Excerpts from the Soul Machine
Stayed up until morning arguing about whether to destroy our soul machine. Francis Moss, city-born, rich and slender, is adamant the visual projection is harmless and besides only an estimate. Isaac Tsakos sulks. Empty Narragansett keep his knees company. His soul projected from the machine appears as a hermit crab. It scuttles around the door molding for a while then journeys over my shoulders, and in each pinch of claw to my tongue I see another house he lived in during his childhood. "Wicker chairs," I report. "A lot of carpet and AstroTurf porches."
Francis switches off the machine. We remove the earbuds. Isaac is crying, which made the crab flush a seaward shallow orange. "That can't be all," he says. I say, "Well, we can't all be Francis." Francis, whose soul last night appeared as the spinal cord of a whale. I swallowed the vertebrae down like beads of a candy necklace. It was just as sugary, bright and fizzy. With his soul in my throat I could feel the shape of everything he'd ever touched.
The soul responds much like a dog. When I spit his soul back up Francis conducts it via whistles and tongue-clicking back into the machine, where it must return before we disconnect the wires and bulbs from his ears. It's taken a year of trial and error to figure out which bodily entrance and exit the soul prefers. The ears are a small but natural tunnel and the only side-effects are ringing and dizziness. We've tried various techniques: blood-letting, sneezing, birthing. I have scars on my arms tattoos have recently covered up. Isaac complains his nose is more crooked now than when we first began, but when we were lovers I used to tell him his nostrils were fabulously Athenian and he never took offense then. It's all about the context.
An assistant of ours, Gladys Quake, drew the short straw for the birthing test, and she's threatened weekly to leave us after that failed attempt. I buy her lunch in the square. Brattle, JFK, bright cobblestone places where we watch people who do not suspect what we do. Note: All indexed in expense reports. I give her a spare key to my apartment hoping she'll seek me out more, and we can talk, and I can compare the length of our legs on the couch.
Francis, a failed cinephile, is enthralled by the pure visual notion of it. He pulls out his and Isaac's and Gladys' all at once just to watch them gambol around the room. A soul zoo, he calls it. He wants to take this to film, insists on its indie potential at Cannes or at least Coolidge Corner. Isaac meanwhile wants to achieve a traditional out-of-body experience and is depressed the soul does not carry his personal perception along with it—the soul emerges entirely separate, with its own awareness and decisions. This secretly worries me. Note: If the soul isn't me or mine then what is it?What is this stowaway in my bones, drawn out by our machine?
I'm the one to try eating them. Tonight the boys are watching stand-up at the Hong Kong so Gladys and I prepare hers over the stove in a pot of boiled salted water. We try chicken broth, vodka sauce, gravy. Her soul is most interesting to me because it arrives as a parade—tiny creatures dressed in gold, waving instruments and riding animals extinct or unseen. Swirling in soups they taste like ramen but never stay down. I keep a hot mouthful as long as I can, her soul's parade jangling against my molars and causing me sweet headaches.
The soul machine began as a boy's club. Gladys was the exception, and my way in—but she wears bowties and suspenders when she wants people to listen. Francis sublet briefly with her above the river during graduate school in the small attic of a third-floor Victorian. They hung photos of Bobby Kennedy and had a mouse problem. Tsakos Exterminators was called in last summer and Francis caught Isaac releasing more rodents so he could return to read the stacks of overdue science journals.
Gladys believes Isaac to be a regular con man. Francis finds him charming, and Gladys insists that proves her point. I received an invite in after the three solidified their pursuit of the soul machine, because they heard through campus adjuncts I cannot name that I had successfully created one in early November, although a series of accidents had left me sour and singed and unable to recall much of my findings.
We four sprawled on the floor of my room. My notes have been on Gladys and Francis all night and Isaac's jealousy spins out. "Why don't you do it," Isaac says. He is snappy, petulant. His nose is more crooked. "You've never let us seen your soul. What are you, scared? What are you hiding?"
"Remember," I say, "when we were together I made you take me out to French restaurants just so you'd struggle with the menu?" My plate of beans: ah REE koh VER. I mimic his nasal Southie voice: Hair A Cot Verts. He objects and Francis, hooked to the machine, laughs so hard his vertebrae soul—a lizard's tonight—trembles joyously across the ceiling like the borealis.
Everyone watches and I feel cold. It gets very quiet. Their silence is a snowfall in me.
Our hottest debates concern terminology. Terminology is a careful promotion. We do not remove the soul (re: loss and separation), we retrieve it (re: positive gain). We do not release the soul (re: spiritual), we project it (re: entertainment). I'm stressed we'll never publish. The study is difficult to express and the boys do not make it easy. Isaac still flip-flops on whether to pronounce the silent T in his last name.
