My mother’s brothel was called “Mrs. D‑‑‑‑‑‑’s Orchard,” and was said to have the ripest fruits around. It was all marketing, inspiring images of a lush and fleshy harvest, but really the house was stocked with gleaming clockwork Dollies. It had been my job, for as long as I can remember, to rouse them every morning, winding them up with the great gold key that Mother kept at the bottom of a barrel of salt water. I wound them everyday, just enough to get a full shift of work from them before they ran down. She named them clever things like Apple and Cherry and Nectarine, Almond and Hazelnut and Cashew, Papaya and Quince and Persimmon, after all the wonderful things that grew in orchards. And every morning it was like Spring coming as I moved among them and brought them to life.
We catered to all sorts at the Orchard, from businessmen to airship pilots. Dollies are splendid things, they come in just about every shape and size from tall and statuesque to wispy and waifish. Some have quicksilver skin of hard, cold, chrome and they hiss with pneumatic sighs. The ones made of bronze seem to glow as they catch the light and reflect it with a golden cast; they have some of the tiniest, most intricate gears what whirr and clickclickclick and sometimes chime softly. Deluxe Dollies look like any human, with plump padded skin and real hair and makeup that never smears and hand-set eyes faceted like jewels that weep real tears.
Dollies had been such a boon to male and female relations. The men loved them, for they came in all shapes and sizes and types. They were always clean and so easy to care for. They were not prone to diseases and they were always eager to please. It left women with precious idle time away from the voracious cravings of their men.
Of course, this was very nice for all the other women of the world, but not for me. For me, Dollies were the chore of my life: winding them, bathing them in oil, mending gears and joints, and keeping good care of their pricier parts which pleasured the men. I cannot say that I hated it, nor that I was fond of it, only that it was my task every single day to care for these immortal metal beauties.
And they were, as any creature with a mind of its own tends to be, kind and cruel by turns depending on the day and governed by the mood. The most elitist of all of the Dollies were the Deluxes, who never missed a moment to remind me that while my skin was taut and supple now, it would grow sagged and gray while they held onto youth for all time. I never played that game, flaunting my soul and my beating heart. But there were days when they were particularly vicious, especially Apple and Peach, and I would be drawn to the parlour where the men would sit and smoke ornate pipes and thick cigars while discussing politics, gossip, or the cost-benefit analyses of switching from faithful gaslight to fitful electricity. I sat still and I listened, eager to always know more. And they were indulgent and allured by the blush in my cheeks and the trembling of my lashes as I opened my ears to such indecent learning.
Which is how I came to the attention of Mr. H‑‑‑‑. He was a handsome gentleman with a smooth, unlined face that was at odds with his black hair streaked with silver. His deep gray eyes tilted slightly downward at the corners giving him a look of profound sadness, even if he was otherwise merry. He was a soft-spoken man with quiet mannerisms who always waited until last to make his point. And that was what struck me most about him: his extraordinary patience.
“My darling girl,” he told me once when I remarked upon it to him, “in my line of work, one must be patient. There is never any sense in rushing.” He then smiled at me and sipped his brandy.
Later that night, I was able to ask Mother what exactly was Mr. H‑‑‑‑’s line of work. She looked quite ruffled for a moment before composing herself and asking if he had spoken to me himself.
“Yes, Mother, but only to inform me that his patience was due to the nature of his work, but he declined to mention what that was. Do you know?”
“He used to be an undertaker. And you will not engage him in conversation again.”
I was shocked by her crisp reply and the silence that followed, which allowed me no more questions. This of course only piqued my curiosity and served to assure that I would plot and scheme to find out everything I could about Mr. H‑‑‑‑. This included speaking to him once more, and it had to be without Mother’s knowledge.
It proved a difficult task. Evidently, it had gone ‘round that Mother did not approve of my interaction with Mr. H‑‑‑‑, nor did she appreciate him being in the same room with me at all. I found that I was stonewalled even by the other men, who met my inquiries with silence and would not risk my mother’s ire by speaking to me of this now-forbidden topic.
