Seasonal- Work In Progress
Gentle friends of the Catastrophone Orchestra and Arts Collective,
We are engaged in a series of "Seasonals", a form of writing that was quite popular during the Victorian Era in America and elsewhere. We plan on four seasonals. Here is the winter one, a work in progress from our collective. In the next few weeks the other three will be ready enough to post. This piece needs more polish and perhaps a little less guilding but that is for you to decide. We are posting it to entertain you while you wait with undserved patience for our albumn and graphic novel to be posted on our sister web-site dominatfiction.com
Mother of the Dispossessed
New York City, Winter 188?
Professor Calamity was now in his fiftieth straight hour without sleep, but Mathilda knew what made him shaky was the lack opium. She had seen him spend more than four days without sleep burning with the steady glow of laudanum during those tumultuous days of the draft riots. Now he could barely steady his hand to remove the charred flesh from the terrified Polish girls laying on the dirty floor of their flophouse clinic.
Rastrix knew quite a bit about burn wounds from his days working on the moody steam engine Stoutbridge Lion. He had attended to a number of casualties during his wild flights from the Pinkertons throughout the Pennsylvanian coalfields with his scrappy gang of labor insurgents. Rastrix was helping the Professor washing bandages donated by the local settlement house after the fire.
The bulky ex-steelworker and now full time revolutionary Neal List passed out numbers to the half conscious waiting girls as if they were queuing for a bakery. He was trying to give the worst cases the lowest numbers but all of them looked pretty severe to his untrained laborer’s eye. While the sweating hulk passed out tickets, Pip the professor’s train-hopping friend checked the unconscious seamstresses for change to purchase the Professor his opium. He appreciated the ideals of a free clinic but knew that if Calamity was to keep working he would need some chemical steam to get him through the night.
The filthy little tenement clinic was filled with screams, stench and blood. Fires were always the worse and becoming more and more common on the Lower East Side. Greater demand for textiles during the war years had created a glut of sweatshops in and around lower New York. Now with the horrors of war drifting into the quiet despair of a depression, the sweatshops represented an exploitative powder keg that was going off with some regular frequency. Owners desperate to squeeze as much profit as possible were forcing more and more machines into already crowded and poorly ventilated workshops. Ever fearful of the laziness and slothful cunning of their immigrant employees they had taken to locking doors during shop hours to ensure the girls stayed at their machines and did not sneak rags out. This workplace prison forced girls, most in their early teens, to smoke while at their machines surrounded by mounds of fabrics that could easily turn a sweatshop into a smoky inferno. After the volunteer firemen looted what they could as the factories burned, the newspapers would screech about how the seamstresses were to blame for their own deaths and how now the city would have to spend a $1.45 to bury each one in potter’s field. In the cigar rooms around Washington Square the owners would wait anxiously for their insurance checks.
Those unlikely enough to survive could not afford real doctors and thus were forced to seek the free services of Professor Calamity, a nefarious alienist and a frenzied drug addict, and his band of revolutionary artists.
Three street arabs had made their way through the chaos of the overcrowded clinic unnoticed - it was a skill they had perfected on the streets. They pulled back the ripped Chinese curtain that separated the “clinic” from Professor Calamity’s cot and study.
Mathilda hissed at the children freezing their blood. She still wore the elegant mourning clothes that hinted at a past far removed from the teeming tenements of the Bowery but her disheveled hair and frenzied eyes were the incarnation of burning insanity. She swiped at the children with her long nails.
“Mathilda, I need my medicine,” Calamity said rubbing his enflamed eyes.
Her mood changed from one of fierce defense to exquisite tenderness as she rolled up his blood soaked sleeve. In an instant she found a vein and sunk Pip’s hard work into her lover’s thinning vein.
“You are Runts. Mighty far from Hell’s Kitchen I might add,” the doctor said dreamily stroking Mathilda’s bare thigh.
One of the boys pushed a girl up front. She was about the same age, seven or maybe eight. She looked at the doctor's red eyes, so as not to loose her nerve.
“It's mama. She is hurt bad. She needs a doctor. We have money,” she said in voice so low that it was almost capsized by the screams coming from behind the curtain.
“Can’t you see he is sick. You think you little cretins can just barge in here…Neal!” Mathilda shouting causing the doctor to wince.
“Mathilda. No need for Neal. It's quite alright, let the Runts speak.”
“I know damn well who they are. Slip jacks, padfoots and urchins.”
The girl gathering her courage nudged one of the boys and said, “We have money.”
The boy in an over-sized derby carefully unwrapped a few dingy coins from deep inside one of his holding pockets. He presented them like a treasure to Mathilda.
“Girls are dying in there and you are wasting time with these…”, Mathilda said pushing away Calamity’s wandering hand and straighting her black funeral dress.
