Published on 2012/08/19

The Pocket Watch Prince

LiAnn Yim

I first heard this story after my sister’s engagement party. Everyone had gone home, Solange’s fiancé was driving his parents back to the hotel, and she called me into her room so I could unzip her dress. Grandmother Nina, who had been quiet all evening, came inside and sat on Sol’s bed. She was empty-handed and said she was going to give Sol her wedding gift early. Sol and I were both excited. It was a tradition of our family that someone always received a story on gift-giving occasions like Christmas or birthdays.

This is the story our grandmother told us:

A long time ago, when my Grandmother Nina was a teenager, and beautiful, too, because that’s the way these stories go—a prince wanted her for his wife. She was that beautiful. Our family has a saying that it doesn’t matter how ugly a girl is—as long as she is fair-skinned, she will be beautiful. Nina had skin like moonlight. Not watered down and ghostly like mine. White, but edged in luminescence, like fairy skin.

Anyway, she was so beautiful, the prince of the realm fell in love with her. Their town had a festival, and Nina was part of the parade. Kind of like the homecoming queen, I guess. She wore a yellow umbrella dress, and her dandelion wild hair made people want to make wishes on her. She still has the dress, too. It has creases that will never come out, no matter how long you hold a hot iron to it.

Her appearance was the finale of the parade, which marched down the main street where the prince and his parents had the best seats. When he saw her, he leapt down and knelt in the street at Nina’s feet. She saw that he had a strong chin and steadfast eyes, and he spoke the sweetest words to her: “I have missed you so.” They got engaged right away, but before they could be married, an old hag-witch spun a spell with many threads that ensnared Nina’s prince and stole him away from her.

Nina set out at once to regain him. She took this little silver knife with a mermaid handle and a loaf of almond bread. To this day, Grandmother Nina won’t eat almond bread. It’s because she had to stretch that loaf out for a long time. Some days, she only ate crumbs broken from the crust. Towards the end, she licked the top of it for a week. She still has the knife. I hope she will give it to me when she dies. Since I didn’t inherit her fairy skin, the least I can hope for is her knife.

After twenty-one contests and challenges, the details of which she said she wouldn’t bore us with, Nina finally reached the hag’s home. The hag lived inside a cavern with many different chambers, one of iron, one of glass, you get the idea. A frog outside the cavern warned her not to touch anything in the chambers, not even the walls, so Nina didn’t. The innermost chamber was like another world. There was a sky, with heavy clouds stretching across it like lace, and a sun. There was a market selling odd things, like windup dolls that looked like people you knew, cast-iron boots, instruments made of bone, teeth, bouquets of poisonous flowers sure to drop a person dead with a touch. But Nina strode through it all, her knife in one sleeve, bread crumbs in the other, not looking left or right but straight ahead until she reached the hag, who had set up shop and was selling things out of a stall.

The hag-witch’s stall had pocket watches of all kinds hanging down. Pocket watches by the thousands dangling from chains or ropes hung over silver nails. Ordinary ones made of silver or gold. Ivory devices. Jewel-bright ones that looked like exotic fruit. Some with engravings, and some that doubled as lockets. Some were regular-sized, and others were tinier, the size of a button or a gumdrop. One was the size of a man’s fist. The hag smiled when she saw Nina. She peered at my grandmother through her wares.

“So,” she said. “So. You have made it after all. Congratulations. I didn’t think you would.” She crooked a finger at Nina. “See, here is your prize, which you have come so far for.”

Nina stepped beyond the curtain of pocket watches, brushed them aside like jeweled flies. By this time she was tired of being tested. Her fingers were calloused, her flesh bitten to the bone, her hair hacked off to her chin. She was not in the mood.

Her prince was slumped in the corner like a discarded glove. Pearlescent pocket watches swayed over his head. Nina looked at him. She was very tired. His eyes were following the gentle swinging of an oval watch, the most secret color of an abalone shell.

“What’s wrong with him?” she asked.

The hag petted the prince, swept his hair back from his brow, tickled him under his strong chin. “Your prince’s heart is enclosed inside one of these pocket watches you see here. Cut it down, and I will restore it to him.”

“And how am I to know which one it is?”

The witch said, “Listen.”

They two listened closely. The ticking of the watches was at first the warm buzz of a bumblebee, a voluptuous metrical pitch, but it rose to a roaring drone, a disturbed hive of wasps. The ceaseless ticking was a smashing of many raindrops on a tin plate, a storm splintering bramble and tree. The sound was mechanical, primal.

The hag’s eyes were dreamy. She put a gnarled finger to her lips. “You have to listen very carefully. Can’t you tell which one sounds like the beat of his heart? If he was my prince, I would know. Listen. Can’t you hear it? Can’t you tell right off?”

Nina couldn’t tell. She had come all that way, fought off bull elephants and wrestled a caiman, swallowed an entire lake, counted seven hundred grains of salt, broken mirrors, sewn a shirt of feathers, but she couldn’t discern the prince’s heartbeat.

Nina stumbled from one place to the next, seizing watches, pressing the devices to her ear. Some were cold in her hand, but others burned and stung her. She pried at them; they wouldn’t open. They bumped against her knuckles as she reached through the net of them, grasping at random.

Then she turned on the witch, her knife having leapt into her palm. The hag was sitting on a three-legged stool, tinkering with the silver insides of a watch.

“Enough of this. Give me his heart or I will skin you alive,” said Nina. Nina’s father—my great grandfather—was a butcher, a man who knew the ways of meat and its sinews, so this was not a bluff.

“But that won’t bring your prince back to you,” said the hag.

Nina dropped the knife with a cry and fell to her knees beside the prince. She stroked his face in her hands and kissed his warm lips. She was tired, but she forced herself to weep and she rubbed her tears into his skin. She pricked her finger with her knife and dabbed at his lips with them. She sang to him, and whispered in his ear, “I have missed you so.” She put the heel of her hand against the concave of his chest, pounded him there, rubbed, palpitated the area, but nothing stirred. She could have been caressing a lockbox or the surface of the dresser by her bed, upon which she placed her rings and knife and a book for pleasure reading.

The prince was empty as a sack, empty as Nina’s pockets, and all around them was the hollow beating of time.

She had to go home without him. A few years later, she met and married my grandfather after a very long engagement.

Grandmother Nina asked me to help her up from the bed. My sister and I both reached out, pulled her to her feet. Nina had trouble walking down the stairs, so I went with her, her elbow cupped in my hand like a small bird. We descended the staircase together, her elbow hitching in my hand with each step before I caught it again and tried to bear her softly down to the next step. She pulled away once we reached the bottom.

In her room, I saw the yellow dress in the closet, beneath a sheet of plastic. It was hard for me to imagine the shape of my grandmother fitting into it. Out of its plastic cover, it billowed gently, but having felt it under my hands before I knew its construction was pure rigid boning.

I asked her, “How could you leave him there?”

“He wasn’t mine anymore,” Nina said. Then she moved to her bed and started taking the rings off her hand and putting them on the nightstand. When her hands were naked, she said, “I hope Solange liked my gift.”

I returned upstairs, but I stopped in the hall. The door was open just a little way, and the lights in the hallway were out. My sister sat on top of her vanity, in the middle of her unfurled dress, with the bodice pooled in her lap. In the mirror behind her, I could see the frail bumps of her spine, which used to be crooked when we were young, until our parents paid for a brace. Her fiancé had returned, and his head was bent over hers. Her cheek was pressed to his chest. She was holding him around his waist, and she was listening with all her heart to his.

LiAnn Yim is currently earning her M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Maryland. She has lived in California, Taiwan, New York, Shanghai, and Italy.