Chapter two: Stories within stories
By the time I have gone through all of the tales, the sky has brightened to a dull slate grey.
I change my clothes to something a teacher would wear and brush my wig. A short shock of fox brown I got from Zjeliah who was ‘tired of looking at my cue ball’.
I place it back on my head, adjust it, using the reflection in the window, and get ready to move out.
The auto leads me to the other side of the house using strange alleyways and underpasses that all look the same and it’s going to take me a while to get accustomed.
I wonder if I’m supposed to return this machine somewhere, what if someone misses it?
Surely someone will come to find me if they need it right?
It halts at a door that is skirting the line between servants quarter and the main house.
The little light on the autos bot is blinking, signifying our arrival, so I knock on the door.
“Come in.” A woman shouts from the other side and I walk in to find an elderly wolf-kin woman sat at the desk. She reminds me of a fairytale character in her ancient-looking green dress and bonnet, on her furry nose sit a pair of thin oval glasses custom-made to fit her unfortunate face. She inspects me in the same fashion I do her and asks “I haven’t seen you before have I?”
“My name is Stegarius, I am the young master’s new tutor.”
“I see, it’s Wednesday and you are to report to me on Sundays.”
“Mister Mason told me you have the young masters schedules.”
“I see. His old governess left them in my care indeed.” She opens a drawer in her desk and picks out a small tan-coloured notebook. “Here you go.”
“Thank you, may I ask what happened to the last governess?”
“Do you worry?”
“No, but I am curious.”
The woman shakes her head with a smile “She got married and chose to focus on her own family.”
I then take a quick moment to flip through the book wondering aloud “Let’s see, at what hours does the young master have lessons? Is there a specific room in the house dedicated to learning, and if so where can I find it? Does the young master have books? How far has he progressed in his studies thus far?”
The woman pushes her glasses further up her nose “You ask a lot of questions.”
“That’s all right but are you open to some friendly advice?”
“Try to keep the tendency to a minimum when engaging with Lady Winton.”
“She thinks questions over-complicate matters. As for your questions, I suggest turning to page seven, his daily schedule is laid out there.”
“I see, thank you miss Punct.”
She nodds briefly. “I will see you on Sunday, now if you please.” She points to the door.
I bow quickly and take my leave, leafing through the book as I do, the auto following me as I walk.
His lessons start at eight o clock in the morning but he needs to eat breakfast at 7:10 and I must get him out of bed by seven.
I checked the time, turned to the automaton and looked through the drawer for the punch card to the young master’s room.
I open his bedroom door and find a lumpy pile of blanket on the bed. I’d have mistaken it for a pile of laundry if the pile weren’t snoring loudly.
I walk to the window and open the curtains to let the light in, then head over to the bed.
“Time to wake up young master,” I tell him and tug on the end of the blanket.
A tiny hand shoots out from under it, grabs the corner I’m holding and pulls back. A loud groan emanates from within. “I’m dreaming.”
“It’s seven o clock, it’s time to get up.”
Another groan “Nooooooo.”
I sigh and pull the blanket from his little hands and he practically jumps after it. “Noooo it’s too cold.” He cries out.
“Then it’s time to get dressed” I retort trying to keep the blanket out of his reach.
Sadly I am not tall so one well-placed jump later he’s hanging into it like a cat in a curtain.
“Mister Winton let go at once, it’s time to get dressed.”
He grumbles and rumbles but lets go in the end sitting down on the bed so I can help him get dressed.
I fold the blanket, lay it on the bed and pick the clothes from the peg on the wardrobe.
It’s 7:20 by the time I send him off to breakfast. Meaning it took ten minutes longer than it should have taken, I take note to spend less time on shenanigans.
Since I don’t have to eat there’s some time to spare for me and I head over to the study room and take a look at the books there.
Turns out there was only one book.
A giant tome clad in leather with gold embossed letters spelling out “Winton family history” set out on a stand with a purple satin ribbon peeking coyly from the pages.
I turn to the page and find ‘Earnest Winton.’ Staring back at me from a drawing with kind eyes but a strict moustache. I flip through the governess’ book for hints as to what to do with this. On page eighteen it states; the young master must learn the rich Winton family history before all else.
I guess the rags to riches tale of the Winton family is so ingrained in their branding, upholding it is their first consideration?
I look at my watch, I still have some time until the young master returns.
I pick the book off the stand, sit down at the teacher’s desk and start to read.
The kid walks in “Morning mister Stegarius.” He says politely as if I didn’t see him less than an hour ago hanging in his blanket like an angry kitten. He skips to his desk and sits down.
I close the book for a bit telling him “Just Stegarius is fine.”
The kid knits his eyebrows together in thought “Is Stegarius your first or last name?”
“It’s my only name.”
“You have only one name?”
“Because I don’t need a last name. Humans use last names because they want to know who is related to who. But dolls are all sibling of one another so we don’t need extra names.”
“How many of you are there?”
