The Clockwork Creature

When Robert released the wind-up key, a high, thin whirr filled the laboratory. The silver gears inside the creature’s walnut-sized thorax set into motion its legs—eight jointed levers about two inches long—and pips of steam released from its palpus. Those attached to the front of its thorax reached and those in back pushed across his drafting table.

The clockwork creature’s lunge reminded him of a windy day on Lake Michigan: the red stripes of bathing suits, the yellow of lemon ice, the blue of his little brother’s body floating in the water. Robert and his brothers had noticed him all at once. They breaststroked to where Cecil’s nine-year-old body bobbed and worked together to keep Cecil’s face above water as they dragged him toward safety. Three arms holding, three arms reaching, six legs kicking behind.

Breaking from his daydream, Robert flipped the machine over. An upturned crab. Its rounded chassis wobbled as its legs clawed the air. He watched as its energy slowed and stopped, then he traded his lab coat for a smoking jacket and wandered back into the main house to inquire what meal Mrs. Chambers planned for luncheon.

The thing was still upside down when Robert returned to his laboratory weeks later, but no dust had settled upon it—a rare sign of Mrs. Chambers’s presence. Its arms curled as if to beckon him closer. Turned upright, the creature became a science to him once more, a puzzle to be solved. He found himself humming as he oiled its joints, cleaned the gears with a pipe cleaner, and retightened each screw.

Cecil had also been fastidious. One day Cecil had pulled Robert into father’s study. He had replaced a shelf of Father’s engineering books with a row of empty milk bottles.

“Have you been thirsty?” Robert said with a laugh.

“Look closer,” Cecil whispered. Robert bent down and one of the bottles flashed chartreuse.

“Fireflies?”

Cecil nodded vigorously. “Yes, and Japanese beetles and ash borers and bumblebees. I’m starting a collection.”

His collection.

Robert dropped the screwdriver and before he knew it, he was running through the main house, past his brothers’ laboratories filled with steam-powered printing presses and cannons, and into his father’s study. Freddie and Ambrose popped up at the door asking what had happened. Robert did not answer. He was focused on the bottom-most shelf of milk bottles. Robert pulled a bottle out and saw the specks at the bottom. A low mewl escaped him.

“What in blazes is the matter, Bobby?” Freddie snapped. Ambrose stood silently behind him; the look on his face was granite, except for the caterpillars of his mustache.

Robert held the bottle out to his brothers. “I forgot Cecil’s insects.”

The sun was high on a summer day when Mrs. Chambers entered the laboratory, feather duster in hand. As usual, she began with the sitting area near the fireplace. She was moving Robert’s pipe and writing notebook from a side table when a pair of shoes under the drafting table across the room caught her eye. When the shoes moved, she screamed.

“I’m so sorry, Mrs. Chambers.”

Mrs. Chambers noticed a smearing of Robert’s words. She spotted several bottles of wine under the table next to him.

“Mister Robert. I’m sorry. I will come back when the room is unoccupied.”

“No!” Robert said. “That is, stay, please.” He crawled out from underneath the table.

Apprehensively, Mrs. Chambers continued to dust. The room was silent, except for his soft humming and an occasional blowing of air into one of his inventions, a small thing with ghastly arms. When she had almost finished her work, Robert spoke again.

“May I show you an invention inspired by our dear Cecil?”

“Of course, sir.”

Robert wound the small contraption, and she watched as it labored across the drafting table like a lame crab. No, that wasn’t the motion. What had she ever seen that moved like that?

“It’s a clockwork spider,” Robert said when he registered the confusion on her face.

“I’ve never seen a spider walk like that, sir. You know best, of course, but shouldn’t the legs be on the sides and not front and back?”

“Of course! Thank you, Mrs. Chambers. It’s not natural. Why hadn’t that occurred to me?”

Mrs. Chambers returned to dusting as Robert began the process of reattaching legs and calibrating them to move side-to-side instead of up and down.

Early draft: constructive criticism welcome.

(photo credit: Pavlofox at pixabay.com)

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10 Replies to “The Clockwork Creature”

  1. I was drawn in immediately by the fabulous description of the creature. Beautifully done. I must admit that at places I wondered what was happening because of all the characters I had to keep track of. I’d love to read more as I got a sense it’s part of a larger work.

  2. Nate, this is so vivid. I loved lines like: “Its arms curled as if to beckon him closer.” Since you asked for concrit, I was a bit confused when Robert ran back to check on the bugs. I thought at first it might be a flashback similar to the one at the beginning, to give him the inspiration for the invention. Also, you might want to have him watch a spider walk earlier when Cecil is collecting them, so we can see a progression in his mind. Just thoughts. Feel free to disregard.

    1. Agreed. That transition out of flashback needs some finessing. One of the bugs Cecil collects should definitely be a spider. Thank you for your helpful comments, Margaret.

  3. Hey Nate!
    I so want to read this when you are done with it! I loved the use of color. I was swept away when you snuck in that line about blue. Yowza.

    If you’re going to expand this into something that’s not flash, then this comment may be moot – but there were a lot of characters for such a short piece – I had trouble when Freddie & Ambrose were introduced…

    I particularly loved the description of the clockwork!

    1. I agree. Could take the mention of the father out. I think the brothers should stay in; the milk bottle scene wouldn’t mean as much if it were the maid in there with Robert. Maybe they don’t need names though? Or maybe I name them earlier in the lake.

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