Natural Attraction (Catherine Haustein)
Release date: May 11, 2015
Publisher: Penner Publishing
Price: Paperback $13.99 / eBook $2.99
I was beginning to doubt this notion of me posing as a man.
We had arrived at the decision easily enough. It was to be an experiment in biological mimicry—a harmless insect posing as a poisonous one to avoid being eaten—a form of evolution that Alburtus had observed while classifying butterflies in the Amazon with British naturalist Henry Walter Bates. Alburtus, my natural history tutor had set up the internship: I would be a naturalist traveling with the Malachite Overland Mining Company, a position open only to a young, healthy male. His chemist friend, Theophrastus, had made the tonic. Granny had stitched the trousers. She’d taken scissors to my pale hair that morning. I’d tried not to look at the floor as the strands fell like spider silk. In Spookstad, we were matter of fact. Neither falling hair nor tonics rattled us.
The four of us stood together in the apothecary shop. In the window, fish shaped glass jars and bottles decorated with birds and stags caught the early sun. The chemist held out a brown coffin-shaped bottle.
“Oh, Theophrastus. Why the coffin?” Alburtus was bald with crooked teeth, like a rubber-pap-suckled goblin.
Theophrastus, chubby as an eastern mole (Scalopus aquaticus), waved his hand. “It is less apt to be stolen disguised as a poison.”
Theophrastus considered transformation his specialty. “The tonic will take away the inconveniences of being a woman,” he told me.
I couldn’t wait to be rid of bobbing breasts and bothersome flow. I grabbed the elixir, the giver of forbidden opportunity, and wrapped the large bottle in a spare union suit, placing it in my knapsack between my Field Guide to Order Rodentia, and my sketchbook, a gift from Alburtus when I’d completed my apprenticeship.
“What’s in it?” I didn’t mean to question his scientific authority—he was twice my age with an established potion business—but I was curious.
“It’s patented,” was all that he said as he held out a tin flask. “Here’s a discreet container of a concentrated version for the train ride. Two spoons at night for the first two weeks, then one spoon. If you miss a dose, don’t worry; the effects linger. After that, begin on the large bottle. It’s soporific—it will make you sleepy. Take it before bed. There’s an extra month’s worth here, maybe more.”
“Will it hurt much?” I asked. “Not that pain matters when a man is determined.”
Theophrastus studied me. “Certainly being a cowardly man is not good. But no. Trust me. It doesn’t hurt. You’ll make an attractive man.” He held a lantern to my face and peered into my eyes. “Don’t worry. Women, they’re built for transformation.” He opened a drawer and fumbled through it.
Alburtus put his hand to my chin. “You’ve got features similar to that man who plays Mars in the burlesque shows.”
Granny smiled. “Henry Montague.”
Theophrastus pushed a tube of ointment across the slate counter. “Use this. It enhances beard growth. Results vary.”
I tucked it in my knapsack. “Yes, I’ll look like a man, but how should I act?”
Theophrastus and Alburtus exchanged glances, as if they had a secret between them.
“Don’t say much. Men have few words,” Theophrastus said at last.
“Keep to your studies,” said Alburtus. “Don’t capitulate. Be strong. Remember, Darwin weathered seasickness and the wrath of parental disappointment. Face what comes with aplomb.”
I turned to face Granny. “Do you have the note for Mother and Father?”
“Yes. I’ll give it to them,” she said. The morning light caught her gray curls and I heard the waves on the shore of Lake Michigan break like a heartbeat.
“Your parents will come to understand that you were made for more,” said Granny.
“They won’t,” I said. My father was made for business, my mother for beauty. I was born a premature, bald, bug-eyed disappointment. When two years later the baby they wanted, ten-pound Todd, arrived, I learned to hold my arms out for Granny and she’d sweep me up with kisses. It was Granny who showed me affection, showed me how to climb a dune, and introduced me to her friend Alburtus. She had a mysterious inheritance too, one that set father up in business and secured her a cottage and a cow.
