What Does the Cotton Say?

clematis-vitalba-99887_640Recently, I was inspired to write a short story. It’s been a long time since I’ve written one, yet whenever I do, it’s something I tend to enjoy quite a bit. The purpose for it was actually a contest in which participants were encouraged to tell a story with the intention of sending a message out to the world. Or otherwise put, if you could broadcast any message to a wide audience, what would it be?

One of the things that I’ve really had a fascination with over the past few years has been the concept of life’s purpose, and finding out what our life purpose might be. In this particular case, I’ve taken the concept and turned it on its ear, so to speak, as the point of view is that of an inanimate object. I started out with the notion that many traditional societies like the Japanese, or tribal ones in Africa, hold animistic beliefs where it’s maintained that even inanimate, and sometimes even non-living things (like mountains, or rivers) have a spirit, or spirits dwelling in them. So I wondered, what it would be like, if a cotton plant had such a spirit, that were able to express itself and experience human emotion, what would it be like to undergo the transformation from raw fiber, to sewn garment, and everything that would follow? The setting is reflective of my interest in fashion and design. I’m sure that I would have been a clothing designer in another life, so the context of the story world I created resonated well with me. At first, I thought the story was a bit short at 2,100 words, and I considered numerous times to extend it by adding a little more detail, descriptions, and even a few in-between steps, but each time I read it, I change my mind and figure that it stands fairly well on its own without additions. Maybe I’ll eventually change my mind and do that, but for the time being, I present it here in its original length and format.

Of course, this story requires a firm suspension of disbelief, but I really did try to put myself in this rather unique place as I envisioned what this kami, or spirit, might see, feel, experience, think, and undergo, and how those experiences would colour its conception of its life purpose. More importantly, how would those thoughts and feelings change over time, and given that it had absolutely no control or say over what happened to it? It even evoked some questions of my own about how much say we have in our own life’s purpose, because of, or perhaps in spite of, our daily experiences.


I’ve been asked to tell my story, in the hopes of leaving something that might make an impression or impact in someone’s life. Whether or not that will happen is a whole other matter, but I will do my best to make people understand some of the significant turning points in my life.

I suppose it’s only fair that I should start at the very beginning. Having such recollections from a very young age, they say, is rare. But I do have those memories and in some ways I can’t understand how I wouldn’t remember those origins of when I was still a boll, protecting the seed of the shrub. Perhaps it surprises you to hear of such sentience from the cellulose fibers of a cotton plant, but let me assure you that there is nothing unusual about it. After all, many cultures, like the Japanese believe that kami, or spirits, inhabit all things in nature, from the trees, to the mountains, and are present as the gods of the earth, the sun, and of the sea. If only people knew about us, I wonder if it would change the way the world is now? In any event, my earliest recollections are of the warmth of the sun, and the cool rains of early autumn, and the soft, nimble fingers of the young, Chinese girl who removed me from the shrub. She could not hear my yells of protest, and almost in an instant I found myself plunged into darkness — something I wouldn’t learn until much later on, is the way I would spend much of my life. But for that day, it wasn’t long until I found myself in the company of hundreds, and even thousands of other bolls of fiber, stuffed into a rough, brown, burlap sack. Then, as the end of the day neared, I was compressed into a rather large bale, placed on a scale, and once again, plunged into darkness.

When I woke up, I was in what’s called an opening room. This is where the bale was cut open, spilling thousands of us onto the floor. Quickly, a worker gathered us up and stuffed us into a machine called a cotton gin, a machine that finally separated me from the cotton seed I had been protecting since my earliest recollection. Words cannot express the sense of loss and devastation when you are faced with the reality that your life’s purpose — your reason for being, has been stripped from you, and with such speed and efficiency that’s nothing short of shocking. My entire life until this point had been spent believing that my job was to protect the seed of a cotton shrub, by any means necessary — a job that I just failed at miserably.

The pain of losing my life’s purpose was still fresh in me as I was spun into a very fine thread and wound tightly onto a very large spool. Before long, I found myself wound onto a shuttle, zipping back and forth very quickly, over and under myself. It was extremely confusing. In a matter of hours I had been woven ever so tightly into a fine, smooth fabric. I still had no idea why anyone would do such a thing to me, and my lost life’s purpose still flashed vividly before me. Before I had any more time to grapple with it however, I was plunged into a scalding hot bath, and when I emerged, I was no longer white, but a brilliant, scarlet red. No sooner was I dry when once again, I was plunged into darkness, except this time, it seemed like forever!

I couldn’t say whether it was days, weeks, or months that elapsed. All I know is that when I finally emerged into the sunlight, I was in a completely different place. The air smelled different; the people looked different. They sounded different. Before they were speaking Mandarin Chinese, and now, all I could hear was Italian. In spite of all my time alone in darkness, I was still lost for my life’s purpose… It had been taken away from me. Stripped away forcibly, really. And yet — here I was. Still sentient. Still there. Still me. Is it possible to exist without a life’s purpose? Then it started to dawn on me, that maybe my life purpose was something else. Maybe protecting the seed of a cotton plant was not where I was destined to be. And as these ideas swirled through my spirit, I was being measured, marked with chalk, cut, and sewed using a very noisy machine. Finally, after what seemed like days, it was all over, and the machines fell silent. I had a new form, but no idea what. I felt myself being folded neatly by skilful hands. But then, again — darkness!

