was a long silence. The men rolled their cigarettes and swatted the mosquitoes that had made so many of them ill. There were whispers that a serious fever had wiped out an entire camp fifty miles away. To break the silence, the men asked Hilda where she was heading. They knew she was once a woman of considerable means and might wish to employ the services of an armed escort. She thanked them for their kindness but declined their generous offers. After saying goodnight to the young man and her other hosts, Hilda stood up, brushed the dust from her skirt, and wandered off to a relatively quiet corner of the camp. For the camps were never entirely quiet, and certainly not tonight as it was payday. There were drinking contests and wrestling matches and the usual threats of murder.
On a small patch of trampled grass, she wrapped herself in the rough blanket and gazed at the spinning constellations. She considered the young man’s story and wondered what intelligences lurked out there among the stars and the vast spaces in between.
Hilda had only just closed her eyes when she felt a cold hand crawling across her shoulder and down to her waist. She remained perfectly still, breathing lightly, and then, in one swift motion, withdrew the knife from under her skirt and plunged it into a trembling bare buttock. The camp was a pandemonium of screeching fiddles and drunken laughter, and no one seemed to hear the wretched howl of pain and the pitiful whimpers that followed.
Her assailant stumbled into the shadows, a moaning apparition yanking up his threadbare britches. She decided to move closer to the fires, but as she rolled up her blanket, she found, wedged into the ground near her feet, a silver anchor affixed to a chain. After she wiped the dripping blade across the grass, she grabbed the charm and slipped it into a pocket sewn inside her bodice.
Three days later, against her better judgment, Hilda accepted a ride in a covered wagon from a self-proclaimed apothecary who, above the sound of clinking bottles, told her how he’d just returned from Europe where for the better part of a year he’d studied alchemy and the dark arts under the tutelage of a famous Swiss physician.
Hilda resisted the urge to roll her eyes. During her days at the mill, she’d encountered many such men. In good weather and bad, they came hauling wagons full of junk along the towpath. Always dressed in the same flamboyant outfits better suited for the stage than the frontier, they tried with their carefully rehearsed speeches to sell useless salves and elixirs or the latest contraptions guaranteed to make life more convenient for pioneer families. She’d seen calibrated scales, electric batteries, and a wheeled machine with rotating blades that cut grass. She’d seen matches, too. Boxes of matches. An invention so obvious and simple Hilda couldn’t believe she’d never thought of it. Dried blobs of antimony sulfide and potassium chlorate at the tips of the short wooden sticks.
The apothecary turned to her and said, “The good doctor lived in a stone house on the shores of a beautiful lake. In his personal library, he kept under lock and key books of great antiquity written in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Sanskrit. From those books, I learned the secrets of my trade. And what, precisely, is my trade?”
He reached down and, from a wooden crate at his feet, produced a small brown bottle.
“This, madam, is a refreshing tonic of carbonated water and pure cane sugar with beneficial additives obtained by my own hand from this sacred forest you see all around us. Sacred because, once distilled, these additives release a powerful spirit, so the Indians tell me. A spirit that gives to all who drink it a remarkable burst of energy.”
He handed her the bottle and tipped his wide-brimmed hat.
“With my compliments, Miss…”
“Whitby,” she answered.
“You’ll find, Miss Whitby, that my beverage sharpens the senses and brightens the mood. But as I am an honest man, I must warn you that it has also proven habit-forming. People who enjoy one bottle crave another and another.”
Although it was foolish to trust the nonsensical blather of a man who in all likelihood was peddling poison, Hilda uncorked the bottle and took an experimental sip.
“Sweet,” she said, her eyes growing wide. She clutched the side of the wagon and let out a mighty belch that echoed through the valley. “Beg your pardon.”
The man slapped his knee. “No need to apologize! That’s the carbonation talking, a technology new to this country. My mentor bottled his first seltzer in Geneva many years ago, and I’m proud to say I’m the first American to bring it this far west.”
Parched after a long day’s travel under the summer sun, she couldn’t resist drinking the rest of the contents in a single, breathless gulp. The apothecary laughed, took the empty bottle from her hand, and placed it back in the crate with a dozen other empties that rattled and clanked as the wagon jounced along the path.
“Makes me jittery,” she said, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.
“Its effects are readily felt. Why, you may even be inspired to unhitch my old mare and pull this wagon yourself to the next town. Yes, if the engineers and foremen were truly determined to stay on schedule and open this canal by the end of next year, they would consent to buy my product by the barrel. Keep those ditch diggers working at maximum efficiency. Unfortunately, quantities of my product are limited to what I can transport along these rough and rutted roads. Ah, but once the canal is finished, I’ll be able to ship my product by barge across the state.…”
He trailed off and turned to Hilda as if noticing his passenger for the first time. His eyes drifted to her ragged dress and filthy feet.
“Whitby, did you say? Sounds familiar. You a relation of those folks who operated the mill along the river up north?”
