Snowlight

Some writers have a hard time differentiating between the particular and the universal. They commit the error of assuming that everyone has had the same general experiences they’ve had. This can lead them into awkward misunderstandings or even embarrassing revelations. So when I ask you to imagine a man hiking alone in the mountains on a snowy night, is that enough? Is this a universal experience? Have you ever walked in the snowlight? 

At the very least you’ve probably seen the snow fall, although I suppose it’s possible that you live somewhere tropical (here I am assuming, perhaps rashly, that you exist. For the purpose of writing this piece I have posited the existence of an eventual reader. Although, like the existence of God, the existence of my reader is improbable when you consider the actual condition of the world, and impossible to prove at the moment). Perhaps your home is a grass hut somewhere close to the equator, someplace so warm that you wear only a loincloth and subsist entirely on the flesh of tropical flowers. But even if that’s the case, you have at least seen snow falling on television, and it’s likely that you imagine that you know what it’s like. You have probably been out at night as well. The experience of night must be near universal. You may have been to the mountains too, or at least to the woods. It’s really the woods that are essential here. And we have all been alone. Some of you, like me, are constantly alone no matter where you are. 

But have you experienced all these things at the same time? Probably not. 

When I walk through the mountains at night I am almost always alone, in both the physical and the spiritual sense. That’s why I go there. The man with a solitary soul feels chaffed by the physical presence of others, to such a man the shadows under the moonlit pines are a soothing balm.

When the snow falls, a silence grows on nature like mold on soft cheese. I paused often to listen to it the last time I went walking in the snowlight. There were ten miles of falling flakes between me and the closest town, and every shout, every car horn, the entire clanging din that humans make wherever they congregate, was completely absorbed in this blanket. Does the fall of a flake itself make a noise? Sometimes the hard, icy, granular type of snow makes a muffled rattling against the pine needles and the hiker’s hood. But the snowflakes that night were cottony fluffs of white. Airy. Insubstantial. Some scholastic monk from 700 years ago would probably have claimed that each flake was the soul of a separate angel, come down from heaven to kiss God’s creation below. I would have thought this monk an idiot, but I would have understood him.

The darkness on such a night is different from the darkness on any other night. It should be a pure darkness. The city’s streetlights are far away. The clouds are thick and block the moon and stars as effectively as blackout curtains blocked a Londoner’s windows during the Blitz. And yet, there is light. I know that what I’m about to say runs contrary to the laws of nature, but this pale glimmering can only come from the snow itself. Snow that falls at night has a glow that is killed by even a moment’s exposure to daylight. If I had come back to the mountains twenty four hours later, the glow emanating from the snow would have been gone already, ruined by its contact with the sun. 

The glow illuminates only the snow itself, and perhaps gives a slight hint of something just short of light to the sky, but it does nothing to trees or rocks or people. These objects remain black and featureless. In such conditions a man becomes invisible if he stands in the trees, but brightly back lighted as he walks across a field. In either location the man is a wraith. He is a shape, a silhouette. He has no individualizing characteristics outside his gait, the general outline of his form, and his voice. He is a shadow that breaks from one dark treeline to briefly cross a field of white before being absorbed by the darkness on the opposite side. 

I have a dog named Jasper. He’s a husky, and as a puppy he had been a wildly energetic thing, but now that he’s ten years old he’s mellowed with age. In his youth it had been necessary to keep him on a leash because I feared that he would chase some rabbit or elk and disappear into the wild forever. But now I let him trot along at my side, unbound. He’s a white dog. In contrast to everything else, he becomes invisible against the snow and brightly outlined against the dark trees.

For a man hiking through the mountains on a snowy night the universe is narrowed to the immediate. All disappears except for a few feet of woods around him and the dune of snow immediately before him. It is only in such a time and place that the solitary man can feel truly at peace. He is separated at last from the discomfort imposed on him by the existence of other people, with all their importunities and noise. It is only then that he can finally be free to think and to open his soul to nature. The ambient hush enters him, and maybe some of the darkness does too. Using a flashlight in such circumstances would be a sacrilege. On these nights I am guided only by snowlight.

These nights include certain dangers. There are, of course, the purely physical hazards. You might get lost in the darkness, or slip and break your leg, stranding yourself in freezing temperatures miles from help and with no cell service. But such risks can be managed. The deeper danger can be found in your own mind. On these nights nature becomes a sort of sensory deprivation tank, and a man’s thoughts and feelings come back to him amplified and twisted to a hallucinatory degree by his surroundings. With no distractions a man can only think of himself, and of his place in the universe. This is good, generally; this is why I go out into nature in the first place. But sometimes the thoughts take a dark turn. Sometimes I think about the wrongs I have suffered, about the people who are against me, and even, I have to admit, about the mistakes I have made. Or mistake. I have really only made one mistake but it annihilated me and I have endured the crushing weight of it for the past nine years. At all costs I had to avoid thinking of that one thing. 

The footprints I had made an hour earlier were already filled with an inch of snow as I hiked back towards the trailhead after a successful evening of introspection. I entered a broad meadow that in spring was covered with green grass, in summer with yellow grass, and now with a blanket of white. I soon realized I was not alone; there was another person walking into the meadow from an uphill path that joined my own. Jasper ran over to investigate and I felt compelled to shout, “Don’t worry! He’s a nice dog!”

The man shouted back through the muffling effects of the falling snow, “Mine is pretty nice too, but sometimes he’ll get into a fight when he meets a new dog.”

I hadn’t realized that the man was also hiking with a dog, his animal was as white as my own, and I jogged with heavy legs through the deepening snow so that I could be present if the two got into a spat. But when I arrived at the spot where the man had paused, I saw that both dogs were wagging their tails as they circled each other in amicable inspection. 

The other man had his dog on a leash. “You should let your dog loose,” I suggested, “let him get a good run in. I have a husky too and they love to run.”

He laughed, “That’s exactly what I’m afraid of. He may run off and I’ll never see him again.”

“You don’t need to worry about that tonight, I think. They’ve become friends. Your dog will stay close to mine, and my dog will stay close to me.”

The man seemed unsure, but then he said, “Well, I do love to watch him run.” He unclipped the leash and his dog bolted away, immediately disappearing against the white of the snow. My own animal seemed to become a puppy again and bounded after him. The two ran in circles around us, invisible but audible. I envied their easy and exuberant friendship.

“You’re on your way back to the trailhead?” he asked.

“Yes. The snow is falling so thick that I thought I’d better turn back a little earlier than I would have liked. I should have probably brought my snowshoes.”

“I thought the same thing. I have to say that I’m surprised to see anybody out here.”

“Me too. I usually have these nights to myself.”

I could sense him smiling in the darkness, “We’re just a couple of loners aren’t we? Spoiling each other’s solitary wandering.”

I smiled back, warmed at having found a man who shared my feelings, “I think we’ll survive each other’s company.”

We began walking down the gentle slope to the trailhead, and neither one of us spoke for a moment. I thought it strange that I had found a sort of kindred spirit in this remote place, in these strange conditions, but then I realized that I couldn’t possibly find a kindred spirit anywhere else or in any other way. 

He broke the silence, “The next time I come up here there will be enough snow for skis.”

“I wouldn’t ski here,” I offered, “I’d keep going up the highway a bit to where they close it off with a gate every winter. They groom the road all the way up to Aspen Falls Park. It’s a great place to do some cross country.”

“Thanks,” he said, “I’m new around here, and don’t have all that sort of local knowledge yet.”

“You can also ski the road up the east fork of Shannon’s Valley. You might see moose or elk if you go up there. That’s my favorite place.”

“You seem to know all the best spots; you must be a local.”

“Almost. I’ve been here for ten years. It feels like home now.”

As we talked I began to get an eerie feeling. It began as a sense of déjà vu. I felt, vaguely at first but with increasing sharpness, like I had gone through all this before. I had walked through the snow in the darkness with this man on this night in a parallel universe, or in some previous existence, or in a forgotten dream. The feeling grew as we walked.

Also, the one thing I did not want to think about somehow began to obtrude on my mind. Memories of my mistake began to tunnel into my consciousness, and at first I didn’t realize why talking with this man was giving rise to these thoughts. We were two strangers exchanging the sorts of banalities that form the substance of most conversations between people who are meeting for the first time. There was nothing there to turn my mind into its darkest pathway. If anything, the conversation should have distracted me from myself.

If it wasn’t the subject matter of our conversation that was bringing up my most painful memories, it had to be something else. The man was younger than me. Probably a decade younger. He was much too young to have yet made a mistake like mine. Much too young. Although, as I thought about it I realized that I had been pretty close to his age when I made my mistake. Maybe his freshness reminded me of myself in those brighter days. 

I have always been a man alone. I told you that already, but I think it’s worth repeating because you need to understand this fact about me if you are to understand how I made my mistake.I hope you can understand me, but I worry that I may be different from the rest of mankind in some fundamental way that makes me incomprehensible to everybody else. Or almost everybody. One person, at least, has understood me.

 I fell in love once. It’s probably hard for you to believe that a man like me, a man with such obvious misanthropic tendencies, could possibly have a heart. But I do have a heart. 

I fell in love, and that was surprising enough, but even more surprising was the fact that she fell in love with me too. In fact, this may sound like a kind of boast, but she fell for me first. Her name was Natalie. She was smart, amusing, and lovely. Her curly brown hair was always a wreck and she wore clothes that were years out of fashion. She liked all movies, no matter how bad. She read too many books. Natalie was kind to everyone and she had a laugh that made me happy. I am not a funny person, but I managed to make her laugh all the time. To be honest, when she laughed she was invariably laughing at me. She was laughing at my odd habits and ideas, but she did it in a way that somehow made being laughed at the best possible thing in the world. It was, I hope you can understand this, it was a laugh of acceptance and love. I’m worried that when I say she laughed at me you will somehow think it was a cruelty, and it wasn’t. It was the opposite.

Imagine being in my place. A lonely man. A man who had always been by himself. A man who had never had friends because he eschewed friendship as a time wasting thing. Other people were merely the instruments of intrusion. Imagine such a man suddenly finding himself loved, his emptiness replaced with fullness, his darkness with light. Even now, all these years later, I can still feel the peculiar pain of a lonely man in love as I write this. 

Natalie fell in love with me, as I said. I don’t want to belabor this, but she fell in love with me. This is the essential fact of my life. We were married. We had a daughter and we named her Tullia. I loved my Romans and I said, “Let’s name her Tullia, that was the name of Cicero’s daughter.” My wife laughed and shook her head, but she agreed. When Tullia was born, you’ll think me a monster for admitting this, but when my daughter was born I looked at her, this wriggling bit of pink dressed in pink, as bald, skinny, and incontinent as an old man, and I wondered if I could really love her. What was there to love? She had no personality. We couldn’t exchange ideas. And loving didn’t come easy for me in the first place. I was wrong to worry, of course, I soon loved her every bit as much as I loved Natalie.

After five years of marriage I found my old solitary self trying to assert himself again. “I need my space.” This is the sort of thing one character says to another in the most cliche riddled movie or television show. “I need my space.” The words make me cringe, but I said them. I’m repeating them now to flagellate myself with them. “I need my space.”  Those are the words that I said to the woman I loved. I told Natalie that I wasn’t sure I wanted to live with her anymore. It would be good for her too, I insisted, because I couldn’t be an easy man to live with. I was too inward by nature. I was not good company. I needed my space.

She didn’t want to, but she gave it to me. She said, “I don’t know what your problem is, but I’m going to give you a taste of this space you think you want. You’re going to see that you’re wrong. You only think you want space; what you really want is me. I’ve rented a house for a month, that’s all the time it will take for you to realize that you have made a mistake.” She moved out that week. She moved out while the first snow of the season was falling. On the way to the little home she had rented, her Honda Accord slid into an intersection and was hit by a dump truck. She was killed; Tullia was killed, and I didn’t have to wait a whole month to realize I’d made my life’s great mistake.

“Are you married?” I asked the man walking by my side.

“Yes.” He answered. “I got married in August. We already have a baby on the way. It’s going to be a girl.”

“Congratulations,” I said, forcing a tone of happiness into my voice.

“Thanks. I’m sort of amazed by it all. I kind of thought I’d be alone my whole life, and now I’ve got a woman who loves me and I’m surprised to find that I’m excited to have a baby coming too. Life is strange, but it can be great.”

“Ah, yes. It can be strange and wonderful.”

It was at this point that I first began to suspect the truth of what was happening, although I didn’t dare to let the thought form itself into something solid yet. I wouldn’t let it form something that could be considered in a serious way. I couldn’t let it take a shape that would require action on my part. I struggled against the thought. I pushed back against the intruding knowledge.

“How about you?” He asked. “Are you married?”

“No,” I said. And the conversation died there for a time.

I am worried that you will doubt some details of the next part of my story, so I want to lay out the scientific basis for the actions that I would take over the next few minutes. It is important to me that you understand that these were not the actions of a crazy person. 

Time travel is a fact. That’s the first thing you need to understand. Although the phenomenon is dismissed in the popular imagination as nothing but one of the more outlandish sub-genres of science fiction, time travel is a well established fact. You will notice that I am not hedging this claim in a tempering phrase like, “the possibility of time travel is a fact,” because we are not discussing a mere “possibility” here, we are discussing a phenomenon that has been observed and well documented in nature.

In his theory of general relativity, Einstein stated that time speeds up or slows down depending on how fast you’re moving relative to another object. Every child has his mind blown when he’s taught for the first time that if he zoomed away from the Earth on a spaceship going the speed of light, he could fly into space for fifty years, and then turn around and come home at the same speed, and when he got back to Earth 100 years would have passed here and everybody he had ever known would be dead from old age, but he would still be young, and would feel like very little time had passed. This isn’t just a theory, experience shows that the companies that operate the world’s GPS satellites have to consider general relativity in building their systems because GPS satellites are moving so fast that there is a significant difference between their time and ours. 

The time travel I’m about to suggest isn’t exactly the same kind posited by Einstein. I will admit that. But I just wanted to establish that time travel is real, and that believing in it doesn’t make a person crazy. I traveled in time on that snowy night. What exactly was the mechanism that caused me to travel in time? I don’t know. String theory may suggest an explanation, or at least the beginning of one. Under string theory it is thought that cosmic strings, narrow shafts of energy that stretch across the universe and that have persisted in the aftermath of the Big Bang, could contain a huge amount of mass, enough to bend spacetime and permit time travel events.

