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Minuet

By asana All Rights Reserved ©

Scifi / Horror

Blurb

A short story about death and machinery.

Chapter 1

1895

The song is the first thing I hear; quiet and rough as unvarnished wood.

“Pretty little doll”

I hear the clink of a tiny hammer on copper.

“Dressed in white”

A soft whirring of gears, the buzzing of flies.

“Ready for the show tonight”

I open my eyes.

It is a dim room that I find myself in. It is small and untidy; every surface covered with blueprints on aging parchment, glass jars holding tools like bouquets of iron flowers, heaps of delicate springs and gears. The flies, whose buzzing vibrates the very air, are everywhere. They languidly stalk along the parchments, perch on wrenches, and hover in the stale, oily-smelling air. In the centre of the workshop, for that is what I think it is, there is a long wooden table that holds a guttering candelabrum. Next to the candelabrum is a shape covered by a white cloth and half-obscured from view by the bent old man who sings. In the half-light, the gears and springs glitter like animalistic eyes. Where am I? Why am I here? I make to move, to ask the old man who he is and what has happened to bring me here, but nothing happens. No body responds to my mind’s commands. No feet shuffle, no fingers curl, I am not even breathing. I try to gasp for air, to clutch at my chest, to even feel the pain of empty lungs. Nothing. Nothing.

The old man stops singing and lays down his tools.

“That should be sufficient.” He croaks, half to himself and half to the fly that skitters up the back of his neck.

And then he throws back the white sheet with a flourish that makes the candle flames turn small and blue for an instant and steps back from the table. I can see what he has been working on in the now-gold candlelight. Someone, pale and still, thin body crisscrossed with dark puckered stitches and smeared with drying blood, lies on the weathered tabletop. The sewing is crudely done, and in places the uneven stitching has split to reveal muscle and bone as white as the sheet that lies crumpled at her feet. But flesh is not all that the stitching conceals, for inert copper gears and springs glitter behind exposed ribs. Suddenly everything is muffled and fuzzy. There is a sort of halo around her bloodless face. Only her eyes are clear to me--flat and blue, staring without seeing at the ceiling. All I can hear clearly are the flies, bloated and charcoal black, which hover around the body like gruesome guardian angels. They crawl over her skin, trace paths around her lips, gather about her eyes. I see this and shudder, but I feel nothing. The body on the table, my body, does not move.

~

I wake to the headmistress’ brusque knocking on the door to my room. At first, my mind is fogged as the burgeoning day, unable to curl around a reason to leave the comfort of my bed. Gasp! I jolt into a sitting position, hair tumbling in tangles around my face. Today’s the day! I slide out of bed eagerly; giving little thought to the icy floorboards or the way the chill curls its fingers around the hem of my wool nightgown. I wash and dress more quickly than I ever have before, powered by the raw excitement thrumming through my veins. I pause only to reverently smooth the wrinkles from my best Sunday dress. I run my fingers over the pale blue cotton, then make sure that my corset it laced and my petticoats fastened before I slip on the gown. I shiver as pull on my gloves and hat, and make sure to wrap a shawl around my shoulders. The dress is a spring pattern, made for a season far warmer and livelier than the cold April that glares through my room’s icy windowpanes.

Breakfast is a rushed, silent affair in the dining hall. It is strange to be just the three of us sitting at the table meant for sixty chattering girls. We try to talk, to laugh, but the gay sounds leave too quickly and return to us sounding hollow, having made the lonely journey across the room and back. But perhaps I am the only one who hears this. I am surely the only one for whom the prospect of tea with four esteemed gentlemen in the city is suddenly seeming less than desirable. Not a week ago, when Ms. Greystone told us about the wish of the school’s benefactors to have tea with the three most accomplished pupils, I was ecstatic. We do not often venture beyond the grounds, for the school is isolated in the countryside and our parents do not approve of the effects of turn-of-the-century metropolitan indulgences on young women like us. Any reason to leave behind embroidered pillow covers and endless French conjugations should be a welcome one, even if the reason is the four starched men whose countenances glare from gold-leafed frames above the fireplace. But something about the misty morning chill, the eerie silence of the corridors, and the strange surreptitiousness of leaving the whole school sleeping as we shuffle into the courtyard dampen the buzz of excitement in my stomach.

