The Watchmaker

Elliot Morgen

 

Elliot Morgen is 19 and enjoys reading, writing, and fencing. He is in the process of erudition at South Western University. Elliot is, thankfully, childless, and is pursuing a career in writing and an education in philosophy.

I flicked open my pocket watch to glance at the time, though I was already certain of what the watch would tell me: 12:37, the minute that had lived a month. I felt a brief pang of guilt as I closed the brass watch again with a click, as I had been well-aware of the watch’s inability to tell the time for quite a while; it was akin to demanding an aged dog to preform an acrobatic trick that it was certain to fail at. Of course, unlike a dog, with any luck the watch would soon be remedied of whatever ailed it.

I could’ve, however, picked a better time to try and treat it. Despite wearing a waterproof poncho, I could feel the rainwater’s cold tendrils wrap onto my skin, and the storm looked on the verge of spawning a funnel cloud: the swirling winds nearly hurled me to and fro, and I arrived at my destination shivering, damp, and disheveled.

I walked into the repair shop, unfamiliar with what to expect and was almost instantly dazzled by an array of glinting lights: clocks of all shapes, values, and sizes lined the shop from wall to wall, all of them softly clicking in synchrony, dulling the storm outside with their regularity. What amazed me most, however, was how few of them were operating off of what I could recognize as clockwork; in one corner was a watch that must’ve come from a Salvador Dali nightmare, and behind that was a cylindrical tube filled with what appeared to be a variety of colored liquids, with small coins of metal hovering in the tints, listing all the hours from one to twelve. The shop was filled with a number of anomalous creations, yet, unbelievably, all of them were in perfect synch with each other.

It was when I was poking at what appeared to be an edible cookie-like timepiece that I heard, behind me, someone clearing his throat.

“Good afternoon,” said a timeworn voice. “I see you’ve found my more… eccentric works. If you wouldn’t mind, could you either stop touching that or purchase it? Someone may want to eat it later.”

I retracted my hand from the time piece and turned to look at the owner. Before I could notice much more than a number of wrinkles, a luxurious beard, and a pair of mischievous yet kind eyes, my hand was swiftly clasped in vise-like grip and flopped up and down like a piece of cloth in what I can only presume was a rough approximation to a handshake. While I, at the time, was completely bewildered at the apparent lack of bones in my forearm, the man continued to speak, apparently used to this sort of occurrence.

“Welcome to my little shop. What brings you here? A new watch? A present for a family member? Perhaps a clock for the homestead?”

He paused for a moment, cocking his head in a manner not unlike a highly inquisitive peacock. I took this lull in conversation as a cue to speak while I desperately tried reclaiming my hand from his grip; not only was his grasp absolutely astounding in its strength, but his skin was callused and as rough as sandpaper, to the point of his palm actually hooking onto mine.

“I, uh, actually came for a repair. My dad’s old watch stopped working, you see….”

The elderly man nodded understandingly for a moment.

“I see,” he said, before holding his hands out. “If I may, I’d liked to see the damage before giving a price estimate.”

The brass pocket watch exchanged hands swiftly, and the shop owner spent a few moments tapping the medallion-like timepiece every which way, even once bringing it up to his ear and drumming it gently with two fingers. His expression was business-like, cold and efficient, but every once in a while, while looking carefully at the face of the watch or while tapping the watch fob, his countenance would soften, and he would fondly regard the watch with an almost fatherly love.

It was clearly with great reluctance that he held the watch aloft and away from his inspecting eye by the chain, swinging the piece back and forth like a pendulum. He rubbed the side of his head slowly for a few seconds with his free hand, then looked at me carefully.

“I can offer you two choices: either I can give you any clock you want as an exchange for your dysfunctional one, or I can repair it for you for a modest sum. Which offer is more appealing to you?”

I looked at him, momentarily startled, before asking “Any? You mean any watch that is of equal value, right? It has to be for another brass watch, not for some gold watch?”

The Watchmaker looked at me for a moment and then wordlessly shook his head.

