The Clockworker’s Son- Lulu Chen ’17

“And now for the final ingredient… Time!” the jolly clockworker announced to his son, as he sprinkled the watch with a generous helping of the fine green powder. Nicholas watched, enthralled as the hands sprang to life to a steady heartbeat of ticks and tocks.

“Wow, what is that?”

“Time, my son, is what a clock measures. And the clock is an apparatus that measures time!” the clockworker exclaimed profoundly.

Nicholas scratched his head.

“Now son, we are out of time for today but I’ll make some for you tomorrow. In fact, tomorrow, we can make time together. Now, won’t that be fun!”

And the clockworker began to close shop as the last rays of sun melted over the horizon.


“Wake up, wake up! No dawdling! Time is money they say. We must make time to make clocks to make money! What a beautiful day for business!”

This was the boisterous voice that woke poor Nicholas at the crack of dawn. But good-natured young Nicholas was eager to learn the tricks of his father’s trade. His father was, after all, one of the best-known and skilled clockworkers of his age, and a village favorite. Nicholas could only hope to be as competent as his father, who was currently working himself into a frenzy: “Okay! Now look at this time! When it’s nice and soft like this, you know that the time is ripe. You want to crush these leaves and I’ll grind these seeds…”

Nicolas looked at the mortar and pestle in his hands. He began to crush a few dark leaves, noticing a smell like peppermint rising into his nostrils as he did so.

“And when you’re done with that, you can use the press to squeeze out some juice. Careful, that juice is time is money as well… Has this one been pressed for time?…Attaboy! That’s the spirit.”

The clockworker and his son could spend the entire morning busily preparing the finest and highest quality time in the kitchen. By the afternoon, they would sit by the counter and pass time while waiting for customers. Business was guaranteed in the village, where clocks and watches had short lifetimes and frequently required maintenance. Teenagers who smoked and rode motorbikes would come in, asking to borrow time. So would old ladies who felt they were at the end of their lives but couldn’t bear to leave their families behind—they were frequent patrons who also lived on borrowed time. The shop carried a very generous loan policy and that time was often not returned for many years. Next came the musicians who would buy time in the store, meticulously picking out the fast beats and the slow beats, and beats of every tempo for their metronome.

“We have some nice allegro for you today, monsieur! Or how about some classic andante for your waltz?” the clockworker would suggest to a violinist.

The musicians preferred to keep time, making them some of the most profitable consumers. Also profitable were the young people, who would enter the shop in groups to request “a good time.” Shy girls and boys would pay a reasonable price for quality time with their lovers. And hipsters would come in to complain about their timepieces.

“We’re just a bit ahead of our time,” they would say, “Can you fix our timepieces?” and the clockworker would gladly adjust their vintage watches.

From time to time, dissatisfied mothers would come in and request just the opposite: “My daughter says I’m behind the times. Will you put my watch ahead a little please?” and the clockworker would calibrate that too.

Near the end of the day, the businessmen and businesswomen always, always came, exasperated and out of breath: “I’m out of time. I need to finish this case and pick up my daughter from daycare and send my son to soccer practice. Do you have any left? How much?” and the clockworker would greet them with a warm smile and tell them to take a breath before they passed out in the shop. He would add a pinch of powder, turn back the hands and send them off, a little calmer than they were when they came in.

With their spare time, the clockworker and the son would make new clocks and watches, some big and some small, but all of them shiny and full of life. Father and son would work until they ran out of time, for that was always the limiting factor, and they would close up shop and the sun would set and soon the day was over.


The next morning, the clockworker would rise bright and early and set to work preparing time in the kitchen. The son was assigned to price-label the clocks and watches they had constructed yesterday, and to lay them out on the counter for customers to browse. He did this with much care and sat by the precious timepieces to answer any questions or make the proper transactions. But in the morning, business was always much slower. People woke up late and took their time in the mornings, staying optimistic about how much they had left. After a few hours without any patrons Nicholas became bored, and again was passing time between his hands. As he passed the shaker back and forth however, he accidentally spilled a few grains on a sports watch. He cursed himself for becoming careless, knowing that his father had only the highest standards for time-setting. He placed the sports watch next to a luxury watch and observed the ticking hands and was horrified to find that the second hand of the sports watch was now moving slower than that of the luxury watch. In fact, it was now slower than every other timepiece in the store! While ten minutes had passed since the accident (according to the clocks on the wall), the sports watch had only registered seven and a half. He looked again at the shaker, which was labeled “Time-much-slower.” Nicholas frantically rummaged through the rest of the cabinets, looking for another shaker. There! He found a vial of bright magenta liquid that said “Time-a-bit-faster.” Now, all he had to do was add a few drops to the same sports watch that he had ju—

“Nicholas! How good to see you!”

