Fantasy Historical

Hard Times, Cotton Mill Girl

By Barbara Krasnoff
Jul 3, 2021 · 3,941 words · 15 minutes

2020 06 04

Story art by Lewis Hines, Girls at Weaving Machine, 1908.  

From the author: Emilia, a young factory worker, wonders if she should use her mother's amulet to escape the hardships of her life.


The wooden waterwheel groans as it turns, forced to work by the momentum of the narrow stream tumbling past the old, red brick factory building. Emilia sometimes wonders if the wheel, and her life, will work into eternity, around and around, forever and a day.

Inside the factory, the young girl wipes her face, and turns back to her loom. Around her, the long rows of machines crash and bang, singing their chorus of ker-chunk, ker-chunk. All to make cloth for dresses and suits and draperies for ladies and gentlemen and lovely homes that Emilia will never see. Girls and women move through their paces at the looms, while children too small to work the looms run through the aisles, replacing spindles. Everything, everybody is in motion.

Quickly, Emilia reaches for a thread. Mrs MacCreavy is down the aisle, checking the work. Emilia has already been cautioned twice this week, so she can’t afford to slack off, no matter how tired she is. 

You can read the story behind the story here.

She takes a moment to tie her apron tighter. Tonight there’s going to be a meeting at which a man from a labour organisation will speak, and Emilia wants to look decent. So today she wore her skirt with the ribbons sewn to the hem, and is protecting it with an apron to keep it from any damage. Her dark brown hair is pulled back by a lovely, satiny ribbon that her mamãe gave her two years ago for her 11th birthday.

Just the thought of it, and the meeting after work, makes her feel better. After all, she thinks, this is the 20th Century; why shouldn’t things change for the better? She squares her shoulders and gets back to work. 

Unexpectedly, the rhythm of the looms slows and dies; Emilia’s ears ring with the silence. The workers all stop and look around to see what’s happened; has there been another accident? One of the weavers ostentatiously pulls a pin from her hair and rewinds her braid tightly around her head. The signal is clear: The foreman is coming.

Mrs MacCreavy bustles back to meet Mr Smithson, the foreman, a stout man who spends most of his day sitting in his office, preferring to leave most of the supervision to his staff. Today, however, he has a tall, well-dressed gentleman with him, who’s carrying an elaborate black and brown object attached to long sticks across one shoulder. Mr Smithson looks unhappy—he gets bad-tempered any time work needs to stop—but he guides the gentleman courteously down the row of looms.

They stop just beyond where Emilia stands and the gentleman starts to assemble a device... “It’s a camera,” whispers Emilia’s best friend, Lizbet, excitedly. “Maybe he’s from a newspaper?”

Emilia finds it hard to breathe. A photograph; that means somewhere, sometime, somebody else might be able to see her. And that means, maybe… 

She fingers the small amulet she wears around her neck: a silver representation of a crescent moon with a human face. Her mouth tightens as she remembers.

The room smells different—it’s acrid and unpleasant, more like the outhouse than like her mamãe and papa’s bedroom. Neighbour ladies are standing nearby, wiping mamãe’s forehead, pushing soiled sheets into bags, looking sad. Papa stands nearby, stone-faced but with a strange wetness around his eyes. Baby sister lays covered in the cradle nearby. She isn’t moving. Don’t look!

Hands on shoulders, pushing gently. “Kiss your mother goodbye,” the neighbour lady says. Mamãe’s lips feel dry and foreign, but the smile is mamãe’s smile. What to do now? “Mamãe?”

Mamãe looks at the neighbour lady, who picks up a slim chain and amulet from the small table next to the bed. The chain is cold; the neighbour lady tucks the amulet under the pretty blue blouse that mamãe sewed just last week.

“You remember the spell?” mamãe asks. Her voice is cracked like an old woman’s and hard to hear.

“Yes, mamãe.”

“There are new wonders in the world,” her mamãe whispers. “New wonders and old spells together can be powerful things. I never got the chance to use it when I was young. Perhaps you will, querida.”

The foreman yells, shattering Emilia’s memories. “Move back, girls. This gentleman wants to take a photograph; you are to move back and wait!” Emilia shakes herself slightly. Pay attention, she tells herself firmly, and steps away. 

“No,” the gentleman says. “Let them keep their places. Young woman,” and he looks directly at Emilia, “please stretch out your arms as if you were doing your work, just as you were before. And stay still for a moment or two.” 

Emilia glances at Mrs MacCreavy, who nods at her authoritatively. Emilia quickly touches her amulet to her lips and walks back to the loom, stretching out her arms as the gentleman requested. She looks at her machine, pretending to work, but then, as if by accident, lets her glance go aside. She watches carefully while the gentleman puts a square plate in the camera and covers his head with a cloth so he can look through the other end. He then takes a tube into his hand and presses a button.

