The Tiger Machine
The machine had stopped. Seventy plastic tigers had appeared in rapid succession before the breakdown, each with a significant flaw: no stripes, teeth as long as their legs, bushy tail of a mule, etc. These were simply not the sort of plastic tiger that a small child would be interested in. And worse, they might give the impression to the child in possession of one that tigers actually, for example, had a row of spikes down their backs.
“Well, if they did have spikes down their back, it’d make ‘em more fearsome,” said First Machine Attendant Luigi Lamorocca.
“What! What nonsense!” the shift manager, Mr. Gallstable, spluttered. His tremendous mustache shook. “Tigers are black and orange with proper tails and teeth and claws. Make this machine make them properly, or you shall lose your job.”
“Both of us, sir?” asked Second Machine Attendant Charlie Chattock. “Or, or just him?”
Gallstable’s mustache had a minor earthquake. “Both,” he hissed, and he stalked away, muttering that the elephant and whale machines were working just fine.
Luigi had nothing to say about the elephant and whale machines. It was well known that the tiger machine was the most difficult to operate in the entire factory. Why, the elephant and whale machines almost operated themselves. It took no skill whatsoever to keep them popping out respectable elephants and whales.
But the tiger machine, that was a different story. It took an experienced machine attendant to keep it working. The machine roared and quivered throughout the day, the oven in its belly needing constant stoking with chunks of coal large as a man’s hand. It would shake until its rivets loosened, snarling to be free. Its wheels and pulleys groaned, eager to snap.
Four men had lost fingers, one, an eye.
The plastic tiger reigned in sales, even over the elephant, which is a very popular animal with small children, and the lion. The lion machine seemed not to care; it produced tawny plastic lions all day with identical airs of disdain about them. The zebra machine quivered, but it might’ve been because it was situated on the factory floor so close to the lion machine. And the monkey machine, neighbor to the tiger machine, squealed and thumped and shot bolts and clouds of oily smoke at the tiger machine.
Luigi crossed his arms and watched the Shift Manager waddle away. Then he turned to his Second Machine Attendant and handed him a long wrench.
“What’s this for?” asked Charlie, as if he didn’t know.
“What’s it for? You know what it’s for! Look in that machine and find out what is wrong with the damned thing.”
Charlie pouted as pretty as a sixteen year old girl. “I don’t want to.”
“Listen! I am your boss, and I’m telling you to look in that machine and see what is causing it to make the bad tigers.”
“They’re not so bad, really…” In the pocket of his baggy coveralls, Charlie had slipped a purloined tiger with horns like a bull. He thought his sister might enjoy it. Or he might put it on the dash of his old Comet, where it would be a sight better than the bobble-head puppy that currently sat there.
“No, no, they’re not too bad,” murmured Luigi, almost to himself. “But they must stop, and good tigers come out. So find the problem. I’ll be over here.” And Luigi leaned against a metal railing and stroked his own mustache, which was far more tremendous than the Shift Manager’s.
Charlie turned to the rumbling machine. He removed five bolts and took off a plate which revealed the inner workings of the machine. The hot breath of the machine blasted his face as he leaned close. Its conveyor belt was still, its gears and axles paused in the very act of turning out a tiger, the last of which was only half-formed and protruded from a dark tube, unpainted and without fine detail. Here was the tiger that had stopped it. If he removed it, perhaps the machine would start up again. But that would not solve the problem of incorrect tigers.
He wasn’t so sure that the tigers were wrong. But it wasn’t his job, in the end, to decide what a tiger should or should not look like. That was for others to say. And so, he carefully reached in and put his hand over the unformed tiger.
For a moment, he froze in surprise. For beneath his fingertips, the pliant plastic gave and rose. As if the toy breathed. And there, as he grasped it now, he could feel – yes, it felt like – was it – a heartbeat? He brought the unformed tiger up, four legs, long tail, a blob of a head that turned… But it couldn’t turn, it couldn’t, and yet, there it was, rotating in his hand, eyes opening, peeling plastic back, mouth widening as it prepared to roar for the first time. A roar that never sounded, at least not to Charlie’s ears, for as he took the tiger out from the belly of the machine, the gears came to life, clanging and smashing, a divine roar that shook the factory. With a vast yawning breath, an iron arm edged in steel teeth came crashing down and slammed through blood and muscle and sinew and into bone and Charlie, Second Machine Attendant, became the sixth man to feed the tiger machine.
His screams echoed alongside the screech of stopping machinery. Falling onto the grates, Charlie grabbed at his missing arm, the tiny prick of little horns against his thigh lost in the sea of pain.
They took him away and left his arm and the machines quieted, except for the tiger machine, which panted and panted and then fell quiet too.
The next day was Sunday, and the factory was closed. On Monday, they reopened, and Luigi looked at the machine, purring and humming; waiting. Waiting.
Luigi put a hesitant hand to the ON button. He thought of his daughter, whose own toy tiger sat silent in a bucket on a shelf in her room with all the other animals. He pushed. The button glowed red, and the tiger machine rumbled and clanked. And all day, it produced absolutely perfect plastic tigers.
First appeared at Cast Macabre. My thanks to ed. Barry J. Northern for presenting this story at his most excellent audiocast, and for making the totally excellent banner to accompany it.
And thank you to everyone who continues to drop by this blog; yes, works are forthcoming (dates unknown, at this time), and yes, I'm working on a large project that is consuming my free time, hence the reprint of this story here for Halloween.
When the zombie apocalypse comes, may you all have a gun, chainsaw, tire iron or weapon of your choice at hand.