Cogs and Lace
The nursing home smelt like floor polish and window cleaner. There were no budgies, no cats. “Old people need cats,” Cielo thought. It didn’t feel right, visiting Nan here.
“Child…!” Nan beamed in her wonky voice. She was old and bedridden, and couldn’t greet anyone with anything else. Just words full of love.
Fortunately, Cielo was the daughter of an inventor. More a weird one, than a great one, but an inventor none-the-less.
“I’m going to invent something amazing for you!” she insisted, clutching her little girl fists.
“That would be wonderful,” Nan told her. “But doesn’t he get angry when you mess up his workshop?”
Cielo just shrugged. She assumed all scientists did.
“Maybe you could invent it here?” Nan suggested.
“Okay,” Cielo said.
Cielo’s father built his inventions with cogs and tin. His work shed had the remains of tin cars, and tin cans and one thousand tin cooking oil drums.
There would have been the remains of close to a gazillion alarm clocks and watches! Cogs, of every imaginable shape and size. Time frozen, time sped up, time dismantled. Time reused.
“What are you doing?” Dad asked, as Cielo lugged a big bucket of bits and pieces towards the door.
“I’m using your stuff to invent something for Nan,” Cielo said.
“You do know she’s dying?” Dad asked.
Cielo’s face turned red, tears swelled. Oh, yes, she knew!
“All the more reason,” she said.
“And what are you inventing?”
“A dragon!”Cielo insisted.
“Of course,” Cielo repeated back at Dad, like fact. No way was she going to let him ask for his junk back!
“A dragon is a good choice,” Dad said. “Your Nan used to be a witch.”
“Huh…?” she said.
No-one told Cielo things! Ever! Her face turned even redder. More tears swelled.
“All the more reason,” she snapped.
Dad didn’t say anything, just watched her go, walking backwards to better drag all those cogs and gears.
“So what will it do?” Nan asked.
“I don’t know yet…” Cielo replied, cursing and grumbling. Some of the cogs and gears were so fine they were almost sand.
“Oh, okay,” Nan smiled. “Then tell me about what you do know.”
“Like what?” Cielo asked.
“Well, What will you want it to breath?”
“Breath?” said Cielo.
“Surely not fire? Everybody’s dragon breaths fire.”
Cielo felt her face turning red again. How dare Nan accuse her of being like everybody else! Even if she was. Didn’t Nan know she wanted to be something more, even if she didn’t know what?
She couldn’t be boring! She just couldn’t!
“…Lace,” Cielo finally said.
“Lace, dear?” Nan asked.
“My dragon, it’s going to breath fine patterns of lace.”
“How wonderful!” Nan beamed. “Now tell me about your dreams!”
“Dreams…?” Cielo asked. She never dreamed, or never remembered them. Life was busy enough as is.
“Oh, yes, dreams…” Nan sighed.
Cielo was making a thing of science. She had no times for dreams, but for Nan she decided to sleep with a pen and paper by her bedside.
Meanwhile, outside, just beyond Cielo’s hearing, she… almost… heard thunder… almost saw lightening. As if something inside her knew a storm was approaching. Something big, from unseen places, of the unspoken, made by the unknown.
“Gah!” Cielo raged, as more cogs falling through her fingers.
By now she had great plans. Nan’s dragon would be small but mighty! Eat light for fuel, and swallow foxes until all the birds and frogs and lizards and butterflies came back. Nan’s last days would be filled with colourful creatures and sweet song.
If she could make it work.
“Last night I dreamed I rode my dragon like a pony,” Cielo said to Nan while she worked. “The dragon was still nothing but cogs and gears. We found a troll town, which was, like, all these old stone bridges, each with a hut or two underneath…”
“So it was dark?” Nan asked.
“Under the bridges, always. Maybe that’s why trolls are so grumpy. The tin mine trolls, they knew who you were and made 100,000 fine tin dragon scales made out of purple and brass and green. The trolls told me to say ‘Thank you’ to you for that time you helped them in the Princess War.”
“My!” Nan said. “And what did the dragon do?”
“The dragon, it just had to swim through them, the tin scales, and they stuck,” Cielo smiled. “It was as if the scales knew where they belonged.”
“That sounds marvellous!” Nan said, lying back in her bed, picturing it. “Oh, I do love dreams!”
“Do you have dreams, Nan?” Cielo asked, as she worked.
“Of course,” Nan said. “I dream of casting future spells, linking dreams to possibilities. Or looping possibilities back into dreams.”
Cielo didn’t really listen to every word. She was finding making the dragon eyes almost impossible. It took more patience than she had. She was starting to doubt. A whole dragon, what was I thinking!?
“Ragh!” she shouted as the marble eye popped out again.
