In Orbit

by Katherine Fabian

In Oliver Twist, Fagin’s golems were powered by — of course — stolen pocket watches.

Sarah remembered her grandfather’s easy smile as she had complained to him about this grave injustice. He had given her a big hug that smelled, as it always did, of cigar smoke and clay and Grandfather, then said, “Would that were the most ignorant thing Mr Dickens had ever graced us with, my love.”

#

A spider and a fly fell in love, and to prove their love for each other, they crafted golems.

The spider wrote her love for the fly in the clay of her golem, marking her adoration into each of its eight legs. She–

“But how did the spider make the cogs and gears for its heart?”

“Magic, my love.”

She wrote her love in the language of the spiders, gentle and light and stronger than steel.

The fly wrote his love for the spider in the chalk of his golem, his loyalty and passion inscribed in its wings. He wrote in the language of the flies, which to our ears sounds like a tuneless hum, but to theirs is the most beautiful music imaginable.

The two were married under a canopy the bride had woven herself. Their golems bore witness.

But love is not stronger than nature, and one day they awoke to find the clay spider had eaten the chalk fly.

“But golems don’t eat! Why did it–?”

“Magic, my love.”

With it, the clay spider had eaten their love, the true words written on it and its prey. You must never use a golem to show you the truth, for what it does with that truth may be more than you can bear.

“But they were in love!” Sarah had protested, six years old and her voice already rough against the unfairness of it all. “That should have been enough.”

And Grandfather had smiled, that fond, boyish smile that meant home and love and family. “With a truth that strong, my love,” he’d said, “you could make the entire world your golem.”

#

Three things made a golem: Stone, truth and an orrery.

Dickens got the stone right, at least. It could be any stone — chalk, clay, granite, marble, dust — fashioned into any shape you chose.

For the royal wedding, the Jews of London had presented Queen Victoria with a golem made of beautifully polished malachite. That was during the years when it was legal to own a golem but not to sell one; just because a gift is political doesn’t mean it can’t also be a work of art.

#

Grandfather had a friend, Eli, whose son had moved back to the East End with his own three sons, all of them a suitable age.

“If you were going to fall in love with a childhood sweetheart, my love,” Grandfather said, “you would have done so by now.”

Sarah laughed and blushed, as she always did when Grandfather spoke of such things. At the age of twenty, love had not found her yet, but Grandfather had no one else to take over the family business.

“It is not fair to ask you to marry a young man you have known since he was in short trousers,” Grandfather continued. “So please, for me, will you give Eli’s grandchildren a chance?”

It would be entirely improper for Sarah to go calling on Eli’s grandsons, but she and Grandfather had always been too busy fitting cogs and testing gears and gazing up at the stars to bother with propriety, which any grandchild of Eli’s would surely understand.

#

The second thing needed to make a golem was a word of truth. Many people used the word אמת — literally “truth” — to make their golems, and this worked perfectly well. But any true word would do.

The evening after Grandfather had first told Sarah the story of the spider, the fly and their golems, he sat her down in front of a clay golem with its orrery firmly in place, and knelt down until his eyes were level with hers.

“You know I love you, my love?”

Sarah, six years old and the centre of her grandfather’s world, had nodded seriously. “I know you love me.” Then, equally seriously: “I love you too. More than the stars in the sky.” She had heard Rabbi Benjamin use the expression before.

Her grandfather had smiled broadly and kissed her forehead. “Then because you know and I know it, no golem can ever have power over this truth.”

He lifted her up so she could see him write I love my Sarah on the golem’s forehead.

“Read that out for me,” he said.

“I love my Sarah,” Sarah repeated dutifully. When she finished speaking, the golem’s eyes opened.

The story of the spider and the fly was still on her mind, and she had not yet understood her grandfather’s words. If Grandfather had said love wouldn’t be enough– Her eyes filled with tears.

But Grandfather just gave her another hug and put her down on the floor. “You know it and I know it, my love, so it will be true whatever happens to the golem. You must never use a golem to prove the truth, but you can always use the truth to wake a golem.”

And Sarah, six years old and truly her grandfather’s daughter, had reached a pudgy hand to pat the golem’s foot. She didn’t know how to put it into words, but she knew she must be kind to it, because it was carrying her favourite truth.

