Thursday, March 1, 2012

A Portrait of the Heroine

To kick-off our "Champion Your Cause" theme for March, we have a little gem brought to you by our own Emerald Nash. Em wrote this story several years ago, but current events involving a certain technology giant inspired her to revive it. The tale paints a picture of the archetypal heroine overcoming obstacles laid before her by those wishing to keep her weak and contained --  a slave to progress (i.e. the Industrial Revolution). Allow yourself to be swept back in time and witness a young girl becoming a woman, taking control, and truly championing a cause --  in this case, her own freedom.

Enjoy, and be inspired!

-- Jess

They Shall Not Win Today
by Emerald Nash
Mary was already up when the whistle sounded. Wrapped in a shawl, she stood as close to the fireplace as caution would allow. She had nothing to warm her belly; nothing to warm her soul. Even the sun neglected her at this hour, and the puny sparks of the fire were miserable in comparison. Those empty, early hours were always the worst. She thought the heaviness in her chest might crush her.
The second whistle blew, slicing through the silent countryside. Mary, seized by reflex, started to reach for her bonnet, but she caught herself and stood quite still.
“Not today,” she said.
Speaking aloud sometimes made her feel less alone. Other times it compounded her isolation: a single voice echoing against bare walls.
 She put the fire out, then wondered at herself for doing so. The place could burn to the ground for all she cared.
Once all preparations had been made, she opened the door to the frosty air and looked one last time around the single room hut. Her eyes settled for a moment on the makeshift cot which once supported her mother’s lifeless body. Mary could see her there, not dead from disease or childbirth or accident, but from her body’s absolute refusal to go on.
Mary’s mother had been beautiful once. She'd had milky skin and deep chestnut hair which contrasted Mary’s flaxen curls and ruddy complexion. And she glowed with an especially strong inner light. Until hardship wore it away, erasing the color from her cheeks; dousing the fire in her eyes.
     Mary turned and shut the door on those memories.
Breath rose in a white cloud before her; she wrapped the shawl tightly around her thin frame. It was dark, but to the east streaks of crimson were beginning to shoot forth from the horizon. She saw in the distance, ablaze with the first flames of morning, the looming smoke stacks of the factory.
Soon those monstrous funnels would spew streams of filthy air. Men, women, boys and girls, would all file into the building – bracing themselves for the long day of work. For once, she would not join them.
She continued to watch the silhouetted structure. The gates of Hell. Like an image straight from the pages of Dante.
She set out with her boots crunching against the frozen mud.
How often she had looked at the Roman road in the distance, with that ancient wall somewhere at the end of it. A wall built by Hadrian’s laborers, laborers just like herself. A wall built to stay the barbarians, those unwashed hordes of the north. Thinking of them always brought her strength. Even the mightiest forces of oppression had limitations. Perhaps if she turned wild enough — painted her face blue, matted her hair with lime, took to the woods — she could then beat back the legions that threatened her.
The road stretched out over hills and vales, she admired its perfect straightness, and thought of those savage northern folk;  no longer “savage,” no longer free, but part of the growing machine that was Britain, her country.
Today she would take that Roman road, but she was half afraid her body would betray her, turn back, and carry her to the inferno.
No. Not today. 
Before reaching the road, she encountered Mrs. Armstrong, plodding along toward the mill.
“Miss Mary, aren’t you headed to work?”
 “I’m going to the ships.”
 The bushes were now rippling with birdsong and the sky was ash-colored. 
 Mrs. Armstrong was still and silent, then nodded once and said, “Godspeed you, child.”
 Two hours down the road Mary stopped for a rest and craved her morning serving of watery, factory-provided,  porridge. She removed her boots, rubbed her sore feet, and sat. Perhaps she should turn back. The image of her mother’s lifeless face flashed before her. She rose and continued moving, the heaviness in her chest had returned.
 Mary reached her destination; the blood surged furiously through her veins, pounding in her ears. Her hands began to sweat. Her mouth went dry.
 Give me strength, she prayed. Give me courage.
 Aside from the factory, the ship was the largest thing she had ever seen. And there were so many people — everywhere. She felt paralyzed standing at the base of the gangplank. Finally, she spoke to a man in a uniform standing on the dock.
 “I beg your pardon, sir,” she nearly whispered, so low he did not hear. She repeated herself with more volume, “I beg your pardon.”
  The man turned and looked at her, “Yes?”
  “How do I get on the ship, sir?”
  At first he laughed at the question’s simplicity. Then, noticing her anxiety, he wrinkled his brow and said, “Over there,” and pointed to a small building further along the dock, “you can buy a ticket.”
   “Thank you, sir.”        
  She exchanged nearly all of her coins for the passage. Again she stood at the bottom of the plank. The wind swirled brutally about her and she stared at the choppy grey water, rough and ruthless. She had never seen so much water. It was endless. The sun was now fully up, casting a soft magical light on the world. The air smelled of salt and fish and coal and too many people. The sound of hooves on stone mingled with the screeching of gulls, the shouts of dock workers, and the cries of vendors.
  While Mary gazed, lost in her reverie, an old shawlie  worked her way through the motley crowd. She approached groups and individuals alike, offering up fortunes. Her requests for shillings and pennies were thinly masked as humble afterthoughts. But when she arrived at the place where Mary stood, her face changed – features arranging themselves into the countenance of a concerned mother. She seized Mary by the arm, not unkindly.
  “My dear,” she croaked. “Do you not see her?”
   Startled, Mary jerked to free her arm, but it would not be freed. She looked down at the shriveled crone.
   “I have no money.” She said.
   The woman ignored the comment. “You have devils on all sides. She is keeping them at bay.”
   Mary stared into the dark, wizened eyes. “I don’t know what you’re speaking of.”
   “There is a woman, yonder. Dark of hair she is. And watching you.”
   Mary spun and scanned the crowd wildly.
   The old woman continued. “You are safe. They shall be powerless against you. They shall not win today.” She patted Mary’s arm affectionately. “May God and all his angels keep you, child.” And with that she moved away.
   For a moment Mary stared at the spot where the old woman had been, and a tear slid down her cheek. She turned and looked at the swarm moving up the gangplank. Before she knew it, her boots were pounding out a hollow rhythm on the boards – one to echo her own heartbeat.  As she reached the top, she turned and looked one last time for a dark haired woman in the crowd, but could see nothing through the sea of shoulders. And so, with the old woman’s words ringing in her head, she allowed herself to be swept away. They shall not win today.

