:: Article

Clock & Street

By David Hering.

The street is wrong; it is obvious now. On the way back to the house, wrapped square in right-hand pocket, the disarrangement is visible to her. It is in the position of the branches. Last night she heard the storm, her eyes locked on the claw marks of ceiling light, her ears dividing the sounds into subcategories: paper whipping the pavement, a somersaulting tin can, the low vocal scrape of a plastic lid. The downed branches lie where the storm left them. The way they lie is wrong. The detail takes time to present. She stands for a while looking and eventually it comes into focus.

A tree loses twenty branches to a storm. They fall to the street. This is street physics. Street physics is not clock physics; it is relatable to any child. Throw some sticks and they will land in a random pattern according to angles and energies. The branches here, though, are crossed, fallen in X formations. The street is paved with these indicative marks. Indicative, she knows, means agency.

There are two scenarios. One: the branches were placed by an individual after the storm for an unknown purpose. Amusement, compulsion, art. Over some minutes she discerns a rough trajectory of the wooden Xs across and up the street. The square pokes urgently through her pocket and into her rib. The line of Xs forms some bigger shape, a W. An initial, maybe the artist’s. No. Two arrows pointing down the street towards her. Two: the other possibility. She looks up and takes the temperature of the light. It is a regular street kind of light, a grey slate blur across the sky. She is washed with relief. Street light is not clock light. Nor is it taking on the appearance of clock light. That would be escalation. She has thought it before when alone at night, the darkness both blanket and yawning void. Escalation would require the evolution of tools, tools that cross the barrier between clock and street and remain undesigned. She wonders what these tools would be, how they would look, be held.

The Xs have changed. The W has rotated into a rough E. Horror pulses through her. Then recalibration, relief. It is her who has moved, done it idly in thought. W to E, a dial on a revolving face. No. Clock is not street. Street is not clock. The square insists again. Onward, it says. Homeward. Clockward.

Interior, greenlight. The five rooms, radial round the hall. The light sweeps left to right, a spear between windows. The consistency is reassuring. It had been greenlight when she left for the oil. The clock is in the rightmost room on a piece of chamois laid over the small mahogany table. She removes the square tin from her pocket. The oil drifts metalically inside. The little can, an antiquated thing with handle and spout, is on the draining board. Shoes shed, she pads over. Silence is important. Be quiet. The oil was all she could get without going so far as to cause disruption.

Clock physics is vulnerable across long distances. She recalls that time she walked way out, across the fields and towards the sun. The heat had soaked her face. Suddenly afraid, knowing, she hurried back to the house. The rooms were all bathed in yellowbeam. It had been a test. Not that the clock would ever indicate it directly. It has never given her an unmediated message. Tell me. Yellowbeam is beyond greenlight and lacks the stability of that wavelength. She has come to understand the warning inherent in the change. She has seen yellowbeam on only a few occasions. At each she rolled back her actions until the recalibration to greenlight. She has come to anticipate the intermediate state, the pivot to a sickly, flaxen note. Her brief absence today, she notices, has lightened by a vague touch the normal deep, enveloping green. The tone is towed across the spectrum with each step away from the house. On occasion the light will remain yellowed, and only after time will full greenlight be re-established. A bruise does not disappear immediately it is caressed. She knows what lies beyond yellowbeam, on the far side. The word has risen to her lips, unvocalised, once or twice. But to vocalise is to make sound, to make real.

The oil swishes heavily into the can. The street is fading from her mind now, made quiet by the processes at hand. The clock sits ready. She goes through the routine. The face comes away. Interior: the pendulum, the anchor releasing the wheel a tooth at a time. Escapement. The minutest drop pearls glossily at the can’s spout. The oil touches and the light changes. To the wheel: shamrock. To the anchor: emerald. To the remaining pinions: pine. Greenlight infuses her lungs, deepening and dampening her breath against the panic of the tautening spectrum. The noise, though. The click, that heavying of the ticking that had sent her out into the street for the oil, remains inside there somewhere. I can hear. The mainspring.

She feels a dart of panic. It had been taut but yielded to the last oiling. She looks, some small adrenaline in her fingers. Inspecting the mainspring means stopping the clock. When it stops, equilibrium goes walking. This awakens that question that itches, has itched ever since the day the woman brought the clock. Does the clock control or prevent. Does it radiate or indicate. Isotope or Geiger. God or angel. Serve the clock or serve the clock that serves. The only response is pragmatism. The clock is here.

