Steampunk Family

A von Hedwig Halloween StoryIMG_0152

“What, exactly, does this holiday celebrate?” Pelinina asked.

“Ummm…” Philomena von Hedwig hesitated, studying the features of her turnip. “It’s sort of … well … Death, I suppose.”

“Americans celebrate Death by carving vegetables?”

“Yes,” Philomena said with conviction. “Sort of.” She sketched a face on to her turnip, the largest one from the bag she had appropriated from the kitchen of the Academy, where she (and every other scientifically promising von Hedwig since the institution’s inception) boarded for school. She and Peli, her best friend and roommate had liberated the turnips, reasoning that if they didn’t leave the school grounds, it wasn’t really stealing, and removing turnips from culinary use would be beneficial to the student population overall.

She studied the face, nodding with satisfaction, and turned to her best friend.

“It’s to celebrate everything you’re afraid of, really. To spend a night scaring yourself and laughing about it. It’s the end of summer -the sun turns pale, the nights are cold, nothing grows on the earth; everything looks dead. Hallowe’en is a way for people to prepare for death – for the death of summer, for the death of the old and sick who will die over the winter, and for our own, inevitable death.”

“What fun,” Peli deadpanned.

“You Brits have a big bonfire holiday, too, don’t you?”

“Oh yes, Guy Fawkes Night!”

“Which celebrates what?”

“Umm. Not blowing up Parliament? Executing traitors?”

“Death, in other words.” Philomena exchanged her pen for a scalpel, borrowed from the Moreau dissection lab, and began carving.

“It’s not originally an American holiday anyway, it came from Irish and Scots immigrants; the old Celtic traditions came over, they traded their turnips for pumpkins, their wicker men for bonfires. There’s lots of playing tricks on people, too.”

“Excellent! Who shall we trick?”

“Ah ha!” Philly said, “At last, my peculiar folk traditions interest you! Let us plot while we finish carving these turnips.”

“What, all of them?”

“We can’t have just one!” Philomena finished digging out the center of her vegetable and dropped a candle into it. She struck a match and lit it, turning the face to Peli so she could admire the affect.

“Horrible!”

“Thank you. If we carve them all, we can put one on every grave and tomb in the cemetery on Hallowe’en night. That will be pranking the entire school!”

Most schools do not have their own cemetery, it is true. The Academy is not like most schools.

“Can’t we trick someone into carving all these turnips?”

“If you think of a way while carving, do let me know.” Philomena handed her friend a turnip, and got back to work.

An hour later, they were in the Fabrication Hall, and 5 hours after that, they dragged a steam-powered, belt-driven, scalpel-wielding, turnip carving device up to their room. Peli had done most of the welding while Philomena had cannibalized a disused Babbage engine to make the carver programmable.

“Five different facial features – eyebrows, eyes, nose, mouth, fangs. Seven types of eyebrows, 8 eyes, 5 noses, 6 mouths, fangs yes or no… that gives us 480 different faces!  No one should notice the few duplicates that occur by random chance.”

“That old Engine was an antique,” Peli said, “you probably shouldn’t have pulled it apart like that.”

“Nonsense! There’s a working Engine in the Lovelace Maths wing, and another in the museum. That old thing was abandoned because it didn’t work right. I could tell by looking at it that it dropped a digit every hundred-thousandth decimal place.” She speared a turnip on a carving spindle in the device; it had 6 spindles surrounding the central scalpel array. A coring blade was centered above each spindle. “Besides, we don’t have time to machine our own gears, Hallowe’en is tomorrow.”

Peli stoked the fire, and they waited for the boiler to build up a head of steam. When the coring blades started to spin, Philomena threw the lever that raised the spindled turnips to meet their fate. The immediate effect was spectacular, as both girls were covered in juicy purple turnip pulp!

