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The Anachronistic Heart

by Joe Frye

     The stroke of six slumbered beneath the soles of my feet.

     It was all I’d ever wanted. A clock larger than any home. Devised so that its creator could walk its face and stand among the grime which buried its hours. The wrought-iron ring which marked the room’s edge—the clock’s edge—had sundered the surrounding oak walls. A fetid stench pervaded the room, and a gloom had claimed it. The old man waited atop the stroke of twelve, sitting in the faltering light of a lone lantern.

     “Have you heard the story of The Boy and the Pocket Watch?” he asked. His voice croaked through the hush.

     “I have,” I said. “It’s not a story for a tender heart.”

     “You must enjoy it, then.”

     I chewed the inside of my cheek. There wasn’t a soul to scold me in the seclusion of the clock. At least, there never had been.

     When the clockmaker said nothing more, I stepped off the metallic numeral which marked six o’clock. Motes of dust parted as I ventured deeper into the machine. My steps tapped on the hollow wood. Their echoes perished. Lost to the recesses of the domed chamber. Beams extended from towers amalgamated of dull-toothed gears. They connected to the chamber’s foundations: an interspersing of wooden posts, neglected to the point of molder.

     Rafters creaked as I reached the clock’s heart. I knelt down to inspect the cap nut, running my fingers over the sleeping mechanism before bringing them to my nose.

     Brass.

     Of course, it would be brass.

     The clock only possessed a single hand. The hour. Further in, I could just make out the subtle glint of a gear. It was worn. A threadbare relic arraying the cinders of indulged dreams, as were all the clock’s bones.

     “How about you humor an old man?” the clockmaker continued.

     “I didn’t realize I had a choice.”

     Only silence returned from the balcony where he sat, though a mass shifted in the dark. The clockmaker rose from the hearth of the machine which was both his prison and his throne.

     A sonorous bell-tone thundered through the room, knocking me from my feet. The clock moaned. A shudder worked its way through its rotted walls as they cast off the dull scents of mildew and soot.

     My head ached. A shrill ringing built in my ears as the bell-tone dwindled. Dust had filled my lungs, staining my throat with a damp concoction. I knew before the dust cleared. I could feel it in the gnawing of my bones.

     The clock had struck one.

     “There once was a boy who lived in a squalid little shack within a squalid little village in the depths of a squalid little corner of the world.” The clockmaker made his way down the stairs one deliberate step at a time. “But like all children, resilient and naïve, he really couldn’t tell much of a difference.” With each subsequent tap of his boots a lantern lit in the rafters, until twelve flames flickered. “Grown men and women, however, should not have the luxury of ignorance. And though many seem to ignore this precept utterly, the boy’s father was not among them.”

     A soft humming filled the rafters. It harmonized with the old man’s voice until it had abated to a gentle croon. I pressed my fingertips to the clock’s face.

     It was cold. My dream made real, and it was cold.

A crackling smothered the quiet. The lanterns burned bright. Their rays beamed through the clouding dust, revealing the clockmaker who loomed over me. In the light he was towering yet languid; both poised and frail. A dread burgeoned in my gut like coals.

     “Now, the boy’s father did not consider himself a cruel nor negligent man, and so on the eve of his departure he left the child with a parting memento”—the old man reached into his coat and pulled out a small brass pocket watch, flipping open the spring-hinged lid to study its face—“tarnished in its finish, though perhaps not in its intention.”

     The hour hand let loose a groan of grinding rust and metal. I forced myself to my feet as the clock struck two. It’s moving. I actually got it moving.

     The old man knelt. “The boy took his father’s desertion well enough, his mother thought. She expected a quiet and behaved child, and so a quiet and behaved child he was.” He caressed a small panel of wood. Beneath the grime a compact cog was installed in the oak. He flicked it. Once, and then twice, listening to the sound. “He would never put down that pocket watch though.”

     “I always hated this part,” I said.

