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Moses LeShirley

It is thought that children, at least when very small, are beloved by their elder relatives: if not for any qualities they possess, then for their symbolic power, as continuations of the life enjoyed by their elders before them. Yet this presupposes enjoyment of life on the part of the elders; and it might equally be supposed that where life is hateful to an older person, the symbolism of their younger progeny, where fate has been so unfeeling as to grant them any, will lean that way too. We don’t often hear about such situations, which is more evidence of their existence than otherwise—unspeakableness being a proof of misery, as well as a cause of it. But I rely on no such abstract proofs; I was a boy once, and my great-grandfather, a man to whom all life was hateful, hated me.

He was one of life’s truly bitter people, a man who had always the look of someone who’d been caught without his coat and blamed the weather for it. There are many occasions for life-hatred in small doses: ill health, financial or vocational failure, social envy, mere dumb loneliness. Take all of these disappointments together, and you have the outlook of my great-grandfather on life in general; imagine them all embodied in a young person, and you have his outlook on myself. The generations between us—to him representative of a signal error, first on his own part, then on his late son’s, then on my father’s—were, in his view, only successive attempts to address the same insoluble problem in the same foolish way, each new life a less honest mistake than the one before it. I was too young to understand his enmity on these terms. Constitutionally speaking, I still am—and thank goodness for that. But I was not too young to perceive that the old man disliked me; and with a child’s simplicity I met his hostility, first with confusion, then with an eagerness to find out whatever it was I had done to arouse it, and then, when my actions failed to inspire the usual adult adjustments, with fear and loathing.

My parents, equally callow to myself in this regard, didn’t cease bringing me by to visit my Ep-Pop, as they taught me to call him. If anything they brought me by more often; thinking, no doubt, of the aforementioned potency usually vested in children, and assuming that with a little exposure, my childish magic, like the sun’s rays, would someday impart a healthy tan to the old man’s spirit, and he would cease blanching at my presence. I imagine this fallacy lay primarily with my mother, grave and sensible as she was; my father having grown up largely under my Ep-Pop’s roof since his own father’s early death, I can conceive no reason for him to have entertained it.

That my father had once feared his grandfather, and the old man’s dark, windy house with him, I do not doubt; though not, I assume, so much as I feared either. In the first place, my father had known Ep-Pop as a younger man, and the very old are ever more frightening to the very young; in the second, Ep-Pop clearly hated me much more than he had hated my father. I sometimes wondered whether the mad old man didn’t think I was my father, but this was at times when he was less obstreperous toward me than usual. As for the manifestations of his hatred, those I gather to have been substantially the same for father and son alike: the sort of continuous hostilities and petty grievances that a child truly withers under, being never at an opportunity to redress them. As the virtuous may be said to build their fortunes by patient acquisition and the thoughtful meting-out of precious resources, so did my great-grandfather cocker up and appreciate on his nastiness: knowing well that atrocities would merely make an enemy of me, he carefully husbanded his ill nature, dispensing it, almost considerately, in only those ways that were guaranteed to compound with interest.

Of these, the choicest avenue was my imagination, as it always is with children; and the resourceful Ep-Pop played upon my silly fears as other great-grandparents might play upon a child’s silly humors. Indeed he was possessed of a power of invention which, in a happier old man, would have made him a child’s delight: the sort of natural sorcery able to seize upon the magical element in youthful thinking and bring it to bear on all the world around. It was a game which, had I been invited to join in it, would have made all the difference.

His house was the perfect theater for his machinations: a tall, steep-pitched old rookery of flights and landings that to my young legs seemed a tower of ten floors, though I suppose the number was likely closer to four or five with the high attic. My great-grandfather’s own roost, consisting of a bedroom and adjoining study, sat at the top of this edifice, and how he managed to live there, at his age and in his state, was one of his mysteries. It is often observed, that the hateful outlive us all; to this it might be added, in the case of Ep-Pop, that they outclimb us, too. I hated those stairs, as I did the man who waited at the top of them; and recognizing this, and enjoying my suffering even more than he abhorred my presence, my great-grandfather convinced my parents to make a regular chore of sending me up to him with meals, letters, etc.

It will perhaps be inferred from my habit of trying to find out what, in the irreconcilable old man, might be reconciled to myself, that mine was an especially empathic temperament. For better and worse, this was so. My fears as a child, at least as far as I can inhabit them now in memory, did not revolve so much around some harm I imagined coming to myself, as around harm I imagined coming to others; or, in those cases in which harm was a foregone conclusion, around my inward identification with something or someone so unintelligible to me, that the very identification was frightful. Such a figure was my great-grandfather himself, and despite his unerring interest in upsetting me, he invariably made an object of horrid curiosity to my young mind. I simply could not understand him—and in trying to, I left myself open to many discomforts more akin to pity than to fear.  

Ep-Pop applied himself ingeniously to these sympathetic torments. He would evoke the eventual demise of my parents, or their hidden unhappiness—the latter being all the easier to furnish with proofs, so long as we were in his house. He would invite me to consider, with minute attention, what insects and rodents might lie trapped at that moment within the house’s walls, or crushed under the weight of my shoes as I walked so noisily around—a conjecture lent force by such remains as inevitably turned up in the neglected old building. Even inanimate objects could be animated to this end; as when he would conjure me to imagine the suffering of my toys and stuffed animals, under the various conditions to which, as toys, they could not but be subjected. This stratagem worked in reverse, too; and it was the worst of his devilish hypnotisms, to succeed in getting me to imagine myself in the position of some inanimate thing, whose fate would then become mine by extension.

With one object he achieved this goal with peculiar efficacy. This was an old German cuckoo-clock, very dark and ornately carved, which Ep-Pop had caused to be installed in his study at the top of the third-floor landing. He had acquired the device while away at war in Bavaria, and it was every bit as weary-looking as he was. Tall and gaunt, it stood about three feet high, or would have stood so, had it been set on the floor instead of being mounted on the wall as it was, at about an adult’s chest height. It only tolled reliably at twelve o’clock—at which point, a certain display was produced.

* * *

I remember very well the first time I saw it.

It was a rainy afternoon, and my Ep-Pop had summoned me in person to the study, on no pretext whatever. This was unusual for him. He usually relayed his wants to my parents to pass along to me, so as not to lessen the force of his tyranny in seeming to ask me for something; it also allowed him to perpetrate the illusion upon them, so essential to his scheme, that he and I were in fact great friends, or forever on the verge of becoming so.

On this occasion, however, he merely shouted for me, and with some repressed urgency, as a better man might call to his great-grandson to show him a bird that had landed nearby. Knowing too well the mind of Ep-Pop, I left off my playing and climbed up the stairs, dreading just what sort of bird it might be that he wanted me to see. The hallway to his study was narrow, dimly papered, and lit at intervals from above by imperfect electric lights, which lent the whole passage a menacing, tiger-striped appearance, rather like the hallways in a cheap hotel. Just inside the doorway at the end of the hall, a heavy bookcase protruded from the wall at the right, partially occluding the doorway itself. Across from this bookcase I found my great-grandfather sitting in his high-backed chair, regarding me with a look of expectancy.

“Look now, old man”—this being his usual nickname for me—“I don’t believe you’ve seen this before.”

I followed his gesture past the bookcase, to where, up to that moment, the cuckoo-clock had been concealed behind it. I could see that it was a clock, but the largeness of it put me at some unease as to what else it might conceal; not wanting to reveal this, I asked him what it was.

“Doesn’t it look very much like this same house to you?” he suggested by way of answer, his eyes seeming to roam over the outside of the house in imagination.

I said it did, and tried again, in a timid sort of way, to inquire what exactly the thing did; for I felt sure that it did something.

“Do? Why, it keeps the time, of course—and keeps other things inside it, too,” he said, insinuating a finger into his ear.

At this I was frankly afraid, for I had already judged the clock sufficiently large to hide me inside of. But I was curious too, and my traitor tongue had already begun to ask him what sorts of things it kept, when he cut me off.

“Ssh—quiet and watch now,” he said, pointing again. “It’s going to begin.”

And at that very moment—it must have just struck noon—it did begin.

