It’s a crumbled city, this one. Hacked out of the grey hillside, stone and scrub and stunted trees, backlit by a slow and sullen crimson sun. The moon, when she takes her turn in the sky, is a dulled copper penny, terribly ominous, but no one looks up, not when there’s so much else to see.
Lacuna is an old city, and it wears its years badly.
It is an apostate city, full of believers who have lost their faith, if not their hard-won knowledge. Lacuna is peopled by those who no longer know who they are—only who they aren’t. A population of priests, rabbis, nuns, monks, prophets, oracles; a city full of emptiness—false prayers, showy incantations, and meaningless visions.
There is a desert outside the city, and many a traveler arrives with a parched throat. The first bartender they see, a black-clad woman with a grey clerical collar, will transubstantiate their blood to wine, either in the glass, or in their body, should they be too rude. The one will get the traveler drunk pleasantly, all the faster for the pint they’ve lost. The other will get their body fed deep into the mountain caverns’ gardens. Under the stalactites, the flowers there are all red.
There’s a youngish new priest sent through the fence-turned-gates to find the dying Father Padraig-Immanuel and take him back to Roma for a cure. He swore his success with his eyes shining brighter than that tarnished sun. Maybe he will succeed; he has found Lacuna where others failed. But he’s been sitting front row in the Burlesk for two months, and he looks like he’s discovering love. Or at least a facsimile of it.
The girls at the Burlesk are odd, even for this city. You see, they’re—
"—elegant beyond the telling, as beautiful as earth, as exalted as the angels, as complicated as clockwork, and the most remarkable sight you will ever see, sir Priest," the barker cried on that first night, and Father Jean-Paulo de Santos Celestos hunched through the dark doorway beneath the broken and pixilated flashscreen.
Women as a whole are not unknown to him, no matter his youth when he took the collar. He had his childish fumblings under sheets, playing at Signore Dottore with the sisters next door; he had his teenaged kisses in the narrow alleyways and in the broad fountains of Roma, tasting of lip gloss and nicotine. When seminary was done, his cousins rushed him to the city fleshpots, let him browse the ladies there like ripened fruits on a vine. He bared smooth thighs beneath silk stockings, unbound breasts from lace, uncovered mystery beneath thin silk slips, and tangled his hands in a welter of curls—blond, brown, black—until he staggered away three days later, stupefied with flesh and drowning in their scent.
When he confessed his sins to Father Padraig-Immanuel, sweating and embarrassed and warmed anew by the memories, Father Padraig said, "Do you know where your true sins lie, Jean-Paulo? Not in surrendering to lust and carnality, which can be forgiven."
Jean-Paulo had licked his lips, trying to think, trying not to think about women, their legs, their backs, the slope of their necks, hair parting, as they knelt before him….
There had been so many, so many they blurred together.
Father Padraig steepled his hands before his lowered brow, and said, "I absolve you of your actions, but not your blindness. That you will have to discover yourself."
The smell of damp earth stirs him from his half-guilty memories of Father Padraig’s face; before him, just out of reach, the dancer bends nearly double. Her hair chimes and rings, brushing the stage. Her wrists ripple as smoothly as water over sand, the painted metal of her nails a lightning strike of gold against dark clay.
This is the way of it. The girls at the Burlesk are not girls at all, but golems created by a runaway rabbi who tired of creating creatures of war and changed up his template. The golem girls are built of the soil beneath the city’s mountain—rich, dark, earthen. They are the very same material as the walls that create this city, but considerably more beautiful, the clay smoothed, baked, glazed, adorned.
The golem girls slink when they walk, their joints greased by slip; the golem girls chime when they dance, bangles dangling from wrists and ankles, delicate chains cascading from neck and nipple, waist and scalp. The golem girls have no hair, but more fragile links of gold, silver, copper chains weigh down their slender necks. Their eyes are rough gemstones, muted, hidden glitter, and their breasts and bellies are studded with curved coins for nipples and navel. They ring and chime and sway and carry the thick scent of the earth with them. The scarves they wear on stage are sheer, wind moving across a field, not masking but drawing attention like the flutter of golden meadows on a sunny day, the kind of beauty that makes watchers stop their thoughts and steps, turn as mindless as the clay the girls are made from.
