The Thing Moves!
Young Pepin pulled back a dust cloth to reveal a glittering, mechanical Christ. Hidden behind a treadle sewing machine, a burnished diver’s helmet, and a soda cart with great, spindled wheels, there it was in the very back of a small closet. Pepin could tell it was a Christ from the way it matched the pictures he had seen in secret archived texts. Shining red stones were embedded in the palms of what looked like hands—silver joints fixing golden bolts into fingers. The Christ looked at Pepin with little glass eyes, and on its back was a small copper crank.
Quickly, he left the closet to tell his overseer, a man named Fred.
Fred loved explaining things. On Pepin’s first day assigned to work at The Palace Museum of Science and Industry, Fred walked him through the great halls of rocket ships and railroad tracks and microscopes and fax machines. He explained each one in great detail, in case Pepin had forgotten, or in case he never knew. He explained the rudimentary operating tables and dentist drills. He explained the screwdrivers and elliptical machines and laser pointers. When they came to the Hall of Blenders and Toasters, he also explained to Pepin how to properly tie his bowtie while working at The Palace Museum of Science and Industry.
“A little pinch here and here,” Fred offered.
Pepin nodded graciously, respectfully. He let Fred demonstrate. This was for his own good, Pepin knew. There were too many young men like him stuck in factory jobs, losing hands and feet to the hot maws of great machines, shoveling muck until their eyes changed color. Too many young men carted away by the government for things out of their control—walking down the wrong street, laughing out of turn, whistling. This job was a good opportunity for someone like Pepin—young, with no family and only a public education. He didn’t want to mess it up.
When in the Hall of Flippers and Rollerblades, Fred also explained how it might behoove Pepin to comb his hair a little more neatly, slicked down and to the side. Pepin listened, appreciatively.
“In times like these,” Fred whispered, “guys like us have to stick together.”
“Thank you,” said Pepin, and, “Yes.” Though he didn’t know exactly what Fred meant by that. He hoped it was something good.
Every day since then, Pepin combed his hair neatly and pinched his bowtie there and there before his brisk walk down the gray street to work, for exactly fourteen hours of surveying archived material at The Palace Museum of Science and Industry and incinerating any and all artifacts the government deemed unsuitable. He had a list to cross-reference. Anything too indulgent, too hopeful, or too demagogic was forbidden.
When Pepin told Fred about his mechanical discovery however, Fred was unable to explain.
“Seems to me,” Fred said, clicking his ballpoint over and over with his thumb, “that something like that should have been destroyed a long time ago.”
“And yet,” said Pepin. He told Fred about the glittering fingers and the glass eyes. He told about the crimson stones in silver palms that matched the pictures he had seen in the obscured archives. He told about the little copper crank. Just talking about it gave him a thrill. It had a certain draw Pepin couldn’t ignore. He wanted to examine it more closely. But, out of respect, he only raised an eyebrow and waited for Fred to respond.
Fred set his ballpoint on a stack of papers and asked, “Can you stay a little late?”
After the Palace Museum of Science and Industry closed for the night, they met in the Hall of Plows and Levers, Pepin with the Christ under his arm and Fred with the urgent need for an explanation.
The hall was dark—the great windows were covered, and only the security lights shone down on them—harsh and dim. When Pepin sat the Christ down in front of Fred, Fred crouched to meet it at eye level and inhaled at its beauty.
“Oh my,” said Fred, “but I’ve never seen anything so pretty.”
They spent too long marveling at its hands, its limbs, its little mouth carved into copper, the ornate and swirling details on its breastplate. Decades before, the government had outlawed all religion and mystical belief.
“There is great security in insouciance,” the government broadcast. “Don’t you, good people, want to see the world with clear eyes?”
Most had agreed at the time, but in this moment, Fred and Pepin had never felt clearer about a thing in their lives. Looking at the Christ gave them beautiful thoughts—the gray around them refracted in the glass of its eyes, the colors bright and happy, making them feel okay, finally safe. There is a great security in beauty.
Looking at the Christ, Pepin felt for the first time in his life, blessed.
