A Steambound Novelette
© 2019 Kyle Richardson
(Author’s note: In Beast Heart, we meet a clockwork girl with a talent for alchemy. These are the events that led to her becoming an alchemist.)
The question tumbles out of Viola before she’s even had a chance to think about it: “What does that mean?” Her voice fills the musty air, echoing off the rusted walls.
When Father turns to look at her, his face is tense, his eyes avoidant. “What does what mean?” he asks, furrowing his brow.
This kind of response, she’s learned, is normal for the man—to answer one of her questions with a question of his own. Usually she enjoys the back-and-forth; it’s almost like a form of dancing. But today his reply just grates on her, as if one of the gears in her chest has slipped loose, leaving its teeth to grind against any nearby cogs. The levers around her mouth whine and click, and her lips twist into a frown. “The word you just used,” she says flatly.
Father huffs and turns away, plunging his sleeved arms into a wooden crate. “You’ll have to be more specific,” he mutters. “I used a lot of words recently.”
Viola lets out a sigh. They’re supposed to be cleaning the warehouse today, searching for things that Father no longer needs, things that can be donated or destroyed. But so far every object she’s pointed to—every grime-coated thing that she’s suggested be thrown away—they’ve all made him bristle or complain.
Apparently, he has an illogical attachment to everything.
“You said, naturally,” she reminds him. She leans against the doorway, making the wood creak under her iron weight, and she watches while Father pulls a metal rod from the crate.
“Did I?” he says. He turns the rod over and over, as if he’s trying to get a better look at the thing. But the warehouse is extra dim today—the gray sunlight barely sliding through the metal rafters—and they both know that he can’t see well to begin with. “Perhaps I simply misspoke,” he mumbles. He stares at the dirt-crusted bar a moment longer before tucking it back into the crate. Then he continues rummaging around, as if their conversation is over.
As if he’s hoping that she’ll simply . . . forget.
But how could she? Her mind simply won’t allow it. For every cause, there must be a resulting effect—this much about the world she knows. Which means that a man like Father—a thoughtful, deliberate man—would never speak a word unless it carried some useful meaning. “You called me naturally inquisitive,” she says, “just a moment ago. And I’ve not yet encountered this word. I’d like to know its purpose.” When he doesn’t say anything back, she repeats the word slowly, just to gauge its weight as it slides off her corded tongue. “Naturally.”
Father lets out an impatient grunt and shoves the crate away with his boot. “Let’s discuss something else,” he grumbles. He trudges toward a dust-coated table and begins groping at the tools scattered across its metal surface, plucking them up one at a time and inspecting them closely, like he’s shopping for fruit at an open-air market. “You’re a young girl,” he says, as if she needs the reminder. “Ask me about young-girl things. Surely you’d find a conversation like that much more appealing than this one?”
Surely not. What difference does it make if he built her to resemble a young girl? Must her thoughts and concerns always match her appearance? “I’d like to know the meaning of the word naturally,” she says, being as blunt as direct as she can. “And if you intend not to tell me, then I must remind you that I’m fully capable of finding the answer on my own.”
Father pauses with a wrench in his hand. Then he exhales slowly and glances over his shoulder. The movements adds even more wrinkles to his already wrinkled face. When their eyes meet, she notices the gray hue of the skin above his cheekbones.
He’s been looking unusually tired lately, even with adequate rest and proper meals. Perhaps he’s . . . falling ill?
“I don’t know how you became so stubborn,” he tells her. He sets the wrench down and leans against the table, as if he needs the extra support. “I certainly didn’t wire such a trait into you.”
She steps through the doorway and whirls around, making her hooded coat twirl away from her metal-plated body. She doesn’t do this for any specific reason, other than a sudden urge to move, to act, to be free from the stillness of this whole miserable conversation, which has begun to feel almost . . . suffocating. So what if he didn’t wire stubbornness into her? So what if she acts differently than how he intended her to be? Must he always remind her that it was his hands that brought her to life?
Can he not simply interact with her as if she were her own being?
“Perhaps I wired it into myself,” she says, shoving the words through her teeth a little firmer than usual. “Perhaps I decided that I like being stubborn.”
Father rolls his eyes and steps away from the table. “Clearly,” he mutters. Then he moves to a different part of the warehouse, scuttling his tattered boots over the grease-stained cement, carefully avoiding every discarded bundle of cables and frayed ropes. “And while we’re on the subject of wires,” he calls over his shoulder, “help me find some nickel plating. There must be something salvageable in all this mess.”
But she has fallen for this trick too many times to be fooled by it again. “You’re changing the subject,” she says, stamping her foot against the concrete. Her heel clangs dully, and the impact sends a tremble up her leg, triggering the sensors under her skin. Her shin flares in an uncomfortable way, as if it’s burning and being submerged in ice at the same time, and she grimaces without meaning to do so. Father calls this pain, and though she has yet to learn more about the term, it certainly sounds like the perfect word to match the sensation.
Sometimes she notices signs of pain on Father’s weathered face—pain that seems to have no physical source. Pain that seems to originate in the mind. In those moments she finds herself wondering: does that kind of pain have a different word altogether? And when it happens, where does it hurt the most?
These questions will probably remain unanswered, though, as it always feels wrong to ask.
“You’re right,” Father says, without turning to look at her. “I most certainly am changing the subject. Because I don’t want to talk about it.” He stops walking, looks back at her, and lifts a grease-stained finger. “And here lies another lesson for you: people will always have their own motivations. And those will often contradict your own. This is an … unavoidable aspect of life.”
But she isn’t in the mood for one of his lectures right now, especially when it’s obvious that he’s only trying to distract her. Her eyes swivel in their sockets so quickly that the room becomes a gray-brown blur. Then her gaze catches on the leathery edge of the book in his back pocket. “Then I’d like to search for the word myself,” she says.
