Siân Griffiths lives in Ogden, Utah, where she directs the Creative Writing Program at Weber State University. Her work has appeared in the Georgia Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Quarterly West, Ninth Letter, Versal, The Rumpus, and other publications. Her debut novel, Borrowed Horses (New Rivers Press), was a semi-finalist for the 2014 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. For more information, please visit sbgriffiths.com
Clockwork Girl at the Opera
Like many clockwork girls, I pass best clad in lace. I veil my head, shawl my shoulders. Though dogs sniff me out in a moment, people seldom notice my clicking. Men are easiest to fool. Let your laces slip, and you are as good as real—or so Charles suggests as he fingers my tucker. Within the cabriolet, the clattering hooves echo harshly as we hie ourselves Haymarket. The cob on the cobbles. Charles’s lips on my neck are soft as dove’s wings. I dislike their flapping. The driver pulls us to a stop. “Come, pet,” he murmurs, “we must make our entrance.”
Oh, the opera, that mechanism designed to provoke emotion. Charles adores a contralto. Tonight, we are bound for La Cenerentola. I wish he would take Diana, but, he says, it does no good at all for a man to be seen with his own wife. She sleeps later these days, cries more often, grows fat. He can less and less stand the sight of her. She has not forgiven him for Peggy, her lady’s maid, the most trusted servant in the house, now ruined and dismissed.
The clockwork clicks, the snag and spring of the metal arms. We live in an age of mad kings and miracles. I button my pelisse and step into the drizzle. Charles lays a hand on my hip, holding me to my part. His fingers slide publically (performance, performance). He tends a wisp of hair on my shoulder, allows his hand to brush my breast, then turns suddenly and smilingly towards the throng, as if caught in his act. He attempts a blush. Whispers of Peggy are moths flitting around their lips, though no child will ever spring from my springs and coils. My stays will never be let out. I will not swell. Can not, I should say.
But look! Tonight, the entry is flanked by elephants, some kind of white rock. Their upturned trunks silently trumpet. They appear to dance in spite of their heaviness, as if the facts of being stone and elephants can be shed and forgotten, as if natural law would likewise cease to be and we could all pretend that the world is nothing more or less than what we make it. Apply art to madness and the result is magic. Delightful! The music drifting through the air lends its own lightsomeness, a buoyancy that floats us until it feels that we were all on puppet strings suspended from the unseen stars and, yes, our star masters would have us dance.
We approach the standing crowd as they mingle outside the doors of the King’s Theatre. A new king now that his father has passed. A new age. The show is running behind time. The gentlemen bristle and huff. Charles struts alongside me in patent leather boots, his great coat swinging at every stride. The brim of his hat shades his eyes, but they glint from within its shadow—whether in malice or delight it is impossible to say. He admires one sentiment as much as the other.
How Diana carried on once Peggy confessed her condition! Charles, she said, had selected her maid out of spite. Her shouted words rebounded off walls, flying above and below stairs, travelling to every apartment. He could have had any other girl in the house—any one of them. Peggy was her own.
Over the damp wool, I smell blood on the air mingling with the blackness of a West End night. A butcher’s shop, I tell myself. Lazy drizzle drops itself from apparently clear skies, and I fear the malignant rust it carries. My brain tickles with its whirring, thoughts sliding past one another and failing to find order. Small, red puddles are scattered on the pavement, smeared by boot soles, dragged by hems like oils by the brush. I make no sense of what’s painted here, nor of the disordered skirts to which the drops lead me, the tiny black boots.
I feel as I sometimes do when Charles forgets to wind me. This is the problem with clockwork: dependence. At times, I’ve envied self-sustaining mechanisms. The heart, the lungs. I was made for night when the dark obscures my hinges and the subtle clacking of my machinery is cloaked in music. I am made for companionship, wound and used as convenient, left to adorn Diana’s dressing room when not. I’m told that when I am still, she hangs her soiled undergarments on my head, where they rest until collected.
A young lady screams. My head clicks right, chin slanted left, the appropriate expression of curiosity and dismay. Shocked murmurs become the new music as the quartet drops the pretense of their pavement concerto. A plot before the opera? The grand dame to my right raises an eyebrow to suggest that she suspects that this drama, too, is scripted. An amuse-bouche to wet the appetite. Her raised eyebrow communicates that she finds it in poor taste.
