The sign caught her eye. It was round and gleaming, reflecting the afternoon sun: TIME & TIDE ANTIQUE CLOCKS printed in black letters on 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 had never taken notice of it as she did on this day. She had driven two hours since leaving the airport and was ready for the day to end, but felt compelled to turn in at the entrance next to the sign.
Helen had been twenty years away from the sights and sounds of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Familiar to her, but in a dreamlike way, were horse and buggies clopping along the roads; makeshift farm stands stacked with fall wares: pumpkins, jars of relishes and jams, zinnias, and chrysanthemums. Helen stopped to buy flowers for her mother. A sullen young girl in a plain gingham dress and white apron, who made no eye contact, lifted a bunch of bright zinnias from a tin bucket, wrapped them in newspaper, counted out change from a green glass jar and returned to her post.
Driving on past acres of sunflowers, Helen was remembering when she was a child and sometimes watched for hours from her window across endless acres to see them turning their brown eyes toward the sun’s arc through the sky. The variegated patches of crops stretched like a giant quilt over the rolling landscape toward the misty blue hills beyond. Despite the quaint appeal and simple beauty of it all, she felt she had been washed ashore on a lonely island as a stranger.
Just a few weeks ago, she had received a letter. Her mother was dying. She had to come, wanted to come. During those years away, she had never thought to return, not even for a visit, but here she was in a place that had never felt like home. She found her real home in the Mediterranean—on the island of Lipari, 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.
Time was of the essence; this she knew, but there would be this time with her mother before it was too late.
Still, she had somehow been drawn to turn at the clock sign before going the short distance to the bleak farm house where her mother waited.
She drove slowly down the long driveway, past a white-washed mansion with its ornate black iron fence, brick walkway lined with hedge rows, lush shrubs and Victorian lamplights. Though the elegance of the stately house seemed out of place in the otherwise austere landscape dotted with modest houses, it gratified her finer sensibilities.
Just ahead she spotted a long, grey building and parked in front of it, assuming it was the shop, though she saw no sign or markings on it. With some effort, she pulled open the carved wooden door that looked like it belonged on a church instead of the one-story, dreary, rectangular warehouse. When she 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, viewing the vast display 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 scenes of farmhouses and gardens. She shuddered at the somber black cases of others. She smiled at the clock with a white marble base, a brass horse and hound on one side, and a bright yellow clock face covered with a glass dome on the other.
Where had these clocks been, and what had they “seen”? Who were their owners, and how had they lived? 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?”
She heard the unmistakable singsongy Pennsylvania Dutch intonation, and turned to see an old man standing next to her.
“Oh, thanks, but…no, no, just popped 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 said only, “Oh?” certain that his father could not possibly still be alive. The man looked ancient, bent over, with grey, wispy hair, and eyes clouded with a bluish film.
“You let me know if you have any questions, young lady.”
“I will for sure. Thanks.”
“Marchenmeister, I’m Earl Marchenmeister, Jr.”
“Oh, right…yes, well, thank you, Earl. I think I’ll take a quick look around if that’s okay.”
“Yah, I’ll just be right there,” pointing to the island ahead situated in the sea of clocks. She watched as he padded his way back and sat himself down with some effort at the elaborate desk, the front of which was in the shape of a ship’s prow.
What a strange man! She was imagining that over the years he had cared for each timepiece—recognized its chimes, knew where it had been, and maybe even the fate of those who had owned it. I’m being ridiculous; he’s an old-fashioned man who’s probably inherited the place and still thinks of it as his father’s. She wondered if the old man had a son who would inherit the shop when time runs out for him. Now, why do I care about that? What does it matter to me? No matter!
Then she saw it: a clock exactly like the one in her island apartment in Italy. It was elegant with its reddish wooden case embellished with gold leaf designs. The hands on the clock face were silver filigree, and a flowery red line around the perimeter above the hours. On the glass door beneath the face was an image of the church of Santa Croce painted in thin golden lines, the pendulum peeking through.
I cannot believe this!
She had been a wayfarer ever since she could remember—first in thought, then, when she left home, in her wanderings. For years, she had traveled through the Greek islands, then settled in Florence, across from the Piazza di Santa Croce on Via di San Giuseppe. She felt she was living in a dream where all of her senses were gratified. And she had found love, but one day her lover left without a word. Again she became restless, and when she saw the ad for “un appartamento con vista,” on an Island off Sicily, she moved and devoted all of her time to her work.
When she arrived in Lipari, she felt she had found a home at last. There on the mantel above the fireplace in the “solotto,” she saw the clock with delicate gold lines in the image of Santa Croce on the glass door and thought it an odd coincidence. Sometimes, when the clock chimed, she closed her eyes and felt she was back in Florence with her lover lying beside her, warm on the daybed by the fire—his kind and shining eyes looking upon her—the smell of espresso and wood fire smoke drifting in window, and church bells resounding through the room.
