In the while after the marvelous hour when everyone realized that their seconds, minutes, days, weeks, bus queue waits and birthdays were entirely their own again, Girolamo Guido Guide, who was now calling himself simply Guido, spent a great deal of his rescued time at Momo’s amphitheatre. It wasn’t just that he wanted to see her, and she him, though that was certainly true, and it wasn’t only that he wanted to spend a great while with Beppo and the many children of the neighborhood and anyone else who might stop by, though that was true too. It wasn’t even that he wanted to try out his recuperating powers of storytelling on the few tourists who happened to wander through the amphitheatre as they always had, though this was a thing he did often, always wearing an old jacket and a cap pulled down over his face and sometimes a magnificent false beard that Momo had found somewhere, so no one could see who he was.
The reason he spent so much time at the amphitheatre, and as much time as possible with Momo herself, was the same reason he had learned to project his voice through the itchy impressiveness of a beard that did not in any way belong to him: because of who he had turned into. He wasn’t just Guido now, no matter how hard he might try to be. He was Girolamo the National Treasure, the Last of the Olde-Time Story-Tellers, beloved of children and people who had to keep children busy and those who followed stand-up comedians worldwide. He had a reputation for being vibrant and funny and patient and passionate, and a house so large that he couldn’t on occasion find his bedroom or the necessary. He had a personal staff of three, because no matter how he had tried to let them go he had found that three was the very smallest number of people that could keep reporters from following him about and writing down the things he said and did. And he could not get over the feeling that he did not deserve any of it, which was just as well, as he said sadly to Momo one late autumn day when the leaves were chasing each other around the amphitheatre bottom like pouncing kittens. Because he didn’t.
“After all, Momo,” he said, sweeping his hand up and down to indicate his clothes, his hat, his expensive pocket-watch, “it was all a plot. The men in gray made people pay attention to me in the first place, and the fact that it didn’t all pop like a bubble when they vanished must have been somebody’s sheer oversight. I ran out of stories a long time ago, I told you that, and even now that they’re starting to grow back, it all seems, well, rather empty.”
Momo looked at him, and her dark eyes showed him that she was listening to him, although he couldn’t figure out what she was thinking. Did she think that he was right, that Guido had gotten too big for his britches? Did she think he ought to sell his house and his clothes and give his money to the poor and go and join Beppo at street-sweeping? Surely that would be the right thing to do, but he didn’t want to do that! And then, seeing her calm face, he laughed at himself.
“Oh, well,” he said. “Actually, Momo, I don’t mind being rich at all, and I’m glad of the listeners. They smile and they laugh and they go away happy, and that’s all I ever wanted as a storyteller. But you know how I always used to talk about how someday I would be rich and famous? We decided everything about the car I would drive, and the food I would eat, and how someday I’d be able to give everyone I loved everything they wanted, if money could buy it, and oh, do you remember about the parties we’d have had then? With fire-eaters and dancers in the amphitheatre, and all the fountains in the town running honey! Those were glorious dreams. But they’ve all come true, that’s the thing, Momo, every single one of them. We’ve eaten the food and we’ve ridden the car all over the city and we’ve danced at those parties until our feet were too tired to move us. Shouldn’t I be happy about that?”
Her deep reflection on what he had said looked back at him from her quiet glance, and he knew that his words had gone into her heart, to be examined with much care and great tenderness, but he could not read what her eyes might be telling him.
“That’s it,” he said. “Momo, I’m rich and I’m happy. What am I supposed to dream now, Momo? All my dreams came true and then they went away from me, and without anything to dream I am as unhappy as ever.”
Then at last she spoke to him, with the slow consideration of someone who had really thought about what he said. “Dear Guido,” she said, “tell me a story.”
