This is a short story I wrote for my MA, lightly inspired by Angela Carter and George Saunders – it’s called Chance and it’s a dark fairy-tale romance with a slight steampunk aesthetic edge. It has also been printed in the University of Southampton’s MA Creative Writing Anthology 2016.
If a little girl will not quiet and sleep,
A Clockwork boy will take her soul to keep.
Before he drowned in Spectre’s Lake, my father told me the three truths of the Timekeepers.
“First, Susannah,” he said as I sat in front of the open fire and played with my dolls, “You can tell a Clockwork One by their eyes. Watch for the cogs that turn and you will never be fooled.”
I was six years old and I laughed and went to bed and dreamed of men with clocks for faces.
“Second, Susannah,” he said when I was twelve and simpered after freckled boys who worked in the fields, “A Clockwork One can lie through speech, but not through the written word.”
I was seventeen, still sore from my mother’s death at the hands of plague, when he told me the last truth.
“Third, Susannah,” he said, and I saw sadness in my father’s eyes, “The Clockwork Ones do not love like you and me. To love a Clockwork One is one of the most terrible fates to endure.”
“I have heard the rhymes,” I told him. “I know the old wives’ tale. You do not need to remind me.”
“It is only for your protection, Susannah.” My father took my hand and held it tight. “They serve us with the knowledge of the universe, but there is one thing they have no understanding of, and that is love.”
“I know, I know.” I pulled my hand from his and opened the door for him. “They will be waiting for you at the cathedral.”
“I suppose they will.” My father brushed a lock of my hair back from my face and lingered in the doorway for a moment, before he stepped outside. “Goodbye, Susannah.”
“Goodbye,” I said, and watched him leave for the cathedral, for the Timekeepers, and I shut the door behind him.
But he died that night, on his way home, a terrible accident. Fell through the frozen ice on Spectre’s Lake. Drowned.
A terrible accident.
My father’s funeral was a small gathering in the graveyard on Saint’s Hill, and I watched the people as they passed me by, murmuring their apologies for my loss. I could not tell which of them were Timekeepers. Still, I looked the men and women up and down as they passed me, dressed all in black, and wondered which of them would go back to the cathedral to continue their gathering of knowledge from the Clockwork ones.
I stayed there for hours, feet planted, unmoving, in that patch of scrubby grass that slowly began to freeze as night drew in. The other mourners had long since left, leaving me standing alone with tear tracks marked on my face, and only clad only in my white dress embroidered with snowflakes. I owned no black clothing, and my father had always liked this one. He had gifted it to me for my sixteenth birthday, an expensive present that soon won me the envy of every girl in the village. We had no worry for money – the books of Clockwork knowledge sold well enough.
I soon found that my attire matched the weather, for snowflakes began to fall, and dusty white snow began to gather on my father’s grave. The cathedral bells rang out for midnight, and I finally laid my lilies before the headstone, and turned to leave. I had left my shawl at home, and pimples began to spring up on my arms as the soles of my boots crunched on the fresh snow, and my breath formed a mist that danced on the air. I took a few steps, the hem of my dress dragging on the ground and beginning to take up water, and to offer some protection to my freezing neck, I reached up and pulled the pins from my hair so it fell in waves around my shoulders.
And that was when I saw you.
You stood by an oak tree at the edge of the cramped graveyard, cast in shadow, and you stayed perfectly still as I approached. You were dark-haired, slender, with eyes a cold blue like the frozen river that ran alongside the graveyard. Your thin face was blank, your back rigid and your arms straight down by your sides like a soldier reporting for duty. Snowflakes had settled in your hair like a crown made of ice.
“Are you a Timekeeper?”
I don’t know what made me ask you that question. Perhaps I saw sadness in your eyes as you looked towards the freshly dug grave, and thought that you must have known my father well.
Your head jerked at the sound of my voice, and you looked straight at me.
“Are you Susannah Engelhardt?”
“Yes. But you did not answer my question.”
“No, I am not.” Your eyes flickered back to my father’s grave. “But I knew your father. A rich man of fortune, and famous for it.”
“Jacob,” I said. “Jacob Engelhardt. He was a Timekeeper.”
