Saturday, April 29, 2017

Clockwork Pigeons

Clockwork Pigeons
by Phoebe Matthews

 Once upon a time there was a princess who was as lovely as a rose. She lived in a fine palace complete with towers. Her father, the king, spent all his hours in his study working on his stamp collection. Her mother, the queen, passed her days in the library translating manuscripts from foreign languages. The princess amused herself by sitting in her tower window writing love poems.
 With no one to properly manage the castle, it soon became overgrown with bramble bushes until, finally, no one could enter or exit. Fortunately, the kitchen cellars were stocked with a neverending supply of food and perhaps a touch of magic.
 The king disliked interruptions and therefore was pleased by the enforced solitude. But when the brambles covered the windows and the castle became so dark they had to use candles in midday, the queen suggested mildly, “My dear, we really should do something about the brambles.”
 The king, whose knowledge of running a castle was minimal, said, “Perhaps we could try Royal Decree One.”
 “And what does it decree?”
 “You know, my love, that’s the one that says a man who saves the castle may ask the princess for her hand in marriage.”
 “Sounds reasonable,” said the queen before returning to her library.
 In the tower the princess was the only one who could see daylight. She had carefully snipped back with her manicure scissors each bramble shoot before it could block her window.
Looking up from her notebook she gazed across the brambles on the sill to the next kingdom across the valley. The neighbor’s castle was in a state of disrepair similar to her own, with the road to its drawbridge filled with potholes and the castle itself tumbling down. It was ruled by a prince who raised homing pigeons. Early each morning she saw him on the distant hill releasing the pigeons. And every evening she saw the pigeons circle the prince’s castle and settle slowly onto its crenelated roof.
 As she tried to think of a rhyme for her next line of poetry, the eraser of her pencil pressed lightly against her dimpled cheek, she heard footsteps climbing the staircase.
 “Excuse me, my dear,” her father said. “I have a proclamation to send out into the world.” He held up a small bow fitted with an arrow and around the arrow a sheet of paper was tied tightly in place by a ribbon.
 “Do you?” She glanced up at him and noticed he was wearing a small gold crown to cover the bald spot slowly spreading across the top of his head. “Is it important?”
 “Your mother thinks so.”
 “Perhaps you should send out a messenger.”
 “The servants all seem unable to go past the brambles.”
 With a nod the princess moved away from the window, allowing her father to shoot his proclamation to the world. They watched the arrow arc into the sky, almost hitting a passing pigeon, and then fall to the ground. A passing traveler picked it up, read it, glanced toward the castle, saw them in the window, and waved. And then he picked up a rock and hammered the arrow and the open proclamation to a roadside tree.
 The princess returned to her search for a word that rhymed with heliotrope and her father returned to his stamp collection. No matter how hard she scrunched her forehead, she could not think of a rhyme. Depressed by her own shortcoming, she went to the shelf where she kept her favorite treasures and lifted the mahogany lid of her rhyming box. The brass horn, shaped rather like a morning glory, automatically swung out and the cylinder in the box lay motionless as though remonstrating her.
 With a sigh, she leaned forward. Into the open mouth of the speaking horn she uttered the word slowly and clearly. “Heliotrope.”
 Clicking slowly, then faster and faster, sounding a bit like a clock gone mad, the cylinder spun round and round until it reached a speed that added hissing to the clicking. When the process took such a great amount of time and effort, the princess knew the answer before the words came clearly from the horn. “Heliotrope has no precise rhyme. Possibilities include dope, nope, pope and rope.”
 As she and the rhyming box both knew, one syllable words were an abomination and beneath consideration. 
 The princess had not bothered to ask what the proclamation proclaimed and in her current state of frustration, she did not care. She presumed it had something to do with the invading brambles and she was half right.
 From its fluttering position on the tree trunk, the paper drew considerable attention, because what it said was this. “The man who frees my castle from the brambles may ask for the princess in marriage,” which was not exactly the wording of the original Proclamation One, however, the king tended to be a bit careless with words.
 The message spread around the world. Men came from unimaginable distances. They stood in the road and looked up at the princess in the tower window, the sun shining on her golden hair, and vowed to give their lives to save her.
 The princess did not notice the crowds. She had moved on to searching for a word to rhyme with gardenia.
 “I shall find it without you,” she snapped at the rhyming machine as she slammed closed its cover.
 The prince of the next kingdom walked down to the road, stood in front of the notice and after reading it, he looked up at the tower and was surprised. “She’s grown into quite a beauty,” he said, then added, “What do I know about brambles?” and walked away.
 That very day a knight dressed in shining armor dashed up to the castle on his brave steed and attacked the brambles with his sword. A bramble scratched the steed who then bucked and tossed the knight into the brambles. He fought on bravely, slashing this way and that. Townspeople of the valley cheered him on and made side bets.
 As the princess watched from the tower, a homing pigeon settled on the sill of her open window. To her surprise, its feathers were metal. She picked it up and turned it over and over, studying it, and understood that the homing pigeons she had watched were toys.
She peered into its open beak and could see the whirling wheels of its clockworks.
 “Interesting,” she said.
 The bird made a squawk and held out its leg. Tied to its leg was a gold thimble. She admired its glow, but as she did not sew, she put the thimble on a shelf and returned to her poem. When she glanced out, she saw the prince on the crest of the distant hill. His pigeon sat motionless on her windowsill. Even though she had no use for a thimble, she knew she must thank him.