When the box opened, I could hear and feel the pulsing rhythm of a beat. There was a swirl of activity around me. Dozens of people milled about me, and Italian was replaced by English. Finally, I was picked up, and draped over a very beautiful woman. She looked amazing, and even smelled nice! And this was when everything finally clicked into place. I had been made into a lovely, long, flowing dress. That was it! That had to be it! My life’s purpose was to clothe this amazingly beautiful woman! And I was thrilled. What an end to such a long, bewildering journey. I felt another set of hands shifting me about, pinning me in places, tucking bits of me here and there, and then I started to move. The beautiful woman was walking! And as she did, I found myself swishing and swaying to the rhythm of the music… And all of a sudden… Flashes everywhere! The woman walked atop a long, narrow platform, while all around her, a crowd of hundreds of people, many with cameras, snapped pictures. The music was louder than ever. When she finally reached the end of the platform, she stopped, turned quickly, and returned the way she came. I felt so proud, swishing and swaying with her every step, to the time of the music. The beautiful woman came back out onto the platform a few minutes later, but this time, I realized that I wasn’t the only one there. Surrounding me, were other astounding dresses, in all different varieties of colors, patterns, and textures. I wondered if they also knew what was happening to them like I did. A short, grey-haired man appeared on the stage, took a bow, and as he did, the hundreds of people started applauding. They applauded and cheered for a long time, too.

I was so relieved! I had found my life’s purpose. I was happy, and barely realized that I was being folded once again, and put into a dark, lightless box. The next time I was brought into the light, things were quiet. There was no music, almost no people, and the beautiful woman was nowhere to be found. “No problem,” I thought to myself. She will come shortly and put me on. But that never happened. A strange set of hands attached a tag to me and put me on a hanger, with all kinds of other dresses, some of which I recognized from the fashion show, but others I didn’t. With every passing day, my hope of seeing the beautiful woman again faded, just like my reason for being. Was I wrong? How could it be that my reason for existing was so misguided? Over the next weeks, dozens of women put me on. But only for a minute or two, in front of a mirror, and then putting me back on the hanger. None were quite as beautiful as the first woman, though. Finally, I was eventually sold to a rather plain-looking woman, who took me to her home, where I was hung up in a closet with dozens and dozens of other dresses. It was incredibly boring! I think I spent several years there, but my ability to gauge time is not so accurate. Every now and then, this plain woman would take me out, wear me for a while, and then put me back. I remember being washed a few times too when I started to smell, but it was a very different experience than the first one I had with the beautiful woman. Don’t get me wrong, this woman was pretty too, but I can’t help but get the sense that she didn’t really connect with me on a deeper level. I didn’t get the sense that I was loved. I was just another dress in the closet. It was too good to be true. I guess my life’s purpose was to help clothe a plain woman, along with many other dresses. It was probably that lack of love and caring that disturbed me most, and made my days long with melancholy.

Years passed, and one day, I was forcibly removed from my home on the hanger in the closet. Excitement was quickly replaced by fear as I was unceremoniously stuffed into a box that was taped shut, and once again I was in darkness. I can’t really describe the details of this latest journey, but I do remember that when I emerged from the box, I felt an air of familiarity. There was something that I had experienced before, and yet, it was different. It was almost like being back in the Italian design studio, but this time, the room was far smaller, the air was a lot hotter, had a bit of a pungent smell to it, and the voices were speaking Thai. The next thing I knew, I was being cut into pieces by scissors! “No! Stop! What are you doing?” I screamed. But the tailor didn’t hear me. “My purpose is to be a dress,” I yelled, to no avail. I spent the next couple days in disarray and confusion as I was cut some more and sewn into a very unusual, seemingly weird shape. I couldn’t comprehend why my life’s purpose kept getting destroyed, over and over again.

Hot, sticky, smelly air, stacks and stacks of fabric and clothing, and hundreds of people milling about at an outdoor market. Some voices were Thai, but others were English, Italian, Chinese, and many others as well. I felt like I did in the New York shop, but this was still different. Weeks passed. Then, finally, one day, a couple of people stopped to look at me — a man and a woman. Much to my shock, it wasn’t the woman who picked me up, but the man. The next thing I knew, I was being put on by the man. This was very bewildering to me, because until now I had only ever been worn by women. And being worn by a man felt somewhat… well, different. Not in an unpleasant way, but certainly the shape of his body was unlike anything I had experienced before. He couldn’t have been any more different than the beautiful model at the fashion show, or the woman who wore me after that. But that was okay. I realized that I was different too! I was no longer a dress, but a pair of Thai fisherman’s pants. It’s no wonder that I was confused.

I went home with the man who tried me on. Again, I went through a cycle of being worn and put into a dark closet with many other clothes. But this time it seemed different. There was something about this man that was very unlike the woman in New York. He really seemed to love all of the clothes he owned, including me. I was made to feel special each and every time he wore me, even though it wasn’t as often as I would have hoped. And yet, that was okay. Once again I felt that my existence had a purpose, and that purpose was clearer than it had ever been before. I realized that it didn’t matter whether I was a dress, or a pair of pants, or even if this man were to transform me into something completely different someday. It didn’t matter where I was — New York, Italy, China, Thailand… It didn’t matter that I was worn by a man or a woman. The only thing that mattered was the sense of love and belonging I felt. I was well loved, and that’s all that mattered.

So if I could pass any message along to anyone, it would be that our life’s purpose is to love, and be loved. It’s to feel accepted and to feel wanted and needed by someone. It doesn’t have to be a model, or someone famous, or important. It doesn’t have to be a room full of people applauding. Just one is enough. And when you find that one person, you will find your life’s purpose too.

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