Vengeance, p.1Steven Starklight
A Short Tale of the Golem
By Steven Starklight
Copyright 2012 Steven Starklight
Deep within the dark forests of Lodz, beneath the detritus of springs and summers past, below the snow banks and ice, within the frozen breast of Poland itself, lay a relic, a sleeping tool of righteous vengeance, made of the same earth in which it lies, forgotten by time. Formed from ancient prayers and pure despair, made only of those ingredients found in plenty by those with nothing, he was given life once, clenching his fists and opening a mouth of clay as if to scream, but made only of clay, his scream was silent. Golem.
December 1944. Lodz, Poland
Tzippi knelt in the snow cradling what remained of her husband’s head. She had to wait until she was certain that the Gestapo had left before sneaking out from their small apartment across from the temple where he had held services just hours before. Now, shivering in the icy cold darkness of a Polish winter, she held her husband as he took his last few short, rattling breaths, and then it was only her, alone, clutching the corpse of the town’s only rabbi.
She had heard the commotion outside and came running to the window in time to see them drag him out of the temple and toss him into the street. Then the beating started with a flurry of boots, sticks, and fists. They used a boot knife to saw at his peyas, tossing them into the snow. She wanted to scream but knew what would happen if they heard her. Tzippi waited for them to leave, seeing their icy, bluish tinged faces under the cold streetlights, taking a step back behind the gauzy drapes when one glanced up to her window as if hearing her thoughts. Their children stood, terrified, behind her, afraid to go near the window; however, they all hear the final shot of the Luger. When they finally gathered the courage to approach the glass, they all saw the pink and white heap in the middle of the street, a sprinkling of snow collecting in places.
Most of their small congregation had also watched the ordeal from the tenement in which most of them lived. No Jews slept at night in Poland; a knock at their door was enough to cause a heart attack or nervous breakdown. But they had all watched the Rabbi tortured and murdered, unable to turn away, silent witness to the atrocities of the Nazis. As Tzippi kneeled at his body, covered in his blood, they crept out into the street to lift him up and carry him into the temple. No-one said a word. The Nazis never cleaned up after themselves; they left their messes for the Jews to clean up. She remained in the bloody snow a moment longer, then looked up to their little apartment window, seeing her children watching their little faces expressionless in their shock.
The next morning, Tzippi tended to her children, and then did her wifely duty of burying her husband. She then went through the motions of tending to his flock. She watched the clock, and as the hours passed, so too did her resolve. Jews do not suffer their dead to remain long above the earth, and by nightfall he was resting in Poland’s soil. Death had become so commonplace for the Jews of Poland that by the next day he was forgotten by most, or at least put out of their mind. He was not forgotten by Tzippi. She left her children with some close friends later that evening, and she walked across the street toward the temple.
The temple was in an ancient part of their ancient town, a rough hewn tribute to the work of stonemasons long dead. It had been there for centuries. Tzippi unlocked the great doors and entered the old, chilly foyer, past the mezuzah. Kissing her hand and resting it on the little cylinder on her way in, she walked briskly past the foyer and toward a recessed door in the back. This door she also un-locked, then paused to light a match, then a candle. There were no bulbs, no electricity in this part of the building. The candle cast the stairs leading down in a macabre glow. The temple had been destroyed twice by fire and rebuilt, but the foundation and most of this basement was part of the original structure from the 1600’s. Tzippi reflected briefly upon the temple history’s similarity to that of Solomon’s great temple, re-claimed long ago by the earth. She finally arrived at another door, in the very back of this basement. This door was smaller than the others, perhaps three quarters the size of a normal door, and made from ancient wood of unknown origin, roughly cut, but strong. The door was unlocked.
Tzippi opened the door. Beyond was a small room, containing several worn, broken benches, linens, crates of items, their contents long forgotten. There was a snow flurry of dust covering everything. She made her way through the accumulated abandoned objects toward the back corner. She pushed the crates away and knelt before a final gateway. Where the cobblestone wall met the floor, there were several stones whose mortar did not adhere to the stones surrounding them. Moving these stones to the side revealed an ancient hiding place. Tzippi found this hiding place years earlier, and came on occasion to sip from the fountain. Reaching into this small recessed chamber, she withdrew a large book. It was ancient, too, like the cobblestones that had protected it all those centuries.
The book was written in Hebrew, and was like nothing she had ever seen. She had been studying Kabbalah for several years with some of the other women in the congregation, and some of the language of this book reminded her of her Kabbalah teachings. But the resemblance was superficial. Where her Kabbalah texts were narratives describing food, this ancient tome was a book of recipes. Today, she wasn’t there to browse the recipes. She knew what she wanted to make.
