Science Fiction & Fantasy

Beren & Luthien by J.R.R. Tolkien

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Fiction

The Steam Dancer (1896)

1.

Missouri Banks lives in the great smoky city at the edge of the mountains, here where the endless yellow prairie laps gently with grassy waves and locust tides at the exposed bones of the world jutting suddenly up towards the western sky. She was not born here, but came to the city long ago, when she was still only a small child and her father traveled from town to town in one of Edison’s electric wagons selling his herbs and medicinals, his stinking poultices and elixirs. This is the city where her mother grew suddenly ill with miner’s fever and where all her father’s liniments and ministrations could not restore his wife’s failing health or spare her life. In his grief, he drank a vial of either antimony or arsenic a few days after the funeral, leaving his only daughter and only child to fend for herself. And so, she grew up here, an orphan, one of a thousand or so dispossessed urchins with sooty bare feet and sooty faces, filching coal with sooty hands to stay warm in winter, clothed in rags, and eating what could be found in trash barrels and what could be begged or stolen.

But these things are only her past, and she has a bit of paper torn from a lending-library book of old plays which reads What’s past is prologue, which she tacked up on the wall near her dressing mirror in the room she shares with the mechanic. Whenever the weight of Missouri’s past begins to press in upon her, she reads those words aloud to herself, once or twice or however many times is required, and usually it makes her feel at least a little better. It has been years since she was alone and on the streets. She has the mechanic, and he loves her, and most of the time she believes that she loves him, as well.

He found her when she was nineteen, living in a shanty on the edge of the colliers’ slum, hiding away in among the spoil piles and the rusting ruin of junked steam shovels and hydraulic pumps and bent bore-drill heads. He was out looking for salvage, and salvage is what he found, finding her when he lifted a broad sheet of corrugated tin, uncovering the squalid burrow where she lay slowly dying on a filthy mattress. She’d been badly bitten during a swarm of red-bellied bloatflies, and now the hungry white maggots were doing their work. It was not an uncommon fate for the likes of Missouri Banks, those caught out in the open during the spring swarms, those without safe houses to hide inside until the voracious flies had come and gone, moving on to bedevil other towns and cities and farms. By the time the mechanic chanced upon her, Missouri’s left leg, along with her right hand and forearm, was gangrenous, seething with the larvae. Her left eye was a pulpy, painful boil, and he carried her to the charity hospital on Arapahoe where he paid the surgeons who meticulously picked out the parasites and sliced away the rotten flesh and finally performed the necessary amputations. Afterwards, the mechanic nursed her back to health, and when she was well enough, he fashioned for her a new leg and a new arm. The eye was entirely beyond his expertise, but he knew a Chinaman in San Francisco who did nothing but eyes and ears, and it happened that the Chinaman owed the mechanic a favor. And in this way was Missouri Banks made whole again, after a fashion, and the mechanic took her as his lover and then as his wife, and they found a better, roomier room in an upscale boarding house near the Seventh Avenue irrigation works.

And today, which is the seventh day of July, she settles onto the little bench in front of the dressing-table mirror and reads aloud to herself the shred of paper.

“What’s past is prologue,” she says, and then sits looking at her face and the artificial eye and listening to the oppressive drone of cicadas outside the open window. The mechanic has promised that someday he will read her The Tempest by William Shakespeare, which he says is where the line was taken from. She can read it herself, she’s told him, because she isn’t illiterate. But the truth is she’d much prefer to hear him read, breathing out the words in his rough, soothing voice, and often he does read to her in the evenings.

She thinks that she has grown to be a very beautiful woman, and sometimes she believes the parts she wasn’t born with have only served to make her that much more so and not any the less. Missouri smiles and gazes back at her reflection, admiring the high cheekbones and full lips (which were her mother’s before her), the glistening beads of sweat on her chin and forehead and upper lip, the way her left eye pulses with a soft turquoise radiance. Afternoon light glints off the galvanized plating of her mechanical arm, the sculpted steel rods and struts, the well-oiled wheels and cogs, all the rivets and welds and perfectly fitted joints. For now, it hangs heavy and limp at her side, because she hasn’t yet cranked its tiny double-acting Trevithick engine. There’s only the noise of the cicadas and the traffic down on the street and the faint, familiar, comforting chug of her leg.

Other women are only whole, she thinks. Other women are only born, not made. I have been crafted.

