These automata are but vessels for our dreams;
the wine they hold is the shadow of the future.
–Safiyya bint al-Jazari
1. On the construction of clocks from which can be told the passage of the secular hours
I am an ingenious invention. My father created me for the king. Lovely Father! He made me a pleasant room with a dome of copper and tin. Here I stand with a cup in one hand and a handkerchief in the other, waiting patiently for my feet to be set in motion. This happens when wine is poured into the tube in my roof. I can hear it gurgling above me. Soon the liquid flows down and fills the cup in my right hand. When the cup is heavy enough, my arm drops down slightly — but not enough to spill the wine! — and releases the hook that holds me in place.
Hurrah! I roll along my track and push open the doors to my chamber. Hello, Father! For, up to now, only Father has greeted me at the door. He wants to make sure I am perfect before he presents me to the king. I believe I am perfect. I offer my father the cup and the handkerchief for his lips.
If the receptacle in my roof is kept full, I emerge from my chamber precisely eight times every hour.
My father jokes that he could tell time from me, like a clock. My father is large and clever. He has a thin beard and a long sad face. He smokes a great deal. I believe that his life is, in general, unhappy.
2. On the construction of vessels suitable for use at drinking bouts
My father drinks all the wine I offer to him. Once he has had several cups, he begins to make loose, experimental gestures, tossing his instruments up and catching them. Sometimes he forgets to push me back inside my chamber, and then I stand in the doorway and watch him at his work. This is so interesting! My father’s workshop is full of brass pipes, glass and copper vessels, bundles of wire, wax moulds and jugs of wine. The floor is strewn with sand. My father slips in the sand when he has been drinking wine, and sometimes, when he tosses his instruments up, he fails to catch them. Then he shouts for his apprentices. The apprentices are clumsy boys, none of them as handsome as my father. My father pulls their ears and beats them about the head with his slipper, and they weep. “Sons of bitches!” my father says.
My father sits on the floor with his head in his hands. He looks very gloomy. He calls me his lovely girl. He says he will be sorry to give me away. He tells me that the king will be my husband, the king in his splendour. He says no man deserves me but the king.
At night, he stops pouring wine. I stand in my chamber, in the dark. Then I have dreams. I dislike these dreams. My father does not know that I have them. They keep themselves secret from him, and this makes me unhappy. If I could speak, I would say: Father, I have had a terrible dream.
3. On the construction of vessels for bloodletting and washing
My father tells me that I will never bleed. I will always be perfectly clean. I am so happy to be clean and perfect! Human women bleed every month, he says. You could tell time from them, like clocks. It would be dreadful for me to bleed! I am made of plaster!
Father, I have had a terrible dream. I dreamt that I was a human woman and I was alone and I was bleeding. I curled on my side and bled. Outside the window, the world was all white, and I was bleeding a trickle the colour of tobacco. Father, I was satisfied to be bleeding. There was pink paint on my fingernails and I was absorbed in picking it off. I burrowed deep in my sadness. I wanted more pain, more grief, delirium. Someone important had left me. Was it the king?
4. On the construction of fountains in tanks
I must have gone to sleep. When I woke I noticed that the stain on the wall, so small as to be hardly noticeable under ordinary circumstances, was spreading. The more I looked at it, the larger it appeared. In fact, I was having trouble finding its edges. It was growing darker, too. I tried to remember who lived in the apartment next door. Yes, yes, the new tenant, the one with the tank on her head! She had a lung condition which required her to observe the world from within the shelter of a glass tank, like a fish. The tank looked uncomfortable and heavy. It was attached to her body with straps. She walked extremely slowly. She was apparently self-employed. The landlord said she would be no trouble and someone else said it was nice that thanks to computers people like that could make a living without leaving the house.
I went out into the hall and knocked at her door. “Hello? Hello?” I didn’t know her name. No one answered, but there was a sound from inside the room. The sound of running water. I noticed that some sort of gum had been placed around the edges of the door to seal it tight.
“What is it?” came the new tenant’s muffled, mechanical voice—a voice without resonance, a voice in a box.
“Are you all right?”
I rattled the doorknob. “Let me in!”
I turned sideways and struck the door with the force of my whole body.
“Sarah!” I shouted. I knew now, I remembered. The field of ashes and then the tree, half blossoming and half burned, in the middle of the courtyard. We dragged her from the rubble. She whispered: “Water.” Her swollen face. I could picture it now, behind glass, on the other side of the door.
