5670 words, short story
Lilian attached yet another mobius strip to her underwater diorama. Undulating in blue, they crisscrossed in gossamer nets across the shoebox, a miniature biosphere where sharks and fish roamed.
Yet, these waves, as Lilian pronounced them to be, seemed more alive than the animals that hung in them, thought her mother Shulin. No one expected six-year-olds to finish their own science projects, and Shulin found herself wrapped up in another one of her daughter’s assignments, taping invisible strings to the top of the cardboard box.
Lilian helped her mom weave the hanging model sea creatures, made of fine crimson silk cloth usually reserved for the outfits of only her mom’s most exquisite carved puppets. Even as their family pinched pennies for clothes and meals, buying only used t-shirts and cheap biandang lunches in Flushing’s Chinatown, Shulin felt her daughter’s education should not be something they stiffed on.
When Shulin ran out of extra fabric in the cupboard, she made discreet cuts from the robes of her cast of characters, taking in the outfits of flying swordsman Weiting, evil renegade Chih-hao, court princess Hsinyi, and some of the court attendants. A snip here and there to become another octopus or luminous piece of coral.
Later at night, when the honks and general hubbub from outside died down and Lilian’s dad finally returned from his day-laborer job to eat cold rice congee dinner, Shulin sat on the sofa set to closing up these omissions in her puppet’s garb, as Lilian brushed her teeth for bed. Lilian brushed her teeth in continuous arcs without lifting up her hand, a strange habit she picked up from as long ago as Shulin could remember.
“Tell me a story,” said Lilian when she was done. Her green eyes would sparkle and dance behind her glasses. It was her nightly demand as the family princess.
Every night, Shulin would succumb to Lilian’s wishes. Lilian, in second hand polka-dotted pajamas, watched the dead eyes of the 布袋戲 budaixi puppets suddenly animate. She would laugh as the old man next to the sea would fall into the waters looking for his cane and gasp as the princess jumped out of her palace and onto tiled roofs, her delicate gown behind her. In her hands, she would play with one of the mobius strips she always had lying about in the room, running her fingers along the path that never seemed to end, even when the play came to an end and the moon whispered it was time for bed.
In Lilian’s cubicle hung five mobius strips, one from when she was very young, and four from the course of her teenage years to her present twenty-four-year-old adult life. Each represented a pivotal time in her life, but she rarely talked about them, just as she rarely spoke much in general.
On her desk sat a lump of pink flesh marinating in a thick clear gel on an antiseptic tray. Beside the hunk of flesh balanced several fine-tuned battery-powered lasers against the edge of the tray. These Lilian used to manipulate the flesh, as crucial to her trade as scalpels are to surgeons. In the corner of her desk was a small photo, faded and worn and slightly blurry, barely recognizable as the breathtaking court princess puppet Hsinyi.
Lilian turned on the laser and changed the intensity of the green stream that suddenly appeared on the flesh. The bright laser drove a straight line directly onto the pink blob. A searing smell of roasted meats wafted towards her as she chiseled first in vertical lines, then filled the rest of the canvas with her signature uninterrupted loops.
“Good job, but be careful that the marbling matches the visual stock,” said Ken, her supervisor as he walked by.
Lilian just nodded without comment and continued scrawling with her laser.
She could hear Ken saying at another cubicle, “You might want to try holding the laser at a different angle.”
Ken always had to make some comment, as if worried that his presence would be superfluous without an unnecessary pointer. Every day he made a few rounds with at least one reminder to each employee.
Lilian’s coworkers called her an artisan. The steaks she created resembled the Angus they tried to reproduce like no other cell-cultured product. Lilian made these sears with pursed lips and furrowed brows and took no more joy in their production than turning on her morning coffee machine.
She saw it not as an art, but as a rote, mechanical job.
Neither was she doing it to save livestock from the cruelty of the modern meat industry, as others working in her field have proclaimed as their raison d’etre. In fact, here she ate more live steaks than ever, as a form of taste test and comparison. Her company even had a monthly allowance for (real) steakhouses in the metropolitan area, which she took advantage of without remorse. She often invited Jose and put her steak on the bill.
