Marlow’s Menagerie of Marvels
By Cortni Fernandez
Siren saw Marlow raise his gloved fist, but couldn’t bear to watch the first strike. She heard it, though – a smack of metal on flesh – and she knew he had struck Angel across the face.
Nobody else moved much as Angel fell to his knees. The red-suited guards encircled the stage, lightning batons drawn but at ease, their expressions unimpressed. Behind them all, the other Marvels waited in their hanging cages or on lower platforms, not daring to interrupt. Siren saw her own heartache reflected in their faces. She focused on them as more blows landed and Angel’s breath came out in coughs and gasps. She had to be brave for the little ones, like Angel had been for her, when she had first woken up with half her body missing.
Four years ago, Siren had thought she was dead when she opened her eyes and found herself looking up at the shimmering surface of the water just above her. Her world was a silent cocoon of blues and greys. Breathing in the water wasn’t difficult until she looked down at her body. She wore nothing but a short stay, and below her waist, her skin had been grafted to a hundred intersecting plates of brushed metal. She felt the mechanics grind against her bones, and nausea ripped through what had been left of her stomach.
It was agony to move. Siren, as she knew she had successfully become, dragged herself across the sand and rocks supporting her until she broke the surface and clung to a slimy barnacled platform, gasping a mixture of water and air that burned her lungs and her eyes. At least she could still cry, even if no voice came out of her aching throat.
The first thing she saw through her tears was not a grim-looking guard with a baton, nor Nathaniel Marlow with his reddened lips and threatening smile. It was a boy with dark freckles, ragged hair, and concern in his brown eyes. He crouched on his knees at the edge of the platform, looking like he wanted to say something, but couldn’t.
A glint of metal had reached towards her. Siren winced and the blade stopped, hesitating, before withdrawing. Then she realized it wasn’t a blade at all. The boy looking at her had no arms; he had wings.
Behind him, Siren gazed around at other children who came floating down from above like enormous birds, their wings fanning and contracting. Marlow’s Marvels: part human, part mechanical wonder. And above them, the great cage – an enormous domed hall of glinting golden bars and scrolls, draped with violet curtains and topped with a kaleidoscope of stained glass.
The boy tucked his wings beneath him, half apologetic, half encouraging. He offered her a small smile, and in time, Siren was able to return it.
Marlow’s Menagerie of Marvels was well known as the most exciting and exotic attraction in the civilized world. While privileged ladies and gentlemen took a seat on the train to Marlow’s private island to see the show, Siren thought she paid an even higher price than they did for admission to the legendary birdcage.
Not that her legs had been terribly useful to begin with. Confined to a wheeled chair from birth, Siren was used to the looks of pity and revulsion that followed her wherever she went. Marlow’s posters promised a life of dignity for the poor and dejected. Marlow himself promised that, if she accepted his generous offer, she would be nothing less than a Marvel, inspiring awe and admiration in all who saw her.
Siren signed over her body to Nathaniel Marlow, as desperate and lonely as any of the other crippled orphans who woke up after their operations, shivering and terrified, on the floor of the great cage. Siren was the only one of her kind – at least, the only one who had survived the transformation so far. Angel himself seemed to be her age, but the others were all younger, smaller, and in dire need of a parent’s embrace.
Siren’s arms, therefore, remained more important to her than any mechanical fishtail or pair of strong legs she had ever wanted. Her body had healed, and she had learned to swim with the deftness of any sea creature. She and Angel were there the moment a voiceless new Marvel awoke in a panic, and when the sounds of sobs came from the small sleeping cages at night, and when faces singed by a lightning baton needed to be soothed.
Siren learned to sign with her hands and read the language of their wings. She even calmed their fears when Nathaniel Marlow and his guards marched in after every show. When Marlow swore that they would spend the rest of their lives in his gilded prison to pay off their enormous debt to him, Siren casually signed that his lip rouge would look much lovelier on her instead. If Marlow threatened beatings for any who stepped out of line, Siren signed that she wished he had taken her sense of smell as well as her voice. And one day, when she had the nerve and a plan to back it up, Siren silently announced to the entire birdcage that it was time for them all to escape.
