Once upon a time there was a princess who lived (by choice) in an enormous clock tower. She was a nervous sort, and the only thing that soothed her jangling, wrangling brain was the tidy ticking of gears and the clatter of levers and the throng-throng of the four brass bells (one at each corner) that rang out on the hour. The commoners called her Clockwork Kate, though the king and queen did their best to forbid the name.
Though her mother and father often begged her to live in the palace as a proper princess should, Clockwork Kate couldn’t stand a day in such chaos. They ordered and pleaded every time she came to visit, but she never gave in.
“Everyone moves around however they please,” she would tell her mother. “You never know what is coming your way,” she would explain to her father. Then she would finish her tea and return, after no more than an hour of visiting, to her clocktower chambers high above the city.
One day, Clockwork Kate found herself with child. When she told the queen, and queen told the king, both of them demanded to know who the child’s father was. Princess Kate warned them not to ask her twice, or she would retreat to her clocktower and never come down. But the parentage of a king’s heir is of paramount importance (at least for those who care about such things), and Kate’s father pressed the point. True to her word, she left the palace forever.
Ashamed and unwilling to see their kingdom go to a stranger’s son, the king and queen ordered the clocktower boarded up. They declared, on pain of death, that the name Clockwork Kate never to be mentioned in their kingdom. They erased her name from the family tree and banished her from history. The king announced the kingdom would go to his sister’s son and when he died, not two years later, it was so.
In shorter time than you might think, all that was left of the memory of Clockwork Kate was the sound of four brass bells on the hour, which the cityfolk called “Katie’s Song” – though none of them could tell you why.
Forgotten (some say happily so), the princess continued on in the soothing order of her tower. In the fullness of time, she bore a child. The baby girl made up of flesh and skin and bone on the outside, as she ought to have been, but inside her was hundreds of tiny brass gears, ticking away like who-knows-what for who-knows-why. Kate loved her dearly and called her Gearheart Girl.
Under Kate’s calm and orderly mothering, Gearheart Girl grew up quickly. She was not allowed to leave the clocktower, for (even if the building had not been boarded up tight), her mother could not bear to be outside. They would watch the city go by from high above though, looking out of one of the four clock faces. So it was that Gearheart Girl learned that most of the children below had two parents, and that most of those were a mother and a father. Curious, she began to ask Clockwork Kate to explain it to her.
At first, Kate put the question aside with a mother’s “when you’re older,” but Gearheart Girl was persistent, and never got tired. She began to ask about her father every time the last throng-throng of the hourly bells had faded away. Kate knew well enough her daughter’s persistence would go on till time itself wound down, and so she gave in.
“Your father, my dear Gearheart Girl,” she said “was one of the gnomes who live on the Mountain and under the Mountain far away on the edge of what we can see. It was he who built this clock and, when he would come to set it right, I would talk with him. Soon enough, we fell in love and there you were. Now we’re done and done with that.”
Clockwork Kate ought to have known that feeding curiosity only makes it hungry. Late that night, at the very first stroke of midnight, Gearheart Girl crept out of her covers and up to the north clock face of the tower. There, by the bright light of the full moon, she could see the Mountain, just as far away as she could see. By the time the sixth stroke of midnight had throng-thronged, she had climbed out through the hole where the clock hands came in, and stood on the very narrow ledge outside. At the stroke of eight, she raised her gear-work hand over her head. At the stroke of nine, all five fingers telescoped out into long propellers. At the stroke of ten, they began to whirl. At the stroke of eleven, she heard her mother, who had waked to find her gone, crying out for her from inside the tower. At the last stroke of midnight, the whirling blades caught the air and carried her up and away, much to her mother’s dismay.
She flew over the sleeping city and out to the countryside, whizzing past clouds and stars, straight for the far Mountain. By sun-up, she had landed. She took a deep breath of the first non-dusty air of her life. She marveled at the wild twittering of birds, the never-repeating drip-drop of a nearby brook, and the movement of everything around her, going every which way at once.
She had landed at a large stone set by the road – a marker that indicated that her grandfather’s kingdom was ending and the kingdom of gnomes began.
“Up and on,” Gearheart Girl said. She marched on the narrow road up the Mountain and into the Gnomeland. At first, she truly did march, as regular as any soldier might. After a while though, a bit of mischief took her and she added a skip to her step. Before long every foot down pointed to a different place and foot up counted a different pace.
“I never!” she said, not able to find any more words for how she felt than that.
After a time of walking – she was not sure how long, without the ticks and bells to tell her – she spotted a wee gnome beggar by the side of the road.
“Hullo there,” she said. She knew beggars from on high, but had never seen one up close. “What can I do for you?”
The beggar hobbled over to her. “Change clothes with me,” he said. “For I am cold, and you are warm.”
Gearheart Girl considered the wee gnome’s wild rags and tatters. She looked at her own very neat and pressed, but somewhat stiff and far-too-starched, drab dress. “That seems reasonable,” she said. In a trice, she had exchanged clothes with the beggar – who was exactly her size, though grown and old as the hills – and was on her way.