Father follows her gaze with a frown and presses his hand over the book, as if he’s hoping to hide it from view. “Naturally begins with an N,” he says. “Unless my memory fails me, you’re still working on C.”
“Clavicle,” she says, reciting yesterday’s word with a groan. “Noun. One of two slender bones of the pectoral arch.” Father opens his mouth to say something, but she speaks over him. “The word is both uninspiring, and bothersome. I don’t even have clavicles to begin with.” Her geared hands probe aimlessly at her curved breastplate, her fingertips scraping along the seams where Father riveted her chest together. Eventually she drops her hands to her waist and meets Father’s slackened gaze. “And for that matter,” she adds, “I fully intend to study Clavicorn tomorrow. Today, I’m merely asking you for a slight departure. A brief excursion into chapter N.”
Father mutters to himself, then shakes his head. “You won’t let go of this word, will you?”
“Perhaps I’ll let go of it once I learn what it means.”
Father takes a deep breath and looks up at the dust-coated rafters. “I fear the opposite, actually.”
Fear. This is another word that’s caught her interest lately—one that she might ask him about tomorrow. “If you wish to further avoid the subject,” she says, glancing up at the rafters with him, “then we can simply continue with our cleaning. I know where you keep the dictionary while you sleep, anyway.” When he just gapes at her, she explains, “For such a skilled inventor, you certainly lack creativity when it comes to hiding your belongings. The space under your mattress is the first place anyone would look.”
Father contorts his face in a way that she can’t quite read. “What else did you find under there?” he asks, his voice low and breathy.
“Nothing,” she says. “I merely looked to see if my guess was correct. When I saw the dictionary there, I nodded to myself, then set the mattress back into place.” This is . . . not exactly the truth. She spotted several things under that mattress, actually. A small brass locket. The splintered edge of a picture frame. A torn strip of heart-patterned fabric. But none of those things concerned her at that moment, so she dismissed them as mere oddities; objects that Father enjoys collecting, for whatever strange reason. Seeing the discomfort on his face now, though, has her thinking something else entirely. What meaning do those objects hold? Are they, perhaps, leftovers from his life before her?
And what kind of life was it that he led?
“What if I ask you to leave the dictionary alone,” Father says, “and to simply wait until you reach chapter N, in proper fashion?”
Her eyelids shutter as she imagines such an outcome, her mind whirring and clattering in her skull. She pictures herself sitting at the east end of the warhouse, with the dictionary propped on her lap and her chair nestled under the slatted daylight, while the afternoons fall away in a steady blur, one tumbling after the next, every word a new dawn, every page another month, every second page an entire season. Her veins fill with cool grit, and the sensation pulls her lips down at the edges. “I would feel compelled to complain,” she finally says, opening her eyes again. “Extensively. Given your suggested pace of one word per day, it would take me years to finally reach naturally.”
Father raises an eyebrow and says, “And what if I told you that a matter of years sounds reasonable to me, when it comes to you learning the definition of that word?”
“Then . . . that would only increase my curiosity,” she admits.
Father sighs and says, “And what if I simply asked you to trust me?”
This time she frowns so hard that one of the springs in her jaw makes a snapping noise. When has this ever been about trust? “Then I would accuse you of changing the subject once again,” she says. She tilts her head in a way that hopefully looks determined, and adds, “I’m sorry to disappoint you, Father, but my mind is set. I will learn the meaning of that word, one way or another.”
Father lets out a shaky breath, then slaps his withered hands against his thighs. Dust plumes off his trousers and catches in the sunlight, making the air around him look smoke-filled and ablaze. “Very well then,” he says, pulling the dictionary from his pocket. He tosses the book toward her with an unenthusiastic swing of his arm, and she watches the thing flutter through the air like an insect with broken wings. “But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
She catches the book with a quick jerk of her arms, crinkling the pages a little more than she’d like, and her teeth audibly grind. Father knows that her coordination still needs work. “You could’ve simply handed it to me,” she grumbles. But then she looks down at the dictionary and the rest of her complaint falls away. For such a tiny thing, the book feels remarkably heavy today. No—not heavy. That’s the wrong term. It feels extra … important right now.
“Well?” Father asks. “Are you going to find your word, or not? Because if you’re just going to stare at the cover, I might as well take the thing back and—”
She throws him a glare that could peel the bark off a tree. Then she begins flipping through the pages, her fingertips moving in a blur. She passes elution and histamine, kelvin and Mesozoic—all these strange-looking words that hold so much meaning, like cabinet doors just waiting to be flung open. Finally her eyes catch on the word: naturally. She stops skimming so suddenly that her neck lets out a rattling click, and sound of rustling paper falls away, leaving the warehouse eerily silent.
“Found it, have you?” Father asks, his voice hovering over that line between boredom and concern.
Some small, childish part of her wants to meet his eyes, to give him an answer, to speak when she’s spoken to. But she does none of those things, mostly because she’s too busy swirling her mechanical gaze over and around the same bewildering clump of words:
Existing in or produced by nature: not artificial.
“Naturally,” she whispers. Her mouth fills with a tingling sort of heat, as if the mere act of uttering the word has somehow stung her lips, and she reflexively pulls her fingers away from the book to rest them over her teeth. Her unnatural teeth. The dictionary hits the floor with a dull thud, and when she looks up to meet Father’s gaze, he’s frowning miserably.
“Now,” he says softly, “do you understand why I didn’t want you to see?”
But she’s not quite sure what she understands anymore, other than the most obvious of conclusions: “I am . . . not natural,” she says. She threads the words together carefully, as if the sentence might break at the slightest touch.
“Not … in the literal sense,” Father says.
But what other sense is there, if not literal? “In what sense then?” she demands, raising her voice. “In what sense am I natural, Father, when I neither exist in—nor have I been produced by—nature?”
