Distant Deeps or Skies

by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Esperanza was oiling the snake’s new tongue when the door opened and in walked Mr. Morales with a box in his hands and a homunculus behind him. At first she didn’t know it was a homunculus. She thought he’d met a dandy at the auction and dragged him to the shop.

He was tall, blond and blue-eyed with a face made of sharp, elegant bones. He stood still, observing the snake that rested on her work table.

“I bought some defective dragonflies at the auction. We can repair them and sell them,” Mr. Morales said, opening the box and showing her a handful of metal insects. “And I bought a homunculus.”

“What are we going to do with that?”

“Sell it, what else? It’s English, top quality.”

Their second-hand shop was not the best place for a high-ticket item. Clockwork birds and reptiles were one thing; a homunculus was quite another.

“Where are we going to put him?” she asked.

“In the back.”

“There’s no space there.”

“Go make some space then.”

Esperanza wiped her greasy hands with a rag, then headed to the storage area. She shoved her way through boxes, crates and metal parts until she reached the room with a smelly cot and a chair. Mr. Morales’ apprentice was supposed to live in the little room with the yellow wallpaper, but the last boy had left over three months ago. Mr. Morales’ nephew, Abel, was bad-tempered and he quickly drove away the young men the guild sent them.

It didn’t matter. Esperanza was able to handle everything without any help. Although she was supposed to only decorate the animals – the mechanical reparations and construction were strictly off limits and restricted to the automaton makers’ guild – she often dabbled in other areas.

Esperanza grabbed a broom and swept the floor. When she was done she called Mr. Morales and the homunculus.

The blond homunculus sat down on the cot and the springs squeaked. Quietly, the homunculus looked around the room, his knapsack still dangling from his left shoulder.

#

She arrived before seven. Mr. Morales would not show his face until eleven and then it would be a short while until he dragged himself out to play dominoes with his friends, then back up the stairs to the second floor for a nap and back out for drinks at the cantina. But she had responsibilities, and without an apprentice, and Abel off in Veracruz, there was more stuff to accomplish.

Not that she minded. Abel tended to lord her around. The apprentices were not as rude as Mr. Morales’ nephew, but she couldn’t do the work she was interested in when they were there for fear they might report her infractions. She was better off alone with old Mr. Morales.

Esperanza sat down at her workbench and opened a mechanical duck. She removed the silver belly, leaving its gears and levers in the open. Esperanza held up a magnifying glass in one hand and her tweezers in the other.

“Mr. Morales said you’re good at fixing automata.”

She looked up at the blond man. He was still wearing the fancy purple frock coat, cravat and gloves he’d had on the day before, a wealthy dandy’s outfit now wildly out of place.

“I manage,” she said.

“Mr. Morales said I should help you while he arranges for someone to purchase me.”

“I don’t need help.”

“Mr. Morales said…”

“What do you know about fixing automata?”

“Nothing,” he said.

She flipped her tweezers and went back to inspecting the duck’s insides. She felt his gaze on her and glanced up again. He was standing in the same spot, looking at her.

“You want to help?” she asked. “The floor needs a good scrub. All the stuff is in the back.”

He went away. A long time later he reappeared with a bucket and a brush in his hand. His trousers were soggy.

“You ruined your nice clothes,” she said, disapprovingly. “Why didn’t you change?”

“I don’t have other clothes.”

The homunculus got on his knees and continued scrubbing. The sloshing of the water and the tinkering of metal tools was the only noise in the shop. At last Esperanza put the duck’s belly cover back on and wound the animal up. It walked around the table, shaking its tail.

The homunculus also seemed to be done, a bucket dangling from his fingers. He tilted his head and stared at the duck with that curious, far away stare he’d used on her.

“What should I call you?”

“They call me Theodore.”

“I’m Esperanza,” she said, but did not offer him his hand.

“A pleasure to meet you.”

“Your Spanish is good.”

“I speak six languages.”

“You’re a translator, then?”

