PART ONE: A STRANGE LIGHT
Vincent was born in a city called Tobleronia. It was not an exciting place, but wedged in between the rocky blue hills, the people managed to live industrious lives thanks to their well organized system of government.
Rules made life simple and they comforted the people. Vincent, however, had been born with an unfortunate shock of unacceptably lavender hair and he was small for his age. But, he always walked between the blue lines drawn along the Tobleronian sidewalks just as he was supposed to do. And he never crossed so much as a toe except on Tuesdays between 8 AM and 10:30 AM when it was permitted and in some cases, required. He always brushed his hair and his teeth vigorously when asked by his mother, because he was in fact a very good boy.
“Why is my hair purple?” he asked his mother one day after his teacher sent him to detention for having purple hair.
“It’s not,” said his mother who was measuring flour to make a sour yellow casserole. “It’s lavender. Your father’s hair was lavender so your hair is lavender.”
“I have a father?” cried Vincent. “Where is he?”
“He’s in the woods,” said his mother quickly. Her face paled when she spoke, but the little boy with the lavender hair was thinking too hard to take notice. “But, you can’t see him. There are too many Chunder Beasts. Just have some casserole.”
The idea of a father tumbled around in Vincent’s brain for years before he worked up the courage to cross the blue line on the sidewalk when no one was looking and run toward the red hills to find his dad. But, it was there in the dark woods where the earth crackled under his step that he found the machine.
It was a sphere of changing dimension without color or regular form. It emitted no light, but was made from tiny parts that turned and whirred in unison. He hummed its frequency as he tip-toed toward it and nervously bent lower to see what it was. And the air flashed with sudden light. Vincent grabbed the bright ball and ran.
“Your hair!” his mother yelled. “What have you done to it?”
What used to be terrible inconvenience and nearly considered illegal to display in public was now cloudily mess of white fluff. He went to the mirror and touched it. It was so different.
“Mom, I found something,” he said pulling the machine from his pocket, but there was nothing in his hand when he held it out for her to see, though he could still feel its weight and hear it hum.
Vincent’s mother could not and would not believe him no matter what he said and in a matter of hours he was taken by the Tobleronian authorities for official decontamination procedures. And though he promised he would never do it again, they still carried him away to an empty gray car, plopped him down on the backseat and gave him a cracker. All Vincent knew was that it would be a long time before he could go home so he yelled and screamed until he was too tired to continue.
“You’re a very bad boy,” said the decontamination nurse when he tried to show her the machine. “There is no invisible machine and you should never have gone into the forrest.”
“I was just looking for my dad,” he whispered to himself.
No other children lived in the decontamination unit, which was brimming with Tobleronians who did not follow the rules. In his nightmares, the strange people turned into Chunder Beasts and they ate his father. But, in the day, he started to notice that more than his hair had changed.
“Do you see the space between the stars?” came a sudden voice one night when he was sitting on a bench in the yard. It belonged to a man with an intensely wrinkled face who didn’t seem to notice that Vincent was child.
“Don’t you want to ask how old I am or why I am here?” muttered the white haired boy.
“No,” said the resident of the decontamination unit. “I only want to know if you can see the space between those stars. Up there.”
“Which ones?” said Vincent looking upward. And then the heavens opened wide with their mysteries and each point of light moved imperceptibly away from one another filling a distance ever expanding. Before that moment, the sky had been like a shell to him with nothing more than painted dots. He had never really seen it, but in that single instant with the invisible machine whirring inside his pocket, he saw the same glow of light and full breadth and depth of sky was revealed.
And then it was gone. And the man with it.
Over the years, his hair yellowed until he looked the same as all the other boys his age. He never grew too large and he never told anyone about the invisible machine. There were no Chunder Beasts in the forest and eventually he got to meet his dad who just turned out to be an alcoholic deadbeat. But, his dad was a very good logger and an otherwise nice man. So, Vincent got a job planting trees and the authorities issued him a special pass to live in the forrest. And he found a group of astronomers to pass the time with. Life was fine. He left the machine in his bag and somedays, he even forgot about it.
There were less rules in the forrest. Sometimes he missed them. No one baked sour yellow casserole and very few people cared whether he brushed his teeth.
“What is that?” said a dark haired girl in the sleeping bag next to his. All the re-forresters slept in the woods under the stars, but this girl was different. She always seemed to be next to him.
“What is what?” he said defensively.
“I can hear something,” she said sitting up. “It’s like a humming sound.”
For the first time in years, Vincent thought about showing someone else the machine. He opened his pack and started sifting through his meager possessions. She was snoring.
