Jolley Prize 2015 (Shortlist): 'Borges and I' by Michelle Cahill

Michelle Cahill

Michelle Cahill

Michelle Cahill is a Sydney-based poet. Her recent collection, Vishvarūpa (2011),was shortlisted in the Victorian Premier’s


By this contributor

I trace my encounters with time travel to perdurantism and poetry. In the spring of 1981, I was appointed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Colorado to probe a wormhole, an undertaking of ambitious design which would allow information to travel faster than the speed of light. As the universe was changing, the preparations were endless. Our project was classified as high-level security. I was briefed by officials from the FBI and CIA. My colleagues were the Sino-American physicist Chen Kwong and the Iranian statistician Hamid Husseini, with whom lengthy conferences and memoranda on the prospects for manipulating gravity and electromagnetic fields ensued. At last we dissected down to the bare bones of a strategy, forestalling every theoretical hitch. We would simultaneously send data to two villages in New Mexico separated by sixty-three kilometres. I had furnished myself adequately for the task, exhausting the existing research on nano-technology, loop models, and data algorithms, not to mention the elementary training of my post-doctorate in modal counterparts. I cannot diminish the accretions of pedagogy, but what most mesmerised and inspired me arrived as a package wrapped in crenulated brown paper and tied with twine.

The parcel was delivered to my residence in Denver on 26 March 1981, my forty-third birthday. There being no record of the sender, nothing but an Argentinian stamp, I presumed at first, it was the bulky draft of a divorce contract from Sylvie, my ex, who after ten years of unhappy marriage had embarked with a friend on a tour of South America. Our courtship dated back to an undergraduate smorgasbord luncheon of Disability Scholars: she was being treated for Type 1 Bipolar while I had insidiously become hostage to the icy afflictions named after a certain paediatrician from Austria, Hans Asperger. The address on the package had been inscribed in blue ink with cursive flourishes, which in a bout of restrained rage might have come from Sylvie’s hand, so I suspected. To my surprise, upon opening the mysterious parcel, I discovered the Ficciones, a slender volume of hallucinatory prose, autographed by a poet and solterón from Buenos Aires, who just so happened to be blind.

It was as if the secret apertures of time electrified open, so that pages within pages tunnelled into ancient and obscure worlds. The first story I read transported me to a forty-volume encyclopedia discovered in a Memphis library in 1944. The evidence for its apocryphal source is overshadowed somewhat providentially. A collusion of scholars had for over three centuries created a universe, Tlön, which, by way of bibliographies and appendices, the narrator proves. Eventually, as with Nazism or anti-Islam extremes, our own planet falls under the spell of Tlön’s mental processes, absent nouns, poetic objects, and monosyllabic adverbs. The effect of this story was so tangibly profound that I felt as if I had run a marathon. Wiping sweat from my brow, I poured a tumbler of filtered water, adjourned to the cluttered quarters of my bedroom, and sat on the edge of my bed to recover and rest. By now it was almost dusk, that weird time of natural and artificial light. The sky had paled to azure; the distant hills were a silhouette against which the street lamps shone a white steady light between the ash trees and Russian olive trees.

I fell into a reverie in which I found myself among the honeysuckles and mirrors of the Adrogué hotel, where a certain Herbert Ashe was working on a duodecimal system of numbers just days prior to the fatal emergency of his ruptured aortic aneurysm. I drank a shot of cognac at the very bar where Herbert suffered with acute pain, collapsing while he perused the First Encyclopaedia of Tlön Vol XI, which, somewhat monstrously, was discovered years later by the narrator, Borges. Curiously, I found myself conversing in a strange collegiate language with minor contributors Néstor Ibarra and Ezequiel Martinez Estrada, who query the existence of other tomes. As a corollary to our discussion, and as if to invalidate their contradictions, a pair of transparent tigers jumped from a blood-streaked turret built in the centre of the hexagonal hotel bar, which was lined with bookshelves. They prowled around me in ever-shrinking circles imprinting their invisible stripes indelibly in my dream.