Thank you, mamãe, Emilia thinks, and hurriedly whispers the words that her mother taught her. And waits.

#

“Sarah! Pay attention.”

Sarah, who’d been fascinated by the large, revolving wooden waterwheel, turns around and remembers that she’s 13 years old and no longer a kid. Only little kids get excited by how old-fashioned things work. That’s what her friends at school told her.

She touches the iPhone in her pocket and wonders if anyone would notice if she glanced at it, maybe sent a text or two.

“The machinery was all run by water from the canal, which pushed the main wheel,” says their guide. “The power was transferred via a series of gears to a central pole above the factory floor, and from there to the belts that ran each machine.”

They’re touring an old historic Massachusetts cotton mill. Sarah doesn’t want to be here; she wants to wear her new bathing suit and go swimming in the ocean. But she has her period and hasn’t yet gotten the hang of tampons, so her mom declared that, instead, Sarah should come with her to visit the historic old cotton mill and see the exhibits. “You’re not too old to learn something,” her mother told her.

Sometimes Sarah hates her mother. In fact, sometimes Sarah hates almost everyone, except her friends at school and her BF4L Leslie, who’s back at home hanging out with the crowd and no doubt having a much better time than she is. 

They follow the guide inside the building. “In the early 1800s,” says the guide, “young women from rural areas began coming here to earn enough money to help their families and give themselves a good start in life. Later, around the turn of the century, they were joined by immigrants from Ireland, Canada and Portugal. Imagine what that must have been like: Girls of 12 and 13 and 14 who had never been away from home suddenly coming to work in one of these factories.”

The guide is a young woman who has long straight hair and the classic good looks that Sarah would kill for. Sarah hates her own appearance—her legs are too short and her hair won’t behave and she’s got no breasts to speak of. When she complained about it to her mom, her mother said that Sarah is still growing and will someday be as beautiful as any of the other girls, but Sarah doesn’t believe her.

So she ignores the guide and her mom and stares through a plexiglass window that looks out onto the factory floor. The tourist entrance to the old factory has been built into what used to be the manager’s office overlooking miles of weird-looking metal and wooden machines the guide called looms. Each loom has a huge loop of rubber extending from it to a pole that hangs suspended from the ceiling and runs the length of the room. 

All the machines are still, silent, except for one at the end of the room. If she squints, Sarah can just about see it moving: two pieces of wood jump up and down while another bangs hythmically against a roll of cloth. Even from here, the sound is muted but audible. Sarah puts her hand against the plexiglass and can feel the vibrations pass through her palm and run up her arm.

“When this factory complex was in full use,” says the guide, “the entire process of creating cloth from cotton was handled here. Cotton thread was processed and pulled in another building. Many of the women who worked here suffered from lung diseases as a result of the cotton dust and other particulates they breathed in on a daily basis.”

Sarah wanders away from the window overlooking the factory and into an adjourning room, where there’s an exhibit of photos, diaries, letters, and keepsakes that belonged to some of the girls and women who worked in the factory. She puts away her irritation for a few minutes and begins to examine the photos. If she sees one that’s really interesting, she thinks, she can take a picture and send it to Leslie, or even share it with the other girls at school.

She chooses a photo near the back of the room labelled “Girls at weaving machines; warpers, 1908” and examines it: A girl about Sarah’s age stands at a loom, her sleeves rolled up, her hands extended as she adjusts something within the multiple parallel threads that run through the machinery. Sarah lifts her phone.

“Those long threads you see running parallel to each other,” says someone behind her, “are the warp threads.”

Sarah jumps, quickly puts her phone in her pocket and turns to see a stout, smiling woman in her 20s, wearing a dark uniform. Security, probably. Of course they’d have people watching to make sure nobody was alone with the exhibit. “Notice how there are two sets of threads, each attached to the harness,” the woman says, nodding at the photo. “The harness raises and lowers the threads in the warp, and the shuttles, which hold the threads called the weft, run between them. The weft is pushed into place by what is called the reed, and the result is a roll of cloth.”

She moves off. Sarah wrinkles her nose at the woman’s back and stares again at the picture. She isn’t interested in the mechanics of the machines. She’s interested in the girl in the photo.

The girl’s skirt, which is protected by a tightly tied white apron, is decorated with shiny but somewhat ragged ribbons sewn around the bottom, and her hair is pulled behind her with another dark, wide ribbon. She concentrates her attention on the machine ahead, but the tilt of her head and the slight shift of her eyes indicate that she is fully aware of the photographer. Sarah squints at the girl and tries to see herself standing there, working hours and hours for next to no pay.

