The Holder's Black-Haired Daughter
By Kelly Jennings
16 May 2011
This is a story you can hear told through all the stations over there by the Drift and just beyond, and if you put a gun to my head I would not swear to you one way or another whether it is a true story, but it is true enough. It will do.
It is a story of three miners who left their widowed mother back on Dresden and went way out there by the Drift to one of those raw planets, hoping to get rich as Creezus mining lithium or iron in the asteroids, and in the end they don't get rich, they go broke, and take jobs at a brickworks down on the planet, living in a rat-shack the company rents them, drinking their nights away in town and sinking further into debt each quarter. It is not the life they hoped for, though it is better than the life they might have had. "At least if we run short here," the oldest brother reminds them, often, "we don't get pitched out the airlock."
Now just on up the hill from the brickworks lives a Lord Holder with his daughter and sons, rich as Creezus, the lot of them. He's been lucky, this holder, and his father and grandfather before him. Their fishing fleet has always prospered, and with the asteroids, not to mention the Pirians and Free Merchants just across the Drift, they have a ready market for all they can pack, fish as well as the fruit from their orchard. So they have expanded into the brickworks and goats, which thrive on the grassy plains of the coast, and their wealth grows yearly. The wide and lovely house is surrounded by wide and lovely gardens, the wife is gone, the daughter runs the household. The tutor for the sons sits in the window of the schoolroom, watching the daughter as she moves about the kitchen garden or comes in from the yards, sweeping off her hat, her dark hair flowering in the bright air. The tutor presses a hand to the window glass, burning with desire.
One afternoon the daughter tells her father she's going into town. The cook needs sugar, the cook needs spice, the head gardener broke a crucial bit of equipment. Go, her father says, only stop by the post, see what's become of our last payment from Alhamini Mines. The daughter passes by the schoolroom, thinking to take along her oldest brother as a treat, peeks in the door, but the tutor, dowdy item in her dull grey dress, she'll talk for an hour if you let her get a word in. The daughter keeps going.
The town burns in the afternoon sun. The buildings are made of brick and chipped driftwood, treated with glass paint to better shed rain in the wet season. The daughter watches the road grit under her boots. Seashells, they pave roads with here. She watches tawny weeds wave in the ditches. She watches contract labor loading bricks at the rail yard, brown as the weeds, sweat on their skinny backs. She thinks about the sunlight, the rubbishy railway cars, she thinks where the bricks might be going, far from here. She thinks of her mother, gone for years.
Town thickens around her. She stops at the shops, gives orders. In the bistro, she finds the post commander, who asks after the fishing before pulling out his pocket to track their missing payment. In the padded chair across the table from the commander, the daughter pulls off her hat and runs her fingers through her hair. It is a small town at the back elbow of the Republic, so I can leave the bistro to your imagination: the inferior wallboards, the rackety climate control, the haphazard uplinks.
On the other hand, the food is surprisingly good. And off-market drugs are not just available, they are more or less legal.
Well, but this isn't a story about that.
The Lord Holder's daughter happens to be at a table where the uplink and the climate control work well. "Happens"—the post commander routinely takes this table, knowing it for the best; others in the town routinely give way. No one ever mentions this practice, of course.
In any case, there she sits, our holder's daughter, gazing about herself. Off across the room, our miners drink house brew. For a moment, her inky eyes rest on the youngest, caught in a spill of light from the window.
Then the commander finds the data, and off she goes, in a toss of glimmering hair. The youngest miner sits straight. "Did you see that?"
In the rail yard, the contract labor, having finished the loading, hunker at the edge of the platform, passing water bottles. They argue in the mutter contracts use when they don't want bosses to overhear. Nothing, they argue. Nothing, nothing. Do nothing, not now. An uprising would be doomed. Slave rebellions always fail, they argue. And besides, besides, this holder is different. Not like her da, or that bastard her grandda. Never passes without noticing us. This one is different, they argue.
Up at the estate house, dusk is falling, purple across the bay. Far out across the water, fishing boats tack towards shore. The holder's dark-haired daughter has taken the beach path, down to pick the plums that grow wild along the cliffs. These aren't really plums, they aren't Earth-source, but they're like the first colonists' memories of plums, and that's what they got called. No one is supposed to eat many of them, too many beach plums will make you sick; but this is their season, and they are sweet as honey in the mouth. The holder's daughter fills her hat and climbs through the rocks along the water, eating the plums and spitting out the pips. Beach plums have six or eight tiny dark red pips each, slippery as beach stones. She doesn't use her hands to climb, just her boots and her balance, her fine long muscles. She thinks of her friends, gone off to Core schools now, how they all climbed here like this, two summers ago, three. Making their escape plans. Once we leave this rotten place, once we reach the Core, we'll never, ever—sometime she thinks she is the only one her age left on the entire planet.
