ISSUE 4 · SPRING 2010


 

 

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Copyright © 2010

Eric Schaller





The Watchmaker

ERIC SCHALLER
 
 

There was once a watchmaker who lived in the town of Eichenwald, where it is said, because the town lies midway between valley and clouds on the alpine slopes of the Weisshorn, that there are but three seasons in the year. Winter lasts for six months, spring and autumn each for three, and summer, which may come but once every ten years, lasts only a single golden afternoon.

The watchmaker was known as Herr Lindhorst to most members of the town, and as Kristoff to the few who assumed intimacy with him. He lived and worked in a narrow two-story house that he had inherited from his parents, above the door of which hung an iron sign bent and forged into the shape of a watch dial. Ever since the watchmaker had been a boy known as Kris, he had drifted off to sleep each night listening to the sign creak in the mountain winds.

The family Lindhorst had repaired watches for as long as anyone could remember. If you overwound your watchspring, perhaps while distracted by the neighbor’s daughter hanging her laundry, the metallic ping at your fingertips causing your heart to sink into your boots—how could anyone fall in love with such a klutz as you?—it was to Lindhorst’s Watch Repair that you turned. If you attempted to master three tasks at once, such as reading the morning newssheet, locating your mouth with a spoonful of porridge, and checking the time on the pocket watch given to you on your sixteenth birthday, and if, as a result, your watch should tumble into your coffee cup, it was to Lindhorst’s Watch Repair that you brought the family heirloom still leaking the brown droplets of your favorite roast. Invariably, your watch would be returned to you in better condition than before its accident. “Why it’s just like new,” you would exclaim, examining the print your thumb left on the polished metal. You would be answered with a smile and the phrase repeated by each member of the Lindhorst family for the past three generations, “We do our best.”

Kristoff Lindhorst was the first member of his family to make rather than simply repair watches. His first creation was a monstrosity cobbled together from broken springs, chipped gears, and cracked crystals, detritus from the trash bin that had excited the crow-like curiosity of the four-year-old. The watch that Kris presented to his father for approval looked something like a mangled crab the boy had found deposited on the mountain slopes by a wayfaring seagull. But whereas the crab had clearly expired, such that even a week of warmth in the boy’s pocket failed to reanimate it, the watch just as surely functioned. The mechanism emitted a healthy “tick-tick-tick” and each of its eight hands spun merrily around at different speeds. At the time, the similarity of the watch to the displaced crab was seen as coincidence, but later, after Kristoff’s predilections became clear, it was granted that he had created his first automaton.

Kristoff joined his father in the shop at the age of six. Passersby marveled at the child who, perched on a tiny stool at a tiny watchmaker’s bench, appeared to be an elf materialized out of a folk tale. “He has the eyes and the fingers,” his father would say to his customers, winking a watery eye and waggling his own gnarled fingers. “More importantly, he has the passion.” Kristoff’s skills in repairing and, eventually, in creating the simple automata that graced the better variety of grandfather clocks soon became apparent. But he did not achieve renown until the age of nineteen when he was commissioned to update the clockwork of the town hall. This was a well-loved piece that included a blacksmith with hammer and a hunter with cudgel, who glided about a circular stage to ring the bell each hour. Although once a tourist attraction, it was now old-fashioned in comparison to the more elaborate dioramas of the neighboring towns. Kristoff added a fox that wound its way through the legs of the blacksmith, snuck up on the hunter, and then, by gnawing through the strings that tethered them to the hunter’s belt, released three partridges. The birds flew up with a rattle of wings and rang the bell with sharp blows from their beaks, the two men now swinging their implements at the fluttering birds rather than at the bell. The fox winked at the spectators then ran off, the money pouches of the blacksmith and hunter clenched in his teeth.

After this there was no holding Kristoff back. He traveled from town to town, taking on more and more lucrative commissions. He was served the best foods in the best restaurants and, whether the project took a day or a year, lodged in the best hotels. Holidays were declared and bands played each time a piece of his was unveiled. Tourists followed routes on maps that depicted the locations of his creations, returning from their travels with metal or paper reproductions to set on their mantels, the jerky movements of these poor substitutes affirming the genius of the originals.