“Yes, that was the name.” Your skin seemed impossibly smooth. I tried to peer into your eyes but it was too dark for me to make out the details that I was searching for. “I am sorry for your loss.” Your sadness seemed sincere. “He was kind to me. And to so many others, though they did not deserve it. I heard Timekeepers speak of envy, craving your father’s gold. It is a shame that their sinful ways could lead to the death of an innocent.”
My eyelids fluttered.
“Their sinful ways?” My mouth had become dry despite the fervent cold. “Do you know something about my father’s death?”
“I know only what I need to know,” you replied. “And I know that your father was a much-envied man.”
I shivered in the December breeze.
“What is your name?” I finally asked, but you looked away from me again with no response. I took your arm and pulled you out into the moonlight. “Tilt your head.”
You did so, slowly, and I looked into your right eye. The shadow of a cog, turning behind your iris, telling me all that I had to know.
“You’re a Clockwork One,” I whispered, my grip loosening on your arm. “You’re real.”
“I served your father,” you say, your voice barely louder than the rush of the wind through the trees. “I was bound to protect Jacob Engelhardt, and I have no name. He said he would name me, but he died before he did.”
“And no-one else has given you one?”
You shook your head.
“They cannot.” You fixed me with an intense stare. “I am bound to the Engelhardts. To protect you from the evils of this world. I served your father, and now I serve you.”
A Clockwork man has no heart,
Just a machine made of silver parts.
I named you Chance.
I took you home with me. You were easy to care for, as you ate nothing, and did not require a bed as you could not sleep. You worked as you had done for my father, filling paper with intricate diagrams and maps of the heavens, naming stars that could not be seen even with the most expensive of telescopes, and you wrote it all in a strange language that I could not read. Your letters were far more complex than the ones I knew, and as I tried to decipher the tiny shapes, I finally understood my father’s work with you: translation. Without guidance, I could not do what he had done.
So I left you to your work and you wrote all through the night, covering reams and reams of paper with star charts and mathematics, and finally I could not bear it, and one morning after many moons, I asked you why you did what you did.
“This is what I was built for,” you said. “For knowledge.”
And I looked at you with my arms full of laundry while the soup bubbled in the pot, and I forgot what I was going to ask you next. As I returned to my chores, there was a sudden banging on the door.
“Are you Susannah Engelhardt?” the young man in the doorway said as I opened it. He was about my age, blond and well-built and handsome in a bland sort of way, though I noticed that his front teeth were unusually large, giving him the appearance of a rodent.
“Do you have a Clockwork One on your premises?” the man continued, his face beginning to redden as he drew himself up to his full height, puffing out his chest. I narrowed my eyes, pulling the door a little more shut.
“Who is asking?” I glared at him. “Who told you this?”
“The Timekeepers, and many have seen him at your windows.” He grabbed the door so I could not close it any further, and stuck his foot through the doorway. “I know you are Jacob’s daughter, but I must advise you to relinquish the Clockwork One to us.”
“No,” I said. “Chance was bound to my father, and now he is bound to me.”
“Chance? You named him?” the man spluttered. “You are not a Timekeeper!” His voice rose in anger. “You cannot be his caretaker-”
“He was my father’s!” I almost shout, and that was when you appeared, your hand flying out to grab the man by his collar, and you pulled him back then shoved him so hard that he went toppling across the dirt path, coming to a standstill in a dirty puddle.
“I am for your protection now,” you murmured to me, then stood back.
The man got to his feet, seething, as he shook the mud from his clothes and dragged a filthy hand across his face.
“You will see!” he shouted, looking so much like an angry rabbit that I had to stifle a laugh. “The songs are true. You will see. We keep people safe from them, and you are too stupid to listen-”
I shut the door and turned back to you. You stood there quietly, your feet bare and your hands balled into fists, but your face was peaceful, and I looked back at the table where you had been working, the paper stained with ink and piled high.
“You are mine,” I told you, and your lips curved into the gentlest of smiles, and you were about to go back to the table when I grabbed your arm. “I want to learn your language. I want you to teach me.”
They came here from far, far away
To give us knowledge and to stay.
No-one had worshipped here for years, but the cathedral had always been here, for as long as anyone could remember. Even Old Man Edmund, who lived down near the swamp and was nearing ninety, said it had been here long before he was born.
