The Clockwork Swan
by Emily Graham
There is draughty house of forgotten treasures in a dusty corner of England which was once the playground of a queen.
When she was little, that girl who would become a queen would run through its mighty corridors and fill its chambers with laughter. She would trip up and down its grand staircase and giggle at all its curiosities. She didn’t know – then – that she would become a queen, and when the metropolis beckoned, the head which wore the crown grew heavy and the laughter faded.
The house missed the girl, but it had other visitors – parties of school children and travellers who had taken the wrong turning at Scotch Corner. They would stare at the imposing façade of the house which had once known a queen, positioned incongruously just off the Durham road, and they would marvel at how such an edifice came to built in England’s far north easterly corner, with its soot and sweat and granite.
So they would go inside.
Now, once inside, everyone remembers only one thing. You might ask them about the collection of oil paintings, or the Louis XIV fabrics or the Regency furniture; the displays of vintage fashion (“worn by a queen!”) or the Victorian toys. They won’t remember. Their faces glaze over. They are sure they saw all that stuff. They must have seen it. But they can only remember the swan.
It begins with the music. The notes come like fairies’ footsteps, each chime produced afresh by the intricate clockwork, just as they had been for more than two hundred years. Each note rings in a haunted key, separate from its fellows, with its own particular timbre; and since the clockwork is old now, made by a lowly London wizard in a back-lane workshop in 1773, sometimes the notes have painful gaps between them, and sometimes they rush together one atop of the other, as if the fairy has broken into a run.
Then the swan moves. It preens its back and fluffs its feathers – each one exquisitely produced in finest silver. It glides on its carved glass rods, which turn slowly to produce the barest ripple in the pond. Only at the apex of its movement are you reminded that the swan is a mere automaton – born of springs and cogs; only when its choreography requires a quick change in direction does the eye notice the stilted way in which the swan’s neck tries to defy gravity to swing suddenly away. Then there is a judder in the mechanism, and the onlookers coo with delight, because– like the audience of the prima ballerina who gasps for breath – they remember now that they are witnessing a physical impossibility. You see, the wizard who created the swan knew that people only get really excited when they can see how difficult a thing is. He knew they’d be back tomorrow for another look, to see if maybe this time the swan doesn’t make it.
The wizard had grasped a universal truth. No one remembers perfection.
But the swan does make it – every single time for 240 years and counting. When the tiny silver fish emerge, the swan spots one and dives. Its graceful clockwork neck articulates the sudden dip to emerge, triumphant, from the glass water, with a wriggling metal fish in its beak. Then comes the hoary business of tossing it to and fro and swallowing the thing whole – and the small sprat disappears down the silver gullet. Finally, the swan, satiated, draws his performance to a close. The last notes sound, the fairy stops dancing and the swan returns to his starting position to await another coin in the slot.
There was one thing that the little-girl-who-would-be-a-queen never asked, not even when she was a grown-up and she came back to visit with her entourage.
When the fish fights for life, flipping itself over and over in the air – how could its maker be sure the swan would catch it again?
But the wizard knew another truth. If you’ve shown them just enough of the mechanism, they’ll swallow the magic whole.
Emily Graham is a fantasy writer from the North of England. She recently finished her first novel, and her short stories are just beginning to find homes. She studied Politics and Hispanic Studies at the University of Glasgow in Scotland and holds post-graduate qualifications in Creative Writing from the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.