Sign up for the latest news and updates from The Dark Newsletter!

The Zoetrope

It was my mother who gave me the zoetrope. She presented it to me for my birthday and I loved it at once, not for its own sake or even for the magic it wrought, but because it was something we could share.

It was made of carved wood, with a floral design encircling the outside of the drum and a prepared set of images on strips of paper to fit the inside. She placed the drum on its stand, positioned one of the strips and spun the device. I frowned at its tick-ticking sound, not understanding, and she bent and looked through one of the slits in the circumference, showing me what to do.

I still remember, quite clearly, what I saw through the narrow gap—not a sequence of simple pictures as they had appeared a moment ago, but a line of galloping horses, throwing out their legs in a smooth motion, never catching one another but never ceasing in their running. She peeked at me over the top of the drum and made it spin more rapidly; the horses’ legs became a blur as they increased their pace.

“The invention was originally called a daedalum,” she said. “Now its name is taken from the Greek—zoe for life and tropos for turning. And so, Frances, the zoetrope is a wheel of life. It always goes back to the beginning—you see?”

I did see. The illusion of movement had its limit: the sequence was short and simple and repetitive and so were the others in the box, but still we laughed over the sight of a whale swimming in the sea, a ballerina performing her grand-jetés, a Jack-in-the-box springing forth, a ball endlessly passing through a hoop.

Then my mother slotted the next strip into the cylinder and we watched a man and a woman waltzing together. It did not matter what speed the wheel spun; they were always in time, always together, always close.

I shifted my gaze from the whirling image of the couple, whom it was easy to imagine being very much in love, and focused instead upon my mother’s eye, peering through the opposite slit; at the tear that was brimming there, motionless, not quite ready to fall.

After that, new images appeared; and there was yet more magic, for my mother began to paint them herself. It became a tradition for her to leave the papers in my room for me to discover, to fit them into the cylinder and view them without her saying a word.

The first time it happened, I recognised her hand in the neat pencil and watercolour pictures, but I tried not to look at them too closely as I placed the band of paper in the drum. Instead, I set it spinning and bent to look through the slits.

The image was of a girl, clasping a rosebud to her breast. As I watched, it opened—flowering in shades of deepest crimson. Though the movement was imperfect, I did not know how my mother had made it appear so lifelike; the image seemed almost to hover in the air, a little in front of the spinning strip of paper. The girl depicted there was me.

Her second creation also pictured me, and this time I was dancing, though I had no partner. I spun the drum first one way and then the other, quickly and then slower, watching my steps, my gaze fixed on the look of perfect happiness on my face.

Softly, the door opened behind me and I heard the rustle of my mother’s skirts. She walked in, bent and peered through the opposite side of the drum.

I do not believe she ever took any real pleasure in her beautifully made images, not for their own sake. She did not even appear to look at them. Instead she looked through the device, fixing upon the wonder in my expression.

I imagined dancing like the version of myself I saw reflected in her eyes, the way she had envisioned me, and I couldn’t. For the images seemed to suggest more than a simple dance: they were life itself, perhaps—the wheel of life.

Of course, the converse of life was death, but she did not approach that in her drawings, not then. Soon after, my father sent me away to finishing school. By the time I was brought home again, my mother was already dead.

I learned from a library book, whilst at school, why the zoetrope was originally named the daedalum. I had assumed it was because Daedalus was a craftsman and inventor, albeit his creations always brought dangers with them. He constructed the Minotaur’s labyrinth, containing the beast but also making it almost impossible to slay; and for his pains he was imprisoned in a tower to preserve its secret. In order to escape he famously constructed wings for himself and his son, Icarus—who flew too close to the sun, melting the wax that fixed his feathers in place, causing his child to plunge to his doom.

Later, I learned that Daedalus was also renowned for carving figures so very lifelike, they possessed the gift of self-motion. Indeed, his statues would have walked away and escaped, were it not for the chains that bound them to the wall.

My father, whom I had not seen in over a year, sent the maid, Nella, to meet my train when I returned home. She greeted me shyly; had I really changed so much? She hailed a hansom cab and we crammed into it along with my bag, so it was something of a relief when I found myself in my room, alone once more.