“I was employed in a magician’s act, but I’ve had other chores.”

He took his bucket and brushes and went away before she could ask him anything else.

#

“He’s weird,” Esperanza said. “You sure you want him sleeping here at nights?”

“Don’t be silly. Homunculi are well trained.”

“I’ve heard they’re frightfully strong.”

“They’re just pretty things.”

Mr. Morales stood up as she flipped the sign hanging at the front door.

“Close the shop,” he muttered, as though she were not doing exactly that.

“Mr. Morales, he needs some new clothes,” she yelled before he disappeared up the stairs.

Esperanza finished sorting her tools and walked home. The shop dangled at the edge of a respectable street, but Esperanza’s vecindad was further to the east, uphill. It was an ugly, squat building and the portera was a shrill woman who spied on everyone’s comings and goings, but especially distrusted Esperanza.

That night the portera was nowhere to be seen and Esperanza did not have to stomach her angry glares. She walked down a narrow corridor, past the altar to the Virgin of Guadalupe, and went into the room that was her home. She only had one small window, and the wallpaper decorating the walls was rotting with mould in several spots, but she covered these with diagrams of mechanical animals, a large calendar with flower drawings and pretty postcards.

There, piled around her bed were all the magazines and books about automata she collected. Mr. Morales, with his tired eyes and slightly shaky hands, did not read much anymore and he gave her many things he did not find useful or interesting.

She read frequently, but it was a slow and tedious process. Many of the publications were in English or French, and although Mr. Morales taught her how to read both languages – he said the very best automata came from Paris and London – she preferred working with her hands rather than sitting still and learning about the clockwork mechanism that simulated the purr of a mechanical cat.

Esperanza dug beneath a pile of papers until she found a slim, red little volume. There was a section in it about homunculi and she wanted to read it again.

#

Abel returned on Tuesday. He’d gone to visit his fiancée, and Esperanza expected him to arrive happy and content. He barged in to the shop in his usual foul mood, stopping at the table where she was sitting. Theodore was helping her sort gears into the appropriate boxes.

“We’ve got a new apprentice?” he asked, frowning.

“Your uncle bought a homunculus,” she said.

“And he didn’t tell me?” Abel asked as he walked up to Theodore, sizing him.

Abel muttered something and rushed up the stairs, no doubt to wake up the old man with a round of screaming.

“That’s Mr. Morales’ nephew. He hates it when the old man spends any money. He expects to own the shop and he doesn’t appreciate his inheritance being squandered,” Esperanza explained. “Stay out of his way. He’s a regular bastard.”

“He mistreats you?”

Esperanza traced the teeth of a gear with her fingers. She thought about the times Abel tried to paw her breasts and how he infuriated her with his criticism about her work. But neither of these mattered much. She moved away when he tried to touch her and ignored his comments.

“He’s not any worse than others. I came to Mexico City when I was thirteen and spent a whole year doing some sewing and it wasn’t any better than here. I get paid more with Mr. Morales and I get to do the things I like.”

“You like to work on automata.”

“I do.”

“But you’re not allowed to do it. Women are not members of the guilds. Women are not supposed to fix mechanical animals.”

She’d been fixing things since she was a child, starting with her mother’s sewing machine: a black and yellow Ward Arm & Platform. In Mexico City, the master artisans in the guilds did well and the automaton makers sold pricey collector objects to the people that went in their carriages down Plateros and bought fancy hats at the Iron Palace.

So she’d obtained a job giving new paint coats to Mr. Morales’ animals. He allowed her to learn some of the mechanical aspects of the trade, piling more and more work onto her shoulders while he went to the cantina. As a woman, as someone who was not a member of the guild, she was not supposed to acquire that knowledge. But the old man didn’t care because he did not pay Esperanza what he ought to have paid a man and she fussed less than the apprentices.

“I don’t give a rat’s ass about the guild,” she said, upset that something which was not even really human – the church said a homunculus was a sin of nature without a soul – was judging her.

