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Mainspringby Jay Lake
The angel gleamed in the light of Hethor’s reading candle bright as any brasswork automaton. The young man clutched his threadbare coverlet in the irrational hope that the quilted cotton scraps could shield him from whatever power had invaded his attic room. Trembling, he closed his eyes.
His master, the clockmaker Franklin Bodean, had taught Hethor to listen to the mechanisms of their work. But he’d found that he could listen to life, too. Hethor heard first and always his own breathing, even now heavy and slow despite his burgeoning sense of fear.
The old house on New Haven’s King George III Street creaked as it always did. A horse clopped past outside, buggy wheels rattling along with the echo of hooves on cobbles. Great steam-driven foghorns echoed over Long Island Sound. The new electrick lamps lighting the street outside hissed and popped. Underneath the noises of the city lay the ticking of Master Bodean’s clocks, and under that, if he listened very hard, the rattle of the world’s turning.
But there was no one in the room with him. No one else drew breath; no floorboard creaked. No strange smells either. Merely his own familiar sweat, the hot-tallow scent of his candle, the oils of the house—wood and machine—and a ribbon of salt air from the nearby sea.
Was this a dream?
“I am alone.” He said it as something between a prayer and the kind of spell he used to try to cast in the summer woods when he was a boy—calling on Indian lore and God’s word and dark magic from the Southern Earth and the timeless power of stone walls and spreading oaks.
Finally Hethor opened his eyes.
The angel was still there.
It no longer seemed made of brasswork. Rather, it looked almost human, save for the height, tall as his ceiling at the attic’s peak, close to seven feet. The great wings crowded the angel’s back to sweep close across its body like a cloak, feathers white as a swan. Its skin was pale as Hethor’s own, but the face was narrow, shaped like the nib of a fountain pen, with a pointed chin and gleaming black eyes. The lines and planes of the angel’s visage were sheer masterwork, finer than the statues of saints in the great churches of New Haven.
Hethor held his breath, afraid to even share the air with such perfection. No dream, this, but perhaps yet a nightmare.
The angel smiled. For the first time it appeared to be more than a statue. “Greetings, Hethor Jacques.”
With voice came breath, though the angel’s scent was still that of a statue—cold marble and damp stone. Or perhaps old metal, like a well-made clock.
Hethor dropped his grip on the blanket to grab the chain around his neck and traced the wheel-and-gear of Christ’s horofixion. “G-g-greetings . . . ,” he stammered. “And welcome.” Though that last was a lie, he felt he must say it.
“I am Gabriel,” said the angel, “come to charge you with a duty.”
“Duty.” Hethor sucked air between his teeth and lips, finally filling aching lungs with breath he had not even realized he had been holding in the strangeness of the moment. “My life is filled with duty, sir.” Duty to Master Bodean, to his studies at New Haven Latin Grammar School, to his late parents and the church and the crown.
The angel appeared to ignore Hethor’s statement. “The Key Perilous is lost.”
Key Perilous? Hethor had never heard of it. “I . . .”
“The Mainspring of the world winds down,” the angel continued. “Only a man, created in the image of the Tetragrammaton, can set it right. Only you, Hethor.”
Hethor’s fists clenched so tight he felt the tendons stand out. His pulse hissed in his ears. This was a trick, a trap, some fiendish silliness dreamt up by Bodean’s dreadful sons and their Yale friends. “There are no angels. Not anymore.”
Gabriel extended a fist toward Hethor, nearing the apprentice in his bed without seeming to move. The angel’s wings parted to reveal a body of marbled perfection clothed in a state of nature. The angel twisted its hand palm up and opened its fingers.
A tiny feather lay there. It was not much larger than the goose down from Hethor’s often-patched pillow. The angel pursed its lips, blew a breath that sparkled like shooting stars in a summer sky, then vanished. A thunderclap nearly deafened Hethor. As he shook his head to clear the noise, he heard all the bells of the house and shop below him ringing, clanging, banging—hundreds of clocks chiming heaven’s hour at once.
