Art, cropped, by Lau­ra Junger

You’re invit­ed! Join JBC and Yael van der Wouden on Jan­u­ary 27, 2022 12:30 – 1:00 PM ET for a dis­cus­sion of Into the Mud” at the first meet­ing of Paper Brigades new Short Sto­ry Club! Reg­is­ter here.


Miryam wants to show me some­thing down by a lake, so I go. Her bike got stolen, she says, and could I ride her there. I ask, Where is there? I don’t know where you want to go.” She says, I’ll tell you, I’ll tell you,” and watch­es me wres­tle my bike from the shrubs. Our apart­ment build­ing throws a long shad­ow, and we’re stand­ing right at the edge of it — right at the edge.

Miryam bal­ances on the back of the bike, her hands on my waist. We’re jos­tled with every bump, every pot­hole in the road, and she says, Watch out, Deb­by,” and I say noth­ing. We’re allowed to be friends again now that school is out. Every sum­mer, Miryam gets rest­less in the upstairs apart­ment — tired of the heat, tired of her par­ents’ argu­ments. And so she leans over the bal­cony rail­ing and shouts my name, or heads down­stairs and knocks on the door until Mom or I open it for her. Then she comes in. Sits at our table, eats the almonds in the bowl. Says, still chew­ing, Can we watch TV? And Mom will look at me like I should be the one to answer. Like I’m in charge, when Miryam’s around.

At last week’s ser­vice, the rab­bi spent for­ev­er talk­ing about the dyb­buk they’d found hid­ing in old Geylete’s microwave. Then he went on about evils close to home, about what to do when death enters a home, about the wicked­ness of the man who wants to con­trol anoth­er being. Miryam came to sit next to me. You know Bar­bara Lessink saw the rab­bi piss against a tree in the park last week. Total­ly wast­ed.” She laughed, her face too close to mine. Her breath smelled like bub­blegum. Miryam was talk­ing to me again. The sea­sons had changed.

From behind me, Miryam orches­trates the jour­ney: to the left at the round­about, to the right after the bridge. The hous­es no longer cling to each oth­er here. There are gar­den fences and sprin­klers tick­ing in the noon qui­et. We bike onward, until there are no more hous­es by the side of the nar­row road, only weeds. Every time a car pass­es by, we have to pull over to the side. Final­ly I say, I don’t think bikes are allowed here.” Miryam digs her nails into my waist. God, you’re such a pussy. Just bike.”

I bike. She guides us off the road, past water­ways sunk into the grass­es, past an emp­ty field. Beyond that, there is a lake: a rust-col­ored thing, a con­fused knot of thin brooks. Knot­ted wil­lows lean out from the banks at an angle, as if they’re falling. I have sweat­ed cir­cles into my shirt. The ride was long, and Miryam was a heavy weight. She laughs, tells me I look a mess, that I’d bet­ter take a swim. We both con­sid­er the murky water. No one is going to swim.

I’m wait­ing for her to show me what she want­ed to show me. Instead she makes her­self com­fort­able on the remains of a jet­ty, lights up a cig­a­rette, lifts her head to the sun. When the wind wafts by, it car­ries the smoke, the scent of the almond oil she combs through her curls. I say, Well?”, and she says, Wait,” with her eyes still closed. It’s a yawn­ing sum­mer day — hands have drawn all clouds aside and the sun throws itself at the earth.

I slouch next to her. When she is near me, I fold my body like I’m cradling an egg to my chest, some­thing she’s not allowed to break. She is amused by this. Has a grin that says, What’re you hid­ing there? Is that for me?

Okay, I’ll show you now,” she announces, and when she’s on her feet she reach­es out a hand to hoist me up. She holds it, takes me to the lake’s mud­dy edge. My palm is hot, and her touch is an easy one, like she’s sim­ply for­got­ten to let go.

But she lets go. She kneels in the mud and starts to gath­er some of it into a mound. I say, Uh, what are you doing,” and she con­tin­ues to shape the mud. Glances up at me.

Watch.”

It looks like noth­ing. It looks dirty. It looks like when we were kids and played in the mud, had it stuck under our fin­ger­nails for days. I have nev­er been as care­less about get­ting messy as Miryam. Even in child­hood, she’d push her fin­gers into any­thing, breath­less, thrilled. They’d come away oily, sticky, cov­ered in muck. And me, I’d hold my palms away from myself until we were home again and I could wash them clean.

She paus­es to light anoth­er cig­a­rette. We’re only fif­teen and I won­der who buys these for her. I won­der whether she gets them her­self — whether she looks as old to actu­al adults as she does to me.

