‘Feet of Clay’ wins first Amy Levy Prize

Feet of Clay, by Beatrice Baltuck Garrard (pictured above), has won the first ever Amy Levy Prize – a new award given to a writer under the age of 30, addressing a Jewish theme. Tum Balalaika by Michelle Samuels has received the second prize and Garden Hose by Talya Zax was commended.

A distinguished panel of judges was headed by Naomi Alderman, winner of the Orange Prize for New Writing. The panel included novelist and journalist, Adam LeBor; literary critic and chair of Jewish Quarterly Advisory Board, David Herman; academic, Nadia Valman; and Rabbi Baroness Julia Neuberger DBE.

The Amy Levy Prize is a new award for young, unpublished writers sponsored by Jewish Quarterly and JW3. The award is designed to create a platform for writing by Jewish authors or about Jewish communities, life and culture. With a cut-off age of 30, it is the first international Jewish writing prize specifically aimed at making a difference in the early career of young writers. The winner receives a cash prize of £1,000, one week’s writers’ residency, and one year’s mentoring by Naomi Alderman.

About Feet of Clay, Alderman said, “It weaves the legend of the golem with the destruction of Prague during the Second World War. We were particularly impressed with Beatrice Baltuck Garrard’s brilliantly evocative language and the strange otherworldly narrative voice of the golem to whom the world entire is new and unimagined. Garrard’s 12-year-old female Kabbalah scholar is a brilliantly original character of whom we’d love to see more.”

Beatrice Baltuck Garrard is an undergraduate student of history and Yiddish literature at Stanford University. She was raised on Jewish folklore and Russian fairytales, along with a generous helping of Star Trek!

Below is Beatrice Baltuck Garrard’s winning short story Feet of Clay:

 
The first time I awoke, a child stood over me, her tightly clasped hands coated in river mud. She was skinny, with pallid skin and crooked black bangs. I thought I might look something like her, but when I raised my own hands, I saw the flesh was grainy and hard.

“I am your master,” said the child. “Rise.”

I rose. At full height, the top of my head barely reached her bony knees. An old woman was ripping bandages from a shirt in the room above. Here in the dim basement, however, the girl and I were alone. It was dank with mildew, crammed with listing stacks of books, their embossed leather spines peeling into shreds.

“I should’ve made you bigger.” She knelt. Her warm hands moved over my body, less like a mother, more like a midwife. “There wasn’t enough clay.”

Having examined each of my tiny fingers, the girl withdrew, leaving me cold. “I am twelve and a half years old,” she said. “That’s half a year younger than the Genius of Vilna when he tried to bring an earthen figure to life. Before he could finish, the Lord came to him in a dream. God told the Genius to stop, because he was too young for such magic, which even the greatest sages were too afraid to try.” She rose to her feet. “I am not too young, though. I feel very, very old.”

She raised a brow, awaiting a response. I had nothing to say.

“Very well. You don’t need to speak. You need only obey. Small though you are, you can see through walls, and you’re invisible to everyone but me. Wasn’t Goliath slain by a stone?”

I knew I could not fail her. Not because she was my master, but because she was my creator—beautiful, powerful, infinite. She was the first thing I had known and the only one I could love.

“The time has come,” she said. “Defend the Jews of Prague.”

The upstairs window was left ajar in August’s sweaty malaise. Late that night, I slipped out for the first time. The streets were empty, except for the patrols. Yet I could see the people of Prague beyond their walls. Parents argued in hushed voices. Women mended. Children slept.

A few blocks from my master’s house, a young man in a black uniform was pacing in an alley. He paused to glance at his watch, and I saw his face—the pitted cheeks dotted with moles, the eyebrows so pale as to be nearly invisible. He smoked a cigarette down to a smoldering stub and finally turned on his heel. I ran to keep pace. Now and then he glanced over his shoulder, sometimes straight at me.

At the entrance of a four-story Victorian, he slowed to fumble for his key. The elaborate white trim had seen better days, its plaster curlicues chipped off on the ends. I slipped between his feet as he stepped inside, and together we ascended the staircase. The owners of the flat were sleeping in a pile—a family of six, exiled to a single room.

