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art by Shane M. Gavin

The Watchmaker's Gift

Rich Matrunick lives in Mebane, North Carolina with his wife and daughter. His stories have appeared in Ray Gun Revival, Electric Spec, and Stupefying Stories, and will be appearing in issue #8 of Bull Spec. You can follow his infrequent updates at richmatrunick.com.

It begins the same as always, with the sound of the shovel scraping over the country road. I sit upon the dashboard of the idling car--being a turtle, it's the only way I can see--watching as the old woman lifts her shovel, carrying the mangled carcass of a squirrel.
She opens the rear door and places the squirrel into a shoebox on the back seat. The smell is not pleasant, but I say nothing. She seals the lid.
As the old woman slides into the front seat, she picks me up, and sets me upon her lap. "Messy one this time," she says. "Lots of work."
The key turns, the engine revs, and we make straight down the road.
The old woman's shop moves to the constant tick of the wall clocks. Though most are still in working order, others are missing parts that have been borrowed over the years: a gear here, a rod there, and a drive over there.
From my vantage upon the workbench, I watch the old woman, working under the light of a single bare bulb dangling from the ceiling.
Her golden monocle is focused upon a three-legged stool and the squirrel that sits atop. Her wrinkled hands gently turn a gold-handled screwdriver upon a golden screw.
Everything is gold. The rods and gears and drives that she meticulously places within the squirrel's pelt catch passing flickers from the light. The stitches sewn into his pelt glint as she turns the fur over in her hands.
"It has to be gold," she said to me, once.
My rational side tells me it has something to do with its conductance, some electrical conveyance that allows us to function. It is my hope, however, that the true reason is something more romantic--it is gold, and therefore special, which in turns makes each of us special.
And on that basis, I search for the "why" of it all: our reason for being. It is a secret the old woman keeps closely guarded, though I do find encouragement in my quest.
As usual, her work takes her through the rest of the night, into the sunrise, and finally into nightfall on the second day. The squirrel is complete.
In some places her craft is evident: A leg without fur--exposing gears of the knee--a small section of ribcage held together by nothing but thread, the small knob protruding from the back of his neck, and gold eyes, currently silent.
Satisfied, the old woman leans back in her chair. "I need a bit of sleep now, Turtle. Keep an eye out. We'll give him a wind in the morning." She always says this. Though, despite the incessant ticking of the gears in my head, I never manage to stay awake through the night.
Come morning, she will have started his windings and promptly left, leaving me as his sole liaison into this new life.
My eyes open to the shuffling movements of the squirrel upon the stool. Like most, he is examining the stitching in his arms, testing the movement of his legs, and wondering at the dexterity of his digits.
"It's all there," I say. They always jump a bit at my baritone drawl.
Unsure, he sniffs the air, then, decidedly, makes the short leap from the stool to my workbench.
He examines me, high on his haunches, his gold pupils shuttering like a camera lens.
"Where am I? Is this the afterworld?"
"I don't believe so. I can't think the afterworld has much use for time."
"But I feel different," he says. "Something is not quite the same. More than the gears or anything. Or, maybe, because of the gears. It's a ticking. And. . . ." His voice trails there, leaving the half-finished thought lingering in the room.
He is close to the question; I can hear the gears turning in his head as he attempts to sort out the strange addition to his consciousness.
"And you know there's an end to it?" I ask. "That is something to get used to. And something the gears will not let you forget. The old woman calls it "mortality"--a human trait--a concept we animals were apparently lacking." The ticking clock is a harsh reminder of our finite time. Seconds can be counted and measured until you lose yourself in the certainty of an endpoint.
"What do I do with this trait?"
"Recognize it, I imagine. Do as they do and accept it. Perhaps attempt to understand why she gave us this gift."
The pause in our conversation is filled with the ticks of the wall clocks. Presently, his attention drifts towards the open window.
"You can go when you please," I say. "We only ask that you return as your parts begin to wear and break, and the clock begins to slow. Gold is hard to come by, after all."
He pauses, uncertain. And then he is out the window.
Today is Sunday. I can tell by the briskness in the old woman's movements as she prepares for her morning. There is a place to be, and, like most Sundays, no matter how early she rises, or what time we leave, she always seems to determine that she is late in the end.
Presently, she is passing from room to room, searching for something with little luck, while I sit upon the old overstuffed recliner by the black-and-white television.
"Found it," she says, entering from the other room. She has her hiking gear on: green windbreaker, backpack, and old walking stick. On the front of the windbreaker is a brown patch of cloth, hand sewn into a small pouch.
I stretch out my limbs and rise, before the question, "Are you ready?" even escapes her lips. She scoops me up, placing me within the pouch, my head peeking just above its edge.
The autumn air hits my face as we step from the porch, my eyes shutter at the wind. The day is still new; the sun sends little warmth over the awakening landscape. The steam of her breath falls down before me.