Father raises his hands in an almost defensive gesture. “Viola, there’s no reason to get upset over a mere word, especially when—”
“Especially when what?” she shouts. “When my own Father wanted to hide such a word from me? When he wanted to keep its definition hidden from my unnatural eyes?”
Father steps away from the work table and holds out his arms, the skin around his face looking suddenly soft and loose. It’s the first time since they began cleaning the warehouse that he’s moved toward her, instead of away. “You’re my child,” he says. “My daughter. I brought you into this world and loved you before you even opened your eyes. Nature has nothing to do with my feelings for you. You’re beyond nature, Viola. You are . . . so much more.”
The words sound genuine. Comforting, even. For a moment, the heat bubbling in her veins seems to dim—all that pressure sinking back into her swivelled joints. She turns away from Father and rubs the plates of her wrist against her cheeks, smearing her oily tears into the grooves of her face.
Maybe Father is right. Perhaps being beyond nature isn’t so bad, after all.
But then her gaze flicks up and she catches the edge of her reflection staring back at her, her inhuman face trapped in the grimiest sliver of a tarp-draped mirror. In it, she doesn’t just look sad—she looks . . . monstrous. Like a mechanical imitation of a real-life girl.
A grease-smeared, fabric-haired, clockwork-limbed horror.
She lunges forward without even thinking, storming across the warehouse so swiftly that the pistons in her torso barely pump fast enough.
Father yells out something, but his words are washed away by the roar of fluid in her ears. Then her iron-knuckled hands tear away the tarp.
And her brass-plated kneecaps shatter the glass.
And the wood beneath it all sprays through the air in a shower of splinters and rusted screws.
The pieces land on her clothing and in her hair. Powder settles in the geared grooves between her joints. When she looks back at Father this time, he doesn’t look annoyed or sad. Now he just looks afraid.
“What kind of reaction would you call that, Father?” she asks, growling the words. The tiny levers shift on her cheeks, narrowing her eyes into slits. “For I would call it the most natural response in the world.”
When Father says nothing back, she swivels on her heels and stomps out of the warehouse in a rush of whirring gears and fluttering coat tails.
Let Father clean up his own mess.
Viola stays outside the rest of the day, dismantling and reassembling the same steam-powered bicycle that Father gave her last winter, until the gray sky turns pink above her, and the ash-colored clouds look burnt along the edges. The bicycle was never new—its paint was peeling the first time she saw it, and its handlebars were littered with rust-flecked dents. Even then, she suspected that he found it in a scrap heap. But it was still a gift. And it was still for her. So she loved it in that moment, with every cog-lined inch of her unnatural heart.
Today though, the bike just feels like another one of Father’s lies, and she realigns its pieces with an uncharacteristic roughness, yanking the wrench a little too tightly, pulling every spring a little too taut. By the time she’s done rebuilding the thing, the sky has turned a deep, freckled purple, and the bike looks like it’s been ridden through a war. Its wheels are bent. The spokes are twisted. Even the metal seat looks crumpled now, like a flower withering in the heat.
A side-effect, no doubt, of the strength from her unnatural fingers.
She sighs, drops her tools into an old cigar box, and gives the lid a slap with her geared hand, clattering it shut. Then she slumps down onto the cobbled street and leans back against Father’s warehouse, letting her overcoat and the back of her head grind against the mossy bricks.
How could Father have done this to her? And for that matter, what is this even called? What’s the term for a man who gives life to a monster, then lets the monster believe that it’s normal? Even if she reads all the dictionaries in the world, she’s quite certain she’ll never find a word to describe exactly what Father has done.
. . . Perhaps betrayal comes the closest.
“Yes,” she mutters, letting the word hiss past her lips. “Father has betrayed me.”
Her voice vanishes in the cool night air, and soon the only noise around her is the distant hum and whirr of the city beyond the bay.
That, and the warbling rattle of her unnatural clockwork heart churning in her chest.
Her metal fingers twitch, and she has a sudden, ferocious urge to plunge her hands through the gaps between her brass-plated ribs, just so she can rip out the very thing that keeps her alive.
No—not alive. Apparently, she’s not even that. She just … is. And somehow this realization hurts even more—the pain of it swelling inside every one of her coppery veins. This time when her tears come, she doesn’t bother to wipe them away. She merely lets the ink dribble down her face until it pools in the divot of her chin. Then she lets it all drip onto her overcoat, until the fabric looks like it’s been soaked in engine oil.
Until she looks like an unnatural girl who’s been crying horrible black tears all over herself.
Eventually the feeling passes, like a trash-littered tide slurping back into the sea, and the clear-headed mood that sweeps in next is so refreshing, so calming, so relaxing that she finds herself scowling and grumbling Father’s name all over again.
Even this must be his doing—some kind of comforting emotional response that he no doubt wired into her. Which would mean that he predicted this very moment, that he knew she would, one day, discover the truth of her existence.
That he expected her to wallow in despair.
Again, that same tortuous question swirls in her metal skull: how could a man who supposedly loves her do such an awful thing? At the very least, couldn’t he have built her to be incapable of such thoughts? To lack the awareness she’d need to question her own identity?
Couldn’t he have made her immune to such . . . pain?
She kicks at the bicycle’s back tire, knocking the vehicle onto its side. Then she looks up at the star-bruised sky and waits for a monstrous comet to appear, its dust trail streaking between two distant suns. Something colossal and world-ending—wouldn’t that be wonderful? Something godlike. Something with the ability to change everything.
Then it happens—not an asteroid scorching the sky, but an idea slotting into place in her head: she knows of something with the ability to change everything. She studied the word intensely, for several days, until the page it was printed on nearly shredded from all the caressing of her burnished fingertips.
“Alchemy.” She whispers the word so gently that the gears in her throat practically tremble. Even when spoken quietly, the term sounds almost magical. “Noun. A chemical science that aims to achieve the transmutation of matter.”
