Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2015  v14n1
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back HELENE WECKER

from The Golem and the Jinni

The ship set sail from Danzig, and made its stop in Hamburg without incident. Two nights later Rotfeld lay in his narrow bunk, the oilskin envelope labeled COMMANDS FOR THE GOLEM tucked away in a pocket. He felt like a child who’d been given a present and then instructed not to open it. It would have been easier if he could’ve slept, but the pain in his stomach had grown into a lump of misery on the right side of his abdomen. He felt slightly feverish. The cacophony of steerage surrounded him: a hundred diverse snores, the hiccupping sobs of babies, an occasional retch as the ship rode from swell to trough.

He turned over, squirming against the pain, and reflected: surely the old man’s advice was overcautious. If she was as obedient as promised, there’d be no harm in waking her, just to see. Then he could command her to lie in the crate until they reached America.

But what if she didn’t work properly? What if she didn’t wake at all, but only lay there, a lump of clay in the shape of a woman? It struck him for the first time that he’d seen no proof that Schaalman could do what he’d promised. Panicked, he fished the envelope from his pocket, withdrew from it the scrap of paper. Gibberish, meaningless words, a jumble of Hebrew letters! What a fool he’d been!

He swung his legs over the side of his bunk, and fetched a kerosene lamp off its nail. Pressing a hand to his side, he hurried through the maze of bunks to the stairwell and down to the hold.

It took him nearly two hours to find the crate, two hours of picking his way through stacks of suitcases and boxes bound with twine. His stomach burned, and cold sweat dripped into his eyes. Finally he moved aside a rolled-up carpet, and there it was: his crate, and in it his bride.

He found a crowbar, pried the nails from the crate, and yanked off the lid. Heart pounding, he pulled the paper from his pocket, and carefully sounded out the command labeled To Wake the Golem.

He held his breath, and waited.

~

Slowly the Golem came to life.

First to wake were her senses. She felt the roughness of wood under her fingertips, the cold, damp air on her skin. She sensed the movement of the boat. She smelled mildew, and the tang of seawater.

She woke a little more, and knew she had a body. The fingertips that felt the wood were her own. The skin that the air chilled was her skin. She moved a finger, to see if she could.

She heard a man nearby, breathing. She knew his name and who he was. He was her master, her entire purpose; she was his golem, bound to his will. And right now he wanted her to open her eyes.

The Golem opened her eyes.

Her master was kneeling above her in the dim light. His face and hair were drenched with sweat. With one hand he braced himself on the edge of the crate; the other was pressed at his stomach.

“Hello,” Rotfeld whispered. An absurd shyness had tightened his voice. “Do you know who I am?”

“You’re my master. Your name is Otto Rotfeld.” Her voice was clear and natural, if a bit deep.

“That’s right,” he said, as though to a child. “And do you know who you are?”

“A golem.” She paused, considering. “I don’t have a name.”

“Not yet,” Rotfeld said, smiling. “I’ll have to think of one for you.”

Suddenly he winced. The Golem didn’t need to ask why, for she could feel it as well, a dull ache that echoed his. “You’re in pain,” she said, concerned.

“It’s nothing,” Rotfeld said. “Sit up.”

She sat up in the crate, and looked about. The kerosene lamp cast a feeble light that roamed with the ship’s rocking. Long shadows loomed and retreated across stacks of luggage and boxes. “Where are we?” she asked.

“On a ship, crossing the ocean,” Rotfeld said. “We’re on our way to America. But you must be very careful. There are many people on this ship, and they’d be frightened if they knew what you were. They might even try to harm you. You’ll need to lie here very still until we reach land.”

The ship leaned sharply, and the Golem clutched at the edges of the crate.

“It’s all right,” Rotfeld whispered. He lifted a shaking hand to stroke her hair. “You’re safe here, with me,” he said. “My golem.”

Suddenly he gasped, bent his head to the deck, and began to retch. The Golem watched with chagrin. “Your pain is growing worse,” she said.

Rotfeld coughed and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “I told you,” he said, “it’s nothing.” He tried to stand, but staggered, and fell to his knees. A wave of panic hit him as he began to realize that something was truly wrong.

“Help me,” he whispered.

The command struck the Golem like an arrow. Swiftly she rose from her crate, bent over Rotfeld, and lifted him as though he weighed no more than a boy. With her master in her arms, she wove her way around the boxes, up the narrow staircase, and out of the hold.

~

Alone in his shop, Arbeely examined the flask. It was about nine inches high, with a round, bulbous body that tapered to a thin neck. Its maker had decorated it with a very precise and detailed band of scrollwork. Instead of the usual repeating pattern, the loops and whorls threaded through their neighbors seemingly at random, before joining up with themselves again.

