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Authors: Chris Adrian

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BOOK: Gob's Grief
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“It’s all very bad,” the boy agreed. In the last months he was Will’s constant companion. He was another good listener, if a poor conversationalist, and of course he was the very best helper one could ask for. Will had only to want a tool before Pickie Beecher ran up with it clutched in his tiny hands.

“I will make an adjustment,” Will said, “to ensure that the machine will also bring back dead love. So Canning Woodhull, when he walks again among the living, will have his wife again to hold him. Unless, of course, she never loved him at all, in which case I am powerless to help him.” He worked and he slept, and sometimes he ate, when Pickie Beecher brought him food.

As the weeks went on he came to be unsure, sometimes, if he was waking or sleeping, because he built in dreams as constantly as he built while he was awake. His sleep became fractured, so he only took it in spells of an hour or two, and when he’d wake, he’d see Pickie Beecher sitting atop some fantastic new piece of matériel that he’d stolen from only he knew where; he’d see Gob’s wife sketching at her desk; he’d see Gob wrestling a strut into some novel position. Will would rise and join the work. In the last weeks, he woke to see Pickie sitting on a little red dude of a fire engine, a locomotive smokestack, and a lens nine feet in diameter. When Will and Gob hauled it into place the nine-thousand-candlepower arc lamp—meant to shine down through the picture negatives—was amplified to ninety thousand candlepower. It would be, Will was sure, the brightest light ever.

“Do you really believe that it will do anything but gurgle and smoke?” the new Mrs. Woodhull would ask Will every so often.

He always had the same answer for her. “Of course I do.” Will thought her doubt would have become fatigued, by now, but she still called the machine ridiculous, and mocked it ruthlessly, even as she helped to build it. She claimed to have nothing at all to do with the hand that was guiding them with its drawings, and sniffed derisively when Will pointed out that it was attached to her wrist.

The spirits got happier as the machine got bigger. When it had grown to maturity—so it filled up the house and there was nowhere left for Will to sleep but cradled among its omnipresent arms and legs, its hundred thousand pieces, its crystal and iron gate and gatehouse—then they never walked but they danced, and they never opened their mouths but they seemed to be singing.

“Am I awake?” he’d ask Pickie Beecher, thinking back to the night when Jolly had asked him a similar question. Pickie Beecher usually pinched him in answer, but often it wasn’t enough to convince. What if Will dreamed the whole thing through to its glorious conclusion? What if the machine did its work, and death was abolished, and Will got to see all the dead rise and stretch their stiff limbs, and smile? What if he got to embrace Sam and Jolly, only to wake a moment later in a world where his work was still undone, where people still died? He doubted the angel, when she arrived every now and then to call him
and say he must destroy the abomination, before it was too late. He doubted that Mr. Whitman would come to them, meek as a lamb to be their battery.

But Walt Whitman did come. “Are you here?” Will asked him, poking the man in his heroic belly. It seemed unreal, all of it: all the house-sized gears turning; the wings beating; Mr. Whitman reclining in the gatehouse; a light flaring in Gob’s hands, and an answering light from the arc lamp, amplified and expounded through the lens to shine down so strong through the glass Will thought it must burn the images into the poet’s skin. Even that light seemed unreal, and though Will had grown accustomed to spirits, the ones that flooded the house, lining up for their turn to pass through the gates of the machine, all seemed strange and fake. “Now I will wake,” he said to Pickie Beecher, “and we’ll have to do it all again!”

“It’s my brother!” Pickie Beecher shouted above the noise. “He is here!” Mr. Whitman began to scream, and the spirits, with the little one-winged angel at their head, surged forward towards the gate. Then it finally did seem real, and only then did Will wish it were not. He would have done it all again, learned of Sam’s death, gone off to the war, suffered his apprenticeship under Frenchy. He would have gladly suffered all the debilitating fits of medical school. He would have loved Tennie again, even with the knowledge that he would lose her. He would have lost himself in all the seasons of dreamtime building. He would have done these things twice or three times. He would have done them over and over forever, if only he could wake away from the horrible screaming, so much worse than what the angel had him taste, if only he could have that, just that, be not real.


