A Clockwork Dream
Once upon a time in a land far, far away there lived a precocious girl. She lived in a beautiful valley and her family was happy to till the soil.
But, the girl was not happy. She wanted more out of life. She wanted to know what lay beyond in the next valley, she wanted to know what life was like in the cities she had heard of.
What lay beyond the beautiful purple, snow crested mountains she could see off in the distance. She felt the call of adventure.
A life spent living on the farm, no matter how happy seemed to wilt her soul. She went about her duties but her head was off in the distance. She could stand it no longer.
So one day she decided to go off on a small adventure. After all, she didn’t want to jump right in. She had to learn a few things.
There was a forest bordering one edge of the valley in which she lived. It was a dark and foreboding looking forest that her mother nad father had warned her away from.
The tales told of many who had entered the forest never to return, but that only added to the intrigue and her curiosity. So she packed up some food and things and that night she snuck off to explore.
So off she went, at first full of vigor but after a time it began to dawn on her that the forest was much further away than it looked. The pack grew heavy and her steps began to slow, but the forest did not seem any closer than it was.
Just as it seemed she couldn’t take another step, she looked up and the forest surrounded her, just as deep, dark and foreboding as the tales spoke of.
She looked behind her but the forest closed in all around. How was that possible? She hadn’t taken more than three or four steps into the trees surely. In a panic she began to retrace her steps but then realized that she did not know which direction that would be and any footsteps she surely should have made were gone. Plus, it was growing dark. Too dark to see. If she wandered too far she would surely be lost. Best to just make camp and wait for the morning light.
That was when she saw the light.
It shimmered through the trees, the branches breaking it up into spears of brilliance that blinded her. She held her hand up to shield her eyes, trying to desperately locate the source. She stood still, not sure whether to turn and run or to hope the light would lead her to safety and far away from the forest and the adventure she had so desperately desired just a short time before.
With nothing else to lose she summoned up her courage and headed towards the light. She gripped her bag and began to creep quietly towards the light.
She passed gnarled trees that made her imagine monsters reaching out to grab her in their withered limbs and eat her up. She would be another of those told in the tales that would never return. Unless the light held her salvation.
But the light seemed to not be getting any closer. It almost seemed as if it were teasing her, leading her on a merry chase. Well, it didn’t make her feel merry in the least. She was tired, hungry, frightened and growing angrier by the second.
So intent on the light was she, so angry, that she almost missed the fact that she had stumbled into a small clearing among the trees. The light, while still keeping its distance seemed to have stopped and hovered just past the far side of the clearing, giving her light to see by.
A great big man hovered over her…reaching out to her. She turned to run headlong into the forest, forgetting about being lost, scared, tired or hungry, but she stumbled and landed hard on her backside with a tooth rattling jar. Stunned she sat there trying to catch her breath, expecting any moment to be snatched up by the leering stranger above her.
She looked up at him, eyes large, and realized he hadn’t moved. Why, it was just a silly old statue! A great wave of relief rushed out of her and she began to laugh so hard her sides began to hurt almost as much as her rump.
Finally catching her breath and sitting up she noticed her statue friend wasn’t the only one about. The clearing was scattered with them. All in different poses. Men and women, young and old…even some forest creatures. Some appeared newer than others. Many, like her friend, had moss hanging off them in clumps that added to their frightening appearance.
She wandered around, marveling at the realism and wondered why such a good sculptor would bother doing all this work in the middle of nowhere like this. Seemed silly and wasteful. Whoever it was, was really very good she thought.
But then she noticed the bushes.
They were full of large, delicious, juicy looking berries. Her mouth watered and her stomach growled. Throwing down her bag, she went to the nearest bush, bunched up her shirt like a basket and began to pluck the berries and put them into their cradle as fast as she could.
She intended to wash them off with the water from her canteen first, but she decided she couldn’t wait any longer and began to pop one in her mouth.
NO! cried a voice, so loud and thunderous she let go of her shirt and dropped every one into the dirt. The one she held in her hand glistened in the light so tantalizingly close she could see the night dew on its surface. Not daring to move at all, she simply turned her eyes in their sockets, trying to catch a glimpse of whoever it was that had stopped her shy of her feast.
