My job is simple. I have to embroider the flag. Every day I come here from the village to earn our ethnic improvement grant. I sit here in the dust and sew the tiny threads which will make up, one day, the glory of the new flag.
Paco, my husband, says it is like laying hairs over the ocean, because the threads are so tiny and the flag is so big. It began as just plain white cloth but now part of it is green. I do not have the pattern. The Generals send a messenger each month. He reports back on my progress, and twice now they have delivered orders for the next section to be started. It has been all green so far, but I was told when I began that there will be blue and yellow later, and white. The white won’t just be left as it is; that will have to be embroidered too. There won’t be any red. I asked.
The orders come in thick soft envelopes sealed with dark red wax stamped with the government crest. A cavalry officer opens them and hands them to the messenger, who tells me what they say. It is very grand when the officer holds out the orders, his long glove covered in the dust of four days’ riding. When the messenger has explained, he gives the orders back to the officer. Then the officer clicks his heels and salutes in a very grand manner, and rides back into the territory. Paco likes to watch all this from the steps of the clock museum.
Paco has been the museum attendant all his life, since he was seven. It used to be a shop in the frontier days. It is still made of the same wood the first owner built it with, although the rest of the town is made of steel and glass and concrete now. We are in the middle of Main Street, but that name comes from the old days. In fact, we are on the outskirts of the town. I can sit in the street all day without a rider passing by, and most of what we can see from the front is the territory.
I have never been into the museum. Paco says it is two rooms; the first one is filled with ticking which will drive you mad, and the second is filled with the silence of the clock of real time. That silence will drive you mad too, Paco says, unless you are meant to be there. It is Paco’s job to find out if you are meant to be there, by asking the pendulum question.
People do not visit the museum much. Paco does not care for the clocks. Oh, he looks after them, yes. He dusts and winds them every day. No, what I mean is, he does not like them very much. It is the ticking, I know, but he says it is an evil place. He says a clock should tell the time for a reason, not just because it’s a clock. He says the time in the room is wasted time, because nobody is wanting to know the time in there. And for Paco, it is a bad thing to waste time. I tell him he is wasting his time too then, because he is looking after the clocks for nothing. This makes him angry. But I know it is the clock of real time that makes his job worth doing. He is the guardian and guide to the clock; an important job, even if the pay is no good.
When someone comes to see the clock of real time, Paco has to warn them about it first, and make sure that they should be there. He has to tell them how dangerous it is to consult the clock without good reason, and then he asks them the pendulum question. Then he has to warn them about the clock’s face and how to read it. It is not like other clocks. It has two dials and the numbers are turned around so that on the second dial the four is at the top; because that is the top, the middle of your life. Without that warning more people would go mad than they have already. They might think they are near the end of their life when in fact they are only in the middle.
People come from all over the world just to see the clock. Many of them only half believe in it. They think it might be just a story the Indians tell to trick the gringos out of their horses. Or they think it is only the journey that matters. One or two have found it too late. One man came from the other side of the world to see it. He was very old, but he had begun looking for the clock when he was a young boy. He had spent his whole life trying to find out the real time, and when he got here his day was over. He died that same night in that ditch over there. Another man, a ranch-owner from the north, found that his time was five minutes to midnight, and the time for sleep is half past eleven! He was one of the people who went mad.
Paco tries to keep out the ones who will go mad. He says they are the wrong sort. I know our neighbour, Gabriel, thinks Paco is mistaken about that, but I do not know what to think. Maybe it is true what Gabriel says, that there are people who need to know their time before the clock is ready to tell them, even if it casts a shadow on the time they have left. But also maybe they are just what Paco calls them, wielders of words. They can answer the pendulum question because words are a kind of magic that they use, but they are not saying true words.
The question Paco asks is always the same: What must we say to one who offers knowledge? I have heard many answers to it. They are all different. I don’t know how Paco can tell when the answer is right. Perhaps he cannot. That might explain the mistakes he has made, although he has made only a few. He says he can tell because the first owner, Harry Jack, gave him the way of understanding the words of men and women.
No, there have not been many women. Paco says it is not a thing a woman always needs to know, but always a man at some time needs to see the clock. Perhaps that is why I have never seen it, but lately I have been thinking I might want to see it one day. I think it has to do with the flag.
