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The Greatest City in the World

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(1911)

The Jinni stepped out into the new railway station and looked around with pleasure. It had still been under construction when he'd left for Chicago six months ago; now it was not only complete but operational and bustling. Metal latticework arched high above him, thousands of glass panes letting in the light. Like a Jinni's palace, expansive and sparkling. It was a fitting temple to the marvelous method of transportation that was the American railway.

She was there, as he had hoped, next to one of the huge pediments supporting the granite columns of the main waiting room; not leaning against it, but simply standing there. When she saw that he'd seen her, she smiled, and he quickened his steps.

He would have liked to throw his arms around her, but the joy in her brown eyes was enough. "Welcome home," she said, and tucked her hand into the crook of his arm. "Tell me about Chicago."

He laughed. "Well, it's a city. A big city."

"As big as New York?"

"Not even close. But big. And between here and there is so much land!"

"Like your country?" she asked. He'd told her of the desert, of the jagged peaks and rock outcrops. He smiled, and shook his head.

"Not at all. Fields and farms, little towns with white-painted houses and church steeples covered in tin. Long stretches of nothing but trees. America is so green!"

"It sounds lovely. Like Central Park." Her voice was wistful. He remembered her awe and delight the first time he'd taken her there; the peace she found in the midnight silence, the joy she took in running across the Mall.

"Like a thousand Central Parks. But no, it's – it's wilder, at least between the towns. No fountains, no sheep. Only the train track, stretching out against the horizon." The Jinni fell silent, remembering the train he'd taken from Beirut to Damascus. Through towns and oases, different trees shading the tracks, but still, there were trees. He'd had to take a camel to the edge of the desert to get to where the hand of man was no longer visible. Impulsively he stopped, turned to the Golem. "You should travel, too. We should travel somewhere together. This country is so big, and there must be so much to see in it."

"So much to see without having to cross water," she said, with a half smile.

"A pity that we cannot take the train to Europe. I would love to show you the desert. But I've had enough of crossing the ocean for a while."

"Would it be better for you to ride on a train under the ocean than to ride on a boat above it?"

He grimaced. "No, you're right. Under would be worse." He hadn't thought about that, all the weight of water, unseen, above his head. "Well, there are many places we can go from here without crossing oceans. You haven't been to Boston yet. Or Washington, the capital. And I would love to show you Chicago. It's going to be a city to rival this one, one of these days."

They started walking again, side by side. "I don't want to travel. I like New York. I like it here."

"I'm amazed you don't get bored. All you do is work. You don't have to work, Chava."

"I am a golem," she said simply. "Work is what I do."

"You are more than that."

"I know. Maybe someday I'll feel that I want to join you on your travels." She squeezed his arm. "But for now, just having you with me again is all I need."


(1939)

The Golem turned her head from side to side, trying to take it all in. It was as though a whole city had been built in this place, a white city with strangely-shaped buildings that looked nothing like the tenement streets she was accustomed to. A spire pierced the sky next to a smooth round globe. Fountains sparkled in the sunshine, and colorful flags waved above them. They walked through one building amid the sounds of a dozen crackling radios, past a humming machine slowly printing a newspaper, past a screen showing a monochrome moving image of the two of them walking by.

The Jinni consulted the guidebook and led them along the paths until they were in front of the Lagoon of Nations. "Palaces upon palaces," said the Jinni. "Which country would you like to visit first?"

The Golem shook her head. So many people! So many thoughts and desires swirling around the fairgrounds. She looked around in wonder. "I don't know! I don't know anything about – about anywhere!"

They stepped into Belgium, into France, into Hungary. They peered at the Magna Carta and the replica of the Crown Jewels in the British pavilion, and they marveled at the enormous waterfall that formed the facade of the Italian pavilion.

The Golem stepped close to it, close enough to feel the light spray misting her face. Perhaps this was what Italy was like, enormous mountains with rivers rushing from their peaks, streams of tumbling water searching for the sea. If she ever felt moved to travel, it wouldn't be to Italy, then; the Jinni would hate a place like that.

"Is there one for Syria, do you know?" she asked impulsively.