The young man’s chamber was spacious and dark, with drawn linen curtains that caught a streetlamp’s muted shine. A picture of a smiling woman in white gloves stood in a frame on his desk. He folded his uniform neatly and lay down, on top of the covers, his sweat soaking into the cotton quilt. My hands were very small, but they could fit around his throat.

“May I kill?” I asked.

My master, who rarely slept, glanced up from her book at the sound of my voice.

“So you can speak,” the girl observed, with a glimmer of pride.

This was true, but not the answer to my question, so I asked it again.

“May I kill?”

She set down her book. “If you spill blood, it will be on my hands. Divine magic can’t be used for death. If it is, it’s taken away.”

“Then how can I fight your enemies?”

“I didn’t tell you to fight my enemies. I told you to defend the Jews.”

Her brow was furrowed in what could only have been disappointment.

“I am only one day old,” I muttered.

“Rabbi Loew’s golem did as it was told.”

“Then make another golem to help me.”

She glared. “You’re made of clay my landlady dug from the bank of the Vltava. It was hard enough to get her to do it, because she thought I was crazy for asking. Then when she finally did, she almost got arrested. For ‘acting suspicious,’ they said.”

“I’ll do it alone, then. But what shall I do?”

There was a silence. My master scanned the water-stained walls. “There’s no bread,” she said at last. “And where there’s no bread, there’s no justice. Any gentiles helping Jews are starving like the rest of us. If they’re forced to choose between feeding their family and hiding a Jew, they’ll pick their own children. So bring them bread. Buy us time.”

“Where can I find bread?”

For the first time, my master smiled. It was a haughty, crooked smile, with a gap where the last of her baby teeth had fallen out.

“I’ll show you,” she said.

My master had me turn and face the wall before she stripped to wash herself, using a shallow basin and a piece of rag. As I waited, I watched our next-door neighbor press her white nurse’s uniform with a glowing hot iron. She was draped in a tattered dressing gown that barely concealed her breasts.

“All right,” said my master. “You can look.”

I turned. She was back in her floral print dress, looking damp and fragile in the dimness. She took a seat on the edge of her cot and produced two things—a sack of dirt, and a venerable old tome. She thumbed to a well-worn page and extracted a handful of earth from the sack. Then she started to chant. As she intoned the spell, she rocked back and forth, swaying to the rhythm of the words.

After a few minutes, her fingers unfurled. Where a lump of soil had been, there was now a chunk of bread. It was dark and grainy and there was not very much of it, but it was nourishment. She watched me for signs of amazement, then shrugged.

“When I showed Paní Sukova, she thought I was her golden goose. Rations are scarce. Everyone’s hungry. Everyone but the Germans and their women, anyway.” She reached for a second sack and dropped in the new piece. “Then she realized it wasn’t very good bread. I lost a tooth when I tried to eat some without soaking it in water. That was all right for me, because the tooth was loose to begin with and another one is coming in. But Paní Sukova can’t afford to lose any teeth. Hers aren’t going to grow back.”

She tied the sack shut with a scrap of twine. “One day, she came down here. ‘Are there any spells for butter?’ That’s what she wanted to know. None in my book of enchantments. There’s a spell for tapping wine from the walls, but I didn’t tell her that. She drinks enough black market vodka as it is.”

I shook my head, feeling slow. “How can anyone make something from nothing?”

“I’m not making something from nothing. I’m making bread out of soil. Isn’t that how all bread is made?” She shrugged. “Flour comes from grain, and grain is sown in the earth. Both bread and people are made out of loam. You should know that. You’re clay.”

Asking my master about the world felt like fetching water with a sieve. “If bread can be made with a simple spell, why doesn’t everyone turn dirt into food?”

“‘Simple’?” She tossed me a contemptuous glance. “Each word must be pronounced without flaw, all while in the purest state of mind. It took me six and a half months to master it, studying day and night. And it’s not just skill. The divine guides my hand. You can’t bend God’s rules without permission.”