“Children, my angle nocturne is quite correct. There was a dreadful inferno at the Wedemeyer Corsettery and we are quite unable to provide you aid. But if you could entreat your good and loving mother to come from the west side to see me, say in a few days time, I can't see possible reason not to survey her. I shall have her right as rain, I promise you my considerate gents and lady. Take your coins and make haste to the Chemist and get some Dr. Parkers Drops, they will no doubt ease the suffering of your dear mother until such a time she can make my acquaintance. I look forward…” Calamity’s monologue was cut short by him nodding out and covering his eyes with his arm.
Mathilda stepped passed the kids and into the main room.
“There will be break. The doctor is consulting his books. No one will be seen for another hour or so.”
She moved over to Neal to consult with him about how many patients waited in the hall while the children left as invisibly as they had entered. Despite stepping over girls dying and covered with grotesque burns that would have made Goya shudder, their minds were preoccupied with their mother. Besides they had seen worse in their tender years.
The three children ran to the corner where Tinder waited for them. He was the oldest of the Runts. No one knew how old he was, least of all himself, but he had a few whiskers beginning to shadow his upper lip. These tiny downy hairs were his greatest pride.
Tinder listened to the girl tell about their encounter with the doctor. Tinder stopped for a moment running his soot stained hand through his mohawk.
“We will bring mama to the doctor.” he said pointing to a scrawny boy barely out of diapers. The tiny boy pulled a crumpled cigarette out of his rag hat and passed it to Tinder.
“He won’t see her,” the girl cried stamping her foot on the cobblestone street.
“We will make him. We just got to get mama to him.” Tinder commanded and turned leading the smaller children down the shadow soaked alley back to the nest.
The Runts were not a gang, not like the Dead Rabbits, Plug Uglies, the Mods, or the Bowery Boys. They were not as organized as the newsies or under the sway of an adult like the chimney sweep gangs. They were not even an ethnic fellowship like so much of New York. They were of no interest to political groups like Tammany Hall, the nativist Know-nothings or even the anarchistic steampunks. They were much more like a family, albeit quite large and poor one, even by the standards of Hell Kitchen. The Runts had been around for twenty or more years, with many famous street characters having once been a Runt in their earlier years like pugilist Copper O’Conner and war hero Antonio Garlic.
The Runts inhabited, lived would be too much of an exaggeration, a series of conjoined basements that had once stored hay for the 25th street stables. A fire had claimed the stables and all sixty-five working drays. The Gotham Hack Association had raised money to rebuild the stables but predictably the construction money was siphoned into the marble rooms of Tammany Hall, leaving a burnt out shell and a basement full of orphans under the benevolent violet eyes of Mama Giuseppe.
Tinder returned to the waiting children who had barely touched the potatoes they had lifted from Fulton Street market three hours earlier. They were all too anxious to eat. Even Piggy Hovek hadn’t touched his plate.
“She is too heavy to move. We can not get her to the doctor,” Tinder stated matter of factly.
Some of the smaller children started to weep.
“Is she going to die,” Piggy asked choking on the words.
“No. There is someone that can help but I need to talk to Spinner and Sal first,” Tinder said pointing to the older boys standing in the back.
Tinder took the boys to see mama and reveal the secret he had kept all of these years. The secret that he had half forgotten in his love for Mama. The secret he did not ask to know but Wild Kip had to tell someone before he left out west. Now Tinder would lift Mama’s petticoat as she laid sleeping on her mattress and reveal the truth to Spinner and Sal. Tinder needed help to locate Harlowe and Spinner and Sal knew how to find him.
Only the rich celebrated the English holiday of Boxing Day in New York. The poor did not receive enough gifts little alone presents that actually came in boxes. Chester Harlowe recuperated alone in his formal study. He found more enjoyment in the holidays now that he had grandchildren but still always felt relieved when they were over and his life could return to the gentle habits of retirement. He thoughts drifted to his youngest son’s new fiancée and how shapely she looked in her yellow velveteen dress earlier in the evening as he sipped his club soda by the dying fire. The sound of breaking glass woke him out of his reverie. He didn’t even feel the cold Hudson wind invade his gloomy study.
“What in blazes are you doing?” Harlowe demanded of the three boys who were quickly rushing in through the shattered garden door.
“Aye, are you Harlowe?” Sal said freeing his shirttail from one of the jagged pieces of glass.
“This is my home and you are…”
Tinder wasted no time in sapping the elderly man who fell to one of his knees, still holding the glass. Even in excruciating pain, he was careful not to drop any of his drink on the Persian rug.
Spinner hit him with a chair leg he always carried. The last thing Harlowe heard as he drifted to the soft carpet of his study was Tinder saying he had killed their only hope.
