I was a little red bird…
I was a little red bird, sitting on a branch and watching a witch who was on her knees in the mud.
I was hoping the witch would not take notice of me, even though she probably already had, in her own way; I was right at the heart of her territory, and witches have ways of sensing what happens through the earth. She could probably feel my tiny claws in the bark of one of her trees even now. But it was my hope that she’d find my presence too small and inconsequential to bother with until I had accomplished my task. After that I hoped that she would not be very fast when she chased me.
The witch was not paying me any mind at the time, anyway. She was crawling around in the thick mud at the edge of a riverbank, scooping it in her hands, her brow furrowed in intense concentration. She appeared to be middle-aged (I say appeared; she was a witch) and in good health- tall, slender, with thin, strong hands and straight black hair covered up by a headscarf. Her cheeks were rosy; her eyes dark and warm. If I had been alive and naive, I would have skipped right up to her, she seemed so pleasant. But I was dead and crafty, so I hid and watched.
The witch was drawing out a kind of shape in the mud, a big, lumpy shape. She piled more mud in the center- the mud was sticky, since the soil in the area had a great deal of clay in it, and so the shape stayed together. I began to perceive a figure in it all, a kind of rough, humanoid thing.
The fir tree I was perching in was just at the very edge of the forest, and between the riverbank and I there was a small, boggy meadow covered in kingcups and sage and long bushgrass. There were some smaller trees nearer to the bank, and though I longed to get a closer view of what the witch was doing, I didn’t dare fly over. The witch might take no notice of me, but there was something moving about in the tall grass that would: something small and dark that moved quickly, making the bushgrass stalks shiver as it passed through.
I chirruped and raised a wing to preen, for all the world just an ordinary little bird resting at the edge of the forest. The shape in the meadow moved slowly, in a large, sweeping arc, as though it were patrolling. I couldn’t help but fluff up my feathers as it passed my tree. But it did pass.
I turned my black, beady eyes back to the witch. She had made a rounded, high chest for the mud-and-clay figure, and had made a hole in the center so she could reach in and scoop out mud from the hollow inside. I wondered that she did not use any kind of tool, no trowel or cup, only her bare fingers. Mud squelched between then as she lifted it out.
I tilted my head; the thing was definitely taking on some character now. It looked for all the world like a fat, lumpy person lying on their back, with big arms and smaller legs and a heavy chest. The head was not yet very distinguished, but there were two depressions thus far for eyes.
It was all keeping its shape much better than I would have thought, even with the clay-rich soil. The witch’s magic was likely aiding it in that respect. I raised my feathers and shook myself, beginning to feel a creeping sense of impatience. I had come here to gather information, but it seemed like the construction of the thing was going to take much longer than I thought. The witch, while she appeared very focused, also did not seem to be in a particular hurry.
Something made me glance down, not really a sound or scent, just a sudden, nervous prickling feeling. At the base of the tree, staring up at me, sat a black cat. Beside his single green eye a white flower grew from an empty socket.
I froze, which was perhaps not wise. The cat, too, was perfectly still, aside from the very tip of his tail. I knew him to be the witch’s familiar, a canny fellow, most certainly imbued with her magic.
The black cat, never taking his eyes off of me, raised his paws and stretched up against the tree, digging his claws into the bark. I saw the muscles in his haunches tensing, and decided to make my exit. I lit from the branch in a fluttering explosion and darted through the air back into the forest.
I had to fly for some time before my little bird heart would settle, weaving through the dense trees. The cat frightened me in ways I could not explain.
Finally I flew down onto the branch of a hoary old oak tree, dense with moss and lichen. I knew that oak well; it was full of small bolt-holes and had a rotten, hollow bole. It made a fine hiding place, and truth be told I had always found there to be something very comfortable about venerable old trees, especially ones with broad branches and wrinkled, stubborn roots. I calmed myself there, blinking slowly, listening to the scratch of insects underneath the tree’s peeling bark.
The sun was still high- I could see patches of blue sky between the branches above my head. Normally I would have been resting in the daytime, for my true skin did not like the sunlight so much, but it had been imperative for me to spy on the witch that day. After my sudden flight I was feeling tired, and rather dizzy. I had used up more energy than I had intended to.
But if my plan succeeded, that would no longer be a problem, I reminded myself. Under my feathers, I could feel the dull pressure of the white ribbon tied around my neck.
I shook myself, and then again, and stretched into a red marten, long and sleek and sharp of tooth. At least I should be able to defend myself if the cat came calling once more.
By the time I made my way back to the meadow, flowing from branch to branch in the nimble way of the marten, the mud figure was almost fully formed on the riverbank. It was quite large, and no longer so puffy: rather, now it had sharper lines to it, and seemed more solemn. Especially with the face the witch had given it: two large, empty holes for eyes, and a small, frowning opening for a mouth. No ears or anything else, though.
The witch herself was sitting back, gazing at the figure, perhaps figuring out where to place the finishing garnishes. I scanned around the meadow for the cat, but did not see him, nor did my marten ears and nose pick up sound or scent of his presence. This was deeply suspicious, but in my favor for the moment. Perhaps he had gone looking for the red bird within the forest.