Emerald Nash is currently based in Brooklyn. She studied performing arts at The American Musical and Dramatic Academy, and received her B.A. in Literature and Screenwriting from The New School. Her current day job at The Explorers Club involves brandy-sipping adventurers, a plethora of dead animal trophies, and one really cool live cat named Lowell.  

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  1. Very nice. The part about the devils all around her gave me the shivers. This story left me wanting to know more about Mary's adventures. You could expand into a lovely novel, with more details about life in the work house at the beginning. Then I'd like to know where Mary is going on that ship, and what happens to her when she gets there. Keep it up!!

  2. Surely this can't be the end, am I right? Does this go on? I think you can take more time with the beginning. I really want to feel what it's like working in the mills. Maybe just a moment or two of reflection as she's on the boat looking out in to the water which is her future.
    - Mia

  3. "unwashed hoards of to the north" should be hordes

    1. Thanks. That'll teach me to add new things at midnight and post without proofreading...

    2. P.S. Please keep the notes coming. I didn't give my editor a fair shot.

  4. Thanks for the comments, ladies and dude! I sort of wanted to keep the story short and contained, leaving a lot to the imagination. But maybe that's just a lame excuse to be lazy? I do like that it ends with her getting on the boat. Who knows where she will end up, or if it will be any better. (As we all know, life for emigrants can be rough.)But maybe it would be better as a longer, more detailed narrative. James, I'm curious to know what you think.

    I have to be honest, though. Seeing it posted, reading it in this setting, it feels too serious and self-righteous. Maybe it would be nice to extend it and add some lightness and humor. I wrote it when I was taking "History of Poverty" so my mind was dwelling on very heavy things...

  5. I think it's perfect, although it is worthy of expansion as Catherine and M. Garcia suggested. I like when a story leaves a lot to the imagination, as long as it still leaves me satisfied after reading it. There's a lot of different things going on here that you could tell us more about perhaps in another "chapter". Great work!

  6. Thanks, Jess! I appreciate that. I think you ladies have inspired me to carry on with Mary's story. XO


Thanks for commenting! Please keep in mind that this is a place for new writers to get constructive criticism. So be open with your honesty, but go easy on the brutality.