The sharp throbbing pain forced Chester Harlowe to regain consciousness. He was only a mile from his study but was a world away. His eyes could barely make anything out in the sooty gloom of the Runts cavernous cellar-home. He could hear their whispering voices in the darkness. They reminded him of his own grandchildren talking late after midnight mass, whispering about the presents that would await them under the tree. He could not see them but he could not shake the feeling that his sweet tender grandchildren were somehow down in this dungeon with him.
Tinder was the first to realize that old businessman was awake. He poured some cool water into a dented can and handed it to him.
“I'm sorry we had to sap you mister. You see our mam's real sick and you can help. Don't you worry we won't hit you again,” Tinder said in voice more like a child than a man.
Chester could now see Tinder's face by the greenish glow of a soap candle. The child's many piercings glowed white in the struggling illumination. Chester had seen these children before, not perhaps the Runts specifically but their kind. He had seen their tattooed arms reaching into his fireplace as they cleaned his three chimneys. He had seen their dyed hair glowing on a summer's day as they chased rats with sticks by the reservoir. He had seen these children almost everyday of his life in the city but had not really seen them. He, like most of his fellow well-heeled colleagues had witnessed these street arabs but had never seen them. Now he was seeing not only pests but his own grandchildren. He was not afraid of these children. He knew they would not hurt him again.
“Will you look at our mama, mister? Will ya?,” Spinner pleaded.
Chester shook his head that he would. He felt nauseated by the smell of Spinner's newly dyed blue hair. As he tried to keep himself from gagging, he wondered why these children mortified themselves with needles, colored lye and tattoos. Tinder helped him to his feet.
“Watch the timbers they are low in here,” Tinder warned taking the businessman's hand.
“Tell me, why do you do it? I mean the silver ring in your eyebrow and those tattoos on your arms,” Chester asked following Tinder deeper into the cellars.
“They can't nick it from you. They'll take everything else that's for sure.”
Chester walked past dozens of children lying on patched blankets. All of them pretending to be asleep but looking up at him with half closed eyes. Chester's brother-in-law was a doctor and he was sure he could convince him to care for these unfortunates mother, if she was still alive. He couldn't help himself. He found that these children, children he passed a million times without a single thought, he now wanted to help. Perhaps it was the holiday or the throbbing pain in his skull. All he knew was that he would help them and then forget they ever existed.
By the time Chester and Tinder entered Mama's room Spinner and Sal were already beside her. Sal held her lifeless hand while Spinner tried in vain to wipe the dark flood dripping from her neck. Chester was struck by the whiteness of the woman collapsed on the rat eaten mattress. Her dress was ancient and made and ringed ridiculously with Queen Anne's lace. She looked more like a Luna Park fortune teller than a mother of twenty children living in a dank stable cellar.
Chester knelt in front of the woman and was struck by the loveliness of her countenance. Even in the ghastly light of the candles she looked like some-kind of Bowery Madonna – peaceful and divine. The candles surrounding her only added to the religious aura of the woman.
Chester went to take her hand from Sal, who only after receiving a signal from Tinder released it gently to the businessman. The hand was not only cold but exceedingly hard. He dropped it at first frightened by its unreal feel. After gaining his composure he picked it back up and saw thin ivory flakes of paint curling off the fingers. He tapped with his university ring and it made a dull clank.
“She is metal,” Chester said to himself but loud enough for all in the tiny room to hear.
“Show him,” Tinder said.
Spinner slowly unbuttoned the mother's whalebone corset to reveal a dull iron frame. Chester took one of the candles and carefully brought it up to the doll. By the dancing light he could see the most amazing constellation of gears and springs he had ever witnessed. They look almost natural like metallic moss, intricate and interconnected. He could pick out hundreds of tiny clockworks, counterweights and the smallest pendulums he had ever seen and Chester had seen many. Harlowe had been, in his prime, the chairman of the largest machine shop on the Eastern Seaboard. He had made hundreds of thousands of dollars from Schneider & Harlowe Metalworks. S&H was famous for supplying precision metal works to all sorts of projects including the new subway and the amusements at the Steeplechase Fairgrounds.
Spinner pointed to a small tin plate attached to the front of the automaton's chest, that had inscribed “Schneider and Harlowe 1866”.
“That's you. Chester Harlowe, right?” Spinner said proudly.
“Yes. No. I mean that is from my company but surely you do not think... Listen boys I am, I mean I was a businessman. I owned the company that may have made some of those parts. By the looks of it, there all sorts of parts in here. This might have been from one of our steam ringer washers by the look of it. I can assure you I have nothing to do with this... woman.”
“But its got your name right here, right as rain it does.” Sal interjected holding up another candle to provide more light.
“Yes. It's a mistake. I mean my machine shop may have made that piece but it had nothing to do with her assembly. Whoever made this was a genius. And absolute genius. This belongs... I don't know where but certainly not here.”
“What is that suppose to mean?” Spinner said with a sinister undertone in his voice.
