The Baghdad Clock

I never feared them nor did they ever do anything to frighten me. They were there, next to the stove, mixed up with the crackling of firewood, the taste of freshly baked bollos, the to-and-fro of the old women’s skirts. I never feared them, perhaps because in my imagination they were pale and beautiful, listening as we did to the stories that took place in nameless hamlets, waiting for the right moment to let themselves be heard, to whisper to us wordlessly: “We’re here, just like every night.” Or to hide in the dense silence which announced: “Everything you’re hearing is true. Tragically, painfully, sweetly true.” It could happen at any moment. The sound of the waves after a storm, the passing of the last goods train, the trembling of crockery in the cupboard or the unmistakable voice of Olvido, immersed in her alchemy of pots, pans, and kettles:

“It’s the spirits, girl, it’s the spirits.”

More than once, my eyes half-closed, I believed in them.

How old would Olvido have been back then? Whenever I asked her age the old woman shrugged her shoulders, looked at Matilde out of the corner of her eye, and remained impassive, shelling peas, darning socks, dividing lentils into little piles, or all of a sudden she would remember the urgent need to go down to the cellar for firewood and stoke the salamander stove on the top floor. One day I tried to get it out of Matilde. “As old as the world,” she said, laughing.

Matilde’s age, on the other hand, never stirred my curiosity. She too was old, she walked hunched over, her hair was gray, turned yellowish by eau de cologne, bound into a small bun, tight as a ball, out of which stuck needles and pins. She had a lame leg that could predict the weather and do other tricks besides, which, as the years went by, she couldn’t recall as well as she would have liked. But next to Olvido, Matilde seemed younger, somewhat less wise and much less experienced, although her voice sounded sweet when she showed us the misty glass and made us believe that outside wasn’t the sea nor the beach, nor the train tracks, nor even the Paseo, but steep and inaccessible mountains around which ran packs of furious, hungry wolves. We knew—Matilde had told us plenty of times—that no God-fearing person should, on nights like this, leave the warmth of his or her home. Because who else but a sinning soul, condemned to walk among us, would dare to face such darkness, such cold, such terrifying moans coming from the bowels of the Earth? Then it was Olvido’s turn to speak. Slowly, surely, knowing that from then on she had us, that soon the light of the oil lamp would be concentrated on her face and her old woman’s wrinkles would give way to the rosy complexion of a girl, to the fearsome face of a gravedigger tormented by his memories, to a visionary monk, perhaps to a miraculous nun . . . Until firm footsteps, or a light tapping of heels, announced the arrival of unwelcome guests. Or until they, our friends, made it known through Olvido that the time had come to rest, to eat our semolina soup or to turn out the light.

Yes, Matilde, as well as her soothsaying leg, possessed the gift of gentleness. But in that time of unwavering dedication I had taken Olvido’s side, or perhaps Olvido had left me no other choice. “When you’re older and you get married, I’ll go to live with you.” And I, nestled in my protector’s lap, couldn’t imagine what that third person willing to share our lives would be like, nor could I see any reason to leave my family or to abandon, some day, the house by the beach. But Olvido always decided for me. “The apartment will be small and sunny, with no stairs, cellar, or roof terrace.” And I had no option but to imagine it just so, with a spacious kitchen where Olvido would potter as she liked, and a big wooden table with three chairs, three glasses, and three porcelain plates . . . Or rather, two. The presence of the stranger that Olvido’s predictions attributed to me didn’t fit in my new kitchen. “He’ll eat later,” I thought. And I moved his chair to a hypothetical dining room which my fantasy had absolutely no interest in depicting.

But on that hot December Sunday, when the children danced around the package that had arrived, I looked closely at Olvido’s face and it seemed that there wasn’t room for a single wrinkle more. She was strangely stiff, oblivious to requests for scissors and knives, isolated from the commotion that the unexpected gift had caused in the sitting room. “As old as the world,” I remembered, and for a moment I was filled with the certainty that the chair I had so easily displaced to the dining room didn’t belong to my blurry, supposed, future husband.