     The clockmaker plucked his attention away from his mechanism, lifting his chin to peer at me with a knowing smile. “Her, you mean?”

     I nodded.

     “Yes, well, soon she expected the child to let his father’s trinket go. Demanded it, even. But her little boy with mismatched eyes, composed as he was, simply told her, ‘no.’ The boy’s mother, of course, did not consider herself a cruel nor negligent woman. So that very evening, she smashed the old watch. Broke it to bits and tossed it in the gutter.”

     “‘It’s for your own good,’ she had told him, believing every word. ‘I know,’ he’d said back, and waited till she slept before digging the shattered pocket watch out of the muck.”

The Clockmaker glanced about the room. His right eye, a pale green, glimmered in the lanterns glow. The other faded into the dark. His cheeks were caked in grease. His hair, matted.

     “Almost,” he murmured.

     “Almost what?” I asked.

     He rolled up his sleeves, folding back the cuffs with methodical prudence. His forearms were taut and littered with dark blotches. Scars, I thought. From steam. Pressurized steam.

     He flicked the cog again. Once. Twice. Thrice, this time.

     It turned. My eyes widened as a sea of clicks and clacks thrummed from the clock’s center. Rusted gears and pistons screeched. They joined a building whir in their own mechanized chorus just as the third bell tone tolled.

     The clockmaker met my eyes with a smile. A crack spread from the spinning cog, splitting the corroded wood we stood upon. The fracture branched. Splinters jutted from the mutilated oak in a cacophony of tensile snaps until the face of the clock was but a hewed web.

     The old man stood. “Almost awake,” he said.

     A single ember rose from the fissures in the clock. It hissed against the cool air, gliding like a crimson leaf caught in an autumn breeze. A tremor wrenched my spine. I stepped back, and a swarm of embers followed. They burst from the ravaged wood with a sputter.

He had told me that I was here for perspective. He’d had to have known I would see it for a lie.

     “Now, where was I?” The clockmaker stood among the rising char. His cheeks gleamed in the unbridled light. “Ah, of course. Now, years of schooling and tinkering and some manner of failure, forged the boy into a master of the only craft he’d cared to try. And when the boy, now a young man, set off to impart his vision upon the world beyond his squalid beginnings… he did so with a working brass watch in his pocket.”

     The billowing smoke stung my eyes.

     “This doesn’t feel right.” I backed away. “It’s not… as I pictured.”

     “Has youth made you a coward?”

     A throbbing assailed my heart, as if the clockmaker had reached inside my chest and decided to twist. An anxiety suffused the smoldering air between he and I. There was an enmity there, unsaid and unknown, held back by the edge of a knife. I began to inch towards the door near the outskirts of the clock.

     He clucked his tongue. “Are you that afraid of a memory?”

     My eyes welled, but I turned my back on him all the same. The door wasn’t far.

     “He met her among the fireflies, you know.”

     A soothing gale descended upon the clock.

     I stopped dead in my tracks. The embers steadied themselves, and in their stillness, they sprouted insectile wings. Their glow tempered from frenzied to a subtle incandescence. In the span of a blink, fireflies flittered about the room, illuminating the clock in shades of pale green ghosts.

     I followed their movements to the clock’s center. An easel waited beneath a towering cherry blossom tree. There the fireflies gathered, blinking among the blushed flowers. The wind returned. It was a touch gentler the second time, and the cherry blossoms followed it from the safety of their branches willingly. They glided towards the easel, and settled into a tenuous spiral beside it, melding into a singular petaled yet humanoid form. A crinkling beset the figure. Muffled twittering crept from beneath a thin layer of floral flesh. It was of breath and blood. The soft sculpting of tendons, flexing to connect muscle, tissue, and bone.

A light humming emanated from the clock’s reminiscent creation: a woman in a white-striped dress.

     She picked up a small brush from the easel. Her head swayed to the rhythm of her tune. The last of the cherry blossoms faded and smoothed, though in the fireflies’ light their pink remained as a subtle flush upon the woman’s pale skin. She turned to meet my gaze as the clock struck four.

