Even if you do not want to acknowledge the truth of the following – to which you are by all means entitled – I would still appreciate if you could give me your attention at least briefly. Because you must know that – despite all doubts that each man with a healthy understanding could state in the face of these events – I happened to see all this with my own eyes. And not only did I see it, but also my hands took part. And the eyes might succumb to a deceitful appearance, fed by the fleetingness of light refracted at the retina, if you can believe what this Scheiner guy from Innsbruck has written. But the direct contact with one’s own hands verifies the existence of things deemed uncertain. If a thing can be felt in its entire existence, the denial of this thing, and therefore these events, becomes impossible.
That is why I do not have the slightest reasons to doubt the validity of my memories: I am not in the unfortunate mental state of being unable to trust my own perceptions, so why should I question the reality of what I saw that night? Believe me, I often thought about it. But there is only one correct conclusion: no imagination – even those of a demented person – could be powerful enough to spawn this enormous amount of smallest details, which I can remember clearly and which are forever carved into my memory.
But let me begin from the start. And please excuse if these sentences may sound unfamiliar to your ear. You must know that I only came to rest in your country some years ago and not always did I have these intellectual resources found here at my disposal. I only had a rudimentary knowledge of your language before, and this limited itself usually to occasional business contacts, which I maintained in the exercise of my profession. But I hope these words speak clear enough to you.
Dresden in the year before the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War, fourteen years before the war advanced to Saxony and brought down all the things men had built to last, leaving only barren lands. The days were cold and grey, outdone only by the icy nights, whose blackness even the light of the full moon could hardly penetrate. Bad days for men like me, icy cold weather made the hands tremble in uncontrollable ways and gloves obstructed me greatly, further dilating our work. And each delay was dangerous, could cost us the crucial seconds and earn us an unpleasant prison stay or worse instead of the swag we hoped for. And this happened ever more frequently, men like me were welcome scapegoats, our dark glory soon plastered with the dirt of men pushed to the edge. So our lives were even more dangerous in these gloomy winter days. And also our revenue diminished rapidly, it was no rarity that after a great deal of work and careful planning we could only carry away useless scraps of copper from the baronial mint. Harsh times indeed, if you were grabbed by the scruff of your neck, inevitably your head would follow.
I had spent nearly the entire first week of February out all night, gambling and boozing in the back rooms, until even the most reprobate tavern wouldn’t let me put anymore on the slate. The last job went off without a hitch six weeks ago, and since then I had almost spent my entire share of it. So looking out for new options became necessary, and this is what I did on this crucial day, but all my usual connections bore only fruitless results. So in the pale moonlight – which threw a dark grid on the staircase walls – I ascended the stairs of the house I lived in. The door to my small attic room was shrouded in darkness, but in the flare coming in through a small window I could glance at a gloved hand resting on the handrail. Someone stood there. Waiting.
“Mr. Dietrich, I presume?” a voice unknown to me pierced through the darkness, accompanied by muted ticking sounds emanating from a pocket-watch, at least that is what I thought at that time. An unusual occurrence, men who could afford such luxury goods were hardly seen roaming this quarter of the city. “They say you are endued with special skills.” A face moved into my field of vision: grey skin, sharp-edged facial features, eyes filled with sparkling knowledge.
Before the skill of my hands and fingers left me I was a keymaker. At least that was the name under which my trade was known. It may appear strange to you, but in these early days of an awakening age of change people tarred with the same brush formed a close-knit community. And we followed the rules: attract no attention, don’t tell on anyone of us, do your best evading the authorities. Adhering to this codex allowed us a decent living. And there was always the chance of striking it really big.
I was not one of those who relied solely on their brawn – people like these were always around – my expertise was not of this kind. Each door that was locked to us had to be opened first. If one was able to bring the correct leverage to bear on the right point, then no lock was safe, releasing the treasures behind into our custody. If it was necessary for this to take place quietly and secretly in the black of night, then my services were very high in demand. You could say I was a master of this craft. Armed only with a small piece of raw metal, my toolbox of various files and a fine needle I was able to probe the inner movements of even the best built locks, adapting my set of skeleton keys on the fly. I was practicing this since childhood, and during my residence in Dresden I had perfected this art of intrusion.
