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Auraria a novel, p.26
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       Auraria: A Novel, p.26

           Tim Westover
 

  Chapter Twenty-Six

  Holtzclaw walked arm in arm with a beautiful woman in a dress of midnight blue, spangled with silver stars. They took a turn around the upper decks of the Maiden of the Lake. A soft rain began to fall, and the laughing pair ducked inside. They were at the top of the grand staircase overlooking the humming atrium. Men in fur and women in silk opened their purses to spill rivers of gold. Cascades of gold dust fell from cracks in the glass-domed ceiling. The air was hazy with metal. Holtzclaw turned toward his lovely companion, and she turned to him. Her rabbit face broke into a smile; her nose wiggled joyfully. She placed a four-fingered hand on his cheek; her slender, narrow fingers were cold on his skin.

  The walls shook with the sound of an explosion. The boat rocked, tossed by a sudden wave. In an instant, the world reversed. Gilding and furniture splintered to pieces. Glassware vanished into a hail of icy fragments. Nothing that Holtzclaw had bought and paid for was left intact.

  Holtzclaw’s companion tumbled forward; he caught her in his arms. Her silver hair was sticky with shimmering black fluid. Water roared. The current was pulling them down.

  He could not shake this dream, even after he drank a glass of claret and a full pitcher of mineral water. It persisted at the corner of his mind. He thought of a bath, but he was not sure which waters were prescribed for nightmares. So Holtzclaw drew on an overcoat and set out for a midnight constitutional.

  He found himself on top of the dam, which was farther than he had intended to walk. To the north, the lake stretched for miles; to the south, there was a steep drop to the Sky Pilot’s cabin and the craggy emptiness of the dry Terrible Cascade. Water bubbled through the spillway and down the flume, crossing the line between these contrasting environments. From a single spot, he could contemplate the quiet stillness of the lake; then, needing only to turn his head, he could revel in the sense of smallness that only deep chasms and great distances can provide.

  But this was as much comfort as the dam could give him. The earth was damp under his feet. Somewhere below were winces of strain. To keep their artificial lake locked inside its borders for more than another few seasons, he and Shadburn would have to build another dam right on top of the old one. And that would take a mountain of money.

  “A pleasant night?” The princess peered from over the top of the flume, resting her arms on its wooden side. She was standing in the water flowing to the powerhouse, unperturbed by the strong current.

  “Unpleasant dreams,” he said. “Indigestion, I think.” He leaned against the dry side of the flume. The wooden supports sagged under his weight, and he backed away.

  “Many times,” said the princess, “bad dreams are blamed on indigestion when really they’re the work of revengeful fish ghosts.”

  “Why, I have saved the lives of many fish,” said Holtzclaw. “Shadburn and I have given them a beautiful, safe place in which to cavort and breed.”

  “It isn’t their lives or their deaths that they are revenging,” said the princess. “Life and death are common and natural to them. Do you know how many fish are in this lake? Two million and eight! Now it is two million and six, because two small fry have been swallowed by a hungry predator. Now it is two million and thirty-two, because catfish eggs are awakening.”

  “Then why do the fish want revenge?”

  “Their ghosts are not free to float to the sea. That is where everything must flow. The dead, the minerals—they follow rivers to the ocean, where they are worked into particles and dissolve. Every grain of gold will one day be held in suspension in seawater—or should be—and the sea snails will be the richest creatures of them all.”

  “So, the fish ghosts torment me with nightmares so that I will set them free?” said Holtzclaw.

  “No,” said the princess. “They torment you because they have nothing better to do.”

  “At least they aren’t attacking the dam. It has enough enemies, natural and unnatural.”

  “Oh, they are doing that. They have no love for the dam. The wild wonder fish carry it away one mouthful at a time.”

  Holtzclaw wanted to stamp his feet in indignation, but he stopped himself. His petulance might weaken the dam.

  “We have a common goal,” continued the princess. “To see the land scoured clean of gold. We disagree on methods, but my way is better.”

