From the author: To make it correctly, you will need a baby’s bones.
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I. The First Principle
The first principle of conjuring is that nothing can be made in a vacuum.
Accounts of golem-making refer most commonly to clay as the sole element, and while this will work, the result will be a lumpish thing, smelling of dirt and manure and wholly unsuitable for your purpose. The choice you must make is not whether or not to make the golem, but whether or not to make it correctly, using the only thing upon which you can build the scent and texture of a baby’s skin.
To make it correctly, you will need a baby’s bones.
If you are reading these words, however, you already know this. Nothing can be made in a vacuum, and certainly not the desperation that has led you to these words.
II. The Second Principle
The second principle of conjuring is to know and understand your purpose. Your purpose springs not from thwarted maternal desires, but from the day you finished converting your mother’s bedroom into a sickroom. A sickroom for her, and yourself as well, for you were sick with grief and fear and a sympathetic pain that made your body shudder in time with hers. In the mornings you touched your breasts and armpits and fancied swellings there; at night, as you crossed the moonlit fields to return to your cavernous cottage, you listened to the silence and tried to imagine the world without her.
On that first day, as you settled her into her new bed, she had seized your hand and whispered, I only wish I could have met your daughter. I know she’ll be beautiful.
And then she started crying.
Until that moment you had taken it as a given that she understood, without you saying anything. Understood that you have lost count of your white hairs, that your knees ache in the mornings and you have fine spots in your vision. That you had endured more pointless couplings than you cared to remember, under the influence of every concoction and potion and incantation you have been able to unearth.
You cannot conceive.
Still she cried, and the hand in yours was gnarled and callused and trembling, and when had you ever seen your mother tremble?
Thus it bears repeating: the second principle of conjuring is to know your purpose with clarity, and your purpose was to do anything that would ease her fear and her grief. You whispered this to your pillow three times nightly and to your reflection three times at daybreak; you recited the most salient element over and over until you reached gnosis. Anything. Anything. Anything. Anything to bring her joy. Anything to spare her these brutal regrets. Otherwise you would have done better to simply tell her the miserable truth and broken her heart once and for all.
III. A Note on the Nature of Human Bones
Human bones are cold and solitary. They need the breath of life to make them knit together; they need a beating heart to fill them with heat. Too long in the ground and they revert to their original element, stone. For this conjuring you need a baby’s bones that will still respond to heat and breath.
Listen to the women as they come to you for their spells, their potions and powders. Listen to their gossip as you grind the elements together, as you whisper the incantations and turn the bowl clockwise. Who has lost a baby? You listen for stories of stillborn infants, crib deaths, toddlers drowned in the river.
You listen, day after day. Time is slipping through your fingers: you are aging and your mother is dying. She no longer recognizes the time of day or the season; the other day she mistook you for herself, herself for your grandmother. Sometimes now, sitting at her bedside while she dozes, you find yourself holding your breath for no apparent reason save your instinctive terror of what is to come.
And then you hear a string of words: not since her last. Crib death, not two months ago. In that hushed whisper reserved for untimely death, as solemn as any incantation.
IV. The Third Principle
Thieving from graveyards is forbidden, and has been for over a century. To do so puts you at risk of both the retribution of the townspeople and the penalties of your fellow practitioners. Always you curled your lip at stories of such magic, how crude, how debased a witch would have to be, to resort to doing that.
The third principle of conjuring is that anything you curled your lip at will come back to you in a terrible, absolute form.
No one ever thinks it will come to this. Yet you wonder, now, if every witch has a time in her life when she finds herself crawling through damp darkness, clothes dirty and hair tangled, wild with a desperate, fearful hope. You will not read about this in any other book. You will never truly know how many have crawled like you, have panted like you, have felt that awful hammering of failure and loss in their heads as you feel it now.
Remember that this is merely one conjuring among many. You are still a good witch, you are still a good person. That moment when you first break open the coffin lid, that smell that paints your nostrils and clings to your throat, how the bones tap and scrape against each other in your basket: yes, your heart will be haunted by these sensations for the rest of your life. Yet it is all merely part of the conjuring, one among so many others, conjurings that have healed the sick and nourished the crops, conjurings that have protected in the darkest woods and turned aside the evil eye.
You are still a good person.
Or so you must tell yourself, if you are to go on at all.
V. A Note on the Third Principle
Do not, at any time, remember the spring morning when you accompanied your mother to the great fields and watched from the shade of a walnut tree as she went forth to conjure the crops to fullness. How she strode with splayed arms from row to row, her bare skin gleaming in the bright sunshine. How the powders she created, powders you still cannot get exactly right, flew from her fingertips in fine yellow clouds. How utterly certain of herself she was, how utterly in tune with the earth and the sky and the season. You will never be a witch like she was.
VI. Making The Golem
The most crucial element in any conjuring is, of course, conviction. You know this. Every witch knows this. You must believe, utterly believe, that it will work, despite what your senses tell you, despite what your reasoning mind tells you.
Note well: the only thing that does not lie is your heart.
