Clockwork Heart (Part VII)

I dreamt. And yet it was not a dream, because I did not sleep. I was far beyond sleep. I did not know who I was, where I was or how I had come to be in this place, but I knew I shouldn’t be here. I knew, somehow, that I shouldn’t be anywhere. I should be dead. I should have dissipated into nothingness, but some strange, cruel fate was maintaining my life beyond its natural span, and with that stretching of my days came too a fraying of the soul, so that what was left of me was threadbare and weak. I ran across a barren, rocky hillside – a place I had been before, though I had no memory of it then – beneath a curved sky of burning bronze. I could barely breathe. I was exhausted, my body spent by this frantic flight, the beginning of which I did not recall. It was as if I had always been running. I was weak and shrunken, with a stooped back and stick-thin limbs that nonetheless were heavy as lead. I was naked, scorched beneath this hellish dome, my skin prickling and pink. And everywhere, from all around me, came an incessant tick-tick-tick. It was louder than thunder, as if some vast and terrible machine lay beyond the horizon. The sky and the mountain I traversed reverberated with it, and I shook with terror at each great clang that sounded. There was no rhythm to the ticking; rather, it seemed to match the desperate pounding of my heart. I looked about me for cover, knowing that there was no hiding from what pursued me. There were ruins ahead, pale and flaking in the strange ruddy light, and I sought what shelter I could in amongst the crumbling walls and columns.

I crouched behind a tumbled wall, clutching my naked body tightly, head buried in my knees, weeping with the sheer numbing horror of it all. What chased me? I did not know. Why I feared it so thoroughly? I could not have said. I just knew that whatever it was, it meant my doom, and that these ruins were no protection at all. This brief respite would, ultimately, cost me more, for that which hunted me did not tire, and with each passing second, with each thunderous tick-tock, it gained on me. I rested as long as I dared and then hauled myself upwards, leaning on the fragmented brickwork of the wall for support. My feet were bloody and blistered. For how long had this mindless, maddening chase persisted? What sin had I committed that had brought me to this strange Hell?

And surely I was in Hell. Some hideous Tartarus of my own making, wrought by my transgressions in life. Satan has a sense of humour, or so was my understanding. The gluttons he punishes with feasts, the slothful with bondage, the lechers with empty, orgiastic cavorting, until all are exhausted and broken by the very depravity they once so relished. What was my sin? I had run from my fate. I knew that, even though I knew nothing else. I had tried to surpass the very nature of my being, and now my hubris was visited upon me. As I had run in life, so I must run in death.

I lumbered onwards, gasping, desperate for water and shade, but finding neither, and knowing I could not pause even if I should stumble upon burbling stream or cool pavilion. Ahead, a line of scrubby trees loomed. I made for them, for no other course presented itself, and then, behind me, I heard a sound that filled me with gibbering dread. The ticking was louder now, the bellow of a giant, the inexorable advance of a creeping, mechanistic death. Perhaps it was the inevitability of time and entropy made manifest? Was that all the universe was; a ticking clock? Was God nothing more than an engine of cogs and pipes and valves at the heart of a vast, uncaring machine? I did not know. I did not truly care. I only wished to escape, but knew it was impossible. I tripped and fell, landing hard on my left arm. I rolled onto my back, sharp stones scourging my flesh, and cradled my injured limb. Before my very eyes it began to swell and blacken, taking on a hideous aspect. I recoiled from my own putrefying flesh, staring down at bloating fingers and cracked nails. My skin began to burst, erupting in bloody lesions like a crust of cooling rock on glowing magma. I screamed.

Then it came. Over the hill, impassive and unstoppable, the Thing that hunted me. A giant, he was, a towering man of bronze with the expressionless face of a Greek hero, and eyes that glowed with raging fire. His form was at once beautiful and foul; an ancient god cast in metal, but moving with the jerking gracelessness of a machine. It was the unwholesome juxtaposition of man and engine that brought another scream to my lungs, the sight of this impossible monster, and its obvious fixation with me. With hands like blades it came upon me, chopping and sawing at me as if I were firewood. I tried to protect myself, tried to scramble away, but I was transfixed and powerless. I could only watch as the giant descended upon me, face immobile, eyes unfeeling, and sliced me into pieces. My right arm, my legs, my manhood. All cloven free of me and sent wriggling away across the barren hill. Then he plunged his gleaming fist into my chest and yanked free my beating heart. This he did not discard with my other parts, but instead forced into his lifeless mouth, squeezing the blood from the fleshy lump as it was sieved through teeth of gnashing steel, driven by more relentless clockwork.

