Growing, Burning

 

Growing, Burning

By Katherine Berlatsky

 

In front of the rabbi is the creature he has built, a six-foot tall mass of hardened clay with stones for eyes. It looks more like a man than he had expected it would when he had started crafting it. It will grow taller over the next few days, but even now it looms in the center of the synagogue. The shadow it casts spreads over the rabbi and across the floor, stretching out towards the arching doorway. Finally, after a week of thinking of nothing else, the rabbi can rest. It is complete.
 
All that remains to be done is to bring it to life, something that has only been done once before. But the rabbi has researched it as much as he could. He has scoured the Talmud to find the story of the first time and has only been able to find descriptions of how it is done, not of the creature once it was awakened. He knows about the shem with the name of Adonai inscribed upon it that must be placed in his creation's mouth. He knows about emet, Hebrew for truth, that must be carved into its forehead. He does not know whether the golem must rest on the Sabbath, if it is as Jewish as any man, if it counts for a minyan. These questions are not important, though; these questions can be answered.
 
What is important is the shem, done now and perfectly sanded, the four Hebrew letters engraved in the most perfect script he is able to offer.
 
*
 
There is a whisper at the edge of the golem's consciousness. Its thoughts are languid, filling its brain from the bottom like rain filling the dry banks of a riverbed. The golem remembers being the clay at the bottom of a river. It remembers being stretched out under the water, merged with the entire Vltava, hundreds of kilometers long and yet also just barely a pinpoint in space. The golem doesn't think it is a river anymore.
 
The golem opens its eyes for the first time, dried clay giving way to clear sight. What little light makes it through the tall, thin walls is directed towards the bima far from where the golem stands. Even so, the faint glow is more unfiltered light than the golem has ever seen.
 
"You're alive," says the robed figure in front of it. There is a reverence in his voice. The golem looks down at him, a slight rumbling sound echoing up into the rafters as dried clay grinds against itself. The figure is only visible to the golem as an outline. It is half-blinded by the after-image of the light.
 
"I am Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, known as the Maharal of Prague. You are our protector." The word protector hangs in the air with the light, and the golem feels a little blinded by it, too. It nods. There is something in its mouth, something crafted differently than the rest of itself, that makes it difficult to speak.
 
"We are at war," continues the rabbi. "The influence of the emperor is waning. Without his interference, there is no one to prevent those who would kill us, frame us for murder, and desecrate our Temple." He looks at the golem as if expecting a response. The golem groans. It is the first noise it has ever made.
"The name of God on the shem in your mouth gives you purpose, and the Hebrew for truth on your forehead sustains your life. You were crafted over seven days and seven nights, with pause only for sleep and for Shabbos, when you must rest. Knowing this, will you watch over the Temple, in the name of our people and in the name of Adonai? Will you protect us, who have given you life?"  The light-blindness has faded now; the golem can see the Maharal's beard, long and wiry and not made of clay. The golem nods. It had been the darkness of a river, and now it has been brought into the daylight, however faint it is. How could it say no?
 
*
 
The sun casts a sickly, sepia-toned haze over the stacked houses and across the river as it sets. The street on which the Temple stands is wide and cobbled, but the sidestreets and alleys that the golem can see are thin and mostly dirt, serving little purpose other than to keep houses separate. Despite it not being Shabbos, the shutters and doors are nearly all closed and the few people who are outside move quickly, heads down and kippot tilted toward the sky.
 
The golem stands motionless outside the archway of the Temple. It has been given no specific instructions.
 
One of the women, skirt long and head uncovered, stops in front of it. She looks similar to the rabbi; same high cheekbones, same dark, tightly coiled hair, but the golem doesn't know enough about humans to know if this is special, or if all humans look alike, up close. She inclines her head and then mutters to herself in a language the golem doesn't understand. It stares at her as she reaches out to touch its left arm. This is the first time in its short existence that it has been touched, and it is surprised to realize that her hand is warm, and softer than stone. It smiles at her in response, revealing the Tetragrammaton in its mouth.
 
She pulls her hand back, startled, and the golem closes its mouth. It doesn't know what it's done wrong, but it wishes it hadn't frightened her. There is no one else on the street to see her look over her shoulder for an explanation and then say under her breath, in Hebrew, "What has my father done?" After a second, she follows the question with, "What are you?"
 
The golem knows how to answer this; it has just been told, by the Maharal. Out loud, the golem names itself, the shem allowing it to speak as it declares its purpose. ".???" Protector.
 