“Well, thank goodness for that. Terrible tragedy. Seems there was an enormous chemical explosion. Flattened everything on the property. House, barn, mill. Even a few trees. Lucrative business reduced to ashes. Young man charred to a crisp. Happened two weeks ago, but the story has been in the papers again recently. It seems the woman who operated the mill has disappeared. No one knows where.” He leaned toward her and said, “I know it’s in bad taste to speak idly of such things, but the woman wasn’t married. She’d never been married. Didn’t seem to bother her in the least. Papers say it was almost a point of pride with her. Not sure her neighbors approved of such things. Anyway, she’s wanted for questioning by the authorities.”
Tempted to glance at the man and read his expression, Hilda continued to stare straight ahead, her hands folded in her lap. These salesmen could spin a fantastic tale to suit any circumstance, and she suspected this one, with his suede hat and ridiculous white gloves, of embellishing the newspaper accounts. She knew all of their tricks. Make the customer feel slightly unsettled and at their mercy.
“As I was saying…” He leaned back and shook the reins. The pair of old welsh ponies pulling the wagon went from a trot to a canter. “The effects from my tonic are almost instantaneous. Energy from the pawpaw. Has properties similar to those of the coca leaf found in Peru. According to Indian lore, the distillation process unleashes a spirit that affects those unfamiliar with the magic of native plants. Oh, you may dismiss this as primitive superstition, but you must remember the Indians have lived here for centuries and have a deep understanding of the valley and the plants that grow in it. I have learned much from them. Many years ago, while stranded not far from this very spot after my front axle broke, I met with a native priestess who invited me to share a cup of tea she made from the crushed leaves of the pawpaw. After a few sips, I had a sudden flash of insight, a vision you might say, in which I saw how the distillation process could be used for good and evil.”
Hilda followed the trajectory of a hawk across the sky and dreamed of flying to the next town. Accustomed to the solitude of the valley, she hadn’t realized until this moment just how annoying the sound of a human voice could be.
“We all know,” he continued, “about the evils of tobacco and alcohol. But what about ideas? Ideas, it occurred to me, can be distilled into something just as powerful as whisky and gin. Take cash money, for instance, or political parties, or even our notions of God. The good Lord, you’ll forgive me for speaking freely, is simply an idea that we have conjured up in our minds and distilled into an all-powerful being. In America, God and money have become our national addictions.”
Hilda smiled. “Tell me, sir. Are you a quack? A preacher? Or perhaps both.”
The apothecary, bent over the reins, straightened his back and said with an air of indignation, “I understand people of faith may find such talk blasphemous, but I also believe, Miss Whitby, that unkind words can also be distilled and turned into powerful emotions like hatred, anger, and disgust. And with the technologies we possess today, these dark emotions might prove to be the end of us all. You’re familiar, I take it, with the destructive power of the new explosives the men are using to build the canal? There may come a time, and not long from now, when some misguided scientist learns to distill gunpowder and create a weapon with enough explosive power to level an entire city. Laugh, Ms. Whitby, but according to the newspapers, the woman who owned the mill had a formal education in the natural sciences. The authorities suspect she may have been in possession of extremely combustible substances. How else to explain the size of the fire and why it burned so fiercely, so unnaturally, and for so many hours? Investigators are no longer calling it an act of God. The fire wasn’t caused by a lightning strike as previously believed. No, this was some kind of chemical experiment gone horribly wrong.”
Her hands trembling slightly from the man’s potent tonic, Hilda smoothed her skirt and lifted her eyes. The path seemed to stretch on forever, and she knew they wouldn’t reach the nearest town before sunset.
“Why, it wouldn’t surprise me at all,” said the apothecary, “if this woman was working for the government. Developing some kind of top-secret chemical agent. Depend upon it, Ms. Whitby, those incompetent warmongers in Washington have no compunction about testing such weapons on an unsuspecting population. And to think it all comes down to negative emotions. That is why my new and improved carbonated tonic is essential. By lifting the human spirit, it may save us from ourselves. And furthermore…”
Even from the street, the inn smelled strongly of sawdust and overturned spittoons, but Hilda judged it satisfactory for an overnight stay. Her legs and back ached from long days of walking, and her head was pounding. After listening for an hour to the apothecary’s lunatic prophecies about apocalyptic world wars and government conspiracies, she was desperate to have a quiet night’s rest. She did not wave goodbye as he drove away. For a boomtown in midsummer, the streets were eerily empty. Hilda saw no lantern light in the windows of the clapboard houses that lined the square, and she heard no rowdy laughter coming from the town’s only saloon. Construction on the canal seemed to have been temporarily halted. Shovels and pickaxes lay scattered in the weeds, and an expensive stump puller was left unattended next to a wheelbarrow overflowing with crushed limestone.
Inside the inn, a girl of about sixteen sat on a wooden bench near the fireplace. Deliberately turning the pages of a leather-bound book the size of an encyclopedia, the girl watched Hilda cross the parlor. The wavering candlelight exaggerated the girl’s sharp features and narrow, green eyes. To Hilda, she looked like an aggressive cat about to pounce on an unsuspecting sparrow. The innkeeper, who’d been nodding off behind the front desk, came awake when he heard footsteps on the plank floors.
