08 Jan Story: Sublime Artifacts
Free story. “Sublime Artifacts” will appear in Love and Other Poisons, a collection I am preparing for backers who funded my IndieGoGo last summer. My debut collection, This Strange Way of Dying, can be purchased now.
By Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Her fingers are stained black with tobacco residue. When Marina goes home at night the aroma of tobacco clings to her clothes and her hair so that she never seems to leave the factory. The intense scent made her eyes watery when she first stepped into this room, but that was a long time ago.
Marina sits in the rolling room, takes the flat tobacco leaves and rolls them, pausing to wipe her forehead with the back of her hand. Each day Marina rolls up to ten atados, each containing fifty cigars. She is paid by the number of cigars she assembles, and her fingers are quick. But today it is uncommonly hot and she feels sluggish.
Marina rests a hand against the swell of her belly. She’s eight months pregnant and soon enough she’ll have to pause her constant rolling of cigars to give birth. But not yet. Not for a while, yet. Still, she ought to rest for a tiny bit.
Marina pulls out a folded piece of paper from her apron’s pocket. She smooths the paper upon her table with the palm of her hand and stares at all the big words printed on it. She can’t read, but the man who handed it to her told her there was an airship show with dirigibles and flying machines from many countries. Far off places like Canada and Japan, and other countries whose names she can’t even pronounce.
Sublime artifacts from around the world, he said. See airships powered by the rays of the sun. The amazing brass cyclocopters. Witness the wonders of mechanics and flight!
Marina can’t read the words, but the pictures are clear enough. There’s one big ship shaped like a cigar and beneath it others that look like spheres with tiny baskets dangling from them. She also spots one aircraft that resembles a fan and another that, she could swear, is a gigantic fish with shiny scales.
Cata, who works on the table next to Marina, glances at her. The older woman coughs. It is a permanent cough caused by years of inhaling tobacco dust. If Marina keeps working in the factory one day she’ll have a similar cough. But work is work and cigar making is better than cigarette making. It pays more. Besides, Marina has steady work. At larger tobacco factories, like El Buen Tono, work can be haphazard. Women line up in their rebozos outside El Buen Tono in the morning, starting at five am, and wait for the factory’s mistresses to inspect them. Each morning, the mistresses has a set number of workers that will be allowed inside. Once the quota is reached, the factory doors close. Marina is lucky to be a trusted employee and to work with cigars. She is called back in every day. The big factories, she’s heard, have electric lighting and big windows, but if work ebbs and flows then she prefers the steady security of her small site. She prefers the cigars. She prefers rolling to pressing, grading or sorting.
“There’s an airship show today downtown this evening,” Marina says. “There will be 50 different airships from 30 different countries. There’s ships that can change color. They go from yellow to red to blue. There’s ships that glisten and ripple, as though they were made out of water.”
“That’s nice,” says Cata. She’s an old woman, Cata. Her hair is going white and she wears it neatly pulled back. She dresses all in black, as befits a widow, though her husband has been dead twenty years. Marina thinks Cata wears widowhood like a mark of pride.
“It’s a bit expensive, though,” Marina admits. She ought to be saving all her pesos for the baby and the trip back home, but the airships seem so exciting and she doesn’t think they come to Mexico City that often. Not that many, at least. This sounds special.
Cata shrugs. She is busy rolling her cigars, applying a touch of gum at the tip. Her wrinkled hands fly.
“If I roll half a wheel by three o’clock I could ask permission to go home early and see it.”
“You think the mistress will let you leave to see balloons?”
Marina glances at the mistress, who is standing on the other end of the long room. All the cigar rollers are women and so are the mistresses who supervise them. There are men at the factory, but they work in the storage and moisture section, handling the large bulks of tobacco leaves. In the big factories there are copper automatons that can stack heavy crates. But automatons and men can’t do the fine work of cigarette rolling. Rolling requires small, dexterous hands. Marina’s department, tobacco rolling, is a feminine land.
“It’s not balloons and I wouldn’t tell her I’m going to see them, anyway.”
“You could tell her you’re about to give birth and she wouldn’t let you go,” Cata says.
When Marina started working at the factory — she was fourteen that first summer — there used to be a reader, paid collectively by the tobacco workers, who sat on a stool and read the newspaper or a book to them. It was pleasant to hear the stories about battles and swords and people doing heroic deeds. One time, a man fought a giant squid, piercing its enormous round eye with a harpoon and Marina almost felt the ship sway beneath her feet as the reader described the violent waters, despite the fact that she had never been on a boat, not even the little canoes of Xochimilco. But the mistress didn’t like the reader and now they work in silence.
This mistress is strict and Marina knows she’s already on shaky ground with her. Marina is, after all, pregnant. Soon she’ll have to take a week off to give birth and take the baby to live with her mother back in Xuqila. Marina works six days a week, twelve hours a day. She won’t be able to see the baby except maybe during Christmas and Holy Week, if she can gather the money for her train fare.
