Far up north, where Milk Glass is hand-blown by winter into the sea, an old man tinkers in his shop.
His name is Od, which is an oddly fitting name, for he was hewn from the oldest Bristlecone alive. A creation by Father Time as a gift for humanity. A present to last until humanity ceased to exist.
Although he was once spry and lean, the past few years had ground Od down, chiseling, whittling, honing him into what he is now. A relic of regal pedigree. A priceless antique with no more than five tufts of hair upon his crown, and a beard woven from silver moonlight on a cold, clear night.
The tides were turning. He felt Father’s eyes upon him and heard the bells begin to toll. His time was almost up. This December would be his last. Humanity had ebbed away on dark tides. Kindness and compassion sailed away on the motes that drank the summer sun. With every sour turn, his back stooped and hunched, and when he moved, his bones now creaked more than his worn-in stairs. He shrugged the sadness off and busied himself with more important matters, such as making miniature clocks in his shop on Town Square.
Od used his sleeve to polish his breath off the face of his last charm. Satisfied with the gleam, he took in his reflection. His ruby tunic was rusted; his hair was fading into a dusty mist. Becoming invisible was a weapon of illusion, he thought. One that looked harmless enough, but slowly erased the bits that once were you. It wouldn’t be long before he was gone, he guessed. More than likely before dawn.
The nosy mayor’s wife peeked in Od’s windows, and although Od saw her clearly, she did not see him at all.
“What a curious little shop. I heard he sells junk nobody needs.” She pressed her ear against the window and wrestled up her fur frock. “Do you hear that click? There it goes again.” Tick, tick, tick.
Od knew of the mayor’s wife. Her sharp tongue was legendary. In return, she’d receive no card in the mail this holiday season. No present from her husband. Her children had all left the town and were too busy to stop by. Too tired to call.
Od knew this year would be no different for her from the last. The poems he wrote on his windows during Valentine’s Day had never been read. The flowers she passed by every spring were trampled on instead of savored. He spun a sprig of mistletoe between his knotted knuckles and went back to work. Perhaps some souls needed to sop up every second to change.
“Yes. Yes. I thought I heard something,” the banker said upon closer inspection. “Odd. But it’s empty.” He twisted the ends of his mustache. “Sad, really. Broken looking fellow with Bronze Age bones.” Newfound interest bubbled out of his eyes. “Maybe he kicked the bucket, and his shop is up for sale.”
They both snickered and walked on. Neither opened the door. For if they had, they would’ve seen pin-sized jewels bottled on bookshelves like colored sand, and melted sticks of peppermint poured into tiny glass circles. Cranberry wood would be burning in the hearth. And one giant eye would’ve looked up from the other side of a magnifying lens, as Od stopped working tweezers thin as threads.
Od wobbled from the shop, making a bell jingle overhead. It had been a quiet day after a night of snowfall. Empty nests appeared to fasten cloaks of snow onto evergreens. Now the bluest hue of night was spreading. Vapor clung to breath and frost crept up windowpanes and cut them into patterned lace. He felt himself fading away, but he continued to wish the townsfolk well.
“Care for a candy cane?” he asked a young mother with children in tow. He stripped off the red stripes and turned them into ribbons for the littlest girl. “She reminds me of the pixies who ride snowflakes as they fall.”
The mother waved him away, confused by what she’d seen and what Od had said.
Od signaled to a young man with his eyes glued to the ground.
“Good evening, sir. There’s a fire on the hearth just inside. Perfect for stealing time to think about your future.”
The man pulled his sailor’s cap down over his ears as he walked past.
Od shuffled backward as more shoppers scurried by with packages piled high in their arms. He read their thoughts. Some were uneasy at his deformed back. Others frightened of the deep folds on his face. Perhaps they thought his years were contagious, or their time was too precious to spare a glance. Not even one. With his back up against his door, he watched them all closely. He listened to the words in their hearts. If given one more day, he would learn what made them tick, so he could gift them a story all their own.
A woman bumped into Od. Her coat had holes, and her shoes the thinnest soles. “S-so sorry. I didn’t see you there,” she said. In part, because her glasses were thick and crusted with ice, but also because Od was fading fast. “Everything is almost closed for the night. I waited until the last minute. I so hoped for one decoration, or two, to be on sale.”
“It is far better to surprise than to sell.” Od took his staff and knocked the glassy, pointed teeth from the windowsill high above. Icicles floated down to a basket held in his arm, hardening into sparkling ornaments. Next, he withdrew a metal contraption from his pocket and shaved strands of his beard into sterling strings. “With this Wizzler, everything you shred will have value.” He pressed his invention into her palm and tapped his staff against the ice. The layer of frost on her glasses dissipated.
She took the gift. In return, she left a smile upon Od’s lips. Family is what he always missed, so he searched for it in the faces of the people on the street. But as much as Od loved each town he moved to; he suffered the same fate as before. People were scared of seconds. Frightened of the inevitable. He had stories he wished to share by his hearth, but people were too busy to find the time.
Every hour, and every minute, Od aged a little more. With every passing soul who didn’t see him, he was a vanishing act right before their eyes. Drifting away into the nothingness from simply not being seen. He saw his ghostly reflection and knew the sands were almost spent. The Tickers were a waste of life. Od pulled the knob on his door when he felt a tug on his sleeve.
“You have a scar like me.” A little boy pointed to a jagged line across his upper lip. He was missing one of his front teeth and smiled like he was proud of that fact.
Od traced his own scar, remembering a moment he’d forgotten eons ago. “From a gnome in the Wild Woods who thought I was a bear.”
