Fiction: The Tailor of Time - Deborah Biancotti - Part Two
[As promises but a day later, here is part two of The Tailor of Time from the new anthology Clockwork Phoenix. Enjoy! - Jake]
A tale of cosmic clockwork, "The Tailor of Time" is taken from the fantasy anthology Clockwork Phoenix, published in July by Norilana Books and for sale on Amazon and other online stores. Editor Mike Allen describes the book as "a home for stories that sidestep expectations in beautiful and unsettling ways, that surprise with their settings and startle with the ways they cross genre boundaries." The anthology also includes strange new stories by Catherynne M. Valente, John Grant, Cat Rambo, Laird Barron, Ekaterina Sedia, Tanith Lee, Marie Brennan, Vandana Singh and John C. Wright. Says Publishers Weekly, “Lush descriptions and exotic imagery startle, engross, chill and electrify the reader, and all 19 stories have a strong and delicious taste of weird.”
Author Deborah Biancotti lives in Sydney, Australia. Winner of the Aurealis and Ditmar awards for her short story writing, she is now working on her first novel. A collection of her work will be launched by Twelfth Planet Press next year, and she has a novella lined up for 2010 publication with Gilgamesh Press. Her stories have appeared in Eidolon 1, Redsine, Ideomancer, infinity plus, 2012, and the anthologies YEARS BEST AUSTRALIAN SF & FANTASY and AUSTRALIAN DARK FANTASY & HORROR. Deborah can be found online at both her journal and her website.
The Tailor of Time
Avery stood to leave, the plan agreed. On a good day, when Bella could breathe without help, he would send word.
"You'll know," said Avery, cutting off the Tailor's next question. "And Tailor--"
"Welcome," nodded the Tailor. "You're welcome."
He left the way he'd arrived.
The Tailor returned to his sewing as best he could. His focus was gone and he was aware of the dull throb of his injured finger, and how the injury made him cautious now, lest he wreck some other part of him in the maul of the machine.
Almost at once the machine hit a snag and ran rough temporarily, and he was forced to reach for the pouch of tools in his pocket, to poke and prod it open and check its gears and screws, discover a loose one and right it, then return to his work. This he did as required while he waited.
Also while he waited, he drew in several of the tyros at a time, their bald heads shining in the light of the machine, and he lead them through what to do and how to clothe the globes.
Just in case there was ever another Tailor needed.
The word from Avery when it arrived, was a whisper carried on whispers. It breached the room, starting with the tyro nearest the window and working its way around to where the Tailor sat ready.
"This is the best way to tell you that today is a good day for spoke rattles and dragonflies, dear Tailor," whispered the nearest tyro.
"Time," replied the Tailor, "has come."
He rose from his machine and watched as his training took effect. The tyros shuffled into position, two of them dragging the swathes of cloth up to the machine; another two feeding it through.
Unsentimentally he left them to it, straightening his spine with effort and pausing a moment to savour the release of standing upright. He crossed to the tracks where the globes travelled and climbed, unsteadily at first, but with increasing assurance. He pushed out a gap in the line and pulled himself along, nose bumping the sheathed globe in front while the ones behind caught at his toes. He crawled, hands gripping hard to the track, knees pressing painfully.
The window caught him on each shoulder and threatened to dislodge him. He had to back up and remove his cloak and thick shirt, then clamber forward again naked to the waist, skin trembling from the effort, elbows alternatively locking then shaking.
When he breached the other room he took a moment to get his bearings. There was a passage, the track snaking across to exit another window just as small as the first, light glowing messily from the other side. He approached and squeezed through, scraping his upper arms, awkwardly pinning his wrist under him and wrenching it enough that it ached.
After the second window was daylight and a sheer drop over which the tracks meandered in confused circuits.
What a crazed, hellish design he'd found. What singularly unfriendly efforts had been spent constructing this track and the struts that suffered its support. And then affixing the lot to a cliff at angles and heights that sent the senses spinning.
But of course this was exactly the point, he realised. The maker of the machines did not want for interference. The Engineer built monsters so others would think twice about abuse or ownership. She made them unfriendly with all the purpose and intent possible.
He thought again of those blank eyes and the unsmiling fixture of her mouth, and none of it surprised him after that.
He took a shuddering breath and then another. He kept his chin high so he wouldn't be tempted to look down.
The globes here had stalled. To move forward, he would have to climb over the top of them. He clasped each one in turn, pulling it into the shadow of his belly and then pushing it back between his thighs to where it washed against its followers. The soft thud and glub of the waterlogged spheres behind calmed him.
Still, he cursed his newfound friend more than once and then cursed the crazed mind of the Engineer who'd built this thing. But he couldn't go back on his word. If he failed, the memory would nag and fill him up and leave no room for anything else. He had, as he saw it, no choice.
He gripped hard, chin between shoulders, forcing himself to breathe, to squeeze his eyes shut against the inertia that dragged at him. He focussed on stilling the tremble in his arms and isolating the ache in his knees, willing both into ignorance.
Only then did he find the focus to look ahead for his quarry, the globe that determined the current day. And there it was--that had to be it--a globe that stood alone on a plinth, lit from above and below, held steady and rotating methodically.
The lights made it look as though it floated. It rotated slowly, already shifting from a pleasant pink dusk to a throaty, overcast day. He didn't remembered sewing that one. It hadn't seemed special in his machine, nor had the cloth inspired him as he ran it through his hands. And yet, here it was. The day John Avery had deemed a good day.
He crawled forward, slow but sure, traversing the track in-between. He passed another globe and another, closing in on his prey shining with the bliss of its being.
