Deep within the labyrinthine streets of Matrah souq lay a seemingly tiny alcove that sheltered a window to the cosmos. As the late afternoon sun began to dip, its amber shades seeping down to the edges of the rugged mountain peaks that cradle the dusty valley, a lone crystal dangling off the shop’s headboard trapped the setting light and shimmered blue, revealing ancient carvings on the door that seem to predate language. Save for this sole opportune moment, the shop rarely drew attention to itself.
There were no women swooning over embroidered pashmina stoles, no wily hawkers justifying their indulgent prices to guileless victims, in fact nothing in this shop was for sale. It bore no name for all identities are dropped like a cloak upon entering. In the cacophonous din of the bazaar, this shop was an oasis of tranquility. It presented itself to those who came seeking for it. Others passed by with just a glance, as if it were a mirage that sought to elude.
Freya Walih was hunched over a copper dial on her workshop table, tinkering with delicate levers when a waft of cool air filled the damp interiors. Pulling her shawl closer to her body, Freya looked up to find a wiry, young man cautiously entering the sanctum. Dressed in a faded, green, cotton tunic that dangled off his shoulders like a shroud and khakhi pants that seemed as weathered as the lines on his forehead, his eyes shone bright against his sallow complexion. To Freya, the customer’s appearance lent an obvious clue to his salvation.
“Three crystals should do the trick, his personality though may be beyond saving,” she chuckled under her breath. As she was completing her mental monologue, the man stopped in his tracks, a bit stunned.
“Ah, most who enter don’t expect the shop to be so big.” She croaked.
It wasn’t just the grandeur but the sheer impossibility of the space to contain so much. Ornate wooden clocks of multiple shapes and sizes containing tickers crusted with twinkling gems, decked every inch of the interior. The web of time-keepers stretched up so high, the ceiling seemed like a distant night sky, bejeweled with cosmic lights.
“How is it so bright here?” the customer’s voice trailed off as he looked for a source of light
“Is that what you’ve come to waste my time with or do you have more urgent business?” Freya snapped back.
The man gulped and in a hoarse voice went, “My…..my…wife left me….. ”
“Good for her!” said Freya revealing teeth the shade of burnt turmeric.
“Wh…what? She took my heart and didn’t care to….,” He was interrupted by the shrill ringing of his mobile phone. Fumbling the customer reached into his pocket and tried to shut it down.
Pointing to a sign above her head that read “PHONES OFF”, Freya Walih raised her eyebrows and said “ Your wife take away your ability to read too?”
Blushing the man opened his mouth to stutter an apology but Freya had already picked up his right hand and was counting his pulse. Jettisoning the limb, she waddled to the back of her workshop where there stood a large copper urn, wide enough to fit a tall, prostrating man and filled to the brim with a liquid so dark it mirrored the ceiling above, glimmering with a million stars. Or perhaps the ceiling reflected the urn. Freya dipped her wrinkled hands, spotted with scars from an eon of battles and scooped up three multicolored crystals.
Placing these down delicately on her table, she stood for a while, staring at the wall of clocks to her left, her fingers conducting a silent orchestra as her eyes darted from edge to edge.
“Aha! Found the damned thing, it’ll be just right. Bring me that stick,” she beckoned to the long bamboo pole propped against the shop door. Beguiling her podgy appearance, Freya hooked a heavy cuckoo clock off the wall with the dexterity of an athlete and placed it next to the crystals on the table. Pole thrown aside, she unscrewed the back of the clock revealing a network of ridged levers. Knocking each one gently with her knuckles, her left ear turned towards the clock, she listened for a sign. Wherever she found a pulsating beat, Freya took one of the crystals and wedged them into that lever.
“What’s your name?” Freya asked holding up a knife
The customer who had been standing close, craning his neck over the counter, stepped back on seeing the knife. With his palms partially open and raised to his chest he cautiously said “Ashir Jones?”
“Ha, ha, I’ve better things to do with this knife than slit you open.”
Freya began etching his name onto the interior of the clock, “ This clock now beats to your rhythm. The crystals I picked for you, they’ve plugged some very..haha.very crucial gaps. YOU,only YOU control your timeline now.”
The clock shut, was back up on the wall as quickly as it had been brought down.
“From this moment on, your destined past, present and future, have dissolved, poof, like this, ” Freya clicked her fingers, a gleeful flame dancing in her eyes.
“How do you do that? how… are you able to influence… time?”
Freya held her belly with both hands and giggled “Oh I’m not influencing Time! I’m just opening you up to it. You think, time is a straight line drawn by some silly kid, stringing people along to their uneventful ends. Oh no, no ,no, no.”
Freya paced up and down shaking her head, her arms up and fingers rolled into fists emphatically punching the air “Time doesn’t move in just one direction, it can move anywhere. Time is the space, the bowl, that holds us all. Until now you were experiencing Time through a peephole. I’ve just opened the door.” She paused, stretched her arms out on the desk and said ,”Each moment holds a million possibilities, son. When you veer off your centre,” she tapped his chest gently, ‘you lose the ability to embrace all that this moment has to offer. The crystals are the spark that fuel your furnace.”
“I don’t think I understand …..”
“Hmm, you don’t need to. Just choose wisely.” Freya pulled the lad closer, clutching him by his collar and whispered “Listen to your ticker and choose.”
He paused for a while attempting to process what had happened and said ,”What should I pay you?”
Freya waved her hands shooing him away, “Come back in 40 days and tell me how you’re doing.”
“Alrite, I , I definitely will. Thank you, so much.”
The customer stumbled out of the store still perplexed by the events that unfolded in the Shop but he was already, to his disbelief, beginning to feel lighter.
