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The Toymaker’s Heart
Once upon a time,
In a faraway place that wasn’t quite so far away at all, there lived a Toymaker. It was not her trade, but it was her craft, and that is a far truer measure of a soul. By day she sat in a cushioned chair in her own private office, making telephone calls and looking out the plate glass window at the city below. She liked to imagine that the vehicles were tiny matchbox cars, little wooden carvings with button wheels. The people were tiny lead figurines, each cast from the same mold before tender, careful hands painted a life onto each miniscule face. The buildings across the way were enormous dollhouses, so intricately carved that one might think them real.
When the last papers had been pushed, the last cup of coffee dropped in the wastebasket, she would turn off her computer, take the elevator down to the basement garage, and wind her way home, her little white Jeep navigating the twisting streets like a ball in a wooden labyrinth. Upon arrival, she would climb the stairs to her bedroom, strip off her grey blazer, her grey tights, her grey skirt. Her tight black bun would give way to a magpie nest of black strands, held out of her eyes with the loosest of ribbons. She would don an old t-shirt, stained and splattered with acrylics and inks. The detritus of daytime doldrums disavowed, she would descend to her workshop and lose herself in her craft.
The Toymaker lived with a Prince. He was a dashing, handsome fellow, with eyes like blue marbles and high, hard cheekbones like fortress walls. Many years ago he had galloped into her life and swept her away. They were happy together, and when she heard him ride into the driveway, she would set aside the top she had been whittling or the spring she had been winding. The corners of her lips would turn up in a smile, and they would meet in the kitchen.
The roughness of his lips lingering on hers, they would laugh about their day while she prepared dinner. Sitting at the bar, sipping a gin and tonic, he would regale her with tales of his conquests, stories of his careful rule over his subjects—stocks and bonds, mostly. When the plates had been cleared away, he would go to clean the dishes, and she would return to her work.
Sitting in the cool basement, surrounded by amusements off all kinds, she would thread and hammer and saw and stitch. One night as she worked, bent over on her little stool, her back ached and moaned. She scarcely noticed, lost in the musical dips and dives of the needle as she threaded red yarn through the fabric to give the doll hair. The face was still blank, but soon she would have a name, a life, and she would be loved.
She remembered the words of her grandmother, long ago. Sitting in her rocking chair, the one she had brought with her from the old country, she would rock by the fire and make toys. The young girl would sit at her feet, looking up into the weathered face. The leaping shadows that inked her wrinkles, the flickering autumn oranges that dyed her candy floss hair, made her something more than human. She would watch her grandmother with saucer eyes, mesmerized by the graceful way her withered willow-knot fingers could still hold a knife to a block of wood, a needle to a button. Every toy is a story, she had said. Though she spoke English, her voice was still beholden to the hard, angular shapes of the old language. Every toy is a story, and every story is a way of grasping the world and making it a little more yours. When you are a child, you have little hold of things. A toy changes that. A toy gives you a little sliver of the world to hold in your hand and make yours, my Little Sparrow.
There was a sharp prick as the needle pierced her thumb, and she cursed as she sucked at the wound. Looking down at the empty face, she smiled a small smile, hoping that the child that it found would love it the way that they should.
She had no daughters of her own to fly her balsa planes, no little boy to sit astride the rocking unicorn that sat in the corner. There might have been, once, but something had gone wrong at the end. There’s a problem with the tubes, the physician had told her, neglecting to go into much detail. Things aren’t connected the way they’re supposed to, he had said, and sent her on her way with an empty pram and a hefty bill for the trouble. There was talk of adoption, of course, but between her crowded days and her husband’s many royal duties, they never seemed to find the time.
It was no matter. The toys found homes all the same, through hospitals and churches and charities. Now, as the frost skated across the windows and the breeze grew colder, was the time her work was needed most.
Late into the night she toiled, eyes straining through the artificial light, the fire in the workshop corner flickering with memories. Near it stood that same old chair, faded and grayer but as sturdy as the day her grandmother died. Sometime past one, she wiped the sweat from her brow and laid the doll with the other finished toys. Nestled between a jack-in-the-box and a wind up train, it smiled at her with its button eyes. She smiled back.
She found her Prince in his overstuffed chair, overstuffed himself with one or two drinks too many. As her hands snaked over his shoulders, there was an odd tenseness, and his eyes seemed to swallow the fire in the hearth. “Everything alright, my love?” she asked, running a callused finger through the hair on his chest.