In the thin glow of gaslight, the arm on the pavement is as pale as my own. Mud or freckles spatter a kind of patternless design. On best-quality muslin, set off with satin ribbons, the effect might have been pretty. On her pallid flesh, it is less so.
A gentleman nudges the arm with his brown boot, as if the inert girl were something deplorable or diseased, which perhaps she is. Or was. Those of my kind are safer alternatives to the living. Nothing breeds or festers within me. One never knows what might be picked up from a common prostitute.
But I am guessing. Perhaps she is not such a one. She might have been an actress or a dressmaker or a daughter or a wife.
“Come now, ladies,” says a red-haired, mustachioed man, the waxed tips jumping at his words. “Let’s find a more suitable place for you, away from this,” he circles his hand in the air, as if to backhand unpleasantness, to shoo it away and return it to the dark. Away from this what? He does not finish his sentence. I wondered what language he considered and why he could find none suitable.
This? This girl dead in the gutter? This, I realize, is what is meant by unspeakable, and yet his unspeaking does not diminish her presence.
Whir, click, clack: an arm catches a tooth but skips its groove.
The mustachioed gentleman takes a plump young woman by her dimpled elbow. The strain on her dress seams suggests a fondness for pastry creams, and her lingering gaze evidence no less an interest in unsanctioned delights. “My dear,” she says, the yellow curls about her face bouncing with each syllable, “you must attend to her that is most in need.”
“I fear the girl is beyond needing.”
“A girl?” The woman’s neck cranes to see beyond the screen of his tall hat. “So young?”
“Woman, perhaps. My dear, you upset yourself!” He pats her arm to tamp down her enthusiasm for the macabre, as if that delight resided in one’s forearm. Those who constructed me could surely educate him otherwise.
I wonder if Prince George once touched his father’s arm this way. Like me, the old man was performed a part, first fitted with robes and scepters only to be later called tyrant. Now he rots in a grave. His human brain was simply too frail for weighty pressures, just as bones break when overtaxed by burdens. I wonder what words his son spoke before realizing that language does not penetrate a mind unsprung.
I step away, moving towards the fallen one, curious myself. Girl or woman, the skin is certainly not aged. She should have had years before her. The scent of her blood is stronger here. It mixes with the oily scent of the Thames and a fresher breed of sourness: one of the gentlemen has been sick. Those lighter freckles mingle with the freckles of blood. The scent registers but does not affect me. I ascertain from the contents of his nasty pile that he dined on shellfish, white wine, potatoes, asparagus.
My makers might have neglected to give me this ability to recognize odors. I would have been none the worse for it, and it certainly presented them a challenge. But they were men of science, and in this enlightened age, they wanted to show the breadth of genius. In each of my abilities, I am miraculous, they say, thereby suggesting the greater miracle of their own cleverness.
Charles chuckles under the street lamp with an older man in a caped coat whose worn elbows suggest he neglects his wardrobe. No wife, then. No daughters. Even a housekeeper with influence enough might give a gentle word. His cravat, however, suggests wealth, as does the fact that Charles speaks to him. Charles is not one to waste his time with just any man at the opera.
I shuttle my way forward, wefting through women, my feet moving quietly under my skirts so that my movements pass undetected. My dress is dark like the night, a somber color designed to burn red under the garish light of the chandeliers in the foyer. Here, in dimmer glow, I attract no notice as I move to the gutter’s edge.
The servants whisper that Peggy serviced Diana’s own romantic needs long before the master bedded her. They say her tongue was quick and able between the mistress’s loins. They teased her about her fingers, so long and tender. They smirked in delight. The root of the mistress’s outrage, they say, had more to do with these talents than with any work ethic or skill that Peggy possessed.
I hear such rumors only when they forget that I am wound. None speaks to me directly, save Charles.
The girl’s stomach—for girl she was, fifteen, perhaps sixteen—has been opened by some rough and bladed hand, a butcher’s work. Steam curls its delicate fingers into the thin light, like her soul would crawl its way into some better place. Her blood moves sluggishly now, congealing in the cool air, but though its current is slow, still it moves in trickles through her bodice and along the pavement to mingle with the gutter’s foul soup and makes its way towards river water.