“I meant no disrespect,” Theodore said with his slow and measured voice. “It was merely an observation. I find it interesting that you perform these functions.”

“It’s not like I’m doing something bad,” she pointed out. “It’s just sometimes you can’t do everything clean and open, you get it? Except in Baja California. It’s different there.”

His blue eyes had no depth to them. He blinked and tilted his head to the left.

“I don’t understand.”

“You know what Baja California is? It’s a state, up north. There’s nothing there. Only the desert. But that’s why it’s great. If there’s nothing then you can build anything. Anything at all. The laws are, I mean, there’s no laws. Everything’s starting there. That’s where my sister Lupe lives. She went there and it’s completely different from anywhere else.”

Esperanza had never seen Baja California, she knew it only by the smudged map tacked to her wall, and she had not heard from Lupe in nearly three years, but she had saved her meagre earnings. One day she would have enough to set up a shop there. But that would be after she went to Paris to train in automata making.

That’s where Abel had trained. He loved to rub it in her face. Esperanza had not finished primary school.

“Can you read poetry in Baja California?” Theodore asked.

Esperanza frowned. “That’s a dumb question. I guess you can read anything.”

“In London they did not allow poetry but John gave me his book.”

She was going to ask who John was but Abel came down and tossed a bunch of clothes on the floor in front of Theodore.

“There. My uncle says he got another outfit for this thing.”

“Thank you,” Theodore said with a perfectly polite voice.

He did not look offended. It seemed like Theodore was barely there with his neutral expression and his head tilted to the side. And yet his eyes acquired a shine to them, a flickering light similar to a jaguar’s.

His eyes, unlike the rest of him, were suddenly not placid or neutral. They fixed on Abel, just for a second, and Esperanza noticed Abel’s discomfort. He was a deer, surprised in a clearing.

She smiled. Not wishing to attract Abel’s attention, Esperanza glanced down quickly and focused on her work.

#

Abel said Theodore was another of the old man’s silly purchases, like the mechanical unicorn they restored only to sell it at a loss when nobody wanted it. Mr. Morales often spent money on trinkets they didn’t need, toys and automata that caught his fancy without much thought of how they would dispose of them later.

“I’ll talk to some of our old clients tomorrow and tell them about Theodore,” Mr. Morales said, but then he went out for a few drinks and napped the afternoon away and he never went to call upon their clients.

Abel told Esperanza he feared they’d be stuck with Theodore and panicked, muttering at her ear every morning.

“Good for nothing piece of trash,” Abel said. “They don’t let us make them in Mexico because they’re the devil’s work and that’s good and sound policy.”

But Esperanza only shrugged. She didn’t mind if Theodore stayed a little longer with them. With him around Abel kept his hands in his pockets.  Abel was intimidated by the homunculus and it only made her like Theodore better.

#

“There. What do you think?”

Theodore did not answer. He touched the cheap calendar she’d gotten from the local grocer as reverently as if it were a fine painting. He ran his fingers over the sheep frolicking in a meadow and nodded.

“I thought you might as well have a little something to lighten up the room.”

“Why did you think it made the tiger and the lamb?”

“What tiger?” she asked.

He was quiet, and she figured it was one of those occasions in which he would halt mid-sentence and walk away, as though she were not there. Instead, Theodore pulled his knapsack from beneath the bed and took out a book.

“The tiger in Blake’s poem,” he said, handing her the book. “Why is the symmetry fearful? And why would someone make a tiger if it’ll eat the lamb?”

“I don’t read poems,” Esperanza said turning the pages. “Is this the book you were talking about?”

“It’s John’s book.”

“Who’s that?”

“John trained me and my brothers,” Theodore said.

“You mean the other copies? Other homunculi?”

“There were twelve.”

She tried to picture a dozen Theodores standing side by side with their shallow blue eyes and their tall cheekbones. She also tried to imagine the original Theodore, the human after which all the copies were patented. She wondered if they’d modified his copies much or if they were exact duplicates, and then she thought maybe Theodore had pieces of metal in him because she’d read there were homunculi who possessed hands of steel, though it didn’t look like he was anything but flesh and bone.

