Thursday, September 13, 2012

A Clockwork Vengeance

A Clockwork Vengeance

In the corner of Cornelius Drudge's room, the massive clock counts away the hours of the night, its brass gears meshing smoothly, each chuck of the escapement another miracle.

The fixer has carefully folded up the frayed sleeves of his tweed jacket and tipped back his ancient bowler. His wrinkled hands bathe one another, a fly set to dine on a battlefield corpse.

By the half-empty green glass bottle on the table before him, he has been drinking. By the blown veins in his eyes and his nose and his hoary cheeks, he has been drinking for quite some time.

Across the narrow table, overflowing the apartment's other battered wooden chair, sits  Maximilian, with his eye patch and his hangdog lower lip. In his impassivity Maximilian might have been painted by an Old Master, Still Life with Muscle and Scar.

"Do you hear that, boy? Listen well."

Maximilian does not need to listen. Even in his sleep he hears the Arena's roar.

"They're calling for you."

Drudge is lying. To the crowd, Maximilian no longer exists. This oblivion is a wonder to him, a grace he does not deserve.

Through the open window, faint through the smothering fog, comes the hollow clangor of brass against brass.

"Were Cornelius Drudge in your place, he would long ago have returned to the arena," Drudge says.

This is another lie. Who would willingly stand against the unliving?

Drudge takes another swig from the bottle and does not offer it over. Maximilian is unoffended. The stuff in the bottle is the worst that money can buy.

The one-room apartment is warm, the coal stove battling back the chill that gusts through the window and creeps through the walls. The clock ticks.

"But Cornelius Drudge is not in your place," Drudge says. "He sits before you an old man. An impecunerous wretch who despite his own penniless circumstances took you in from the cold streets for the sheer charity of the kindness."

This lie is as familiar as the others.

"Alone and far from home, Corneilius Drudge finds himself at last. His loving wife, the sons he last saw as babes all those years ago, all lost to the miles."

Maximilian has never had a family. He sometimes wonders what it would be like. A wife to be slaughtered, a child to be wrenched away.

"And the fault, my friend? The fault? Why, here is why the charity is so unexpected. The fault of his current impoverishment falls not upon the shoulders of Cornelius Drudge. No, boy. It falls on you."

This is a half-truth at best. But a half-truth more interesting than the lies.

"Your last bout," Drudge says, tipping the bottle again. "One mechanical man, half your size. The first fight ever between man and mechanical, and I was the one to arrange it. There you were, master of the morgenstern, scourge of the arena. A single swipe of your arm and no mechanical ever built would have risen again. Yet instead of fighting, you spoke. As if a single soul in that arena had the slightest interest in your words."

But they had let him live. They still let him live. His words had done that much.

"I admit it. The taunting played a part in my downfall." The fixer's rheumy eyes fix on Maximilian for the first time since he'd woken that afternoon. "The nobles named me nouveau riche as if I was too simple to understand the contempt in the words. But I had a villa in Dover, a vineyard in the south of France. Olive groves in Italy. I was rich, and they were land-poor counterfeits with titles and ugly wives and Godless mechanicals for servants. Still, their mockery offended my honor. And what is a man without his honor?"

In the corner, the clock chucks the seconds away, each tick another breath.

"When you refused to fight, when you abandoned your honor, you cost me everything, boy." The old man slams the bottle down. "Listen to me."

Maximilian listens. He listens every night.

"I raised you myself. I took you in. I gave you to my man, the soldier who taught you to fight."

Maximilian remembers every curse, every lash, every time he'd bent over his knees with the vomit burning his lips and his nose. He remembers more than that. He remembers the heat of the sun. He remembers his mother dying in the village dust with a sword through her throat, a plea in her mouth for the babe on her breast. The sister Maximilian never had. He remembers the fixer's face. Younger, not yet ruined by drink. But the same bowler hat. The same rucked sleeves.

He remembers the sweat and chains and the endless coffle. He remembers the endless slaughter of the arena. He remembers everything.

"I made you, boy. I lifted you from the dirt, gave you the fame of the arena. The finest wine, the most beautiful women. And every night, with every victory, the crowd roared your name. You owe me for it, boy. Your honor demands it."

A debt is owed. This much is true.

Drudge thrusts himself to his feet, lifts his walking stick from the table and brings it whistling down.

Maximilian catches the stick in one huge fist.

Drudge staggers as the cane is wrenched away. He reaches to brace against the table, misses, tumbles back into his seat. Tears glisten in the patchy white bristles on his cheeks.

"Why won't you kill me?" It is the first time tonight he has shouted the question. It will not be the last. "Where is your honor, boy?"

Maximilian lays the cane on the table.  In the corner, the clock ticks.

Tomorrow, he will visit the wineseller on Newgate and the clockwork coalman of Charing Cross. And the apple-cheeked pasty vendor on Oxford, whom he will never marry while Drudge's heart beats. On his way back to the apartment, he will pass the arena, and he will avert his eyes.

He will mount the stairs, open the door, and set the bottle in the center of the table.

And then he will settle himself in the chair, and he will wait out the day, and he will listen to the ticking of the clock.


Another Chuck Wendig prompt. This one was to randomly choose an element from columns a, b, and c. Fun. If I have time I might try another combination or two.