She says,“You have to let him dry for a sec­ond.” I say, Let who dry?” And she ges­tures toward the mud. Her hands are cov­ered in it, all the way up to her elbows. She made — a shape. Sketched like the idea of a man. She sits back on her heels and smokes her cig­a­rette and says, Have you ever done this?”

And I say, voice high, Done what?”

Ah. You haven’t.”

We wait for a moment, on her instruc­tion. The day is blis­ter­ing, the mud dries quick­ly. She says, Cool,” then goes through her pock­ets, look­ing for some­thing. She comes up with a pen and her pack of cig­a­rettes. Tears off the lid. Unfolds it. Scrib­bles some­thing on it and rolls it up. She stuffs the paper into the mud-man’s ear. Then she’s up on her knees, hov­er­ing over him. She digs a mouth with two fin­gers and spits into the hole.

There.” She takes a few steps back. She gives me a look. I, too, take a step back.

He comes alive with a sound like beads in a glass bowl. Awk­ward, stum­bling limbs. A man who drank too much, who’s lost his coor­di­na­tion, who’s learn­ing how to put one foot in front of the other.

I say, Fuck,” and, Fuck,” and take sev­er­al more steps back. She tells me, He won’t do a thing, you know.” She adds, Not unless I tell him.”

I watch him scram­ble around. In her hur­ry, Miryam’s made him short — he bare­ly reach­es my hip. She hasn’t giv­en him eyes, so he’s lost. He has his arms out, and they slam into the trunks of the wil­lows every time he turns. Keep going,” she says. He gets tan­gled in the branches.

I say, my voice creak­ing, That’s not what they’re meant for, Miryam.”

She gives me a look. So you’re a rab­bi now, huh, Dvo­rah, you’re a big smart rabbi?”

I’m just say­ing …” I stop — I don’t know what I’m saying.

We watch the golem fall and strug­gle to get up. We watch him for a while. When he comes close, I jerk away. Miryam casts looks at me like I’m going to change my mind and laugh with her, but I don’t, so she gets annoyed instead, tells me, What­ev­er, you’re bor­ing,” and goes to the golem and takes the paper from his ear and stomps him back into the ground.

We’re allowed to be friends again now that school is out. Every sum­mer, Miryam gets rest­less in the upstairs apart­ment — tired of the heat, tired of her par­ents’ argu­ments. And so she leans over the bal­cony rail­ing and shouts my name.

On the bike ride home, she puts her face against the back of my shirt and says, That’s why I don’t hang out with you, because you’re bor­ing.” But she holds on very tight­ly, fists clutch­ing the fab­ric over my navel. At our build­ing, she runs ahead up the stairs and dis­ap­pears to her floor with­out say­ing good­bye. I spend the rest of the day feel­ing like I was eat­ing some­thing and dropped the last piece of it. My throat is dry. I drink a lot of water but it doesn’t help. Mom says, Good, you should hydrate in this heat.”

That night, in bed, all I can think of is the golem. Falling over itself, stum­bling, try­ing to get up. And Miryam’s smile, waver­ing at the edges.

___

One time last year, Miryam held court dur­ing lunch and I was sit­ting near­by. I had picked the spot on the damp con­crete before she and the gen­try showed up, and I hunched over my food so that no one would see it wasn’t a sand­wich. It wasn’t that any​one was mak­ing fun of my food, only that I was embar­rassed by it, and the oth­ers might smell that. Some­one always seemed to smell it, when you were ashamed of something.

Then Miryam showed up, a cloud of sug­ar-and-bad-breath pop­u­lar­i­ty trail­ing her: oth­er pop­u­lar girls, less pop­u­lar girls, girls who just want­ed to be around her. She spoke at length about how the gym teacher who sent her out of class prob­a­bly hat­ed her because he prob­a­bly was in love with her. Pathet­ic, she called him, and then some­how every­one was talk­ing about blowjobs. They kept say­ing that word, blowjobs, blowjobs, and then cack­led. The sound echoed against the walls of the school­yard. I tried very hard not to look. I was try­ing too hard not to look, and they smelled it.

One of the girls said, Hey, Deb­by! Hey, Debby!”

I was putting away my lunch. It had rained that whole morn­ing, and so every­thing was a dark grey — the tiles, the hard bench­es, the peb­bles, the sky. They called my name some more, and I glanced up. Miryam said, Do you know what a blowjob is, Deb­by?” And then, to her crowd: I don’t think she knows what a blowjob is.”

