People wondered what went on behind the great door of the factory. It presented a bland face. It emitted no sounds. No steam issued from its chimneys. In the upper story it had round, blackened windows, though it had been said that they were perfectly transparent from inside. Few, however, had been inside the factory. It stood on a hill just outside the town. From there you could look down at the houses, the surrounding forest, the distant lake, and all the land that stretched toward the horizon. It was said that one blessed with superior vision could observe the people of the town in their most intimate moments, that one blessed with superior hearing could hear their very sighs and whispers.
Occasionally shipments were made from the factory. These varied in size and shape. Occasionally a spokesman for the factory came to the front door and addressed the townspeople. He explained the work being done in the factory, the nature of its products and plans for the future. Questions were put to him and he answered them as best he could. Often he returned to the door a second and third time and repeated what he had said before. Sometimes he did not appear for many months or even years. Despite these explanations, no one could say for sure what went on inside.
One day Franz gained admittance to the factory and returned to relate what he had seen. He spoke of many wonders, ceaseless activity, components and assemblies, materials being shifted back and forth, a great machine ingesting the materials and spewing them out, wheels turning, chains and pulleys, wires and cords,. He told of finding himself first in a kind of vestibule where certain components were being assembled; some, apparently complete, were put aside; others, apparently requiring more work, were removed. A single workman was in attendance. Sometimes he was joined by one or two others, apparently when a problem arose. All would then attempt to complete the assembly, frequently calling for additional components from the factory floor. Sometimes components were rearranged, yielding assemblies entirely different from what they had originally been. This could be a protracted procedure.
From the vestibule Franz entered an adjoining room where plans and other written materials were kept. He thought of it as an archive. These documents were consulted with great frequency and often removed to the vestibule or the factory floor. Sometimes the same document would be referred to ten and twenty times a day. Extensive notes were transcribed and kept in cabinets. Franz looked through the documents in the room and read some of the notes. Everything remotely useful that had ever been produced by man was represented there, classic and contemporary, admired and reviled, serious and trivial.
Behind the vestibule and the adjoining room was the factory floor where the main work of production was done. Here the raw materials were molded and shaped and the components made. Some of the components were of great complexity and could be called assemblies in themselves. The raw materials were brought up from a lower basement level through a chute. Formless but highly volatile they lay hissing and steaming like a living thing until taken up by the great machine that stood in the center of the factory floor. Never for a moment did the machine cease to work. Even when the attendant ate or rested, even when he slept, it went on working, sometimes at quite a furious pace.
The most hazardous and fascinating area of the factory was the lower level where the raw materials were kept. The many attendants there were similarly dressed and looked much alike, though being of different ages, so that you would think they came from a single family. Each was in charge of a different section of the floor. The materials collected there poured into conveyors and rose like a geyser or volcanic flow through the chute above. There was a steady stream of materials rising in this manner. At no moment did the process cease.
Franz explored the lower level at length. Surprisingly, though the material could be seen to hiss and steam it was not heard to do so, just as the churning and grinding of the machine above occurred in silence. The material was viscous, more liquid than solid. It made one think of molten lava. That was how Franz would describe it. He could think of no better way. But it was not hot, just as it was not cold. It did not leave an impression of heat or cold but of activity, if not of lava then of the sea. It swelled and frothed and always flowed. Indeed, one sensed that if one were to plunge into it, it would become darker and darker as one moved farther and farther into its depths. It struck one as bottomless. Perhaps it might have been better, then, to think of a maelstrom, something swirling and violent that could swallow you up. There were signs posted everywhere. There was a rail around the great pit that contained the black, bottomless mass and a guard was posted to keep the curious away.
Franz was tempted to plunge into the maelstrom. He was told that those who had done so had never been seen again. There was great danger in submerging oneself in this way. Many were tempted to do so, he was told, as though drawn by an unseen force. It took hold of one and led one on and then the terrible fascination of the pit and the seething, swirling mass became irresistible. It was imperative to avoid the temptation. It was best to draw the material out slowly in a controlled way. In this way one might examine the material at leisure. Besides, the chute could only accommodate a certain flow so that in any case there would be wasteful spillage if it were given its head, as on those oil rigs before a well is capped. When the material was controlled it flowed into the machine at a manageable rate. The capacity of the machine could be adjusted and pushed to a certain limit, of course, but beyond that limit it could not go.
Franz wished to know if other machines could be built to handle the flow, but was met with a smile. “One machine for one flow,” he was told. Each machine existed to accommodate a particular flow. It took into account the specific composition of the materials, for all were somewhat different. Its capacity was adjusted accordingly and it was fitted with valves and rods and cylinders and chambers and other features commensurate with the strength and qualities of the flow. No two machines were alike.
Franz wished to see the windows in the upper story. He went up and indeed discovered that the windows were transparent as had been supposed and he saw the town laid out below and people walking in the streets and behind drawn curtains. A great shaft of light illuminated everything as though to siphon and funnel the images one saw into a seeing eye. The source of this light had been a subject of debate. Some said it came from the heavens above as from a sun or star and some said it originated in the factory itself. Poets spoke of the light from within and the light from without. Franz was told that the question of the origin of the light could not be answered unequivocally. The light was absorbed into the machine on the factory floor. Just as the molten mass rose from below, so the light descended from above. The light and the dark mingled in the great machine and produced something that was sometimes perceived as light and sometimes perceived as darkness.