     The toll was soft, blunted by the crescendoing music in my head. It was a low and comforting tune; the tenor to match her soprano. She brushed a loose strand of hair behind her left ear, smiling as I approached. I hummed an unsteady yet obliging pitch and wove my own fraying strand of song with hers, surrendering to the will of the clock at the beckon of her bright blue eyes.

     “You know that tune?” she asked me.

     “My father used to hum it.”

     The young woman set her brush into a tall glass of water resting in the grass below her chair. She leaned forward, abandoning her previously pristine posture to rest her elbows atop her thighs.

     “And did your father lather you in oil too?”

     Glancing down, I saw that I now wore a brown waistcoat with a grey shirt beneath. My sleeves were rolled up and stained with dark spots. Beneath the light of the fireflies my hands gleamed. I inhaled, taking in the scent of brass.

     “I suppose he did, in a sense.”

     She raised her brow but said nothing in return.

     “The dreary clothes are all my doing though,” I said.

     She laughed. “As long as you can admit it.”

     Her easel rattled in the breeze. Upon the canvas a host of dissonant colors vied for control of the piece. There was no comfort to be found in her painting.

     “Your painting is, ah, dreadful.”

     “Isn’t it?” Her voice sparked with excitement. “I absolutely adore it. A bit of garishness to share with the world.”

     “You’re trying to make a bad painting?”

     She leaned back in her chair, crossing her arms with a smirk. “Of course,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to be one of the million other drudges trying to paint a good one, would I?”

     The clock struck five. The serene of the fireflies evaporated. Soft grasses and wind-kissed blossoms retreated into the sleeping depths of the machine. A measured thud pulsed from beneath the retreating soil, like a drum of thunder, commanding the clock’s landscape to reform to the wants of a newborn cadence. Dirt turned to stone. Her easel became ash. In place of the tree, the clock erected a single black lamppost perched beside a cobbled path. She stood within the soft glow of the post. Its light didn’t reach me, so I took to the veil of starlight, letting the night’s edge mark the boundary between us.

     “They’re only in town tonight though,” snowflakes fell upon her tresses, adorning her long blond hair with flecks of patterned white. “You promised that you’d meet them.”

     “I know. I’m sorry, truly. But the city expects a draft of my commission next week, and it needs some work.”

     “You said you’d finished your design already.”

     “I did. But I’d had another look and—"

     “Your designs are incredible. I’ve never seen anything like them. No one has.”

     “I know, it’s just…” I reached my right hand into my pocket, brushing my thumb over the old pocket watch.

     She grasped the lapels of my coat with both hands and pulled me close. Her lips were warm against the winter air. In those moments between the beats of my heart, with her lips pressed to mine, I knew only her.

     But she pulled away, tucking her head beneath my chin.

     “You’re a good clockmaker, you know. You don’t have to be the best.” She draped her arms over my shoulders and lifted her lips to my ear. “I love you.”

     I ran my fingers through her hair, and my heart ached as I found my mind could only focus on the dream of a ticking clock. So I dug and I dug, begging for even a sliver of sentiment, but there was no warmth to be found in my chest. Only the cold embrace of brass.

      My eyes welled, and so I hid my face. I don’t believe she understood when I turned to leave. She watched me without a word; still standing beneath the warm glow of the lamppost as snow settled upon her shoulders.

     A whir sounded from the heart of the clock. The piled snow receded. It succumbed to a fast building heat, billowing as an expanding fog. An amber light filled the room, and I spotted the lanterns flickering high in the rafters once again. Beside me stood the clockmaker. He studied the lamppost which remained, though the woman had gone.

     “She left,” I said.

     He was quiet.

     “She tried, I think. For a very long time.” The fog crept closer, blanketing my shoulders with a heavy dread. Beneath its weight, I could smell my father’s musk. Musty clothes perfumed with cheap cigars. He was never tall but broad. His smile, a yellowed joy. “But they all leave,” I muttered. “Eventually, everyone leaves.”

