By Anna Tambour, illustration by Karl Huber
9 December 2002
Part 2 of 2
They entered the museum, after very little sleep, in a noisy press of weekend families, and kept their heads down (to humour Werner) as staid husband led stolid wife up the stairs and down the long hallways towards the corner room.
They first had to go through the hangar-high hall with the crouching pterodactyl and its massive, hulking neighbour. Even without the afternoon shadows, the pterodactyl leered, and Gretina felt Werner's fear as he hurried them through, head down, push/pulling her with him so fast that she didn't look at anything except the state of the shiny floor.
Finally they exited that echoing space and entered a small dark room crowded with old glass cases. In the far corner case lay the pile of tiny Pentacrinus scalaris starfish.
He pulled her over so abruptly that she had no time to see anything else, then hovered impatiently while she gazed at the little anonymous shapes that looked like nothing so much as a pile of pretty grey buttons in the counter at the knitting shop. She gazed but felt nothing.
Werner's nerves were fraying at the edges while he politely waited about thirty seconds. Then he said, "Yes? Now let's go to Schüssel's for some birthday cake, eh Greti?"
As she straightened her back to go, with a sense of a let-down that she didn't understand, her eyes stumbled upon his face: impatient, pleading -- and that frightened smile -- and something inside her forbade her to coddle him now.
"Silly noodle." Her smile was impish. "No one is here. Even the children. Werner, I will look at everything in this room." And -- on an unfamiliar impulse to tease, perhaps cruelly: "Maybe I ask you to take something else for me, yes?"
Werner's fingers were suddenly slippery, and she relented. "No, I just look, big noodle," she giggled, as she reached up to Werner's head and pulled it down against his startled resistance, biting him ever so gently on the ear.
She let go of him abruptly and walked to the nearest cabinet. Werner could think of nothing to do but to humour her. He stood where he could see both entrance and exit to the room, desperate to leave, and desperate to please also, as Gretina had become extraordinarily attractive in this new dangerous wilfulness.
She shuffled to the next case. It said "Sea lily," with a fossil sea lily, and a pickled, bottled modern-day sea lily next to the stone one so that people could see that they really were the same. They looked rather like a cross between a squid and an exotic orchid, pretty but not fascinating. Then she shuffled to the next case, housing giant periwinkles; then clams, frankly boring. Then case after case of things that looked like big versions of everyday creatures such as snails and even, ugh, cockroaches. She was only looking now because of the comical display of fear on Werner's face. How she would soothe her little boy when they got home! She held up her hand, motioning "just a moment and I'll be finished," when she saw it, in the case at the end of the middle row.
The sign said "Confuciusornis sanctus," whatever that meant. But the thing in the slab leaning up against the back of the case wrenched her heart. A bird, rising with every ounce of its strength from the trap of the stone that grasped it. Its beak pointed towards the sky, wide open in an arrested scream -- for help? Its wings were held out from its body like a cloak. Its bent arms, and hands -- yes, they were hands, with fingers -- spoke just as Gretina's mother used to when she was dying: a drink of water, Greti dear, please -- I am so thirsty.
Its legs were stretched completely straight, toes down, half as if it were taking off, to soar over mountains, half as if it were, as its taut hands and arms and mouth expressed, being pulled down to death.
"120 million years" the sign said. For that long, this creature had suffered. Gretina fumbled in her handbag for a hanky and her sudden choking noise brought an alarmed Werner to her side.
"Take that," she said, and then noticed its companion, lying flat in the same display case. Being horizontal, its similar body shape frozen in time, this one seemed just dead. It looked like what its vertically propped neighbour actually was, a bird caught in the dregs of a lake, struggling to emerge while being held by gripping mud until death. Its body contortions and curved cloak of wings were the same as those of a lark drowned in a birdbath, outstretched in weak futility forever.
"That, Werner." Gretina pointed to the upright stone.
It was the size of a welcome mat. Werner's heart pounded hard against the cage of his shirt, the shirt of a typical middle-aged man on a family outing, embroidered with Alpine flowers. Blood whooshed in his ears, big waves of it, smothering his name at the end of Gretina's harsh whisper.
