The basement was under about fifteen feet of rubble, in a
small town southwest of Carthage, on the edge of the desert which had once been
held up as an example of learning for its sorcerers and scholars, and which was
now held up as an example of what an earthquake could do to the unprepared.
The golem's creator was dead. He had been caught under an
enormous beam, and though the golem girl had moved it aside as lightly as an
empty seedpod, it had crushed the old rabbis body, and he died with his head
in her cool clay lap. His last blood-flecked words, as he saw the end approach,
were a common enough sentiment among people in that situation--"Not yet! Wait--"
The golem girl accepted this final command with the cool ceramic
stoicism that she had accepted all the others, and she waited.
It was dark in the basement, after the city fell on it. Dust
sifted down, and beams groaned, for the first few weeks, and that was all. The
rabbi mummified in the dry desert air, his skin dry and cracked and leathery,
lips skinning back from the teeth, where they lay against the golem girls
The winds that fall blew the dust and the dirt aside, and
piled it in corners, so that it sifted down again in places, and small holes
opened up in the tangle of beams and let light in. It was a muted, indirect
light, but it divided the world into day and night again.
She continued to wait.
Two years later, the grandfather of all sandstorms blew up
from the desert. Travelers a hundred miles away reported that the noon sky turned black as sackcloth. In the ruined town, darkness came, and lasted for
three days as sand fell like gritty rain.
In the basement, newly buried again under several feet of
sand, the darkness stayed for three centuries.
This did not bother the golem girl. When you are fashioned
of immortal clay, immune to boredom, hunger, pain or weariness, very little
bothers you. Her skin was the cool, firm texture of clay that potters call
leather hard to the touch, but neither swords nor sandstorms left a mark on
it. Short of a direct nuclear blast, being dumped into a live volcano, or
running afoul of a mob of trained rabbinical scholars with enchanted
sledgehammers, she was unlikely to be destroyed. This removed the primary
source of angst in life, and left her as placid and calm as the darkness around
The thoughts of a golem are much like clay, as one might
expect. They are laid down in flat sheets, like sedimentary layers forming on a
lakebed, each on top of another, the weight of slow and ponderous thoughts
crushing down, until the bottom layers are as hard and implacable as stone. If
you sliced open a golems consciousnessassuming you could find it, which is
the tricky part, golem consciousness being one of those rare items like
virgins milk and the philosophers stoneit would look like a cross-section of
fine bands, each memory fossilized within it like a tiny leggy creature
captured in shale.
In the basement, the memory of the dark grew into a thick
band of rich black across the golems mind. She sat, immortal and alone,
cradling the rabbis body, while centuries filtered by like sand grains
trickling from the holes in the ceiling. The wind outside sighed and whistled
and rubbed itself across the rubble, but found no entry.
The rabbi desiccated in the dark, becoming hollow bone
wrapped in parchment-like rags of skin. This did not bother her either. The
rabbi had sent her to defend the city, once, and she had torn men in half with
her delicate ceramic hands. It would be hard to say if that had bothered her,
particularlyshe was mute, as golems always arebut the layer of those thoughts
was a thin, rust-colored band, that stood out shockingly red against the grey
and dun sediments on either side.
She continued to wait.
Eventually the winds wore away at the sands until daylight
came again. The rabbi was as fragile as ancient scroll now, but since the golem
girl did not move, that didnt much matter.
A few years later, a bird flying over the ruined city did
something common to birds, and a wet white plop, angled with startling
precision, fell through a hole in the boards and splattered on a pile of dirt
about three feet from the golem girls right knee.
This did not bother the golem girl. When one resembles
statuary, one learns to take the ministrations of birds philosophically within
a very short time.
There was a seed contained within the birds excrement.
Surrounded by fertilizer, having landed within a hospitable pocket of dirt out
of the sighing winds, it began to grow.
The seedling was tiny, and green, and the golem girls
porcelain eyes were fixed upon it. It was a bizarre thing in the dim basement,
an exuberantly green thing in a world of dusty brown and black. It grew
lavishly, wastefully, throwing out pairs of leaves, growing leggily towards the
daylight so far overhead. Its stem was pale white, shading to green at the base
of the leaves, and the roots were yellowish where they clawed through the guano
into the dirt. It was a whole universe of color.
Almost imperceptibly, at the same rate that a seedling grew,
the golems narrow clay chin rose, so that her eyes could follow that twining,
There was not enough water in the basement. The leaves
turned yellow, drooped. One fell, and at last, the golem moved perceptibly, her
head turning, watching the leaf skitter and drift down, down, until at last it
rested on the ground. The small, curled yellow leaf in the center of the dry
ground might have looked like a death to a human, but to the golem girl, it was
as if the leaf was an annunciation, as if by its touch, the ground had been
Another leaf fell, a few hours later, and the golem turned
her torso a few inches to watch it fall.