“Of me, only one.”
His eyes squeeze together “I mean how many dolls are there.”
“Last time I checked there were one hundred and twenty-eight.”
“Wow,” his eyes sparkle in wonderment but compared to the thousands of people living in this city alone less than two hundred dolls on the face of the planet is barely a drop in the ocean.
“Now enough about my family let’s talk about yours. I see you left off at Earnest Winton?”
“That’s Protea’s son right?”
“All right, let’s get started.” I take my place behind the book stand and start my monologue
“Earnest Winton was born in 1533 and died in 1587 he was a humble farmer in Tjits relying on his crops and livestock to make a living. He’d get up every morning at five to milk his cow Betty before tending to his chickens…”
The young master is gazing out the window, I don’t blame him.
“So you came from a line of farmers?” I ask trying to wake up his tuned out brain.
“Everyone who wasn’t a king or a landlord was a farmer back then.”
“That’s a good point… so how about we go looking for someone who isn’t a farmer then?”
The young master’s eyes go big with surprise “All right?”
I flip through the book skipping page after page of farmers until I come to a man named Keen who was just enough not-a-farmer to count.
“I think I found something. Keen Winton made farming tools and you should see these.” I pick up the heavy book and set it down gingerly on the kid’s small desk showing off the networks of arms, levers and sails.
“Now that looks like something a Winton would build don’t you think?”
The boy nods as he looks at the drawing “But how does it work, I see no engine?”
“Maybe the text has something to say on it?” I scan the page “Looks like it’s fueled by the wind, these fins capture the wind and use it to rotate the central axis and the motion is then translated into forward motion by the legs” I point to a windmill-like structure on the side of the machine.
“So it’s no use indoors then.” The boy pouts.
“It would need springs to work indoors.”
“But that’s not the same.”
He huffs but it’s a childish huff that doesn’t convey actual annoyance. “So what else did he design?”
Turns out that the book isn’t nearly as boring as first assumed, you just need to skip the farmers and discuss the drawings.
“Hey, that’s the foot that stands on our mantlepiece.” The young master points to a drawing of a severed foot.
I start to read “While his machines for ploughing and seeding were functional enough his automatic harvester wasn’t as much of a success as during the first real test run the wind changed direction and the clipping sheers meant for wheat instead bit down in the inventor’s ankle. Instead of searching out an alchemist, Keen Winton decided this was a good opportunity to design the ultimate prosthetic and had the foot removed and preserved set upon a wooden plaque. After his lifetime his children had the small piece of femur removed and replaced with a small bunch of paper forget-me-nots in memory of their father…Okay then?”
The kid however doesn’t look too phased by it as he asks “Do you wanna see it?”
I take a moment to think before deciding “I’m sure I’ll run into it at some point. It’s best to continue lessons for now.”
Then after lessons, it’s dinner time and after dinner time the young master has an hour to play around until it’s eight o clock and time to brush his teeth, hair and a bedtime story.
We’re back in his bedroom, the boy already laying under his blanket. His eyes are expectingly looking at me as I look for a book to read to him.
“Which one were you reading?” I ask looking through a bookcase that is covered in wood carved vines complete with ivy leaves. The books are thin and colourful with the same gold embossed letters I spotted on the family history book.
“Doesn’t matter, just pick one.”
I wonder at this but nevertheless, pick out a powder blue volume that catches my attention.
I then look upon the cover and feel instantly delighted “I know this fairy tale.” The tale of the jax and the wizard was a favourite among us but it went with Yiulogas when we went our own way and I haven’t seen it since.
Sure it looks a bit childish with the pictures on the cover, but the idea of reading it again fills me with joy.
I sit down on the bed next to the young master and open up the book on the first page.
“Long ago in the age of magic-”
“I want to read.” The boy tugs on the cover, I let go before the book sustains any damage.
“All right, go ahead then.”
“Long ago in the age of magic and wonder there lived a jax, an ugly kreeture, hunched and beeked with fur so black that if it weren’t for the beady yellow eyes that glowed in the dark he could be mistaken for a shadow.
This little fellow was the servant of an evil wizurd who made the jax work far too hard and never said ‘thank you’ he even called the jax expendable making him really sad. But there was hope for the little jax as-”
“That’s not right.”
The boy looks up at me.
“There’s a bit about how the wizard experiments on the jax. Like he’s not just ‘not saying thank you’ he’s hurting the jax.”
“Because he’s evil. There are pieces of Expendable’s ears missing and everything.”
“Eww, that’s gross, that’s not in here.” He says holding the book up to me.
“Let me see that.” I pick the book up and scan the pages. Why is expendable lowercase? That’s his name… “Dale!? They called Expendable, Dale!?”
The kid chuckles “Expendale is not a name.”
“It’s his name but they changed it.”
“Maybe that’s a different fairytale?”
