Small Burdens

By Paul M. Berger

In retrospect, it was partly the clockmaker's own fault. He was too distracted with plans for his new commission to note where he was going, and he let his feet find their own way home. (The client's request had been without artistry—merely something pretty to sit on his mantelpiece and announce special family occasions. The clockmaker would not even have considered it, but he liked the man's face. It held some denial of mortality, or a rejection of its own transience, that struck him as particularly human. The clock this client would get would be far more clever than had been ordered, and the man had better be able to appreciate the joke.) He had the skill to walk along a busy street looking to all eyes like everyone else, but there was no crowd to blend in with here. By the time he realized he had left downtown behind, it was too late.

"I've got something for you," said a voice in his ear.

He didn't jump, though maybe that was part of the power of the voice.

"What?"

"This is for you." The clockmaker stood in front of a boarded-up body shop, and the gritty sidewalk was deserted. He turned and faced a girl, maybe in her late teens, maybe plump, or maybe thick-boned. It was impossible to tell more—she was bundled into a shapeless parka against the raw cold. Her voice was flat and tired, and she had been crying hard recently.

"Take it."

She held out a plastic shopping basket repurposed from the local supermarket, and he accepted it automatically. It was stuffed with a piece of old blanket.

"I know who you are," she said. "I know you take things like this. It's yours now."

"It's mine now," he repeated.

"Nobody knew I had it. Nobody can know. Just take care of it, okay? I know you won't leave any trace."

"Okay," he said, without resistance.

"Good." She might have wanted to say more, but she turned then and walked away.

Her footsteps faded, and the clockmaker lifted a corner of the blanket and his head cleared instantly. There, red and puckered and screwed up against the cold, was the face of a very newborn babe.

"Hey!" the clockmaker shouted down the street. "That's not how we do this!" But the girl was already gone.


The exterior of the clockmaker's home was trim and tended and perfectly inconspicuous in its working-class neighborhood. Its interior was nothing like that. The clockmaker couldn't help taking a long, self-conscious step each time he crossed the threshold—a snail could have crawled over it without noticing a gap, but there was a distance between outside and inside, which demanded recognition.

He dropped the basket and his threadbare overcoat on the wooden table.

Moth had a new possum. She had fashioned a little broom for the creature and now she was teaching it to sweep the floor. This was proving an uphill battle. The possum had no natural grasp of the concept of tidiness, and it was developing a rapidly escalating personal hatred of Moth. It hissed and muttered and flashed its long rows of sharp teeth at her, and shuddered as it resisted her will.

"What do you have there?" the clockmaker asked.

"Possum," Moth said. "We can use the extra hands around here."

The clockmaker hadn't brought her anyone to help for ages.

"And how's that working out?"

"Fine," she insisted. She flicked a finger towards it. The possum flinched as if touched with a hot poker, and then made several effective broom-strokes in a row.

"Okay, then." They watched it push dust towards a corner for a while. A visitor might have said the room looked very much like the interior of a large boulder (though visitors had been truly rare for ages) and it did tend to collect dust. Outside the narrow window, the sun set beyond a dense young forest, and its slanting beams picked out the roiling motes as they settled back towards the floor.

"I brought you something," he said, when the possum began to bore them. He jerked his chin towards the basket.

Moth dug her hands into the bundle and pulled out the baby; it woke and started to wail.

"Oh, Clock, you didn't! Boy or girl?"

He shrugged.

Moth checked, delighted. "Girl. It's ours to keep?"

He nodded.

She cooed to the baby and rocked it in her arms. It continued to cry. Moth kept the smile on her face, but the clockmaker could see it was strained, and her arms moved stiffly.

"I'm not doing the thing," she said.

"Keep trying," he suggested.

"I am trying. It's not happening." The thin screeching was beginning to get irritating, and they had to speak loudly to be heard over it. "Where'd you get it, anyway?"

"On the street. . . ." The clockmaker ventured vaguely.

"You did it out in the open?"

"Well, no." No one had ever given him a baby before.

"You accepted an abandoned child?" Moth tossed the baby onto the table with a thunk that startled the possum. After a moment's addled pause, the crying redoubled. "We can't use this."

"Maybe," he said. "I don't know—the mother saw me. She knew what I was. And I think she mazed me a little, the bitch. What if the child has the same talents?"

Moth sucked her teeth and tipped her head to the side. "There's not many of them left can do that. It might be useful to own," she conceded. "We could certainly put it to work."

"So then I suppose you'll have to figure out how to care for it," the clockmaker said.

Moth shot him a glare that had vipers and lightning in it, but she said nothing.