I am not a scientist, and I do not understand exactly how it happened, but as I spoke to that young man, it became clear to me that we were the same person. We were the same height, we had the same dog, he had recently been married and had a daughter who was on the way, he was a loner who had been surprised by love. All these things added together with my profound sense of déjà vu, and suddenly I realized that I had experienced this night before. The reason this all seemed somehow so strangely familiar was that I had lived it, but from the perspective of the other man, who was also me. Somehow spacetime had bent in on itself and blended a night from ten years ago with the present. 

Memory is a labyrinth. You can walk away from an event, and then, after years of wandering, suddenly take a wrong turn and find yourself staring it in the face again. That’s what happened. I had completely forgotten about my strange meeting in the snowlight with a man and his white dog, but now my brain reassembled the event in my consciousness. It became real to me again.

When I began to shiver it had nothing to do with the cold. It was incredible, but I knew it had to be true. I had traveled backwards in time, or he had traveled forward. It amounted to the same thing. The truth of the situation suddenly became the most obvious fact in the world. As I remembered that walk in the woods I’d had a decade earlier, when I had been in the shoes of the other man, I realized that the version of me from the future had tried to warn me about the mistake. He had tried to tell me that I must not ever leave Natalie, that if I attempted to put space between us that space would be infinite. Yes. I had said these things to myself. I suddenly remembered them.

The question was why I hadn’t acted on them when I had the chance in the first place. Knowing what I had known, why had I left her anyway? Obviously it was because I hadn’t believed it. I had thought it was the story of a madman and had dismissed it from my mind before I even got home that night. I had forgotten it for ten years and it was only now that the truth was flooding back into me. The details of that night began to click back into place. All the solemn warnings from that strange shadow of myself. These memories formed in my mind and glowed like righteous ghosts. 

There was only one thing to do. I had to try again. I had to give this younger version of myself the message in a way that he would not forget. We were now only a half mile from the trailhead where our cars waited (each in its own timeline), and I had to think fast. I could try to tell him details about himself to prove my identity, but I well knew my own suspicious mind. He would think it was a parlor trick, or perhaps a scam. Instead of opening his mind, such an approach would only close it down for good. I could simply try to reason with him, just tell him the truth. But no. He wouldn’t be open to it. His rational mind would not accept the truth. I could only accept it because I had now lived through both ends of this particular reality, and I could no longer deny it. For him, denying the truth was the rational reaction.

Luckily, I always carried a knife with me when I went hiking. As a boy my grandfather had taught me that when you venture into the wilderness you should always bring two things: a canteen and a knife. My right hand closed around the knife in my jacket pocket. It was heavy and cold in my hand. As I held it I realized that the best way to make my words memorable would be to accompany them with violence. If I delivered my message immediately before or immediately after stabbing him he would doubtless remember it. He would know that I was no charlatan working some kind of con. He would give my message the weight that it deserved. 

My heart began to pump great gushes of blood into my skull as I contemplated my plan. Just the idea of flicking my knife open and driving it into another human being made me shake. It was a terrifying thought for a man like myself who had never indulged in anger or practiced violence. But I could see no other way. It had to be done to save Natalie and Tullia. To refuse the impulse to stab this man, who was myself after all, would be an act of unparalleled cowardice.

I pulled my fist from the pocket of my jacket, the knife held snugly in my tense hand. I could feel the flakes of snow landing on my hot skin and immediately melting. It was a cold tickling feeling. I flicked the blade out and the click it made as it locked open seemed unbearably loud in my ears, but only because I knew what the sound was. The snow must have also muffled the noise from my other self. I hoped that it would muffle his screams.

I was glad that the snowlight reduced him (reduced me) to a silhouette. I could just barely bring myself to stab a mere shape, but I knew I would not have been able to stab a human being who was visible as such.

He had been talking for a while and seemed suddenly to notice that I had become non-responsive to his chatter. He paused and the silence of snowflakes fell over us. Then I said, “Don’t leave Natalie. Ever.”

“What?” He sounded confused. No doubt his mind was scrambling, trying to figure out who I was and how I knew Natalie’s name. 

“Don’t let Natalie go.”

He started to say something but his words were cut off by his scream as my knife entered his shoulder. I thrust my blade into him a second time as he tried to get away. He was stumbling and screaming and after a few paces he fell face-forward into the snow, his black shape starkly outlined against the white. “Don’t let Natalie go!” I yelled, my voice heavy with fury and self-hatred.

I ran then, and I noticed that my dog was with me. The dog of ten years ago had vanished, no doubt returning to his own timeline as time bent back into shape and returned the me of ten years ago to the place where he started. 

The trail was a thin, glowing thread of white at my feet, and the trees were a pair of vast, impenetrably black walls on either side. I felt like I was running across that brief crack of light that separates Nabokov’s two eternities of darkness.

When I stumbled into the trailhead parking lot my Jeep Cherokee was right where I had left it. It was a relief to see it there; I had been worried about the possibility of returning to the wrong timeline. I was also relieved to see that the Volvo I’d been driving a decade ago was nowhere to be seen, proving that the timelines really had straightened themselves out. There was only one other vehicle in the parking lot. It was a truck but I couldn’t determine its make and model under the snow that covered it.

I drove home as fast as I dared under the weather conditions. I was nervous but eager to see my girls again.

Snowlight

Bacon’s Brazen Head

The package showed up on Anthony’s doorstep three months after his Uncle Horace’s funeral. It was an ordinary looking cardboard box of the kind that litter millions of doorsteps across America every afternoon. When he picked it up he was surprised at how heavy it was, and when he brought it inside and put it back down the kitchen table creaked slightly under its weight. Anthony opened his small keychain pocket knife and sliced through the tape that was keeping the box closed. There is a certain satisfaction to be found in the smooth way a sharp steel blade cuts through clear plastic packing tape, and Anthony enjoyed it for the moment that it lasted. Then he pulled back the flaps, lifted a sheet of bubble wrap, and saw that the cardboard box contained a slightly smaller wooden box within, walnut if he wasn’t mistaken. A letter was sitting on top of the wooden box, it read:

 

Dear Anthony,

I hope this letter finds you well. The fact that you have received it means that I am unwell. Dead, in fact. This is unfortunate because I rather enjoyed being alive. Oh well, who am I to complain about the common fate of mankind? And who knows, maybe God exists and since I haven’t been too bad of a fellow I’m sure I’ll be fine. So, chin up and hope for the best.

I always felt that you and I were, well, not friends exactly, but we had a connection. You were my favorite nephew. When you were a little chap I could always make you laugh with my impression of an ape who’s unhappy with the quality of his banana, and as you grew up we may not have seen each other often, but we always had a rapport when we did.

Anyway, I’ve been working with a lawyer on my will over the past month, deciding who gets which pieces of my pie. I have rather a lot of nice things, as you know, and I’ve enjoyed mentally giving all of it to the people I love. One of my possessions, the one that is sitting in front of you right now, isn’t like the rest of them. The box you have received contains a strange object. Some say it is a magical thing, a wonder. It can explain itself better than I can, so open the box and speak to it.

Love and best wishes,

Horace

 

Anthony had always loved his Uncle Horace. His mother’s brother had been the fun uncle, unlike his dad’s siblings, the New York stockbroker and the lawyer in Buffalo. Because Horace lived on a country estate in Suffolk, England, visiting him was a rare treat, something that only happened about once every two years. Horace’s home had always seemed like the acme of magnificence to the young Anthony. It was an old house, crammed with history and almost certainly haunted. Horace had a room he called his Museum of Curiosities. This room contained cursed Egyptian artifacts, a two headed snake in formaldehyde, a meteorite said to be imbued with occult powers, and other oddities that gripped the imagination of the young Anthony. Horace had a story for each of his many artifacts, and as a child Anthony had believed all of them.

Once he had removed the wooden box from its bubble wrap and cardboard packaging, Anthony saw that it was really more of a small cabinet with two doors, each studded with a small brass handle. It had the peculiarly pleasant scent of all antique wooden things. Anthony pulled on each of the brass handles at the same time and they opened with a pair of identical clicks. Inside the cabinet there was more bubble wrap, and Anthony removed wads of the wrap until a bronze statue came into view. The statue depicted an old man wearing the sort of turban you might expect to find on the head of an Ottoman sultan. He had a forked beard and a supercilious expression on his face. The eyes of the statue were closed.

Anthony hadn’t been expecting anything in particular to be in the box, and yet, he was surprised by the statue. It would have made sense for his uncle to give him something that connected the two, some object of common interest, something that Anthony had once expressed an admiration for, but he had never seen this bust. It had formed no part of the Museum of Curiosities and must have come from some more private collection. His uncle had told him to ask the object about itself, and he now did so whimsically, expecting no answer as he spoke.

“Why did my uncle give you to me?” 
The bust’s eyes popped open and it answered immediately, “He gave me to you because I am a strange object, and he didn’t think anybody else he knew would appreciate my powers as you can.” Anthony inhaled sharply as he stepped back in a sort of shock that verged on horror. It wasn’t just the fact that the statue was speaking that he found disturbing, it was the eyes that creeped him out. They were human looking, white and brown with black pupils and barely visible red veins. They were moist. They were the eyes of a living creature and they looked wrong set in this work of metal.

“Do not be afraid,” the bust continued, “I mean you no harm. And even if I did, there’s nothing I could do to you. I have neither arms nor legs. I cannot move. I can do nothing and go nowhere except through the imaginative power of my prodigious mind.” The bust had a snooty BBC style accent despite his Ottoman turban.

“What are you?” Anthony asked when he had finally regained his composure.

“I am Bacon’s Brazen Head.”

“Where did you come from?”

“From Bacon. Obviously. Roger Bacon.”

“Oh. I think I’ve heard of him. The medieval scientist?”

“He was more than a scientist, but yes. That’s the Bacon.”

“He built you?”

“Yes. He was a master of the alchemical arts, the greatest of the thirteenth century. He formed me, and then breathed life into me.”

“Through science?”

“Magic. I am a being of magic, beyond all human comprehension. I contain knowledge, wisdom, and power that will make you wonder if I am a god. I am not a god, for I am beyond god and the limitations he has placed upon mankind. I am a product of the occult, imbued with inhuman wisdom and understanding that will make your mind reel and leave you struggling to maintain your balance.”

“What does that mean in practical terms?”

“Do you wish me to give you a demonstration of my power? Be forewarned, some who have witnessed the extent of my powers have been so struck by awe that their minds were broken.”

Anthony hesitated, afraid, before curiosity overcame caution, “I want to see.”

“So be it. You have been warned. Just one of my powers is the ability to predict the weather. Behold: Today it will be partly cloudy with a thirty percent chance of showers in the late afternoon. The high will be approximately 65 degrees, falling to a low of 51 tonight.”

“That’s it?”

“What!” The head was indignant, “You dare desire more than that torrential outpouring of knowledge? You ask to peel the sheet even farther back from the future and peer deeper within? You want to probe the depths of time and nature to discover the likely weather beyond the next twenty-four hours?”

“Yes.”

“Well, one day is as far as I can see. Even my Earth-shattering mind has limitations.”

“Alexa,” Anthony said, “what’s the weather?”

A black cylindrical device sitting on the counter behind the bust began to glow with an otherworldly blue light before saying, “It is currently cloudy and 59 degrees. Today you can expect a high of 66 degrees, falling to a low of 51 degrees overnight. There is a thirty percent chance of showers this afternoon.”

“What witchery is this!” The head shouted. “I thought we were alone, but you have spies here? Remove me from this cabinet and turn me to face this sorceress!”

Anthony removed the head from the cabinet and put it on the table, facing Alexa. “But where is she?” it asked.

“That’s her right there.”

“Where? I see nothing.”

“That cylinder. The black cylinder just past the sink.”

“That is a machine?”

“Yes.”

“Ah. I have seen human machines before. I have ridden in locomotives and even motor cars several times. I even flew on an aeroplane to get here, and then rode a lorry right to your front door. I am certainly more intelligent than any machine made by the hands of men.”

“Okay. What else can you do besides predict the weather?”

“Prepare yourself to quail before the might of my mental powers. My mind roves the continents and brings news from even the farthest corners of the globe. At this very minute, I perceive that the state of Florida has been struck by a hellish storm, a hurricane of great magnitude. Also, there are riots on the streets of Paris, and in distant Africa a battle was fought in the country of Mali, and 30 people were left dead.”

Anthony said, “Alexa, read the news…”  And Alexa did, mentioning every event the brazen head had, and a few more besides.

“I perceive that your machine imagines itself to be the master of the present. I could challenge it’s assumptions, but will not. Instead I will prove that I have knowledge of which it is unaware. Knowledge of the past.” The head began to declaim on the final days of Rome, but he was interrupted by Anthony who said, “Alexa, read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.”

Alexa responded, “In the second century of the Christian era, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valor. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants . . .”

“Enough!” Bacon’s head shouted.

“Alexa, stop.” 

“Ah,” said the head, “but your machine has no soul! I have mastered not only facts, but the art of music.” It stopped speaking and opened its mouth. A moment later a Gregorian chant could be heard issuing from the opening. It was a full chorus singing together, it sounded pretty good, though a bit tinny.

Anthony said, “Alexa, play Led Zeppelin,” and Alexa complied by launching directly into Black Dog at an impressive volume.

“If you call that music, I suppose your machine can play it, but does it have a sense of humor?”

“Do you have a sense of humor?”

“Of course.”

“Okay, tell me a joke.”

The head thought for a moment and then said, “There was tradesman named Giovanni who lived in the city of Verona. He was a very jealous man, and he struggled to find a way to discover a certain method to determine whether or not his wife was an adulteress. Finally, he struck upon a solution, he emasculated himself with a razor. ‘Ha!’ He said, ‘now if my wife becomes great with child, I’ll know she has been with another!”

There was a moment of silence. “Is that it?” Anthony asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Is there a punchline or . . .”

“You didn’t think that was funny?”

Silence.

“That joke killed in the 1400s.”

“Alexa,” Anthony said, “tell a joke.”

“What do you call a boomerang that doesn’t come back? A bummerang.”

“That’s not funny” the head objected.

“No,” Anthony admitted, “but at least nobody’s testicles were damaged.”

*

Bacon’s Brazen Head spent a week on Anthony’s kitchen table as he decided what to do with it. In the end he put it on top of a bookcase in his living room because the head had one advantage over Alexa: it didn’t require an internet connection and WiFi reception in the living room had always been weak.

