When I was in college, I wanted to write short stories and poetry. You can see how that turned out. Well, though I realize that my writing strengths are elsewhere, about a year ago I was inspired to flex my long dormant fiction muscles after a trip to Germany during which I was entrusted a rather expensive watch for a week. The result was this short story, which falls into the niche of “timepiece fiction” and thus never found a home. Until now. Figured I’d publish it here on my blog just for kicks.
Up/Down: In Search of a Datograph
When I came to, the first thing I saw was Eric’s worried face. He was shouting my name and slapping my frostbitten cheeks, which likely woke me up. 600 feet up, past his head, I saw the distant shape of the Basteibrucke, that fairytale bridge in Saxony on which, just a short time ago, we were photographing the A. Lange & Söhne Datograph Up/Down, possibly the world’s most perfect chronograph. Rendered in platinum, the $89,000 watch looked perfect perched there on the stone bridge railing in the snow. Then it fell.
At first, Eric and I couldn’t believe what had happened and we dumbly looked at each other, as if one of us was playing a practical joke. In fact, losing the Datograph was a scenario we had nervously joked about all week while traipsing around Saxony taking photos on fortress ramparts and on the hood of a luxury car that cost less than the watch. So when it actually happened, I somehow was not surprised, as if we had willed it to happen through our rehearsals.
After a moment of stunned silence, we sprung into action. Having done some ice climbing earlier in the week in the Erzegebirne, we had some abseiling gear in the trunk of the BMW. While Eric hiked back to the parking lot, I scanned the ravine below the bridge for a sign of the watch, hoping that the polished lugs or faceted dial markers might somehow throw a reflection. Fat chance—the snow was two feet deep down below and the overcast sky was darkening in the early winter gloom. To make matters worse, it was spitting snow now, threatening to bury our borrowed timepiece even deeper, so that only some lucky hiker might find it when all of this melted in late April.
Eric returned to the bridge with the ropes and gear, carabiners clanking against ice screws as he jogged across the span. Surely what we were going to attempt was against the rules at this historic landmark but it was a Wednesday afternoon and the few tourists who had been there were now well on their way back to Dresden before nightfall. We had no choice; if we didn’t recover this watch, not only would we be personae non gratae at the Lange & Söhne dinner reception later that night, but Walter Lange himself might have us thrown in the Festung Konigstein for the loss of such a valuable masterpiece.
I anchored the 500-foot 4mm static rope to one of the bridge stanchions with my best rappelling knot. Eric and I flipped a coin for who would go down first but I knew it would be me. It was my name on the watch loan agreement and I felt responsible for finding it and wouldn’t stand by on the bridge while Eric dug in the snow. Sure enough, “tails” showed and I stepped into my harness, looped the rope through my belay device and stepped over the edge of the railing. The rope was already slick with ice from the damp snow and slid through the friction plates faster than I liked. My descent felt frantic and almost out of control. I soon neared the treetops below and Eric’s voice, calling out false encouragement, was fading even as the daylight did. The last 100 feet would be tricky and require that I change ropes. I hung pendulously there, fumbling with my gear sling to find a piton and hammer. Historical monument be damned, this was the only way down.
I wedged the piton into a chink between two bricks, presumably laid by some brave soul (or fool) in the early 1800s, and started hammering it in. The hollow sound of metal on metal reverberated off the adjacent rock formations and sounded ominously brittle in the frigid air. Indeed it felt brittle—the brick and mortar splintered and crumbled as I pounded and did not inspire confidence. But finally I felt some purchase and hammered the piton home until it felt solid. I looped the new length of rope through the piton and then through a second belay device on my harness before untying from the first. Now I was committed.
As I leaned back to test the strength of my new anchor, I glanced down to where the watch had fallen. I wondered then if this was even worth it. Even if I found the watch, surely it would be shattered, hands jarred loose, the movement a jumble of gears and springs and engraved German silver collected within the case. But there was always the value of the platinum, I thought, and started descending again. As soon as I passed the treetops, it started to get very dark. I could hear a stream gurgling below, out of sight, under the ice and snow. It was a comforting sound, something alive and moving in this frozen landscape. That was the last sound I heard. At that moment, the piton silently came loose and I fell 30 feet to the snow below. The next thing I knew, Eric was beside me, waking me up.
By now it was near sunset and the forested ravine was almost completely dark. Any hope of finding the Datograph was slim but as soon as I regained my senses, we both scrambled up and spread out, digging in the deep snow like madmen, with no search pattern or plan. Just when I was about to give up, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a glint of something shiny. It was under a ledge of ice where the moving water of the stream had kept the ice open. I called out to Eric. It had to be the watch. Indeed, as I stumbled closer, it was clearly a watch. My foot broke through the thin ice on the stream and my boot suddenly filled with icy water but relief flooded through me as I reached out for the watch which appeared to be wrapped around something. As I bent closer I realized this wasn’t the Datograph; the dial was all wrong. My disappointment at this discovery was quickly replaced with horror as I realized that what this watch was wrapped around was a man’s wrist. That’s when we heard the dogs barking.