Victoria knew: when your fingernails fall off, it’s time to go.
When you stand in the city among a bazaar of blood oranges and curry, stout churches and stalwart pubs, but all you see is a field of Queen Anne’s lace hemmed in by brick walls bearing images of saggy humanoid faces — a vision of what the city once was or perhaps will be someday — it’s time to go.
When your right hand has gone so dead it might as well be a purse dangling from your wrist, it’s time to go.
It’s time to go. It’s time to go.
The line at the train station was short, probably because it was so early that the tenements along Boxton Road all looked freshly washed and coral-pink in the rising sun. The electric streetlights had gone out barely half an hour ago. Later in the day, Victoria knew, the line would stretch around the block.
“Destination?” asked the ticket-seller brusquely.
“Beril,” said Victoria. She looked away from a pigeon picking through offal. “One way.”
The ticket-seller didn’t react. He must have sold such tickets all the time. He printed the ticket, and Victoria fumbled left-handed through her signature on the receipt and went to wait at Platform 3.
No one knew what happened when you reached the Beril Bathhouse, but Victoria knew she would never see the city again. That was one of the only known rules of the Beril Bathhouse: after you accepted the treatment they offered there, you could never go back home.
In the sixty years of Victoria’s life, she had met several disintegrating machines who had been to the bathhouse and decided not to accept the treatment, but they never offered any details, either because they didn’t want to or because they had been bound by some code of silence.
That didn’t stop other machines — and humans like Simon, although never Creator-Mum — from speculating. Victoria heard debates swirl at the cinema and in the subway over what you became when you accepted the treatment. Some said they purified your body of all its toxins and memories and you grew lean and hungry and somehow more dangerous, like a man becoming a vampire in the pulps. Some said you became a narwhal. A cosmonaut. A human.
Some said you became nothing. You went into the void. You ceased to exist, just like that.
She hadn’t told Creator-Mum that she was leaving. How could she? Victoria imagined Creator-Mum hunched at the kitchen table, sipping black coffee even though her doctor had told her to give that up 20 years ago. She imagined sitting down across from Creator-Mum and trying to say goodbye to her.
As Victoria boarded the train, she tried not to think of the white envelope that Creator-Mum had brought home from the surgery, the test results bearing Creator-Mum’s name. As the train rolled away from the platform, picked up speed through the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Rings, Victoria tried not to think of Creator-Mum waking up in the flat, shuffling downstairs in her slippers, pushing open the door with her hands, which were old-woman hands, the skin impossibly thin like tissue paper, and finding Victoria gone.
As the train steamed north through the countryside, the memory of a twenty-year-old conversation with Creator-Mum rose in Victoria’s brain. This had been in the best years of Victoria’s life, between the wars — just before she met Simon. She and Creator-Mum had been walking in the Third Ring. They usually didn’t venture into that part of the city, which even then was becoming seedy with piles of rotten fruit from the markets and the first whisperings of the drug trade. But Victoria had just received her first mural commission, and she wanted to investigate the wall, start planning the first piece of art she’d share with the city she loved.
When Victoria and Creator-Mum passed the train station, they saw that a line curved from the ticket window and hugged the building all the way down the block. Victoria saw machines like her, some wearing her bustle-costume, some newer, with more sinuously lined silver faces and streamlined clothes: the last generation of machines made, before the first war. Even some of those newer machines’ eyes had gone dark, or their feet had become dead weights dragged behind them.
Creator-Mum had made a rough noise in her throat — halfway between cough and grunt — and turned pointedly away. “How much further is this wall, Vee?”
But something had bubbled up inside Victoria, overrode the stoic unsentimental nature that she had adopted from Creator-Mum, and she had said, “How do they leave home and know they’ll never come back?”
Creator-Mum had kept walking. “You do what you need to do. I always have, and so have you. Now, if we’re not there soon we’re going to have to find a coffee shop in this godforsaken wasteland…”
And Victoria had pushed away those thoughts, because Creator-Mum was right, and Victoria knew when her time came, she wouldn’t hesitate. She would do what needed to be done.
