Lisa Clark's work has appeared in various publications including Best Modern Voices, v 2, The Alligator, The Gnu, Scarlet Leaf Review, Strange Fictions, and BlazeVOX. She's winner of the Glass Woman Prize for fiction and the Mia Pia Forte Prize for creative non-fiction. Bulgaria has been her home for over eighteen years. She's currently working on a YA novel about Virtual Reality.
WHEN WE DREAM
We remember the sounds of our first day. They began as rustlings and grew to whispers then to rumblings, louder and louder until we couldn’t shake them from our ears, our brains, our veins, tissues, or bones.
We shuffled inside the warehouse slowly that morning, a mother, sister, or friend murmuring into our ears, taking us by the elbow, leaning into us, touching our arms, cradling us in a comfort we didn’t yet know we’d need. They’d told us their stories, of course, but as recent girls teetering on the brink of womanhood, we thought we could make something better of the job than they had. That we, by the very fact of our youth, could better withstand its hardships. Who knew? Perhaps we would succeed where others had failed. Perhaps the man would take notice and soon we would be in charge. Then we could change things.
A few of us—Ghita, Panu, Julissa, Chun, and Emy—were mere girls: ten or eleven years old when they started. They approached their first day with wide eyes, elbows pressed into their sides. Ghita, the youngest of all by months, wiped clammy palms against her dress. Her mother tried to squelch the guilt chomping at her gut. All of us knew she had no choice.
We suppose that, if we’d known then what we know now, they would have had to drag us in with thrashing heads and flailing arms. Screaming. Ghita would have shrieked loudest of all.
Instead, we innocently accepted instructions: “Just watch what I do.” “The best thing you can do is bow your head and work.” “If the man comes close, don’t look at him. Don’t meet his eyes.” We latched onto their words and sucked them in like goat kids at their mother’s teats.
Inside the building, one man’s voice grew, ordering, “You! Over here! This will be your spot.”
To another, he barked, “Show her what’s expected.”
Soon one, then two machines hummed and chattered together, followed by fifteen, thirty then more and more, clattering, birring away. In minutes, hundreds of machines joined in, roaring their various rhythms and sometimes punctuating the clamor with abrasive pops, wheezes, hisses, and chugs.
Above that, voices pierced the air.
The man’s shouts rose higher still, like miserable lyrics to an unsung melody.
Ghita shrunk like a pill bug when the man cursed her for moving too slow. We tried not look.
By the end of the day, the sounds had sapped us of strength. We had energy for little more than relieving our hunger and thirst before collapsing into sleep. Then the noises became part of the tales our brains spun for us that night.
When we dream, the noises still sound: the scrape of our wooden stools; the buzzing of machines that sliced through five-inch piles of fabric; the thwump of trimmed pieces at our stations; the whoosh of grinding and spraying; hissing steam.
And the voice. Demanding: “Work! Harder, faster, better. You there! Be more careful; we can’t afford mistakes.”
Threatening: “There are ten others who would love your job; you’ll get no sympathy here. If you’re late, sick, or too long in the toilet, if you have bad breath or stop to scratch an itch, I’ll find out.”
We’re from India, Honduras, China, Bangladesh, and beyond. Ghita is from Morocco. We’re mostly in our twenties and thirties. A rare few are above forty. Men kidnaped some of us to work in lands we’ll never return home from.
We sew, cut, package, label, and fold. Ghita dyes. Her hands are raw and rough.
Together, we turn never-ending piles of fabric into never-ending piles of clothes.
Most of us are female, easy to threaten and force. Easy to use and abuse.
We wonder if anyone knows about us.
At the beginning, when we still had energy to care, we thought about the clothes we make for beautiful men and women with skin of white. Skin clean and fresh and sweet-smelling.
Not like ours.
Where do those people go in these clothes? Are they rich like the actors and models on billboards and covers of glossy magazines? Do they smile at life?
We wonder how it would feel to smile at life.
We have forgotten how to smile.
When we dream, we cannot escape the man’s voice, rumbling, roaring, making us quake.
Sometimes it shrills like a drill, penetrating our skulls, invading the dark folds inside.
His brown and blemished face looms before us.
We wish that, at least in our dreams, we could free ourselves from him. That someone would rise up as our savior.
We sandblast denim, spray chemicals onto fabrics, press pleats into skirts. Our eyes and fingers grow weary attaching buttons and beads and jewels. We sew in zippers, finish hemlines, stitch buttonholes, and attach ribbons. We know how to make yokes, ruffles, boleros, cowls, sweetheart necklines, frog closures, maillots, shelf bras, and a hundred different styles from petite to XL.
