Originally published on 13 Stories ‘Til Halloween.
Each memory flickered by like an old, spinning zoetrope. These rare moments, these crushing memory-laden moments, paralyzed and utterly defeated him in every way. He lay fetal, suffering each terrible image as it bathed his mind in its ghastly fluorescent light. Time could not be measured within the moment, but soon after, the clock would speak in terms of hours. The dazed recovery would be slow, but Marten Köhler would return to the world around him, mop the cold sweat, and return to his self-imposed imprisonment. Again and again.
Exile and atonement were the price paid for the deepest cuts in Marten’s soul. His life had been filled with pedestrian sin, but he could never forget or forgive the dark history that swallowed his life. He could see it in the eyes of each passerby and hear it in the voice of a random caller. They knew and he knew that they knew. Too afraid to pay the final price, Marten banished himself from his own life and hid away in this dark place. Mirrors told stories, so he removed them. Pictures took him to evil places, so he burned their faces. Save for those delivering wares, he had no face-to-face contact with the world around him.
Seldom could Marten piece together an entire day without collapsing under his burden. When he did, he sought small communion amongst the other shadows. Digging in the forgotten places within the ether, he would occasionally stumble upon something that shone a dim light in his heart. A digital face, memory, or surrogate memory could often keep him afloat. As he looked around his cluttered office, his gaze fell upon his prized possessions: his art. Years past, fear and self-loathing led him to discover a hidden friend among those digital shadow-people.
His friend was called “Shem.” At least, that was the person’s username. They had met almost two years ago and were certainly of like mind. “F(I)listine,” as Marten called himself, and Shem, fast friends navigating the horrors of the Web’s Abyss together. Shem played the role of veteran sailor to Marten’s novice seaman. Since meeting Shem, Marten had seen countless wonders and just as many tragedies. Months past, Shem had introduced Marten to a strange bazaar in an equally strange corner of that darkest Web. Among its wonders, Marten discovered an unusual collection of three-dimensional models. Most were famous personalities, but some seemed to be simple and average people. He fancied their old-fashioned garb, imagining it to be from the 1920s or 30s. The amazing detail of each model spoke to him in a profound way, as if he knew the subject and they had just spoken with him about plans for the day. Once Marten had gotten to ‘know’ one of the digital models, he would save the file and return to it obsessively, as if haunted by the face it contained. Content to admire these immaterial things, he carried on as usual, until Shem’s casual banter shook his world.
“Plenty of people print these.”
“What do you mean? Like a photo?”
“LOL. 3D printer?”
Marten’s isolation had kept this technology out of sight and its discovery was like the sun rising. He realized that his new friends and family could take form. Something he could touch! With Shem’s assistance, he made the necessary purchases and began to teach himself how to create.
Time passed, Marten’s family grew, and he began to take comfort in the collective stare from his shelf. He created names and identities for all, had debates and grand arguments, he lived. Throughout it all, Shem was there as a source of encouragement and continued support.
In the late days, Marten found peace and had begun to forgive himself for sins committed by himself and others. The terrible hauntings and spells of grief became fewer and farther between. He saw the outline of a new life in his mind. By doing what he had been, the outline would become more distinct and real. Was it happiness? Marten felt like it was.
Upon waking to a new, vibrant day, Marten checked F(I)listine’s inbox and found a message from Shem.
“You’ve GOT to get this one!”
Within the message was a link to a familiar download website. Marten was led to a folder simply titled, “Josef.” Excitement built as he downloaded and viewed the model. So strange! It didn’t look like a person, but some unusual statue. Minutes later, he had prepped the files to print. Four arm sections, four leg sections, a torso, and a head shouldn’t take more than an evening for the scale he had in mind.
The hours passed and Marten spent his time cleaning the prints and chemically smoothing the surfaces. He was very good at this and started planning how he would paint the entire model. Laying aside a small file, he took up his carving knife to remove an especially troubling burr. Once satisfied, he sat the knife aside and leaned into the preparatory work.
Torso completed, arms completed, then the legs, and finally the head, he leaned backward admiring his handiwork. The ping of a personal message brought him back to reality. Dragging his gaze away from Josef, he read the message.
“Are you finished?”
“I am! So amazing!”
“Can you read the writing on his head?”
“One sec. Can only make out m-a-u-t-h. What’s that mean?”
“Supposed to say “anmauth.” Clean it out with the tip of your knife.”
“One sec… alright, I did it. I can see it now.”
“Look VERY closely at the word and tell me what you see.”
Marten leaned in and scrutinized “anmauth” on Josef’s forehead. As he sought some imperfection, he barely noticed the dim green glow illuminating the irregular sockets of the model. Faster than he could blink, he felt the flesh of his cheek and throat alight with blazing agony. Jerking back in his chair, he watched the dark arterial blood spray everything his work area, keyboard, and half of his monitor. A tinge of blackness edged his vision, but he could see well enough to watch Josef, standing only eight inches tall, sit up and stand. He held the carving knife like a great sword. Behind Josef’s diminutive frame, a new message displayed on a bloodless portion of the screen.
“Marten Köhler, by now you have met Yossele. Most recently, we called him Josef of Prague. Golem. He is the avenger, the sword of justice, and the defender of my people. You don’t have much time, but I want you to know two things… 1) when you printed Yossele, you gave his Shem physical form, thus making its power real, 2) you are the son of Köhler, who is son of Ilse Koch, The Beast of Buchenwald. During the Beast’s reign of terror, she butchered my grandmother and grandfather. They were murdered on March 10, 1943, a date which might seem familiar, MAR-TEN. You are the last of your line and justice has been dealt.”
The blackness became complete for Marten and he died there in his chair. Josef measured his work and turned toward the figures on the shelf. The golem stared for long hours. As the light began to fade from Josef’s eyes, he spoke,
“You are free, ghosts of Buchenwald.”
Josef collapsed into glistening pieces.
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