Hourglass

            Background: It is often unclear where precisely a story originates, or why it ends. The writer, Jorge Luis Borges, in the story “Borges and I,” writes: “It’s Borges, the other one, that things happen to… I shall endure in Borges, not in myself (if, indeed, I am anybody at all), but I recognize myself less in his books than in many others’… So my life is a point-counterpoint, a kind of fugue, and a falling away – and everything winds up being lost to me, and everything falls into oblivion, or into the hands of the other man. I am not sure which of us it is that’s writing this page.” He says his own taste runs to hourglasses and maps. This is a story that is about hourglasses, but not about maps.

            The rules of this world are simple. But they must not be thought of as strange.

            The sands of your hourglass must never stop. The moment the last grain falls, and settles, it is the end. You must always keep turning, and the sands must always be kept running.

            Many people have tried to cheat this fate and find ways around the endless task of staying alive. Some have tried to have others turn it for them. It never works.

            Everyone has an hourglass. It appears there at birth. It ceases at death – a faint popping sound, and not even the dust remains.

            Parents are stressed, one can imagine.

            As long as your hourglass is turned, before it runs out, you will stay alive. Some people live all the way until eighty, ninety, or older – but it is rare someone will want to keep at it by then. It’s a hard business, and soon the only preoccupation you can have is staying alive. Accidents happen, of course, and hourglasses break. They can be intentionally broken too. People die young, and at any age. It’s not an easy world to stay alive in. When an hourglass is lost, but then found again before it runs out, people sometimes never recover from the panic. Other people find it liberating.

            Most people set a timer and forget that their life is so precariously run.

            Inexplicably – to the world’s current understanding – your hourglass can shrink. That means more work, more turning. Once it gets smaller, there is no recorded case of it getting bigger again. Although many miracles are claimed.

            There are always new guarantees to keep your hourglass from shrinking: new books, new programs, new faiths. Much morality is talked about. People maintain it is about doing the right thing, and there is consistent belief in that. But what the right thing is – people disagree.

            This is a true account of an hourglass maker. Regular hourglasses still exist in this world, and are built, crafted and cared for in the ordinary way.

            This hourglass maker worked at his bench, he shaped infinity balloons in glass, and he experimented with sands of varying material. He also had a peculiar belief. He believed he could make a replica hourglass that was so perfectly identical to the ones that dictated life, that a person would believe the replica was the original. It was a strange belief, for each hourglass varied in degree, in size, in shape, in imperceptible textures that only someone carrying it their entire life would know. It was also unknown what material they were made of, for when they came into existence, or exited from it, they left no particular explanation like ordinary things. Undeterred, this hourglass maker tinkered at his bench, year after year, never doubting his task.

            One day, to his triumph, he believed he had succeeded. He had all the pieces to make the perfect replica. And so it was, he hired a shop assistant. This shop assistant was a young man passionate about hourglasses. He often talked about his dreams and aspirations. The old hourglass maker listened wisely and talked of his younger self’s dreams and aspirations. And they worked day after day, syncing their time, as the old man taught the young man everything he knew. But as they worked, the old hourglass maker studied the hourglass that belonged to the young man. After the shop closed its doors for the evening, and the young assistant went home, the old maker began to shape his replica. Night after night he worked, making the smallest perceptible adjustments; each day, he studied anew the object of his work, and each night, he refined his replica. 

            Then the day came when he was ready. He paced nervously, and his eyes looked feverish. When the young man arrived, he thought the old man was unwell, and he was concerned, and asked if there was anything he could do. The old hourglass maker shook his head, thanking the young man for his concern, but insisting he felt well. So they set to the day’s work.

            The old hourglass maker had his replica carefully hidden, and when the young man turned his hourglass, the old man turned the replica, syncing their sands.

            He waited until the young man was engrossed in his work, and he walked over. He stood proudly, seeing all the knowledge he had given, which was now adapted and done with even greater skill. He put his hand on the young man’s shoulder, and as he turned away, he left the replica, and held the young man’s hourglass hidden in his arm.

            When the time came, the young man turned his replica hourglass. The sands kept running, and he continued working. Ecstatic, the old man rushed to him, holding up the original hourglass – unturned – in triumph. The young man was, at first, confused, then he laughed. He did not know how the old man had made such a replica, and it was certainly a fine piece of workmanship, but clearly the young man still possessed the original. The alternative was impossible. The old man grew insistent and swore that he had switched the hourglasses when the young man was not looking.

            The young man grew impatient. Even angry that the old man would suggest a willingness to do such a trick, that he would conceive of switching an hourglass with a poor imitation (it was no longer a fine piece of workmanship, but a vile piece of contrivance).

            The old man insisted that he had switched them, and although the young man was angry now, once he accepted the discovery, his anger would pale in comparison to it. The young man grew even angrier that the old man would continue this charade. He called him insane, and a fool.

            The old man sat down, his head in his hands. He knew the truth, and he could not prove it. Seeing that the old man was distraught, the young man recanted. He apologized, and said he spoke in anger, that it was all a fine joke, and that the old man had truly played it well. They would laugh about it later.  

            The old man reached for his own hourglass. He looked at the young man, and told him that he knew the truth, and that he would show him. The hourglasses were a deceit so riddled into the mind that it would take a great discovery to remove it.

            The young man grew nervous. The old man’s hourglass was nearly running out. The young man said there was no need to show him anything. The old man shook his head and said that the young man did not believe him, but he would show him the truth. The young man insisted that the old man not do what he was thinking.

            When the old man’s hourglass ran out, he held it unmoved, and his eyes locked with the young man’s worried face. The old man smiled for a single moment of blissful vindication.

            Then there was a faint popping sound.

END.