It had sounded so easy, in those shiny halcyon days.
The Beril Bathhouse, that resting place at the end of the world, had been built far to the north when the first machines started to break down, fifty years ago. The bathhouse was sunset-colored, and built with white rococo trimmings and flourishes, topped with three tin onion domes that would have thrown back the sun, Victoria imagined, if it hadn’t been raining. It teetered on the edge of an island, all ragged shoreline and looping gulls. The pines topping the cliffs smelled like the north, and Victoria, standing on the deck of the catamaran that had taken her from the city of Beril, rubbed her left hand over her arms.
The boat nudged against the shore, and Victoria disembarked with a crowd of other machines, some in wheelchairs, some missing arms or with legs in slings. Victoria limped up the gravel path to the front door and stood in line.
When Victoria crossed the threshold, she had an impression of pale marble and swooping arches, and then someone seized her arm.
“Come with me,” said the someone, with a womanly voice. Victoria got a vague impression of a cowl, of thick dark eyebrows and sallow skin and a mouth flat and hard as old cheese.
“Come,” said the attendant again.
Victoria followed her down the marble hallway, past doors where steam curled under thresholds and little tables covered in pickled herring and beans and pale soup.
“What’s your name?” asked Victoria.
“How does this work?” said Victoria. “Do I…do I do it today?” Victoria realized she had no idea what it was, or even if it had already been done. She glanced down at herself, wondering wildly if she was no longer Victoria, if
she had slipped away the minute she crossed the doorjamb.
“You can,” said the attendant. “You can do it right now.”
She stopped in front of a set of azure doors, inlaid with gold, at the end of the hallway, and eased them open. Victoria stepped inside.
Before her, just a few feet away, stretched ice. Ice the color of the collar on Creator-Mum’s Sunday dress, receding so far that Victoria couldn’t see the edge. Steps away, dark water lapped at a hole cut in the ice.
Katya tugged off Victoria’s bustle, her stiff velvet gown, and undergarments until Victoria stood naked and shivering at the edge of the ice. Katya produced a cart covered with dainty perfume bottles, lotions, ointments in tubs and vials, and she began to lather them onto Victoria, slicking her arms, spritzing the inside of her wrists, rubbing something that smelled like rotted vegetables on her neck and something that smelled of sand on her feet. As Katya worked, Victoria stared at the hole in the ice.
Victoria hadn’t been afraid when she’d run through the burning streets the night of the bombing; when Creator-Mum had had her first health scare ten years ago; when she had gone to the palace to receive her commendation from the king. She hadn’t expected to be afraid here. But she felt the cold emanating from the ice, and the back of her left hand crawled, and she wanted to run through the bathhouse and catch the boat back home.
“Well?” said Katya, screwing the cap on a last bottle. “You may now go.”
“I…I think I’m going to wait a bit, if you don’t mind,” said Victoria. The ice was solemn as the lines on an undertaker’s face. Staring at it, Victoria felt weightless, and knew deep inside herself that she didn’t matter any more than one flake of snow falling in a blizzard on a dark-pine forest. She looked away.
Katya didn’t hesitate. “Then I’ll show you to your room. Now that you’ve had the anointment, you may pass through the ice at any time.”
“And I’ll…whatever happens to me, will happen then?”
Katya nodded, and she said, “The bathhouse closes on the day of the first snowfall. On that day, the last boat before winter leaves. We go into hibernation. If you haven’t gone into the ice or left the island by then, you must immediately choose one or the other.”
“How long until the first snowfall?”
Katya didn’t answer. She gathered up her lotions and led Victoria out of the room of ice.
There were other choices, of course, besides the Beril Bathhouse. Machines didn’t die like humans. Machines’ corporeal bodies broke down piece by piece, until eventually only the spirit remained, a blue electric flicker. The flickering machine-spirits haunted places like low-lying fens or rose-gardens. Or couch cushions. It was incredible how many stories you heard of those electric flickers haunting couch cushions.
