Clockworks

First published in the CMU Literary Review 2016, Grand Junction, CO

 

The watchmaker cried on the night his wife died, although he had always despised tears. Tears meant salt, salt meant rust, rust meant imprecision, and imprecision plus time could mean nothing but death.

Due to his profession, the watchmaker knew all about time, and therefore also a great deal about death itself. He could observe it, measure it, predict it, calculate its finesses and lay them out in empirical graphs. He knew when to expect it and how to cause and confront it, how to engross all his knowledge about mortality and translate it into just two simple, monosyllabic units: tick – tock – tick – tock – tick –

Only on that night, he realized that he was a great deal more ignorant about life, about all the things that came before the final toll of the bell. Maybe that was the reason he cried.

He was kneeling on the wooden panels of his study floor, amidst scattered papers full of scribbled notes and diagrams, holding the limp, empty body of his wife in desperate embrace. Candlelight collided in golden stars with the tears beneath his eyes, it turned them into fragments of amber that might likely have imprisoned prehistoric bugs or all the idle emotions of a human lifetime. The watchmaker had always preferred candlelight to the cold, relentless gleam of electricity. Maybe that was because his work demanded so much precision that he couldn’t stand any more in the objects that surrounded it.

His fingers were long and powerful underneath the lines that old age had engraved in them. They were the kind of fingers that never moved without a reason, and when they did, their movement was in perfect balance between effort and efficiency, quick as the bow of a scorpion’s tail. While he was crying, they were resting on the cheeks of his wife immobilized, caressing her ivory skin not by movement, but by the simple fact of touch. It was cold, but cold it had always been. Worse than that was that the vibration underneath it had gone. She might as well have been a mannequin, a cuckoo whose clockwork had died and who had thus turned into an insignificant piece of wood, now and for all days to come.

The watchmaker bent his neck, sobbing, shivering from either grief or frustration. His long hair was of the kind that might have been compared to moonlight or wispy silver, but, in fact, was more akin to a spider’s web, luring the candlelight between its threads and trapping it there forever. For once, the light was the moth, not the bait that attracted it.

And all of a sudden, between his sobs and periods of silent lament, the watchmaker uttered a single word: “Again?

 

The very first time they had met had been to the tune of Debussy’s Claire de Lune in a pub with walls as dark as the people who frequented it. The air had been air only by name, a haze that claimed to spring from burnt tobacco, but had the stench of something far more sinister to it, in which the candles on the tables were adrift like ghost lights, luring weary travelers over the front porch and through the stained glass door into a lawless heterotopia in which the chances of them finding food and surprisingly good homebrew beer were just as high as of them losing both their minds and themselves in the process.

In a place like that, most people either snorted when the hunchback pianist in his corner abandoned his usual ragtime tunes for Debussy’s more idiosyncratic composition, or they even cursed and shook their fists at him.

The woman in the pearl white dress, sitting alone in an alcove with a glass of gin, however, smiled. It was this fact that originally caught the watchmaker’s attention.

They locked eyes, just for a second, but that was enough for him to replicate her smile and order a second gin for her, the house’s very best this time: A liquor that in other places might have been described as ambrosia, the golden tears of forgotten gods, but in this heinous spelunk, where people had as little sense for poetic language as they had for French impressionism, went simply by “hellbroth.”

It went as these things always go: The drink spawned by the smile spawned another smile, then a conversation growing more and more vivid as the clock hands progressed, followed by a gentle touch, a kiss, one bed left empty and one bed occupied by two.

Three weeks later, he built her a mockingbird. It was an absolutely stunning thing, its feathers cut from brass plates as thin as a newborn’s breath. They were soft to touch and caught the sunlight when the bird was sitting on the windowsill, sending it in glistening cascades all over the room. When it moved, they made no sound but a whispering that was reminiscent of the waves of a distant ocean. Its eyes were two perfectly polished splinters of obsidian; they looked both wise and unendingly innocent.

The most stunning detail about that mockingbird, however, was that it could sing Claire de Lune all by its own, with a voice so crystal clear that not even Claude Debussy himself could have told it from the sound of a real grand piano.

When the woman who would soon become the watchmaker’s wife beheld it first, her features were torn between amazement and terror. She extended one hand, her fingers just about to touch the bird’s feathered head, then withdrew it abruptly.

“It … It is absolutely perfect.”

“So you like it, my dear?”

“Perfect. Too perfect. Just … You made this, all by your own? Who are you?”

“Just a humble artist. You inspired me, dear – inspired me to aspire, I guess.”

“So you’re calling me your muse?”

“Not quite. My apotheosis, I’d rather say.”

“Oh, didn’t you just call yourself humble?”

“I might have. But there’s no reason why I’d ever be humble speaking of you.”

 

Had she at first been frightened by the mockingbird’s utter perfection, the watchmaker’s wife soon grew to love it like nothing else besides himself. While he was working in his study, piecing springs, counterweights and cogwheels together for customers that came to him from all over the country, she would sit in the living room for hours, watching the sun change colors on the mockingbird’s wings and listening to its song over and over again. She never seemed to get enough of that iridescent piano tune, humming it when she went out for a walk or lay next to the watchmaker in bed, sometime even staring at real birds outside in the trees as if she despised them for their inability to live up to the musicality of their brass conspecific.