Paco likes to tell people the story of how he was given the museum to look after. His eyes crinkle then, because he can talk about Harry Jack from Texas, the man who built the clock store.
It was a general store then. Harry Jack sold blankets to the Indians and food to the townspeople. He adopted Paco when he was four. Paco doesn’t remember anything about his life before Harry Jack. Gabriel, our neighbour, should remember but he says Paco just arrived one day and stayed, helping Harry Jack. So nobody knows where Paco is from. Maybe he was an Indian. Gabriel can’t say; all he can remember is that they found him in the back yard talking to the cockerel.
Paco helped Harry Jack for four years. He helped load and unload wagons for buyers and sellers, and keeping the jars full was his job. Every night Harry Jack would cook dinner in the back room. Paco says Harry Jack was a great cook. His speciality was Mexican food, but he could make everything tasty, and there was always plenty of it.
Harry Jack used to laugh every time he cracked an egg and shout, ‘Look out below!’ When he chopped the pepper he would shout, ‘Watch out, boys and girls, here come those god damned peppers again!’ and roar with laughter. Then he would toss the pepper in the pan and say, ‘All right, you god damned peppers, here’s where you get yours!’
Paco likes to say these things with Harry Jack’s voice, the way he used to say them. He tells me I should cook with more laughter sometimes, because Harry Jack always said cooking with laughter is the best cooking there is, and his cooking always tasted good. Gabriel says cooking always tastes good when you are hungry, which is what they were most of the time. But Paco says what does Gabriel know? Nothing, because who can be hungry in a food shop? Then they argue, because Gabriel says if you had so much food, how come you only ate one meal a day in the evening, but Paco says that was just because Harry Jack was so busy all day.
At night, after a hard day’s work and a good meal, Harry Jack would tell Paco stories from his life. It was supposed to help Paco get to sleep, but the stories were too good for that. Harry Jack used to be a prospector in California and Mexico, looking for gold and silver. After that he ran a detective agency in Mexico City, but somebody tricked him and he had to run away. He opened a general store in Nueva Rositas but the authorities found him and took away all his money, so after some more prospecting and one lucky night in a Georgetown casino, he came here and started a new life. He told Paco he had been married five times, twice to the same girl, but all his wives were either dead now or turned out to be ‘two-timing whores only out for the god damned bucks.’
Harry Jack always haggled with his customers, Paco says. Everything in the store had a price, but Harry Jack would always ask for more so that he could bargain. If it was an Indian he would sell for less, but if it was a rancher or a rich person the price would go up. He was the same with the traders who came to sell him things. He loved haggling, and sometimes he would argue over the price of a ten-cent bag of sugar just for the fun of it.
One day a rancher came to buy a clay pipe and Harry Jack told him it was an antique and would cost a hundred dollars in New York but he could have it for a hundred and ten as a special favour. The rancher told Harry Jack he was crazy, and that in any case the pipe already had a price ticket on it saying six dollars so what was he talking about? Harry Jack said the six dollars was just the tax, which he’d forgotten about, so that made a hundred and sixteen altogether. The rancher asked him when was the last time he ever paid any tax, and what he’d do if he just walked out of here, and Harry Jack said, ‘Well, amigo, if you do that I guess I don’t sell the pipe, but no smokie for you-oo!’ Paco always tells that story with Harry Jack’s voice, singing the last little bit, and then laughs at the memory.
It was the madness of clocks that drove Harry Jack out of here and turned the store into a museum. Paco says it was a madness that crept up on you and at first it seemed like fun, but eventually the ticking of clocks changed Harry Jack, and he became just a little bit crazy. It all started when Harry Jack said to Paco one day, ‘Paco, amigo, what we need is a clock. That god damned cockerel’s no good. We’re always waking up late and missing out on trade. What we need is a clock to tell us what time it is and then we’ll know when to get up and open the store.’
