Sabrina Orah Mark’s monthly column, Happily, focuses on fairy tales and raising boys.
My son’s first grade teacher pulls me aside to tell me she’s concerned about Noah and the Ghost People.
“Yes,” she says. She is cheerful, though I suspect the main ingredient of her cheer is dread. Something she probably picked up from childhood.
“Can you encourage Noah to stop bringing them to school?” She is whispering, and she is smiling. She is a close talker, and occasionally calls me “girl” which embarrasses me.
“I don’t know these Ghost People.”
“I don’t think so.”
“He makes them out of the woodchips he finds on the playground. They’re distracting him. He isn’t finishing his sentences.”
“Okay,” I say.
“Ghost People,” I say. She smiles wide. One of her front teeth looks more alive than it should be.
As a toddler, Noah always had a superhero in one hand and a superhero in the other.
Like the world was a tightrope and the men were his balance beam. Now he makes his own men. Out of pipe cleaners and twigs and paper and Q-Tips and string and Band Aids, but mostly woodchips. I eavesdrop. With Noah there, the Ghost People seem to speak a mix of cloud and wind. They are rowdy and kind. They comfort him. If Adam looked like anything in the beginning, I suspect it would be these woodchips, the color of dry earth. He, too, would be speaking in a language from a place that doesn’t quite exist.
But now Noah is in the second grade. And as he gets older, I am certain the world will make it even more difficult for him to carry these People around.
“For godssake,” says my mother, “let him carry the freaking Ghost People around. Who is he hurting?”
“Maybe himself?” I say.
“Why himself?” she asks, “How himself?”
“They’re distracting him.”
“From what?” asks my mother.
“From his sentences,” I explain.
“Who the hell cares,” says my mother.
In Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio, the first thing Pinocchio does once his mouth is carved is laugh at Geppetto. And the first thing he does once his hands are finished is snatch Geppetto’s yellow wig off his head. And the first thing he does once his feet are done is kick Geppetto in the nose, leaving him to feel “more wretched and miserable than he felt in all his life.” If what he is making hurts him, why does Geppetto keep carving? Maybe it’s because before he even began carving he knew he would call his wooden son Pinocchio. Maybe because Geppetto understands that sometimes the things we create to protect us, to give us good fortune, need first to thin us into a vulnerability where the only thing that can save us are those things that almost erased us. Where the only thing that can bring us back to ourselves is what brought us to the edge of our being in the first place. Or maybe it’s just that Geppetto is lonely.
“What did you do today at school?” “Nothing,” says Noah. When I empty his lunch bag I find three Ghost People inside.
In the world of fairy tales, Geppetto is the mother of all mothers. After jail, beatings, poverty, hunger, and crying, all brought on by his spoiled, lying, wooden boy, he still—heartsick—looks for his boy everywhere. They finally unite in the belly of a shark. Pinocchio walks and walks toward a “glow” until he reaches Geppetto lit by the flame of his last candlestick, sitting at a small dining table eating live minnows. He is now little and old and so white he “might have been made of snow or whipped cream.” Promising to never leave him again, Pinocchio (only a meter tall) swims out of the shark’s mouth, toward the moonlight and the starry sky, with Geppetto on his back. If an old man and a wooden boy ever shared a single birth, it would probably look something like this.
Eli, my five year old, doesn’t make Ghost People, but his pockets are always filled with sticks and leaves. If I were to keep everything my boys have ever found and brought home, I could easily have enough for a whole tree. Maybe even a small forest. When the shooting happened at Tree of Life, all I could think about at first was the name of the synagogue. All I could think about was the Tree. I shut the news off fast. “What happened to the Tree of Life?” asks Noah. “Nothing,” I say. “I think a branch fell,” I say.
