THE SUN & MOON
Twenty strokes finished the numbers. Eight for the first hand and sixteen for the second. Black, white, red, and blue. Four dots on the wooden pallet. The faceless lay in a pile, porcelain bodies waiting to be given life. Split palm leaves touched a tongue and dipped into white. The first five strokes gave the face its shape. White washed away into a small clay cup of water, ready to absorb another. The tip touched a tongue before entering the blue. The face gained it’s firt number. Black replaces blue and the numbers gain an outline. Red forms the accents and now the cup of rinse water was a dark purple. The gritty taste of the paint lingered as the next doll came forward.
One hundred and forty-four strokes to finish it’s face. She had counted it enough times aloud to know. There was just enough paint on the pallet for one clock at a time lest it harden and dry. She had wasted paint that way enough times to know. A meticulous process.
For $15 a week nearly 4,000 clocks were painted by hand. That is 240 hours. That is 16,000 dots of paint, 223 licks of the brush, 2,052,000 individual strokes. She was 14 when she began working at the factory. Today was her birthday. She was 16.
A steady hand kept her safe from mistakes but it was a love for painting that kept her sane. She often wondered what she could create. Beyond the four dots of color. The one hundred and forty-four strokes. Metal tables stretched across the stone floor, creating aisles to allow workers to walk through with carts full of the faceless. A worn wooden stool and a milky bulb above her station were all she could call her own at work, but the light was enough and she fit comfortably in the grooves of the seat.
They had given her one brush and she had rejoiced. A tan wooden stalk topped with a metal ring, a hilt for the blade. Bristles, stiff and firm could be tamed by water, and quality that kept if you cared for the tool. It was just the right size to detail the face of a clock, if one was careful. Mistakes did not bode well for a worker. An error on one doll could result in the withholding of a month’s pay. That was $45 gone. That was 240 hours. That is 16,000 dots of paint, 223 licks of the brush, 2,052,000 individual strokes. For nothing.
The street noise woke her before her grandfather ever could. She never lingered in bed, the view of a sunrise was a treat far greater than a few minutes of sleep. There was already a kettle of coffee warming over the fire, just like every morning. She ignored the basket of cheddar biscuits her grandmother had baked last night. A special treat for her birthday. She struggled to eat lately, her jaw was either a dull ache or aflame.
She poured a small cup and smiled, it warmed her hands and soothed her head. She looked over to where her grandparents slept. Their cot was only slightly larger than hers yet they slept shoulder to shoulder. They would wake soon.
She added a pinch of salt to the steaming porcelain mouth and walked through the wooden door, out into the first showing of daylight. Dried dirt ontop of stone crunched with each step but she only looked upwards. Her steps slow and determined. She was sore often now, and her legs felt stiff and heavy. She thought little of it.
The moon did not easily give up its domain. It did not rise nor did it fall. It simply remained until the sun chased it away. She loved this battle, for she knew the moon was patient. The sun would leave and it would be there as it always was. Indifferent to opposition.
She wanted to paint. With far more than four colors and so much more than the stoic faces of clocks. She had started working when her grandmother was unable. Her education was brisk and lean. Nothing was untouched by life experience, not the teachings of a soldier to his granddaughter. Unlike her love for painting. An unbridled limitless fantasy in which she took her training and practice and put color to canvas. But there was no room for dreams during the day. They were unwanted.
But she knew things would change. She had received nearly $990 from the factory in total. Most had gone to helping her grandparents buy food, clothing, and care. But she had kept some aside. Saved some to keep her dream alive. She had $12. It sat tightly rolled and banded in her jacket pocket. She could buy an easel, canvas, and a brush of her own. Colors that she had never even imagined. She would become known for her paintings, she could finish with the faceless. But first she would paint her grandparents. To thank them. To remember them.
The worn wooden fence trailed its way nearly a mile down the road before it stopped. Rotten and decayed wood crumbled away to join the soil. She stared beyond it, to the tall grass that embraced her path, the opaque water that sat placid in the ditch. She looked to the splotch of paint that bled into the pale gray. Coating her and everything else in orange. The dream was hiding just behind. She breathed deeply and imagined the scene as if made from her own hand. The perfect amount of strokes that lift life from the colors.
Her jaw pulsed with each step. Soon earth gave way to rock and pavement beneath her feet as she neared closer to the warehouse. An immense block, pale creamy white mixed with the black and gray of pollution. Metal roofing with plastic sheeting to protect from leaks. It smelled of rust and paint. She liked the smell. She pushed open the heavy metal doors and slipped in. She soundlessly strode to her seat and began preparing for her first face.