Peli spluttered, scraping turnip off her face. “Why didn’t I wear my goggles? Can we stop this now? The British Student Association is hosting a bonfire next week; can we just-”

“And they’ll all be talking about the ghostly, glimmering faces that haunted the cemetery 5 days before!” Philomena handed her friend a handkerchief. “Let’s adjust the scalpels, shall we? I think I see the problem.”

*****

Hallowe’en day dawned crisp and cold, with fresh snow on the mountain peaks surrounding the Academy. Philomena woke up tired because she and Peli had been up late perfecting their device and carving their turnips. She had difficulty concentrating in Anatomy lecture, and nodded off during the discussion of cross-species organ substitution, even though that was the most interesting part.

She drank coffee after that, even though she didn’t really like it. It was strong and bitter, so unlike the delicate café au lait Chef used to make on the Schöneluft. She loaded her cup with sugar and cream, missing her family, missing their annual pumpkin-carving contest (Bettina always won by sculpting her pumpkin with explosives), missing life soaring through the clouds. She pushed on to Alchemy, where, nerves agitated by the coffee, she set fire to her notebook.

When she finally made it back to her room after dinner, she was tired, discouraged, and ready to go straight to bed. But as she put her hand to her doorknob, the door creaked open on its own. A soft purple glow pulsed and flickered from hundreds of tiny grotesque faces. She entered, entranced.

She was thinking that the cold purple-white radiance of the turnips was far more eerie than the warm orange glow of pumpkins, when the white glow shifted. The turnips were moving. Grotesque faces floated slowly into the air. The effect was uncanny, but Philomena was a scientist.

“That’s very good, Peli,” she said, “I can’t even see the strings.”

Even though she was sure her friend was there, she could not help but startle when a voice directly behind her whispered, “There are no strings!”

Philomena jumped and dropped her book bag, charred pages scattering, then laughed at herself for doing so. Peli stepped out from behind the door, laughing as well, and Philomena startled again, whirling around to see who was behind her.

She found a thin boy with a prominent adam’s apple and red hair that stuck out at improbable angles. He was looking at the floor, but glanced up at her with a grin, then examined his shoes.

Peli stopped laughing long enough to gasp, “I told you she’d be hard to scare!”

“Of course,” said the boy softly, “she is a von Hedwig.”

“Philly, this is Dietrich Getman,” Peli announced. “I met him in the Verne Library this afternoon. He’s going to help us with the turnips, because three hundred graves is a lot. He can keep a secret, he’s not afraid of ghosts, and he’s clever. He made the turnip heads float with channeled air!”

“No strings,” Dietrich repeated.

“All right,” Philomena said, “let’s blow these out and get moving. But while the candles cool, I want to see how you attained an airstream sufficient to lift a turnip!”

After Dietrich’s device was examined, explained, and admired, they shoved the turnips into sacks and crept outside, staying out of sight.

“What did Peli mean, Mr. Getman, when she said you were not afraid of ghosts? Do you believe in ghosts?”

“Please, Fräulein vonHedwig, call me Dee. I am from Detmold, in the Teutoburger Wald. If you go into the forest on the anniversary of the destruction of the Roman legions, you can hear the screams and clash of battle; you can feel the fear of the invaders who died there. I have done so many times.”

“Ugh,” Pelinina said. “Once would be more than enough for me!”

“Surely such a place invokes romantic ideas, and stimulates your imagination,” Philomena reasoned. “What sort of energy signature could last nearly two thousand years without a source of regeneration? How could the phenomenon only exist once a year? What could explain it pulsing like that?”

“I do not know, Fräulein. I came to the Academy to learn, but I did not expect to learn everything. It is to be hoped that you will have a long and successful career – perhaps you shall discover the answers to these questions.”

They reached the small stone chapel that was the gateway to the cemetery. It dated from the thirteenth century, and had replaced an even older building. It was a simple, squat rectangle, with gothic arched doorways and a peaked bell tower, added much later. Light from the school no longer reached them, although they could see lights from most of the dormitory windows. A pale moon sailed between clouds, and its light made the shadows in the gothic doorways impenetrably dark. Without saying a word, the three conspirators left the path, avoiding the chapel.

