“Are you paying attention, James?” scolds Lucius, squinting through a magnifying eyepiece, as he files ever so diligently at the teeth of a brass cog, his hands too steady to belong to such an elderly man that he has become with the synchronized ticking of a million clocks. “The cogs are the organs of a clock, son. They must be precise; they must be exact, perfect—an almost god like mastery of the mechanical universe, you see…. Hey, James, are you paying attention?”
James is the son Lucius always wanted; the son he almost had. His wife was, once a beautiful and blissful long ago, pregnant with the heir to the family craft: a son named James, so handsome, so cunning, yet so easily distracted—or so has grown the hallucination that Lucius’ shattered mind has developed over the lonely years. The infant was so impatient in his womb, so bored by the lack of childrens entertainment. He could not wait for a world just outside his mind-numbing confinement, an enticing world whirling with the excitement and amusement of a novices' delirious play.
Lucius’ wife went into labor two weeks too early. The child's impatience, as so happens with haste, happened upon a moment unprepared for its own happening and so took two lives in its confusion. A mother suffered, a mother bled, and a mother died. A son struggled for breath, a son struggled for existence, and a son, too, died that unholy hour. And with this moment forever recurrent upon the nightmares of a man frozen in memory, Lucius teaches the ageless specter of his child the timeless art of clockwork.
“Do you know, James,” he asks, looking upon the image he has molded in his own ideals, “the reason there are 24 hours in a day? It’s called sexagesimal mathematics, you see. The Egyptians, as well as the Babylonians, were obsessed with the number six and all its divisions and multiplications—60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour; twelve hours in the day, twelve hours at night; twelve months in a year; twelve tribes of Israel, twelve apostles; twelve labors of Hercules; twelve signs of the zodiac.”
His mind flips and races the lessons his Father taught him as a child, as he tries to induce the same passion as he in James for such the religion of time. He even mimics the tone and inflections of his Father, the gestures and brightness of speech glaring its every word. But the ghost of James skips around the shop flicking the hands of every clock, musing his inexistent reflection distorted in each brass pendulum.
Still Lucius smiles lovingly upon his mischievous character, continuing, “Multiply the twelve months of the year with the thirty days of a lunar month and you get 360. Three-hundred and sixty, of course, is the degree of a full circle. Add five days for the five sacred planets or your five senses counted on your five fingers and you get a year. Three-hundred and sixty five … Enoch lived to the ripe old age of 365 before giving up the ghost—no coincidence of number, I assure you. Three-hundred and sixty five days in a year. Actually,” he chuckles, breaking from his work, as he leans back in his stool, “there are 365 days, five hours, 48 minutes, and 48 seconds in a solar year. And that, son, is where a leap year comes into play: a day added every fourth year that can be divided by four, except those years ending in 00 that cannot be divided by 400…. Damn it, James. Would you listen for two seconds? I know you don’t find this stuff interesting, but this is the history of time, and time, James, is our business … and your future.”
“Why don’t you build a cuckoo clock, Daddy?” Lucius hears James say in a hollow pitch at the back of his mind.
Warming at the prospect of his son’s interest, Lucius futilely tries containing his delight, as he answers excitedly, “Would you like to help me build a cuckoo clock, James?”
James silently responds with a nod of his transparent head and again returns to the distractions for which he constantly seeks. Lucius shoves aside the clock he is currently constructing and readies his tools in ordered alignment upon the table, saying in obvious anticipation, “We’ll start on it tomorrow,” as he gambles an old man’s shuffle to the closing of shop, blowing out each burning lamp in swift glide to the door.
Once home, the hallucinations subside and he is left suffering the disease of sanity, as he browses the darkness of his solitary existence here in this barren shack cluttered with shadows pointing and jagged at every edge. He stands staring to a lone grandfather clock, noting the long painful pause between each tick. He watches it, praying his time will end soon, so that he may be with his family somewhere there in the after. Lying in cold sheets of a cold bed, his time moves only slower—and so he returns to the comfort of his shop where James is waiting unaware of his Father’s return.