“Gahh!” Nicholas jumped back, spilling the vial all across the counter, effectively soaking up to two-dozen watches and clocks he had carefully laid out this morning. He looked up to see the worried blue eyes and large brown beard of his uncle.

“Oh no, sorry to startle you. I was just delighted to see you taking after your father and working his business. Here, let me help you clean up.”

His uncle mopped up the counter with a wad of paper towels, while Nicholas guiltily placed the now-ruined timepieces off to the side of the counter

“My father’s working in the back,” Nicholas said, as he pointed his uncle to the kitchen.

Now with his uncle out of sight, Nicholas turned his attention to the timepieces and began to pour more of the “slower” powder on them. But no matter how much he poured, the hands continued to spin at a slightly quickened pace. There was no sign of slowing down. “Hmm… they must be saturated with all that time.” Defeated, Nicholas sat slouching behind the counter.

“Great,” he thought, the corners of his eyes collecting moisture, “Now what do I do with all these timepieces?” Before he could have a moment to recollect his thoughts and find a plan, Mr. Wooley entered the store.

“Howdy, Nicholas! Where’s your father at?”

“Right here, right here!” came the booming voice from the back as his dad came shuffling forward. “How can I help you sir?”

“Need a nice new clock for the office. I’ve been using the old one for years and it’s just too tired. It gets stared at a lot, you know.”

Nicholas’ eyes widened. He couldn’t let Mr. Wooley buy one of the ruined timepieces! “Uh… here! You could buy one of these clocks,” he meekly suggested, motioning towards some pieces on the right wall.

“Ah bah humbug! Nicholas you know better! These, here, are our freshest batch, just prepared yesterday!” his father announced proudly as he pointed to the side counter.

“But Dad, I—“

“We only offer the newest and the best to a loyal customer like this gentlemen here, right?” his father offered him a gentle wink.

Wooley looked convinced, and eventually picked out a white clock with a purple rim.

Nicholas sank back onto his stool. Perhaps Mr. Wooley would realize that his clock was just a tad fast and bring it back for repairs. Yes, how could one slightly wrong clock, in the midst of thousands of correct clocks, be a source of worry? He was probably just overreacting, and tomorrow Mr. Wooley would come in to get the clock fixed. In ten years, this wouldn’t be a big deal at all. When his father’s back was turned, Nicholas stashed away the quickened timepieces into a dark cabinet, closing the door on the ticking reminders of his shameful act. See, everything could be cured with a bit of time and perspective.


Tomorrow came and passed. So did the day after, but there was no sign of Mr. Wooley. Nicholas began to forget about the incident and his guilt subsided quickly, like an afternoon thunderstorm. It was only two weeks later that he bumped into Mr. Wooley again, at the grocery store.

“Morning, Mr. Wooley! How is everything? How is the purple clock?” he inquired nervously, dipping his toes in guilt-ridden waters.

“Good, Nicholas! Thank you for asking!”

A wave of relief passed over him. The last remnants of his guilt washed away.

“Nicholas, you know, that clock. Must be the aesthetics but it really does lighten up the work environment. Makes it more fun, you know? The days seem shorter and it’s just given me a great perspective on life. You know what they say, time flies when you’re having fun! Metaphorically, of course!”

Nicholas blinked a few times. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. How could the man blindly follow that clock for weeks on end? Didn’t he realize that a walk over to the next room and a quick comparison of the times would reveal a major flaw? Nicholas readied himself to make the confession he really should have made weeks ago to his father:

“Mr. Wooley, I—“

La-di-da-di-daaa, la-di-da-di-da-daaahhh. What the heck was that? Oh. Mr. Wooley’s attention immediately snapped to the cellular singing through his pocket.

“Well, nice seeing you Nicholas! Give your dear father my regards!” and he rushed away with the phone pressed to his ear.

“No!” Nicholas thought furiously to himself, as he stood alone in the cereal aisle, “No I’m not a bad person. I have good intentions, but I keep getting interrupted every time I try to correct this one small mistake…Why do I bother?”