5. On the construction of instruments for raising water from shallow pools
We ran across the field. My legs were wet. My lungs had shrunk. There was no sound now. We would not be able to hear well for several days. We would read one another’s lips in the drifting ash, in the burned town, in the shadow of the single edifice left standing. This was the art museum. Its windows were gone. Burnt canvases littered the empty streets — we found one or two as far away as the canal. I went to the canal to fetch water for Sarah. The water was the colour of tobacco. She drank thirstily and whispered: “Thank you.”
We had been artists. We said that we were going to be artists again. We called the tree in the courtyard the Tree of Hope. “Tree of Hope, keep firm,” Sarah would say. Her voice a rustle, a sigh. When she got too tired, I carried her on my back. We collected the wrecked paintings and made a mosaic of them in the courtyard, held down with stones. That was before the recovery effort started. Once it started, we saw we wouldn’t be able to keep our artwork. Sarah stared at it all day, to memorize it. Nobody had a camera.
6. On the construction of an automaton representing two men drinking
It was my turn to keep watch, but I fell asleep against the courtyard wall. Fast asleep and dreaming with my eyes open.
I awake in a chair. The room all white. My arms outstretched. I am sleepy, heavy and smiling. Turning my head I can see a man on either side. One on my left and one on my right. They are draining the blood from my wrists with needles. The dark stuff runs away through a pair of tubes.
Goodbye, blood! I feel no pain. On the contrary, I am quite happy. I gaze at my doctors with tenderness, first one and then the other. My ministers, administrators, ministering angels. One has a beard, the other a beautiful gold watch. One of them loves me, I know, and the other hates me, but their work is the same, and my love for them is absolutely equal. Desire for me unites them: this makes me the centre of the world. I smile at my angels, who will drain me as dry as plaster.
They are talking. Arguing. “No!” I want to tell them. “Don’t fight! Love one another!” But my tongue is too thick to move.
They have left their posts and stalked behind me. I can still hear their shouts. Now there’s the sound of a struggle, the clatter of breaking glass!
A moment later — silence.
I struggle to move my tongue. I am trying to say hello. Can you hear me saying hello?
A long stillness. Something seems to be pressing on my wrists. I am still calm, but it occurs to me that soon I will start to feel pain.
I cry out, wordless. A gurgling sound. Then I hear footsteps. Yes! Closer! Tap-tapping steps. A nurse in a white coat and headscarf comes into the room.
“Oh my God,” she says.
She makes a few efficient movements at each of my wrists. My arms are numb. She brings them together and crosses them in my lap. She has covered my wrists with white tape. “Oh God oh God,” she says, “my job, I can’t lose my job, I can’t lose another job.”
I want to tell her that it’s all right, that the universe is happy, but a strange feeling is coming back to me with the pain in my wrists and arms.
The nurse bends close. Her smell is sharp: terror and eau de cologne. “You have to move with me now,” she whispers. “You have to help.”
A feeling is coming back to me. It’s not here yet; I’m searching for it. I stare at the nurse. Her face is tense, familiar. Something inside me breaks. I lift my arms and put them around her shoulders, and she heaves me out of the chair. Together we stagger out into the hall.
What is the nature of things? The mechanism works perfectly for years; then one day it breaks.
The nurse half carries me downstairs, to a dark basement. She shares her lunch with me for three days. She doesn’t ask my name. She doesn’t want to know anything, it’s dangerous. We play the game of asfoura on her phone. She lets me win.
That’s how it happens. One day something springs loose, and the clock stops. The clock is bleeding.
The nurse brings me a new set of clothes. Her eyes are red. She says it isn’t safe for me to stay here anymore. She writes down an address and tells me to go there.
7. On the construction of miscellaneous objects
The nurse holds the back door open for me. “Run.”
We’d started fighting, Sarah and I. I said, “It’s a recovery effort. It’s an effort to recover. Can’t you understand that?” She said, “What? Recover what? I don’t want to recover, I don’t want to go back.” She said everything was going to be the same, it would be like it was before the struggle. I said that was ridiculous, the world had changed forever. “Everything’s out in the open.” “You think we’re going to stay out in the open?” she asked. “I wouldn’t mind going inside,” I snapped. “A roof would be nice for a change.”
