This is installment #28 of my project “(fictional) notes from The British Museum,” wherein I visit a single room at The British Museum in London, zero in on an intriguing object or objects therein, and quickly write a piece of flash fiction inspired by that object. This very short story may not have anything to do with what the object actually is — in fact, it almost certainly will not. (Click on the images to embiggen them. Learn more about this project.)
Due to massive depression and even more massive distraction, I let this project fall by the wayside in the latter half of 2019. But I’m determined to spend the first half of 2020 getting this series up to 52 installments, at which point I will collect them into an ebook (which I will give away to my Patreon patrons who’ve already given above a certain amount, probably around $10; still to be determined; it will be available for sale to everyone else). This installment is FREE to everyone, as a way to draw in more paying readers; subsequent installments through the end of the project will be available only to Patreon patrons. Pledge only US$1 per month to get each new story as it’s posted!
The man was very tired.
His laboring to construct the device was, at the time, the most arduous task he’d ever undertaken, yet his pleasure in the effort had been immense. And once the grand machine was completed and all the lovely gears and pulleys and fiddly bits of metal and wire and cord were clicking and whirring and turning in perpetual harmony… Ah, what a wonder he had achieved!
He had designed the glorious contraption to run forever, an entity unlike himself and yet a fit companion to assuage his loneliness, its intricate little tickings and gentle clankings an affable nearby presence. And so he sat back, fatigued but now relaxing, to enjoy the charming fruits of his work.
It was not until a goodly time later that it became apparent that something was wrong with his device — or something was too right, perhaps. His invention was… growing. Was this an unintended side effect of the eternal motion? Did the mechanisms require expansion in order to keep moving? Or did the endless motion encourage expansion?
This unexpected aspect of his machine mystified him for a long while, and he turned the conundrum over and over in his mind to the point of distraction: the sight and sound of the device lost its luster. But as the proliferation increased, so returned the delight he took in his handiwork, as the ever-swelling activity only made the mechanical hums and sighs exponentially more satisfying to be around. Eventually he pushed aside any anxiety about the inexplicable growth, and even congratulated himself on being more powerful than he’d previously imagined.
No sooner had he begun to relax from the worry presented by the burgeoning of the apparatus, however, did another concerning matter arise: the mushrooming machine was suddenly behaving oddly. Not in any way that caused it to stop moving, of course — it would never, could never stop. But a gear would skip here, causing a decidedly unpleasant, if only momentary, cacophony; then a fiddly metal bit would break off there, and rattle disagreeably around the mechanisms until it fell away. The machine was so much alive now now that new bits would grow to replace broken ones, and skipping gears would wear away new, if rougher, grooves.
Still, the mellifluousness of his invention was being ground away — the cacophonies ever less momentary, the rattlings ever more disagreeable — and so the man found himself compelled to spend more and more time effecting repairs, replacing parts and smoothing rough edges to keep the music of the machine in tune. The larger his creation grew, the more time he had to spend fussing and fumbling with it, until he had only short spans of rest before the unmusic of it approached the unendurable again, and he was forced to resume his toil.
After an eternity, that toil had enveloped all his existence, a ceaseless slog to maintain harmony. It was now such that the harmony, in the brief moments when he could find it in his invention anymore, no longer pleased him.
The man was very tired.
Several more eternities passed in this manner before a thought occurred to the man:
He could just stop.
He wasn’t sure why it had taken him to so long to realize this. There was truly nothing tying him to the contraption, no real reason why he couldn’t just walk away from it. Of course initially there had been the pride in his work, and his amusement in it. Later, perhaps, pure sentiment had kept him going for a while longer; then pure stubbornness.
But now he was pure exhaustion.
He let one more eternity pass while he turned the idea over in his mind, all the while continuing to file down jagged fiddly bits and oil rusting gears and rewind springs. He gave himself ample opportunity to come up with reasons why he should not abandon his project, and he found none. Why, if he left this one to clack along on its own, it would be fine: it would keep going forever. The man simply wouldn’t have to listen to it anymore, wouldn’t feel that obligation to keep fine-tuning it. And to what end, anyway? It was only him who could hear it. He should give up this project as a lost cause, maybe start again elsewhere. And get it right this time.
Yes. This was the right thing to do. It was the harmonious thing to do.
He would give it one more eternity, just for old times’ sake, and then he would be done with it.