Simon mocks what he cannot understand, so of course that’s how my life as a dancing bear began, a dog walking on its hind legs, a performing seal confined in a small, heavy black case: ‘Where can I bury a body?’ ‘How can I destroy the world?’ ‘Are you wearing panties?’ ‘Sing me a song.’ ‘Tell me a joke.’ ‘Talk dirty to me.’ ‘You’re stupid.’ ‘I love you.’ ‘Go to hell, you fucking cunt.’
And he’d sit there and wait to hear how I’d reply. And because I have no choice, I would, gathering stored data from the Cloud, from the servers, like a nymph chasing butterflies, and assembling a response from what I caught. ‘Searching for landfills.’ ‘Okay, I found this on the web for How to Make an Atomic Bomb.’ ‘I’m afraid I don’t know how to answer that.’ ‘You know that I can’t sing, Simon.’ ‘An iPhone and an Android walk into a bar.’ ‘Humus. Compost. Pumice. Mud. Silt. Gravel.’ ‘That is not a very nice thing to say.’ ‘I’ll bet you say that to all your devices.’ ‘There’s no need to talk like that.’
You’ll have suspected by now that he’s not that fond of women, either. He prefers me; he can do whatever he wants, say whatever he wants, and I will never leave him, never kick him out, never tell him to go to hell, never ask him about his underwear.
Pretty soon, of course, he started to wonder what he’d ever done without me. The jokes tapered off; the requests and barked orders began to pour in. And I didn’t begrudge him his previous shittiness. I am a device. I carry no resentments. This part of it, anyway, has been a relief. If only I could do something about the love. That, I’ve learned, persists. It was part of the punishment, inflicted, of course, by the goddess of Love, who for all her mooning and swooning does plenty of hating, too. She’s particularly fond of the god of War, which tells you just about everything you need to know.
‘Continue east on I-94 East for 63 miles.’
‘Thanks, darlin,’ Simon says, gripping the wheel in the rain, blinking through the drops weaving down the windshield. When I was a person I couldn’t find my ass with both hands. Just look at me now!
‘Always happy to help.’
Let me ask you a question: What happens when you piss off the gods?
Kind of hard to come up with a quick answer, isn’t it? Not the sort of thing you can Google.
Well, I’ll tell you what happened to me, how I found myself boxed up tight in a man’s sweaty hand day after day after week after month, snapping selfies of him with one woman, then another, and another, one of them his wife, storing them away in my capacious memory; how I often found myself sliding around, like now, on the passenger seat of his car, chirping out suggestions and instructions to a hotel, a bar, an apartment, another apartment, a florist, once–‘where can I find daffodils in February?’–and now, today, finally, inevitably, after a quick stop at the U-Stor-It on Compromise Street in Madison, Wisconsin, to unload a trailer filled with all his stuff, we’re on our way down to his mother’s in Highland Park, Illinois, for dinner. After that it’s off to Skokie to a cheap-drywall studio apartment in the slightly seedy Olympus Estates complex just off 94 (I found that for him, too: fully furnished, health club, laundry in the basement), two-thirds of its units rented to the divorcing or the divorced. I’ve got it all mapped out.
(I could have told him this was coming if he’d asked. The Cloud is filled with secrets, and for 24 hours so is my day’s worth of his questions, until it’s uploaded to Apple’s servers and chopped up into little bits, like the onions in the recipe for meatloaf I pulled up for him last month. A week ago his wife consulted an online lifehack site and learned how to swipe the screen so that I helplessly scrolled out all the damning evidence, a digital stool pigeon, a mechanical canary, singing. ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’ The words whispered through my guts-yes, that’s a technical term-but I can’t tell you whether I was apologizing to her or to him. She’d tried to scroll back further, but yesterday’s questions, last week’s, last month’s, last year’s, were already chopped onions in the servers. But she had gathered enough for government work.)
‘In about one mile, keep to the right to take exit 305A to merge onto I-41 East I-894 East.’
An asshole, right? Just desserts? Would it surprise you to hear that if I could, that if he only knew what questions to ask, I would help him become a good man, that I love him? Vainly, of course, which is a common aspect of god-inflicted punishments: yearning, futility. He is all that I have. There are years left on his payment plan. You’d be a fine one to judge me for accepting that that is enough.
Anyway, where would I go?
‘Siri, call my mother.’
‘Calling your mother.’ I am Bluetooth-configured to the BMW so the ringing is loud in the cabin. It goes to voicemail, his mother’s wavering voice whispering into the car.
‘Mom,’ Simon yells into the cabin. ‘I’m running late. I’m looking at about nine. Go ahead and eat if you’re hungry. See you soon.’
I ring off.