Gob. It was one of two questions he posed repeatedly during their trip to New York. Gob’s first answer was, “Time.” That was wrong, and warranted a savage beating. On the first night in the house on Fifth Avenue, as they stood in a library full of clocks, the Urfeist asked the question again. This time Gob said, “Death.”

“Yes,” said the Urfeist, “death waits at the end of every future.” He looked sad or afraid or dyspeptic whenever he asked that question. He had lived a gluttonous portion of years, and he still did not want to die. There was almost kindness in his voice when he would say that if Gob worked hard enough, the god of the future might fall by his hand.

They went to New York by horse cart, stage, steamer, and railroad, and each new conveyance was fancier than the last, so by the time they approached Manhattan, they were traveling in a luxurious Pullman car. All during the trip, the Urfeist spoke of machines, and how he would teach Gob to build them. “It’s the only certain means to bring back your brother, my ugly one,” he said. “Mechanically.”

Every morning as they’d traveled, the Urfeist had woken Gob by breathing hotly into his ear, and sometimes the rushing noise invaded his dreams, so he heard the ocean sound as he dreamed of his brother. The noise would issue from Tomo’s mouth when he tried to speak, and before he woke Gob would catch glimpses of copper and iron and glass as Tomo pointed to them. “It is the noise,” the Urfeist said, “of your machine. The one you must learn to build, if you want to save your brother from death.”

The Urfeist was an expert builder. Gob discovered that his first day in the thing’s beautiful house. Evidence of his new master’s skill was everywhere, devices large and small, locked away behind doors or placed in special alcoves in the long halls: a windmaker, rattraps big enough to catch children, singing candles, skittering iron insects, and books that turned their own pages as you read them. Gob wandered among the little machines, feeling admiration and envy as he beheld them. They would inspire him to hurry to the library and pick a book at random from the shelves, then sit in a chair among the clocks, or sprawl on the floor beneath a great golden armillary sphere. He’d read until the Urfeist came and found him and asked another question. “What is a machine?”

“A machine,” Gob would reply, his voice seeming to him mechanical itself as he recited the definition taught him on the journey from Homer, “is a combination of resistant bodies so arranged that by their means the mechanical forces of nature can be compelled to do work accompanied by certain determinate motions.”

“Precisely,” the Urfeist would say.

“Do you see how your mind is small?” the Urfeist asked Gob. “Do you see how you are clumsy and powerless? Do you want your brother back? You will not have him by flailing. Hurl blind rage at the walls, they will not break. Such machines as you would build—death would laugh at them! Death would laugh at you! Death is laughing at you now, saying, ‘Think of everything your brother was, everything he wanted, all he might have seen or heard or felt. Every morning he might have woken to, every night he might have put down his head on his pillow, every dream he might have dreamed as he slept—these things are mine now. I have stowed thousands of days away in my pocket where he will never live them, but I give them to you—you may imagine them, you may consider him planting his bare foot in the cool mud under the mill pond (on a hot day, is that cool mud not a joy?) and then you may consider how he resides in my dark pocket never to escape. You are a small piece of work, boy, lazy and coarse and no threat to me because your machine is here in my pocket, too, where it will never be born because you are too lazy and stupid to bring it out. You will accomplish nothing, and then I will have you, too. I will wait for you here at the end of your span of joyless pointless days.’”

Gob sat on his vast bed and studied a book the Urfeist had given him, one picked as suitable for inspiring the fancy of an ignoramus. In the library, he had passed it to Gob and then rummaged in another stack. Two minutes later he’d changed his mind, saying Gob wasn’t ready for that book: it was too fine for him, he could not be trusted to care for it. But Gob was already running up to his room.

It was one of the notebooks of Leonardo. “Do you want to be like him?” the Urfeist asked Gob the next day, after Gob had spent the whole night poring over the fantastic drawings. Gob nodded and got beaten for it with the hickory paddle. “Do not!” said the Urfeist. “He dreamed everything and built
Do you want to be a silly dreamer, or do you want to bring your brother back?” Gob wanted to bring back his brother, yet he lost none of his affection for the notebook. His eyes lingered for hours over pictures of gears and wheels and wings. He thought it would be most satisfying if he could garner such skill and draw the machine he dreamed about, but when he tried he only made a line that rose and fell as the noise of the machine rose and fell, a neaping ebbing line that fell back on itself, and was lost eventually in a tangle of similar lines.

