“Truth, Death, and the Golem Between” by Erin K. Wagner
“And so the Almighty creates the earth, the sky, the world as we know it, with a story, with the spoken word.”
Amira looks up at him, her hands and wrists covered in barley flour. She has a frown on her face. “Always talking, always speaking, you and Hashem.” She pounds the dough emphatically. This is the last of the grain, and this loaf of bread will have to go a long way. “Go and fetch me the raisins, Yosef.”
Yosef leaps up and he runs for the basket. The story, if begun, is already over. Shim’on sighs.
“You should take your turn on the walls,” Amira says to him, while Yosef is out of earshot. “Hiding in here with the children.”
“I am not hiding,” Shim’on says, and he listens carefully to his own voice to see if he can catch any sign of the secret there. There are so many secrets, so many things he should not know.
She mutters under her breath, probably repeating his words. He knows her well, and she is angry about the lack of food. She is not truly angry with him, not yet, but if Yochanan comes while she is here, she will be.
“I’ll walk out to see the state of things,” he says. “And see what I can hear.”
Yosef brings back the raisins. There are only a few. He can cup them easily in his hand. He eyes them greedily as Amira folds them into the dough. She flicks one aside with her pinky, and he grabs it up, sticks it in his mouth. He is so thin, nothing but dry bones.
“If you are going to see Yochanan,” she says, voice strained, “thank him for us. Thank him for the service he has done us.” And, for fear he cannot discern the disapproval that belies her words, “Worse to have siqari’im inside the walls than Romans without.”
“He did what he thought was right,” Shim’on says. He unlatches the door and bends down to tie on his sandals. The streets sound almost the same as they did before the siege, ringing with the voices of men and women, and the piercing shrieks of children. But there is a noise there that is hard to pinpoint. It is not the sound of armor rattling, but something like it. It is the sound of a city on the verge of collapse. The voices are angry and the children are starving.
“That does not make it right.”
“True,” he says, closing the door behind him and stepping into the street. “They are not the same.”
He finds himself, as he used to, silently reciting passages of the Tanakh as he wends his way between the houses of the lower city. There has been no meeting of his pupils in many days, months at least. He has given up counting. Instead of teaching, he reads the scrolls that Yochanan has stolen, and fragments of them are now interwoven with the passages Shim’on knows so well. His stomach is tight, and he imagines the bread baking at home. He loses the thread of his recitation, and he worries—will Amira and Yosef be safe while he is gone? What if someone sniffs out the bread in the oven? Amira will latch the door, he assures himself.
He turns a corner into sight of Yochanan’s home. It is an unassuming house, the clay almost yellow. The latticework blinds are drawn down over the windows. There is a signal they have worked out, a certain number of knocks on the door. Shim’on pauses, considering that he might not knock, but return home. But Yochanan has been listening for him, and he opens the door without the signal.
“Come in,” Yochanan says, and Shim’on can tell that he is not in a patient mood today. “There is no time to waste.”
The door leads into the central room of the house, and Shim’on notes that the floor has not been swept. The dust and dirt have gathered into piles underfoot. The air smells like soured wine. Shim’on wonders briefly if Yochanan has hidden away stores of food and drink. He feels Amira’s suspicion rising in him.
“They say a woman has roasted and eaten her own child,” he says, and it is not the way to greet a friend or to start a conversation. But he and Yochanan are not truly friends.
“I heard the same,” Yochanan says. He has taken to wearing his dagger in plain sight, as if to warn away any person who might resent the zealots who burned the city’s caches of food. And Shim’on knows the illicit knowledge he is hiding. He does not answer Shim’on’s silent accusation. “It is almost finished. Come into the back room.”
Shim’on pauses here as well, and he looks closely at Yochanan’s face. He is also sunken-cheeked, but his eyes are so bright, almost burning.
“It is the power of the Almighty to create,” Shim’on says. He knows this is his last chance to say no and turn back, his last chance to feign ignorance.
“And where is he?” Yochanan asks. “He does not hear our prayers. And the priests hide their secrets from us. Until now.”
