Unchanging the river flows, and yet the water is never the same.
In the still pools the foam now gathers, now vanishes, never staying for long.
So in the world are men and their dwellings.
A single gear whirred and clicked into place. A valve opened, letting out a thin plume of grey steam with a quiet hiss. A gold-plated dial moved by a notch. A tiny mallet sprang from its compartment, striking the brass gong - one, two, three, four, five, six times.
Master Tanaka looked up in surprise - an hour of the Hare already? He turned towards the window and the pink light of dawn illuminated his face. The temple bell only now started to ring out the time. He sighed then yawned, rubbing tired eyes. Another night had passed without him noticing.
The elementals inside the clock awoke with a soft purr and the automatic brush began to move swiftly inside the glass cloche. A slot opened in the mahogany pedestal and spat out a piece of paper upon which was written the day's divination. Hisashige reached for it absentmindedly, his attention focused on the piece of complex clockwork on which he had been working. He glanced briefly at the calligraphy - Oku, 'a gift'. He smiled to himself and nodded knowingly.
A higher-pitched chime rang eight times – counting out the hours of the Western reckoning. The door slid open and a small boy entered the workshop. With his long and angular face, puffed lips and wide straight nose, he bore no resemblance to Master Tanaka.
'It came from Kiyō this morning, Father,' the boy said, presenting Hisashige with a large, ornately packed wooden box.
'Excellent!' the old master exclaimed.
He put the box on the workbench beside the clockwork and began to unwrap it eagerly.
'Shūhan-sama was supposed to send me some Walcheren glass.'
He stopped abruptly and his shoulders sank when he saw the crest on the box, in golden leaf – three lines in a circle. He lifted the lid without enthusiasm. Inside was what seemed like a small human head, completely bald.
'Some gift.' Hisashige looked at the clock with reproach. 'It's just another of Zōzan's broken dolls.'
He took out a small paper envelope containing his fee, and gave it to the boy.
'Put it in the treasure box later.'
The old master opened a hatch in the top of the doll's head and studied the complex web of gears, cranks and pulleys for a moment. With one swift twist of his fingers, he snapped a rubber band back onto the hooked lever.
'Hardly worth the effort,' he murmured, closing the head and the box. 'I really need those divinations to be more precise in the new clock.'
'Is that the new year-plate?'
The boy craned his neck to see over Hisashige's shoulder to view the mechanism sprawled all over the workbench.
'Yes. You have a good eye, Daikichi,' the old master said with a gentle smile.
'Still can't get it to work?'
Hisashige shook his white head.
'Come, I will show you.'
He put the loose screws and gears back into place and lifted the plate gingerly. He moved across the workshop to a tall sculpted cabinet of Western make, and opened the oaken door.
There was another clock inside, similar to the one standing in the corner of the room, but larger and with even more dials, switches and levers.
Hisashige inserted the clockwork plate precisely into its slot and turned the key. The gentle warm hum of the elemental engine filled the cabinet. Steam hissed from the valves.
'I don't understand. Everything seems perfect,' the old master commented as the dials turned to their desired positions, showing exactly the same time and date as was visible on the old clock. 'I can't find any fault within the mechanism. The minute hand is even more precise than before. All the Major Trigrams match. But look at that zodiac dial...'
A round ivory plate turned slowly. Pictures of animals, encrusted in black lacquer, appeared in the glass lens one by one – monkey, rooster, dog, boar, mouse, ox...
'It should stop now,' said Hisashige, and the boy nodded.
It had been the Year of the Ox for a few months now – water ox, to be precise. But the plate continued to turn inexplicably past the tiger and hare until, at last, it halted.
The black lacquer silhouette of a coiled sleeping dragon glinted mockingly from the lens.