Tasting Time

By David O’Donoghue

Micheál looked at the face of his pocket watch, it seemed preferable to facing down the green island that awaited him on the horizon. The watch’s white face was complicated only by its slender black hands, which moved at once slowly and suddenly like continental plates. For a moment they reminded him of the more manageable waters of the River Shannon, where he would watch twigs float like sundials. That was a much easier thought than the grey of the Atlantic that now tossed underneath him, causing his stomach to lurch and wobble even beneath the covering of his father’s woollen coat. He placed the watch back in his breast pocket and finally allowed himself a glance into the middle distance. The island emerged from the horizon in alternating strips of grey, jagged rock and verdant green tufts of hair. Fadó, fadó in Éireann, as his father liked to begin fantastical tales of the Fianna, it had been called Hy-Brasil, and the mythological name had stuck since then, for want of the interests of explorers or cartographers of a more properly scientific mindset.

Micheál would be the first man from the mainland to step foot on the island in centuries and the thought made his scrawny body feel even more slight under the heft of his father’s court. The papers and forms of the Irish Free State, which he was to represent, seemed flimsy once he was in sight of this strange place. He was so dislocated from that moment when the Minister had first handed them to him. In that moment, clutching the luxurious leather folder, he had felt himself a holy missionary for the new age of Liberty and Science and Reason. Standing at the bow of the boat and looking out at that landmass he was now just a boy with some papers in his pocket, the unshaven emissary of a young government at once exuberant and ephemeral, at every moment ready to perish from the earth and yet still enthused about its diplomatic mission to the “savages out at sea”.

“So you’re just bringing them clocks? Not food or anything? I wouldn’t expect a warm welcome meself.”

Micheál turned to the old boat man who sat behind him and somehow managed a tone of conversational Gaeilge even as his big chest worked both oars and the tendons stood out on his red, hairy neck. It took Micheál a second to work up the Irish to respond. Theirs were differing versions of the language. The boatman’s was the rough, storied Irish of a Connacht that had never really let the language go, mutating successfully and organically from the time before the birth of Jesus.  Micheál’s was a new, cosmopolitan Irish, invented by Anglo enthusiasts and revivalists in the liquor drenched Cumanns of the Pale.

“Not clocks. Well perhaps. But something so much more precious. I.. the Free State is bringing these uncivilised people the gift of standardised time. The hand of modern science can reach out and civilise even the strands and seconds of time themselves. It makes our railways run on time and our industry produce in abundance”

The boatman regarded Micheál with a sun-beaten and sceptical eye.

“For a man who gave me my direction from an old map made out in a round tower, you have an awful confidence that these people have locomotives and factories”.

Sensing that his guide was not a man of reason, Micheál declined to discuss further. He watched with dread and anticipation and the boat swallowed up great mouthfuls of the choppy Atlantic and brought him closer to the island and, he fancied, backwards through time.

Micheál had braced himself for an experience, in meeting the natives, something like that of his experiences in the Boer War. There he had seen women and children, all flowing fabric and body-paint, fleeing from the fire of his regiment, their dark bodies revealed only in the spots of light offered by the licking flames of the Maxim gun. What he got was not quite the same. The welcoming party that greeted him was numerous and carefully arranged, organised into a throng of men and women who stood rigidly and attentively for those who could have only had hours to assemble, from the time when the little black speck of his boat had popped onto the horizon. He had imagined costumery of the most extravagant kind, all loincloths and goatskin, and had got instead a group whose fashion was a neat eliding from broaches and tartan to contemporary dinner jackets, as though they had stepped out of some indeterminable period in between, unstuck from time and carrying modern formality through the mists of the past. The woman who appeared to be the head of the group wore a neatly pressed dinner jacket and a pristine bowler hat. He initially took her for a man. She stepped forward and put her hand out to shake Micheál’s.

Micheál decided to forgo the handshake and instead produced from beneath his coat the little leather folder that contained the papers that seemed to pin him to the ground and mark out his place in the universe. He handed the ‘Declaration of Warm Intent’ to the woman in the bowler hat. She took it in two gloved hands and parsed over it. He could watch her lips forming around the words, the Gaeilge and then the English in turn, tasting them slowly and carefully. She eventually seemed to pick out the language she might need, and her first words came in a clipped English that gradually slipped into the perfect elocution of the imperially educated bureaucracy of the free state.

“A warm welcome to you Minister, from the people of what you call Hy-Brasil”.

 

Micheál could have corrected her, told her that he was only the representative of the Minister, but who would ever be scandalised by the intricacies of the state’s limbs and tentacles on this lonesome Atlantic island? He let the title settle onto his shoulders with the weight of his father’s too-large coat and he found in it a comfort.