“Right,” Philomena said when they reached the first row of gravestones, “we split up here. Get them placed and lit, but don’t get in the light of any of them. We don’t want to be seen.”

Peli giggled. “I’m sorry I complained to much yesterday, Philly. This is too fun! I’ll take the west.” She scurried off. “Meet you back on the path!”

“I will take the area where the sepulchers and monuments are tallest,” Dee said. “You ladies are not dressed for climbing mossy old tombs.”

“Thank you,” Philomena said. Looking at him in the moonlight, he seemed even thinner than he had inside. She could see his collarbones through his shirt, and his cheekbones cast deep shadows on to his face. “Dee, are you quite well?”

He chuckled, though Philomena did not see what could be funny about such a question.

“I am as well as I shall ever be, fair lady.”

He turned and headed towards the tallest monuments, disappearing immediately into the darkness. Philly rubbed her eyes, searching for him in the moonlight, but found nothing but graves. After a moment, a lit turnip appeared on a far sepulcher, and she shrugged, and got to work.

The Academy clock tower chimed 11, and then half past. Peli was right, three hundred turnips on three hundred graves was a lot. Philomena worked quickly, but when the moonlight allowed, she could not help reading the stones.

Erected by Darius Clipper

In memory of his beloved son Edmund

Died 1846 Aged 17 years

Here lies Albrecht Sussman

He drank the wrong vial

Artephius

93 – 1247 A.D.

She had one turnip left, its face carved in a leering skull. She reached to balance it on a stone but stopped, her outstretched hand shaking uncontrollably. Dee appeared beside her, and she jumped back, dropping her turnip. Its light snuffed out, and it rolled away into the darkness.

Dee picked it up. It lit in his hand, and he placed it on the gravestone.

In Loving Memory

Dietrich Getman

1864 – 1880

Philomena’s mind reeled. She knew something must be said, but found no words on her tongue. She looked from the lantern to Dee, who was quite obviously cadaverous now; he had shrugged off the illusion of life, in the face of her realization.

“I was quite a fan of your father, you know,” he said. “My first year here was his last. A group of us younger boys idolized him, aping his fashion and copying his experiments. He was always quite gracious about it.”

He looked at her. She could no longer see his eyes, only dark holes in his skull.

“Oh.” Her voice was barely audible, but she could not help it. She could not move from shock, but stood, trembling, listening to his story, and watching him decay.

“I died trying to recreate one of his experiments, fool that I was.”

He chuckled again, and Philomena found it not only inappropriate, but sinister. She cleared her throat.

“This, um, this wouldn’t be a family revenge sort of moment, would it?”

“No, fair lady. Every man is responsible for his own mistakes. Herr von Hedwig inspired me beyond my abilities, but that is no fault of his. I have waited years for a child of his to come to the Academy. I am pleased to have spent an evening with you.”

The clock tower chimed midnight. On the twelfth note, the bell in the ancient chapel began to peel. It rang crazily, as though sounding an alarm, announcing armistice, and celebrating a wedding all at once.

“It is time,” Dee said. “You and Fräulein Gamble must go.”

“Why?” Philomena said in alarm. “What’s going to happen?”

“Tonight we shall dance. But it is not a dance for the living; you will have time enough for this dance when you are dead.”

“Oh. Good night, then.” She turned to go, concentrating on placing one foot before the other, trying not to look at the pale shapes rising from the graves around her. She was afraid, yes, but also intruding. This was a private function; she was not yet invited.  She saw Peli waiting ahead, but she stopped at the edge of the graveyard.

“Dee?’ Her voice was quiet, but he answered immediately.

“Yes, Fräulein?”

“Same time next year?”

His chuckle seemed to sound from her own chest.

“Danke, my friend. It will be fun.”

She nodded, picked up her skirts, and ran back to school, back to the living.

Phillys fright

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