With her living left hand, Missouri wipes some of the sweat from her face and then turns towards the small electric fan perched on the chifforobe. It hardly does more than stir the muggy summer air about, and she thinks how good it would be to go back to bed. How good to spend the whole damned day lying naked on cool sheets, dozing and dreaming and waiting for the mechanic to come home from the foundry. But she dances at Madam Ling’s place four days a week, and today is one of those days, so soon she’ll have to get dressed and start her arm, then make her way to the trolley and on down to the Asian Quarter. The mechanic didn’t want her to work, but she told him she owed him a great debt and it would be far kinder of him to allow her to repay it. And, being kind, he knew she was telling the truth. Sometimes, he even comes down to see, to sit among the Coolies and the pungent clouds of opium smoke and watch her on the stage.

2.

The shrewd old woman known in the city only as Madam Ling made the long crossing to America sometime in 1861, shortly after the end of the Second Opium War. Missouri has heard that she garnered a tidy fortune from smuggling and piracy, and maybe a bit of murder, too, but that she found Hong Kong considerably less amenable to her business ventures after the treaty that ended the war and legalized the import of opium to China. She came ashore in San Francisco and followed the railroads and airships east across the Rockies, and when she reached the city at the edge of the prairie, she went no farther. She opened a saloon and whorehouse, the Nine Dragons, on a muddy, unnamed thoroughfare, and the mechanic has explained to Missouri that in China nine is considered a very lucky number. The Nine Dragons is wedged in between a hotel and a gambling house, and no matter the time of day or night seems always just as busy. Madam Ling never wants for trade.

Missouri always undresses behind the curtain, before she takes the stage, and so presents herself to the sleepy-eyed men wearing only a fringed shawl of vermilion silk, her corset and sheer muslin shift, her white linen pantalettes. The shawl was a gift from Madam Ling, who told her in broken English that it came all the way from Beijing. Madam Ling of the Nine Dragons is not renowned for her generosity towards white women, or much of anyone else, and Missouri knows the gift was a reward for the men who come here just to watch her. She does not have many belongings, but she treasures the shawl as one of her most prized possessions and keeps it safe in a cedar chest at the foot of the bed she shares with the mechanic, and it always smells of the camphor-soaked cotton balls she uses to keep the moths at bay.

There is no applause, but she knows that most eyes have turned her way now. She stands sweating in the flickering gaslight glow, the open flames that ring the small stage, and listens to the men muttering in Mandarin amongst themselves and laying down mahjong tiles and sucking at their pipes. And then her music begins, the Negro piano player and the woman who plucks so proficiently at a guzheng’s twenty-five strings, the thin man at his xiao flute, and the burly Irishman who keeps the beat on a goatskin bodhrán and always takes his pay in Chinese whores. The smoky air fills with a peculiar, jangling rendition of the final aria of Verdi’s La traviata, because Madam Ling is a great admirer of Italian opera. The four musicians huddle together, occupying the space that has been set aside especially for them, crammed between the bar and the stage, and Missouri breathes in deeply, taking her cues as much from the reliable metronome rhythms of the engines that drive her metal leg and arm as from the music.

This is her time, her moment as truly as any moment will ever belong to Missouri Banks.

And her dance is not what men might see in the white saloons and dance halls and brothels strung out along Broadway and Lawrence, not the schottisches and waltzes of the ladies of the line, the uptown sporting women in their fine ruffled skirts made in New York and Chicago. No one has ever taught Missouri how to dance, and these are only the moves that come naturally to her, that she finds for herself. This is the interplay and synthesis of her body and the mechanic’s handiwork, of the music and her own secret dreams. Her clothes fall away in gentle, inevitable drifts, like the first snows of October. Steel toe to flesh-and-bone heel, the graceful arch of an iron calf and the clockwork motion of porcelain and nickel fingers across her sweaty belly and thighs. She spins and sways and dips, as lissome and sure of herself as anything that was ever only born of Nature. And there is such joy in the dance that she might almost offer prayers of thanks to her suicide father and the bloatfly maggots that took her leg and arm and eye. There is such joy in the dancing, it might almost match the delight and peace she’s found in the arms of the mechanic. There is such joy, and she thinks this is why some men and women turn to drink and laudanum, tinctures of morphine and Madam Ling’s black tar, because they cannot dance.

