The Golem in the Mirror

I dreamed of Prague at night. It looked the way each of us to whom the words "Old City" speak at least a little would imagine. I knew the Golem had returned, and I ran through the streets hoping to find it. The rain had just passed and "the wet eaves glimmered like sabers," I thought to myself in my sleep. Ahead of me flickered a yellow body, obviously soft, like something made of dough. I was surprised how quickly it moved, and I dashed down a narrow alley to cut off its path. The Golem emerged from an archway right in front of me. It was my ninety-year-old grandmother, absolutely naked.

I followed the crazy old woman. It was my own dear grandmother. Her apartment smells of stagnant time; that is, of the Stygian marsh. It's worse than the smell of an old chamber pot. No matter how you air it out, as soon as a rain passes or you wash the floor, the age-old armoires start exuding the musty smell of a moldering grave.

I'm revolted by the knowledge that my blood flows in this blotchy yellow body formed of quivering, mortal, liquidy clay. I look at my grandmother's photographs displayed on the walls and in the gray haze I see my own face, transposed onto another woman's nineteenth-century body. I gaze at the old woman. At first my eyes can't find her among the rags piled on the bed, which is suffused with medicinal smells. It's my own old age I'm seeing, my own monstrous corpse from the first quarter of the twenty-first century.

My grandmother was precious to me once, when I was a child. She didn't live with us; but she'd come on Saturdays. We'd prepare a festive dinner for her and starch the tablecloth. She smelled of warm gold and a stifling perfume that devoured the air. I remember her hats, velvety like marmalade; the sprinkling of gray in her salon-styled curls; the purple lipstick on her time-gnarled mouth; her mustache, a meddlesome participant in her kisses; and the dusty scent of face-powder and jewels--ruby stars, garnet bracelets, and gold earrings and chains--that had been enlisted to draw one's gaze away from her age, forcing the eye to look past the tortoise wrinkles on her neck, the simian wrinkles on her hands, and the elephantine wrinkles on the phalanges of her fingers.

My grandmother, an old actress, even bore herself at the table as if playing a part in a feast. She'd tell my mother, "Tseitl, kindly pass the salad," as if the phrase had a secret meaning only the two of them understood. Every gesture held significance and inspired excitement. Our house idol grasped a goblet of crimson Bordeaux in her gouty hand.

Her hats have been thrown out, her curls have unwound, her lipstick has dried and crumbled, and her jewels are lying in my safe. They rattle in the jewelry casket like hard candy, since the silk in the boxes has rotted and the velvet has been eaten by moths.

Books with rippling paper the color of human skin; ceramic inanities peering at people with the unblinking silver specks of their pupils; massive clocks resembling artillery shells, their loud ticking deafening the steps of time; rapacious, golden-winged fountain pens; packets of faded intimate letters bearing discolored monograms, sprinkled with dust like talcum; wiry skeletons of Chinese lampshades; bone knives for cutting pages; frigid crystal in crude bronze embraces; faded carpets and darkened pictures; bentwood chairs suffering from arthritis: all these belong to me. Everything I don't need. That which I do need--my freedom--belongs to her.

I often watch her while she sleeps. A snore crawls out of her wide toothless mouth. The well of an old woman's throat is the very depth of gloom, the dark of night. I love sitting in my room, wrapped in safety and peace, listening to her snore. She's asleep! I belong to myself. Her snores are the purring of a lion that has just been hunting me. "Sleep, sleep, don't torture me. Your sleep is my dream, my freedom. I have so many plans for when you're asleep. And now you're sleeping and I'm sitting here dangling my hands involuntarily, my brain counting your snores."

When I spoonfeed the dark blue ring of her lips, her mouth opens wide. Its edges are soft and uneven, grown over with an old woman's coarse whiskers. It's truly like a yawning grave, and it seems my life and my youth are receding down my hand, which is numb from being held in the air for so long, into her. This matrix has outlived all of her children.

I'd thought about getting a sitter. A few quiet women with wrinkles around their lips (a sign of pessimism) even came. They tried to fill the role, but my grandmother rejected them.

My trouble isn't with my inheritance. I feel sorry for her, this deformed, egotistical child, this wounded turtle crawling helplessly around the room. I want her to live. I don't believe in an endless rosy snot of eternal life; I don't believe in a chronic head cold of rebirth. No, for me there will be no pearly gates, no pavilion in a garden, no Beatrice seated on a rose petal, no valley of cinders and ashes, no cheerful hellfire (isn't that where the light the heavens exult in comes from?). There simply will be no me. Sometimes at night I can barely keep from crying when I remember the faces of my friends, relatives, lovers, and chance acquaintances. There will be no him, there will be no her, or him, or her. How can you bear malice or grievances toward these living, helpless, dying beings, whose days are like handspans, whose shadow is longer than their lives? Any thing outlives a person. Throwing something away is easy, but killing is hard. The memory of a person's affairs outlives that person. Which is just as awful as a lit cigarette and a steaming coffee on a table under which a corpse is getting cold.