I woke up in terror, breathing rapidly, my heart racing.  Outside, an owl cooed to another owl and the street lamps were yellowed by the darkness. I showered in five minutes, pulled on tracksuit pants and joggers, took a torch, and left the house with such purpose that Henry, my one-eyed Doberman, followed me with stiff, defensive strides. Hastily, I reversed my car and we drove to a remote track in the woods where I began running, taking in the cleansing scent of the pines. Henry kept pace with me. As he panted, I breathed rhythmically while ruminating on the Ficciones, indeed on the mysterious origin of the book with its connections and affinities. So silent and still was the night that the rustle of leaves beneath our feet seemed hyperbolic, increasing my trepidation about remote possibilities: a stalker in the woods or an encounter with a bear. A Soviet spy tracking my movements was not to be dismissed either, for this bizarre epoch in my life, as I had known it, preceded glasnost. Seemingly coincident with the realisation, I heard two rifle shots, which signalled a hunter in the vicinity. I kept running in one direction with resolve, though I cannot say for sure what it was I searched for, except perhaps to glimpse the iridescent eyes of the transparent tigers in the pitch black night.

Over the next few weeks I began to ruminate with affecting melancholy on various objects of infinity and their frames of reference. My thoughts would lapse from steady focus into a vague irritation as I sat at my desk in the Institute’s laboratory where Chen and I were conducting experiments on coupled photons. Hamid was out of the country presenting a keynote paper at a Causality conference in the Middle East. His expertise was greatly missed in the laboratory as we correlated our first predictions. But this was not the dilemma I faced. The certitude of my research had been undermined by the apprehension that I was little more than a phantom attempting a tautology while the smoke of a burning library could asphyxiate the planet. I found myself gazing into middle distance across the stark grass-covered hills which surrounded our building. By afternoon I could hardly wait to leave. Once at home, comfortably ensconced in my study, I immediately absorbed myself in the bibliographic mazes created by Borges. I became so obsessed with the stories that I began recitations, auditions, recording and playing them back, muttering fragments in the corridors of my high-security, executive-styled residence.

Like the legendary ship of Theseus, being restored plank by plank into a new craft, Borges was seductively suffusing me with his precedent. (I discovered that he became absorbed with Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus in Geneva in 1916, and knew almost all of its pages by heart.) My particular fondness was not limited to certain opening lines, such as the universal similes from ‘The Lottery of Babylon’ on page 49. Two of the stories allude to a letter or a book posted from Brazil, and this may have been a clue to the origin of my gift. Ramona, my Latina housekeeper, did not share my enthusiasm for Borges, for I noticed that while dusting she removed the book from safe-keeping underneath my pillow and wedged it on a shelf, between primers on quantum physics and Gallileo Gallilei’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. After the second such occasion, I protested its disappearance, even though her intervention was quite aberrant behaviour. Ramona began to worry about my health. She left her physician’s card on my desk.

Meanwhile, my thought experiments were shaping an answer to their own harrowing existence. We received news that Hamid Husseini had been arrested at Tehran airport and was being held in Evin Prison as a dissident and revolutionary. I had been alerted to this grave, distressing situation by a phone call from the director of the Institute, James Dawe, who was petitioning the Congress and secretly in talks with CIA officials. President Reagan was asked to intervene. Human rights groups were advocating Hamid’s immediate release. I shared a fraction of my astonishment with James, for it was alarming to think that reality was little more than a palimpsest overlapping the cardinal enumerations of a Borgesian allegory.

I could not help but think of the venal lotteries of Babylon, a city that was overrun by ten thousand Jewish refugees in 597 bce. I calculated that the distance drawn by a straight line from the prison in north-western Tehran, where Hamid was being detained, to Mesopotamia was 376 kilometres. Illegal transactions and wars were being fought over the arable lands, the thalwegs of the Shatt al-Arab river; treaties had been signed pertaining to the territory of Al-Basrah dating to 1639, almost three hundred years to the day before Pierre Menard wrote to Borges from Bayonne in the French Pyrénées, declaring his astonishing intent to write the Quixote. (A symbolist from Nîmes, he wrote the epic entirely based on his own experience rather than by copying the Spaniard, Cervantes, and yet for him it was a contingency.) From Borges I also learned that Pythagoras was once Pyrrhus, who was once Euphorbus. Who is to say that Euphorbus was not by marvellous coincidence the forebear to a descendant of Hamid’s from Denver, Colorado (formerly from Philadelphia), whose father was a civil engineer in retirement and whose grandfather was a cleric born in Abadan near the fluvial border with Iraq? A Babylonian tablet preserved in the archives of the British museum contains the calculations in translation of Pythagoras the Greek, so extensively can his influence be traced across gulfs, archipelagos, deltas, and desert continents.

