Authors: Jamie Sedgwick
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The Tinkerer’s Daughter
By Jamie Sedgwick
Published by Timber Hill Press
My only clear memory of my father is from the day he left me. That frosty autumn morning remains vivid in my memory as if I were there now watching the scene play out, though I can’t seem to recall any other day before it.
Patches of frost glistened under the early morning sun and a cold wind howled across the southern plains, funneling up into the tiny valley around us. The trees blazed with fiery colors, painting the mountains in broad swaths of crimson and gold. Behind us, I could see the mouth of the valley and the plains spreading out, and beyond that, the narrow line of trees that sprouted up from the muddy banks of the Stillwater River.
I was riding in our old hay cart in tow behind my father’s great stallion, bundled against the cold in a heavy wool blanket. I remember the uncomfortable shaking of the cart and the incessant squeaking of the rusty old leaf springs as we rattled up the mountainside.
Up ahead I saw the awkward shape of an old windmill rising up out of the hillside, and behind it a distant curl of chimney smoke drifting through the trees. The windmill blades were not spinning, despite the breeze.
Then, just as the trees began to close in around us, Father reigned in his stallion and brought the cart to a shaking halt. I craned my neck around as he dismounted, and watched him walk towards me. He lifted me to his chest and I readily accepted his warm embrace. His skin was abrasive, his beard like steel wool against my cheek, but I pressed myself closer. I was afraid. I’d never been away from our tiny homestead before.
I glanced around and saw that we were at the edge of a broad clearing. The windmill stood behind us now, just down the road. Up ahead I saw a small cottage and, a stone’s throw away, a crumbling old barn backed right up to the mountain.
Something I’d never seen before, a slow moving paddle-wheel, sprouted out of the west wall of the cottage. The lower half rested in a creek that gushed out of the woods behind the house. I would later learn that this wheel not only pumped a constant supply of fresh water into the house and garden, but also harnessed energy. To me, on that day, it was simply another oddity in a place filled with them.
Junk lay scattered from the cottage all the way down to the road. It sprouted up from the lawn in tall piles and stacks like the ruins of some ancient civilization on the verge of collapse. It was the oddest assortment of things I have ever seen. Rotting old wine barrels groaned under their burdens. Rusting hinges, nails, and pieces of scrap metal spilled out over the rims and lay scattered across the withering grass. Pipes and tubes, wooden crates, and metal boxes were strewn across the yard. I saw wheels, copper and brass pipes, gears and pulleys, and a hundred other things that were entirely foreign to me.
Out of the midst of it all, a man appeared. He was tall and thin, unshaven and dressed in filthy, oil-stained clothes. His hair was wildly unkempt and he had some sort of leather goggles wrapped across his forehead. He reeked of burnt oil and sulfur.
Though the man towered over my father in height, and they were of a similar age, I remember thinking that he looked very frail. My father was a broad-shouldered and sturdy veteran, hardened from years on the battlefield. At the time I didn’t understand the difference between them, I only observed it, and it made the man seem that much stranger.
My father was the only human being I’d ever known. This man was so different, so unlike father that he hardly seemed human at all. I pulled closer, burying my face in Father’s coat, but I kept an eye on the strange man in my peripheral vision.
“Good morning! Mr. Vale wasn’t it?” the man said.
Father shook the man’s hand and nodded. “Yes, Bran Vale. Good morning.” There was hesitancy in his tone, but the stranger didn’t know him as well as I did, and therefore didn’t notice. I turned my face up to stare into Father’s eyes. They were dark, and it was more than just the shadows of the trees.
“What have you brought me?” the man said. “Wagon wheels or horseshoes? Perhaps a clock?” His voice rose at this last word, and I glanced at him. His eyes were wide, excited. Nothing would have pleased him more than a broken clock.
“Not today, Tinkerman,” my father said. His voice boomed out of his chest like a drum, and I could feel the reverberations inside me. “I’ve a much more precious trinket this time.”
The Tinkerman scratched his head, and glanced at the empty cart. “I don’t understand.”
“They’ve called me back to the front,” my father said. “I don’t want to impose but I have no one else. Leaving her in town… was not an option.”
I was wearing a cap, a light summer thing made from white fabric with a narrow brim. Father pulled it off and kissed my forehead. “Will you help me, Tinkerman? I can pay you well.”
The Tinkerman fixed his stare on me, and I felt a shiver. I saw his glance stray to my ears, and suddenly felt very self-conscious. I look human mostly, but I got my ears from my mother. I didn’t understand the difference then, but very soon I would know all too well.
My mother’s people, the Tal’mar (often known as wood-folk among humans, or
in the mythology of the age) have very light skin and long, pointed ears. Unlike humans, the Tal’mar have a strong way with magic and a distrust of all things mechanical.
Humans are exactly the opposite. Humans have little talent for magic and thus fear it, but they love the wonders of machines and chemistry. Their beliefs and cultures are as different as their appearances, and it has always been those differences that defined their war-torn relationship. As a child of both races, with a human father and a Tal-mar mother, I was doomed from the start.
The silence hung over us for a long time, until Tinker finally said in a cracking voice: “All right, then. Bring her up to the cottage.” He led the way, and my father held me tightly as we navigated through piles of twisted metal and broken machinery.
Father had to turn sideways to fit his broad shoulders through the narrow cottage doorway. It was dark inside, until Tinker pulled a metal switch on the wall. A shower of sparks rained down from the ceiling, and a dim light flooded the room. I glanced up at the odd device and saw a glowing coil of metal attached to two thick wires. My father paid little attention to this gadget, but to me it may as well have been magic. I had never seen anything like it. Our small cabin had always been lit by candles and oil-burning lanterns. This was something new, something exciting!
