Monday, November 10, 2008

The Steel Dragon: Chapter 1 Excerpt

Chapter One Excerpt

Past the Great Church of the Holy Savior, bounded on the south by Avenue Hart, the north by the railroad yards, the west by Contico Boulevard and on the east by what Senta didn’t know, was one of the city’s seemingly never-ending masses of tenement buildings. Here were countless brown-stones, put up quickly and cheaply, with none of the artistic style, careful engineering, or safety considerations taken into account when the buildings of the Old City had been built centuries before. The shortest among them were seven or eight stories high, but most were at least fifteen. The highest among them, reached up into the sky more than twenty stories. Senta, still skipping despite the hour and a half long journey from the park, reached the entrance of her own building and skipped up the eight steps to the front door. From that point on, skipping was out of the question. Even a child with as much energy at her disposal as had Senta, was worn out by the time she reached the twelfth story. And the twelfth story was where Senta lived with her Granny.
She turned the doorknob as she leaned against the door, and burst into Granny’s apartment. Senta had always thought of it as Granny’s apartment, rather than her own. She was only one of the children who lived there. There were six. Bertice, who was a pretty and very quiet seventeen year old, worked fourteen hours a day sewing in the shirtwaist factory. Geert, a surprisingly husky boy of twelve, traveled each day to the King’s warehouse, where the government gave away bushels of apples. Then he took the apples to the train station to sell them for a pfennig a piece. Senta herself, at nine, fell next in line. Then was Maro, Geert’s eight year old brother, who worked in a printers’ shop. He had lost the two endmost fingers on his right hand playing too near the printing press. Didrika was a cute and precocious four year old. She and her baby sister, Ernst, were Granny’s only real grandchildren, Bertice being the granddaughter of Granny’s younger sister and Senta being the granddaughter of Granny’s older sister. Senta wasn’t too sure what the exact relationship was for Maro and Geert, but everyone in the house was somehow related and everyone in the house was treated as though they were a cherished grandchild by the hunch-backed, grey-haired old woman who looked up from her washing when Senta entered.
The front door opened into the combination living room/kitchen. An old table and two chairs sat next to the coal-fire stove and just to the left of that was a large, two-basin sink with running water. This was used for washing clothing, washing dishes, and washing children. On the other side of the room, a ragged sofa sat next to a mismatched chair. At night, the room was used as a bedroom by Geert, who slept on a sheepskin, which was pulled out from under the sofa and rolled out onto the floor; and by Maro, who pushed the two chairs away from the table, and placing them side by side, spent the night lying across them.
In addition to this room, there was one other in the apartment—a bedroom. The double bed that had come with the apartment was shared by Granny and Bertice and Didrika, who was small enough to curl up between them. Ernst had her own baby crib, which had arrived when she and Didrika had, two years before. Senta didn’t know what had happened to the two girls’ parents, any more than she knew what had happened to her own, but they were dead now. Senta had her own special bed which had been made by setting side by side three wooden crates, two which had originally held Geert’s apples, and one a carrot crate, given by an old man who with his little donkey, delivered carrots to the many eating establishments in and around the great plaza. Then the three crates were covered with a hand-stuffed mattress.
Granny had a bucket in the bottom of the right hand sink. The bucket was filled with soapy water and dirty clothes. The old woman picked up from beside the sink, the washer, a device which looked like a large brass plunger attached to a broomstick, and placing it in the bucket on top of the clothes, began to plunge it up and down while turning it. This was a lot of work, but nowhere near as much as cleaning clothes with a washboard, and it was much easier on the clothes too.
“Payday,” said Senta, giving Granny a hug, and then handing over the fourteen copper pfennigs she had earned for the week.
“Thank you, dear,” said Granny, pausing from the washing to accept the money. She then handed two pfennigs back and said. “Keep one for yourself and put one in the meter. The gas went out this morning, and we’re going to need some light tonight. Maro will want to read to us, and I have to catch up on my knitting.”
