There was a man who thought, "If only I were a machine, I would not doubt." In his conscious mind he was too filled with fear of pain and the neighbors to act, but in his subconscious the seed put down roots. Shortly, as he was trimming dead limbs from a shade tree, his hand strayed carelessly into the chainsaw and was lopped off at the wrist. He had it replaced with the most sophisticated prosthesis available: a miracle of precision, it was responsive to the minute electrical impulses of his nervous system onto which it was grafted. With its power augmented by batteries, it was stronger than the original, and soon he had learned to control it with great delicacy.
His wife, however, complained that it never warmed up and insisted that he wear a cotton glove to bed. But when she at last had lapsed into sleep, he would stealthily slip off the silly glove and hold the wonderful hand up for the stars to admire their reflections in. Silvery sheets of light swirled and flowed as he gently manipulated its digits. Hand that never tires, fingers that never shake.
It wasn't long before a train carelessly ran over his feet. A cement mixer crushed his legs when he stumbled in front of it. Trying to patch his roof, he fell, crushing his skull and left arm.
You get the picture. Accident by accident, part by part. Soon he was powerful and gleaming all over, his plastic heart hummed smoothly, the new pumps and hydraulics were tireless.
Was he happy? Was he proud? Did he doubt?
His telltales blink green and yellow: Operational. On standby.
The Light of Nerves
Against the star stuff
the despair of the eyelids
god's empty face:
the essential hydrogen
of the eyes' own cones
and rods discharging
an anxious static
I. The strangers, their eyes
focused on distance. They
proceed with purpose, this much
is clear. I speak in their
direction; their pace
does not slacken; their need
is peremptory. There is a muffling
glass between us. I gape
like a fish mouthing
the edge of the world. The vision
shuts like a window.
II. It is a message of hope, or so
I interpret it. Pressing
stiff fingers into the soil,
I have the taste of candied
citron, tangerines, crisp vegetables
on my tongue. But an uneasy wind
gnaws at the leaves, it ticks
ominously in my instruments. The soil
draws away from the roots.
III. I am strapped in. There is
no light. At my fingertips
blind workmen assemble
delicate, complex machinery
calibrated in Braille.
I feel my nerves blooming
out of my pores. They probe
the air like antennae. All
sensation is amputated
by the silence. My mind
peoples the room with explanations.
IV. Speakers are grafted into the bones
of my skull. When the volume is high
the words retain only
the meaning present
in the resonance of bone. But low
the whole body, the surge of it,
mutes to hear. Who
the lies of his own bones?
V. I cannot separate vision
from projection: I respond
without stimulus. I ask
the voice but there
is no answer. The vision
returns: the emperors
are seated closely around
the table; below the waist
they are naked, their hands
grope like insects among
the loose hairs of their thighs.
VI. There is a dial
to register the tolerance
of my heart; meters
monitor my pulse, my
breath, muscle tension, gland
secretions, the electric
potential of my nerves, my brain.
Soon the vision will
recur, the needles
into the red, soon
all the instruments will agree.
Malgré la Nuit Seule et le Jour en Feu*
When he loomed up, so solid there in the doorway—
you know how they make you feel insubstantial,
like they've got an extra dimension or something
that you don't?—well, I thought he was lost,
wrong building, wrong street, wrong door, though
you wouldn't think one of them would make a mistake,
not a Pilot, but he knew my name! knew what I did,
wanted to hire me! What the hell for, I thought,
what would he want with a comfort girl? Known
fact that they've got no heart, can't use their cocks,
can damp out any pain they want, so what's he need?
He wanted me to hold him, hold him like a baby: . . .
said he remembered his mother holding him, but not
how it felt to be held . . .
said sometimes out there,
in the dark between the stars, plugged into the ship,
transiting the abyss in the untime of underspace,
with the only sensation that tiny pulse of electrons,
the autonomic nervous system of Pilot/Ship,
he felt so much a part of something larger-
not just the Ship, but man and Ship together, one entity
designed to live where nothing can—nothing that we know,
at least, though he thought at times he sensed a presence
both aware and utterly indifferent, something that might
eradicate a galaxy purely as a consequence of some work
we'd never comprehend—anyway, he felt as if he'd
lose himself, be swallowed by the Ship, the void,
the thing out there that couldn't care, in spite
of all the safeguards he'd had built in, all the human
things they'd taken out. He said he knew his mind
could feel, even without the chemicals of joy or fear.
So I held him, held that heavy, hardly human body
in my arms, and told him lies: that there's no need
to fear the dark, that everything's all right, that he's
Mommy's big, brave boy, and I hummed him bits of tunes,
half-remembered songs of Earth, maybe lullabies—
I'm not one to know—Stars, how he thrashed about!
He like to've crushed me with his spasms—next day
I was nothing but bruises, stiff as a stanchion.
Maybe they don't dream like us,
maybe the whole voyage is one long almost-dream
infused with the aching void, and that suspicion
of something so much greater, the understanding
of just how little consequence anything human will ever be . . .
It's too bad they don't know how to cry,
but after awhile he went to sleep, and I realized
I'd done it for him. Talk about feeling stupid—
do you cry for a damaged tool? Strange too
to be feeling sorry for someone you'd always envied,
and I wondered then which of the two of us
had more to fear, and which of us was braver.
*The title is from Arthur Rimbaud's "Un Saison en Enfer," in the subsection "Faim."
"Malgré la Nuit Seule et le Jour en Feu" is an addition to the group of poems collected in my chapbook(Mayapple Press, 1995), which are supposed to have been written by a woman poet named Nulle about the place and time in which she lived—an asteroid starport in the 22nd C. I felt then, and still do, that Nulle's world had only begun to be explored, and have always intended to expand it. I hope to publish an expanded version in the future—sometime before the 22nd century.