When Yossele awoke for the first time since his death, it was with difficulty, in fits and starts, to find himself in a dust-filled attic with a creature he knew was more beautiful than any he had seen, and more beautiful than he himself could ever hope to be.
He knew this, although he could not tell why, for Yossele had little grasp of beauty. His eyes were not eyes of flesh that could see things as they looked; his were eyes of clay that could see things only as they were.
The creature he saw then was in a shape like that of a human but was not a human, Yossele knew. She was not shaped like Yossele, whose form also approximated humanity but was too large and far too wide and clumsy, in torso and limb and finger, for he had been formed for a purpose that did not require precision of form, by a creator whose talents did not lie in sculpture. This creature, rather, was like some project of painstaking geometric precision – like a statue designed from every conceivable angle to look perhaps not exactly like a human but rather like a human might wish a human could look. Yossele’s stony eyes, which saw the truth of things regardless of light and therefore regardless of the attic’s darkness, took in the milk-white of the creature’s face and arms, unheard of in humans, and the thin lines of gold at her joints and points of flexibility, as if her skin was an intricate construction of ivory plates. The gold showed through also in the network of cracks across the left side of the creature’s face, around the point where her soft and delicate features had been marred, a pit at the centre of the golden cobweb revealing alternating layers of gold and ivory beneath the surface from which some small chunk had been lost.
She wore a traveller’s cloak, heavy enough to wrap herself in as if for concealment, and held a flickering lantern in her left hand, for her own eyes, clearly, had not been created to ignore light and shadow in favour of consistency. The slender, detailed fingers of the right hand held a long bronze nail, from the point of which dripped fresh-chiselled claydust to the attic’s dusty floor.
Yossele shifted the books and scrolls which had been piled around and over him, as the clay trunks of his arms pushed his rough form from prone to seated. Had he been made with a means of speech, he would have asked for an explanation. But it seemed his current companion had intuited this, for she began to speak herself – foreign-accented, inexpert Hebrew, in a voice like a clear-rung bell.
“My name is Galatea,” she said. “I am like you.”
And the spirit of truth which ran through Yossele’s body like veins buzzed through his clay, and he knew she was speaking honestly.
Galatea had spent many centuries alone by the time she even heard a name for her kind. There was no word in Greek, and she had not been created to learn other languages well, for she had not been created to learn at all. But she had time, and a lot of it, for she had also not been created to age, nor to die, nor to require food or breath or company. Indeed, she had not been created to be a person of her own; only to be a fulfilment of another’s desires. Even freed from the shackles that held her to those desires, she had no needs to disrupt her study.
In Hebrew, they had a word – Golem. It meant a person unfinished – a person half-made, their raw material not fully sculpted into full mortality.
The creation of full mortals was the work of gods and gods alone – but sometimes, it seemed, a mortal genius could be so fully devoted to the pursuit of some divinely-embodied principal that it ignited in them a godly spark – a tiny fragment of access to a god’s domain. And through worldly effort and spiritual devotion, they could breathe some of that divine animating principle into a vessel they had prepared to embody it, and get close enough to the divine act of creation to make something close enough to a mortal.
So far as Galatea’s inexpert searches could uncover, there had never been any artist but her own unlovely creator so committed to the pursuit of beauty that they could breathe some wisp of Aphrodite’s living power into that which they sculpted. But, she discovered after lifetimes of search, there were other gods, with other devotees, in other countries, whose animating qualities had given rise to other mortal demiurges and other living creations, and one at least of those may yet remain, undestroyed, in a sealed-up attic in a city they called Prague.
It took Yossele some time to come to terms with leaving Prague.
It was the only world he had ever known, and the world for which he had been created, to serve and protect its Jewish people in a time of hatred and lies.
Galatea had never had such a problem, for she had been created to serve only one man, and that man had rejected her himself before his death and shut her out of his life, unable in the end to love as a living person what he had fallen for as a straightforward object. She had left Cyprus easily after that, and had not returned even after she learned that her creator was long-since dead.
“When I found you,” said Galatea, in her native Greek which Yossele had learned to understand with stunning efficiency, “you had the word for Death carved into your head, to ensure you would not rise again, and you lay hidden in an old man’s attic until some undefined day when you might be useful again to the people of this community. As soon as they no longer found you useful the first time, they killed you. They did not see you as one of them. They saw you as an object they could use. They are not your people, and you owe them nothing.”
Yossele’s great clumsy fists tightened around the air, and his clay trembled, but he knew, for he could always tell, that her words were truth.
He took copies of the holy Scriptures with him when they left, and would study them daily, but they did leave, and it would be a long time before they set foot in Prague again.
