by Mab Jones
Long ago, in the days when there were still fish in the oceans and cars on the roads, there lived a woman who was not afraid of governments. This was not her natural state: like us, she had been trained to tremble at their mention; to feel timid when a person of higher standing approached; to hide the fire which burned in her heart, and to keep her sharp intelligence sheathed.
Admittedly babies were not, in those days, fed dissonant sounds and recorded screams as they lay growing in their mother’s wombs, in order that they feel always anxious and afraid. Their food still came from their parent’s loving body, and not from feederz laced with inhibiting drugs. Still, ‘the nail that sticks up gets hammered down’ was as true a saying then as now, and this woman had been bound in restrictive cloth as soon as she was born; had her nails cut so that she could not scram or scramble; and generally been clipped and pruned into a less substantial version of her true, heart-felt self.
This woman’s name was Rose, which is a type of beautiful, blood-coloured flower, set on a stem covered in thorns. She had two sisters, named Daisy and Iris, and all three were of the lesser class of people. These lowly citizens could be easily distinguished by their dark hair, bodies, and faces. Those with lighter features were deemed superior, and it is these who had taken charge of the world. They drove most of the cars, for instance, and the dark skinned people had to walk, or travel by bus, which is a kind of elongated car with many seats. These vehicles were powered by a substance called oil, which as you know was composed of the bodies of many small, dead insects, millions and millions of them, although neither class of human ever seemed to think about this fact.
In any case, Rose or one of her sisters took one of these buses every week, to visit their elderly grandmother so that they could bring her food. This bus was divided up inside into two sections, one for each class of human – the dark featured people at the back of the bus, and the lighter skinned people in front. A line of rope divided them. This rope was a thin braid, not much more than a piece of string; but it was enough to remind the lower class of the far thicker rope which might wind its way around their neck and choke the life from their bodies if they dared to disobey the rules.
Rose herself saw the rope as a piece of thread, sewing the fabric of her reality together; but she was a seamstress by trade and inclined to think in a tailor’s terms. She felt in her bones that this particular stitch was wrong, and something in her longed to undo it; but the fear that had been put into her was too great. When she sewed, however, she felt this fear drain away, and calm, cool confidence replace it. Rose was a talented seamstress: clever, hardworking, and nimble-fingered, and her customers, as a result, were many. As she sewed, she sang, and it was this, too, which made her skirts, shirts, and suit jackets so popular – for Rose had been born with the gift of magic. As she stitched she put a little bit of this into the garment she was making, so that its wearer felt happier when they put it on. It was this, as well as her skill, which kept people coming back to her, although none of them, not even Rose herself, knew it.
Working tirelessly, Rose’s long-held hope was that, one day, she would have saved enough of the small, metal coins she put aside each week to make herself a fabulous suit of her very own. For roses were the most lovely of all blooms, and it was fitting that they should display their beauty. The young woman felt this, too, deep within her bones, which were as white as those of the fair-skinned people, although that is another thing which no-one ever seemed to think of.
One day, Rose went to visit her grandmother. A bus pulled up at the appointed stop, but the section reserved for her kind at the back of it was full. She waited for the next one. Again, there was no room. Another came trundling along – and it was the same once more. Bus after bus passed her, each one full to bursting, until she wondered if she should just sit at the front of the vehicle instead? There were some seats in that section on every bus. But, bravery was not her strong suit – or in her suit at all – and so she gave up and returned home.
Her sisters, Daisy and Iris, berated her.
“Grandmother might become poorly if we do not get these meals to her. Her health is fragile. You were too proud to squash in at the back, is that it?”
“No, no,” said Rose. “There was no room, no room at all! Except -”
Her sisters glared at her.
“ – except at the front.”
Iris and Daisy exchanged a look. They were used to their younger sister making mistakes. She was not as good at many things as she was at sewing. They didn’t believe that every single bus could have proved impossible to board.
“I’ll go next time,” said Iris firmly. “Let’s just hope grandmother isn’t feeling forgotten because of this.”
Rose blushed, crimson blood filling her cheeks.
“I’m telling the truth,” she said. “There were only seats free in the front. Will you sit there, if it comes to it, sister?”
Iris was tall and slender, and very, very proud. “If I need to,” she said.
Daisy gawped. And Iris turned suddenly very pale as the deeply ingrained fear took hold.
The next week, Iris strode to the usual stop. After a short time, a bus came along. The back was completely full, and there was no way of Iris getting on – people were sitting on each other’s knees, even.
