A boy, desperate to escape the drudgery of life in his small town, gets caught up in the machinations of a traveling time keeper, and slowly watches his town and his life unravel by the seams.
The Chronologist came to our town out of the time-haze according to the workings of a calendar that was entirely his own. He bore a metal staff and across his back was a leather tool bag, and word of his arrival passed swiftly from house to house. Rare though these visits were, they were greatly anticipated, and it was enough for most townsfolk to simply hear the phrase, He’s here, to know. People would rush out into the streets pulling on boots and snatching at clothes, some already clutching their precious timepieces for him to attend to—at least after he’d serviced the tower clock from which the hours of all our days were set.
I was a boy of eleven years and five months according to our reckoning on the morning I first remember the Chronologist arriving. I lived with my father, who was mayor of our town, in a rambling but comfortable house just off the main square. He was a plump and fussy man with a nervous moustache and a chronic tendency to misbutton his clothes. Since my mother’s death from the effects a of stray time-wind a few difficult seasons earlier, he’d moved out of the main bedroom they’d once shared, and now prowled about the house every night like a particularly heavy-booted ghost, his footsteps making a counterpoint with reassuring beat of the tall case clock in the hall. But he was diligent in his mayoral responsibilities, the most important of which by far was to attend to the tower clock.
Every morning without fail, he’d set out from our house and head on across the main square to open the pitted wooden door at the base of the tower beside the hunched buttresses of the old church, then ascend the ladders through their many levels to rewind the weights. I often went up there with him, up and up through the dusty haze filled with a deep, resonant, tock, although not so much out of any intrinsic fascination with the clock’s mechanism as because of the rare views these higher levels afforded of the time-hazed lands beyond the confines of our town.
Despite all our best efforts, it had already been full summer for far too long, with the lime trees dripping dusty sap, the crops wilting and the cattle barely giving milk, on the morning when word of the Chronologist’s arrival finally came. I scurried in my father’s wake as, buttoning his best coat sideways and pulling on his mayoral sash the wrong way round, he bumbled out into the main square and fought his way through the crowds to formally welcome the Chronologist to our town. After a preliminary twitch from his moustache, he attempted a stumbling bow, then launched into a typically rambling speech.
“Is it keeping good time?” the Chronologist interrupted, his voice sharp as turning gears.
“Good time . . . ? You mean our tower clock? Well, as far as we can tell, sir. And inasmuch, I should say, as it isn’t keeping bad time. Although there’s no real way—”
“I shall go and check.”
Everyone fell back to let the Chronologist through. He was a tall, thin man with keen grey eyes, skin the colour of weathered bronze, a pointed chin, and a narrow nose. There was something weary about him, but his manner was rigorously precise. Even the way he walked to the regular beat of his staff on the flagstones as his tool bag swung to and fro at his back. I didn’t expect to be able to enter the clock tower on a day as rare and significant as this, but there was a moment of typical confusion as my father opened the door to let the Chronologist through, and I, amid a push of civic bosoms and bellies, was able to squeeze quickly in.
Of course, most of these town worthies weren’t up to the task of following the Chronologist all the way up through the tower, climbing ladder after ladder past the iron weights on their long chains to the floor beneath the bell that chimed the hours and the slow-turning hands of the clock-face that housed the mechanism itself, but my father was used to doing so. And so, as the Chronologist began to ascend after he’d pushed his staff through the strap of his tool bag like an antique sword, was I. Standing in the pigeon-cooing shadows as my father fiddled with his buttons and breathed too loudly through his nose, I was then able to watch the Chronologist at his work.
First, he set aside his staff and unstrapped his tool bag. Then he laid out a series of tools and knelt before the heavy winding spools and the many wheels and gears large and small that turned quickly or slowly or hurried back and forth—I didn’t then know the correct horological terms. His hands moved, I noticed, to something like the same tocking heartbeat as the clock itself. It seemed not so much an act of repair as a kind of healing dance. It was fascinating to watch, at least for a while, although the process, and my father’s noisy breathing—which of course also followed the same rhythm—went on. And on. I confess I grew a little bored. And in the absence of any other distraction, and trapped as I was in the tower, I did what I generally did when I came up here: clambered over to one of the narrow windows and gazed out.
