The Cosmic Hourglass

The Cosmic Hourglass was not truly an hourglass.  It measured time in eons, not hours.

Much was contained with the Cosmic Hourglass.  Much sand was contained within the Cosmic Hourglass.  The sands of time.  And each grain of time was allotted to the elements of mortal life.  And so, some said, there were many sands within the Cosmic Hourglass.  The sands of sleep.  The sands of destiny.  The sands of joy.  And the sands of sorrow.  And a multitude more of sands. 

All that could be perceived, known, and felt by mortals was contained within the Cosmic Hourglass.

When young mortals were told the story of the Cosmic Hourglass for the first time, and taught to cherish each speck of sand, many would ask a question that their teachers foresaw (and had themselves asked). 

Why sand?

The teachers would smile, for this was one of the questions they were ready to answer.

And they would answer.

A single speck of sand is so small that even the wind can lift it.  But a multitude of grains together are so powerful that they can bury a city.

Sand could flow, like water. Sand could stand like stone. Sand could be as soft as mortal skin. Sand could be as rough and biting as mortal teeth.

Dunes of sand could be seen from far distances. Yet a single grain of sand could escape the notice of the keenest eye.

But there was one eye whose notice no grain of sand from the Cosmic Hourglass could escape. 

The Keeper of Time. 

There were many Keepers, immortal beings who were tasked with caring for and guiding the lives of their mortal cousins.  There was a Keeper of Dreams, a Keeper of Destinies.  A Keeper of Sorrows.  A Keeper of Joys.  And a multitude more of Keepers.

The Keeper of Time was the master of them all, for it was with the grains of sand in the Cosmic Hourglass that all the Keepers performed their given tasks.

When sorrows fell upon a mortal life, the Keeper of Sorrows would change grains of time to tears.

When joy came into a mortal life, the Keeper of Joys would change the grains of time to laughter.

When a mortal strived toward destiny, the Keeper of Destinies would scatter grains of sand before that mortal, to form a path.

And the Keeper of Time governed them all. 

The workings of the cosmos were under no one being’s control.  But they were under one being’s watch.  The one being who could comprehend the cosmos’s workings.  And maintain those workings.

The Keeper of Time.

It was she who portioned out the grains of time for the other Keepers.  And as the grains were changed from time into action or thought or feeling, they fell through the Cosmic Hourglass.  No other being—be they mortal or immortal—were allowed to stir the sands of time without leave from the Keeper of Time.  For any tampering with the Cosmic Hourglass would throw off the balance of the entire cosmos. 

Someday, so far into the future that mortal minds could sparsely comprehend, the last grain of sand in the top of the Hourglass would fall to the bottom.  The Keeper of Time would mark the end of that eon, turn the Hourglass around, and mark the start of a new eon.

But that day was far into the future.  There was still time, much time, in the present eon, for foolishness, much foolishness. 

The Keeper of Time watched for such foolishness, even as she watched for action, thought, and feeling, for joys and sorrows, dreams and destinies, good and evil.

She saw much foolishness. 

But it was not her charge to intervene.  Her immortal fingers did not pluck against the strings that bound the cosmos together.  She only ever touched the sands of time.

The foolishness of mortals could be as dangerous as the foolishness of immortals.  Sometimes, more so.

That was why the Keepers taught mortals of themselves and of the cosmos, but did not teach them how to affect the cosmos.  That lesson mortals had to learn for themselves and teach each other. 

That was why mortals were taught to know of the Cosmic Hourglass, but not where it was or how to reach it. 

But there came to be a few mortals who did set their eager eyes upon the Cosmic Hourglass.


The Keeper of Time kept her watch alone and had done so since the beginning of the cosmos.  But many of the other Keepers took apprentices.  Some even took mortals as their apprentices.  One such Keeper was the Keeper of Joys.

And the Keeper of Joys had a mortal apprentice whose eyes were more eager than others when they caught sight of the Cosmic Hourglass.

The apprentice, whose name was Ilaria, did not understand why the Keeper of Time apportioned the sands of time as she did.  Sometimes she was generous, giving Ilaria’s teacher, the Keeper of Joys, many grains of sand to change into laughter and bliss.  But sometimes, the Keeper of Time was miserly, and seemed to give no grains of sand, no time, for joy.  Ilaria had been told by her teacher that there were no beings in the cosmos who could make more time.  And even if there were such beings in the cosmos, the Keeper of Time was not one of them.