It was too much for the rabbi. Quietly, and without fuss, he
crumbled into dust.
The golem looked down, from the leaf, to her lap, at the
dust and the few dull fragments of bone that had been a living man for eighty
years, and a dead man for over three hundred.
It occurred to her then that the plant might die, as the
The thin greenish sedimentary layer that a geologistor
psychologist, with golems the two were not entirely distinctmight identify
with the arrival of the plant churned suddenly, as if on the bottom of the
lakebed, a large fish had darted through the muck and roiled it up in murky
This was a thought too large and active to fossilize. This
demanded action. The rabbi had told her to wait, and she had waited. But wait
was a nebulous command, and it did not mean that she could not follow other
commands, if only someone would give them.
The plant needed water. It could not speak, of course, any
more than a golem could. But the curl of the wilting leaves, the wan yellow
color against the gloomthis was a cry for water, an order for water, in the
language of plants. It was not a human language, but the golem was not human. Although
the plant did not know it had acquired a golem, she had perceived the need, and
the implicit order, as clearly as if it had shouted aloud.
The golem rose to her feet. There were stones and beams in
the way, which she brushed aside as casually as a man might brush aside
cobwebs. They fell, groaning, the air filling with dust, and she slung them
away from the leggy, wilting plant.
Centuries ago, there had been a well at the center of the
town. The golem dug it out with her hands, excavating down forty feet in a
single afternoon. Water oozed from the damp muck at the bottom, and she made a
cup of one hand and climbed out, one-handed, her ceramic feet braced against
Using one hand as a cup, she ferried water back and forth to
the plant at need, season after season, year after year, until it was a thorny,
bright-leafed tree. When she was not climbing down the well, she sat under the
tree, cross-legged, holding the trees afternoon shadow across her lap as she
had once held the dying rabbi.
One afternoon, the air crackled, and the sky turned grey,
and a rare desert rain came down. Raindrop craters in the dust gave way to wet,
glinting sand, gave way to puddles, and left a damp sheen on the trunk of the
tree and the skin of the golem. The roots of the tree sank into the puddle
forming in the basement, and drank deep.
And that was it. The tree did not need her any more. The
golem stood up in the rain, and touched the tree. That is perhaps the oddest
part of the story, that gesture. A golem girl, made of clay, without heart or
by even the wildest stretch of theology a soul, patted the trees trunk, and
the trees leaves whispered in the rain.
She had been told to wait, but not where, or for how long.
She walked northeast. There was no particular reason to walk
northeast, except that was the direction the street ran, and thus it required
knocking down the fewest number of walls in order to leave the city. She left
broad semi-circular prints that would never be mistaken for human behind her,
and one by one, they filled up with rain.
A band of ragged travelers found her, several days later, a
clay woman leaving a track as straight as a razorblade across the desert. They
had camelsgreat grumbling, ill-knit beasts with foamy lips and weary eyes. The
travelers spoke to her, and what they said was not terribly important. Much of
it was jeering, and baffled. More important were the glazed eyes of the camels.
The golem girl read a need there, and with the need, an order, phrased,
perhaps, in the creaking and grumbling language of camels.
The travelers asked her to follow, and she did. It was just
as well that they asked, because she would have followed for the sake of the
camels, and this was less awkward. They asked her to do the dishes that night,
and she did, and later to water the camels, and she did, and so, as an
uncomplaining servant, she crossed the great desert. They were not good men,
but this did not bother her, and she took excellent care of the camels.
They did not realize that she was obeying them out of
convenience, and that her masters were three large, gloomy animals that stank
and spat and kicked their owners, and so the travelers were very surprised that
once they had reached the other side, she simply walked into the city and took
their camels with her. She left the beasts in a stableyard on the other side of
the city, where the animals were healthy and well-tended looking. She believed
they would be happier there, and the odds are good that they were.
The golem girl traveled for a long time. She went through
several different worlds, the walls between them of no great concern to her.
She continued to wait, and while she waited, she followed the unvoiced orders
of a great many creatures, seemingly at random, from a cranky tortoise to a
small, struggling trillium flower. (An entire road was rerouted, and several
men died, in the course of following the trilliums orders. The golem girl was
not malicious, but she was extremely efficient.) She set an emperor on the
throne, almost by accident, in order to make his small granddaughter happy. She
took a dull black pebble from a mountain and walked across most of a continent
to set it down in the middle of a stream. She carried a baby musk-ox away from
a pack of wolves, and six months later, she was snapping the necks of rabbits
to feed a gaunt-ribbed wolf and her three crying offspring.
