Honey-chan's Winter Resort
Once in a blue moon, a traveler would pass through Yates’ Holler with “news'' about some fantastic machine that they had seen in the faraway cities of the North—a dirigible with wings that flapped like a bird, for instance, or a train that could make it from one side of the country to the other in time for tea, or a tiny box that could calculate a year’s payroll in the blink of an eye. Silas McKenzie did not pay these fellows any attention, because he knew that most likely they were trying to fool the simpletons of the Valley for a laugh, and he was wise to hucksters. Whatever fantastic technology they had in the cities, it simply did not exist in Yates’ Holler—the only exception was the occasional glimpse of a cigar-shaped machine passing overhead, belching clouds of billowy white steam.
In the forty-seven years that he had been alive, Silas never expected that one of these travelers would turn up at his front door on an ordinary April morning.
“Good morning. Is Mr. McKenzie in?” The stranger wore the ostentatious fashions that marked him as an outsider to these parts—a neat, double-breasted blue-gray overcoat, a top hat that had to extend two feet in the air over slicked-back raven hair, and bits of metal and gears hanging from one of his arms. The dress of city folk was inscrutable to Silas.
“You’re looking at him. What brings you around these parts, sir?” Silas replied in his drawl, buzzy as a tightly-wound banjo string.
“I represent the Bureau of Agriculture, Mr. McKenzie. Your household has been selected as a recipient of a grant of an Edison Model 3C Industrial Automaton—the latest in advanced agricultural technology—”
“Hold it right there.” Silas’ eyelid twitched slightly. “Now, we may be poor, but we sure ain’t desperate. And we damned sure don’t need no government assistance.”
“Now, dear. This man came all this way. You could stand to listen to him.” Silas had not realized that his wife, Carrie, a matron of thirty-eight, and six children had all filed out on the front porch of his homestead beside him.
“Thank you very much, ma’am. Now, this Industrial Automaton, as I was saying, is a fine piece of technology—does the work of ten men. Over 1,000 movements, but simple enough for anyone to repair, and it runs on household fuel such as kindling so you never have to wind it.” The bureaucrat gave a brief pause, before opening his parted lips, a voice commanding in tone. “ Automaton, charge yourself”.”
Silas heard the din of a million whirring gears before he noticed the machine standing next to the city-slicker. The sight of it made a lump grow in his throat—the thing had the shape of a man, but it was not one. He was unable to describe how exactly it was unnatural, but he knew as soon as he saw it. Perhaps it was that smooth, gleaming white outer shell, disappearing at the joints to reveal shining brass gears and wiring, or the unblemished face, the unblinking sky-blue eyes, the “hair” in a too-bright shade of yellow that never moved in the wind, or perhaps it was the way that the machine’s abdomen opened, revealing a burning furnace which it placed a lump of coal from the city man’s hand into.
“Now, Mr. McKenzie, like you just saw, this Automaton responds to verbal commands. It recognizes at least 35 dialects of English—mighty fine engineering if I do say so myself. Why don’t you try it out—”
Silas’s reply was sharp. “Sir, get that thing off my property.”
He ignored his wife’s shocked yelp and apology to the man. Carrie put politeness over common sense, and it was his job to overrule her in situations like this. In due time, she would understand what a bullet she had dodged.
“Papa, can’t you just try it?”
Silas immediately turned away in embarrassment upon hearing the soft voice. He could ignore his wife, and his five sons, but for whatever reason, he always felt blameworthy when it came to Emily, and his only daughter was staring at him with big, pleading, apple-green eyes.
Silas turned back to the city slicker, quickly saying, “I suppose once won’t hurt. Automaton, go plow the corn fields.”
The machine snapped its doll-like head to Silas upon hearing its name, and then turned and proceeded toward the barn in the distance, with a column of black smoke billowing from its rear, filling the air with the sounds of metal as it went.
As his wife sent the stranger on his way with some cornbread and fatback in a cloth napkin, Silas smirked under his breath. No man or machine would be able to plow one foot of his five acres without the horses, and they were in their stables, locked up. Perhaps the machine would break down in the fields.
It was better that way.
An afternoon and evening passed without any sign of the Automaton.
The next morning, Silas woke up at the rooster’s crow, the same as usual. Today, he and his sons would actually till the earth, and he would have a good laugh at the Automaton’s broken husk in the fields.
As Silas exited his home, he stopped dead in his tracks.
The sunrise illuminated five acres of perfectly furrowed soil, stretching as far as the eye could see.
Could it have been the machine that had done this? No, it was quite impossible. It would have taken Silas and his sons a week to plow this much, even with the horses.
One Automaton couldn’t have…
Beside him, the machine placed a piece of firewood from the pile next to the home into its abdominal oven. Next to it was the cast-iron plow.
Silas shot the Automaton a hateful look before going off to fetch the seed. If that machine had truly done that much, it was efficient—but it was still unnerving.
A month later, the barren soil had turned into an ocean of yellow stalks, and Silas, returning from hoeing the weeds to rest for a minute, found his sons Elmer and Hezekiah lying down on the porch, basking in the sun.
“What are you two doing, lazing around like that?” Silas cried. He knew his sons understood that if they did not clear the weeds from the young stalks in time, the corn would die, and that meant less food for the winter, so he could not for the life of him figure out why they were relaxing without a care in the world.
“We was working, Pa,” Hezekiah drawled, “but that Automawhatsit’s going way faster than us, and it does it better, too.” He pointed a crooked finger out toward the fields.
