Fiction: The Tailor of Time – Deborah Biancotti

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[Today we have something special for you! A piece of short fiction presented in two parts 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.

Deborah Biancotti

The Tailor of Time

(Part I)

The Tailor of Time sat at his sewing machine, stitching night to day.

He joined the clear cloth of dawn to a full bright afternoon like a circus top. Then he smoothed on a panel of smoky rouge for dusk and finished it off with a thick purple evening. Brushing his hand over the result, he felt a thin echo of satisfaction.

The Tailor worked with a minimum of noise or fuss. He suffered only the occasional grunt or shrug (to indicate ‘this is done’ or ‘bring me cloth’), aimed at the tyros who also worked in his rooms. The tyros were pale, bald children that could pass as the Tailor’s own. They looked like a ramshackle circus, dressed in scraps of cloth that tied at waist or shoulder. They worked at the Tailor’s demand, darning or mending or gathering what needed to be darned, or mended, or gathered.

The Tailor ignored them. He existed in a meditative cocoon, his voice so unused it had all but healed over. His mouth sagged like a pocket, his eyes drooped like the shoulders of an old suit and his whole body slumped like a smock on a hanger.

Only his hands remained steady, darting leanly under the light of his sewing machine and out again before they could be caught by the quick, sharp tooth of the needle. In and out, swift as the very machine itself. In and out.

With the day laid out in cloth before him, the Tailor added a hem, threaded a drawstring through both ends and slung it like a cloak over a bare globe to his right.

Thus dressed, the globe was spun onto tracks like train tracks, where it butted against other globes and sloshed with the weight of water in its guts.

The water served to hold it steady.

Dismissed, the globe and its partners creaked and shuddered, working their way along the tracks circumventing the room. They passed the industrious tyros, the bare stone walls and heavy curtains of the room. They passed towards the arched window in one thick-cut wall, and would have passed out, but here they snagged and pushed back, bubbling against each other.

Coming through the window was a man. He shoved his way into the chain of gowned globes and climbed into the Tailor’s room.

The tyros saw him first. In a sudden frenzy of panic they fell into a silence even deeper than their usual quietude. One ran towards the Tailor and stopped, confused, unsure how to encroach on her master’s concentration. One ran towards the man, the stranger, and halted just as cautiously as her cousin.

The Tailor was unaware of the alterations in the room, sewing night to day, day to night. Until he received a bobbing tap to his elbow from his most recent globe (scuttling back along the tracks), and jumped hard in his seat.

His finger snagged in the great machine, and the Tailor cried out to see the cruel incisor pierce all the way through. Blood beaded into the sworls of his fingertip and spilled on the cloak of time he was making.

"Oh!"

The first clear sound he’d made in a hundred years.

"Ouch!"

The second.

He stepped off the foot-pedal at once and rescued his stricken finger, pulling his bloody hand free. He drew the injured appendage to his lips to taste the unexpected saltiness of his mistake.

On the cloth with the bloodstain, war broke out for a day. It commenced seemingly from nothing and returned there just as quickly. History would refer to it as the War of Hours.

The Tailor, however, was not concerned with this. He looked up to find the cause of the commotion and caught at once the eye of the intruder. The man had completed his expedition through the window and now stood surrounded by tyros up to his waist.

The tyros divided their gazes between the stranger and the Tailor, chewing the blood out of his injury.

The stranger said, "You the Tailor of Time?"

The Tailor, mouth still entertaining his finger, nodded.

"You make the cloak of time that clothes the world, you determine night and day, the colours, the length of hours, the pattern of seasons and years?"

The Tailor nodded and shrugged so that his ear travelled painfully close to his shoulder. He hoped to signify both regret and well-intentioned acceptance.

"Then my name is John Avery, and I have a favour to beg."

The Tailor cleared his throat, but the first sounds to come out were not words. He had to try twice more before he managed to say, "Beg it. John Avery."

Avery drew breath. "Tailor," he said. "You are largely forgotten where I’m from, and many places besides."

Not forgotten enough, it seemed. Though the Tailor was engaged in the act of polite conversation, it did not escape his attention that Avery had breached walls which had not seen a visitor in hundreds of years.

Avery was not privy to the Tailor’s befuddlement. He dragged an empty stool to the Tailor’s side, and rested his elbow on the table where the machine sat glowering and grinning.

Up close Avery was older than his spryness belied. Much older than an adventure like this warranted, climbing walls and windows and rooms, vaulting or swimming, surely, the moat which still must hug the base of this fortress. He had a light beard that deepened to faded brown at his ears. His hair was thick but receding, lending him a horned look. And he had long, wiry eyebrows over narrow brown eyes. He looked kind, but sure, and careful.

"I paid witches and bribed fools," he said. "I followed dreams and rumours from elders and madmen, seers and scientists. It took three years."

"And," said the Tailor, voice still thick and unpractised, "what do you want?"

"Time."

Of course.