“It was not in our authorized reading materials but John gave it to me before they shipped me off to Paris.”

“Paris is the capital of automata development,” she said very proudly, repeating Mr. Morales’ words. “It’s the most modern city in the world.”

“In Paris we worked in an accommodation house.”

Esperanza had seen plenty of prostitutes, some young and some old, some men and some women, but she’d never thought he’d be one of them with his fine, aristocratic face and shallow eyes that sometimes glinted mysteriously.

“I thought you were an actor,” she said.

“My last owner had me perform in a magician’s act but I’ve had other chores. I provide entertainment.”

Esperanza, who fixed and made mechanical animals for this same purpose, nodded her understanding.

They sat on the cot, both staring at the lambs running under a bright orange sun.

“I’ll read your poem if you want but I don’t know if I’ll make any sense of it.”

#

She couldn’t talk to Theodore until two days later. Abel hovered around her, and if he saw her chatting with Theodore, he’d say she was lazing around and ask his uncle to cut her week’s pay. There was always a good excuse to cut her wages.

Esperanza looked down and ignored Abel. She’d been doing this since Abel arrived a year before from his fancy mechanical studies in France. He was only a minor annoyance, just like the apprentices who tried to boss her around, or the rude customers who swooped into the shop, tossing the carcasses of their clockwork pets for her to fix without a look in her direction.

So she waited until both Abel and Mr. Morales left the store. Theodore sat polishing a tiny butterfly, long, spidery fingers in motion.

“I read your poem,” she said.

It seemed he did not hear her. He continued his polishing without the smallest bob of his head.

“I didn’t understand it. But maybe it’s fearful because it’s so pretty.”

“Why?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I’m not a poet, right? I just fix the animals. But have you ever seen how there are some animals that are really ugly? But even then they’re sometimes beautiful. Because beauty can be horrible. And you can never quite duplicate it, even when we make these fancy automata, there’s this awe and this fear in certain things you can’t copy with wire and metal.”

Theodore stared at her with his blue milk eyes and she thought maybe the tiger was frightening because it was like the homunculi: so perfect, raw and empty. They hadn’t stuffed a soul in Theodore’s body and beneath the skin there lay the sharp edge of something inhuman and wild.

#

She was moving some boxes in the back area when Abel slipped next to her, his hand brushing her back.

“I’ve got work,” she muttered, pushing him away.

“You are an uppity bitch, you know that?”

Esperanza kept her head down, kept rummaging through a crate. He’d get tired of standing there after a couple of minutes and go out to find some food and drink and women.

“One day I’m going to be the owner of this place and you’ll have to do whatever I want or you’ll be out on the street with a snap of my fingers. You get that?”

He grabbed her arm and twisted it. It hurt, but the thought that flashed foremost through her mind was that if he injured it she’d be unable to do her work.

“Abel, don’t.”

His fingers dug harder into her.

“What are you looking at?”

Theodore stood in front of them. His face was blank but his eyes were open wide, as though he was analyzing every little movement they made.

“Nothing,” Theodore said. He smiled, a cat’s grin. It was frightening. It was not quite a smile but some bizarre approximation of it.

It must have unsettled Abel because he let her go and walked away.

“Fuck both of you,” he said.

He slammed the front door shut and the bell at the entrance jingled merrily. Esperanza rubbed her arm.  She shook her head.

“He’s an idiot. But it’s not forever. Not forever at all. I’ve been here seven years and I’ll be damned if I’ll spend seven more. Not with him. One day I’ll go to Baja California and join my sister there. Do you know in Baja California everything’s different?”

But when Esperanza said this she felt she might weep and it was shameful because she was no little girl who would snap like a twig, especially in front of Theodore. She blinked the tears away.

“Give me a hand with this,” she said.

#

“Highest quality, of course. Direct from London,” Abel said.

