Shelter me in your shadow
Be with my mouth and my word
Watch over my ways
So I will not sin again with my tongue.
Since the beginning of the world, there’ve been a thousand ways invented to be lonely. In a market stall, surrounded by speechless wooden wares, or banished to a black rock in the center of the sea. In a tower, feet forced into standing, floor too small for kneeling down, the only view a high window, the world below made of fire. On a road, parched, nothing but horizon. In the dark, visited by spirits jealous with their leavings.
At the tops of certain mountains there are places for those the world refuses, and at the bottoms of other mountains there are prisons for those the world regrets. There have been boulders installed for leapers once the never is too much.
The quiet is never quiet, not to the lonely. The quiet is full of newborn babies crying and lovers murmuring. The quiet is full of wineglasses and whippoorwills. Screaming quiet is the way the world lets a man know he’s alone forever, with no remedy but death or sorcery.
Málaga isn’t a city where loneliness should overtake a man. Sweet milk, grapes and almonds, figs, lemons, bitter oranges, pomegranate, a view across the ocean from Spain to the coast of Africa. It’s beautiful everywhere, everywhere but where Solomon is. Wherever he steps, there is sorrow and pain.
Solomon’s come South from Saragossa to the city of his birth in a last attempt to heal himself. He’s saltfish. Something’s climbed beneath his skin, creating scabrous ridges on the sides of his ears and lips, and a cough, sometimes bloody. It isn’t leprosy, but it looks enough like it that the neighbors shun him. No medical man can help him, and no woman will have him.
Alone in his house, Solomon names a cloud of dust, picturing an Avra with delicate fingers and a quick smile. Then he sweeps her into the street and watches her blow away. God doesn’t permit men to knead dust into something with a heart. There is a short history of forbidden creations, a litany of longing. To defend a city, one might permissibly make a warrior of clay. One is not allowed to do that in order to fulfill selfish desires. There will be no blank-faced brides made of mud in Solomon’s house. There’s no hope of love now, not the way he looks. He’s spent twenty years describing the thousand ways, and no time on any softer arts.
The four-hundred-thirty-fourth way to be lonely is the loneliness of the sleepless, awake while the world is not, moon risen, bats with it. Small owls, and teeth in the walls. A coverlet made of sand, a bed made of blisters.
When Solomon wakes each morning, his mind is filled with words chewing at each other’s tails, tangling toes and tongues. Unspoken poems run through his house, little long-legged darknesses. When he’s on his pallet at night, words stand on their hind feet and stare at him. He can’t sleep, nor can he organize words into sentences. When he lights a candle, he sees books he’ll never finish. Words hide in the shadows and in the cracks in the walls, refusing to be written.
All he has are words, and none of them serve him. None of them even care for him.
Solomon sits alone at supper, taking figs from a dish painted with a lustered ship. He touches the ship’s outlines, the oars, the rigging.
Had he a ship, he might sail to some far off country where women had never seen men, and thus wouldn’t recognize him as a ruined specimen. He has no ship.
He idly makes a heap of fine sawdust and positions it across from him. Tziporah, he thinks, and then, realizing what he’s doing, brushes her abruptly from the table. That dust isn’t a wife.
Solomon spends an hour staring bitterly at the sky, mapping more of the ways of loneliness. The spheres above him, the sky filled with planets, and all of them are in love. He’s a solitary star in the process of dying, the last of a galaxy, the only point of light in a bad piece of darkness.
As a young man, he walked the roads of Andalusia, and mapped brightness instead of the night. Black lace on golden skin, copper glances, the gentle mouth of a serving maid as she circled the table with a jug of wine. He was invited to meals in fine houses, and published as a philosopher, but he made more enemies in such houses than friends. There was something wicked in his soul as well as in his skin. Perhaps the almighty means him to live in solitary misery, a scalded man, but he finds himself in rebellion.
There are options. Witchcraft or suicide. Death or sorcery. The choices are clear.
Solomon has two new texts, bought during his last travel North. He has, for years, called himself a translator, bartering and wheedling, when in truth he wanted these volumes for something else. He’s translated words, but he wants to translate other things. At last—this is his seventh night sleepless—he takes the books down and unwraps them from the linens that keep them safe from dust. The Banū Mūsā’s treatise on the construction of ingenious devices, and The Sefer Yetzirah. There are instructions in both, recipes for things more complicated than joy. Nothing in it is obvious, but he’s a poet. What he lacks in logic, he adds in lyric. He combines the instructions, and draws a diagram.
The five-hundred-ninety-third variety of loneliness is the loneliness of first light, a dawn unwitnessed by anyone else, sun rising over the sea, a cracking seam in the world.
When he was sixteen and ignorant of his future miseries, Solomon boasted, “I am the Song and the Song is my slave.” Even if that was true then, it’s no longer enough.
The two-hundred-fifth way to be lonely is to hear an echo and think it is the voice of a friend.
At twilight, Solomon dresses himself in a wide-brimmed hat, long gloves, a scarf about his throat and shoulders, a thin saffron-dyed robe, and a veil over his face. He goes into the Jewish quarter.
The nine-hundred-sixty-eighth variety of loneliness is the loneliness of planning magic and keeping it to oneself.
The moon rises as Solomon walks. It’s spring and the trees are in bloom, but Solomon prefers the stars: they’re brighter in winter. Lightning laughs in the distance. Nighttime is, at least, less lonely. He’s free of the house. No one draws back from him in horror, because his garb covers everything.
He passes a garden and smells salt, clove, and cinnamon. The sky blooms with the roses of Venus, constellations of pale pink nard, falling stars of jasmine. He stops to inhale, and imagines sharing what he’s seen. He could bring a wife a bouquet of all the flowers of this city, both poetic and actual. He could tell her every secret he’s stored in his skull, every desire for murder, every yearning for love. He could pile them all at her feet and wait for her to look up and smile at the precious things he’d given her. He’d tell her about the assassination of his mentor, the way he wandered adrift after it. He’d tell her about the hundreds of elegies he’s written, and about the grammars, the dictionaries. He’d recite them all from memory, until she knelt before him to tell him that it was time to sleep. He would go. He would not be an unreasonable husband.