I paced for a while, touching the familiar objects: the marble-topped wash-stand, the faded blue hangings about the bed, the zoetrope standing on an old cabinet. And then I left the room and went to the stairs down which my mother had fallen.

I descended them, slowly and deliberately placing my foot on each riser, not to protect myself from a similar fate but to contemplate each one. Was this wooden edge the one that had caused such terrible injuries? Had this step struck the final blow—or this?

When I reached the bottom, I had learned nothing. I only felt that the steps seemed smaller than they once had, as did the whole silent house. I wished I could sense what had happened to her, read the past hanging in the air all about me, but it was beyond my reach.

I returned to my room and stood in front of the zoetrope. It was just as it had always been, not a trace of dust to signal the passage of time. I bent to one of the viewing slits, half expecting to see my mother’s eye looking back at me from the opposite side. What expression would it reveal? But the drum was innocent of pictures; the wheel of life was empty.

I searched out the strips of paper with their sequences of images and made my choice—not one of those my mother had made for me, since I could not bear to look at them, not yet. Instead I took up the printed ones that came with the toy, fitted one into the drum and turned it. As it spun, the familiar ticking began, the sound of time passing, and the faint trace of my mother’s perfume rose into the air, the lavender-water she always wore. I stared down at the man and woman performing their waltz, like a child peeking through a gap in a doorway to spy upon a longed-for ball. And I frowned, for it was not quite as I remembered.

The man appeared to move as he always had, but his figure had surely grown a little more stout—and it struck me that he resembled my father. I told myself it could not be so, however, for the dancer also had a tidy little moustache, which my father never had. When I looked at the woman, though, a chill shuddered through me. It was my mother to the life, though she wore a peculiar expression: her eyes were wide as if with fear, and her movements were jerky, not quite in time with her husband’s. She lagged—indeed, he almost appeared to be dragging her about, hurling her in endless circles while she teetered on the verge of falling to the floor.

I started away from the ticking drum, rubbing my eyes. It could not have changed; it simply wasn’t possible. The dancing man must always have looked like my father, his partner resembling any lady with chestnut hair. Perhaps it was only that I had changed, and the difference lay in the way I viewed it.

But I could think on it no further, for Nella tapped on my door and informed me that my father had summoned me, that he required me to take my mother’s place and pour his tea. For an instant I thought of a girl with a rose blossoming in her hands, a child becoming a woman, stepping into another’s place; and I heard the echo of my mother’s voice.

It always goes back to the beginning—you see?

I suddenly pictured all the days stretching in front of me, doing exactly the same things: ensuring his cup was full; endlessly sewing some useless frippery; donning my finest gown for his acquaintances. And it struck me: is that what I was now—what my mother had been? Were we nothing but fine figures chained to a wall, perfectly carved but never to speak, never to move without his volition, never to leave? Did we exist only to be seen and admired, like a statue, or a flower blossoming in a closed room—our only movement nothing but an endless circle, the same pre-ordained patterns repeating themselves hour after hour, and always returning to the beginning again?

While the gentlemen spoke of business, I poured tea, passed bread and butter, and made low murmuring replies to any polite remarks they sent in my direction. The acquaintance had some mutual interest in trade and was somewhat unprepossessing, with loose, florid cheeks that wobbled as he spoke and full, moist lips. It was my father’s appearance which most commanded my attention, however, for I could not help but wonder when he had decided to cultivate his neat little moustache.

I had endeavoured to cover my surprise at the sight of it when we were reunited. He had smiled and clasped my hand before standing back to nod approvingly at my appearance, which he declared much improved. His friend peered at me likewise before making some attempt at a gallant remark and I tried not to squirm under his observation.

Now, seated at the table, I gathered myself to examine the changes in my father more minutely. The moustache was not the only change in him: his figure was perhaps a little more stout—though, oddly, his face seemed if anything somewhat gaunt. His cheeks had sunk inward and his forehead was creased, as if some great concern hung over him, or perhaps sorrow; most likely, I supposed, my mother’s death.

It was odd sitting there trying to make him out, as if he were a stranger. But then, he had always been a rather remote figure to me; someone whose movements were familiar but with whom I had little connection, as if he moved in an entirely different circle, rarely touching upon mine.