Churning butter for Granny showed me that work could bring transformation. Selling it taught me numbers and negotiating. Her Oudwijf friends—the town’s elder, wise matriarchs—filled my head with tales of hopping boats to Chicago on a whim and they brought me pencils and paper and gave me a penny each for my sketches of flowers and driftwood. At times, Alburtus, a confirmed bachelor, would join us for coffee and later came Theophrastus. I was a child burnished by the community of old women. And old women have the habit of answering to no one.
I didn’t want to say goodbye to Granny, but of course, she wouldn’t have been allowed on the expedition. I’d have no wise woman once I got to the secret mining site somewhere out west. Here was my first problem with being a man—resolute good-byes as I sought my fame. Men, as I imagined them, didn’t let love hold them back.
My second problem was that I was afraid and couldn’t show it. It had been easy to make a bold decision from the safety of home and with Winter closing in. Now it was Spring and I’d never ridden a train before. I was well-versed in boat travel but couldn’t risk the journey as it would leave us conspicuously open to the probing of the captains, who did business with my father’s sawmill and would surely recognize us. I couldn’t turn back. Arrangements had been made. I’d taken a coveted spot as a naturalist and I couldn’t quit now. I would have to go through with it. I clasped my hands together to hide the shaking. And really I didn’t want to turn back. I wanted this desperately.
“As a naturalist, you won’t be in much danger,” Alburtus said. “Do what MOM tells you,” he said, using my new employer’s common name. “Keep your eyes open. The mining operation pushes into uncharted territory this year with their new road. Undiscovered species will be there. Just remember, with science, patience is rewarded. Discoveries will open doors.”
He pulled a blue-gray feather from his pocket and pinned it to the lapel of my overcoat. “Take a bit of home with you. Setophaga kirtlandii, the Michigan warbler.”
A dull orange carriage pulled by black horses arrived in front of the pharmacy. Granny took my hand and we spoke to a wrinkled woman wearing all black with a white lace collar and little red cap. Her name was Gesternte, an Oudwijf.
“Take care of my granddaughter. She’ll do great things.”
The Oudwijf rubbed the loose cartilage of her nose. “She’s precious to all of us.”
Granny kissed my cheeks and her eyes grew teary. “Find new animals. New species. Clementine, be safe, dear.”
I hoisted my knapsack. “Calvin,” I said. “Call me Calvin.”
“Don’t let anything stop you.” Granny had given birth to Father and had been a widow by the time she was my age. She’d settled into a life of little acclaim other than raising a rambunctious boy, now the manager of a sawmill, owned by Solomon Bongo of Chicago.
“I’ll keep my focus, Granny.” I kissed her.
She tightened the grey ascot around my neck.
“Stay warm. Keep your neck covered.”
“I love you, Granny.”
That was it. I left in the dull orange carriage, off to catch a train. Behind me, lay the only place I had ever been: my tiny hometown of Spookstad, Michigan—one city block long plus a sawmill, a shot tower, and a few houses—and a note that said I’d taken a job too good to pass up.
During the six-day train ride, as the transforming hand of science moved over me, Oudwijf Gesternte, a retired teacher of classics on a trip to visit her sister in San Francisco, patted my hand and called me “sonderling,” which sounded close to the Dutch term for “odd.” On occasion, she whispered clove-scented advice on how to be a man.
“Don’t cross your ankles. Sit with your knees apart.”
“Keep your hands off your face unless it is to scratch something.”
“When thinking, put your hand to your chin, or place your elbow on your knee and rest your chin in your palm.”
“Look straight at a person when you address them. Casting your eyes down is for women.”
“Shake the hand of a man firmly. Kiss the hand of a woman.”
I wrote her advice in my sketchbook and studied it as the train rode on. Spookstad’s roll of water on sand and fog horn’s moan were superseded by the rhythmic strain of pistons in cylinders and the startling shriek of steam whistle. Until this time, I’d gone nowhere but Chicago by boat. The train didn’t reach Spookstad yet and our only visitors were lumberjacks rolling logs down the Zwart River. We were a place few could find and even fewer left.
I re-read The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection and studied my Field Guide to Order Rodentia, pouring over drawings, descriptions, and observations of connection and struggle between living things. When my ardor and choleric ambitions exhausted me, I slept in the steamy sway of the Pullman, traveling the path forged by General Dodge and his crew with nitroglycerin.