When she encountered that word the first time, it haunted her for days. Surely a world where such a science exists would be a horrifying place? Why would anyone want to change the state of one thing into another?
But now she gets it. Now she understands the reasoning. Now she sees the appeal.
When she finally climbs back to her feet, the night has become as dark as the fresh stain on her coat, and the cogs in her head are whirling so fiercely that she can almost hear the sound of her own thoughts.
She leaves the bicycle on its side and storms back into the warehouse. By the time she finds Gideon eating stale bread by a dying fire, she’s never felt more . . . alive.
“Alchemy,” she says, meeting the man’s startled eyes.
Gideon coughs and gulps down his mouthful. Then he peers at her strangely, his weathered face looking especially sunken in the firelight. “Alchemy,” he repeats with a frown. “What about it?”
For the first time since this morning, she finds her lips curling into a smile. The expression almost feels . . . natural. “I want to learn,” she says quickly. “And you, Father, are going to help me do exactly that.”
By the time they’re done rummaging through the store’s dusty shelves, the books cradled Father’s arms look almost beautiful—a leatherbound assortment of alchemical texts, all complicated and dazzling in their own unique ways. “We’ve got everything from love spells to healing salves,” Father says, adjusting the heap, “to the transmutation of base metals into crystallized gold.” He taps his fingers against the lowermost book and says, “This one even describes the practice of turning inanimate objects into organic beings.” He gives her a knowing wink. “That, I assume, is one that you’ll find particularly interesting.”
Viola rolls her eyes in a practiced way. “I’m not desperate,” she says. “Merely curious.” The mechanisms inside her, however, keep fluttering in an uncomfortable way, and she finds herself fidgeting with her coat while Father carries the books to the front of the store. Despite what she just said, she truly is eager to get back home to crack open those hand-painted spines, to dive into all those meaningful words with the same wide-eyed curiosity that, up until this point, she’s reserved for Father’s dictionary alone.
What wonders of wisdom will she find between those pages? What methods of madness will she discover? And how long until she finally learns how to correct Father’s gravest mistake?
How soon can she figure out a way to turn herself into a . . . human girl?
“Just don’t drop any,” she says, stepping quickly after Father. “Some of those look rather delicate.”
Father slows his stride and glances back at her with a raised eyebrow. “There are filaments inside you the width of spider’s silk—fibrous strands that I painstakingly braided with nothing but a pair of tweezers, and my own two hands.”
“And there are gears between the slender channels in your head,” he continues, “that are so tiny, they’re all but invisible to the naked eye. Those, too, I aligned and fastened with the utmost precision, using the absolute tips of my fingers.”
“So you say,” she fires back. “However, I simply meant—”
“And,” Father says, talking over her once more, his voice rising with every syllable, “need I remind you that it was your temper that destroyed my mirror? Your fury that only added to the mess in our warehouse, when you were meant to help me clean, instead?”
“You don’t need to remind me at all,” she says, matching his piercing stare with a glare of her own. A sharp, bitter heat rises in her throat, until the panels on her face feel like they’ve been set ablaze. “I was there,” she grumbles. “I remember every horrible detail.”
Father studies her eyes for a moment. Then his expression softens, and he lets out a tired sigh. “Don’t misunderstand me, Viola. These books are not an apology. I don’t apologize for creating you. You’re the most wondrous thing to enter my life since . . .” His voice tightens and he trails off, his gaze sliding away. “Well,” he finally says, shaking his head, “let’s just say that these books are a kindness from me, nothing more.” When he smiles at her, his lips look too thin, his jaw clenching a little too firmly. “You’re curious about alchemy,” he continues, “and I’d like to nurture that curiosity. That is all.” When she doesn’t say anything back, he nudges her shoulder with his own. “And yes, I will take great care not to drop your precious books. I can see how much they mean to you.”
“Thank you,” is all she can think to say.
“You’re welcome,” he says with a nod. “Now let’s purchase these and be done. I have other things to attend to. And I’m sure you’re eager to get home to explore.”
“Perhaps,” she mutters, not meeting his eyes.
Father cracks a lazy smile, then makes his way across the remainder of the store, his boots scuffing quietly against the shop’s dingy carpet. When he reaches the front register, he plops the books on the wooden countertop and nods at the woman standing there. “A fine day,” he says, “is it not?”
But woman ignores him and pins her gray eyes on Viola, instead. “It was,” she finally mutters, not looking away from Viola’s face, “until you brought this thing into my shop.”
It takes Viola’s mind fourteen hundredths of a second to bend the woman’s words into a feeling: a chalky, fibrous sort of pressure in her stomach, as if she swallowed a jagged piece of leather. As if, for some insane reason, she took a ravenous bite out of an airship’s balloon. Then it takes her mind only a fraction of a second more to twist the feeling into a knot of understanding: the woman despises her. The woman is cruel.
The woman just called her a thing.
“Excuse me?” she snaps, pinning her scowl to the woman’s sunburnt face.
Father raises a hand, as if he’s trying to bat away the tension between them. “Pay no mind to my daughter,” he says, his voice unusually soft. “She’s merely here to help with the task of carrying these books back home.” When the woman’s glare only hardens, he adds, “Books that I would like to purchase from you, if you please.”
The woman’s gaze flicks toward him, her mouth curling into a grimace. “Did you just call that your daughter? You actually consider it your kin? This . . . abomination?”
The word makes the gears on Viola’s face spasm. The cogs in her mind whirl and contract, too, until they latch onto a memory: her, sitting quietly beneath a windowpane, with Father’s dictionary on her lap, and the wind from a budding storm throwing brittle leaves against the glass.
It was the first time she encountered a word that saddened her, though she didn’t quite know why.
Abomination. Noun. Something deserving of disgust or hatred.
Is that what she is to this woman? Something to loathe? Something repulsive?
And if so: does the woman not realize that the feeling is . . . mutual?
