Distillery workers

by George L. Hickman

We had been whipping the whiskey wash for three hours now, my socks long soaked from the Scottish rain. Four of us boys stood around a bubbling vat of yeast and barley, piercing its thick foam with long sticks, splattering a sugary grime into each other’s faces. My hands were calloused, my shoulders stiff, feeling more machine than person.

The rain rattled against the warehouse windows above us. The brittle tree branches that surrounded the property had been blackened by the distillery’s constant exhale of whiskey. When storms came, the trees blended into the sky. Their unnatural inky bark would surprise you, assault you, fumbling in the dark.

Our mouths were filled with sweet malt and sour fermentation. Once home we would breathe whiskey into our pillows and come sunrise we would inhale a shot of amber liquor given to us by Fingal before beginning our shift for the day. We were nothing but our work. We were proud, most days.

Most of us came to the distillery by boat, from Dublin, through Greenock, travelled by foot and wagon. Some of us came with our fathers and mothers, maybe our siblings, but most of us came alone. All of us came from famine, our pride sunken in like our stomachs. All of us travelled through days of rain, shivering into wet garments, but none of the other boys had coins pressed into their hands while old men asked, “What do you say, lass, just for a little while?”

In the first barn where I slept like a stowaway, the woman who found me gave me a bandage for my bloody knee, pieces of hay stuck to the wound. She gave me her dead son’s shirt and trousers and sent me on my way. On the second farm, the man offered to let me sleep in his bed, I refused, eyes wide, and ran for the hillside. The man didn’t chase me, but I ran as fast as I could. Shrouded by trees, I took the bloody bandage from my knee. I threw my wet blouse to the forest floor and wound the bandage tightly around my bare breasts. I slipped on the shirt and became Dermot.

Soon after, Fingal’s toothless smile found me asleep in a hollow whiskey barrel. He helped me to my feet and pressed something into my hand. Not a coin, but a small bottle of caramel-colored liquid. “Drink, boy,” he said. And soon after, Fingal brought me a drink every morning.

I liked stirring the whiskey, because the machines behind us were so loud that we couldn’t talk. No one could hear the pitch of my voice, except when I coughed. I liked the boys. I liked wordlessly slipping into their world without question. And there was something different about me since I began working at the distillery. Some sort of confidence on my breath. Some sort of surety in my shoulders. My outside hardened and tough, like black tree branches against night, for the first time in my life, I was invisible.

George L. Hickman is a queer/trans writer living in Baltimore, Maryland. He serves as an assistant fiction editor for Barrelhouse Magazine and his words have recently appeared in Palimpsest, The Nottingham Review, and The Louisville Review.  You can follow him at @georgelhickman.

Image of distillery workers from a vintage postcard.