Thoughts of her Mediterranean home, whose beauty still surprised her after so many years, now filled her with a warmth, though she felt disoriented by the clock’s appearance, here in the cold warehouse. She crossed the aisle to gaze at it in reverie. Now she did have a question for the old man.
She turned to make her way to where he sat dozing with his arms folded across his chest. “Excuse me…excuse me, Earl,” she whispered, so as not to wake him 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 when…I mean it wasn’t mine. It was there in my apartment…in Italy when I moved in…and…”
They walked together to where the clock rested. “That is one of a kind, Miss. There are no others,” the old man said. As soon as they stopped in front of it, just on the hour, 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.
“No others? There must be…”
“Nope, one of a kind. Yah, this is a special one,
“Helen…my name is Helen. One of a kind? But it’s exactly like the one I….How long have you had it?”
“Oh,…been here…years now…can’t remember… from New England. Maybe waiting just for you, no?”
“No, it must have…” She took a deep breath, then asked,
“Can you tell me something more about it? It must have…”
“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.”
“Know? What? Then you must know what this clock knows, right?”
“Yah, yah, I do, but it’s different for everybody. Yah, different, Miss Helen.”
She said, “Really? That's very strange.”
Earl turned from 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 the old man was not going to tell her a thing about the clock. “I will think about it…it’s lovely, but I…I should be going now.” She thanked him, gazed longingly at the clock, then turned toward the door. As she moved away from it, she felt she was abandoning it, silencing it somehow.
“Not going to take it with you, Miss Helen?” he called after her, the last word 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 shook her head and laughed as she picked up her pace. She pushed hard on the heavy door, expecting a burst of light, but the sun was already low in the sky and disappearing at the horizon when 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. Thank you so much for keeping in touch, and for…everything you’ve done. How is she?”
“Resting now. She was very agitated 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.” Do you think I could wake her?
“No worries, really, but I know she’s been looking forward to welcoming you home. I’ve just given her 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 for breathing treatments. “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, thanked her again and said, “Good night.”
“Good night, Helen, and…welcome home.”
Home. Walking back through the entrance way, she looked around. Nothing’s changed; everything’s changed. She went to the kitchen, put the flowers in an old jar she found on the dusty window sill, then went to her bag to find the gift she had brought for her mother.
She entered the room where the old woman 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 her mother’s slender arm and taking up the blue-veined hand in her own, whispered, “Mom…Mom, it’s me. It’s Helen. I’m here now.”
“I’m here now.”
“I’ve been waiting,” her mother said, as her eyes drifted to the ceiling, fluttered a moment and closed again.
“I know…I know, Mom. Look, I brought you something.”
Helen placed her 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 red tiled roofs, golden bell towers and tall green cypress on azure hills shone under the lamplight.
“Look, Mother, isn’t it lovely?”
The old woman opened her eyes and looked long at the tile. She smiled, “Bring it to me,” then closing her eyes, as if exhausted from the effort, her voice drifted off. Helen set the tile next to the flowers, then 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 got up, went into the hall, picked up her bag and went up 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 left at age eighteen: 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 was still covered with the quilt her mother had made as a sixteenth birthday gift. She slid the dusty board 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 the warm light would fill the dreary room and empty feeling within. From her bag she took out a small embroidered pillow, a silk melon flower and her book of hours—familiar things she knew would settle the rising tide of sadness and unease.
Three things about the book always comforted her. Each page was bordered in gold and richly decorated with designs of ivy intertwined with bright cornflowers, daisies, columbines and wild strawberries. Then there were the twelve small, jewel-like vignettes of peasants going about the monthly labors. Third there were prayers and verses for designated hours of day and night. Although she did not consider herself religious, it had become her practice to open the book when the church bells rang out at the canonical hours across every town and village.
Helen carried the book to the window, opened the sash and read the prayer for the end of day into the silence, with the moon rising above the darkening fields below.
When at last she lay on the bed, her thoughts turned to the clock shop, imagining it had all disappeared when she left it that day: the stately house, the warehouse full of clocks and the odd figure of the 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 felt, at the 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 had been in a sound 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. Are you okay?” leaning down, she kissed her mother’s cheek and reached for her hand. The coughing became so intense and lasted so long that it frightened her. Helen went for the morphine, took the liquid up into the dropper, opened her mother’s lips with one hand, and with the other emptied the few drops onto her tongue. When the coughing subsided, the old woman opened her eyes and turned her head to focus on the mosaic tile and the bright zinnias. She looked at her daughter and smiled again, “Helen?”
