My work was done in secret, in autumn, on a chill-bitten landscape of leaves. It was done alone. It was only me, the man with the pocked scars along his cheek, clockwork bits scattered across his altar, and wife and child in the ground.
But I was still known in what I did. The people who have been funding my toils for almost six years, up until this day of lord November 30, 1907, have handled the raw materials of my labors since the inception of my efforts. They provided the bodies, after which I did my work of that clandestine nature I’ve spoken of. Then it was finished for another year, until the summer days receded, and the air was again cool and dry, ideal for my task.
And my work was painstaking, yet dreadfully simple in summation: circle, star, diamond.
I am a horologist by trade, a craftsman of all things fine and precise in operation. I had apprenticed in and was eventually contracted by the same shop over the course of my adult life. A simple ‘watchmaker’ I am not, though. My tinkering went far beyond time pieces. It went where it was never supposed to go. But the challenge, and the personal stakes, compelled me to immerse myself in proceedings most arcane.
It was the man who represented the group (out of Eastern Europe is all they’ve ever revealed to me, which as much I could surmise by his accent anyhow) who introduced me to a fundamental working knowledge of the human heart. The organ’s functioning is not terribly removed from clockwork itself; I took to manipulating cadaver hearts rather quickly. There was nothing particularly extraordinary about this.
Rather, the extraordinary element was the material from which he had requested of me to forge the brass hearts. I knew immediately that this was not ‘brass’ in the truest sense, as he had informed me. It was slightly less malleable, and its properties allowed for the impossible. With the proper alignment, the metal allows for the existence of perpetual motion, a bastardization of natural laws that opens the door for…well, my work of that secretive nature. But my time for harboring secrets of any kind is over.
Each brass heart was two and half inches wide by two inches long (‘top’ to ‘bottom’), and took me two months each to forge. The movement (inner workings) demanded the longest attention to properly create, set, and calibrate. The case itself, honestly, was little more than an aesthetic touch. This is my profession, after all, and I do take pride in creating a pleasing, symmetrical shape; in this instance, it was the popular St. Valentine’s Day representation of the heart. This was the work that was done leading up to the three consecutive autumn days on which I backpacked from town, and headed north into the woods between civilization and the Atlantic coast.
Here was the place I was taken once and only once by another, by the man with the accent representing his esoteric group, and shown the altar in the clearing. The altar itself looked very old and worn, chiseled from stone, yet it did not seem to have sat in the clearing for all of its days. I guessed that his group had had it moved here, and he never answered my question about from where it originated (my accented friend mostly ignored inquiries not directly related to the performance of my work). The altar is sized just wide and long enough to accommodate a human being on their back, which may well have been key to denoting a past purpose equally macabre to its present. It stood at waist level to me. Well enough to allow me to do what I came to do.
Most certainly I never expected anyone to happen upon me during the process. The spot was well tucked away between a rocky coastline a little over a mile out, and several miles of forest on all other sides. And if anyone had ever seen me in this place, I would have simply called them mad. Who would believe the horologist, the ‘watchmaker’, was squirreling about the woods performing seemingly occult acts? That poor man, that watchmaker, who’d lost his family ten years ago when they were on that balcony at the Barberry Club in Nolhaft, posing for a photograph, when the whole damn thing collapsed. The whole, shoddy, aged, damned excuse for craftsmanship of a balcony.
I digress. That tends to happen when I ruminate on imperfection. There is little room for that in what I do. But it saturates everything else. Life itself is one imperfect decision after another. That truth I have attempted to embrace, and I feel with commendable commitment.
On the first day, left for me on the altar downwind from where I camped some few hundred yards away, was the first body. Usually I could just smell it.
I did not go to it immediately. Rather, I would wait until the sun had begun to lower behind the skeletal treetops. The coloring of the leaves that crinkled beneath my footsteps was still present, but muted; silhouettes would start to dominate on the western side of the clearing. This was the time I had been instructed to perform the work, and I did not deviate even at the very end.
The growing shadows always made the meticulous operation rushed. There were a few times I had to work by lantern light, with the cold numbing my fingers to the point of their feeling like useless icicles dangling from my palms. This made things challenging to say the least, with an already non-existent margin for error.
When I arrived to the bodies, they were already on the table, on their backs, bare. Beside them were two small satchels. One was a coin purse with my compensation inside. The other contained the final piece to the brass heart. Three days, three bodies, one body per day. It was a solitary, grim half-week to be certain.
Each corpse was not too far removed from their deaths. The bodies were typically in a very preserved fashion, the cause of mortality not ostensibly traumatic to the flesh. Branded upon each chest, at what would become my incision site, was a mark: a circle, a star, or a diamond. There was always just one of each, but their order was always randomly presented to me. I opened up the chest cavity, inserted the brass heart, and carefully clamped the valves into their proper places in the device. The last piece, the gear which was of a particular shape and material different from the pseudo-brass, inserted atop the heart once it was set. I wound this with two clicks, and my movement began to tick imperceptibly away (I could tell only by the slight vibration of the case against the back of my hand).