I knew enough to be astonished. “God gave you permission?”

There was a pause. My master perched on the edge of the bed, her face unreadable, her spine erect.

“He didn’t tell me not to,” she said at last.

From then on, I delivered bread to the Jews and their keepers. My master cast her spell at least a hundred times a day. She faltered around dawn, dozing for a few hours. Then she wiped the sleep from her eyes and started again.

I may be invisible, but the bag of bread was not, so my business was done at night. I spotted Jews through the walls. They crouched in attics or languished in basements, their eyes glazed with waiting, too tired and bored and hungry to be afraid. I set the package on their doorsteps and knocked, very softly, not at all like the police. I liked to be there when they opened the parcel, watching their eyes grow wide.

Soon I knew Prague—the domes and spires, the heaps of garbage, the river at its heart. I knew the officers’ clubs where gramophones played long past curfew, spilling Beethoven’s heroic thunder into the empty streets. There were the synagogues too, painted with crude slogans, their cobalt walls smeared with the blood of pigs. Once, wandering by daylight, I came upon a parade of children waving festive red flags. How astonished I was by their plump bellies and clean hands.

Sometimes my master asked about Outside. Trees and streets and trams were distant memories to her, things she believed in without having seen. Paní Sukova did her best to remind the master of them when she dragged the trap door aside and hobbled down the stairs. They had known each other for twelve and a half years now. Paní Sukova had been a landlady once, back when my master lived upstairs with her parents before the War.

“It’s almost autumn, little beetle,” rasped Paní Sukova. The steps creaked under her weight. She was a stout old woman with bad knees, her rank breath smelling of cheap liquor and raw onions at all hours of day and night. “Damn seasons, always changing. Don’t they know there’s a war on?”

The master rose to her feet when Paní Sukova appeared. She kept her eyes trained on the old woman, who shuffled over to the chamber pot wedged against the wall.

Paní Sukova inspected the contents. “You been getting enough to eat?”

The master said nothing, her ears flaming red.

Paní Sukova took the pot up in one arm and poked her head into the corner, where the master kept her meager store of food. “You didn’t even touch the pickles. If you can’t open the can, little beetle, I’ll show you how—”

“I know how to open a can.”

“Then why didn’t you eat them?”

“I wasn’t hungry,” said the master stiffly.

“Bread out of nothing, and she won’t even take a bite.” Paní Sukova clicked her tongue. “Half the world is starving, you know! I’m not your mother; I can’t tell you what to do. But that can had better be empty by next week.”

Wordlessly, my master thrust some bread into Paní Sukova’s meaty hands. The girl’s face was flushed scarlet, her lips pursed. Paní Sukova studied the master. Then she tucked the bread into her apron with a curt nod and shambled up the stairs. The trap door scraped shut behind her with the finality of stone.

A few weeks must have passed before I saw the man with the pale eyebrows again. He was pacing the same alley as before, his hair slicked back against his temples, smoking a cigarette. Just when he seemed poised to depart, a familiar woman emerged, her glossy red hair tied up in a knot. Our next-door neighbor. Every morning she donned a clean white dress and took a tram to the hospital, tending the broken Germans shipped in from the front. He greeted her tersely. They started off in the direction of her house.

I followed them to our street and descended into our basement. My master was in the midst of an incantation, a lump of dirt clutched in one hand. As I waited for her to finish, my eyes strayed back to the soldier and the nurse. The man was shrugging off his coat. The red-haired woman fumbled with the buttons of her blouse.

My master fell silent. It took her a moment to notice me.

“What are you staring at?”

From her weary tone I knew she didn’t care about the answer. I said nothing, watching them out of the corner of one eye.

“It’s only two in the morning,” groaned the girl, “and my eyes already itch.”

“You could try sleeping.”

“There’s no time for that.” She sighed into her blanket. “I’m getting so old.”

“You’re twelve and a half,” I said.

“Exactly.” I glanced back, and she met my gaze with red-rimmed eyes. “My cycle could start any day now.”

