October 15, 2012

Cotton Duck


Cotton Duck
by Samantha Kymmell-Harvey

“Come on, Mary! No one’s gonna see,” I say, removing my apron. I pull my linen dress over my head then hang both on the dogwood branches. If my mama knew I was out here buck naked about to jump into the Jones Falls, she’d tan my hide.

“Eliza, you know I’m not gonna take my clothes off. What if Johnny sees me?” She folds her arms across her chest and cocks her chin up like she’s a proper lady.

She’s worried he’ll catch her naked before their wedding night, which isn’t until her daddy comes marching home with the rest of the Union soldiers. Johnny hasn’t asked his permission yet. I still can’t believe they’re getting married. Just a few years ago, the three of us were playmates. Then we traded childhood for wages at the cotton duck factory.

Mary stumbles as she descends the hill to the tree stump where I’m poised to jump in.

“You don’t look so good. You look pale,” I say.

She cracks a weak grin. “I’m always pale.”

“A swim would do you good.”

But she shakes her head. I haven’t been able to convince her yet this summer.

I jump.

The cool water extinguishes me; I wonder if I’ve left steam on the surface. I linger, letting the cool water wash my sticky sweat away. This August heat is like Hell come to Earth. Every lunch hour I thank God for the falls.

“Eliza,” Mary says when I resurface. She’s got a pile of dandelions she’s working into a braid. “Any news? Is your daddy coming home?”

I shake my head. “Last letter we got, he was marching toward Richmond. That was nearly eight months ago now.”

“But they say General Lee surrendered. That means they gotta be coming home soon, right?”

A signature doesn’t instantly end a war. But I don’t tell her that. She’s an optimist, and they’re rare these days.

Floating on my back, I close my eyes. It reminds me of the pond on our farm back north. After me, Mama, and Daddy finished the harvest, we’d always go for a swim. But then Daddy got this crazy idea that working in the factory would provide better, so he sold the farm and we moved to Woodberry. The name’s fooling. There are no woods. No berries, either. Only machinery.

The tinny scream of the whistle jolts us. I scramble ashore, hurrying to pull my clothes back on. If we’re late again, Mr. Brody will beat us for sure. Mary crawls up beside me. Her bony fingers nimbly braid my wet hair then she pins it into a bun. I hate my hair net, but Mary puts the snood on me anyway.

“Where’s your snood?” I notice she doesn’t have one.

She shrugs. “I left it on the kitchen table. But these braids are tight. I’ll be fine.”

We hear Johnny’s voice, sharp and sour, echo in the distance. “You take that back!”

Mary and I exchange glances. Our friend’s already on probation for his temper. Mr. Brody gave him a bloody nose last time he threw a punch on the job.

We both take off racing up the hill toward the path. Mary’s footsteps dissipate behind me, but I don’t slow. Something just beyond the trees cracks loudly, but it’s not my boots against fallen branches -- it’s Johnny’s fist against ribs.

“Stop it!” I sprint toward him. He’s sitting on top of Thomas, knees digging into his shoulders. Thomas holds his hands up to his face, deflecting Johnny’s blows.

“No one calls me a coward! Next time I’ll cut your tongue out!” Johnny punches him again.

“Hey!” I grab him by his shirt with all my strength. “You promised you weren’t gonna fight anymore.”

He pulls away from me, ripping the fabric right down his sleeve. With Johnny distracted, Thomas seizes the moment to shove him backwards, rear-end-first into the dusty red clay.

“Johnny!” Mary finally emerges from the forest, her face as white as that sail cloth we make. “I don’t believe you!”

He digs his heel into the ground. “He deserved it.”

“Oh quit your jawing.” Mary says, her eyes narrowing. Johnny clenches his teeth.

I kneel beside Thomas and take his arm to help him up, but he shakes me off. He wipes his bloodied mouth on his sleeve then stands on his own. I hand him his crutch. Though he came home last month with only one leg, he’s proud of his battle wound. He’s proud of his sharper tongue too, but if he keeps it up, Johnny’ll give him a wound he won’t be so proud of.

Johnny’s not as much a blowhard as everyone thinks. His row with Thomas started long before the factory work did. He lost his front teeth in a fist fight with Thomas the year before Fort Sumter. Then my daddy was called to war, and his daddy was too, then all of Johnny’s friends. But he was told to stay home -- turns out losing your front teeth means you can’t enlist. They’ve got a whole mess of defects they don’t accept. The Union Army doesn’t want damaged soldiers.