Master Bodean’s sleep-muddled curses rose through the floor as the tiny feather circled where the angel had stood.
Hethor scooped it up, cutting his right palm in the process. As he struggled left-handed into his breeches, he looked at what he had caught.
The feather was solid silver, with razored edges. It gleamed in the candlelight. The cut on his palm was in the shape of a key.
“Hethor!” bellowed Master Bodean from below. “Are yer alive up there, boy?”
“Coming, sir,” Hethor yelled back. Setting the feather on his writing desk, he stepped into his boots—two sizes too small—grabbed his coat, which was a size too small, and raced out the little door and down the attic stairs.
It took more than an hour to settle all the clocks in Master Bodean’s workshop. Some had sounded out the sum of the hours—the holy number twelve—then resumed their ticking slumber. Others, especially the smaller, more delicate mechanisms, had been possessed of a nervous tinkling that could only be dampened by careful attention with rubber mallets and soft chamois. Hethor and Master Bodean moved from clock to clock, ministering to their brass and copper hearts, right through the chiming of eleven o’clock of the evening.
Finally they stood in the workroom. Both were exhausted from the hour and the work. Master Bodean, red-faced and round-bodied in his nightshirt and gray cable-knit sweater, nodded to Hethor. “Good work, boy.” He was always a fair man, even in meting out punishments.
“Thank you, sir.” Hethor glanced around the workroom. All was in comforting and familiar order. A tiny furnace, newly powered by electricks. Casting slugs. Tools, ranging from hammers almost too small to see to vises large enough to crack a man’s head. And parts in their bins; springs and gears and escapements, all the myriad incarnations of brass, steel, and movement jewels.
It seemed as if the angel Gabriel—archangel? Hethor suddenly wondered—had risen from the genius loci of this workshop. He had felt a sense of deliberation, precision, even power, from his visitor that reminded him of the greatest and slowest of clocks.
“Yer all right, boy?” Bodean asked, interrupting Hethor’s reverie. “You’re ordinarily a bit more talkish than this.”
Hethor found himself unwilling to mention the angel. Bodean would have thought him mad, for one thing. The very idea sounded horrendously self-important. He needed to sort his own thoughts, try to understand what had taken place. “I . . . it was the lightning, Master. It frightened me.”
“Lightning, eh? Some bolt that must’ve been. Never seen a storm set all the clocks a-chiming before.” Bodean shook his head. “Lightning and more than lightning. One of the good Lord’s mysteries, I’ll warrant.” He walked over to his locked cupboards and pulled a set of keys from a pocket in his nightshirt. He took down a small pewter flask and two tumblers. “Sounds like you need a little lightning of your own, boy.” Golden liquid splashed into each glass. “This’ll help you sleep.”
Hethor had never tasted anything stronger than table wine. The whiskey, or whatever it was, had no attraction for him. Yet here was Master Bodean, holding out the little glass, smiling. Hethor took it and sniffed. He almost choked on the sharp scent alone.
“This is true lightning,” said Master Bodean with a broken-toothed grin. He tipped the glass to his lips and drank it all in one quick swallow.
Hethor tried to imitate Bodean. It was like drinking fire. The whiskey went down, barely. He had to cup his hand over his lips to keep from coughing some of it out. It tasted like he imagined lamp oil might taste—foul and sharp and strange.
Laughing, Master Bodean slapped Hethor’s back, which only made the choking worse. “Never fear, lad, this will all seem less than a dream to yer in the morning.”
Hethor stumbled to bed to lie hot and thick-skulled under his blanket waiting for sleep. He barely heard the clatter of sidereal midnight echoing through the skies, never heard the clocks of the house strike the twelfth hour. Cotton-mouthed and woolly-headed, he dreamt all night of keys and feathers and clocks with steel teeth.