The woman smiles now. "I am Chaya. Where did you come from?" Her voice has a rhythm to it that reminds the golem of the Vltava.
 
The golem points inside the Temple. It likes her, it thinks, and wants to take care of her. But it doesn't like speaking. That wasn't what it was built for. Chaya leans her head back to look up at it, hoisting her basket further up her arm. "May I pass?"
 
"Do you mean this place harm?"
 
Chaya laughs, her voice ringing out. "No, I don't," she says. "I'm just here to bring my father home."
 
The golem has no reason not to trust her. "You may pass," it responds, and feels a warmth in its hollow chest at being asked.
 
Chaya inclines her head to it and then walks past, into the Temple. The golem watches a lone man walk quickly down the street, head down, and then turn down an alley and vanish. Chaya emerges from the Temple, alongside the Maharal. "Thank you, Protector," she says to the golem, as the Maharal turns the deadbolt with a heavy, iron key.
 
"Why do you leave?" asks the golem to the rabbi. It had not thought it would be left alone.
 
"We can't be away from home after dark," Chaya responds. "It's a crime."
 
"No one's seen the stars in months."
 
The rabbi and Chaya walk off together, and the golem watches until they, too, turn down a distant alleyway and disappear from its sight.
 
*
 
The golem is seeing the stars now, splayed across the sky in tiny pinpricks of light. It can almost make out the shape of a bear between some of them, and as it stands looking up for hours, ignoring the call of the river, the bear runs through the sky. Maybe, one day, the golem will join it.
 
There is a sound. A quiet sound, but a break in the noises of the night. It comes from around the wall, behind the corner that blocks the golem's sight, and it sounds like footsteps. The golem looks down from the stars and turns its head to listen and then, once again, hears movement on the gravel. As it takes its first step forward it groans, and whether that groan is from its mouth or from the very motion of its legs is impossible to tell. The noise of the golem walking blends into the natural noises of the night, though, so when it takes its final steps towards the footsteps, it sees the invaders before they see it.
 
They're two young men, hunched in the cemetery that has grown by the side entrance to the Temple. One of them has a shovel and has plunged it deep into the earth in front of the largest tombstone, a small pile of dirt beside him. The other holds a flint and steel and is striking them absent-mindedly against each other, sparks flying. "I don't know why you won't just let me set the whole building on fire, it's way too nice for a bunch of Christ-killers -"
 
His voice is cut off as the golem reaches its arms around him and squeezes until he falls to the ground, a single spark flying up as the flint and steel fall into the hole that's already been dug. Then, as the other one turns around to respond to his friend, the golem grabs him by the collar of his robes and hoists him up into the sky. Now, ready to protect, fulfilling its accepted duty, the golem feels its throat free itself, the shem melding into the rest of its body. "What do you want with my people?" it asks.
 
The man doesn't speak Hebrew, of course. He screams up into the star-studded sky instead of answering. It is the loudest noise the golem has heard since being alive; the people who live here are quiet, afraid of drawing attention to themselves. The boys and men who come to the Temple and seek to desecrate the dead, or who come to the Jews' homes and attempt to seize them, have no fear of making noise.
 
The golem throws the man to the ground and allows him to scramble to his feet and run away. The tombstone on which he had been sitting reads simply Moises Meisele, 1550 - 1598, with a Magen David engraved above the name. The golem kneels in front of it, gently reaching out to brush dust from its curved top. It stares at the gravestone long enough for the bear in the sky to run a bit further, and then looks at the one next to it. Rebeka Jeiteles, 1575 - 1598. And then, beside that one, Sarah Jeiteles, 1573 - 1598. Sisters, probably. The golem stops in front of a slab of marble, larger than all the others, which simply reads For those who will not return, 1595 -. Faced with the sleep of the dead, the golem begins to understand why it has been summoned.
 
The stars seem far away now.
 
*
 
The next morning, the sun rises, the golem is a foot taller, and the Maharal returns to the Temple to find it still kneeling in front of the largest grave in the cemetery. It doesn't even notice him until he places a hand on its arm, the same arm Chaya had touched the evening before. The Maharal's hand is more weathered than Chaya's, but just as gentle. When the golem looks at him, he says, "You protected us last night. We thank you. It is the day before the Sabbath, and so tomorrow you must rest." He doesn't say it like he expects the golem to respond, but the golem tries anyway, opening its mouth and letting out a creaking, affirmative groan.
 