Through all this I had felt no pain, only blank horror at what was being done to me, but now as I lay there, a trunk and a head and one arm, my tormentor knelt to deal his deathblow. The heart should surely have killed me, but it was as nothing next to what now transpired, for the monstrous Thing grabbed my rotting arm and began to saw at it with one hand. My dismemberment had thus far seemed nonchalant enough, but apparently this arm required more work. He went at it like a determined butcher, slicing skin, tendon and muscle. And I screamed. The agony was indescribable. This was no dream: my arm was being ripped from my body. Blood flowed and bones cracked. Black pus wept from the diseased flesh and I cried out for mercy, but the giant did not hear me. His ears were nothing more than shapes cast to his head in the likeness of human organs. He could no more respond to me than could the dusty stones or the unflinching sky.

When it was done, he dragged my arm free, trailing artery and ligament behind it. He held it aloft as if in triumph and then, just as he had done with my heart, he consumed it whole. The blackened skin burst as it was squeezed into his dreadful maw, and poisonous ichor dripped down his brass chin and onto his great, broad chest. My arm was gone, taken by this thing, and I was lost. Truly lost.

*

I opened my eyes very slowly. I had never felt worse than I did at that moment. My body was a single throbbing wound; from my head to the tips of my toes I ached. My throat was raw, my tongue thick and coated with scum, when I breathed in my lungs felt like they were aflame. My vision was blurry, my eyelids heavy, my back stiff and my stomach curdled as if I had swallowed sewage. I wished only to lapse back into unconsciousness or, better yet, death. The memory of my nightmare lingered, and I had no wish to examine the strange things I had seen and experienced. I resolved, lying in the darkness, I knew not where, that this would be the end of it. I would go no further down this awful road and instead would devote myself wholly to the things I had so ruthlessly discarded. I would need to make up with Marjory and her father…

My stomach turned a somersault. Her father was dead. I had pushed him in the way of that cart and he had been trampled. I had run, but I had surely been seen. God in Heaven! I was a murderer! This could not be undone by any making amends. I went to roll onto my side, to bury my face and weep, but as I turned a pain so complete, so utterly overwhelming, came across me that I could only scream hoarsely, absolutely powerless to move or prevent myself coming to harm in any way, until I passed into darkness again.

No dreams came to me this time, but I awoke feeling no better. It was not so dark now, but I could still see very little. Dim light shone at the limit of my vision, and I attempted to move towards it. I could not sit up. I pawed at myself. Only my right hand responded to my commands, but it was enough to tell that I was strapped down to something. I tried to cry out, but my throat was too dry and no sound save a cracked whimper escaped my mouth. I attempted to move my left hand, but all I felt was a great weight at my side. I gave up and lay there, staring at a ceiling too distant for me to focus on, and dreamed of a life I had casually thrown aside for reasons I could no longer fathom. There was a ticking in my ears. There was always a ticking. But now its quality was different. It was deeper, more hollow, somehow more complete. Feeling a sense of gathering trepidation, I craned my neck to look down at my chest. I could just make out the scar that snaked across my skin, and I saw from the fresh bruising and the clean stitches that I been the recipient of another surgical procedure in the recent past. So it was done then. No heartbeat made a counterpoint to the whirring mechanism inside my ribcage; no flesh now eased the transition from man to machine. My clockwork heart was complete, and only the ticking of wheels and cogs kept me alive.

Alive. Yes, alive I was, for I saw too a golden key in the keyhole on my breast, twin to the one I had lost in my altercation with Pym. I had been saved, by some means, and in being so, I was surely damned for all time.

“James?”

A face hovered over me, as blurry as everything else. A pale brown oval framed in black curls, dark patches for eyes and a great red rictus drawn above the chin. A smile, perhaps, or something worse. “Aisa,” I rasped.

“Yes, James,” she said, placing a hand on my cheek as she was wont to do. It gave me no comfort now. Her touch was poison and I trembled.