Instead, what fascinated Lilian was topology. She loved the whorls of continuity, idiosyncratic shapes that seemed to defy nature itself. Tubes that wrapped in among themselves but never ended. She pictured herself as an ant crawling through these tubes for eternity. Sometimes she would glance over at her mobius strips dangling against the gray dividers and imagine herself as a tiny puppet pulled by invisible hand stuffed within—or pulled by a set of gossamer strings perched from above—alongside the mobius strip surface, pulled towards the endlessness that lay before her, in repeating loops over and over.
She put this picture in her head as she detailed the commercial meats, these wedges of flesh that had never rested on any bone and had never been held in a hand of a butcher.
She heard the light ring of a bell, slid her finger past the power sensor and put down her laser. She’d finish the rest of these raw hunks after lunch.
“I call it the sound of emptiness inside,” said Lilian. She was sixteen, sitting cross-legged and pushing her index finger against a plushy piece of dough. It moved, striking another equally dense fried piece of dough.
“I don’t get it,” said Jose, short for Josefina, Lilian’s best and only friend. “I don’t hear anything.”
“You’re probably just used to all the noise in the restaurant,” said Lilian.
Jose’s dad would often take her daughter to the dim sum restaurant in Flushing where he worked as manager. Sometimes they’d invite Lilian to the restaurant, too. Jose’s dad would treat her to beef noodle soup, something that was not on the menu, but he would yell out in Spanish to the chefs to make it for the staff. He said he craved it growing up in Texas next to a noodle stall. Lilian would chew on the beef, thinking of how stringy the ligaments and connective tissue were. At the time, she didn’t know what it was that made these fibers get stuck in her teeth.
“I don’t think hearing some plates clatter’s gonna make me deaf,” said Jose. She made a tentative jab at the doughy circle herself. Then, she touched one of the mugs dangling to its right. “Wouldn’t it be better called firefighter’s breakfast?”
Lilian said, “It actually would be better called ‘Torus.’” But, Jose was too absorbed in picking out the green sprinkles of the vanilla frosted to take note of the term.
“I wonder if I should move up the left . . . ” Lilian’s voice trailed off as she watched Jose pull one of the doughnuts from the floss string holding it in place.
A cut formed on the side of the ring where the floss pulled through it.
Then Jose took a bite. It was raspberry frosted with sprinkles. Jose said it tasted vaguely purple.
“Oh, no, Jose, you ruined it!” said Lilian.
Lilian thought of the imaginary tiny little puppet running across the surface doughnut looping in and out of the hole, never stopping to rest. Then, she imagined a giant finger pushing against the doughnut, squishing a mug hole into one end, while the doughnut hole served as the handle. Now, with Jose’s slice through the ring, these abstract illusions were destroyed.
“You’ll get over it. Here, have a doughnut,” said Jose. She pulled another one off its string, tearing it as well. This time it was double chocolate glazed.
As Lilian munched, Jose asked the questions, their typical interaction.
“Is this thing supposed to make a sound?” asked Jose, gesturing towards the hanging doughnuts and coffee mug.
“No, it’s a mobile. You’re thinking of a wind chime.”
“A mobile, like one of those old cell phones?”
“No, not mo-bull, a mo-beel.”
“Mo-beel,” said Jose, exaggerating the long ‘e’ vowel. “What’s it for?”
“It highlights the shapes and the movement of each of the pieces, creating an aesthetic composition,” said Lilian.
“Oh, I get it. My baby sis, Gabriela, has one. It stops her from crying. But hers is made up of monkey, giraffes, cute animals like that and has lullaby music. Have you thought about putting music to yours?”
“No, not really.”
“How about a jingle about a complete breakfast?”
“No, it’s not about breakfast.”
“A coffee mug, doughnuts . . . ”
“They’re homeomorphic,” said Lilian. “They are spaces that can be pressed into one another without cutting or using glue. Like taking play-doh and working it . . . ”
“Oh, you’re talking about those shapes again,” said Jose.
“Well, spaces, really,” said Lilian. “The shape is secondary.”
