In a little city, a city the shape of a vinegar stain, there is a girl who fetches schoolbooks from a larder and holds her mother’s belt. Her cheeks are the color of crab apples. Her father is a watchmaker. He places the gears of each pocket-piece, each fob-watch, each membrane of gossamered quartz, on the soft indent of his impatient tongue, so that he leaves a mark on the moments it will dent. Each movement, he tells her, tastes different: some of serrated polished knives, some of tingling, acrid copper, some of cold nickel.
One day, the girl returns home from school, puts her coarsened schoolbooks in the larder, and finds her father, the watchmaker, unattendent of his post. The wares arranged on his shop-board have tumbled like aggravated pebbles, their ticks arrhythmic and scattered. His spry tools, the stuff of locksmiths and thieves, are dispersed on his worktable. They are small enough to fit into the soft pockets of her cheeks – she knows this, she has tried. The little girl places them on her tongue, sifting the tuning forks and hairsprings over the plateaued ranges of her teeth. She holds an all in her hand for protection and traces the lines in her thumbs, pantomiming roads.
Her mother steps through the door and grabs her daughter by the wrist. The moon is pale and thin, a Eucharist wafer. Father will not return, says her mother, eyes anonymous as number dials.
But where has he gone? the girl asks.
Her mother tightens her grip, as if to remember and imprint the knobs of bone beneath her daughter’s skin. He has gone to serve the emperor, to hold the arms of the clock-towers of the kingdom, in Prague, in Ostrava, in Khust. Her mother releases her, takes a scarf the color of pond water, and ties it around her daughter’s head. The little girl thinks of rheumy-eyed, lycanthropic ogres when her mother tells her they must go, they must leave, take the books and the pictures, but nothing more. The tools are still dug within her cheeks, the awl is tucked in her small palm.
It is night, and the little girl and her mother hold onto the backs of impartial trams. She watches the windows of houses pass, as fleeting as candle flicker. When the city ends, they cross the ancient trade routes and enter the overgrown hills. They sleep in moss-eaten caves. She leaves the tuning forks, the hairsprings, the small-teethed gears in the places they pass, as totems for the homeward-bound. When she sleeps, she cradles the awl like a shivering infant. She thinks of the glint of metal in her father’s mouth.
It is in this fashion that they find a new city, in another land, a city the shape of a music box. Rumor reaches her mother: of her husband, his eyes burst with the implacable pressure of thumbs, hands sawed away like pig-meat.
Your father loves you very much, says the mother to her child.
The girl listens to the tocsin of shallow bells outside of her window, gouges the awl into her sill for the familiar wanderers that might be drawn to it.
When you wind a watch, the small heart inside of it – the escapement mechanism – lets time begin again, her father said.
J.E. Reich hails from Pittsburgh and received her MA in English Literature from Brooklyn College. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Armchair Shotgun, Volume 1 Brooklyn, Plain China: The Best of Undergraduate Writing 2010, KGB Bar & Lit Journal, Underground Voices, The Emerson Review, and other publications. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2010. A Brooklyn resident, she is a contributor at Thought Catalog and is working on her first novel.