Once there was a watchmaker called Oswald, who lived alone in a town in a northern kingdom on the outskirts of Russia. He kept busy mending watches and clocks, performing repairs to order and sometimes making new watches for the good people of that town. Oswald wasn’t married and was past the age when any of the eligible women in the town would have considered him to be their husband.
As a young man he had enjoyed dalliances and fallen in love with three or four women, but he had never had the gift that some seem to have, of being able to tell when his feelings for a partner were reciprocated, and being an unattractive man, he had always assumed that the women weren’t showing him their true feelings. He didn’t really believe that he could ever be loved by a wife, and while he had long ago accepted that he would probably have to remain wife-less and child-less for the rest of his days, the thought made him melancholy and prone to fits of anger, which led to him being known around the town as the Angry Watchmaker.
One day Oswald took a break from his work to go for a walk in the mountains. He took a packed lunch and after walking for a couple of hours stopped to eat it near the entrance to a mine. He could hear work going on in the mine and his thoughts turned to his own work, which he knew he was neglecting of late. After about half an hour a voice broke Oswald’s reverie.
‘Hello. Are you looking for me?’ Oswald turned to see a short, bearded imp of a man standing beside him, his face sooty and hair frazzled and upended.
‘I don’t think so,’ said Oswald. He picked up his backpack and was about to go.
‘I’m hungry,’ said the little man, ‘Have you got anything you could share with me? I haven’t eaten for days.’
Oswald opened his pack. ‘Only this crust and these few tomatoes,’ he replied. He reached into the pack and brought out the food. He gave it to the man, who wolfed it down.
‘Have you got any more?’ asked the man greedily.
‘No,’ said Oswald, ‘That’s all I’ve got. But I could bring you some later, when I go back to the town.
Don’t trouble yourself sir,’ said the man politely, ‘I must get on with my work now.’
‘What are you mining for?’ asked Oswald.
‘Gold,’ replied the man. Oswald laughed, but stopped abruptly when he saw that the miner was quite serious.
‘Let me give you something as payment for my meal,’ said the miner, and he delved into a ragged pocket and brought out a dusty pair of spectacles. He brushed off some of the dust with his sweating palm. ‘Here,’ he said, offering them to Oswald. The frames were big and intricately wrought, but in an eccentric old-fashioned design, so that any wearer could not help but look ridiculous.
‘What are they,’ asked Oswald, who was keen to continue on his walk.
‘Love’s spectacles,’ replied the little man, and he giggled childishly. ‘They have special properties. When the wearer gazes at another through them he can tell straight away whether that person loves him.’ Oswald snorted with laughter, but the miner continued. ‘He can see a warm glow around their heart. A useful pair of spectacles for helping select a wife. Agreed?’
‘I’ll take them,‘ said Oswald, his interest waxing.
‘On one condition,’ said the miner, ‘That after four years have gone you must come back to this place and work for me, in this mine, for the rest of your life.’
The watchmaker was again about to snort with laughter but stopped himself. short. Staring at the bedraggled specimen in front of him, with the spectacles offered on an outstretched paw, he considered the likelihood of ever having to keep his promise.
‘I agree,’ he said quietly, and snatched the spectacles from the little miner‘s hand.
‘See you in four years,’ said the little man, simply. Oswald thanked him and watched as the little man walked off towards the entrance to the mine. Once he’d disappeared inside it, the watchmaker muttered in a low voice, ’I’ll be damned if I go and work for him!’ and at that moment a distant whistle could be heard in the earth below him. The watchmaker didn’t hear it; he was too busy thinking about how the spectacles could help him to find a wife.
Five months later the watchmaker had a wife. He cradled her in his arms by night and day. He peered at her through the spectacles to see if she loved him. She didn’t, but he hoped in time the warm glow might appear. There had been a widow in that town; she’d been married to a dashing and daring soldier. He had gone off to fight in the wars and she’d been left all alone, pining for him - a beauty and much admired by all the local men. Months later he’d come back following heavy defeats near St.Petersburg. Many men were lost. He staggered into town far more dead than alive, desperate to see his wife for one last night. She mopped his brow and dressed the wounds on his hands and legs and arms and face, but they refused to clean and heal, and he died. The widow, who was called Aje, wept and dried her tears on his burial clothes, but the ground claimed him and she was left on her own for a year.
