Once upon a time, in a land many miles from here, there dwelt in a little cottage an old clockmaker, his wife, and his two children. The clockmaker lived beside a great forest, filled with trees which stretched on for miles with no end in sight. It was said of this forest that many a man, finding himself lost within, had become convinced that the sun had burnt itself out and ceased to shine, so thick were the leaves upon the trees which dwarfed even the tallest of men.
The old clockmaker had been a very strong man in his youth, but as he grew older his sight had left him, and he had become lame. Without his eyes he could not even tend the land, let alone piece together cogs and wheels. His wife, too, could only see very poorly indeed, and could not walk very quickly. Both the clockmaker and his wife were often ill, and so they spent most of their days sitting up in a tiny bed, coughing as their daughter tended to them.
The son was just as fit as his father had been when younger, healthy and strong with a full head of brown hair, and he was just as capable with an axe as his father was with a hammer. But there was less need of timber in those days, as many of the men in the village had left, and much of the little bread the son earned had to be given to the clockmaker and his wife in any case. Food was so scarce, even with the milk and roots from the clockmaker’s little plot, that the daughter had to spend many an hour hunting for nuts and berries; but still they had scarcely enough food to sustain two people, let alone four.
“Whatever are we to do?” cried the daughter one night, as she lay atop her bed next to her brother. “What will become of them? And what will become of us?”
“I know,” said the son. “I don’t know what we shall do.”
“You know what shall happen. You know what happened to all the others.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Maybe we ought to tell them. Maybe they’ll know what to do.”
“We can’t tell them. They’d think we were spouting nonsense. They’d think we’d gone mad.” The son removed his undershirt, and the two lay for a time in silence.
“I have an idea,” said the son.
“Yes?” The daughter turned her head to face her brother and looked him in the eye.
“I’ll tell you what. Early tomorrow morning, when the sun is rising, we’ll take them out into the forest where it’s thickest, and we will light a fire for them there, and then we shall go to our work.” The son looked back into his sister’s eyes, unblinking.
“Just leave them there?”
“Not forever. Just until, well, until things improve.”
The daughter thought for a moment. “No.”
The son put his hand to his eyes and rubbed his forehead. “They’ll be able to manage there for a little while.” He stood up and went to the window. “Unless something else comes to mind, sister, you know what shall happen.” There was a hardly a need for a candle in their tiny room, so thick was the moonlight, and all the trees beyond look bathed in snow. “You know what happened to all the others.”
The sister did not reply. She did not move. She simply lay on the bed, facing away from her brother, silent. The brother turned around and watched her, gazing at her legs, smooth and tender in the moonlight, even as her feet grew more calloused and rough with each passing day.
After a time, the brother picked up his undershirt and made to leave the room. “I’ll go chop down some trees for the coffins then, shall I?”
“Wait.” The sister sat up and took her brother’s hand. “Don’t go.”
“We shall do it. Tomorrow. Until things get better.”
“Until things get better. And in the meantime...”
“It’ll be just you and me.”
They embraced for a long time, and lay upon the bed. The brother blew out the candle.
The clockmaker’s wife, having woken as from a vivid dream, and creeping through the little cottage hunting for any scrap of bread or fruit that might somehow have been left uneaten, raced back to the other bed, having heard the son and daughter.
“Husband! Husband!” she cried, shaking the old clockmaker by the shoulder. “Wake yourself!”
“What is it?” he murmured, unsure if he was still dreaming: whether awake or asleep, all was darkness before him.
“I heard the children speaking. I think – I think tomorrow they wish to bring us to the forest, and to leave us where we shan’t be found, to die.”
The old clockmaker tried to open his eyes. When awakening, it often took him some time to realise he’d already opened them. “You heard them speaking? Surely they were joking.”
“What times are these to joke, husband?”
“Well, why would they wish to do such a thing?”
“I don’t know. I think perhaps food has been difficult to come by of late.”
“Yes...” The old clockmaker thought. “Well then, tomorrow, we shall tell them we can’t accompany them. My leg.”
“That son of yours is fit as an ox. He’d not hesitate to carry you, you weigh practically nothing. Even your own daughter could carry you.”
The old clockmaker ran a hand over his balding scalp and tired chest, his old bones protruding oddly. “You’re right. Let me think...”
“Wait. Where is your box of tools?”
“What? It’s over beneath the window, I believe, why?”
The old clockmaker’s wife went to the window and found the box. Struggling with the tarnished clasp, she opened it and found a small leather purse inside.
“What’s that?” asked the old clockmaker, hearing a rattling to and fro coming from inside the purse.
