The fire spread through the clock with an uncertainty that was bound to disappoint, and would do final, irreparable damage not to the object on fire but to the hand that had set it. The man clutched his chest at the sudden heat, and dropped dead at the foot of it, just as it struck twelve and the fire seemed to all but blow itself out, moldering a little before dying at last of exhaustion, leaving little harm but a pool of wax at the base, as far as collectors would be concerned.
Oh, it would go into a right, fine house, just like the man’s house used to be, before he’d bought the thing at auction. It would fit perfectly in whatever alcove, corner, or place of honor its new owner envisioned. And it would stand there, gonging out its hours for a week, a month, perhaps even a year before things would start to change.
But change they would. And the eyes that looked up, lifelessly, from the floor, had known it – had been intent on saving the next person from it. The original invoice was a whisper of ash beneath the thin, singed fingers. He had used it to try to put fire into the clock, but it was too strong for that, after two years of sucking the life out of the man and the house. It had grown hungry again, in the last days, and had expected something like this – hungry, but ready.
In one week, just after the wake, and just too soon for a decent waiting period, the movers came, and the house was emptied out, though most of the furniture was drab, dingy, and ended up at the dump. The family had commented with astonishment on how much the place had seemed to fall into disrepair in the year before the man’s death. The rugs went into the furnace. The paintings were all of pale, frail, and disfigured or unattractive people – those ended up decorating a rest home, where it was supposed no one would look too closely. The clothes had fallen to moth and ruin. Not even the poor house would want those.
Only the clock stood majestic, inviting, needing only a fresh coat of wax to gleam like new and it would make the auction house on 4th street, and then on to a new home. The clock chuckled in the way that clocks sometimes do – all in little chimes, like aural tinsel full of mirth and the comfort one has of being wanted, of knowing there will always be a place called home. The clock wondered if the next house would have children. Children could last such a long time. They had all that growing up to do, and it seemed like they were always new, every day, with a newfound energy that made every morning succulent and fresh.
It might be lovers, of course. A house of lovers would be almost toxic with energy and passion – enough to ennervate for a year or two at least, while love glowed hot. It would be like gorging on something that gorged itself on red meat. An artist would be sweet, if the clock were fortunate enough to attract one’s interest. The creative force tumultuous and ripe within his breast would taste like honey. An angry marriage, though it might be stale and crusty, could make a hearty meal, if that was next, with its dark violence growing like a slow pudding within.
The man, then the old man, now the late old man, had been a poet. The clock was a gift from himself to himself. It was to be an inspiration to write – chiming on the hour, upon which he swore he would stop in any waking moment and put down his thoughts in verse. The clock did its part, too, blandishing the words from his mind with abandon, until there were no words left, and every hour alive at last became a misery to the man. And when even the misery started to ebb, the clock began to make ready for the poet’s final stand. It came, poetically, on the lit bill of sale shoved right into the mouth of the thing. By then, it had taken all his strength to do it, because all his strength had been taken except for that one effort.
The auction house was swept clean, the rails polished, the air cleansed of dust. The merchandise had been catalogued, selected, and tagged. The auctioneer had gargled and rested his voice, and the shills had surveyed the genuine bidders to get a feel for the floor. The transactions were quick, efficient to a number, and the clock, on it’s turn, was assigned a new owner in mere minutes. The man who laid the bid was a curiosity in himself – a philanthropist, classicist, and a dealer of antiquities wrapped into one. Few men gave themselves to many things who were not enormous repositories of life. Among these various vocations, there would be some core energy, some prime motivation, and the clock would soon have its first taste. Its new wax glistened with anticipation.
It was not, however, to the home of this new man that the clock was delivered. Instead, it was unloaded onto a flat, concrete surface, next to sundry other furnishings of a dim if once luxurious variety, sports equipment from golf clubs to skis, all out of date, and an old motorcycle that had rusted in disuse. All of this was being carried into a dark room by several laborers. The man from the auction was there. He was saying to someone that his father had always wanted another clock of this type, but he wouldn’t let anyone in the family buy it for him. Now, at least, even if they’d never been close, he could do that for the old man.
So it wasn’t to be someone young then. It didn’t matter. The clock would take what it needed – what there was to take – and it merely meant a shorter time to return to the auction block. What they carried in would soon be carried out, though not much worse for wear, since there wasn’t much wear that could be worse than dried up, used up, and neglected. One would have to take what sustenance could be had from his new owner, and take it quickly from the musty odor of age about the furnishings.
There was something odd about the room, though, aside from the absence of windows and dearth of light. There was no sense of life within, no smell or taste or sound of it. Even the sounds of workers’ footsteps fell dead to the floor in the thickening gloom. It was as if something else had gotten to the man first and drank up all there was, leaving nothing but the bones. Perhaps if the man would move a little, say something, or at least come and size up his new possession. But then it was clear why the place felt as it did.
So the old man had done him in after all. Amid all the possible worldly loves, this man, to whom he was now gifted, favored things like the ones that now perched like spectators of the dead around his resting place. He hadn’t loved his work, nor his family, but had adored just such things as a certain type of clock, and they were now outfitting his final house with what he valued most. The life had gone on around this man, but the lifeless was all he had wanted. And here he now lived in a place of lifeless bodies surrounded by other corpses.
The clock stretched inside, if even just to jostle the chimes and draw the attention of the living, but there was nothing on which to feed. The last of the furnishings in place, a single candle was left on the lid of the crypt, to burn down in a last vision of the the well-furnished dead or else stifle in the lack of air, as the stone door was heaved and bolted into place. One last, momentary vestige of the living soul stuttered and shone yellow across the walls.
The clock pondered the flame and wondered whether it would have been better to let it burn his heart out than watch it flick its last among the dead, who could not hunger for any cause, nor tell their time, nor spend the life they no longer possessed. Concentrating on the dying light, it managed one ultimate shuffle of the weight in its chest but, as the light went out, all that came forth was a dry rattle with no echo and the last skeletal rasp of a chain that would never be oiled again.