As Victoria followed Katya up a wide marble staircase, she imagined her spirit lurking in Creator-Mum’s coffee-stained paisley sofa for all eternity. It sounded so much easier than the ice.
But there was no rush, thought Victoria. She had until the first snowfall to decide. As Katya led her down a hallway, Victoria glanced out a window and saw a nest of dead brown leaves clustered in the window-box. As she watched, a wind swooped through and blew them all away.
That first night, she sat in her sparse room at the Bathhouse and remembered the day she’d met Simon. It had been the same day she’d begun her mural, a spring day when daffodils bloomed in the parks. Inside a police cordon, surrounded by a beehive of helpers, she had stood before the sketch she’d spent the last weeks on and mixed soupy gallons of oil paint in vermillion and rouge.
Then a man had stepped over the police barrier. He had shaken her hand, and introduced himself as Simon Talbot, a fellow artist, although he painted on canvas instead of walls. As he had introduced himself, a strain of minor-key violas had drifted out of one of the apartment buildings down the block.
“The Moth-Flight,” Simon had said, gesturing towards the sound of the gramophone. “I love that opera.”
Victoria had snorted. “That Continental nonsense?”
“It’s beautiful. No, listen — ” Simon had repositioned himself in Victoria’s line of vision as she had turned away from him. “Moths. You don’t think a moth’s anything special, right? But when you have ten thousand moths, rising into the night beneath the Aurora — in the end, you realize the moths mean something after all.”
Victoria had raised her eyebrows.
“It’s playing at the Royal Theatre through the weekend.” Simon had paused for a beat. “I’ll take you. You’ll see, then, about the moths.”
Victoria had half-smiled, and she had acquiesced, and laid a paintbrush against her mural, as the weak spring sunlight shifted between clouds.
“How did it happen for you?” asked Livia.
Victoria was pushing Livia, her new roommate, around the gravel paths that looped near the bathhouse. Behind them, bare maples and oaks punctured the sky.
Victoria held up her right arm, hand dangling uselessly from the end.
Livia raised her eyebrows. “I suppose they didn’t do a very good job making us.”
Victoria thought of Simon, how she hadn’t been able to recognize his body after they returned it to his parents.
“They didn’t do a very good job with humans either,” she said.
Livia laughed nervously. She was small, and moved her hands while she talked, and looked like a mouse in the best possible way. Unlike Victoria, Livia had been made in a factory, slapped together by machines, placed on the slab and breathed into life as one of thousands that day, then sent off to work in a similar factory. Livia’s story had made Victoria even more homesick for Creator-Mum, who had sent away for Victoria after Creator-Mum’s husband died. Creator-Mum had assembled the kit, fit together the brass bones in Victoria’s arms, snapped with an electric spark the shards of pale green glass that made up Victoria’s eyes, carefully screwed rivets and brass shells into place to create Victoria’s ersatz face, helped her into the stiff velvet dress and bustle that came in the kit and then, Creator-Mum had lovingly breathed life into her.
“I miss it,” Livia was saying, and Victoria blinked and came back to the island, away from the story of her creation that Creator-Mum had told her a thousand times.
“You miss the factory?” said Victoria.
“That closed down years ago. I miss the village I settled in, after. When I first saw the village, I thought every building was a castle. It was that kind of place, all made of limestone. And the children who lived next door, Emmett and Jo. I used to play games with them, before—”
“Livia,” said Victoria, as her roommate bowed her head. “There’s no use getting upset. No use thinking about it at all. They’re gone. Or, I should say, we’re gone.”
Livia’s eyes loomed big and liquid in the wind whipping off the water. “Promise me something?”
“When the time comes — when it…when it’s time to go in the ice, will you go with me?”
Victoria nodded. “Of course.”
