Fiction: 'The Last Escapement' by James Smythe [AUDIO]
Poking at Awards: The Early History of the Hugo and Nebula Awards

Fiction: 'The Last Escapement' by James Smythe


I want my money! I shout these words at the council who decided these things, because the money is rightfully mine, and there are not many ways that I can subsist in this world without it. Because, what else is the driver? What else moves the world in the way that we likely expect? A deal, as I seem to repeatedly have to inform gentlemen, is a deal; and these are not men of their words, despite their protestations of the opposite. They say that they need more tests before releasing anything, because the device that I have built is untested, unverified. Tests! Does Harrison need tests? A man who is proven perhaps circumvents these things. For me, lost as I am, crawling from beneath his shadow… I am tested. I am pushed to my break. I stand before them with my sea-clock, and they all hide their smirks. I can see their lack of faith in me, in mine. I ask for a funding, as I have heard that Harrison received such a release. They refuse me. Their laughter is less than hidden this time.

Money is the perpetual hag that seems to outweigh all other of humanity’s concerns! Forfend that we should think about the betterment of ourselves. (And still, the deep irony of it: I am working on this clock for a reward, because living is not enough; and the clock itself will enable the crossing of the oceans with something resembling expedience, thus furthering the income and profit from trade and such. If I were to stop and examine the reality of this, perhaps it would all begin to collapse under the weight of such flawed logics.)

I do not know how many times I am to try this: to create a time-keeping device that will hold its measure on a journey across the sea. Every day, the same thing: a task as simple as steadying a pendulum, the rock of left to right; of making it sturdy, able to take the yoke of a storm and hold it still. Time is regular, this is the crux of the problem, and when travelling the seas, time is lost. It evaporates, like salt-water from a deck — though time, of course, leaves no trace. It is such an intangible thing that we try to measure.  

Attempting to recreate the effects of the water in my own home has proven impossible, so I have taken to a smaller boat, cast out into the waters around the coast. Storm-rain beats on the hull, and the boat rocks, and so I time it as best I can; two devices on the same boat, one a control for the other. My eldest, Yohann, works with me, of course: aiding me where he can. His understanding is perhaps more simplistic in its way, less inherently attuned to the workings of the clock, but regardless! So his hands are steady, and so his eyes are sound. Mine falter. It is a failing of humanity that we are so flawed, so designed to collapse. Most mechanisms grow stronger with age. They are redrafted and remade, and subsequent images feature fewer of the foibles of their earlier kin. We are not so lucky. Our bodies degenerate just as our fathers’ did. 

On the boat, we monitor the clocks constantly, almost to the detriment of our lives. Surely there will come a point where the waves rock us so hard that we capsize; and still, should we, my concern would be with the escapements on my clocks, and wondering whether they maintain their sureness even as they are tipped underneath the water that we are so desperate to tame.

I do not travel well, my gut-sickness attests to that. And would that we didn’t lose time as we do! My plans, all of them, rendered so slyly null. Time is lost — as vapour trails, smoke, the wisps of dehydrated water.

There is nothing for it. I have come too far to be refused this now. 

The Last Escapement

The device is nothing but excrement. Too much time has been lost. Even Harrison’s earliest attempt at this held better. Still, I remind myself, he had practice, and funds. He was not working from the pittance that I am. I smash the clock onto the ground, and I watch the guts of it spill out, tumbling from the wooden skeleton that held them. I gather the wood: it can be used again, in part. When we first learned to harness the trees, we were masters of nature, I suspect. We bent and broke the world and we turned it into useable gain. We built ships, when we knew that wood would sustain such a thing; the float of them enabling the use of water in such a way that we were masters of another domain entirely. On and on, a cycle. Salt from the sea! That same salt that is left when the water is gone, and see how we use it! A preservative from nothing but dried-up spume.

My drawing board is full of attempted failures, that by my own measure would perhaps be classed as successes. A man lives by how he gauges his own success; and there I can see that I have lived well. So my best escapement failed. It was not exacting enough. I have to design another. 