He looked through the guidebook. "No, but we can go to Lebanon. Rich in olive, fig, and mulberry trees, it says here. The cradle of the history of western civilization. Which I suppose is true, though in those days there was no Syria and no Lebanon. It was all just the land. Oases and cities, and the shifting desert."

"Men need to draw lines, I think." She gestured with her hand. "On this side is good, and on this side is bad. This side is where you may live, and on this side you may not."

"It hardly makes sense, you're right. But the lines get drawn, and suddenly two neighbors are on opposite sides."

They were walking between the buildings that formed the Hall of Nations toward the Lebanon pavilion when a building caught her eye. She tugged at the Jinni's arm. "Ahmad, I want to look at this one." He followed her, unresisting; she felt a hint of amused pleasure from him, a delight in seeing her interest.

It was a tall white facade with a metal bas-relief sculpture over the wide doorway, three men with long hair and robes holding various tools. "Nice copper work," said the Jinni approvingly.

"It's the words underneath that I noticed," she said. They were in the Hebrew alphabet, but they weren't in Yiddish, like the signs in the Jewish neighborhood where she still felt the most at home. "Eretz Yisrael."

It turned out to be the Jewish Palestine pavilion, dedicated to the creation of a modern country for Jewish people in their ancient lands. She thought about that as they walked out of the building after touring the exhibits inside. She felt no special tie to the Prussian clay that had formed her. Her homeland was here, in the Jewish community in New York where the Rabbi had taken her in and taught her how to be a person. Even though she had finally decided that the Rabbi's stories about God were only educational fictions, she still thought of herself as Jewish. But the idea of leaving this place and going to this Jewish Palestine, this Eretz Yisrael, was completely unappealing. It seemed odd to her that the Jews here would want to do such a thing.

She supposed they were less like her and more like the Jinni. Some part of him would always yearn for the glass palace he had constructed in his desert, in the place that didn't exist any more because men had drawn lines and made countries out of nothing, the place that he'd memorialized in a beautiful tin ceiling. The place where he'd buried the bottle that had been his prison – no, she didn't like to think about that. Thinking about it brought into focus that sharp angry spark of her master calling to her, that strange sense of loss and dislocation that she had mostly managed to forget over the intervening years.

"I hope they get their home," she murmured. Then she looked up at the facade of the Lebanon pavilion in front of them. "And I hope seeing olive and fig trees doesn't make you feel bad about the loss of yours."

"Chava," he said warmly, taking her hand. "Wherever you are, that is my home."


(1958)

The view through the car window was an ever-changing parade of fields and towns. Entranced, the Golem pressed her face to the glass. "It's like I'm sitting on a bench, and the world is going by. I could watch it all day."

"You can watch it for another few hours," said the Jinni. "Then you need to take over at the wheel."

"Well, I'll still get to look at the view ahead. And I don't mind, I like driving."

They had both gotten driver's licenses a few years ago, when it became clear that the American lifestyle had embraced the automobile with permanent enthusiasm, but of course driving wasn't necessary in the city, so they hadn't had much opportunity. Then Chava had decided that she'd like to see the country, and they'd bought this Chevrolet Bel Air.

"Now you're going to say that you wish you'd come exploring the world with me years ago."

"No, I don't. But I'm glad I'm doing it now."

"Why now, then?"

She thought for a moment. "At first, I had to learn the Rabbi's neighborhood. I was newly-made – I didn't know anything at all, really. And then I had to learn how to be human. And then..." She remembered Anna telling her she should try to be happy, which had turned out to be both easier and more complicated than it had sounded at first. "Then I had to find my place in New York. First on my own, and then with you, and then by myself again, all the times you went traveling."

"You could have come with me."

"No, I didn't mind that you went off to different places. You had wanderlust, and I didn't. There was still so much to learn in New York – well, I suppose there always will be. But I always knew that one day I'd want to make my world bigger."

Now that it was happening, she found herself embracing it. They toured Chicago, which Ahmad had first visited nearly fifty years before, and then drove the famous Route 66. The Golem did not care for the wide, flat landscapes of Kansas and Oklahoma, where the children of other tourists stared at them when they stopped to put fuel in the tank, their thoughts careless and cruel. New Mexico was more interesting, and the people looked more like Ahmad, with deeply tanned skin and dark hair. The layered pinks and oranges of the Grand Canyon made her heart soar. They drove through the desert at night, since they had no need to sleep; sometimes they pulled over to the side of the road and looked at the stars.