The girl closed the book and set it down beside her.
“Well?” she said. “Ask the lady if she’d like a room?”
The innkeeper nodded. He adjusted his coat and vest, both missing buttons, and coughed into a fist.
“Like a room?” he said.
“Yes, please,” Hilda answered.
The innkeeper stared blankly at the shifting shadows cast by the oil lamp.
The girl sighed. “Now, ask the lady to sign in.”
The innkeeper waved his hand, possibly at the girl, likely at the mosquitoes brushing against the tip of his nose. He spun the guestbook around and rested his arms on the desk, shirt sleeves rolled past his elbows. He handed Hilda a quill freshly dipped in ink. She’d intended to use an alias but was so distracted by the snake tattooed in tight coils around the man’s right wrist that she foolishly signed her own name. From now on, she would need to be more cautious.
From his shirt pocket, the innkeeper produced a pair of spectacles and polished the lenses with a handkerchief that, judging from its color, hadn’t been washed in days. He leaned over the guestbook and squinted at her signature.
“One of the engineer’s wives?” he said. “Attending to your sick husband?”
“She ain’t one of the engineer’s wives,” the girl said, eyeing the horse blanket on the floor. “And you ain’t supposed to be asking about someone’s private business.”
“I’m just passing through,” Hilda said.
The girl sidled from the shadows and placed her calloused hands on the rough desktop. “Staying with us long?”
“Overnight, that’s all.”
“Afraid you missed supper. We close the kitchen promptly at seven. But we’ll have breakfast waiting in the morning. We serve between six and nine. No later.”
“That will be fine.”
The girl looked at the guestbook and gave Hilda a strange, lingering look. She smiled, and Hilda could see a dark gap where a tooth was missing. She returned to the bench, where she opened her book.
“Hurry up then and show our guest to her room. The athenaeum. Convenient access to the washroom across the hall. And don’t make this good woman carry her own bag!”
The innkeeper raced from behind the front desk and hoisted the horse blanket over his shoulder. He marched across the parlor and down a dark hallway whose walls had yet to be painted. At the end of the hall, he opened a door and gestured inside. Hilda reluctantly followed.
From the parlor, the girl shouted, “I hope you find everything to your satisfaction. And I mean everything!”
For a moment, Hilda stood amazed in the doorway. Books and magazines lined the walls, hundreds of them. They were stacked one on top of the other until the teetering piles nearly reached the ceiling. Her own laboratory had never contained so many volumes.
The man stepped into the room and lit an oil lamp hanging by a hook near the bed. “She’s a strange one,” he said. “Always reading. It’s a kind of sickness. Whenever she has a dollar in her pocket, she spends it on books. Trashy books. When she doesn’t have a dollar, she steals them. The other day I found her reading a love manual. From ancient India. Lots of pictures in it.” The man looked away and started giggling. “Pictures of men and women. She won’t let me look. Teaches how to tolerate re-pug-nant partners. You know what that means? Re-pug-nant.”
“Extremely distasteful.” Hilda stepped inside and tested the bed for firmness. “Your daughter has a sharp tongue.”
“Daughter?” The innkeeper laughed. “She ain’t my daughter.”
“I do apologize. From the familiar way she spoke to you, I was given to believe…”
“Ain’t my daughter.” He drew the curtains and looked at the floor.
“Your dress. Underthings. Give ’em over. I’ll wash them for you.”
“Thank you, no.”
“Well, you’ll be wanting a bath, I suppose. I’ll fill the tub.”
“I’ve had an exhausting day of travel, and I need to get some rest.”
“Yes. Thank you for your help.”
The man put his hands in his pockets and shuffled toward the door.
“Well, alright then. If you need anything else, I’ll be at the desk.”
“Good night, sir.”
“Just be sure to blow out your lamp before you fall asleep. She doesn’t like it when guests burn oil all night. Oil costs money.”
The innkeeper stood there a moment longer then swiveled sharply on his worn-out heels and disappeared down the hall. Hilda quickly bolted the door. Still wearing her dusty dress, she climbed into bed and stared at the ceiling. She’d gotten used to sleeping on ground baked hard by the summer sun, and the stiff mattress felt strangely luxurious, weirdly artificial.
The evening was shading to dusk. Somewhere in the night, a dog whimpered. Before dousing the flame, Hilda pursued the titles. Essays in Idleness, Lady Cordelia’s Prison of Wishes, In Remembrance of a Weeping Queen. Hilda reached into her pocket and felt the chain and anchor, a reminder of the dangers she’d already faced on the road and would likely face again.
She didn’t stir until an hour later when she heard the clinking of bottles and a familiar voice outside the window. At first, she thought it was a dream and drifted back to sleep, but later in the night, she was startled awake by hideous sounds coming from the adjacent room. She clamped her hands over her ears and buried her face in the pillow. Then she remembered the knife strapped to her leg and considered creeping down the hallway. From her anatomy books, she knew where to make a precise incision that would forever silence the feral grunts and obscene cries of pleasure. She sat at the edge of the bed and briefly considered using the knife on herself. One swift slash straight across her throat, and all her suffering would be over.
