A dark and compelling short story inspired by the tragic 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
She is worthless, cloth legs and arms, sooty grey and smudged, grey as newsprint, or a spider, Little Miss Muffit sat on her tuffit, eating her curds and whey. Too poor for a printed face, no high buttoned shoes or jet beads small as gnats. Instead someone stitched her a round open mouth, two spiked lashed eyes and a flattened French knot for a nose.
Jen picks her up, claps together her paws of hands; faint stitches marking where the doll’s fingers would be. Her woolen plaints flop forward, no satin bows just snippets of coarse twine.
“How much,” Jen asks?
The Goodwill register lady whose own skin looks as dingy as the doll, just looks at her, then shrugs. “Twenty cents.”
Jen keeps trying to find something unnoticed but valuable in a Goodwill crate or garage sale jumble; something so valuable her mother will stop drinking; unwashed water glasses rose pink with dried wine; ring around the rosy; the gin sharp as lemons.
When she was younger, Jen thought if she could scrub the smell and taste of gin off her mother’s mouth, she wouldn’t be drunk; her mother would be stripped clean of sin.
“Washed in the blood of the Lamb,” the Reverend proclaims in a voice harsh as rusted tin, “When the world ends, the second angel will pour his bowl into the sea, and it became like the blood of a dead man.” Every morning, he shouts into the frosted air about the world ending, a pouring of fire; the blaring car horns urgent as Gabriel’s horns.
Jen wishes the world would end: the mornings she spends trying to spoon scrambled eggs in her mother’s slurred mouth; the days spent carving hearts, crosses “Fuck you” into wooden desk tops. Every period a different desk, that is the only way Jen tells her classes apart; the teacher’s voice droning on drowsy and faint as a humming refrigerator.
Jen wishes something would end the nights spent in the front seat of a jacked up pick-up truck, listening to Tim trying to get her to spread her legs and then get married or is it get married and then spread her legs.
All she really remembers is his mouth tastes the same as her mother’s when Jen kisses her good-bye in the morning. Jen wishes it would all end. She wants a tidal wave of flame; the asphalt, ash, concrete, whiskey, gin dissolving into a white flare.
* * * * *
The world did end at least once. No one knew how the fire started. A cutter let a match. A man cleaned his coat with gasoline. A spark lit like a moth on some oil soaked rags. The girls tried to put it out, metal pails of water, Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water. But there wasn’t any water, just ash and air.
“It was like there was kerosene in the water, it just seemed to spread,” one girl said. The fire hose was rotted and the valve wheel rusted shut. Their boss Max Blanck had locked the doors except one needle narrow door, only one door for 350 girls who stitched and cut shirtwaists on the ninth floor. And then along came a spider, a huge red spider, sat down beside them, and the world ended.
The fire ladders couldn’t reach the ninth floor. Trapped, pigeons caught in a wicker basket, the girls jumped. The force and weight of their falling bodies broke the nets. They didn’t jump until their bodies flared like cloth torches. They looked like falling stars.
And when the third angel blew his trumpet at the world’s ending, a giant star named Wormwood fell into the sea, and the water became bitter as gall. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down. The girls fell, then their bodies broke, once more bone, blood and nerves.
* * * * *
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” her mother mumbles, rubbing her own bruised knees, the kitchen floor sour and slick with spilled milk, a gin bottle sitting in a puddle of milk and strawberry jam. Her mother leans her head against the cabinet door . “I just wanted to make you a peanut butter and jelly sandwich like when you were little,” and then she shrugs.
Later that night, Tim keeps pressing her to drink some more wine, a neon palm tree turning the bottle to jade, the truck’s leather seats sticking to the backs of Jen’s thighs. She can’t see outside the fogged frosted window. Jen wonders why she doesn’t drink more wine, spread her legs, get married.
The Reverend says it’s a sin to drink, to fornicate; but to the Reverend living is a sin. You can understand him wanting a fire and a spider, wanting to tumble until the world has broken. Jack fell down and broke his crown, and Jill came tumbling after. She didn’t want to live without him.