High on the wall, above the coal fire stove was the gas meter. It was a square device about two feet across which controlled the flow of gas from the pipes in the wall to the two gas lamps on the ceiling. It had a coin slot and a knob on it. When a pfennig was placed in the slot and the knob was turned, the appropriate amount of gas would be allowed to flow out to be used by the family for evening light. It usually lasted about two and a half evenings, so the family, most weeks budgeting two pfennigs for artificial light, had five evenings lit by gas. The other two evenings were either lit by a single candle, or kept dark. Senta pressed the less shiny of the two pfennigs in her hand into the slot and turned the knob. She could hear the little copper coin fall down a pipe, making a little echo as it went down into the wall. A second later, she could hear hissing of the gas making its way from the meter toward the lamps. It hissed only a moment then stopped. They wouldn’t light the lamps until after dark. Waste not, want not.
“Would you like me to go get the coal for the stove, Granny?” asked Senta.
The coal supply was located in the basement—the lowest level of two basements. This meant walking down fourteen flights of stairs, and walking back fourteen flights of stairs with a bucket full of coal.
“Getting the coal is not a job for a little girl,” said Granny.
“I can do it.” “Oh, I know you can. But Geert is already getting it.”
“How come he’s home so early?”
“Oh, he had a very good day today. He sold all of his apples so quickly this morning that he was able to go get a second bushel just for us. I’m going to make a pie this evening.”
At that moment, Geert entered with a bucket full of coal. He grunted at Senta and walking over to the cast iron stove, opened the small door at its very bottom and shoveled in about a third of the bucket. He then took a sheet of newspaper from the stack nearby and wadded it up. He struck a wooden match and lit the paper, tossing it in after the coal.
An hour later, the room was warm with the heat of the oven, Ernst woke up from her afternoon nap, Didrika returned from playing with her friend on the eleventh floor, and Senta helped Granny make an apple pie. By the time the apple pie was cooked, Maro had returned from his job at the print shop and had plopped down on the sofa, while Granny and Senta peeled potatoes. Dinner was ready when Bertice arrived home, completely exhausted, curling up in the mismatched chair, able to stay awake just long enough to eat her potato soup and apple pie.
The rest of the evening was spent together in the living room/kitchen. Bertice was quietly snoring, Granny was knitting, and the rest of the children were listening to Maro read, by the light of the gas lamps, from the broadsheet he had brought home with him from work. Senta didn’t know it, but the broadsheet was just one of the many propaganda-based papers which were distributed around the city each day—some pro-government and some supporting various opposition groups. The main story in this one was about how the government was gathering all of the wizards in the kingdom and making them spend their time creating enchantments and weapons for use in a possible war with the kingdom’s hereditary enemies Freedonia and Mirsanna. This, according to the broadsheet, left no wizards to cast the spells needed by average citizens: to protect homes, to increase the crop yields of farms, and to create enchanted vehicles. Not to mention, thought Senta, to tell fortunes and create beauty or love or happiness potions. There were also local news stories—a fire had burned down a candle shop, someone had stolen a brand new steam carriage in broad daylight, and another young woman was murdered near the waterfront. Afterwards, someone nudged Bertice awake long enough for her to change into her nightgown. Everyone else changed into their own nightclothes, and they all went to bed.
Senta didn’t know what woke her up in the middle of the night, but she was awakened. Moonlight streamed in the tiny window of the bedroom. She lay on her bed, made of three crates and a hand-stuffed mattress for a long time, listening to Bertice quietly snore, and Ernst breathe. She couldn’t hear Didrika for a while, but then she heard the six year old quietly whimper as she sometimes did when she was cold. Senta thought that the blanket must have come off of her. Quietly getting up, she tip-toed over to the bed, and found that sure enough, Didrika’s knitted baby blanket had slipped down to her knees. Leaning over Granny’s form, she pulled the blanket back up to the girl’s shoulders and tucked her in. As she leaned back, Senta looked at Granny’s face. Granny’s eyes were open.
“Granny?” said Senta.
Granny didn’t answer. Senta put her hand near the old woman’s nose and mouth. No breath came from either. She then put her hand on Granny’s cheek. It was smooth and soft, but it was cold. She made the sign of the cross for the second time that day. Senta was young, but she was not naïve. No child living in the masses of brownstone tenement apartments in the great city of Brech could afford to be naïve. Life was hard. Life was unsympathetic. Life was a trial. But Granny no longer needed to worry about the trial of life. Granny was dead.

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