In a coal-fired haze, I questioned why I wanted to be a scientist at all. It began, I decided, when Granny and I turned over a pine log and found a salamander – simultaneously aquatic and earthy, a product of water and forest. I knew then the enticement of discovering hidden things and that every species has a story to tell filled with intimacy of different ilks. Among the salamander, the male will court but leave his spermatophore on the ground, letting the untouched female retrieve it. Some animals knew how to make things better for the females of the species.
I had good hands for sketching and a mind for numbers, both traits valuable to scientists. Science drew me towards it as a well-adapted mate. I didn’t take after my mother, a beautiful woman with a tiny waist, love of French fashion, a perfect passionless disposition, and a life that was pleasant, settled, but done. I feared such an early resolution to my own brief existence. A man such as Darwin, by example, wrote his incendiary book at age fifty and rumors are that he has more to come – a tome on sexual selection and human origin. A man over sixty barely getting his start! A scientific mind won’t fade as beauty does. The passing of time sharpens it and leads to greater boldness.
When the trip stretched across the prairie, I recalled the giddy feeling of getting my letter of selection informing me that I’d been chosen as the naturalist for the expedition. I craved the recognition that was withheld from women. If I stayed in Spookstad, my parents expected me to marry someone agreeable, my father’s bat-eared banker friend. That wasn’t happening, even though I had given my family false hope by sharing one dry kiss with him. After that, there was a wet kiss tasting of coffee with Lars the lumberjack at Lumberjack Days in the nearby town of Singapore. I’d spent just a moment in those strong arms and we whispered our names to each other before being spotted by my brother Todd, who pulled me away. For many months following he called me Swamper Sally, a swamper being a lumberjack who cuts branches off the felled trees. Having kissed two men, I had a reputation. I would be a scientist now and if I kissed at all, it would be with someone intelligent, bursting with vitality, a native, mysterious and deep. It would be kept secret from the town of Spookstad. Perhaps I wouldn’t go back at all to a place so small that family and Oudwijfs watched all. I’d be a man with status, a famous naturalist. Taxonomy was the rage, and I was to compile sketches, and, of course, seek out something new to name after the leader of MOM.
As the train brought me closer to my future, I sketched and noted the change in the meadowlarks’ calls, from the sliding trill of the Eastern variety to the precise bell tones of the Western species. At times, my reflection flickered in the glass window of the train. Alburtus had been right: As a man, my intent gaze, high forehead, and newly lean face had me looking like a fair-haired version of the actor Montague or maybe like my father. I allowed my hands to flicker across my shrinking chest. I pulled down my ascot, alarmed at how my neck, as delicate as white jasperware, now looked swollen at the throat like Father’s. I had thought that was due to his yelling.
After hundreds of miles through the spiky short-grass prairie—a dry and windblown Poaceae desert tunneled by black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus), big-eyed and breathlessly barking at the end of their mating season—the conductor and the whistle’s scream signaled my stop.
I’d taken the tonic each night. It had tasted of cherries and made my skin sensitive. My clothing touching me left a pleasant tickle that threatened to break into waves of some sort. My breasts were gone, but was it enough? When would I get that beard? Was I too short? Gesternte saw the tightness in my mouth as I said goodbye. She said, “You’ll do well. One more bit of advice. If you get in a fight, keep your chin down, use your hands to cover your face, and keep your thumb outside your fist.”
Grateful, I gave her my sketch of the Western meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta) and a bead carrying the image of a whale. I’d found it washed up on the beach close to the port city of Singapore, over the dune from Spookstad. It had struck me as out of place, even though the Great Lakes had its own giant: the sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens), whose females could live for 150 years, growing to six feet in length.
She held the bead in her hand and looked down at it as if it was a note with small printing. “You found this?”
“Yes, on the shore. Is there something the matter?”
“No. It’s just.” She cleared her throat.
I felt my nose and my powerful arms. Inside, I didn’t feel like a man. I felt like Clementine, whoever she was.
“Tell me Clementine, what do you seek? I mean, what do you love? What do you need to know more about than anything else?”
I stood up, my legs clumsy and muscular. What was it I wanted from a life of science, besides the beauty of observation and the thrilling potential of discovery? One could, after all, look at many things and discover nothing at all.
