Merrows

The staff had his father dressed in slippers and creased pajamas, and wrapped in the red plaid robe Sam had given him for his last birthday. He sat in the recliner by the window, looking, not at the day outside, but at the bare, white wall three feet in front of his nose. Above his head, the hands of a round clock beat time.

     “You’d say some things weren’t meant to be, but I can’t accept that,” Sam said, his words accelerating, colliding with each other like aimless sparks. “We’re ready, everything’s set. Elena would make a great mom, don’t you think?” He stopped and stared down at the empty face, the white wall behind it, the window full of light. 

     There was no response. There was never any response. The old man’s eyes were dry and unblinking; a silver mask of stubble wrapped around his chin. Talk to him, the doctor said, maybe he actually understands you—deep inside. Of course, his father had always been quiet, and Sam remembered many occasions when he’d had to fill in both halves of a conversation, but a year ago his father had stopped speaking completely. This new silence had a different quality, an emptiness that was almost too painful to bear.  

     Sam watched the clock, telling himself, I’ll stay till five o’clock—no, five-o-five. At five-ten, he walked into the space between his father and the wall and kissed the old man on the top of his head. The emptiness had to be warded off, wiped away like the sensation of the kiss. He felt guilty over the relief of leaving.

     The shortest distance between the nursing center and his house was the road that went over the mountain. It was a familiar route; twice a week he’d take it after work to see his father. He knew all the houses and driveways, recognized some of the trees, and drove slowly, thinking of Elena. 

     The doctor said there was no physical reason why they couldn’t get pregnant, but their efforts and love had had no result. The absence of a child left Elena quiet and sad. Sometimes he felt he no longer knew her, or that he could no longer know her because the sadness was like a second skin that blurred her form. If only there were a way to break through it, pierce it; even if it closed up again behind them, at least they’d be together. 

     In his own secret depths, Sam feared the fault was his, that he lacked something essential.

     He was close to the ridge when he saw a break in the trees and slowed down. Where the trees were most dense, a path had been cut into the woods. Someone must have built a new house.  

     He pulled off the road and got out of the car, surprised that, passing by so often, he hadn’t noticed the bustle of logging trucks and construction equipment.  A narrow bridge spanned the ditch, but the path across was barred by a thick, green rope suspended between two posts.  From the forest the smell of damp and pine was overlaid with the scent of a burning hearth. 

     Sam pressed forward across the rope and the bridge. Two hundred paces further, he faced a wall of restless branches. The path led to the left and then turned again in the same way. Then, straight ahead, back among the spruces, walls of dark wood draped a small house crowned with a cap of blue tin. A plume of silver smoke stretched out toward the low-hanging clouds where a hawk flew, making a darker shadow against the already dark sky. He watched till its shape passed out of sight, and then stepped onto the porch and knocked on the door.

     It swung open, and, as if he’d been waiting just inside, a man appeared immediately in the empty space. He was shorter than Sam but broad-shouldered, with alert, green eyes behind round spectacles, the front of his head gleaming bald and surrounded by a crown of long red hair. He wore jeans and a long-sleeved, white cotton t-shirt dyed in strips of many colors.

     “Hello,” Sam said. “My name’s Sam Robinson. What a great house—did you just build it? I used to come here when I was young.”

     The man stared at him. “You’ve never been here before,” he said.

     “Well, no. Of course—it’s new, isn’t it?”

     “I’d say you’re new, Robin’s son. I’m Merrows, Bob Merrows. You’d best come inside.”

     In Merrows’ house, a re-enactor of life from a hundred years ago seemed to have created everything—based on the designs of an even older time. A besom made from fresh thatch leaned against the wall in the entryway, a rustless iron oven warmed the kitchen. In the back rooms, set against the mountainside, oil lamps of shining brass relieved the gloom. Sam had been drawn by wood smoke and the mystery of an unmarked path, but was even more astonished by the man at the end of it. Merrows’ hair was braided down his back, and he had a clutch of noisy keys hooked to his belt. He seemed friendly but not harmless, and Sam watched him carefully as he led him around the house. It was easy to imagine him as a character in the early chapters of a book, still lightly sketched. 

