Chapter five: A doll’s heart
Tonight is a special night.
I pull a small parcel from the nightstand drawer before making my way to Mister Mason’s room.
There’s singing on the other side loud enough to make me wonder if they’ll even hear my knocking.
I knock loudly on the door “Mister Mason!? It’s me Stegarius.”
“Come on in Stegarius.”
I open the door. The room is packed with people.
It wasn’t a big room to begin with, but there must be over twenty people here.
“Should I come back later?” I ask wondering where I’m supposed to stay in this place?
“Actually I was just about to head off. Gotta get up early tomorrow.” One of the scullery maids says as she jumps up from the footman’s lap.
“Yeah so do I” The footman agrees walking after her.
There’s some murmur of agreement among the guests, and some of them decide to follow suit leaving ample room behind.
“Did I scare them off?” I wonder aloud but Mister Mason shakes his head “They’ve been here ever since dinner ended I’m sure they’re just tired.”
I’m not sold on the man’s explanation but I don’t want to make a big deal out of it.
It would ruin the moment.
“I wanted to wish you well in retirement, I have a gift too.” I hand him the parcel.
“You shouldn’t have.” The man says politely. As he takes it from me I notice how wrinkly his hands have become.
It’s only been eight years since I started working here. It’s incredible to see things change so much in such a short time.
As Mister Mason fumbles with the string Mister Mason Junior take over and opens the parcel for him.
“A new cap, how thoughtful.” The old man tells me as his son puts the checkered flat cap on his head.
I nod, relieved I bought the right thing. I wasn’t sure what to get him so I asked the clerk at the store.
“Sit down, no need to be standing.” Mister Mason says and I sit down on one of the empty chairs.
My room only has one chair, I wonder if people brought their own chairs.
Should I have brought my own chair? Whose chair am I sitting on? Do they mind?
“How’s the kid doing?”
“Huh?” I pull myself out of my thoughts to answer Mister Mason’s question “Oh, the young master is doing splendid, he’s got the basics down and is busy making small automatons.”
“Sounds like you can send him off to university right now.” The laundry maid cackles.
“The minimum age to admission is sixteen so while he’s certainly capable he’ll have to wait three more years.”
“I’m kidding, lighten up.” The woman rolls her eyes before taking a sip of beer.
“Sorry.” I notice the room has gone silent, did I ruin the party? “So… what are you going to do now that you’re retired?” I ask mister Mason
“I’m going to go back home, sit on my ass and stare at the water until I die.”
“Good for you?” I remark a bit confused.
“That means he’s going to take up fishing.” mister Mason Junior explains.
“Oh okay, that’s nice.”
Mister Mason chuckles cheerfully “You’re a treasure Stegarius, don’t you ever forget it.”
I smile inside, the discomfort inside me slacking a bit “Thank you mister Mason.”
“Now Junior how about you go get a couple more beers from the kitchen, it’s only eleven and the party’s just getting started.”
“Sure thing dad.” The man pats his father on the shoulder and walks out.
Mister Mason puts his feet on the table and sighs “Now as it’s my last night here, I expect to hear enough gossip to last me for a while. Who goes first?”
The next morning I head to the classroom and open the door when the young master’s panicky voice cuts through the air from the other side of the corridor “Heads up!”
A small projectile crashes into my head and falls onto the floor whimpering, I stoop to pick it up.
It’s a small metallic beetle, but the wings are crooked now.” There’s a soft sputtering sound before it goes silent and still.
“I think it broke,” I tell the young master handing him the bug.
“Yes, it did.” The boy sighs.
He shakes his head “It’s not your fault, I shouldn’t try to fly it indoors. Besides I’ll fix it, it’s okay.” He smiles and then rushes to his desk.
His desk changed three times since I started working here. Now the desk features elegantly curved legs, the finest marquetry and four extra trays that stand on iris stalks meant for tinkering parts and drawing tools.
He puts the crippled creature down reverently on the leather desktop and starts plucking tools from the trays. As he works with his eyes glued to his project he reminds me of Jaxogeras.
Some people are always finicking about.
Before it was music boxes Jaxogeras did photography, before they did photography, they carved small statuettes from wood. They’re so skilled it’s incredible.
The kid gets up abruptly to turn and walk out of the room.
“What is it?” I ask.
“I’m missing a spring, it must have fallen.”
Alas after ten minutes of searching, the location of the spring remains a mystery.
“Don’t you have a spare spring?” I ask after we droop back into the study room.
“I got tons, I just wanted to find it.” He rummages through his parts and picks out a new spring. I can hear him grumble softly as he installs the new spring “It’s stupid.”
