Part 1 of 2
Through the high window, a shaft of sharp summer evening sun fell into the silent room, pierced the openings in the skull, and threw its light out the other side to paint on the white wall the stark silhouette, crouching as always, of the pterodactyl. Its wide-open amused eyes and its incongruous smile always disturbed Werner, but not as much as the Volkswagen-sized raptor's towering companion, the tyrannosaur. Together, their forms on the wall resembled nothing so much as some malevolent master walking his dog on a rainy night.
It was 7:15 p.m., one hour and fifteen minutes into Werner's first round. All visitors had been shooed out the doors hours ago. Werner averted his eyes from master and dog, and scuttled on his soft-soled shoes through the faintest miasma of dust, out the doorway on the far side, to the small low-ceilinged room beyond. His breath came out in a small exhalation, but his shoulders were still curved in tension like the back of a wooden chair.
Holding his breath again without noticing the lack of oxygen, he stopped and wiped his hands on his uniform, startling himself as a thumb caught in his key bouquet, bringing a small but harsh jangle into the silence. He didn't look at his watch.
"Klokwerk," the other guards called him. Always exactly on time in his rounds, meticulous in every bit of his reporting. In twenty years at the museum, there had rarely been anything to report. The after-hours visitors had only ever been the odd wayward pigeons and occasional mouse and rat plagues in the kitchen. Both the flying and the scurrying invasions were always quickly ended by poisoning. As for rats gnawing the many life-like stuffed specimens, the reek of naphtha was so strong on several floors that many guards who thought of trying for this easy museum stint discarded the idea after a brief reconnaissance.
Across the box-hedged public square: the great art museum, the building of thrills. Only two years ago two alert public servants had wrangled down a lithely photogenic female would-be heister, and all the young ambitious guards now roamed those halls, all dreaming of the opportunity to catch their own thief, literally hanging from the skylight.
Here in the natural-history museum, though, no crowds of tourists ever mobbed the entrance. No plans were made to steal the ancient armadillo the size of a pony, the stuffed walrus watching the little boar so benignly for, what, a hundred years? The butterflies that gazed back at you from their wings, even the marvellous crystals in the Mineral Hall. None of them was worth what a square of canvas with paint could bring. Thus only the dregs of unambitious night guards ever took up posts in this haven of perpetual boredom. The halls reverberated with children's voices every weekend, but after the doors were closed for the night, only the barest skeleton of night-shift staff roamed the huge shadowy building, and only in the most meticulously unimaginative, patterned, and clockwork way.
Werner unbuttoned his guard jacket, then his blue regulation shirt. He spread the shirt open in a neat V down to his waist. Underneath, he wore an old but neatly patched vest, covered with a patchwork of idiosyncratic pockets, each closed with its own just-as-individual fastening.
He'd found the vest years ago in one of those shops that sells knives with deer-horn handles, rabbit's-foot picnic forks, skinning blades of lead-hued steel, whistles cast in the shapes of hounds. The shop was on his way to work, and as he walked the same route every day, by the second day that he noticed the vest in the window, he was burning with desire. He had no interest in the other things, or even in learning what the vest was for, but he knew it was right for him. It was the night when shops stayed open late, so he pushed open the bell-jangling door and bought the thing as soon as it was in his hands, without blinking at the price.
Since then, there had rarely been a day he had not worn it. Of course, this was the first time he had worn the vest somewhere other than at the big round table at home. The table where they companionably ate their meals, especially the feast Gretina made for their nightly 4 a.m. dinner. Never a can opened or a delicatessen visited would be good enough for her Werner, according to Gretina. Luscious liver soup, home-made blood sausage, her incomparable hasenpfeffer (spicy enough that they sneezed), spaetzle that were heavy and chewy as a man likes, cherry dumplings to make them both imagine a countryside that they had only ever visited in their imaginations. Everything was worth licking the plate, and Gretina made sure that they both did. "It makes you wild, Werner," she giggled, as he was always the most gentle, mild-mannered man.
