Once upon a night, a girl tiptoed on slippered feet into a garage, clutching a rag and a tin of beeswax. The only sound was the steady tick of the watchman's cane as he passed, but Eliska stood motionless on the step for another moment. The garage smelled of cold air and the sweet tickle of beeswax. She checked again to make sure that her feet were properly encased in their slippers – a cold floor might cause untold damage to a girl's feet – and stepped across to her animus.
The animus was a bull with golden horns and engraved wheels, and Eliska rose before dawn every other month to polish the horns until the tips were sharp enough to pierce the clouds. She knew that she cut a pretty figure, perched high in her animus with her hands resting on the controls.
With the rag gripped in her fist, Eliska scooped a fingerful of beeswax from the tin and started to rub tiny half-moons onto the clouded haunches of her animus. Within moment she was lost in her task. The servants never polished the animus properly, and Eliska could feel it down under her lungs: the shining surface hushed by cloud-fat whorls of grime and grit. She could not bear to have her breath tightened and her eyes blurred by her imperfect animus. It was a part of her, and the servants – they with the shell-hard soles and flattened arches – could never understand that. They could polish from dinner until breakfast and still Eliska would find a smudge at the very tip of her animus's horns.
Now she felt her breath flow, her spine straighten, her eyes brighten; she felt calm for the first time in weeks. Smiling, Eliska scooped another fingerful of beeswax. Perhaps she would get the maids to sew her a new bonnet, so that she could cut an even prettier figure when she rode through the marketplace tomorrow.
Eliska stopped breathing. Something was wrong. Before she had the chance to move, the garage door slammed open and a car roared into the space next to her animus. Eliska, one hand holding the cloth and the other pressed to the warm hood of her animus, knew there was no time for lies. Her father stared at her from inside the car. In that moment Eliska prayed that he would forget the pressure of discipline and keep this s secret. But the King's daughter had gone missing last year, and the town's gossips still chattered with the news that the Princess had run away. All the fathers in the town had pressed their boots more firmly on their daughter's throats to keep them close.
Eliska's father swayed out of the car. His military badges were pinned haphazardly to his gabardine jacket and his breath smelled of rubbing alcohol. It had taken him a while to react, but now he was moving across the garage floor faster than the wriggle of a snake. The words stabbing out of his mouth were incoherent, tumbling in rhythms like YOU GIRL and ACTING LIKE A MAN and DAMNED IF YOU WILL.
Eliska dropped the rag and kicked the tin of beeswax across the floor with her slippered feet, but it was too late. She threw herself across the hood of her animus, squeezing her eyes shut. She knew the garage well, and the sound of a metal object being lifted made her teeth grind together – a hammer, she knew it was a hammer, and she was mumbling no no no no no no in a voice from the depths of her belly, reaching to a shriek as she felt the bulk of her father standing over her.
Eliska fell to the floor, her heartbeat in rhythm with the sound of her father's hammer on the shining spine of her animus.
* * *
The Mechanic knew its place. It did not have the softened shell-curved feet of a girl, nor the carefully flattened soles of a man. It was neither this nor that; it did not fit into either list. Its place was in the dark and the quiet, down in the bellies of the animi; wrench in one firm fist and oil slicked along its jaw. Although night had fallen hours ago, the Mechanic was still at work. No feather bed could compare to the solid floor of the garage, of the truth and simplicity of bolts and cogs.
The Mechanic squinted its eyes and tilted its head forward on aching sinews. This animus had rust in its belly due to a careless owner, and it was not an easy fix. Even one thumbnail of decay could spread fast through the animus and into its owner. Rust could cause patches of red along a girl's jawline, and a loose wheel could manifest as an oddly-held wrist or strange posture on a chair.
The tapping of the watchman's cane had passed by a few minutes ago, and now the night was silent as the bottom of the sea. The Mechanic inhaled the smells of oil and metal, and started on the patches of rust.
There was a sputter, a scuffle, and the Mechanic dropped its spanner. The door to the garage had burst open, revealing a curly-haired girl with her eyes and mouth widened to Os. She looked utterly lost: more lost than the Mechanic had ever imagined a person could look.
The Mechanic frowned for a moment, unsure of what appeared so wrong about this image of the girl, and then gasped. The girl's feet! They were touching the ground! The oil-spattered, grey-paved floor of the garage was touching the girl's feet. There was no platformed shoe, no circle of polished wood. All the girl had was a pair of flimsy slippers to protect her feet from the violent ground.
There was no animus.
How could she have managed to get here without an animus? A man or a servant could have walked, but not a girl like this. Her feet would be damaged beyond repair.
