The Man Who Wound A Thousand Clocks Part 2

The Arts

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 jalousie 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.

And another.

And another.

And another.

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 Sultan’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 couple’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.

15 comments on “The Man Who Wound A Thousand Clocks Part 2”

  1. Stu-I-Am says:

    Moral ? We are all prisoners of time. Or at least its clock metaphor.

  2. Peter T says:

    … or reward people for doing things well rather than punishing them when they go wrong, the ultimate triumph of the carrot over the stick.

    Or why you should buy a solar powered, electronic watch that corrects itself against the atomic clock?

  3. Peter T says:

    Should also have said that it’s an ace story, of course.

  4. Helen+Martin says:

    An author’s writing often reveals their attitude to the world. Our author is a humanitarian who only allows a certain amount of cruelty into his created world.
    Did anyone else see the London “parade” on that one block of street? Very strange and then the showing of American marching bands who, presumably had intended to come.

  5. Roger Allen says:

    “An author’s writing often reveals their attitude to the world. Our author is a humanitarian who only allows a certain amount of cruelty into his created world.”

    An interesting contrast is Alasdair Gray’s Five Stories From an Eastern Empire: same basis – absolute and irresponsible ruler and a man with a unique skill – but a much more pessimistic conclusion than Admin.

  6. Roger says:

    Haven’t recommended any Auden poems lately (I think they were before your time, Stu-I-Am), so on the subject of clocks and time:

    As I walked out one evening,
    Walking down Bristol Street,
    The crowds upon the pavement
    Were fields of harvest wheat.

    And down by the brimming river
    I heard a lover sing
    Under an arch of the railway:
    ‘Love has no ending.

    ‘I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
    Till China and Africa meet,
    And the river jumps over the mountain
    And the salmon sing in the street,

    ‘I’ll love you till the ocean
    Is folded and hung up to dry
    And the seven stars go squawking
    Like geese about the sky.

    ‘The years shall run like rabbits,
    For in my arms I hold
    The Flower of the Ages,
    And the first love of the world.’

    But all the clocks in the city
    Began to whirr and chime:
    ‘O let not Time deceive you,
    You cannot conquer Time.

    ‘In the burrows of the Nightmare
    Where Justice naked is,
    Time watches from the shadow
    And coughs when you would kiss.

    ‘In headaches and in worry
    Vaguely life leaks away,
    And Time will have his fancy
    To-morrow or to-day.

    ‘Into many a green valley
    Drifts the appalling snow;
    Time breaks the threaded dances
    And the diver’s brilliant bow.

    ‘O plunge your hands in water,
    Plunge them in up to the wrist;
    Stare, stare in the basin
    And wonder what you’ve missed.

    ‘The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
    The desert sighs in the bed,
    And the crack in the tea-cup opens
    A lane to the land of the dead.

    ‘Where the beggars raffle the banknotes
    And the Giant is enchanting to Jack,
    And the Lily-white Boy is a Roarer,
    And Jill goes down on her back.

    ‘O look, look in the mirror,
    O look in your distress:
    Life remains a blessing
    Although you cannot bless.

    ‘O stand, stand at the window
    As the tears scald and start;
    You shall love your crooked neighbour
    With your crooked heart.’

    It was late, late in the evening,
    The lovers they were gone;
    The clocks had ceased their chiming,
    And the deep river ran on.

  7. BarbaraBoucke says:

    Good heavens, Roger Allen, thank you!

  8. Jo W says:

    Enjoyed reading this story in the collection Personal Demons. I think I’ll have get that volume down from the shelf and have a re-read.
    The book didn’t have illustrations, but I certainly didn’t visualise one of the characters wearing his bagwash on his head.

  9. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    Jo W – there’s a word I haven’t heard for a long time.
    You’d think he’d have had someone to carry his bagwash for him.

  10. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Roger Roger: Oddly enough, but perhaps appropriately — since Auden is among the the most ‘musical’ of poets (both in the construction of his own work and in writing for a variety of musical forms) — I was introduced to ‘As I Walked Out One Evening’ as one of the songs in American composer Ned Rorem’s massive (36 songs) song cycle for four solo voices with piano, ‘Evidence of Things Not Seen.’ His magnum opus is itself about the inevitable passage and depredations of time. Rorem had previously set other Auden poems, including the certainly best known, ‘Stop All the Clocks’ (‘Funeral Blues’).

  11. BarbaraBoucke says:

    Jo W and Cornelia – Whether or not it matters, thanks for the bagwash word lesson. It isn’t one I’m familiar with, and I thought you were referring to what I called a laundry bag until I looked the word up. I knew about places people took their laundry to be done – Chinese miners and others did laundry for the rest of the miners in the California Gold Rush and afterwards. I didn’t know there was a whole “industry” of places that did the laundry which was then picked up still wet and taken home to dry – in whatever method was used. There were bagwash/wet-wash places here in the States until the 1930s when laundromats started opening up. Thanks again for the history lesson.

  12. Roger says:

    Too deaf to hear Ned Rorem’s music, Stu-I-Am, but the volumes of his diaries I’ve read are very entertaining. A thirty six song song cycle does seem a bit OTT, I must say. Do the four voices take turns or are they all in every song?

  13. Roger says:

    Posted too soon!
    I’m not sure you’re right about Auden’s best-known poem: “September !st 1939” – at least its most infamous lines – probably still holds sway.

    BarbaraBoucke: if you look at the economy of the various gold rushes, it wasn’t the miners that made the money but the suppliers of services of one kind or another.

  14. BarbaraBoucke says:

    Very true, Roger. The ones who were savvy enough to figure out not just the laundry, but supplies of food, tools, alcohol, entertainment (legal and otherwise) etc. were the ones who came out well. My sister-in-law’s Great-grandfather was an original 49er. He had been educated in New York and became a Notary Public, which did him quite well no matter what happened with the gold mining – and then the silver mines in Nevada. Then there were the miners who “discovered” the farm lands and potential cattle ranch areas. They found a much financially better kind of life as well. Not necessarily easier, but a tad more dependable most of the time.

  15. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Roger Roger: The soprano, mezzo, tenor and baritone in Rorem’s ‘Evidence of Things Not Seen’ solo and are also in a variety of ensembles throughout the 90 min or so piece. If you’re going to have a crowning achievement as the most celebrated of American classical song composers, an epic 36 song cycle — based on text from 24 different authors — is probably the way to go.

    As for Auden’s best known piece — while I agree that ‘September 1st 1939’ (and no doubt, ‘Spain’) are certainly at the top of the list, I have to (anecdotally, at least) give the nod to ‘Stop All the Clocks’ (‘Funeral Blues’), if for no other reason than the surprisingly responsive chord it struck in the general public after being read so poignantly by John Hannah (‘Mathew’) in the highly successful film, ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ (1994)

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