Moth had done this before, of course, and she knew which end the milk went into and which end it would come out of, and the processes involved in keeping the baby warm and dry all made perfect sense. However, the sky and the winged creatures that lived in it made broad calls for her attention, and the concoctions brewing on her stove and hearth required her strength even when she wasn't there, and the needs of something that was unable to tell her what was on its mind simply had no purchase with her. The baby cried constantly. It apparently sensed that she was ambivalent towards it at the best of times, and it shrieked with extra intensity when she picked it up or tried to hold it. The one good thing about it getting steadily weaker was that it wasn't so loud any more.

The clockmaker figured Moth's experiment with her possum was also likely to end soon. It no longer struggled against her, but it was losing its frizzy fur in patches, and its eyes were dull and lifeless. It shuffled around the house, waving its broom in the general direction of the floor, and only coincidentally making contact with any dust.

He found all of this too tedious for words, and retreated to his workshop, where he avoided the three of them as much as possible. He was assembling a complication that sent a little gilded boy with a trumpet through a door in the clock face to herald the birthdays of its owner's family. The boy would always know exactly the right moment to emerge, but the real trick was giving him the client's six-year-old face, and aging him over a full lifetime as the year progressed. His customers called him a magician for the lifelike manner in which his automatisms functioned (and for their authentic expressions of distress and mute screams as they ran down), and would pay him any sum he demanded. The clockmaker had only a rough sense of the value of money, though, so it tended to end up forgotten in satchels or in piles against the wall. Mostly it served to hold up Moth's potted herbs, and as a non-floor surface onto which she could toss articles of clothing or dried bits of things she hoped to use in potions some day. The bulk of the currency was already obsolete, or was issued by nations that were no longer on any maps.

Experience had taught him to let Moth try to sort things out on her own. She didn't take well to constructive criticism, and she had a thousand silent ways of causing the house to make his life a living hell; she savored her grudges for ages. The last time, he had suggested that a perfect, crisp autumn she had once assembled in a display of virtuosity might have led to a long drought and the downfall of a certain Central Asian kingdom they both enjoyed, and her vengeance had been a distraction to her through most of the industrial revolution. He still worried sometimes that she failed to grasp the extent of the world's change since then.

"It's dead, Clock," Moth told him when he at last emerged from his workroom. She was squatting over a figure on the floor.

"The child?"

"No, the possum." It lay on top of its broom in a wilted, deflated heap, and flopped when she nudged it.

"I doubt it," said the clockmaker. "It's just playing possum. They do that."

"Not this time. Watch." She brought the heel of her shoe down hard on its tail, crushing it against the floorboards. There was no movement.

"Hm," said the clockmaker. "You're right."

Moth accepted the victory graciously. "I'm thinking of trying a raccoon next time," she said. "They have cleverer hands, and they're quick to pick up new notions."

"Good idea," he said. Then, noticing the quiet, "How is the child?"

She checked the basket. There was only a weak response.

"Poor little thing," she said, but even to the clockmaker it sounded empty, like a phrase she had picked up somewhere and hoped would fit the situation.

"Do you really want that bloodline?" the clockmaker asked suddenly.

"Sure. It would be a waste," she said.

"I'm thinking we might be able to salvage it if we go back and do this right."

Moth was silent for a moment, weighing the decision. "I wouldn't mind being like that again," she said at last.

"Well, then."

The clockmaker returned to his room and carefully moved his work aside. He dug up a half-finished movement that had been lying around forever, blew the dust off it, and completed it with brass coils and bronze escapements that were only half as old. He stacked and linked and folded the small parts upon themselves until they seemed to extend no further than his worktable. He wound the springs tight, though the works remained quiescent. He unrolled a sheet of leather and rubbed it down on both sides with Moth's spit and piss until it was supple. He held a glowing coal from Moth's stove out to her with tongs, and she kissed it and whispered secrets to it. Then he tucked the coal into the center of the clockwork, and placed it all on the skin, and wrapped it up tight into a cocoon shape. It ticked feverishly at first, then slowed, then resolved itself into a gentle heartbeat.

He placed the bundle on the kitchen table.

"Before it dries," he cautioned, and Moth put the baby down next to it.

The baby kicked and cried and cried. The bundle squirmed, and swelled in spots, and then bicycled delicate, unshapened legs. The baby thrashed, and the bundle writhed and then punched the air with soft fists. The child alongside it wailed, and the bundle inhaled and exhaled and rotated its head stiffly at the end of its neck, regarding her with eyes like windows into a crucible, and croaked, "Would you shut the fuck up already?"

The clockmaker left the two together until late at night, when the form had set and it was time to go. Then he took up the false child and Moth took the baby and together they left the house and stepped back into the world.

"There's no guarantee it'll take," the clockmaker said. "Maybe she'll see through. Or maybe she wanted to be rid of it too strongly. We'll just have to leave it by her and hope we notice the difference by morning."