After their dinner, when he had washed and wiped the dishes, and she had swept up any errant crumbs and removed the snowy tablecloth to replace it with green baize, they both took their projects to the table for their after-dinner day-dawning enjoyment, the final preparation being Werner taking his vest out of its drawer in the heavy wooden many-drawered cabinet and, with a muffled clank, putting it on.
Once Werner tried to calculate how many kilometres of wool Gretina had knitted, but lost count at her twelfth enthusiastic project. Not that he cared, for her clicking needles were the sound of home to him, and the look of satisfaction as she finished each piece was like the taste of her cherry dumplings to his soul.
And the projects? Too many to remember. Knitted scarves for Africans (did it get cold there? he wondered), hats for children who had undergone radiation therapy, blankets for refugees; now she was in the middle of a long project with lots and lots of little things that looked like teapot cosies, but were jackets for penguins recovering from oil spill injury.
As her needles clicked, she watched Werner, seated across the grass-green circle from her. He worked with his tiny tools, dozens of them, to make incomprehensible objects. All small, smaller than her hand; all like nothing she had ever seen. They whirred, they pulsed, they pumped when he stuck tiny tubes in them. They crawled along the table till they fell into her lap as laughter filled the room. Silvery from Gretina, a lark's warble with delicate beauty to the trill, a sharp contrast to her plain dumpy features. A shy, quiet laugh from Werner, his thin face with its pockmarks suffused by the joy that love gives.
No two machines that Werner made looked alike. Try as he would, he could never convince Gretina that they were all, in fact, variations on a theme -- machines of life.
Werner, on the other hand, had no trouble recognising a theme -- well, two, really -- in Gretina's projects: compassion for someone somewhere, and stars.
In everything she knitted, she placed stars somewhere in the pattern -- in the design of the stitches or with contrasting colour, she made sure that there was at least one star in every item she made.
Why stars, he asked her once.
Her lips pursed in concentration. "I don't remember exactly to explain. A story from my mother. Stars shine upon you whether you see them or not. . . . Something like that." She smiled a bit sheepishly. "And a penguin wearing a star seems happier."
The reason didn't make any sense to Werner, but the happiness did.
As to the compassion, they were both sad not to have had children. Gretina was allergic to cat and dog fur, and caged birds made them both shudder. So her excess love had to go somewhere. And it went into her busy needles knitting, knitting, while she watched her husband with awe as he cut steel with his precision drill with a smooth sound like slicing cheese, and a curl coming off crisp and pure as the peel of an apple.
When he had finished a new machine and assembled it, the table was cleared of all encumbrances so it could move at will, dancing for her delight -- and for his in watching her. He loved to put a whole population of machines on the table at once, and make them all act in their selfish ways, bumping blindly into one another, or singly enjoying themselves in what looked like a dance to an internal tune. Gretina laughed and clapped her hands softly, the knitting lying forgotten in her lap.
At 9:45 a.m. precisely, she put away her wool. Werner carefully cleaned up his work area on the table and floor, and picked up and put away his tools, along with the latest mechanical creature in the making.
At 10 a.m. precisely, the kettle sang, and they together made, ate, and cleaned up their supper.
They never spoke much. For them, companionship needed no chatter.
At 11 a.m., the small old-fashioned apartment was dark, with heavy curtains pulled to keep out the light coming through the deep, double-glazed windows. The only sounds inside were those of two quiet people giving and getting enormous joy.
Werner felt fresh, as he always did at this hour, early in his night's work. But at no other time except the first time he had coffee with Gretina five years ago had he been so nervous.
A burp almost escaped, but he swallowed it, even though he was alone. He tasted cinnamon, apples, and bile.
He glanced at the light falling from the high window, and reached into his vest. Out of four pockets, he drew the makings for a tool and attachment, which he assembled in a moment. He was in a corner away from either doorway. He bent his knees to crouch beside the hundred-year-old waist-high cabinet. In another moment, he had scuttled underneath it.
With his tiny drill, he made one small entry hole; then a larger hole with a ream bit. He fished into another pocket and pulled out a flexible grabber with a lit viewing panel attached. With the skill of a surgeon, he manipulated his instruments, extracted an object from the case, placed it in a vest pocket with a bone button closure, then pulled out a tiny vacuum that whirred like a bumblebee for a few seconds. Then he poked, pulled, and prodded through the hole till he was satisfied -- and finally sealed the hole with a pre-made plug that he pulled from yet another pocket.
Tools all pocketed, he crawled out from underneath the cabinet, stood and carefully rearranged his clothes to their customary neatness, smoothed his thin hair with both hands, and left the room a trifle faster than his normal pace.
By the time his 10 p.m. lunch break came around, Werner's outer composure had been restored with such completeness that he looked like he was asking his fellow guards to tease him for being the most boring and even-tempered person in the whole of the city. "Tick, tock," Olag mumbled through a mouth full of sausage, as Werner, to the dot of the minute, entered the small guards' room. Werner would have to put up with this rostered companion for the entire break, as he needed to get off his feet, but Olag was no worse than the others.
Werner smiled, never outwardly riled. He had always been ridiculed; in school, his pimples had kept him from wanting to attend even the polytechnic. Too much to do with people.
Being a night guard suited him. And Gretina was more than any man could wish for, especially such as him. So Werner didn't react as Olag continued to make jokes at his expense. Werner neatly unfolded his lunch, and ate it just as neatly. He followed it with his customary two pills and a glass of water. His face was calm, but his normal thoughts at this time, of new machines constructed first in his head, were totally disrupted.
Instead, his stomach tumbled over itself. His mouth filled with saliva, then dried out. The tips of his ears (if Olag had been observing, he would have treasured the picture) glowed red, then white, as Werner's emotions threw his blood around his body as a cat throws a mouse around a room.
He was feeling the most delirious thrill of joy, mixed with an agony of anticipation, and spiked with that most potent spice: fear.
The hours passed, and he left soundlessly in the meaningless noise of camaraderie as the guards changed shifts. Their steps faded away, a small car bleated, and then he was alone again, on the way home. He liked this walk, enjoying the quiet of monumental buildings all to himself, vast doorways, tall naked men and bare-breasted ladies gleaming whitely in the street lights as they stood with the weight of second stories or just pensive thoughts on their noble brows.
On the parliament building, a giant globe looked like another planet, half dark, half lit. It was guarded, or maybe just surrounded, by four giant eagles, with another eagle, even more majestic, perched on top. Werner often smiled unconsciously as he approached parliament house; he could admire the eagle without having to look down at the pavement, because he knew how many steps he needed to take before he reached the curb.
At more human height, Werner enjoyed the small surprises that the architecture of his own old neighbourhood presented: lizards carved around an entrance; a man on a horse, caged against pigeons, prancing forever atop a doorway at the corner of his own street; a bronze dog's-paw door handle for an old pet shop that he could never have the pleasure of entering.
At 2:30 a.m., he stood between the larger than life-size stone man and woman who gazed perpetually towards each other as they guarded the entrance to his apartment house. As he always had, for a fleeting second he stopped and admired, with a look one way and then the other, the calm dignity of the man and the woman before he needed his whole body to push open the heavy glass and oak door.
Up he walked, three flights on the worn marble steps, to apartment 3C, where the door was already open, a discreetly welcoming glow shining out, blocked only by -- to Werner's thinking -- the most beautiful woman in the world.
Gretina took his old green boiled-wool coat and hung it on the coat rack, then returned to her husband, still standing in the doorway, for their accustomed long homecoming embrace.