We are bundled into the shiny black motorcar, sent all the way from the city to pick us up. After a flurry of appropriately soft-spoken apologies for crushing this hat or tangling oneself in that ribbon, we settle into a silent pastel petticoat confection with three pale faces like sugar-spun roses. I do not know either of the girls with me, a strange occurrence in a school so small, I know only their reputations. They are both my seniors, one by a year and the other by two, and at the tops of their respective classes. Charity, the elder, is a dancer like me. She is tiny, almost birdlike in her delicacy, with yellow hair in a perfect braided bun and wide azure eyes. She sits perfectly still across from me, as if waiting in position for the lights to go up on her next piece. The other, Jacqueline, is the only foreigner at our school. She plays the piano with spidery pale fingers that never rest, even now tapping out some minuet in her lap. She is pretty, with an almost ochre braid coiled about her neck, but nearsighted. She squints her grey-blue eyes as she looks out the window. I wish my friends Anna and Victoria had come with me, rather than these two. The car lurches as it goes over a rut in the road, and I am happy to be alone on my side of the car.

The familiar countryside slowly changes to the exotic bustle of the city. Tenements pop up in place of woods, factories replace secluded family manors. The road changes from uneven dirt to worn paving stones and becomes crowded. People are everywhere; emerging from side-streets, strolling down side-walks, pressing up against the sides of the car. A few stare in the windows at us, and I draw the curtains over the face of a filthy, grinning little boy. The car creeps forward for what feels like ages, and then I feel it slow and stop. All of a sudden, the collar of my gown seems far too tight. I tug at it in vain. My heart beating is in my throat, and my stomach flutters. I glance at the other girls, who look as wan and nervous as I feel. Someone taps at the far window and Charity pulls aside the curtain to reveal the plump face of Mrs. Fairchild, Greystone’s cousin and our chaperone.

~

I breathe. I keep my eyes closed as I search for my fingers, toes, everything. I breathe again, and it such a relief to feel the rush of air filling my lungs. It was only a dream. But never mind it now. Classes begin early, and I still have half a cardigan to finish knitting before luncheon. I open my eyes and sit up in bed. Or, I try to sit up. My eyes are open, but I see only blackness before them. My limbs are oddly stiff, as if they are confined by splints. I can feel them, but I have control over nothing save my eyelids, which I blink, and my fingers, which I wriggle in panic. My breathing is as uniform as clockwork despite my distress, and the air that I attempt to gasp is stuffy, warm, and cedar-scented. I try to cry out, but my lips refuse to move. Then I hear muffled voices from outside and my prison shudders.

“And now for your gift, Lydia,” a man’s voice exclaims from just outside,

“the finest of its kind: a lovely little dancer. ”

The box is jostled again as its front is removed by four ruddy hands. Light rushes in; golden firelight. It smells of gingerbread and peppermint and I see a tree draped with tiny electric bulbs in many colors in the corner. Heaps of gifts in red and silver paper surround the tree and tinsel and holly branches decorate the mantel. Unfamiliar faces swim before my eyes in a riot of color and I pick out a young lady, not much older than I, in expensive red velvet and cream lace. She must be Lydia. She is plain, with mousy hair and an overlarge nose, but excitement makes her light up. She claps her hands in joy as her father straightens the ivory tulle of my tutu. Then he lifts me as if I weight nothing and carries my stiff form to the edge of the rug. He sets me down and I glimpse myself in the gilded mirror that leans against a wall. I stand in the midst of fawning young ladies and appraising gentlemen—still as a statue in a beaded silk and tulle dancing dress and pointe shoes.

“She’s almost like a real girl!” comments one of Lydia’s friends as she plays with my golden curls.

“I am! I am real!” I want to shout, but though my face has been painted as if the roses are still in my cheeks, there is no life there.