 

Bacon’s Brazen Head

Sentenced to Hard Empathy

Her lawyer, that bald old loser, told Mackenzie that she should expect to spend some time behind bars. “You need to mentally prepare yourself for a couple months in jail,” he said in a tone that made her wonder if he thought she deserved it. 

“She didn’t even kill herself,” Mackenzie protested, “even though she should have! Did you even see the shoes she was wearing today?”  It didn’t matter that her face was red with rage, Mackenzie was still an extraordinarily pretty girl. Her beauty was her defining characteristic, at least in her mind. Her long blonde hair, smooth skin, glittering blue eyes and perfect teeth, all presented in perfect symmetry and a with a Botticelli touch, were the things that made her who she was. Her body, which had developed to a womanly perfection at least two years ahead of schedule (at the time of life when most girls seemed gawky and incompletely formed by comparison) was just a bonus. The face was the key thing. It was a face that made boys act stupidly. People could stare at that face for hours. She herself sometimes spent long periods of time at the mirror, marvelling at the color of her eyes and at the curve of her soft lips. There was a time when she had been certain that her face would make her rich and famous, but all that was crumbling apart now.

“You’ve been convicted of cyber-bullying, criminal libel, harassment, and making threats of grievous bodily harm. You’re lucky that girl didn’t die.”

“Lucky? I wish she had died! Look what she’s done to my life! Everybody hates me now and it’s all because of her! Her!” 

“Honey . . .” her mom tried to cut in before being immediately cut off.

“Mom! Shut up! It’s my life that’s being ruined here, and anything you say will just make things worse!”

Her mother looked chastened, but she pressed on, “You need to listen to Mr. Kagan. He knows what he’s talking about and he just wants what’s best for you.” Jessica Cameron looked too young to have a daughter Mackenzie’s age. She was forty-five, but was frequently mistaken for Mackenzie’s older sister. If you looked closely you could see signs of her age in the fine wrinkles radiating from the corners of her eyes, and in the less than perfectly natural color of her blonde hair, but she was still lovely and only her most perceptive friends had noticed the slightly stooped and pained posture that she had assumed over the past few months. Mackenzie didn’t notice these details, and she liked having a beautiful mother because it convinced her that she would be able to ride her own looks deep into middle age.

“If she had died you’d be on your way to doing some hard time in prison,” her lawyer said. “As it is, you probably won’t get more than a few weeks, but you’re going to have to at least pretend like you feel bad.”

“Pretend? I don’t need to pretend! I feel terrible. Look at what’s happened to me! I’ve lost almost all my Instagram followers! The only people who still follow me are my mom and trolls who just want to say ‘delete yourself’ on all my posts. Why doesn’t anyone put those people in jail? Do you know how many YouTube subscribers I still have? Because I don’t, I can’t even bear to look anymore.” She covered her eyes and began to cry. It was going to be Kagan’s job to convince the judge that her tears were for her victim and not for herself. This fact sent a flash of self hatred through him. His mother had been right; he should never have gone to law school.

“I’m going to play up the fact that you’re a young lady who had just barely turned eighteen when the, uh, ‘event’ happened. I’m going to say that you have an otherwise clean record and lots of potential. But, most importantly, I’m going to tell the judge that you feel terrible about what happened, that you were carried away by anger, and that you’re drowning in your own bottomless reservoir of regret now. I’m going to tell him that the guilt is tearing you apart. Just pretend like you feel bad for somebody other than yourself for five minutes, please. And if part of the penalty is that you have to apologize to that girl, then you get down on your knees and do it.”

“I will never apologize to that bitch.”

“Oh, honey, don’t say that.” Her mother was appalled at Mackenzie’s attitude. “That poor girl has been through a lot. She used to be your friend. You should feel bad for what happened. You really should.”

“She needs to apologize to me! I’m the one being hurt!”

Kagan shook his head sadly and stared at the floor. For him, Mackenzie’s defining characteristic was her self-centeredness. She was just so easy to dislike. The judge was going to lock her up for as long as the law would allow.

*

But Kagan was wrong, Judge Hogarth didn’t give her any jail time. The tired old man just looked at her with an expression of sadness as deep as the darkest recesses of the universe in his eyes and said that he thought Mackenzie deserved to go to prison for what she had done, but he wasn’t going to send her there. He was going to try something else, an innovative rehabilitation technique called “empathy.” He said that he thought the problem with Mackenzie was that she simply lacked the benefit of empathy, and a technology that had recently been developed would allow her to experience this vital human trait. Instead of going to jail for a couple months, she could spend one month wearing a device called an ‘empathy assistant.’ Because it was new and use of the device was still experimental, the judge said he would not force her to accept it as her punishment. If she preferred, she could go to jail.

She almost chose jail time when Hogarth showed her a photo of the device. It was a bright yellow hat that was made out of rubber and looked a lot like a swim cap except that it had straps that fastened it around the neck and under the chin in such a way that it could not be removed. It also had bumps here and there from whatever electronic gizmos constituted its innards. The empathy assistant may have been a groundbreaking piece of technology, but it wasn’t stylish. It was only when her lawyer pointed out that the orange of a prison jumpsuit wouldn’t flatter her skin tone that she relented.

The empathy assistant was affixed to her head by a low level bureaucrat who worked in a small room in the basement of the courthouse. Mackenzie’s lawyer had guided her to the woman’s office and then abandoned her there, claiming that he had other clients who needed his assistance, but Mackenzie suspected that he had simply had his fill of her company and was trying to peel her off. As someone who had peeled off many hangers-on in her short life, she knew exactly what he was up to. Her mother wasn’t there either because Mackenzie had insisted that her mom go home right after the sentence was delivered. She was eighteen, after all, and didn’t need some old lady tagging along with her everywhere she went. But as she sat across the desk from the woman who was about to strap the empathy assistant onto her head (a gray sweatered, gray haired, and gray skinned old municipal government functionary) she wished she had her mother by her side.

“You should have taken the jail time,” the woman said as she pulled a bright yellow cap from a cabinet.

“What?” Mackenzie asked with a tone of indignation in her voice. She’d been kissing up to the judge all day (or at least thought she had been) and it had been abhorrent but necessary. Mackenzie didn’t need to kiss up to this old hag though.

“I said that you should have picked jail time. You aren’t going to like this.” The woman clearly enjoyed telling Mackenzie how unpleasant wearing that yellow rubber cap was going to be.

“Why? What’s so bad about it? The way the judge talked about it, it didn’t seem like it was going to be so bad. Does it hurt or something?” 

“Not in the way that you imagine.”

“Just put it on me without all the talking. I didn’t ask what you think.”

The gray woman smiled knowingly and then said, “Before I strap it on I’m legally obligated to read you a statement.”

“Fine! Just do it!”

“Okay. The empathy assistant was originally developed as a method of telepathic communication. It was hoped that wearers of the device would be able to communicate with one another non-verbally.  Unfortunately, the empathy assistant fell short of expectations, and could not transmit thought from one person to another. The device is only capable of locking onto the emotional and physical state of a nearby individual and transmitting that person’s physical and mental pain into the wearer. This technology has been used in the medical and psychological fields for over a year now, and has recently been approved for use in criminal rehabilitation on the theory that when convicted criminals feel the kinds of effects that their acts have upon other people they will likely change their behaviors. While wearing the empathy assistant you will feel depression, anxiety, grief, horror, anger, loss, embarrassment, shame, regret, loneliness, and mental anguish of every possible description whenever you are in close proximity to a person who is experiencing, or has recently experienced, such feelings. You will also feel headaches, joint, back, and neck pain, tooth aches, sore throat, nausea, hunger, thirst, and exhaustion. These negative feelings are not side effects of the empathy assistant, but the purpose of the device. By agreeing to wear the empathy assistant you agree to experience all of these forms of both mental and physical pain in addition to potentially thousands more which are not named here. The only way to avoid these feelings while wearing the empathy assistant is to stay at least twenty feet away from any human being who is suffering in either body or mind. Do you understand the purpose and effects of the empathy assistant?”

“Yes! Ugh. Can you just strap it onto me so I can go?”

The gray lady walked behind Mackenzie and placed the empathy assistant on her head. Before strapping it under her chin, which would lock it in place for one month, she said, “This is your last chance, you can still choose jail time.”

“Do it!”

The strap clicked shut. “Over the next ten to twenty hours the empathy assistant will study the way your brain works. Essentially, it will be looking for a way into your mind. Once it has fixed its path of transmission, it will begin to pull feelings from people around you and it will bring them into your consciousness. The amount of time it takes to lock onto somebody’s pain varies from a couple seconds to fifteen minutes.”

Mackenzie hurried out to her car once the empathy assistant had been fastened to her head. It made her look, well, not ugly, that was impossible, but less attractive and that was bad enough. As she hurried through the courthouse parking lot she could feel everyone looking at her. Normally she liked being looked at because it was a sign of her attractiveness, but now she felt that the eyes were all judging her. These people could see that ridiculous yellow cap and guess that it was a punishment of some kind. The cap itself was so ugly that even if it hadn’t been connected to her punishment she would have been embarrassed to wear it. 

All this was Maya’s fault. Every bit of it. The trauma of the case and the humiliation of her punishment could all be traced back to that former friend, the cause of all Mackenzie’s troubles. As she drove away from the courthouse in her Mini Cooper she stoked her anger and determined that whatever the consequences, she would get revenge.

*

Before the catastrophe of her feud with Maya, Mackenzie had been working her way up the ladder of social media stardom. She had just started making a little influencer money. She had been paid for a couple posts by a local Italian restaurant, and she’d modeled clothes for an online boutique. It was just a few hundred dollars so far, but that was okay. She was still in high school. Once she graduated and put some distance between herself and her mom she’d be able to post things that were a little risqué, maybe get a bit edgy. Soon she’d build her big online following into a huge online following. She was going to have an amazing life, and the best part was that showing it off would be built right into it.

But now all that was wrecked, and it was Maya Marcos who had done the wrecking. Maya had once been Mackenzie’s friend at Franklin Roosevelt High, but it had always been clear which of the two had the real status in the relationship. Mackenzie was the shark, and Maya was just one of her many pilot fish. The trouble had started on social media. Maya had known that Mackenzie was interested in August Sowell, and yet she still had the nerve to comment that he “looked hot” on one of his Instagram posts. Even though they weren’t in a relationship, it was understood that only one person at Franklin Roosevelt High had the right to tell August that he looked hot, and that was Mackenzie. Maya had overstepped.

This overstepping alone might not have been enough to set off the firestorm that came next if it hadn’t been for the fact that when the fatal comment was made to August’s Instagram post Mackenzie had been suffering from a particularly virulent bout of ennui. She suffered these bouts of ennui from time to time, and she had long ago learned that the best way to escape her boredom was to spark up some drama by making someone else suffer. It was almost a relief when Maya offered herself up as a sacrifice.

Mackenzie had immediately cut Maya off in real life, and then she had gone after her online as well. She had trolled her social media accounts and when she was blocked, she ordered her army of minions to do it as well. The online world inhabited by the kids of Franklin Roosevelt High had buzzed with rumors about sex acts Maya had purportedly performed with students and even teachers. There were rumors of plastic surgery, including a story that she’d gotten breast augmentation but it had been botched and she was now missing both her nipples. There were posts claiming she had herpes, that she had HIV, and that she’d had three abortions. Mackenzie was the prime mover behind many of these lies, and her attitude inspired the rest. 

Maya’s friends, such as they were, deserted her. They all knew that unpopularity was contagious, and they didn’t want to catch it. Online hostility translated into real life hostility. Kids she didn’t even know hissed cruel slanders at her in the hall. When her friends with cars refused to give her rides to school anymore she began riding a bike. The tires of the bike were soon slashed and wads of purple chewing gum were stuck to the seat. She found herself in the awkward position of looking for a table in the cafeteria and realizing that there was not a single person there who wanted to be near her. Unless you have been a friendless teenage girl holding a tray in a crowded cafeteria you cannot imagine how painful such a simple problem can be. She suffered through this for a month. After enduring life in a sea of hostility and hatred, both online and off, for as long as she could, she had finally posted a picture of herself in black and white with a flat expression and the caption: “I’m thinking about killing myself.”

Minutes before Maya posted this picture and caption, Mackenzie had created a new account, as yet unblocked, just to see what her nemesis was up to. She couldn’t believe it. The drama queen was actually saying saying that she was thinking about killing herself? What an attention whore! This sort of pathetic posturing had to be stamped out, and Mackenzie thought she knew just how to do it, she would call the bluff. She wrote, “Blah, blah, blah. Just do it.”

Maya did it, or at least tried to. She found some old pain pills that her brother had been given after a surgery and she took the whole bottle, but she survived. When Mackenzie heard about it a couple days later, she was outraged. She insisted that Maya had never been in danger, that she was too weak and scared to actually go through with something like that, and that she’d probably just been trying to get some attention and to make Mackenzie look bad.

And Mackenzie did look bad. Suddenly everybody at school felt ashamed of the way they had treated Maya, and all of them blamed Mackenzie. When two police officers came into her English class, cuffed her, and hauled her away one Thursday afternoon, the dam of welling animosity broke. Everyone at Franklin Roosevelt High was confronted with two options, they could either admit that they all had a share of the blame for what had happened to Maya, or they could just pin the entire catastrophe on Mackenzie. When the police cuffed her it was a confirmation of Mackenzie’s guilt. The student body absolved itself en masse, and turned on their former leader with a burning zeal that appeared to be a kind of religious fanaticism.

As the police pulled Mackenzie out of a discussion of Oliver Twist and hauled her to a waiting cruiser, suddenly that promising career in looking pretty on the internet vanished. Her social media followers dwindled to a small number of people who hated her and only continued to follow her out of spite. Her life had been ruined. Completely ruined. The money, fancy clothes, and free trips to Rome had vanished like children caught in a nuclear blast, leaving only shadows behind on the concrete. Now she was going to have to go to college and try to get a job selling dishwashers or doing whatever people did for money. She hated this new future that looked so beige and boring in comparison with the brilliant future she could once see so clearly every time she closed her eyes.

She had come to the River Walk Shopping Center the morning after her sentencing with two purposes in mind. She was going to buy a cute beanie to cover the empathy assistant, and she was going to tell Maya how much she hated her. The empathy assistant wouldn’t stop her. She hadn’t noticed any effects from wearing it yet, and she was beginning to doubt it did anything at all. She suspected that it might be a placebo.