     “And downstairs,” he said, “that’s my workshop.”

     “What is it you build?” Sam asked. 

     “Always a new project, sometimes of wood, sometimes of stone. Whatever takes my fancy. I’ll show you.”

     Down a steep staircase with narrow risers, workbenches were set at waist-height and littered with handsaws, small planes, old-fashioned drills, and scores of wooden clamps. The walls above were covered up to the ceiling with cuckoo clocks, some enormous—the birds inside those must have been larger than life—and some miniature, with tiny numbers hand-painted on the faces. Below them, weights in the shape of pinecones and eggs hung from chains. A feeling of expectation came from behind the little shuttered doors, as if, in the next moment, each one might open to reveal a song-filled space.

But the clocks had all been stopped, all at different times. 

     “Do you restore these?” Sam asked, wondering if clocks that beat and twitched filled another room. The silence was uncomfortable. 

     “I guess you could say I collect them.”

     “I notice there’s no ticking.”

     “There’s forty odd clocks in here,” Merrows said. “Can you imagine the din if they all worked? I wouldn’t be able to think.”

     “Huh,” Sam said, studying the opposite wall. “My parents had a cuckoo clock—I remember how my father would take off the back and adjust the mechanism with a very small screwdriver. There was a smell—I can smell it now—of the oil he used to lubricate the little gears, and the turpentine he used to clean them. When he was done, and it rang the hour, the clock had a tight sound, like the twang of a loaded spring. And it looked like a little birdhouse, with red shingles over the dark eaves. And...”

     His voice trailed off. The clock he was describing—stopped at twelve-fifteen—was on the wall above Merrows’ left shoulder.  

     The silence pressed in even more closely. Merrows’ head turned slowly, following Sam’s gaze, and then swung back, his face expressionless. And he smiled without engaging his eyes, stretching his lips over his teeth. 

 

                                                                                                      ***

 

Sam made excuses and left, feeling Merrows’ stare drilling into his shoulders. When he judged he was out of sight of the house, he began running, his heart booming against his ribs. 

     Merrows had turned sinister. And the cuckoo clock had appeared like a thing thrown out the window of a speeding dream, yanked from a more comfortable sequence of time. 

     The clock had hung on the wall in the room his parents called the library. At some point, a piece of the trim around the roof had broken off, leaving a jagged surface, like the ground side of a key. A white script in Roman numerals made a path for the hands, and the little bird inside had a red throat that strained open when the hours and half-hours rang. That sound became part of the silence of the house. It was only late at night—after everyone had gone to bed—that it crossed over to the side he was aware of; as if, to hear it, all other sounds had to be taken away. 

     When he got home, Elena was on the couch in the living room. “Sit with me,” she said, patting the space next to where she’d curled her feet beneath her left hip. Sam sat, and saw that she’d taken out the family albums, the old albums, the ones that were all different sizes and shapes. When she tugged one onto her lap, a packet of photographs fell out and lodged in the space between them.

     “How are you tonight?” he said, lifting a lock of hair that lay across her cheek.

     Without looking up, she sighed. “All right. Look,” she said, turning a page stiff with old glue. “These are of your father, aren’t they? When he was young.”

     Between the thick, cream paper and the laminated cover, his father’s image observed the future from the vantage point of youth, knowing Sam only as a baby. And there was his mother and even his infant self, sitting in a pale, plastic highchair, looking up in astonishment at his father’s height. Sam was suddenly aware of the passage of time, not within the day—because it was only six-twenty—but across years and lifetimes. In the warm space between their thighs, the hard corner of the packet of photos began to press, and he shifted and pulled it free.

     “What’s in there?” Elena said. 

     The paper enclosure was covered in advertising for long ago things, claims of speed and clarity in developing photos, offers of impossibly low prices. Someone—probably his mother—had scrawled across the front in black marker: Summer, 1971. Sam opened the flap and fanned out a sheaf of shiny prints.

     His father, startled and feral-eyed from a flash, sat around a table with several unfamiliar young men and women in casual dress, drinking from a brown bottle labeled in red. Youth marked all of them strongly; they sat straight, teeth and skin agleam.  

     “Look at their hair—how long it was!” Elena said. “And their clothes.”

     The next to last photo showed his father and a muscular fellow with red hair, standing with their arms around each other’s shoulders, grinning. The flash had lit up his father’s teeth, and made a glare of the red-haired man’s round glasses. His father looked uncomfortable, as if he’d been asked to pose, to mark something for posterity. A record of a departure, perhaps an end-of-summer party. Sam frowned at it, held it close to his face and then at a distance, at arm’s length. “Where did these come from?” he said.

     “I thought you knew.” Elena looked at the enclosure, turning it over and examining the other side. “There’s nothing on it,” she said. “Just the address of the drugstore. In New York, Saranac.”

     “That’s where Dad worked the summer before he met my Mom. In the sixties.”

     “The sixties—it looks like the sixties, doesn’t it? Look at this guy, he’s dressed like a pirate!”

     It was another shot of his father and the redheaded man, who this time wore a blue bandana around his head. Sam leafed back through the photos and spotted him in several others. In the very last one, he appeared to be speaking into his father’s wristwatch, as if it were a microphone. Sam peered closely; his father’s arm was bent up in an awkward way.

     “Do you remember me telling you about the cuckoo clock in my parent’s house when I was growing up?”

     “Sort of,” Elena said. “It was like a little house, and the bird came out on the hour?”

     “Well, yeah honey, that’s true of all cuckoo clocks. I met this guy Merrows today on the mountain—down a path I’d never seen before. He collects cuckoo clocks; he’s got a whole room full and—” 

     “A room full of cuckoo clocks? That’s something I’d like to see, and hear.”

     “But they’re silent; he doesn’t wind them.”

     “That’s weird. He must be on some kind of power trip. I wonder what would happen if someone wound one of his clocks.”

     “My point is that I think Merrows has the same clock in his workshop.”

     “What same clock—the kind your parents had?”

     “I mean it’s the same clock. Merrows has my father’s clock. He must have got it at a yard sale or something. I wonder, maybe, if my father saw it, if he might, you know, recognize it.”

     “And react?”

     “Maybe.” 

     “What are you going to do?”

     “Go back to Merrows’ and buy the clock.”

 

***

 

The next afternoon, Sam finished work early and headed for the mountain. Dark clouds streamed over the ridge; a storm was approaching, and he wished he’d brought a rain poncho. On the other side of the thick, green rope and the bridge, his shoes sank into a wash of spent pinecones half-submerged in a sea of dry, brown needles. In the sliver of inky sky between the trees, the wind blew smaller birds like spindrift lost in a frantic, sad place where sea met rock.

     When Sam had been seven—old enough to be trusted to stay quiet—his father would bring him there—right to that very place. While his father studied hawks, Sam would study him, learning about how men are patient and serious. They’d park in a little turnout near the ridge, and sometimes just sit in the car with the ticking of the engine. If they glimpsed movement in the sky, they’d get out and walk to the ridge where a ring of pine trees surrounded boulders made pale by weather and time. The birds flew aloft to great heights, far above them. To see them was like looking up and spotting a plane, and then recognizing it was alive. Sometimes they flew in downward spirals, peeling curlicues of shaved sky. Often, they flew part of a circle and then, with no obvious effort, made an abrupt turn. They’d fly straight and give one flap of their wings; then they’d begin a dive, all of a sudden having great weight, as if they’d plucked ballast stones out of the clouds in order to return to earth. 

     On lucky days, special days, the hawks would alight in the lower branches around them, perched heavy like sentinels. Their small, alert eyes would blink in the higher, thinner air. 

     When they were ready to head home, his father would pull out onto the road and put the car in neutral, letting it coast down the mountain. In the back seat, it was like flying when they went over bumps, and his father had seemed happy too.

Sam smiled and pressed on, making the first turn to the left. Merrows, he was sure, wouldn’t give up the clock easily. What was it worth—twenty dollars—a hundred? He made the second turn and stepped onto the side porch of the house, practicing a different smile, sealing the seams of his face in a mask of earnest innocence. Twice he rapped his knuckles against the soft doorframe where time had frozen descending teardrops of resin. 

     “C’mon in.” Merrows was inside at the kitchen table, eating a thick ham sandwich. “Ah, Robin’s son,” he said, wiping his mouth on a cloth napkin. “Sit down and have something to eat.” He had a faint accent, a ghost trace of another language doubling his words—as if song were constantly breaking through speech.

     “Thank you, I will sit but I’ve already eaten.” Sam deployed the smile. “What are you up to today? Yourself.”

     “Having a snack.”

     Sam pulled up a chair across from him. “I was thinking about those wonderful cuckoo clocks you have; would you care to sell me one?”

     “I would not.”

     “You really have a gift, being able to get them ready.” He smiled even more broadly, and with a flourish, removed his wallet from his pants pocket. “Maybe I could see them again, pick one out.”

     “I don’t think of what I do as getting them ready. They’re not for sale.”

     “My wife—Elena—would love it.”

     The bread crust crackled as Merrows took a large bite of the sandwich. He looked at Sam around the side of his glasses, so that his eyes were doubled. 

     “The thing is we’re trying to have a baby.”

     Merrows nodded as he finished chewing. “Cuckoo clock’s not going to help,” he said.

     “No, of course not.” Sam laughed. “Ha ha! Not directly, anyway. But I think I was telling you that when I was growing up, there was a cuckoo clock in my parent’s house. I want the same thing for my child.”

     “Then you’re putting the cart before the horse. Look, I find an old clock, and I take it apart and clean it, repair anything that’s broken—I do everything but the winding and setting. That, I never do. I leave it at whatever time it stopped. Because I figure there’s a story there—about why it stopped at a particular time. Someone was distracted and forgot to wind it or held its hands still because someone died. That’s why I don’t wind them; if I did, time would start and the story would be told. So I wouldn’t want to sell one.”

     “But—”

     “I would never sell one, Robin’s son.”

     “Why do you keep calling me that? My name’s Sam. My father’s name is Robin, but how could you know that?”

     “You said it yourself, Sam Robinson—my name’s Sam Robinson.”

     “That’s absurd. How much for a clock? One clock. Name your price.”

     “The clocks are not for sale.”

     Finally Sam gave up and retraced his steps. Because of the way Merrows had acted, Sam was surer than ever that he had his father’s clock. It was stopped at twelve-fifteen—was that the time his mother had died? Sam didn’t know; he hadn’t been there. If only his father could speak.

     His father had been the one who’d wound it, so he must have been the one who’d stopped it—on the day Sam’s mother had died. At that time, his father had begun to neglect many things. When Sam and Elena moved him to the nursing home, they’d sold the furniture, the appliances—all the things he no longer needed, and they didn’t want. The cuckoo clock had become just another neglected thing. 

     There must be another way to get it back. 

     He sat in the car, and a sudden burst of sun warmed one side of his face. A north wind had begun to break up the storm clouds, so that they scudded away like a ship making sail. The storm and the rain, both of which had seemed so inevitable, were departing, leaving empty sky. Through the upper half of the windshield, the hawk whirled circles right over the top of the mountain, riding the air as if it were an eddy of water. 

 

***

 

“Did you see Merrows today?” Elena asked. Her voice was low from lovemaking, but even before she’d finished the question, it began to tighten; desperation shot through it like dye spilled across plain muslin cloth. 

     Sam nodded. “He—”

     “I went to look at baby furniture.” The words tumbled out of her, and then she closed her eyes.

     “Elena.” Sam placed his right palm flat against her belly. “Why? We don’t even know if—”

     “I know. I’m torturing myself, but I just want us to be ready. No—don’t take your hand away. Not yet.”

     They’d left the bedroom door open. The late afternoon light, fully washed after a day spent with the wind, came from the window in the hall, covering their nakedness with warmth. For a half hour, they’d traveled familiar paths together like creatures in an enchanted forest, engorged with each other; the ink of pupil and iris blotted by each slow shutter of eyelid.

Sam propped his head up with his left forearm, hearing the tick of his wristwatch from the nightstand. She lay still, her knees drawn up under the covers. 

     “Merrows won’t sell. I’m sure he knows the clock is mine. He told me that it’s important to keep the clocks at the time they were stopped, because they were stopped for a reason, that there’s a story behind each one.” A vision of words crowded into a small, dark space, jammed close to tongues of insubstantial wood, filled his mind. Gears ringed with teeth, exhaled an odor of light oil. “If a clock started again, the story would come out.”

     “What’s wrong with that?”

     “I don’t know. He’s crazy, I think.”

     “Sam, he must get some kind of selfish pleasure from hoarding the clocks, the same way a miser buys a beautiful painting and keeps it locked in a vault where it can’t be seen. It’s wrong.”

     He sat up in the bed, nodding. “We’re going to liberate it.”

     “Liberate it?”

     “Yeah, we’re going to trick Merrows, take back the clock. We’ll set it free, restore it to its rightful place.”

     “And wind it—make it tell time?”

     “We’ll wind it and put it right up there, above our bed.”

     She smiled, in a way he hadn’t seen for months, and rose up on her elbows. “I’d like that.”

 

***

 

The next day, before dawn, the rain started again. By the time he left to pick up Merrows, the leaves were dangerously slick. The car skidded and jumped on the curves going up the mountain road, and Sam slowed down. If he went too fast, he’d miss the path. There it was—the break in the trees and the green rope.

     Their plan had made more sense last night. He’d invite Merrows to dinner. While Elena distracted him, Sam would return to the house and steal the clock. Now Sam wondered if Merrows would even be home.

     He made the final turn, saw the house, and Merrows was there, sitting on the porch, wearing a shiny, dark-blue jacket, the kind that squeals when rubbed or stretched. It hung all around him as if he’d bought it one size too big.

     “Looks like you’ve been waiting for me,” Sam said. “I thought I might have missed you. Do you want to come to dinner?”

     “Sure,” he said, coming down the steps. “C’mon, race you to the car.”

     Like younger men, they ran through the thickening rain, arms pumping, and arrived at the car together, out of breath. “So, dinner,” Merrows said, settling into the front seat with many squeals. “Your wife will be there?”

     “She will.” Sam was sure Merrows’ house would be locked when he returned, that the police would come, and he’d be arrested. He put the car in reverse and turned to look over his right shoulder to back up. But Merrows was staring at him, and he seemed to have grown bigger; his shining forehead, his glittering eyes filled the car. 

     “What time are we expected?” he said. 

     “Whenever we get there,” Sam mumbled, putting on the defroster.

     Laughter erupted from deep inside Merrows, shaking his stomach, crumpling his face. “Oho! C’mon, my son, don’t waste time.” They drove over the ridge, and Sam let the car go a little, keeping his foot suspended over the brake because of the weather.

     Merrows clapped his hands three times. “And what will we be having to eat?”

     “Roast chicken, potatoes, cherry pie.”

     “Ah.” Merrows began singing in a low voice, but the words started and ended at odd, unexpected places. 

     “Is that Gaelic?” Sam interrupted, feeling annoyed. “Why not sing in English.”

     “The old songs—the really good ones—don’t translate well. But I’ll tell you what it’s about, if you like. A mermaid falls in love with a young sailor and begs him to join her under the sea. He’s afraid at first, but mermaids are quite lovely, and he dives after her into the water. She takes his hand, and he finds he can breathe just as well as if he were on dry land. For an hour, they swim, finally reaching a place where there’s air, although it’s thicker than regular air, and the sailor develops a cough. The mermaid’s tail transforms into legs—beautiful lady’s legs, and the sailor lies with her on a bed of driftwood and dried seaweed. They have many children, but the sailor begins to miss sailing on the sea. He makes ready to go. The mermaid cries and begs him to stay, but he’s sure; he kisses her and the little ones goodbye, and dives up into the water above. But when he reaches the surface, he drowns—because he’s used to breathing thicker air.”

     “Thicker air.” Sam laughed. “That’s not very cheerful. It’s a good story, though.”

     Merrows coughed and blinked. “Ah, at my house, there’s more stories than clocks.” 

 

***

 

Elena’s job was to charm Merrows, and she’d prepared her costume with care. Her dark hair—always long and straight—was parted a bit to one side and caught on the right with a comb, so that the other side fell across half her face. The hem of her snug crimson dress rode just above her knees, and she wore heels and dark stockings with seams up the back. It was a good thing she wasn’t pregnant, she’d said, because if she were, the dress would never fit.

     “Mr. Merrows?” she said, as they entered the kitchen door. “A pleasure. Sam’s told me so much about you.”

      “Ah, my dear,” he said, giving her a kiss on the cheek. “Delighted. Call me Merrows. I might have known Robin’s son’s wife would be a beauty.”

     “Something to drink?” 

     Sam kept Merrows’ wine glass filled, and his own untouched. Elena drank more than usual. Halfway through dinner, it was clear that their plan was working—Merrows slurred his words, laughed loudly, and kept inching his chair closer to Elena.      When they were nearly done with the main course, Sam looked at his watch. “Darn it, I almost forgot,” he said in a loud voice. “I must go out to get the whipped cream—you know—for the pie. Won’t be long.” He winked, but wasn’t sure Elena had noticed. Merrows ignored him.

     “Take your time,” Elena said. “We’ll be fine.”

 

***

 

When Sam had gone to get Merrows, he’d measured the distance between the two houses on the odometer—three miles and three tenths. Now at the two-tenths mark, he pulled to the side of the road and got out, carrying a big, heavy flashlight. The rain had stopped, but clouds covered the moon and the stars, leaving everything soaked in darkness, and he worried he might take a wrong turn and get lost. He maneuvered across the little bridge and over the green rope, then down the path with its two left turns. The flashlight allowed him to identify smaller parts of the whole—trees instead of the forest—but they all looked alike.

     Rain began again, hard, sudden rain; the world filled up with pressure and a roaring sound that increased as if the volume had been turned up by a large, indifferent hand. In order to return without arousing suspicion, he’d have to be quick; so he ran ahead, slipping on the slick needles. Then the bouncing light picked out a corner of white trim, a dormered window on the second floor. He ran harder, straight up the porch stairs, and rushed to the front door, feeling the creep of wet cold down his neck. It was unlocked.

     The storm crashed against the windows, but the lightning was on the other side of the mountain, leaving the house dark. The flashlight again picked out parts of shapes, textures of fabric and wood that he could construct in his own mind as chairs and rugs and openings to other rooms. But once the beam of light moved on, the passage from light to dark immediately put into question what could not be seen. The railing to the stairs rose before him, shivering and stretching, resembling the teeth of a giant gear. In what he believed must be the dining room, his hand—he’d run it across the wall to steady himself—bumped against the lower edge of a painting. He stepped back to see what it was, and the flashlight picked out the image of a young man with red side-whiskers looking back calmly from within the frame. In his arms, he cradled a baby—also with red hair, and also staring at Sam. But the cone of yellow light smeared a glare against the canvas, and the image disappeared. 