“Why didn’t you just run away?” she whispers to the girl. “That’s what I would have done. Run away and found something better to do.”

The girl turns her head and stares calmly back. And smiles.

Sarah freezes. There’s a weird sensation in the back of her head, as if a message has been passed from the girl to her.

What the...?

Suddenly Sarah’s iPhone buzzes; she automatically pulls it out of her pocket and glances down to see who’s texting her. It’s Leslie, wanting to chat. She looks back up—no, the girl in the photo is exactly as she was, concentrating on her machine, unmoving in the monochrome past.

She takes a breath. It was just an optical illusion, Sarah thinks. This is just an old picture of a girl who worked in this factory a long time ago and who grew up, got old and died years before I was born.

She wants to tell Leslie all about it, maybe try again to take a picture, but her mother is in the doorway waving at her to come on. Sarah quickly taps out MOS (“mom over shoulder”) and places the phone in her pocket.

She walks back to the group of tourists, who are still standing by the plexiglass window. The guide is handing out headphones inside of protective plastic bags. Sarah accepts one, opens her bag and examines it.

“Workers were paid according to the jobs they did,” says the guide, continuing to talk, “and those jobs depended both on their training and on their age. For example, young girls under the age of 11 could work as doffers or fillers, removing and replacing bobbins of spun thread, while older girls did more complex jobs, such as drawing the warp threads through the harness, a specialised skill that earned them more.”

Sarah’s phone buzzes again, but her mother’s eyes are on her. 

“Before we enter the factory floor, please put on your ear protectors and keep them on. We only have a single machine going, but even that one machine is quite loud and can damage your hearing. You can remove the protectors for a second or two if you want to get a taste of what the mill sounded like, but we ask that you do so with care. And please don’t touch any of the machines.”

Sarah puts hers on. The guide opens the door next to the plexiglass window, and they all slowly descend a metal staircase onto the factory floor. 

The factory looked big from above; now it seems immense, endless. The looms are massive and so intricately designed that it’s impossible to follow how each piece fits into the other. She stares at the metal and wood and cloth and threads. Off in the distance, the one machine bangs rhythmically, ker-chunk, ker-chunk inside her head, muffled and held at bay by the ear protectors.

She thinks of the girl in the photo and wonders what it was like for her, working at the loom with the sound of dozens of these machines battering at her ears all day. What about her hearing? Did she become deaf, or did she leave before that happened?

The rest of the group has walked ahead, staring around and up at the high ceiling and at the metal pipes that crisscross above them. Sarah looks up as well; the belts that run the machines loop up to the central pipe in a pattern that’s both geometrical and chaotic.

There is more colour here than she expected from the photograph: The metal machines are painted bright green and black, and stand out against the grey of the overhead pipes and conduits. And all in contrast with the warm browns of the wooden harnesses and the bright, clean white of the thread and the newly woven cotton material.

But something’s wrong. Sarah blinks and looks around. Then she realises: It’s all too clean.  These machines haven’t operated for weeks or months or maybe even years. The paint on the walls is new and unmarked, the floors and windows are clean, and the entire room is free of the lint and the stray pieces of thread and cloth that should be all around.

It’s familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.

Sarah takes a deep breath, inhaling the odour of machine oil and dust and damp wood. And, she thinks, there should also be the smell of sweat; the sweat of young women working at the machines in long skirts and sleeves, even during the heat of the summer.

She puts out a hesitant finger and touches one of the metal cogs on the side of a machine; it feels cold and lifeless, but somehow recognisable. And then, since nobody seems to be watching, she pulls her finger down and runs it along a full bobbin that sits horizontally in a metal holder. The thread is tightly wound and rough against her finger.

Faintly, through the ear protectors, the machine at the end of the mill floor sings in a constant bass rhythm: ker-chunk, ker-chunk.

She stares over at the one working loom and watches the mechanical dance: the harness moving up and down, the wooden blocks pushing against the new cloth while the spindles hurl the weft through and through again, one two, one two, one two…

The afternoon sun burns through the filthy windows, streaming onto the factory floor; tiny motes of dust and thread dance in the beams. They soften the hard, bright colours of the machines, fading them, making them look older, more used.

Sarah squints through the light and can almost see the fillers, little girls of eight and nine, running to the spindles, pulling off the empty wooden bobbins and replacing them with full ones. She breathes in the dust and lint and can’t understand why everything sounds so muffled. It’s these things she has on over her ears, she realises. So she pulls them off and stares at them, wondering what they are.

And then she drops them, because where only one of the looms had been running, another starts up and another, ker-chunk, ker-chunk. The sound vibrates through her body and fills her head with the rhythm of work.