Motion caught my eye: the witch had leaned forward to touch the forehead of the mud figure. There was something almost gentle in the way she moved. She traced something out into the mud with a slender finger, some sort of symbol, and then sat back on her heels and said a few words in a language I did not speak.
Her voice sounded so calm and unconcerned that I really did not think much of it, and so when the figure’s mud head turned towards her, every hair on my little marten body stood up.
“Mother?” said the figure.
I noticed that it had a kind of sad voice, a quiet voice, like wind in an empty house.
“Yes, child,” said the witch, and touched the figure’s forehead again.
I was still trembling a little from the surprise as I climbed slowly closer, from tree to tree, until I was out at the edge of the meadow again, my small claws catching in the bark. I had seem many strange and wondrous things- some not so wondrous- but seeing the clay figure move and speak so plaintively still shook me.
Of course, I knew what it was, because it was what I had come to find. It was a golem, a clay figure imbued with Hebrew magic, a servant bound to do the bidding of whoever commanded it.
I needed that golem.
The witch reached out and took one of the golem’s large, three-fingered hands in her own. It unstuck from the muddy bank with a slow, sticky squelch, barely keeping its form.
“Get up now, for there is work to be done,” said the witch.
I saw the three fingers slowly close around the witch’s hand, engulfing it, and then the golem began to try to rise. The thick arm bent, and the heavy, dripping shoulders peeled away from the muck. The head had become slightly misshapen by the time the golem got itself into a seated position, and it reached back and roughly patted its skull back into shape.
“Very good,” said the witch, and got to her feet, still tugging that massive arm. The golem followed her, somewhat unsteadily, it seemed, leaving mud smears on her pale skin as it squelched and dripped uncertainly upwards. When it stood it loomed over her, though it hunched forwards so that its long, heavy arms nearly touched the ground. The mud over its entire body still dripped and ran in thick globs, so that it seemed messy and formless. I could not fathom how it was keeping itself together. Its empty eyes and perpetually frowning mouth winked open and shut as mud dripped down from its forehead.
The witch seemed not at all concerned at the state of her creation, however, nor how filthy it was making her arm as it continued to clumsily grasp her hand.
“We shall build you a place to stay,” she told the golem. “That will be your first task. Then you shall begin helping me with the real work.”
“Yes, Mother,” said the golem. When she tugged, it stumped after her, crushing the grass under its peglike legs, leaving a brown-smeared trail behind itself.
I followed the two of them best I could along the treeline as they moved, scuttling from tree to tree. I had not expected the golem to be so… so… well, unfinished. It looked as though it could barely manage to stay standing, much less do work… Could I really use it? Yet the witch, herself, seemed certain that she could.
They were moving towards the forest now, out of the meadow. I hastened to catch up. In the cover of the trees I could get closer. I had to find out where the witch was going to keep the golem if I was to take it for myself, and this might be my only chance. This witch in particular often disappeared for days at a time, where even I could not find her, and when she did appear she did not move about very much. It was possible that she would command the golem from a distance, and not in a way that would allow me to steal the secret of it.
So I ignored my growing weariness and kept pace with them in the forest, just a few trees back, trying to keep as quiet as I could. Sometimes they passed out of my view, for the trees grew densely together here, but that was of no concern. The thumping, crunching steps of the golem were quite loud, and the witch was humming.
They passed through a small clearing, and I followed, shivering as a large patch of sunlight briefly hit my back. It would not hurt me when I was in this shape, but it made me slightly queasy all the same. I hoped that they would not be walking much longer; my strength was waning fast now, and it was beginning to be hard to keep concentrating.
The golem paused, looking down at something in the grass, and the witch stopped too.
“What are you looking at?” she asked.
The golem did not let go of her hand, but bent forward slightly to pick something up with the other. When it raised it up I saw, in the middle of the vast, muddy palm, a small stone that glittered with chips of mica.
“I see,” said the witch. “Do you think that is pretty?”
The golem turned its large head to look at her; it was still unnerving to see the empty holes it had for eyes.
“You may have it, my dear,” said the witch, in the manner of a patient mother. The golem slowly raised the stone and pushed it into its frowning mouth, its fist briefly merging with its face. When it withdrew its hand, long, sticky lines of mud trailed with it.
I clutched the branch I was sitting on, my nose filled with the sharp scent of pine, practically quivering from the strangeness of it all. The golem slumped back forwards, and the witch detangled her hand from its own so that she could stand up on her toes and touch its forehead. She was drawing something there, a symbol that was obscured by the running mud as soon as she moved her finger. I thrust my head forward and squinted, trying to make sense of her motions.
Then, quite suddenly, I knew that someone was behind me. It was too late. Before I could even turn my head, needles pierced my abdomen, dragging me away from the branch. My claws ripped off the bark, and I let out a shrill scream.
The golem’s head slowly turned towards me, and I beheld its empty expression as I struggled. The cat, who had me in his mouth, crushed my throat down with one paw, his claws hooking through the white ribbon around my neck. Ah, I was so weak, so weak, I could barely fight him! I flexed my long body vainly, and his jaw bit down harder.
“What is that?” asked the golem. I heard its soft voice through the ringing in my ears.
“Noroc has caught something,” said the witch. “But it is not for us to worry about. Come along now.”
Even as I struggled, I heard the stumping footsteps obediently moving away. The cat growled, a low sound that thrummed through my body. A heady scent was emanating from the flower that grew from his eye socket, making me dizzy. I fell still.
Or my front half did, anyway. I rotated my tail in a wild circle and thrust my hind claws into the cat’s side. The cat yowled, loosing his grip on my midsection, and I became a whirling wild thing, biting and scratching and flowing round and round. The cat screamed and spat and laid blow after blow on me with his paws, but just as many missed. The marten had been a good choice after all. But I was still tired, else I would have easily gotten away before.
The cat got his teeth into one of my haunches, making me squeal and curl backwards. My teeth found soft white petals and I ripped them, biting, clawing, tearing. The cat jolted.
The next moment he found himself alone on the branch, and looked all around, the shredded mass of the flower flopping down from his eye socket. Behind it there was only dark space.
He would not find me, though, because by that time I had become a flame-red dragonfly, and I was flying low between the trees, skimming my way back to where safety lay beyond the witch’s borders.
I built myself a house.
Mother showed me how, but it still took me many days. Four days. I have learned how to count.
I built my house out of wood. Mother showed me which trees I could pull down. “Not that one,” she’d say, pointing to one. “This one,” she’d say, placing her hand on another.
I was happy that most of the trees she wanted me to use were pines. I like how pine wood smells. I have no nose or ears, but I can still hear and smell. I can hear mother’s voice, smell pine wood, and sometimes I can even touch things. A little bit. Touch is the hardest sense to have.
During the day, if Mother is not there, I stand in the sun. It makes my skin firmer. Mother warned me not to stand in the sun too much, though, or I will go all stiff.
Mother showed me how to hit a stone with another stone so that it breaks and makes a sharp edge. I use this sharp edge to split the trees I pulled down. At first I accidently crushed them into splinters, but I got better. More careful. I crushed Mother’s hand the first time I held it, but she fixed it. She said it did not hurt. I am glad, although hurting is even harder for me to feel than touch.
I still know that it is bad.
I cut the logs in half and stuck them deep down into the earth. I made four walls. A roof. Finally, a door. The floor is dirt and there is nothing inside, but I do not need anything. I do not need a bed or a table or food. When Mother tells me to go to sleep, I go inside my house and stand until she needs me again.
Mother needs me often. Mostly it is to pull up trees, or dig holes, or make fences. The forest is very big, and Mother has to manage it all. She says sometimes the trees get too greedy and she has to discipline them. She has me stack the trees I pull up at the edge of the forest. From there I can see the meadow, then the river, then very far away the village. I do not see much of the village. Mostly dark squares, and sometimes smoke.
Mother never goes to the village. Neither do I.
Sometimes Mother has me collect things in the forest. Tree bark, or a kind of blue moss, or mushrooms, or little red flowers. Sometimes I have to go looking all through the forest for them. It is a big forest, and some parts don’t belong to Mother. I am not supposed to go to the places that don’t belong to Mother, but it is easy to tell which ones those are. Everything is less green.
I am happy when Mother gives me tasks. I like working. I like knowing that I can help her. Mother is kind to me, and answers my questions, even if she sometimes gives me an answer that isn’t one. She told me that she did not expect me to know how to talk.
I talk to Noroc, too, sometimes, but he does not talk back to me. I am not sure if he can talk or not. He does not pay much attention to me at all, actually, even when I walk behind him and talk to him. When his flower eye got ruined I found him a new flower, a bigger one, that I thought he would like, but he did not seem to want it. Mother laughed when she saw me try to give it to him.
“He does not need it,” she told me. “It will grow back.”
I put the flower in my stomach. I felt a little sad, but at least I will have it with me now. My belly is hollow, and after I collect things Mother reaches through my skin and pulls them out of me. But she let me keep the flower and the shiny rocks I found.
I ask Mother very many questions, but she does not ask me much about anything. I do not think that there is much she could ask me. Maybe she knows everything about me already, since she made me. But this can not be true, because I can surprise her. I surprised her one day when I asked if I had a father.
“You do not have one,” she said. Mother’s face changes much more than mine or Noroc’s, so I could tell she was surprised. “What made you think about it?”
“I think that when someone has a mother, they usually have a father,” I explained.
“Why do you think that?” asked Mother. Her eyes got thinner and she looked at me in a way that felt pointy, like a splinter. I felt the poke.
“I do not know,” I said. I did not know at all. It just felt obvious, the same way it felt obvious that as soon as I came into being I knew that the face I was looking at belonged to my mother.
“Not everyone needs a father,” said Mother.
“Do you have one?” I asked.
Mother smiled. “No, I do not.”
“Does Noroc have one?”
“He did once.”
“He does not have one anymore?”
“No, not anymore.”
“Child,” said Mother, which is what she says when I am asking too many questions at once. I tried to pull them all back down into my belly. But one more sprang out.
“Do you have a mother, Mother?”
“Yes, I do,” said Mother. I noticed that she said ‘I do,’ which meant she still had one, unlike Noroc, who did not have a father anymore. This made me feel a little happy. It seemed like a mother was a good thing to have. Even if Mother did not seem very happy herself when she said it.
Noroc was sitting up in a tree watching us, and he meowed, which is a sound that cats make that is not a word. Mother looked at him.