At last he arrives at the orange grove.
“I need a tree,” says Solomon. “Not too small a tree.” He shows the grove man the size he means, stretching his arms.
“The entire tree?” the owner asks, looking at Solomon. “What will you do with a tree? How will you carry a tree?”
“The roots as well,” says the poet.
The treeseller sighs. “It won’t grow back, once it’s cut. The roots should stay here in the earth, to feed the ground.”
“The roots,” says Solomon again.
The seller takes Solomon’s coins, shrugging, and brings out his shovel. The five-hundred-sixth form of loneliness is the loneliness of drought, trees dropping their leaves and fruit, humbled by heat, a treeseller amongst them, praying in vain for the clouds to burst.
The treeseller shovels.
Solomon has a cart’s worth of orange tree in the end, and he hires a donkey to haul it.
The seven-hundred-thirteenth variety of loneliness is the loneliness of driving a cart back to town in the dark, a donkey breathing loudly, smelling blossoms. The oranges from these trees are too bitter to eat, but their blooms are perfumed with the smell of sweat and sex.
At the carpenter’s house, Solomon gives the carpenter the tree with its heady blossoms and wilting leaves, the roots a tangle of black soil and beetles. With the tree, he passes over a green glass cup from his own kitchen, and the lusterware dish painted with the ship. At last, he gives the carpenter his diagrams. He pays him in maravedís from the publication of The Fountain of Life, the only thing he’s written that seems likely to pay. Planets devoted to God, each one with its own section. He’s out of fashion now, he fears. No one pays for poetry.
“Hinged,” Solomon says, pointing at various places on the diagram. The carpenter usually makes doors. Solomon wonders if he’s literate.
He has no certainty, only longing. He’ll do the most difficult part of the magic himself, but for this part, the handwork, he has no skills. He goes home and waits, alone, alone, alone.
“The poet’s commissioned a cabinet,” the carpenter tells his father. “But it’s a strange one. He insists I use the entire tree to build it, the shavings and the dust, the roots and the leaves, the flowers. It’ll take days of planing and shaping, and even then, I’ll have to bend the wood in too many places. He wants it hinged at every compartment, and he wants a musical instrument built into it. I don’t know what to tell him.”
The carpenter’s father shakes his head, and so the carpenter goes to his mother. She’s not from Spain at all, but from a city across the sea. She has different skills than those his father possesses.
“He pays us well for this?” she asks.
The carpenter shows the coins, looking uneasily at the branches he’s meant to shape.
“Well enough,” she says, counting them. She examines the diagram with interest, annotating it, drawing the outlines of an instrument from her homeland. At last she scratches in another small alteration, a tiny compartment to be placed deep within the creation, and sealed.
“I should not make this,” the carpenter says. “It will offend.”
The carpenter’s mother glances sharply at him. “The commission is a kind of cabinet, whatever it looks like. Deny what you’ve made if anyone asks who made it. But we’ll take his payment.”
She hides the poet’s coins away in her apron, then brings her son sheets of metal, pounded thin, a curved knife, and a tiny hammer. She consults the diagram again, goes to the market, and returns with a stillborn goat, bought for its tender hide, and the tanned skin of a doe. She brings tools for carving and stitching: awls, a vial of a particular oil, sand for polishing.
What the poet has commissioned is no sin to her people. The desert has wandering fountains, and the holy have help.
The thirty-ninth form of loneliness is the loneliness of a woman who can see her home from across a sea, but cannot return to it. The loneliness of childbirth in a foreign land, none of the rituals, none of the other women. The loneliness of a marriage made across a table, cooking food, the sound of men talking the language of this country, not of the one you came from.
The carpenter’s wife comes from a family whose men made objects for kings. Her son and husband are not what she’d have chosen for herself, had she been doing the choosing. If she were a man, she’d have spent her life working metal and dark wood, inlaying it with gemstones and camel bones.
Instead, she lives on the southern coast, looking over the water at the weather of the continent she’s lost.
So the carpenter and his mother work the wood of the orange tree, sanding and polishing, putting in hinges. They work at night when the other work is done, and in the dark, the workshop fills with the scent of sap, fruit, and pitch. There are the sounds of strings being plucked and then bowed, the sounds of taut leather being tapped. The carpenter’s mother adds an instrument from her home, and while she builds the instrument she sings the songs it should play.
The carpenter’s mother sits on her heels, looking at the blistered hearth where the fire caught out of control one afternoon beneath a spitted goat. The goat, with its twisted horns and yellow eyes, is long gone, but she remembers its voice, the song it sang, beheaded. She takes a handful of the ash, presses it hard into her palm, shapes it.
Her son crouches beside her. “People want strange things,” he says. “Nothing I’d wish for.”
“Most people don’t,” she says, working the ash, adding a tiny piece of parchment with something scrawled upon it, a word in her own language, and then more ash. “Most people want things to remain the same forever, but the world changes, and we change with it.”
She pets the wood, finds a long splinter and tests its sharpness. She soaks it carefully in the oil until it shines. Perhaps things like this cabinet are made all over the world, and always have been, but she only knows them from her home city, and then only small ones, playthings for the wealthy. This one is different.
She kneels, and opens doors, until she arrives at the secret door hidden deep within the commission. She places her handful of ash there, a gift to it.
The carpenter’s mother closes that door again and seals it with beeswax. She closes the next door and the next, until all the doors are tightly shut.
The golem isn’t alive, and then she is.
The first loneliness is the loneliness of birth. The golem opens her eyelid hinges, delicate doe leather. Her eyes are cold and dry, but she can see the man she’s been created to serve, standing over her.
“You,” he says. “You.”
