Of Metal and Wishes
IF I BELIEVED in the devil, I’d give him credit for the shift whistle at the Gochan One factory. Its shriek rips me from a dream of the wind whispering through flowering dogwood trees.
I fold my pillow over my ears, crush it down, and think of my mother singing me to sleep. She always used to, until her voice faded to a raspy croak and it hurt her to speak. Now there’s no music in my life except in my memories, but that’s okay, because I live there as much as I can.
The shrill of the whistle goes on and on, calling to the workers. It’s as much a welcome as a warning; if any of them are still in their bunks, it’s going to come out of their pay. But I don’t have to worry about that. My father runs the factory’s medical clinic, and it’s always open. We live above it, and when people need the doctor, they ring a little bell outside the clinic door. When it’s an emergency, they crash right in.
The awful sound ends as abruptly as it began, and I let the pillow fall away from my face. My father is standing a few feet from my sleeping pallet. He raises the window curtain and looks toward the front gate of the factory compound, then lifts his pocket watch to the light. It’s a heavy old thing, too fancy to be clipped to his sagging trousers with patched knees, but my mother gave it to him when he graduated from medical school, and he’s worn it every day since. He flips it shut with a soft click. “Five minutes earlier than yesterday. That’s a rather dirty trick.”
I pull my blanket over my head.
A month ago my life changed forever. Now, instead of living in a warm cottage with a lovely garden, I live on the factory compound. Instead of sitting in a kitchen and inhaling the earthy scent of stewing vegetables, I sit in a cafeteria and pick at starchy rice or thin soup shoveled from enormous vats. Instead of reading the classics, I read medical texts. Instead of the feather lightness of my mother’s touch, I feel the dry, antiseptic rasp of my father’s.
Instead of embroidering silk, I embroider skin.
I actually don’t mind that part.
My father is looking down at me when I finally peek out from under the blanket. The lines of his round face are deeper in the shadows of almost dawn, and his brown eyes look as inky black as his hair. “You’re going to have to get used to it, Wen.”
“Don’t remind me, please,” I whisper.
He winces. “I’ll make tea.” He walks from the room.
I sit up and swing my feet to the floor. There’s a chill in the air and I shiver. I pull my braid from the neck of my nightgown. It’s a thick black rope, long enough to wrap around my throat in my sleep.
I get ready quickly, pulling on my forest green dress with the intricate embroidered vines coiling at the neckline and down the sleeves, which are thinning at the elbows. I need to patch them up before they become holey. I should go to the company store and buy myself some practical clothes, like the slacks and button-ups worn by the girls who work at the textile mill in Gochan Three. Here in Gochan One, the slaughterhouse, it’s all men in overalls and rubber aprons. The only women in this factory are the secretaries and office girls, and they wear simple brown dresses, not ones that are embroidered and colorful like mine. I know I look pretentious and stupid and out of place, but my mother made this dress. She made all my clothes, actually. Her hands touched every stitch of this skirt, this bodice. She lined it with delicate pink buds and emerald leaves, gilded each of them with golden thread, made them too beautiful to be real. She pulled it tight at my waist and said I was getting a nice figure. She chose the color because it looked good on my toasted-almond skin. When I touch this dress, I touch her. When I wear this dress, she is with me.
I pull my thick apron on over it because I don’t want to stain it with whatever’s going to land on me today. Yesterday one of the slaughterhouse workers threw up in my lap.
My father and I eat a breakfast of bread and hard cheese. We split the last apple from our small stash, the final gifts of the tree in our abandoned backyard behind the cottage on the Hill. We haven’t been back since we locked the doors the day after my mother’s funeral. It was her home, every inch of it, and it doesn’t seem right to be there when she’s not.
“The new workers are starting today,” my father says.
“I heard people grumbling about it in the cafeteria yesterday. They wanted the extra hours during feasting season. Why didn’t the bosses let them work more, if they wanted to?”
My father examines his apple. “It’s been a hard year, and Underboss Mugo was looking for a new way to cut costs. The Noor are the cheapest labor available.”
The Noor. They’re not like us, the Itanyai. My mother taught me never to trust them. I’ve never seen one around here because most of them live in the Yilat Province, over the Western Hills, but Mother had warned me that if I ever did have the misfortune to encounter a Noor, I should run in the other direction. She said they were more like animals than men.
Now some of them are coming to work at Gochan One.
The apple is mealy and dry, and I choke it down. “Have you ever met one?”