“It’s getting late now,” she said. “I have several things I must attend to. You finish up your work, and then sleep.”
“I will, Mother.”
Mother touched my forehead, and then she walked off through the trees. Noroc jumped down from his branch and followed her.
I stayed where I was. I had more logs that I needed to split. My house stood in a small clearing, and I had beaten down the earth all around it and made a little fence. I had pulled many logs into the clearing the day before and I only had a few more to split and make into boards. I would sand them, too. I liked how sanding felt. When I put the sandpaper against the board it was one of the strongest feelings of touch I ever got.
The work was not hard, but it was getting dark by the time that I finished. I stacked the boards outside my house and covered them with dry leaves. All around me I could hear the night things waking up. Insects that chirped and thrummed, and frogs that sang. It was more noises that weren’t words, but I still liked to listen.
It was getting windy and cooler. I could see the tall branches of the pines moving slowly. Pollen was drifting through the air. Something small and furry jumped from branch to branch as I watched. An owl hooted.
I felt a kind of happiness for no reason. I wished I could stay outside and watch and listen all night. But Mother told me I had to go to sleep after I finished my work, so I covered up the boards and went inside my house.
She didn’t say I had to shut the door, though, so I left it open.
Fading sunlight was coming in from between the boards I had made, and a few dead leaves got blown through my doorway by the wind. It made me happy again, because I felt like I was not separated from the outside. When Mother told me to sleep, it only meant I should stand still until the daylight came and it was time to work again. I did not like sleeping very much.
I stood in my normal corner, the top of my head just brushing the ceiling. The ground in my house was lumpy, and in some places there was dirt piled up. Some of that was dried up mud that had fallen off of me the first day after Mother made me. I had to stand in the sun a long time before my skin got firm enough to stop bits of my body from falling off. But it also got a little bit harder to move after that. When I was first made, I felt like I could shape myself into anything, but not anymore. Mother told me that is what happens when you are growing up.
I began to prepare myself for the long night, as the light coming through the boards became golden, orange, and pink. Then I heard something: a very small, very high-pitched noise. It was coming from the ceiling. I turned my head up.
There was something very small on the ceiling, something very small but alive. I could see a little face looking down at me. It was… it was…
The name of the creature came into my mind, like a piece of wood bobbing suddenly up out of the water. It was a bat, a tiny brown bat with big ears. It was hanging upside down from my ceiling.
I stayed perfectly still, and the bat wiggled its ears, up, down, up, down. Then it suddenly dropped and fluttered out through my open door.
I turned my head a little, and then something small and warm landed on my chin. Another bat had dropped from the ceiling, but this one had stopped to rest on my face. I held still again. This bat was crawling all around, its little claws pricking while it investigated. I knew it was leaving little marks behind all up and down my face, but I did not mind at all. The bat crawled through one of my eye holes. I felt it moving around on the inside of my hollow skull.
After a few minutes the bat seemed satisfied, and it crawled out of my mouth and flew away with the other one. I was a little bit sad to see it go. I decided that I liked bats.
The night seemed longer and lonelier somehow after they were gone. It got very dark, and the insects got very loud. I stood in my hut and looked out into the darkness past my open door. There was wind and wingbeats and the smell of pine and pollen and all kinds of night noises. I felt as though I was missing the whole world.
But I was very happy later, because when the sun rose, both bats came back. This time they each crawled through my mouth, and I felt them roost together inside one of my shoulders.
When I heard Noroc meowing outside for me to come out, I almost did not want to move. I was afraid I would wake them up. But of course I had to move, so I moved carefully. They did not stir. I could still feel their steady little heartbeats all the way through their hooked little claws. I felt warmer than sunshine.
Noroc seemed impatient by the time I got outside. I was beginning to think that Noroc was impatient very often, and almost always irritated. I could not tell at first because cats do not have very expressive faces, but now I know to look at his ears and his tail. His tail was whipping back and forth across the dirt in my clearing.
When I got close, he stood up and started walking away. This was normal. Mother often sent Noroc to fetch me and bring me to her in the morning. It took her too long to travel back and forth to my clearing every day. She was always traveling all over the forest. Mother works even more than I do.
I followed Noroc’s raised tail through the trees. It was a little bit misty that morning, which made my skin feel moist and runny, but I did not mind because it was also very pretty. The sunlight went through the mist and made the moss on the fallen logs glow with green light, and every delicate sprout poking up through the leaves on the forest floor was brightly illuminated. The birds were very loud, of course, and Noroc’s head sometimes twitched when one of them flew overhead. A blackbird scolded him as we passed, hopping on a low branch. Noroc’s tail whipped a few times, but he did not stop walking.
“Do you like birds, Noroc?” I asked him. I was not expecting an answer, and was not surprised when he ignored me. “I like birds. But maybe you do not like them.” I was not sure. He seemed interested in them, that was all I could tell.
“I like bats better than birds, though,” I hastened to add, recalling the two roosting in my shoulder. I did not want to offend them.
Noroc stopped and gave a little mewl. At first I thought he was responding to me, but then I realized he was looking at a doe that was standing a little ways away. The doe raised her head and looked at us, and I noticed two more further behind her.
