Time is constant. The proof can be found in clocks. Every tick is a successful trial, every tock another testimony: While all things may change, time itself is immutable.
Auri now knew that this was a lie. That her father was a liar. Rather, the thing that had come home with them from their mother’s funeral was a liar. Her father had died six months ago, as surely as his wife had, but for some reason his body was still here. Somewhere out there, Auri thought, his spirit had followed Avari’s. All his dreams, his hopes and kindness had gone to be with his love. What had come home with them was what was left. A dead husk that hadn’t stopped moving.
He had taught his children many things in the years before times turned bad. Not just musings on the virtues of time and the keeping of it, but practical things of his trade as well, and of how they related to life. A clocksmith’s workshop should be a place of meticulous tidiness, he had said. Clocks were fundamentally tidy things, after all. Although their machinery could look messy to the untrained eye, every lever and gear had its set place in the design. It suffered no obstructions; any clutter or superfluous piece and it would stop ticking. So it was with workshops.
While it was their father, Gialme who had owned the shop and his family name on the rustic sign above the front door, and while it was he who had apprenticed under his father and become a journeyman, it was Avari who had truly mastered the art. Gialme was, predictably, a tidy and meticulous man who lived in line with his teachings, and ran a clean and well-ordered business. It was not until he met Avari that his work became truly inspired. She was the whirling storm to his quiet eye, creative and clever and never satisfied with the way things were. They were an usual coupling, considering how typically Broshan Gialme looked — he was strong where she was slight, her skin like fine sand to his deep bronze, and her eyes were a swirling green canopy to go with his dark brown. Most of all it was that hair, almost black like his but for that strange tinge like dark red wine, that had made him fall so helplessly the very first time he saw her. She was like an exotic flower, floating in on the stream of refugees to land in his garden, and every day he would give his thanks to her, and to God itself.
It had only taken weeks from their first meeting before they were married, and her energy had quickly transformed the quiet corner shop into a bustling business. Soon every workbench had been laden with works in progress, and every open space in the walls held clocks both new and old. Some were abandoned reconstructions, or pawned pieces where clients had not been able to afford repairs, while others were novel devices of their own design. He was lauded among peers as a master, even when he protested that he was just a smith, it was she who was the visionary.
Patience, discipline and knowledge; these things could be learned he had said. Then he would look into his wife’s green eyes and smile. No one learns genius, no one earns genius — it is a gift.
Gialme had often lamented how common it was to think that the most important part of the clock was the pendulum, or that there was some other key component hidden somewhere else in the device. That it lay in the swing of his hammer, or the quality of his materials, or any one of the myriad pieces that made up the whole of their projects. The true heart of the clock could not be found there. Machines held no ghosts, and each part was as essential as as any other. Their spirit had to be found in their origins, their schematics and plans, hatched from the mind of their makers. It was the clocksmith who was the true heart, and like his shop, his creations were just tools. Like his shop, like the implements within it, they were all just reflections of the maker’s mind. If the maker’s shop was sloppy, if his tools were in disrepair, so too would be his creations. If the craftsman was lacking, then the craft would suffer. It had therefore been no surprise to him that his craft had soared when he found his other half in Avari. He kept the place tidy and worked the forge and anvil, talked to the customers and maintained their records. She took care of the rest.
Along the south wall of the shop was his desk, close to the door. It held his ledgers of accounting and records on its shelves, ordered by month and day going two decades back. A steady progression of spines marked with dates that marched diligently through the years. They grew erratic near the end, with volumes missing from the rows, loose sheets of paper sometimes stuck back in their place. His desk held the reason, stacks of notes and open books detailing repairs in a neat, feminine hand. A spilled ink bottle had soaked into most of them, and dried away leaving the paper brittle and stained.
The forge was situated in the far corner of the room. It was quite small in comparison to most forges. That was the nature of the art, after all. Clocks may be large, but their parts were many and small, and so were their tools. There was a place here for everything, racks and stands with neat, faded labels. Shelves with a multitude of small ingots in tin, brass and copper. A lock box had once served the same purpose for more precious materials, but now it was empty and left open. Everything was not in its place. Some of the stranger tools still hung where they had been appointed, with the same thin layer of dust as their perches. The others lay scattered about the anvil and stand, amid crushed scraps of brass and gilding, ringing a half-empty bottle of wine. It was all streaked in places with a scarce spatter of crimson flecks.
When it had become clear that his wife was with child again, they had all celebrated. Every night he had brought home gifts for both Avari and the children, bathing them in his delight over how his life had turned out. As the months passed and her belly grew large, Auri had marveled at the miracle of it all. She had asked endless questions, whether the baby would have their eyes, the same black hair that they both shared with her brother. Her mother always said that didn’t matter, and that she would love to see her husband there just as well as herself. Her and Iri would sneak into the workshop in the night to make gifts for their new sibling, and though neither of them knew enough about clocks to do anything but break them. They managed to make a set of three brass pendants in what could charitably be called a triangle, which their mother bound for them with leather lace. Over the next few weeks, Avari had started to get sicker. Gialme’s laughter had slowly died away as the doctors that came to see them all gave the same answer, until one day, he had stopped smiling altogether. Avari never had, but the last smiles in the household succumbed with her. A quiet eye without a storm, after all, was just empty space.