Slanted are the reflections of history’s shifting mirrors. I had travelled time’s pages and been consumed. But was all this an elaborate decoy, a conspiracy, perhaps? I took a hiatus from my obsession with the Ficciones with renewed enthusiasm for our experiments. We needed to hone our transfer modules. We appointed a consultant to analyse the quantum measurements. Hamid troubled us, like a ghost in the laboratory, a lugubrious and lingering presence. I thought of the mask that disguises the executioner. I thought of the pañuelos worn by the mothers of the desaparecidos during the military dictatorship of Argentina. And I understood what Borges meant about hope and panic being equally faithful to those whose penalty is death.

To travel back in time, said Einstein, is ‘spooky’, for ‘God does not play with dice’. The arrest of Hamid did more than provoke perturbations. As I have alluded, it was a catalyst for the crucial steps in our mission. If we could send a message faster than the speed of light it might be possible to make the sending operation happen after the receiving operation, alerting Hamid to his capture before he left the Physics symposium at the University of Tehran. Even supposing the Ficciones had been sent to me as a prank or a trick by a foreign intelligence, my excursions into the labyrinths of dreams had inspired an aspiration to attain some aspect of quantum purity. A polymath semiotician, Borges apprehended that pragmatism is not justice. We heard that James Dawe had been lobbying President Reagan to intervene with the Iranians; and when the United Nations General Assembly met in Brussels, the fate of Hamid was a memorandum on their agenda. But the timing was not ideal. Saddam Hussein had captured the Western city of Khorramshahr, and less than six months before all this fifty-two American hostages had been released from the Islamic Republic. Conspiracy theorists with media stakes claimed a pre-election Republican arms-for-hostages deal had taken place, so the Pentagon was hesitant to intervene for Hamid’s release. On all sides the process of recovering him was going to be precarious.

On 16 August 1981 a video taken at Evin Prison was leaked from the Iranian republic and broadcast in media bulletins. It showed several political prisoners trudging in shackles and being beaten by masked guards. One of the prisoners was Hamid. Looking gaunt, tired, and unshaven, he was dressed in striped garments. Men and women were protesting outside the prison with placards and photographs while anti-riot squad guards patrolled the security boundary. Hamid and Kaveh, a Kurdish rights campaigner, were allegedly in a notorious ward, awaiting final sentence. Amnesty International had condemned the Iranian State for their detentions and called the rally.

On 21 September 1981 Chen and I successfully sent entangled photons which had been separated by high-frequency wireless transmission to the nearby towns of Tijeras and Los Lunas in New Mexico. Because we used spectrum bands which were not overcrowded by standard global use, less time was wasted routing data. Within six days, we agreed that the system’s algorithms were correctly programmed for a time dilation in our co-ordinate frame laboratory. Advised by technicians, we planned to send binary digital code transferred to varying polarised entangled photons, split by an interferometer. Our ciphers varied first and third decimals from the unicode of Arabic symbols Resh, Qoph, Yin, and Ha, the operation reversed in sequence to be received at 1500 hours Iran Standard Time on 21 May 1981. This was the afternoon following the keynote presentation that Hamid had given on Causation Analytics. Of course it had been ludicrous to suppose we could probe a wormhole. The energy required was far beyond our means or safety. The operation would have burned us alive along with the rest of the planet. But the reversed sequence method we developed to realign frames was experimentally stable and theoretically assured. To our relief, the transfer was successful; the code sent to Hamid’s receiver at 0430 hours Colorado time, alerted him to his imminent arrest. Not only had we had bypassed diplomacy, we had changed the course of physics irrevocably. To say we felt triumphant is an understatement. Hamid did not make contact, but he arranged a taxi to the airport and caught the first flight he could out of the country.

I had been invited to a dinner party that same evening at the home of a researcher who was married but who,Isuspected, fancied me.Idrank threecelebratoryglasses of champagne. WhenIgot home slightlytipsy,Ifound divorcepapers from Sylvie in the letterbox. Theyhad beendispatched byaLos Angeles lawyer, whoseneutral tone I frankly welcomed. Mybrain cog-wheeledandIcould hear the voiceofconjecturereason: ‘Well, as Sylvie was not in Argentina, who could havesent the stories?’ Someonewho knew ofmy confidential project?Putting aside the divorcepapers forsafesigninglater,I retreated to my bedroom upstairs. But Henrywasrestless. Herosefrom his cushion, pacingthe hallwayand whiningas if someonewas about to ringthebell.I could tellheneeded togo out for a run; wedroveto the woods where Ijogged forthirtyminutes. Thesnow had stopped butit was cold, soIhad to wear ascarf andgoggles to protect myselffrom thewind.Theoutline ofa mans faceflashed through mymind several times.It mayhavebeen Hamid, sincethe figure was emaciated.I could see flashes of awhitegarrison on the banks of afrozen river.

