FantasyStrange

The Ministry of Sacred Affairs

By Claude Lalumière
3,507 words · 13-minute reading time
Bookmark


Lost in music, it takes some time for Leo to register that Rosa is calling his name, that her hand is trembling on his shoulder. He lays down his violin and clasps her wrinkled hands between his.

            "Something terrible's happened next door. At the Bergens'. Pounding on the wall. A shriek. Things thrown about." Rosa's speech is terse, choppy, nervous. Leo stands up and enfolds his small and fragile wife in his bony old arms. She continues: "I phoned, but there was no answer."

            Leo and Rosa look away from each other. Leo knows which memory haunts his wife. It haunts him, too, but they never speak of it. Of him.

            #

Fifteen years ago...

            Just as Leo was preparing to go to open the grocery store after breakfast, the doorbell rang. Rosa called out anxiously. Leo emerged from the kitchen to see his wife standing next to an officer from the Ministry of Sacred Affairs, in full official regalia. He asked if he could come in. Rosa offered him tea, but he declined. The Ministry man suggested that both of them should sit down. The officer, towering over the sitting couple, spoke in cold, rehearsed tones: "Last night, your son, Shane, defied curfew and was killed by a pack of goblins. Although the demons didn't leave enough of a body for a funeral, we were able to identify him by the contents of his wallet. I'm sorry for your loss." The officer left a card on the table. "Please call me when you're ready to make arrangements." He left without another word.

            Rosa insisted on a service. It was an awkward affair, attended mostly by family. Typically, Rosa's cousin Cathy got drunk and made a fool of herself. There was a group of Shane's friends and colleagues from Emet, the magazine where he worked; they kept to themselves, whispering to each other, barely containing their contempt for the representative of the Ministry of Sacred Affairs who had come to pay his respects.

            #

Now that it is nearly dusk, nearly curfew, Leo makes sure that both the front and back doors are locked and that all the windows, even those on the second floor, are not only locked but shuttered as well, as Rosa prefers. Satisfied that the house is secure, he picks up his violin case from its place next to the stool in his study. He passes by the bedroom. Already, Rosa is in bed, feigning sleep. Leo walks down the stairs, back to the ground floor, and opens the door to the basement. For a moment, confronted with the darkness below, his seventy-year-old body shivers. He flicks on the switch, and he sighs with relief as light floods the stairwell.

            He continues his way downward, and coughs as the dust in the air hits his lungs. He turns left and walks to a door in the unpainted concrete wall. He knocks and, without skipping a beat, turns the knob, opens the door, and steps through to the other side.

            In the next-door basement, Ali faces his neighbour, Leo. Ali's curly grey hair frames a round face with only a hint of crow's feet around the eyes. He's holding a clarinet in his left hand. He smiles and nods at Leo, then turns around and goes up the stairs. Leo follows him.

            #

When Leo was a boy, his family spent summers on the coast at the home of his Uncle Gerard, his father's brother. His uncle and aunt were holy scholars who sometimes supplied golems to households and farms in their area. That was before the establishment of the dogmatic Ministry of Sacred Affairs, before holy scholars could no longer ply their trade without official sanction, before the making of golems was proclaimed blasphemous and subversive.

            Despite the young Leo's pleas, Uncle Gerard and Aunt Sofia never let him observe them at their work, never let him see them bring forth life from clay with the Word of God.

            They kept a golem of their own, mostly to protect their livestock. Leo spoke to this tall, imposing creature when the adults ignored him. He shared his young secrets with it -- whatever those secrets may have been, Leo no longer remembers. The golem never moved, never showed any obvious sign of hearing him. Yet, he remembers feeling that it understood his words as he stared into its empty, vacant eyes. Leo was an only child, and his uncle and aunt had no children. The golem was his only companion during those summer vacations.

            #

Ali plays one last, long, mournful note, and then lays down his clarinet. Leo, too, stops playing. The silence between them grows awkward. Leo tries to ignore the unease by examining the artwork on Ali's walls -- Ali's own paintings: shimmering, melancholy works rich with musical and religious imagery. Playing here, with Ali, compels Leo to surpass what he normally thinks he can accomplish, errors be damned. At his age, new friendships are hard to come by, and he treasures this one and all the gifts it brings him.

            It had been Ali's idea to open up the long-barricaded basement door that linked their two houses. And what a gift that had turned out to be, imbuing their nights with music and companionship in these times of fear and isolation.