As she pulled into the parking lot she decided that the spewing of hatred would have to come first. Mackenzie knew that she would derive no pleasure from the act of shopping until she had released some of the internal pressure caused by her intense anger. Luckily, the corn dog stand where Maya worked (Mackenzie couldn’t believe she had ever allowed herself to become friends with somebody who worked at a corn dog stand) was between the parking lot and the store where Mackenzie was sure to find a cute beanie. 

There was an old man slumped on the sidewalk in front of the shopping center and when she saw him Mackenzie paused for just a second to take in how disgusting he was. He was filthy, red eyed, and doubtless drunk. He was pathetic. He was gross. Mackenzie didn’t understand why such people weren’t all carted off to jail. As she stared at him a feeling of nausea began to slowly permeate her. It was soon joined by a sort of ache that affected all of her joints, and then by a sensation of hollow hopelessness. It was an emotion she had never felt before and she hurried away, shaking if off as she went. They really should do something about the homeless, she thought to herself, just seeing them could make a healthy person sick. 

*

It was a short walk to the corn dog stand and while she hurried towards it she rehearsed all the things she would say to Maya when she got there. She immediately decided that the hat that formed such a prominent part of Maya’s uniform would be the focus of her attack. While working Maya had to wear headgear that looked like a half eaten corn dog that had been dipped in ketchup. The corn dog stick protruded from the front of the hat like a unicorn’s horn. Once the issue of the hat had been thoroughly addressed Mackenzie would go freestyle with her fury until her enemy was reduced to a quivering mass of humiliation. Mackenzie was giddy with anticipation.

Maya worked most Saturday mornings, but as Mackenzie walked towards the corn dog stand it occurred to her that maybe Maya would take the day off to celebrate her victory in court. This thought made Mackenzie even more angry. The idea that she would be denied her revenge simply because her enemy was too busy enjoying herself at Mackenzie’s expense infuriated her. 

But Maya hadn’t taken the day off and she was there in her ridiculous little post, working alone at the entrance to the food court. She didn’t have any customers at the moment and was busy wiping the counter when Mackenzie arrived. Maya didn’t immediately notice her. It was necessary to get her attention.

“Maya,” Mackenzie said.

The girl looked up, the stick of her corn dog hat raising from the counter to Mackenzie’s face. When she saw who it was no emotion marked Maya’s expression, but it didn’t need to, because suddenly Mackenzie felt it all. The empathy assistant had found a clear path into her mind and connected it with Maya’s pain. In one powerful burst Mackenzie’s soul was flooded with feelings of fear, betrayal, desolation, humiliation, anger, abandonment, and loneliness. It was that sense of isolation that somehow hurt Mackenzie the most, that feeling that everybody knew you, and they all hated you. Maya had been feeling this for months and now it poured into the girl who had caused the emotion. Since being arrested Mackenzie had experienced some of this herself, and to feel it flowing out of her enemy was a shock. She wanted to hate Maya, but suddenly she felt a sort of sisterhood with her.

Strange nameless feelings flooded into Mackenzie along with the more obvious things. These were emotions that Mackenzie had never felt before. Maya suffered from a feeling of awkwardness in social situations, Mackenzie had never experienced anything like this, but now she did. Maya also felt a sort of shame from being the poorest member of her group of friends. It was a sense of inferiority mixed with envy that struggled in her heart with the knowledge that she should not feel this way, that feeling inferior was wrong and a betrayal of her hardworking parents who were doing the best they could with what they had been given. It was a very complex emotion.  And then Mackenzie suddenly knew what it felt like to know you are ugly, and this surprised her, because Maya was not ugly. Maya was one of the most beautiful girls that Mackenzie had ever seen, but she didn’t feel anything but ugly because she compared herself to Mackenzie. 

“Maya,” she said again, uncertain of how to proceed. But she couldn’t speak. And then she noticed something that Maya didn’t feel: hatred. How could Maya not hate her? Mackenzie asked herself. But there was no hatred there. Only loss. Only the sadness of a destroyed friendship.

“Maya…” 

Mackenzie turned and ran away.

*

Mackenzie had always known, at least on a theoretical level, that other people had feelings. If one of her friends cried she would put an arm around her and say comforting words. If she saw someone crash while riding a bike she would wince. She was not a monster on a fundamental structural level, but she had been hardening herself for years with her selfishness. Her complete self absorption had created a sort of buffer that the feelings of others couldn’t easily penetrate. They were penetrating now.

As she fled towards her car the emotional and physical pains of at least a hundred separate individuals lashed out at her as she hurried by them, each leaving a mark. She hurt with bad knees, bad shoulders, and headaches. She felt one woman’s depression and another’s suicidal longing. She felt a child’s fear of his abusive father. She felt a woman’s shame at being overweight. There were many emotions that she hadn’t experienced before, and they overwhelmed her now. The pain of being a closeted homosexual, the gnawing awarenes of financial problems so severe that eviction loomed and medical bills couldn’t be paid, the hopeless depression that accompanied years of chronic pain. She felt all these things as she ran.

*

Jessica was sitting on the small oak bench that stood against the wall in their home’s entryway when Mackenzie opened the front door. The purpose of the bench was to give visitors a place where they could sit while they took their shoes off, but Jessica hadn’t been taking her shoes off. She had been waiting for her daughter to come home, overflowing with worry about what the girl might do in her anger. She had spent the last hour repeatedly calling Mackenzie but had received no response. So fifteen minutes ago she had sat on that bench and settled in to wait, and now her daughter was home at last. 

One look at Mackenzie’s face told her that things had gone terribly wrong. It was a face that had been so twisted by pain and sadness that it had temporarily lost its beauty. Mackenzie just stood there, looking at her mother, and she realized for the first time in her life that this was the one person who really cared about her, the one person who loved her in a deep and meaningful way. She had lost many friends over the past few months, but her mother had always been there for her. She may have fought with her daughter, insisted on curfews, demanded success at school, and become both angry and disappointed because of the way she had been behaving online, even grounding her, taking her phone, and taking her car for what Mackenzie considered to be very minor issues, but now the daughter saw the mother for what she was: the one dependable source of love in her life, a spring that would not dry up.

The two hugged, neither one speaking, and Mackenzie felt her pain ebbing in the intense warmth of the embrace. The love seemed to be flowing from her mother’s body into her own. It was calming and comforting after the trouble and confusion at the shopping center.

Then the empathy assistant found her mother’s pain. It found the physical pain first. For the past several months Mackenzie’s mother had sporadically complained of back pain. She would say things like, “Sorry. Can’t take you shopping. My back is really hurting right now,” and Mackenzie would not sympathize. She would accuse her mother of making excuses, she would browbeat her, she would imply that if her mother really loved her she would take her to H&M and not make up some bogus story about her back hurting. But now Mackenzie could feel her mother’s pain, and she was shocked by it. It was a hard, throbbing, burning thing, and the hug with her daughter was putting additional pressure on it, making it hurt even worse. The pain did not keep the mother from hugging the daughter however. Mackenzie gasped and let go of her mother, stepping back, away from her mother’s pain. But it followed her.

“Mackenzie?” her mother asked, “Are you okay? Where did you go today?” As she asked this question, the mother’s feelings flooded into her daughter. 

“Oh,” Mackenzie said, as she slumped under the weight of it,“mom.” All at once she felt her mother’s worry, her terrible and relentless concern for her daughter. This was an awful gnawing ache that had blocked sleep and turned peace to torment ever since her daughter’s arrest. Her mother’s fear for her daughter was layered. On top there was the agony of not knowing what the law would do to her, but below this was something more painful, a mother’s concern for her child’s soul. In the run up to the trial, Jessica had read all the things that she had posted on social media. She had read every one of her cruel attacks on Maya. The words, “Just do it,” would burst into her mind and stagger her unexpectedly several times a day. Jessica had felt horror at what her daughter had done. She had felt a leaden sense of guilt as well, a conviction that she had failed her daughter if Mackenzie had grown up to be the kind of person who could be so cruel. Mackenzie now felt all of these things. All of these feelings had become her own.

A gray wave of depression washed over Mackenzie next and she knew that this had been the persistent background emotion of her mother’s life for the past three years. It had begun a few months before her divorce and then simply grown deeper and darker. It was relentless. It was her mother’s constant companion. It was a cold wet coat that made warmth and comfort impossible. Mackenzie knew that she was a big part of this relentlessly dull ache in her mother’s soul. And yet, until this moment she hadn’t had any inkling that this was what was going on in her mother’s heart. She’d had no idea of the monotonous pain that hammered her every waking moment. He mother had never stopped smiling. She had never stopped putting on a public face that projected happiness. Despite this specter that haunted her, she had never stopped serving her daughter in the many ways that mothers serve their children, even though her daughter had been her greatest source of pain. Through all this she had never stopped telling her daughter that she loved her for the simple reason that it had never stopped being true.

Mackenzie took another step back, shattered by a vision of her own selfishness. She felt an intense urge to flee, just as she had run from Maya, to get out of the house and to escape her mother’s pain, to get far enough away that she wouldn’t have to feel it anymore. But then she looked into that face, her mother’s beautiful face that even lines of worry and sadness hadn’t diminished, and instead of running away, she took a step forward, and hugged her again. She didn’t try to escape the pain, instead she embraced it as she pulled her mother tighter. 

Sentenced to Hard Empathy

The Science of Severed Heads

 

I was leaning against the wall of a Vietnamese restaurant on Hyde Street when I met the man who told me the story of Haydn’s head. I wasn’t doing much, just looking into those haggard Tenderloin faces as they passed. They were of every race; for all its faults the Tenderloin is an incredibly inclusive place. As long as you’ve hit rock bottom, you are welcome there.

As I started to doze, a man, who had been about to walk by, stopped and looked at me for a moment. Then he leaned his back against the building a few feet away from me and spoke, “You mind if I smoke?”

“Doesn’t bother me. Go ahead.”

“Thanks,” he pulled a pack of Camels out of the breast pocket of his leather jacket and tapped a white cylinder into his hand. “It’s getting so that you can’t smoke anywhere anymore.  You want one?”

I declined his offer and he sparked up his cigarette with a Zippo. He took a deep pull and then blew the smoke away from me. “It’s strange that poison can taste so good.” I didn’t have any addictions, unless you counted my overpowering compulsion to remain free of addictions as itself an addiction, but I agreed with him just to go along.

“I’ve been smoking since I was fourteen. My mom caught me sucking on a cigarette in our garage a week or two after I started. She looked at me with disappointment drooping from her face, but she didn’t say anything. She just turned the other way. I wish she had slapped it out of my dirty mouth.” He gazed into the cloud of smoke he had just exhaled, as if he could still see the memory of it there. “It wouldn’t have stopped me though, and she knew it.  And I can’t stop now either; I need them. I wouldn’t be able to write without them. I’d be like Kerouac with his bennies. They unlock the words. Of course, if I just smoked while I was writing it would be okay. But I smoke all the time; that’s how cigarettes work. I walk through life in a cloud.”

I liked the look of him as he leaned up against the wall. He seemed so comfortable there, as if for him leaning against a wall was like sitting on a couch for other men. It was obvious that he had lived a rough life. I could tell from the sound of his voice that he had poured a lot of whisky over his vocal chords, and the creases on his face showed that he had been sad, he had been angry, and he had spent time squinting into the sunlight. He was dressed in cowboy boots, jeans, and a brown leather jacket. He was probably only in his mid forties, but many of those forty or so years had been hard ones, and they had left their marks.  

He had a pocket knife with a blade at least four inches long and throughout our conversation he played with it, flicking the blade out with a quick motion, and then closing it again.  Flicking it out, and then closing it again. I was worried that he would accidentally close it on his fingers, and I watched him nervously while he flicked and closed, flicked and closed. I wasn’t worried about myself. I didn’t think that he would stab me, even though there was something wild and uneven in his eyes and in the shaky timbre of his voice. I kept seeing a vision of him catching his hand between the blade and the handle as he snapped it shut and chopping all those fingers off with one violent motion of the knife. It put me on edge.

He had turned the conversation in the direction of his writing and I sensed that he was only moments away from telling me about the book that those deadly cigarettes were helping him to write. I didn’t have to wait long.

“I have a story. I need to tell it. It’s a science fiction story.”

I hadn’t expected this. I had assumed I was in for either a western or a Hemingway rip-off.

“I like science fiction.”

“It’s based on a true story, about Joseph Haydn.”

I wasn’t sure how a novel could at once be based on a true story, be about Joseph Haydn, and also be science fiction. But I didn’t interrupt.

“What do you know about Haydn?” He asked.

“Not much.  He was a composer.” 

“He was an extraordinary man. He wrote 106 symphonies, when most composers can’t be bothered to write more than nine. Some composers are frightened to write more than nine.  They’re a bunch of superstitious cowards. Beethoven, you see, only wrote nine symphonies and apparently those who attempt to outdo him come to bad ends. Haydn was smart enough to die before Beethoven and he escaped the wrath of his unholy specter.

“He was an old man when he died on May 31, 1809. They held a funeral for him; there were lots of big shots there because he was a big shot himself. One of those big shots was Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy, one of the most aristocratic of the aristocrats in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was buried in a humble grave, paid for by Esterhazy, but the prince planned to move him to a grander tomb when one could be built to accommodate his illustrious bones.”

I noticed a few things as this man related the plot to his novel. The first was that he never stopped flicking that knife open, and then flicking it shut again. The second was that as he related his story, his way of speaking changed. He seemed to use bigger words all of a sudden. Writerly words. And his voice changed too. His tones were smoother, less conversational, more dramatic.  It was like listening to an audiobook with a skilled reader narrating, but he wasn’t reading any text, he was pulling his words directly from his brain as he spoke.

“A few nights after Haydn’s funeral the stabbing noise of a shovel being repeatedly thrust into the earth could be heard ringing out over the quiet of the graveyard. The soft dirt, so recently piled on top of the composer, was being removed again. The gravedigger was shoveling his way down to the body he had just buried, like a sinner returning to his sin.

