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I read a short story long ago about a team of men in a hollow container. They were forced to endlessly wring liquid from some type of fabric. But, whenever they managed any success, more moisture or humidity was added, or more fabric was added.

It was an exercise in futility. I was only 10-12 years old and have always remembered how the lone descriptor of the story yielded to his position of imprisonment and futility. I can't remember much more than that. It might have been a Cask of Amontillado type giving up to ones circumstances. Maybe I dreamt the whole thing. But, I know that I read it as part of a public school system or teachers attempt to make a very young child understand the bindings of the heart and mind of those without a choice.

I do remember that the dimensions of the enclosure, the amount of fabric and the impossibility of the task upon a dozen or so men, in cramped and humid space was impossible. Just as a bit of progress in drying the hanging fabric was made, more liquid or possibly more fabric was introduced.

I'd love to read it again some 45 years later. I have often wondered why a child was given this to read. I might find no meaning or no story after all of these years.

I've tried to forget about its probable symbolism, as Sisyphean if I've made the correct analogy. Of pushing a stone uphill.

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    While I agree this would be disturbing reading for a child, I also read this story at a similar age, and have a vague impression that it was from a school reading book.
    – arp
    Dec 26 '19 at 16:34
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+50

The Long Sheet by William Sansom. I read it in the anthology The Weird by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. This anthology was published in 2011, but the story was written in 1941 so you could certainly have read it in the 1970s.

The story starts:

Have you ever wrung dry a wet cloth? Wrung it bone white dry – with only the grip of your fingers and the muscles of your arms? If you have done this, you will understand better the situation of the captives at Device Z when the warders set them the task of the long sheet.

You will remember how, having stretched the cloth between your hands, you begin by twisting one end – holding the other firm so that the water is corkscrewed from its hiding place. At first the water spurts out easily. But later you will find yourself screwing with both hands in different directions, whitening your knuckles, straining every fibre of your diaphragm – and all to extract the smallest drop of moisture! The muscle of your arm swells like an egg – yet the wet drop remains a pinhead! As you work the cloth will gradually change from a grey colour to the whiteness of dried bone. Yet even then the cloth will be wet! Still you will knot your muscles; still you will wrench away at the furtive damp. Then – at last! – you will believe the cloth to be dry…but in the next second the tip of a finger will quiver tragically as it touches some cold, hidden veil of damp clinging deep down in the interlaced threads.

Such, then, was the task of the captives.

The container the men are is described as:

They were placed in a long steel box of a room with no windows and no doors. The room was some six feet wide and six feet high; but it ran one hundred feet in length. It resembled thus a rectangular tunnel with no entrance and no exit.

It is, as you say, a very odd story. The point appears to be made in the final paragraphs when a group of the prisoners have finally managed to wring their cloth dry:

Gradually these people achieved their end. In spite of the steam, in spite of the saturated birds, in spite of the waterous contagion seeping through from the room of the defeated, in spite of the long hours and the heat and the squared horizon of rusting steel – their spirit prevailed and they achieved the purity they sought. One day, seven years later, the wet grey sheet dawned a bright white – dry as desert ivory, dry as marble dust.

They called up through the skylight to the warders. The grave faces appeared. Coldly the warders regarded the white sheet. There were nods of approbation.

‘Freedom?’ said the captives.

The guards brought out their great hoses and doused the white sheet sodden grey with a huge pressure of water.

‘You already have it,’ they answered. ‘Freedom lies in an attitude of the spirit. There is no other freedom.’ And the skylights silently closed.

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    That sounds very, very Russian. Dec 27 '19 at 1:55
  • @CTeegarden, more like French
    – user28434
    Dec 27 '19 at 12:10
  • I think the key lesson is that if you want to dry some fabric, probably don’t do that inside a windowless steel box. Oct 9 '20 at 14:26

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