The Clock's Dancer

First published in 1,000 WORDS or LESS: Flash Fiction Collection 1.

The dining room was the scariest room in my Aunt Tabitha’s house. It was unfortunate, as we ate every meal there.

Aunt Tabitha wasn’t concerned that the five year old in her care was frightened of that dining room, with its solemn furniture, the creepy portraits of her late husband and father on the walls, and the heavy, stained drapes I imagined had been spattered with blood. She insisted I sit at the table with her like the proper ladies we were. And so I sat, day after day, with my back to the portraits, not wanting to meet their wandering eyes.

The latest addition to the room, a large cuckoo clock made of dark wood and brass, hung next to them on the wall. I was surprised my gift was placed in such a prized position; perhaps my aunt valued me more than I thought.

The clock was shaped like a house, with little faces engraved in the wood along its edges, which when you looked closer, turned out to be skulls. When the door opened, a small wooden figure of a man attached to a long rod popped out, and a panel of wood slid out beneath him. He was painted to look like he was wearing a black and white suit with black shoes, and as the rod moved him in and out in time with the chimes of the clock, his mechanical legs would move up and down, tapping on the wooden panel.Tuk tuk. Tuk tuk. When the last chime echoed into silence the panel and rod would slide back into the house and the doors would shut with a clunk.

At night a deep hush would encompass the house, broken only by the cuckoo clock on the hour, every hour. I was soon able to sleep through it, the chimes and the tuk tuk of the tap dancer merging into dreams where mechanical figures waltzed in the depths of a dark forest. I don’t think Aunt Tabitha was used to the sound yet, because for the first few days of the clock being in the house, she appeared at breakfast with dark circles under her eyes and a pale face.

On the seventh night I was woken not by the chimes of the clock, but by the absence of the clunk that signaled the doors shutting. The last chime faded into nothing, and the hush of the night settled over the house again.

I continued to lie there in the dark with my eyes open, feeling all too awake for sleep. Then I caught a faint sound on the stairs, and I lifted my head slightly. At first there was silence, before… tuk tuk. Tuk tuk. The tapping seemed to be coming closer, as though something was making its way along the corridor. Tuk tuk. Tuk tuk. It sounded as though it was right outside my room.

I held my breath.

Tuk tuk. Tuk tuk. The sound had moved beyond my door, continuing down the corridor to my aunt’s room.

I lay in bed for another half an hour before getting up and opening the door. The corridor was empty, but the door to Aunt Tabitha’s room was ajar. I tiptoed down the corridor, my bare feet cold against the floorboards, and I entered the dark room.

I immediately tripped over something hard on the floor, and I scrabbled for the light switch. Warm yellow light from an old-fashioned bulb filled the room, and I looked down.

Lying on the floor in front of me was a life-size wooden doll, with a black and white suit and black shoes painted on, wide, staring eyes and a thin line for a mouth. It was a perfect replica of the figurine from the cuckoo clock.

Next to the doll, flat on her back, was Aunt Tabitha.

Her eyes were open wide, and the dark circles underneath were lost amongst the black bruises that marred her face and chest and arms.

I had a sudden flashback to when I was eight years old, and running at full speed through the house so I wouldn’t be late to dinner, when I had smacked into the corner of Aunt Tabitha’s favourite oak cabinet. She had scolded me, and the bruise I carried for the next week looked very similar to the one on her left cheek.

I remembered what the old woman at the market had said when she had sold me the cuckoo clock: ‘This is special, this clock. They say it has power, that it rights past wrongs. Of course, if you wish, you could simply use it to tell the time.’