The Hollow Machine


No one knew where the machine had come from. Truthfully, no one was even sure if it was a machine at all. They called it that because it had cogs, levers, and wheels, but the placement of those things didn’t make any sense, and whatever function the object might have served was indeterminable. It had simply appeared overnight, jutting straight up out of the foggy ground at the center of town.

Samuel Jones was last to arrive at the scene. Even at that early hour he was well-groomed, his hair cropped sharply and his red, neatly ironed shirt tucked into denim pants. The crowd of townspeople went quiet and moved aside to let Jones in.

“Jones will know what to do,” they whispered to each other. “Jones always knows.”

Jones walked over and examined the object. There were machine parts, alright, but none of them seemed connected in any rational way. He looked around at the crowd for any smirks or sniggers that might give a practical joke away. Only earnestly curious or frightened expressions stared back.

The one part of the machine that seemed to have an obvious use was the big, brass lever sticking out of the middle, eye level with Jones. It was the only such part uncovered by rust, and was clearly the main power switch.

Big Abel Adams hooked his fingers into his suspenders and stepped out from the crowd. Abel was a good man, but Jones always suspected him of being a little jealous of Jones’ intelligence and standing in the town.

“Turn it on, Jones?” Abel asked.

Jones shook his head. “Don’t even know what it does, Abel. What if it’s an explosive of some kind? What would happen then?”

“It’d blow up.”

“That’s right.”

Abel looked subtly over each shoulder and cocked his head at Jones. “What do you we do with it, then?”

“I don’t know,” Jones muttered. He traced a rubber belt along three wheels and then back again. It seemed to lead in circles and didn’t indicate any kind of useful operation. “I need some time to figure it out.”

Jones rolled up his sleeves and began a closer inspection, starting with the highest point he could see and working systematically across every inch.

The crowd milled around for some time but slowly wandered off to their day’s tasks as it became clear that nothing would be happening very quickly.

“Jones will know what to do,” they said to each other. “Jones always knows.”

Only Mathilda Leland remained behind.

She was short and thin but had a toughness and aura of unbreakable resolve about her. She’d always reminded Jones of steel cable or rebar.

Mathilda watched Jones steadily as he took the notepad out of his pocket and started drawing a schematic of the object.

Jones felt her eyes on him and nodded a greeting. “Morning, Mathilda.”

“Morning, Jones.” Mathilda nodded, expression unchanged. She didn’t look angry, though that was a word often used to describe her. To Jones, her appearance always struck him as being more akin to dignity and a deep seriousness, not necessarily anger.

“What time do you plan on going to the burial yard today, Jones?”

Jones knocked on the machine. The sound echoed deep as a fifty gallon drum. If he didn’t know better, he’d say the thing was hollow. But if so, then there couldn’t be any mechanical pieces inside, and if that was the case then why in the world were there such parts on the outside?

“I don’t plan on going to the burial yard,” Jones said.

“Why not?”

“Why would I?”

Mathilda’s already tight lips got tighter. “Because your wife and daughter are there, and today is Remembering Day, that’s why.”

Jones tapped his pencil on the notebook. “Lucille and Desdemona are dead and in the ground, Mathilda. They can’t hear me. I can’t hear them. What would be the point in that conversation?”

Matilda’s lips got so tight that it appeared as if she’d swallowed them.

Jones nodded towards the machine. “We have no idea what this thing is or where it came from. It could be dangerous.”

Mathilda straightened out her dress. “It isn’t right, Jones. You haven’t seen them one time since they were buried. It’s been well over a year now.”

“It isn’t right.” Jones folded up the notebook and tucked it back into his pocket. “What’s right mean, again? I haven’t heard that word in a while.”

“Right’s right.”

Jones worked a little scab of rust away with his thumbnail, but doing so only revealed more rust.

“A woman and her daughter getting burned up in a fire?” Jones said. “Thrown away like a couple pieces of burned up coal? Right doesn’t seem to mean a whole lot in this world, now does it?”

Jones walked towards his house.

“Where are you going?” Mathilda called.

“To get my tools.”

Mathilda was gone by the time he returned.

He dropped his tool bag, hoisted his shovel, and took to digging. The earth around the base of the object piled up as if the thing had come up out of the ground rather than falling down into it, as he’d initially assumed.

He dug for a long time. The sweat felt right, cleansing, and he enjoyed the burning of his muscles. For most of his adult life he’d spent his time floating around in a world of abstraction and blueprints as he designed the town and its machines. It felt good to have his feet planted firmly on the ground again.

Every time a memory of Lucille and Desdemona entered his mind, Jones gritted his teeth and dug harder to force them away. He became so incensed with the activity that he didn’t notice the shovel pinging off something metallic until he’d struck it four or five times.

Jones knelt and cleaned dirt away. A thick cluster of thin, copper wires extended from the base of the machine. If he didn’t know better, he’d say that they were roots. But that would mean the object was something living. A tree or a flower or something. That was impossible. Simply impossible.

Jones jumped up to his feet and dug even more furiously than before, enraged at the indecipherability of the object. Everything about it suggested that it was a machine, but machines were supposed to serve a purpose, and this thing had no purpose at all that he could detect.

He lost track of time as he dug outwards from the object. At one point Abel brought him some lemonade. Jones drank it more to keep Abel quiet than to quench his own thirst.

“Looks like roots, Jones.”

“I know it, Abel.”

“But that doesn’t make sense, does it?”

“No, Abel. It certainly does not.”

Jones finished the lemonade, handed the glass to Abel, and went back to work.

Mathilda returned at dusk. An elaborate shawl of mourner’s lace fell over her shoulders and down her back like a cape. Most people kept a simple swatch of the material for Remembering Day, but not Mathilda. Hers was as elaborate as anyone had ever seen, containing images of each family member and friend who’d died.