It was Fred, who, in the end decided to try out the crank. He wound it and Pepin heard it click pleasantly, a click that echoed softly in the great hall, off the high stone ceiling to the vast marble floor. They felt the click in the smalls of their backs, the soles of their feet, the caverns of their hearts, and the spaces between their lungs. It was a click that set their minds at rest, a soul-harmonizing click, a tender and all-knowing click, one that made Pepin and Fred hold their breath to see what happened next.
What did happen next was that the small glass eyes affixed to the front of the Christ’s face glowed a soft yellow. The thing began a gentle whirring, a soft vibration. And when it moved from a seated position into a standing position—at a full height of about three and a half feet—Pepin and Fred felt a happiness they had never known. They were so happy, and knew they needed to feel this again, wanted to feel this forever.
Surrounded by obsolete farming equipment, Pepin and Fred resolved to keep their Christ stored away in that small closet between the sewing machine and the diving helmet, and not surrender it for incineration like they should have.
“If anyone else finds it and asks you,” Fred explained, “just tell them you haven’t gotten to that closet yet.”
Fred instructed Pepin to instead start going through the closets in the east wing of The Palace Museum of Science and Industry, where he would have plenty of rocking horses and gaming consoles and clarinets to dispose of.
“Where do you think it came from?” Pepin asked Fred the next night, after the sun had set and the streets had settled and they were alone with the Christ in the Hall of Keyboards and Printing Presses.
“Someone must have assembled it,” Fred attempted.
For a moment, they both stood and wondered how any person could have made something so beautiful, so perfect, and why. They knew enough of Christ from the archives and the public service broadcasts—how so many had believed in him, a man who promised to transcend, to come back and help, but hadn’t kept his word. “How many generations did it take us to realize we were being pathetic?” the broadcast went.
When Fred wound the Christ, it ran in circles around the hall. Its small feet clacked across the floor. They watched it scurry between displays of obsolete machinery, and felt its hum in their bones.
When it came close to Pepin, he reached out a hand, overwhelmed by its tiny perfection. He reached out and mussed its delicate little loincloth.
The Christ darted back, lifted an arm. A reaction.
“Oh,” said Pepin, forgetting himself, forgetting everything. He was falling in love with it. Love, something Pepin had never felt, never from his parents—shadowy figures eliminated when he was young. Once, he had laid his head in the lap of a cold young woman he met in school, but she pushed him off when he wouldn’t give her any money.
The Christ scampered behind a large rotary press and its eyes shone out in the dark.
“I can’t believe it,” said Fred, slinking forward to meet it, pricking his finger on its crown of thorns.
Pepin and Fred went home that night feeling almost guilty, having found such love.
In the coming weeks, Pepin and Fred came as close as they ever had to prayer, to worship. While on their gray walks to work, or during the solitary nights they spent in their single beds, they pondered the glowing eyes and the sparkling gems and they felt at peace.
The simple act of watching the Christ move had begun to make them feel better about things. The tedium. The loneliness. The lack of fresh food. The cold. There were of course greater machines, bigger machines, more sophisticated ones, and even more expensive, but none were like the Christ. When Pepin worked his fourteen hour days in the archives, hefting this ThighMaster from that Xerox machine, thoughts of the Christ sustained him. Even Fred, in his high office of papers felt better when thinking about the Christ.
In the Hall of Pipettes and Syringes, Pepin told Fred how he had read of the power of gods in the archives. “They can save you or doom you just like that. They have the power.”
They were watching the Christ trot from one display case to the next, eyes lighting up a small path in front of it.
“Are you afraid?” Pepin asked.
The Christ paused in front of them. Fred reached out a hand, and the Christ reached back in response.
“Oh, Pepin,” said Fred, “Don’t you feel saved already?”
In their fervor, the nights they spent with the Christ became longer and rather indiscreet. Together, they built structures out of old gas grills and refrigerators and motorcycle sidecars for their little Christ to climb on. Each night they built their structures higher and higher, hoping one day to watch Christ swing from the light fixture that descended from the high stone ceiling.
“What a sight that would be,” Fred explained.
