Cover Story: Hope under my fingernails

First-place winner

I filled up another cup of water and watched myself in the mirror. Blood was dried on my upper lip and the ochre fringes of dried clay still lined my black hair. I could hear blood bubbling in my nose with each breath. Loud and wet in my head. It reminded me of recess. The dull slap of my skull against dirt. The smell and pressure of mud in my nose.

I tried to imagine what Brad and Greg were doing right now. Were they together? Were they comfortable in their beds? I hoped so. I hoped their dreams were terrible.

I ran the overfilled cup into my room and poured it into mom's mop bucket.

I pulled off the clean clothes mom had put on me after we got home. She didn't want me scattering filth around the house the way I had spread it in her car. She'd grimaced when she came to pick me up at school. My face and clothes covered in red clay, the principal standing with one hand on my shoulder, blood held back only by a napkin from the cafeteria. Her car, clean and warm, shuddered.

I ran back into the bathroom and turned off the water. I stopped to look at myself again — naked and pale. I looked at how all my parts fit together. The shoulders and armpits, hairless and featureless. The abdomen and crotch, chubby and smooth. I didn't care that I was short or that my body was still mired in baby fat. I had to be objective, not critical. Like dad would have been — all business. I just needed to make sure I remembered how these parts looked; how they fit one to the other. I ran my hands over scraped joints and bruised muscles. I had to remember how they felt.

I walked back to my room and pulled my book bag across the floor. Kneeling over it beside the bucket, I reached inside and felt for my prize — a cold wet squish between my fingers. Dried dirt under my fingernails refreshed against the moisture. I made a fist and giggled as slippery lumps and fluid pushed from my small hand through closing fingers. I felt strong, my fist surrounded in a wet, cold gauntlet.

This was my hope for tomorrow. My hand buried and wet deep in the bag, I smiled. This was an end to blood and bruises, wedgies and kicks in the stomach. This was hope.

I heaved the bag over onto its end, dumping its contents into the bucket with a loud fat smack. Water splashed out. Some red splashed out, too, staining the carpet and my skin. A fresh smell rose out of the bucket. I closed my eyes and relished it. It was a smell without fear. A smell without loneliness.

I grabbed the bucket and hauled it through the house to the laundry room. My arms burned from the weight and my knees ached from banging against the plastic sides. I dropped the bucket by the back door and caught my breath, dropping to my knees and foraging through the laundry pile for my stained school uniform.

Khaki slacks, the knees and shins ground orange and brown, the cuffs and butt stained and wet. My white polo, with the small school crest embossed in blue over the heart, torn at the shoulder. The collar still reeked with the iron-tinged odor of blood. The clay and dirt stain of a Sebago sole across the belly.

I dropped the shirt by the bucket and started to pull on the pants before I remembered — I needed the words. I dropped the slacks and ran back through the house, my naked feet slapping against the hardwood, stopping only when I arrived at the door to my father's study.

Mom always kept the door shut. I remembered her pulling it shut behind her and curling up at its base, crying like no one I'd ever seen cry. I couldn't approach her. I'd stood in the shelter of my room and watched her through a slit in the door. She'd curled up, tears streaming, until sleep took her. Sometimes she slowed as she passed the door but usually — lately — she averted her gaze and moved by.

I slipped through the door quietly — reverentially. The room was heavy with the familiar smell of dust. Through the window I could see the neighbors' house, only yards away. I could see the passing flicker of red and white on Mt. Vernon. I could see their rapid lights crossing rows of bookshelves, Hebrew and English letters looking down on me from volumes I'd never read. I walked carefully around the desk, unconsciously trying to muffle the fleshy sounds of my feet on the creaking floor.

I pulled a flashlight out of dad's desk, where I had left it, and crept over to the lowest shelf under the window. Two books leaned against the wall.

The tall thin book was my favorite. It was my book. Dad had given it to me only a month before his trip to Israel. The cover was a full-color illustration of a medieval city, with towers and spires and people dressed in amazing costumes. A fatherly rabbi looked up from the cover, his huge servant placid and blank beside him.

The short fat book was my father's. This book had gone with him to Israel. It had come home alone. There was a hole punched through the cover, a rough edgy gash made by a piece of the bus. I ran my finger along it. The cover buckled inward from the gash, the knit surface giving way to soft cardboard and paper. The same piece of metal that had killed my father had made this wound.

I closed my eyes, imagining the book in my father's hand as he hunted for a word or phrase. I couldn't remember his face anymore. I could barely remember being with him. But I could remember him walking around the house quoting from this little book, proud of each query and statement he stole from it.

I opened the book to one of the first pages. The page was dented but not torn. A piece of blue-ruled school paper stuck out at the top, beside the earmark, obscuring half the table of letter shapes. I pulled it free and checked my handwriting against the finely printed Hebrew in the book. I'd practiced drawing the characters over and over down the sheet before I got them just right.

Aleph, mem, tav. I couldn't read it but I knew what it was supposed to say. It had been two years since I'd been to a Hebrew school class. Two years since dad hadn't come home. I held the book to my chest. Dad was helping me. He always had.

I replaced the books and crept out of the study, leaving the flashlight where I could find it tomorrow night after mom fell asleep.

