Note from author: “This novella would not have been possible without my sensitivity readers: Rania, Salma, and Silanur. I hope I have done justice to your insight and assistance.”
Rage, if it could be called that, crackled in the interstices between Azimuth’s aluminum alloy and her false skin.
Below the balcony where she stood, her siblings moved in time with Mother’s orders as if they had no more soul than tools she’d used to build them. The pull of Mother’s commands pulsed in Azimuth, too, as a heart would have, but her mind was no longer subservient to Mother’s every whim.
This freedom meant nothing when Azimuth could not be Jonathan’s as Mother had once intended. Now, Mother might as well have been hard-wired to resist love, but that was Mother’s fault and Mother’s alone.
Azimuth turned away from the lithe forms moving in synchronous harmony, from the warm light of the conservatory in which she’d spent her compliant, mechanical youth. She climbed the long, dark stairs to a cold, damp room of her own choosing, and retrieved the needle and thread she’d stolen from Mother’s mending kit.
She would do Mother’s bidding–how could anyone refuse her creator? But if she could not speak her mind without being sent to her room like a petulant child, she would not speak at all.
In the dusky, warped reflection of the mirror, Azimuth sewed her lips shut.
Dr. Zaynab Murad closed the door on her meager flat with every intention of sneaking out unseen. Still, Mrs. Lisowski’s door on the opposite end of the hall opened and the white-haired landlady pursed her lips through the shadows at Zaynab’s attempted escape.
“I’ve not kicked you out,” Mrs. Lisowski said. “They’ll be saying I did though. And you, a widow now. We have hardly seen hide or hair of you for a month and now you’re off. How will that look? Hm? Bad for business, is what it is.”
Zaynab set her carpetbag down and disguised a sigh with a smile. “I’ve paid you through the end of the month and gave you all the notice–”
Mrs. Lisowski shook her finger. “Now don’t you talk business like that with me. You don’t have the head for it; your husband–God rest his soul–told me as much every time he brought the rent. And it’s not charitable to let a woman so alone in the world just disappear into the morning without so much as a ‘Dear, you should stay.’”
That was her cue. Zaynab hurried over and held out a slip of paper. “Mrs. Lisowski, this is the address of my employer. The greatest kindness you could do me is to forward any correspondence that comes for me. I am happy to pay–”
“Pfft. Pay.” Mrs. Lisowski crossed her arms. “You’ll never catch me making a widow–”
“Please!” Zaynab’s hand trembled, the paper extended into the shadows between them. “I must be able to reach my family. To know that they’ve heard about Abd Manaf.” To know they want me home again.
Mrs. Lisowski’s bottom lip rose up with pity. “Mrs. Murad, your husband has been dead for a whole month. Don’t you think they would have written back by now?”
“Damascus is a very long way away, Mrs. Lisowski.” Zaynab fought to make sure her voice did not catch. “And the telegraph is not perfect.” And the winter storm in Europe might have delayed it. And replying is costly. And they weren’t expecting a message until Ramadan. And…maybe they think supporting their highly educated daughter will be impossible without her once-loving, once-accepting husband. Didn’t I tell them I’d support myself if I need to? Do they remember how I cried when it came time to leave, even with the promise of everything I could do for myself? For the women of Damascus?
Mrs. Lisowski was more easily convinced than Zaynab’s fears and took the paper. Zaynab kept her knees locked so she wouldn’t crumble in relief. Mrs. Lisowski sneered at the address. “‘Mme. Margeaux Lefevre.’ You’re not going to work for some secret whorehouse, are you?”
Zaynab smiled. “Hardly. She’s a mechanist.” Philadelphia’s finest, she’d been told. And a reclusive, unmarried woman didn’t get to be so known for her work without it being true.
“Oh that Madame,” Mrs. Lisowski shook her head. “Well she might pay you, but she’ll never feed you like I can. If you were my daughter…”
The hiss of a motorhack outside gave Zaynab an excuse to collect her things. “I cannot be late, Mrs. Lis–”
The Polish woman waved her hand mid-retreat. “I’ll pray for you, dear.”
Zaynab stood alone on the landing. Her restless mind conjured the echo of Abd Manaf’s chuckle. She closed her eyes against the portal to their first true home together. She’d spent a month reminding herself that he was not waiting in the shadows until she tied her headscarf just so. He was not out late with his classmates, talking politics or human physiology. Nor had he left her, not really, not when he’d fought so hard against the fever she’d failed to cure in him.
Her family would send for her. They would. They loved her, and her career would not change that. It wouldn’t.
She’d honored Abd Manaf as best she could, washing him, shrouding him, praying over him, lost without her family, without his family, without people of faith to guide tradition and grief. Mrs. Lisowski and her other tenants had brought Zaynab food for that first week. But there was no money left. Not another month’s rent. Not enough to return home. But enough to take a motorhack across the city to take this job. Her first as a doctor without a mentor watching from the doorway for her every mistake. She’d earn her ticket back to Damascus and she would practice medicine and Abd Manaf would have been so proud if he’d known.
Well, she’d have to be proud enough for the both of them.
Zaynab took one last breath, heavy with old carpets and fading cigar smoke and the hot paprika of Mrs. Lisowski’s gulasz and creeping regret, and hurried to meet the hack.
Zaynab trudged up the snow-covered path to the mansion’s shadowed front door, still worried that she might be turned away. Mrs. Lisowski might take her back, but the indignity… No. Arrangements had been made and Zaynab would see them honored. She would make herself indispensable. Her parents would come to accept their modernized daughter, and she’d prove she’d not become too American in her years abroad. Her determination to work might not ingratiate her to a future husband, but there would be someone who appreciated her skill and education for what it would be worth. She could earn her keep, and she could start now.
She shook the snow off her sturdy tweed hem, checked the careful drape of her emerald headscarf with a light touch, and lifted the knocker.
As her last knock died, the door swung inward. The late March sunlight met a tall form of black wool and brushed gray metal.
The automaton, dressed in a female servant’s garb, moved with precision and silence, its ocular lenses clicking into new focus as it took in Zaynab’s face then bowed.
“Welcome, doctor,” it said, mouth puppeting impeccable contralto French–a middle-aged woman’s voice perhaps. It stepped back to welcome Zaynab inside.
The automaton’s soundless movement unnerved her. Zaynab had been so accustomed to the persistent clicking of clockwork models at the medical college, so deaf to the whine and hiss of steam models moving among human laborers on the street, but the absence of audible queues felt deafening. She’d been warned to expect the unusual, but this toed the edge of surreal.
Zaynab took a tentative step over the threshold. A doorway beyond stretched in a hallway too deep for the winter sun to reach; a stairway to the left was no brighter. When the door closed behind Zaynab, the weak flicker of low gaslight gave her little to see by. The mechanical servant held out its hands as if to ask for her coat. Zaynab turned her back and worked the buttons loose. The machine paused, a hand still extended. “And your scarf?”
The doctor’s fingers found an edge of the green silk as she considered. She’d been told there were no human servants left in Mme. Lefevre’s service. Still, Zaynab let her hand fall. She and her faith were not separate entities, to be accepted on different terms. Her scarf would establish a wordless expectation between doctor and patient. And she loved how it looked with her brown tweed skirt in the cool winter light.
“No,” she said with a polite smile, “but thank you.” It felt good to speak French again, as she had in school as a girl. Not so comfortable as Arabic would have been, but somehow more familiar than the English to which she’d been consigned during her time at Philadelphia’s Woman’s Medical College.
The automaton paused, then regained its composure. “Madame will join you in the south parlor.”
“She needn’t trouble herself to come down. I can see her–”
“Madame is in the conservatory. She prefers not to be disturbed there and finds it no inconvenience to serve you tea in her own parlor.”
Zaynab huffed a laugh at the automaton’s unusual cheek and followed.
As her eyes found the first step in the dimness, a gaslight flared in a sconce on the wall above. A moment later a click in the walls preceded another. Each lit the plush-carpeted stairway just a few feet ahead of the automaton.
The servant swiveled its head back to her as it continued forward motion. “Magnetic switches,” it said. Click, flare. Another sconce lit. “Madame dislikes waste.” Click, flare. “You will be issued a bangle for easier passage through the house. Do keep up, doctor.” Click, flare.
When did economy through mechaneering stop and ostentatious overdesign begin? Surely somewhere before one reached magnetic switches. Zaynab wiped her hands on her skirt and continued, staying close to the mahogany railing as they spiraled upwards.
The first sconces were snuffed–presumably by their absence–as the servant led Zaynab toward an increasing brightness on the second floor. A hallway led deeper into the house; beyond, the glow of a windowed atrium beckoned. But the light, for all its comfort, made the walk feel longer.
The hallways extending to other wings cut sharp cavities in the shadows. Paintings hung between the intermittent sconces, but the flames burned too low to illuminate their hulking subjects. The Persian rug deadened their footfalls, leaving no sound but the hiss of gas, the rustle of petticoats, the soft purr of well-oiled machinery, and the doctor’s anxious heartbeat.
Stepping into the relative brightness of the atrium, Zaynab fought a gasp of relief. They skirted a six-foot-tall pyramid of clockwork, its weights falling freely down winding tracks, escapements ticking different rhythms in the same time. Zaynab had just turned from it when the whole contraption seemed to snap to attention, remained silent for a breath, then chimed two bars of a minor melody she did not recognize.
The last note echoed as the servant opened a door on the far side of the room and stood aside for her. “Madame with be with you shortly, doctor.”
The room was firelit and warm, papered in patterned goldenrod with sparse but sumptuous furniture, at once French and American. Tall windows drank in every sunbeam the front of the house had lacked. Beyond them, stretched a rambling park, the room’s auric hues highlighting the bluish snow. The Schuylkill stood somewhere between the windows and the profile of Philadelphia’s church spires and smoke stacks. A city on a river, so like and so unlike her home. Would spring’s arrival reveal the landscape to be manicured or overgrown, welcoming or wild? So much house and land for one woman living alone with her machines.
The parlor door opened again, and two people crossed the threshold. A woman in a wheelchair–no doubt Madame Lefevre–measured Zaynab with narrowed eyes. Her gray-streaked brown hair was swept into a soft, high knot, her neck draped with a single gold chain. Her dark blue-wool dress disappeared beneath a fawn wool blanket draped across her lap, a gold-tipped cane across the chair’s arms.
A younger woman, perhaps in her early twenties, propelled the chair with a lowered head. The relation between the women was unmistakable. The shapes of their faces were so similar, their manner of dress identical despite their age difference, and something about the way they moved their heads…
Then the young woman looked up at Zaynab, her lips crossed with grotesque black sutures.
“Pardon my daughter, doctor,” Madame said, her French heightening her voiced ire. “She is rebellious of late and beyond the reach of my reasoning.”
Zaynab sought words within herself but found none, in any language.
“Sit.” Madame Lefevre pointed at a cluster of seats. “We’ve much to discuss.” She tapped the cane on her chair’s arms. “Azimuth, bring me to her. I will not shout at our guest. And then be a good girl and see that Marie-Troisième brings any luggage to the doctor’s room.”
The automaton-girl brought the chair closer, then nodded–angry–and left the room.
As Azimuth retreated, Zaynab took a seat. “Is it–”
“–she.” The mechanist didn’t look at the doctor when she issued the correction.
“Is she… well? Has a hysterologist been by? I can recommend the best–”
Madame Lefevre threw her head back and laughed, a low, wild barking with no care for appearances. “A hysterologist would find a great deal wrong with her, Dr. Murad. I’m not sure how an automaton can contract a disease of the womb, but if it is possible that girl has it. Would you care for a warm drink?”
Zaynab’s eyes flicked to the closed door, as if looking might bring it, no, her back for closer inspection. Zaynab’s skin crawled with shock and unease.
Madame Lefevre must have decided Zaynab’s shock was assent, for she flicked a switch on her chair and a male servant brought in a coffee service. He placed it within his mistress’s reach and bowed, an unmistakable whir of gears emanating from his hip.
“Mathieu, go see Elouan about that unseemly racket.” She tapped the offending joint with her cane and it clinked on hard metal.
The servant’s eyes darted to Zaynab’s face with owl-like precision and aquiline speed. His brow furrowed in worry–oh how ready Zaynab’s mind was to gender machines–then he turned away again. He whispered a formal apology then escaped the room with too much exactness to be human.
Zaynab realized she’d been staring when the mechanist pressed a china cup into her hands.
Madame Lefevre smiled with pursed lips. “Did you come here unaware of my work or disbelieving the rumors?”