He pushes back the curtain and disappears into the darkness of the room beyond. Shim’on delays, picking up the oil lamp and lighting it. His fingers are trembling on the curtain when he finally draws it aside. The light of the lamp is small and weak, yellow in the musty room. Yochanan is bent over something, the back of his head illuminated. When he turns to look at Shim’on, the lamp casts darks lines of shadow over his face. Shim’on moves the light to see better what Yochanan is crouched over. It is the figure of a man, roughly shaped out of wet clay. Yochanan smooths the curve of the shoulder as Shim’on stares.
“Here,” Yochanan says. “The golem.”
The golem is large. Yochanan sits near its head, legs crossed, looking up at Shim’on expectantly. The torso and legs of the creature stretch to the opposite end of the room, half again the size of a man.
“You made it,” Shim’on whispers and kneels down by the clay figure.
“I should be in the fortress,” Yochanan says. “But this is more important. With this, we can defeat the Romans.”
For a moment, looking at the crude forehead and the holes Yochanan has gouged in the face of the golem to serve as eyes, Shim’on can forget the siege wall built by the Romans, the zealots manning the fortress, and the courts of the temple, quiet and forsaken. He swallows, and tries to remember where he is.
“And is this how the Almighty saw Adam?” His voice is husky. He sets the lamp down on the floor. The flame jumps and flickers, and shadows dance high on the wall and over the body of the golem. It looks almost as if the clay man is moving.
Yochanan grips his shoulder. “What must we do to bring it to life?”
“I am not sure if it is possible. I do not know which of the stories are true. The scrolls you took are incomplete.” He knows that Yochanan will be disappointed, that he will expect Shim’on to be sure and certain.
“We have to try,” Yochanan hisses through his teeth.
Shim’on looks at him, and for a moment sees Yochanan only as a stranger, or, perhaps, as Amira sees him—a dangerous man driven by a passion as great as Shim’on’s hunger.
“This is a mistake,” Shim’on says. He rocks back on his heels and crouches for a moment. He looks back at the face of the golem, its eyes wide open and unseeing.
“You cannot go.” Yochanan rises up angrily. He does not have his hand at his dagger, but he looks ready to use force. “We have work to do.”
Shim’on stands, facing Yochanan across the golem. “We do not know that this is the right thing to do.”
“I know it,” Yochanan says. “This is the right thing.”
“Because of you, my wife and my son are starving.”
Yochanan is very quiet for a moment in response to that. He relaxes slightly, dropping his hands in front of him.
“If we do not do this, Shim’on,” and his voice is without doubt, without waver, “they will continue to starve. They will waste away until they are no more.”
Shim’on does not answer, because he does not know what else to say. He is not sure that he is doing the right thing, walking away. Even when he steps back out into the central room and realizes that the sun has not yet set and that there is still light to the day, he feels almost sick to his stomach.
He sees the face of the golem as he walks home. The streets are quiet, and he can hear the hum of the Roman camps outside the siege wall. There is lamplight behind the closed blinds on the windows of the houses he passes. They are ready for night to fall.
He can smell the bread when he enters his house. The door is unlatched.
“Amira,” he calls. He loosens his sandals and slips them off. He walks, barefoot, to the room beyond. A low table is set there. The small loaf of bread, a small flat ceramic dish with oil. The lamp is lit and the flame is strong, yellow and bright.
“Wash your feet,” Amira scolds him. “Or Yosef, go and help your father.”
“No, do not waste the water,” Shim’on says. He sits down with them, and Yosef hesitates, looking between Shim’on and Amira.
She does not protest, but she pinches her lips tightly together. He realizes it is the first time that any one of them has acknowledged what is happening. Amira had been proud, he thinks now, proud to make their food last as long as it has, to hide the truth from Yosef.
“Where were you?” she asks.