With clocks, there is an adherence to a rule of construction. That, as you force the casement to smaller and smaller sizes, so the internal organs — when time is so fluid, so full of life, how could one not think of it as something akin to a body, churning with blood and gusto? — must in turn become smaller. More compact, and therefore more delicate. My tools become subtler, forcing interactivity on a microscopic level. But, there’s less chance of failure. The delicate nature of the device means that everything is somehow more exact. So I force it smaller. Smaller means that there is less chance of chaos’s intervention.

How small can this go?

I commission new tools for this task. The sheer thought of it: that there are ever-decreasing sizes of devices for practitioners and designers to use to create objects of ever-decreasing size! So my tools are already small, practically minute; but they must be made smaller still. Does somebody build those tools for the tool-maker to build mine? 

News comes from Harrison, and I destroy my design. He has abandoned clocks in favour of — and I can scarcely believe it, even as I think these words — a pocket watch. Mudge and his lever escapement — a joke, I felt, always a quip that would never work — have bested Harrison’s attempts at the sea-clock. A pocket watch! 

I am nothing if not adaptable. A clock to be held in the hand of a seaman; so small that it can be monitored constantly, should it need to be; and that will not fall, or be swayed by the movement of the boat upon waves, simply because it is anchored to a man himself. I have not seen it, of course, because such a thing will not travel, will not risk being taken into the hands of our rivals. (Such is the constant, unerring threat of war: we are terrified that a mastery of time might somehow allow an advantage to our foes. I would destroy my devices a hundred times over — even with the pain that such destruction wreaks upon my soul — before allowing a Spaniard, say, to take control of it.) I have heard a report, though, of its general size. It seems impossible. 

It is obvious that my tools will not be up to this task, so I discard them. I commission more. This endeavour is too costly by far.

I build an hourglass to distract myself — the most basic of clocks, being so easy to force a constancy of time through it. Measurements, nothing more. I use gunpowder.

I am careful when grinding it, as the properties of such a thing are volatile; and I can only make it so small, so fine. It’s incredible how little gunpowder is needed to flow for that single minute. Great dust that passes into nearly nothing. 

The committee force me to seethe with their almost unbearable arrogance, but I grit my teeth — I think of my father, of his words to maintain that I should stay steadfast and staunch, even in the face of adversity (and what adversity this is!) — and I thank them for their kindly offer. They give me funding. Yohann says that this is reason for celebration, but what does he know? He brings the naivety of his youth to all of his opinions. Would that he could see past these.

But there is food, and tools, and materials. Gold is soft, and it’s apparent that such softness is something that I can use. To embed the escapement inside the gold itself, carving out a space for it where it will not be able to move, seems sensible. There is no room for error. 

The escapement will not fit; or, when I manage to make it fit, it does not work as I wanted. The device overspills with its insides, like the slopping of intestines from a slaughter; and when I attempt to wear it, to move around, it loses time even here. I stand in front of the clock that I have built for our home, and I wave my attempt at a pocket watch around, and I watch the seconds become lost. 

It does not work, and I cannot see how to make it work.

Yohann tells me that we are nearly run out of money. I tell him to get out; that his inane bleating will not help me now. Harrison is there! He is at the forefront! He is breaking all that he knows in order to create — and, perhaps, that is what I have been missing. Innovation, rather than the invocation of the groundwork that others have laid. I am using their escapements, or variants of. I need my own. Something that I do not have, and I do not understand how to achieve. I feel pity for myself, and I hit my son, to force him to leave the house, and to leave me alone.

I am asleep when inspiration strikes me. She comes to me as what might be a woman, but could easily be a man. A creature; a spectre. So vague in my mind’s eye that she is almost intangible, but then she strikes, and the knots and weeds in my thoughts are untangled. I am searching for something that is unfailingly reliant on that which we cannot change: gravity, the turn of the planet itself, regardless of where we stand upon it, reliant on a mechanism more complicated than my current devices, though yet also more simple. 

