Summary: The village of Couperin is home to the world’s finest, proudest, and most obsessive clockmakers. Except, of course, for the old man on the hill. When a young apprentice confronts this mysterious being, he finds that behind every clock’s gears, springs, and crystals lies far greater secrets than he ever imagined.
In the small mountain village of Couperin, whose residents knew each other better than they knew themselves, there was a rabid fascination with clock making. Every one of the village’s residents took delight in designing, building, and sharing clocks of all different shapes and sizes. The wives would carve out the tiny intricate mechanics, the husbands would assemble the often unwieldy frames, and the children would watch with fervent curiosity at the clicking gears and swinging pendulums. Strewn across the lawns and streets were countless clock prototypes, finished and unfinished, their synchronized ticking resonated across the hillside. The people of Couperin were very attached to their creations, and refused to sell their clocks for profit. To them, the clocks were both a pleasure and a necessity: their fantastic designs instilled pride in their creators, and they were very accurate in keeping time. One afternoon, it was discovered that an old man who lived in the tower just outside their village had been copying their creations. Before sunset, nearly all of Couperin’s residents were standing on the village square in arms.
Men and woman shouted in anger, their furor punctured by the ringing of the town church’s great bells. In the center of the ruckus was the village mayor, struggling to maintain civility. After a threat by one man to raid the tower, the mayor determined that anybody approaching the tower would have his clocks confiscated or destroyed. The citizens were furious, but immediately went silent following the mayor’s declaration. It was an outrage to have a replica made of your clocks, but to lose the clocks themselves was unimaginable. The villagers’ eyes traveled up the hill where the old man’s tower stood overlooking the village square. The church bell struck the night hour and the crowd dissipated with murmurs of indignation.
Far away from the activity of the village square, in a small shed nestled under an outcrop of trees, a young boy was hard at work over a set of wooden cogs. His eyes pored over markings on a dusty sheet of paper. The markings were blueprints for a skeleton clock, a clock with a naked frame, that he conceived while the rest of his family was sleeping. Traditionally, a boy waited until he was sixteen before he crafted his first clock from scratch. The village elders made a big ceremony out of it: there was a sermon, a certification, and the boy was given his own pocket watch. The village recognized him as a man and ready to take on the responsibilities of adulthood. The boy was ten years too young, but he was so eager to receive his pocket watch that he practiced daily on making the perfect clock.
The shed door suddenly opened, and a group of giggling children burst inside. A couple of boys rushed inside with fresh grass and dirt stains on their jeans. A young girl was twirling a weed between her fingers and periodically inhaling its pollen. “Knew we’d find you in here, Francis!” an older boy called as he crossed the frame of the door into the workshop. The young boy, hard at work sanding the teeth of a cog, quickly hid his plans and pushed his creation aside.
“Hi,” he replied sheepishly and turned to face the group. Wood shavings covered his overalls.
“You been cooped up in here all day again, ain’t ya?” The older boy asked. Francis didn’t respond. “Why don’t you come out and play with us?”
Francis shrugged his shoulders. “I’m not really in the mood.”
“Ah, you’re never in the mood!” Responded the older boy. “Come on, it’ll be fun! Me and the guys are playing tag on the hill! It’ll be great, right guys?” The other boys nodded, and one playfully shoved the other.
Francis paused for a moment, then turned back to his desk. “That’s ok. You guys go ahead. I’ll play some other time.”
The older boy gave him an incredulous look. “There ain’t no other time with you, Francis! You’d really rather spend all day cooped up in here than go outside and have a little fun?”
Francis said nothing and looked at the other children. The other two boys were tugging at each others’ shirts, and the girl was still transfixed by her dandelion.
“Hey, you wanna hear somethin’ neat?” The older boy said, leaning closer. His voice became quieter, almost a whisper. “While we was playing tag on the hill, we got a peek in on that old tower.”
Francis looked back at the other boy and widened his eyes a bit. “You guys went near the tower?” He said, and felt a hand clasp over his mouth.
“Shhh,” the older boy commanded, keeping his voice low. “Keep quiet! You want everyone in town to hear ya?” He took his hand off of Francis’ mouth. “Yeah, we went up there.”
“But you’re not supposed to go up there,” said Francis. “What about the old man?”
“What about him?” The older boy asked casually.
“You know what the adults say,” Francis said, his voice gradually become louder. “He’s an evil wizard who tricks people into coming in his house and kills them!”