As I took a step across the stone floor, I felt the gazes of the grotesques upon me. They were carved like demons, one twisted in agony as its tongue lolled out and its eyes bulged, another with wings unfurled like it was about to take off from its plinth, and another clinging to its ledge and fixing me with the carved slits of its narrow eyes. Rays of moonlight illuminated the stained glass windows and threw long shadows across the floor, and the arched roof stretched for what felt like a mile above me. The paint of the walls had peeled and faded long ago.
“Your father worked in the eastern transept,” you said, pointing to a set of stone stairs that ascended into darkness. “I imagine what is left of his work will be there.”
I followed you to my father’s office, and for the first time I could gaze upon the secret work my father had undertaken for twenty years. In the tiny, cramped space I could see papers covered in your writing, in those same, strange shapes, and I picked up a tome from the polished wooden desk, marked with my father’s name, and as I flicked through the pages, I saw what I needed to know – your language and mine, side by side.
“This is it,” I said quietly, and you collected papers from the desk, and I so desperately wanted to leave this office, this tomb of my father’s legacy, and I rushed out into the corridor so quickly that you barely had the time to register it. My boots thudded on the floor as I hurried down the corridor, hugging the book to my breast as you followed me.
Suddenly your arms were around my chest, crushing my ribcage in your grip, and you pulled me back into the shadow of an alcove as I heard the sound of footsteps and voices, and a small group entered the corridor.
“I wonder how much of his gold is left,” one man said.
“Probably little. His daughter has most likely spent it all. He was always too soft.”
“She keeps his Clockwork One in her own house, did you know?” another said, his voice dripping with a sickening glee. “She has even named it. Do you think she knows of the danger?”
“I do not think she cares,” one woman piped up, almost jovial. “But it will be her own undoing. She only endangers herself.”
“I’m sorry,” you whispered, as the group, dressed in black, passed us without noticing our presence. My heart, squashed behind my ribs, was banging like a wild thing. “If they see me here they will try to take me away from you.”
I did not move, and all I could feel was the ticking of your heart in the metal cage you called a chest, and I finally looked up at you, and even though you were in the shadow I could make out the line of your face, and I hated those Timekeepers who would sneer at me and my choice to keep you, and I reached up and pulled you towards me.
A Clockwork man will never die,
But in written words he can never lie.
I would not let them take you.
I slowly learned my father’s methods, scribbling out clunky, awkward sentences that only caught the wisps of the truth you had written down.
“Can you not speak them to me?” I pleaded, but you shook your head.
“My mouth cannot be trusted. You know the rhymes, you know that I must write down all my truths.”
I scrawled on, copying your diagrams with my badly-translated labels, and I forget when those nights of writing turned to nights of your arms around me and your mouth on mine. The villagers stared at me in the market-place, at the orphaned girl who fancied herself a Timekeeper and lived with a man made of metal, and I let them look at me because I was proud and I was complete again. My work was slow but my father’s fortune was plentiful, and I never had to buy you food but you sat with me and watched me eat at every meal. You never left the house but they all knew of you, and soon children goggled in our windows, hoping to catch a glimpse of a fairy-tale, but the only fairy-tale they saw was that of true love’s kiss.
“My father said that you cannot love,” I told you one night, and the fire that burned in front of us illuminated your face with an orange glow. I touched your cheek, you were almost warm. “That none of you can. The stories say it, too. Is it true?”
You reached down for the papers you had cast aside for the evening, and picked up the quill and ink, and you wrote something in your scratchy language, and you handed the paper to me. The fire burned in your ice-blue eyes, and I looked down at the symbols covering the sheet, and even with my shaky knowledge of your words I knew what they meant.
A Clockwork man has no need for breath,
And he’ll never know true love or death.
I was wrapped in my white sheets and your white arms, and there was light streaming through the curtains, and your eyes were open as they’d always been, as they’ll always be.
“What are you thinking about?” you asked as I stared at the ceiling.
“Nothing.” And it was true. My mind was quiet and all I could hear was the ticking of your heart. I wondered what you thought about. Did you think at all, with your brain of cogs and screws?
But even with a mind of metal and a heart of silver, you chose to love me.
I pulled myself from the bed. My white dress lay crumpled on the floor where you had peeled it from me, and I made myself decent again, smoothing out the wrinkles of the skirt, and twisting my long hair into a braid that I pinned about my head and threaded with flowers. I sat in front of the mirror, crowned with posies, and I had never felt beautiful but you had made me radiant.