  “What is your way, Princess?”

  “To open the mountain and let the waters out.”

  “And then what will happen to the Queen of the Mountains? The Maiden of the Lake?”

  “We will come through just fine,” she said.

  Her pronouncements were rarely soothing to his peace of mind.

  •

  Holtzclaw took a high, circuitous route back to the hotel. He was still working through the lingering effects of indigestion and fish ghosts. The road was reminiscent of the Lost Creek Valley in the days before the lake. Desire paths, worn by ranging tourists searching for shortcuts, weaved between old trees. The sound of running water filled the air. Creeks dropped through stones, rills passed over the road, springs gushed from openings in the mountain. The moon shone between the branches and showered Holtzclaw’s way with silver light. From below, in a hollow carved by a branch of the river, came the sound of joyful laughter.

  He was near one of the places where he’d seen the moon maidens at play. The site hadn’t been drowned by the lake. Holtzclaw found the rough staircase that led from the path down to the short stone wall at the water’s edge. A cold breeze blew back against him, the breath of the valley across the face of the water. The laughter continued from upstream. Holtzclaw hunkered down, carefully following the inner edge of the wall, toward the rocks in the bend.

  When he came close enough to make out the figures that gamboled over the rocks, he realized that he had made a terrible mistake. Instead of moon maidens, he saw young people from the hotel: heirs and heiresses, prodigals, dandies, scions, and society artistes. Their cries and giggles turned into the barnyard braying of animals.

  Holtzclaw turned to creep away along the path he’d taken, but he slipped on wet leaves, flailed, and tumbled into mud. His graceless fall caused a commotion. The tourists rushed to investigate.

  “It’s that mopey fellow!” said one of the young men. “Always hanging around, talking like a book. What’s his name? Handclaw, right? Or Wholecloth?”

  “Out for a peek, are we?” said another.

  “Wanted to catch some youngsters at their game?” called one of the women.

  “Raspberries, raspberries!” All the bathers made rude noises with their lips and then panted with paroxysms of laughter.

  “Say, you’re not here to spy for those dusty women in the yellow hats, are you? What do they call themselves? The Cooing and Booing Society?”

  “Billing and Cooing Society! Like birds.”

  The youngsters danced around, each making an idiosyncratic impression of a bird: flapping arms like wings, jutting their necks back and forward, hopping from one foot to the other.

  “Caw-caw! Ku-ku! Ka-ka-ka-chu!”

  “That’s not what they do,” said Holtzclaw. “It’s not even a good impression. But I don’t mean to defend them; I’m no ally of theirs.”

  “Well, say whatever you want to them,” said one of the women. “Doesn’t matter in the least to me.” She curled around the outstretched arm of an eligible bachelor in a striped bathing suit—one of the hotel’s standard issue, far off hotel grounds.

  “Why are you even here, Holdcow?”

  “It’s just … I thought you were someone else.”

  “What, we’re not good enough? You wanted to peek at someone else? Wanted a better view than what you got?”

  “That is not it,” said Holtzclaw. “That is not it at all.”

  “You think we should leave?” said one of the young men. “You’ve got no right to tell us to leave. It’s going to take a lot more than some sad word to make us go. No one’s trespassing.”

  “If you’re
going to tell us it’s not right or not decent,” said one of the women, “then you can just eat a fig.”

  “I don’t mean to spy on anyone,” said Holtzclaw, “or chase anyone away. You can stay. I had just wondered, when I heard you …”

  One of the youngsters dashed out of the calf-high water and clambered onshore. “Brr! Sure got cold!” Others followed him, clustering for warmth.

  “A powerful frost just then!”

  “Like ice is coming down the river.”

  The trees hissed with a sudden breeze that stung at damp hands and feet and faces. “Mr. Wholecloth, you brought some frosty winds with you.”

  The youngsters scurried back along the shoreline path, leaving Holtzclaw shivering and alone. Flakes of gold curled at the edge of the water.

 
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