The Golem and the Messiah - 1

Chapter 1: Golem or Messiah?

In Jewish folklore, a golem (Hebrew: גולם‎) is an animated anthropomorphic being created entirely from inanimate matter…

She called it the taste of duplicity. “Sometimes we taste what our hearts and minds can't reconcile," she explained softly. Then she stretched out on the bed beside him, gently kissed his brow and said, "Let me help you feel better."

He leaned forward to read aloud the estimated time of arrival on the dashboard display of his Maybach. “Twenty minutes to go,” he said to no-one in particular. There was no driver, no one else in the vehicle to hear him and no other sound except the near-silent hum of the electric motor, relentless and efficient.

Jake Kassman yearned at that moment for the sound of her voice more than anything. But he knew she wouldn’t answer his call. He would have to decide his own fate, hero or heretic, without her. Twenty minutes to go. Sixty years old and alone in a cavernous leather cabin of armagnac brown and obsidian black, he felt suddenly helpless and insignificant.

The taste of duplicity, the same taste that haunted his mouth after every Diversity Council meeting, closed and humorless affairs where he and fourteen other Council members, all representatives of the global technomedia elite, ruled with feigned concern and imperious disdain over twenty million Citizens of Greater New York City in the year 2050. Better -- at a time when everyone knew that fealty to diversity of everything except thought was the only safe recourse -- to accept the taste of bile for what it was: little more than a minor occupational hazard, just another tithe to the glittering church of career ambition. It was a price he’d been happy to pay with few reservations over the years. Until recently. Until a few months earlier when she first mentioned a rumor about a little girl faith healer in the bowels of Brooklyn…

Born on the first day of the 21st century, Maria Perez learned to cook as a young girl at her mother’s side in Jackson Heights, Queens. “Cook with all your senses, tesora mia,” her mother told her one afternoon. "But mostly with your heart." She watched her daughter, face and apron powdered with errant patches of flour, knit her brow and focus while she pressed the heels of her little palms into a ball of dough destined to fill the biscotti jar on the kitchen table some hours later.

Maria cherished their time together, especially in the kitchen, and discovered in due course that her mother would offer variations of the same advice on other “matters of the heart” as well. It didn’t occur to Maria until much later in life, when such matters suddenly mattered much more, that any discussion pertinent to matters of the heart was her mother’s blanket excuse for the two of them to sit down together over a glass of milk and a small plate of home-baked pastries -- a ritual they followed religiously every afternoon anyway, matters of the heart notwithstanding. “This is how we feed our souls,” her mother whispered in her ear, a secret only the two of them would ever share.

She learned another such matter of the heart as a gentle rebuke one winter afternoon in the tearful aftermath of a schoolyard spat with her best friend. “Be patient with your friends,” her mother told her. “They are the ones you choose to receive your most precious love.” It seemed like strange consolation to Maria at the time, in no small measure because patience was typically not among her first reactions. In any event, it was hard for the young girl to imagine any love deeper or more precious than the one she felt for her mother at that precise moment. Huddled together at the kitchen table, they waited with less patience than anticipation for Maria’s favorite, a rustic ricotta cheesecake, to emerge from the vintage Magic Chef gas range -- the epicenter of her universe. Decades later, as one of the world’s most powerful women, she would marvel at how each memory of her mother was ushered into the present by the telltale redolence of pasticceria, intoxicating and sweet.

Consumed one evening by the sudden worry that her stock in the household would fade after the birth of her brother, Maria waited in the hallway just outside her parent's bedroom until her father, exhausted from long days at work and even longer bedside vigils at night, went to the kitchen to prepare some herbal tea. Once he was gone she marched up to her mother’s side of the bed and issued a formal declaration: “I don’t need a little brother,” she said resolutely. “I don’t want a little brother. I want you to get better.”

Her mother, in considerable pain and distress from months of bed rest, was just five weeks from the appointed end of a difficult pregnancy. She turned her head on the sweat-soaked pillow to look at her daughter, and suppressed a laugh. Staring back at her was a defiant and headstrong young girl on the eve of her tenth birthday. “Cuore mia,” she said, her voice barely a hoarse whisper, “sei tutto il mio mondo. That will never change. Never. Not even with a thousand little brothers. Now go sleep.”

