Chapter 4

Almira Ristani looked up, as the noon whistle began to wail. Across and over the tops of the rows of braiding machines that filled the 5th Floor of the Mill, she could see the faces of the women who spent their days tending the fabric-braiding machinery. She smiled at the thought that her job title was, ‘Braider Tender’, as if the machines were living beings in need of help, to be tended to. Almira loved words, especially how easily their meaning could be changed, and in changing, alter the world around her. Ironically, the environment in which she spent the majority of her waking days, was primarily of the visual and tactile. Although human attendants were necessary to the efficient functioning of the machinery that filled the Everett Cotton Mill, the one ability that separated Man from all other life, spoken language, was least in evidence, as useless as the wings of an ostrich. She gathered her canvas satchel from under the table at the end of her row. As she walked towards the exit, she could see how some of the older women would, using scrap fabric, make a sort of nest for themselves, among the machinery. Like an old married couple, the lumpiness of a bed shared for years preferable to something new and possibly more restful. They would stay where they spent their working hours, using the noon break to simply sit and not move. Almira was slow to gather her satchel and, in a bundle folded as small as possible, her coat. She preferred to allow the other women to file out and start down the cold stairwell ahead of her. The sound of women speaking, in at least 3 languages, echoed off the brick walls. Their chatter conveying a sense of celebration. It was as if, after being deprived by the overwhelming sound of the machinery, of the opportunity to speak, the simple act of making their own deliberate and meaningful sounds was a joy in itself. Groups formed and re-formed, (speaking in at least 3 languages), as the noon break at the Mill began in earnest.

Almira slipped past the windowless lunch rooms where the women talked of babies and bad husbands. Keeping her coat folded and, hopefully, un-noticeable, she quietly skirted the Shipping and Receiving Department, where men took their lunch break and bragged about hopeless ambitions and bad women, and found her way to the metal Exit door. Once outside, she walked in a remarkable silence, a sense of quiet, felt rather than heard, by the ears. The machinery of the Mill never completely stopped. At certain and very predictable times, the rhythm slowed, but only to an idle. 

It was a short, cold distance to the alcove, (a fortunate architectural juxtaposition between the exterior of Stairwell Number 2 and an adjacent outside corner forming the southwest end of the Mill building). The alcove was a 6 foot indentation of the massive southwest wall of the Mill. Shallow as it was, those six feet provided a shelter from the winter wind. At the same time, the alcove ran straight up, past the roof, allowing the sun to shine down on the red brick structure, leaving a warmth that lasted through the day. With her back against the rough-grained brick, and the sun light filling the small, safe and quiet space, Almira Ristani would take her book from her satchel and read.

***

When her mother died, in 1910, 14-year-old Almira Ristani left St Mary’s School and began to work in the Everett Cotton Mill, a voluntary conscript in the army of workers who, more than the endless power of the Merrimack River, gave life the Textile Mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts.

As the first girl born to Stefan and Idresca Ristani, Almira enjoyed an all-too brief childhood. Evicted from the crib, to make room for her newest brother Dimitri, Almira would watch her mother work through each day, sewing and mending clothes, a source of extra income to make up for no longer being able to work in the Mill. Their 4th floor apartment consisted of 2 rooms, a small bedroom and a large everything-else room. Safely out from underfoot in a corner, formed by the wall of the apartment, a bookcase and 2 over-turned (and weighted-down wood chairs), Almira listened to her mother sing lullabies to Stefan and Dimitri, (her brothers), sing love songs to Stefan, (her father), and talk, cajole  and, very often, argue with those who came to the apartment door, torn and ripped clothing in hand. One afternoon, when Almira was just barely 3 years old, her mother, while trying to make more room to put her mending, knocked a book from a shelf, into Almira’s playpen. Distracted, Idresca didn’t notice that the book, Gulliver’s Travels, had become a permanent feature of the old-wool blanket landscape that was Almira’s world during the day. Not very long afterwards, a neighbor, Mrs. Swaider, came to pick up the mending she’d left the week before,

“Why look, Mrs. Ristani! Your little girl, she so smart! She reads from the book now. Surely she will be a teacher, that one, she!”

Idresca saw that her only daughter sat on the blanket covered floor, with the slightly worn (and barely noticeable teething scars in the leather cover), copy of Gulliver’s Travels open in her lap. Almira grasped the book by the front and back covers and looked up at her, not with the naturally innocent gaze of the very young, passing the time by growing older, rather, she had an expression that seemed to hold a question. Inquisitive. Hopeful.

