The Clockmaker, by Marc Joan


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They say many things about him. That he has a pale hound with reddish ears, half longdog bitch and half hound from hell. That he himself is that same hound when he wishes it, and then there is no longdog in it. That he built Craig-y-Ddinas, or broke it. Or both. That he slept with the witch Canrig Bwt, who sleeps beneath the great stone above Llanberis, when she was young and beautiful; that they had a child who sailed to Ireland in a glass boat and learnt how to curse up storms from the blue sky. But all I know is this: that he walks over our slate-bled mountains with a dog-lope grace that makes light of the slopes and screes yet hints of the heavy, bloody appetites that drive him; and that his appetites have no end.

Grufydd Treherne once said that he brought only bluetongue and the scab, and wanted to put the farm dogs on him for a caution; but Grufydd is touched, and in any case his flock has always been sickly, and we told him so. Besides, any dog would turn tail and beg for a beating before seeing to that wanderer, and any dog’s man who set them that way would be face-down and toes-up, spine snapped like a rabbit’s leg, before his curs had found their kennels. The Pilgrim brings far more and far worse than the ailments of sheep. I speak of what I know.

Yet I wish now we had let Grufydd do as he pleased and thereby paused the Pilgrim’s walk at Grufydd’s own land, above our town. After all, his daughter is no longer a child, and as for Grufydd, his time is surely near. But we did not, and now the old wanderer—eyes yellow as nettle root, skin grey and mottled as a seal’s—comes down our mountains’ slopes again like some old guilt for which there is no absolution, and walks our little streets with a need that cannot be gainsaid. Yes, I wish we had let Grufydd do and be damned.

But if wishes were coins, beggars would ride horses, and I might as well wish this day had not begun or I had a horse to ride away from it. For this morning, as I opened my curtains to the cold light that had crossed the peaks and fallen on my workshop—my fire not lit, my tools and metals dulled by a grey dawn—I looked up to the wet slopes that seem always as if they are slowly falling onto our streets, a long great toppling to crush our little lives, and saw nothing there but black rocks beneath black clouds and ravens wheeling. Nothing; and yet I felt his tread approaching. So I put aside my poising calipers and watch-keys and mainsprings, and I closed up again the longcase clock that the Reverend had left for me, and I walked about my workshop, setting all the clocks back by eleven hours.

Yes, you heard me right.

Then I looked through the shop window, watching the town awake, for to what end would I work on such a day? I saw the bakery open and Morgwyn pile the warm loaves on their trays, her apron white as Guinevere’s young hands in all the tales. I heard the wooden-toothed tinker who calls himself Cadwallader, though we all know his name is Codner, start his pot-walloping. I saw Grufydd Treherne ride past in a cart, his daughter sat next to him like a golden flower plucked from God’s green meadows.

Later, indeed later by an hour, the Pilgrim entered in a blow of sleet as though the weather followed him, and stood on my workshop floor. The mountain rain ran from him and puddled at his feet, the slate darkening as if he bled wet shadows, which maybe he does. He looked slowly about, left and right, up and down, and the ticking became loud in some clocks and soft in others, and in others still the beats skipped and slowed and then ran ahead, and the Reverend’s longcase made a chime although it had no hand upon any hour that I could see.

“It is time, then,” he said.

“You can see for yourself that it is not,” I replied.

He gave me a long stare, but I held still and stood my ground like they say you should.

“I do not stretch my shanks across Glyder Fawr and Glyder Fach for nursemaid games,” he said. “Eleven back may work with some wry-mouthed coblyn fresh-crawled from a tin mine. Not I.”

I shrugged my shoulders only, and gave a half-smile. Eleven back may mean little to him, but words mean less. All know that.

The Pilgrim rocked his head from one side to another, like a man with a stiff neck. “Ah, bach,” he said. “Poor Mab. Poor Mab, now.”

“Save your pity for the next town,” I said. “And nine shames on you if you do not leave us alone and leave us well and leave us in good time. After all we have done.”

“If that debt still stood, Mab, and you believed in it, you would not be playing with your clocks, now would you? And all this talk of we and us, when my appointment is only with you. Eh, bach?” He walked closer and sat at my workbench. He picked up and put down this and that: wire crimpers and wire cutters and swan-necked wire benders; calipers for truing and poising; balance wheels and pinions and oilstones; clamps and mainspring winders. “Little toys for your little games, is it? Look now, Mab. Look well.”

From my box of off-cuts and oddments, screws and wires and wheels and springs and such-like, he took such things as he seemed to need and made a small heap of them. Eyes shut, he began to work them, now pressing together with finger and thumb, now reaching for this tool of mine or that. Pry bars and cup burs, pinion-files and movement holders. How he used these things I do not know, nor how he knew the use of them.

“Look well, bach.”

I looked well, yes, but I looked anywhere except at his bloody machination. I looked through my shop-door window again; the streets of our town are never busy, but that street of a sudden was emptier than ever it should be on a weekday morning. I looked at the bakery; all closed up it was, with neither Morgwyn nor her loaves any more to be seen, as though the day had all at once become a Sunday, if a Sunday ever could dawn in the name of the devil. I looked at the bakery’s terraced neighbors: their curtains drawn, their slate rooves all clothed in rain. I looked at the mountains behind the bakery; all dark they were, darker than they had any right to be in daylight hours. I listened, praying for some sound of man or woman or child; but even Cadwallader had ceased his clanging. An empty, wet, dead day it had become; a day of aborted time and silence; a wandering day; a Pilgrim day.

