Short Story : Cotton Pride


I belong to generations of the pride of our land. As Uzbekistan became the world’s fifth largest exporter of cotton; making up at least two thirds of the country’s output, the lands started to get thirstier as the irrigation schemes from the Aral Sea started to break down.

The air is dry and reeks of sickness. The water is too salty and chemicals are gnawing at my roots.

The growth of the British cotton industry was phenomenal. I think that’s when the trade first begun. The revolution of cotton clothes came into play as new fibres on the market. Today, with the mass production of clothes—just check your labels on your t-shirts for 100% cotton, think twice about the painful process of arriving at the finished product and how many lives you have taken. A little hypocritical for me to comment so, when I’m being bathed in Agent Orange without suffering its side effects, as I am tenderly harvested and continually taken care of.

It would be easy to point fingers and shelf the blame, but it was definitely a culmination of factors that led imminent demise of the world’s fourth largest inland lake. I’m rooted here, with its wealth of history of problems and proud ancestors that boast our fruitful harvest. Our specie has been around for a long time, with a strong presence in Egypt and India. Our offsprings have continued to mark their presence in the lands.

I never got to see the fabled vast beautiful lake that the earlier generations remembered so clearly and spoke so fondly of. The parched earth is cracking from thirst and the winds carry messages of melancholy, with a tinge of toxic dust, a diluted wash of pesticides and chemicals. How much longer will it last? I will be kept alive for as long as the conditions allow my fellow friends and I to grow.

It is the time of the year again. I feel bloated and pregnant with my fruits. A few more days and they will burst open, revealing the virginal white cotton inside. The pickers are bracing themselves for arduous hard work to begin their picking sessions in these hectares of land. I’m starting to itch a little as the fruits on my arms ripen, but there is little I can do, except to wish for strong gusts of strong wind to help me out with the scratching. Sometimes, the wind gets too intense and some fruits get blown away.

I was left to remain here after the harvest, a little parched and weak. It gets a little tiring and boring just rooted here in the soil, without anything to do, or any interesting sights and characters to observe. Even animals like birds and squirrels are scarce in this region. It’s almost like a state steeped in negativity and bad aura- maybe like a devil’s plateau. Our plantation had given it some colours, but it was certainly not enough to spruce up the environment. Just shades of browns, white and green, a plain picture of the country’s breathing economy.

It is here I met Lucy, a little girl that ran barefoot over the desert plains daily with immeasurable hope and enthusiasm. Sometimes, she would come among us to take a peek at what was growing, playing with twigs and stones on the arid cracked earth. She would sing nursery rhymes and invent tunes or lyrics when she had forgotten the songs. A child bursting with curiosity for the world, trapped on a sick piece of land, and still singing songs of beauty and life. It was so lovely.

She would run freely like wild horses without a care in the world, humming to herself with childish sweetness. Occasionally, she thrashed about the plants. There weren’t any flowers along the way she could pick with the depressing landscape so she made do with twigs and made jewellery like bracelet chains as well as hair accessories, instead of daisy necklaces and bracelets other little girls were making on the other side of the world.

So, here we watched her grow up. When she grew a little older, she had stopped coming so frequently as she started to venture out further into the bleak vast lands with her father to look for sources of fish or any other life form to feed the family. Sometimes they walked for miles, barefoot. I looked on, squinting through the sun rise and sun sets as their silhouettes faded into the background of the bleak landscape, getting smaller and smaller, like a view from a pinhole. Other times, her father took her out on the decrepit three-wheel motorcycle, with a rusty side carriage coated with layers of yellow paint attached. Together, they towed along the boat with some difficulty, to travel out where remote signs of water still existed. It is difficult to imagine that the land that we now stand on was previously a luscious body of water, filled with vibrant marine life.

Her father was a hard man. He spoke little and grunted only to approve or disapprove of her actions. The lines on his face told stories of resilience and dwindling hope. Almost everyone in the region had left and moved to greener pastures, but he held on to the hope that perhaps, everything would return to how it was before. Glorious generations before him had left their mark on the once gorgeous landscape. He was too attached to the lands to leave.

I heard her repeated questions to her father. It was the same each time “how much longer before we reach?” they had to walk further and further each week to reach a water source. Her father wore the same shirt for weeks, greased stained and patch worked. Maybe there wasn’t enough clean water to be doing the laundry often.

His reply was always the same, in a tone of resignation as he maintained his optimism that life would get better, as long as one was patient. After all, good things come to those who wait and persevere. He spoke softly and gently and reminded her of the need to be prudent, as being loud and rash would scare away the potential prey for a good dinner. Catching some fish for dinner was rare and considered one of those better days.

He reminisces about how his own father told him stories about the Aral Sea, fish were in abundant and the fish markets were always full of people and all sorts of sea animals. He himself had never witness the wonderful scenes that his father described and he thought the better not to share it with his daughter. Some things are better left unsaid when there is no way to return to the vibrant past, despite his firm belief that to live is to hope.