But while scholars and clerks and scientists and philosophers might have been able to resist the petulant charm of a frustrated girl, I’ve yet to meet an airship captain that could. It did not take me long to encounter a gangly blushing lad with the last hateful vestiges of adolescence on his face. His uniform was still new and sharply pressed. It did not take long to convince him into the hall closet with me. There, amid the cloaks and coats that smelled of damp wool, tobacco, and kerosene, I let him put his sweating, nervous hands on my breasts and steal a kiss. Only then would he tell me the story.
Mr. H‑‑‑‑, the boy explained, had started his career as a doctor some years ago. It would seem that he had a distinct fascination with the inner workings of the body, most specifically how the soul was attached to the body and the mechanisms that separated life from death. He soon began to attract unwanted attentions when the patients in his care tended to die more often than they recovered. When H‑‑‑‑ was removed from the medical practice, he went into the funerary field to further his knowledge of and experience with death. But when he began to go above and beyond the call of his embalming duties, often removing organs and tissues to keep for experimentation, he was relieved of this employment as well.
“And so, what does he do now?”
“Now....” The boy pressed very close to me, hooking his thumbs beneath the neckline of my blouse and pushing it down over my shoulders, sending mother-of-pearl buttons clattering to the floor somewhere below us in the dark. “Now, he is a rogue scientific philosopher, claiming to have cracked the code that binds soul to body, and therefore body to life.” He inhaled the scent of my hair and began to hitch up my skirts.
For a moment I was lost and drifting on the elation of that thought. Mr. H‑‑‑‑ had found the key to life itself? To the very soul?
“How?” I whispered, coming to my senses and my situation with a sharp pang of adrenaline.
“Gently, I promise,” he moaned hungrily, intending no such thing. My fragile, tender human life was so much more appealing than any Dolly, Deluxe or otherwise, and I could see his desire building.
“How did Mr. H‑‑‑‑ come by his knowledge?” He was balanced on a knife’s edge of lust, and I knew I had but little time to press him before he caved into carnality.
“Oh, that’s gonna cost a little more, lass.” He audibly licked his lips.
I smiled, “No, thank you, I have no more to pay.”
“Yes, you do.” He yanked me close, his fingers pushing further up under my skirts, searching for my hidden treasures.
“I appreciate your information, my dear pilot, but you shall go no further.” I pushed his hands away.
“Too late for that, I’m afraid.” He threw me against the wall and hoisted my skirts up to my waist. I was insulted and incensed, and I did the only thing a young woman in my situation could do.
“Ungrateful,” he shouted.
“Savage,” I shrieked.
The door opened abruptly, sending us tumbling out into the front hall. I fell into Mother’s arms in a swoon. “The pilot!” I stabbed my finger towards the boy who knelt gasping on the hardwood floor. “He pressed his advantage, he overpowered me!” I even produced a flood of tears and a quavering voice.
Mother’s brilliant green eyes blazed with malice. “Get out! Get out of my house before I beat you bloody with my own two hands.”
The young pilot scrambled out the front door, falling over his own feet as he stumbled out into the fading light. Mother lowered me onto the divan and called for the House Dolls. They came with fans and hot tea and shawls and pillows. They fussed and fretted, their silver finger gears clacking. The men settled down again and began to murmur amongst themselves as the agitation passed.
I saw that Mr. H‑‑‑‑ had come into the parlour and I could not meet his gaze. I closed my torn blouse around my throat and pretended not to notice that he was watching me out of the corners of his wistful eyes. He seemed so uninterested in what was happening around him as he contemplated the crackling fire, but I could feel his awareness of me as keenly as the cold cloth the House Doll pressed to my forehead. For only a moment, as he glanced around the room, our gazes met and I spied that knowledge there, ill-gotten and secret. I wanted it. Like no other desire I had ever felt, I wanted what he knew.
His eyes moved on, lighting on various faces, knickknacks, paintings, before he went back to looking at the fire. But he did not even lift his head when the House Dolls grabbed me by the arms and hauled me up the stairs.