“Hey,” he said kicking her bag. “I’ve got a comb you can have. It belonged to my ex-girlfriend. She was really beautiful. I know you’re not, but it won’t hurt you to use it.”
She sat up and he dropped the fragile old comb on her lap. “That was so stupid of you that I cannot even feel angry,” she moaned rolling over. The comb slid off the bag and landed in the dirt. “And cover that glowing thing. It’s too bright. Too loud. And I can’t sleep.”
Vincent picked up the little whirring ball with the funny gears and put it back in his bag covering it with a thick black sweater.
“Thanks,” she said bitterly.
And that might have been the end of it except that he couldn’t stop thinking about how she could see it was there and no one else had really noticed.
“You fucking showed it to me,” she explained one night when he took it out and waved it in front of her face until she woke up. Then, she rolled over. He hated watching her sleep. He took it out again. It seemed somehow a bit brighter. She bolted upright and threw something at him. It was a piece of the green comb. But, that didn’t stop him. He needed to know why she could see it.
It seemed that the dark haired girl was not a Tobleronian. If you went to the other side of the red Tobleronian hills, crossed the boarder, descended down the rail to the sea, boarded a ship sailing around the rocky gray islands, you’d come to the last inhabited place in the whole world. In every way, it was just like all the other islands except there were no rules. No government. No blue lines. No sidewalks. Anarchia wasn’t so much of a country as it was just a piece of ground where some few people made their homes. Big homes, but muddy.
“I think I’ll take up religious fundamentalism today,” said the dark haired girl one day while they were digging with their shiny little shovels and dropping seedlings into the living red dirt that was so dense in life that Vincent usually severed a worm or two when he made a hole.
“You’re an Anarchian,” sighed Vincent. “You can’t do that.”
“I am an Anarchian,” said the girl. “So, I can do that.”
Arguing was against the rules in Tobleronia and even though he didn’t live in his city any longer, it didn’t matter. He knew he had to leave. He was getting tired and angry. Sometimes, his body was sore and he when he didn’t sleep, he began to feel his age. So, he returned to Tobleronia where his much older and frailer mother was waiting with her sour yellow casserole. It was peaceful and he no longer feared being sent to the decontamination unit.
But, the stars over the city had dimmed and the light of the invisible machine was fading. It was only when he starred hard at night at it’s intricate mechanisms and thought about the girl that the light grew. But, so did his fear of being taken away again. There were times when he looked at hills and pictured what she might be doing. Digging away at the ground with her shiny trowel. Sleeping in her bag under the ever widening sky. It didn’t matter. He got a job painting blue lines on the sidewalk, bought a cream colored bungalow and found an interesting roommate with trim facial hair without ever mentioning the invisible machine again.
“Hey!” he screamed one day when his coveralls were still drenched from the spring rains and the fresh lines on the sidewalk near the jeweler on the corner had been washed away. Some idiot had marched through the puddle of light blue paint and was trailing it down the clean street. He caught up with the woman. It was her.
“I-I uh,” he stammered. “I still have that machine.”
She was dismissive of him at first until a moment later when she recognized his face and gave him a warm uncomfortable embrace. “What machine?”
“The one that glowed and hummed,” he said. “It’s in my desk at home.”
“Well, I’m glad to know you kept it, I suppose. But, what is new with you these days? How long have you been living here?”
Vincent fumed. All these years she had been the only one to see his machine, but she spoke to him as if they had been nothing more than casual acquaintances that once shared a cup of coffee. The invisible machine was nothing more than a curiosity even if she could see it. The biggest mystery of his life and the one person who could share it with him didn’t care about it. “Never mind,” he said turning his back to her.
“What?” she spat at his back. “Vincent? Why? I’m sorry I broke your ex-girlfriend’s comb. I’m sorry I snore. I’m sorry I don’t know your Tobleronian rules. What did you want from me? What is so important about your little ball with all the whirligigs inside?”
He kept walking. She followed. But, he wasn’t listening to her. Just for once, the humming had grown so loud that he heard it all the way down the street and light in window was so bright that its soft white corona could be seen flittering through the leaves of the tree outside. He smiled to himself. She hadn’t stopped.
“Wow,” she said when they reached the front door of his home. “It’s gotten a lot brighter.”
“I don’t even know what it is,” he finally confessed.
“Why doesn’t that surprise me?” she said wiping the blue paint on her shoes onto the grass in the front of his lawn. “You don’t even know my name. How many years did we work together and you didn’t even know my name?”
“You’re going to clean that up?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she replied taking her shoes off and following him into his house.
Some parts of the invisible machine had grown. Pale wires trailed down the stairs over the burgundy rug and seemed to be growing organically toward any source of light from outside, as if fed by it. The dark haired girl climbed step by step in front of him onto the landing until they were surround by its iridescent structure. It pulsed as it whirred. The humming was louder and within each tone he heard a tune. Something familiar, but still not.
The light. Fractured. And there were a rainbow of colors in the deafening blinding searing chill of sound and energy. The power that churned in the gears and wheels and mechanisms of the invisible machine sent a shiver down his spine. If it had not been for the dark haired girl, he would not have gone forward. But, she was there and he couldn’t let her go first.
Vincent opened the door into the room. It felt like weightless glass as he moved it toward him. And as they neared the center of the machine, it was warmer and the light was both yellow, lavender, rose and the lightest blue. But, there was nothing there to see, but more mechanisms, pulsing and growing, covering the desk, climbing the walls, collecting on the floor, in the corner, around the bed.
“I don’t even know what it is,” he said.
“Your invisible machine?” she said sounding suddenly surprised.
He starred and shook, because he feared knowing as much as he wanted to know what she knew about it.
“Well, this is you,” she said, pointing to around her. “This is the part of you where you were taken by those decontamination agents. And that’s your mother’s expression when you left. Those are the tears you cried. And that was where the woman said you were bad. Here is your disappointment and love for your dad. Here is the way a shiny clean trowel makes you smile. And that big wheel over there is your respect for blue lines.”
“Why is it a machine?” Vincent said, flopping onto his tattered old armchair. “And what was it doing in the forest when I was little?”
The girl stood back looking uneasy. She had never heard Vincent ask a question. “I have to go,” she said, “I have an appointment with the dentist. I’ll come back afterward.”
But, when she rang the doorbell, he didn’t answer. If it was him and she had seen that and known that, why did she never tell him so? How did she know? Why had she seen it? The machine was still whirring all around him as he stroked his chin, thinking, darkly. She came again to his door, but there was nothing to be said. So, he didn’t answer.
And Vincent learned to live with it. With all the wheels turning and the gears spinning. They grew and chimed and hummed down the street with him. Vincent grew fond of keeping the machine with him. Eventually, he fashioned leather cuff and attached the wispy strands of light. He wore it everywhere. It was his and he was angry. The machine was neither heavy nor light. It was white, but often sounded red or black – not that he could explain that sensation easily.
He didn’t need the girl to tell him about himself or how he worked. And if he let her too close, she would probably break some of the pieces anyway. So, he avoided her on the streets of Tobleronia. Everywhere he went, the machine followed. It grew, and whirred, and clunked, and generally kept up pretty well.
There were parts of Vincent’s machine that sputtered. A lightly colored loose cable fell and sometimes when he wasn’t paying attention, he nearly tripped over it. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t really there. He always saw it. The machine had become his constant companion. When he wasn’t working or sitting at the local pub having a Tobler Ale, Vincent started to work on his machine. Bolts needed to be tightened. Cables untangled. He would tidy a section and discard the useless pieces. Only on rare occasion did he wake in the morning to find that they’d grown back in a glowing heap of tangle and disorder.
The girl it seemed had not been important at all. He had everything he needed. Until his mother died and everything fell apart. Shafts and pressers warped. Levers and gears melted. The machine had lasted so long in general order with its soft hum that the clanking and crunch of the broken units drove him nearly mad. He waited hours in his room with a pillow over his head. Pieces flew onto his face and sleep seemed it would never come again. He tore the band from his arm and threw it from his window, but the machine had wrapped its self around his ankles and hooks clung to the back of his shirt.
The heavy gray skies didn’t help his mood either and the weight of the machine continued to increase until Vincent had no choice left. He went looking for the girl. She was working in a factory on the outer side of the city when he discovered the cafe where she ate lunch. His machine barely squeezed through the door and his heart pounded as he approached her. She was, it seemed, his only hope.
“You’re my only hope,” he said.
“For what?” she said, eating with her mouthful. There were crumbs on the table from her smoked meat sandwich and although it wasn’t strictly allowed, she had stuck tooth picks into her pickle until it looked like porcupine. Cafes were not the place for art. Wasting supplies was not okay. His machine recoiled at the sight of her although one semi-functional vacuum nozzle snuck toward the table and sucked away her mess.
“There’s something wrong with my machine,” he said.
“Then, there’s something wrong with you,” she replied, still chewing. The vacuum flew into action before the crumbs reached the flawless rose-colored formica boomerang laminate. “If you meet me after work on the corner of the building down the Nesika Lane by the stripped smoke stack, I’ll do what I can.”