I haven’t yet read my boys Pinocchio, the story of a boy carved from a tree, and I don’t tell them about the shooting at Tree of Life, either. I get an email from our synagogue: “Join Us for Coffee and an Informal Discussion About How We Can Help Our Children Cope With Frightening Situations As Well As Anti-Semitism.” I go to the meeting. I say I’ve told my boys nothing. Some congregants say I’m keeping my sons in a “bubble.” One maps out the Active Shooter Plan she’s drawn up with the help of her five- and eight-year olds. Another congregant, feeling protective of me, interrupts with the word “cocoon.” “Cocoon is more like it,” she explains. What she means, I think, is that bubble implies a lack of air. Whereas cocoon implies transformation. “Her boys might not be ready,” says another congregant. Who is ready? I wonder. At forty-three I’m not ready. Ready to know we can be burst into smithereens at any moment? Ready to be hated since forever? An Israeli congregant explains he keeps nothing from his children. He uses the word “inoculation.” Like if you inject little pieces of horror into your children they won’t shatter when the horror comes. I get his point. I shove a piece of cake into my mouth. I shove a piece of cake into my mouth because I can’t shove the entire room into my mouth. Because I can’t shove all the windows, and chairs, and all the parents, and all their fears, and all their children, too. I don’t know how to save anybody.
When I pick Noah up from Sunday school, later that morning, an enormous paper hamsa dangles around his neck by a soft strand of red yarn. The hamsa is brightly colored, and beautiful, and heartbreaking. “It’s for protection,” says Noah. I watch the other Jewish children spill from the classroom wearing paper hands on their chests, too. “It’s the paper hand of God,” says Noah. He swings the yarn around so now the hamsa is against his back. He is so small, suddenly. He is wearing rain boots, but I don’t remember it raining that day.
“My child,” I want to say at the meeting at the synagogue, “carries Ghost People around so we’ll be fine.” I want to say, “I haven’t even read my sons Pinocchio yet.” I want to say, “How many minutes of all our children’s childhoods are left?” Instead, I say, “My children ask me if their black father was ever a slave. They ask me if Trump will ever turn them into slaves. They asked me if I would ever be turned into a slave for being their mother. As black, Jewish boys my children will never be in a bubble. But if there was a bubble big enough, I’d move there in a second.” Everyone gets very quiet. “Tell me where the bubble is. Where’s the bubble?”
I opt out of the next meeting, an improv workshop on “dealing with Christmas, violence, anti-Semitism, shootings, the armed guard now at our synagogue, and more.”
In the late sixteenth century in Prague, when the waves of hatred rose against the Jews again, a story started brewing about a Rabbi Loew who made a golem out of prayers and clay, a golem whose job it was to guard the Jews from harm. There are two versions of how the rabbi brought the golem to life: the first is that Rabbi Loew inserted the shem, a parchment with God’s name, into the golem’s mouth; the second is that he inscribed the word emet or truth on the golem’s forehead. Unlike Pinocchio, the golem doesn’t speak. Unlike Pinocchio, the golem doesn’t lie. But he can hear and he can understand.
In a painting by Leonora Carrington entitled “The Bath of Rabbi Loew,” Rabbi Loew is in his bathtub dreaming up the golem. The rabbi glows white, not unlike Geppetto in the belly of the shark. In the doorway, carrying a water jug, is most likely the golem in a nightgown. A figure wearing a hat shaped like a gigantic teardrop or a black light bulb stands behind the rabbi holding a towel. Surrounding the bath are what look like the letters of an unknown alphabet or the footprints of Noah’s Ghost People. It’s hard to tell.
When the slander about the Jews using the blood of Christian babies in their rituals begins to quiet, the rabbi decides the golem is no longer needed. In one story, the name of God is removed from the golem’s mouth and he dies. But in another stranger and more beautiful story, a little girl rubs the aleph off his forehead, and turns amet to met: truth into death. Because in Hebrew the only thing standing between truth and death is an aleph. In the Sefer Yetzirah, the oldest and most mysterious of all the kabbalistic texts, the aleph is represented by silence, and its “value designation” is “mother.” I wonder what would’ve happened had Geppetto given Pinocchio an aleph. A small one. Carved onto the bridge of his nose. Because, ultimately, isn’t silence and truth what Pinocchio is always missing?