Rather than listen a moment longer to the macabre voices in her head or the high-pitched squeals in the next room, Hilda gathered her meager belongings, unlatched the door, and hurried down the hall. As she exited the hotel and made her way down the porch steps, she saw the apothecary’s wagon tied up in front of the inn. The Welsh ponies scratched at the dirt and shook their heads.
“Decided to change accommodations? No other inns in this backwater.”
The innkeeper, eyes bulging, rocked back and forth in a chair, a bottle of tonic in one hand, four empties forming a barricade around his spindly legs.
Hilda dropped her bundled blanket to the ground and faced him. “We both know, sir, what kind of establishment you’re running here. Exploiting an innocent child for your personal gain.”
“Innocent?” He fell against his chair, headrest banging hard against the side of the building, and nearly choked with laughter. “Innocent ain’t the word I’d use to describe a hellcat such as she.” He smacked his lips and placed the empty bottle beside the others at his feet. “Damn fine tonic. That medicine man is a real wizard. Have you sampled one yet?” He uncorked a fresh bottle and held it out to her. “Got a serious kick to it.”
Hilda scowled and lifted her bag from the ground. “I should summon the sheriff.”
“He’s at death’s door, poor soul. Like half the people in this town.” He leaned forward in his chair and lowered his voice. “You think maybe he’d be willing to deputize me? Always wanted to be a sheriff. Ever since I was a boy. No one would laugh at me then. No one would dare laugh.”
The innkeeper pursed his lips and drummed his fingers against one bobbing knee.
“What the hell is going on out here?”
The girl, wearing only a nightdress, her skin glistening with sweat, burst from the door. She rapped her knuckles against the porch railing and pointed at the empty bottles.
“You take those from the man’s wagon.”
The innkeeper jumped up from his chair and inched away from the girl. He wobbled ever so slightly and gripped the rail for support. “Naw, we negotiated a deal. Five dollars for the best tonic I ever tasted.”
“Five dollars! You ain’t got five dollars.”
He fumbled with an empty pouch tied to his waist and shrugged. “I’ll get some from the safe.”
“The hell you will.”
Hilda lifted her blanket and turned away.
“Just a minute there, Ms. Whitby. We’re not running a charity here.”
“You are Hilda Whitby, aren’t you? I read all about you in the newspapers. We used to get regular deliveries twice a day, mornings and evenings, but the fever has temporarily disrupted service.” She glanced at the innkeeper who was now using a sharpened stick to scrape manure from the soles of his shoes. “Taught myself to read and write, but this peabrain can hardly spell his own name. Not after that mule kicked him in the head. Lucky to be alive, I suppose. The papers say your boy could read and write. Grown son, I should say. Clever businessman who ran the mill. Died a day shy of his thirtieth birthday, isn’t that so? Swallowed up in a ball of fire?”
“The papers reported that?”
“Cheap sensationalism, Ms. Whitby? Newspapermen hoping to create a story rather than report one? I suppose most editors are running a house not very different than this one. There isn’t anything they won’t print if they think it’ll sell copy. Say, did your son do much traveling? For business purposes, I mean. I’d probably recognize him. Seems I’ve known just about every man who’s journeyed along this canal.”
Hilda crossed her arms, irked by the girl’s familiarity. “Young lady, our private lives are of no concern to you.”
The girl smirked, her eyes gleaming and aggressive. “There is no private life, Ms. Whitby, not anymore. Not if the newspapers decide to take an interest in you. Your life is a matter of public record now. Papers say you designed that lumber mill by yourself. Said you know mathematical equations and scientific formulas and such. I taught myself basic addition and subtraction. So the cutpurses round here can’t cheat me.” She gestured to the apothecary’s wagon.
“Quite commendable,” said Hilda, “but perhaps you should apply your knowledge to more noble pursuits.”
“Don’t judge me too harshly, Ms. Whitby. As you can see, business is slow, and some of us need to make ends meet any way we can.”
She glared at the innkeeper who hopped over the railing and pretended to walk nonchalantly toward the apothecary’s wagon.
“Technically speaking, this is still his place. But he can’t be left alone. Not even for a minute.”
She smiled and rapped her fingers on the railing.