"So we're clear," Moth told him as she scanned the alignment of these unfamiliar stars and they sang their stories to her, "this whole endeavor has been ass-backwards from the start, Clock, and you're going to owe me when it's all over."

"I know it," he said. Moth kept careful accounts.


Moth tossed a fistful of pigeon bones and sniffed the baby, and sniffed the sky, and led the clockmaker across town, as soft as a breeze. It was a cold night. The clockmaker tucked the false child under his long coat to warm himself. Once he had to grip Moth's shoulder as she stepped into a street, to pull her out of the way of a bus that couldn't see her through the glamour she had wrapped around them.

"Things change faster than you're used to now," he warned her.

She shrugged his hand off. "It doesn't look like I'm missing anything."

He didn't know how to explain the people to her, so he said nothing.

The houses grew broader as they walked, the gardens swelling from sparse patches of grass to exhibitions of blatantly enslaved hedges and trees. Moth took him to one of these. She stopped under a window set in a wall made of something that masqueraded as slats of painted wood. The clockmaker wondered briefly if it was a nice house, and what it said about the people who lived in it, but he pushed the thought from his mind when Moth turned to him. She put her hand inside his coat, and rested her palm on the forehead of his creation, and muttered words older than mankind. Abruptly, she looked up at him, and he saw in her eyes that his determination and anxiety and readiness were flowing into her through the thing he held, and that they had become her own.

Then she nodded, and he was inside.

The bedroom was dark, and the girl who had given him the child was there, asleep. Her sleep was troubled, or else she sensed him despite the veil. The clockmaker stepped forward to place his bundle in bed next to her.

Her eyes opened. "You!" she said.

His plan to slip away and leave the false child to do its work was shattered. But he put worry on his face and held the thing out to her, wrapped head to toe in the old blanket she had given him.

"I can't keep this," he pleaded. "The child isn't thriving with us. You have to take it back."

"Quiet!" she hissed. "You'll wake my parents, and that won't do either of us any good." She threw aside the covers and stood and faced him.

He held the false child out again. "You have to take this back," he whispered. "You must."

She sobbed, and quickly pressed the back of her hand against her mouth to cut it off.

"No," she managed. "You're breaking my heart. I can't have a baby—it'll wreck my life. My father would never forgive me. I kept it a secret all this time, and it was so hard. Don't ruin that now."

The girl's strength of purpose impressed the clockmaker in spite of himself. She was in a nightgown, and he could see now that she was just big-boned enough to have hidden the child she was carrying, especially during a cold winter.

"I know how you live, and I know what the world is like to you. Take her back to your people," she begged. "Teach her about your power. She'll be a great one among you, I'm sure of it."

Your people. . . . The clockmaker wondered what she had heard, and if she was foolish enough to believe there were still enough of them to populate a kingdom or fill cities under hills.

The girl took a steadying breath and looked him straight in the eyes. She said clearly, "Leave now, and give her the best of everything."

It would have worked too, but Moth understood what the delay meant and she stood right outside the window whispering as fast as the words would leave her lips, sharpening him, and dulling the girl.

He smiled sadly. "At least take one last look before you send her away."

Before she could refuse, he opened the blanket partway.

Deep shadows appeared in the corners behind the girl and in the lines of her face.

"Oh," she said, and started to weep.

"She belongs with her mother," the clockmaker said. "You know no one else can love her like you. Here." He passed it to her and she took it without resistance.

"She has your eyes," he said.

The false child began to cry softly in its lizard's voice, and the girl kissed its face. "Shh, my baby," she crooned. "My beautiful little treasure. Everything will be right. You're with Mommy now." She rocked it in her arms and sang wordlessly to it.

"What will you do about your father?" the clockmaker asked, testing how deeply the hook was set.

She didn't look up at him. "I'll show her to him in the morning and tell him everything. We'll run off if we have to." She planted little kisses across its forehead and it gurgled. "My beautiful baby. You're back where you'll always be loved." She nuzzled its cheek.

The clockmaker left the room. The false child turned its leathery head to watch him go, with no particular interest.

Outside, in the cold, Moth barely noticed he had rejoined her. She had her coat open and was rocking the baby girl against her breast. "Shh, my beautiful little treasure," she crooned. "Everything will be right. You're with Mommy now." The baby cooed and gurgled.

"So you remember then?"

Moth nodded, filled with its mother's love, at least for the time being. "She's hungry. And we need to get her someplace warm," she said.

She let him put an arm around her shoulders, and he led them home.


Paul M. Berger's fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Fantasy Magazine, Interzone, Polyphony 6, Twenty Epics, and All-Star Zeppelin Adventure Stories. He wrote the first true-life memoir to appear in Weird Tales. He is a graduate of Clarion 2008 and a member of the New York area writers' group Altered Fluid. For more about the author, see his website.