Other Clocks is a novel about the O’Shaughnessy brothers and the thin line they walk between grandiosity and making things up, and what each does with the single wish granted him by Rabbit. Here’s the first chapter.
WHEN NUMBER FOUR caught fire Captain O’Shaughnessy told the radio operator to tell the base commander to arrest the ground crew, the sentries, anyone who had been near the plane. When number two began to go he climbed down from the radio operator’s position and swung through the bulkhead into the bomb bay. Holding onto the rack beams he stepped out on the narrow catwalk until he was out over the open roller shutter doors. For a long time there was nothing to see but pale lake and mirror image of pink clouds and the black shape of the plane with black smoke trailing off all four engines. Nothing changed except the list to the right grew worse and the plane’s reflection grew bigger. Then the shore and scrubland rolled into view; eleven miles to the field. He still had no sense of their altitude — no trees, and the little clumps of grass told him nothing, but coming up was the gully west of the service road. He hung his cap on a bomb fin and put on his sunglasses, lay down on the catwalk, hooked a leg around a shutter strut, took hold of a beam and swung down beneath the bombs. The wind pummeled his face like a waterfall. Just ahead he saw the gully and the road, and a jeep. The driver looked up and saw the Liberator and drove off the road. Captain O’Shaughnessy guessed they weren’t five hundred feet up.
He pulled himself up and sat on the catwalk between his bombs. Howell struck him as a good pilot but there probably wasn’t much he could do. They just weren’t getting up the speed. They weren’t getting up past seventy-five or eighty now and they were ten miles out losing a good hundred feet a minute and they would not make it.
He unsnapped a jacket pocket and removed his wallet and slid out her picture. He looked at it trying to see her but it was only a picture. Tomorrow morning would be the doorbell, and going to the door she would see just the tops of the officers’ caps through the little high window and she’d know. Though one of the wives would call beforehand with just the right amount of rumor to prepare her. He saw her standing by the end table next to the davenport, which he had not yet begun paying for, staring with her level blue gaze with the phone in her hand and the other hand going up to her belly. He wanted to put his hand over the hand across her belly. She would be angry at him for years.
He heard engine number three sputter to life and give the Pratt & Whitney roar. The right wing tipped up and Captain O’Shaughnessy grabbed onto the racks as the plane lifted. Howell was a good pilot.
Number three died again.
Somebody did a good job on those engines.
Holding the picture Captain O’Shaughnessy looked down at the stony grasses. He wondered if he should have jumped while they were out over the water and known it was a crazy thought. But they should have jumped ship before the lake, or ditched in the lake. Or at least salvoed the payload while they still had time. But no one had guessed yet someone had gotten to the engines. And no one had wanted to take the heat for losing the bombs, for bollocking up the ballistics trials schedule and slowing production. He wasn’t about to. But it had been his job for five days to keep watch over the bombs from the Denver lab to the base out of Minot to the plane to the testing range, and he had been in the habit of thinking about the welfare of the bombs. He thought of the fat young man from the War Department who had called down from the tower this morning and ordered every last existing prototype be loaded on the plane, and Captain O’Shaughnessy wanted to take him by the ears and bounce his head against a wall, though he knew in the man’s place he would have run the same risks, done the same. Hurry up, run the trials, get the bombs made, rain them on the German refinery complex at Ploesti.
He wondered how she would see this, whether she would see it at all or see it as a painting. She would see this morning as a landscape with the artist miles away and miles up, looking down with his watercolors on blue sky and rosy-fingered altocumulus and along the bottom of the picture the snowy mountain range. Just entering the frame in the upper right corner would be the tiny colossal plane with its nose down, wings streaming smoke. Perhaps someday she would come out here to see it for herself and complete the picture in her head. She would imagine white smoke but it was black smoke and for some reason of anything he wanted her to see this and wanted his child to see it. Perhaps he could have tried to paint it for her. He could have learned something about how to paint it. But all this was crazy and a reaction.
He smelled perfume. Coming into view below was a meadow of little yellow wildflowers of a kind he did not know. He imagined jumping down in the flowers, then wiped away the notion. He looked up at the bombs and their heavy potentiality which he had referred to on insecure lines as cauldrons of molten metal or boatloads full of coins or jeroboams of baked beans. Privately they made him think of breasts and bellies. He turned and looked aft into the tail turret. The cameraman had turned away from his camera and the panorama of smoke. Eyes shut he was biting on something, a pink rosary. Captain O’Shaughnessy looked away. He thought of the bombardier at his station under the nose of the plane, lying there headfirst, looking out through the plexiglas at the ground coming up at him. Captain O’Shaughnessy looked down at her picture and thought of the photograph he’d sent her at Christmas and knew his son or daughter would know him now as a grinning ghost in a naval officer’s uniform standing by the wheel of a plane. Your father was killed helping to test some bombs that helped win the war.
He looked up at the bombs and saw rotten wet fruit.
Captain O’Shaughnessy put the picture back in his wallet and got to his feet and took the bulkhead headset. The copilot and the engineer were still going back and forth about dumping the fuel and when to lower the landing gear. Howell wasn’t joining in. As he listened Captain O’Shaughnessy realized he was seeing her painting again, or this time how he would do it, and the bombs would be threading out from beneath the plane, like fish eggs. Behind that the explosions were like two rows of indian paintbrush, and in the background was a growing cowling of pitch. He pressed the button on the headset and told the crew and tower he was going ahead, dropping the bombs. Empty static, and he hung up the headset before War Department could come on and sure as God shamed Adam order him to keep his hands off that payload. But he did not believe any court martial would find the order sound. Even if it did the order was not sound.
