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art by Void lon iXaarii

Iron Roses

Michal Wojcik was born in Poland, raised in the Yukon Territory, and holds an MA in history from Montreal. His short fiction has previously appeared in On Spec: The Canadian Magazine of the Fantastic. You can follow his adventures at onelastsketch.wordpress.com.

Roses don't grow around New London any more. Cast-off trolleys, engines, scrap metal, and rusted airship frames press up against the city's edge, not trees. The Fraser River resembles a tongue of burnt milk licking the Pacific Ocean. This is the realm of the scrap-runners, tripping through iron mounds to scavenge what they can for resale to the factories. If anything else could grow here, it gave up a long time ago.
That didn't stop people from talking about roses.
The two sat on a cog of a huge gear, like two kids on a Ferris wheel. They both bore the big boots, the padded gloves, and the mismatched gear that indicated scrap-runners. Beneath them, barges laden with sheet metal floated down towards the sea.
"I've seen them before," said #1, Selwyn. Like anyone in New London he was pale, thanks to the smog that lovingly hugs the city half the time and the rain that pounds it the other. His coveralls and body harness did little to fill out his sparse frame. Once red hair was so full of soot, it hung black and grey, wavered when he spoke. "Went in the country once, must've been five or six, with my uncle."
"How'd they smell?" asked #2, Millie. She was taller than him, had her hair clumsily lopped short (she'd cut it herself) and wore airman's goggles she'd scrounged from the back heaps, ostensibly to keep the dust out of her eyes.
"Smelled... good. Don't know how to put it; was a while ago."
"I only seen them on the vee." She tore another hunk from her sandwich. "Can't be the same."
"I picked them too," he went on, "stabbed myself with the thorns."
Selwyn took a full-on look at Millie, who wasn't looking back. She still watched the barges. "Wish I could get you some," he ventured.
Millie's mouth hung open a moment, masticated food stuck inside. She swallowed quickly. "Yeah, that'd be nice. Though, what I could really use right now is a new celpher."
"Millie, I--"
But Millie was already hopping along the gear teeth. "C'mon Sel, we won't make any cash sitting up here."
Leaving Selwyn staring after her. He scrambled down as soon as he collected his thoughts, back down into the piles of steel.
Few scrap-runners came to Serja Petrov's workshop, a patchwork of old warehouses and temp structures jammed together on the riverbank. They didn't trust the old Croatian, since he actually built things out of the junk before putting them on the market. Yet, Selwyn periodically wandered onto the premises in the evening, clad in a long coat instead of his usual gear. He could hear banging and cursing from somewhere, eventually found Petrov in one of the warehouses cranking at cogs. Walking in here felt like entering a Mechanist's temple: pipes suspended from the ceiling (lanterns hung off those), blasts of steam everywhere and the constant tick of pistons or clockwork. Petrov had no beard, no hair, just a head like a dried-out apple interrupted by an eagle's beak.
"Petrov!" Selwyn called, keeping a safe distance. He needed to shout a few times before the Croatian crawled out from the steelwork.
"Hey? Ah, Selwyn, yes?"
Petrov hung his body over the frame and wiped his brow. "Something wrong?"
"It's, nothing really. Just, there's this girl."
Petrov laughed suddenly in that long wheeze he passed off as laughter. "You come to me for advice on what?"
"Maybe I should come back later."
"No." Petrov ceased his laugh. "But me, I know nothing about women. Ask me about machines, then I give you some answer, yes?"
"You had a wife."
"Why do you think I left Croatia?" said Petrov, and hopped over the railing so he could give Selwyn a clap on the shoulder. "Who needs women when you can have celpher or a vee? I make all these machines here, when I finish, they live, breath. Put enough love into anything, and it comes alive. They are like children, and best of all, I don't need a woman to make them!"
"I'm serious," Selwyn murmured.
Petrov removed his arm and sat down on one of the workbenches, tossing off his gloves. "So you like some girl."
"Yeah. I don't think she likes me, though. I mean, not in the same way. We kissed, once, but that was a while ago. And she laughed at me."
A shiver went through the workshop, kicking lights and spare bits into a melody. "Just pressure going off," waved Petrov when Selwyn almost toppled. "She's one of the colonials, Canadian, yes?"
Just a nod.
"They like freedom. You take things slow," Petrov lowered his voice into what he considered a whisper. "I tell you, make her see you really appreciate her. A gift, something she cannot get here."
"You mean, like roses?"
"Ha. Exactly. See, you already have her."