“He was crowned with a crown of thorns, the King of Kings.” The Reverend throws the words into the air, his own head crowned with tufts of cotton grey hair. Tim strokes Jen’s hair and kisses her palm. “You don’t have to worry about your mother either. We can stay here and you can still visit her and whatever.” And whatever.
“What did she do now,” Jen thinks walking into her bedroom? The doll lays sprawled across her pristine pillows. Jen left the doll on the floor near her shoes. Her mother must have put her there, a peace offering for her little girl; but she isn’t little anymore. Jen is surprised that the doll’s sooty body didn’t mark her pillows. She keeps her room obsessively clean, it is the one thing she can control.
Jen traces the doll’s face, the stitches bumpy as a trail of ants. The doll’s mouth is a perfect circle like a penny or that screaming mouth in that painting. But the eyes are closed.
“Maybe she is supposed to be sleeping, and her mouth is open because she is snoring,” Jen thinks. She tucks the doll beneath her chin as she curls up in bed. Even though she is so old, the doll smells of clean sanded wood, cedar. Little Miss Muffit slept with her doll every night; but one night she found a nest of spiders in her hair.
* * * * *
She hummed a Polish folk tune about a man who could charm fish into his nets, her needle quicker than any fish. Lara sewed a little every night, even when she stumbled with exhaustion, using cotton scraps she nipped from the factory.
First the body, darts at the neck, chin, elbows, knees, heels and ankles so the doll could sit; then a patent gusset so the feet point forward, and the doll could stand alone.
Lara wished she could have bought her sister a No Brake doll or a Wide Awake doll with three faces; but they kept cutting the wages at the Triangle, a half penny every hour and then another half penny. So she obsessively studied store bought dolls. She wanted to fashion something wonderful to keep her sister company while Lara worked.
There was no one else. Their mother liked shiny sparkling lights, men who flattered her and pale gin. I saw a pale horse it says in the Bible, and the rider’s name is death. And so their mother died, coughing up bright blood; and it was just them.
Lara stabbed her needle into a cotton scrap, smiling at the neatly stitched mouth, a half moon smile so every time her sister looked at her doll, she could pretend it was Lara smiling at her. No sorrow would ever mark this doll.
* * * * *
That morning, Jen decides to cut class .The Reverend is parading on his usual corner when she walks by. He paces, wasted as a scarecrow as though a fire is already sharpening him into bones. He keeps coughing so his proclamations sound like random words, connect the dots into whatever you want.
Jen is hunting for aluminum cans and wine bottles to recycle. The welfare check only goes so far; her father went even further to California, the promised land.
“Your mother’s not well,” her father told her, “But when you get big enough, come to California and find me. Write me for money. I promise I’ll be waiting for you sweetheart.” And every year, a postcard with palm trees or pyramids of oranges arrives with his address and phone number. But he still left her.
But even her anger is fading into a greyness, as though everything she is, is blurring, wet newspaper, nothing coherent or particular just random words.
But at least, the Reverend’s words, chaotic as they are, are burnished and heavy when they fall. They will break nets and bring blood. She carries the doll in her coat pocket. Tim was happy when he saw it; he thought it meant she is thinking of having babies. Mary, Mary quite contrary how does your garden grow. Jen knows she will bloom with baby after baby when she marries Tim.
She bundles and stuffs the doll inside her jeans until they budge as though she is pregnant. “Wonder what mother would think if she saw that; but then she probably wouldn’t notice.”
But suddenly the world spins, everything turns red and pale grey, a pale rider wearing Red Riding Hood’s clock. Ladybug ladybug, fly away home. Your house is on fire… When Jen’s head clears, she is crouching, her hands wringing the doll as though she is wet. Jen immediately drops her, and starts to frantically smooth her out, almost crying.
She looks up, but there is only the Reverend watching her, his face implacable as a face on a coin. Heads you’re it. Tails you’re not. But what is she?
* * * * *
She will be dead soon, that she knew. Lara watched the other girls slide down the elevator ropes and hurl themselves upon the descending car, their bodies twisting into jigsaw puzzles, so frantic not enough time.