And then, I see it. We are attempting to tame water; so, perhaps, water itself is the key? As it moves on the outside of the ship, so rocking the boat whereupon the clock itself will be forced to be, perhaps water itself is the key to balancing it? The liquid inside the mechanism, acting as a stabiliser? I see cogs and gears, the teeth of the thing inside the liquid. A new escapement; true inspiration.

When I wake, I am coated in sweat. A fever has set in, but I know that this fever is, itself, a gift. Inside my mind, the escapement begins to work. 

I work quickly. I carve the sections I will need, using the smallest tools that I have. It does not matter for this stage if they are perfect. I reuse materials, ideas. I have to do this quickly. God knows that Harrison will be working fast; and our other competitors (though I see them as nothing more than chaff, if I am honest with myself). 

I construct a box — airtight, I ensure — and then I flood the mechanism. The water engulfs the escapement, filling the holes between the teeth of the cogs. As it turns — as the mechanics work, the piston arm forcing the wheels to turn — it is sluggish. I adjust the measurements. Still, sluggish. Still, it’s not correct; but it feels like I am advancing.

She is white and pale, my muse; like, I think, the froth on the surface of the waves. 

I am stricken. Yohann is strict with me, forcing me to take to my bed, telling me that nothing should rouse me. Under no conditions am I to work, these are his instructions. But, of course, how can I stop? Can an artist cease creating, even as his hands cannot hold the brush? As a writer cannot grasp the pen? Even in disability, their minds are as they were. Their minds work as a machine of their own, unbeholden to ailment and misery; and so, too, does mine. Tick, tick, tick, it goes; the ever whirring machine of a clock.

I manage to wrench myself to the workshop, but I cannot focus. My eyes wander into a fog that I would swear did not exist outside of their periphery in the moment before it overtakes me, and I am forced to grip the table. I drop my tiny tools to the floor, and I scurry for them. They are too delicate to risk being trodden on. Should the plan for this new escapement work — and I am sure that it will, as my mind is full of waves, of the flow of the tides, of the rocking back and forth, the motion of the seas that it will one day service — I will need them. Expediency is of the utmost import from this stage. I say this to Yohann, and he urges me to my bed again. He cleans me before my night of fitful sleep: waking, sleeping, urinating. Never still for more than minutes at a time. 

As it comes light, I am overcome with a cough that is so strong that it feels as though I might lose my insides to it. I lurch to the edge of the bed, and I spit the waste to the bowl of my own piss, murky in the waters. It is only when I push back the curtain that I see the blood pooling inside there, swirling into and clouding the water; and how it settles, heavy at the base. These two fluids, so lost together. 

The feeling of being well again — of my health being fully returned, my vitality come back to me (even as I feared, though I would not admit it, that death was coming for me, finally; having outlived my purpose, failed in my task, my one role) — cannot be underestimated. Even as I run a fever — as Yohann insists on my perpetual sickness — I know that I am well. My body will not fail me. The fury with which I am able to resume my activities is astonishing, and I find myself in the workshop for a day and more in one solitary stretch, relying on my son to bring me food and drink. Without him, I suspect that I would barely have breathed! 

More word from London: that Harrison’s watch (to watch something suggests that it never boils, so cocksure in naming convention is the assumption!) is fiercely mechanical, unlike anything that I have created. Across the seas, they are all calling him a genius. He constructs his own tools, go the rumours; and he has built the device from nothingness, from the ether. Of course, it is hewn of metals; of course it has an origin, a place of birth. 

But as I work, something strikes me: that it is hard to compete. It is hard to imagine how I might, given the skills at his disposal. Harrison has money, and a reputation; I am alone. (Yohann reminds me that I am not; that I have his assistance. Of course, he is insane. What he offers is peripheral.) This is my task to bear, my shoulders heavy with their own skin and bone.

I take a boat into the rivers. A small tug, destined for nothing more than trawling the river-beds, but still it manages what I want. There is a storm, perfect for my cause; and the waves caused from the tide’s swollen ache replicate what I need. I clutch my own watch to my chest to keep it as steady as possible, and I watch as this new escapement — the Drowned Escapement, I have termed it — attempts to maintain the time. Stable, stable, I try to hold it. My arms shake with the excitement, but they are nothing compared to the ebb of the boat herself. 