Then she led him by the hand to the table, where she sat him down as usual to take off his shoes and socks, and then the rest of his clothes, preparatory to leading him to his bath. Later, relaxed and clean, he would come back in his home clothes to sit at the table, where Gretina would serve them both their 4 a.m. dinner.
But he pulled out from her grasp and skittered away to stand in the middle of the room under the softly lit hanging lamp. And he giggled!
He held up his hand, first putting a finger to his lips for silence, then an open palm for "stay where you are." But Gretina was rooted to her spot, totally dumbfounded.
Werner turned his back for a few seconds, then turned around and motioned Gretina forward. It was her birthday today. Had been for four hours already, and every year Werner gave her lilac soap, or violet perfume, or rose talcum, or lily of the valley cologne, or a box of lace handkerchiefs. Always at the table, after dinner. So his behaviour now? She couldn't guess but thought it must be something that some saleslady said was especially nice. Werner's gifts were those of a man who had been a bachelor for a long time, a saleslady's dream.
Gretina smiled with both exasperation at his helplessness and lack of imagination in present-giving, and love for her excited husband who must have believed every word of the saleswoman's spiel as to the wonderfulness of this year's bar of soap or box of embroidered hankies.
"Close your eyes," he commanded softly.
She closed her eyes. Oh, he was a child at heart.
"Put out your hands."
She put out her hands.
He put something in one, and then put her other hand on top.
"Open now!" he commanded in a squeak.
She took her covering hand away and there on her palm was -- what?
As big as her neatly filed thumbnail. Totally symmetrical. Thick as one of her homemade sugar cookies. And looking as if it had also been cut by a sharp tin form. Patterned with a tiny tiny sprinkle of pinprick holes. Grey as stone. Five-pointed. A perfect star.
Werner pushed the hair away from her left ear to whisper into it: "It's a starfish from the seas near us."
"But there aren't any seas near us."
"There were five hundred million years ago," he whispered again, and his eyes shone with hope, fear, anxiety. But she didn't see them, gazing as she was at this minute creature, so alive to her, even though it had last moved longer ago than she could fathom.
She turned it over with a fingertip, and there was its mouth. Perfectly preserved, just as the top carried its distinct markings, just like the pattern of pricks in the round loaf of rye at Burgstrom's Bakery. The texture of holes and bumps looked like living skin, though the colour was just dead stone.
Her eyes lifted to Werner's and then froze. "You took it. You did. I can see!" She only whispered, but they both looked to the front door in panic till Werner smiled and took her by the shoulders. He guided her and then pushed her gently into her chair by the big table, then sat at her feet. He held both of her hands in her lap.
"Gretina. I've worked there for twenty years, have I not?"
"Yes. That is so."
"And hasn't everyone always said how good my work is?"
"Yes, Werner, but--"
"And laughed at me for it?"
Gretina's lips flapped closed in a tight line, but her finger flutter gave the answer straight into Werner's hands.
"Hmm?" he asked, smiling wryly.
She smiled back, and pulled one of her hands away to stroke his head. "Yes, Werner, they made a bit of fun of you when I was there, and I suppose they still do."
"And you and the other ladies who cleaned never had to worry about me pinching your bottoms, did you, or leaving a mess in the guards' room like the others?"
"No, Werner darling. You've never done any of those things."
"And has the director praised my work?"
"No, Werner. Not that you've told me."
They didn't mention that the director also laughed at Werner's legendary perfection and dullness, calling him their "only exhibit that never needs to be cared for." In fact, they had both heard this joke; it was this that had made Gretina notice Werner in the first place, and decide that he did, indeed, need care.
"And so, Gretina, this is the thank-you I have never received. They didn't give me the thank-you, so I took it, and now I am giving you my thank-you. And they will never miss it because it is so small, and because in the case there are over fifty of them in a heap. Nothing looks disturbed, and now, instead of being hidden in the bottom of the heap, unnoticed and unloved, this star is now chosen, alone, for you, my star of the heavens."