I must admit, for a moment I was heavily tempted to simply select the biggest watch made of gold and simply leave the shop. Yes, the old brass watch was from my father, but money was quite a great lure: greedy voices in my head were quite persistent with their murmurings. Perhaps my father would’ve exchanged the watch for wealth, despite it having belonged to his father, and his father’s father, and so on; on a more reasonable level, a part of me tried to rationalize the exchange as the start of an investment, that someday I could purchase the watch back, as it was a simple brass thing, hardly worth the small fortune being offered to me.

I quickly spoke before I could accept an offer I would regret without fail.

“Just fix it, please.”

The Watchmaker winked at me, deftly flicking the watch back into his palm. He walked behind his counter, plinked the watch down on a cushion, and began withdrawing various tools from a variety of nooks and crannies from around himself, even, at one point, withdrawing what appeared to be a small plier from his beard. Every item, some of which truly baffled me with their potential usage, was set on either side of the watch.

He was well into this process of finding his tools when I remembered a rather important detail.

“Excuse me…? What’s the price to repair it?”

He glanced up at me from his arrangement with a slightly uninterested look, then looked back down and continued organizing.

“I said it would be a modest sum. Does ‘monetarily free’ sound reasonable enough? You keep wringing your hand. Did you injure it in some way?”

I looked down and found I was unconsciously massaging my still stinging hand; I am not jesting when I state the Watchmaker was uncharacteristically strong for his small frame, and his callused handshake had felt on the verge of skinning my palm.

It was at that moment I realized there was some slight niggling issue that handshake, something that had been bothering me for a while but had simply failed to notice.

“Is watchmaking hard work?”

The watchmaker looked up at me, a hint of distaste coloring his words.

“If it were simple work, there’d hardly be a need for watchmakers.”

I quickly backpedaled, carefully noting that my watch was being repaired under his potentially ephemeral favor.

“No, no, I mean, does making watches result in calluses and rough skin?”

He cocked his head slightly then said, “Not normally. But when I was younger and more prone to direct intervention, I would go out and try to fulfill every step required for building, well, anything: my first project took me six days of continual work just to get functional, from the mining to the forging to the actual watchmaking, and there are some things I still found somewhat lamentable about it. It was good, yes, but perhaps if I hadn’t made everything so plain looking, people would’ve been more willing to see the magic under its surface….”

He took a moment to sigh, still placing tools on either side my pocket watch; “Of course… the people I made it for loved it for all the wrong reasons.” He began smiling at this point, and with a cheerful laugh, said, “But, of course, the new generations see things differently: what was once a chore has become a joy….”

I nodded, slightly confused but glad he was no longer in a melancholy mood.

“And that’s why you’re still a Watchmaker, right?”

He looked at me like he had been knocked slightly off balance before crying aloud “No! That’s not the reason at all! I’m a Watchmaker because that’s what I am; a fish isn’t a fish because of its choice, no more than the sun chooses to give life because it chose to be a star.”

I held up my hands in a slightly defensive manner; I hadn’t intended to insult him, and his fervor was starting to alarm me.

“Sorry, sorry, I didn’t mean for it to sound that—”

He cut me off and, looking at me with raised eyebrows, quietly asked, “Why did you want your watch repaired?”

Feeling somewhat unsteady and uneasy after his outbursts, I answered in the most bland and widely acceptable manner possible in an attempt; my mind was racing against the clock to stifle anymore issues in the bud.

“I, uh, wanted my father’s watch to be repaired.”

“Of course, of course,” the Watchmaker countered, simultaneously beginning to fiddle around with the back of my watch’s brass covering. “But why would you pay for a repair when you simply have a memento of your father? Why repair it in the first place? After all, broken or otherwise, it’s still a gift from your father; it surely doesn’t matter if it is functional in these days, what with the advent of the cellphone and such. Why repair it?”

Automatically, my mouth opened and gave a reply even as my brain tried to stop it. “Because broken things shouldn’t be broken—it’s just not how things should be.”

And, much to my surprise, the Watchmaker smiled from ear to ear; at least, his beard shifted slightly and his voice was significantly more relaxed sounding. With facial hair like his, it was difficult to determine if the man ever frowned or grinned during any part of our entire exchange. However, considering that he was no longer shouting at me, I took this shift in mood as an improvement.