The barrel: a cylindrical brass sun, gold with outspread teeth. Inside, the spring is coiled fistlike around the arbor. This is how time is kept. In her mind the keeping is something tight and fierce, wound around. Keep it safe. To keep something is to hold it intensely, to entwine it into stasis. Anything other constitutes a letting go and the chaos that comes with it. But still. Time is an elastic unruly thing. It cannot be kept like items in a drawer. To speak of keeping is to hope in vain. Held, then. Will you. Time can be held in the way one holds a ribbon as it spools through your hand into the machine and the fabric of whatever you are making. Holding as a constant state of that terrible thing, flow. Time is solid in the second it passes through your grip but you do not experience the whole, just a moment that gestures at its immensity. To understand flow is to accept her own movement between the digits of some mightier thing. And towards what, then? Do not think of this. But she is here now, here in the grip of flow, flung across or through while sitting still.

It may be necessary to stop the clock.

There was the time she refitted the anchor. There was the time she unhooked the pendulum. There was the time she realigned the teeth. Gloves, oil and grease. All of these were temporary and the solution waiting by. The mainspring is different. It is the heart of the clock. She reaches for the key; a gamble. Do you. To turn and hope for equilibrium, but to risk further damage poking blindly in an open wound. Into the winding point it goes, the butterfly’s brass proboscis. And almost instantly the crack, the metallic pain that signals something irretrievable. No. Her breath constricts; greenlight reshades into a sickly lime. From somewhere heat begins to radiate. Wrong answer.

The wasp shook and writhed on the floor. A child, she thought it was dancing. It lurched, and its thorax split apart like eggshell. Out pushed the worm, the scarlet horsehair, unspooling from the insect body. Ever more it emerged, more wormform now than waspspace, in defiance of the insect’s volume. In her innocence she believed she was seeing the wasp’s true form, its pilot. Years later, in someone’s burst watchspring, she saw that worm again. The clock is different. It is a mature watch, a mammoth genus. Its spring has a thickness and pressure undreamed of by smaller species. She knows that it must be let down, held in a clip, to be released safely. Held tight. Handled improperly it will lash out cobralike, taking out an eye or a chunk of cheek. She walks desperately homeward along the street, a bag heavy with pieces. To have the clip but not the replacement spring; unimaginably foolish. She had assumed that the mainspring would better indicate its degree of brokenness over time. Idiot. Out she had pitched into the waning day, the noise of the broken clock in her ear. Do not look at it. She is trying not to think of the changes she has seen outside. The alteration of greenlight at the breaking of the spring, though alarming, is systematic. She is more troubled by what she has seen since leaving the house. Backwards her mind goes, assessing all previous permutations of light, fixing a mental spectrum against which to project today’s colours. See the dial. Greenlight to yellowbeam is a process. It is clock physics. It can be controlled by measures of distance. She has long since learned the geographical limits of greenlight, the compassed pencil circle on her neighbourhood map. Stay inside. But greenlight is interior. All clock physics is interior. The street is a different wheelhouse. The street is a wide game, a random throw. Wooden Xs can fall into a pattern but they will not fall that way every time; that is the jurisdiction of the clock. That power radiates indoors, a closed system. The street is a stone flung into water, an aleatory wave of actions. A ragged plastic bag, the street’s thumbed gesture at a mainspring, is wrapped around a branch, rattling its lack of agency as the wind drags it around the air.

The lack of pattern in street physics can be disorientating. Clock physics has a habit of making the mind like itself.

She is nearly home. She has the replacement spring. She has counted the minutes the clock has been still. It was too much attention. All her scrutiny has damaged the mainspring. She has always done this; thrown it back on to herself. No, not always. There was a time. But clock physics is obliterative in its power. Its torsion twists you around until you are somehow facing yourself. And then you were always facing yourself. The astronaut in the anecdote, looking into the deepest and coldest space to find it blocked, eventually, by the back of your own head.

The street is wrong. This is different; it is really wrong. The Xs have rotated, inarguably, into an M. A part of the street has fully given up its randomness. And the light. The grey slate is yellowing, pitched towards a canary shade. It was there when she stepped out but she ignored it in the hurry of things. This has never happened. The light is interior. Stay inside. The clock does not control the street. If clock controls street then the seals between them are perishing. This is bad. Beyond. There is no corrective gesture for this. Somewhere there is a high window, a figure waving, suffused in red. Yes. Seen somehow from the street but not this street. Then the thought. Not that. The mainspring controls more than she knows. It is wound around the world, holding it. With the crack the grip loosens and the light leaches. The mainspring is the heart of the clock. The heart regulates the system. The cosmos is only an image of that system, a screen on to which clock physics are projected. The clock is a radiating lamp, three hundred and sixty degrees and four dimensions. The Xs were a sign from the clock, a warning. Can’t you see what is wrong. The sky goldens. Fire. There is no going back.