As she stood there straining with all her senses but terrified to move, she heard heavy footsteps approach her from behind. She felt the rustle of air as whoever it was got up close behind her…she sensed it was a rather large person.
Suddenly a hand reached over and plucked the last berry from her hand and threw it on the ground.
“You are in the Grove of the Unfortunates.”, the voice growled, sounding vaguely off in a way she couldn’t quite place. “These statues you see around you are not statues at all, but those unfortunate enough to have tasted these berries. The berries have a sweet flavor that is irresistible, but the sweetness hides within it a poison that…well does that.” A hand gestured towards the silent audience around them.
Wait…was that hand…metal?
No longer able to contain her curiosity and forgetting her fear she turned.
She didn’t quite know what it was she was looking at. It had the shape and features of a man, but made all of metal. She heard a faint whizzing, clicking and humming coming from within him as he stood there and looked at her impassively. Perhaps it was armor or it hid a hideous visage.
The figure stood there a moment more studying her, hands clasped calmly in front of him, arms half hidden beneath the cloak that covered most of his body. Over the metal of his body he wore clothing, so she guessed it might not be armor after all. But if it wasn’t armor, then was it…his body?
Bowing with a flourish, the man said “Allow me to introduce myself. I am the Clockwork Man. You could say I guard these forests, although under present circumstances one would have to say I guard them rather poorly.” Again he gestured towards those unfortunate souls.
He gripped her hand lightly and raised it to where his mouth was, although she felt no kiss upon it.
“And you are?”
She managed to mumble her name.
“Excellent. I have a castle nearby that you could shelter in for the night if you so desire.”
Not really having better options she agreed. The Clockwork Man turned and made a gesture at the light which disappeared instantly. He turned back to her. “Will O’ the Wisp” he explained. “Leads people to the berries. When I saw its light I knew I had better get here quickly.” She thanked him and he offered an arm. She took it and they headed off into the forest.
Curiously, she felt safe with this strange metal man. As they walked, she became aware of the night breeze and the smells of the forest. The moon peeked through at intervals and there were all manner of peeps, chirps and songs. It felt peaceful.
But, the metal man seemed to take no notice of all the beauty surrounding them. In fact, if he weren’t a clockwork fellow, she would have sworn he was sad. Can a clockwork man feel sad? Can he feel anything at all, she wondered.
“So, do you live all alone in this castle of yours?” she asked, finally brave enough to try to strike up a conversation.
“Yes,” he said.
“For how long?”
“I have lost count of the time that has passed. A solitary existence lends itself to all time becoming muddled. No reason to count days; nothing to look forward to.”
“Oh don’t despair for me, for I am made all of metal. I feel nothing…although I do wonder at times…what that would be like….feeling.”
“Were you always alone in your castle?”
“There were others, once, yes. But they all….went away. I don’t know where they went, or why. Just one by one, those with me became less and less until no one was left but me.”
She was about to ask another question, becoming more intrigued with every answer, but then a raindrop splattered into the dust in front of her, then another, and another. Random and not very many, but the effect on the Clockwork Man was like lightning had struck.
Without a word he swept her up into his arms and raced off. He carried her as if she weighed nothing and he ran with speed, grace and agility.
Confused and breathless she could do nothing but wrap her arms around his neck and bury her face into his cloak. Despite being made of metal, he felt warm and his cloak had a pleasant smell, faint and clean. The rain began to build up in tempo and as it did the Clockwork Man seemed to run with more urgency.
Suddenly it felt as if they were beginning to rise and his cadence got a bit more choppy and her head bumped against his shoulder. Looking up she saw that they were running up a wide flight of stairs. At the top of the stairs, across a wide stone porch, were two huge, beautifully ornate wooden doors. The Clockwork Man did not slow his headlong flight towards them and for a moment she feared they would slam full speed right into them, but at that moment they began to swing open and then they were through and into the castle.
And just as suddenly as he had swept her up, he stopped and put her down without a word, then removed his cloak and hung it on a hook by the door. Still a bit frazzled from her sudden flight from the rain she could only stand there, wide eyed for a moment.
Finally she gathered herself and asked, “What was that all about?”
If it were possible for a Clockwork Man to look sheepish, he did so now.
“I rust if I get too wet.”
“Yes. Straight through. I would cease to function.”