Sam didn’t remember seeing the portrait before. He stepped back further and canted the light up at an angle. Like everything in the house, the picture was done in an older style, flat and opaque, two-dimensional, with little effort having been made toward creating an illusion of depth. Even without the glasses, the face was familiar, and its green eyes alert and animate. Pinpricks moved up the sodden back of Sam’s neck. It was Merrows. Sam stepped back—too fast—and stumbled. The light slipped from his grasp and crashed to the floor, the batteries spilling out and rolling in several directions. 

     It was more than Merrows. The face in the painting was also the face of the man in the photos with his father. 

     He’d left Elena alone with a stranger—no, not a stranger. A ghost. Or a lunatic. He had to get home. Right away. 

 

***

 

The first thing he heard when he arrived was a man’s husky singing, accompanied by an acoustic guitar. The window was open—it must be the radio. He rushed inside.

     “Elena?” he called. “Hello?”

     Crumpled napkins covered the dining room table; the candles were almost out. Elena’s glass was marked with lipstick. He went into the kitchen and noted a sink full of dishes, pots needing scrubbing, an aroma of roast meat. By the digital clock on the stove, he’d only been gone a half-hour. 

     The music grew louder, and he recognized the song, Yellow Submarine. But it wasn’t the famous recording; the singing voice was deeper and had a slight brogue. The music nagged at him; the voice was familiar, the lack of other sounds disturbing. Where were they—where was Elena? “Hello?” he began, but the word stuck in his throat. He grabbed a carving knife from the counter.

     An arch separated the family room from the kitchen, with two feet of wall on either side, and he moved to the shadows on the left, placing his weight with care to make no sound. From there, he could peer around the molding into the space beyond.

Merrows and Elena were seated together on the couch. Elena’s stockinged feet were curled up so that her knees rested on Merrows’ thigh, and her head against his shoulder. Sam’s old Yamaha guitar was cradled on Merrows’ lap, the neck jutting out to the left across Elena. Just then, Merrows began singing the chorus, and Elena joined in with her clear, alto voice, harmonizing above him.

     Merrows was from his father’s past; somehow Sam was between them. And now, Elena was there too. What was the connection between them all—was it the cuckoo clock or was it Sam himself?

     “Sam? You’re back already?”

     The music had stopped, and they were both staring at him. The pupils of Elena’s eyes were shining and dilated, and a lipstick kiss marked the exact center of Merrows’ bald forehead.

     “What...what’s going on?” Sam croaked. He couldn’t get his breath. 

     “Merrows was just singing me a song, that’s all,” she said, standing and straightening the front of her dress. “When did you get here?”

 

***

 

Sam drove Merrows home. His mind reeled with questions, like plates he had to keep spinning in the air. What had occurred between Merrows and Elena? All he’d observed was Merrows singing with her, too close on the couch. Nothing more. But it was clear some liberty had been taken, a boundary crossed.

     After they’d discovered him standing there beside the arch, he’d had difficulty speaking, the air had felt too thin, too insubstantial. Elena had begun carrying dishes to the sink, laughing, saying she could use a little help, and Merrows had taken the knife from Sam and used it to cut himself a slice of cherry pie, licking the knife blade with his tongue. “Where’s the whipped cream?” he’d said. Sam had whispered to Elena that he hadn’t found the clock, but was pretty sure Merrows had heard him.

     Sam glared across the width of the front seat. For the past several minutes, Merrows had been singing. As they reached the ridge, gravity joined with momentum to pull the car forward. “What happened? What did you do to her?” Sam said as he pulled up to the little bridge and stopped. 

     Merrows turned and looked at him, and in the faint light from the dashboard, he looked as young as he had in the photographs in the album and in the painting on the wall. The lipstick kiss was gone from his forehead. “It was grand, Robin’s son. Your wife, she’s a fine cook. I thank you for it.” He got out of the car, and turned and leaned into the wedge of space created by the opened door. “You should go home to her now.”

     He shut the door, stepped across the green rope and began walking away down the path, the jacket billowing out around him. The headlights picked out a witch’s dance of spent leaves roiled by the wind.

