Sitting in my office, I knew something was wrong. The baby had stopped moving, but there was a something low in my abdomen—fluttering like an energetic bat. My doctor said she’d see me immediately.
There had been signs earlier in the pregnancy—things I’d talked myself out of believing. Just as long as I do everything right. My doctor had said I should let the father know. Her voice holding concern. I’d told her, then, how he wasn’t in the picture but I didn’t elaborate. Didn’t say that he was a one night stand who’s name I had trouble remembering. Didn’t say that the sex wasn’t even good.
At the doctor’s office, I tried to get comfortable. I shifted in the uncomfortable waiting room chair. I felt heavy. Not in a metaphorical sense. It was as if I had gained an additional ten pounds in an hour. The nurse called me in and I struggled to rise from the chair, she came to me and pulled on my arm. One, two, heave, I said to myself. On my feet, I felt nauseous.
In the examining room, the doctor rubbed ice cold gel on my abdomen. I didn’t dare look at the picture on the ultrasound. I watched my doctor’s face, looking for telltale signs: a widening of eyes, a tightening of the mouth, wrinkling of forehead. She gave nothing away.
Turning to me, she said, “Your baby’s—”
“No,” I said. Not loud. Not pleading. Just declaration.
“No, no, she’s alive,” my doctor said. She placed a hand on my arm. “Your baby’s a golem.”
I blinked. I blinked again. I’d heard of it happening. A child turning into stone, into mud turned form, within a woman. Usually after wars, all those dead lovers, there’d be a boom in golems born.
“After grief, sometimes, it happens,” my doctor said. “But she’s alive, she’s well.”
I turned to look at the ultrasound, at the baby shifting inside me. I couldn’t think of what grief I held that would lead to a baby made of stone. She looked so perfect.
On the day my water broke, I was at a café with my mother. I looked down at the dirt-filled water pouring out of me. It looked like a mud puddle had spontaneously formed under my feet.
My mother tried not to panic, to go into mom-mode, but I knew that she wasn’t prepared. Rocking a newborn grandbaby sounded less appealing if the baby’s skin was stone.
The birth itself was easy. Or easier than I’d thought it would be. The pain consumed me, I saw lights filling the room, I clenched my eyes closed, clenched my teeth together. I opened my eyes and the doctor was holding up my baby girl. Her skin was a deep gray.
The doctor placed her into my arms. My daughter opened her eyes and they were the exact color of her fathers: a brown so rich and dark that sometimes people had asked if his eyes were black. I thought her skin would be cold, hard, but she felt warm.
My daughter didn’t ever cry. She made no sounds: not coos, not wails, not even gurgles of discontent. My doctor said, it’s normal. Noise isn’t really a golem thing. I sang to her, though, as I rocked her in my arms and she liked that. I could sense her body getting calm, losing the stiffness that often built up in her skin during the day. If I closed my eyes, it was like I was holding a normal baby.
I sang to her the songs I knew, vaguely remembered from my own childhood. I had a passable voice, had been the star of the choir in school. “The other night, dear, while I sleeping, I dreamt I held you in my arms.” My voice broke open, when I listened to the words I was singing. Once I a friend had told me that I needed to love someone or I’d never be able to sing like I meant anything.
I named my daughter Hanna, after my grandmother mother. She had been a kind woman, who baked my graduation cake, after law school, and decorated it with intricately piped frosting flowers. She was dying, though she’d told no one, and when I bit into the cake it tasted of vanilla, rose petals, and something else. She told me, that night, “I tried to fill that cake with hope. I want your life to be nothing but happiness.”
I had held her hand and promised that it would be. I’d never been the happiest person, even as a child I was quiet and never figured out how to join in when other children were playing. As I grew older, it only got harder. Sometimes I just felt heavy with how tired I felt by everything.
Hanna grew quickly. By four months, she was walking. By six months, she was almost as tall as my waist. She liked to lift up potted plants and move them from one room to another. I’d follow behind her, making sure she never dropped anything, never tripped or strained herself. She was already so much stronger than me.
