“Know this, if there is one lesson to take from me. Know that sin is worse than the unwinding.” I remember Maestro Iron Bars ending each lesson with those words. As boys, in the safety of our dorm we would mock him: “Remember. Remember,” we would say in onerous voices. But he was wise. I think even as children we knew it. That’s why we tried to diminish the fearful meaning of his words with our jokes.
As I grew older, I began to understand. I have been a man concerned with sin. Sin corrodes. Sin obscures the savor of life. Sin shrinks the spirit and corrupts all that is good. I am now the monastery Maestro. I lead my brothers and the students through the pathway of faith. I counsel them to alleviate the sins that all men in our weakness commit.
I have made two sins worthy of note in my life. I am about to embark on the third. This is the story of my first sin.
That night we sneaked out of the dormitory. We made our way through the still corridors and into the chapel. We stepped onto the ever-moving spiral stairs, and entered the winding chambers where the newly made waited for the Makers’ touch.
“Come quickly, Geoffrey,” said Dominique, as I stared at the blank face of the newly made. “We don’t want to be caught.”
“Every sane person is quiescent,” I said. That was where I should have been. But I followed him. Oh, how I followed him.
“Here,” he said, pointing to an unremarkable part on the wall. “When I press this . . .” His hands touched the metal slats. The wall slid apart with a clattering noise, to show an unlit passageway.
“How did you find it?” I whispered.
“I looked. Come on.” Dominique stepped into the tunnel and turned to me. I remember his eyes, lit like crystal blue stars.
We walked in silence (although the spring in my chest seemed to quiver at an unwholesome rate) until Dominique stopped and pointed to the wall. He said, “What do you think of this?”
In the gloom I saw an immense metal doorway, embossed with script that I didn’t recognize, although I was a student of some note in the forgotten languages. “Is this the way outside the city?” I ran my fingers over the unreadable scripts, metal curls of an unknown tongue.
“No.” His voice was quiet, reverential. “This is the vault.”
The vault! The unopened vault. Only the Maestro was allowed to know its location.
“Shall we go inside, Geoffrey?”
“No,” I said, startled at his suggestion.
He smiled. “I would like to go inside. And you would come with me, but I don’t have the key. Let’s move on.”
The tunnels ended in a blank wall. “Watch carefully, Geoffrey.” I nodded as he pressed the wall. The old metal slid apart. I breathed in the air of the outside for the first time in my life.
He held out his hand. “Don’t be afraid.”
“I’m not,” I said. But I was—dreadfully afraid, and not for myself.
Outside the Tin City the cogs that move the world are close to the surface. Outside you can hear the very turning of the machine.
Dominique led me to a patch of soft wire grass. We lay on our backs for a time, watching the planets moving smoothly along their celestial wires. The unnamed clusters of small blue stars weaved along their spiral pathways. The Copper Mother was prominent that night, gleaming in the full crystal moon. I could almost make out with my naked eye the mysterious canals that ran along her surface. The ruby twins were coming into ascension on either side of the Copper Mother. And the Hag was, as always, a distant glimmer, moving on a wire, many times the length of the words.
I said nothing, waiting for him to speak.
Eventually he said, “Nonsense. It’s all nonsense.” He glared at the night sky as if he could change the dance of the heavens with the force of his will.
He’d been reprimanded by the Maestro that day. His initiate’s thesis had been rejected. In Search of an Alternate Astrological Model.
Master Rilliams, the language tutor, had whispered to me, “I read it. It was near blasphemy. Stay away from that boy, Geoffrey.”
“Dom should have been expelled,” whispered the boys. “He would have been if he wasn’t the son of the Master Clock Builder.”
“Do you have to be so intense all the time?” I asked. I never understood his willingness to dismiss the beauty of the world. My head was throbbing with the constant click of the mainspring that wound the world, which was so loud on the outside. (Outside. We were outside!) I picked a copper cricket out of the grass and held it to my ears, listening to the small tick of its tiny internal springs.
“If we’re wound, who winds us?” asked Dominique.
I touched his chest. “How can you deny that?” I thumped his chest a little harder. I was afraid for him, and that made me scared.
