It had been a struggle to simply jot down blueprint ideas. Ideas, not even the blueprints themselves – and Alva knew what she wanted to make for the University board. She could see the curve and bend of every limb, the delicate intricacies of the wings, the perpetual mechanisms that would allow it to play one of the tiny tree bark flutes that Sonny whittled so effortlessly as he lay on the slope of a knoll and watched his cattle, giving them to her with his every visit and delighting in the pitches and tones she could coax out of each. A copper fae creature, fully autonomous, was an incredibly ambitious project, but for a young woman with no formal education, ambition was absolutely essential. How else could she prove that she could teach the ways of clockwork?
But, again, nothing came to her. She would sit at her little desk at the window of her room, looking out onto the farm fields and the clouds drifting across the sky, and the sun would rise to greet her and set behind her. Book pages would flutter in the breeze, should her window be open. Sparrows would alight to her windowsill and tweet with heads cocked, flying away if she so much as moved her head. The fae creature seemed impressed upon the undersides of her eyelids, taunting her when she blinked and tormenting her as she tried to sleep.
“It’s there,” She used to say, when her family would ask how she was doing, “But it’s not coming out. It’s stuck.”
When this became her only answer for months, each time given with more sharpness, more irritation, they ceased to ask her about it. They were a family of chance and circumstance, but they knew each other well, and they knew their Alva to be a peculiar sort. She was clever and bright, no one to make worried or to worry about. She would do fine if left to her own devices, this they firmly believed.
When, finally, her ideas had been listed out, each letter in every word a painstaking accomplishment, she wept, and could not understand why. The next day she hated every single thing she had written down and tore the paper up.
“No,” She said to herself, “No, I – this is wrong. It’s wrong!”
Why was it wrong? Alva couldn’t explain it, not in words. The wrongness would rise up in her like welling tears, surprisingly hollow and sharp, and her head would feel heavy and everything became dark. Many times she tried to express this to her family, but every time she was too afraid, and her words never fit on her tongue the way they were supposed to.
When autumn had come and still she had produced no fae creature, Alva left abruptly, only pausing to wish her family a goodbye and a promise to return in the spring. She mounted a horse and rode, rode across the plains and forests, until she came to the hilly prairies that Sonny called home. His fellow cowherds had taken the cattle south, while he stayed in their summer ranch and kept things patched and livable, and he looked surprised to see Alva at his door.
“Somethin’ wrong?” He asked her. “Looks like y’rode like there’s fire atcher heels.”
Alva shook her head, then nodded, then shook it again. “It’s…I don’t know. I needed to go somewhere. I hope you don’t mind.”
He had bowed his head at that, a blush to his cheeks. “Aw shucks, mindin’ you’s the last thing I’d do.”
Autumn on a near-empty ranch was much different than autumn on a farm. There was no hustle and bustle of crops to be harvested, just the pair’s horses and the few cattle too old to make the wintering trip to feed and clean, a big barn to put in order, a living quarters to make habitable again. Alva threw herself into these tasks whole-heartedly, working beside Sonny and sharing jokes and stories with him to fill the silence with chatter and laughter. It felt so good to do this – to do something new, and not rack her brain for plans that were already present, or make her hand sketch what was already perfect in her mind.
She could stay like this, she realized as winter came upon the ranch, and said so one evening. Sonny nearly choked on his stew.
“What? What’s wrong with staying here?” Alva asked him. He thumped his chest, almost looking winded.
“Don’tcha got plans, Alva? Y’always talk about ‘em, those big fancy dreams ‘n…you’d give that all up for some lil’ ranch?”
When he put it like that, a horrible pit of wrongness seemed to open up in her, when before it had merely been covered up and ignored. She paled and turned away, feeling tears spring in her eyes. Yes, what about those dreams? What about teaching clockwork at a university? What about being surrounded by books and students? What about doing something she loved for the rest of her days?
