Sandcastles in a Clockwork Sea

Sandcastles in a Clockwork Sea”

by Helena O’Connor

I remember the sandcastle days, floating in clear waters that were crystal blue and guilt free. The red ribbons you wore, tying your hair up in buns, made you look like a magical girl. We paddled at the foamy edge, collecting shells in the hem of your dress, with the salt breeze blowing sand in our eyes. Twin sisters, together and alone. I can still see the small, yellow bucket we used to build our fortresses. Our flimsy, fairy tale castles were doomed; set against that unfailing, immutable sea. Back when we saw with our own eyes.

Sometimes we dived deep down to see the lives of fishes. They swam in rows and we couldn’t tell one from the other. When, a turtle floated past, like some ageless creation, you said, “I wonder if he passes by at the same time every year, regular like clockwork.” Then you talked about clockwork dolls, and all the cogs and wheels that turn to make them seem alive.

We loved the parades. On lunar nights, when lit up floats sailed along the canals, the adults wore masks and ball gowns. We stood on the bridge, eating candy floss and watching, cheering as the clockwork dolls performed their acrobatic tricks. They wore sparkling costumes, had hair in every different colour to match their giddy, outer shells, and they swept by us in dancing, rainbow waves.

Then one day you said, “It must be dark in there.”

We looked with new eyes at their faceless faces. They were blank and unmoving, expressions washed clean. Even back then, they marched in step and looked all the same.

Our mother was never fond of television, but that day she watched in earnest; glued to the screen. Something was happening, she said, across the continent. Something had landed there, she said. But no one knew what. The recruiting started soon after.

At first, the empty spaces in our classrooms were explained away, but soon there were too many missing. The advertising called to us; shining pictures of beautiful, benevolent children, on television, on billboards, in our school. “Our children will save us,” they all said.

Bubble-gum fields,” we said, laughing, “Strawberry fields, forever,” when the music on the ads reminded us of childhood games and songs.

I was asleep when you were taken.

Our mother was matter-of-fact, in the morning, over oatmeal. They desperately needed the right children and there were so very few. She sounded just like the television; even though she’d stopped listening and her eyes were as empty as its blank screen. “Young minds are more accepting,” she said with a distant smile. I think, in many ways, our mother left when you did.

I knew you wouldn’t be happy in the darkness. You left your red ribbons on your bed. I wonder if you thought, as I thought and as our mother thought, that it should have been me.

I tied one of the ribbons around my wrist and wore it every day.

School was empty without you. I smiled when the teachers said how proud I must be. “She always was an outstanding student,” they said. I wanted to scream, She won’t like it in there! but I was too scared. I nodded as the other kids kept asking their smiling questions, trying to hide the fear in their eyes. The drones were always watching. The teachers made me do a show-and-tell about you.

The house was quiet without the sound of your pianoforte. I thought, Maybe I should learn. But it seemed wrong, somehow, to replace your sound with mine. The traces of your uniqueness lingered. Even when they gave your bedroom to a soldier, and the smell of candy apple perfume was replaced with musky sweat and uniforms.

One day, our mother said “I have a treat for you.” We went down to the main square as the people were gathering. Mother handed me a balloon and said “Smile.” I smiled as hard as I could, because the sky was full of drones. She squeezed my hand and then there you were, the clockwork dolls.

Different, but the same; the rainbow colours were gone and instead you wore guns.

You marched all in rows, and if anyone had asked “Which one is she,” I would have said “I don’t know,” because each one looked the same and I couldn’t tell which was you.

My hair was in buns like a magical girl, and I wanted to say, to scream: “Look, I wore your red ribbons!” I wore them to see if you noticed. But I couldn’t see you.

I wondered if you saw me.

I wondered if you were still alive.

Eventually they came for me. When I woke, the first thought I had was of you. It is very dark in here, but not like I expected. There are heads-up displays and so many lights, and every type of spectrum vision to help us see across the battlefields. We have our own little rainbows to guide us. In front of our eyes is every statistic imaginable. I would never have believed I could understand so many numbers. I was never good at maths, not like you.

The understanding comes with the fusion process. Something in the way we’re put together lets us communicate with each other and share our knowledge. I am smarter than I used to be, and feel much older. The process makes adults of us, almost. I hear so many voices now, but none of them are yours.

I thought the dark would be the worst part. But not being able to feel is the most disturbing thing. I’m not sure how much of our bodies are in here with us. Maybe it’s best we don’t know. I wonder if my wrist still has your red ribbon wrapped around it. They say we don’t keep our memories; but I’m still waiting for mine to fade. My old life haunts me. My thoughts keep constant company with the endless tide of invaders; their strange bodies, put together out of angles and mouths and claws. Our guns are no match, but they say the new dolls are faster, better armed; they say maybe we can win.

I often hoped for oblivion. Instead, I lived while so many others died. The battlefields were littered with broken shells and beasts. The invaders never stopped. I sometimes wonder why they came and what they want. I wonder if anyone knows.

Then, one day, I saw you. A broken shell, the same as all the others. I couldn’t hear you in my head, but still, I knew it was you. “Bubble-gum fields,” I said. “Do you remember?” You didn’t reply. You were injured, on the ground, left behind. A remnant from the first wave of dolls; slow, outdated, unwanted.

I took you to the seaside; carried you on my back until you could feel the sea breeze in your plastic hair. I wanted to give back your red ribbon, show you I kept it, but I couldn’t crack my outer shell. Somewhere deep inside, I think you still know. We are magical girls.

Now we sit side by side, in the place we used to build our fortresses; two clockwork dolls, together and alone. I tell you our stories, the memories that remain of our lives. Our sandcastles have long ago been washed away by the sea. One day, the waves will take us too. We can float deep down in the water like ageless creations, visiting the old places of the world, regular like clockwork. Perhaps then I will hear your voice again.


Helena O’Connor lives in Australia and writes anywhere there is wi-fi, good coffee, and a view of the sea. Her short fiction has appeared in various anthologies and magazines such as Nature, Aurealis, and Andromeda Spaceways. She likes video games, cats, and clockwork. Twitter: @HelenaFiction

This entry was posted in Flash Fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Sandcastles in a Clockwork Sea

  1. John Baumgartner says:

    Very sad and chilling despite the beautiful telling and the magic implied by the poetic title. Thank you for a memorable read.

  2. MysteryTerror says:

    This is a beautiful story. Incredibly evocative. I adored the themes of war under the the magical metaphor. I hope more people read it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *