Herr Nachnamen grabbed the oil cloth off of his messy worktable and wiped down the gleaming bronze side of the beast. 253 clocks ticked in perfect unison as he worked, finely tuned by his dexterous fingers.
He rose in the dark and wound each of the clocks as the first flickers of light hit the morning sky. He always finished winding the last clock before his wife awoke. He’d then return to the house from his workshop and start the fire in the kitchen. He would pull the bircher out of the ice box and add the dried apples and nuts, and then set the bowl on a little tray and carry it into Else to eat in bed. He hoped that it was not his imagination that her color was beginning to come back. His wife had not been well; she had begun to cough that summer, after their old dog Madchen had passed.
The commission for the beast had been a godsend. One morning in September, he had been woken by a rapping at his door. He glanced over at Else, who was still snoring softly next to him, and climbed carefully out of the bed, avoiding the floorboards with squeaks to let her sleep in. He threw on his robe and padded out to the door. He looked through the small window in his door and saw a handsome young man that he didn’t recognize looking impatiently at a fob watch. He did recognize the watch though, it was one of his own, the cover made from wood of the Black Forest, an odd choice for a man who clearly came from wealth. He was wearing a brilliant gold, black and red plaid waistcoat that nipped into his trim figure, a tall top hat befitting the fashion of the time, and gripping a long black cane with an ivory head carved in the shape of a wolf.
Nachnamen opened the door a crack, leaving the chain on and peered through the crack. The young man looked up and smiled.
“Herr Nachnamen,” he said, tipping his hat. “I’m so sorry to disturb you this early morning, but I come on urgent business.” Herr Nachnamen eyed him, and then unhooked the chain, stepping out into the chill morning.
“My wife is unwell. I would prefer not to wake her,” he said. “We may speak in my workshop, if you do not object.”
The stranger nodded his head in ascent, and Nachnamen led the way into his studio. He wished that he had taken the time to tidy up the night before, as in the light of day, the workshop was clearly in disarray, with gears and cogs appearing haphazardly throughout the room. Upon entering, the stranger immediately moved towards Nachnamen’s masterpiece, a little clockwork bear, exactly three inches tall, that could balance a ball on its nose while riding a unicycle. The bear was dressed in a delicately sewed harlequin costume that Else had painstakingly stitched together before she had fallen ill.
“Would you like me to wind it for you?” Nachnamen asked the man. He nodded, and Nachnamen pulled his keychain out of his desk drawer, selected the tiny key that wound the bear and fitted it into the hole on the bear’s thigh, and turned it three times.
The bear sprang to life, and Nachnamen set it on the floor of the shop. He and the stranger stepped back, allowing the bear room to pedal about. After the bear was steady, Nachnamen reached out and set the ball on its nose. For a second it teetered, but the bear adjusted, and the ball held, spinning on the bear’s nose.
The stranger pulled off his leather gloves and applauded Nachnamen unabashedly.
“Herr Nachnamen, this is truly a wonder. I had heard tales of your ability, and in truth I am quite fond of my watch which I believe to be your creation, but this is beyond what I could have hoped for. You are the man I have been seeking.” Nachnamen flushed. The stranger continued. “I am hoping to set you a commission, for which I will pay you 500 thaler; half now, and half when you have completed the task.” Nachnamen gasped. That money would allow him to keep Else comfortable for years. The man unscrewed the head of his cane, pulled out a rolled piece of parchment, and proceeded to unfurl it over Nachnamen’s worktable. Nachnamen looked at it, then pulled off his glasses, wiping them on his shirt.
“Is it possible?” asked the stranger, and he seemed to hold his breath.
Nachnamen was silent for a moment. The drawing was of a great clockwork wolf-like beast, a beast that, he could see from the intricate drawings, was meant to be able to run and attack. A beast with metal teeth and snapping jaws.
“How can I promise such a thing, knowing that it is meant for destruction?” Nachnamen asked.
The stranger smiled, his teeth straighter than any Nachnamen had ever seen. “I have heard that you and I may have the same sympathies. I am not a man of action; I am a man of means. And I wish to procure this for men of action.” He held up his cane and Nachnamen observed that on the end, so faint that he could have imagined it, was a five pointed star. Nachnamen looked again at the drawings laid on the table. “Do we understand each other?” the stranger asked. Nachnamen nodded.
“It can be done,” he said finally. The stranger dropped a bag of thaler on top of the parchment. “I will be back in three months time,” he said, and then left without ever giving his name.
Nachnamen had begun to work immediately, pulling various cogs and wheels loose from other projects and dumping them in a bowl. That day he worked until the small hours of the morning, only pausing to feed his wife and wrap her in another layer of blankets. The next day, he wound his clocks, and went off to fetch a doctor with his new fortune. In town, he purchased two thick wool blankets, and a pair of well knit socks, before stopping in to call on Dr. Becker. The elderly doctor came out to Nachnamen’s home and saw to his wife, leaving behind medicine and hope. As soon as his wife was settled, Nachnamen returned to his workshop and began to work again.