The glove is under the table. She knows now that it is pointless to conceal it from herself. She holds up her left hand, turns it in the light, in the deepest red. Bloodflame. A zone beyond yellowbeam. The unvoiced hue that stands for catastrophe. The glow throws her hand’s shadow against the wall. The fingers thin and thicken as she moves them towards and away. Then below the fingers the palm, red light making a perfect O as it shines through that inexplicable gap. Nothing. There had been no sign, no itch. She had picked up the winding key, closed her hand around it and heard it, impossibly, hit the floor. She looked and the hole was there. The centre of the palm, not ragged or painful or bloody, looking instead like a natural feature of all hands. She wonders why she had not screamed. Instead, her response was curiosity. It was not an optical illusion. She had dropped a pencil, a spoon, a knife through it. She strings thoughts on a wire. Bloodflame is the terminal phase of clock physics. She is tied to the clock in a way she had not understood. Clock physics moves inward by degrees. Cosmos, spectrum, body. You know. She checks herself for more absences. She is calm now, a world away from the small fears of the greenlight days.

She had returned from the street to rooms bathed in blood. Frantic, she manipulated the barrel and removed the spring. The clip held fast, the worm’s power contained inside. Out it came, a limp unscrewed tongue on the table, uncoiling, breathing in. The new spring, golden as its predecessor was dull, slotted home. Nothing. The patient was lost. She sits now, nostalgic for those old tasks of timekeeping. Her mind is occupied with something new. The clock is dead. She considered it a guardian, a bulwark against the darker waves of the spectrum. Now her thoughts are changing, feeling for new paths. What is that. In her mind the clock was always intermediary or projector; a prism dispersing light from an unknown, deific ray, or itself the embodiment of that beam. The O in her palm has widened. I’m going. The radiation of the red light is disintegrative. Not carcinogenic, simply evaporative. As if someone could just be gone. Be gone. The form of the street is unguessable now. Far away, maybe lost completely.

She sits in the heavy silence. If, perhaps. To focus on the frequency of the light and travel its path, to hold on and ride it to its destination. To follow it into her body, to find its terminal point. Go inside now. To the place where its purpose or work is revealed. She lays her hands on her knees. The pattern of her dress, red-bathed, is visible through the O. She closes her eyes. Inward. Through the porous door of the skin. Between the follicles. Into the blood, the insistent channels narrowing, then opening. Towards intersections of plasma, round the junctions of the heart, into the meaning of the beam. Tumbling, spinning, smaller now. The spectrum of white to red. The blunt hug of a corpuscle. Be still, love. A thickening rhythm of cell noises; mono, leuko, lympho, thrombo, erthyro, granulo. Notches on a yawning eukaryotic chain. Be still. Then another wave inward through the membrane and towards the intricate mitochondrian factories and the nuclear wall, the beam’s destination. You are far away. Inside, to a place beyond. A voice there: What is this, what is this really. But, wait. The wave loses inbound animation, feels resistance from somewhere inside. I know. And now the interference as the other, the hidden force, travelling the other way, crashes against and absorbs the inbound oscillation. An unseen wave, moving out, not in. But this means; no. You know. The beam all this time that blinded her to the true position of the projector, of the shaft of searing white light through which the clock operated, and beyond that the outer ripples of the street. You know, you know. Outwards now she goes charging, headlong through blood, astride the epiphany of the true wave into uncertainty greater than those clock or street physics that fold now in her wake. You know. You know the location of the fire. Outward; paroxysm. Blood into light.

The room is as it was. Her hand is as it was, yawning. The space retains some redness, the corners waning dimly into a pale rose. The clock sits in pieces. The wave is in her ears, pulsing. Heart to arm to hand to fingers to room to street. Radial. A memory drives by, a flash of metal and light, leaving an impression but nothing more. It is something from a previous time, and it burns.

David Hering is a writer and academic based at the University of Liverpool, where he co-directs the Centre for New and International Writing. His work has recently appeared in publications including Los Angeles Review of Books, The Quietus and Orbit. He is the author of David Foster Wallace: Fiction and Form (2016). He is working on a collection of short fiction and recently completed his first novel. Twitter: @hering_david

[Painting on home page Poolside by Gideon Rubin>.]

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, September 7th, 2019.