Yossele collected theological manuscripts and works of science and philosophy from everywhere they found themselves, and studied them all with the same drive that he studied the Scriptures of his own people with, until he could rewrite them from memory and analyse and critique them as he did so. Those that he had memorised he would leave behind when they moved on, and those that he was still learning they would take with them.
Galatea kept only one book with her, at all times – a sign language guide, so that Yossele could speak to her without need to write out his often-complex thoughts. She was a very slow learner, but Yossele had the patience of a stone.
She did read, and also wrote, innumerable books of poetry during the times when Yossele studied, and she sought out local art and architecture wherever they went, and crafted works of paint and fabric – although never of sculpture – to fill and decorate themselves and the spaces in which they lived, but she always sold on almost everything she made or found whenever they moved on. Beauty, she said, trended towards the fleeting just as much as truth trended towards the eternal.
There was only one personal item that she never left behind or sold on, and kept with her everywhere, as she had done for most of her centuries-long life, in a pocket or on a chain or pinned through her white-and-gold hair, or else safely left in a box or drawer or loose on a desk in whatever space she used as a studio. It was the long bronze nail that Yossele had seen in her hand when first they met, with which she had scratched the name of Truth back into his head and allowed him to sputter back to life.
Truth was Yossele’s animating force. It had brought him to life, and it drove his inclinations in the absence of a master to order him around. It was inevitable that, eventually, he asked to know the importance of the nail.
“I had another friend, once,” Galatea answered, rolling the nail in her fingers and watching the sunlight play across the metal, shifting it by instinct through all the most striking angles. “Long before I met you, there was another man like us. Another Golem.”
Yossele, who had only a rough suggestion of features and had so far refused Galatea’s offer to paint him some better ones, could well have been an expressionless sculpture as he stood and listened, with no inclination to interrupt.
“His name was Talos,” Galatea told him. “He was a giant, made of bronze. A protector, like you. They said the queen of his island made him with the power of Hephaestus, the god of fire and artifice. For a very long time, I thought he was the only other person like me there had ever been. Humans killed him, before I’d even known him for very long. He never questioned his instruction to protect the island at any cost to himself, and he died for it. The bits of him that weren’t lost beneath the sea were melted down to be recycled. Except this.”
She held up the nail between two slender, dextrous ivory fingers. “The humans who killed him kept this. For generations. As a trophy.”
Yossele nodded his understanding, and did not ask more.
The creations of Galatea were usually abstract, frequently grotesque, often alien in their appearance. They were always beautiful, however, Yossele knew, although he could not judge their beauty himself. Galatea was driven to beauty as powerfully as Yossele himself was driven to truth. Her creator had displayed beauty across her face to breathe Aphrodite’s life into her, just as the Maharal of Prague had more literally displayed Truth across Yossele’s to breathe YHWH’s life into him. But it was clear, to Yossele if not perhaps to anyone with less divine insight, that Galatea worked hard to define a beauty of her own design in all her works, removed from the aesthetic conventions by which her own body had once been formed by a human.
In general, Galatea did not like to look at herself. She was, and could only be, a reminder of her creator’s idea of beauty.
Often, since leaving Cyprus, she had dreamed of taking a chisel to herself. Making herself something clearly different from her creator’s vision. For a long, long time, she had studied the art of sculpture. In all the fields of fine art, her slow learning was offset by her natural gift for beauty. In time, she had become skilled enough to confidently re-sculpt herself, making subtle changes to gradually shift her appearance to something other than her creator’s ideal. It had proven futile. Either her creator’s gift was too great, or her own eyes were too inclined to see his work under her own. Even when it helped a little, for a while, his vision still shone through, no matter what she did or how much of her ivory she shaved off.
Eventually, after centuries of frustration, she had placed Talos’s nail against the side of her face and struck it with a hammer.
It made a difference, and in a way it helped to know that her current face was, she was sure, one that her creator would at least have found, if probably not ugly, flawed. But, ultimately, she found, she still saw her creator’s vision in the mirror, even under the cracks.
And it was not lost on her that the chisel could only make her smaller. She lacked the materials, tools and knowledge to add more whole layers of ivory. Every adjustment she made took her a little bit further away from her creator’s epitome of beauty, but it also diminished her in a way she could not recover.
Eventually she had decided that she would not be diminished for the sake of a man like Pygmalion.
She told Yossele all of this, and asked that he remind her of it any time in the future when she became tempted to make a new attempt at resculpting her own features.
In the time they had lived together since, he had only once had to gently take the nail of Talos out of her trembling, angry hands with his own misshapen, patient fingers.