“Funny thing about that! Universe’d disagree with you there. Supposedly, everything is going towards a state of absolute dissolution—very nihilistic, if you ask me, but that’s how folks say the whole clock is heading.”

I was only half listening to him, simultaneously too concerned with what I was planning on eating for dinner as well as how a man with such a beard could eat without digesting a lethal amount of facial hair, but one of his words caught the edge of my consciousness and demanded to be noticed.

“Clock?”

He halted his repair work and blinked rapidly, his eyes bearing an expression like a man who had been caught saying too much about a particular subject that ought not have even been mentioned.

“Oh, er, yes. Clock. Work with things that go tick long enough, and eventually, the whole universe starts to seem like a clock. Or a watch. Everything’s very complicated, like with watches, lots of interconnecting parts and sprockets and such.”

I smiled for a moment as a memory penetrated the shrouds of time; perhaps high school education had been useful for something besides an advanced edification in the fine art of identifying acceptable levels of laziness. “Oh, you mean like the Deists?”

“They the philosopher types who thought God made the world and buggered off? Some of them were the founding fathers of the U.S.?”

I nodded uncertainly before saying “I think so– I mean, I think they believed that sort of thing.”

“The watch-world analogy was from 1802. The founding fathers came before that. But I understand. It’s a funny old theory.”

The watchmaker shook his head slowly, still working on my watch. There was a momentary lull in conversation before he chuckled for a moment and muttered, “Funny people too. Some of the later ones, after the watchmaker thing came up, thought the world was created like a clock. I can completely understand that, mind you, but then they followed up that line of thought with some nonsense about how, when he finished making the clock-world-universe-thingamajig, the Almighty bumbled off elsewhere, his work completed.”

He cleared his throat before continuing on his religiously inclined talk, clearly taking some enjoyment in discussing this absurdity with me.

“Damn good reason why no Deist moonlighted as a clockmaker. Firstly, because most of them were too busy trying to claim a new nation, but secondly because it’d have thrown their entire belief of a ‘divine clockmaker’ right out the window. No clockmaker worth his salt would’ve simply discarded his first timepiece, even a novice that was through and through essentially an untrained laborer! It completely goes against the entire mentality of building a watch in the first place!”

If I’d been a more clear-minded individual, perhaps I would’ve taken a moment to be vaguely insulted by his nigh sacrilegious undertones. But as the case was, I found myself simply despairing having gone into this repair shop in the first place: a clockmaker with a philosophical bent was trying to lure me into a conversation I found to be irksome in the best of times.  What sort of person pesters another into a religious discussion and expects it to end with anything but both parties loathing each other? I went with my general response, one I give to make people know I’d prefer the conversation to change.

“Nice weather we’re having,” I said, cheerfully lying with utter conviction.

He looked at me, his eyebrow arched in what I now understand was amusement. “Indeed. As a matter of fact, could you be so kind as to open a window for me?”

I froze for a moment. That was precisely the one response I hadn’t expected. My mind operating at peak efficiency, I quickly attempted to rescind my comment.

“Oh, I was just jokin’—”

“Oh, well, I wasn’t. Kindly open a window, please. I do enjoy some good weather.”

I stood still for a moment, then sidled over to the window frame as if it were the gates to eternal suffering. I put my hand against the window for a moment, casually observing the sheer opaque blackness outside that obscured even the earth, then looked back at the Watchmaker.

He didn’t even bother sparing me a glance, instead leaning over the watch as if it were his child.

As I turned back to the window, I heard him say, “Do you hear that?”

I paused for a moment and tried to identify something, anything really, that he was talking about. I spent at least a solid minute looking around, trying to find some imaginary sound in an attempt to milk some extra time before opening the window and letting the gloomy horridness outside flood the workshop. Eventually tired of this halfhearted ruse, I turned back to the Watchmaker and said him the only thing I could think of.

“I’m hearing nothing…. What am I supposed to?”