“It’s all right, I’m sure the cleaning staff will-”
“I’m not talking about the lost spring it’s just…springs in general, why do we need them?”
“Because you need to store a force and-”
He grunts loudly arms flung to the sky in frustration “I know but you don’t have springs, you don’t need winding or food or oil you just exist! Why does my bug need springs while you can just run forever it’s not fair.”
Sounds like we’re back to this again. I sit down at my desk and tell him “I’m sure there’s a reason dolls move.”
“But you don’t know. No one knows, aren’t you even a little curious?”
“Only a select group of human know how the human body functions, yet everyone else can live a fulfilling life without that knowledge.”
“But we have pharmacists and doctors. What if you get damaged and you don’t even know how you work how will you get repaired? Do you have doll doctors or something?” He rests his arms on the desk and puts my hands under his chin.
“Not really? I mean it it’s wood or metal damage you go to the local carpenter or smithery, tell them what you want and they’ll make it for you.”
“Then what about your mechanism? Your insides?”
“They just run fine, no one needs to meddle with that. All that’s in there is the heart. And you shouldn’t mess with the heart, the heart runs everything.”
“Aha!” His head shoots up and he points at me triumphantly “So you do have a motor!”
“But it runs on nothing?”
“I think so?”
“But then that’s a perpetual motion machine, that can’t exist!”
I shrug “It’s all I know about it sadly.”
“Can I see it?”
“Your heart? I mean as long as we don’t take it out then-”
“Absolutely not, you’ll break it!”
“I won’t touch it, I just want to have a look, I mean if it’s really a perpetual motion machine then we must-”
“Enough, I don’t mind you asking questions about me but I’m not going to open up my body so you can have a peek inside, I’m not a toy you can play with.”
The kid crosses his arms indignantly “But I never said you were!”
I don’t like being strict but he crossed a line. He doesn’t get it, a doll’s heart is their everything. He shouldn’t push things he doesn’t understand…I take a deep breath to calm down “How’s the bug doing?”
The kid shrugs “I need time to work.”
For thirty minutes we stay in silence, him working, me reading.
Until finally he says “I think this should do it.”
I close my book and get up from the chair “Then let’s take it outside to test.”
He nods, swipes it off the table, gets up and together we head to the gardens
Outside it’s sunny and bright the poppies have opened up shrouding the garden in a blanket of red.
The young master holds the little critter in the palm of one hand, turning the small silver key with the other. He lets go and the little brass and silk wings start to flutter manically, the mechanism inside clicking away. Then he throws it with all the force he can muster. It shoots through the air fluttering about stuttering and jerking in its motion.
But flying nonetheless.
His eyes light up, his chest swells with pride as he tells me “Now imagine this ten times bigger, no a hundred times, and people can sit on its back and fly through the air.”
“That would be wonderful. But perhaps you should catch it before it falls beneath the flowers and we must spend more time looking for it.”
“Right!” He rushes after it, butterfly net at the ready.
As I watch the worry that has balled up inside me starts to fade away.
I can’t articulate it, I don’t know from where it stems but there’s a part of me that feels like the fun can’t go on forever.
It leaves me uneasy at times, but then I see him rushing through the fields chasing mechanical bugs and I can’t help but feel blissful inside.
That evening I beat him at Mareia.
And again, and again.
“You’re off your game.” I remark as I collect my pieces “What’s wrong?”
He shrugs and averts his eyes from me.
I set my pieces down “Young master?”
He crossed his arms tightly as he pushes the words out “I’m sorry about…you know, the heart thing…I didn’t mean to insult you.”
I pat him gently on the head “Thank you, that’s very good of you.”
“Do you forgive me?” He asks with eyes that make him look like a puppy dog.
“Of course. And I’m sorry I got so cross, it’s just that my heart is fragile.” I start putting the pieces back in the box as I talk “It’s kept safe behind a thick wood and steel door because if it breaks I would die.”
His eyes grow big at such a grave word, then he looks down in shame. “I didn’t know.”
“You couldn’t know. I never told you. My father told me to keep my heart safe at all times, so I’ve become really protective over it.”
The young master shrugs “My father just tells me to listen to you and don’t get into trouble.” He sounds bitter.
I can feel his pain, I put a hand on his shoulder. “Sometimes fathers have a hard time finding the time.”
“Well, then why have a son at all?”
“I’m afraid I can’t answer that question for him.”
“I bet your father isn’t anything like mine.”
I hold a hand to my chin as I think, I can’t say I know all that much about the boy’s father considering his nearly constant absence “I’m not sure I don’t know your father too well.”