Eventually, she came to a house in the forest, built in the
trunk of a great tree, hung with red lanterns and full of laughter. She came
there carrying a small luxuriantly finned fish, wrapped in wet leaves, and she
went inside, and walked to the mistress of the house, and stood there, a nude
woman the grey-brown color of unfired clay.
What brings you here, my dear? asked the mistress, aware
of the silence spreading around her, as clients turned to look at the golem
girl, as if the noise was sediment in a pond settling slowly to the bottom.
The golem girl proffered her fish.
If this had been a normal house, the mistress might have
laughed, or have said something scathing, or just have asked what the devil a
naked clay woman was doing walking in and handing her a wet fish. But this was
the House of Red Fireflies, the greatest whorehouse in the world, and the
mistress was a plump, matronly woman who had once killed a god with a broken
beer bottle, and she looked at the fish, and she nodded.
She waved to one of the other madams to take her place, and
she led the golem girl down to the bar. The golem girl pointed to a round,
wide-mouthed glass vessel. It contained a rare liquor made of the tears of
elephants mixed with fermented honey, but the matron dumped it into another
bottle without a second thought, and handed the jar to the golem girl.
The golem washed it very carefully, and filled it with
spring water to an inch below the brim, and carefully unwrapped her fish and
dropped it into the jar. It shivered its fins, and swam a circuit, and the
golem girl nodded solemnly, and looked up at the matron.
Do you have a master at the moment? asked the matron.
The golem pointed to the fish.
This did not faze the matron noticeably. Would your fish
object to you being a prostitute?*
The golem, and possibly the fish, considered this.
I could pay you in fish food
said the matron, feeling a
The golems expression was hard to read, but the matron
quickly amended to Partially in fish food, anyway.
The golem gazed at the fish. She dipped her finger into the
liquor made of elephant tears and wrote with a damp finger across the bar, in
neat letters, in a language not commonly spoken aloud for three hundred years.
The matron said Hmmm, and grabbed a servant, who grabbed
another two servants, who fanned out through the bar area, calling Is there a
scholar of ancient tongues in the house?
There were three. The House of Red Fireflies was just that kind of
Of the three, one recognized the text. He was tall and
bearded and had close-set blue eyes that lit appreciatively upon the golem
girl. I have not seen craftsmanship like you in a very long time, he said,
and bowed politely to her. My compliments to your creator. The golem girl
bowed politely in return.
He read the text, and said to the matron, She wants to know
if you have a garden.
We do, said the matron. The golem girl wrote more.
She wishes to put a pond in it, for her fish.
There are several ponds already.
The fish wants a new one.
We can do that, said the matron, not one to let existing
landscaping get in the way of a once-in-a-lifetime procurement opportunity.
The scholar looked at the matron, and then, because he was a
decent man, he spoke to the golem girl in the dead tongue, for several minutes,
and explained in that dry, precise language what would likely be asked of a
golem in the House of Red Fireflies. He felt somewhat foolish doing so, for a
golem was arguably no more sentient or emotional than a crowbar, but he did it
The golem girl wrote out a question.
The scholars white eyebrows shot up, but he said to the
matron She says that you must know she follows the orders she perceives not
the orders that may be spoken aloud.
What do you think? asked the matron.
I think this is not a usual golem, he said, and drew his
coat around him.
Its fair, said the matron.
The golem girl nodded, and extended her hand to the matron,
who took the cool ceramic fingers in her own warm human ones, and shook it.
At the House of Red Fireflies, on the banks of the Feverstream,
there is a golem girl who works in the evenings. She serves often behind the
great black Door, at the bottom of the shallow spiral staircase etched with
peacocks made of chains, where the dangerous creatures of the otherworld come
to sate themselves. This does not seem to bother her. When you are
indestructible, and feel neither pain nor boredom, and when you have found a
place where you belong, very little bothers you.
She discovered early on that the great and terrible creatures behind the Door
sometimes give very different orders than the ones they speak aloud, and as she
told the matron, it is those unspoken orders to which she answers. But whatever
those answers may be, they stay behind the Door, and behind the golem girls
ceramic eyes, and we will not discuss them here.
She is paid a great deal of money for her services, and with
the occasional aid of the tall and bearded scholar of ancient tongues, she uses
it to buy plants. The garden of the House of Red Fireflies was attractive
enough before, but now it is a wonder. At the center, there is a large
fishpond, which contains a contented long-finned fish, and around it are a
number of thorny, bright-leafed trees, which occasionally send yellow leaves
flickering down to the surface of the water.
And there she continues to wait.
*Disturbingly enough, this was not the first time she had
had to ask that question of someone.