The problem was finding some. Selwyn only made the briefest forays into the inner city, and even then, just the outermost outskirts. Those also made him uncomfortable. Despite his long jacket, people picked him out as a scrap-runner and avoided him; after enduring more than a few young ladies' arrogant sniffs he stopped the long circuit into New London to find some flower shop --they wouldn't sell to a sooter anyway. The countryside wasn't an option; he hadn't enough sterling to take a freecart the whole way. He could afford a locomotive, but there wasn't an option of getting time off scrap running without being snubbed by the factories and the other runners as well.
As for seeds, they couldn't grow. He'd tried to grow potatoes once, in old buckets and whatever soil he could scrounge, but the resulting sprouts and roots looked so sickly and (he couldn't fathom why) oily he ended up tossing them out without trying any. And still he spent almost every day picking through the slabs with Millie, still failing to get her attention in any meaningful way.
He got the idea, indirectly, from Petrov. After another nighttime run to the workshop, Selwyn found Petrov's chest. Old Serja had been pouring vodka, came into the main room when he saw Selwyn holding up a delicately crafted honeybee, all twisted out of iron.
"Ah, you found my collection."
Selwyn started, put the bee back in the chest. Beetles, wasps, dragonflies, butterflies sat there as well, all giving off a dull sheen. He wordlessly accepted the glass from Petrov and tipped it back. "What're they for?"
"Something I do for myself. You need some time, yes? Started with the butterflies; my wife loves them, and I used to send them before she stopped sending me letters. It's habit now."
"Do you think," Selwyn said, then paused to down the rest, "you can show me how?"
He had no workshop, and had to set himself in the abandoned machine room. Not much space, abandoned boilers took up most of it. Still, there was a desk strapped against one wall where he could work. Selwyn set a lantern on one side and his toolbox on the other, before spilling out the various bits of metal and wire he'd garnered. Lastly, he stood an old book on the farther end, filled with color plates of flowers. As he shuffled the last bits in place, he heard the door squeal open.
Another girl stood in the frame, Nydia. She still had her harnesses on, too big for her, she clattered whenever she walked. She was only eleven; still, she carried herself with sureness far outstripping Selwyn's. She peered over the table and then at Selwyn, who still hadn't said anything.
"You still awake?"
"It matter?" Selwyn said, going back to rummaging through what he had. "Why're you here?"
Nydia rolled her eyes. "Think you're the only one who wants some place quiet," she said before she hung over the desk and squinted at the plates. "What you working on?"
"I'm making flowers."
She scrunched her eyebrows. "Why'd you want to make flowers?"
"You wouldn't understand."
Nydia detached from the desk and hopped onto one of the pipes. "They're for Millie, I bet."
Now Selwyn's fingers slipped. He looked back at the girl swinging on the boiler. "So what?"
No reply, Nydia just kept swinging her legs.
"Look, what is it going to take for me to get you not to tattle?" Selwyn asked after a sigh.
The girl seemed to contemplate this a while before answering. "Let me help?"
Selwyn's fingers slipped again. "Oh, go ahead," he managed, and begun twisting the first stem.
It took a few tries. With Petrov, it had seemed easy. By himself, it wasn't so much. He kept absorbed in trying to replicate the plate as best he could, but what he produced looked dead. Nydia fared no better, and the two of them worked in silence. Eventually Nydia tossed hers down and just sat off to the side, holding her head in her hands while she watched Selwyn carefully fuse, solder, sand, and beat pieces into place. The moon made full circuit, and Nydia was fast asleep, before he was finally satisfied. He'd been forced to take off the gloves for finishing; had to wash his hands in the brass sink and lay on bandages. The pain and exhaustion was worth it, for the iron rose lying on the table.
When Nydia did wake up, she saw the rose directly in front of her and flicked a glance back at Selwyn, who smiled. "Looks alive." She tentatively picked it up and ran her hands along with a breathless look, suddenly dropped it. "Ouch!" and she nursed her thumb as some red hung from the stem. Selwyn offered her the roll of bandage. "Why'd you put thorns on?"
"They're not real roses without them," Selwyn lifted it and turned it in the light.
Nydia picked herself up. "You'll be round here next time?"
"Well, got to make more than one."
"Hmm. Okay, see ya," and Nydia flitted away.
Selwyn's grin faded once she left, and he wiped her blood off the rose with a towel.
