The Pocketwatch

Huang Chunming

Illustration by Hong-An Tran

Two months after the end of the Second World War, Xiaoming's father, who had been dragged off to Southeast Asia to serve the Japanese army as a porter, somehow managed to survive and make it back home. Looking like a beggar on his return, all he brought back, in addition to the bedbugs and lice, was an old pocket watch in a silver case, a gift for Xiaoming's grandpa. Grandpa was delighted with the watch, which to him was especially precious, for it was as if his son had braved the terrifying dangers of distant killing fields in order to bring him something valuable. He had every reason to feel that way. When the Japanese army landed on the beaches of Singapore, a squad leader had found the watch on the body of a young British soldier. Searching houses in the area, Xiaoming's father turned a blind eye to a family of overseas Chinese residents, who spoke the same Southern Min dialect, and let them keep their valuables; they rewarded him with a British ten-pound note, which he used to buy the watch from the squad leader. It was the town's one and only foreign pocket watch.

When the cover was closed, the watch was the size of a moon cake, but thinner. Etched kudzu vines gave it the appearance of a rare and valuable antique watch, and when it was open, the concave inside was etched with three lines of English, the largest and most eye-catching being the name Simpson. This they learned from the town's English teacher.

What most appealed to Xiaoming about the watch was its hair-thin second hand. It ticked off each second, as rhythmic and spirited as goose-stepping soldiers, and when he held it to his ear, he could almost see the marchers in their polished boots. It was even more captivating if he held it to his ear when the cover was closed, for then it was as if the marchers were off a ways and the sound was muted—shwa shwa shwa. He liked to hold the watch against one ear and swing the opposite arm back and forth, marching along.

At first, Xiaoming wished he could listen to the ticking watch every waking minute; but his grandpa laid down a condition: He could only listen to it if he was a good boy. Just what did that mean? Doing what Grandpa asked him to do, specifically cleaning Grandpa's ears. That had long been one of the old man's guilty pleasures, but after Grandma died, there was no one to do it for him. One day, when his ears itched almost unbearably, he entertained the risky thought of asking Xiaoming, who was eight, to gently clean them for him. Thinking this could be fun, Xiaoming gave it a try, cautiously. To Grandpa's pleasant surprise, he did a skillful job, earning the old man's praise and money to rent some comic books. From then on, no one but Xiaoming cleaned Grandpa's ears.

Xiaoming kept getting better at the job; in fact, he got very good at it. During daylight hours they'd do it outside, while at night Xiaoming would stand on a bench behind the chair in the lamplight and tell Grandpa to move his head to just the right angle, neither too low nor too high, and not too far to one side or the other. The way he manipulated the old man's head was a lot like the way an adult moves the head of a child getting a haircut. When it was just right, he told Grandpa, the respected head of the family, to keep still. Having the power to order Grandpa around like that was incredibly gratifying. With a magnifying glass in his right hand, he'd take hold of Grandpa's ear with his left and examined the inside with the light behind him. Then he'd pick up the little tool Grandpa called a 'dewaxer' and scoop out the wax. He'd finish up by cleaning out the ear canal with a cotton swab. Throughout the process, Grandpa softly urged Xiaoming to press a bit harder or work a bit faster, interspersed with little ahs and ums. It all depended on Xiaoming's mood. An amateur photographer who lived in town once took a picture of Xiaoming totally absorbed in the task of cleaning the ears of the old man, who reclined in dreamy comfort, his brow furrowed, his mouth opened enough to let a rivulet of saliva run down his chin. The picture, entitled "Absorption and Indulgence," won first prize at a county photo competition.

Often, after both the old man's ear canals were cleaned to perfection, he'd ask Xiaoming to do it again. When told that there was no more wax, he'd counter with the logic of preventive care. The need for ear cleaning was greatest when there was no wax in order to prevent future buildup, and he used the example of the stone trough in the backyard to prove his point: Grandma had regularly scrubbed the trough and kept it clean of moss. But after she died, there was no one to clean the trough, which now was covered by a thick layer of moss. Cleaning it would be quite a chore. That made sense to Xiaoming—sort of. To him, comparing a stone trough to a man's ears might have been a stretch, but that didn't make it wrong. Proud of his reasoning skill, the old man asked Xiaoming if he understood, and kept asking till Xiaoming had no choice but to smile and softly say yes. "Aha, well, then, don't run off!" Grandpa's words chased down Xiaoming before he could get away. Some friends of his were outside softly calling his name.