Some hours later Maria awoke to the urgent sounds of metallic clatter and heavy boots in the hallway outside her bedroom. She climbed out of bed and opened her bedroom door to see the EMTs strapping her mother to a gurney while her father urged them to hurry. She stood in the doorway and watched in silent terror while they wheeled her entire world, face obscured by an oxygen mask, down the hall and out the front door.

Her infant brother Alejandro survived his mother by just one week. Maria and her father were at his side in the NIC unit day and night until his premature heart, compromised beyond repair, surrendered his soul just seconds after the neonatal nurse unhooked him from life support. For Maria, still in shock from her mother’s death the week before, the endless parade of doctors and nurses and technicians that populated Alejandro’s entire life seemed faceless, disembodied and dreamlike. But she knew his time was near an end when a nurse arrived and drew the curtains closed around his incubator. She watched her father’s legs tremble, watched him collapse in tears inside the green cotton shroud as her brother’s tiny chest rose and fell with a few final breaths — shallow and desperate — then stopped. Afterwards, Maria tried but failed to cry for her father’s sake, unable to pierce the fog of her own despair and unwilling to forgive him for the death of her mother. Worse still, she didn’t know if she should mourn the death of her little brother or indict him as a co-conspirator.

“She needed him,” he told her in the cab ride home from the hospital. Seated miles apart from her father in the backseat, Maria had no reason to doubt his sincerity. But the traumatic events of the past week had already hardened her heart to his pain, and she wanted him to suffer like she suffered. “Why wasn’t I good enough for you?” she asked him, voice trembling with anger. “Why did you even need him?”

Weary and defeated, Miguel Alejandro Garcia Perez had no reply for his daughter. He wanted to reach out to her, to reassure her, but stopped himself when he realized how little he knew about the young stranger seated across from him, arms folded, glaring at him like a zealous prosecutor. He kept his silence even as he remembered how her entry into the world had almost killed his beloved wife, his world, a decade earlier. Certain that he was no match for either his daughter or the moment, he retreated inside himself with the vain conviction that time would heal them both. She knew better.

“Can you imagine?” she asked Jake that night after a dinner of cacio e pepe in her Forest Hills penthouse. They stood together at a large bank of windows while below them Queens Boulevard stretched west to the Manhattan skyline in the distance. “A little girl faith healer in 21st-century Brooklyn.”

Mesmerized by how her coal-black hair shimmered along the satin olive contour of her neck, Jake heard her but didn’t respond at first. He stood silently instead and watched her lift a glass of wine to her lips. Maria looked away but knew he was watching. She knew him with a special intimacy borne of once-shared ambition, the way a veteran pitcher knows a veteran hitter, or the way an angler knows a game fish. She knew his carnal appetites were largely pedestrian compared to those of other powerful men and women she’d known in the past, and easily satisfied -- at least for the night. But she knew of a deeper hunger in him also, an emptiness that no amount of power or wealth or sex would ever satisfy. And that, the expert angler in her hoped, would set the hook.

Still, she had begun to think he wouldn't take the bait that evening, not the way he seemed to ignore the view and focus instead on how her fingertips caressed the stem of her wine glass. They stood in silence for a few moments while she rummaged for something inert to say. She felt naked under his gaze, stripped suddenly of the guile and command she had cultivated with such patience over so many years. She prayed he wouldn’t notice the panic rising like a wave inside her, or somehow hear the pounding in her chest. And then, like the distant but still perfect memory of her mother’s warm embrace and the sweet succor of the absinthe and chocolate biscotti they baked together, she heard him say, more to himself than to her, "A little girl faith healer. Of all things, a little girl messiah." She caught her breath then turned away without a word and moved silently to the kitchen with her back to him so his eyes wouldn’t register the faint smile that emerged like a whisper of betrayal behind her tears.

Eighteen minutes to go. Jake bit his lip hard, hoping the pain might clear his mind. He hardly noticed the endless stream of animated billboards that straddled the BQE, despite the fact that they all belonged to one or more of his eight hundred technomedia companies. The eventual collapse and subsequent privatization of the MTA and other major urban mass transit systems in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic had accelerated the transition to subsidized fleets of on-demand electric cars, dependable driverless vehicles that — by the mid-2030s — had replaced mass transit as transportation of choice for most white-collar commuters.