This declaration killed some of the smiles on the little faces all around the edge of her pool. The great cage was a fortress despite its pretty ornamentation. One heavy pair of mechanical doors allowed passage into the hall. They opened with a single key that Marlow always wore around his neck – and they locked automatically, with a loud series of clanks and hisses, after every performance. After little Sparrow had flown too close to the open gate during one of their shows, Marlow had burned off half her ear with a single lightning strike. No one had been enthusiastic about escaping after that.
But Siren’s plan counted on those doors remaining firmly shut, for there was another way for two dozen winged children to escape a birdcage.
The Marvels had performed their show flawlessly that day. Fifty lucky guests had spilled in through the doors, wreathed in their most luxurious gowns and top hats. They were all gasps and murmurs of delight as they beheld the ornate fountain in the center, where the Marvels perched along the high tower that sprang up from the water. Marlow’s guards took up their places guarding the doors. Marlow himself, decked in a tailcoat with silver buttons and threads, declared the audience’s luck and welcomed them to the show.
“Where others have seen pitiable and worthless souls, I have seen the potential for greatness,” said Marlow, with a penitent bow of his head. “Most distinguished ladies and gentlemen, I now present to you the astonishing results of my work. Behold, my magnificent Marvels!”
At his cue, a team of operators pulled the levers and cranks in a glass-paned control booth in the center of the stained-glass ceiling. In response, the fountain tower slowly whirred to life. The Marvels leapt into flight, circling its revolving branches and groaning arms, making formations and patterns they had practiced for weeks. They flew high and away from the arcing jets of the fountain, as golden hoops were lowered in on violet curtains. The crowd squealed and cheered as the winged children tumbled through hoops and spun in mid-air. Siren waited for her own cue to break the surface. Her first great leap drew shouts of surprise, and her next brought the guests to the edge of the stage, searching the rippling water to guess where she might pop up next.
Part of her might have enjoyed the looks of wonder in the audience as she cut through water and air, twisting her mermaid body with strength and grace. But her smile was nervous as she finished her routine and came to sit in her shell-shaped throne at the fountain-base. While the guests clamored for her, the pearl of the Menagerie, Siren looked high up instead to the Marvel that crowned the top of the fountain.
Angel, his wings spread wide, made a nearly vertical dive, only to glide in a perfect circle through the rings fastened around the edge of the birdcage. Siren had seen him perform this act a hundred times, but her heart still shuddered as if it was made of pistons and gears.
The show continued and finished without incident, to several rounds of enthusiastic applause. The fountain ground to a halt, and the Marvels gave their bows. Marlow’s guards lined up to escort the thrilled audience back out of the birdcage and onto the train that would take them back to the mainland. When the gentry had disappeared, Marlow began his assessment of the performance, dropping his theatrical affectations for a cold, imperious stare.
Siren and the others waited tensely as Marlow clanged his cane against metal and skin alike for emphasis. Then Angel, swooping low over the stage, caught Marlow from behind with his outstretched wing and sent him crashing into the water below.
Siren dove to Marlow’s rescue at once, pulling the thrashing man back to the surface and disentangling him from his frilly garments. Once he clambered onto the nearest platform, his anger could have steamed the water right off him.
Angel’s beating lasted for the longest ten minutes of Siren’s life.
The birdcage was silent by the time Marlow and his guards left, and the heavy doors had latched themselves shut. Siren slipped through the water to where Angel lay, surrounded by a handful of others hopping around like agitated baby birds. Bat, his great ears flicking nervously, had already brought his and Ladybird’s flat pillows beneath Angel’s head. One of Angel’s wings waved jerkily through the air, signing reassurance. Siren approached and echoed his sentiment, sending the little ones back up to their hanging cages and out of the way.
She reached up from the water to touch his face, and he lifted it from the platform to look at her. Siren tried not to betray her fear, because she knew the Marvels were still watching. But Angel smiled at her the same way he had when they had first met – apologetic and encouraging at the same time. Red welts marred his dark skin, with the promise of later bruises. He didn’t move much, which made Siren’s eyes burn with tears.
