The clockmaker liked the pastry girl, of that he was certain. There were all the tell-tale signs of a good liking; he enjoyed the moments being in her presence and disliked the days when he was not. He found her quite beautiful, of course, but what was more, her laugh was infectious, she read books (a rare trait in his village), and when she talked, he listened. He felt self conscious and unsure around her, as he had most women in his life, but he did not feel pushed tonotbe self conscious and unsure. To be himself, essentially, comfortably uncomfortable. He had mused over that paradox quite a bit, when he wasn’t thinking of her, rehashing conversations, or wondering how he could win her over.
It had always seemed so easy for most the other men in this town. There were social roles to play, jobs to be fulfilled, and all his schoolmates had found their niches. The hunters were, of course, the talks of the town, as well they should be. Everybody needed to be fed and there were some large and ferocious beasts roaming the forests. To woo a woman, all a hunter needed to do was return from the hunt, spattered in gore, and lay the corpse of a gutted boar on her front doorstep and declare his intentions. He had seen it a dozen times or more. Again, he understood the social need for food and sustenance, but found the romance in meat lacking.
Then again, he wasn’t a woman.
Even the poets had a role to fulfill, though they were not seen as widely useful or, more likely, as social deviants. Art was important, the clockmaker understood that. His own craft took a little bit of art to complete. Their tactics with women were much more graceful; nighttime serenades, bouquets of flowers, sentimental odes with questionable rhyme schemes. As with the hunters he would watch these ceremonies, he would see that these men fulfilled these women’s’ desires in one way or another, and he would question his place in the world.
Clockmaker was an honorable and valued trade, of that he was sure. It was also very difficult and intricate. He had always had a fascination with time and its precision. He was also fascinated with man’s fascination with time, their need to track it, to maintain it, perhaps to control it. A clock, after all, was man’s invention to maintain a concept made by the Almighty Creator. A clockmaker in a city, say London or Edinburgh, would do very well indeed, as they were blooming metropolises and time was of the essence. There were businesses to run and factories to maintain, shift by shift. Out in the forests, however, in the quiet of life, people simply needed the sun and the occasional rooster. A farmer on the outskirts of town would almost certainly be able to inform one of the time just as nearly as one of his pocket watches with a sniff of the wind and a squinted eye.
And so the clockmaker was seen as mostly useless. His was a labor of loveratherthan a labor of necessity.
She would stop by his shop twice a week to sell him her pastries (more often than not simply to donate, as his business was not exactly booming), converse over coffee, and browse his tinkers and creations. She seemed to have an innate and impeccable sense of time, as she would unfailingly walk through his door at precisely 10:15 every Tuesday and Friday.She was inquisitive, and he enjoyed that. She would hold tiny cogs and timing coils up to his lantern, delicately, as if they were glass, and ask about their forms and functions. He would tell her the best knew how; words were not his art. She would wear his spectacles and peer through his magnifiers, laughing delightedly at herself in the mirror. His heart would drum to that sound, ruthless and as loud as the tick-tick-ticks of the clocks about him. He wondered if she could hear it.
She, herself, outside of conversing about books and village rumors, was very quiet, almost secretive. He wished to know more about her, her inner workings, what made her tick. He wished to open her up, hold up her parts to the light and inspect her, learn her, understand her, know her. As complex as his clocks were, however, women seemed ever so much more.
He wished to create something for her. Gifts of favor were all well and good, but both flowers and meat were apt to rot. Any man could buy a gift or a trinket. Kings could buy whole countrysides and castles, and were known to do so for a consort or two. But to create, with his own two hands, was to give a piece of himself and so much more intimate. He wanted ever so much to give her a piece of himself. God Himself, he had always imagined, must have created the universe for a woman. A shining jewel on a chain of the infinite.
So it was he went about devising just what he could create for her. It consumed him; he would lay down to sleep (or attempt to sleep) with it on his mind and would wake, restless, thinking the same. The obvious answer was a watch, but that seemed so mundane. He had offered her one of his finest pieces once, made of silver and mother of pearl. She had declined politely enough, with a smile and laugh that may have seemed cruel from any other woman. To him, however, it lifted his heart, that tittering and musical sound. She had no use for one, she informed him, and he believed her well enough. Time seemed to tick within her, perfect and precise.
It always came back to his function, he felt, his need to provide and maintain. When his scribbling and sketches proved fruitless, he found himself on the doorstep of his neighbor one morning,a renowned huntsman, sharpened stick in hand and steel in his belly to prove himself a man. The huntsman had laughed, long and loud, and slapped the clockmaker on the back with unnecessary roughness but agreed to bring him along. He replaced the sharpened stick (“a useless twig,” he had called it) with a bow, taught and heavy, a quiver of arrows, and a cruel looking knife of steel and bone.
