Monday, March 6, 2017

BOOK OF HOURS - First Story in Time and Time : A Collection of Tales

The sign caught her eye. It was round and gleaming, reflecting the afternoon sun: TIME &TIDE ANTIQUE CLOCKS printed in black letters on an image of a white clock face with Roman numerals. She noticed there were no hands on the clock. Although the shop had been on the outskirts of town forever, she never really took notice of it in the same way as she did on this day. She felt compelled to turn at the entrance next to the sign.
  Helen had driven two hours since leaving the airport.  She had been twenty years away from the sounds and sights of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Familiar to her, but in a dreamlike way, were the horse and buggies clopping along the roads, the makeshift farm stands with bins of pumpkins and squash and adorned with tin buckets of bright zinnias. Modest young girls in plain gingham dresses stood behind jars of relish and jam. She stopped along the roadside to buy a bunch of those zinnias to take to her mother. The sullen girl handed her the flowers and counted out change from a Ball jar and returned dutifully to her post without making eye contact. 
  She had forgotten how the sweeping fields of sunflowers turned their brown eyes to follow the sun’s arc through the sky. The variegated patches of fields stretched like a giant quilt over the rolling landscape toward the misty blue hills beyond. For all the quaint appeal and simple beauty, she felt she had been washed ashore on a lonely island as a stranger. She was not ready to come face to face with the past or the future.
When she got the letter that her mother was dying, she had to come, wanted to come. During all those years away, she had never thought to return, but here she was. It had never felt like home—why she never knew. She found her real home in the Mediterranean—bathed in light and warmth, wrapped in blue sea and sky. She would carry something of it with her into the cold winter ahead, which held the unwelcome promise of grief. There would be this time with her mother before it was too late.  Time was of the essence; this she knew.
Still, she was drawn to make this one stop before going the short distance to that bleak farm house where her mother waited.
She drove slowly down the long drive, past an old white-washed mansion: the  ornate black iron fence, the brick walkway lined with hedge rows, lush shrubs and Victorian lamplights all seemed out of place. The elegance of the stately house gratified her finer sensibilities, distracting her from the otherwise austere landscape surrounding it dotted with plain and practical buildings.
Ahead she spotted the long, grey building and parked in front of it, assuming it was the shop, though she saw no sign or markings on it. When she pulled open the high, church-like door and stepped inside, her eyes tried to focus in what at first seemed total darkness, having come out of the brilliant daylight. Soon, she saw small shafts of light entering from rows of narrow windows along the top of the walls, shedding a misty light on the ticking clocks below. Such an odd place, she thought, as her vision adjusted to take in the sight of hundreds of clocks on multi-leveled shelves set on long tables. Amid the odor of old wood and dampness, she saw no one, not even at the island desk far ahead that seemed to mark the middle of the gaunt space.
She walked an unhurried pace along the main aisle, then through several side aisles, taking in the vast array of clocks standing like old soldiers at attention, waiting to be inspected. She stopped here and there to admire the shapes and designs of the colorful ceramic clocks with their scenes of farmhouses and gardens. She shuddered at the sombre black cases of others. She smiled at the clock with the white marble base on which a brass horse and hound stood to one side, and on the other side, a bright yellow clock face covered with a glass dome.
Where had they been, and what had they seen? Who were the owners, and how had they lived?  She wondered. Where were the souls now who had lived by the dictates of their ringing reminders of passing time.
She was startled to hear a thin voice. “Can I help you?”
It had been a long time since she heard that unmistakable singsongy Pennsylvania Dutch intonation. She looked up to see the old man standing next to her.
“Oh, thanks, but…no, no, I just stopped in to see what you have. I grew up in this town, but I’d never been to your shop.”
“Oh, it’s not my shop. It’s my father’s.”
Your father’s, she thought, but whispered anOh? certain that his father could not possibly still be alive. The man was old and bent over, with grey, wispy hair, and eyes clouded over with a bluish film.
“You let me know if you have any questions, young lady.”
“I will for sure. Thank you.”
“Excuse me?”
“Marchenmeister, I am Earl Marchenmeister, Jr.”
“Oh, right…yes, well, thank you, Earl. I think I’ll just take a quick look around if that’s okay.”