“You…saved me.” It was more accusation than thanks.

“Not her, James. At least not entirely.” And now another face above me, even more familiar than Aisa’s. A reddish-pink blob with white whiskers and a kindly smile.

“Doctor Callow?”

“Yes, my boy. Sleep now. Rest your body. You have been through…some trauma…and it has taxed your constitution awfully. You are dried up like a prune and we must get some fluid into you while you sleep. You’ll feel better when you next wake up.” There was a tone in his voice I did not like; something ominous that sent a shiver down my spine. But in my addled state I could not think things through. Why was Callow here? What was his part in this, and in my strange salvation? I could not begin to guess, and so I did as I was bid, and slept again, peacefully and without dreams.

Callow was not wrong. When I opened my eyes again, I felt better. Still in pain, still confused and bleary of thought, but the thickness of my tongue and dryness of my throat were lessened, and I felt able to swallow. I took a breath. It did not burn so much now. I felt about myself and discovered I was not strapped down. I tried to push myself up, but was rewarded only with agony. I collapsed back down, wincing and breathing heard. My chest still ticked, the sound echoing around the room. And a familiar room it was, indeed. I was in Aisa’s workshop, lying on the same gurney. I could see better now, though things were still shadowy in the distance. I must have made a sound as I stirred, for Aisa came through the door at that moment. “James,” she greeted me softly.

“Aisa.” I laid my head down.

She came to my side and held me gently by the shoulder. Her smile was warm and reassuring. “How do you feel?”

“Better. Or a little, anyway. Still weak.”

“Yes, that is understandable. You have been through a great deal, my darling.”

“What happened, Aisa? I remember nothing. All I recall is falling…falling in an alley somewhere. I don’t even know where it was. My heart…my heart wound down. I was dying.”

“You were dead.” I turned and saw Callow enter the room. He too gave me the same comforting smile and then took up station on the other side of the gurney, looming over me. There was something deeply soothing about his resolute bulk, for it reminded me of my childhood and his presence in it. He was a familiar sight in these ghoulish surroundings.

“Dead?” I asked him.

“Yes. Your heart stopped, lad. What else would you call it? Thank God someone found you and had the foresight to bring you to me. It was an acquaintance of mine as chance would have it, and he knew my reputation. If you’d been brought to any other physician in London, you’d be in a mortuary now, your corpse being examined as a scientific curiosity. They wouldn’t know what to make of that thing inside you at all.”

I glanced down at the scar again and shivered. “How…how did you revive me?”

“I didn’t. Not precisely. I merely preserved you, packed in ice from the fishmonger, stuffed into the back of a hansom cab with a driver paid a small fortune not to ask any questions. I brought you here, to the only woman in the city – perhaps the world – who could do any good for you then.” He looked at Aisa and smiled tightly.

“You flatter me, doctor.” She fixed her gaze on me again and gave me that lascivious smile of which she was so fond. “I brought you back from the brink, James. I completed the procedure and repaired the damage as best I could. Your heart is now entirely clockwork. All that you have dreamt of has come to fruition.”

“Dreamt of…” I murmured. What I had dreamt of was a horror I did not wish to think of in the waking world. I had guessed the part about the heart already, but to hear my fears confirmed was quite dreadful. Yes, it was done indeed. I was no longer truly human, by any measure I could think to name. What matter if my life could be sustained another year because of this? What need did I have of years, I who had so thoroughly destroyed my former life with my recklessness, my depravity? The memories of my dalliance in Clement’s horrid brothel came back to me then. The carnal lusts I had surrendered to, the terrible crimes of flesh I had committed with Jenny, the pale, skinny prostitute, who looked at me with fear in her eyes as I had thrust into her in time with the ticking of my heart. I was a monster. A true monster.

“Are you all right, James?” Callow asked.

“I…yes…yes I believe I am. I have been quite confused for so long, doctor. I have fallen very far. So much…so much change in my life, in my body. You said, Aisa, that with new strength comes new appetites, yes?”

“Indeed,” she nodded.