'You must,' gasped the girl. 'You must fix it.' She leaned heavily against the door frame, trying to take the weight off her feet.
'I cannot!' The Mechanic rushed forward and placed a chair under the girl. She tucked her feet up under herself, to protect and to hide them. 'I am sorry, I cannot. It is not my expertise.'
The Mechanic regretted that it could not help, but it was too late for the girl's feet now. Perhaps a very knowledgeable foot-doctor could soften them over time, but the Mechanic knew only how to deal with metal and oil, not flesh.
'I do not mean my…' she swallowed again, closing her eyes as if the words were painful to speak. 'I mean my animus. You are a mechanic. If I bring my animus here, can you fix it?'
The skin on the girl's arms and throat was as white and flat as the surface of hot milk. The Mechanic, suddenly self-conscious, rubbed at the oil on its hands with a rag. Its feet felt too large, too hot in its shoes; it shifted on the gritty garage floor, unable to find a proper balance.
'I can fix it,' the Mechanic said. 'But how can you bring it here? I cannot carry you.'
The girl sighed, but the Mechanic could hear the hitch in her throat. 'I cannot very well carry it, now can I? It was difficult enough just getting here.'
'If I can ask… how did you? How could you get here on your… I mean, by yourself?'
The girl laughed, looking up at the ceiling and blinking rapidly. The Mechanic had not cried in a long time, but such actions were as familiar as childhood. 'With difficulty. I was fortunate that my home is only a few streets away. I did not even know where I was going; I just walked around, until I heard that noise of metal on metal.' The girl stepped forward, her hands held out to the Mechanic. 'You must do this for me. Please. Without my animus, I will be alone.' She took the Mechanic's hand in her own; her skin was as soft as the underside of a rabbit, and the Mechanic tried not to worry that its hands would feel rough as cats' tongues to the girl.
'Please,' the girl said again, and the Mechanic realised that it was following her to the door.
'No!' The Mechanic felt its heart rise, choking, to the back of its throat. 'I can't go. Not out there.'
The girl looked like she wanted to slap the Mechanic's face. 'But you must! I cannot carry my animus here. It was hard enough to–' She bit her lip, looking down at the scraps covering her feet. 'Is there somewhere else I can go? Someone else who can help?'
The Mechanic pulled its hands out of the girl's grasp. 'I am the only one for miles.'
The girl grabbed the Mechanic's hands and looked into its eyes. For the first time the Mechanic noticed that the girl had eyes the colour of fresh moss: soft, green, speckled gold.
'Then you are my only hope. Without my animus, I have nothing. I will be… I will end up…' The girl squeezed the Mechanic's hands so tight that it could feel the tiny bones in its knuckles grinding together. 'Please.'
At that moment, all the Mechanic knew was the scent of the girl filling every scrubbed corner of the garage: vanilla and green leaves and warm sand. The Mechanic turned away from the girl and began zigzagging across the floor of the garage, collecting handfuls of tools and putting them into an oil-spotted leather bag. I am not doing this, it said to itself. I am not leaving this building and I am not going out into the street and I am not going to this unfortunate girl's house. I am not. But still the Mechanic's hands touched on tools, and still those hands picked up the tools and tucked them into the bag.
* * *
Eliska curled her palms around her toes, watching the leather bag fill with tools. This strange creature – this woman-man, with its leather shoes and rags tied round its wrists and long hair caught back in a scarf – seemed willing to help. Just the thought of her animus being mended was enough to distract Eliska from the dull ache in her soles. She felt as if all the blood in her body was pooling in her feet. The thought of them growing rusted and rosy made her stomach overturn; she pressed her hands to her ribs and closed her eyes. Was this how it was supposed to be? Running desperate through the midnight streets to fix a thing that no-one really needed? But she did need it. She did. Without it, she had nothing.
When she opened them, the Mechanic was holding a bulging leather bag and fiddling with a set of keys. Eliska could not help frowning.
'What's the matter?'
'I don't…' – the Mechanic was still flipping through the keys – 'I don't usually lock the doors. I haven't left this garage in a while. The manager, he… he sets things up. I just stay back here and fix the machines. I don't like to talk to people.'
Eliska wanted to ask why, but instead she closed her mouth tight. The Mechanic was already helping her, and she couldn't afford to jeopardise that.
The Mechanic finally found the right key, opened the door, and motioned for Eliska to walk through. Both of them huddled in the doorway, the bright-lit garage at their backs and the darkened street at their front. The air smelled of jasmine underlaid with the faint chill of metal. Tap-tap-tap went the watchman's cane: without realising, they both followed the sound with their eyes. It was not strictly illegal for them to be out alone at night, but it would raise questions that they did not want to answer. They waited until the sound faded off into the distance.