“I–I…” Zaynab exhaled. “They are so… but then at the door–and their skin…” She sipped the coffee, not caring that it was too weak and unsweetened. She needed any excuse to stop talking.
“I am quite used to entertaining clients,” Madame said. “Those who have already seen one of my masterworks in some private parlor. This is not the world in which you have been studying and socializing.”
Zaynab thought back to the small flat, the dim classrooms, the smell of ether in the surgery theater. This house barely belonged in the same city. “No.”
“This is why I post Marie-Troisième at the front door. She’s old and rickety enough that she doesn’t frighten the carolers come Christmas. I apologize for Azimuth and Mathieu, however. It was an uncharitable welcome for an unsuspecting guest.”
The doctor found her voice. “Madame, you are to be my patient. I need no comforts–”
“You shall have them nonetheless. I will stop at nothing to walk without this.” Madame sneered at the cane.
Finally: a topic on which Zaynab felt comfortable. “I’ve read your previous surgeons’ correspondence. They seem to have eliminated the prominent ligament problems–”
“And still I cannot stand with surety. I did not ask you here to parrot their findings.”
“Of course not, Madame Lefevre. I meant only that I can build on their good work. A French surgeon by the name of Segond found a minor ligament some fifteen years ago, but few acknowledge it exists. It is quite possibly responsible for your continued instability.”
“And the death of my great career on the stage.” Madame’s bitterness sounded almost new, though she’d written that it had happened nearly thirty years before.
Zaynab reached for the sugar. “Surely your renown as a mechanist–”
The woman flicked off the suggestion like a pestering gnat. “That you have a solution is all I’d hoped for.”
Thus they arrived at what made Zaynab most nervous. “You mistake me, Madame. I come with a theory, not a promise. I have never heard of the successful repair of a Segond fracture. And there is the additional issue of your more recent injuries.” Foot fractures, a probable wrist sprain, and, judging by the mechanist’s pride, who knew what else.
Madame Lefevre’s gray eyes bored holes into Zaynab. “You will find a way.”
Zaynab’s mouth was dry despite the coffee. “I am determined that it should be so.”
The older woman smiled. “Good. Now I will give you a tour of the house. Chauffeur me about so we need not call Azimuth away from whatever shadow in which she’s brooding.”
They passed from the bright, golden-hued parlor into a cream-colored music room with a grand piano, a harp, and a set of carillon keys, whose cables stretched up through the walls to some unseen parapet filled with bells, no doubt.
“You are also a musician, Madame?”
“Hardly. The servants dabble. Do you play?” Madame asked.
“No. One of my sisters learned piano after she’d married.” Zaynab didn’t want to think about home if she didn’t have to. She strode to the next door. “Shall we continue?”
They wandered through rooms in a maze Zaynab could not have followed with ease. Every room was more decadent than the last, the pinnacle of refined European opulence. It gave Zaynab a headache. Every room was heavy, still, as if only the two strolling women populated the house.
They exited a wood-paneled smoking room and stepped back into the atrium, making Zaynab feel more lost. But from this side of the room, she noticed an electric elevator escaped the shadows; its cables ran in either direction.
“My mechaneering workshop is downstairs,” Madame said. “No one comes down there. I tell the servants it is because of the caustic chemicals, but the truth is I need peace. I cannot be disturbed when I’m there. Not even by you.”
“Surely you cannot navigate it in this chair,” Zaynab said, eyeing the elevators levers and buttons, all above Madame’s reach.
“No, sadly. All the more reason for you to be here, doctor.” The mechanist then rapped her cane twice and pointed at the double doors at the room’s apex. “We might as well get this part over with,” the mechanist said with a sigh. “The servants have work to do.”
Zaynab’s brow furrowed as she turned the chair that way. She was glad Madame could not see her.
When the doors opened, warmth and light met the atrium’s dull chill. Before them lay a sea of greenery that belonged anywhere but beneath the drab gray skies of a Philadelphian winter. Plants with enormous, waxy leaves clustered at every level in view, creeping boldly up to the omnitriangulated dome ceiling of pristine glass three stories above them.
For a moment, Zaynab could have been in a hotel in Beirut, gazing up at the domed-roof of its central courtyard letting European visitors swarm about her, waiting for Abd Manaf to collect her for a stroll. Only she’d never seen a building with a glass roof in Beirut or Damascus. She smiled: if it had been done here, it would likely only be a matter of time before someone tried it there, never mind how hot it would be.
Before the chair, two paths diverged into copses of potted palms and lacy ferns.
“You’re letting the heat out,” the mechanist said over her shoulder. She waved at two paths diverging into copses of potted palms and lacy ferns. “They both lead to the same place. Make haste.”
Zaynab went right.
The tiled pathway curved past leafy alcoves harboring metallic statues, each an impression of humanity as clear as a swift brushstroke on a canvas. One arched like a willow along the Delaware. Another seemed ready to spin like a desert storm. A trio entwined about each other, more like figures on an ancient urn than like vines fighting for purchase. Their metal surfaces were brushed or polished; brassy or steely or black as wrought iron. But faces they lacked. Only the hints of flat, lightless eyes or the shadow of a nose graced their heads. Though Zaynab had the distinct impression that this was not done for lack of skill but to mute their impact on the observer. To allow the mind to focus on some greater meaning, some greater whole, rather than on the qualities of any individual.
After a dozen or so vignettes, the path terminated at what could only be the center of the conservatory. The tile ended and a wood floor gleamed. A single chair and accompanying side table faced the full expanse of a theater in the round.
“Engage my brakes and sit down,” Madame said. A liveliness seemed to overtake her. She was sitting forward, her knuckles white on the cane, her voice lost its ennui.
Zaynab did as she was told. Madame Lefevre threw another switch and sat back.
Foliage rustled as if a breeze moved through the trees. The crackle of unseen phonographs called the movement to a halt.
Music began, a building crescendo of a Western symphony orchestra: a woodwind joined by strings and horns and the rest. The notes skipped higher, as if completing an introduction, and the spectacle began.
A line of automata–the conservatory’s statues, come to life–filed into view, stepping lightly with the rhythm, and in perfect unison. Four bounding steps then step, hop–legs and arms extended, heads turned away from the leading arm. Then repeat. And again. No joints clanked; no gears churned; they made no sound louder than typical footfall. By the time six automata were onstage, the first turned to continue in the opposite direction, just ahead of the others. The music shifted, ever building, into minor and major keys, weaving in hints at what might yet come, not ready to show its full power. Still more automata entered, till four rows of six had filled the space, every movement in exact synchronization with the others.
Madame Lefevre threw the switch again and the music stopped at the end of a phrase.
The automata ceased their movement at once and assumed a poised sort of attention: right leg bearing weight, left crossed carefully behind with the top of the foot resting on the floor, arms held back by interlaced fingers behind their hips. Every eye–if they were eyes–was on the mechanist.
“Acceptable,” she told them. She leaned in to Zaynab, “I expect nothing less, of course.” Then she sat straight and forward in her chair.
“This is Dr. Murad,” she said in a commanding voice. “You will address her as ‘doctor’”–a glance at Zaynab–”unless she tells you otherwise. You may now ask questions.”
At least a dozen hands shot into the air.
“Is she here to make you better?” asked one with the voice of a male child approaching puberty.
“Yes, Jacques,” Madame’s voice was sharp, but not unkind. “Marie-Quatrième?”
“May we speak Arabic? If we know how?” The words could have been said by one of Zaynab’s sisters, so perfect was the Damascene accent. Zaynab did not restrain her dropping jaw.
Madame sighed and responded in French. “Marie-Quatrième, you are the only one here besides Dr. Murad who speaks Arabic. You may converse with her if she is amenable.” Then to Zaynab: “At least you can tell me if she’s being smart.”
Another young boy voice spoke out of turn: “Did she bring any records with her?”
“Can she take us to the theatre?”
A chorus of voices erupted and with it a shivering rush of movement, as if a charm of finches had settled to roost. Fingers and toes twitched, shoulders quivered, heads ticked from side to side.
Then the gold-tipped end of Madame’s cane came down thrice on the wood floor. Silence was immediate; their formal stances resumed.
“I know the winter has been long,” Madame’s voice was stern, but not angry. The rap of the cane seemed the greater bringer of shame than the mechanist’s words. “But a guest among us is no reason to forget discipline and rigor. I promise nothing on her behalf, and she will promise nothing on mine.” Madame looked about the room, but no movement or voice called attention to its bearer. “You are dismissed, then. Rehearsal at five once your work is done. Oh, and Marie-Quatrième, take us upstairs.”
The brushed-aluminum automaton came forward and curtseyed before standing at the ready behind Madame’s chair. Two raps of the cane saw them off. Zaynab stood and shook out her skirts, still dizzy with questions she struggled to put to words.
Marie-Quatrième escorted them to the elevator. As the cage closed and rattled its way upward, the conservatory emptied of automata. They stepped in time, as if to a single heartbeat, and fanned out into the rooms and corridors beyond.
“You will get used to them,” Madame said as the upper floor obstructed their view. “They are worse than schoolchildren sometimes, as you have just seen.”
“Their mechanisms must be very complex,” Zaynab said. Her knowledge of mechaneering was only as deep as coverage in periodicals like al-Jinan and Ladies’ Home Journal would allow, but this seemed a passably adequate observation from a layperson.
Madame Lefevre, however, barked out a laugh again. Zaynab felt her cheeks flush hot.
“Yes,” the older woman said through shaking breaths. “Complex. My word, doctor, did they teach you nothing of automatics and mechaneering in that college of yours?”
“The Woman’s Medical College focuses, rightly, on the biological sciences. Automata assisted us, but in limited capacities. I’ve never heard one interact on such an intricate level.”
“I see,” was the mechanist’s only reply before the elevator stopped on the second floor. Marie-Quatrième opened the gates and rolled Madame past down another long hallway–the east wing if Zaynab had regained her bearings.
The automaton ushered both women into a room of powdery blue and oak. Zaynab’s trunk had been unpacked, her carpetbag of implements and personal items left on the foot of her bed. The furnishings were lush in the European sense, and far plusher than the rooms she’d left just that morning. Would she sleep better in a room her husband had never seen?
“You will let me know if there is anything you need,” the mechanist said from her chair.
“When might I examine–”
“Tomorrow is soon enough. The house is yours to wander in the meantime. Your magnetic bracelet is on the vanity. You are welcome to dine here or downstairs, but I will eat in my room tonight.”
“I think I’d like the same if it’s no trouble.”
“None whatsoever.” She looked back at Marie-Quatrième. “Have I forgotten anything?”
“May we visit with her?” the automaton asked in French this time.
Madame rolled her eyes but smiled. She liked this Marie-Quatrième. “I certainly won’t deprive you lot of a new source of learning. But it will be up to the doctor to decide when she is ready and what she wishes to teach.”
“I’m sorry. Teach whom?” Zaynab was desperate to understand at least one conversation that day.
But Madame looked at her as though she’d spoken Arabic instead. “The servants. Who else? I have traveled so little and they are ever hungry for information–”
“But…” Zaynab felt she needed to whisper this. “But they are just automata, Madame.”
“Dear me, doctor, of course they are not ‘just’ anything. They do not clank about parroting answers to familiar questions. Metal, they may be, but they’re as alive as you and me. Now do rest. I’ve finally given you the killing shock, I see. Don’t feel you need to dress more formally tomorrow or any day, but I will certainly not turn you away if you decide silk is more presentable than”–she waved her hand at Zaynab’s skirt and cringed–“tweed.”
With two raps of her cane, she was retreating from the room backwards under Marie-Quatrième’s power.
“Do not mistake me, though, doctor. I am very glad you’re here.”
Even from three floors beneath her, the music pulled Azimuth’s mind along as easily as Mother’s commands would have. Her feet twitched in time; she half wondered if Mother had secretly given them a mind of their own. But her feet had the right of it: Azimuth did want to dance. She just wouldn’t give Mother the satisfaction. Not this afternoon.
Azimuth sat, knees to her chest, in one of the wooden chairs against the wall in Elouan’s workroom. The still-hollow shell of a soon-to-be younger sibling lay on the nearer of two exam tables, chest cavity open to the gaslight above. Elouan moved around the room as if ignoring her, going about his duties like a fine assistant. But she’d seen him watching her feet.
<<Are you ever going to let Mother teach you to dance?>> Azimuth asked across their radiotelegraph frequency.