The golem has pale yellow-brown skin, smoothly sanded. Her hair is made of creamy white flowers with canary streaks, and there are shining green leaves throughout it. She smells of biting honey. She’s small and slender, her waist narrow. No taller than he is. Her arms show the tracks of the tools that made her. There’s a gouge between her breasts where there was a knot in the orange tree’s trunk.
The poet has hammered one of the secret names of God into her palate, and this is what has brought her to life. She tries to speak but she has no tongue. There is a pain, a stabbing where the silver tablet is. She can’t tell what it is, only that it hurts.
It stretches inside of her body, a tentacled name. There is a loneliness in this too, the two-hundred-sixty-seventh, the loneliness of the only name one can speak being unspeakable.
“My name is Solomon ibn Gabirol,” the man says, and blinks nervously. “You are my wife and servant. You’ll help me write. I’ve need of someone to keep my words contained.”
She examines the man before her. His hair is turning white, and his skin is red, black, and yellow. His cracked flesh bleeds. Salt water runs from his eyes.
Solomon, she mouths. There is no sound.
“Yes,” he says. “You’re a thing made for me.”
The man feeds her a piece of paper, on which is written a line of a poem, and then he feeds her another. They taste like termite, wasp, worm. A hinge creaks in her jaw.
She’s never seen a man before, not from this angle. She wants to take his tears and use them for some purpose. A ship, she thinks, catching a bewildering taste of his old thoughts. On a salt sea. An island where they have never seen a woman.
She tries to make a noise, but only a rattle comes out. There’s a lock on her lips, a bent metal hook through a bent metal eye, and he has latched it. He takes her through his house, showing her its rooms.
“You’ll clean for me,” he says. “You’ll rid my house of dust.”
She understands. She begins to shovel with her hands. She buries her fingers in the mess, and thinks of rooting there, falls to her side and stretches, planting herself, but he pulls her up, telling her he wishes her to sweep the dirt, not roll in it like a sow.
She learns quickly. She’s made to learn.
When he ordered her, Solomon gave only the measures of the golem’s body, writing figures in the margins of his diagram. The carpenter was no sculptor. The golem is full in the hips and breasts, but one breast is bigger than the other, and her hips are tilted.
She has no heart, and no soul. She is therefore no sin.
This is what Solomon thinks to himself when he is trying to sleep in a house in which he is no longer alone.
Solomon’s diagrams included no more than suggestions for her face. She therefore has crude features, a mosaic of lustered ceramic for a mouth, and green glass eyes neither the same size nor the same shape. One is oval, and the other is wide and round. The lids, at least, are neat half-moons. Her nose is an angled slope with a bump at the bridge where the grain of the orange tree arcs. She has only an approximation of a woman’s looks, but her hinges are perfect. All over her body, there are metal hinges, and wooden ones, leather hinges, and string ones.
She’s held together to come apart.
Sometimes, after the first days when she has to be kept from dropping in the garden and pressing her long fingers into the soil, or from standing too many hours outside with her face upturned, waiting for bees to land on her skin, the poet opens a door in her abdomen to remove a word and use it in a sentence. He talks more and more, all day, all night. He paces the room, telling her of injustices, years of woe, jealous companions and patrons murdered. He tells her of his childhood and his disease. He reports every injury done to him, and then writes more lines and feeds them to her.
“My throat is parched with pleading,” he scribbles. “I am buried in the coffin of my home. I combine my blood with my tears, and stir my tears into my wine. I am treated as a stranger, despised—as though I were living with ostriches, caught between thieves and fools, who think their hearts have grown wise.”
Solomon wonders why he still feels lonely. What kind of loneliness is this? One that hasn’t been given a number. It makes him itch, all over, everything from his fingertips to his brain.
The golem is busy. She sweeps the house’s dust into the street. She washes the clothes. She clatters on the stones of his floor, her feet too loud in the night, and sometimes she sits, looking out the window, waiting for him to wake, breathing in the new dust that falls from the old walls of the city. She doesn’t sleep or eat. She has no need for it.
He writes a list of his enemies and puts them into her mouth. He wants them dead or forgotten, himself remembered. He burns his name onto her wooden skin, a thin line of characters, black and smudged, a circle around her wrist. She looks at the words, curious. They’re nothing magical. He is, for all his labor and verse, an ordinary man.
I am your thing, she thinks. Thing. She has no name. It is his job to give her one, and he has not.
The poet writes poems, and the golem walks in circles. She lifts his pallet with one hand, to dust around and beneath it. She beats a rug with her fist.
There is a thumping and pleasurable loneliness in this, the loneliness of a drummer in the desert, pounding a sound into leather, untethered by any city. She pounds the rug and feels a song inside herself, the song of falling oranges in a storm, the noise of their ripe roundness rolling away. The rug is silk, and she ravels a strand of scarlet loose and wraps it around her fingers, weaving it through her hinges. There is pleasure in this too, the feeling of an orange tree surrounded by dancers, the feeling of a gourd strung across by strings. She pulls the silk through her hands, stretching it, thinking of spiderwebs. She was once companioned by hundreds of spiders, each one using her branches as an anchor for an instrument of its own, fishing at night. She unravels the whole rug and makes a delicate web in a doorway.
“What is that?”
She has no answer, of course. She’s standing beside her web, moving silk over silk, patterning the web to mimic the ones she’s seen in her own twigs. With dawn there would be dew on each thread, and the spider in the center, waiting quietly for whatever might be drawn to something with so much gleam.
“This is nothing you’ll do again,” he says to her, taking the threads in his fist, tugging at them until they detach. He takes the tangled silk and throws it over the cliff. She watches it unspool, red loops caught in the wind, spun strings. Scarlet words in the air for a moment and then gone.
The loneliness of a bird trapped in a web, its wings twisting backward as it swings, struggling, and trapped. The spider’s venom, the twisting of thread to cover the beak, the glittering eyes, the feet and flight. The loneliness of being too much body to eat, and killed anyway. A mummified silence, a veiled singer dangling from a chain of silver threads.
