Imagine being acolyte to the prophet Elijah. Imagine him leading you by the wrist to where you will witness a miracle.
He brings us to the lone-tree hill where the clockwork is buried. He shows me the low door hid by grass, shows me the portal cut into the earth, the stairway curving down and deep into the dark. He explains to me the assembly that I will not see, the inner workings he knows I’ve memorized. He cannot stop himself; he is proud, and so anxious that he is losing his breath, his words coming out pinched.
I must be yielding to him some responses. I must be telling him, in some fashion, to continue.
There are last adjustments to make. He hoists his bag of tools. He is going. His foot is on the step. I am reminded of all the times he hung in doors letting me decide how long to stay.
Until all at once, he disappears, and he is inside.
And I am alone, the pocketwatch ticking seconds in my palm.
I am in front of the country road. I am across it.
I am in wait for the first movement on the opposite hill.
When the first leaf changes, a dairyman’s truck is rumbling through. A sun-hatted woman rides in the back with the goods, her small girl dressed matching, a rag doll clutched tight in the little one’s lap; they face behind, watching what they’re already past. The mother fixes me with a stony stare, certain I have no noncriminal reason to be in wait here. The child, I think, watches the tree—sees the color spreading like slow-setting stains, but does not have the language to call out the aberrance.
The tree blazes entirely by sundown, luminous and ember-red. A few foot travelers have craned their necks to ponder it wordlessly, then go on their way. I lay a cover down and in the warm night make my bed. My schedule has ruined me for sleep, and I lie stuck in a haze without rest, my thoughts at once racing and numbed. The pocketwatch breathes constant, nestled into the crevice of my palm. Every few hours I toss myself over to see a leaf break free from the tree, spin stiffly to the ground.
By the middle of the morning people start to notice. A driver pauses his caravan in the road, and they gather watching the hill as the leaves rustle down, as they pile on the grass now pale and parched. They restrain their curiosity, second-guess their interest, as if, by observing the setpiece, they will have to pay for the play. They float explanations for the incongruity, eventually accept one or another of them, and continue along. But because they stopped, others begin to stop. Soon each traveler leaving is replaced by two who stay.
And when the last leaves are shed, when the bark shines bare—when, finally, most incongruous, the hill slicks over with frost as the onlookers drip with summer sweat—they begin to send messengers back to the town. They begin to congregate with me on the opposite hill.
Mercifully, there are few who recognize me, and those who do are seated far away, separated by the throng. No one approaches me. They are distracted, anyway, pointing out to each other the shoots of green, the sudden swelling buds. I sit quiet, propped against my pack of supplies, my head buried, throbbing from poor sleep, from fruitlessly projecting conversation, argument to Silas underground. There is only one link to the man buried beneath the hill; I monitor the pocketwatch for any hitch, any sign that the hill’s clockwork and his own are out of rhythm. But he is brilliant and his calculations exact. The watch has thus far varied not one tick from requirements.
And now we near the part I am here to play. Dear man, he loves a show. I push myself up from the grass. I hold the pocketwatch in my open palm. A few people whirl, their eyes flickering over me with bland curiosity.
More look when I call, Time.
Spring takes the hill in a savage flurry, the buds breaking one after another, champagne and pink, spilling over into bloom, the suddenness of it scattering petals to the wind, the air in an instant perfumed. On the ground new tulips stir and straighten; crocuses split and strive full-faced to the sun, the colors at once harmonious and wild, the hill streaked over in brilliant watercolor. Everything for that moment fresh, new, plump and perfect, sparkling with dew, the hill alone amid its neighbors, blushing with nature at its most sweet and mild.
The crowd sends up an incredulous cry. They rise to their feet, overcome with applause. In my ears it is distant as an approaching army. Someone I do not know slaps my back in misplaced congratulation; a knot in my chest unbinds, and I realize I’ve not been breathing. There is nothing new, no genius in the beauty of spring; it is not what I respect about the thing he has created.