Each night, they found new ways to marvel at their little miracle. It was learning to mirror their movements. It could click a ballpoint just like Fred. And each night, they stayed with the Christ a bit longer before taking it back to the spot in the closet between the diving helmet and the sewing machine. The crank on its back would sputter to stillness, and Pepin would insist, “Just one more go!” He would clap his hands like a boy, unashamed by his own abandon. And Fred laughed with Pepin and indulged. He would indulge until the sun came up, until it was no longer even worth it to venture home across the gray city.
Soon, Pepin and Fred began to forget their sorry lives before they found the Christ. Soon, the Christ consumed them. Soon, they had trouble containing their joy. Pepin began smiling slightly on his walks between closets. Fred began including a tasteful number of exclamation points in his communications with other officials. They tapped their knuckles on desks and tables and other hard surfaces, waiting for darkness to come.
One night, watching the Christ cartwheel across the Hall of Knives and Glasses, Fred explained to Pepin, “I think we’ve been misinformed.” He cleared his throat and put a hand on Pepin’s shoulder. “We haven’t been abandoned. The Christ has been here this whole time. It only took us until now to find it.”
They both breathed in and felt the clicking, and in that clicking, the perfect love of a Savior.
“This Christ is the best thing that has ever happened,” said Pepin, putting his arm around Fred in turn.
Such a warmth in this cold, cold world.
But when the government flagged Fred’s citizenship on account of too many exclamation points, Fred was removed from his position by the proper authorities and dealt with harshly and vaguely.
Pepin received a stark white note, informing him of Fred’s extraction, commending him on his well-combed hair, and inviting him to sit at the desk in the high office of papers and begin overseeing operations at The Palace Museum of Science and Industry full time. He did his best to hide his devastation. Before, he would have been thrilled at the prospect. He had hoped to do well at The Palace Museum. But now, he could only blame himself, his carelessness, and his extravagance with that crank. His guilt helped him refrain from using exclamation points all day, and as the day turned into evening, he could not wait to get back to the Christ. He needed the thing now more than ever.
The halls were quiet without Fred, especially in the Hall of Modems and Stereos. The tall, black speakers towered over Pepin in their promise of sound. He set the little Christ on the slick marble floor and wound the crank again and again to wake it. Its eyes lit up, and it stood in front of Pepin, a semblance of waiting.
Maybe it already knew, thought Pepin.
“Well,” Pepin whispered, “I’ve never asked you for anything.”
He had read that this was what gods were really good for. They could give you what you wanted if you asked for it the right way.
And so he did his best to ask the question in a way the Christ could understand.
“Fred,” he said, mimicking the way Fred would click the ballpoint, feigning a stack of papers, a pristine bowtie, and the way Fred, too, combed his hair just so. He tried to imitate the jaunt Fred had developed in his step after spending so many nights with the Christ, and the act of throat-clearing Fred nearly always engaged in before beginning to explain something truly important.
And then Pepin said, “Away,” and “Lost,” and “Taken,” and “Maybe dead,” and “Help,” and “Please bring him back, please I’ll do anything please,” and “What have we done to deserve this?”
The Christ began to move. It began to mirror Pepin in his movements, in the way he walked and moved his hands to indicate the stack of papers. It quickly picked up the jaunt. It dropped to its own tiny knees in front of Pepin, and clasped its bitty hands in a gesture of begging.
“That’s not it,” said Pepin.
The Christ stood again, and walked towards a stereo.
“Fred,” said Pepin. “He needs help.”
And the Christ began to press the buttons on the stereo, but the stereo did nothing, because it was not plugged in.
He watched the Christ scuttle around the hall until its crank slowed to a halt, and then he cranked it again, sat the Christ down, and told it, “Fred.”
Soon, the government sent a new worker to pick up the slack, someone who Pepin would train to do his old job so he could focus more completely on the papers. Her name was Zenith, and she had a habit of blinking more often than necessary. Otherwise, she was a good and careful worker. Pepin noticed on her first day that her bowtie was already puckered in the appropriate places, and her hair was neatly combed. She was a good and careful worker, but he could not trust her. He told her to start her work in the east wing, far away from the Christ.
Zenith’s presence made the nights more complicated for Pepin. He had to wait until she finished work for the day and went home before he could take the Christ out of that same small closet and let it romp while he begged for answers. Zenith, of course, was a hard worker and often stayed past the mandatory fourteen hours.