They had brought it that same morning, wrapped in thick brown paper, tied up with cord and rope like a prisoner. It looked like a humiliated giant, laid out as it was on the carpet, suffering the dancing and shrieking of the excited, restless children, all sure until the last moment that they alone would be the recipients of the oversized toy. My mother, acting like a spoiled cat, closely followed all attempts to reveal the mystery. A new wardrobe? A sculpture, a lamp? But no, woman, of course not. It was a work of art, a curiosity, a bargain. The antiques dealer must have lost his mind. Or perhaps it was old age, a mistake, other worries. Because the price was laughable for such a wonder. All we had to do was take off the last bits of sticking tape, the cellophane that protected the most fragile parts, open the little door and steady the pendulum. A grandfather clock almost three meters tall, gold-plated numerals and hands, a rudimentary yet perfect mechanism. We would have to clean it, prop it up, use polish to hide the inevitable ravages of time. Because it was a very old clock, dated 1700, from Baghdad, probably the work of Iraqi craftsmen for some European client or other. That was the only way to understand why the numeration was Arabic and the lower part of the body featured a relief carving of a festive group of people. Dancers? Guests at a banquet? The years had blurred their features, the pleats of their clothing, the delicacies that we could still make out on the worm-eaten surface of a table. But why didn’t we decide right away to lift our eyes, to gaze at the clock face, to contemplate the set of scales which, transferring the weight of a few grains of sand, set the carillon in motion? And already the children, equipped with buckets and spades, had gone out onto the Paseo, looked right and left, crossed the road and rolled about on the beach which was no longer a beach but a far-off and dangerous desert. But it didn’t need that much sand. No more than a handful, and above all a moment of silence. Crowning the face, covered in dust, was the day’s final surprise, the most delicate collection of clockwork pieces we could have imagined. Tiny suns, planets and stars waiting for the first notes of a melody to set them in motion. In less than a week we would know all the mechanism’s secrets.

They installed it on the landing halfway up the stairs, at the top of the first flight, a space that seemed to have been made to measure. You could admire it from the hall, from the first-floor landing, from the soft armchairs in the sitting room, from the trapdoor that led up onto the roof. When, after a few days, we got the right amount of sand and the carillon let out the notes of an unknown melody for the first time, the clock seemed to all of us to be taller and more beautiful. The Baghdad Clock was there. Arrogant, majestic, measuring with a dull tick-tock our every movement, our breathing, our childhood games. It was as if it had been there from time immemorial, as if it alone had occupied that space, perhaps it was the haughtiness of its stance, its security, the respect it inspired in us when, at nightfall, we left the peaceful kitchen to go up to our bedrooms on the top floor. Visitors were enchanted, and my father kept congratulating himself for the shrewdness and timing of his acquisition. A unique opportunity, a beauty, a work of art.

Olvido refused to clean it. She claimed vertigo, migraines, old age, and rheumatism. She alluded to sight problems, she who could find a grain of barley in a sack of wheat, the head of a pin in a heap of sand, the smallest stone in a handful of lentils. Clambering up a ladder wasn’t a job for an old lady. Matilde was much younger and, what’s more, she hadn’t been at the house for nearly as long. Because she, Olvido, possessed the privilege of seniority. She had raised my father’s siblings, been present at my birth and at that of my brothers, that freckly pair who never left Matilde’s skirts. But she didn’t have to make a point of her rights nor grab hold of my plaits so tightly. “Olvido, you’re like one of the family.” And hours later, in the solitude of my parents’ bedroom: “Poor Olvido. Getting old is hard.”

I don’t know if the strange unease that would soon take hold of the house came all at once, as I remember it now, or if maybe that’s the unavoidable distortion of memory. But what’s for sure is that Olvido, some time before the shadow of fatality loomed over us, began to behave like a distrustful feline with her ears always pricked up, her hands twitching, attentive to every breeze, the slightest murmur, the creaking of doors, the passing of the goods train, the fast train, the express, the quotidian trembling of pans on the shelves. But now it wasn’t the spirits who asked for prayers, nor sinning friars condemned to suffer on Earth for long years. Life in the kitchen had become filled with a tense and stifling silence. It was no use insisting. The hamlets, lost in the mountains, had become distant and inaccessible, and our attempts, when we came home from school, to get new stories out of her were left as unanswered questions, floating in the air, dancing about, dissipating along with smoke and sighs. Olvido seemed shut up inside herself, and although she pretended to work hard at scrubbing the pans, polishing the wardrobes and cupboards and bleaching the grout between the mosaic tiles, I knew she was crossing the dining room, cautiously going up the first few stairs, stopping at the landing and observing. I imagined her observing, with the courage granted her by being not entirely present, in front of the brass pendulum but still safe in her world of kettles and frying pans, a place where the beating of the clock didn’t reach and where she could easily smother the sound of the inevitable melody.

But she hardly spoke. Only that now distant morning, when my father, crossing seas and deserts, explained the situation in Baghdad to the little ones, Olvido had dared to murmur: “Too far away.” And then, turning her back on the object of our admiration, she had gone down the hall shaking her head angrily, holding a conversation with herself.

“They’re probably not even Christians,” she said then.