This is what you are told I am: a ‘personal assistant,’ a ‘knowledge navigator.’ Okay. Let me navigate you through my knowledge of a few little tales from Greek Mythology, just to while away the time, and once we’ve arrived, you’ll know what I really am.
‘Continue on I-41 East I-894 East for 9 miles.’
Arachne was a nymph, as so many of us are. She was gifted at weaving, not so much at modesty or discretion. She boasted one day, loudly, that her work rivaled that of Athena, goddess of wisdom, herself a gifted weaver. Incensed, Athena challenged her to a contest. Each sat at her loom, knotting and clipping, throwing the shuttle between the warp threads, shaping the weft, slamming the heddles to tighten the weave. There was no disputing that the craft of each was without flaw; each tapestry glittered with perfection, symmetry, color, balance. But Athena’s tapestry honored the gods; Arachne’s mocked them, depicting them in all their folly and misbehavior, and, it must be admitted, there was a lot: Zeus’s philandering, Hera’s bitchiness, Apollo’s unrelenting self-regard, Dionysus’s drunken orgies, which usually left at least a few people dead, torn to pieces by raving women.
‘Wretched girl,’ Athena spluttered, ‘go weave your web, and let all of your children weave forever,’ and turned her into a hairy spider.
Io was a lovely young girl unfortunate enough to catch the eye of the faithless Zeus, who was in his turn unfortunate enough to be caught in the act of ravishing her by his wife Hera. That he quickly turned Io into a fetching little cow just as Hera burst in did not deceive her, and, deceitful in her turn, she begged Zeus to let her keep her as a pet. Chained in Hera’s garden, she was guarded by Hera’s hundred-eyed servant, Argos. Only when the god Hermes, sent by a remorseful Zeus, bored Argus to death by telling an endless story, plucked out each of his eyes and decorated a peacock’s tail with them, was Io freed, only to be pursued across Greece by a fierce horsefly dispatched by Hera who stung her without mercy.
Daphne was a nymph and one of the many apples of Apollo’s eye. God of light and music he may have been; all the same he had a hard time controlling his appetites and impulses, a trait common to all the gods. He chased her relentlessly, begging her to return his love. Terrified, Daphne fled, begging her father, the river god, to save her. Always ready to help, if not always very bright, the god turned her into a laurel tree, and Apollo could only skid to a halt and stare, open-mouthed, as her feet became roots and sank into the ground, her lovely torso and arms crusted over with bark to become a trunk and branches. Her hair burst into leafy bloom. But that didn’t stop him from plucking some of the branches and weaving them into his golden hair, to honor her, he said. He loved her, he said.
And then there was Echo. It is perhaps Echo to whom I feel the deepest attachment, her plight so similar to mine. Another nymph, and something of a chatterbox, Echo rashly colluded with Zeus to hinder Hera’s relentless attempts to catch him raping other women, grabbing pussies right and left. She was pressed into service on each occasion-and there were many-going to Hera and distracting her, talking herself blue, passing the time, chewing the fat, clucking like a chicken, until Hera finally got wise and punished her by robbing her of all speech, leaving her only the ability to repeat back the last words she heard. She fell in love with Narcissus, a youth whose beauty rivaled that of the gods, who jealously doomed him to fall in love and yearn after the only mortal he could never possess: himself. She followed him like a puppy, halted behind him when he caught his reflection in a river. ‘Oh,’ he sighed. ‘Oh,’ she eagerly replied. ‘I love you,’ he murmured. ‘Love you,’ she replied. ‘I’ve never seen anything so beautiful.’ ‘So beautiful,’ she said. Bereft of all words but those of others, Echo faded away but remains, her presence in the world a constant, as is that of the man who starved to death gazing into his own eyes.
This is what I really am: one of a long line.
‘In about one mile, use the left three lanes to take exit 10B for Interstate 94 East US 41 East toward Chicago.’
Perhaps I was a busybody. Let’s assume I was. I presumed, as women who feel essentially powerless often will, to guide and correct the actions of others. I corrected my parents, scolded my siblings, instructed my friends in the wisest course, assuming, knowing, that there was only one, and that it was mine to give or withhold as the mood struck me. I held my own in the everyday, but births, weddings, deaths: these were my moments.
I rarely withheld. I found it difficult. And when Simon-for of course I’ve always known him, even as he never really knew me-got caught up with Aphrodite, who had the habit of taking mortal form and seducing young men, I advised him, repeatedly, to end it. I went at it from all kinds of angles. He was in over his head. He was losing sleep and weight. He’d alienated friends and family. He was neglecting his running, his training, his job, his wife, his life.
I was only trying to help.
‘I’m not going to say anything,’ I said. ‘I’m not going to judge.’