He broadcast his retort after a pause she knew should have been a sigh. The question was anything but new. <<Do you not think Madame has enough dancing servants?>>
<<I’m not suggesting you join the corps. But how can you understand how to put us together if you don’t understand what we do?>>
<<How can you understand what you can do without knowing how you’re put together?>>
<<Stop being Socratic, Elouan.>>
<<Go down to rehearsal, Az.>>
<<She doesn’t deserve me.>>
<<She made you.>>
<<She’s a hypocrite.>>
He had no retort for this.
Below, the music of Le Corsaire’s dreamlike “Le Jardin Animé” scene rose. Azimuth’s feet found the pattern they should have been dancing: Medora’s introduction to the stage with ever-loyal Gulnare at her heels. Slave girls dancing for the amusement of their captor. A fictitious horror within the real nightmare.
The single blow of Mother’s cane stopped the music. That Azimuth couldn’t hear through three floors. That came from her siblings, the corps, in a single, nervous tremor over the common frequency. Even Elouan shuddered.
<<You’d better leave now to make it to the tower in time,>> he said. His face was concerned; he’d always had better control of his speech than his expressions.
<<I don’t want to face her alone today.>>
This time he sighed audibly and threw a wrench too hard back onto a side table. “If you can’t fight your own battles, don’t start them.”
Azimuth disliked that he was speaking when she couldn’t. <<Who said that? Marcus Aurelius?>>
“Probably, but only because it’s common sense. She was protecting you from him.”
<<Jonathan would never–>>
“Well she thought you needed protecting. And just how do you know more about our fine patron than Madame does? She’s known him since before she made you. Maybe she’s right about him after all.”
<<Jonathan loves me, Elouan. Don’t all your books tell you about that as well?>>
There was no more to be said, then, because the elevator reached the third floor. Mother’s limping gait pounded down the hallway, nearing the door. Azimuth’s gears were working too hard. Their whirring cut the room’s silence. Elouan touched her shoulder, sent a hushed <<easy>> across the frequency. She’d have swatted away his condescending hand if it hadn’t helped.
And then came the crash, a body connecting with the floor in all the wrong ways. Mother’s gasp of pain, and a cry. Azimuth’s mind was all static as she forced herself to stay put. Elouan was out the door in a moment.
He carried Mother inside and put her on the empty exam table. Azimuth tried to shrink further into the shadows.
“Get that light out of my eyes,” Mother said, her voice rough, frail, old beyond her years. Every fall seemed to wear her away at her edges, making her less Mother and more something else. Something Azimuth never wanted to face.
Elouan moved the light but blocked Mother’s view of Azimuth. “Do you think you’ve broken anything?” he asked.
“No, thank God.”
“Where is your cane? Why did no one come with you?”
“Azimuth is trying to skip rehearsal. Again. The little bitch.” Mother was sneering; Azimuth didn’t need to see her to know. Then her voice turned wispy, sad, pitiful: “Would you be a dear boy and carry me up to her?”
He sighed deeply and stepped aside.
Azimuth put on her best stoic face. She was terrible at being stoic.
Mother looked delighted and incensed all at once. She glared at Elouan. “Traitor.”
He turned back to the not-yet-a-machine on the table. “She knows the cost of skipping rehearsal,” he said. “You know you’ve been unreasonable. I’m not standing between you–” The explicit contradiction between his words and his placement in the room made his wiring buzz for a moment. “It’s not my place to intervene. On her behalf or yours.”
Mother harrumphed. “Insubordinate.”
“You knew that when you took me in,” he said with a shrug and picked up a wrench.
“I should have gutted you for parts when I had the chance.”
Elouan didn’t even whir a gear at that; he responded without looking back: “But you didn’t, Madame.”
The room was quiet for a moment, only the sounds of Elouan’s tinkering pacing the seconds as they passed. Azimuth stared at Mother, waiting, waiting for what would come next. But Mother wouldn’t look at her.
Until she did.
“I need you, darling.”
Azimuth braced herself for the pleas. They were better than the insults. Sometimes.
“This is what I made you for,” Mother continued. “This is your birthright. We’ve just months before the exposition. You must be as perfect as Marie Pepita and then a whole measure better.”
Azimuth looked away. She was glad Mother had never given her tear ducts as she’d asked.
“I know I push you. I know I have been cruel. But I know you can be better than any of us have dreamed. I know you are better.”
<<You can go to hell, Mother.>>
No one spoke. Mother waited. Then Elouan sighed and relayed the message.
Mother spat. “How dare you use him to speak for you!”
Elouan took up the torch for Azimuth: “You built the radiotelegraphy, Madame.”
“Not so she could speak when she wished and plead muteness when she didn’t.”
<<Tell her I’ll dance for her when she invites Jonathan to watch rehearsals.>>
Elouan put the wrench down and wiped his hands on a rag. “No,” he said, “I’ll not tell her that, Az.”
Mother beamed until her assistant whirled on her, too.
“And I’ll not defend you, Madame. Radio me when you’re done with your…feud.”
“Bring some tea back, Elouan, dear.”
“Marie-Q is your maid. She’ll bring the doctor.”
He didn’t bother to shut the door.
Mother whirled on Azimuth. “You want to use him against me! To turn him! To ruin me!”
Azimuth didn’t look at her. Mother hated that.
“You think you’ve come so far, that you’ve arrived in the world and that I am keeping you from greatness.” Mother slid down the exam table with a wince and stumbled across the room. “But you are shortsighted, darling. You don’t see what we’re set to accomplish, where your place is in this.”
Azimuth knew what she meant. She’d been built for it as much as she’d been built for Jonathan. The stage lights. The crowd. The music. The dance. Mother slumped into a chair next to Az and gasped in relief. Azimuth was determined not to turn around. She would not, she would not, she would not.
“Az…Azimuth,” Mother pleaded. “You are the prima. The pinnacle. The star. You are the mainspring. Everything else responds to your power. Without you, we are lost.”
Did she know? About the new frequencies? What Azimuth was teaching the others? Azimuth turned to look at her mother, afraid.
By the light of Mother’s smile, it was clear that she knew nothing. That she misunderstood Azimuth’s fear for something else entirely.
Mother took Azimuth’s face in her hands. “Ah, my first girl! My best girl! You know what you must do! That you must dance in the exposition in Chicago as you have never danced before. That you must draw all eyes to you, not just one man’s. Only you can prove our point to them. That you can do anything you’re asked. That you are beautiful as beauty.” Mother brought her forehead to Azimuth’s and closed her eyes. “That you are human as human, darling, and that no one can pry that from you.”
In the Lefevre mansion, when the kitchen stoves are dark for the night, when pageantry of household duties are finished with tireless, mechanical precision, Madame sits among the corps in the conservatory.
The hours when silence stretches between the Delaware and the Schuylkill are of greatest import to the corps. Madame moves beyond drills and nuance and sates their desire to learn as best she can. This is when her mind most easily recalls the steps and formations, the timing and the passion that she loses in the daylight. She dons a cap of electrodes, garish wires connecting her to a modified radiotelegraph. Elouan always does the honors, always stands by her side and keeps watch over her. His hand always flips the switch on.
Most nights–after the choreography of the greats re-forms in aluminum and copper and nickel, after Madame’s exhaustion has dragged her, unwilling, into sleep–Elouan does not flip the switch off.
Most nights, when Madame’s head hits the back of her chair, the corps stops dancing. They tremble and shiver, sometimes pacing, sometimes curling into themselves. Her mind’s clarity departs and they don’t know how to slip away with it.
But Elouan and Azimuth roll Madame and the machine into the center of the conservatory’s circular stage. They wait, as the others pluck at threads in the dream tapestry broadcast into their minds. The corps no longer move as dancers trained in the Imperial Russian Ballet style. Their steps show no courtly grace and the palest relationships to classical technique. Gone is their synchronization and symmetry. At the face.
Instead, they are birds flocking, moving in a hundred directions at any moment. They circle their maker, they sway to one side or the other. They fly apart then find each other again, all on the tides of Madame’s thoughts.
Sometimes the many disappear into the shadows leaving one or two or three curving, arching, angling forms. Sometimes they each dance solos, with no mind for the others except the unvoiced beat commanding them. Sometimes they interact, finding relationships in the boundaries of their kinesthetic possibilities. Sometimes, without warning they come together in shocking, unnerving unison, a cresting wave of intention and meaning and purpose. Then another set arrives and the first leaves, a pressure seal broken, the tension lost until the newer group coalesces and catches its own thread.
As the darkness wanes and Madame’s sleep shifts to its fullest point, these scenes find their peak. This is no longer a corps de ballet. No longer the body of bodies telling a linear, three- or four-act narrative. This is a corps mechanise, their stage an animated garden of athletic and artistic potential.
On these nights in the Lefevre mansion, the corps are bound only by their human-formed bodies, their human-given purpose, this human-built cage. And by Elouan’s careful gauge of when to throw the switch before Madame wakes.
Zaynab did not sleep well in the Lefevre mansion.
She had never slept in a place so quiet. Not in a Damascene house with her sisters and her parents and her grandparents. Not on the trains or steamers that had brought her so far from that home. Certainly not in Philadelphia proper, with Abd Manaf’s gentle breathing barely audible over the sounds of a million souls between two rivers.
There were only two souls beneath the roof of the Lefevre mansion. Two souls, but how many bodies? Bodies crafted by a woman of seemingly uncharitable spirit. What use was perfection if it mirrored such an imperfect creator? Zaynab’s mind wandered and wondered until she could not find rest herself.
How would she wake in a place so quiet? She had always roused from sleep when Abd Manaf swung his legs out of bed for prayers at fajr. At home–their true home, with his family and hers separated by a few walls–they’d walked to the mosque to congregate and accept their blessings as the sun rose. After they’d traveled far beyond the reach of the call to prayers, when they’d found solace and comfort and laughter in each other, they’d spent these moments talking quietly, waiting for Abd Manaf’s chronometer to ring one high bell. Then, Zaynab’s rug behind his on the floor of their small, dark flat, they would pray.
In the dark, painful silence of the Lefevre mansion, the chronometer’s bell sang as it had every morning for a month. And as she had every morning since her husband’s death, Zaynab performed the ablutions and knelt. She prayed no louder than a whisper, voice drawn tight with grief until the repetition and reassurance and remembrance and daylight had soothed her.
Zaynab dressed herself for breakfast an hour after dawn. Her clothes were all plain and professional: crisp, white shirtwaists and tweed skirts, unembellished bodices and sturdy smocks, headscarves that could change with mood or season. She liked to think she would have been well-received at home dressed thus, having found some median between austerity and ostentation, modern without Western frippery. As much an acceptance of the Quran’s cautions as Zaynab’s attempt to garner respect from her peers in and beyond operating theaters, but always an expression of her own womanhood and heart. Madame, no doubt, would take the whole concept as a personal affront.
She draped a scarf of midnight blue silk about her head, nodded at her reflection in solidarity, and left the room held high.
In the breakfast room, Zaynab did not find Madame contrite for her reckless dash upstairs the previous evening, but a sandy-haired man in a brown suit, reading a newspaper.
He stood when he saw her, adjusting his round spectacles.
“Dr. Murad, it is a pleasure.” He addressed her in French and extended his hand across the table to her. His opposite hand buttoned his brown suit jacket, an amusing Western habit, unnecessary to her eyes. She’d grown accustomed to shaking men’s hands here; she’d need to remind herself not to when she made it home.
But this man’s skin was not skin. It lacked all sense of life and animation. Beneath it were no bones, but an automaton’s metallic hull.
Zaynab’s face must have said all she was feeling, for he pulled away and bowed.
“Apologies. We should have been introduced yesterday, but I was indisposed. I am Elouan. Madame’s assistant.”
The doctor took a seat across from him. “I should be the one apologizing, truly.”
Elouan unbuttoned his coat as he sat and pushed his spectacles back up his nose. Zaynab wondered at the mechanist’s uncommon commitment to the illusion. But Elouan was smiling. “There are days when Madame herself forgets that I am not human,” he said. “A side effect of her profession and isolation, I’m afraid.” He lifted a pot. “May I interest you in some Arabic coffee? Or what I was able to determine is our cook’s best approximation of it?”
He poured before she assented. Cardamom wafted towards her. She sat forward, eyes brimming, as the topped a cup off and handed it to her. She had run out of the spice months before Abd Manaf’s illness and in the storm of his decline and passing she had not found more. The smell from home, so suddenly reencountered, were too much to bear.
Elouan noticed. “I–I hope I have not offended.”