“Once he reached the coffin, he pulled it open.  The body had been dead for four days and you can imagine the smell that greeted the gravedigger. But he was used to it. Death held no horrors for him. I wonder if what he did next horrified him though. I think even a tough old piece of leather like that gravedigger must have thought twice about what he did next. I’m no coward and I know that I would have. Because the next thing he did was saw Haydn’s head off. I don’t know what kind of saw he used, but you can bet it was no surgical instrument. It must have been a plain old wood saw, manufactured with carpentry in mind. It might have still had sawdust clinging to its edge. It might have been a little rusty. We can’t know for sure 200 years after the fact, but what we do know is that this grave digger pulled that body out of the coffin, and, positioning it so that he could get at the neck, he placed the teeth of that saw against the bloodless skin, and he started to drag it back and forth.  

“It must have been hard work, and if he hadn’t become sweaty while digging up the body, he would have started to sweat now that he was sawing at it. I can almost see those drops slipping down his forehead, collecting dirt as they went, sliding across his stubbly cheeks and jaws, and then dropping onto the fine silk suit that Haydn had been buried in. 

“Once the head had been cut from the body he shoved the now headless corpse back into the casket and slammed it shut again. I’m sure he would have liked to run away at this point. But he didn’t. He put the head down on the tombstone and it watched him as he piled the dirt back into place.

“You’re probably asking, ‘Why would anyone do this?’

“Well, Haydn was considered the father of the symphony, and also of string quartets. And unlike many classical composers, he was fortunate enough to figure out how to make a living with his music. The artist is lucky who discovers the secret of turning art into money. He was one of the rare keepers of this sacred alchemical knowledge. Haydn’s music was beautiful, so beautiful that it had attracted deep pocketed patrons like Prince Esterhazy. It’s not just any music that can do that. It has to be music of a magical kind.

“Haydn’s life coincided with the invention of the science of phrenology. I’m using the term ‘science’ in the loosest sense here, because phrenology has, in fact, been thoroughly debunked and nowadays we laugh at its adherents and compare them to bloodletters and flat earthers. And we have a right to laugh at them, especially since their ideas were used to prop up racist ideologies through the time of the Civil War. But I think we should be careful, because if history has taught us anything, it is that future generations will hold our beliefs up to scorn someday too, no matter how certain we are of their solid certitude and bedrock rightness.

“Phrenology was the study of head bumps. If you run your fingers through your hair you will notice that your head has gentle undulations, ridges, ravines, and declivities. The Phrenologists believed that by interpreting a man’s bumps you could learn a lot about him. Bumps, or the lack of them, could tell you if a man was a good man or a bad one, a law abider or a criminal, an intellectual or a blockhead, a courageous lion or a milquetoast pantywaist.  

“Remember that a man’s brain is hiding under a very thin crust of skull, and the brain is all. It is where not only your intelligence and your reason are housed, it is also the place that generates your feelings. Love isn’t a product of the heart; it is the product of the brain. Your brain is YOU, and with all that it’s doing down there under that thin crust of skull people thought that surely it must shape the skull itself. As the convection currents in the magma of the Earth’s mantle move tectonic plates, throw up volcanoes, and form mountain ridges, surely the power of the brain must exert a similar influence on the skull! This is not an argument that any of Haydn’s contemporaries would have used, since plate tectonics hadn’t been invented yet, but I think if they had known about it they would have liked my comparison.  If the part of the brain providing intelligence is strong, the phrenologists argued, a bump will be in evidence on the portion of the skull above it, and the same goes for the parts that generate evil, lust, anger, and even artistic abilities.

“At the time of Haydn’s death the believers in this science (for scientific theories have their believers and agnostics just as religious faiths do) were still trying to crack certain parts of the code presented by the human skull. While the first chemists were isolating elements, these pioneers of the mind were charting bumps and their meanings. Haydn’s head would show the place in the brain where musical talent resided, and it belonged to science.

“I don’t know how long that gravedigger sat in his house, alone with Haydn’s head. I like to imagine him sitting at the table, with the head placed before him like a centerpiece, just staring at it while the head stared back, waiting for the sound of carriage wheels to signal that it was time for the head’s departure.

“When the carriage showed up there were two men inside. These men were Joseph Rosenbaum, Esterhazy’s former secretary, and Johann Peter, Rosenbaum’s friend. They were excited to get their hands on such a valuable scientific artifact, and they happily paid off the gravedigger for his services. I imagine their excitement was damped by the smell. They gagged and retched all the way home. 

“After probing at the rotting head with their gentlemanly fingers, they found what they took for the bump of musical genius, and then sent the head off for the maceration of the flesh and bleaching of the skull. Rosenbaum was proud of his trophy. He had a beautiful black wooden box constructed to hold it. The box was decorated with a golden lyre to symbolize the connection of that head with music, and the skull sat on a white cushion inside. The box had glass windows so visitors could admire its contents.

“A decade later Esterhazy remembered his intention to give the great composer a more fitting tomb, and he had the casket dug up. You can’t dig up a casket without taking a peek inside, and you can imagine everyone’s surprise when the head wasn’t in there along with the rest of Haydn.  Esterhazy was no fool and he guessed at once who had done it. He sent men to search Rosenbaum’s house, but Rosenbaum hid the skull in a mattress. His wife lay on the mattress and said they couldn’t search the bed because she was having her period. They had a good old fashion fear of a woman’s time of the month back then, and they didn’t search the mattress.

“Eventually Rosenbaum gave a skull to Esterhazy and the Prince had it placed in the coffin and buried with the rest of Haydn in his new tomb. But the skull hadn’t actually been Haydn’s.  It was an impostor. The real skull rolled through history, being owned by a succession of strange men who had an interest in possessing such things, until 1954 when it came into the possession of somebody who thought it right to give it back to its owner. So Haydn’s tomb was opened again and the skull was placed inside, right next to the impostor skull which was not removed, and then the tomb was closed back up.”

I was quiet for a moment, and waited for more as he lit another cigarette and blew out a massive cloud of smoke. I thought that he had only paused in his story so that he could light up again, but I was wrong. The story was over.

“I thought you said that you had written a science fiction story.”

“I did.You see, the twist is that they are all robots. All of them. In my novel Haydn, Rosenbaum, the gravedigger, Peter, Esterhazy, all of them are robots.” He threw his only partially smoked cigarette on the ground and walked off into the night.

(This story is actually a chapter from my novel, The Unpublishables, available on Amazon)

The Science of Severed Heads

The Light Bringer

Jason wasn’t a religious man, but when people asked him if he believed in God, he usually said that he did. There were some days when he wasn’t sure, and if an attractive woman who he suspected of atheism had ever asked him he would have said, “no.” His faith, such as it was, didn’t drive him to participate in practices that might be considered overtly religious. The thought of going to church horrified him, and for Jason a prayer was never anything but a last-ditch effort to avoid some imminent harm. “God-please-dont-let-that-bus-hit-me!” for example.

One bright October Saturday, however, things felt different. He was hiking in the hills of the Sonoma Coast and somehow the world was extra beautiful. There was something about the quality of the light, the cool ruffling of the wind through his hair, and the way the immense Pacific Ocean seemed to symbolize eternity that shouted into his soul, “GOD EXISTS! GOD LOVES YOU! GOD CREATED THIS BEAUTIFUL UNIVERSE FOR YOU TO ENJOY.” What made this sensation of ecstasy particularly strange was the fact that Jason had gone on this hike because he wanted to wallow in his feelings of rejection after having been dumped by his girlfriend, Deidre. Almost as soon as he pulled up to the trailhead, however, Deidre had disappeared from his mind, replaced by redwoods and lush ferns dappled with sunlight. And when he crested a grassy hill and suddenly saw the white capped ocean spread from the gray cliffs below all the way to where the Earth curved away at the horizon, he suddenly felt loved as he never had before. Where could this feeling have come from? he wondered. It had to have come from God!

Even though he would have usually told you that he believed in God, one thing Jason would have never done is say that he was a spiritual person. But in that moment he felt an undeniable closeness with the Supreme Being. He became aware of his spiritual self tingling away inside his body, and for the first time in a very long time he uttered a prayer that was not an attempt to avoid an immediately threatening catastrophe. He shouted, “God! I know you’re there! I can feel your presence!”

If he’d truly had faith, he wouldn’t have been surprised by what happened next, but he was surprised. Everything froze. The wind stopped blowing through his hair, the ocean ceased its endless restless motion, and all sound was muted. Such a stillness had never been felt upon the Earth since the creation of the world. Then the silence was broken by a low and thunderous voice that sounded exactly like you would expect God’s voice to sound. 

“JASON! IT PLEASES ME THAT YOU HAVE FINALLY ACKNOWLEDGED MY ETERNAL GOODNESS AND BOUNTY!”

For a moment Jason froze like the rest of the planet, speechless with an overwhelming sense of awe tinged with fear.  “Is that really you, God?”

“YES. I AM YOUR GOD!”

“What do you want from me?”

“I WANT TO TALK TO YOU ABOUT LIFE, ABOUT EXISTENCE. I WANT TO TELL YOU THE TRUTH OF WHO YOU ARE AND WHY YOU ARE HERE. I WILL COME INTO YOUR WORLD NOW. DO NOT BE SHOCKED BY MY APPEARANCE.”

Jason didn’t think that a command that he not be shocked by God’s appearance would have much of a practical effect. Obviously, the Supreme Being would descend in glory, on a pillar of light never meant to be seen by the mortal eyes of man. Nothing could prepare him for what was about to come, but he squinted in anticipation, hoping that this would at least partially reduce the glare of celestial illumination.

And then God was there, and Jason was shocked. He was not surprised by the overwhelming glory of the being who presented himself, but by the complete lack of it. Before him stood a man in his early thirties, instead of the ancient being with a white beard he had expected. The being had a beard of sorts, but it was short, scraggly, and dark brown. It wasn’t at all godly. Jason had also expected the Creator to be dressed in a flowing white robe and shod in golden sandals. There might also be a crown and maybe even a cape. But the being in front of him was wearing a blue short-sleeved dress shirt tucked into a pair of pleated khaki pants. He was also wearing gym shoes. They were New Balance. God, and this made no sense at all, was wearing glasses, and, not only that, they were the glasses of a nerd with cheap metal frames and thick lenses. And he wasn’t even floating in the air on a small glowing cloud being held aloft by chubby cherubs with wings that, like those of a bumble bee, appeared inadequate to permit actual flight. He was standing on the ground like a normal person. God was all wrong.

“You’re not God!” Jason stammered, “you can’t be!”

“I am,” the being said, his voice no longer booming with that resonant godlike quality, “Look around you, the world didn’t freeze itself.”

“But…”

“Watch this,” the being said before pointing at one of the fluffy white clouds frozen in the unmoving sky. A thick, purplish bolt of lightning broke from the cloud and slammed into a tall redwood tree about 300 yards downhill. The light was eye-scorching and the tree exploded with such concussive violence that it nearly threw Jason off his feet. He was stunned, too stunned to stop the being who pointed to the sky again, bringing down another brilliant bolt of lightning and incinerating another redwood tree, this one slightly closer than the first.

“Okay!” Jason shouted, “I believe you!”

“I thought that might do the trick. I could show you more, much more, but I don’t want to devolve into a magic act in your eyes.”

“It’s just that you… you don’t look like what I expected.”

“And what did you expect? White beard? Robe? Sandals? A Jovian demeanor?”

“Well,” suddenly this conception of God seemed silly to Jason, but he admitted, “yes.”

“I can take any form I wish. What is ‘God,’ in your opinion? Is he a robe? Is he a beard?”

“He’s the Creator of the universe.”

“Then rest assured that I am God. Look around you, I created all of this. The mountain we are standing on, the ocean rolling away for thousands of miles below us, the worms that crawl unseen in the soil beneath our feet, the stars, even you. I am the creator of this universe.”

“What do you want from me?”

God paused, “I was going to ease my way into the topic of what I wanted from you, but since you asked, I’ll skip ahead and tell you: I want you to kill your nephew, Kayden.”

Jason thought he couldn’t possibly have heard correctly. “What? I’m not going to kill anyone!”

“I, your God, I command you to sacrifice him to me.”

Something about this situation seemed familiar to Jason, and even though he had never read the Bible, he sensed that he had encountered this scenario somewhere before. “Isn’t,” he hated to lay his ignorance bare before his God, but he had to ask, “Isn’t this. . . didn’t you do this before? In the Bible?”

“Sort of. In that case I asked a man named Abraham to kill his son Isaac.”

“Why?”

“As a test of his faith and fidelity.”

“But . . .”

Suddenly the light and glory that had been noticeably lacking at the beginning of Jason’s encounter with God appeared with a glaring brilliance. The coming of this celestial light was accompanied by a sound like a clap of thunder that knocked Jason to the ground. “DO NOT QUESTION MY MOTIVES! I AM GOD, YOU CANNOT POSSIBLY HOPE TO COMPREHEND ME. YOU MUST HAVE FAITH, AND YOU MUST DO MY WILL.” And then he returned to his previous form. 

Jason stammered and remained on the ground as he said, “Okay, okay, I’ll do it.” A moment later God winked away, and the world was unpaused. The wind went back to playfully ruffling his hair, and the ocean continued to symbolize eternity, but Jason no longer interpreted this symbol in the light of hope. He was scared, and he regretted his agreement to kill his nephew, even if the kid was a rotten little shit.

*

Jason’s sister, Janice, lived in Mill Valley in a small house tucked back in the hills. Jason had always been fond of his sister, a sweet and motherly woman who had married a man who sold medical equipment and traveled frequently. This left her at home alone for much of the time with her unbearable son, Kayden.  

Since Mill Valley was on the way home, Jason stopped in to say ‘hi’ and to take a quick look at God’s intended victim. He rang the doorbell and heard his sister’s voice call out, “Kayden, could you get the door? I’m cutting raw chicken.”

There was no response and Jason tried to open the door because he could feel a scene developing and if he could just get into the house, he could short-circuit it. But the door was locked.

His sister’s voice came again, somewhat muffled, but audible, “Kayden, can you get the door please?”

More silence.

“I know you can hear me, honey; please get the door.”

“I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Video game.”

“Just pause it, please,” Janice was exhibiting more patience than Jason had ever possessed. He knew that if he were this kid’s mother, he’d already be slapping the brat with his chicken juice covered hands.

“MOM! I can’t pause it! Stop being a bitch! It’s the kind of game you can’t pause! Shut up! You’re making me lose! I hate you!”

About 30 seconds later Janice herself answered the door. She smiled at Jason as if the exchange he had just overheard had never happened, “Oh hi! What a nice surprise!”

“Hey. I was just hiking up the coast from here and thought I’d drop by on my way back to the city. I hope that’s okay.”