“What’s a cycle?”

“When a woman bleeds every month.” The master flopped onto her stomach. “That’s when I’ll lose my powers. The spells only work because I’m still a girl.”

I stared at her, perplexed. “What does it matter if you bleed?”

That kind of blood—it’s unclean. I need to be pure to say the incantations.” She turned her head to stare at the far wall, with its pockmarked concrete. “Paní Sukova is always trying to feed me, but the truth is, I can’t eat. Not if I’m going to stave it off.”

On the other side of the wall, the man and the woman gripped each other, breathing hard.

“If a woman can’t use magic, then why can a girl?”

“I may be a girl,” said my master, sitting up, “but I’m also a scholar. I use my magic for life.” She glanced down at her hands, the fingertips smudged with ink. “Everybody says the rules change during wartime. Well, so do the rules of God.”

The stars still shone in the sky when Paní Sukova left for her shift at the munitions factory. I slipped out with her. Bleary-eyed and mumbling curses, she locked the front door and turned around, only to lay eyes on the soldier as he slunk from her neighbor’s house. Both halted mid-stride, their breath hanging like silk veils in the cold blue dawn. She stared at his fine blonde hair and rumpled black uniform. He stared at her baggy eyes and yellow teeth. Then Paní Sukova bowed her head, and the soldier hurried on.

As soon as he disappeared from sight, the old woman marched over and pounded on her neighbor’s door. A minute passed. She knocked again, and again. When the door finally flew open, the nurse stood before her, arms crossed. A ratty dressing gown was wrapped tight about her shoulders. Unflinchingly, she met Paní Sukova’s glare.

“Eating well lately, you filthy whore?” sneered the old woman.

The door slammed shut.

Paní Sukova glanced at the dark street behind her, but the only witness was me. “You were born here, you swine,” she hissed at the closed door. “You may have a German name, but you’re Czech. Starve with us, or fuck the Nazis in hell.”

By then I think I had discovered the resistance. They consulted in whispers and hid guns under the floorboards, smuggling forged visas in the soles of their ragged shoes. The sight of them must have stirred something in me. Soon I was prowling the warehouses for ammunition. I found bullets and rounds in the hundreds of thousands. Sniper rifles, too. Pistols, shotguns, flamethrowers. And the scrolls.

When I returned, I found my master pacing, a habit she had developed to keep up her strength. She circled the room with a jerky gait, her withered arms swinging at her sides. I waited in silence until she was done.

“I want to steal guns for the resistance,” I said.

She leaned against the concrete wall until her panting subsided. “No.”

“Why not?”

“The Germans are very good bookkeepers. If something goes missing, they’ll know it.”

“And?”

“And Prague will pay for it tenfold.”

I had seen enough of the enemy to know what she meant. She sank down into the cot, still breathless, and reached for her book of enchantments.

“I found something else,” I said, before she could begin the spell.

My master glanced up. I let the silence linger, keeping her attention for a moment like a jewel.

“Forty warehouses,” I told her. “Maybe more. Most are full of loot—plates, cups, candlesticks—but  a few are packed with Hebrew scrolls.”

She stiffened. I knew the reverence my master held for books, which had become both parents and children to her.

“You found the Ark.” Her voice dropped to a hoarse whisper. “Don’t you know?”

I shook my head.

“Plundered scrolls.” She set the book aside and rose trembling to her feet. “Forty warehouses of them… Don’t you see? The Torah of every town in Czechoslovakia must be sitting in those crates.”

Tears were welling up in her eyes, though not out of sorrow. When my master’s excitement was too great for her small body, it spilled out.

But I felt nothing. “I don’t understand.”

“How many scrolls were there?”

“Maybe ten thousand.”

“Then we can save ten thousand souls.” She looked at my blank face. “The Torah isn’t just vellum and ink. It’s a beating heart, identical to the Five Books handed down to Moses by God. When they stole the Torah from us, they took everything that mattered. You’re a Jew. Don’t you understand?”

