First Edition: Prose | The Golem and the Jinniby helene wecker
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The Golem's life began in the hold of a steamship. The year was 1899; the ship was the Baltika, crossing from Danzig to New York. The Golem's master, a man named Otto Rotfeld, had smuggled her aboard in a crate and hidden her among the luggage.
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.
Helene Wecker received a B.A. from Carleton College in Minnesota, and an M.F.A. from Columbia University in New York. A Chicago-area native, she now lives in the East Bay with her husband and daughter. “The Golem and the Jinni,” published in April, is her first novel. http://www.helenewecker.com
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