I grew up in a small, sleepy town. My village is hidden away in a shadowy, misty valley between snow-capped mountains. I’m not ungrateful for my having spent so much of my life in such a sheltered setting. I miss my home dearly. But, you see, nothing ever changes there. The weeks and months and years blend into each other with nothing but my eyes to indicate that time has even passed at all.
Every morning my sister pulls her rocking chair into the corner of the living room and rocks back and forth for hours. At one thirteen every day she screams for thirteen minutes, then retreats to bed. On the days the wind blows, my father wanders into the forest to chop wood. On the days it rains my mother steps on spiders in the garden, crushing their green guts and black, furry legs into the mud with her red boots. When the sun shines, Mister Dance and Mister Eat pay us a visit to show off the effects of the newest ointment on their painted faces. This is our happy pattern of life. Everyone is content in our comfortable and predictable routine. Except for me. When my thoughts wander, they invariably come to rest on the question of what else exists in the world.
As far as I can remember, nobody has ever left our town. My father tried to leave once, marching away with his axe on the only road out of town. He was searching for undiscovered groves of the older hardwoods that he and his axe love so dearly. He returned the day after he left, describing a harrowing journey upwards and upwards into the mountains. Lost in a fog that never ends, spiraling higher and higher until it was too cold to continue forwards.
One sunny day, after my sister finished screaming, Mister Eat confessed to me that he too once tried to leave town. Afraid of heights, and not willing to tolerate the discomfort of the wind and freezing rain, Mister Eat wandered along the train tracks that terminate at our dilapidated train station. He didn’t tell me what drove him to attempt to trek to a neighboring village. But he described in great detail the deepening loneliness and the growing sorrow that built within him every step he took away from home. After two days, he could stand no more and fled back to the town followed by a dark cloud of starlings that swirled in the sky, forming ominous patterns and shapes.
Several years later, I asked Mister Dance and Mister Eat a question: Why is it that nobody can remember the name of our town? Why do we not even know the name of where we live?
Mister Dance exchanged a look with Mister Eat. My sister began screaming. Thirteen minutes later, Mister Dance told me a story. Long ago, earlier than my memories, a clockmaker lived in the town. In these times, the train station was well maintained and the name of the town was painted in neat letters on a sign mounted on the platform. One night, during a terrible windstorm, the clockmaker took the sign from the station and ran off into the woods. At daybreak, the townsfolk searched in vain for the clockmaker. He, and the sign from the station, had vanished. Without the sign to remind everyone, nobody could remember the name of the town.
We receive visitors once a year, when the Carnival comes to town. They arrive by train – the only train that visits our terminal stop. The only train that ever uses the tracks at all. The townsfolk gather on the crumbling platform at the first faint sounds of the train’s whistle in the valley. The Carnival dancers and barkers and magicians and musicians pour from the train the instant it squeals to a halt. They erect their enormous tents in the square and for three days, they amaze us with their music, and stories, and artifacts from far-away corners of the Earth. We are given tastes of wines and whiskeys, milks and juices. For three days we dance to their strange music and open ourselves to the wonders and glories of the world that they bring us.
The morning after the third day, when we are too exhausted from our night at the Carnival to rise early, we again hear the whistle of the train echoing through the valley. The visitors have packed their tents in the night and left for another year.
Year after year after year, we follow our same routine. After a time, even the wondrous distraction of the Carnival seems part of the unending pattern. But, on their most recent visit, when the train hissed and pulsed its way out of the valley in the dim hour before sunrise, I was on it, hidden in the boxcar under crates of rigging.
Even after sunrise it was dark under the rigging. I listened as the train clacked and rocked and pushed its way farther and farther from the only place I had ever known. I was fortunate not to experience the growing loneliness and sorrow that Mister Eat experienced on his journey down the tracks. But that’s not to say that I wasn’t filled with emotion. What guarantee did I have that the larger world was a place that I would belong? That I would not encounter misfortune and disaster in the wide and mysterious world from which the Carnival visited us?
We rode for five and a half hours. Ten hours. Seventeen hours. The train didn’t slow. Twenty-nine hours. The train still pushed me forward, farther and farther from home. Thirty-eight hours. I finally fell asleep in the dark under the rigging.
I awoke in the stillness of a stationary boxcar. The rigging was gone. The boxcar was empty. It was nighttime, yet a light shown in through the open door of the train car.
I exited the boxcar onto a platform. The boxcar had been unhitched from the rest of the Carnival train while I slept. Unhitched and emptied of everything it contained, save myself. There was no sign of the rest of the train or the Carnival it transported. The whiff of smoke from the train’s engine, which lingers for hours after Carnival leaves my town, was absent from the cool night air.