Solomon leaves her mouth unlocked one night, and she tests it, stretching the hinges, coughing up half a poem. She feels dirty, and so she goes out into the rain and opens nearly every door in her body.
She thinks of sap. There are roots inside her, her stomach and her intestines made of them, and she places a hand on the ground and takes water from the soil. The sun is part of her skin, and so are the wind and the salt from the sea. She’s three hundred years old, and grew from an orange seed dropped by a gull. She’s birthed thousands of oranges, and they’ve fallen from her boughs, taken into the ocean, and into compote dishes. A few of them grew into trees.
Now she’s a golem, but she’s still what she used to be.
In the morning, the poet finds her with her head still upturned, and screams at her, fearful of rust stiffening her smallest hinges.
She looks toward the blaze on the horizon, her jaws wide for the rain until he closes them again, muttering that his hidden words will get wet. He locks her mouth. She grinds her tiny wooden teeth, tasting dust, which she swallows, but she isn’t built for anger at her maker.
She’s seen the stars now, and she longs to see them again. They’re familiar, the green haloes around them, the way the bird-hunting bats swoop and hang from her fingers, the way darkness turns to dawn, bleeding at the edge of the sky.
The poet brings her inside the house, and locks the front door, just as he locked her lips.
“You must be as a wife,” Solomon says, his hands shaking. “That is what you were created to do.”
The house is very clean. He arranges her on the bed, and she opens for him. She is built to do this. Her diagrams were clear. The secret hinges he requested are small and soft, made of the leather of the stillborn goat. They unfold, door after door, until the second to last door unhinges. He shoves himself inside it.
There’s still the final sealed compartment. He doesn’t know it exists. Nothing of him gets in.
The golem wonders suddenly if the house is like her, if she’s inside the mouth of a larger golem. The loneliness of the motherless daughter, the loneliness of the daughter eaten by the mother, the loneliness of a roomful of wooden teeth. She looks at the chairs and table. She looks up over the poet’s shoulder to see if the name of God is hammered to the ceiling. The loneliness of the result of magic.
When he’s finished with her, the golem’s doors shut themselves, one by one. She stands up and sands herself; there’s a spot of blood on her breast from a wound on his. Sawdust flies until she’s clean again. He coughs blood, and curses. She sweeps the dust away.
He gives her a chestnut to crack between her teeth. She hands him the meat and keeps the shell for herself to suck. It’s like a nub of tongue. The golem makes a tiny sound, balancing it in her mouth, a rattle. She wedges it there with her fingers, pressed against the metal name.
She feels liquid drip down her wooden thigh. Startled, she closes the doors tighter.
“I thought I’d be happy with you.” Solomon says from the pallet. “But you’re not a real woman. You’re a thing I made.”
You didn’t make me, she thinks. I grew.
With the shell in her mouth, she makes a tiny noise, a moaning sound, not a word, but not the sound of nothing. She chirrs a note. Everything that ever sang through her branches, every gust of wind, every bat, every bee, every bird. They all spoke to her and she spoke back to them when she was a tree. Now she is a hinged woman, muted by magic, and she moves the shell in her mouth, looking for a voice she’s not been made to have.
Solomon gets up, dresses in his loosest garments, and writes. His skin is boils and snakes. His bones feel breakable, and even his thoughts feel diseased. Talking doesn’t help his loneliness. He wants to have her again, because she is all he’ll ever have.
She isn’t what he wants. He had a different woman in mind. Copper glances, black lace, a living woman willing to wrap him in bandages, a woman willing to carry him to a warm tub, a woman to cure his agonies.
This one is cold and has no heart. This one is ugly and has no mind. She’s only an orange tree.
He writes of the loneliness of the poet, years of shunning, the way his life has bent itself into a hoop of suffering. He writes of the eight-hundred-sixty-first form of loneliness, the loneliness of the scratching quill plucked from some dead swan. He writes of the forty-eighth form of loneliness, the loneliness of the moment of orgasm, when all the sky rushes from the blue and into the sea, leaving nothing in its place.
He goes to the golem and stares at her, considering the conditions of the magic. He asks for one thing he hasn’t had yet.
“Play me a song,” he says. “It’s too quiet.”
The golem is surprised to discover that she’s made of music. She has no tongue, but she has noise.
The golem’s body is a chamber. There are strings made of silk, and a curved bow inside one of the cabinets of her thigh. When she threads three strings through tiny holes drilled in her sternum, and another set just below her stomach, she can play the rabāb. This was part of her diagram, any instrument, and the carpenter’s mother chose this one from her own home. There is a thin membrane of doeskin, tanned and stretched taut over the cavity of the cabinet, and this skin vibrates.
She plays the tunes given her by the carpenter’s mother, songs of the desert, songs of another religion. There are S-shaped openings in her stomach from which the song pours.
She draws the bow across the strings, filling with greater and greater pleasure, until the poet waves his hand, goes to his bed, and waits for her to stop the noise and come to him.
There’s a hard storm that night, and all the pomegranates fall. The golem goes into the street at dawn and kneels to collect them, each one as large as a baby’s head.
“Who are you?” a woman says, and the golem looks up, startled, her fingers pushing through the pomegranate’s skin and deep into the seeds, groping for something.
The woman is standing over her, looking horrified, and when the golem raises her face, the woman screams, and backs away, gasping.
The golem feels the seeds slick and fat between her fingers. She crushes some, and juice runs out into the dirt. There are tiny ants all over the fruit, and she feels their bodies crushing too, their certainty that they might carry something so tremendous. She feels sorry for that.
“What are you?” the woman says, and makes a gesture of protection. “Demon,” she whispers, and runs, dropping her basket.
The golem goes back into the house.
She curls into the cold fireplace, a heap of sticks, and stays there through the day and until the next morning, though Solomon shouts for her when she brings no evening meal.