“I wish to know the truth.”
The old woman rubbed her nose. “And if there is more than one truth?”
The tonic made me cocky and the altitude left me dizzy. The combination had me soaring. “I wish to know my truth and to live it without fear.”
“That’s a tall order,” she said. “But I wish it for you.”
I kissed her hand, grabbed my pack and left her, catching a hasty escort to the Inn for the Nation in a mule cart driven by a man who resembled a jackrabbit (genus Lepus) with a ponytail.
“You look like that leg show guy, Henry somethin’.” He pulled the brim of his Stetson, turning to stare at me as the cart rolled along the dusty path.
“Hmm.” I sat alone in the back of the little cart, trying to look at the mountains in the overcast evening. What I had imagined, in my Midwestern ignorance, to be clouds were clearly snowcaps. First impressions were tricky at this altitude. Knowing natural history didn’t seem enough to keep me safe. I was out of my habitat.
“Leg shows tickle your fancy?” the driver asked, scratching the side of his head.
“No.” The two grey mules shook their ears. Perhaps I should’ve said yes.
“That’s good. We ain’t got ‘em here. The women will love you, though, if you got money. Got any money?”
“No.” It occurred to me that he might rob me.
“You from the damn city?” he asked. His nose twisted to one side as if he smelled feces.
“No. Not at all.” My hand tightened around the strap of my knapsack.
“You got a preciseness. You’re precious.”
“I’m a scientist.”
“Bless my soul. One of the gentlemen.” He whistled as if at a woman. “I’ll be seeing you again. My Belgians is the best mules MOM’s got. Used for the cargo that can’t take it rough. Here’s the place.”
The Inn for the Nation had a flat false front held up by timbers to the flat roof, making it look more substantial than it was. It had been tossed up quickly in anticipation of profit. It was a sad display of human hastiness. In nature, even an ephemeral mayfly has wings delicately wrought, as if living for a day is as important as existing for eternity.
The muleskinner spat over the side of the wagon. “See ya later, bud. My name’s Cyrus Persey.”
I held out my gloved hand and he shook it. “Call me Calvin.” Key in hand, I walked up the stairs, picking my way past men sleeping in the hallway.
Inside my room, I locked the door. I put my overcoat on the coat rack, stripped down to my union suit, and fell onto the bed, letting the first light of doubt creep in. Clearly, we would not all succeed. My options, if I failed, were limited. I could be a wife or a prostitute, or perhaps like Granny, a solitary woman, a stigma that my family was already beginning to fear.
I took a sip of the tonic and put the flask under my pillow. The wind was blowing. At least I was inside. I was road-weary and isolated, alone with my dreams and my echoing heart in my chest.
March 14, 1871 The notion of things belonging in a place ordained by God was tossed out with Newton and yet tonight, I think back to Spookstad, its waves, and the black dresses of the Oudwijfs with sand and sawdust on the hems. Its only fault is that I know it too well. Here I know nothing but the harsh law of action and reaction and the consequences of my choices. I prefer it this way and, with time, being a man will suit me.
CHAPTER TWO—A Preacher
Yellow-bellied marmot (Marmota flaviventris) Alert quadruped. Slightly less than 2 feet long with a bulky body and bushy tail. Brown coat and yellowish-brown belly coat, white snout, and small ears. Prefers grasslands, but can be found at up to 4,000 meters elevation. The call can be a chuck, trill, or whistle. Incisors grow with age. Long hibernation period. Wyoming Territory.
I landed my first punch, not sure where it struck, only that it connected with the person climbing into bed. No one had warned me of the bed sharing that went on out west.
His voice was deep. “If it’s a fight you want, you’ll not get it. My handbook forbids it. Here now, give me your paw and we’ll shake like gentlemen. Wesley King, preacher,” the man said, pumping my hand as he climbed into bed.
“Did I injure you?” I hoped I had. This preacher, whoever he was, needed to be put in his place.
“No. A face punch is almost always ineffective.” As he settled into bed the mattress didn’t sag as it would for a large man.