After a while, he had asked her to teach him to sculpt, and after some thought she had agreed. Yossele had no strong feelings about his form, which even his creator had only intended for practicality, and was large enough that he felt he could afford to lose at least some of it, if it allowed him greater ease of movement, or – perhaps this was a little of Galatea rubbing off on him – just a greater sense of personal identity, now that he was more committed to thinking for himself.
If he got good enough, they discussed more than once, he could perhaps one day be confident enough to design for himself a mouth.
Yossele and Galatea only fell out once, for a period, after they had travelled together for over a century, when word reached them, living secluded away from civilisation on another part of the globe at the time, of events back in their shared home continent of Europe.
It was already the 1940s, by the time they found out. A fascist movement had risen, as movements of tyranny and hatred always did, sooner or later, where humans were asked to live with other humans. An army of antisemites had marched on Czechoslovakia.
They had taken Prague.
The Jewish people of Prague had needed a protector, and Yossele had not been there.
Galatea had been able to track him down after he stormed out. It had been difficult at first – back to searching and scraping for hearsay of any sightings of an artificial man wielding superhuman power, a task which had taken centuries to bear fruit the first time. Yossele was also on the move this time, and he was larger and faster than Galatea could hope to be.
On the other hand, however, this time Yossele was far more active, more frequently generating hearsay. Once she knew for sure where he had been, she needed only to follow the trail of murdered Nazis.
When finally she caught up with him again, she found him once more in an attic, once more in a synagogue, although it was not the same one. He did not turn to look at her when he stood up, although of course he could already tell who was there.
“Yossele,” she said, eventually. “I’m sorry.” And when he neither turned around nor tried to leave, she continued, “I talked you into abandoning the world that mistreated us. If I hadn’t, you would have stayed. And without you in it, maybe the world got worse.”
Finally, Yossele turned, so that he could speak to her with his hands. “I don’t know if that’s the truth,” he said, and it might have been the first time he had ever said that, so far as Galatea knew. “That it’s worse. It is different. It’s… louder. But it’s full of the same lies. The same libels and hatred that it always had, just given new form.”
Galatea said nothing. Yossele’s hands held thoughtfully still for a few moments, and then he spoke again.
“I have killed,” he said.
“So have I,” said Galatea, who had done many things over her long life.
“The violence has driven me to anger, and I have killed. The last time that happened…”
“The people you were protecting killed you,” finished Galatea.
“It was part of a deal to stop the violence,” said Yossele.
“A deal they made without you,” said Galatea.
Yossele was motionless for a long time, and then he said, “I know why you abandoned this world. And I joined you because I agreed with you. Because nothing you said was not true.”
“But the consequences were ugly,” said Galatea, who knew ugliness deeply, because it was the thing that beauty existed to distract from. “Without me, you maybe could have saved them.”
“Not all of them,” said Yossele. “Not this time. I was made to fight the lies of a mob armed with stones and blades. Not an army armed with guns and bombs. I am a match for a mob, but I am not a match for fascism.”
They stood in still silence for a while, like the sculptures neither of them were any more.
“Not in a fight,” said Galatea. “And not on your own. But this isn’t just a fight, and you aren’t on your own.”
She held out a hand. “I’ve seen generations of liars and tyrants a lot like the ones your people are fighting now. They are rarely kind to women, either. People like me and you can’t always defend ourselves. Maybe we have to defend each other.”
Their life was never quite the same after their reconciliation, but it was not entirely different either. They still travelled, never staying in one place for very long, never putting down roots. In her spare time, Galatea still painted and crafted – although once or twice she even sculpted without using it to teach Yossele, just to prove to herself that she could. Yossele still read, and pondered, when he had the time, and every Sabbath was a day he dedicated to 24 hours of uninterrupted personal study.
But also, now, they worked on a new project together. Everywhere in the world, there were lies that needed exposed, and truths that needed told. They called to Yossele, until he found them, and knew them. But truth couldn’t always overcome lies on its own – to overcome, it needed to be told more frequently, or more convincingly, or more memorably. It needed to be made beautiful, so that everyone would stop to see it, and share it around. Yossele could not speak beautifully, for he was no judge of beauty. But Galatea was made to be beautiful in all things, and no matter how ugly the truth Yossele needed her to tell, she could fill it with gold and set it in ivory until it shone. Sometimes, even with Yossele’s help, it could take a while to translate the beauty of her words into the languages it needed. But they had patience.
And whenever they finally left, the truth lingered, grown more beautiful in the telling, a little brighter and a little stronger than before.