The Clockwork Sky

by Alexandra Davydova

translated by Anatoly Belilovsky


The rail carriage jolted, spoons jumped, ringing the empty tea-glasses; the wild sheep standing in the passageway raised his head and pawed the floor. His tail flicked as if to chase away flies, his moist eyes fixed attentively on each sleeping passenger in turn. To stay unnoticed he huffed and snorted only in unison with the clatter of the wheels. Cautiously he peered under the lower berths, sniffed at the duffel bags stowed beneath them, then poked his head under the table. His horns scraped against the underside, rattling the glasses in their holders and knocking over a bottle of mineral water. It rolled and fell; the crash of it hitting the floor woke Nick with a shudder.

Nick heard his neighbor turn and murmur in his sleep on the lower berth. Jagged spots of moonlight raced each other across the table. The bottle of mineral water leaned against the window as if nothing had happened. Nick wagged his finger at it and looked down, searching for the intruder. Naturally, the sheep was nowhere to be seen; evaporated, as usual. On the floor there was only a book.

damaged-bookHe pulled off his sheet, climbed down cautiously, taking care to avoid stepping on his neighbors who slept below, then threw the book up to his berth and climbed back up. Then, finally back in his berth, he tried his best to catch shards of moonlight to browse the book’s fragile pages. Nearly all of them were shredded, as if someone had gnawed at the book methodically, leaving no page unscathed, or chopped it with a weapon of sorts, that left the edges of the cuts fringed and blackened and curled into tiny tubules. He had to smooth each sheet and run his finger over each splice until it healed. This took longer than it should have, longer than yesterday or the day before, and to compare with last year, painfully slow.

The sky beyond the window glowed steel-gray in the predawn twilight, and early bird travelers (looking in fact more like the undead than like any member of the feathered family) queued up in the corridor before Nick passed his hand over the last page of the book and closed it. He yawned with abandon and spent several seconds staring at the blank cover, then stuck his healed treasure under the pillow and in an instant fell into heavy morning sleep.

By close to midday, when the conductress shook him awake, the book had melted away like an evil premonition.

He had felt the urge to go on the road several weeks earlier. Before that his city supplied more than enough random occurrences to keep him busy. Paint peeled off old fences, baring letters and symbols carved into the splintery wood long ago. Cars speeding on collision courses passed a hair’s breadth apart. Murders of crows lost their way and dashed madly among sunset clouds that glowed just above the western horizon. And, falling asleep on a bus, one could see animals who searched for lost items, seedling trees that crawled to fountains to drink, and twilight caught between night and day.

From early childhood Nick could see rips in the fabric of which the Universe was knit, so early that he forgot what life was like in the days before he felt the cold breath of the other side. At ten years of age he came to understand that adults who recounted fairy tales did so in the firm disbelief of their reality, while he observed, at first hand, orderly queues of house spirits goose-stepping to the bathroom to wash their shaggy socks, and in his grandmother’s village encountered a fox who, hiding in the brambles, crooned invitations to geese to come for a plate of porridge.

A short time later Nick learned that he could influence events. He trailed the house spirits in silence and taught them to use his family’s washing machine, shushed the fox to silence, erased strange inscriptions from fences. In general, he assisted reality in its peaceful coexistence with faerie and helped people hold on to their misperceptions.

At seventeen he learned to see the fabric of the Universe itself. He even noticed the barely audible twang before it tore to birth yet another paradox. His mission changed from finding the strange and hiding it from the eyes of others to healing wounds on the surface of reality. He brought together the ghostly edges of dehiscences, breathed on them, and watched the Universe return to its appointed rounds. Flowers gave way to berries, curious green noses poked out from seeds of trees, and souls at liberty queued up at the windows of labor and delivery wards to await their turns at reincarnation.

“Assistant, a suture!” he once murmured merrily under his breath, pacing a huge fissure in the asphalt on his way home from work. It shrank behind his back, eventually to disappear, as if it had never existed.