That night the man’s face appeared as a pixelation in my dream. He seemed to be standing a few steps in front of a barracks wall, with a stationary drop of rain stopped midway as it rolled down his cheek, while in front of him the shadow cast by a bee was unmoved. A Gestapo firing squad aimed at him, but in the dream he appeared to be waiting for the volley, sometimes asleep, sometimes awake. He seemed meditative, with everything around him frozen in time. I recognised him as the Czech scholar of Jewish sources, the dramatist and translator Jaromir Hladik, who was arrested from his apartment in the Zeltnergasse five days after the Gestapo entered Prague in 1939. Time had stopped for Hladik by a secret miracle of divine intervention; he was able to complete his unfinished, circuitous drama, The Enemies. Precisely at this pass, Hladik was engaged in configuring by hexameters, by deletions and exaggerations, the third act of his infinitely performing play. In my dream he was assigning this to memory, which is to say that the game of chess is endless, the imaginary is real. The single drop of rain weighed heavily on his cheek.

I am not going to pretend it wasn’t startling, nor any less perplexing – not merely to have glimpsed but to have squandered the entire night arrested in time. I woke up breathless and disorientated until it all harked back in reverse – Hladik’s riddle, the dinner party, our success in the laboratory, the imprisonment of Hamid. Every helix of DNA, every single cell of my mind and body felt conspiratorial and accused. I was exhausted by what we had achieved.

We had postponed the announcement about our breakthrough to the scientific community or to the media. Knowing that Hamid would help me better comprehend the phenomenon of a parallel universe, I could not wait to speak in privacy with him. He became for me as crucial a key to the credo of immortality as the Uruguayan savant Ireneo Funes had been for Borges. More than any other character in Ficciones, to this day I recurringly dream of Funes – hard-featured, holding a passion flower in his left hand, a cigarette in his right. He sits gazing through the bars of a window in his cot, paralysed by the myth which holds him prisoner, even now, his eyes sometimes closed, sometimes fixed on a spider’s web or on a fig tree. So accurately detailed is the narrative that I recognise his high-pitched oration of excerpts taken from a chapter in the first volume of the Naturalis historia in Latin. Funes explains to me the system of language enumeration devised and chronicled in his memory, as he murmurs alone in the darkest shadows. He vividly depicts harrowing images of the Río de la Plata earthquake, which would take place twelve months before his premature death of pulmonary congestion. But the material is too keen to mentally catalogue within his lifetime. Suddenly I am bereft, as cold and grave as Borges. I see Funes before me: a terrifying youth, all-knowing, turned to eternal stone. When I wake just after dawn, an abysmal feeling arises within me, such as when the immortal is glimpsed.

I wondered how Hamid’s appearance had changed. What, if anything, from the future would he be able to summon? The signal he received in Tehran from Colorado was a numerical sequence which he decrypted using our symmetric key in a men’s toilet at the university. There was a queue of students and conference delegates waiting for the latrines and a cleaner mopping the floors. The sounds of tap water and flushing would have made the cubicle an extraordinarily innocuous place to read the cipher. The sudden joy Hamid felt at our experimental success was sullied by the consternation that his arrest was imminent. He called at once for a taxi, leaving the campus from one of the back entrances while conference papers were delivered in the auditorium. A few bribes helped to secure a ticket and safe passage through border checks and immigration. Once seated in the plane, Hamid remembered visiting his relatives in Tehran, having dinner with colleagues from the conference, one of whom he suspected may have turned him over to the Revolutionary Guard.

The news had leaked. We were receiving insistent phone calls from journalists and bombarded by congratulatory emails from the scientific community. Hamid returned to the laboratory, overwhelmed with gratitude. But it seemed for him as if the last six months of time had stopped or simply vanished. He could remember nothing of his torture or the degradations he met with at Evin Prison. He had no recollection of Kaveh, the Kurdish activist who was facing execution. We would try to safeguard him. What an immense burden it would be to know the future travails he would encounter in an alternative existence. Time could not be erased but had simply skipped for Hamid. My personal assistant protected me from the media, blocking an avalanche of inquiries. But I remained circumspect about the cryptographic transfer; could it truly have been a precedent or was this a fiction of my own making? Borges had shown me that reality is nothing but the warpage of mirrors; not only does it duplicate history, but literature itself. In page after page, in dream upon dream, I witnessed that there exists a universe of such precision and symmetry it defies the complex software of Windows, the exactitude of Google maps, the authority of Plato, Aristotle, Isaac Newton, the space-time curvatures of Einstein, the Chronology Protection Agency of Stephen Hawking, the quantum tunnelling and theories of special relativity, the membrane paradigm of Kip Thorne, inverting fallacies of presumption into the ludic and obscenely vast.