   “If I substitute daisy for gardenia, the last line can mention the sky turning hazy and I shall have finished. Not the best of rhymes but it will have to do,” she told the toy.
 She tied her finished poem to the clockwork pigeon, found the small winding key beneath its wing, wound it tight and tossed it from the window. The pigeon flapped its way homeward across the sky.
 The sun set. The valley people went back to their farms and the knight in his scratched armor climbed wearily out of the brambles. He was last seen leading his tired horse along the dusty road and over the hill and out of sight.
 The next day an army appeared led by a king who raised his sword and shouted, “Charge!”
 All of the local people hurried to the road to watch as the king’s army fought bravely against the brambles. But the more the army fought, the more the brambles entangled them.
 The princess leaned out her window to watch. A metal pigeon landed on the ledge whirring softly. When she picked it up she found a music box, no larger than a walnut, tied to its metal leg. When the princess opened the box, it played a love song in tinkling notes. The princess gazed across the brambles at the prince, a tall silhouette on the far hill, and, although she was not fond of music, she dashed off another poem, ended it with the word petal which rhymed nicely with metal in the third line and at least offered more than one syllable, tied the poem to the pigeon’s leg and sent the pigeon home.
 When the sun set, the defeated army limped away, led by their angry king, and the valley people drifted back to their cottages.
 On the third day a stranger arrived, walking on his own two feet. Through his belt were tucked several sizes of shears. He wore a wide-brimmed hat, the sturdy clothes of a working man, plus boots and thick gloves. There was a pack on his back. When the valley people approached him and asked who he was, he said, “I am a bramble slayer.”
 “You can’t defeat the brambles,” they said. “That’s been tried already by a knight in armor, a king, and the king’s army.”
 He glanced at the princess in the tower, looked closely at the brambles, took out his shears and said only, “I like a challenge.”
 Throughout the day he cut patiently away with his garden shears. By nightfall he had cut a wide gap in the hedge. He lay down beneath a tree and went to sleep. At dawn he pulled a flask and a loaf of bread from his pack, ate a quick breakfast, and returned to the job.
 “He’s a fool,” some said.
 “He never tires,” others said.
 He continued clipping. Day after day he worked at the brambles until they were completely cleared away from the castle. Next he went to town and returned with a ladder and paint bucket and brushes, and while the princess watched, he painted the castle. After that he tightened loose hinges and polished all the door handles. He washed the windows, raked the gravel paths, replanted the flower beds. And then he filled the potholes in the road.
 The princess watched from her tower. She saw the prince on the far hill sending out and calling back his clockwork pigeons. Each day he sent her a tiny gift, always something useless. And each day she sent him, tied to a metal bird, another poem. They were a bit uninspiring. The rhyming speaker was performing poorly, almost at the level of her own imagination, and giving her two syllable words and nothing better.
 The last gift was a gold ring with the words “My heart is yours,” engraved inside it. It was carried to her by a clockwork pigeon and one extra who carried a note stating, “The birds are yours, also.”
 That evening the young man knocked on the door of the castle, and when the king answered, the young man said, “I am Will, the bramble slayer, and I have come to ask you for your daughter.”
 The king peered out into the sunset. He knew the windows had been cleared because sunlight streamed into his hobby room offering the danger of fading his stamp collection. Now he took a step out the front door and saw the cleared garden and the repaired castle.
 “Hmmph. Hmmph. That’s right. Royal Decree One.”    
 From the library doorway the queen said, “Incorrect. The decree states that you may ask. It does not say you may ask the king.”
 The young man said, “Tell me who I should ask.”
 From the staircase a soft voice said, “Come up to my tower and I will show you my collection.”
 Turning, the princess preceded him up the staircase.
 From the hallway below, the queen said, “He isn’t a prince.”
 And the king said, “Does the decree require a prince?”
 When the princess reached her tower room, she led the young man to her shelf of collected gifts. “What do you think of my collection?”
 He picked up each item and examined it. For a long moment he turned the ring in his hand, and then he read the inscription aloud.
 “This ring, does it mean you have accepted someone else’s proposal?”
 “No. All of those gifts are useless and so is the ring and so is the person who sent it to me. He spends his time playing with mechanical birds who have no purpose while his castle falls apart.”
 The young stranger smiled and waited.
 The princess laughed at him. “Let me ask you a question. Do you know a rhyme for oleander?”
 He didn’t, but he made several guesses and would have gone on all night if she had not pressed her fingertips against his lips to stop him. “Never mind, I like it that you are willing to try. My rhyming speaker has stopped trying.”
 He couldn’t ask her to explain a rhyming speaker, not with her fingers pressed to his lips, and he had no desire to move away. To solve his problem he raised his eyebrows in question and then he kissed the fingers. Both actions amused her.
 And so she married the young man who liked a challenge, even though he didn’t much care for poetry, and they lived happily ever after in a well managed castle.
 The prince next door married a practical woman, a general’s daughter, who organized his servants and his life and soon put his castle in order. She did not like the mechanical pigeons. Otherwise, they got on well.
 Sometimes in the morning the prince walked to the top of the hill, sat down on a rock, pulled paper and pencil from his pocket and wrote a poem.
 And sometimes in the evening the princess wound up her two clockwork birds and sent them out to circle the sky.
 This steampunk story was first published in the Wicked Good Stories collection at
Copyright (c) Phoebe Matthews
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