When she thinks of Xuqila and the distance between her and her mother’s home, when she thinks about the baby growing up to call someone else mama, to know Marina only as a stranger who comes to visit a few times a year, her heart aches. But Marina works at the factory. Cigars must be rolled.
“The mistress looks like she’s in a good mood today,” Marina ventures.
“Why shouldn’t she be? She’s getting married. Didn’t you hear?”
Marina glances at the mistress. She can’t quite tell how old she is, but Marina would wager she’s bordering on thirty while Marina is just twenty. The mistress is an old maid, but apparently still fit for a wedding. Marina feels both jealous and hopeful. She knows she is pretty. The little mirror in her room has confirmed this truth many times. If the mistress can wed, maybe there is hope for Marina. Maybe even though Marina is just a workwoman, a cigarrera, she can also become a decent lady and have a little wedding. Arturo might even come back to her and wed her, and Marina can raise the baby, they can be a family, though this possibility seems as distant as the airships that must be slowly circling the city.
“Is he a nice fellow?” Marina asks, hopeful. Perhaps this is a love story. Perhaps when she was walking home one night the mistress stumbled onto a pleasant man. It started to rain and he offered to share his umbrella. Perhaps he even offered his carriage. How nice that would be, to have your own carriage. Or, Marina looks down at the piece of paper with the nice pictures, your own airship.
How much does an airship cost, Marina wonders. If I had an airship I could visit my baby every week. It wouldn’t have to be an airship of silver and ivory, I’d be happy with one made out of tin.
“Does it matter?” Cata says.
“Well, I’d think she’d want to marry someone who treats her well.”
“Men never treat women well. At least she gets to leave this place.”
“Not all men are nasty.”
Cata chuckles, eyeing Marina’s belly. Marina tries to ignore her laughter and she touches the flyer advertising the airshow. Cata’s an old, bitter hag. What does she know? There’s a whole world of possibilities out there. There’s iron ships that can go beneath the water. And people can wear heavy suits and walk upon the ocean floor, gathering pearls. And there’s the airships too, blazoned in their beautiful colors, some of them even glow at nights, like gigantic fireflies.
“She’s marrying Eulalio,” Cata says.
Each morning Marina is handed the raw material to make the cigars. The tobacco and the paper are weighed. At the end of the day she gives back the raw materials left, if any. All workers much be inspected before they depart, to make sure they haven’t stolen any tobacco. One of the persons who does the searching is Eulalio, a foreman. He pinches the girls and if they protest he’ll say they have been stealing materials, and they’ll have their wages discounted, losing up to twenty cents. A month ago Eulalio made Marina take off her stockings and her shoes, to make sure she wasn’t stealing tobacco. He did it simply because he felt like it, for there was no reason to think Marina might steal. She has been with the factory for more than five years and rolls a prodigious amount of cigars. Still, she had to obey him. She had to sit down upon the dusty floor of the patio, slowly, for her great belly made it difficult to maintain her balance, and pull off her shoes and her stockings for everyone to see.
The mistress is marrying Eulalio. Well, if that’s the case Marina doesn’t envy her. She’d much rather have an airship than a smirking, mean man like that.
Xuqila would be just around the corner. Airships go real fast and it wouldn’t be any trouble to fly there each Sunday, Marina thinks. I could take the baby with me for a ride and we could look down at the city, which I’m sure is like looking at tiny ants running around an anthill. And we’d laugh, because there’d be pretty clouds and a light breeze.
“You should come with me to see the airship show,” Marina says.
“Are you still going on about that?”
Marina shrugs and stands up. She folds the flyer and tucks it back in her pocket. The mistress is at the other end of the room and that is where Marina goes, pausing to smooth a lock of hair back. How hot it is today! Her palms are sweaty and her flesh feels like it is being dragged across a hot, cast iron comal.
“Miss Núñez, I wanted to ask if I could possibly leave early today,” Marina says. “I can try to roll half a wheel before three o’clock.”
“Before three? You think you can even get close to half a wheel?” the mistress asks and Marina can’t help but notice that the dress the mistress wears is of a nice deep gray, with brass buttons, and it looks so much better than Marina’s own dress, the blue one her mama made for her.
“I’m very fast, miss.”
“Nobody is that fast,” says the mistress. “And even if you do, you can’t.”
Marina returns to her station. She sits down and rolls her cigars, her body feeling as heavy as a rock. She drowns in her work, rolls for a long time, and then comes the lunch break. The doors of the factory only open at morning and night. The workers must eat their meals inside. Marina takes her little food stash and walks to one of the small, high windows lining the right side of the room. She’s very short and she can’t see much but she tries to look at the sky. Perhaps, if she is lucky, she might glimpse the belly of an ivory airship as it sweeps majestically towards her.
The sky is a perfect, uninterrupted blue. There are no airships in sight. Just the sun, lazily licking the factory.
Marina dips her hand into her apron’s pocket. She holds up the flyer against the window and presses her other hand against her belly.
Sublime artifacts, she thinks, and wonders what sublime means.