I mum­bled, I know what it is,” and Miryam got up and stood on the bench and said, What! What did you say! Oh my God, what did you say?” Her puffy jack­et was slid­ing off her shoul­ders. She looked almost bare under­neath it. The straps of her top were slid­ing down as well. It was so cold that day, but she didn’t seem to feel it. She wasn’t shiv­er­ing at all.

When we were younger, she’d some­times sleep over. Mom would roll out a sleep­ing bag for her, but she’d say, No, I’m the guest, I get the bed,” and she’d clam­ber into my bed and I would worm legs-first into the sleep­ing bag. My bed­room was under Miryam’s par­ents’ bed­room. We’d lis­ten to the muf­fled TV from the liv­ing room, to the bari­tone of her dad shout­ing from above. Then she’d say, So that’s what it sounds like from here.”

Some­times, she’d hold her head over the side of the bed and say, I’m not going to spit on you,” and then let a string of sali­va fall slow­ly from her mouth. The game was: I wasn’t allowed to move, and she’d see how long the string would get before suck­ing it back up. Once, it broke. The glob land­ed on my cheek. I didn’t move, not a mus­cle. She gasped, then gig­gled until she’d worn her­self out. Then she went quiet.

____

It’s a bad fight tonight, and Mom turns on the TV loud in what I know is a hope that they’ll hear it upstairs and set­tle down — get embar­rassed, get qui­et. If that doesn’t work then she’ll sit by the phone, ready to call the police. She’s only had to twice, and it was ter­ri­ble both times.

Now a door opens, then slams shut, and some­one is rat­tling down the stair­well in high heels. Mom says, Poor kid,” most­ly to her­self. I go to the bal­cony and wait for Miryam to appear. She does, a bus­tle of move­ment rush­ing out of the building’s front door. She’s march­ing into the night with her head down. She’s far away, but I can still see the part of her hair, a pale line in her dark curls. She stops to wipe a hand over her eyes, to light a cig­a­rette. I lean into the railing.

I think, She knows I’m watch­ing her, and in that moment she looks up. Catch­es me.

I don’t know what to do but wave. A hand up, a sign of pres­ence as much as one of hel­lo. She smokes up at the apart­ment, looks at me, and does noth­ing in reply.

When she leaves, I go back inside and put on my shoes. Mom asks where I’m going, and I tell her it’s too hot inside. That I’m going for a walk. She mis­un­der­stands and says, They can’t shout for­ev­er.” I say, I know,” and I lean over the couch to touch her ankle before leav­ing, put my fin­gers to my lips. She’s amused by this in a worn way, an old way. This is how I tell God I’m leav­ing, this is how I tell God I’ve entered: I put my hands to a small part of my moth­er, so they both know where I am.

The sky is a drip­ping dark, the bot­tom of an over­turned rock. There are some boys around the side of the build­ing let­ting a low-bass tune shud­der out of a boom­box. I bike through the neigh­bor­hood and find her in the park. She’s with some old­er friends. They’re sit­ting at a pic­nic table — some of them on top of it, some of them on the bench­es, some on the ground below. They’re pass­ing around bot­tles, drink­ing and pass­ing, drink­ing and pass­ing. The orange street­light makes all the green look fad­ed and col­or­less. Miryam is shiny, a sheen of sweat on her forehead.

I stand by a heavy-limbed chest­nut, bike still in hand, until they notice me. One of the guys says, Jesus, she scared the shit out of me,” and some­one else says, Hey! What do you want?”, and some­one else says, Is she crazy? Do you think she’s crazy?”

Miryam puts a hand on the shoul­der of the kid next to her and says, Oh, God, I know her.” She looks at me. Go home, weirdo.”

I shake my head. She says, Shoo! Shoo!” and ges­tures for me to scat. The group laughs. Irreg­u­lar lit­tle breaths, like they don’t know how to react as one.

I don’t leave. I hold on to the han­dle­bars. Miryam laughs loud and fake. What? What are you going to do? Are you going to sit with us? You going to get drunk, De-vo- rah?” She says my name like that, every syl­la­ble stretched stupid.

I don’t say any­thing. I don’t know what to say. I’m not going to sit with them, and I’m not going to drink. I’ve nev­er drank any­thing but seder wine. I have always dis­liked it — the hot sweet­ness of it, the tacky film it leaves behind. Then Miryam gets up, finds a branch on the ground, and throws it — wob­bly — in my direc­tion. The branch grazes my leg and lands in the grass.

She flings out her hand like we’re in a the­ater. Be gone! Be goooone!”

I squeeze my han­dle­bars once again. I hold her gaze, now that she’s clos­er. She looked so small when I saw her from the bal­cony, the heels of her palms pressed to her eyes.