With the stillness of her sanctum returned, interrupted only by ticking clocks, Freya took a long look at the shimmering surface of he urn and smiled. As she walked back to her desk, Freya heard the door open again. Expecting it to be Ashir she said, “ Go away, there’s only so much of you I can handle.”
“ That is true, I can be a lot to handle,” boomed a baritone.
Freya turned around to find a statuesque, dark haired, olive skinned man in a well -fitted grey tuxedo standing at the door. In the beam of sunlight that had managed to sneak in, Freya thought she caught a faint smirk on the man’s face.
“Dastan, as always conspicuous in your inappropriate attire and uninvited appearances.”
Dastan stretched out her name and strode towards her with long measured steps,” It took me a while to find you this time around. I thought mountains never suited you well…”
“To what do I owe this inconvenience?” quizzed Freya while she quietly grabbed the bamboo pole she had flung by her desk.
Lighting a cigarette and blowing wispy ringlets toward Freya, Dastan quipped “ Oh, where shall we begin? The usual suspects, your insubordination, meddlesome interferences, disregard for the laws of Time…”
“You mean your silly laws. Don’t drag Time into this. She is glorious in her call for freedom.”
Crushing the cigarette butt with his boot, Dastan sniggered, “What you call freedom is chaos, I keep these fools with underused brains from annihilation.”
Freya clicked her teeth and with one hand on her hip said, “I’ve noticed you always rear your horns around election season. Are you upset that your destined clients didn’t make the cut?”
“Enough of your frivolity. After a point, choice has no place in this game. You have to face the consequences of your actions.”
“Well, I agree and one pays the consequence by choosing a new course, of their liking.”
Throwing his hands up, Dastan said “Huh, so they can make more mistakes. These humans have the rare gift of corrupting intelligence. How can we trust them to do what is right? We must decide the course for them.”
“Ahh after all the centuries I’ve finally figured out what riles you up. You’re a couch potato! You’d rather watch daytime television than clean up after humans’ mess. Which begs the question, how did you entertain yourself before internet streaming came along?”
“ You’re making a mockery of this?”
“Well I don’ take myself too seriously.”
“It shows, you’ve really let yourself go since I last saw you”
“And you’re just the same, frozen, like your heart.. Don’t you think humans deserve a guiding hand when they falter? You’d rather they follow your orders?
“Time demands control, it’s destiny. You, however, go about unraveling my work like a cat playing with yarn”
“Time is an exuberant accident, Dastan. No one knows how or where it began, but it exists and it’s glorious. All humans must do is live it consciously.”
“Is that what you and your urn talk about when you’ve finished brainwashing your sheep for the day?”
Freya leaned on her bamboo pole and sighed,”You never understood that our choices are driven by our tendencies… where people choose to shoot the arrow of Time, is driven by what they think they deserve. That’s the irony of Free Will. I can’t change that, but every choice they make is also a chance to overcome their limitations.”
“ There you go again with your pedantic monologues. I control the flow of Time because I care.”
“No, Dastan. You impose because you can’t stand the loss of your importance. It takes courage to let go. You. Are. A. Coward.”
Dastan, who had seated himself comfortably on a chair right under a grandfather clock, now felt a twinge in his heart. He clicked open his cigarette lighter and sensed the surge of rage rising up until it exploded out of the lighter in a sabre of fire. Blazing sword in hand, Dastan lunged forward to cut through the urn, but Freya moved swiftly across the room and intercepted his fiery blade with her bamboo pole. Sculpted by the iron fists of Freya’s will, the bamboo wasn’t one to succumb to the ravages of fire. Instead, it bore the steely strength of the rarest of metals.
As the conjurers’ weapons clashed, the air around them sizzled and cracked. Freya clenched her jaws as she tried to withhold the fury of Dastan and managed to exert enough force to push him off a few metres. He stumbled away but came back with greater strength. Their duel rippled through the shop, knocking over clocks and tools, sending splinters flying across like shooting stars. Clouded by debris, the distant glow of the ceiling grew faint and in the dull darkness the embers from Dastan’s sword glowed like the belly of a violent volcano.
The devastation extended beyond the four walls of the Shop. With each chip broken off a clock, the owners whose names stood inscribed felt a jolt. An electric current ripped through their bodies and with each shock, Freya felt a stab searing through her heart. Crumbling clocks lay all around and Freya’s heart bore witness to the destruction. Pained, she lay on the floor. With the last vestiges of her strength she crawled close to her urn.
At the other end of the shop, Dastan stood panting, his eyes still spitting fury and his blade spewing flickering venom. “Pathetic, your meddlesome nature only makes you weak. Look at you. From now on, I shall not be undermined again.”
He charged towards the urn, with Freya curled up in front of it. Her neck barely off the floor she saw the demon unleash its wrath. With one hand on her urn and the other on her upright bamboo, Freya tapped the pole twice on the floor. The space in front of her split open to reveal a void that sucked the charging bull into its abyss and disappeared. In the blink of an eye Dastan and his menace were gone.
Freya sat in the silent aftermath, taking in the scene around her. Majestic time-pieces lay scattered in mounds of debris, dust motes fluttered nonchalantly and the darkness had not yet lifted. The walls, however remained strong and true, like Freya’s heart. Through this all, the waters of the urn stood untouched, like the placid surface of a frozen mountain lake, reflecting the deep wisdom of the beyond. Freya got up and stood next to her beloved urn. “ We have a lot of work to do,” she smiled.
Calling it a night, she dusted off her fallen shawl and wrapped it around her. Locking the Shop, she stepped out into the welcoming embrace of the cool night. Inside the solitary sanctum, a blue flame erupted from the calm surface of the urn.