Posted by: Trisha Leigh | March 25, 2011

100 Years Ago Today…

You, dear blog readers, are about to read my first piece of flash fiction (less than 1K words) ever. I hope you enjoy the girls and their story.

 

Where She Could Not Follow

Anna was leaving her behind.

Even now, walking close enough to touch, Anna headed somewhere Charlotte could not follow, not ever. Strings of anger, loss, and jealousy wound together in a tight ball, mixed and mingled and spread through her bloodstream.

“Lottie, nothing has to change.”

No one called her Lottie except Anna. Mother and Father believed nicknames were unseemly.

Anna lied. Everything would be different. The company required their employees to work more than seventy hours per week. Anna would be too tired to eat dinner, never mind roam the city with Charlotte.

Charlotte’s parents would never allow her to work, and the idea would have repulsed her before she met Anna a year and a half ago at the garment workers’ strike. Anna went because those factories held her future. Charlotte arrived hoping to glimpse a world outside the walls her parents erected – tall, silencing, and utterly unscaleable.

They’d spent countless days together since then, bonded by illicit adventures, shared secrets, and blended dreams that curled deep roots into shaky soil. Silly, and childish for Charlotte to believe the two of them would go on, unaltered, into an infinite future. They would both grow up, but Charlotte hadn’t expected Anna to go first.

The brisk, March wind tugged flaxen strands of hair from Charlotte’s bun and they tangled with Anna’s dark, loose waves. Her fingers itched to reach out, to clutch Anna’s hand, but instead she twisted them together at her waist.

A moment later Anna’s hand wrapped around her wrist and squeezed tight, almost painful. “Don’t be mad, Lottie. I don’t have a choice.” Tears shimmered on the surface of her dark eyes, but underneath they glimmered with excitement, and adventure, and so much possibility it made Charlotte sick to her stomach.

“I’m not mad.” Her voice broke, shooting an arrow poisoned with hatred through her heart. “Your parents are too poor to support you any longer, I get it. They need the money.” Charlotte couldn’t imagine money of her own. Money belonged to her father, and she never touched it. Some day soon, she would settle into the same arrangement with a husband.

Anna dropped her hand, hurt twisting her mouth and dimming the brightness in her eyes. Charlotte stood as stiff as a board as her friend wrapped her in a fierce hug before hurrying across the intersection and into her new life.

All day Charlotte stood on the corner of Washington and Greene, an area of New York her parents would whip her for wandering past. She stared up at the sagging, dirty building that had stolen her only friend as the wind stung her cheeks, turned them numb. Anger built and surged, landed in her clenched, sweaty fists. It couldn’t quite fill the jagged, gaping hole in her heart.

What did she care about a silly Jewish girl and her dumb job?

Sixteen years of conditioning slathered a cooling balm on her desperation to be someone else. It unclenched her fists and whispered promises that Anna would one day envy Charlotte’s pampered existence. Anna, who cared for five younger siblings because both parents slaved for pennies. Anna, who had never been to school. Anna, whose clothes and skin were so covered in filth Charlotte sometimes stood guard as she washed in the public fountain.

Anna, who wasn’t penned in by walls.

A twitching snake of hatred thrashed in her pounding heart, quickened her breath with its coiled weight. Tears pooled in her blue eyes; frustration pushed them down her face. A wisp of something cloudy and gray floated toward the sky over the factory, carried away toward the heavens on the chilly breeze. Charlotte blinked away tears, confused.

The windows belched more clouds, a black and oily billow. Smoke.

Puffs turned to a steady stream, and disbelief rooted Charlotte’s feet to the sidewalk. Dense, sinister shadows poured from the building’s upper floors, obscuring her view. Her heart, a moment ago as writhing and black as the haze of soot, filled with a sickening dread.  People gathered, jostled her, but she barely felt the elbows and knees prodding her forward.  Smoke reached the ground, infiltrated her lungs and stung her eyes.

The first girls appeared at the windows. Their eyes searched the crowd, rolling back and forth, up and down, in mad panic. She’d seen the same look on the faces of chickens before they lost their heads.

Shock numbed the crowd. Instead of shouting, stunned dread slipped around their necks like a noose, strangled them into silence. They clumped together, mute witnesses to the horror unfolding in front of them.

The first body hit the pavement. The soggy crack, the feeble spasms of the girl before she lay still, jammed in Charlotte’s throat and she gagged. Her eyes glued to the victim’s face; the girl looked younger than her.

Firemen arrived with a giant net, but the falling girls were too high, their bodies moving too fast. They hit the sidewalk with the same splintering squish.

More men came, lugging a useless ladder that didn’t reach the seventh floor, where the flames began. They could do nothing but join the helpless crowd staring upward.

A voice rose from her soul, fraught with accusation. You should have held Anna’s hand this morning.

Charlotte clamped her eyes shut to blot out the terror soaked faces, the flaming streaks as girls leapt with fire trailing from their hair and dresses. The sodden crunches kept coming, pounded like wet heartbeats in her ears.

When she opened her eyes, she saw Anna.

Anna, standing alone at one of the windows on the eighth floor. Anna, beating at glowing embers on the front of her tattered dress. Anna, searching the crowd, finding Charlotte’s face, locking onto her gaze.

Anna, leaping to her death.

 

One hundred years ago today, 146 people (mostly teenage immigrant girls) died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Their deaths were not a tragic accident; they could have been easily prevented. I encourage you to dig throught this website, which includes survivor stories, photos, transcripts of the trials, etc. It is a fantastic historical resource (but it’s not for the faint of heart).

Watching those girls die on the pavement spurred Americans into action. The result was the advent of unions in the U.S., and the implemenation of guidelines that require employers to adhere to minimum safety standards and buildling codes.

Which is wonderful, for us.

More frightened, broken Annas die in Thailand, Bangladesh, India, and across Asia and the Middle East every year. We buy the products of these factories in American stores.

Take the time to educate yourself. A girl’s life is worth more than a few extra pennies in your pocket.

Isn’t it?

What I’m watching right this minute: The Mentalist – gotta love those Brits!!

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Responses

  1. Great piece of flash, Trisha. Beautiful and poignant. Thank you for taking the time to write it and reminding us what people sacrificed for the rights we have today.

    Love you.

    • Thank you for your kind words and for your lovely help before hand. Love you too. We need to chat soon.

  2. Powerful writing. You put a human face on a senseless tragedy.

    • Thank you for the compliment. If I can do that, then I succeeded.

  3. i recently watched a documentary on this. it was very upsetting and to think that i’d never heard of this tragedy before now. your writing made me feel & visualize it again. bravo, trisha!

    • Thank you Diane, and I’m glad you caught the documentary. It’s a piece of history that shouldn’t be forgotten.

  4. Oh, my gosh. Powerful piece of writing, Trisha. You made my heart clutch. So good!

    • Thank you, Linda. I appreciate you reading.

  5. I also saw the documentary on this tragedy. A great sacrifice! You made us feel like it happened all over again. You are the best!

    • Thanks, Aunt Linda. Thanks for stopping by to read. We shouldn’t forget things like this happened.


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