the brick men
A widow in Thessaloniki telephoned the brick man after the earthquake. Could he come quickly and fix her chimney? The brick man said she would have to take her place in a long queue of requests. Though the quake had been only a small temblor, it had cracked scores of chimneys and retaining walls so that the brick man had more work than he wanted (and he was a man who normally wanted a lot of work). The widow protested. Even so, the brick man at first refused to advance her on his list.
The widow cajoled, then pled, then begged. Still the brick man, like the bricks with which he worked, would not bend. He held fast to his list. But when the widow finally sobbed into the telephone his heart softened. When she wailed that something had come loose and had to be put back, his hard baked-clay heart surrendered its hard-baked position. The brick man capitulated: he would try to stop after the day’s calls and make an estimate of what could be done. She gave him her address on the outskirts of town and hung up abruptly.
When the brick man arrived it was almost dusk. A breeze off the sea soughed through the branches of olive trees alongside the dirt road, and the hills were veiled in shadow. He stopped his van. He saw that her home was not one of those modern constructs from the newer neighborhoods of Thessaloniki but was, instead, old--perhaps a hundred or two-hundred years. Wires went from the pole at the road to a knot at its eaves. And indeed, the top of the chimney was missing. In a heap now, the brick man presumed, at its base. The brick man lit a lamp. He stepped up the walkway to her door. The air smelled of salt and dust. He knocked.
Despite her great age, the widow’s hair was raven-black. It hung well-brushed and with an unnaturally brilliant sheen to well below her waist--almost to the backs of her knees. Her face was like tanned animal hide, eyes poking forth as would a zealot’s. Her lips were a crack indiscernible when shut, but like a vast, roaring maw when active.
“Come here,” she said. “Have a look at this mess.” She motioned that he should follow, and stepped off her stoop. The brick man held up his lamp and followed her under the wire around the old house’s corner. As he had guessed, bricks lay unbound in a broken pile. She pointed at the chimney. As his lamplight played upward, he saw a jagged fissure that started about the level of his forehead and separated the brickwork all the way to the top. There he saw again that the top of the chimney was ruined. The bricks that lay at his feet were, no doubt, complemented by an equal number that had fallen through the chimney and now blocked its flue.
This all amounted to bad news for the widow. The whole works required rebuilding. It would take a long while. And the widow would have to part with many more drachmas than she probably could afford.
As he was formulating this assessment she laid her thin hand on his forearm. With the opposite she pointed at the crack.
“That’s where he got out,” she said. He saw that there were tears forming at the corners of her eyes, and although she was laughing, they spilled over and down her leather cheeks. “You have to catch him,” she said, and her eyes sparked. “Put him back in!” Her head hinged back on her neck and she cawed. The tips of her hair touched the fallen bricks at her heels.
The brick man refused to understand. The widow was really quite macabre, he thought. She had called for brickwork. Everyone in the entire town was uneasy after the quake, but he had taken special pity on her plea for quick service. Her voice had seemed desperate on the telephone. What’s more, he had broken his own rule--calls serviced in their order--so as to calm her. Now he stood before her while she cackled like a crazy hen. And because he dwelt so intently on his own present circumstance he did not notice that the widow had ceased behaving bizarrely and now stood silently alongside him observing the crack. He heard her speak, but it was some time before he understood.
“Have you had a supper?” she asked again.
There was light inside from her electric lamps, but no fire of course. The room smelled of old smoke, not altogether unpleasant. The crust of her bread was hard, but its heart was delicious. She explained, as he buttered his slices and tasted her wine, that many years prior her dead husband had been a Cabalah-master. In fact, if the brick man were here in daylight, she promised he would see the ruins of her dead husband’s synagogue behind her old house.
Her husband--a rabbi--had died when she was very young, before they even had made babies. But she studied his texts and allowed herself to become a witch. Did he believe this? she asked. The brick man nodded and chewed the delicious bread. He drank from his wine cup and nodded. Her eyes threw fire.
She claimed that when her husband died she gathered clay and made a golem. She integrated its form and whispered incantations at the clay, life-words that would invest the golem with her husband’s soul and mechanize it. With her hands she inscribed symbols over it through the dead, still air, and the mass quickened and rose and walked about. And did the brick man believe this? Yes: he asked for more bread. Yes: he pointed at his empty cup. She filled him again.
The golem husband was companionable at first, but as her knowledge of the secret arts grew she found it doltish and slow. After some time she could no longer abide its presence without experiencing new distaste. Forgetting that she was the agent of this strange, surrogate life, she resented its cold, clay, stupid stare, the splaying of its fat digits, the hulking roll of its steps. And, of course, its fundamental inability to perform what husbands must.
She studied her dead husband’s books for the spell to recant life. When she found it the widow practiced on insects and birds until she had it right. Then she cast it on the golem husband and it fell to sleep. Afterward, the widow crushed its form with a large hammer and further ground it, during the course of months, into mortar in a stone bowl with a stone pestle. With the vigor of a sorceress, she had erected the exact chimney she had shown the brick man this very night using bricks and the mortar of her golem husband. And did the brick man believe even this?
He nodded, but he was drunk from the wine, and his guts were full of the bread.
“When the earthquake came, he got out through the crack,” the widow said. But there was only the sound of her aged voice, unless the brick man’s besotted snores were counted as well. She went to her dead husband’s shelves to consult, once again, his old manuscripts.
There was an unprecedented heaviness to his waking.
The widow saw the brick man move. Perhaps she had gotten something wrong the first time around, she thought. Maybe this one would be better. Maybe this one could catch the other one and put it back in the bricks.
Later, she watched them crash together in a field, behind them the blue and light-dappled Bay of Salonica rimmed by the olive hills of northern Hellas.
Idiots, she thought, shaking her hair. Fools.
Their bodies crashed together like undulating earth, the violent slipping of faults, two great automatons fractured at the corners. Stone chips flew from their congress like bullets. A salt-tinged breeze off the bay carried their huge, tectonic grunts to her.
Imagine this! Her only offspring launching themselves together in a field on the outer edge of town. Both loose.
Unbeknownst to her, at that moment, a single strand of her hair turned gray. A phenomenon that would spread, in the coming days, as her golem-husbands wrestled, until her hair was a white shawl over her head--white as ash--and then fell to the ground at her feet.
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