Then disaster struck.

Random occurrences grew less and less frequent. At first Nick did not notice this, the difference being small between an avalanche of strange events one minute and avalanche-less-one the next; but when the figure grew to ten fewer, then rarer still, he began to worry.

Coincidences disappeared first, glancing at a digital clock to find four of the same digit in a row, calls answered with “Oh, I was just thinking of you, just now!” Then things stopped turning up in unexpected places, and inhuman beings went into hiding. The rips in the fabric of reality became increasingly difficult to heal. At first he blamed his own fading skills, then realized that it was not the healer to blame, but the injuries, deeper and more severe with every passing day.

His hometown grew strange to his senses, at times appearing even hostile. As Nick walked late at night through sleepy neighborhoods, between the monoliths of buildings, crossing and re-crossing the street like a weaver’s shuttle to stitch the roadway shut to the wind, the city’s breath would often ambush him from behind a corner. A piercing whistle would arise from alleys and courtyards, dust and dirt-smeared plastic bags fly into his face. He would shove his hands deeper in his pockets, draw his hood down to his eyes, and imagine himself an Arctic explorer braving the elements on his way to the North Pole. This helped, at least, to survive gale-force gusts at twenty degrees below.

When the breaks dropped to one or two a day, Nick grew afraid. Healing was no longer child’s play, no longer a physician’s laying-on of hands. He felt drained afterwards, as if he had spent all day standing while performing a complicated laparotomy; indeed, each time it took many hours to repair the world. If this trend were extrapolated, eventually a solitary breakthrough would be beyond his capability to heal. Then what? He had no desire to find out.

It had been easy, once, to fulfill his healing vocation. Happenstances and strangenesses swarmed and roiled about him. He’d nodded to them as one nodded to old acquaintances and walked on without a pause. Really, what need to stop when a gentle caress, a moment’s effort, and good intentions were all he needed to effect a cure? Now his fingers shook and his hands drooped with fatigue more and more often. He clutched at the edges of the wounds, pulled them together, ignoring the pain in overstrained muscles, dark circles in front of his eyes and the taste of blood on his tongue. Nick felt like a battle-fatigued soldier after too many days at the front, alone in a foxhole and unable, in the withering fire, to look outside for remaining enemies or approaching reinforcements. He only noted, with weary resignation, the shell bursts becoming less frequent but closer each time and more powerful and he thought: What if the next shell’s shrapnel gets past my guard? What if I fail to dodge the next fragment? What had been an amusing game had turned into a real war.

Once Nick sat on his window sill to smoke a cigarette, inside his room – he rarely did so, preferring not to smoke near his family – and looked outside. Inky darkness poured down from the sky, turning evening into night. The Moon came up for air from beneath the horizon. A pale moth flew out from the wardrobe and flitted about him, throwing itself suddenly at the glowing tip of his cigarette, and before Nick had time to react, it fell to the carpet in a dusting of ash.

“It’s time,” the city said.

“I understand,” said Nick and packed his travel bag.

He had been lucky with the next train, finding a ticket for a lower berth. There was only one other man in his compartment, a large, taciturn man with an impressive beard; no other passengers joined them.

They rode in silence at first, then the bearded man set aside his newspaper and whispered, “A surgeon, are you?”

“What?” Nick said.

“I’ve been looking at your hands,” the neighbor said. “Bruised and lacerated, as if you spent the night suturing everything in existence.”

“So I have. And you, sir?”

“Skip the formalities. Name’s Kurt.”

“Mine’s Nick.”

“Good to meet you. I won’t shake hands, sorry.” He waved his hand in the air. A white scar snaked across his palm. At closer examination, it wasn’t a scar but a fresh, open wound from which black ichor seeped. “Fighting above my weight, you might say, and got it caught on the edge… You know how it is.”