She turns away and tells her friends: Sor­ry about her, oh my God.”

I walk most of the way back, only bik­ing for short stretch­es. My heart is gluey, up in my throat. When I get home, the TV is off and Mom has gone to sleep. There is no sound from upstairs, and the qui­et has left a space in its wake: a reverb of white noise. I place one of my shoes between the door and the door­frame so that the door doesn’t close all the way. I hope she will see. I hope she will come inside.

I go to bed. I wait, for a while, just in case — or I try to, my eyes clos­ing until I star­tle awake, again and again. From the win­dow, I can hear the boom­box, the bass still jump­ing, and all I see are grains of sand jump­ing on a rub­ber surface.

I am asleep when Miryam comes back. I wake up because it was silent and now it’s not. The apart­ment door is opened with a whoosh, closed with a click. Then my bed­room door opens and clos­es. I peer into the dark and see the shape of her mov­ing vague­ly. Her arms cross, elbows raised. I think she’s tak­ing off her shirt, then her jeans.

I move over and she gets into bed with me. Her breaths are wet, and she smells of that drink, of that smoke. Of almond oil and food made in a closed kitchen. She makes her­self short­er than me, and tucks her body into mine: her face into my neck, her arms around my mid­dle. She breathes against my skin and holds on tight until I am awake enough — until I move, hold her in return. Tug her close.

She doesn’t say any­thing, but her exhale is the shape of a word. I can’t make out what the word is, but the skin of my throat has heard it, and my throat will hold on to it, and the next word I will speak upon wak­ing will be what­ev­er she has put into me.

____

In the morn­ing, Miryam is gone. Mom is in the kitchen, push­ing a fork through yesterday’s wilt­ed sal­ad. I look around like I’ve mis­placed some­thing, like I’m wor­ried about where it went. Mom says, What? What hap­pened?” And I start ask­ing her, Did you — have you — ?” but I don’t want to say it, so I stop.

Have I what?”

Noth­ing. Noth­ing. I’ll…” I ges­ture, vague­ly, to our apartment.

What I’m think­ing is, I’ll be quick, and what hap­pens is I go upstairs, and I knock on the door to Miryam’s apart­ment. The hall­way there smells like the dog who lives in the apart­ment oppo­site, and who is some­times let out to piss in the cor­ner by the stair­well. Miryam’s dad answers the door. He’s a reedy man with a mouth that goes too far up his cheeks, like some­one stretched his lips when he was very young and they nev­er went back to nor­mal. I don’t like look­ing straight at him, so I look at the space above his shoul­der and say, Is Miryam home?” He says that she is, that she’s in her room, and he says the word room like speech is a both­er to him.

Miryam is an unmov­ing bulk under her sheets. The room smells like earth.

I swal­low. I open my mouth to say her name but then don’t. I go to her instead, sit on the side of the bed. I expect her to stir, to jerk awake. She doesn’t. Her heart­beat was so slow and heavy in her sleep, last night. Her skin was so warm.

He comes alive with a sound like beads in a glass bowl. Awk­ward, stum­bling limbs. A man who drank too much, who’s lost his coor­di­na­tion, who’s learn­ing how to put one foot in front of the other.

I take her arm and the blan­ket falls away. Her hand shoots up to cov­er her face. Her hair is mat­ted down, wet from a shower.

I pull at her. She grunts and shifts away from me. A puff of dust flies up, set­tles. I grab her face in my hands. It’s not her, it’s her — it’s as if a sculp­tor had tried to recre­ate her from mem­o­ry, and failed. Her nose is odd­ly shaped, the whites of her eyes tinged green. In the heat of the room, mud rolls down her cheeks, skin melt­ing, reform­ing. The golem looks at me like he, too, would rather not have participated.

I drop my hands, heart quick in my throat.

He sinks back into the bed. I ask him, Where is she?”

The golem says nothing.

I ask him again, Tell me where she went.” He looks at me, a man with no lan­guage, and no words to speak. No thoughts to shape into sound.

I trem­ble most of the day, nau­se­at­ed, sit­ting on the bal­cony with my eyes fixed on the street below. Mom won­ders if I have a fever. She touch­es my fore­head and fuss­es over how hot I am, but I say it’s a hot day. I snap at her when she insists I come inside. She is star­tled, unsure of what to say next. I look away from her, and I do not apologize.

It’s evening by the time the real Miryam is home again. I’m still on our bal­cony, and she’s on hers; I look up and see her lean­ing over the rail, an upside-down face and a cur­tain of hair. I don’t know when she got home — I didn’t see her come in through the main entrance. I am relieved for a breath, ner­vous on the next.