Originally, Pinocchio was only fifteen chapters long. And in the last chapter, Pinocchio is hanged. It was only at the behest of a pleading editor that Collodi saved the boy. At the end of the expanded Pinocchio, the old wooden puppet sits on a chair with its arms dangling, its head bent, and the real boy Pinocchio barely regards it. He does not go to the puppet. Or fix its head. Or knock on its wood for good luck. He doesn’t even have the kindness to speak to it. “How funny I was,” he says, “when I was a puppet … and how happy I am now that I am a proper little boy.”
Noah has begun making paper clothes for his Ghost People. It’s winter, after all. I watch him cut out a tiny scarf and realize that I’ve never taught him to pray. I’ve taught him the prayers over the wine and the challah and the candles, but I’ve never taught him to pray. Or maybe praying isn’t taught. Or this is praying. Or praying is keeping the Ghost People warm. The mouthless, earless Ghost People. Faith in Hebrew is emunah. It appears in the Bible as “to hold steady,” but also as eman which means “a nursing father.” “This one,” says Noah, “has a fever.” I feel the Ghost Person’s head. “Is it a fever?” he asks. “It is,” I say. He makes for it a paper bed. With a paper blanket. And a crumpled pillow, too. When there is a shooting, and then there is another shooting, and another shooting, all the politicians’ “thoughts and prayers” are with the families of the victims. “We don’t want your thoughts and prayers,” we say. We say this, of course, because it’s the thoughts and prayers of men and women we suspect have (like Pinocchio) an aleph missing. We say this because after each shooting it’s already too late. The bubble has popped and the Ghost People are already being buried.
My favorite illustration of Pinocchio is by Edward Carey, because in it Pinocchio’s nose is a branch. The forking branch is the aleph. Right in the middle of his face, the branch is the silence and the mother. It is Pinocchio’s roots. Carey’s depiction of Pinocchio brings him closer to the golem than he’s ever been. Also, the branch looks exactly like the branch I lied to my sons about. Like the branch that never fell from the Tree of Life. “What happened to the Tree of Life?” asks Noah. “I think a branch fell.”
I look at my favorite of Noah’s Ghost People and think about Rilke. “It remained silent,” he writes in his heart-stopping essay On the Wax Dolls of Lotte, “not because it felt superior, but silent because this was its established form of evasion and because it was made of useless and absolutely unresponsive material. It was silent, and the idea did not even occur to it that this silence must confer considerable importance on it in a world where destiny and indeed God himself have become famous mainly by not speaking to us.” I kiss the Ghost Person on the head. “What’s your name?” I ask. Silence. “It’s okay,” I say. “I think I know.” More silence.
I don’t know how to protect my sons. I wear their names around my neck on a thin gold chain. Sometimes I lie to them. Sometimes I say nothing. Sometimes I have to tell them that people do terrible things. Every day I send them out into the world. And they come home with rocks and twigs and woodchips and acorns and dead bugs in their pockets. It’s been getting colder and colder here. And the news grows grimmer. If I could, would I have a golem sit in the corner of my kitchen, follow my boys to school, accompany us to synagogue, and stand at the door? I look around my house. Maybe the golem is already here. “Hello, hello?” More silence. Maybe my house is the golem. And my neighbor’s house, too. And the synagogue is the golem and the school is the golem. Maybe all the buildings in our town are the golem. Or maybe the town is the golem. Or the country, or maybe the whole earth is the golem. Here we are. Inside the golem. Knock, knock. Who’s there? It’s us. Us who? I wish I could finish this joke, but I can’t. The Ghost People are distracting me from finishing my sentences. Thank God.
Sabrina Orah Mark is the author of the poetry collections The Babies and Tsim Tsum. Wild Milk, her first book of fiction, is recently out from Dorothy, a publishing project. She lives, writes, and teaches in Athens, Georgia.