“Hurt much?” It was a stupid question, but Nick could think of nothing better to say. He had never before that day encountered another seer. The strangeness of the experience stopped all attempts to think of proper expressions.

“More insult than injury. I wasn’t like this from childhood, you know. By the experience I see in your eyes, you probably started looking for gingerbread men in the stove since you were three years old.”

“Never had a stove,” Nick said and smiled involuntarily.

“Stared at baby house spirits under your bed, then. Details aren’t important. Tell me, do you remember what it’s like, not seeing?”


“I do. I was twenty before it hit me like an avalanche of bricks – all at once: specters, rips, the worlds beyond the edge. It frightened me, of course. I drove into an accident and, looked like, jumped out of my own skin to change reality. And never jumped back in. At first I thought I’d gone insane but later I got used to it. But still I miss the times when, instead of the living Sun, all I saw in the sky was a mid-size astronomic body.”

“Was it difficult?”

“Strange, really. As if a hand reached down and churned up all I ever held sacred. Dreams, plans, visions – all down the drain. You know, my parents gave me a rocket for my tenth birthday. A working one, nearly as tall as I was. I forgot what it was called. BURAN, probably. No one else had one. All my friends wanted to do was sit in my room and play ‘Gagarin’ with this unchildlike sense of awe. I was horribly disappointed. I wanted a dump truck. I never wanted to go into space.”

“I never really looked up at the sky much.”

“And now you have no choice, right?” Kurt looked outside, through the rail carriage window beyond which the scarlet light of evening spilled across the sky. He tapped his jagged nail on the glass as if to frighten off the setting Sun. “You feel that the sky is where the answer lies?”

“I took a hint, more like,” Nick said and fell silent for a minute, tapping a teaspoon against the edge of the tea glass to keep his hands occupied, then asked what had to be his stupidest question ever. “Tell me, do you know where the Moon rises?”

“I don’t think you are looking for the compass bearing,” the bearded man said and smiled broadly, becoming like the Kindly Bear from fairy tales. “I can only say that you are travelling in the right direction. Keep at it. I heard she lives in the steppes, a few days’ travel by foot from here.”

Three days later, Nick arrived at a terminal stop at which the railroad ended. He had to continue his journey by bus.

The bus stop was just across the square. Nick chose the most roundabout route, bought a ticket for the next departure and headed for a cafe to breakfast on a cup of coffee and perhaps a sweet roll. The day before he had not eaten at all. The Universe, not content with conjuring an ungulate who had lost a book, had also produced a simple and unimaginative hole in the hot water heater on the train. He had spent the evening healing the tissue of the Universe and, in the morning, attempted to heal himself with whatever he found at hand. He had sustained no injuries as awful as the wound on the palm of his erstwhile companion, but not a single finger of his hand had escaped burns. The bandages in the first aid kit had been sufficient only to cover his wrists and half a palm. When he had gone to the conductress to beg for more, the heavyset woman rolled her eyes, wrung her hands, and poked her finger at the safety guide posted next to the heater. The day had started on a less than successful note.

Nick bought a plastic cup of coffee and, trying not to drop it, looked around. There was a table near the counter, its paint intact for once. Lately, Nick had become prone to attacks of nausea at the slightest suspicion of a break, even one limited to the mundane, physical world. A girl sat there in an unbuttoned windbreaker, plaid shirt and greenish jeans.  She looked at Nick with an unblinking gaze, her eyes a colorless gray. She smiled and waved at the seat next to her to invite him to sit down. Then she blinked, and when her eyes opened again, they shone a luminous blue, same as Nick’s.

“Latch on? Why?”

“So I don’t fall. Not really fall. More like, tear loose and fall away. Not so much outside, but just…out of life.”

“Is this even possible?”

“Anything is possible, I think,” she said, rummaging through a bag she had thrown to the floor next to the table, and pulled out a book much like the one Nick had healed a short time earlier. “I feed my curiosity, carry it with me like an anchor, so as not to let it disappear. Live in hope that if I fail I can always hold on to the book. I can read to you. If you want.”

