In which Little Jack is born on the coldest day on earth and miraculously resuscitated It’s snowing over Edinburgh on this 16th day of April, 1874. An eerie, freezing cold gridlocks the city. Old people wonder whether this might be the coldest day on earth. The sun seems to have disappeared for good. There’s a biting wind, snowflakes lighter than air. WHITE! WHITE! WHITE! A muffled explosion. This is all we can see. Houses resemble steam engines, as the gray smoke exhaled by their chimneys sparkles in the steel sky.
Edinburgh and its steep streets are being transformed. Fountains metamorphose, one by one, into bouquets of ice. The old river, usually so serious, is disguised as an icing sugar lake that stretches all the way to the sea. The din of the surf rings out like the sound of windows smashing. Miraculously, the hoarfrost stitches sequins on to cats’ bodies. The trees stretch their arms, like fat fairies in white nightshirts yawning at the moon, as they watch the carriages sliding over the cobblestone ice rink. It is so cold that birds freeze in midflight before crashing to the ground. The noise as they drop out of the sky is uncannily soft for a corpse.
This is the coldest day on earth. And I’m getting ready to be born.
The scene is an old house perched on top of the highest hill in Edinburgh, Arthur’s Seat; that King’s remains are supposed to lie at the top of this sleeping volcano set in blue quartz. The roof of the house is ingeniously pitched and pointy. The chimney, shaped like a butcher’s knife, underscores the stars. The moon sharpens its quarters here. There’s nobody around, just trees.
Inside, everything is made of wood, as if the house had been carved from an enormous pine tree. It’s like walking into a log cabin: ruggedly exposed beams, tiny windows rescued from the train scrapyard, and a low table hewn from a single stump. Woollen cushions stuffed with dead leaves complete the nestlike atmosphere. Numerous clandestine births are carried out in this house.
Here lives strange Dr. Madeleine, the midwife—otherwise known as “that mad-wife” by the city’s residents—who is on the pretty side for an old lady. She still has a glint in her eye, but her smile is just a twitch, betraying a loose connection in her facial wiring.
Dr. Madeleine brings into the world the children of prostitutes and abandoned women, who are too young or too unfaithful to give birth the conventional way. As well as helping with new life, Dr. Madeleine loves mending people. She specializes in the mechanical prosthetic, the glass eye, the wooden leg . . . There’s nothing you won’t find in her workshop.
As this nineteenth century draws to a close, it takes scarcely more to be suspected of witchcraft. In town, people say that Madeleine kills newborns to model slaves from ectoplasm, and that she sleeps with all sorts of birds to conceive monsters.
During her long labor, my mother watches distractedly as snowflakes and birds silently smash their faces against the window. She’s very young, like a child playing at being pregnant. Her mood is gloomy; she knows she won’t keep me. She can scarcely bring herself to look down at her belly, which is ready to burst. As I threaten to arrive, her eyelids close without tensing. Her skin merges with the sheets: as if the bed is sucking her up, as if she’s melting.
She was already weeping on the climb up the hill to get here. Her frozen tears bounced off the ground, like beads from a broken necklace. As she walked, a carpet of glittering ball bearings sprang up under her feet. She began to skate, then found she couldn’t stop. The cadence of her steps became too quick. Her heels got caught, her ankles lurched and she went sprawling. Inside her, I made a noise like a broken piggybank.
Dr. Madeleine is my first sighting. Her fingers grab my olive-shaped skull—a miniature rugby ball—and then we snuggle up peacefully.
My mother prefers to look away. In any case, her eyelids no longer want to function. “Open your eyes! Look at this miniature snowflake you’ve made!”
Madeleine says I look like a white bird with big feet. My mother replies that if she’s not looking at me, then the last thing she wants is a description.
“I don’t want to see, and I don’t want to know!”
But the doctor seems preoccupied. She keeps palpating my tiny torso. The smile disappears from her face.
“His heart is very hard. I think it’s frozen.”
“Mine too. There’s no need to make a fuss.”
“But his heart really is
She shakes me from top to bottom, and I make the same noise as someone rummaging in a toolbox.
Dr. Madeleine busies herself in front of her worktop. My mother waits, sitting on her bed. She’s trembling now and, this time, it has nothing to do with the cold. She’s like a porcelain doll that escaped from the toy shop.
Outside, the snow is falling more thickly. Silver ivy climbs over the rooftops. Translucent roses bend toward windows, lighting up the streets. Cats become gargoyles, their claws stuck in the gutter.
Fish are pulling faces in the river, frozen midswim. The whole city is in the clutches of a glassblower, who exhales an ear-biting cold. In a matter of seconds, the few brave people who dare to head outside are paralyzed; you’d think some deity had just taken their photograph. Carried along by the momentum of their own scurrying, some start gliding to the rhythm of a final dance. They almost look handsome, each assuming his or her own style, twisted angels with their scarves sticking up in the sky, music-box danc?ers at the close of their performance, slowing down to the bars of their very last breath.
Everywhere, passers-by already frozen—or on their way to freezing—impale themselves on the rose garden of fountains. Only the clocks continue to make the heart of the city beat, as if none of this were out of the ordinary.
They warned me not to climb to the top of Arthur’s Seat. Everyone said the old lady was mad
, thinks my mother. The poor girl looks like she’s dying of cold. If the doctor manages to mend my own heart, I reckon she’ll have an even bigger job with my mother’s . . . Here I am, lying stark naked, waiting on the workbench next to the worktop, my chest clamped in a metal vise. And I’m starting to feel seriously cold.
An ancient black cat, with a servile manner, is perched on a kitchen table. The doctor has made him a pair of glasses. Green frames to match his eyes—stylish. Nonchalantly, he watches the scene, all he’s missing is a financial newspaper and a cigar.
Dr. Madeleine starts scouring the shelf of windup clocks. She removes a number of different models: severe-looking angular ones, round ones, wooden ones and metal ones, showing off to the tips of their clock hands. With one ear she listens to my defective heart, with the other to the tick-tocks of the clocks. She scrunches her eyes, apparently unsatisfied. She’s like one of those dreadful old ladies who takes a quarter of an hour to choose a tomato at the market. All of a sudden, her face lights up. “This one!” she shrieks, stroking the gears of an old cuckoo clock.
The clock measures approximately four centimeters by eight, and is made entirely from wood with the exception of its mechanical parts, dial and handles. The finish is rather rustic, “sturdy,” thinks the doctor out loud. The cuckoo, tall as my little finger bone, is red with black eyes. Its beak, fixed open, gives it the air of a dead bird.
“You’ll have a good heart with this clock! And it’ll be an excellent match for your birdlike head,” Dr. Madeleine says to me.
I’m not so keen on this bird business. That said, she is trying to save my life, so I don’t quibble.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart by Mathias Malzieu. Copyright © 2010 by Mathias Malzieu. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.