     “Yah, I’ll just be at the desk there,” pointing to it. She watched as he padded his way back until he reached the dark wooden desk—an island in a sea of clocks. He sat himself down with some effort.
What a strange man! She imagined that over the years he had worked on and cared for each timepiece—recognized their individual chimes, knew where they had been, who had owned them, and maybe even the fate of their owners.      I’m being ridiculous; he’s just an old-fashioned man who’s been doing this all his life. He probably inherited the place and still thinks of it as his father’s. I wonder if he has a son who will inherit the shop when time runs out for him. Now, why do I care? What does it matter? No matter!
Then she saw it: a clock exactly like the one in her island apartment in Italy. It was elegant with a reddish wooden case embellished with gold leaf designs. On the glass door beneath the face was an image of the church of Santa Croce painted in thin golden lines, with the pendulum peeking through. The hands were silver filigree with a flowery red line around the perimeter above the hours on the ivory clock face.
I cannot believe this! 
She had first settled in Florence, across from Piazza di Santa Croce on Via di San Giuseppe. Later, she moved to the Island off Sicily.  She thought it a coincidence when she saw the clock on the mantel above the fireplace in her little sitting room. When it chimed, she sometimes closed her eyes and felt she was back in Florence with her lover lying beside her, warm on the daybed by the fire with his kind and shining eyes looking upon her—the smell of espresso and wood fire smoke drifting in the side window and all the city’s church bells resounding through the room. 
A bit disoriented, she crossed the aisle to gaze at the clock in reverie, for how long she couldn’t be sure. Thoughts of her Mediterranean home warmed her in the cold space where she stood. She had been a wayfarer ever since she could remember—first in thought then in her wanderings. For years, she had traveled the Greek islands, then stayed a year Florence, and finally settled on Lipari. Its grandeur still surprised her each day. Has it been twenty years? Vaguely, lines from a long-forgotten poem came to her—something about two paths diverging and “how way leads on to way” and doubts about ever coming back—back to here, back to there?
She turned to make her way to where the old man sat, dozing with his arms folded across his chest. “Excuse me…excuse me, Earl,” she whispered, so as not to wake him too abruptly.
He opened his eyes and looked up, “You want to know something about one of my clocks?”
“Yes, I guess…I mean, I saw a beautiful Italian clock down the aisle there. At least I think it’s Italian. I had one exactly like it. I mean… it wasn’t mine. It was there in my apartment…in Italy when I moved in…and…”
“This is one of a kind, Miss. There are no others,” the old man said, as they walked together to where the clock rested. As soon as they stopped in front of it just on the hour, all the clocks began a fugue of chimes and bells, so neither of them could speak until the ringing played out and faded into uneven ticking.
  “This is a special one, Miss.” 
“Helen…my name is Helen. One of a kind? But it’s exactly like the one I….How long have you had this clock?”
“Oh, this one’s been here a long time, maybe waiting for you, no? 
“Can you tell me about this special one?”
“The clocks will tell you about themselves.”
“What do you mean? How…how do they tell about themselves?”
“When you have the clocks around and you love them, you hear what they know.”
“Well, then you must know what this clock has to say, right?”
“Yah, yah, I do, but it’s different for everone. Yah, different, Miss Helen.”
“Really? That's very strange,” she said. 
Earl turned from the the clock to Helen again, “Yah, different,  but not so strange. You will see.”
“See? How will I? Feeling a little strange herself, she realized he was not going to tell her a thing about the clock.        “Thanks, I will think about it…it’s lovely, but I should be going now.” She thanked the old man again, gazed longingly at the clock, then turned toward the door. As she moved away from the clock, she felt she was abandoning it, silencing it somehow.
“Aren’t you going to take it with you, Miss?” he called after her, the last syllable rising in his raspy voice. “It will have things to tell you.”
She did not look back. Who is that man, anyway, the Gepetto of clocks? She laughed as she picked up her pace nearing the entrance. She pushed hard on the heavy door, expecting a burst of light, but, the sun was already low in the sky and disappearing at horizon by the time she arrived at her mother’s house. 
The Hospice nurse answered the door, holding out her hand in greeting. “Helen? Nice to meet you. How was your trip?” 
