NOTE: The following short story took 1st place in the 2015 Oklahoma Writers Federation Incorporated (OWFI) “Short Story–Adult” category. Thank you all for your continued support–you are all a blessing, an inspiration and the reason I keep relentlessly pursuing this crazy vocation. Happy reading!
A long time ago in a faraway kingdom there lived a clockmaker named Horace. Horace, the last of a long line of clockmakers, spent most of his days and much of his nights alone, bent over his worn table crafting exquisite timepieces. With skill and patience he constructed gears and springs, cases and weights, pendulums and faces, for that was his lot in life and he had long ago accepted his fate. True happiness eluded him, but he found a sort of restless contentment transforming bits of metal, strips of wood and touches of longing—the rubbish of mankind plucked from heaps piled along the cobblestone roads—into art that guarded mankind’s most desired possession. Time.
Customers came and customers went, never looking twice at his melancholy form but always gasping with delight when he brought out from behind the counter a pocket watch or pendulum clock, an hourglass or a candle clock fitting their exact needs, wishes and means. The patrons left without uttering a word, their timepieces secure in their purses or packed neatly into sturdy crates nestled in their carts. In this manner, Horace lived day-by-day, catering to man’s need to know precisely where he stood in relation to time’s unstoppable advance. Obsession created time, time the necessity and necessity the provision, a belief Horace could never argue against and was content to uphold.
As days ushered in the nights and nights swept in the days, Horace forged these gatekeepers of time. His foot tapped a steady beat and all of his creations ticked, chimed and rang to the pace of that accurate foot. But his toe tapped most enthusiastically while his fingers were engaged in building a cuckoo clock. Time, it seemed to Horace, danced most gaily while employed in the art of crafting this invention originating from the dark forests to the east. His hands, misshapen since he was a young child from some disease of the knuckles and joints, worked less painfully as he constructed the pipes and bellows to give the bird its voice, a voice he remembered well and with tenderness.
Time swirled around him, elevating him as he whittled the casing, cast the iron weights and carved the cuckoo itself, its head turned without exception to the right. And time held its breath as the minute hand swung toward the twelve for the very first time and released the bird from behind its hatch. Horace allowed for a moment a tiny smile to ply across his lips each time the sorrowful notes filled the shop upon the newest cuckoo’s hatching. Once satisfied, he froze the works, set the weights and hid the clock away in a vault hidden behind the walls of his bed chamber.
Thus Horace had labored for more than twenty-two years, since he was a wee lad of ten, time showing no mercy, it seemed, despite his dedication to its worship. It began to sprinkle silver into his hair whilst keeping silver from his pockets. It lengthened his beard and forced him to wear spectacles at a very young age. It etched lines upon his face and painted dark circles under his eyes. His smiles came less frequently while his pain, especially in his fingers, took more and more pleasure in his company, extending its stay like a tiresome guest in the boarding house of his flesh. And as time took its toll, glances his way—rare to begin with—became even less frequent.
Patrons continued to bring business, but as he grew toward middle age he could not help but peek longingly at the handsome young ladies hanging onto the arms of their dashing young men as they entered and perused the shop. His mother had passed away young, bearing his father only himself, and in his angst his father had spent his remaining years and energy training his son in the art of clock making.
He did not remember much about his mother, but one memory in particular stood out: the look on her face when his father presented her with a cuckoo clock built by the hands of an old Black Forest clockmaker passing through the kingdom. He never saw the clockmaker again. Horace’s mother delighted in imitating the plaintive sound of the bird even as her illness stole away everything but the memory of her voice, which still called out to him when he was most tired. Despite a sudden and mysterious increase in means, his father died a short time later of a broken heart, but not before successfully marrying Horace off at the age of eighteen to the same fickle bride that he and his forefathers had embraced. That is why he at first did not realize what overcame him when the princess walked through his shop door one evening.
That night began as any other. The day had turned into dusk, the dusk flowed into twilight and twilight fell into evening. Not a single customer had entered the shop that day despite the pleasantness of the weather. As he laid in place the last gear of a large clockwork for an equally magnificent clock tower, the door flew open. Startled, he dropped the gear and allowed a curse to escape his lips, one he regretted the moment he lifted his eyes and gazed upon the woman standing in the doorway. Time froze. His heart did likewise. She was radiant, like no other he had seen before.
The woman, wearing a maroon dress trimmed in white lace, began to move through Horace’s shop like mist rolling across a still pond, sure and mysterious. As she drifted from clock to clock, she gave him a quick glance, highlighted with a slight smile which burned into his memory. Around her neck she wore an elaborate necklace decorated with the most brilliant stones. Her raven hair rose above her perfect white face into a mound pulled together at the crest and decorated with a spray of blood red primroses. A bird, possibly carved from wood and roughly the size of his thumb, rested in the nest of her abundant hair. She spoke not a word while admiring the clocks, caressing their faces with gloved fingers, opening doors and peering into their workings.
When she approached the case containing the watches, the woman looked up at Horace. For the first time in years he was given the opportunity to gaze into the soul of another, and what he found there turned the hands of the clock backwards. He stood a little taller and shifted his feet.
“Kind sir,” she said, her voice resonating with the joyfulness of a woodlark. “I am looking for something special.”
“Aye, madam.” Horace stroked his beard. “How may I be of service?” His heart thudded as the woman’s blue eyes pierced him.
“I desire something … unique.”
Copyright 2015 David C. Hughes