First of all, there was our town itself, neatly spread below me as only I and the birds ever saw it. The red pantiles. The stilled weathervanes. The shadow-gullies of the streets. The occasional square with its green froth of lime trees. The town dump. Some warehouses and workshops. Then came the fields and the vineyards and the orchards in their neatly combed rows, and the sheep and the cattle tiny as toys, and the farmhouses with their ramshackle sheds and barns, and the dusty tracks that unravelled here and there but always turned back on themselves. But after that . . .
After the last hedge and scrap of farmland lay a boundary of unkempt wasteland that we had all been warned never to approach, let alone cross. But from up here, peering on through the time-haze, I believed I could make out a little of what lay beyond, and for one moment I was sure there were fields as prim and regular as our own, and the next I saw hills and sunlit meadows, and deep woodlands, and places of ravaged gloom. And beyond even this lay a staggering sense of ever-greater distance, where lights twinkled, and towers and spires far higher and more fabulous than our own gave off signal glints. I was sure that snowy mountains lay out there, too, and the fabled salty lakes known as oceans, and other places and realms beyond anything we in our town were ever permitted to know.
A sudden calamitous noise startled me out of my reverie, but it was merely the bell striking its hourly chime. The Chronologist, I saw, was no longer attending to the clock mechanism but walking around it and studying it from various angles, as an artist might a portrait or a potter a pot. My father, of course, took this as his signal to engage the poor man in yet more conversation about things that, to me, still nursing my visions of the lands beyond our monotonous little town, didn’t matter at all. Even more irritatingly, the Chronologist deigned to join in with this pointless babble, his work up here presumably finished, although his tool bag remained open and his tools were still neatly laid out.
They gleamed appealingly on the dusty wooden floor. Many I recognised——files, screwdrivers, pincers, and the like; even a small can of oil—but some I did not. There were spikes and prods attached to little boxes. There were tiny nests of steel and glass. One or two even pulsed with lights of their own. I studied them with curiosity, thinking of the impossibly distant flashes I had glimpsed through the time-haze, and wondering if they were somehow linked. Now that his attention was distracted, I even considered quietly pocketing one of these treasures as a small souvenir. But my nerve failed me. After all, he would be bound to notice, being so orderly and precise.
But then I saw the dog-eared corner of a book poking out from the flap of his open tool bag, and decided it looked so old and yellowed it was unlikely to be missed. I’d crept forward and pocketed the thing before I could have second thoughts. Soon after, my father finally stopped his chatter, and the Chronologist slipped his tools back into his tool bag, and we made our way back down the many ladders toward the square with its eager clusters of clock-clutching townsfolk.
I watched as a chair and a trestle table were set up under the wilting lime trees, and people queued up to have their timepieces serviced by the Chronologist’s clever hands, and the dog-eared book I’d shoved into my pocket was forgotten as a far more dramatic idea began to form in my head. Keeping back so as not to be noticed, I followed the man as he went from door to door amid a gaggle of town worthies to service a few larger mechanisms such as the grandfather clock in our hall. Then, as ever, or so it seemed, his work was done, and it was time for him to leave.
The Chronologist’s departure was far less heralded than his arrival. Apparently, most townsfolk cared little about where else he went or what he did once he’d set our days and hours back to their regular beat, and he, I imagined, would want to slip away without enduring another of my father’s interminable speeches. So his only companions were a few very young children who had nothing better to do than follow in his wake as he left the town in the late afternoon. At least, apart from me.
The children were a silly bunch, shoving and giggling and skipping. They soon grew bored, or tired, or hungry, or otherwise distracted, and fell away. I, though, quietly and at a distance, kept on his trail. Out from the town with its tall houses and railing-framed squares, then on through a scatter of markets, mills, and foundries, then beside storage yards and other such hinterlands, and on into the fields beyond. Still, the Chronologist walked on in his usual brisk manner, between low stone walls and rambling hedges along tracks ridged and dusty after this prolonged summer’s heat, past several farmsteads where dogs barked and geese hissed, until the horizon ahead began to loom and grow dim. But he, if anyone—or so I reasoned—must know the way through.