Though he couldn’t draw his own machine, Gob found he had no difficulty copying the notebook drawings. He drew on the workroom floor with a piece of charcoal, copying pictures of finned missiles and vertical drilling machines, chain drives and sprocket wheels, Archimedean screws and waterwheels and well pumps. He did not know what he was drawing, but the shapes were lovely and familiar to him. He saw them in his dreams, amid spinning gears and puffing steam. In the center of the room the Urfeist had designated as his workshop, Gob copied a picture of an ornithopter. There was room enough to make it about as big as it was meant to be in life. He turned down the gas, and lay atop the thing, imagining that he rode it through the sky in search of his brother.

In New York, the Urfeist did not live the solitary life he lived in Homer. He had many friends, who called him Dr. Oetker, and thought he was a German radical who had fled with his fortune from the upheavals of ’48. The accent that the Urfeist affected around his friends reminded Gob of his grandmother, and made him think of home. He wondered if his mother was missing him, and if she thought he was dead. When he tried to picture her face he could only envisage a white tea rose, the sort she wore at her throat when she wanted to make herself look distinguished.

The Urfeist’s friends came to dinner, and clustered by the score around his table, where servants waited on them dressed in fancy livery, with ridiculous white wigs on their heads. Gob helped them set the table, taking as his job the setting of place cards above the plates: Mr. and Mrs. Lohman; Mr. Vanderbilt; Mr. Burns. Gob was not invited to dinner, but he would watch from just within the kitchen, and listen to the conversation.

Gob might have been lonely, except he had his studies to keep him occupied—there was always another book to read. And occasionally there were other children in the house. They would pass through, when the Urfeist began to feel old and melancholy. He told Gob he brought them to cheer his soul, but Gob felt certain he was eating them and hanging their bones to dry in the basement. They arrived, fetched from one of the charitable institutions of the city, and most of them were very happy to have stepped from the sad orphanage into a mansion. For a few days they stuffed at the Urfeist’s big table, and rolled hoops with Gob down the long halls of the house. Gob would show them his workroom, his books and his drawings, but these rarely provoked any interest. “What’s behind there?” they would ask, pointing at the iron door outside Gob’s room.

“The green room,” Gob said, and would not say any more about it, because it was into that room that the Urfeist retired when he wanted to put on his kilt and his hat and his skin chemise. It was filled with plants and carpeted with grass. The ceiling was all glass. At night the moon shone down on the skillfully potted ferns and roses and palms, and it did not take much imagining to think yourself lost in the wilderness. There was even a small cave built into a wall, where the Urfeist slept sometimes on a pile of leaves. Gob said nothing of the room, but the Urfeist told the children of it, saying he would take them in if they were good and show them that beautiful place, where birds sang under the glass roof, and where candy trees flourished, aching for children’s hands to pick their heavy fruit. The children all went in there, after a few days of feasting and playing, of sleeping in crisp white sheets in big beds. They passed through the iron door, hand in hand with the Urfeist, and Gob did not see them again, but after they were gone the Urfeist would declare himself filled with a youthful energy, and for a time all his melancholy would be departed from him.

*     *     *

“Unhappiness is the lot of spirits. They are denied bodily delight, but they are creatures of desire. Desire is all that’s left to them. They want to live again! They want to be with you, all you desolate millions. How will you live without them? How will they continue without you? What sort of heaven can there be when brothers are apart? My dumb one, my little boy, my ugly poodle, just poke a hole in the wall and the desire of spirits might pour through and tear the wall apart. Do you see how your work is small? Just a tiny hole through which you might drag your brother. A tiny hole, but it may as well be big as the whole earth, if you stay lazy and stupid, if I cannot reform your base, contrary soul. You may as well bring down the moon to touch the seas, smash the crystalline firmament and let down a rain of stars. Why did you come to bother me? Why, now, do you even try?”