The music they dance to is barely there, a single breathy flute on a scratchy vinyl record, played behind the stage. Or the thump of a pair of drums, like footsteps, like a set of matched heartbeats, accelerating. Sometimes, when Jean-Paulo can tear his attention from that flash of coin or chain or sleek earthen skin, he thinks he recognizes hymns as arranged by Satie. But then he smells the girls again, the wet perfumed slip, the dry earth, the tang of metal and his eyes return inexorably forward. Rapt, his lips parted as if he can taste them, and what a taste they would be, cold clay dry on his tongue, warming with his breath, sucking away his juices—the cold clash of metal on his teeth if he bit at their delicately sculpted necks.
After the performance is done and the girls are danced back into their boxes, after the music is stopped, fading from one note to the next, and the stagehands are occupied with sweeping up the fine clay grit that dusted the stage, Father Jean-Paulo, stinking of perfumed clay and his own sweat and want, creeps around back to the dumpster.
The golems are elegant, a mixture of magic, faith, and machinery, impervious to hurt, but not to entropy. It happens, every so often, that a dancing girl’s joint will fail, that the liquid shift of her limb will grow slow, grind softly, and then a piece drops off, falling to the stage with a thunk and soft crunch, while the golem girl dances on, her painted smile unwavering.
Tonight an arm dropped, was carried off stage by the bartender, who culled it of its metal, removing bracelets and fingernails with casual economy before throwing the arm into the waste.
The golem girls are disposable resources; there is always more clay beneath the crumbling mountain.
Jean-Paulo presses through the waste, hunting. It is a left arm he seeks. He gasped to see it fall, his breath a little faster, and only partially for the beauty crumbling before the audience.
He digs past the wet, smooth glass, the scent of a dozen exotic liquors mingling on his skin, in the air, over-riding that faint tang of fired earth. His fingers close on clay fingers, unresponsive but beautifully sculpted, and he pulls it out, dislodging an avalanche of bottles. The bartender, hearing the fuss, chases him off, upraised bottle glossing beetle black-blue-green in the amber streetlights, and Father Jean-Paulo flees, his soiled ecclesiastical skirts flapping about his legs, the arm clutched tight to his breast. A bottle shatters on the cobbles behind him and sends stinging shards pelting after him with the bartender’s curses.
Jean-Paulo found a living space the day after his arrival, a sandy square hewn out of the mountain that looks into the bloody sun. It is dusty inside, always dusty, as if the ceiling sifts slowly downward in increments too small to notice. If he were of a nervous temperament, perhaps he would have fled it after the first night, burdened by the weight of the slumping mountain above. Instead, driven to inspiration by the Burlesk, he built a workbench out of old pews, spent the last of his coins on a bucket and rights to a well.
On that first evening, eyes and mind and body dazzled by the city, by the Burlesk, he fell asleep in the street, woke sun-burnt and parched and with a fever dream that carried through his days.
Now, he props the arm on his bench, one last, tender stroke along the path—shoulder, elbow, wrist, thumb—and starts chipping away at the wall of his abode. At the back, where it stays dim and dark all day and night, the earth still smells fresh, still curves smoothly under his ragged fingernails. He gouges out a rough palmful, drops it into his bucket, and stirs ferociously until the dry clay gives up and turns to a glossy slurry.
He tips back a bottle, dust-covered, and drinks. Impatient. "Soon," he says aloud. "Soon."
His construction, propped carefully against the wall, makes no response, only tips closer to the wall. He doesn’t have coins or jewels to spare, and so her eyes are only layers of light-colored clay around pebbles.
They seem as bright as gemstones, and as captivating. When he wakes up in the dusty mornings, they are the first thing that draws his attention. When he roughs his voice to speak his scanty morning prayers, he speaks to her instead.
He speaks to her now, holding out the arm for her inspection. "Only a few nicks here and there. I’ll have you put together soon. See you restored. But you won’t return to the Burlesk. I will see you saved."
Jean-Paulo edges the broken socket with slip, presses the arm tight, and leans his forehead against her breastbone, whispers a stolen prayer. When he steps away, the arm remains in place, rimmed by a black seam; he touches the golem’s curved lips as if he can sense her pleasure at growing whole. She, as always, gives back no sign, her magical vitality dormant.
He sits back on his haunches to study her, his black skirts bunching about him, and startles when his curtains rattle, letting in one of the women who manage the well.
Jean-Paulo has no time for her and her wringing hands, not when he’s this close, and his face shutters, his shoulders shift; he rises, already reaching out to push her away when she stops him with perhaps the only words that will: words evoking his original purpose. "Your Father Padraig-Immanuel has been found and he lies dying in the caverns. The minstrels are bartering for his bones."