I remembered the image dancing within the zoetrope and frowned. Had the little figure always worn a moustache, and I had simply forgotten it? Or had my mother in some whimsical moment re-drawn the dancers and replaced the strip? If she had, her ability to mimic the style of the printed versions was admirable—but she had never done such a thing before. Why should she? Her own paintings held so much more character; so much more life.

My mind whirled with images, changing as they spun, each being replaced by things that looked alike and yet were so very different, whilst I made my automatic responses to my father and his guest. It came as a relief when I was able to return to my room to dress for dinner, though my confusion did not fade when I saw what awaited me there.

There was a strip of paper lying on my bed. I saw at once that it bore a sequence of images, not printed but painted. They were in my mother’s style and for a moment I turned, half expecting to see her standing in the doorway.

Of course, it was empty. I closed the door and picked up the paper, resisting the urge to look at it more closely. I wished to view the images as she would have intended: dancing, not fixed in place and lifeless. I held my breath as I fitted them into the cylinder and made it spin, telling myself I must have inadvertently left this strip out of the box, that I would see nothing new, nothing I had not already seen countless times.

But it was not anything I had seen before. This was new, and I saw at once that my mother was in it, and my father, and me. My father was at the centre. He had not yet grown his moustache. It was plain to see how anger curled his lip as he carried out his action—thrusting me from the door whilst my mother clung to his frock-coat, her features distorted by dismay.

I slowed the movement, focusing on my own face: the sorrowful glance I cast at my mother. I remembered it so well. It was the last time I would ever see her.

I had not been ejected from the house in quite such a manner, of course. I had left quietly, obedient to his wish, though I had known my mother did not share it. She had even tried to echo his words: that the school would teach me to conduct myself in the most seemly fashion, that it would be the making of me.

I always knew they were his words, not her own. I knew it was he who had insisted on my leaving, and yet seeing it before me, laid out so baldly—being cast out—made tears prickle my eyes.

But my mother had found a way of showing me this little sign of her love. She must have painted it after I left, then decided out of loyalty to her husband that she would not send it. I supposed that Nella must have found it among her things and placed it by the toy for which it was intended.

Still, I could not help but feel that the moment had been chosen somehow, that here was a little message, sent to me by my mother’s hand.

That evening I sat with my father in the drawing room, sewing a sampler whilst he read his newspaper. I cast glances in his direction now and then, though I do not believe he once looked at me. I remembered how assiduous he had been in observing my appearance when his friend was present and it occurred to me, with a cold shock, that he meant for me to marry the man. I remembered those moist red lips and shuddered.

I escaped for the evening as soon as I could, pleading tiredness, so overwhelmed that when I saw the paper that had been left on the cabinet, I did not at first realise what it was.

When I placed the new sequence of images into the zoetrope and set it ticking, I saw that the little image of my father had now grown his moustache. I could not clearly see my mother’s face, however, for her chestnut hair had come unpinned, was falling in unruly curls, though I could just see her eyes; they gleamed with tears.

They were seated together in the drawing room, tea laid out before them. My mother was leaning across the table but instead of pouring the tea she swept her hand across it all, overturning the cups; I recognised the gold rims and little blue flowers of her wedding china.

As ever, the motion had its limit. The cups returned to their place. She swept her arm; they were scattered again, over and over, always the same thing, whilst my father started from his seat and raised his fist in fury.

His blow never fell. Still, I could not tear my gaze away. I wished I could climb inside the zoetrope and enter that room; see what had come before, what came after. Instead I stopped it spinning and snatched the paper, holding it up before the lamp. Could my mother truly have painted this? Had my parents ever behaved in such a way? I had always surmised they were not as some spouses are, not always spinning through life in a perfect waltz. There had been disagreements, bitter voices overheard from closed rooms, so low I could never make out the words; but I thought they had always done their duty by one another.

Had my father struck my mother? Was their enmity the true reason I had been sent away?

My consternation was such that it was some time before I began to wonder how on earth these images had come to be in my room. My mother could surely never have painted them. The maid, Nella, could not have brought them: for it was her half day, and it was many hours since she had left the house.

I took a steadying breath. And I realised something else: the air was laced with the scent of my mother’s lavender water, still hanging in the air.