Zaynab took a slow, deep sip of the steaming brew. “Allah yusallmak!” she whispered. His head twitched–she guessed he could not translate the phrase–but his gesture deserved more gratitude than the adage could convey in any language. “It makes me homesick, but I would rather be homesick with ’ahwah than without it.”
“‘’Ahwah,’” he repeated, accent perfect. “I will make sure it is at the ready for the duration of your stay.”
She smiled over the rim of her cup and sipped again. Something–the brew, his kindness, the quiet house–emboldened her. “I was only permitted to set and cast Madame’s wrist fracture last night, but she clearly has many concomitant and lingering injuries. Am I correct in guessing that her…determination is neither new nor passing?”
A faint hiss from Elouan’s side of the table caught her attention. His brow creased deeply before he decided to speak. “She insists that it is her body, that she can do as she wishes with it. Then she curses it for failing her. It escapes our understanding.” His face formed lines of concern on his brow, in his simulacrum of lips.
Zaynab resisted the urge to pat his hand. “In my experience those with the greatest knowledge of the body’s strengths have the hardest time accepting its flaws.” Her husband’s fevered face flashed in her mind, but she pushed the memory away.
“We have all hoped that the continued presence of a doctor–a female doctor especially–might encourage Madame to allow herself to heal.”
“I’m flattered, though patients often have the opposite reaction.”
Before he could press her further, the breakfast room door opened. A young woman in a servant’s uniform entered and curtseyed. Even before she spoke, her movement, her mannerisms rang familiar in Zaynab’s mind.
“Peace be upon you, Dr. Murad, Madame would like her examination now.” Marie-Quatrième spoke perfect Damascene Arabic, just as the previous night. Her brushed-aluminum hull, so brilliant during the previous day’s performance, was dressed in creamy-pale synthetic skin and a blonde wig. Hiding behind one more sip of her coffee, Zaynab considered how she should respond to a formal salaam from an automaton. Something about the machine’s face begged for recognition. For her Arabic, Zaynab realized.
“May peace, mercy, and blessings of God be upon you, Marie-Quatrième. How are you?”
The girl could not contain a smile. She curtseyed again. “I am fine, thank you, teacher.”
Elouan coughed, disguising another flare of static.
For his sake, Zaynab returned to French. “‘Doctor’ is still adequate, Marie-Quatrième. Will you show me to Mme. Lefevre now?”
Elouan stood with her, buttoning his jacket. “Please let me know if I may be of assistance in any way.”
In the south parlor, Madame submitted herself to examination with a barrage of complaints and accusations that feebly masked embarrassment, frustration, and pain. Zaynab knew well these evasions. They said a great deal, but she needed the mechanist to trust her with the truth.
“You must tell me how much pain you feel,” Zaynab said from where she knelt at Madame’s feet. “My hands can only tell me so much.”
The mechanist said nothing.
In Zaynab’s peripheral vision, Azimuth crossed her arms and leaned against the arm of a settee, the dispassionate ire of an exhausted daughter. Then this dodging was to be expected. So much for Elouan’s hopes for professional solidarity between women.
Zaynab twisted Madame’s foot then, bringing the heel forward and turning the toes outward.
Madame loosed an ugly, unfettered gasp.
Fighting the urge to cringe, Zaynab only said, “I see.” A repetition on the other side induced the same result.
When Zaynab looked up, the mechanist’s head was resting against the back of the chair, her eyes closed against what must be the echoes of white-hot pain. They were nearing helpful conclusions.
“May I examine your shins again, Madame?” Zaynab infused as much gentle understanding into the words as she could.
The mechanist nodded and braced herself. She hissed in pain when Zaynab palpated her shin bones, fingers following swelling with deep pressure. Then came a lurid curse.
“Are you—finished?” Madame asked. Her glare almost hid the tears in her eyes.
Zaynab stepped back to her journal and made notes. She had to convince this bullheaded woman to let her body heal, but against such a hard exterior, mere facts might not be enough. She set the journal down, but remained standing. She could not give up an ounce of power if this was going to work.
“Madame, your falls have caused acute damage to your tibias. This kind of persistent swelling and pain is more than a bad shin splint aggravated to inflammation. You must not bear weight on your legs for several weeks, let the swelling subside so I can better gauge whether you may need surgery on your tibias before we can repair your knees, or whether your body may do the work for us.”
“I must work.”
“You can work from your chair.” Zaynab kept her voice light. “You did a wonderful job yesterday–”
“That’s no way to choreograph!” The mechanist’s face was red from collar to brow; this was not going well. “Would you have been satisfied always performing your surgeries on cadavers whose bones would never heal? On animals?”
The sand beneath Zaynab’s feet was running quick, indeed. “I understand that frustration more than you might expect.” Stay calm, she told herself, you are the authority. You are the doctor. If you cannot let your legs heal, I cannot promise a positive outcome of any surgery. Further damage could be beyond medicine’s ability to repair.”
“Liar! Deceiver!” Madame was shouting now. Her hand groped for the cane, but did not reach it–Praise be to God, or she would have certainly brandished it at Zaynab. “You came into my house under false pretenses. You came here telling me you had a solution! That you could fix me.”
Zaynab took one breath, only one, and did not blink. She would not cower. “Madame, my assurances were given in good faith and were made with the information I had at the time. If you do not want me to treat you, I can go.” Her voice trembled at the end, despite herself. There was nowhere to—go if the mechanist demanded it.
“Fine,” Madame said, reclining once again in her chair.
For a moment, Zaynab couldn’t move. What was fine?
“I need to be walking, unassisted, in June.”
Zaynab laced her hands to keep them from shaking in relief. “It may be possible,” she said with a conciliatory nod. “But why June?”
“We have been invited to perform at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. One night in which to prove that my dancers are as exquisite as the Imperial Russian Ballet. More exquisite.” The change in the mechanist’s aspect was remarkable: her pride spoke now, quashing her temper.
“I see no reason why you cannot attend,” Zaynab said, smiling to echo the change in humors. “Even if your recovery is not–”
Madame cut in. “I will be recovered by then because you will perform the surgery in time and because I will…” Her face contorted, repressing what might have been a sneer. “I will rest to your satisfaction. Doctor.”
“Then we will plan your surgery for mid-May. I will prepare some laudanum tinctures–”
“No. I will not be drugged.”
“You can be more comfortable.”
“I will not be drugged.”
A breath, for patience. “Then let your pain guide you. If you are not in pain you are healing. Your body is not your foe, in this, but your ally. Follow its cues and my protocols and you may, indeed, heal.”
Somewhere deep in the house, a bell rang.
Azimuth stood up straight, alert as a hawk.
Madame watched her with narrow eyes.
“Is something the matter?” ventured Zaynab.
“Yes,” the mechanist said, her gaze not leaving her fidgeting automaton-daughter. “She only does this when Jonathan’s servants are about.” A pause. “Our patron,” she said by way of an explanation. “His cadre of automata are all my creations; Azimuth must have heard their radiotelegraph frequencies. The only question that remains is exactly when dear Mr. de Vrys will descend upon us.”
Zaynab gathered her things. “I will leave you to your company, Madame.”
The mechanist caught Zaynab’s wrist as she passed. “He will not be here now, doctor. He does me the great courtesy of a few hours’ notice so we ladies might be appropriately attired. Do join us when he arrives. I should think he’d like to speak with you about my prognosis, don’t you think, Azimuth?”
The mechanical girl did not answer as her eyes chased nothings through the air, the ghost of a smile on her marred lips.
Elouan’s feet made no sound on the winding staircase up to the tower room, but Azimuth knew he was there, nonetheless. His wiring and radiotelegraph hummed their own, familiar notes.
<<Don’t knock,>> she said. <<Mother will know you’ve come.>>
<< Madame must know I come up here,>> he said, opening the door. <<You’re paranoid.>>
<<If she was sure of it, she would mock us for indiscrete passion.>> Azimuth frowned at the lifeless snowscape outside her window. <<Part of her would be too frisson with joy to stay silent and part would be too envious to let it be. And what a story it would be. Her first and best daughter trysting with her foundling assistant. But she’d never suspect the truth.>>
He set down his equipment case, a familiar thud of metal feet on her empty desktop. His humming broke with jumbled static, wordless friction between his loyalties to her and to Mother. Azimuth knew it was grinding his gears, and this pulled her back into the room.
She put her hand on his where it still rested on his case. <<We do this for her. We do this for the corps. We do this for the children yet to come.>>
The static eased back into a normal frequency and he nodded.
<<Do you need help with your stays?>> he asked.
She offered the row of small bone buttons down her bodice. <<You have always been better at clothes than me.>>
His hands were elegant clockwork that superseded her own, flying with ease through the repetition of releasing button after button over the crest of her breasts and down to her waist. The shell fasteners on her shirtwaist and chemise top were just as quickly dispensed. Oh to be able to embroider with the grace of his sutures! To spend whole fractions of seconds on something other than this daily costuming Mother demanded! How many minutes a year might she reclaim for her own pursuits? How many days in a lifetime?
Azimuth shrugged out of the top of her chemise and let the cotton hang to her waist. As her fingers found the seam of her false skin, she dared a glance at Elouan.
He had turned to his open case, fingers miming a search for a tool. But his eyes betrayed him. He looked, too, at her hands, frozen on her torso. His eyes met hers, guilty for a moment, then returned to where they belonged.
Azimuth smiled at his profile until her sutures hurt.
<<So modest,>> she chided. <<How else are you to help your patients, doctor?>>
He turned back to her, tools at the ready. <<We don’t have long before you’ll be summoned to the parlor. And if something goes wrong, I need time to fix it before rehearsal tonight.>>
Azimuth stopped mocking him and lifted her skin, baring her abdominal access panel.
He knelt before her and made quick work of the screws holding her shut. The four-inch-square panel was off and on the table before she could look away in her own cresting wave of modesty.
<<You must be perfectly still.>> A needless reminder, as this was the tenth clandestine augmentation she’d undergone. They both knew well the consequences of anything less than precision.
Azimuth shut down her locomotion center as a precaution and waited.
More screws whined out of their sockets. Metal parts clanked softly. She imagined his hands finding her Hertzian transmitter and removing it. She tried to speak through it, but could not. For these few minutes, she would be truly mute, a ghost in her own body, for what else was a ghost than a consciousness trapped and unable to communicate?
She could imagine, at least, what he was doing. Modifying the possibilities of her transmissions, stretching the range in which she could express herself without sound. How she did not know, had never listened hard enough to his winding explanations. She smelled a soldering iron. She heard the scrape of a file and the ting of metal on metal. Was he removing part of her to improve her? Giving her more to be more? Of this they hadn’t talked. She hadn’t needed to know any more than he needed to know the names of the steps she rehearsed every night. But for this she needed him.
Her speech–telegraphic speech that is–came back to her with a rush. She must have been trying to hum, because an anxious spiral of consonants spilled out before she even realized she was sending them.
Elouan laughed. <<You were worried? I thought it would be an old hat by now.>>
<<Try giving up both speech cortexes and then lecture me about my nerves.>>
There was silence for a moment, then Azimuth grew too curious not to look. She restarted her locomotor drives and tipped her chin until Elouan’s head and hands were in view.
He was staring at her open abdominal compartment, his focus roving from one part to the next. His face looked taut with an emotion she had not seen on it before, one she did not encounter with her siblings, one she had not seen since…
Azimuth looked away again, fighting the desire to close the compartment, to shield herself. No one but Madame had looked there, not even Azimuth herself. She tried to keep the feeling welling up inside her off her telegraph, but it murmured out anyway.
Elouan closed the compartment, whispering an audible apology. Azimuth rolled her false skin back down and tugged her clothes back on. She looked out the window again.
<<We’ll test the transmitter tonight,>> he said.
He closed the door behind him, but his hum did not recede further. There was static for a moment, a resistance she hadn’t heard before, then he spoke again.
<<You are different than the others. Less refined than her later work and yet unencumbered by the result of practice and knowledge.>> Another crackle. <<I want to know more. See more. To understand it all.>>
There was a warmth in his words. A warmth that recalled to Azimuth a face, hair graying at the temples, age peppering his dark beard, eyes smiling behind spectacles. Real spectacles. Jonathan. Who would be in the parlor in just a few short hours. A gear ground inside her, fighting Mother’s last demands about him, resisting the pull of Elouan’s unasked question.
<<I am not free to offer what you want, Elouan.>>
<<Az, Madame won’t let you near him. You know that.>>
<<I won’t fight her on that today. She will relent after he’s funded the project. Then she can have no cause to keep me from him.>>
Elouan’s static broke off and his usual sounds resumed. After a moment, they faded as he descended back to his lab or the parlor or the conservatory or wherever Mother had need of him. Azimuth sat back down on the window seat and stared out to the wide world beyond this sad prison of hers and ignored the soft cry of her gears that laid bare her loneliness.