“Do you work for Malachite Mining?” I asked, trying to establish his connections. As Darwin said, our classifications are often plainly influenced by chains of affinities. I didn’t want to twice punch a man headed in the same direction and working for the same company that I was.
“Yes. It’s my first assignment.”
“As it is for me. Are you going to be sleeping in my bed?” Heat radiated from his torso and was oddly welcomed on this cold night in March in the mountains.
“Well, it’s either that or one of us sleeps in the hall with those rough-hewn men. They probably go through people’s packs as they sleep,” he said. “They aren’t gentlemen as we are. You are a gentleman, aren’t you? You don’t always speak with your fists, I presume.”
I didn’t want any rough-hewn man going through my pack. It contained my mimicry. I needed to be friendly to this man, if indeed, he was anther gentleman.
“I’m a naturalist,” I replied. “I’ll study the animals along the trail. I hope to find a new species and name it after Solomon Bongo, the leader of Malachite Overland Mining. It gives an air of respectability and scientific relevance to a prospecting expedition to employ a naturalist.”
“Ah yes. You know science. That seems very useful, as does flattering the powerful. You’ll keep your neck that way. What did you say your name was?”
“Calvin. Why are you coming into bed so late?”
“I came by train. The driver sent to fetch me was late. He had stopped for a drink. An inevitability out here, I am beginning to learn”
I was completely awake now and brushing shoulders with him through our union suits, repulsively, yet intriguingly aware of his body in bed next to my own.
“Why does a prospecting expedition need a preacher?” I asked, annoyed with myself for engaging in conversation. Back home in Spookstad, it was considered improper to speak so informally with a man who wasn’t a relative.
“I keep the men in line and bury the dead,” he said.
“Prospecting’s a fatal business. But I’m sure you knew that. Or are you awfully young?” In the darkness, I couldn’t be sure, but I imagined his eyes boring into the back of my body and his form shifting every-so-slightly closer.
The clock in the town square struck midnight.
The wind rattled the windows. I forced a cough. His proximity was unsettling and I hoped to scare this man. “The dust. It’s the dust in my lungs. Or perhaps tuberculosis.”
“It’s the new word for consumption.”
The preacher shifted slightly. I coughed dryly and considered how I might keep him quiet. There was the narcotic tonic. I wondered what it might do to him. Certainly it would calm him. There wasn’t need for physical force when chemistry would suffice.
“I think I feel some sputum,” I said. “I’m going to have some tonic. Would you like some? Good for consumption. It keeps away cholera, too.”
“What about syphilis and pox?”
“It’s a cure-all.” Or at least a cure for your talking, I thought.
I handed him the flask, hoping it would put him to sleep. I didn’t know about the velvet bean in it. I was still naive, childish, with the optimistic curiosity that launches all great and foolish things. Once mature, a person can look back and see what might have been done better. The bloom of age gives you wisdom. This however, is not a tale of caution or regret. It’s a tale of navigation, of transformation, of walking through the fire, of what one does to get to the other side of a dream.
He sipped the tonic as if he were one of Granny’s Oudwijf friends having coffee.
“Thank you. You’re killing me with kindness. It tastes of cherries from back home in Kalamazoo,” he said. He was from Michigan too? I wouldn’t tell him where I was from, lest he grow more familiar. I would keep some control of our potential friendship in my hands, at least for now.
“I know that area. Have another drink. A big dose for a big man.” I played upon his pride. Larger men carried status with other men. As a small man, I knew this already.
“HA. A big man?” The preacher touched my face. “You must be positively miniscule.”
I pushed his hand away. “May I have my pillow back?”
He took a long swallow. This sharing of tonic was a mistake. I had extra but not enough to cover enthusiastic gulping. “So. You’re a scientist. A seeker. Like me. But I seek for the infidels. And you seek … what do you seek?”
He took a final sip and fumbled as he passed the flask back to me.
“My specialty is rodents.”
“Rodents?” His voice trembled. I got that reaction at times when I revealed my passion and my area of expertise. He handed me the pillow and turned his back to me.
“Yes. They are very interesting.”
“Ah-h yes. I imagine they are. Good-night now.” He chuffed like the train as he yawned.