They didn’t open the store that day. Harry Jack rode straight off to the city. He came back the next day and banged a clock down on the counter for Paco to look at. It was the first clock he had ever seen. It had a case of polished mahogany. Harry Jack showed him how to wind it, and the little drawer in the back for the key. He said, ‘Paco, this clock is your responsibility. It’s your job to wind it every night before you go to bed. You do your job with this clock and we’ll never be late up again!’ Then he laughed and went out in the back yard and shouted at the cockerel, ‘Are you listening, you old cockerel? We’ve got us a clock now. You’re out of a job. You’re going to be our next dinner!’ Then he slapped his legs and laughed his big laugh. Paco laughed too.
Paco says every day after that Harry Jack would go out in the yard and yell at the cockerel and tell him he was their dinner for that day and how much he was going to enjoy cooking him now they had a clock. But every evening Harry Jack would swear about the cockerel and say how he was so old and tough he was going to make a pair of shoes out of him instead. He carried on like this every day. Every morning he shouted at it, walking right up to it and shouting about his special recipe for roast chicken, and every evening he cursed it for being too old and tough for cooking, saying how worn out his old boots were and how the cockerel’s skin would be ‘just the god damned job’ for the kind of leather he needed to make a new pair.
Harry Jack kept on like this for a whole month. Then one morning he said to Paco, ‘The trouble with this clock is, it’s too quiet. It tells the time all right, but what’s the good of that if you’re not awake to see it? The truth is, we’re no better off now than we were before. We’ve got the clock to tell us the time but all it ever tells you is how god damned late you are for work.’ Then he told Paco about a special kind of clock he had seen in the city, specially made with big bells on the top to wake you up at the right time. That was the kind of clock they needed.
Paco didn’t believe him at first. He told Harry Jack that it must be a trick because how would the clock know when you wanted to wake up? That made Harry Jack laugh his biggest laugh. He couldn’t stop laughing and laughed so hard he tipped over his chair and broke it. Then he stood up and felt his back because it was hurting. Paco was worried then, but Harry Jack just looked at the broken chair and laughed harder than ever. He said, ‘That’s a good one that is, Paco. How will the clock know!’ And then he laughed some more. He kept saying over and over, ‘How will the clock know?’ and roaring with laughter until he fell over the broken pieces of chair. Even then he didn’t stop laughing. He just lay in the middle of the broken chair and laughed until he couldn’t laugh any more.
That same day Harry Jack went back to the city and bought an alarm clock. Paco thought it was the most wonderful and clever thing in the world, the way it would wait until just the right time to ring the bell and wake you up. Harry Jack said that was nothing compared to some of the clocks they had in the city. They had big ones as tall as a man, and glass ones where you could see all the workings; they even had one with a little bird in it that came out every hour and sang to you. Paco laughed at this and told Harry Jack to stop telling silly stories. That made Harry Jack laugh too. He put his arms around Paco and said it was true, and he’d see soon enough because he was going to go back when he had enough money and buy one of the bird clocks.
That was how it started, and soon it became a regular thing. Every month or so Harry Jack would load up his horse and go off to the city. Sometimes he would be gone for two or three days, but every time he came back there was a new clock to look at, and one more job for Paco to do at bedtime.
For a long time the cuckoo clock was Paco’s favourite, but one day Harry Jack brought home a wooden clock with a little house and garden under the dial, all painted in bright colours. When the clock chimed a little man and woman came out of the house and into the garden and kissed each other. They kissed once for each number of the hour, and then they walked backwards into the house again. Paco thought it was marvellous. Every time it chimed the hour he would run to look at the lovers in their garden, and try to find the magic of its working. Paco says he remembers the day Harry Jack brought this clock home especially, because that was the day he put his arms around Paco and asked him how would he like to have a little brother or sister to play with? Paco said he would like that more than anything.
Soon Harry Jack’s shop was well known for its clocks. He had most of them in the shop and people would come to look at them. He got a lot more customers now because of the clocks. It was very noisy when the hour came round, but Harry Jack liked the noise and laughed when the clocks went off. These days Paco usually comes out of the museum just before the hour strikes, unless there are people in there. He says the noise is a little bit crazy, just like Harry Jack was.
But one day Harry Jack changed. He came back from the city with another new clock, but this one was broken, and he was in a bad temper. His eyes were red, but Paco couldn’t tell if that was from crying or drinking. He had never seen Harry Jack cry, except from laughing.