His life quickly became focused on three things: winding his clocks in the morning; caring for Else; and creating a piece of machinery beyond anything he had ever imagined. The beast was tricky. He had to scrap the original drawing when he found that the mechanics wouldn’t work. Instead, he built the machinery for each minute detail of the creature; one to control each paw, one to control each leg, a gear for the jaw and a gear for the head. And out of sheer whimsy, he added a tail; a tail that twitched and waved as the beast ran.
For run the beast did. The first time Nachnamen set it free in the woods behind his home, he nearly wept with pride at the pure beauty of it. The size of a large wolf, it could run at a full tilt, and the springs were so delicate that it seemed able to sense obstacles and leap out of their way. Its bronze and gold parts gleamed in the winter sun. When wound, it could run as long as a clock, or longer, over twelve hours. And, per the stranger’s specifications, it could attack, rearing up on its hind legs and snapping with its hard silver pointed teeth that had been filed as sharp as knives.
The job was done three days before the stranger was set to return. Else, who had been recovering slowly, had begun to grow curious about his work. At the end of the project, she began asking him every day if she could see what had so consumed his time. She was still frail, but Nachnamen thought that perhaps he might be able to show her, he was too proud of his work not to ask her to share in his delight.
On the day before the stranger was to arrive, he set a chair behind their house, wrapped Else in a set of blankets, and carried her outdoors. She had rarely seen the sun since the beginning of her convalescence and it took time before she could adjust. She nestled into her blankets and held out her hand. Nachnamen took it into his own.
“Was it always this beautiful here?” she asked, looking at the sunlight streaming through the edge of the woods. Nachnamen smiled down at her.
“It is more beautiful with you here,” he said, and then blushed, but Else simply smiled up at him.
Nachnamen went into his workshop and pulled out the set of three keys that were needed to wind the beast. The beast itself was laying on the floor, much like a dog in slumber. Nachnamen set to work, and soon the beast was ready. He opened the door, and it flew out into the garden, and he heard Else give a yelp of delight as it careened around the grass. He came out and stood behind her, his arms crossed as they both watched the creature run away from them.
“Will it come back?” Else asked, reaching up for Nachnamen’s hand again.
“It will,” he said. She sighed happily.
The creature turned and raced back towards them. Nachnamen watched it approach, and as it gained speed, it occurred to him that the creature might not differentiate an enemy from a friend. Perhaps he should not have brought Else out here. The beast did not slow. Nachnamen gasped and reached towards Else to pull her out of harm’s way, when suddenly the beast drew up short, skidding to a stop in front of Else. Nachnamen let out a breath of relief. The beast cocked its head to one side, and then, just like their dog Madchen had once done, laid its great head on Else’s lap. Else squealed in delight, and petted it on the head, and the creature wagged its tail. Nachnamen stared at it in disbelief; the creature had never been designed to act in such a manner. He could not account for it.
“He’s wonderful,” Else breathed, and Nachnamen thought he had not seen his wife look so well for a very long time. He looked at the beast, and the great bronze creature nearly seemed to smile in response. The beast slept on the foot of their bed that night, and Nachnamen was almost certain that he could hear it snoring.
The next morning, when the stranger arrived, Else sat in their room and quietly wept as Nachnamen made the exchange. The stranger left him with another bag of money, but somehow he could not bring himself to touch it. And the next morning, for the first time in years, he could not bring himself to rise and wind his clocks. Instead, when dawn broke, he pulled Else to him and held her tightly, matching his breath to hers.
The stranger returned two weeks later, arriving as unceremoniously as he had the first time. However, he brought the creature with him. When Nachnamen answered the door, he noticed that the man looked a bit disheveled, and seemed in an ill temper.
“Your machine does not work Herr Nachnamen.” The stranger said, when Nachnamen allowed him to enter. He noted the bag of money still sitting on the table where he had left it. “I see you might have anticipated that.”
Nachnamen shrugged. “A machine’s disposition is of its own making. I can only do so much,” he said humbly. The stranger grunted.
“The thing wants to play fetch,” he said distastefully. “I had hoped that it might inspire fear, but instead, my men have begun to call him Rolf, and scratch him behind the ears.”
Else appeared in the bedroom doorway and caught her breath when she saw who had come. The creature immediately moved and went to sit at her feet. Else placed her delicate hand on its huge head. The stranger marked the movement.
“I see where we stand then,” he said. “I will have to ask for the second payment back.” Nachnamen nodded, too overjoyed to speak. He exchanged a glance with Else who gestured for him to return the stranger’s money. The stranger grabbed the bag of thaler and left, and they saw him no more.
A year later, Nachnamen received a letter from his brother in Berlin that said the revolution had been lost. He folded the letter back up and placed it in his pocket, and turned instead to watch Else, who was chasing Rolf happily through the garden.