At 31 Kristoff was without peer, but before he reached his next birthday, his career was over and his friends and former patrons crossed the street rather than risk an encounter. Kristoff was approached in a pub, as he later said, by a man with features so nondescript that these were a better disguise than any mask. This man, who did not give his name, said that he was an agent for another who wished to remain anonymous, but who had a project truly worthy of Kristoff’s skills. Needless to say, but emphasized at least a dozen times during the conversation, Kristoff would be well rewarded should he accept the commission. “You have spoken almost excessively,” Kristoff said, “but I have yet to hear what you wish of me.” At this the man took a square of paper from his coat pocket, wrote on it with a silver mechanical pencil, then passed the slip to Kristoff.

When Kristoff unfolded the paper, he saw that it contained a circle drawn atop a cross. “Venus,” he said, understanding the significance of the symbol as soon as he said the name aloud. “You wish me to make a woman.”

“Precisely. And to the specifications that I dictate.”

It would have been to Kristoff’s credit if he had thought long and hard before accepting the commission, but, as he later admitted, he was nodding his assent before the agent had finished his sentence. It was not fame that Kristoff sought, for the agent made it clear that the mechanical woman would become the sole property of his anonymous benefactor. Furthermore, given the nature of the commission, it was obviously intended for private entertainment, not public exhibition. Kristoff simply desired to push his skills to the limit, and through them to create something that exceeded all expectations, his own included.

But the devil finds more entertainment in the plans of man than in any staged comedy. Two months after Kristoff had delivered the commission, the mayor from his own hometown of Eichenwald was discovered by his wife in the arms of a female automaton. There is some disagreement as to what she saw, but the most persuasive rumor has it that the automaton had not one face but many, each a separate mask that could be affixed by discrete snaps to the featureless head. Among the faces could be recognized images, exact down to the slightest imperfections upon which a lover might fixate, of women well known in the community and with whom the mayor and his wife had dined on numerous occasions. The scandal that ensued had as much to do with the jealousies of those women not included in this harem as with the horror of those women who were included.

All decisions have their repercussions. The mayor suffered a brief downturn in his fortunes and won reelection by the narrowest margin of his political career. But for Kristoff Lindhorst, who was never forgiven by the mayor’s wife, the change in fortune was permanent. He was obliged to carry a sign around his neck for one month on which were painted large block letters that literally translated to “Broken Bee,” but in the local vernacular meant “Poor Fabricator.” He was also forbidden to construct automata for the remainder of his life, although as a concession to commerce and the history of his family, he was allowed to retain the watch repair shop.

Now suppose that you were a friend to the watchmaker in your youth—perhaps it was you who foolishly drowned your pocket watch in a coffee cup—but that time and circumstance had come between you. You had heard of his fame and taken an unspoken pride in having once known this man who had risen so high. You had also heard of his fall and silently grieved that the just could be punished so harshly. On impulse, you wrote the watchmaker a letter expressing your condolences and how, although others might turn against him, your friendship remained intact. He wrote back a short message that ended with the words, “I am as happy now as I have ever been.” You knew that this phrase could hide any manner of unstated griefs and so your heart remained troubled.

Now suppose your business took you back into the land of your youth, where the watchmaker still dwelt, and you sought him out so as to judge his state with your own eyes. The sky was jewel bright on the day you arrived, but the leaves had begun to change color and there was a chill to the gusting winds that warned of the coming winter. You found Kris, as you still called him in your mind, in the ground-level repair shop of the same narrow house that you remembered from your childhood visits. The rusty sign in the shape of a clock swung back and forth above the entrance. A bell tinkled when you pushed the door open.