Three of Xiaoming's schoolmates had come to see with their own eyes that there was a foreign pocket watch in Xiaoming's house and listen to the march of the second hand. Xiaoming hadn't told his grandpa about his friends, and now that they were at the door, how was he going to talk Grandpa into letting them see the watch? What if they laughed at him and called him a liar? No, brazen or not, he had to say something.

"You want me to clean your ears, don't you, Grandpa?" He was setting a trap.

"Grandpa's ears itch something awful. Come on, do it now, and make it snappy."

"You have to do something for me first." Xiaoming wore a pitiful look of dejection.

"Has Grandpa ever denied you anything, short of committing murder or arson?"

"Then let my schoolmates see your pocket watch."

"Aiya! Didn't Grandpa tell you not to go blabbing about this, boy? How could you tell your schoolmates we've got a foreign pocket watch?" Grandpa was feeling a bit anxious.

"I didn't tell them. They found out on their own."

"How could that be, boy?"

"Think about it, Grandpa. How many friends and relatives have already come by to see the watch? You know they're going to tell their families, and that's how my schoolmates found out about it." As a happy smile erupted on Xiaoming's face, he said: "Just let them have a quick look at it, Grandpa, and then I'll clean your ears."

"You sure know how to bargain, don't you?"

By this time Grandpa had forgotten all about itchy ears, but now that Xiaoming had brought the subject up, they really did start to itch.

"Well, where are they?" Grandpa asked impatiently.

"I'll go get them." Xiaoming rushed to the door.

"How many are there?" Grandpa called after him.

"Seven," Xiaoming answered happily over his shoulder.

"Tell them to come in."

So Xiaoming brought his schoolmates in, where they formed a semicircle around the old man and waited breathlessly to lay their eyes on the already legendary foreign pocket watch Xiaoming had told them about.

"Now I want you to mind your manners when I show you," Grandpa, the voice of authority, said to the children. "Once you've had a quick look, you can leave, but don't go telling people what you saw, got that?"

"Got it!" the boys cried out in unison, the way they answered their teacher in school.

"I mean it . . ."

Xiaoming was beginning to fidget, not to mention feeling embarrassed that Grandpa was so talkative. He just had to break in: "Hurry, Grandpa!"

Grandpa had been planning to put on a show for the kids, and was unhappy that Xiaoming had interrupted him before he could say what he wanted.

"Why can't you be patient like your schoolmates?"

One of the boys, quick to avert a disaster, said:

"It's all right, Xiaoming."

"Right," Grandpa said, wanting to keep having fun with the children. "What's the hurry?"

Not appreciating the way Grandpa was acting, Xiaoming was sorely tempted to storm off. But that, he worried, could ruin what should have been an exciting watch-viewing event and would disappoint his classmates.

Holding his hands limply in front of him, palms up, Grandpa turned them over a couple of times to show that they were empty. The kids were mesmerized by that simple gesture, waiting breathlessly to see what Grandpa would do next. Even Xiaoming was caught up in the drama. The old man moved his right hand away from his chest and reached into an inside pocket with his left. He felt around and, with a nervous, mouth-open look, shook his head. He stopped to think, then smiled and nodded as he pulled back his empty hand and, now with his right hand, reached into the secret pocket designed for the pocket watch. He smiled; so did the kids. Xiaoming wondered why he'd never known his grandpa had this talent. Grandpa extracted a foot-long silver chain, a pocket-watch chain, though no watch came into view as it slowly rose out of his pocket. The chain alone was already a rare object, though the kids were expecting it to end with a foreign pocket watch. With the index finger of his right hand, the old man stroked the back of the chain, up and down, after which he grasped the end of the chain with the thumb and index finger of his left hand, the end that was hooked onto the buttonhole of his shirt; the pocket watch was attached to the other end. Now with the thumbs and index fingers of both hands he began pulling the chain up, one hand over the other, until there was a slight tug, signaling the moment the watch was about to make its appearance. The old man had the kids holding their breath in anxious anticipation; an ant's fart would have made them wet their pants. Then, out of nowhere, a shout from outside:

"Qintong Uncle, I'm here with some friends." Four adults walked in with the sun at their backs, and before the old man could see who it was, the man said: "It's me, Qintong Uncle." So friendly, so familiar, and the old man was stumped. "It's me, Maoquan's son, your qintong. Maybe you forgot. He told me you have an English pocket watch. I've brought along three friends who'd like a look-see."