“Where is pain?” she signed, hoping he would just point with his wing rather than try to make an excuse.
Angel made small movements with the metal feathers. “No pain. Pretty girl.”
Siren couldn’t smile. “Great pain. Stop escape.”
“No,” Angel signed, before she could finish. Siren saw the determination in his face, the flicker of cheer that had kept her believing in hope for four years. “I am strong. You are smart. We protect them. We escape together.”
Siren looked up at the eager and fearful flock of children hovering nearby, waiting for her guidance. She swallowed her own fear and nodded to them all.
“Sleep first,” she signed to Angel, who obediently closed his eyes at her touch.
When night fell, the great cage was dark as a shadow, but as soon as early dawn light began to filter in through the glass ceiling, Siren was wide awake. So was Angel. He stood in front of the fountain like a heavenly statue, his welts darkened and widened, but his expression refusing to crack. Owl turned his glowing glass eyes to Angel’s back, where Sparrow had loosely knotted one end of a long purple curtain around his waist.
Siren waited at the edge of the water, unable to do anything except pray that her plan would work. She had come up with it one day while exploring her underwater domain, looking for a weakness. Siren had quickly found the sealed off tunnel that Marlow must have used to fill the tank. It took a lot longer for her to scrape and saw her way through the metal as it rusted over the years, but it was ready. She merely had to give one more sharp strike to the weak point, and the tank would empty in a quick and violent rush, carrying her out to the sea.
Sparrow and Owl cleared away, and Angel leapt into the air. Like he was practicing his performance, he swooped in an easy circle through the golden hoops around the edge of the cage. Dozens of eyes watched the curtain trail behind him in a purple streak. Angel soared to the centre of the birdcage and alighted on the fountain tower, bracing himself against a flat edge. The loose knot gave way, and he tugged the curtain around his leg instead to control the tension. Even from his height, Siren saw him turn his face down to her. She gave a nod, and Angel pulled.
The curtain went taught through all the rings, and Siren heard what she had been hoping for: the groan of straining metal. She imagined Angel straining too – probably not helped by the beating he’d suffered hours before – and a thrill ran up her spine as his form relaxed against the tower.
Some of the Marvels soared up to grab the length of the curtain and help. Siren longed to join them. None of them could match Angel’s strength, but five or six could make a difference. Together they pulled again, unable to groan their effort like the cage.
Siren watched with her pulse echoing in her ears, as if her will alone could break the metal joints.
It was enough. There was a dull crack, and the Marvels drooped in the air until they saw their success. Angel’s looped rings had threatened to buckle the entire cage around the middle, and finally one of the bars had been pried from its place. The Marvels cheered silently, as Angel renewed his effort to pull the bars wide enough for a body to fit through.
Seconds after the first break, however, the alarm bell gave a piercing ring. Some of the Marvels froze in fear, and Angel didn’t have spare strength to sign to them. Siren smacked the surface of the water to be heard and seen.
“Fast!” she signed frantically. “Fly!”
They did, just as they had promised they would. The little ones dove for the jagged gap in the bars while Angel held it open through his pull on the curtain. The alarm bell continued, and lights began flashing around the tent that concealed the great cage from the outside world. The guards were on their way. Siren tore her eyes away from the gap in the cage to see dozens of men crowding around the outside edge, shouting and banging on the bars.
Marlow himself ran forward, and Siren heard what must have been a very angry kick against the outside of the heavy doors. She allowed herself a grim smile. Marlow’s single key hung around her neck, freshly plucked from his ruffles when Siren had rescued him from his dip in her pool.
Marlow gave a cry of rage. “To the airship, you fools! Fifty pieces of silver per head – or I’ll have one of yours for every one I lose!”
The guards abandoned their fruitless assault on the front door, and Siren swam away from Marlow’s sight.
Above, Angel held the bars open as the Marvels squeezed through the gap one at a time. The going was painfully slow as the cage cracked further and the noise echoed around the outside tent. Siren tried to reassure herself that the guards would never get the airship launched in time. The Marvels would be gone long before that, following her instructions to head for the mainland and freedom. They had gone over the plan a hundred times – the people who might take them in, the places they might hide in, the distant lands that were too far out of Marlow’s reach. The Marvels knew to fly as fast as they could, to look out for each other, and to escape no matter what.