Shutting the door on Mrs. Swaider’s still talking face, Idresca Ristani stepped over the barrier of on-their-sides-wooden chairs and gathering up her child, sat in the corner, opened the book and, smiling somewhat sadly, began to read,

“[The author gives some account of himself and family. His first inducements to travel. He is shipwrecked, and swims for his life. Gets safe on shore in the country of Lilliput; is made a prisoner, and carried up the country.]”

Children of the age of 3 need a lot of sleep. Most children, just turned 3 years old, caught in the middle of the afternoon, would have heard the words of Jonathan Swift, read as quietly as a lullaby, as the cue to quiet their mind and close their eyes. Almira, secure in the arms of her mother, heard the words and stared at the open book. The look of concentration on her very young face, spoke of a girl who, somehow, knew that if she listened intently enough, she could match the sounds of her mother to the marks on the page…
a mother reading words once loved, recalled a time when her life was being shaped to carry knowledge to those seeking it,
a daughter hearing words, sensing without knowledge, that the book contained a secret that would open the world to her.
The afternoon passed quietly.

Almira Ristani played, after school, among towering buildings that were the heart of Lawrence, Massachusetts. She and her friends would wander the courtyards and warehouses, their childhood games a pre-echo of adult labor. The buildings were every child’s fantasy castle and village square, made real. The walls did, indeed, soar up to the skies. There were battlements and drawbridges and, like the interconnected towers of Asgard, covered walkways, as high as the 3rd and 4th floors of adjacent buildings. Through the dust-grimmed windows, the silhouettes of workers could be seen, pushing wheeled trundle carts of waste fabric to other parts of the complex. Almira would look up and imagine that they were dwarfs, condemned by lesser gods to labor all day and all night within the cold, dark buildings. That there would come a day when she might find herself in the time-honored, and much fabled role of the Princess-trapped-in-the-Castle Tower, watching the distant landscape for sign of rescue, never entered her mind. Such exile would be both bearable and intolerable. While many people enjoyed reading and, some found joy in learning. Almira Ristani was one who had a need to learn. To call her hunger for Knowledge, (and his misunderstood fraternal twin sister, Understanding), an ambition, was like calling Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No.3, a catchy tune. Almira knew that the world she saw around her was a shadow. Every waking moment, (and not a few dreaming hours), of her life was focused on trying to see that which created the shadow.

***

On this particular noon, the sky had been clear since dawn. Even through the thick wool coat, her strained back muscles un-knotted in the warmth radiating from the brick. A shadow appeared, and Almira Ristani looked up at the eclipse of the warm sun,

“What are you reading?”

Startled by the voice, as the only sounds had consisted of the earth-softened rumbling of the machinery inside the building, Almira pulled her coat more tightly around her. This was somewhat awkward, given that she used her heavy woolen coat like a vertical tent. Leaving the top 2 buttons undone, collar pulled up to her ears, her arms out of sleeves, she could hold her book inside this small personal space, and looking down, read the worn pages of the book.

Almira saw the blood-red crimson ribbon first, the very self-assured posture of a woman second, and finally, as her eyes adjusted to the bright sunlight, the remarkably animated face of Annie LoPizzo.

Instinctively sliding to the side of the alcove, the offer of a square of warm brick wall made clear, Almira put her arms back into the coat sleeves and held her hands protectively over her midsection, the book hidden beneath the heavy wool of her coat.

“Nothing,” Almira’s voice was shyly quiet and yet, there was something to this woman, an offer of enthusiasm, that seemed to encourage her to stare.

Settling down to Almira’s left, the friendly, bustling arrangement of cloaks and coats was interrupted with,

“Hi! I’m Annie, What’s your name?”

The woman, now comfortably pressed against the red brick wall, pulled out a somewhat over-sized, not-too-thick, but definitely worn, book from her left pocket and looked at Almira, with a questioning tilt of her eyes. Seeing the implied request for permission threw Almira a little off-balance, however she nodded her assent. The woman placed her book on the rectangle of ground, between the brown and the grey cloth of their overcoats. Almira watched as she then reached into her other pocket, took out an oblong shape, wrapped in paper, and placed it next to the book.

Looking down at the book, Almira read the title, ‘Woman in the Nineteenth Century’. A smile beginning to pull at the corners of her eyes, she reached into the front of her coat and brought out her own book, ‘Self-Reliance’ and set it down on her lap.

“What a lucky woman I am today!” Annie said with a serious expression, followed by heartfelt laughter.

*****

“Mr. Dietrich! What a surprise!”

Hunk always felt a secret pang of guilt at how he felt, whenever any of the young people who worked part-time at the Circe Free Library, called him by his last name. He looked up as he walked into the shadowed light of the library.

“Uh… hi, Becky” he managed, after quickly scanning the room for the presence of any adults.

