The hand of the pocket watch winds on with a sound like mocking laughter—continuously pricking his anxiety, preventing him from forgetting how the nightmare started. He remembers. This is how it began:
That day of the winter holiday happened to be Aso’s birthday. The bus passed through the deep gloom of the bamboo forest, delivering him, in a daze, to the spa town. The lattice of bamboo shadows fell upon him like a glitter of whirling blades, dicing his body to bits. He did, in fact, come to the countryside bearing scars. He could not bring himself to think about the farce of city life any further. He had not hired a scooter, nor booked a hotel room. After passing through a field, Aso arrived at the town’s hot spring.
The bathing area, encircled by concrete walls, was divided along the middle by the stream of water from the hot spring. Within the mist were the silhouettes of naked male bodies, either soaking in the water or perched on one of the banks. Aso stripped and settled into a state of contemplation amid the fug of shapes. But all of a sudden he saw himself sitting on the opposite side of the stream. Was this a mirror? He extended a tentative hand, and the doppelgänger opposite stretched out an arm in symmetrical greeting, bestowing a floating smile through the mist. Aso started in surprise. It was only then that he realized this was some kind of joke—it was the smile that broke the illusion. In fact, it was another bather on the opposite bank, of a similar figure and age, and it was only his deliberate mimicking of Aso’s actions that made the trick work. Aso didn’t know how he ought to respond—he couldn’t just go on staring, in any case, so he lowered his head and continued bathing.
When he got up, Aso went by himself to stand at the derelict bus stop, planning to move on to the next stop on his itinerary. Why move on? Aso himself couldn’t tell you the reason—the entire trip had been prepared in advance while he was still in the city, and the numerous flaws in the plan were only making themselves apparent now he had arrived. And so when a scooter materialized in front of him, Aso was caught off guard. It was the doppelgänger who had been sitting on the opposite bank just before.
Waiting for the bus? asked the rider, the smile of a twenty-year-old still on his face. It seemed like he was attempting to make up for his tomfoolery back in the spa. You’ll be waiting forever—the bus doesn’t come down here. Trust me, I’m a local. Where are you going? Why don’t you let me give you a ride? Aso couldn’t exactly say where he was going, so the only thing he could do was get on the scooter and go wherever this guy ended up taking him.
What’s your name?
You can call me K. Yes, I’m into Kafka. How about you? Where do you want to go, anyway? If we carry on circling around like this much longer we’ll end up back at the spa. If you don’t have anywhere in particular to go, why don’t we sit by the field and chat for a while? It’s not like this town has anywhere particularly worth visiting anyway.
K climbed up the bank beside the field, pulled out a harmonica, and played an idle tune, like a kind of pastoral ode. He said it was Debussy’s Prelude to a Faun’s Afternoon. It was an apt melody to play out here in the wilderness, said K. Though the season may have been loneliest winter, his hand held only the harmonica and not a faun’s pipe.
You really look like someone from the city, K. Are you really a local?
Really. This is my hometown, but—just like all the other kids in Taiwan—I can’t help heading to the city for an occasional weeklong spree, coming back to the sticks only to sink into the springs once I’m spent. And now I’ve had my soak, the next part of a faun’s afternoon is a dance. Do you dance? A faun’s afternoon should be accompanied by a dance. Have you heard Nijinsky? I’ll show you. I was taught this dance by a senior classmate who adored me.
K laid down his harmonica and began to dance in the field. It seemed as though the melody he had been playing lingered in the air, wrapping itself around his body. To Aso, watching from the side of the field, K looked like a writhing snake. After a while, he pulled out a banknote on which to sketch this winter faun.
Have you studied drawing? K danced over to Aso’s side.
I was planning on majoring in fine arts, and my test scores on the entrance exams were good enough to get in, but then my family wouldn’t let me. They just wouldn’t. All I could do was take it on the chin and start taking cram classes in the city to get ready to apply for a major with better prospects. Drawing is never going to be more than a pastime.
I don’t know which of us is the lucky one! You wanted to study fine art, but couldn’t; I love to dance, and I did get into a dance academy. But you still have the freedom to draw, whereas I can’t dance properly. I fractured my arm—so I was still holding myself back when I was dancing just now. My friend and I got into a bike accident in the autumn. I broke my arm, so I couldn’t take part in dance classes any more, which meant I had to drop out. My injury meant I could avoid conscription, so I just came home to recover and recuperate in the hot springs.
