by Daniel Kennedy
Levin stared out the window. Despite what time had done to his mind, his sight remained sharp. Soldiers approached in the distance: a line of ants, moving through a pass in the mountainside. The vanguard of their ranks spilled into the green valley. Levin imagined them trampling the tulips. He pictured the tiny suns glinting off their helmets. The road from the mountain led to his village and then to the city beyond.
He wrung his hands. There was important work to do. He rushed from bedroom to bathroom, mumbling the phrase, “Not today, not today.”
Cold water, minty shaving cream. The blade shimmered in the mirror, scraping the stubble from his papery cheeks. The hand that held the blade shook. Levin paused a few times, trying to calm himself, instead falling into the wide eyes regarding him from the other side. Seconds, minutes going by. When he finally finished, he dressed in a white cotton shirt and corduroy trousers. His costume’s chief accoutrement he saved for the end, when all was in order. Levin liked saving best for last. It made him feel as though he could control time. He carefully fastened the original Breguet his father had given him—handcrafted from eighteen-karat rose gold, fixed with a brown leather strap and a gold tang buckle. Even in darkness, the watch seemed to catch light.
“A little music? Why not!”
Levin turned on the radio. He refused to sit—no time to eat. The radio gave only static. He studied the calendar, unable to remember when he’d planned to give Susanna her gift. Certainly not today. Or could it have been? Doubt ballooned inside of him; a headache prodded the front of his skull. The illness had started forming two years ago, around his sixty-third birthday. He stubbornly believed he would stay well until he fulfilled his life’s purpose: presenting the perfect watch to the woman he loved. His symptoms, however, had intensified. And the soldiers were marching.
“It must be today. The choice has been made for me.”
He laughed. With a bit of shaving cream still on his face, he put the wrong shoes on the wrong feet and stumbled into the cold.
His neighbors scattered around him at too quick a pace, a river flowing past a stubborn stone. They wore grave expressions, their faces filled with panic, anger.
“Excuse me, brother—”
But Gustav, the minister, had children at his side, and he shoved past Levin.
Levin rubbed his arms. The air smelled of the nearby mountain stream, which was swollen with spring snowmelt. No bread had been baked. No smoke rose from anyone’s chimney.
“Please, Ms. Bollinger, tell me where Susanna is?”
Ms. Bollinger wore a black frock that had, over the years, faded to purple beneath the sun. She sold flowers and herbs she’d picked herself from a wheezy cart, often conducting her business outside of the stone courthouse, where activity seldom stirred. Levin called her again as she rattled jars into rawhide bags. He noticed a silver chain dangling from her pocket. It was attached to the watch his father had made for her.
“Ms. Bollinger, it’s me, Levin.”
Many villagers owned watches. Levin negotiated with those who had little money; no good soul was excluded. He’d picked Susanna as heiress to his mother’s piece, La Marie Antoinette, but could not recall when he’d made the decision. A minor detail to lose, yet if one memory wasn’t safe, none were. He clung to the idea that significant moments would glow brighter in the looming dusk of his mind.
“Levin, go now to the library. Susanna will be there. All of us will. There’s a tunnel where we can hide.” Ms. Bollinger grabbed her cart’s rough handles and hurried off. A jar she hadn’t packed rolled from the cart and smashed on the ground. She continued down the street, beyond the square houses whose windows watched the broken routine and whose gardens offered life to the blue sky above.
Levin decided to follow Ms. Bollinger but had trouble running. Soon, he stopped. If Susanna and everyone else would be at the library, then perhaps they were waiting on him—congregated to witness the presentation of La Marie Antoinette. He looked down at his feet. Crooked. He patted his shirt, the pockets of his trousers.
“Oh, Father. Where is Susanna’s watch?”
Rushing home, he bumped into one of the sheep farmers from the low fields. The bear of a man, whose head was shaved on the sides and covered with brown, curly hair on top, shoved Levin into a puddle. Cold spread through his body. People ran by as he sat there, dripping, his eyes level with their frantic knees.
Levin supposed that he might find the antidote to any quandary within the routine of his work, for in it, he saw a reflection of himself he could still recognize, one that safely held memories of his parents, and of Susanna. He remembered the first time Susanna had informally spoken to him, nearly a decade ago. He’d huddled just outside the village square, half concealed by shadow, while neighbors played holiday games. Though none questioned his craftsmanship, he knew that most found him strange. “Levin, come here—now!” Susanna had said, and then she raced at him and gripped his rumpled lapel and whirled him within a ring of clapping hands, ignoring how he trembled. Young Susanna. Unmarried, less than half his age, spinning with the shine and prowess of a painted top as she danced. Her golden hair was easy to spot weaving through the tight village streets or in the marketplace, where she sold milk from her father’s dairy farm. She always smiled at Levin, routinely asked about his projects. Around her, he never felt like a stranger. He visited frequently, until her brothers asked him to stop, and told him what they’d do if he didn’t.