Jones looked at it only briefly and then got back to his work. He might have caught a glimpse of Desdemona’s and Lucille’s faces, and he didn’t want to see any more of them.

“It’s getting very late, Jones,” Mathilda said. “You going to see your wife and daughter before Remembering Day is over?”

Jones shook his head, spit, and kept digging. “This thing is huge. It seems to go on forever.”

Mathilda checked to make sure her hair was still pulled tightly in place. “It is undoubtedly strange, Jones, but it will be there tomorrow still. This Remembering Day won’t. It will be gone, along with your chance to honor them.”

Jones heaved a shovelful of dirt through the air in Mathilda’s direction. It didn’t come close to landing on her, but close enough to get his message across.

Mathilda waited for a few more moments and walked off.

Night fell. People cleared off the streets and placed lit candles in their windows, as per Remembering Day tradition. Each candle represented one person the house had lost.

Jones worked by the candlelight, happy for the first time for the irrational tradition. He dug furiously, reaching straight to the foundation of Abel’s house, a good twenty yards from the object. Singing voices filtered out through the walls of the home along with the sounds of laughter and sobs.

Jones shook his head, cursed their emotionality, and knelt to see the wires growing straight out of the foundation of the house. It made no sense. No damn sense at all.

Jones went back to the object and started digging in the opposite direction. The singing voices of Abel’s house flitted through his mind like mosquitoes and, with them, memories of the day that Lucille and Desdemona died. Try as he might, he couldn’t shake those images anymore.

He’d woken early on that day, as always, and told them both he loved them, as always. A good husband and father always expresses affection, and so it was atop his to-do list every morning. He walked to his job planning a clock tower with no clue at all that anything unusual would happen that day.

Fire alarm bells had started ringing at lunch time. His home was already consumed by flames by the time he got back there, his wife and daughter lost.

The source of the fire was never found. Jones stayed up for twelve consecutive nights trying to determine the cause and explain the tragedy, but was never able to do. None of it made any sense at all.

Jones growled at the memories and dug madly, cutting open the blisters on his hands so that the pain would drive the images away. His hands were slick with blood by the time he reached the foundation of another house. In rage he speared the roots, or wires, or whatever they were.

Mathilda appeared, candle in hand.

“Jones,” she said.

Jones kept stabbing at the metal.

“Jones.”

Jones looked up. The face watching him looked different from the Mathilda he knew. Maybe it was the way the candlelight shining up from below cast shadows over her face. He didn’t know. Whatever the reason, she didn’t have that seriousness-bordering-on-anger that was usually her expression. Now she just looked very, very sad.

“Midnight is less than an hour away, Jones. Remembering Day is almost done.”

“Remembering Day is a bunch of superstitious nonsense.”

Mathilda nodded. “It could be, Jones. I don’t think so, but it could be. That’s not the point, though.”

Jones opened his mouth to speak and found that he nearly began to cry. The weakness enraged him, so he shouted. “Why are you out here? Isn’t that against Remembering Day rules?

“Yes, it is, but I’m out here because I carry Lucille and Desdemona in my shawl, and I think they’d want me to talk to you.”

“You think they’d want you to shame me? Is that it? You think that’s what I deserve? Well, I have news for you, Mathilda. You’re too late. I already feel shame. Every damn day.”

Mathilda spoke gentler than he’d ever heard thought her capable of. “I am out here for your own good, Jones. I have no desire to shame you.”

“I’ve got work to do.” Jones went back to digging. He wasn’t even sure where he was going now, or what it would matter if he found the roots reaching another foundation.

Mathilda watched him for a while. “May the winds of your lost ones scatter leaves to cushion the trails that you walk upon,” she finally said. “May they cool you on hot days and carry happy scents of memory to your door. And, when your time comes to pass, may they carry you safely and swiftly to the bedsides of the lost ones you’ve found again.”

Jones had always hated hearing that foolish Remembering Day prayer, but this time it sent a shudder through his entire frame. He kept his back turned to Mathilda and felt tears pour out of his eyes as he worked. He stayed like that until he saw her walk away in his peripheral vision. Then, he dropped the shovel and ran for the machine.

He dug his ballpeen hammer from his tool bag. The machine, the flower, the whatever-it-was, served no purpose. It didn’t do anything. Its construction made no sense. It shouldn’t even exist.

He pulled back and smashed the hammer into a glass circle fixed into the object’s exterior. He knocked gears clean off. He bent and busted the several levers and attachments. He kicked and punched it, too, dimly aware this he might have broken his foot in the process and had certainly broken his hand.

Some part of his mind was conscious enough to register that he was shouting Lucille and Desdemona’s name as he raged. It was utterly irrational and foolish, but he didn’t care anymore. He didn’t feel any one thing. Instead, he felt everything at once, the anger and resentment, love and grief, one earthquake of emotion.

He gripped the hammer in both hands, relishing in the pain of the broken one, and reared back for a final shot. With every ounce of force he could muster he rocked it with a monstrous blow, his own momentum carrying him over so that he tripped and fell to the ground.

Still nothing.

Defeated, Jones crawled over and lay belly down next to the machine. His grief overwhelmed him. No longer angry. Just sad and lost. Nothing left to do, no longer even thinking of his actions, he knocked pitifully on the metal sides.

Knock, knock.

“What the hell are you?” His voice desperate with grief. “Why are you here?” He knocked again.

Knock, knock.

Nothing. Of course, nothing.

He rested his face in the dirt and decided to give up. Not only on the machine, but on everything. Go home and be done with it once and for all.

With one hand he pulled himself up by one of the machine levers. He had just turned to walk away, when something within the machine knocked back.

Knock, knock.

Copyright 2018 Jeff Suwak