The flames prodded and pried at them, trying to open their skin, sparks flying into their mouths like gnats. The flames wrapped around their ankles, tugged at their skirts until their bodies bloomed into bonfires. They were torches, kindling oil lamps and candles.
The priest said the world would end with fire this time not water. One placid faced girl kept tossing her empty bucket of air at the flames, ignoring the girls who tugged at her arms. Some girls said it was better to jump and be shattered then burnt; at least their families will recognize their pale startled faces.
So they jumped. Some jumped, their arms wrapped around each other. But her sister wasn’t there so Lara jumped alone. Ladybug, ladybug, your house is on fire, your children all gone.
In a newspaper article, a witness to the fire said, “For a moment, she held her hands rigid, her face upward, looking toward the sky.” And before she jumped, “she began to raise her arms and make gestures as if she were addressing a crowd above her.”
* * * * *
The Reverend begins to address his imaginary crowd again while Jen stumbles to her feet, shaky and nauseated. “If this is what mother feels when she has a hangover, no wonder she get s drunk again,” she tells the doll.
For a moment the doll feels warm in her hand, Jen notices how the forgotten dollmaker had even stitched shell shaped ears behind the doll’s braids. Jen leans even closer as though she is going to whisper to the doll something more; but then she shakes herself and looks quickly around to see if anyone noticed.
Tim stares eagerly at her face as she fumbles opening his newspaper wrapped package. The ring gleams in the dark.
“When I get a job, I’ll get a diamond to replace the zircon,” he tells her, his voice suddenly shy. Ring around rosy, and we all fall down. Jen feels herself falling.
Tim’s sweaty hand pats her arm, “Jen what it is it?”
Is he holding her from falling or is he falling with her, his arms clasped around her? “Better to marry than burn,” Jen can hear the Reverend’s voice in her head. What does he know, just some crazy wacko religious nut. But something is burning him hollow and light as ash. Perhaps it is better to burn.
Once again she tucks the doll beneath her chin as she curls up in her bed. While on a nighttime gin foray, her mother wanders in, sits on her bed and mumbles, “How nice my little girl has a doll again. Whatever happened to the doll your Daddy gave you?”
Jen just listens. She doesn’t want to remember Daddy, his addresses, oranges bursting into suns; but she does remember a doll that looked like a real baby with dimpled plastic knees. She threw it into the trash when she found out her father had left it for her.
That night she dreams she is on a bus to the Promised Land, land of lotus eaters and oranges that give dreams. Her father will be waiting for her. When she looks out the window, she sees the Reverend riding a horse, trying to catch the driver, his mouth stitched into a smile.
The next day Jen cuts classes again, wanders the streets, occasionally scrabbling in the trash for a can or bottle, the doll tucked into her coat pocket. When Tim finds her, he just shrugs. They’re getting married so why should she even bother to finish school he says.
That night Jen steals one of her mother’s gin bottles. They park near a deserted car lot, each car creating a pool of shadow, Yea I walk through the valley of shadows; but where are the green pastures. Jack and Jill knew there wasn’t any water; but what else could they do.
Jen and Tim mix the gin with seven up, gagging at the taste; but Jen determinedly drinks until the gin loosens everything inside, until it doesn’t matter that she is falling since it feels like floating.“Yes,” she says.
Once again she dreams of the Promised Land bus. Tim sits beside her; but they can’t find their tickets. Underneath her chin, the doll glows with reflected moonlight as though she is burning.
* * * * *
She saved everything: no chocolates candies, grosgrain ribbons, the tea stayed strong and black, no mild or sugar. She wasn’t going to stay here snipping and stitching. Every spare penny was hid behind a board. Lara was going to rescue her little sister from a grey bending and plucking of threads, from priests haloed with fire and sin.
They were going to escape she thought sucking her thumb. She pricked her finger with a needle; but the doll’s cotton body absorbed the blood without staining.