Noroc mewled again, his tail lashing quicker. I wondered why he was so interested. Normally he ignored deer, and they ignored us. In fact, all three of them were putting their heads down again to nibble at the new shoots poking up through the leaf litter. Noroc watched them a moment longer, then continued traveling. One of the does put her head up as we passed. I noticed that this one was a darker red than the rest.
“Are you worried, Noroc?” I asked him, when we had moved a good distance away. I was stepping over a log that he had squeezed underneath, and the rotten wood creaked as I eased my legs over it. “Are you worried about the deer?”
Noroc had stopped to wait for me, but he was facing away from me. His tail was still twitching, and he turned an ear back.
“Are you worried that one of them will want to eat your flower?” I asked. Maybe he had had a bad experience before.
Noroc turned back, his one green eye narrowed. Mother was right- his flower had grown back after it got ruined- but it was smaller than it had been before, and slightly pinker. I still thought it was pretty, and I tried to tell him so often.
He did not say anything, just gave me a long, flowery look, and then resumed walking.
It took us a long time to walk to where Mother wanted to meet us. It was down by the river, in a place where it spread out more and the earth got muddy and swampy. I was made near this place. I do not remember very much about being made.
Mother was standing in ankle-deep water amongst the bushgrass, speaking to a Blajini. She turned when she heard us coming, and smiled. I think she was smiling at Noroc, because he had climbed a tree as soon as the ground got muddy and would not come any closer.
“Noroc,” she said, “I want you and the child to guide some visitors to the white grove.” She nodded at the Blajini. “This one has informed me that they are coming.”
The Blajini bowed low. A Blajini looks like a very short person with a rat’s head. They do not speak often, and when they do, they are either very rude or very polite. I was glad that this one was being polite to Mother. Sometimes they climb trees and throw stones and pine cones at her. Mother says she does not mind. They throw them at me, too, and while it does not hurt, I do mind just a little.
(They do not throw anything at Noroc. I think that this is because he is a cat and they have rat heads.)
“They will cross the river at the ford near the village,” Mother continued. “Child, you must not speak to them, no matter what. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Mother,” I said.
Mother walked over to me, her feet sloshing in the mud, and touched my forehead. I could just barely feel the pressure of her finger.
“Your presence will keep them safe,” she told me, as she traced something out. “Noroc will guide you, but you will reassure them. They may ask you questions. Do not answer them. Only lead them to the white grove.”
I wanted to say “Yes, Mother,” again, but the dull pressure on my forehead was making me feel thick and heavy. I could only incline my head.
“You are a good child,” Mother said, drawing her hand away. I stepped slowly backwards through the swampy water and put my hand on the tree that Noroc was sitting in. He looked down from his branch, the tip of his hanging tail curling from side to side.
Mother turned back to the Blajini.
“You will be rewarded,” she said.
The Blajini flexed his long whiskers and made a chittering noise. I noticed that he was wearing very fine clothes, for a Blajini. His trousers were pleated, and his shirt had long, trailing sleeves. There was mud on one of them.
“When it pleases me,” said Mother. I think it was in response to the chittering, even though to me it sounded like another noise without any words. “I still wait for news of the white serpent that gnaws at the roots, and I have none yet. So run along now.”
I did not think that the Blajini looked very happy about this, even though his rat face was as expressionless as Noroc’s. He turned around and stamped away through the mud. I saw him kick a rock, getting more mud on his pants as he did.
Mother’s long patterned skirt was simple, and her shirt was plain, but I knew that when she stepped out of the swamp, there would be no mud left on it.
“Noroc, do not show yourself to the strangers,” Mother said. Noroc seemed to be ignoring her, but I knew better.
A tickling feeling made me glance at the tree. There was a tiny red ant crawling on the bark. Each little ridge of bark was like a mountain range to the ant, and when it encountered one of my big fingers it seemed stunned. It spent a few seconds investigating it with its antennae before climbing on.
“Go now,” said Mother. I got the feeling that she might be impatient. Still, I hesitated. The ant was crawling on my arm now, and if I moved, I would carry it very far from its tree.
Suddenly Noroc jumped down from his branch onto my outstretched arm and swatted the ant with his paw. The ant vanished. Noroc mewled and climbed to my shoulder.
I was a little startled by all that. I hoped the ant had not been hurt by the fall. It was a long fall for a little ant. I wondered why Noroc had swatted it. But I could not stand around wondering. Mother wanted me to go and so I had to start moving.
The Golem Again
The strangers Mother wanted me to guide were a human man and woman. I knew that humans lived in the village but I had never seen them up close, so I was very interested in them. Mother is like a human, but not the same; I know this.
I saw them in the large meadow by the river’s ford, standing amongst the waving feathergrass. They both seemed frightened when I walked out of the trees to them. I felt sorry for it. I think it is because I am very large. And maybe because I have holes for eyes.
I would have liked to say something to them, like “I will not hurt you,” or “I am a very nice golem,” but Mother told me I could not talk to them, so I stayed quiet.
The man was short and thin, with a big moustache and a little beard. His eyes were blue, but red around the edges, and he had skin like old milk. He was twisting his hat in his hands.
“Are you the witch’s familiar?” he asked. His voice was hoarse and deep. The woman had hid behind him when I came out of the trees, but it was not a very good hiding spot. She was much rounder than he was.