After the first day, Katya and the other attendants mostly left Victoria, Livia, and the other guests at the bathhouse to their own devices. Victoria pushed Livia around the island in her wheelchair, and congregated around the small tables in the hallway, laughing with new friends — Robert, Daphne, Wilhelmina. Victoria read to a group of machines in the evenings — many of them were illiterate — and went to sleep in her sparse room behind wavy glass windows that looked out over the harbor.
Then one morning, when she felt cold air seeping through the windowpanes, Victoria swung her legs out of bed, and stood, balanced for one perfect last second on her two feet. Then she crashed to her knees.
Her left leg was dead.
She lay on her side, staring at the shadows on the pine floor underneath the box-spring of her bed.
All right, then, thought Victoria. That’s that. This was the way it would be now. She would have to get a crutch from Katya. She would have to tell Livia. She would have to be pragmatic.
But her left hand scrabbled over the smooth brass of her calf, and the curve of her thigh, and the sharp joint — the screws, the gears, the ersatz ligaments — of her knee, and she remembered all the sensations she had felt on that leg over her 60 years: the goop of oil paint dripping onto her bare calf; the sting of Creator-Mum playfully tapping her thigh; the weight of Simon’s hand on her knee as the violas of “The Moth-Flight” swelled from the orchestra pit.
It’s over now, thought Victoria. She pressed her left hand against the brass ribs beneath her nightgown, and imagined the blue flame inside her chest cavity, connecting to the fibers and wires that ran inside her, some of them alive with blue lights, some of them as dark as the city during the Second War.
The door jolted against Victoria’s dead leg. Victoria craned her neck and saw the curve of a chair-tire.
“Oh no, I’m so sorry, did I hurt you?”
“I didn’t feel it,” said Victoria. “It’s dead.”
“Oh.” Victoria heard a snuffle, and she imagined Livia fighting back tears. “Oh my goodness. What do you need? What should I do?”
“Crutches should do it,” said Victoria.
Later that day, Victoria clunked and Livia wheeled through the gilded doors to the ice room. The ice looked steelier, like the chrome on some of the newer cars back in the far-off city.
“What do you hope is beyond the ice?” asked Victoria, knowing as she said it that the question was pointless.
Livia sighed. “Well, I imagine I’m a great warrior, and I have long golden hair, and servants to bring me pomegranates in silver bowls. I wield a sword — no, a rifle — while I lead my brigade of elephants into battle, through a field of poppies. But when I come home, it’s children, all my children, and I read to them and I know I’ve kept them safe, by fighting.”
“For me,” said Victoria, “it’s me, Creator-Mum and Simon, and I paint murals. My mind, legs, and hands all work, and they will work, forever.”
“Is that what you think is beyond the ice?” said Livia hopefully.
“No,” said Victoria. “I think it’s nothing.”
That night, she dreamed of the morning she’d lost her hand.
She had been losing fingernails for months, dropping them with a metallic cling in the sink-drain. When she woke up that morning, she sat up, reached for her bathrobe — and her right hand wouldn’t move. It was frozen at the end of her wrist, folded up neatly where she had tucked it under her head before sleep. She frantically shook her arm; the hand flopped, a useless five-legged insect at the end of her appendage. She stared at the worn spots on the tips of her bronze fingers.
Maybe it could be fixed, she thought wildly, glancing around at the unfinished canvases leaning against the walls. She stumbled to her desk and tried picking up a paintbrush left-handed. It dangled awkwardly between her fingers.
Downstairs, Creator-Mum was shuffling around the kitchen on cellulite-and-varicose-marred legs, shaking a rasher of bacon in a pan. Victoria stuck the hand into Creator-Mum’s face.
“And good morning to you too, dear,” said Creator-Mum.
“It’s broken,” said Victoria.
Creator-Mum set down the pan and swiveled to look at her. “Well,” she said calmly, “we’ll go to the repair shop and see what they say.”
They couldn’t repair her. Over the coming weeks, more and more of Victoria began to die. It was a strange thing, to feel that a part of you that you’d known your whole life, say your buttocks, or your left shoulder, was no longer yours, had become something you didn’t recognize and couldn’t control, as though someone had grafted a foreign object onto your skin.