“It’s a good doughnut,” said Jose. “Next time don’t let it hang so long before inviting me over. It got kind of dry.”
Jose clapped Lilian on the back. Then, she passed her an electronic chip the size of a fingernail. “I put some music on this. It’s for our social studies skit on the Spanish American War. But, you could probably use it for the mobile. It sends a pulse that I think would make the mobile spin. Hang it up with it and watch the shapes move along to the tune.”
After Jose left, Lilian taped the chip to the mobile. She activated it with her phone and watched the homeomorphic breakfast entities dance in the wind to the fast beat of Spanish hip-hop.
For a moment, she thought she saw a glint in the air, something that felt like the room pulled in on itself. But, even before she could put a finger on it, it disappeared.
That was the night her dad asked for a divorce. Seven months later, her mom left her with $500 and a note that she was returning to her native Taiwan without her. Go to Ms. Lee’s. She will be taking care of you from now on.
Lilian wondered if it was her own playing with spaces that had breached something in the air, something in the space-time continuum that made the world turn upside down. Like hanging from the top edge of the doughnut hole, seeing the world topsy-turvy, flipped and warped to something unrecognizable.
Lilian wedged herself between two rather large butts in the empty subway seat. It was early in the morning and her stocky neighbors on either side held twin paper coffee cups. She was wearing white trousers and simple flat pumps.
Now these white trousers were sandwiched by neighboring legs of black work trousers. She imagined seeing it from a birds-eye view. She was always good at changing her perspective to see things. Their legs would look like an Oreo, she decided.
She opened the novel she was reading, the Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a suggestion that Jose had sent over.
Lilian liked the way books could screen herself from the world. She liked the heft of the book. But, most of all, she liked how she can fold herself in there, wrapped up into a story, like time warped, nudged, and shaped into a convincing form, much like her topological spaces. Much like puppet plays, she thought. But then, put it out of her mind, like she always did when thoughts like that popped their way in.
She had started taking classes in the nearby university on topological spaces alongside her job. Work during the day and classes in the evening. She barely had time to shower. After her parents left her she convinced herself that she had to be practical and make a life for herself, because no one could take care of herself but herself. She put all thought out of her mind to be a mathematician, and instead focused on biology. She could work in a lab, make a steady income.
Mrs. Lee was always pleasant to her, but never treated her like a child. She knew once she hit eighteen she was on her own.
In the end, she majored in biological illustration. There was an artistic side of her that loved curves and spaces that she could not chase away. She interned as a technician for a museum, where they hired her part time. It was Jose (who she kept in touch with even throughout college) that found her a job in the artificial meat industry, a hint from her dad who rose to own a few classy chain restaurants in Queens.
But, now, sitting in this tiny crevice under the fluorescent lights of the subway car, staring over the pages of her book at the heads nodding asleep, she rethought her plan for life. Wasn’t there more than simple existence?
She thought of puppets that played out heightened moments of drama and passion—how wonderful they could live so fully, even if inanimate, even if only in tales. Then she tossed the thought out of her head as she continued where she left off in her novel. The subway jerked as it passed yet another stop.
She followed Josef Kavalier’s flight to America from Prague. She imagined her mom’s flight the other way, from her fallen-apart marriage to Taiwan, many years ago. The novel spoke of magic and she thought of her mom, the sole budaixi puppet master instructor in Queens, making the puppets come alive when she was just a kid, breathing animation into otherwise mere fragments of wood and cloth. Every time the novel mentioned the golem, she felt a restlessness in her. Golem, the being of clay that could be given life with a mere name.
She searched for golem on her phone. אמת. Emet. The words that breathed him to life.
Her hands shook and she dropped her phone onto the shiny shoe of the man sitting next to her. “Ow,” she heard, not daring to look up, and saw some droplets of coffee splash onto her phone.
