The lint haunted me.
Inside the mill, lint sifted from above, dusted the machines, the floor, and us mill hands. It fell on our skin, in our hair. We tasted lint, we breathed lint. Eventually we became lint. We were lint people.
Lint fell in my earliest memory. I was lying in a basket behind Mama at her loom. Sunlight through high wavy glass turned the lint golden. Lifting my hands, I tried to catch the golden lint. The noise of the machines rose around me like a lullaby.
At lunch break, the woman who ran the loom next to Mama, said, “Seen your Sophie trying to clap today. She’s going to be a clever one.”
Mama embroidered the memory into me, since I was too little to remember. This one time she told it, she wheezed a laugh. She had missed a few days of work because she couldn’t catch her breath.
But we were all right, or so Mama told me. “I got enough set by until I get back to my loom.” She said this to keep me from worrying, but I worried anyway.
The mill was the center of our world. During my years in the rowdy one-room schoolhouse, where I was the best pupil, I missed the mill. Unlike school, the mill wasn’t full of children. All Winnsboro adults were there, except Preacher Robert, not that I missed him.
Mama kept taking off work because she couldn’t breathe. Getting out of bed and to the privy left her winded. I had to help her. The mill’s nurse, a hatchet-faced woman named Florence, said Mama had lint lung.
This was the fall of 1919 when I’d just turned eleven and Mama was a few months shy of 27. Although she and I never admitted it to each other, we feared she might not live through the winter, especially if cold got to her lungs.
In Winnsboro if you couldn’t work, you wouldn’t eat. Only family would take care of you, and because of what Mama had done with Preacher Robert, Mama’s family didn’t claim us.
Although the nine other Pelletiers in Winnsboro were blood, none spoke to Mama or me. When I saw another Pelletier on the street, they passed without a word. Even if they didn’t speak, folks knew we were related because of our hair the color of wheat. Sometimes the old man, who was my grandfather, would look at me through my same pale smoke eyes. I stared back. His second wife, Lucille would tug on his arm as if to remind him: I was a product of sin.
“Sophie, I don’t tell you this to hurt you,” Mama had said. “Promise you won’t be ashamed, but that’s what they call you. As if this was your fault.” She gave a saucy wink. “But they say plenty worse about me.”
I thanked her for telling me the truth and promised not be ashamed. Mama always told me the truth as she knew it. She had a rich imagination and could have made up stories to make me feel better, but she never did. She was honest with me, even when honesty hurt.
So in the winter of 1919, I had to leave school and go to work in the mill as a bobbin girl. I was lucky to get the job. Mama got misty-eyed the day I started.
I stood before the bureau’s mirror and tied my hair back in a scarf.
“Soon as I get on my feet, you’ll go back to school,” Mama said between coughs. She covered her mouth with a rag. She was coughing blood now. “You’re too smart to be leaving this early. I want better for you.”
I wiped her eyes with my flowered handkerchief. We both knew she wasn’t going to get well. Folks with lint lung never did. Like many another mill hand, my darling Mama would be carried from our boarding house in the coffin the mill provided.
“Don’t fret about my schooling,” I said. “I can read good and do numbers. Sometimes I forget the sevens in the multiplication tables, but I’ll work on them.”
Bobbin girl was the lowest rung on the mill’s ladder, but I loved working in the mill. I was doing something important. Of course, I had to please the supervisor and pay strict attention to what I was doing or my fingers could get pinched or worse my hair tangled in machinery and pulled out by its roots.
My job was to watch and wait until a bobbin was filled. Then I took the full one and replaced it with an empty. I had to stay focused. I couldn’t let my mind wander. Mr. Gentry, my supervisor, never had to yell at me that it was time. I could tell by the spindle’s sound. After Mama’s heartbeat, the spindle’s loud rhythm was my second sound. I was ready with an empty bobbin, so no time was lost.
If not for the little I got in my pay envelope and our sewing, I’m not sure what would have happened to Mama and me. Still my salary barely covered the boarding house for our room and meals.
As sick as she was, Mama took in sewing and, of course, she made things for me, lovely things. Mama believed in the power of creating. Dog-tired from a workday at the mill, she’d say, “I made beautiful cotton cloth today. Make something every day, Sophie. It’s the key to happiness.”