Still, it seemed to Ilaria that the Keeper of Time could affect the cosmos for the better if only she were to apportion more grains of time to the Keepers who governed good and happy actions, thoughts, and feelings.  To her teacher, the Keeper of Joys, for one.  And to the Keeper of Destinies.  And the Keeper of Friendships.  Even to the Keeper of Flavorsome Meals (as the Keeper of Nourishment preferred to call herself). 

But whenever Ilaria asked her teacher why the Keeper of Time did not choose to apportion the sands of time to favor good, her teacher only told her that the Keeper of Time was a Keeper, and Keepers did not affect the workings of the cosmos.  They only ever responded to those workings. 

Ilaria accepted this teaching, for the most part, but there remained within her a seed of doubt.

Though she was the apprentice of the Keeper of Joys and tasked with helping her teacher to transform grains of time into laughter and merriment, Ilaria witnessed much sorrow in all its many forms.  Mild melancholy.  Silent sadness.  Cries of pain so sudden and severe, they tore through the veil of the mortal world and were heard in the halls of the heavens.

For sorrow sometimes interrupted joy.  Even as joy sometimes pierced through sorrow.


One day, Ilaria could bear it no more.  There was no particular horror, no one terrible grief that led her to do as she decided to do.  It was only year upon year of witnessing ordinary sorrow.

Ilaria had often wondered—though she was prudent enough not to ask her teacher—if it would be possible to take a greater portion of time than was allotted to them.  In other words, to steal some extra grains of time, change them to grains of joy, and brighten the lives of more people than they otherwise could.

Surely no harm could come from such an act.

The Keepers were wise and could exert much power when they chose—and they only chose so when it seemed that the balance of the cosmos was in danger.

But surely an abundance of joy could be no danger.

So Ilaria would dream of ways she might get her mortal hands on more sands from the Cosmic Hourglass.  And then she would utter a mild lament for the grains of time that were wasted upon her dreaming, sand that could have been changed to something more useful.

Ilaria knew she could not steal the sands from the Hourglass itself, which was watched, always watched, by the Keeper of Time.  The Keeper would see, and she would punish the apprentice by trapping her in the Cosmic Hourglass.

She had heard rumors only of what befell one who was imprisoned in the Hourglass.  Rumors only, for there were none who dared to risk suffering under the keen eye of the Keeper of Time.  Tossed about among the grains of time, ever-changing into grains of pain, sorrow, laughter, dreams—one did not know if one was in a dream or in reality.  Days seemed to pass and the prisoner would feel she was starving, dying of thirst, yet only seconds had gone by.  Dreaming of horrors would drive one to laugh.  Dreaming of joys would freeze one in terror. 

Some said that a mortal could not bear the sight of what the Keeper of Time watched without end, the sight of time unending, the cosmos entire.  For a mortal, such a sight was worse than maddening, for madness alone was unbearable, but madness with a touch of awareness could shatter a soul without breaking it.  And that soul would walk in eternal pain thereafter.

But the Keeper of Time had only two eyes.  And though she never slept, she was constrained and affected by the cosmic grains of sand as all beings living within the cosmos were.  So if Ilaria were to take some sand from the Keeper of Sleep, from whom it would be much easier to steal, she would be able to put the Keeper of Time to sleep.  Perhaps it would only be for a moment, but in that moment when the Keeper closed her eyes, Ilaria could slip her hand into the Cosmic Hourglass and grasp a fistful of sand.  A few grains she could sprinkle upon the Keeper of Time, so that when her eyes opened, she would not know that any time had passed.

The rest of the sand, Ilaria would take with her, and she would use the skill she had learned from her teacher, and she would transform those grains of time into pure joy.

And she would cast that joy out into the world, let each grain land where it may.


Ilaria dreamed and she dreamed, but never did she act.  Never did she think she could act.  Until the day her teacher met with the Keeper of Sleep to discuss dreams and nightmares.  Ilaria’s teacher loved to meet and speak with other beings, Keepers, mortals, beasts.  It did not matter. 

The Keeper of Sleep kept her allotment of sand in a pouch that she wore about her waist.  But she did not keep that pouch about her when she sat down to converse with the Keeper of Joys.