On she roamed through Gnomeland, whistling a tune without a beat and kicking dust under her feet. In a field by the side of the road, she saw another old gnome, surrounded on all sides by dozens of boards, laid out in neat order. He lifted a roofbeam high. He squatted down and threw it up in the air, then tried to run over to the side frames and put them up to catch it before it fell down. Of course, this was foolish, and the roofbeam clattered to the ground before he could even lift one side frame.
Happy enough to watch for a while, Gearheart Girl spent a bit of time doing just that – she could not tell exactly how much, of course. Foolish as could be, the gnome tried the same trick again and again, throwing the roofbeam as high as he could before running like mad to catch it on a side frame. It never worked.
Eventually, Gearheart Girl got bored. Without asking, she flew (using her propeller hand) over the pile of boards and caught the roofbeam at its peak. The foolish builder gnome was then able to pull the side frames up in good order. In no time at all, he had his cottage built. Without so much as a ‘thank you stranger,’ he vanished inside, shutting the door tight and turning off the light.
“I never,” Gearheart Girl said, for want of any better thought. “It is getting late and I’ve not found my father yet. I should press on.”
By moonrise, she had reached a cold and rushing river, coming straight off the mountain snows. The moonlight danced on the swirling water and white foam. Gearheart Girl stopped mid-step, entranced, by the sight. She sat down on a flat stone right at the water’s edge. Until the moon was gone she watched the river flow, and kept watching under the whirling stars. Beside the wild rush of the river, running on its own time and with its own unknowable rhythms, the tick-tock of her tower home seemed as dull as a month of yawns.
“It rolls and flows, the same all the time, but never the same,” she said. She could not believe such a thing existed, nor that she had spent her whole life not knowing about it.
“Remarkable, isn’t it?” a voice said, right beside her. So enthralled with the chaos of the water, she had not noticed a gnome had joined her on the rock. In the tricky starlight, she could not quite see him, but it seemed that he was wearing her dress and had a hammer in one hand.
“Are you my father?” she asked.
“Indeed I am,” he said. After they had fallen into each others arms with tears of joy, he stepped back with a stern look on his face. “Now, let us see about freeing your mother from her prison.”
“I don’t think she’ll like that,” Gearheart Girl said. “She does not like the chaos of the outside. Not like you and not like me.”
“Nonsense,” said her father. “I built her the clocktower because she hated chaos, true, and I loved her long before she even knew me, and I wanted her to be happy. But the chaos she hated was the chaos of a King’s Court – the hubbub and babble and nonsense of petty people grubbing for every last bit of power. All that noise and lies – who wouldn’t despise it?
“But the tower I built has become her prison. Her desire to be free of the chaos of Court became a want for simple order – and so she wastes her loveliness and the loveliness of the world away in a boarded up old tower that must soon enough run down.
“It isn’t right!” he shouted, startling Gearheart Girl with the sudden loudness. “We must burn down the prison and break her free! Or perhaps the reverse order…”
“I suppose…” said Gearheart Girl slowly. “But I still think she will not want to leave the clocktower.”
The gnome thought a long spell. He snapped his fingers. “Then we’ll show her what she is missing here in the Gnomeland.”
Taking Gearheart Girl by the hand, he led her back to his newly-built cottage. There were just enough boards left over for him to quickly build a window frame.
“Take this to Clockwork Kate,” he said. “Place it on the wall of her tower, and she will be able to look through it all the way across the noise and confusion of human life, to see the Mountain river and the life of the Gnomeland folk.”
Gearheart Girl did not want to leave her father, so soon after having found him, but she did. She flew back down the Mountain and across the countryside and up to the clocktower, swooping in right at the last stroke of six in the morning.
“My dear!” cried her mother, and smothered her in tears and kisses – and no little scolding after a little while. Gearheart Girl bore it all stoically, then presented the gift of her father’s window. She set it against the outer wall of the tower. True to his word, the window showed the broad vista of Gnomeland, the roads and rivers and cottages – and all the folk living in wild harmony.
Clockwork Kate did not change her mind right then and there. She did not change her mind over night. But one day after another, Gearheart Girl made her mother watch the wild Gnomelands. Though the child sometimes grew impatient, she waited still, trusting her father’s intuition.
At long last, after many a year had passed, Clockwork Kate caught a flashing glimpse of a deeper order, far below the chaos of the river. She clapped in delight.
“Oh my dear Gearheart Girl,” she said, though her daughter had grown into a young woman, a girl no longer. “I have been ever so wrong! I am sorry you have wasted away in this dull and dusty tower so long!” “About time,” said Gearheart Girl, right as the four bells sounded for the last time. She and her mother stepped through the window to the Gnomeland. Her father was waiting, and Clockwork Kate embraced her gnome lover from long ago, as though they had never been parted. As her parents renewed their affection, Gearheart Girl looked back through the window at her long prison. Lightning struck the clocktower in a wild jagged arc. The dry dust and old timber caught fire at once, and the flames rose higher and the wicked place was destroyed.