Watch the first meeting of Paper Brigade’s Short Club with Yael van der Wouden and Paper Brigade’s editors here!
Together, we discussed Yael van der Wouden’s short story“Into the Mud” — a tale about the relationship between two young women amid family struggles, summer heat, and magic.
Miryam wants to show me something down by a lake, so I go. Her bike got stolen, she says, and could I ride her there. I ask, “Where is there? I don’t know where you want to go.” She says, “I’ll tell you, I’ll tell you,” and watches me wrestle my bike from the shrubs. Our apartment building throws a long shadow, and we’re standing right at the edge of it — right at the edge.
Miryam balances on the back of the bike, her hands on my waist. We’re jostled with every bump, every pothole in the road, and she says, “Watch out, Debby,” and I say nothing. We’re allowed to be friends again now that school is out. Every summer, Miryam gets restless in the upstairs apartment — tired of the heat, tired of her parents’ arguments. And so she leans over the balcony railing and shouts my name, or heads downstairs and knocks on the door until Mom or I open it for her. Then she comes in. Sits at our table, eats the almonds in the bowl. Says, still chewing, Can we watch TV? And Mom will look at me like I should be the one to answer. Like I’m in charge, when Miryam’s around.
At last week’s service, the rabbi spent forever talking about the dybbuk they’d found hiding in old Geylete’s microwave. Then he went on about evils close to home, about what to do when death enters a home, about the wickedness of the man who wants to control another being. Miryam came to sit next to me. “You know Barbara Lessink saw the rabbi piss against a tree in the park last week. Totally wasted.” She laughed, her face too close to mine. Her breath smelled like bubblegum. Miryam was talking to me again. The seasons had changed.
From behind me, Miryam orchestrates the journey: to the left at the roundabout, to the right after the bridge. The houses no longer cling to each other here. There are garden fences and sprinklers ticking in the noon quiet. We bike onward, until there are no more houses by the side of the narrow road, only weeds. Every time a car passes by, we have to pull over to the side. Finally I say, “I don’t think bikes are allowed here.” Miryam digs her nails into my waist. “God, you’re such a pussy. Just bike.”
I bike. She guides us off the road, past waterways sunk into the grasses, past an empty field. Beyond that, there is a lake: a rust-colored thing, a confused knot of thin brooks. Knotted willows lean out from the banks at an angle, as if they’re falling. I have sweated circles into my shirt. The ride was long, and Miryam was a heavy weight. She laughs, tells me I look a mess, that I’d better take a swim. We both consider the murky water. No one is going to swim.
I’m waiting for her to show me what she wanted to show me. Instead she makes herself comfortable on the remains of a jetty, lights up a cigarette, lifts her head to the sun. When the wind wafts by, it carries the smoke, the scent of the almond oil she combs through her curls. I say, “Well?”, and she says, “Wait,” with her eyes still closed. It’s a yawning summer day — hands have drawn all clouds aside and the sun throws itself at the earth.
I slouch next to her. When she is near me, I fold my body like I’m cradling an egg to my chest, something she’s not allowed to break. She is amused by this. Has a grin that says, What’re you hiding there? Is that for me?
“Okay, I’ll show you now,” she announces, and when she’s on her feet she reaches out a hand to hoist me up. She holds it, takes me to the lake’s muddy edge. My palm is hot, and her touch is an easy one, like she’s simply forgotten to let go.
But she lets go. She kneels in the mud and starts to gather some of it into a mound. I say, “Uh, what are you doing,” and she continues to shape the mud. Glances up at me.
It looks like nothing. It looks dirty. It looks like when we were kids and played in the mud, had it stuck under our fingernails for days. I have never been as careless about getting messy as Miryam. Even in childhood, she’d push her fingers into anything, breathless, thrilled. They’d come away oily, sticky, covered in muck. And me, I’d hold my palms away from myself until we were home again and I could wash them clean.
She pauses to light another cigarette. We’re only fifteen and I wonder who buys these for her. I wonder whether she gets them herself — whether she looks as old to actual adults as she does to me.