He cradled her right elbow with a guiding arm. "Yes, Greti, dear," he murmured, just to get her out of this nightmare of a birthday present his special and just a bit naughty gift had turned out to be.
The nutcake was sawdust in his mouth as he watched his wife take a mouthful, crumple her face in a fit of choking, and blow her nose again in that sopping mess of a napkin.
"You'll save him, won't you?" she asked.
"So it's him now?"
"Yes, the long tail feathers."
"You read that much?"
"As we left. He's here all the way from China. I want him to be happy."
"Urrrh," Werner shivered. What have I brought upon myself? Violet water, nice smelling soap. She always said she liked them. Why did I want more? "Greti, my lamb . . ."
"No, no, Werner!"
"I can't, Gretina. They will miss it."
"They won't if you put up one of those 'exhibit closed' signs there."
Werner's breath escaped like pressure cooker puff. She was right. Half the museum, it sometimes seemed, had cases that displayed EXHIBIT CLOSED cards where some item should have been. Even Gretina had noticed this. But what. . . .
"Do you think he's a night bird?"
"Psh!" The sudden spray from Werner's lips startled both of them, as he had never been known to lose his temper, even if he had lost his composure last night in his anticipation over his gift to her: the pretty little star of stone, a tribute to her whimsical personal stamp on her own simple creations.
Now Gretina's intensity unnerved him, and made him aware of who was master. He had better find a way of salvaging this disaster. With what he hoped was a reassuring smile, he began to plan. Another machine, this time more lively than any of his previous moving creatures. Maybe it could cut dough into stars? Form and spit out little marzipan shapes? Or should it be animal-like? He had never tried that. They all lived for him, with their own bodies, voices, joints. It never had occurred to him before that she might want them to look like something that lived in the real world. Besides, he was no sculptor. Aach, what a mess! The thought of making a fake animal made him sick. Just a toymaker he would be.
Gretina watched his "thinking face" and smiled.
That week was busy at work. Monday night, a bat broke in through a skylight, and Jules and Dietmar took an hour to catch it, which they did only after Dietmar sprained his foot against a plinth supporting a stuffed owl with a mouse in its claws, mounted on a gnarled branch. Dietmar grabbed the owl in his fall, and its sharp beak pierced his hand quick as an opener bites into a can of juice.
Tuesday was quiet, but at the Wednesday 2 a.m. break, the entire staff heard Olag curse, foully and for long minutes. A rat had found his lunch on the counter, and not only eaten it, but left a pool of urine in the crumbs. Nothing was open at this time, and peace was only restored after Werner cleaned up the mess and donated his own meal, which Olag resented for having been ignored by the rat, but didn't thank Werner for, seeming to think that it was his, Olag's, due, for the gross insult given by the rat.
Then there were the pigeons that had snuck in during open hours, which the day shift must not have noticed. They absolutely refused to be tempted down from their perches on the tops of the mineral cases, so they had to be poisoned, a tricky procedure when the birds only fed in the day, when people were wandering the halls. Poison grain, birds falling from the tops of cases -- impossible. Complicated procedures had to be followed, and they were entrusted to Werner as the most exact of procedure followers.
At 3:30 a.m. Friday, Werner trudged home, disheartened by his inability to think of anything he could make that would be as enjoyable as the little star that Gretina treasured and -- worse -- talked to. And he despaired of coming up with anything as exciting, in the mood Gretina had gotten into, as that bird fossil that she hadn't mentioned once, in what he knew was a deliberate act of silent command.
He comforted himself by his hunched-over stance as he walked, holding his right hand on his left breast pocket. He looked like a man with a bad heart, angina pains. But for Klokwerk, his curved-in huddle, his fingers spread, enabled him all the better to feel and hear the reassuring beat of one of his little creatures, alive in his pocket.
He'd taken to carrying them with him to work -- for company and inspiration. At a touch, they could be turned on or off. And he loved feeling the little life, so regular, next to his heart.
