My father was the one who told me about the Clankers. The Clankers, he’d say, lighting his pipe, were responsible for the walls in the city. It was their duty to move the walls, putting them up and taking them down as needed. I couldn’t figure out what the big deal was about having one wall or another, but my father just shook his head and said that walls were very important, son, very important. Walls were so important, in fact, that in order to ensure no one interfered with the sacred duty of moving them around, the Clankers could not be seen by human eyes. There were exceptions to this rule, however. Out of the corner of one’s eye, for example, one might catch a brief glimpse; in addition, it was possible to encounter the Clankers within five minutes of midnight, as long as you were all alone.

“But how will I know a Clanker if I see one, Dad?” I’d ask, one part skepticism and one part wonder.

“The Clankers,” he said, “always wear hard hats. They wear hard hats, and carry pickaxes over their shoulders. Most importantly, they are always whistling a tune called the svetle. It’s a tune that only Clankers know. A very long and complicated tune,” he said, leaning back in his chair. “I’ve only heard it once, and I’ve never since gotten it out of my head.” Then he’d hum a few notes – for despite his claim that the tune stayed with him always, this was all he could remember whenever he tried to reproduce it.

I always listened raptly to this story, but what I should have paid attention to was the warning that came with it. If ever I mentioned wanting to see the Clankers for myself, my father told me, “Son, I wouldn’t go off looking for the Clankers. If you find them, you may not be able to find your way back.” Then he’d put out his pipe and that was it for the night’s story.

Even after my father died, I was fascinated with the Clankers—perhaps I became more so, sustaining the memory as my link to him. I would repeat the tale to the other foster children, but I could never tell it as well as he. Nor had I answers to any of their questions:

“Have you seen them?” asked Jacob, the youngest of us and inclined to believe whatever he was told. No, I hadn’t.

“How do you know they’re even real?” That was Fredrick, who was the oldest and therefore inclined to preserve his authority over all subjects, by undermining everyone else’s. Well, I just do, that’s how.

“What will you do if you find them?” was Sally’s question. She was approximately my own age, and she asked it not as a challenge, but with a shade of concern. It was this question that always stumped me. What would I do? All I knew was that there was nothing more important. The need to find them was burning in me. Much to the dismay of our foster mother, I began to stay out later and later, with a flimsy excuse or none at all. I was sensitive to every movement at the corner of my eye, to the placement of every wall.

My diligence paid. Two nights before my thirteenth birthday, I found myself all alone on the street, a block away from the foster home. The sky was black-blue, no moon, and I found myself thinking that it had to be around midnight—and just as I thought it, I heard a sound. It was faint, but melodious, with a few notes in its bridge that I would recognize anywhere. The svetle! I sprinted down the block, heart pounding, and there, under the yellow blaze of the streetlamps, I saw him.

He was a large man, vaguely egg-shaped, with a wide belly and squat legs and a head that sort of came to a point, and very little chin to speak of. He wore, as my father had said, a yellow hard hat, along with blue overalls and heavy work boots and work gloves. He carried a pickaxe over his shoulder, and it swung in time with his whistling. He was yards ahead of me, but ambling along at a leisurely-yet-purposeful pace, and I was sure I could catch him if I ran.

“Wait!” I called, breathless, as I closed the distance between us. He noticed me then, though he gave little indication of it but for the rise of his head. Without even turning around, and at the same unhurried pace, he went left at the end of the street into a tunnel. I did the same, but when I turned into the tunnel, I came face to face with a brick wall. I gave it a kick, more out of frustration than anything else, but it was as solid as though it had been there forever. I’d lost him.

Despite the earful I received from the foster mother for coming home so late, I was determined to meet him again. I snuck out the next night, retracing my steps to the street I’d seen him before. I hid in the bushes behind a street light, where the shadows were darkest, and crouched in wait. I was cold and tired, but adrenaline kept me awake and rooted to the spot. It was the longest wait I had ever experienced—anxiety made me overcautious; I’d arrived far earlier than necessary. But just as my watch read 12:04 and my heart began to sink, the familiar tune of the svelte reached my ears. It took all my willpower not to leap out right there, but I forced myself to wait until the sound was only a few feet away. When his footsteps were near enough to be louder than my heartbeat, I jumped out of the bushes and threw my arms wide in a desperate effort to block his way.

This time, I was not ignored. The man stilled in his ambling gait. He stopped swinging his pickaxe. He stopped whistling his long, complicated tune. From under his hard hat, he looked me dead in the eye, and he said, “Well? What is it that you want?”

I still hadn’t found a satisfactory answer to Sally’s question, but perhaps this was my chance to do so.

“I want…to know everything.” Who were the Clankers, really? How did they move the walls and hide from prying eyes? And why? I think in that moment I determined my fascination with the Clankers—nay, obsession—to be that of an unanswered riddle. My father had posed the riddle, but never given the solution. If he’d had one, it had died with him, and here I had found my one chance to know it. Do you know what the Clanker said?

He said, “Very well.”

I returned home the next day, and my foster family was in a tizzy over my absence. My foster mother was in the kitchen, shutting doors loudly and telling her husband, “Should have been harder on him, then maybe he wouldn’t have,” and I noticed a birthday cake on the kitchen table.

I plopped on the couch next to Sally and Jacob. Sally was bunching her dress at her knees and Fredrick was off by the back door, saying, “I’m sure he’ll be back. Everyone needs to quit worrying already.” But I was on the sofa, nestled between Jacob and Sally. There I was! And yet, I wasn’t. There was a wall in the way.

I felt wetness on my cheeks and realized I was crying. I stood up, swung my pickaxe over my shoulder, adjusted my hard hat, and walked out the door. No one heard it shut.

Rachel Heller’s short story, “Till Checkmate” was published in the Spring 2018 issue of The Match Factory. Rachel graduated in May of 2018, BFA Animation. She is now slogging through internships and hurtling towards what could optimistically be called “a career.”