“It’s urgent,” he said, but she seemed not to be listening as she stuffed a small notebook into her tattered olive wool coat. She looked at him. He took her hand and saying nothing more he led her back to his bungalow where she began reluctantly to work on his machine. But, even as she fixed one thing, another broke. A coil sprung free and a spring uncoiled. She set the pieces down. It was night and the darkness through the open window felt strangely unfathomable except for the soft glow of a lamppost reflected on the glistening parts of his invisible machine.
“There’s nothing more I can do,” she said getting to her feet. Hours had passed.
Vincent closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair.
“I’ll just show myself out then,” she said moving the hanging cables and sidestepping a lever shaped like a broom handle. But, when he woke in the morning, she was sleeping in an uncomfortable heap in the other arm chair.
As she snored, the clank and sputter died away.
“We need each other,” he said after she got herself a morning coffee. “You have a machine, too. Why else would you be able to see mine? I could work on yours. We can trade.”
“You can’t,” said the girl. “I don’t believe you. You still don’t know my name. No, good bye, Vincent. I’m sorry.” She picked up her coat and walked to the door. But, when he left for lunch that afternoon, she was sitting on his steps sobbing.
He looked past her and kept walking. She followed. Obviously, she was crazy. That was the only reason she could see his machine and he was crazy, too, which meant neither one of them could fix the other. It had been a false hope, but his machine was lighter now and there would be no reason he couldn’t manage.
“Vincent!” she cried. “I don’t have a machine. Stop. Can’t you just stand still and listen to me.” He was walking faster than her through the puddles. His machine had grown weightless as he moved farther away. He turned a corner of a street and she stopped pursuing him.
“I have a garden,” she screamed. Her voice echoed, but he kept walking.
PART TWO: AN EVEN STRANGER DARKNESS
And that was the truth of it, he discovered, eventually. When he went to find her. Which he did.
“Hey,” he said nervously.
“How are you,” she replied. Her voice was dry. And for the first time, he saw it. On every side of her were the twisting branches and brambles in various shades of green, so light and iridescent. Unlike his slowly moving gears, he could see through her garden as if it were made from a glossy mist. There were branches twisting and winding around trees of many textures. Some of the plants seemed to growing and withering before his eyes. As he moved along side her, the ferns recoiled and the leaves fell from their leaves. His machine was leaking oil.
“Are those broken combs growing on that bush?” he asked pointing to a bush that was indeed covered with many of the same broken combs he remembered having once owned, but they were not combs as much as they were the protruding bits of stamen from a dark woody flower.
“Do you want to come sleep with me?” he blurted. He couldn’t face her to see the reaction, but it was a good idea. She always liked sleeping next to him. He could talk about his invisible machine with her and she wouldn’t think he was crazy.
“I think I need some coffee,” she said. “My name is Elisa. You can come with me if you like.”
Vincent had never noticed the cafe on the street down the corner from his house. He didn’t walk that way, but Elisa did and often.
“Your usual,” the barrista said handing her a cup, which had been prepared just as soon as he saw her from the wide paned windows.
They talked about nothing for a while. The wind howled outside and it began to rain. And then the conversation turned until both were in agreement that time itself was merely a sense experienced by lifeforms, which did not exist without the perceiver. It was a natural conclusion of what they discussed. Elisa came home with Vincent. She slept in arms. He had never noticed how thin her skin was. She was soft.
At night, her garden bloomed. He woke to see explosions of color from very short-lived varieties of plants. Purples and reds. But also, vines and nettles of scaly paler hues. During the day, they worked and she came back to his house that night, but they didn’t discuss epistemology.
“You put too much flour in the sour yellow casserole,” he said.
She balked and tried to explain that she didn’t want to follow recipes, “They just make me sad.”
Within days, her garden had shown signs of disease and decay. And within a week, she was watering barren patches with her tears.
“I need to leave,” she said tugging at his pajamas as she lay next to him.
He said nothing and closed his eyes.
In the morning, she was gone. And though he was pained, the anger grew wild and burst like one of her flowers. He had never known he was lonely until she wasn’t there anymore. She was not the solution to his problem whatever that had been.
Rather than allow her departure to hurt him, Vincent set to work tightening and polishing his machine. He scrubbed the screws, polished the pulleys and leveled the levers. And while he was working, he thought about her even as the months passed.
But, Elisa had left the city, but not before saying goodbye to the cafe worker. Vincent asked for her along the way stopping merchants and shopkeepers who might have seen which direction she went. She was easy to identify. Elisa’s hair was long and unkempt. She looked like an Anarchian. But, there were many Anarchians living and working in the forests at the border of Tobleronia. Too many it seemed.
Eventually, Vincent asked for his old job back and started planting trees. In the evenings, he went from camp to camp asking for Elisa. It was weeks before he found someone who had seen her.
