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Every day a little death


The clockmaker's apprentice

When we count the clocks that tell the time, there are always more than we think. We find them everywhere we can; we watch the sun, we watch a shadow lengthen on the ground to say how late it is. We keep calendars to say how many days there are to come, and journals to say how we have used what days we've had. We calculate moveable feasts, and give names to the days when the seasons turn. We're more nervous than we know. We try to pin time down with numbers, with measurements, with standing stones and mechanical devices, candle-clocks and water-clocks and pendulums and bells.

There is a reason for it, for this obsession, and it makes good sense if you happen to be human. Monkey see, monkey do; we learn by imitation, we've always been best at mimicry, and we look for comfort in homoeopathic doses, hollow copies of the real thing. We bottle history in plays and songs, we tell each other stories that make-believe the world - and we surround ourselves with toys that cut time into smaller and smaller slices, separate and survivable moments that are short enough to do no harm, only to help ourselves forget that in the end there is just the one clock for each of us, one clock that counts.

Abu bin Hassid was a clockmaker in Baghdad. Did I say a clockmaker? No, I malign him. He was the clockmaker, the fat one, the king of his craft. He had served kings; he could have lived in the palace and served the Sultan himself and drunk pearls in vinegar all his days, as the saying is. But he was a proud one, the fat one, and he preferred to have the Sultan to come to him. He had started his life in the suk, he said, and he would end it there. He did, he said that, often. Of course he had started as a thief before the old clockmaker caught him and kept him, beat the worst out of him and beat his own trade in. Abu didn't often tell that part of the story. And of course in the end he was hardly in the suk at all, building his own little palace of a craft-house within sight of the Sultan's, with high walls and barred windows and great mutes for guards at the gate and no one knew what secrets kept within, along with the gold and the jewels and the precious tools of his work. He might speak expansively of his people - "the poor are my tribe," he said, especially when he was speaking to the rich - but he took care to keep them outside his house. His was a private showroom, and the less money you had the more private it became.

His guards were carefully trained to keep it so. They might have no voices to plot against him, but it was remarkable how expressive a silent giant with a massive scimitar could be, when he was seeking to suggest that your purse was too light to work the latch on the gate.

Accordingly, our Abu felt a twinge of annoyance one hot afternoon, when he came in from the courtyard to find a man looking around in the workshop. It was a tall man, a stranger, dressed in a dusty and unpromising robe. At first sight, he should never have talked his way past the guards. If second sight had shown him to be wealthier than he appeared - a traveller, perhaps, who carried his money in diamonds and preferred not to show it in his clothes, no foolish precaution in these troubled times - then Abu should have been summoned immediately. In any event, the man should never have been allowed to wander freely this way, into the workshop or the warerooms or who know where. Abu was at a loss to understand how that had happened, when he himself had been in the courtyard and had seen not a shadow move; his men would be at pains, indeed at extreme pains to explain it to him later, with whistles and gestures in lieu of words, grunts and shapeless cries in lieu of - well, in lieu of nothing, really. Grunts and cries could be whipped up from anyone, whether or not they had the gift of tongues.

Still, the man was here, whether or not he ought to be; and he had a precious thing in his hands, a confection of frothy gold and diamond.

"Sir, sir, please, put that down..."

The man showed no signs of doing so, but turned it over in his fingers as though he had never seen such a thing before. Well, and so he had not; it was unique.

"What is it?"

The voice must of course have come from below the hood, where his face was hidden in shadow. It didn't feel that way. It felt as though it spoke from everywhere at once, as though the world itself had spoken very, very softly, and the echo of it resounded in Abu's bones.

"It's a clock, sir, a very special clock..."

"It looks like a castle. A castle made of sand."

"Yes, sir, yes, a clock in the shape of a sandcastle. See, the turrets turn to show how the minutes pass, flags rise to show the hours; and all the case is gold with diamond slices for the windows, and please, sir, it is very precious and fragile," by which Abu meant valuable, "so if you wouldn't mind just setting it down quite carefully on the workbench there..."

