Olga Zilberbourg


My grandmother had a mechanical wall clock powered by weights. To wind it, she pulled down one of the weights, and for the next twelve hours, the clock ticked off the lengths of the chain as the counterbalance forced it back up.

When I spent the summers with my grandmother on the Karelian peninsula, my privilege was to wind the clock, as long as I managed to do so precisely at eight oh five in the morning and in the evening. The evening winding was also my bedtime. Having wound the clock, I said good night to my grandmother and left her on the veranda, mending clothes in her chair under the clock. I lay in bed behind the thin wall, trying not to pay attention to the mosquitos buzzing over my head and focusing instead on the sound of the chain’s movement. My grandmother claimed that she didn’t need much sleep. Sometimes I woke in the gray dusk of the northern night and, peeking from under my blanket, watched as on the high bed across the room grandmother lay with her arm raised in the air, killing mosquitos.

My grandmother often let me sleep in past the morning winding. I woke up to the clock ticking with a renewed vigor, the echoing sound driving home the idea that I’d missed something important. The floor by my grandmother’s bed was littered with the bodies of mosquitoes. My grandmother was outside, tending the vegetables. Only the severest thunderstorm could keep her inside by day. There was work to be done, so much work. I tried to hide from it. I sat in grandmother’s chair and read until she came in to get me.

We had twelve hundred square yards of potatoes, radishes, apples trees, raspberries, and currant bushes to care for, and she couldn’t do it alone. But always in September I returned to Petersburg, to go back to school. My parents borrowed a car to come and get me. They collected the sacks of potatoes and the jars of jams and pickled vegetables to take to the city. Finally, time came to say goodbye to grandmother.

This is how I remember my grandmother: in the chair under the clock, one of its weights low, nearly touching her hair, and the other riding high, reaching but never quite making it to the edge of the clock. To this day, wherever I might be traveling in the world, when in the evening I notice eight oh five strike on my computer or phone, I think about grandmother, how she has to get up and pull that weight down herself.


Olga Zilberbourg is a bilingual author; born in St. Petersburg, Russia, she calls San Francisco her home. Her third book of stories was published in Russia in 2016. Her English-language fiction has appeared in World Literature Today, Epiphany, Narrative Magazine, Santa Monica Review, J Journal, and other print and online publications. Olga serves as a co-moderator of San Francisco Writers Workshop. She was a proud recipient of 2010 Tin House Scholar Award.