The sky was charcoal black, the underside of the clouds having been greased up with the sooty excretions of the new and densely clustered factories below. The smell was unbelievable: a stench incomparable in its acrid tang that laced the back of the tongue and spoke of unwashed bodies, disparity, and the iron taste of money. To Anna, who had been born in the country before her parents got sick with the fever, it was a nightmare. She had been moved to live with her aunt on the edges of this steaming metropolis. She had made Anna bathe to get the stench of farm off of her and had bought her many white dresses, all of which Anna hated. They were too frilly, and the lace bit into her neck and scratched at her shoulders. They were too clean, clean with the promise of never going outside and running in the rain again. Her aunt burned her old clothes. That was the way of life in the city: fire and coal smoke. Anna's aunt was married to man who was in charge of the whole clustered conglomerate. He had greased back hair and a greasy smile and tombstone teeth that got blackened when he smoked. He looked like the factory he ran. Anna's aunt had a long nose that turned up at the end. She wore dresses with high collars and pulled her hair back tightly and had a habit of looking down at Anna without moving her chin. Anna stared out her dirt streaked window. It wasn't dirty from any natural cause she could see, it was just grimy. The edges of the window had become little pockets for ash and dirt to collect in, giving the view outside a dark vinaigrette border. Everything was dark, coated with the same charcoal grease as the underside of the clouds. The stones of the buildings were coated with it, and no amount of washing was able to take it away. A constant reminder of the tarnish that was growing on their greedy souls.
Anna's aunt and uncle lived in the upper stories of the building where her uncle made business deals with important people from the surrounding cities, or with men who had boats, or representatives from the colonies. The rooms where he met with these people were kept dusted and swept, providing a stark contrast to the fetid world outside with their impression of regality. In the streets below she couldn't see a single soul. The families that lived in the clustered area below, many stuffed into rooms much too small, all got up before the sun rose to start their day of work in her uncle's factories. Even the children. Even the young children. Even the sick and the old. Sometimes her uncle would ride through the slums in his carriage, and the workers would all doff their hats and stare at the ground in a show of docility. Anna wished she had someone to play with. In the high up rooms of her uncle and aunt's apartment she felt like a trapped bird. Some kind of caged curiousity: there she is, the bottled innocence and beauty of the human race. She wished she could see people in the streets, but her uncle got in a right fit if any of the workers misbehaved and Anna knew what happened to those who misbehaved. She had seen through her window a taskmaster whipping a teenager, the crowd around them obviously wishing to be anywhere but there, filled with the remorse that came from sharing an empathy with the teenager being beat but also a secret gladness that it was not oneself. Anna had asked her uncle about it and he'd told her that the teen had spoken disrespectfully to the taskmaster, whose name was Harold, and who shared the same uppity mustache and demeanor of her uncle. Harold was a favourite of her uncle's and was sometimes invited up to dinner. Anna didn't forget the beating. The memory plagued her mind, sticking to its edges like the coal soot to the cobblestones until the next time Harold dined with them, which was within a week. Anna had fidgeted all through the dinner until her aunt had told her to go to her room and Anna had burst out the question at Harold of what the teenager had done. Harold had looked startled and her uncle had dropped his fork at such audacity and her aunt had gasped. Her uncle stood up, his brow furrowed and dark like the charcoal streaked clouds but Harold had told him it was fine. He leaned forward on his elbows, cold blue eyes staring into hers, and told her that the teenager had sneezed at him when his back was turned. He sat back, adjusted his slightly stained cuffs, and allowed Anna's aunt to take her to her room while behind them Anna's uncle apologized for her rudeness, claiming it came from her country upbringing. Anna had sat in her room for a while, contemplating. It didn't make much sense. After all, her uncle ran a cotton mill, surely it was just the fibers in the air that had made the teenager sneeze. In the days when she had been living in the country, if she ever sneezed while her family was sheering the sheep her father or mother just told her to bless herself and went on with whatever they was doing. It was stupid, she decided, the way that ordinary men decided they should be treated like kings. As if they, and not the toiling human cogs or their great machines where the source of their fountains of wealth. They were kings over their small kingdoms of factories and poverty. Kingdoms at war for the best deals and farthest reach.
There was a figure outside her window, racing down the empty lane at breakneck speed, arms pinwheeling. From the height of her room, Anna couldn't make out much about them, only that they were a worker. They wore clothes darkened with the soot like so many cobbles. The youth continued to make a break for it, rounding a corner that Anna knew led to the tight, labyrinthine streets that eventually joined up with the green fields. She watched the figure running towards green and blue. She watched until they were out of sight. She watched through her vinaigrette window, wishing she was with them.