“You can call me Grace and I am the chieftain of this island. I delight in the fact that you, Minister, have come to bring us time, which I can assure you is in no short supply with us.”

Micheál looked back out at sea and could see the pinprick of the boatman lapping the water with his oars somewhere in the distance. He recalled the great speech he had fussed over among the waves, about standard time and smokestacks and the onward march of progress. Instead, as he turned back to face Grace, he pulled his pocket watch from his coat and unspooled it into her hand, its gold chain running through his fingers like a rosary bead. She stared down at him, her eyes making pinched ovals of fascination beneath her bowler hat.

“A… navigation device of some sort?”

Micheál smiled the smile of a man with secret, arcane knowledge.

“In a way. But as the compass and the astrolabe of the sixteenth century allowed us to navigate land and sea, that little device allows us to navigate the far more choppy and uncertain waters of time. Dividing it into the arcs and quadrants of our working lives and raising abundance and industriousness in the wake of its sweeping arms”.

Grace seemed distinctly unimpressed with his practised speech, honed to perfection in the corridors of power, and her eyes seemed instead to open in surprise at an unexpected familiarity.

“Ah but of course. I regret to inform you Minister that we primitive people have innumerable ways of telling the time so much more sumptuous and elegant than this device of yours. But perhaps your trip might be an invaluable exchange of knowledge for both parties”.

Grace gestured with her hand and the air and crowd around her seemed to move in ripples. They turned their eyes from the strange visitor with his now impotent parchment and began to march in a direction where, in the distance Micheál could make out the dark shadows of a few buildings. Although the day was overcast the distance could not have been more than a mile or so, and yet the buildings remained difficult to make out, merely inkblots raised above the emerald green of the grass. They struck strange shapes, like dreams half-remembered upon waking. And still, facing all the mystery and strange clothing and customs, the young faux-Minister found himself following the woman in the bowler hat as if under some strange spell.

Micheál was used to Ministerial offices and the fine private rooms of the titans of Dublin’s businesses and the Longhouse bore little resemblance to either. The powerful men of the mainland built their private spaces, where the fates of tens of thousands hung on pen strokes, the way one might built labyrinths or prisons. Huge, palatial affairs narrowing and narrowing forever in a winding series of hallways and polished cutlery until they cut off a little locked, mahogany slice just for themselves where they kept the expensive brander and the orders for execution. The Longhouse, which Grace explained was the centre of community power on the little green Atlantic rock, was a huge open affair. Its wooden floors were covered in a series of circular carpets of varied and magnificent colours, the lips of each kissing over the edges of all others, leaving Micheál to concentrate on not stumbling over in his father’s boots.

“Each one is made and designed by a family or individual and they overlap each other to represent our overlapping responsibilities to each other”.

Micheál couldn’t meet Grace’s eyes as she spoke. He told himself it was simply because he had to watch his step, and kept his eyes on his firm leather boots, the only thing in the world that didn’t seem unreal. It was just the two of them then, the crowd having dispersed of their own accord or perhaps on foot of some secret order to which Micheál was not privy. Eventually he heard Grace stop at a wooden dais in the centre of the room that looked like a bench folded in upon itself. From the centre of the circular shelf rose a wooden beam and atop the wooden beam sat a large, round disk. Looking up for the first time since his feet had touched land, Micheál noticed the un-bloomed bulbs of flowers that sat around the rim, odd coloured teeth around the maw of some wooden beast. Grace pointed them out and a look of sly joy crept across her face.

“You come to bring us what we already have. And you herald the Celosia, how fitting”.

Grace pointed again for emphasis and Micheál watched as a little red floor in the circle opened its leaves gradually. He was reminded of the way he had woken that morning, tossed away by the waves, unfurling himself gradually and reluctantly to the grey sky. Grace got on her toes and plucked the red flower from its perch. Micheál was astonished to watch it immediately regrow itself, in full bloom, upon the wooden circle.

“The celosia’s twisted bloom marks out the unfurling of the evening. When things are beginning to lull into dreams”.

Grace ran a single white finger along the edges of the flower’s face, tracing the curling, chaotic lips of its red petals.

“So quite unlike most flowers, with their neat little ovals of colour. The evening celosia starts at the stem as straight and rigid as even other, but on its journey into life it finds its shapes bending and turning in directions the seed never could have imagined. Appropriate no?”