In Santa Monica, they parked near the beach and looked out at the ocean. "It doesn't bother you?" she said.

"Not as long as it stays over there where it belongs. Actually, there's something compelling about watching the waves crashing on the beach." He trailed off, looking thoughtful. As always, his mind was shadowed to her, his fears and desires obscured by his nature. But they'd been together for years. Of course she could tell what he was thinking.

It was warm here, and palm trees lined the streets. No doubt it reminded him of his lost home. She linked her arm with his. "I suppose we could stay here for a while."


Over the years, they continued to travel. Sometimes they'd settle in a place for a decade or more; they lived in Salt Lake City for a while, and in Tucson, Arizona, and in Alicante, Spain. The Jinni would make and sell jewelry, or find work as a welder, and the Golem cleaned houses, or assembled electronics, or worked as a bus driver. But the people around them aged, and they did not, so eventually, always, they moved on.


(2001)

The Jinni came out of his workshop one morning to find the Golem sitting transfixed in front of the television. "I thought you were working this morning?"

"Look." Her voice was raw.

On the television, over and over, an airplane slammed itself into a tall building.

"We need to go back," she said. "We need to go home."


(2016)

Jess looked at her watch. She still had another fifteen minutes on her lunch break, enough time to explore another street, window-shop in another store. There were always new corners of the neighborhood around the office to discover. New York was so big and exciting compared to Galesville.

She walked by a jewelry shop, and looked at the window display. Necklaces and earrings made from silver, intricately-twisted spirals and swirls. G and J Jewelers, said the sign above the door. Impulsively she pushed it open and stepped inside.

A tall woman who looked to be only a little older than Jess looked up from the counter. "Good afternoon. May I help you?"

"Just looking." She wandered from one display case to another. "These are really nice." They looked more like something you'd find in a magical forest than in a jewelry store, silver twigs and golden birds. One pair of earrings caught her eye, abstract silver cages each holding a polished piece of green stone, like raindrops caught in tree branches. Beautiful. Fifty dollars was more than she could afford, though.

"Thank you. My husband makes them."

"I've never seen anything like these before. How long have you guys been here?"

The woman laughed. "We only opened this shop three years ago, but we've been in New York for – well, a long time."

"Natives, huh?" Maybe one day Jess would feel like a native. She'd moved here over a year ago but she still felt like a newbie, gawking at the skyscrapers and getting lost on the subway. But she'd always wanted to live in New York. She was going to make it her home.

"Not quite. I'm originally from Germany, and my husband's from Syria."

"Wow, you've hardly got any accent."

She smiled. "Thank you."

"Do you suppose I could look at those?" Jess pointed at a pair of earrings in the case with the silver cages. Tiny twists of silver, only twenty bucks. She could afford those.

"Certainly." The woman went over to the case and unlocked it, reaching in. Then she paused. "Oh, I haven't changed the prices on these yet."

Jess's heart fell. Maybe she couldn't afford those. The woman must have seen it on her face, because she shook her head. "No, what I mean is, everything in this case is on sale. The little ones are fifteen now. But with your long neck, you really should wear drops, I think. These would look so pretty with your curly hair." She reached into the case and pulled out the ones with the green stones in their swirling silver branches, glancing at the price tag with a look of disapproval. "These should be twenty-five."

Twenty-five, that wasn't bad. She took out the hoops she had in and put the new ones on while the woman rang her up. She looked in the small mirror. Wow. How lucky for her that they happened to be on sale!

Jess walked back to her office, smiling. There was a real ugly vibe these days, people down on immigrants. Probably hard on the couple who owned that store. What did that woman say, Germany and Syria? Well, they were real assets to this country. She hoped they would do well.


The Golem watched the girl as she disappeared around the corner. Over a hundred years had gone by since she'd hesitantly taken her first turn at the register in Radzin's Bakery, trying to give the customers what they wanted, even if they didn't ask for it. People, it seemed, were still the same. New York was a different place now, but it was still New York.

She wondered what it would be like in another hundred years. She looked forward to finding out.