First Chapter of About a Golem

My brother said he would read the first chapter of my book and it was easier to post here than anywhere else, so here it is, doofus:


There was a woman dancing in the cemetery. Eitan sighed and tugged the back door to the synagogue shut behind him.

“That’s what you get for staying late,” he muttered to himself and fought with the deadbolt until it slid home with a reluctant clunk.

Triptych was a spot for oddness to be sure, but small towns usually were. The question was whether he should engage the strange. In the last six months, he’d dismissed little hiccups of weirdness. Examining them too closely might make him question his decision to move here, so he’d focused on what mattered: his job and putting down roots.

Eitan jiggled his keys in one hand and ran his fingers over the smooth velvet of his tallit bag in the other. His feet, fingers, and shoulders wanted to go home. Some things couldn’t be ignored, though. Such as that woman dancing in the cemetery.

She wore a white dress, her long dark hair bouncing and swinging in time with her movements. He heard singing, too faint to catch the melody since the old graveyard rested at the edge of the temple’s property. Granted, it was a beautiful evening with a watercolor sky and amused green trees, but that still wasn’t an excuse to be dancing around tombstones. His decision was made.

Eitan dropped his keys into his pocket and headed toward the cemetery, passing tools the maintenance team had abandoned against the side of the synagogue. The long shadows of a broom, rake, and shovel loomed in the fading light.

He kept his pace steady and measured as he crossed the lawn, tidy and green, and he soon reached the graveyard’s chipped wrought-iron fence. While the resting place was old, it wasn’t unkempt, either. No one had been buried there in at least a century, but nothing was overgrown or matted. Landscapers took as much care of it as they did the rest of the temple’s peaceful grounds. 

Finally, he got close enough to hear what she was singing. He immediately recognized the cheerful gust of the V’ and the determined upswing of shamru.

V’shamru v’nei Yisrael

et HaShabbat,

laasot et HaShabbat l’dorotam

b’rit olam.

The people of Israel shall keep Shabbat,

observing Shabbat throughout the ages as a covenant for all time.

In that moment, Eitan realized three things:

  1. The woman couldn’t sing worth a damn.
  2. Misty white ghosts were dancing with her.
  3. He knew who she was.

He paused outside the cemetery gate, unsure what to do with himself. The ghosts had no problem with such a decision and evaporated into the quiet summer evening as soon as they saw him. A laugh that was equal parts trepidation and amazement got stuck in his throat like a movie that couldn’t get greenlit. So they were real. After hearing yet not seeing the spirits for months, he’d started to wonder if he was imagining their melodic whispers.

Commanding center stage, Magda Greenberg stood atop a tombstone, hands on her hips and her back to him. Her white cotton dress fluttered at her knees, and she wore braided leather sandals. He stared up at her, larger than life. She looked like Peter Pan, daring someone, anyone to catch her shadow. With a dancer’s elegance, she leapt onto another headstone but noticed mid-jump something had scared off the ghosts. Her head jerked back in time to see him watching her. Her grace dissolved as she accidentally kicked some rocks stacked on top of the grave marker.

She lost her footing and promptly fell into the grass with a hard thump.

“Oh shit,” Eitan said, which wasn’t quite the thing to say as a member of the clergy, but old habits die hard.

He rushed through the cemetery gates and crouched down next to her. “Are you OK?”

Magda sat up with a grunt and leveled him with an unimpressed smirk. “Compared to what?”

Eitan leaned back, not sure there was a right way to answer that. Since she hadn’t hit her head on anything, he rose to let her gather her bearings. He offered her a hand to help her up, but he wasn’t surprised when she waved it away. Magda stayed away from most people in the congregation; even handshakes with them turned her brief smiles a bit sour.

As she dusted herself off, the silence stretched taut between them. He busied himself by putting the rocks and pebbles back on the offending headstone, setting to rights the tributes to the dead. Stone met stone with small, satisfying clinks. Eitan straightened and considered excusing himself from the bizarre situation entirely.

Magda dropped her hands to her sides and said, “That was quite the interruption, Cantor Holtz.”