“Well, she went to Anarchia,” said the crippled old man with a network of hair on his face like the roots of a tree.
Anarchia was nothing more than lump of dirt covered in trees.
“Everyone visits the trading post,” explained one of the traders sitting on a bench at the one and only center of commerce on the puny island.
“What day does Elisa come?” asked Vincent.
“What day?” said the trader, furrowing his bushy unibrow. “Who knows what day it is?” The man left shaking his head with grumbling laugh.
“Elisa!” he shouted, but it was not her. The woman was the same height and shape. She even wore the same robin blue wool coat as Elisa. He felt the shame swell in his gut and his machine slowed down. He looked around at the people and wondered if they saw it, too, like Elisa. He was exposed, unbearably and uncomfortably.
“I’m here, Vincent,” came her voice. She was standing behind him. Indeed it was the exact same robin blue wool coat that the other women wore. And there were others dressed just as she had always dressed in varying shades of blue.
“I want to be with you,” he said.
She looked amused and took his hand. “I don’t understand why you came, but since you are here, I suppose I’ll have to take care of you.”
They walked in silence as the sun set and the glow bugs began to gather in the air around them.
“Why did you come?” she asked as soon as her tiny hut was in view on the hillside.
“I want to be with you,” he repeated.
“Why do you want to be with me?” she asked. He searched her expressions only to find that she was calm as if they were strangers. As if the time she had spent in his home had never happened. She seemed fine and suddenly by contrast he did not. Vincent was crestfallen.
“You’re not getting any younger,” he blurted. “And I just thought you might want away from these smelly hills.”
“If I’m going to invite you into my tent,” she said just as smoothly. “I don’t want you to speak to me like that.”
Dumb. She must be really dumb. He ignored her through dinner while she tried to make conversation about the trading post. And even though he said some cold things and his machine was whirring and clanking as though every inch had been heated and cooled too fast, he felt rage and insulted her again.
And she did nothing and he was glad when it was time to sleep, but they did not lay next to each other.
“Have you even looked at my garden?” she asked him in the morning. There were lines on her face he’d never noticed before as if she’d grown ugly overnight. He almost didn’t recognize her.
He hadn’t. It wasn’t really there anymore. A few brambles and weeds followed her through flap of her hut as she went outside. And nothing else. He had made a mistake. Vincent took his things and walked toward the door. He did not make her happy. She did not want him.
Elisa saw him leave and ran after him down the winding slope of the Anarchian hill kicking rocks and dust. She called his name, but he was faster than her. It wasn’t until the edge of the water at end of the dock that she finally reached him. No boat.
“Not for another twenty minutes, I’m afraid,” said the ferryman.
Elisa talked and Vincent ignored her. Time passed, but it was slow.
“…and you’re killing my garden, because you need me,” she said. “Do you know why I have an invisible garden and you have an invisible machine?”
He had never noticed how arrogant she was until she opened her mouth. And he had always thought she had a garden, because she was female and he had a machine, because he was male. She must think he was as dumb as her.
“The few Tobleronians who find their way into the forrest always find machines,” she whispered. “And all Anarchians find gardens unless they live in the city where these things aren’t found. I don’t why it happens this way, but though we look very similar, we are not. Your machine poisons my garden.”
Vincent wasn’t trying to kill her garden. He didn’t even know how she could see invisible gardens and invisible machines. None of it made sense and he was better off going home. He took loaded himself onto the ferry and it pushed away from the dock rippling the water while Elisa sat watching him go. But, he could not go home. He needed answers.
When he worked in the forrest, he had heard of a hermit who despite living in perfect seclusion underground for his entire life was purportedly the wisest person in Tobleronia or Anarchia. The hermits cave wound deep into the darkness of the earth. It was wet and slimy. Vincent’s machine recoiled from the surfaces of the cave and drew its parts inward, bending at the joints and folding toward him for safety, it seemed.
“Hello!” he shouted.
“Hello!” echoed the cave. “Ello. Ello. Ello,” it continued more quietly until the voice faded far into the dark interior. If nothing else, Vincent knew the cave was smaller father in. He lit a candle. He had brought six just incase.
In the flickering light, he followed the footpath to narrowing of the rock where it been carved. The enclosure grew narrower, but still the ceiling hung high above and its details were obscured by the shadows his light cast. Vincent’s machine had unit by unit transformed itself into a sort of cart with wheels and a steam pipe that followed behind him. As the air grew colder, the invisible machine began to shiver. Turning a corner, he stepped through a rock that was not quite there. Vincent held his candle to the mirage. An invisible stalagmite.
