Howard and the Golem

Lisa Goldstein

Two men sit opposite each other in soft chairs in the lamplit alcove of a bookshop with stone walls. The the lamp casts their shadows onto the bricks ofn the arched alove. All around them, in stacks on the floor and bursting from shelves, are books. The man on the left wears a yarmulke; the man on the right, a trilby. Between the chairs is a table and on the table are two tea cups. The man in the yarmulke is pouring steaming tea into his cup. The man in the trilby is holding his left hand to his face in despair or exasperation and is gesticulating with his right hand. It seems the man in the trilby might be telling the man in the yarmulke a story. Looming behind the man in the trilby is a shadowy figure as tall as the room. The figure has eyes that glow orange, and on its forehead is the Hebrew word ‘emet’.
Illustration by Emma Howitt

Howard Holder scowled at the sign in the store’s window. It was written in that weird alphabet, Hebrew or Yiddish or something, with dots scattered through the letters like poppyseeds. The last line was in English: ‘Closed Saturday.’

It was Saturday today, but he thought he saw someone moving inside. He put his face closer to the window, shielding his eyes from the sun. Yep, some guy was puttering around in there, moving books from one pile to another. Holder knocked on the window.

The man kept working. Holder looked around him, feeling exposed in the open air. He pounded on the window again, louder this time.

The man glanced up and came to the door. A bell chimed as he opened it. ‘We’re closed today, as you can see,’ the man said.

Holder checked the street again, impatient. ‘This is important,’ he said.

‘It’s Shabbat today, our day of rest. And one of the things that resting teaches us is that nothing is that important, that anything can wait until tomorrow.’

‘Yeah, but you aren’t resting now, are you? You’re in here working.’ He took a step forward, crowding the other man.

The man sighed, probably realising that Holder wasn’t going away. He opened the door wider and led Holder into the dim recesses of the store.

‘Sit down, sit down,’ the man said, indicating a tiny alcove. A desk stood there, cluttered with books and open envelopes and half-empty mugs. Books filled most of the floor around the desk.

They were away from the window, Holder saw, relieved. He made his way through towers of books toward a chair and sat down.

The other man picked up a book from the disarray and set it on another pile. ‘Look, I’m pretty busy here,’ Holder said, glancing at his Hublot watch. ‘I need an answer to something, that’s all. Five minutes, ten tops.’

‘Would you like some tea?’

‘No, thank you. Like I said—’

‘Well, I need some.’ The man stood and shuffled toward an aisle between two bookcases, where he filled a kettle and put it on a hot-plate. ‘Answering questions is thirsty work.’

Holder looked around as they waited for the kettle to boil. Books filled the shelves outside the alcove, with other books shoved in sideways and more in piles on the floor. A lot of them had the same alphabet as the sign outside, but there were other languages too, none of which Holder recognised. No, wait, there was English, thank God. Light shone down the centre aisle, catching the dust and spinning it into gold.

Finally the man came back with two glasses of tea and a jar of jam. ‘Listen, Mister— Rabbi—’ Holder started.

‘Just Mister. Judah Reisman, at your service.’ He peered at Holder with blue eyes so pale they seemed transparent, as if you could look through them and see what he was thinking. He was between sixty and seventy, with a face filled with lines and a fringe of white hair. He wore one of those hats… Holder reached for the word, his grandfather had had one… Yarmulke, that was it.

‘I’m Howard Holder,’ he said.

He waited for some form of recognition, but Reisman busied himself with his tea, putting a spoonful of jam in his mouth and sipping the tea through it. Holder’s grandparents had done that too. He shuddered, feeling as if he’d traveled back to an ancient, superstitious time, where people lived by candlelight and followed incomprehensible rules.

‘Nu, so what do you want to ask me?’ Reisman asked.

Holder leaned back in his chair and uncrossed his legs, more confident now. ‘Okay. So one day my manager, this guy named Nathan, comes to me and tells me that his friend Morrie Rubin needs a loan. Nathan’s a religious guy, like you, and I guess Morrie is too, and Nathan seems to think that since we’re all Jews I have some obligation to help him. Turns out that Morrie’s made some bad investments and none of the banks would touch him. I don’t know how much you know about me…’

He waited again for a look of recognition, but Reisman just said, ‘Only what you tell me.’

‘I’m very successful,’ Holder said. ‘I make cardboard boxes – everyone uses them. I’d just moved some of my factories to Mexico so it was my best year ever. This was, oh, a year ago, a year and a half.