“Not until last night.” My father sips his tea.
“Isn’t the company afraid they’ll cause trouble?”
Father chuckles, but there’s little humor in it. “I think the only thing they want to do is work and earn money to send to their families. When their train arrived, all they looked was . . . defeated.”
And they’d had to stay on the train too, because they had lice. This morning they’re being processed. My father is in charge of their decontamination and medical examinations. I don’t get to assist because some of the processing involves their being naked, and he doesn’t want me to see that.
I help him prep, counting the cartons of noxious delousing powder and germ-killing soap, making sure we have enough. The Noor are being issued company clothes, too, and their old ones are being burned. Father tells me all of this is coming out of their pay, even though they haven’t started working yet.
A few workers come with handcarts to help Father with the supplies. As always, they give me funny, quizzical looks, like I’m some stray cat that wandered in off the streets of the Ring, the shops and neighborhoods that surround the three factory compounds of the Gochan complex. The Ring is almost a city, but not quite. It is as much a product of the Gochan industrial compounds as the meat of Gochan One, the war machines of Gochan Two, or the clothing of Gochan Three. It sprang up like a patch of clover around a pile of dung, fed by the money and jobs that trickle outward from the factories.
After my father leaves for his appointment with the lice-covered Noor, I focus on neatening already-neat things—lining up the gleaming plungers of the metal syringes, setting out clampers, and pulling the bowls and basins from our steam-powered cleaning machine. It makes a terrible racket but is much better than having to wash each of them by hand. Next I sweep the floor. I have to do this every day because there always seems to be metal shavings at the base of the walls, and sometimes in little piles under chairs and tables. It must come through the vents from Gochan Two, which churns out monsters of steel to defend our country from enemies outside our borders . . . and within them. We probably all have metal shavings embedded in our lungs. If you cut us open, we’ll sparkle in the light.
When I finish my chores, I go into my father’s office. It’s too far to walk to the school I’ve attended all my life, and too expensive anyway now that my mother’s income is gone, so I am finishing my education here, under my father’s instruction. He seems pleased that I have taken to his lessons. Today on his desk I find the cold, pink foreleg of a pig resting on a tray. Arranged beside it is a set of clampers, a curved stitching needle, some suturing thread, and a scalpel. Father left no note, but I know what he expects me to do.
I settle myself on his chair and catch my reflection in the scalpel’s blade before I slice it along the leg, cutting to the bone, rending flesh from hoof to joint. Enough to keep me occupied with precise angles and tidy knots, to allow me to forget everything beyond the boundaries of the steel tray for a little while. Years of living up to my mother’s rigid standards, of pulling and repeating delicate embroidery stitches until I got them just right, until my fingers blistered and then bled, are paying off now. Not really in the way I planned, but that’s all right. I thread the suturing needle and grip it with the clampers. Eyeing the gash, I position the tip and poke it straight down into the flaccid tissue, then rotate my wrist, driving the point upward on the opposite edge of the wound. I will make these stitches perfect and do both my parents proud.
I am rewarding myself with a long stretch after completing the final knot when I notice the cloth pouch on the table next to the door. My father has forgotten his stethoscope. He needs it to listen to the Noor’s lungs and make sure they are not bringing illness into our compound. And if I take it to him, I could perhaps catch a glimpse of a Noor. Despite my mother’s warnings, or perhaps because of them, I cannot help but be curious about what these barbarian men look like.
I strip off my apron and hang the sign that says the clinic is closed for the lunch hour. The overhead lights buzz like bees as I tread the main hallway that leads to the cargo bays and pens in the southeast corner of the compound, where the factory connects to the rail line. This is how the cows arrive at Gochan to meet their fate, and it is how the Noor arrived too.
As I go through the heavy door that leads to the yard, a huge partitioned outdoor area with a corrugated metal overhang, I am greeted by the anxious lowing of cattle and the clatter of hooves. A train must have arrived, and the cows are being herded into the narrow, fenced lane that guides them to the killing floor. The air is thick with the stench of manure and urine-soaked hay, and I wrinkle my nose as I listen for my father’s voice beyond the stained, rusted metal of the partitions.
A thickset young man in gray pants and a neatly pressed shirt strides out from an opening between the flimsy steel walls. He raises his head from his clipboard and pauses when he sees me. “You’re not supposed to be here,” he says, but not in a harsh way. He looks over his shoulder and frowns before turning back to me. Shuffling footsteps and mutterings I do not understand come from the makeshift chamber he just exited, as does the faintly astringent odor of delousing powder.
