Read Machine Online

Authors: Peter Adolphsen




About the Book

About the Author


Title Page

At 7.59 p.m.  . . .


About the Book

is a unique piece of fiction that encapsulates the very essence of earthly existence: how chance and random events influence seemingly unconnected lives and matter. Two stories of metamorphosis entwine: the first chronicles the life of a drop of oil from its very beginning within a small prehistoric horse's heart to its combustion within a Ford car engine in Texas, the second follows the lives of the passengers within the vehicle.

Clarissa picks up a hitchhiker on the Interstate to San Antonio. She is a young, intelligent student willing to experiment with LSD. The hitchhiker is Jimmy Nash, who has been granted asylum in the United States from the Soviet Union and has successfully reshaped his identity. He reads Emily Dickinson's poetry and until a horrific accident had worked on an oil field. Both their lives appear to alter in direct correlation with the changing molecular structure of this single drop of oil.

From the very start the reader is seduced by the author's unusual vision of the world we live in, from the drowning of Eohippus or ‘the dawn horse' fifty-five million years ago to the inhalation of carcinogenic particles by a young woman in the 1970s. The elegant prose is both lyrical and technically astounding and delivers a fascinating journey that will play on the mind and tempt an immediate second read.

About the Author

Peter Adolphsen
was born in 1972 in Århus, Denmark and has written
Små historier
Små historier 2
was published in Denmark in 2006. He is currently working on two projects,
En million historier
. His books will appear in German, French, Italian, Dutch, Norwegian and Swedish.

Charlotte Barslund
translates Scandinavian novels and plays. Her recent works include
Black Seconds
by Karin Fossum and
The Pelican
by August Strindberg.

Thank you to:

Michael Ala, Allan Hansen, Kristian Himmelstrup,
Paul Martin Holm, Karen Bonde Larsen, Litteraturrådet,
Rune Lykkeberg, Susan Metzler, Craig D. Morgan,
Mattias Pape, Arne Herløv Petersen, José Raya,
Kirsten Skjoldborg, Statens Kunstfond (especially),
Nikolaj Thyssen and Arpad A. Vass.

Peter Adolphsen
Translated from the Danish by Charlotte Barslund

AT 7.59 P.M.
on the 23rd of June 1975 on 1st South Street in Austin, Texas, a drop of petrol combusted in a car engine. Chance would have it that the burning of this drop of fuel formed the point of intersection for the stories of the two passengers in the car as well as that of the drop itself, which had once more changed state, this time into exhaust fumes.

Time and space were once curled together to the extent that neither of them existed, but nevertheless, suddenly, somehow, a bubble appeared; an explosion occurred simultaneously everywhere and every single particle of matter separated as the void dispersed them all. As the universe continued to expand, the temperature fell sufficiently for the first elements to be formed, which they swiftly were, and thus set off a chain of metamorphoses which has continued ever since. Consequently it can be argued that all matter has always been in existence, although in various
states and degrees of organisation, and has on a cosmic scale always amounted to the same quantity; nothing can be added and nothing can be subtracted. The universe is in possession of such immense quantities of matter, space and time that it is possible, through changes caused by changes, to try out endless combinations resulting in the present huge number of structures ranging from amino acids to galaxy clusters. The story of a speck of matter is thus the story of these spontaneous structures and their altered states. The tiny element of matter which concerns us has, like everything else, existed since the Big Bang, as it is known; however, the point in time when this drop of petrol existed in its highest degree of concentration, when it entered into its most refined structure, was here on this planet fifty-five million years ago, during the early Eocene when its constituents still formed the rapidly beating heart of a small prehistoric horse. After combusting on the 23rd of June 1975, the drop acquired its most unstructured state in the form of exhaust fumes, yet managed nevertheless in this state, twenty-four hours later, to bring about a structure both complex and chaotic: cancer. I know this because I was eavesdropping from the neighbouring balcony as she inhaled the
particles which triggered the pathological cell division. However, we are getting ahead of ourselves now; let us begin with the prehistoric horse.

At the end of a long hot day mist was rising from the surface of the lake. The little herd had moved down to the shore and our horse, the one with the heart in question, a five-year-old mare, could feel her fear of crocodiles constricting her throat. She wedged herself in between two of the other horses and stuck her muzzle out across the fragmented mirror surface; she secured her footing and drank, with a sigh, at last.

The animal was a mammal of the Perissodactyla order, the Equidae family, best known as
, the dawn horse, as it was named by Othniel C. Marsh in 1876; however, as Richard Owen had already in 1841 named a certain fossil
, the rules of taxonomy dictated that this term was the correct one. Owen had missed the link with the domestic horse and believed that the animal was related to the shrewmouse, the Latin name for which is
. Common aesthetic sense has since ensured that this name, both prettier and more appropriate, is most frequently used, usually listed first, or if not, then
following in brackets.
is often compared to a fox terrier, partly because they are similar in size, but also because the point of this breed was to create a dog in the image of a horse. During a hunt the terrier sits on the saddle and it was considered tasteful if the rider/dog owner had a small simulacrum of his own horse that could continue the hunt underground. At dog shows it was therefore regarded as a plus if a dog's coat had markings in the shape of a saddle.