They were an informal Reform congregation. Literally no one called him that except her. And maybe Tom. But Tom was a smartass. Eitan could never tell if it was her own private joke with herself or if she was trying to be respectful and unintentionally came across as officious.

Flustered, Eitan ran his fingers through his short hair and tried to figure out how to respond, but instead accidentally knocked his kippah off. He bent to retrieve it from the grass and clipped it back into place with a grimace.

“Sorry. I saw someone dancing and thought it was strange.”

“It is strange,” she agreed.

He frowned. “So why are you singing Shabbat songs with ghosts in a cemetery?”

“I do it once a month near the full moon.”

Eitan knew this shouldn’t surprise him, but it did. He was used to her being weird, but not like this. Magda was a loner in the congregation, usually dressed in black with silver rings on most of her fingers. Never mean, but she always sat at the back of the room by herself during Shabbat services. Afterward, she would sip on a paper cup full of lemonade and smile wanly at anyone who offered conversation.

She also had a tendency to stare, as if she were reading his soul for interesting gossip. Even the rabbi, who had a soft spot for Magda, admitted to finding her disconcerting. Whenever Eitan spoke to her, she stuck to pleasantries and deftly avoided giving away any personal information about herself.

“Why?” he asked, though he asked it of himself as much as he asked her.

Why had he chosen this Friday to spend way too much time reviewing the notes for his upcoming Torah study class? Why had he left out the back door instead of the front? Eitan scowled, annoyed his thoughts were perilously close to the standard Passover question, Why is this night different from all the others?

“The dead may be dead, but they still want to celebrate Shabbat,” she said matter-of-factly. “Their Shabbat.”

The dead. He swallowed as the truth of the situation settled more firmly into his consciousness.

Magda swished her skirt in her hands. “They don’t bite, I promise.”

Eitan’s eyes widened at the movement. Was she being playful? He tried to shrug off the notion. Magda didn’t do playful, and he needed to understand what this was.

“Do you give a sermon?” he asked.

She smiled. “No, they like the tradition of the songs and some of the prayers. Reminders of life.” She eyed him curiously. “For a fresh-faced city kid, you don’t seem like you want to run for the hills.”

It was his turn to be droll. “Not yet, at least.” This all confirmed his suspicions, though. “Let’s just say the temple was built nearly two-hundred years ago, and I tend to work late. I’ve never seen them before, but I’ve heard them.”

Magda leaned toward him conspiratorially. “What do they say?”

She was being playful. This was their first conversation about anything of substance, and he wouldn’t have expected to enjoy sharing secrets with her in a graveyard.

“They like to moan along when I’m practicing,” he said.

The first time it had happened, he’d nearly jumped out of his skin. While they still unsettled him a little, he couldn’t see the harm in letting them sing with him. Besides, they were pretty good at harmonizing.

A knowing smile pulled at her lips. “See? Told you they like to celebrate.” She glanced back at the aging tombstones.

“Seems disrespectful to stand on their headstones,” Eitan said.

Magda looked up at him with the hauteur of a duchess and nodded at his shiny brown Oxfords in the grass. “You think standing on top of their bodies isn’t?”

He was startled by the sudden image of dried-out bones in silk-lined coffins six-feet below from where he stood. Eitan resisted the urge to hop on a headstone like a kid playing a round of The Floor Is Lava. His panic must have crossed his face because Magda grinned at him.

“It’s fine. They don’t mind. Want to help me call them back?”

Eitan gripped his blue tallit bag tighter and stared hard at her because if he just stared then she might not notice how weirded out he was. The soft velvet in his hands felt like steel wool. Hearing ghosts was one thing, but seeing them, dead but not completely, put him on edge. What if he recognized someone?

“We still have L’chah Dodi to do,” she added. “If you’re nice, I’m sure they’d want to keep singing.”

He frowned, trading in his unease for confusion. Jews sang L’chah Dodi to welcome Shabbat at the beginning of a service. It seemed odd to throw it into whatever medley of songs she’d been singing, but the longer he stood there, more and more questions stockpiled themselves in his mind like drips of wax accumulating on the side of a crooked candle. Eitan could barely see her now that the sun had set, but her smile was radiant. There was something about her, a hint of a glow.