The being that came home from Avari’s funeral in Gialme’s stead had been a vacant thing. No longer did he grin at their mischievous pranks, and gone were the lessons he gave as he worked on his trade, now instead he demanded obedience. Children should be seen and not heard, he would say, but he made it clear that neither was preferable. He had tried to continue the projects without his wife, but they only reminded him of her. Taking to drink in an attempt to dull his anguish and work through his grief, he would instead sink further into despair. Over the course of a few weeks, he was settled into a miserable cycle of anger and remorse. For them it was a cycle of apprehension, fear and despondent forgiveness. For Iri it had also been one of fresh bruises and lingering pains.
When Gialme looked her way, Iri would do something loud or obnoxious to draw his ire. While their father had the arms of a smith, Iri was a thin and delicate child. Though the twelve-year old boy couldn’t even fill out his clothes, however, he had the eyes of a warrior. Green eyes that were so intense they looked almost luminescent, his defiant stares only served to enrage his father more. After they left the room, her father dragging Iri by the hair with one hand and holding his thick leather belt in the other, she would be left to listen to the sickening whacks and pathetic howls as they carried through the walls. Crying to herself in shame and confusion, she would crawl under one of the tables and stay there until Iri came back to comfort her.
Every time it happened, she understood it less than the time before. Each beating made her angrier and more afraid. Her frustration and resentment grew by increments, until she felt like she was stretched thin around her own fury. She bottled it up inside her, afraid of causing a scene, afraid of making Iri take another beating meant for her. Until the day her father caught her looking around a large grandfather clock, and as he started to yell, Iri tipped over a bottle of lacquer on the floor. Her father had turned around to face her brother, the hammer he had been working with still in hand, and she was certain he was finally going to kill him.
That was when she felt it felt it. Somewhere in the distance, so far away it made her world grow bigger just by thinking about it, there was something else. It was like her, and she was like it, and it knew her anger and her hate, her fear and her grief and her desperation. Understood the thoughts she did not even understand herself. It wasn’t a person, not something she could really comprehend – it was too big, so unspeakably vast that she could not really perceive it, only recognize its existence. She could feel it in every part of her being, know it was real in the same way she knew herself. That she belonged with it. They were meant to be whole together, and she knew somewhere in its impossible immensity there was a place just for her. If she could only make it out of here, she would be able to make her way. Its direction dragged on her with constant force, a steady pressure on her mind. She didn’t know if her brother belonged like she did, but she could not leave him here.
In her abrupt contact with the entity came the realization of how she could make it happen. How she could save them both. She only had to touch the clock beside her, feel its gilded coating brush against her hands. Let the sensation of its ridged and engraved surface fill her mind, and her mind fill it in turn. Her connection to the strange presence faded into the background as the old clock’s mass captured her full attention. There was a whirl of movement, she was spun around as something brushed past her and into her father, and then the world slowed down to a crawl as the scene unfolded before her.
There was so much blood. More than she had ever thought possible. It was everywhere. On her clothes, sticking to her hair, and leaving an iron taste in her mouth. Iri was covered too, she saw, there were even specks of it in his eyes. He was staring at the thing that now stood where their father had been just a moment ago, too horrified even to blink. Strangely, the thing itself was almost pristine. A huge, silvery flower with layers and layers of guillotine petals that whirred around. It was so smooth that it looked delicate, its liquid surface suggesting it would be soft to the touch. That was a lie too. Spread around it, trailing in some places within it, was the proof.
Time was supposed to be constant, but around them a hundred clocks made their dissertations, and she found them wanting. The seconds had grown far too long, the beats now left deep and desolate pauses. Deep enough for her to see all the blood, and to see the look on her brother’s face. That special dread reserved for the death of family. She wanted to tell him that it was six months too late. That this had not been a murder, just another funeral. That they would be okay, and she had found somewhere for them to go. That she would keep him safe, as he had for her, but she couldn’t make her lips move.
The moment crept by far too slowly for words, however, and all she could do was watch. Watch his shock turn into panic. See his eyes widen ever more, even though they should be blinking. Then the screams came, and suddenly the ticks and tocks surged through her, and time collected its dues.
Iri was crying out, and so was someone else. Her throat hurt and her vision blurred. The thing in front of them whirred in agitation, its petals stretching out until they nearly touched him, until she could almost feel him along its outer edges. She vomited, and as she collapsed the thing came down around her. Whatever was holding it together fell away and the thing dissolved, like an ice statue melted to water in an instant, it streamed around her like a river. She thought that she would drown in the flowing alloy, tried to gasp a fresh breath of air but got only bile instead. As she began to heave and retch, all at once Iri was on her, dragging her away from the pool of strange silver and clotted filth. Much of it had already drained away, but as Iri got her clear of the metal, it suddenly hardened into argent veins set into the texture of the wood. The last of the blood still flowed along those veins, following them through the gaps in the floor and into the ground below. She knew Iri was fussing over her, trying to get her attention, but she couldn’t take her eyes off it as she drifted out of consciousness.
When she came to, she was alone in the workshop. The door was open, and she could hear shouting voices outside. She could feel that strange presence again, trying to draw her into itself, pulling on her from thousands of miles away. It felt soothing to her now, as the world crumbled around her, to know that she belonged somewhere. To know that it wasn’t here. She hesitantly, almost gingerly reached out to touch one of the silvery strands now inlaid in the floorboards. It shivered slightly in response, she thought she could see a wavering where her fingers disturbed it.
She took a deep breath and sat up on her knees, keeping her hand where it was. The red-tinted flows of metal branched out in a spidery web from where her father had been standing. With morbid fascination she noted that there was almost nothing left of him. All that remained were memories and scars.