     “People are fragile,” the clockmaker said. “They aren’t built to last. Not like this place. Not like a clock.” His words stung. I tried to swallow them, but they tasted bitter. So I shivered, because I knew mine had been the same.

     He ambled towards the lamppost. The lanterns burned brighter by the second, and nearly all darkness had been purged from the chamber. I could see movement in the walls now. They were not of oak or stone, but a thousand rusted gears. Cogs and levers. Barrels and dials.

     The clockmaker slouched. Dark circles haunted the flesh beneath his eyes. Fog swallowed the lamppost as I spotted a structure looming past the old man. A trickle of sweat dripped down my back. Which failure came next?

     A yellow beam shined through the haze. Rumbling oppressed the clock as clicking gears were drowned out by the nearing chug-chug-chug-chug. The clock struck six. A train blared its horn, warning an enshrouded station of its approach.

     Its brakes screeched.

     I grimaced, covering my ears, but as the train slowed the station’s ambiance quieted, relenting to the humming of a gentle tune. Fog cleared near the tracks as dispersing steam warmed the air with a hiss.

     My Love stepped onto the black locomotive with her usual grace. She turned her face, shielding her eyes from a violent gust. I stood at the station’s edge when she noticed me, and though her eyes glistened, she didn’t betray a tear.

     “She never believed love to be a caveat,” the clockmaker said. He closed his eyes. “She saw it as something all-consuming. But the young man, the boy, was already consumed. He’d nothing left to give. And so, she left. A flower wilted, but free. Scattered to the wind.”

     The woman broke into a hundred cherry blossoms as the departing train vanished into the depths of the fog. Petals filled the stagnant air, flitting like the fireflies which adorned their first meeting. They carried her tune with them. A soft melody; simple yet divine.

     But it grew softer.

     I held my breath. Listening.

     Softer still.

     And, silence.

     Then… Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.

     A dull ache throbbed in my temples. I could still picture her face between each rhythmic twinge. I could still smell her hair. Lilies and wisteria. The ache fed on these. It stole them from me. Devoured what small comfort I found in each remembrance.

     My throat knotted. My eyes stung with a foretelling of tears. The clock was breathing now. Steam spewed from vents among the rafters. Gaskets endured the pulsing quake of each perpetual tick-tick-tick as gears expanded with the heat of the clock’s spreading fever.

     “It is beautiful, isn’t it?” The old man smiled at me. A gleam had risen in his heterochromatic eyes. He clicked his tongue, mimicking the clock.

     The vents released another torrent of steam, dousing what cherry blossoms remained. They wilted.

     I stretched out my palm. A single flower fell within my grasp, and I wept.

     The clockmaker stiffened.

     His clock struck seven and its lambent gears accelerated into a frenzy. Hydraulic vapors surged into the room, warping the air with wrinkles of heat. My clothes clung to my sweat soaked back. I flinched as molten embers burst from a sizzling grid of cracks in the clock’s face.

     A high clang joined the ticking. The old man ascended the twelve steps to his clockwork throne. His seat was bright and blooming; an igneous hearth. The seventh hour’s bell roared through the rafters, bringing with it an eruption of conflagration.

     My heart writhed. Cherry blossoms fell from the ceiling as heaps of ash. The clockmaker sat within his incandescent throne as the blossom within my palm charred.

     I closed my fist, refusing to watch it burn.

     “She loved me.” My voice cracked. “She loved me, and I left her for a clock.”

     “It isn’t a clock!” He snapped. He dug his nails into the armrests of his throne. “It’s a dream. Ingenuity given form. Passion given breath,” he continued as gear laden walls groaned. “Years I steeled myself. Years, I worked and bled in the dark! I have looked into the eyes of lesser men and seen their aspirations rotting. They lacked patience. They lacked the will. But I, I built upon the scraps left to me.”