Having never seen a proper cuckoo-clock, I was mesmerized, though I think I would have been, even had I seen others before; shabby as this one was, it was of a type that I am sure would fix my attention even today. As the chime began to mark the hour (I’m afraid it was only a rather leaden chime that sounded), a small portal opened near the top of the clock, and a miniature carved cuckoo—I will not say emerged, but rather stirred in its shadowy edifice, with some creaky motion to it suggestive of a beak opening and closing, in nothing like the cadence of the chimes. This was a funny thing to me, and I believe I might even have laughed, had not the more interesting portion of the display interrupted me. A little door, larger than that which had disclosed the poor cuckoo, but more cleverly made, slid open near the bottom of the clock, and a figure popped out, fixed at the fore-end of a rounded sort of rail. This was a little porcelain girl, white with a painted blue frock and painted black hair; her expression, if so that collocation of brushmarks might be termed, sat somewhere between delight and mockery. I thought her very beautiful.

“You like her, eh,” leered Ep-Pop, all but forgotten behind me. I heard a stirring sound, as though he were shifting in his seat. “Well, so does he,” he added, as the apparent object of the girl’s delight (or perhaps of her mockery) emerged on the rail after her.

This was the figure of a boy, similarly blue-frocked and black-haired, and posed in an attitude of pursuit, with a head that nodded up and down. He was noticeably the worse for wear, and it struck me that coming from deeper in the guts of the clock seemed to have put a few more nicks and scratches on him than it had on the object of his affections—a fact underscored by the decidedly more hapless expression with which his features had been delineated. Young as I was, the sadness of his nodding face struck me; so, too, did it strike me (in light of that face), how sorrowful it was for him to be fixed on the same rail as the girl, but at such an unchanging distance; according to which mechanical pattern of unrequited love, he would never quite be in a position to see the smile of his beloved, much less close enough to guess at its meaning.

But the pageant had not quite done yet.

“One more for our friend, old man,” came my great-grandfather’s whisper; and then, to my infinite confusion, I felt the pressure of his hand on my neck. The hand was as shockingly warm as the voice had been shockingly hoarse; and I wondered, for an instant, if another person had been there in the room with us the entire time, perhaps flattened against the wall behind my great-grandfather’s high-backed chair, and had chosen that moment to emerge. But if it had been possible for me to turn and look with such a thought in my head, I never did; because just then I heard a deeper-sounding catch in the machinery of the clock, my attention was once again riveted to the clever little door—and then the dragon came.

I would learn, in later years, that the original model, not uncommon in clocks of this type, was of a dragon being duly chased by the figure of St. George, either mounted or not; that it was invariably the portion of the saint to overtake the poor dragon, signifying daily spiritual conquest; and that the two mythic figures were appointed to their own, faster-moving rails in order to catch up with the more earthly duo of man and woman, thus embodying, as a group, the transcendence of material by moral concerns. In many such arrangements, and very likely originally in this one, a fifth and final figure, the cheery specter of death, was meant to foot his grinning way around as well, either superseding or being superseded by the triumphant George, according to the Calvinistic fervor of the clockmaker.

But as with the inner workings of my great-grandfather’s spirit, some essential abstraction had befallen the inner workings of his clock. Gone was the figure of death, had one ever been there; gone, too, the triumphant and redeeming St. George, which left the dragon free to pursue the oblivious couple unopposed. As the boy had been noticeably more worn than the girl, so had the dragon been worn almost unrecognizable; in fact, it was only due to my later researches that I knew the corroded lump of time-blackened iron to be intended for a dragon at all. Only the eyes remained unobscured, or so it seemed to me; staring brightly out, they were lent a kind of lunatic intensity by the vagueness of the rest, and made the prime trait of the figurine to my imagination. Indeed, the bright eyes of the dragon, its otherwise indistinct shape, and the abruptness of its appearance—this latter feature, along with the lack of a St. George to speed alongside, giving the monster the appearance of irresistible dominance over his quarry—all this, along with the strangely tender grip of my great-grandfather’s hand, combined to make the dragon of the clock an object nightmarishly frightening to me. I remember actually willing myself to look away from it as it rattled around at the head of its dingy rail; but, paralyzed with the fascination of horror, I was quite unable to.

“See how fast he comes on,” I heard my Ep-pop say, in a hot, languid voice suggestive of a mouth gone limp; and his fingers on my neck quivered ever so slightly. “If these were life size,” he concluded, “and you that little boy—just think how fast he’d be moving then!”