My mother babysat when I returned to work. She called me during the day and would say things like, “Hanna is moving the furniture. Is that okay?” or “Hanna is carrying the dog on her back. I don’t think he likes it. Should I stop her?” And I would say that “yes, that’s fine. I think she likes making new patterns” or “Yes, he hates it when she does that. Tell her to put him down.”
At her first birthday party, Hanna blew out a candle shaped like the number one on a giant sheet cake. Everyone clapped and she looked around startled. Her gray skin glimmered in the flash of cameras going off. Her dark eyes grew round. I smiled at her, reassuring. And she smiled back. She had never smiled before and her smile was wide and radiant. She looked like a child for once, and I felt an ache so sharp inside my stomach that I thought my appendix was bursting, that I might be dying. I thought, if I die, what will my daughter do? Then the pain was gone and I swallowed down the lump in my throat, because someone needed to cut the cake.
When Hanna was three, I got a letter from a prison. A request from a prisoner. He wanted to meet me. I used to do pro-bono cases for prisoners, but hadn’t since Hanna was born. Hanna watched me reading the letter.
The prisoner, his name was Thomas, wanted to speak with someone about his case. He didn’t elaborate on what he thought I could do. He wrote that he had killed a man. His last line was just “please, I need someone.”
I felt a tightening in my chest, though cases rarely moved me. My logical brain was what made me good at my job. I didn’t even know the details of this one and yet. Beside me, I sensed Hanna. She had stopped playing with her stuffed bear. I could feel her focusing in on me, her whole body steadying and becoming rock.
“No, love, it’s okay,” I said. I reached out for her. She stepped towards me. Her skin was ice cold. I leaned over and wrapped my arms around her.
Her hard hand touched my face, felt the tears on my cheeks that I hadn’t even noticed were there, and her body become stonier. My daughter was no longer my daughter. She had never before gone fully into her Golem form.
I called the doctor, told her that I didn’t know what to do. Behind me, Hanna stomped across the floor. She paced back and forth, cracking the tiles with each angry footfall.
“What set her off?” the doctor asked.
“I was reading a letter,” I replied.
“From a prisoner, he wants me to come speak with him about his case,” I said.
“Oh, well is it an emotional case?” asked the doctor. Her voice was crisp, clear, it echoed through the phone.
“I mean not for me, no. I don’t know him,” I said.
Minutes passed. The only sound was Hanna’s angry stomps. Thump. Thump. Thump. Like a heart beating in high-definition surround sound.
“Well, you probably need to go see him. Golems have a way of sensing things that we don’t. Something in you must have made her feel protective. She won’t revert until she knows whatever it is has been settled.”
I looked at my daughter. She looked up at me. Her eyes such dark pools.
I hung up the phone.
I read the man’s file. He’s shot a man when he was a teenager, years before. The case seemed like too many others. Two people, who hadn’t known each other, losing their lives in different ways because of something beyond their control.
My mother had asked me how I could work with people who I knew were guilty—though I rarely worked with anyone who’d killed anyone. I’d been unable to articulate that in my mind, most of the time, these were people who made mistakes. Their lives had been a series of wrong turns leading to them the moment that took everything away from them.
At the prison, I went through a checkpoint. They asked me a series of questions. I thought about Hanna, at home with my mother. My mother had burst into tears upon seeing her granddaughter. “She looks like a statue!”
“She’s always gray, Mom,” I said.
“But, she’s usually so full of life,” my mother said. My mother kneeled next to Hanna, wrapping her arms around her, and Hanna, for a moment, stopped pacing. But then she continued, marching right out of my mother’s arms.
At the prison, I sat at a table, in a plastic chair that was bolted to the floor. There were no windows. No natural light. The man, Thomas, was lead to the table I sat at. His skin was pale, ashen, the color of dusty walls. He studied the floor as he sat down across from me. A guard stood near him.
“Ma’am,” he said. His voice so quiet that I thought I imagined that he spoke.
“What?” I asked and it came out sharp, though I’d only meant to have him repeat his words.
“I just. I wanted,” he began. I wondered what his mother thought of him. If she pictured the child she had raised and compared him to this husk and couldn’t place the two images together.