She breathed a sorry, just as the owner of the shoe picked up the phone to hand to her. She finally looked up to stare into the eyes of a man with shaggy brown hair who looked uncannily like evil renegade Chih-hao, down to the same sour grin and all, from her mom’s puppet days in Flushing. He was wearing a pink-and-yellow-striped tie against a white button-down and holding a cup of coffee in the other hand. Lilian dropped her glance and peered instead into the Windsor knot at his neck, her mind racing, following the bends and loops of the narrow silk path. She caught herself staring.
She plucked the cell phone from his open hand, wiped the coffee splashes off its screen on her pant leg and rushed to the subway doors. The scratchy broadcast told her the next stop was hers. She dashed through as the doors pulled open.
Something felt right about the golem. Something felt true, like allegorical tales her mother would weave when she was a little older, in her teenage years.
In her head, she heard her mother’s voice recount the story of budaixi puppetry before bringing to life each new fabricated tale:
“Three hundred years ago, in Quanzhou province in Fujian, a talented student named Liang Binglin nearly lost heart from failing the imperial exams. These were exams whose passage was required to become a government official. He heard of the legendary Xiangong Temple at Nine Carp Lake and the ability of its deity to predict the direction one’s life would take. Moved by this talk, he visited the temple and prayed to the deities. That night, in his dreams, one of the deities wrote in the palm of Liang’s hand: 功名歸掌中, Gongming gui zhangzhong. Achievement lies within your hands.
“Upon awakening, joyous with this knowledge, he took the exam again only to end up failing. Frustrated and dejected, he decided he wouldn’t take the exams anymore.
“As he was walking down the street, he came upon a stage for puppet theater. As he watched the puppets dance, a thought struck him. He would carve his own puppets, use his own hands to move them—if not anything but as a means to wash away the tides of his chagrin. His own crafted screenplay would accompany these puppets.
“Little did he realize this was the seed for an art form that would grip his audience and the many to come after him—and lead him to his eventual success and achievement, riches and fame.”
Her mother would then look up at Lilian, grasp her right hand and trace a series of indecipherable character strokes in her palm. Her mom’s hand was warm, her fingers light.
Lilian felt sure these words conveyed something important she could not grasp, as her mom let out an enigmatic smile.
Did the puppets come to life much like the golem? Did her mother really breathe the essence of the living into them? Or was it her own imagination? The haziness of her earliest memories colored her thoughts, and she couldn’t distinguish fact from fiction.
But, as much as conviction told her that the notion of the golem was real, conviction equally accorded her the certainty that it wasn’t from a written utterance or word. It wasn’t emet.
She was convinced it was not a word. No, she didn’t trust words. They were imperfect, everyone had different intonations, different lilts. Just tongue, lips, and teeth coming together.
Achievement lies in your hands, she thought. She fiddled with her mobius strips.
No, it was a space. It was an arrangement of space.
Lilian knew from the pit of her gut, radiating outward to every fiber of her being, that should a golem exist, it would be brought out through topology. Her mom sometimes spoke of qi and of humors, of the vitality that dispersed and surged. She could imagine the flow of these vital essences around complicated topological spaces, intermingling loops of pipes. Valves that kept going forever, circulating the flow of qi.
If she could only harness it.
She spent the next few days chiseling out the spiral spectrums on her hunks of meat, thinking of the many stories her mom told her. For the longest time, she thought them only painful memories. But, now, she realized there might be something important in them.
She replayed the flying swordsman Weiting, whipping out his double-edged blade and spiraling towards the rogue warriors. She heard the pleading of evil renegade Chih-hao, a man she perhaps met on the train days ago, or at least his doppelganger, a mortal enemy asking his life to be spared. And most of all she revisited the heartfelt romance and martial facility of court princess Hsinyi, who was capable of compassion and strength all at once.
She could feel Hsinyi’s light steps and her swan swings, graceful slaps that would paralyze those who betrayed her. Her touch would also heal the innocent simply from the purity of her heart. And of course there was the fire-breathing dragon, glittering in its many arrow-proof scales. Lilian never thought it strange before, but now suspected that this rain deity was made fire-breathing by her mom catering to an American audience.
