To Hold the Mirror

Kat Howard

“It seems alive.” These words, uttered in a tone of awe, were the ones most often said when someone saw her work. But the automatist knew that what she did was a counterfeit of life, not a creation of it. Her work was a kind of illusion: to do it well, she could allow herself none about its nature. That which she recreated was gone, and her skill would not bring it back. She was not a resurrectionist. She was an artist.

She grounded her art in artificiality in order to make the impossible a mirror of the real. Reality was fragile, impermanent, governed by entropy. A windmill to tilt against. The automatist gathered her weapons.

She began with the prosaic: the bones of small and recognizable animals, filaments both flexible and strong, gears and pincers and pins, and a folio of exact anatomical drawings.

There were other things necessary to the automatist’s work, materials perhaps less predictable. Silver and gold. Gemstones, precious, and of a more common sort. The distilled essence of the damask rose. Saffron. Bones from animals last seen in the pages of a medieval bestiary.

The automatist often felt that while her work would not be out of place in such a book, an encyclopedia of the impossible forgotten, what she did – this ornate reconstruction – was more akin to the work of the medieval artisans who made reliquaries: beautiful housings for objects both sacred and miraculous. The labor that went into the creation was a way to highlight the rarity of what was housed inside, and at the same time pay tribute to it. For them, it was work made prayer. For her, it was work made memorial.

Her work was not precisely the same as making housings for relics. She did not create a skeleton of beauty to wrap around something that appeared ordinary. Rather, she took what had once been beautiful, and translated it. She gathered the bones of the strange, the extraordinary, the extinct – always that – and recreated the animals that had once lived. She did not engage in taxidermy – there were no skins of furs and feathers stretched over painstakingly reconstructed skeletons. She specialized in wonders: mechanized jeweled miniatures that reveled in their excess.

There was a distinction, the automatist thought, between extinction and loss. While she could do nothing about extinction – could not use her gears, her crystals, her tools to assemble a device that, once turned, would shift time itself backwards to send flocks of passenger pigeons winging their way across the sky – she could prevent what was gone from becoming lost. She could use her art, those gears and crystals, those small and hidden bones, and she could embody loss, could give shape to the spaces that were now empty. She could make those who saw gasp at the beauty, and long for what once had been. She could make them mourn for what was now only artifice – clockwork hearts and pearls for eyes.

Like those ancient makers of reliquaries, the automatist considered her work to be a sacred one. Once her tools were set out, she made herself ready to work with them. She washed her hands in the salt water of the ocean, the great cauldron of life, and then drank rain water, collected from a storm. She light a candle, and then touched the flame to a tear of frankincense – light and sanctified breath. She rang a small silver bell once, twice, three times, and the third ring held in the air. Lastly, she ate a small bud of lavender, preserved in honey.

Originally, the automatist had taken her inspiration from bees. From one bee in particular, the Osmia avoseta. O. avoseta was a solitary bee. It did not dwell in a hive, did not have a colony of other honey-gathering sisters. And instead of raising its young in a multi-celled comb of wax, O. avoseta made individual nests out of flower petals.

The nests were very small, only about half an inch long, designed to house one egg. They were also very beautiful. The flower-petal nests looked like tiny papier-mache buds, new flowers sculpted together out of pieces of old. It was not that the bees’ nests were more beautiful than the flowers from which they came, but that they were differently so, and the space between the first beauty and the second caused both to be seen anew.

To see anew, to see differently. That was the reaction the automatist hoped her creations caused, that was the reason she set herself to such labor.

The automatist passed her hands over her collected tools, and drew in a breath.

Today, she was crafting a swan. Cygnus davidii, or Pere David’s Swan, which was certainly extinct, and perhaps had never existed to begin with. There were some (with whom the automatist disagreed) who insisted it was not a singular species but rather a Berwick’s Swan with color abnormalities. Regardless of its provenance, it was a small swan, with a red bill and feet the yellow-orange color of marmalade.

