speculative prose

The Master of Hourglasses, by Alexandra Seidel

Processed with VSCO with h5 presetThey say that Talin is a master of hourglasses. Small children are told what he can do with those, how he will steal one’s day and one’s dreams, put them in his hourglasses and leave only sand behind. I always thought those stories were just stories.

But Talin really does exist. He is a man. The story about the hourglasses though is also true.

I will start at the beginning. I will start with those events that led to me meeting him, how I first left my village in the mountains and never truly returned.

It was a hot summer in our village, too hot to sleep. I was sitting cross-legged on our wooden porch, trying as best I could to make the heat more bearable by forcing a small breeze of air into my face with a sunset-red fan.

Father came to join me and sat down next to me. He did not seem overly bothered by the heat. Indeed, I have never seen Father bothered by anything.

“Kestris,” he said, “you are my only child, my only daughter, and this year for the first time, I will take you along for my work in the City of Lakes. You are ready to leave the village, because you show promise and prudence in equal measures. One day, it will be you alone making masks, both for our people and outsiders. Keep your eyes and ears open to prepare for that day and likewise, let your mind be sharper than your tongue.”

It was the way the older people in the village always spoke. I am not at all sure that I really understand quite why they do so.

My father presented me with a short knife that same evening. It was held by an intricate sheath bearing the scarlet colors of our family. Such knives were what set our tribe apart from outsiders. Everyone in the village over a certain age and with a certain standing wore one, and I was so proud that evening to have earned my own and to be going with Father.

So that summer, I was to visit the City of Lakes and assist my father in his work. We would make and sell our masks for the Festival of Living Faces, a festival of merriment and colorful masks that lasts an entire week. I had learned mask-making from my father: lions and griffins, villains with angry brows and death masks for maidens taken from life before they ever tasted it in the full. I enjoyed getting to know the soft wood with my hands and working it with my tools before giving life with colors and paint.

We traveled roughly three weeks to get to the City, traveled through the lush mountain valleys and along rivers that whistled with purling voices as they made their way to the ocean. While traveling, people would often stop us when they saw our masks. They would always buy some, and slowly, I began to realize just how uniquely talented my father was, and how much appreciation outsiders had for his work. I found this very strange, because such thoughts had never really occurred to me; he was just Father to me, strict when teaching me the trade, and always urging me to strive for perfection.

The City of Lakes was a place of countless wonders. When we finally arrived, night was falling and as we approached, I could watch the lanterns coming alive one by one. I later learned that there’s a rule in the City that a house must light a lantern for every window it has. The lights thus came out of the dark like thousands of fireflies and in the space of perhaps five minutes, they made the City of Lakes seem ablaze with brightness, doubled even by the rippling mirror surfaces of the waters. I remember thinking that it all looked like a sparkling gem, dropped to earth by some fabulous god and then forgotten there like an errant comet or a lesser-loved moon.

The City of Lakes is named so for perhaps three hundred lakes of varying size and shape. Some of them are natural and some aren’t, but today, nobody can quite tell the difference.

Houses and streets are built around the lakes like cobwebs, and although one might expect those structures to be too crowded or too worn out by time, they aren’t. The streets were paved with rose granite from faraway mountaintops, and the houses were built from the same stone, adding a distinct shimmer of soft red to the city. Whoever designed and built the City did so with eternity in mind; it all fits together perfectly, as if the building process had been orchestrated by a conductor who understands the brittling potencies of time and knows just how to escape them unscathed.

We stayed at an inn, and I learned that my father was quite an honored and distinguished guest there.

For several days after our arrival, we received costumers who ordered their masks for the upcoming festival or bought one of the ready-made ones.

“Why Master Hotaru, do you remember the tiger mask you made for me last year? It was the talk of the entire guild, I can tell you, and this year cannot be anything less; I was thinking perhaps a wolf…” And so our clients were prattling on as I took their measurements and my father was writing down their orders with brush and black ink.

I do not think that they asked for prices even once; it seemed they were willing to pay just about any amount for a mask made by Master Hotaru, a mask that fit like a glove and captured the soul of the thing it represented like a mousetrap. That was how Father had always taught me to make my masks.

On several occasions, Father would ask the client whether it would be acceptable that I carve the mask for them. Of course, if the honorable client was not satisfied with the result, Master Hotaru would make a replacement. Some agreed. One of those clients was a merchant’s ten-year-old daughter.

“I want my mask to show Talin!” she said to me as I was just taking the first measurement, forehead to chin.