Standing quietly behind James as he practices some captivating game of pretend, Lucius dares to reach out and touch him, but thinks twice, fearful of the terrible reality. “You want to start on that cuckoo clock now, James?”
He turns a barely visible face, elating, “Yes, Daddy. Yes.”
Lucius starts on his build, in his mind peering over James’ shoulder, instructing every detail. He even makes mistakes as to correct James, doing so with ease of compliment. As the pieces fall into place so delicately, he begins to shine pride from his teary eyes before subconscious realization robs him of this moment. Yet he represses and carries on the night’s toil.
Morning dawns in but a blink of rest, raying in upon Lucius’ bagged eyes, as he gazes upon his creation, of simple design yet intricate precision of hand. Adjusting the hands, positioning the weights, swinging the pendulum, it ticks to life and he stops himself before patting James on the back, instead saying, “Good job, son.”
A mother and her child enter the shop just as a young cuckoo sings the striking of a tuneful hour. The child resembles the age of James and as Lucius excites to introduce the two, James is nowhere to be found—probably off on another adventure chasing winds as he so often does. But as such awe and wonder blooms over the child’s growing expression, Lucius is momentarily distracted from the ghost that haunts his every thought. His mind finally relaxes, as the child’s existence requires no fabrication. He is there without effort and the strains of remembering a long lost dream. His flesh, hair, and eyes are such natural hues no hallucination may fulfill. He is not the ageless apparition requiring his Father’s tireless imagination. No. He is a consumer and subject of real time.
The sight of this strange old man staring upon her child sends the woman sweeping her little one out the door. But as the child departs, a sudden chill of inspiration gusts into the shop on the wings of a cuckoo:
Night after night, following day after day, Lucius works on clock after clock without sleep—without James. The shop fills with a flock of birds, each more elaborate than the last, each more lifelike and active upon its perch, all cuckooing in harmony upon the hour finally turning a faster pace to the end of Lucius’ endless wait.
The instrumental sounds of these birds echo out into the streets, capturing the attention of every child as they pass, tugging their parents into the shop so to fascinate firsthand, as is the demand of a fascinated child, as is the curious way of youth.
Lucius basks in the joy of these children, day after day drifting in with it another fanciful child dazed by whimsy and the bizarre nature of these mechanical birds. Yet week after week, the children dwindle as the novelty subsides. Eventually the shop is emptied to the echoes of Lucius’ pains; pains taking form in the return of James.
Positioning weights to the tightening of springs and the revival of gears, the clocks all tick a synchronized reminder of his life’s unending duration. Turning to James bouncing an imaginary ball, he recommences education, “You know, James … it’s strange—the Jews start their day at sunrise, Muslims at sunset, and we start in the middle of the night. Our year starts in the middle of a season, while the Chinese start theirs a different date each year. We worship the Sabbath on Sunday, the Jews on Saturday, and Muslims on Friday. With all this confusion, I think it’s obvious why we all need a day of rest.”
Taking his eyes from a hypnotic pendulum drawing in sway the daze of obsession that so often freezes him in this abandoned stare, Lucius notices James’ inattention as he leaps for the bell dangling at the doorway. Trying to recapture his focus, Lucius says in high inflection, “Did you know, James—damn it, James, listen!” He clears his throat of this harsh tone, remolding a crackled grin. “Clock, in its original definition, meant ‘bell’.” Gaining a rare gaze of intrigue from James, he explains in intense animation, “The earliest clocks, you see, didn’t have hands. Instead, they had bells that chimed the hour. Bells of that day alarmed the time of worship, the time of emergency, the time of war, or the time of celebration. They now simply ring the time.
“Did you know, James, that ‘Big Ben’ isn’t the name of the clock, but is the name of the bell? Yet then again, clock means bell, doesn’t it?”