“Aren’t you early?” Becky Stillworth was very short, had piercing blue eyes and despite the two-sizes-too-large sweater, a figure that seemed, somehow, out-of-place in a small town library. A straight ‘A’ student since grade school, Becky harbored the dream of becoming a physician. Her parents, who owned a small hardware and plumbing supply store on the farm-edge of town, were more down to earth. Being careful not to be negative or discouraging, they both were certain that she would grow out of it. For a small town girl from a family of modest means, the path into the future was well-worn, if not entirely smooth. It remained rough enough to allow for some excitement, when bouncing along it, at the speed of youth, sometimes catching glimpses of life outside of ‘the town, the farm, the family’. However, it was rutted deeply enough to steer, all but the most determined, to the life that their parents and grandparents before them lived. Becky did not recognize the deepening of the ruts, as most her age did not, her determination was providing a drive and momentum, that just might make her one of the exceptions.

Being asked a direct question made all the difference in how confident, and detached Hunk could remain. He was one of those people who felt most comfortable as an un-challenged observer, and so, his face began to flush, (as if he needed to signal those around him that he was now under pressure), his answer to the simple friendly question metastasized, from the simple explanation that he’d decided to not go back to his farm chores, to include the fact, that, while he did have certain responsibilities, he chose to make a decision to divert from the day’s plans, all of which, surely necessary to a proper response to the question. That the person asking the question was an attractive 16-year-old girl, now standing and looking at him with a patient expression that bordered on the affectionate, did little to help. Hunk then realized that he was still wearing his hat and, again looking around to see how many people might require an apology, he took it off and said,

“Well, yes, for part of what I need to do but, no, if you’re asking about my college courses. But then, it’s not winter, so you can’t be asking about that. Which means, am I early today….” his voice became quieter and less distinct, as if attempting to run and hide, all while being in plain sight.

Seeing the confusion on Hunk Dietrich’s face triggered an instinct that Becky was coming to realize was both incredibly powerful and, very possibly, irresistible. It was, without knowing how she knew, a part of her that she would need to learn to bring under control, if she was ever going to achieve what she hoped to achieve in life. She liked the tall, awkward man who stood uncomfortably in front of her, in the middle of a typically quiet June Summer afternoon. The high-ceiling room was conspicuously missing the small contingency of ambitious high school students, freed of the demands of the school year and, being only a little after one o’clock, it was too early for the older patrons. The cool of the early evening was the time that the Town Square would begin to show slow movements, as the old citizens of Circe, could be observed, encountering others of their kind, to talk about a world that they, inexplicably had become less and less important to, and with the coming night, they would fade into the growing shadows.

Hunk, oblivious to the concern on the face of the girl, completed his response,

“I’m supposed to meet someone, Dorothy… Dorothy Gale, to give her a ride home. She was supposed to be here, but I don’t see her.”

A look came over Becky Stillworth’s face, a look of disapproval, but it never quite took hold. Despite her age, Becky recognized infatuation when she saw it. Her own affection for the man trying to be worthy of those he thought his betters, over-rode her feeling for a certain one-time local celebrity. She did not like Dorothy Gale, during the one year they were both in the same school, and liked her even less, now that she had returned from College-Back-East. Walking around the Circulation Desk, and looking towards the front entrance she said,

“She was here a short time ago and stayed for about 15 minutes, but rushed out, saying something about being afraid that she might be late.” Becky felt the visceral thrill of deliberate cruelty and, though it carried a tinge of shame, she did nothing to stop herself,

“….and the last I saw of her, she was in the Town Square talking to Tom Hardesty.”

She felt Hunk Dietrich brush past her, as he walked quickly out of the Library, towards the park across the street.

*****

“Oh my!, look at the time! I’ve surely kept Hunk waiting for far too long! That will never do! Aunt Emily will be so cross!”

Dorothy stood up and, immediately sat back down as a cold wave of disorientation washed over her. Nothing changed, at least in terms of where she was, still seated in the plain wooden chair next to the bed of Almira Gulch, in the Charity Ward of St Mary’s Hospital.

But, unless the clock on the wall had picked the last few minutes to stop working, that was nearly two hours ago! Nurse Claire Griswold, who seemed to always be in the Ward, was nowhere to be seen!

Dorothy picked up her chair, and, somehow only then, noticed that it was now the only chair next to the bed. The waves of uncertainty again began to build in her mind. Without thinking, she turned back and carefully arranged the book and the sad little milky green, glass vase. She gently picked up the small photo of a very young boy, carefully oriented it towards the still silent and un-moving woman.

Smoothing out the worn, off-white sheet, just a little, Dorothy turned and walked down the aisle, out the double swinging doors and, this time without uncertainty, down the corridor and out the front entrance of the Hospital.

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