It was old and homey, with big flat stone walls, a fireplace, and slightly moldy wood paneling. The ceiling was lofty and peaked, adorned with regional flags and football banners. There's a big sturdy wooden stage, but no jukebox. The lights were perpetually dim. The tables were old weathered hardwood, polished with time, bearing layer after layer of incomprehensible graffiti carvings. The bar was broad and trimmed with shiny brass, and the air smelled moist and dark.
I took my seat by the stage and made the mistake of ordering a Guinness. I like Guinness. The barkeep had a friendly testiness as he explained that it was a tied house; they only served beer made in-house. If I liked Guinness, I'd like their stout better, he said proudly. Fair enough.
When he left, I got to work. I leaned down awkward and glanced under the stage to see if they were down there. I think I surprised those poor little guys. I saw their terrified, comically huge round eyes for a quick moment before they scuttled further back under the stage. I tried to catch a glimpse of their forepaws, curious whether they had hands like raccoons, or like people, or what, but it was dark down there and they moved too quickly. Anyway, my attention was caught by those huge, limpid eyes.
Fair enough. I sorted out my paperwork and leaned back again casually to set them on the ground beside the stage.
"You can't put those there," the keep told me immediately. He headed across the bar toward me.
"Oh, I wasn't going to make a mess. I just--"
"You can't put those there," he repeated, identical in that casual stern tone, a little tired from years of keeping tavern shenanigans in check.
"They're just housing applications and--"
"Get out," he said, grumpy and distracted.
"I have a good reason," I replied.
"Get out," he repeated, not bothering to vary his well-practiced tone.
"Cave Fish Mike sent me," I said.
His face didn't change from that cheerful scowl he had, but he started wiping my table. "Did he now?"
"He said that under the stage, there are helpful little--"
"Did he now?" he asked again, "Should have kept his mouth shut."
I pulled out my polaroids and offered them to him. He accepted them and put on his spectacles to frown at each picture in turn.
I don't mean to brag, but those polaroids are adorable. My favorite was on top: my own hand outstretched, with six of my little finger-penguins sitting on the palm, looking up with their tiny goofy majesty, all puffed and proud in a way that made their awkwardness even more delightful.
The rest of the photos are good too: a dozen of them following me in a line, six of them waddling on my mantelpiece among Christmas-time knick-knacks, two of them tucked into the brim of my hat, all of them nestled up in my dirty laundry, peeking out of every fold and pocket. I'm proud of every single photo of my little guys.
Now that he'd seen the photos, he was considering me now a lot more seriously. "I don't know. The last time we let someone else leave their paperwork was to get some paperwork through to help fight the Nazis. That was my old Uncle John, may the Lord watch over his soul, and I still think we made a mistake doing it, because they came back again fifteen years later to commandeer everything for espionage against the Russians. By the time we got all the restraining orders completed and the files sealed and so on, the little guys had to turn out a room full of paperwork to get everyone off our backs, didn't they?"
"You call yours little guys too?" I asked brightly. "Parallel evolution, huh?"
He gave a polite grumpy quarter-chuckle and pointed at my paperwork. "What are those?"
"Getting a house. My penguins follow my scent -- well, my family line's scent, really -- but they need sunny coastal California space and, of course, privacy. Greece or Spain or Mexico won't work for them; I don't know why. With the housing crisis and the credit crisis and the economy crisis and everything, I've been bouncing from apartment to apartment, and they're getting listless and worried for lack of a beach home. They didn't mate this season, and they're still back in my apartment, looking grayer every day. I think I can afford to build my own cottage if I can buy the land, and I can have it all ready and just right by the next mating season if I can just push through this mountain of paperwork. Loan applications and letters of credit and permits and so on. I got denied four times now, and after a few beers Cave Fish Mike told me that maybe there was a way to get all my papers just right if I flew out here."
He made a grumbling noise. "Cave Fish Mike is a pain in the you know what," he said.
"Fair enough," I replied, since he really can get on just about anyone's last nerve sometimes, "but his heart's in a good place."
He walked away, just like that, and came back with my stout. It tasted different, recognizable as a stout but with some extra floral aroma I couldn't quite place. Not better or worse, just very different.
"Leave the paperwork. They'll take care of it. Bring your stout; I'll give you a tour."
We went to the back room with the kitchen. I wrinkled my nose at the mold on the walls.
"Don't fuss," he said, "You scrape off a teaspoon of that and you won't get a hangover for four months. That mold's been there since before Columbus, hasn't it? Have some respect. And over here, see this flower?"