Later that day, the golem back at its post between the Temple and the street, Chaya stops by again. There have been people coming in and out of the Temple all day, and the golem has been able to hear them talking to the rabbi and asking questions. Questions about the war, about the emperor, about how to handle the hundreds of their own who hadn't wanted to fight in someone else's war and are now missing, presumed dead; about how the food is slowly dwindling away, about how families are being torn apart again, and nobody knows what to do. As the golem listens, it is filled with an urge to do more to help than it is currently doing, but it doesn't know how, and so it watches them come and go, helpless.
 
None of them have stopped to talk to the golem, except for Chaya. It is the quiet period of the day, when more are home with their families eating lunch. But she is here. "You've grown."
 
The golem looks down at itself. Yes, it supposes, it has.
 
"Is that supposed to happen?"
 
The golem doesn't know, and even if it did, it doesn't think it would be able to respond.
"Has my father told you why he built you now, instead of years ago?"
 
The golem shakes its head. It hadn't thought to ask.
 
"My brother - his son - disappeared months ago, after he refused to go and fight in Turkey, and every day we sit at home and hope that he'll come back, even though we know he won't. And now there are… there are people watching our house again and we're afraid. I was afraid to even leave today, and I know my father was, too. They know he has power, in the community, and so they're scared of him and want to hurt him. So he built you so that maybe they'd know that he wouldn't give in, that he'd always fight for the safety of our people. He thinks it will be enough."
 
The implication is that she disagrees.
 
"I will help," the golem says, a burning anger flowing through it, originating from the inscribed truth on its forehead. Maybe this anger is how it can do more.
 
*
 
It is Friday evening. The sun will set soon, the golem has grown another foot, and people are beginning to file into the Temple. The golem notices Chaya among the crowd, but she is filing into the Temple along with hundreds of others and does not stop to speak. It has never seen so many people at once before.
 
From its post, the golem has come to expect fear, but there is an undercurrent of joy in the movements of the congregants, as well. Two young women walk right past the golem and into the Temple, one of whom the golem hears say, "Joachim told me he would come pick me up on Sunday, but I haven't heard from him in over a week," before being interrupted by a laugh from her companion.
 
These two blend into the rest of the crowd, and the next conversation the golem hears is between an older couple. The man turns to his wife to say,  "If that beheyme Rudolf hadn't decided to bring himself and all these damn Catholics here, we wouldn't need this nonsense." He gesticulates at the golem, which can't help but feel hurt.
 
"That beheyme, Emperor Rudolf, dear," his wife responds. "You never know who could be listening." The two continue into the Temple, bickering over what is acceptable to call the Emperor.
 
There is an endless stream of conversations like this, fear and love disguised in arguments, mourning of the missing tied in with mutters of mundanity. It is a river of life, and the golem stands in front of their gathering place, a symbol that is doing all it can.
 
This is who the golem is meant to protect? These hundreds of people who come together once a week to sing and talk and live and then the next day return to fear and secrecy? It has watched them walk down the streets and listened to them plead with the rabbi for answers, but never so many at once, and never in a way that was so intensely human. If it fails, these people will fill the little-remaining empty space in the graveyard. How can it be expected to be responsible for them all? It must, of course. It never questions what it has to do. But its fear that it will not be enough grows greater.
 
As the last of the stragglers trickles in, and song begins to spill out onto the street, right before the sun sets and services begin, the Maharal steps outside and looks into the eyes of the golem. "Thank you for your protection. Until sundown tomorrow, like us all, you must rest."
 
The golem doesn't understand what he means, but the rabbi reaches his hand up, so the golem tilts his head down, allowing the rabbi to reach into its mouth and grasp the clay tablet that tells it who it is. The rabbi pulls.
 
The golem rests.
 
When the golem awakens it is nighttime, but there is no noise from inside the Temple. The Maharal stands in front of it, once again at eye level. Also once again, the golem can feel the clay tablet blocking its throat.
 
"Good morning, Protector," says the Maharal, smiling at it. The golem understands that even asleep, it had been able to protect those who had worshiped the night before. "No one dares attack here, after rumors of a giant living statue standing guard. Thank you." The thank you is whispered, as if the rabbi is afraid that saying it out loud will negate it.
 