The experience was painful, comical, and the talk of the town for the next week. They had trekked out into the forests, the huntsman deft and stealthy, the clockmaker loud and clumsy.
“Silence, fool!” was hissed through clenched teeth on many occasions, as they would spot a doe through a thicket of trees, unaware of their presence until, invariably, the clockmaker would step on a twig, and their prey would bound away. “You could spook a deaf and aged housecat.” he was informed.
Does, at least, were docile creatures and apt to spook and retreat. The same cannot be said for wild boars, large, black, and armed with tusks. They had spotted one, after a long morning, a male resting by a stream surrounded by its young. The huntsman halted them with a raised hand and pressed his finger to his lips, quick and harsh, a silent admonishment. The clockmaker stood very, very still. The huntsman pointed to the boar, sleeping and still, raised his hands, held out his left arm straight, fist clenched, and brought his right hand up even and pulled back, then played his fingers wide. The clockmaker stared at him, dismayed, and pointed at the half dozen pups. The huntsman, pointed once again, frustration and anger in his eyes.
The message was clear. Kill the damned thing so we can go home.
Very slowly, very carefully, the clockmaker drew an arrow and nocked it against the deerskin twine, pointed downward. He then raised and aimed, eyes squinted, and pulled back. It was more difficult than he had expected, and he strained with effort. The arrow jittered and danced uncertainly against the wood and his fingers. The huntsman sighed and unsheathed his knife. The clockmaker released.
To say he missed his target is an understatement. The arrow flew skyward and tore through the green canopy above them with a great, rustling clamor. Twigs and leaves fell to the ground. The boar woke and was on its feet in an instant, aware and angry, snorting with fury. It spied them, it lowered its head, dug it’s hooves into the grass, and charged with a snarl.
“Fool!” the huntsman bellowed and shoved the clockmaker aside as the boar tore past. The clockmaker’s leg was nicked by the tip of its tusk and a sharp pain radiated up his side. The boat stopped, reared, and charged again. The huntsman crouched, legs splayed, arms tense, knife raised.
Time, the clockmaker had always known, was a funny thing. It could be fleeting and fickle; the hour his pastry girl spent with him seemed but moments. In this moment, however, time seemed to slow, almost stop. The boar came, low and spitting. The huntsman watched it, silent and still. Be breathed outwards, once, low and dangerous. Then it was upon him, and he lunged. The knife came down in a long, fluid arc, and found its spot between the boar’s shoulder blade. He then swiveled to the side with a dancer’s grace, avoiding a tusk. The tusk he avoided, the clockmaker saw, seemed to be spotted and wet with his blood. The beast went down, front legs first, it’s about digging up clumps of grass and dirt.
It picked itself up, legs shaky but determined, and the huntsman withdrew his knife, clenched the nape of the beast’s neck, reared back with his whole body, and slit the beast’s throat. Blood sprayed in a fountain the clockmaker never knew could exist, and much of it was spattered about his shirt and face.
The boar fell. There was a screaming, high and piercing, that the clockmaker imagined may have been the pups retreating into the woods, until he realized it was him.
“This meat is mine, fool.” the huntsman snarled, his breaths quick and harsh, “Now let us get home before you kill us both.” So they did, the huntsman hefting the creature with seeming ease despite it’s size, and the clockmaker trailing paces behind with a limp. No words were spoken. Anger radiated off of the huntsman, and the clockmaker knew that if he stopped to complain, he would surely not return to the village at all.
“Whatever possessed you to do such a thing?” the pastry girl had questioned on her next visit, as timely as ever. He stammered and shrugged sheepishly, humiliated. She laughed, without cruelty, and called him her “great huntsman” as she walked out his door, a sidelong and knowing glance over her shoulder. That eased his pain, both in his leg and in his heart.
The sketches continued, as did the late nights and early mornings. He tried his hand at poetry and traded a watch for a guitar. His words were jilted and uneven, his chords even worse. When his neighbors complained about pained and disturbing noises wafting from his windows in the evening, he gave up the instrument to the dust of his workshop before that, too, became a public humiliation.
He was stuck. Clocks, as ever, were so much simpler than women, and he buried himself in them.
Her visits continued, and he enjoyed them as ever, but he felt himself separating. He had nothing to offer, and as such he began to offer himself less. He did not know what to do. He had no place in this village. He was becoming lost within himself. It made him sad and despondent.