"I am accustomed to handling fragile things," the man said mildly, "and someone always thinks them precious."

"Even so, sir. It is not for sale. It is a gift for His Magnificence the Sultan," by which Abu meant that his own skin depended on its safe delivery, and that therefore it was very precious indeed.

"I do not want it. It pretends to be one thing pretending to be another, sand shaped into a castle, when it is neither; and it pretends to do something more, which is to count the passage of time, which it cannot."

"Pretends? Sir, I make the finest timepieces in all Baghdad! And this one is a true clock, it strikes the hours as the flags rise..."

Indeed it did so now, ticking and whirring and chiming suddenly in the man's hands, raising its little flags of jewel-chippings on a gold ground in designs that flattered the Sultan and God in equal measure, because Abu was a careful man. The man's sleeves fell back as he held the clock up into a fall of sunlight; Abu blinked, and tried to tell himself that it was just the dazzle deceiving him. The man was gaunt, no more than that, no doubt a desert traveller; if he seemed bone-bare, well, that was just a metaphor. Wasn't it...?

Abu had been a thief and a liar all his life, but he still found it hard to deceive himself, and in honesty the sunlight wouldn't do it for him. If beauty was only skin deep, this man should perhaps not keep a mirror in his house.

"Remarkable," the man said gravely. "Such noise, such fuss - and all such nonsense, to pretend that time can run mechanically, always the same distance between one sunset and the next, to be counted off by cogs and spindles. I prefer sand, myself." There was sand in his voice, like the tides of ages, dry and merciless.

"Sir, if you have no interest in my work..." He meant to sound angry and dismissive; he was afraid that the words came out more pleadingly.

"That was what I came to discover. I have heard speak of Abu bin Hassid, and I came to see what it was that you did. Well, now I have seen, and it is not worth the doing. No matter. I do not judge. The world may miss your clocks, but no doubt there will be others."

"Sir, who are you, to come into my house and speak so?" Like any dishonest man, Abu liked to be sure of his ground. He had a fear in him now, and he needed to be certain that he should.

"I have been called the clockmaker's apprentice," the man said, as though he had puzzled over the title himself, "because I sweep up what God discards. You may play at being God, with your machines that hammer time into a chain of links; but time moves on unregulated, sand slides through glass and I do my work as I must. Abu bin Hassid, we shall meet again."

"How, how soon...?"

"What, can your clocks not tell you? At the time appointed, then. It will not be long delayed."

Then the man turned and was gone, and it was hard to say whether he had walked away or not, whether he had passed through the door into the court or gone some other way not open to Abu. This much was certain, that there would be no point in challenging the guards. If they had seen the stranger coming, they could not have stopped him; Abu thought that they would not have seen him leave. He knew many stories of those who tried to keep a watch on Death, to bar him from their houses, from their lives. They never could.

No, Death must come. The trick was not to be there, when he did ...

Abu sat for hours while his clocks chimed all through the house, while the sky grew as dark and secret as his thoughts, while the moon rose like the lamp that his servant brought to lighten the little space around him, though that only served to make the great house darker yet to his eyes. He had always seen the span of a man's life like a thread, wound around a spool by the steady ticking of a clock. Now he could see his own life like a thread cut free, and the loose end winding closer. It was hard to think, against that brutal ticking. But still, he was a clockmaker, and so was God; had Death not said so? He understood the workings of the world, none better. And there was no one better able to adjust them, given the proper tools ...

So he sat all night and drew intricacies in his head, because a clockmaker is a man of hidden ways and subtle understanding. And in the morning, he washed his head and hands and went out into the city without his breakfast. He really didn't think that he would need to eat.

First he went down to the river quarter, where the real poor could be found, and the powers that live among the poor if you know where to find them. Abu had a mind like one of his own clocks, it ticked over and over and never allowed that a moment passed was a moment lost; he remembered everything.

He remembered to leave his bodyguards behind him, which was good for a man who did not wish to die. He remembered to turn left here and right here, and not to look behind him as he went. He remembered the smells of these alleys, all the separate smells, the damp and the food and the dirt and the fear. He remembered his own fear, those times he had ventured further than he had excuse or courage for.