Now qintong meant someone with the same surname, so if Maoquan was his qintong, his name ought to be Huang Maoquan, but no matter how hard the old man thought, he had no memory of anybody by that name anywhere in town. Yet since the fellow couldn't stop qintong this and qintong that-ing, sounding just like a member of the family, it wouldn't look right to say he didn't know him or not let him take a look.

As the four adults passed the pocket watch around, the kids craned their necks and pushed up close, but not only did they fail to get a glimpse of the watch, they were given a tongue-lashing by the qintong's son: "What's the matter with you kids, can't you see adults are looking at this? Come any closer and your heads'll pay for it."

In the end, the kids got to see the watch, but the four adults had taken the pleasure out of the whole affair. Even Xiaoming's grandpa complained:

"I've never seen anyone with worse manners in my life. Qintong my eye! People I don't even know are barging uninvited into my house to see my stuff!" Noting the unhappy looks on the kids' faces, he continued, "They call themselves grownups, well grownups like that are terrible examples for you kids. Don't you grow up to be like them, men with no upbringing." Hearing what the old man said made them feel a little better.

But Xiaoming had more classmates than just these few, and none of the others lacked in curiosity. They all wanted to get a look at the foreign pocket watch. Imagine Xiaoming's dilemma. He had no choice but to ask Grandpa to let him bring them over, and over, and over. Grandpa was all right with that at first, but it began to annoy him as more and more kids showed up, so he put a stop to it. Xiaoming had a trick or two up his sleeve too, so when Grandpa refused to show the other kids, Xiaoming stopped cleaning his ears. Cleaning is what it was called, but because Xiaoming paid no attention to sanitation, the germs on his hands, the ear-pick, and the cotton swabs were all transferred to Grandpa's ears. That, of course, made them itch, which was why he needed to have Xiaoming clean them. Xiaoming wanted Grandpa to give in and let the kids see his watch, so they needed one another. In addition to the 67 kids in his class, there were other kids in school and friends in the neighborhood, and just about every one of them was treated to a glimpse of the only foreign pocket watch in town. Xiaoming could hold his head up now, thanks to that watch. It also brought Grandpa a notable measure of fame.

One day the old man went to the Town Hall to supply some information for his household registration; his arrival caused a bit of a stir. It seemed that everyone in the office knew that the old man was in possession of a by now legendary foreign pocket watch, and many of them pressured him to let them see it. That included the Town Head, who invited him in for a cup of tea in his office, where, after looking at the watch, he asked about its history. When it was time for the old man to do what he'd come for, a clerk asked for the official seal and took care of everything. The special treatment put him in a good mood for some time afterward.

To accommodate his pocket watch, the old man went to a second-hand clothing store and bought a used, somewhat ill-fitting pocketed vest, which he wore constantly, in weather hot and cold. And every day, twice a day, at eight in the morning and six in the evening, he went to the train station to set his watch against the clock in the tower, a habit for which he became known. At the station he joined a scruffy, bearded old man who stood at the platform railing to send off every train that left the station with a shouted "Banzai" in Japanese, arms raised high in the air. The addition of Xiaoming's grandpa twice a day created an atmosphere at the station that stirred the town's imagination.

Almost before anyone was aware of it, Xiaoming had turned sixteen and was in high school. Now nearly a grown man, he could not have withstood the taunts of others for cleaning his grandpa's ears, so that came to an end just as Grandpa suffered an ear infection so serious, so painful, and so festering that he had to see a doctor. A period of treatment succeeded in alleviating the problem, and the doctor's warnings brought an end to the unhealthy custom of ear cleaning. At the same time, Grandpa's watch's winding stem developed a problem: The gears were slipping, and the old man and Xiaoming had to call upon their prior experience to locate just the right spot to gently and patiently turn the balance wheel, winding the spring to fifty or sixty percent. If they were slightly off, they would have to spend more time trying to locate that spot.