“Stand aside, ladies. I haven’t yet shown you what she can do.” Cries the man, who flourishes a golden key in plump fingers. The guest obediently withdraw to their chairs as he finds a notch somewhere in my right hip and inserts the key. It is as if I have been stabbed. The pain is sharp and cold. Then he turns the key, and I can feel the cogs and springs inside me twist, scraping against bone and slicing through flesh. As he winds, the clockwork within me clicks grotesquely and coils tighter and tighter until I feel as if I will explode should he release the key. And then he does. My arms curl into first position.

And then I dance, my body executing the steps dictated by the clockwork that ticks where my heart should be. I twirl gracefully and balance on aching toes. I am a marvel of engineering, moving to the music emanating from a little box that hums on my tongue. I want to cry, for the only sounds I can now make are the tinny bars of “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”. I remember seeing the Nutcracker with my parents when I was a little girl. It was snowing when we left the theater, and the perfect snowflakes sparkled like diamonds on my green velvet muffler when I pretended to dance on the paving stones.

“Oh! How wonderful, George! She must have cost simply a fortune!”

“Anything for you, Lydia dear.”

Yes. How wonderful.

I am wound many times that evening, and I am relieved when at last the guests make their excuses and depart. I am left standing in the middle of the carpet, and I watch the servants clear up dishes put out the gas lamps. They pay me no mind at all; it as if I am a chair or a table-lamp. At last, a maid remembers me.

“What shall I do with Mistress Lydia’s gift, sir?” she asks the butler, who appears to have already dipped into the holiday sherry.

“Oh, put her in a cupboard. Just make sure her dress isn’t crushed.”

She carries me to a closet and shoves me in between the winter coats. Then the maid closes the door in my face and I listen as the house goes to bed. A woolen greatcoat scratches my cheek. I close my eyes.

~

I do not like these men, our benefactors. They are perfectly polite, of course. They extend us the utmost courtesy, serving an assortment of beautiful tiny desserts that Mrs. Fairchild has forbidden us to eat as well as white tea in china cups with painted butterflies and gold rims. The butterflies look as suffocated as I feel, painted flat and lifeless in faded enamel. The sitting room is lovely, but affected: a masterpiece of white wainscoting and brass finishings. The wallpaper is cream with embossed fleur-de-lis the deep red of dried blood and the mantel is overflowing with doilies and Ming vases. The overpowering stench of rose-water emanates from everything, including the Persian rug and the chaise upon which I perch stiffly. It is easy to see why these men are bachelors, all. Their collars are high and starched stiff as the ivory boning in my corset. Mr. Salisbury, Mr. Reed, Mr. Castlehugh, and Mr. Huntington-Ellis wear tasteful three-piece suits in sedate grays and browns like any my father would wear, but there is a distinctly slimy feel about them that does not show in the paintings that grace the walls of our school. Their salt-and pepper hair is too slick, their eyes are too small and furtive, and their plump hands are too clammy and bejeweled.

They ask Charity to dance while Jacqueline plays “Swan Lake” on the harpsichord. She is unused to such an old-fashioned instrument, and her hesitancy causes Charity to stumble once. I can see Charity’s mistake ripple through the four men, and though they watch her dance hungrily, they seem less rapt than before. Then it is my turn. I splutter nervously, for I did not know I was to dance and did not bring my shoes.

“It’s fine, dear. We have shoes for such an eventuality.” Whistles Mr. Reed, whose voice sounds as his name suggests.

A maid brings in a cedar shoebox and places it on the chaise next to me.

“I’m not certain they will be the correct—” I begin, but Mrs. Fairchild silences me with a look from where she sits next to the window.

I open the box and unwrap the shoes. They are brand new—gleaming salmon pink silk with stiff soles and boxes. I slide them on and they fit perfectly. I do not feel like Cinderella, instead I feel as if a forgotten destiny I had been trying to escape has ambushed me from a darkened alleyway.