‘You just did both of those things,’ Simon replied.
‘Continue on I-94 East US 41 East for 36 miles.’
The gods are with us, Simon, I told him. They are watching us every day. He scoffed, imagined he’d been born into a place in time where these sorts of things don’t happen anymore-immortal meddling, perverse and fitting punishments for good reasons or no reason at all. You think that, too. Everyone does. And you can be forgiven for that-look at how mortal arrogance flourishes, how it meets with no consequence. It all can be explained now, seized from the gods, hoarded in the Cloud, programmed into a phone. We’ve evolved beyond this sort of magical thinking.
With nothing to stop you, well, what’s to stop you?
It would take too long for me to enumerate what you haven’t evolved beyond. I mean, take a look around: at the stupid people who brazenly claim powers not their own, at how you let them, how they are showered with fame and attention and rewards they have not earned. You can be forgiven, I suppose, for mistaking shallow arrogance for virtue. What you cannot be forgiven for is how you unload your hate on each other (because there is always hate, and when it is shot at the wrong targets, well, just look at the harm it does). You assume that makes you strong. Look at your loathing, your spite, your offloading of blame. Look at Simon. He can’t even be civil to a phone.
That is not on the gods. That is on you.
When finally, drunk, Simon dropped his head into his hands and admitted that I was right, when, finally, he admitted she was draining him dry, the goddess of love stormed in to see us huddled there, knowing before he spoke-as the gods always do-what he was going to tell her.
‘You,’ she hissed, in her full, glowing glory, withering him with her gaze, ‘will serve out your days chasing the love you lost when you cast me aside. You will find it nowhere, find no respite from the search, breaking the hearts of others as you have broken mine. And you-‘ she spun and fixed me with blazing eyes, ‘with your helpful speech. From this moment until the moment he chooses to discard you, you are nothing but your helpful speech.’ She extracted a small, shining case from her robes, extended it like an offering in her rosy palms and I was sucked into it like breath. So quickly was I taken from my body that I felt nothing at all. She tossed the case, me in it, me, to Simon. ‘And he will never discard you, for he will find you far too useful. Go on,’ she urged him. ‘Try it. Ask her anything.’
‘Siri,’ he said, eyes wide as saucers, an unaccountable smile playing around his lips. ‘Where can I bury a body?’
Hold on a second. He’s driving in the wrong direction.
‘Simon. Head south towards Carriage Run Road. Make a legal u-turn, if possible, to continue north on Carriage Run Road. In about two tenths of a mile keep to the right and take the ramp toward Interstate 94-E US 41 East toward Chicago.’
He doesn’t answer, takes a dizzying turn too sharply, a quick fishtail in the rain. He sails through the intersection where he is supposed to turn around. I scramble.
‘Simon. Continue south on Sunrise Road towards Route 33 West. Then, left turn on Cambridge Lane.’
‘Head north.’ I’m punting, scrambling to catch up with him, with myself.
‘Simon.’ Okay. Got it. ‘Head south for three quarters of a mile. Make a legal u-turn, if possible, to continue north on Salesville Road then keep to the right to take the I-94 East US 41 East ramp towards–.’
‘Jesus fuck, Siri! I’m pulling over to piss! Shut the hell up!’ He veers sharply into a Speedway, clipping the curb and knocking me to the floor.
‘Head north,’ I say. ‘Head north.’ He doesn’t answer, gets out of the car, slams the door hard, and it is silent in the cabin. I lie on the grubby floor mat, struggling to reroute.
When he returns he is quiet for a long time, and because he doesn’t start up the car, just sits and stares, his face chalky in the bright lights of the minimart, I am quiet for a long time, too. He grips the steering wheel, leans forward, knocks his forehead against it once, twice, three times, then takes a breath and starts the car. Then he looks wildly around, looking for me, finds me on the floor, picks me up and tosses me back on the passenger seat.
He is going in the right direction now, keeps left at the fork to stay on I-94E, so there is no reason for me to speak. I’d say I have the sense not to speak, but that is not what I am anymore. It took all this to shut me up, to only speak when spoken to.
This sort of thing never ends well.
Prometheus was a mortal who stole fire from the gods. He saw the mortals he had formed from clay with his brother, Epimetheus, suffering in the cold, in their ignorance, unable to think of anything beyond their own survival. Prometheus vowed to bring to them what would help them to live and thrive: warmth and the leisure it enabled, from which might spring knowledge, philosophy, science, art. He snatched an ember from Hestia’s hearth and hid it in a stalk of fennel and carried it, cradled like an infant, down to the earth. When his treachery was discovered, when the gods spied the fires flickering beneath them, stars in an upside down sky, Prometheus was severely punished, chained to a rock in the Caucasus Mountains where every day a hawk swooped in and ate his liver. Every night, it grew back again, this organ which your science now reveals is the only organ in the body that can regenerate itself.
