“There is love in me the likes of which you’ve never seen.”
—Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Night. I was waiting on a bench. On the sidewalk. In the fog. Toronto, Eglinton, near Dufferin. Outside a music store, its window filled with accordions, lurid red plastic trumpets, and an LP of Que Sera Sera, leaning against some maracas. It was a fitting theme song for the students who passed through the little back room, taking lessons with Pasquale, at least in terms of the uncertain melodies they produced with their nervous, ill-prepared fingers. But kids—who knew what those fingers were capable of now? The future’s not ours to see, after all. It may possibly be filled with skilled accordionists.
But night and fog. The music store mute. He was walking down the street, moving between clouds of lamplit luminosity and obscurity. Wearing a dark suit and a bowler hat. Like Magritte or the men in his paintings. And like me.
Kidding. In a bowler hat, I’d look more like an aging droog. He moved toward me, with no kind of expression on his face, but I saw he was a form of regret made manifest. One of my many regrets. Usually they’re not so dapper.
I hadn’t seen him for years. We’d lost touch and, in a way, I was surprised I recognized him. Surprised he was still alive. I didn’t think golems could live so long.
We had been close once. Twins. Lovers, of a kind, even.
No. We never were. I know nothing of his viscera. I do not know if golems can love. Or if they can make love. With another golem. With anything. All that clay. Might gum up the works.
It’s said that, like Adam, we’re all born as golems. Guileless mammal-forms. That misfortune shapes us into the complex humans that we are. But I’ve met some breadboxes more capable of love than many of the misfortune-moulded walking Freud couches I’ve encountered.
“My dreidel,” I’d joke. “I made you out of clay.”
But how do you make a golem? I didn’t know, so I Googled it. It is said that you harvest a bathtub’s worth of clay exhumed from a grave by a riverbed and fill a body bag. You take it home and form a colossal three-dimensional gingerbread man with your mortal hands. You knead the shapeless husk to near-human shape. You are tender and stern. You do this at night while weeping, praying while drunk.
Then you write the name for God on the skin of a woman who has died in childbirth, skin the span of a baby’s chest. Or you ask for and are given a hymen on which you write “Elohim.” You write a “Shem,” a name of God, and a magic formula on a piece of parchment, a slip of paper—it could be a Post-it note—and place in it in the golem’s mouth. You write “אמת,” emet, the Hebrew word for truth on its forehead. When you wish to undo the life of the creature, the creature who was only a certain kind of alive, you erase the first letter, aleph, leaving, “מת,” met, the Hebrew for dead. If you do not know Hebrew, you write something else. You free-write. You edit. You take the name of God from its mouth. Again, the creature becomes the bed of a river, is the earth only, can be used to make pots, or coffee mugs, or terra cotta tiles.
How had I made the golem?
Clay. Amphetamines. The Hebrew I remembered from my bar mitzvah.
A kit ordered from the Internet.
It was a mess the first time. The second time also.
I threw the clay over the fence.
He’d come to me in the night. I woke and, before I opened my eyes and saw him, I knew he was there, standing silently by our bed, a massive presence, a dark shadow in the dark. Wearing a dark suit and a bowler. A nice touch, I’d thought.
Mary was in the bed beside me. We’d been married for six years, though we’d been together for thirteen, having met at university when we both lived in the Annex, on Brunswick, just off Bloor. We tried to have children, but eventually our doctor had determined that, in terms of procreation, I was a Peter Pan, a feeble warbler in a choir of perpetual boys. The few swimmers I had were dog-paddling splutterers, only good for show.
“Will I ever be able to have a child of my own?” I asked.
“Unlikely,” the doctor said.
We tried anyway. Each month a ritual of waiting, of hoping, praying, of temperature-appointed times, of reassurances. Of discussions of options.
There was a month when we had thought Mary was pregnant. Hoping against hope. Mary was late and she had a feeling, a kind of murmuration behind her ribs. Blood cells turning in a slow sarabande, or maybe it was too much smoked meat, too much coffee, an anxiety-hope blend. We’d been trying for so long. We’d made tomato sauce and soups together, had made bread and family meals, as if through this ritual we could transubstantiate our relationship into a living thing, a viable zygote that would divide and divide and divide into our child Zeno’s paradox, the arrow finds its mark, the rabbit overtakes. We would make more cells in the world and the world would come into greater focus, a kind of higher-resolution pixilation. Our story would become more vibrant, luminous. Moving. Happy.
But as we worried and hoped, I was increasingly turning into a kind of clay myself, my cells joining, not dividing, becoming large simple shapes. Cellular goons. At one point, I gave sperm to the doctor to be concentrated, centrifuged, boiled down like maple syrup, syringed.
Syringe. I remembered when I was a child in an Irish hospital ward. Rows of starched white sheets, metal-framed beds. A large needle stuck into my upper thigh. The needle still in, the starched blue nurse replaced the syringe with another and again emptied it into my muscle. I’d been given a first day of issue cover, commemorating John Millington Synge. I thought it said John Millington Syringe. His shaggy-dog moustache and expressionless face.