The sky darkened and the tracks gave out and the last fields fell away, and there were only sharp snags of bramble and choking swathes of ivy and burning patches of stinging nettle, and my sense of direction was vague. I could still go on, or so I told myself, as long as I followed the figure shimmering ahead, but I was being stalked by an increasing sense of dread. A wind was rising, too, along with an even colder stirring that raked inside my scratched and stung flesh. Where was I, and what was I doing? I no longer knew, and my resolve failed me. I turned and stumbled back from the looming time-haze, and ran and ran until I reached familiar fields, and staggered, aching and gasping, the rest of the way home.
Clouds closed across the sky next morning. By noon it was raining, and by nightfall there was a definite chill in the air. Soon, what was left of our crops finished ripening, and the meagre harvest was taken in, and not long after the lime trees began to shed their ragged leaves, and everyone in the town rejoiced that temporal regularity had returned. At least, apart from me.
When I finally remembered it, the book I’d stolen from the Chronologist’s tool bag proved to be a disappointment. I’d hoped for some kind of clue as to who he really was—or, better still, a map or guide to the worlds beyond the time-haze—but it was nothing more than a very old, dry, and extremely technical manual on the servicing, maintenance, and repair of various types of timepiece. It was deeply irritating.
I also I found myself irritated by many other things, not least my father’s bumbling inability to manage his own buttons, let alone our town, and the pointless and repetitive tasks we children were expected to perform at school. After all, I had already seen much farther than here, and believed I would see farther still. Why should I have to endlessly draw and redraw the same street maps of our town, or memorise the weights of every recent harvest, or count the number of seconds in each hour, or copy out calendars from years long erased?
I often went upstairs to my mother’s old bedroom when I returned home from school. Typically, my father had done nothing to deal with the ravages the time-winds had inflicted—the blistered paintwork, the contorted ceiling, the furniture bleached to bony heaps, the bed blackened into something that was scarcely a bed at all—but that suited my mood. I remembered how angry I had been when her affliction first became evident. After all, she was so quick and lively and pretty and smart. So why did she now need a stick to walk with, and why was her back so stooped? I would visit her up there when her condition worsened and she retreated to her bed, much though I hated to witness what she had become. She barely recognised me, her eyes were vague, and the hands that clutched my own were sharp and dry as twigs. Sometimes, though, although I wished she wouldn’t, she’d begin to speak in a crackling, quavering voice that came and went like dry leaves. Gabbling nonsense, or so it then seemed, of the times when the arrow of time flew straight and true.
Marvels and miracles. Machines bigger than houses or smaller than ants. Some that could peer so far into the sky that the past itself was glimpsed. Others that looked so deep into the fabric of everything that the quivering threads of reality could be examined, then prised apart, to see what lay beyond. And it was through one of these rents, or so her whispers told me, that a hole of sheer nothingness widened, and the fabric of everything warped and twisted, and the time-winds blew through. Worse still, at least for me, the curtains stirred as if these words called to them, and the peeling wallpaper flapped, and the ceiling receded like an upturned well, and the claws of her nails drew blood. I stopped going up there, but soon the entire house was rent with her screams until one morning there was sudden silence, and absolute relief, and after what little was left of her was buried beyond the farthest fields, my father and I could go back to pretending that our days were ordered exactly as they should be.
But they weren’t. And, more than ever now, I longed to escape. My plan, as I first conceived it, was simple. I would set out along the all-too-familiar streets of this town and then carry on across the fields into the shimmering wilderness beyond until the time-haze swallowed me whole. There were, admittedly, some problems with my absence being noticed too soon—all the more so when my daylight habits were tied to following my father to the clock tower and going to and from school. So I would have to leave at night, and along the quieter back streets, in case I was noticed by some interfering busybody, and then avoid the barking dogs and honking geese of the various farms. There was also the issue of my father’s ever-wakeful prowling, but the man was so set and regular in his habits that even his nightly pacing had a predictable pattern that, by listening to the familiar creaks and footfalls as they came and went, I was soon able to anticipate.