I was not surprised, however, when I found Mr. H‑‑‑‑ at my door when the house had grown quiet for the night.
“You are a dangerous little girl,” he told me.
I squared my shoulders. “I am no such thing.”
He chuckled, with his smile looking out of place on his sorrowful countenance. “I suppose you are neither.”
“Will you come inside?”
“Unchaperoned? You are bold.”
“Bold, perhaps. Curious, certainly.” I stepped back with a welcoming sweep of my arm. “Now, please, come in, before Mother sees you.”
“I assure you, she might come upon us right now and not see me. But I agree, we must be discreet.” He came into the room and closed the door to the hall behind him.
I was able to inspect his face unabashed, and he stood patient and still and allowed my scrutiny. He was a handsome man in his strangeness with his gray eyes fringed with lashes. Yes, his face was youthful, but I could see the soft shadows of wrinkles at the corners of his eyes and his mouth. A faint stubble of beard dressed his cheeks, just as dark as the hair on his head and charmingly touched with silver at his chin.
He seated himself, uninvited, on one of my boudoir chairs. His chiaroscuro features looked so stark against the rosy damask. “Ask me what you will and I shall answer truthfully.”
I could not believe my luck! I dropped down into the other chair, forgetting myself entirely and leaving my skirts tumbled and my robe spilling off of my shoulders. I could not care, my heart was racing so fast! “So, is it true? You were once a doctor? And then an embalmer?”
“And now…now, they say you are a science philosopher. And that you are quite mad.” The last flew from my lips before I had realized it. I clapped my hands over my mouth.
But Mr. H‑‑‑‑ only laughed and shook his head. “No, not mad. The mad are rarely this successful.”
“Successful? Do you mean to say the stories are true? You have unlocked the mysteries of life and death?”
“And that I hold the key to the soul itself?” He sharpened his vision, his eyes seizing upon my own, and he read them, poring over my features as if he could see straight through my flesh and bone and divine the truth that was written within me. I refused to shirk from his intensity as I waited on pins and needles for his confirmation or denial.
He sat back and steepled his long-fingered hands beneath his chin and nodded. “I have.” He caressed his words like a lover. “Would you like to see?”
I sputtered, unelegantly, “Yes!”
He leaned forward, touching his cool fingertips to the backs of my hands. “Is there a way out of this house? A secret way?”
“Yes, follow me.” I rose quickly and dashed to the little fireplace in my room. One of the carved panels alongside the mantle swung open on well-oiled hinges, revealing a small passageway. I hitched up my skirts and stepped into the dim corridor. Mr. H‑‑‑‑ followed me with a light step and was so clever as to remember to shut the secret door behind us.
Down in the alley, a dark gray motor-car idled in the gloaming twilight. The driver was a pale-fleshed lad who did not so much as blink when Mr. H‑‑‑‑ opened the door for me. He placed two coins onto the front passenger seat and gracefully sat beside me.
Still silent, the driver fired up the engine, sending a shudder through the vehicle and a billow of steam into the steely sky. The motor-car lurched forward and we were speeding along faster than I had ever moved before. I held the velvet-covered handle as we swept through wide boulevards and narrow side streets alike until we were clear of the city and into a fine residential neighborhood of houses that stood alone on wide, manicured lawns. The houses came fewer and farther between, often with imposing stands of woods between them.
Finally, the fine houses were completely replaced by cottages that sprouted up out of rolling farms and fields and orchards, real and actual orchards with stately rows of trees spangled with ripe fruit. I tasted regret at the back of my throat, bitter as bile. My mother would love this place. Had she ever seen it? She had missed me by now, I was sure. Missed me and Mr. H‑‑‑‑, as well. She was sure to have guessed….
“We are nearly there.” Mr. H‑‑‑‑ touched my wrist gingerly with his fingertips and it sent shivers all through me. I looked out the window and saw that the rolling fields had become low hills lying in shadowed humps in the impending night. There were no houses at all now, only trees and rocks and a vast track of lonely road. I was just beginning to nod off when he touched my wrist again. “Here we are.”