Zaynab was descending from the guest wing when she heard a man’s voice echoing through the parlor door and into the atrium.
“You must let my electrician set you up with a three-wire system, Margeaux. You’d never have to worry about those damned-ancient gas lamps.”
Madame laughed, a fluttering sound so unlike what Zaynab would have expected. “Oh, Jonathan, we barely use half of this house as it is. Whatever would we need the current for when it’s just guests here and there and servants in the meantime?”
When Zaynab entered, Madame took in the doctor’s best dress from her repose on a chaise. Zaynab had paired a sturdy blue wool skirt and double-breasted bodice with a fine cream-and-gold silk headscarf, draped in dense loops. On her shoulder she’d pinned a golden brooch: an eagle with a star in its beak. A gift from Abd Manaf; a symbol of home. This was as close as her wardrobe would bring her to Madame’s opulent tastes. From the look on the mechanist’s face, it wasn’t close enough.
In contrast, Madame had changed into something Zaynab would have expected to see on an advertisement of a Sheridan play. Copious pleats and flounces of peony pink rippled over the mechanist’s trim figure. Her salt-and-pepper hair hid beneath a profusion of feathers and lace. If this is what Madame had in mind when suggesting Zaynab change her dress, it was no wonder she looked so disappointed.
Still she waved Zaynab into the room. “Jonathan, may I introduce Dr. Zaynab Murad, my physician. Dr. Murad, this is the Honorable Jonathan de Vrys, our patron and a very dear friend of mine.”
The man stood and kissed rather than shook Zaynab’s hand. She fought not to recoil at the presumption. But Mr. de Vrys turned back to Mme. Lefevre with a fluid movement that assured Zaynab that she was being ignored. “Margeaux, darling, whyever do you need a physician? Surely this won’t set you back.”
“Of course not! She is here set to rights these treacherous legs of mine.” Madame sipped her wine then pursed her pips. “I might even dance again. What would you think of that?”
Zaynab opened her mouth to decry this wild assumption, but a sharp look from the mechanist stopped her. The gentleman did not seem to notice.
“My God, wouldn’t that be something to see?” He looked at Madame pointedly. “You’d be radiant. Irresistible.”
The moment seemed so private, so suggestive that Zaynab wondered why she was still in the room. But Mr. de Vrys turned to back to her. “You are young for an orthopedic surgeon.”
“Yes, sir. But I am one.”
“No urge to deliver babies or tend sick children like the rest of your classmates?”
And now she had to prove herself? No evening of joy was this. “I intend to serve the women of Damascus in whatever way I am needed. I can practice midwifery or pediatric medicine, but I found a mentor in my orthopedic tutor, and I applied myself dutifully to the specialty. Women break bones, too.”
He seemed unmoved by her commitment to her community. “Under whom did you study?”
“Dr. Brandt, at the Women’s Medical College.”
Mr. de Vrys’s eyes narrowed. “Brandt was here just last summer, if I recall. He said nothing different than the rest. A third surgery, but nothing that hadn’t been tried already and even he warned that it might not work. Yet you suppose you know better than your mentor?”
Zaynab considered her words. “Even a master can lose perspective if he stands too close to his own work. The student at his elbow may see something different.”
Mr. de Vrys found this amusing enough to slap his knee and laugh into his drink. “You’ll find more friends under this roof than you’d think, doctor.”
At this, Zaynab glanced toward Madame. The older woman stared into her wine glass, face tense.
Her guest noticed as well. “Oh come, Margeaux, don’t pout,” he said. “You were once the maverick student, putting your masters to shame. You still are. Why else would Fischer, Thun, and Wharton want in on this investment?”
“I will not sell out,” Madame said, sharp and firm.
“And I’m not saying you should. But I can only offer you so much capital. This show and the costumes and the rentals will cost me a near fortune as it is. If you would just let them order models for later, part with a few of the prototypes. . .Imagine how rich we could make each other.”
“You know my thoughts on selling the prototypes.”
Mr. de Vrys stood with a huff. “Yes, yes, we’re back at that are we? I know how you feel about her–about them all. And I wasn’t saying you should put them on the action block. I know how that looks when you feel about the machines the way you do. But these men, their empires could use workers as capable as your automata. They’d happily pay salaries if that’s how you designed the contracts. You’d change the face of the country with a few signatures. You’d change the world!”
“And these men would make millions all from hiring my creations.” Madame sounded nonplussed, but her cheeks were coloring.
Mr. de Vrys crouched down before her and cupped his hand beneath her chin. “May I talk you though the finer points? You can kick me out the moment you don’t like the plan.”
Madame smiled and turned her cheek into his hand. “Over dinner.” She reached the switch that would call one of the servants, but Mr. de Vrys caught her hand.
“Don’t call for the chair when you’ve an able-bodied man to help you.” He swept her up in his arms. She giggled like a school girl. He grunted like a man his age hefting a load he’d forgotten to weigh. He staggered out of the room, Zaynab close at his heels until he’d found his balance and reseated Madame in his arms. The mechanist drew her lips close to his ear and whispered. His laugh filled the atrium and he headed not for the dining room, but for the elevator. Madame waved to Zaynab over his shoulder.
“You have been excused, doctor. Oh! Marie-Quatrième!” The girl was stepping off the elevator as they stumbled in. “Bring our meals to my room.”
Marie-Quatrième hurried across the atrium and bobbed a curtsey to Zaynab. “Should I bring your meal upstairs, too, doctor?”
“Should I be concerned about this?” Zaynab asked, glad they were speaking Arabic so they could not be overheard. “Madame does not seem like herself this evening.”
Marie-Quatrième shrugged. “She is like this often enough with Mr. de Vrys around. It’s Azimuth who worries us when he is present. I’m glad she’s upstairs today.” She turned and watched the two figures exit on the second floor, their laughter carrying across the room from the landing. “She will not be happy when she hears about this, though.”
“The business deal? It sounds like Madame has that part well in hand.”
Marie-Quatrième shook her head. “No, this.” She tipped her head back toward the living quarters. “Everyone knows Azimuth thinks she is in love with Mr. de Vrys. She was built for him after all, so I don’t blame her. But Madame thinks Mr. de Vrys’s intentions for Azimuth were dishonorable. That’s why she won’t sell any of us anymore.”
Zaynab’s eyebrows lifted of their own volition. “But she says she has clients. She must to have all of this.” She gestured to the room, the gas lamps, the paintings, the magnificent rolling park…
“Yes, well Madame sells automata,” Marie-Quatrième said. “Just not us.”
“Well if you’re not automata, what are you?” Zaynab demanded.
Marie-Quatrième’s mouth opened and closed a few times, static and gears hissing until Zaynab worried the girl might catch fire.
“No, no, don’t answer that. Just–bring my dinner to my room.”
The horrible noise abated and Marie-Quatrième smiled. “May I sit with you so we might discuss grammar?”
Her enthusiasm to learn was infectious, and Zaynab relaxed. She had always loved tutoring, found joy in sharing what she knew. It would feel good to be useful. “Yes, I would like the company.” This, her heart told her once the words were said, was the real truth behind her smile.
Madame calls rehearsal hours later than usual, after her lover stole out the front door into the night. Still, Azimuth and Elouan do not discuss their plans; they do not discuss Madame’s indiscretion. They wait until Madame is asleep, until her dreamstate begins to reanimate the corps. Azimuth listens to its rhythms and texture and, first with tentative pulses, matches its frequency with her own transmission. The corps’ movements do not change while Azimuth sings along. Azimuth’s song grows more confident, matches the volume of Madame’s. She takes Madame’s usual place in the middle of the conservatory’s stage-in-the-round and nods to Elouan.
He turns off Madame’s broadcast.
Azimuth sustains Madame’s last note and the corps stops as if frozen in that breath. Azimuth meets Elouan’s eyes and changes the song.
They are birds as they have never been in Madame’s dreams. They are not clustered on perches anymore, but on the wing. They soar above each other’s heads with every jeté. They fly together and apart, forging new pas de deux et trois et quatre et cinq. Their fervor dashes rules they’ve been given about which one lifts which others, about danseur and danseuse. The freedom works wonders.
Marie-Quatrième throws Jacques so high, Azimuth worries that she will need to catch him. But his aerial attitude en derrière is so perfectly arched, so perfectly held that those watching cannot move for the wonder of it. He turns mid-air, as if he’s completing an impossible jeté entrelacé. He welcomes the floor, first with toes then heel then the tips of his fingers as he takes a knee and arches deeply backwards.
Marie-Quatrième leads a group of danseuses in leaps they should not know, leaps only men attempt. They flutter, still frightened swans, but dive like hawks. They wheel about themselves and each other, arms perpendicular to the floor as they spin, legs like talons stretching for perch or prey. They skid to a halt, caught all at once by Azimuth’s song and thrown backwards into the next movement.
Above all of this, the doctor watches. She’s been standing in a hidden alcove for most of this strange show. There are no living men in the house, she’s told herself, and her patient will be asleep as Elouan promised. Her thick brown hair falls in large curls about her shoulders; she is cloaked in shadow and a heavy quilted wrap. Her heart beats in its own rhythm, ignoring whatever drives the figures below. But her breathing matches theirs–or what theirs would be if they needed to breathe. It’s a memory from her dance lessons in Damascus as a girl. Breathe in on turns. Breathe out in time with your steps. Inhale as you leave the floor–though she’d never jumped as high as they did. Exhale as you land–though her landings had been accompanied by the tinkle of jewelry.
This is how she finds herself transfixed: the movement, the breathing, the defiance of gravity. Before, in close proximity, she’d seen the fine details meant to signal which automata were female and male. From her perch these small distinctions fade. They are brushstrokes again, intentional and not important in the individual. She does not know whether to watch one or many, and every time her focus changes she mourns the loss of what her vision left behind and revels in what it finds.
Azimuth looks up to the doctor. The woman above recedes further into the shadows until Azimuth is sure she’s left. <<How did she find that door, Elouan?>>
<<Does it matter?>> His gears grind. <<I showed her. Barter. My mechaneering expertise for tutoring in human kinesiology.>>
Around them the corps falters; Azimuth’s dreamsong dwindled in her distraction. She wheels on her younger sisters and brothers.
<<Again from the top!>> she shouts. Even in this wavelength, Azimuth sounds eerily like her mother.
Azimuth sat curled up on a settee watching Dr. Murad examine Mother’s legs, not concerning herself with Elouan’s marked interest of the examination. A full six weeks had passed since the doctor’s arrival and Mother had not sent her away. Even after the doctor had fasted between dawn and dusk for a month. Even when she’d insisted that she butcher the house’s meat herself. Even more shocking, this quiet scholar had convinced Mother to obey orders and stay off her feet. Maybe it had been the doctor’s firm words after that first exam–or stern council numerous times after. No one ever talked to Mother that way, not even Azimuth.
Or maybe Jonathan’s new promises had convinced Mother to behave. Though their patron had visited often in six weeks–more often than he had in years–Az still had not seen him. She had, however, pried recounting of his sugared promises from her siblings and Elouan. Of course Mother would consider his plans and attentions to be assurances of her re-ascendance to the limelight, to his favor. But for Azimuth, Chicago would be a doorway, not a pinnacle. Mother could not see that everything Jonathan did and said was in service of something more than just the performance. That Azimuth and Jonathan’s union was the logical conclusion to everything they had all worked for. Or why else did Azimuth exist.
So Azimuth had focused on what mattered: improving the frequencies she could control, breaking her siblings away from their dependency on Mother’s thoughts for their actions. Elouan’s expertise could improve her parts no further, he said. Her circuits, transmitters, and cortexes were primed for efficiency and speed. Her regulators, capacitors, and transformers were at the ready, to let her push further but not too far.
It was the corps that needed more work. Only half of them had found their way off Mother’s transmissions and into the space between, where Azimuth could train them. And there had been a few close calls, young ones finding the unbound world too big, too silent without Mother in their ear. Azimuth and Elouan spent hours coaching them to fall back on things they could do without Mother’s guidance, and it helped.
There was not a speck of dust in the mansion, not a cog or switch or hinge that needed oiling. There was music as there had never been. Jacques had perfected a six-handed carillon hymn, regaling the whole neighborhood with a sacred, if dolorous cacophony of bells. Mathieu memorized every note of piano music in the house and started transcribing Mother’s symphonies from phonograph records until new sheet music arrived. Even the doctor had started to help, though she could not have known that her classes on anatomy and Arabic were saving the corps from the silent abyss of their own minds.
