This would be the end. Gutenberg thought this as he hunched over piles of flawed moveable type, trying to forget that this was his last night in the shop. There was much to do. His hands were still dirty from printing earlier in the day. The ink was tough to wash away. It always stuck to the worn folds of his hands. Fumes from molten lead stirred in the air as he poured the metal skillfully into the mold matrix. The metal warmed the dimly lit, sooty printshop nestled deep in the heart of Mainz. Frost clung to the window, looking out onto the slow serpentine river Rhein, but he did not notice this. The undisturbed unrest of the printshop at night provided the closest thing to peace- uninterruption. As Gutenberg cracked the mold, he winced. Another familiar sear by another one of his creations. He licked his finger in the dark. The ink felt heavy and greasy on his tongue. He held this moment before realizing he was late. This life would all be taken away, and there was still much to do.
Gutenberg wrapped himself in his coat and scarf before he rushed out into the night. The winter air burned intensely in his lungs as his breath coiled in the unforgiving cold. His thoughts kept moving even in the idle space between moments – his mind was elsewhere as he walked to the tavern. His business partner, Johann Fust, would be the sole proprietor of the printshop in the morning. Fust had wanted to talk this evening. The tavern was just across from the city’s imposing cathedral. Gutenberg did not take notice of its sunbaked sandstone face that seemed to dream of springtime. At the tavern, he would discover if friendship still meant something to Fust. They had come a long way from since days in Strasbourg, a long way from crafting and selling mirrors to pilgrims and nobles obsessed with catching the light of God. Gutenberg hurried as his thoughts rushed with him. What can I possibly say to Fust? Debt is debt, but what about friendship? Fust was seated strategically at an unsteady table near the door. In front of him, two tankards gleaming full of Hefeweizen were waiting.
“Lost track of time again, eh, Johannes?” Fust called out from his chair facing the door. Gutenberg entered, his eyes adjusted slowly to the light. He joined Fust at the table. He hated how old he felt next to Fust, despite being close in age. Johann Fust wore a cocky smile slanted on his face like his unmistakable long brim hat and its signature stark white plume. Fust was a financier born into a family of noble burghers. He was charismatic and sharp - essential characteristics for a moneylender. His beard was the color of rich oak. Above it, his umber eyes glowed with the light of a man half his age. The joints between Fust’s fingers were fat, holding the family signet ring firmly in place. He knocked the ringed hand against the table like a heavy gavel, waiting for Gutenberg’s reply.
“Yes. I apologize. Just making sure the shop is in good shape before you stop by tomorrow.” said Gutenberg. He looked down, feeling the weight of gray in his beard. He slowly reached for the tankard.
“Your work ethic has never been in question, Johannes. The first set of bibles are some of the most beautiful things I have ever seen”, Fust said as he glanced at the tavern maid with a laugh, “and I am no stranger to beauty.”
Gutenberg now too looked up. The tavern maid was not young but not old either. She walked with a hurried grace, paying close attention to her patrons. Her straw blonde hair was carefully held in a braid by a red ribbon. She laughed and chatted with customers. It was a hearty deep laugh, impossible to fake. The loyal patrons smiled as she went by. Her presence was the only thing that could make up for the quality of drink. For a moment, he and Fust were utterly entranced by the flight of the red ribbon.
“Has she always worked here?” asked Gutenberg.
“Oh yes, my friend! You get lost in your own mind too often,” said Fust. “Listen, we must get those books out to the merchants that ordered them.”
“They are not ready yet for the illustrators. Tonight, I realized we could fit forty-two lines on the page and not just forty. That will save on paper and costs. If you could grant one more day, the process can be made more efficient. There are still many problems.”
Gutenberg had a strange way of talking. He seemed to always look right above you, like a priest calling for angels and blessings. But none would come. As he finished his beer, Fust half-listened to Gutenberg. He pounded his ring against the table again. Any trace of laughter had left Fust’s voice as he spoke,“ There are no more problems left for you to fix. You are the only problem that you must solve. That is why I called in your debt. That is why the court has ruled in my favor. That is why the shop will be mine in the morning. The books are ready, Johannes, let others appreciate your work and for God’s sake, let me make a profit.”
“With one more night, I can also make the ink darker; it will ... ’’
“Enough. You are tired, my friend. You have let the world pass you by - remember that young woman you promised to marry long ago, now who will have you? Obsession is a cruel mistress.” Fust said. “Now finish your drink so we can have another. Let us celebrate this new beginning for you.”
“She…she did not understand the work.” Gutenberg had forgotten her face and name. He had a bad memory for such things. The ink. The ink. The ink. The ink was not as dark as he wanted it. The color could not be allowed to fade, and the printed words must last.
Fust looked at Gutenberg’s searching eyes set deep in his gaunt face. Fust raised his hand into the air “Another round fair maid and add a big plate of the house special for my friend.”
“Please, I cannot afford such luxuries,” Gutenberg said, slumped in his chair.
“Kien problem, think of it as a gift, Liebe Johannes. You are in good hands.”