“Oh, apologies, Master Hotaru, what a foolish child!” the young girl’s father said and patted his daughter on the head as he smiled apologetically at my father. “Who would want some old wives’ tale like that for a mask, my dear? Just tell the Master’s apprentice something pleasant to carve, perhaps a golden carp for luck?”

“But I want the dreameater Talin!” the girl yelled, adamant as only children spoilt by the wealth of their parents can be.

“Well, Master Hotaru, a Talin mask it is then. I trust that will not be a problem?” the merchant asked, throwing a sideways glance at me as I was taking another measurement, width of chin.

“No, not at all,” Father simply said. He had a way of little words around outsiders.

When all the clients for that day were gone, I sat down by the open window, enjoying the cool breeze that drifted into the room and bore the scent of lake-water on its wings.

“And how am I supposed to carve a mask of Talin?” I asked of Father, who was just laying out his own work.

“I do not know,” he replied, “but this seems like a good test. Find the soul of what you want to carve, then hold it tightly in your mind while you hold the wood and carving knives in your hands. And then, you just carve. You have done it exactly like that a thousand times and more.”

I knew my father well enough to know that those were all the words he would lose on the matter.

I barely managed to stifle a sigh and sat down to work on some of my own masks. When I finally went to bed, a long while after midnight, I had captured a raven and a monk in the wood, but I still had no idea of how I could do the same with Talin.

My father must have sensed my unease, for the next morning, he sent me down into the City to explore, and he made me promise not to come back before nightfall. It was his way of telling me to take some time to think.

I watched how people were preparing their homes for the festival. They were cleaning their houses and the streets alike until both shone like marbles, they put fresh flower garlands everywhere, and there were even more lanterns to be lit at twilight. There was a general air of cheerfulness surrounding everyone. But the festival was not just for those who called the City of Lakes their home: people from far away had come here, traveling merchants and food vendors, actors, acrobats, and artists, and of course the merely curious.

At around noon, I found myself a little hungry despite the throbbing heat. I bought some roasted squid from a street vendor and sat down in the shade of an old chimera tree some ten feet off the shore of a smallish lake and ate quietly, still thinking about Talin. When my meal was finished, I found a lazy drowsiness take me into sleep’s gentle arms. I would not find Talin’s soul today anyway, so I figured it was all right to take a little nap.

I remember distinctly that I did not dream. Equally distinctly, I remember hearing his voice.

“It’s just a little dream, just the softest, lightest feather image of a dream. You’ll never even miss it, promise…” and there was a cold touch on my forehead as I woke with a start.

The sun had long set and the City was once more alive with light oozing from countless burning lanterns. In the palm of my left hand, there were some grains of sparkling white sand that almost looked like so many tiny pearls.

I don’t remember really how I got back to the inn. I ran. When I entered our room, I was panting. Father was already carving, and I lost no time with words before I joined him, sitting cross-legged on the floor. I had collected the sand into a handkerchief, and that handkerchief I had put into my pocket. I got out my knives and a piece of wood. I knew I should possibly pay attention to the measurements I’d taken before, but I didn’t. I knew I should be calm, go about my work with a distinct peace of mind, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. I knew Father was watching me as I carved, shavings giving way to shape, but I didn’t care, it didn’t bother me. I had to carve. I carved Talin. I had his soul, and I was holding on to it as if my life depended on it.

When I was done with the carving, I moved to the colors, bright silver, burning white and dark velvet blue. I mixed a bit of the sand from my handkerchief into each of them and began to paint. Under my brush, I gave the mere carving the last sliver of life that it needed to become a proper mask. When I was finished, I found that I was trembling, barely conscious.

Only the clapping of my father’s hands brought me back to my senses. I had carved a mask of Talin, truly a mask of the forger of hourglasses. And it was a perfect piece.

“Well done,” Father said.

It was so simple, but from his mouth, it meant the world.

“But this is not a normal mask. You must not sell it, nor can you destroy it. This mask is yours.”

I was baffled, still.

“But our client…” I began.

“You can make another one. Not like this, but still a proper mask,” Father simply said, and as he said it, I knew that he was right.

Here it could have ended. Here I could have said, I once captured the soul of Talin, the thief of dreams, but that would be too easy. Nothing is ever easy when the likes of Talin are concerned.

At first, I wanted to wear my Talin mask for the festival, but then I decided against it. I picked a simple white crane mask and wore that one. I am not entirely sure why.

That summer ended. The Festival of Living Faces was magnificent to behold, but it ended also.

I spent the fall and winter at home, carving, and although he never said it, I knew that Father was approving greatly of my progress.