“You mean, you would die?”
“I suppose that would be the proper term.”
She looked about the foyer. It had high ceilings, with ornate carvings and beautiful paintings. An open arch led off down a hallway that seemed to stretch into infinity. The floors were made of some sort of stone that was polished to a shine that reflected the room into an upside down smudgy opposite.
“This is a very beautiful place.”, she said.
“Thank you.” He held out a hand. “Come, let me show you around and then get you settled in.”
She gathered up her belongings, gripped his hand and they set off.
The castle, while beautiful and full of many amazing things, was for all of that pretty much just like other castles. Lots of rooms and hallways, statues and paintings. She was beginning to get very tired and wanting that bed he had promised when he came to a small nondescript door set in an alcove. The door stood out because of it’s very plainness.
The Clockwork Man took out a large golden key and unlocked the door. From outside the door, she only saw a grubby little room, and she wondered why he was bothering to show her the broom closet. He stepped in and turned back to look at her, saying nothing but waiting expectantly.
Anxious to get what she hoped was the last stop on this tour over with, she stepped through the door.
The room she expected to step into disappeared as she crossed the threshold and she found herself inside an incredibly tall and wide room that held rows and rows of bottles and books and pictures. The room and its contents glowed and shimmered with all manner of incredible colors.
Breathless, she asked, “What is this place?”
“This room holds all of the things that are taken for granted in this world.” He reached for a nearby bottle. “This one, for instance, holds the dawn that is never truly appreciated.”
She looked into the bottle. The beauty inside was almost too much for her to take in. “But I have sat and watched the sun rise appreciably many times.”
“Yes, but did you truly appreciate what you were seeing. Beyond the beauty of the moment did you appreciate everything that was happening even beyond your senses, beyond what you could see or smell, taste or feel? Did it make you realize how small the world you live on truly is in comparison to the vastness of the sky or the galaxy?”
“To enjoy the beauty of something is to enjoy every aspect of its existence. How it came to be, what brought you there with it at that exact moment, and to appreciate it long after your short stay together.”
She studied the beauty encased before her, tears glistening in her eyes. So much she had missed and never realized it.
Then a yawn escaped her suddenly and her eyes felt like lead and she realized she was so very, very tired.
The room began to swim around her and she swayed woozily. The Clockwork Man once again swept her up into his arms, though she was barely aware of this. She was conscious of leaving the room and tried to protest, but she only yawned again.
Through heavy lidded eyes she observed that she was being carried down a hall and into a room. Softness enclosed her head as it rested on a pillow, followed quickly by warmth as the Clockwork Man covered her with blankets and quilts. And then after that she drifted off into the land of dreams.
She awoke to the sounds of birds chirping merrily outside her window just as they did for her every morning at her house. The sun shined brightly in her face just as it did every morning through the window in her room. The blankets and pillow felt just as rough and the mattress just as uncomfortable as it did when she lay in her bed. Foggy still from sleep, she stretched and turned, and then suddenly sat straight up.
In her bed. At home.
For days, she moped around. Her parents seemed concerned but they hadn’t questioned where she’d been. It was as if they didn’t even know she had left. She attempted to return to the place in the forest several times, but couldn’t find it. Each time she returned the forest just seemed a normal forest.
She was ready to give up, but she felt she had to give it at least one more try. So once more she set off. Once more she got to the forest. She stopped at its edge. Fear of disappointment keeping her from going any further. Finally she screwed up her courage and stepped in hesitantly.
She stepped in a little further. Still nothing. She looked behind her and could clearly see the edge of the valley through the trees. Sadly she sat down against an old gnarly oak and began to cry.
A tiny gruff voice startled her out of her self-pity. “Why you cry little girl?” She looked over her shoulder and saw a tiny ugly man standing there. He had on dirty little clothes and his shirt barely held in a fat belly. His orange beard surrounded a mouth full of nasty teeth that smiled at her from beneath a pointy wart covered nose. He had a pointy grime covered hat pulled down to his bushy eyebrows. His eyes twinkled as he looked her over.
“You too pretty for cryin’. Pretty girl shouldn’t cry. Why you sad, pretty girl?” His questions came out in a quick staccato and every time he asked he switched around from one shoulder to another and then with the last question he landed in front of her, legs spread, hands on his knees as he squatted there. His face even with hers as she sat by the tree.