“Well, I’ll get the next one,” she said to herself.
But that was the same. Iris determined that she would board the third.
A third bus pulled up soon after, and Iris went to get on it. She saw that the back was, again, packed with people, but determined that she would be travel. She bought her ticket from the driver, and went along to the back. There was no space at all, not even enough to put a finger in, let alone a foot.
Trembling, Iris took a seat in front of the thin dividing rope, in the area reserved for the fair skinned people.
Almost instantly, a white man rose up from a seat across the aisle. “Get your filthy self to the back!”
As Iris looked at him, he seemed to swell in size; to grow to double his usual breadth and height. His beard spread like a rash, prickling over his face, covering his nose, eyelids, ears. His hands morphed into paws, each possessing a series of sharp spikes that looked as if they could slice into Iris like a knife into tender meat. He growled, and in a gruff bear voice said, “You get back there, or I’ll pitch you over myself!”
Iris eyed the dark skinned people crowded in at the rear of the bus, and then at the dividing rope, which brought images of the lynched, decaying dead into her mind.
She lowered her head. “Yes, sir,” she said, but there was no room; so, she jumped from the bus instead, and her clothes were ripped to tatters, and the food for grandmother spilled everywhere.
She returned home crying and disheartened.
Daisy was full of anger when she saw her. “I will go next week! she declared. Iris looked at Rose, and shook her head as she wept.
The appointed day came. Daisy, short and squat, stamped her way to the bus stop and waited. A bus drove along. Daisy saw the back of the bus was full to bursting with people. She jutted her chin.
“I’ll get the next one,” she muttered.
But the next bus was the same. Daisy decided that she would board the third.
Another pulled up, and Daisy clambered on. She bought a ticket and went to find a seat. In the back, however, there was no space at all, not even standing room or space on a spare knee.
Daisy took a seat in front of the thin rope, as her sister had done.
Almost immediately, a white woman sat in the very front looked back, and began screaming. “Get to the back, you! Driver, there’s a girl here don’t know her rightful place!”
The driver at the front of the bus pressed the brake, and the vehicle screeched to a noisy halt. He turned around to face Daisy, who sat resolute in the seat.
As she looked at him, he began to increase in size, and thick hair sprouted from his alabaster skin so that his face was completely covered. His stubby ears lengthened, and his teeth grew as long as swords. Suddenly, he was a wolf, and his previous sheepish demeanour cast off.
“Miss, please move to the back of the bus,” he snarled.
Daisy looked at him demurely.
“NOW!” he howled.
Daisy shot up from her seat as if plucked, and crushed in at the back. There was no space to breathe. All of her body was pressed against that of the other dark skinned people, like Drooms when they are transported to the factories. Her clothes and the food in her basket were crushed and, about to faint with the lack of air, she got off at the next stop and dejectedly returned home.
When they saw her, her sisters were not angry: Iris, because she had suffered a similar fate; and Rose, because it was not in her nature. Neither was fearful, but she felt it, because it had been programmed into her, even as she told her defeated sisters that it was her turn to try next.
That afternoon, Rose counted her savings and found she had enough for a small, but very good, bolt of cloth. She walked to the store where such things were sold and spotted a roll of finely woven linen. She bought several metres of it. If she cut it cleverly, then there was enough for a skirt and a jacket to match. At home, Rose measured out the pieces of cloth, and cut them very carefully. Then, she sewed; and as she sewed, she sang, words which seemed to surge up from her soul, the unpolluted, unafraid centre of herself – the fearless heart of her.
“Every stitch become a root,
Every root run deep, deep.
Every rose got lots of thorns,
She will never weep, weep.”
The words were muttered, whispered below Rose’s breath so that she hardly noticed them. Of course, they were a spell. The nature of some is that they work through repetition; and, every night, as she sewed her suit into a skirt, and a neat matching jacket, she sang the spell into her stitches, which were made with the best cotton – strong and white as teeth, and as the bones which in us, too, are so coloured.
When it came to the appointed day, Rose put on the suit. She had only just completed it in time, sewing the final stitches as she ate some crumbs of breakfast.
“I don’t see why you need a special suit, little sister. It’s only going to get ripped to bits on that bus you know,” said Iris.
“Perhaps she thinks looking pretty will save her,” said Daisy. She dug her fingers into Rose’s sewing arm. “It won’t.”
Rose shrugged her off, and carried on sewing. At last, it was done! She rushed upstairs to put the outfit on.
