Plugs

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

We could not believe the hollow men ascendant over us the aware, yet clearly we had a blind spot to scrub. I drew, reluctantly, from the straws and pulled the short one.  We hypnotized me into a deep and dreamless sleep.  They heaved me off the cliff.

I did not wake until sometime after I hit.  Chills crawled through my flesh–like an icy wind that strips heat from your body, yet the air had not stirred.  I tilted my head back enough to spy a bleak beacon on a distant hill casting a pair of black beams across the fire- and drought-scarred countryside.

I dusted myself off and removed shards of clay from my back.  Along with the scattered straw and pilled cotton stuffing, the shadowed ground was covered with the baked crockery, crunching under my every step.  How many of these former men had I trod upon?  Each footfall made my skin feel like the disinclined shifting of continents colliding and tearing apart.

The air was dank and full of mildew digging roots into my clay shell.  Under the grassy spire, shapes flitted amid the darker shadows; tiny claws scratched glass.  An iridescently reflective yet empty pair of eyes stopped to gaze at me, sniffed the air, then moved on.  The beacon’s bone-cold beams swept through me again and passed on.

A dead man–cracked but not broken–stared sightlessly into the abyss of night sky, clutching a scrap of paper torn from a missing notebook.  I fingered my own fissures and winced in sympathy.  I bent, pried loose the scrap and read, “I’m dreaming.  I dare not meet those eyes.”

Was I dreaming?  Were there eyes I dared not meet?  I glanced at the bleak beacon on the horizon, looked longingly at the beckoning grassy spire, but turned in search of eyes.

This story is part of the Daily Cabal’s third anniversary celebration, a collection of kabbalah-themed stories. (Thanks to Mechaieh for the theme!) The other anniversary stories are Angela’s “Ephraim’s Daughter”, David’s Has he thoughts within his head? and Luc’s Before Exile.


Little is known of the activities of the celebrated writer Jorge Luis Borges after he faked his own death in 1986.

According to some reports, he lived in a secret bunker under the Argentine National Library where, with several assistants to help read and research, the blind author devoted himself to the study of the kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition that had figured in many of his stories and poems. He focused on the golem-making rituals that turn created into creator in worshipful mimicry of the divine. Using techniques that disassembled and recombined the most basic linguistic elements of the bible, Borges invested every waking hour in study and practice. No stranger to creation through language, he’d become an adept sometime in the early 1990’s.

With his assistants, he fashioned three humanoid shapes out of clay. Alone, he inscribed them all over with mystic syllables. When the golems woke to consciousness, they were alone.

One of the three crumbled to dust before they discovered they could sustain themselves by continuously reading and rereading Borges’ work. They haunted the library’s stacks each night, searching out their maker’s stories, poems, essays, letters, speeches–anything that, like them, bore the mark of his mind.

They discovered that, by copying out his work in their own hand, they could renew and refine their rough forms into something more human. Soon they had no need of reference copies; every word of their maker having been pressed into their neuronal clay by their neverending rereading. Eventually one began to write not only finished pieces, but their drafts, starting with a copy of “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” that contained Borges’ every strikeout and marginal jotting. Even the handwriting was similar. After years of diligent scribing, the golem re-composed the totality of its maker’s career and began to venture new compositions–a line of poetry here, a phrase two of prose there. Another decade, and he was composing new stories, tales Borges would have written.

The moment the golem completed the last word of his first slim volume, The Voice of the Mirror and Other Stories, Borges, living in a distant part of the city under an assumed name, found that he could see again.

“Light,” he said to his companions at a café table under evening trees. “Everywhere there is light.”

“Jordan! Did you pick the cat up from the vet ?” he looked startled, then guilty, then pushed the door shut with his foot. Sounded like she was in the kitchen. That meant it had been a hard day for her, which was always bad news.

“Uh, no. I forgot. I’ll do it tomorrow.” He rolled his eyes, then headed for the kitchen.

“Tomorrow is Saturday. They’re closed on the weekend. You can’t get her till Monday, which is a holiday. So you can’t get her till Tuesday. That’s 75 bucks room and board. I’m getting just a little tired of this.” She was wearing her “get out!” apron and holding a spatula. Batter dripped onto the floor.

“In fact,” she continued, “I am tired of it.” Donna picked Jordan up and dropped him in her purse, which stood open on the table.

Inside, Jordan fell a considerable distance, landing heavily on a red compact. He sat up, rubbing the back of his head. There was a sizable amount of room, far more than he had expected. In the dim light and he saw keys, lipstick, a pencil stub, crumpled pieces of paper, and other things not immediately identifiable. Then he noticed the people. A couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses, their starched shirts looking a bit rumpled; someone who might have been a repair man or meter reader; a cop; a couple of teenage boys; a well-built young woman with a head full of red ringlets. No wonder he hadn’t been able to get her on the phone.

“Oh wow, Gloria! How long have you been in here?”

“Since the day you cheated on Donna, but told me you weren’t seeing anyone.”

Jordan reached for her shoulder, but she stepped back “Get your hands off me. I think you’ve done enough already. I just thank God we used a condom.”

Jordan let his arm fall to his side and looked away to avoid Gloria’s glare. He noticed four guys slumped around a card table in the shadows. “Who are they?”

Other former boyfriends. She sure can pick ‘em.”

“What do you–? Oh.” Jordan closed his mouth, and they stared at each other.

Darkness fell with a snap.

“What’s going on?” Jordan cried, unable to keep panic entirely out of his voice.

“Brace yourself.”

I saw her at the roof-races, her crimson stilt-car ambling along at the middle of the pack. Her name, I didn’t catch, but the winking skull icon on the hood was hard to forget.

I saw it again at the hot-air balloon demolition derby, on the chute she used to bail out amid the aerial apocalypse that took the field from fifty contests to three in moments. She waved, perhaps in my direction.

I met her at last in the undercity after the giant eel slalom. She was dripping into the celebratory champagne, and giddy before her first sip. She’d placed in the top five.

“I’ve seen you,” she said, “in the stands, always with that hat. I’ve taken it as a good luck charm.” She handed me a flute of watery bubbly. “Please keep wearing it.”

I stammered something, but she was swept into the crowd of well-wishers and people who’d won money on her.

It wasn’t a hat. It was a job, a series of hats I was paid to wear, some kind of advertising campaign building through the tournament months. But as long as they looked similar, she’d get her luck, and I’d get my paycheck.

The next hat, the next event went fine. I sat just behind the reviewing stand at the skate-boat regatta–I got a bonus for visibility. The winking skull sloop placed twelfth, enough for a small cash prize–bonuses all round.

But the next was all disasters. I overslept, arrived late, only found a seat in the second mezzanine; the hat wasn’t much like the others, and looked even less like them the way I’d thrown it on; she was eliminated before the first intermission.

“Combat opera,” she said when I found her, alone, backstage, “Easier than it looks. Until you miss a cue.” She smiled behind the icepack. “I’m done.”

“There’s the ornithopter relays,” I said. “The mole-machine rally. Tournament season’s barely begun.”

“No, tonight was it. The launch.”

“Launch?”

“The icon,” she said. Then the crowd found her, and I lost her.

Ad world connections told me the winking skull mark auctioned well the next morning. I saw it frequently over the next months, openly on tea packets and fig tins, subliminally in magazine photo shadows.
Next spring, her stilt-car bore a laughing rhino logo and I resolved to keep wearing my motley-lapelled smoking jackets through the season, to see what luck would bring us.

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