Word For/Word [ Issue 17: Summer, 2010 ] [ Previous ] [ Next ] [ Notes ]

Brian Seabolt


An engine runs continuously and at a low volume. Because the noise of the engine is continuous and low, it might seem for certain periods to mimic something like silence. Of course it is an artificial silence, and of course there is never silence, since the engine runs continuously. If anyone thinks about the engine, or about the noise of the engine, it is for only a short time. No one knows what the engine does or why its low humming is continuously audible, should anyone listen for it. Presumably, someone built the engine. It couldn’t have built itself. And whoever built the engine must have done so for particular reasons, which, for all anyone is in a position to know, related to the community’s most essential functions. No one cares to question this: suppose the engine related to the community’s essential functions and someone were to disturb its operations. Consider the chaos. Anyway, no one has ever seen the engine. It must be an engine, because, despite the quietness, it sounds like one, and because nothing runs so continuously could possibly be anything but an engine. So it is an engine, which means that it powers something. It would be absurd of them to censure themselves for not knowing what the engine powers. Whoever built it knows—or else no one knows, and the person who built it didn’t know either. Maybe a lunatic built the engine. In that case, it might be running, continuously, at its consistently low volume, day and night, connected to nothing, with no purpose at all, something for those around occasionally to wonder about, mostly ignored, and effectively doing nothing. Few go so far as to suspect this much. Whether they think about it or don’t, most feel a certain peculiar dependency on the noise of the engine. The less they think about it, the more central to them it is. They try not to think about it. Weeks and months pass, and they remain aware, on an unacknowledged level, that their comings and goings relate, possibly in a vital manner, to the engine and the continuous and relatively low volume of its operation.


Once, a man went to find the engine. Everybody told him not to go. He went anyway and was gone for several months. When he returned everyone sneered. But even as they sneered, a few gave in to asking what he had found. They found him changed. His replies were evasive. There were those who attributed the evasiveness of his replies to shame, having failed to locate the engine. Others detected a wounded or unsettled note in his refusal to answer plainly and concluded that he had found something after all and hadn’t liked it. Of course no one knew. And no one really wanted to know. They wished that man—a young man, only about 20 years old, who certainly hadn’t lived long enough with the continuous and low noise of the engine and its unclassifiable importance to the comings and goings among the residents of the community—had taken their advice and had never made the journey to find the engine. Some wished he had never returned, and a few even wished the worst for him, seeing as he had taken it upon himself to look for the engine, even after everyone had told him not to look for it, and seeing as, despite having evidently found nothing at all, he had in doing so caused the community so much needless anxiety. As it happened, that man came to a bad end anyway: about three years later he lost his mind, or so it appeared to them and to those in a position to make such a determination, and he finished out his life in an institution.


That man’s end was in one sense a benefit to them, as it went far to cement their longstanding resolve to ignore the engine and its continuous quiet noise. Here, after all, had been one presumptuous person, who had against all advice gone to find the engine and had come back disappointed, possibly even damaged, and who soon lost his mind and finished out his life (which lasted only a few years more) in a mental institution. So it was all the more clear, if not somewhat urgent: one ought to ignore the engine, ignore the sound of the engine, proceed with one’s life, and allow the continuous and quiet noise of the engine to take its place unquestioned in the ordinary comings and goings of one’s life. The story of the man took the form presently of a cautionary tale, although it seemed obvious to them, as well, that they oughtn’t to give more than minimal thought to the man or to his search for the engine and the fruitless and possibly disastrous result of that search.


Each year the community arranges a festival, which involves numerous predictable customs: a parade, theatrical spectacles, contests of various sorts, and a great deal of milling around outdoors. Of course the event revolves around a single element, to which no one ascribes its true importance. As part of the schedule, all residents visit the historical museum, where they pace rows of archived written documents and photographs, dating to the foundation of the community. Everyone makes as little of it as possible, although everyone attends, and those who have children make sure the children attend, as well. Some years the festival extends into the early hours of the following day, because residents are still parading along the aisles of the historical museum, scrutinizing old records and peering, some of them with magnifying glasses, at the details of tintypes and daguerreotypes and all manner of photographs, made and donated by amateurs and professionals. It is easy enough to maintain the pretense that one is looking into the growth of the community, from its origin to its present state. No one would admit that what everyone seeks in those yellowed documents and innumerable mundane photographs is, in fact, an absence: that what is of such importance to them is not what they might discover, but rather what they desperately wish not to discover. The purpose of the annual festival is to affirm, by repeated scrutiny of the official record, that at no discernable point in time did anyone undertake to build an engine that now, unseen by anyone, runs continuously and at a low volume. The historical museum is thorough: there is nowhere any evidence of tampering. All records are in place. One can move from the community’s founding to the present day—a tedious experience, but one no resident cares to forgo—with no inkling of narrative interruption. It is a seamless progression from images of simple, serious men dressed in overalls to those of massive stone buildings and congested streets and sidewalks. Year after year the experience is a complete one, and year after year the community ends its festival quietly satisfied that no record of the planning, design, or construction of a massive engine exists.


Were anyone to consider the question, any customary use for an engine would seem immediately problematic. An engine of this size might power a large mill or some apparatus to fill silos or the various machines inside a factory. The community has none of these things, except for a large vacant structure that used to be a factory and that closed over two decades ago. Electricity is generated as in any other community in the world. In fact, it is impossible not to notice during power outages the unaltered persistence of the engine. No one wonders about any of these things, because no one wishes to draw a conclusion. Their most significant fear, and that most deeply and cleverly suppressed, is that the continuous low noise of the engine might stop. The less they know about the nature of the engine, the more manageable the anxiety. Anyone with conclusive knowledge of the engine might begin, even unwittingly, disseminating information throughout the community, information about the engine’s continuous low noise and what particular elements of the engine contribute in their ways to the noise. In time, enough knowledge of the engine would have found its way among residents that nearly everyone would be in a position to predict, even unwittingly, how long the engine might possibly continue to function before its parts begin giving way to deterioration and the engine halt.


One night, while everyone sleeps, a 12-year-old girl dresses silently and leaves her parents’ house. She walks several blocks and to a canal, listening to the traffic and the water rushing below her feet and, above it all, the low continuous drone of the engine. Her expression reveals nothing. Anyone there to observe would have no means to guess what the girl is thinking or why she has come to this place all alone in the middle of the night.