“Then that makes two of us what is your father like?”
“Well…My father’s name was Inquiry and he loved me and my many siblings dearly and equally.”
“Inquiry!? But that’s my name!” He shouts flabbergasted.
“I know, now let me speak.”
“Our father was a good man, both learned and kind.
But after he breathed life into you, you had already completed your greatest achievement and he would move on to a new project.
Having learned a great deal, his hands would ache to put new ideas into practice.
Some of my siblings believe him to be cruel because of this but I never viewed him that way. He was a human, he knew his time was short, age and death were chasing him at every step, and he had so much work to do.”
The kid’s shoulders droop as I say this, his eyes fixed on his hands.
“And so us dolls, we played together, we read books together and kept each other company.
We were never lonely because we were many and we were close.
We still are.”
“But I don’t have siblings, I’m on my own, I have no one!”
“I think that’s the reason your mother allows me to stay here, she doesn’t care for me at all, but she knows you like me, and she doesn’t want you to be unhappy.”
He shrugs in the way people do when they think you’re right but aren’t ready to admit that quite yet. “What happened next?”
“Next? Well, he kept making dolls. He kept on building them year after year as his hair turned grey and his hands started to tremble. And his glasses grew thicker with every passing year.
But like a man possessed he kept building.
Until one morning he just wouldn’t wake up…
The oldest dolls explained to us little ones that humans are fragile things and they cannot sustain themselves forever. People just…die.”
There is silence, I feel a desperate need to break it.
“Have you ever heard of the ship of Theseus?”
The sudden shift in subjects makes him shake his head in confusion “What’s that?”
“It’s a thought experiment. It features a ship of which all the parts get gradually replaced over time and then the question is posed, is it still the same ship or did it become a different ship.”
“I…I don’t know, I guess different? If all the parts have been swapped out.”
“Over the years so many parts of me have been replaced. New arms, new feet, new hair, new eyes, but never the heart. That stays put no matter what. I feel like my heart is ‘me’ more than anything else.
The only piece I could never swap out.
The one link back to my father.
He may be dead but that part will live on in me forever.” My hand absentmindedly hovers to my chest “I just wish I could speak to him though.”
A weight pushes into me as the kid puts his head on my shoulder and wraps his arms around me. “I’m sorry.”
I chuckle dryly “It’s been over a hundred years since then.”
“But it still hurts right?” he asks in a small voice.
“Of course it does.” My voice sounds hollow, then I look back at the boy and see his eyes have gone red with tears.
“No, no don’t cry I’m sorry I didn’t mean to make you cry.”
“You can’t cry can you?” He asks and I shake my head.
“My eyes are made of glass and I don’t have any tear ducts.”
His lips quiver as he smiles for me “You know it feels good to cry sometimes? When granny died I cried for three days and then I felt better again.”
Is that what crying is for? I wonder, is that why it still hurts to think about? Because I never cried?
As I ponder the kid jumps off the bed and walk to his day jacket to retrieve his handkerchief. He wipes his tears and blows his nose then walks back to the bed to ask “What happened next?”
“Well…we spent some time grieving and talking but after a few years of this, there wasn’t that much left to say.
Some of us simply no longer felt like this place was their home anymore and they left. We didn’t know where they went or what they did out there. But when they returned they told us it was safe to come out and that was the day of the great divide as we split the library amongst ourselves and fanned out into the world. I travelled with a small group of my sibling, chanced upon Unebre and decided to stay. Jaxogeras started a bar for dolls, Zjeliah took off in the fashion world, Prishtoli became a singer and so all of them found their place in society.”
“Those names are funny.”
“You think so?”
“Unlike with humans, dolls pick their own names based on what sounds they like, the image they want to convey and they’ll change it when they feel it no longer fits their identity.”
“But a name should mean something right? It’s not a name if it’s just a random string of syllables.”
“That’s how humans look at it yes.”
“So what about you?”
“What about me?”
“Is being my tutor your place in society?”
“Well it is now, for as long as it lasts at least, and it has lasted longer than I expected. And when you no longer need me I’ll go look for something else.”
“I’ll always need you.” He states with a conviction that warms my heart.
I pat him on the head, “Thank you”. Then my eyes drift to the clock and I start “It’s past midnight already, you should go sleep.”
“No buts, I’ll see you tomorrow young master.”
He grumbles but cooperates. I turn off the light and as I leave, his words stick around in my head. ‘I’ll always need you’.
It’s a nice sentiment of course but in three years he’ll be off to university and assuming I’m not sacked before that time I’ll get the boot then.
And I’ll be back to finding a new purpose in life.