Borges specifies, Borges alludes, Borges transforms. I cultivated appreciation for his minutiae; the astonishing authority his narrative applies over time, its knack in prising the cavities and shortcuts from quarterly to periodical, from prophecy to apocryphal realms. Each story held me captive with its thick veracities. I felt at times my breath weakening, my pulse thready, almost knowing, almost fretful that I was gradually becoming like him. With every passing day I was less entranced with numbers and corollaries, and more spellbound with sentences, dictionaries; abbreviations, paraphrases. I had always had a blind spot for ideas. But as Borgesean prologues, footnotes, and abstractions consumed my sleep, as story after story devoured my waking hours, I was less myself, Wesley Burns, a divorced experimental physicist, afflicted with Asperger’s, a dog lover, and sprinter; indeed, I was the quintessential bibliophile, aspiring student of Berkeley and Kierkegaard, of Chesterton and Valéry, with a thirst for the dreams emblazoned by a blind and visionary poet from Palermo.

To this day I remain changed, confounded by the mysterious arrival of the Ficciones in my life. Who else could have sent it but someone familiar with my research, someone who knew my whereabouts? There are clues to be found in tracing parcels, depending on dates or location of postage, but from Buenos Aires the services are unpredictable. The maddening neatness of the handwriting with its capital letter loops tested me. Borges makes a passing reference to Spencerian flourishes in his ‘Emma Zunz’. The half-title page had been autographed and inscribed, ‘Yours in Time, Jorge Luis Borges’. It was foolishly romantic to entertain the speculation that Borges himself had sent the volume, but I admit that in 1983, after the military dictatorship ended, I travelled to Buenos Aires on the pretext of a scientific convention. I heard that Borges would be giving a public lecture at the Argentine Writers Association, a colonial building close to the old Biblioteca Nacional. Half-expecting it to be cancelled, I was surprised that he arrived, one eye half-closed, stooped over a walking stick. He spoke from the darkness of antiquity, assuring us that the world was real, that he was indeed Borges, but that if he ever returned he would prefer to be someone else. To be a writer whose genius is not yet discovered was his enduring desire. He was accompanied by Maria Kodama, his companion–editor, whom I thought exquisitely fragile; they had returned from a trip to Switzerland, Germany, and Great Britain. Borges seemed to me like a living myth. When I asked him to autograph a copy of The Book of Sand, he curiously wrote the same inscription as appears in my copy of Ficciones. (I had brought this with me, so it was simple, if surprising, to verify.)

Later, as I walked along the cobbled streets of San Telmo, a summer shower sprinkled, like daggers of light, rinsing the conventillos and the gates of gentrified houses. I waited beneath an alcove on a street corner. From a laneway, laughter and conversation stirred from within cafés and bordellos, where I had observed men playing cards late into the night. I stood until the rain stayed, fancying that somewhere in the distant plains and open skies was the ghost of a nineteenth-century Englishwoman with blonde hair who was abducted by Indian tribes as a child, and who drank the blood of sheep. Trusting an imaginary, tattered map, which outlined the entirety of this city and its outer precincts as far as the fertile pampas, I would be guided to find her. She would be curing her meat on a campfire, accompanied by a wild dog. The gauchos had left for the cities, their whitewashed huts on the outskirts tenanted by wind. Other than silos and shanties, the fields were planted with soy. I would offer her Italian coffee to drink. She would stare at me, from the centre of her leathery face with steely blue eyes, nodding, not quite trusting her forgotten mother tongue. And in that moment of verisimilitude it occurred to me that the sender of the Ficciones was none other than myself, an emissary from the future.

The following day, I caught the C line towards Retiro. I got off at Plaza San Martin, a block away from the apartment in Maipu where Borges lived. Perhaps I hoped to catch a glimpse of him. I walked through the park over the giant roots of gomeros and the fringed shade of jacarandas towards the buildings on Carlos Pellegrini, past the Belle Époque facades towards the post office, encumbered with the minute details of the vulnerable present, second by second. Then I parcelled and posted a book to Denver, Colorado, returning it to where it belongs in the irrecoverable past.


'Borges and I'  by Michelle Cahill placed second in the 2015 ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize. Click here for more information about past winners of the Jolley Prize.