            It is Ali who breaks the silence and broaches the uncomfortable topic that hangs so heavily between them. "I heard the two of you fight after I left yesterday. I'm sorry."

            Leo nods, acknowledging his friend's words.

            "And again this morning," he continues. "Perhaps I shouldn't have ... I didn't know about your son."

            It takes Leo a few moments to find his words. "No, you did nothing wrong, but Rosa and I..." The right words elude him still. He tries again. "She sees nothing wrong with how you say the Ministry of Sacred Affairs treats the goblins. The live vivisections. The experiments. The amputations. The sacrilegious rituals. She even agrees with what they're doing. She told me, 'They should make those monsters suffer. All of them.'"

            "I see. But you...?"

            "I know the goblins are dangerous. But nothing can justify that kind of sadism. But you have to be careful who you talk to, Ali. You could be labelled a traitor, a potential terrorist. Like that crew who freed a horde of goblins last month. What did they call themselves again? How many of them were killed by those very creatures they were trying to save?"

            Ali wrings his hands and looks away from his friend. Neither of them seem to know what to say next.

            Finally, Ali again breaks the silence. "In all those stories of people killed by goblins, in all those years Sacred Affairs has claimed to 'protect' us, have you actually ever seen any evidence? Have you ever seen the mutilated corpses of the alleged human victims yourself? Have you ever witnessed an attack?"

            Leo lets that sink in.

            Ali pushes on: "What do you think really happened to your son, to your neighbours?" After a beat he continues, breathlessly, "Don't you remember when goblins weren't considered that dangerous? Nothing more than minor nighttime demons who thrived in cities. Pests, maybe, but not a serious threat. Don't you ever wonder why the Ministry so insists that things have changed? That the world is supposedly so dangerous now? Don't you ever wonder why Sacred Affairs is so fearful of golems? What the Ministry is really up to with..." But Ali leaves that idea unarticulated.

            After a few minutes of tense silence, in a gravely hushed voice, Ali says, "Follow me." He leads Leo down to his basement. The light from the lone fixture can't fully pierce the darkness, and Ali's priestly solemnity emphasizes the atavistic atmosphere of the moment, as if they were descending into a prehistoric cave rather than the cellar of an urban home. In the middle of the floor, he rolls a rug out of the way, revealing a trap door in the ground. Mysteries within mysteries. "When I moved in, I was planning on having the basement renovated. I took apart the flooring, and I found this."

            He pulls open the door, and for a moment all Leo can see is a dark opening. Ali whispers a few words Leo can't make out. Then, from that black cavity, there's a slow ripple of shadows. A golem emerges, standing to its full height.

            #

Leo is loath to disturb the uneasy truce that he and Rosa have established over the past week, but how can he remain silent? He knows his twisting and turning has been keeping her awake. In the darkness of night, he tells her, "I think Ali has been arrested by the Ministry of Sacred Affairs. Maybe worse."

            "Why would you say a thing like that?"

            "He hasn't been home for three days. The last time we spoke, he told me he that he was about to attempt something dangerous, but he wouldn't tell me what. To protect me, he said."

            "Protect you? From what?"

            "Ali was afraid. You know why he moved here? Because, back where he lived before, many of his friends were starting to disappear. Ali and his friends belonged to the Covenant of Holy Scholars. He fled before the Ministry got to him, too. He assumed a new identity, hoping they wouldn't find him."

            "So Ali was a criminal?"

            Anger spurs Leo's next words, "What do you think really happened to the Bergens, Rosa? Do you still believe that it was goblins who killed Shane? He was a reporter for Emet; maybe he found out someth--"

            She slaps him. Already, Leo regrets his insensitive words, his anger. He has no proof, and perhaps goblins really had killed their son. Yet, he can't shake this image in his mind of Shane sneaking into Sacred Affairs headquarters, witnessing things the Ministry intends to keep hidden. Shane always sought the truth, never accepted handed-down wisdom or rote explanations. Yes, their son would have done that.

            Rosa's crying, but she shrugs away when Leo tries to comfort her. In his pyjamas, he gets out of bed, walks down the stairs into the basement, and crosses over to Ali's house. He turns on the feeble light, rolls back the rug on the floor, pulls open the trap door, and says, "Hello, golem." The creature rises from its dark pit and stares at Leo, its eyeless gaze both grave and vacant. Leo reaches out to touch it. It sits next to him, letting him rest his weight on its rock-hard shoulder.