At this, the two boys giggled madly. One raised his arms and moaned loudly, like a pint-sized monster of Frankenstein. The older boy raised his hand and shushed them, and the moaning dimmed down to an intense giggle. “When are you gonna stop believin’ in fairy tales, Francis?” Mocked the older boy. “We was just up there, and look at us! We’re alright!”
The two young boys, who were now wrestling playfully, waved to Francis as though reassuring him that they were still alive. Francis shrugged his shoulders.
“Come on,” said the older boy, “what are ya scared of? Some creepy old man who doesn’t even exist?”
“I’m not scared,” Francis quickly retorted.
“Then come with us and show us how brave you are!”
Francis hesitated for a moment, then brushed the wood chips from his overalls and followed the other children through the door.
Francis gazed up the worn, overgrown path before him. Hundreds upon hundreds of discarded clocks were strewn across the ground: old beastly machines with cast iron frames, rotting grandfather clocks with cracked or missing bonnets, small bracket clocks flattened against the ground as if thrown from a great height, and all shapes and sizes in between. Gears, bells, dials, and weights littered the path by his feet. Francis felt sudden pangs of uncertainty as he made his way up towards the tower, but he also felt the eyes of his peers watching from the edge of the hill. He approached the hefty wooden door to the old man’s tower and, placing both of his hands on the enormous frame, took a deep breath before slowly pushing inside.
The first thing he felt was a rush of cool air. The interior was dark and damp, and the stone walls resonated loudly with the clicking of what sounded like thousands of clocks. The racket was nearly deafening, but Francis made sure to close the door quickly before anyone else could see him. There was a lit torch on the wall that gave off a small, pale sphere of light, allowing Francis to peer around in the dimness.
Covering the dirty stone walls and the dusty floors were countless more clocks. Almost every square inch of the room, save a small path on the floor leading to a wooden staircase, had some manner of clock ticking or clicking or ringing away. With a bit of a surprise, Francis noted that some of the clocks looked very familiar. He had seen similar models at his neighbors’ homes, the village square, and even his father’s own workshop. Despite the racket, he decided to approach the old staircase at the end of the hall.
Nearly halfway down the hall, as he gingerly stepped over the machines littering the pathway, he felt a strange and sudden sense of disorientation. The din of the clocks was becoming quieter, and for that he was relieved, but the light of the torch was leaving his eyes and it was becoming far more difficult to see. He made more careful note of his footing to adjust for the darkness, but he realized he was having more trouble moving than normal. His feet felt like lead and his limbs grew stiff until they froze in midair. The hallway stretched before his eyes, and each individual clock seemed to meld into the next. In a panic, Francis tipped himself over and shouted as he struggled to move his arms. Instead of instantly crashing to the ground, Francis felt himself slowed by some strange buoyancy. The ticking of the clocks grew not only quieter, but slower. What was once a loud commotion became a distant silence, punctured every few moments by the tick or tock of a single clock. Francis could no longer think, or feel, or act. He could only note the ticks of each clock droning in his ear. In the center of his vision, out of the blur of clock faces, he saw the faint silhouette of an old man, and then sudden darkness.
Francis awoke with a start and a shout. Quickly glancing around, he noticed he was in his bedroom at home, and had full control over his arms and legs. The sun was high over the horizon and poured light through his window. He stepped out of bed, relieved at first, but paused as he noticed something very odd about the height of his floor. Rather than jumping down from the mattress, as usual, his feet actually touched the ground. Francis rushed across the room to his mirror and froze as a pale, wide-eyed adolescent greeted him in the filmy glass. Francis bolted downstairs into the kitchen and came across his father, who was tinkering with a broken clock and digging into a bowl of oatmeal at the same time.
“Father, father!” Francis shouted. He quickly cupped his hands over his mouth, shocked to hear a deep and baritone voice from his own lips. His father quickly looked up at him and muttered a “mornin’ Francis”, before going back to his work. For a moment, Francis simply stared at him in disbelief. “That’s it? ‘Mornin’ Francis’? That’s all you have to say?”
“What more do you want me to say?” Asked his father, poking at the inner mechanisms of the clock.
“Have you seen me!?”
Francis’ father tiredly raised his eyes. Just then, Francis noticed that his father appeared somewhat older than he remembered him. There were a few more wrinkles under his eyes, and gray hairs were beginning to poke out of head. Francis also noticed several changes around the house. There was new furniture, new dressings for the walls and floor, some of the older fixtures had been repaired or replaced, and dozens of new clock designs littered the halls. Francis looked out the window and saw that the streets were growing smaller, compacted by clocks he’s never seen before on his and his neighbor’s lawn.