I hold up the pouch. “I need to give this stethoscope to my father.”
“You’re Dr. Guiren’s daughter. Wen, right?” The young man smiles and stands a bit straighter, pushing out his chest. “I’m Lati. I’m in charge of making sure all the Noor are where they’re supposed to be.”
Lati looks only a few years older than I am, and the fact that he gets to wear slacks and carry a clipboard—instead of wearing a rubber apron and wielding a butcher’s knife—means he is from a middle-class family like mine. He seems proud of himself, though it sounds like his job is to take roll and little more. Still, I return his smile, which feels stiff and unfamiliar after a month of stifled tears. “And where are they supposed to be?”
He tips his head toward the main hallway, allowing me to see the comb lines through his slightly oiled hair. “On their way to the cafeteria.”
No sooner has he said it than two men trudge through the gap in the partitions. The smell of delousing powder makes my throat burn, and these men are covered in it, white patches and smears on their hands and faces, a dusting of it on their eyelashes. I squint at them with stinging eyes and know immediately that they are Noor. They’re dressed like the rest of the workers, in brown overalls and white undershirts, but they don’t look like us. They are bigger, for one. Not by much, but most of these men stand a few inches taller than the average Itanyai. Their skin is tanned, but there’s a pinkish undertone that I’ve never seen in anyone around here. And their hair is so light, mostly muddy brown, not black and shiny like ours. Their eyes are also the color of street puddles, and they are red-rimmed and bloodshot and darting. I shrink back against the wall but continue to stare.
The Noor file out of the yard two by two and slowly walk toward the factory proper. Each of them has a paper tacked onto the shoulder of his shirt. Most of the papers are too high for me to read what’s written there, but I see a few—Altan, Erdem, Savas, Zeki—and realize what they are, foreign names for strange, foreign men. Some of the yard workers accompany them, carrying electric prods, as if the Noor were cattle instead of factory employees. It hardly seems necessary, because what my father said this morning appears to be true. The Noor do not look rebellious or dangerous now; they look tired.
The ones at the front have deeply lined faces and hunched shoulders, but most of the Noor appear no older than twenty. Lati reaches my side as they begin to pass me. One, a boy with a mole on his cheek, sneezes loudly, then wipes his dripping nose on his work shirt, leaving a cloudy trail of mucus and delousing powder along his sleeve. Another, an impish-looking boy with sharp cheekbones and a scar that cuts through his left eyebrow, scratches his crotch. Then his muddy eyes find me, and he winks. I gasp, clutching my father’s stethoscope to my chest, as if that will protect me.
“You must be very careful of them, Wen,” says Lati, stepping in front of me to block their view. His gaze slides to the embroidery on my cuffs, and he follows a twisting vine of flowers until it entwines with others on my bodice. “It’s likely they’ve never seen a girl who looks as fine as you do.”
I bow my head, nearly as embarrassed by his overly familiar tone as I am about the rudeness of the Noor. I know he is trying to be kind, but it is too presumptuous, too intimate, and I have only just met him. “I’ll be careful,” I say, glancing at him and then at the horde of Noor. The line seems endless. “How many of them are there?”
“Just short of two hundred,” he replies, checking his clipboard. “All from one village. They must breed like pigs. They look like them too.” He says it loud, and when he sees my shocked expression, he laughs. “Don’t worry—they can’t understand us.”
As he reassures me, two more Noor emerge from the yard, and I am completely distracted by them. Both are young—one looks Lati’s age, maybe eighteen or nineteen, and the other can’t be older than fourteen, which means he must have lied to get his work permit. Both boys are taller than the others, though the younger one looks like a weed, while the older one looks more like a birch, lean but solid. But what astounds me is that their hair is the color of the rust spots on the metal walls. I had no idea hair could actually be that color. They don’t have much of it, though. Like the rest of the Noor, they look like sheared sheep. I wonder if they had to pay for these haircuts, or if the company gave them those for free.
“I have to escort these pigs to their troughs,” says Lati, “but perhaps you should take the side hallway? So you don’t have to be near them.”
The older rust-head glances at me over Lati’s shoulder. He has eerie, jade-colored eyes, and before he turns away, I note a spark of cleverness and comprehension in their pale depths that makes my stomach tighten. Lati clears his throat, catching my attention again. “Give me the stethoscope,” he says. “Your father is still examining the final few, and I’m sure he’ll be happy to use something other than a tube of greased paper to listen to their lungs.”
