Gods and Monsters — Valerie Jahns

According to Talmudic legend, Adam was a golem for the first twelve hours of existence, a body without a soul. Genesis, chapter two of the original 500 BC Hebrew version provides more detail: “And Yahweh, Elohim (Shining One), fashioned Adam of the clay of the soil: and He blew in his nostrils the breath of life, and Adam turned into a living soul.” The original breath creation theory came from a 3100 BC Heliopolis Egyptian myth. And before that, breath creation was not recorded, only shared in song, passing from elder to descendant.

***

My Adam died last night. I felt bad about that. He smelled and tasted of sage-like pine. Unusual for this area. A delicacy. Almost made me homesick.

 Oh, that Adam. Rather a character. I remember his exact words on the day we met: “We provide oxygen and associated items. Requests are made over the phone and tracked with QS1. Phone work is of primary importance.” Adam liked the word “primary” and could be stuffy. So precise. So endearing. Phone work was why I was here, and as I sat at my desk with my gaze on the phone, I still felt close to Adam.

And I had thought that he might lead to my redemption.

I picked up the phone and drew in a deep breath, then set it down.

I met my Adam during my first minute, on my first day at this customer service temp job. My place of employment was at the end of a dead-end road in an industrial park in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. I’d entered the cinder-block, one-story building through rear loading docks. Adam waited in a doorway; over his shoulder was the cinder-block frame partitioned by white walls. Within those initial sixty seconds, Adam handed me legal pad and pen to take notes. Our fingers didn’t even brush, but I caught a first divine whiff.

“Ma-nu?” he had said.

“Ma-noo,” I clarified, and swallowed. His breath made my tongue tingle. His scent lingered and I coughed to clear my throat.

“Need water?” he asked when I coughed and swallowed again.

“Please,” I had said. And please and please and please, I did not say. I never said that.

It wasn’t my fault that he died, really. My tender ministrations perhaps brought him to the edge, but I blame the vulgar golems for using him beyond capacity. They are brutish with no personal boundaries. Even Bastet said so. Although to arrange Adam’s demise as it happened indicated a surprising subtlety. Troubling. I drummed my fingernails on the desk.

My current Taken were ever so much more elegant than those animals, those golems. The sweetest ones were Dave Krinek, the supervisor, and his son Adam, the main CSR who did the aforementioned primary phone work. Oh, goodness. I guess I’m starting to like the word “primary,” too. The other people on the crew were Kevin Koloski, the service tech who always smelled of crude oil, and the five delivery techs, Carey, Aaron, Steve, Bill, and Rich.

Adam had been fine last week. Imagine my surprise when he collapsed so easily. Not that I witnessed it, mind you. The collapse, that is. But Bastet told me all about it, so that’s almost the same as being there myself. I had been sipping, delicately, at his soul, his life force, his mana, his psychic vigor, his ka, his prana, his chi, his qi, his juju— choose any one of the thousands of names for our life energies and its essence will remain the same.

Of course, Adam was my favorite and we had spent a lot of time one-on-one. Was I losing my touch? Impossible. The golems had sucked him dry and they were to blame, not me. They had little control—they were nothing but vacuums. In order to sustain their pitiful lives, they inhaled life energy instead of air. They couldn’t give life or share life, only consume it. If the golems hadn’t stopped when they did, Adam’s flesh would have continued its deterioration to clay and finally into dust. They had no finesse.

I took a deep breath and shook my head to rid myself of the idea. It wasn’t my fault.

Today, Monday, July 11, was very much like every other day since I began four weeks ago. Except it was not, of course, since Adam was dead. But I liked working here. The work was easy, and the phone calls were teasy. Oh, I get giddy just thinking of them. I imagine a fraction of life force, of soul, each time a person calls in. Physical proximity is required for my feeding, but the sound of breath, even conducted over electronics or airwaves, is a fine teaser, even with no substance. I imagine it’s similar to this object or activity called porn that Kevin referred to, the purpose of which is to keep the mind focused and the anticipation high, or so I was led to believe. When I asked Adam for the definition of porn, he was never very clear, never precise. Most unlike him. Adam, like all the people in the Midwest, is helpful, friendly, and polite. I took a breath. Not is. Was.

