The little girl works at the factory from 5 in the morning til 9 at night, rising when the moon is still caught up in a dark bulleted with stars. She always hears her mother ask the colliers for the time and they always answer the same way and the little girl always waits for her to crawl into their bed and wrap her arms around her ribs so they can watch, ear to ear, the sea of men wade through the fog to the dock and the ships. Coal weighted coughs rise and fall like fingers in a fast slide over piano keys and when the music fades and the colliers are out of sight, she and her mother clasp hands and tiptoe, so as not to wake the day, into the dirt floor kitchen, slicing two thin strips from the loaf of bread already pockmarked blue at the corners, like a constellation in negative.
The little girl’s mother scrubs under her arms, the back of her neck, water cold in the bucket with no bubbles, just a thin slime of soap on the surface that smells like damp and rot. The little girl dresses herself, shimmying the scratchy fabric over her hips, rolling up dark tights that sag at the ankle and knees, tying the broken laces crosshatched over each boot into a knot and folds herself over in one of two kitchen chairs as her mother braids her hair, pinning the plaits in the back so they don’t catch in the spindles. Then the little girl and the little girl’s mother walk the five miles to the mill and wait.
When the gates open, the little girl and her mother pass by the picker-houses, tiny fluffs of cotton settling on their hair and shoulders, floating in the air like flurries of snow. The brown faces through the sweating windows always look once before looking away, and the little girl always feels her mother’s feet quicken, her hand pull. She never sees the brown faces anywhere else and wonders where they go when they’re not here.
Spinning machines stretch out like long legs of a hairy spider, each frame racketed with spindles, each spindle with their own bobbin to fill. The little girl’s mother guides the fiber through the machines that clean and smooth the cotton into rolls, folded together by the finishers. Women take the folded rolls into the main building and the little girl doesn’t know what happens to them before they become shirts and dresses and underthings.
Last week, the man who watches them all from the balcony came to her mother and told her soon she was going to tend the looms in another part of the mill where they’re woven into cloth. The little girl would brush the lint from the looms and watch for snags. This excited her mother, because her pay would be increased and allow for short breaks in between their piecing of bobbins and when the doffers came in to change the spools. This excited the little girl because she would finally find out how it all happened.
Today, the little girl’s mother continues to guide the fiber through the machines, the little girl sweeping up the dust that always collects under their feet. She receives no pay for her job, but it keeps her close and watchable and in a few years time she can begin to learn the more complicated workings of the mill and start to help with the daily expenses.
The little girl’s mother coughs, dry and rattling, and the little girl squeezes the tips of her mother’s fingers, the same level of fright she always feels rising as she watches the tendons in her mother’s neck tighten, the little blue vein in her forehead throb, the tears collect in the hollows under her cheeks. The cough always lessens after they get home before almost fading away, so the little girl closes her eyes until she feels her mother squeeze back and it’s okay again.
The little girl and the little girl’s mother always walk home together. The men who wait in the dark for the factory’s closing whistle are less likely to grab at them that way (though the little girl remembers once running three miles home without stopping as her mother screamed behind her Hurry, Hurry before a dirty hand clamped over her mother’s mouth and she was enveloped by shadows. Hours, days, weeks, months later, her mother very slowly opened the front door, a smear of blood under her nose, at the corners of her mouth, and would not let the little girl touch her until she heated water and scrubbed herself, standing naked in the kitchen. When they climbed into bed, the little girl’s mother apologized into the little girl’s ear for using so much soap, promising she would replace it before their Saturday night bath and the little girl did not know why her mother began to cry when she told her it was no trouble, she didn’t mind less soap if her mother needed it). But at noon, when they’re allowed forty minutes of free time, they don’t eat together, the little girl’s mother allowing her to walk the mill grounds, while she has lunch with the other women, sitting on the coiling roots of the Quaking Aspen in the corner of the lot. The little girl always stops at the end of the main brick building and turns to wave at her watching mother, before carefully maneuvering out of sight and toward the thin break in the fence, tumbling into a run as she reaches the town and all its unfamiliar adventure.