The golem is happy. As a river, it had known of humans only vaguely. They traveled on it sometimes, and when they did, they were at its mercy. But now it has watched these humans as their Protector, if only for three days. It has watched them laugh and cry and sing and beg for help, and it feels a duty beyond what it has been assigned. A duty, and an earthen anger.
 
*
 
Over the course of the next week, Chaya speaks to the golem one more time, when it is once again toweringly tall. She is panicked - her skirt askew, her eyes wide. "Will you stay awake tomorrow? I know it is maybe too much to ask. But they'll know, from last week, that you'll be asleep. I'm scared that they'll take me. I'm scared that they'll take my father."
 
The golem doesn't even consider saying no. The anger and fear that everyone lives with has only taken a week to seep into its clay, and it no longer wants to be just a Protector. It wants to be an Avenger; it wants to be able to punish those who have hurt its people and who have hurt the woman in front of it. Except that's not what it's meant to be, and so all it can say is, "I promised I would help."
 
She hugs the golem tight, this being of hardened clay, and after a moment of confusion, the golem hugs her back, careful lest it crush her.
 
Eventually she releases him and walks away. It is, once again, Thursday. The golem's limbs grow leaden, reminding it that tomorrow it must sleep. The Hebrew on its forehead burns.
 
The next day the Maharal does not come to remove the shem from the golem's mouth. It assumes that Chaya has told him about her request.
 
Nighttime comes and the people come to shul. It is fewer people than the week before, even the golem can see. Those who do come stick together in the groups they bring with them, mostly families. There is no yelling across the crowd to greet old friends. A young woman holding a child walks quickly through the doors, looking over her shoulder as she does so. There is no sign of the man and woman who had held such strong opinions on what to call the emperor. The two women who'd been discussing Joachim are still together, but quieter. They make no mention of him. A child rounds the corner on the side of the cemetery, head down, and takes the steps silently.
 
As the sun sets, the golem grows.
 
The golem remains awake.
 
Services begin, a low chant in a minor key and the only language the golem will ever speak. The chatter, minimal to begin with, disappears under the waves of music that spill out into the street. Two or three Jews, walking by, pause for a brief moment to listen, and then shake themselves out of it, speeding away. Only the most dedicated come to services. It has become too big a risk.
 
The golem remains awake.
 
Services end and meals begin, the chatter resuming. It starts quietly, and then swells as people begin to drink the blessed wine. Someone yells, "Where's David? He hasn't missed a Shabbos since the plague in '93!" The conversation gets quiet again, as it does at a funeral, until more food is distributed.
 
The golem remains awake, becoming increasingly aware that it should not be, but unable to do anything about it. There is a rumble of thunder in the far-off distance.
 
Instead of resting, its anger burns. Fire has often been used to heat clay, and the golem can feel it inside itself with every word from inside. It hears a baby, maybe the child of that young woman, begin to cry, and the fire burns brighter. It hears the rising voice of a man, maybe drunk, maybe afraid, probably both, and the fire burns brighter. It remembers Chaya saying that her brother had been taken, and thinking that the same would happen to her, and then it remembers Chaya touching it gently and asking for help, and the fire burns brighter and the shem in its mouth cracks and separates, and all thought disappears, but it feels almost as if it is watching itself from the outside, incandescent. The thing that had given it its purpose is gone. It can choose its own purpose now.
 
The golem remains awake and it is less and less itself and more and more a vessel of its people's thousands of years of fear and anger and desperately looking for somewhere to have a home.
 
The sun finishes setting, and the temple-goers begin to trickle out, carrying bags of food and hunched against the rain. If they were quiet when they had entered, they are even quieter now. They are not technically breaking curfew yet, but if they draw too much attention to themselves, the letter of the law won't matter. The rabbi is the last to leave, and he nods to the golem in thanks as he locks the door and heads home. The silence of the night returns.
 
The golem remains awake and feels the fire of the stars.
 
There is a scream. It slices through the quiet dark like lightning. For the first time, the golem leaves its post, and it is as an Avenger and not as a Protector. It runs toward the scream, faster than any living being should be able to move, and it keeps moving even as the scream dies and then begins again. In under a minute it reaches the back alley behind a small, yellow-tinged house.
 
It's Chaya, of course. Chaya whose arms are being held by two men in armor who are unable to block her mouth because she is struggling so hard, kicking back in her soft-soled shoes. She stops screaming as soon as she sees the golem, and the men in armor, guards, release her arms in shock.
 
"What are you?" one of them manages to ask as the golem steps forward, barely aware of what it's doing.
 
