No one knows how it got there, but it did not take long for us to notice that there was a giant metal gear protruding from her back, such as are used to wind up children’s toys. I had had a marching soldier when I was a boy who had precisely that same kind of gear emerging from his back, which I would dutifully wind to the maximum level of tension (you could feel when it was time to stop) before setting him down again on the floor to watch him shuffle obediently forward towards whatever destination it was I had pointed him. My friend, Billy, had had a toy robot that worked on almost exactly the same principle, except that Billy’s robot made a delightful buzzing sound as it slid, step by step, across the floor. As for Andrea, our mutual playmate and first girlfriend, she had had a toy monkey whose arms moved back and forth as soon as she wound it up. Since the monkey didn’t walk, but only gesticulated, and since it hardly made a noise (Andrea, herself, had to supply its chattering with her own vocal cords), Billy and I thought our toys superior to hers, which made her cry. Fortunately, we had reasonable mothers who sorted things out.

Thanks to our common childhood experiences, we were not stupefied by the gear which we noted in our friend’s back, although it did surprise us. We had the knowledge necessary to assimilate it, to take it in stride and continue viewing her as a human being.

All of us loved her, our new friend. She was witty, charming, highly intelligent, and sometimes seemed almost wise, although she had a way of letting down our expectations whenever we allowed ourselves to have them. She was like the baker of the most perfect cake that would have all the master pastry chefs of the world green with envy; but every time the hour of triumph arrived, just as she was about to serve her spectacular creation and be proclaimed the queen of the world, she somehow found a way of dropping it on the floor. We forgave her, always, not because we were magnanimous, but because her charisma was irresistible.

However, much as we loved her – and we discovered we were not the only ones, which made us simultaneously jealous and proud – we began to be troubled by her relentless and apparently uncontrollable path in life.

She could not stop moving forward, even though we wished to detain her in the name of living: to talk, to relax, to dance, to sit beneath the trees, to do the things that friends do. She seemed impelled by some irresistible force to push ahead, to wait for nothing. When Billy fell in love with her and knelt in front of her in a new suit of clothes that had cost him dearly, to propose marriage to her, she kept walking almost as if he were not there. He held out the box with the diamond ring that he had gauged more valuable than the last of his savings, extending it to her as a spring branch extends a blossom to the world, and she knocked it out of his hands as though it were a sin and kept right on walking. Her eyes seemed locked in a stare straight ahead, her arms swinging powerfully back and forth, like the arms of a power-walker in a race, like the arms of my marching soldier, like Billy’s robot and Andrea’s monkey.

We watched her in amazement, utterly beautiful, with the gear protruding from her back like a butterfly’s or a fairy’s wings. But the lovely wings were not wings, at all, they were, instead, an uncompromising mechanism which connected everything tender and original inside of her to the strong will of the hand that had wound her up, some distant time before we met her. Who was it who had wound the gear in her back, and set her down; and towards what destination was she pointed? Would the mechanism wind down soon, and then, would she be free to go where she wanted, liberated, at last, from the prison of someone else’s intention; or would she merely stop, and cease to walk at all, cease to breathe, cease to see and cease to speak? Would someone else have to go behind her and wind her up all over again?

We began to feel, as time went on, and as the mechanism which drove her forward showed no signs of relenting, that she could not go on this way for very much longer. She was alienating too many people, isolating herself like a flower than insists on blooming in a swamp. Her friends could not get close to her. Whenever they approached, drawn to her radiance, those powerful swinging arms which she could not restrain, would lash out at them, striking those dearest to her, knocking them to the ground, or else scattering them like pigeons when a speeding car approaches: the kind of car that barrels through puddles along the curb, spraying torrents of water over pedestrians in the winter time.

"Perhaps she is not who we think she is," Billy told us. "Perhaps, after all, she is only cold-hearted and unkind. If this is how she wants to live her life, what right do we have to interfere? If one cannot be her friend without being her victim, perhaps it is time to let her reap the solitude she has sown."

But Andrea was sure that Billy was saying this only because he felt hurt by her rejection. She said: "Have you stopped looking at her eyes, Billy?"

"Why should I look at them; to fall in love again, to suffer forever?"

"She is miserable," Andrea said. "You can see it in her eyes. She is in pain. She is not ignoring us, nor driving us all away, because it gives her pleasure. She is hurt ten times as much as we are by her indifference towards us. She is trapped by the terrible gear which is imbedded in her back to act against her interests, to obey someone else’s will, to abandon the logic of her own life."

"What can we do?" I asked.

Billy said: "We can try to get hold of the gear in her back, and to stop it from turning."