 

At first, and although the sudden change to our life saddened me, I didn’t take Olvido’s strange notions too seriously. The years seemed to have fallen all at once on the old woman’s fragile body, on that back which was determined to curve more and more as the days passed. But a chance event ended up overloading the already charged atmosphere. To my young mind, it was just a coincidence; for my parents, it was a misfortune; for old Olvido, it was the confirmation of her dark intuitions. Because it happened next to the noisy faceless group, in front of the brass pendulum, facing the gold-plated hands. Matilde was polishing the little box which housed the Sun and Moon, the nameless stars that made up the diminutive parade, when her mind suddenly clouded over, she tried to grab hold of the scales with their sand, to steady herself on a nonexistent step, to prevent an inevitable fall. But the lightweight stepladder refused to support her oscillating body any longer. It was an accident, a feint, a momentary loss of consciousness. Matilde wasn’t well. She’d said so in the morning when she was dressing the boys. She felt nauseous, her stomach turning, perhaps the previous night’s supper, who knows, maybe a secret glass of something by the warmth of the fire. But there was no way to make oneself heard in that kitchen dominated by somber foreboding. And now it wasn’t just Olvido. To the old woman’s unnameable fears was added Matilde’s spectacular terror. She prayed, exorcised, moaned. They seemed more united than ever before, murmuring ceaselessly, muttering unfinished sentences, swapping advice and prayers. The old rivalry, the competition between their respective arsenals of prodigals and ghouls, was now left well behind. It was as though the stories which had made us vibrate with emotion were nothing more than games. Now, for the first time, I felt that they were scared.

Throughout that winter I steadily delayed, little by little, my walk home from school. I stopped in empty squares, in front of cinema posters, I stared at the illuminated window displays on the main street. I put off as long as possible the inevitable contact with nights at home, suddenly sad, unexpectedly cold, although wood still burned in the hearth and from the kitchen came the smells of fresh bollos and popcorn. My parents, submerged for some time in preparations for a trip, didn’t seem to notice the dark cloud that had entered our territory. And they left us alone. A world of old women and children. Going up the stairs in single file, holding hands, not daring to speak or to look at one another, to glimpse in someone else a spark of fear which, if shared, would force us to name what was nameless. And we went up step by step with our souls hunched, holding our breath on the little landing, hurrying up to the first floor landing, pausing for a few seconds to catch our breath, counting in silence up the last few stairs, our hearts pounding in our chests with precise, rhythmic, perfectly synchronized beats. And once we reached our bedrooms, the old women tucked the little ones in, children who had forgotten their capacity for tears, their right to question, their need to invoke with words their unconfessed fears. Then they said good night, kissed each of us on the forehead and as I turned on a weak light next to the head of my bed I heard them drag their feet to their bedroom, open the door, chatter between themselves, complain, sigh. And then to sleep, not bothering to extinguish the dim glow from the naked light bulb, to dream unsettled dreams which shouted out the silenced motive for their waking worries, the Unnamed Lord, the Lord and Master of our ancient and infant lives.

My parents’ absence lasted no longer than a few weeks, but long enough that when they returned they found the house aggravatingly different. Matilde had gone. A message, a letter from her village, an ailing sister who anxiously requested her presence. But how could it be? Since when did Matilde have sisters? She never mentioned her but she had a sister back in the village. Here was the letter: on squared paper a shaky hand explained the details of her unexpected departure. All they had to do was read it. That’s why Matilde had left it: so that they’d understand that she did what she did because she had no other option. But it was a letter without a stamp. How had it got to the house? A relative had brought it. A man appeared at the door one morning, letter in hand. And this strange and affected style? My mother looked among her books for an old etiquette and society manual. Those notes of condolence, congratulations, change of address, communication of unfortunate circumstances. She had read that letter somewhere before. If Matilde wanted to leave them she didn’t have to resort to ridiculous excuses. But she, Olvido, couldn’t answer. She was tired, she felt ill, she had waited until they got back to declare that she was unwell. And now, lying flat out on the bed in her room, she desired nothing else but to rest, to be left in peace, to not be bothered with their efforts to get her to eat something. Her throat refused to swallow anything, not even a sip of water. When it was arranged that the little ones and I would go and spend a few days with some distant relatives and I went up to say good-bye to Olvido, I thought I was looking at a stranger. She had grown alarmingly thin, her eyes seemed enormous, her arms were bundles of skin and veins. She stroked my head almost without touching me, her face twisting into a grimace that she must have thought was a smile, adding to the scant words that blossomed from her lips with the brilliance of her gaze. ”First I thought it had to happen sometime,” she muttered, “some things start and others end . . .” And then, as if seized by an insurmountable fear, grabbing my plaits, trying to spit out something that had long been burning in her mouth and now began to burn my ears: “Stay safe. Protect yourself... Don’t be caught off guard even for a moment!”