The instructions seemed surprisingly simple. One hundred eighty pounds of native earth, mixed with water blessed by a rabbi; the blood of a righteous man. This she had taken from her own husband, an act she tried very hard not to think about. The proper prayers, repeated at sunset, and again at sunrise, and a plan. It must have a plan. And it must have names. She did not know all their names, but she knew what to write. It was written on sacred paper, the same paper used to inscribe a Torah, the act making her feel dirty. Hers was an angry and vengeful God; she figured He would either strike her down, or, understanding her anger and need for revenge, not begrudge her this blasphemous act. Either way was fine with her.
For three days Tzippi shoveled the sacred earth of the temple basement into wooden buckets, then dragged them to the corner. She was thankful the basement had an earthen floor, as the ground outside the temple was frozen solid, and walked upon frequently by their Nazi occupiers.
Dirt streaking her arms and face, she knelt on the ground before the mound of earth, and began to mold it into the figure she desired, singing the words, chanting the words, molding the earth and water into a righteous clay, mixing in the blood of her dear murdered husband, the innocent blood mixing with the innocent earth and water, the clay taking shape beneath her ministrations. As the shape solidified, she rolled up the sacred paper with its handwritten instructions and secreted it within the breast of this creature, filling the hole with the mixture of blood, water and clay, still repeating the sacred words, her brow moist with perspiration from her efforts. There, in the basement of the temple, her husband’s temple, she completed her Golem, finishing her prayers, finishing her molding, and sat back finally, admiring her work. But it did not move. She felt somewhat defeated, somewhat foolish, and looked down at her filthy clothes and sighed. It was very late, and she took one more long look at her Golem before climbing the stairs to return home.
As soon as she reached the top of the stairs, she knew something was wrong. She froze outside the door leading into the temple proper, hearing a commotion outside. There were muffled voices. They sounded far away; they were outside the walls. She slowly opened the door, stepping inside as quietly as she could. Leaving the door standing open, she walked silently toward the windows and peered through cautiously.
It was the Gestapo. She could hear the clicking of their leather boots outside on the cobblestones.
Tzippi sat for a moment, trying to gather the courage to emerge from the relative safety of the stone sanctuary. She felt like the cat on the side of the road, waiting to cross, and encountering a car each time she dropped a paw toward the asphalt. Finally, after checking the way from every window in the temple, Tzippi returned home to see to her children. She checked to make sure they were each comfortable, soothed their cries for their father, their father whom they would never see again. She rubbed their backs, their foreheads, kissing them softly as mothers do, putting her own fears in the closet in order to calm them to sleep, waiting for them to relax and drop into some semblance of peace, waiting for them to cry or scream themselves awake as so many Jewish children did those days.
Tzippi returned to the temple just before sunrise, during that magical place between dark night and morning, making sure to be at her Golem’s side when the first rays of sun fired into the wall of the temple. She repeated her prayers, her recitations, straight from the strange book she unearthed from the bowels of that ancient temple, and repeated them over and over. Still, her Golem lay unmoving. She began doubting herself again, feeling like a fool. After an hour turned into two, then three, she could take no more, and, tears burning her cheeks, she crept upstairs, leaving the molded mound in the darkness. She felt utterly defeated. Of course it would not work! She was a desperate woman, powerless to fight the machinery of the Nazis and their evil, powerless to avenge her husband’s murder, powerless against them. She was no different from every other Jew suffering the Nazis.
She even prayed to God, her God, trying to find the iron faith her husband had felt, the immovable stone of belief that he pushed up the mountain every Friday evening at services, playing Sisyphus with the weight of his congregation’s faith against his able arms. Many felt their faith sweat from their pores each night as they lay awake, waiting for the knock at their door.