The hill rises before us, gaining foliage as it climbs higher into the sky. The old woman sighs as she places her first boot upon the slope. I can see that she is hesitant.
"I think this may be the last trip for these old bones," she says. Then, adjusting the backpack upon her shoulders, she begins the long trek uphill.
The journey is hard on her, I know; our travel is slower than it has been in the past. Despite my size, I feel I am an enormous burden on her.
"I can walk, if it helps," I say. She doesn't hear me, lost in the thoughts that drive her to climb this hill each and every Sunday.
The ruddy path cuts between the trees, the colors of fall nearly given way, brown leaves, dried and worn, crunching beneath her footsteps. I wonder briefly if the squirrel has remained nearby, chattering amongst the treetops.
The forest opens at the top of the hill, the old woman's ragged breath catching for a moment. The clearing is marked with a single tree: old, worn, gnarly roots cascading from its trunk. And beneath sits a single stone: a tombstone of someone she knew, once, and has visited every Sunday since.
I wait for the old woman to remove me from her pouch and set me upon the grass--there to wait as she approaches the tombstone alone, as always. This time, however, she does not.
The sun is blocked behind the old tree as we approach; the lifted glare bringing the grave into focus. It is a simple tombstone, a rock found somewhere upon this hill, unmarked. As she kneels down beside it, she lets me out onto the ground, where my feet find the tickling grasses.
At first I wait behind the old woman as she presses her hand upon the tombstone. But here I feel too much like an eavesdropper, and slowly make my way to stand beside her.
"I just can't do it," she is saying to the stone. "I've let things slide too long."
The wind on the hill picks up for a moment, and the old woman hugs her arms to her body in response. I nuzzle up against her leg, providing what little warmth is possible from a person of my stature.
She notices me; I catch a tear in the corner of her eye before it is deftly wiped away.
"Who is this?" I ask.
"Jonathan," she says, as if the name alone should fully explain the person under the rock. Her hand brushes lovingly at the stone; for a moment I am not sure if she is willing to continue. When she does, her voice is far away.
"He died about eight years ago now. Car accident--very quick--over before the paramedics showed up. Far before I arrived at the hospital to say goodbye.
"I always thought I could make those final words happen, someday. But he's just bones, now. I waited too long. Far beyond what I can hope to mend."
Realization strikes me. It is an ugly feeling, deep within my gut, twisting what insides I have left.
"I'm sorry," she says, "if I gave any misgivings about why you were here. I know how you've been searching since the moment I brought you back. And to find out, now--"
"That I'm a test experiment?" She nods, slowly, solemnly. I am a footnote, a nothing--happenstance. "That is not a bad thing," I say, bits of anger and sadness scattered about my words. "It simplifies things a bit. No higher purpose to search for."
I can see that I've cut her; the way her head bows and her shoulders slump.
The walk back to the house is in silence, though it is impossible to ignore each other's presence, being tucked so closely to her heart. For the first time I consider that the old woman is no higher being; she is a human, as I am a turtle.
The old woman has been on the front porch for hours; the squeak of the rocking chair carries through the window to my vantage upon the sofa. Her movements are as constant as the ticks of the wall clocks.
I brood as afternoon wanes into early evening, trying to determine my next step. The harsh reality, it seems, is that I have no place to go--like the old woman, my friends and family are long buried.
As the red sun drops low in the hills, I finally step onto the front porch. The old woman glances down at me as I approach, the rocker coming to a halt.
"What do I do with this knowledge of mortality?" I crane my head upwards to look at her face. "What do you do?"
"I'm probably the last person to ask. We humans as a whole don't do that well, actually. We try to avoid the thought as best we can."
"I appreciate the suggestion, but then most humans don't have a ticking clock inside their head."
"True." She pauses. "Have you forgiven me already?"
Too proud to answer, I take a step forward. She lifts me up and places me upon her lap.
Absently, her hand reaches up to the small of my neck, to the tiny golden thumbwheel. My eyes go cross and my vision blurs, euphoria, as she turns back the wheels of time. Youth fills me with a few more precious months.
"How long?" I ask as my vision clears. She glances down at me.
"Not sure. The gears have a few winds left in them. Two, maybe three. And I've got a few left in these old fingers of mine."
"Sounds like I'm stuck here for a bit longer."
"You're not, you know. You can leave at any time. It was never my intent to confine you here. It's your time to spend."
I pause, considering. "Perhaps. And maybe at some point I will leave. Though, for the time being, I think I shall like to rock on the porch with you."
The rocker squeaks upon the boards once more. The evening sounds of the crickets begin to creep into our world, as the sky fades into darkness. I am, for the moment, content.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, June 26th, 2012

Author Comments

I stumbled upon the image of a clockwork turtle floating around on the internet. Without a specific goal in mind, I placed him down on paper. We stared at each other for a long while, the silence eventually broken when he asked "Now what?" I think I took it for a much larger question than he intended.

- Rich Matrunick
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