Her blossoms are falling off. The petals are dropping, and she feels as though she will soon be naked. When the petals are gone, though, there are oranges, tiny green ones. Her skull is beaded with them.
The loneliness of the bee seeking nectar, the journey between trees, a wavering flight, a humming and thrum. The loneliness of the pale flower, a channel of gold at its center, dew and dawn and a white room.
In the morning, she raises Solomon’s bed with him on it, and sweeps the dust from beneath it. She swabs water over the new wounds on his skin. He is weak and fevered. She wonders if he will die.
“You serve me,” he croaks. She feels her doors opening. She has no say in it.
Solomon presses into her, looking down at her still face, pushing against her hard flesh. He is too sick to leave the house at all. Too sick to enjoy anything. His skin feels like a board being planed, shaven, the scraps tread on by goats. He needs a diet of milk and honey, a balm of olive oil. She can’t fetch any of it for him. He is a monster and she is a cabinet. Neither of them can go into the street.
He considers the precious word that brought her to life. He means to pry it loose. She’ll be firewood at least. This has been a failure.
“You’re not what I wanted,” he says when he is finished.
He puts his fingers to the corner of her mouth, intending to open the hinges and remove God from her.
As Solomon approaches her, the golem feels a startling jolt deep inside her body. Something sealed begins to unseal; something forbidden begins to reveal itself. She holds the innermost cabinet door shut, feeling the hinges stretching, the thing behind it trying to be loose. If the poet notices her alarm, he says nothing.
There is shouting from the street. Solomon withdraws from her. The golem smoothes her dress. The poet rearranges his robes. The oranges are ripening. The room is heavy with their smell, sweat and sweetness.
The door inside the golem’s body, the last and smallest door, the last and smallest hinge, shakes and swells. She keeps it closed. She refuses. Whatever is in there, it can stay locked behind the door. Liquid on her thigh. She closes all the doors with ferocious resolution.
Men shout to enter. Solomon ties a patterned cloth about her head, over the lumpy oranges.
“Qasmūna,” he says. “Your name is Qasmūna. You’re a housemaid.”
Her fists open and close convulsively as the door pounds.
She wonders if she’ll kill his enemies. That is what she was made to do.
The men surge into the house, bearded and cloaked. There are five of them, and they’re all elderly, years beyond Solomon. He knows them. The elders are the ones who kept him in this house, unable to walk amongst humans. When he arrived in the city, he was shunned. It was only their permission and their memories of his parents, long dead, that allowed him to live here at all, to stop walking the roads. Otherwise, he’d be dead somewhere, parched and dried to leather.
It might be better than this.
He thinks for a moment that he can take them all, pulverize them. He might crush them into a cupboard and barricade them there. He might make them into the contents of a cabinet, dishes asking to be broken. Then he remembers that they’re living men, not his creation. He’s lost his understanding of the nature of the world. He is a sickly poet, and they are the men in charge of the city.
The men circle the room, staring at the golem, who stands in the center, waiting, trembling. She’s a tree full of birds, and they’re foxes.
“What have you done?” they shout at Solomon, and he lies to them, though it’s futile. They’re holy men with long beards and hundreds of years between them. They know his books and they know the history of his books. They know every corner of the law. Solomon feels himself surrounded by poems he will never write. He’ll be taken to executioners. It troubles him for a moment, and then it doesn’t. He’ll stab out their eyes as he goes. He’ll scream his own elegy from his last moments. It’s already written and stored inside his cabinet.
“This creature is no woman, Solomon ibn Gabirol,” says one. “Do you take us for fools?”
“She’s nothing more than a housemaid,” Solomon says calmly. “Her name is Qasmūna, and she came from Saragossa. I brought her here to tidy my house and care for me. You know that I’ve been ill.”
The loneliness of capture, the loneliness of guilt, a single intruder caught and tied, burned at the stake. The loneliness of fire touching feet, the loneliness of stones flying toward a target. All he wanted was a wife.
This is no sin, he thinks. This is not a sin. She’s a housemaid, and Solomon has a house that needs cleaning. He has a heart that needs polishing. He has a body that needs a companion. He cannot see the problem. There is a map inside his mind of all the sins, and he doesn’t believe in most of them. This one? To build a woman out of wood? How could it be wrong? To use her as a wife? She has no heart and she has no soul. She’s an instrument and he has played her properly. That’s what he’ll say. That’s how he’ll argue.
One of the men nearly touches the golem, and then stops, his fingers inches from her hand. He leans forward and shakes his head.
“This is not a maid,” he insists, then lifts a metal cup, and raps it against her wrist. It makes the sound of an axe meeting a tree. “No. We know what this is.”
The golem opens her mouth hinge, slightly, to show her teeth. In her mouth, the nub of tongue rattles, and she makes a tiny noise, a cry. A string within her body vibrates and makes a sighing tone.
“We do not know fully,” another man protests. He looks at the golem, skeptical. “Solomon ibn Gabirol isn’t holy enough to make a golem. He’s not held in grace. Perhaps she’s simply ugly. Open your mouth wider, girl, show us what you have,” he says.
She shows her teeth a little more, and her sound grows louder, a humming rattle, a clicking. Her eyelid hinges blink, quickly, a leathery brush against the green glass.
One of the men leans forward and taps her eye with a spoon. She flinches. It rings like a bell calling for prayers.
“She’s a living woman,” says Solomon, fearful of punishment, but angry too. His fingers curl around the tabletop.
“She is not,” one of the men says, and looks at Solomon with something approaching kindness. “Shelomo ben Yehuda ibn Gabirol, you are too lonely. You are fortunate we’ve come to help. No one knows you’ve done this, not yet, and we will save you from this sin for the sake of your father.”
The golem trembles, bound to protect Solomon. She feels his rage like a windstorm bending her trunk. She is a newborn woman and she is a rabāb full of the songs of an entire country of travelers. She is a tree with hundreds of years of history.
