“And in three ways [demons] are like humans: They eat and drink like humans; they are fruitful and multiply like humans; and they die like humans.”
—Chagigah 16A, Talmud Bavli
Babysitting in the void of midsummer, I brought the kids to the water’s edge. They crouched in the tall grasses and pawed at the compact earth with plastic shovels, determined to dig a hole, not making much progress.
They yanked at the grass, scattering insects, clutching handfuls of decapitated growth as they wobbled back to equilibrium. And still the ground did not yield to their shovels.
So they reached in with chubby fingers, and learned of rhizomes, of networked spread, of holding on. They followed the lines and broke the bonds until the roots loosened and the ground crumbled out of cohesion, the opening slow-going as the banks of the lake are mostly clay.
I scooped their discards and slopped together a small form of limbs and bowels, gave them grass hair and sand teeth. One of the kids took notice. I thought it would be a good teaching moment for these kids of a rabbi: “Do you know the Talmud is full of demons?”
“What!” The middle child, incredulous at this blasphemy.
“I mean, there’s lots of stories ABOUT demons.” Growing bored, the oldest grabbed my clay figure. “He’s a demon! They claimed and gendered my creation, “HE WILL RULE OVER THE HOLE AND THE WATER WILL POUR INTO HIS MOUTH.” What I wanted to teach them was that the lines between demons and humans are fertile and muddied like the riparian zone where water meets land. In a rabbinic text comparing humans and demons, the rabbis refer to humans as “b’nei adam,” or the sons of Adam. Adam literally means “earth,” referencing the biblical text where G!d forms the first human out of clay. At the time that text was recorded, clay bowls were commonly used as demon traps, buried in doorways to prevent demons from infiltrating human homes and human bodies, where they would wreak havoc on digestion, desire, and reproduction.
Sunburnt and ravenous, my charges bickered about whether to fill the hole with lake, until the smallest one pointed, “look, it’s coming up from the bottom.” We all peered in and the water was bubbling up.
“PUT HIM IN,” the eldest commanded, and they put the clay guy in the water at the bottom of the hole.
After I took them home and fed them dinner and put them to bed and small-talked their parents into continuing to trust me, I led myself back to the water. As the light dissolved and my limbs announced their soreness, I imagined how the clay man was melting back into earth. The water seeped into his tiny rhizomatic veins, filling the holes in him with wet. The walls of his organs collapsed as roots pushed through. The grasses re-wove their dominion over earth. The cicadas screamed. I decided I had found the place, now a muddy puddle. I brought no offering, so I lay down in the grass and sang with my lips to the dirt:
g!d’s sticky fingers all over this world
(who made the people out of clay, who made the people out of clay)
but I’m no g!d and you’re no lover
(who made me melt, and let me go)
the children sleep and the demons crow
the whole world open as they reap what we sowed
(the whole world wanting as they grasp what we know)
MIRIAM SAPERSTEIN is a writer, arts educator, and ritual crafter. They work with decomposition and Jewish ritual histories, unpacking the specifics of their relationships to place, ecology and divinity as a white settler living in Lenapehoking / West Philadelphia and originally from the suburbs of Detroit / Waawiiyaatanong. A 2023 Sachs Program for Arts Innovation grantee, Miriam has received fellowships and awards through Michigan in the World, New Voices / Jewish Currents, the Hopwoods Program at the University of Michigan and the Tompkins Poetry Prize at Wayne State University. Their work has appeared in The Index, Jewish Currents, Pollux Journal, and the Radical Jewish Calendar.