I remember I was nine years old when Francois first left with Papa for his first shift at the Factory. Mama had not slept much that night. Instead, she had paced back and forth between the kitchen and the living room. She smoked and repeatedly glanced out of the window towards the red glow of the Factory which drowned out the early morning light.
I remember on that particular morning our breakfast had been cold. Mama had started it too early and cooked it hastily, such was the nervous state which she had been in. Francois was wide eyed and scared despite Papa's bold assurances that he was a man now, and the Factory would not hurt him, and I also remember that Mama hugged him and kissed him on the forehead as he stepped out of the front door, as if he was leaving for a very long journey from which he would never return.
After closing the door Mama stood with her back to me. I could hear her sniffling but she did not move. That was just as well, because I was suddenly gripped by a terrible, primordial fear: I did not want her to turn around. I did not want to see her face.
Even after the figures of Papa and Francois had faded into the shimmering furnace of the morning shift, me and Mama had remained frozen on the spot. She, standing there sniffling quietly, and me standing frozen in my irrational fear.
Just when I began to wonder if we would spend the entire day like this, Mama turned and looked right into my eyes. Her own eyes looked as if they had sunk inside her face, the eyelids covering them were red and puffy, her cheeks glistened with tears, and despite my own terror I still could not quite understand why she was so upset. Even more strangely, and for some reason I did not yet understand, I suddenly broke down and wept too, in deep shuddering sobs that knocked me to my knees, and I cried until I was wailing at the floor, with my tears dripping on the clay tiles. Even now I remember that the tear drops on the floor glistened from the glow of the morning fires that arced over the Factory in the distance.
As far as anyone knows the Factory has always been there. Its dark towering brick walls cast their shadows over the dusty old roofs of the village. It bathes the insides of our houses in a dark red glow. It sends out heat-waves that make the air of the village shimmer. It stands there fixed, like a brick and iron mountain, buzzing, hammering and fuming at night, shooting thick jets of smoke and fire up into the blackened sky in the daytime. Sometimes, if you stare close enough into the smoke and haze swirling over it you can make out dark machine-like shapes, giant cogs, tubes, the outlines of thick iron beams and many such other shapes protruding from below. They rise and hover for a moment on some fiery current, lazily swaying in long slow arcs, before slowly sinking back into the inferno.
All the men of the village are sent to work there as soon as they reach manhood, but none of them talk about the work they do - it's just their job, they say - and the women try not to bother them with too many questions in the evenings, when after the hard work that they've endured, the men just want to rest. Children sometimes disobey their parents and sneak up to the Factory walls, and those who touch the bricks come back with scarred palms, but that's all I had heard about what the factory was like up close: I had never been there myself, and was rather curious about what went on inside its walls.
I anxiously waited all day for Francois to return from his first day so he could tell me all about the Factory, but when he came back he was very quiet and sat close to Papa for the whole evening. Papa would not have approved of me questioning Francois directly about the Factory, so I kept quiet. Just before bedtime, Papa and Francois exchanged knowing looks. Papa walked up to Francois and, slowly but sturdily, patted his shoulder in an assuring gesture. I think he was grinning slightly, but that may have been my imagination, as Papa didn’t grin often. Then a few days later when I finally managed to ask Francois about what the Factory was like on the inside, he seemed indifferent, aloof, and said "oh, it's just work, I just work there like everyone else". I knew he was just trying to act all grown up now that he was a man and not make a big deal of it, but it also meant I was not going to get any more information from him.
All anyone openly says is that the Factory produces Anger in vast, concentrated quantities. Sometimes there are accidents: sometimes the Anger escapes for some reason and people are carried out of the blaze with their bodies writhing and spasming in terrible contortions, screaming and tearing at their faces with their hands. They are taken to the Mayor's manor, where they are treated with the special medicines that only the mayor has. The treatment must take a lot of time though, because when we do see them again it is after a very long while, and they seem like very different people by then. That is, most of them are cured - because there are a few, like widow Jacqueline's husband, who we never see again. Papa says that he runs into him in the Factory now and then, although I don't quite believe it, because Papa is just trying to act mature and responsible, and telling a little white lie so that the rest of us won't get scared.
Unfortunately I think that the Factory must have more leaks than people suspect, because sometimes Papa will come back home and he will shout and break things, and Mama gives me the signal to be very quiet and nice until the Anger on him thins and then Papa's voice cracks and he looks very sad and tired, and he hugs us and says he's sorry and Mama bakes extra food that day to let Papa know how much we love him.
Even sweet Francois found it very hard to stay unaffected by the Factory. Some days he would still be my older brother: He would come home and I would show him all the clothes I had sewn and tell him all about the vegetables that I had planted in the garden under the sun-bulbs. He would say well done and teach me how to read his old story books. One night, however, about a week after he started his work in the Factory, he came back in a livid rage. He stormed into the house, black from the soot and smoke, screaming orders for food at Mama, who sweetly reassured him that it would be ready in a minute. But Francois ran up to her and shoved her backwards with all his strength. He pushed so violently that she fell onto the lit stove, tearing her apron and scorching her back. Even though Papa was standing right next to Francois, he did not stop or scold him for his behavior. Instead he slowly walked past Mama and into the bathroom, splashing cold water from the sink onto his own blackened face and arms, wiping his large wet palms on the clean towels I had hung that morning, leaving dark streaks of soot on the fabric. By the time Papa came to sit at the table the meal was there waiting, and Francois seemed to have calmed down.
So far we have been lucky, Mama told me one day - other families in the village had suffered terribly at the hands of their men after their shifts at the Factory. Roberta's husband had picked up a hammer and smashed the side of their daughter's face, while Angeline's son had put his baby sister into the village baker's oven. Mama said that by the time the infant had been found the remains had been so badly burned that some parts had stuck onto the oven plates and they had to bring experts from the Mayor's manor to scrape them off with the special tools that only the mayor has.
I know that Papa and Francois love me and Mama very much, but many times I can't help but wonder what it will be like when that one day they come back from their shift so poisoned by the Factory that they can't hold it inside any longer and take it out on Mama and me. I will try to complain as little as possible of course, but I suppose I won't be able to stop from screaming or crying just a little bit. I will try to remember that they still are my Papa and my brother, and that they love me very much, from a place deep under the dark soot that covers them.
Perhaps knowing this may help the pain stop at my flesh and not reach down into my soul, because, most of all, I hope that my eyes never look the way Mama's eyes did on Francois' first day at the Factory. But in the end, I suppose, there's just no escaping some things: life is hard, and that's all there is to it.