I said nothing, because I was not allowed to. I knew Noroc was behind me somewhere in the trees, ready to guide me, but he was not allowed to let these people see him. I felt even more sorry.
“We brought what she asked for,” stammered the man. He moved aside from the woman, who made a whimpering noise, and pointed to a large basket that was hanging on her arm. There was a bad smell coming from it.
“I don’t know,” said the woman, tugging on the man’s sleeve. She said it in a way that made me feel like I was not supposed to be listening. “I don’t know, I’m frightened, let’s go back…”
“It’s too late for that now,” said the man, and he reached over and put his hand on top of hers. Seeing that gesture made me feel kind of strange.
The man was looking back up at me now, and his expression seemed firmer, like my skin after I stood in the sun. “Take us to your mistress,” he said. “She promised us a child.”
I was not sure if nodding counted as speaking. My forehead felt a little heavy for a moment when I tried to lower my head, so I gave up and turned around and began walking back into the trees. The man and woman had a very fast, whispered conversation behind me, and then they ran to catch up.
I tried to walk slowly for them. They were clumsy, and the man kept coughing. I felt that coughing was not a good thing, but I was not entirely sure. The woman tripped more than once over a log or stump, and she kept pulling her shawl tighter and tighter around her trembling shoulders.
I could just make out Noroc’s little dark shape ahead of us, always barely within sight. I had been worried about them seeing him, but they were not seeing much of anything at all, even though they looked around with big eyes. I think it was because they were frightened. I wanted to tell them that there was nothing scary, but I do not think they would have listened to me even if I could speak.
It was a very long walk through the forest. After a little while the woman began weeping very softly. The man held her shoulders and whispered in her ear. The basket smelled worse as the hours passed.
Finally we reached the clearing before the white grove. I knew about the white grove because I had heard Mother mention it to Noroc before, but I had never been inside. I did not think I ever would. Mother had not said much about it, but I got the feeling it was a very important place where I was not allowed.
The man and the woman looked at me with confused eyes when I stopped in the center of the clearing. Noroc had vanished entirely, so it was just the three of us alone.
“Is she here?” asked the man. “Or have you just been leading us in circles all this time?”
I could not say anything, so I just stood there. The man’s mouth twisted under his moustache, and he stumped up to me and kicked my leg. His boot sank into my skin and he had to hop on one leg a moment before he was able to pull it out.
“Damn you!” he swore. “Speak, do something! Where is the witch?”
“Don’t!” cried the woman. She was looking at me with scared eyes again. “Don’t do that, you’ll make it angry!”
“I’m angry! We’ve risked everything for this!” shouted the man.
I felt that this was not getting us anywhere, and thought carefully. What counted as speaking and not speaking? Maybe nodding was too much like a word. I turned my head towards the edge of the clearing, where the trees grew tall and the earth sloped down. The white grove was just beyond that slope. I could smell it, because it smelled like nothing else in the forest: a strange, sweet-rotten smell. Surely they could smell it as well.
The woman made a whimpering noise and wrapped the shawl tighter yet again. “How will we find our way back out?” she moaned. “We’re going to be lost forever! How do we even know that this is the witch’s servant? It hasn’t said anything!”
The man’s face was getting very red. I do not think that he had thought about this before.
“Well?” he demanded, the hairs on his moustache sticking straight out. “Do you belong to the witch, or not? Answer!”
There was only one thing I could think of left to try, though I was worried that it was too close to speaking. I raised my arm and pointed towards the grove. Both of their heads followed the motion.
“That way?” said the man.
“That way?” repeated the woman.
I felt very relieved.
They complained a little more, while I stood there pointing, and argued about whether or not they should try to go back. I was happy that they decided to keep going. I did not think I was allowed to guide them back, only forward.
They held hands together as they walked down the hill. The woman kept looking back at me. Her face was still very frightened. I longed to reassure her that Mother was not the kind of person to hurt anybody.
As soon as they were out of sight, I heard Noroc meow. He came out into the clearing and glared at me. I put my arm down.
“Should I not have pointed?” I asked him. I thought it must have been all right. Usually, if Mother told me not to do something, I could not do it anyway.
Noroc did not respond, just looked all around with his tail whipping back and forth. I thought it was a little bit funny, because he almost looked like the wide-eyed woman.
“Are you scared of something?” I asked him. “There is nothing to be frightened of here.”
His tail lashed even harder when I said this, and he turned around and made it very obvious that he was ignoring me.
As I followed Noroc back to my house, I thought about the man and the woman. They had touched hands twice. I looked down at my big hands and put them together as I walked. I had fewer fingers than they did, and they were very large and clumsy.
I had not expected to still feel bad, but I did. About not being able to speak to them. I wondered why Mother had not wanted me to. Was she afraid that I would ask them too many questions? That was a possibility. Was she afraid that my voice would frighten them, just like my body did? I wondered how my voice would sound to them.
All too soon, Noroc left me alone at my house. I felt even worse just then, thinking about the rest of the afternoon and then the long night. All alone, just sawing boards and sleeping. I could only ask questions to the trees, and they did not care what I had to say. I could have asked the man and the woman so many questions. What are you frightened of? What is in the basket? How will Mother give you a child?
