Thursday, October 11, 2012

Black-Clock Dreams

Yuri learned of the old man from Gregor, who had it from Peter Samovitch, whose prababushka forbade him to tell anyone what she knew. Ordinarily this hearsay would carry all the consequence of a sugar cube, but everyone knew Peter's prababushka for a witch, and a powerful one at that. When she finally died at one hundred and thirty-two, baking cookies for her pravnuks, the residents of every village for fifty kilometers had braved the bitter cold for her pogrebal'nyi. Hers were not words to be taken lightly.

And so the distance has passed under wheel and under foot, and now Yuri finds himself a hundred and fifty kilometers north of Volsk, standing outside the old man's door, one gloved hand in the air and the other clenched around the pistol in the pocket of his fur-lined parka. A large black bell hangs from the iron hook by the door.

Yuri inhales deeply so that the cold bites his lungs. When he exhales, the moisture turns to snow that whips away on the wind. He breathes again. He is not ready for this.

At first, Ekaterina had been furious with him for playing games with her. When he had described for her the six-handed clock, she had accused him of lying. She must have said something to him, in her sleep perhaps. Dreams simply did not creep across the pillow like cats' shadows. When he at last convinced her it was true, she had climbed atop him, wrapped him in her bony arms and kissed his neck savagely. Her bald head had prickled his cheek. I do not want you to leave me, she had told him. I will die if you leave me alone.

That is why I must go, he had told her, not unkindly. The old man keeps the clock.

Yuri does not feel the thin cord through his gloves, but when he twitches his hand the clapper's noise shatters the cold. The door opens as though the old man has been waiting. Perhaps he has.

"There is tea, Yuri Shcherbakov," he says. "I could make blini, if you like." He is looking not at Yuri's face, but at his pocket and the hand within. "Perhaps something more bracing?"

When Yuri steps in, the old man moves aside gracefully. He is not as old as Yuri had expected. If Peter Samovich's prababushka had known him when she was a girl, he must be ancient indeed, but in his round spectacles and tight white beard he looks merely professorial.

Yuri does not remove the hand from his pocket.

In the sitting room, a black clock ticks on the mantle over a blazing fireplace. One of its hands is gold, one silver. Wordlessly, Yuri moves near. To be sure. As in the dream, the third hand is copper; the fourth is a dull metal that might be lead, and the fifth is ebony. The sixth hand flickers in its rounds, a white as diaphanous as a newborn's soul.

At the sideboard, the old man pours tea. "Time is a hunger, Yuri Shcherbakov."

He brings a bone cup and a saucer to Yuri, who has not removed his gloves. The old man shrugs and sets the cup on the mantle beside Yuri's shoulder. The tea smells rich and earthy.

"I have dreamed this," Yuri tells him, without looking away. The white hand spins so quickly it might be still. He reaches.

Lightning flickers and burns. Yuri's curses blister the air.

The old man, having seated himself by the fire, slurps tea from his saucer. It is a grandfatherly sound. Shaking his buzzing hand, Yuri turns to him.

"A moment slower, you might have lost it," the old man says, his blue eyes twinkling behind his round glasses. "Sit. Drink your tea."

Yuri, his hand still stinging, moves the cup to the low table.

"Lay your weapon beside the cup, if you wish. We are in no great rush here."

Yuri draws the pistol from his pocket and sets it down. He removes the gloves and tucks them away. The cup warms his palms. The pistol radiates cold against the back of his left hand.

The old man offers the sugar bowl. Yuri takes a cube and clenches it between his front teeth so that he might sip the tea in the old style. It seems fitting.

"The clock," Yuri prompts when he has set down the cup and crunched the sugar away.

"It is beautiful, is it not?" The old man's wrinkles deepen as he grins. "Beautiful, and so fleeting."

"Will you stop it for Ekaterina?"

"I will not."

"But she has the cancer." He has witnessed every treatment, held her sobbing in his arms. The word alone is enough to cut his lungs like the cold.

"I know. It will hurt very badly, by the end. I grieve for her. And for you, my friend."

"Words," Yuri sneers. "Stop the clock for her."

The old man's head shakes slowly. "Peter Samovich has put ideas into your head."

The pistol scrapes against the table. The cold burns Yuri's palm and fingers.

"I only keep the clock," the old man tells him.

"No." Yuri sights the old man. He is no marksman but, even seated, at this range he cannot miss. "You can stop it."

"Can you stop your own heart, simply by wishing it?" The gentle voice floats in the cozy  room, quieter than the fire. "Of course you cannot."

Yuri's finger feels thick on the trigger.

"Once, I myself sat in your very seat." The old man sets the saucer down and regards him soberly. "I pulled the trigger of a pistol not unlike the one you carry. The year was nineteen hundred and seventeen."

"Nineteen--" Yuri wants to deny the possibility, but he has come all this way.

"Will you keep the clock, Yuri Shcherbakov? Perhaps you might discover something I have failed to find."


The old man inclines his head. "Almost four months remain. It might be time enough. I do not think so, but the world is full of wonders."

Yuri swallows. The pistol shivers. "Only four? But the doctors--"

"The graves are in the basement. Where else? I have dug mine already. I will lie in it for you." The grandfatherly smile creases his face again. "I would rather finish my tea first, of course. If you would not mind. It is very good tea."

"Wait," Yuri says. "Just wait." The pistol jitters in his hand. "You would give me the clock?"

"Is that not what we were discussing?" The old man's head tilts. "I am old, and so very tired. Perhaps you will succeed where I could not."

"What if I do not?" Yuri asks. "What if you are right, if I cannot change things?"

"Then your Ekaterina will die alone. But, then, for who is this not true in the end?"  The old man picks up the saucer and slurps. Over the rim, his eyes are the color of bluebells through the snow. "Either way, she will not see you again. The keeper stays with the clock."

The pistol has become very heavy. "I could bring her here."

The old man shakes his head ruefully. "This is not the sort of place one finds twice."

Yuri looks from the pistol to the old man. He looks at the face of the clock, at the fleeting white hand.

He sets down the cold pistol.

He picks up the teacup, and sips.

The cup is warm in his palms. It is very good tea.

When he leaves the house, he will call Ekaterina, and tell her to sharpen her skates. The Volga has been frozen for weeks, and since she was a little girl she has always loved to glide along the ice.

It will not be easy for her, as frail as she has become.

But he will hold her close, and keep her warm, and together they will find their way.


Another Chuck Wendig challenge. This one gave a few titles and asked that we use one or munge 'em together to make another. I don't think the ending quite works - it seems to come on too suddenly - but I can't think of how to betterify it, so here it is. Let me know if it works for you, or if you have any better ideas or insights.


  1. This is fantastic flash fiction. An engaging story that unfolds in a beautiful way that wasn't hard to follow. My only complaint is the last name "Shcherbakov". I don't know what your background is with Russian and most of it worked well but the spelling/pronunciation of this particular name was weirdly jarring. Otherwise great job!

    1. Wow, thank you!

      I have no background with Russian, alas. "Shcherbakov" is apparently a common spelling (felt weird to me too) - it's the former name of Rybinsk, and Wiki has a number of individuals with the surname spelled this way.

      But of course, the invalidity of the "it's real so it must be good!" argument can probably be applied to names as well as plots :)