This is the next installment in my Southern Gothic-Steampunk tale. The first part can be found here.
The bourbon was nearly gone. With the only two glasses in the house lying in glimmering pieces on the kitchen floor, Joshua was forced to drink straight from the bottle. He felt like a common cobblestoner, gulping moonshine out of a rag-wrapped jar. Twiggs had ushered Miss Polk out and she refused his offer to drive her home in her autocar. Joshua bade her farewell from the floor where the gold screws and wheels in his leg looked particularly out of place on the dusty wooden boards. Her voice trembled as she made her goodbye and she was none too steady as she hurried out the door. Joshua heard the loud hiss of steam as she started her autocar and thundered down the plantation drive. Hours ago. With his own vehicle out of commission in the old stable, he would be forced to sleep at the plantation tonight. The bourbon swished in the bottom of the bottle as he put it to his lips and took a long pull. His gums were pleasantly numb and the tips of his fingers tingled, but the throbbing pain in his thigh was still an irritation.
Twiggs had left on foot for the hotel in town not long after Miss Polk’s flight. They had rooms reserved and all the luggage was there. Joshua thought longingly of a hot bath and dinner in the hotel dining room. But he could hardly stand, much less walk, and it was miles away. Twiggs offered to carry him upstairs but Joshua waved him off, preferring to sit in the darkening kitchen, watching the shadows traipse across the floor. The cicadas began their chorus and he closed his eyes, listening to the almost forgotten sound. He had become more accustomed to the whistles and hisses of streets full of autocars, the whir and whoosh of dirigibles overhead, and the clatter of mechanical carts as street vendors hawked everything from jewelry and ribbons to expensive cogwork clocks and gleaming toys.
Even indoors there was constant noise–the hum of the hydrogen lamps, the clink of machinery running through the walls to power them and to warm the pipes running through the walls and the floors. The plantation house was filled with different noises all together. It seemed as though the very walls were speaking to him: groaning and sighing. Joshua’s father had refused to modernize the place; Mason Hawkins’ father and his father’s father lived there with the place just as it was and so would he. The only place Mason allowed any of the new machinery was in the fields–not to spare the field hands–to boost productivity and attempt to save the ailing plantation. The one modern luxury he enjoyed was his autocar until a ride back from town after too many drinks at the hotel led to the accident that cost him his leg and nearly his life.
Joshua wondered how his father would have felt if he knew the same field machinery that brought him such pride took Joshua’s own leg. A wheel came loose on one of the steam-powered tillers when Joshua had been walking alongside. The slave driving it had wrenched the wheel as hard as he could when he felt it jerk left—keeping the machine from cutting Joshua in half. His sharp swerve caused the tiller to flip over, crushing the man to death and leaving Joshua bleeding in the dust. Joshua wondered how many generations of Hawkinses had fed the plantation fields their blood in vain. He took another swig of bourbon, silently toasting the dead Hawkins men that had died before seeing the ruin of their lives’ work.
Given the same choice as his father, Joshua accepted without hesitation. The wires that ran through his new leg were painstakingly spliced with his nerves and arteries, using his body’s naturally produced power to run the gears and cogs. It flexed at the knee and ankle and even where the arch in his foot used to be. Sometimes the cogs at his new joints froze up like today, but he had not had such an event in almost a year. The machinists were ever developing and improving their designs.
If only they could improve the oily tasting tonic he had to take twice daily to make certain the artificial ports that connected his nerves to the cogwork leg did not reject it. He had seen men sitting on street corners with stumps of arms or legs that oozed putrefaction onto the cobblestones, their eyes vacant, lips black with the tar they drank hoping to stem the infection. The hand that lifted the bottle of bourbon to his mouth shook. He did not look down at his leg, afraid he would see the tell-tale darkening in his veins, spider-webbing up his thigh like the insidious roots of some noxious plant. If rejection occurred, there was nothing he could do to stop it.
When he tilted the bottle back this time, only a few drops trickled down his throat. His head felt heavy and he struggled to keep his eyes open, the bottle slipping from his fingers to settle in the dust. Soon, the only sounds were the melodic buzzing of the cicadas and his gentle snoring. The moonlight through the magnolia trees sparkled off the empty bottle of bourbon and danced across Joshua’s gleaming leg.
image found here