“Look well, bach. Do you see?”

I could not avoid it then. He had wound it tight, and was holding it up to me: an abomination of mismatched parts that yet made a working whole. The tick and the tock of it were quiet and yet were heard above all other running timepieces in my workshop. Some strange reverberation they made, arising from some regularity of motion that was not made of Man. Some quality they had of inexorable fate and the despair it brings. Something of a funeral march and the slow tramp of many sorry feet.

“You hear it, don’t you? Poor Mab.”

“It is nothing to do with me.”


In truth, I’d known this day would come, if not for me then for one of the others in the town, though we’d sworn to each other and the listening fairies that the spirit of the Pilgrim’s bargain would count for more than the limit of its words. The Reverend had said that such spirit as it had was worse than the words it was written in, and that we had understood nothing; but then, the Reverend himself understood nothing of why we had done what we had done. Indeed, he is new here, the Reverend, since five years back; the graveyard was already full when he came, and the Pilgrim never once walked the slopes above us nor the streets beside us in four of those five years and some months more. According to our agreement, indeed. A man of God can know nothing of such things.

“You see how I have set it, bach? You see what time it gives? Tell me, then—is it eleven back, or one ahead?”

That yellow-eyed grey-pelt was only waiting; we know that now. The creature—dog-man or diawl or whatever he might be—sticks to us like goosegrass, biding his time, reveling in it, as if all hours and seconds were measured in flowing gold or the passing of human souls and the grief that follows such passings and that gives him such delight.

“Eleven back, Mab, or one ahead? Is it late or is it early? Tell me.”

“There is no need for this. We helped you cease your mountain walking. We gave you rest, for a time and a time, on the flatlands and on the soft and salt waters. We showed you paths that would hold your steps and bring you peace. That you could not stay thus is no concern of ours.”

“Come now. We both know the truth of it. As do your townsfolk friends. Some debts may be deferred, but not forgiven. And there is interest on this debt, bach. Did you know that?”

“What do you mean?”

“When you people directed my steps to Nefyn, to the fishermen there, who were bringing back herring through a storm sent from Ireland—well now. Some of those men were little more than children, and of those that were not, most had children of their own. Where now those orphans? Fodder for the poorhouse and for those who delight in stealing childhoods. Food for grief and early graves. They all want to speak to you, Mab. Man and boy.”

“We told you neither place nor name! We only helped you away from here, to the coast and beyond!”

“And I went there, bach. To the Menai and to Ynys Môn and all around its restless edge. Through swells and shoals and back to the ports; to see fathers and mothers and, yes, their children. So tell your story to the orphans, Mab, when your time comes. They have had no sweet stories since their fathers died. They have a hunger which only you can sate. Now then, I will tell you what I will do. We will make it eleven back, since that is what you seem to want, though you will not say it and it will not help you. There now.”

The Pilgrim placed his instrument, for I will not call it a clock, on my workbench. He got up and showed his teeth at me, like a beast that has been trained to smile but knows not what it means.

“Eleven hours, then,” he said.

My shop door pulled shut behind him, as if by a gust that raced down from the Glyderau. The slate flags were black where his wet feet had walked and stood. Outside, Morgwyn put up another basket of loaves and wiped her hands on her apron, and the tinker hammered at his tin, and a sudden sun made the black mountain steam, and Gruffyd Treherne’s pretty daughter swanned past in a sigh of loveliness.

We do not value these things until we must leave them.

And now, the tick and the tock of the Pilgrim’s seconds echo my pulse, firmer and faster moment by moment. Oh, but his device is adamantine! I have removed the glass from its front—I could not lift up the backplate—and that was the labor of a day. Eight hours, that is. Since then I have tried to interfere directly with its motions, but the hands resist all main force. Two hours I played thus. Then I thought I might stay its wheels with a different approach; with great pains, I drilled a hole through the face—indeed, I thought I had the winning of it then—and inserted a screw, leaving its head proud so that it would stop the hands. Nearly an hour, and such joyous hope I had from it! But as I watched, the minute hand bent aside the brass screw until the screw-head snapped off and scuttered across the table and onto the slate floor. As though the clock’s mechanism were affixed to or levered against some concept far more substantial than the earthly constructions of plate and wire by which we measured our lives; as if the Pilgrim’s clock had eternity meshed with its pinion. Or damnation.

Autumn nights come early, and this night comes early too, and indeed too early. There is rain and wind at the door, and something like the crack of masts in a storm, and surely the stretch and yawn of a dog, or something like a dog, that has all the time in the world. And certainly, certainly the voices of many children.

Chime away, then, damned clock; chime away.

Marc Joan, a biomedical scientist, was raised in South India and now lives in England. His first novel Hangdog Souls, was published in 2022, and his second novel, The Cartoon Life and Loves of a Stupid Man, was published in 2023. Marc has published short stories in anthologies and magazines including Nightscript, Weird Horror, Danse Macabre, This Is Not a Horror Story, The Dread Machine, and others. He can be contacted via

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