She removes the bow from the cabinet in her thigh and starts to play the strings in her abdomen. The song is not a hymn. The song is a wild high flight from some other shore, the song of a woman shouting in a ship across the sea. The song of the strings bends and weeps, and she plays, her head bowed, while the bow in her hand moves quickly. Tongueless, she is telling them what will happen, but they don’t listen.
“Speak,” says one of the men.
“She can’t,” says Solomon. “She doesn’t speak our language.”
I am speaking, Qasmūna plays. I am warning you. You should leave.
“This is a sin. More than a sin. To fornicate with this. Speak in Spanish, you serving maid. Speak in Arabic. Speak in Hebrew. Speak any language at all.”
Qasmūna plays harder, her wooden fingernails stopping the strings, the bow calling forth the sound of women seizing a ship’s crew and tearing them apart. The loneliness of the shore with no one landing on it in a year. The loneliness of hunger. She is an orange tree clinging to a cliffside, oranges falling into the sea. She is a forgotten wife clinging to a village full of forgotten children. She is called to war while the men are at another war. She and her sisters march over the Atlas Mountains. She and her sisters sing warcries, play their instruments, light signal fires.
“SPEAK!” a man shouts. “Or we will know what you are.”
I am speaking, the golem plays. Hear me. Leave before you can’t leave.
Qasmūna can see veins bulging in Solomon’s neck. Her hinges flutter. The secret door inside her shakes loudly enough that the men can hear it. It is unsealing. It is opening. She can’t help it.
“This is not a sin,” argues another holy man. “She doesn’t need to be cleansed after menstruation, for she doesn’t menstruate. She can’t procreate. She can’t speak, nor has she any intelligence. She’s less than an animal. It can’t be fornication if she isn’t a woman.”
“Her lack of speech reflects the flaw in her creator,” the first man says. “He’s not holy enough.”
The golem listens to them argue over whether she is holy or only wooden. She plays. They look at her in annoyance. She is an instrument and she plays the music she is filled with. She bends and draws the bow over the strings, playing an attack on a tent, playing a moon rising over bloodied sand. They don’t understand her. She attempts to give them a final warning, but they are too busy with their debate.
Solomon rages, but doesn’t dare do it with his voice. The golem is playing some tilting tune, and he can’t get her to stop. Her music is nothing he’d have chosen. Why did he not kill her last night? She could be in the fireplace, heating the house. She could be rising through the chimney, her smoke a small cloud in the sky.
This was a mistake, but now that they are trying to take her from him, he wants her back. Who are they to deny him a wife?
“You must destroy this golem, Solomon ibn Gabirol,” concludes the man most in charge. “For though it may not be a sin in the eyes of the law, you’re a poet, not a holy man, and you have made a monstrosity for yourself, not for any city. This is forbidden.”
“She’s not a monstrosity,” pleads Solomon. “She’s my housemaid. She cleans the dust.” His wounds are bleeding. He coughs, wet and red.
The loneliness of seeing one’s own blood on a white cloth. The loneliness of a disease impervious to magic, to knowledge, to weather. He is dying, and there is no one to take care of him. He is dying, and soon he will be like an infant, helpless and howling. Soon he will be a body in a bed, bones like kindling.
The thousandth form of loneliness is the loneliness of the dead, rotting just beneath the ground. There will be worms and insects, there will be birds pecking at the earth, but there will be nothing to love any man underneath the world. The thousandth loneliness is a grave with fresh shovel marks, the noise of the dirt being packed down above. He will be, he realizes, down where the orange tree roots snake in the dark, white wooden bones hard as stones.
“You’ll remove the name of our lord from her mouth. You’ll destroy her, and you’ll burn her materials.” The men nod. “You’ll do it now, for these witnesses, or you yourself will be put to death. Take her apart now. We will watch.”
Solomon sways. He’s still living, he thinks. His prick pulses. He must retaliate. He must fight.
There’s a creak in the room, and a muffled pounding.
“Defender,” Solomon whispers to his golem. “Defend.”
The golem is already standing, staring at the old man before her. She raises a hand, and looks at it. Slowly she brings her fist down on the man’s skull, a neat rapping. He cries out and falls. The holy men scream.
Solomon watches her push her fingers into one of the men’s mouths, her fist pressing deeper, deeper until she finds the root of his tongue. She tears out the meat of his voice and crushes it, a splattering gore beneath her foot. Solomon makes a sound, whether of vengeance or of protest, he can’t say. He looks at the holy tongue for a moment, watching it bleed, then doubles over, vomiting.
The sound of something breaking open. He turns to see the golem and the last of the holy men, his skull vised in her two hands. She looks at Solomon, her face blank, and there is a grievous crack, sending blood spraying. Her mouth rattles and she breaks the man’s neck for good measure, as though he is a hen.
The loneliness of being the last man alive in a room filled with the dead is the nine-hundred-ninety-ninth loneliness.
They’re all murdered in his house, the holy men of Málaga. Solomon won’t die of illness as he’d imagined. He’ll be executed. He has to flee the city, but he can’t flee with her. He gathers himself. She has saved him and damned him at once. It can’t be his fault. No one would think it was. He would never order his golem to kill for him.
“Open your mouth,” Solomon orders his golem. “Give me the name. Take it out, and give it to me.”
Slowly, the golem’s jaw hinges open, showing the poet the name of God. One of her hands reaches up to remove it.
There is the sound of a sealed door opening. Something changes in the room.
Solomon looks down at the golem’s chair. There’s a creature in it, small and black, made of ash. It stands, its arms outstretched, a tiny thing, and it shakes the room with a high, wild song, a song like the rabāb and like a singer too, a song of loneliness beyond number. It sings a horde of women in open space, raging across a landscape, swords raised.