I clutched the scrap of paper tight in my hand and ran across the house toward the back door. Passing through the living room I knocked a vase of flowers with my arm, the vase spinning in place, wobbling as it lost balance. A gift from mom's most recent boyfriend, the vase tipped and fell, dashing flowers across the hardwood. The metal vase bounced across the floor. Petals and water scattered in a widening swatch, alighting on the couch and the walls.

I covered my ears, fearful someone might hear. I dropped to my knees and frantically grabbed at the stems. Thorns pricked my fingers. Petals clung to my bare skin. I felt small and weak again. I felt Brad and Greg standing over me as I scrambled. Only this was worse. Tears formed and began to crawl down my cheeks. Mom would be so upset with me. Again.

Wiping my nose, I gathered up the last few petals in my hand and placed the vase back on top of the TV. I looked at the clock and hoped I hadn't lost too much time. I had to be done before mom came home. She wouldn't understand. She loved me, but she couldn't help me.

That was why I had to help myself. For almost a year I'd been coming home like this — bruised and teary-eyed. It had taken me a long time to realize that mom couldn't do anything; that the school couldn't do anything. So I would do something. My tears always stopped when I remembered how dad had shown me how to help myself. How others like me had helped themselves in the past. Arms up to protect my face, body curled tight to deflect kicks, I took solace in my own efforts to help myself — regardless of the abuse.

I pulled on my dirty school clothes and stepped outside, the heavy bucket skipping across the concrete walk as I hauled it toward the crawlspace door. I could see my breath in the cooling air.

I threw open the little door and crawled through, standing belowground, my hair barely scraping low beams. I pulled the bucket through, splashing water down the front of my pants, and pushed the door shut behind me. My back against the door, I surveyed the dark. Modest shapes stood out in the waning moonlight leaking in through thin outdoor vents. Pipes hung and wound their way against the ceiling. Plastic sheeting covered the dirt floor. Furnaces and hot water heaters stood against the back wall — the tornado wall, mom had called it in her panicked flight down here six months ago, showing me the potential of this place.

In the middle of it all, on eight concrete building blocks, rested the coffin. My coffin.

I'd salvaged the wood from a construction site down the street and Mr. Bloomington's deck project, next door. I'd silently fit the pieces together with screws from dad's tool kit and matched the ends together as best I could, sanding sharp edges down with a few loose sheets of sand paper I'd found under the sink.

I pulled the bucket across the plastic flooring to the edge of the coffin. It was big enough to fit my mom and me inside — more than big enough for Brad and Greg. But that wasn't what it was for. I thought of it more as a fort than a coffin — that's just what the book had said it was supposed to be. The book my dad had given me had shown me how to do this, in lively illustrations and vague but instructive descriptions.

I remembered crawling all over the inside of it, working slowly from one end to the other, first in wood, then in ...

I pushed back the wobbly lid until it rested against a water pipe. Sometimes, when I was in the coffin and mom flushed the toilet in her bedroom, the pipe would shake, threatening to cast the lid down, closing me in the utter darkness of the coffin. I'd even shut myself in the box once to see what it would be like. I lay there, still and quiet, imagining waking from an eternal slumber and rising to false life.

The body inside the coffin was much sturdier than the coffin itself. I climbed over the edge, so I was half inside, half out, and pulled the bucket in, next to the massive shape. It filled the coffin, end-to-end. The massive head, bald and almost perfectly round, nearly touched the top of the coffin even as the feet rested squarely against the bottom. The head was perhaps too big and the chest too long for the stubby legs beneath them, but I was happy. It had taken a long time.

I reached into the bucket and pulled out my prize — my liberation. Wet malleable Georgia red clay clumped in my hands. With a wet slap I pushed it onto the end of the growing stump that would become the body's right bicep. These muscles, unlike my own, had to be big and impressive. I worked the clay into the shape of the shoulder and the ligaments of the armpit. I smoothed them with water until they looked right — as best I could remember from my own scrutiny in the mirror.

Clay ground under my fingernails and wore into my skin as I worked. My fingers were almost always stained red and orange. Whether from gathering the clay into my book bag at the back of the playground at school or from spending hours each night in the crawlspace, working a few more inches of clay-flesh onto the shape of my golem.

In my book, Rabbi Loew had made his golem to defend the people of Prague from angry Christians at Easter. My golem would defend me from Brad and Greg. He would stand behind me in class and walk with me on the playground. He could ride in the backseat to and from school. He could keep me company in the evenings and read me stories, like dad had done. He could help mom with the house — she wouldn't even need to date those other men anymore.

And secretly, though I knew it was wrong to hope, I hoped that the false soul that filled this golem's waking hours would be the genuine soul of my dad. Except now he would never leave me — he'd be too strong to be blown up.

In the dark I tacked the scrap of paper to the inside of the coffin lid. It was wet and a flower petal stuck to one corner, but my drawn Hebrew letters stood out in graphite silver on the page. Aleph, mem, tav. Truth. I had only to write those letters on the golem's forehead and he would wake up, fearless and compassionate, loving and strong.

I would never have to be afraid again. I would never be alone again.

J.D. Jordan is co-owner of Cloudjammer Studio, an interactive communications firm and is a member of the adjunct faculty at the Atlanta College of Art. Jordan attended the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, and received a BA from Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia. He is the primary contributor to the Internet communication's themed webzine Fight.Boredom (fightboredom.net). Jordan lives in Roswell with his wife Ann and his Jack Russell mutt, Sparky.

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