Once liberated from the distraction of driver safety concerns, forests of animated billboards soon replaced the tangle of suddenly obsolete road and traffic signs as cash-strapped municipalities nationwide scrambled to supplement decimated tax bases with advertising revenue — an opportunity Jake saw coming long before anyone else. By the mid-2020s, he had quietly negotiated and purchased monopoly positions in billboard, signage, wallscape and in-vehicle rights across all domestic urban and suburban markets at pennies on the dollar. Now — more than two decades later — he controlled a full twenty percent of all municipal revenue and more than sixty percent of all commercial media carriage, advertising and streaming revenue in North America, Latin America and Europe. He was, in his own and everyone else’s words, “…way too big to fail — for way too long.”

None of that mattered to him that night on the BQE. He turned instead to peer north through the window to the skyline of Lower Manhattan in the near distance. By the year 2050, attention-sensor and realtime content management technologies embedded in the windows of all driverless vehicles converted each view of the outside world into a fluid montage of massive video ads superimposed over mapped facets of the actual window view and hyper-personalized in realtime to the precise consumer needs and wants of whoever was watching. By then, the virtual stylings of Ad Mode, a Jake Kassman AI property, had already been long-ensconced as the default view of reality in the Utopian Federation. In any event, few living there — apart from the elderly — could really remember a time when things had been noticeably different.

Jake turned off the Ad Mode in his Maybach in hopes of finding moments of solace and strength in the immense forest of towers across the East River. But the buildings that populated the static skyline view seemed less to him like a living, breathing cityscape, and more like the somber tombstones of a crowded cemetery reaching up into an empty black and starless sky like greedy bejeweled fingers. Suddenly silent and supine. the naked cityscape across the water seemed insatiable, humorless and menacing. He turned away and refocused.

Maria knew she might never see him again the moment the words passed her lips that morning. “You can meet her tonight,” she told him as he stepped out the door of her apartment on his way to work. "You know I can’t go with you.” She paused for a moment, struggling in vain to keep the next few words to herself: “I might meet you there,” she said as the words hurried from her mouth. “If you want.”

Startled by the abruptness of her eleventh-hour invitation, Jake paused just outside her door. He wanted to press her for details but decided not to, fearful she might retreat suddenly and withdraw the offer. Still, he couldn’t let the opportunity pass. "You doom me," he told her with a conspiratorial smile. "Let me know where and when. And be careful." He tried to conceal his uncertainty and excitement, but she could see the trepidation in his eyes and felt him tremble when he pulled her close.

His kiss lingered longer than usual that morning, and although he wanted to hold on to her with every fiber of his being, he pushed her away some seconds later with a boyish grin. She watched him walk down the hall to the elevator, then turned back inside and softly shut the door. Once inside she leaned against the door jam and wondered if she would ever taste him again. A moment later she regained her composure, went to the kitchen to retrieve a cup of coffee, sat down at her dining table and began to review her final preparations in the half light of dawn.

Fifteen minutes out, his mind raced and he felt a curtain of panic descend on him. He had tried to reach her earlier on his untraceable with news that the Hate Crime Authority was planning a raid that evening somewhere in Brooklyn. Several of his personal informants had returned near-identical reports that morning of a false messiah -- a young girl. But Maria hadn’t responded in kind to his entreaties. All he received from her in response was a cryptic invitation: “Blini and caviar at 8.”

Uncertainty swirled around his head like the sudden whorl of autumn leaves that seemed to hover like an omen alongside his Maybach for a brief moment as the vehicle turned south on the George Floyd — formerly the Gowanus — towards Brighton Beach. Jake wondered what it would be like to decompose over time like fallen leaves, but nothing, he knew, was left to decompose on its own in Greater New York City. Not buildings, not legacies and certainly not members of the Diversity Council. Graceful decay, to the extent it still existed as a cultural force, had been driven underground years earlier, or consigned to quiet exhibits on Fifth Avenue’s Museum Mile for Ones like himself to appreciate at arm’s length, preferably with very little effort and even less nostalgia.

Still, even the bad options he pondered at that moment were better than none. He could simply turn around and return home. But returning home carried its own risks: his tenure on the Diversity Council as a white Jewish heterosexual man had always been tenuous at best, especially over the past decade without Maria at his side. He no longer trusted his ability to navigate the constant treachery or find comfort in the predictable company of fellow thieves and scoundrels. The Council was like the mafia: no one just retired. Of course, he could alert the Hate Crime Authority in the next few minutes and play hero of the revolution for the next news cycle or two. Either way he would keep his career and life intact, at least for a while longer. He would keep his position and his power and his wealth and his prestige. But he would likely lose Maria forever, and he didn’t know if he could bear the loss a second time.

