It was on the derelict high street that I first saw him. The deafening blackness and vile rotten cold of the place made me want to leave immediately, and if it had only been a few years earlier, then perhaps I would have. But with nowhere warmer or safer to go, the screaming silence of a once vibrant street was as good a place as any to encounter strange men.
He was only a shadow when I saw him, an impression of the man he could have been, of the man he used to be and the people he could have become, but could no longer. The shadow of the man wore a long coat, so long it wrapped its fabric tendrils around his ankles, flowing like oil trying to escape his clutches as he ran.
And how he ran. Every step he took carried him my body’s height and more, with a speed that I had never before seen. Running at such a frantic pace would have put me on my knees before I had barely begun, and yet this man seemed to show no emotion, no sensation at all on his stone-rough face.
He leapt upon a grandfather clock, wrapping his legs, each as tall as I, around the large wooden base as he grasped at the front face of the clock. Just as every other clock I have ever seen, the hands upon that clock were pointed to 11:59, and continuously twitched forward, desperately trying to alter their position, and eternally failing.
The man tore off the glass face of the clock, and threw it to the floor. I watched as a thousand and more tiny diamonds of clear glowing light fluttered, just for a moment, into the air, before once again being claimed by harsh gravity and falling to silent stillness on the ground. The man then ripped the two handles from the device, finally ending their tireless twitch, and stowed them inside a coat pocket, bulging with the pointed ends of one hundred and more clock-face hands.
It was months since I had last seen another living being; before I knew it my small legs were pumping, trying desperately to shrug off the weight of my body that they might run faster and finally meet this strange man. Just as I approached the alleyway in which he worked his mad work upon yet another clock, black daggers of oil-like rain began to fall from the sky, coating my vision and clothes in dark stain. I dived into the cover of a years’ rotten market stand, and watched as the clock-face man, who had not noticed my energetic sprint, fled in the other direction, carrying him from my vision as quickly and chaotically as he had first appeared there.
I was stuck in the vile claustrophobia of that box so long I fell into restless, demented sleep. When I awoke, deep black streaks wet the ground and the clock-face man was long gone, back into the dark abandon of the city.
With little else to do but empty survival, I found my hours dominated by the trivial search for a madman. Every person I had ever known had passed, most of them before I could even truly know them. This city does that to people, it takes them away. The maddening fogs and inking rain take their minds, and then the city takes their life. With no day and no night to count, I cannot know truly how long it is since I had last seen a living being; but I know it was I who taught myself to survive in this timeless void pretender of existence.
An age, and then another, passed before I next saw the clock-face man. In my head I had built him from the madman I had seen to a God, a king of kings. He had reason and truth in his mind when I thought of him, he was the paragon to a paragon and more. In a way, our second and final meeting did not disappoint me.
I had grown taller and stronger, roughened by the vengeful stench and foul taste of this hateful city. He, on the other hand, seemed smaller, weaker, more pitiful in his desperate grand stature. Perhaps my age had brought about a foolish arrogance in my mind, suicidal egotism. Or perhaps ageless time had worn away at the clock-face man, taken all he had but his life, leaving him to exist in useless emptiness.
The withered man, now dwarfed by his timeless coat, still ran with fluid dexterity, though significantly slower than he ran in my memories. He clambered up the steep, age-worn face of a clock tower, staring with raving eyes at the giant clock-face above. Instead of watching the man, wild-eyed and statue-still, as my youthful self might have done, I pressed my feet into the grey-black stone and ran forward, into the heart of the clock tower, and up the old stairs. Bricks fell out of place and tumbled into the abyss below as I scaled higher and higher, focusing only on the shaft of light stretching into the tall room from the single window at the top.
He was desperately trying to tear off the giant metal hands of the clock as I let my head stretch out of the window. His solid black eyes, stained from innumerable hours outside in the harsh, oiled silk rain, turned to face me, filled with wonder and fear. While I never asked him, I have no doubt he had not seen another living being for at least as long as I.
We exchanged many words, stuck in the exhausting position so far above the scorched Earth below. He told me of his life, and how he had known the time before this one, the time where minutes and hours passed, and time itself had meaning. He told me of his theory as well, of how he believed everything about this rotten, terrible existence could be erased, if time itself could be brought back. I asked him where it had gone, and he could only look at me, confused. Time had not gone anywhere, he said, time had died.
So that was his mission, his crusade, filled with madness and irrational belief; that was his true goal. He would destroy every clock, every timepiece, and when there was no device left upon his great expanse of black land capable of reading time, minutes would once again pass, hours would return, time itself would begin once again to exist, unnoticed, but alive.
I thought then, and so believe now, that this crazy ideal he held onto so tightly had once had origins far closer to the truth. He was a scientist, he said, back when science had consequence, effect. If any man could know the truth of this place, perhaps he could.
He asked me, then, if I would follow his mission, continue the work. I couldn’t help but explain to this man, this manifestation of my paragon ideal, that I did not understand, nor truly believe in his plans. He told me, mayhap even raved to me, that such an insignificance did not matter. Believe him or no, if I could continue the work, and tell any others I met of his designs upon the nature of reality, he would be pleased.
I offered my acceptance to his scheme, promised to him that I would follow his request. He offered me a silent, age-long thanks that passed in less than an instant, and then willingly let go of the great stone wall he had hung on to so tightly. For a moment, and just a moment, he seemed to fly, to be unconstrained by so petty a thing as the law of gravity, and to fly into the sky. To my dismay, the moment passed too soon, and down he fell to the inky blackness of the Earth below, and there he stayed.
I have followed his words to this day, and while I may not have believed him then, or now, I have honoured the clock-face man’s wishes, and destroyed every time piece I have come across. All, but one, I should say. In my pocket, I still keep a pocketwatch, a small memento of a family I never knew. I have never met another traveller on the road or in the city, and with so little time left in this fragile old form, I’m quite certain I never shall. But with what little energy I have left, I shall shatter this anchor to times long past, this tiny slice of time, locked at fifty nine minutes and fifty nine seconds past eleven. I’m only sorry I could not do it sooner.
Sometimes, in my less composed moments, I like to imagine that the clock-face man survived his fall, that he ran away without a trace before I could reach the bottom of the tower. I never dared myself to venture to the front of the building, where the broken form of my hero so clearly must have lain.
Moments of clarity have become far less common these days, and the very fact of his death seems to be a distant memory, far more false than any stories he may have told me. I like to believe he is still impossibly alive, running around in his mad, gleeful way, trying to save a world so many thought had died.
I hope my destruction of this watch has helped him, somehow.
Godspeed, clock-face man.