He was a little taken aback by that, because it didn’t seem to him to apply to the situation at all, and also because she’d heard all his stories, the old ones and the new ones and the ones just for her, and she’d been there every time he’d told a story since her return. But he loved her, so he opened his mouth to hear what would come out of it, and this is the story he told:
Once upon a time, when the world was fairly new, but not as new as when they’d just taken off the wrappings, the night sky was not as we see it today. Now it is full of stars, and the Moon, and various other objects—in fact the sky is quite full now of all sorts of junk, chairs and archers and serpents and comets and a wig left up there by some Egyptian queen, but back then it was a fairly simple dome of darkness, and no one down below on the earth could see much to make their way by in the night. For this was before there were electric torches, and the kind with real fire have always been prone to going out suddenly, or setting other things on fire, or smoking, or all sorts of annoying behavior.
So, as the sky at night was not being used for anything, people started to think that it might be a good idea to put some things up in it, and maybe have it as a kind of store-room, because then at least when they were wandering about in the dark there would be fewer things for them to stumble into. They called a great meeting, for everyone who was interested, and they all sat together talking about what they should put in the sky and how they should get the things up there and who was going to get to have which parts of the storage.
Now, the place that they chose for the meeting was a simple grassy meadow, large enough to seat a multitude, but as well as being a simple grassy meadow, with flowers and a few small stones and the lovely waving willow-herb and all things proper for a meadow to have, this meadow was also the home of a tortoise. And, although no one involved in picking the meeting place was aware of it at the time, it turned out to be very lucky that this meadow had a tortoise living in it, for at the speed that tortoises travel, her feet would never have carried her there in time for the meeting if she had not happened to be there already.
This tortoise, who was a sensible sort, thought that the entire concept of the meeting was silly and preferred to have nothing to do with it. But the meeting, as these things will do, dragged on for days and days, with people bickering and fighting over all the tiny details of the things they had not yet figured out how to start doing. What was much worse was that it dragged on for nights and nights, too. This was worse because people were always looking for the other people they meant to talk with or fight with, and missing their ways entirely, and tripping over the tortoise and mushing her wild lettuces and other delicious vegetables and stubbing their toes on her and being even greater nuisances than they were in the daytime, which was saying something. After a while she was fed up with it. So she heaved her slow and stubborn self right into the middle of the circle of their grand council, which took her most of a night to manage, although as she was sensible and cautious she was in no danger of missing her way.
The grand chieftain of the tribes of the lesser tributary of the great river Happening-Swoosh was in the process of speaking when she got there, but since it was dark, dark night most people had missed this fact and thought that the person speaking was the lesser chieftain of the tribes of the greater tributary of Tappany-Zee. As a result, the history books of the various nations who sent representatives to this meeting are rather confused when they attribute what was said next to a speaker, and indeed some of them show a regrettable tendency to insist that it was their own great-grandfathers, though the historians of both Happening-Swoosh and Tappany-Zee, being honest types, insist that it was no one from their own tribes who spoke.
It was in fact the tortoise, and what she said was this: “Why don’t you make it GLORIOUS?”
“What?” said someone who was vaguely to the right a little.
“Why don’t,” she said patiently, “you make it ABSOLUTELY GLORIOUS? It’s all very dark up there, and you’ll never be able to find anything you leave anyway. Make it full of lights! Make it glorious! Make it special and beautiful, and everybody will love it!” And having said what she had come to say, she turned and made her slow way out of the circle again.
The meeting continued behind her, full of noise and confusion, but the resolution was eventually carried, with several hundred in favor, that this would be an absolutely wonderful notion, and that they were very much for it if only they could figure out how to do it.
But when the turtle made her slow way out of the circle, she found to her surprise that the air around her became gradually lighter, and in fact quite white, and glowing, and that there was no longer grass under her feet, but something lovely and cool to the touch. Below her feet was darkness, like a dark stone, a gently curving darkness that she enjoyed walking on; indeed, it was more pleasant to walk on than anything she had imagined possible. And in the fresh, glowing air, with a new scent of pleasure wafting at her from every direction whenever she breathed in, she walked along until she reached, over the gentle curve, a place where she could see in the distance a man walking toward her. He came close very quickly.