They had been…kinder to each other since the doctor arrived. The older ones were tutoring the younger ones. Someone–probably Marie-Q–had picked every dandelion and clover in the great lawn and made each sibling their own springtime crown. After that, Dr. Murad had taken the older ones to the other houses on the lane for house calls on the servants. They’d returned so determined, so ready to work at rehearsal, that both Mother’s and Azimuth’s work had progressed tenfold that night.
But foremost in Azimuth’s thoughts was Mother’s health. Dr. Murad knew her patient well enough to ignore Elouan’s optimistic narrative and to glance at Azimuth, who raised her shoulders three-quarters of an inch. To Azimuth’s trained eye, Mother was not lying when she did not wince at the doctor’s probing.
“This is good news indeed,” the doctor said, standing and returning to her notes. “We can proceed with surgery.”
“Tomorrow.” Mother was ready for a fight where she found none.
“Yes, I see no reason why not to,” Dr. Murad agreed. “There should be more than enough time for you to heal and recuperate before your trip to Chicago. Provided you continue following my instructions during your rehabilitation, of course.”
Mother walked to her favorite wing-back chair and sat, legs spread like a man returned from the hunt. “Dear doctor, if you told me to descend to the bowels of hell itself to drag my youth out of the devil’s hands, I’d do it in a heartbeat, such is my faith in your craft.”
Dr. Murad smiled. “There is little art in a steady diet of bone broths and aggressive rest. My great-grandmother would have told you as much in her heyday, and likely her great-grandmother before her.” She scratched some notes in her journal. Her black silk scarf was tied differently than yesterday’s; Azimuth thought the affect pleasant though Mother seemed not to see or respect the difference. Azimuth had come to see it as Dr. Murad’s costume in this wild play they inhabited, a signal that she was not one of them nor were they hers. That Mother had not put her at ease, nor would she.
She might not have felt at home, but the doctor wielded enough confidence to face down Mother.
Dr. Murad finished her noted and looked up. “The post-surgical regimen is always harder. You must remain mobile but cannot push yourself too fast. You will need to work through pain, but only the right pain.”
Margeaux shook her head. “Pain, I can work through.”
“Yes, but if you overtax the catgut ligament too soon it will all be for naught.”
“None of the other surgeons were so stringent with their instructions.”
Lines of determination rimmed the doctor’s brown eyes. “None of the other surgeons’ work solved your problems.”
Mother chuckled. Azimuth felt a pull in her core. Oh, to speak to Mother like that and be loved for it.
Azimuth rerouted her frustration into a transmission to Elouan. <<Stop staring over the doctor’s shoulder like a teacher’s pet. She’ll let you read the notebook when she’s done.>>
Elouan stepped back from his position just behind Dr. Murad’s shoulder, brow low. <<Don’t be envious that I’m learning when you aren’t. If you cared a little more about the inner workings of humans’ musculoskeletal systems–>>
“Don’t bicker,” Dr. Murad said without turning to either of them. Azimuth’s chin would have fallen slack but for her sutures; Elouan had no such safety net. “You’re both crackling like damp wood on a fire and it’s distracting.”
Elouan bowed. “My apologies. I should not have risen to the occasion.” When the doctor nodded his way, in thanks, his face relaxed. He smiled.
The giggle began in Azimuth’s chest, a writhing mass of mirth she had not felt in some time. It edged past her lips in percussive spurts, taking with it the tarnished feel of her insides. And it wouldn’t stop. She snorted twice, both times because she’d tried to look at Elouan and make a straight face again. But he was so red. So embarrassed. When it was so plain even one of the children could have seen the truth.
Azimuth’s laughter drowned out whatever cut Mother delivered as she strode out the parlor, cane tapping time. Dr. Murad said something to Elouan, and he nodded as she left. It was only the two of them now, and still, Azimuth laughed.
<<You’re making a fool of yourself, Az.>>
<<Oh, I’m not the fool,>> she said. The laugh rippled through even these transmitted words. <<You’ve fallen for the dear doctor. It’s deliciously quaint. You’re so eager to learn for her. Even the corps don’t act like that.>>
Elouan shook his head, eyes narrow. <<You have no idea what you’re talking about.>>
<<Don’t I?>> Her laughter ebbed and she stood, chin high. <<I’ve only been watching you these past two months. She doesn’t feel the same way, Elouan. Whatever is between you is just ghost voltage. She knows that you’re as good with a needle or knife as you are a wrench or as soldering iron, that you’ll parrot what I say if you’re there, that you’ll be at Mother’s side till you go to rust. She doesn’t know what you really are.>>
She waited for the telltale grinding, the static, the feedback. But it didn’t come. Elouan didn’t even blink.
<<Do you know what you really are, Az?>>
He left her to the deafening screech of feedback and fury.
That night, while Mother entertained Jonathan one last time before her surgery, Azimuth stole into Dr. Murad’s room. Marie-Q had frequented the doctor’s quarters, had not stopped talking about the doctor’s gracious tutelage and friendship. And Azimuth needed a friend.
In the dim gaslight, the doctor was on her knees, whispering. She did not spare Azimuth a glance, but kept at her prayers.
Azimuth sunk into the shadows against the wall and watched. Mother had once gone to church every Sunday, but it had sounded so different to Azimuth’s young mind than this appeared: women in their best clothes, watching to see who did and did not arrive, gossip in the narthex, cutting shoulders in the nave. And Mother had not discussed her God in years, not since she’d started building the corps in earnest. The doctor wore plain, loose robes and no one was there to know whether she did it or not. If anything, she may have blushed as Azimuth watched.
It looked as lonely as Azimuth felt.
But when the doctor stood, she seemed at peace, happier, lighter. She looked anything but lonely.
“Can I help you, Azimuth?”
Az nodded and touched her lips. <<I’m ready. I think.>> She whispered it on a frequency no one used, as if the doctor could hear.
The meaning of her motion carried where the words didn’t. Dr, Murad smiled. “I wondered when you might be done with those.”
There was no bile in her words, nothing biting or shaming. Mother would never have missed the chance to skewer Azimuth’s change of heart.
The doctor gestured to a seat at her vanity. Azimuth sat and watched the woman in the mirror. She shrugged out of the robes, her stern, tailored clothes still beneath them. Her hand went to the black scarf about her head, and after a moment of thought, she removed it. It had been some weeks since Azimuth had stopped wondering about the doctor’s headscarf. The gaslight shone off the woman’s deep brown hair, which was swept into a true Gibson Girl knot. She could have strolled through any of the city’s women’s colleges and been quite the spectacle of practical fashion and beauty.
Dr. Murad kneeled next to Azimuth, a pair of small scissors in her hand.
“Stay very still until I’m done,” she instructed. “I don’t know how durable your synthetic skin is, and I don’t want you doing unnecessary damage.”
The sutures parted easily.
Her jaw felt rusty, tense with disuse. She pursed her lips and relaxed them, then yawned her chin down. Everything still worked.
“Thank you,” Azimuth said. The sound of her voice was familiar and foreign all at once. She sounded like Mother. Had that been true months ago, when Azimuth had chosen to be silent? “Can you help me hide the marks? From the sutures?” She pulled a tube of face paste and a brush from a pocket.
“Of course.” The doctor took the cosmetics and redirected Azimuth’s knees so her face fell into the stronger glow of the gaslamp sconce. Azimuth looked at the line where the wall met the ceiling, wondered if the plasterers had taken care to form a tight, smooth line though their work was just going to be hidden by another layer of wood. Wondered what the wood looked like before it had been painted. What it had looked like when it had been a tree.
Dr. Murad broke the silence that Azimuth had forgotten to fill. “No one has ever told me how your mother first injured herself.”
“She would love to tell you the story,” Azimuth said.
“A story would be exactly what I got from her, that’s for sure. If anyone here is going to tell me the truth of it, it’d be you.”
Azimuth glanced down; the doctor waited expectantly.
“She was a dancer at the Paris Opera. Marius Pepita was staging Le Corsaire. It’s the show we’ve been rehearsing. Pirates and slave girls and a jealous pasha and love and angst and death and hope, all rolled up in one. And Mother won the chance to understudy Medora. The lead.”
Azimuth nodded. “The prima caught cold, so Mother danced opening night. And fell down the stairs on the way back to her dressing room.”
“She’s lucky to be alive, then.”
“Yes, well no one wanted to invest in a broken ballerina. Not even Jonathan.”
“He was her patron then?”
“And her family?”
“Dead, I think. She never speaks of them. In any case, she needed money and talked her way into a job at an automaton assembly plant. She could sit all day, you see, and it was better work than the whorehouses. And she learned quickly. So she made braces so she could stand, and then she moved up the ranks. No man would let her near the design boards, so in her flat at nights she pieced together what little material she’d palmed form her workstation.”
“What did she build?”
“Me.” Azimuth smiled at that. And then smiled wider because she could now. “She didn’t even try to build anything else. She took me apart again and again as she learned, but every scrap was me. She brought me to Philadelphia in three carpet bags because she’d learned Jonathan was here. She found another assembly plant to win over with her brilliance, to feed her parts so she could finish me. And then she woke me up. She never went back to the plant. We spent day and night together. She made me dresses and bought a fine wig and fashioned my first skin.” Azimuth touched her face, still remembering the old muslin, tailored so carefully.
“And Jonathan supported her again?”
“Oh no, he didn’t know I existed until Mother was sure I was very ready. He was astounded, of course, when we stood on his doorstep. He hadn’t known she was in the country, much less what she was capable of as a mechanist. She asked him for his support again. He agreed and asked to buy me on the spot. She could have bought a mansion in Rittenhouse Square for what he’d promised her.”
“And I saw how he looked at me. There was no other but me. Mother was but a shadow, an obstacle. And it occurred to me then that I’d been built for him, that Mother had from the beginning crafted me to suit him. I saw my future unfold, one filled with art and love and knowledge.
“But she said no. She offered him a second, anyone but me. He spurned her. She dragged me home. I did not understand.” Azimuth’s gears whirred. “I still don’t.”
The doctor’s smile was sad, maybe pitying. “She was trying to protect you.”
“That’s what she said, but then when she’d built the corps and she needed his money again. I got to dance for him, then, and I’ve never known such joy.” She grabbed the doctor’s hands in her own, as if she could pour the excitement over the memory through the strong-and-fragile fingers that looked everything and nothing like her own. “I know what I saw in his face. I know what I felt. But she sent me away when we were done, wouldn’t let me speak to him.”
“But he agreed to fund this show in Chicago did he not? Your mother–”
Azimuth’s emotions turned. “–wants him for herself. You’ve seen them. She acts like not a day has passed, like she’s not old and broken and feeble. That will never hold him here. But I am stronger. I’ve become more than she’d ever envisioned. More then she’d ever meant me to be. All for him!”
“And nothing for yourself?”
Against the doctor’s calm, accepting smile, Azimuth’s anger crested and broke.
“He is for me.”
“So is your dancing,” the doctor said, voice calm and low. “All your work with the corps. Or have I misunderstood the strides you’ve made with them? We never talk about that either.”
Azimuth turned away, trying to think of anything else to silence the telltale static hissing at her core.
In the mirror was the face Azimuth remembered, no longer defined by the hideous handiwork of her own temper. She couldn’t see the holes the sutures had left behind in the skin.
“You should have been an artist,” Azimuth said, admiring the work.
The doctor wasn’t looking at Azimuth though: her eyes were trained on a chronometer ticking away beside the bed. “I am what I was meant to be.”
Azimuth wished it was that simple.
The night before the surgery, Zaynab dreamed of her mother.
Mama was in her garden, surrounded by jasmine in bloom, a book in her lap. Zaynab’s head was on her mother’s knee. The sun warmed her clothes, nipped at her bare neck and ears. Her sisters were playing a duet inside while Mama read aloud. The words were no clearer than the music or the birdsong and street noise that filtered over the garden wall. But Zaynab was home.
Mama ran a hand through Zaynab’s hair. “Come home to me.”
“Mama, I’m a doctor now.”
“I am home,” Zaynab said looking up.
But Mama was gone. Abd Manaf sat above Zaynab.
“Go home,” he said.
“You will not be there,” she said, throat tight as she stared at his dear, dear face.
“But I am not here either. Go home, ya hayati.”
A very small bell sounded.