She wandered into the temple kitchen, taking a seat at the small table, deep in thought. She thought of her husband in the earth, her children waiting for her at home, and herself, her forehead brown from her exertion in the dirt below the temple. She was wrenched out of her musings by knocks at the door. They were not the knocks of other Jews, coming to services, or terrified Jews seeking sanctuary. Gestapo! Their knocks quickly turned into rattles on the door, checking to see if it was locked. They rattled some more, then struck at the door with the butt of their rifles. They kicked it hard, and Tzippi looked around for somewhere to run. There was nowhere to go. Her heart felt as if it would burst from her chest. The Nazis continued kicking, and in short order demolished the old wooden door. She had shrank into a corner, kicking backwards in the little chair until it smacked against the back wall of the kitchen and she fell forward, collapsing onto her knees, pushing back against the wall. They came upon her and grabbed her by her hair. Of course, at first they grabbed at her wig and pulled it off. The truly devout never showed their hair to anyone but their husband. Now, a Gestapo soldier had rudely wound his fist around her hair and dragged her outside the temple. Another kicked her hard in her side, taking her breath from her chest and sending her face down upon the snowy street. She couldn’t understand his German, possibly because her ears were ringing from fear. Another laughed. There were several more kicks. She had never felt such pain. Childbirth, perhaps, but that pain was merely a necessary byproduct of a blessing. They laughed as she lay in the street, mere feet from where her husband had been killed. Her anger overtook her fear. She lifted her head as high as she could from the pavement and spit blood upon the boot of the nearest soldier. It was the best she could do.
The soldier was not amused and lifted his rifle to slam the butt into her head. She saw the rifle lift up and closed her eyes, hoping it would be quick, having a brief but fierce thought about her children, but instead of pain and darkness, there was nothing. A second passed, then another, then another. She heard a scream, and she was so dazed by the pain that she could not focus her eyes very well. She saw a lot of movement, and heard a lot of sounds; crunching bone, screams, shouting, gunfire. Then everything was silent. Then came a feeling of being lifted up, of movement, and although she tried to stay conscious, everything faded, then grew dark.
When Tzippi awoke, she was home, in her bed. Several of her neighbors were with her, as well as her children. The neighbors looked at her strangely, standing protectively beside her children. She had trouble identifying the expressions on their face. She rubbed her eyes, then tried sitting up. Those closest to her backed away from her. One neighbor gripped her son’s shoulder.
Fear. They were the looks of fear.
“What is it? What happened?”
Those standing closest to her looked at each other, each daring the other to speak. Some stared at the ground, fascinated by something at their feet, refusing to tear their eyes away. Eventually, an older man cleared his throat.
“We heard gun shots and ran outside. We found you. And them.” The man took a moment, holding his hat in both hands, curling and squeezing the brim, then, after looking at the others, he turned back to Tzippi. “You were unconscious on the floor in the temple. In the street; we found; well, the Gestapo were there. Six of them. All dead. Broken. Twisted. They were dead. All dead.”
There was no accusation in his voice, merely incredulous statements of fact. The others nodded, almost imperceptibly.
The old man finally stopped gripping his hat brim and looked up at her, his eyes wide like a child’s. “Tzippi, what happened?”
Tzippi lay back in bed, her heart thumping hard against her chest wall. She began to chuckle, then the chuckle turned into a throaty laugh, and the old man took a step back from her, his look of wide wonder replaced with fear. The others looked around at each other in disbelief. Still the laughs came, a shrill, cold sound, one with satisfaction but no joy, like brittle sticks crackling as they were consumed by fire. After a minute her laughs subsided, and she turned to the old man. The voice that emerged was cold, far colder than they expected. Even her children began shifting around on their feet and squeezing closer to each other.
“Have you gotten rid of the bodies? They will eventually come for them.”
They stared silently at her, clearly terrified by her, and by the Nazis. Their worry was painted on their faces in bright hues. Finally, she realized that they, like the rest of Poland’s Jews, were pawns in a game in which the Jews always lost. They knew nothing of their new ally, probably resting in the basement as they spoke. She would explain it to them, but there were more immediate concerns, and she was beginning to feel nauseous from the beating. She was reasonably confident that they had done nothing with the dead bodies outside.
“I am sorry, but I must rest. I am badly shaken. Take the bodies and bury them in one of the pits behind the temple. Put them all in one. Do it quickly!” Before the earth froze solid, they had pre-dug several graves to accommodate the reality of living in Nazi Poland in 1944.
The people did not move. Several looked back toward the elderly de facto leader with a side long glance at Tzippi as if to say go ahead! Tell her! She turned back to the old man with her eyebrows raised.
“Well, Tzippi, after we brought you inside we came back out to take a closer look, but they were gone. They were all gone. Even the blood was gone from the snow. Had we not all seen them before, we would not have believed it. But they are all gone. Just gone!”
Tzippi watched him repeat himself, watched him stumble over the words as if he didn’t believe them, watched as he labored with the reality of what he witnessed. Finally, with some bizarre expression of
As the door to her room shut, she smiled, a toothy smile, a satisfied smile. Her Golem. God had heard her prayers.
Vengeance by Steven Starklight / Thrillers & Crime have rating 3.8 out of 5 / Based on38 votes