Cabinet Number 42

          The door opens to reveal a tableau of four dusky figures: dolls arranged in a pattern approximating a circle. Then the music starts, a tinny waltz, and small lights come on in recessed alcoves to spotlight the figures. The figures begin to move—automata!—and their movements serve to shrug the mouse-colored dust from their heads and shoulders. There is a gentleman in a tuxedo, his wife in a blue ball gown decorated with ribbons and pearls, and a golden-haired girl wearing the miniature version of her mother’s dress. And a chimpanzee dressed in the garish approximation of a servant’s finery.

          The spectator watching the Lilliputian scene recognizes the faces of the three human automata. He has seen them before in the memorabilia left in other cabinets of the house.

          The automata dance to the waltz, arms linked, but it soon becomes clear that they cannot keep up with the music. They shuffle and miss steps. Occasionally, they stop all together as if confused, then start again but demonstrate no improvement in their control. Soon the mother is dragging her daughter along because she no longer makes any effort to move her feet.

          Then all four stop. They have given up.

          The woman reaches into the front of her dress and pulls out four white sticks. She holds these straws out in a bundle, only the top ends exposed above her fist. The gentleman, the girl, and the ape reach out in turn to each withdraw one straw from her hand. The drawing completed, they hold up their straws for comparison to each other.

          The ape gets the short straw.

          The head of the ape droops in recognition and acceptance. He pulls open his green jacket and unbuttons his red vest to reveal the gears and wires in his chest. The three human automata each reach into his chest cavity and take a gear. They then tilt their heads back and open their mouths—their mouths are much wider than their painted lips—to swallow the gears. There is a metallic rattling as their mouths chomp up and down.

          The three human automata now return to the dance. Renewed, invigorated, they spin with feverish abandon, their feet even leaving the floor of the cabinet on occasion. It seems that they will never stop, but stop they do eventually, although apparently out of pride rather than necessity. They stand side by side, facing the spectator, and bow repeatedly until the spectator shuts the door to the cabinet.

          Having shut the door, the spectator realizes that he does not know what happened to the ape, only that it was not part of the final waltz. To resolve this mystery, he opens the cabinet again. He will watch the mechanism run its course, but this time he will watch what happens to the ape after its gears are removed, rather than following the movements of the dancers.

          The music starts.

          The lights come on.

          But this time there are only three figures and the ape is not among them. The spectator quickly closes the door but he still hears the muffled sound of the waltz continuing behind it.

Eric Schaller's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Postscripts, New Genre, A cappella Zoo, and the charity anthology Last Drink Bird Head. His stories have been reprinted in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Best of the Rest, and Fantasy: Best of the Year. Special thanks are owed here to his friend Jeff VanderMeer, who originally suggested placing a story within the constraints of a cabinet.

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