Nick nodded. She opened the book and read aloud:

“At first, in the beginning of time when Gaia was young and gladly fed all of her inhabitants so they could incarnate in turn, her cogwheels spun quickly. Their teeth caught on the material of which the whole clockwork was built, leaving tiny scratches which were a child’s play to heal. Yellow dandelion blossoms turned in time to seeds, and tiny parachutes scattered across the meadow to grow new flowers, and so around and around. People did not strive to escape the circle; they lived as they could and pushed these sorcerous cogwheels by common efforts.

“Now Gaia is old. The mechanism rotates with difficulty. Teeth scrape and often catch, tearing huge swatches out of reality. Only with our help are the rips repaired — and barely, at that. At times we lose our strength. Then cold and darkness (Hello, old friends!) surge through the gaps, and whole cities and countries howl all night long of endless nightmares and spend their days doing inexplicable things. We should all band together to help the world, but no; we are all special. Everyone wants to escape the crowd, leap ahead, run in front, be alone and unknown, be proud of the difference, move ahead, only ahead, never look back. How can cycles close now? And so, wet snow and sleet falls late in March, and in late autumn, with temperatures below freezing, rain pours from the sky, dressing streets in reptile-slick glazes of ice.

“I must have fallen ten times last autumn,” the girl said and shut the book, tracing her finger across the shiny dust jacket.

“Fell hard?”

“Wholeheartedly, you might say. More insult than injury. Once I nearly drowned trying to keep the river from thawing and ice from piling up in December. Imagine a painting: ‘Ice Jam, Unexpected. Artist unknown.’ But that time I was lucky.”

“Looks like such merriment of nature hasn’t made it to our part of the country.”

“Oh, it has, have no doubt. It is quite thoroughly hidden. Readying a surprise, as it were. Imagine: It’s April, but not a single tree has a single bud on it, and no hint of grass.”

“And after earthquakes, there is no healing any more…” Nick lit yet another cigarette, inhaled its acrid smoke deep and flashed a crooked smile to the girl. She in turn fluttered her fingers over the ashtray as if tapping ash off an invisible cigarette and sighed. “Admit it, aren’t there times you’d like to escape it all? To hell with all these signs, secrets, symbols! No waiting by the sea shore for the weather to clear, checking the wind-sock of destiny, but pull ahead, cut corners. Might be dishonest, but independent. On the one hand, you know everything will turn out for the best—”

“But waiting is unbearable, sometimes.”


They sat in silence after that, Nick leafing through the book. In the beginning its pages were smooth; shiny black letters bristled off thick glossy paper, bringing the meaning of the sentences to the reader faster than they could be read. By the middle the printing dulled, meanings became vague and slipped away from understanding, flipping and turning unexpected sides to the reader. He did not even want to look at the book’s end; it was clear that nothing remained there but rotten, flaking gray sheets. The book of the world ended with nothing. Wind blew bits of newspapers and rustling plastic bags about the station square. Dust ground on teeth.

A bus arrived, and a brittle voice called passengers to board.

“Forgive me,” Nick mumbled, rising from the table. “I’ve lost my manners today. Forgot to ask your name, even.”

“No need to make excuses,” the girl said and smiled sadly, her eyes changing color from light blue to pearl-gray. “This is not important. The main thing now is to make it to the horizon.”

Nick left the bus at a station whose name he immediately forgot. He dropped his bag at the roadside and, unburdened, walked easily across the field toward the setting Sun. It hung huge, swollen, sickly, its rays spilling like blood across the land. He walked faster and faster, feeling the earth shudder and waver beneath his feet with every step. Wind rose and blew against his back as if trying to propel him ever-faster toward the terminus.