The streetlights threw a sickly light on the lone hunched man walking home, trailing a faint ticktock sound. A tomcat snarled somewhere on a roof, an old woman wearing a strange assortment of clothes slept on a pile of filled garbage bags, and otherwise the streets were as dead as the huge stone men and women posted beside so many doorways, as dead as the stone eagle perched higher than anyone up on that globe, unnoticed by Werner that night as he made his way home, his mind caught in his problem, twisting to be released.
Gretina had been patient, but each homecoming brought a new disappointment. Now it had been long enough. "Where is he?" she asked Werner as she took off his coat.
His shoulderblades suddenly pushed against the back of his shirt. He had hoped this wouldn't come.
"Gretina, I can't. It's too risky. You know that." In an attempt to look enthusiastic, he smiled, but only managed to accentuate his lined face with its moonscape of pockmarks. "You should see the new creature I'm planning for you. It makes sugar stars all by itself!"
She didn't smile. Dinner was noisy that dawn, with spoons clunked against plates. And some mashed potato ended up with a splat on the light above the bare wood table.
Werner was so preoccupied that he didn't hear the footsteps. He was Klokwerk to the minute, as usual; he was in the starfish fossil room, brooding over his mistake, when Gretina touched him on the arm.
He jumped in place without meaning to.
"How did you get in?" he hissed.
"Just banged at the entrance and Olag let me in."
Fat sloppy Olag. But they were all like that.
"What did you tell him?"
"Didn't have to. He said, 'Klokwerk's upstairs, beautiful.'" Her eyebrows wrinkled at her own memories of the guards.
"Well?" Werner was impatient. "What?"
"I must see him."
"Now? Are you mad? You must forget this thing. The stone was just a trinket. You are being silly."
"No, Werner. I must see if he wants to come home with me."
She turned her back on her husband, and took the few paces to the Confuciusornis sanctus case. He was still there, still screaming, still striving to break free.
"Greti, my lo--" Werner's wheedling "love" shrivelled in his throat. His hands, which he'd put lightly on his wife's shoulders to persuade her to go home, felt something very irregular underneath that sensible, dowdy dress.
"Now, Werner!" Gretina twirled around to face him, with her dress wide open to the waist. "Every tool's here."
The vest bristled with metal shapes as it gaped over her pink canvas brassiere, since she couldn't fasten more than the two bottom buttons.
Werner's heart hit hard against his pocket-bound creature. Bam bam BAM BAM . . .
"Werner!" Gretina whispered. "Do it now!"
The pain caught his breath. He needed to sit.
She grabbed his arm and pulled it to her. "Now, Werner. There is no time to delay."
"No. Stand up!"
"But where? I can't walk out with it, Gretina. I need to sit down. Ooh . . ."
As he turned his head away, she lifted up her skirt, and between her legs, suspended by pink canvas straps, hung her knitting bag. And he had never suspected.
"I've practiced, you big noodle. Now get on with it. You can get a sign later to put in the case. Ach, but you are useless. Werner!"
Gretina grabbed his hands and planted them in two vest pockets.
There was no arguing with her.
In three minutes, she was walking, casual as a stroll in the park, through the terrifying hall with the master and his dog; walking as normally as if she'd just delivered Werner's blood pressure pills that she'd forgotten to put into his lunch, and delayed him a bit for some inane wifely chat --just what she'd told Werner to say if Olag or someone asked.
The glass case was missing an occupant, but Werner could easily get an "exhibit closed" sign from another display in some out-of-the-way room tonight, and it would be an unnoticed skitter of a detour to pop it in place, all done probably in the next hour or so, and no one the wiser.
By the time the door closed downstairs, he was smiling at the ingenuity of his little Greti . . . and her wilful allure.
It was in the Butterfly Hall five minutes later that he realised: Gretina had left with the tools. Without them, it is impossible for me to put a sign in that case tonight.
A drizzle fell on Werner's bare head as he shuffled home. In his breast pocket, his little companion kicked mechanical feet. Stamp STAMP Stamp STAMP. . . .