She says,“You have to let him dry for a second.” I say, “Let who dry?” And she gestures toward the mud. Her hands are covered in it, all the way up to her elbows. She made — a shape. Sketched like the idea of a man. She sits back on her heels and smokes her cigarette and says, “Have you ever done this?”
And I say, voice high, “Done what?”
“Ah. You haven’t.”
We wait for a moment, on her instruction. The day is blistering, the mud dries quickly. She says, “Cool,” then goes through her pockets, looking for something. She comes up with a pen and her pack of cigarettes. Tears off the lid. Unfolds it. Scribbles something on it and rolls it up. She stuffs the paper into the mud-man’s ear. Then she’s up on her knees, hovering over him. She digs a mouth with two fingers and spits into the hole.
“There.” She takes a few steps back. She gives me a look. I, too, take a step back.
He comes alive with a sound like beads in a glass bowl. Awkward, stumbling limbs. A man who drank too much, who’s lost his coordination, who’s learning how to put one foot in front of the other.
I say, “Fuck,” and, “Fuck,” and take several more steps back. She tells me, “He won’t do a thing, you know.” She adds, “Not unless I tell him.”
I watch him scramble around. In her hurry, Miryam’s made him short — he barely reaches my hip. She hasn’t given him eyes, so he’s lost. He has his arms out, and they slam into the trunks of the willows every time he turns. “Keep going,” she says. He gets tangled in the branches.
I say, my voice creaking, “That’s not what they’re meant for, Miryam.”
She gives me a look. “So you’re a rabbi now, huh, Dvorah, you’re a big smart rabbi?”
“I’m just saying …” I stop — I don’t know what I’m saying.
We watch the golem fall and struggle to get up. We watch him for a while. When he comes close, I jerk away. Miryam casts looks at me like I’m going to change my mind and laugh with her, but I don’t, so she gets annoyed instead, tells me, “Whatever, you’re boring,” and goes to the golem and takes the paper from his ear and stomps him back into the ground.
We’re allowed to be friends again now that school is out. Every summer, Miryam gets restless in the upstairs apartment — tired of the heat, tired of her parents’ arguments. And so she leans over the balcony railing and shouts my name.
On the bike ride home, she puts her face against the back of my shirt and says, “That’s why I don’t hang out with you, because you’re boring.” But she holds on very tightly, fists clutching the fabric over my navel. At our building, she runs ahead up the stairs and disappears to her floor without saying goodbye. I spend the rest of the day feeling like I was eating something and dropped the last piece of it. My throat is dry. I drink a lot of water but it doesn’t help. Mom says, “Good, you should hydrate in this heat.”
That night, in bed, all I can think of is the golem. Falling over itself, stumbling, trying to get up. And Miryam’s smile, wavering at the edges.
One time last year, Miryam held court during lunch and I was sitting nearby. I had picked the spot on the damp concrete before she and the gentry showed up, and I hunched over my food so that no one would see it wasn’t a sandwich. It wasn’t that anyone was making fun of my food, only that I was embarrassed by it, and the others might smell that. Someone always seemed to smell it, when you were ashamed of something.
Then Miryam showed up, a cloud of sugar-and-bad-breath popularity trailing her: other popular girls, less popular girls, girls who just wanted to be around her. She spoke at length about how the gym teacher who sent her out of class probably hated her because he probably was in love with her. Pathetic, she called him, and then somehow everyone was talking about blowjobs. They kept saying that word, blowjobs, blowjobs, and then cackled. The sound echoed against the walls of the schoolyard. I tried very hard not to look. I was trying too hard not to look, and they smelled it.
One of the girls said, “Hey, Debby! Hey, Debby!”
I was putting away my lunch. It had rained that whole morning, and so everything was a dark grey — the tiles, the hard benches, the pebbles, the sky. They called my name some more, and I glanced up. Miryam said, “Do you know what a blowjob is, Debby?” And then, to her crowd: “I don’t think she knows what a blowjob is.”
I mumbled, “I know what it is,” and Miryam got up and stood on the bench and said, “What! What did you say! Oh my God, what did you say?” Her puffy jacket was sliding off her shoulders. She looked almost bare underneath it. The straps of her top were sliding down as well. It was so cold that day, but she didn’t seem to feel it. She wasn’t shivering at all.