And yes, there goes little Mary, dashing to one of the stopped machines and quickly exchanging a spent bobbin for a full one. Sarah can remember being a filler, running when the signal came to change the spindles and then sitting under a table with the other little girls, wrapping a broken spindle in her old shawl and hushing it to sleep.

No, she thinks for a moment, that’s ridiculous.

She didn’t need old spindles; when she was that age, she had dolls that spoke and closed their eyes; others that wore high heels and dresses and tiaras and space suits. She didn’t spend her days under tables, but, instead, puzzling over math problems and reading assignments.

“Quick!” Someone is calling. It’s her mom, calling her to... No, her mother isn’t here, her mother died four years ago; it’s one of the other girls, her friend Lizbet, waking Sarah from her daydream before Mrs MacCreavy catches her slacking off.

Three of the machines are ready for Sarah to begin the careful task of threading the warp through the tiny holes. It’s skilled work; she now makes enough so that her brother can be apprenticed and learn a trade, although she keeps a bit for herself, because why should he get all her wages?

She strides quickly to one of the machines and draws the threads of the warp through the harness, one two three four five. Once the threads are in place, the harness rises. The shuttle pushes through to create a  new line of weft through the warp and the reed beats it back against the existing cloth. Then the harness lowers, and, once again, the shuttle moves through. One two, one two, and the sounds all around her, making the universe shake, ker-chunk, ker-chunk.

The other workers look insubstantial, like ghosts, as they pass silently through the floating lint and threads. It’s the machines that are the hard reality, thumping and pushing out the cloth bit by bit. Nearby, Lizbet darts to a break in a thread and deftly blends new thread with the old, tear tracks on her face; she’s got her monthlies bad, but cramps are no excuse for missing a day of work. 

Machines all around and Sarah—wait, is that her name?—pauses to shake the lint from her skirts and sleeves, the lint that makes her cough if she breathes in too hard while the machines play their tune ker-chunk, ker-chunk.

For a moment, it feels like something is buzzing in her skirt pocket. And is that her mother calling her?

But Mrs MacCreavy calls out, “All right, ladies, back to work. Emilia, that includes you.” And the belts spin and the machines sing ker-chunk, ker-chunk as the spindles speed through the warp threads, and the cloth takes shape on the rolls while the little girls run past. Sarah—no, her name is Emilia, isn’t it? That’s what the woman called her. She steps amid the thread and the stray pieces of cloth and the dust and the machines and stops wondering about anything but the next loom that needs tending.

“Young lady, please exit this way.”

Emilia takes a deep breath and realises that there’s nobody else in the workroom but her and an impatient-looking woman who is gesturing toward the door. She’s not sure where everyone has gone—is it Sunday?—or how she’s supposed to act or why she’s wearing short pants and a sleeveless top. It can’t be decent to be dressed this way in public, but her limbs feel so free that she can’t help standing on her toes and stretching her arms over her head.

The woman looks annoyed, so Emilia obediently follows her out of the workroom and upstairs to the administration office. Has she done something wrong? And where is everybody?

Upstairs, everything is different. The main reception area, where Emilia remembers being interviewed when she first arrived, is now bright with pictures and racks of cards and toys, which several people are looking through. Emilia turns and goes into what was the foreman’s office and sees glass cases with clothing and furniture and journals—ordinary parts of her life that are now being preserved as if they are strange and precious.

Her eyes drift across a set of monochrome photographs on the wall and… Wait! She steps closer. A sign says that it’s a picture of “Girls at weaving machines; warpers, 1908.” There’s the factory floor and Emilia’s friend, Lizbet, and her machine. And a girl wearing Emilia’s best dress with the ribbons on the hem. Who looks like her. But who really isn’t.

Emilia stares at the girl in the photograph, hands stretched out toward the loom. “I’m very sorry,” she whispers to the girl. “I know it’s not fair. I’m sure you’re not a bad person, and that you don’t deserve to take my place.” 

She pauses and suddenly an unexpected rush of regret and self-doubt overwhelms her. My mamãe could never bring herself to use the amulet, she thinks. Maybe I shouldn’t have either. Maybe I should go back, and let the other girl live the life she was born to.

Emilia puts her hand to her neck—and remembers. She no longer wears the amulet. There is no going back.

A voice calls, “Sarah! We’re leaving!”

Emilia knows, somehow, that this is her new name and that the woman calling must be her mother. Is her mother. She reaches out and touches the photograph.

“You are now the one wearing the amulet,” she says quietly. “You are now me. Perhaps one day you’ll remember how to use it and you can escape as well.” 

“Sarah! Now!”

“I’m coming!” she calls out and runs to meet her new life, leaving behind the girl in the cotton mill.

This story originally appeared in Andromeda Spaceways.


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Barbara Krasnoff

Writer of weird speculative short stories.