No lock, no door, no closet could withstand me for a long time. In minutes, sometimes even seconds, I could open paths that were beyond the grasp of other men. Looking back, these years seem like a blur of metallic clicks – the rapid succession of opening locks – the intervals between passed on the tides of a riotous life. Oh, I was one of the big men in this city, and I didn’t care that only the underworld was awestruck by my name. I was a king of beggars and I would not have traded it in for any other life.
So I found myself in a carriage gaining momentum, the nocturnal lights of the Church of the Holy Cross vanishing behind us. He sat next to me, quiet and motionless. The illuminated windows of the houses we passed formed the checkerboard on which we moved swiftly from square to square, passing unlighted crossings on our way. In these moments, when I could not see him, he must have been blinking, for I cannot remember that he ever lowered his eyelids during this ride.
“Mr. Dietrich, the keymaker. At least that is what you are called on the streets. I presume not without cause.” His eyes glared straight forward. “And likewise I presume you are a trustworthy man.” An enquiring undertone manifested in his voice, the words accentuated almost to measured, as if he followed a strict timing. “You have to know that this difficult matter is an affair of the heart.”
“If you need someone to spy on your little Fräulein, I am not the one you’re looking for,” I answered. “But I can hook you up with people more capable of this job.” I could have sworn that his mouth seemed to show a hint of a smile. “No, no, your services are exactly the ones I need. To be more precise,” his eyes now gazing sharply at me, “I need you to manufacture a duplicate key. For reasons to elaborate to be mentioned I do not have access to the original copy.” He leaned forward to me, a scent that reminded me of lamp oil. “And if I can trust the things people say on the street, Mr. Dietrich, you are one of the few able to craft such a key without a master copy. A rare gift, I might add. A gift I am fully intended to reward adequately.”
“Well, all I need is my toolbox and unhindered access to the specified lock.” How could I have guessed the things still awaiting me this night? After all, nothing he said sounded particularly unusual; not under these circumstances. And surely I had met even stranger men before. What he asked from me sounded like one of those conniving schemes I knew only too well, cheating and deceiving for the sake of one’s own advantage. But nothing could have prepared me for the things I was to witness. Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw that night, and nothing could have prepared me for what I saw just days ago.
Forty years after these events I saw him again. He looked as if he hadn’t aged a second, still going. And my memories awoke, as clear as if it was just minutes ago. This peculiar February night in 1617, when my client led me to his house; an old mansion with high ceilings, dark as the night skies. He disbanded his driver and we advanced to a small windowless room deep in the guts of this building. A meagre furnished chamber, dominated by a large oaken table. Wooden cabinets seamed the walls, illuminated by flickering oil lamps.
There we stood, the deafening silence in this room only protruded by a seldom heard ticking – like that of a pocket watch – that, as I now noticed, had accompanied us the entire time, but seemed to have gotten slower as time elapsed. A sound quiet and constant like drizzling rain, but so distant I could not identify the source of it. “Please forgive me for not explaining the situation more clearly, but you must understand that words often prod the borders of understanding, and only a small amount of time remains,” he said as he lied on the table, moving in a strange angular axis, fingers already unbuttoning his shirt. “So start your work.” With these words he exposed his chest, laid bare for me in the flickering light to see.
And there – where the heart is located – I saw a plate made of matted copper, embedded smoothly into his body, the transitions between it and the grey flesh almost invisible. Decorated with geometrical ornaments a finely crafted lock was placed there, as I noticed, getting nearer to this grotesque synthesis of flesh and metal. Behind the keyhole I was able to perceive a small cog the size of a penny, shining almost gold-like, which continued to turn in time with the ticking noises, now clearly audible. Step by step, the cog turned clockwise.
So that night, when the holes in the grid of reality were shown to me, I crafted my masterpiece – the beat of a clockwork heart echoing through my mind.