When we were younger, she’d sometimes sleep over. Mom would roll out a sleeping bag for her, but she’d say, “No, I’m the guest, I get the bed,” and she’d clamber into my bed and I would worm legs-first into the sleeping bag. My bedroom was under Miryam’s parents’ bedroom. We’d listen to the muffled TV from the living room, to the baritone of her dad shouting from above. Then she’d say, “So that’s what it sounds like from here.”
Sometimes, she’d hold her head over the side of the bed and say, “I’m not going to spit on you,” and then let a string of saliva fall slowly from her mouth. The game was: I wasn’t allowed to move, and she’d see how long the string would get before sucking it back up. Once, it broke. The glob landed on my cheek. I didn’t move, not a muscle. She gasped, then giggled until she’d worn herself out. Then she went quiet.
It’s a bad fight tonight, and Mom turns on the TV loud in what I know is a hope that they’ll hear it upstairs and settle down — get embarrassed, get quiet. If that doesn’t work then she’ll sit by the phone, ready to call the police. She’s only had to twice, and it was terrible both times.
Now a door opens, then slams shut, and someone is rattling down the stairwell in high heels. Mom says, “Poor kid,” mostly to herself. I go to the balcony and wait for Miryam to appear. She does, a bustle of movement rushing out of the building’s front door. She’s marching into the night with her head down. She’s far away, but I can still see the part of her hair, a pale line in her dark curls. She stops to wipe a hand over her eyes, to light a cigarette. I lean into the railing.
I think, She knows I’m watching her, and in that moment she looks up. Catches me.
I don’t know what to do but wave. A hand up, a sign of presence as much as one of hello. She smokes up at the apartment, looks at me, and does nothing in reply.
When she leaves, I go back inside and put on my shoes. Mom asks where I’m going, and I tell her it’s too hot inside. That I’m going for a walk. She misunderstands and says, “They can’t shout forever.” I say, “I know,” and I lean over the couch to touch her ankle before leaving, put my fingers to my lips. She’s amused by this in a worn way, an old way. This is how I tell God I’m leaving, this is how I tell God I’ve entered: I put my hands to a small part of my mother, so they both know where I am.
The sky is a dripping dark, the bottom of an overturned rock. There are some boys around the side of the building letting a low-bass tune shudder out of a boombox. I bike through the neighborhood and find her in the park. She’s with some older friends. They’re sitting at a picnic table — some of them on top of it, some of them on the benches, some on the ground below. They’re passing around bottles, drinking and passing, drinking and passing. The orange streetlight makes all the green look faded and colorless. Miryam is shiny, a sheen of sweat on her forehead.
I stand by a heavy-limbed chestnut, bike still in hand, until they notice me. One of the guys says, “Jesus, she scared the shit out of me,” and someone else says, “Hey! What do you want?”, and someone else says, “Is she crazy? Do you think she’s crazy?”
Miryam puts a hand on the shoulder of the kid next to her and says, “Oh, God, I know her.” She looks at me. “Go home, weirdo.”
I shake my head. She says, “Shoo! Shoo!” and gestures for me to scat. The group laughs. Irregular little breaths, like they don’t know how to react as one.
I don’t leave. I hold on to the handlebars. Miryam laughs loud and fake. “What? What are you going to do? Are you going to sit with us? You going to get drunk, De-vo- rah?” She says my name like that, every syllable stretched stupid.
I don’t say anything. I don’t know what to say. I’m not going to sit with them, and I’m not going to drink. I’ve never drank anything but seder wine. I have always disliked it — the hot sweetness of it, the tacky film it leaves behind. Then Miryam gets up, finds a branch on the ground, and throws it — wobbly — in my direction. The branch grazes my leg and lands in the grass.
She flings out her hand like we’re in a theater. “Be gone! Be goooone!”
I squeeze my handlebars once again. I hold her gaze, now that she’s closer. She looked so small when I saw her from the balcony, the heels of her palms pressed to her eyes.
She turns away and tells her friends: “Sorry about her, oh my God.”