He went forward under the top turret gun position, the flight engineer peering down at him, probably receiving orders to stop him. He crawled under the nose turret into the bombardiers station and the bombardier half turned to watch him. Captain O’Shaughnessy saw the release crank with the red handle and the control panel with its rows of blue lights. Below it was the intervalometer. He spun the dial back to walk the bombs at two second spells. He put his finger on the toggle and looked at the bombardier who nodded and looked away. Captain O’Shaughnessy flicked the toggle and pulled back hard on the release crank until the ratcheting stopped. From behind in the bomb bay came a faint whir followed by a loud carillon clank. One blue light went out. He turned and saw the second of the two-hundred pound bombs go and was back at the catwalk to see the first one hit and blister the ground and lift it up.
He hung from the catwalk and as he looked behind them the wind took his glasses. As the bombs fell past he watched with elation the trail of orange geysers tearing up the green folds, and behind that the impenetrable black cloud. A familiarity to the spectacle, but he had already forgotten the painting and instead mistook the sense for a childhood memory of sitting on the floor of his fathers sloop as they raced a storm to shore, above the stern a purple anvil.
There were hundreds of them, white and brown and of colors found in rocks and all of them with the moosey noses of wild horses. They moved east in a swirl like wind stirring wheat with the colts in the center half of the herd and the shadows streaming off all their legs in long stripes as the herd made for the hogback to get away from the bombs and from the plane which was now passing over them like a hand as the heavy thousand-pounders mounted two to a wing dropped.
What he saw next in the shadow of the hogback and in the midst of the flame and plumes and bobbing heads like chops of waves and spinning pieces of horses, what he late that night at the club confirmed for himself no one else on the plane had seen, was a man, or a man with a kind of head apparatus, or a man with rabbit’s head, running, leading the herd.
Or a big rabbit running upright like a man, an immense brown-and-white rabbit running upright on its hind legs at the head of the herd where one finds the stud. It carried a stick aflame at the tip. The rabbit turned to look at the plane and fixed its big black eyes, Captain O’Shaughnessy felt, on him. It shouted something lost in the thundercough of engines as it broke away from the herd and ran after the plane. He saw it drop its torch and raise and shake a white fist, and the plane was over the hogback and they were away.
Captain O’Shaughnessy pulled himself up from the bomb bay. He recognized this as a kind of reaction to the horror. And certainly to three nights of coffee-sleep and last night the benzedrine. But mainly the horror. The foals that could not run. He had seen bad things in his three years but this was different and to him even worse in a way than the children in the creek on the road into Palermo. He had not had time to steel himself for this, tell himself what he was going to see was horsemeat.
All this was Wednesday. Friday evening on the fourth of five flights on progressively larger planes getting him home to see the new baby, in one of a long row of metal cage chairs bolted to the fuselage, as he sat between an Army Air Corps captain suffering from shell shock or what they were calling battle fatigue and a sleeping Marine captain who smelled of old and new booze, Captain O’Shaughnessy allowed himself to turn his mind on his triumph. He recalled the last twenty seconds before they brought the bomber in, when he had methodically reviewed his security procedures and the previous nights ground echelon checkout and satisfied himself he knew who had sandpapered the engines oil seals. And before the Liberator had come to a full stop he was out of the bomb bay and waiting on the tarmac when the flight engineer dropped down out of the hatch and ran. He caught up and tripped him and knocked him cold, and as he searched him he could hear the jeeps approaching. War Department stood over him hollering dereliction of duty and court martial and other things the man had heard said in movies. Captain O’Shaughnessy went over the engineer head to toe. When he stood up he looked them all in the eye and held out the honed steel comb with rubber shreds still in the gums of the teeth. The commander had nodded, and War Department shut up and stood there blinking at the faces of all the men from the plane.
Captain O’Shaughnessy no longer wondered what it was that would drive the man to set up his own death like that. But he wondered how the man got himself assigned to the Minot base, and who assigned him. But it was no longer his investigation and Captain O’Shaughnessy knew he might never know.
He pulled his bag from under his seat and took out his Gibbon’s Rise and Fall.
He opened the book to where he fell asleep last night and picked up the bookmark, a small grubby envelope. It bulged slightly. He did not recognize it. He turned it over. Nothing written on it. The flap was unsealed and he shook the contents out onto his hand: a pressed corn-flower and a chip of charred bone and a sheet of onion-skin folded in quarters. Even through the gasoline fumes Captain O’Shaughnessy could smell the bone. He set it and the flower on his thigh and unfolded the paper. It read in thick left-slanting pencil strokes I WILL TAKE YOUR SONS. He turned the paper over. Nothing. No watermark.
He looked at the Air Corps man who looked away and at the Marine who was seeing nothing. Captain O’Shaughnessy brushed the flower and bone off his pants and kicked them under the seat. He folded the note and put it in the envelope and stuck it between the pages of the book where his son found it forty years later. It explained everything.
open your mind
for the speechless
someone has to