Morning brought sunlight, a headache, and the realization that he was going to be late for his studies at New Haven Latin. Hethor scrambled into his good trousers and his second-best shirt while he tried to shake the clouds out of his mind. Though he kept no clock in his attic room, Hethor always knew the time. He would be late for Master Sullivan’s maths class. Knowing Master Sullivan, the door would be locked and Hethor would be forced to seek Headmaster Brownlee’s indulgence.
As a mere apprentice, that was dangerous. No one would think to question Brownlee throwing a boy of Hethor’s low standing out of school, even in his final year. Only Master Bodean’s goodwill and the last of the money from Hethor’s late father had kept him enrolled until the age of sixteen.
Hethor shrugged into his corduroy coat—yet another Bodean family hand-me-down. Boots gripped by his fingertips, he was just about to hurl himself out the door and down the stairs when something caught his eye. It was the little silver feather, glinting on his writing desk.
The previous night came back to him in a collapsing rush: the angel Gabriel and the feather and the clocks and the Key Perilous.
He was not mad; he had not dreamed. But he needed to understand before he could explain it to Master Bodean or anyone else.
Hethor dropped the boots, stepped into them, swept up the feather, and clattered down the stairs. New Haven Latin lay fifteen minutes’ walk south and east of Bodean’s Finer Clocks, Repairs and Special Commissions Welcome. Instead, Hethor headed along King George III Street and left on Elm Street. West, toward Yale University and deeper into Headmaster Brownlee’s bad books.
The angel’s visit had been too real to ignore.
Master Bodean’s eldest son, Pryce, read divinity at the Berkeley School at Yale. Of Bodean’s three boys, Pryce had spent the least time tormenting Hethor since he had moved into the Bodean attic at the age of eleven. In point of fact, Pryce had spent the least time paying any attention to Hethor whatsoever. On the few occasions when they had spoken, Pryce had been the most considerate, if not exactly kind.
Hethor hoped his master’s eldest would grant him some counsel, out of loyalty to his father. Or possibly sheer Christian virtue if nothing else.
Pryce pursued most of his studies in Yale’s Fayerweather Hall. Hethor set his course for the university, figuring on locating the building when he got there. The morning was fine, beeches and elms along Elm Street in bloom, flowerbeds beneath them bright with the colors of spring. The air tasted of May, while the dust of dozens of varietals of bloom tickled his nose. The brass ring of the Earth’s orbital track glinted bright in the cloudless sky, its curve making horns that arced across the blue. There were few enough people out that the day almost seemed to belong to him. Electrick trolleys that he had never had enough spare money to ride rattled by every so often. A few horsemen passed as well, but otherwise the street was as quiet as the morning of Creation. Not even the nannies were out with their charges yet. The morning dew hadn’t quite burned off, lending damp potential to the day.
The campus itself surprised Hethor. Having come to New Haven only for his apprenticeship to Master Bodean—a seven-day-a-week affair, save for school and church—he’d never had the opportunity to simply wander the streets. Rushing about on his master’s errands, head down and feet pounding, Hethor didn’t know much of the city except as a limited collection of well-traveled routes.
Yale insinuated itself in the heart of New Haven as though the university were a vital organ in its own right. First a building here or there—a church, a students’ rooming house—each marked by a discreet sign or a college coat of arms. Then suddenly wide-lawned parks and a bloom of towering red brick buildings with white trim. His own New Haven Latin school was but a pale imitation of these great precincts of learning.
He found Fayerweather Hall by virtue of nearly running into a signpost that announced the Berkeley Oval. Fayerweather was one of five such buildings standing on a circled drive just off Elm Street.
Hethor gripped his bookstrap tight and ascended the worn marble steps. With luck, Pryce Bodean would be somewhere within. With more luck, Pryce would agree to see Hethor. With the greatest luck of all, Hethor might be able to slip back into his own school without being suspended or worse.