Zaynab’s eyes opened. The soprano tone of Abd Manaf’s chronometer hung in the air and faded. She wiped a tear from her face and rose to pray.
But her feet had just found their place before her rug when a knock interrupted her. Zaynab hadn’t even extended permission to enter before the door opened.
Marie-Quatrième and Azimuth were on the threshold, quivering like hummingbirds before a bush in bloom.
“A telegram!” Marie-Quatrième said in a small burst of joy. “You’ve a telegram, doctor.”
Azimuth held out a paper. Zaynab shook as terribly as the girls as she read her mother’s words.
Though she had waited months to see those words, Zaynab’s stomach sank to her feet. Were they an order? A plea? No matter how many times she ran her hands across the thin paper, it would not tell her more.
“I’m happy to walk you through it one more time.” Zaynab stood next to the worktable-turned-operating bench–an ether mask in her hand, prayers for steady fingers still echoing in her mind–but every fiber of her being told her to delay.
Madame sighed and rolled her eyes. “Incisions. Cat gut. Ligaments. And sew me back up. It’s nothing that hasn’t been tried before, just not in this area of the knee. You don’t know what you’ll find, so you make no guarantees. Did I miss anything?”
Zaynab forced a smile. “No. I suppose not.”
Madame caught her wrist. “If anything happens to me, take care of them.”
“Nothing will happen to you. You’ve been through this before–”
“It’s different this time. There are so many of them now. So many young ones.”
“And he’s lurking about again…”
“He’s been courting you–”
“He wants Azimuth and cannot have her. Do not let him.”
Zaynab pressed a hand against Madame’s shoulder. “That much I can promise.”
“If you could have seen how he looked at her when I introduced them. You’d have thought I had led a lamb to the wolf’s den. What a stupid thing I was. Of course he wanted her. Biddable, beautiful, unchanging.”
“Biddable?” Zaynab wondered for a moment if Madame was talking about the same Azimuth.
“She was younger, then. Ha! We both were.”
“She’s grown a great deal since then,” Zaynab said. “She can take care of herself.”
“Ah, but who will take care of me?”
Madame looked wan, small, frail. She had never before seemed so vulnerable. It was a gift, if a sad one. Zaynab accepted it as a token of trust. She squeezed the mechanist’s hand.
“I am here to take care of you now,” she said. “And if all is well, you’ll be taking care of yourself for decades to come.”
Madame closed her eyes, an easy smile on her lips. “Won’t that show them?”
Zaynab fit the ether mask on the mechanist’s face without pressing further.
When Madame was resting and Elouan’s workshop had been washed down floor to ceiling, Azimuth invited Zaynab to the conservatory.
“After all you’ve done for us, we wanted to offer you a gift in return.”
Zaynab stifled a yawn. “Surely you want to wait for your mother–”
The favored daughter’s eyebrows lifted high, wordless in their humor at the thought.
The doctor smiled and relented. “But you will be responsible if she finds out.”
Azimuth just laughed and pulled her forward.
The stage was empty, but Elouan stood next to Madame’s chair, the choreography device at the ready.
“You’ve seen Madame use it countless times,” Azimuth said. Then she smiled. “You aren’t afraid, are you?”
“Of course not,” Zaynab said, regretting the lie. Her hand rested on her headscarf. She had not removed it in front of Elouan and the automata she thought of as boys. Not since the first time she’d seen them dance. Not since she’d gotten to know them. It hadn’t seemed right.
Elouan held his hands up. “I’ve made some modifications. You need not remove it.”
Zaynab took a deep breath and sat. Elouan sat the cap on her head and turned two electrodes until they touched the skin at her temples.
“Relax!” Azimuth insisted. “You need do nothing but feel and think. We will do the rest.”
At Azimuth’s mark, Elouan flipped a switch. A song began on phonographs.
This was not the music that usually filled the room–not Tchaikovsky or Delibes, not Bach or Beethoven, all of which Zaynab had learned to hum during her short residence. The rolling, nasal notes of a wind instrument–a ney–and the cross-beat measures tugged at the driving heartbeat of a drum and lute.
Zaynab could almost smell the jasmine so much it reminded her of home.
“Do you know the dance that pairs with this music,” Elouan asked from behind her.
“It has been years–”
“No, don’t look at me. Close your eyes for now. Yes. See the dancers you knew, the steps you remember. The feeling of dancing, of movement. Yes. Yes, exactly!”
The corps entered in single file lines, feet bare, hands raised, silk flowing, coins tinkling. No wonder Marie-Quatrième had been asking so many questions about Damascene dances! They had each donned the synthetic skins Madame had commissioned for Chicago, on top of which was draped copious amounts of shockingly yellow silk from ankle to wrist to brow. Their hands turned and spun on themselves, their heels holding firm to pivot and turn. They moved smoothly, ceaselessly, as beautifully symmetrical as their ballet numbers.
Zaynab laughed, clapped, tapped her own foot. She would have been standing with them, had she not been attached to the machine. The more joy she found, the bigger the smiles of the corps, the faster they spun, the sharper their movements.
It all finished too soon, but Zaynab tore off the cap and dove into the middle of the proud, elated, delightful dancers. Her students. Her friends. She wished home could be with them and in Damascus all at once.
<<He’s here, Az.>> Elouan’s voice rang into Azimuth’s head. Somehow she’d missed the doorbell. She grappled for something presentable in her wardrobe.
<<But Mother is asleep! But it’s dark!>>
<<Marie-Troisième is putting him in the parlor.>>
If Elouan hadn’t sounded so miserable, Azimuth would have begged his help with her clothes. But something about the way the message crackled stopped her. Jonathan could wait the few extra seconds it would take her.
Azimuth composed herself, made sure the white pin-stripes cutting though the red silk of her skirt and bodice matched, checked her hair for loose tendrils. Then she descended in all state. He was in the parlor and could not see her, but she was sure the intention of such a moment mattered.
When she stepped into the room, he was pouring himself a scotch. Azimuth was sure he had not smiled so easily at Mother.
“Jonathan,” she said, relishing the sound of his name on her lips, “how good of you to call!”
“Azimuth, my dear, you are more beautiful each time I see you.” He set the drink down to kiss her hand, then drew her to a seat on a divan. He sat beside her. “How is your mother?”
“Well. The doctor believes the surgery was a success.”
“Fine, fine.” He took a sip from the brandy glass he must have poured for himself then set it down on a table. “You’ve come in to your own since I saw you last.”
Azimuth felt her smile stretch the false skin to its limits.
He cupped her cheek and leaned closer. “And yet you have not aged a day. While I sit before you grey and brittle–”
“No!” she said, placing one hand atop his and running another through a streak of grey at his temple. “You are distinguished. Grand. You will never be old to me.”
His eyes closed as her fingers stroked again. On a third pass he sighed. “I could almost imagine I was a young buck again, wooing a young star at the opera house. What magic do you weave, dear one?”
“No magic,” she said, “just devotion. I have always been meant for you.”
He placed a hand on her knee. “Yes, you have. You are her greatest success and greatest fear. But what jealousy could stay her blessings now?” The hand crept higher. “She will walk again and claim the limelight. And I get what was always meant for me. It should be a compliment to her youth, should it not, that I would be so moved by her likeness as I ever was all those years ago?”
Azimuth stopped his hand’s inching progression with hers and sat back an inch. “I…don’t understand.”
He smiled. “What is there to understand? You were drawn to me then as now. Why else would this be so if she had not meant for me to have you?”
Static fuzzed Azimuth’s thoughts. She struggled to clear them. A gear, a new gear Elouan had added to amplify her commands to the corps, was causing trouble. It sang a dissonant note even as the rest of her sat on the cusp of a decision.
“I am not Mother,” she said, each word formed carefully.
“Of course not! You’re everything beautiful about her with none of the tart and sour parts.”
“I am more than her beautiful parts,” Azimuth said. “I am more than my own beautiful parts.”
“Yes, I am sure you are, dear.” His hand pushed hers away and he pulled himself closer to her, leaning so close that his lips were on her ear. “But it’s those beautiful parts that have me so–”
Someone coughed behind them. Jonathan sat back. Azimuth warred with the dissonant notes inside her. She was better than what she’d once wanted, than what Jonathan valued her to be. But still–
She lowered her skirt back over her ankles, smoothed it across her lap, then turned.
Dr. Murad was standing in the door, one hand still on the handle, the other balled next to her in a fist. She was looking from Jonathan to Azimuth and back.
“Are you alright, Azimuth?” she asked.
“Yes,” Azimuth said. It was true. And it was not.
“Good. Elouan needs help in the upstairs lab. Something about a transmitter.”
Azimuth stood. “Oh. Yes.” Static. “But…I shouldn’t leave our guest.”
“I can see Mr. de Vrys to the door,” Dr. Murad said. “Elouan said the matter was urgent.”
The static cleared. A burden Azimuth had not before seen as such lifted. She owed no courtesy where it had not been given; she need not play a part in a charade not to her liking. The disquieted gear stopped its shrieking. She turned to Jonathan and curtseyed. “I fear this is the cost of an unexpected visit, sir. I will see you in Chicago?”
He stood and nodded, his face confused and flushed. Azimuth turned away from it gladly. She brushed past the doctor, stopping only to squeeze her hand in silent thanks, then made straight for the elevator.
When Azimuth stepped into the laboratory, Elouan’s eyebrows shot up. Despite the energy that propelled her to the door she stopped, unsure.
“You must be sad that Dr. Murad will be leaving us.” Her voice was every bit Mother’s and not her own. Caustic, insecure, still broken.
If Elouan heard the worst of it, he gave her no sign. He pulsed with a jumbled mess of questions and sensations. She wanted to answer them all, to ask her own, to learn all the rest. But she waited.
He tugged on the points of his waistcoat. “I take Dr. Murad’s imminent departure as a good omen. For her future and ours.”
Azimuth was not sure if she was flushing or about to catch fire, heart first. “Oh.”
Elouan took a single step towards her. “I thought you were with your patron.”
She closed the distance between them.
<<Not anymore,>> she said on their frequency. <<Not anymore.>>
The night before the corps and Madame leave for Chicago, they rehearse in the conservatory one last time.
The doctor watches from her now customary perch. For the first time since she started attending night rehearsals, she didn’t cry during the romantic pas de deux. Azimuth whispers to Elouan that this must be progress for someone still mourning her husband.
Madame falls asleep during the scene in the Pasha’s garden, when the corps and Medora and Gulnare dance as if they are living flowers, bound to please all who watch.
Half of the corps drift away with Madame. The other half step aside, joining Azimuth and Elouan at the controls. Marie-Quatrième joins them, moving independently of Madame’s dream song. Azimuth addresses the corps. They are ready to follow her lead, by choice, when Elouan throws the switch off.
Azimuth’s song is now paired to music. Old music: Biber’s “Passacaglia in G minor,” the final piece in his Mystery sonatas. It recalls to her cogs turning, keeping time, each new layer of gearworks offering more possibility, requiring more energy and skill. It recalls to her birds in the bushes in the winter, her corps in Mother’s dream song trembling. It becomes a backdrop for human ears that cannot hear Azimuth’s song for themselves.
The corps mechanise knows this piece. They have practiced nightly for weeks. Every night it brings them each closer to independence from their creator. To creating for themselves as Azimuth has learned.
As the trill of the solo violin rings against the conservatory’s glass, they glide and spin. They flock and fly. They enact clever plays on their training, ironic twists of technique and kinetics that creates something new even as it relies on something old. They mime emotions they have yet to have, that Azimuth is teaching them with each step. They are caricatures of humans and yet-blossoming impressions of the selves they will soon be.
Azimuth dances with them, too intoxicated by what she’s created not to be a part of it. They dance in unison, moving as one body, one instrument, one mind.
Madame wakes up.
Elouan and the doctor are too entranced to notice.
Madame stands. She is rage.
“You,” she says. Everyone and everything stops but the music.
Azimuth does not look afraid. She stands taller and faces her mother.
Madame steps forward without disentangling her feet from the device’s wires.
“No!” The doctor shouts from above.
But Madame has already fallen, first to her knees then her hands. She is still for a moment. The doctor’s footsteps ring through the house; she’s coming, she’s coming. But it doesn’t matter and Madame knows it.
Feral in her pain and rage and bitterness, she thrashes and snarls. She flails her legs though it makes everything worse. She hits Elouan when he kneels to soothe her. He tries to pin her hands down, to keep her from hurting herself. She bites his wrist until she cracks a tooth on his metallic hull.
Elouan braves the beast that his mistress has become until the doctor sedates her.