“Are you alright son?”
Francis slowly turned from the window and sat by the table. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just…I guess I just had a bad dream. What are you working on?”
Over the next several days it became clear to Francis that something in the old man’s tower caused him to forget the past ten years of his life. Everything from that fateful moment until now was unrecoverable; most regrettably, he couldn’t remember his own ceremony into adulthood. He had the pocket watch to prove it, but not remembering the event made him feel empty inside. Francis was also more upset when he learned what his new responsibilities were. ‘Becoming an adult is more than just making clocks’, his father lectured as he dug out rakes and shovels from the tool shed. Cleaning, gardening, running errands, and watching the younger neighbor children were some of Francis’ least favorite yet most frequent activities. Francis constantly pondered the day he entered the tower. The children who watched him enter say they saw him leave only moments later, and his family members recall the past ten years as though they happened yesterday. As the days dragged into weeks, and the weeks into months, Francis began to long for the days he missed out on, the days he could not remember. He resolved to go back to the tower. He could not turn back the hands of time, but at least he might be able to get some answers.
Francis timidly opened the doors to the worn tower and stepped inside. He was surprised to find most of it remained unchanged. Discarded clocks still lay everywhere, ticking loudly. The torches on the walls burned brightly: he could feel their heat in the cool damp air. Francis cautiously made his way inside, but as he approached the staircase he began to feel the same binding sensation he felt the last time. His breath shortened, his limbs went stiff, and the hallway seemed to stretch off into the distance. Francis tried to cry out, but his breath stopped before it left his mouth. His vision faded, and once again the world went black.
Francis could barely open his eyes by the time he regained consciousness. He felt weak and sore all over, and his limbs were trembling with exhaustion. When he opened his eyelids, the world around him was dark. It was night; moonlight spilled in through the window and a candle flickered faintly in the corner of the room. Francis opened his eyes further and looked around. He knew it was his bedroom, though he did not want to admit it to himself. The floors were filthy and the wooden walls rotting. The springs of his mattress squealed as he struggled to the side of the bed. Francis slid his wrinkled feet into a pair of slippers and strained as he walked to his old mirror. He used the cuff of his robe to rub away the grime, and with his burning eyes he examined a withered old man staring back at him. He was almost unbearable to look at: gray, thin, hunched over, and barely clinging to life. Francis didn’t bother to check the rooms of his siblings and parents. Rather, he imagined they were still there sleeping soundly.
With great effort and despair, Francis left the rotting house and stepped onto the street. The dusty dirt roads had been paved over with cobblestone, new houses had sprung up all around his own, and the large wooden grandfather clocks of his day had become iron monoliths stretching far overhead. Francis choked at the idea of missing out on so much. Overlooking the village, despite all its years and almost resplendent in the moonlight, was the old tower. Francis gazed at it with a mix of emotions: longing and hating, desiring and averting, wishing and hoping for an answer. He wanted to know the reason for his life, why the things that happened happened. Above all, he wanted to meet the old man.
Francis opened the great door as the moon reached its zenith. It had taken all the energy in his body to carry him up the hill, and he knew he couldn’t go any further. As he collapsed at the entrance of the tower, he heard a set of footsteps rushing from the end of the hall followed by a gentle old voice whispering incomprehensibly. He felt a pair of arms reach around him, and he was lifted into the air.
“On your feet, sir,” the kindly old voice said, and Francis felt himself walking up the stairs. The torches on the wall grew brighter and gave off more warmth, and the ticking of the innumerable clocks was far less noisy than the lower section of the tower. Upon reaching the top of the staircase, he was helped into a rocking chair on the opposite side of a large workbench. Partly blinded by the torch light, Francis could barely make out the image of an old bearded man across from him. The man was brushing aside materials and blueprints until the workbench was almost entirely clear. Then, the man reached into his pocket and set down an ornate hourglass. The sand was falling at an unusually slow rate, as though it were extraordinarily dense, yet the vast majority of it had already fallen to the bottom chamber. Francis guessed there would be less than an hour left before the timer ran out, but realized that couldn’t be possible because meant the timer had been running for a very long time.
“How do you feel?” The voice said, startling Francis. “Not easy being so old, is it?”