For the several days that you plot your elements you must think of nothing but the working and its variables. Mud and bone, yes, but they are not enough. Your own fluids, clear and bloody, sticky and gelatinous, soaked into little pieces of batting from your grandmother’s fraying quilt. The seed of a man you coax one night behind the tavern, a man that reminds you of a boy you loved long ago who loved another, one of many things we cannot change your mother had said. Corn husks and honey, roses and shells, all from the days of trailing after your mother while she worked. The vivid blue morning glories that have framed your mother’s door for as long as you can remember.
Believe, and believe, and begin.
Lay the bones in your own small cradle. Crush the soaked cotton and the seed into the mud, turning and turning the bowl, spitting and weeping to make it as liquid as possible. Now is the time to let your mind run, to see your future without her, haunted by this act you are committing. Weep for yourself and for what you will do; you need your tears now.
When all is ready take out a single piece of paper and cut it in the shape of a heart, and write upon it a single word: Anything.
Place the paper in the open palm of the ribcage and dip your fingers into the mud. Believe. Stroke the bones with your fingers, tracing thin layers onto each jagged edge, over the last shreds of tendons, where once there had clung fat and skin and life. Believe. Your eyes see not rotting bones and dirt but smooth, plump limbs, the rise of a soft belly. Believe. With every layer see yourself pinching flushed cheeks, teasing a dimpled chin. Believe. When at last the bones disappear, raise the body and lay one muddy hand in the small of a back and rub gently, soothingly.
If you find yourself humming as you work, humming a nonsense song you made up when you were small that you had entirely forgotten until now: believe.
And then tuck it in for the night.
Repeat this for nine long evenings. On the seventh add in a tangle of corn husks and your own wavy hairs and even your mother’s grey ones, swirling them gently over the delicate scalp with oil of honey until they turn soft and brown. On the eighth carefully press little shimmering chips of shell into fingers and toes, curve rose petals into sweetly bowing lips.
On the ninth night, just before dawn, take two morning-glory blossoms and place them in the shadowed hollows of its soft, round face, and watch them open into unfocused blue eyes.
Now is the moment. It is close but not quite awake, not yet; it has your breath but its paper heart lies still and thin inside. Believe now. Believe without fear, without remorse. Keep your voice steady and assured as you bend over your crib and whisper in the tiny ear:
Anything. Anything for her.
Stay there for a moment, breathing. That smell. You can let yourself cry once more, now. Just a few tears, for when you feel a small, soft hand reach up and brush your face. Let yourself linger for this one night; tell yourself you are admiring your handiwork when you mime faces at it, or tickle its neck, or when you spend what feels like both forever and an instant teaching those stubby fingers to curl around your own. Only for tonight, only to make sure you have done well. Just a few last tears. That smell.
VII. The Fourth Principle
The fourth principle of conjuring is to maintain a distance from the outcome, the better to control and, ultimately, undo it.
Under no circumstances are you to name the golem.
Even now, as you read these words, you must not think of it as anything other than it, the golem, the pretense. Hold that before you, always. Through the conjuring, through that first moment when it opens its eyes. No name. The first touch of its hand was a reflex, the first soft cry from its open mouth nothing more than a testament to your skill. No name. It is clay and bone, leaves and paper, animated by your breath and your will. You would no more name it than you would name a rock.
It is a pretense.
Remember that, as you carry it swaddled across the fields scorched by summer. It cannot see the butterfly you see, it cannot look at the sky in wonder, thought it appears to do both. The hand that rests against the edges of your old baby blanket cannot feel the soft flannel, or the texture of your finger when it grips so tightly.
Remember that, as it suddenly squalls, a strange, high-pitched noise like a bird in flight. You did not create this voice; there must have been something in the mud—old feathers, a lost fledgling.
Remember that, even when you place it in your mother’s arms, and see her face suffused with a joy you have never beheld before. Remember that the source of her joy is a lie.
VIII. A Note on Clothing
No one knows what will come of dressing the golem in the clothes of a living child. Will the child’s soul leave its body to inhabit that shambling mass of imaginary flesh and dead bone? Will her life be lived out in that small space where the two have been dragged into conjunction by your own frayed self?
Or perhaps the child will simply feel, always, that a small piece of herself is missing.
Instead, avoid the matter by using your own clothing; you cannot lose more than you already have. In a dresser in your mother's house you find, carefully washed and pressed and folded, all the little dresses and rompers that your mother made. No hand-me-downs for any of you, neither you nor your mother nor your grandmother nor all those who came before, every daughter celebrated anew . . .
Perhaps this was part of your failure, that you never took the time to plan for your own daughter, never took the time to prepare an assortment of wonders to lure her forth into the world.
IX. On Certainty
There will come a moment, as you are roughly chopping the vegetables for your mother’s soup, when you will hear your mother singing the same lullaby she sang to you as a child. It has been decades since you last heard her sing. The melody is as familiar as her touch or her smell. When you close your eyes you are the one in her arms, not the golem, you are snuggling against her, utterly safe and at peace.
You dip your head low over the pot to smother the sounds of your crying, salting the soup with your tears.