“I’m here, Mom. I came in last night. 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 opened one eye and tried to form words. Helen heard them only as unintelligible whispers.
“What are you saying, Mom?” Again, she heard whispered sounds. After a third attempt to interpret her mother’s wish to be heard she said, “I love you too,” choosing to believe the words had been, “I love you,” though her mother had never before spoken them to Helen.
She sensed the old woman drifting off to somewhere further away than sleep, her breathing becoming a watery sound. She carried the tray into the kitchen then 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 back, 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 had once heard a successful writer say, “I have a million stories in my head, and will never have enough time to write them all.” Helen had not even one, and believed she never would again.
All through the day she read 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 that smile as both a welcome home and a blessing on the life she had chosen, if not forgiveness for having left her mother alone.
The breathing faded into silence as Helen read the verse for vespers:
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 legal and financial obligations, and the orderly ritual of sorting through the things in the house and the things in her heart. There were mementos her mother had held dear: a ceramic rose candy dish, a glittery angel, neither of which had ever meant anything to Helen—until now. Yellowed papers in boxes and closets, and the pictures, cards and letters found in a desk drawer—ones she had sent to her mother. She burned them in the fireplace on a snowy night, praying in her own way that any resentment remaining in the house over those many years would rise up with the smoke into the clean, cold air above.
Through the months of winter, she was left with thoughts of loss and of her mother’s long years of loneliness. She also dreaded that her inspiration was gone forever—that which had always sustained her and kept her from despair. She sat in the quiet and cold of the room at the top of the stairs, in the house she thought she had escaped, under the grey skies, an ocean away from the light and blue.
Then, one early February morning before sunrise, Helen felt a turning within herself. She moved her bed and few belongings to the front room downstairs where the southern exposure would allow the light to linger—so short were the days now in winter. There she could also light a fire to warm her. She took her book of hours from the place it had remained since the night of her mother’s death. She opened it to find the miniature depiction of the labor for February—a peasant woman at a beehive holding a honeycomb. She closed the book and lit candles which burned until dawn.
The next day, Helen returned to the clock shop and again walked the long aisles. She stopped at the place where she thought she had seen the Italianate clock. It was not there. She walked half the length of the shop to the 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 of a 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., remember? It’s just me here now. My father died a few years ago. I’m trying to keep the shop going, but there isn’t much interest—or demand these days.” He went behind the counter and placed the clock into a box. “This is a special one.“
A few years ago? “No…it was only…, ”Helen felt as though she would melt away—light-headed and confused—the tranquility she at first had felt dissolved 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? It was not you…it was…the old man. He said it was his father’s shop…and….Am I dreaming or…? ”
“We are all dreaming, no?”
“Yes…no, not now, but…I…”
She noticed the younger man did not have the local accent as the old man had. She felt drawn to him, and for a moment, their eyes met. It’s all strange… but in a way familiar now, his smile, his kind and shining eyes and the clock. She said nothing, picked up the box and felt again as she had when she first came here—which seemed a lifetime ago—this other dimension or whatever it was—and again imagined the shop would disappear into thin air the moment it was out of her sight.
Holding the box close to her, she slowly walked away and out into that silent stillness before a snow.
The clock was beautiful. She ran her fingers over the case, tracing the gold line on the glass, then placed it above the fireplace. She spent days in the front room—in reverie—what to do, where to go—back or forward. She didn’t know, but, for now, she would not set the clock into motion. She would simply live in its silent company.
On the threshold of spring, she awoke as if she were preparing to sail out on a faraway adventure. She picked up the key, wound the clock and set the pendulum into motion. In the following days, when the clock chimed, she would read the designated prayers at the hours of daylight, and often during the hours of night.
As the chimes sounded, she sometimes felt herself drift into another realm of no place and no time. There, in silence and at peace, she existed until all manner of dark and light beings began to flash and flutter before her—some in images like holographs, others heard in 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—muddled and intertwined—as in a dream.
There was the image of a man come back to his childhood home to tell of his wanderings to an empty room, and the voice of a woman obsessed with the starry sky then brought back to earth through the suffering of others. She thought the thoughts of a therapist whose saintly lover left her a gift, and of a husband left alone to endure memories of all that was lost to him. She saw the shadow of an enlightened soul becoming a truer form of herself. She heard a mother’s grieving for her lost son on sacred ground. She felt the confusion of a young actress who was deceived by desire for what she thought was love. There was a vision of a teacher whose broken, irreparable things became her strength.
Were they beings who had once owned the clock, lost in time—waiting to tell their tales? Were they conjured out of Helen’s own imagination? Or did they emanate from the eternal 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 a 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 in her love for the beings and the truth of their stories she carried inside her.
She sat by a window gazing once again upon the turquoise sea and began to write them down—one by one.