“We used to have a cat, didn’t we? An Abyssinian, wasn’t it? Named him Sir Ridley. After the brave knight from my favorite book. Some guest or other left it behind, and the thing just sort of stuck around. I was never partial to cats, but this one proved a fine companion. Always rubbing against my leg and following me from one room to the next. A stealthy hunter. Kept the mice away. Left gifts for me every morning. Then one day, I didn’t find a dead sparrow at my feet. Didn’t think too much of it. He liked to stalk chipmunks along the canal. But around suppertime, I started to get worried. Searched all over the inn. His saucer by the back door was still full of milk. Found genius hanging sheets on the clothesline, so I thought I’d step outside for a smoke and ask if he’d seen the cat. Kept his back to me and hid behind the sheets when I came near. I yanked the line right off the tree. I tell you, he looked a sight. Face all scratched to hell. Arms, too. I found Sir Ridley floating in the tub by the pump. He had no cause to do it. Guess he decided it might be fun to see how long it would take to drown a cat. Some people say he done it on account of his head injury. Can’t control himself. But deep down, it takes a certain kind of person, Ms. Whitby. Yes, a certain kind of person.”
The girl stepped from the porch, a halo of light touching wisps of her unruly red hair.
“Pitiful creature, don’t know what he’d do without me. Needs round-the-clock supervision. And once the engineers start working again on the canal, I’m going to have my hands full. A month from now, you won’t recognize this place. Dozens of men, hundreds, will be back on the job, eager to empty their pockets first chance they get. There’s going to be a great deal of money to be made. I’ll be looking for extra hands, but it’s hard to find good help these days.”
“I beg your pardon?”
The girl laughed. “I wasn’t suggesting…I hope you didn’t think I meant….It’s true, Ms. Whitby, some of the degenerates who visit the inn do have a taste for tough old birds, but I had something entirely different in mind. I need to be prepared to meet demand, if you take my meaning, and I think you can help manage the talent. Keep the new employees in line. You know how it is. One girl shows up at your door, another leaves. They either come with the laborers or run off with them. Makes it difficult to keep an inn properly staffed. What they need is a mother superior. An uncompromising woman who can talk sense to them. Or beat it into them. I’d be willing to make you an equal partner. We’ll split everything down the middle. Now that’s a fair offer, especially for someone in your predicament.”
“Papers said there’s a reward for your known whereabouts.” The girl gave Hilda a pitying look. “You’re new to the outlaw life, ain’t you? When you’re on the run, Ms. Whitby, you don’t stay in hotels. But don’t worry. I won’t breathe a word to anyone.”
Hilda smiled gently and touched the girl’s shoulder. “I want to thank you, young lady, for your generous offer. But I’m going to decline. All I can offer you in exchange is some friendly advice. Don’t believe everything you read in the papers.”
The girl swatted her hand away. “I don’t pretend to be a lady. And I don’t take advice from amateur fugitives.”
Hilda continued walking.
“Hold on now. Aren’t you at least going to make me a counter-offer? Hey, you need to eat like the rest of us. How will you earn your keep in this world when everyone thinks you’re on the run? I imagine a woman in your position is in dire need of a steady income.”
At the back of the apothecary’s wagon, the innkeeper opened crates and shook empty bottles. He waved to her as she passed. “A good evening to you, Ms. Whitby. Safe travels.”
Hilda didn’t hear. By then, she’d plodded into the darkness beyond the lonely ring of light cast by the oil lamp flickering at the inn’s front window.
Two days later, dehydrated and burning with fever, she emerged from the shade of an old-growth forest. Shielding her eyes from the blinding sun, she smashed her bare toes against the thick roots of a wide oak and fell so hard she tore her dress at the knees. As she waited for the pain to subside, she thought she heard footsteps and thin, mocking laughter. Since leaving the inn, she hadn’t seen a soul. In this part of the valley, construction had yet to begin on the canal, and the towpath had long since tapered away to a poorly maintained trail.
Muscles aching, sweat stinging her eyes, Hilda struggled to her feet and skirted a vast beaver marsh covered with flowering water lilies. On a fallen tree limb, curious muskrats observed her slow progress. Blue-tipped dragonflies circled her head and darted away. Using a cloth bag as a strainer, she knelt beside the pond and drank the bitter water. At the mill, she’d designed a sand filtration column to purify their drinking water, but on the road, she had to make do with the tools at hand. She rested her head against the blanket and decided to close her eyes for just a minute.
She must have dozed off. When she awoke, she saw a seething wall of dark clouds above the valley’s southern ridge. They cast a sickly green glow over the wetland. In the cattails, the low drone of courting bullfrogs nearly drowned out the rumbles of the advancing storm. Hilda had seen her share of flash floods and knew she had minutes to seek higher ground. After filling her bag with more water, Hilda hurried along the path. She’d only taken a few steps when she felt the temperature plummet, and everything went suddenly still. Then she heard it again, the unmistakable sound of laughter.
Hilda whipped around. “I haven’t any money if robbery is your intention!”
Dried leaves crackled in the brush, and she wondered if a bounty hunter had tracked her to this wilderness.
“If you’re the law, you need to identify yourself.”
She nearly twisted her ankle, reaching for her knife.
“I’m armed! Do you hear me?”
