The bizarre story follows Signora Psyche Zenobia. While walking through the city with her five-inch-tall poodle Diana and three-foot-tall servant Pompey, she is drawn to a large Gothic cathedral. As she makes her way into the steeple, she ponders life and the metaphor of surmounting stairs: “One step remained. One step! One little, little step! Upon one such little step in the great staircase of human life how vast a sum of human happiness or misery depends! I thought of myself, then of Pompey, and then of the mysterious and inexplicable destiny which surrounded us... I thought of my many false steps which have been taken and may be taken again.”
At the steeple, Zenobia sees a small opening that she wishes to look through. Standing on Pompey's shoulders, she pushes her head through the opening and realizes she is in the face of a giant clock. As she gazes out at the city beyond, she soon finds that the sharp minute hand has begun to dig into her neck. Slowly, the minute hand decapitates her, which it will do for the remainder of the story. At one point, pressure against her neck causes her eye to fall and roll down into the gutter and then into the streets below. She is annoyed not so much that she has lost her eye but at “the insolent air of independence and contempt” it had while looking back at her. Her other eye follows soon thereafter.
“At twenty-five minutes past five in the afternoon, precisely,” the clock has fully severed her head from her body. She does not express despair and is, in fact, glad to be rid of the “head which had occasioned... so much embarrassment.” For a moment, Zenobia wonders which is the real Zenobia: her headless body or her severed head. Comically, the head then gives a heroic speech (unwritten in the story), which Zenobia’s body cannot hear because it has no ears. Her narration continues, however, without her head, as she is now able to step down from her predicament.
Pompey, in fear, runs off, and Zenobia sees that her poodle has been eaten by a rat. “What now remains for the unhappy Signora Psyche Zenobia?” she asks in the last lines. “Alas — nothing! I have done.”