I hand him the pouch just as one of the passing Noor spits on the floor at my feet. I step back quickly as Lati grabs the Noor by the shoulder. “That’s worthy of a fine,” snaps Lati, checking the paper on the young man’s shoulder, then conspicuously placing a check on one of the rows on his clipboard. He shoves the stunned-looking fellow, who bounces off one of his friends. The other Noor in line give us wary looks while the yard workers brandish their cattle prods. Suddenly feeling nauseated, I decide to follow Lati’s instructions to take the side hallway. Before I reach the door, Lati calls out in a cheerful voice, “It was nice to meet you, Wen!”
I give him a tight smile and a small curtsy, then slip through the door and find myself in a dark corridor. My hand slides along the wall, seeking a light switch and finding none. For a moment I consider going back into the yard, but the memory of the rude Noor and of Lati’s eager familiarity keep me where I am. A murky hallway cannot harm me, but being seen as too friendly certainly could. “I’m not afraid,” I say, though I don’t know why.
There’s no one here to listen.
At least, I thought so. Somewhere, deep in the inky darkness, there is a scuttling, clicking noise that makes my toes curl. Rats, maybe, though the sounds are a bit more rhythmic than rodents usually manage. “Hello?”
My voice is still echoing when the bulbs snap to life, first the ones above me, then the ones ahead, lighting my path. Though I should be relieved, my heart thumps like a rabbit in a snare. “Is someone here?” I call out.
The only answer is the low buzz of electricity, and again, perhaps I should find that soothing, but all I want to do is get out of this hallway. I hurry along, holding my skirt above my ankles so I don’t trip myself up, jogging past little piles of metal shavings and closed doors leading to unknown rooms. As the administrative hallway comes into view ahead, one of the doors opens and out steps old Hazzi, who scrubs the floors and fixes the leaky toilets of Gochan One. His gnarled fingers curl over the handle of his mop, which is resting in a wheeled bucket he pushes along the floor. Blinking, he peers up at the lights, and then his eyes widen as he sees me coming.
“Thank you for turning them on,” I say as I approach. Hazzi has been to see my father a few times for the pain in his joints, and though he cannot pay, my father does whatever he can to make the old man more comfortable—and able to keep his job here at the factory.
Hazzi shakes his head. “I didn’t turn them on, Miss Wen.” He smiles, showing a gap where his bottom front teeth used to be. “The Ghost must have thought you needed a little light.”
I laugh. “I told you last week that I don’t believe in ghosts.” Which makes me different from nearly everyone else in this factory. They give up their hard-earned money and food to make offerings to the Ghost of Gochan One. They write their silly prayers and leave them at his altar at the front of the factory. They truly believe that he responds. I think he is nothing more than the bundling together of the useless wishes of people who must spend their days in a terrible place like this. “But it was a fine trick all the same, Hazzi.” Fine enough to make my heart speed.
“No trick,” he says with a raspy chuckle. “And you must be respectful of our Ghost. He is not all about the light. He brings darkness, too.”
“That’s certainly a useful myth to scare the workers into behaving.” I nod at his cart and bucket. “Can I help you carry something to the front?”
“We can’t splash wastewater on your fine dress,” he says kindly as he rolls his bucket away from my skirts. “And it’s not a myth, you know. A few years ago there was a young worker who proclaimed he was going to find out who takes the offerings from the Ghost’s altar every night. His many prayers had not been answered, see, and he had decided the Ghost didn’t exist. He was determined to prove it too. Right up until the day he disappeared. Atanyo was his name. I remember him well.”
I arch an eyebrow. “Are you sure Atanyo didn’t simply run away?”
Hazzi purses his lips. “Suppose he might’ve, though I’m not sure why he would, since he had a good enough life here and a family out in the Ring. If you ask me, he challenged the wrong specter and it devoured him. You shouldn’t anger our Ghost, Miss Wen. He hears everything and can do anything. You should be grateful he favors you.”
“Please, Hazzi. Forgive me, but I’m not superstitious.” I try not to laugh again as I gesture at a set of light switches on the wall not two feet from his broom cupboard. “And I think you’re playing with me.”
The corner of his mouth twitches as he shuffles over to the switches and flips all of them down at once. The lights stay on. He flicks one switch up and down repeatedly, the sharp clicks echoing in the empty corridor. “These haven’t worked for months, and this hallway has been dark that whole time.” He grins at me. “Until you decided to walk this way.”