"What do you want with my people?" it asks, once more, its voice a low growl. The guards run.
 
The golem chases the two of them for over a mile. Its long strides are slow and inexorable through alleyways and empty streets, and every time the guards have to stop for breath, their armor weighing them down, the golem keeps following. It is not a fair race. As the guards cross the unspoken border that marks the Jewish ghettos, the golem catches up to them and grabs the taller, more threatening, one by the neck. It lifts him up like it lifted the man in the graveyard a week ago, and the other guard stands and watches, suddenly too scared to run.
 
The rain has become a downpour, the only light the occasional flash of lightning. As the golem looks into the eyes of the man it has captured, there are no stars to illuminate his face.
"Will you stop? If I let you go, will you let us have peace?" The golem doesn't want to kill people. It has broken from the purpose of its creation, but the piece of it that is filled with the collective knowledge of the Jewish people knows that all life still has worth.
 
"I can't. I don't have that power," the guard manages to choke out. Out of the corner of its eye, the golem watches the other guard start to try to sneak away. "I just do what I'm told."
 
The golem throws the guard to the ground with all the force of a rushing river, and his bones make a sickening crack inside his armor. It doesn't want to kill people, but that doesn't mean it won't.
 
For a minute, the golem stands there and stares at what it's done. A slow trail of blood leaks from where the breastplate and the gorget meet and winds its way through the cracks between the cobblestones. The golem watches the blood twist and turn with the rainwater until the guard who had run away returns again with backup. There are maybe ten men with him, maybe twenty, and they all stop ten feet from the golem and the dead man.
 
"Monster, what do you want?" asks the man who had run, a sword held in front of him in shaky hands. He doesn't have a shield. He is braver with the weight of numbers behind him.
 
"I want my people to be safe. I want you to never hurt them again. I want you who have tormented us to be punished." There is no change in the modulation of the golem's voice as it speaks. This is all matter of fact. What else would it want?
 
"You are a disgrace against God. You must be erased," calls one of the guards further back in the group.
 
"I am the arm of Elohim." The Hebrew on the golem's forehead glows briefly, a soft gold that illuminates the individual faces of the guards as the golem raises its arm to the sky. Lightning flashes, followed by a shattering of thunder, and one of the guards turns tail and runs. Good, thinks the golem. There will be none spared this night.
 
One of the braver of the guards draws his sword, and the rest of them follow, a hostile bundle of men who, despite their weapons, will fall to the golem. What can a sword do against stone?
 
The golem takes the first step forward. Back when it was only a Protector, it would have waited for them to attack, but it is tired of waiting. It swings a heavy fist into the head of the one who first drew his sword, and the body crumples to the ground before the man can even scream in pain. A sword is swung at the golem, it doesn't know by whom, and gets lodged in its clay. One by one, it takes them down, walking inexorably forward. The golem sees only red and sparks fly off of it as swords connect with its stone and accomplish nothing.
 
It strangles one man, then swings his body into two others, the clash of armor against armor echoing in the night as it knocks another one down and walks over it.
 
The golem kills, and kills, and kills.
 
Until, eventually, there is no one left to kill.
 
When the bodies of the guards are scattered on the cobbles, the golem lifts them over its shoulders and carries them, one by one, down to the mouth of the Vltava. It is silent now, even though it wants to scream. The last of the guards sinks to the bottom of the water and the golem watches him until the ripples go still. It stands there for a long time. Until-
 
"Protector," the golem hears behind it, and turns around, even though that is no longer what it is.
 
The Maharal is standing there, waiting. He looks old. Old and sad. He holds his hand out in front of him while his robes and beard blow back slightly in the breeze, and he says, "Protector, you have fulfilled your duties. Will you allow me to put you to rest?" The golem is able to speak now, and it could say no, but it doesn't. The conviction has bled out of it like the life from the guards it killed.
 
The golem kneels to the Maharal, and across its forehead the Maharal erases the letter aleph on its forehead, which turns the Hebrew word for truth, which gave it life, into the Hebrew word for death, which takes it away. The last thing the golem hears is a whispered, "I'm sorry."
 

And the Protector is no more.

         

Copyright © Katherine Berlatsky 2021

Katherine Berlatsky is a 19-year-old junior at Vanderbilt University, majoring in English (Creative Writing) and minoring in Spanish. She is from South Florida, and spends most of her free time writing and playing Dungeons & Dragons. This is her first publication.


 

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