“Oh, good, yes…good, thanks.  Nice to finally meet you, Mary. Thanks for keeping in touch and for all you’ve done. How is she?” 
  “She was very restless today. I wanted to wait until you got here. She’s asleep now. She’s had her meds. I told her you would be here when she woke up; that made her smile.”
“I should have gotten here sooner, but…” Do you think I could wake her?
“No worries, really, but I know she is looking forward to welcoming you home. She’s just had some morphine, so she may not rouse, but you can try.” Mary showed Helen how to administer the morphine drops for anxiety or pain and how to set up the nebulizer. “I’ll be back day after tomorrow, but now you call me if you have any questions, will you?
“Yes, will do.” Helen walked with Mary to the door and thanked her again, “Good night.”
“Good night, Helen, and welcome home.”
Home. Walking back through the entrance hall, she looked around. Nothing has changed. She went to the kitchen, put the flowers in an old jar she found on the window sill, then took the gift she had brought for her mother out of her bag. 
  She entered the quiet room where her mother lay. So thin and frail. Oh, Mother, I should have come sooner. She placed the flowers on the bedside table, leaning over to put her hand on the slender arm and taking up the blue-veined hand in her own, she quietly murmured, “Mom… Mom, it’s me. It’s Helen. I’m here now.” 
“I’m here now.” 
“I’ve been waiting.” Her eyes drifted to the ceiling, fluttered a moment and closed again.
   “I know…I know, Mom. Look, I brought you something.” 
She placed the gift under the lamp on the dresser across from the bed, so her mother could see it: a mosaic tile on a stand with a scene of Lipari in the sea. Vibrant colors of red tiled roofs, golden bell towers and tall green cedars on the azure hills shone under the lamplight. 
“Look, Mother, isn’t it lovely?”
  The old woman opened her eyes and looked at the tile for a long time. She smiled, “Bring it closer to me,” closing her eyes, as if exhausted from the effort. Her voice drifted off as Helen picked up the tile and set it on the table next to the flowers. She sat at the bedside gazing at the slight figure, holding on to the limp hand of the woman who had been so strong, so severe, so demanding.  She did the best she could. That’s all anyone can ask, isn’t it? The weight of grief about to descend, she arose quickly and went into the hall, picked up her bag, and headed to the little room at the top of the stairs.
  She was taken aback, but not entirely surprised to see that, there too, everything was as it had been when she had left at age nineteen: high school banner above the mirror, jewelry box on the dresser, faded pictures of Einstein and Leonard Cohen on the cork board over the white and gold provincial desk, her bed under the dormer, still covered with the quilt her mother had made for her sixteenth birthday. She took down the board, slid it behind the dresser and stuffed everything else into one of its empty drawers.
  She switched on the lamp in the shape of a sunflower, hoping its warm light would fill the dreary room and the empty feeling within. From her bag, she took a small embroidered pillow, a silk melon flower and a book of hours she always carried with her. Though she was not religious, she often opened it and read the designated prayers when the bells rang out, as they did across every Italian town and village. She took the book to the window, opened the sash and read the prayer for vespers into the silence, with the moon rising above the darkening fields below.
  When she finally lay on the bed, her thoughts turned to the clock shop, imagining everything had disappeared when she left: the stately house, the warehouse full of clocks and the odd figure of a man inside. She smiled at her imaginings and at the old man’s claim that the clocks stood ready to tell what they “know.” She did feel that, at least, the Italian clock would remind her of her island home, and though she could not believe the clock would tell her anything, she didn’t entirely disbelieve it either.
  She dozed off and on throughout the night, getting up several times to check on her mother, but was in a deep sleep when she heard the sound of coughing early in the morning. She bolted out of bed and down the stairs.    “Mother, I’m here,” leaning down to kiss the old woman’s cheek, she again took her hand. The coughing was so intense and lasted so long that it frightened her. She went for the morphine, took some up into the dropper, opened her mother’s lips with one hand and with the other emptied the few drops onto her tongue. The coughing subsided; the old woman opened her eyes and seemed to focus on the mosaic tile and the bright zinnias. She looked at her daughter and smiled again,  “Helen?”