His eyes softened, his body relaxed. “Of course, darling,” he said, kissing her forehead. “Just a lot going on at work, that’s all. Bartleby’s got himself this funny idea that I’m helping to organize the office party, God only knows how. It’s not like I have enough on my plate just keeping the firm up and running.”
“Maybe I can help relieve the tension,” she said, straddling him. His breath smelled of gin, but not too strongly. It pleasantly tickled her taste buds as they kissed, and soon enough they made love before the crackling fire.
Winter came and went, rolling up her icy winds and tucking them away until her next visit. But even as spring bloomed, the Prince seemed to grow colder. At first the Toymaker thought it was merely the stress of his throne, but soon she began to worry that it was something more. A spell, perhaps, laid upon him by some unknown nemesis, sending frosty cracks spider webbing over his heart. His kisses grew brusquer, his laughs rougher and shorter, until at last it seemed that he would scarcely spare her a glance. Every outreached hand, every tender smile, was brushed away like a bothersome itch. He spent more and more time in his study, working or reading, and she spent more and more time in her workshop.
One day, she awoke to find the bed empty, his side cold and stiff. The cause of his disappearance was outlined in a letter on the kitchen table, signed and weighted down with his wedding band. He had been bewitched, the letter said, by a powerful sorceress, his heart stolen away by her evil spell.
Heaped on the tile, eyes stinging, surrounded by the ragged pieces of the letter, she turned the ring over and over in her nimble tinker’s fingers. She tried to hate the Enchantress, but she couldn’t find it in herself. After all, she too had once fallen for that smile, those eyes like blue marbles, those cheekbones like fortress walls.
With the help of the table she rose to trembling feet. At least he had cared enough to leave on a day she didn’t work. The thought carried with it a grim humor, and in that a glimmer of strength.
In the workshop, the ring glistened on the counter, surrounded by dozens of other scraps and half-finished thingamajigs. Sitting on the stool, she set to work. She picked up a half formed homunculus of tin and copper, missing an arm, naked. Her hands shook, but the work steadied them. Fingers tweaked and turned, sliding drivers into tiny screws, gingerly testing the reflexes of the little doll. Finally it stood, almost finished, the little door on its hollow chest open and waiting. She took up a block of thick foam and carefully carved out her mold. Satisfied, she took the ring to the hearth. Dropping it into the smelting cup, she maneuvered the tongs over the blistering coals.
She would not cry. She would not break. She was not one of her own marionettes, waiting to be tangled in its own strings.
When the metal had been heated, she took it back to the counter, expertly pouring it into the tiny hole in the top of the mold. She watched the gossamer stream of gold, watched as the melted years dwindled into nothing.
Then, she waited.
When the waiting was over, she pried apart the two halves, revealing the miniscule heart within. With trembling fingers, she placed the heart in the chest of the little tin man. There, in its metal cage, its gleam was dampened by the shadows. With a deep breath, she closed the tiny door. Picking up the toy, she looked at the empty neck, waiting for a face to make it whole. Closing her eyes, she grasped the edges of the table. After a few deep breaths, she reached for her knife, reached for a block of soft wood. Each feature burned in her mind, burning her hand as she shaved away piece after piece. When she was finished, the visage was unmistakable. Rough and distorted, yes, but it was him.
She drilled a hole in the base of the head, screwed it onto the neck. She stood for a moment, dozens of sightless eyes staring at her from shelves and boxes, looking down at her Prince. In the bronzy light, naked and skinless, spindly metal limbs hanging limply over her hand, he looked pathetic. She needed to paint his face, sew him clothes… Sliding her thumb along the shoulder, she flinched in pain. The sharp metal had cleaved the skin, hot, fresh blood seeping out over the toy.
With a strangled cry, she threw the doll into the fire. Sinking to her knees, she watched as the unfinished face split open in a flaming leer, watched as the metal blackened and sank into the feathery ash. Inside, the heart melted and bubbled to nothing.
She watched it all through her tears. Searing, vicious tears, barbed jewels clawing their way out of the corners of her eyes. Sinking to the ground, heaving with great, racking sobs, she felt her heart in her chest. She felt it scream against her ribs, felt it beat and beat and beat, pumping and singing and weeping hot red tears.
There, before the fire, in the midst of her cries, the Toymaker promised that she would never love again.
This was, of course, a foolish promise. The heart is a fickle, impish little thing, rarely beholden to the wishes of its owner.
At first her craft was plenty. The comforting whir of a wind up spring, the champagne-glass tinkling of a spinning ballerina in its box. These were her love poems, her sonnets, her whispers of devotion.