‘I have to be careful – people come to me and ask me for money all the time. And right away I don’t like this set-up. You have to take responsibility for your actions. If you make some bad investments, that’s on you. But Nathan keeps nagging and nagging, so finally, just to shut him up, I say all right.

‘Morrie wants us to go to his house, have lunch, talk things over. So, okay, we go there. We sit down at the table, and this woman – girl – comes out of the kitchen. She’s bringing us some kind of soup, but to tell you the truth I barely notice the food, I’m too busy looking at her. Beautiful, graceful, the whole package. And she’s—’ He started to outline her figure with his hands, then decided better of it.

‘But the big thing is, she’s quiet. You know Jewish women, always talking your head off, complaining about one thing or another.’

He looked at Reisman for agreement. ‘Who can find a virtuous woman?’ Riesman said. ‘For her price is far above rubies.’

‘Whoever wrote that never met my mother,’ Holder said. ‘Never satisfied, that woman. Eat something healthy, wear a jacket if you’re going out, clean up after yourself, why are your grades so low?’

For a moment he was back in that dim claustrophobic house, feeling the weight of all its inhabitants. How had they all fit in there, his parents, his two sisters, his grandparents shuffling along the ancient carpet? He remembered his mother coming into his room unbidden with yet another grievance, his grandfather complaining that he’d broken some religious law he’d never heard of. Remembered too his vow to free himself as soon as he could, to make a place for himself where he never had to take orders from anyone ever again.

He went on quickly. ‘Anyway, it’s like this all through the meal – she goes into the kitchen, brings something out, and then sits down to eat with us. By the second course I’m starting to taste it, to notice how good it is. Brisket, my favorite. Tender like I’ve never had it, juicy. I figure she’s cooked it, and I ask her, “How come a beautiful girl like you is still living with her father?”

‘Nathan looks embarrassed, like I’m not supposed to talk to her. But Morrie’s looking at me, all proud, and he says, “Oh, we have offers for her, believe me.”

‘ “What do you mean, offers?” I ask. “You mean like you’re selling her?”

‘Morrie laughs and shakes his head. “The shadchan – the matchmaker – she’s looking for a suitable match for her. And she’s gotten offers – some days it seems like everyone wants to make a shidduch with my Abigail.” Abigail – that was her name, I forgot to say.

‘The girl looks down at her plate, and she’s blushing. “Tate, please,” she says. That’s it – I’m in love. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a woman blush like that before.

‘You have to think quick in my business. Sometimes you only have a few seconds to decide something, to make your pitch, to get in before the other guy. So I say, “Okay, tell your matchmaker this. I’ll give you the money you want, free and clear, if I can marry her. If she becomes my wife.”

‘Nobody says anything. Nathan is embarrassed again, or maybe even mad at me, and I tell myself to talk to him later. He works for me, after all – it’s his job to back me up. Morrie and Abigail are looking at each other, and then Morrie says a couple words in what I guess is Yiddish, and Abigail says something back to him.

‘Finally Morrie says, “Well, it’s up to Abigail, of course.“

‘ “Sure,” I say, but I’m thinking different. I’m thinking it’s really up to Morrie – he needs the money, after all.

‘Well, we don’t stay too long after that. Nobody’s saying very much. I tell them a little about my business, just to show how well I can provide for Abigail, and we leave.

‘A day goes by, and another day, and I don’t hear from them. I talk to Nathan, but I don’t tell him how annoyed he made me – as long as he’s my in with Morrie I have to go easy on him. “What’re my chances?“ I ask him.

‘ “Well, I don’t think you’re what they’re looking for,” he says.

‘He’s uncomfortable, of course – he’s never criticised me before. And I have to let him, just this once, have to get him to open up. “What do you mean? What are they looking for?”

‘ “It’s just, you’re not very observant, are you?”

‘At first I think he’s saying that I don’t notice things. Then I realise he’s talking about religion, and I laugh at how green he is. That isn’t going to matter, not with the problems Morrie has.

‘But then more time goes by, and still more. And finally I get a call from some woman with such a thick accent I can barely understand her. I almost hang up on her, sure it’s a wrong number. Then I hear the word “Abigail”, and I start to pay attention. She’s talking about some guy, and she says some things in another language, or maybe a couple other languages. She mentions a date, and finally I realise that Abigail, or Morrie, has made a decision, and it isn’t me.