This was it, then. My destiny was set. I didn’t even feel afraid on the spring night I finally got up from my bed and crept through the house in delicate counterpoint to the beat of the tall case clock and my father’s thumping prowl, pulled on my coat and boots, lifted the oiled latch of the front door, and headed out of town along the darkest and quietest back streets. Or, if I was afraid, what I feared was that my plan would fail.
But that didn’t happen; I simply walked on through the bland night along muddy tracks toward the strange vortex beyond, once again following the route that the Chronologist had taken when he left town. A breeze began to stir around me, warm at first, and scented with nothing but mud, manure, and grass. Then it grew colder and deeper, touching my thoughts and bones, and the paths dissolved and the way ahead grew ragged and rough. But I had prepared by dressing in my stoutest clothes and I did not turn back as I fought my way through the clawing vegetation, not even when the stars above me began to churn and melt.
When I paused to look back, all I could now see was a shimmering, twisting curtain. And ahead of me . . . ahead, there were neat fields and slumbering rooftops, all captured in the soft spring dark. This town, I saw, had a clock tower much like our own, and the way toward it avoiding the hissing farmyard geese and barking dogs was oddly familiar. Then came the same streets, the same squares, the same buildings, and then the same rambling house, where the front door latch was oiled, and I was easily able to avoid my father’s continued pacing on my way upstairs, and climb back into bedsheets that were still warm.
Spring passed into summer with dreadful, predictable monotony, and everyone commented on how wonderfully set and regular the seasons had become since the Chronologist’s visit. But he had then left this prison, walked away from it as easily I might walk home from school, and the constant repetition of my days was an unbearable drudge.
Oh, how I hated the cowardly way I had turned back from following him on that fateful day at the end of the long summer before! I relived the moment again and again, and cursed my own fearful stupidity—and the tower clock’s stolid reliability, which meant that he wouldn’t return anytime soon, and perhaps throughout all the rest of my tedious life. Affecting an interest I certainly didn’t feel in the affairs of our town, I tried asking my father about the Chronologist’s habits one morning over breakfast. If, after all, he only came according to the workings of a calendar that was entirely his own, how did he know when, or when not, to come? My father twitched his moustache and dabbed ruminatively at a blob of egg on his mis-buttoned shirt. This was, apparently, a most astute question of a kind which marked me out as a strong candidate for mayor of this town in whatever passed here for the future. The way these things worked, at least to the best of his understanding, was that the Chronologist came because he knew his presence was required. Although precisely how that happened, he had no idea.
A little later, and in a thoughtful daze, I followed my father up the ladders in the clock tower, and stood staring at that patiently tocking mechanism rather than at the views beyond, wondering what I could do to bring about the Chronologist’s arrival according to a calendar of my devising rather than his.
The key was, of course, that tedious book, and had been all along. I began to study its creased pages and stained diagrams. A clock, after all, was just another machine like a plough or a handcart, if a little more complicated, with workings that could be measured, tested, adjusted, and fixed—or broken. I can’t pretend that it was fascinating, but it gave me hope and purpose, and that was enough.
What struck me most was how innately fragile all clocks were. They might just go on, and on, like time itself, yet they were easily perturbed. The chains, gears, levers, weights, sprockets, wheels, brushes, flies, trains, dials, and pinions, the escapement that caught and held each gear for a precious second before moving on, all had to be precisely balanced and calibrated. Standing and studying the mechanism in the tower, which I now knew was technically known as a turret clock, as my father huffed and sweated to rewind its weights, I saw that it would be a matter of mere moments to make it run fast or slow.
But that, as I’d already decided, wouldn’t be enough. A slight tightening or loosening would certainly retard its workings, but how on earth would we, or even the Chronologist, know that that had happened, when the turning of the clock itself governed the days and hours our lives? Whatever I did would have to be more profound, and more damaging, than that. And, oddly enough, as my thoughts and ruminations expanded, I found that I was no longer in the same fever of hurry. After all, I reasoned, the time I had left in this drab little town was now mine to command.