How time passes, you thought, seeing the stooped shoulders and prematurely gray hair of the man bent over the bench. It did not take much imagination to realize that his parents were now gone, buried no doubt behind the old church, and that he was alone in the world. The gray-haired man did not hurry to stand, but raised the magnifier from his eyes and set his tweezers down beside a semicircle of loose gears. He looked at you, at the supposed customer who had disturbed his work. Then, with no hesitation, as if you had not aged a day, he called you by your name.

Kris insisted that you sit down and tell him everything that had happened since you two parted. But having taken to his feet, he did not himself sit down. He bustled in and out of the back room and eventually returned with two cups of fragrant coffee, the brew flavored with cinnamon according to local custom, and a plate of sugar cookies. You blushed. Had he forgotten the incident of your watch and the coffee? But you sipped politely—there is no brew so bitter as the errors of youth remembered—and told him what you thought he wanted to know. But in spite of his interest in your affairs, you eventually turned the conversation to his life and the events that had transpired in your absence.

“I am so sorry,” you said.

“Think nothing of it.”

“To see a man of your talents cast aside breaks my heart.”

“Truly, I am a happy man.”

“I find this hard to believe. In truth, I cannot imagine it.”

“My father once told me that everything happens for a reason and, no matter what transpired in the shop, finding that reason was our true employment. Understanding brings happiness.”

“It is easy to philosophize. But I think you will agree that most philosophers are an unhappy lot. They are distressed by uneven cobbles, the price of tobacco, and the inequity that consigns them to poverty when they have ideas worthy of kings.”

Kris laughed, an easy unaffected laugh, and you realized that the pleasure he took from your presence might have little to do with what you had to say. “Come,” he said. “Perhaps this will bring understanding. “He set down his empty cup, rose from his stool and opened the drawer of a neighboring bench. A dozen velvet bags were nested inside, the mouths of each drawn shut with silk cords. He withdrew a silver watch from one of these bags and laid the cool metal disk on your palm. “Here. Hold this. Look at it. Feel it.”

You humored him, praising the craftsmanship.

Again he laughed. “Wind it.”

You did so. “It has a very nice mechanism.”

“Thank you.” Kris’s smile was as secretive as a sparrow’s. He darted over to the door and, with the same delicate touch he applied to his craft, slid a bolt into place. There were two small windows on either side of the door, their panes so ancient that they only transmitted distorted images. Nevertheless, he unhooked the thick felt curtains used to keep out the winter chill and let these fall across the glass. “Now,” he said, his cheeks glowing in the lamp light, “Wind it backwards.”

“Backwards?”

“Press the crown in and wind it backwards. Then set the watch down on the bench.”

You did as told and set the watch down upon its back. For a moment the watch was still, then there was some engagement of gears so that it rocked upon the bench. Then, so quickly that you doubted your sight, thinking yourself the victim of slight-of-hand, the watch thrust forth two legs and two arms, flipped itself upright, and began to dance. As dances go it was not sublime, being more like the untutored hops and bounds of a country boy intent upon impressing a young lady than the measured twirls of the aristocracy. But as you followed the watch’s movements, you felt the corners of your mouth twitch, and soon you were smiling for all the world as if you were once again a youth with no fear of the ridiculous.

“I cannot help but love them,” the watchmaker said. He smiled and, although he spoke to you, he kept his eyes on the dancing watch. “They are like my children to me.”

There was a beauty there, a connection that you who had now achieved renown in your own right, realized that you could not touch. “It must give you great pleasure to achieve something so lifelike in an object so unlike a man.”

“I do not think much about such things. I just do my best. “

But although you saw the beauty, you also knew your moral responsibility. It is for this reason that, after returning to your own hometown, you wrote a polite but anonymous letter to the authorities in Eichenwald. In the letter you described a narrow two-story house, on the ground-level of which was a watch shop, and certain activities, possibly of an illegal nature, that took place in that shop. Once the letter was mailed, you felt as if a great weight had been lifted from your shoulders. If summer comes but once every ten years, you said to anyone willing to listen, even if they did not understand the allusion, then it might as well not come at all.