“Hey, Manu,” called Carey from the doorway. “I can hear you sighing all the way from the other room. Time for a break.” Carey took his own audible sigh. “We all need a break right now.”

“Saved from my sad self,” I called over my shoulder. I turned on the answering machine and went with Carey to find my spot in the break room slash cafeteria. My heart clenched and I stopped short. That was our joke. Adam and I called it the “break room slash cafeteria.” I shook my head again and straightened my spine. “Chin up,” I whispered to Carey as we stepped into the room. He and I shared a trembling smile. “You first,” Carey murmured, gesturing me ahead. Said room contained two pleather couches on either end with vending machines along one wall but none of those were my target. As usual, my Taken preferred the one round Formica table and I made my way.

“Hello, boys,” I said as I took a seat and looked about. “I’m a lucky girl to be sitting with such a handsome bunch.” The words caught in my throat. I was acutely aware of the empty seat and couldn’t keep my eyes from his vacant spot. When I tore my gaze away, I became acutely aware of everyone’s eyes trained on me. Unexpected grief snaked from my belly to mouth. No one spoke. With a clenched jaw, I said what had to be said in order to move forward. “Sure is strange, though, to be here without Adam.”

“Adam was murdered,” Kevin said, elbows on the table, and spat out the rest like bullets from a machine gun. “He was walking up the stairs to fix a bedtime snack for his dad and said he didn’t feel well, went back to sit down and passed out, so his dad called 911 and he went to the emergency room where he argued with the doctor about feeling fine and that nothing was wrong with him.” He took a breath and continued. “Then he died. That’s what his dad told me.”

Oh, dear. Now it was a matter of my survival. “Then he wasn’t murdered,” I said.

“He choked on clay.”

Not an easy observation to refute. Too close to truth. Time for misdirection and a cure. Sometimes stating the truth directly made it appear impossible.

Sitting as straight as possible, I said in a monotone voice: “Clay to clay. Not ashes to ashes, dust to dust, then. We arise from clay and return to clay. Clay to clay.”

Kevin snorted.

“Really? Very funny, Kevin,” I continued sternly and repeated, “Very funny, Kevin. You expect us to swallow that?”

Carey, Aaron, Steve, Bill, and Rich dropped their jaws but guffawed at the pun. Kevin’s face tightened.

I needed to throw them all off balance. Control, control. Bring them to rein. A little push and recalibrating to keep them malleable and keep them from truth. Their innate sympathy and Midwestern courtesy needed a push.

“Seriously,” I said, “the man is dead. Show a little respect.”

The guys, even Kevin, all sobered.

Success.

None of them realized that I’d been sipping regularly from all of them. Kevin was the exception. I hadn’t gotten around to enthralling him on a regular basis. There was something about his smell that didn’t appeal. I’d never developed much of a taste for crude oil. I couldn’t play favorites much longer, though. And that was probably why I had to work just a bit harder to control Kevin. No time like the present.

My right hand went to the leather cord hanging from my neck and slid down to the long rectangular pendant just above my subtle breasts, beneath my blouse, a slight deviation from the required red polo shirt and tan khakis. I’d found that a smile and a hair toss followed by a head tilt allowed for many deviations of policy. Goats, I thought without context. I released that notion and tossed my hair as the pendant warmed and spread heat throughout my body. With my other hand, I reached across the table to touch the back of Kevin’s hand. Touch was required to initiate the Taking of the resistant. A faint glow emanated from my hand and spread to Kevin’s.

“Kevin. It’s okay. We are all are going to miss him. Breathe deeply. You’ll feel better.”

He resisted only a moment. Within the span of three seconds, his eyelids drooped, and mouth softened as though lost in thought. I liked that. I never wanted to cause pain. I’d grown fond of my Taken. One soft touch and a few deep inhalations, and I absorbed what I needed to live, not like those primitive golems that sucked them dry. Sometimes people would pant or hyperventilate, which worked just as well for my purposes, but I liked to see them softened and happy. Like Kevin was. I’m not a monster. 