When we return, we have lost nine seconds. Over the time that we have travelled, this is unacceptable, wholly and totally unacceptable. Those are nine seconds that we will never get back, and I must. I must.

The principle is fine. Yohann says that I am not thinking properly; that my ailments (the sickness that I suffered) has somehow cheated my mind from my usual ways of logic. I am, he tells me, in his sternest tone, not clear-headed. 

I have banned him from the workshop. 

Because the joy of a clock, really, is that nobody knows how it works. For the moments where it is keeping time, maintaining its steady beating rhythm, the means by which it achieves that rhythm are closer to magic. When it is shut — and I know, there is a fashion for the glass frontispiece, which I shall ignore duly — there is a mystery to what occurs inside. Nobody knows what makes the time be stuck to. Time, that constant that we have invented ourselves — broken down, to fractions and fragments — adhered to with some curious notion that we, humans, can decide how it works. 

The principle, as I say, is fine. But something is askew. Water has its own tide, but perhaps the tide inside the clock needs to be more than the tide outside. It needs to be heavier. 

Oil does not work. As a fuel, it cannot be beaten, but it does not mix as well as I might want it to. Instead it settles quickly, and the mechanism is left in the water itself. The escapement, I nurture. I give it a coating, to ensure that it does not rust; and I smooth the edges, to expedite the ease with which the gears will shift when submerged. But still it does not perform as I would have it. 


At night, I stare into my bedpan; and then, from those bloody depths, inspiration arises. 

The butcher sells bags of the stuff at prices that seems almost scandalous for what would otherwise be waste. It is either bagged or tossed to the gutters! Still, this is what I must pay: for the blood of an ox (such as I am assured it was), there is a margin. Good blood, he tells me. His accent is not local; more, some lilting thing that rises and falls as he stumbles over the words. I would sooner not pay him, but I do not have it in me to kill an animal myself. (Yohann, when I tell him the plan, shouts. He tells me that I am gone insane; that I am no better than those scurvied wastrels eating the flesh of rats on the streets.)

I mix the blood with the water and I pour it into the casing, and I wait. Everything turns. More tests need to be conducted, that much is apparent; but it needs to have more water. It must be thicker, I think, even if only slightly. I watch the gears move, and the blood disperses, the water a thin pink; and then, as the gears stop, when I let the mechanism cease movement, I watch it settle in a cloud at the bottom, pulsing almost; my life, as something akin to a jellyfish on the bottom of the ocean. 

The muse: she clicks her tongue in perfect rhythm, because this is how she comes to me. She touches my palm, and I understand her. It is more than blood: it needs more to it. It needs life. What has come from the cow is dead and cold, but I am the creator; I understand the weight that is needed.

And we understand that we are the sum of ourselves. My blood, my design, my time: all of these things working together, in one beautiful unity. She touches my forehead. I am asleep and awake at the same time, and she is the silk of my curtains and my bedsheets and even of skin; the thinnest skin that has ever existed. 

I slice my hand open with my letter-opening blade, and the cut is sharp and straight: a line that breaks the skin but does no real harm. I do not think that I would even feel it were I not looking at the wound as I exact it. That blood runs out, down my fingers and into the box. I cannot tell if this is what was needed, but so it flows down. It ceases after a while — barely a percentage of the clock’s water itself, but still, it is there. Plumes of it; as a fungus. I shake the clock and listen to the dulled tick coming through the water, and I look at my hand, which has stopped bleeding; and then I put pressure on the wound, because there is more in there. I know that there is. 

I buy a medical journal, because my hand can only take so much, and I need to know where the blood in the body comes at its thickest. The concept of this seems so logical to me, now, that I can scarcely believe that I didn’t see it before. To take the body — such a perfect device of itself, and practically a clock, so permanent and constant is the rhythmic beating of the heart — and to somehow infuse my escapement with it! But the body has so many types of blood. I remember, years and years ago, cutting my foot when I trod on glass. The blood from there ran so weakly, but was almost ceaseless; every time I applied pressure, so it began again. But then, from inside me, the blood that I coughed up when I was lying in my bed, that was thick. It coagulated. Surely that is what I need? 