The music rises and falls, like the seas of grass rustling to themselves out beyond the edges of the city, and the delicate mechanisms of her prosthetics clank and hum and whine. And Missouri weaves herself through this landscape of sound with the easy dexterity of pronghorn antelope and deer fleeing the jaws of wolves or the hunters’ rifles, the long haunches and fleet paws of jackrabbits running out before a wildfire. For this moment, she is lost, and, for this moment, she wishes never to be found again. Soon, the air has begun to smell of the steam leaking from the exhaust ports in her leg and arm, an oily, hot sort of aroma that is as sweet to Missouri Banks as rosewater or honeysuckle blossoms. She closes her eyes—the one she was born with and the one from San Francisco—and feels no shame whatsoever at the lazy stares of the opium smokers. The piston rods in her left leg pump something more alive than blood, and the flywheels turn on their axels. She is muscle and skin, steel and artifice. She is the woman who was once a filthy, ragged guttersnipe, and she is Madam Ling’s special attraction, a wondrous child of Terpsichore and Industry. Once she overheard the piano player whispering to the Irishman, and he said, “You’d think she emerged outta her momma’s womb like that,” and then there was a joke about screwing automata. But, however it might have been meant, she took it as praise and confirmation.

Too soon the music ends, leaving her gasping and breathless, dripping sweat and an iridescent sheen of lubricant onto the boards, and she must sit in her room backstage and wait out another hour before her next dance.

3.

And after the mechanic has washed away the day’s share of grime and they’re finished with their modest supper of apple pie and beans with thick slices of bacon, after his evening cigar and her cup of strong black Indian tea, after all the little habits and rituals of their nights together are done, he follows her to bed. The mechanic sits down and the springs squeak like stepped-on mice; he leans back against the tarnished brass headboard, smiling his easy, disarming smile while she undresses. When she slips the stocking off her right leg, he sees the gauze bandage wrapped about her knee, and his smile fades to concern.

“Here,” he says. “What’s that? What happened there?” and he points at her leg.

“It’s nothing,” she tells him. “It’s nothing much.”

“That seems an awful lot of dressing for nothing much. Did you fall?”

“I didn’t fall,” she replies. “I never fall.”

“Of course not,” he says. “Only us mere mortal folk fall. Of course you didn’t fall. So what is it? It ain’t the latest goddamn fashion.”

Missouri drapes her stocking across the footboard, which is also brass, and turns her head to frown at him over her shoulder.

“A burn,” she says, “that’s all. One of Madam Ling’s girls patched it for me. It’s nothing to worry over.”

“How bad a burn?”

“I said it’s nothing, didn’t I?”

“You did,” says the mechanic and nods his head, looking not the least bit convinced. “But that secondary sliding valve’s leaking again, and that’s what did it. Am I right?”

Missouri turns back to her bandaged knee, wishing that there’d been some way to hide it from him, because she doesn’t feel like him fussing over her tonight. “It doesn’t hurt much at all. Madam Ling had a salve—”

“Haven’t I been telling you that seal needs to be replaced?”

“I know you have.”

“Well, you just stay in tomorrow, and I’ll take that leg with me to the shop, get it fixed up tip-top again. Have it back before you know it.”

“It’s fine. I already patched it. It’ll hold.”

“Until the next time,” he says, and she knows well enough from the tone of his voice that he doesn’t want to argue with her about this, that he’s losing patience. “You go and let that valve blow out, and you’ll be needing a good deal more doctoring than a chink whore can provide. There’s a lot of pressure builds up inside those pistons. You know that, Missouri.”

“Yeah, I know that,” she says.

“Sometimes you don’t act like you know it.”

“I can’t stay in tomorrow. But I’ll let you take it the next day, I swear. I’ll stay in Thursday, and you can take my leg then.”

“Thursday,” the mechanic grumbles. “And so I just gotta keep my fingers crossed until then?”

“It’ll be fine,” she tells him again, trying to sound reassuring and reasonable, trying not to let the bright rind of panic show in her voice. “I won’t push so hard. I’ll stick to the slow dances.”

And then a long and disagreeable sort of silence settles over the room, and for a time she sits there at the edge of the bed, staring at both her legs, at injured meat and treacherous, unreliable metal. Machines break down, she thinks, and the flesh is weak. Ain’t nothing yet conjured by God nor man won’t go and turn against you, sooner or later. Missouri sighs and lightly presses a porcelain thumb to the artificial leg’s green release switch; there’s a series of dull clicks and pops as it comes free of the bolts set directly into her pelvic bones.

“I’ll stay in tomorrow,” she says and sets her left leg into its stand near the foot of their bed. “I’ll send word to Madam Ling. She’ll understand.”

