The Clockwork Menagerie
Elliot Cooper © 2016
All Rights Reserved
Clement groaned inwardly and steeled himself for the worst. He recognized the dark-haired woman with the heavily lined face hidden beneath a mourning veil before she plunked her carpet bag on the counter and fixed him with a glare. She’d visited his shop no less than five times in the past month, each time bringing a fresh complaint about his work.
“There’s still something the matter with my cat. I’d like a refund,” said Theodosia Moorhen, the recently widowed Lady Archington, her reedy voice tight with agitation. With her black-gloved hands, she wrenched open her bag by its handles, revealing a familiar feline shape wrought from carefully tooled copper and tin. The cat opened its mouth, revealing hand carved ivory teeth and a pink leather tongue, but no sounds came forth, save for the gentle hum of her internal workings.
“It would be my pleasure to make a few more adjustments to Ophelia, free of―”
“Please, Mr. Dyer, spare me another week of your ineffectual tinkering.” Lady Archington pursed her lips, eyes still fixed hotly on Clement’s face, as she lifted the mechanical cat from her bag and settled it on the counter. With surprising swiftness, she snatched the bag away and slapped it shut with a sharp finality. “If I wanted my carpets littered with cat sick, I’d take home the first flea-bitten stray I found on the streets!”
“Accept my apologies, Lady Archington. There must be a hiccup in the self-oiling joint mechanism. “
Vomiting certainly wasn’t a feature he’d ever put in one of his animal automatons intentionally. He reached out to pet Ophelia’s smooth, burnished head in greeting and was rewarded with a headbutt indicating she wanted more attention. A rumbling whir, the simulated purr that was one of the hallmarks of his felines, emanated from within her sleek chest.
“A refund, Mr. Dyer. I insist.”
“It won’t take long, just a few hours, and then she’ll be right as—”
“You’re not the only autosmith in the city. And before you say another word―” She narrowed her deep-set eyes until they were mere slits behind the lace of her veil. “—I dare say you should consider the consequences of your persistent bullying of a gentlewoman on your reputation.”
“Yes, of course, Lady Archington. Please, my apologies if I’ve caused offense.” Clement nodded and moved to his cash register, avoiding eye contact with his former customer. As quickly as he could manage, he withdrew the appropriate bills from the till and grudgingly handed them to Lady Archington.
“Do not expect my business again, nor any recommendation to my friends and family. Good day, Mr. Dyer,” she said as she marched out of the shop, her dour tone strangely accented by the merry jangling of the bells above the door.
Clement let out a heavy breath and leaned against the counter. He might not have been the only autosmith in the city, but he was one of the best in terms of realism and functional elegance. Perhaps his attention to such details and dedication to handcrafting each piece made him inefficient compared to the larger shops that relied heavily on the power of industry to create multiple automatons at once. And perhaps he could stand to hire another autosmith to work alongside him. Maybe it was high time he attempted to take on another apprentice. But working alone had always been his way. His perfectionism made it difficult for him to work with others. And his last two apprentices left due to their lack of talent and his lack of patience with them.
Sales, however, were down thanks to the recent increase in automaton ownership taxes. And Ophelia wasn’t the first automaton to be returned due to customers downsizing their collections or a lack of appreciation of his artistry and innovation. Fortunately, he usually found new buyers for his returned pieces shortly after they found their way back to his shop, but the fluctuation in funds made paying bills on time a precarious situation.
Tiny metal paws pressed into his forearm as the clockwork cat arched her back in a stretch. She opened her mouth again, as if to meow, and then ducked in and rubbed her head firmly under Clement’s strong chin.
He smiled and straightened up, reaching down to pet the cat with one calloused hand while he grabbed a small key from a pocket in his stained waist apron with the other. At least the animals that were returned could be reset to their original states. It made Clement happy to end their silence or behavioral modifications, all of which were entirely unnecessary in his opinion. If someone wanted a bird that wouldn’t sing or a dog that wouldn’t move unless it perceived a threat to its master’s property, then they could buy their automatons from Goodwin’s or Jolly and Sons. The two largest and most popular autosmiths in the city were known more for quantity than quality. Clement had his own niche to fill, and he wasn’t going to compromise his work just to line his pockets.