For days she thought of these tales, as she carved fake meat with her laser, with only Ken’s bumbling critiques as interruption. She imagined the puppets reenacting fights, tumbling sheets of fabric, thick with adventure and drama and threatening voices. Then she would fuel her imagination with evenings in topology class, listening to her professor’s nasal voice drone on about quantum topology, the light of his laser pen shining at twisted knots.
Much like her own laser teasing knots into the stem-cell dough in front of her. The pink meat so much like the mud flesh of the golem.
And just like that—on an unusually hot, sticky spring day where her sweat cooled under the high fan of air conditioning—she felt, like the way the brain folds into wrinkles, the fleshy stem-cell dough fold into sentience.
The secret was never the whispered word, but a kind of topological perfection that the universe bowed to.
Sensing the sentience as qi flow within this mound of meat, Lilian’s heart couldn’t help but palpitate. She thought of the beauty in which gravity bent space-time. If forces could manipulate and bend dimensions, then the rendering of physical matter into certain configurations could possibly bend the dimension of consciousness.
The meat, a protobrain, as she deemed it, pulsated with life. She seared into it whorls and chutes, a number of pervious pockets as well as continuous grooves.
As she prodded the piece of thinking meat with a soft measuring apparatus to check its pliability, she couldn’t help but think that consciousness was simply a dimension where sentient thoughts exist. It was a matter of pulling matter into the right curves as an entryway into this dimension.
Energy allows consciousness to move, she thought. If energy was broken, flow wouldn’t be directed the right way. Continuity without breakage as key. And she had done it. She had unlocked the key to consciousness, the path to the dimension of this existence, through a kind of homologous act. All it took was imprinting the hunk of lifeless flesh with a homeomorphic form representing the space of the dimension where consciousness lies. Not an easy feat, but she fulfilled it nevertheless.
She wiped off a bead of sweat from her brow, hid her work in her drawer from the wandering eyes of Ken and proceeded on another piece of meat. She seared this raw meat the usual way for artificial beef, so she could fill her employment quota and not raise Ken’s suspicions.
After she was done for the day, she took her coffee mug, and filled it up at the machine. (Ken gave mugs to all the employees that said, “Cup of joe for workers ready to go!”) She stroked the hole of the handle with her fingers. An impeccable torus. She took a sip of the hot liquid, conspiring her next move.
“Hey, Jose, I need a favor.” Lilian cradled a phone to her neck.
“Let me guess. RAM? Or hard drive?” Jose’s husky voice sounded strained.
“Neither. Is this a bad time?” asked Lilian.
“No, I’m just working on this head. I can’t get the ears to screw in right.”
“I see,” said Lilian.
“So, what is it that you need?” asked Jose. Lilian could hear a soft periodic grating sound, and imagined Jose holding down a robotic ear, sandpapering away the softer notches around the titanium latch, as she has seen her do in person.
“A mimeoshell,” said Lilian.
“Hello,” said Lilian. The grating sound continued after the pause.
“Yeah, I heard you. I think. Did you say mimeoshell? You want a body?”
“Are you kidding?”
Jose’s questions made Lilian feel more at ease. At least her request wasn’t so outlandish that Jose hung up. She could do that sometimes, too, hang up, if she didn’t care to talk to you anymore. But, Lilian knew that nine times out of ten, Jose’s curiosity would win over reservation.
“Okay, tell me what it’s for.”
Lilian spent three minutes filling her in. It was the most she had spoken in a month. Jose listened raptly.
“And . . . it’s alive?” asked Jose.
“Sentient, I believe is the word you’re looking for,” said Lilian.
“If this wasn’t you, I wouldn’t believe it.”
“So, will you do it?”
There was a pleading lilt in Lilian’s voice. She used that supplicating tone on Jose when she needed to borrow money for mobiles and other projects she poured her heart into. She knew Jose couldn’t resist it.
“I’d have to ask,” said Jose.
Lilian pressed further. “Here, think of it like this. You want to spend your whole life working on soulless shells that sit in reception desks, telling visitors where the bathroom is? Or do you want to see your creations come to consciousness?”