A light seemed to dawn in the tiny man’s eyes. “Ahhh…I know why you cry. You look for windup man. Tinky-tink. Tinky-tink.” He crooked his arms and strutted around in a stiff fashion. He didn’t move anything at all like the Clockwork Man she thought.
But, he seemed to know why she was here. “Yes I am,” she said. “Can you help me find him? I would very much like to talk with him again.”
He beamed at her and puffed out his chest. “Ohhh yes, ohh yes, pretty girl, I can take you right to him. Take you now. Follow. Follow. I will take you right to tinky-tink man.”
He took off like a shot into the underbrush. She scrambled to her feet but she had already lost sight of him. His head popped up a short distance away. “You slow pretty girl. Slow. Slow. You want tinky-tink man, you better get a move on. He may find another pretty-pretty before you get there.” Then he took off again.
She managed to keep up for the most part, but the strange little man still had to stop and chastise her from time to time. Just when she thought her lungs would burst, she came across him, lying atop a moss covered boulder, facing away from her and peering through a bush.
She dropped down beside the boulder, completely winded. The strange little man looked at her with his crooked grin and sparkly eyes and pointed through the bush. “Therrrrre pretty girl, there is your tinky-tink man. He wait for you, he does. He wait for you long time. Yes, yes.”
Wondering slightly how this dirty little creature could possibly know anything about the mysterious Clockwork Man, she peered through the bush. She saw him standing there, his back was turned to her, but she recognized the cloak. He stood still atop a slight rise that gave him a clear view out of the forest and he appeared to be gazing off into the distance.
Slowly she made her way up the rise, loose dirt and rock making her slip and slide a little from time to time. She made such a racket, but he hadn’t seemed to notice as he hadn’t turned around. Finally she stood next to him. He still hadn’t turned.
“I’ve come back. I wanted to see you again.” Still he stood looking away, the cloak hiding his features. He didn’t answer her. Behind her she heard a tiny gleeful little laugh and the scamper of tiny feet but when she turned to look all she saw was a quiver of a bush.
She turned back to the Clockwork Man. “Please don’t be cross. I am sorry if my return is unexpected or wrong somehow. I didn’t think you’d mind.” She reached out to touch his arm.
The Clockwork Man collapsed into a heap beneath the cloak with a huge clatter. She realized it hadn’t been the Clockwork Man at all. Crossly she turned around to see if she could spot the dirty tiny little man. She found him immediately.
But he wasn’t tiny anymore. He was almost as tall as the trees and he slavered hungrily as he glared at her. His smile was still in place but his teeth were now sharp daggers dripping with saliva. He was naked and covered with the same orange hair all over his body as he had on his head.
He reached for her but she managed to dodge his grasp. He reached for her again and she backed away to the edge of the rise. Risking a quick look behind her she saw that it wasn’t so very far down and jumped. She landed with a whoosh of breath and rolled roughly into a tree. She lay there stunned. The now giant dirty creature made his way around the rise, the ground shaking as he came closer and closer.
With a roar and a flapping of his cloak, the real Clockwork Man flew out of nowhere, plowing into the giant’s belly with the force of a locomotive. The giant let out a groan but seemed to take the blow in stride. He swung a huge hairy arm at the Clockwork Man and sent him flying into the rocky side of the rise. The Clockwork Man rose and attacked the giant again.
As they fought she could only lie there helplessly still unable to gather her wits entirely. Her head ached from the blow of the tree. The two combatants swirled around her, raining fierce blows upon each other. Finally the Clockwork Man picked up a large branch fallen from a tree and drove its sharp end into the giant’s chest. The giant bellowed and ripped the log out with a spray of gooey ichor then disappeared off into the forest.
The Clockwork Man came over to where she lay and touched her forehead gently, where a cut bled freely. “You are damaged.”, he said. She looked back at him and noticed that his chest plate had been dented and a corner was slightly peeled back. From within came a soft golden glow. “So are you.” she said, touching his chest.
Ignoring her, he helped her to her feet. She swayed a bit and he reached out to carry her but she stopped him. “No I am going to walk. I’m fine, just a little woozy, but it will pass.” Shrugging and stepping back he turned and swept out an arm. “This way then.”