“No that can’t be, the title is the same.” I flip to the end of the book where Expendable is sent to prison for treason…Wait where is it!? what’s all this about him living happily ever after!? “Doesn’t he get caught for the murder of the king?”
“Oh he does, but the good fairy busts him out.”
“There’s a good fairy now?”
“Yeah, the wizard takes the black flower from fairyland and the fairies get worried so they send their bravest fairy Buttercup after the wizard and when they find out what he did the wizard gets shrunken down to fairy size and put in fairy prison and Dale gets released and lives out the rest of his life as a human.”
“But…there are no fairies in the original.”
“Then how is it a fairytale?” The boy asks crossing his arms.
“Because it’s set in the long-ago age of magic? Besides fairies are tricksters, they don’t help people.”
“Dale is a jax though.”
I grumble, but try to keep myself composed deciding that getting into an argument with a five-year-old is probably not worth it.
“I think it’s a great story. Besides who wants to read a story with a sad ending?”
“It’s a moral lesson, it teaches that if people have an offer that sounds too good to be true it usually is. Now no one learns anything.”
“How about good comes to good people and bad to bad?”
Now I’m the one to cross my arms “Well that’s not how the world works.”
The kid shrugs “Can we read the rest now?”
“Isn’t there a story in here you haven’t read yet?”
The young master shakes his head “I get new books on my birthday.”
“When is that?”
“Uuuuuhm.” The kid starts counting out the months on his fingers “Four months.” He says at last.
I walk back to the bookcase and check the spines, most of the stories are familiar, some are new but I think there’s a couple I have in my books that he’s lacking.
“Have you ever heard the story of the magic river?”
“What’s it about?”
“There are two children who are lost in the woods and they come across a mermaid. And the mermaid wants to eat them but-”
“Lalalalala!” the kid suddenly starts singing out of nowhere covering his hands with his ears.
It startles me and I try to shush him as bedtime is not the time to be singing, he stops and pointing at me says “No ruining the ending.”
Oh, I see “I can grab the book if you want?”
“Does it have a sad ending?”
“Didn’t you just ask me not to ruin the ending?”
“That’s different, if it doesn’t have a happy ending I don’t like it.”
“Should I grab the book?”
“All right, I’ll be right back.”
I follow the bot to my room, grab the book, walk to the door.
Then turn back, grab the whole pile and walk back to the bedroom.
“If you can read my books can I read yours?”
“Sure! You can borrow them for as long as you want.”
So we sit down together, read the story of the magic river.
“The children looked down into the water and saw themselves refe…refeted-”
“In the water, what does that mean?”
“Reflection is when light falls onto a smooth surface and it bounces off it, back into your eyes, it’s how mirrors work, what the story is trying to say is that the water functions as a mirror.”
“Okay so it refected back but instead of themselves the way they are they saw them wearing beautiful, ex-pen-sive white clothes and their tummies were round from eating. The boy bent over to see himself better but the girl was afraid and grabbed her brother’s hand. Then a wept hand…a webbed hand?”
“Mermaids have patches of skin between their fingers to help them swim.”
“Just like ducks?”
“Just like ducks.”
“That is so weird!” The boy laughs while looking at his own hand. “How do they pick their nose then?”
“They don’t and neither should you,” I tell him wagging my finger at him.
He immediately diverts his attention back to the book “A webbed hand came from the deep and grabbed onto the boy’s wrist, trying to drag him down into the water. The girl screamed and pulled her brother away… falling onto the grass with him. Then the rest of the mermaid doomed up…doomed up? This is hard, you should read.” He says pushing the book my way.
First, he wants to read then he doesn’t. Are all kids like this? I wonder as I take over and read the rest of the story to him.
the kid is a bit grossed out when the kids murder the mermaid but I tell him mermaid are mean and it’s for the best. Besides he has no qualms with a severed foot in the parlour so I’m really confused about his boundaries.
Then I close the book with a soft thud.
“Another one!” He cries out but I shake my head “We’ll read more tomorrow, for now, you must sleep.”
He grumbles a bit but rolls away from me and pulls the blanket over his head.
I walk to the bookcase again and pick a couple of books whose titles sound alien to me and walk back to my room to read for the night.
All dolls love to read, they like music too but music only became available recently. Father had given us a whole library of stories to get through the night without waking him. Written by his own hand, collected over decades. He would copy them from books his friends had, recollect them from tales he heard at the coffee house and I believe some were his invention entirely though I haven’t been able to convince many of my siblings on that point.
When father died and the dolls spilt out into the world we divided the library, every doll got a handful of books to take with them on their journey. Sometimes we lend them to one another, sometimes we trade them. But they can never leave the family.
We’re collective owners of the library, it’s not our place to give to outsiders or destroy.
But maybe we can add to it?
The stories from today are much softer, much cleaner. The stakes are lower by default but the stories are new. It’s been a long time since I flipped the page in a book not knowing what comes after and there’s excitement in that.
I should show these to the others.
There’s no such thing as too many stories after all.