Solomon clenches all over. Can he smash it? With a dish, perhaps, or a text. It’s small enough. It’s no animal or insect he’s seen. A rough black creature, the size of a closed fist. The song is something . . . Solomon tilts his head. His ears feel penetrated.
“What’s that?” Solomon manages. “Where did it come from?”
Qasmūna picks the creature up and cradles it. The ash looks at Solomon, its eyes glittering. In its fist, it holds a splinter of orange wood.
A splinter held by a tiny thing. That’s nothing. No sword, no matter the feelings roused in him by its song. Whatever those feelings were, they are falsehoods, defenses without teeth. Women running over sand, bloodied swords. This is only a small aberration. He’ll consider it later, when this is all done.
What it is, Solomon doesn’t know, but it doesn’t matter. He’ll dismantle the golem and it’ll die with her. There will be a heap of wood, leather, metal and string. There’ll be some metal hinges, some green oranges. He’ll toss it all over the cliff edge. He feels a little stronger suddenly, purposeful. He’ll dress and put his books in a sack. He’ll hire a cart.
The loneliness of the fleeing poet. The road before him, the dust, the cart rattling, the bones pained. The loneliness he is well accustomed to, traveling by himself, wandering book stalls at night, reading texts he procures from the darkest, dustiest stacks. He will write two hundred verses in mourning for the golem, he decides. He’ll write of her smooth skin and fragrant hair, her green eyes and sharp teeth.
He hears the golem moving, and turns to find her quite close to him. She hasn’t listened to his request. Why has she not given him the name? Is the magic flawed?
Solomon clasps his golem’s wrist, groping for her jaw hinge, but the golem’s golem is there, standing on his arm. It stabs the splinter into the poet’s hand, deep into the vein at the top.
“You are my thing!” Solomon shouts at her. “My wife!”
She says nothing. There’s only that high song from the ash, and the golem, moving the bow across the strings in her stomach. Red threads. A web, Solomon thinks. A spider.
Solomon runs for the door, but almost instantly he’s too ill to run, too ill to walk. He falls, shaking and vomiting, feeling his body dismantling itself from the inside out. He’s made of hinges and all of them are bending, all the doors inside his body too far open, his heart dropping through staircases, his kidneys swollen, his eyes watering and blasting agony. His skin is shedding and he is a snake. His hinges are rusting and he’s alone on a rainy road, floodwater rising. The loneliness of the poet muted. His hands are claws. His mouth feels thick and his throat is closing.
Qasmūna goes to him. She is built to serve, to defend, to protect, and her protections include the cessation of misery. She gives Solomon the juice of bitter oranges in a green glass cup, gently, a drop at a time from her finger. This is all there is left to do. She knows that much.
His heart thunders but after a time, he’s quiet.
She picks him up from the floor and carries him, not gently. Now he’s only a body, not a master. She ferries him from the house, and with her hands she digs a grave in the garden beneath the roots of a fig tree.
This not loneliness in this garden. The company of trees, the conversation of birds, the discussions between wasps and fruit. The pollen of flowers and the high pallor of clouds. She looks up and breathes in. She spits out the inadequate nutshell, and takes a twig from the tree. She works the twig into the space in her mouth, behind the name of God.
The tiny golem watches her, prepared to defend her city, prepared to do what it is golems do. As she pushes her new tongue into place, a door opens in her chest.
The golem’s golem places itself inside the compartment there, a compartment that has previously been perfectly empty, and the hinges close.
Qasmūna’s heart beats. The strings of her instrument vibrate.
She speaks a word.
A season passes, and the walled garden grows wild.
The fig tree bears fruit, and the carpenter’s mother crosses over the wall and onto the poet’s land to pick before the birds and bats can eat them. She can see slender yellow bones bending up from the soil beneath the tree, fingers, and a jaw, long since picked clean by animals. The earth is especially dark here, a bright russet soil, and the bones are beautiful, like jewelry lost after a night’s dancing. The carpenter’s mother steps barefoot on the dirt and packs it down, leaving it smooth.
She reaches up and plucks figs, dropping them into her smock. The figs are heavy and green, their centers scarlet. The carpenter’s mother eats one as she stands in the garden, looking out toward the country that was hers before this one.
She hums a song about marching through sand, a song about homecoming after war. The song can only be played on the rabāb, and the tune runs counter to the music, a twisting blade sung at night while the washing’s being wrung. When she was a girl, all the women sang this song at once, and when the men returned from wherever men went, they were nervous at the patterns the women’s feet had made in the dust, the way they’d danced together beneath the moon.
Months have passed. The carpenter’s mother knows nothing of where Solomon ibn Gabirol has gone. He walked in one day, and surely he walked away the same. His kitchen was full of coins for a time after he disappeared. Then the coins went into the carpenter’s mother’s apron as payment for a cabinet.
She knows nothing of where the holy men have gone, either. She saw nothing late in the night all those months ago, beneath a moon like a blossom. She heard no music playing, no mournful joyful strings, no echoing resonance and thrum. Those songs were unfamiliar to her. They sounded nothing like wandering fountains in the desert, nothing like shining things made of metal and silk.
The carpenter’s mother never saw a woman walking out from the house of Solomon ibn Gabirol, her feet clattering across the stones of the street. A stranger to Málaga! She didn’t see that woman lifting five men, and throwing them tenderly, one by one, from the cliffs, nor did she see her digging here, beneath the fig tree.
She didn’t see the woman step off the rock path, and walk down to the harbor. Nor did she see her open a door in her abdomen, and remove a thousand pages of words, sections from poems, scribbled lines and wishes. She didn’t see her tear these until each word was left lonely, and then begin to rearrange them.
She didn’t see this, the carpenter’s wife would swear, if anyone asked her. No one will ask her. She’s an old woman, and must know little of the world. She’s been here too long to read and too long to write. Too long to know anything of the world of magic.
But how quickly that wooden woman went, arranging poem after poem, the words of the poet who called her from the trees taken and changed. She took all the poet’s words and made new things with them, a line on the sand.