In that moment, you know you would do it all again, every last bit of it: you would risk the whole town turning against you, risk that child haunting you, risk damning your very soul, to have this one glimpse of what life would have been if you had only—
The temptation to break the fourth principle here will be very strong. It may become necessary to avoid the golem’s eyes, especially after the singing, when you take it from your mother’s arms. To look into its blue eyes will be to wonder if you see something in them, something you did not put there, something that reminds you not only of your mother but your grandmother. There is nothing there that you did not fashion, nothing that could have been affected by the thrumming of your mother’s chest as she sang, or the kiss she placed upon the forehead you so painstakingly shaped with slow arcs of your thumbs. There is nothing but bone and dirt and your guilt and your grief.
It bears repeating: under no circumstances should you ever, ever name it, not even in the darkest corners of your mind, lest you mouth her name in your sleep and make her real.
X. The Fifth Principle
Recall that the second principle is to know your purpose. Remind yourself of this, when you finally can admit to yourself that you are no longer caring for your mother but saying goodbye to her. Anything. Anything. You leave the golem at home now because there is no place for a child here, even the illusion of one. The hypnotic rasp of your mother’s labored breath puts you into a trance, a state necessary for conjuring and normally difficult for you to achieve. Thus you may not be sure whether it is some deep working of your own that makes her seize your hand and say, very carefully, when I’m gone you must let her go. I know how much you’ve been hurting, but you can’t keep her. You need to let her go.
Understand, then, that your purpose in the end had been not to save her from grief but to save yourself from inflicting that grief. Always your mother taught you to come slowly to a conjuring, to think on your purpose and refine it, ponder it, sleep on it. The heart has curious places, dark corners that can harbor feelings we don’t want to face, she had instructed. But it is exactly those places that our magic comes from. A good witch knows her heart as intimately as her own face or hands.
The fifth principle of conjuring is that no matter what you believe your purpose to be, the outcome will be neither more nor less than the embodiment of your heart.
The journey to the unmaking is long, as long as that first night without her when you stared sleepless at her still, cold face. It is as bitter as the bile that floods your mouth at every kindly old woman, every smiling toddler. If, on the coach, you find yourself crying uncontrollably when you pass three women outside a church, three generations holding hands in anticipation of worship; if you feel as if the very universe itself is grinding this vision into your face while chanting you will never have this—if this happens, you are on the right path.
There was a time long ago when you spent a week at the seaside every summer. Your grandmother would sit beneath the twisted pines with her knitting and the sandwiches while you and your mother played in the surf, diving and swimming, drawing shapes in the wet sand only to watch them disappear. It would be years before you realize these were your first lessons at conjuring, which is the art of forcing a shape upon the ephemeral.
You were made here; you return now to unmake.
It is autumn now. The air is crisp and the water shockingly cold. You walk in until your hips are submerged, past where you can easily turn back; only then do you unwrap it—
her. You unwrap her. You have thought it all this time, despite all your principles, despite all your will, and still you are here. Let her have this one gesture.
Only then do you unwrap her. You have carried her all this way, you have never once let go, for what mother would ever do less?
Lay her shroud upon the water. Lower her in on her belly as your mother once lowered you. Feel her soft hands stroke against your wrists, not quite able to grip, and do not once think she is trying to hold on, to hold on to you, her life. When the lapping water licks away her touch tell yourself she is letting go.
Do not look down.
Your fingers are sinking in her now, not into the dusty doughy curve of her little belly but into a lump of mud, her flesh oozing through your fingers until suddenly you are stroking bone. Those tiny buried bones. Everything happens too quickly then: the bones coming apart in all directions, drifting on the vast currents of the ocean; the last gobbets of mud and dirt dissolving, dissolving . . . and with a last hint of baby-smell she is gone.
And then you are nothing more than a middle-aged woman, shivering and sobbing, sobbing until you are heaving, with only a blank shred of paper bobbing before you.
There will be the walk back, wading and stumbling, blinded by tears. There will be the long journey home, the longest you have ever known, riddled with fever and hollow with grief. Food will repulse you, words will sound foreign, the kindest gestures seem acts of brutality. You will hate everyone you see, you will hate your own reflection, you will wonder every morning why you bother getting up at all.
You will spend far too much time trying to imagine: what did she see, with those flower-eyes? What did she feel, when she laid her hand upon you? Did she want, did she desire, did she ever understand what she was or why she was made?
Sometimes you dream yourself back in the ocean, dissolving beside her, your flesh coming away in chunks of red clay, your belly gushing soup, your mouth filled with hard black rocks that discolor everything they touch.
And then it fades, as everything fades. You will dream less, and feel less. You will move through your routines because they are your purpose.
You will hang a sign on your door that says Apprentice Wanted.
And when you can bear to look at your own face again you will see a witch without kin or heir, with seawater for a heart; a woman who is terribly, damnably free.
This story originally appeared in Strange Horizons.
World Fantasy Award Finalist Winner of the 2nd Annual North Street Book Prize Dwarves and golems, Fates and minotaurs, metamorphoses, murder, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. L.S. Johnson delivers a provocative and original short story collection that ingeniously blends myth and nightmare.
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