 

“What brings you here?” the watchmaker had asked her when they’d met in the pub awash with smoke and ghost lights for the first time. “A lady like you, in a place like this?”

“Death,” she’d replied. Her voice had been somber, but controlled, the voice of a person who no longer fights pain but has instead become one with it. “This place is good for forgetting. It has no windows, and if there were any, they would be obscured by smoke. And if they weren’t obscured by smoke, then at least there would be enough drinks to pretend they were. No windows. No reminders that there is a world outside, a cruel, abominable world that will come down on you relentlessly as soon as you step out of the door.”

“I understand. Whom did you lose?”

“My daughter … Alicia. The cancer took her, two months ago.”

“I am sorry. How old was she?”

“She would have turned twelve next week. She … You know, when she was born, first thing I did was I lifted her up and carried her to the window. Cradled her, pointed outside. I said: Look out there, honey, that’s the world. It’s for you, all of it. You have a whole life out there waiting for you, and I promise you, I’ll make it the best life any girl has ever lived.

“I said: Welcome to earth, honey – and I believed it. I really believed it, then for a long time after that. Until she fell sick, and I realized I had been lying to her all these years.”

“Don’t blame yourself. I am sure you did all you could for her …”

“And what use was that?! One woman, one mother, stupid as I, against a world that might kill a child out of – what, pleasure? Cruelty? Indifference?”

“It’s not fair, I know.”

“No, it isn’t! Not at all. Why are we even trying, if we can’t win? Why are we even fighting. Against … against this? Why don’t we just go all the way and forget? Bring an end to it once and for all?”

“Yes, why?”

“I don’t know. I really don’t know! Maybe it’s because we can never forget completely? Because being alive is being haunted – we can run away, we can buy a little bit of time, oblivion for a few minutes or hours, and then back to the same old haunt, until at some point we give in and stop and join the dead ourselves?”

“A wise man once said: ‘Death is not an eternal sleep. Death is the beginning of immortality.’ I was wrong, I see.”

“About what?”

“A lady like you fits in this place. You’re absolutely perfect for it.”

“It’s my panic room, I guess.”

Claire de Lune faded, it’s last notes bleeding long into the hazy air of the pub. The pianist hesitated, shrugged, and then returned to some of the classic ragtime that the majority of his audience wanted to hear. “May I suggest you call it your treasure chest instead? Because if I’m not mistaken, in all this misery, it still managed to make you smile.”

“Reflexes,” she replied. “Just reflexes. Sometimes humans are so simple … Find the right stimulus, connect the right synapses, and you can do whatever you want.”

“True … It’s all machinery in the end. It really is.”

 

They were both happy – for the most part. The watchmaker crafted a Spanish dancer for his wife, small enough to use her palm as a stage, but so detailed that with every bow and every pirouette of his, she could see his eyelashes flickering in the air. He made her a second mockingbird, that one capable of singing a variety of Chopin’s Nocturnes and, as a pun of which he was fairly proud, Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He gave her a wedding ring that emitted a warm purple light whenever she touched it with her lips, and a dog that never ran away and never barked at strangers, but would have defended her with its life if she had ever needed the help of its stainless steel teeth.

His wife smiled at all of these presents, she kissed him and repeated how grateful, how immeasurably grateful she was to have met him all those years ago.

But from time to time, in spite of all the watchmaker’s artistic efforts, she would burst into tears. It usually happened on the anniversary of her daughter’s death, but it sometimes it also came seemingly out of random: After they had made love and lay panting side by side, on a walk they took under the full moon, or when her mockingbird fell silent because a grain of dust had interfered with its circuit.

At first, the watchmaker accepted these moments. He hugged her as tightly as he could, and whispered consolidating words simply for the sake of whispering them.

Later on, he started ignoring them.

And after years and years had gone by drenched in tears, he eventually grew to hate them.

 

The mockingbird sat on their nightstand when it happened the first time, stretching its shimmering brass wings without making a sound, because it had realized the humans around it were in no condition to care about Debussy’s music whatsoever. It tilted its head, making its obsidian eyes a mirror to the couple that was first simply sitting side by side, but then grew more and more agitated – talking, whispering, screaming, interlocking hands in a bedroom that usually knew no more agitation than that of the spastic shadows cast onto the walls by candle flames.

“You need to let go, you hear me? You’re destroying yourself!”

“So what? So what?! Maybe that’s just what I deserve, after all … Alice got destroyed. Why should I have it any better?”

“Alice is dead! She is gone, nothing you’ll do will ever bring her back. Please, let go of that grief, now, once and for all!”

“How could I? I’m human. That grief is a part of me, no, it is me, it’s who I am, more than you or your work or that silly, silly bird …”

“Dear, I just wish I could help you somehow.”

