Today marked the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the day we left the corridors. I got my little sister Ana a pair of nice deerskin shoes. Father gave me a wonderful toy, like a paper flower on a stick. It spins when there’s a wind, or when I blow on it.
Nobody I’ve asked knows if the ones who stayed in the corridors celebrate this day. Half of us emerged and the other half remained in that dank underground network of passages and chambers, insisting it would never be safe to leave it. I feel sad for them sometimes, and pray to John Henry that they will one day join us.
Aside from the gifts we give each other, we’re also to leave a gift for John Henry. The statue in the village square is piled high with them, almost up to his ankles. It is impossible not to feel bold and hopeful when you see him, holding his hammer in the air. I speak to him every night before slumber, as the teacher tells us we must.
I have always been a good boy. As good as I know how to be. Sometimes I am cross with Ana. I don’t mean to be, she is just little still and doesn’t know her manners. Even so I apologize and ask forgiveness of John when we go to church. I don’t know why everyone is mad at me. Even after all that’s happened, I still don’t understand what I did wrong, and I never meant for anyone to get hurt.
I like to build things in the field behind our cottage. Simple tricks, like a wooden plank over a log which I can jump onto and launch small stones into the air. Or a long hollowed bamboo shoot which carries water from the waterfall to some little canals that I dug, like the ones which bring water to our crops.
I take them to school sometimes, if they will fit in my bag. I really thought this one was clever. I’d made it so when the paper flower spins, it turns a little wheel with notches on the back. Another wheel like that one at an angle to it is also turned by it, and a rod attached to that turns a round stone against a flat one.
It’s like the grinder my father uses to make flour for my mother’s bakery. I did not show it to him right away because I wanted it to be a surprise. When I have good ideas, I like to show him, because he says what a smart boy I am. Even when he says the ideas are foolish, at least I learn something.
He told me on the way home from school that I should have shown him first. He made me take him to the spot in the field where my other inventions were so he could smash them. I cried and cried, asking why, but he did not answer. He was crying too.
At school I had brought the little wind grinder as I called it to show and tell. I blew into it so they could see how the stone turned. The other kids were delighted, but not the teacher, Mrs. Barnaby. She looked very grim, seized me by the collar and frog marched me to the office.
After I waited for some time, our local priest arrived. He was very friendly, but also grew serious when Mrs. Barnaby showed him my thingamajig. He told me how important it was never to build anything like that again. That flour grinders are fine how they are and do not need to be changed.
It was nothing he said, but the look on his face which hinted at some secret I had stumbled onto. Beyond what the grownups tell me I can know about “when I am older”. Something even the grownups don’t know. I was never one to leave well enough alone.
Being a good boy for my whole life would never get me the answers I wanted. I’d determined that much. So for the first time in my life I snuck out when I was supposed to be sleeping, and headed for the church. Some clue to all of this could be found there, I was certain of it.
Our faith is so strong there was no thought given to securing the church. Who among us would dare intrude? I really had to steel myself and think hard about what I was doing before I crept inside. It was cool and quiet, very different from morning services, and a bit scary how the moonlight cast through the stained glass windows played upon the floor.
The book of John Henry lay in the drawer at the base of the podium. Unlocked, because who would steal it? I felt so devious. Moving into the patch of moonlight, I cracked it open. The smell of dust and varnish issued forth.
I couldn’t understand any of it. It was in some strange language I guessed was known only to priests. And on every page, strange schematics. For inventions like mine only astonishingly more complex.
Then I arrived at a special page, outlined in red. There were numbered sentences, one two and three. Of great importance apparently, but gobbledygook to me.
That’s when I heard the door creak open. I dropped the book and dashed to hide among the pews. Our priest, Steel Driver Gregory, strode into the patch of moonlight. He picked up the Book of John Henry, wiped it off and looked around.
“I know someone’s here. Reveal yourself now and I may be persuaded to spare you punishment. If you’re hiding you must know how severe the penalty is for what you’ve done.”
I trembled. But at heart I was still faithful and knew from class that I must always trust and obey my parents, my teachers, and our priest. So I emerged from the shadows and begged forgiveness. He listened silently for a time with a cold look in his eyes. But as he saw my sincerity, his expression softened.
“Your thirst for closeness to John Henry and to know what he commands of us touches me. I entered into the priesthood in a manner not so different. I will not tell anyone that you came here. In return I’d like to tell you something, but you must swear never to tell another soul. Not even your mother and father.”
I felt nervous, remembering rude rumors about why we shouldn’t be alone with priests for too long or keep secrets from our parents. But I had committed a grave offense. He was not only willing to look the other way but to sate my curiosity. I could see no downside and was certainly old enough to keep a secret, so somberly, I nodded.
He opened the Book of John Henry and turned to the red outlined page. “The first of the cardinal sins. “Thou shalt not make for yourself any tool which needs not a man to use it.” This is why you were in such trouble today. A wind powered flour grinder would make flour with nobody to turn it.”