In here, the rose almost seemed to take on color. Petrov had a pair of spectacles perched on his nose, turned the one lens so he could get a better focus on the zoom before giving it back to Selwyn. "Craftsmanship excellent."
"You think it'll work?" Selwyn asked, shuffling his feet a few times.
"Yes, yes. I knew you had it in you, but these are almost like real."
"No, but... will she like them?"
Petrov flicked off his spectacles and folded into his armchair. "I think she will. Even one."
"One's not enough," Selwyn said, shaking his head. "I need a, what you call them, a bouquet."
As sunset neared, the smog lifted, letting the sun through in more than just a fuzzy swathe. The dull greys that dominated the wasteland changed to brilliant silver. From a distance, it looked like a field of broken glass. Millie had more spring in her step as she wove her way between them, and one of her rare smiles. She had even stripped off her goggles and let them hang. Behind her, Selwyn moved more hesitantly.
"You think you might make it out of here?" called Millie as she clambered over a trolley frame.
"What you mean?"
"Well, no one wants to run scrap forever," she sat and tucked her knees against her chest. Her chin and cheeks were smothered with dirt, just not the area round her eyes.
He clambered beside her, but didn't sit. "Course not. What would you do?"
Millie shrugged.
From then, silence--or as silent as these parts got. Only staring out at the mountains of junk marching towards the sea. "Kind of pretty, in the light," Millie finally said.
"I've got something for you," Selwyn quickly turned away, made sure he couldn't see her reaction.
Took a while before she said anything. "What is it?"
"It's in the old machine room. If you'll come."
Now he chanced a look. Selwyn couldn't read Millie's expression beyond her nod. He helped her up and led her wordlessly back.
The dust that kicked up when he opened the door was far more noticeable when a beam of sunlight shot through. Once Selwyn strode in, he wasn't quite sure what to do next. Millie kept by the door and only peered inside. He felt like he should say something, but the words stuck. She saw the roses before he even went near them. From then, he took a deep breath and grabbed the steel bouquet. He could just barely lift it with one hand. Still nothing said.
Yet, Millie did pull off her gloves and stuff them in her belt just so she could take one and feel it between her fingers. "Roses," she whispered and then bit her lip. "For me?"
"How long did it take you?"
"Not too long." Two weeks.
Millie continued to examine the rose. Wire stem, petals formed from beaten steel into delicate ripples. If not for the color, it would have seemed organic. "It's beautiful, Sel. Better than the vee. They're beautiful."
He went up to her closer, and she took the bouquet, both their hands intertwined for a moment. Millie tilted her head up slightly, and closed her eyes, and Selwyn leaned towards her. But just as their lips were about to touch, she turned away with a blush. "You can't give 'em to me, Sel."
She would have gone on, except as she moved to push the flowers back, one of the thorns nicked her palm. The bouquet shattered in her hands and fell with a tingle on the metal beneath her feet. More blood dripped off the wire.
He would have helped her. Instead, he gave a miserable glance down at the roses and then back. Millie pushed one hand against the other to staunch the cut, then, seeing how he stared, blushed again and quickly bounded away from him.
For the remainder of the evening Selwyn gathered his roses.
Specks of blood lay smothered across the stem, but Selwyn couldn't bring himself to clean them this time. He lay them all down save one, and only held it dully while his thoughts wandered elsewhere. No sobs, instead he deliberately squeezed the rose in his fist until his own thick blood joined hers, flowed down the stem.
He thought he would feel pain, like the others. There wasn't any. It felt more like his hand was party to several kisses. The thorns punched in his skin sunk deeper and seemed to root themselves into his veins, drinking, drinking. He pressed his fist tighter. And watched the rose gradually bloom.
Later, Nydia found him with his back turned to the door. She said nothing, just shut it and sat beside him. He looked back and smiled a little, and when she looked over his shoulder, her eyes widened. "A real one? Where'd you get it?"
"I made it," said Selwyn. "I made it, and it came alive."
And he pressed his nose into the flower, took a deep, deep breath. It didn't seem so bad, any more. Millie could go if that's what she wanted. But he had... this.
Light emerged over New London.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, May 16th, 2014

Author Comments

I initially set out to write a straight dieselpunk story about post-apocalyptic Vancouver, but everything I touch seems to slide into fantasy--even at the last possible moment.

- Michal Wojcik
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