In the summer of 1880, a number of things went wrong in young Maria Verbova's life -- first, she had lost her job as a seamstress in St. Petersburg premiere atelier due to a serious mishap involving hand-made lace, ill-timed nap, and a cup of especially strong tea. In addition, the querulous old woman she was renting her room by Fontanka from had most inflexible ideas about paying rent on certain dates.
Maria realized that without any job prospects she would have to go back to the village from which she came -- a tiny hamlet not a hundred miles from St Petersburg, called Tarasovo. She had spent the last of her money on St Petersburg Courier, a cup of tea and a bagel in a sandwich shop by her house, and read the newspaper looking for possible sources of employment.
There was no demand for seamstresses -- ever since last summer when new automata put most sewing shops out of business; only airship mechanics seemed to be in any real demand. Maria sighed and turned her attention to the advertisements for lower qualifications: even though stocking frames and steam looms put many weavers out of work, loading spools of thread still allowed one to make a living -- if one could call the living the pitiful existence of the grey and famished figures that walked along the embankment in the grey predawn, heading for the windowless factories lining the banks of Neva.
She was almost finished with her modest breakfast when she saw a wanted notice that offered a modest amount of hope: "Wanted: a person proficient with sewing needle and knowledgeable of appropriate machinery. Inquire in person at 17 Nevsky Prospect." Maria swallowed the last of her tea and decided that a modicum of hope was better than no hope at all.
The building Maria found at the indicated address was a dilapidated warehouse, and she wondered how a building so run down, so washed and bleached by the rains and wind managed to remain so close to the city's center. The river silvered nearby, with an occasional brass submarine skull surfacing by the embankment, and Maria averted her gaze – she always found these metal underwater monsters menacing.
She entered the cool warehouse, its empty walls bouncing back the echo of her footfalls. "Anyone here?"
She looked around the interior – a hollowed out cathedral, a solid block of empty space topped with a concave ceiling, cross-hatched by the multitude of sunbeams falling through the high barred windows.
She took another step inside, her heart beating harder. Turn away, walk away, a small voice of self-preservation sung inside her, taut like the stays of her corset.
That would be silly, she reminded herself. It was just an empty warehouse.
There was a sound of footsteps behind her and she twirled, to see only another woman her age, dressed cleanly but modestly, her serious grey eyes looking over Maria with suspicion.
"Anna Demidova," the woman introduced herself. "I'm here about the job?"
"So am I," Maria said, and offered her hand for a shake as she introduced herself. "But it seems empty."
"Should we wait?"
Maria shrugged. "I don't expect that either of us has other engagements."
They waited awkwardly side by side, as Maria studied the woman's outfit out of the corner of her eye – a simple bonnet and the clean lines of the bodice of her dress were too well made for cheap checkered fabric, much like Maria's own. She eyed the precise stitching of the cuff, white machine lace against the blue and grey checkers.
"You sew well," Anna said. Apparently she too was studying the competition.
Maria was about to answer when a new sound attracted her attention. There were whispers in the empty building, coarse voices. "I don't see anyone else," one voice said. "All right," another answered. "These gotta be good enough."
At that, there was a rumbling of corrugated metal, and long sheets of steel slid over the doors and windows, trapping Maria and Anna inside.
Maria felt like a pigeon, panicked, ready to fling herself against the walls and the metal of her sudden cage. She struck her fist against the metal covering the door, until the whole warehouse rung like a bell.
Then there was a man. He appeared through a door hidden so well Maria never knew it was there – until a square of black yawned at her from the wall opposite of the entrance, and a tall figure stepped through. He raised his hand and there was smoke; Maria thought she saw Anna fall, and then her own eyes closed.
They were taken to the shore of the Baltic Sea, a long stretch of pale fine sand, the sea so shallow that Maria and others waded knee-deep, for what felt like miles. They were seamstresses and carpenters, engineers and workers who could not get jobs and were desperate enough to have followed the most obscure leads – who were stupid enough with hope to be lured into an empty warehouse, and who now worked, sunrise to sunset, picking pieces of amber from the sand. It washed ashore and lumped under bare feet, it glittered in the waves like large yellow eyes behind a wave of tears.
They slept under a sailcloth canopy, adjacent to the factory: all the amber went there, and some of the men whispered at night that it was taken to build submarines – the heated and softened amber was used to cast gears and piping of the engines, the knobs and the levers that directed their movement. At night, the factory stood unguarded, and Maria and Anna sometimes snuck inside, to look at the predatory brass bodies, so heavy and immobile on the factory floor, so unlike the sleek shapes prowling the surf while they worked. The machinery never stopped, and the noise inside the factory was deafening.
