The Time Thief has lived in a cottage on the edge of the forest since before my grandfather was born. It is said that, back then, he was a young man. He was tall and straight and thin as a whippet with long, slender fingers as white as bone. Fingers unnaturally soft and smooth, for a man, and if they were to brush against your skin for just a moment, he could steal time from your very soul, make your life seep away ever faster until your final heartbeat left you a shrunken and shadowy memory. That is what my father told me.
My father was seven years old when my grandmother fell under the Time Thief’s spell one long, bad winter. He watched this once proud woman lying unmoving on her bed, her eyes growing weaker, while the town doctor closed up his bag and shook his head. My father stayed with her night and day, wetting her lips with water, brushing her soft brown hair, while her hours slipped away through the cracks in the walls as fast as flowing water. Unseen years racing across the ice speckled fields.
My grandmother had been a good woman, a kind woman.
The Time Thief had slipped on frozen ground outside the chapel gates on a Sunday morning in December, the cracking of his knee on the hard road like the snap of a twig. The townspeople, gathered in the doorway, had stopped on their way to worship and looked back, falling into silence, accusing looks, as the Time Thief struggled on the slippery ground. My grandmother was rushing, late, and as she passed by, pulling my father with her, she stopped. She let go of my father’s hand, laid her prayer book down on the chapel wall and, without a word, had slipped her arms around the Time Thief’s back, across his greasy, brown coat. Slowly, her breath puffing into the cold air, they had risen together, unsteadily, carefully, until he was back on his feet.
“Woman,” my grandfather had hissed at her from the doorway, his lips thin with anger, and shame. “Are you a fool? Come away now.”
“Mummy don’t. Please” whimpered my father, clinging tightly to my grandmother’s skirt. “He’s a bad man.”
“Pssh. He’s only a person like the rest of you,” my grandmother had announced, picking up her prayer book and bustling her way through the chapel doors, daring them all to fault her.
The Time Thief moved on slowly, wordlessly, watching his step.
My grandmother didn’t believe in curses. She was dead three weeks later.
The Time Thief is older now but yet not, it seems, so old as he might be. He is bent, his body beginning to twist like the root of a tree. His clothes are worn and dirty, encrusted with the dust of his work. His fingers, one hand clawed around the top of a gnarled walking stick, are no longer white, but tanned the colour of caramel, the skin loose and soft as cloth. He wears still that long, brown coat, boots with a hole buried into one toe, his white and wispy hair kept in check with an ancient hat.
He comes into the village only once a month, walking the three miles from his one room cottage, down the wet and muddy track to the road, which curves around and down and brings him to our farm. My father does not look as the Time Thief passes but I see his back straighten, his mouth tighten. He grips the axe or spade, sometimes just the cup he is drinking from. He grips so hard his knuckles are blotched deep red and purple. The Time Thief makes no noise as he passes but always I know to slip to the door or window, when I see this silent spasm of hatred across my father’s face.
No one speaks to the Time Thief, unless they must.
No one watches the Time Thief, as I do.
I have seen inside the Time Thief’s cottage. I have peered through its grimy window into the darkness beyond. I have seen the mill, grinding and grinding, crushing the grains and seeds and splinters of time, the great wheels smashing and pushing them down into the pit beneath. The hours and days and years and centuries. I have seen the great hourglass of life through which all time seeps and slips forever and ever more. I have seen the Time Thief at his work, keeping the fires stoked, shovelling the coal and wood, ensuring the flames are high and red and as angry as my father.
I have seen the Time Thief, his skin dark and damp with soot and sweat, black lines of coal etched into the creases of his face; his fine, white hair askew like threads in cotton. And I have seen him sit at his fire in the falling evening, his body crumpled and weary, as he stares into the great orange-red heart of the coals within with eyes as dark and bright as glass.
No one visits the Time Thief, but he knows I am there. Watching and waiting, he and I trapped in this game of certainty that one day, soon, he will be alone again.