            #

Rosa comes back home, shopping bags full. She looks scared, but Leo doesn't dare say anything. They still haven't spoken since the previous night.

            She sits across from Leo and pushes a newspaper toward him. He puts down his book, which he was failing to read anyway. All morning, he kept rereading the same page, unable to assimilate the words.

            There's a picture of Ali on the front page, an unfamiliar name beneath his face. There are other photos, too -- accomplices, it says. Goblin sympathizers. Rogue golem makers. Executed for treason. For crimes against the state and against humanity.

            Leo still says nothing, shocked but not surprised at his friend's fate. Eventually, Rosa gets up and leaves him sitting alone. They don't talk for the rest of the day.

            At bedtime, she comes to find him in his study; his playing is sad, mournful. She waits until he puts his violin away, then she presses her hand against his heart and, almost imperceptibly, nods. She takes him by the hand and leads him to bed. She kisses him, wanting him. They rarely desire each other anymore. That passion has burnt itself out after more than four decades of marriage. But Leo responds, suddenly wanting her very desperately.

            By the time they fall asleep, their limbs entwined, they still haven't exchanged any words.

            #

What wakes them both in the middle of the night is a scream of unbearable anguish. The sound goes on and on, without respite, a howl yearning for an impossible end to all pain. The whole neighbourhood must be awake, shocked, like Leo and Rosa, into terror.

            The wailing stops abruptly, and the hush that follows is even more terrible. Leo and Rosa both weep, clutching at each other. A few minutes later, a muffled noise, coming from downstairs, breaks the paralysing spell of that dreadful silence.

            Leo motions Rosa to stay in bed, and he goes to investigate. Nothing seems disturbed on the ground floor. He hears a faint noise from the basement. He opens the cellar door, turns on the light, and calls out. There's no answer. He grabs the hammer from under the kitchen sink and ventures underground.

            Ali's golem has crashed through from next door. It is holding a small goblin. The tiny creature is wounded, mewing in pain, filthy, and alarmingly thin, its bones much too visible under its fur and skin, its already big eyes almost falling out of its emaciated face. The golem kneels and lays the goblin at Leo's feet. The goblin's every breath is a tortured mewl. Although it's now reduced to a whimper, Leo recognizes the goblin's voice. How could such a tiny, frail creature have produced those deafening howls earlier?

            The golem stares at Leo with its vacant, expressionless gaze, but he can feel, or at least imagine, that it is imploring him to rescue this poor, broken little monster. There's viscera caked all over the golem's clay body. Much more blood and guts than the tiny goblin could have spilled.

            "Ohmygod!" Rosa is behind Leo.

            Leo fears Rosa's reaction. He has never told her about Ali's golem -- and to see it for the first time with, of all things, a goblin...

            Once again the goblin mews in agony, and its voice is unmistakable. Rosa gasps; recognition, disbelief, and horror all written thickly on her face. Leo braces himself to deal with his wife's fury.

            But Rosa, glancing only a moment at the kneeling golem, reaches down and picks up the injured goblin. "Leo, don't just stand there. Help me." Her face betrays that she has many questions, but for now, earning Leo's admiration, she focuses on helping the desperate creature in her arms.

            Before hurrying after Rosa, Leo lets his gaze linger on the clay man for a moment. He is struck by the nobility that exudes from the posture and countenance of this strange, artificial creature, even with its clay flesh splattered with gore and viscera.

            #

Rosa, Leo's darling Rosa, nurses the goblin back to health. She cleans it, disinfects its wounds, makes a bed for it with a cardboard box and an old blanket. The golem has come up to the kitchen, never letting the ailing goblin out of its presence. Rosa experiments until she finds what the goblin likes to eat. It's a finicky little thing but voracious once it finds what it likes: raw eggs, peanut butter, and milk.

            Within a week, its wounds have healed, its orange fur has become lustrous, and a thicker layer of flesh covers its bones. Although it clearly trusts its human rescuers, it is its hulking protector who receives looks of unadulterated devotion. Once it has regained its health, the goblin abandons the makeshift bed and when it wants to sleep it always seeks out the golem, who now inhabits the basement of Leo and Rosa's house, curling up on this or that part of its beloved saviour's body. To Leo's surprise, the little monster shows no sign of wanting to go outside. It seems perfectly content to stay in their house.