Mary clings to Johnny’s arm, steadying herself. He knits his eyebrows in a frown, glancing from her to me, then back to her. I link my arm around Mary’s, sandwiching her between us. “Let’s hope they won’t notice how late we are. Come on,” I say.

It’s four o’clock, boiling point inside the factory. My dress is soaked with sweat again. The humid air reeks of body odor, forcing me to breathe through my mouth. My fingers work the cotton thread onto the spoolers, then Mary feeds it onto the weaving frames. I glance up. Poor Mary’s starting to bend like a cattail, inching closer to the frames than she should. Her braids have come loose again. Wisps of her long blonde bangs dangle in front of her eyes like spider silk.

We know each other’s rhythms. Like a hellish dance, we spool from eight in the morning until eight at night. We didn’t always have to work twelve hours, but ever since the war started, Mr. Brody’s been keeping us longer. He keeps the little ones longer too. They’re the only ones whose fingers are slender enough to reach the clogs and untie the knots. And when another child ends up strangled by the knot she’s just undone, Mr. Brody gets a replacement. He always finds more skinny children.

“It’s so hot.” Mary wipes her bright red face on her apron. Her fingers shake so badly she can hardly get the thread onto the frames.

“Careful,” I say without looking away. It only takes one mistake.

A deep voice startles me. “Late again, Eliza.” It’s Mr. Brody. He pulls me away from the machine. “And you too, Mary.”

“I’m sorry, sir.” I keep my eyes down. “It won’t happen again.”

“You’re right it won’t happen again, you know why?” he says. “Because after today, Johnny’s done.”

Mary grits her teeth and bites her tongue. I touch her shoulder, hoping she won’t say something she’ll regret. They can’t both be unemployed. Mr. Brody turns and walks away. When I release Mary, she sinks to her knees.

“What’s wrong?” Her forehead feels ablaze.

“Water,” she whispers.

“Mr. Brody!” I shout. “She needs water. Please!”

He stretches Mary’s arm around his shoulder and lifts her to her feet. “Not on my clock. You should have drank water instead of cleaning up another one of your beau’s messes. You know he’ll never stop. Now get back to work before I fire you too.”

As he leaves us, I watch Mary teeter back to her station. She’s hardly standing straight. I look away, just for a split second, to get my spoolers running. That’s all it takes. I know when I hear her shriek. Helpless, I scream as the other workers hurry to shut everything down. By the time the machines all come to rest, it’s too late. Mary’s twisted in the loom, her blonde hair pulled tightly round the spoolers, shreds of calico dress snowing onto the factory floor.

* * *


* * *

When I come through the door, Mama’s waiting for me. Her eyes are red and swollen. She wraps me in her arms running her hands though my hair like she did when I was little.

“Thank God!” Her grip tightens. “When I heard a girl’d been killed today . . .” She loses composure, holding her hand over her mouth. Tears start fresh again. “They wouldn’t tell me. They wouldn’t even let me go see.”

Mr. Brody employs Mama in the upstairs office because she knows how to read and write. At least the room she works in has a fan. She can wear her hair how she likes.

I wipe my eyes on her sleeve. “Mary.” It’s all I can say.

Mama rocks me as if to soothe away my nightmare. I scream again and again, my ribs aching each time I gasp. Little bloody half-moons rise up on her arm where I’d been digging my nails in.

“Don’t make me go back there. I’ll die. Please, let’s just go back to our farm. We could leave tonight.” I choke out between sobs.

“I’m sorry, Eliza,” Mama says. “We’ll starve otherwise.”

I weakly wrestle her away and dash down the dark hallway to my bedroom. I slam the door. By the flame of my kerosene lamp, I fish the scissors from my sewing basket and cut my hair right down to my pale scalp.

I feel nothing. I lie on my bed staring at the shadows cast upon the ceiling by my flickering lamp. For a moment, I think I see Mary’s willowy silhouette. She’s watching me. “I’m so sorry,” I whisper, sitting up. The kerosene lamp dims then extinguishes. Mary’s gone.

I tiptoe past Mama’s bedroom and leave our apartment. Johnny’s family lives just below us. I crouch on the steps and tap on his window. Johnny knows my knock. It only takes him a moment to let me in.