She abandoned her blanket in the briars and ran. Thunder reverberated through the valley, building momentum. Prickly pear cactus slashed her arms and ankles, and she screamed with the agony of it. Bleeding and exhausted, she found herself trapped in a dense thicket of buckthorn. She fought her way to a clearing and slumped against the knotted trunk of a solitary willow. Her mind raced with terrible images. There would be a trial, an unsympathetic judge, a jury lusting for retribution. From the courtroom window, she would have an unobstructed view of the gallows. Before the execution, the constable would lock her in a cage no larger than an animal pen and invite the press to gawk at her and ask disdainful questions. Afterward, medical students would perform dissections of her brain to find signs of neurological abnormalities.
“I’m innocent,” Hilda moaned. “It was an accident.”
A cold wind swept through the sedges and switchgrass. The first fat raindrops struck the ground like small explosions, and a shallow, muddy mote formed in the dead summer grass. In front of her, leaves rustled and parted. Something crouched low to the ground, its eyes flashing. Hilda pressed her back against the tree. Her hand trembled so badly that she dropped the knife.
A large bobcat padded into the clearing and flicked water from its tail. Regarding her with mild curiosity, it paced back and forth in front of the tree. It stopped to scrape the ground with its hind feet and then slunk away.
The rain came heavier now. Shivering uncontrollably, Hilda gripped the tree and pulled herself up. Lightning flashed, and she shrank at the deafening boom. From her books on electricity, she knew the greatest danger came from positive charges climbing from the ground and forming streamers. Through a curtain of rain, she detected the cat’s dark shape. Drenched from head to toe, she left the clearing and tried to keep pace. She had a few provisions left in her bag, a small hunk of dried meat, and a piece of stale bread wrapped in paper. Maybe if she fed the cat, it would invite her into the safety of its den.
Keeping what she thought was a safe distance, she followed the cat along a steep switchback. It took effort to find her footing. She slipped in the mud and slid backward. Halfway up the valley wall, the mud gave way to layers of slick shale that crumbled underfoot. She kept moving. Near the ridge, powerful gusts tried to dislodge her from a triangular ledge. Just ahead, a sycamore one hundred feet tall, its massive roots clutching a sandstone boulder, began to groan. Suddenly, it tumbled down a slope into the deepest part of the valley.
The cat, watching from the ledge, turned and disappeared into a cave.
By this time, the rain had become a torrential downpour, the valley a roiling river of mud that swept away everything in its path. From here, Hilda could see, gathering against the cliff wall, pulverized deadwood and the jumbled bones of pack animals destined to leave another deposit in the unfathomably ancient limestone.
Hilda peered inside the cave and thought she saw deep in its purgatorial darkness a circle of firelight. Accepting whatever fate awaited her, she stepped through the narrow opening. She waited, and when her eyes finally adjusted to the light, she saw embedded in the rockface a fossilized fish. Gigantic, armored, jawless, it threatened to snap shut when she reached out a hand to trace its thousand jagged teeth. There were other shapes trapped in the stone — horn coral, mollusk shells, a colony of antennaed creatures that looked equal parts lobster, scorpion, and cockroach.
Unsure of her footing, she crawled on hands and knees away from the stinging rain and toward a pair of eyes reflecting the red embers.
“Hello?” Hilda said, teeth chattering. “I thought you were a bobcat.”
In an unfamiliar language that Hilda could nevertheless understand, a voice answered, “A cat? Have you been thinking of cats?”
“A girl told me a story,” she said. “That was…three days ago? I can’t remember now.”
“A nice story, I hope. I like cats, don’t you? We used to have a cat. A dog, too.”
Hilda squinted, inching her way closer to the warm flames. What she thought was a bobcat was actually a boy of ten or eleven, badly malnourished, his ribs protruding in dark stripes across his bare torso, his matted hair reaching past his shoulders. He gestured for her to sit.
“The men are coming,” he said. “With their tools and machines. One of them will find me soon.”
“How long have you been here, child?” Hilda said. “Where have your people gone?”
“My mother brought me to this place. A long time ago. After the great flood and all of the cities were swallowed up by the sea. We wandered for months, looking for other survivors. My mother became too sick to move on. So we stayed here. I tried to take care of her, but we didn’t have any medicine.” The boy leaned forward and looked at Hilda. “Are you going to die now, too?”
“I don’t know. Is this a place where people come to die?”
The boy shook his head. “No, my mother told me this is a place of…” He thought for a moment. “A place of initiation and transformation. Would you like to see it?”
The boy jumped up and pulled a flaming piece of birch from the fire pit.
“She drew everything for me so I wouldn’t forget.”
Without waiting for a reply, the boy hurried down a twisting passage. She tried her best to keep pace as the boy traversed an alien world of glistening stalagmites and flowstone. In spots, the smooth limestone walls seemed to converge before opening to cathedral-like chambers buttressed by great columns of stone. In one chamber, Hilda saw paintings of bison, dire wolves, razor-backed hogs, and spear-wielding men. The boy waved his torch from side to side, and the men seemed to launch their spears at the fleeing animals.
“After the waters subsided, we found hunters living in the valley. But when the black rains came, they left and never returned.”
The images became more elaborate as the boy led her from chamber to chamber.