Any and all feedback is welcome. This one doesn't feel like it works, quite, and I'm not sure why. Gold stars for anyone who can help me figure it out :)


  1. It works just fine for me.

    I might include some hints earlier that they have this conversation every night. Something like, "The great bronze chimes above the Arena entrance sound their evening call, and the old man's head jerks toward the sound. Predictable as clockwork, his mouth opens and the familiar litany drips out. 'Hear that boy?'"

    I think I'd like Maximilian to tell more of his own story, too, or at least know why he doesn't. It's clear that his words led to Drudge's downfall, but he never speaks. Did he lose his voice along with eye, or does he refuse to talk to this man who destroyed him? I know it's difficult to cram a complex backstory into such a small space, though. With an extra 500 or 1,000 words, you might be able to develop the relationship more organically.

    Finally, two minor nitpicks with the 3rd-to-last paragraph. First, if Maximilian is planning to marry the apple vendor when the fixer is dead, then I'd suggest rephrasing "he never had a family... he sometimes wonders what it would be like," just enough to give us a clue that he'd really like to find out. Second, if I understood the significance of his eyepatch correctly, he can't avert his eyes when he passes the arena. I'd probably say he turns his face away, since "he'll avert his eye" would make me giggle, and that's not the appropriate response.

    And now I'm going to go back and read this again, because it's gotten in under my skin. I love that.

  2. Awesome feedback and solid suggestions, thanks. (And "It's gotten under my skin" is about the best thing I could have heard, thanks so much!)

    He spoke to the arena on the day they let him live, so he has a voice... I think. :) I think he's just giving Drudge the world's longest silent treatment. That's a little creepy, that sort of dedication.

    (I could front, but I won't: despite like 10 editing passes through this, I completely forgot he had an eyepatch by the time I got to the end. I rewrote those last paragraphs so many times that I lost sight of the outside story :). I shall fix it forthwith!

  3. Hi JD, my take on what you think might be missing--the words were beautiful, the scene strong, but all the 'action' is in the past which (for me) diminishes the tension a bit, though I still enjoyed it. But that's the thing with 1000 words, you don't have enough words to get it all in the 'now' (curse that Chuck Wendig and his flash fiction challenges!)

    1. Thanks, Rhyll. This was meant to be kind of a circular story - he's keeping Drudge alive to suffer, and since he's made himself the man's jailor, he's kind of locked into the same sort of loop that Drudge is. The point being that revenge locks you into things as much as it does the person you're taking your revenge upon.

      Which isn't to say your thoughts are invalid - far from; the circular nature of the story may be what keeps it from working. But at least in that respect, if it's failing, it's a failure of vision and not execution :)


  4. I dunno JD. This really hits the mark for me. It's like Max is paying some sort of penance for speaking rather than fighting. It's showing change and growth for him.

    He doesn't kill Drudge for the same reason. He's grown beyond the arena and wants to marry the pastry vendor. Drudge is his albatross, keeping Max chained to a life he no longer wants.

    I agree with the eye patch that Chia pointed out, but I would rephrase the family bit to negatives, 'not to be slaughtered, not to be wretched away.'

    As always, YMMV. I really dig the world building you did in a short amount of space. If you do go longer with this in a rewrite, I wonder which path Maximilian will take and will he take Drudge with him on the path of righteousness?

    1. Thanks, Gary!

      I tend to think this one's complete; the point being what the point is (even if I did it poorly, which based on feedback I may have since no one got it :) ), it has to end in that room. In another version, I could write it to end with his choosing to leave the room and the revenge, but that would be a different theme - from "revenge traps you" to "to break free of the trap of revenge you have to walk away." Which is the same story but not, y'know?

  5. The world building is fantastic and you use of unusual words shows your savvy. I found difficult understanding what was happening until the last few paragraphs. I didn't understand why nouveau riche was so important and why being offended by land poor aristocrats could be important either.

    The html tags on the italics were visible the text. This bothered me. It would be easy to fix. Perhaps it is safari that is not showing correctly the text.

    One little criticism. I would be careful about using foreign words and thinking that they give weight to your story that is already full of wonderfully placed words. The reason I say this is because so many people are fluent in whatever language you choose that is not English. For example using nouveau riche to mean something just doesn't cut it for a French speaker.

    Great read, I look forward to more of your work.

    1. Thanks, Angie!

      If you found it difficult understanding what was happening then, unusual words aside, I failed for you. Sorry for that!

  6. I think that the story is very captivating actually and makes a sort of sense, but I'll admit I didn't find the point that you intended in there; it all seems mutually destructive, but not futile. It's perfectly possible to read this as a self-punishment as much as a punishment for the fixer.

    I think that in order to get that sense of a grim downward spiral you need to give the reader a bit of time to breathe and also make the subsidiary characters work a bit harder. I think there are several points where you could put in a break, where there is a little ending and a little revelation. I think the break may just allow the more poignant aspects to percolate. Also, if you're giving a sense of futility, note perhaps how the smiles of the pastry girl get a little more wan and tired every week, a little less hopeful, or how as time goes by fewer people recognise him and shout his name.

    Still, I liked it very much and thought it was successful in being interesting and compelling, even if it wasn't successful in expressing what you wanted it to.

  7. Thanks, James! Good thoughts there. If it gets to a draft 2, they're going into the blender :)