She lay a long time on the floor, the chill and damp of the house claiming her from the skin inward, and the frost of despair turning her to ice from the heart outward. Her mind slowed. Her cheek pressed the cold floor. She closed her eyes and waited, but the House of Sleep would not admit her. She remained in the twilight emptiness between it and the waking world, vaguely aware of her cramped, frozen limbs and the sweep of shadows that passed over her locked eyelids as the sun crept by her windows. As though from a great distance, she heard the biting and gnawing of carpenter’s tools on the barred door. She felt the gust of its opening, and heard the clockwork man’s soft approach. Her eyes creaked open just enough to confirm that he stood over her, the scuffed toes of his boots filling her vision.
“You had to look, didn’t you?” he said. “You couldn’t leave that damn mirror alone.”
When she made no reply, he crouched by her and stroked a tendril of hair from her face.
“You’re like ice,” he said, and his tone was accusatory.
He reached under her and lifted her. He was strong again, now that he had the key to wind his heart. Warmth radiated from him, and she felt herself begin to thaw. He laid her on the bed and chafed her limbs, and she snuggled into the quilts with a happy murmur. There was still magic in the old sleigh bed. Perhaps now she could enter the House of Sleep.
“No, no, no,” he barked.
He slapped her cheek lightly, and she sat up and opened her eyes in sudden fury. “How dare you! Get away. There is nothing to keep you here now. Why don’t you go?”
He leaned toward her and spoke through gritted teeth. “You know what I want. I’m not going without it.” He put a hand over the smartly revolving gears, the delicate tripping hammers, of his heart. “Give it back. It’s no good to you, and hasn’t been for a long while if only you could remember.”
He was so changed, and he was wrong. She did remember. She recalled his eager smile each time she woke, the care he took to please her, and the sorrow in his eyes when she returned to her dreams. He spoke so roughly now, as though he believed she had stolen something from him, when the truth was that he had given it freely. She sighed and fell back against her pillows. She was too tired to argue.
“It won’t fit you now, I’m afraid,” she said. “Everything about you is different. We have both grown ugly, each in our own way.”
He had the grace to look ashamed. “You aren’t ugly. Never that. And I … I only want to feel again. You’ll go away, as you always do, and I have grown weary of waiting for your love.”
It was true, she’d never loved him. Yet, looking at his youthful, weary face, she felt a pang. She opened a drawer in her bedside table and took out a small black box. It was made of pasteboard, much scarred from jostling among the expensive baubles and love tokens left by her admirers. She stared at it as though seeing it for the first time.
“Is that it?” His voice sounded choked.
She nodded and handed him the box. Almost fearfully, he opened it. She watched his face, saw the hope flare and ebb. He turned his gaze to hers, and his eyes were empty. Without a word, he tilted the box so she could see what lay on the yellowed tissue paper within.
“Oh …” Again, that pang. Tears started to her eyes.
A daub of shriveled red lay there. It looked very much like a dried rose that had succumbed to time. It was not a rose. It was his heart. She looked up at him, at the lost expression on his face, and felt her own heart throb for him. She opened her arms to him, and he sank against her, breast to breast, and laid his head on her shoulder. She felt the whir and click of the clockwork, and the magic that still hovered about the sleigh bed, and the bittersweet pang that might have been love, after all.
“I have something I want to give you,” she whispered.
He started back with a cry, his hands flying to his chest. The clockwork fell from him like petals from a rose. The flesh over his heart was smooth and unmarred, and a living organ beat beneath it. She smiled at the familiar sound of it as she slipped across the threshold of the House of Sleep for the last time.
“Thank you, Mother,” he sobbed.