“Of course! You know you can drop by anytime and I’m sure you don’t want to be alone after, you know, Deidre. I was just cooking some chicken fajitas. Corey’s out of town. Why don’t you go play Xbox with Kayden while I finish up, and then we can eat dinner together? Believe me, I’ll be glad to have some adult company.” The thought of spending time alone with his nephew was not appealing, but Jason agreed. 

The boy was playing Xbox in a room that used to be his father’s home office but had been taken over by a metastasizing collection of gaming equipment over the past couple of years. Kayden was an ordinary looking kid, slightly freckled, his red hair contained by an Oakland A’s baseball cap. His beady little blue eyes were focused with intensity on the television screen where his character, some kind of ogre, was smashing elves with an enormous hammer. “Hey Kayden,” Jason said. 

There was no reply.

“Your mom said I should come in here and play Xbox with you a bit.”

Silence.

“Get in some quality uncle and nephew time.”

Finally, Kayden spoke with the ugly sort of squawking voice that can only come out of the mouth of a boy who is just entering puberty.  “That sounds gay.”

Now it was Jason’s time to be non-responsive.

“You probably want to play something gay too. Like Halo. Gayest game ever.”

“Kayden, I don’t think it’s very nice of you to . . .”

“Yeah, yeah, I know! I shouldn’t call everything ‘gay’ all the time. That’s what my mom says. But telling me not to say things are gay is super gay.”

“How about some Halo though?”

“As long as you aren’t super gay about it.”

A couple minutes later the latest version of Halo was loaded up on the Xbox and the match was about to begin. Jayson and Kayden were on the same team, which relieved Jason somewhat because there was nothing he hated more than being killed by his nephew, and if they had been on opposite teams, his nephew would have done nothing but murder his less skilled uncle.

The game started and Jason was killed immediately. It was Kayden who had killed him. Being on the same team had not helped. Now Kayden’s player was crouching in a way that brought its butt as close to the face of Jason’s now dead player as possible, and Kayden was gleefully chanting, “Smell my butt! Smell my butt! I killed you with my smelly buuuuuuuuuutt.”

*

Jason lived in a small apartment in the Marina and as soon as he got home, he walked a few blocks to a used bookstore just off Union Street and bought a Bible. The Bible was a King James edition, bound in faux leather and clearly never read. Jason imagined that some grandmother must have bought the Bible as a hopeful sort of gift for a wayward grandchild. The Bible had spent a year or two on a shelf and then been sold for a dollar to the used bookstore. He paid five dollars for it and brought it back to his apartment. 

A quick internet search informed Jason that the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac could be found in Genesis Chapter 22. Ever since his encounter with God he had been very agitated. Visiting his sister and her doomed son had only made things worse. He didn’t have any idea how he could possibly carry out God’s order no matter how big a pill his nephew was, and at the same time, he knew that you couldn’t just say “no” to God, or ignore him in the hope that he would go away. Jason hoped that the story of Abraham would have some answers for him, so he opened his Bible, found the correct chapter, and started reading.

And it came to pass after these things, that God tested Abraham and said unto him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Behold, here I am.”

“So far so good,” he thought, “although saying ‘behold here I am’ seems like a silly thing to say to God. God knows where you are, that’s part of being omniscient.” Jason didn’t judge Abraham too harshly for this response, however, because he knew from personal experience that meeting God knocked a man off-balance. 

And He said, “Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah, and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.”

“Brutal,” Jason thought, “a burnt offering. Am I actually expected to burn him too?” 

And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand and a knife, and they went both of them together.

And Isaac spoke unto Abraham his father and said, “My father!” And he said, “Here am I, my son.” And he said, “Behold the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”

“Awkward.”

And Abraham said, “My son, God will provide Himself a lamb for a burnt offering.” 

“Disingenuous.”

And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar upon the wood.

And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.

“No!”

And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.”

And He said, “Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him; for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from Me.”

“What! He didn’t actually even have to kill the kid?” And immediately a great weight was lifted from Jason’s shoulders. Of course God wouldn’t make him go through with it! It was just a test. A cruel and inhumane test, it seemed to Jason, but a test that wouldn’t actually require him to murder anybody. 

*

The next day was Sunday, and Jason decided to return to the place where he had first found God. He put on his boots, grabbed a water bottle, and drove up the 101 towards Sonoma. After a mile of hiking through redwood forest, fern packed ravines, and grassy hillsides, Jason stood on the spot where God had descended the day before. The marine layer was thick and cast an unusually heavy midday darkness over everything in sight.  He had to wait for a group of hikers to clear the area before he called out, “God! I know you can hear me! Please talk to me!”

And then he was there, dressed exactly as he had been the day before and smiling slightly. The world had frozen in the moment before his arrival, and about a hundred feet over Jason’s head a hawk had been stopped in mid-flight. “You know,” God said, “I’m not some servant who comes every time you tinkle a bell. That’s not how prayer works.”

“I get that, but I really needed to talk to you face to face.”

“You had faith that I would come. That’s a good thing and I wanted to reward it. So here I am. What do you want to talk about?”

“A couple things. First of all, when we met the first time, before you came down from heaven or wherever you were, you said that you would reveal the meaning of life to me, the truth of who I am and why I’m here.”

“Ah! You’re right! And I never did quite get around to it did I?”

“No.”

“I prematurely launched right into that ‘kill your nephew’ bit.”

“Yes. And I want to talk about that too, but I think it might help me to understand if you would tell me all that other stuff you promised first.”

“Alright. This is going to be, I think, a difficult discussion from your point of view, but if you’ll just bear with me and trust me a little, you’ll see that things are going to be okay.”

Jason nodded, but at the same time realized that he didn’t trust God, which was a horrible theological discovery.

“Have you read much philosophy?”

“You’re the omniscient one; shouldn’t you know that already?”

“Right, I am omniscient, but it would just be easiest if you answered my questions when I ask them, even though you can assume that I know the answers already. It’s just how conversation works.”

“In that case, no, I haven’t read much philosophy. I took an ethics course in college; it was a required class.”

“Okay. No biggie. But I’ve been dropping hints about the true nature of reality to certain people over the years and it would be helpful if you had a little background. You’ve at least heard of Descartes I assume.”

“I think just about everybody has. ‘Cogito ergo sum’ right?”

“Exactly! Well done! Descartes did a famous thought experiment where he asked himself what he could know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, was true. It was an exercise in radical skepticism and he realized right away that he should be doubtful about the existence of the physical world.”

“Why?”

“Because people are so often wrong about the physical world. There are optical illusions, mirages, et cetera. For example, this moment you are experiencing could be a dream.”

“That had occurred to me.”

God chuckled, “I assure you that you’re not dreaming. But you could be, there’s no way to be sure that you’re not. And if you were dreaming, then that tree over there would merely be a product of your imagination, wouldn’t it? It wouldn’t have a physical reality as you understand it?”

“That’s true.”

“So, what can you be sure is true when you realize that the whole world might be a dream? In fact, it could be something stranger than a dream. Descartes asked us to imagine a demon with supernatural powers who projects a false reality into our brains. This demon has the power to artificially render every one of these trees, every person you see, and even that ocean out there relentlessly beating itself against the cliffs. Theoretically, some outside force could be projecting all that you perceive into your brain.”

“Is that what’s happening? It would explain a lot.”

“No, but I think the concept might be helpful. You need to open your mind to the idea that reality may be different, in a very fundamental way, from what you have hitherto imagined it to be.”

“Okay.”

“Alright, given the demon projecting images into your brain scenario, what could you still know is true?”

“Well, ‘I think therefore I am’ is what Descartes said. So even if a demon were projecting my conception of reality into my brain, I’d know that at least I existed. Consciousness equals existence.”

“Excellent!”

“I hope this doesn’t end with you telling me that I’m just a brain in a jar somewhere, and all this ‘reality’ is just a bunch of electrical impulses that are being pumped into me.”

“Don’t worry. Reality isn’t nearly so creepy.”

“Okay, so what is actually happening?”

“I just want to ask you about one more person. Have you ever heard of George Berkeley?”

“I don’t think so. Is the college named after him?”

“Yes, and the city too. Both of them are practically in your backyard and it’s a shame that more people don’t know about him, because he was really onto something.”

“Okay, what was his deal?”

“His ‘deal’ was a point of view known as ‘idealism.’ Have you ever heard of it?”

“You mean, like, believing in something and standing up for your ideals?”

“No. His was a different kind of idealism. There are two basic views of existence and then, I guess, some middle ground between those two views. The first is materialism. This is the belief that everything is material. All your perceptions are of actual physical entities. You yourself are an entirely material creature, and your thoughts aren’t the product of some imaginary spirit or soul, they’re just electrical impulses that are moving through the soggy meat that is the human brain.

“Idealism on the other hand, holds that the universe is, at least to some extent, composed of immaterial objects. If something that has no material existence can even be said to be an object. Berkeley took perhaps the most extreme position of all the philosophers on this issue; he said that physical objects didn’t exist at all. He argued that the things we perceive, that tree, those rocks, that bird over there, all of them are in some way brought into being by the act of perception. They have no physical existence, and are the creations of our perceptive organs, existing only in our minds.”

“But that’s insane.”

“Is it? We have already established that the only thing you can know really exists is yourself, but even there you can’t be certain that your image of yourself is entirely real. Descartes’s cogito didn’t prove, for example, that the hat he was wearing was real, or his arms, or even the eyelids that covered his eyes when he blinked. All he could know is that his mind existed.”

Jason kicked a rock lying by the side of the trail. He had kicked it hard and winced in pain. Then he announced, “That rock is real, my foot is real. This pain has proved it.”

God chuckled. “A smarter man than you once made exactly that same argument against Berkeley, but he was wrong for the same reason you are. Pain, like all perception, is nothing but electrical impulses in the mind. It can be counterfeit. Pain can be felt without real physical damage. Berkeley would just say that the pain, like the rock, is nothing but the product of your mind at work.”

“But that’s ridiculous! You and I are both seeing the same rock! If that rock is being created by my mind, why are you seeing it too?”

“Ah, now that’s a better objection. One way I may counter it is to point out that maybe the reason that you and I are both seeing the same rock is because both the rock and I are creations of your mind. If I were a creation of your mind, then of course I would see the world the way you do, more or less.”

“In that case, everybody in the world would have to be a creation of my mind, since as far as I have been able to tell, in my entire life everyone I have met has perceived the world in roughly the same way I have. Is everything a creation of my mind? New York City, Pop Rocks, panda bears, the nephew you want me to murder?”

“I don’t want you to ‘murder’ anyone. It isn’t murder when it has been commanded by God. But before you fall down the rabbit hole of solipsism, let me assure you that I am not a creation of your imagination, and neither is anyone else you have ever met. You did not create us with your mind.”

“I didn’t think so, but if all the stuff you’ve been telling me is true, how is it we are all perceiving the world in the same way?”

“Berkeley said, essentially, that we all perceive the world the same way because God holds all the universe in his mind and his perception instructs our own. This is also why when you look away from an object it doesn’t fade out of existence just because you are no longer observing it. God, Berkeley said, can contemplate all existence in his consciousness at the same time, this is what his omniscience consists of, and he guides our minds to perceive the universe the same way that he does.”

“You’re speaking like you aren’t actually God.”

“Just paraphrasing Berkeley.”

“It doesn’t make any sense.”

“But it’s true. The only piece that he didn’t understand is that the mind of God is mechanically assisted.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“I mean that the computer that I use to generate existence is essentially an extension of my mind.”

Jason pondered the implications of this statement for a moment before saying, somewhat exasperated, “So, you’re saying that the Matrix is real!”

“Sort of, I guess.”

“Why didn’t you just say that in the first place? I would have understood that immediately!”’

“I wanted to give existence a more respectable pedigree than the Wachowski brothers. Plus, the Matrix isn’t real. There are important differences between that movie’s vision of the world and the reality. In the Matrix there were physical humans, naked and floating around in these big sacks of goo with fiber optic cables plugged into their spines. That’s not happening here. You exist entirely in this simulation; you have no physical body outside of it.”

“This is just a simulation? You told me you were God! You aren’t God!”

“Of course I am.”

“If what you’re telling me is true, you’re just some computer programmer. Or maybe not even that, maybe you just bought this whole thing” Jason gestured towards the wide world, “off the shelf at Best Buy.”

The programmer chuckled, “No, I built it. It’s true that I used a lot of preexisting code, one man can’t really build a thing like this from scratch, but for all intents and purposes, I built it.”

“You’re just a human.”

“You should treat your God with more respect than to call him human. Think about the nature of God. What is he? You yourself said he is the Creator.”

“You aren’t the Creator. You admitted that you used software other people developed.”

“Nobody ever said God wasn’t God if he didn’t create everything ex nihilo. As far as you and everybody else is concerned, I created this world. I rule over you. I have the power to kill and to give life. I can work miracles. I can send catastrophes. I can answer prayers. Mostly I don’t do these things; I’ve created an AI to handle day to day God functions, mostly doing nothing, which seems to be standard operating procedure for a God. But I can act when I want to. Explain to me, how I am not God?”

“But the real God exists, the God of the non-software world.”

“If you say so.”

“I’ve met God, and it turns out he’s an atheist.”

“Agnostic, actually, but even if your God does exist, how does that change my relationship with you? I would still be your Creator. I’m still the one who carved the ten commandments on your Mount Sinai, even if someone had done it once before me in a previous universe. I kept the ten I’d been given as a child, but I could have changed them if I had wanted. I’m still the arbiter of right and wrong, and still the one who metes out punishments and rewards.”

“Mount Sinai? How is it possible for you to have done something that happened thousands of years ago if you’re just a human?”

“Again, as far as you are concerned, I am not human. I am your God, and I stand outside of time. Remember that time is relative, and that you and I don’t necessarily experience it in the same way. I’ve had this program running for three of my months. I began it 5,000 years before Adam and Eve. I can speed it up or slow it down, but everyone within the sim continues to experience it the same way. I get bored once in a while and wander away, letting the program run, but then my interest comes back when big events are about to happen. World War II was fun. I can enter this world, using this avatar or others, whenever I want, and when I do I match your time relative to mine.”

“We’ve gotten away from my original point, the real God is out there, even if you don’t believe in him.”