Xiaoming was better at this than his grandpa, who had to turn to his grandson every time it happened. Together they visited every local watch repair shop and some in neighboring towns, where they were told that the parts necessary to fix the watch were no longer available. The thing was useless. A beautiful, finely made foreign pocket watch was now more valuable as an antique. By then, so-called automatic watches had come onto the market, and that soon spelled the end for mechanical, hand-wound watches. The interest the watch had once sparked among curious people all over town vanished along with its functional demise. And when the scruffy, bearded old man who sent each train out of the station with a Banzai! was taken away and not seen in town again, Xiaoming's grandpa stopped going to the station to set his watch. The absence of the two oldsters left the station with a slight, hard-to-describe air of loss.

As the old man's joints began to act up, he walked with a pronounced stoop, which kept him home most of the time. He got into the habit of taking out his pocket watch to examine its polished case or open it up to gaze at the face, which was frozen in time; he'd give it a shake and put it up to his ear, unhappily, to no effect. Then one day this habit changed the way he felt about things; his light mood was history, and from then on, each time he took the watch out, he was reminded of the sad fate associated with it, and that profound sadness created an increasingly heavy burden in his mind. And yet he refused to change his habits: He continued to take the watch out, to revisit the imagined sorrow. It even reached the point where he dozed off during the day and dreamed that a foreign soldier was staring at the pocket watch in his hand. This gave him such a fright that when he described his dream to Xiaoming his hand shook. His grandson comforted him, reminding him that his father had bought the watch from a Japanese unit commander. What he wanted his grandpa to know was that if the English soldier desired his watch back, he needed to go find the Japanese soldier. Xiaoming also asked his father to tell his grandpa exactly what had happened back then. But the old man clung to the belief that even though he was in possession of the watch now, it belonged to the young Englishman, no matter what. The watch no longer brought him any pleasure, since that pleasure was replaced by threads of guilt that simply wouldn't go away. To prevent the old man from constantly taking out a watch that was slowly ruining his health, Xiaoming's father hid it from him. But all that accomplished was to worsen the old man's mood and put him on edge. Xiaoming and his father debated whether or not to give the watch back to Xiaoming's grandpa; Father's conclusion was that he'd get used to being without it in time. That sounded reasonable, but the old man moved listlessly around the house, grumbling, "Why can't I just die . . . why go on living?"

One day Xiaoming's grandpa fell in the back yard and struck his head against the mossy stone trough. He lost so much blood that by the time his family found him, there was nothing they could do. On the day of the funeral, after the rites were concluded, and it was time to nail down the lid, the Taoist priest ordered all family members born in the year of the tiger or the dog to leave the premises to avoid a karmic clash. Xiaoming threw himself tearfully onto his grandpa's corpse to keep them from sealing the coffin. The Taoist was familiar with such a scene, and everyone knew how close Xiaoming and his grandpa were, so they tried to gently coax him away from the coffin to avoid a delay in the ceremony. But Xiaoming would not be moved, and the anxious Taoist told the family to do whatever was necessary to take the boy away. Anxiety gripped the family. "Don't be so damned unreasonable!" his father snapped. But when he walked up to pull his son off the coffin, Xiaoming angrily yelled, "Bring me Grandpa's pocket watch!" Strange to say, he was in charge—no one dared defy him. As everyone else stood around quietly, Father ran inside and came out with the watch, which he handed to Xiaoming, who carefully wound the stem to engage the gears. The Taoist was about to remind everyone of the time, but he'd barely opened his mouth when Xiaoming shouted, "Shut up!" Father calmed the Taoist, telling him to let the boy have his way, since he knew what his grandpa would have wanted. The crowd held its collective breath, eyes glued to Xiaoming, who looked like he was defusing a bomb. Five or six minutes passed, but it seemed much longer and called for extraordinary patience. The air seemed to freeze when Xiaoming, whose face was wet with tears, suddenly smiled. The watch was running, its thin hand ticking off each second, seemingly full of life. Xiaoming held it up to his ear—goose-stepping booted soldiers were marching. He carefully closed the case and listened again. A column of soldiers was marching in step, and he could almost see a smile on Grandpa's face. Xiaoming looked down into Grandpa's face and gently held the watch up to his ear before letting the Taoist finish the sealing rite.