Above all he remembered this particular door, and who waited behind it. Old witch, old crone, old meddler: she had always been old, he thought. She was old when he was young, she would be old now but still perhaps no older, he thought she had reached a perfectibility of age and had no need to add to it in this world. For sure, he thought, she would never trouble herself with dying.

He hoped that she might help him now, though not with her own solution. He had no interest in growing witheringly old. He thought that he would rather do the other thing, and step away from Death by stepping back.

Abu bin Hassid, clockmaker to the court, to His Magnificence himself and emperors of other lands: his steady, ticking mind was curious to see how scared he was, as he passed through that door.

An hour later he came out again, unchanged, unless perhaps she had given him something more to be frightened of, after Death and her. Something at least she had given him; he carried it in a pouch inside his robe. What he had given her, we need not enquire. Some things never were meant to be told in stories.

He went from there to the cattle market, outside the city walls. He bought a fine she-camel, he who was too fat and satisfied to travel, and ordered her sent to his house with saddle and reins and riding-stick, all that might be needful and all of the best quality. The dealer was doubtful, managing to imply without ever quite saying that she would never stand beneath his weight. Abu was a hard man to deny, though, and his gold was a soft persuader.

Then he walked on, he who never walked anywhere, past the horse-lines and the ox-pens to the slavers' compound, where he visited his old adversary Muazzar bin Muazzar in his tent.

Muazzar was a lean man, a quiet man, and if he had vices they were not of the flesh. He and Abu despised each other, but each was pre-eminent in his trade, and each liked to buy the best. When Muazzar had need of a clock - usually for a gift, to flatter a reliable client; he was not a man for trinkets - he would come to Abu; when Abu needed more guards or other servants for his house, he brought his trade to Muazzar and no one else.

On this day they drank coffee together, ate sweetmeats, exchanged news and pretty compliments; and when time came for business, Abu said, "Muazzar, I want a boy today."

"Do you, indeed? To what end?"

Abu chuckled. "I shall make an apprentice of him, and pass on all my skills. It is time I made provision for my age."

"That may be true, but as I remember, the last boy I sold you for that purpose, you strangled him."

"He was stealing from me."

"The sweepings from your floor, I believe, Abu."

"Even so." Abu's face clouded; the phrase had an uncomfortable echo. "The sweepings from my workshop floor are dusted with gold and precious things. I sweep my own shop now. This boy shall not touch a broom, I promise you; nor shall I harm him. I will be as careful of his health as I am of my own."

"Well, I do have a boy that might suit, a bright lad, well set up, only unfortunate in his choice of father. The man is a drinker of arak; it is a sin expensive of health, of position and of money, and he is made bankrupt by it. His creditors have seized his goods, his house and household by way of restitution. I had the boy cheap, and I will not sting you for him."

"None the less, you must be recompensed for time and trouble. You know that I am generous with my purse, Muazzar." This was how the two men expressed their contempt for each other, in a duel of underpricing and overpaying. To come off worst in a deal was a victory; their struggles tended to counteract each other, so that victories were few and far between and most of their exchanges were grudgingly allowed to be fair.

"Well. Let us see the boy."

A clap of the hands, a word to the servitor, and the boy was fetched. Abu was pleased; he had perhaps been too hungry for too long and he had some growing still to do, but his body was straight and his eye was sharp. He was a little sullen and a little scared, but that mattered nothing.

Abu offered a price in gold; Muazzar was appalled, outraged that an old and favoured client should so cheat himself. He refused to take anything more than the same number of coins in silver, and that was too high ...

And so they bargained, and came at last to a figure that satisfied neither of them, by virtue of its being more or less the market price for a boy not trained to any work.

The boy was called Hussein. Abu took him first to the offices of the city scribes, to adopt him legally into his household and name him heir to all that he possessed. While Hussein was still gaping, they went on to Abu's tailor, where new clothes were ordered to replace the shabby rags that he was wearing; everything from riding boots to a traditional clockmaker's welchet, and all to be delivered that same day.