Ilaria was certain she would be caught.  Her hand shook and a cold sweat broke upon her skin as she reached into the bag of sleep sand and grasped a handful.

When next the Keeper of Joys was to visit the Cosmic Hourglass to receive her allotment of sand, Ilaria asked to go with her.  And the Keeper of Joy agreed.

After the grains of time were received, Ilaria asked if she might linger a moment, and gaze upon the Cosmic Hourglass and its Keeper.  And the Keeper of Joys agreed.

For what did the Keeper of Time have to fear from a well-warned and well-trained apprentice?

And so Ilaria stood before the Cosmic Hourglass.  She floated upon a large piece of tile before the top of the Hourglass. 

It appeared like any ordinary hourglass.  There were no fanciful designs upon the frame.  The frame was made of some dark wood.  The glass seemed to be ordinary glass.  Only the Hourglass was immense.  Ilaria could not see the bottom from where she floated, close enough to touch.  So too was the Keeper of Time immense.  Her face floated before the Hourglass.  One hand—one of the Keeper’s hands, Ilaria presumed—pressed upon the top of the Hourglass.  The other hand held the Hourglass from below. 

The Keeper had a lavender complexion and soothing waves of ocean-blue hair that flowed upward.  Her vastness frightened Ilaria, for it was greater than anything Ilaria had ever seen in the mortal world.  And Ilaria had never been so far away from the Keeper of Time to see her whole face, much less any other part of her.  Ilaria was not even certain if the Keeper of Time had a body.  But even as she was frightened, Ilaria was impressed by the Keeper’s magnificence.  The Keeper’s expression was serene as she watched the sands of time cascade through the narrow passage into the lower chamber.  Those were the sands that were spent, changed from time into action, thought, or feeling, and returned somehow to the Cosmic Hourglass.

With a hammering heart but a steady resolve, Ilaria blew the sands of sleep toward the Keeper of Time.  She watched the sands settle on the Keeper’s face and in her eye.  And to Ilaria’s relief, the Keeper’s eyes, those eyes that never blinked, never rested, they began to close.


Ilaria dared to step forth as the Keeper’s eyelids descended.  The apprentice tried to stand still, to wait.  She could not help but to tap her heel as she stood, poised, ready to leap forth. 

The other Keepers received their sand by reaching in through an opening so small that even Ilaria could scarcely see it.  She wondered how the giant Keeper of Time could see it.  But she did not spend much time wondering.  She slid the glass panel open, reached in, and grabbed a fistful of sand from the topmost layer.  Some of this sand, she poured into her opposite hand and blew toward the Keeper of Time.

She did not wait for the Keeper’s eyes to open.

Ilaria fled.


As quickly as she could, she reached the workshop of her teacher, who was not there.  Ilaria placed the fistful of time that she had stolen on the workbench.  And she went to work.

She changed every grain of time into a grain of joy.  Some was laughter.  Some merriment.  Some song and dance.  Some were changed to hopeful thoughts.  Some to sudden bursts of bliss.

And Ilaria took these sands of joy.  And she cast them out into the mortal world.  Let each grain land where it may.

She was worn and weary by this time, from the work of transforming so many grains of time, from the fear of the Keepers’ wrath, and from a tiny but gnawing doubt about what she had done.

On the days that followed, news reached Ilaria, news of what came from her benevolent theft.

Hopeful thoughts reached a man who decided to strive to be the ruler of his small town.  This man was honest, noble, and well-loved by his fellow townsfolk.  He had been filled with doubt.  But thanks to the sands of joy, he reveled in a newfound confidence. 

Bursts of bliss reached a woman who had been lamenting that her love had betrayed her and run off with another lover.  The woman forgave and began to forget her former lover, and her heart began to heal. 

Grains of song and dance reached a group of workers whose minds and hearts had dulled from the doing of dull work.  As their feet jigged and their voices crooned and warbled, their minds sharpened and their hearts gladdened. 

And Ilaria rejoiced.

Her teacher, the Keeper of Joys, was surprised and puzzled by the sudden abundance of joy in the mortal world.  But she was happy for it.  And she told Ilaria that they must go visit the Keeper of Time again to thank her for providing a greater allotment of joy.

Ilaria said nothing of her theft.  She judged it would be nobler to let the credit fall upon the Keeper of Time.  And she congratulated herself on her generousness, for of all the Keepers, she had always been most critical of the Keeper of Time.