The time had come for the eight pallbearers brought in from the countryside to hoist the coffin, with its red blanket covering, onto their shoulders; they fell immediately into coordinated step as soon as the heavy coffin lifted off from the pair of benches on which it rested, sending the two suona musicians and spirit money spreaders scrambling to stay out in front. The old Taoist shouted for the pallbearers to slow down, but, like an enormous galloping horse with no rider in the saddle, the red carpeted coffin moved ahead at a steady cadence—step, dip, step, dip—and a rustling sound: shwa shwa shwa, leaving the family, some carrying censors, and all in hempen mourning garments, at a distance, along with grieving relatives and friends. When the coffin was carried onto the main street of the little town, the money spreaders in front shouted: "Make way! Make way!" The suona musicians had to blow harder than ever to clear the road ahead. People on foot, others on bicycles, and those on three-wheeled vehicles moved out of the way, while storekeepers rushed out of shops to get a glimpse of such an unusual funeral procession. Everybody knew that the person they were carrying was the old man who'd owned a foreign pocket watch. He and that watch constituted the little town's memory, and once it was awakened, the crowds forming on the street grew and grew. The elderly said, "You don't often see someone leave this world without a backward glance." The cortege was like a centipede that is all torso: The head had already passed the end of the street when the tail reached the beginning. "This journey for the old man is long," the old Taoist said to comfort the mourners, "and there's no need for us to hurry, since his departure was worry free. He left owing no one, which is why this he could leave carefree. No need to hurry." The coffin was supposed to have been preceded by amateur opera performers, Taiwanese musicians, drum dancers, and a Western band. But they had all fallen behind to join the ranks of the immediate family and friends and relatives of the deceased as they slowly entered the street. Xiaoming's father was carrying a deity censor, Xiaoming his grandpa's photo. Bystanders lining the road focused their attention on Xiaoming and the photo, many of them pointing, gesturing, and putting good thoughts into words that created an auspicious atmosphere to send the pair along their way. The subject of Xiaoming and the old man's pocket watch that had faded from public consciousness had, it seemed, revived, at least in the town.

After traveling through layers of clouds and mist, the old man's spirit was taken into the Western Heaven, which, strange to say, appeared to also be the Christian heaven. The proof? The old man was thinking about the rightful owner of the pocket watch he carried with him as he entered Heaven, when he was greeted by a friendly, smiling old Englishman who walked up and introduced himself:

"How do you do, Sir. My name is Simpson."

This seemed perfectly natural, as the two old men shook hands with great warmth. "I'm Huang Yuncheng, and I have your pocket watch."

They communicated easily even though they spoke different languages. No matter where you came from or what national language you spoke, in this place language was universal, a sort of mind-speak that made communication possible not only with deities, but with all creatures, even with the planets.

Old Mr. Huang took out the pocket watch and handed it to old Mr. Simpson.

"It's a very old watch," Simpson said, "and unnecessary here. I gave it to my grandson when he was setting out from Liverpool Naval Station for Singapore."

"I feel terrible about what happened to your grandson."

"It was wartime, he was sent by the nation, and that made me proud." As Simpson spoke this sentence, a young British soldier in a beret materialized beside him, wearing a smile. "This is Mr. Huang. He has just returned the pocket watch I gave you when I saw you off that day. After all it's been through, it's an even more valuable keepsake now." He handed it to the young soldier, who snapped off a crisp salute to the old man, who straightened up, his back no longer aching, and returned the first salute he'd ever made. That made them all laugh. "Down in the mortal world," he said emotionally, "and not just in Heaven, all you need is a change in time or space to turn enemies into friends."

"Yes, Mr. Huang, you're absolutely right."

A heavy mist was closing in on them, so they said their good-byes and went off to look for people they wanted to see. The old man wanted to find his wife, and as the mist gradually dissipated, he saw a figure walking toward him. When he looked closely, he said to himself, "Could that be her, my wife?"

translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt

Used by permission of 聯合文學。

Click here to read an essay by translator Howard Goldblatt on his 40-year relationship with author Huang Chunming.