No man dared to go near her for fear of upsetting the wounds that had been left open in her heart; apart from, that is, the watchmaker, who one day returned from a walk in the mountains seeming, it was noted among the townspeople, quite a different person. Where once all had been thunder and rain with him, now he seemed to be full of light and sunshine. Aje noticed the change in the Angry Watchmaker too and was drawn to him - this person always on the periphery of town affairs - as being a man who may be able to sympathise with her grief. He didn’t only sympathise, he dried her tears as well, and when weeks of companionship became months of trust and friendship, he saw in her eyes the consent to be his wife, although through the spectacles he saw her passion remained unlit. He forgave her this, and stopped worrying about the little miner, who was mining for gold.
In the town people were consumed with interest in the happy couple, after an enormous wedding celebration to which they had all been invited. The watchmaker’s reputation changed, and the people forgot that he’d once been angry. He wasn’t angry now, that was plain, and he’d worked all but a miracle in transforming the so hurt-inside Aje - once the town’s calmest and brightest woman - back into something resembling her former contented self - although now she had added life’s wisdom to her canon of virtues. The couple lived happily in the watchmaker‘s house. Oswald enjoyed everything that life had given him, throwing himself into his work with a new vigour. Morning and night he would snatch a look at his wife through the spectacles. He told her it was important for his eyes to wear the spectacles for a short time every day. She told him that she thought he looked foolish in them, and he often sternly warned her that she must never try to put on the spectacles herself. If she did something terrible would be sure to befall her.
She laughed when he said this, but obeyed her husband in this demand, as in everything else she did. Besides, her husband had hidden the spectacles in a secret place, and she wouldn’t have known where to find them. After a year of regularly peeping at Aje through the spectacles, Oswald was delighted when one day he saw a warm glow spreading across her body where he knew her heart to beat. Aje had fallen in love with her husband. But he still kept the spectacles hidden and their secret untold to his wife, because he didn’t love her, and he was greatly afraid that she would find him out.
After two years of looking at Aje through the spectacles every morning and every night the watchmaker was satisfied that his wife truly loved him, yet still he continued to use the device. After three years of testing Aje’s love, she bore the watchmaker a son, a boy, whom they called Peiet and whom they both doted on. Oswald was surprised when, a day or two after the child was born, he happened to look at him through the spectacles. There was a tiny warm glow spreading across his chest. Oswald’s heart went out to the boy at that moment and he became full of love for the child. The father doted on his son every waking moment, and even when he slept he could only dream of the boy, of protecting him and meeting his every need. He almost forgot his wife and, in his darker thoughts would ponder, when staring at the child, ‘So this is why I always longed for a wife.’ He had forgotten his promise to the little miner. He forgot the spectacles too. They were dusty again, lying in the hiding place which Oswald had devised, in a small hole at the back of their closet in their bedroom.
After four years had passed there one day came a sharp tap on the front door. The watchmaker was working, and Aje was bathing their son in a basin upstairs. Oswald opened the door and was startled by the sight of the little miner standing on his doorstep, his hair all frazzled and upended as before, but this time wearing a smart black suit and shiny shoes.
‘I’ve come into town about some business,’ he said. Oswald’s heart jumped to his throat. He banged the door closed and locked it. A tap came upon it again. Oswald trembled.
‘Go away,’ he said. He reached for a hammer that was laying on the table. ‘I’m armed,’ he warned. ‘I’m not coming.’ There was nothing; not a sound from outside the door. After a few moments the watchmaker carefully unbolted the door and peeped round. The little man had gone.
Time passed and Oswald became edgy. Many hard words were exchanged between him and Aje. He became moody and his customers noticed it.