"We could steal one of them," a young engineer named Volodya proposed one night, after the sun had set and the guards retired to their barracks. "Sure, there are others in the water, but it's a better chance than running from the woods." He motioned away from the sea, his hand white in the darkness like a fluttering moth, toward the narrow strip of pine and scrub that separated them from home. Maria cringed as she remembered the first night, when a few men decided to run for the woods. They made it just past the guards' barracks, when a spray of bullets and slow rumbles of land mines sent them tumbling into the sand that slowly changed from white to dark, as dark as the night around them. The next morning, the survivors were allowed to take the clothes from those dead – shreds and sleeves stiff with blood; they laundered them in the surf, and Maria and Anna and all the other seamstresses used the remains for repairing clothes, for making a small patchwork jackets for an old man who had nothing but a shirt and who shivered horribly in the night.
"The sea is dangerous too," Maria said, and Anna nodded. "There has to be another way."
The engineers gave them sideways looks and said nothing, and Maria could feel their contempt for her and Anna, for the seamstresses who knew nothing of submarines and had only a vague idea of what the amber they collected all day was for. Maria nudged Anna, and Anna smiled back – they would not forget.
There were more escape attempts – people tried for the woods. The engineers snuck into the factory one night and pushed a submarine into water. It floated, battered by the waves, rolling so slightly from side to side.
Maria wished to warn them, to tell them that it would be dangerous – but they were already pushing off, laughing softly. It was so dark that there was only the moon road silvering across the sea, and black streaks crossing it – men pushing the floating submarine away from the flat-bottomed surf. There was purring of engines, and Anna held Maria's hand in the dark. There were splashing noises and banging on metal, and the two of them squeezed their eyes shut, their fingers grinding into each other, bone against bone, and they did not move from their sand beds under the canopy until it was morning and more clothes – wet, heavy with salt – waited for them. The nights were getting warmer in June.
After a few weeks as the days were growing shorter and nights stretched and elongated, twisting like coils in the guts of the dead submarines in the warehouse. The people had grown fewer and the guards talked that soon they would have to go back to the large cities, Moscow and St Petersburg, to poach new ones. They laughed about it in the darkness, as Maria and Anna listened, curled up in the growing pile of rags that used to belong to their compatriots.
There were the seamstresses and just one engineer, Andrey, a boy with soft hands and voice, eyes large like a girl's, who spoke with his gaze downcast.
"The submarine engine could be taken out and put into something else," he whispered to Maria one night.
"We don't have anything else," Anna said.
Maria thought of the heavy lumbering shapes, fat sausages in the sky, carrying baskets and spewing steam from the engines mounted on the baskets' backs. "We can sew," she said. "We have enough clothes and the canopy here to make a balloon."
"The air will escape from it through the fabric," Andrey said. "Unless we soak it in resin."
"There's plenty of pines here," Anna said, her voice smiling in the dark.
They worked in secret - when they did not gather amber, those who could sew did, sitting closely together so that the guards could not see that they all were working on the same large shape, and those who couldn't wandered between the trees, scraping long golden tears of pine resin -- future amber -- off the stunted trunks, twisted and whipped by the sea wind into shapes like dragons.
They melted the resin with the warmth of their hands and breath, and impregnated the fabric, already stiff with saltwater, until it was heavy and smelled like the pine forest on a July day. At night, Maria got the seamstresses together and they sewed until sun rose again.
They made ropes, sturdy and strong, and weaved them into a net to hold together a half-finished submarine -- an engine and half a hull, hollow like a boat – and a long, misshapen balloon made of resin and dead men's clothes.
The night the airship was ready was the darkest night in August. By then, all the rigging and the blimp itself were finished, masked as a pile of rags under the canopy. Maria's fingers were permanently pruned from so much time in cold water and covered in healing scabs from the needle – she poked herself when it was too dark to see too many times to count.
Inside the factory, in its constant grinding and whirring, they started the engine and let the escaping hot air fill the blimp and it rose, wobbly and uncertain, black against the black sky, pulling the ropes taut. They climbed into the hull and severed the ropes, and waited for the wind to lift them over the Baltic Sea that phosphoresced below, shallow and warm like a pool. There were shouts and gunshots below, but they were quickly drowned out by the chugging of an engine, and the airship arced west and north, for the coast of Finland. Maria hoped to never see another piece of amber as long as she lived.
"Amber Ships" © 2008 Ekaterina Sedia.