Our five-year-old mare in the early Eocene, whose coat was a speckled grey-brown, felt a sudden surge of anxiety as the image of a
, a bird of prey more than two metres in height without any wings to speak of, but consequently with far bigger thighs, claws and beak, surfaced in her mind. She raised her head and noticed in the reflection of the water how the hairs on her muzzle quivered, made static by the electricity in the air.

‘What?' she wondered.

Convection wind caused the day's evaporation to rise until it was halted by the chill from the outer atmosphere and condensed into cumulonimbus clouds. The turbulence within the clouds shattered rain, hail and ice, producing smaller, electrically
charged particles. The disparity in voltage between the surface of the earth and the clouds rapidly approached the number of millions of volts per cubic metre that would trigger a spark. The hairs on our
's little body stood on end as she sensed the electricity in the air. In an instant a bolt of lightning shot its plasma cord deep into the forest, barely one hundred metres away from the horses, and the resulting crash of thunder was so loud that they were temporarily struck deaf. The sudden silence in their heads contributed to their panic. Billions of synapses flashed in the horses' brains as their autonomous nervous system took control of their bodies and triggered an automatic fright-flee response. The direction of flight was initially diametrically opposite to the light and the sound.

The horse's heart instantly obeyed the command from the sympathetic nervous system: noradrenaline in generous quantities stimulated the sinus node in order to increase the frequency of impulses that ran down through the atrioventricular node, then separated at the bundle of His into the right and left branches and caused, with appropriate delays in the right places, the muscle fibres to demand an ever-increasing working rate from the heart. The alternating
contractions and relaxations of the heart muscles allowed blood in regulated quantities to flow into the right atrium, onwards to the right ventricle and from there out into the lungs, where it released carbon dioxide and absorbed oxygen; thereafter the blood flowed to the left atrium of the heart, down into the left ventricle and through the aorta out into the body. The heart's rhythm accelerated; its muscles and the brain demanding fresh blood.

The horses ran along the lakeshore, but soon darted into the undergrowth of the forest, where the darkness was even denser now the clouds had compressed. Underneath her somewhat rasping breathing the mare could hear her blood pump through her ears.

Rain followed shortly afterwards, first as light showers, which they hardly noticed, growing heavier and then a sudden cloudburst. Gusts of wind swept curtains of heavy drops across the treetops and the surface of the lake. The horses continued their flight through the storm, until an element of indecision began to characterise their movements. Our mare chose the wrong path around a fallen tree and was lagging behind the herd; she could see the two horses in front of her jump over a swelling brook, whereas
the third one had halted. She hesitated: disorientated she was able neither to stop nor jump and consequently fell into the muddy water with a splash. For a while she fought to keep her head above water, but the current got hold of her and dragged her downwards. Then she banged her head against a rock and lost consciousness.

It would appear to be the shimmering sunlight creeping in under the rim of her eyelids which made the mare wake up, and not the crow sitting on her thigh pecking at a wound. Our mare, who was dazed but alive, jerked to scare the bird away, but experienced in the very same second a threatening loss of balance as a void opened up beneath her. It was not until now that she realised where she was: on a tangled mass of roots protruding from a steep slope that fell away down towards the lake a terrifying distance below her. A huge tree stooped over the slope and its voluminous network of roots, partly revealed by the rain, had broken her fall towards certain death in the lake. It was an ancient maple, more than thirty metres tall, whose roots stuck out ten metres into the air. The horse gingerly shifted her weight to a more secure footing, stood up and
checked herself: there was a gash on her thigh, she was generally bruised and a sharp pain throbbed in her temple, but no broken bones it would seem. She made it up the tangled roots towards the edge of the slope on hesitant legs, but the last bit necessitated a small jump which she prepared for but ultimately did not dare attempt.

‘Wait until tomorrow,' she thought and stretched her neck out for some leaves. She was not short of drinking water either as the brook, now reduced to a small stream, cascaded from the slope and flowed through the roots down into the lake while making a constant trickling sound. Having quenched her thirst and eaten most of what she could reach, she found a broad root to settle down on.

‘This is safe,' she thought. ‘Crocodile cannot reach up.
cannot reach down.'

The sun set and the moon rose. For a long time the mare lay there looking alternately at the moon and its reflection in the surface of the water. Finally she decided that the moon must have a sister who lived in the lake. She whinnied contentedly at this explanation, fell asleep and dreamed that she was watching dust particles dance in a beam of sunlight. A column of ants marched past her on the forest floor. Suddenly,
with incredible speed, the whiskers on her muzzle grew into long, heavy, quivering rods that bashed into tree trunks and branches whenever she tried to move. Every time a whisker hit something a shrill note rang out in her skull. This quickly escalated into a cacophony that was approaching her pain threshold . . . which was when the dream ended, before the mare had time to surface from her sleep.

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