Reluctantly, I pulled my eyes away to see what else the Tinker might have, and realized that the junk inside the cottage made the front yard look like a palace courtyard. Shelves lined the living room walls, straining against the weight of hundreds of glass jars, all filled with the oddest assortments of tiny metal objects and strangely colored liquids. Some of them had labels, or words painted on them, but I couldn’t understand any of it. My father had taught me a bit of reading and writing, but Tinker’s script was indecipherable to me.
At the far end of the building I saw a small fireplace and an old rocking chair. A ladder leaned against the wall, leading up to a sleeping loft. The floor area between the kitchen and the loft was a maze of books and papers, some stacked waist-high.
The kitchen was equally cluttered, most of the junk similarly unidentifiable. There was a small rectangular table with two benches pressed up against the back wall, and opposing that a small wood-burning cook stove. To the left, a small window gazed out over the yard.
“Would you like some tea?” Tinker said, and I pulled my eyes away from the mess. I’d almost forgotten where I was. He grabbed a metal dipper from a nearby shelf and started filling cups from a steaming pot on the stove. Father gave me a light nudge.
“The Tinkerman has some tea for you,” he said.
“No!” I said in a muffled voice. I buried my face in his neck again. There was something happening here, something I didn’t understand. I was frightened.
“I have sugar,” Tinker said. “And some honeycakes!”
Father took a small cake and offered it to me. I took it, but refused to take a bite. I held it in my hand and kept my face hidden.
Father stood there holding me like that for a while. He and the Tinkerman began to discuss the weather and such trivial things. The trick worked. After a few moments I started to feel more at ease, and shortly I began to eat the cake. It was small, and when I was finished, I raised my head to look for more.
“Ah, here we are,” said the Tinker. “Would you like another?” I nodded.
“Here,” father said. “You should sit at the table while you eat. It’s polite.” He settled me onto the bench, and Tinker served up a plate of cakes and a steaming cup of tea. I snatched up one of the cakes, and Father knelt down close to me as I started to eat. “I have to tell you something, Princess. I have to take a trip. I will be back soon, but while I’m gone, the Tinkerman will take care of you.”
I had known something was coming; had been terrified of it from the moment we left our cabin. Now the weight of the truth seemed to squeeze the breath out of me. My chest tightened, my mind ran wild with visions of what might happen to me without my father.
I started to weep, and my father’s eyes welled up with tears. He pulled me close. “Don’t cry,” he said. “I won’t be gone long. And the Tinkerman has many interesting things to show you.”
I felt a painful wrenching in my heart as Father gave me a final hug and then turned away. He paused in the doorway. “I’ll leave her bag on the drive,” he said to Tinker. “Take care of her. Don’t let her get hurt by all this junk.” Then he turned to me. “Be a good girl for the Tinkerman. I love you, Breeze.”
That fast it was over, and he was gone. The pieces of my tiny world crumbled around me. My heart lurched in my chest and I felt sick to my stomach. Somehow, I think I knew even then that I would never see him again.
A dark emptiness settled over me as I heard my father’s cart rattling down the road. Everything I’d ever known was quite suddenly gone, and I found myself alone in that strange place.
Well, not alone... I cast a wary glance at the odd, very tall man who was shuffling around the kitchen.
“So your name is Breeze?” Tinker said. He settled down on the opposite bench and poured himself a cup of tea. I nodded. “That’s a pretty name. How old are you?” I held up four fingers. “Four?” he exclaimed. He started to laugh. “Well that doesn’t seem likely.”
I must have looked much older to Tinker. What he didn’t know was that my mother’s people age very quickly in their youth. The Tal’mar grow in spurts as humans do, but our growth is much more rapid. Generally, by the age of five or six we have matured into our adult stage. At this point we have the appearance of a teenage human. I was young but on the verge of this final growth spurt and in a year or two, I’d look like a matured adult.
Part of this difference is due to the fact that we are physically smaller than humans. Tal’mar are several inches shorter than the average human. With less height and body mass, less growth is needed. Unlike humans however, the Tal’mar can live for several hundred years.
“Well what do you like to do?” Tinker asked. I knew that he was trying to comfort me, trying to distract me from the fact that my father was leaving. It was too much for me. I couldn’t take it.
I jumped off the bench and ran to the front door, my heart drumming in my chest as I yanked back the latch. “Wait!” Tinker called out, but I was too fast for him to catch me.
I jerked the door open and raced headlong through that maze of junk, stopping only when I reached the edge of the homestead. I could see my father at the far end of the valley below, heading out across the plains.
I fell to my knees and started sobbing. I called out to him, but he didn’t come back. I struggled to understand this unforgivable turn of events. He had abandoned me. I couldn’t have understood that he was a soldier and that he had been called back to war. It wouldn’t have meant anything to me, even if they had tried to explain it. All I knew was that my father had gone, that he had left me.
I called out to him, choking through my tears, straining my voice with volume. He never glanced back. I told myself that he couldn’t hear me, even though I knew it wasn’t true. Tinker found me and tried to comfort me, but it was a wasted effort. I refused to listen to him, or to move from the spot.
I fell silent eventually, but if the old man came near me I started wailing again. Finally, Tinker left me and went to see to some of his work. He returned later and found me quiet and still, lying on the ground. He hauled me back into the kitchen, where he fed me again and spoke to me in gentle reassuring tones. I ate silently with my head down. Dragging a response out of me was like wringing water from stone.
Eventually, after dinner, he took me to his bed in the loft. It was clear that he was unused to dealing with a child, and was uncomfortable in this new situation. He didn’t tell me a story, and he didn’t bother to tuck me in. He simply said, “Good night.” Then he went back downstairs. I lay there in the darkness, staring at the ceiling for what seemed like hours.