Clockwork Heart (Part IV)

On the eve of my next visit to Aisa’s home, I fell asleep exhausted atop my sheets, much as I had when I returned that first night. This time it was not surgery that had taxed me, but a day of revelry such as I had never before enjoyed. Throughout the last fortnight – at least since I had risen after my long sleep – I had experienced things I had forever thought beyond the abilities of my constitution to withstand. I ate and drank and sported and laughed. For the first time in my life, I began to frequent inns and taverns. Some reputable, others less so. I drank until I could drink no more, until I embarrassed myself before strangers, but I did not care. You see, I had discovered that when a man is good company, his fellows will forgive him almost anything. That which if demonstrated by a lecherous, lowly blackguard might be considered further symptom of a degraded condition was, if the role belonged to a man of good-standing, noble countenance and generous purse, admired as fortitude and healthy eccentricity. It had never been an ambition of mine to be eccentric. I had, all my life, sought only to go unnoticed. I had been afraid. I had been a coward. I was a coward no longer; now, I was a hero. I was admired. I carried myself with dignity and poise, and I spoke my mind. I had always possessed a quick wit, of course, since I am after all a writer. But in my previous life I had for the most part been too afraid to say the things that came to me when I was part of some conversation at a party or supper. I always thought that whatever it was would lead to me being ridiculed or, perhaps worse, pitied. So I would always shrink in my chair and say nothing, content to nod along only, and smile at the clever jokes of others that I had thought of first but was too embarrassed to say. Those men, hale and hearty men, moustachioed men, men of business and appetite, would command a room or table with ease. They would hold court like princes, admired by men and adored by women. I knew that I lived in a blessed age, an age of glorious progress and marvellous invention. To live in London during such a time was to ride upon the crest of a wave, at the peak of mankind’s achievements. Such men as I had watched from afar were part of that wave. They were the harbingers of a new and wondrous era. They were great men: titans in waiting. I was a mere spectator; a peripheral figure, a footnote if I would be remembered at all.

At least, that was who I once was. Now, a new spirit possessed me. Marjory was right to ask what had got into me. She and I had spent a pleasant day together, and when we parted company I kissed her again. She blushed, prettily. Again, for the first time, I felt a carnal lust stir in me as I looked at her. I longed to marry her at once, and take her to our marital bed. Such thoughts I had always considered to be unbecoming. Not gentlemanly. Low and uncouth. Now, I felt different, just as I felt different in a squalid public house near the river, where bargemen came to drink away the cares of the day. Sweat and oil clung to the planks beneath my feet and the reek of smoke hung thickly in the air. There, I was a gentleman, some rich cove playing at being a working man. But they had taken to me quickly. I had those rough, filthy men roaring soon enough, and together we drank gin and sang songs. I had never felt so alive.