When I came home a week later I found a repulsively empty room, the smell of disinfectant and pharmacy cologne, the floor polished, the walls whitewashed, not a single object or item of clothing in the wardrobe. And, at the far end, under the window that looked out onto the sea, all that was left of my beloved Olvido: a naked mattress, rolled up on the rusty springs of the bed.

But I hardly had time to suffer her absence. Calamity had decided to take it out on us, giving us no respite, denying us the rest that it became clear we urgently needed. Things fell out of our hands, chairs broke, food went off. We felt nervous, agitated, fretful. We had to make an extra effort, pay more attention to everything we did, take the greatest care in any activity no matter how simple and everyday it might seem. But even so, although we fought against that growing unease, I intuited that the process of deterioration to which the house had succumbed couldn’t simply be halted with our best intentions. So often did we forget, so frequently were we careless, so incredible were the blunders we continually committed that now, looking back down the years, I see the tragedy that marked our lives as something logical and inevitable. I never knew if that night we forgot to remove the braziers, or if we did so too hurriedly, as with everything in those days, leaving behind the smallest ember hidden between the flaps of the folding table or among the tassels of some carelessly abandoned tablecloth . . . But we were dragged from our beds by the shouts and, wrapped in blankets, we feverishly descended the fearsome stairs that all of a sudden were filled with dense, black, choking smoke. And then at a safe distance, a few meters from the garden, we saw a gigantic and unforgettable spectacle. Purple, red, yellow flames, their glow blotting out the first light of day, competing among themselves to reach the highest, appearing through windows, crevices, skylights. There was nothing to be done, they said, everything was lost. And so, while immobilized by panic, we contemplated the hopeless fight against the fire, I felt as if my life would end at that precise moment, at only twelve years of age, wrapped in a murmur of laments and condolences, next to a house that had long stopped being my home. The cold of the blacktop made me curl up my feet. They felt disproportionately large and ridiculous, almost as much as the shins which stuck out of my too-short and too-small pajama bottoms. I covered myself with a blanket and then I heard the voice which dealt me the coup de grâce. It came from behind me, from among trunks and filing cabinets, objects saved at random, worthless paintings, bits of crockery, at best a couple of silver candlesticks.

I know that for the neighbors gathered on the Paseo it was nothing more than the inopportune chime of a beautiful clock. But to my ears it had sounded like sharp, treacherous, perverse laughter.

 

That same early morning the naive conspiracy of forgetfulness was plotted. Of life in the village we would remember only the sea, walks on the beach, striped summerhouses. I pretended to adapt to our new way of life but in the coming days I didn’t miss a detail of everything that was said in my underappreciated company. The antiques dealer refused to take the clock back, alleging reasons of dubious credibility. The mechanism had deteriorated, the wood was worm-eaten, the dates falsified . . . He denied ever having possessed an object of such outlandish size and questionable taste, and he counseled my father to sell it to a scrap yard or get rid of it at the nearest dump. My family didn’t obey the forgetful merchant, but they did, however, acquire his astonishingly calm manner in denying the obvious. Never again could I pronounce the forbidden name without fantasy, my overactive imagination or the innocent superstitions of old women being held to blame. But on San Juan night when we were leaving my childhood village for good, my father demanded that we stop the rental car near the main street. And then I saw it. Through the smoke, the neighbors, the children gathered around the bonfires. The flames hid the figures of the dancers, the clockwork pieces had come away from the casing and the face hung, inert, above the glass door which in other times had covered a pendulum. I thought of a giant whose throat had been slit and I shuddered. But I didn’t want to let my emotions get the better of me. Remembering an old fondness, I half-closed my eyes.

She was there. Laughing, dancing, swirling around the flames together with her old friends. She played with the chains as though they were made of air, as if by merely thinking it she could fly, jump, join unseen in the children’s joy, the din of the firecrackers and rockets. “Olvido,” I said, and my own voice brought me back to reality.

I saw my father stoke the fire, fan the flames and return to the car, panting. When he opened the door he met my expectant eyes. Faithful to the law of silence, he said nothing. But he smiled, kissed me on the cheek and although I’ll never have a chance to remind him of it, he held the back of my head so I would look straight forward and wouldn’t dare to feel pity or sadness welling up.

That was the last time that, half-closing my eyes, I knew I saw them.

“El reloj de Bagdad”  © Cristina Fernández Cubas. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by Lucy Greaves. All rights reserved.