On closer examination, he could see that the invisible rock covered every surface of the wall. He walked onward treading cautiously, wishing that Elisa had been there to go first as she did so calmly that day in his apartment. He was not a coward, but like any sensible Tobleronian, he was repelled by the unknown, the dangerous unknown especially.
“What do you want?” groaned the raspy voice of the hermit before Vincent even turned the corner to see him. He was fat, short and his features drooped heavily downward.
“I have a question,” said Vincent holding up his candle. The cave had given way to a room, round and dirty, and not surprisingly, full of books and patches algae that covered the walls as if climbing, but not reaching the apex.
“What do you want?” the hermit repeated. He seemed to shift. Dust rolled down his dark garb, but yet, didn’t actually move position.
Vincent hadn’t thought how to phrase his question. “There is a girl from the f-forrest,” he stammered. “Why do I have a machine?”
“And she a garden? And I rock?” finished the hermit impatiently. He scratched his face with all twenty inches of fingernails on his left hand.
“I can’t seem to build a future with her,” said Vincent.
“You can’t grow one either,” said the hermit.
“It just doesn’t seem to work,” he agreed.
“You don’t thrive in each other’s presence.”
“Build. Grow. Work. Thrive. People ask the obvious and never the necessary,” he moaned. “And how do they find me? Who told them? If I answer your question, you will go out and report to everyone that the hermit is dead? Agreed? No more questions.”
“Yeah, I’m fine with that,” said Vincent.
“Lick the wall,” said the hermit.
“I don’t think-” Vincent started to say.
Surprisingly, his machine didn’t balk as he approached the green filth that grew on the rock. Vincent closed his eyes tightly and tried to see what he was touching with his tongue. But, the slime had no taste. He opened his eyes turned to hermit, but where the old man had been rotting in his pile of damp papers, there were two dogs with glowing red eyes. And one spoke to him in his mind with the voice of the hermit.
“You see here that we are two similar animals. This beside me is the feral dog. It has no master. It roams where it pleases and takes what it will. And although I look like a dog, I am not. I am a tame wolf.”
“Where am I!” Vincent said much louder than he had intended.
The cave cried “I-I-I” back in same tone of shock and despair.
“Shut up,” said the hermit curtly. “You’re still in the cave. Take your answer and learn. It is all you can do now.”
The wolf stepped toward him slowly. With each step, it’s paw expanded and it’s shoulder blade rose. Such a calculating creature and a depth of intention Vincent had never seen. In fact, he had never seen a wolf up close before.
“I want you to lunge at the feral dog,” said the hermit from within the body of the wolf. “But hold back. You will not intend to fight it. You will show it that you are willing to fight.”
Vincent dropped his shoulder and glared at the dog making a swift motion toward it. The dog barked, but its hind legs moved backward. Vincent charged again with more determination and the dog whimpered.
Then, the hermit’s voice came from the feral dog, “Now do the same to the wolf,” it said.
Vincent challenged the wolf just as he had done with the dog, but the wolf turned its head, watched him for a moment and looked away as if noting had happened. Vincent tried again. As far as the wolf was concerned, he might as well have been invisible.
“Pet the wolf,” said the hermit from the body of the dog.
Vincent reached down trembling and the wolf tilted its head toward him. His fur was thicker and drier than a dog’s fur. The wolf seemed to enjoy the affection.
“Pet the dog,” said the wolf when Vincent had finished with it.
“The dog will bark and then try to bite me if I touch it,” said Vincent refusing.
“Why is that?” asked the hermit.
The dogs had vanished and both Vincent and the hermit were in the cave again.
“It doesn’t recognize me as a member of its pack,” said Vincent. “And I’m not its master even if it decided not to fight me.”
“With time, you could tame the dog and it might recognize you as a member of its pack. Possibly even its master,” said the hermit. “The wolf was already tame. Why did it ignore your challenge?”
“I have no idea,” said Vincent.
“Because, you didn’t mean it,” said the hermit with dust floating off his clothes as he talked. The man had obviously not moved for a long time. “You weren’t really going to attack him. His instincts tell him the difference between a real and feigned threat. But, the dog barks, because it has the instinct to hold its position against you with the same manner of subterfuge that you used.”
“The dog is smarter than the wolf?” said Vincent.
“The dog is bred with the complex instincts required for domestication,” said the hermit sounding a bit irritated. “The wolf is born with the complex instincts required for survival in the wild. A wolf may be tame and a dog may be feral, but nothing learned by either creature will fully replace their instincts. What happens when you put a domestic animal in a cage?”
“Not much,” said Vincent.
“And when you put a wild animal, even a tame one, in a cage?” said the hermit yawning.
“I don’t know,” said Vincent. He was getting frustrated with the old man.