Jacqueline makes no mistakes the second time, and I do not stumble in “Entrée de Giselle”. I seem to please them, and after I sit they talk quite animatedly among themselves. Charity and Jacqueline excuse themselves to go to the washroom, but when I make to stand Mrs. Fairchild waves me still. So I sit stiffly and sip tepid sugarless tea and watch Mr. Salisbury, Mr. Reed, Mr. Castlehugh, and Mr. Huntington-Ellis discuss me, for I can tell their topic of conversation from Mr. Salisbury’s glances. After I have sat alone and in silence for a very long time, Mr. Huntington-Ellis turns to me with something akin to sympathy,

“Have some tea, dear, while you wait for the other two.”

“I already—” I begin, but Mr. Reed cuts me off by refilling my cup. It is strange, I don’t recall seeing the teapot that he uses this time on the table before. I would have remembered one so curious: a squat cast iron thing with clawed legs. The tea from this pot is black and the steam spirals up from its spout even as tea sloshes into my cup. He hands back the cup and I get a whiff of the new tea. It is musky and wild, but also slightly sour as if the leaves have gone bad. I do not want to drink it, but all four men stare at me with bright eyes. I glance at Mrs. Fairchild for reassurance, but she looks fixedly out the window.

I take a sip, expecting a flavor even worse than the smell, but it tastes like boiled water with no leaves at all. Mr. Salisbury, Mr. Reed, Mr. Castlehugh, and Mr. Huntington-Ellis regard me as I finish the cup in hesitant sips. Charity and Jacqueline do not return. I begin to feel faint, and the room swims before my eyes. Ceiling becomes floor and wall becomes ceiling and the floor is rushing towards me like that train in the silent film. I feel myself falling, but am powerless to catch myself. Something gold brushes against my cheek and wavers like seaweed caught in the tide before my face. It is my hair. It looks funny and I laugh. It isn’t appropriate to laugh in front of unmarried gentlemen. Then I feel soft carpet against my cheek as I watch the teacup shatter in front of my nose. All those little painted butterflies are freed, now. As their porcelain cage is destroyed, I see them leap upwards on shining shards. For a moment, it seems that they will fly away.

Then all is dark.

~

The creaking of the closet door wakes me. A small face appears. It’s a little girl—Lydia’s sister?—holding a candle.

“Is it in there?” inquires a boy’s voice from somewhere behind her.

“Shhh,” she whispers angrily back, “Yes.”

It takes both of them to lift and carry me to the parlor, where they set me on the rug.

“I just want to play it one more time.”

“Ok, but be quick. We have to be asleep before Santa comes.”

They wind me with tiny fingers, less demanding than their father’s strong ones. It still hurts, but I am beyond caring. I am resigned as I dance. I stare fixedly at a point ahead, seeing only those butterflies flying upwards. My fingers brush something cold and I jolt awake. What? My hands are moving upwards as I arabesque.

“Lucy? Thomas?” comes a sleepy man’s voice from upstairs.

The children turn pale and scramble to the stairs as fast as they can, not even bothering to remove my key or put me back in the closet.

I am still dancing when the upstairs has returned to silence. My fingers brush cold again as I turn and I realize: it’s my key. I can touch my key. Touch, and perhaps turn? I can feel myself winding down and I wait, scared to hope for another piece of luck. I am a quarter of the way across the carpet now. I can see the front door. If I can wind myself enough times perhaps I can reach it? And then the cold comes again. With fingers that are blessedly still my own I grip the key tightly and turn. My arm tries to wrench my hand into fifth for a pas-de-chat, but I hold on tight and turn again. The clockwork in my shoulder grinds angrily and I must let go, but it is enough. I am wound tight again and I restart my dance across the floor. The slowness of “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” is agonizing. Must I waste precious energy on this changement or that tondue? Slowly, but surely I make my way across the room. The gears in my right shoulder are damaged now; my arm’s movements are jerky and painful. I do not care; I only need one more wind before I can reach the door.

“Lucy!”

An angry voice comes from upstairs.

“I thought I told you to go to bed!”

“It’s not Lucy! Don’t come down here!” I want to shout at the approaching footsteps, but all that comes from my mouth are the closing bars of the suite. My eyes widen and I grope for the key, but my hand has already arced past. Too late, I feel my clockwork begin to slow.

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