“No one can stop me. I will be at the library.”
Levin rose from the puddle and walked back to his cottage, the first home on the mountainside of the village. Luckily, he hadn’t gone far.
A thick door separated his apartment—the same he’d shared with his parents until they’d died—from his workshop. Levin kept little in the austere space. Each night, he placed his father’s Breguet on a nightstand and fell asleep to its rhythmic tics. He liked how the gaps in his consciousness were tucked safely in the watch’s sound. He would not someday wake to find that the sound had vanished. The watch had been built to last—to defy time, the very thing that justified its existence.
Unlike his living quarters, his workshop brimmed with life. Projects in various stages of completion covered the surfaces. Mechanical voices greeted him when he entered.
“Yes, yes, I know it’s done. No need to criticize me, Father. You did the same thing.”
Levin tried to ignore the harsh denigrations that were as real as his mind made them. He focused instead on the cacophony of horological sound. Sunlight climbed through the windows and reflected off the precious metals, dancing along the walls like metallic flowers. Looking past the light, he saw the soldiers, not so far off.
“I mustn’t waste time. If I forget their approach, I am lost.”
The workshop pulsated with its own heartbeat. It was the sound of his family’s legacy. They were watchmakers, and one day, they’d be renowned across the oceans. Levin’s mother had taught him mathematics, history, and literature. Had he ever gone to the schoolhouse with the blue façade, its eaves trimmed in white? Had there been a moment when a teacher, smiling, placed a piece of cake before him, a reward for scoring the highest on an exam? He couldn’t remember. The pitched schoolhouse roof could be seen at the far end of the village. Levin’s mother took books from the library and read to him near their cottage’s windows, where he could observe his father working. His father, keen on imbuing his son with a sense of moral fortitude, once hoisted him onto his knee and said, “Levin, the certainty of our shared fate is the greatest example of our fellowship.” He then handed Levin a watch—a bell engraved on its casing—and instructed him to deliver it to Mrs. Annen, who lay dying in her house near the church.
“Of course—Susanna’s watch!”
Levin scrambled to the side of the workbench. He lifted a key from a nail in the wall. The key unlocked a secret drawer, which was located in a compartment beneath the surface. The drawer squealed open, emitting a coppery scent.
“Yes, I know it’s Mother’s, but Susanna’s a worthy choice. I love her.”
His father’s unfinished masterpiece shined in his hand. Portraits of his mother and father were taped to the secret drawer’s interior. Levin studied their faces, young and full of life. He felt close to them, and when he gave the watch to Susanna, it would be like introducing her to his family.
“Yes. I will explain to her its origin. Of course, I remember it!”
La Marie Antoinette was modeled in accordance with Breguet’s most famous watch. Breguet’s story was part of Levin’s routine—a repetition, a tic—which helped him sustain his mind’s proper movements. As an adolescent, Breguet was sent to apprentice in Versailles. An unknown master watchmaker mentored him there.
“See? How can you suggest I don’t know the story?”
Levin turned to the window. The formation’s rear plodded at the mountain’s foot.
“I would never forget Mother. This is not an act of forgetting.”
Levin latched onto another familiar story. He welcomed the memory of his mother, saw it as a reversal of time that revived her. She’d fallen ill when he was fifteen, a condition similar to the one from which he now suffered. Her easy smile would open toward him only to slip away, replaced by a look of alarm, unrecognition. She became lost in the wilderness of her own untethered thoughts and moved slowly through the house with instinctual defensiveness, swatting at phantoms. To avoid confronting the veracity of her illness, Levin’s father made them work late into the nights. He’d tell stories of Breguet and other watchmakers until his watery eyes burned with fatigue.
“Before I go, La Marie Antoinette needs a polish.”
Levin cradled the watch with his thin fingers. Its skeletal face revealed a web of interworking pieces. There were thousands, a medley of infinite precision. Most of the instruments had been fashioned from either gold or titanium.
Levin and his father began crafting the watch on his sixteenth birthday. When they sat down to start, his father made a confession. “Your mother, Levin. She’s very ill.”
“I know. How long will she live?”
His father sighed, then smiled, the way he did when he got an idea.
“Were you aware that Breguet was so talented that Louis the Sixteenth summoned him to court? The queen took a liking to his work. One of the queen’s lovers charged Breguet with the making of a watch for his royal mistress. No deadline for completion, no cap on cost. Breguet called it The Queen.”