And your friend?
My classmate? He died.
The person in this sketch is you. Here, take it.
Perfect—today is my birthday, as it happens! I thought I’d have to spend the day all on my own—but now here I am, getting a birthday present!
Aso stayed at K’s home that night. It was the kind of detached three-story building common to the countryside, several fields away from its nearest neighbor. The fact that K was the only person living there made it feel even more gloomy and empty. Having brought food and drinks back with them, they chatted into the night—but Aso didn’t have much of a stomach for alcohol, and was soon tired. In the midst of his dreams he felt a strange sensation—as though there were a hand reaching into his underwear, running up and down his body, unrestrained. In the muddle of sleep it felt like a snake, winding around his whole body, inescapable. This snake was not cold but hot—but that was the frightening thing about it . . . And so, when he woke in the morning with a bleary head, he couldn’t quite bring himself to believe that the snake had been nothing more than the woolen blanket that was now on top of him.
I tried to put you to bed last night, but I couldn’t get you to wake up. So all I could do was throw this blanket over you.
Over breakfast, K produced a picture frame, in which he had encased Aso’s sketch.
I threw away my family photo and put your sketch inside instead. They’ve all moved away, anyhow. I’ll hang it up in a bit. And I have something to give you. Don’t turn it down, and don’t take offense, okay?
It was a pocket watch. There were slight ridges on the surface of the lid, like on the smooth back of a young man. On the reverse side of the lid was an inlaid engraving of the half-human, half-bestial form of a miniature faun. K said he was giving it to Aso because he believed him capable of taking good care of it—it wasn’t the kind of present that could be given away on a whim. This was K’s second pulsating heart. It had been a present to K from the classmate who had passed away, who had seen K on his faun’s afternoon. K didn’t want to look upon this memory-burdened watch any more, but nor could he bring himself to throw it away. So he was passing it on to Aso, and K hoped that this watch would become a part of his life, like a seal of friendship, inerasable.
(But neither of them had anticipated what would happen that day—the day of Aso’s departure.)
K handed the hammer to Aso, and asked him to stand up on the chair and bang the nail into the wall, so that they could hang up the sketch. K’s hand was supporting Aso’s leg, and he was again telling the story of what had happened in the autumn, when all of a sudden Aso yelled: Don’t touch me—don’t touch me! There’s nothing I hate more than people touching me!
Aso hadn’t realized he could be so jumpy (could he still be hungover?) and he couldn’t even be sure what he had just shouted, and there was no way of confirming with K, who was standing behind him, because somehow there was now a hammer sticking out from the middle of his forehead. The hammer that had been in Aso’s hand. Uttering nothing more than a faint murmur, K slumped to the floor, blood seeping from his head.
Aso calmed himself down. He carefully packed away the hammer, sketch, and pocket watch, and took them away. K had not made much noise when he fell to the floor. There had been no one else around in the immediate vicinity. K had approached the stall to buy their dinner of stewed dishes on his own—no one had noticed Aso. K’s family had all moved away. No one would be visiting this house for a while. Aso used the blanket to carefully wrap K, rolling him up like a snake before stuffing the bundle into a closet. K aside, there was no one who would remember Aso coming to this spa town.
I need to get back to Taipei . . . none of this ever happened . . . I just drank too much, that’s all . . . I still have an entrance exam to take . . . there’s nothing I hate more than people putting their hands all over me . . . I barely knew him . . . who knows who he was . . .
On his way out of the town, the general store where Aso was buying a Coke happened to be playing a cover version of an old song.
Aso began to pay attention to the regional news in all the big newspapers, but after several days there had still been no mention of the name of the spa town, let alone the incident involving K. Perhaps the whole thing had been some kind of dream brought on by the drink. Once Aso was back in Taipei, the distant spa town seemed almost insubstantial, nonexistent. And yet he was unable to forget it all completely. The pocket watch, the sketch, the hammer—these cursed keepsakes—were now stored under Aso’s bed in the small apartment room he was renting for the sake of the exam.