In the first week when he found her rummaging through piles of cassette tapes, of ice cream makers, of wagons, he told her, “Zenith, you have done good work today, you are free to go.”
She blinked back at him and said, “But I’m not finished with this closet.”
And so he retreated to his high office of papers, and shuffled them around until Zenith finished and left for the night. Each night she would stay later and later. Pepin thought she likely was trying to show him she was a capable employee—motivated and committed to getting the job done. Pepin was annoyed. He clicked his own ballpoint incessantly until she left, until she walked by his office in her gray overcoat and blinked goodbye.
This of course meant that Pepin’s nights with the Christ grew shorter and more frantic.
“You are supposed to help me,” Pepin said to it in the Hall of Reflectors and Speculums.
The Christ seemed to ignore him, though. It stood in front of a mirror, shadowing its own movements. It sat down, stood up, raised an arm, raised a leg.
As he watched it trot from one end of the hall to the other, Pepin thought about Fred, and the time he had been gone, and the likelihood of Fred freezing or starving in some crepuscular hole. Fred, with his fingernails peeled back, or his ears removed, or bits of his nose slowly hacked away without any explanation. Pepin, too, had read of the government’s treatment of rebels. It was harsh and it was senseless.
And poor Fred, all for this little Christ. This harmless, lovely thing.
The Christ came closer to Pepin.
“This is what you have to do,” said Pepin. “You have to help him.”
But the Christ did nothing.
The Christ looked at him and whirred.
“Help him,” Pepin shouted in the dark and echoey hall.
But the Christ did nothing.
“Help him,” Pepin shouted again, only this time he advanced on the Christ. He picked it up and shook it. It rattled. The gears whizzed and its metal arms clacked against its torso.
The Christ went limp.
“No,” said Pepin, “no,” and he gripped the little crank and he cranked and cranked and cranked until the clicking was no longer life-affirming and pleasant, but harsh and wrong. He cranked until the crank jammed and the Christ collapsed on the floor, glass eyes dim and hopeless.
“Wake up,” said Pepin. He kicked it, at first softly. He watched it slide across the floor. When it did not move he kicked it again and again and again until he dented its breastplate and shattered its left eye. He kicked it again, and one of its arms came loose from the socket. With the final kick, he bent that little copper crank in such a way that it would not spin, would never spin, would jam itself forever, would never work again.
When the first light of dawn peeked through the cracks in the window coverings, Pepin took what was left of the Christ under his arm, back to the closet. He sat it between the sewing machine and the diving helmet and locked the door behind him.
Two years later, Pepin still sat in his high office of papers at The Palace Museum. He had begun to look forward to the banal blinks Zenith gave him when she told him good morning and good evening. She had proven herself to be very sensible and reliable. The logs of objects she submitted to him each day were pristine.
Pepin had learned to enjoy the paperwork. He looked forward to the clean feeling he would get when filing away whole stacks. He had learned to find his fulfillment in the beauty of an organized desk.
As for Fred, Pepin had stopped thinking about him a long time ago. The government had made that easy. Every trace of him was gone. Too, Pepin had stopped thinking of the Christ. Only every once in a while would the notion still catch him by surprise. He felt silly for the things he had believed back then, the things he had done.
And then, one day, Pepin ran across Zenith’s log from a small closet full of beautiful, extravagant things on the west side of the building:
Treadle Sewing Machine: (Labeled: Practical, Historical) Delivered to Hall of
Looms and Centrifuges.
Soda Cart: (Labeled: Indulgent, Colorful) Delivered to incinerator.
Diver’s Helmet: (Labeled: Practical, Historical) Delivered to Hall of Pumps and
Robot Christ: (Labeled: Provokative, Broken) Delivered to incinerator.
With very little thought, Pepin signed off on Zenith’s logs for the day. When he was finished, he put on his coat and walked down the gray street. The air was cold and heavy with moisture, but he appreciated it anyway, for the variety. A little something different. He reached his drafty apartment at the normal time, and had a normal amount of dinner before untying his bowtie and re-combing his hair. That night in his single bed, he let his mind go blank and he slept deeply, blithely, without a care.