“Ah,” he said in an embarrassed tone, “Forgot you aren’t a Watchmaker. Anyway, I think I may have found the primary issue… if you wish to see….”

He beckoned me over, and I, quite cheerful to not open the foreboding window, trudged over to the counter.

The counter was literally covered in cogs and gears and bits of metal string, more material than I could’ve imagined fitting inside such a compact watch. Then I gazed at the watch itself, and found an even greater surprise: the watch was still filled to the brim with clockwork. I turned to the Watchmaker with a halfhearted grin.

“So, uh, is all this other stuff,” I said, gesturing to the displayed bits of metal, “for replacing?”

He shook his head as he tapped the interior of the watch with a small screwdriver. Even as I looked at where he was pointing, he shifted aside a gear and for a brief, alarming moment, I saw a slight glow radiate from even deeper within the watch. He met my alarmed expression with a measured one.

“It’s funny,” he said in a tone that echoed in my head and caused the hairs on the back of my neck to rise, “how frequently people think there’s one issue that corresponds to a problem and one benefactor for every benefit.  Turns out, lots of little issues culminate in big ones. Take oxygen for example: if it didn’t exist, dead bodies would last longer.” He scratched his head for a moment then added, “And there’d be more of them, but that’s not the point.”

I looked at him for a moment, mouth agape, before I had the presence of mind to ask, “That’s hardly what I’d call a small issue, but what does that have to do with the glowy stuff in my watch?”

“That was the interior of the face… must’ve caught the light,” he said smoothly, as if he had been rehearsing the line inside his head for some time. “But, well, that’s not the point. Point is, lots of things don’t seem important to the beholder but are vastly important in the scheme of things, including the beholder’s. Disrepair has accumulated, and your watch is vying against entropy for its continued existence.”

I looked at him, slightly baffled by his sudden elevation in vocabulary, before he added, “Your watch is basically as old as the earth and about as liable to break.”

“Uh, the earth isn’t about to break. And I know what entropy means.”

He shrugged again, saying, “Depends on scale, really. And I never doubted that.”

“Look,” I muttered, having felt too tired to deal with his strangeness, “Are you going to be able to fix it or not? Because you told me you could, but if you can’t, I’ll just take it to another place….”

He inflated slightly, though with rage or pride or some combination of both I still don’t know. “I’ve yet to make a promise I cannot keep,” he said, turning back to the watch. “I’m simply saying, well, the watch is going to fall apart someday.”

“Then I’ll just get it repaired again,” I said, my tiredness shifting to irritation as he spoke.

He looked at me, an eyebrow raised slightly, before he said, “You don’t seem to realize what I mean by ‘fall apart’; I don’t mean something will break within it again. I mean it will literally, eventually, fall apart at the screws. Maybe not in your generation, mind, but someone down the line is going to have nothing. Law of the universe and what-not.”

“To hell with the universe!” I said, with half a mind to slam my hand on the counter. If he kept dragging every discussion into some half-backed, pseudo-philosophical one, I would’ve attempted to strangle him, even if my instincts cried otherwise. “If everything is going to disappear, then someone will find a way to make more stuff. Now kindly fix my damned watch.”

He laughed merrily at this point and turned back to the watch. His work seemed fueled by some inner fire now, and bits of metal flew to and fro. “I must admit, I’ve heard that response so many times before, it stopped being boring and has actually managed to reclaim some of its humor. I’ve been through a lot in my existence, but… ‘make more stuff’, eh? Funny attitude. Very idealistic and anthropocentric, with absolute gallons of hubris to fuel such a claim in the first place. I must admit, I’ve enjoyed your company quite a bit.”

“Thank you?” I said, before I felt a change of pressure in my ears. I quickly glanced out the window to find the darkness had become less… whole, I suppose is the best word. The darkness was, at that point, more akin to the result of something obscuring light and less an entity in itself. It still looked dreadful outside, though. There was just something slightly off about the scene, however, and it was something I had managed to pick up right then and there.

“Where is the sound?”

