“G-d is a place you will wait for the rest of your life.” – Neutral Milk Hotel, “Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2”
If I hadn’t been half dead from heat stroke, I never would have stepped into the first hovel on the left looking for shade. Instead of a dusty convenience store with spindly-necked bottles of coke or a family common room with a homemade rug, I found a vast cavern dug into the ground, the dirty linoleum floor inside the entrance merely the landing of a staircase spiraling along the pit’s edge into the gloom of the deep.
Honestly, I didn’t notice the stairs, not at first anyway, because the Machine was everywhere, inert, the husk of a long-dead monster, gleaming in the light of the entrance. My eyes almost couldn’t bear its complexity. Tangled wires, some like trees trunks, some like hairs, connected innumerable components, most of them from scrap. In my first bewildered glance I spied thimbles and carburetors, girders and girdles, thousands of rivets and handfuls of nuts, twelve bicycles, and a cigarette lighter. Some of its parts seemed to grow like plants from the floor far below, while others were bound to the ceiling by thick cables, the likes of which I had only seen in the great harbors of the world, holding ships to the shore. It inspired in my addled brain an awe that edged on laughter; it was beyond ridiculous, not sane, a brick to the head.
Down below, I heard singing.
It was a man’s voice, worn with age, deep as the deep. With the regularity of a heartbeat it sang, “Twisting, twisting, twisting.”
I told myself as I descended the earthen steps that I only wanted to see if he had water for my parched lips. I knew I was lying. My curiosity urged me to delve.
I found the Machinist (I never did get a name out of him, before the end, though I do believe he had one) gloved and goggled, braiding threads of copper thin as gossamer. He had unruly white hair to the small of his back, knotted and pungent, and he moved with the certainty of an expert craftsman. The tiny pieces of metal couldn’t withstand the tension and they tore. He bent closer, took a new thread from his filthy apron, and tried again. “Twisting, twisting, twisting.”
“Sorry, do you have water?” I said, hands held up in peace. He tore the goggles off his face and squinted at me.
“Have you finally come?” he croaked, his English accented. “Is it finally time for me to die?”
At a loss, I gaped.
“But first, water, yes!” He grabbed my wrist and tugged me toward the Machine. I could see now, at the bottom, that there extended into the Machine itself several tunnels and caves, allowing the Machinist to tinker and to have a home, as I found out when we rounded a corner made of a lamppost and a boat engine to reveal a niche with a bed, a desk, a table, a grill. The area was lit by two small lanterns, and in one corner of the little cave stood an old camping tent, a curtain across its entrance. In the kitchen sat a five-gallon water cooler. He filled a bottle and brought it to me, and I drank thirstily. “Thank you,” I said. Refreshed, my mind cleared and a stream of questions surfaced. He stood to the side, at attention like a schoolboy beside his desk, waiting for something.
“I’m T.J. Beckett. I’m a reporter from New York. I came to Dehli looking for…” Something like this. “Looking for a story.”
“There’s no story here,” he said. “Not until my master returns.”
“What is this place? What is this…thing?” I swept my arm in a wide arc.
“This, boy, is the Machine.” He said. “My master told me how to build it, at least in principle, before he left. That was almost seventy years ago. I really wish he’d come back, so I can die.”
Seventy years? “Who are you? How did you get here? Who is your master?”
“I am a servant, and he is the master,” he said simply. “As for how we got here – why, I think I’ve forgot. It’s been so long. Of course, it was never important for me to remember. That’s the master’s job. And he’ll be back soon, you’ll see.”
“And then you’ll die?”
“Yes. I do love my life here, doing important work, but I wish he would come back and turn on the Machine. It’s been ready for decades, yes, though I have attempted some daring expansions since then.”
I was going to ask why he didn’t turn the Machine on himself, but it felt rude somehow, so instead I said, “And what will happen when it’s turned on?”
He looked at me as if I were the one building a gigantic subterranean monstrosity on the outskirts of New Dehli, that is, as if I were insane. “I have no idea.”