“What of mother? We should take her to the city. To a doctor.”
“She’s not ready to go. You and I, we are going to make our own Queen, the only timepiece worthy of your mother. We will take as long as we need to make it perfect. She won’t be ready until we’re able to give it to her.”
“Did Breguet ever give the watch to the queen?”
Someone knocked on the window, causing Levin to jump.
“Stop trying to distract me, please. I must finish.”
Levin’s father had never told him if the queen received her watch. Later on, while reading a book on horology, Levin discovered that King Louis had been beheaded by guillotine, and Breguet—a suspected crown sympathizer—had been forced to flee France for his life. The queen never saw her gift, of course. Breguet died, and his son finished the watch four years later.
“Levin, it’s an invasion.” Susanna knocked again on the window. “My brothers and father are waiting. I told them I had to warn you. We must go to the library.”
Levin remembered the soldiers. He fumbled with the watch as he gave it a final polish. La Marie Antoinette was the most exquisite timepiece he’d ever seen.
Susanna disappeared from view.
“Wait!” Levin wheezed. He linked a fourteen-karat gold chain to La Marie Antoinette, nearly dropping it as he did, and hurried outside.
Levin waved his frail arm. “Susanna, wait!”
She turned. Sunlight slid with a passing cloud over her face. There was something he had to tell her, but for an eternal moment he stood frozen, unsure of what to say.
“Are you coming, Levin? We are hiding in the tunnel that runs from the library’s basement. There’s a hidden door. We can all fit. They’ll take what they will and leave.”
She did not to wait for an answer. A man had stood by her side as she spoke, and now, she took hold of his hand. He was not one of her kin. He was tall with a young face, its sharp angles accentuated by a thin, black beard. He and Susanna spun and ran from Levin’s gaping stare.
The watch, Levin remembered. His mother’s watch was why he’d stopped Susanna. He tried to follow, calling her name, but she was younger and quicker, and soon she disappeared. He paused to catch his breath.
Levin undid the clasp of his father’s Bregeut. He held it alongside La Marie Antoinette. Their synchronized booms echoed through the valley: harmonious, thunderous heartbeats. Levin turned. The soldiers bled into the village, marching along the cobbled street. Their black helmets shined in the sun; their rifles made them giants. It was a horde of many bound as one, inevitable and precise.
“I did not want to give it to her because I knew when I did, it would be my time, whether I was ready or not. I admit I was afraid. So were you, Father. But I am not afraid anymore.”
Levin’s father had convinced himself that the construction of La Marie Antoinette would somehow preserve his wife—that she couldn’t possibly die until the watch was completed. Her quick decline severed this philosophy with little regard for its author. She was often confused, scratching her skin and biting her lips, sometimes forcing him to restrain her. One morning, a good morning when she knew them, she said she was tired and went to sleep. She refused to open her eyes again, even when Levin’s father held La Marie Antoinette to her chest and begged her to come back and see it. In his grief, he drank heavily, abused Levin for mistakes, and worked without cease, until he opened himself in the bath and unhoused his soul into permanence, joining his wife, unable to live without her, unwilling to endure any more of time’s cruel jests, even for his son.
The soldiers halted. Flags flapped in the breeze. Levin faced them.
“Brothers, have you come to purchase La Marie Antoinette? Is my family’s work praised in your land?”
They regarded Levin serenely.
“If so,” Levin continued, “I’m sorry to disappoint you, but this masterpiece is bound to one lady. I was to bestow it upon her today, but she and the others have left the village. I went to the market for milk, only to realize everyone had vanished. I am the village outcast, you see, which is why I did not receive an invitation.”
One separated himself from the ranks. He strode forward, taut as piano wire. He was a small man with pale skin and perfect hands. His head with its pointy ears looked large on his childish body. He wagged it from side to side as he studied Levin. The man continued down the street.
“Shoot him,” he called over his shoulder.
“You are going, then?” Levin asked. He gently pressed both watches together in the cup of his right hand, taking care not to scratch either face. A second soldier approached him.
Levin closed his eyes. He thought of his parents in their better years. He thought of dancing with Susanna. He remembered the people he loved. His heart beat with the strong sense that he always would.
The watches fell together, shattering forever against the cobblestones.
Daniel Kennedy holds an MFA from Virginia Tech, where he won the Emily Morrison Prize in fiction. His stories have appeared or will appear in Arts & Letters, The Madison Review, Typehouse Literary Magazine, BULL, and elsewhere. He is currently a PhD candidate in the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program.