When Mama couldn’t sit up to sew, I took over her projects. I used her needles and thread and everything she had taught me about stitching darts and making buttonholes. The dresses I made for the mill women had to look as if Mama had sewn them. Anything less, and they would refuse to pay.
I started on the road to becoming a seamstress then, the only good that came from those months my mother took to die. One Saturday the end of October, she appeared to rally. After my half day at the mill, I returned to our room to find her sitting up in bed, the seam ripper in her hand. She was altering her best frock, the dusty rose with an intricate lace collar for me.
“Don’t do this.” I took the dress from her. “You’ll wear it in the spring.”
“Where I’m going, I won’t need anything,” she said dry-eyed and took the dress back. “It’s all I can leave you, my beauty.”
I found my face in the silvery bureau mirror, my eyes shining.
Folks often said how pretty I was or admired my dress or hat. When I received a compliment, sometimes other mill girls narrowed their eyes and threw me poison darts of jealousy. They wished bad would come to me, as if being born out of wedlock in Winnsboro, South Carolina wasn’t bad enough.
“Self-pity stinks.” Mama liked to say, so we didn’t dwell on what we could not change.
Like the fact that Preacher Robert Hall was my papa. He had confessed me to the congregation. He told them he had yielded to temptation and lain with Mama. I bet no one fell asleep during that sermon. Not that I was there. His confession took place when I was still inside Mama.
Mama told me about it before I started school. “Kids may say something about your father.”
We were sitting on a log in the clearing not far from town. The clean sap smell of loblolly pines surrounded us. The clearing was our quiet place away from the noisy boarding house.
“A con-fess-shun,” I repeated not sure I had seen the word in Grimm’s or our Bible. But I had heard it said of criminals.
Mama told me how Preacher Robert cried before the congregation and said he wasn’t worthy to be their pastor. “He put on a real show. I was sitting right there in church, folks shrinking back from me.”
“But he’s still pastor.” I always believed Mama, but I could not believe this man was my father. I didn’t like him.
Mama laughed without sounding happy. “Those good Christian women forgave Robert Hall. Your father is a smooth-talking handsome man. I became the Jezebel. Stay clear of men like him, Sophie.”
Mama said even Mr. Watson, the mill owner, who paid for the church and the preacher, wanted Robert Hall to stay on as pastor. Eventually I figured out why. Every Sunday Robert Hall preached the mill gospel: the mill hand’s Christian duty was to work hard and not question the way the mill was run. Satan and unions were in cahoots.
During my days sitting beside Mama on the back left pew, the spot closest to the door, I learned how many Bible verses have to do with being a good and faithful servant. Preacher Robert found them all and pounded on them every Sunday.
Aunt Mildred and I stood in a corner of the cemetery beneath a sheltering magnolia, its green pointed leaves glossy with rain. Overhead the sky was low and muddy. The rest of the mourners, as Preacher Robert called the fifteen mill hands and their young ones who had come to Mama’s service, hurried back inside the church for sandwiches and hot cider.
For the service, Preacher Robert’s wife, short and wide with long black bristles sprouting from her facial warts, sat in the front pew near me. How I hated sitting close to the pulpit and this man who had fathered me. His wife, who owned a dairy, kept her eyes on her husband as if daring him to say something kind about my mother. I don’t think he ever did, not that I listened hard.
Unlike my job as bobbin girl where I concentrated with all my might, I did the opposite during Preacher Robert’s sermons. Unchaining my mind, I wandered through fields of lavender. Mama and I had found such a field on one of our Sunday afternoon walks.
We picked the sweet-smelling purple stems, dried them, and filled sachets with them. One whiff of a sachet brought back that sunny afternoon. Why couldn’t our lives have had more lavender afternoons?
A few weeks before Mama got too weak to talk, she whispered, “I talked to Mildred about taking you in. She’s considering, but she’s worried about her reputation. Not because of you, but me, what I done.”Mama stayed in this world as long as she did, waiting on Mildred’s decision, which never came.