Will our work will be appreciated or will buyers discard the labor of our hands after one or two uses? Will they show up in secondhand clothes shops in places like Kenya, Bulgaria, and Cambodia, where poor people try to convince their neighbors that they sit at the edge of fashion circles? Or will our creations become industrial rags? Or be shredded? A few of us have heard whispers that the very poor wear our clothes until they are dirty, then burn them for heat.
When we dream, we see ourselves in beautiful clothes, gem-studded. Our husbands or lovers or friends or parents beam at us. Ghita spins to show off for a boy she sometimes sees on the street. He has eyes the color of midnight and a smile that makes her heart skip.
All of them ooh and aah at us. We bow shyly, unaccustomed to praise.
When we lift our eyes again, he appears. He never gazes at us in admiration.
Our work often stretches to ten or twelve hours a day, and sometimes (when we are behind and must catch up) for eighteen hours a day, seven days a week.
Some of us faint from exhaustion. Ghita’s mother has fainted eight times.
When we dream, we are sometimes asleep at our machines, but then he comes, screaming, scolding, threatening. If we don’t wake up, if we don’t work, he’ll fire us. We know he can do this; he’s done it to our friends. But we are so tired. Our eyelids cannot stay open another minute.
When we wake, we fear it was not only a dream. But then, those around us begin to move, acting as though this day is like any other, like a nightmare that will not end at sunrise.
Twelve-year-old Ghita and her mother look long at each other before sighing and trudging out the door. They have no words to bolster the other for the day.
We daily inhale air contaminated from sandblasting, hand sanding, and chemical spraying. Gray particles cover our faces, hands, and necks until, by the end of the day, only our eyes are visible. Sickness sneaks up on us. Many suffer from one, two, or more of these: coughing, eczema, heart disease, wheezing, sickened lungs, bladder cancer, infertility, fever, chills, chest tightness, and asthma.
Sometimes, the man demands from us twenty ladies’ shirts an hour. Day by day we perform nearly 37,000 repetitive motions between toilet breaks in order to meet our quotas. Hour by hour, our arms and hands moan and scream and keen.
Our pay is never enough. Hunger chomps at many, like Ghita’s mother, who sometimes refuses to eat. Instead, she gives her portion to her two daughters.
We can’t withstand these conditions for long. After four years, the man needs to hire replacements.
When Ghita is thirteen, her mother falls on the work floor. Others think she’s fainted, like before. When the man yells at her, she doesn’t rise. She never rises again.
We wonder what she has—what we have—done to deserve this life.
When we dream, his image looms before us. His clothes are shabby at the edges; he’s always tired and angry. Those of us in Honduras and India and China think he drinks too much beer (this we presume from his stomach, which is large and strains his belt). In Morocco and Bangladesh, he finds other ways to grow a gut.
From time to time, someone comes to interview him, asking him about us and our treatment. He smiles and nods and assures them that we are treated fairly.
How can he lie so easily? Does he fear nothing? No one? Does he not fear the One who can destroy?
In our heads, we number his transgressions:
When we dream, we see him dragged into court. He’s kicking and screaming, declaring his innocence. We wordlessly watch on, small smiles on our faces.
We live in different places. Some of us return to homes or apartments with families to tend to. We try to push aside the thought that we must rise again after a few brief hours of slumber to another day like today.
Ghita and Marwa, are not so lucky. They share a cramped dorm room with four girls.
Others live in corrugated sheet-metal lean-tos without plumbing, clean water, or decent places to wash. They have no husbands or children and can only fantasize about having a family.
One day blends into the next so that no day seems different.
Until one day. On that day, when Ghita is fifteen, Marwa stumbles from the warehouse behind everyone else. Blood is trickling down her legs and her face is filled with the same misery hundreds of millions of other women through the ages have borne.
In four months, Marwa is fired. Five months later, she dies giving birth to a bastard baby.
A year after that, Ghita convinces every woman in her factory to protest. On the day they take to the street instead of going to work, angry men yell at and even beat the women. Some are jailed. Ghita is hammered down, her face turned to mangled meat. The newspaper crew that interviewed her captures her final moments.
When we dream, we see him jerk to a halt, slap his right hand across his chest and grip his left arm as though trying to yank away the heart attack.
He is unsuccessful.
We see him crumple onto the floor.
We see his eyes beg us for help. His eyes are hurting, pathetic, fearful.
Soon, he stills.
We fall onto to our knees and thank the heavens.
When we dream like this, we’re free.
When we wake the next day, we do so with an odd hope. Today, in countries we don’t even know the names of, other women—and even men—are reading the news story about Ghita and gasping at her pulverized face. Horror is piercing their hearts. Outrage is commanding them to act. To help us.
It would only take a few.
When we dream, we dare to hope that change will come soon.