When she was finished, she looked up at the old woman standing on the cliff.
The old woman, of course, saw nothing.
She didn’t watch the wooden woman place herself in a boat, take the oars in her strong hands, and begin to row.
Surely, no mother of Málaga would let a murderess of so many men, all the intellectuals of this part of the coast, all of the holy, and a philosopher poet too, surely no carpenter’s wife would let a murderess go free.
On the night the golem left Spain, after it was fully dark, the carpenter’s mother climbed down the rocks to the shore. This much was true. She would say it, if she were asked.
The poem on the sand was written in a language she could read, and she thought for a moment about the market stalls in her homeland, the words scrolling over her fingertips, the things made by her father and brothers, brought to life by her own blood and spit.
In dreams, she inlaid a mother of pearl woman with coral, camel bones, ebony eyes. In dreams, she breathed into the woman’s lips and sent her to kill those who would sell a talented daughter to wed a lowly carpenter on the southern coast of Spain. Her life is no horror, but it is no glory, either, and who would imagine that a carpenter’s wife would be full of poetry, full of spells, a maker of women? She could cause a fountain to spring from the desert, and here she is, sold, sold and spelled, daughter to a magician long dead. She’ll never go home again, because the water will refuse her.
She read the poems Qasmūna left for her. Some had already caught the wind and blown out into the salt by the time she’d made it down the cliff, but two remained.
O gazelle, tasting leaves,
here in the green of my garden.
Look at my eyes. Dark and lonely,
just as yours are.
How distant we are from our beloveds, and how forgotten
Standing in the night,
Waiting for fate to find us.
The carpenter’s mother looked up, listening to the song coming over the water. She ate a fig and tasted the wasp that had pollinated it, the bones of the poet that had fed it. The second poem was shorter.
The garden is filled with fruit on the vines, but the gardener
refuses to brush a finger over the skin of even one piece.
How sad it is! The season of splendor passes,
and the fruit that ripens only in darkness
The gulls followed the wooden woman into a new life, out from Spain and over the sea, but that is nothing the carpenter’s mother will admit to knowing. She’s merely an old woman sitting in the dark, listening to the sounds of a creature made of ash, and one made of wood, singing their way away.
She sits there a long time beneath the stars, before she writes the poems onto a piece of cloth, before she walks barefoot down the road to another town with them, before she puts them into the hands of a songseller.
“Where did these come from?” the seller asks.
“A woman,” she tells him. “Qasmūna.”
“Who is her father?” he asks. “Who is her husband?”
“She has neither,” the carpenter’s wife says, knotting the scrolls with red silk thread. “Will you buy them?”
Coins are never lonely. They clack and ring out, and the carpenter’s wife holds them in her palm, though soon they’ll disappear like the kind of shining moths which land for only a moment to drink, before lighting again into the night.
The legend of the wooden golem created by the Andalusian Hebrew poet Solomon ibn Gabirol (1021-c.1058) is much less known than that of Rabbi Loew and the Golem of Prague, perhaps because ibn Gabirol’s golem was a (rare) female golem brought to life not as a defender, but as a housemaid and likely bedmate. The historic ibn Gabirol was a complicated and brilliantly prolific intellectual figure, a reclusive misanthrope who suffered from a skin disease, possibly cutaneous tuberculosis. His poetry is filled with feelings of ostracisation and rage relating to same—he complains about jealous enemies, among other things—though he also wrote rapturous and religiously ecstatic poems regarding the planets, the gardens of the sky, and laughing lightning. In the accounts, ibn Gabirol was forced to destroy his hinged golem after being accused of fornicating with her. The legend typically comes up in discussions of personhood in Jewish law—and the debate in Hinge is typical of that discussion. The Sefer Yetzirah, in which mystical information related to golem creation is traditionally thought to be found, was a significant influence on ibn Gabirol’s work, and he translated sections of it. The Banū Mūsā’s Book of Ingenious Devices was written in the ninth century, and contains instructions for creating a variety of automata. The legend of ibn Gabirol’s murder and burial beneath a fig tree is historical, though used to new ends here.
• • • •
The rabāb is a stringed instrument still played all over the world, an ancestor of the violin (which wasn’t invented until after the period in which this story is set). It came from North Africa via trade routes to Spain in the eleventh century, and there’s a very nice drawing of a more pear-shaped variant included in the Catalan Psalter, c. 1050. There’s also a version of a rabāb in a fresco in the crypt of San Urbano alla Caffarella, near Rome (c. 1011), and that version looks almost exactly like a modern violin, including S-shaped soundholes. The tones of the rabāb are said, even in early accounts, to mimic those of a woman’s voice.
• • • •
Bitter oranges, a primary crop in Málaga, have recently been discovered to have effects similar to those of the banned diet-aid ephedra—their extract, often marketed as a stimulant, can cause strokes and heart attacks. The pale yellow wood of the bitter orange tree is so hard that it is made into baseball bats in Cuba. The golem’s golem, composed of ash and a name written on parchment, is a far more traditional golem than the wood and hinges creation said to have been made by ibn Gabirol (the only golem of that composition in the history, so far as I can tell), but that one is my invention.
• • • •
Qasmūna (or Kasmunah) Bat Isma’il was an eleventh- or twelfth-century Andalusian Jewish poet. Her name is likely derived from the Arabic diminutive of the Hebrew root qsm, meaning charming and seductive. Charming, in this case in the literal sense—magical. It may also be derived from the Arabic male name Qasmun—someone with a beautiful face. Her two extant poems (my loose translations from the original Arabic) are in the text. She is one of only two documented Spanish Jewish female poets in the period, the other being the Wife of Dunash. Qasmūna Bat Isma’il’s biography is unknown, though there has been plenty of speculation—the daughter of a scholar, the daughter of a well-known poet, or, in this case, something else entirely. Regardless, her poems are erotic, and steeped in the natural world.
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