#

The first day, she called on Jacob. A golem answered the door and ushered her into a front room scrubbed so clean that Sarah fancied she could all but see dents in the floor where the golem must have knelt. Jacob’s sister, Naomi, served them tea in delicate china cups.

“If I may be serious for a moment,” Jacob said, as soon as the tea had been poured. “I have had the good fortune to study under several eminent scholars on the true science behind the golem.”

Sarah did her best to look serious. It didn’t help that behind Jacob’s back, Naomi had just rolled her eyes, then looked almost comically guilty at her own lack of sisterly loyalty.

“One simple way to conceptualise the mechanisms behind a golem,” Jacob told her, “is as a fire. The body, you see, is the fuel, and the orrery is the very air it needs to thrive, you understand?”

Sarah schooled her face into one of someone who did, indeed, both see and understand. Naomi, who didn’t have to impress anyone with her marriageable nature, was staring at her brother as if she too had been caught by surprise at his belief that he could lecture his way into a wedding.

“Then the word of truth is the spark that sets it all alight.” Jacob sounded as proud as if he had come to this conclusion himself. “Naturally, the true alchemical theory is far more complicated than that, but–“

Behind Jacob’s back, Naomi shrugged apologetically before leaving Sarah to her fate.

What seemed like hours later, Sarah came home to the smell of brisket and her grandfather’s smile.

“Tell me, my love,” he said, patting the seat beside him in invitation, “was it really so bad?”

She thought for a moment, giving his question the care and attention it was due. “No. The kugel was good, and I think I see now how to calibrate the effects of Mars in retrograde.”

Grandfather put an arm around her and pulled her into a hug. “Will you need me to order some more copper bands?”

#

An orrery contained knowledge of the heavens. It was a mechanical device that modelled the movements of the planets and their moons. When Sarah was eight and a half, Rabbi Benjamin had told her that the sky was God’s orrery; a small part of her had never forgiven God for putting the planets so far out of reach.

The quality of the orrery — its detail, precision and scope — all played their role in giving power to a golem. A pocket watch, stolen or otherwise, could never form the heart of a golem, whatever Mr Dickens might have to say about it.

Sarah took apart her first orrery when she was a few weeks shy of her eighth birthday. It took her three months and many false starts before she could put it back together again. Every morning of those three months she woke with a new idea of what to try next.

#

The second day, she called on Aryeh. The same golem answered the door and ushered her into the same well-scrubbed room, all traces of yesterday’s visit washed and polished away. Naomi served them tea in the same china cups.

To his credit, Aryeh didn’t start lecturing Sarah on what he believed to be the true alchemical theory behind golems. This was because to lecture her on anything, he would first have needed to speak.

“The weather has been most clement recently,” Sarah tried.

Aryeh nodded. Behind him, Naomi looked torn between horror and amusement at her brother’s unique approach to courtship.

“It’s good for business,” Sarah said.

Aryeh nodded.

“And very pleasant to walk by the river,” Sarah said. Her fingers itched for the orrery she had been working on that morning.

Aryeh nodded.

Sarah dared another look at Naomi. She had to stifle a laugh at the resigned sympathy on the other woman’s face.

#

An old man leaves France with nothing but a bundle of clothes and a bust of Napoleon. He’s stopped by the police, who search his clothes and demand he explain the bust. “What is that?”

“What is that? What is that?” (When Grandfather told the story, his eyes widened in mock rage and Sarah giggled happily.) “Do not ask me what is that, ask me who is that! That is Napoleon, the greatest friend of the Jewish people. Under him, we have been accepted, been welcomed into French life with open arms. No longer are we Jews separate from French society — we are true citizens at last, as equal as the stars in the sky. I wish to bring a bust of this great man to my family, so we may gaze upon this great liberator of our people and–“

The police wave him on.

The old man arrives in England with nothing but a bundle of clothes and a bust of Napoleon. At the port, officials search his clothes and demand he explain the bust. “What is that?”

“What is that? What is that?” (Sarah joined in the outraged refrain.) “Do not ask me what is that, ask me who is that! That is Napoleon, the greatest enemy of the Jewish people. He has brought more pain to us than any plague, than any war. Under him, the art of the golem has been completely suppressed. We are forbidden from making them, from owning them, from teaching our children their secrets. How can we Jews survive without the golem? I wish to bring a bust of this evil man to my family, so we may spit upon this great enemy of our people and–“

The officials wave him on.