It was in front of the parliament building that Werner suddenly grabbed his chest and collapsed. The streetlight tinged his face a pallid green, but it was, in actuality, the grey from a blood-starved heart.
In the steady rain now, not even a cat to be heard. A taxi approached, slowed, then sped away, the driver having learnt to his disgust not to take pity on drunks.
Stamp STAMP Stamp STAMP from the little mechanical being.
Whuh Whuh . . . Whu . . . Wh . . . from Werner's heart.
STAMP STAMP, STAMP STAMP! Harder, harder the little creature pounded. But Werner lay still, glistening in the wet.
STAMP STAMP. There was a frantic tone now, and even the impassive air picked it up and spread the urgency.
The stone eagle on the dome craned its neck to look . . . then peered. It flexed its toes, opened giant wings, and soared off its globe, out over the rooftops of the great city, down to the small curled body on the pavement. Deftly hooking into Werner's coat with talons large as carcass hooks, the stone bird lifted the unconscious man into the sky. They flew over the quiet streets, a rattling whirr all the while coming from Werner's pocket in addition to the steady STAMP STAMP, STAMP STAMP that never ceased. The shrrr of rain obscured the halting reply of Werner's heart.
It was hardly more than three great wing flaps before down, down, the giant bird circled into the thicket of buildings. And there, waiting at the entrance, were the stone man and woman. She, having stepped out onto the pavement, was holding out her open, uplifted arms. Both people were the gleaming grey of the eagle: he, naked and magnificent, and she, half-robed and just as handsome, her smiling upturned face washed by the rain. The eagle loosed the feather-of-a-man into the arms of the woman, and with one sure wing-flap, the giant bird was high above the city once again, where it looped the sky till it was lost in the murk of night.
The stone woman shifted the man in her care to be cradled entirely by her left arm. Tender as with a baby, she used her robe edge to wipe his face and soak up the moisture from his uniform. Her face was calm, but there was a wrinkle between her brows as she worked. Then she nodded to the man beside her.
The stone man and woman had to duck to enter the doors to the building. He went first, his steps ringing on the stairs. She followed with Werner in her arms.
Knock, knock, he tapped on the door to 3C.
Gretina, inside, was on the bed, talking to the bird trapped in its stone, laid on the duvet.
The steps she'd just heard: terrifyingly loud. Officious. How many men? The knock! With a truncheon? Certainly not knuckles.
Oh mein Gott! She looked at her watch. He's late! They've got him! Quick!
She jumped off the bed, picked up the fossil slab with one hand and the mattress with the other, and shoved the stone underneath to hide between the mattress and the metal mesh of the bedframe, all in one fluid motion like wrenching the polishing machine away from her toes.
A smoothing hand to the duvet and her dress, and she was ready to face the door, imperturbable as she'd been with those teasing guards. My Werner? A bit late, but nothing out of the ordinary. A theft? Oh, how terrible. Would you like a strudel?
Knock knock knock! The door shook from the insistence. Gretina's hand shook, but her mouth betrayed nothing as she unlocked and--
The stone woman in the Greek robes rushed in carrying Werner, followed by the stone man. They both stood, uncertain, in the living room, turning this way and that.
"In here!" Gretina yelled, seeing only Werner, limp in the giant's arms. Gretina rushed into the bedroom and pounded the bed.
The stone woman laid him on the duvet and stood beside the bed, looking down at the fragile, still man. The stone man watched from the foot of the bed.
"What have I done? What?!" Gretina hit her head with her fists, then ran to the kitchen. Opened a drawer. Pills? Which ones? No. I wouldn't know. What?
She ran back to the bedroom, threw herself on the bed and kissed Werner all over his face. "Wake. Wake, my darling."
A crumbling sound underneath, like that of gravel scrunched, was muffled by her sobs.
The woman and man watched, sombre.
Gretina stroked Werner's head, rolled up his eyelids to look into his eyes, but he didn't look back.