     Sam’s eyes started from his head. Merrows had...done something, and he was just walking away. No apologies, no explanation. Crazy hippie. 

     Sam felt the door handle, the rain against his face. The green rope was in front of him, under him; his feet were slipping on the leaves. He hurled himself on Merrows’ back, driving him to the ground and punching under his ribs. Merrows grunted and twisted to one side, then he was on top of Sam, hitting back hard with his fists. Sam pushed him off. For some moments, they rolled over and over on the path, scrambling like dogs, trying to gain some advantage. Sam finally got one knee solidly into Merrows’ stomach, making him fall back onto the leaves, gasping for air. Sam was too sore and exhausted to do anything but lie beside him.

     “My father,” he began, tasting salty blood. “How did—did you realize who I was—that I was my father’s son? Did you recognize me?” Merrows was a dark shape against the ground. 

     “Of course. I’ve known you a long time—since before you were born.”

     “The photographs—so you did know my father. He’s not good—will you see him? He might remember you.”

     Merrows sat up and pulled a twig from his hair. “I will not, Robin’s son. But I’m going to let you have a story. A story for you; your old Dad already had one.”

 

***

 

Sam rushed into the house carrying the sack. “Elena!” She was scrubbing a pot at the sink.

     “Your face is scratched,” she said, taking him by the shoulders. “And your clothes. You were fighting?”

     “It was because of you,” Sam said. “I thought that...you and Merrows were—I didn’t understand what was happening.”

     “Sam, nothing happened. One kiss on his head, that’s all; it was just for fun. He’s very sweet, nice voice, too. How could you think anything happened?”

     “But—”

     “You told me to distract him, remember? What’s in that?” She reached for the sack.

     “Merrows gave me the clock. After we fought, he went in his house and got it.”

     The sack was cinched shut with a green cord. He pulled it open and withdrew the clock. Merrows had warned him not to look at it till he was with Elena.

     Under the sway of the overhead light, Sam turned it over and over, cradling the metal weights in his left palm. It was the clock from his memory but it was also brand new, smaller and more compact than he remembered. He pressed against the little door and ran his right forefinger over the place where the broken scrollwork had been. But there were no signs of damage or repair, no scar from a long ago crack. Merrows’ skills of restoration, he decided, must be quite advanced.

     “Are you ready,” Elena asked, “to wind it?”

     He turned it over once more and remembered he’d need a key. There it was, stuck to the back with a swatch of clear tape.   He peeled it away, and—inserting it into the hole, very gently, so as not to disturb things too much—gave the key a twist, holding his breath. Elena was very near. The small gears inside ground and ratcheted, and they smiled at each other. He wound it all the way, giving the key a last careful turn before taking it out.

     “Merrows told me we wouldn’t see each other again, that we had no more business between us. He said the same about my father—that he wouldn’t see him.”

     “Sam, listen.”

     Tick, the clock went. Tock. The longer minute hand shuddered forward, and it was twelve-sixteen. 

     He set it upright and adjusted the weights. They hung the clock above their bed, and afterward, he tried to anticipate when the bird would sing, at that time when all other sounds were still.

 

***

 

In the morning, the clock was the first thing Sam was aware of when he woke. Elena woke too, her beautiful face swollen with sleep. “Something’s different,” she told him. “I feel it.” 

     At first, she suffered with sickness, and Sam worried. Because she was sleeping lightly, he moved the clock to the living room, where every night before bed, he’d wind it with the little key. 

     He thought about Merrows whenever he passed the little bridge and the green rope on the way to visit his father. He wondered if he should stop and tell him the news, that Elena was pregnant. Instead he told his father, again and again.

     “We’re going to call the baby Robin, Pop, whether it’s a boy or a girl. Elena teases me that he’s going to have red hair.”

     Sam smiled. His father’s room was bright with sunlight. Through the sealed window, a sparrow had lit on the sill and seemed to be peering in at them, inclining its head to one side and leaning forward. When he looked back at his father, he thought he’d just missed a gleam in his eye.