She had, as yet, not made a swan. Perhaps the greatest of all automata was the Silver Swan of John Joseph Merlin, made in the late eighteenth century. It was life-size and mobile, capable of a range of movements due to three different clockwork mechanisms inside it. Merlin’s Swan was a piece of astonishing technical achievement, and even more astonishing beauty.

The automatist had always felt that making another swan was akin to rewriting Hamlet – you could do it, but you had better be good enough that your voice wouldn’t get lost in the echoes of someone else’s words.

She could not have done this when she was first starting out, but then, there were many things she was capable of now that she had not been before. The automatist had worked hard to perfect her craft. She had dedicated herself to these remembrances. They were her breath, they were her soul. They would be what was left of her, when she herself had gone extinct.

She exhaled and began, as she always did, with a bone. No matter how fantastic the figure she would create was, no matter how rare and wondrous the materials she used, she always began with an actual bone to remind the automaton of its origins. Every gilded skin hung on a skeleton.

In this instance, she used a phalanx from a Pere David’s Swan. It was not always possible to use a bone from the same animal she was replicating – considerations of size were only the beginning – but when it was, the automatist liked the symmetry. For the rest of the skeleton, she chose silver, as an homage to Merlin and his craft. No one who saw her swan would see its inner workings, but she would know it was there.

She chose pieces of frosted glass for the feathers, setting them one upon the next until they were opaque. They rang like falling rain when the swan was set in motion. She used crushed pigeon’s blood rubies for the bill, layered over copper so the red would seem to glow, and pieces of yellow-gold amber for the feet.

When finished, the swan was small enough to fit in her hand.

And when the automatist breathed into the swan’s mouth, it flew.

The automatist had learned to do this by luck – breathing into the mouth of a thylacine while checking to be sure its teeth were properly set. It had whirred and moved, and she had thought of proximity to the miraculous. She had changed her technique, after, making her creations more ornate, less exact counterfeits of reality. A jeweled swan that flew was a wonder, one feathered but unalive was a horror.

She watched as the swan flew a circle around the room, evaluating the smoothness of the motion, the balance of the wings. She smiled, pleased with her art, and then held out her hand. The swan landed, and tucked its bill to its breast as if it were sleeping. The automatist picked it up, and carried it from her workroom into a long hallway. The length of the hallway was lined with cabinets on both sides. Most of the cabinets stood empty, the light reflecting softly through the glass. But one-third of the cabinets on the right were full of other automata: the Irish Elk, the Pied Raven, the Sea Mink, the Dusky Seaside Sparrow, the Martinique Lizard, the Laysan Honeycreeper, the Pig-footed Bandicoot, the White-throated Pigeon, the Blue Antelope, the Red Gazelle, and countless others, stranger and less-recognizable, that had once walked the earth, and then had not.

Each was resting, dormant as the swan the automatist held in her hand, and each would remain in stasis, for as long as they were closed behind glass, created reminders of lost beauty, of lost wonder, of creatures hideous and commonplace and now, gone. They did not fly or climb or run now, these elegant counterfeits, but they could, and so something of the life they mirrored remained.

When there were new extinctions, the automatist held exhibitions of her work. Quiet memorials. People came, and walked the long hallway, and spoke in hushed voices. Some wrote checks to various organizations with words like conservation in their names. They sighed and mourned and drank bitter wine from plastic glasses, haunted by the unchangeable past.

The glass shuddered beneath her hands as the automatist closed the door of the cabinet into which she had placed the replica of the Pere David’s Swan. The cabinet had a mirrored backing, and under the light, the glass and jeweled automaton was reflected on itself. If she looked just right, it went on forever.

Kat_HowardKat Howard is the World Fantasy Award-nominated author of over twenty pieces of short fiction. Her work has been performed on NPR as part of Selected Shorts, and has appeared in LightspeedSubterranean, and Apex, among other venues. Her novella, The End of the Sentence, written with Maria Dahvana Headley, will be out in September from Subterranean Press. You can find her on twitter as @KatWithSword and she blogs at