They walked for a while, talking of this and that, just enjoying the day and the hike, and before they knew it they had arrived at the castle. The Clockwork Man took care of her wound then disappeared for a bit. When he returned his chest place looked as good as new.
“I was surprised to find you had returned, but I am glad that you did”, he said.
“I had such a short stay here last time that I didn’t really get to know much about this place. Or you.”, she replied.
“I understand. Perhaps you can stay longer this time.”
“Well, my folks would worry if I stayed too long, but I do hope for a longer visit, and to be able to return.”
“Time has no meaning when you are here with me, it stands still. To the outside world it is as if you have just left.”
And so she stayed. Together they roamed the castle and the forest and he showed her such magical delights. It seemed as if every day there was something new that they could explore together. One day, she noticed something different about his face. “Are you…smiling?” she asked him.
“I can rearrange my features, I thought this would please you.”
“Well, you are correct sir. I like it very much”, she giggled.
It was a silly smile, but she liked it when he looked at her with it.
One night, restless, she roamed the halls looking for the Clockwork Man. She found him sitting in a workroom, his chest plate open. He was fiddling with something inside. Hearing her enter, he quickly closed it, but not until she had noticed that the strange golden glow she had seen days before had grown stronger and brighter.
She didn’t ask, he didn’t tell and she forgot about it as they sat up late into the night talking. The days seemed to fly by. Some times they danced, sometimes they just sat quietly and stared at the stars.
But even though he had put a smile on for her she sensed there was still a lingering sadness to him. Of course that couldn’t be as he had told her time and time again he was incapable of feeling, but she sensed it was there nonetheless.
One day after storm clouds had gathered overhead and ruined their planned picnic, the Clockwork Man had disappeared off into the depths of his castle. She had been reading, but must have dozed off. The rumble of thunder had awakened her.
On the table next to her sat a note and two objects. One was large and golden, the other was the key she had seen him pull out of his vest on so many occasions. She took up the note and began to read.
I have spent countless time alone in my castle. Time spent with an emptiness in me that I had no awareness of…until the time I met you. At that moment, something began in me that I had no words for. I sent you away where I thought you wanted to be, but you ran through my thoughts like an endless dream. And when you came back, and over the days we have shared together, what began in me when first we met grew and grew. And finally I understood. I felt.
But with those feelings came another discovery. Feelings are a two edged sword that can send you to heights unimaginable or plunge you to the darkest depths. The thought of you made me happy; the thought of losing you made me sad. And I realized that there was no option but to lose you for I am a machine and you are human. We could never be.
On the table you will find two objects. One is the key to this castle. It is yours to do with as you wish. It will always guide you here safely and without fail.
The other object has been growing inside of my chest almost from the day we met. I suppose you could call it a heart, but I can function fine without it. I have no need for it, so it is yours. It is gold so it can make you wealthy. You and your family should never want for anything again.
I owe you so much more than these can pay, for you gave me the priceless gift of awakening.
I ask nothing from you in return save that you perhaps spare a kind thought for me from time to time.
The Clockwork Man
As she finished the note and looked down at the heart and the key, thunder rumbled yet again and she heard the splash of rain against the window. Her eyes grew wide and she dashed out of the room calling for him. She ran throughout the castle shouting his name, hoping against hope that he would answer her, but the only reply she got was the echo of her frightened and panicky voice.
A sudden realization dawned on her. She returned to the drawing room and swept up the key then flew out into the night, the rain immediately soaking her skin.
She grasped the key and pictured the grove and found the path clearly in her mind. The rain plastered her hair and ran into her eyes, it pressed her dress down into a heavy weight that slowed her movements but she kept on.
Soon she was at the grove. She could barely see through the rain but she raced around peering at each and every statue that she could find. A bright light pierced through the gale and she saw the will o’ the wisp had returned. It was different this time. Closer. She moved towards it, expecting it to move but it stayed motionless.
The Clockwork Man was sitting on what appeared to be a throne made from the trunk of a fallen tree. He sat there motionless, his head down somewhat. Rain ran in rivulets off of his body, washing away bits of the rust that had already formed on him. From this throne he would keep eternal vigil over the rest of the grove.
As king of the unfortunates.