Shim’on does not answer. He tears off the heel of the bread and lets it soak up the oil. It is greasy on his tongue and sweet. Amira tears off a piece of bread for herself and Yosef, and then wraps the remaining piece in the cloth it rests on. They eat the rest of the short meal in silence. Amira is careful to scrape the last drops of oil from the plate back into the jar. Shim’on feels guilty as he watches her, swallowing down what he has seen in Yochanan’s house.
“We are too hungry to spare anything for Hashem,” she says, unexpectedly. Shim’on thinks it is because she has given up hope, or because she thinks that he has. He thinks it is meant to goad him to an answer. But he has none to give her.
He wakes up at night, sweating despite the cool night air. Amira is tucked close to him, her resentment forgotten in dreams. Yosef is sprawled across the blankets near their feet. Shim’on thinks, perhaps, that he heard a noise which woke him, but everything seems still now. Yosef’s stomach rumbles loudly, but he does not stir. Shim’on imagines how difficult it would be to look at one’s child and think of killing him.
Shim’on moves slowly to his feet, padding into the central room. Before he realizes what choice he has made, he slips on his sandals. The door opens with no sound to betray him, and he almost wishes it would creak loudly and draw Amira out of sleep. He pushes it closed behind him and whispers a blessing under his breath. Protect this house. He rests with his hands on the posts of the doorway, breathing in and out, almost trembling. He thinks of the prayer affixed there. Hear. Hear me.
Though it is night, and the stars are out, there is a red glow in the sky that creeps above the walls, the constant reminder of the Roman encampment. It is so quiet, though, that Shim’on can almost convince himself that the city is not under siege. In the alleyways, as he shuffles by them, the shadows of the lower city on his shoulders, he sees people pressed up against the walls. They are thin and twig-like, shrubs clinging to the clay. They moan a little under their breath, whether sleeping or awake. Shim’on tastes the oil still on his tongue, and he is ashamed to pass them by, but he cannot stop or he will lose his nerve.
He does not hear the men stalking him, despite the quiet, because he is too consumed by the words he recites in his head. With fitful motions, he practices the letters in the air. When he is within sight of Yochanan’s house, the men catch up to him and they shove him up against the nearest house. Their breath smells of rot.
“There’s still meat on you, zealot.”
“No, no,” Shim’on stutters. He finds it hard to focus on any one of their faces. One of them is prodding him in the ribs. “I am not a zealot.”
“We saw you in his house,” another hisses in his ear. “Is there food in there? What are you hiding away?”
“There is nothing there,” he struggles to say. “There is no food to be found in the lower city.”
Shim’on feels the blade of a dagger pressed flat against his face. Another of the men carries a large stick, still rough and jagged.
“You’re too fine and fit,” complains the man holding the dagger. “You’ve been eating.”
And Shim’on feels tears warm in his eyes, crying at the absurdity. His stomach is tied in knots. He is hungry even now, in his fright.
“Let me go,” he begs them. “I have nothing to give you. There is no food in that house.”
The large stick swings out and connects with his side. He coughs, the breath driven from him. Pain blooms, warm and purple, under his lungs.
“Why sneaking in the night, then?” The man with the dagger. It has slipped from Shim’on’s cheek, the blade turning and cutting the skin as he crumples under the assault of the stick.
“I could not sleep,” Shim’on answers, his voice soft and cracking.
“Into the arms of the zealot for comfort,” another of the men mocks him. He laughs, and then spits out a slur, like a foul-tasting bit of meat.
“Nothing here, then,” and the man with the dagger steps away. The man with the stick swings again and there is a sickening crack where it connects with bone. Shim’on whimpers and slides down into a crouch.
The pack of them turn away, almost as one, a quivering intensity in their steps, in the pent-up silence of their hunched shoulders. Shim’on shivers against the wall until they are out of his sight. Just as they turn a corner, he wonders if he knows one of them, whether he was a neighbor or a former student. There are no more neighbors.
He pushes himself up with his hands, the pain in his side screaming at him to be still. His tunic is sticky there, clinging close to the skin. He probes carefully with his fingers and finds that the skin is torn, the flesh tender to the touch. One hand braced against the wall of the house, he stumbles forward until he has found his balance. He staggers to Yochanan’s door and knocks. There is no answer or responding stir from within. He pushes at the door and it swings open. The house is empty. He can feel it. So he moves inside and closes the door behind him. He stays there for a long time, in the dark, listening to himself breathe.