I kept the Talin mask wrapped in soft cloth in a box in my room.

Spring came eventually and then summer, and soon as flowers bloomed and people’s layers of clothing grew fewer, the time for the next Festival of Living Faces was approaching. The week before our departure, Father asked me to the village shrine. He and our village priestess were waiting for me.

“My daughter, you are no longer my apprentice,” Father began, and the words came as a whiplash shock.

Had I done anything to give offense? Had I failed in some way?

“You are now a master mask-maker yourself. The priestess bears witness to this. You are also my heir, and from the day that I can no longer do my work, you will do so, as my successor. The priestess bears witness to this. As your teacher, I give you a proper name now that you have become a master. Your name as maker of masks shall be Master Tonba. The priestess bears witness to this.”

And so, I returned to the City of Lakes as Master Tonba. I had brought the Talin mask along with me, because, I think, I was afraid to leave it alone for too long.

On my second visit to the City, I found the place no less impressive than the first time, but this time, I was better able to appreciate the tender beauty of everything around me, of the different smells and sounds and of the mindset of those people whom we just call outsiders.

We arrived early one evening and the lanterns were not yet lit. We were a few days later that year than the one before, something that I think my father had intentionally planned so that costumers would often have no choice but to turn to the new mask-maker.

The next few days were again so full of work that my mind could scarcely drift; after all, I did not wish to disgrace my father’s good name, because even though I was a master myself now, I was still his student. I could feel the City only through the open window of my room in the inn, the crescendo bustling in preparation for the festival, the warm and strange smells of food and the soft water of the lakes, joyful shouting and laughter of the children and grown-ups.

The night before the festival began, I did not get any sleep at all. I still had to finish the mask of a kingfisher for a client. I set out to deliver it personally in the small hours of the morning when the lanterns were still burning and the first sun had not yet shown his face.

As it was considered bad manners to be out without a mask during the festival, however, I couldn’t go with a bare face. Ironically, I had no finished masks apart from the kingfisher lying around, and I certainly couldn’t wear the client’s mask.

So, my only option was the Talin mask. I didn’t really want to put it on, but I really had no choice. Thinking about the embarrassment of being a mask-maker without a mask, I took my Talin mask out of its box and put it onto my face. It was not a perfect fit, but close enough to be comfortable. I hurriedly wrapped my client’s mask and was on my way.

As I arrived at the client’s house, a servant girl opened the door for me. I saw the eyes behind her boar mask widen; she was speechless as I held out the wrapped mask for her master.

“I hope your master sleeps still,” I told her. “I am afraid I finished this much later than I hoped. Tell him Master Tonba sends her apologies along with this mask.”

“It won’t be a problem,” the servant girl mumbled. She kept staring at me as I turned around to walk back to the inn.

That early in the day, the streets were mostly empty and, although I could feel exhaustion tingling in my bones, I enjoyed having all the time I wanted to take in the City around me.

“Would you like to buy an hourglass, my dear?” somebody said from very close behind my back and even as I turned, I drew my knife from its scarlet sheath, reflex and ingrained movement driving my actions more than sober thinking.

My blade connected the same moment I realized I knew the voice. He was fast enough to jump back, and so, I just nicked the mask he wore.

He smiled and traced the nick in his mask with a thumb.

“You look surprised,” he said calmly for someone who’d just had a knife sliced at him. “You look as if you thought you could put my soul into that mask you wear and get away with it. But really, who takes Talin’s soul and gets away with it? Surely not Master Tonba, the mask-maker.”

He looked so much like the mask I had carved of him and then again, nothing like it at all. His hair was black, not silver, but it shimmered silver in the lantern light that was still gilding the City. He was thin and tall and wore the rich robes of old aristocracy, something that might have stood out on every other day, but not on the day of the festival where the normal tended in general to approach the extraordinary. In his right hand, he was holding an hourglass, intricately made; the glass itself was tinted a light rose color and framed by thin tendrils of silver that coiled around it like mist. Inside the glass, I could see no sand, just skittishly shifting mist.

To my shock, I found that the mask he was wearing, the mask my blade had nicked, was one of my own, one I had made for last year’s festival! Behind it, I saw that his eyes were dark and hard.

“Wh-what do you want?” I asked of Talin who stole dreams and days and replaced them with sand. I still had my knife in hand, but it felt rather small and useless there.

“Want?” He smiled gaily. “I want that mask back, Master Tonba, or rather, Kestris of the Twilight, and if it wouldn’t trouble you, I’d like it back right now.”