"How do we know if we stop it - if we break it or just somehow stop it - there is something inside of her that will continue to function? That she will know how to walk, to think, to breathe on her own?"

"You can see it!" Andrea reprimanded me. "If you look carefully, you can see the real her, which is like a hostage, held at gunpoint by the hand that wound her up. You can see who she is trying to be, like a prisoner behind the bars of who she is. She wants to get out of that prison! She wants to be with us! She wants to sing and dance, and run with us in the woods! She wants to feel, to love, to hold a million hands!"

Acting on this assumption, Billy, who had loved her most, accepted the responsibility of his disappointment, and coming around behind her, seized the relentless turning gear in her back, and tried to fight against its rotation. However, it was quickly apparent that the mechanism had far more force than he did. He gritted his teeth, and planted his feet in the ground to try to defeat it, but you could see the gear turning in spite of all his efforts, until, at last, Billy was thrown onto the ground and our friend kept walking forward, as the gear continued turning, triumphantly, in her back.

We regarded each other with despair.

"Perhaps, what is inside her can overcome the hand that wound her!" Andrea dared to think, at last. She took out an old copy of her favorite book on mythology, and read to us the part where Ulysses sought to avoid going to war by feigning madness. He was plowing the sands on the beach and mumbling utterly senseless things to himself, when those who wished to recruit him threw his naked infant son, Telemachus, in the path of the plow. A madman would have kept on plowing. But Ulysses, acting as a man with his reason still intact, and his love not obscured by sickness, swerved to avoid his son, whereupon the other warriors called him on his deception, and succeeded in forcing him to join them in their terrible ten year war, which ended in the pillaging of Troy.

"I will lie down in front of our friend’s relentless march," said Andrea. "I will pit the goodness which she has, and the love which I know is inside of her, against the blind power of the mechanism which is controlling her life. I know she will choose me. She will change course, just as Ulysses did to avoid Telemachus! She will overcome the power of what is enslaving her!"

Stripping off her clothes, which thrilled both Billy and I - for Andrea is a beautiful woman who no one could avoid lusting for, or, at the very least, admiring as a masterpiece, like Botticelli’s Aphrodite - she laid down directly in our friend’s involuntary path. Andrea chose to do so utterly naked, not to compensate Billy and me for our friend’s aloofness, but because she wished to seem as helpless and as vulnerable, as much like the infant Telemachus, as possible, in order to trigger our friend’s resistance to the mighty, impassive turnings of the gear in her back.

All of us held our breath as our friend drew nearer.

"She’s going to stop," Billy whispered hopefully. "I’m sure of it."

But to our horror, our friend barely seemed to notice the lovely exposed form of Andrea lying in her path. We saw our friend’s eyes flicker for a moment with what might have been a trace of horror, but then, again, just as quickly, they were vacant as they often are, or rather, determined with nothing more than determination in them: no humanity, no concern. Merely that steady, bulldog-like gaze locked onto the leg of the horizon.

We rushed to Andrea, too late, who cried out in pain as our friend trampled her with no thought to all they had shared; without a shred of loyalty to the affection Andrea thought had bound them together, like sisters.

"Andrea! Andrea! Are you all right?" cried Billy, rushing to her side.

We saw her flesh already badly discolored, the terrible bruises that would take weeks to heal.

"She weighs a ton," Andrea groaned. "The lack of will inside her has the weight of a truck."

Our friend was no behemoth; she was of average build, and ordinarily, to be stepped on by a person of her stature would only have been a discomfort. But the sorrow of a captured life could crush metal flat.

"Now what?" we asked ourselves.

Though Andrea was hurt, she is the one who noticed that our friend was not walking in an absolutely straight line. "She is moving slightly to the left. Over a distance, you can see it," said Andrea.

We agreed. This was just like Billy’s robot, which had tended to drift left as it walked across his floor. "Whenever I sent him somewhere," Billy told us, "I had to take that into account, and set him walking towards a destination that was actually slightly to the right of where I really wanted him to end up."

Now we began to wonder. Had our friend’s slight drifting to the left been with her since the very start, or was it something new: perhaps, somehow, the result of her walking over Andrea? Billy thought he might have noticed it before. If that were the case, we wondered, did the drift signify some level of self-control still retained by our friend, an ember of autonomy that might be rekindled, some valiant element of her soul which was in conflict with the purpose of the hand that had wound her up, and which might one day overcome it? Or was the drift merely some kind of defect, like a twitch or limp, or a broken wheel? Just as importantly, was it making her stray from the course which the hand which had wound her up had intended for her; or did that hand know of the drift, and had it compensated for it, as Billy compensated by starting his robot to the right of its intended destination? Was our friend headed towards the goal of the hand that had wound her, or was she drifting off course? If she was drifting off course, was that a good thing, a sign that she was finally gaining independence, or a bad thing – did the hand know best? The terrible hand that we all resented – was it merely a tyrant, or was it also wise?

