Steampunk Fortnight

A Different Engine

A note of explanation about the Steampunk Quartet.


(with apologies to Messrs. Gibson and Sterling)

Nth Iteration: The Compass Rose Tattoo

A phenakistoscope of Ada Lovelace and Carmen Machado, with Machado’s companion dog, the brown-and-white pit bull Oliver. They are apparently at a racetrack, although the tableau was no doubt staged at the maker’s studio. The two women, clearly on friendly terms, are attired in pale silk gowns and overdresses, billowing out over crinolines but still elegantly simple in effect. They are shown seated at first, on an ornate cast-iron bench in front of a painted scrim, watching the start of an invisible race. They move their gaze to follow the speeding steam gurneys. They stand, caught up in excitement. Carmen puts her hand on Ada’s arm, and removes it quickly. Then she surreptitiously dips her hand in Ada’s reticule bag, withdraws an Engine card, slips it into a hidden pocket in her own dress, and resumes watching the race. The two women jump about triumphantly, laughing and clapping their hands in an artificial manner. The race has been run and an imaginary purse no doubt won by at least one of them. At the end, Machado turns to hug Lovelace briefly. Her dress dips elegantly low at the back of her neck, and we get a brief glimpse of the famous tattoo between her shoulder blades: a large, elaborate compass rose. Then the two women sit down as they were at the beginning, a slight smile on Machado’s face.


* * *

Carmen Machado, alone but for faithful Oliver, gazed into the slot of the phenakistoscope and turned the handle. The two women watched invisible gurneys, stood up, leaped around, and sat down again, over and over.

She tapped a few more paragraphs into the document she was working on, weaving the scene on the disk into the text of the novel she was writing. When she was done, she pulled the Compile lever, sat back, and addressed the dog. “All done, Oliver. I think this is as good as it’s going to get. Thank heaven for the phenakistoscope. The dead past revived through the wonders of light and shadow, as the adverts say.” And so fortunate for herself, she thought, that she and Ada had spent so much time playacting.  She need only view a few silly phenakistoscope disks, and she had the plot for the next installment of her fanciful thriller.

When the Compile was done, she gathered up the huge stack of Engine cards, careful to keep them in order. She wrapped them securely in brown paper and tied the package with string. Then she reached for her shawl and Oliver’s leash. Oliver was getting old, but he wriggled a bit in anticipation of a walk. They went outside, and she closed the cottage door behind her, pushing a few vines aside. Must get those cut back, she thought—dreadful cliché, a vine-covered cottage.

At the village postal office, the old clerk, Mr. Thackeray, took the package from her as she entered.

“Ah, Miss Machado,” said the clerk. “Another installment of your wonderful entertainment about the Queen of Engines! I will send it right off: the wires are free.”

“Thank you, Mr. Thackeray,” said the writer, watching as he fed the punched cards into the hopper. “I’m so glad you are enjoying the fruits of my misspent youth.”

“My pleasure, Miss Machado,” said the clacker clerk. “I might have been a writer, you know, but for the attractions of technology and my responsibilities as the head of a household. An artist’s life, writing. A restful life of the mind.”

“La, Mr. Thackeray!” said the writer. “Nowadays it’s scribble, scribble, scribble, and the more scandal and naughtiness the better. I doubt you would find it either artistic or restful.”

“That may well be the case, Miss Machado, for a novelist like yourself,” said Thackeray. “A fine novelist,” he added quickly. He hesitated. “But I—in my youth—I had aspirations to be a kinetoscope writer. Greek tragedy, retold for the small screen.” The wire transmission was finished. He rewrapped the cards and tied them up tight.

Carmen Machado nodded. “Quite right, Mr. Thackeray. Quite right. A far more elevated profession,” she said, taking the package from the clerk. “But the money is in the novel, sir. The money is in the novel.”


Author’s note: Carmen Machado is a writer. She told me this about herself:  “I have a large tattoo of a compass rose between my shoulder blades. I have a spotted pit bull named Oliver who kind of looks like a cow. I live in a tiny cottage covered in vines.”?

Copyright © 2010 by Elieen Gunn


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