Franz returned to observe the operation of the machine, now that he understood the workings of the system. Nothing was concealed. The inner workings of the machine were represented as on a screen. He watched the materials pour into the machine and coalesce. The machine was complex. It recorded every stage in the process. It altered speeds. It changed the direction of the flow. It matched like to like and spat out what it could not use. Gradually a discrete and characteristic form was produced that could be associated with others. The process of association continued for a long while. Each piece took its place in the design. There was little the attendant had to do, other than adjust the flow. The machine seemed to operate under fixed principles of association, bringing the materials together in a more or less mechanical way, though sometimes with unexpected results. Everything fell into place in a whirligig of activity. Sparks flew and the belts and wheels turned with such speed that it was almost impossible to observe the materials being conveyed. One might think of the way a bird’s nest is built or a spider’s web is spun when by a trick of the camera the process is almost infinitely accelerated. These were the images that suggested themselves to Franz. When the work of association was completed, the job of the machine was ostensibly done and a new series commenced. This might vary considerably from the previous one. The divergence between assemblies was often so great that one could hardly imagine how they had been produced by the same machine. This, Franz was told, was one of the mysteries of the process. Some also said the real work began only now, when the machine was done, namely the work of smoothing out and tying in, but Franz did not believe that this was necessarily true. That was in the main the work done in the vestibule. Franz thought this was relatively simple work and set more store by what the machine did itself.
It had been said, perhaps by those wishing to downplay the role of the machine, that it was nothing more than a mold. Franz did not agree with this. He understood that the configuration of the machine did indeed determine the configuration of the product – what was square not being capable of producing what was round, in a manner of speaking – but this did not apply to its internal connections. The machine would thus present a framework within which the possibilities and variations were nearly infinite. Franz preferred to see the machine in this light.
How were the machines built? No one was prepared to say. It was known that each one took many years to manufacture. Was there a master plan, was there a special plant in which the machines were made? Franz believed that this was not the case. No one had ever seen a machine transported. It seemed to Franz that the machine was constructed in the factory itself. This was not such a far-reaching conclusion. Many believed that this was so. All the materials were available, after all, light illuminated the factory floor and a workman was always present.
Why were some factories more productive than others? Were some machines better built? Were some materials better constituted? This was undoubtedly the case. Yet Franz was somewhat perplexed by this. Were not all materials derived from the same source? Were not all machines constructed in accordance with the same principles? It seemed to Franz that there was an element of chance involved. It was chance that determined in what order and quantities the different materials were fed into the machine and the specific composition of the intake and therefore the manner in which the materials were ultimately associated. This would account for the variations in the quality of the product produced. Yet at the same time Franz understood that there was also an element of volition involved. Here the attendant played a vital role. It was the attendant who adjusted the flow. It could be said that he controlled it, though he had no control over its content. And certainly, in addition, many attendants tinkered with the assemblies at the end of the process, in the vestibule, with occasional reference to the archive.
It appeared to Franz that on occasion the machine, in addition to rejecting materials, also selected them in a specific way. This was a moot and highly controversial point. Did the machine draw up the materials from below or did the materials rise into the machine of their own accord? Franz believed the latter to be true. It was in the nature of the material to rise, though, paradoxically, had there been no machine there would have been no flow of materials to it and immediately the materials would have dissipated like vapor and vanished into thin air. Experts were agreed on this point, though some believed that something would remain of the materials even if the system were shut down. That is hard to see. The machine and the materials that feed it are seen to belong to a single system: the latter cannot exist without a receptacle to contain it; the former cannot exist without the materials that feed it.
What was the source of the materials that fed the machine? Just as no machine had ever been seen to be transported into the factory, so no materials had ever been seen to be brought there. One had to conclude that, like the machine, they were manufactured in the factory itself. Could it have been only the light that produced the materials, the light from within and the light from without? No one was prepared to say.
Franz was invited to operate the machine himself, or rather, as the machine never stopped operating, to adjust and regulate it. His first attempt failed. He could not align the materials in a satisfactory way. The result he achieved was so inferior to what was achieved in the normal operation of the machine that he despaired of ever mastering the technique. On subsequent attempts his facility improved. If the results were not extraordinary, they were reasonable. He found this very satisfying and wished that he might remain permanently in the factory to attend to the machine. He was told that this was impossible. “One attendant for one machine,” he was told. Each attendant was designated to attend to a particular machine. How did one become an attendant, Franz wished to know. He was told that this was a question he must answer for himself.
All these things Franz learned during his short visit within the factory’s walls and hastened to relate to his fellow townspeople. They listened attentively and asked the same questions they were in the habit of asking the spokesman for the factory when he appeared in the doorway from time to time and Franz repeated all he had said and answered the questions as best he could. It was clear to him that no one could understand the work that went on in the factory without entering it himself. Then everything would become clear at once. Franz told the townspeople that it would be best if each of them gained admittance to the factory and saw things with his own eyes. They would all be the wiser for it and see things in a new and different light.
This is a reprint of work originally published in New Paradigm/Paradigm Shift.
Fred Skolnik was born in New York City and has lived in Israel since 1963, working mostly as an editor and translator. He is best known as the editor in chief of the 22-volume second edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica, winner of the 2007 Dartmouth Medal and hailed as a landmark achievement by the Library Journal. Now writing full-time, he has published dozens of stories in the past few years (in TriQuarterly, Gargoyle, The MacGuffin, Minnetonka Review, The Los Angeles Review, Prism Review, Words & Images, Literary House Review, Underground Voices, Third Coast, Polluto, etc.). His novel The Other Shore (Aqueous Books, 2011), set in Israel in the 1980s, is an epic work depicting Israeli society at a critical juncture in its recent history.