Saturday, April 2, 2011


What You Are I Was
(Part 9 of 9)

By Miriam Rosenberg Rocek

I held his coat for him as he squirmed his way under the machine, unconcerned by the dusty, plaster-flecked floor. “It can be unpredictable,” he said, his voice as clear and un-echoed as if he were by my side, though he was up to his waist in oily gears, pipes, and cogs, under a vast and complicated mass of mechanisms and scriptures. The oil and paper smell of the machine filled the room. “Why don’t you give it a turn?” The pipes and gears of the machine reflected his face upwards, bouncing it off each component to a metallic reflection spread across a hundred little surfaces above the spools, like the image in a rain-dimpled pond. He was smiling, the expression fractured and distorted, but still discernible. I wondered if he could see me too, if my reflection was being carried back down that same twisted route.

I hung his coat on the doorknob and turned the crank, the metal warm under my hands. After a moment of clanks and creaks as pistons began to pump and gears to turn, the prayer wheels started to spin. My Predecessor slid out of the machine. There was oil on his face and hands, but no dust on the back of his shirt or pants as he took back his coat. I stopped turning, and the machine kept moving for another moment or two as before, the scrolls turning gently, slower and slower as the gears ground to a stop. When they did, my Predecessor stoked one hand over a piece of the metal frame, as if calming an agitated pet.

“May I ask you a question?” I said.

“If you like,” he said, his hand lingering on the side of the machine. “I can’t promise a decent answer. I’m better at asking questions than answering them, myself.” The reply surprised me. He had asked me so few questions, in all the time I’d known him. I do not know him very well at all, I thought.

“Please don’t be offended,” I said, a worrying introduction, I knew, “but I just wondered,” I floundered for a moment, trying to find a phrasing that did not sound either patronizing or stupid. “Do you really believe in these gods? Or that they can hear when a machine prays to them?”

He put his coat on, removed a white handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the oil smears from his face. When he lowered the handkerchief, his expression was serious. “I used to do this job myself,” he said, walking up the stairs. “And I find that I’m not as well suited to worship as I might be. But no god, nothing that’s ever been or dreamed of being a god, ought be left without a single child. They might prefer that worshipper to have a true soul, but this arrangement is better than nothing.”

Long training as an academic had taught me to notice when someone had avoided answering a question. “But if no one else is worshipping them,” I said, following him up the stairs, “isn’t it for a reason? What good does any of this do?” And why do I keep sending them prayers, I thought, when I expect and receive nothing from them? Why are the dead gods and my Predecessor the only ones in a month who have heard me speak while I give voice to the prayers of a silent machine? I thought of my dream, and felt a sudden urge to go back down to the cellar, tear out the prayers, and run from the Temple as fast as I could. Or no, I thought, I would take out each scroll, carefully, tenderly, then smash the machine to pieces, and walk away, let the gods and me go our separate ways, and never look for them again. Let someone who cared for them pray, but otherwise leave them in peace while their scrolls, untouched, unread, and unturned, crumbled into the dust on the cellar floor. Forget my unfinished, useless degree, and stop praying for something to pray to. The thought suddenly came to my mind, irrelevant and unexpected, that I could have been living with Lisa right now, instead of that clanking mass of religion and metal.

We reached the ground floor of the old storefront. I could tell it was still raining outside from the tapping sound that barely penetrated the room, though I couldn’t see through the boarded-up windows. I would need to inspect the machine for rust, I reminded myself, if damp seeped into the cellar. “What good?” he repeated. “None at all, to anyone but themselves, I suppose. For now, it is enough that they continue to be reminded that they exist, to hear their own names spoken, even if only on mechanized parchment. There may be a use for them someday, of course. You’re all they have,” he said. “You are God to countless gods, but it’s them you’re doing it for, not you.” He stopped, and shook his head. “You’re obviously a far better person than I,” he added, taking his hat from the stand by the door, and setting his hand on the doorknob. “Until next week,” he said. “You’re doing a most satisfactory job here.”

I almost stopped him before he could go, wanting to ask him why he wouldn’t tell me more, why he stopped being God to gods, what that has made him now, and what it will make me, but I could not believe, after all the unsatisfactory answers he had given me, that asking would do any good. He turned to give me one final nod. I returned it, dipping my head slightly, just enough to see that the beneath the layer of goosebumps that had emerged on my arms when the door opened, the bare skin bore the faintest reflection of my Predecessor standing in the doorway.

He stepped out into the rain. It spotted his hat and his dark coat, and I saw his image in every droplet as it fell. The drops carried the reflection down with them, spilling it onto the pavement as he walked away, the door swinging shut behind him. I caught the door before it could slam, hoping to call him back, but he kept walking, and I could think of nothing to say. In the last glimpse I caught of him, striding across the damp sidewalk, I saw his feet as they crossed the puddles, and I was sure, for a single moment, that he did not break the surface of the water. I never wanted to be God, I thought. I was hoping that someone would be a God for me. I almost spoke the words aloud, but he was gone before I could say anything, and I was left staring out at the street, empty except for the windblown rain. I let the door fall shut and stepped back into the Temple, where beneath my feet hundreds of sleeping, insatiable gods were waiting for me.

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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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