Shim’on uses a small twig that he finds for a stylus. It is pliable in his hand, almost softer than the clay of the golem’s forehead. The light of the lamp flickers over the face of the golem and Shim’on’s unsteady fingers. There are only three letters to write. It will not take him long. Aleph. Mem. Tav. Together, the letters form truth.
He places his palm on the golem’s forehead, feels the drying clay, and warms it slightly. There are bruises and scrapes on the back of Shim’on’s hand. He stares at his hand and the clay beneath. He tries to steady his arm. It will not take long once he begins. This is the thought he returns to, again and again. How simple it will be to bring this massive clay figure to life. If the stories are true and if the commentaries he has studied hold wisdom. He wonders where Yochanan might be, whether he is in the fortress.
Shim’on hears shouts from far away, distant. They may mean anything, but they push him to begin. He removes his hand, so the broad expanse of the golem’s forehead is exposed to the light. He grips the stylus more tightly and presses the point of it into the right side of the forehead, over the right eye. The strokes of aleph are hard to trace in this medium. He presses down harder. Dust crumbles away under the pressure. He leans forward and blows away the excess dirt. The letter stands bold and defiant. Shim’on can see no difference yet in the golem’s posture, in the golem’s lifelessness.
He places the letters a finger’s breadth apart from each other. The rounded form of mem comes more easily. The stylus digs deep into the clay. He imagines that the clay has softened and almost molds itself around the stylus. He pauses and breathes deeply before beginning on the open square of tav.
Shim’on’s fingers tremble as he finishes the last stroke. He lifts the stylus carefully and lays it down on the ground beside him. He raises himself onto his heels, leaning back away from the golem, waiting. The room begins to grow very warm, almost humid. Sweat beads on the back of Shim’on’s neck and around the edges of his beard. His legs cramp beneath him. Suddenly, with the creaking sound of a mill-wheel, the golem shifts.
Shim’on leaps to his feet and backs up against the wall. He wipes his lips with his hand and tugs at his beard, waiting, almost too afraid to remain in the room. One of the golem’s arms, twice as long as Shim’on’s, lifts up from the ground. It reaches towards the ceiling of the room and, it seems to Shim’on, implores someone unseen. The other arm moves now, pressing down into the earth, forcing the torso and head up from the ground. There is a sound like rocks shifting as the golem moves. Shim’on finds it hard to breathe and he cannot move, though he wishes to edge towards the door to the room. One massive knee lifts and bends, then the second leg. The golem stands, though it must bend at the waist to fit in the room. There is dust in the air, thick and choking.
Finally, the golem turns its head towards Shim’on. The face seems almost as lifeless as when it lay dormant on the ground. The eyes and mouth are still just holes bored into dirt. But the letters on the golem’s forehead glow red and gold and they lend an intelligence to the face. The golem makes a sound, unshaped by lips or throat, a hollow moan, like wind whistling through a cave. Shim’on knows what it is trying to say and he is unsettled, unsettled that he can perceive the frail skeleton of the golem’s mind, unsettled that the golem is asking him, Master, what do you ask of me?
The door opens in the center room and Shim’on hears Yochanan’s footsteps, wary and slow.
“It is me,” Shim’on calls out, to encourage Yochanan to lower his dagger. But he cannot think of how to warn him that the golem lives.
“Shim’on—” and Yochanan swallows his words as he comes to the doorway. He coughs, choking on his own spit. “Shim’on,” he whispers, suddenly without bluster or orders. That, in and of itself, gives Shim’on a sort of courage. He thinks of Amira and Yosef.
“It is time,” he says. He pushes past Yochanan. The golem follows, shoving Yochanan against the wall. It has to bend and twist its body to maneuver the tight space of the house. They exit onto the street, and the golem stands tall for the first time. Yochanan runs out after them, as the golem’s head rises above the roof, blotting out a portion of the stars. The red light from the siege wall frames the golem’s shoulders. The letters on its forehead gleam like stars of their own.