She grins. Did you see him? It worked, didn’t it? They thought it was me, they thought I was home all day. It total­ly worked.”

I want to say, You left, and instead I say, Where were you?” And then, for good mea­sure, That’s not what they’re meant for, Miryam.”

Of course, Rab­bi Dvo­rah.” She sways back and forth on the rail­ing. What­ev­er you say, Rab­bi Dvorah.”

He didn’t look like you at all.”

What­ev­er.” She stops sway­ing. It’s not like they were going to check in on me, anyway.”

_____

We’re on the fire escape when Miryam says she wants to go out. She’s smok­ing and I’m sit­ting on the spiky met­al step watch­ing her. I say, Then you should go out,” and she puts on a ter­ri­ble baby voice and says, Noooo don’t make me go alone come with me pleeeeease.”

It’s noth­ing that I want. It’s a lot of what I want. I inspect a grain of dirt on the met­al and say, Go out with one of your friends.”

I don’t want to go out with my friends.” She puts her shoe on my bare knee and push­es it from left to right. I want to go out with freaky Dvorah.”

Don’t call me that,” I say, but it comes out more like I’m ask­ing, and she laughs and says, Sor­ry sor­ry sor­ry sor­ry sor­ry.” She says, If I promise to nev­er call you that again, will you go out with me, will you, will you, will you — !”

We get ready in my room. She puts on the music very loud and I turn it down, and she turns it up again, and that’s the cycle for a while. She rubs make­up on her face, and then does the same to mine. I look at myself in the mir­ror. I look like some­one decid­ed my out­lines weren’t clear enough, decid­ed they need­ed emboss­ing and bold­ing, and now the lines were tak­ing up most of my face. I tell her I want to wash it off.

Nooo,” she says. You look so good! I promise you, you look so good!”

With Miryam, so many things are a means to make fun, and I can’t be sure this isn’t anoth­er space where a joke might hap­pen. But she holds my wrists, and won’t let me wash my face, so I don’t.

She makes me take her on the back of my bike again. A strip of my stom­ach is bare, and that’s where she puts her hands. Exact­ly there, over the heat of my navel. I say, We’re not going to get in, they’re nev­er going to let us in.”

They’re one hun­dred per­cent going to let us in.”

She is right. They do. The bar is buried in an alley­way off an alley­way, with a door that looks like just a door but hides strobe lights and smoke and the inces­sant thrum of the night. It’s at once too small for what it’s sup­posed to do and also too big. Too many nooks, too many hall­ways, too many mir­rors reflect­ing it all. Every­one looks old­er than us, taller. Men with pony­tails, strain­ing in their jack­ets. A few girls up on a table.

Miryam makes me try a drink. I swal­low it too quick­ly and it burns and I have to bend over and hold my knees, cough­ing. She smirks, but puts her hand on my back and weaves some words through the mirth. Oh no baby, oh no.”

The next drink is sweet­er. I say no to it, the music puls­ing fast and thick in my ears, and she says, Okay,” and leaves it on the bar in front of me, and I drink it all the same. The stool is very tall, and my feet don’t reach the ground. It’s unbear­ably hot until the sec­ond the AC waves past, and then it’s too cold.

She says, Yeah, that one’s bet­ter for you, huh,” and watch­es me drink. Then she leaves me at the bar to dance with some guy. She’s a good dancer, and he is not. What he’s doing is mov­ing his hands like he’s draw­ing a line around her body in the shape of a Coke bot­tle. It looks embar­rass­ing, and also some­thing else, some­thing that swoops low in the bel­ly as much as it tastes of shame.

A song pass­es on to the next song. A moment blurs. She is back, and she is gone again. I am danc­ing, too, with her, and I do not put my hands any­where near where his hands were. Then she is gone again. Some­one is talk­ing to me, his breath like Tic Tacs over beer. I say to him, I can’t hear you,” because I can’t. He nods like I’ve made a point. It strikes me that this is a stranger, who knows noth­ing about me, who doesn’t even know my name. He puts his hand on the strip of my bare-bel­ly skin and tries to move his hand up, and I say, No!” into the high falset­to of a song, and shove him, and he shoves me back.

Miryam screams at him. She wasn’t there before, but now she is. I can’t hear what she’s say­ing; that, too, is swal­lowed by the music. She pulls me with her. The guy holds on with the suck­ling grab of a toothy-mouthed ani­mal. Final­ly he gives up. Miryam is fast in the crowd. Come on,” she says, drag­ging me along.