Her gaze was fixed on me, and for the first time, I wished she would look somewhere else. “I’m not a Jew. I’m not even human.”

She faltered. Her eyes drifted to her books, as if poised to comb them for precedent. “That’s beside the point. If they desecrate those scrolls, they murder us all.”

“But Prague could pay for it tenfold. You said yourself—”

“Rescue them,” commanded the master, drawing herself up. The dark crescents beneath her eyes seemed to melt away. This was no sickly child. This was the creator, her words as clear and cold as ice.  

Between sunset and dusk, I came to the Ark, slipping in with two ragged boys. They were hauling in a crate under the eye of a watchful guard. Laden shelves stretched the length of the narrow chamber, attended by bookkeepers who kept their heads down while they worked. In the far corner, a gray-haired man of fifty bent over his clipboard, squinting in the dimming light. Perhaps it was his age that drew me. By then, most of the old Jews were dead.

I made my way to him, clambering over the boxes until I was close, close enough to see the gray film of a cataract advancing upon one eye.

“I’ve come for a Torah scroll,” I whispered.

The man gave a start. He glanced over both shoulders and, seeing nothing, removed his spectacles with shaking hands. He wiped the greasy lenses on the hem of his shirt and returned them to his nose.

“Just one scroll?” he whispered back.

“I’m a very small golem.”

Not only was the man’s hair gray, but his fingernails, his faded clothing, and his skin. The only hint of color was at his mouth. He snuck a look at the guard and wet his lips with a reddish tongue. “May I?”

His hand hovered before me. I reached up and touched the clammy skin to show him where I was. His fingertips traced the shape of my form, coming to rest on my forehead. There he found three Hebrew letters, where my master had carved the word emet into my flesh.

“You’re a bit small for a golem,” he said. “Pretty convincing, too. I don’t believe in God, though. Never have, never will.”

With that, he turned and shuffled off in the opposite direction.

As his receding back disappeared between the shelves, I stared after him, open-mouthed. For a moment I was at a loss. Still, I didn’t need a bookkeeper to find a scroll in place like this. The nearest box was nailed shut. I worked my fingers under the lid and gave a yank, peering through the crack. There was a row of embroidered mantles, their velvet balding at the edges.

“Don’t rummage,” hissed the gray-eyed man from behind.

I dropped the lid.

“You’re obviously a hallucination.” He glanced over his shoulder, waiting for a shift in the guard’s attention. Then he bent close, untucked his shirt, and slipped out a bundle. “But on the off-chance that you’re real, take this.”

It was only a little taller than I, an oblong shape wrapped up in cloth padding. “What is it?”

“The 373-year-old Torah of Rabbi Loew himself.”

“Rabbi Loew?”

“The Lion of Prague, first man to breathe life into a figure made of clay. He ordered this scroll made, and he read from it in his services. They say it revealed its secrets to him, too. He used to tell his disciples that the spells of life and death were hidden in each verse.” The man’s eyes drifted back over to the guard. He picked up his clipboard. “In other words—if Rabbi Loew was a sculptor, you’re holding the stone. Drop it, lose it, or sell it, and I’ll kill myself.”

“Wait.” I clutched to bundle to my chest. “I could come back tomorrow…”

“Don’t count on my being here.”

The guard had roused himself and was staring in our direction, dousing the spark that had stirred in the Jew’s eyes.

“‘The Museum of the Extinct Jewish Race,’” he mumbled, as if to himself. “That’s what they intend. I don’t expect to attend the grand opening.”

With that he returned to the catalogue of plunder, his gray eyes revealing no secrets at all.

A tram clattered past, ferrying the workers home just ahead of curfew. Dusk had fallen with a chill. Invisible though I was, the Torah scroll was not. I ran in bursts, sticking to the shadows, cradling the bundle in my arms.

I’ve had a great many years to reflect on that night. Now I see I should have waited and delivered it in darkness, the same as I did the bread. In the moment, however, I thought only of my master—how astounded she would be, how full of praise. Our house was right before me. I could see her through the walls, hunched in prayer. I glanced in both directions, then dashed across the street. As usual, Paní Sukova had left the window ajar. Before I dropped inside, I threw a glance over my shoulder. And there she was.