The little girl never has long on the macadam roads, crushed stone hot and hard under her feet. Lately she ’s spent it rushing from tree to tree, throwing her back against the bark if spotted, until she makes it to the wealthier section, the houses crisp and white as cut apple, porches long and wrap-around. One house intrigues her the most because another little girl lives there, and she can watch her through the open window as she plays the piano with an old man sitting beside her, lightly tapping her fingers with a ruler when a wrong chord is struck. She imagines herself in the corner, waiting her turn, or maybe beside the other little girl. They can be sisters, twins even, and learn everything at the same time. She will wear blue and the other little girl will wear pink, the only way to tell them apart, and they will be each other’s shadows and eat cookies and sweets in a dining room with a long table and a lace tablecloth and everyone in all the big houses will visit them every day and sometimes the little twin girls will turn these people way, only needing each other and the little girl’s mother, who will be their mother and wear her hair half up and half down in cascading curls and a diamond headband and she will never have to do anything except be their mother and take long hot baths in the afternoon and every room will smell of baking bread and honey and feel clean and cool and just right.
The little girl clutches her knees to her chest, sitting at the very edge of the other little girl’s yard, unnoticed in the shade and thick branches of the unkempt empty lot beside the columned house. When the little girl is not dreaming of living in the house she likes to make up rhymes to the tune of the piano, digging the letters she knows into the dirt. She’s been repeating one over and over, made up some morning as she and her mother watched the colliers on their march: the men rise and fall, in the dark of the sea, like fingers tumbling over piano keys — (one night not very long ago, the little girl’s mother brought the bottom of a wooden box into their bedroom and poured a thin layer of fine, soft sand into it. She began tracing shapes into the brown and yellow tinted granules, forming a chain, then brushing it smooth. The little girl did not ask where she acquired these treasures, she doesn’t know and doesn’t much care how they get anything, because her mother is good and true and nothing could be the matter. That night the little girl slid off the bed, crossing her legs and looking down as her mother continued to create magic. This is where glass comes from, her mother said. You heat this until it melts and pour it into molds and wait till it’s cool. The little girl looks up at their one bedroom window and back to her mother’s big wide smile. Yes, she nods. This, she picks up a handful of sand and lets it drift though her fingers, is what that, she tilts her head towards the foggy pane, used to be. Now, she takes the girl’s hand, folds her middle, ring and pinky finger down, grasping the little girl’s pointer finger and using it to trace a shape like a ladle, this is how you write your name. The little girl does not look down at the shapes her finger makes in the sand, and her mother has to start from the beginning, urging, Pay attention, this is important. The little girl is feeling the pulse of her own wrist under her mother’s hand, the warmth of their bodies as they lean their heads together, the slowing of time as nothing exists except the two of them and there is nothing to do but this and nowhere to be but here. She’s watching the light that lives inside her mother bloom and expand until it bursts the whole world into phosphorescence. The little girl doesn’t mind if it takes all night) the men rise and fall, in the dark of the sea, like fingers tumbling — The little girl looks up as a flat chord sounds and then again, and again. The other little girl is slamming her fists against the keys and the old man is standing up and moving away, crossing his arms and shaking his head. The other little girl stands up too, the piano bench scraping back and she holds her arms, hands still in fists, straight at her sides, long blonde hair kicking up like horse’s legs and stomps out of view, the pink satiny light of her dress flashing.
The little girl holds her breath, watching the old man. His head drops, rests there a moment, and then he is opening a little satchel and stuffing sheets of paper into it, clasping it shut with force and does not stomp but strides through the doorway. The little girl crawls along the edge of the yard and sees the front door open, calmly but firmly shut, and the old man descends the stairs and walks down the front path, satchel under his arm. The little girl edges back into the shadows, hovering a moment before creeping out to the end of the lot, the old man’s back receding.
Suddenly, there’s a vehicle in the road, the dust seeming to fall up from the ground, clouding around the silver sparking buggy. An electric car. She’s seen the man who watches them all from the balcony leave the mill in something just like this. Behind the electric car comes another vehicle that looks like a milk wagon with no milk, a long sheet over whatever it’s carrying.
A man jumps out of the electric car, removing gloves and stuffing them in a trouser pocket. He leans over the door and retrieves a straw hat with a wide black ribbon, combing his hair with one hand and pressing the hat over it with the other. He looks all around, as men position a ramp behind the wagon and push something down it.
The little girl takes as many steps as she dares into the road, holding one hand over her eyes to catch a glimpse of this mysterious cargo. She leans forward, feeling a twinge in her back when a sound reaches her ears and she stands up hurriedly.
Yes, you there. And the man is taking off his hat and waving it at her. You, girl. Come here.
Her first instinct is to flee. She might be late already. She has no idea how long this has lasted. But the man is walking towards her and his suit is very new and his shoes are very shiny and his face is clean-shaven and beaming and the little girl smooths her dress and clasps her hands behind her hurting back and walks forward.