Ordinarily, I didn’t partake in front of an audience, but my bond with the rest—Carey, Aaron, Steve, Bill, and Rich—served to put us all in a Taken state. Yes, I, too, was Taken during the act. The bond of creation, of life and death, titillated our senses. The experience for me, and them, was sublime. Sadly, I had learned from experience that if I went beyond the few deep inhalations, the Taken would suffer. At least that was the case when there was only one in my proximity. With six, I knew I could savor the moment longer.

“Breathe in, breathe out,” I whispered to my collection, taking us all further into ecstasy. Fingers of delight penetrated my nervous system. For a moment, I wondered about the safety of my people, then gave myself to the energy. As I breathed out, I activated their life force. As I breathed in, I pulled vitality that was so tangible, so substantial, it was like sipping a frothy, fragrant, delectable drink.

With every breath, the tingles on my left hand skipped up to my shoulder to join balls of heat that rolled from the crown of my head to the bottoms of my feet and back again. The energy snagged on a few closed doors but the rushing life force washed around the blockages like water over pebbles. As I focused on individual sensations, smell fused with taste and memory.

I’d moved to the land of a thousand lakes, the lush land of Wisconsin, over a hundred years ago, fleeing my previous home after failing the ritual of the flames. I was old, I knew that, but my memory became dim when I tried to reach back beyond a few centuries. Always, the smells pulled me to this area or that. The edges of this small town had smelled earthy, like forest after rain with undertones of bergamot and lavender during the summer. Most of its people carried that base scent with some complexities of animal milk. Some people smelled of carefully crafted cheese: floral with a scent of jasmine, or fresh clean morning air; sometimes apple or peach or melon. Except for oily Kevin. This collection was working; this was a good place.

And if I didn’t want to use up these Taken right now, today, I had to stop. And that could be tricky, especially when I’d gone beyond a few breathes.

In the best of circumstances, to break off contact abruptly was unpleasant, unseemly and uncivilized. Today, I had to take extra care. As I said, I’m not a monster.

First, to break the flow of energy, I released the pendant and placed my right palm flat on the table. We all shifted in our seats and took a deep regular breath.

It was best to talk them through the transition to waking life.

“Keeping your eyes closed, wiggle your fingers and toes,” I said softly while demonstrating the action. Kevin gasped as my fingers tapped a rhythm across his hand.

“Slowly open your eyes. Stretch your arms and legs. Stretch your core,” I continued, removing my hand from Kevin’s while stretching my own body. Kevin moaned and frowned as he focused on me while the rest simply smiled as they stretched and looked about with sleep sodden expressions.

“Well, that was a refreshing break,” I said cheerily, rising from my chair. The others—Carey, Aaron, Steve, Bill, and Rich—nodded and rose to join me. Kevin remained seated, frowning as he looked me up and down.

“Back to work!” Carey said.

“But not for Adam,” Kevin muttered while finally rising.

“But not for Adam,” I echoed.

And maybe not for Kevin for long, either, I thought. Adam I would have never intentionally harmed. Not intentionally. Kevin, on the other hand, might not earn as much consideration.  But I hadn’t created a true golem for many, many years. It was forbidden. Even then, it was an accident. It wasn’t my fault and I had to get that thought out of my head. For now, I’d like to know who had sent those golems. Very disrespectful. Still, Bastet knew what happened. She would do what was needed. Bastet had said I needed to focus on my own redemption and that had to be my primary goal. Ha. Primary. Mostly, though, I was thirsty.

We all exited the break room, separated, and wandered back to our respective posts. I detoured to take a long drink from the hallway bubbler, then put a spring in my step and a smile on my face. I felt marvelous! And now it was time to get back to the ringing phone to imagine the smell of all those delish creatures. What a great job!

“Hello! Having a great day at St. Francis Health. This is Manu. How may I help you?”

***
Valerie Jahns has taught English composition and related topics as an adjunct in the University Wisconsin System for the past two decades. Some years ago, she had a few poems and fiction published in literary magazines, and flash fiction “4th Dimension Cat” published in The Sliver Web: A Magazine of the Surreal. When she’s not teaching or writing, she practices yoga, rides horseback, and works on her 100-year-old character home. For many years, she had a dog (Dusty) and two cats (Skye and Cole). Her remaining companion is the 15-pound big guy, Cole, a long-haired black kitty with golden eyes. He’s pleased to finally be number one.