His breath is gone; he gapes as blindly at her as he did when he first saw the golem girls, shocked silent at the reminder of his priesthood. Of his oath and duties. Resentment wells in him, imperfectly tamped down. If he dies before I get there, my time will have been wasted….
Then he gathers his skirts up and hastens after her.
Jean-Paulo squeezes through the narrow chasm in the cliff-face, his dirty skirts growing damp with rock dew, scenting of mold. He lights the lantern wick, and the firelight wraps itself around bones mortared into the pocked stone corridors, the city’s attempt at holding back the inevitable fall.
He finds Father Padraig-Immanuel in a sweating bowl of a room, coughing on a pallet. Jean-Paulo’s irritation fades; his heart aches. Has Father Padraig always been so gaunt, so grey, so… old?
Jean-Paulo thinks of the smooth clay flesh of his waiting golem girl and sighs. Flesh is cruel. His golem girl can be saved. Father Padraig-Immanuel cannot.
"Jean-Paulo," the priest gasps. His skin, sweat glossy, collects dirt as if the grave begrudges its wait. He raises a hand, his nails blue. Father Padraig-Immanuel smiles, his sere cheeks folding. "I should be sorry to see you sent here," he says. "But, perhaps, this is a blessing on the both of us."
Padraig sits up, a series of brittle jerks. "You wonder why I came here? I felt my death approaching and thought perhaps… in this empty city… I might find one lost priest who would have pity on a dying brother, who would speak the prayers of farewell, and in doing so might find his way back to faith. I never dreamed it would be you."
"I will perform the rite for you, Father," Jean-Paulo says. "I will." His voice sounds thick, as if he’s been eating the clay that suffuses his dreams. "I came hunting you months ago."
"But you only find me now," Father Padraig asks, melancholy and gentle. "Tell me what occupies your time that my resting place is so hard to find. Confess to me so I know your prayers for my soul will be pure."
"The Burlesk," Jean-Paulo whispers.
"Always the girls," Padraig-Immanuel says. Laughs, and coughs grey foam. "But have you recognized your blind spots then?"
"I’m trying to put one of them back together. I’ll save her—"
Padraig’s face shutters. "Jean-Paulo…" He coughs, harder this time, brings up more foam, tinged pink and grey, a bloody twilight. "You look but never see."
Jean-Paulo kneels closer, presses him back into the pallet. "Let me pray for you," he says. The words, rote-familiar, elude him, fumble from his tongue, a song once heard in another language.
Padraig rolls his head on his stained pillow, and says "You’ve been here too long, my boy."
"I’ll leave. Once I save her. I’ll take her and go." Jean-Paul takes Padraig’s hand in his own—skin sheathing bone with nothing between, a collection of fragile sticks, suitable only for a harpist’s tuning pegs.
Then Jean-Paulo rises, shakes drying dirt from his skirts. A shadow lurking at the far side of the bowl argues that one minstrel grows tired with waiting, and skulks in. Jean-Paulo leaves Padraig’s body to the artist—his fingers and ribs to go to instruments, his teeth for decorative elements, and his long bones to help shore up the city.
Then, the scent of death in his nose, he makes his way back to his waiting girl.
Clattering comes from his quarters, the sound of an uneven waltz assayed by a drunken dancer. Jean-Paulo ducks past the heavy drape, and stops cold. The golem girl pauses; her head turns, a rough scrape of clay, wobbling on a neck that seems suddenly too narrow to support it. She lurches toward him, grinding clay, knees working at odds with her hips, her ankles, her arms swinging and groaning, trying to steady herself. Her painted eyes are steady on his, imploring him as they had every night, some message transcending the muteness of finger-daubed clay.
Jean-Paulo’s breath quickens in his chest, mingled dismay and exultation. When her head toppled from her neck, rolled across the sandy stage to stop on the very edge, one steep fall from shattering on the stone floor, her eyes met his with exactly that same beseeching gaze.
She takes another step forward, a slide-sag-stumble, and he catches her in his arms. "It’s all right," he whispers. "I’ll make you better soon. It’s slip. You just need more slip to smooth your joints."
Clay fingers—dark-grained, with fine, glittering specks edging them—close tight into his vestments. Jean-Paulo smiles, pats the fingers, looks into those painted eyes. "It’s all right. I won’t make you dance. I’ll even give you a name—"
She shoves him across the room, the first smooth movement she manages, a balletic maneuver and he, her unknowing partner. He sprawls in the doorway, the beaded curtain rattling like bones above him.
