Saturday, March 26, 2011


What You Are I Was
(Part 2 of 9)

By Miriam Rosenberg Rocek

Once I had the job, I guess my religion became that of the Temple; of the machine, and I suppose it’s appropriate that I barely understand that religion myself. It’s hard for me to remember how I felt the first time I saw the machine. I’ve spent too much time around it since then, and my later experiences supplanted the original ones, the same way the indifference I eventually felt for Lisa overwrote my affection for her to the point where I can hardly remember what attracted me to her when we were both TAs in that Introduction to Hinduism lecture. It’s like trying to remember a smell, one that you only smelled once, and would know if you smelled again, but can’t describe or recall. All I really remember of my initial impression in the Temple is what the machine looked like. It was enormous; a sprawling mass of old metal pistons, angled out like bended knees, intricate networks of cogs, springs, wheels, pulleys, crankshafts and flywheels, and, at the very center, the prayers. A few turns of the big, brass-handled crank on the side set the complicated machinery into motion, gear teeth clicking together, pistons pumping, shafts turning, transferring the motion inwards, where it spun hundreds of various-sized cylindrical, scroll-covered spools. Each scroll had a single prayer neatly written on the inner sides of the paper, facing back towards the spindle. The intricacy was remarkable, like the inner workings of an old fashioned pocket watch. I could have stared at the spinning prayers for hours. I remember, too, feeling the same sense of missing something I felt inside houses of worship; a strong impression that there was something there beyond my perception or understanding, something obvious to everyone else, but utterly obscure to me.

My Predecessor demonstrated the machine that day. He assured me that the spinning of the prayers was as, or nearly as good as speaking them aloud, though he did not clarify whether he meant as far as he was concerned, or to the relevant gods. The machine creaked and rumbled when he turned the crank, and smelled of parchment and axle grease. I decided that it had been made from an old spinning machine from the heyday of the industrial revolution, with a few parts from old clothes wringers, and what looked like a grain thresher, but having decided that I still didn’t feel I knew anything about it. My Predecessor gestured for me to try, and I cautiously took hold of the crank. The metal was warm from my Predecessor’s touch as I turned the prayers for the first time. The scrolls and gears remained in motion for a few moments after I stopped turning the handle, as some hidden internal spring gave up its tightness. My Predecessor watched and listened to those last movements carefully, and gave a tiny nod of approval. If the sound of the machine had been a song, I thought, he would have been mouthing the words.

He was older than me, I guessed, by a decade or two, but it was hard to tell his age; he might have been anywhere between thirty and sixty. He was slim, with dark curly hair, low on his forehead but thinning at the center; a natural tonsure. I was staring at him, I realized, though there was nothing particularly noteworthy about his appearance. He drew the eye like an otherwise unremarkable rock breaking an empty desert landscape, even standing against the intricate chaos of the machine. When he spoke, explaining how often I ought to grease the gearshafts, his soft voice seemed to drown out every other sound in the room, as though the creaking of the machine, the hissing of the furnace, my own breathing, had hushed themselves to whispers so that he could be heard. Even when he did not speak, his breath, his footsteps, the quiet scraping sound of his fingertips brushing the dust off of a metal surface echoed through the cellar. I felt I should say something, to show I’d been paying attention. “Like the ‘khor,” I said finally. I almost winced at how loud my voice was, and tried to lower my volume. “The Tibetan prayer wheel. You spin the wheel to speak the prayer, right?”

“Same idea,” he said, looking up from the machine with a startled-looking smile.

I waited, but he did not elaborate. “Deus en machina?” I said hopefully.

“Not at all,” he replied, and showed me where the oil cans were kept. “That’s really all you need to know,” he said, as he took an oil can and reached with it into a cavity of the machine. He leaned further forwards, clambering most of the way into the machine in order to reach some distant part in need of oil. “You are now the Elder, I am your Predecessor,” he said, apparently ignoring the fact that I was only twenty-seven. Old not to have settled on a career path or belief system, but not old enough to be an elder of anything, I thought. “Do come to me if you have any trouble,” he added from the depths of the machine. “That’s what I’m here for.”

He left me to get settled in without any other discussion. Nothing about who he was, why the job had to be done, or whether, as I half-suspected, the whole thing was an elaborate practical joke, human behavior experiment, or extremely high-concept reality T.V. show. I searched for hidden cameras after he left, but found nothing. A few weeks at the job, and I was convinced that if it was a practical joke, it was being carried to elaborate enough lengths that I might as well see it through.

The duties of the Elder were simple enough, I suppose, and took up, at least when I started, about three or four hours of any given day. That left me with plenty of time to not work on my doctoral dissertation on the idea of faith as a virtue in the Abrahamic religions. The paper was meant to explore the various scriptural, legendary, and folkloric instances in which an individual seeker is given proof of the existence of the almighty, and examine the interplay of those ideas in a faith-based system. What it was actually doing was gathering virtual dust on my hard drive while I read the book of Job, Genesis 22, and assorted scriptural, historical, and contemporary accounts of miracles, occasionally making a note or highlighting something, and dozing off while staring out the window. I had identified the fundamental contradiction; the insistence on blind faith, combined with offers of proof, but so far I had nothing interesting to say about it. Being the Elder gave me a few extremely welcome hours a day when I didn’t have to try to say anything about it all.

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I am a graduate of Northwestern University with a BA in creative writing. Since college I have worked as a nanny, and as a tall ship sailor, helping to sail old-fashioned, traditionally rigged sailing ships from the Caribbean to Nova Scotia. I was born in New Mexico, raised in Delaware, and currently live in New York City.


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