He took my money, she laughed at me, they beat me, slandered, and gossiped about me. So what? They're no more than the whims of a terminally ill child. Oh, let me look at all of you, let me remember your mouths, your eyes, and your smells before you become filth and stench. Evidently I love people.

Dementia has entered my grandmother like an evil spirit and barely loosens its grip. The rare times her reason returns are accompanied by weakness, pain, and depression. I must involuntarily live in a world that the old woman has dragged back from nonexistence. I keep wondering what will be more than she can take, what will entice and lure her soul to leave these ruins of flesh.

"Ah, Zhenya!" my grandmother says. "There's nothing worse than being a burden. After all, this could go on God only knows how long. I feel so bad for you; it's like you're tethered to my cot. Zhenya, I've been a lot of places and seen a lot of things. I need to study life further. Put me in a nursing home. I'll see how things are there. It won't be for long; between the drafts and the food they'll soon dispatch me to the other world."

"What are you talking about, Grandma?" I answer. "I'm not sending you anywhere and I'll never leave you. I won't be an Ashkenazy!"

Tears stream down in Ariadne's threads through the labyrinth of my grandmother's wrinkles. And I also have a lump in my throat.

At night I hear, "Karel! Karel!" My grandmother stands in the dark, leaning on a table. How yellow she is in the ray of light that has burst in from the hallway--a homonunculus, made of clay. "This heat is terrible! When are they bringing the carriage?" she says in English. It's her Indian period that's returned. There will be a cobra under the bed, Hindu thieves, heat, and thirst. This picture will continue for a few days and then be replaced by another.

"Take me out of this wilderness! Why have you brought me here?" "Tie my hairbow, Maman, I'm going to school." "I lost a needle in bed here and I need to find it!" "Do you remember the Limonov boys?" "There are gypsies in our garden! I saw a red shirt!" Silence. My grandmother washes a stocking in an invisible stream of water. That night: "There's somebody here! They've come for me with their bony wings! Oo-oo-oo!"

I wash the urine-stained sheets, cook liver and rice, sit nearby, and listen to a story about Shura who used to love flinging hats on top of the cabinet. I endure reproaches and tolerate Mozart amid the radio's bird chatter. The broadcast wave roars up to my grandmother's headboard.

I sleep on the other side on the wall and dream I hear a scream, "Zhenya, Zhenya!" I jump up and go into my grandmother's room, throw open the door, and wake up in my own bed from her screaming, "Zhenya! Zhenya!"

I notice what brings on particular delusions. A muggy evening produces India; my black housecoat combined with a chamber pot--a stinking nun; the words tranche credit pronounced on the radio--the anti-tank trenches of 1941. Madness can be directed! This thought gives me no peace.

Orders, whims, and despair. My crazy grandmother hates me. She fights for power like animals and children do, by using my humanity. A child's heartrending cry, an animal's touching look, and senile infirmity revenge themselves on you saying, "You're a human being, give in." And you, a nobody and greedy of praise, obey them with the tolerance of a good-natured slave.

So it went until one day when he walked into my room. He made a few steps toward me without removing his hat or uttering a word of greeting. He had the gait of a man forever in fear of falling and a clean-shaven face with prominent cheekbones and slanting eyes. He slipped a hand into his pocket and pulled out a book. Of course, the man was my friend Chemodanov, not the Golem, and the book was Meyrink's famous novel, but it was precisely on that windy autumn day, when the shadows of the leaves falling outside the window scurried across the room like mice, that a thought was born in my mind.

I remembered distinctly how my grandmother used to read the legends of the Golem collected by Rabbi Yehuda Levi ben Bezalel of Prague, grasping the antique book bound in vellum in her trembling hand. Her gold-rimmed glasses cut a line through her Mephistophelean profile and her deadened old actress's voice crackled like fire. The old book smelled of cinders. This was when I was a child. I wondered whether she remembered. I wanted her to be the one to bring it up.

As if thinking aloud, I pronounce loudly and distinctly, "It's amusing to read how Gershom Scholem writes about the Golem in such a removed tone, like he has nothing to do with it. But Kabbalah Maasit has made a significant step forward if Professor Scholem--rather, Golem--is teaching at Tel Aviv University and writing works on the symbolism of the Kabbalah. Incidentally he's an atheist, this Golem."

My grandmother raises her head and turns a watery, colorless eye on me.

"Zhenya, what are you saying over there about the Golem? Has he come back again?"

"Yes," I say, placing a pill in her mouth as if it were a drachma, my trembling fingers feeling the cold saliva on the inside of her lip. "It's you who are the Golem."

The old woman wants to protest; the wrinkles near her mouth tremble and part.

"Sleep," I say. I press her head into a pillow and douse the lamp. The only light is her gleaming flesh, pale and blotchy like the moon. She lies immobile but I sense unrest roaming in her body.

We'll see what happens.

