Lydia watches through a hole in another factory wall as a wood cutter in a courtyard beyond swings his axe in swooping arcs against a splitting block. Waning sunlight glints from the blade at the top of each swing, a silver blur striking Lydia’s eyes. She flinches as the axe finds its mark and wood explodes in the thick cloud of breath expanding around the wood cutter in the frozen air.
The wood tumbles and thuds in the snow. He gives a furtive glance as his big hand scoops up the logs and tosses them onto the pile behind the furnace. Lydia hears another man on the other side of the furnace, hears him talking loudly and throwing the split wood into the furnace. Logs thump into the furnace in measure with the wood cutter’s axe.
The wood cutter places another upturned log on the block and draws the axe to strike. Lydia leans to the hole, her words matching the cadence of his axe, slipping in, whispers in the silence between his blows. “What happened? Did they take Denarius?”
“Don’t know,” he says under his breath, not missing a beat; splitting, tossing and piling until he stops and extends his hand to the hole, “Good day, sister,” and then under his breath, “I’ll ask. Here, take this.”
Lydia sees the firewood in his coat sleeve and glances into his brown eyes – the light twinkles and their hands meet in a brisk, forced handshake. Lydia catches the wood in her sleeve as it slips from the wood cutter’s. She draws her arm back and whispers into the hole as she leaves, “Thank you.” She tucks the wood inside her coat under her left arm, and whispers again, this time to herself, “Thank you.” She scans the factory floor and hurries down the narrow corridor towards the exit.
An Overseer’s thick body blocks the corridor. “And where do you think you’re going?” He taps his cudgel into his palm gently.
The Overseer’s face is a ghastly pallor in the yellow work-light of the factory. His eyes are in shadow under the brim of his helmet. His uniform shirt is immaculate, black with sharp creases down his broad chest. His ID badge over his left shirt pocket bears the Company logo and the coded diagonal lines of the Overseers. The burnished buckles on his utility belt gleam. He jabs his cudgel at Lydia. It makes a hollow thumping sound against her chest.
“My shift is over,” she says, raising her right palm to the tall man to show him the red light on her time chip.
He taps her upturned palm with the cudgel and his tone carries his disappointment, “Labor is peace.” He turns aside to let her pass. She lowers her eyes and replies, “Labor is peace,” and quickly adds, “Brother.” As she hurries down the corridor towards the exit, she feels his eyes following her, searching for whatever hint of her body’s shape her thick coat might reveal. She holds her breath against his stare and doesn’t take another until she is out of the factory and the exit door slams behind her.
The air strikes her throat like frozen needles. She gasps but keeps walking, moving calmly, mingling with the other workers pouring from the doors of the factories that loom over the central walkway. The workers shuffle and kick at the newly fallen snow in the canyon between the factories until the walkway becomes a gray river of mud and snow and workers.