My mind was racing, but alas, my tongue was faster.

“And how should I know that you are Talin?” I asked of him.

Now, behind a mask it’s hard to tell, but I think he grinned, and that his grin tipped sideways into the sharp semblance of a leer, just two drops short of sinister.

“Oh, well. There aren’t many who’d be as daring as you are. I do appreciate your nerve. Put your blade away, Master Tonba,” Talin said.

Without quite knowing why, I did what he said. He nodded at the swirling noise my knife made as it was sheathed.

“Allow me to show you who I am. Let’s go,” he said, and with two quick steps, he was by my side and took my hand and, holding tight, he walked me out onto the closest lake, right onto the sparkling surface of the water that should not have carried either one of us.

“This way lies my home,” Talin said, pointing to a dense mist that was gathering rapidly in the center of the lake.

Talin pulled me along with him and I found that I was unable to resist him. His touch was like the sweet lull of sleep approaching, of a dream not quite willing to depart.

Before I knew it, we were surrounded by the mists, swallowed as if by some primordial creature of the old stories and myths. Talin still had his mask on, but when I glanced sideways, I could feel his smile upon me like a net cast and hugging me with the deceptive tenderness of silk.

“Take a look around you, Kestris of the Twilight, and let your heart take measure of what you see.”

Again, I did as he told me to.

The mist was still so thick that I felt almost cornered, but I could see a little way into it. We were in some sort of wasteland, something not quite alive but surely not dead either. At first glance, I thought I was seeing a desert and some leafless trees growing in intervals by the wayside. However, in a desert, there would have been the sound of wind or no sound at all, and here there was a sound of whispering and of breath, taken slowly and expelled slower still. The trees were not motionless as proper trees should be, either. They moved, but not in a natural way, more like they felt the need to stretch their branches and their bark, to shift their tired roots incessantly.

The sight was strange, eerie.

“Is this the underworld?” I asked.

At this Talin began to laugh and his mask was humming with the sound.

“Not quite; I am not Death. I am just a humble trader, sand for dream, not much unlike yourself, Master Tonba.”

I stopped in my tracks, my breath caught in my throat.

“But you are not. You steal the dreams. It doesn’t matter if you make it sound like a fair trade, because it isn’t,” I said.

“I don’t steal. And even if I did, it’s not like what I took would be missed, and I, on the other hand, absolutely need it.”

As his last word faded to silence, I saw a faint light in the distance, and with my curiosity kindled anew, I found my legs moving again and myself willing to be led by his hand that still held tightly to my own.

As we approached, the mists thinned before us. I could see a forge taking shape and finally detaching itself from the silvery mists as if it melted them.

“This is where I do my work,” Talin said. “The fire in which I forge the hourglasses. Would you like me to show you how it’s done, Kestris of the Twilight?”

I thought for a long moment.

“I think I rather wouldn’t,” I said.

“Wise choice. Perhaps I can enthrall you later. For now, consider the hourglasses,” Talin said, pointing to what lay behind the forge.

Like ghost lights on a tempest-ridden sea, I saw something giving off pale and shifting light. There were lilacs and greens, pale yellows and bright blues and everything in between. As he led me that way, I finally could see his hourglasses. They were pieces of art, just like my masks, some bold, some tender, but all with a distinct personality, with a unique self.

Even as I watched, I was deeply moved by the honest perfection in each of the hourglasses.

“They are amazing,” I told Talin.

He nodded. “They hold the mists of old. You know the stories of course, mists that carry at their heart strange things, sad things, ancient things. Things too mighty to be out in plain sight.”

I came closer. I could see the hourglasses strung up on trees just like the ones we had passed before. The threads that held them to the branches were fine, fine as a barely remembered dream. And the hourglasses themselves, they looked innocent, but as I came close enough to look into one, I felt something dark and lurking looking back through the shifting mist within.

My breath caught in my throat, and I jumped back. Under my mask I could feel beads of sweat forming on my forehead.

“That is fear you feel,” Talin said as if I didn’t know. “Return my mask to me.”

My hand was aching for my knife. “What do you do with the dreams?” I asked of Talin by way of distraction.

Talin smiled. “I put them into the fire, melt them and remake them into those hourglasses that hold the mists. Only dreams have the power to do that.”

“So,” I said, “that is what you need the dreams for. But why? Why make these little prisons for the mists in the first place?”

But Talin didn’t answer that; he just smiled behind his mask. He then put his arm around my hip and spun me in a circle of flaring pale white mist.