She looked up at Nan, who was still talking.
“Imagine being able to live forever in a young girl’s dreams…”
That just reminded Cielo her Nan would soon be gone. Her face turned red once more.
“For you…” she mumbled, re-inserting the eye, and pushing on.
Meanwhile, the thunder rumbled closer. Every day, closer, louder… mean.
“Last night’s dream was mighty, Nan,” Cielo said, as she attached the flaming red tin fins to her dragon’s tail. “You were in it.”
“Me!?” Nan said.
“Yes, my dragon and I were being chased by monster cats. Not lions. Just cats that were monsters, with round cat heads, big and hunting. Somehow, I knew it was oh, so important they didn’t catch us!”
“Why…?” Nan whispered, leaning forward, fascinated.
“I was older, and had learnt more. My dragon could take us through atmospheres and… moments and moods, and other stuff I don’t really understand. I don’t know. It all made sense in my dream.”
“They’re like that.”
“My dragon and I were trying to unite the unbelieved and the real, to maybe, I think, bring back some magic. We wanted the fairies to talk to us again. To rain trouble and wonder and magic back into our lives.”
“How incredible!” Nan smiled. “Can I ask how I was involved?”
“It was… weird,” Cielo said, briefly looking up, then returning to work. “Everything was life or death… Urgent, like the world was screaming. Yet you and I gave each other a look, as if we both knew I didn’t know you well enough.”
“How silly is that!” Nan laughed.
“Of course!” Cielo gave an embarrassed little grin. “You used to be a witch.”
‘Well, it’s not as simple as that…”
“I can’t believe you never told me,” Cielo pouted.
“Oh, darling, you weren’t meant to know until you were older. But…” her voice trailed off. “Anyways! Now…” she shouted, and started telling tales so fanciful, so full of awe and romance, so unbelievable, Cielo wanted to hear more and more, whether they were true of not.
Outside, between stories, Cielo could have sworn she felt rumbling, from just beyond the mountains. Cool air began to mix with warm. The storm was almost there.
Making solar panels from tin scales was fun! Wiring it all to the dragon’s heart was a nightmare! Family and nurses came and left and saw all the mess and wondered if were both girl and old lady were mad. Cielo didn’t care.
Remembering her dreams was becoming scary. Not only did she not need her pen and paper anymore, she was finding it hard to turn her imagination off. Cielo could have sworn she saw those two giant cats, their round faces, peering at her from behind hedges and bus stops and cracks in the sky. While she was awake.
If only just.
With so much inventing, Cielo was always tired.
“Last night’s dream was the weirdest yet,” she said, waking Nan up. “And I think it’s followed me into real life.”
Nan chuckled and scoffed.
“Serious, Nan. I’m scared,” Cielo fret.
“Then give into them,” Nan grinned.
“Excuse me?” Cielo said.
“Your dreams. Embrace them, make them real, if only to you. Real, while the rest of the world is pretend. Make them real so you can confront your fear.”
Just then, Cielo heard the loud knocking of something caught in the wind, banging against the nursing home wall. She felt the air go cold, watched the clouds through the window. Black and grey, tumbling masses, they billowed and rose to the heavens. The storm was here, about to fall…
She turned her attention back inside. Nan was still talking about witchcraft. So much it almost belittled Cielo’s gift.
“But science and magic have nothing in common, Nan,” she protested.
Nan laughed as lightening struck a block away, and branches ripped off in the wind.
“Are you serious?” she smiled. “They both require imagination…”
Cielo looked at Nan’s dragon. Not four foot tall, not six feet long. Waiting for fine tuning. Ready, if she chose to believe in it.
More thunder shook the nursing home.
One of the cats, as tall as the ceiling, sick of hiding in fantasy, leered out from behind a wall. The other looked through the window. They moved with cold, hard grace, with the bitter wind and rain. They were the storm…
Cielo opened the panel on the neck of Nan’s dragon. Inside she could see thirty thousand cogs and gears, layered, interweaving, waiting. The muscle of study and steel.
She furiously tinkered as the cats prowled, closer and closer.
“I believe in you…!” she shouted over the wind, to her mechanical beast. “You’re real! I believe!”
She could feel the hard rain and wind of cat’s breath on her neck.
“Come on, dragon!” she cried.
And gears turned, and cogs spun, and her dragon flew.
“I’m not sure what’s going on!” Cielo called. The wind filled her mouth, scattering her words.
Nan called back: “Well! That’s! Dreams!”
They were on the dragon’s back, flying through empty late night backstreets, the cats impossibly close behind.
Nan’s dragon was small, made from bits and bobs and tin, by a little girl – not up to carrying kids, their grandparents and storms. The wind picked it up, rode, thrashed and threw it, bringing it crashing down into a back lane.