I looked up, sleepily, at the house. It was simple and spare, backed up to the side of a craggy hill. I yawned and stretched my stiff legs. And in the single most surprising gesture of the whole surprising day, Mr. H‑‑‑‑ came around to my side of the motor-car, opened the door, then reached in and wrapped his arms around me. He hefted me into his arms and carried me into the house.
It was a well-appointed front hall with tapestries along the walls and the floor tiled in marble. There were antiques and other curiosities in glass-fronted curio cabinets. He carried me past all of that, straight through the house to a set of stairs cut into the very bedrock itself that lead into a subterranean chamber. Down into the chilled darkness, Mr. H‑‑‑‑ still holding me, his fingers dug into the flesh of my thighs. I dared not move nor speak, only let him take me into the shadows under the ground.
He set me down on the damp stone floor when we came to an enormous oak door bound with iron. I heard the throaty bark of very large dogs reverberating from behind it. I must have shrank away, for Mr. H‑‑‑‑ patted the back of my neck and assured me that the dog was harmless.
“Dog? As in singular? It sounds like there must be three of them in there.”
“No, just the one.” He turned the key into the lock and pushed the door open, uttering a quick command to the beast that lurked on the other side. Indeed it was a dog: a bull mastiff the size of a pony. “He will not hurt you. At least, I don’t think so.”
I swallowed and his eyes crimped at the edges in a broad smile. I reached my hand out and the great dog leaned forward, his huge, watery eyes on my face. Tentatively he snuffled my hand then licked my outstretched fingers. Satisfied, he stepped aside and flopped down onto a tattered blanket just inside the door. He dragged an enormous bone, a joint of some kind, out of the blanket’s folds and began to gnaw at it with disturbing voracity.
“Well then, it seems that you are admitted entry to my sanctuary.” Mr. H‑‑‑‑ extended his arm as if he was a bridegroom waiting to lead me down the aisle. I smiled and placed my hand on his elbow and he threw the heavy switch on the wall. There were a series of flickers before the electric lights flared to life bathing the room in stark, raw illumination.
Before me I saw a series of tables, some laden with instruments of copper, glass, and steel, others piled with collection boxes and clear jars full of bits of flesh and tissue floating in some fluid. Beside me, Mr. H‑‑‑‑- tensed and deliberately looked at the floor, the ceiling, a spot on the wall. I let go of his arm and moved towards the table with the jars. There was one full of eyes, round lidless balls of white gazing out in every direction at once. Another contained a strangely shaped thing, rather like a large clenched fist made of thick reddish purple muscle. It was labeled, “HEART.” The largest jar held a slick and gray thing, rumpled and wrinkled and shaped somewhat like a loaf of bread. Its carefully written card said, “BRAIN.”
I could feel him watching me, there was intensity and anguish in his gaze, but also patience, always patience.
“In which of these, Mr. H‑‑‑‑, did you find the soul? Was it in the eyes as poets say? Or perhaps the heart? Or is it truly in the mind?”
Relief washed over his features and his down-turned eyes shone. He went to a basket piled high with fruit and took from it a round thing with shiny flesh the color of old blood. “Do you know what this is?”
I shrugged. It was a fruit of some sort, but like none I had ever seen.
“Let me show you.” A small silver pocketknife seemed to appear in his hands and he effortlessly sliced into the fruit’s thick skin. And before my amazed eyes, it began to bleed. And more astonishing still, as he split it open, dozens of ruby jewels spilled out onto the table in a small puddle of red juices. Inside pale yellow membranes, hundreds more of these little faceted pieces still rested.
“There is no fruit inside? Only all these little…seeds?”
“This is a pomegranate. Each one is the fruit. They each make up a little bit of the whole. There is not one flesh inside, but a hundred tiny ones, each sweet and tart and powerful as if they were the size of an apple or a pear.” He popped a few into his mouth and offered some to me. I hesitated.