In the bath­room, under the pur­ple lights, she says, What did you tell him?”

Noth­ing,” I say.

Did you flirt with him?”

Did I what?”

Did you flirt.”

I don’t know,” I say. I don’t think so?”

And then the steady stream of peo­ple who are com­ing in and out — who are wash­ing their hands and chat­ting and spray­ing deodor­ant into the syrupy air — slows down for a moment.

She’s lean­ing back against one of the sinks. Her lip­stick is a lit­tle smudged. She looks at me, and away, and back to me, and she’s breath­ing quick­ly. I don’t know if she’s angry or upset. I don’t know what the dif­fer­ence is, with her.

When she push­es off from the sink and comes at me, I take a step back. She hov­ers, for a moment. She’s close enough that I feel her body heat, smell the drink on her breath.

The door swings open. Music from the club blares, and then the door swings closed again — muf­fles it. My tongue is stuck to the roof of my mouth. I want to pull a shawl over my eyes. I want, for a moment, not to see.

Miryam says, Okay, fun night, what­ev­er, I want to go home.”

But on the bike, when we get to the round­about, she says, Go right.” I say, What’s right?”, and she says, Just do it.”

I am not bik­ing in a straight line any­more. Miryam doesn’t com­ment on it. She leans into me, where I’ve sweat­ed, and of that, too, she says nothing.

We pass by the inner city, old nar­row build­ings tilt­ing to the side; the crum­bling city wall, brown stone cov­ered in moss and vines. The canals, the old fire sta­tion. Then the sub­urbs. The fields. The sky, at its fur­thest point, is the col­or of white shocked into blue — a freck­le of a star on the hori­zon. When there are no more street­lights, we get off the bike and walk the rest of the way to the lake.

I won­der what Miryam would say if she were here to see me. Would she be impressed, would she go qui­et at know­ing that I, too, can make life out of dirt? Would she like that? Would she not?

I lie down by the water and lis­ten to it lap qui­et­ly near my head. Miryam makes a golem, rolls up a piece of paper, fits it into his ear, and spits in his mouth. This time she makes him ride my bike, which he man­ages well enough. Even­tu­al­ly she gets bored with that, too, and comes to lie next to me.

My heart thumps, aches. I am half sick, half euphor­ic. She leans up on an elbow, looks down at me. She looks down at me for a while. She says, Your mas­cara is all fucked.”

I say, Okay.”

She kiss­es me. I open my mouth, I let her in. We make a sound like a hum. She puts her hand on my ribs, high on my ribs, and I open fur­ther. We kiss for a long time. We kiss until my mouth is sore, and my lungs molasses, and my stom­ach a cav­ernous thing: three rocks left to tum­ble in a wash­ing machine, going around and around and around.

____

Miryam tells me about her boyfriend, whose name I for­get no mat­ter how often she men­tions him. He doesn’t go to our school, she says. He’s old­er, and he’s at a dif­fer­ent school, and she shows me a pass­port pho­to of him that he gave her to keep in her wal­let. He looks like a boy, like any boy might look. Sandy hair, gel. A few pim­ples next to his nose. She says, He’s hot, isn’t he hot?”

I shrug, and let her climb on top of me, and kiss me onto my bed. Mom is in the oth­er room, get­ting the table ready for Shab­bos, and Miryam’s legs are between mine. In the apart­ment above, her mom is talk­ing to her grand­moth­er on the phone. Her laugh­ter is a lot like Miryam’s — a ha ha ha! that rolls from the throat, the shape of three quick waves.

Miryam sleeps over. Mom brings out the sleep­ing bag, says, Just like when you two were kids. So nice.”

When Mom leaves I am strand­ed in the mid­dle of the room, sleep­ing bag in my hands, and Miryam says, What the fuck are you doing, why are you just stand­ing there? Get in here.” She moves against the wall, makes a point­ed space on the mat­tress. My sheets are pat­terned with wash-greyed Care Bears. I have posters up from three years ago, when I still liked that band. I feel clum­si­ly big in my own body. I get into bed next to her.

We kiss, briefly, and then she says — all in one breath, words wet against my mouth, Where would you go if you could go any­where, where would you go?”

I don’t know,” I say. Where would you go?”

As in, I could be there? As in, like, blink your eyes and you’re there?”

It’s her game, any­way, so I say, Sure.”

A big hotel room,” she says.“Or a swim­ming pool on the roof of a build­ing. A desert. Or … like, it’s here but there’s no one else here. Like our whole build­ing but all the peo­ple are gone. Like the whole city but all the peo­ple are gone.”