When the mechanic doesn’t tell her that it’s really for the best, when he doesn’t say anything at all, she looks and sees he’s dozed off sitting up, still wearing his trousers and suspenders and undershirt. “You,” she says quietly, then reaches for the release switch on her right arm.

4.

When she feels his hands on her, Missouri thinks at first that this is only some new direction her dream has taken, the rambling dream of her father’s medicine wagon and of buffalo, of rutted roads and a flaxen Nebraska sky filled with flocks of automatic birds chirping arias from La traviata. But there’s something substantial about the pale light of the waxing moon falling though the open window and the way the curtains move in the midnight breeze that convinces her she’s awake. Then he kisses her, and one hand wanders down across her breasts and stomach and lingers in the unruly thatch of hair between her legs.

“Unless maybe you got something better to be doing,” he mutters in her ear.

“Well, now that you mention it, I was dreaming,” she tells him, “before you woke me up,” and the mechanic laughs.

“Then maybe I should let you get back to it,” but when he starts to take his hand away from her privy parts, she takes hold of it and rubs his fingertips across her labia.

“So, what exactly were you dreaming about that’s got you in such a cooperative mood, Miss Missouri Banks?” he asks and kisses her again, the dark stubble on his cheeks scratching at her face.

“Wouldn’t you like to know,” she says.

“I figure that’s likely why I inquired.”

His face is washed in the soft blue-green glow of her San Francisco eye, which switched on as soon as she awoke, and times like this it’s hard not to imagine all the ways her life might have gone but didn’t, how very unlikely that it went this way, instead. And she starts to tell him the truth, her dream of being a little girl and all the manufactured birds, the shaggy herds of bison, and how her father kept insisting he should give up peddling his herbs and remedies and settle down somewhere. But at the last, and for no particular reason, she changes her mind, and Missouri tells him another dream, just something she makes up off the top of her sleep-blurred head.

“You might not like it,” she says.

“Might not,” he agrees. “Then again, you never know,” and the first joint of an index finger slips inside her.

“Then again,” she whispers, and so she tells him a dream she’s never dreamt. How there was a terrible fire and before it was over and done with, the flames had claimed half the city, there where the grass ends and the mountains start. And at first, she tells him, it was an awful, awful dream, because she was trapped in the boarding house when it burned, and she could see him down on the street, calling for her, but, try as they may, they could not reach each other.

“Why you want to go and have a dream like that for?” he asks.

“You wanted to hear it. Now shut up and listen.”

So he does as he’s bidden, and she describes to him seeing an enormous airship hovering above the flames, spewing its load of water and sand into the ravenous inferno.

“There might have been a dragon,” she says. “Or it might have only been started by lightning.”

“A dragon,” he replies, working his finger in a little deeper. “Yes, I think it must definitely have been a dragon. They’re so ill-tempered this time of year.”

“Shut up. This is my dream,” she tells him, even though it isn’t. “I almost died, so much of me got burned away, and they had me scattered about in pieces in the Charity Hospital. But you went right to work, putting me back together again. You worked night and day at the shop, making me a pretty metal face and a tin heart, and you built my breasts—”

“—from sterling silver,” he says. “And your nipples I fashioned from pure gold.”

“And just how the sam hell did you know that?” she grins. Then Missouri reaches down and moves his hand, slowly pulling his finger out of her. Before he can protest, she’s laid his palm over the four bare bolts where her leg fits on. He smiles and licks at her nipples, then grips one of the bolts and gives it a very slight tug.

“Well, while you were sleeping,” he says, “I made a small window in your skull, only just large enough that I can see inside. So, no more secrets. But don’t you fret. I expect your hair will hide it quite completely. Madam Ling will never even notice, and nary a Chinaman will steal a glimpse of your sweet, darling brain.”

“Why, I never even felt a thing.”

“I was very careful not to wake you.”

“Until you did.”

And then the talk is done, without either of them acknowledging that the time has come, and there’s no more of her fiery, undreamt dreams or his glib comebacks. There’s only the mechanic’s busy, eager hands upon her, only her belly pressed against his, the grind of their hips after he has entered her, his fingertips lingering at the sensitive bolts where her prosthetics attach. She likes that best of all, that faint electric tingle, and she knows he knows, though she has never had to tell him so. Outside and far away, she thinks she hears an owl, but there are no owls in the city.

5.