“We go backwards.”

Eitan switched his bag to his other hand, annoyed that his skin felt clammy. “What do you mean?”

Magda slid and hopped in the grass and grabbed a familiar blue book from atop a crumbling headstone. The Mishkan T’filah—the Reform prayer book. When she returned, her lips quirked with mischief. “You and Devorah always lead Shabbat services that go forwards. In the graveyard, we go in reverse. L’chah Dodi is the last thing we sing.”

This must’ve meant the ghosts started with the Mourner’s Kaddish and prayers for healing and ended with welcoming the respite that came with Shabbat. He wondered if they prayed the Kaddish for themselves or in hopes to delay seeing loved ones anytime soon. Eitan supposed it was the same for the living—they prayed for themselves and others.

Death was generally considered impure in Judaism; death was for the dead, life was for the living, and you shouldn’t mix the two. But still, Magda’s logic and dedication to the spirits made him smile. He was honored to be included.

Magda raised her chin in question. “So do you want to sing with the dead or are you going to run from the pagan heathen, Cantor Holtz?”

“Oh, I’ll sing,” he assured her. “Don’t know what we’re going to do about your voice, though. You’re awful.”

He wasn’t in the habit of volleying joke insults at people he barely knew. Yet the way her voice teased him and her eyes twinkled in the dim light made him want to be a little roguish.

She laughed, slow and husky, and it stirred something in him that seemed wholly inappropriate for the cemetery outside a synagogue. Even if Triptych sometimes had an eerie vibe, he moved here for the upstanding job and to keep his life in order, not let it spiral out of control like he was in his twenties again. The summer heat and her playfulness disagreed heartily. He swallowed.

“Don’t apologize when you’re right. But I have fun with it anyway. Maybe your baritone can soften the blow of my off-key alto.”

“I can appreciate that.” There was beauty in it celebrating art, regardless of what the masses considered talent. Everyone should sing.

And so Eitan found himself in the middle of the graveyard taking his shoes off at her behest and digging his bare feet into the cool dewy grass. He removed his tallit from its pouch, recited the blessing, and wrapped the smooth silk around his shoulders for his second Shabbat service of the night.

Magda tossed her wavy hair behind her back, exposing a beauty mark on her neck. Just a small stamp of her existence. He’d noticed it when they first met and had tried to stop noticing it ever since. An exercise in futility.

Standing beside him, she extended her hand. Wiggled her bare olive-skinned fingers. No silver rings tonight. Eitan grasped her hand in his and squared his shoulders when she squeezed it. He tried to ignore the anticipation and satisfaction that came with holding the hand of a woman who kept smiling at him. He had to remember he was dating someone else, even if it wasn’t serious yet.

“What are we doing?” he whispered, but he wasn’t sure if he meant literally or emotionally.

“Summoning them with light.”

“With light?”

Instead of answering, she closed her eyes and muttered words he didn’t quite catch. They were a mixture of Hebrew and something else. He caught “beckon”, “Shabbat”, and possibly “cadabra”, but that was about it. He waited, smiling at the sounds of the cicadas humming in the background of her incantation.

Why hadn’t he gotten to know her sooner? Everyone in the community had something unique to offer, and he hadn’t even tried to know what something she had. Beyond her propensity for being alone but not lonely, the only other thing Eitan knew about her was that she gave thirty-six dollars a month to the synagogue. Ruth, the synagogue’s treasurer, had said as much one afternoon when she wasn’t in the mood to do the books and he wasn’t in the mood to plan a lesson for Hebrew school.

“It’s quite sweet, actually,” she’d said. “Even if she is a bit of an odd duck.”

Eitan didn’t know why it was sweet, other than thirty-six being a multiple of eighteen—the luckiest number in Judaism. Everyone gave what they could, so what was the point in being patronizing toward someone who gave less?

Suddenly a surge of warmth radiated between her hand and his and glowed. The light and heat jolted him but soon calmed to a steady ebb and flow, like the rhythm of a lighthouse. Then he knew. Between the ghosts and her incantations and now the spark of heat coursing from her palm, she wasn’t simply the quirky loner of his congregation.