Now, sleep claimed me. My clothes were crumpled and my head spinning, but I cared not a jot. I was happy. As happy as I had ever been. But, in the darkness of the night, I dreamt of strange things. I knew that excessive consumption of all kinds could lead to strange phantasms, but this was the most vivid nightmare I had known. I was walking, alone, in a strange place. It was a hillside, dry and arid, with pine trees clinging to a rocky shelf to my right. The stony ground was dotted with tough grass and gorse, and the air smelt hot and smoky. The light was very bright, and when I looked up the sky was not blue, but a blazing bronze all over, like the great dome of a bell had been set over me and this barren landscape. There was no sun, but instead the light came from all around. I gazed about me, attempting to find some landmark I might recognise, or some other way to find my bearings, but it was to no avail. I walked on and came to ruins. They were half-buried in the hillside, great masonry of ancient provenance, walls and arches and high, fluted columns in the classical style. I walked around the broken building, trying now to discern what manner of structure it might once have been, but it was lost to the long decay of ages. Just the bones of a forgotten palace. I continued a little way and now I found the land beginning to rise and, before long, I had crested a ridge. I looked down upon a sight I could not adequately explain: below me stretched a great network of berms and channels, carved into solid rock. The design was both bewitching and horrifying, for it had the form of a vast, curving maze, circling in on itself. It stretched from horizon to horizon, encompassing the whole vista. Its scale filled me with terror. To think that such a thing could have been built by the hands of man, and to imagine what madness would possess an architect to design it, was discomfiting in the extreme. I pondered the mighty labyrinth for moments, or perhaps an age – time moves strangely in dreams, after all – until a sound behind me made me turn. I saw then a towering shape walking towards me up the hillside. Its form was manlike, but it was three times my height, and its flesh was bronze, like the sky. Its movements were unnatural, jerky, but its eyes blazed with infernal light and they stared straight at me. I wanted to flee, but all strength had deserted me, and when I looked down at myself I saw that I was as feeble as I had been before my visit to Aisa. I could do nothing but cower as the giant advanced on me. His hands were like spades and, as they reached for me, their blades cut through me, slicing me to pieces. I felt no pain – I was as distant from it as I had been when under Aisa’s spell – but revulsion filled me as I watched the parts of myself fall free. There was no blood. Each part that landed on the ground did not lie inert, but instead began to crawl with a will of its own. I saw my hand inch its way along the gravel like some ghastly fleshy spider. My feet hopped away. My eyes rolled and my tongue slithered like some fat pink slug. I do not know what was left of me in the end, or how I watched with no eyes to see, but I saw my own body desert me, leaving me motionless on the ground, unable to move or speak or affect the world in any way. The hand of the brazen monster reached down for me and I tried to scream, but no sound came out.

I awoke in a pool of cold sweat. My eyes were wide and now, free of the imagined torment of my nightmarish vision, I was able to scream. I hugged myself closely, instinctively checking that all was present and correct. My hand strayed to my chest and I felt the nub of metal embedded into my flesh. My fingers probed the gilded keyhole beneath my shirt, and I shivered at the touch. The key was still safely around my neck on its chain and I pulled it out and gripped it fiercely. When I held my breath, and all was silent, I could hear the tick-ticking of the clockwork that now resided within me, beating a counterpart to the thud-thudding of my heart. I did not like to dwell on it too much. As seized by joy as I had been, the source of it still seemed sour. And now I meant to return to that place, and continue this madness? Well, of course I must. I must be whole. It was clear to me then what the meaning of my dream was, if meanings could ever be ascribed to such confusing fantasies of the mind. I wished to be complete – what man would not? The job was but a fifth done. The bronze giant was the memory of the clockwork man Aisa had built, whose heart she had sacrificed to save me. Theseus. And of course the maze and the Grecian ruins were there because, in my mind, they were associated with the legendary hero of antiquity after whom her creation was named. I laughed at my own fear, but it was a hollow sound in my dark, empty chamber. The dream was simply a jumble of ideas my confused thoughts had thrown together for its own entertainment. That was all. I looked at the clock on the wall. It was not yet dawn. I wanted to return to sleep, but decided against it. It would be better to be fresh and prepared for what was to come. I rose, and sought clean clothes.

*

My return to the part of the city in which Aisa resided was less fraught with terror than it had been the first time. I had, these past days, frequented so many low places that the black tenements now held little fear for me. I was no longer a small man, half a cripple, scared for my very life. And yet, I proceeded with some trepidation. I had waited until the evening, for Aisa had intimated such to me while showing me out after the first operation, and the grey dusk was beginning to loom in. The smog was thick and it was hard to see more than a few yards in any direction. The shapes of buildings reared out of the reeking miasma, like giants’ tombstones in some sepulchral saga of ancient days. I fretted too, like my old self, because my previous experience had not been altogether pleasant. I remembered then the things that I had pushed from my mind – the blood on the stone floor of the workshop, the dancing light in the beautiful woman’s eyes, the tick-tock of strange, unfathomable devices that opened doors and turned lamps as if by magic. I recalled waking up and seeing the scar across my chest; the scar I still bore, and which was purple with bruising and, in the mornings, continued to ache. And, most of all, I remembered floating above myself, seeing my body ripped open and invaded, hearing my own screams, muffled by whatever sorcery or science had removed my mind or spirit or whatever it might be from my physical form.