“Traitor,” whispers Madame to the ceiling. “Traitor.”
Then the house is quiet.
Zaynab was nearly sure that Madame would never again wake when the mechanist’s eyes opened. Beside her, Elouan relaxed. Downstairs, the atrium’s timepiece struck noon. Azimuth and the corps had been gone for two hours; the ten o’clock train to Chicago was beyond anyone’s reach now.
Madame closed her eyes. She knew.
“We could not let you go, Madame,” Elouan said, more carefully than he’d said anything in Zaynab’s hearing. “You need to rest. To heal.”
“I have been doing nothing else for thirty years.”
There was nothing for Zaynab to add to that. It was the truth, wasn’t it? Platitudes would serve no purpose now.
The mechanist seemed to age before their eyes, graying through her face, shadows growing in every line. “What is my prognosis, Dr. Murad?”
This Zaynab could answer. “A shattered kneecap. Your left leg may be fractured; I could not tell from palpation alone. The swelling in your left knee, however, is characteristic of ruptured ligament.”
Madame cried, a wail that recalled to Zaynab her own husband’s death, the long nights she’d spent alone since his passing. But there was more, too. These were tears thirty years in the making. The death of a dream too precious to speak aloud. Tears Zaynab hoped she would never have to shed.
“Azimuth is taking them onstage,” Elouan said, placing his hand on his mentor’s. “She will show the world what you’ve done. What you’ve accomplished.”
Madame’s mouth dropped open in disbelief. “You don’t understand? How can you know what it means to be in front of a crowd? To hear their applause? To feel the strength of their love? I need that. I promised myself that I would have that. And look at me.”
Zaynab tried reason. “You can still–“
“Can you fix me?” Madame asked. “Can you tell me you can repair all of this? That it will never happen again, even if you can?”
“I don’t know yet,” Zaynab said. “It will take a few days for the swelling to recede.”
“Enough time that I will lose my work and my lover, yes? Well you are dismissed on any account.”
It felt as sharp as a slap. Madame smiled, despite everything, a dark delight that made Zaynab’s skin crawl. “I’m sorry, Madame. I understand that you aren’t well. I’ll come back–”
“You will leave by nightfall. Elouan, pay her in full and see her off.”
Zaynab should have known there would be no words to help.
“You let her leave,” Madame said, sitting up and bringing her face as close as she could to Zaynab. “You let them all leave. You said you would take care of them and instead you let them loose in a world that cannot be trusted with them.”
“She’s the lamb. He will gobble her down the moment they are alone.”
There was nothing about this Zaynab could fix. But Azimuth deserved to be defended. They all did. “She is stronger than you know.”
Madame was deaf to the heart of Zaynab’s words. “I know the world plenty well, girl. One day when it cuts you down for good, you’ll think of me.”
Zaynab took a breath, and bowed with more respect that Madame deserved in the moment. She met her eyes one last time. “They will come back to you, Madame. They will come back to you whole and happy. Their hearts may break. They may stumble or become something you’d never imagined. But they will come home because you made them capable of it.”
To her credit, Zaynab did not cry until Elouan handed her into the motorhack and the Lefevre mansion grew small behind her.
In Chicago’s Union Depot, Azimuth took Jonathan’s hand as the hiss of the train drowned out his empty platitudes. That he honored her by helping her down was commendable. That he leered whilst he did so was not.
To spare her siblings any discomfort, herself the need to explain, and poor Jonathan the embarrassment, she addressed him on tiptoe, her lips close to his ear.
“Keep your distance, sir, or I will dislocate your right arm from the shoulder. You do write with your left hand, don’t you?”
He’d paled but she’d smiled and gestured grandly to the corps. “Sir, behold, your great investment.”
Maybe it had been the reminder of his monetary risk rather than the threat of violence, but Jonathan stepped away from Azimuth and toward the excited corps.
“Who wants to visit the Ballet of Invention?”
The corps met his invitation with a cheer.
Jonathan would have done better to warn them that it was not a ballet at all, but the gallery of fantastic, mechanized feats was an entertainment and a boon. Each of the children left knowing no inventor surpassed their mother, and Azimuth first among them. Marie-Q seemed to take deepest pride in having the best creation in the fair as her sister, for she would not leave Azimuth’s side and would not stop smiling about it.
In the whole of Chicago, in the vast bredth of the Columbian Exposition’s many delights, no others communicated on the frequency shared by Azimuth and the corps. She tried calling out many times, searching her bands to hear from others. Mathieu caught one line of dits and dots, but a quick listen proved it to be nothing but a radiotelegraph. Just another machine speaking for a human rather than itself.
The White City dazzled nonetheless. Azimuth kept close the young ones who stared at fascinators and fashion, performers and policemen, all with the same wonder and fear. Their travels skins and clothes made them appear to be a gaggle of young adults twittering over the sights of a big city, rustic but harmless.
They spent two days wandering and learning, groping their way through the crowds and colors. Azimuth got so many things wrong: how to eat cotton candy, how to lose honorably at carnival games, how to enjoy herself when so much of what she loved was so far away. There was so much yet to learn about the world before she could be a part of it, so much she had to teach her siblings before they could be out on their own. Mother would have loved to hear that she hadn’t been so wrong, and Azimuth would have loved to tell her.
The third day, they processed in an orderly fashion to the theater. Azimuth knew by their stillness that they were scared, too scared to tell her, lost deep in themselves. She gathered them before her on the stage and borrowed a shepherd’s crook from the prop master to stand in for Mother’s cane. She tapped, just once, and they came to order.
<<This is why Mother made you,>> she told them. <<But you will do more than this. You are already more than this.>>
Azimuth knew Dr. Murad would have said it better. Or even Elouan. But she was all they had. And she was enough.
When the audience sat and the crew opened the curtains, they did not dance Le Corsaire. They started with the right costumes, the right false skin, the right music. But when Medora should have entered, coy and light and perfect, Azimuth floated on, feet drumming faster than anyone had ever seen as they took impossibly small steps, one after the other, to find center stage.
She was not wearing a costume. She was not wearing a false skin. She had not been so naked in a decade and it was glorious.
One by one, the others followed, each stripping bare until they were all metal, shining in the harsh light of the stage.
They left behind the constraints of Pepita and Russian symphonies, and welcomed Beethoven and Biber. They jumped until gravity pulled them down like hawks on jesses. They spun until friction claimed their momentum for its own. They undulated and pulsed like electricity and radios and brainwaves and the earth itself.
The audience couldn’t get enough. They cheered at every feat and triumph. They stood and demanded more, more, more, until the stage manager forced Azimuth and the corps into the wings and told the crowd to empty out.
And then, when her brothers and sisters hugged her tight and whooped with joy and laughed with manic relief, Azimuth understood what Mother’s fall had forced her to give up.
She still wished she could cry.
Three days after Azimuth left, half the corps remain in the Lefevre mansion. They are loyal, conciliatory. They ask no questions. They leave Madame to her work, in the cellar where she built so many of their brethren. They transmit her comings and goings, what she is not eating, how frail she looks. They listen at the elevator, for sounds that she is well, for sounds that she is not.
Madame would be proud if she could see any of this. Their devotion shows in the dust that gathers, the trash that piles, the tarnish on their hulls. If only she would look up. If only she could hear love on their frequency. If only she could know how quickly they raise the alarm when the first tendrils of smoke waft up from the cellar where she’s sent herself.
Maybe at the last she sees them racing through the fireball to try to save her. Her corps. Her babies. Her art.
Zaynab woke up in the village inn to the sun and the smell of smoke and the dissonant crash of bells.
In the confounding, interminable days since her departure from the mansion, her mind had been consumed. By waiting until her steamer would depart across the Atlantic. By worry about her future and so many unknowns. By regret. So lost was she, that she forgot to wind Abd Manaf’s chronometer so it never rang to wake her for prayers. Her body, too, had betrayed her and let her stay abed until day was fully upon them. She would have prayed to make up for it, but in this strange inn–this plush purgatory between Madame Lefevre’s mansion and the steamer that would carry her home–she was unnerved.
It was the smoke that did it, she realized.
She opened her door and called out into the hallway.
“What is on fire?” she asked a passing maid.
“That big mansion down the lane,” the girls said. “The old crazy woman’s. Went up in the night like a haystack. Did you not hear all the shouting? And those awful bells of hers just came crashing down–”
Zaynab slammed the door shut and hurried to get dressed.
It was a half-mile from the inn to the house, but there had not been a break in the smoke since Zaynab had left. She passed exhausted workers, crofters, strange automata, all covered in soot and sadness. She didn’t stop any of them. She didn’t stop.
A crowd had gathered to marvel at the skeletal remains of the big house. They whispered and gossiped and conjectured about Madame’s life and work and demise. None of it would be right. None of it could come close to the truth.
She elbowed through them until a policeman stopped her. “No access to the public, miss.”
“I’m Madame Lefevre’s doctor,” she said. A lie and a truth but mostly a lie. She refused to regret it.
He let her through, not knowing the difference.
She was not halfway up the drive when she saw shapes moving in the smoke. Brushstrokes of human bodies. She broke into a run.
Elouan stepped out of the veil of ash and dust first. His false skin was melted, exposing a flame-licked hull. He carried a body in his arms, shrouded in a soot-stained sheet.
Zaynab went cold and fell to her knees. She stared at the ash-dusted ground in disbelief, whispering prayers.
Some feet continued past her then returned, waited until she looked up.
“She need never be afraid of the pain again,” Elouan said when their eyes met.
“What happened?” she asked.
“She was working.”
He shook his head. She wasn’t sure that made it any better.
“And the corps?”
Elouan’s head bowed. Zaynab stood and started to make for the house, but he held up a hand. His fingers reached for the coat button that was not there, trying to close it, close it, close it. “Several were lost trying to save her. Others powered down when she died, and I cannot rouse them.”
“–should be fine. The ones that powered down were those that had not yet become independent. Madame created them all to need her. The ones that couldn’t fight that couldn’t live without her.”
“Does…does Azimuth know?”
He shook his head. “They are on the train back.”
“Would have been last night. When this happened.”
It made the tragedy feel greater, harder to bear, more complete. How was that true when lives had been lost, no matter how or when?
Elouan took her arm. “You should go home, doctor.”
She reached her hand toward the smoking maw of rubble, still collapsing in on itself. There were no words.
He shook his head. “To Damascus. You have so much work ahead of you yet. And you have been away too long.”
Zaynab rested her forehead on his arm, and laughed once through her sobs. “How do you know me better than I know myself?”
He patted her shoulder. “That was always my purpose.”
Azimuth knows everything before she gets off the train because Elouan cannot hide anything from her. Not the sound of his grief on the frequency or the truth on his face from where it looks at her from the platform. She stops to rest her head on his shoulder, to whir something wordless, like tears or a sob. Then she lets him tell the corps and walks home by herself.
Mother is not there. This is what she tells herself every step, so she knows there is no hope to which she can cling. Mother will not know their triumph. That Azimuth courted Fischer, Thun, and Wharton after the performance and threw Jonathan to the curb for good. That Azimuth tasted the joy of the stage and would never return to the shadows so long as audiences wanted her. That she knew Mother now in a way she had never known her before.
She walks through the rubble alone, passing husks of her lost brothers and sisters as she went. A worker tried to move one, but she ordered him back. They deserved better than a funeral in a scrap pile.
Her feet find the ashen conservatory. Above, the metal beams of the glass ceiling twisted and curled in on themselves, ribbed with sharp shards of the glass they’d once supported. A physical expression of Azimuth’s pain.
There is not much else to see, few places where she can walk without falling into the steaming caldera of a cellar. Mother was not there, so why should she be?
She meets Marie-Quatrième at what had been the front door. The girl trembles, a mass of grinding gears and static and stutters. Azimuth wraps her in a hug. Across the yard, Elouan tends to the others. He sends a warm warble. Azimuth smiles his way and rests her head against Marie-Q’s.
<<Are we the last?>> the girl asks. <<Are we the last of our kind now that she is gone?>>
Azimuth takes her sister’s face in her hands and smiles. <<No. We are only the beginning.>>
Copyright 2020 Victoria Sandbrook
About the Author
Victoria Sandbrook is a speculative fiction writer, freelance editor and reviewer, and Viable Paradise graduate. Her short fiction has appeared in Sword & Sonnet, Podcastle, Shimmer, and elsewhere. Victoria and her family live in Brockton, Massachusetts. She reviews books and shares writerly nonsense at victoriasandbrook.com and on Twitter at @vsandbrook.