So said the book: “Where Earth meets the sky, day dies and night is born. Tired of its day’s labor, old Sun walks down the clouds or rolls along the slippery slope of sunset to lie down and sleep. Its rays cocoon it like a spider web. They sing its lullaby and renew it for the morning. And when the sky is black, all light extinguished, the changed reality crawls outside and takes flight to keep the dark and chill from drowning the world. As long as it’s abroad, nothing bad can happen; the cycle is closed, the rules are obeyed. The harbinger of the nearing end will be the day the winged Moon becomes too weak to fly above Gaia. When Moon can only wander below, unable to light the way for her children, seers and healers…”

When Nick crossed the horizon, he saw a pearly butterfly half out of a crimson, locomotive-sized chrysalis. Its silver wings shook and its legs scraped the edge of its swaddling-cloth, but it lacked the strength to pull its whole body outside, much less to fly away. Nick looked up into the sky. The ink of night appeared totally opaque; not a star had kindled, all waiting for the Moon to metamorphose and take wing.

“Fly! Fly already!” Nick said and pulled at the cocoon’s edge – perhaps the pelt of the Sun – to help the butterfly pull free. It shook its body again and freed its soft abdomen, wagged its antennae, gave an indecisive wave of the wings, and stumbled across the field, tangling in last year’s dead weeds. The creature looked worn and weak, not like a newborn but like a convalescent after a long illness. Its legs buckled, and iridescent scales fell from its wings. It seemed more like a badly made effigy of a butterfly than a live insect. A breath, it seemed, would scatter it into a cloud of moon flakes.

“You need a healer, too, don’t you?” Nick said.

The butterfly stopped and looked at him. It flapped its wings. Snowflakes and sparks danced around them, and hoarfrost covered his eyelashes. Then, suddenly, he saw an icy wound across the sky, and no way to suture it shut. He could only hope to swim beside it and guard against emptiness entering this world.

“Are you so terribly cold?”

Nick sighed and came close to the Moon, face to face. Looked in its moire eyes, in which the last yellow embers died to be replaced by a steely cold glow, and hugged it.

A moment later a pearly butterfly floated majestically from beyond the horizon. Gray squares of moonlight fell on floors of apartments, reflections ran along wings of night-flying planes, jagged white spots raced each other across tables in carriages of express trains.

“This spring we saved the Moon,” Kurt murmured, his hand on the warm back of an invisible gryphon. The gryphon eyed him suspiciously and went back to reading the Book of the Earth, the glow of its honey-colored eyes illuminating the pages.

“I hope we live to see another,” said the girl with colorless eyes and pulled a pair of scissors from her purse. “Let’s go wondering. Or happening.”

Alexandra Davydova, a fantasy writer first published in 2009, was born in Rostov-on-Don and now lives in Moscow. She has a masters degree in philology (theory of literature) and likes to write short stories much more than novels. Recognized as the Best Young Author from Russia at the international science-fiction, fantasy and horror convention Eurocon-2013, Alexandra is keen on videogames, LARP, board games “and the rest of game stuff.” She works as a game-designer when she’s not writing and likes strange things, happenstances and travelling.

Anatoly Belilovsky is a Russian-American author and translator of speculative fiction. He was born in a city that went through six or seven owners in the last century, all of whom used it to do a lot more than drive to church on Sundays; he is old enough to remember tanks rolling through it on their way to Czechoslovakia in 1968. After being traded to the US for a shipload of grain and a defector to be named later (see wikipedia, Jackson-Vanik amendment), he learned English from Star Trek reruns and went on to become a pediatrician in an area of New York where English is only the fourth most commonly used language. His work appeared or will appear in F&SF, Year’s Best SF #32 (edited by Gardner Dozois,) Grimdark, UFO I, Ideomancer, Nature, Stupefying Stories, Daily SF, Podcastle, StarShipSofa, Genius Loci, Cast of Wonders, and Toasted Cake, among others. He blogs about writing at

Don`t copy text!