He sits by the hearth drinking whiskey and playing with cotton cord in the fire. He ignites it then passes his fingers through the flame like a sideshow magician. I curl up beside him and lean my head on his shoulder.

He jumps. “Eliza, what have you done?” He backs away, eyes wide.

My eyes feel raw and though I want to cry, I have no tears left. “Who would have braided my hair?”

Pressing his lips together, he settles up next to me once more and runs a hand over my smooth head. “Run away then. General Grant would never guess you’re a girl with that hair cut. At least you could fight.”

“His war’s not mine,” I say. “I just wanna go back home to the farm. What about you, Johnny? Will you run away?”

He doesn’t answer. I see the fire in the black of his pupils as he passes his finger through the flame once more. “There’s nothing left for me here now,” he says and he plunges the cord into the bucket of water. That’s four he’s burned.

“Nothing left for me either.”

* * *

I bathe in the falls alone. It’s been a week since I lost Mary. I imagine her braiding a dandelion crown for my hairless head. She’d have shaved her head too ‘cause that’s what best friends do. And I smile imagining the funeral we’d hold for our hair nets.

The whistle sounds.

Taking a deep breath, I plunge under the water. My muted ears can’t hear the whistle, the looms clapping, or ribs cracking. The cold current tempts me to give into its pull. I know I’m replaceable.

But my burning lungs force me to surface.


Johnny’s waving his arms at me, his tongue flicking the gap in the front of his mouth as he tries to pronounce my name. From the fresh black eye he’s sporting, I know he’s in one of his moods.

“Leave on time today. Don’t wait too long. You hear me, Eliza?” he says.

I nod. “I hear you.”

At eight I leave the factory with everybody else. When I get home, Mama’s got the fish kettle over the fire. Oysters again. I try to sneak past her to my room.

“Eliza, take some money out of the jar and go buy a can of kerosene.” Mama’s voice startles me. “I can’t believe we’re out again. You must think we’re rich. What are you using it all for?” She doesn’t look at me. She can’t stand to see what I’ve done to myself.

I don’t answer her. It’s better if she doesn’t know. I don’t bother to take money from the jar either, instead I open the closet. That’s where the empty potato sacks are.

Moments later, the apartment shakes and glass rains onto our building, tinkling against the slate roof. Mama runs to the window, oblivious to my packing. I see it too, though. Charcoal black smoke rises, blotting out the sky. The factory’s ablaze. Mama emits something like a stifled cry. I crouch by the door listening for his footsteps; my heart pounds like marching soldiers. There’s nothing more to do except wait.

* * *


* * *

Mama’s finally quiet. She sits by the window watching the firefighters crawl all over the factory like ants. My ears sharpen in the silence. I hear the steady rhythm of boots thudding against steps. Then the door clicks open. It’s Johnny, tracking ashy footprints across the floor. His face is freckled with soot. The air reeks of kerosene.

He takes a letter from his pocket and hands it to Mama. It has a fancy wax seal on it -- the Union’s seal. “They’re not coming home.”

She collapses, crumpling the letter between her fingers. I can’t hold back my tears. “Come on,” I say, taking her hand, but she twists out of my grasp. “We have to go now. It’s what Daddy would want.”

But it’s as if she can’t hear me. She rocks on the floor moaning.

I take Johnny’s hand instead and he looks at me with those wildfire eyes. He grits his gapped teeth. “You ready?”

I know I can’t look at Mama. She won’t go, but I will. I sling my sack onto my shoulder. “Yeah.”

At least this battle, we won.

* * *

Samantha Kymmell-Harvey is a French teacher and medievalist residing in Baltimore. Her fiction has appeared in Fantastique Unfettered and Underneath the Juniper Tree. She is a 2012 graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop. Check out her blog at:http://samanthakymmell-harvey.blogspot.com/

Where do you get the ideas for your stories?

I am often inspired by my travels. I like collecting folktales and fairy tales and I try to give them a new spin in my stories. “Cotton Duck” though was inspired by something I see just about every day. Old mills still line the Jones Falls in Baltimore City, only now they’ve been converted into swanky condos, craft workshops, and a farm-to-table restaurant. But you can still feel the ghosts of the past when you enter one of these renovated mills. I knew then that this was a story I absolutely had to tell.