I reached the door. Even before my hand had touched the knocker, it began to open. Now I knew to listen for it, and in the odd silence of the narrow, foggy street – quite deserted at this hour – it was readily audible, I could hear the ticking of the mechanism that caused the portal to swing open. Inside it was as dark as it had been before. I felt that same sense of foreboding again. I entered hesitantly and stood silently as the door closed. I still carried my cane, though no longer supported myself with it. I gripped it now though, tightly. I was glad I had chosen to wear gloves, not because of the cold, but because my palms were slick with sweat. The lights came on, coming towards me down the long hallway, just like the last time. I could have walked on, I reflected. I knew the way. It was a straight corridor, after all. But I had not wished to forge on in darkness. Near thirty years of cowardice could not be undone by a mere fortnight of debauchery. When the way was fully lit by the wavering paraffin lamps, I finally began my approach. No hobbling for me this time, no desperate dash for the light, but a confident stride, chin up and chest puffed out. And yet, swift as my feet with their newfound strength carried me, the failing lamps still outpaced me and I raced against the shadows. They overtook me before I reached the far door and, again, I found myself in darkness, waiting. Some game of Aisa’s perhaps? Maybe it amused her to force me to endure this. I knew they had flicked out faster than upon my first visit. What was the purpose of tormenting me? I was growing angry. I had never been an angry man before. Anger was wont to give me heartburn and indigestion. But I brandished my cane like a cosh and went to rap upon the inner door. It swung open with a tick-tick-tick before I could do so, and I stumbled into the octagonal boudoir.

All was as before, save that the door opposite was now open too and, seeing my hostess was not present, I walked through immediately and into her workshop. “I say,” I began as I entered, “what was the meaning of…”

Aisa turned to me and smiled, and my words faded. Had she become more beautiful, or had I somehow forgotten how she looked? She was dressed as before, in her peculiar red dress and jacket, and as far as I recalled, there was no difference in the style of her hair, but she seemed far more ravishing, far more exotic, and I felt lust stir in me. I was not accustomed to this. My mouth was dry. “James, my darling, so pleased to see you again,” she said. Her voice was warm and inviting, her stare lascivious, her lips very, very red, as red as arterial blood.

Some instinct, heretofore unknown, possessed me. I moved towards her, slowly, a hunter stalking prey, but I knew that she was by far the superior predator. She watched me like a hawk watches a mouse. There was pleasure in her eyes, a knowing smile, and yet also a cold kind of contempt, a dispassionate, calculating mind that did not think of me as an equal. How I knew this, I could not say, but before I knew it was happening we stood very close indeed, and she placed a hand upon my chest, directly on the keyhole. I shuddered.

“How have you fared this past fortnight?” she asked me.

“Well, madam. I have been…strong…stronger than I knew I could be.”

“That does not surprise me, James.” Her fingers caressed the outline of the metal plate, through my waistcoat and shirt both. “Just remember, with new strength comes new appetites.” Not for the first time, I felt naked before her. She had seen me in a more vulnerable position than anyone living except maybe my mother. She had seen me not merely unclothed, but unskinned. She had put her hands inside me, and gripped my very heart. The absurdity of it occurred to me suddenly. To let this woman, this foreign stranger, violate me in such a way was utterly foolhardy. Who was she? What right did she have to invade my body in such a brutal fashion? Why had I surrendered to her ministrations? But, standing so close, with her scent filling my nostrils, I could find no reason to object to her plans to continue her task. I had begun, had I not? Could I really turn back now?

She broke her stare after a moment of me saying nothing, and I looked over her shoulder. The wardrobe where her metal man, the mighty Theseus, resided was open again, and he stood to attention, a lifeless soldier. He was nothing like the grotesque monster of my dream. In fact, standing there like that, a wound-down automaton, a thing of cogs and wires, he seemed almost comical. Perhaps, with sufficient work, he might approach a semblance of life like the finch Aisa had shown me when I’d first arrived last time, but mimicking a human being is far harder than mimicking a chirruping bird. Or there again, to other birds, the clockwork finch might seem as much a hideous mannequin as Theseus did to me. I parted from Aisa and went to look at the mechanical man in his coffin box. His chest was open, and his wondrous organs displayed again. It was hard not to admire the craftsmanship, and I was still aghast at the skills of my hostess, but it was just machinery. Remarkable machinery, certainly: machinery that sustained me even now, that had given me new life, but mere clockwork for all that. And now missing a heart too. “Tell me, Miss Aisa, why did you name him Theseus?”