The old man arrives at last at his daughter’s home, where he is greeted by his family, embraced and kissed and fussed over. He sets down his bundle of clothes and his bust of Napoleon and attends to every grandfather’s proper duty: the care of his grandchildren.

(Sarah snuggled closer to her grandfather and he dropped a kiss on the top of her head.)

One of his grandchildren, a beautiful, clever girl with sharp eyes and a sharper mind, she is fascinated by the bust. “Grandfather, Grandfather,” she says. “Who is that?”

“Who is that? Who is that?” her grandfather booms. “Do not ask me who is that, ask me what is that! Eight pounds of gold.”

#

The third day, she called on Daniel. Naomi answered the door, and immediately she took Sarah’s hands in her own.

“I love my brothers,” she said earnestly.

Sarah fought the urge to snatch her hands away. They felt too hot and too cold at the same time, and Naomi was standing very close.

“I love my brothers,” Naomi said again, “but, please, allow me to apologise in advance for Daniel.”

For all the fluttering in her chest, Sarah couldn’t help but laugh.

#

The gentile scholars whose combustion analogies Jacob took so much pleasure in quoting called orreries Antikythera mechanisms, after a device recovered from an ancient shipwreck. They said it proved that the art of the golem was not inherently Jewish, but in fact had been discovered by the ancient Greeks — those classical gods of all civilisation — and had only later been adopted by the Jews.

Adopted. Stolen, was what they meant, and everyone knew it — no more Jewish than one of Fagin’s pocket watches.

It leant their studies an air of respectability that had previously been so lacking. While many might ask what business a university had in sponsoring curiosity over some Jew magic trick, they would not even question the study of valuable ancient Greek science.

#

The fourth day, she called on Eli’s son’s house again. Naomi answered the door.

“I don’t have any more brothers,” Naomi said with a smile. “But if you’ve chosen already, I can fetch the victor.”

With a courage she did not really feel, Sarah said, “I was hoping I could persuade you to take a walk with me.”

She didn’t miss the way Naomi flushed, nor the guilt that skittered across her face.

“I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” Naomi said at last. She gave the impression of having tried and rejected several answers in her head before settling on that one.

This would be the moment to turn and walk away. Instead, Sarah spoke again. “I rather think the damage has already been done.”

Naomi really was beautiful when she smiled. “You could be right.” She drew herself together. “And who knows, maybe I will discover you to be boring and you will discover me to be brash.”

“I am told I can be very dull,” Sarah agreed.

“Really?” Naomi slipped on her coat. “Tell me more.”

They found themselves by the river, watching the golems pull flat-bottomed canal boats through the water.

“What would you do,” Naomi asked, “if you could do anything you wanted?”

Sarah didn’t even have to think about it. “I’d learn to build a real model of the skies. Something huge and messy and full of surprises, just like the stars themselves.”

Naomi was studying her face, her own expression something Sarah couldn’t read and wasn’t sure she wanted to.

“And you?” Sarah prompted.

Naomi looked away. “I envy you your certainty. My ambition –” She used the Yiddish word. “– feels like a glass I’ve dropped on the floor. It shatters into tiny pieces, and I want to chase them all.”

They both stared at the river for a long moment.

“I want a family,” Naomi said all in a rush. “Happy, noisy children for me to love and cherish. I want to travel the world. I want to see what you see when you look at the night sky. I want to make my family proud. I want to write penny dreadfuls just for the thrill of watching boys save up their farthings to read what happens next. I want you to be boring. Why aren’t you boring?”

It was as if all the breath had fled Sarah’s lungs.

“I could marry one of your brothers.”

“You could.”

They let the lie hang between them.

Golems were fashioned from stone so their bodies might bear the demands of their fate. You could wake them simply by telling the truth. And at the heart of every golem, Sarah knew to her bones, was the movement of the planets: Vast, awe-inspiring and utterly beyond human control.

“Naomi,” Sarah said, finally feeling the courage she had feigned on Naomi’s doorstep. “Would you care to meet my grandfather?”

More stories like this by topic: , , , , , ,