At night while she sleeps I take a black marker and write on her forehead, spreading the pleats of her wrinkles apart with my fingers. I write the word EMET, which means TRUTH. This inscription on the forehead is the mark of the Golem. I write, wash it off with a warm moist sponge, and write this word in mirror image so she can read it correctly when it's reflected in the glass. It's not really TRUTH written on her brow, and the Aleph isn't an Aleph, but in the murky Venetian mirror that cracked in two in the fall of 1917, any face bears a scar and the clocks run backward.

It's not the experiment on madness but the perversion of the word TRUTH that won't let me sleep. Thoughts about death fall onto my face like autumn leaves. I tell myself silently, practicing disbelief, that these symbols are only ink applied to skin, only a mean joke, but I'm afraid of these mutilated transposed letters. After all, according to Hokhmath ha-Tseruf I've inscribed a death sentence on my grandmother's brow.

In the morning I enter her room, evenly covered in morning shadow, with a beating heart, and open the drapes on the windows with a clatter of brass rings.

My grandmother starts; the noise has awakened her. The shadow, rent in two, contracts itself into the northern and southern corners of the room.

I say, "Golem!"

"Yes." A hoarse morning voice, without surprise or fear. Can I really have succeeded in turning her delusion to the direction I need?

"Arise and go to the mirror."

My grandmother obeys. She walks barefoot. Her legs, yellow like old ivory, are trembling from her calves to her thighs. Her arms are spread out. Her nightshirt looks very much like a shroud. She looks in the mirror, squinting, as if a wind is blowing sand into her face.

"What is written on your forehead?"

She peers at her reflection but the crack in the mirror interferes. Her lips are twitching from tension, baring her ragged gums and her single long, streaked tooth.

"EMET!" she exclaims at last with rapture and awe. "EMET!"

"Golem! You are my creation and must obey me," I say.

"Oh, of course! Of course, you are my sun, my deity!" my grandmother cries. She wants to sink to her knees but I don't allow it.

That day I became drunk with power. My grandmother fulfilled all my commands. Her icy fingers stretched toward my hands and one time she succeeded in kissing my wrist. She straightened her bed, peeled potatoes, washed the dishes, and wrote as I dictated, "Bereishit bara Elokim…" She got me a book, turned the radio on and off, and wound the clock. Once she asked me why her legs and arms shook so and her eyes were tearing. I had to answer that the clay was moist and liquidy, and the Golem was satisfied with my reply.

It had been several years since my grandmother had exerted herself this way. Toward evening she was covered in sweat and noticeably trembling. She collapsed into a chair and fell asleep, and for the first time in several years I was displeased when a snore emanated from her mouth.

I'd managed to defeat old age and create a Golem!

I sighed so deeply from happiness, as if I had wineskins instead of lungs and they were being filled with young wine instead of air. Suddenly I became ashamed. How could I not have noticed that she was completely worn out? The madness of power hadn't allowed me to think about her, like the madness of old age hadn't allowed her to think about me.

I went over to her, remade the bed, and carefully transferred her from the chair to the bed. She wasn't snoring and her breathing had gone deeply inside. Only a turquoise vein on her blotchy temple was pulsing. I loved my grandmother so much at that moment. I remembered her days of lucent reason when she'd asked me to put her in a nursing home. I remembered her reading to me as a child and how we'd go for walks together and talk. I couldn't hold back the tears and they dropped on her face and mixed with her sweat. "I love you, Grandma, live on and forgive me!"

Suddenly she woke up. My tears had seeped between her eyelashes and burned the mucous membrane of her eye, and the Golem's sinewy hands clamped onto my throat.

"I hate you! Monster! Who asked you to create me?" she hisses. Her stony fingernails, the nails I've carelessly not cut in a long time, are digging into my neck. I try to throw her off but she has me fast. Hate has made her strong. My eyes are going dark from terror and asphyxia. We circle around the room in a dance of man and death, and I fall.

I fall with my back to the mirror and slide onto the floor. The old woman sees her face and freezes with horror, unclenching her blue fingers. Now I see too; my tears had washed away one of the symbols on her brow, the one that had been reflected in the mirror as an Aleph. She read on her forehead: MET—DEAD, as befits the Golem.

The Golem flowed onto the floor as if its bones had melted like candles. My Golem grandmother had died.

Thus began my freedom. For several years already I've been sleeping in my grandmother's newly recovered mahogany bed. But every night, even if someone is sharing the bed with me, in the seconds between sleep and reality I don't know who I am. My grandmother's flesh has freed my flesh from its obligations to her, but she possesses my soul more and more, for time is passing and old age is enveloping me. The manacles of my wrinkles are still slender as cobwebs, but they are already there, and the day will come when, after seeing an old woman's body in my dreams yet again, I'll arise from the bed and see one in the mirror.

Translation of "Babushka Golem." Copyright Nadezhda Gorlova. Translation copyright 2007 by Deborah Hoffman. All rights reserved.