1 Short Story
by el barker
through the generations
It was simple, just a brown piece of cloth that had been on the body of a man as he was sold to a farmer in North Carolina in 1789. There was really nothing special about it at this point. It had originally been a shirt, but after many years his wife cut the shirt to make her husband a cloth to cover his head and neck from the burning sun. The man had to use it often but would sometimes lend it to others if he saw them in need. The color began to fade as the sun bleached it. His son watched as his parents worked themselves to the point of exhaustion. Every holiday his parents made sure to put smiles on. The love he felt from his parents had no measure. The cloth was handed down to the son when he started working in the fields. It went with him when he was sold to another farmer and married there.
The cloth had been worn down in many places from being tied and untied so many times, but the son just sewed a red patch on it and passed it onto his daughter. His daughter was sold as a maid to a rich man and his family. She used the cloth to keep her hair out of her face as she cleaned. She forced smiles on her face and tried to treat everyone politely. She felt like she had vinegar in her mouth but she forced a smile as she dusted and cleaned after the family. Eventually, she started to help other slaves escape. She snuck information and distracted masters as people ran for whatever freedom awaited them. The daughter was eventually freed after the man died and left in his will for all of his slaves to be released. A kind act to tie off a life of hatred.
The daughter brought the now greying cloth with her when she married. She and her husband established their house as a safe house. They worked hard to help people escape from their masters. Through searches and angry masters knocking down their door the family survived. Eventually, the girl passed it onto her son as a patch on a quilt filled with other scraps of clothing. Her son brought the quilt with him as he worked as an assistant to a historian. The boy worked hard and slept in a small room with nothing more than a bed and a box in it. The quilt kept him warm on the late winter nights where the fires and furnace did not reach his room. The historian taught the boy to read and write so he could do more complex work. The historian liked the boy and kept him employed until he died. The boy was left with nothing but what he had with him when the historian passed. Despite his vast knowledge, he began working on a farm and eventually married. The quilt was passed onto his son. His son watched as his father and mother worked long hours and got very little sleep in order to support their family. However, they still found reasons to smile and laugh even in their struggles. The son smiled as well and began to dance with the other kids just to see his dad’s face light up with pride.
The quilt was passed on through generations before the cloth was cut out and worn on the head of a female fighting for her right to vote in 1918. The quilt was so worn and tattered and she had heard stories of the grey piece of cloth with the red patch. Stories that told of her ancestors. She fought alongside women of all shapes and sizes as they bonded together for a common cause. When that cause was reached, the friendships she had formed with women of different races and ideals seemed to crack. The cloth followed her family as they moved to Oklahoma. It was sewn back into a quilt in 1930 as the entire family gathered under it to try to avoid the dust leaking in from windows and doors. The mother tried to fill every hole in the house but to no avail. Dust made its way through every single crack and breach. The quilt couldn’t mask the coughing coming from each member of the family. It couldn’t mask the cries and heart-wrenching coughs of the young baby. The quilt was left inside as the family buried their baby in the same dry parched earth that killed him.
It continued to pass through the family, eventually going along with a son to fight in the Second World War. He had heard the stories his grandmother told, the tales no one believed. That this cloth was originally used by his ancestors as they worked the fields as slaves. He told the same stories to his fellow soldiers, and they all wondered silently if they were just going to be stories someday or if they’d be lost to time. They all hoped they got the chance to see their families again but as bullets rained down upon them they felt fear mask hope. The quilt and the rest of his possessions were sent back in a box to his family. A letter of thanks and a box. The son did not come back. Part of the quilt was ripped due to the grief of his wife, left alone with her young children. The old cloth was not harmed and the wife stitched the quilt back together, determined to keep at least one thing of her husband’s. Her children continued to tell stories about their father and how brave he was.
Eventually, the cloth was cut out again and a child kept it in his pocket as he walked into a white school for the first time. He clutched it as he walked past protesters screaming words he couldn’t fully comprehend. He stared at the faces of angry men and women and wondered what could put so much hate in someone’s heart? He gave it to his older brother as he went to a sit-in and it stayed with him as he peacefully protested. He continued to protest in different ways but always peacefully. He never raised his voice to officers and just kept his head down as he sat where he was told he shouldn’t and marched with his brothers. The cloth was sent back to his parents when he was thrown in jail. His little brother passed it onto his daughter.
The cloth was passed through the family, each parent not knowing exactly what it was but knowing enough to not throw it away. It had been handkerchief, a quilt, a hair tie, and a symbol of hope throughout the years. It was now framed and hung in the hallway. It was just a dirty, patched, and stitched rag that held the history of a family in its fabric. A small boy looks at it every time he passes it and wonders when he will get to have it. His father had found it lying at the bottom of a moving box and had it appraised. When the boy found out it was over two hundred years old he was in awe. He’d never seen something two hundred years old before. The boy wonders what all the small cloth has seen. He wonders what it will still have to see. What hardships will it witness in the future? His mother told stories of her uncle keeping it on him while fighting for the rights her son now has. The cloth is over two centuries old and held together by small stitches and patches. It’s held together by the strength of this family and the hardships they have been through. It’s not certain how much of the cloth is still the original from the shirt but it has still been a part everything. Gathering dust on a wall is easily the most effortless situation the cloth has ever been through. It waits passively for it’s next chance to be worn in a seemingly unending fight.
I'm E.L. Barker. I was born and raised in Virginia for the full sixteen years of my life. I'm currently going to Spotswood High School but dream of going to Mary Baldwin University to Major in English. I've been writing and telling stories since I could hold a pen, though most are barely legible. I hope to continue having something meaningful to write about for the rest of my days.
Want to find out more about the writer behind the work?
Read EL's interview here.