“She is our mother. It's the only mother any of us know. If you think you can take her...” Sal's remarks were cut off by Tinder who had now approached the group.
“She will stay here. Can you fix her?” he asked.
“No, I can not.” Chester replied still staring at the intricate lacework of mother's metallic organs.
Tinder whispered to Spinner, “Then we must find this Schneider.”
“Listen boys you don't want to do that. He can no more help you than I. You need... I don't know what you need. But Schneider can not help you. It is very complicated look at this. Everything is counterweighted. Look this spring has come off its hook.”
Chester replaced a small steel spring to one of the hooks and immediately the lifeless hand in his lap opened and closed and mother's left eye started to flutter. Chester could not help himself and let out a startled cry.
“It's really quite amazing. It all still looks in pretty good order. This gear needs oil, that's plain to see. And that's probably the reason why. That tube , near her neck, it's leaking. No oil is getting to here. I'm not sure what this does but it is connected to a whole string of other gears. Get me a little oil and some wax to seal this hole.”
For the next six hours Chester tinkered with the automaton. He was shocked that there was so little wrong with it. In the first hour he had gotten her to sit up and move her arms in a cradling motion. He released that by touching the woman in different ways and applying different amounts of pressure the limbs would react differently. Sometimes they would make a cradling motion and other times they would gently reach out and make patting motions. He even got her once to play patty-cake but could not replicate it. Every time he fixed one thing he would have to realign the counterweights and pendulum. Sal and Spinner were exhausted with their adventure uptown and the emotions. They left to join the other children in the main room to sleep. Only Tinder remained behind to hold the candle for Harlowe.
Tinder told Harlowe how he was told by the Wild Kip that mama had been built by a Italian clock-master many years ago. He had no children and owned a pushcart that sold candies. He befriended a number of the street children that would buy his penny wares. He had built the automaton so that the orphans could have something to love at night. Chester figured that the old man must have collected the parts from debris around the city. He found so many different pieces of machines. He found telegraph striking posts used as ingenuous balance levers and mason jar locks twisted into springs. Chester, a man who never used his hands to make anything but money was now for the first time in his career actually working. He could feel the sweat trickle down his neck, he could see the oil tanning his fingertips and he could feel the satisfying snap of a perfectly placed piece. If he had tools, he believed he might actually be able to do the tiny repairs to actually restore the children's mechanical mother.
“Surely the children must know this is a machine,” Chester said wiping down one of the six phono-disks that made up mother's singing voice.
“Some suspect when they get older but by that time they love her so dearly. She is always there with a song or a hug. Mama is the first memory for many of us.”
Chester shuddered to think of little children knowing love and the warmth of affection only from a machine. Tinder could read the pity etched in Mr. Harlowe's face.
Tinder stood up proud and said, “Listen, Mister. We got it pretty good, better than most of them. We got each other and older Runts that are gone still know where they came from and look out for us. Besides we got it.”
Something had changed in Tinder. He could not articulate it but he was no longer a Runt. Seeing Harlowe working on the machine, the machine that for many years, more years than most, had been his source of love. Now he saw it through adult eyes. It was a lifeless thing, a cruel parody of a family life. He didn't like thinking this way but he could not return.
“Just finish up and I'll take you home. The streets here are not safe for a gentleman.” Tinder said coldly.
“I would like to see what else she could do. Maybe hear one of these disks. Are they lullabies or something more,” Harlowe asked carefully replacing the soft wax disks on a spindle in her throat.
“No.” Tinder said pulling a cigarette from his pants. It was the first time he ever smoked in front of mama.
A crescendo of childish screams echoed throughout the cellars intermingled with adult shouts. Tinder snubbed out his cigarette and rushed out of the room. Chester could hear the sounds of terrible violence coming from the main room. He instinctively hid behind the mechanical doll's dresses.
Neal was not so gently tapping his ax handle against the sleeping legs of Rastrix. He rubbed his eyes to see that Neal was wearing his war-leathers.
“What's the big idea of ...”, Rastrix said rolling over.
“There's a riot,” Neal shouted with childlike enthusiasm waking the others, “those damned cops are raiding the Runts' nest. They been rounding up street kids all night beating them senseless. We should get down there. The Dead Rabbits are already on their way. It's going to be a good dance.”
“The Runts?” Calamity said putting down his pipe, his voice sounding like it came from the bottom of a well.
“Yeah I guess they robbed some mucky-muck at the square. In his own god-damn house. Those kids got more guts than sense. Rastrix you coming?”
Rastrix reluctantly got up and grabbed a nearby chain.
Professor gently nudged the sleeping Mathilda.
“It seems the cops are smashing heads over at the Runts. Neal and Rastrix went to join the riot.”
“So go if you want,” she said without opening her eyes.
“No its not that. Its just they are only tots. I don't know.”
“Everyone was child, nothing special about that. Go back to sleep.”