On a balcony at a cottage on the Atlantic beach, I’m warming myself in the morning sun. The waves crash against the sand below me. Seagulls and pelicans hover above; they aim a hungry eye in my direction, decide I neither have fish nor am fish, and move on.
I’ve left the world for a little while so I can decide whether I want to rejoin it.
Beside me is my knapsack with a book inside. I haven’t written in the book in the past eight months. I tell myself that I have no intention of writing in it today either, and that I really had no purpose in even bringing it with me in the first place; but both I and the book know that’s a lie. I pull it from the knapsack and set it on the table before me. It’s hardbound in bright blue. The only marking on it is a large lower-case ‘f’ in white on the front cover. I open it.
The pages inside depict a multitude of faces of people as they go about their day. Many genders, many ages, some of the images are of couples together, a few of them are cats. They notice me and hesitate, peer at me animatedly from the pages. I flip past most of them. Finally I find the page with the image of a woman in her late twenties – it’s a drawing, a self-portrait of the artist. It’s remarkably good.
She looks surprised to see me. “Where have you been?” she asks, curious.
It’s not really her, I remind myself. It’s only what the book knows of her. “You know where I’ve been,” I reply. Which is the truth – there is little the book hasn’t learned, and the rest it usually infers with alarming accuracy.
“You haven’t written anything in eight months,” she says, and shades of graphite pencil cross her face. She sounds like she’s been lonely.
“You haven’t written anything in longer,” I counter, and regret it immediately. “I went on a cruise. It was a week in March. Yes, you know where, but you don’t know why. A getaway with family, a chance to cut myself off from the rest of the world, to enjoy myself and leave my troubles behind.”
A few lines of the drawing move, and now she is tilting her head. “And did you?”
“I brought my troubles with me and didn’t enjoy myself at all, because I’m me. But I did succeed in cutting myself off. I did that very well. I did that so well that I don’t even know if I want to reconnect with people, any more.”
“Is that a question?”
I have to chuckle at that. “You ask a lot, yourself. I’ve missed you. But here – let me tell you my story.”
. o O o .
I sat at my desk in a cubicle tucked into an alcove in a very square office building. My attention was focused on a small figure – a golem, neatly pocket-sized – as I was busy weaving the magics to animate it, so that it could fulfill its role as a mobile assistant. This project had been my world, my life, for the past weeks and months. I was good at throwing myself into my work, especially now that I had decided that the book full of faces was no longer something I cared about in my life. I could now go long hours without the distraction of trying to keep up with friends and family, what they were doing, what they were having for lunch.
The two purposes of this little golem were to know things and to do things. At the moment it was fulfilling neither. Yesterday it had been working, and today it was not. I tried hard to think of how anything I’d done could have broken it; only when I was sure I had triple-checked all the obvious problems did I decide to ask the rest of my team for a hand.
On my desktop I reached for a glowing scroll on which a shared discussion of my team was inscribed. I rolled up the slack and wrote at the bottom: “The golem’s not doing anything. It’s ignoring my commands.” I tried to decide how to delicately ask whether anybody had knowingly or carelessly broken it. “Has anyone changed anything with it lately?” I set the scroll aside to wait for a response.
Meanwhile, I cradled the golem in my hands, lifted it from the desk, examined it to make sure the pieces all fit together well. They didn’t. The arms, the legs, the head, each piece was exquisitely crafted by a separate team who were skilled beyond reproach at their profession, but they had never come to an agreement as to whose responsibility it was when the parts didn’t make a functional whole. Whenever concerns had been raised to upper management, the response was usually a department reorganization. No one felt much desire to escalate that far any more.
I spent most of the lunch hour lost in thought until a flash of the scroll caught my eye. It was a calendar reminder: “Meeting with manager in fifteen minutes.” My team hadn’t replied to my questions, nor would they.
. o O o .
My manager had put the half-hour one-on-one session on my calendar without a room attached to it. I jotted a question onto the scroll to ask him whether he had found a place for us to talk, but he didn’t reply, so I went searching for him. Eventually I found him in the largest conference room of all, an immense chamber with a long table, at which he sat at one end. He held an open scroll in his hands; he was hunched over it in interest. I took a seat next to him and waited my turn for his attention.