The elderly porter was almost kind to Hethor, making him wait inside a dusty room occupied mostly by wide-headed brushes intended for the cleaning of sidewalks. Hethor didn’t mind. He stared out a grubby window set in an odd corner of the building’s front and rubbed the silver feather between his fingers, careful to avoid the sharp edges.
Elm Street was still slow and quiet. Here within the confines of Fayerweather Hall, Hethor felt a kind of peace.
The porter came back, rattling the door as he opened it. “Mister Bodean will see you in the receiving room,” the old man said, balanced on the edge between dignity and pomposity.
Together they walked across a hall that gleamed with the labor of generations of charwomen. The porter held open a door eight feet tall and four feet wide.
No one had ever held a door for Hethor before.
The receiving room contained two tables, with chairs on each side, surrounded by book-lined walls. Tall, narrow windows faced trees outside. Pryce Bodean stood behind the second table, by his build and features a short, thin copy of his father. Where Master Franklin Bodean was ruddy with thick dark hair fading to silver, Pryce was pale, green-eyed, his sandy hair already growing sparse—his late mother’s coloration.
Hethor had known Mistress Bodean for less than a year before a stroke took first her speech, then her life.
“Have you an errand from my father?” Pryce asked in a clear, thoughtful voice, as if he were even now practicing to preach. “Porter Andrew implied that this was so.”
“No, sir,” Hethor said slowly. He had to be careful, lest Pryce simply have him thrown out, then send a message to Master Bodean that Hethor was skylarking instead of studying. “I am in sore need of advice.”
“An apprentice takes his guidance from his master.” Pryce allowed a measured tone of exasperation into his cadenced speech. “Surely my father can aid you in whatever petty concerns you have found to occupy your idle mind.”
“Not in this, sir.” Hethor found his words rushing out of him despite his resolve to be careful, not to mention his rekindling dislike of Master Bodean’s sons. “This is a problem of . . . of the divine.”
“The divine?” Pryce grew scornful. “Hah. Enough that you seem to be incompetent to work at my father’s affairs, now you are also getting above yourself. What would a mere apprentice know of divinity? Have you even been to services of late, boy?”
“Not as often as I should, no sir.” Hethor stared at his morning-damp boots. They had probably first been Pryce’s, he realized, trying not to think about the trouble he was digging into even now. But where else could he go for the sort of advice he needed?
Pryce sighed, just as mannered and exaggerated as his voice. “Our Savior gave his life on Pilate’s gear-and-wheel for this? A clockmaker’s apprentice who cannot maintain the simplest of Christian obligations, then cheats on his duties to go wandering through the city. I should write you up, boy, but it would break my father’s foolish old heart. Now what is it that you want?”
Hethor almost held back, thinking to excuse himself. It was clear that Pryce would not take him seriously. But he had come this far. He didn’t think he could back out of the interview now—better to try for the truth and hope that Pryce understood, than slip into the disgrace toward which his master’s son would so cheerfully shove him. Hethor laid the silver feather on the table. Blood still darkened its sharp edges. “This is a surety, Mister Bodean, of a . . . message I have received. Concerning the Key Perilous.”
Pryce reached out, touched the feather with a finger. “And what, precisely, do you think the Key Perilous is, young apprentice Hethor?” His voice was deliberate, slow.
Hethor noticed Pryce was no longer insulting him with every word. “I’m sure I don’t know, sir,” he said quietly, praying silently to Gabriel and God that coming here had not been a mistake. Would the scales now fall from Pryce’s eyes? Maybe the seriousness of Hethor’s question was dawning on Master Bodean’s eldest.
Picking the feather up, Pryce stared at Hethor. The green gaze seemed to deepen as some balance of impatience and consideration struggled within. Finally, like they were being forced out, the words slowly came.