The boy laughed from deep inside his belly. “Gnomes aren’t real.”
“Because you haven’t seen one?” Od asked. “They certainly are. They play games that only they can win. And they blend into the forest. You see … that’s quite their trick.”
The boy pointed to Od’s scepter that doubled as his cane. “Is that a sword?”
Od spun the wood in his hand. Tempus was carved in fanciful writing along the side. “More of a reaper than a sword.”
The boy wrinkled his nose and grinned as his father jogged up and shot Od an uncertain look. “You can’t just run off, Jimmy.” He buttoned up the boy’s coat and pulled up the collar. “It’s far too cold.”
“I have a Ticker for you,” Od said, rocking back on his heels. “For you both, really. Just inside my shop.”
The man fidgeted. “A Ticker?”
“A present,” Od said.
“Oh, I’m sorry. We’re barely making it as it is,” the man said.
“Everything inside is on sale,” Od said. “One hundred percent off.”
“That’s a good deal, Dad,” Jimmy said.
His father chuckled and picked Jimmy up, noticing how the shopkeepers were all turning their lights out and locking the doors. His gaze lingered on a girl with a pale pink coat, and his eyes saddened. “For a minute, then. Since it’s so late.”
Something solid warmed within Od. A spark of hope. A splinter of possibility. The wrinkles on his face tightened, and the bend in his back straightened almost imperceptibly. “Minutes,” Od said with glee, “I have a knack for twisting those.”
The father eyed Od’s dark windows and scratched his head at what lay inside.
The heavy wooden doors opened, and a rainbow of colors danced across their faces. Strands of popcorn draped across wooden beams high above their heads. Glass ornaments of every color hung mid-air, turning slowly, like festive balls without strings. A giant tree spread out from the middle, dripping with tiny clocks. Jimmy crawled onto a velvet chair and grabbed a handful of cookies.
“Jimmy’s mother decorated like this,” the man said. “Before she passed on.”
Od nodded knowingly. “She’d be proud of how well you’ve done with your son.”
Jimmy’s father wondered if Od had known his wife, and he regretted that he’d never stopped by before. Had he noticed him living and working in this shop, he wondered? If not … why not? “I’ve never seen anything like this.” He picked up a tiny gold clock with green and red gemstones inside.
“These are my specialty.” Od touched the round knob at the top. “You twist it there. Turn it here. Then give it a couple of good spins.”
“It won’t spin forward,” the man said.
“In all things, you must go backward before you go forward. And afterward, whichever way you need most,” Od said.
The man did as Od instructed, and the face of the clock opened, revealing minuscule churning gears that quickly vanished, leaving a round, clear glass with gold rings that spun on the outside. He closed one eye and scrunched up the other.
“Take a good look before the years spin away from you,” Od said.
The man leaned in as instructed, and a childhood scene unfolded slowly, flipping quickly until his late wife’s face smiled up at him. He caught himself smiling back. Years turned by as the clock continued on. Past Jimmy’s birth. To the moment in Od’s shop, and then onward, onward, to another face. The girl in the darling pink coat.
“What is this?” Jimmy’s father asked with disbelief.
“Yule time,” Od said, “With life stops along the way. Glimpses of the past. If you’re lucky, some of the future. I only work with happiness. Sadness is regretfully conjured on your own.”
The man twisted the top again, and his heart swelled with sweet memories. “You work with wonder, my friend.” He hugged Od fiercely, peeling years off Od’s face.
Od’s spine cracked. He stood tall. His age was no longer written around his eyes or in spots on his hands.
Branches bounced as the wind brushed through the door. Both men turned to see the young woman in pink. Her concern washed away at the sight of Jimmy’s father. She glanced at Od and raised a note. “I received an invitation. It seems someone tied it to my door.”
“Invitations are always there, my dear.” But we often only notice when in need. Od rushed forward. “You came just in the knick. I made something for you. Go on. Pick it off the tree.”
“A present? For me?” She looked for a tag but found none. “Which one is mine?”
“Whichever you like. Why don’t you show her how it works,” Od said to Jimmy’s father.
Bells tinkled. The young man from earlier bounded in. “It’s been a long year. I’m back to battle in a couple of days.” He looked around the room for encouragement to go on. “I was waxing my boot and this card fell out of my jacket pocket.”
“One should never go to battle alone,” Od said. “Come in. Come in. No doubt there is something truly special for you.”
Jimmy’s father ushered the man in with excitement. “There are hundreds on the tree. Magic, I think, made from this time of year.”
“One for every soul in town.” Od leaned down and stoked the fire, not with an ache and pop, but with the agility of a man half his age. His heart felt full of laughter. The glint in his eye piercing and true. This would not be his last night. He would be blessed to craft another year. He glanced up at the door. More, he knew, would come that night to share their tales. Some would never. Most would not until at their very worst.
Od kneeled in front of the heart and recited tales of his youth, becoming younger and brighter as every ear turned his way. He told of the day he met the Crystal Queen. The battles he faced as he volunteered to fight amongst her ranks against the dragon intent on setting her aflame. Of the ogres on the island of Snolligogo who eat coconuts all day. And the fairies of Everlight whose hair glow in both day and night.
“Will you come for dinner?” Jimmy asked. “And tell us more stories?”
“Yes!” his father said. “I insist.”
“We could bring dinner here,” the young woman offered, blushing at the pleased reaction from the man and the boy. “Unless Od’s family is coming.”
“Now that would be lovely,” Od said. As he memorized the faces smiling back at him, he felt they had already come.