“They die. They kick each other to death. They pluck out their own feathers. Their hearts stop. They go into shock. Even if they live, they do not mate. Even if they live, they die inside,” said the hermit.
“That’s horrible,” said Vincent. He couldn’t remember seeing a wild animal kept in a cage before. He didn’t have any clue what the hermit was trying to tell him, but just as soon as he looked to the ground for the briefest moment, he lifted his head to find the cave empty. No invisible rock. No algae. No books. No hideously long fingernails and beard like a network of roots covering the old man’s rock colored garb. No hermit.
And so Vincent left for Tobleronia. Tromping through the brush, he tried not to think about Elisa, the hermit or the wolves, but on his way through the forests he met an old friend from the early days when he was planting trees. And this man, a tall large woodsman with hefty orange beard had pet wolf.
“How are you managing with this thing?” said Vincent petting the bristly creature, which he now knew to be deceptively docile.
“Well,” said the man smiling. “If she has it, it is hers. You can trade a dog one treat for another, but not a wolf. I learned that here,” he said pointing to the scar on his chin. “And she bites your face. It may seem like a threat, but if you pull away, she’ll grip you closer to keep you there. Really, she just wants to love on you, but you should see the guy she startled the last time she pulled her fangs out.”
“Can’t you train her?” asked Vincent standing up again.
“Train her?” said the man. “Like a dog? Not how you would think, no. I’ve tried to show her things, but instinct always trumps. I used to give her a treat if she fetched me something. She understood. She got what I asked for, but when I stopped giving her the treat, she stopped fetching. I learned my lesson.” He pet the wolves head. “Yes, she is clearly the alpha in our little pack, but I am the leader. Other than that I just expect her to act like a wolf and that seems to work out.”
“The leader is always the alpha,” said Vincent scowling.
“Maybe with dogs, but not with wolves,” said the man somewhat taken aback by the sudden distress in Vincent’s voice. “She can’t eat what a dog does. Why should she socialize the same? You can leave a dog alone. The dog might get anxious, but it will recover quickly. She won’t. We both know she is the alpha, because she has more endurance than I do. I have to respect her strength, but she accepts me as our leader. She follows me. She is loyal in the same way any wolf is loyal to any member of its pack.” The man leaned down to his wolf and she licked his face aggressively. He did not pull away until she had finished.
“Dogs are much easier,” said Vincent dismissively. “I would have just gotten a St. Bernard or something big enough to work hard and obedient.”
“If I were a Tobleronian like you, that might have made some sense,” said the man with the red beard. He started walking onward and without calling to the wolf, she began to follow. “But, my ancestors have always lived in the forest,” he said as he took his leave of Vincent. “Hunters. And why would a hunter want a shepherd or a farmer for a companion in the forest? All the wrong instincts.”
As the man and the wolf trailed away through between the lengthy shafts of the barren trees and the reddened leaves crunched softly beneath them, Vincent slumped against the rough side of a large tree and bent his knees slowly feeling more and more defeated. He watched his machine run. Though he felt a little broken, the machine was running as well as if it had just been oiled. It’s glossy gears and majestic metal arms whizzing and whirring soothed him as much as they must have hurt Elisa.
They were incompatible. That was the hermit’s message. She had different instincts. They could not learn to be a couple. Vincent walked home ignoring the dark. At the edge of the city, he placed a toe on one of the blue lines he had painted. It felt wrong. Something told him that it was wrong. He pulled his toe away and felt better. Elisa must feel as anxious trying to obey the rules as I feel good following them, he mused to himself.
He lie alone in his apartment stiffly on his bed with his arms crossed starring at the contours of surface of his ceiling. Everywhere he looked he found the comforting straight lines of a well built structure. He hadn’t particularly ever felt as safe in the forest, but it never occurred to him that a house could feel threatening.
In the morning, he had coffee at the shop Elisa had frequented when she lived in Tobleronia. He had treated her like she was a feral dog. He tried set boundaries. Establish rules. He brooded over his cup for a while silently. She must have thought him so weak. Why else did she agree to be with him? Why did she follow him? He didn’t really want the coffee. He just wanted to get her out of his mind. He wished he’d never found the machine.
It represented everything he wanted to forget. The forest. His father. Elisa. He went back to his house and began to pull on the chains and unscrew every piece he could loosen. He snapped them in two so that he could never use them again. Vincent unveiled layer after layer of machinery. Just as one part stopped working, another part started. And every he looked, the machine kept going as if he had been fixing it. It made no sense.
