Clockwork Animals

Mom and Dad weren't well-off or anything and, apart from that, the 60s offered only a limited choice of toys, at least in our neck of the woods. Back when he was working for the Maintenance Department of the Bucharest Transport Services, Dad would bring me – on Father Frost Day, as it were – the odd toy supplied for the purpose by his employers. There was this one time (and that is one of my oldest memories) when the handing out of presents was an organized affair, taking place in a huge – or so I thought – festivity hall. I must have been about two and a half. They told me to go on stage, tell the customary poem and collect my bag of presents from Father Frost himself, who was there visiting the working class. Curiously enough, Old Frosty had a long black beard... The moment I set my eyes on him I started bellowing heartily. So I started running towards the steps of the stage, but couldn't find the exit anymore. In the end, mother had to get on stage and hoist me, tucking me under her arm, carrying me out of the room, giving up on the matter of the presents and everything, as I was howling ever louder with each hefty spank on my bottom. What I can't forget however is the tin rocket spouting sparks from the rear end, which I got the following year, along with a sort of platform on wheels, topped with colored plastic cubes which would spin whenever you pulled it along by its string. As a rule, however, my parents would buy me standard toys when suddenly moved by generosity. We'd all go to the "Little Red Riding Hood," a toy shop down in the Obor Market, constantly shrouded in smoke coming from the nearby barbeque stalls, and, what was even more important to me, shrouded in a legendary aura. It must have been a dingy place, come to think of it, but for me it was an awesome place, which has been featuring in my dreams on a constant basis ever since. From the outside it wasn't any different from the adjoining shops: just another house painted crimson, its casements doubling as shop windows. Its inside consisted of no more than two rooms. The floorboards were soaked in petrol in order to discourage bedbugs, so the place was reeking of the stuff. The first room had nothing but boy toys, while the second one, the one at the back as it were, was meant for girl toys only. And I would have never in a million years gone in that back room, just like I wouldn't have even come to the idea of going into the ladies' toilet. I would only throw furtive glances, enough to perceive the dolls, as hideous as an army of still born babies, tightly packed together, contorted, some having toppled over into the others' arms, on the crimson painted shelves. We made our way to the counter spanning the whole wall of the first room, beyond which, arranged on shelves, there were all kinds of wretched objects (yet so attractive to my eyes): water pistols made of vomit-colored plastic, lopsided balls, red with white polka dots, some kind of painted tin carts pulled by tin ponies… on the counter there were always mechanical toys, hopping about, rather primitive, made from the standard tin: chomping crocodiles, clockwork frogs and roosters, fist-sized ladybugs… painted tin windmills were spinning their painted tin sails. Tin merry-go-rounds and even little tin fishes in their mock fish-bowls. Thus, the visit would most of the times result in my getting a hopping contraption, in a coarse peeling cardboard box bearing some text and a naïve drawing of the respective creature with a wide smile on its face. At home I wouldn't give up until I broke the spring within the first few minutes. I would turn the little key viciously, twist the tin legs of the respective hen or frog, or whatever, hoping that it would hop a little longer next time. The legs jammed, I got angry, slammed the toy against the floor, kicked it all over the place... When it stopped functioning altogether (and I received the mandatory spanking from my folks, who were amazed at my propensity for causing damage), I would start to take apart the tin casing of the thing in order to "see what's inside." I have a feeling that it was what I actually wanted to do in the first place. So I went about my business rather brutally, by trial and error. Of course, I did see the tiny tin pins which held together the two halves, but I lacked the insight for undoing them, as well as the necessary patience. I just grabbed the hammer and pounded the frog's head until it was completely mangled. Gaps would then appear here and there between the halves of the body. I jammed my fingers inside, risking cutting myself in the tin, and I pulled as hard as I could, until the wisest of us gave up. And that would always be the animal. I then triumphantly extracted, from its bowels, the Mechanism. I had reached the essence of the thing. Although I used to do that about ten times each year I was still thrilled each time. I was holding in my tiny five-year-old hands a complex and wondrous object. It was the object which explained movement. It was the primum movens of that pitiful hen. The casing, now chucked away in a corner, flattened beyond recognition, had been no more than an appearance – an illusion – an instance of forced and useless mimesis. The truth was the Mechanism. Each thing, I started suspecting, had an Outside and an Inside. In order to get to the Inside one needed to destroy the Outside. That was never done by good kids. They would be content with passively turning the key and enjoying that short-lived minute of hopping. Bad kids would break down the toys in order to see what they held inside. Still the Inside was always the same, whatever the clockwork animal might have been: ladybug, hen or froggy. The same bluish steel spring, forcefully twisted into a spiral, the same solid metal flywheel, the same cogged wheels – five or six of them, bigger or smaller, usually cast in yellowish metal. They were held together by means of four perforated plates, which I struggled with even more than I had with the tin casings. Red with anger, I would hammer chaotically on the parts, in the hope that the frame which held them in place would eventually come apart. When the frame finally gave way, all the parts would roll onto the bed erratically. Reaching the Mechanism had not been enough. It too had to be taken apart until the final components were reached, until those indestructible atoms were reached. I now held in my clenched fist a steel ribbon for which I had no use, a heavy wheel with grooves around its rim, and a few cogged spinning tops, which I immediately flicked on the varnish of the living-room table, watching them reach the point of apparent immobility in their rotation, seamlessly veering to one side or another, for a ridiculously long time. The big wheel, as it spun, glorious like a galaxy, also produced a harmonious hum, whilst the smaller ones, gravitating round it, were silent, but much more brilliant. Eventually however, they would crash one into the other, loose stability and keel over, some sooner, some later, but all sharing in that fate. In half an hour I would get bored of the spinning tops as well. Many fell on the floor and, later, I would hear a groan and the mandatory curses, when my father stepped on one of them. Or they would get lost in mom's button drawer and, when she thrust her hand in hurriedly, she would prick her fingers in the needle-sharp cogs and I would hear that infamous "spill your blessed gall, boy; there's no end to your pranks, is there?" After a while, nonetheless, with ant-like perseverance, my folks would yet again reach the conclusion they had to buy me a toy, so I got another tin piece of junk, which I would eventually hasten to dismantle. But there was this one year when I had been to the country, to Tantava, and got a flea (actually, all of the village fleas would get me at such times) – that was the only time when I didn't take the machinery apart. On that occasion I used it just as it was, scratching my plagued skin with the cool cogs of the gears. I had invented the scratcher. from Forever Young and Swaddled up in Pixels, Humanitas, 2004

by Mircea Cărtărescu (b. 1956)