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Tea with the Moirai

all clocks must stop

By Vanessa GonzalesPublished 2 years ago Updated 6 months ago 6 min read
Tea with the Moirai
Photo by milan degraeve on Unsplash

It looks like the sort of shop you’d expect to see hidden away on a back street, tucked into a corner. The sort of shop that in a story, someone might visit on a wet afternoon, only to find the next day that it had vanished as if it had never been there.

It's not one of those, though. It’s right there at a busy corner, with a big bold sign inviting everyone to come in. Some do. Some don’t. Mostly people stand on the pavement outside, gawking at the clocks through the window.

They’ve got all kinds inside, the women who run the place—clepsydras and sundials, grandfather clocks and cuckoo clocks, and the clocks that are shaped like cats with pendulum tails and eyes that go back and forth, click click click. All are mechanical, all need winding and tending and repairing, and the women work away at them from morning to night. A family business, they say: three generations, grandmother and mother and granddaughter.

If there was ever a man in the family, no one remembers him. Surely not you, a stranger born far away from here.

You can hear the clocks behind the plate glass of the window as you stand there watching, tick tock tick tock. You can hear them later as well, when it’s quiet and you’re at home with the lamps lit and the doors locked. And even later than that, in your sleep. Do the three women hear them too? They must, mustn’t they?

One day, if you stay in this place long enough, you might not stop on the pavement with the rest of the watchers. You might push open the door—the bell letting out a ding as a counterpoint to the ticks and tocks—and go in to see what the shop has to offer. If it’s early in the day, the granddaughter might be there, young and dark and lovely, or the still-handsome middle-aged daughter. But if it’s late, and the afternoon is sinking into evening, it’s the grandmother you’re likely to meet.

Don’t be afraid of her. Her eyes are cold, but she is the kindest of the three.

“In the market for a clock?” she says as she makes her way toward you through her labyrinth of wares. She wears black, always—dresses and skirts and high-necked sweaters that set off the spun silver thread of her hair, with high lace-up boots down below. “I have just the thing. Let me show you.”

“Oh no, thank you, I’m only looking.”

“That’s what they all say, my darling.” She strokes your arm with a crabbed, delicate hand. “But I think you’ll find we’ve got something for everyone here. I haven’t yet met a person on earth who didn’t have a clock with their name on it.”

“There are so many of them,” you say. It's true: once you’re inside, the shop contains more clocks than a building its size has any right to. All those ticks and tocks ought to be deafening so close up, but they’re hardly any louder than they are through the window, just a low, constant background noise that reminds you of something you can’t quite put your finger on.

“I should hope so, after all the time we’ve been making them,” the old woman says. She doesn’t smile, not quite, but a secret amusement crinkles her eyes and deepens the velvety folds of wrinkles on her cheeks.

“How long? If you don’t mind me asking…”

“Oh, years,” she says. “Would you like some tea while you think about whether to buy or not? It is teatime, you know. We try to keep up the old customs when we can.”


“Ah, wonderful. My daughter left the teapot on the warmer before she went home for the day. I’ll just go and fetch a cup for you.”

The old woman vanishes behind a dusty velvet curtain at the rear of the shop while you stare, transfixed, at a crystal dome clock with all its complicated works showing, clicking and ticking and whirring away like its own tiny self-contained universe. Almost before you know it, she’s back, holding a gold-rimmed cup and saucer cradled in her shaky grip.

“I couldn’t find the tray. Terrible. Two sugars, was it?”

“Yes, how did you—”

“It’s a gift, knowing things,” she says. “We all have it in my family. Like clockmaking. Here you are.”

Something about being the only one with a cup in their hand makes you uneasy, but the tea is an ordinary orange pekoe, hot and fragrant, and it’s not as if this sweet old lady—a mother and grandmother—is going to poison a potential customer.

You try a sip and don't die. That's encouraging.

“All three of you make the clocks?”

Have made," she says. "When I was young I did it all myself, until my eyes weren’t up to it anymore. It’s close work, you know, with those tiny cogs and wheels and springs. So I passed the job to my daughter and took on the winding of them instead, but eventually my arthritis was too bad. And so my daughter became the one who winds, and my granddaughter became the maker.”

The next question feels loaded, but you ask it anyway.

“And you, what do you do now?”

“I stop them, of course, my darling. Some clocks keep time longer than others, but sooner or later, all clocks must stop.” Her fingers flutter ghostlike across the glass of the nearest clock, a slender cherrywood one in a long case. “This one’s got a few more ticks left in it, but I’ll know when the moment is right.”

Tick tick tick go the clock’s hands, marking out the seconds. All the other clocks in the shop follow along. You know now what they remind you of, but how can you say it? How can you think it?

Hurriedly, you sip your tea again, finishing enough to be polite.

"It's getting late. I should go—you'll want to close soon."

“I've got all the time in the world." That secret amusement flares on the old woman's face again. "Are you sure you won't choose something? A clock makes a lovely addition to the home, and as I said, I do have the perfect one in mind for you. Good for years to come, I promise."

“Another day." You look around for a place to put the cup and finally balance it on the corner of a table, next to a clock with an engraved face and a cast-iron bell like a cap atop its head. "Thank you for the tea."

"You're very welcome."

For a moment it seems she might follow you to the exit, flip the sign to CLOSED as you leave, but instead she folds her hands demurely in front of her black skirt and stays where she is. The door dings behind you, and you're outside again, alone in the dusk, with all the window-gazers having wandered away.

You glance back, certain the old woman will be watching, but she seems to have forgotten your visit already. She's smoothing the case of the cherrywood clock, a light stroke, as if to comfort. Her lips form the shapes of words you might understand, if only you could hear them. Then she opens the glass and stops the clock's hands with a single, sure touch.

After that, you see no more.


*The Moirai in Greek mythology are the Three Fates who oversee destiny.


About the Creator

Vanessa Gonzales

“Rule one, you have to write. If you don’t write, nothing will happen.” - Neil Gaiman

When I'm not writing, I take photos. You can see them here.

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