Lilian hung with up Jose, with a promise from Jose to lend a head only if she got clearance from her partner. Luckily, Jose was dating the head funder, a formidable Clarissa Kale, who made the calls. She’d have to give Clarissa a convincing reason. Jose wouldn’t lie, but Lilian hoped she’d at least round off the details to make it sound a little less loony.
It worked. The golem flexed real, animate fingers, with articulations at the joints. It batted expressive eyes to match. Sentience. A soft stream of viable life coursed in a hard titanium-alloy body.
But, even as Lilian was reveling in this success, the golem plotted its own adventure. In a few days, it made its escape to Taiwan.
Lilian didn’t know how it happened, but she found herself on a plane with three layovers, with even more borrowed cash and a mouthful of apologies. Poor Jose. Her head’s on the line because of me.
Which is why she would get him back. No question about it.
Lilian checked her phone at her Frankfurt airport connection.
He’s landed at Taoyuan airport. He’s heading south, getting on the high-speed rail. Both Jose and Lilian had found it hard to think of him as an “it.” When they slipped that pulsating red protobrain in the cranium cavity and connected its tissue with clamps, she saw a spark light up in the golem’s cavernous eyes that she had never seen in any of the humanoid robots that Jose had crafted before.
Lilian fingers flew as the other hand conveyed sausage and fries to her mouth. Okay, I’ll be boarding in half an hour. Will be on the chase.
Luckily, Clarissa had the foresight to order Jose to put a GPS on the body, a small chip behind the ear.
After Lilian landed, she grabbed a taxi, ran to the high-speed rail from its drop off point, collected her ticket that Jose bought online, and took the first train south.
Passengers brushed up against her and she knocked over someone’s suitcase. Crowded, no seats were left. It was Qingming festival, days set aside for the sweeping of the tomb. All of Taiwan was on the move, heading to ancestor’s graves to burn joss paper and offer porcelain cups of tea and wine to pay respects and placate the departed.
It seemed ironic that rather than traveling for the once-living, she was following the lifeless that came to life.
But, she knew why it was happening. She had left her mark on her creation. A Frankenstein that had a volition on its own, but still followed ingrained patterns, predictable like an ant running on a track of spatial loops.
Through her topological bending of space, Lilian endowed the golem with her own prejudices. There were numerous forms or continuous roads that led to perfection, and Lilian’s own rendering was a signature mark. Like Picasso’s blue period, or the swells and curves of Gaudi’s work. The consciousness had her trademark on it as legible as someone’s penmanship that slants left with wide loops.
And her imprint led her to her most deeply-seated longing. Her mother.
Broken Chinese and some sprinkling of spoken Hokkien, and copious text messages from Jose, led Lilian to a small village at the southern tip of Taiwan.
Lilian pushed through a crowd and planted a seat onto the puddle-ridden lawn. It rained earlier and the ground was thick with mud, the cold wetness seeping into her shoes. Lilian wrinkled her nose. The air smelled dank, mud mixed with incense and jasmine flowers.
The sun had set and the darkness was a perfect backdrop for the stage lighting that fell on an enormous architectural feat built in front of the village temple. It seemed like a remote place for a production of this kind, but from the gossip of surrounding towns, she learned of her mother’s fame. 布袋戲女王. Or as they called her in spoken Hokkien, ㄅㆦᒻㄉㆤ⊦ㄏㄧᒻ ㄌㄨˋㆲˊ pòo-tē-hì lú-ông. Queen of budaixi.
It had to be her mother, even if she had taken on a new stage name.
Hsinyi. Court princess. The star of her own story. Even though her mother used different characters to write it. Instead of 欣怡 happy-harmony, she used 馨儀 fragrant-ceremony for her new epithet. It seemed fitting, sitting at her production, this staged performance, a ceremony amidst the aroma of burned incense.
As Lilian stared into the stage, all the interlaced voices of Mandarin and Hokkien around her hushed as the lights dimmed again and re-brightened to signal silence. The curtains opened to reveal a backdrop of mobius strips.
Her eyes fell on a jungle of diaphanous bands, loops hanging off loops, in all different widths of silk dyed in all shades of red, from a gentle blush to fiery scarlet.
