A Sweet Golem

Daisy,” by Andrew Willett, seems to have been the inspiration for the entire Thoughtcrime Experiments anthology (according to the intro note the editors gave it), and it seems fitting that a classic golem story would inspire the editors to build a creation of labor, love and words.

Most people are familiar with derivatives of the classic Jewish golem story–Frankenstein and similar. These are too far removed from the original legends to preserve some of the coolest parts. One version of the classic instructions for making a golem call for the creator to form the creature out of clay, then write the letters aleph, mem, tav on its forehead, spelling “emet,” the Hebrew word for “truth.” To deactivate the golem, erase the aleph, leaving the word “met,” the Hebrew word for “death.” Traditional golems aren’t necessarily considered terrifying monsters–there are stories of them serving great spiritual masters.

Judaism is an attractive tradition to a writer, since it places so much power in the printed word. The Jewish people are sometimes known as “the people of the book,” and in Jewish mystical traditions, the letters of the alphabet are considered to have spiritual power. This is powerful creative ground–fruitful for any writer to explore.

In my own potentially flawed understanding, I think of golems as an extension of the idea of man made in God’s image–man can create, just as God can create, but the life-giving power that a human can invest in an object is far more limited than what God can do. A man can take clay and transform it into a golem, while God took clay and transformed it into a man.

After such a mystical buildup, you’re going to be surprised by how lighthearted Willett’s story is. I wanted to give it good context, in fact, so that I could point this out. Here is Willett’s golem:

There are things I never knew you could buy on the Lower East Side. Schoenfein’s Useful Goods was full of them, and what we brought home was definitely one of them, but from what we could tell it had a devoted following in its obscurity. It was a rectangle of pale sunny yellow, like a stiff piece of thickish cardboard, wrapped in an eighth-generation photocopy of a set of instructions.

“Okay,” I said, opening a container of kosher salt we’d bought on the way home. “Salt, check; dish, check; one cup of warm water, check. Where’s the Sharpie?”

“I’ve got it here,” Jenna said, holding up a sheet of paper she’d covered with black squiggles. “Just practicing.”

I made a circle of salt in the bottom of the dish. Jenna placed the yellow cardboardy thing in the circle, then carefully inked the Hebrew letters from the instruction sheet onto its back in small, neat forms. We held hands and dumped the water into the dish.

Remember those stove-top popcorn dishes? The ones where all of the sudden the little flat tinfoil skillet would mushroom up into this huge thing and it was like watching magic happen? It was like that. Only instead of a big tinfoil balloon, we stood in our living room watching a piece of cardboardy stuff in a Pyrex dish expand into a big yellow kitchen sponge about eight inches tall and shaped like a dainty cat. It had neat Hebrew letters across its back in black ink. It blinked its eyes at us.

“Coool,” I said.

“Mao,” the cat said.

“I think we’ll call you Daisy,” Jenna said.

The boring way to describe “Daisy” would be to say it is the story of a modern couple’s struggles with pest control. Willett invests this plot with mysticism, imagination, and, ultimately, a sense of sweetness and humor. It’s a great example of forging a new path with old (and therefore rich) material.

One quibble I had was that the second-to-last section of the story ends with the sentence, “And that was the end.” It feels complete. It makes sense to me as a stopping point for the story. It’s followed by an additional section, a mini-epilogue, that I thought served only to weaken the story. I have an entire rant about epilogues, actually (hint: I tend to find them unnecessary), which I may try to translate from dinner conversation into blog post at some point. In this case, I think chopping out the last two paragraphs would have given Willett a stronger, neater finish. His subconscious even told him so when he wrote the final sentence of the section that should have been the end.

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