I knew for a fact I hadn’t gone deaf; the clicking of the Watchmaker’s tools had been soft, yes, but they were as soft as they should’ve been. Likewise, the clocks around the workshop hadn’t ticked during our entire conversation; even then I knew there had been something strange occurring, particularly when the clocks all read the exact same time.

 12:37.

“You mean you finally notice it?” he asked, grinning so widely I could actually see his mouth buried behind the layers of beard. “I was beginning to wonder if you’d ever sense it. Shame, though, since I just finished with your watch.”

He glanced once more at the watch lovingly, then held it out to me, the metal cover flipped so I could see the face of the clock.

I looked down at the watch blankly for a few seconds before I said, in a strangled voice, “The watch still isn’t working….”

I’d been there for what had felt like an hour or so, had seen the man tinkering with the interior of the watch, had just noticed some particularly abnormal stuff, had not been looking forward to the walk back home, and now, at the cusp of leaving this place behind, had found that the watch still wasn’t fixed.

This, I clearly remember thinking, is utter bullshit.

“Well,” the Watchmaker said cheerfully, “if nothing was capable of working at all, I’d have told you to scrap the thing, not robbed you of your time. Anyway, it just hasn’t been reunited with its tick yet; the watch just has to find the part of itself that was never broken in the first place.”

“Next,” I said, glaring at him while reaching for my trinket, “you’ll be saying that the damned thing has a soul or something.”

He looked at me, an eyebrow raised, before he chuckled and said, “I don’t see why not: you’re here, after all.”

I was about to ask him what, exactly, he meant by that comment, but as my finger brushed against the brass of my watch, I was belted with several sensations at once: the roar of the storm resumed to rattle the windows, the ticking of the store’s clocks clicked again in a merry metronome, and, most strangely, the watch’s face reflected my features flawlessly, despite the several scratches that adorned the old glass.

The Watchmaker patted my shoulder before saying, “It’s time to go. I don’t like rushing you, but, well….” He consulted my watch quickly, evidently reading it upside-down, and in a clearly rushed tone said, “It’s best if you try to go straight home. Hurry, hurry….” And with that, he ushered me out of his shop and closed the door with a thundering crack—I felt utterly confused at that moment, but managed to get home with relative haste.

The next day, still brimming with curiosity, I went back to that shop, determined to get some answers for his uncharacteristic briskness near the end of our time together; it made no sense to me, at the time, why he hadn’t simply told me why I had to leave.

In the shop’s place was an empty lot.

I stood there, simply staring at the debris for a few moments with what must’ve been a look of incomprehension before I returned back to my house to find either solace or self-medication. There was only so much absurdity I was willing to handle within a twenty-four hour period, and this moment of madness had been the final stitch in a tapestry of lunacy: to say I was having a hard time would’ve been an understatement.

It was when I got to my house that I realized there was a circular package on my porch. I started unraveling the bundle, right there in the hallway, when a tick-tock warned me against any further unwrapping, at least in a location where I would be noticed loudly using expletives. I bundled the parcel under one of my armpits, opened the door with a free hand, flung all extraneous objects to the side (save for my pocket-watch), and started tearing away at the packaging ferociously.

It was a clock. A clock-like cookie (or a cookie-like clock) that told the time exactly in tune with my watch to be precise.

I picked at the paper that had covered it, trying to find out how this timepiece had found its way to me. I found, hidden in the folds of crumpled wrapping sheet, a small piece of paper with a different, rougher, texture. I opened it with trembling fingers; some great secret of the universe had to be held within. After all, with so many anomalies and so many obscure, nigh nonsensical events that occurred while I was near him, the Watchmaker owed me some answers, surely? Would my mind shatter with some great realization? Was the truth of the universe hidden, somehow, within this cookie/clock hybrid he had sent me?

I flipped open the napkin and turned it in every direction, searching for some sort of message that wasn’t there. I suppose I could’ve been enraged, but, strangely, I was feeling incomprehensibly happy at this development. There were a number of bizarre events that occurred during my visit with the Watchmaker, but this, this was just another abnormality in a day filled with them. Why should I have anticipated anything different? It had become, for all intents and purposes, expectable.

I enjoyed my time, particularly the part with the chocolate chips.

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