“It’s a little purse you had for keeping spare cogs and the like. Perhaps... when the children bring us with them, one of us can drop some pieces along the way. Then we can follow the pieces and find our way back.”
The old clockmaker clapped his hands together and cried, “My dearest wife, what a fantastic idea!” Then, hearing the children rolling about upon the bed in the next room, he whispered “Be easy now, dear, and go to sleep quietly. We shan’t be forsaken.” The wife climbed into the bed, and both of them rested in silence.
* * *
The next morning, before the sun had arisen or the birds started their crowing, both the old clockmaker and his wife were gently awoken by the son and the daughter, and were told they must accompany them in the woods.
“Why must we come with you?” asked the old clockmaker. “My leg is awfully sore this morning.”
“Oh, just in case,” the son replied. “So we can watch over you.”
They readied themselves, the old clockmaker slipping on a threadbare coat and resting on his cane, his wife dressing and slipping the little leather purse beneath her apron. The son carried his axe, which he’d sharpened only the day before, and the daughter carried a large basket for nuts and berries. Before they set out, the son and daughter gave the old clockmaker and his wife a few slices of bread and smoked ham. When they protested, the son and daughter insisted they’d already eaten, though their hungry eyes said otherwise.
When they had walked some way from the little cottage, the clockmaker’s wife stood still and looked back towards it, and she did this again and again until her daughter inquired, “Mother, whatever are you doing?”
“Oh, little one,” said the mother, worried that the daughter had realised her plan, “I – I am just watching the sunrise. Yes, it’s most heartening to see a sunrise after one has been cooped up inside for so long.”
“Yes, but mother –”
“Little daughter, listen. As your father discovered to his regret one day, one can never be quite sure which sunrise shall be the last one ever sees.” She nodded at the old clockmaker, who was clinging to his son’s arm like a newborn to its mother’s.
The daughter looked to her feet.
After they had walked for several hours over quite some distance, and taken any number of twists and turns, they came to a small clearing where the brush overhead was thickest. Despite the sun above them, all four were shivering, and it was dark enough in the shadows that it might have been early evening.
“We shall build you a fire here,” said the son to the old clockmaker. “Then we shall cut wood and collect some more food, and when we are ready we will come and fetch you.” He turned and saw the daughter staring into the distance, no expression upon her face, as though in a dream.
As though awakening again, she turned to face him.
“Yes? What is it?”
“Shall we build the fire?”
The son and the daughter collected twigs and branches from the brush and made a fire for the old clockmaker and his wife, and soon it was blazing high. The daughter placed the basket of nuts and berries next to the pair, urging them not to eat too quickly. “Now lie down by the fire and rest yourselves,” said the son.
The son and the daughter turned to leave, and made their way some distance from the clearing, and once they were out of sight of the old clockmaker and his wife, who could not see very far in any case, then they could breathe easy again.
But they had only walked a little way when the son stopped and bent down to the ground. Nestled amongst the darkening leaves and the droppings left by two rabbits which had sprinted away just before, there lay a tiny brass cog, scarcely larger than a fingernail. The son picked up the cog, smiling, and carefully crept along the rough path until he encountered a small, silvery pendulum.
“What is it, brother?” asked the sister.
“Sister,” the brother said, showing her the cog, “I believe our mother and father think us to be just as blind as they are.”
* * *
Back at the clearing, the old clockmaker and his wife sat beside the fire, resting against a soft, rotting log. They held their hands near the flames and warmed themselves, but still found themselves shivering and coughing from time to time, for in the forest only a little of the sunlight could pierce through the endless brush.
“I still do not understand it,” said the old clockmaker absently after a time, as he nibbled upon a piece of smoked ham.
“I still don’t understand quite why the children would wish to do this. To abandon us.”
“Perhaps there has been a shortage of food. Earlier, they gave us food but refused to take any themselves. If they kept that up, they’d starve.”
“Yes, but mightn’t they have mentioned it if we had so little? If I’d known we were in such a condition, I would have eaten less. I could have helped the boy.”
“Perhaps they did not wish to frighten us.”
“Perhaps. Though perhaps they might have brought us here for safekeeping? Perhaps some peril is sweeping the land which they thought we might avoid here.”
The old clockmaker’s wife thought about this. “But why then wouldn’t they themselves come with us and hide as well?”
“That is odd,” he said. Standing, he walked a few feet from the fire and breathed in the clean air, away from the smoke of the fire. “Perhaps you’re right,” he said. “Perhaps every father wishes to believe the best of his children. Even if they’ve behaved wrongly.”
The old clockmaker’s wife stood and took her husband’s hand. “We shall be alright, husband. We shan’t be forsaken.” They stood together for awhile, the wife peering into the distance to watch a young doe prancing about. “Shall we follow the trail?”
“No, I think. I think we shall wait an hour or two.” The two sat again by the fire, and soon their eyes closed with weariness, and they fell asleep.
* * *
For several hours, the son and the daughter walked back along the trail, always watchful for more pieces that their mother might have dropped. The son, while not jovial, seemed at least relieved that his plan seemed so far to be working, but his sister seemed anxious and recalcitrant, and the son soon ceased trying to engage her in conversation.
Walking in silence for some time, the sun already lowering and casting great hideous shadows about the forest, the daughter finally said in a quiet voice, “I don’t know.”
The son, startled by the intrusion of her voice where before there had only been the sounds of twigs snapping underfoot, turned to face her. “You don’t know? What?”
“I don’t know what we are doing, brother.”
“Do you feel guilty?”
“No. I feel quite the reverse. Which is rather similar to guilt, after a fashion.”
“How do you mean?”
The daughter shrugged. “I’ll tell you.”
The two of them walked for a time without speaking, the son expecting his sister to explain. When she did not, he put his arm about her shoulders and rested his head against hers. “It will all be all right,” he said, breathing deeply.
The daughter moved away from her brother and his arm fell by his side. “Not now,” she said. “Later.”
The son raised a hand, but before he could speak his sister said again, “Not now. Later.”
* * *
Several hours hence, amidst the dead of the night, the old clockmaker’s wife awoke. She looked about, confused, before recalling. Cursing at the lateness of the hour and shivering, she shook her husband awake, resting a hand upon his leg.
Feeling her hand, the old clockmaker started and put a hand to his wife’s face. “My daughter!” he cried. “Is that you again?”
“Not your daughter, but your wife,” she snapped. “Get up, you lazy bones, we are late already, we must hurry.”
Remembering where he was and what he was about, the old clockmaker roused himself from his dozing and got to his feet. “Take my arm, wife, and guide me to the path,” he said.
Despite the lateness of the hour and the thick brush above, the moon was shining as brightly as it had been the night before, and the old clockmaker’s wife soon found the trail by which the son and daughter had left earlier. She had dropped the clock pieces in such a way so that there was a good distance between them, but, given the uniformity of the forest and its unforgiving trees, it was difficult for her to discern any landmarks by which she might have dropped one. However, she soon spotted an old oak with a distinctive knot in the trunk at about waist height, and recognized it, for she had dropped the last piece there.
She got on her hands and knees and hunted amongst the leaves and the black soil for the little brass cog. Around and around the tree she went, turning over each and every leaf and twig, but to no avail. Growing anxious, she went to the other side of the trail, thinking that perhaps the wind had blown it away, but could not find it there either.
Trying not to give in to her fright, she consoled herself with the thought that perhaps a magpie had spotted the cog and taken it. But the piece she had dropped before the cog was a pendulum meant for a small clock; a small pendulum, but still much too heavy to be carried away by a little creature. So she walked along some distance and hunted around for the pendulum also, but could not find it.
The old clockmaker called “O wife, have you found the trail yet? Where are you?”
The wife closed her eyes and tried to take slow breaths, but found she could not. Panting, desperate for air, she stumbled back to the old clockmaker.
“Where is the trail?” the old clockmaker asked.
“I – can’t find the – pieces,” she replied, struggling for breath.
“What!” he shouted. “Foolish woman! You were daydreaming and now we are lost! Come here!” Reaching about clumsily with his long arms, the old clockmaker grabbed his wife by the shoulders and struck her upon the cheek. So frightened was she, she scarcely felt the blow, but collapsed upon the ground by the force of it nonetheless. Furious, the old clockmaker threw several kicks at her also, but, in his blindness, only a few of them landed. “Stupid woman!” he cried. “We shall starve and rot out here, because of your foolishness! Why on earth did I dare to trust you, you hag!”
After a time the wife managed to regain her breath. Still panting, she sat up, weeping, and said to the old clockmaker, “Don’t you see, husband? It was the children. The children – they must have found the pieces along the way so we couldn’t follow the trail. Don’t you see –”
“No!” he yelled, turning away from her. “No I don’t see! I can never see! Whether awake or asleep or alive or dead, all about me is darkness, always. And now because of you I see I shall now pass from life to death, and the two shall be perfectly indistinguishable. I won’t even know when I have gone.”
The old clockmaker sat and fumed on one side of the oak tree, while his wife sat and wept upon the other. Her face began to smart, and it was not soothed by the hot tears flowing across it. The wife felt ashamed; ashamed for having made her husband so angry that he was moved to strike her.
“Husband,” she said quietly, after a time had passed. “Husband, we can stay out here and starve, or we can try and find the trail again.”
The old clockmaker said nothing for a moment.
“Husband, I promise, we shan’t be forsaken.”
The old clockmaker again said nothing, before finally assenting.
* * *
At this time in the little cottage, the old clockmaker’s son and daughter lay in the bed, the son atop his sister with his head resting on her. Both wore nothing but for a little blanket draped across them. The son was running a hand through his sister’s long dark hair and planting little kisses upon her skin, but the sister was turned away from him, her mind elsewhere.
“Yes?” he said, raising his head.
“I said earlier that I felt – something like the reverse of guilt, which is perhaps rather like guilt. Do you remember?”
“Can I explain it to you?”
“That clearing where we left them. I’ve been there before.”
“So have I. I needed to know how to get back.”
“I haven’t been there in almost eleven years, but I remembered it. I remembered the circle of charred rocks where someone had set a fire. I remembered the oak tree on one side and the fallen pine on the other, and no more than thirty paces between. I remembered the bird droppings on the large grey rock, the way they were arranged like a half-moon.”
“When was it, that you were there?”
“When I was younger. I went with father one day for firewood. We walked for miles and we passed many a fallen branch along the way, but father said he wanted to chop down a tree, it’d been many years since he’d chopped down a tree, so many years. And we passed many trees along the way, but for each one he just said ‘much too small’, ‘much too big’, ‘much too thin’, ‘much too thick’.
“Then we came to that clearing, and we sat down and he played some little games with me, to pass the time. He’d tickle me, and ask me riddles and things, and tell me funny stories about witches and funny houses. He took his undershirt off, because it was hot, he said. And then he asked me if I’d ever played the mouse game. I shook my head. So he took off my shoe and looked at my foot, and pretended to bite it, and he was singing a little rhyme:
Nibble, nibble, like a mouse,
Who is nibbling at my house?
“And I laughed because it tickled, and then he sang the rhyme while he pretended to bite the bottom of my leg, then my knee, then my thigh, and...”
The son looked at her, aghast.
“The sun was shining so bright that day. So bright... the sun might have blinded you. It might have blinded anyone at all. But I could still see. I can still see...”
The son moved over to the other side of the bed and lay facing the ceiling. “Do you want... do you want to punish them?”
“I don’t know, I don’t know!” she cried. “I’m – angry’s not the right word. I want them to – oh, dearest brother, I can’t speak the words, I can’t speak them.”
Neither said anything.
“Bu... I know. What they were talking about on the wireless, what they think happens to people like them... I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone. Never.”
The son said nothing. They turned away from each other, in the silence and the darkness.
“Nibble, nibble, like a mouse...”
* * *
For days and nights upon end, the old clockmaker and his wife stumbled along the trail, whether in darkness or in light, always moving onwards. For a time, the wife kept her eyes on either side of the path, desperate for any landmark: a large stone, a group of felled trees in a circle, anything at all that might guide them back to the little cottage. But as the days wore on and the pile of berries in the basket grew smaller and smaller, they lost all direction and all sense of where they were going in the first place; they simply continued to stumble, ever onwards.
Thirsty, the old clockmaker licked the morning dew from the trees while his wife picked up handfuls of leaves and squeezed what little moisture she could from them. But still their lips grew cracked and their bones brittle and aching. Their bellies rumbling, the old clockmaker’s wife tried to kill deer, wild rabbits, even squirrels with the shaft of her husband’s cane, but the creatures were always much too quick for her. Every effort to chase after these animals left her ever more exhausted than before, but even if she had been successful, their throats were so dry and swollen they could scarcely have swallowed, if there had been anything to swallow. For days on end the old clockmaker berated the wife and, in fits of anger, uselessly tried to strike her with his cane, but soon he grew much too tired for this endeavour, and his throat much too sore to abide his litany of curses and oaths.
Oftentimes, the old clockmaker’s wife would see a patch of lightness in the distance, away from the merciless shadow of the forest, and think she had found a little village at last, but always it was just a clearing. She no longer even knew if it was the same clearing they’d begun at: for all they knew they might well be walking in circles. All they desired was to be free from the forest, free from the darkness, and free from the spectres of their own children they would hear whispering and laughing some ways away.
