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What do I know about Terry Tidwell? I know we watched him for over three years. No real suspicions, just general surveillance. “Secrets and scandals of deceitful type proportions,” as they say. But there wasn't much to find out, and we've since stopped watching him, for reasons that will become clear. And for one other reason: I was following him so much that I began to think like him, to become him. This could be termed an occupational hazard. My superiors were not pleased.
So, Tidwell. He is a builder, a bookworm, and a beer drinker. He likes to frequent bars. He has been divorced for several years. The rest of the bland facts can be found in his file. There is a perfect simplicity to his existence — or was, to a certain point.
One night, out with friends (I was there as a supposed friend of a friend), he bumped into a homeless man. (This man was not one of our operatives. The event was not planned; this alone sent a shiver down my back.) A miasma of sweat, funk and mustiness blew over Tidwell as he held the man in his arms, in one of those moments that permeate every life, one that to an observer might even look like a reunion of old friends.
The man’s face, hidden by salt-and-pepper whiskers, imploded in an unmistakable grimace as he flailed to get free and as Tidwell held on long enough to make sure the man would not gain his freedom by falling.
Released, the man stumbled to the curb as cars passed behind him and glared at Tidwell.
“Watch yourself,” he growled.
As he took a step back, Tidwell and I noticed something peculiar about the man’s left eye. It was completely black, without a hint of white, and, when the man blinked, Tidwell swore he could see ridges in his eyelid, as if the object lodged in the orbit was not an eye at all, but something entirely more mechanical.
“Sorry,” Tidwell said, taking another step back, his friends waiting for him up ahead.
He turned to go, a shiver of fear making him hurry, but the man came up behind him and caught him by the arm. His grip was as strong and implacable as that of a robot arm.
“Vaucanson had a duck you know,” the man hissed in Tidwell’s ear. “He had a duck, and it broke. But it wasn’t my fault. You’d think they’d know that by now. Vaucanson. Vaucanson has a lot to answer for.”
The man released Tidwell.
Tidwell whirled around, stared at the man, opened his mouth to speak, but found he had nothing to say. He simply wanted to get away from the man as quickly as possible.
I had walked back to help Tidwell and now said, “Do you want me to call the police?”
Tidwell stared at the man with the impossible eye and the man with the impossible eye stared back.
“No,” Tidwell said, “but let’s get the hell out of here.”
“Vaucanson’s duck. Find it,” the man said, “and you’ll find a whole lot more. My time is done. I’ve nothing left to find it with.” A look of unexpected sympathy on the man’s face. “Good luck,” he said softly — and then, as Tidwell and his friend looked on with bewilderment, the man ran down the sidewalk with almost preternatural speed and into the night.
Much later, when he got home, he could still feel the man’s grip on his arm. That grip had left two uniform welts that took a fortnight to heal.
As might be expected, Tidwell could not forget his encounter with the homeless man. He played it over and over in his mind. For one thing, as he said to one of his friends, the more he thought about the man, the more the man seemed familiar to him, as if he had once known him, but no matter how long or hard he tried to penetrate the fog surrounding that particular mystery, it remained a mystery for quite some time.
So, instead, in his free time, Tidwell decided to find out about the duck and about Vaucanson, if either had ever truly existed. He would have liked to have forgotten about both the duck and Vaucanson, but since he dreamed every night of a magical duck and a shadowy man with a V monogrammed on his shirt, this was impossible.
“You going out with us tonight,” one of his friends would say and Tidwell would reply, “I’m not feeling too good tonight. I think I’ll just stay in.” And then he would go down to the local library to research “Vaucanson.”
It didn’t take long to realise that such a duck and such a man, Vaucanson, had existed — in France in the 18th century. In a moldy old book of facts, water-damaged and coffee-stained, he found the following entry:
One of the most famous automata was built by a French engineer named Jacques de Vaucanson in the 1730s. His ingenious mechanical duck moved like a duck, ate like a duck, and digested fish like a duck. The duck had a weight inside connected to over a thousand moving parts. Vaucanson, by trial and error, made these parts move together to make the duck move and give it the illusion of life. It even had a rubber tube for its digestive track. The duck and other automata made Vaucanson famous, and he travelled for many years exhibiting his duck and other machines around Europe. Although he collected honours for his work, he also collected scorn from those who believed he had employed infernal means to create his duck. After a time, he fell out of favour and took a position managing silk-mills in the countryside. Most of his creations were destroyed in a fire a year after Vaucanson died, but the miraculous duck was spotted in 1805 by the famed poet Goethe in the collection of an Austrian antiques enthusiast. Shortly thereafter, the Austrian died and the collection auctioned off to pay his debts. The duck has not been seen since. Even in 1805, Goethe had reported that the duck looked mangy and had “digestive problems”. Strange sounds came from inside the automata, and it is likely it ceased to function shortly after 1806, when it was sold to an anonymous buyer. Vaucanson’s relatives have often claimed that the duck was Vaucanson’s most prized possession and that he believed it held the key to solving several scientific mysteries.