But when Siren heard a familiar crank of machinery, her skin turned to ice. At the very top of the cage, in the hanging booth on the ceiling, someone had started the fountain.
Horrified, Siren watched the tower start to revolve and contract. Angel tried to hop out of the way, but couldn’t let the curtain give slack. With a screech, the fountain stopped, and Siren saw why. The end of the curtain, wrapped tightly around Angel’s leg, had caught in the mechanical arms.
Angel’s form still pulled with all its might, as the Marvels frantically pushed each other through the gap he was making, but Siren knew what would happen next. Angel was stuck; he could pull, but he couldn’t fly away.
Only a handful of Marvels remained in the cage now. Tiny pieces of glass from the ceiling began to crack and shatter as the framework shuddered. The plan had worked so well that the whole structure was threatened, and the more Angel pulled, the less stable it became.
A different noise distracted Siren from Angel’s plight; it came from below the water, rippling against her body like a whispered warning. The cage was losing its strength, and with it, the seal on Siren’s tank. The rusted metal could be broken wide open with a single swift punch – or if the structure around it failed first.
Glass shattered on the rocks and the stage around her, and Siren dodged out of the way, trying to see what was going on at the top of the fountain. Angel remained there, signing with his wings to urge the last two Marvels out of the cage. Above him, Siren saw Nathaniel Marlow in the control booth, leering down at Angel as he tried to pull the mechanisms back to life.
Siren dove through her tank to the edge of the fountain as Marlow kicked out one glass pane from the booth and shouted down below.
“Fly away, little bird,” he snarled, as Angel struggled with his hold on the curtain. “Before I grind your bones together!”
The fountain jerked, still caught against Angel and itself. Siren seized the edge of her shell throne, gripped the nearest spout above it, and took a deep breath before pulling herself up out of the water.
She had left the water before, to sit on decorative rocks and preen for the audience, or to play with the Marvels at the edge of her pool. Sometimes she even hung from the golden hoops, if Marlow felt it would impress his high-paying guests.
Siren had never climbed the fountain before. She had never had such motivation.
Her breaths were full and heavy as she pulled her weight from one fountain spout to the next. She was strong, far stronger than when she had been bound to a chair, and yet her muscles burned with the effort of supporting her mechanical tail. It scraped uselessly against the shaking sections of the fountain, while her arms and shoulders dragged her upwards.
Glass still fell from the ceiling, and Siren ducked her face away as pieces fell against her skin. Above her, Angel collapsed against the tower. She knew he would never have stopped unless the Marvels had all escaped, and Marlow’s roar confirmed it.
Far down below, a crash and a gurgle shook the foundations of the cage. Siren heard water rushing down an open pipe, and rocks breaking against the force of the torrent. She didn’t look down. She was ten feet from Angel, and she didn’t know how much longer she could hold on. Her whole body was shaking like the fountain itself.
As her arms began to cry for relief, Siren wrenched her body as high as she could manage, fighting the urge to go limp on the metal arm supporting her.
Angel was trying to saw the curtain with his wing, but the edge was too dull. He pulled against the curtain to come to her side, and for a moment all Siren could do was cling to the tower and reach for him.
“You!” Marlow shouted, spotting her at last from the booth. “I should have known this was your doing!”
He kicked out another one of the panes of glass with his boot. Angel’s wing fanned out over Siren’s head, and the pieces clattered against it. Siren ran her aching hands over the tower edges, scraping them against the broken shards. A large one cut into her palm. She seized it, spotted the taught end of the purple curtain, and began to saw.
“After everything I gave you!” Marlow’s voice echoed above Angel’s sheltering wing, clashing with the sound of the bell and the creaking of the broken joints in the birdcage. “Everything you owe me! You would be rotting in the sewers if not for me!”
Angel winced as something surely hit him from above; Siren glimpsed glass, metal pieces, hoops and curtains falling past his wings. Her hand was bloody as she tried to widen the tear in the curtain, and its fibers slowly ripped apart with every stroke.