Your hands landed on my shoulders, and you crouched behind my wooden chair and pressed your glass lips to the base of my neck. Metal and glass. That is what you were, that is all you’ll ever be. I will be dust in the ground one day, and you will stay young and polished, as long as your silver heart ticks.
“Where did you come from?” I whispered to the mirror.
“Somewhere far away.” You brushed my arm with your fingertips. “Somewhere that doesn’t exist anymore.”
It was the first time I asked you that, and I asked you every morning after. And you always gave me the same response. I don’t know why I asked over and over. I think I found solace in the way you wouldn’t change, the way you always answered with the same exact words.
Every morning I woke entangled in your arms and every morning came the same exchange. Every morning I saw that your eyes were as wide as they’d ever be, never needing to close.
But one day it was different.
“What is marriage?” you asked me, your hands lying flat on the wood of the table.
I almost choked on my bread.
“What? Why do you ask?”
“I have heard the word many times. The children talk of it when they linger at the windows, asking if the orphan girl will marry the Clockwork One.” You looked pensive, almost wistful.
“What does it mean?”
“It’s a human ceremony.” I tucked one curl of my hair back behind my ear. “It’s what people do when they love each other. When they want to be together forever.”
“Is it the ultimate expression of love?” you asked, and I was taken aback by the determination in your voice, as if this was the only question you had ever wanted to ask.
“I…” I could not meet your eye for a moment, but then I did, and your blue gaze was soft. “I suppose it is.”
There was silence for a moment, and all I could hear was the tick of your heart. Or maybe it was the clock. Your eyes held me.
“Should we wed?”
I thought of the rhymes, and I thought of the stories, and I thought of those Timekeepers in the cathedral and their sneering, and I thought of you and your arms around me in the middle of the night, and I thought of my father, and how empty this house would be without you.
I think you already knew what I would say. Maybe that is why you said it.
If a maid should fall for a Clockwork man
Then forever will her soul be damned.
Do you know how many days we spent together? I counted them all.
Two hundred and seventy-nine. And on the two hundred and seventy-ninth day, you married me at the Saint’s Hill Church, with only a graveyard for a witness, and a priest who did not know that he was joining a beating heart to a ticking one.
If he had known, he would have told me to run.
If a Clockwork man takes you to wed
Then you shall surely end up dead.
It is our wedding night and you are in love with me.
“I love you, I do,” you said as you stood at the window, and I sat on the bed in my nightgown, and waited for you to come to me.
And I am still waiting, and you are unmoving, your posture as stiff as your metal bones. The clock strikes midnight and finally you turn and come to me, and there are tears in your glass eyes, the water clouding the surface so I can no longer see the cogs that turn behind your irises.
I never knew that you could cry.
“I have given you all I can,” you whisper as you sit beside me, and slip your cold hand into mine. “This is all the happiness I can offer you.”
“I don’t understand,” I respond, but your lips have met mine and you are pushing me back onto the bed. I try to sit up but you block me, forcing me back down onto the bedcovers.
“I don’t want this,” you are saying in that cracked whisper, and before I can ask why, you give me a small kiss, and pin me down by my shoulders. “I love you, but I have given you all I can. I have given you the ultimate confession of love; I can give you no more happiness, and I can no longer protect you from this world.”
And your hands that once caressed me, they are diamond claws around my neck, and you have pain in your clockwork eyes and I know you are still filled with love, but it is a love that I do not understand, and your mind is not made for this world of flesh and bone. You belong to the dark and the metal and the glass, not to me.
“The Timekeepers craved your father’s riches,” you whisper, as I feel the veins on my temple begin to strain against the skin. “They would have stolen it all. I only sought to protect him from their envy.”
If I could speak I would ask you how my father died, but I am choking and I can see it in your alabaster face, the cracked ice and the black water and you, waiting like a drowned ghost, your hand dragging him down into the depths of Spectre Lake. You don’t need to breathe, and my father was a Timekeeper, and Timekeepers can never afford to be clumsy.
“I love you, Susannah,” you are saying, but my vision is blurring and I can no longer see you properly. “I will protect you from the evils of this world.”
Your grip tightens on my airway and the world around me fades to grey. You have written your truth in red around my neck, and I know what it says, even in that language that I still cannot completely understand.
I love you.