This week, a bit of dark fantasy that got a little bleaker than I intended. I guess I was working through some shit while I was writing this one?
The challenge, courtesy of Chuck Wendig’s blog, was to use a tweet from the magic realism bot to inspire the story. Details here.
I liked this one:
So here we are.
The Watchmaker Wound
“Tsst. Tsst. Lady.” A small, shabby man beckoned to me from a temporary alcove created by a parked delivery van. I knew I should ignore him, go home, maybe rouse Emery with soft hands and sweet whispers. The night market had not yielded any treasure and I was discomfited by the sweaty wad of bills folded in my pocket. I sometimes imagine now what life would be if my frustration and unease hadn’t dulled me to the possible danger of approaching a strange man in a dark alley in Bangkok, but he seemed harmless, more sad then menacing. He hissed through his teeth again, with wide eyes, jerking his head toward the darker layer of shadow. I could see the lights from the market glint off something in his hand, something that flashed different unreal colors, drawing me in despite myself.
“Looking for a prize, Lady? Very good price.”
He opened his palm flat to show me a glittering sculpture of opal. His slight fingers carefully pulled open the cover to show a clock face unlike anything I had seen before. Instead of numbers, the dial dipped and ebbed gently. There were not the typical two or three hands to rotate endlessly around, but eight, each set at a marginally different angle. The cover had parted from the face in a lopsided fashion, like petals bent in the rain. Its sparkle burned at me like a miniature star fallen from the heavens.
“This machine has been in my family for generations. There was a fire; this is what I could save. It doesn’t spin, but the stone has value. I saw you looking at the watches. Maybe you can fix it.”
“Why not sell to a dealer? Or take it to a jeweler?” I couldn’t take my eyes off it. My fingers twitched in his direction, itching to open it and find all its secrets.
“I couldn’t. It calls out. I saw you, it called. My family, we have nothing left. We need to eat. I will sell this to you for whatever you’ll give me.”
I have never wanted anything as I wanted that opal clockwork flashing in the night. I was utterly convinced I could coax it back into life. The small man protested feebly when I gave him every baht I was carrying, but I couldn’t hear him once he tipped the little machine into my hand.
When I returned to my little workshop, I prised the back cover off delicately, exposing the clockwork. The mechanics were like nothing I had run across yet. The first layer was impossibly thin gold filigree, daintily carved wings gracing the edges of the outermost gears. The next layer was a series of translucent horn discs, cupped to form tiny bowls. Once I had lifted those, I could only blink at the fractal shards of iridescent mother-of-pearl stacked in overlapping spirals and arcs. I picked the shell out carefully, piece by piece, keeping the pattern as I set each aside. When I at last had finished transferring those, I lifted the small bit of silk wedged in the casing, protecting the next level of works.
I felt this is where the issue lay, in these deeply set gears shimmering blue and green and red and white, paper-thin opal and ruby and sapphire. The teeth of each gear were so fine they seemed more cut with a breath than by hand. My bench was covered in this priceless confetti when I found the problem. The winding mechanism just spun and spun, the broken end of the spiral spring trailing round. I was surprised to see the spring seemed to be a hair, a black so deep it looked blue. I didn’t have anything appropriate on hand to replace the brittle spring, so with a shrug, I cut a strand of my own hair and wound it into the clockwork.
I folded the cover away from the face, the bent-petal panels fanning out. In the dark of my shop, I wound the opal clockwork with an antique winding key I’d had forever. The gears began to turn with a breathless shriek, the works clicking to life with a chittering hum. One hand jerked into movement, then another, and another, until they were all whirling. The undulations of the dial threw up little flashes of light, and I moved my lamp for more illumination. Suddenly there was a huge moving picture of fiery lights shining in the dust motes of the air in front of me.
I watched, transfixed, as hazy figures became more defined. The face of my mother emerged from the fog, smiling at a man who coalesced into my father. The scene sped along, showing him run after the hat that wind snatched from her head, her shouting soundlessly from the trolley for his name, then in a dizzying fashion I saw their courtship, their marriage, the birth of their child. As the gears ground to a halt, I wept, watching their last breaths.
I ran up the rickety staircase, breathing heavily in the humidity and the heat, in grief and elation. “Emery, Emery, wake up. I have to show you something!” He blinked slowly in the watery dawn.
“Sweetheart, what’s wrong?” He was groggy, and confused by my excitement. I grabbed his hand and tugged him downstairs to my workshop. I wound the clockwork again, holding the key steady for a moment.
“I bought this from a man at the night market, and I’ve been up fixing it since I got home. It…it shows my parents, Em.” He just looked at me in bleary bewilderment. I released the spring. “Watch.“
I felt him snap to attention as the lights danced in the dust. But it wasn’t my parents this time, it was us. It was our first date, a disaster of an evening that ended in what we both thought would be a one night stand. Emery clutched my hand, gaping at the sight. When the lights petered out, we sat perfectly still for a moment. “Sweetheart, I do not understand what the hell is going on. You bought this thing and fixed it?”
“It’s the most cunning bit of watchmaking I’ve ever seen, Em. But instead of telling the time, I think it tells…my time? I had to use a piece of my hair as the spiral spring.” Conflicting emotions flashed across his face, settling with a fierce looking pride. He pulled me to him roughly, and his lips were demanding against mine.
We were under a spell. Every night, we’d wind the opal clock, and watch enraptured. Some nights it showed us our own history, some nights, just me, a very few nights, Emery alone. Those nights revealed more of ourselves to each other, made us brighter and sharper in focus. Each night we reached for the other, wearing ourselves out in sybaritic worship. As the world felt as though it were growing unimaginably darker at a breakneck pace, we shone together.
I woke up one morning before dawn. I could feel the clockwork calling me like it did that first night. My feet were silent on the stairs as I padded down to my shop. My stomach twisted as I put the key in the opal and turned. The whirring of the gears sounded sour to me, discordant. And I gasped, unable to catch my breath at the horror.
The whole world is burning. Everywhere, everyone. I saw the cloud. I saw the shape of it. I know what is coming.
Emery found me crying in the booth. I had to tell him.
We wound the clock and watched again and again. Every time was the same, the sicking spectacle of our end. The cloud, the quiet, the fire.
We don’t fuck anymore, just lie in bed as close as our bodies will permit, night after night. Days, too, sometimes. The opal clockwork shows nothing new, no evidence of when this comes to pass. Though the waiting feels unendurable, I can’t bear the thought of ending it sooner than it will be. I feel the cost of every second now, each tick of the gear becomes the sound of coins falling from a purse.
I think about how quickly we’ll become piles of ash and carbon, and then eventually pressed into diamonds, the shining stars of our generation. I wonder if some new kind of human will emerge from the devastation and find us as diamonds, cut us into gears and wheels and sharp edges, and measure time with our bodies.
I wonder how many people before us watched the opal clockwork play their lives in incandescent review, shining in the dust.