Father frowns in a deep and troubled way. Then he glances at Viola and offers her a flimsy smile. “I do consider her my child, actually,” he says, not taking his eyes away from her face. When he finally looks back at the woman, his smile is gone. “And I’d appreciate your understanding in the matter. If that’s not possible, then I’d simply like to pay for these books. Then we’ll be on our way.”
Viola finds herself nodding along with Father. It’s a reasonable enough compromise. Even a woman this bitter can surely appreciate the logic.
But the woman just shakes her head, making her matted hair whisk against her cheekbones. Then she drags the heap of books toward her, pulling them away from Father’s reach. “Why would I sell anything to the likes of you?” she demands. She quickly skims the spines of the books, then looks back at Father with a fresh grimace. “Especially when your reading preferences are so utterly barbaric.” When Father merely sighs again, the woman says, “Alchemy is the devil’s science. What does that say about you, I wonder?”
The leathery feeling in Viola’s stomach finally surges up her throat, shoving words out of her mouth before she’s even had a chance to consider them. “They are my reading preferences,” she snaps, “thank you very much!” She jams her finger toward the woman, stabbing violently at the air. “And how dare you speak so awfully to Father? He’s a brilliant and considerate man, which is far more than I’m sure anyone would ever say about you.”
The woman lets out a face-contorting gasp and clutches her hands to her chest, as if she’s trying to protect her heart. As if she’s worried that Viola might leap over the counter to plunge her clockwork fingers right through her lousy sternum.
The idea doesn’t seem half bad.
When the woman finally speaks again, her voice is little more than a whisper, her eyes glaring daggers at Father. “Get out of my store. And take that foul-mouthed monstrosity with you.”
“So I’m a monstrosity now, am I?” Viola fires back. She’s nowhere near chapter M yet, but the woman’s tone is sour enough to understand: monstrosity is obviously another horrible word. Another atrocious attack on her character. The straps connecting her mouth to her jaw cinch tight, curling her lips around her teeth. “Would you like to hear all the words I’ve learned that so accurately describe you?”
“Please,” Father says, showing the woman his palm, “there’s no need for any of this.” With his other hand, he gives Viola’s elbow a violent shake. “Enough!” he whispers in her ear. “You’re only making things worse.” Before she has a chance to argue, he tells the woman, “How much will it cost for the last book in that pile?” He frowns at his coat and begins rummaging through it, making his pockets clatter and jingle. “I’m certain I have enough money for the one. Then we can put this whole misunderstanding behind us. Fair enough?”
Viola is tempted to point out that none of this seems fair, but the woman cuts her off with an angry grunt. “There’s no misunderstanding here.” The woman shakes her head so vigorously, it’s a wonder her skull doesn’t pop right off her neck. “You wish to purchase these books, and I am refusing service. What will happen next is: you will leave, before I find someone to throw you out. And these books will be returned to their shelves. Or perhaps I’ll simply burn them . . .” The woman glowers at Viola for a brief, gear-stuttering moment, then her scowl turns into a bitter grin. “Yes,” she says proudly, “I think that’s a wonderful idea. I will find a comfortable chair to sit on. Then I’ll set these books aflame, and spend my time basking in the heat of their blackened pages. No more devil’s alchemy for either of you.”
Something lurches and scatters inside Viola—a sprocket popping loose, perhaps, or an axle snapping free from a cog. Whatever it is, it propels her whole body into motion, like the white-hot burst of a gun. In an instant her tiny body is smashed against the counter, her arms up over the ledge, her fingertips digging into the woman’s dirt-brown shawl.
The woman shrieks and tries to pull away, but her fleshy body is no match for the burnished pistons in Viola’s forearms. She contracts the gears in her wrists, curling her fingers against her iron palms, trapping the woman’s clothing in her grip until the fabric starts to tear.
The woman’s shouts turn into an agonized howl.
“Tell me,” Viola growls over the counter, “how will you burn these books after I snap your miserable spine?”
“Enough!” Father booms.
His voice fills the dusty shop like a warbling crack of thunder, and the warning feels so uncalled for, so unfair, that Viola releases the woman’s blouse and gives him a glare that could rust a door right off its hinges. “You’re telling me to stop?” she demands. “After all the horrible things she just said about you? About us?”
The woman spits a vile curse at the back of Viola’s head, then adds in a trembling voice, “Every word was clearly deserved! And just so you know, I’ll be reporting you both. You and that thing. If either of you dare to step foot in my shop again, you’ll be arrested on the spot!”
But Viola doesn’t react to the threat, because she’s too busy staring at Father’s disappointed face. Too busy reading the words behind his saddened eyes. Too busy seeing the regret written all over his thin-lipped frown.
In this moment, he’s clearly ashamed of being her Father.
Suddenly all those books on the counter don’t matter anymore. Suddenly alchemy is the last thing whirring through her cluttered skull. When they both finally leave the shop, Father leads the way with his shoulders slumped, his boots dragging pitifully along the muck-stained cobbles. She follows him in much the same way, filling the air with nothing but the sound of her clattering heels and the whisk of her oiled joints. The woman pounds the counter with her fists and snarls horrendous words after them, but Viola ignores it all. She pins her attention, instead, to this new distance swelling between her and Father—like a poison-filled bubble just waiting to burst.
The junkyard is especially noisy this afternoon, full of squawking gulls and metal-crunching machines, but the only thing Viola really hears is the glaring silence coming from Father—this absence of words that has plagued him ever since they left that awful bookstore.
Ever since he watched her threaten that terrible woman.
On the walk over here, she kept trying to dredge up some anger over the whole ordeal. After all, they visited that shop with the goal of buying some alchemical texts—and they left without a single one. Shouldn’t such an outcome be enough to set her gears on edge?
Shouldn’t her blood feel like it’s frothing in her veins?
