A Piecer’s Tale
by Christine Collinson
Mr. Hendrick is watching me. “Work faster, girl!” he bellows over the clack-clack of the looms. I heap loose fibres into the sack, just like every day, and hold my misery tightly inside.
He moves to the next worker, busy amidst whirring spindles. He’s yelling again but I can’t hear the words. Cotton fluff swirls around us like snow, only it is as hot as an oven. All the windows are shut, but I can see grey sky if I peep out when no one’s watching.
Being a piecer suits me, they say. It suits them. I’m nimble and not tall, so I can work beneath a moving loom. I scrunch myself up and scurry like a mouse underneath, gather fluff, then dart back out. The rhythm of the looms rings in my ears until my heart beats time with it.
I’m swallowing dust in this stifling room until I can barely breathe. Beads of sweat trickle down my neck and soak into my collar. Mr. Hendrick comes across again, so close I can see the white specks on his beard. He peers at the fibres, piled high like fallen clouds. “Don’t idle, there! Get this sack moved!” He is even worse than the last overseer. I hate his red, grumpy face and his dirty fingernails which flick the wisps from his sleeves.
As I’m lying on my pallet in the dormitory that night, edging myself away from a damp patch, I imagine ways to escape it all. I can just make out someone squatting over the pot and another stink rises in the darkness. The girl beside me twitches then flings her arm into my ribs, but the sharp pain is not half as awful as the rest of it.
I can’t sleep; long to feel fresh air on my face. At dawn, I get up carefully, gather my possessions in a cloth bag, and creep downstairs. I slide out of the back door so quietly, not even the sleeping cat twitches a whisker.
As I hurry across the silent kitchen-garden, the mill looks vast against the sky. My footsteps quicken in the low, yellow light as I head towards open fields. I’m running now, in my clogs and all, delighted by the new morning air. The last white wisps which cling to me are lifting and floating free.
Abruptly, I stop. I’m gasping. Pain in my chest leaves me doubled over against my muddy skirts. As my knees give way, I drop my bag and sink slowly down onto the ground.
Breathing is my fight now. My wheezing throat is blocked with cotton-fluff, and the horrid sound of it frightens me. I struggle to stand, can no longer run. The sky above me is darkening with smoky rain clouds. As I turn to face the mill, I know that it will keep me after all.
Christine Collinson writes historical short fiction. She’s been long-listed in the Bath Flash Fiction Award and by Reflex Press. Her work’s also appeared in Ellipsis Zine, The Cabinet Of Heed and National Flash-Fiction Day. Find her on Twitter @collinson26.
Photo of Chase Cotton Mill by Lewis Hine; National Archives Identifier 523064.