“I don’t deny the fact, Geoffrey. I deny meanings. Who winds us?”
I sighed. “The Makers wind each creature, at the start of their life, determining their lifespan.”
Dom stared at the sky. “Look at the Hag Star, Geoffrey. One day, perhaps within our lifetimes, she will be close, and then what will happen?”
What would happen was not in dispute. “The world will unwind, every creature will unwind. And the Makers will restart the world. As they have done many times before. This we know.”
Dom frowned. “I have been thinking about Icantari, lately.”
I laughed. My friend was a model for Icantari. He had the same pride, the same hubris, the same desire to reach beyond the boundaries the Makers set for us.
“Icantari flew beyond the lamp of the sky,” said Dom.
This was an old legend, told to boys. It was not part of the Maestro’s books. “Yes. Icantari met the Makers, and that was the start of the promise. That the Hag Star will come after a thousand years, and the world will unwind, but that the Makers will always rewind the world.”
“Yes,” said Dom.
“So?” I said. “It’s a pretty story, that’s all.”
“But how did he get to beyond the stars?”
“In his magic ship. He left the Tin City and went to live with the wildings. He fell in love with the wilding king’s daughter and she gave him the secrets of the flight. And then he left her to fly to the Makers. He never came back. She died, her mainspring snapped in two. Very romantic. Very sad.” I shrugged. I was a monastery initiate and the concerns of women were not mine.
“Do you think there’s any truth in the story?” asked Dominique.
“If it happened it’s all in the long gone past. The world has unwound a hundred times since then.”
“Why can’t we go beyond the sky, Geoffrey? Beyond the orrery of the planets, past the lamp of the sun. Why is flight banned? I’ve dreamed of a machine that will take us to the Makers. That seems to me the ultimate expression of faith.”
“Does it?” I asked, wondering if he could really believe that.
There were so many things to say: Don’t go; Don’t leave me. The copper cricket fluttered within my hands. Life ticked on.
“You’d break your initiate’s vows?” I asked. “You’ll break your promise to the Makers?”
“You won’t come with me, will you?”
I kissed him. It wasn’t enough, but it was all I could think to do.
They didn’t look for him very hard.
His father came to the school to listen to the explanations of Maestro Iron Bars. “It’s good that I have other sons.” I heard him say as he left.
Dominique became part of the boys’ mythology, a story to be whispered at night to frighten your schoolmates. Dismantled by the wildings, who the boys earnestly believed roamed the outside, was the usual end to his tale.
My first sin was being party to Dominique’s vow breaking. I should have reported him to the Maestro. They might have brought him back to the Tin City. He would have been safe, and he would have been with me. The words of Maestro Iron Bars began to shape in my mind. I should have run straight to the Maestro. But I loved my friend too much for that.
And the second sin was greater and it came to me late in my life, and this is how it occurred:
Years passed. My old masters wound down. Their bodies recycled into children and were placed in the chapel ready for the touch of the Masters. All my friends, too, until I found myself the eldest of my generation and was given the position of the Maestro. I always remembered Dominique and tried to be sympathetic to the students, remembering what it was like to be young and foolish, and to be blind to the sight of the Makers’ hand on the spring.
He came to me when I had been Maestro for ten years, when the Hag Star rode bright in the sky. He came at night, when I was sitting at my desk in quiescence. He crawled through my open window. He was unlike the beautiful boy I remembered. His body was almost a ruin, although the tick within his mainspring was still vigorous. Wherever he had been, there had been no chance for regular maintenance. But I knew him.
“Hello, Dominique,” I said.
“Aren’t you surprised to see me?”
“I’ve been expecting you all of my life.” That was only partly true. My dreams in which he died equaled the dreams in which he lived. His eyes were still the same, still the crystal blue of the unnamed stars. “Where have you been, Dominique?”
“I’ve been building. On the outside there are others. Only a few, but they’ve helped me.”
I grabbed the edge of the table. So the stories were true. The wildings lived outside the Tin City. I pitied them, living as they did outside the Masters’ mercy. “You should have brought them to the city,” I said.
“No. That would not have served them well. There are more things in the world than you know, Geoffrey. There are stories outside your philosophies.”