Logically, she should at least have an urge to rant about the woman, or a throat-clenching desire to curse her name. But the only sensation roiling through her right now is a wobbly imbalance, as if she’s one wrong step from crashing sideways onto the metal-littered dirt. As if some crucial pillar of her life has begun to crumble away, leaving everything about her that much closer to falling apart.
Until this very moment, she never realized how much she cares about Father’s opinion—especially when it involves her. How can something so meaningless as silence from the man leave her tugging so frantically at her coat lapels?
And is this kind of response her own? Or this it yet another reflex that he wired into her?
She wrestles with the questions while they trudge over a heap of broken carriage parts, and she watches his tattered satchel thud limply against his hip. He grunts and huffs with each awkward step, and she waits for him to twist around, to show her that familiar roll of his eyes, to slide into one of his favorite conversation topics: complaining about the pains of getting old. But even the jagged hike fails to make him talk.
When she finally can’t take it anymore, she blurts out the most direction question she can think of: “Are you mad at me?”
Father hesitates beside the rusted spoke of a giant wheel. For two full seconds, it looks like he’s about to correct her. To interact with her. To engage her in some kind of conversation, no matter how meaningless it may be. But then he simply lets out a sigh and trudges on, keeping his back to her.
The response—or rather, the lack of a response—feels like an electrified rod sliding cruelly into the gap between the chambers of her metal heart. Every inch of her reflexively cringes.
“I’m not ready to talk yet,” he mutters over his shoulder. “I’m not mad. But I’m not happy, either.” He stops, nudges a crumpled door panel with his boot, then shakes his head and continues walking. “To be completely honest with you, Viola: I’m not quite sure how I feel. I suppose there’s a lingering sense of regret—a disappointment in myself for not doing things . . . differently. And that, above all else, is why I’ve been keeping quiet.” He drags his boots to a stop beside a pane of oiled glass, then kneels down to rap on its edge with his thumb knuckle.
The sound the glass makes is mournful, like the tolling of an ancient bell, and Viola finds herself turning away.
“There are things weighing heavily on my mind,” he continues, “and I’d like to sort them out before we begin conversing again. I’m sure you can understand.” When he glances back at her, his irises don’t quite meet hers—his stare looks off-center, as if he’s gazing through her instead of at her. As if he’s thinking of a time when she didn’t yet exist—or fantasizing about a time when she no longer will.
“Oh,” is all she can think to say. Oh.
She follows him quietly for the rest of the afternoon, helping him climb or lift things when he needs her strength. Letting him do other things on his own, when it’s clear he doesn’t. By the time the day has burnt away, leaving only smudges of bronzed light lingering on the horizon, Father’s satchel is stuffed to the hem with straps of leather, strands of copper, and petal-like shards from rusted machines.
Her mind, on the other hand, has gone the opposite route: her worries decluttering and sloughing away, one junk heap after the next, until the only thing left in her iron-plated skull is a single, blazing thought: this is all that horrible shop-owner’s fault.
And if Father needs time to sort himself out, so be it—it’s all the more time for her to pay that woman a little . . . visit.
“An apology,” Viola calls out, tapping her brassy knuckles against the fogged shop window. “That’s all I’m here for.”
By now the afternoon is mostly gone, leaving the air dim and damp.
When she left Father, she told him she planned to “walk around and think”. It wasn’t fully a lie, and he didn’t seem suspicious, either. Mostly, he just gave her a vague grunt and turned away, busying himself with his clothing and his drawers.
It was, more or less, the exact response she expected.
Now her thoughtful walk has finally brought her to the place she set out for all along: the woman’s dusty bookstore, in all its barren ugliness. “An explanation, and a few words of kindness from you,” she calls out again, her mechanical voice trembling in her throat, “and I will be on my way.” Her words bounce off the smoke-yellowed glass and settle in the dry weeds behind her, like insects scattering for the night, and for a long, heart-ticking moment, she finds herself wondering if the woman inside can even hear her at all.
But then she spots movement inside the shop: a velvety curtain shifting, a rickety cart rolling away from a door frame, and a heap of texts tumbling to the carpeted floor. Then the woman herself steps into view—her eyes narrowing to slits, her stockinged feet skittering to a stop, her slumped posture going suddenly straight and rigid. “You,” the woman growls.
And Viola hears it: not the word, exactly, but the meaning beneath it—a you that sounds so superior, so impersonal, that the woman might as well be scolding a broken shoe, or a scoffing at a cracked coffee filter.
The word alone makes her geared fingers clench at the knuckles.
“Yes, me,” she replies, crowding the glass. “The one you so rudely threw out of your shop.”
“You can’t be rude to a thing,” the woman spits back. She turns inside the store, looking frazzled and lost, and her hip knocks against a rack full of postcards and envelopes. “I don’t know what kind of nonsense that man has stuffed into that rusted head of yours,” she continues, “but you aren’t his daughter. You’re not even a girl at all. You’re a walking, talking appliance. And the saddest part of all is that you don’t even see it.”
Viola frowns, but doesn’t bother to tell the woman that the word she’s looking for is unnatural. Instead she jiggles the locked door handle and says, “We were customers with the intent of making a purchase. And you disrespected us both for no reason.”
The woman’s stare shifts to the door handle, and her eyes widen to an almost comical degree. “Get that nightmarish hand of yours off my door,” she snaps. Her glare meets Viola’s again, and this time when the woman speaks, her words are so rough and grating that Viola has an urge to cover her own ears, just to muffle the ugliness of the woman’s voice. “I reserve the right to refuse the business of anyone that I see fit. So consider your business refused—you and that despicable creator of yours. And consider this your final warning: leave my property now, or suffer the consequences.”
The threat is so open-ended, so vague, so devoid of any sort of clue, that Viola can’t stop herself from tilting her head and asking, “What consequences would that be?”