One final globe and at last he was there. Now all he had to do was stall it. He needed to wedge something into the mechanism to hold it steady. This way he would give John Avery those hours he'd asked for.
The Tailor stood upright on the tracks with the gaping void on either side of his feet. His ankle shook and nearly gave way, and he had to wave his arms out straight on either side of his body to keep himself right.
He stabilised, and let out a slow breath that was too passionate for a sigh.
The globe, by now, was rotating closer and closer to night. Soon it would slip its mooring and sail off along the track to where the other used-up days sat, their coats faded from the harshness of the spotlights. Soon, soon the day would be done, and the Tailor's promised unaddressed. And he had come so far, climbed so far, was even now perched precariously above the sheer drop that emptied out to nothing but a grey horizon.
In his pockets were all manner of implements and needles and miniature tools to mend the machine. His pockets, however, were all in the coat he'd left on the floor of his room.
He took a moment to curse.
Then he leaned over the globe and found the tiny mechanical catch that kept it isolated, and he wedged his thumb against it--that lean, learned thumb that had been used to pinch and hold and size the demands of thousands of years of sewing.
Almost too late he realised that wasn't the right spot. A latch opened outside his hand and he had to swiftly move to keep it from closing. There was a grinding noise as the globe attempted to dislodge, and the whole world quivered and seemed as though it would topple.
But it held, the clicking latch pressed back on the Tailor's sinewy thumb. It held and the bank of globes behind him waited dutifully, and the globes in front continued to bounce along, oblivious.
For one full rotation he waited. Then he waited another and another, averting his face from the dull glare of the spotlights (dimmed but not extinguished, signifying night). He held himself in place with one strong hand gripping the appendage that kept the lights and plinth together.
The cloth grew faded.
Slowly at first, then like a day where the sun refuses to rise or set, the cloth faded as if smog covered the world. He should let go. Soon he should let go. One more moment, one more . . .
Brown patches of burn appeared gently, the soft cloth falling to ash. By then his thumb was so stiff with the weight of the latch that he couldn't even be sure he was holding it anymore. And finally with a click, the globe rolled off.
For a moment, no globe took the plinth.
The tailor had to haul himself bodily over the spot, convinced he would fall, his knees so stiff and shoulders so weak he couldn't feel when he was touching the track and when he wasn't. He moved out of the way, willing the next globe into place.
Sure enough, the next globe rolled onto the plinth, latches and catches working perfectly to hold it steady.
The Tailor was too spent to even breathe a sigh of relief. He made to lower himself to the track, reaching out a shaking hand and bending to an awkward squat. He offered a silent acknowledgment for John Avery and his daughter, hoping it had been enough. Surely it had been enough.
He was so wrapped in his thoughts that at first he didn't realise his hand had missed the track. His own hand, on which he relied every day, and now it fell beyond safety with an almost pre-ordained determinism. It dropped in something akin to slow-motion and pulled the rest of him with it.
His inside elbow scraped the track, following his hand. His chin snagged, but it wasn't enough to hold him.
And then he was falling.
Head first, body unfolding behind, swooping with an uncanny grace. Plummeting through grey.
He fell and--
He fell and--
Nothing caught or saved him. He plunged into the gap afforded by the precipice. He dropped towards a grey void that could've been anything but ultimately turned out to be stone and earth.
He fell and hit the hard ground.
The impact shook free the Tailor's soul, which blossomed and ballooned above his crumpled form and then spread thin like a bubble exploding.
When it rose past the windows of the place that used to shelter him, only one witness was there to see it. Not the tyros, still busy at their work in the Tailor's room, bald heads bobbing almost in time to the needle on the great machine.
It was the Engineer who leaned from the window, round-eyed with bemusement, reaching with short, stocky fingers for the suds of the Tailor's soul. She rubbed with finger and thumb at the smooth stickiness it left on her skin. She frowned and gazed and wondered what other force could call her tailor-man away, and to where. What higher force could there be, she thought, than an engineer?
As he drifted from her reach and travelled, uncertain at first, then with increasing urgency into the grey-blank sky, she merely stood, paying heed to the last of her lost man.
The Engineer seemed--seemed, only--more human than her fellow occupants in this strange place. Were it not for the blank, calculating eyes and the permanent downturn of her mouth, she might be mistaken for a child of--what?--seven or eight. But she moved with the steely calculation of an intellect that had observed thousands of years.
One more Tailor, she calculated, had just been lost. The best one yet. One more disappearance, one more example of the only remaining mystery in a world she once believed herself to have built. It frustrated her. But frustration, like all emotions, was barely more than an intellectual effect. What benefits others received from emotions, she had never determined.
The remnants of the Tailor were all but gone, a bare shimmer in the distant air. The Engineer dismissed the sight, turning from the window. She slid to a seated position with her back against the stone wall, and pulled out a strip of plain cloth and a white tailor's pencil. She looked thoughtfully to one corner of the ceiling.
Then, balancing the cloth on her knee, she wrote:
'The Tailor hopes . . .'
In bulky, childish script.
She licked the tip of the pencil and chewed her lip and thought. She drummed her thumbs on the bones of her knee. Then she continued,
' . . . hopes there were dragon flies and mud and spoke rattles for your bike and more--'
Then she crumpled the note in her fist, since cloth and pen marks cannot travel through whispers and rumours. John Avery and the unmet girl, Bella--if they were to be reached at all--must be sought in the traditional way, through muted words and the spaces in-between the words.
The Engineer leaned back to feel the smoothness of the wall behind her and to wonder idly, idly, what places she might visit. That is, if she could travel whispers and rumours, beg favours and elicit curses, roll across silence, across water-coloured skies. She wondered what more there was and more there could be.