I walk most of the way back, only biking for short stretches. My heart is gluey, up in my throat. When I get home, the TV is off and Mom has gone to sleep. There is no sound from upstairs, and the quiet has left a space in its wake: a reverb of white noise. I place one of my shoes between the door and the doorframe so that the door doesn’t close all the way. I hope she will see. I hope she will come inside.
I go to bed. I wait, for a while, just in case — or I try to, my eyes closing until I startle awake, again and again. From the window, I can hear the boombox, the bass still jumping, and all I see are grains of sand jumping on a rubber surface.
I am asleep when Miryam comes back. I wake up because it was silent and now it’s not. The apartment door is opened with a whoosh, closed with a click. Then my bedroom door opens and closes. I peer into the dark and see the shape of her moving vaguely. Her arms cross, elbows raised. I think she’s taking off her shirt, then her jeans.
I move over and she gets into bed with me. Her breaths are wet, and she smells of that drink, of that smoke. Of almond oil and food made in a closed kitchen. She makes herself shorter than me, and tucks her body into mine: her face into my neck, her arms around my middle. She breathes against my skin and holds on tight until I am awake enough — until I move, hold her in return. Tug her close.
She doesn’t say anything, but her exhale is the shape of a word. I can’t make out what the word is, but the skin of my throat has heard it, and my throat will hold on to it, and the next word I will speak upon waking will be whatever she has put into me.
In the morning, Miryam is gone. Mom is in the kitchen, pushing a fork through yesterday’s wilted salad. I look around like I’ve misplaced something, like I’m worried about where it went. Mom says, “What? What happened?” And I start asking her, “Did you — have you — ?” but I don’t want to say it, so I stop.
“Have I what?”
“Nothing. Nothing. I’ll…” I gesture, vaguely, to our apartment.
What I’m thinking is, I’ll be quick, and what happens is I go upstairs, and I knock on the door to Miryam’s apartment. The hallway there smells like the dog who lives in the apartment opposite, and who is sometimes let out to piss in the corner by the stairwell. Miryam’s dad answers the door. He’s a reedy man with a mouth that goes too far up his cheeks, like someone stretched his lips when he was very young and they never went back to normal. I don’t like looking straight at him, so I look at the space above his shoulder and say, “Is Miryam home?” He says that she is, that she’s in her room, and he says the word room like speech is a bother to him.
Miryam is an unmoving bulk under her sheets. The room smells like earth.
I swallow. I open my mouth to say her name but then don’t. I go to her instead, sit on the side of the bed. I expect her to stir, to jerk awake. She doesn’t. Her heartbeat was so slow and heavy in her sleep, last night. Her skin was so warm.
He comes alive with a sound like beads in a glass bowl. Awkward, stumbling limbs. A man who drank too much, who’s lost his coordination, who’s learning how to put one foot in front of the other.
I take her arm and the blanket falls away. Her hand shoots up to cover her face. Her hair is matted down, wet from a shower.
I pull at her. She grunts and shifts away from me. A puff of dust flies up, settles. I grab her face in my hands. It’s not her, it’s her — it’s as if a sculptor had tried to recreate her from memory, and failed. Her nose is oddly shaped, the whites of her eyes tinged green. In the heat of the room, mud rolls down her cheeks, skin melting, reforming. The golem looks at me like he, too, would rather not have participated.
I drop my hands, heart quick in my throat.
He sinks back into the bed. I ask him, “Where is she?”
The golem says nothing.
I ask him again, “Tell me where she went.” He looks at me, a man with no language, and no words to speak. No thoughts to shape into sound.
I tremble most of the day, nauseated, sitting on the balcony with my eyes fixed on the street below. Mom wonders if I have a fever. She touches my forehead and fusses over how hot I am, but I say it’s a hot day. I snap at her when she insists I come inside. She is startled, unsure of what to say next. I look away from her, and I do not apologize.
It’s evening by the time the real Miryam is home again. I’m still on our balcony, and she’s on hers; I look up and see her leaning over the rail, an upside-down face and a curtain of hair. I don’t know when she got home — I didn’t see her come in through the main entrance. I am relieved for a breath, nervous on the next.