Slowly, light came through the window. Harness couplings jangled and clanked on the street below as horse- and mule-drawn wagons groaned into their daily service. Soft snorts and hoof beats filled the air with anticipation. I ran my hands over my body, muscular with no give to the flesh. My womanly softness had abandoned me. I had no breasts and across my chest were sparse hairs. My belly was flat and firm. I was nearly a full-fledged man. I had been afraid to touch myself much before this. I’d been told it was a sin. However, as my fingers flitted across the downy hair and between my legs they told me that I still had the genitalia of a woman. I let out a shivering gasp. There was no mistaking it. Had Theophrastus mentioned this? How would I pass myself off as a man? This tonic had its flaws.
None the less, some of what Theophrastus had promised was working well. I’d missed my flow the day before. Both parents had always kept track of it, marking it on a calendar, making a fuss about it and giving me medications of unknown composition if it wasn’t regular. This behavior had frightened my younger brother and sister, Todd, and Greta, but was a common occurrence in most devout households. Now, thanks to my tonic, I didn’t have it at all, and I didn’t have to wear a corset either.
The preacher slept. He was on his side with his arms hanging over the bed, his brushy brown hair falling back as he snored. In the light, he looked younger than I’d imagined at midnight. His small ears and Van Dyke beard gave him the appearance of a marmot or a porcupine, although the preacher had a lush lower lip. I hadn’t given him too much of the tonic, had I? I felt his pulse. It was strong and steady. Would it do anything at all to him? Curiosity took root. I would, perhaps if I ran into him again, give him a little more and just observe.
With a snort, he rolled onto his back. His union suit was unbuttoned, revealing a shocking display of auburn chest hair the size of a flat iron used for pressing clothing. I stepped back. I couldn’t recall ever seeing the chest of a man and had no idea that they were so hairy. My hands flew to my own nearly hairless chest. Maybe this man was an aberration but I suspected that I was the one unnatural. I turned my gaze from him. It was wrong for me to gawk and I didn’t want him casting his eyes on me. I would get myself dressed before he woke and leave as quickly as I could. Perhaps I wouldn’t be seeing him again.
I opened the parcel left on a chair as quietly as I could although the paper rustled, and I slipped into the naturalist’s suit, which had been sewn based on the measurements I’d sent. The brown suit, with its vest, apricot ascot, sturdy boots, and white shirt, fit perfectly. Of course, I’d had to do some calculating and predicting of the measurements I’d have as a man. I was good at calculating although father had said it wasn’t a skill that women knew. I pinned the warbler feather Alburtus had given me into the lapel. I glanced at the preacher. He was still sleeping. I tucked my grey ascot from Granny into the front of my pants.
I stared at myself in the mirror. Like Father, I had a fine cliff of a nose and a chin that looked robust enough to withstand a punch. I was a better-looking man than he. I had a bigger eye stage and didn’t have those nose hairs or that forehead crease. I was excited for all of this—to be a man with a future ahead of him. I felt alive and on the verge of great things. I swiped some beard-growing ointment across the chin and smeared some by the ears. I made a line drawing of my transformed face and wrote a quick note in my sketchbook:
March 15,1871. When I signed on to be a natural historian for this expedition, I didn’t expect that I would be sleeping with a preacher. However, I put him in his place with a single punch and a touch of tonic. Furthermore, my monthly guest has packed her bags and departed. Praise be! I can’t wait for all that will happen next.
I went to the lobby of the inn and registered with the Malachite Overland Mining Company. I stood in line for a medical exam. My stomach felt like a six-pound cannonball left from the war. If I was inspected in detail I wasn’t going to pass and then what? I’d no doubt be sent home with nothing to show for myself. I stood as the other men, straight backed with my hands clasped across my groin. At least the doctor seemed in a hurry. I bit my tongue to keep myself from nervously squirming and giving myself away. When it was my turn, the doctor put a stethoscope to my chest and listened attentively. He glanced in my mouth, then, as I had feared, grabbed between my legs.
“Cold today, isn’t it?” he said as he put a check next to my name on a list. “Don’t worry, son. The mountain will make a man out of you.”