Nine minutes to go. He imagined himself for a moment as a marionette, Maria pulling his strings from above with a maleficent smile. She had sown the seeds of unrest in him over the past several weeks like a master puppeteer, suggesting at one point that the duplicitous demands of the Diversity Council had poisoned his heart and mind over the years and slowly, almost imperceptibly, replaced his capacity for wonderment with unrelenting suspicion. Now at the eleventh hour, he couldn't dismiss the possibility that she had played him all along, that she had set him up. For what he didn’t know, but the specter of betrayal had gnawed at his heart since she first mentioned the little messiah girl, reinforced by the fact that he had never been able to confirm her existence, not even with his small army of PIs. Not even when he asked her directly one evening...

She was wrapped in a towel on the edge of her bed, brushing her hair when he approached her from behind in the candlelight, put an arm around her and kissed her shoulder softly. She nuzzled her cheek against his arm in response. “I’m curious,” he said, “Why did you tell me about the young faith healer the other night after dinner?”

Maria stilled the antique bone brush, a gift from her mother, and felt her blood run cold. “After you found me and turned me over to the Council for re-orientation,” she began, “I felt I could never trust another soul, never confide in anyone else ever again. And for a long time I didn’t. It took me ten years to trust you again.”

“But you know who I am and what I represent,” he told her. “You designed everything we became together.”

She turned to look deep into his eyes. In them she saw only the faintest glimmer, like a dying rescue beacon far out to sea -- all that remained of his soul, she surmised, after years of self-inflicted abuse and neglect on the Council. “Yes,” she said. “But that was twenty years ago, and now I have to confide in someone.” She shrugged, turned away and resumed brushing her hair. “People need to confide,” she said, tilting her head back slowly to expose the soft warmth of her throat. He kissed her there as she knew he would, and her silent prayers sought refuge in her moans. “I need to trust in something,” she confessed finally. “I need to trust in more than us.”

 Would she betray him now as he had betrayed her more than a decade earlier? Ten or eleven years was a long time to wait for revenge, but hardly beyond the reach of a master tactician and strategist like Maria. More likely, or so he hoped, her professed sympathies for the little messiah girl were genuine; more likely, the cigar was just a cigar. He found himself going nowhere fast with his thoughts, and it occurred to him, almost as a postscript, that perhaps he was just too old and too tired to keep up with the ruthless Borgias-esque intrigue of the Council. Perhaps he was finally ready to jettison duplicity once and for all like a dead body at sea. He was sick of the taste.

Eight minutes. Was the poison of treason already coursing through his veins? Was what remained of his soul irretrievably consigned now to a little girl messiah, an unconfirmed rumor? Was it already too late to turn his back on the chrysalis of hope exhumed by his obsession with her, an obsession encouraged by a beautiful woman with a justifiable grudge? And of what possible use was a chrysalis of hope if he never gave the butterfly inside the chance to emerge and fly free, if even for the briefest of moments?

He longed suddenly for family and friends he had forsaken years before, and cursed himself for ever thinking that power and wealth and career might ever suffice as surrogates for what could never be measured or counted. It occurred to him that he would have prayed for his future with Maria were it not for the fact that he had never learned how.

Seven minutes. His heart ached for her. “Show me Maria,” he said aloud, and his favorite 3D video of her appeared like an apparition on the screen in front of him. Perfectly framed by the black piano lacquer dashboard of the Maybach and a short black cocktail dress, she held the string of shimmering pearls he had given her that evening up to her lips and giggled behind them like a schoolgirl, oblivious of the trials soon to befall her. Twelve years ago and her eyes sparkled like fire agates, deep brown and flecked with sentinels of amber and green.

Six minutes out and his mind turned for a moment to his colleagues on the Diversity Council. His relationships with them were largely reciprocal: he despised them and they, in turn, despised him with equal enthusiasm. What if the young messiah girl turned out to be a hoax as part of an elaborate plan to bring him down? He smiled as he considered the irony: death by incompetence. Treason, naiveté or ineptitude, it hardly mattered in the end.

Five minutes to go. “Fuck ‘em all,” he thought.


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