And so home, where Abu introduced Hussein to all his staff with the strict injunction that they were to obey the boy in all things, as scrupulously as they did himself. Then, just the two of them, they went to the strongest of his store-rooms, where there were no windows and the door was iron-barred. "I will show you my treasures, lad," he said; but first he locked the door behind them, and then he opened the pouch that he had bought that morning, at what cost we do not know.

Storytellers need not be spies, under an obligation to report all that they have seen. No matter what Abu did in that dark room, or with what craft he did it. For us it is enough to say that the door opened again in the twilight of the day, and it was the boy Hussein who came out smiling. He locked the door behind him with great care, and summoned all the household.

"A dreadful thing has happened to our master," he announced. "An 'ifrit came and took possession of him, and he raves. He is sleeping now, but mark me, when he wakes you must not listen to his madness. Nor should you fetch him imams or a doctor or a lawyer, whatever he may demand. Only feed him through the bars here and see to his comforts as best you can; I have the only keys, for fear that his blandishments should move you to a dangerous kindness. Do not under any circumstances seek to force the door, or the 'ifrit will destroy you all. I ride to find a magician who can drive the creature out. In my absence, be watchful, beware! Let no one in to see him, and above all, do not let him out!"

And then he dressed himself in his fine new clothes and saddled the camel in the yard and rode away, and all the house stared after him in mute astonishment.

For days he rode and nights he slept in caravanserai, buying his food and entertainment with Abu's coin. When he came to Samara, he felt it seemed that this was far enough. He sought out the finest clockmaker in the town and showed him a paper written in Abu's hand, commending his son Hussein as a skilled apprentice, highly trained, needing only experience in another man's workshop now.

The clockmaker - a good man, you will be pleased to hear, whose name was Sharif al Tarkas - grunted, and said, "Abu bin Hassid's name is known throughout the sultanate. I have seen his clocks. But I had not heard that he ever had a son."

"I am adopted, sir. The city scribes will confirm it, if you ask."

"What, shall I send all the way to Baghdad to have some pox-scarred clerk's warranty? Those are easier forged than this," and he waved Abu's paper dismissively. "I will believe it when I have seen you at work. Come, here is an old clock, foul with dust and sand; let me watch you clean it."

That done, there was a bezel to cut, an ornate clockwork to be assembled, all the testing tasks that Sharif could conceive. By the day's end he was exhausted, but the boy was still smiling. He did not quite like that smile, but he was an honest man, as well as a good one; he said, "Well, lad, I have tested what I can, and I would keep you without the name you bring, without the certification. You have the eye, the gift, the skill; your father must have trained you all your life, to bring you on so far so young. I suppose you must go back to him one day, but till then, your home is with me. Come back now, and my wife will find us food and a place in my house for you to spread your blanket."

A few days later, the boy was watching his new master's stall in the general market, where they sold mostly simple timepieces to simple people. He was pining a little, perhaps, because Samara is not Baghdad. Then he saw a familiar hand trail among the clocks on the stall, touching, assessing, dismissing: a hand that might never have known any sins of the flesh, or the fleshy.

He was nervous, but he had always been bold; he lifted his head and met the stranger, eye to eye.

For a moment too short to measure, he thought perhaps that he had startled Death.

Then, "You have changed your face, Abu bin Hassid."

"I have, and my body too. I left the old one for you in Baghdad."

"Did you so? I have not been to see; our appointment was here in Samara. And I have found you here. You are still yourself, Abu bin Hassid. You cannot hide from me."

"I don't need to hide," our Abu said, with a kind of anxious smugness. "You have found me, of course - but you cannot take me now, out of this borrowed body. I am not Abu bin Hassid, I am the boy Hussein, his adopted son. Hussein is not fated to die today; God himself would not allow it. You need old Abu's body, the fat one. Go back to Baghdad, you will find it there, penned up and waiting for you."

"With the boy's spirit trapped inside it - and as you said, he is not meant for me today."

