The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

The Winter Machine

From the back of the workshop came an array of intriguing sounds. Pieces of metal clanged together, steam hissed, a fire crackled. It was a fine spring day, but anyone following the corridor toward the noises wouldn’t know it except as a memory, for there were no windows here to let the sunlight in, and the air was stale and dank as a coffin.

“I want to build something,” said a voice, a voice no higher than the countertops that were littered with gadgetry and tools.

A deeper voice chuckled. “All right then, son, it is time. What would you like to make?”

“Something like what you make, father! Something marvelous!” said the boy. And it was true that the older man made all manner of wondrous things. One only had to step outside, into the fine spring day, to see a whole hundred of them. Airships that buzzed through the fluffy clouds, grass-cutting machines that drove themselves along fine lawns in front of even finer houses. Toys that wound up and down and up again.

“Well, my Simon, you’d best get started. Do what you can, and show me when you’ve finished.”

Simon slid from the stool at which he always sat to watch his father, the great inventor, construct his great inventions. So many of them, now, that the city wouldn’t function without them. There had come imitators, of course, but anyone who wished for the best pushed open the door to Cracknell’s Clockwork Contrivances and placed their order, prepared to wait. Or else they sent letters written with elegant quills on thick parchment, sealed carefully with wax.

There was simply the small matter of deciding just what Simon would like to build, which wasn’t a small matter at all. He had toys, and games, and things that whirled and ticked and went clunk in the night. An automaton that looked quite like a person brought their dinners to the dining room each evening, and cleared the dirty plates away again to the kitchen, where a great, hulking, water-filled thing scrubbed them clean. Machines sharpened his pencils and tied his bootlaces tight, so that they never came undone and tripped him.

What did he need? What did he want?

It really was very warm, almost unseasonably so. The last of the frosts had turned the trees silver only the week before, but Simon removed his coat just a few minutes after setting off to wander the streets. A familiar creaking behind told him he was perfectly safe walking alone, the automaton Father had built just for this would never let any harm come to Simon. And so he walked, seeing the ladies in their fine gowns step into carriages surrounded by great swathes of steam and gentlemen stop to chat beneath gas lamps that would sputter to life at the first hint of darkness.

The first flowers were beginning to bloom, a dozen clocks in tall, stone towers counted the seconds away to summer, the sun arcing higher over the airships in the sky.

Down by the river, a wide, rippling river which cleaved the city in two, Simon stood. He had skated on it not a month earlier, spinning in circles as snow fell all around him.

Simon decided exactly what he wanted to make.


“And how is the great invention coming along?” his father asked, looking up from a table scattered with the pieces of a bird, fashioned from brass and copper.

“Fine,” said Simon, though that was not, strictly speaking, entirely true. He had tried many things, and so far, none of them had worked. But Father did not get to where he was by giving up, and Simon wasn’t about to, either. Asking for help would be precisely the same thing.

On a small counter in the corner of the workshop, just the right height, a collection of tools lay jumbled together. Hammers and chisels and blades thin as a hair. Buckets of water trembled with every footstep, waiting to be turned to steam, and tiny cogs glittered like snowflakes.

He had sneaked from his bed in the dead of night and inspected one of the many machines in the kitchen for so long the ice within it melted and puddles formed on the floor. The very next midnight, he’d taken the thing apart and only put it back together after carefully inspecting every piece.

In the morning, he had tried again.

It was a sweltering summer day.


The first leaf fell from a tree beside the river, and deep in the cool, dark workshop, an enormous machine chugged.

“What are you building, lad?”

Simon smiled. “You’ll see, Father.” Simon was close, he was sure of it, but there was one missing piece, a tiny filament or enormous wheel, that kept the thing from working. Oh, the mechanisms inside ticked and tocked, steam hissed and he had even, just this morning, managed to form a thin layer of ice on the inside, but it still did not work. Not really. Not quite.

He looked around at all of his father’s inventions, perfect moving parts and perfectly functioning wholes. They all had a spirit, his Father said, clucking over them as if they were children. A purpose, an essence. A machine needs a reason to run, not simply coal or gas or clockwork, but a reason why it must exist.


It was a crisp, perfect autumn, with warm days, and cool nights that were growing colder. Simon waited, setting the clock beside his bed to ring in the depths of darkness, and when it woke up, checking the window before falling back to sleep. His ice skates sat beside the bed, waiting, too.

Finally, it came. The first frost. It would be weeks before snow fell, or the river froze over, but what is the essence of winter, if not the first frost stealing across a flower?

Simon tiptoed outside, his toes cold, and plucked it from a bush. He could not name the sort of flower, he didn’t know those things, but he knew it was right, that the silvery sheen was the missing element of his grand invention.


“It’s ready, Father!” he said, before the eggs had been put on for breakfast. Simon’s father smiled widely.

“Show me.”

In the workshop, Simon took a deep breath, and flicked the switch. Outside, the frost was gone and the sun was shining. The grass was green and the river glimmered.

And it began to snow. Simon ran outside to see, his father on his heels. Around them, the air grew cold and colder, and the ladies in their elegant gowns began to shiver. Gentlemen stopped beneath gas lamps to point up at the sky. The airships shuddered, knocked off kilter by the sudden wash of freezing air.

“It’s my winter machine!” said Simon. “Look, the water’s freezing!”

“Oh, now that is clever,” said his father, but Simon barely heard, already inside and halfway up the stairs to fetch his skates. Both his father and the automaton followed him down to the river’s edge to watch him tie the laces tight. Over the ice Simon glided and spun as snowflakes fell around him.

“Very, very clever,” said his father again and again, gazing about as winter fell upon the city. When the lamps sputtered on, he called to Simon to come back.

“We must go and turn it off, before we do any harm,” he said. “All the plants must die so they can come back in the spring. Animals must build their shelters before the cold truly comes, so they can sleep through it.”

“All right,” said Simon, happier than he’d ever been. The machine had worked! He would let the real winter come now, and skate again then, but it had worked. Rubbing his numb fingers, he reached for the switch and flicked it once more.

But nothing happened.


It was a cold, bitter winter day. All the people who lived in the city huddled together for warmth, eating the last of the food, not knowing when the snows would melt on the roads that snaked in from the farms so more could be brought. Water pipes froze and split, fish were trapped and smothered by the solid mass of ice that was once a flowing river.

Simon watched it from the window, his skates buried beneath a crate in the back of the wardrobe. He had tried and tried, but the machine would not turn off. His father had tried, but Simon had built it too well. It would not turn off, or come apart, or cease working when hit with water or fire or rocks.

It was a cold, bitter winter day.

And so was the next one.

And the next.


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