Where the Mechanic's hand rested on Eliska's arm, her body buzzed as if moths were batting their dusty wings against her skin. For a moment, Eliska could not breathe.
'Who are you?' whispered Eliska.
But the Mechanic just took her hand and led her into the night.
* * *
The town was holding its breath in the pre-dawn pitch. The two figures tripped down the street, eyes peering left and right, keeping watch for some danger they couldn't even identify.
The Mechanic's head was spinning, its thoughts colliding off one another like insects around a lamp. What was happening here? The Mechanic did not know this girl, did not care about her fate; and yet here it was clutching a bag of tools and the girl's fingers. It was not just that the scent from the girl's skin was causing hurricanes in the Mechanic's head, or that that touch of the girl's skin was softer than clouds exploding. It was the desperation in her eyes. It was the grip of the girl's fingers in her own, as if the Mechanic was the last lifeboat on a sinking ship.
The Mechanic had been in that place. It knew that feeling.
But the Mechanic had got away, had escaped that world of bound speech and polite footsteps. It had made its own little world in the garage, its own rules and morals: it did not have to conform to anyone's laws because it lived outside the world.
Under the Mechanic's feet the street felt solid and cool; it did not realise how long it had spent indoors. Its feet had not touched ground in months. The metallic scent was growing stronger, overpowering the jasmine that was always in the air. The tapping of the watchman's cane was just audible at the edges of the Mechanic's hearing. The Mechanic placed its hands on the small of the girl's back and steered her away.
'It's okay,' whispered the girl. 'They won't notice us. They are only looking for the princess, the one that ran away from the palace. It's old news, but still they look.'
This was not safe, the Mechanic realised. So reckless to have ventured out into the darkened streets. For a girl it was not safe, and for a creature such as the Mechanic – half of two separate things, making up a whole lot of nothing – it was suicide.
'What are you?' asked the girl, and the Mechanic realised how her questions had changed. It kept its eyes on the ground and loosened its grip on the girl's fingers. She did not seem scared, but there was no way to know what she was thinking. Her steps were unbearably light on the ground, as if she was trying to weigh nothing, to put no pressure at all on her feet. The Mechanic ached to lift the girl. To take the pressure off her swelling soles, to make her feel nothing but the beat of air on her skin.
But that would not help. The girl was trapped just as the Mechanic was trapped. The Mechanic had tried to live its own way, building itself into the shell of the garage, but freedom could not be reached within the constructed walls of the town. It realised now that escape was the only way.
The Mechanic gripped the girl's hand more securely and started to lead her away.
* * *
By the time Eliska realised where she was being led, they were already deep in the hills above the town. She had not been paying attention to their route – she was so used to being led everywhere that she assumed the Mechanic knew where to go. Her feet had been throbbing for a while, and she was trying not to think about the blood pooling in her feet, making them redden and swell. With every cell she ached to not care, to make her own rules like the Mechanic did, but she could not. She still wanted the gleam of her animus.
A clearing opened up ahead of them, still and silent. It looked to Eliska like the belly of a whale. She did not want to leave the ceiling of trees. It was more quiet here than in the town, all sound swallowed by the moss-thick trunks. Eliska could not hear anyone, and that meant that no one could hear her. She snatched her hand out of the Mechanic's grip.
'This is not the way to my animus.' Eliska tried to keep her voice steady. 'I don't know what game you're playing, but it stops here. You will take me home.'
The Mechanic leaned against the spindled trunk of a tree, palms pressed flat to the green-black bark. The thoughts spinning through the Mechanic's head were so strong that Eliska felt she could see them: a riot of colour lighting up the dimness under the trees.
'Did you ever see the princess?' asked the Mechanic.
'Did I… what?'
'The princess. Did you ever see her? Her face?'
'What does that matter?'
'Just answer. Please. Did you see her face?'
'No, I…' Eliska frowned. 'Actually, I did. I saw her during a procession, when I was a child. She was led past on a horse, and I noticed her because she looked so sad. I couldn't understand how someone so beautiful and loved could ever be sad. And her animus! It was perfect. It was a–'
'A horse. A half-ton golden horse with sharpened hooves and jewels for its eyes.' The Mechanic took hold of Eliska's chin, tipping it up so their eyes met. 'Look at me. Look at my face. Don't you know me?'
Eliska looked at the Mechanic's face: the arched hairline, the bird-bright eyes, the sharp edge of the nose, the curve of the top lip – and suddenly this stranger was not a stranger.