One day, in autumn, three weeks after her hand had gone dead, Victoria limped to the subway station and rode the Underground to the Third Ring, to see her mural. Victoria had painted murals all over the city, but no mural had ever been so dear to her as her first one, her Third Ring mural, which satirically yet lovingly depicted the ostrich feathers and tailcoats of the First Ring upper crust.
I met Simon there, thought Victoria, and her mind raced through the story of their courtship like a sped-up film strip, set to the warble of a melancholy viola: their flirtation, their dates, and the short summer nights they spent together, covers thrown back in the oppressive August heat. Then the night of bombings, of hiding in the basement as the city shook, and then the newspaper that arrived on her doorstep the next morning, blazoned with the headlines: Bombings in the Fourth Ring. Fifty killed in Underground collapse.
These thoughts crowded Victoria’s mind as, fifteen years later, she walked, her body failing beneath her, around the corner to the tenement-side where her mural, her first crowning glory, blazoned the wall.
A hive of workers swarmed the mural, bearing rollers and trays of paint and slapping ladders against the wall. Half the mural had already been rolled away into white oblivion. As she watched, one of the overalled men squelched a roller against the wall and obliterated an ostrich feather.
Victoria leaned against a lamppost and closed her eyes. When she opened them again, something had tweaked in her metal brain and instead of a bustling city around her, she saw Queen Anne’s lace, a wall of murals. Her dream, or the past’s dream, or the future’s.
She shook her head, and the scene of the workers destroying her mural swarmed back into view, and it was in that moment that she knew, fiercely and coldly, that she belonged here no more. That moment she decided to buy her one-way ticket. It was a simple decision. Victoria had nothing left in the city. So she would move on.
Someone was shaking her awake. Victoria blinked and Livia’s face swam into view, streaked with tears.
Victoria didn’t have to look to the window to know why Livia was crying, or why Victoria’s nose was cold.
“It’s snowing,” said Livia.
“I know,” said Victoria.
Livia’s hair hung lank on her shoulders. “I can’t,” she said. “I can’t do it. Maybe next spring. I’m going back. Are you coming?”
Victoria looked at her right hand flopped uselessly on the bedclothes.
“Are you coming?”
When Victoria didn’t answer, Livia said, “I’ll wait for you at the boat, if you’re coming. I’m sorry,” and then she was gone, her wheelchair leaving tread-marks in the carpet.
Victoria pushed herself up with her left hand and pressed her nose to the glass. Beneath the drifting flakes, she saw Livia wheeling down the gravel path to the catamaran hulking on the knife-sharp sea. Around her, attendants lifted bags, shepherded other machines who had decided to go back on this last ship home.
Victoria slid out of bed. She put on her slippers and robe. She gathered her crutches and limped downstairs.
The bathhouse was deserted and the thunk of her footstep echoed in its marble halls. The little tables that had once been covered with food were picked over, practically empty. Deep inside her, where Simon’s death lived, she felt it: I am alone, at the end of the world. And she thought she heard a viola, crashing into a minor-key crescendo, playing somewhere, far off, in the bathhouse.
She slid open the doors of the ice room. The ice glowed like the full moon over the city, or, from a certain angle, like the gaslight lampposts of her youth.
Why am I here, about to step into the abyss, at the end of the world? Better, perhaps, to haunt the couch cushions, thought Victoria.
But she thought of Creator-Mum’s desiccated legs and her test results, of the white paint slopping over the mural, of the thin viola piping through the halls of the bathhouse, or perhaps just through the halls of Victoria’s memory.
So she dropped her robe, and slid beneath the ice. It was only cold for a second.
|Emily B. Cataneo is a dark fantasy and horror writer who grew up in New England and is now based in Berlin, Germany. She is a 2013 graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop. Her work has appeared in the magazines The Dark and Betwixt, and in the anthologies Chiral Mad 2 and Steampunk World. When she’s not writing fiction, she’s a freelance journalist. Find her online at www.emilycataneo.com.|