I knew in some way that Mother would not answer those questions if I asked her. For the first time I felt a little bit… what was the word? Oh, yes, like Noroc. Irritated. I wanted answers when I asked questions; that was why I asked them.
I felt bad right away for being irritated with Mother, though. It felt wrong. I hunched over and sawed harder at the board in my hands.
Something moved in my shoulder, and I held still. I had forgotten about the bats in there! Suddenly I felt happier. They would come out as soon as it got dark, I knew it. Maybe they would stay with me a while, crawl on me with their warm little hearts beating. I would like that.
I finished my work, and the sun began to go down. The wind muttered, and the night noises began. I covered up the boards with leaves and stumped back inside my house. This time I closed the door. It was a little bit selfish, but I wanted the bats to stay with me longer tonight.
I felt them wake up just as the sun was going down. The first one crawled out of my left eye and hung down from my chin. I held very still. It scratched its head with one foot.
The other bat came out through my right eye, and they made soft noises at each other for a few seconds. Then suddenly they let go of me and flew. Their wingbeats were so soft that I could barely hear them. I saw one land on the wall and crawl out through the light streaming in from the crack between two boards. The other one followed it.
I was alone again.
I wished that I did not just have to stand there all night. Mother did not like for me to work in the dark, even though it did not bother me at all. I could see a little in the dark, and I did not get cold. But Mother said she did not want me working when she could not keep watch over me. I did not know what she meant by that. I did whatever she told me to do no matter what.
The wind outside was picking up and whistling a little. It seemed to be saying Alone, alone, alone. I was beginning to feel irritated again.
Suddenly I saw a little shadow pass through one of the cracks of light. A bat! A bat had come back! I was so happy, I could… I could…
After a moment I noticed that it was not one of my two bats. It was larger, and it had red fur. I decided that this was all right. I was happy to meet more bats. Maybe this one would stay with me.
The bat flew up and landed on the ceiling. It hung upside down and looked at me with tiny black eyes. I noticed that it had something white around its neck, like a little collar.
Then the bat did something very strange: it stretched out and came down from the ceiling. It stretched down and out and down and suddenly it was not a bat anymore, but a girl.
I would have said that it was a human girl, but I did not think that I was looking at a human.
“Finally,” said the girl, who was looking at me. She had blue eyes, like the man from earlier, except hers were darker and not nearly so reddened. She had warm-looking skin and a lot of freckles across her nose.
I did not know what to do. Well; there was only one thing that I really could do, and that was to keep standing there, since it was what Mother had ordered. I suppose it was more like I did not know what to think. Nothing so unexpected had ever happened to me before. But then again, I had not been around for very long.
While I was thinking about all this, the girl was prowling around the hut, touching the walls, kicking at the dirt.
“Is this all?” she muttered. She looked at me. I noticed that her hair was red, and in very tight, springy curls. The light coming in through the cracks highlighted each one. “Why even build a house for this thing?”
I gathered that the “thing” was me. I would have liked to tell her that I built the house all by myself, but of course I could not. Anyway, I did not think she would have listened. She was another one of those kind of people.
It also dawned on me just then that the girl was not wearing any clothes. That was interesting. I had never seen anyone naked before. Though there was not anything very different to see.
The girl looked at me again. It was hard to make out the features of her face because of the way the light was shining from behind her, but I thought she looked a little bit tired.
“You won’t move if I tell you to, will you?”
She was not completely naked, I realized. The white ribbon that had been around her neck as a bat was still around her neck. But larger.
“Will you speak? Will you do anything at all?”
I did not mind not being able to talk to her so much as I had minded with the man and woman. She was interesting to watch either way.
“Oh, this is wonderful,” muttered the girl. She reached out and tugged on my arm, then gave a little cry as her fingers sank into my soft skin.
“Why-! You’re still not finished, are you? Can you even work? Why does that cat even bother guarding you?”
She seemed to be working herself into a state of irritation. Her irritation was much more vocal than Noroc’s. But the way she stalked back and forth in front of me was familiar.
Suddenly she turned around and touched me square on the forehead. That surprised me, especially when I felt her finger moving over my skin. It did not feel the same as when Mother did it. It was slower, more clumsy. My head did not feel heavy. I think she noticed it was not right, because after a moment she took her hand away and loudly blew out her cheeks.
“Drat that witch,” she muttered, rubbing her fingers. They had bits of clay on them from my skin. “Well, well, it’s your lucky day, I suppose, Mr. Golem.”
I took a moment to wonder why that was, and then grew very concerned. The girl put her finger to her mouth and bit down on it, making bright red blood leak over her lip. I hoped that she had not made a bad wound. But why had she done that?
Much to my surprise- and perhaps alarm- the next thing she did was reach up and touch my forehead again with her bloody finger.
This time I felt something- I felt something very much. The point of contact between us grew warm, then suddenly hot. I felt like my skin was flowing again, like it had when I was just born, and that it was stretching, and getting warm, and drying, and cracking into plates- and none of that, because none of that happened to me. I was the same.
She pulled her hand back, and her eyes scanned my face. I thought she looked disappointed. I myself was still shaken by what had just happened.
I stared motionlessly at her. She scowled.
“Well, do you have free will or not?”
“What is free will?” I asked.
She jumped then, and made a hissing sound, one hand over her heart.
“Ah! Don’t startle me like that.”