“What do you need? I’m not quite sure why you wrote to me,” I said again. My voice calmer. “Do you need help with an appeal?”
“I’m not trying for one of those, ma’am. I’m here for what I did. It’s just someone had you as their lawyer, and he said you listened to him when he told you stuff.”
“I’m a lawyer. That’s kind of my job for my clients,” I said. I wondered why I’d come to the prison. There had to be something else that had set off Hanna.
“No, ma’am, he said you really listened,” he said. He shifted nervously in his chair and I mentally calculated his age. He was 21. He’d been in prison for four years.
“Okay, well, then I can listen to you,” I said.
When I found out I was pregnant, I knew that I wanted to keep the baby. It hadn’t even seemed a conscious choice. I had tried to figure out why I would want to raise a child. What I could do for a person.
The worst part of me wondered if I was trying to prove something to myself. That I could love someone more than I loved the world itself. It had always been in me, a need to help, to know everyone, to find ways to make it better. My willingness to give was bottomless, except I felt hollowed out by it. Because I’d never be able to give enough, because I’d never be able to help everyone.
Thomas studied the table for a few moments. “I thought of asking his family to talk to me. But I don’t want them to go through that. To be reminded.”
He paused and so I nodded for him to continue.
“I didn’t know the gun would go off,” he said. “I’m sorry for what I did.”
“I’m sorry for what you did, too,” I said. I wasn’t sure why the words tumbled from my mouth. It was not my place to grant this man pardon or forgiveness.
He almost raised his head, tilting it upwards slightly, before he slumped again. I imagined him turning to stone. It wouldn’t be a long process. He was already halfway to being something not living. He would be stone the color of concrete, of cracking cement. There would no beauty in his shade of gray.
“Is that all you wanted to say?” I asked.
“I’m sorry,” he said, again. “I think about him every day. I never don’t see his face when I close my eyes.”
I didn’t say anything. He looked up for a split second, his eyes meeting mine and his eyes were a soft green. They were the color of new moss in spring. I thought, how do these eyes belong to someone who killed someone else?
“Do you hate me?” he asked.
I shook my head. “Why would I hate you?”
“Because I’d hate me. I killed someone and I didn’t even know him and he had a family and I was an idiot and there’s no reason I should get to keep being here when I did such a thing. I try to do everything I can to be forgiven and I know it’s never enough.”
I stared at him, unsure what to say.
“What can I do?” he asked me. There was a such a pleading in his voice.
“You can keep trying,” I said. It was the only thing I could think to say. “It’s what everyone has to do, right? To fix things, to be forgiven. Just don’t stop trying.”
He looked away from me, from the table, towards something in the room that I couldn’t see. To anyone else, it must have looked like he was staring at a wall, but I knew that he saw something there.
He turned back to me, nodded once, and then he stood up and let the guards take him away.
When I got home, my mother was sitting on the couch with Hanna asleep across her lap. My mother was stroking her hair, its deep silver color shining in the light. My mother was singing, “you make me happy, when skies are gray.”
I sat down on the other side of my Hanna. Her body soft, relaxed. I touched her foot. Her skin was warm as sun-soaked stones.
“Are you alright?” my mother whispered. I’d driven for a while after the prison, aimlessly, concentrating on the driving itself. My mother had learned to recognize when I was hitting bad patches, when everything just made me so tired. But now she looked unsure, as if she couldn’t read the language of my face anymore. The first time that her daughter was untranslatable to her.
“No,” I said. I stroked the arch of my daughter’s perfect foot. “But I’m not not alright either.”
My mother nodded. We both watched Hanna. My mother asked, “what do you think she dreams about?”
I imagined rock formations, cliffs barraged by the sea, stones turned over and over from years of waves. “I don’t know.” I said with a shrug. I looked down at my daughter. How still and peaceful she looked. “Maybe one day she’ll tell us.”
Chloe N. Clark is a writer and teacher. Her work appears in Apex, Hobart, Uncanny, and more. Her chapbook, The Science of Unvanishing Objects, is forthcoming. Follow her on Twitter @PintsNCupcakes.