by Rebecca Birch
When the wren first heard the clockwork man’s symphony of pipes in the blooming days of springtime, she was hesitant—his constant whirring and clanking set her feathers on edge—but the music emanating from his metal chest proved too strong a lure. She settled on his window-ledge and joined in the chorus.
He smiled from his workbench, silver eyes gleaming. They spent hours together, his full-bodied tones a perfect counterpoint to her own coloratura. Over time, he took to leaving her daily offerings of string, twigs, or tasty seeds.
Now, months later, autumn glazed the city with frost. The wren had already delayed her departure far longer than she should. Today would have to be her last visit. She would miss their duets, but she took solace in knowing he’d be waiting when she returned with the spring rains.
Smoke curled up from his chimney and the window stood open, but the windowsill was bare. Within the dark loft, all was quiet.
In all the months the wren had come to the clockwork man’s garret, he’d never once been gone. Had his long-absent creator finally come to collect him?
The wren clacked her beak and whistled a tune. There was no response from within.
Her tiny heart thudded and she fluttered nervously. Was he truly gone? Or had something happened to him?
The wren hesitated, caught between worry and fear. A bird did not enter a human’s dwelling, not if they wished to maintain their freedom.
But the clockwork man wasn’t human.
She swept inside.
Though she could hardly see, the wren knew the room’s layout. The workbench in the center, scattered with metal and tools. The stove against the far wall and, beyond that, the door leading to the next room. A thin line of amber light gleamed along its edge.
The wren landed beside the door, her claws skittering on the floorboards. A thin, painful wheezing sounded from within.
She pressed on the door and it inched open on well-oiled hinges. The opening wasn’t large, but neither was the wren. She hopped through.
The clockwork man sat motionless in the room’s solitary chair, illuminated by a single candle flickering in the wall sconce.
The wren glided to the chair’s arm and cheeped.
The clockwork man’s eyes opened, their silver gleam nearly invisible. “Little songbird,” he said, “I’m glad you’re here.”
With a halting motion, he opened the plate that covered his chest. The wheezing sound intensified. The wren fluttered up and perched on the rim.
Pipes filled the cavity, silver and iron and fluted glass. A dying ember sat beneath a small boiler, fitted with tubes that branched from pipe to pipe. Thin curls of steam rose from the top of the boiler, where the primary tube connected.
“My heart is failing,” he said. “I’ve tried to fix it, but my hands are too large. My creator could have done it, but …” he gave a metallic sigh.
The wren puffed out her breast feathers and voiced an indignant squawk.
The walls and door of the clockwork man’s chest called to mind only one thing—a birdcage—but the clockwork man had always been kind, and there was no one else to help him.
The wren gathered her courage and flew inside. Steam condensed on her feathers, the air so hot it hurt to breathe.
“The connection is loose,” said the clockwork man, his voice echoing within his metal frame. “If the steam doesn’t flow, it won’t matter how much I stoke the flame.”
The wren’s feet touched the hot boiler and she screeched, hopping and fluttering. She opened her beak to grasp the faulty tubing. Smothering steam seared her lungs. Dizziness fuddled her mind and slowed her wings. She plummeted downward and lay, twitching, on the clockwork man’s legs.
A cool, metallic finger stroked her head. “Thank you for trying. I’m sorry I cannot stay and sing with you.” He dragged in a painful breath. “It pleased me to be of use to someone.”
The wren searched for the strength to try again, but her wings refused to obey. The clockwork man’s eyes dimmed, then died, and the last strains of his pipes fell silent.
When the wren recovered enough to move, she fluttered to the open cavity of his chest, as awkward as a fledgling. With a tentative cheep, she hopped in among the pipes.
The ember lay spent, leaving nothing but a dusting of ashes. She’d need to find something else to burn.
A quick flight to the workroom revealed an open drawer filled with twigs and strands of flax and a bowl of seeds full enough to last the winter. With the twigs and flax, the wren built a jumbled bundle atop the ashes. She’d have to kindle a twig at the still-flickering candle to set pile aflame, but first—the tubing.
She perched atop the cooled boiler, grasped the tubing, and pulled. Her beak slipped from the smooth rubber. She changed her grip and yanked again, this time maintaining her hold, but instead of moving the rubber, her claws slid helplessly across the slick metal. No matter how she struggled, the tubing refused to budge.
Cold wind blew in from the open window in the far room, laced with snowflakes. The wren shivered and huddled among the bundled sticks beneath the boiler. A plaintive tune rose from her throat.
The resonant shell of his body returned her voice tenfold. Sympathetic vibrations played among the pipes. The wren closed her eyes and let the music wash over her, familiar and welcoming. Like home.
With a shake of her feathers, the wren set thought to action. She wove the remaining materials from the drawer into a proper nest within the clockwork man’s frame. There she would remain, warm and sheltered from the winter’s icy grasp.
She sang as she worked, accompanied by the ghostly harmony.
Her friend, she hoped, would be pleased.
Rebecca Birch is a science fiction and fantasy writer based in Seattle, Washington. She’s a classically trained soprano, holds a deputy black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and enjoys spending time in the company of trees. Her fiction has appeared in markets including Nature, Cricket, and Flash Fiction Online and she’s also a two-time finalist in the Writers of the Future contest. You can find her online at wordsofbirch.com or on twitter as @wordsofbirch.
A bit about the story:
“The Wren and the Clockwork Man,” like many of my stories, was written to a prompt—in this case, a quotation from the Persian poet and mystic, Rumi: “You have to keep breaking your heart until it opens.”
I wanted to see what would happen if I explored what that might mean in a more literal way than was probably intended. What could have a heart that could both break and open?
A metal man.
The image of a clockwork man, with his chest covering open, settled in my mind and wouldn’t let me go. My subconscious kept adding in a small bird perched on the edge, peering in. Who was this bird? Why did it come to this particular metal man? Did it care that it was dead? Was its own heart broken? Why?
I wanted to tell the bird’s story, to capture some of the emotion that filled my heart. I hope that I have—to some extent, at least—succeeded.