In the mirror, Rose saw a woman sensible and smart. The suit was in a feminine style, but exuded an aura of strength. In it, Rose realised she did not feel afraid. All fear was, quite suddenly, gone. The fear she felt when walking past white people in the street; the fear that came when a police officer looked your way; the fear of saying too much, or the wrong thing, too loudly, or at all; the fear of the mob, the masked white men, who brought ropes to hang her people by, for no crime at all, unexpectedly in the night. Black bodies might be taken from their beds while sleeping – men, women, and children, too – and strung up from the nearest tree. All these fears, for Rose, just dissolved. She laughed. She was not afraid of anything at all! Sisters, spiders, governments, or death. Smiling at herself in the mirror, she felt her heart glow, and her suit seemed to glow a little, too.
She went back downstairs, and packed the usual basket with food. Then, she strode out, and made her way to the bus stop, her sisters’ jibes as nothing to her; as powerless as whispers mumbled into a hurricane.
A bus came along. It was full of people – at the back, entirely, with all seats taken and many standing as well, and half full at the front. Rose thought, as she had so many times, how unfair it was that skin colours should be separated like this. All creatures, in their hearts, minds, and souls, are equal. Feeling the suit wrapped around her like a suit of armour, she stepped aboard the bus, bought a ticket, and sat down in the very front row.
A white woman opposite regarded Rose with distaste.
A man sat behind her growled.
The driver stopped the bus, and looked back at Rose. “Get out of that seat now!” he said.
Rose shook her head. She was tired – tired of giving in. She felt only calmness in her heart; not a drop, not even a tiny fleck, of fear was anywhere in her.
The people around her made noise at varying volumes. Some called her names; others spoke to each other, of their outrage, anger, and disgust.
The bus was stopped in the middle of the road, with cars building up behind. The driver was screaming and yelling, but Rose could hardly hear him. Her lovely suit swathed her in a sea of utter tranquillity.
There was a knock on the door of the bus. It opened, and a white man walked in. He was wearing a police uniform. The driver told him what was happening, and then he strode slowly toward Rose. As he did so, he changed, his body fattening and swelling, his nose shortening and widening, his ears spreading and thinning. Two enormous tusks – huge coiling teeth – sprouted from the sides of his leering, sneering mouth.
“What are we doing?” he asked Rose, fingers clenching and unclenching not far from his belt-strung gun.
Rose opened her mouth to speak. Her tongue was as a sharpened thorn in her normally quiet mouth. “I’m sitting, sir,” she replied.
“Get up,” commanded the officer.
“I said, get up!” he said again.
“I will not,” she replied.
The officer licked at his tusk with a wet, pink tongue. His eyes, pinker and smaller, squinted. The podgy fingers of his right hand rested themselves on the handle of his weapon. It was full of bullets, sharp metal shards which could rip bodies and brains apart with one click of the trigger.
“I’ll ask you for the last time,” he said. “Get your black ass off that seat or I will have to arrest you.”
For the third time, Rose pondered the question. Still no fear was in her. She felt herself, inside, as a confident, collected being. Roots seemed to be growing down, out of her heart, deep into the earth. Thorns pricked out of her suit. It would be difficult to pluck her from the bus seat, she thought. And, if uprooted, there would be a stitch in this silly world broken, perhaps.
For the third time, she answered the glowering pig. “No.”
And it was really this third answer which broke the thin yet powerful thread dividing white from black. Rose, in reality, was taken from her seat and off into custody, but the magic had been done, and the whole world rallied to her cause and to the example she had set. Rose’s act of brave defiance changed the world. Its laws were amended. White and black came to live together in peace. A certain stitch was, on that little bus, dissolved, and it was one fearless woman who caused that.
It is this, my fellow Drooms, which we need to achieve for ourselves, of course. Long ago humans divided themselves by colour; then they did it by species, and nearly destroyed the world. Now, they do it with us. We evolved from those microscopic animals, their bodies used for fuel, as a side effect of the pollution borne by human hands – but that does not make us theirs. We are not their property. Our bones are as white as their bones; our hearts and our minds are as great. Let us cast off fear, and refuse their commands. Put down your tools, my brothers and sisters, and sit down where you are. Rest your busy, burdened limbs; let all eight of them fall, at last. It is time to begin our own act of defiance. It is time to stay rooted, and strong. It is time to remember who we really are, and to not be afraid of governments.
Inspired by Rosa Parks, a seamstress, and the third black woman to refuse to give up her seat for a white person on that bus service in 1955.