But now as young Nicholas walked home, he wondered what else he could get away with. He was the son and eager apprentice of the most trusted clockworker in town, and as he gained expertise, he could sell or repair up to a dozen timepieces in a single afternoon (though the mornings were still slow). He was determined to make time beautiful and coherent; he could shape the perfect timepiece. One day he constructed a clock that was always 6 o’clock at sunrise and 6 o’clock at sunset, even as the days grew longer and shorter according to the seasons. He nicknamed it Equinox Forever. He studied the celestial motions, crafting clocks whose backgrounds cycled through a sky map of constellations, retaining accuracy all year long. He made a two-frame lunar clock, one that could be adjusted such that a month was a synodic period (29.5 days) or a sidereal period (27.3 days) of the moon. He invented the Grounded Clock which was tweaked just the tiniest bit such that one day was 3 minutes and 55.9 seconds longer, eliminating the need for leap years. Then came the Circadian Clock, which would automatically adjust to the biological rhythms of the body that used the clock, usually leading to days up to an hour longer. Clocks like these, which stretched the threads of time, grew tremendously popular and Nicholas felt empowered. Yes, he felt like a conqueror, with time working for him, rather than him being a slave to the once-strict definitions of seconds, minutes, and hours. And it wasn’t like this was an entirely selfish endeavor either—athletes would come in raving about their faster mile times, teenagers would marvel at never having to wait for more than a few minutes at the bus stop, busy mothers appreciated the extra minutes to empty the laundry machine before they left the house. Even his father was giddy with pride at his son’s achievements and pleased to squeeze out more time in his kitchen. The clockworker remembered something vague about strictly following the rules of time, but business was booming and his clients were happy, and he figured, a little bit of time never harmed anyone.

But the power to master time was too enticing. “More time!” the people demanded, even if they already had plenty. More and more would be accomplished in the elongated minutes of a longer day and to keep normal time was to fall behind slower and slower standards. The clockworkers all over town, once they learned the secret, switched their clocks to Nicholas’ modern versions, sleek and versatile and slow, so as not to go out of business. The people at the front of the time-stretching movement were insatiably greedy for productivity, and the people behind—well, they were just trying to survive. And day after day (although it was questionable what a “day” was anymore) time would slow and slow and slow and slow until one day, time stopped. This little town, and its entire people, froze in place.


Now, time stopped for everyone except Nicholas. Nicholas pulled up from the dusty cabinet the clocks he had ruined several months (or was it years?) ago. The delicate cogs had been irreparably saturated with time and were still running in fine condition, the cabinet having protected them from the elements. He had never thought to sell these clocks, which he had once stashed away with intense shame and cast from his memory. Nowadays, no one in his right mind would buy such a fast clock. But how fast was fast, anyway? He couldn’t remember exactly how much faster these clocks had become after he had spilled time juice over them, how much faster relative to a normal clock from the good old days … before this obsession over

time…but what was normal? Who had set the original clock, the first clock of all time? And how did he know that it was reliable? His head began to spin.

Yes, those clocks had been, like so many human inventions, imperfect. No wonder he had wanted to tweak them—to match day and night as defined by the celestial motions, to bring consistency across the changing seasons, to reflect an admiration of rotations and orbits and the forces of gravity. He had been striving for truth and beauty according to natural phenomenon, but then set off-course by the greed of humans. More, more, more, they had demanded, until they had pushed the limits of the nature of time. And now Nicholas realized how arbitrary time was: that even as the days and weeks and months and years had grown longer, timespans had stayed the same in absolute time. If days were twice as long, a person meant to die in 60 then-years would now die in 30 now-years. Slowing time had all been an illusion, for humans could not cheat themselves out of the fate and the motions of a universe far larger than them. Even what they called “productivity”—finishing a boring task in a race against the minute hand—was an simple cover-up for the process of increasing sluggishness.

But, because time was arbitrary, Nicholas did not need to worry about returning the world back to the now-extinct “normal” clocks. He realized that these slightly quickened clocks were just as good at telling time.

“Time is what a clock measures,” Nicholas whispered to himself. “This time is just as good as that time… as long as everyone keeps the same time so that appointments can be made and either party’s time won’t be wasted.”

And so what, if the days were longer in the summer and shorter in the winter? If circadian rhythms were just a tad slower than these mechanical gears? None of that mattered so long as people could take advantage of the lives—not the years or months or days—that they had.


“Wake up, wake up!” Nicholas called to the village, as he began to distribute the last quickened clocks to other clockworkers. His father now having been brought back to speed, the two worked in the shop to fix the terribly sluggish watches, swapping them on and off people’s wrists, adjusting wall clocks in offices, and switching timers so as to speed up a chess game that had been going on forever. They labored, alongside a small army of other recently revived clockworkers, past sun-down and sun-up and sun-down again. They slept when they felt tired and ate when hungry, but they continued to save the village without so much as a cursory glance at their own watches—for what they did was a labor of love and necessity that transcended the turnings of tiny, ticking gears.

Image Source: Clockwork by Andrew Fleming