She walked through his door on a Saturday at 11:32, and he was speechless. She carried a wicker basket on her arm, not her usual pushcart of wares. She seemed not herself, nervous and quiet, stuck out of time. She approached him and laid the basket upon his desk. It smelled of sugar and bread.
“These are for you,” she said, almost whispered, and opened the basket. She withdrew a towel and the room was flooded with the scent of cookies. The basket was hot, he felt the heat waver through its open hatch. “You have seemed not yourself.” she continued, seemingly inspecting the watches and cogs she had inspected dozens of times before, “I thought you may need a little heart.”
Indeed, inside the basket were dozens of cookies, pale yellow and shaped of hearts. He gaped at them, then at her. His chest and stomach were in knots. He could not form words.
“It’s not a boar, but it’s what I do.” she said, simply, then smiled, and walked out.
He watched her walk away through his shop window, then locked his door, strode back to his desk, and, very carefully, drew out a heart shaped cookie. He inspected it, turned it this way and that, as if there may be some secret message scrawled in foreign tongue. He nibbled it, and it was heaven, soft and sweet and hot.
It’s what she did, and she did it very well.
He then began to sketch.
He worked throughout the day and into the night. He lit several lanterns and laid them about him, amongst cogs and coils, paper and strips of red ribbon. He took sheets of copper and bronze, heated them, banged them with his mallet, shaped them into soft curves and hollows. He built a shell, larger than any clock he had ever made, the size of a ripe fall pumpkin, and went about setting its guts and inner workings.
He slept most the next day but woke at noon and once again went to work, scribbling on tiny sheets of paper in neat, precise script. He would write a sentence or two, without rhyme or poetry, then roll them into tight, tiny scrolls and tied them closed with strips of ribbon. In the end, there were near thirty, lined across his desk in a very precise order. He placed each scroll upon the tooth of his largest bronze cog, the size of a plate, so that it appeared to be a red sun, shining bits of white and red. This he placed in the center, the heart, of his creation, and sealed it with a large, round window he had been saving for a grandfather clock.
He set it aside and inspected it. It wasn’t a boar, but it was what he did. He was very proud of it.
She returned to his shop at 10:15 the following Tuesday. He had prepared her coffee and had it upon his desk, with her basket (now empty)five minutes before her arrival. She strode in, her confident self again, and they said their ritual greetings. She asked if he enjoyed the cookies. He replied that he did, very much so, it was what he needed.
“And I have a gift for you.” he said, almost an afterthought. She protested, with a smile and a laugh, as ever, but he shook his head. “No, it is for you, only for you.” and he hefted it onto his desk.
It was a copper heart with a glass front. It was curved, and artful, and radiant. It balanced precisely on four stout legs of wood. She could see the insides; coils and springs and cogs of various shapes and sizes, all surrounding the large red sun of paper and metal. Unlike his clocks, all the pieces were still and quiet. She gasped and held her fingers to her lips then touched it, carefully, delicately as it might break or bite her. Her face flushed and, as soft and musical as ever, she laughed.
“It’s beautiful.” she breathed.
He held a red ribbon out to her, long and connected to the heart through a hole in the top, no bigger than the size of a sixpence. “This,” he said with surprising confidence, “is a clockwork heart. Inside are all my secrets, all my thoughts, all the words I’ve wanted to say. It is yours, if you want. You need only pull this string. It will release a stopper, the gears will turn, it will tick, and it will live. Every day, exactly twenty-four hours after you pull this string, a secret will be released, and you will know a little bit more about me. All you need to do is pull.”
She took the ribbon from him, red and vibrant, and twisted it about her fingers. It was satin, soft and delicate. She watched him, then she glanced at one of his many clocks. It was 10:23 on a Tuesday morning, and that seemed as good a time as any. She yanked, and it freed itself into her hand.
Indeed, the heart became alive. It whirred, it ticked, it rattled. Cogs spun in quick, frantic rotations and slow, leisurely gaits. Springs coiled and uncoiled, levers rocked, pendulums swung. The sun twisted clockwise, a heavy and short thunk, and a tiny scroll, the first scroll, was pushed upward through the hole by a spring and cork. It stood upright, waiting for her, and she took it.
She untied the ribbon with the tips of her fingers and unrolled the paper with caution and wonder. She read it to herself once, and then again, and once more for good measure.
“I am not a huntsman,” he recited to her, as he had recited all night long, word for word from his first secret, his heart in his throat, “nor am I a poet, a tailor, a baker, or much of a use to anybody. I have no place in this village. But I feel I may have a place with you.”
“Yes,” she sighed, “oh yes, yes, yes.”And she kissed him. His doubts subsided, his clockwork heart ticked and tocked happily away, and he finally found his niche.