When last Ilaria had seen the Keeper of Time, with her eyes closed, helpless to stop a mortal who was to her as a flea was to Ilaria, she had been terrified.

Now, she approached with confidence, standing almost beside her teacher, instead of behind as was the place of a humble apprentice.

She had even begun imagining that the Keeper of Time would be encouraged by the spread of joy, and would do as Ilaria had always wished she would do, she would allot even more sands of time to the Keeper of Joys.

The Keeper of Joys approached the Keeper of Time, bowed, and spoke her thanks for the generous portion of time given to joy.

Ilaria had never heard the Keeper of Time speak.  She had asked her teacher once if she could address the Keeper of Time, ask for the boon of a lesson.  The Keeper of Joys had teased Ilaria that she should not wish for such a thing, for the Keeper of the Cosmic Hourglass possessed a cosmic voice.  The Keeper of Joys was not certain that mortal ears could even bear such a voice.

The Keeper of Joys was right.

For the Keeper of Time now spoke.  She spoke in a whisper that almost shattered the bones of Ilaria’s ears.  And yet, it was not the Keeper’s voice that shocked Ilaria.  It was the words she spoke.

The cosmos strains.

The Keeper continued to speak, and as she spoke, Ilaria’s confidence, her pride, began to unravel. 

The grains of sand that she had stolen had already been allotted.  By taking them, Ilaria had done as her teacher had warned.  She had thrown the entire cosmos into imbalance.

The Keeper of Time could see farther than Ilaria could see.  Days, months, years.  A generation farther and beyond.  She spoke of the future.

Because of Ilaria’s theft, the Keeper of Destinies had no sand to make the pathway toward destiny for three mortals.  These mortals still strove toward destiny, but could not clearly see their paths.  Two were much aged by the time they fulfilled their destinies.  One did not fulfill his destiny at all.  The two who succeeded were destined to be great leaders among their people.  Many whom they would have guided much earlier became lost.  The one who died before he succeeded was destined to be a great healer, who succeeded in discovering a cure for an illness that ravaged the young among his people.  The task was left to future healers, and they did indeed find a cure, but in the meantime, many suffered and died who might not have done so.

The Keeper of Sleep had no sand to put an entire city of people to sleep for many nights.  Unable to sleep, half the people in the city perished. 

And joys became sorrows, for the sands of joy that Ilaria had carelessly cast into the world fell upon those who should not yet feel joy.  Like a man who was mourning his beloved wife.  Not three days had passed when he seemed to forget all about her and go carousing with new and suspect friends.  His children wept double, for they felt they had lost their father too.

All of this and more, the Keeper of Time said.

By this time, Ilaria was weeping.  Her ears bled from the force of the Keeper’s whispers.  She bowed before the Keeper of Time, whose face abided behind the Cosmic Hourglass, and whose eyes did not look away from it.

Ilaria did not look up as she spoke.  “In attempting to bring more joy to a few, my actions will lead to the suffering of multitudes more.” 

They might have found joy again in time, the Keeper said.

“I understand that I must be punished, and I am ready,” Ilaria said.  Her breath caught as she dared to ask.  “But is there no way that I can put right what I have done wrong?”

No, the Keeper of Time said.  It is done.  Time can be transformed into anything, but it cannot be transformed back into itself. 

Ilaria’s heart was seized with fright, but she rose and took a step toward the Cosmic Hourglass.  “Then I am ready to be imprisoned.”

No, the Keeper of Time said.  Your punishment will be to witness what you have wrought.  You will live in the world among those who suffer from your mistake.

And so she did.


Ilaria returned to the mortal world, having been forsaken by her teacher.

She was given the sight to see the consequences of her theft.  She saw all that the Keeper of Time had described come to pass.  A city unable to sleep, people suffering and collapsing in the streets, only able to rest when they succumbed to the eternal sleep of death.  She saw those who suffered from a pox that twisted their bodies and struck them blind.  Those who did not die were forever crippled.  And all of them would have been saved by a cure that was not made in time for them, because the man who would make it could not see the path of his destiny.

All of this and more.

Ilaria grew older and wiser.

She tried to atone for her great mistake.  She wandered the world searching for sorrow.  When she found it, she tried to create small joys, honest joys, for those who were mired in sadness.