I want to show you something, the man says. The little girl says nothing. His voice is as new as his suit, as shiny as his shoes. As long as you’re here, and there is amusement in his voice. He holds out his hand. You might as well see what I’ve bought.
She follows a step behind him, stopping when he looks back, starting again when he looks away. There are sweaty men in white uniforms by the wagon, dust caked at the bottom of their overalls, wiping their brows with the backs of their arms. The man in the suit seems unaffected by the heat, his face dry and serene and he nods at the men. Just a minute, he says. We have a traveler who wishes to see the spoils of our journey. Between the workers is a rectangular bulk, draped by a sheet the same color as their uniforms. The man in the suit clicks his heels together, pulls on the edges of his vest, holds a finger up, then lowers it. Bending at the waist he snaps the sheet away in one motion to reveal a piano the color of nighttime, gleaming and glinting in the unrelenting sun overhead. The little girl gasps, involuntarily clapping her hands against her cheeks, mouth agape. The man shows his big white teeth. Methinks we have a success, gentleman, he says to the workers who only wipe their brows again. The lady appears overjoyed at the purchase.
The little girl giggles, eyes sweeping back and forth. She’s never been close enough to touch anything so grand, so fresh and new.
Do you like it? the man asks.
The little girl nods vigorously, heart beating fast. This is the most beautiful thing that has ever existed. But you already have a piano, she says. There’s a long moment before she puts a hand over her mouth. Her heart beats faster. The instinct to flee comes racing back into her limbs.
What’s that now? The man says, but he is looking up at a second floor window of the columned house, at the little girl looking past the glass and down at him. He holds up his hand and the pink ruffles of the other little girl’s sleeve raises. The man holds this stance before angling his straw hat and catching sight of the little girl below him, her presence seeming to surprise him. He laughs a short laugh. You mean the harpsichord? he says and the little girl is frightened — he will know she watches, he will make her leave and never come back — but the man only laughs again. The neighbors do complain and now, he tilts his head at the shiny black piano — the little girl squints her eyes, conjuring the instrument she’s been listening to for weeks and wonders what the difference is — they’ll have even more to complain about.
The little girl is counting the keys in her head, imagining the sound they make, when she hears the man clear his throat. It’s very lovely, the little girl says quickly, hoping this is right. I do so love pianos.
Do you now? the man says, arching a brow. Have you ever seen a piano?
And the little girl points at the laminated hardwood box between them and the man says Ha!Ha! a real rumbling laugh and the little girl is confused and delighted as he gently grasps her shoulder and pulls her to the keyboard. Go ahead, he says. We’ll see if it’s as good as the salesman claimed.
The little girl bites her lip, feeling the tremble in her teeth. She lifts her hands, holding them out as if warming them over a fire. Flexing the tendons, she winces, the weeks old tenderness in her thumbs flaring, a feeling like bone scraping against bone, the same feeling in the small of her back that wakes her up at night. The little girl swallows, sensing the man’s waiting like a physical thing, and carefully, carefully, fits her fingers over eight keys, depressing them all at once and stumbling back, the noise loud and bright. The man laughs that same laugh, throwing his head back and the little girl wants to make it last forever, so she glides the edge of her palm clumsily over the keys, one after the other, the sound like falling down stairs. The man presses close to her and makes the same movement. That’s called a glissando, the man says, fingers sliding as the keys erupt. Or gliss, as the musicians say.
Glissando, she whispers, the word perfect and new in her mouth, like an opening to a whole world full of notes and sound and beauty and unexpected things. She smiles up at the man and he smiles back, stoking a little ember of bravery that always lay hidden in her heart. The little girl says, carefully, carefully, leaning in like a secret, The men rise and fall, in the dark of the sea, like a glissando tumbling over the keys. Her eyes look into the man’s, back and forth, back and forth, waiting for a nod, a look, a sweep of the hand, Oh, it’s you, finally. We’ve been waiting for you, right here, where you’ve always belonged.
The man blinks, gaze startled, eyebrows coming together as if looking at something too bright. Well, he says, straightening. I’m sure a little girl like you has somewhere to be. He pulls out his pocket watch, opens it, shakes his head, closes the watch, slips it back into his vest pocket, and waves his hand at the little girl as if shooing a fly from food. Go on home now. Maybe your daddy can buy you one too, someday, he says. The workers, who were using the man’s distraction to catch their breath, leaning against either side of the piano, spin back into motion as he says, Hurry, Hurry, clapping his hands and snapping at them like two troublesome dogs.
