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.


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

The Difference Between Sympathy and Empathy

CW: pet death

“So, are you going to get a new cat?” my coworker, Bridget, asked. Her eyebrows rounded and the gray streak in her hair glowed in the harsh fluorescent light.

A mixture of impatience and grief constricted my throat. I had come so close to getting out the door. My computer was off, and I was on my way to the kitchenette, hands full of the dishes I’d dirtied over the course of the workday. A bowl and a plate balanced on top of a coffee mug. The strap of my messenger bag, filled with textbooks and prototypes of a project that was behind schedule because I’d taken an unexpected day off, dug into my shoulder, and I began to sweat under my winter coat.

“Well, she only passed a few days ago. I haven’t really thought about it.”

My words came out in an awkward lilt, a relic of my customer service days when I was forced to mask annoyance with politeness. I knew where this conversation was headed. Several other sympathetic co-workers had felt compelled to tell me stories of their pets’ deaths today.

“I remember when my Lucas passed. He hadn’t been well for a few weeks; the vet said it was probably a kidney infection. Anyway, I was on the couch watching TV. He got up on my lap like he usually did. I probably watched two or three shows before I got up. I stirred a little—that usually gets him up—but he didn’t move. Then I nudged him and realized how stiff he was, how cold to the touch. He had passed right there on my lap.”

A hiccup rose in my chest. Peering down the corridor into the kitchenette, I calculated how offended my coworker would be if I just walked away, or if dropping my dishes right now would reset the conversation or force me to listen to more memento mori stories. Instead, my mind flashed to three days ago. Daphne lay in her Darth Vader bed in the quietest corner of the living room. I shook a bag of treats as a greeting, which usually elicited a few meows and as much excitement as a sick 19-year-old cat could muster. But something was different. Her front legs moved to lift herself, but her hind legs stayed folded up against her white belly.

I emerged from my memory to find Bridget imploring me.

“Are you okay?”

I put the dishes down on the nearest tabletop. The room was empty, excepting the two of us. Screensavers on every computer showed lava lamp bubbles bouncing within the confines of the screens.

“What? Yeah, I’m so sorry about Lucas, but it was sweet that he came to you for safety in that moment. How long ago was that?”

“Maybe fifteen years? I’ve had three cats since. Ginger died at the vet, but she was older, like your kitty, so we had time to prepare…” She continued, but all I could do was wonder how she could possibly prepare. There is no preparing.

“She’s malnourished and dehydrated,” a young vet had said three days before, her white coat and purple Vans too bright in the beige room. “I had a hard time finding her pulse. What were you thinking about her care tonight?”

Daphne lay on the examination table wrapped in a white towel. She was so quiet; visits outside the house usually made her mewl. The vet tapped a clipboard with a pen as I looked at my partner. Muzak fogged the room.

“We’re prepared to let her go.”

Back at work, Bridget placed a hand on my arm. I didn’t know how long it had been since she’d stopped telling her story. Her mouth pinched with concern, and she held out a box of Kleenex decorated with Minions, their smiles and popping eyes looked sinister.

“I’m so sorry. Probably the last thing you want to hear right now are stories about death,” she said.

Early draft. Constructive criticism welcome.

Writing for the YeahWrite nonfiction challenge. Click the badge above to read other well-written essays!

The Living-

there are black holes in the living-
room, mostly beneath the furniture,
but one is always underfoot

the largest clings to the cotton knit blank-
et though I’ve washed and shaken it out
there are black holes in the living

one naps beside the wandering night-
stand sucking in the light that normally fills the crevasses in this
room, mostly beneath the furniture

the rug in front of the front door, the moon-
scape of each couch cushion, I’ve tried sweeping up the holes
but one is always underfoot

h heyerlein