I shrugged. “But that sounds great. My father could relax all day and we would still have flour for mum’s bread and cakes.” The priest glared sternly. “But lad, it never stops there. Someone would see it, and get to thinking how to improve it. Why not a machine to bake the cakes and bread? Why not a machine to build our homes, to make our garments or smith our metals?”
I still felt lost. “All of that sounds wonderful. Why not?” He sighed, and ran his finger down to the second sentence. “Because of what comes next. The second of the cardinal sins. Thou shalt not make for yourself a machine which copies itself, or which makes other machines of any kind.”
It was hard to visualize what such a thing could even look like. I would need a lot of bamboo and twine for that, I thought. I had nothing to say, simply looked on with transparent confusion. So he continued to the third and final sentence.
“The third cardinal sin. Thou shalt not make for yourself any machine in the likeness of the mind, which can perform sums or any other mental task.” He looked at me as if expecting this last revelation to clarify the matter for me. I only felt a thousand times more confused.
“If these are the things we must never do”, I asked him, “Why not tell us? If they are kept secret, how will we know never to do them?”He seemed tickled, but answered candidly. “Because if men knew such things were possible they would endeavor to do them. By keeping them a secret we keep the idea out of the heads of bright young men like you, that you might never lead us again down the path to destruction. The ones who will not abandon the notion when confronted by a priest are…sent away.”
I felt flattered, yet slighted. How could a bright mind hurt anyone? “Didn’t our smartest leaders build the corridors, that we might be safe in them through the storm?” He stared contemplatively into the distance. Then took my hand and led me behind the podium, where he produced a key from his robe and opened a hidden door.
On the way down the dark, damp stone stairwell he filled in more gaps for me. “There was never a literal storm. Nor were there demons in those winds. It is doubtful that John Henry ever existed as a literal man.” I gasped. To hear such unthinkable heresy from a priest shook the foundations of my faith.
“The old story of the man who defeated the steam engine, giving his life to prove that we humans could overcome machines descended from a fable passed among survivors, and a song that we sung to get us through the darkest nights down there in those concrete tunnels and chambers. The truth is that the machine defeated us.”
We exited into a great cellar. There, surrounded and illuminated by small red candles, was the most beautiful and strange statue I’d ever laid eyes on. It was wrought from glittering metal, resembling a great beetle or spider, with hinged legs like those of a wooden puppet.
“It’s so beautiful” I muttered. He looked down at me. “Beautiful, but terrible my child. What you see is not a decoration. It was once alive. It moved about at incredible speed, pursuing our forefathers over a ruined Earth. The cylinder you see on the top, though there be no blade on it and it fires not arrows, is a fearsome weapon. The part which resembles a ruby would cast out terrible strong light that burst men as fire does to kernels of corn. In an instant, where there was a man, there would be only ash and scraps of fabric from his clothing.”
I tried to picture it. It sounded frightening, but so fantastical as to diminish the effect. On a pedestal to one side, beneath a glass cover, sat a tiny black square with little metal pins coming out of every side.
“This is the machine in the likeness of your mind, which the Book of John Henry speaks of. We do not destroy it, so that we may have proof to show those whose faith is weak.”
I turned, furrowed my brow and spoke up. “My faith is strong! Maybe stronger than yours, even!” Bold words, so I waited to see whether he struck me in anger before I continued. He did not.
“In truth, I say that John Henry was too real! If he defeated the steam engine he surely defeated this great metal monster as well. He tore out its brain and that’s how it came to be here.”
The priest smiled ear to ear and wiped a tear from his eye. “Surely. Just as you say. If I were to tell you that in fact the machines destroyed our greatest engines of war and all armies of the world in a matter of hours, you’d not believe me. Is that right?” I defiantly nodded.
“And if I told you that we were not even so threatening that it bothered to finish us off, but simply mined what it needed to build a spacecraft and left for the sky beyond the sky, you’d say I was a lunatic or fantasist.” I didn’t know what those words meant but I nodded and thumped my chest.
“John Henry saved everybody!” I cried out. “He beat the steam engine, he beat the demons and made the storm stop. He gave his life so we could feel sunshine on our heads again, I won’t hear you say such nonsense about him! Even if you’re a grownup. Even if you’re a priest!”
He laughed merrily and tussled my hair. I felt confused. “Very good boy. I remember you now. Always so good, so strong in faith. I was right to share this with you. Perhaps someday you too will don this robe and keep the faith alive for these poor, struggling people.”
I’d stopped listening, certain now that he was a fraud. Someone who said such lies of John Henry was no priest. John Henry was real! The storm was real! This dirty, false priest had just built all of this trickery down here to shake the faith of good boys like me. Devious, but I knew a way to expose him for the charlatan I now knew him to be.
“Anyway lad, you’ve had quite enough adventure for one night. Let’s head back up and get you to your home, hopefully your parents did not notice you were go-”
He turned just in time to see me place the funny black square into the socket on the great metal statue. It shuddered and all kinds of colored lights within it began to glow. Simply beautiful.
The End. Follow me for more like this!