Prose by Charles Hermesmann
Photography by Trevor Wee, model Elysia Tay
All that was left of Papa after he jumped was a little red blemish on the concrete, small as a star and nearly invisible from the clock’s balcony view. When I woke in the night, he was leaning his body over the railing, a glimmer in his eye. He pressed his ribs over the ledge, looked from side to side and top to bottom, and with a hefty gulp of breath he finally threw himself over and tumbled downward, his body disappearing like a light being turned off in the dark. My morbidly obese grandmother snored in the corner, mouth agape, catching rays of moon on her tongue as our house’s heartbeat pulsed on, tick by tick.
When I was in school I learned that everything falls at the same speed, so as Papa whizzed downward I couldn’t help but liken him to the marble and brick my third-grade teacher had held in each hand and dropped to the ground so we’d see them touch the earth at the same moment. I glanced over at the lump of my grandmother in the corner. Her skin inflated with every breath, each fold of her fat collapsing and reconstructing like gel. In the morning, when Grandma emerged from her slumber, she didn’t ask anyone to make her usual breakfast, but instead hobbled to the kitchen to make it herself: four eggs, two topped with shredded cheddar, a foot-high stack of undercooked hotcakes, fried potatoes, three baked cherry pastries and a large bowl of brown sausage links with a half-gallon of milk to wash it down.
Every morning, the sun would bend its way into the room through the holes in the clock’s steelwork. The furthermost wall became a mosaic of light separated by thick lines of shadow, the second hand orbiting the center. We didn’t need to wind anything back anymore, it was all automatic, but Grandma couldn’t make it down the stairs, so leaving was impossible. Some nights the sky lit up with music and sound, war or celebration, and the clock seemed to tick a bit faster. It was always moving, and the amount of space Grandma took up was always increasing. The more food she slipped between her lips the more her belly shook when I touched her, and every day, the skin over her eyes stitched itself a little closer together. On Sundays, two thin, black-suited men from the church would come and bring her the Eucharist. They let her swallow three or four wafers and chug as much wine as she pleased from the goblet, and Grandma rewarded them with large sacks of coins and bills she’d pull from within her bedsheets. Soon my skin lost its luster and my hair lost its color, and Grandma began to spend her mornings lamenting in her language to the ceiling. She wailed and groaned like an infant long into the night until it became too loud for even her to bear, so she’d fix herself a snack, usually a large heap of smoking meat, and say something like, “You can’t kill yourself if you’ve already been dead this long.”
A little boy named Luke showed up at our door one day and told me he wanted to see the insides of the clock. I wondered how he got in but decided to show him around anyway. It struck me again that our clock was automatic now; how strange that the clock keepers would live in the midst of its rotation but let it move on its own! Only Grandma knew how it worked, its anatomy of ropes and dials, knobs and cranks, but she’d never told a soul. “This is how the clock works, Luke. You pull this rope every morning to wind it up and every hour—this is a secret—you turn that little white knob a quarter of the way to the right. I’d tell you where the key that goes in that hole is, but then I might lose my job, you see?”
I pretended there was some kind of significance to which colored rope was which, or how the wheels and dials each moved at different speeds. I said the clock had a strict schedule, that each tick of its second hand was carefully articulated every day. “And every clock’s got one of these,” I said, pointing to Grandma, “a giant old woman who keeps it all going.”
“But all she does is eat,” the little boy said.
I half-smiled, and Grandma pushed a doughnut down her throat. The next day, there was a line of at least seven children at our door, each asking to see the clock’s insides and the old woman who kept it spinning round. “Please!” they said. “We just want to see her! We just want to see her!”
The night Grandma jumped I almost jumped with her. She heaved her body, practically dragged it across the floor, pulled back the curtain and leaned over the ledge, and right as I imagined how big her own star of blood on the concrete would be I shut my eyes and tried to bring myself to sleep, because seeing this was no spectacle—only a passage of time. When the children returned the next day, I let them in. They said the foot of the clocktower was spattered with red, and their mouths opened wide when they noticed the empty bed in the corner. Then they paraded themselves down the stairs without speaking, each shooting an angry glance in my direction.
Charles Hermesmann grew up in the farmlands of South Jersey and now writes fiction and poetry out of the Chicagoland area while studying English at Wheaton College. His work is forthcoming in The Chiron Review.