Gutenberg remembered the time when his father said those same words. In his youth, he was sent to study with monks. He had admired the Franciscans’ discipline and devotion. The monks were master calligraphers, and incredible detail always demanded a greater zeal for patience. One day, the abbot invited young Gutenberg to observe a manuscript being finished by an aged monk. Gutenberg watched as the swollen fingers of the monk grasped the quill. It glided between paper and inkwell, between prayer and meditation. Playful illustrations swirled with the permanence of words as if carved from the page itself. Now finished with its life’s work, the quill returned to the inkwell as the monk’s stone face cracked a smile at the young boy. The following day Gutenberg had many questions to ask the monk over their daily breakfast of watery oatmeal. However, the monk was nowhere to be found. Later that day, his brothers had found him resting without breathing. There was no more work to be done. Gutenberg would leave the monastery that same day.
“Johannes? Are you listening to me? It is polite to say thank you when someone else pays for your food,” said Fust.
“Yes. I apologize for being rude. Thank you. Now please, there are a few improvements that must be made before the final prints.”
Before Gutenberg could continue, a soft scent of lavender interrupted his speech, a red ribbon holding together a carefully woven braid flashed towards them.
“Herr Fust, Herr Gutenberg, your drinks and food gentlemen.” Her voice rang clearly as her golden eyes met Gutenberg. She set the plate between the men. The table wobbled slightly as she switched the empty tankards for full ones. Lavender, thought Gutenberg, like a lost meadow somewhere in the air he inhaled. He held his breath.
“Danke Schoen. I must say, what a lovely scent,” said Fust, straightening his back, “reminds one of a time outside this dismal winter.”
“Oh, thank you. It was a thoughtful gift from a longtime patron, a moneylender like yourself, Herr Fust,” she said.
“May I ask your name? “said Gutenberg. Fust looked at him with surprise.
“How inconsiderate of me to know your names and not give you mine, I am Sofia,” she said.
Gutenberg looked at her with silence. She looked back at him and him alone. His eyes admired the dark mole on her right cheek—the ideal hue of black. The room seemed brighter as he slowly exhaled the lavender from his lungs. He began to wonder how her hand would feel in his. Another patron called for a fresh drink before he could memorize the details of her face.
“Excuse me, gentlemen,” Sofia said, “always more work to do and not enough time to truly enjoy a conversation.”
A tactful moment passed before Fust exploded with laughter, “Gutenberg, you old fool, always getting lost in dreams. Fine, tell me about these improvements so I can consult the new lead printer. I believe you know Peter Schoffer. He is set to marry my daughter.”
“Oh? Peter, the goldsmith from my shop –”
“Schoffer works in my shop now, Gutenberg. He will manage my men in my shop, and every new book will have my name printed on the first pages. After all, everyone must know who makes the best books. Notoriety is key to effective distribution.”
“Yes, but these changes will make it easier for Peter to finish the final prints, easier for you to make your name.” Gutenberg paused.
Both men took a long drink from their tankards. The untouched food between them was growing cold. Gutenberg closed his eyes as he raised his head upward. He smiled.
“Spit it out, Gutenberg!” said Fust, slamming his empty tankard on the table.
“As I said before, the new type can print forty-two lines per page,” Gutenberg said, now looking directly at Fust, “the words will be tightly woven but still easy on the eye. I will set the type this evening so that Peter has a template. This new link will be darker so that it does not fade as quickly.”
“There is no need. The distribution is key, my name on my books.”
Gutenberg closed his eyes again and clenched his fists. He thought of the printshop. The worktable was sprinkled with brownish, yellowish lead dust. The feeling of the resistance as he pulled the lever of the press. He had borrowed the idea from winemakers to brace and fix the press between the floor and ceiling. This was crucial. The freshly dampened pages needed the most pressure for the ink to stick deeply. He could once again hear the paper separate from the inked type, the kiss of the press leaving obsidian marks. His eyes opened with a new glow.
“Our names are unimportant. The books must last.” exclaimed Gutenberg, “Either the printer or the illustrator will include dispersed red lettering.”
“Why red? Another new idea?”
“I have learned recently that a little color breaks the burdens of monotony. Promise me,” demanded Gutenberg.
“Promise me that you will use red,” said Gutenberg. Both men glared at each other. Fust had never heard Gutenberg demand anything. He noticed that Gutenberg’s dirty hands were still clenched.
Fust hesitated before he spoke. “As a last favor to you, it will be done. But tell me, why did you never put your name on the printed books?”
“Beauty needs no master,” replied Gutenberg.
He stood up to finish his Hefeweizen before setting the empty tankard on the table. Gutenberg thanked Fust for the drink and the uneaten meal. He left the tavern without turning around. Lavender flowed in the air behind him as he went out again into the Mainz winter. The cold night around him did not seem to bite as fiercely. The river Mainz was just as unhurried as the man. He lingered just a moment as he walked past the cathedral.
Gutenberg returned to his printshop. This was the last night that it would be his. This was the end. Unlike the monk from his youth, Gutenberg would never see his project completed. The bibles were now Fust’s property, as was everything in the printshop. But Gutenberg did not think about this as he prepared the new typeset. He did not notice the ink stains or the deep dry cracks in his hands. He did not feel envy. He did not notice his tired back. As Gutenberg hunched over the table spelling out the first lines of Genesis by moonlight, he thought only about a red ribbon, about a gentle braid, about a lost meadow of lavender ... “In the beginning….”