There came a time when it was no longer enough. Her skin felt bare at night, her bed cavernous. In her chest, her heart beat, eager to once again be cupped by the hand of another.
Then there were dates. Stumbling through the unfamiliar fields of digital love, filling out questionnaires and gambling away her nights. The first few were awkward, stumbling affairs, inevitably ending with flushed faces and hasty goodbyes. Middle-aged divorcees, a few older gentleman for whom the reasons behind their bachelorhood were clear. With each split check, her hopes began to dwindle.
And then the Toymaker met her.
Auburn hair, deep dimples, a laugh like heady red wine: sharp and tart and full of pooling warmth. The way their fingers curled around each other’s, the way her hair wore the sun as they walked along the boardwalk at dusk. Eager as the Toymaker’s heart was, she kept it on a leery leash. It wasn’t until that night on the Ferris wheel, the two of them hanging in inky nothing, that she let herself fall.
Lying on the leather couch, the Woman’s head resting in her lap, the Toymaker ran lazy fingers through the fan of red hair that draped her knees. She looked at the Woman, chest fluttering, and ran a finger across her cheek. She saw, in the corner of her mind reserved for each new project, a far grander bit of construction: a new life with this Woman, a grander life, a kinder life, than she had ever lived with her Prince. In her hands, her eyes, she could build a life that would hold her heart and keep it safe.
Their eyes met—not blue, deep green, like snake scales—and their lips moved closer. The Toymaker closed her eyes.
Rather than the softness of the Woman’s lips, the Toymaker felt the hard grip of the Woman’s hand around her wrist.
“Can we talk?” she asked. Biting her lip, she pulled the blanket into a tight cocoon.
The Toymaker felt her mouth go dry, felt her heart speed up. “Of course,” she said. The Woman would not meet her eyes.
“I…” She shook her head, looked away. “I haven’t been entirely honest.”
As she spoke, the Toymaker felt her heart slow to a dull, leaden thud. She was married—and happily. She and her husband had been curious about a third party. She hadn’t meant for it to go this far, hadn’t expected it.
The Toymaker felt the Woman’s fingers grasp tighter around her wrist. She tried to pull away, but couldn’t seem to find the strength.
The Woman still cared, she said, cared more than she ever thought she would or even could. Her husband couldn’t wait to meet her, the Woman said with a reassuring smile.
The Toymaker smiled back, her lips stiff. Her words tumbled back to her ears through the wrong end of a phonograph, tinny and distant.
Toys were her life, but she had no desire to be the toy of another.
After the Woman had left, her eyes red and wet, the Toymaker descended the stairs to her workshop. She looked around at the funhouse menagerie, blinking to ward off the tears that never came. She realized, with shock, that she hadn’t been down here in weeks.
As she set to work, she couldn’t feel her heart beat. It was only a dull ache in her chest, as if it were gripped by iron bands.
Her fingers throbbed as they tweaked and tinkered, stinging as bolts were threaded, screws were twisted, bars slid into place. Iron scraps, knit together with a surgeon’s precision, bonded and bent into suitable shape.
She worked until her eyes would not stay open, and she climbed the stairs with only a moment’s glance at the skeleton on the table.
The next night came the gears. She packed them into the spidery ribs, fitting the teeth together, testing and turning. Her back shrieked in protest, her fingers were spongy and raw from the metalwork. She paid them no heed.
As she looked at the shell before her, there was a nervous twitch in her fingers. Never before had she built on this scale. It was an absurd task, she knew. Hers was a world of facsimiles and false faces, not of flesh and life.
Still she toiled.
There was no work to be done the next night. She was waiting for the materials she had purchased to arrive. Instead, she sat in the workshop, her fingers clasped around those of a steel
skeleton. Soon. Soon there would be more than steel.
The materials came the next day, and she went right to work. She hefted the skeleton into the mold with loving hands. Heating the silicone over the hearth, she poured it into the mold. She sat beside the fiberglass sarcophagus, sculpting and shaping and sliding glass eyes into the steel skull. The brown hair secured to the scalp, she ran a finger along the supple skin, over the pink lips, the closed eyes. When she was sure it had set, she undid the latch, lifted the mold’s lid. There the body lay, headless, waiting. Waiting for her face, for her story.
She set it in the rocking chair, its peachy flesh slick from the heat of the fire. With steady hands she slid the head onto the empty neck. There was a satisfying click as the mechanism locked.