“I was not prepared for that.” I took a deep breath and tried to compose myself. “At least, it must be said, the worst is over. I have, by fair fortune or foul fate, been granted a reprieve from death, not once but twice over, thanks to your ministrations, madam. I am alive. I have fallen, but I may yet be redeemed. There is a way back, I must simply find it. I must repair the damage that I have done.”

Callow glanced at Aisa, and there was something else in his eyes; something that troubled him deeply. She merely shrugged and gave him an enigmatic smile.

“James…” the doctor began.

“What?” I could feel the ticking of my heart increasing its pace again. It seemed to cause my whole chest to vibrate. It was uncomfortable: unnatural.

“When you fell, in that passage, you were injured.”

“You said I was dead…”

“No, you misunderstand. In the fall, you did some more harm to yourself. You broke your arm, James, in three or four places.”

“Oh. Well, that is surely the least of my troubles – a broken arm is no great inconvenience in this day and age.”

“For a living man it would not be, no,” Callow said carefully, “but you died, James. No blood coursed through your veins, and the natural healing properties of your body were arrested as a result. The wounds were not severe, but they festered.”

I swallowed. “You mean…”

“Your arm was rotting, James,” Aisa said, “it was black and swollen. It reeked of death.”

Callow’s tone turned contrite. “I tried to cut away the infected flesh. I treated it with every substance and technique known to modern medicine, and more besides. James, you have been unconscious for near a week. In that time, I did all that I could, but your body had no resources left to repair the damage. The arm could not be saved.”

It was as if a thunderous jolt had gone through me. I convulsed and arched my back. A reaction from my mechanical heart? I do not know, but Aisa threw herself across me and held me down, pressing me into the gurney until I stopped twitching. My breathing was rapid and I felt dizzy. Black spots swarmed my vision again, but after a few minutes I began to calm down. “My…my arm…” I murmured.

“I’m sorry, James,” Callow said, putting a hand on my shoulder.

“It…it is not such a disfigurement,” I allowed, “Lord Nelson had one arm. And it is only my left. I did not use it for writing, and Heaven knows I’m no sportsman. What do I lose, truly? It is an accident, that is all. It has happened to many men before me, and shall happen to many more men once I am gone, for certain.” I was trying to convince myself and I sensed both my companions knew it. But what else was I to do? I could only accept this new change to my body, as I was forced to accept all the others. “To lose an arm,” I said, “is but a small thing.”

“It is not what you have lost, James,” Callow said in a hollow tone, “it is what you have gained.”

“What? What do you mean, doctor?” I stared at him in incomprehension.

“I did not wish you to suffer, James,” Aisa said, “I did not wish to leave you bereft. Why save your life, if you were to awake deformed? What use is a cripple to anyone? It was in my power to heal you, and so I did. That is all.”

I did not dare look. I suppose some unconscious part of me that knew the truth had been keeping my eyes averted since I had awoken, and now it was almost impossible for me to wrench my neck around and stare at what lay by my side. And yet I knew that I must. I must see the result of her labours; the thing she had done to me that she called healing. Slowly, like a creaking gear, my head turned and I looked down at my left arm. My flesh, my pale, human flesh, ended just below my shoulder, where my skin was reddish and puckered. Beyond that, anchored to my very bones, resting against me as if it were my own limb, was something at once familiar and utterly, bizarrely abhorrent. A great construct of bronze and steel; a shell in the form of a simulacrum of a muscled human arm, in which resided pistons in place of bones, wheels instead of tendons, copper wires where I had once possessed nerves and blood vessels and, at the end, a twisted, clawed hand, ending in brass talons. As I lifted it, its clockwork innards screeched to life, and a ticking counterpoint to my own heart filled the room. I stared at it in absolute horror, turning it this way and that. It moved as if it were my own flesh and, like the plate in my chest, I could feel it. It was a part of me, embedded within my body, as much me as my other arm, and yet it was an alien thing, an unnatural creation, cruelly grafted to me against my will, and now utterly inescapable. It had once been Theseus’s arm, that magnificent automaton, as my heart too had been his. I had once beheld this arm in terror, imagining how it would look brought to life, a hideous parody of true animation, and the reality was every bit as awful as I had dreaded, save that now it was not part of a curious machine, but me.

“What have you done to me?” I whispered.

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This entry was posted in Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Horror, Magical Realism, Novella. Bookmark the permalink.

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