All of the new members of Malachite Overland Mining were to be oriented to their goals and rules. Solomon Bongo, the charismatic leader, would be here to welcome us, and I wanted to get a glimpse of him. This is not a book of secrets, so I’ll tell you: My granny claimed that he had been her youthful lover and that he was my natural grandfather. The family Bible said otherwise, and my family strictly adhered to the Bible.
With the others, I stood in the convention room waiting for Mr. Bongo, who had struck it rich with his finds of agate and, more importantly, of copper and silver together; “half breed,” he’d called it. Taking things out of the ground brought wealth.
The sound of clapping announced the arrival of Solomon Bongo. He had small ears, large front teeth, and huge eyes. His white hair was well oiled. He dressed as a gentleman and carried a walking stick with a copper head. I doubted Granny’s tale. Perhaps she had known him, but he didn’t much resemble Father except through the eyes.
“We aim to be the world leader in mining,” he shouted. “We take the worry out of prospecting by providing you with a fully outfitted experience: transportation, tools, guides, and explosives. Your future begins today. It’s a new dawn!”
He waited until the applause died down. “Your comfort, safety, and fortune are our top concerns. We offer prime opportunities in gold, silver, iron, and lead, plus help with claim-staking and defense. Soon, you will be escorted to your future.”
Mr. Solomon Bongo asserted that by the year’s end, the men would be seasoned prospectors. Then they could sign up with MOM again for 2 percent higher pay. Times were changing, he said, and it was no longer possible to be a solitary entrepreneur, one man with a pan or a pick axe, no matter how romantic and self-sufficient that sounded. It now would take a company with provisions and technology to be a successful prospector.
He went on, seducing the group with the beauty of prospecting.
“Tomorrow you rise and go to the mountain. What she will give is yet unknown, but listen close to what may be found within her. Silver, a woman — beautiful but coy — can be found as argentite when she meshes with brimstone to form cubes of bluish hue with a vein of yellow running through. Silver may be found with her guardian father, lead. Galena is his form, showing the pattern of a cube as if in boxes born. Bullets, he makes, and pipes.
“Copper and gold are women bold, for they show themselves plainly and wars will be waged for their beauty. If you find a vein of quartz, those pretty sisters could be lurking inside, for quartz is a home for them. Iron, the god of war, can be found red in blood ore or grey when hiding, or may lurk as a woman to bring fools to folly. Not expected to be found but one to fear, red hexagonal cinnabar to quicksilver runs when mixed with iron from a gun.”
He reached into his pocket and brought out a green stone the size of an apple. “Here, my friends, is our namesake: Malachite. Luck in love and luck in money it brings. The might of Malachite!”
The men cheered, and I nodded to show solidarity, but in truth, I found it silly to believe in such superstitions.
Solomon kissed the stone. “Following your successful prospecting, leave the worry to us. Our team of Cornish miners will exploit your claim, digging far into the earth. Your share, a generous 1 percent, will be sent to you by U.S. Mail.” Well, in this way he was like Father – stingy.
“And now, introducing to you your guide and Cornish miner, Trevor Snell from the tough mining town of Gwennap in South England.” Trevor Snell was stocky and triangle-faced. We clapped for him, and he gave us lengthy descriptions of prospecting styles and types of mines and variations of blasting powder. “It is much safer now than in yer Uncle Jim’s day,” he assured us.
Two women with dark hair parted in the middle and fastened at the neck walked through the crowd and joined Solomon at the front of the room. They wore the boots, aprons, and shorter skirts of working class women. One was tall with broad shoulders, and the other, petite.
Solomon put his arm around the tall one. “Here is a woman none of you will want to make angry: our cook, Carolina Harris.” He used his copper-headed cane to point towards the petite woman. “And our seamstress and Carolina’s right-hand woman, Rose Bengal. If you touch either of them, they have my permission to kill you.”
So they weren’t exactly servants. Solomon had bestowed some status on them, due I imagined, to their good work. There was hope for change in the world, or at least in remote places like this. The men laughed nervously, and Solomon went on: “Your signature is required to show your commitment to this venture. Only the committed will be accepted.”
A woman with a blue hood and cape whisked through the crowd with a stack of paper. She thrust a form at me, along with a pencil. “Put your X here,” she pointed. I signed my name. At the back of the room, the preacher was arriving late and unsteady on his feet.