He pointed to a great circular dome on which were painted towers of glass and steel. Hilda tried to make sense of what she was seeing. Machines seemed to have near-total control of the city. Even the people looked mechanical, vacant-eyed, their bodies encased in steel cocoons that rolled across the earth and flew through the sky.
“Our city!” he announced. “Before the flood.”
In the next chamber, the walls were covered not with images but with mathematical equations, chemical formulae, and a pair of twisted lines that formed a kind of winding staircase.
“My mother said this is what makes shapeshifting possible.” As if by rote, the boy said, “Look! Two serpents locked around one another in an eternal embrace.”
The boy twirled the torch faster and faster until he stood in an unbroken wheel of light. He seemed to dance effortlessly through the flames and sculpt it with his hands. With the aid of the fire, he changed back into a cat.
“See how simple it is?” he said. “Just like a magic lantern show. Remember how your son liked the magic lantern shows? Remember how excited he was when the images changed.”
In the pinwheeling fire, the cat transformed into a wolf, a bird, a tree, a flower, a fish. Hilda saw a hundred creatures, some she recognized, some she did not. And she saw her son, not the stoic bachelor who operated the mill, but a lonely child who so desperately craved the attention of his cold and distant mother.
Unable to resist the terrible waves of grief that for weeks had been threatening to drown her, Hilda threw herself to the ground and wept until she thought her heart would burst. The flaming wheel wobbled wildly around the chamber. Red embers cascaded from the cave walls. Steam rose from her wet dress. Her body turned to vapor. On a swirling thread of pale blue smoke, she rose weightless above the floor and passed through a small fissure high in the rock wall. She ascended above the cave, above the valley and the storm clouds, above the earth itself until she entered the darkness beyond the stars. The only thing she could hear now was the sound of the boy’s voice.
“If only you understood how to manipulate the numbers. Then you could bring the dead back to life. Is that what your quest was all about, Mother?”
Convinced she was being punished for her hubris and unearned wisdom, Hilda clamped her hands over her ears. She screamed into the void and continued screaming until she lost consciousness.
Over the years, a legend arose about the woman draped in dirty rags who lived in a cave near the top of the canyon. Some said she was a mystic; others said a mad scientist. One or two suspected she was a woman of considerable means who’d given away all she owned to the poor. Out of simple curiosity, trappers and farmers visited the cave to see if she could divine the future with her gift for mathematical equations and her queer, rambling talk of random variables and conditional probabilities. “Should I plant corn or wheat this season?” they wanted to know. “Which pelts fill fetch the best prices? Black bear or otter?” They brought gifts as they might offer a hermit who had taken holy orders — canned fruit, smoked meat, wool blankets, wooden bowls, bags of sugar, boxes of matches. Hilda thanked them for their generosity but could offer no easy answers to their questions. When they asked why she’d chosen to live this way, she remained silent for a long time.
“A spirit summoned me to this place,” she said. “But for what purpose I can’t say.”
She never allowed anyone to explore the cave. Its secrets were too powerful.
One autumn night, long after her visitors had departed, a young man trudged along the switchbacks. One of the itinerant laborers, judging from his overalls and flat cloth cap, stood at the entrance, a burlap sack slung over his shoulder. He apologized for disturbing her at so late an hour and asked if he could have a quick word with her. Though it was the hour she spent in meditation, she waved him inside. He threw down the sack next to her fire and pulled a flask from his back pocket. Hilda recognized him at once. His thin, red hair was almost completely gone now, and his high shining forehead had a few more creases than before. He seemed not to remember her at all. He’d been very drunk on the night he’d attempted to assault her, and no doubt Hilda had changed considerably since they last saw each other long ago at the start of her journey.
“I’m helping build the village,” he said. “At the new lock. You sure have a nice view from up here.”
“Yes,” said Hilda, “It should be a pretty place when it’s finished. Church. General store. Saloon. I enjoy watching the progress.”
In the mornings, Hilda sat on her ledge and delighted in the daily commotion as engineers, most of them self-trained and improperly credentialed, surveyed the land and drained the beaver pond. Teams of men felled trees, removed stumps, and paved roads with bricks fired in rumbling kilns fueled by peat cut from a nearby bog. From the layers of decaying vegetation, the men unearthed an ox-sized sloth with slashing claws, a muskox, a stag-moose, a saber-toothed cat. Hilda wondered what they might find next — a winged dragon, a chest full of gold. She badly wished to conduct a thorough inspection of this prehistoric menagerie, but these days she rarely left the cave. She no longer trusted her knees on the rocky slopes.
Now, the young man threw a small leather pouch at her feet.
“My weekly wages,” he said. “You can read minds and such. That’s what they say. See the future. Tell about the past.”
Hilda eyed the pouch as she might a bag full of spiders. “What is it you want to know?”
The man stared at her for a moment. “I’m a born fool, I know it. All my life, I’ve made one stupid decision after another. But I ain’t crazy. No, I ain’t crazy like people say I am. The pastor. The foremen.” He dragged the burlap sack closer to the fire and patted the lump inside. “But I’ve been right along. I got proof right here. I found it. In the bog.”