The next morning I descended the stairs to the kitchen and from thence went to the pantry. I wished to examine the tea service. Nella was busy blacking the range and so I was left alone to turn each cup in my hands, running my fingers over the little blue flowers. My mother had been so proud of her china, though now I discovered that two of the lovely gold-rimmed cups were missing and one of the saucers was chipped.

I entered the kitchen once more and enquired of the girl what had happened to them.

“I’m sure I don’t know, Miss Frances,” Nella replied. She looked up so briefly from her task it was difficult to be certain if there was something hidden in her eyes; some knowledge she did not wish to impart.

I began again. “Tell me, Nella, have you happened to come across some pictures painted by my mother? Or rather sequences of pictures, arranged on long strips of paper. Did you leave such a thing in my room?”

She only shook her head, but her expression was so guileless I could not doubt her. Yet she must be lying, for what else could it be? There was no one else in the house and my father certainly would not have given those images to me. He would rather have destroyed them.

I stared at the maid a moment longer before walking from the kitchen. I had no thought of what to do next and found myself going all about the house, standing for a time outside my father’s study before ascending the stairs to my mother’s bedroom. I pulled open the wardrobe to see that her lovely gowns had gone; there was nothing within but mournful dark jackets and clean white shirts. I could not bear to look at them and rushed from the room, finding myself standing at the top of the stairs, staring down at the polished wood.

They had said that my mother’s injuries were dreadful. They forbade me from seeing her in her coffin; they said I could not come home.

“Whatever are you doing there, Frances?”

I raised my head and saw my father standing at the foot of the stairs, his forehead creased more heavily than ever. I had no answer to give him. I did not know how to tell him that I had been seeking my mother’s ghost.

My father ordered me to regain my composure, and I did, for his acquaintance was again called to the house and my presence was required. I sat demurely whilst my father cast his eyes over my appearance and nodded in satisfaction. I tried not to look at his friend as I once again poured tea, passed bread and butter, and made low murmuring replies to any polite remarks they sent in my direction.

Then our guest’s tone changed as he made some comment about my father’s “poor dear wife.”

I looked up to find that my father’s gaze was fixed, not upon his friend, but on me.

I squirmed before his look and could not prevent myself blurting, “I do so wish that I could have returned for her funeral.”

My father was quick to reply. “A true lady would never have attended such a thing.”

His tone, rather than his words, silenced me. Did he think me forward? Did he imagine that I would be—should be—too delicate for such an occasion? I tried to tell myself that he only wished for what was best for me, that he did not want me to be distressed. Still, I could not help a less charitable thought: that he had not wished to see a woman’s features marred by tears and disarranged by grief; that he would not tolerate me conducting myself in a less than seemly fashion. Not where others could see.

“The lady of the house must be greatly missed,” said his guest.

My father grimaced. Was it so painful to hear her spoken of? Indeed, he did not reply, only gestured towards me as if to turn the subject. “My daughter,” he said, “is the image of her mother at that age.”

“Oh—yes,” replied his guest, and the red tip of his tongue touched his full lips. “She is a true flower.”

I tried to conceal my disgust. Then my father said, “We have much to do, Frances. Perhaps you should leave us now.”

For a moment longer I stared at them both, seeing their jerky movements as my father started from his chair and sank into it again, spreading papers across the table; as his friend rattled his teacup with one clumsy hand before setting it down once more. I inclined my head and left them. The first thing I did upon returning to my room was spin the zoetrope on its stand.

When I bent and peered through the slit, I found that the image had changed. There was the girl—me—holding the rose, the crimson flower just beginning to bloom, and I snapped out a hand and stopped its motion. I spun it the other way, anti-clockwise, and watched the red flower shrinking upon itself until it became a bud once more; and yet it always appeared again, as grown and sensuous as ever.

At some time I must have closed my eyes and lain down, still dressed, upon my bed. I do not know if I slept or if the images I saw were some waking dream. There was a whirl of repeating motion: my father going to his study; raising a cup to his lips; turning the pages of his newspaper. The sun crossed the sky; the moon shone down; the sun rose. Yet through it all I had the sense of something large and animal stalking me, always following, keeping pace yet hidden behind the fragile walls of my prison.