I looked at it. Kind of a pretty flower; a pale pink with three broad petals, on a simple green stalk.
"It gives the stout that special taste. And did you notice how thirsty you got coming in, but how quickly the drink sated your thirst? That's the buzzing of the flies. The frequency is just right, isn't it? They lay their eggs in the abandoned beer, so they've managed to vibrate in just such a way to maximize the number of half-empties."
I listened to the humming of the fly, and took another swig of my drink, and I was about to ask him a little more, but he opened a door and headed down the stone staircase. "Well, come on then."
Down the stairs was a cold rock cave with an underground river. As we walked down the keep told some more of it.
"We don't want extra business," he said, as an explanation or perhaps a warning, "Just as many customers as this pub had in the last days of the Roman Empire. No more, no less. A little more traffic in the summertime, of course, but not too much. Our little pub here is a fragile ecosystem. Some tourist rag published an article about the stout in 1904, thinking they were doing us a favor. Wiped out two species of flowers and a particularly hilarious kind of earwig."
He chuckled mournfully in memory of that hilarious earwig. I didn't ask.
"My family has been keeping this pub over six hundred years now, and we've learned to keep it just so. An enterprising distant cousin remodeled the place in 1740 and it took three generations before the native mice could find their way around again, which meant the flowers got overgrown, which depleted some of the soil, and so on, causing another mess. They've all evolved together for this tiny spot, haven't they? If a single housecat got down here and went fishing, we could lose all six remaining species in a month to that satisfied feline, couldn't we?"
"I suppose so," I said, sipping the stout. That weird flower flavor tasted a little better with each sip.
"It's why we keep the door shut. And up here there are trimmer-bugs. They only survive off my family's whiskers; we don't shave anymore."
I hadn't much thought of it, but his moustache was kind of ragged and funny-looking.
"You want to see them do it?" he offered, gesturing to the waxy porous lump and reaching for a broom, perhaps to rattle it.
"Uh, I'll pass, thanks."
"Suit yourself," he said as he set the broom back, apathetic enough to cover his mild offense, "Anyway, the thing you need most to keep an ecosystem like this intact is paperwork. Bills paid, forms in order, landmark status, liquor licenses, and on and on with the paperwork. That's where our little guys come in. Every healthy ecosystem stabilizes itself against change, doesn't it? So they live under that stage there and they gather lost scraps of food and stray pens. To keep the pub intact for all these centuries, you'd need a team of experts: attourneys, real estate agents, lobbyists, bankers, forgers, and so on. And that's what the little guys do. Leave a form around and they'll fill it out, cross-index it, post-mark it, and address it to the right office. They've evolved into it; it's as natural to them as recognizing faces is to us, isn't it?"
I looked around and sighed, "A lot of people would pay millions for just one of them, you know. With that money, you could live well, and have plenty left to set up a conservation reserve or something, start breeding them to make it less fragile, you know?"
His face reddened a little bit with annoyance, "I know that. Don't think my son doesn't remind me of that every time money gets tight. But you listen to me: money comes and goes, but there are only nineteen of those little guys. Six of those flowers that make the stout so good. Only one reproducing trimmer-bug queen at a time, ever. It may come to that someday, but this place is so fragile that a boom could ruin things as much as a bust. We'll keep things just so."
"Fair enough," I said with a defensive shrug.
He waggles a finger at me and then led me back up the stairs. "Even if some laboratory could mimic whatever it is in your scent, would you sell your little penguins to a museum?"
"I wouldn't risk it," I admitted as I took a final satisfying swig of the stout.
"Course not. Neither would Cave Fish Mike. Or the Minsk purple-louse family, if you know about them. Or the folks with the chlorine octopus out in Beverly Hills, in your own California. Or... well, Mike knows more of us than I do, really, and honestly I hope nobody's got a complete list. We like to keep things just so. I wouldn't be talking with you if I didn't know you felt the same way."
When I got back to the stage there were two dozen neatly stacked envelopes, all with postage stamps, and some neatly-written instructions and where to go and what to do.
I thanked the barkeep and was on my way.
"Go ahead and tell your friends about us," he said, "I figure we benefit from people knowing about us in general, at a distance, just as long as you don't tell anyone our specific name or location. Do that and it'll be bankruptcy or worse for you."
I mentioned that part before, I know, but it merits repeating.
Now, my little penguins can't cure hangovers or solve paperwork. They don't need to. Mostly they just eat tadpoles and hide in my socks. But I'm not jealous: these little guys aren't wonderful just because they're useful.
It's just the other way around, isn't it?