He fumed on his bed that night. Visions of furious horror and destruction flashed uncontrollably through his turbulent thoughts spilling over into his dreams. He woke to the rain. He had no job to go to and nothing he wanted to do. There was no one he wanted to talk to. He only wanted to rid himself of the infernal machine that had plagued him for most of his life. Again as the sun was rising in the sky, Vincent bent and bashed every inch of its gleaming bits and pieces. How many Tobleronians had gone into the forest and found themselves bound to an invisible machine? Almost certainly all the Anarchians had their gardens. He despised everyone and everything, because nothing was simple anymore.
He would be alone forever with nothing, but the machine for company. Elisa had not been the only girl he had known. There were others. Other Tobleronians. But, they never understood his machine. They never even saw it. And in the end, they had rejected him. Elisa was different. Loyal. He had thought that would be enough.
PART THREE: BEYOND LIGHT AND DARK
Enough years passed after Vincent left the forest that he had once again found himself living in tentative harmony with his machine, which recovered from his abuse and continued to function adequately doing whatever it did. He had found himself a quite little corner of the world to inhabit. His home. His job. A cafe, not the one Elisa had frequented, but another one with a constant stream of pseudo-bohemian types fresh from temporarily exploring the forest. Their ideas were always familiar, but new to them. And remarkably dull. He was growing old.
Few people had actually traveled beyond the forest to the island of Anarchia, but one day he met a Tobleronian girl, a bit of a misfit, who had just returned from spending months on the island. At first he was curious to know if she had met Elisa, but she hadn’t even heard the girl’s name.
“People don’t realize how different they are from us,” she said. The girl wore her hair like the Anarchians. She seemed to want everyone to know where she had been and was intent on discussing it.
“Some do,” said Vincent dully.
“They think it is a superficial like how they dress and what they eat,” she continued. “But, that is why Toblerians don’t stay on the island as long as I did. They never learned to observe or adapt.”
“Even if you do, you can’t fight instinct,” said Vincent.
“We’re not animals,” said the girl adjusting her robin blue coat. “We’re much more capable of learning. We learn to anticipate each other’s instincts, too. That was why I lasted so long there. I didn’t expect an Anarchian to react like a Tobleronian. Most people think they’re overly confident or haughty or disrespectful, but they’re not that at all. They just have different customs.”
“Instincts,” Vincent corrected.
“It’s all in our head,” she said ignoring him as if enjoying the sound of her own voice more than Vincent’s company.
And so he got up and he left and he walked through the cafe door. He passed his home where his mother had made the sour casserole and the cafe where Elisa used to go at no particular day or hour and he stepped over the blue lines, which he painted and walked into the forest where his father had lived.
He went in and walked through the brambles where humus was soft and seemed to filter into the air and shafts of light that bled through the trees illuminated the air, which was disturbed and swirling with fine particles. He didn’t rest and he didn’t stop until he found a place that was only too familiar. It was where he had found the machine, which seemed to tinkle and glitter at memory of their meeting.
And finally, it came from within. The harmony of all living things. Of what was wild and what was domestic. Of people. Of the people who he had known. The people he had loved and the people he had wanted to love him. The machine glowed brightly as it wound its parts around the base of the trees and spread across the forest floor. And he knew what the hermit had been trying to tell him. He knew what maybe Elisa and the girl in the cafe did not know, but maybe they did.
It didn’t matter whether his instincts had been shaped by thousands of years of agriculture and dwelling in cities with rules about when trash could be removed or eggs purchased or fireworks viewed. All the time he had been looking for something from other people, but in the end he was always redirected to the machine he had discovered when he was a boy.
The machine itself was the answer.
Vincent lie down under the dark sky and gazed upward. And this time, the machine which had grown so hefty and filled so much space began to move in around and above him reaching upward, forming a cylinder. And there in front of him was a lens winding around the invisible machine moving organically until it was within his grasp. And he looked through it.
The stars were closer. It turned and he could see across the forest to the trading post on the island and to the bricks on Tobleronia. From above, there were no boundaries between the wild and the city. The city grew from the forest like ant hill. Despite all of their differences, everything his invisible telescope could see was very much one and the same. He held the telescope away from his face and examined the lens. In his reflection, he could see just the slightest lavender tint within his now graying hair. He smiled, feeling more like himself than he had in a long time. For hours, he looked through the strange device, considered the worlds beyond Tobleronia and the parts of his world that could not be observed like its meaning, a question no observation could answer.
Instinct was only part of the puzzle. And the machine was another. There were many lessons. But, on that day, he had the answer he needed. Perhaps the people that had mattered were the ones that taught him the most about who he was. Or they were the ones who accepted him as he was. But, he had learned how to use the invisible machine.
And when he satisfied at starring at the planets, he got up. The machine shifted and whirred delicately until it became zeppelin, which he boarded. It rose into the air above the trees and smiling widely decided which way to go next.