“Go,” and Shim’on points towards the wall of the lower city and the siege wall beyond. “Go and destroy the Roman soldiers.”
The golem twists, looking out where Shim’on has pointed. The rest of its body follows slowly, like a bird trying to gain height off of the ground. The footsteps of the golem, as it leaves, sound loud in the streets.
“What have you done?” Yochanan asks in his ear.
Shim’on is angry. He feels the pain again in his side, already bruising. “I did what you asked, Yochanan. This is what you said was right.”
And Yochanan cannot answer him. He can only follow silently as Shim’on turns away, chasing in the footsteps of the golem.
The horns sound in the Roman camp before Shim’on can reach the walls. He races up the steps, pushing past the watchmen and the soldiers. They do not say anything to him because their eyes are fixed on the siege wall and the encampment beyond. Shim’on notices the fires first, spreading to the tents. Soldiers, smaller than men from this vantage point, spill out of the burning tents, light gleaming off of breastplates. He scans the encampment and the wall, trying to find the golem. When he does catch sight of it, he wonders how he could have missed it. The form of it towers above the tents, its dense body dark against the bright flame. It swings its arms back and forth, like massive wings, and its legs rise and fall like those of a warhorse.
The golem has found its way over the city walls and has pierced the construction of the siege wall to reach the Roman camp. Now it moves with a solitary focus, grabbing at the men who run around its legs, ripping arms and legs from bodies. Shim’on glances back at the city behind him. He sees Yochanan lumbering up the steps to the wall. But the city is still silent, wrapped in darkness, too hungry and weak to move from its bed. He can see the flames of the camp superimposed over the darkness, still burned into his eyes.
He looks back to the golem. He imagines that he can see the letters burning like coals in its forehead. The longer he watches the golem stagger through the camp, each movement like the collision of rocks, the better he can hear the golem’s thoughts, insubstantial as they are. They are not reflective or introspective. They merely process and filter the scene around the golem, the men fleeing around its legs, back to Shim’on, back to its master. So, soon, Shim’on is no longer watching from the walls. He is riding on the golem’s shoulder.
There is no famine here. The golem does not eat, but he consumes. Armor—both leather and metal—is torn from flesh, bones crack in the golem’s fist, blood runs between its fingers. Fire licks at its legs, but it cannot feel it. The clay grows brittle, inch by inch. It tears at the fabric of tents flung wide from their stakes. Men are shouting, their voices high as children’s. Someone throws a spear and it chips at the golem’s shoulder. The golem swings its arm wide and knocks back a horse, which shrieks in fright, almost human.
A group of soldiers arrange themselves in testudo formation, shield planted in front and overhead. The golem lifts its legs high and kicks out at the clustered men. The shield wall fractures, the men exposed beneath. The golem reaches in and plucks them out one by one, bending them each in half until they split open wide.
The golem stumbles. It wails. Shim’on is on his knees. He cannot feel Yochanan’s hand on his shoulders or the watchmen shouting in his ears. He grabs the collar of his tunic and rips it from there, exposing his chest, thin and heaving. He can hear someone singing, high and piercing, singing in celebration.
A young man, naked, pulled from his bed, flings a torch at the golem’s face. The golem swats at it, then lunges down. It pinches the man, thumb and fingers meeting in his stomach, and the man spits up blood. His face is drained of color.
“No,” Shim’on screams. “No more.”
Silence falls around him as if his ears were stuffed with cloth. He can see Yochanan now, his face red. He is screaming, and Shim’on cannot tell if he is happy or angry. He cannot hear what Yochanan is saying.
“No more, Yochanan,” he says, but he cannot hear his own voice or tell if Yochanan has heard. Shim’on throws up, the bile sour on his tongue. He gags again.
The golem falls to his knees. Half-limping and half-crawling, it makes its way through the shredded tents and the litter of bodies and limbs. The fire singes the ground around its palms. Its forehead aches where the letters burn.
