This is a world I picture when I think of my favorite fantasy worlds. It's dark, gritty and cobblestoned, and the characters are all struggling in some way. This piece employs elements of magical realism, and I chose to twist pollution (smoke, vapor, etc.) into a source of creation. How it's used is up to who wields it, as with all tools. It's a quiet story, but one that alludes to the complexities of morality, the impact of human activity on our environment, and draws portraits of people who navigate a cruel world in their own ways.
His bike rattled over cobblestoned streets, skittering a bit on loose gravel. He slowed a good distance from the factory to marvel at the way it had managed to look even angrier than yesterday. Puffs of smoke came from round, imposing chimneys in erratic bursts, and nearly all of it dripped down the bricked walls with a burning fervor. With more triumph than an orphan should ever conjure, Willis dropped his bike next to his designated pipe and scrambled in.
“Ohh, we’re in for a good one,” Willis whispered to the boy next to him in line. Several of them had been mushing about in a lackadaisical manner, but a cycle later, the portly man strode in.
The machinery boys counted time in cycles. The mechanical arm that stretched out above the factory floor pumped at a constant pace as they worked. Finish breaking up the coal before two hundred cycles. File out to eat in five. It would be almost triple that before the day would finally end and a few meager coins would enter their pockets.
“I’ll not warn you again,” the portly man drawled around his cigarette as the boys scrambled to stand, straight-backed as floorboards, in a line. “You will finish this batch before the next shipment, or I’ll cut your meal in half.”
“Maybe you should cut yours,” Charlie muttered under his breath. Willis tensed, praying on his buttons that his friend hadn’t been heard. He wished Charlie could have the good sense to patch his mouth shut the next time his threadbare shorts ripped.
“Lots today?” Charlie circled Willis as the other boys trailed to their stations.
“Hush,” Willis hissed. “You could be a little more discreet.”
The nickname “the machinery boys” was a bit of a misnomer. They didn’t exactly run the machinery—no one would trust twelve-year-old boys within a mile of such big, dangerous things. No, they mostly stood at the sidelines where stations for coal-breaking, needle-threading and engine-oiling had been set up, large mechanical contraptions thrashing all around them. The neighborhood kids only called them so because they always emerged from the large factory with hands greased and eyes puffy from squinting, much like a seasoned mechanic after a day of intimate work with wrenches and nails. Willis did like to think he was quite a professional when it came to his work.
It was approaching five hundred cycles, and the boys all hunched over to still their growling stomachs. The Counter of the day, Thomas, was particularly dizzy. “No more numbers, ever,” he moaned. “I’m only uneducated filth!”
Willis, whose excitement had begun to wane, was now bursting with anticipation once more. “Stay with me,” he whispered to Charlie, and they dallied around until all the others had left. The few adults who wandered occasionally in and out to keep the boys in check had been the first to leave. Then, paperboy cap bursting with expectancy, Charlie tailed Willis to the base of a ladder. It leaned against the far wall with no safeguards and stretched far above them, but the machinery boys feared nothing. They climbed like acrobats, bounding up with lithe agility. The latch at the top swung open to dark fog.
They spent the little time they had grabbing fistfuls of the smoke and stuffing it haphazardly into the knapsack Willis had been hiding in his overalls. It was particularly heavy today, the texture like rich silk—not that either of them had felt silk before—and weighed substantially in the satchel. “This’ll fetch us a whole dollar or two,” Charlie trilled eagerly.
“You see? I’m good at my work.” It was to the boys’ immense satisfaction that the sky seemed to get brighter the more they took. They moved in tandem, humming and working the only way they knew—like machines. As they toiled, soot fell gently like powdered sugar over their grimy heads.
Without the mechanical arm, they couldn’t measure time well, so they took turns sliding down the ladder to check if anyone had returned, only to ascend impatiently once they saw that the coast was clear. Finally, when even their pockets couldn’t handle any more cramming, they lumbered down the ladder with significantly less grace but loads richer.
- - - - -
Lena rubbed at her back and neck. A day of ironing garments had made her joints stiff as a bursting kettle, and even with her knees screaming about, she had more work ahead of her. She bent to pull the rug aside, and the latched compartment beneath slid aside to reveal piles of smog and smoke and sulfur coiled tightly in neat bundles. Here was her real work, and she was damn good at it. Rivulets of sweat converged on the damp towel at her neck as she tugged out her materials. Her job was a heavy one, but so were the winds of life alone as a woman, and her business helped act as sandbags against these uncertain, vicious gales.