“Let’s see you fly away when I break your wings!”
Siren caught a glimpse of Nathaniel Marlow reaching down with a clawlike hand. But the birdcage had finally had enough. A long, loud creak above the control booth caused all three to look up, with only a few seconds to spare.
The fabric fell apart and released Angel’s leg. Siren’s strength finally ran out as Angel pulled away from the fountain tower. She felt the metal arm shift beneath her and she tumbled against a tangle of hanging fabric, sliding down in a dizzying drop. She had no idea which way was up, or where Angel had gone, or what was making the deafening bangs that surrounded her.
Siren’s tail hit something at an angle, half-cushioned by the tangled curtains, and she rolled onto flat ground. Stars danced over her eyes as the banging ebbed away, and the ringing of the alarm bell finally died. Darkness wavered at the edge of her vision, but slowly it drew back, and the inside of the great cage came back into focus.
The magnificent fountain had snapped in two, brought down by the weight of half the cage’s ceiling, crumpling inward like it had been stepped on. The control booth had smashed down into the water on the far side of the cage, and errant jets of water streamed out of the rubble. The crushed section of the cage was little more than a mass of broken machinery, ripped curtains and glinting scrolls.
Siren didn’t have the strength to lift herself up from the small puddle of water where she lay. She turned her head to see that her tank had emptied, leaving a gaping trench of soggy rock formations and glittering glass pieces. Even if she could push herself toward the edge and drop down, there was no water left to carry her to the sea.
Siren couldn’t tell the puddle from her tears, nor if they were from joy or pain. They were free. The Marvels were probably an incredible sight at that very moment, catching the dawn light in their wings as they soared across the ocean, far away from here.
She thought of Angel and wished that he’d had the sense to fly away when the curtain had torn. There was no way he had been caught in the collapse; no one could fly like he could. And he had promised they would all escape.
Her breath caught in her throat as she thought of how she had planned to wave at them all from the ocean when she was free. Still, her tired body was calm as she gazed up at the half ruined ceiling, waiting for the rest of it to fall. How long would it take before she was ended by one of those sharp golden bars?
Siren closed her eyes and waited. One way or another, they were all free from Marlow forever.
A tiny ripple lapped against her skin, and her eyes flew open. Had she gone back in time? Angel was looking down at her again with concern. But he was older and dirtier, covered in bruises and a smear of dark red. His smile, however, was very familiar.
The smooth metal of his wings gently slid under her shoulders and the curve of her tail, folding beneath her and lifting her off the wet ground. Feeling dizzy and surreal, Siren couldn’t lift her head from the spot where Angel’s shoulder became his wings.
“No,” she tried to sign with limp fingers. She was too tired to explain her distress – that with Angel carrying her in his wings, he couldn’t fly away.
Angel shook his head, and began to walk, trudging slowly through the wrecked birdcage.
“No flying,” she managed. “No swimming.”
But Angel stopped, and Siren saw why. The heavy front doors had remained intact, still barring entry and exit to Marlow’s Menagerie of Marvels. The lock waited expectantly in front of her face. Siren took a shuddering breath as she fumbled with her good hand for the key around her neck. Her arm trembled as she held it out, placed it into the lock, and turned.
Angel drew back a little as the doors rumbled, their gears reluctant to comply. With a clang and a hiss like a resigned sigh, the doors slowly drew open, revealing the entrance she and Angel had never been allowed to approach.
Beyond the sagging canvas of the tent was a sliver of daylight – the platform of Marvel’s train, and the empty tracks that ran across the ocean toward the distant beach.
Siren collapsed against Angel in relief. She saw the tips of his metal feathers making small flicks. He signed a little clumsily, thanks to his hold on her, but she got the message.
“We escape together,” Angel signed.
The darkness around them gave way to a periwinkle sky, with thin trails of smoke from the destruction they left behind. The sounds of collapsing metal slowly disappeared, replaced by the gentle whisper of the calm ocean. Overhead, dark shapes threaded through the pink clouds, some of them holding hands.
The Marvels flew to freedom, and Angel and Siren walked away.