He was wearing battered overalls and carrying a large pad of graph paper, several curved sticks and a ruler, and by this she could see that he was an Architect. “Splendid,” he said as he hurried up to her. “Just absolutely splendid. May I shake your hand? I mean your paw? I mean your claw, your marvelous appendage of an architectural genius, you?” And he grabbed her wrinkled claw and shook it back and forth vigorously. “It’s exactly what it needs,” he said. “I’d got in despair about it. You know how it is when you finish something and everyone is immediately dissatisfied and starts plotting how to use it for something else. But with your innovation, we can keep the basic concept, and still make something that I think will gladden hearts in spheres that you cannot even conceive of, you splendid, wonderful, genius creature, you architect tortoise, you!” And with this the Architect scooped her up, and in his exuberance kissed her full on her tortoise-y lips, and at this point she began glowing faintly, from her shell, a glow to match the glow in the air.
“We’ll have to make them alive, don’t you think?” he said, while she was still trying to get her voice together to ask him to put her down, and to point out that no tortoise has ever enjoyed being kissed by a human, even a human who is more than only human, and to ask whether the thing that was so lovely to walk on was really the night sky, though she knew it must be. “I think they’d go much better alive. But we can take some things from down below anyway, I mean, I do understand that the people need some storage space. Still, I can put a dog, I’ve always wanted a dog. And a nice lake, with fish, and maybe some lions. They’ll glow so beautifully! Really, though, what I was wanting to ask was whether you wanted to be one of them? The new things, the stars? And keep them all in line, and dance with them, and sing with them, and light up the world, and be glorious? I think it is a fitting reward for your brilliance.”
She was going to explain to him that no tortoise, anywhere, had ever managed to dance, and that the voice of the tortoise, though it had been heard in the land, was not exactly melodic. But she felt the dome under her feet, so beautifully creamy cool, and she saw the glow coming off her shell, that gleamed like new pearl, and she smelled the air, that smelled like sunset and twilight and sunrise together. And she laughed for joy, which is an even more remarkable sound coming from a tortoise. “As long as I don’t have to stay in the sky all the time,” she said. “I want to come and go as I please.”
‘Oh, yes, yes,” he said, absentmindedly, already thinking about the rest of the project. “Anything you like. Go anywhere.”
So she became the Tortoise Star, and helped him sort out the radiant chaos of the heavens, and she did learn to dance and sing, in that special kind of music stars make that makes the listener laugh and weep at the same time. But she also did go anywhere: to cool meadows full of shady lettuces, and to towers to let out captive princesses; to courts to give wise advice to jesters, and to mountains to tell sages to write to their mothers, and to towers again to let the princesses back in when they’d gotten too sick of their lovers. She was in the sky so rarely that the legends about her got confused, and people thought she signified a queen, or kind of chair, or sea monster, rather than a tortoise, but she found this amusing. And still from that day to this she wanders, giving counsel and consolation and good hard sense in the writing of starlight on the back of her shell, and the name she gives to those who meet her is Cassiopeia. But what she is proudest of, throughout all of her wanderings, is the thing that she sees every night when she looks up, the stars that never would have been there but for her.
Even if the members of the meeting always did take the credit for it.
Guido finished his story, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand a little, as he always did when he got carried away by things.
“Momo,” he said, “you’re a genius. You’re absolutely right. I’m a man of influence now, and people hear me when I say things. I can make people happy when they listen to me. But of course I can’t be everywhere, or say the right thing for everybody, so what I want to do now, well, you knew it all along, didn’t you? I want to come up with something—just a small something, maybe a name or a phrase, maybe not even a story—that makes people years and centuries from now one one-hundredth as happy as I am when I look at the night sky. Like Cassiopeia did. Thank you so much, Momo.” He hugged her, one long warm hard hug, and went home whistling, to start trying out stories that might last the ages.
But Momo looked up and around, at the ancient, warm stonework, the sky turning towards evening. “I’m not sure,” she said, smiling, “that that was the way it happened. Professor Hora did say that Cassiopeia came from Elsewhere entirely. Anyway, it does make a good story.” And jumping off the block of stone she’d sat on, she looked up at the sunset with her hands in the pockets of her tattered man’s jacket and began, with inexpressible loveliness, to sing about the Hours.
At the far end of the amphitheatre, the tortoise, who had been curled up around a rock she resembled, spelled out on her shell something best described as a quiet humph, and smiling, if tortoises smile, moved on.