It has no hands or numbers, but the gold clock shows the hours, minutes, and seconds as slits of light. On top of the disk, a monstrous locust that grinds and chews the time away. Inspired by medieval armor and originally meant to appear like a grasshopper, the insect gradually morphed into something more ominous: part lizard, part stag beetle, part nightmare. Sometimes it blinks. Sometimes it marches forward with its mouth, forever eating time. Protected by glass, the hungry insect stands taller than me, the lights blinking through the gold to tell me how quickly my life is passing. The glass is both a window and a mirror, and when the clouds roll over the cold English sun, I can see myself inside the concentric rings of time. I try to pose for a selfie to capture this moment that will soon click away. I smile for the memory.
Inside the clock, the sound of a chain dropping into a wooden coffin, link by link. The creator of the corpus clock calls the locust on top a Chronophage–a time eater.
On my father’s birthday, I make my dead mother’s favorite meal–cornish hens in an orange raisin sauce, wild rice, sugar snap peas, and a sharp white wine. I don’t make it for him. We are miles apart, and my parents divorced two decades before my mother died, so he is not aching to remember her. But his birthday marks a new year–one more than his father lived.
I am getting closer to the age our mother was when she died. I measure myself against the yardstick of her life–where was she at this age? Am I making better choices? Have I scheduled my next doctor’s appointment? Are my affairs in order? How much time is left?
I toast to her ghost and peel the breast meat off the bone.
In the 1600s, hermits of St. Paul in France began greeting each other with Memento mori/Remember you will die. Artists began painting skulls, hourglasses, guttering candles, and roses succumbing to dark rooms to remind the viewer of time’s gentle stalking.
In the 1980’s I learned to pray If I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.
Last year, before diagnosis, I told my doctor I didn’t care how many years pain medication would take off my life. I would happily make it to 60 pain-free than 80 in the never ending exhaustion of chronic pain. The orange pharmacy bottle glowed in my hand like a divine relic.
Annie Dillard said: What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?
The last thing my mother wrote to me was: Write more soon.
Emily Dickison’s last words were: I must go in. The fog is rising.
The corpus clock I’m visiting is the original one in Cambridge, England. It was unveiled by Steven Hawking in September of 2008, a Friday. Though the clock is only correct about the time once every five minutes–at times ahead and at times behind–the locust at the top blinks as though satisfied, even as it remains hungry. It’s supposed to be able to run for the next 200 years.
The clock’s creator, John Taylor said: It is terrifying, it is meant to be … I never felt like this until I woke up on my 70th birthday, and was stricken at the thought of how much I still wanted to do, and how little time remained.
My family members always seem to be waiting on death. My paternal grandmother opened her closet with panache and said: Take what you want! I don’t need anymore! and sipped her cocktail while I touched the sleeves of her cardigans.
My maternal grandmother only died a year before my mother, so far away from the person she used to be. The last time we spoke, she could not name all seven of her children, but she smiled at everyone in the room anyway.
Years before she’d given me a calendar to help me count down to the apocalypse as a Christmas present. She’d studied all the Biblical passages that helped her chart the moon and the prophecies. I counted the promised squares. The days, weeks, and even years I had left, both few and plentiful, and I made my apocalypse to-do list: dive the cenotes, visit where my mother grew up in Brazil, whitewater raft the Grand Canyon, hike the Camino de Santiago. And then I did it all. With time to spare.
Marcus Aurelius said: Let each thing you would do, say or intend be like that of a dying person.
Joan Crawford’s last words were yelling at her housekeeper, who was praying for her: Damn it! Don’t you dare ask God to help me!
The last birthday card my grandmother sent me said Rejoice! The time is nigh!
Mourning does not make humans unique. Elephants have graveyards. Ravens have funerals. Chimpanzees will groom their dead and even clean their teeth. What apparently sets us apart is our ability to reflect on our future death.
I check the website deathclock.com. I enter my birthdate, my sex, my outlook on life, and other health data, and it tells me the date I’m going to die. It will be a Tuesday. It’s a good age. I look up how I’m likely to die, and it’s good, too. It’s typical. A nice average life and a predictable death from one of the common culprits.
I double-check with the website death-clock.org. It’s within two years of the other one, but this time I will die on a Thursday. I like this better. I hope it’s in Paris. I hope it rains. I hope it’s exactly like the César Vallejo poem “Black Stone Lying on a White Stone.” In the poem Vallejo’s death should be a Thursday in autumn, and instead it was a Friday in spring. I suppose the day does not matter, but I’m still going to hope for Paris. I’m still going to hope for rain.
I watch the chronophage chew through minutes of my life. It is a gray summer afternoon in England, and I am the only one on the corner studying the monstrous immortal clock. It’s the thing I most wanted to see here. Not the gorgeous college buildings or stunning gardens, not the expanse of the green, the swans in the river. I wanted the awful beauty of this clock, the gift of its reminder that I am here, present and attentive, letting the locust have my moments in its metallic ghost belly.
Two weeks from this day my partner will be hit by a car while biking. Seven months from this day will be January 3, Memento Mori Day. One year and three months from this day I will receive a Google alert that someone with my name has died, and for a moment I will gently pat my chest and arms to be sure I am still with my body. The relief and grieving come next, but then I’ll remember that when the Renaissance artist Raphael’s lay dying at the same age I am now, he sat up and asked: Whence comes the sunshine? before closing his eyes, and saying, Happy.
Traci Brimhall is the author of five collections of poetry, most recently Love Prodigal (Copper Canyon, 2024). Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, and the Pushcart Prize anthology. Her essays have appeared in Gulf Coast, Guernica, Georgia Review, and received the Annie Dillard Prize in Creative Nonfiction. She is the Poet Laureate of Kansas (2023-2026).