Outside the window, it was dark; day had turned once more to night. And I heard the echo of my mother’s voice.

It always goes back to the beginning.

I reached out to clutch the coverlet, perhaps wishing to seize upon reality, and felt instead the touch of paper under my hand. It came as little surprise to find the strip of painted images that had been placed upon my bed.

I walked to the zoetrope as if in a dream. As I slipped the paper into the drum, I glimpsed flashes of red that danced in the air, the colour almost seeming to cling to my fingertips.

I leaned over the device. I somehow found myself thinking of the Minotaur’s labyrinth, a structure that might almost have had no way in and no way out, and yet as the zoetrope began to spin it became not a maze but a never-ending wheel.

Still I saw, with something like wonder, that the zoetrope held within its walls a captive bull.

This was no Minotaur, however. It was no huge beast; it was a figure cast in bronze, and I knew it to be about seven inches high. I had seen it, many times, on the drawing room mantelpiece.

Now my father was holding it in his hand. He was not in the drawing room, however; he was standing at the top of the stairs. My mother was next to him, half kneeling, half crouching, her arms stretched out in entreaty.

I closed my eyes as it happened, over and over. It was no use; I could see it still. My father raised the bronze bull. He struck down. Blood flew from the wound in her skull. He raised his hand. He struck.

My mother was not crouching, I realised. She was beginning to fall, and I pictured the waiting stairs. Down, down she would go—but not yet. For now, she reached for him. Was she pleading or trying to stop his hand? It did not matter. He raised his arm. He struck.

The blood was so brightly crimson. The image was so real I could not doubt its truth. And yet it came to me—how could my mother have created this image of her own death? Of her murder? I stopped the ticking of the cylinder and snatched the paper from it. I peered at the images. The blood no longer seemed so bright, my mother’s expression not so fearful, my father’s face less full of hatred. The clarity had faded, but I knew that these images had been painted by my mother.

She told me once that she would love me always. And she did; she had come to me again. She had found a way to visit me, to show me everything she wanted me to know.

But what could I do? I thought of my father somewhere downstairs—going over his papers, sipping brandy, making plans for my marriage. I could do nothing to stop it, the circle that was closing upon me.

I sank onto the bed, remaining motionless as my mind whirled. Pictures flew past me, quicker and quicker, all of it taking place at once: a crimson flower’s sensuous blooming; cups spilled across a table; a woman dragged along in a jerking dance; a bronze bull finding its mark. And I almost fancied that a sound reached my ears—the heavy thud of footfalls, or hooves perhaps, just beyond the walls, delicate as paper, too thin to keep them out.

It came to me that the sound was too loud, too close, and I opened my eyes to see my father. I started away from him, though I realised that he was not looking at me. He was standing by the old cabinet, leaning over something, and a new sound came: the tick-ticking of a wheel.

I looked down at my hands. The strip of paper had gone—he must have taken it, had fitted it into the cylinder. It was the only way to explain his stillness, the tension that was burning from him.

I knew what he was looking at. And it struck me that he would think I was the one who had painted it.

Slowly, he straightened. He seemed so tall, taller than he ever had. He loomed above me and his shoulders were broad. He blocked out the light. He seemed not so much stout now as muscular, strong and wordless as a beast, full of thoughts I could not imagine.

He walked from the room and closed the door behind him.

I rose to my feet, staring after him. Where was he at this moment? What was passing through his mind? I knew his secret. Would he return with the bronze bull, ready to do his bidding once more—to silence me?

I looked about the room as if some answer would appear, as if my mother could send some new message. And she must—after all, she had brought me here, to this place. Surely she would not abandon me—and yet there was nothing but silence; the only words that came were a memory.

It always goes back to the beginning—you see?

But how could it? The thing he had done could not be unseen. The beast had escaped; it was in the house. Even now, it might be pacing the floor below mine. I listened, hard, but I could hear nothing. Perhaps he was standing beneath me, his head raised to see if he could hear me too.

I tried to think, but everything was in motion, nothing fixed. And yet, in spite of it all, my heart began to steady itself. As my mother had once said, everything returns to the way it was: my nerves could not remain in their heightened state. I felt myself begin to calm as I stared at the door. I could not stay in my room for ever. I had to face what must be faced.