Like any self-respecting craftsman, I decided to do a little practise work first. And what better example of a lesser timepiece could I have to hand than the tall case clock in our own hall? Of course, in many ways it was a different kind of device, with chime hammers, a pendulum, and a gathering pallet, but that was also part of the challenge. After getting hold of a screwdriver and a small steel file, and pretending a stomachache so I could leave early from school, I crouched before it, opened its bevelled glass front, and set to work. It was then merely a matter of shaving a few brass slivers from the teeth of the central wheel that fed the escapement so that some seconds ran more quickly than others, although doing so briefly caused the entire clock to scream and shudder as if in pain. But then I applied a little oil.
In many ways, the effect was far less subtle than I’d intended, although I mostly blamed my father’s habitual nighttime prowling for that. The regular beat that matched his paces might have seemed superficially the same, but the rhythm of his march along the corridors and up and down the stairs now became a series of stumbles, trips, and muted curses. He crashed into vases and tumbled over chairs. He bashed his head on roof beams and fell through doors. But it wasn’t just him. There was no doubt that the house itself felt less set, less stable—even less the happy home it had once been. Things started to shift and unravel in the temporal desert of my mother’s bedroom as well. The bones of the furniture rearranged themselves into worrying shapes. The pastel decorations bloomed into bloated parodies of their old selves. At least, that was what I glimpsed when I opened the door a few inches, then pulled it firmly shut, and turned the lock, although I still sometimes heard wet, dragging shuffles moving as if in echo to my father’s footsteps, and distant—but not quite distant enough—screams.
My father was distracted and distraught, his clothes madly awry and his moustache wildly a-twitch, and things were difficult for me as well during those misarranged times. But they also offered an opportunity I hadn’t expected would come so easily. When I suggested one late spring morning over the breakfast table as a half-cooked newborn chick tried to peck its way out of his soft-boiled egg that I could go and wind the weights in the clock tower on my own today, seeing as he looked so tired and I already knew exactly what to do, he dabbed his eyes and readily agreed.
I studied the mechanism turning and tocking high in the dusty heights of its tower more as an adversary than as a fine example of the horologist’s art. After all, its regularity was the very thing that was preventing the Chronologist’s return. And, without him to show me the way out through the time-haze, how could I possibly escape? The answer, of course, lay in what I now had to do. First of all, though, I wound the weights—I didn’t want time to stop entirely—and then, with that task completed, I took out my file and screwdriver and set to work.
There was, perhaps, a spirit of vengeance in what I did, although I would have been hard pressed to say what slight or wrong I was trying avenge. It had to be more than my father’s untidy buttons and stupid moustache, or the pointless activities at school, or the generalised drudgery of our days, or the broader confinements of our lives. There was, of course, the tragedy of what had happened to my mother, but that was no one’s fault but time itself . . . And, although it sounds nonsensical, I now think that it was time that I truly wished to hurt. And this clock was its emblem, its enabler, its beating heart.
If there was such a thing as an anti-Chronologist, it was me that morning. I scraped and shaved and misadjusted. I shoved and bent and pushed and pulled. Yet the damn thing kept on turning and tocking—it was, after all, a large and powerful device—and so my attack on it continued beyond anything I had planned. But even as, surrounded by metal shavings, discarded balancing weights, and the odd fallen bolt, I continued at my task, there was no immediate sense of time going awry. Which, the remaining rational part of me reasoned, made absolute sense. After all, I was a part of the bigger workings of our town, which this infernal machine drove.
Then I cleared away the evidence, and left the tower, and headed across the main square to school.
It began with the cocks crowing at odd times in the morning, then well before sunrise, then throughout most of the night. Which set the town dogs howling, although perhaps they already sensed the change. And the dawn chorus grew strongest at noon, and the stars wheeled in the heavens like drifting snow. All of which was of course noticed and commented upon, and people set and wound their timepieces with even greater regularity, and always according to the reassuring chimes of the tower clock in our main square. Just like the cows in the fields lowing to be milked at midnight, and the rats scurrying the streets in daylight, everyone in our town instinctively felt this disarrangement: in troubled nights and weird bouts of hunger or sudden thirsts.