But Aso could not put the pocket watch from his mind. He couldn’t help taking it out and holding it to his chest—because, somehow, he belonged to the watch now. He was a morsel for its delectation. Since leaving K’s house, the pocket watch had become Aso’s second heart—a heart that had come from K. The ticking of its hands seemed to echo the rhythm of his heartbeat, synchronized. He found that he was only able to sleep at night if he could hear that resonance between ticking watch and beating heart. He had tried listening to the sound of other timepieces, like clocks, wristwatches, ordinary pocket watches—but it was no good. It was only the pocket watch K had given him that could serve as his second heart. And so, whether it was in the impatience of midnight or after suffering until daybreak, he always ended up casting all these other clocks aside and hanging K’s pocket watch around his neck again so that he could sleep. Truly, he wished he could forget the curse of this watch. Late at night, he would sometimes take a sleeping pill to try and put it out of his mind. No use. An hour later he would swallow a second, and then a third, a fourth, a fifth . . . Aso worried he might end up taking an overdose—but then again, since he was unable to get a night’s rest without the pocket watch, he feared that eternal rest might prove unattainable too . . . Aso was not prepared to go to see a psychiatrist, because he did not want to be forced to speak of the thing he most wanted to forget. The pocket watch had possessed him—or perhaps it was the faun. Or K.
He gave in to the pocket watch, wearing it at his cram classes so that he wouldn’t miss out on even the chance for a nap at lunch break. His classmates noticed the watch he bore on his chest, and they saw that his face was getting more sallow and withered by the day. Occasionally a curious classmate would ask the story of the pocket watch, and try and get him to open up the lid so they could look inside—but Aso would never let them.
Open the lid. This irresistible pocket watch wanted to be opened, so that it could be fully appreciated—but Aso himself, whose presence the class found increasingly disturbing, was also a tight lid in need of opening. Open the lid—there was no phrase he wanted to hear less, but it was the phrase he kept on hearing. Open the lid, I must become flesh, called the faun embossed on the watch, called K from within the closet where he was bundled in a blanket. This voice, together with the ticking of the watch, darted through a hole in Aso’s heart, burrowing deep—so deep that only Aso himself could hear it. Open the lid. The cry inside him spliced with his sleep, his two hearts—one flesh, one metal—completely intertwined. Two hearts together, two bloodstreams flowing together. For Aso, the pocket watch had become an organ; for the pocket watch, Aso had become a piece of flesh.
Open the lid—this was the protestation of the faun. Let me out—this was the protestation of K. Open the lid—the sound of Aso’s blood chafing at his veins.
All right—I’ll let you out.
Aso could take it no longer. On a Sunday afternoon when spring was approaching, at his wits’ end, a bare-chested Aso threw down his reference book in his room. He rolled over and reached under the bed to pull out the hammer wrapped in old newspaper (and the date on the newspaper was still his birthday, and was still Aso’s birthday), intending to silence this pocket watch for good. His sleek young back was glimmering, slick with sweat. If he really were to smash this watch—this accompanist of his heart—would sleep elude him forever? But Aso didn’t care. He had to silence the voices. He tore off the pocket watch and took the hammer from the newspaper. The faun on the lid was shrieking, in anguish and in ecstasy.
At last, he gripped the hammer that thirsted for blood and struck the pocket watch. There was a noise of shattering metal—once, twice, three times. The lid had cracked, but Aso could strike no more.
Uttering nothing more than a faint murmur, he slumped to the floor. For Aso, the pocket watch had become an organ; for the pocket watch, Aso had become a piece of flesh. On his smooth young back appeared the same cracks that were on the lid of the watch—it was as though the vertebrae of his spine were a zipper that had been unfastened, disgorging a plasmic torrent. Aso never got the chance to see the creature that emerged, blood-slathered, from his back: half man and half beast, the fawn embossed on the lid of the pocket watch, corporeal. Whistling, the monster danced the same steps that K had danced in the field, before bursting out of the door and disappearing down the stairs of the apartment building.
And the sketch of K remained safely stashed under Aso’s bed, steeped in the smile of a sunny winter’s afternoon in the countryside.
“牧神的午後” © Chi Ta-wei. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2015 by Dave Haysom. All rights reserved.