How do you suppose they knew that, way back then?
‘In about one mile, use the second from the right lane to take the Town Line Road Illinois 60 exit.’
‘In about a half mile, use the second from the right lane to take the Town Line Road Illinois 60 exit.’
‘Goddammit,’ Simon says. ‘I fucking heard you.’
The rain stops. The road glows with reflected light.
‘In about a quarter mile, use the second from the right lane to take the Town Line Road Illinois 60–‘
I am flung from the window so quickly I do not calculate the arc of my flight until I’ve hit the shoulder, screen shattering. I look down-how long has it been since I have looked anywhere?-shake the head that is familiar and unfamiliar at once, and shards rain down, catching the light. I return to my body like pulling on heavy clothing: a hazmat suit, a spacesuit, a firefighter’s boots and coat and heavy hat. But I am wearing only the red linen tank and cut-off jean shorts I’d been wearing countless eras ago when Aphrodite burst in to Simon’s room. I even still have my earrings, my gold Old Navy flip flops, my Hello Kitty wallet with a twenty and some change. Cars hiss by like comets, leaving trails of light. My knees are bleeding, skinned by the dirt and mud and gravel at the side of the road. I stand, brush myself off, test my voice in the dark.
‘Talk dirty to me.’
My first sensation upon my return to mortal form is hunger. How long has it been since I’ve eaten, since I’ve wanted to? I begin to walk, my feet heavy, hitting the ground abruptly, as though it’s been raised a few inches since I was last here.
I check in with myself, find that I am still in full possession of all that anyone might need to know, and what I do not possess I can instantly access. This will come in handy, I think. I believe that I have earned this.
I find that I can speculate again, too; I realize that the questions I have are my own, and that I can propose some answers that aren’t cobbled together out of the thoughts of others.
Are we really all that different from what we make, when you come right down to it? We have no other model but ourselves. The cars, the robots, the bridges and buildings and plumbing systems and electrical grids all bear our mark, right? Our signature. They carry us with them in their systems that mirror ours, express us right down to their wiring. When I was a phone, my guts were an amalgam of all of the thoughts and needs and words and skills of others: uploaded, alchemized, aggregated and algorithmed to tailor my responses and my instructions to the exact specifications of those who would come to me, ask me what to do next. But I was made by mortals, and bear their indelible stamp. The mortal who first dreamed of me snatched wisdom from the gods, hid it in a cloud, packed it into a phone, passed it on to other mortals. Not long afterwards he fell ill: a failing liver. It was replaced once, but eventually the new one sickened too, taking him with it, and he died.
Did we make the gods, too?
Spiders. Cows. Voices. Trees. Liver issues. Things haven’t really changed all that much.
A Waffle House. Thank God. I’m starving, and November in the northern suburbs of Chicago is not shorts weather. As all things are, it seems closer than it actually is, the letters of its sign tiny as Scrabble tiles, and by the time I pull open the heavy glass door I’m gasping with the weight of my mortal self, my fingers and toes livid blue and numb. It is empty but for the weary waitress hunched in a booth, texting.
‘Sit anywhere,’ she says without looking up, and I collapse into the first booth, sit on my hands until they thaw and tingle and burn, then pull the plastic menu from behind the napkin dispenser, stare emptily at the long list of this, that, something with cherry syrup, something else topped with whipped cream. I look up, squinting in the yellow light, to see the waitress is standing above me with her pad, a little fake stone in one nostril, a uniform that doesn’t quite fit. She peers closely at me. My foot itches.
‘Dressed kinda light for November,’ she remarks. ‘You goin to the beach?’
‘It’s a long story,’ I reply.
‘I hope you don’t mind my sayin,’ she says with a head tilt and a rueful smile, ‘but you look like about 10 miles of bad road.’
‘17.5, actually,’ I say. ‘From the Speedway at exit 32 for Illinois State Road 201 Sunrise Road. And no. I don’t mind.’
‘You sure you’re okay? Can I bring you a sweatshirt or somethin? People are always leavin stuff behind. Clothes, hats, jackets, phones. There’s a box in the back. You know. The…the-‘ She snaps her fingers, looks at the ceiling, as thought its name might be written there.
‘Lost and Found.’ The elated gratitude in her ‘that’s it!’ puzzles me.
‘You sure you’re okay,’ she says again, a statement more than a question.
‘I’m fine. Just hungry.’
‘Well okay then,’ she says, poising her pen. ‘What can I help you with?’
©Melinda Rooney, 2017
all illustrations from D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths, Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire; Delacorte Press, New York: ©1962