A series of knocks came at the door, one long and two in rapid succession. When she answered, a boy who reached no higher than her chest looked up at her, so filthy that standing there, he resembled her shadow. “Today’s haul,” he said, hefting up a bursting bag. She smiled, said thank you, and dropped twenty-five cents into his outstretched palm. “Ma’am,” he paused. “You must feel today’s haul, ma’am. It’s like no other.” A bit indulgently, she reached in to grasp the smog inside. To tell the truth, there was no need to assess what he’d brought. Lena could easily harvest polluted air anywhere in the cramped city, at much freer a cost.
“This is nice,” she said anyway, adding a dollar to the boy’s hand. He bowed, paperboy cap to chest, grin ablaze, manner crisp and proper. Lena noticed that from where she stood, the boy was positioned so he perfectly coincided with her own shadow, her silhouette cast over his small form in a way that dimmed his shiny demeanor. Before she could shift away to see that bit of light again, he had risen. The little boy turned and danced away down the filthy street, feet never touching the ground.
Back in the confines of her room, she emptied the satchel. Out poured wisps of dense, velvety smoke, which she deftly worked at, spinning and threading until it resembled inky cocoons. Lena liked to think of them as cocoons, for they were bundles of potential waiting to burst in her hands.
First, she made blankets. They were made from lighter vapor, grayer and more voluminous than the average, and, with the steady clicks of her large wooden needles, she soon had it fashioned into a swathe of misty fog. She gifted these to orphanages and the homeless, so they can lie low for a night, hidden and undisturbed. Then, she made cloaks. These were stitched from the heftier, more gritty material, and slid thickly, like the dregs of sewage pipes, as she knit. The final products bore a dragging weight and left a bitter taste of iron so strong it congealed as blood on her tongue.
Lena spent most of her time on the darker shrouds. They weighed heavily at her fingertips, on her shoulders and upon her heart when she wore them slinking through the night delivering these bundles, but they were necessary. They paid for her hard bread and safety from drunk, violent men who promised to protect her. They made her sky brighter.
So, each dusk, she snuck under a shroud of malice, a mere smudge against the grimy bricked backdrop of her city. She slipped into its most unsavory parts like a shadow, there and gone, depositing one more shadow on the doorsteps of business magnates and political bosses. What they planned to do with her cloaks, she didn’t bother asking, as long as due payment was delivered without fanfare or fuss.
There was, after all, more heavy pollution than there was kind fog in Lena’s streets, and she did her best to tame the darkness with her needles the way wizened wizards wielded their wands, with expertise and a dash of reluctant obligation. She recognized that her job led to more shadows lurking at night, but it was nothing compared to all the waste the mills around her chugged out. She cleaned up after greedy robber barons who polluted her streets, and she was damn good at her job.
Lena was bent over her latest cloak, reworking a stitch that had slipped off her needle when, from the corner of her eye, she saw something slip beneath her door. It was a smudged envelope, a wedge of tar where a seal should be. From it, she pulled out a note and twenty dollars. After slipping the money into her apron pocket, she scanned over the note, then promptly tore it up and scattered its remains out on the streets so it mixed with the gray sludge that muddied the cobblestoned paths. She couldn’t burn the contents—the city was in a state of such permanent dreary dampness that it would’ve been more suspicious to raise a fire. What a crime that something burned with fervor so blatantly.
This latest order had been imprinted on Lena’s inner eyelids, as every other order was, to maintain discretion as her clients tended to stipulate in their deals, but this one tugged at her mind and twined around her stomach, stretching her tolerance taut. A small shawl, sized to fit a small child no taller than two canes. She couldn’t help but see the little boy from earlier, a miniature playing at being a man. He had held himself with such simple assurance—a young charmer, for sure. Lena knew the happenings that took place in her city’s winding alleyways and darkest corners. The little boy had no place there.
She had been able to push through the irony tang that flooded her mouth every time she knit with dark smoke, but now it flooded into her eyes, obscuring her sight. Her eyes watered, and tears dripped down her perpetually grimy cheeks, leaving streaks like bleach burns behind. She continued anyway, working her stitches by touch. Her blindness didn’t matter because, if there was one thing she knew, it was how to navigate the dark.