'Then you are a girl,' gasped Eliska. 'You are like me.'
The Mechanic – but she was not a Mechanic, thought Eliska, she was the princess, and what was the princess called? In her confusion, Eliska could not remember.
'I was a girl. Now I am something else,' said the princess. 'But I am still Sotome.'
Yes, thought Eliska, that was the princess's name, but something still didn't make sense because – 'But your feet! How can you let them…how can they be…?'
Sotome looked down at her feet, high-arched and rough-soled, somewhere between a man and a woman. 'This is how it can be,' she said. 'This is how we can be.'
Eliska curled her toes as if to protect them. 'I couldn't. What about my animus? I need it.'
'You don't need anything except yourself! We don't need the animi because we won't be alone. You thought that without that shiny thing you'd be by yourself. I spent months up to my elbows in those contraptions, and for what?' Sotome gripped Eliska's hands in her own, and her skin felt hotter than a fever. 'You don't need anything except yourself, but I'll be there with you. We will learn how to stand tall, but until then we have each other.'
The words settled on Eliska like rain after a sunburn. She wanted to agree, she wanted to believe it, but…
'I can't! What would they say if I were to walk around on my feet?'
'Who cares about them? Those high-nosed, helpless girls? You do not have to be like them. Who are you?'
'Without your animus, you are still Eliska. You are more than wheels and soft toes. We all are.'
Eliska felt the damp leaves under her slippers and the ache in her soles. She looked at this creature who was a princess, who was beautiful and loved, and who ran away. At last, she saw Sotome.
'I am not like you.' Eliska turned away from Sotome, looking instead at the flickering lights of the town at the bottom of the hill. 'I cannot be brave like that. To walk among them like you – to let everyone see my feet turn to tatters! I cannot.'
Sotome placed her palm on Eliska's cheek, turning her head so that their eyes met. 'You don't have to. No-one has to see us ever again. Here –' she gestured at the woods in front of them– 'there can be a place for us, just me and you. We can be whoever we want to be.'
Slowly Eliska nodded, hoping that Sotome would not feel the tear sliding down her cheek.
* * *
They lay down on the forest floor, curled close as the whorls of a fingerprint, until dawn. Each was lost in her own thoughts, breathing in the warming air of the new day. They had not slept, but felt as if they had awoken from a long enchanted sleep to see the world in its own true form. They could finally hear the thoughts that had been hidden beneath their skin – always there, but confused, as if they were in another language. But now, in the brightening dawn, they understood.
Sotome realised that she was, after all, nothing more or less than Sotome. A Mechanic was not the opposite of a princess, and it was possible for her to be both and neither. She pulled the scarf from her hair and threw it to the ground.
Eliska, for her part, realised that her hair shone more golden than the polished horns of her animus ever could. She revelled in stretching out her freed feet, letting the cool air slip between her toes.
'This is not the way to escape.' Eliska's voice was husky with her long silence, but it rang out between the silent trees. 'There is no new life to be had in this place.'
Sotome was too lost in her thoughts to reply.
'We must go back to the town,' continued Eliska. 'We must show them how it can be different. Just being who we are – no props, no tricks – is enough.'
'It won't change anything! No one will listen to us.' Sotome huffed air through her nose.
'But it might,' whispered Eliska. 'They cannot silence us, for we will not be speaking. We will simply be existing, and they cannot stop us doing that. And isn't it worth it, Sotome, to change even one girl's life? Think of what you have shown me, of how you have changed me. Imagine we could do that for the whole town.'
The morning was rain-glittered and new, spread out under a sky the colour of sealskins. They walked together down through the trees, watching the straight line of one another's thoughts light up the canopy in a single shade. Ahead of them, the town was laid out like the tide creeping up a shore: streets soon to be filled with delicate flesh in the shape of girls, crammed into the freedom of their animi; watchmen tapping their canes and pressing their metallic breath into the bars of an invisible cage.
At the end of the trees, Eliska took Sotome's hand in her own, feeling revolution in the press of their skin. Together, they walked down the street.
Kirsty Logan is a professional daydreamer. She is the author of two story collections, A Portable Shelter and The Rental Heart & Other Fairytales, and a novel, The Gracekeepers. She lives in Glasgow with her wife and their rescue dog. She has tattooed toes.
Howard Hardiman works in pen, pencil and pixel; drawing from mythology, nature and life. His previous work includes Badger's Day Out, the critically-acclaimed graphic novel The Lengths and the limited edition of Daniel Polansky's The Builders.
"Four Feet" was first published in The Extinction Event (Jurassic London), limited to 150 copies. This is its first online publication.