The redheaded woman was still clad in her pressed uniform, so white it seemed to glow in the blue margins of the night. She stood frozen and unblinking, halfway down the street, her eyes riveted to the bundle in my arms. And in those eyes I saw my master’s, reproachful and dark, as unattainable in their silence as the world beyond.

I offered my master the scroll, and she gave its cover a solemn kiss.

“You did well.”

“It belonged to Rabbi Loew,” I said. “It’s 373 years old.”

She had been about to take a breath, but it caught it her throat, and we were left in stunned silence. She glanced between the treasure and me, holding it in her fingertips. “I don’t have any beautiful cabinet,” she managed. “I can’t treat it with the proper respect.”

“Rules change during wartime,” I told her. “Even the rules of God.”

With that, my master gave me a smile, crooked and gap-toothed and brilliant as the sun.

I never forgot that. I wear the memory like a pearl necklace, taking it out now and then to roll between my hands. At the time, however, even her praise could not drown my fear. I wasn’t sure which was worse—the consequence of silence or the consequence of truth.

“I was seen,” I said, choosing truth.

The last remnants of her smile sank away. I had expected her to be angry, but she just looked at me, eyes glistening. “Who?”

“Our neighbor. The nurse with the red hair.”

At first the master neither blinked nor breathed. She cast about, seeming lost. I was surprised to see a child before me—hungry, tired, fraying at the seams.

“We need to warn Paní Sukova,” I said.

“Of course. I know. I will.” She drew in a shaky breath. “Find us a hiding place, at least for the night.”

“What about the scroll?”

“Leave that to me.” She raised her eyes to the dingy concrete ceiling, as if she were the one who could see through the walls. “I get to go outside.”

I found a new refuge, a place where other Jews hunched behind the walls. When I returned to our street to fetch her, it would not have taken my powers to see. The house was an empty husk. I crept in through the front door, hanging crooked on its hinges. Paní Sukova’s window panes crunched beneath my feet.

In the basement, the bread was gone. The books remained in trampled fragments, their elegant Hebrew script inscribed with boot prints. I ran my hands over the pages, groping for warmth, some secret word that would kindle into fire. But the paper was cold. I curled up in a corner and stayed there for a very long time.

The broken glass was swept away. One day the young man with the pale eyebrows arrived with a suitcase in hand. He stood a photograph of a smiling woman on his desk, though when the nurse with the red hair came to visit he put the picture in a drawer. It wasn’t out of hatred that I stayed there, watching him shave and drink coffee and make love. Without my master’s orders, I can watch. No more.

When the War ended, I summoned the will to crawl up onto the street. Tanks rolled out. Tanks rolled in. When the Soviets came, I wanted to ask if the Jews needed defending, but by that point I think I had forgotten how to speak. These days I wander the alleys and old bridges, watching buildings be torn down and then built up again. Someday, they will demolish my master’s house and find a scroll beneath the floorboards.

The letters on my forehead spell out emet, the Hebrew word for truth. My master carved them there, yet words cease to be words with no one there to read them. When I think of such things, I wonder how long I must wait before bread turns back into earth.

 

The Amy Levy Prize, which marks the 125th anniversary of the death of Amy Levy, honours the British novelist, who published her first novel, Reuben Sachs, in 1888, at the age of 27. The book was a funny and incisive satire on the Jewish community of Bayswater. Its publication marked Levy as a rising star of London’s literary scene. Oscar Wilde said that the novel’s “directness, its uncompromising truths, its depth of feeling, and above all, its absence of any single superfluous word, make it, in some sort, a classic.”

However, the reception amongst the Jewish community and in the Jewish press was far from celebratory. Because Levy had dared to write a clear-eyed portrayal of her community, she was vilified and called a self-hating Jew. Alienated and misunderstood, she died by her own hand less than a year after her first novel was published.

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