And when she wakes again, the boarding-house room is filled with the dusty light of a summer morning. The mechanic is gone, and he’s taken her leg with him. Her crutches are leaned against the wall near her side of the bed. She stares at them for a while, wondering how long it has been since the last time she had to use them, then deciding it doesn’t really matter, because however long it’s been, it hasn’t been long enough. There’s a note, too, on her nightstand, and the mechanic says not to worry about Madam Ling, that he’ll send one of the boys from the foundry down to the Asian Quarter with the news. Take it easy, he says. Let that burn heal. Burns can be bad. Burns can scar, if you don’t look after them.

When the clanging steeple bells of St. Margaret of Castello’s have rung nine o’clock, she shuts her eyes and thinks about going back to sleep. St. Margaret, she recalls, is a patron saint of the crippled, an Italian woman who was born blind and hunchbacked, lame and malformed. Missouri envies the men and women who take comfort in those bells, who find in their tolling more than the time of day. She has never believed in the Catholic god or any other sort, unless perhaps it was some capricious heathen deity assigned to watch over starving, maggot-ridden guttersnipes. She imagines what form that god might assume, and it is a far more fearsome thing than any hunchbacked crone. A wolf, she thinks. Yes, an enormous black wolf—or coyote, perhaps—all ribs and mange and a distended, empty belly, crooked ivory fangs and burning eyes like smoldering embers glimpsed through a cast-iron grate. That would be her god, if ever she’d been blessed with such a thing. Her mother had come from Presbyterian stock somewhere back in Virginia, but her father believed in nothing more powerful than the hand of man, and he was not about to have his child’s head filled up with Protestant superstition and nonsense, not in a Modern age of science and enlightenment.

Missouri opens her eyes again, her green eye—all cornea and iris, aqueous and vitreous humors—and the ersatz one designed for her in San Francisco. The crutches are still right there, near enough that she could reach out and touch them. They have good sheepskin padding and the vulcanized rubber tips have pivots and are filled with some shock-absorbing gelatinous substance, the name of which she has been told and cannot recall. The mechanic ordered them for her special from a company in some faraway Prussian city, and she knows they cost more than he could rightly afford, but she hates them anyway. And lying on the sweat-damp sheets, smelling the hazy morning air rustling the gingham curtains, she wonders if she built a little shrine to the wolf god of all collier guttersnipes, if maybe he would come in the night and take the crutches away so she would never have to see them again.

“It’s not that simple, Missouri,” she says aloud, and she thinks that those could have been her father’s words, if the theosophists are right and the dead might ever speak through the mouths of the living.

“Leave me alone, old man” she says and sits up. “Go back to the grave you yearned for, and leave me be.”

Her arm is waiting for her at the foot of the bed, right where she left it the night before, reclining in its cradle, next to the empty space her leg ought to occupy. And the hot breeze through the window, the street- and coal smoke-scented breeze, causes the scrap of paper tacked up by her vanity mirror to flutter against the wall. Her proverb, her precious stolen scrap of Shakespeare. What’s past is prologue.

Missouri Banks considers how she can keep herself busy until the mechanic comes back to her—a torn shirt sleeve that needs mending, and she’s no slouch with a needle and thread. Her good stockings could use a rinsing. The dressing on her leg should be changed, and Madam Ling saw to it she had a small tin of the pungent salve to reapply when Missouri changed the bandages. Easily half a dozen such mundane tasks, any woman’s work, any woman who is not a dancer, and nothing that won’t wait until the bells of St. Margaret’s ring ten or eleven. And so she watches the window, the sunlight and flapping gingham, and it isn’t difficult to call up with almost perfect clarity the piano and the guzheng and the Irishman thumping his bodhrán, the exotic, festive trill of the xiao. And with the music swelling loudly inside her skull, she can then recall the dance. And she is not a cripple in need of patron saints or a guttersnipe praying to black wolf gods, but Madam Ling’s specialty, the steam- and blood-powered gem of the Nine Dragons. She moves across the boards, and men watch her with dark and drowsy eyes as she pirouettes and prances through grey opium clouds.

© 2007 by Caitlín R. Kiernan.
Originally published in Sirenia Digest.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

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Caitlín R. Kiernan

Caitlín R. Kiernan by Kyle Cassidy

Hailed by the New York Times as “One of our essential writers of dark fiction,” Caitlín R. Kiernan has published twelve novels, including  The Red Tree and The Drowning Girl which are both being developed into feature films. Her short fiction has been collected into several volumes. In 2017, Subterranean Press will be releasing the latest collection, Dear Sweet Filthy World.

Caitlín studied geology and paleontology at the University of Alabama and the University of Colorado, and has published in several scientific journals, including the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.