There, Silas saw the Automaton, bent over, billowing white steam, clearing the weeds from each stalk of corn with surgical precision, faster than he had ever seen any man do.
It might have been an understatement to say that the machine did the work of ten men. Some days it seemed like it worked as hard as twenty. It never stopped to rest or eat—instead, it continued to work in the blazing midday sun, the frosty night, and the pouring rain. Silas still stubbornly headed out to the fields each day, but one by one his sons stopped following him.
Soon after, Silas’s wife did not wake up with him at the crack of dawn. In the time that it took Carrie to stoke the oven’s fire, the machine had already milked the cow and collected the eggs from the henhouse.
Nonetheless, Silas still continued to stubbornly march to the fields every day, but it was a losing battle. In the time it took him to reap one bushel, the Automaton collected seven. In the autumn, when it came time to bring the hogs in from pasture, he spent a whole day chasing and trapping a single one, while the Automaton had already captured and slaughtered three with axe strokes too precise for human hands.
Silas scoffed at his sons’ laziness, but it was his daughter that he worried about. Emily was fascinated with the machine. He would catch her examining it at random times during the day, and he warned her that no good came from the thing, but as soon as he turned away she would be back.
Seasons became years, and the McKenzie sons moved away. Now there were more Automatons in the valley by the banks of the Nolichucky, advanced ones that could speak and no longer erupted with smoke as they worked. Silas still stubbornly sowed every spring and reaped every autumn, but his kind was a dying breed.
Emily had grown into a beautiful young lady, and suitors would come from as far as Rutledge and Unicoi, and even North Carolina, to court her, but she refused them all. Her mind was filled with thoughts of that machine. Her mother and father told her that the only things that she needed to know were the Good Book and housekeeping, but her mind was set on machinery.
When Emily turned sixteen, Silas made a deal with a friend over one too many glasses of whiskey—his daughter would marry one of his friend’s younger sons, joining their farms together. The next day he and Carrie found Emily’s bed cold, with a note left in it. She had run away to New York, she wrote because she wanted to be a mechanic and build things like the Automaton. That night, for the first time in three decades, Silas McKenzie broke down in tears.
Silas continued to go to the fields each day, because that was all he had ever known, but instead of all his sons, his only company was the Automaton and its mechanical hum. In a way, he had grown to find the noise of whirring gears and clanking steps oddly comforting. Where Silas’s hands had grown aged and weary, the Automaton continued its work in the same precise way it had the very first day it came to the McKenzie homestead—never speaking, never blinking, never stopping.
Another decade passed.
Now almost all the families in Yates’ Holler had left—well-dressed men from the cities with their flying machines and their stilt walkers and their mechanical arms had come door-to-door, offering to buy the properties of the Buchanans and the Cargills and the Kinneys, and the McKenzie sons, with more money than the simple country folk, had ever seen in their lives. The sounds of Appalachian life were replaced with the constant din of Industrial Automatons working in the fields of burley tobacco, day in and day out. The only holdout was Silas McKenzie. The investors from the city had come by, and offered him hundreds—thousands, even, but he had refused them all because he was born in Yates’ Holler, and he was stubborn enough to swear before God as a witness that he would die in it as well.
One cold December evening, when Silas and Carrie had long given up hope of seeing their children again, a knock came at the door. There stood a young woman. Her auburn hair was shorter than what Silas remembered, and she was dressed in the finery of the city, but her eyes were the same brilliant apple-green.
Before Emily could finish saying, “Ma, Pa, how I’ve missed you,” they had both embraced her.
Over supper, she told them about how work had dried up in the city, and she had traveled back south to look for jobs fixing agricultural Automatons. She asked about the old machine that was still whirring away, fetching the ham from the smokehouse, and Silas only replied, “It’s fine as ever.” That night was a celebration because their lost child had returned.
Two days later, Carrie could not leave her bed, and then Emily fell sick as well. As bright red spots started to creep up their necks, Silas, in a panic, rushed to the home of old Doc Brunson, only to find it dark and dilapidated.
The doctor had moved away many years before.
Silas continued to wake and stroke the hearth in the place of Carrie, but his headache grew worse, and soon he became weak to the point that he could barely move two steps without gasping for air. He knew he had to care for his wife and daughter, but he no longer had the strength.
Outside, the Automaton continued to go about its daily tasks, the same as usual.
Silas awoke to find Carrie’s body cold and stiff. Emily was pallid as well, with her beautiful face twisted in a hideous expression and covered by so many red blotches that Silas was barely sure that the corpse was even his daughter.
With all the strength that he could muster, Silas dragged himself downstairs and stepped out of the house into the bitter cold, where the Automaton was loading another log into its central furnace.
His mind twisted in fury.
It was all the thing’s fault.
If it had never existed, his boys would still be with him, Emily never would have left for the city, and his family would still be together, happily sharing the dinner table after a hard day’s work.
He stole over to the woodpile with ragged breaths, grabbing the axe and leaning against it. The Automaton did not react to his presence.
“YOU INFERNAL MACHINE!” Silas screamed, swinging the axe with all his might, chopping the Automaton’s mannequin head off as smoothly as it slaughtered the hogs.
Then, Silas collapsed face-down on the cold ground.
The log burned to cinders in the Industrial Automaton’s central furnace, and slowly, with the sound of gears whirring, the machine stirred, taking a single heavy footstep, then another.
It went forth to its labor until the evening and retired, awaiting the day that was to come.