Essay :: The Ouroboros chain

Painting of partially nude woman in shadow by Franz Von Stuck - "The Sin." Oil on canvas, 1893.

Wise men say, and not without reason, that whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times.

Niccolò Machiavelli

In the last month of winter, I bought a clock from a man in Latvia who deals exclusively in time. I say he deals in time and not clocks because he is a master watchmaker who forges the instruments that measure and mark the physical hour, much like a maker of the sea-bound sextant fashions objects that illuminate the actuality of place. Each instrument measures what was once beyond the grasp of exactness; each is an idea and an object; a tool and a weapon. Empires were forged in steel as a result of the sextant and the clock. As a person whose private life is unlatched from both time and place, it seems fitting that I remain in awe of those who can latch and fix east to west and noon to midnight.


In any which case, I bought an alarm clock from a clock-seller in Latvia, a country close to a principality by a sea I’ve never seen where a man I cannot know boarded a ship to avoid a war I barely understand. He came to this country and bore a son who bore a son who bore a daughter whose lips have never tasted the salt air of the sea. And this is why I purchased a timepiece from a Latvian watchmaker, which arrived in a heavy swaddling of bubble wrap and tape, safe inside of a box that was wrapped with crisp brown paper, on which my address and the watchmaker’s address were written in a fine English hand with a charming trace of the native speaker’s Cyrillic, using a fading blue ballpoint pen that was carefully set down next to a vast handful of small stamps the color of old Wedgwood plates.

Drawing of Ouroboros eating its own tail from the time of Cleopatra

The world is circular north to south and east to west; time is supposedly linear, but it depends on what you’re measuring. The numbers remain the same in one cycle or another. It does not matter whether you count each hour up to 24, or count twelves and twelves, you return to where you began in a rather brief amount of time. Seasons also bend back to meet themselves at the beginning; all four manage to remain in their natural order despite our messing about. The body ages from the moment it is born to the moment it dies, but in its ever-dying midst the cycle begins again with another child slipping anew into the hands of this world, so the story is carried on. There are always endings and beginnings. There is, for the moment, always time.


In the last month of winter,
I bought a clock
from a man in Latvia
who deals in time.


Exactness eludes me, but my fading memory brings me to the Ouroboros, my beloved snake-that-eats-its-own tail, and Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, a creature that seems to have wound itself around every story on every page I’ve ever attempted to write. I am lucky the Ourboros stays around to connect me to myself. Otherwise, what would happen to me? My blood is divided neatly in half, east and west, each side facing a different troubled sea, each side known for its storytellers and its cliffs and lowlands and its natural aversion to the empires that rolled through and decided that this country was a good buffer, an excellent place to set down the guard gate and man it with the threat of beasts and war.

Drawing of Ouroboros eating its own tail from the time of Cleopatra

I am east; I am west; I am nowhere; I am in-between. The gate drops and my story does not get told. The gate opens and I flee, leaving the accumulated wealth that is history behind me. Quetzalcoatl opens one sleepy leonine eye and marks my passage across two brisk edges of the world. He will meet me in the middle—he always does. He meets everyone, but not everyone meets him. In me, the trail of two stories fades off and tapers to a thin knife edge of memory that lingers before it cuts. My story lacks the exactness of time and place. No compass can find me; no clock can mark me; no sextant can pin me to any center of the always-shifting ever-turning fortune of the world.


What I have instead is two of each of these: the sea, the hunger, the war, and the escape. Only the Ouroboros knows my true names. Only Quetzalcoatl knows my story. I am the daughter that slipped through the dark reach of two empires; I am the riddle that eludes each still-grasping fist. I am born from the union of transgressor and trickster—I can hear the war drums beating in the distance, but they do not beat for me.


…no sextant can pin me
to any center
of the always-shifting,
ever-turning fortune
of the world.


I write to the Latvian time-maker: How do I care for this strange Soviet clock? You must wind it every day, he replies in his beautiful, cautious English. Do not overwind, he says. I cannot stress this enough. In five years time, take it to a master watchmaker to have him put oil to the stones. It’s a tiny touch. A master knows how much. There is a pause, and in that pause, lands the tick of this clock winding down to ring and roar. There is silence before action: Everyone can hear it. It’s the ending of a story rolling up to meet its beginning again. It is so quiet, I can hear my blood pulse a beat inside the deep curve of my ear.—The master watchmaker writes back in a hurry: Do not forget to wind the clock today. If you do not hear the tik-tack, you must shake the clock gently. Only this will make it go.

Drawing of Ouroboros eating its own tail from the time of Cleopatra


Artist Franz von Stuck painted The Sin—”Die Sine” in 1883.

The illustration of the Ouroboros (alternately titled Uroboros) is by the 3rd or 4th century figure Cleopatra the Alchemist, whose real name has been lost to war and to time.