Shim’on sobs on the wall, his face tucked between his knees, and the tears hollow him out and leave him empty.
The golem returns to the place of its creation, like a dog with its tail tucked between its legs. It is inhuman and unfeeling, but it moves like one who is tired beyond measure. Shim’on waits for it at the door of Yochanan’s house. He is hunched over, hugging his wounds. His clothes hang loosely off his shoulders. He reaches a hand out, taking the golem’s in his own, and the golem comes closer, almost like a child, bending its head down. The letters are still bright, piercing Shim’on’s eyes. He wonders that he should find this so natural, so unastounding.
“I have made you,” he whispers. “You come from me.” There is a surge of sadness.
“What are you doing, Shim’on?” Yochanan turns the corner into the street, his face a mixture of exhilaration and panic. He is out of breath. “Why did you call it back?”
“Men should not be sacrificed to me, to a creature of my making,” Shim’on answers softly. Yochanan moves forward to hear better, though he is wary of the golem. He stays close to Shim’on, standing at his back.
“It will break the siege,” Yochanan says. He places a hand on Shim’on’s arm, restraining him. “You must send it out again.”
“The grief is too great.” Shim’on shrugs his arm free. He orders the golem to kneel, and the giant creature falls to its knees, the ground shuddering beneath it. “Too much blood spilled at my hand.”
“Grief?” Yochanan’s voice is incredulous. “What grief can you compare with that of your wife and child dying?”
Shim’on looks at Yochanan, his eyes angry and hot. “That is a grief not yet come.”
Yochanan grits his teeth. “You are killing us all.”
Shim’on bows his head. “Hashem may yet save us.”
“And if this is his deliverance?” Yochanan gestures wildly to the golem, still kneeling.
Shim’on spits on the golem’s forehead, wetting the clay. His throat is dry, but he spits also on his thumb. He places his thumb over the aleph, his hand almost covering the golem’s right eye. He hears Yochanan slide his dagger out. He places it at Shim’on’s throat.
“You are not my master, Yochanan,” Shim’on says, and he drives his thumb hard into the letter, wiping and grinding at the clay. The letters begin to dim on the golem’s forehead as the aleph disappears. Only the word death remains, mem and tav combined. The golem shifts forward, and Yochanan leaps back. It rests heavily, only for a moment, on Shim’on’s chest. Then it begins to crumble, the forces maintaining its shape dissipating. Clods of dirt hit the ground, and clay rains into Shim’on’s hair and eyes. He closes his eyes to protect them and feels the weight of the golem in his arms a moment longer than it actually exists.
He opens the door to his home as quietly as he can. He slips off his sandals, and then he shirks his tunic off over his head. The blood has dried on his side, and he bites his lip as pulls the fabric free. He finds a clean cloth next to the empty baskets and jars in the stores room. He wraps that around his ribs, feels the bones shift disconcertingly. He spares a few drops of water to wet an end of the cloth to wipe his face and hands.
The house is dark and still, undisturbed by the chaos in the Roman camp. He finds this hard to believe, almost wondrous. The light is grey, poised for sunrise. Shim’on moves quietly into the room where Amira and Yosef sleep. He settles onto the blankets beside his wife. She shifts in her sleep and murmurs something. Her face is wrinkled in pain as if her dreams are unpleasant.
Shim’on does not touch her because he does not want to wake her, but he watches her face until his own weariness overcomes him. He wonders if Hashem sees what Shim’on sees when He looks down on her.
|Erin K. Wagner grew up in southeast Ohio on the border of Appalachia but now lives in central New York, where she hikes in the Catskills and listens for ghostly games of nine-pins. She holds her Ph.D. in medieval literature and teaches literature and writing in the SUNY system. Her stories have appeared in a variety of publications, from Apex to Clarkesworld, and her novella The Green and Growing is available from Aqueduct Press. Her second novella, An Unnatural Life, was released by Tor.com in September 2020. You can visit her website at erinkwagner.com.|