She leaned against the bedroom door and listened to the maddening sound of the key scraping and turning in the man’s clockwork heart. She put a hand over her own heart, imagining what it must be like to feel the springs tighten, the gears catch and bite at each other with renewed purpose. Could he hear it ticking, the way she sometimes heard hers beating? Did the sound frighten him? Her stomach rolled in a slow knot of nausea.
She floated on the lake of her memory like a woman in a boat, staring down into the murky green at an image too heavy to surface. It hung in the dimness like a body, weighty with its time in the depths but impish enough to rise anyway, just out of reach. There was something familiar about its shape. She leaned toward it, and it rolled its slack, white face up at her. The clockwork man! She knew him. Recognition brought a slick of cold sweat to her skin.
A thump from the other side of the door jarred her from her reverie. She gave a shrill cry and hopped away. The doorknob turned, but she had shot the bolt and he couldn’t get in. She listened to him breathing.
“You can’t hide in there forever,” he said. His voice was soft, his tone reasonable. “I have the key now. I could leave.”
Was that supposed to be a threat? She wished he would leave. Her gaze slid toward the bed, with its cargo of tatty quilts. The promise of sleep that rose from that warm nest was almost overpowering.
“You know what I want,” he said. “Why not just let me have it? After all this time, why not?”
Another thump shook the door, its violence giving the lie to the quiet, cajoling voice. He was furious, and after all that had happened, she could not blame him. She remembered now, had reached down into that cloudy water and fished up the deed that bound him to her.
“Go away,” she hissed. “You have your bloody key. Take it and go. You never should have come here. I never wanted you.”
He was silent so long she thought he had gone. When he spoke again, his voice seemed close to her, right in the room.
“I want what’s mine. I’ll be back for it.”
She heard the tread of his boots on the creaking boards of the hall, on the stairs. A sound rose from below that she had thought never to hear again. The house door opened with a ghastly moan, then slammed shut. A flock of echoes rose like startled doves to the rafters of the cathedral ceiling.
She sat at the window through the night, watching the forest under its frost of moonlight, listening to the restless scrabbling of the roses. She couldn’t think where the man had gone or why, but she did not doubt his word that he would return. The fire had gone out, and the room was cold enough that her breath hung before her. She ached to lie down, to close her eyes and dream, but she was under siege. He would be back, and she would have to deal with him.
As dawn melted the last of the dark, she stood and stretched. She was surprised at the stiffness of her joints, and at the depth of her fatigue. She had woken before, she remembered, and seen to the task of winding the clockwork heart. She had always felt strong and rested. There had never before been such signs of neglect about the house, either. The man had kept it well, and she had been able to return to her slumber satisfied that the fragile suspension spell would not be shattered.
Uneasiness bloomed in her mind. She went to the mirror and touched the thick black paint that marred its elegance. Her fingers – oh, they seemed so thin – plucked at the rubbery little tags of paint that stuck up here and there. She pulled a few long ribbons of the stuff from the mirror and stepped close to observe her reflected eye in one of the slivers revealed. What she saw wrung a shocked gasp from her, and she clawed at the paint, stripping wide flaps from the glass.
At last, enough of the mirror had been uncovered to allow her to see her face. Her hands went to her cheeks, but did not touch the ravaged beauty. The skin, once so taut and radiant against the fine bones, had softened and sagged. There were trembling jowls, and a terrain of fine lines about the eyes and around the lips that had thinned and lost their saucy ripeness. Her hair, that once glorious fall of pale sunlight, was white. She stared into her own wide eyes, and a keening sound rose around her. She recognized her voice, wailing in horror, as she slumped at the foot of the mirror.
to be continued…