“Do you now believe when I tell you that I’m Talin, the Master of the Hourglasses and Safekeeper of the Mists? Why, think on it, does it not sound divine to you, Talin, the Master, Talin, a god? Return the mask to me, now.”

I must have blinked, for when my eyes were clear of mist once more, I saw that we were again in the City of Lakes, standing right by a lake that was bathed in the scarlets and pinks of first sunrise.

“Talin, the divine,” I said, “but not divine enough to take what I made to perfection with brute force.”

“Quite right,” Talin said with a sharp smile. “The only reason I want it back is that you captured the image of my soul in there, and I think I might just be too vain to let you keep it. I’ve been trying to let this go for a year, but it just doesn’t feel right. So. Give it back.”

He did not have to say or else. I knew that he meant that. Yet, while he was Talin, I was Master Tonba, Hotaru’s daughter. I shook my head, remembering my father’s words.

“I can’t, it’s mine.”

Talin sighed.

“Oh, fine. You are quite the haggler, aren’t you. See this?” he said and held up the rose-colored hourglass from before. “This is the hourglass I made from your dream. I put a mist in there that is true as that mask, something that weighs at least twice as heavy as that chip of my soul you carved from the wood, something destined for greatness. I offer it in exchange for that mask.”

“I don’t want it,” I said, but I knew that I was lying. It was my dream, part of me, just like the mask.

The tall man stared at me through the nicked mask I made. “Kestris of the Twilight,” Talin said after a long stretch of silence. “I have known your people for a long time. You are not an unreasonable lot. Let me offer you this then.” He sighed deeply before he went on. “Each year, during the Festival of Living Faces in the City of Lakes, you’ll give me the mask and in return, you will have your dream back, and what it now contains. We will spend the time of the festival in this city, together or apart, it doesn’t matter. When the festival is over, the mask is yours again. Should you at any point decide that you want the hourglass though, you’ll have to return the mask to me permanently. Does that sound fair to you?”

The color of the sunrise was slowly diluted in the water of the little lake before us, and I felt Talin’s eyes on me.

I undid the string of silk that held the mask to my face and said, “All right. Give me the glass.”

And Talin, the god, obeyed.

I gave him my Talin mask, and he gave me my dream and also the mask he had been wearing, the one that had caught my blade. While he put on his mask, I briefly saw the age and ambition that he kept only on the features of his real face.

The brilliant mist in the rosy, silver-wreathed hourglass was meanwhile floating up and down. It felt like it was pressing close and closer against the glass. It felt like it wanted out, wanted to be back in the world.

My dream was what kept it in check, controlled its desire, and while the festival lasted—dancers draped in layers of shimmering clothes moving like smoke in the streets, boats on the lakes laden with flowers, lanterns and laughing revelers going to and fro, masked faces wherever you looked—I would be holding on to this conflict, forged so perfectly in dream, painted so skillfully in mist. I would always try to feel my dream again in my heart until I changed it back for the soul-chip Talin mask.

When I finally came back to the inn at the end of the festival with the mask of Talin back in my hands, it was more like a century and not just this year’s Festival of Living Faces had passed.

You have stolen from me, thief, I thought, the mask of him in my hands. I looked at it, and suddenly, I knew that it really showed just a man. I could see it in my work, and I could guess that this was why he had wanted the mask back to begin with. Talin, the divine, who was just a man.

I put the mask back into its box. The blade-kissed mask of the red bird that he had been wearing and that he had then exchanged with mine, I put into the box also.

While the color of the city faded from me like that dream, I wondered when I would or could no longer take his human face and wrap it in cloth for another year. Perhaps not next year or the one after that. But one day, I would claim my dream and give that god his human mask back.


Issue 16 (Fall 2017)

Story copyright © 2017 by Alexandra Seidel

Artwork copyright © 2017 by Carol Wellart

Alexandra Seidel writes poems and stories of things born from imagination and dreams. Some of her work can be found in Liminality, Mirror Dance, Strange Horizons, and elsewhere. If you are so inclined you can follow Alexa on Twitter (@Alexa_Seidel).

Carol Wellart is a Czech artist and painter creating predominantly wildlife themes, nature studies, and literary characters. She’s mostly inspired by the curious shapes and materials from nature, but literature is still the main source. Painting and drawing were always the most important things for her, and visiting the local art school helped her understand new techniques and the “science” of the colour mediums. Carol is the award-winning artist of the Best Book Cover in 2015 in Czechia. Her work has been published in magazines such as Spirituality & Health, International Wolf, and Orion.





This entry was posted on April 30, 2018 by in Stories.
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