I stepped quietly through the silent house, my hand brushing the wall at my side. I went first to the drawing room, and after listening for a long moment at the door, went inside and approached the fireplace.

There was an empty space in the middle of the mantelpiece. To the right, a mourning card for my mother was propped against the wall; to the left was a replica of her wedding flowers, set in wax and protected by a glass dome. Of the bronze bull that had been placed between them, there was no sign.

Had my father just now removed it, knowing what I had seen—or had it never been replaced after what he did? I tried to remember the last time I had seen it and could not. I pictured him grasping my hair, dragging me to the top of the stairs. Raising his hand. I wondered if I would beg for my life, reaching out in entreaty. I imagined the wooden risers breaking my limbs, shattering my spine, crushing my skull. I saw the way he would stand by my grave, accepting the sympathy of his acquaintances; history repeating itself.

I could almost hear his voice, the rueful clicks he would make against his teeth. And she the image of her mother at that age . . .

I shook my head, thinking of the stifling rooms all about me, the little labyrinth in which I was obliged to live. I thought of the bull—the Minotaur, contained and yet so much more difficult to slay. What had my mother done with her pictures? They had achieved nothing but place me in danger. And yet would I wish to live here in ignorance, moving from one room to another and back again in this limited and airless circle, never knowing the truth?

I closed my eyes, trying to sense her, pleading with her to tell me what I should do—and her face rose before me. It was not contorted with fear or pain but sweetly smiling, and her lips moved; but there was no message there for me, nothing I had not heard before. I already knew the words that were on her lips.

It always goes back . . .

And suddenly, I understood what she was trying to tell me.

I hurried up the stairs, going first to my mother’s room to gather the things I would need and then to my own, moving feverishly, throwing what I could into a portmanteau. I carried the bag into the hall before looking towards my father’s study. I knew that he was in there. I sensed the life on the other side of it, the breath going in and out of his body. What thoughts must lie within that form? I could not fathom them.

I pushed open the door. My father was seated at his desk, slumped in a posture of despair, his head in his hands. I saw, with little surprise, that the bull was within his reach.

But I was no longer afraid. I was no carven statue; no chains bound me to the wall. I walked towards him—past him, to the cupboard farthest from me, and found the thing I needed, my back towards him, and I turned, and he did not raise his head.

The pistol, a remnant of his military service, was heavy in my hands; heavier than I had anticipated.

I went to his side. He must have heard the sound it made as I placed it on the desk, next to the bronze bull, but still he made no sign. He did not speak and nor did I. There was nothing left to say.

I heard the report of the pistol, though, as I stepped from the front door, and shortly afterwards, Nella’s shriek. I supposed I could have stayed to see the end—but what remained for me there? Only a house laden with unpleasant memories. I had with me everything of value my mother had owned—her jewellery, some bonds—her legacy to me. That was all I would need to begin my journey, not of existence, but of life.

I was fortunate to hail a hansom just outside the door and I stepped into it, placing my bag at my feet. I smiled as we drove away, listening to the rhythmic clatter of the horse’s hooves against the granite setts. I had not troubled to bring the zoetrope with me. I would not need it any longer. And I rather liked the idea of someone going about the house to seek me there, passing from room to room and finding the device where it had always stood, on the old cabinet. I pictured them spinning the cylinder and bending to peer through the slit to see what I had placed within: a return to the beginning of it all, the first thing we had looked at together. They would not see me imprisoned within its walls, or my mother, or my father; they would see only the image of an endlessly galloping horse.

About the Author

Alison Littlewood’s first book, A Cold Season, was selected for the Richard and Judy Book Club and described as ‘perfect reading for a dark winter’s night.’ Other titles include Mistletoe, The Hidden People, The Crow Garden and The Unquiet House. She wrote The Other Lives of Miss Emily White and The Cottingley Cuckoo as A. J. Elwood. Alison’s short stories have been picked for a number of year’s best anthologies and published in her collections The Flowering, Quieter Paths and Five Feathered Tales. She has won the Shirley Jackson Award for Short Fiction. Alison lives in a house of creaking doors and crooked walls in deepest darkest Yorkshire, England. She has a penchant for books on folklore and weird history, Earl Grey tea, fountain pens and semicolons.