The Land of the Purple Ring by Deborah J. Natelson.
Author's Note: I am Deborah J. Natelson. In addition to being here, this book is available on Amazon. Don't worry, it's self-published, so I own the rights. I just wanted to share more places! The only difference between this and paperback and ebook (no DRM) versions is they are illustrated and elegantly formatted.
If you want to read more of my original writing, you can find me at deborahjnatelson dot com.
Imagine a land steeped in time.
Not time as we know it, with the swing of pendulums, the ring of alarms, the tick of clocks, the passage of then to now and back to then again and again and again and again. Nor time as a relative factor to be stretched and masticated, organized and sculpted, for time is not chewing gum and ought not be treated as such. Or so the inhabitants of Perpetua would tell you.
Time! You lose time, gain time, look for time, make time, kill time (a violent and wasteful act punishable by up to ten years of clock tower maintenance work), save time, measure time, and otherwise treat time as your most precious commodity. Citizens of Perpetua know this, and they hoard time. They don't have time to be generous or attentive or gracious, but nor do they have time for greed or selfishness or laziness. They don't even have time for time, most of the time.
The Clockmaker, as not only a citizen of Perpetua but a distant relative of Time herself (being the only child of Where Has the Time Gone?), naturally bought into this mentality at quite a reasonable monthly rate. He invested his time into the molding of cogs, the carving of hands and face and fob, the movement and dial. His shop smelled of bronze and oil and glass, and he never had a thought outside of clocks until the Idea came.
IDEA: A member of the family Imagination (genus Inspiration), the Idea is a small but niggling notion that worms its way unnoticed into a brain. Once there, it hooks itself in and sends out tendrils for nourishment.
An Idea settled is nearly impossible to treat without professional help. In extreme cases, it may resist even the ministrations of Oblivitors, Bleachers, System Restorers, and Brainwashers.
Having no access to professional help, the Clockmaker immediately succumbed to the Idea and got to work. Utilizing his decades of skill, he built a gyroscopic tourbillon of pure diamond. Inside a watch, it would have kept balance no matter which way the watch was turned and maintained a true tick for hundreds of years, but the Clockmaker did not put it inside a watch; he put it on display and called it a heart of crystal: beautiful in the glimmering, glinting, glistening way it inhaled and exhaled light as it spun.
Perpetuans caught the heart's shimmer out of the corners of their eyes and in the warmth of their ticking hearts. Tears gathered and trickled down their cheeks. From the thirteen corners they came—in hordes!—to ooh and ahh and admire and offer hours and years of time in exchange for it.
When word of the wondrous heart whispered in Time's ear, she gathered her troops and marched out to see the source of the fuss.
The people of Perpetua felt the wear and tear of Time's approach and fled from it. They crossed to neighboring cities and hid in cellars full of honey and amaranth and immortelle. They covered their faces and plugged their ears and tried not to breathe, lest she hear them. Time knew they hid and where, and amusement flickered across her bone-white eyes and hard mouth, for none can really hide from the effects of time.
On she marched, the breeze from her passing wearing down the features of stone façades and carving grooves into the abused earth. Stone cracked as she neared, and water evaporated. Flowers sprang up, withered, and died. Every sixty seconds, one of the moles clinging to her jowls sloughed off and fell to the ground. As it landed, it grew—an inch a second until a full-grown minuteman joined the retinue, marching behind his leader in perfect time.
Each minuteman carried a bayonet and wore boots and a blood-red suit, but Time herself wore only the gray of ash on her General's uniform. Even her great leather belt had long faded to gray; and her feet were bare.
So Time crossed Perpetua, her tremendous pace devouring distance until she stood in the threshold of the Clockmaker's humble shop. Day and night, youth and age flashed across her fleshy face, and the wood of the shop rotted, and the clocks within rusted.
The Clockmaker exclaimed as his life's work crumbled before his eyes. "Oh, great Time!" he cried, throwing himself at her flat, bare feet. "I cry you mercy!"
Minutemen stomped their boots and raised their bayonets, but Time only smiled, her face folding in deep, unpleasant creases. She leaned her hand on the doorframe, and it crumbled away. "I have no mercy," she said. "Show me the diamond heart."
The Clockmaker shriveled before her. He was not aging prematurely despite Time's proximity—which itself could bode nothing good. "The heart of crystal is my magnum opus," he said. "It is dearer to me than anything else in the shop, anything else I've ever made. What a waste it would be to destroy it! And yet," he added to himself, "it is so phenomenal that surely even Time could not bear to harm it. Maybe if I show it to her, it will melt her ruthless heart, and she will leave me alive."
Clutching this hope to his chest, the Clockmaker extracted the heart of crystal from its display cabinet and brought it before Time. Its glimmer and shimmer and shine captivated him, as they always did. "Is it not beautiful?" he breathed.
