5 Jan 2011Labels: Longer Stories
My name is Elizabeth Eshton. I live in Albany, New York in America. I work in the cotton mill here to support myself. The dormitory where the mill girls sleep and live is the only home I know. It is the year 1867 and this is my story:
At the shriek of the mill whistle through the frosty, early morning air, I sit up in bed. Looking around the dormitory, I can see the all-too-familiar sight of girls rising from their beds, girls washing up, and girls getting dressed. These girls are my friends and colleagues. Some girls were trying to snatch a few precious more minutes of sleep; Amanda, one of my best friends, is one of them.
"Amanda," I say, "You'd better get up or the master will dock your pay again." All she does is groan. I crawl over Mary, the other girl who shares our bed, and my other best friend to shake Amanda. Then Mary.
"Get up!" Slowly Amanda rises. I can see the rest of the girls leaving the room. We must hurry, if we're to get any breakfast. As I quickly dress, I glimpse Mary groggily rolling out of bed. Her hand hits the wash jug resting on the uneven side-table. Water drenches her, me, the bed and the floor surrounding. Mary shrieks and jerks off the floor. Her hair is dripping and her night-shift is drenched, but she's awake. Amanda slips out of bed from the other side. Her lips are curved with an involuntary smile which I greatly do not appreciate. I look down at myself to survey the damage. I groan; my one and only dress is soaked all the way round the hem and patch with water for the rest of the skirt. I growl at Mary who is speedily dressing.
"Sorry," she mouths.
I sigh and set to work wringing as much water as possible out of the fabric. Amanda, fully dressed, disappears and shortly returns with a mop, with which she quickly cleans the floor. Mary carefully picks up the shattered glass and deposits it in a nearby bucket. The bed will have to wait till this evening, we've missed the morning meal and at this rate we're going to be late. Almost as soon as I contemplate this the mill's whistle blows again. My heart feels heavy, full of brick. I dart for the door, down the stairs and onto the heavily crowded streets. Amanda and Mary are right behind me. We begin to run as the final whistle blows; we're late. For every minute we are late we lose an hour's pay. If we do not hurry, we shall work the day in vain.
Click, Click, Click, Clang! Click, Click, Click, Clang! My looms move back and forth and I move with it, hands moving for the tangles almost before my mind registers their presence. The work is repetitive and dull and it is easy for the mind to wander. But if I don't pay attention I could lose an arm, or worse. I once had a friend by the name of Anne. She was tired, not having slept the night before and her concentration slipped. Her arm was mangled from the elbow down. She died of infection two weeks later. Examining the cloth in front of me I see no immediate knots so I move on to my second loom. I manage two looms, as does Mary. Amanda manages three as well as assisting the new-comers. I send an admiring look towards Amanda; her hands fly over the cloth, she barely gives them a glance. She drifts between looms, hands always busy. It's as if she is caught in a mystical dance, graceful but deadly in the presence of mistakes. I quickly turn my attention back to what's important, silently cursing myself for becoming distracted. To my right Mary yawns, and my heads whips towards her. A small part of my mind wonders how I heard that soft yawn in amongst this noisy chaos. Mary yawns again, removing her left hand from the cloth to cover her mouth. I feel nauseous; if Mary is tired it means her concentration will be lacking. A lack of concentration means... A loud clunk from my loom reminds me off its presence. Wrapped up in my concern I had neglected to tend to my looms. A large knot had formed and gotten wedged in between the teeth. I wrest it free and stare at my looms, determined not to let anything else distract me.
I look up in relief as the whistle blows, signalling the lunch break. All of the looms cease weaving. A bell tinkles clearly and all of the girls peel off neatly, the line heading for the break room. Soon, by the time the ringing of my ears had cleared and I could hear properly the only sound was the sound of girls chewing. Our lunch break isn't long so no one is wasting time eating. I sidle over to Mary.
"You look tired," I comment. Mary just bites into her lunch. I decide to persist, "Are you alright? I'm worried."
Mary yawns again, widely although she tries to stifle it. "You worry too much. I'm just tired, alright? I didn't sleep well."
"Why don't you take the rest of the day off? I'll tell the master you went home sick."
"I can't!" Mary rubbed her forehead. "My rent is due today and I don't have enough. I still have to work another hour to make up for my docked pay and then I will have to work for another 4 hours before I'll have enough! It's either that or break into my savings."