“So, this is like the soul, then?” The thoughts were cloudy, inconstant, but I struggled to bring them together. “Within the body, scores of tiny pieces? Not all of it in one place?”
Mr. H‑‑‑‑- smiled wider. “Yes.”
“How did you find this out?”
“It was a long road, strewn with pitfalls. I had once thought to be lauded as a hero of the medical sciences, but now, now I am content to remain in my own private underworld. The world is not ready yet for what I know. The manipulation of life, of death, of the very soul within the body. You saw my driver? He was one of the first. I care nothing for Dollies and Mannequins with hard golden skin and chittering gears. What I build, I create from flesh and bone.” He waited, sounding me out. His face was still serene, but his hands were trembling.
The room felt chilled around me as the weight of his words settled upon me. He built them. “How?”
Like a magician executing his great reveal, he threw back a curtain that hung at the far end of the tables. There on a gleaming steel table was a man; a sheet covered his body and a frightening machine whirred and clacked in time to his chest moving up and down.
“Sometimes when the injuries are severe, the body begins to fail, but the soul remains. Sometimes I can catch it before it flees. Sometimes I cannot, but the organs are left for my study and ultimately, my use.”
“Catch it? The soul?”
I boggled at the thought. “How? Where do you keep them?”
He only but shifted his gaze and I followed where he looked. Against the farthest wall was a series of copper boxes with a small glass panel set into the side of each one. And inside, something gleamed, like a flame in a gaslight, it danced. Souls. Dozens upon dozens. My mouth went painfully dry and there was nothing I could think of to say. Nothing.
He set his hands on my shoulders. “I am the steward of them. Orphans and invalids and whores, all the forgotten lives. They are remembered in death.”
His breath was warm on my neck, yet it raised gooseflesh down both arms. I could feel his heartbeat shuddering though his palms and wrists, and my own lurched in response urging itself into a sympathetic rhythm. And then the soul lights in the copper boxes on the shelves began to thrum in unison along with us. The blood in my veins pounded, the soul in me pounded, and the souls all around me responded in kind. I had not noticed the tears until Mr. H‑‑‑‑ gently pressed his handkerchief to the corners of my eyes.
“Would you like this knowledge? Think carefully, my sweet, for it means you can never go back to the life you once led.”
“But who, then, would mind the Orchard?”
“It has been your mother’s matter all along; she must learn to stand on her own and believe that Spring will come, whether you are there or not.”
“I cannot abandon her.”
“She will be angry.”
I nodded. The knowledge was there in front of me, resonating with my own heartbeat. I wanted it.
“Then say it, let me hear you say it.”
“Show me,” I whispered. “Teach me.”
He took a pair of goggles, bound in the same gleaming copper as the soul boxes, and placed them on my head like a crown. “Come, then.”
I slid the goggles down over my eyes when he did and watched as he put on a pair of rubberized gloves. We stood together beside the man on the steel table; the whir and beep of machinery were the only sounds in the room. Mr. H‑‑‑‑ had wheeled over a tray of instruments: scalpels, shears, and a many more sinister looking articles. Beside them was a simple copper box with a small glass pane in one side hooked up to a series of wires and electrodes that was just waiting to be touched to the living essence of this man.
“There is one last thing,” he told me. He handed me the pomegranate.
I stroked the leathery flesh of the fruit, ran my fingertips across the moist, dimpled membrane inside. Six seeds tumbled out into my hand. I glanced over at the man on the table and I smiled at Mr. H‑‑‑‑. The little rubies lay in my palm, drenched in their own pomegranate blood, tiny tidbits of the soul just waiting for me. They burst between my teeth, spilling their juices across my tongue; sweet, tart, and forbidden.
Mr. H‑‑‑‑ watched me, studying my face in his patient, serene way that I had already come to love. “Is it all that you had hoped?”
I could not answer him. Instead I broke the fruit wide apart. Nestled against one another, the seeds gleamed with their own light, calling to me.
I ate them. Every last one. And I never looked back.