He’d never met a witch, but she had to be one. Or a mystic. Or something. For all his efforts at striving to live a simple, quiet life, he found it easy as hell to backslide. Eitan should have gone home as soon as he knew Magda was all right. He shouldn’t have been dipping his toes into the occult or flirting with her. What would Hannah think?

Then, hazy white lights appeared at the periphery of the graveyard, steadily growing brighter. They encircled him and Magda in a large ring, slowly growing tighter. Yet as the brightness approached, it occurred to him that they weren’t lights at all. They were pale, wispy, bright spirits. Ghosts were truly coming back to sing in the night.

Magda’s murmurs soon evolved into song. As promised, she and the spirits resumed their service with L’chah Dodi. Eitan expected a slower, haunting melody, but they struck up a lively syncopated folk version of the song.

She glanced up at him and nodded expectantly. A grin crossed his face, and he let the music flow from his lungs and diaphragm until the joy of it spread through his feet, the crown of his head, and fingertips. The circle tightened until he could see faces of the dead congregants clearly. While many of them weren’t from this century, the women and men looked the same as his living community—the old, the young, and the in-between. Some bearded, some not. Some with long hair, others with short. Some were draped in traditional white linen burial shrouds; others wore suits or dresses. But they all sang. The gray area between life and death expanded before him.

They eased into the second verse, then hopped over to the fifth. When they reached the ninth verse, the circle broke, and everyone turned toward the cemetery gates. This was the crux of the song—when Jews welcome Shabbat with the same openness and love as a person who awaits their beloved to walk down the wedding aisle. The black gates broke open of their own accord. A warm wind, fragrant with the scent of wet clay and earth and stone swept through them. His eyes widened. Eitan had experienced faith, repentance, doubt, cynicism, hope, flashes of insight in his life, but this was something else. Awe, perhaps.

As the last chorus wound down, the spirits faded away, one by one. Some flew around Magda, whipping around her in unearthly hugs. Others passed their hands through hers, a handshake from the dead.

“Beautiful,” someone whispered in his ear, but when he turned around, the spirit was gone.

Soon, he and Magda were alone again. Only the cicadas kept them company.

“Wild.” He laughed quietly.

Magda blinked, seemingly shaking off the haze of the moment. Her gaze fell to their hands, and she quickly dropped his. He knew he should be thankful for the broken connection, but he immediately missed her warmth.

She gave him a regal nod. “Thank you for your help, Cantor Holtz. I hope you enjoyed it.”

“Magda,” he murmured in the stillness. “Ghosts just danced around my head. You can call me Eitan.”

She smiled briefly at him, but her earlier playfulness had disappeared with the ghosts. Ignoring the sense of loss he felt, he bent over to tug his socks onto his feet that were damp with dew. The strings of his tallit fluttered in the wind. He slipped on his shoes and rose to stand straight and rigid. He should follow her example. Whatever moment this was had passed, and it would be in his best interest to forget it. He shook his head. A witch. That was a rabbit hole he had no business falling down.

Taking care not to trip over headstones, they wended their way out of the graveyard. The grass swished past their feet as they ambled down the gentle slope that led back to the synagogue. Eitan winced as the motion-sensor light mounted on the side of the building flicked on. He turned his head away to protect his now light-sensitive eyes. His car beckoned him from its lonely spot.

When they reached the edge of the parking lot, his misgivings dismantled themselves. He didn’t want to hold words of gratitude tight in his chest any longer.

“Thank you for including me your service, Magda.”

He was about to wax poetic on the beauty of welcoming Shabbat with the dead like a lovelorn lunatic with a lute when he realized she was no longer at his side.

Shading his eyes, he searched the outside of the synagogue and lawn for any sign of her. His gaze landed on the tools he’d noticed earlier. The rake and shovel still leaned against the wall, but a gap yawned between them. The broom was gone. A whoosh whispered past his ears. In that moment, he knew the quiet hiss was the sound of fleeting shadows. Eitan pulled his car keys out of his pocket and strolled to his car. Well then. He hadn’t been expecting witches, but at least it wasn’t Frankenstein knocking on his door.

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