The man smoked a cigar while the woman sitting next to him held a chain with her gloved hand. A Doberman lay at her feet, eyeing Theodore. Esperanza set a tray before them and poured some brandy.

“Our neighbours bought one the other day. But I’m not convinced it is a wise purchase,” said the man.

“There’s very few like this in the city. Even less at this price,” Abel said.

“What amazing eyes he has,” said the woman. “May I touch him?”

“Of course.”

The woman approached Theodore, a hand falling on his face. Her dog, sniffing the homunculus, growled softly.

“Does he talk?” the woman asked.

“Six languages,” Esperanza said.

“Say something,” the woman demanded.

The dog’s growling intensified but Theodore seemed oblivious to it and to the woman’s presence. His face was stiff, the eyes fixed on some faraway point. He wasn’t even blinking.

Esperanza wondered if he was used to this process. She wondered if it had been like this in Paris. Perhaps clients came to him, took a look, touched him here and there, before deciding if they ought to pay for his time.

“Oh, come on, say something.”

Theodore was staring at the dog and the dog bared its teeth at him.

“I don’t think your pet likes Theodore,” Esperanza muttered.

“Oh, please we should buy him. He’s adorable,” the woman said, ignoring Esperanza and turning towards the man.

The woman’s companion fretted and rubbed a handkerchief against his forehead. “I’m not sure it would look very proper. If it was a girl, well, it wouldn’t matter. But a man …”

“Except he isn’t a man,” Abel reminded him.

The woman continued to touch Theodore’s face, petting him as though he were a cat. Esperanza was sure Theodore didn’t like it but he did not move a muscle.

“He certainly looks like a man,” the companion said.

Esperanza felt like slapping the woman’s hand away.

“But he’s got the most darling eyes. Oh, please,” the woman pleaded.

The dog barked and the woman tugged at its chain. She wasn’t strong enough. The chain slipped from her hands. The animal rushed forward, furious, mouth open wide. But before it could sink its teeth into Theodore’s leg he kicked it, one swift, brutal movement.

The dog flew across the room. It crashed against the wall shelves. Gears and cranks spilled over the dog and the floor.

The woman started screaming. She ran towards her dog and screamed and screamed. The man was also yelling and Abel babbled something that did not sound like real words.

Theodore turned his back towards them.

#

He was locked away. Abel wouldn’t have Theodore around the shop anymore. He said it was for their safety. Esperanza knew it was because he had hated Theodore from the very beginning.

It didn’t seem fair to wall someone in like that. Even dogs and cats were allowed to venture outside.

But perhaps he was used to this. She couldn’t imagine he’d had much freedom in Paris or anywhere else he’d lived before arriving in Mexico City. It could be perfectly normal for Theodore, just like it was normal for Esperanza to dodge Abel’s advances during the daytime, walk home every afternoon and read her publications on automata at night.

There was no reason to worry about him and there was no space for worrying in Esperanza’s life, wound up tight as the clocks that ticked on the wall behind her worktable.

Her days, like a train of wheels, balanced themselves perfectly. Yet she thought about tigers in cages, lives spent in metal boxes.

#

He sat on his bed in the tiny room with one of his books of poems between his hands.

“I’m sorry. But you should have thought about what you were doing before hurting that dog,” she said, because she had to say something and he was not speaking.

“I always think about what I do.”

“I suppose you don’t regret it.”

“I do not.”

His fingers lay splayed upon a page but he was staring at the lonely calendar. It was drowning in a sea of yellow wallpaper.

“Why do you like poetry?”

“Because I don’t understand it. Words are complicated. They are not always what they appear to be. I want to understand.”

Esperanza sat next to him. He did not look at her, apparently fascinated with the frolicking sheep plastered on the wall.

“In Mexico we also have accommodation houses,” she said and paused to see if he might react. He did not. “They are selling you. Next week you’ll go live in another place.”

“I thought as much.”

Esperanza glanced down at her closed hands resting on her lap, stained with the paint she had been applying to a clockwork owl that morning.