Alva brought her hands to her face. “I don’t know. Failing in front of all those important people? Or being called foolish? I – you know I want to make a fae creature. I love them with all of my heart. But what if they don’t take it seriously no matter how well it works? Or - or what if they take me on, and I get the job?”
Sonny looked positively bewildered. “Ain’t that whatcha want?”
“But what do I do when I get what I want?!” Tears were flowing now, and bitterness rose like bile in the back of Alva’s throat. She felt like she was back home again, desperate to explain her frustrations to her family and yet finding nothing that quite explained them. Even this did not seem to sound right. “What do I – what do I do with myself? What am I even good for, Sonny? What will this even prove? I’m better off just staying here, aren’t I? I…” She wiped her eyes furiously, and looked up to meet his. “I do love you, Sonny. I-I’d be your wife in a heartbeat.”
The blush on Sonny’s cheeks was almost luminous. He shook his head, reaching out to Alva across the table. Hesitantly, she took one of his hands. “I ain’t one t’let you be my wife ‘cause of somethin’ this sad,” He said, “‘Cause…shucks, Alva, I’d be lyin’ if I said I didn’t love ya too. But from the way you’re sayin’ stuff…makes me think, if I’d been down, ‘n thought I shouldn’t run cattle no more…would throwin’ myself into somethin’ different make it better?” He squeezed her hand and smiled faintly. “I’d still miss the prairie grass, the cattle bayin’, sunsets ‘n campfire smoke…like you’d miss old books ‘n grease ‘n talkin’ ‘bout all that stuff what makes things work that I couldn’t wrap my head ‘round no matter how much schoolin’ I took on.”
Alva swallowed, a lump having formed in her throat the more Sonny went on. The darling boy, he was right and she knew it, but why was this emptiness so persistent? Why did it gnaw at her, cling to the shadows in her mind, whisper in her ear about how easy it would be to let her dreams go even as they too rebelled at the very notion?
The next day, she sat at the table in the living quarters, surrounded by crumpled blueprint paper, slowly sketching something out again and again. She stopped only to eat, sleep, and relieve herself. Sonny took care not to watch over her shoulder, not wanting her to feel any pressure to do something, but after a week he began to pile scraps of metal next to her, all retrieved from tools downstairs that were no longer fit for use. She would thank him, in her own, way, first by setting out meals for them to share, and then later, as the winter cold deepened, they would sleep close together for warmth and she would speak to him in hushed whispers.
“The mechanisms have to be so small,” She tell him one night, “I’m so afraid I’ll break a cog in the middle of shaping it.” Or, “It would be incredible if she could fly, wouldn’t it? But the body would have to be very light, and the wings very strong, and the mechanisms perpetual or something, I can’t quite decide what it has to be.” Or even, “Would you visit me up at the university? It’s not too out of the way from your cattle route. Nobody would say anything if we courted a bit, either. My family adores you already, but other people…”
It was these things that helped Alva continue through the winter. Even when the emptiness seemed to envelop her entirely and she was tempted to throw all her blueprints and the mechanisms and framework she had put so much time towards into the fireplace, she gripped the table and closed her eyes and thought back to Sonny’s words. If she would not dare let him give up his passion, she could not let herself do the same.
Though she left the ranch in spring with a heavy heart, her bag was also heavy with a half-finished automaton, as tall as her knee and incredibly slight, but much more of a start than she could have ever hoped for. When she returned home, her family celebrated, marveling at the work she had done and crowding around her as if they had not seen her for years. They let her work through the spring, through the summer, through bouts of tears and self-torment, through breakthroughs and sudden inspirations.
In three years, Alva would stand before the University board and watch their eyes widen to saucers as her copper fae played a flute to rival any musician. She would find her family waiting outside of their office and make them exclaim and burst into happy tears at her success. She would meet Sonny at the University’s gate, and shyly ask if they could marry – partly for his surname, for the documents she would have to fill out, but mostly because she loved him, and he would say yes, and though wed they lived their passions, mostly apart, sometimes together. But that would be in three years’ time.