After that day Harry Jack didn’t laugh the same any more. For a few days he was very quiet. He would put his arms around Paco, but he would not say anything. At night the cooking had no laughter, and the stories at bedtime were not the same. The store was open in the day, but Harry Jack was like a wagon with a broken wheel, and he only charged the price on the ticket.
Harry Jack never went to the city again. He started drinking, and many nights he went out gambling in the town. He had always been a good gambler. Some nights he lost, but many times he won. He would come back happy then, and show his winnings to Paco, but still he did not laugh the same as before. Paco did not know what was wrong, but he felt sorry for Harry Jack.
They had more money now, from the gambling, and Harry Jack bought a little pony for Paco to learn to ride. Paco loved the pony, but not as much as he loved and missed the old ways of Harry Jack.
One night Harry Jack went out gambling and didn’t come back until the next night. Paco was very worried until Gabriel told him there was a game in the mountains far away. Paco had heard of these games. They were played in the mountains where the Indians could join in. The Indians didn’t have any money, but they had gold sometimes, or silver, or women.
It was very late when Harry Jack came back, covered in dust from a long ride. Paco was so glad to see him, but Harry Jack didn’t hug him, he went straight to a little box under his bed and pulled out some papers. He was in a hurry, and Paco says there was a strange look on his face like fear and happiness both together.
Harry Jack said he had found something in the mountains, something you couldn’t even imagine. The game was still on and he needed to raise the stakes. Then he said he was playing against ‘a gang of god damned cheats’ and it would take more than luck to win. He couldn’t even stop to eat. He took Paco’s pony and rode straight out.
Paco waited another three days. All the time he worried about Harry Jack. He talked to Gabriel, who didn’t know anything about the game except that it was far away. Gabriel said not to worry, but just keep the store open and wind the clocks as usual. He said it was time Paco learned to cook anyway.
It was gone midnight when Harry Jack staggered into Paco’s room. He needed help to carry something big and heavy into the store. Paco remembers hearing the wagon move off as they struggled with the clock of real time, putting it gently on top of a wooden crate in the back room, where it still is today.
When he turned up the lamp, Paco saw Harry Jack’s coat was covered in a strange white dust that seemed to sparkle with hundreds of tiny stars like grains of crystal. The clock of real time was covered by a cape of Spanish leather. This also was dusty with the shining dust. But Harry Jack’s face was grey with the dust of riding, and his eyes still had that strange look of being frightened and happy.
Then Harry Jack spoke the words that changed Paco into the museum keeper he has always been. He told him about the clock of real time, how it worked without winding, how to read it from seven in the morning on the first dial and four in the afternoon on the second dial. He told him how people would come to see the clock who should not be allowed to see it, and how to ask the pendulum question: what must we say to one who offers knowledge? He taught Paco how to understand the different answers. Paco says this was so clear he never had to write it down, and that it felt like the thing he had been trying all his little life to understand. Paco says it is a very simple thing to tell, but that some people can fool him with words which are well said, and when they do it is their own fault what happens to them.
Paco says Harry Jack explained everything very fast, then he had to go. He hugged Paco and told him he was a brave boy, and he knew he was leaving the clock of real time with exactly the right person. Paco started to cry, but Harry Jack said not to be afraid and to think about the clock and what time it showed: Harry Jack’s time was nearly over, but there was one more thing to do, something he had been wanting to do for a long time. He had been afraid before, but now he was ready.
Harry Jack loaded up his horse, which Paco could see was already half dead, and went to say goodbye to Gabriel. It was dawn when he rode away on Paco’s pony with the tired horse following behind. Paco cried and cried. He says Gabriel was crying too as they waved goodbye, but Gabriel claims that is untrue. He says it was just very early in the morning and he wasn’t feeling well. Paco says Gabriel is just an old liar whose life will never amount to anything. Gabriel tells Paco he should look at himself: taking care of a lot of clocks no-one wants to see, and living on army charity. He says Harry Jack came to this town with nothing but a pile of worthless foreign dollars, a toolbox and a broken down old horse, and that’s exactly what he took with him when he left.
Paco and Gabriel like to argue. I only listen. But I like it too in a way. The riders don’t pass this way much anymore, and I like to hear people talking as I sit in the street building up the colours on the flag.
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