"I want you to slow down time for a day. No, an afternoon. A set of hours, even. Just some small, very small, amount of time."

The Tailor let out a bark that might’ve been a cough, might’ve been, instead, some descendent of laughter.

Avery continued, "You expected me to ask that."

The Tailor nodded.

"You want to know why I ask?"

A grunt, meaning ‘naturally’.

Here it came, all sorts of tales of great deeds and discoveries to be made if only time would permit. Of acts of humanity planned and mistakes to be rectified. Of love to be given or taken, of fears that must be faced, of favours to be returned. Particularly to the Tailor, if only he would grant this one wish.

He tried not to roll his eyes as he faced this newest petitioner.

"I intend to waste it," said Avery.

"W–?"

This was new.

The Tailor spread his hands and gestured Avery forward, indicating with the tilt of his ear that he should repeat the request.

"Waste," said Avery, leaning in and enunciating carefully. "I want some time to waste."

"Because . . . ?"

"Because that’s exactly what youth is meant to do."

The Tailor paused, even more confused than before. John Avery, he was convinced, was not young. But was he mad?

"I would waste every precious second. I would engage in all the childish pursuits my old-man frame would allow. I would run after dragonflies and kick at puddles in the mud and roll in grass and thread plastic spoke rattles onto my pushbike, I would–"

"Spoke rattles–?"

"Because this girl," said Avery, reaching into a pocket, "deserves that, don’t you think?"

"Your . . . ?"

"Daughter, yes."

The Tailor drew breath.

He was trying to clear the constriction that threatened to overwhelm his throat and stomach, and ease the tension that dragged his shoulders backwards like broken wings.

Avery held a photograph of a girl (of–what?–seven, eight years?). Sunlight limned her fair head and lay on the top curl of her grin. She was squinting, standing by a pushbike with one hand gripped to the handlebar, one hand curling the seat.

"This is Bella. Some days she can breathe," said Avery. "Some days she can even ride her bike. Some days she gasps and coughs up the fluid that is drowning her from the inside out."

He let this sink in.

"Unlikely I could repay you, Tailor, understand."

Not even a favour traded.

What was the Tailor to make of this?

He dropped his hands to his lap and sat, looking lopsidedly at his visitor. Then he gazed around at the drapes, the thick stone walls and finally, to the childish tyros who had returned, by degrees, to their work.

He looked at the chain of globes emptying from the room, the spill of blood on the cloth still caught in the machine, the floor and then, his own lap (filled with threads and scraps of cloth). He shook his head slowly like he was waking from a dream.

How had he . . . ?

How did any of this . . . ?

How could . . . ?

"One problem," said the Tailor, voice heavy, "I don’t know how."

"You . . .? Oh," It was Avery’s turn to pause. "Is there someone who does?"

The Tailor gestured broadly. "No. Only . . . ," he paused.

"Yes?"

"Perhaps the Engineer."

"Okay?"

"She built everything."

"An engineer?"

"The Engineer."

"You’ve met her?"

"No," he grunted at the impossibility of that idea. "Well, once. Saw her, more like. But she was . . . I called out to her, but perhaps she didn’t hear. She was busy."

The Tailor couldn’t find any other excuses for the way the Engineer had looked at him. Blankly, like he was a swatch of fabric and she was thinking what to do with him.

"Okay," Avery looked like a man trying not to give up. "And she made this strange place?"

"Some suggest she built all of everything that there is."

"Oh? Okay. And what does she do now?"

The Tailor shrugged. "Maintenance?"

Avery nodded, thumbing his beard thoughtfully. "Can she be found?"

The Tailor was uncertain. And even then, he explained, it was unlikely she could be prevailed upon. The Engineer was cold and unyielding, like the stone that made up this place.

Avery leaned back, clenching his hands over his stomach almost in prayer. He stared at the stone ceiling. "Unlikely . . . ," he repeated.

They say time heals all wounds, but it wasn’t as true as this: time, most often, runs out.

Avery was thinking that then, as he leaned his chin into both hands beside the Tailor’s grand, grinning machine. He stayed there, bowed, for a long time. When he spoke, his voice was muffled by his fingers. "Then how . . . ?"

The Tailor had never granted a request. Had, in fact, attempted to make sure he was in no position to hear them.

But now, stalled in his work, he couldn’t not consider John Avery and that cheerful girl with the sunlit grin who looked directly from the photograph like she might leap from its shallow page.

"Bring her here?" said the Tailor.

But here there were no dragonflies, no spoke rattles, no mud. And could such a small girl travel the whispers and rumours it had taken Avery just to reach here?

No. The only way to do it was to stall the globe. And not just any globe. What they needed was to stall the globe that was in use, the one determining time at that very moment.

The Tailor reached out a hand to Avery, but hesitated, uncertain, and said instead, "I will help you, John Avery. Somehow."

For Bella, with the smile like daylight.

[Come back for Part two to be posted here on Thursday Septemeber 25! – Jake]

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