“I’ll get some water for you and get you started on your nebulizer treatment. I came in last night, Mom. Do you remember? Mary told me you’re doing well,” Helen lied, “and what I needed to do to take care of you. Here, let me fluff your pillow.” She straightened the sheets and set up the nebulizer. “I’m going to make you some hot tea and toast.”
When Helen got back with a tea tray, she removed the inhaler. Her mother turned her head, opened one eye and tried to form words. Helen heard them only as unintelligible whispers. “What are you saying, Mom?” Again, she heard only whispered sounds. On the third attempt to interpret her mother’s wish to be heard, she whispered back, “I love you too, Mom,” choosing to believe her mother’s words had been, “I love you.,” though she had never spoken them before. She sensed the old woman drifting off to somewhere further away than sleep, her breathing becoming a watery sound.
  She took the tray into the kitchen and returned to hear the breathing had become a loud gurgling. A call to Mary confirmed it, “It may be the dying process has begun,” she had said,and offered to come over, but Helen refused.
Dying process…no! She did not want to believe the hour had come. This is what I came for, but not already, not so soon. 
She thought if they had more time together, her mother would have said, “I missed you, Helen,” and asked, “Why did you stay away so long?” She remembered that on the flight home, she had hoped they would not have that familiar conversation again, but now she wished they had been able to talk about it—or about anything.
     “I told you before, Mom,” she would have said. “I found a home in Italy, and my work is there.” Was there. Even if I go back, I have nothing to write, nothing to say. She felt her inspiration had gone, with no idea how to get it back. She thought of what she had once heard a successful novelist  say, “I have a million stories in my head, and will never have time to write them all.”
Helen had not even one, and believed she never would again.
All through the day she read prayers and verses to her mother at the appointed hours from her book, to the sound of that breathing she knew she would never forget for the rest of her days. She would also remember her mother’s smile when she saw the gift of the mosaic tile. Helen thought of it as both a welcome home and a blessing on the life she had chosen, if not forgiveness for having left her mother alone.
     During Vespers, the breathing faded into silence as Helen read: 
          What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbors, saying unto them: Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost.

    Phone calls were made, a funeral arranged, a memorial service planned, a burial endured. Then there were the legal and financial obligations—and the emotional days of sorting through the things in the house and the things in her heart. There were the family papers, the little mementos her mother held dear. There was a ceramic rose candy dish, a glittery angel, which had never meant anything to Helen—until now. There found pictures, cards and letters she had sent to her mother over the years. She thought of the ritual she had read of in a poem,“…the sweeping up the heart and putting love away, we shall not want to use again until eternity.” She burned them all in the fireplace and prayed in her own way that any resentment remaining in the house over those many years would go up with the smoke into the clean, cold air above.
Then, she was along with her thoughts—of her mother’s love and years of loneliness and of fear that her creativity was gone forever—that which had always sustained her and kept her from despair. The long weeks of winter were spent in that room at the top of the stairs—in the house she thought she had escaped, amid those Lancaster County fields under the grey skies, an ocean away from the light and blue. 
When Helen returned to the clock shop months later, she again walked the long aisles, stopping at the spot where she thought she had seen the Italianate clock. It was not there. She walked half the length of the shop to the little island desk, expecting to find the strange little old man napping. Oh, it’s here! At the counter behind the desk was the clock with its pendulum gently keeping time. A calm came over her and, at the same time, a feeling as if awakening from a long sleep.
Seemingly out of nowhere, came a voice, “You’ve come for your clock, then,” more a statement than a question. “It’s ready to go.” When she turned toward the voice, she saw not the old man, but a younger one about her own age. He did not look like he belonged in what she had since thought of as that fairy tale shop.
Oh, yes…actually I did come to see if the clock was still here, but where’s the old man, Earl? How did he…how did you know I’d be back?”
“I’m Earl, Earl, Jr. It’s just me here now. My father died a few years ago. I am trying to keep it all going, but there isn’t much interest or sales these days.” He went behind the counter and gently put the clock into a box. “This is a special one.“
A few years ago?  No….it was just….Helen felt as though she would melt away—light-headed and confused—the tranquility she at first had felt dissolved all in that instant.    “What…I mean, when I was here before the old man told me about this clock. I can see how he thought I might be back for it, but I don’t understand…that was only a few months ago.”