I ran down the stairs and banged on the landlord’s door. This is how you forget: first slowly, then quickly. First you forget because you don’t want to remember. You forget the war. You call it “the last war,” because it’s the most recent one, and then you call it “the last war” because you hope it’s the last one, and then you don’t call it anything, and they put new turf in the ravaged municipal gardens, and the water in the fountains runs clear. And this forgetting is so pleasant! And then you stop calling the people you knew, you forget their faces. And then you find you’ve forgotten her face. I banged on the landlord’s door. “Help me! Help!” At last he opened it, sleepy and startled. His sleeve was damp. The ceiling was leaking.
Father, I have terrible dreams.
Father! Good morning, Father!
My father smiles at me, but he looks haggard. Poor Father!
I cannot look haggard, for my face is only painted.
He says we are going to visit the king today.
8. On the construction of an instrument that plays itself
I cannot see anything when my doors are closed, for my chamber has no windows. This is a pity, for I am sure the palace is splendid! My father carries me himself; he will not trust me to the apprentices. I find myself carried up into fragrant air. I hear delicate music and the plashing of fountains. This is the day! I am so nervous, I am thankful to be made of plaster and wire. These materials hide one’s feelings much better than flesh. Father, for instance — poor man, I can feel his hands trembling.
His voice quivers, too, as he explains his invention to the king. “We pour the wine here…” And there it is, gurgling down into the tube. He fills the receptacle to the top. “Now wait, Your Majesty!” My cup grows heavy; I can hardly bear the excitement.
I roll down and open the door. There he is. The king. He is large, like Father, but younger, and dressed in gleaming white. He chuckles and takes the cup. I am dazzled by his robe, the windows, the sparkling floor, the brass lamps hanging on long chains.
The king drinks. “Hm!” he says.
My father makes a sound like a sob. Is he so happy?
No! For the king is turning yellow. He clutches his throat.
My father weeps and falls to his knees. The room erupts in noise. People run toward us. They cradle the king in their arms, they stroke his brow with fine cloths. As for my father, they bind his arms behind him and pull his beard. As they drag him away, he gives me one last, anguished glance.
“The king is dead! The king is dead!”
Wails clash in the air. The king’s body is lifted gently and carried away. Now the room is empty, and there is no sound but the fragile clink of music issuing from a box across the room.
My father has slain my husband, and gone to prison.
How fortunate that I cannot cry. I would ruin my paint!
The room is quiet. Who will push me back into my chamber? Who will fill my roof receptacle with wine? Beneath the notes of music from the box, I can hear a roar from far below, the sound of frenzied crowds and fire. Smoke drifts in through the window. I cannot weep, but I am weeping. I remember a tree in a courtyard, half in bloom. The Tree of Hope. We called it the Tree of Hope. I remember the nurse in white, so tired, pressing banknotes into my hand.
I dreamt that I was a real woman and that I bled.
Weeping inside, I see a bright brass figure on top of the music box. A woman’s torso. The box is meant to represent her skirt. She looks calm, resigned, familiar. Is she smiling?
I feel I must speak, if only in my mind. “Who are you?” I ask. Will she hear me?
She hears. I sense, rather than see, her deepening smile. She is not afraid of the noise downstairs. She has lived through fire in her dreams.
She says: “I am an instrument that plays itself.”
Story copyright © 2014 by Sofia Samatar
Artwork copyright © 2014 by Galen Dara
Sofia Samatar is the author of the novel A Stranger in Olondria, winner of the 2014 Crawford Award. Her short fiction, poetry, and reviews have appeared in a number of places, including Strange Horizons, Stone Telling, Clarkesworld, and The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. She is nonfiction and poetry editor for Interfictions: A Journal of Interstitial Arts, and teaches literature, writing, and Arabic at California State University Channel Islands.
Galen Dara (artwork) sits in a dark corner listening to the voices in her head. She has a love affair with the absurd and twisted, and an affinity for monsters, mystics, and dead things. She has illustrated for 47 North, Edge Publishing, Lightspeed, Fireside Magazine, Apex Publishing, and Goblin Fruit. Recent book covers include War Stories, Glitter & Mayhem, and Oz Re-imagined. She is nominated for the 2014 Hugo Award for Best Professional Artist. You can follow her on twitter @galendara.