The Clockmaker, by Mira Jiang

Youth 2 Winner

They dubbed the place Skyfall. It was a quaint little town stuck in another century, all cracked narrow streets and vintage ice cream parlors with bleach blonde waitresses who called you “sugar” behind bubblegum smiles. Though keeping up with modern times wasn’t anyone’s concern when the city would crumble into the abyss within a few decades.

Getting sent to the edge of the world wasn’t my idea of an educational experience, but one look at my mother’s pinched face and the red marked budget in her hands had me packing my bags without complaint.

 “Your uncle is wise.” She had tried for a smile. “He can teach you a lot, you know, more than I ever could.”

 Yeah, I had my doubts. So far, all I had learned from the old man was how to deter solicitors and cook a mean rigatoni. My uncle preferred to spend his days holed up in his study, leaving me free reign of the house. As for what he did all day, well, the man painted marbles.

You heard me. He had made clocks for a living but turned to the evidently more exciting pastime of dabbing glass balls with brushes in retirement.

My one consolation was the vast collection of books in his library. So in the endless gloomy days—fog always rolled out of the abyss, don’t ask me how—I had the ancients as my teachers, their words reaching me across the centuries from brittle paper and sweet-smelling ink.

I was sitting by the fire when a thunderous crash came from upstairs, as if the shelves made the concerted decision to collapse all at once. A sharp, smoky trail whispered through the house.

“Uncle?” I shot to my feet, jolting the cat off my lap.

Mittens gave me an injured look and cozied up to the coffee table.

 “Don’t be so dramatic. I’ll give you extra tuna for dinner.” I bolted out of the library, taking the stairs two at a time up to the study.

My uncle stood in the center of a soot-covered room, papers and chairs scattered around him with the blazing hearth licking toward splintered wood. His old creations, a clockwork cathedral and a fantasy grove, twitched on their sides before their gears gave out with mighty groans.

I kicked kindling out of the way and seized a pitcher of water from the half-crushed desk, pouring it over the flames.

A tempest couldn’t break my uncle’s focus from the marble in his hand. It was a striking blue with swirls of green and white blending on a clear-spun sphere gleaming in the light. Pretty enough to fetch a decent price from vacationing socialites who could afford to spend money on baubles.

 “Uncle,” I said. “I need you to step outside the room. I can call Maritza to clean up the mess, but she’s two hours away and it would be best for us to stay away in the meantime. The furniture is begging for someone to take a spill.”

 He looked up, tears spilling into his tangled white beard. “Ikh hob es geton, Jeshua. Ihk hob es geton.”

I have done it, Joshua. I have done it.

I nodded. “And I’m proud of you, Uncle. It looks great. Now if you could come out in the hallway.”

 “No.” His eyebrows knit together, giving him a remarkable resemblance to an eagle. “No, you do not understand.”

  “I’m sure I would if you explain it. Out here. In the hallway. Where it’s nice and cool away from the fire.”

 Stars above, it was like trying to herd cats.

My uncle held out a trembling hand, fingers long and nimble despite the wrinkles. “No, Jeshua, come here. It is not something I can explain.”

I opened my mouth to protest but he fixed me with a glare, eyes clear and lucid in a way I had not seen since I’d arrived. My feet moved of their own accord, shuffling through ash and the sad remains of a lively wind up circus.

My uncle pressed the marble into my hand and closed my fingers tight around it. The glass sat cool and heavy against my palm, like morning air after a storm swept night.

“Close your eyes, my boy, and open your mind.”

Yeah right, and give him a chance to poke around the fire or whatever else the old man got up to in his down time. My mother would never forgive me if he died on my watch.

 “You cannot see beyond to other worlds if you keep your senses anchored in this one.”

Great, now he was babbling. My family couldn’t afford a nursing home if he went senile, not to mention the army it would take to dislodge him from the house.

“It is like falling asleep, Jeshua, as easy as sinking into dreams. Shlofn eng aun oyskern khlumus.”

The words, rumbling mountains in the deep, brought me back to the early nights of my childhood. Crackling screens and bluebird wallpaper, humming heaters stirring up dust on the carpets. There were two voices then, a hushed exchange of meaningless words, and two pairs of hands rubbing circles on my back as I curled up on a caftan.

My eyes closed and there was a swooping feeling in my stomach. I was falling like my uncle had promised, down, down, down into the darkness.