Billy and I decided, one day that we observed our friend crying as she moved relentlessly forward, that the hand that had wound her up could not be wise, for what is right ought not to leave a trail of tears behind it; so we decided to try to stop her, or at least to slow her down, by moving obstacles into her path. "She needs to think, she needs to stop moving, to be still, she needs to see what is right here, in front of her, in her reach, not what is far ahead, and always a day away. The horizon kills the taste of the fruit in your hand. She needs to taste the bounty of life while it is here."

"Make sure you are not merely trying to get her for yourself," Andrea warned him.

"My love was like that at first," Billy said. "Now it is not. Her coldness has destroyed my self-interest, I am like a forest in the winter time. There is nothing left here but majestic trees in the snow, the skeleton of the world without its green body. The branches have lost all their kisses. My lips have turned into thoughts. I see a part of the world that is crawling and I want to help it to its feet. That’s all. That’s what love means to me now."

I, who had never loved her as much as Billy, could not silence my lust like him. I could not rise above wanting her. She was so beautiful – but so difficult! I was only protected from her by my fear of complications.

Together, Billy and I pushed a huge boulder in her path, and left it at the foot of a great hill. "She will not be able to get past this," he assured Andrea. "We could barely move this boulder over level ground. She won’t be able to push it up the hill. She’ll have no choice but to liberate herself from the gear in her back, and to assume control over her own life. Otherwise, she’ll be stuck there, forever."

But logic is, sadly, worthless in cases such as this. You build up amazing towers of belief which seem so well-thought-out, so in tune with the observed facts, and so internally consistent, that you convince yourself that there is not the slightest chance of failure. You are 100% certain that you have cracked the nut of the centuries, and stand back to revel in the triumph of mind over matter. And then, against all odds, reality shows up. Reality, not what you thought was reality. What incredible strength is possessed by the things that hold us back! If it would take an elephant that could fly to prolong our unhappiness, we would soon be seeing elephants streaming through the sky.

Our friend came up upon the boulder, and began to push it. You could see how it slowed her down, and, in fact, Andrea became worried that our friend might be hurt by the efforts we had made to help her. What she saw reminded Andrea of when she had held her wind-up monkey’s arms as they tried to swing, and her father had warned her to stop, telling her that she might break the monkey that way. "You’ll destroy the mechanism!" he’d told her. "After she’s wound up, you have to let the arms swing free!"

"Maybe this isn’t a good idea!" Andrea thought.

"She’s ruining her life," Billy reminded Andrea. "We have to try to free her, at least to get her moving in a different direction – a direction that she will choose herself!"

Though it tormented us, we continued watching. Farther and farther up the hill our friend pushed the boulder that was in her path. Though her life would have been so much easier if she could merely have stepped to the side of the boulder, and walked around it, she could not. It was harder for her to take that one small step to freedom than to push the massive weight of the stone all the way to the top of the hill that was the height of a mountain. Her tears made it that high.

We, too, were crying just as hard as her as we watched her struggling alone and tiny up the hill, as desperate and filled with suffering as Sisyphus must have been as he rolled the boulder of his sins up the hill whose summit he could never reach.

"What have we done?" lamented Billy. "We were wrong to try to save her!"

"No," I said. "She lives every day as though she were being vivisected. We are justified to push her. We cannot continue to accept the status quo. It is deadly!"

"The prison which holds her has more walls than we thought," Andrea said.

At last our friend, covered with beads of sweat, her face looking ten years older from the effort, reached the top of the hill, and with a great shout of triumph, pushed the boulder from in front of her. As though frightened by her terrible commitment to her lack of freedom, the boulder fled from her at full speed, bounding down the other side of the hill with huge crashing sounds that were like cries for help.

Our friend continued her merciless march towards nowhere.

After a while, an old friend by the name of Gregory came up to us. He had done well for himself, become an engineer since we saw him last, when he, too, had been in love with our friend. But she had told him he was too dry, which was easier than saying she could not stop walking away from him.

"I have made some alarming calculations," he told us.

We looked at him with concern.

"If she continues on the path she is going, for another six months, she will come to…", and he placed his finger on a map. "The canyon is five hundred feet deep, four hundred yards wide, and seven miles long, and has sheer sides from the direction she will be approaching."

