Phenakistoscopes and House Tocks

by Catherine Battreal

 Lucretia could not fathom why the reel was left in the phenakistoscope. Her mother was adamant about removing novel reels from it before giving it back. This especially should not have been forgotten. The drawing of the woman in her marital bed was no one if not her mother. The man, however, she did not know.

 She shrieked until her father came and did not cease until he agreed to be rid of the thrice damned machine.

 When she returned from school the next day there was a tock at the foot of her bed, sitting casually on a glass memory case.

 "Hello, Lucretia," it said. "I am Jacob, your new friend."

 The girl stared at Jacob, first in horror and then wrath.

 It was an affront to all human decency.

She had no problem with the other house tocks, Gardener and Nanny. They were, as advertised, far more precise and aesthetic than human labor. They were good tocks, perfectly programmed to meet the needs of a busy home. None of them appeared or pretended to be anything more than household tools.

 Jacob, however, did.

 The tock was her age but with her father’s features, likely customized from his childhood portraits. That someone should take something so sacred and turn it into a toy, let alone one so arrogant to presume her immediate love, was repulsive.

 She banished Jacob to a corner of the room with a drawing pad. Gardener bolted him down to the bench and turned it so that the boy would face the wall where her etchings hung.

 Her fond hope was that it would copy the stylistic waves so popular in the young socialite circles. Japan was in fashion, their depictions of water in particular. She had several etchings and painted gowns with the iconic ocean scenes. If Jacob would have drawn them, its presence might have been tolerable.

 This did not happen. Rather, it became less and less tolerable.

 Outside of the horrendous offense of existing, Jacob began to draw macabre pictures. They started as featureless people in coffins, always a male and a female. Gradually, the figures began to take shape. Over the course of a week they developed faces, no more than crude lines at first, but soon their features were unnervingly familiar.

 Lucretia moved the picture of her parents under her mattress whenever she went out for the day. She prayed that would make it stop drawing their features on the corpses.

 Every afternoon when she returned home, the picture was on her night table again and there were more of the drawings.

 Two weeks passed of this. Two weeks when Lucretia barely ate or slept and slowly withdrew from her circles. Her meticulously dyed skin lost its golden hue, her eyes became ringed, and she looked less human than her tock.

 It had to end.

 She’d told her parents numerous times, but when they arrived Jacob would be painting her Japanese waves. The other drawings were always somehow gone, in the bench she suspected.

 As things grew stranger, she remembered Nanny’s tales of magic in the Eastern lands—voice reel sixty three. Lucretia surmised that Jacob had been given a soul by some strange alchemy and that the pictures were just the beginning.

 It was the day Lucretia came home with one of Gardener’s tools that she found the final set. The drawings that she feared came before action.

 The old phenakistoscope sat in the middle of her bedroom floor. In it was a reel with Jacob’s precise writing along the edge.

 She held her breath and activated the automatic crank.

 The many scenes that Jacob had been drawing played out in sequence. Over and over on the screen her father stabbed her mother before slitting his own throat.

 The tenth revolution was punctuated by a metallic clang as she ended Jacob’s plans with the head of a socket wrench.

 She screamed and cursed him and demanded justification of the drawings. There were no recorded responses for death, though. Nothing to say in the face of having its gears strewn across the floor.

 “I’m sorry, Lucretia,” Jacob repeated in broken and cracked syllables until the gears controlling his voice box were knocked out.

 Behind her, etchings of Japanese waves crashed against oil stains.

 There was nothing left in the tock’s chest when she was done and Lucretia, compelled by a curiosity as morbid as Jacob’s drawings, put her hand through the hole she’d made. Oil dripped from her fingers onto his recent work in progress.

 It looked like girl in straight jacket.

 She laughed until she fell asleep amidst the machine parts. Somewhere in her dreams, the phenakistoscope reels played out with alarming sound and clarity. When the final scene was interrupted by footsteps

 “Thought she was a corpse,” a man said as he knelt beside her.

 “It wouldn’t have made sense,” said another. “The note, psychobabble thought it was, was pretty clear there.”

 The older of the two helped her to her feet and wrapped a blanket around her.

 “I’m sorry, poppet. You’re going to have to come with us.”

 “What happened? What did Jacob do?” Lucretia asked as she sat up.


 “Jacob,” she said and gestured to the tock. “Did he do it, then? Did he do what he’d drawn?”

 Lucretia looked between the man at her side and the other, who was busily bagging each drawing of Jacob’s as evidence. He’d already found the phenakistoscope reel and another, one with her mother’s handwriting on it. Even through the bloodstains, she knew which one it was.

 “I killed him,” she sobbed. “They should have been all right.”


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Writers Bio

Catherine is a technician who moonlights as a writer. She lives in the middle of Nowhere with way too many cats and is also known to shelter eldritch abominations in her bathtub.

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