The journal speaks of devices used to drain blood in order to balance the humours. I am a man of science, I have to admit; my own dealings with such vague ancient ideas are long ignored. The body is a machine, of type, and it balances itself. But perhaps the tools used on the body in such instances might be useful to me? 

I send Yohann out to find me something that I can use. I am not feeling as though I should leave the house today; my limbs shake slightly too much, and my hand is greyer than I would like to admit, underneath the bandages. 

The drainage device is terrifying to look at. A clamp, two arms of metal, with protrusions that slide into the skin around the thigh, it reminds me of nothing less than an animal trap, left on the floor of the woods for unsuspecting rabbits or deer. And here I am, willingly putting myself to its jaws.

The thing straps to my thigh. I sit in the chair in the workroom, trousers pulled to my ankles. My legs look dirty, I think, but that will not stem the blood when it comes. It is attached with leather belts that tighten to a point of near-pain in themselves, and the flesh underneath them swells with the redness of my trapped blood. 

On the top of the device, a lever, which I am to pull. This will lower the spikes into the skin; and, from there, the blood will drip down — or run, I am not entirely sure of the pace at which it will attempt to evacuate my body — so I have placed a bowl beneath, empty, ready for capturing. I must expedite transporting the blood to the clock, I think, because I am not sure how long life remains inside it. Is it while it is still warm? Does that make sense?

I am not sure that I can do this, because it is one thing to be harmed, and yet another to harm yourself so willingly. In the name of invention, of course. That is what I say to myself. I do this in the name of invention.

And I question, when I pull the lever, and the spikes slip into my skin and my muscle, and the blood pours, if I have entirely thought this through.

She comes to me while I lie unconscious in the workshop, and she rouses me. She tells me, her fingers the essence of cold, that I am to wake up. She leaves trails of black on my cheeks, and she dances her fingers in the blood as it runs from my thigh, and she tells me that I am doing as I should. That a clock, I am to remember, is only as rhythmic as the rhythm with which it is constructed. She says, You put your soul into these things. Her voice is a echo through a drunken mind. She says, You are doing good work. Soon, eternity will be yours. She leaves me then, and I question eternity; because, if it never ends, what need have you for maintaining an awareness of the time in which you have endured it?

The leather bracers holding the device in place have slackened, because my leg is thinner than it was. When I am fully awake — the grogginess will not leave, but I have worked in states far worse than this — I dip my finger into the bowl (tainting it, I am sure, but still this is my flesh going into it, which makes me feel that the purity of the thing is intact) and it is still warm. I remove the device from my leg. The spikes are so thin for so much blood! It flows again, when they leave my limb, and I attempt to stem this. I have got enough, I am sure.

I stand, leaning on the table. My one leg trembles as though I were older than I am, but I am able. I heave the bowl from the floor and empty the contents into the clock. It threatens to drown the escapement, but does not. So much blood! How much can the human body hold, I wonder. I add water, because surely that is the crux of this? The blood and the water, mixed together. Through this, miracles are achieved. 

The mixture is thick. The escapement turns, and the blood-water churns. Fluidity, lubrication. The teeth of the gears click into place, silent inside this fluid. It works. 

I send Yohann — who despairs, and sobs, even as I press the coins into his hand — to book me another boat. This must be tested in the wild.

Two seconds! A journey of near ceaseless sickness from my part, so choppy and unbridled were the waters, and only two seconds were lost!

Yohann tells me that I should inform the society. They will want to know about this, and test it themselves. He says that he will take it to London. I am too sickly to go, he says. Too old. I tell him that my muse favours not the age of the man that she inspires, and he laughs. There is no muse, he says. There is science, of course. 

His answer to everything. But I agree. Maybe sending him across the continent in my stead is better. 

There is still work to be done.