The young man smiled, “That was me, Miss…Helen, right? You spoke to me that day. We talked about the clock, and I knew you would be back because you loved it. Well, no matter! Here you are now, and you will have what you came for.” 
     No matter? “Am I dreaming or what? It was not you…it was…the old man. He said it was his father’s shop…and…”
“We are all dreaming, no?” he interrupted.
“Yes…no, not now, but…I…”
She noticed the man did not have the local accent as the old man had. She felt very drawn to him and stood for a moment, their eyes meeting. It’s all strange…everything, but in a way familiar. All seemed familiar now, his smile, his kind and shining eyes and the clock. She said nothing, not even a “thank you” or a “good bye.” She picked up the box and felt again as she had when she first came here—which felt like a lifetime ago— to this dimension or whatever it was—and again imagined the shop would disappear into thin air the moment it was out of her sight.
She held the box close to her and slowly walked away and out into the overcast day, into that silent stillness before a snow.
    Placing the clock above the fireplace in the front sitting room, she ran her fingers over the case, touching the glass gently.  It was beautiful, but she would not set it into motion just yet. 
She had moved her bed and few belongings to this room, where the southern  exposure allowed the light to linger most of day—so short were the days now in winter. Here she spent all of them in reverie, not even thinking of what she would do, where she would go—back or forward. She didn’t know, but for now she had the company of the silent clock.
On the threshold of spring, she awoke as if she were preparing to sail out on a faraway adventure. She took the key, wound the clock and set the pendulum into motion. She took her book of hours from the place it had remained since the night her mother died. In the following days, when the clock chimed, she read the designated prayers in the hours of daylight, and sometimes through the hours of night. 
  As the chimes sounded, she might feel herself begin to drift into another realm of no place and no time. There she existed, waiting for the silence and at peace.until all manner of dark and light beings began to flash and flutter before her—some in images like holographs, their voices heard in whispers and secret thoughts. When they came, they came like a swift, incoming tide, surreal, filled with beauty and sadness, old regrets and new life—all muddled and intertwined as in a dream.
There was the image of a man coming back to the childhood home he had abandoned to tell of his wanderings to an empty room, and the voice of a woman obsessed with the beauty and peace of the starry sky then brought back to earth through the suffering of others. There was a shadow of an enlightened soul becoming a truer form of herself. She heard a mother grieving for her lost son on sacred ground, and saw a husband left alone to endure the memory of all that was lost to him. She felt the confusion of a young actress who was “tricked by flying too close to the thing she thought she loved.” She thought the thoughts of a therapist whose saintly lover left her a gift.      There was a vision of a teacher whose broken, irreparable things became her strength.
  Were they ghosts lost in time—the tales of those who had once owned the clock? Were they conjured out of her own imagination? Or did they truly emanate from timeless sprits—the minds of men and women who, like the Greek hero Odysseus, had found within themselves ways of contending with the trials they encountered—wandering on their way home— to the place of rest?
Not each day, nor all at once, but over the course of the following year, she saw them, heard them, felt she had become them. She understood them, loved them. She dreamed their dreams and was in the dreams—hundreds of them, maybe enough to last a lifetime.
She would speak as them and for them.

     When Helen returned to her azure island home, she was at peace, coming to rest through the weight of her love for the beings and the truth of their stories she had inside her. She sat by a window from which she could again look upon the turquoise sea and began to write them down—one by one.

Two Years Later
When Helen completed her first collection of tales, The Book of Hours—each one a prayer, she felt she had set the beings free, had given them voice. There were many more waiting to be heard—that she was sure of. 
It was not lost on her that the beings and their tales had found her— not in her beloved island home, but across the wide ocean, in a house that was not her home, in a town devoid of the kind of beauty that had become part of her, in a place she had not loved as she loved Lipari.
Yet, it was there they had found her.
Or had she found them? No matter!

She held the book lovingly in her hands, opened it and wrote a note of greeting and gratitude to Earl Marchenmeister, Jr., carefully wrapped it and sent it off to Time & Tide Antique Clocks. She was not surprised when it was returned to her:“Address Unknown.”

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