Life was hard sometimes for everyone, Samantha knew. Hard as coal, her mother said. It was a strange phrase, Samantha thought. It confused her because she always thought of charcoal, which wasn't hard but crumbled into powder. There were charcoal sticks you bought for art, some still in the shape of twigs, there were the dark pillows of briquettes.

Coal she knew was like a faceted black mirror. It was what her mother was raised with in Canada. There wasn't a son on the farm and so like everyone she shoveled coal, her mother and father both doing so as well. The wind stole across the lake sometimes and brought snow so deep it drifted blue; other times it roared across the prairie from Manitoba and beyond. You had to shovel a lot of coal.

Still to hear her mother say so was strange. She had soft fingers and wore tailored suits which flattered her hips. Life was hard as coal.

Her mother's lips were plums and her eyes clear blue, like water. It was, she said, because she needed clear eyes to fight diseases. There was a play they read in junior high when everyone else was reading Lady Macbeth called The Enemy of the People by Ibsen. The hero of the play made her think of her mother. He too was a doctor, he too believed in the clarity and truth.

Life was hard as coal.