I wave Yohann off. I have taken to using a stick, because I siphoned more from my leg to make the second version of the watch for him: this time, smaller, far far smaller. It has not been tested in the wild, but the principles behind it are the same. There is no reason to suspect that it will not fulfil the task. If it can be as steady as it ought, the prize funds will be mine, and I can retire.

But then, when I sleep — and my sleep is always fitful, a perpetual stream of visions of boats and seas and the arms of the watch face winding their way to some hateful, inevitable finality — she visits me again. She climbs inside me and inspires me. My task is not done. Imagine: two seconds! The tick is so constant and stable as to be close to infallible. But — but! — it could be closer. It could lose no time at all. 

The four humours: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, black bile. They are what, remedial science assumes, forms the balance of the human body. So, logic dictates, that if I am to search for balance — for a form of ballast, almost — using those things would only assist me? 

I build another watch. Smaller, still. Smaller and smaller I carve the escapement. No longer the drowned escapement, but this one the living escapement: created from that which once was. I turn to the journals, to see the easiest ways to extract the bile that I crave; and I let my mouth fill with the waters of my throat, hawking up from as deep as I can muster to spit into the bowl. The blood can come last for this, I think. 

I cough, because I am being so tough on my own throat, but that’s when the phlegm is best extracted. In the water, it congeals.

Mercury is the best method for black bile extraction, say the journals, so I take balls into my system. I have never felt such agony inside me! The tug and gnaw of them as I attempt to process them is violent. I lie on the floor of the workshop and I cradle myself. Would that Yohann were only here to see this! To see the endeavours that I am undertaking in the name of this most dedicated science! He would surely know that this was only logical and right, because even as I question it — and I pray for darkness, for the cold hand of she who visits me, who cradles me and speaks to me in her tongues of another life past this, and of all that I can achieve — I start to exhume the blackness from my body, letting it torrent into my cupped hands, overspilling into the bowl with the phlegm. 

Of course, it is not pure black. There is blood in there, as viscous as any I have ever seen. The bowl is full of a grey. I keep it warm, to protect the life that flows in there. In the morning, I feel better. Weak, still, but I find that the concoction has grown darker and thicker. 

It is time for the yellow bile. 

Hateful vomit! I lurch and quake to expel it, having taken in berries from the garden that I know to have the desired effect. Yohann, when he was a child, consumed them, and we spent days worrying for his safety. Now, I am in control, and this was the route of most ease. It is not the first vomits that I am interested in, of course, because that contains the little food that I have eaten; but what comes after, as my body purges. 

Yellow into the mixture, but it does not change the colour. The thickness is alarming; but, I know, it needs the blood to achieve completion.

My other thigh is unmarked as yet, but then the spikes do their worst. I do not sleep this time, and yet still somehow she visits me. As my head lolls and I force my eyes to stay open, I see her. She creeps through the room, then wraps herself around my legs, underneath them; and she drinks from the bowl, lapping at it as though she were feline. It is nearly enough, she says. She says, I can taste your life, and it goes. Tick, tick, tick. 

The blood into the bowl, and it is complete. And then, into the watch. The escapement turns. It turns, still, and I know, without needing to test it, that it will not lose any time. It will be perfect.

I do not eat, because I do not want to take my eyes from this new creation. She sits with me the whole time, stroking my hair. Her cold hands soothe my brow. For days all of my clocks are as they were, and then, after one final sleep, that changes. My new watch has stopped. The mixture is too thick, I consider; but then, it worked before. It turned. The pieces are degrading, I realise! Because they are not designed for the acids of the bile, perhaps? Because the coagulation of the blood is not conducive to their turning? 

The materials are too weak, she whispers. There must be something else. There simply must be.

The escapement is of piston arms, and then gears of teeth. Replication is the way to creation; this we have known since we left the Garden, since our broods were born of our loins in facsimiles of our own images. This needs more of me, I know. That is what she has told me, though not in so many words. 

