Short Fiction: (Untitled) by Zuzanna Buchowska
On my seventh birthday I get a watch which can turn back time. Besides that, there’s nothing special about it. It has a slightly frayed leather strap and a white face with gold-plated numbers. The little hand is already twisted, like a small claw.
My father comes into my room as soon as I wake up. I’m lying on my Ikea bed—I spent the evening before decorating it with stickers from cereal boxes—watching the dust particles floating in the beams of light. I imagine they’re atoms spinning through the air. Atoms whirling in the shape of Zoja, my dog, who is barking outside. She won’t stop until all the sparrows hop from the yard. My parents gave me Zoja for my birthday the year before. They’d always had a nose for gifts.
‘The only problem,’ says my father, tapping the watch face, ‘is that you can only use it once. Once in a lifetime. It’ll become a normal watch after that.’
He explains it as calmly as if he were explaining how to use a pocket knife. Here is the blade. Open it like this. Close it like this. Just watch your fingers.
Slipping through time. Nothing simpler. I nod and ask if I would be able to use it underwater—that’s what really matters on the playground—and my father says nothing. He leaves without closing the door, as usual. I put my ear to the watch, listening to the steady ticking, from which I won’t be freed for a long time.
After that, I don’t ask any more questions. Say what you will about my father, but he never lied to anyone.
I listen to it a few days later as I wait for my punishment. Seven spankings—one for each year of my life.
I can save my skin and Mum’s lamp with the glass shade. Tick, tick, argues the watch. But it isn’t time yet.
Trying to convince me on the day the sparrows are given peace forever. And Zoja lies on the roadside, bothered by nothing. I’m angry at her; I jab her with a twig and stomp and yell at her, because what the hell? What’s the idea? It’s my first meeting with death, and I don’t understand. I stretch out my hand. I proudly taught Zoja to shake a month before. She too, smiled a dog smile, and I threw her a piece of sausage as a reward. She was always smiling. And now she just lies there . My father looks at me—silent as usual. I’ve never met anyone with such a quiet stare. The watch is itchy against my skin, like a healing scab. I decide that it isn’t time yet. We bury Zoja beneath a pine in the orchard . The earth is already cold—it’s November. My father’s hands have blisters from digging. My mother brings a necklace of shells she collected in Świnoujście a month before. We put it on the stone. And the stone on Zoja.
I go to the best high school in the city. I write a lot of limericks. My favourite painting is The Burning Giraffe and I think I can change the world. So when I see the silver Toyota Corolla crash through the green fence of the playground, rather than running to the victims, I look inquisitively at the striped cuff of my shirt. The sound of breaking glass rings in my ears. As a child I collected tiny, colourful shards of glass in a matchbox. These would be a good addition to the collection, I think, and then I call an ambulance.
She has small hands. Smells like honey and soft soap. I approach her at a party where I overhear her conversation with her friends about her studies. She studies Biology— lately she’s been tagging birds. She talks about it and her eyes sparkle. I like that. I leave, and she leaves with me. She is intelligent; childish, but I like her well enough. Not beautiful, though—I never consider her beautiful. But I don’t think she ever looked as ugly as she does now. I look at her and she disappears from my sight—I can only see the mole on her neck: big, too big. I realize I am about to marry a mole. A mole wrapped in a swatch of white tulle. A mole who whispers in my ear: Look, your mum is already crying, and grabs my hand. The right. The leather strap is grabbing the left.
The watch and the respirator are singing in the background in a strange harmony. The melody is mine: I’m reading to my father from Laughable Loves. In the next bed an old Silesian mutters to himself in German. We’re in the middle of the book. ‘Let the Old Dead Make Room for the Young Dead’ is his favourite story in the collection. My father chuckles now and then—or, doesn’t chuckle, really, but snorts softly. The air from his nose lashes my elbow lightly. Or I imagine it does. When I leave, he stops me at the door to ask, ‘What time is it?’ I answer, ‘Five past seven.’ I leave. And in the morning I find out that he died soon after I left. He always was a good strategist.
‘If you could go back in time… No, that’s stupid. A different question. You’d prefer that she’d been born a little later, right?’ she asks, and I can see that she is afraid of the answer. We’re standing at the window watching our child try to fire up the car. Waving to us—partly in farewell, partly as if to say that we don’t need to wait, that we’re welcome to peel our noses from the glass. Her mother stands on her toes and waves even harder, and I catch the scent of honey and aloe shampoo. It has replaced the soft soap. Yesterday I washed her hair. We sat in a bubble bath. She told me to close my eyes for a moment, and when I opened them her face was covered in a white foam beard. She laughed, the soap running down her chin and breasts, which swayed to the rhythm of her joy. ‘I love you,’ I finally said, and for the first time I was sure at last. After all, I loved—I learned to love—them both. She had had her mole removed shortly after the wedding . She had been afraid of melanoma.
‘No,’ I answer, and I scratch my left wrist gently.
After a while I stop hearing the ticking. It’s a bit like how your brain filters your nose out of your sight even though it’s always there in your field of vision.
We live by the sea. But we rarely go to the beach. It always fogs up my glasses, and when I take them off I lose the horizon. The sea merges with the sky, the sky with the sea, and it makes me sad. I fear that the horizon won’t return, and I would walk along the pier, fingers pointing: He is the one who took the horizon from us. Although I once read that, if there were no horizon, we would instead have circular rainbows.
This particular Tuesday I’m thinking about just that. About this thin line in the distance. I’m freezing—I’ve been sitting in the snow for an hour. My right shoe is hurting me and the Baltic mutters something under its breath. Tick, tick, the watch murmurs . I give in. I can’t imagine a better time.
Translated from Polish with the assistance of Otis Nemo