“Yeah? Keep wishing then, maybe that’s gonna change something. Why don’t you go, build me another mockingbird or something, have it sing an entire opera for me this time. Go, keep the masquerade going, give that world a new paint job, go, cover up the rot that took her and is taking me and will take you too some day, when you finally manage to feel like a real human being again, to get your mind off your damn clocks and neat little inventions, to stop playing with toys and see that they’re not gonna help you one bit down here … Not gonna help me … Not gonna help none ever, because –

“Hey, what do you think you’re doing? Get off me, hey, what – no, no, please, NO!”

The mockingbird saw the watchmaker’s hands, which up until then had remained folded in his lap like in prayer, suddenly reach around his wife’s throat in a motion that was so quick that there seemed to be nothing in between, no stage of transition whatsoever, no consideration or fissures in his perfectly quiet façade – one moment he sat next to her with a look of resigned concern on his face, the next he lay on top of her, his eyes ablaze, his fingers pressing tighter and tighter with the force and precision acquired by a lifetime of master craftsmanship.

Tick.

Tock.

Tick.

When she finally stopped wincing, the mockingbird saw the watchmaker change the stranglehold on his wife into an embrace more intimate than anything in the relationship since that very first smile they had shared in the pub years ago. He seemed frozen in time, more marble or bronze or polished brass than flesh and blood. Even if it had been a living being, the mockingbird could not have told the difference between the two humans amidst the pearl white bed sheets, couldn’t have decided which one was dead and which one alive, or if neither had ever been alive at all. The only thing that set them apart was the tears in their eyes: the watchmaker’s were tears of terror, of realization, of disbelief perhaps. His wife’s were tears of relief.

 

The watchmaker did not sleep that night, nor any of the three nights thereafter. He spent them crouched over the desk in his study, burning down candle after candle in order to keep operating his tools. After some time, his body started shaking, he had sweat running down his back while his throat turned dry as the parchment that he filled with diagrams more intricate than ever before. But his hands remained firm. No line he drew was crooked, no piece of metal he cut uneven. His mind kept running like a steel trap. He captured the essence of his loss and refined it, purified it, projected it onto plates of brass, silver and ivory. He called on an unkempt boy from the street and gave him a lot of money to fetch a number of peculiar materials for him, materials of the kind that the candlelight seemed to evade and cloth them in shadow in order to shroud them from all seeing eyes. The watchmaker drew, measured, cut, calculated and recalculated, he polished, adjusted, filled pistons with mercury and flasks with liquids that seemed lighter than the air around them, he hammered, welded, interlocked and sometimes paused for a moment to wipe a new surge of tears from his eyes, only to then resume his work as if he had never been doing anything else at all.

And during all that time, the mockingbird kept on singing. Claire de Lune floated around the room in an uninterrupted loop, accompanying every step of the watchmaker’s toil. Minutes turned to hours turned to days and maybe ages of the world without him noticing – until, at the break of the fourth morning after his wife’s death, something inside the mockingbird broke.

First, its song only shifted out of pitch a little, a fact that the watchmaker would certainly have minded in his normal state of mind, but remained entirely oblivious to in his obsession. Then it became slower, trapped in a ritardando that dragged it all the way to standstill.

The bird jerked, tried to unfold its wings and uttered a single, agonizing cry that sounded like a distant echo of the deed committed in the watchmaker’s bedroom. Then it fell silent, the obsidian of its eyes lackluster all of a sudden.

Yet still, the watchmaker didn’t notice.

After what seemed numerous eternities molded together and connected by an eclectic net of wires, the watchmaker finally finished his work and broke down on the very spot he was standing, taken by exhaustion as much as by euphoria.

The quietest euphoria is always the most powerful.

He fell asleep, curled up on the timbers of his study floor, and if he dreamed, it might most likely have been a dream of drifting smoke, of ghost lights and a hunchback pianist continuing the tune of the tacit mockingbird. Because when he awoke an irrelevant amount of time later, the first thing he saw was his wife, smiling in the corner of his study.

The watchmaker rose. Although his every limb was aching, his hands were covered in cuts, burns and grazes, reciprocating that smile seemed the most natural thing in the world to him. He extended one hand.

“Welcome back.”

“Have I been gone?” She joined her fingers with his. Her skin was cold and had a slight, constant vibration underneath it where in earlier days a heartbeat had been. But nevertheless, it felt like skin, and when he drew her closer and kissed those lips that had never been of a more vibrant red, they tasted every bit like real lips. They felt like real lips. They smiled like real lips. And on top of it all, the watchmaker knew that they would never again be salty from tears over a name that had long been ground to dust between the ever turning wheels of time.

 

In a corner of the room, the brass carcass of the mockingbird lay, his feathers ablaze in the candlelight. The watchmaker grabbed a piece of cloth from one of the drawers and spread it over it, so the image wouldn’t spoil the sweetness of his reunion. Later, he might return and take care of it. Springs could be tensioned again, cogwheels replaced and covered in fresh grease. Clock hands could be rewound however often they needed rewinding.

The watchmaker smiled on the night his wife came back to life. Time was not a line any longer. Now he could turn it back to the beginning as he pleased. Again. Again.

And again.

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