Micheál caught Grace’s eyes at last and was captured. The world seemed to disappear around him, into that glowing green surface, the way the crags of jagged rock and the roar of sea foam had vanished the moment he laid eyes on the tapestry of green grass that made up the island’s surface. It occurred to him for a moment that the time and space surrounding her eyes were becoming not unlike the grey rock, the colour of an old man’s skin, all torn and fractured and coming apart at the seams. Time, like those rocks, appeared jagged at eye level and only took along solidity when it collided with your skull. He finally managed to move his eyes to the twisting flower she held, and then to the patchwork of rugs and at last to an obsidian container at the end of the room. In the periphery of his vision the world and the passage of time slowly and meticulously reassembled itself. When he withdrew his watch from his coat pocket, which seemed deeper now and too deep even for his father’s big hands, Micheál noticed that his hands were shaking. He tried to focus on the long moves of the hands across the watches face, thinking of the reeds in the river, but for some reason he couldn’t puzzle out whether the hands were really moving at all, or if they were moving in the right direction or just entirely too quickly.

“What’s happening here?”

He had built up an armour around himself where he wore the ill-fitting title of “Minister”, putting on the mistake like a cuirass. It has been rusting since he wound his way into the little village and now it was flaking and collapsing. The question was not the formal inquiry of a heroic agent of the new state, but the terrified gasp of a child. Grace turned around and cast her eyes towards the large metallic container.

“I believe I may be able to explain. But there are things infinitely better than words with which to do so”.

She led, and he followed. Micheál didn’t concentrate much on the how the overlapping rugs seemed to form like protruding fingers rustling against his feet, trying to trip him up. He suddenly seemed to step over them with ease as though dancing a waltz in perfect time, his body slipping into the movements unconsciously in a kind of reflexive ecstasy. The metal chest came closer and grew larger in his vision, rearing up like some strange animal from the dark heart of Africa. It was inlaid with golden iron work in patches that looked like the knotted, arthritic fingers of hanging ivy. Once he had approached it Grace stood in front, keeping him at a slight distance, as though it exuded some strange power he might become beholden to.

The strangeness of the large room on the island had fallen away. All thoughts of bureaucratic missions and state-making had vanished, sucked beneath the gaps between the lips of the floor’s uneven and colourful carpeting. There was only Micheál, Grace and the box. Grace gestured behind him and Micheál dutifully turned his head. She had pointed toward the beam, atop which rested the flower clock. The celosia had closed now, pursing the lips of its petals careful together and turning the writhing chaos of its open face into the neat illusion of its shuttered bulb again. With a few fits and starts Micheál noticed the flower beside it, an evening-sky blue affair, begin to come to life in its own cold, shuddering way. Had it been an hour already? Then another question, floating from some hot and writhing place in his stomach, buried beneath his big coat: Did an hour even mean anything in this place?

Grace turned his attention once more, but this time it was without the need for any magical auras. Her finger brushed him gently beneath his chin, in the place where his whiskers were still feeling out whether he had grown suitably into manhood to deserve a full beard, and he moved his head back to face the chest. Inside, he could hear whirring and popping, and it reminded him of his first time seeing a motor car upon his arrival to Dublin, all heat and noise and energy; the essence of the city and the new state that grew at its heart. Suddenly the lid of the chest parted via some unseen mechanism and from beneath the metalwork within a small shining tray, the colour of polished obsidian, raised itself up to greet Micheál. On its surface sat a little sand-coloured powder, the fragrance of which stroked his nostrils in the same surprising and yet not unpleasant way that Grace had stroked his chin.

“Taste the time” she said.

At that Micheál noticed the little impressions and the mound of powder, like foxholes in a hillside fortification, the accumulation of thousands of daubed wet fingers. He brought the spice to his mouth on one wet finger and, closing his eyes, let that hot taste run around his tongue. It was the taste of the cusp of midnight and ill-advised home-made alcohol, of dance halls and curfews. He opened his eyes to meet Grace’s green gaze and the tray of the ‘Spice Clock’ withdrew into the chest again.

Micheál listened to the oars lap against the waves and caught the mainland coming into view. The Minister would surely be furious with him, but just how furious, was the question. He could not tell if he had been gone for days or weeks or months. He could only tell by the memory of his senses, which had tasted time and inhaled the hours with reckless love and abandon. The Declaration of Intent, by which he had meant to give the strange savages the gift of iron hours, had long ago been dropped in the boat’s wake. As they went gliding across the water, Micheál hung his watch from its chain off the side of the boat. The hands were still as they drifted through the water.

David’s work has been published in The Singularity, Sci-Phi Journal, The Runt and Tales From the Forest. He won the 2015 Kerry’s Eye Creative Writing Competition and was shortlisted for the 2015 Hot Press Creative Writing Award and the 2016 Penguin Ireland Short Story Award. His story “Beautiful Along the Break” is presently shortlisted for the 2016 Aeon Literary Award.

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