The little girl waits, looking at the man as he looks up at the now empty window. And then he is walking away and the piano is gone and the road is clear and the little girl watches her words vanish in the air, dissolved like a far away tune after the slam of a door. The world as she knows it is restored, dust and dirt and a long walk for a mill child on her way back to the looms, and not one thing more. She never goes back to the house.
A year later, men in suits and shoes just like the man with the piano, tug at her pinned-plaits, usher her into an unfamiliar room, while she looks back at her mother who drums one hand nervously over her heart before a cough doubles her and the little girl is in the room and the door shuts and she feels herself lifted into a leather chair with wrap-around arms, sinks into it, boots an inch off the floor, arms draping loosely, her body still vibrating from the chugging of the mill. The little girl watches the men’s lips move under their mustaches, missing every other word as she rolls her head to the side, rubbing the bad-sleep bruises under her eyes, and watches a younger man depress keys on a machine that looks like a cash register cut in half. A circle of paper slowly diminishes and curls on the floor, it’s dull white filled with ink dots and dashes, the click-click-click soft and off rhythm. The little girl’s eyes close and she’s back in her reoccurring dream so lovely it makes waking up worth the memory. She’s twirling in a pink foam that is the cascade of her dress, weightless and clean, as pillowed clouds surround the incandescent columns rising her mansion into the baby blue of the sky. Her mother’s hand is soft and smooth combing through the curling rolls of her hair, flashing a million colors at once like a pearl layering in beauty and they tumble into a sleep that last days and might go on forever, because there is not one thing to do here except breathe in the endless smells of flowers and baking bread and warm honey and the calm, rosy cool of the air enveloping every slope of skin, the feel of her mother’s arms around her full belly, muscles slack and sleepy, a quiescence so deep it takes up everywhere, and there is the sound of a piano dropping into a melody perfectly timed to the beat of her safe, happy heart —
A sound like breaking lifts the little girl’s chin. She bolts awake to a man’s middle finger striking the palm of his hand once, twice, a barrage of questions battering her ears, and his face is so stern, his body so close, she answers without inflection or pause:
- 5 to 9 -
- her 6th birthday -
- 2 years -
- dead -
- arm caught in a turbine -
- 30 minutes at noon -
- a slice of bread and cheese -
- no breakfast, no dinner -
- stop the frames, take the flyers off, take the bobbins off, carry them to the roller, replace with empty ones, set the frame going again -
- the strap -
- 5 lashes for every minute late -
- 5 miles -
- 3 am -
- deformed? -
(the little girl pauses, blinking rapidly as a hand strikes the desk)
- yes, my back, my fingers -
And she holds them out, as they curl involuntarily, knuckles swollen, stands up, shoulders arching forward, waiting while the men speak in whispers, their own straight backs turned away.
The little girl, finding herself forgotten, slides back down into the chair, mouth exhausted, she’s never spoken so many words at once to strangers. Lolling her head, the young man sits, hands in lap, the strange machine now silent. She traces the dots and dashes with her eyes, seeing sand in a wooden box, fluttering her lashes as the young man’s voice drifts towards her.
It’s a phonetic code, he says, picking up the curl of paper and holding a section out, tugged flat like a banner. They stand for words. These are all the words we’ve said. He lets the paper drop as she leans forward, the pain in her back pulsing. Floating his fingers over the keys of the machine, he ghosts them back and forth. I listen to your words and make them into sound, and then ink, and save them all so we can transcribe them back into words and, when the time is right, he ghosts his fingers again in one sweep, speak them out loud so everyone can hear.
Glissando, she says, and the young man tilts his head.
What’s that now?
The little girl smiles and it’s sad.
Snap-one-two breaks the quiet and the men in suits all cross their arms. The stern man asks, from under his mustache, a question.
Later that night, when the young man is alone, angling his desk lamp to turn the inked dots and dashes into sound, into words, and back to ink again, he pauses as the bell of his typewriter dings, presses the carriage return lever, turning the paper up and, moving the carriage back to the start of the next line, mouths the last question and answer of that day. The words drifts into his brain and back out again as the slugs of metal imprint them on the paper, glowing yellow like a beacon in the dark of the room:
Commissioner: State what you think as to the circumstances in which you have been placed during all this time of labor, and what you have considered about it as to the hardship and cruelty of it.
Female Millhand: … (the witness was too much affected to answer the question).