Dancing as they Drop, Singing as they Burn

By Elizabeth Kendall

Frayed threads hang from the hem of her pale pink dress. In the waking hours, her pupils move slowly around the room, scanning the rows of machines and the girls in dresses tending to the piles of shirts. It’s a struggle of needles, hands, hair, clocks, touch, push, pull, grab, shove. She dies at sixteen. Leaping from a window to escape the flames engulfing the other immigrant girls, the Italian Catholics and Russian Jews. They burn among the scraps of cloth and thread. The wooden tables and floorboards alight. The eighth floor where the doors are locked and the elevator succumbs to the weight of dying girls and young women. As she stands on the granite ledge of the window, a growing city surrounds her, staring back at its immigrant worker.

She will not know that her death brought building codes, fair wages and an end to child labor. She will not remember that the doors were locked because the immigrant women could not be trusted. She will not remember the sacrifice or pain. She dies leaping and falling, crashing into the concrete sidewalk, her last images of distant clouds and close buildings. Faces glued to windows, men in black below. A far-away sun shines upon fire hoses intertwined with screaming families. Her weightless skirt rises, lifts, rises, lifts. The crowd is there to watch her. To watch the falling girls, dancing as they drop.

New York City, 1911.

The sequins on her sari have fallen off. The cloth is faded and pinned to her shoulder to avoid the machines, like the other girls’, washed out golds and oranges, greens and violets milling back and forth. She works as long as she can to pay for the food and medicine for the youngest and oldest. She sews the hems and sleeves of garments to be sold along the American coasts, across the heartland. She dies at sixteen. Huddled behind boxes of cloth with other young men and women working for a wage on the second floor where the exits are too narrow to escape, the windows locked. When the flames arrive, she finds the farthest corner, singing along with the screaming, a growing world surrounds her, staring back at its worker.

She will not remember her want for increased pay, the attention she paid to her hours and wages. She will remember her blood on our clothes. She will remember her label, ‘Made in Bangladesh.’ She will remember her sisters, ‘Made in China’, ‘Made in India,’ ‘Made in Malaysia.’ She is the forgotten nylon tag. Far-away eyes shine upon fire hoses intertwined with screaming families. She was recognizable at dawn, unrecognizable at dusk. She screams as they burn, she sings as she burns.

Dhaka, Bangladesh, 2012.

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Elizabeth Kendall is in her final year at Saint Michael’s College in Burlington, Vermont. Her work has previously been featured in So Little Time: Words and Images for a World in Climate Crisis and the Crux Literary Journal.

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