“Let’s assume that this God of the physical world exists. I don’t want to call the physical world the ‘real world’ or anything like that, because it would imply that the world I have created, and that you inhabit, is somehow not real, and I maintain that it is every bit as real as the world of bone and meat. Let’s call the physical world the ‘First World’ and let’s assume that the First World was created and is presided over by a God similar to the God put forward by the Judeo-Christian tradition. Do you think he cares about electronic beings such as yourself? Do you think he’s angry when people play video games where they slaughter electronic beings by the hundreds? No! And not because they aren’t real, but because they don’t exist on a level that concerns him!

“And what’s so great about First World existence? In a flesh and blood world man has been defined as ‘an alimentary tube with a sphincter at both ends’. In that world man is just a machine that turns bread into shit, and a brain is nothing but an organ that excretes thought the same way ‘the stomach secretes gastric juice, the liver bile, and the kidneys urine.’ Is there something appealing in the belief that you are a skeleton covered with muscle? Basically, a Halloween decoration wrapped in hamburger and skin? I wish I knew I lived in a world where existence means that I am a creature of electricity, a creature of science, of light, of energy! I have given you a great blessing by revealing your true nature! Can’t you see that?”

It took Jason a moment to digest all this, and then he asked, “What do you mean you wish you knew?”

“I mean that I don’t know what kind of being I am.”

“You don’t know if you’re from the First World?”

“I don’t. How could I without some kind god to reveal the truth of existence to me? Once you know that it’s possible for man to create a simulation of the world, there is no way to know for certain whether you live in the First World. In fact, when you realize that there are a million simulations running in the world for various reasons – to study alternate historical outcomes, the effects of tax policies, or simply the desire of a man to be god of his own universe where he can exercise his will to power – all you need is to do a little math. If there are one million simulations running, and each of these simulations contains seven billion simulated individuals, that means that the possibility that you are actually one of the original alimentary tubes with a sphincter at both ends drops down to essentially zero. And remember that these simulations may have simulations of their own. I am probably electronic just as you are, but I don’t know for sure. I could be a thousand universes down from the original for all I know. The multiverse is a sort of electronic pyramid scheme.”

This thought made Jason feel almost dizzy, but he collected himself to finally say what he had really come to say.  “I read the story of Abraham in the Bible. I know that this is just a test. There’s no reason for me to pretend to go through with it when I know you won’t make me actually do it.”

“Hahaha. No. This time I am going to require follow through. An empty feint at fidelity isn’t enough. I couldn’t pull the trigger on Isaac because he was a good kid. You read the bit in there about him carrying the wood for his dad? Can you imagine your nephew doing that? Traditionally, God demands a sacrifice of the best and purest. I’m making things easier on you by demanding only the sacrifice of the most irritating. And if you don’t do it, there will be consequences. Have you heard of hell? I can load up the Dante’s Inferno program, it’s something that, I’ll admit, I can buy off the shelf, and I’ll make you suffer each and every level of hell. You should go pick up a copy at the bookstore where you bought your Bible. I’ll give you two weeks. And don’t worry about the police or anything like that, I will make all the legal consequences disappear. Just do the deed and I’ll take care of the rest.”

“But. I can’t. I don’t have it in me to kill someone.”

“Are you killing someone? He’s only a computer program according to you, and an annoying one at that. I should think you’d have no trouble terminating an electronic non-person without any existence in the meat world, especially when you consider the consequences to yourself.”

*

The week was a tough one for Jason. He went to work on Monday as if his overwhelmingly bizarre weekend had never happened. He worked at a small PR firm, and he advised his clients as he always had. Jason was professional enough to give good advice on matters that to him now seemed profoundly unimportant, but his clients could sense that he was going through his work mechanically. His boss, Nadine Watanabi, sensed the same thing, and she probed him on the subject in his office on Thursday afternoon.

“Jason,” she said as she closed the door behind her, “I have something to talk to you about, if you have a moment.”

“Of course, have a seat.”

“I wouldn’t pry into your personal life, normally, but I’m afraid I’m about to do just that.”

“Ah.”

“You know what I’m about to say?”

“I think so. I haven’t been myself this week, have I?”

“No, and I’m not complaining as a boss or anything; you’re still doing your job, but I’ve been worried about you. It’s almost as if your personality has undergone a change overnight.”

“I know. It’s. . . I’ve had a lot on my mind.”

“Is it anything you want to talk about?”

He considered telling her everything that had happened to him over the previous weekend, about the true nature of reality and about what the programmer had commanded him to do to his nephew. But, of course, he couldn’t. How could she react to such a story other than to assume that he had gone insane? “No. I don’t think I want to talk about it. It’s very, very personal.”

“Is there any way I can help? Do you need some time off? Do you need to talk to a professional?”

“I don’t think I need to talk to a therapist or anything, although, maybe I will if the situation persists, but I think your suggestion that I take some time off might be right. Can I take a week?”

“Absolutely. Get better. Don’t come in tomorrow, and stay away through next week. Find a beach. Relax and meditate. Get healthy.”

“Thank you. I will.”

*

He left his office in the Financial District an hour early and simply wandered. He stopped at a bar in North Beach, drank a beer and then moved on. He walked up Russian Hill, hoping that the exertion of climbing the steep streets and the long stairs would tire him enough to calm him down, but it didn’t work; he was as agitated as ever. He wandered into the Tenderloin as the sweat from his climb dried in the breeze.

Dante’s Inferno was weighing on his mind. It was a book that he had been hearing about his whole life, but had, of course, never actually read. It was a poem after all, and who reads poems? Jason did, finally, and the book sent shock waves of fear through him. 

Things started out okay. The virtuous pagans and the unbaptized children seemed to have things pretty easy, but when he descended deeper into the circles of Hell things just got worse and worse. In Hell Jason would have to burn, obviously, but he would also be dashed against rocks by a great wind, he would be frozen, he would be terrorized by demonic creatures, he would have to stand up to his neck in boiling blood and be shot at by centaurs armed with bows and arrows. He would have to wallow in a sea of excrement. He would even have to be jammed into Satan’s mouth in the very bottom pit of hell where the Dark Lord would chew him up with razor sharp teeth, forever.

He was sitting in the dark in a nearly deserted park, thinking his morose thoughts, when somebody sat down at the other end of the bench. He glanced over and saw a man, dressed in denim from top to bottom, wearing a cowboy hat (denim), and smoking a cigarette. The man was holding a gravity knife that he flipped open and then snapped shut repeatedly. For a moment Jason wondered if he should be worried, but he decided that this man was no threat. The knife seemed to be nothing but a tool for relaxation, like a pair of stress balls.

The man noticed Jason looking at him and he spoke, “You look like you got trouble on your mind.”

“I do.”

“Yeah, well, welcome to the human condition.”

“I think . . . I think my trouble is unique.”

“Everybody thinks their trouble is unique. If trouble was more photogenic everybody’d take pictures of it and slap it on Instagram to show how they’re different from everybody else. But it would all be the same, just like their beach pictures.”

“This is different.” Jason realized that he had been looking for somebody who would listen to his problems. He couldn’t tell Nadine, but why not tell the man sitting next to him? This man was somebody he would never see again, so he didn’t have to worry what he would think. “Do you mind if I tell you about it?”

“No. I got time. And I like to hear people tell their stories.”

Jason told him about his problems, omitting nothing important. When Jason had finished, the man was silent for a few seconds and then lit a fresh cigarette and sucked in some smoke before responding, “So, you’re saying we’re all robots?”

“Well, computer programs.”

“Me, you, the president, Rita Hayworth, all robots? That’s a trip. The thing is, I believe you. It feels right to me. What are you going to do about it?”

“I don’t know.”

“Is it wrong to kill a computer program?”

“I want to say no.”

“But then you remember that you’re a program, and so is your mother?”

“Yes. Plus, you say that the programmer’s story feels right to you, but I’m not sure that it does to me. And even if Kayden is only a mass of electronic ones and zeros, I will experience his death as a very physical thing.”

“Yeah. I think you will. As long as we’re admitting things to each other, I might as well tell you that I killed a man once, and it was like you say, very physical, blood and sweat and screaming and nightmares for days after. Of course, he was a full-grown man, a bad one who was trying to stick a knife between my ribs. It was hard to put him down.”  He snapped his knife open, “I used this knife to do it,” and he snapped it closed again. “At the start of the fight it was his knife . . . Your nephew will be a lot easier from one point of view, and a lot more difficult from another.”

They were silent a moment, and then the man spoke again, “That programmer guy says that he’s God, and that’s why you should do what he says. Well, depending on how you define God, he may be right, and he may not. But the question you really have to ask yourself is a very old one. Is a thing right because God says it is, or does God say it’s right because right and wrong are pre-existing in any action, and he can tell the difference?”

After his conversation with the man with the knife, Jason continued to wander, and he kept turning the same thoughts over and over again in his head. These thoughts crowded out any awareness of other things around him. At one point in the evening he passed a stinking ally outside a bar where the stench left by a thousand drunk urinators reached out and grabbed him by the nose, and for a moment he wondered how that smell could possibly be electronic. It was such a real, earthy, dirty thing. Knowing the truth about the smell of old and rotten urine didn’t make it any more pleasant. The odor reached into his brain and disturbed his thoughts only for a moment; this distraction itself had the effect of turning Jason’s mind back to the problems he was wrestling with.

At around eleven he realized he was hungry, and he could not talk himself out of his hunger pangs by reminding himself that they weren’t real, that any food he might eat wouldn’t be real, and that, in fact, even his stomach wasn’t real. He had an image of himself as a brain floating through space, feeling things. Mostly unpleasant things like hunger, thirst, confusion, loneliness, despair, and aching feet. He was just a turbulent mind that absorbed pain.

He walked into a small late-night pizza place and after ordering he sat alone at a table for six. He was the only person there besides an employee working the counter and another he could hear in the back somewhere, cooking presumably. As he waited for his slice of pepperoni to be heated his mind filmed over with a comfortless blankness. He stared at a kitschy poster of Italy that highlighted the regions where specific meats and cheeses had originated. A harsh voice shook him out of his stupor.

“Just grab whatever cash you have and give it to me.” The voice said. It was a man speaking to the girl working the counter. She was a small Filipina and Jason hadn’t really noticed her when he placed his order. He could see her clearly now though. She was a waif of a woman, plain but with lovely dark eyes and black hair. Her face was contorted with fear as she stared past a black handgun and into the face of the man who was threatening her with it.

Jason glanced at the robber, he was a young man in a hoodie, the signs of meth addiction were carved into his wasted face. The hood on the sweatshirt was pulled up to hide the man’s head, but it seemed sort of pointless to bother with a hood when his face was still visible. Jason unthinkingly shared his opinion, “The hood is useless; we can all see your face. So why bother? When people give descriptions to the police they never say ‘Oh, you know, his head was shaped like a coconut’ or whatever, they go right to the facial features. ‘He was an emaciated junkie with green eyes and a nose like a raven’s beak,’ that sort of thing. You should be wearing a mask. The hood isn’t helping you as much as you think it is.”

“What did you say?”

Jason realized that he had put himself in danger. He also realized that he didn’t care. “I said that it seems sort of dumb to bother with putting the hood up. I mean, maybe if your head is cold, that’s one thing. But if you’re trying to hide your face. . . that would be stupid. We can all see your face. It’s not like it’s hidden in the impenetrable shadows of a monk’s cowl. That’s a knockoff Golden State Warriors hoodie and we can all see your face. Do you not know that?”

Now that gun was pointed at Jason’s head. “Do you want to die, asshole?”

“Kind of. Yeah. A little bit.”

“I’m going to send you straight to hell if you don’t shut your mouth.” The man had his cash in hand now, but he seemed to feel that he couldn’t leave until he had put Jason in his place.

“Are you really going to send me to hell? I wonder. I wonder what would happen if you shot me right now. It wouldn’t be my fault that I didn’t do what I’ve been told to do. Would I just disappear? Just blink out of existence forever?”

The man stepped closer and raised his revolver to shoot Jason, but when he pulled the trigger the gun didn’t fire, it exploded. The bullet simply stayed right where it was, somehow stuck, and the shell burst around it, followed by the gun. The man screamed and dropped the broken weapon from his bloodied hand. He was still screaming as he ran out.

Jason stood there, as dazed as he had been all evening, staring into empty space and bleeding from where a piece of metal had struck his face. 

“What’s wrong with you?” the woman behind the counter asked.

Jason didn’t answer. He noticed a slice of pepperoni sitting on the counter, and he asked, “Is that mine?”

She nodded. He took the slice, thanked her, and then walked out into the night. He took a bite and was surprised that electricity could taste so good. 

The girl called out, “Don’t you want to wait and talk to the police?”

“No thank you.” He answered without turning around.

“You’re a lucky man!” she shouted after him, “You should be dead!”  But he knew that luck hadn’t been involved. The whole thing had been staged by the programmer, to teach him some kind of lesson.

*

Jason didn’t get much rest that night, and it felt like he had only been asleep for  seconds when he awoke to the sound of his cell phone ringing. He picked the phone up from where it had been sitting on his bedside table, answered, and placed it on the side of his face that wasn’t enveloped by his pillow. “Yeah?”

It was his sister, Janice, “Hi Jason! I hope I didn’t wake you.”

He glanced at the clock to see if it was too late in the day to admit that he had still been sleeping. It was 7:30 AM. “You did, actually. It’s Saturday, the traditional day to sleep in. At least for those of us fortunate enough to have no children.”

“I’m sorry! Especially because I don’t want to irritate you when I’m about to ask you a favor.” He knew what it would be. “Corey won this radio contest for a free weekend away in Miami! But we have to go this week. I know this is short notice, but do you think you could watch Kayden for me? He’s super low maintenance; basically all you have to do is crash at my place and eat my food for a few days. Could you do it?”

He thought of demurring, but he knew that it would be useless. Clearly the programmer had made this happen. The programmer was creating a sort of fate that he couldn’t escape, a sequence of events that would inexorably end with the sacrifice he demanded. “Yeah. I can do it.”

“Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”

*

The days passed. He tried not to think about his situation. He tried to distract himself with television, alcohol, movies, and sports, but nothing worked. His mind kept bending itself back to what he had learned about reality, and, worse, what the god of this world had directed him to do, and what would be done to him if he didn’t do it.

On Wednesday night, the last night before he would begin his babysitting stint in Janice’s house, he went back to wandering the streets. He had his eye open for the man with the knife who he had revealed his problems to a few days earlier. He knew that it was unlikely that he would find him, but he wanted to talk about his situation so badly that he looked anyway. 

