I remember the time when everyone had to wear red shirts.
It was a forced fashion, to be sure.
Heavy. Enslaving. Enchanting.
I remember watching the queen throw shirts on her sons and turn them into swans.
Wait. Was that how the story went?
Or was it that the king was a powerless ruler and his sons were using the queen to get shirts?
It’s so hard to retell stories about failed states and gangs. They rarely make any sense.
Anyways, there I was, standing at the street corner, watching it all unfold and that’s when everything went wrong.
In that place, you were either a shirt-wearer or a skin-lover. But if you were the latter, you hid in a hovel in the ground, never to feel the light of day or show your nakedness to the world.
The skin people lived apart from society and could do nothing but spin yarn every day with no one to sell it to. But without those red shirts, they lived. You’d never find a machete or a sword in a hovel because the skin-lovers found the blade of poverty infinitely more appealing.
I too had been a skin-lover. I had a daughter. We lived in a hovel. We were happy.
This is the story of a single mother and her little girl living in a world of shirts.
They tried as hard as they could to stay hidden, to stay out of the light, to stay whole.
But the shirt-wearers came to them. They built factories right outside their hovel.
The blue and white flag waved proudly in the sky. Super Mano Dura was in effect and all the 12-year old boys were in jail.
Then along came a bus.
I saw the violence that these sons of the queen committed to make shirts, and these sons saw me in return.
I took to flight.
Faster than wings on a swan, I flew away from that upside-down fairy-tale world, leaving my little girl behind.
Everyone knows that a child who wears a red shirt will not have a happy ending. But no one ever thinks about the eyewitness. They don’t really fall into the helper category.
From then on, I lived in the forest, far away from those shirt-lovers, or so I thought.
I did the only thing I knew how to do. I made yarn.
In fact, I made so much yarn that I was able to make a dress for my daughter. She was going to come live with me, you know, and her dress would be a light shade of pink.
A Quinceañera in the woods would be quite lovely, I thought.
The next day, a small, old woman came to the house. Her name was Indira. She wanted to make a trade – my yarn for her spinning.
The deal was easily made, and we set to work.
But Indira didn’t just want to help me make a pink dress. She wanted to teach me more. There is nothing better than knowing how to make shirts whiter than snow, she would say.
But I had had enough with shirts!
No, No, Indira replied. These are not like those red shirts. They’re not heavy, but light. Not enslaving, but freeing. Not enchanting, but life-giving. These were not gang shirts. But a new identity, yes that would come with the shirt. Everyone wears a shirt, she would say.
We talked while we spun. Sometimes a whole day would go by without even a second of silence. The process of clothing my daughter was not painful. Only the heart ached and longed.
Then, the day finally arrived!
But happy endings never come without striking a bargain first.
Coyote – $11,000 – daughter.
Well, that was a bad bargain.
Besides, it is better to travel by air. On the wings of a swan, I flew back to my old fairy tale land and brought my daughter back with me to the forest.
We were united again at last!
Our joy would not continue for long though.
There had been feathers in my daughter’s suitcase. Red, blood feathers.
I should have known! I should have checked!
She carried these feathers in her hands to school and eventually they turned into red shirts of their own.
Before I knew what had happened, my daughter disappeared.
Facebook – that postmodern magical object – became the mirror to the past. I found a picture of her putting on a red shirt. That’s when I knew I was too late.
Indira loved my daughter like she was her own.
The three of us – my daughter, Indira and myself – now spun and sewed together every day. She would tell us tales from her own mother land, and we would share tales from ours.
If my daughter did have feathers with her, she got rid of them long ago.
Now she wants to learn how to sew her own shirts, like Indira. But only the white ones.
Michelle Ami Reyes
Michelle Ami Reyes is a second generation Indian American author, speaker, and activist in Austin, TX. She is the vice president of the Asian American Christian Collaborative and the co-church planter of Hope Community Church. Her writings on race, culture, and justice have appeared at Christianity Today, ERLC, Missio Alliance, Faithfully Magazine, and Patheos, among other publications. She and her husband, Aaron, have two young kids aged five and two
Artwork: Rob Woodcox, Rising Star (Part 2)