She grins. “Did you see him? It worked, didn’t it? They thought it was me, they thought I was home all day. It totally worked.”
I want to say, You left, and instead I say, “Where were you?” And then, for good measure, “That’s not what they’re meant for, Miryam.”
“Of course, Rabbi Dvorah.” She sways back and forth on the railing. “Whatever you say, Rabbi Dvorah.”
“He didn’t look like you at all.”
“Whatever.” She stops swaying. “It’s not like they were going to check in on me, anyway.”
We’re on the fire escape when Miryam says she wants to go out. She’s smoking and I’m sitting on the spiky metal step watching her. I say, “Then you should go out,” and she puts on a terrible baby voice and says, “Noooo don’t make me go alone come with me pleeeeease.”
It’s nothing that I want. It’s a lot of what I want. I inspect a grain of dirt on the metal and say, “Go out with one of your friends.”
“I don’t want to go out with my friends.” She puts her shoe on my bare knee and pushes it from left to right. “I want to go out with freaky Dvorah.”
“Don’t call me that,” I say, but it comes out more like I’m asking, and she laughs and says, “Sorry sorry sorry sorry sorry.” She says, “If I promise to never call you that again, will you go out with me, will you, will you, will you — !”
We get ready in my room. She puts on the music very loud and I turn it down, and she turns it up again, and that’s the cycle for a while. She rubs makeup on her face, and then does the same to mine. I look at myself in the mirror. I look like someone decided my outlines weren’t clear enough, decided they needed embossing and bolding, and now the lines were taking up most of my face. I tell her I want to wash it off.
“Nooo,” she says. “You look so good! I promise you, you look so good!”
With Miryam, so many things are a means to make fun, and I can’t be sure this isn’t another space where a joke might happen. But she holds my wrists, and won’t let me wash my face, so I don’t.
She makes me take her on the back of my bike again. A strip of my stomach is bare, and that’s where she puts her hands. Exactly there, over the heat of my navel. I say, “We’re not going to get in, they’re never going to let us in.”
“They’re one hundred percent going to let us in.”
She is right. They do. The bar is buried in an alleyway off an alleyway, with a door that looks like just a door but hides strobe lights and smoke and the incessant thrum of the night. It’s at once too small for what it’s supposed to do and also too big. Too many nooks, too many hallways, too many mirrors reflecting it all. Everyone looks older than us, taller. Men with ponytails, straining in their jackets. A few girls up on a table.
Miryam makes me try a drink. I swallow it too quickly and it burns and I have to bend over and hold my knees, coughing. She smirks, but puts her hand on my back and weaves some words through the mirth. “Oh no baby, oh no.”
The next drink is sweeter. I say no to it, the music pulsing fast and thick in my ears, and she says, “Okay,” and leaves it on the bar in front of me, and I drink it all the same. The stool is very tall, and my feet don’t reach the ground. It’s unbearably hot until the second the AC waves past, and then it’s too cold.
She says, “Yeah, that one’s better for you, huh,” and watches me drink. Then she leaves me at the bar to dance with some guy. She’s a good dancer, and he is not. What he’s doing is moving his hands like he’s drawing a line around her body in the shape of a Coke bottle. It looks embarrassing, and also something else, something that swoops low in the belly as much as it tastes of shame.
A song passes on to the next song. A moment blurs. She is back, and she is gone again. I am dancing, too, with her, and I do not put my hands anywhere near where his hands were. Then she is gone again. Someone is talking to me, his breath like Tic Tacs over beer. I say to him, “I can’t hear you,” because I can’t. He nods like I’ve made a point. It strikes me that this is a stranger, who knows nothing about me, who doesn’t even know my name. He puts his hand on the strip of my bare-belly skin and tries to move his hand up, and I say, “No!” into the high falsetto of a song, and shove him, and he shoves me back.
Miryam screams at him. She wasn’t there before, but now she is. I can’t hear what she’s saying; that, too, is swallowed by the music. She pulls me with her. The guy holds on with the suckling grab of a toothy-mouthed animal. Finally he gives up. Miryam is fast in the crowd. “Come on,” she says, dragging me along.