Then the body was sutured shut (as best as I could manage), and I let it lie in repose. With my tools in tow, I departed back for my makeshift camp. The group then would come in the dead of that night. They would take the corpse away as they left the next subject upon the altar, along with another coin purse and another winding piece. I supposed I was never meant to see the final results of my work, but a true craftsman always finds a way to check in on what he’s done.
I’ve had the most luck (or misfortune) in locating the whereabouts of the circles. Once they had wandered mysteriously, inexplicably, back into the lives of their loved ones, there seemed to be a modest window of normalcy. They returned to work, to grammar school. Then the repetitive behaviors came; they were reported to have paced around their own homes, to have disassembled and reassembled objects around their estates repeatedly, to have said the same phrases over and over for a set number of refrains. These behaviors started as mere eccentricities.
What made them easiest to locate were the newspapers. The headline was typically something to the effect of “GIRL THOUGHT DEAD MURDERS FAMILY IN SLEEP,” or “DRIFTER WITH CADAVER SCARS STABS SEVEN.” The ones brought back by the circle gears spiraled towards homicide. I’ve come across five of them. They’ve all snapped at some point, and began killing indiscriminately. They carried no rhyme or reason. Their repetitive acts simply escalate into the compulsion to kill repetitively. They’ve all been caught and either executed, or stashed into an asylum somewhere.
The stars are very difficult to locate—I’ve only found one. This was the first young man of about twenty I had operated on in my work. His head had been shaved to the scalp, and he looked to have been thin and sickly in life. The following spring, a man came in to my shop with the boy accompanying him. He was dressed in a long-sleeved shirt and beige vest, all tucked and neat. However, he had a simple way about him. The boy’s hair was growing out some, but in matted, unkempt curls. He seemed half-present, half-preoccupied with something happening within himself. Naïve to the world would be the best way to put it. He smiled at me briefly, though I’m sure he did not recognize me.
When I asked him what his name was, his father spoke up for him. “He doesn’t talk much. Not anymore. He…had a horrible accident. It left him touched. The most he ever talks about are his dreams. But his mother and I are just happy to have him with us.” He hugged the boy tightly with one arm as he regarded him with appreciation. The boy smiled again shortly, but still seemed distracted. Not once did he speak. The father’s gratitude warmed me, but…I had never been confronted by my own work at that point. I did not sleep well that night. I mostly wondered who the boy was truly before he had died.
The diamonds sometimes found me. I knew them first by their knowing looks and slim, sinister grins. There is a dark novelty to them, one I can’t put a specific label to. I can only speculate that something inhuman has been introduced into them through their resurrection process.
It was an encounter with one that led me to the precipice of what I am about to do.
It was a snowy January night this year when she came. I was the last out of the shop, locking up the cabinets inside and quelling the hearth before I left out and locked the main entrance. When I reached the door to leave, two sharp knocks before me stilled my motion. I opened the shop door, and on the street in the snow stood the woman cloaked in a navy blue scarf and furs head to toe. She had been probably thirty when I last saw her. I recognized the nature of her expression immediately. It stung me as harshly as the winter breeze I’d let through the entrance.
“I know what you’ve been thinking, watchmaker,” the woman with the disdainful smile said without introducing herself.
She was familiar in a way I could not place, and the expression, as I’ve said, gave it away. “I’m sorry, ma’am, but we’re just closing up,” I played off.
“You’re right. You know you are,” she went on, just standing there without a step forward. “Go on. How long are you going to make them wait?”
At that point, with a swallow, I decided to skip the charade and ask her what I’d been wondering for some time about the diamond gear recipients. “What are you now?”
She offered neither a verbal response nor a change in expression. I stepped out of the shop, locked the door quickly behind me, and pulled my coat tighter as I faced her in provocation.
“Come on now, out with it! You live and breathe because of me. You owe me an explanation at the very least.”
The woman folded her hands, looked to contemplate, then offered the only insight I’ve ever gotten into the existence of a person who should no longer be alive. “The others like me understand it, even if not completely. They feel it. They know that we are outside of the dead now. Outside of ghosts, and gods. We feel the strings of fate fastening to something else entirely. We feel their every pluck and wane, and we move with them despite you all who are numb to it.”
Her fingers waggled in illustration.
“I am here to urge you to feel it as well, watchmaker.”
Her smile broadened before she turned and walked away abruptly into the snowfall. Yes, she had known what I was thinking, in her black, unknowable way. It was her argument that seduced me to this final decision, to come to this moment where I sit now and chronicle the series of events that led here. I did feel the strings move me in this direction, and I stopped resisting. I let them move me toward what felt like was a natural, terribly imperfect choice.
Bradley was thirteen when he passed. Between his head hitting the cobblestone path below, and the larger timbers impacting atop him from the splintering balcony ledge, his death most likely came from the multiple fractures of his young skull. Had I been conscious directly after the fall myself, I would have most likely cradled him, regardless of the gore and blood I had been told of, and plead for him to wake up despite how obvious his state may have been. I’ve imagined that scene unendingly, at day, at night, no matter where I was or at what I toiled. I was not awake at that time. I was not there for him, or her. I wanted one last chance to apologize for that, to show him how much I loved him. He needed me, and fate didn’t allow that. I was going to be there now.
