Eau de temps
–– from the Notebooks of John Harrison, clockmaker
Intemperate today, a barleywine aubade. Meerschaum and broderie anglaise immingle. Salamander wool incoming with the westerlies. Audible scumble in the offing. Tarred paulins battened over the hatchway grates.
Below-decks I sit. I listen. Far up, from the crow’s nest, an Aeolian harp coughs tuneless. Quinsy through the royals and rigging.
Otherwise, lime rinds and cedar. Sweat curing in gabardine. Spilled grog. Salt cod. Varnish. The smells of swim bladders and innards from sundry fish decocted into salves for reproofing sailcloth infuse the sunlight, when it comes. Of honey and perfumed Sirens, nil.
How a scent, too, can tell the time.
Where can it be I read of the architects who erected the Kutubiyya Mosque in Marrakesh? Read that they ordered Tonkin musk and agar wood folded into their bricklayers’ mortar. This, so the muezzin’s calls to Salah would come carried on distinctive odors. Always of fig trees. Then the aromatic beds and perpends warming between bricks. Subtler in the morning. Most intense in the heat of the day. Vestigial in the eventide.
I remember the mineral tinge. When it rained all the end of August. When the paving stones, still hot with summer, shallowly tried to return the rain where it came from.
The antique stalls at St-Ouen. We met beneath the eaves. Or under scalloped awnings. A consistent trickle. One hundred thousand water clocks, I said.
Hippocras, the color we called the aftermath.
The Nuremburg egg you wore on spiga links. Its cloisonné shell that shone gamboge. A botch of cochineal and aureate jam, dripping en trein to nowhere.
Finger-width spindles or trails of santal ash, laced with labdanum. With opopanax.
Fuel for the hidokei. The fire clocks of Japan.
A typology for two.
Either in the okiya, geisha houses, compressed in sticks a half an hour in length and set alight. Where it’s said the girls are heard exclaiming Look! I earned six, seven, eight sticks today.
Or at temples like the Nigatsudo in Nara. At the water- drawing ceremony, mizutori. With the onset of spring, snowmelt from the mountains refills a sacred well. Haggard pilgrims slouch in from miles around. They come bearing tubes and bottles to stopper liquid miracles. While six lines of incense slowly burning mete out the day’s festivities in equal parts. Torches as long as trees mounted on the balconies shower goodluck cinders on visitors beneath them. Fulgor. Horns blow. Sonnettes ring.
As time applies to the profane, so it obtains in the sacred.
And I remember how it was humid. Aqueous balm. The canine fragrance of drenched canvas. Fug from the magpie tramps and junk peddlers in their tents. Their mismatched sets of silver. Whiffs of tarnish hung over their tables.
Chipped porcelain picked up. Put down loudly.
You cupped the egg to my ear. The clock inside, you told me, it kept a restive kind of time. There’s some careworn sonnerie in there, you said, that’s out of place.
I bought a watch that barely ticked to match. A keepsake that keeps little like time to speak of. Innards twitching on an anxious mainspring, distressed by a kink, that threatens to break free from its barrel. A handheld shambles I wouldn’t be bothered to repair. Like the egg, it clanked and jangled.
You told me, sometimes I lift the lid and turn the hands backwards.
I thought you walked with bells at your feet and music followed.