“So then how do you build it?”
“Oh, master taught me the rules of it. Taught me for years. That was when I was only a boy. It’s the only thing I really remember now.”
“Then he left you here.”
“Yes, well, he couldn’t live here anymore, you see. He’s a great man, more beautiful than me, more graceful, full of fire. He can sing and dance and love and write and drink and paint and cry. He can charm all manner of wild beasts; he has beaten men dueling with sword and pistol; he reads poetry to the stars and the stars themselves acquiesce.” As he spoke about that man, the Machinist’s wrinkled face seemed smoothed of its wrinkles, and his voice seemed alive. Then he slumped and staggered and fell into a chair. “But this quest proved too much for him, the country proved too broad.”
“What were you looking for?”
“We searched for the edge of things, for the place where nothing becomes something, for the exact moment of midnight and the precise point of the corner, where the parts join and all is one. But we did not find it, and my master’s affinity for the hunt began to sour, and his curiosity wilted, and the love of life that drove him to greatness festered, and one night when he couldn’t take it anymore he bid me farewell and took his leave.”
I felt myself pulled inexorably down this hole, as I had been pulled to the floor of the cavern. This time, the ground seemed to waver beneath my feet. Despite myself, I thought it a sad story. “You’ve been building a machine you don’t understand, just waiting for him to come back, for most of your life? Why? Why don’t you leave this place?” I thought of my contacts in the city, of how they might be able to help this old man.
“I could leave. I could. Any time. But it wouldn’t work. Defeats the whole goal. The master will come back, you see.”
I sighed and leaned back, and gasped as I realized the “roof” of his camp was made of motorcycles, two dozen at least, standing on their rear wheels in a circle. “This thing you’ve built is quite incredible,” I breathed.
He shot up ramrod straight. “It-It is?”
“You don’t see? Look what you did with all this junk.”
He slumped. “Yes, yes it’s junk. It’s not poetry. It’s not a dance. It’s not the moonrise over the dunes or the kiss of sunrise on dewed flowers.” I was taken aback by his sudden poetic turn. In the best tradition of my people, I pressed on.
“It’s great. Really. You poured your life into this. Your soul.” I pulled my phone from my pocket. “If you’ll let me take pictures, I can show it to the world. And the world will treasure it.”
“The world will treasure junk? That’s not how I remember the world.”
“Things are different now. People appreciate anything, as long as it has some soul.” The old man smiled for the first time, and looked to the little tent in the corner. “Come on, I’ll take some pictures, and then I’ll take you to lunch,” I said, trying to sound kind.
“One moment!” He stood up and dashed into the tent, pulling its flap closed behind him. I sat in my seat, not knowing what he might do or what he expected of me. I heard the sound of splashing water. A few minutes later, he stepped out of the tent as someone else. His hair was shorn and clean, his bearing regal, his soiled apron replaced with a fresh pressed suit. His eyes burned with intelligence and their edges crinkled with laughter as I stared.
“The servant is gone,” he said wistfully, in a voice smooth as olive oil. “Let us go to lunch.”
“Ah, but first we must honor his memory,” said the Master, whose name turned out to be Salvestro King, a sailor and adventurer who came to Dehli between the wars and was never heard of again. “He kept me alive all these years. I must do the same for him.” And with steps unnaturally graceful and unaffected by age he approached the wall next to his bed where sat a common light switch, a small sky-blue wire trailing from it. He flipped the switch.
As we climbed into the daylight, the Machine thrummed with energy, various components coaxed alive by (I found out over curry) solar panels and a couple of gas-powered generators. As I again felt linoleum beneath my feet and looked out on the nondescript alley on the outskirts of Dehli, I heard from behind me an unbelievable music, an impossible harmony, a clanking, squeaking orchestra that sang the song of midnight, of the point where walls meet, the sound of a pervasive oneness.
Image from Flickr.