A single electric light (which I had only heard of but never seen before) did its best to illuminate the empty platform. Unlike the train station in my nameless home, this station had a name. A neatly painted sign hung on the pole that supported the platform’s light. It said
The train station named “Numbers” had no ticket office. No structures on the platform at all, other than the lamp post and the sign. A short flight of steps allowed me to exit the platform. Unlike the station at home, there was no town. No buildings. No roads. The platform sat in a clearing in the forest. Tall pine trees surrounded me, with no roads or pathways inviting me to wander into them.
A glass booth sat in the center of the clearing, Illuminated from the inside by another electric light. The word “TELEPHONE” was written in large white letters on its red paint. Another invention I had known about but had yet to see myself.
I entered the booth, lifted the handset and put it to my ear. A woman’s voice - so strange to hear the voice of a woman that was not my mother or my sister - spoke quietly. “seven, three, five, one, nine, …” She pronounced the names of the digits without stopping., seemingly unaware that I was listening,
I stood in the booth for a year, listening to the unfamiliar woman tell me the names of numbers. The Carnival train raced past the platform but did not stop. I listened to the numbers for another year. The Carnival train appeared again, but this time it squealed and wheezed its way to a stop by the platform.
I hung up the telephone and snuck into the boxcar. The clang and jolt of the boxcar being hitched to the train told me that I my time in Numbers had ended. The anxiety and trepidation that characterized my thoughts on the dark ride to Numbers returned.
We traveled in darkness again. Eight hours. Fifteen hours. Twenty-seven hours. The pine trees flew past us without end. Thirty-five hours. I fell asleep.
I awoke again in a stationary, dark boxcar. Slivers of meager orange light leaked in between the slats of the walls, and around the perimeter of the door. I slid the door open, revealing the brick wall of tunnel. A line of dim electric lights ran in both directions, disappearing into the gloom.
I climbed out of the train car and walked through the tunnel in the direction the train had been traveling. I walked for a day, then five days, then nine days. On the fifteenth day, I came to a small red door in the tunnel wall.
The door opened to a wooden staircase whose uneven steps climbed upwards into darkness. I climbed the stairs for most of a lifetime. I climbed and I aged and climbed more and aged more. Each year the top of the staircase was imperceptibly closer, and my understanding of the world grew slightly greater.
I was old and tired when I exited the small red door at the top of the stairs. I stepped out of the dark stairway and into the clockmaker’s bedroom. He lay sleeping on the bed. I watched him breath for an hour, and then two hours, and then four hours. He awoke with a start, and screamed at the sight of me. He screamed and fell out of bed. He screamed and tried to rise to his feet. But he was old and frail and fell back onto the floor.
I watched, without moving at all, until his screams turned to gasps. I waited for glimmers of thought to return to his mind. Questions formed on his lips, and were replaced with new questions before he could speak. He finally got hold of himself. “I dreamed you. You were in my nightmares. I was a child.”
“You dreamed all of us,” I reminded him. “My mother and father. My sister and the spiders. Mister Dance and Mister Eat.” We are all just wisps of the frantic, frightening dreams of a child.
“A town of people with clocks for eyes...” He approached me cautiously. Walking sideways, ready to jump away from me at the slightest stimulus. I did not move, allowing him to study my wooden eyes. He saw the hands of the clocks in my eyes tick away the seconds.
“I stole the sign…” My eyes seemed to jog his memory. “That’s how I made the nightmares stop. I stole the sign and the town forgot itself.”
“We didn’t forget ourselves. We’ve been there all along. Waiting for you to come back.”
I put my hand on his shoulder. He flinched but did not move away.
“Now I shall dream of you, and you shall return to the town. You will give its name back and live in my dreams.” He tried to run, but it was too late. I took out his eyes and replaced them with my own. When I was done, he lay on the floor, crying softly, seeing the world through eyes made from clocks. The eyes he had dreamed of.
I put his own eyes where mine had been. Like the clockmaker, I paused to appreciate my new perspective on the world. His human eyes perceived so much less than I was used to. Time was invisible now. Only what was solid and material could be seen.
I guided the clockmaker to the small red door. I told him the way back to town – down the stairs, through the tunnel, through the endless pine trees, and past the telephone booth. He entered the stairwell and I closed the door, erasing him from this universe.
I climbed into the bed where he lay a short time ago. I fell asleep and dreamed of home.
My existence now is a cycle of waking and dreaming. When I am awake, I write the story of how I came here. I retell my tale for anyone that will listen to me. The more people know of my town, the less it can be forgotten. When I sleep, I dream of home, and wait for the clockmaker to arrive at the station.