After a few minutes, though, I realized he hadn’t moved. Hadn’t even blinked, though his face was lit by the scroll’s glow. I studied him more closely and discovered he was made from wood. Carved, more accurately, and painted well enough in office-toned ecru and khaki so that no one would notice if they didn’t give him a second look. I wondered whether he’d been a wooden statue for all the time he’d been my manager. I thought back on his accomplishments and the team meetings he’d had with us, and I decided that yes, most likely he had been.
But we were on the calendar and this was my only chance to get some time with him, so I resolved to make the best of it. “I’m sorry I’m late,” I started. “I didn’t know which conference room you were in.” My words echoed off the walls, and when he didn’t respond, I continued. “I’m having some trouble with the personal assistant project. I believe I’ve got all my pieces in place, but it’s just not working. I know, I know we have deadlines coming up,” I reassured him before he had a chance to remind me, “but I suspect someone else is being sloppy with their work and they’re breaking my stuff.”
There was a long pause. He remained motionless and silent, and that made it all the more difficult to bear. “I know it’s my responsibility to figure out,” I acquiesced. “Yes, we’re all on the same team. But there are times when I make precise, carefully worded requests of them, and they don’t bother to answer me and then they go do the wrong thing anyway.” I felt as if the air grew colder, and immediately I knew I had committed the sin of arrogance. “I don’t mean to say I always say the right thing!” I apologized. “And yes, it could be my fault, after all. But without feedback, it’s really hard for me to know whether people don’t respond to me because they don’t understand what I’m saying, or because I’m so far off the track that they don’t want to bring themselves down to my level. Is it their fault or is it my fault? Am I rocking or am I sucking?”
There was another long silence. Awkward pauses make me uncomfortable. “I took a cruise recently,” I said without intending to. “And when I was at sea, with nothing to look at but water, with the ship’s staff making me feel guilty by waiting on me hand and foot, I decided I needed to accomplish something so that I could feel good about my life. I needed a win. So I’ve been doing my best to make this project a success.” I said nothing about having eliminated distractions from my life in order to be more productive. Perhaps he already knew? Or had he even noticed? Was my work up to his standards? Did I dare ask, and risk putting the thought into his head if he wasn’t already thinking it?
“So, uh, if there’s nothing else this month, I’ll get back to work?” His wooden gaze was still fixed towards the scroll. I took that as a sign that our meeting was over.
. o O o .
The drawing of the woman listens patiently as I tell my tale. “So, did you ever get the help you needed?” she asks, after considering for an appropriate length of time, and I find myself feeling a sense of elation that she had been paying attention. It’s a beautiful feeling to have someone ask a question about oneself and to honestly want to know the answer, but of course that’s what the book excels at making people feel. Too much time with it and it becomes an echo chamber, Narcissus’s reflection, a siren’s song that consumes all of one’s attention. The fear of that is part of what drove me away.
I nod to her. “Little did I know it, but that particular meeting was my annual performance review. I got a copy of my evaluation from my manager. All it said was that I need to work on my communication skills.”
The lines of the drawing swirl in slow circles, like the paths of seagulls, as she regards me from the page. “I asked where you’ve been,” she says. “But now I have a feeling that’s not the important question. Why did you come back? And, why did you come to my page for a conversation? You and I have never talked much. I mean, we’re friends, but you and I don’t know each other very well yet.”
Now it’s my turn to let the moment hang in the air as I try to decide how to answer. “We’re not going to have that chance, Liana. You died.”
The pencil lines slow, waver, as they draw themselves. She looks confused. “I was in the hospital,” she says. Somewhere in deep magics the book is re-computing, re-framing, updating its perception of the world. “I thought I was doing better. That’s the last thing I wrote.” The drawing’s gaze meets my own. “I had a funeral.”
“‘May her soul be cradled in the waves,‘” I recite to her. “‘May her life be celebrated in stories told around the fire.‘”
The drawing takes this all in, and is quiet for a minute or more. “She was loved by the people who knew her,” it says softly, dropping the pretense of speaking on her behalf. “That’s a good legacy to leave behind. A kind assessment from people who know her, and really, as much as anyone can hope for.” The lines settle back into their slow swirls. “That is why you came back. I understand, now.”
“I miss her and I regret that I never got to know her better,” I say. “I’ve been giving priority to relationships that only exist because of lines on an org chart, and passing up the chance to get closer to a whole lot of people who matter to me. All that buys me are long hours at the office and the promise of a whole lot more regret.”
The drawing gives me an encouraging smile. It really looks like her. “I think you have your answer.”
I watch the moving lines of her self-portrait for a few moments more; and then I turn the page.