David Williams (1st place. Creative Nonfiction. Fall 2010 Writing Contest)
Papa’s great clock stands seven feet tall. Each gear and cog of solid black oak bears chiseled marks of those careful hands which came before me. Great grandfather built the clock. Papa restored the clock, and now, I seek to do the same. The silent effort of detail seems to fill the old barn with a resurrecting hesychasm and the benevolent ghost of memories enters.
There was always that quietude about Papa, somber and sobering. For me, he was something beyond human—something more like a natural force which inspired awe. He took me in as his own son after my father died, but instead of a mere father-figure, I inherited a god who spoke in riddles. Everything he said puzzled me, but Papa didn’t talk that way to everyone. He was so sweet with the other kids that it made me jealous. He’d play tag with them, ask about their favorite things to eat, or tell them what a great football game they played. To me, he spoke far more seriously.
Years ago, I remember coming home from the Navy on leave, griping to Papa about how horrible some guy was. This other engineer was the kind of mean that threw cigarette butts at homeless people and I had worked myself up into a real tizzy. Papa merely sat there listening intently just as he usually did. When I was done spewing vitriol about the wrongs of the world, he paused for a good minute before saying, “It’s not that it don’t rain in the desert, son, but that the desert’s where no rain’s been.” With that, he went out to his gardening. That was how he talked to me—all riddles.
Now Papa is gone, having left another puzzle. He’s left this ancient clock for me with a note that says, “To fix anything, there’s one thing most important.” That’s it. No other clue. Is the clock another strange allegory? What is it that’s most important? It’s well past two in the morning as I search for the meaning with beveled chisel. I duplicate the past with my hands and memory.
Searching that past for clues, I recall another time. We were pouring the foundation for Aunt Katy’s new house after she lost hers to a fire. I was mixing concrete when Papa came over. The consistency was difficult to get just right and I had asked him if I should add more water. “It’s all about the right ratio,” he said. “Too much water and it’ll be weak. Too little and it won’t adapt to form.” Then he gave me that look that meant he wasn’t talking about concrete at all. Two decades would pass before I understood. By then, he would be gone.
I had arrived at the hospital at four in the morning. The whole clan was there, asleep in chairs, in cots and on the floor. Gramma, holding his hand, slept there by his bed, her head resting next to his shoulder. But Papa was awake. He was the only one awake and his eyes sparkled the same as ever. I took his hand then, and he smiled. He looked at me for a long time and said, “You’re my arm, son, just as I’m my grandfather’s.” He smiled, closed his eyes and slept. He had waited for me. Surrounded by family who would soon wake, I felt him let go. In his leaving I began to understand and wept with both joy and sorrow.
It’s been two weeks since that morning. Night has entirely passed as I worked at shaping wood into new cogs. Through the window, the dawn casts glints of sunshine through cloud shadows along the hills. There seems to be in those shadows and glimmers some pattern of intelligence beyond any reckoning. Like trying to describe the shape of leaves thrown about by a whirlwind or the way a pear hangs from a tree, the words remain hidden and I may only look upon the scene, speechless. Then I see that these morning shadows, Papa’s riddles, and the old clock are more alike than any turn of phrase could suggest—formed whole and musical from some gentle patience. Papa repeatedly hinted to this deep spring of wisdom, his lips always forming not to the contour of mere words, but to the contour of some song underneath.
What did he mean by this enormous clock, witness to his lineage? What’s the one most important thing? Looking out over the dawn and its mysteries, the words arise from within. It’s like this: the clouds over the land give of themselves to it and are never gone in their leaving.
Archives: Fall 2010.