"Look, go home. I'll lend you what you need."
"No. I'm not borrowing anything off you or anyone else. I'm fine, really. I'm not that tired anyway." Mary smiled but the smile didn't reach her eyes, dull with exhaustion her eyes had taken on a sunken effect. But I knew Mary, she was stubborn and when her mind was set to something - you had no chance. I agreed reluctantly and eyeing the time I quickly finished my lunch. As the whistle blew I crammed the last mouthful into my mouth and headed back to my looms, the long afternoon stretching before me.
Click, Click, Click, Clang! My arms move stiffly over my looms, they ache all over and part of my arms burn, as if they were on fire! Every day my arms feel like this. And every day I tell myself - tomorrow it won't be so bad, I'll get used to it; but I don't, and that's the hard thing. Now I'm beginning to doubt I'll ever get used to this. Not if I spend a hundred years in this prison. Or a thousand! This job is torture. If the government wants to punish criminals they should send them here. Then they will have to stare at cotton for days on end. Then they will have to endure aching muscles and colds that never end. They will have to stand by and watch their friends die from infected limbs or disease. Then they will wonder why they deserve this. What did they do to end up here? What did we do to end up here? If I could leave I would, we all would. But this is our only hope to live, at least for now. At least here there is a home, no matter how ugly. Food to eat, a place to sleep. But I'm not staying here forever, I'm saving. All three of us are: Amanda, Mary and me. When we have enough we'll go south to the farms and plantations. It won't be easy but it's got to be better than this. And we're almost there. Just a few more months, then freedom! Only a few long, long months.
I watch Mary anxiously. Her movements and becoming sluggish, slow. Occasionally she'll pull herself together with a jerk, but then shortly after she'll slack off again. I want to run over to her, shake her and order her home; but she won't listen to me. I suppose she'll be alright, there's only just over three hours of work left. Mary's a good worker, a real good worker... I divert my eyes from Mary to untangle an unusually compacted knot and then I hear a scream. It echoes through the mill, and through me. Heart falling, body light I turn back to my friend. Mary's caught in the loom. Her arm is a mess, just a stump of torn flesh and blood. Everything suddenly turns blank; I can't move although I want to, I want to scream for someone to help her but no sound comes out. Nothing sounds right; it's muffled, almost as if someone has pulled a cloth over my ears. Everything I see I see through a haze. I watch dumbly as Amanda grabs Mary by her good arm. An older girl runs for the controls, I stare after her disappearing form. The looms stop and Amanda pulls Mary free. Her left arm is gone all the way to the shoulder, only a stump remains. I stare at it, for some reason I feel like laughing. Is this what it feels like to go insane? The edges of my vision turn red, then black; then they begin to close in, obscuring my vision. I blink and it clears. The look on Mary's face is haunting. My eyes focus on it as the black encroaches on my sight. It's the last thing I see before everything goes black.
She's dead. My best friend, dead. She died of shock shortly after I passed out. Amanda told me, tears streaming down her face. I didn't cry, I couldn't. I couldn't talk, I could barely breathe. Mary Winter, my best friend, gone. This was the second friend I have lost to this accursed mill. But I feel different than I did when Anne died. I feel... empty, helpless. That day I felt angry and hurt. Now I feel... empty, dull. I'll miss them, always.
I'm back at my looms. There was still 3 hours of work time left and the master insisted we return to work. Mary's looms sit beside me, void of the friend I loved. I won't look at them; I know the blood's still there. By tomorrow they'll be cleaned and occupied. I brush away hopeless tears; how will they help Mary? Now she won't be able to go south with Amanda and me. She'll never feel the fresh wind in her hair, nor will she taste the freedom of being on our own. She was so young, thirteen. All her hard earned money with pay not for her future but for her funeral. A funeral even her closest friends will not be able to attend. The master will not let us leave for a few hours to bid her goodbye. Mary will be buried alone it the sea of hundreds of people of the city's cemetery.
It isn't fair. These accidents happen at least once a week, maybe even more. Girls die all the time and no one cares. No one!
I'll still head south. Amanda will still head south. We shall do not only for us, but for Mary, for Anne and all the girls who's futures were shattered in this city, in this mill for whom no one cares for and who cares for no one.
Posted by H. J. Stephens on the 5.1.11