Wednesday, June 21, 2006

John Henry And The Golem

You've all heard the story of John Henry. How he challenged the steam-drill to a steel-driving duel, and he beat the drill but he broke his heart swingin' that hammer. It's a hero's tale, right enough, but there's more to it than anyone knows. Even Johnny Cash, the Man in Black himself, didn't know this part of the story. So listen:

It's the night before the duel, and John Henry's setting out on a hillside, watching the stars, when along come two strangers. Now John being raised up polite, and never having cause to fear a stranger any day of his life, speaks up right friendly: "'Lo, friends," he says, "good evening to you and have a seat if you've a mind."

The first stranger answers with a foreign kind of accent, but quiet as you please, "Thank you, John, I will." And he sits by John Henry. But the other fellow stays on his feet, nor says a word of greeting.

John looks over the fellow that's sitting with him, and he sees this stranger is not like any other man he's ever seen. He's got long dark hair pulled back under a big dark hat, not a cowboy hat, and a big bushy beard with some grey in it. He wears a scarf around his neck with fringes on the ends. And the other fellow's standing a little ways off, John can't be sure by starlight, but he can't make out any clothes on him at all.

Being curious, but not wanting to pry into other folks' business, John finally says: "Don't your friend get tired of standing?"

"No," says the first stranger, "though it's kind of you to ask. He and you are the reason I'm here, John."

"I can't quite see," says John Henry, "what business you two gentlemen might have with me."

"Then I'll tell you. I'm from a city in Europe, John, a city called Prague; you'll not have heard of it. And my friend as you call him isn't a man at all, he's what we call a golem. Have you heard that word, John?"

"Can't say as I have," says John. "What's a golem?"

"It's a man-figure made from clay and baked in an oven. Golems are powerful servants, John; they can do everything a man can do except speak, and they never tire. I was sent here because we had knowledge of your duel with the steam-drill. John, if you go out against that drill tomorrow, you'll win but you'll die. I can enchant the golem so it looks just like you and send it out in your place."

John studies on this a moment, then says: "And why should folk in Prague care about a steel-driver here in America?"

"Because you are a righteous man," says the stranger, "and there are few enough of those in the world at any time."

"I hope I'm a righteous man," says John, "And I hope you can answer a question for me. Is this golem of yours a man or a machine?"

"That's a hard question," says the stranger. "Why do you ask?"

"Seems to me, if he's a man, then I've no cause to let another man do my work for me. And if he's a machine, why then it's machine against machine, and where's a man to stand? No, friend, I thank you for your offer, but I've made this challenge and I'll stand by it. I'm a steel-drivin' man and this steel's mine to drive."

"It'll cost you your life, John."

"Well then, I'll lie easy in my grave."

The stranger gets up and bows to John Henry. And then a strange thing happens: The other stranger, with his face of clay and no clothes on, he bows too. It's not easy for golems to bow, being baked stiff as they are, but this one does it.

"Good night to you, John Henry," says the flesh-and-blood stranger.

"Good night," says John, and he watches the two strangers walk away, the one leading and the other following.

Well, you know what happened the next day; how John Henry beat the steam-drill and died, just as the stranger foretold. They laid John Henry in his grave, and all the railroad men slow down and take off their hats as they go by.

Yonder lies a steel-drivin' man, Lord, Lord
Yonder lies a steel-drivin' man.

But the strangest thing of all is this: Every night someone comes and puts a stone on John Henry's grave. And no matter how many times the stones are cleared away, or even if they're left to pile up until the whole grave is hidden, whoever it is won't stop bringing stones.

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