‘Well, okay. You win some, you lose some. And to be honest it’s only been a year since my divorce, and I don’t know if I want to settle down again so soon. I still have some life in me, you know? And I’m busy expanding, signing up new clients, and the next time I hear about Abigail it’s almost a year later, and I’ve forgotten the whole thing.

‘It’s Nathan who comes to tell me. Abigail is very sick, he says. She’d felt bad for a while, even before her marriage, but Morrie doesn’t have good health insurance so she didn’t say anything, hoping it would go away. And now it’s cancer, and they think it’s inoperable.

‘It’s very sad, of course, and I tell him so. A few weeks later he’s back, and he tells me that Abigail died. That’s sad too, but I’m getting impatient with this guy. I mean, I barely know these people, after all.

‘So some more time goes by, and Nathan comes to see me again. Morrie’s gone, well, a little looney tunes after Abigail died, he says. He’s fixated on all the people who didn’t help him out, all the bankers and loan officers who turned him down. He thinks they’re responsible for his daughter’s death, and he’s going after them. And Nathan says that I’m on his list too.

‘First of all, I tell him, I didn’t turn him down. He turned me down, which I have to say wasn’t very smart of him. And second, what can he do to me, anyway?

‘So Nathan tells me this crazy story, about a man made out of clay. A— a gollum?’

‘Golem,’ Reisman said, smiling a little. ‘Long o.’

‘Sure, a golem. He says Morrie’s figured out how to create this man, this golem. He says that it’s very big, like maybe nine feet tall, and strong, and that nothing can stop it, not even bullets. And that it’ll do anything Morrie says.

‘Well, I mean, I laugh. Sure, a man made out of clay. I go back to work, and I put the whole thing out of my mind.

‘About a week later, Nathan asks me if I saw the news last night. I say no, and he tells me about some guy who died, a manager at one of the big banks in town.

‘I’m getting mad now. Why does he keep bugging me like this? “What, you think it’s that clay guy?” I say. “How did he die?”

‘ “Well, the police said he jumped from his bedroom window,” Nathan says. “Except he landed about twenty feet away from his house, like someone threw him. And they found these huge footprints leading up to his bedroom, clay footprints, about this big.” ’

Holder held up his hands, trying to remember the distance Nathan had shown him, then moved them farther apart, about two feet. One of his hands was shaking, and he forced himself to hold it still.

‘ “You know, this whole thing is your fault,” I tell him. “You were the one who made me visit the guy. And you keep coming in here, bringing me bad news. I don’t want to hear about it, okay?”

‘He starts to say something else, like I didn’t just tell him to shut up. “That’s it – you’re fired,” I say.

‘He looks surprised. He opens his mouth, then realises it would go better for him if he closes it. “Get your stuff and go,” I say.

‘I’m still not all that bothered, though. For one thing, I can’t believe it. I mean, it’s crazy, right? I read some more about this guy’s death, and it turns out he didn’t even have a burglar alarm. So probably what happened is that somebody broke in, tossed him out the window, and made all those muddy footprints somehow. Not Morrie – he’s a shrimp, couldn’t throw off a cold.

‘I get a better security system and I try not to think about it. Then I’m watching the news one night, and they’re talking about someone else who died, a woman this time. A loan officer – I even did business with her once. She had fancy security up the wazoo, so they think she heard the alarm go off and went downstairs and surprised whoever it was.

‘Like I say, I know some of these people, and the next thing is that someone at a bank tells me their CEO just died. Well, he was pretty old, in his seventies. Then the banker says that the CEO’s wife thinks he died of fright. She was there when he died, but she’s doped to the gills and can’t talk about it.

‘I almost send for Nathan, before I remember that I fired him. I call down to HR for his phone number, but they tell me they don’t have one. He got a job in another city and only left us a P.O. box, like he didn’t want anybody to get in touch with him. Some gratitude, huh? I give the guy employment for fifteen years, and this is how he repays me.

‘Okay, so I have to admit I’m getting a little worried now. I go look for Morrie, but he’s moved too. And I ask around if anyone’s heard of this golem thing. Most people have no idea what I’m talking about, but finally somebody sends me to you.

‘So that’s it – that’s the story. And you say you know about them, right? Do you know how to stop them?’

Reisman nodded. Holder felt his muscles loosen, some of the tension of the last few months finally leaving him.