In the bathroom, under the purple lights, she says, “What did you tell him?”
“Nothing,” I say.
“Did you flirt with him?”
“Did I what?”
“Did you flirt.”
“I don’t know,” I say. “I don’t think so?”
And then the steady stream of people who are coming in and out — who are washing their hands and chatting and spraying deodorant into the syrupy air — slows down for a moment.
She’s leaning back against one of the sinks. Her lipstick is a little smudged. She looks at me, and away, and back to me, and she’s breathing quickly. I don’t know if she’s angry or upset. I don’t know what the difference is, with her.
When she pushes off from the sink and comes at me, I take a step back. She hovers, for a moment. She’s close enough that I feel her body heat, smell the drink on her breath.
The door swings open. Music from the club blares, and then the door swings closed again — muffles it. My tongue is stuck to the roof of my mouth. I want to pull a shawl over my eyes. I want, for a moment, not to see.
Miryam says, “Okay, fun night, whatever, I want to go home.”
But on the bike, when we get to the roundabout, she says, “Go right.” I say, “What’s right?”, and she says, “Just do it.”
I am not biking in a straight line anymore. Miryam doesn’t comment on it. She leans into me, where I’ve sweated, and of that, too, she says nothing.
We pass by the inner city, old narrow buildings tilting to the side; the crumbling city wall, brown stone covered in moss and vines. The canals, the old fire station. Then the suburbs. The fields. The sky, at its furthest point, is the color of white shocked into blue — a freckle of a star on the horizon. When there are no more streetlights, we get off the bike and walk the rest of the way to the lake.
I wonder what Miryam would say if she were here to see me. Would she be impressed, would she go quiet at knowing that I, too, can make life out of dirt? Would she like that? Would she not?
I lie down by the water and listen to it lap quietly near my head. Miryam makes a golem, rolls up a piece of paper, fits it into his ear, and spits in his mouth. This time she makes him ride my bike, which he manages well enough. Eventually she gets bored with that, too, and comes to lie next to me.
My heart thumps, aches. I am half sick, half euphoric. She leans up on an elbow, looks down at me. She looks down at me for a while. She says, “Your mascara is all fucked.”
I say, “Okay.”
She kisses me. I open my mouth, I let her in. We make a sound like a hum. She puts her hand on my ribs, high on my ribs, and I open further. We kiss for a long time. We kiss until my mouth is sore, and my lungs molasses, and my stomach a cavernous thing: three rocks left to tumble in a washing machine, going around and around and around.
Miryam tells me about her boyfriend, whose name I forget no matter how often she mentions him. He doesn’t go to our school, she says. He’s older, and he’s at a different school, and she shows me a passport photo of him that he gave her to keep in her wallet. He looks like a boy, like any boy might look. Sandy hair, gel. A few pimples next to his nose. She says, “He’s hot, isn’t he hot?”
I shrug, and let her climb on top of me, and kiss me onto my bed. Mom is in the other room, getting the table ready for Shabbos, and Miryam’s legs are between mine. In the apartment above, her mom is talking to her grandmother on the phone. Her laughter is a lot like Miryam’s — a ha ha ha! that rolls from the throat, the shape of three quick waves.
Miryam sleeps over. Mom brings out the sleeping bag, says, “Just like when you two were kids. So nice.”
When Mom leaves I am stranded in the middle of the room, sleeping bag in my hands, and Miryam says, “What the fuck are you doing, why are you just standing there? Get in here.” She moves against the wall, makes a pointed space on the mattress. My sheets are patterned with wash-greyed Care Bears. I have posters up from three years ago, when I still liked that band. I feel clumsily big in my own body. I get into bed next to her.
We kiss, briefly, and then she says — all in one breath, words wet against my mouth, “Where would you go if you could go anywhere, where would you go?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “Where would you go?”
“As in, I could be there? As in, like, blink your eyes and you’re there?”
It’s her game, anyway, so I say, “Sure.”