“It’s a legend, boy. Silly, magical nonsense from the Southern Earth, like the Philosopher’s Stone or the Sangreal. People look at God’s Creation, His tracks and gears high in the sky, and they believe that there must be a role for themselves in influencing the progress of the stars and planets. People who believe in things like the Key Perilous, in ancient secrets and lost knowledge, those people can be dangerously unbalanced. Whoever put the notion of the Key Perilous in your head is no friend of yours, Hethor. No friend at all.”
“He gave me that,” Hethor said. Pryce was trying to talk Hethor out of his own epiphany. “An angel came to me in darkness, told me to seek the Key Perilous, and gave me that feather as proof of his words. Have you ever seen its like?”
“Hethor, any jeweler’s apprentice could cast this from a simple mold. I’ve no doubt you yourself could, if my father kept such tools about his workshop.” Pryce sighed. “Angels no more touch the lives of ordinary boys than do kings and princes. Less so, for kings and princes walk the Northern Earth, while angels are just metaphors for God’s divine agency within His Creation.”
“The angel was real,” Hethor insisted, still trying to rally Pryce to his cause. He was losing, though; he knew it. And Pryce held the feather. “Despite what you say. No metaphor at all. Gabriel was as real as anything I’ve ever seen.” More real, in a way.
Edging past the end of the table where Hethor stood, Pryce walked to the door of the receiving room. “Go on about your business, Hethor. I’ll have Porter Andrew write you a note that you were here at my behest. It may spare you some trouble.”
“My feather . . .”
“I’ll return it to my father.” Pryce shook his head. “I don’t suppose you’ve actually stolen it from him, as you wouldn’t have the backbone to show it to me if you did, but an apprentice has no business with such a thing in his possession.”
The door clicked shut.
Despite his sixteen years, tears of anger and frustration stung Hethor’s eyes. There was nothing more to do or say. As an apprentice, he was bound to his master almost as tightly as any slave. Unlike a slave, when Master Bodean chose to elevate Hethor to journeyman, he would have considerably more freedom, perhaps be on his way to true independence. But for now, he was as powerless as any woman or child.
And he’d just been turned out like an errant brat. Without even Gabriel’s tiniest feather to show for his visitation.
Hethor turned his right hand to look at the cut the feather had made the night before. Where he expected a thin scab, or perhaps an angry red line, there was only the faint key-shaped scar.
“By the gears of Heaven,” he muttered, “what does this mean?”
Porter Andrew handed Hethor a sealed note on his way out. Hethor scuffed back down the steps toward Elm Street, wondering what he was to say to Headmaster Brownlee, when he saw a signpost pointing toward the Divinity School library.
Libraries had books, with illustrated plates. Surely in all of history someone had captured an image of Gabriel.
He could find some proof of his story. Proof for himself, at the least. At any rate, it was another path toward an answer.
“My master has sent me to find details of paintings of Gabriel, the Angel of the Annunciation,” Hethor said to the library porter. He waved the note from Porter Andrew, backside out in case the porter recognized the handwriting. He knew he appeared of no consequence—a narrow-chested, sandy-haired boy of medium height, no different from half the young men in New Haven. Only the subterfuge of the note protected him.
“Who did you say your master was?” The library porter was a young man with wide-spaced eyes and a face that tended toward vagueness.
“Master Bodean the horologist.”
The porter’s expression narrowed, so Hethor hastily amended himself. “Clockmaker. My master is a clockmaker.”
“Horo . . . horo . . . what’s a clockmaker need to look at pictures for?”
Good question. The library porter was not as vague as he seemed. “Ah, well, we have a painted clockface we are repairing. There has been some damage to the brushwork. Master wants a reference to give to the artist who will be doing the restoration.”
The porter thought that over for a moment. “Very well, go in and speak to Librarian Childress. You will find her at a black desk through the second set of arches.”
Her? “Thank you, sir.”
“I’m not a sir,” grumbled the porter with injured pride. “I work for my keep.”
Hethor grinned, hopped his way through a little bow, and scuttled inside.
Copyright © 2007 by Joseph E. Lake Jr. All rights reserved,
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