My future at the Winnsboro Cotton Mill was in the hands of this squat woman with dishwater-colored hair standing beside Mama’s grave with me. Aunt Mildred’s rosy complexion gave an inkling of how lovely she must have been when she captured the heart of Rubin Sauls. A mill driver, he was crushed to death last year changing a tire when the jack slipped.
In addition to the pine box and cemetery plot, Mr. Watson gave Mildred’s son, Andrew, a job at the mill.
I stayed close to Aunt Mildred, who was not a blood relation, only a friend of Mama’s or so we hoped. During the funeral and burial, I kept hoping I wouldn’t have to ask her, hoping she would invite me to stay with her.
She raised her head. I stooped to hear her over the rain. Maybe this was it. Her eyes cut to the church door and the tail of Reverend Robert’s black jacket flapping in the wind as he took himself inside. “You need to know about your mama, Sophie.” Her cupid bow lips puckered as if she tasted something sour. “Grace didn’t show good judgment. When you’re older, I’ll tell you what I mean.”
I knew what she meant. Mama kept no secrets from me, but Mama’s sins were passed. I was worried about me.
Mrs. Mac said a girl my age couldn’t live alone at the boardinghouse. “I wish I could let you stay, Sophie, but I can’t.”
Mrs. Mac had always been kind to Mama and me when others hadn’t, so I didn’t beg her. Nor did I ask her what would happen to me if no one took me in. I’d be sent to the orphanage outside Columbia, where I would be with other kids no one wanted. Where there was no mill, no looms, and no bobbins to replace.
“Aunt Mildred,” I said. “If you let me live with ya’ll, I promise to mind you and work real hard. I’ll pay you the same amount I gave Mrs. Mac, too.”
She brought her hand to the back of my neck and lowered my face to hers. “You’re such a pretty thing.” Her tiny blue eyes scoured me. “Too pretty. You could be trouble.” She let go. The rain picked up. “We best go in before we drown.”
I stood holding my breath, rain washing down my back. I wanted her decision. Like all mill hands, Mildred had little power over her own life, so when she was given power over another, she wanted to enjoy it as long as possible.
“I’ll be in directly.”
Once she turned away, I took the tiny pine sapling from my burlap bag, squatted beside Mama’s grave, and dug out a hole in the wet earth with my hand. I planted the sapling just as Cinderella’s real mother had told her to do.
In the fairy tale, whenever Cinderella wanted something, she was to shake the tree and her mother in heaven would make sure her wish came true. This was only a fairy tale and childish of me, but still I shook the sapling gently, not wanting to uproot it.
In the too warm church with fogged over windows, I saw Aunt Mildred and Preacher Robert, heads close, near the table that held the pitcher of hot cider. Once in a while one or the other looked in my direction. I never wanted anything from my father before, but I would be glad if he convinced Mildred to take me in.
Besides, it would look bad for him if I was sent to the orphanage, since he was my father.
After every crumb of food was eaten, and folks filed out, Aunt Mildred called to her son. “Andrew, walk Sophie to Mrs. Mac’s. Help her carry her things to our house.”
Heat rushed to my face, and a smidgen of happiness to my soul. I bent to put down the plate of leftover cake I was carrying to Mrs. Mac and walked over to Aunt Mildred to hug her.
In a low voice, Aunt Mildred said to me, “We’ll see if this works out, you living with us. If it don’t, you’ll have to pack up and be on your way.”
“I understand.” I looked into her eyes hard as marbles. What I understood: the only person who cared about me was in the ground beneath the wide magnolia.
Later Andrew carried my trunk down Congress Street. I walked at his side, lugging two carpet bags. All I owned in the world, some clothes, our two books and Mama’s few things. The rain turned to cold drizzle.
Further along, Andrew paused to get a better grip on the trunk. With a shake of his head, he swept his thick dark hair back from his eyes. Plenty of mill girls were sweet on Andrew Sauls with his lanky frame, gorgeous hair, and stormy blue eyes. But already the mill showed in his shoulders rounded from lifting bolts of cloth all day.
The mill bent our bodies to its machines and turned us old early.
Hip cocked, Andrew said, “Last thing we need is another mouth to feed.”