“Found what?” Hilda whispered.
The young man tilted back his head and emptied the flask.
“One of the Travelers,” he rasped.
Hilda shook her head. “The Travelers?”
He stood up, untied the sack, and reached inside.
Hilda gasped. She could hardly believe such a wonder, the body being so perfectly preserved. At first, she thought the boy had been the victim of foul play. One of the Whittlesey children, perhaps, but his clothing suggested he’d lived long before the arrival of the Whittlesey or even the Iroquois. His skin, darkened by the acidic peat, had turned to leather. His eyes were closed, his lips frozen in a smile as if he’d been sweetly dreaming for centuries. He wore a cloak made of twill fabric, and his knotted hair hung down to his shoulder.
“It’s one of them,” said the man. “Ain’t it?”
Hilda contemplated the mummified remains and then turned her attention to the young man.
“You come from a faraway place, don’t you?” she said. “An island. Let me look into the flames. Yes, I see fishing boats. And a cabin on the lake. I see a woman, too. A mother. She walks along her cherished cliffs, grieving for her lost daughter. And now I see a little girl hiding in her bed. She’s frightened. The Travelers have come to take her away, but she doesn’t want to go with them. Her brother should protect her, but he’s sleeping and won’t wake up.”
The man’s lower lip trembled. He clapped a hand over his eyes and cried, “I am indeed a sinner!”
“Yes,” said Hilda, “and now you bear a scar on your right thigh. A sign that you’ve failed to make the correct propitiations to the Travelers. If you wish for absolution, you’ll need to appease its spirit.”
The man touched his thigh and nodded. “Anything. What can I do?”
“Potassium nitrate,” Hilda spoke the word over and over again like an incantation. “Bat guano I can obtain from the cave. But not enough potassium nitrate in the quantities I require.”
That night, with the mummified boy perched beside her on the ledge, Hilda listened to the coyotes howling from the valley’s western ridge and watched the young man make his way back to the village. She now understood how her old beliefs had led her astray. A long time ago, when she first discovered the wonders of chemistry and physics, she regarded science as a methodology for formulating questions and arriving at provisional answers. But somewhere along the way, sequestered in her laboratory where she conducted dangerous experiments powered by energy from the mill, she began to think of the methodology as an infallible belief system, one that instead of skepticism required absolute devotion and unwavering faith. Science, she naively believed, wasn’t simply a key to unlocking nature’s secrets — it was the secret itself. Now, liberated at last from the mindless pursuit of knowledge, she realized the universe was sentient and possessed wisdom far superior to anything created by the feeble mind of man.
The following morning, the young man brought her two buckets filled with urine that he’d collected from the horses and mules.
“The stable boy caught me,” he said. “He laughed. Thought I was some kind of deranged milkmaid.”
Hilda waved him away. “Bring more. Bring as much as you can carry.”
That day, to the relentless pounding of axes and the loud crack of falling timbers, she filtered the urine through a bed of straw, concentrating it into saltpeter for easy collection. She was able to extract more saltpeter from the bat guano that had leached along the cave floor. To make charcoal, she burned the limbs of cottonwood and scraped sulfur deposits from a dry spring. She ground these items separately into fine powders. After measuring out the correct ratios, she cautiously mixed the powders together. Using a tin cup, she added water in small increments, stirring the black meal with a stick. She let the final product dry on the ledge. It took her an entire week to manufacture the necessary ingredients to seal off the entrance. From lengths of cotton yarn soaked in a solution of table sugar and KNO3, Hilda made a torch and a slow-burning fuse.
She intended to spend her final hours exploring the cave’s spectacular passages. Fire from the torch would last an hour at most, but the darkness no longer frightened her. Some places were portals to a different world, and she fervently hoped the boy would speak to her again. But she did not trust anyone, including herself, with the knowledge she’d seen in the cave’s deepest chambers.
Except for the dogs that smelled the madness wafting from her black rags and whined at her approach, no one saw Hilda make a final midnight trip to the village.
At daybreak, there was a great commotion as the laborers crawled from their tents. They cast aside their spades and hoes and, like fearful acolytes, approached the shrunken body propped on the stump of an ancient oak tree. In the misty morning light, the mummified boy looked like some strange, sleeping god sitting with a contented smile on his throne. The more perceptive among them noticed the anchor affixed to a silver chain that hung around the boy’s neck, but only the young man with thinning red hair seemed to understand the meaning of it. He began to shake so violently that he dropped the buckets in either hand and ran screaming through the village streets. He kept running and didn’t stop until he heard the violent explosion high above the valley floor. Those who laughed at him witnessed the brilliant flash of light near the ridge and the sudden wave of heat that swept over the valley floor.
No one spoke that day of Travelers or portals or mathematical equations. They did not mention chemical formulae or the natural sciences. Using what little poetry they knew to describe the scene, they said, “It was like a spirit rising in glory from a heavenly hill.”
Photo by Dave Hoefler/Unsplash