The Man Who Wound A Thousand Clocks Part 2
This the second part of my short story. Feel free to download it, print it out, make a papier maché clock from it etc etc.
The Sultan’s fascination with time gradually dimmed, but the course of his kingdom was now set. With time had come punctuality, and efficiency, and profitability. It was not a concept, like the alchemical one of turning coal into gold, that he could easily discard. His guards checked on Sabin every day, and issued him with a warning; should he fail to wind just one of the clocks on one occasion, he would forfeit a digit from his left hand. This was proof that the Sultan was not a wise man, for such a punishment could only reduce the clockwinder’s dexterity, but punishment was regarded by Shay-Tarrazin as a purely legal matter, and everyone knew that laws were not subject to the influence of common sense.
In time, Sabin Darr’s wrath turned into the infinite sadness of resignation. He learned the art of winding the clocks, and had them rearranged in careful declension, so that he might perform his task with the greatest efficiency. Thus, Sabin was able to fulfil his daily chores, Shay-Tarrazin was able to behead any cook whose dishes arrived a minute late at his table, and everything was cared for in its fashion.
It happened that a favoured son of the Sultan’s (as much as any child born of a concubine could find favour in his court), returning from an excursion in Rome, wished to ingratiate himself with his father. This was for the sake of his mother, who had reached the age of two-and-twenty and had been discarded, and now languished in a shabbier section of the harem, unloved and forgotten. Through guile and deceit the boy had been able to procure a fine Italian timepiece for presentation as a gift. It possessed six onyx clock-faces, each smaller than the last, each requiring daily winding with its own special silver key.
The new clock was the thousandth, and a straw to break a camel’s back; it upset the balance of the clockhouse, since Sabin Darr’s schedule operated on the thickness of a hair. After much calculation and consideration, planning and paperwork, he reordered the collection to incorporate the new clock, and rehearsed the windings through the course of one night.
The following day, still weary from his exacting rehearsal, he slipped while running between the final two clocks and dropped one of the winding keys. It slid across the marble mosaic floor and came to rest beneath the case of a water-clock, and Sabin lost precious seconds retrieving it. As the clocks all began to chime six, there still remained one last clock to wind.
Moments later, two guards marched into the great room. They laid his hand on an alabaster block. One of them expertly slammed a sabre-blade down on his little finger, neatly severing it at the base. The other laid the red-hot tip of a dagger he had heated in a mangal, a cremation brazier, across the little stump, cauterising the wound and instantly staunching the flow of blood. It was all very efficient.
That evening, to ease his pain (for he was not a man without pity) the Sultan sent a beautiful honey-eyed and amber-breasted harem girl called Safieh to deliver Sabin’s food. Abducted as a child by corsairs, she had been sold into the seraglio as an ikbal, a love slave, and was the most adept at her arts. She fed him lovingly, inserting her tapered brown fingers into his waiting mouth, and sweetly played to him on her ney, which is an instrument rather like a lute. After Sabin had eaten his fill she entwined with him on the velvet cushions, and brought alive his memories of the woman he had loved (for she knew his history), and stayed with him until one hour before dawn.
It was almost worth losing a finger for.
Lest you should think that the hero of this tale is merely some passive reed, bending this way and that with the events of his life, forgetful of avenging his poor family, rest assured that he was concocting a cunning plan.
First he made a series of careful tests and calculations, just as he had for the winding of the clocks. He knew that Shay-Tarrazin and his guards had only one way of knowing if he had fulfilled his nightly task, and that was by checking that all the clocks were working, and that he had wound the last clock before the chimes of six. So Sabin started to wind each of the clocks with a single quarter-turn less, which meant that each timepiece ran down and stopped just a few moments before he reached it.
He still reached the final clock on time; in fact, he arrived a fraction earlier now that there was time to spare. This made Sabin’s life a little easier, but more important, it changed time by imperceptibly stretching it. As the days turned into weeks and months became years, the Sultan’s interests moved on to other concepts, such as animal husbandry and flying machines, and he visited the clockhouse less and less frequently. Sabin continued to underwind the clocks, carefully allowing their mechanisms to slow, their springs to expand, their hands to shift less sharply, so that time itself geared down to a lazier pace.
The change was so slight that no-one noticed. All of the other clocks and watches in the kingdom took their time from the clockhouse, and though it was perceived that the sun and moon had altered the times of their appearance, the kingdom was so powerful and so right that it was assumed the heavens had revised their cosmic schedule in order to be more accommodating. After all, how could one measure time but from a clock, and if all the clocks ran slow who was to say that the clocks were wrong and that time itself was right? Absolute time could not be measured in any other way, particularly if one believed that earthbound humans had more power than the heavens.
For the next eight years, Sabin slowed the pace of the world. And at the age of thirty, to celebrate the anniversary of his birthyear, he took it slower still, giving each of the thousand keys a half-turn less.
Safieh, the bountiful harem girl, stayed with him four more times. Her appearance was a mixed blessing, for it meant that he had lost another finger, but he would experience a night of love. The clocks were subject to imperfection, and occasionally broke down. When this happened the royal blacksmiths forged new cogs and wires, and Sabin replaced the damaged part once he had concluded his tour for the night.