            Meanwhile, Leo has boarded up the underground connection to Ali's house, lest anyone step through and uncover their secrets.

            #

When Leo returns home from an afternoon concert in the park, just before curfew, he immediately knows that something is wrong from the tense and distracted way Rosa greets him.

            Finally, at the dinner table, Leo says, "What's troubling you?"

            It takes her a few minutes to answer, but Leo is patient. Finally, she says, "What if someone should discover that we...?"

            "We talked about that. No more houseguests. The little one is too noisy, always vocalizing or running around making mischief. But why would anyone suspect?"

            She glances away from Leo. Tersely, he asks: "How did it happen? Who knows about them?"

            "My cousin -- Cathy. She rang the doorbell, unannounced, at lunch time. I had shooed the goblin downstairs when the bell rang, but I couldn't see how to say no to her visit without raising suspicion."

            "So, of course, the little one made noise, and she heard."

            "It scratched at the door, desperate to be let back in the kitchen."

            "She had her phone out, ready to call the Ministry of Sacred Affairs. I had no choice but to explain. To tell her everything. It worked. She'd calmed down by the time she left."

            Leo is furious, but he knows it's not Rosa's fault. Decades of married life has taught him not to take his anger at the world out on her.

            "I don't think she'll tell."

            "Rosa, don't be naive. Of course she'll tell. Your cousin is the worst kind of blabbermouth. Not to mention an idiot. Even if she doesn't tell the Ministry herself, it's only a matter of time before the gossip reaches their ears."

            Leo wants to pretend that this didn't happen, that nothing will ever break apart this unlikely family; but, as much as he had wanted this to last forever, as much as he had avoided thinking about the many things that could go wrong, he had always known it would end badly. Opening the basement door, he calls the golem. Almost immediately, Leo hears the protector's heavy footsteps on the staircase.

            Leo has no idea how precisely the golem can understand his words, beyond general commands, such as reacting to being called. Nevertheless, he tells it exactly what it needs to do. "It's the only way to save the goblin," he repeats a few times for emphasis.

            The two of them must leave while it's still dark. Find an abandoned building. Or, better, leave the city entirely. Or perhaps go wherever demons originally come from. Go there, beyond this world, and never come back.

            "It's the only way to save the goblin," Leo says again. Both Rosa and Leo are in tears.

            Rosa, who's been holding and petting the little one, hands it over to the golem. The giant nestles the furry demon in the crook of its folded arm.

            It looks Leo in the eye with its vacant gaze and nods. The golem moves toward the door, ready to leave. Leo squeezes Rosa close to him.

            And the door explodes open. The golem crouches to protect the little goblin.

            Four masked, faceless Ministry officers burst into the house.

            The golem acts with surprising swiftness, fatally knocking down two officers with one blow, and a third with a kick to the head before another shot is fired.

            But that leaves one officer. He fires his weapon randomly, wildly, in a panic. The golem attacks him, its fist penetrating his armour, crushing his chest. The officer collapses, lifeless.

            With the corpses of four Ministry officers bleeding on the floor of their home, Leo thinks, That's it. There's no more future for us. No matter -- we've had a good, long life. The important thing is the safety of our goblin and our golem.

            But the golem turns toward Leo and Rosa, handing Rosa the unmistakably dead, bloodied goblin. The clay man kneels at their feet, covering its face with one hand. Its fingertips erupt into flame as they remold its features.

            Its hand no longer ablaze, the golem reveals its new face. Fire burns within its eyes and mouth. No longer do sacred glyphs spell EMET (truth) on its brow. Its forehead is blank, waiting for instructions. The fire within its eyes grants Leo knowledge: the many holy words he could write on the creature's brow.

            The sounds of Rosa's grief fill his ears. He raises a hand to find his fingers now ablaze with divine flame.

            Perhaps too quickly, he rejects CHESED (compassion). Briefly, he wonders if there's any substantial difference between justice (TZEDEK) and vengeance (NAKAM); then he starts carving the first letter onto his golem's brow. A savage symphony thunders through his mind as his fingers dig into the malleable flesh of his powerful and noble instrument.

This story originally appeared in Here Be Monsters.


Data?1531939933

Author: Claude Lalumière

Like this story? Tip Claude to support their work.