“I am just Aisa,” she said as she came to stand beside me. She ran a hand down the sculpted muscles of his arm. The bronze was somewhat tarnished, and I wondered when he had been built. “Do you know the legend of Theseus?”

“Of course. He was the prince of Athens who slew the Minotaur. One of the greatest heroes of Greek myth.”

“Yes indeed,” she said with another bewitching smile, “a mighty hero indeed. And is that not a fitting name for my creation?”

“Of course. But why Theseus in particular? Why not Jason or Achilles? Why not Heracles or Bellerophon?”

“Theseus was the founder of Athens. Athens is where my ancestors dwelt.”

“Oh yes, of course…”

“And, furthermore, he holds a special place in my heart.” She had not taken her eyes from the clockwork man, and now her hand strayed to the place in his chest where his heart had once sat. That heart was still on the bench beside the gurney. Another part of it was already detached, awaiting me.

“Why is that, madam?”

“As a girl, I saw his ship. I was fascinated by it.”

I frowned. “His ship? The ship of Theseus?”

“Yes.”

“But surely, that was lost in antiquity…”

“They preserved it,” she said softly. Now she cradled the chin of the automaton and looked into his glassy eyes. “Down the ages, they preserved it. When a plank or timber rotted, they replaced it. They took parts of it away and put in new ones. The ship lasted for all time that way.”

“Could it be said to be the same ship at all then? If every part of it was changed…”

“The question,” she said, turning to me suddenly, fire flashing in her dark eyes, “is whether a thing is merely the sum of its constituent parts, or whether there is some essence, some spirit, that defines it outside of a fragile, mortal shell.”

“Well,” I allowed, “that is perhaps a question for philosophers. Certainly, the Church teaches that there is some undefinable, irreducible being that we each possess. Our soul, of course. Whether that extends to objects, even those once owned by a man such as Theseus – if he was a real historical personage at all – I could not say. I flatter myself to be a man of learning and reason. Many men of science believe that there is some vital force that separates the organic from the inorganic, some element or power that creates life from inert material. Whether this could survive a process of continuous change in the physical host…” I trailed off, wilting beneath her amused scrutiny. “I…I fear I am out of my depth, Miss…er…Aisa.” Her name felt odd to say aloud.

“You speak of theory, when you have put such things into practice before now.”

“Pardon me?”

Her hand returned to my chest. “You are a man, yes?”

“Yes. What of it?” I was not sure where this line of conversation might lead. The possibilities made me nervous.

“A mortal man. As a child, you lost teeth. You lost blood when you scraped your knee. You lose hair, and shed skin. You are flesh. And flesh weeps, and sweats, it pisses and shits. It commits the sin of onanism. Does it not, James?”

I swallowed. I was repelled by the language she used, by her frank descriptions of bodily functions, but also somehow attracted to her boldness. I felt much as I had in that stinking public house with the bargeman. I wished, in some secret part of myself, to wallow in depravity.

“In ancient Greece,” Aisa continued, pushing me firmly towards the gurney, “they did not fear their bodies as you do here. They were not repulsed by that which came naturally. In Greek heroes, the full flowering of humankind occurred. That is why I call him Theseus. Because he is beyond us.” I was forced onto the gurney and Aisa leant over me. “It is time to continue.”

I could not refuse her, not when her body was so close to mine. I could feel her breasts brushing against my chest. My heart quickened, and with it the tick-tock of the valve she had put there. I nodded weakly. The jar was in her hand again, and the mysterious vapour filled the air. I grew tired, and I looked up at Theseus in his box. He stared at me. His eyes were unchanged, and yet it seemed to me there was a glint of something in them, a spark of life. A vital force. I slept again.

 

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