"It's grotesque," Time said. "A heart paraded about without a body? For shame!" She spoke harshly, but the glint of the heart reflected in her milky eyes and sparked desire within her. "Your life is forfeit, Clockmaker, for you have laid eyes upon Time. Yet I can be generous. Build me a mechanical man with this heart of crystal, and I will extend your life a year and a day to complete it."
"A year and a day!" exclaimed the Clockmaker. "But that is not nearly enough time! Even polishing a watch can take me two weeks. Why, a mechanical man would take a lifetime!"
A smirk twisted Time's wide lips. "Then a lifetime you shall have," she said. "You shall live long enough to build me my slave, and not a moment longer. And don't think I won't know if you dither and dally and waste precious seconds!"
This last threat fell upon uncaring ears. The Clockmaker had not before considered making a body for the heart, but Time's words had hooked a new Idea into his brain, and he fell before it.
The Clockmaker's boy came to life at a very young age. Thousands of minuscule cogs whirred and wheeled and ticked away in his clockwork brain. The two independent balance wheels—which had bridges across the hemispheres of his brain and synchronized themselves automatically—were as long as the Clockmaker's thumb; the smallest cogs were so petite that he could see their teeth only under a microscope. Each and every part shone, flawless, under the shop lights.
In those days, the boy had only a heart, a brain, and one ear, so he spent his time feeling and thinking and listening. The Clockmaker spoke to him continually, and so the boy learned what words meant.
"Time may have commissioned you," the Clockmaker told him one day as he labored over a pair of eyes, "and I may build you, but you'll need to be able to repair yourself. I wouldn't trust another clockmaker, if you can avoid it. You never know for whom they might ultimately be working."
"Why do you not trust Time?" asked the boy, much later. His teeth were visible only on the left-hand side, where his jaw had been skeletonized, and he was still getting used to having a tongue. "I would not exist without her commission—and you would be dead."
"Yes, but neither is any credit to her; she merely wants a slave—one who can withstand her presence. Time has no real appreciation for living beings or art, and you are both."
"But if I am to be a slave," the boy pointed out, "would it not be better if I had neither life nor art? That way, I could not be wasted."
The Clockmaker did not answer immediately. Something by way of revelation was exploding in his brain, and he didn't know what to do about it. He had never had time for family or personal attachments or anything aside from his work.
Only months later, when he had completed four fingers and a thumb and attached digits to hand and hand to arm and arm to torso frame, did he touch upon the topic again.
"It's time for you to learn the craft, my boy," he said. "I've been telling you about it these past three years. How much have you retained?"
"Everything," said the boy.
"Good," said the Clockmaker, and brought over a palm-sized alarm clock. "What would you do with this?"
The boy turned it over in his new hand and examined it with his rather near-sighted eyes. "It looks old," he said. "A family heirloom, maybe. I would remove the rust and polish it up like you polish me."
"That would be beautiful," said the Clockmaker, "but this is where art comes in. The clock is old, and people like old things. We ought to honor its age. So by all means clean up the rust inside and replace any broken teeth, but treat the exterior with respect. Clean it, but do not make it look new."
The boy tilted his head. "But it is tarnished."
"I do not understand," said the boy, "but it does not matter. I do not need to be able to repair clocks, only myself. I am to be a slave, not a clockmaker."
"You are my son," the Clockmaker said firmly, "and I will teach you my profession."
The boy paused, his clockwork brain grappling with this. "I did not know you considered me your son," he said. "I have always considered you my father, of course. Stop! Why are you crying? You will rust."
From that day forth, the Clockmaker taught the boy everything he knew, which was mostly about clocks. In the mornings and afternoons, they worked together on the boy's body, or the Clockmaker worked on the boy while the boy repaired clocks that had been waiting their turn patiently for years. In the evenings, the Clockmaker told the boy stories from his childhood and sang to him in a scratchy voice as they scrubbed the shop free of dust.
The boy's clockwork brain remembered everything it was told, but this knowledge did not automatically transform into practical skill. The Clockmaker had to train him how to hold a broom, scrub brush, and sponge. At first, the boy's fingers were thick and clumsy, but together, he and his father redesigned them until they could eradicate every grain of dirt from the deep corners of the workshop.
Clockmaking required four more revisions of the boy's fingers, considerable brain extensions and fine tuning, and built-in magnifying glasses he could snap over his eyes. His brain itself had to be completely disassembled, cleaned, polished, oiled, and reassembled multiple times during this process, which the boy found vastly disconcerting and which his father found even worse.