My father was at a loss. He knew that something was wrong, and felt sure he had somehow betrayed the townsfolk in fulfilling his duties as mayor. But yes, yes, of course he wound the tower clock as constantly and consistently as any man could, he assured a rowdy public meeting in his predictably longwinded way. As I, as his son and regular witness, would confirm.
All the awkward, annoying things that had happened before when time slipped just a little—fruit suddenly ripening or rotting, cheese dissolving back into milk—happened again now, but grew worse. Whole fields full of nearly ripe grain, which we would all depend upon for sustenance whenever winter came, shrank back to mere shoots, then died in a sudden, bitter frost. Even our preciously tended and copied books at school weren’t immune. The print on their pages greyed and dissolved, or turned into strange symbols, or obscene doggerel, and their bindings fell apart. Which might once have been amusing, but wasn’t now.
Every morning, although the mornings no longer felt like mornings, I made my way with my father across the shadow-shifting main square to the clock tower, and ascended the ladders, and looked out toward the vistas beyond, where the time-winds tumbled in the mad air and even this tower seemed to waver and tilt. Or I stared at the mechanism of the turret clock as it wheezed in a gravelly grinding, and waiting for the next tock was like waiting for a dying man’s last breath. Then, in the afternoons, and after the all uncertainties of school, I would return to a house where the floors were stinking and slippery from a plague of frogs, and the windows offered crooked views, and the doors no longer fit in their frames but creaked and groaned in a clamour of drafts.
Often, in what now passed for now, as my father and I sat at a meal that might turn raw at any moment, or dissolve into maggoty mush, we heard a painfully slow lump, lump, lump coming down the stairs. But the stairs themselves, when we dared to look up at them, had grown so wide and high that their top dissolved into murky distance, and whatever it was that was coming toward us—and we both knew it probably wasn’t anything resembling my mother—never came quite into view. Which was a blessing of sorts. In fact, now that the mechanism of the tall case clock was a whirring, crickety blur, that endless descent was almost the only regular sound we knew.
This was a full time-storm, with whole houses collapsing and rain sheeting down from hot, clear skies. We were losing ourselves and we were losing one another, falling away through the unnumbered days. So where was the Chronologist? Why hadn’t he arrived already in these broken times of our greatest need? Surely he had to come right now. Or now. Or now. But the nows staggered past us, or slipped backward, or melted like the faces of our clocks, and it already seemed that it as far too late.
It was a hot, moonlit morning of no known season when he finally arrived, and things were suddenly almost as they had been before, with the dogs panting and the cocks crowing and fresh pollen drifting with the fallen leaves and drizzles of snow across the greyed and emptied fields. Children came shouting and running, and I rushed to join them, for yes, yes, he was here, he had come, and my father stumbled and hurried, his shirt as ever mis-buttoned and askew, to greet the Chronologist in the main square.
“You are . . .” He panted as shadows shrivelled and bloomed around us. “. . . most, most welcome. Indeed, may I venture, it would have been good if you had arrived before.”
“I arrive when I can,” the Chronologist replied with a brisk tap of his metal staff. Then his gaze—knowing yet somehow deeply lost—swept across us townsfolk like a withering wind until it settled on me.
“You, lad”—he pointed—“shall accompany me up the tower.”
“But—but,” my father protested, “. . . he’s only a child! Surely if anyone comes with you, it should be me. After all, I am mayor of this town and whatever has happened is my responsibility.”
But the Chronologist shook his head, and I, of course, was in no position to refuse. After all, wasn’t this exactly what I wanted—for the Chronologist to arrive from wherever he came from, so that I might follow him and escape?
The tower’s interior went up and up through the levels, almost as before. But the dusty gloom stirred with whisperings, and that patient tock was irregular. It came and went, now close as my own agitated heartbeat, now distant as the spinning stars, and the levels and ladders seemed to expand and contract. Briefly, there was no sign of the Chronologist climbing ahead of me—no, there were two of him, then three, then again just one—but I knew that I had to keep climbing in his wake.