“I am sorry,” I said. Then it occurred to me that I was speaking. That was strange, because Mother had told me to sleep, and I could never disobey her, so how…
The girl was still speaking, and I struggled back out of my confusion to listen.
“In exchange for that free will, I have a proposition for you,” she was saying. “It shouldn’t be difficult.”
“What is a proposition?” I asked. And I still was not clear on free will.
The girl took a long breath and rubbed her temples.
“It’s going to be this way, is it…? Look, I shall make it simpler. You will do as I say from now on. How is that?”
“I am sorry,” I said. “I have to listen to my mother. I do not think she will like it if I listen to you.”
The girl squeezed her eyes shut a moment, then said, “Yes, but that’s the beauty of free will. You don’t have to listen to her any more. Or anybody else. Except me,” she added. “If you want to keep it. The free will.”
I was doing my best to follow along, but it was all quite bewildering.
“Why would I not listen to Mother?”
“Do you want to? Don’t you get tired of mindlessly obeying whatever she says? Come now, golem.” Her blue eyes suddenly seemed a shade darker. “You couldn’t even speak before I freed you.”
I thought about that a moment. Freed? Did that mean she thought I was a prisoner before? But I was not. I was not locked up or chained down. Although I could not disobey what Mother said. But why should that be a bad thing? Mother never told me to do anything terrible. Although sometimes I did not like what she told me to do. I had learned that today.
The girl was watching me with her chin in one hand, her eyes narrowed.
“Do you have a name for yourself, golem?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said at once.
“And what is it?”
“Kezia,” I said, again at once. I had never heard the name, but as soon as she asked me I knew. It was another one of those things my mind told me.
“Kezia…?” She seemed to work the word around in her mouth a little. “Isn’t that a Hebrew name? Well, I suppose you are a golem.”
The word ‘Hebrew’ sounded familiar to me, but I could not dredge up a meaning for it.
“Wait a moment, Kezia is a girl’s name, isn’t it? Are you a girl?”
I took another long pause, and looked down at myself. I wore no clothes, but I was smooth all over.
“I do not think I am anything.”
“Well, perhaps not on the outside, but I shouldn’t be calling you Mister Golem if that isn’t what you want. Is it?”
She raised an eyebrow. I was briefly fascinated; I had yet to see anyone do that.
“I do not know,” I said, and then, “Maybe not.”
“Then you are Kezia, who is a dear little girl,” she said, and she smiled. It was a very broad smile, with lots of teeth in it. “Or a dear big girl, but it’s all the same, isn’t it?”
“I do not know,” I said. I felt as though she had tied a string around my waist and was tugging me along.
“Well, my name is Gabi,” she said. “And I have an offer for you.”
I was already struck by the fact that she had offered her name. Nobody had given me anything about themselves before.
“What is it?”
“I need your help,” she said. Her voice was now soft, and sweet, very different from her snapping, crackling frustration earlier. “I’m in a great deal of trouble, and I can’t fix it all on my own. But you can help me, Kezia. And I can give you something very valuable in return: the ability to do whatever you want, whenever you want. Wouldn’t you like that?”
I thought carefully before I answered. My first impulse was to explain that I already had that ability, but it was not exactly true, was it? But in that case…
“You can not do that,” I pointed out.
“But I have already done it!”
“If I do what you want, I can not do what I want,” I said. “Unless they are always the same thing.”
Gabi’s eyes thinned, and then she gave a short laugh. “Well! You’re starting to learn, aren’t you?”
“If I could do whatever I wanted to,” I said, “I would not want to leave my mother. Or Noroc.”
She looked at me a long moment, and tapped her lower lip.
“But is that really true, Kezia? What do you think your mother would do if she found you had free will?”
I thought about it, but not for very long.
“I think that she would want to take it away.” I could not say why I was so certain of this, but it seemed like what she would do.
“Is that what you want, though?”
I did not know the answer to that, but I held back from saying so. She was watching me with her head tilted and her eyes thin. It felt dangerous. When I did not answer, she spoke again.
“Why don’t we make a compromise, then?”
“What is a compromise?”
“It’s when both parties agree to give up a little bit of what they want,” she said. “I want you to help me, and you want to stay with the people you know. Well, that’s fair enough. But why don’t you come with me just to start with? You can try out your free will, and if you don’t like it, then there’s nothing to stop you from going back to your mother, is there?”
I thought this over.
“You would not stop me?”
She spread her hands. “How could I? You are so much bigger and stronger than I am.”
I was not certain that this was really true, but at the same time most of what she was saying did not seem wrong. I was not so sure I cared about having free will that much, but I did like that I could talk to her and she talked back. If I went with her, we could talk all the time, and I would not have to sleep by myself anymore. She was very interesting, too. I could not predict what she would do next at all.
But would Mother be angry? This worried me. I could not imagine her angry. I had never seen her be anything but calm. Even if she took away my new free will, I thought she would be calm about it. Thinking carefully, maybe I wished a little bit that she would not be.
Gabi was watching me while I thought, still tapping her lower lip.
“I think that I will go with you,” I said.
Her reaction was not what I had expected. A slow smile spread across her face, and she put one hand to the ribbon on her neck.
“That’s good, golem,” she said. “I mean, Kezia.”