Noticing again he has lost the boy’s wavering mind, he turns to the day’s hollow exercise of eternal clockwork mocking in its hourly cuckoo, when James speaks his distant voice, “I wish these birds could fly,” looking upon them with tilted head leaning under the duress of such heavy imaginings. And in this simple statement, Lucius recaptures the muse.
Shedding the clock and all its life investment, he focuses on the mechanics of aviation. He focuses upon the ageless dream of flight that has fluttered since the dawn of man just within reach of tantalization, yet so far out of reach for the wakened and unrested soul. O to free the cuckoo from its clock.
He studies aerodynamics of the skyward creature. He measures and remeasures; saws, files, drills, and dreams, while the cogs begin rolling into place. The innards of a bird spring to life with the winding of a key and its wings crank to a gradual flapping, as it hovers above the table before soaring across the shop. It celebrates its freedom while Lucius grows evermore imprisoned by his work, birthing more and more cuckoos straying in flight from their perches.
From outside the shop window, the neighborhood children notice the strange happenings flitting all about. They are drawn like a flock upon its wind. They are amused; they are entertained; they are beyond elation with this experience they cannot fathom as any reality they have known before. Surely this is the act of some amazing wizard. Surely the old man is a true master of illusion. Surely this is unreal.
But it is real, and reality never lasts—as the mechanics fail one by one. Lucius finds himself engrossed in the repair of these failing aviators and hardly notices the space of his shop again void of the awed visitors. Yet when he does realize their absence he too realizes the shake of his hand, the disobedience of his joints, the lightness of breath. So involved in these birds, he hadn’t noticed the time and its several revolutions. He hadn’t noticed the changes of the children from elder to younger and younger siblings. His clock is now upon its shortest hour, half ticked.
Scrutinizing the lonely shop, he sees the collection of his life—a collection of timepieces, all out of time and most frozen in retirement. Their cuckoos lie dead upon the floor. And even James has vanished. Still Lucius talks aloud his introspective summation, “How misleading is the perception of time in this perpetual cycle. How naïve and arrogant the belief in our pulses as separate moments distinct from the ultimate occasion of timelessness. How human are the seconds.”
He ponders the life of his cuckoos: free of time in their pursuit of now. He ponders the children: free of time in their ecstasy of the instant. “But the ‘instant’,” he thinks aloud, “is but a crude fabrication of a mechanical mind, attempting to measure an inexistent phenomenon, attempting to borderize a conceptual delusion; attempting to capture the myth and mystique of unknowable dimension. Our every sequence is of time and time again…. Lord, there just isn’t enough days in the hour.”
He collapses in fatigue, from the floor of his quiet shop blinking into vision the last ticking clock. And it ticks into his thoughts the idea of forever. At the hour, this insubordinate clock sticks out its wooden tongue upon which chirps its defiant partner. It is within this bird that Lucius conceives. It is with this bird that Lucius shall unfetter the shackles of time. The cuckoo shall soar in perpetuity—and the children will laugh and revel forever.
With every thread of every screw, with every notch of every wheel, with every pinion, prong, spindle, and sprocket Lucius devotes his every moment of his last. His sight is an opaque fog. His memory is long forgotten. His once steady hands are now but doddering nuisances that fumble into place each bit by stubborn bit. And with the last piece in position, completing this embodiment of the permanent instant, he gasps a stale breath like wind from an abysmal cave rolling slowly out from its darkest depths in a long cold exhale. His heart ticks a final surrender and he dies with the bird asleep in his hands.
With no inheritor, the shop goes onto market fetching the attention of a young couple. As they peruse the shop, admiring the clocks yet criticizing in expression its dreary ambiance, their child – a young boy ghostly pale – examines, upon a tool-strewn table, the cuckoo resting in wait. He timidly touches, then pets, before finally winding its wooden key. In a mechanical cranking it stretches its wings a kind of waking yawn. And it flies.….