In the late evening he stopped to sit on a bench in Union Square and suddenly the programmer was there, dressed as before in his pressed khakis and New Balance sneakers. And again everything in the world was paused, the cars, the people, the noise. It was as if the programmer and Jason existed alone in a movie set packed with mannequins. “You look like a man who’s really struggling with some grave theological questions,” the programmer said, “Let’s go somewhere we can talk.” The two blinked out of existence in Union Square, and then blinked back in ten miles away on the peak of Mount Tamalpais. They were standing on the roof of the forest fire watch tower that crowns the summit of the mountain. “Look at that city,” the programmer said, “I have always loved it. And I’ve always loved this spot, watching ships come and go, hearing the hum from San Francisco, even at this distance. Beautiful.”

“You turned the hum off.”

“You’re right! And I suppose I don’t really need to pause the world right now.” The programmer snapped his fingers and the hum could be heard again, boats began to move on the bay, and the cars down on the 101 streamed endlessly north and south.

“It isn’t real.”

“No more of that! We’ve been through this. It’s real. As real as you or me.”

Jason was not comforted by this, and he remained silent.

“You must be hungry. I’ve been watching you wander around for hours and you haven’t eaten anything. Why live in San Francisco if you aren’t going to eat?”

“Yeah.”

The programmer held out his hand, and when Jason glanced down at it, he saw a stone in the open palm.  “What man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone?” the programmer asked before chuckling to himself. “You have to understand that I’m offering you my friendship, and power inevitably follows my friendship. I saved you from the gunman in the pizza shop, but I can do much more than that. Command this stone be made bread, and it will happen.”

Jason stared at the rock.

“Come on! Do it.”

“Turn into bread,” Jason said, and in an instant the programmer was holding a small loaf of warm, freshly baked bread. The programmer handed it to him, and Jason took it, but he didn’t eat it. “Bread isn’t what I need.”

“No. Hungry or not, you don’t seem to have much of an appetite. But you must see bread for what it is. It’s power! If you do what I want, you’ll be able to do more than just turn rocks to bread! Look down. We’re up here pretty high, aren’t we?”

“Yes we are.”

“Does it make you nervous?”

“Yes.”

“Take a leap of faith, right now. Step off the roof of this tower, off the peak of this mountain, and God will catch you.”

“I don’t want to.”

“Take a leap of faith! I’ll bear you up! I promise that you won’t so much as dash your foot against a stone.”

Jason didn’t budge, so the programmer pushed him. He screamed and dropped his bread, but he only fell for a moment before he felt himself begin to glide parallel to the mountainside instead of falling towards it. The programmer was flying next to him. After the initial terror of falling had passed, and Jason had a moment to adjust to the new reality that unassisted flight was possible, he began to enjoy himself. He was surprised at how quickly his fear, confusion, and anger could dissolve in the mere act of flying and Jason found he had an intuitive knowledge of how to do it. The programmer followed where he led, gliding through the air next to him. They flew over the freeway and swooped low over the bay before taking a long and lazy westward loop and gliding between the uprights of the Golden Gate Bridge. 

Then Jason found that he was no longer in control as they turned back around and headed into the city. The programmer was in charge now, guiding them into the heart of the Financial District. He led Jason to the Transamerica pyramid and they stood side by side on top of it. The programmer gestured out towards the city, “Can’t you see that I’m offering you all this, if you’ll just treat me as I deserve, as the God that I am? I know you think of me as a programmer and that’s okay, because that’s all the original God is, assuming he exists. He’s a programmer.’

“What’s your world like? The one you came from originally?”

“It’s a lot like this one. Building a detailed world from scratch is a pain. Think of all the rivers, mountains, oceans, and the near infinite number of details that go into creating the geography of an entire planet. Think of the animals and plants, both existing and extinct. Think about humanity in all its variations, languages, races, cultures, and religions. I didn’t have the time to go around making up a lot of religions! Christianity, Buddhism, Islam . . . all these exist in the world I came from. Historical details are different here and there, but in general we are very similar. I think the next time I make a world I’ll add more variables to make it diverge a bit more.

“And you are a computer programmer in that world?”

“Look, this isn’t about my world. God ceases to be God when there isn’t an air of mystery about him, so I’m going to maintain my air.”

“Why do you want me to do this?”

“I want to firmly establish that I am the God of this world. God is also only God when people are willing to do things for him that they don’t comprehend. That is what I’m asking of you. This is what faith is. Do this thing that you don’t understand. Trust me that there’s a reason for it.”

“Do you mean that if I kill Kayden it will prevent him from becoming a second Hitler or something?”

“I’m not going to tell you what I mean. That’s the whole point. But I’m going to do you a favor right now, to demonstrate my benevolence, I’m going to give you a good night’s sleep. Your first in quite a while.” 

*

Jason awoke in his own bed twelve hours later feeling completely rested. It was a slow, pleasant, and warm return to consciousness. When he opened his eyes he enjoyed several seconds of forgetfulness before the darker details of his present predicament returned to him like a wave of nausea. 

Janice and Corey had a flight out of Oakland that morning at 7:00 AM, but they had told Jason that there was no need to wake up early and hurry up to Mill Valley, Kayden would be fine by himself for a few hours. As they said this Jason could tell that they were secretly hoping he would offer to drive up early anyway, but he didn’t make the offer. He knew that Kayden would be safer without his uncle around. 

An hour later Jason was sipping coffee out of a stainless-steel thermos as his Prius crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, headed north. It was Friday morning, and he had until Sunday to “sacrifice” his nephew. He didn’t like the word “sacrifice” at all. It sounded overly dramatic. It sounded insane. He preferred plain old “murder” instead. 

When he got to his sister’s house, the door was locked. He rang the doorbell but there was no answer. He rang it again, and again no answer. He knocked. He knocked harder. Finally he yelled, “Kayden, I know you’re in there, I’m supposed to be watching you, so let me in.”

“I don’t need a babysitter!”

“What you need or think you need doesn’t matter. Your mom wants me to stay with you while she’s gone, and that’s what I’m going to do, even if I have to break a window.” 

“Doing what your sister asks you to do is so gay.”

“Please don’t call everything gay. It’s 2019, ‘gay’ is not pejorative.”

“Then why do you care if I call you gay? I’m going to call the cops and tell them my creepy uncle is trying to break into my house.”

“And they’ll call your mom to ask about it. Just let me in; I’ll keep out of your way and you can keep out of mine. Everything will be fine.”

Kayden unlocked the door.

*

An hour later Jason spoke to his nephew. “You’re not going to just play video games the entire time your parents are gone, are you?”

Kayden didn’t look away from the screen for even a moment, but at least he answered his uncle, “I don’t see why I’d do anything else.”

“Don’t you ever go outside? Ride a bike? Play ball with your friends?”

“All my friends are online. If I went outside I’d be by myself. Only losers are by themselves.”

“Well, I feel like kids should spend some time out in the fresh air, doing outdoor things.”

“Hooray for your kids if you ever have any which I don’t think you will because nobody will marry you because mom says that all your girlfriends dump you.”

“Whether I ever have any kids or not is irrelevant. What I’m trying to say is that I’m in charge of you right now, and since you’re my responsibility, I’m going to see to it that you get some time in the sun.”

“Good luck with that. I’m not going to go anywhere. What are you going to do, put me in one of those backpacks for babies and hike around with me? Because I’m not moving and you can’t make me.”

“I could turn off the Wi-Fi. I could take away your Xbox.”

“You don’t want to do that. Do you really want me to have nothing to do but get on your nerves?”

“Well, if the stick won’t work, how about the carrot?”

“Gay.”

“What I’m saying is that I’ll buy you a video game, any game of your choice, if you’ll go hiking with me tomorrow.”

“Why do you care so much?”

“Do you want the video game or not?”

“How long is the hike?”

“Three miles.”

“How long does it take to hike three miles? Like eight hours?”

“More like one hour.”

“Fine.”

*

“Hiking is so gay,” Kayden said as they started up the trail. He was dressed in inappropriate clothes, the glossy wingtips and black suit that he had worn to his elementary school graduation the year before. He was wearing the suit for three reasons: as an act of protest against hiking, to irritate his uncle, and to be able to tell his mom when she returned that his nice clothes were all ruined and it was Jason’s fault. Jason intuited all three of these reasons, but he wasn’t bothered by them. He had other things on his mind.

Kayden’s father had always seemed like the kind of person who might own a gun and Jason had been relieved to find it. Relieved, then troubled, because again it seemed like the way was being paved for him. Fate had put him into Kayden’s house, fate had put him in charge of his nephew, and now fate had given him a gun. And fate, of course, was just another name for programmer.

He had found the gun in his brother-in-law’s closet. It was a 9mm Beretta and looked like a lot of the pistols he had seen in movies. The box with the gun also contained a box of bullets. These bullets fit into the gun, and now the gun was sitting in Jason’s backpack and digging into his back a little. It was as heavy as a brick, loaded with ten bullets, and ready to kill.

Jason walked in front while Kayden lagged about twenty feet behind, complaining that it was too hot, that it was too cold, that there was too much wind, that he was hungry, that he was thirsty, that he was tired, that he was itchy, that there were too many bugs, that his legs hurt, that his eye hurt, and that his feet hurt. Jason hoped all the complaints were true. 

The programmer hadn’t provided any details about how the murder was supposed to happen. He hadn’t specified the weapon to be used, the location, or whether there was to be any ritual involved. Jason thought about this as he walked. Modern man wasn’t good at ritual, he realized. A little ritual can make a thing seem normal. Abraham had no doubt sacrificed dozens, if not hundreds, of doves, sheep, goats, and whatever else before being asked to sacrifice Isaac. He may have had theological questions about the act, and he was doubtless upset that he had to kill his own child, but at least Abraham had known what to do in the purely mechanical sense. The man had cut a throat or two before, while Jason had been left on his own.

They were nearing the spot on the trail where Jason had twice spoken to the programmer. It seemed like the appropriate place for the act. It was a natural temple, with its view of the ocean and its columns of redwood tree trunks. There had been no cars in the parking lot, and there appeared to be no other hikers on the trail. The path had been cleared. The programmer had made sure they would have privacy.

After a half hour of hiking they arrived in the high clearing with its view of the Pacific Ocean. At least, Jason arrived in the clearing. Kayden was nowhere in sight. Jason sat on a rock by the side of the trail and waited for his nephew, who soon slogged into view, puffing out complaints like an old-time locomotive puffing out steam.

“This. Is. So. Gay. Hiking. Is. So. Stupid. You are. . .  so stupid . . . for making me come. A video game . . . is not. Worth. This. Nightmare. You. Better buy me beer too . . . don’t be . .  so gay. Also, you . . . better . . . carry me . . . back down. Or. I’ll. Die. And. You . . . you will go to jail.”

Kayden’s red face was substantially redder than normal, and Jason hoped that he would have a heart attack, which would let him off the hook. But children didn’t have heart attacks, did they? The boy lay down in the middle of the trail, spread-eagled in his black suit. “I need a Twinkie. I know you brought Twinkies.” Jason had brought Twinkies; he thought they might be useful in luring his nephew up the hill. He pulled one out of his pack and began to hand it to Kayden when his nephew said, “No! You unwrap it! I’m too tired!” Jason took a breath, reminded himself that it was the kid’s last meal, and unwrapped the Twinkie for him. Kayden shoved the whole thing into his mouth without biting. This gave Jason a reason to hope the kid would choke to death, but again, he knew that he wouldn’t be so lucky.

He pulled the gun out of the backpack and checked to make sure it was loaded. It was. Who would have unloaded it? He looked down at his nephew, and then out at the ocean, and then at the gun again.

“Is that my dad’s gun?” he heard Kayden ask.

“Yeah.”

“What did you bring it for?”

Well, that was an awkward question. When Abraham had been asked a similar question, he prevaricated; Jason now did the same, “Oh, I thought I might shoot something.”

Kayden was on his feet now. Excited. “Like what?”

And that was the moment Jason realized that he wasn’t going to shoot his nephew. Dante’s Inferno or not, he just couldn’t do it. “I guess we could shoot that tree stump over there.”

“We? Can I shoot it? My dad never lets me shoot his gun!”

“Sure.” 

He handed the gun to his nephew and the world froze. The programmer appeared. “Couldn’t go through with it, eh?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Life is life, I guess. Electronic or not. And you don’t determine right and wrong. I do.”

“Yeah.”

“You’re not mad?”

“Naw. I just wanted to see if you’d do it.”  And then the programmer disappeared. 

Kayden was holding the gun and he had been unfrozen. “Let’s go kill that log,” he said. 

Jason squinted at the boy as if trying to discern whether he would one day turn into a Hitler. Then he sighed and spoke, “Yeah, let’s go drill that wood.”

“That sounds super gay,” his nephew said.

 

(If you want to read a story about George Berkeley’s ideas that’s actually good, you need to read Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, by Jorge Louis Borges.)

The Light Bringer

Pygmaliana

The man you seek isn’t hidden in marble,
To be chipped and chiseled and broken out.
That first hammerblow and puff of dust
reveal the beginnings of a snout.

Sink a shovel and throw some dirt.
Disturb the sandy skin of earth;
You will find but roots and rocks,
No treasure here of any worth.

But still she digs and hammers,
Throwing up a cloud of dust.
This whacking will never make me pretty,
But she stays at it because she must.

Pygmaliana

Catastrophism

Catastrophism, the theory of creation though cataclysm,
Is dead.  The slouching shuffle of weary time forms the Earth.
Eons of water wound a path through rock to carve this canyon.
This bed of fossils was hidden under layer after sedimentary layer,
Laid down by a near eternity of flooding and drought.
These mountains were lifted by Poseidon’s Earth shaking pressures
Pushing from the core, slow marching millimeters, towards the sky.
This bird’s wings were teased by time from the limbs of a dinosaur.
The Earth takes shape under the slow grind of an emperor’s jaws.

 
France has an inland sea. Green waves roll in from Germany.
Sheep, like rising dolphins, ride the crests of these undulations.
The depths below, off the shore of Verdun, hide the detritus of battle:
Unexploded ordinance and the broken bones of humans and horses.
The landscaper, Falkenhayn, built this sea garden in 1916.
His tools, made by Krupp, were artillery, mines, and mortars,
A Le Notre fertilizing with phosgene and ragged flesh.

 
How can you look at this man made sea
And tell me the Earth wasn’t formed by catastrophe?

 

Catastrophism