The most complicated watches contain over a thousand components, most of them tiny; the boy contained millions, and he learned how to make, assemble, and repair all of them. He could mount anchor crutches between scotch pins, twist springs (whether mainspring, fine-tuning, or spiral torsion), file screw heads, and carve screw threads. Escape wheels did not escape his attention, and his balance wheels spun with the precision of tightrope walkers. He adjusted adjusting pins, slipped tiny weight discs on balance pins to slow fast watches, and shaved weight from balance wheels to quicken slow watches. He mounted, polished, and oiled chatons, and knew the uses and misuses of twelve types of oil. Given a pattern, he could engrave any design.
Yet the Clockmaker remained unsatisfied. "It is not enough that you can follow instructions," he said. "You must be able to give yourself instructions, invent new designs, and think independently. I will make you a box, but you will have to travel to Imaginarium to fill it."
So the Clockmaker designed a case of pure iron and stored it in the boy's gut. "Inspirations navigate by magnetic fields," he explained, "and are confused by iron. When you escape Time's palace and get to Imaginarium, you'll see for yourself."
In those latter days, the Clockmaker was constantly plotting the boy's escape from Time's palace. He talked about freedom and slavery as he encased visible cogs in metal or glass; he explained about locks and keys as he inscribed his maker's symbol on the boy's collarbone and checked that no screw was too loose or too tight; he emphasized the importance of escaping before Time's presence wore down cogs as he smoothed the boy's kneecaps. "Time," he said, "is of the essence."
After nearly thirteen years of work, the Clockmaker knew he was finally coming to the end. He'd left engraving the boy's nose until last, for this was the one feature he had modeled after his own face. The nose protruded sharply downward and ended in a razor point. The boy could neither smell nor taste, for these things are beyond clockwork, but he would have the most elegantly scroll-engraved nose and tongue imaginable.
"When I finish your left nostril," the Clockmaker said, "you will be complete, my son—and then Time will come for you."
"No, no!" cried the boy. "You cannot be done. I still need—you could polish—" But he was honest, and could think of nothing remaining. "But I do not want to leave you, Father!"
"I have had a good life," said the Clockmaker; "I have gotten to build you. Remember how proud I am of you and all I have told you. And never forget to wind yourself up when you're feeling languid."
"There, there," said the Clockmaker, and three things happened at once: he smoothed the last stroke; he crumpled, dead, to the floor; and Time arrived to collect her property.
The boy had never before traveled past his own front door, and every new sight heralded a new miracle. From his window, he had been able to see the clock tower with its smiling triangle face, and he had supposed that every clock tower had a similar face. Not so. He saw oval faces and round, square and rectangular, heart-shaped and liver-shaped. The clock towers, like every clock they passed, heralded Time's presence by chiming, tolling, booming, singing, or screeching every hour at once.
The boy saw neither people nor animals as they marched, but he saw evidence of far more creativity than he could have guessed existed: sundials, vine-and-ivy clocks, lamppost clocks, hedge clocks, and a great many other things that were not clocks and that, therefore, the boy had not yet learned were to be appreciated.
Not that the boy was in any position to appreciate anything. Quite apart from being surrounded by minutemen, whose stylish caps blocked his view of everything below chin level, he was in a great deal of pain. He thought Time might have damaged something when she'd wrapped her massive mitts around his middle and carried him out of the disintegrating shop, away from the corrugated clocks, crumbling countertops, and most especially away from the figure on the floor sighing into dust. Something certainly felt broken. Perhaps she'd cracked the casing of his gyrotourbillon—his diamond heart that kept him ticking away in good balance whether he stood on his hands or on his head or spun at crazy angles.
The boy had never felt anything like this before, and wasn't sure he could diagnose it himself. But he could not ask his father, and who else was there? The minutemen's hands were so thick and clumsy inside their starched white gloves, and Time—
Time had commissioned his existence. It was by her will as it was by the Clockmaker's craft that he had been born, and she should therefore be his mother, as the Clockmaker was his father. And surely she would be able to fix him. But when he looked at her marching on, uncaring, he learned what it was to be intimidated, and he stayed silent.
The boy made no attempt to escape. It never occurred to him to try: the Clockmaker had spoken only of escaping Time's palace, not of escaping on the trip there. In any case, such utter wretchedness overwhelmed the boy that he could not have done anything if it had occurred to him.
As he sank into this morass of misery, the landscape changed. Gone were the dusty towns, the musty clock towers, and the trusty roads. Present were twenty-six gardens in a great loop, one garden for each hour of the day. They were sunlit or dark, netted with blooms or blooming with nettles, filled with fluttering butterflies or bumping with bats, seasoned with mist or snow or blazing heat.
If the boy had had a sense of smell, he would have swooned; if he had had allergies, he would have sneezed. As it was, his head cleared, and he looked with calm resignation over the coruscating scarlet morning flowers, the toxic midnight toadstools, and the mildly inconveniencing nightshade—to Time's palace.
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