The clockmaker’s study had always been open to me; I turned it into a sanctum. If I required his books, tools, materials, I now stole in after them at night, after dinner. Dinner was the only daily demand I made of him. If I didn’t, he wouldn’t eat, and he was too thin already. I did not demand talk. I did not clutter his mind by asking his progress.
When we talked, therefore, it was an occasion. I’d play on the words for days.
“Appetite,” he said. It was right upon winter; I remember feeling wistful, as it had been a beautiful fall, and he had not been outside for any of it.
Appetite? I said, to encourage.
The clockmaker’s hair, the sun-bronzed brown of those straggling leaves, was just beginning to get long. In the coming months it would only get longer; soon I’d be helping him each morning to pull the waves back with a thick band. For now the ends curled just past his eyebrows, gave him a soft and starry-eyed look as he speared a bit of meat.
“Appetite is a natural analog of time,” he said.
Because it’s periodic, I said.
He looked surprised. “Cyclical. Yes.”
He delivered a dumpling polite into his mouth, closed his eyes a moment. “This meal is wonderful, Pietro,” he said.
I’m glad if it’s to your liking, I said.
“Of course. I look forward to your dinner. Around six o’clock, or when the sun begins to set, or after I’ve sketched as much as I can picture. Gives me something to anticipate.”
This naturally pleased me to hear. I had, at that time, only just begun to pay any mind to my cooking skills.
“I’d like to make a timepiece that elemental,” he said. “To segment our time as hunger does. Or sleep.”
By satiety, I said. And want.
And said, “No, Pietro, don’t give me your scowl. It is only funny to have someone understand.” His plate was clean. He refolded his napkin beside it, leaned forward in his chair, forearms to the table, hands describing an invisible blueprint. “A day is twenty-four hours. Hours—the peculiar yardstick our world agrees to use to measure its passage. Most people balk at carving their time into any other territories. I grow frustrated with it. I grow tired of mankind’s studied inattention to the cycles that govern us.
“But it turns out the two of us can talk,” he said, “and isn’t that a happy thing.”
I lifted my napkin to dab at nothing, to hide from him my rejoicing.
Evenings after dinner, the clockmaker invited me into the study to talk over his day’s work. For this purpose he cleared a small square of free floor near his low, narrow bed; I sat on a stool he kept to elevate a fickle knee. Though he invited my thoughts, by and large I only listened. He would say more if I listened, would further explain, and, in playing the teacher, find scaffolds for himself, arrive at loftier designs than he had started with, discover weaknesses in the old, discard them in obvious frustration.
Any one of them could be a marvel, I said. Could they not be reworked?
“I’d like one of these days to show you sketches,” he said, his fist balled beneath his chin, “and I can’t do it until the ideas aren’t rat-scratch.” The room grown close and clammy in the winter’s early dark, the hearthfire’s glow in his hair.
A long and cloistered season. When spring came, I started taking him on constitutionals. To improve your knee, I said, and expose your mind to new stimuli. Though he was thirty years, he took to exercise like a child pulled to Sunday school. But he would do as I bid him. He would try.
At dawn, first light, I took him out a few times, until his yawns grew so sarcastic and his vocabulary plummeted so precipitously that I moved the routine to noonday. An equally poor decision: the lines in the shopping district squeezed and pinned us; the children tussled and carried out their games, knocking into the clockmaker, earning a roar of exasperation so extravagant that they splintered, tearing off in all directions, as if by some instinct to preserve at least one of the species. And to their credit, he did seem as if he might spring forward and give chase.
Worse than children for the clockmaker’s temper were the silk-stockings, the administrators and board members and visiting governors of lesser territories. That the clockmaker was both eligible and wealthy was well known, and those with daughters still unmarried loved to detain us, playing the partner in business at first, disclosing minor dissatisfactions with taxes and trade, conspiring to gain the clockmaker’s trust.
A windy day, early spring, the town recorder cornered the clockmaker in the crowded square, his three young ladies fanning out behind him with practiced postures and expressions, lovely but, poor things, bored into vacancy.
The recorder waxed. How lucky the town was to hold down someone with Devomara’s talents; how cumbersome the guild rules were for artisans, how troublesome the apprentices could be these days with their allergy to anything difficult, their unearned self-regard—tantamount to theft.
The clockmaker gave a laugh, charmingly light. “Yet you are so comfortable with thievery,” he said, “wasting my time as you do.”
And the recorder returned the clockmaker’s laugh without, I think, wanting to. As did I. The clockmaker’s smile was difficult to oppose, difficult to thwart. And yet it made me deeply uneasy.
Standing at his door that evening, bidding him good night, I called the walks off. I will not force you anymore, I said.
The clockmaker hung in the doorframe, fingers curled round the edge, tempting the hinge. “I would not make those women a good partner,” he said. “I know my inattention. I take what affection I can and give little back.”
You say this, I said. But I have never seen the evidence.
“You’re kind.” He smiled, and one foot tapped restless on the stoop. “There is space in me for companionship. It does art no good to live as a monk. To marry, though. A marriage with me would be cruel.”
Were I not a man raised in a parish, I said, choosing my words carefully, were I not bound by the common man’s ideals of romantic order, I’d remind you that women’s companionship can be had without marriage.
The clockmaker rubbed his forehead with an open palm, as if feeling for fever. He looked tired. But, “I’m going out,” he said. “Come along with me?”
And from then on, we did our walking at night, accompanied only by crickets, the two of us in blessed peace.
In daylight, I became his operative. If he needed a trip to the market for supplies, if he was sent some spurious paperwork summoning him to one bureau or another, I took on the matter myself, to spare the clockmaker the wanton pleasantry, to assume for him the lie of a generous face. The townspeople grew familiar with me presiding over the shop counter. They came to trust me with orders they couldn’t have dictated to the hazy and distracted clockmaker, had maybe never known that the clockmaker took orders for less than a sovereign. I made traditional pieces; made them beautiful as I knew how, balanced and precise and constant. If a repair cost a little more than the hucksters in the market stalls, well, the watch would be returned in a day, would stay true for years, would run better than before, would lose not a second. What the clockmaker said about our arbitrary hours was not lost on me. Still, some people needed to meet trains.
The customers praised my work, recommended me to others, filled our coffers for the clockmaker’s projects. We prospered. Those who knew my origins told me to be grateful. And I was.
Because there would come a day when the clockmaker would leave his study, walk away from his first true masterpiece. The day I, with lathe and file and calipers, would begin my heart’s work: polishing and fitting his wheels, truing to balance, winding the springs, setting his gears at last in motion. When his master clock rasped its first, thirsty notes, only he and I would hear. Only he and I would see the mechanism.