She witnessed in her hard chair an emotional tumult of a play, about a mother leaving a child. Of financial necessities, dreams shattered. Of being haunted by loss.
It was nothing like the dragons and palaces and adventure of the kind she was used to as a child. She abided twists and turns, and moments of penetrating revelation. It pulled at her insides, played her as if she too were a hand puppet.
Her mother’s guilt and agony working into her limbs, called upon her to move, pulled her chest closer to the stage, her thumping heart drawn like gravity. As if space itself had collapsed and bent between where she sat and where her mother must be, somewhere behind the stage.
She realized it for what it was. It was her mother’s own command of topology, not through lasers and the prying at meat and more comprehensive manipulation. It was the whole air around her, circulating, passing about, the audience absorbed into this dimension just as she was. Her mother’s skill was not employed to put consciousness where none lay, but to imbue consciousness where consciousness already resided. To breathe life into those already living through the production. Her mom gave soul through the gliding gestures of the lavishly carved puppets.
Lilian realized if she could map it out mathematically, the hand gestures, their movements across the stage, the peaks and valleys of their sorrowful songs, it would sum up to continuous tunnels and loops, the kind that had awaken her very own golem. But, it was more expansive, more expressive than her own. Years of experience and pain accumulated into something much more powerful. A dynamic link to this dimension of consciousness.
And the last scene, as the light dimmed, a child returned. Lilian squinted at the stage. It was her golem. Dressed up in a wig and what looked to be four layers of robes, it stood out from the carved wooden figurines simply from being there, from a stony existence. It didn’t even seem to move. But, its eyes gleamed a wild impassioned blackness, as black as the space in doughnut holes, in black holes.
It was the prodigal daughter, somehow alive even though it made no movements. Lilian could feel its sentience, its neural activity, even under its stage cues of inertness. She suspected the rest of the audience could, too. It was a cold impact, the fiery eyes mixed with silent paralysis.
In the end, she never saw her mother. She couldn’t stay to watch the puppet masters come out from behind the scenes. She left, with a cocktail of emotions, pain and resentment, but also a kind of tender respect. Perhaps her mother had enchanted her through a mathematically-rendered spell put into stage once more, just like when she was a tiny child.
She returned back to the US and quit her job.
The golem eventually followed her back. She had fed it neural instructions via a wireless connection with Jose’s help before she left.
Lilian and Jose started up their own business. It involved robotics and topologically enhanced meat as a neural network for their creations. It was a small company catering to very exclusive and covert clientele. It would be an understatement to say that they encountered quite a few ethical quandaries.
One day Lilian’s mom Shulin, now known as the talented Hsinyi, found in the mail, a series of large packages and a script for a puppet production.
She flipped through the pages of the script and came across a set of characters, ones she contemplated with nostalgia. The tale was about a family broken apart, ran asunder, about a main character growing up with foster parents that never loved her and about the beauty she found instead in mathematical principles and higher loftier kinds of truth. How the hollowness of a continuous tube can substitute maternal caress. It was a harsh script, but with moments of poignant comedy.
Two weeks later, on a cloudless night, when the moon shone to its fullest capacity, Shulin-now-Hsinyi took out these neurologically enhanced robots, dressed up in period garb, to a tiny seashore stage on an isolated island in the outskirts of Taiwan, in the midst of the Pacific. It was a small audience.
Behind the curtain, the laughter of locals drowned out the sobs of a mother. When the play ended, she bowed and returned backstage. Before she changed out of her qipao, she turned to one of the dolls, black-haired, green-eyed, only mechanical, but she felt could sense real warmth behind the embrace.
D.A. Xiaolin Spires steps into portals and reappears in sites such as Hawai’i, NY, various parts of Asia and elsewhere, with her keyboard appendage attached. Her work appears in publications such as Clarkesworld, Analog, Nature, Terraform, Fireside, Star*Line, Liquid Imagination, and anthologies such as Make Shift, Ride the Star Wind, Sharp and Sugar Tooth, Deep Signal, and Battling in All Her Finery. Select stories can be read in German, Spanish, Vietnamese, Estonian, French and Japanese translation.