Clockwork

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic


An old man's obsession with getting an ancient clock to work leads to village-wide consternation and debate as he falls deeper and deeper into a fixated insanity.

Submitted: January 13, 2018

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Submitted: January 13, 2018

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In a little village somewhere south of nowhere, where everyone knew everyone and there was no such thing as privacy, the old man sat at the workbench in his tinker shop, tirelessly tweaking and adjusting the inner workings of a clock that may have even outpaced him in age. It was a project that he’d obsessed over for months since the ancient piece arrived in an assorted bundle of discarded trinkets, the kind that lined the walls of his shop. There was a collection of wood-carvings done by hand, all small and simple; a pair of wooden dolls that could have been Hansel and Gretel, though no one could tell for sure and no one wanted to buy them because of their cracked-button eyes; a couple of toy swords with polished, dull blades that were spotted hither and thither with nicks and dents from too much use by overeager boys rescuing the fair maiden from the dragon; and innumerable other odd items that typically fill a tinker’s shop.

Since he had discovered that clock, with its prim Roman numeral face, thin silver hands, and shiny-smooth cherry wood frame, the old man had not been seen without it. Every time a customer entered his shop, the man was sitting at his workbench, grumbling about some stubborn spring or cog that refused to fit properly in its place. Often he would neglect to appreciate the presence of a customer unless they were to address him directly, after which he would merely raise his head for but a moment in obligated acknowledgement and return immediately to his work. Should a question regarding one of his wares be put forth for his response, he always made a terse, gruff reply in as few words as he could muster. It goes without saying that his sales dropped considerably in their frequency.

Hardly a week had gone by since the clock had appeared before the villagers began to notice the lights of the old man’s shop burning long into the night. They all knew he was working on that clock, that “ceaselessly frustrating piece of useless machinery” as the old man called it. A short time after that, whispers began bubbling through the village that he could sometimes be heard speaking to the clock, rebuking it as a righteous parent would reprimand a naughty child. The village children made a game out of sneaking up to his window and pressing their ears to the face of the building, hoping maybe to catch a word or two of the crazy old man who spoke to his broken clock. The adults quickly put an end to this game, fearing that should one of the children attract the man’s attention, he would scare them away or chase after them. From then on, any child caught too near the old man’s shop was given a lecture on the sin of eavesdropping, though all the young ones knew the real reason they were not allowed there.

As his obsession with the clock grew more in control of him, so did the concern of the village leaders grow for the man’s health. The lights of his shop were now never extinguished, and many days the first person in his shop would have to wake him up as he’d fallen asleep in his relentless determination to fix that bullheaded clock. The old man became so singularly focused on his clock that he no longer noticed the customers in his shop, and if one attempted to approach him he would command them out so that he could focus.

Concern for the man grew to the point that the townspeople decided to have a meeting to discuss what should be done with him. Some felt that he should be sent away. Some ventured that he should be taken to a hospital in his old age. Others argued to simply leave him be, as in that old age he would be hard pressed to reach his next birthday. Despite the lack of any who knew the man well, each person had his own excellent opinion on exactly what should be done about the crazy old man who spoke to his broken clock. It was such a matter of contention that the villagers accomplished absolutely nothing except for agreeing that something had to be done.

Next evening, the villagers met again to discuss the old man. This time, they managed to narrow down their options to either leaving the man alone until he died or sending him away by asking him to leave the village. However, to the great frustration of the village leaders, there was yet no one who wanted to do anything about it. Those advocating to ignore the man and let him obsess over his clock said little, and some of that argument even ventured to leave the meeting early. In contrast, those with the opposing idea of sending the old man away were adamant that he should be gone, and yet none of them deemed it a job fit to their reputation. It was at this stalemate that the meeting adjourned long after the sun had sank behind the surrounding hills.

Such was the obstinacy of the village inhabitants that no further decision could be reached. Every man agreed that something had to happen, and each man felt himself right and proper in his opinion, still did every man maintain and uphold his belief that he himself was above the task of approaching the old man.

It was just as well that the villagers could come to no agreement.

“Fire! Fire! Help! Bring buckets of water! Someone help!” came the cries of one man who had been on a late night walk away from his own bed.

The shop of the old man was alight, blazing dry and wicked as the flames devoured the helpless little building. The villagers lent what assistance their sleepy arms could muster, but quickly abandoned their task as I became evident that the fire was not to be stopped. In the mindset of heroism, one self-important villager defied the flames and barreled into the bright, scalding heat. Onlookers watched with tension suppressed by the night as they waited inactively for their “hero” to emerge from the building. A collected sigh of hesitant relief was heard at the hero’s appearance, but a blanket of mild worry fell upon the faces of those selfsame ones that had about been ready to cheer. The old man was not with the heroic villager.

All crowded around, pressing the brave man for answers to the question of where the old man was at. The strong, able-bodied and able-minded hero coughed, fell to his knees of exhaustion and smoke, shook his head in bewilderment and confusion, and wheezed out, “I couldn’t find him.”

The villagers were stunned. Had the fire been so strong as to steal away the old man’s body so quickly?

None needed ask the question out loud, for, and to each villager’s surprise and horror, the old man materialized from the shadows of the opposite wall of the building nearest his shop.

“I burnt it myself. It deserved to burn. Stupid thing.”

With that, he collapsed to the ground.

The villagers congregated to him so that each could administer aid, but it was apparent that the man would not live out the week. He had no burns, smelled not of smoke; there was no trace of singeing or charring on his clothes or hair. It was the general consensus of the villagers that he had lit the fire himself out of his aged madness and the frustration that he had, before this time, screamed at that old broken clock. His almost lifeless body was carried to an empty bed in a grudgingly obligated villager’s home.

The strength of the fire had been so much as to last into the afternoon of the following day. Once the flames were no more, and the only remains of the shop were crumbled stubs of walls and incinerated lumps of what had once been toys and tools,  three men of the village took it upon themselves to go through the ruins.

As he sorted through what was mostly ashes, the young newlywed Giomar felt a strange clack at the end of the hardwood staff, passed down through his family for nine generations, that he was using to sift and prod the remains. In curiosity, he crouched down, brushed away a layer of ashes with his free gloved hand, and pulled from the flotsam nothing other than the very clock that the old man had obsessed over for weeks. A morbid feeling of dread filled him, yet Giomar’s need to discover snatched his instinct and cast it aside. The young man walked out from the decimation of what had been burned, and upon placing his feet on clean grass, dropped his staff and removed his gloves to better examine the clock.

Giomar did not notice the staring, terrified eyes of the other two men surveying the damage. In his relative simplemindedness, Giomar turned over the clock, which miraculously bore no sign of scorching or scarring, and nervously twisted the protruding knob that is commonly found on the back of a wind-up clock.

Tick tock. Tick tock. Tick tock.

From across the village, Giomar barely heard the voice proclaiming the news of the old man’s death.


© Copyright 2020 Noah Hoffman. All rights reserved.

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