But when she saw the flames leaping and swirling like a pack of curs, Lara wondered if it was all foolishness, the scrimping, the scrounging. Maybe she should had bought her sister peppermints, sweet milky tea. Perhaps her mother was right to want bright lights and kisses while she could gather them. But at least she gave her sister a doll.
* * * * *
Jen notices a dark stain on the doll’s arms, did she smear chocolate or dirt on her. Jen couldn’t hear anything which meant her mother was in the kitchen pouring gin into a mug, pretending it was water even to herself. Whenever her mother was quiet, it meant she was drinking, trying so hard not to bang the glass or bottle until drunkenness overcomes her, her body sagging with its weight.
“She could stop if she really wanted to,” Jen tells the doll, resentment staining her voice. Then she flushes with embarrassment. But who else can she talk to? Tim saying things work if you pretend they work? The Reverend? If she talked to him, his fever would burrow into her bones until there was nothing left except the wanting.
Jen puts down the phone. Tim wants to know if they could meet tomorrow for wedding license, blood tests. She starts to shiver, hugging the doll. The doll’s sawdust body whispers, an incessant sliding sound.
Jen spends all day in bed. Once her mother looks in on her, stands in the doorway. Jen wonders if she noticed the missing gin bottle; if she will miss the gin bottle Jen plans to steal tonight. The gin will burn her throat; but once she is drunk, then nothing will matter that much.
She pushes the doll away. For some reason, the doll pricks as though the stitches had transformed into crawling ants. It distracts her from thinking about gin, about Tim’s hands and mouth.
The stitches prick at her like a thought she can’t quite remember. But she pushes it away, she wasn’t going to let that thought sit down beside her. She wants to lose herself and never come back. Miss Muffit never came back. Lucky girl.
That night, she dreams she is trying to go somewhere; but she can’t move. But when she wakes, she can’t remember where she trying to go to. Her mouth feels thick and grainy with leftover gin. In her sleep, she stuffed the doll under a pillow trying to muffle her. But why would she want to muffle the doll she wonders, her brain thick and grainy as her mouth.
When she sees the fire, Jen walks into the flames; but the fire is grey ash. It coats her skin soft as down feathers, muffling every noise, her mother retching in the bathroom, the memory of father cooking them pork chops, the monotonous hum of teachers who couldn’t care less about her. The ash settles in her belly until it is round as an orange.
If the world burns to ash what does it matter. Just accept. There is no other way. The Bible says, “from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given power like the power of scorpions of the earth.” and the locusts were like unto horses. But they can’t hurt if you have already given up feeling. When Jen sees the Reverend, she will tell him the world had already ended, and it doesn’t matter. It feels better this way.
Jen picks up the doll, her cloth body cold and dirty as the linoleum floor; and she puts her in a shoebox with her father’s postcards. What did she ever see in such an ugly old thing? It’s worthless. For a moment, she strokes the doll’s cheek where someone had stitched teardrops, small perfect ovals.
* * * * *
When she saw the fire, Lara scurried away from it, seeking a staircase, a window. Threads of smoke tangled her feet. When she found the window, she broke the glass, threads of blood tangled her hands. Lara stood on the ledge, below her were broken bodies, bitter water and locusts like unto horses. But she laughed at God, the Devil or whatever is up there. They didn’t win. When she jumped, she spread her arms and flew. Or at least that was what it felt like, no falling. She didn’t remember falling.
Copyright © 1999 Kay Sundstrom. All rights reserved.
You can also read another of Kay’s short stories, Minuteman.
Born and raised in southern California’s canyon country, Kay Sundstrom grew up among the disaffected youth of suburban El Cajon, where teen night life often consists of cruising the main drag in motorcycles and jacked-up pickups in search of a few cheap thrills. A graduate of both Scripps College and the University of California at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, Stanford University awarded her a Stegner Fellowship in literature, reportedly after she wrote them threatening to quit writing for law school. She has published in Threepenny Review, Blue Moon Review, Errata and other literary journals.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: The preceding post originally appeared in the online multicultural journal New Tribal Dawn, which published essays, fiction and poetry from 1999 to 2007. Although the journal is no longer active, we are preserving its fine literary archive here for posterity.)