Fragments of Memory
by Malena Salazar Maciá
Translated by Toshiya Kamei
Other TTTV stories by Malena Salazar Maciá
For my grandfather, Manuel Maciá
My grandfather always gave me good advice: “Learn to do as much as you can. An independent woman is always highly regarded.” That’s why he never got angry when I slipped into his workshop behind our house. There I sat on a wooden bench he made for me and observed him restore the tick-tock of watches.
They came from all over Havana: Santa Fe, Diez de Octubre, La Víbora, Vedado, and Habana del Este. A word-of-mouth recommendation from a satisfied customer traveled fast in the nineties. My grandfather was also popular because he didn’t charge dearly for his services. It was the height of the Special Period, when economic hardship befell those of us in Cuba. He always said other families also needed money to fill their stomachs and make their problems go away. However, they needed their watches back: to sell them, wear them, give them away or leave them as an inheritance. Engravings of baptism; inscriptions of love, hatred, and tenderness; curses; blessings; and even tiny pictures of the Virgin of Cobre were hidden in the lids of old pocket-sized artifacts.
Watches came to the workshop in the most dissimilar degrees of wear, destruction, and carelessness. Some were damaged after they were caught in unforeseen downpours, while others simply no longer wanted to tell time again. But my grandfather was a mechanical magician, a genius among mortals who, modestly, reserved his expert knowledge for the hours he spent in his workshop.
From the wooden bench, I saw him work miracles. He cleaned the pieces with tenderness and placed them one on top of the other with tweezers and the indispensable help of a magnifying glass that enlarged his brown eyes, which were as beautiful as those of a cat. Above all, my grandfather listened to the watches. He whispered to them and blew his own breath into them. And the damaged mechanisms responded. They quickly woke up and came back to life. They eventually went back to the owner’s wrist, pocket or watch chain.
According to my grandfather, the watches were alive and kept pieces of those who used them. Not physical pieces, such as a skin scrape or a nail splinter, but something intangible. Memories entangled to tiny gears, sighs, gestures, glances, greetings, and traces of personalities at every turn of the crown, at every tick, at every tock. Everything human was stored inside, for the heart ticked like a giant watch with its own unique rhythm, which measured life in seconds, minutes, and hours.
“By looking inside a watch, you’ll know what’s inside the person who uses it,” he told me one day while he worked on a Perrelet watch that had seen better days.
Of course, my grandfather also had his own watch. A Breguet watch that had never fallen behind, even by a second, nor had it ever been necessary to take it apart. A true jewel that could be worth millions in any currency in the world. If some conman had found out what my grandfather always wore on his left wrist, he’d surely have cut off his arm to make off with that piece of treasure. My mother once asked him how it had come into his possession.
“I didn’t steal it,” he answered with a smile. “Let’s just say it’s always been with me.”
And he never mentioned his Breguet again.
When my grandfather died of a heart attack, it was devastating. Contemplating how death affects those who are left behind is something no one should be forced to do. And if anyone ever dares to say you can overcome your loss and the pain will go away, it’s a lie. It doesn’t go anywhere. It just snuggles up to our chests and falls asleep. Whenever I smell the scent of machine oil, the grief comes racing back. Small, treacherous triggers recall the memory of the hole, the void that lurks inside us, and the one who once occupied it.
When my grandfather passed away, he took everything with him, including a piece of us. The only thing he’d left behind was the Breguet watch. My mother put it away in a deep drawer because she couldn’t help but tear up every time she saw it.
Many customers returned to pick up their watches my grandfather had left in the workshop. Some were fixed while others were still half-disassembled, without any future solution. Others forgot them because when 2006 came around, Cuba’s economy was on the mend. We managed to keep our heads above water, and some people now wore cheap plastic replacements that ran on batteries, which were the disposable offspring of consumerism. Without my grandfather, the watch wizard, no one had time for the old-fashioned automatic watches. The workshop behind our house remained closed. We sporadically went there only when we needed to store things that were cumbersome in the house.
I went inside again, years later, to look for a screwdriver when my computer went on strike. And I heard the weak, disparate ticking. At first I thought it was my own watch, an automatic Orient I’d bought after saving money for a long time. But the sounds came from several sources. They came from the watches, held captive by oblivion, screaming for help.
I found them scattered in dusty drawers and cockroach farms, covered in cobwebs. Broken, unopened, worn, dull watches. The clocks didn’t tick, but I held my breath. They rested on piles of tiny pieces scattered in cardboard boxes. The material my grandfather once worked with whispered and pleaded for help.
And I listened with great care.
The task was difficult. I didn’t have enough materials to do what the watches wanted me to do, so I turned to my grandfather’s business records to find his former clients’ addresses and phone numbers. Some had forgotten all about their watches, as can happen to something they consider expendable. Others, however, listened to me. They thought I was an avant-garde artist immersed in a project like any other young girl—or simply, that I planned to revive our family’s watch repair business. Many of those clients had seen me in the workshop, sitting on the wooden bench, eagerly watching how my grandfather worked with dedication. So they gave me the watches he had once touched with his agile fingers and breathed his wisdom into them like a magician.
“Yeah, take that junk with you. Nobody’s been able to start it again anyway,” they told me.
But I accepted the watches with love. They were happy to be with me, to contribute to something bigger, and reunite with their siblings. While working, I didn’t let anyone in my family come near the workshop. I worked at night and threw the bolt when I left. At first, my hands ached from the task of fitting one gear with another with the help of a clamp. I had to be careful because if I placed a piece out of place, then I wasn’t going to get any results. I’d have to disassemble them and listen to them again to interpret them correctly.
Seated on the work chair, I built, from pieces of the watches he once gave life to, a replica of my grandfather. I asked turners, metal smelters, and jewelers to build me bigger gears to make up his skeleton. Carrying them home hidden in my backpack wasn’t easy, but I needed to keep my work secret. Using small, tight wheels that shone like polished metal, I molded his head without looking at a photo. I secretly disassembled my mother’s Seiko and my Orient and inserted them into his brain because my grandfather wasn’t just himself, but also consisted of the memories those of us still living kept of his person.
When at last finished, I felt something was missing. My grandfather didn’t wake up. His body was silent, like all those years that the watches remained undone in drawers and in clients’ homes. Then, I looked at the hole in his chest. I dashed back home and took out the Breguet watch from the drawer. Even after so long, it still ticked. It wasn’t behind, even by a second. By the time I returned to the workshop, my mother had found out what had consumed my nights, caused blisters on my fingers, and made me respond most of the time with grunts and half words.
“What are you making?” she asked, stunned. “Avant-garde art in memory of your grandfather?”
I said nothing in front of the unfinished work. When I took apart the Breguet watch, my mother stifled a cry. She was going to tell me something, surely upset over the fact that I’d ruined the only thing that was going to earn us a ton of money. She might have been worried that our lives would become unbearable. Even so, she kept silent while I fitted the disassembled watch into my grandfather’s chest hole.
His clock-mechanism body began to work right away. The Breguet watch’s ticking multiplied with the subtlety of a sigh. It advanced from the center of his chest to the tips of his toes, his arms, and his head. His piles of tiny pieces suddenly turned into mobile metallic flesh. My mom and I held hands. She, too, heard it.
As my clockwork grandfather twitched his fingers as if searching for his tools, his eyelids made of tarnished shells blinked open. He gazed at us with eyes made of hundreds of tiny rubies and flashed a smile.