‘Some say the first golem was created by Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, may his memory be a blessing,’ Reisman said. ‘This was around 1590, in Prague. Of course, there are earlier stories, for example Rabbi Eliyahu, may his memory be a blessing—’

Holder sighed loudly. ‘Right, you don’t need to hear the whole megillah,’ Reisman said. ‘Rabbi Loew made his golem out of clay, like Nathan said. He wrote one of the names of God on a piece of parchment, and he put it under the golem’s tongue. And on his forehead he wrote the letters aleph, mem, tav, which spell out emet, meaning “truth” in Hebrew.’

Holder shifted impatiently, but Reisman held up his hand and went on. ‘To stop the golem, he erased the first letter of emet, the aleph. Then the letters spelled met, “death”.’

‘That’s it?’ Holder asked. ‘You erase the first letter, and it dies?’

‘That’s it.’

Holder felt lighter suddenly, as if he could float to the ceiling. He stood. ‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘Oh, my God. It’s like my doctor told me I had a fatal disease, and then said, no, I made a mistake and you’re going to live after all. I don’t know how to thank you.’

He went to the door. ‘Give some money to charity,’ Reisman called after him. ‘And let me know how it goes!’

A few weeks later, Reisman was sitting at the counter reading when he heard the bell chime. He looked up and saw Holder standing at the open door, talking to someone behind him.

‘What, you’re going to follow me in here too?’ Holder said. ‘I don’t get a moment of privacy?’

Whoever he was talking to replied, too softly for Reisman to hear. Holder went inside, and then someone, something, came after him. The figure was so tall it had to duck its head in the doorway.

Reisman stared at it. Not nine feet tall, as Holder had said, but tall enough. It was reddish brown, like clay, and it moved fluidly, as if it had no bones. And on its forehead…

Reisman started to laugh. ‘There’s nothing funny about this,’ Holder said.

‘I’m sorry,’ Reisman said. ‘You’re right, there isn’t.’

‘So what happened? I did like you said, I erased the letter on its forehead. And it wasn’t easy, let me tell you – it was fighting me the whole time. But the goddamn thing didn’t die – it just keeps following me around.’

‘Howie,’ the clay figure said. Its voice was unexpectedly high, like a woman’s. ‘Watch your language.’

Reisner laughed again, a short bark, before he managed to control himself.

‘And bugging me. It keeps bugging me. Yeah, go ahead and laugh. You did this, didn’t you? You gave me bad advice, you knew this would happen.’

‘No. No, I swear I didn’t. It’s just that, well, you said you were Jewish, so I thought you knew.’

‘Knew what?’

‘That Hebrew is written from right to left. Backwards, you would say.’

‘No, I didn’t know that. Newsflash – this is America, we speak English here.’

‘So what happened is, you didn’t erase the first letter, the aleph. You erased the last one, the tav. And you spelled…’ Hilarity threatened to overtake him again, and he took a deep breath.

‘What? What did I spell?’

‘Em. Mother.’

‘Oh, my God. Oh, God, no. What do I do? How do I fix it?’

‘I don’t know. I never heard of anything like this.’

‘Listen, you dirtbag. I’m a businessman, I can’t go around with this – this nursemaid following me, giving me orders. You help me out here or I’ll—’

‘What did I say about threatening people, Howie?’ the golem said. ‘You’re not too big to be spanked, you know.’

‘I’ll look around, see if I can find something,’ Reisman said.

Nothing came to mind, though. Despite his yarmulke, his religious scholarship, he had always had misgivings about the Eternal One, blessed be He; he came into the store on Shabbat, he even ate a pork sandwich once in a while. But now he thought about the workings of the world, how some things appeared touched by His hand… But that was a mystery Reisman had never understood.

‘You do that,’ Holder said. He turned and went to the door.

‘Look how cold it is, Howie,’ the golem said plaintively, following him. ‘Didn’t I say you should bring a jacket?’ ∎

Lisa Goldstein’s latest novel is Ivory Apples, from Tachyon Press. Her other novels include The Red Magician, which won the American Book Award for Best Paperback, and The Uncertain Places, which won the Mythopoeic Award. She has also won the Sidewise Award for her short story ‘Paradise Is a Walled Garden’. Her stories have appeared in Ms., Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and The Year’s Best Fantasy, among other places, and her novels and short stories have been finalists for the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards. She lives with her husband in Oakland, California, and her web site is

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