I imagine someone touched her, and then wonder who that man might have been. I wonder if his whiskers pricked her thighs, if he shoved his fingers hard within her tender parts, if she was expected to feign enjoyment at these acts. He might have choked her with his manhood; he might have battered and rammed her. Charles will do any of these, depending on his mood and his day at the office and his current feelings towards Diana and whether she again belabored the loss of Peggy. I am an entirely different kind of whipping boy on which he may expend his flog.
But this girl and I are nothing alike. She was only a thing.
Charles’s booming laughter echoes off the stone walls. He claps his interlocutor on the shoulder and turns to look, his lips pulling into a sly but questioning smile. What am I doing lingering over a corpse?
Most of the men are involved in conversation or in ferrying their wives and daughters towards more wholesome sights. A wagon has been called for. “This will all soon be but a memory,” says the mustachioed man, in a tone that suggests the hope that his wife will wipe it from her mind. The attention she devotes to the meat pie he procured suggests that he might not be entirely hopeless on that account. I feel I am winding down, though I should have hours yet to go.
This girl’s heart beat once, moving her arms and legs. It allowed her to feel, even without anyone to ratchet her into consciousness. She had been able to live with no one’s attention, if she chose. Removing a glove, I kneel and stroke a coil of her entrails. Her warmth is fading. It is sticky to the touch but firmer than I would have imagined.
Charles lays a disapproving eye on me. I have just moments until he can make his way over if he hopes not to attract that attention that haste would bring. The girl’s eyes are lifeless. The blue that must once have laughed and sparkled is missing some vital component, though that cannot be. The lenses that compose them are still in their places. Their orbs are not displaced. The last of her blood is not entirely removed. I want to touch the girl’s cheek. I want to know if it is solid as her inner ropes, or whether her most exposed features were softer. My fingers are stained, though, and I would not wish to stain this girl. Or, rather, I do not wish to add my own marks to the spatters of blood and sick that freckle her sweet face.
Charles lifts me, his arm encircling me to shroud my body from view. His words rush over me, water over brook stones. I am unmoved. He clasps my wrist, dabbing my fingers with his handkerchief. They remain tinged. He draws my hand to his mouth, his gaze locked on mine as he places each finger, one by one, in his mouth and washes them with his tongue. His eyes are wet with desire. His flushed face is more eloquent than his hushed words. Tonight, he will have me reenact this in reverse, first sucking my fingers, then stabbing me with invisible knives, pulling forth the imagined surrogates of the vital parts I lack onto the bedspread, asking me to resist him while he has his way with me as the clockwork cunt clicks tight, independent of my will, subject only to his. My thoughts are irrelevant. We live in an age of miracles.
Charles has clapped an arm around me once more. “Come, pet,” he says. I lean to his arm as he expects, as the scene requires, and we leave the girl’s drained corpse.
My body could be wound endlessly, outliving Charles, Diana, everyone. Just turn my key, and, as long as I am oiled and maintained, I will go on. That seems enough. A feat any mechanist might take pride in. Thought was as superfluous as scent.
Some say the soul rests in the mind, others the stomach. I have neither organ. My thoughts fly again and again to the girl. I envision her slopped on the wagon, bumping over the road stones on her way to some pauper’s grave.
Animation was ample proof of the power of design. My makers gave me no pulse to quicken, no heart to break. Why, then, must I think and feel?
We find our seats. The curtain parts. Painted women (a maid, some daughters) flaunt themselves on center stage, their voices vibrating through my works. Charles, energized by soaring sound, clasps my cold hand. The function of music is to move those not regulated by escapement, but the drum, like the heart, keeps a faulty time.
“ Though I'd studied Regency England in graduate school, I had never set any work in this period until responding to a surreal, gif-based writing prompt given to me by the brilliant poet/novelist Kirsten Kaschock. The repetitive movements of the gif seemed to unlock some deep piece of my brain. As I wrote, I became increasingly curious about the clockwork girl who was forming on the page. I was particularly drawn to the gender politics of the steampunk world she inhabits. Her humanity kept peeking through like petticoats. The girl began to seem not so very distant, not so very unreal. ”