This is the first in a series inspired by science, sound, T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” and armchair philosophers.

All the hollow men were walking, walking up the gently sloping grassy spire.  We followed them, the hollow men, climbing, climbing higher up the wildflower slopes, but they saw not the purple poppy and deep blue cornflower, knee-high grasses stirring in the breeze.  We observed, we knew, we were aware.

At the top the spire ended in a cliff, and there the hollow men would topple, legs scissoring the air as if they still moved up.  They hit with a crescendo of resonant clangs like bells struck at a dark lord’s portentous wedding.  We stopped, patting ourselves on the back for averting the danger.  But then, weeks or months passed, the same men returned, climbing, climbing.  Again they fell and hit with the clangs of a clock striking midnight.

Half of us–the bravest and the strong–volunteered to follow, for we the aware should learn more in the fall than these fools.  The strong and the brave landed with a shower, a heavenly choir of tiny bells.

A year later one volunteer returned–perhaps the least insightful of the lot we sent forth–his form mangled almost beyond recognition.  The others, he said, shattered while he alone remained.  We, he suggested, were also hollow, just of different stuffing and stuff.

This we could not swallow:  We were the aware, we the observant, we the knowing.

(Being a sequel to Neostalgia.)

Joe’s association with the Ballet Mechanique brought him steadily closer to respectability.

The first hint came soon after he began helping out with dancer maintenance, when his name appeared in the program. Since “Joe the Wrench” was deemed unsuitable for the opera-and-ballet crowd, it was his full name, Josephus Wren, that appeared.

Then he had to wear a hat whenever entering or exiting the building. Not the soot-stained, crumple-rimmed bowler he wore around his own shop, but a crisp top hat. This he doffed as soon as he entered the ballet’s backstage workroom — after asking permission of Miss Linn, who sat in the corner, snipping choreography into long rolls of player-paper.

But the biggest impetus toward respectability was Eona Bellinghew, the mechaninque’s human prima. Joe watched from the wings, entranced by the grace in her every motion, so sinuous, so smooth compared to the lines of automatons who mimicked and accompanied her. He began leaving his crisp hat on, started wearing white shirts, and even managed to keep one or two free of axle-grease. He rebuilt the gears of half the troupe and there was talk of his becoming a partner in the theater. He created a bouquet of mechanical roses and — with Miss Linn’s help — made them bud and bloom in their own miniature dance.

Of her many suitors, Joe was the one Eona selected to accompany her to the Grand Duke’s ball. At first, he was dazzled by his proximity to her, and she shone more brightly even than she did on stage. Soon, however, he saw that the curve of her arm, the turning of her head, even her smile, all these were not the originals the automatons followed, but echoes of their mechanical movements.

In the workroom the next day, peevish and dispirited in his battered hat, he fidgeted with an en pointe ratchet that wouldn’t lock and his muttered “grind it!” came out louder than he’d expected. Miss Linn’s embarrassed turn of the head Joe recognized at once. This was the genuine, original gesture. His heart bloomed like a mechanical rose.

The opera-and-ballet crowd still prefers the Mechanique, but, over the last few months, many of the more discerning aficionados of the dance have come to prefer the Theater Linn-Wren. No, the shows aren’t as lavish, but there’s a passionate imagination at work that’s been missing from the Mechanique for some time.

“Look here.” His stubby finger poked the map on her knee. “This is old KC. There’s the shuttlecock. One of these buildings must be the Nelson.”

She blew stray hairs out of her face and gazed doubtfully at the crumbling ruins. “We have a problem Bil. KC wasn’t wrecked till the teens. In the city we’re looking for, the Nelson hadn’t even been built. Your numbers were wrong.” At this rate, they’d blow through their grant money and find nothing worth a dissertation. No degree, no tenure.

“Well, let’s try again,” Natale said. “Use my coordinates. Your numbers seem to be off by at least a century.” Bil keyed in their destination and pushed “go.” Everything outside dissolved into a sparkling mist.

I’m sitting in the center of a darkened room, but sunlight leaks through the dust at the base of long curtains that cover the far-flung windows. The wooden floor is creaking faintly as the building is pummeled by a windstorm I can hear only faintly. My eyes are closed. I’m listening for birds, but all I can hear is the muffled, desperate surging of the wind and the creaking of the floor.


The birds are hiding: in the rafters, behind objects, under the floor. I don’t know why I’m in this place any more, I’ve been here so long, thinking of so little except for the birds. Since I don’t remember what I’m here for, I don’t remember what I’d do even if I heard one.


Then I remember: I’d capture it, and the rest would come to me.


I let go of the thought of capturing a bird, let it tear away and blow off like a drying sheet not well-pinned to its clothesline. I try to let the wind blow through my mind. I’m trying to let go of everything, to not worry about the things that I’ll need to do when the time comes, when I catch one bird–if I can catch it.


The floor feels cool and stiff under me. There’s a faint breeze from above, and I don’t know if it’s a ceiling fan or some remnant of the wind that has made its way inside.


Here and there around me are rolls of carpet, boxes of neatly-stacked books with cardboard covers, piles of old candle ends, letters half rotted away with time, a bed covered with dusty silk sheets, an old view camera, a music stand.


I forget the music stand first, wipe it away, then the bed, the letter … and the rest is already gone, melted away until my mind is pure and focused only on the moment. The birds won’t come near if they hear thoughts. I will be nothing for a little while.






How will I know when to stop being nothing? Shh, you’ll know, I tell myself.





I open my eyes, at peace, ready. In the darkness around me I hear the rustling of five hundred wings. Tiny, dark eyes glimmer with flecks of sunlight that have made the journey from the feet of the curtains. I am surrounded.

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