Arbeely turned the flask around in his hands, fascinated. Clearly it was old, older perhaps than Maryam or her mother knew. Copper was rarely used on its own anymore, owing to its softness; brass and tin were much more durable and easier to work. In fact, given its likely age, the flask didn’t seem as battered as perhaps it should have been. There was no way to determine its provenance, for it had no forger’s stamp on its bottom, no identifying mark of any kind.

He examined the deep dents in the scrollwork, and realized that correcting them would lead to visible seams between the new work and the old. Better, he decided, to smooth out the copper, repair the flask, and then rework the entire design.

He wrapped a sheet of thin vellum around the base, found a stick of charcoal, and took a rubbing of the scrollwork, careful to catch every mark of the maker’s awl. Then he secured the flask in a vise, and fetched his smallest soldering iron from the fire.

As he stood there, his iron poised above the flask, a strange feeling of foreboding stole over him. His arms and back turned to gooseflesh. Shivering, he put down the iron, and took a deep breath. What could possibly be bothering him? It was a warm day, and he’d eaten a hearty breakfast. He was healthy, and business was good. He shook his head, took up the iron again, and touched it to the scrollwork, erasing one of the loops.

A powerful jolt blasted him off his feet, as though he’d been struck by lightning. He flew through the air and landed in a heap beside a worktable. Stunned, ears ringing, he turned over and looked around.

There was a naked man lying on the floor of his shop.

As Arbeely stared in amazement, the man drew himself to sitting and pressed his hands to his face. Then he dropped his hands and gazed around, eyes wide and burning. He looked as though he’d been chained for years in the world’s deepest, darkest dungeon, and then hauled roughly into the light.

The man staggered to his feet. He was tall and well built, with handsome features. Too handsome, in fact—¬≠his face had an eerie flawlessness, like a painting come to life. His dark hair was cropped short. He seemed unconscious of his nakedness.

On the man’s right wrist was a wide metal cuff. The man appeared to notice it at the same time as Arbeely. He held up his arm and stared at it, horrified. “Iron,” he said. And then, “But that’s impossible.”

Finally the man’s glance caught Arbeely, who still crouched next to the table, not even daring to breathe.

With a sudden terrible grace, the man swooped down upon Arbeely, grabbed him around the neck, and lifted him clean off the floor. A dark red haze filled Arbeely’s sight. He felt his head brush the ceiling.

“Where is he?” the man shouted.

“Who?” wheezed Arbeely.

“The wizard!”

Arbeely tried to speak but could only gargle. Snarling, the naked man threw him back to the ground. Arbeely gasped for air. He looked around for a weapon, anything, and saw the soldering iron lying in a pile of rags, gently smoldering. He grabbed its handle, and lunged.

A blur of movement—and then Arbeely was stretched out on the floor again, this time with the iron’s curved handle pressed at the hollow of his throat. The man knelt over him, holding the iron by its red-hot tip. There was no smell of burning flesh. The man didn’t so much as flinch. And as Arbeely stared aghast into that too-perfect face, he could feel the cool handle at his throat turn warm, and then hot, and then hotter still—as though the man were heating it somehow.

This, Arbeely thought, is very, very impossible.

“Tell me where the wizard is,” the man said, “so I can kill him.”

Arbeely gaped at him.

“He trapped me in human form! Tell me where he is!”

The tinsmith’s mind began to race. He looked down at the soldering iron, and remembered that strange foreboding he’d felt before he touched it to the flask. He recalled his grandmother’s stories of flasks and oil lamps, all with creatures trapped inside.

No. It was ludicrous. Such things were only stories. But then, the only alternative was to conclude that he’d gone mad.

“Sir,” he whispered, “are you a jinni?”

The man’s mouth tightened, and his gaze turned wary. But he didn’t laugh at Arbeely, or call him insane.

“You are,” Arbeely said. “Dear God, you are.” He swallowed, wincing against the touch of the soldering iron. “Please. I don’t know this wizard, whoever he is. In fact, I’m not sure there are any wizards left at all.” He paused. “You may have been inside that flask for a very long time.”

The man seemed to take this in. Slowly the metal moved away from the tinsmith’s neck. The man stood and turned about, as though seeing the workshop for the first time. Through the high window came the noises of the street: of horse-drawn carts, and the shouts of the paperboys. On the Hudson, a steamship horn sounded long and low.

“Where am I?” the man asked.

“You’re in my shop,” Arbeely said. “In New York City.” He was trying to speak calmly. “In a place called America.”

The man walked over to Arbeely’s workbench and picked up one of the tinsmith’s long, thin irons. He gripped it with a look of horrified fascination.

“It’s real,” the man said. “This is all real.”

“Yes,” Arbeely said. “I’m afraid it is.”

The man put down the iron. Muscles in his jaw spasmed. He seemed to be readying himself for the worst.

“Show me,” he said finally.  end  

[From The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker, copyright (c) 2013 by Helene Wecker. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.]


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