"What are you saying?" Andrea asked, terror in her eyes.

"In six months time, our friend will come upon an enormous, and impossibly steep cliff; if she cannot resist her trajectory by that time, and change course, she will invariably plunge into the abyss to her death."

"No!" Billy cried out, in despair.

I reminded them all about her drift towards the left. "Surely, in consideration of the great distance to be covered between here and there, the drift we have observed will lead her to outflank the canyon and to safely pass it to the south."

"I have taken the drift into account in my calculations," Gregory, whose keen powers of observation missed nothing, informed me.

For a moment, all four of us joined hand-in-hand in a brotherhood of despair, until at last I offered a ray of hope. "Well. Maybe it will be for the best. Maybe this is the kind of crisis that she needs to jolt her out of her fervent lethargy. The boulder was too slight an obstacle for us to pit against her lack of autonomy. But the canyon will be an insurmountable barrier. She will have no choice, when she comes upon it, but to overcome her captivity and to recover her will. What is inside her will have to overpower the revolving gear in her back, because there is simply no other choice."

"Except to keep going forward," Andrea whispered, "and to fall to her death."

While for his part Billy said, "Choice is not a part of her universe."

Trepidation remained. It was Gregory who proposed that we test the limits of her helplessness by putting up a series of signs in her path, long before she reached the canyon, which said: "DANGER: CLIFF AHEAD. BEAR RIGHT. WARNING: SHEER DROP, DEAD AHEAD. TAKE DETOUR!" Timing the speed of her progress, we put the signs up in a place she was due to arrive in after darkness had fallen, so that she could not see the terrain around her and discover our deception. We then illuminated the signs with lights, and clearly marked the path of the detour with makeshift barriers such as are used at road-construction sites.

Then we gathered ourselves in nearby bushes to watch. To our horror, our friend was unable to prevail. True, she seemed to look at the signs and to wince. There was a moment of struggle displayed by the movements of her body, which were as expressive as the features of a face. She was trying to stop herself, but something inside her was missing, or else it shut down. The signal from her mind could not get through to her body. We witnessed a tormented soul imprisoned in a body that would not listen, and watched that body push forward, without any internal guidance except for a decision that had been made many years ago by someone else, past all the signs of warning, past all the protective barriers, towards the imaginary cliff we had invented to test her ability to defend herself. She could not.

"The cliff won’t stop her," Gregory observed, on the basis of our little experiment. "She’ll come up to the edge, and walk right off of it."

"My God, what are we going to do?" gasped Andrea, distraught. Her love was not diminished by the bruises on her body.

"We have six months to find a solution," was Gregory’s grim reply.

Gregory, brilliant engineer that he was, soon came up with the answer. But it wouldn’t have been possible if our troubled friend hadn’t been so well loved. It turns out, literally thousands of people knew her and wanted to help. There were hordes of men who had dreamt of her and longed to have her as a girlfriend, as a lover, as a wife, as a friend to share the joys of life with, to pass time in museums looking at the treasures of history, or in humble eateries, sitting side by side sucking up sodas through a straw. Artists wanted to paint her in the nude, or even with her clothes on, scientists wanted to name stars for her, athletes wanted to become world champions so they could dedicate their victories to her, soldiers wanted her to kiss them so they could say they had lived before they died, filmmakers wanted to spread her around the world like a religion. Women loved her, too, they wanted to be her friend, they wanted to be tolerated by her, to catch drops of her radiance, to touch her hair and become irresistible to men. Children wanted to grow up to be like her, or to have someone like her at their side. Even those who she had tried her best to drive from her life, with insults and flailing arms and coldness she could not control, rallied to her cause on the basis of past affections, and in defense of the bittersweet illusions which she had inspired in them, which now lay like deflated balloons on the ground. Everyone knew she was more than she was. But they wanted to see that manifested in the world, not merely in their mind’s eye.

And so they all came together, under the direction of Gregory, to fill the great canyon that lay in our friend’s path, with earth, so that she could cross from one side to the other without perishing. "She does not have the ability to change her ways," Gregory informed the multitudes. "So we must therefore change the face of the earth for her."

No project of these dimensions had been undertaken since the days of ancient Egypt, when Cheops, in command of thousands of slaves, erected his enormous pyramid in the Valley of Kings. We were not slaves, but we were fighting to save a slave; and there were many thousands of us, breaking our backs under the hot sun as in the olden days, working as though our very lives depended on it, for, in spite of everything, she is what made our lives beautiful. Massive holes were dug in the earth in distant locations, which did not lie along her predicted path (otherwise she might fall into them), and vast amounts of earth brought up in convoys of trucks to the edge of the cliff, from which the earth was dumped into the gigantic gorge. Workers inside the canyon worked feverishly, day and night, to pack the earth and to build it up to the level of the canyon wall – to undo God’s work of ages in a matter of months, to heal the gigantic gash He had made in His world, and to replace what was missing with what we wished to be there in the place of nothing: to fill the great hole.