"It is a puzzle for you," Abu said, smiling and satisfied. "But you cannot save him, I have come too far; take my spirit and this body dies, before you can fetch him to it. You need one body between the two of us today. Take his, take Abu's. It is written so, and men at least will understand it. Otherwise he is a madman, an old man pleading to be a boy; and the boy might live another sixty years in that body, which would make him the oldest man in the world before you would let him die. It is a wicked trick of mine, I am sure, and God will punish me; I will face that when my time comes."

"Your time has come."

"But not yet gone," said Abu, picking up one of his master's clocks from the stall and turning the hands backwards, to show Death where they stood. The clock was more intricate than any other here, and was surmounted by a clockwork figure that struck a bell to mark the hours; and yet the whole device was only pocket-sized, if you had deep pockets. Your pockets would need to be deep, to pay its price. It was a showpiece, not really meant for sale, only to catch the eye; but Death said,

"What cost would that command?"

"Oh, I thought you were not interested in our work?"

"Suddenly," Death said, "I find it very interesting indeed." And he drew, from what must have been a very deep pocket indeed, a purse holding nothing but pennies. "How many of these do you want?"

In Baghdad, in the strongest storeroom in the city, a fat old man sat huddled in a corner, surrounded by the most precious wreckage imaginable. He had begged and wept, he had raged and cursed, he had broken open boxes and poured jewels out through the bars on the door, but he could not buy his freedom. The more he raved, the more the guards backed away from him. Of course they could not speak, to urge him to be patient, to be at peace, to pray and trust in God and the boy Hussein, who had gone to seek help for his affliction. Before long their silence had driven him to smash boxes for the simple sake of smashing, for the chance to break anything that was Abu's.

His great body was too heavy to bear such passion for so long. His hands trembled now, his heart laboured in his chest, and his spirit was almost broken. The tears had dried in his unaccustomed beard, and he had no more weeping in him; bewildered and exhausted and afraid, he barely raised his head when he realised that he was suddenly no longer alone in the storeroom, although the door most certainly had not been opened.

He had no light in there, beyond what was grudgingly let in through the door's bars, but the figure before him seemed to blaze in the shadows, as though it stood in another kind of darkness altogether.

"I know who you are," he said, shying almost at the sound of the voice that said it, Hussein's words from Abu's mouth. "But I am not, I am not the man you want, the monster Abu ..."

"This I know," Death said. "And yet, that body has to die today, it cannot live; and your own is far from here, where you could never reach it."

A lost spirit is a desperate thing, restless beyond recovery, fading and howling in the desert. The thin boy choked in the fat man's body, but he made no further protest. Let it be as it was written; his was a cursed life, and he could not change it now.

Death reached into his pocket, and drew out a clock that gleamed darkly golden in the eerie light. Hussein would rather have expected an egg-timer, glass and sand, his life equally frail and equally short.

While his eyes were still on the clock, he was aware of Death's other hand in motion suddenly. So swift the movement was, he couldn't say whether there had been an implement used, something long and bright that existed only at that margin where speed was a measurement of sharpness, or whether it was the hand itself that he saw, blurring as it stretched towards him. Nor could he say quite what was done, what was cut or pinched off or plucked out. But it seemed to him that the hand, unless it was a tool, had slipped somehow inside this vast body that he inhabited now, and yet he had not felt it; and while in there, in here, that tool - unless it was a hand - had done something drastic and irrecoverable. He felt like a ship cut loose, adrift; there was abruptly nothing solid under his hands, no certainty in him anywhere. He was detached even from his misery, from his despair.

He stood up, if you could call it standing; he looked down, and saw Abu's body slumped on the floor at his feet, and thought lightly that this would probably be a powerful moment in a man's life, if that were his own body that he looked down on. And then he saw that he had no feet, no body at all that he could register, and suddenly it was a powerful moment in his own life, except that he thought that he couldn't really call it life. More like the other thing, though he didn't want to use the word, with Death standing right beside him. It would have seemed like lèse majesté, and possibly led to confusion.

Instead, gazing at the figure of Death which was somehow brighter now, or else the world was more shadowy, he said, "Isn't the clock supposed to chime or something, to show that my time is up?"