But I cannot deny it is the most entrancing thing I have ever seen. I do not deny I love him more for its invention.
And though the tree will not ever again produce the show with such synchrony, such magnificence, the spectacle is not over, will never be over. Impeccable fruits form, drop, and seed. Leaves swell, grow waxy and full; they crisp and color and fall. Entire seasons passing in miniature, returning and rebirthing, without regard to the long summer surrounding. The tree one day laden, the next withered—the fruits today shed from the branch where yesterday two fool birds started up a nest. His masterpiece clock on the hill writing its own language, a language of Yes enough-No I miss.
A week passes, and the swarm of spectators shifts. Some have seen what they came for and return to our village, satisfied. Others are just driven in from neighboring towns, hungry to see the marvel but unprepared for the stay. Enterprises spring up to feed them, to dispose of their wastes, to help them pass the wait between Silas’s changes. My ears ring always, with gamblers’ laughter and lamentations, with the braying of pack mules, with the grunts of others’ lovemaking. I learn to sleep through it, or do not need to. Silas has rewritten night and day; now I sleep when the tree sleeps.
In the green expanse of the hill clock’s summer, in the thirty-two hours when there are no changes to call, I may go off alone; I may segregate myself to Silas’s side of the road, and lay myself beneath the tree. And because I am master of ceremonies, because there is a bit of celebrity about me, people assume they are not permitted to be where I am, in the same way that theater patrons do not mount the stage during intermission and wander into the wings. I make my camp alone beneath the tree. I drowse through each day. I am here already much longer than Silas intended, but my heart refuses home.
I wake up to patchy sunlight winking through the canopy, my fingers swatting forward and back before my face, banishing a nightmare in which I am turning to rock.
I wake up in the red of evening, spitting gnats, my body buried in overgrown grass, the pocketwatch trapped beneath my ear, my temple hot with its constant beat.
I wake up in the dark from a chill wind. Above me the tree branches whistle and clack; the wind whips fragments of leaves sharp across my skin. Silas must have entered winter again, but in winter the hill freezes over and I cannot bear it; I must go to the other side. It was summer when I closed my eyes.
It is still summer. The grass clutched in my fist is springy, strong.
I pull the pocketwatch close to my face. In the dark it is hard to see. In the wind it is hard to hear. His watches are quiet, solidly housed, finely insulated. But I am long attuned to their subtle pulse.
This one stutters in my hand, a fraction of a fraction of a second. Late.
The sun breaks into the hill-flanked road. There is no suppressing my worst conclusions, and yet I do not understand what I see. The ground below me is blanketed in weeds and wildflowers. The tree that shadows me is a skeleton. Where fruit would grow, it bears dry and withered leaves. The wind wrestles with them; they do not fall. Stillbirth where summer should be.
Do you remember when you last loved? How the weight of the air shifted when he went missing, when you remembered where he would be, and found him there. How the earth shook your stomach when his breathing sank too quiet in the night.
He had led me from the yard, lay me down into bed, the evening I saw his plans. “You may break in after me,” he had said, resting a cold cloth on my forehead, “and I would not lament the chance to see you.” He pulled my hands from where they fought at my eyes. Brought our blanket up to cover. “But you understand. Once I’m in, I won’t be able to be removed.”
Down I plunged to his hidden laboratory, down the steep spiral steps, clawed the earth with my hands to keep from tripping.
He lay stiff in the clockwork cage, his skin dun as desert. His lips pale, his veins bared and blue. Drained and yet somehow still supplying. The mechanism still pumping, demanding more of him, coughing exhausted when there was not enough. The pocketwatch quaking in the center of my palm.
“So please, Pietro.” He pressed each knuckle to his lips. “Don’t fight me.”
I sank down at the feet of the inseparable two. I waited.
Imagine your watch set forever to that expiration.
Imagine being apprentice to the ground beneath your feet.