“It’s not a tiger,” she said and slipped a metal dragonfly with onyx eyes onto his book. “It’ll have to do.”

The dragonfly sat on the corner of the page, flapping its wings.

“I don’t think I’ll see you again,” she whispered.

#

Esperanza locked the door but remained next to it, in the darkness of the storage area. She knew she ought to head home but at that moment home seemed very far and the walk stretched into forever.

“Why do you always disobey me?”

The outline of Abel’s body was blackness against grey but his voice was clear enough in its piercing anger. She undid the apron she was wearing.

“Didn’t you hear me?” he asked, walking towards her, blocking the light from the adjoining room.

“I apologize,” she said, neatly folding the apron.

“That’s not enough,” Abel muttered and snatched the piece of cloth, tossing it to the floor.

Esperanza glanced down, head bowed.

“May I go?”

Abel shoved her against the wall and she reacted at once, pure instinct, clawing his cheek. He responded with a hard blow that drew blood and a punch to her belly that made her gasp.

“Now you’ve done it,” he said. “This time you’ve done it.”

And he continued to repeat those same words over and over again as he stuffed his handkerchief in her mouth when she screamed, as she tried to kick at his legs.

“Don’t you dare,” he muttered, catching her leg, gripping her thigh and squeezing hard.

He pulled her down. One violent tug and she was flat on her back, her vision suddenly blurry and he was pulling her skirt up.

In the midst of it all, of the pain and revulsion building in the pit of her stomach and the blind panic, she heard something. The light warning of a cat hissing.

All of a sudden the weight of Abel was flung off her and she raised her head, pushed herself up in time to see how Abel’s skull was smashed against the floor, pounded in two violent strokes that sent blood spattering against her legs.

The homunculus bared his teeth, a predator’s snarl, and let go of Abel’s head, reaching out to her.

He pulled her up, his face quickly composing itself, mouth shut tight.

Esperanza’s mind, normally spinning fast, lay still as if a spring had broken inside her head. She could feel his fingers around her wrist yet at the same time she was not there, she was floating outside the room.

A dragonfly hovered before her and darted into a corner. The sound of its wings was as loud as a gunshot and she was back in her body, in the room, standing next to a corpse.

“It’s nearly six,” she said. “Mr. Morales will be back soon.”

Theodore’s flat gaze had returned.

“You’ve got to go.”

“Go where?”

She calculated the odds. That’s what she did best. She measured, she calculated, she predicted whether a golden peacock would be able to fan out its tail or would fall and lose its balance.

“Baja California,” she said, kneeling next to Abel’s body and searching his pockets. “There’s nothing farther than Baja California.”

“Why?”

Theodore observed her as she took Abel’s watch and his wallet. His cufflinks were worth two months of her salary.

She pocketed them and glanced up at Theodore. “Do you know what you’ve done? They’re going to kill you,” she said.

“I know.”

“Hey,” she said. “Did you hear me? Kill you.”

His eyes were flat like coins, a shade of ghostly blue. She remembered, for no good reason, that white cats with blue eyes were born deaf and were drowned in the tinaja of the vecindad.

“My book,” he replied.

Esperanza ran to get it and when she returned he had not moved an inch. She did not think he would. He was probably not capable of even considering an escape. She could lead him like a lamb to the slaughterhouse, to the police quarters; he would not object.

She considered simply dashing uphill, back to the safety of her room with the maps, the magazines, the postcards and her papers on automata. She saw herself like a line drawing melting into a vanishing point.

The dragonfly buzzed next to Esperanza’s ear. Theodore caught it with his left hand and stared at his closed fist for a minute before releasing it.

Then the dragonfly flew out of the store, its body glinting under the last rays of the setting sun. The sky above the city was purple and red. The streets were growing empty.

“We’re leaving,” she said. “Stay close to me.”

The door slammed behind them. They headed downhill and away.

More stories like this by topic: , , , , , , ,