It may seem a little thing now. But at the time, the analogy thus drawn between the boy and myself, it set within my mind as quickly and irreversibly as a two-part cement. To my already great horror of the dragon was superadded this empathic terror for the wellbeing of the boy, and their conjunction marks the terminus of this strange memory; from that minute onward, the hour of twelve o’clock became the focus of my childish anxieties. Whether or not my great-grandfather had known it would so engage me, at any rate he knew it had; and ever afterward, he affected a remarkable punctuality regarding his midday meal whenever I was visiting and could be prevailed upon to bring it up to him, and attend with him to his favorite little pageant. If my father suspected the secret meaning of this ritual, as I am sure some part of him did, he said nothing about it. For my part, I didn’t tell him—or anybody else, for that matter.

* * *

A greater portion of my early childhood than I care to admit was occupied with dread of my great-grandfather and his cuckoo-clock. To this day I cannot quite extricate one part of this early dread from the other, nor place exactly the point at which my fears began to evolve into the more mature feelings of aversion and indignation that they would remain until the old man’s death. That momentous occurrence, as long and fervently wished for as the conclusion of a great war, took place in my adulthood, only a few years ago; and was accompanied soon thereafter by the event, no less momentous in its way to me, that I will relate to you now.

Though constitutionally very sturdy, as I have said, my Ep-Pop was of very poor health in certain particulars, and suffered from a number of minor ailments, one of which, I assume, was the one that ultimately took his life. I say I assume; I did not ask at the time, nor have I since, out of the superstition that to do so might cause some aspect of him to come clambering back out of the grave, as a crab might emerge from a seashell. I know only that he died, and died (as he had lived) rather badly, with wincing excoriations and other reports directed at his long-suffering nurse. Among the latter, I am told, were one or two ambiguous exclamations, in which my father, or I, or perhaps each by turns, figured.

My father was relieved in the event, and ashamed withal; my mother was only relieved. The old man left very little to his family by way of a will, which was more or less what everyone expected he would do. Nearly all of the remainder of his money he spent in his final days on inconsequential luxuries; his house, and much of its contents, he left to a municipal charity. I can only assume the cuckoo-clock made part of that baleful itinerary.

For my part, I didn’t much care what happened to any of it. Besides the obvious reasons, at the time I was also deeply committed to what I was already beginning to recognize as a hopeless infatuation, with one Laurel Tolle; or perhaps I had better say two Laurel Tolles, for therein lay the hopelessness of it. The indifferent Laurel, already more often present than I liked, had by then begun to assume dominance, and was showing signs of persuading the more amenable Laurel to join her in giving me the brush-off. Ever a slow learner in these matters, I had somehow convinced myself that it wasn’t the brush-off that she was giving me, or that the important thing was that she was giving me anything at all, or some such nonsense. In self-deception, even young lovers can be old hands.

The upshot of all this was that, a few weeks after my great-grandfather’s death, I was out late in the vicinity of Laurel’s home, having just tried grandiosely, and quite fruitlessly, to surprise her there. Whether she was home or not when I stopped by, my pride did not permit me to investigate; suffice to say that it was a little before midnight when I set out from her doorstep, as dejected as I had ever been. It was likely this dejection that put me in mind of Ep-Pop—if not for the first time since he had died, then certainly with the greatest degree of fellow feeling. For all I knew, he had lived his whole life in disappointment not less extreme than my own. Reflecting on this, and on my own lowered prospects, I saw them blend together curiously.

I had of course been in Laurel’s neighborhood a few times before, but always followed the same route, anticipation having hitherto strewn that way particularly with rose-petals. Now, those feelings having given way to other, more somber-tinted ones, my feet picked out another path. In my frame of mind I doubt I would have paid much attention to where I was going, even had the night sky been cloudless, and cloudless it was not: in fact, it was a very rainy, windy night, exhibiting exactly those sorts of wind and rain, equally forceful and inconsistent, which work in concert to frustrate umbrella-users and casual walkers the most.

Between not knowing the neighborhood well to begin with, and frequently having to walk with my umbrella in front of me to block the driving rain, it was not long before I had got onto a road quite unfamiliar to me. This was a long, narrow avenue, with heavy trees that overhung the street between them to produce a tunnel-like effect. The houses on either side were obscure, many of them set back at a distance with tall hedges in front to complete the sense of enclosure. At intervals, streetlamps protruded into this black corridor, creating broad stripes of illumination across the wet road. The sidewalks were lost in puddles, and I had to walk in the road itself to keep on solid ground. It was an eerie place, somehow familiar for all its strangeness; and as I made my way along it, now shielding myself behind my umbrella, now raising it to be sure I was still heading in something like the right direction, I was grateful for the fact that there was no one else there for me to see, or who might see me in my ludicrous state.