One foot and then the other. Rung after rung. One hand gripping above. The other below. I tried counting each upward step as I would once have counted the tedious hours, days, and seconds at school, but the numbers were torn from me, and the tower was twisting like a corkscrew, and I felt very cold. But I was still clinging, I was still climbing, even as the walls, ladders, and levels tunnelled ahead and behind me, and the weights swung wildly on their chains. Soon there was no up or down, or now or then, or before or after, but just this endless tower and the pouring, emptied air.
I was climbing through a time-storm, drenched in sweat despite the chill, and shivering and aching beyond exhaustion, and with no sense left of where, or when, I was. But then I glimpsed something familiar, and it seemed it was deep below me rather than high above, and I started laughing. Somehow, I had reached some unknown level of the tower that soared far beyond the turret clock’s mundane mechanism, face, and bell. Which obviously meant I needed to work my way back down. I changed my grip on the rungs, and shifted my feet to adjust, and was about to begin my long descent when something slipped within me, and my hands scrabbled for purchase, and I fell.
I suppose I must have lost consciousness. Perhaps I even died—was blasted to dust and ancient smithereens by the time-winds. But some part of me still existed, and it dreamed that I had fallen into a wilderness of clocks. There were fob watches and skeleton clocks and carriage clocks and half hunters, and things so strange or elaborate that they scarcely seemed to be timepieces at all, piled in glittering hills and dunes. There were clocks that might once have been driven by springs or weights, or the drip of water, or the flame of a candle, or the sparks of a summer storm, and there were brass dials that stole the shadow from the sun. There were devices to record the flicker of light though crystal, or a human body’s living pulse, and yet others that measured the age of all existence, or the nothingness beyond. They were here in all their endless variety, stretching off in a vast desert, horizon after horizon, on and on and on. And, but for the wind, that desert was silent and timeless, for not one of these clocks worked.
Then I, or whatever I had become, awoke, and I found myself lying scratched and aching in a wasteland beyond the farthest edge of an ill-kept field. I stood up, I started walking—dazed as I was, what else was I supposed to do?—and soon I heard dogs barking, and the lowing of cattle, and the hiss of geese, and for a few delicious moments I believed that I was back in my own town, and my heart filled with hope. Then a farm worker balanced on a strange, chuffing machine noticed me, and shouted across the furrows, and some children ran up and screamed as if I were some wild intruder, and started throwing stones. Which, I realised as I looked down at myself, was understandable, because I no longer recognised myself.
I was taller, or at least farther from the ground, and my hands were like spiders, and brown as bronze, and I was peculiarly clothed, and a pressure across my chest and back came from the strap of a tool bag, and the thing I hadn’t even realised I was leaning on was some kind of metal staff. Even the tones and accents of my voice, as I tried to reason with the people who were gathering around me, were as strange to me as they were to them. And I suddenly felt very, very old.
I was shouted at, jeered and prodded, and not one of the faces that leered over me was familiar as I was hauled like a sack of potatoes through the streets of a town filled with moving glass-and-metal machines that clearly weren’t timepieces, although I had no sense of what their purpose was. Yet the place wasn’t entirely strange to me, which was somehow the strangest thing of all. It was down to the dusty scent of the lime trees, and to the way the main square framed a church and a clock tower, even if every detail was changed. The church buttresses were finer, and the tower was clad in polished grey blocks rather than rough brown stone. That, and the man who came up to me and demanded to know my business here was clearly the mayor, even if he had no moustache and was dressed in perfectly buttoned clothes. There was something else as well. It was the sense of tired restlessness, and the smell of dogs and drains, and the uncertainty of the shadows beneath the lime trees, and the madly crowing cocks.
Did these townsfolk understand what was happening? With approximate gestures and half-understood phrases, it was difficult to make myself entirely clear. But yes, yes, they agreed after a great deal of pointing and prompting, they sensed their tower clock wasn’t working quite as it should, but were at a loss to explain why. Nor, it seemed, had they heard of someone called the Chronologist. If such a being did exist beyond what they called the space of nothing that surrounded their small and carefully maintained haven, he’d certainly never come here.