"Faster!" Billy urged the workers, as Andrea lent her sad, desperate eyes to his exhortations. Meanwhile, Gregory stood above us all, on the edge of the cliff, a map which he could barely prevent from being carried away by the wind in his hands, constant insights streaming out of his mind lifted up by love. "We need a ramp here, at once!" he shouted. "We must increase the angle! We need to import cement! I need reinforced steel, also! Time is running out! We have the base, we must widen the platform! Hurry! Hurry!"

I must admit that my body is not custom-designed for physical labor, but in spite of my slender frame, I pushed myself as never before, I worked like the powerful bear of a man that I am not, all because of my love for her, which did not equal Billy’s or Andrea’s, or Gregory’s as I could tell from his new thinness; from his once well-ordered hair, now wild and unmanaged, and his face bearded like a prophet’s from neglect. All of us fought with every tool and every resource at our disposal, gave it everything we had and gave what we did not have, too.

"Hurry!" Gregory urged us, so much that his voice became ingrained in our minds, and we heard it even when he was not there, when we were trying to sleep, lying exhausted in the dark. "Hurry!" We heard it, ringing in our ears like an awful bell that made us wish to fight off our tiredness and climb back to our feet though we were on the verge of collapsing. "Hurry!" It drove us mad, completely mad; our only relief from it was to pass it on to others. "Hurry! Hurry!" in thousands of different voices. Echoes were everywhere. The canyon we were erasing was blessed to have ears of stone.

At last, at dawn, on exactly the day which Gregory had predicted, our friend appeared about two miles distant, coming down a sloping road towards the edge of the cliff.

"Is it ready? Is it ready?" cried out Andrea with trepidation.

"I believe so," said Gregory.

"You believe so?"

"There is some instability at the midpoint," Gregory admitted. "We didn’t have time to reinforce the structure, and some elements are out of place, and only held together by pressure without a proper bond."

Andrea’s eyes looked at him reproachfully.

"Look," Gregory said, sitting down exhausted. "We’ve done all we could. It’s got to work. We can’t have gone through all this in vain."

Now there was nothing for any of us to do but watch. We had partially filled the canyon with earth and built ramps and bridges at various points, at precisely calculated angles, to facilitate our friend’s crossing. Now we held our breaths.

No one spoke as our friend came up to the canyon’s edge. But we knew at once that our work had been justified, for though you could still clearly see that this had been a canyon and that it was not, in spite of all our efforts, advisable terrain to enter, our friend, without the slightest trace of caution or resistance, pushed forward. "If we had done nothing," Gregory said, "she would now be dead. She would have fallen off the cliff’s edge and, given its height, struck the canyon floor exactly five seconds ago."

Andrea, feeling guilty for the six months of pressure she had put on Gregory, which had been motivated by fear and expressed through anger, put her hand on his shoulder. It was the best apology she could give, as we watched our friend work her way across the canyon, none of us able to utter a word.

At last, as our friend approached the other side, a murmur of hope began to escape from our lips.

"She’s going to make it! She’s going to make it!" Billy cried out, his eyes suddenly erupting with light.

Andrea waited a little longer; then she, too, began to jump up and down with joy. "She’s going to make it! She’s going to cross the canyon! The structures have held! She’s going to live! Gregory! Billy! She’s going to live!"

And now, a huge cheer rose up from all our throats as our dear friend made it to the other side of the canyon.

"She’s alive! She’s alive!" we cheered. "We did it! We did it! She made it across! She’s alive!"

For some time, we stood there, together, thousands of us, happy beyond words, utterly triumphant, knowing that we had preserved our friend, against all odds. Only after a while did the limits of what we had done begin to sink in, as we saw her disappearing in the distance, still bound to the terrible trajectory that had forced us to fill a canyon. With growing awareness gradually replacing euphoria, we watched the same sad body we had changed our lives to rescue marching onwards, with the huge gear still turning in her back. We had prevented her from falling to her death. But we could not stop her from continuing her endless walk to nowhere.

In the end, with a thousand helping hands reaching towards her from the sky, she, alone, could decide when, if ever, her life would belong to her again and not to the one who had wound her up and set her down, so many years ago.

Short Fiction Contents

Creative Safehouse Contents

Site Contents