When the wind finally died down and I raised my umbrella to look in front of me, I was startled to find that there was someone there, standing motionless in one of the patches of light a little distance ahead on the road. It was a woman, slender and ethereal, and dressed, very strangely for the weather, all in pale blue. It was, in fact, Laurel Tolle, as I could now determine; turned away from me though she was, the outlines were hers, as was the posture and dark hair. Yet though I squinted through the rain, I could not see what she was doing standing there, besides getting soaked. Very likely, I thought a little soft-headedly, she was looking for me.

At this point the head-wind picked up again in earnest, and I moved my umbrella around to face front as I forged ahead toward the familiar figure. If she didn’t walk away I’d soon be close enough to offer her the shelter of my umbrella—en route to that of her roof. I rushed on a little ways, cursing under my breath; then, when the head-wind let up once more, I raised my umbrella again to wave to her, thinking surely she would have noticed me by now. To my great surprise, Laurel, though still standing motionless, was no closer than she had been before. What’s more, beneath the rain, I was suddenly aware of a sound I had not heard before: a hoarse, rhythmic squeaking that seemed to come from nowhere. I took a few more steps in her direction, this time watching her as I went. Without seeming to change her posture, she maintained the same distance from me, a slight shimmer in the rainwater at her feet the only sign that she had moved at all. The squeaking, which I now supposed to be coming from one of the trees or houses to one side, went on a few moments, then abruptly concluded, leaving me to ponder the scene in silence.

This was all very unnerving to me; and for reasons I cannot describe, the image of my great-grandfather’s cuckoo-clock popped unbidden into my head. Impulsively, I looked at my watch: it was exactly midnight. Again I squinted ahead at the woman standing in the rain as though she were waiting for someone, and at the tiger-stripes of light that lay across the road between us, and the uncanniest feeling came over me; not quite of déjà vu, it was something more like the feeling you have when you remember a dream unexpectedly. Only, my dream seemed to be a memory—and suddenly I was my young self again, half-terrified to feel the warm, unwanted pressure of my great-grandfather’s hand at my neck.

Then I did feel something at my neck, though it was nothing so certain as a hand. Rather, it was a warm, strong breeze, rather like the wind emerging from a tunnel in advance of a fast-moving train. Looking ahead to the woman still standing in the street in front of me, I remembered the boy in the cuckoo-clock, riding after his sweetheart on his rail, and I nearly turned, almost expecting to see him life-size, too, coming through the rain toward us with a hapless look on his porcelain face. Only then did the obvious fact hit me: the girl was Laurel, but I was the boy; and in the order of things it was something else entirely that was coming toward us along the road—something large, dark and formless, which was then detaching itself from the trees in the middle distance and entering the corner of my vision.

I recognized, rather than saw this object; a wave of fright prevented my turning fully to look at it. I had a sense of its shadowy mass moving the way a large tree seems to move, in slow waves, almost motionless—yet I also knew it to be closing at an astonishing speed, the light from the streetlights rippling across it in rhythmic flashes as it came. In another instant I would see its bright eyes flash, too, and that would undo me; I knew I could not bear to see those eyes again.

All this went through my mind more swiftly than a thought—as swiftly as an association—and thoughtlessly I acted, shutting my eyes and throwing myself blindly to one side of the road. Had I paused even an instant, the absurdity of it all would surely have prevented my leap, and that would have been my end. But I did not pause. The car didn’t slow a bit; very likely, in that miserable weather, its driver never saw me at all, even with his bright headlights running.

From my place in the ditch, and in many moments of reflection since, I watched those headlights vanish up the road. At the time I only barely registered that the figure of Laurel was nowhere to be seen, but that was just as well; I would never see her again. Absent, too, St. George, and the cheery specter of death—put off another day, some would say, by luck alone. But I rely on no such abstract proofs, to know what saved my life: a man to whom all life was hateful, and who hated me.