And when saw joy that the cosmos did not create.  Joy that she had stolen, she would watch and try to temper that joy, in the hopes that she could bring balance to a few lives.  For she was not too small to have thrown the cosmos into chaos.  But she was much too small to bring it back into order.

Sometimes Ilaria succeeded in righting a small part of a cosmic wrong.

Even so, that fear that had seized her heart when the Keeper of Time pronounced her punishment had never released its grip.


When at last she lay down at the end of her life, gray and worn and remorseful, Ilaria closed her eyes.  She passed into the next life, her mind still troubled and her heart still unsettled.

Ilaria opened her eyes.

She gasped, for she found herself falling, falling toward a narrow opening.  She slid upon and with grains of sand, some of them glinting.  She fell and fell, flailing her limbs, grasping at nothing but grains of sand that slipped through her fingers.

At last, she landed upon a great mound of sand.  And she found that her body was unharmed.  She blinked and rubbed sand from her eyes.  She looked up at a great dome of glass tinged with lavender. 

Sand was still cascading down upon her.  She held up her hand to shield herself from it.

Ilaria had just enough time to see and to note the smoothness of that hand before she blinked and found herself seated upon a hard surface.

Before her was a familiar sight.  But one she had not seen for several decades.

The Cosmic Hourglass.

Your punishment has ended.

Ilaria was seated upon a floating tile, and that tile dropped so quickly, she feared she would fall off.  She lay down and pressed herself against it.

When the tile at last settled, it settled before another familiar sight. 

“Teacher!” Ilaria said, and she noted that her voice sounded high-pitched.

The Keeper of Joys wore a smile upon her face, as she always did.  But the smile was the smallest one that Ilaria had ever seen upon her teacher’s face.

Ilaria checked her limbs.  They felt strong and limber.  She noted that her gray hair was now dark and thick.  Her face was smooth.  Her vision clear. 

Her eyes widened. “I…was in the Hourglass.”

The Keeper of Joys crossed her arms.  “You did not truly believe that you could sneak past the Keeper of Time, did you?”

She said no more, letting Ilaria reason it out for herself. 

Ilaria had never succeeded in putting the Keeper of Time  to sleep.  The Keeper had pretended.  And when Ilaria reached into the Hourglass, the Keeper had pulled her in.

That must have been what happened.

Ilaria could not quite remember.

“Then…I haven’t done it.”  Something sprung loose within her chest.  “All is not lost.”

“Not yet,” the Keeper of Joys said.  “Not ever, I hope.”

Ilaria rose to her feet.  She faced her teacher.  She felt elated and nervous at the same time.  Ilaria had attempted to do what she was told never to do. 

Surely, her teacher would renounce her as an apprentice.  But the Keepers (most) were wiser than that.  The Keeper of Joys was grateful that the Keeper of Time had been both merciful and merciless in teaching her apprentice a lesson.  She would be remiss to dismiss an apprentice who had learned such a precious lesson. 

“Though, I wonder if you truly have learned the lesson.”

“I have, Keeper.  Truly, I have.”

The Keeper of Joys raised a brow.  “Will you stop questioning, then?”

Ilaria almost said “yes,” but caught herself.  “No, questioning is no crime.  But I will question the one person I did not question when I tried to steal time.  I will question myself, as well as my teachers.”

At that, the Keeper of Joy smiled a beaming smile.

She encouraged Ilaria to tell her tale, to share her experience, not only with her fellow mortals, but with the other Keepers as well.  And this Ilaria gladly did.

And she herself did not visit the Cosmic Hourglass the next time her teacher went.  Nor the time after that.  She did not know if she ever wanted to set eyes upon the Cosmic Hourglass again, or risk hearing the cosmic voice of its Keeper.  She only knew that she hoped no other being—mortal or immortal—would ever suffer being its prisoner.

Or worse…that no other being would succumb to the temptation of tampering with cosmic powers.

She taught the lesson that she herself had learned.

A single speck of sand is so small that even the wind can lift it.  But a multitude of grains together are so powerful that they can bury a city.

Sand could flow, like water. Sand could stand like stone. Sand could be as soft as mortal skin. Sand could be as rough and biting as mortal teeth.

Dunes of sand could be seen from far distances. Yet a single grain of sand could escape the notice of the keenest eye.

But there was one eye whose notice no grain of sand from the Cosmic Hourglass could escape. 


Copyright © 2019  Nila L. Patel

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