I strained my ears each time to listen in to conversations to keep up with the events in this bleak state.

As Lucy grew older, she started to talk to us plants less. The childhood innocence of cherub cheeriness was now replaced by the worries of a moody young adult. Her visits became infrequent and I was burning with questions of the possibilities of the future and how she was coping with the desolate living conditions. I don’t know if it was some deep-seated anger against us as crops and if she saw us as the cause of all the misery of her lands. I watched her feet, previously vivacious and active, shuffling through the soil. Now, her bare feet looked tired, sad and completely disillusioned. Although those pair of formerly dainty feet was now cracked and weathered over the years.

I watched her degenerate in what seemed like years. The cracks on the soles of her feet became more obvious, she hardly wore a smile on her face these days and her eyes reeked of sadness; for the lands, for herself and for the generations of her family to come, if any at all, would have to endure the dreary future of nothingness. She picked up little stones and threw them. If only there were pools of water to skip the stones. In these dismal conditions, she merely threw them with all her might to create little dents in the soil, out of frustration of being trapped here or perhaps some other reasons that created the need for her to vent her anger.

One day, I peered below to look at her feet again. As I was growing a little taller over time, I had to strain my eyes to get a good look at the ground. I saw some fine white strings creeping out of those cracks in her feet. What they were I couldn’t be too sure and I couldn’t make out if there were dead skin cells from a blister, some thread from her clothes that attached itself to the dry scabs of skin, or was it really tiny roots, like the little feet I had when I was first introduced to the soil. Whatever that was coming out of her feet were tiny fine lines, a little like the roots of bean sprouts. Her footsteps started to drag longer, with a sense of weary heaviness. It was a strange phenomenon and none of us cotton plants had ever seen anything like that before.

Despite the worsening situation, she didn’t seem to give up hope. She was rooted to the past of this land and in that hope; she saw the purpose of rooting herself to her motherland. The little roots I saw growing on her feet starting extending itself. The other day, I saw her from a distance and I realized that the roots from the cracks of her feet had taken a grip on the soil and she had herself rooted to the grown, just like us, plants.

We heard her swearing as she reproached herself for going barefoot all the time, thinking that she might have picked up some diseases and viral bacteria through the years for them to manifest themselves as disgusting stringy roots.

She blamed herself for not moisturizing and cleaning her feet regularly. She started to regret the times she ran outside barefoot on and soil as she fiddled with the thin strands of strings that resembled thread but had an elastic quality about them. She struggled to try to pull them out of the cracked gaping slits in her feet and fell over. Sitting on the ground, she tugged and pulled. No matter how hard she tried, they wouldn’t break off or be removed.

She brought her foot towards her and examined the slits in her feet and mumbled intelligible sentences to herself. After calming herself down, she struggled to get up, but got a rude shock.

These little strings started to extend miraculously towards the ground. Startled by this, she took a step backwards and fell over. As she saw before her eyes the strings that started to grow like the tiny roots of the Bryophyllum plant’s leaves. She was stuck for minutes, and started to cry out of desperation to be released, but her foot just wouldn’t let her go. She used all her might to stamp her feet to release the gripping force on the soil, but to no avail. She couldn’t raise her feet off the ground.

The pores on her arms and legs started to enlarge and she saw some shades of green started to emerge on the pigment of her skin. And her tributaries of veins beneath her pale skin started to turn from bluish green to a light green shade, like that of a leaf’s veins.

It was a funny sight watching her struggle with what looked like shoelaces, only being laced on the underside of her feet. The biting dryness didn’t show any sign of her bleeding from the wounds and in a few hours I couldn’t see her feet. They were probably buried underground with what seemed like roots growing from the cracks of her sole. She stood there in the sunset, looking completely disheveled, shaking from back to forth, like a scarecrow given a new breath of life by a magician. Somehow, there was a sort of beauty in this and it made me smile. She looked beautiful, and in that I saw again the sweet young child she was before, so helpless, naïve and genuine.

The other cotton plants were laughing at the ludicrous sight and showed no sympathy. I tried to hush the rest of them, but who would have thought that plants had empathy for humans? I don’t know if it was their subtle revenge against man or well, plants don’t have a heart.

She stood there trembling till sunset. It grew dark and we couldn’t make out her silhouette in the pitch darkness. All we could hear was the howling wind and the occasional ‘tap tap’ of her clothes in blowing in the wind. I think she gave up hope, and maybe the will to live.

The next day at dawn, I saw the beautiful figure of Lucy again, with her long skirt flapping in the wind. However, this time silent and still with a new tinge of skin tone; darker and rougher, resembling a dark of a tree. A death of the old poisonous life into the new one she would learn to live.

So, Lucy joined the ranks of us, plantations. For better or worse, only time can tell. As with everything else, a life goes full circle.

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