I could tell by his eyes, harder even than his mother’s, and the deep flush rising into his cheeks that he was angry.
We walked along. Fog thick as cotton batting rose around us.
I hugged my bags to my chest. “I’m doing your family a favor moving in.”
His stare scalded me. “How do you figure that, Sophie Pelletier?”
“Ya’ll would have to move to a smaller house if you didn’t have another mill hand living with you.” I kept on walking.
Mr. Watson gave mill hands reduced rent, stipulating that for each bedroom, one member of the family had to work in the mill. Recently Mildred’s oldest, Ruby, had married one of the mill’s mechanics and moved out, which left the Sauls with three bedrooms and only two mill hands.
Andrew ran to catch up. “All righty, Sophie. You got me. But don’t expect me to kiss your feet for coming under our roof.” His color receded.
“If you did, you’d get awful dirty, Andrew.” We both looked at my shoes heavy with cemetery mud.
For some reason this struck him funny, and he laughed. I laughed, too. We were in front of his I-shaped house, its white paint peeling and yard full of chickens pecking at the mud. Smoke rose from the chimney like a rope flung from heaven.
I thought the word: home and felt a flutter in my chest, that place where hope is born.
A strand of hair had fallen over my face. He reached over and brushed it away. “I think I might like having you around, Sophie Pelletier.”
We were standing close, smiling when I saw beyond him to a dark face in the kitchen window, Aunt Mildred.
Later that night she handed me a rolled pallet and told me I would sleep in the pantry. I thought I would be sharing a room with her two girls.
“Here’s your lantern. Don’t leave it on long,” She handed it to me and went to stand in the pantry door.
I had washed up at the pump outside, where I became so cold I got goose bumps before I could get my nightdress on. I liked that feeling of clean before going to bed.
“My Andrew’s going to make something of his self. Walt’s training him to be a mechanic.” She cut her eyes at me. “If you have designs on him, you best go on off to the orphanage.”
This would become a pattern. Every time I did anything she didn’t like, she threatened to send me away. And I would do plenty that angered her. To be honest, I wasn’t used to housework. I’d spent my life in a boarding house and knew nothing about taking care of chickens, laundering sheets, scrubbing out crusty pots and pans. I never pleased Mildred Sauls. So I was glad for my long day in the mill, where I pleased the overseer, who soon promoted me to a spindle.
And even gladder for the library that opened on the top floor of town hall the next spring. I got a library card, checked out 3 books a week, the most they would let a patron check out. I liked the way Miss Judy Roy, the librarian, called me a patron and always remembered my favorite authors. “I saved you this,” she said and handed me Jo’s Boys by Louisa May Alcott. She also never minded when I stayed and read at one of their tables.
“Sophie, it’s time,” she’d say when she had to close up.
Before returning to the Sauls, I often went to the cemetery and stroked the needles on the tiny loblolly pine on Mama’s grave. It grew taller and wider, and that gave me hope. Things changed.
Unlike Cinderella, I had no claims on the Sauls’ house. To them, I would always be a boarder, but I never gave Mildred Sauls reason to suspect me of an interest in Andrew. He was her favorite child. And if she thought he cared a whit about me, she would send me off.
That first night under their roof, I settled on my pallet with Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the lantern on the shelf above me. This was that thin slice of day I had loved to share with Mama. Eventually I cut down the lantern.
In the pantry’s deep darkness, a line of light shone under the door. While I read, a hush had come over the world. I tiptoed into the kitchen to the window above the sink. Outside the rain had turned to snow and was falling from above like lint.
Ellen Herbert’s short stories have won a PEN Fiction Prize and a Virginia Fiction Fellowship. Her novel, THE LAST GOVERNMENT GIRL, was published in 2015 and is the winner of the Maryland Writer’s Best Novel Award. One of her short stories was read on NPR, and her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Sonora Review, and other literary magazines.
© 2019, Ellen Herbert
2 comments on “The Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, by Ellen Herbert”
Thank you Ms. Herbert for this tender, beautiful tale about love and loss, about myriad human emotions and behavior. In my mind and in my heart, Sophie would grow up and out of her impossible circumstances; her mother’s great love made sure of that.