Francis slowly raised his head and focused his eyes. “Are you the clockmaker?” He asked with a raspy voice.
“I am,” replied the man. “I don’t mean to frighten you, Francis, but I’ve been watching you for a rather long time.”
“Why?” Francis asked, a little more alert.
“Couperin is an intriguing place Francis,” the man said. “I’ve been…studying the way you and your neighbors live. You’re always concerned about time: time for this, time for that. There’s never a time for everything. Draw your plans, work quickly, and get the job done so you can move on to the next. But what I found most unusual is how you discard your clocks the moment you’re done with them. You take no enjoyment in the things you’ve made because you’re so eager to make something new.” The man moved the hourglass closer to Francis. “Do you see this, Francis? Take a close look. This is the time of your life. The first grain fell when you were in your mother’s womb; the last will fall when you draw your last breath. Tell me: where has it all gone?”
Francis reached over and picked up the hourglass. He felt small and fragile. He tilted it this way and that, but the stream of sand always fell straight into the bottom chamber. He placed it back onto the table, upside down, and watched impassively as the sand shot straight up, defying gravity and pooling at the top of the timer. He felt distanced from his own life, even as he saw it slipping away from him.
“The clock is really a fascinating invention,” said the man as he inspected a small cog, “although it’s merely another desire of man to gain some control over himself. Order, formality, organization; these all run counter to nature. The world is a dynamic place, Francis. And what about time itself?” The volume of the man’s voice was increasing. “You praise it, you hold it in high regard, you look to it in times of trouble, wishing you could move through it or against it but never with it. And so many of you, after realizing you no longer have time, wish you could have more or wish you could have managed it better. What good is a clock, then, when it only helps you consider what may be or what may have been?”
Francis could barely focus on the man. His eyes were still on the timer.
“Listen to me, Francis,” the man said. His voice had regained its original soft, compassionate tone. “The future isn’t important. The past isn’t important. What’s important is the moment that you’re living in. You were so concerned about other times that you forgot about the current time, the present time, the one time that really matters.” The man stood and walked to the far wall of the tower, where he reached toward a cluster of ornate wooden clocks. Out of the dozens, he pulled down a brilliantly ornate wooden bracket clock and placed it on the table in front of Francis. Francis’ dim eyes searched it in hopes of recognition.
“This is the clock that you and your father built on your sixteenth birthday,” the man explained. “It was the most beautifully crafted piece on all of Couperin. You always kept it by your side when you were growing up, to remind you of the day you became a man. Now you will use it to count your final moments.” The man pushed in his chair and walked away. Francis let his eyes drift to the clock on the table. He felt a sudden burning hatred for it and everything it stood for. The pure polished white face, the perfectly distanced markings, and the smooth iron hands twitching over it all. He felt sickened by the mere sight of it. He felt his limbs growing more tired, and the reservoir of sand in the hourglass approached its few final grains, but he pushed himself onto his feet and approached the workbench. The ticking of the bracket clock grew louder the closer he got to it, driving his anger until both the clock and his rage were roaring in his head. As the last few grains of sand tumbled down, Francis lifted his creation and smashed it against the floor. Blackness encroached his vision. Before he collapsed, he looked up at the clockmaker and saw a joyful smile on the old man’s face.
Francis was sitting on his front porch and wondering why the village suddenly seemed so expansive when a young friend of his approached. She was twirling a dandelion around between her fingers, and waved to him as she approached.
“Hey Francis,” she said with a smile. “What are you doing?
“Hi,” Francis replied. “I’m just thinking.”
“About what?” Asked the girl as she sat next to him.
“About this weird dream I had last night.”
The young girl gasped. “I had a weird dream too! I dreamed there were a bunch of these weird ticking things all over the place, and there was this old man who lived in a creepy old tower on the hill over there who did nothing but build more ticking things!” She pointed to the empty hill overlooking the village.
“Really?” Francis said with a chuckle. “That is weird.” He realized why the village seemed so much larger. What seemed like a lifetime ago, the streets of Couperin were littered with fanciful devices that made strange repetitive sounds and had thin rods that traced a circle over a bunch of markings. Now Francis was six years old and, despite never seeing one of these devices in his lifetime, he somehow knew what they were and how they worked. He couldn’t remember what they were called, but it didn’t really matter.
The girl shrugged his shoulders. “I’ll tell you about it some other time. Want to go play?”
Francis smiled and helped her to her feet.