The Clockmaker

Janina Sochaczewski is the first place winner of Postscript's short fiction contest.
Janina Sochaczewski is the first place winner of Postscript's short fiction contest.

Ice chips on his tongue. The morphine drip takes him elsewhere—to Warsaw, the sea, to women she wishes hadn’t existed for him—and he cries and twists in his bed.

His swollen tongue, a limp paper wad, turns back on itself each time he opens his mouth and the resulting noise is not words but a string of clicks and groans and sighs. He stoops now with his nose to the ground. The disease has consumed an entire five inches of his height. A leaning old man he has become, hunched over his cane, one chapped hand clapped over the other. Isa tells him she’ll be back early the next morning. He replies with a grunt before turning onto his side, his back to her. The sheets are tangled again. She reaches out to straighten them, but the smiling young nurse tells her, “It’s all right. I’ll do it. Please go home and get some rest. You need it.” On the way home, still startled by the cavity at her side, she watches passing telephone wires stretch into smirks. A pall of frozen rain has lasted all week and it continues its drumming now, hard against the windowpanes. He had offered her his face the evening they told him he was going to die—his lines to trace, sunken temples and cheeks for her fingers to memorize. The nights following had been full of delirium and fever chills, his body descending with childish gravity and returning, shamefully, inch by inch to the fetus phase. Glass beads of cold sweat and a hand too limp and heavy to wipe them away. An already hot summer evening turned to fire. Cheeks, hands, feet turned lobster-red and the torture of bed sheets rubbing against flesh. He had only been able to sleep on the hard wooden floor next to the bed.

If I follow these lines, will they lead me back to you?

The wrinkles in Isa’s brow have so suddenly become deep and permanent. She wonders when her forehead got so old. It frightens her and now she’s always checking for gray hairs and crow’s feet. But what scares her more than anything are numbers. The number of mistakes she has made. The list of regrets she keeps adding to. All the lists she can’t stop making. Time: having too little of it. Time: having too much of it. Time: not knowing what to do with it.

His trade had been time. A clockmaker, he had spent a stout 10 hours a day in the storage room of a high-end furnishings shop, hunched over his trinkets and tools. He would go about his mission as if half in a dream. Screwdrivers of all different lengths and widths would be extracted from their drawers and lined neatly in a row, like a surgeon’s scalpels, across his wooden table. He would tend to his etherized patients, map his hands over their hearts and, with an expert twist of the wrist, make them sing.

In the summers, when the heat was unbearable, she’d often stop by with a thermos of cold kompot.

He’d feign annoyance.

“You always bother me when I’m working, Isa,” he’d say gruffly, his Eastern-European accent rasping and stew-thick. She’d laugh and kiss his stubbly cheek in response, pressing the mug of chilled fruit soup into his ungrateful hand.

His build had been tall and lean back then and his clothes somber and quiet. The night they had first met he had been suited head to toe in sad brown, like a skinny oak.

Isa had assumed he would go for the woman seated at the bar—the one in the silk Charmeuse number, cleavage and calves exposed, her lips stained a rusted orange-red, like Arizona sandstone. She had imagined the woman speaking in sultry tones and cooing her way into his heart, a wispy veil of sexy piano jazz hanging over their heads.

But he had chosen Isa. Why? She had never asked.

Isa at that age had been quiet, unassuming, with a good-natured face and pink cheeks that elderly ladies liked to clasp between their cold vein-ridden hands while they passed on to her the roots of their knowledge. She had belonged to the category of girls that mothers want their sons to love, though they never do.

She had been so taken aback when he had occupied the seat next to her that she had spilled wine all over the front of her blue dress. He had offered her his handkerchief. She had reached out, fumbling for its soft cotton. Their fingertips had touched...

I don’t remember anything where am I can’t move what should I do why can’t I move hello I want to say something I don’t remember.

As if in a dream, the handkerchief begins to float away. Suddenly, it is but a speck of pure white in the infinite black of night. In a blink, it is gone—eclipsed by howling demon winds. Isa reaches out.

The night is cold.

She is outside, standing on the porch—their porch. The night air hisses with the ghostly frost that follows rain and a fecund moon glows mockingly from its raised throne. She fixes her gaze straight ahead. The backyard, in daylight a tangle of silkweed and ivy, is a black hole.

Her mouth is parched—it’s hard to swallow. Why is it that everything is so fragmented all of a sudden? So misaligned? Her memories of him flicker like fireflies on a midsummer evening, in and out of sight, too quick to look at properly.

It’s too soon to forget.

She turns back into the house just as all six clocks in the living room begin their unanimous midnight gongs. The small one in the kitchen cuckoos. At least, she thinks to herself, I’ll finally be able to get rid of these wretched contraptions.

But as the eighth collective gong sounds, Isa stops and listens to the trill of its echo, absorbing it.

Slowly, her deep-set grimace turns into a smile.

Why was it that she had always turned her ears against the hourly noise of his clocks?

How was it that she had never realized that it was really him, singing?

Janina Sochaczewski, ArtSci ’10

Janina Sochaczewski grew up in Sherbrooke, Ont. where she started writing as soon as she could hold a pen. For her, writing’s something that comes by intuition, but so far she hasn’t gotten too involved in the Queen’s writing scene. Sochaczewski said some of her stories, including “The Clockmaker,” are loosely based on people in her life.

In addition to fiction, Sochaczewski also writes poetry. Her work “The Dinner Party” was published in the First Fruits Anthology, a collection of works by high-school writers.

Sochaczewski will receive a $25 gift certificate for Novel Idea and a $25 gift certificate for Atomica.

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