     “You hid in a clock,” I said. “Just a clock.” I pressed the ash of her cherry blossom to my heart.

     The clock struck eight.

     I turned my back on him. The door waited at the far edge of the chamber. It was rusted, weathered. He would never let me go. Never let me choose what he could not.

     “I have to try,” I told him.

     “Everything you’ve endured would be wasted. You’d throw away your life. Your work. You’d discard it. Discard us. Abandon us, like everyone else!”

     I ignored him. My feet were heavy, but I started towards the exit.

     The clockmaker snapped, and the hour struck nine.

     A wave of agony ripped through my knees. I buckled under the weight and fell to the floor with a clang. I groaned. My legs twitched, but they wouldn’t move.

     I panted, wrapping my hands tight around my right thigh. And I squeezed. Harder, and harder. Nothing, I feel nothing. Dizzy, I was dizzy. My thoughts raced—no—burned in my skull.

     I exhaled and looked to the clockmaker above. In the swelling smoke I could just make out his imperious gaze. There was a hatred in him. And I could see now that it was the mortar which kept his brilliance whole.

     I tugged myself forward, scraping my forearms against heated wood. I pulled and pulled, dragging my legs. They were heavy, like iron.

     I won’t stay here. I won’t.

     The clock struck ten.

     A leaden ring vibrated up my right arm. Struck my shoulder. My arm crashed into the wood. Numb. Move, damn it. I pulled on its sleeve with my left, but it wouldn’t budge. Move!

     I ripped the sleeve from my arm. It began to smolder. Beneath the crimson rays of the clock, my arm twinkled and gleamed. I moved my left hand towards the source of the glint, prodding my elbow.

     Brass. A bolt.

     Tears poured down my cheeks, evaporating moments later in the blistering heat. Everything I was felt raw. Raw and reeling.

     Keep going.

     I clawed forward with my left arm. The door was close now. Ten feet. Nine feet. Eight.

A shudder ran through the clock and I could feel the precipice in my ribs.

     “Not yet,” I begged. “Not yet.”

     Six feet. Five.

     “Not yet.”

     Two. One.

     A thundering clap marked the eleventh hour as every piston, cog, and spur in the clock halted. My left arm spasmed, bursting at the elbow. It shattered into countless gears and bolts.

     “No!” I moaned, paralyzed before the door. “I need to go. Please, I need to go!”

     The molten glow of the walls began to fade, relenting the confines of the clock to the dark. Still, the lanterns guttered. Shadows danced across the door to the light’s behest. I could nearly see her within them. A knowing smile plastered across her face. But while the clock had stopped, its ticking boomed in my ears.

     “Why?” I asked him. “I don’t understand why.”

     The clockmaker stared back at me. “It’s for your own good,” he whispered.

     The ticking grew, consuming every sensation I had left. It pulsed in my ears, and in my veins, and in my… chest.

     Tick-tock, tick-tock.

     The last of the lanterns hissed. Its flame sputtered. A soft glow remained as the sole warden against the dark. My breath billowed over the fading spark in my father’s pocket watch, which had replaced my heart, dispersing after just three tick-tick-ticks.

     No more tears came to me. I closed my eyes and tried to remember her humming. Tried to remember the number of freckles sprinkled across the tip of her nose. If she would brush her thumb under my bright eye first, or the dark. But there was only the ticking in my chest now. And it was slower, and slower by the second.

     “I shouldn’t have let her go,” I moaned. “I shouldn’t have let her go.”

     I let my head fall back against the cooling oak, still whispering to myself. I shouldn’t have let her go. I shouldn’t have let her go, hoping to drown out the metered melody of a forlorn dream.

     The clockmaker lowered his head at his creation. The twelfth hour struck. The ticking stopped. The clock slept.

     He sat atop the stroke of twelve in the perished light of a lone lantern, lamenting to the bones of his clock: “I did, though. I did.”

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