No one? No one left?” I ask. Her hand is trac­ing a path over my spine.

She says, No one.”

I say, What about me?”

Okay,” she says. Okay, you can stay.”

_____

She takes me to the park to meet her boyfriend. He’s a skin­ny guy, too tall for his body. He avoids look­ing at me. She wants me to like him, I can tell. She keeps on explain­ing him to me like a fun fact, even though he’s right there. Did you know that he’s the school cham­pi­on in short dis­tance run­ning? Did you know he’s super good on the gui­tar? Did you know he can eat five ham­burg­ers with­out throw­ing up?

I say, Gross.” She’s upset with me for the rest of the day. When we’re back at our apart­ment build­ing, I say, Do you want to go some­where?”, and she says, No.” But she won’t go inside, either. She pulls leaves off a bush and toss­es them down and says, Sum­mer sucks here, everything’s so boring!”

Well maybe your boyfriend’s bor­ing.” It’s the bravest thing I’ve ever said to her. The mean­est, too.

She stills. What do you know about boyfriends?” She steps clos­er. Her voice has gone low. At least I have some­one. At least I’m not — ”

She doesn’t fin­ish. She doesn’t say what it is that I am. That she’s not. I swallow.

You don’t know any­thing, Deb­by,” she says.

And you do?” I say it qui­et­ly. I am no longer brave.

What do you want from me?” The phrase is sup­posed to sound annoyed — she’s said it to me before. It’s dif­fer­ent now, tilt­ed upward. I think she wants an answer, but I don’t know what answer to give.

She blows out a short, deri­sive puff of air. Right. Okay. You know what?” And then she walks away.

______

That night, I am asleep, and the next moment I wake up, cold and sweaty all at once. I can’t make out the words from upstairs, but the voic­es are loud. From Miryam’s father, a con­tin­u­ous drum of accu­sa­tions. Miryam’s respons­es are cut off, soft­er, small­er. Some­thing thuds, hol­low, onto the floor. Doors slam shut.

Art by Lau­ra Junger

Then there are quick foot­steps down the hall­way, down the stairs. Miryam, curs­ing to her­self. I hold my breath. Maybe she’ll stop on our floor. Maybe she’ll come to our door.

She doesn’t. The foot­steps con­tin­ue down, until I can’t hear any­thing any­more. Just chas­tened creaks, the sounds of things put right — chair off the floor, bowl back on the table. I get out of bed, roll up a piece of note­book paper and wedge it between the door and the door­frame. I lie awake, and I wait, and I fall asleep.

The next day is qui­et. My bike is gone — tak­en. I walk around, watch the sun beat down on the roofs of parked cars. That night, again: a wedge in the door. That night, again: noth­ing. The day after that, Miryam’s dad knocks on our door, knocks in a way that pan­icked peo­ple do, where they start and don’t stop until you open. Mom opens and he goes off: have we seen Miryam? She hasn’t been home, have we seen her?

I go out onto the bal­cony and sit on the hot plas­tic chair. I take deep, deep breaths. For a while, when I was a kid, Mom would get me out of bed in the morn­ings and then get back into bed her­self and not leave it until I screamed at her that I was hun­gry. I was scared, then. I was scared that the bed would swal­low her up, that the smell of old cof­fee and sick­ness would swal­low her up. The fear sat low — a string pulled out from the bot­tom of my belly.

It sits low again, now. Pulls me through the floor, six flights down, through the con­crete and the ground and all the roots that are hold­ing the world up. I still don’t remem­ber her boyfriend’s name.

____

The earth behind the apart­ment build­ing is unyield­ing; the earth at the foot of the oak near­by too sparse. There are too many eyes watch­ing me in the park. I end up in someone’s back­yard. The win­dows of the house reflect the bright sky, and I can bare­ly see inside, but the neigh­bor­hood is qui­et and no one is around. I think, They’re on vaca­tion, and dig into their flower bed. There’s a lit­tle mul­ti­col­ored wind­mill that turns lazi­ly in the breeze. Some­where up in a tree, a black­bird is cry­ing at nothing.

The earth is heavy, watered too often. It soaks through my jeans when I kneel down. I can’t be neat about it. The dirt trails all the way up my arms. It’s hard­er than Miryam made it look to make the shapes, to make them hold togeth­er. But I man­age all the same. I won­der what Miryam would say if she were here to see me. Would she be impressed, would she go qui­et at know­ing that I, too, can make life out of dirt? Would she like that? Would she not?

