The Golem’s life began in the hold of a steamship. The year was 1899; the ship was the Baltika, crossing from Danzig to New York. The Golem’s master, a man named Otto Rotfeld, had smuggled her aboard in a crate and hidden her among the luggage.
Rotfeld was a Prussian Jew from Konin, a bustling town to the south of Danzig. The only son of a well-to-do furniture maker, Rotfeld had inherited the family business sooner than expected, on his parents’ untimely death from scarlet fever. But Rotfeld was an arrogant, feckless sort of man, with no good sense to speak of; and before five years had elapsed, the business lay before him in tatters.
Rotfeld stood in the ruins and took stock. He was thirty-three years old. He wanted a wife, and he wanted to go to America.
The wife was the larger problem. On top of his arrogant disposition, Rotfeld was gangly and unattractive, and had a tendency to leer. Women were disinclined to be alone with him. A few matchmakers had approached him when he’d inherited, but their clients had been from inferior families, and he’d turned them away. When it became clear to all what kind of businessman he really was, the offers had disappeared completely.
Rotfeld was arrogant, but he was also lonely. He’d had no real love affairs. He passed worthy ladies on the street, and saw the distaste in their eyes.
It wasn’t very long before he thought to visit old Yehudah Schaalman.
Stories abounded about Schaalman, all slightly different: that he was a disgraced rabbi who’d been driven out of his congregation; that he’d been possessed by a dybbuk and given supernatural powers; and even that he was over a hundred years old and slept with demon-women. But all the stories agreed on this: Schaalman liked to dabble in the more dangerous of the Kabbalistic arts, and he was willing to offer his services for a price. Barren women had visited him in the dead of night and conceived soon after. Peasant girls in search of men’s affections bought Schaalman’s bags of powders, and then stirred them into their beloveds’ beer.
But Rotfeld wanted no spells or love-potions. He had something else in mind.
He went to the old man’s dilapidated shack, deep in the forest that bordered Konin. The path to the front door was a half-trampled trail. Greasy, yellowish smoke drifted from a chimney-pipe, the only sign of habitation. The walls of the shack slouched toward a nearby ravine, in which a stream trickled.
Rotfeld knocked on the door, and waited. After some minutes, he heard a shuffling step. The door opened a hand’s width, revealing a man of perhaps seventy. He was bald, save for a fringe. His cheeks were deeply furrowed above a tangled beard. He stared hard at Rotfeld, as though daring him to speak.
“Are you Schaalman?” Rotfeld asked.
No answer, only the stare.
Rotfeld cleared his throat, nervous. “I want you to make me a golem that can pass for human,” he said. “And I want it to be female.”
That broke the old man’s silence. He laughed, a hard bark. “Boy,” he said, “do you know what a golem is?”
“A person made of clay,” Rotfeld said, uncertain.
“Wrong. It’s a beast of burden. A lumbering, unthinking slave. Golems are built for protection and brute force, not for the pleasures of a bed.”
Rotfeld reddened. “Are you saying you can’t do it?”
“I’m telling you the idea is ridiculous. To make a golem that can pass for human would be near impossible. For one thing, it would need some amount of self-awareness, if only enough to converse. Not to mention the body itself, realistic joints, and musculature…”
The old man trailed off, staring past his visitor. He seemed to be considering something. Abruptly he turned his back on Rotfeld and disappeared into the gloom of the shack. Through the open door Rotfeld could see him shuffling carefully through a stack of papers. Then he picked up an old leather-bound book and thumbed through it. His finger ran down a page, and he peered at something written there. He looked up at Rotfeld.
“Come back tomorrow,” he said.
Accordingly, Rotfeld knocked again the next day, and this time Schaalman opened the door without pause. “How much can you pay?” he demanded.
“Then it can be done?”
“Answer my question. The one will determine the other.”
Rotfeld named a figure. The old man snorted. “Half again, at the very least.”
“But I’ll have barely anything left!”
“Consider it a bargain,” said Schaalman. “For isn’t it written that a virtuous woman is more precious than rubies? And her virtue—” Rotfeld grinned—”will be guaranteed!
Rotfeld brought the money three days later, in a large valet case. The edge of the nearby ravine was newly disfigured, a piece the length of a man scooped away. An earth-stained spade leaned against a wall.
Schaalman opened the door with a distracted look, as though interrupted at a crucial moment. Streaks of mud crusted his clothing and daubed his beard. He saw the valet case and grabbed it from Rotfeld’s hand.
“Good,” he said. “Come back in a week.”
The door slammed shut again, but not before Rotfeld had caught a glimpse inside the shack, of a dark figure laid out in pieces on a table—a slender trunk, rough limbs, and one curled hand.