Apparently, this is not what the woman wanted to hear. “Why, you snobby little horror,” the woman says, charging toward the door. She unlocks the tumbler in a flurry of movement, keeping her gaze pinned to Viola’s face all the while, her features twisted into a skin-flushing grimace. When the door finally swings inward, Viola sees that the woman has brought something with her: a wood-handled pistol, clenched so tightly in one hand that her knuckles look ready to burst through her skin. “This!” the woman says, shaking the gun in Viola’s face. “This would be your consequence, you vile thing! How would you like a bullet rattling around in that ugly head of yours?”
The cogs in Viola’s skull clatter and churn, sifting through her memory on their own, until a definition rises the surface. The words spill out of her mouth before she even realizes she’s speaking: “Bullet. Noun. A metal projectile for firing from a rifle, revolver, or other small firearm, typically cylindrical and pointed, and sometimes containing an explosive.”
The woman takes a cautious step back and steadies the gun with her other hand, aiming it carefully at Viola’s chin. “Is that supposed to intimidate me, Thing? Am I supposed to be afraid just because you know the meaning of a word?”
“To put a bullet in my head would be . . . muder,” Viola replies. She hasn’t studied chapter M yet, but she’s heard Father ramble about murder so many times that she’s learned the context of the word. From what she understands, murder is one of the worst things a being can do to another.
“You can’t murder an object,” the woman grumbles. “And you most certainly are an object. A fake-haired, bratty-eyed device that I should shoot in the face right now, on pure principle alone. Especially after you laid those monstrous fingers of yours on me.” The woman glowers at Viola’s geared wrists, then mutters her next few words like she’s spitting out poison. “I had to bathe myself twice just to get the God-awful stink of your touch off me. So again, for the last time, get away from my store and out of my sight!”
And perhaps she should. Perhaps coming to this woman’s store was a mistake to begin with. She clearly has no intention of apologizing at all. But the more the woman waves that pistol in her face, the harder Viola’s will seems to get, and the more firmly her iron heels dig into the cobbles in front of the woman’s store. “I will not leave,” she says flatly, “until you tell me why you find my presence so offensive.”
“Because you’re a perversion of everything normal!” the woman bellows. “You should not exist! And the fact that I even have to explain this to you shows what a horrible man your creator is. He built you with an awareness that’s nothing but a ruse. If you truly understood what a monster you are, you’d destroy him and yourself the instant you realized it. And it’d be a fate that you’d both deserve.”
And Viola feels it: not a pressure, or a weight, or even a firmness inside her—no, she feels heat, and light, and a blazing storm that’s neither chemical nor organic, but something in between, like a flare from the sun, or a burst of electricity streaking out of a rain-darkened cloud.
How dare the woman threaten Father?
In an instant Viola is upon the woman, shoving her clumsy body deeper into the cluttered shop.
The woman yells out and flails her arms. The gun lets out an ear-crackling pop. Then Viola has the unique experience of counting the microseconds as the bullet whisks past her iron cheek, punches through the fabric curtain of her hair, then shatters the window behind her.
Seven hundredths of a second, from barrel to glass.
She can’t tell if this information is useful or not.
“Help!” the woman screams. Her voice flits out into the night-darkened road, and she thrashes uselessly against Viola’s grip. When that doesn’t work, she resorts to yelling again. “A monster has me! A murderous thing!”
Somewhere in the tangled wires of her mind, Viola can hear Father’s voice telling her to Be kind, and to Do the right thing. But these words were spoken so long ago that even the memory of them has become tarnished, the edges chipped away. Now his words sound more like Be, and Do the . . . thing, which is exactly what she intends to do.
She tightens her grip on the woman’s wrists, wrenching a pained yelp out of her foul-smelling mouth. Then she pulls the woman so close that their faces nearly mash together, their eyes mere inches apart. Viola counts the veins around the woman’s irises—thirteen in her left eye, nine in her right—before laying out her demands. “You will give me all the books Father intended to purchase,” she says, squeezing her voice to a menacing whisper, “or I will hurt you in such a way that your body will never fully heal. Understand?”
The woman’s body tenses, but she doesn’t say a word. She merely nods quickly, frantically, her eyes nearly bulging in their sockets.
“And,” Viola continues, pressing her geared body even closer to the woman’s heaving chest, “you will send an apology to Father, at the address that I provide, or I will damage your store in such a way that no customer will ever want to visit it again.”
Again the woman only nods, her wild eyes glistening with angry tears.
Viola holds her in place for just a moment longer—just long enough to remind the woman how powerless she is in her mechanical grasp. Then she lets her go with a shove. “Go,” she says softly. “And make sure you stack the books neatly.”
She watches the woman whimper and scurry away, while her clockwork mind whirrs audibly inside her skull. For a brief moment, a smile tugs at her corded lips.
Perhaps being unnatural isn’t so bad, after all. At the very least, it certainly has some . . . perks.
It’s hard for Viola to find the right word to describe how the books feel in her arms right now—their stiff backs pressed against her hip, their leathery spines cradled in the scoop of her metal hands.
Forbidden keeps coming to mind, though she’s not quite sure it’s the most accurate term; she still has a ways to go before reaching chapter F. Still, that doesn’t stop her from whispering the word into the darkness, just to gauge its rough edges as they slide off her tongue. “Forbidden,” she hisses, as quiet as breathing. “Forbidden.”
Father’s doorway is cracked open a few inches, like always, allowing just enough air into his windowless room to keep him from suffocating in his sleep. Tonight, the gap is wide enough for her to peer inside with one eye. Enough for her to see his curled form breathing gently in the dark, his body curled on his lumpy mattress, his legs wrapped in a fuzz-covered blanket.
Aside from the labored sound of his breathing, his room is eerily silent. There are no clattering instruments on his dresser, no crackling logs in his fireplace, no muffled words coming from his drooling mouth.
Viola rests her forehead against the doorframe and waits for the tiniest tremble, as if she might somehow feel the vibration of the man’s dreams shuddering through the wood. Thought requires energy, after all. Surely one’s imagination would give off some sort of . . . resonance?