“A big hotel room,” she says.“Or a swimming pool on the roof of a building. A desert. Or … like, it’s here but there’s no one else here. Like our whole building but all the people are gone. Like the whole city but all the people are gone.”
“No one? No one left?” I ask. Her hand is tracing a path over my spine.
She says, “No one.”
I say, “What about me?”
“Okay,” she says. “Okay, you can stay.”
She takes me to the park to meet her boyfriend. He’s a skinny guy, too tall for his body. He avoids looking at me. She wants me to like him, I can tell. She keeps on explaining him to me like a fun fact, even though he’s right there. Did you know that he’s the school champion in short distance running? Did you know he’s super good on the guitar? Did you know he can eat five hamburgers without throwing up?
I say, “Gross.” She’s upset with me for the rest of the day. When we’re back at our apartment building, I say, “Do you want to go somewhere?”, and she says, “No.” But she won’t go inside, either. She pulls leaves off a bush and tosses them down and says, “Summer sucks here, everything’s so boring!”
“Well maybe your boyfriend’s boring.” It’s the bravest thing I’ve ever said to her. The meanest, too.
She stills. “What do you know about boyfriends?” She steps closer. Her voice has gone low. “At least I have someone. At least I’m not — ”
She doesn’t finish. She doesn’t say what it is that I am. That she’s not. I swallow.
“You don’t know anything, Debby,” she says.
“And you do?” I say it quietly. I am no longer brave.
“What do you want from me?” The phrase is supposed to sound annoyed — she’s said it to me before. It’s different now, tilted upward. I think she wants an answer, but I don’t know what answer to give.
She blows out a short, derisive puff of air. “Right. Okay. You know what?” And then she walks away.
That night, I am asleep, and the next moment I wake up, cold and sweaty all at once. I can’t make out the words from upstairs, but the voices are loud. From Miryam’s father, a continuous drum of accusations. Miryam’s responses are cut off, softer, smaller. Something thuds, hollow, onto the floor. Doors slam shut.
Then there are quick footsteps down the hallway, down the stairs. Miryam, cursing to herself. I hold my breath. Maybe she’ll stop on our floor. Maybe she’ll come to our door.
She doesn’t. The footsteps continue down, until I can’t hear anything anymore. Just chastened creaks, the sounds of things put right — chair off the floor, bowl back on the table. I get out of bed, roll up a piece of notebook paper and wedge it between the door and the doorframe. I lie awake, and I wait, and I fall asleep.
The next day is quiet. My bike is gone — taken. I walk around, watch the sun beat down on the roofs of parked cars. That night, again: a wedge in the door. That night, again: nothing. The day after that, Miryam’s dad knocks on our door, knocks in a way that panicked people do, where they start and don’t stop until you open. Mom opens and he goes off: have we seen Miryam? She hasn’t been home, have we seen her?
I go out onto the balcony and sit on the hot plastic chair. I take deep, deep breaths. For a while, when I was a kid, Mom would get me out of bed in the mornings and then get back into bed herself and not leave it until I screamed at her that I was hungry. I was scared, then. I was scared that the bed would swallow her up, that the smell of old coffee and sickness would swallow her up. The fear sat low — a string pulled out from the bottom of my belly.
It sits low again, now. Pulls me through the floor, six flights down, through the concrete and the ground and all the roots that are holding the world up. I still don’t remember her boyfriend’s name.
The earth behind the apartment building is unyielding; the earth at the foot of the oak nearby too sparse. There are too many eyes watching me in the park. I end up in someone’s backyard. The windows of the house reflect the bright sky, and I can barely see inside, but the neighborhood is quiet and no one is around. I think, They’re on vacation, and dig into their flower bed. There’s a little multicolored windmill that turns lazily in the breeze. Somewhere up in a tree, a blackbird is crying at nothing.
The earth is heavy, watered too often. It soaks through my jeans when I kneel down. I can’t be neat about it. The dirt trails all the way up my arms. It’s harder than Miryam made it look to make the shapes, to make them hold together. But I manage all the same. I wonder what Miryam would say if she were here to see me. Would she be impressed, would she go quiet at knowing that I, too, can make life out of dirt? Would she like that? Would she not?