She hunches into a corner, her eyes luminescent, and hisses quietly. "Ssssss—" In her chest, something twangs and plucks out a discordant tune.
Save me, he thinks.
He hastens about the room, dragging out clay, spilling his last bottle of precious water over it, blending it, smoothing it.
He will ease her pain, oil her joints, save her from this city, her ignoble fate. Perhaps God does guide his footsteps—has sent him here to save her and not Padraig-Immanuel.
He stirs vigorously, the water foaming, sinking into the thirsty clay, wondering how much he will need. Perhaps the golem women always sound like grating pottery and he missed that rumble beneath the delicate chime of their jewelry, the drums, the flutes. Their perfection argues otherwise. Still, he can fix her, he swears aloud.
She drags herself to her feet, staggers over toward his workbench, and finds his crucifix, taken off days ago when it dangled too much into the clay. She holds it, head cocked, one hand clenching, the other mapping the contours of her thigh. Her left foot taps an impatient counter-beat. Finally, she jerks her hand up; the cross flashes toward her face.
He trips over his feet, falls before her, and clay bits rain down about him, small stinging pebbles. When they stop, when he dares to raise his head, wondering what damage she has done to herself, what damage he will need to repair, he finds her peering down at him, a black gash cut cruelly through the smiling, painted lips.
"Don’t worry!" he cries. "I will repair your beauty—"
"Stupid," she hisses.
Her voice is like nothing he has ever considered. She is mute, created so; it has never occurred to him to wonder if she could be given a voice. Even had he done so, he would not have imagined this one. This multitude of sound.
Her voice is thick, metallic, chiming, gritty, the sound of stone falling, the wind soughing through canyons, of water dammed and diverted. It stops his heart, stops his ears, stops his understanding. All he can do is gape.
"Stupid! Are we so interchangeable? Parts and not a person? We will never be fixed, never be whole."
She lurches away from him; his eyes, awakened to concerns outside his own, track the motion, the left ankle thicker, the right foot longer, the thighs neatly mismatched. A patchwork golem, his failed hopes. He clings to the one thing he knows.
"I’ve saved you from the Burlesk," he says.
She pivots awkwardly, the line of her spine twisted by more than her movement, her grace thrown off by the mismatched weight of her limbs. Her mouth stretches wider; clay fires itself beneath her temper and flakes away; fissures run upward through her face like a dry riverbed.
"We never wanted to be saved. We wanted to be freed."
She walks out of his dusty room, walks into the rising sunlight, kicking the bucket of slip over. She leaves wet, black footprints on the stone, leaves damp impressions in the sand. Helplessly, he follows her.
His footprints leave no marks to match hers; he is weightless. Empty.
She—they—journey outward, heading away from the cliff-face, the heart of the empty-souled city, a stagger of drying clay and stiffening, mismatched limbs. The gate he hasn’t seen since his arrival looms before them, and she presses forward, presses outward.
The first step beyond the gate, into the desert, she stretches her hands to the heavy sullen sun, her voices a chorus singing the same pleading note. The fire in her eyes, the wispy fumes of heat escaping her lips reach upward; the sun reaches back, and she glows like pottery in an active kiln, red hot, a vessel, a blooming ember.
His work fails. The parts slough away from each other in fiery contrails.
First her right arm goes, then her left, her torso, her legs simultaneously, her smiling head—all of her flows outward, shifting and changing. A firebird soars upward, chasing a tiny glittering whirlwind of a sandstorm; a golden snake glides like water across the sand; a fire-red fox trots away, tail tip a smoking coal. An improbable fish, lace-scaled, dives into the desert sand, and a gleaming thistle seed drifts in the air.
They spill into the world across the sands in dancing swirls of fire and laughter and are gone.
Jean-Paulo finds himself kneeling, his eyes full of sand, his hands clenching empty air, sunbaked clear through.
Grit hisses across the open gate. The metal shifts and croons a mournful note, so reminiscent of the Burlesk. He rises when his knees feel as stiff as the golem’s, when his gait seems likely to be as awkward. His feet are dark with dried slip. His ecclesiastical skirts are stained and dusty, the black overlaid in grey-beige.
Stepping out of them, he stands bare to the sun, the heat, the stinging sand blowing through the gate. He beats the worst of the clay from them against the gate’s pillars, and then dons them again. The sun burns his scalp, and he turns back through the gates.
If he hurries, he’ll be able to get a good seat before the evening shows begin.