She climbs to the highest rock, just below the estate house, and stands balanced on its peak, the wind roaring past her, watching the sails of the fishing boats belly with the wind. The sun is all the way down. She folds her hat and tucks it in the side pocket of her trousers, shaking out her hair to let the wind surf through it. A contract crew gathers driftwood down the beach. She waves at them.
The youngest miner has gone to the public baths and paid for a fresh scrub. By dusk, he is waiting by the main gate of the house. Not bad, he thinks, remembering his reflection from the baths. He had been a lovely adolescent, charming, lucky with girls. Now he is maybe bit rough from the mines, but still handsome. Anyway, women like a workingman. Anyway, she wants him. His brothers scoffed, but he had seen her eyes. He knew hunger when it burned at him.
For you? his oldest brother said. Dead-broke mining slag?
Won't be dead-broke, will I, the youngest brother said, once she's on my leash?
Upright, he waits to use his charm. Bareheaded, she climbs from the cliff, crosses the high grass, sends him a single glance from her slanted eyes, and is through the gate to the house before he can untangle his breath to speak.
Out on the cliff the contract labor who were gathering driftwood are bringing it in, piled in firewood slings. They pass the tutor without noticing her, walking among the trees of the orchard. She is watching the window of her true love, remembering, over and over, how she stopped to smile through the schoolroom door that morning. She knew then that the daughter shared her desperate love. Oh, but how could it be? The tutor, free labor, is so poor; the Lord Holder's daughter has to marry someone with wealth to match her own. She thinks of that smile, those intent dark eyes; her heart surges with love. Enough, she vows. No more swallowing her desire. She will write a post—no, better, a poem—give it to her, tomorrow, when she returns from town. Tomorrow, her love will understand.
The contracts pass her in the dark. Why wait years, they argue, until the daughter inherits? Brace her now! Learn now if her smiles mean anything: if she will aid their cause. Get the gardener's boy to approach her, or the kitchen girl, while she plans the week's menu tomorrow evening. Stop waiting. Act now.
Changed, fresh, the daughter wanders onto the roof terrace to join her father in the cool of the evening. The wind roars in from the sea. He asks about the payment. She tells him how Alhamini Mines has claimed an accounting error, and promises to post payment at the start of the next week. Her father snorts. They are used to such games from Alhamini Mines.
"Who is that down by the gate?" he asks, nodding at the youngest miner, still waiting.
His daughter squints against the dusk. "Someone waiting for one of the kitchen girls, maybe?"
Her father finishes his cider. "Don't fret over Alhamini, love. They need our fish too badly to stiff us for long."
Down by the gate, the youngest miner watches the holder's dark-haired daughter high in her terraced garden. He hears her father speak. He sees her look away. He knows she loves him so much she cannot bear to look at him. He steps forward, decision breaking sharp inside him. Fortune favors the brave. Tomorrow, he decides. It is the first day of End, the day she always brings her brothers to town. He will wait for her in his best clothing. He knows the perfect words. He feels it in the surge of his blood. Tomorrow everything will change.
"You're not worried about the payment?" the Lord Holder tells his daughter. "You know we're doing fine."
She is half-sitting on the terrace wall, watching the moon slip itself over the horizon. She smiles but does not meet her father's eyes. "No, Papa."
"Or your trip?" Tomorrow, she leaves before dawn, a shuttle up to the station, to catch a connecting ship to the Core.
"No, Papa," she says patiently.
"Ah," he says, thinking he finally understands. "Well, don't worry about that, either. You'll love the Core," he says, from the memory of his three years there, a lifetime before.
She smiles again, letting him think this is what is in her heart. She is thinking of her friends who left last year, and the year before; she is thinking of her mother, gone so many years now she cannot remember her voice. Forty-six jumps from here to the Core, far too expensive for casual posts. So she does not know if her friends have changed their minds about not returning after their educations. She knows that she will not. She watches the trees roar with the wind, the grass blow white in the dusk. She thinks about escaping this place forever.
"Don't worry, love," her father tells her. "Everything is going to be fine."
"Of course it will," she says, and raises her perfect face to the silver light of their moon.