This poem came out of the November 1, 2011 Poetry Fishbowl. It was inspired by a detailed character prompt from marina_bonomi who also sponsored this poem.
"The Steamsmith" is steampunk, and features an odd form of alchemical science; the physics, biology, and other parameters in this setting differ considerably from those in our consensus reality. I've included some vocabulary notes below the poem; the etymology is largely Greek. You can read more about the classical elements online. There is a matching poem, "The Four Humours," which delves into interactions between that alchemical science and various types of people.
Also, I've asked someone to britpick this but it's gotten sponsored before that could be completed. I did make time this morning to run the poem through a British English spellchecker. If anyone spots something that doesn't seem to fit the context, please let me know. I'm a lot more fluent with British than most Americans, but there are still things I miss -- and I'm only somewhat familiar with steampunk as a genre.
It was quite a sensation
when Maryam Smith moved into
the quiet middle-class neighbourhood
full of tailors and bank tellers and tutors.
She didn't come in a hansom with a baggage cart
drawn by a team of ordinary horses,
nor even in a fancy new steam-waggon
with its engine chuffing and whistling
in the brisk London air.
No, she came marching in her own black boots
with her tommies clanking along behind in a parade,
bright gears whirring as they carried her worldly goods
up the front steps of the little brick house.
Her walking stick clicked against the cobblestones
as she came, and she waved it in the air
to organise the tommies in their work,
deft as a conductor directing an orchestra.
The neighbours leaned out of doors and windows
to watch, for they had rarely seen such a sight.
Her white gloves were very crisp
against the smooth dark chocolate of her skin.
When she smiled, her teeth stood out
like almonds in a dark-toasted tea biscuit.
Her hair was done up in dozens of tiny knots
all over her head, fastened with shiny brass fittings.
Gleaming proudly on the lapel of her frock coat
was a pin made of silver and gold --
the silver crescent of the moon for Water and
the gold circle of the sun for Fire,
its edge notched with teeth to form a gear --
the emblem of the Steamsmith guild.
(They hadn't wanted to let her in, of course,
but she was more intelligent and more refined
than any three of them put together,
and after she demonstrated how to
crack light into its component elements,
separating a molecule of phos
into an atom of aer and an atom of pyra,
they would have looked like complete cads
to keep her out, and they couldn't have that.
So Maryam Smith got her guild pin.)
The women in the neighbourhood gossiped,
of course, but it did them little good. She would
disappear into her carriage house for days at a time,
having turned it into a private laboratory
from which colourful plumes of smoke
emerged at unpredictable intervals.
The men swore she would blow the place up,
twiddling around with things a woman
had no business handling,
but she never did.
Then one rainy afternoon,
a steam-carriage sent to pick up a tutor
broke down in the street near her house.
Maryam popped up next to the chauffeur.
"I say, old chap, from the sound of the engine
there's a leak in your hood that's letting in water --
and the least bit of hudor in the arche
will shut your fuel cycle right down,"
she said cheerfully as she propped her umbrella
against the upraised bonnet of the steam-carriage.
With that she stripped off her white leather gloves,
meticulously dried off the engine with her handkerchief,
and wedged a bit of putty into a tiny hole in the bonnet.
"That should do until you get home," said Maryam,
"though you'd best get that hole soldered properly
as soon as possible. Good day, lads!"
She tipped her hat at them and strode away,
leaving the chauffeur and the tutor staring dazedly
as she sprang up the steps to her front door.
The next day, the tutor's wife called with an invitation to tea,
and the chauffeur brought a calling card from his lord,
and that was the end of the rude talk for a while.
* * *
aer -- the element of Air
arche -- a prime steamwork fuel; a molecule consisting of one atom of aer (Air) and two of pyra (Fire). It quits working if exposed to hudor (Water).
hudor -- the element of Water
phos -- light; a molecule consisting of one atom of aer (Air) and one of pyra (Fire)
pyra -- the element of Fire
steamsmith -- an expert in alchemical science and technology
steamwork -- alchemical science and technology
tommies -- automatons, robots, androids; fairly sophisticated models that resemble people