She traced the number 16 on her hand with her clean brush. She smiled. But her mouth didn’t. The swelling was much worse today. The pain began to subside as her face went numb.
She had finished the numbers of faceless number 27 when things went wrong. She was soaked with sweat, she had tasted blood. She began to panic. The stool crashed to the floor and she tumbled backwards without a sound. Hands clutching her cheeks and head tucked to her chest. She vomited. Two teeth came with it.
Fellow workers rushed to her side, crying out questions and concern, but she refused to speak. She couldn’t speak. The pain was unbearable and her mind could only focus on preparation for each new pulse of pain. She blacked out.
The women stood around her speaking quickly in hushed tones. She lay there for hours before the emergency services arrived.
White. Her dress, sheets. The walls, the ceiling. She was in a room of white. She closed her eyes again. Black was easier on the pain in her head.
She opened her eyes.
“My name is Doctor Williams. Can you hear me?”
His teeth were as white as the lab coat he wore. A nightmare or blank canvas. She nodded.
“You arrived here nearly 48 hours ago. I have been treating you for what I believe now to be radium poisoning. I ned you answer some questions for me. Just yes or no. Please not or shake your head. Do not try to speak. Understand?”
She nodded again.
“Have you been feeling weak, your limbs heavy?”
She frowned. After a few seconds her brow knitted and her jaw clenched, she saw stars. Her arms and legs were lead. She nodded.
She breathed and closed her eyes. She tasted blood again. The nausea was intense. She frowned. She began to cry.
The man in the white coat sat on the white bed against the white wall. Nearly disappearing completely. He placed a hand on her shoulder. She saw only white in the blur of tears.
“You have an ulcer in your mouth. A sore. I am sure it has caused you pain. But what is most concerning is your jaw. The bone has weakened. Please do not attempt to speak. Rest is most important now.”
She hung her head. Tears began to sting her eyes and she could not move her own hand to wipe them away. She cried harder.
She heard the nurse enter the room. When he did talk it was very quiet, almost a whisper and she felt him stand from the bed.
“We have another case. Her ulcers are newer, no necrosis yet but for her age this type of ulcer is alarming! What are they working on there?”
“Numbers... hands.” She croaked. “I paint them.”
His mouth tightened into a grimace. He reached backwards to the chart hanging off the end of the bed. White pages flipped over and revealed yet more white.
“These girls are paiting clock faces.” The nurse said.
“Does your skin touch the paint?” The doctor asked the girl.
She opened her eyes. Her eyelashes sticky with sorrow. She thought she wiped her eyes. She looked down at her arm before answering.
She nodded. “We lick the brush. Bring it to a point. Detail.”
She blinked slowly. Once, twice. To clear the tears. But she was thinking. Remembering 16,000 dots of paint, 223 licks of the brush, 2,052,000 individual strokes.
“Your grandparents are here. I will send them in.”
She heard the door open and when she looked again he was gone. The silence only lasted for a few seconds before the sobs of her grandmother burst into the room. Doors swinging open, banging against the walls. She made a noise of woe and sorrow, masked by the doors.
She was unable to speak. They were unable to stop. Her grandfather asked her how she felt over and over. His lined face cracked and creased with worry and stress. Her grandmother was hysterical, sobs racking her wiry frame. Words interrupted by wails and coughs.
She laid there. Blinking. Resisting the urge to move her arms or legs. Trying to not try. The failure would break her. She let her mind wander. Blocking out their noise as they clung to each other on the foot of her bed. She remembered her money. Her $12. Her treasure. Her dreams.
Her voice startled them. Their faces scrunched as surprise pushed its way through grief. She was shouting it now. Over and over again.
“We don’t know, what does it matter? You are here now. It is simply a jacket.”
She tried then. To move her legs, her arms. To leap out of bed and run the halls. To find her dream rolled up tightly, a band to keep it safe. But they would not listen. Stubborn. She could not stop it, and again she cried.
A porcelain face that released streams of heat and wet.
He opened his mouth to respond but couldn’t find the words. He went to place his hand on hers and stopped. His hand slowly fell back to his lap but smiled to reassure her. She did not meet the smile. Nor could she match it. She stared at the ceiling. She let the tears boil and pour. They left her alone in the white. The canvas.
She sunk her head deeper into the pillow and the tears slowly dried, stiff lines of salt tracing her face. And she thought of the battle. The sun that rose in strength and blotted the moon out. She hated this battle, for she knew the moon was cowardly. The sun would reveal all.
Her dreams belong in the night. They have no place in the day. She slept.