‘Why are you so on edge all the time?’ they would ask; and he wouldn’t reply. He feared the creak of a door hinge, and every knock of a bowl upon the wooden dresser. He checked under their bed before going to sleep at night. He couldn’t lose the little man’s face from the front of his mind. Aje couldn’t sleep with her husband in such a tormented state, so she slept downstairs on a rug by the fire. Only Oswald’s devotion to his son helped to ease Aje’s and the townspeople’s anxiety for him.
After three bitter weeks, Oswald resolved to go and meet the little miner at the opening to the mine where he had first encountered him, and to appeal to him that since he was now possessed of a son whose care relied upon his income, he must be absolved from his promise. He set out early for the mountains while Aje was dutifully carrying out her chores. After several hours had passed, Aje was cleaning downstairs with her broom when she heard a quiet whistle. It came just once. Not a bird, she thought, for the whistle was stark and shrill, although quiet. After a moment’s pause she continued with her work, casting the curiosity to the back of her mind. After a few moments the whistle came again. Once more, she continued with her sweeping. It came a third time, louder than before. The pitch set her teeth on edge and made her bones shiver. She went to the bedroom and looked under the bed. She went over to the window, then gazed around the room. She opened the closet, and there came the whistle again, from inside. She delved about in the bottom at the back, then at the top all around and at the back, and her hand touched upon the little hole. She stood on tiptoes and reached her hand inside it. She touched something cold and metal. As quick as a flash she realised that she had discovered her husband’s secret hiding place for the spectacles. She took them out and held them in her hand. The whistle came again. It seemed to come from the spectacles themselves.
‘Are you whistling to me, spectacles?’ she said, her curiosity growing as she held the forbidden item The strangely wrought frames looked ugly in her eyes and felt very cold to the touch. The spectacles issued a loud whistle and she dropped them in fear on the floor. She turned and saw her husband standing in the doorway; he was glowering with rage.
‘What are you doing?’ he demanded.
‘I heard a whistle!’ cried his wife
‘Get away from them!’ he shouted, ’They’re mine! You don’t know what you’re doing.’ Aje ran out of the room in tears, and Oswald was left alone. Picking up the spectacles he looked at them, then threw them with all his might out of the open window. He heard the quiet tinkle of glass on the street below. Next door he heard his son start to cry. Downstairs his wife was bereft for she had betrayed her husband’s trust. Outside a boy picked up a pebble-sized piece from one of the lenses. Oswald shouted at him to put it down and the boy fled, throwing the piece on the floor, which then rolled through the open door of the watchmaker’s house and lodged in a groove on the floor under the dresser. The boy related everything that had happened to his mother and father with great amusement - about the fight and the crying, and the flight of the crazy-looking spectacles, and the funny glass piece that rolled off; and that the watchmaker was angry - really angry - again.
Oswald hadn’t found the little miner. He had returned home feeling three times as doleful as he had set out. He resolved to talk to his wife, to talk to her about the spectacles and the bargain he had made with the miner a long time ago, and how they had to leave the town at once and go and live among strangers in a place a long way away, where the miner would never be able to find them. Aje was devastated when he told her the truth of all that he had done, and she resisted all efforts from her husband to make amends. Days passed when she didn‘t speak to him. She couldn’t look him in the eyes, nor forgive him for his deceit and how he had kept a twice-daily check on her heart.
He had swept up every piece of the spectacles - frame and lenses - from outside and buried them in a public garden by night, near the perimeter of the town wall. However, one day not long after all this had happened, Aje found the pebble-sized lens piece when reaching under the dresser to save one of Peiet’s escaping toy soldiers. When she realised what it was she looked at her son through the lens and sure enough saw the glow in his chest. A wicked thought occurred to her and she ran upstairs and into the bedroom, where her husband was lying asleep flat out on what had once been their marital bed. Holding up the lens to her right eye she focused on Oswald and waited. She waited for a long time but no glow would come.
That night Aje had a pleasant dream where her former husband, her soldier, returned to her again; where he mounted the stairs of the house and entered the bedroom, his open cuts that wouldn’t heal leaking and slowly spilling onto the floor until it was quite wet. She dreamed that he offered his hand to her, that she got up and went to him, that she got Peiet from his cot and got all his toys and clothes in a small cloth bag with wooden handles, and left the watchmaker alone.
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