She felt his wrist, so faint the beat; and then his heart. Heart! The little mechanical creature. She felt its feet pounding against Werner's heart. Heard how strong it stamped. And then, suddenly she heard another sound. A muffled cacophony that grew louder as she listened. She heaved herself off the bed and threw herself into the main room, where the cabinet, that solid, heavy oak, shuddered as if in an earthquake.
She flung open the doors, pulled open the drawers, grabbed up her skirts, and piled all the inhabitants into the makeshift carryall.
They whirred, clicked, chirred and rattled till she dumped the whole teeming mass of them on the bed. Each crawled in its own way to Werner and took up its own position, and did whatever it chose to do. Within a minute, he was covered with an industrious army of little moving objects. Within five minutes, he opened his eyes . . . and smiled. First at his beautiful Gretina, and then, with a weakly bent head, around the room. He lifted his hands to touch each little machine lightly, but they were busy, and he didn't interrupt.
The stone woman leant over and kissed his warming forehead. The stone man grasped his hand in a gentle grip, weakly returned. And then, ducking through the doorways, they let themselves out of the apartment and made their way as quietly as they could back to their positions at the entrance.
"Werner," Gretina began. "My starlight. You are all I need. I am so sor--"
The little creatures worked on, ignoring inconsequentials.
Werner was so tired. Still, he needed to remember to someday talk to Gretina about this . . . this miracle. She only ever had thoughts for one thing at a time, and now that one thing was her Werner. She accepted the miracle, while his mind kept telling him of its logical unreality. Werner's thoughts whirled round and round until they were lost in sleep.
Dawn threw its grey light into the room where Werner slept, still in his guard's clothes, Gretina still in her dress beside him. As the mechanical creatures quietened, a faint cheep could be heard, then a sort of indignant squawk. Then a kind of rattling flap. Then a scruffly crunch, and a scratch-plop-scratch. But Gretina and Werner slept so soundly they heard nothing.
Sometime around Christmas, a visiting professor asked to examine a particular piece, a fossil of a bird from China. But it was on display. Wasn't it? It must have been loaned, but to which institution? There must have been an oversight in documentation somewhere. No one could remember what had happened to it. Very embarrassing.
The curator insisted that the documentation was perfect, and the object must have been stolen.
The guards swore that nothing irregular had ever occurred under their noses. The police had their own theories about absent-minded professorial staff in the museum, but launched an investigation since they could not do otherwise. In their job of uncovering nothing, they made a routine visit to the retired guard nicknamed "Klokwerk," because the director said this boring but persnickety man could maybe be of some help.
But the human automaton was clearly broken. "So long ago it feels," he said. "I just guarded the exhibits. Never looked in the cases. Excuse me. Gretina, did I take my pills?"
The two inspectors drained their coffee cups, made polite thank-yous and left, relieved to escape the sad apartment where that lonely couple were "living" out their years. He, torn from the excitement of a working life, now stuck at home fiddling with mechanical junk strewn all over the dining table, while his ugly wife knitted, some weird bird perched on her shoulder, trilling and cackling, and clothed -- the inspectors laughed at this diversion, as they yearned for a real case -- in a cloak, like a monk with only its beak sticking out. A cloak of fine wool, patterned with stars.
Klokwerk illustration © 2002 Karl Huber
Copyright © 2002 Anna Tambour
Anna Tambour is a former industrial designer, now full-time writer, with a particular passion for observing other animals' natural behavior, a practice that has led her to the inevitable burning question: Are humans intelligent? She currently lives in the Australian bush with a large family of other species, including one man. Her fiction has appeared in Infinity Plus, Quantum Muse, and HMS Beagle. Her first omnibus collection, Monterra's Deliciosa & Other Tales, is ready to kill trees for your pleasure.
Karl Huber, originally from Ohio, now lives in California by way of New Mexico, where he occupied himself with a variety of jobs. He received an MFA in illustration from Art Center College of Design in 2000. He has had a life-long interest in (reading) science fiction and paleontology and does illustration/painting in both genres.