I use two bottle caps for the eyes. I had them in my pocket; Miryam found them at the lakeside last week, flattened and rusty, the name of the brand worn off. She thought they were pretty, “in a sad, shitty way, you know,” and gave them to me as a joke. I kept them anyway. For the nose I use a button that came off Miryam’s shirt one day without her noticing. I kept that, too.
My fingers are shaking when I write the truth on a piece of paper and slip it into the hole of its ear. I hold my spit over its mouth. I let it drip down. I watch when it lands.
I feel it when he comes alive. An echo of something that is me outside of me. My heart, in something else’s body. I feel the beat of it, double. I feel the air on my skin, double. I can taste the inside of my mouth, like mud.
A fly comes and hovers over his bottle-cap eyeball. He swats it away, and I feel as if my arm is moving, too, but in a memory — of something that has happened, or will happen.
I lean toward the golem and put my hands on him. “Where?” I say it like an exclamation mark.
Gently, easily, he undoes my hold on him. He shifts like he is sighing, but he has no lungs, and no throat, so he can’t be. He sits upright, turns, and gestures to his back. An invitation.
I have read the stories. I have listened when the rabbi spoke. I know, I know that this isn’t what they’re meant for. I know about using good matter for bad ends, about evils close to home, about the wickedness of those who control living things. Dead things. Living and dead things, both.
I climb onto his back. He is damp sand under my fingernails. Underneath, he is solid. Muddy skin over iron rods. He flies up, straight up. The blackbird rushes from the tree when we pass it. We fly, and the city wobbles below us. At first I close my eyes — but then the thrill overtakes me, and I open them. Everything below me is very small, and fits together so neatly. The cars all in a line on the road — children’s toys.
Fear and power all at once. I know this feeling, I know it from hot afternoons with Miryam hovering over me, face close; first I am terrified, and then I want.
When we land, it’s at the lake. Miryam sits on the embankment. Her feet are in the water. I come down from the golem’s back, and stagger on the firm ground. She is the same. A little disheveled, a little worn, but the same.
She takes me in. Looks at my mud-covered clothes. She sees the golem, too. The corner of her mouth twitches at this.
She beckons the golem over, and he goes, and I feel him go. I feel his need to do as she wishes. I’ve felt it forever.
When he bends to her, he does so like a knight: on one knee, head down.
I watch as she kisses the crown of his head, and feel the echo on my skin. I watch as she takes the paper from his ear. I watch, too, as he dissolves. The earth tumbles to the weeds, and the wind carries the sand, and then it is gone. It is nowhere.
I am my own again, I think, and then I realize that I am not my own.
I say, “You took my bike.”
She shrugs. “Well, yeah.”
I want to touch her. I keep my hands tight at my sides. I sit down. She watches me with one eye shut against the glare of the sinking sun.
“So you’ve figured out how to make one, huh.” Then: “I made mine fly me into an empty hotel room. I can stay wherever I want to stay. It’s great.” She swallows. “He’d take me wherever. Anywhere I tell him to. So like …”
She still has the paper in her hands. If I look away, she might call him back again. If I look away, she might disappear. Smoke, almond oil. She lifts the paper until it’s level with her face, until I have no choice but to look her in the eye. She says, “Would you do anything I tell you to do?”
I say, “Yes.”
“Will you leave me?”
I don’t answer.
“Will you go if I tell you to?”
I take a breath.
She says, “Shoo.”
I look at her. She smiles, but it’s not a smile. It turns down at the corners. She takes a breath, then, and crinkles the paper to my ear, and kisses me. “Shoo,” she says. “Go. Be gone.”
She pulls back. She waits to see if I will do as commanded.
I wait, too. Water laps against the shore, insects shift in the reeds, the knotted willows bow, and I — a human being, a living person — I stay.
Enjoyed this story? Join JBC and Yael van der Wouden on January 27, 2022 12:30 – 1:00 PM ET for a discussion of “Into the Mud” at the first meeting of Paper Brigade’s new Short Story Club! Register here.
Yael van der Wouden is a teacher and writer based in the Netherlands. She is currently finishing her first novel, a postwar mystery romance.