The Toymaker looked at her, her barbed breaths catching in her throat. Her eyes slid over the naked form that she had made, over the exquisite valleys of her breasts, the immaculate curves of her cheeks and thighs. The work was incredible. Were it not for the way the fire fell across the false flesh, slippery and shiny, she would have passed for a real woman.
She stood before her creation, fingering the silver key. The whole thing was foolish. She should throw the key into the flames, and let the whole affair be done. She would lock up the basement, would board up the door, would dress each morning in her grey blazer, grey tights, grey skirt. She would go to work and push papers and look out the window, not at matchbox cars or lead soldiers, but at buses and people.
Instead she lifted the hair, sliding the key into the hole at the base of the neck. Crank, crank, crank, with each turn, until the key would turn no more. Pulling it from the hole, she listened to the whir of gears as her creation came to shuddering life.
Stepping back, the Toymaker looked at the Doll. The Doll looked back, lids fluttering open to reveal eyes the color of blue marbles.
“Hello,” said the Toymaker.
“Hello,” said the Doll in a music box voice. Her head clicked curiously to the side, observing the experimental click of her fingers. She moved like an old film reel, like a series of rapid images instead of a fluid motion.
The Toymaker searched her aching heart for words and found none. Instead she took the woman’s hand. She led her up the stairs, through the house, into the bedroom. The Toymaker could hear the ticking of her gears, the symphony of clinks and clicks with each motion. She led her to the bed, where they lay.
“I love you,” whispered the Doll.
“Why do you love me?” asked the Toymaker. Exhausted from her work, she was already half-
asleep, and so did not hear the reply.
“Because I was made to love you,” said the Doll, holding her creator in her arms.
So it went.
The Toymaker woke each morning in the arms of her lover, worked, and then came home to the same arms each evening. The Doll sat across from her while the Toymaker ate, laughing her music box laugh, smiling her sculpted smile as they talked. They would sit before the fire, not speaking, simply holding hands.
Each morning, she would stand before the window and look out with glass eyes while the Toymaker placed the key in her neck and wound her heart. And each night, the Toymaker heard the words for which she had yearned for so long: “I love you.”
They were only the ringing of empty bells.
One night as the sat by the fire, the Toymaker looked at her, at her creation, and she knew that it was a lie. The thing before her was only metal and calcified dreams.
As the Toymaker stood, she heard the mechanical click of her clockwork neck as she watched the Toymaker cross the room. She hoped that she would speak, would make some inquiry of intent, but knew she would not.
Through the kitchen, down the stairs. She looked around the workshop. Once it had been a place of wonder, her kingdom. Now, it had been colonized by dust.
Going to the worktable, she looked at the scattered pieces, the gears and gizmos.
Her fingers, stiff from disuse, soon found their rhythm. Fitting pieces together, sliding bronze teeth into place, tinkering and testing so that each tiny mechanism would work just right.
When it was finished, she set it on the counter.
She found her whittler’s knife, the one passed down to her from her grandmother, and lifted her shirt over her breast. Eyes shut, she plunged the short blade into her flesh. Steaming, streaming tears wormed their way out, singing her cheeks. Her heart, realizing her intent, beat faster and faster, as if it hoped to avoid its fate by wriggling deeper and deeper until it was out of reach. With each severed vein, with each burst artery, it fluttered and fluttered, until her fingers pushed through burning flesh. They wrapped around the heart, and with a wrench it came free.
Her vision cleared, and she looked at the thing in her hand. It was the color of raspberry jam, a limp sculpture of bloody regret. She ran a finger along the crack that had been left by her Prince. Across the right ventricle, she could still see the place where her first kiss had torn it open, all those years ago. It was speckled with such scars and scabs, left by faces that had long since faded. She set it on the table, blood seeping out and lapping at the scattered parts.
She looked at the mechanical heart she had built, felt it. It was heavier than her own, but lighter all the same. She slid it into place, and found that it fit perfectly.
Her fingers, tinted with blood, went through the familiar ritual of threading a needle. There was none of the old joy, none of the passion or love that came with the craft. Her stitch was surgical and perfect, and as she stood she didn’t spare the heart on the table a second glance.
She felt it, whirring and clicking, the little mechanisms tick-tocking away behind her new scar. She climbed the stairs through the hollow house, into the parlor where her lover still sat by the fire. Not speaking, the Toymaker took the hand of the Doll, leading her up and into the bedroom she had once shared with a Prince.
Under the covers, unable to feel anything, hearing only the synchronized clicking of machinery, the two clockwork women held each other, through the night and into the dark.