Of course, it took a great deal of persuasion before they agreed that my strange and sudden arrival might serve some useful purpose, and were prepared to allow me to go up into their tower and inspect the mechanism of their turret clock at first hand. Of course, they also insisted that I was accompanied, although everyone apart from the mayor, who was used to climbing these ladders every morning, soon ran out of breath. I found it oddly soothing to make this journey and be up in the ticking shadows in the company of this thing of brass and steel. It was a neat, sleek mechanism, more complex in some ways but simpler in others than the turret clock I had damaged and abused. Overall, though, it had broadly the same workings, with changes and improvements here and there. Lost as I was, it was like greeting an old friend.
Overall, I decided, the device was working well enough, but there were one or two minor issues—a crooked nut, a few grains of dirt, a slightly misaligned wheel—that needed to be addressed. I was pleasantly surprised, looking into my tool bag, to discover that I had the necessary tools, and was soon able to set things right—a tightening here, a loosening there, some slight rebalancing, a wipe with a rag, a few drops of oil—and it was satisfying to feel the sense of renewed purpose and solidarity that now emanated from this timepiece with every tock, and to hear the relief in the mayor’s voice as he thanked me, and the cheers of the townsfolk rising from the square below.
They wanted me to stay with them in that town, but I refused. I knew I would be of no other use to them, and that they would soon begin to ask questions about things I had no answer for, and then to doubt the purpose and meaning of their carefully measured lives, and to blame me for all that went wrong. So I left in the late afternoon, at first in the company of the mayor and some civic worthies, and then merely a few giggling, scampering children, and then entirely alone.
I’m no longer sure I can remember the many, many other towns I have come across on my journey, nor that it would be good if I did, but I do know that all are different and yet somehow the same. Sometimes, when I arrive, my presence is expected, or thought long overdue. Sometimes, I am barely needed, or just a mad curiosity, or a dangerous pariah to be cursed and stoned. There must be days and arrivals which I do not survive. Sometimes, the townsfolk recognise and remember me, although I rarely do myself. Sometimes, I am far too late. Sometimes, there is neither place nor time and once again I find myself falling through the time-winds in a madly corkscrewing clock tower—or perhaps it’s for the first time—and awaken changed and aching from dreams of a wilderness of clocks, and with no real sense of who or what I am.
I have visited towns where the clocks are lumbering and primitive, and the people are frankly primitive as well. There have been others where their devices are little more than light and energy, and time somehow pours down from the skies. I have spoken with machines in the shape of people, and people in the shape of machines. I have been to places where the clock tower is worshipped through human sacrifice, and others where the inhabitants have razed it to the ground. It is in one of these ruins, or so I imagine, that I found my metal staff, which appears to be the minute hand from the face of a town clock, although I can’t be sure. I have yet, however, to come across a volume on the repair and maintenance of the commoner types of timepiece. Unless, that is, I’ve already lost it, or it’s been stolen by some ill-meaning lad, or I’ve forgotten that I have it with me right now. My memory’s not what it once will be. Or was. Or is.
One town, though, I do particularly remember, because I truly recognised every detail, with each house and street and field arranged exactly as I knew them to have once been, and the faces of all the people who welcomed me achingly familiar in every way. But I was glad to discover that the mayor’s wife was still alive, and that she and he made a happy couple. Nevertheless, the mayor quietly confessed to me as I attended to the case clock in the hall of their well-appointed house, it was a small grief to them both that they had never been blessed with a child.
There will, I suppose, come a day when I will force some foolish child nurturing dreams of reaching other times and lands to follow me up the ladders of the clock tower in a particular town. Or perhaps it has already happened, and the event lies so far behind me that the memory has dissolved. Either way, I know I can never tell him that there is nothing more precious than waking each morning and knowing that today will probably be much the same as yesterday, tomorrow as well, although I wish I could. All I can do is to keep pushing on through the time-winds according to the workings of curse and a calendar that is entirely my own.
“The Chronologist” copyright © 2022 by Ian R. MacLeod
Art copyright © 2022 by Red Nose Studio