For days on end, the only words the old clockmaker and his wife would speak to each other were these:
“It is all over with us,” the old clockmaker would say, bitter, a little smile playing about his lips and his unseeing eyes.
“We shan’t be forsaken,” the woman would reply.
But soon, the wife was saying this whether her husband had said anything or not.
Then, one day, the old clockmaker’s wife saw light in the distance. Real light, real sunlight, unfettered by the shadows of the dead trees. She saw buildings in the distance, and men in uniform walking about. Certain she was amidst a waking dream, the wife did not tell the old clockmaker what it was she was seeing, fearful that he might strike her. She simply took his arm as she always did and guided him towards the light.
Soon she was so close she could almost see the motes of dust and sand floating about the air in front of her. She could almost smell the thick, pure light pouring down like manna from the heavens.
But as she approached the last few trees between her and the light, her legs gave way.
For a moment, neither of them moved. It seemed that neither were even breathing. Then finally, a little sob escaped the woman’s mouth, and she began to weep. But no tears came from her eyes, for it had been so long since she’d drunk.
“Wife,” whispered the old clockmaker. “Quit your sobbing. What is that sound?”
The wife listened. It was a crunching sound, alien to her ears which for days had heard nothing but birdsong, twigs snapping and her own thin breath. Then suddenly, she recognised it. It was the sound of footsteps upon loose stones.
Raising her head, she saw a plump, mustachioed man with a kindly old face, dressed neatly in black uniform, walking towards them with his hands clasped behind his back.
“Oh, thank heavens!” cried the woman. “I told you we weren’t to be forsaken!”
The uniformed man approached them. “Who are you two?” he asked.
“I am a clockmaker from a village near here, and this is my wife,” said the old clockmaker. “We have been lost in the forest for some time, for several days.”
“Oh, dearest me, how dreadful!” he replied, crouching. Then, noting that the old clockmaker was not looking towards him, he asked, “Can you not see, man?”
“No, I cannot.”
“And you?” he asked the wife.
“Only very poorly,” she replied.
“Hmm.” The old man stood. “Well, don’t you fret for but a moment. We shall take excellent care of you here. Come with me.” Then, noting their frail legs and their emaciation, he called for assistance, and four young men in matching uniforms came to them, bearing two stretchers.
* * *
Very early the next day, after the old clockmaker and his wife had rested for a time, supped some water and been given new clothing (for their clothes, torn and darned to begin with, had by now become little more than rags), they found themselves in a little village. Though it was not at all like a village, for though there were many people about, there were no houses or shops. There were only a few large buildings scattered about, and a handful of trees and fences. The people were many, and the old clockmaker’s wife found that many of them were blind, or could not hear, or could not walk. Most of them, it seemed, had not eaten for some time, and most of them too were bald. Almost all of them were dressed in uniform matching the one worn by the old clockmaker and his wife, though it was a different sort from that worn by the kindly old man that had found them.
“What sort of funny place is this...” wondered the old clockmaker’s wife aloud.
“What do you mean?” asked the old clockmaker.
“Lots of people here cannot see or walk, and it seems there is not much food to spare.”
“Hmm... perhaps it is some sort of hospital. Yes, it must be a hospital for people who have been lost in the forest.”
“Ah yes, that must be it. Oh, here he comes.”
The plump, mustachioed old man in uniform approached them. “Well, well, how are our two newest guests?”
The wife, not wishing to seem ungrateful, thanked him profusely, but the old clockmaker interrupted, “We are well rested, but we are awfully hungry.”
“Ah, yes, of course,” he answered graciously. “Our cooks our preparing a very good meal of milk and pancakes, with sugar, apples and nuts, right this very minute, in the refectory. But the two of you are rather dirty, if you don’t mind my saying, and it might be a little rude to eat when one is in such a state.”
“Oh yes, of course,” replied the wife, embarrassed by her husband’s interruption.
“Do you see that building over there, with the people gathered outside?”
“Yes, I do.”
“That is the shower block. All those people are waiting in line. Why don’t you go there and bathe yourselves, and then join my colleagues and I for dinner?”
“Oh, that sounds lovely. We’ll do that now. And thank you ever so much for finding us, sir.”
“Not at all,” replied the old man, placing a hand on each of their shoulders. “It was my duty.”
So the old clockmaker and his wife joined the line of people outside the shower block, the queue of the blind, the deaf, the mute, the crippled, the people from foreign lands. And the last thing they saw before they went inside was the sun rising in the east, high and proud, as the plump, moustachioed old man in the black uniform strolled towards the refectory.