"That might have been a good idea," Death said, "if it were true. But I have stopped the clock. You would need to chime it yourself."

And Death's hand moved again, and this time it was clearly empty. Hussein felt it close around him like a cage, like bitter iron, constricting, squeezing; and then it was gone but the grip was not, he was held and confined in a cold world, a world of wheels and teeth. For a timeless moment, nothing moved. Then, one by one, those terrible wheels began to turn ...

The day was not over, though the sun was very low. Abu in his stolen body had packed up his timepieces and carried them back to his master's house, with a small sack full of pennies. Now he was cutting cogs in the last of the light, smelling what vagrant aromas slipped into the yard from the kitchen to promise good eating to come, wondering how vagrant his master's younger daughter might prove to be if he could slip her from the kitchen and out into the dark. He was hardly at all thinking of Death and his great defeat, the long-awaited triumph of man over the oldest enemy. Or the triumph of one man, rather. He didn't intend to share it.

Nor did he at all expect a cold shadow to fall across his work, especially as the sun was behind his shoulder. He glanced up and felt his young heart race for a moment, before he could control it.

"I have said, you cannot have me today."

"And yet I will. Your body I have already, back in Baghdad; now I want your spirit."

"If you slay this body, you slay the boy; and that you cannot do. Have you forgotten?"

"I forget nothing. And I did not speak of slaying. You left your proper body, to borrow his; I have brought him with me, to reclaim it."

A silence, brief and wary; then, "I have not finished with it yet."

"Neither have I finished with you."

Death took the clock from his pocket, and Abu almost, almost understood. "In there? But how...? It is a mechanical contrivance, a toy ..."

"And what more is your body, or the boy's? God is called the great clockmaker, remember, and I am his apprentice." The little bell struck, light and silvery: once and again and then again, erratically, although it had been better made than that and the hands of the clock were moving not at all and stood nowhere near the hour.

And it seemed Death was tired of talking then, or else he was irritated by the chimes. His other hand reached out and might perhaps have seemed to slide within the body of the boy, unless it passed behind, if it could be behind from every imaginable perspective. It came out clenched around something that could not be seen, although it was transparently there; and it passed into the clock and came out empty. And then it reached for the clockwork figure that struck the bell, that was striking and striking. It drew something forth from there, and slipped it back into the boy's body.

The boy caught himself suddenly, on the very edge of falling, like a man who is dozing and startles awake. He shuddered, and rubbed his hands across his face, and then drew back and looked at the hands minutely. Then, because he had nice manners and was perhaps still a little bewildered, he lifted his head and said, "Thank you, sir. But, please - what am I to do now?"

"I think you are to be a clockmaker's apprentice," Death said.

"But, but I do not, I have not the skill ..."

"You will find that the hands remember, they have had a master craftsman guide them; and the head can learn. It is probably a better life than a slave's. There is property that belongs to you in Baghdad, but you should not claim it yet. You might prefer not to claim it at all, as there will be some uncomfortable questions that come with it. If you stay to make your life here, your new master is called Sharif al Tarkas, and I understand that he has a daughter. The rest you must discover for yourself."

And then he turned and was gone, as though he had stepped from sunlight into shadow, but all the shadow had been his own. Hussein blinked, and gazed down at his hands for a while. Then he picked up a small brass cog and a delicate tool, and sat cutting teeth until a dark girl with teasing eyes came to call him in to supper.

If Death had a house, there would be a room in that house where he would keep a table, which would be Death's table, and he would sit at it; and at his back there might be the ever-swelling hiss of sands, innumerable sands, but on his table there would be a clock. Just the one, and with a muffled bell. And Death would be aware, he would count its every tick, as he is aware, he counts every grain of sand that slips by for each of us; and Death's clock would never need winding, and every tick would be a little, just a little as though the pendulum were a razor, and with every swing it scythed the finest imaginable shaving from an endless, breathless, unstoppable scream.

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© Chaz Brenchley, 2004.
Reproduced here by permission of Chaz Brenchley, who asserts his moral right to be identified as the author of this work.