It would be wearisome to relate how Tidwell came to acquire the duck — the money he had to save, the journeys he had to make to various European countries, the bribes given to this curator to look up records from centuries past and that old grandmother who claimed to remember seeing it in her youth, or even to convey the sheer ferocity of desire it took for Tidwell to continue on his course.
That I was with him, shadowing him in my various disguises, will surprise no one. I can still remember the exact hint of purple and yellow in the crease of sunrise from a balcony in Florence, the exact nuance of the green-gold scent of hanging vines at a winery near Marseilles, the unmistakable clip-clop of a donkey pulling a cart in a tiny village outside of Berlin as I hid around the corner from the house in which Tidwell made his inquiries. I have such a memory of those years. I almost became quite fond of Tidwell, in his earnest, reckless pursuit. (I did wonder, however, when my superiors might recognise that his quest and ours had no points in common.)
Suffice it to say that in due course, he did acquire the duck, even though he committed more than one crime to do so. All seemed forgivable to me, if only the duck came into his possession.
One rainy spring day, Tidwell came back from his final journey, holding a box. He wearily opened the door to his home, threw the box on the couch, and went to fix himself a drink. It had taken over five years to find the duck, and several times he was certain he would fail in his quest, dead-end leading to dead-end. But, finally, a wizened old man in a beret, sitting in a cafe in the wine country outside of Marseilles, had given him the lead that had led to the clue that had resulted in a box containing Vaucanson’s duck.
Tidwell wondered idly if his family and friends would ever forgive him for his obsession. Probably not, but the damage was already done. He could not undo it. Nor, he thought as he drank down his whisky, did he think he would have wanted to. He was not the same person he had been before. He had picked up a dozen new skills in his journeys, discovered in dangerous situations that he responded firmly and well. The world had, no matter what came next, opened up for him in a different way than it had opened up for him in his previous life. (At least, this is what I, from my hiding place, supposed.)
Thus far he had glimpsed the duck only briefly — winced at its crumbled condition, one wing inoperable, the beak chipped, one foot half sawed-through, the feathers that had once coated its metal surface weathered or gone, so that Vaucanson’s duck looked as though it were half-plucked. A smell had risen from it, too. The smell of rotting oil, of metal parts corroding.
Could it ever be restored? Tidwell didn’t know. But he lovingly took it from its box and set it out on the kitchen table. At some point, one of the duck’s many owners had tried to restore the duck to its former glory, with mixed results. Now one eye appeared to consist of faux emeralds, while the neck had a pattern engraved on it more common to paper doilies. The one intact leg had a similar design inflicted upon it. The duck should have been self-winding, but even the emergency wind-up mechanism, twisted and torn, couldn’t get the duck to work. Vaucanson’s creation had survived the centuries, but only as a corpse.
Something wistful welled up in both myself and Tidwell as he sat at the table with his whisky and the mechanical bird. Something sorrowful.
He remembered the words of the man who had started him on this path to either ruin or enlightenment. He wondered now why he had taken them so to heart, why it had seemed at the time like a directive or a plea he could not ignore.
Well, it was too late now for regrets — for either of us. He sighed and went to get a screwdriver and some other tools. Almost from the start, he had decided to perform an autopsy on the duck should he ever get his hands on it. Between the homeless man’s comments and the remarks of the people he had encountered on his quest — including the descendents of Vaucanson — it had increasingly struck him that there might be something inside the duck even more important than its worth as an automaton.
It took some effort to pry the matching halves apart and he was breathing heavily by the time he had finished. A flicker of deep excitement energised him, though, and it was with triumph rather than exhaustion that he finally peered into the mysteries of the duck’s innards.
At first, he saw nothing of interest. Just gears and levers and rusted chains, the remains of a rubber tube that had served as the duck’s intestinal tract. But when he looked closer, he found, nestled deep in the bird, a compartment in which sat a round, grooved black globe the size of a human eye, and a corresponding empty space beside it.
All the tension draining out of Tidwell, he sat back in his chair, arms behind his head, and began to laugh. This, this is what the homeless man had led him to. His journey had just begun, while mine had ended. Caught. Afraid. Curious.
After a while, he began to weep, and then to reach out with a trembling hand for the black globe buried in the guts of Vaucanson’s duck, and then to pull back, as if from a flame. Reach out, pull back, reach out.
For all I know, Tidwell is sitting there still.
Perverted By Language: Fiction Inspired by The Fall, edited by Peter Wild, out now published by Serpent’s Tail.
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