This was more words than he had ever spoken. And so close together, without interruption.
He didn't know what else to do. He felt suddenly as still and silly as a lopsided footstool. His feet were tingling now, his kneecaps screaming sore as he remained stuck in position at Gretina's feet.
But Gretina couldn't speak at all. The star, she placed in the exact centre of the table.
Then, with hasty fingers, she pulled Werner upright, sat him in her warmed seat, and undressed first him, and then herself. Then she took them both off to bed, where they spoke to each other in a way that needed no words.
After an uncharacteristically messy bath (together), they sat down to a hardly tasted, horribly overcooked birthday dinner, in which even the cream-filled strudel slipped down their throats faster than bitter tonic, and the dishes flew through the suds and tea towel to be clattered onto the sideboard; sweep, sweep, and like two sloppy housekeepers, they tore off their kitchen aprons in glee, to finally meet at the table under the glow of its lamp.
Gretina reached for the star and then scooted her chair next to Werner. She put on her spectacles to see it closer. He listened as she remarked on every feature. "So perfect. So perfect."
She had never been anywhere but this beautiful but land-locked city. Water was a river. She had never seen the sea. She associated only with some knitting ladies from her work days, meeting occasionally to find a new goal for a project, and to deliver her work. She could never find a project for herself. Not me, she thought.
She could never imagine anything on her own. Just stars, her little trademark. She had always trusted Werner to have the imagination, and she had thrilled to his mechanical creatures, as he called them. As each little machine came to life under his fingers, she felt his excitement. Why did he make them? She had never wondered why. Just accepted. That was his wont. And when she had worked at the museum, she had accepted everything there, too, including the smell in the stuffed specimen halls. She had never looked at any of the exhibits. Her job every night had been to manage the angry beast of a floor polisher. Until the jokes about Werner made her look at him, she had never had eyes for anything in the museum except the polisher, as it took all her concentration for it not to bang against the walls and exhibition cases, let alone bite her toes with a propensity that seemed positively vicious.
"Look at its mouth. So small and alive-looking. Look at this pattern of holes." Her voice was a mumble of wonder, without asking for response. She didn't get her knitting, and he didn't make up the table to receive his tools. All of his mechanical creatures remained caged in their dark drawers, forgotten in the shared thrill over this once-living but now stone star, warmed by Gretina's palm.
"The first time in your life anyone's noticed you. Now you'll see, I'll take care of you," Gretina murmured, bent over the small object, her glasses slipping to the end of her nose.
Werner grinned to himself. He had thought she would think the little star pretty, and hoped it would be special. But her feeling for it was unexpected. It was, after all, stone dead, and had been beyond the limits of Gretina's imagination. Those machines he made to amuse her with their life suddenly lost their purpose if she so easily attached herself to a stone, just because it once crawled and tasted.
For a moment he felt panic. What if she would never enjoy his machines again because they never breathed? What would he do to amuse her, to make her feel the burst of life in their apartment inhabited by only them -- failures at making a family?
Gretina looked up at his face, inviting him to share this -- baby? She almost looked that way. But how, with this fingernail-sized bauble?
"You have tomorrow off?"
"Yes, my dear . . . but you know that." Werner's voice was a bit sharp; he was rattled by something almost feverish in her tone, and those twin spots of raspberry colour high on Gretina's normally sallow cheeks.
"Show me all of them!" Still hunched over the star, she twisted her neck to peer up at him, her glittering eyes split by the tops of her spectacle frames.
"What?" He pretended not to understand, but his back suddenly straightened against the chair's hard wood, and his chest hurt with the urgency of shock.
"The other starfish in the case. I want to look at them."
"Of course not. They'll recognise us." His feet found his chair's legs and curved themselves around the wood.
Her bisected eyes were disconcerting -- hugely dilated, and unwaveringly staring at him. "Werner. You must. No one will know us in our street clothes. And besides, you said yourself: no one will ever miss it."