My teeth are loose, those that are left. I have twelve, which is enough. Two are abandoned, as they snap when I am prising them loose. The miniature tools that I had commissioned are, it transpires, the perfect size for the leverage required. I slide them into my gums and out they come. A collection: and my gums are so smooth. This blood runs thick in my mouth, and I ensure that I do not waste it. My most prominent bone is the ankle. And how round it is! How smooth, how apparent that it must be something that I can utilise in my clock! The shape of it is already perfect. 

I have a saw for metals that will find easier movement through the bone. And curious, when one considers that metals and ores degrade under the strain imposed by the body’s workings, where bone — so soft and malleable, of all materials — is able to somehow withstand them!

It was to be expected that I would no longer be able to walk; or, perhaps more accurately, to bear any weight on the leg from whence I took the bone. It will heal, of that I have no doubt; and, until then, I have the workshop. This is, she tells me, all that I need. No sense in moving from room to room, attempting a sense of normality, when what has happened is so far beyond normal to me. This is inspiration! It is the very depths of what I have been attempting to achieve! 

The bone of my ankle-ball, shaven down and sliced, forms the three gears. Along the crest of that bone’s curve, so the gears become smaller still. They are, I discover, small enough to fit inside the casement that I have created for my watch! So small, and perfectly so. For the teeth of the gears, I have carved slices from my own detrenched molars, and these I have affixed in perfect symmetry. The space with which there is for them to lock between each other (thus forcing the turning of each subsequent gear) is slight, to be sure, but the mechanism works perfectly. Teeth slot together in a mouth, that is apparent — they grow and manipulate to form those slots — so why should the same not be true of this watch that I am building?

She asks me if I am hungry, which I am not. Not that I know. She tells me, should I need it, that there is sustenance. The bucket; it cannot all fill the watch. 

Yohann is not yet returned home. Ha! What he would say, could he see my work! Bone and teeth and blood and bile and bile and phlegm: so the body is complete, transported. And see how this will work! 

She asks me where I thought, before this, that inspiration came from. She is my muse, and I know this; so I blame her. She takes this as a compliment. Here I am, weak and inspired.

She says, Give me your all. She pushes her fingers down my throat, and I gag on her nutrients. There is more, she says. More of you.

She shows me the pipes, from a douche. Simple as anything I have ever seen. I bore holes into the wood of the watch casing, and repeat my earlier sicknesses, for the biles. They drip from the escapement. I seal the box, and I attach the pipes, which are of a thick rubber, slightly worn but intact. 

She helps steady my hand, for the knife. No, not a knife; a scalpel. I use this to carve notches and whittle the insides of these machines; and how easily it slides into my skin, at my wrist. Quick, quick, the pipe goes in. It fills with blood. I have put a leather strap from the trap onto it, and I fasten it to my wrist, feeding the pipe inside me. The blood flows, a constant supply. Out of me and into it. Watch it. Squeeze the pipe; and how warm it feels.

Harrison! Constrained by what he thinks he knows! What wonders could I have showed him, would that he had only been interested? 

She tells me that I have done it: a perfect escapement. It will never cease while I watch it; while I breathe.

The watch does not stop while she — I cannot be sure that she is even human, now — stands behind me, proud of my work. She strokes my hair. I have not put a hole into the clock, for the blood to leave; to come back to me, where my body might recycle it. 

I have done only half of this. There is more, but I am weak.

I watch the watch and shut my eyes. Thud, tick, tock; behind my eyes, the seconds go. 

The minutes. 

The watch stops. Oh never. Oh, never.


James Smythe is the author of No Harm Can Come to a Good ManThe ExplorerThe Machine and other novels and short stories, including "Black Paintings" (also available on Pornokitsch).

"The Last Escapement" first appeared in Irregularity (Jurassic London, 2014). Irregularity was published in collaboration with the National Maritime Museum as part of the "Ships, Clocks and Stars" exhibition, exploring John Harrison's timekeepers and the successful measurement of longitude at sea.

Image credit: Close-up of the marbling on the flyleaf page of the first printing of The Principles of Mr Harrison's Time-Keeper, published by order of The Commissioners of Longitude (London: 1747). 

Now you can listen to this story as well, as narrated by Mahvesh Murad.