But the door frame remains as still as stone, frustratingly devoid of clues.
Father’s dreams, for now, will continue to be a mystery.
The books that the shopkeeper gave her, however, can be cracked open at any time— and the freedom of this is so new, so unfamiliar, that it almost feels dangerous. Is she ready for all that knowledge? Is she prepared for all those newfound possibilities?
. . . Would Father approve, if he knew?
This last question bothers her the most, like grains of rust grinding between her joints. Mostly because she already knows the answer: Father certainly would not approve. In fact, he’d probably demand she return the books to that horrible woman—or even decide to do it himself.
And not even a written apology from the shopkeeper herself would convince him otherwise.
Which leaves her in a bind of sorts. She could wait for Father to wake, then show him the books, with the hope that he’ll allow her to keep them. Though it’s a hope that’s likely to be dashed.
Or . . .
She flexes the cables running down her throat, mimicking the same gulp that she’s seen Father do so many times before.
Or she could hide the books from Father and study them behind his back, in much the same way that he hoards his own secrets beneath his dingy mattress.
And wouldn’t it be fair, after all? If he feels entitled to sneak things past her notice, shouldn’t she be allowed to the same?
Wouldn’t that be . . . only natural?
Father coughs and shifts on his mattress, making his wooden bed frame creak, and the sound is like an electric jolt inside her corded muscles. Her limbs contract and she lurches away from the doorway so fast that the books slip from her grasp.
The fall lasts only a second, just long enough for gravity to take hold of the texts and yank them down, and they clatter to the cement floor in a heap of crinkled pages and bent covers.
The noise echoing throughout the warehouse like a pistol shot in the dark.
Father snorts and blurts out a disoriented, “Wha—?”, and Viola wastes no time: she plunges her geared hands under the pile of books, wrestles them to her chest, then whisks back to her room in a rush of rustling fabric and whispering gears. She reaches her medicine cabinet, then moves even quicker: dropping to her knees and stuffing the books under the wooden toe kick. She scatters the texts evenly among the cobwebs, tucking them into the places where the shadows are the thickest. Then she scrambles back to her feet and eases her metal body onto her cot.
By the time Father staggers to her doorway, she’s already tucked herself into a position mimicking sleep, her body curled away from him like an iron-plated comma in the dark.
For a moment Father just stands there, wheezing in the dark behind her, his body leaning against the door frame hard enough to make the wood creak. Then he finally rasps, “Did you hear anything unusual, Viola?”
He asks the question gently, without the slightest hint of suspicion, and the gears around Viola’s shoulders finally unwind. “I did not, Father,” she lies, straining her voice in a practiced way—with just enough slurring of her words to make her sound groggy. Father knows better than anyone that she doesn’t actually slumber, but he’s never once called attention it.
Perhaps all those organic behaviors that she tries so hard to mimic—all those inefficient movements, all those pointless sounds—maybe they truly do make her seem more . . . alive.
“Hm,” Father replies with a sigh. “I suppose it’s possible that I dreamt it up.”
She doesn’t quite know how to respond to that—the whole concept of dreaming is still so confusing. So she merely rolls over to face the doorway, then says to Father’s silhouette: “That would be the most logical conclusion. Otherwise, I would’ve heard something, too. My hearing is better than yours, after all.”
Father lets out a satisfied grunt, then says, “Well then. Mystery solved.” He lingers at the doorway for a moment longer, as if there’s something else he’d like to talk about. As if he suddenly has an urge to ask more of his frustrating night questions—the ones that do nothing but bother her. Questions like, “Do you ever find yourself curious about boys your age?” Or: “Have you found any memories from before the moment you first opened your eyes?” Or, her least favorite of all: “Do you ever find yourself angry with no reasonable cause?”
The answer to all such questions has always been a resounding yes. Yes, she’s curious about boys her age—how could she not be? The ones she’s seen—those shaggy-haired youths laughing in the marketplaces, or wandering quietly along grassyards behind the schools—they’ve all looked so fundamentally different from both herself and Father. So mysterious. So . . . intimidating.
And yes, she has found memories from a time before Father created her. Blurry images sliding behind her copper eyelids. Muffled voices warbling in the channels of her ears. Sugary scents drifting through her geared sinuses, and bitter tastes draping over the receptors of her tongue, and the tender graze of a warm hand caressing the slope of her face. But whenever she dwells on these memories, they only lead to confusion and a gaping sensation deep in her core, as if something crucial and vital has been torn out of her. As if she’s no longer whole.
And yes, she does find herself angry with no reasonable cause. Angry at herself. Angry at Father. Angry at all the soft, vulnerable parts of the world—those features and places where she doesn’t fit in. These reminders that she doesn’t belong.
But tonight, Father asks none of these questions. Instead he merely whispers, “Back to bed I go, then. Forgive my intrusion, dear daughter.” Then he’s gone, leaving nothing behind but the sound of his evening shoes scuffing against the cement.
Viola lies motionless in the dark for several long minutes, until Father’s distant breathing turns hoarse and slow. Then she climbs off her cot in a smooth, practiced pivot, and retrieves one of the books from beneath her medicine cabinet.
It’s far too dark to read the text now, and she’s not foolish enough to light a candle. But no matter. She’ll have time to read tomorrow, when the sun has crested and Father has journeyed out for his morning walk. For now she simply stays the way she is: kneeling in the dark, with a book clutched to her ticking chest, the weight of all those forbidden secrets cradled gently in her metal hands.
“Alchemy,” she whispers, humming the word so gently that it might as well be a gust of wind. So softly that it might as well be magic. The gears lining her cheeks twist and click, until her corded lips are flexed into a grin. With any luck, she’ll be like Father soon: Warm and fleshy. Delicate and breathing.
The most natural thing in the world.