I use two bot­tle caps for the eyes. I had them in my pock­et; Miryam found them at the lake­side last week, flat­tened and rusty, the name of the brand worn off. She thought they were pret­ty, in a sad, shit­ty way, you know,” and gave them to me as a joke. I kept them any­way. For the nose I use a but­ton that came off Miryam’s shirt one day with­out her notic­ing. I kept that, too.

My fin­gers are shak­ing when I write the truth on a piece of paper and slip it into the hole of its ear. I hold my spit over its mouth. I let it drip down. I watch when it lands.

I feel it when he comes alive. An echo of some­thing that is me out­side of me. My heart, in some­thing else’s body. I feel the beat of it, dou­ble. I feel the air on my skin, dou­ble. I can taste the inside of my mouth, like mud.

A fly comes and hov­ers over his bot­tle-cap eye­ball. He swats it away, and I feel as if my arm is mov­ing, too, but in a mem­o­ry — of some­thing that has hap­pened, or will happen.

I lean toward the golem and put my hands on him. Where?” I say it like an excla­ma­tion mark.

Gen­tly, eas­i­ly, he undoes my hold on him. He shifts like he is sigh­ing, but he has no lungs, and no throat, so he can’t be. He sits upright, turns, and ges­tures to his back. An invitation.

I have read the sto­ries. I have lis­tened when the rab­bi spoke. I know, I know that this isn’t what they’re meant for. I know about using good mat­ter for bad ends, about evils close to home, about the wicked­ness of those who con­trol liv­ing things. Dead things. Liv­ing and dead things, both.

I climb onto his back. He is damp sand under my fin­ger­nails. Under­neath, he is sol­id. Mud­dy skin over iron rods. He flies up, straight up. The black­bird rush­es from the tree when we pass it. We fly, and the city wob­bles below us. At first I close my eyes — but then the thrill over­takes me, and I open them. Every­thing below me is very small, and fits togeth­er so neat­ly. The cars all in a line on the road — children’s toys.

Fear and pow­er all at once. I know this feel­ing, I know it from hot after­noons with Miryam hov­er­ing over me, face close; first I am ter­ri­fied, and then I want.

When we land, it’s at the lake. Miryam sits on the embank­ment. Her feet are in the water. I come down from the golem’s back, and stag­ger on the firm ground. She is the same. A lit­tle disheveled, a lit­tle worn, but the same.

She takes me in. Looks at my mud-cov­ered clothes. She sees the golem, too. The cor­ner of her mouth twitch­es at this.

She beck­ons the golem over, and he goes, and I feel him go. I feel his need to do as she wish­es. I’ve felt it forever.

When he bends to her, he does so like a knight: on one knee, head down.

I watch as she kiss­es the crown of his head, and feel the echo on my skin. I watch as she takes the paper from his ear. I watch, too, as he dis­solves. The earth tum­bles to the weeds, and the wind car­ries the sand, and then it is gone. It is nowhere.

I am my own again, I think, and then I real­ize that I am not my own.

I say, You took my bike.”

She shrugs. Well, yeah.”

I want to touch her. I keep my hands tight at my sides. I sit down. She watch­es me with one eye shut against the glare of the sink­ing sun.

So you’ve fig­ured out how to make one, huh.” Then: I made mine fly me into an emp­ty hotel room. I can stay wher­ev­er I want to stay. It’s great.” She swal­lows. He’d take me wher­ev­er. Any­where I tell him to. So like …”

She still has the paper in her hands. If I look away, she might call him back again. If I look away, she might dis­ap­pear. Smoke, almond oil. She lifts the paper until it’s lev­el with her face, until I have no choice but to look her in the eye. She says, Would you do any­thing I tell you to do?”

I say, Yes.”

Will you leave me?”

I don’t answer.

Will you go if I tell you to?”

I take a breath.

She says, Shoo.”

I look at her. She smiles, but it’s not a smile. It turns down at the cor­ners. She takes a breath, then, and crin­kles the paper to my ear, and kiss­es me. Shoo,” she says. Go. Be gone.”

She pulls back. She waits to see if I will do as commanded.

I wait, too. Water laps against the shore, insects shift in the reeds, the knot­ted wil­lows bow, and I — a human being, a liv­ing per­son — I stay.

____

Enjoyed this sto­ry? Join JBC and Yael van der Wouden on Jan­u­ary 272022 12:30 – 1:00 PM ET for a dis­cus­sion of Into the Mud” at the first meet­ing of Paper Brigade​’s new Short Sto­ry Club! Reg­is­ter here.

Yael van der Wouden is a teacher and writer based in the Nether­lands. She is cur­rent­ly fin­ish­ing her first nov­el, a post­war mys­tery romance.