“Are you happy?” my wife would ask.
It was then that the golem appeared beside my bed, silent, shadowy, dapper.
My golem. I made you out of clay.
Was the golem happy?
It was then I ill-advisedly quit my teaching job without telling my wife, even though we had no real savings. I imagined myself a sad sack in a Tom Waits song, heading west with a suitcase and a back seat full of bourbon, looking for cheap hotels in which to write a mixture of despair and out-of-focus faith. But really, after I quit my job, I just stayed home, became silent, and slept during the day. My marriage ended. My grandfather used to say, “Der oylem iz a goylem”—“People are fools.” And I was people.
For years I thought I saw my golem walking down the street, in the booth at a restaurant, in the passing lane beside me on the highway. I’d kept watching for him, waiting. And then I got an e-mail. It was from the golem. All caps. Typical. I didn’t take it for Internet shouting but as an ironic dig at the simple preschool sensibility of the average golem. My wife—my ex-wife—had had a child. Unto her a son was born. Apparently, the child was his. I imagined their late-night coupling as if it were a folk tale and they, in the rain and fog, in a graveyard, had come together, an elemental and preternatural force. Hundreds of years ago, as if it had to be so. The cracking open of gravestones and of things as they were. I saw her thin hands reaching around the incredible clay hulk of the golem’s shoulders, gripping, leaving scalloped impressions, like a child’s squeezing fingers in a kindergarten craft project. The golem like the swaying of an old tree. His face wasn’t peaceful; rather, I’d say, unperturbed. From a different time, a character in a legend following the story he knows to be written for him with quiet resolution and little emotion.
But it wasn’t like that.
“i made the child,” his e-mail said.
Again, an opaque night. A story. Under the crow limbs of a dark tree, he did agitate his fertile horn until his seed was free. Lightning striking the oak in a Jekyll and Hyde moment the instant of the golem’s grounding. Glass vials like vacuum tubes hidden under the black wing of his cloak. And then he rides to town, a Headless Horseman, with his satchel full of jism.
I assumed that Mary hadn’t planned on being the mother of the golem’s child. I thought of that creepy yet surprisingly beloved kids’ story where the mother slinks across town, sneaks into her grown son’s bedroom to hold him and sing of her love, and imagined the golem silently crushing the screen door handle in his fist and letting himself in the back door to Mary’s kitchen, Mary stretched out on the living room couch, her nightgown hiked high in the summer heat, bottle of her customary sleeping pills beside her. Stalwart, silent, unblinking, the golem solemnly approaches. The golem had a syringe. A turkey baster.
But then my story fades. It was not the story he wrote in his e-mail. Yes, he arrives and stands before her in the summer heat, but then he touches his big fingers to her slim face. The golem large as an armoire. She smiles. He leans down, a hummock come to life. He kisses her forehead. She feels the cool coils of his lips, the low rush of his breath. His eyes are endless, filled with desire. To be human. To be tender. To love.
He would lie with Mary, would be lithe Romeo to her delicate Juliet. But almost-human that he was, he could not. Yet Mary would lie beside him after, butterfly fluttering through the great forest of his body. They would join. Would share life. Would create it, as the Golem was created from the unpromising mud of earth. Life would be created by sharing life. Their life. His forehead pressed against hers, imprinting it with the word. Emet. Truth. “Met,” death, always there within the word, but also, marked on Mary’s skin, its mirror image.
The golem and Mary, from his sample, did join gametes, both male and female, and so did cause the spring. And I, distant, absent, my words telling another story.
The child, the golem said, was named after me. Kidding, he said. It wasn’t. They named it René, after Mary’s father.
When I’d finished reading his e-mail, I’d responded immediately.
“Golem,” I’d said. “Congratulations. To all of you. And—since you seem to have some experience in this sort of thing—grant me, if you would, this kindness.”
All the golems, from those in the Bible to those in Reb Loew’s Prague, were Claymation palookas with no more wit than a brick. But they had life. Sometimes, a golem is created out of longing, ambition, failure, and a need to know that you are somehow real, that your ministrations and hope may affect the world. But sometimes, too, in time, a son can create his own father, a golem too, can create the writing that created him. A kind of pearl writing the clam into being. As I wrote him into life, or at least, wished it, so he would write me.
And so in the Toronto fog, we met at the hour and location he suggested. Midnight at the bench, outside the closed music store.
My golem was carrying a small box, a dented green metal cooler, held to his chest in an embrace. Protecting it, as in a mother-and-child painting. I was both disturbed and relieved by what was likely inside.
“I have it,” he said.
“Don’t spend this all in one place,” I said and handed him an envelope. “Really,” I said. “Don’t.”
And then he continued down the sidewalk, past the 7-Eleven, the library, the mattress store, and into the night. What was in the box? A corned beef sandwich? A donated heart? A taxidermy squirrel dressed as Napoleon, little tricorn hat pinned between its ears?
I opened the box with apprehension. I felt a cloud of cold on the back of my hand. Inside, an envelope. I pulled out the slip of paper with a sense of inevitability and dread.