I have a new story out today from Crossed Genres: The Heart-Beat Escapement
Please read and enjoy!
This story is one that went through a lot of drafts–nine in total. It started out about 1500 words longer than it is now.
Something about the way Greensmith says but grates. “I already know that,” Owen snaps. The baby, abandoned in an alleyway and dying; the doctor and the engineer who found him and replaced his malformed heart with one crafted of delicate gears. It was his favorite fairy tale, growing up.
Most of those 1500 words I ended up cutting out of the story were the fairy tale Owen refers to here. Bits of it were interspersed throughout the story to act as section breaks. It ultimately didn’t work right and slowed the story down way too much, which is why I cut it, but I’m still pretty fond of those words. So I thought I’d share those sections (plus a bit extra to make them more coherent) with you as a little bonus–Owen’s bedtime story.
Owen’s Bedtime Story
Always, it is like this, a fairy tale, but his fairy tale, told in the musical words of Mother Komal:
Once upon a time, two women walking home from the Paddington Station heard a sad little sound. At first they thought it was a cat, calling out in loneliness and distress. Now, Fiona may have just passed that by. She was an engineer, and always the most practical. There was ultimately nothing about Fiona that wasn’t sensible, from her no-nonsense trousers (how scandalous, on a woman!) to her tool-laden leather belt and her tightly braided hair, shot through with iron gray threads. Chasing injured cats through darkened alleys was, by her estimation, a good way to ruin one’s shoes and quite possibly end up with nasty, infected scratches.
The only thing not sensible about Fiona was Komal, who each day wore a sari in one of a collection of jewel-like colors, though she’d relented in the face of England’s winters enough to wear boots so her toes wouldn’t be cold. Komal decked herself with delicate gold jewelry (all made by Fiona) and was often the collector of jealous looks disguised as disapproval because she was intractably foreign and carried a doctor’s leather case. Worse, she dared to be seen in public with Fiona! Shock! More scandal!
They both, I must tell you, found this very funny.
Komal also had a soft, artistic heart and loved all living things, but cats in particular. So she grabbed the leather cuff of Fiona’s sensible jacket and dragged her off into the alley.
“We are not,” Fiona said with long-suffering fondness, “bringing another mangy animal into the house. The hair ruins my instruments.”
“I’ll think of something.” Komal tilted her burgundy boater (another concession to English winters) at a determined angle and picked her way through the alley in a cloud of musical chiming made by her jewelry.
As they drew closer, the sound, no longer echoing from so many walls, became less feline and disturbingly human. Fiona exchanged a concerned look with her wife. Two more alleys, and they found a cardboard box obscured by a tattered blanket. Hidden beneath was a baby, red faced and squalling, obviously but a few hours old. He waved oddly truncated arms with no hands, just smooth stumps, at the shadowy movements above him.
“Oh dear,” Komal murmured. She picked up the baby and wrapped him in a corner of her sari, then smiled down at him. “Hello little man. Have you been waiting for us? We were waiting for you too, I think.”
But all was not well.
His fairy tale continues, Mother Komal’s musical, rolling vowels pausing for the inevitable question, call and response.
“And then what, Mama Ko? What was wrong with the baby?”
“Well, I shall tell you if you give me a moment!” And she continues:
Komal pressed one ear against the baby’s too-cool chest. “Oh my. It’s a wonder he’s still alive, poor thing. His heart, Fiona. His heart goes swishswish instead of dakhdakh.”
“Is there anything you can do?”
“For so advanced a problem? It must be a congenital defect… he’s so young.” Tears welled up in Komal’s eyes, shining in the lamplight. “Machines may not be able to heal themselves, love, but they are far easier to repair than flesh. What cruel people, to have abandoned him when his life was already destined to be so short!”
Fiona’s face settled into lines of stern determination. “We never did agree about destiny, and I don’t believe there’s anything that can’t be fixed. I’ve made artificial arms and legs before, you know, those special orders from the Navy. “
“But this is no arm or leg, my love. A heart is a very different, special thing. “
“Gears are gears and flesh is flesh, ” Fiona said, stoutly. “And what other chance does he have? We are the best at what we do, Komal. We’ve always believe in each other. “
Blinking away tears, Komal nodded. It was a frightening thought, but they could not possibly have made things worse, you see. A slim hope is still hope. And this was not the first leap of faith she had taken with Fiona, though these waters were far more treacherous and terrifying to navigate than the ocean lanes between India and England.
They carried the baby away to their home. Fiona took out an assortment of her most delicate gears and scattered them across a swatch of clean black silk. With Komal’s knowledge of anatomy to guide her deft touch, she made the little boy a clockwork heart, the most delicate but strong movement the world has ever seen, oscillator and escapement and wheel trained all tuned and perfect. And Komal, knowing it was the only chance the baby had, his misshapen flesh heart growing weaker by the second, performed the most difficult operation of her life and set it in his chest.
Komal sealed the beautiful heart away under a little metal plate that she sewed, with delicate stitches, to the silent baby’s far too pale skin. Both women held their breaths as Fiona took the key she’d made and inserted it into the plate, then wound it, turn after turn, until the spring was tight. They held their breaths as the soft tickticktick filled their air of the shop. Had they been too slow? Was the clockwork imperfect? It was the first, the only piece of its kind in the world, and Komal felt her own heart shaking with fear.
Then the baby opened his eyes and began to cry, as if offended they could have ever doubted him.
“And then what, Mama Ko?” This is his favorite part, always:
Well, then they covered him with kisses from head to toe, just like this!
“Ew! Don’t kiss me, I’m not a baby anymore.”
“You will always be my baby, you know. Mothers are like that.”
“Tell the story right.”
Komal cried, and Fiona may have as well, though she’ll never admit it, you know how she is. They named the little boy Owen, and Fiona made him beautiful filigree hands. These hands you have here, so you could pick up screwdrivers and pet puppies and even throw apples–yes, Owen, Mister Liszt did stop by, and we was more than a bit cross.
“I said I was sorry.”
“If you hadn’t, you’d have heard about it at dinner.”
“So will you finish the story?”
“Isn’t it finished now?” This, she always says with a wicked little smile, because she does love to tease him in her own way.
“You know it isn’t. Tell me what Mama Fiona said.”
“Ha, you know this story better than I do.”
“Ah yes. The best part of the story:”
Komal bent to listen to the steady tickticktick of the baby’s heart and said, “So strange to think, he has a machine in place of a heart now.”
Fiona snorted, crossing her arms over her chest. “Nonsense. His heart is his heart, and he has enough for ten men, Komal. He’ll use it to fight, our Owen, he’s already shown us that. And he’ll never stop fighting. “
“And is she right, Owen?”
“Mother Fiona’s always right!”
“Hah. I won’t tell her you said that. She’s already insufferable.” She closes the story with a soft kiss on his forehead, a precise adjustment of his blankets.
“Goodnight, Mama Ko.”
“Goodnight, my love.” A deft little twitch of the curtains, so he can see the lantern hanging outside his window, its globe made of green and gold glass in geometric patterns. The lantern is there, Mama Ko says, so he will always find his way home after a night of dreaming adventures. “Goodnight.”