“When I beat you I make you smarter,” the Urfeist told Gob. “When I love you I make you more tender.”

Gob felt no more tender than when he had first visited the Urfeist. He was not even sure what his teacher meant with that word, and he was not inclined to ask. He associated tenderness with girlishness. Girls were tender towards their dolls and their mamas. Girls had tender white flesh that gave when you poked it with your finger. If anything, Gob felt heavier and denser than before. Back in Homer, when his grandmother fell to reminiscing about her “terrible master,” she’d say, “Ach he put the
in me!” She’d say how the worm was still in her, and run a hand down her front and declare, “He is there, in a coil around my backbone. Oh, he never leaves me alone!” Gob could never tell if she thought that was a good thing, or a bad. He considered his heaviness and wondered if what he was feeling was not the extra weight of Anna’s worm.

Gob did feel smarter, though. He felt very much smarter than before. The hickory paddle was decorated on one side with multiplication tables and on the other with the alphabet. He already knew his multiplication tables, of course, but now the Urfeist was teaching him better math, powerful geometry. For months Gob saw triangles everywhere. Houses were roofed in triangles. Pine trees in the park were simple triangle shapes. Staring at the faces of strangers on the street, he could make their features dissolve into a grand association of triangles.

Gob began to measure time by the books he read. The winter of 1864 was all Latin and Greek primers. The spring was Aristotle. The Urfeist knew his Aristotle intimately, and he tested Gob’s retention of his reading, paddle in hand. He knew his Aristotle so well that Gob thought sometimes that he
Aristotle, soured by the centuries into a finger-kilt-and-blood-cap-wearing madman. Plato and Euclid, Archimedes, Ctesibius, Archytas of Tarentum—sometimes Gob’s eyes felt weak, but he loved what he read. He would rather sit with a book than with the Urfeist. His favorite thing was to sit in his room with a giant dusty book in his lap, some whiskey in one hand and a brick of sweet chocolate in the other, partaking of whiskey, knowledge, and chocolate in succession. He stole the whiskey from the pantry, and usually when the Urfeist smelled it on his breath he beat him, but sometimes he rewarded understanding with some sort of powerful liquor.

Often, Gob would get a shock of recognition as he read. A picture of the aeolipile of Hero raised the hair on the back of his neck. Here, surely, was a part or a piece of his own machine. “The aeolipile,” said the Urfeist. “Is it a spiritous or self-propelling machine?” It was spiritous, Gob said, and he proceeded to build an aeolipile of his own, working with scraps of metal from a basement room full of such scraps. It was not pretty, when he’d finished, but it functioned. Gob filled it with water, and lit a fire under it. Steam rose through the support tubes, then shot from the engine tubes, and the sphere began to rotate, and kept rotating for as long as there was water and fire to make steam. Such was a spiritous machine, one that moved by the power of air or steam, whereas a self-propelling machine moved by means of wheels and pulleys and weights. When the aeolipile provoked no beatings he copied other machines—the miraculous altar and the magic amphora and the fire pump.

“Toys!” said the Urfeist. Such science as was familiar to the Alexandrian engineers seemed to annoy him. He forbade Gob any more copying of Hero, and said he was ready for stranger and more powerful knowledge. Gob thought that meant he would at last be allowed to put his little hands on the
, which lay in the library under a glass case the unlocking of which Gob could not figure. But the Urfeist introduced him, instead, to the Renaissance Magi: Paracelsus and Nettesheim and Della Porta, Albertus Magnus and Mirandola and Dr. Dee. Gob wanted to try making a homunculus, but the recipe called for semen, something he could not yet manufacture. “Everything in time,” said the Urfeist, in a tone that might have been gentle and avuncular coming from another mouth. He taught Gob herbs. Asafetida has a horrid odor and is useful for exorcisms. Lilies keep away unwelcome visitors. The scent of mandrake will put a person to sleep. Elm protects from lightning. Gob wanted to know, if that was true, why was there a lightning-struck elm not fifty feet from the house? In answer he got a beating.

BOOK: Gob's Grief
13.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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