Incredibly, it failed to come to the attention of the ageing Omar Mehmet Shay-Tarrazin that his kingdom had fallen out of step. It had grown so lethargic that his ships sat docked in the Bosphorus for months on end, their cargoes rotting, their crews drunk and asleep. His Grand Vizier, that is to say his prime minister, passed his days sweating in the hamam with his favourite concubine, and no longer bothered concerning himself with affairs of state, because they were resolved too slowly. Those states whose borders touched the Sultan’s empire withdrew their trading agreements and found new allies. The slave girls who peered beneath the jalousieÂ screens into the mabeyn area of the palace grew fat and bored, for they were visited with more vigour in times of prosperity (men always sought to prove their sexual prowess after proving their trading acumen). The peacocks in the formal gardens of the palace wandered through the overgrown lawns tearing out their feathers through inattention. The very air ceased to buzz with the energy of insects, and even the battalions of ferocious ants that swarmed across the flagstoned embankments now droned as softly as bees in an English garden. Lassitude settled over the kingdom like a warm dry shroud.
Finally, when Sabin had reduced the clocks to their slowest possible rate, he requested an audience with the Sultan, and built a special royal viewing platform upon which to receive his guest.
The reply, borne on petal-scented paper from across the courtyard, took five full days to reach him. Sabin watched from his window, and finally saw Shay-Tarrazin’s entourage moving as slowly as a constellation toward the clockhouse. The Sultan had grown old and bewildered. His rheumy eyes peeped out from beneath a huge turquoise turban that had a feather dipped in molten gold attached to it with an eagle-claw. To Sabin, the Sultan’s willingness to visit the clockhouse upon request was a sure sign of how far the empire had fallen into disarray. Once, Shay-Tarrazin’s most gossamer caprice would have been set in stone. Now, too much time had made him lose his will and his way.
Upon sighting Sabin he very slowly held out his jewel-encrusted hands and warmly clasped his arm.
‘Ah, my loyal clockwinder!’ he exclaimed. ‘How – how – ‘ But here he lost the thread of this simple exercise in conversation, and his unfocussed eyes drifted up to study a lizard on the ceiling as he sought to regain his topic.
‘How runs your kingdom?’ prompted Sabin.
‘Indeed.’ The Sultan smiled vaguely. ‘All is…very well.’ Behind him, several members of his retinue had begun to fall asleep standing up, their chins slumping on their breastplates.
‘Why, this room is the heart of your kingdom, sire,’ said Sabin, bowing low. ‘If you would care to step upon my platform and listen carefully, you may hear its beat.’
And with that he climbed the steps and cupped his ear, bidding the Sultan to follow his example. Unaware of the impertinence, Shay-Tarrazin followed Sabin’s example and listened, and came to realise that the ticking of the thousand clocks mirrored the slow, slow beat of his own weary heart, and now the concept of time that had so long eluded him became clear. For his fogged brain realised that true time was a personal thing, the measurement of each man’s life on earth.
And with that, the first of the thousand clocks stopped. The Sultan and his retinue noticed nothing, but Sabin’s finely tuned ear registered the absence.
Then another clock stopped.
So that the dense sound of ticking was gradually stripped away, like members of a performing orchestra laying down their instruments one after the next. The Sultan was paralysed by the phenomenon. With each stopped clock his heart grew a thousandth part weaker. After eight years, Sabin was winding the clocks so little that time’s elasticity had been stretched to breaking point.
Shay-Tarrazin’s eyes widened in horror as he dimly realised that his life must cease with the stopping of the final clock, and that for him, as it eventually did for everyone, time would soon terminate altogether. The ticking grew thinner and thinner as pendulums stilled, movements stopped moving, gems and sand and water ceased to pour, suns and moons no longer followed one another, and as the hands of the last clock ceased their movement around its calibrated surface, the Sultanâ€™s heartbeat demurred to the point of extinction, his body seizing into silence. He fell gently from the platform, cushioned by his saffron robes, into the great gold-filigree case of his best-loved Ormolu clock, where he lay unaided by his snoozing retinue.
As Sabin was the only man in the kingdom who had learned to master time, he assumed the responsibility of helping to bury the Sultan and attend his mourning rituals. Even the Grand Vizier (once he could be found and woken) agreed that this was appropriate and seemly.
The clocks were never wound again. The once-great empire of Omar Mehmet Shay-Tarrazin never emerged from its reverie. Sabin Darr was finally granted the freedom of the kingdom. He resolved to return to his village, and requested the slave-girl Safieh as a reward for his unstinting loyalty to the Sultan. The Grand Vizier was happy to grant him this, and to seal good fortune on the coupleâ€™s union, presented them with a golden clock.
The hands of the clock did not move. Its interior mechanism had been removed, and the case had been filled with diamonds and sapphires.
For Sabin Darr, who had lost his family and his fingers, but not his sense of time, the world started to revolve once more.