The Cast-iron Hand
A solemn, bright day. On such days one forgets one’s weaknesses, inexactitudes, illnesses, and everything is crystalline and imperturbable like our new glass. . . .
The Plaza of the Cube. Sixty-six imposing concentric circles — stands. Sixty-six rows of quiet, serene faces. Eyes reﬂecting the shining of the sky, or perhaps it is the shining of the United State. Red like blood are the flowers — the lips of the women. Like soft garlands the faces of the children in the first rows, nearest the place of action. Profound, austere, Gothic silence.
To judge by the descriptions that reach us from the ancients, they felt somewhat like this during their “church services.” But they served their nonsensical, unknown god; we serve our rational god, whom we know most thoroughly. Their god gave them nothing but eternal, torturing seeking; our god gives us absolute truth — that is, he has rid us of any kind of doubt. Their god did not invent anything cleverer than sacriﬁcing oneself, nobody knows what for; we bring to our god, the United State, a quiet, rational, carefully thought-out sacriﬁce.
Yes, it was a solemn liturgy for the United State, a reminiscence of the great days, years, of the Two Hundred Years’ War—a magniﬁcent celebration of the victory of all over one, of the sum over the individual!
That one stood on the steps of the Cube which was ﬁlled with sunlight. A white, no not even white but already colorless, glass face, lips of glass. And only the eyes — thirsty, swallowing black holes leading into that dreadful world from which he was only a few minutes away. The golden badge with the number already had been taken off. His hands were tied with a red ribbon. (A symbol of ancient custom. The explanation of it is that in the old days, when this sort of thing was not done in the name of the United State, the convicted naturally considered that they had the right to resist, hence their hands were usually bound with chains.)
On the top of the Cube, next to the Machine, the motionless, metallic ﬁgure of him whom we call the Well-Doer. One could not see his face from below. All one could see was that it was bounded by austere, magniﬁcent, square lines. And his hands. . . . Did you ever notice him sometimes in a photograph the hands, if they were too near the camera, appear to be enormous? They then compel your attention, overshadow everything else. Those hands of his, heavy hands, quiet for the time being, were stony hands — it seemed the knees on which they rested must have ached in bearing their weight.
Suddenly one of those hands rose slowly. A slow, cast-iron gesture; obeying the will of the lifted hand, a Number came out on the platform. It was one of the State poets, whose fortunate lot it was to crown our celebration with his verses.
Divine, iambic brass verses thundered over the many stands. They dealt with the man who, his reason lost and lips like glass, stood on the steps and waited for the logical consequences of his own insane deeds.
. . . A blaze. . . . Buildings were swaying in those iambic lines, and sprinkling upward their liqueﬁed golden substance, they broke and fell. The green trees were scorched, their sap slowly ran out and they remained standing like black crosses, like skeletons. Then Appeared Prometheus (that meant us):
“. . . he harnessed ﬁre
With machines and steel
And fettered chaos with Law . . .”
The world was renovated; it became like steel — a sun of steel, trees of steel, men of steel. Suddenly an insane man “unchained the ﬁre and set it free,” and again the world had perished. . . . Unfortunately I have a bad memory for poetry, but one thing I am sure of: one could not choose more instructive or more beautiful parables.
Another slow, heavy gesture of the cast-iron hand and another poet appeared on the steps of the Cube. I stood up. Impossible! But . . . thick Negro lips—it was he. Why didn’t he tell me that he was to be invested with such high . . . His lips trembled; they were gray. Oh, I certainly understood; to be face to face with the Well-Doer, face to face with the hosts of Guardians! Yet one should not allow oneself to be so upset.
Swift, sharp verses like an ax. . . . They told about an unheard-of crime, about sacrilegious poems in which the Well-Doer was called. . . . But no, I do not dare to repeat. . . .
R-13 was pale when he ﬁnished, and looking at no one (I did not expect such, bashfulness of him) he descended and sat down. For an inﬁnitesimal fraction of a second I saw right beside him somebody’s face — a sharp, black triangle — and instantly I lost it; my eyes, thousands of eyes, were directed upward toward the Machine. Then — again the superhuman, cast-iron, gesture of the hand.
Swayed by an unknown wind, the criminal moved; one step . . . one more . . . then the last step in his life. His face was turned to the sky, his head thrown backs-he was on his last. . . . Heavy, stony like fate, the Well-Doer went around the machine, put his enormous hand on the lever. . . . Not a whisper, not a breath around; all eyes were upon that hand. . . . What crushing, scorching power one must feel to be the tool, to be the resultant of hundreds of thousands of wills! How great his lot!
Another second. The hand moved down, switching in the current. The lightning-sharp blade of the electric ray. . . . A faint crack like a shiver, in the tubes of the Machine. . . . The prone body, covered with a light phosphorescent smoke; then, suddenly, under the eyes of all, it began to melt — to melt, to dissolve with terrible speed. And then nothing; just a pool of chemically pure water which only a moment ago had been so red and had pulsated in his heart. . . .
All this was simple; all of us were familiar with the phenomenon, dissociation of matter — yes, the splitting of the atoms, of the human body! Yet every time we witnessed it, it seemed a miracle; it was a symbol of the superhuman power of the Well-Doer. .
Above, in front of Him, the burning faces of the female Numbers, mouths half-open from emotion, flowers swaying in the wind. According to custom, ten women were covering with ﬂowers the unif of the Well-Doer, which was still wet with spray. With the magniﬁcent step of a supreme priest He slowly descended, slowly passed between the rows of stands. Like tender white branches there rose toward Him the arms of the women; and, millions like one, our tempestuous cheers! Then cheers in honor of the Guardians, who all unseen were present among us. . . . Who knows, perhaps the fancy of the ancient man foresaw them centuries ahead, when he created the gentle and formidable “Guardian Angels” assigned to each person from the day of his birth?
Yes, there was in our celebration something of the ancient religions, something purifying like a storm. . . You whose lot it may be to read this, are you familiar with such emotions? I am sorry for you if you are not.