“No!” Cielo cried. “It’s not fair!”
She looked at her gift, half buried in broken bluestones, backyard dogs barking, the cats approaching through the shadows.
“Nan, help!” Cielo cried.
Nan just let slip the smallest grin, filled with rain.
“Make it breath…” she purred.
The cats were in front of them now, huge, looking down.
“Nan…” Cielo shook.
“Relax,” Nan crooned. “This is just the conflict. Every story has conflict.”
That made Cielo so angry she wasn’t scared anymore! She wasn’t like others. She was determined to not be! To not do thing the same way ‘just because’. She didn’t see the need for conflict. She didn’t see the need for gatekeepers of magic to destroy her science!
She didn’t see the need to maybe die just so she could go through routines. At. All!
The wind screamed, both cats leapt, full of fangs, full of claws!
“ENOUGH!” Nan called, as if she wasn’t old, as if she was strong.
Suddenly, the storm had gone. The roof of her room in the nursing home un-tore. Cielo and Nan were inside, in the dark. Everything still. Just the two of them, Nan’s dragon, and the cats, so tall they filled the room.
“Once more; make it breath…” Nan’s voice softly flowed.
Cielo pressed a button, hugged her dragon just right, and it breathed. Oh, it breathed!
It took in smoke and cotton – table covers, sheets, spare clothes – and exhaled fine lace patterns everywhere. Lace, filling the air, seeping out the window, weaving into the sky. Clogging up the storm, turning everything into flat, woven beauty, shaping clouds to cloth, lit by a dull moon.
Suddenly, everything was midnight still. Soft still, like some beautiful Japanese painting.
“Oh…” one of the cats said. “Oh…!”
“We have a job to do,” the other cat told it off.
“No, this is too pretty,” the first cat said. “It’s… magic.”
“It’s SCIENCE!” the other cat raged.
The first cat walked through the wonderland of delicate, hanging cloth and air. as a fairy or two began to drift down.
“It’s… both,” the beast purred, and slinked once more into shadows.
“It’s both,” the other agreed, and followed.
Then, all was quiet. Just the breathing of a dragon, its softly humming cogs and gears.
“Wah…?” Cielo woke with a start!
She was in Nan’s room. It was daytime. A bird was singing, garbage men were working. All was fine.
“Um… What was…?” she stammered, trying to get her bearings. “Nan, that dream was so real!”
“A thing of wonder…” Nan’s voice croaked, as if she knew things.
Cielo looked at her, so unwell, so frail. Mum and Dad were there. A doctor or two.
Cielo’s face turned red once more. She had fallen asleep while doing the final touches on her gift. Everybody had seen!
Cielo straightened herself, hugged her dying Nan.
“My present to you,” she said, and flicked the on/off switch behind the dragon’s ear…
The anticipation was palpable! There was a CLUNK, then nothing. Nothing…
. Dad, Mum, and the doctors and nurse waited.
“Surely not…” one of the cleaners whispered. “She’s just a kid.”
Cielo’s dragon didn’t work. She ran from the room in tears.
Mum and Dad called to Cielo through her door. They told her this was it, her last chance. Nan wanted to see her before she was gone.
Cielo was so embarrassed, heavy with defeat. Maybe one day she would make the dragon work, yet, but for dreams, Nan would be long gone.
“Gah!” she mumbled and cursed at herself. “A dragon? A dragon!? I should have bought her flowers!”
She walked back to the hospital, head low, so they might meet alone one last time.
“I’m sorry, Nan,” Cielo sniffled, as she walked through the door. “I let you down.”
She tried, she tried, but couldn’t stop crying.
Nan reached her hand out to hold.
“Child, you… fool!” the old lady rasped. “I could not be happier, not once in my whole life!” she smiled. “You have spent the last week in here, with me, telling me of dreams and dragons, listening to my stories! Being my friend. Oh, oh the joy…!”
“But that dragon never worked!” Cielo shouted.
“Cielo, you try! You do! You… BUILD! You USE that imagination! Oh my, that is so rare! Not every idea has to work. You just have to… invent!”
Nan held her heart.
“I have never, in my whole life, been so proud!”
Cielo thought about all the stories Nan had told her over the past week, about how they were now hers, to dream of and breath and spread and keep alive.
Still too embarrassed to make eye contact, she looked at Nan’s hand in hers. It was so skinny and frail. The veins spread, like patterns. Cielo had never noticed that before.
For the briefest moment Cielo imagined this was her real challenge. That she was the dragon, and Nan’s story was her dragon’s breath. A thing of lace and silk. A glorious pattern that spread out, covering the world.