The Timekeeper’s Vow

by Kathryn McMahon

The timekeeper lays the skin of his latest lover over the worktable. On shelves that smell of grease and copper keys, his clocks moan eleven. Hands of old lovers tick across their broad, blinking faces. Some peel needing his attention. He doesn’t come down here as often as he should, though here is where he ends each date, saying, “If we fall in love, this is your future.”

They always fall in love. And, dead or alive, they always return.

He’s never harmed his lovers. They do that themselves. The first drowned in a bath of his own tears and left skin that needed to be wrung out and ironed. The second died of a fever, his clock face warm even now. The third choked and remains an uncomfortable purple. Another died of exposure from circling his house in, what else, the blue dead of winter. The latest? Hunger. He arrived at the door pulling off his undead flesh and asking if he’d ever mattered. Now stitched-up he will make a magnificent clock.

The timekeeper stretches dermis over bone cogs and pinions. After each death he vows never to love. He would kill himself, but isn’t he already dead, nibbled as he is by the larvae of if only? When he finishes the clock, he sets the mechanism and winds his lover’s hand.

The hand squeezes back.

If only he were a clock, he would never feel. Small mandibles nip into his ribs. The timekeeper tries to ignore them and sets his lover on a shelf with other lovers. If only bites deeper. He grips his chest, and when he looks down the skin has split. He climbs out and peels away his face, then lays it on the stained wood of his worktable. His face looks back at him with regret or expectation. How to tell the difference without time?

He brushes a finger over a warped eyebrow. He will make himself into a clock. His last.

He glances at his lovers. Yes, now. The yes surges through him like an opiate of hope.

He begins by sacrificing fingers for the minute and the hour, then hacks out his heart for calibration. The pain, he tells himself, is the most deserving thing he has ever felt, each wormholed rib breaking away like a lover. His clocks will stop without him, so he unravels his brain and divides the gently coiled neurons between them.

But this is worse. Now their regrets chime within him while he remains only meat and a mouth groaning midnight alone.


Kathryn McMahon is a queer American writer living in Vietnam with her wife and dog. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Split Lip, Crack the Spine, Jellyfish Review, Maudlin House, Menacing Hedge, Wyvern Lit, and Necessary Fiction, among others. She tweets as @katoscope. More of her writing can be found at