They say it's exhausting to have the soul retrieved from the body and then replaced. The caretaking afterward falls to me—since our break-up Isaac calls me cruel, but Francis terms me level-headed. Francis requires movies. Isaac, cool towels. Gladys I prop against my knees and braid her hair so tight she yells then kisses my hands.
Of course I know more about them than what I let on.
Tonight: Francis's soul twitches when I pluck it up with my fingers. I take a bite. What he's touched come to me in sets of related threes: a boxer in the Commons, a boxer with nose bloodied by an uppercut, a cardboard box shipped to Commonwealth Ave. Their shapes tumble in my throat, taste of thrill and anxiety. I return his soul and unhook the machine from his ears, report my findings, and he presses his mouth to my soulless ears to elaborate: "First dog, first fight, first steal."
Isaac's soul scuttles beneath my bed and when I stretch to ensnare it the crab clicks at my hand and pulls back into its shell. "Relax, would you," I say. Isaac insists on lying in my bed when he's hooked to the machine. He glares back. I kick his soul out and it bats at my ankles, but one lick of its shell is all it takes: I see the attic room where he first met Francis and Gladys, the wooden paneling and the mice chittering in the walls.
Gladys makes me feel like that, too, as I attend to her ears: I am hesitation between a scurry. She tries quickly to put the device in my ears but I duck away. "Not fair," she says and pulls Francis' winter cap with school insignia over her head so I can't get to her soul. "Let us eat yours or I call bullshit."
"It's real," I say, though I can't tell if it's good. The spines and crustaceans and parade. I've kept careful documents that I forbid them to read. We're not ready yet.
Still cleaning up. Repairs to projection machine required. All damages indexed below.
Last night: No scheduled experiments. Returned home with groceries to find the three already in my room. Note: Gladys, the spare key.
Francis rises and pins my arms against my sides. Isaac cups my face in his hands the way he used to. Gladys pops the device in my ears and as I struggle the machine hums.
The room fills with fruit. Apricots, nectarines, orange and fleshy. My soul is a harvest out of season. Isaac lets go of me to scoop up a handful and shove them, glistening pits and all, into his mouth. He coughs, cursing,and spits flies. The room is swarming.
Francis lets go of me to swat at the darkening air. Someone screams. The machine's hum disappears beneath the million beating wings. Gladys crouches to pluck a dead fly from my bedroom floor. She dissolves it on her tongue and says she can still taste the fruit that fattened it, the fruit it lived on and died of.
"All of you," Gladys says in private to me. "Insane." It's the first I've seen her since winter. She still limps from the birthing experiment. Note: Just chopped my hair short for this meeting with her and feeling petty about her ignoring it. "We're not crazy," I say. "We're just committed."
"Who else do you talk to?" she says. "Where else do you go?" I don't have an answer. I don't mention Francis, who deserted his studies and money for the state's western mountains, or Isaac, who only contacts me through mail, and then only to send mousetraps.
This is what's left, the two of us: Gladys and me, Café Algiers. I enjoy arguing with her over dishes—domestic and defensive—the way I preferred the boys conducting our soul experiments in my brownstone.
We no longer discuss destroying the machine. I keep it in my apartment like a bad pet. "I'm committed to this," I say.
"Committed to what?" she asks. She's tired of me. "Remember," I say, "the last time it worked for me?" Every night now I plug the device in my ears. Mostly come the flies, but if I'm desperate enough bright beetles mix in, too. I keep the insects in jars and tap the glass, and as they swarm something deep in my chest stirs.
"Maybe I just need to find out more," I say.
Her fingers perch on my mug like five sated birds. "And maybe," Gladys says, "that's why you're alone." She leaves me sitting at our favorite table, the wooden dome ceiling rollicking above me and my loneliness. I imagine then, watching her coattails flap as she disappears forever down the staircase towards coffee, biscotti and kettles, what my soul looks like in this moment. But I can't come up with anything except a fresh and vague discoloration, like when after experiments I shower and go without make-up just to feel like a stranger, just to feel more myself.
Amanda Hartzell was born in Pennsylvania and earned her MFA in Boston from Emerson College. Her work has been twice listed as a finalist for Glimmer Train's New Writers Contest and won New Letters' Alexander Patterson Cappon Prize for Fiction. She now lives in Seattle where, when not moonlighting as a bookseller, she hikes and draws and gushes about the Sound and Mt Rainier.
Illustrations by Dan Forke.