Excerpt from Tara Isabella Burton’s story “The Golem of Leopoldstadt,” forthcoming in Shadows & Tall Trees.
Into the clay she pressed her loneliness. She made a man in the image of her father, whom she did not love, and used a needle to poke letters into his back. She hollowed out his cheeks so that they were as hard and wolf-like as her father’s; with her nails she made crosses in the eyes. Clara stretched the clay and pummeled it; she feasted on her tears and ignored Cornelius when he knocked.
“Papa’s awake.” He was dying.
She slipped the figure into her apron pocket and went downstairs.
They sat as they always sat: in silence. Papa, wheezing, up on the pillows. Cornelius in glory at their father’s right hand. Mama twisting her fingers in her lap, trembling. Clara in darkness at the other end of the room. The shutters were closed; the electricity flickered. Cobwebs trailed up and down the bedposts. Clara could not breathe.
Papa reared up; Mama flinched. Papa kissed Cornelius on both cheeks and whispered a blessing Clara could not hear as she hollowed out her father’s heart with her thumbs.
Cornelius was the anointed one; he was the hope of Leopoldstadt. He was the branch of David and he was the remnant. He was the child who had been born in darkness, and he was the boy who had survived. Women often stopped in the streets to gather him into their arms and weep, because he reminded him of the ones they had lost. In the brightness of his eyes he bore the promise of renewal. He was studying to be a rabbi. God had spared him. God had chosen him.
Papa had told them the story over and over again, the story of the childless officer’s wife over whom the toddler Cornelius had once tripped in the Prater, who had poured out the fervent instincts of her motherly heart, and when the calamity had started had used her influence to spare the whole family from those railway cars. It was a miracle of God in a time without miracles, for God had singled Cornelius out as the rod and as its flower, to feed on curds and honey, and to survive.
God had not chosen Clara, who had been born three years after it was all over, colicky and pale, and raised in silent, spinsterish seclusion in her father’s house. She was unfavoured; she polished the picture-frames. She turned away visitors at the door—Papa refused to face the ones who came to call. She cooked dinner; she helped Frau Moritz with the silver. She crept out at lunchtime, volumes of Papa’s Talmud hidden in her satchel, and sat alone among the roses of the Volksgarten to read them, ecstatic with the thrill of transgression. She received Papa’s curses with downcast eyes, and when he blessed Cornelius she turned away, swallowed, and reflected on the darkness outside God’s wings.
God’s hands had saved Cornelius, but Clara’s hands worked in her lap, kneading as they had kneaded for nineteen years. Clay was the only thing she was good at. Twenty or thirty copies of her father lined her bedroom wall. Forty or sixty crossed and unloving eyes stared down at her when she went to sleep at night. She did not complain. She did not make a fuss. She only kneaded the clay, and leavened it with her hate.