The sun beamed down on my face as wispy clouds drifted lazily over a startling blue sky. Petals fell from trees like cotton-candy snow and the grass was eiderdown beneath my fingers. Birds flew overhead while scuttlings of life filled the rolling fields, creatures darting between rocks and gullies with playful glee.

A bear cub ambled up to a den of rabbits and yawned, revealing a mouthful of stubby teeth. One of the kits bounded forward, nose twitching, but rather than biting its head off like nature shows depicted, the bear cub let the rabbit clamber onto its back before continuing on its merry way.

A canary settled on my shoulder, chirping happily. Its mate swung by, feather-light wingtips grazing my ear, and they took off again.

They were animals I’d seen before, on screens if not in person, but there was something surreal about them. The deer did not fear the wolves and the tiger did not know to hunt the elk.

Laughter rang from the stream where a couple splashed in the shallows. The cool water was probably a welcome break from the sun’s beaming warmth.

The man cupped the woman’s cheek and brushed his thumb below her eye. His touch was gentle, innocent even, a tenderness untainted by the expectation for more.

Back home, a love like theirs would be a bona fide unicorn.

The woman smiled, pulling her husband deeper in the river as a headache settled in my temples. My vision flashed between the paradise and a tree standing alone in a clearing. Shining red fruit hung from the branches. They reminded me of the Gleeson’s orchard where my family used to pick honeycrisp apples.

A snake wound around its trunk, tongue flicking out to taste the air. It slithered across the grass, eyes gleaming with yellow light. Fangs dripped with venom the same shade of red as the apples.

The fruit no longer seemed so appetizing. I tried to back away but my feet were rooted. The snake hissed and unhinged its jaw, maw stretching wider and wider until it could have swallowed a grown man.

Then a hand landed on my shoulder and I was pulled from the paradise. My arm scraped against the jagged edges of a broken chair, wood-smoke filling my nose.

My uncle spun me around to face him. “Are you alright, Jeshua? Did it bite you?”

I leaned against the desk, heart beating like a jackhammer. “You pulled me away before it could strike. What was that thing?”

He took the marble from me, rolling it between his fingertips. “It is the one fault in a perfect world. Eden is the closest I have ever come. The materials near the abyss possess incredible power, but it comes twisted no matter what I try.”

“My mom never mentioned you made worlds.”

“I started with clockwork, little scenes the characters would run through on repeat. Add more cogs, add more gears, and I had a universe on my hands. Dinah thought they were wind-up toys.”

I glanced at the sylphide forest perched on a ruined shelf. “They look flawless.”

“Indeed they were. The people could do no wrong, I would not let them do wrong, yet they were never good in the way the marble is. Do you know why?”

“You never gave them choice. Doing good proves nothing if you’re the one controlling them.”

“The marbles were my solution, not a perfect one by any means but they were a step in the right direction. Yet our world is one of both good and evil so the glass and the paints would always contain traces of both.” He held up the marble. “I managed to confine the darkness to a withered stick until evil spawned new life to balance the good.”

“So as long as everyone stays away from the tree, it’ll be alright.”

“It is not so easy. Evil likes company and it will try to snare the innocent, make no mistake about it. Why do you think bad events occur in threes?”

I thought back to the couple by the river, how love poured from their hearts untainted. A family whole and intact was dew in the sun.

“Can’t you stop the tree?” I asked. “If you made the world, can’t you make mountains or something to block it off?”

“I have warned the people against eating its fruit, and it is up to them to heed my cautions. Free will is tricky that way.” My uncle ran a hand over his beard. “But I am growing old, my boy, and once they stray into evil, it shall be up to you to guide them back to the light.”

I shook my head. “If they won’t listen to their creator, why should they listen to me?”

“They will. You must make them see. People have capacity for evil, yes, but also for good and for every act of depravity you witness, there is an act of kindness that goes unnoticed. A day will come when you must go to their world, Jeshua.” Exhaustion slurred his words and my name came out as a garbled form of Jesu. “Some will try to stop you. Others will deny you. Yet you shall touch the hearts of many and through you, they may gain salvation.”

“But not yet,” I said, staring at the marble.

“No, not yet.” My uncle settled on a chipped stool. Fire reflected in his eyes, casting flickering shadows across his face. For a moment, he resembled the gods of old, fierce and wise, the power of life spilling from his palms like wheat seeds in the spring.

“As of now, they are still good.”