I twist the tiny cog into place, my old-too-soon fingers gnarled, golden brown, and cracked, but true. Complete, I turn the miniature dog over in my hands, the brass and copper of its construction shining in the late afternoon sun. I lift it to my lips, breathe softly into its mechanized heart and it stirs, shifts, and wags.
The girl reaches out a greedy hand, eyes alight with wonder and I smile, place the wriggling clockwork puppy on her palm. She hugs it to herself, teeth white in a smile of innocence and immediate love.
"It'll never wind down, really?" the mother asks, eyes wide.
"Never," I reply, as the life draws through my chest like a thick needle through stubborn canvas. I wonder how many more I have in me. The breath is mere delivery, convenience. Something far deeper is taken every time.
"Thank you," she says, handing me so many grubby used notes, as weary as my hands and eyes.
"What do you say to the nice man?" the mother demands of the child.
"Thank you, mister!" the child enthuses and bounds away, her new pet dancing across her hands with tinny yips.
"Khob kun kub, little one," I whisper at her back.
The money goes into the leather satchel at my feet. I wonder when I'll have enough. Soon, I'm sure. I sit back in my tattered deck chair, let the sun bathe my wrinkled skin. My eyes roam the unsteady table before me. Boxes of parts glitter, cogs and tiny pistons, nuts, bolts, brackets, and bars. But to me they are all limbs and muscles, nerves and hearts.
A man approaches, smiles unsteadily.
"Is it true?" he asks.
"Is what true, sir?"
"The toys you make. They act as if alive and never wind down?"
I smile. They never really believe, even when they see it. "They are alive, sir, and they will live forever. At least, until the parts wear out."
"Some old Chinese sorcery, is it?" he asks with a crooked smile. He has no idea how offensive he is.
"I'm Thai, sir."
"Ha! Well, there you go." He leans to inspect the compartmentalized case of parts, my neat row of tools in their leather wrap, looking anywhere but into my eyes where he would have to acknowledge the hurt of his words. "Can you make a bird?" he asks suddenly.
"And will it fly?"
He points to the sign on my table, written when my hand was a lot younger, steadier. "Your price is very high."
America, where even the capitalism is subject to suspicion. I smile. "What you buy is absolutely unique, sir."
The chill of the Washington autumn lifts my wispy hair, chills across the back of my hands. The man pulls his jacket tighter. I wish I was back among the warm, humid days of my home, but it's foolish to pine for the past. Instead I am lost in the land of opportunity. But it wasn't for me that we came here. Always for the children. At the thought I smell disinfectant and bleach, see harsh fluorescents and white coats and quickly cast the thoughts away.
"Cash only, eh?" the man asks.
I nod, smile again. Where I come from this much smiling shows nerves, but the Americans seem to think it denotes honesty. Only sharks and the guilty smile this much, but I've learned it can save me a lot of conversation.
"All right, let's see it then!"
It takes nearly an hour to build the tiny hummingbird and test its wings. He's impressed, but skepticism still lives in his eyes. I put the tiny, fragile thing to my lips, breathe into its heart and it flutters up from my palm. The man staggers back and several people gathered to watch gasp and mutter. The bird alights on the man's shoulder and he looks ridiculous as he cranes to see.
"Amazing," he says.
I smile as the life drags again through my chest, snagging against my heart and lungs, adding a wrinkle to my eyes and another layer of weariness in my bones.
"Worth every dollar, buddy!" He hands me a folded wad of bills and I tuck them into the satchel.
Sumalee, my eldest daughter, comes to get me, her face pained at my appearance.
"How many today?" she asks.
"So we're nearly there?"
I hand her the satchel, its weight pulling against my shoulder like an anvil, though it only weighs a few pounds. "Nearly there."
"You must rest, father."
I nod, but the image of my youngest, Mali, in the hospital tears at me. She needs rest. That was how they started to tell us, to lead us to the truth that what she really needed was dollars. Tens of thousands of dollars for surgery. No insurance, they cried, aghast, and their interest drained.
It's colder again today, winter coming with relentless certainty. I'm surprised to realize I'm sad I won't see it. Sadder still that I'll never see another sunset in Chiang Mai. Never taste another of Chanarong's sticky rice rolls. But Mali will live, if I hold on a little longer.
Word must be getting around, several people stand impatiently near the spot where I've set up every day for the past month. Sumalee helps me as the people mill about.
"Father," she whispers, and I put a hand on hers to silence the question I know she will ask.
"For Mali," I say. "All of these people. It's enough."
"But can you...?"
"I have to."
Another bird, then a kitten. An obnoxious boy demands a rhino of his fur- and jewel-clad mother and that tests my skills. I've never constructed one before. A puppy and another bird and the day grows old, the sun sinking low. With each enlivening breath I wither a little more. A subtle fear thrills through me. Not for myself, but for her. That I may not make it.
"Please, father," Sumalee says in Thai as I make another kitten. "Let me. Show me!"
"The gift is not something I know how to share," I say, though she already knows.
"Why's she crying?" the new owner of the kitten asks as I put life into it. Hot rakes drag through my soul.
I hand over the mewling clockwork cat and smile as it curls in her palm, paws playfully at her fingers. The woman looks down at the tiny life in her hand, astonished, her concern for my eldest daughter forgotten. She hands me a thick stack of bills and I check, add it to the satchel beneath the table. One more and we'll have enough. Mali will get the operation she needs.
Blackness tickles in at the edge of my vision and I realize I'm not breathing. My heartbeat is a staccato throb in my head. Sumalee's face swims into view, her eyes wide, tears streak her cheeks. I was so close. I feel myself drifting away, as if carried like a dried-out leaf on a gentle stream.
"Father? Father, please." She speaks in Thai again and I see Mali in her eyes, stricken, pale. It halts my descent, so briefly, but for long enough. I can't fail.
I reach out, pull myself up with Sumalee's help, drag air reluctantly into my tired lungs. "One more," I whisper, my voice weaker than I expected.
"But, father, you can't..."
"For Mali. I must. Help me." I look up to the next in line, forcing a smile from my numbing lips.
"What would you like?" I ask in English, ignoring the subtle slur in my words.
"A tiger, please," the man says, tousling the hair of the young boy grinning at his side.
My eyes hurt, throbbing with my irregular pulse. Sumalee holds onto her tears and assists me, steadying the fine tools, selecting the tiny pieces. I can't see by the end, my vision like smoke.
"It's ready?" I whisper to Sumalee.
I have one breath left. I'm sure I do. I must. Sumalee holds the miniature tiger to me, I feel the copper coolness of it on my lips. I let my last breath go and feel the tiger twitch and stretch its tiny limbs as I sit back.
Sumalee hands it over, thanks the man for the money. My chest tightens, desperate for air I can't give it. The autumn cool gently caresses my face and I close my eyes against the swirling clouds of my vision.
Sumalee slips her hand into mine and I squeeze with the last of my strength. My body is a lead weight in the tattered deckchair. I feel as though I'm sinking through thick sand. Sumalee clears her throat, my tools rattle.
"My father needs to sleep," she says in perfect English, almost no accent at all. "I'm afraid that's all for today."
I can hear the tears in her voice. They will live for me now, my wife and both my beautiful girls.
"Tomorrow?" I hear Sumalee say as I fade. "I don't know, sir." But she does, of course.
(This story was first published at Daily Science Fiction on Tuesday, December 25th, 2012)