I spent half of my savings toward my family’s unearthing. You might be surprised how easy it is to hire a graverobber; the expense, really, is the only issue.
Upon their secret delivery to me at a predetermined spot in the woods, I braced for the worse as I examined both the bodies of my wife and my son. Athelia, I feared, was too far gone. Decomposition had left little semblance of proper humanity. But, for whatever imperfect reason, the same embalmer who had prepared my wife had executed his craft well enough with my son as to leave only hints of decay after a decade. His cheeks were shallow, much of his muscle mass was gone, but his skeleton was still covered with skin and some hair. I decided I would take him with me. Bradley would be the last of my secret work.
The operation would have to happen on the first day, when I had access to all three final winding gears. My strongest intuition told me that the altar played a more important part in the process than it would seem, which meant I had to perform the heart insertion where I always had. There would be no residual blood in the body, or perhaps even intact veins and arteries to carry it were it there to begin with. I had many doubts about my objective, but one sentiment was certain: this would be my last trip to the clearing.
I made the journey as I had been doing, year after year, come the autumn cold. I carried my son on my shoulder the entire way, swaddled in off-white linens with burlap tied around him. I did not bother setting up camp when I arrived, late, to my usual nesting ground. Instead, I sat alone with him, on an olive blanket spread out on the ground, holding and rocking him in the dark. I spent hours picturing that horrific day again, hoping this would be the last time that it gnawed at my being.
When the proper hour finally broke the next day, I picked Bradley up, and carried him the rest of the way to the altar. There sat what I had expected: two bags, one body.
This subject was an older man with a horseshoe of grey hair running around his scalp. He had a pointed nose and narrow visage; he looked to have been a rather dire man during his normal life. Atop his chest was branded a diamond. That seemed fitting. I could easily picture being accosted by this stranger unexpectedly one day, with a grim message to bear and a near-malicious smile on his thin, pallid face. I removed his body from the altar. I replaced it with Bradley.
Here it was, then. My light was dying by the minute. I wanted to finish my work, and leave with Bradley back toward town all on that same eve. Once the brass heart was in place, clamped by faith alone into my son’s desiccated chest, I was left with that one last, simple, imperfect choice.
The truth, of course, is that I had made the choice at least a year prior to that moment.
It’s been a few months since my final trip to the clearing. I assume I am done with my secret work. I have neither heard nor seen anything in the way of repercussion from the group which had employed my talents in that time. I spend fewer hours at the shop now, especially now that I am not forging brass hearts behind the scenes. Instead, I spend that time at home, with my son. It is well-known in this town that he is deceased, hence this bars me from allowing him out of the home. This is much to ask of a thirteen year-old boy who, every day, becomes more and more like the Bradley I knew over a decade ago.
I watch him carefully, both out of adoration and appreciation, and for other reasons. I’ve asked how much he remembers of the accident, and what he recounts of the ten years after. Nothing, he says. He seems to forget the accident often, asking now and then when his mother is coming home.
But time has grown short. That is the reason we moved into this cabin, in these very same woods where I played god as if tinkering on a timepiece.
I attempt to train him a little in my craft every day. In particular, I have explained the mechanism of the brass heart which keeps him alive. I explained this to him very clearly, very carefully, and have shown him the place within our home where the very last brass heart is kept. It sits in the satchel with the two unused winding gears.
The old clocks I have him work on for practice he disassembles several times a day, and puts all three back together the exact same way every time. When I tell him to stop practicing, he seems to only ignore the idea. He seems obsessed. He’s breaking one of them down once again, with machine-like precision, even as I write this by candlelight.
This correspondence will soon be left nailed to the exterior of our front door. The door is locked (very well), and windows are about to be nailed shut. I ask much of you, stranger. But I want you to come find my son within, but I do not want you to hurt him. Understand that he, too, will have an imperfect decision to make. Whatever choice he settles with may appear stiflingly unfair. But that is the nature of this mechanism that moves against the natural laws of life. We move with its coarse grooves, or we suffer under the weight of its unforgiving cycle.
You may turn away now, scoffing. But my hypothesis is that you are far too intrigued to do so at this point. Get Bradley in front of my body then, and he will know what to do. He is compelled to do it, after all. The stars have already dreamt it, and of you. The diamonds have already sent you, most likely without your knowing, towards my door. And if I understand the movement of this damnable clockwork properly, the circle will do the rest. I have helped forge this machine, this cycle of unlife, and in so starting it, it may well run forever.
Bio: Raven McAllister is a psychotherapist hailing from southwest Louisiana. His stories have been featured on a number of eZine sites such as Dark Energy Speculative Fiction, Macabre Cadaver, and Flashes in the Dark, and in the print anthology Hindered Souls. His latest story, “The Language of the World,” is part of the Frith Books ghost anthology Restless, and his story “4 Turns” will be featured in the upcoming Between the Tracks collection put out by Oz Horror Con.