“Do you remember the story of Icantari, Geoffrey?”
“Well then,” he said with a smile, “you see him before you. I have built my flying machine. Shall I take you to see it?”
“It’s extraordinary, Geoffrey. I believe that it will fly through the night sky to the Makers.”
He grinned. “I thought that you’d say that. Do you regret not coming with me, Geoffrey?”
His words took me back. I, who had been faithful to the Makers, had taken no companion, never raised a new child. I, who had spent my unwindings in service, was transported back to the raw boy lying in the grass. “What use are regrets?”
“I have something for you,” he said, placing a metal box on the table.
“What is it?”
“The key to the vault.”
The vault? As Maestro I had visited that locked place many times.
“Shall we read the secrets together, Geoffrey?”
“No,” I said.
Despite his shabby appearance, I felt drawn to him. There was something about him. In all my life, there has only ever been Dominique who has tempted me from my vows to the Makers. Even now, in old age, I trembled in his presence. How can that be? It seemed a holy thing. That intense longing for another was surely something from the Makers. I shuddered as if the Dismantler was at my shoulder, tempting me. Dominique wasn’t for me, and he never was.
“You don’t want to go inside the vault, Geoffrey? Then I’ll take my findings to the people of the Tin City. I’ll parade my flying machine in the streets. Let the people decide. The Hag grows bright in the sky. The world’s unwinding is at hand. I think you will find that not all go willingly.”
“I won’t let you do that.”
“No?” He opened the metal box and took out the key. “You won’t be able to stop me.”
He thought he knew me so well, but he only knew the boy I had been. The authority of my lifetime asserted itself, and although I knew that I loved him, I also knew that he was dangerous.
I called for the guards. They took him away. On my orders they dismantled him the next day.
But he left me the key. He left me the key. I kept it, as memory to the boy I had been, who I could have been. It was a reproach, something I could hardly understand, still I kept it.
Maestro Iron Bars was right. Sin robs life of every joy, every contentment. The time of the Hag was at hand and I should have served the Makers. I should have helped my brothers. For Dominique was right, not everyone faces the End of Days willingly. But I was silent. Sin wrapped me in its heavy cloak.
Some time passed, until the night when I rested in quiescence when my reverie was shattered. For a moment I didn’t understand.
“The main spring of the world has stopped.” I heard the frightened voices of men and boys.
The cogs that turned the world became still, and a hush permeated the city. A monstrous silence.
I took the key and unlocked the vault. I read the stories in the forgotten languages. It confirmed the promise made to Icantari. The world that was unwound would always be renewed.
It was not enough.
Why should the world unwind?
As if the world was a switch. Switch on, switch off. Tick, tock.
This was the way of things. This was the way of the Makers.
Except . . . I knew a boy who had dreamed, and he had spent a lifetime making his dream. I walked, for the second time of my life, to the outside, and found Dominique’s ship waiting for me.
I was like a copper cricket, staring, uncomprehending, at the immense sky. I listened to the quiet tick of my life, so quiet, winding down, all the time. It would soon stop at the whim of the Makers. Then all would be silence.
Except . . . that wasn’t how it had to be. I walked over to the flying machine, and slowly, oh so slowly, began to wind its spring.
I climbed inside, and strapped myself into the seat. There were three keys in front of me. I turned the first one and heard the hum of turning springs. I would fly this machine, past the Hag, past the crystal stars, past the Copper Mother, past the Twins, and toward the lamp of the sun. Would I find the Makers waiting for me? Was this what they wanted me to do? I turned the second key, and the machine turned, pointing toward the static sky. I wished so much that Dominique was with me.
This is my final sin. The sin of pride and hubris. I reject my place in this world, to break the barriers of the world and to fly to the Makers just as Icantari did. I wonder if the wildings will see me fly. I will speak to the Makers and demand that they alter the course of the world. Demand that a thousand years be extended into an infinity.
I turned the final key, and the machine burst like a flame into the night sky.
© 2014 by Deborah Walker
First published in Abbreviated Epics, a Third Flatiron Anthology edited by Juliana Rew, November 2014.
Reprinted by permission of the author.
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