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I. Sparrows

000 |The Night Grows Pale, scene 03

The spiral staircase down to the discotheque is a grandiose marble shtik, lit softly by wall-sconces the shape of sea-shells and the colour of meringue. The steps are narrow and stacked steep as a cliffside, their mantle of red carpet held down by brass stair-clips what gleam like gold. A few years back, when I haunted the Peach faithfully — turning up right after Ma’ariv near every night, barring Erev Shabbos — I caught Mika down on his knees, polishing these clips with an old toothbrush, and—

Oy, the White Guard, back when they called themselves the Imperial Army, they conscripted yidn as young as twelve, and like, I only escaped because mine Uncle Velvel, he let me grow my hair out, and between that and the specs, the Tsar’s men left me alone — maybe thinking me the kind of girl they’d not recruit, and wanting not to bother with a binoclard either way.

Mika’s a little older than me, I think; and I know the side of his family what’s of the nations, they are likely of a nation what has felt the weight of exile, and nu, like—

Thou asks these things not, lest you hear the answer you suspect.

I take the stairs stepping sideways, one hand clutching the rail, the other my walking-stick. Thou cannot slip on carpet as if it were ice, but thou canst trip, and I’m wobbly still, afraid I’ll unfurl — I can’t help but recall: twenty-five years ago, under midsummer’s revenant light, under an evening sky much like tonight’s, I had my first silver’d turn. The weeks just before Shuvos echo with its memory, sing of a dream of self as more than a cage of flesh, and like. It puts a queen on edge, nu?

I grip the rail tighter, focus on how the brass warms under my palm, focus on the stab of each heel into the crimson pile of the carpet underfoot. I cannot afford to unfurl. Not now.

At the bottom of the stairwell is the door to the discotheque, a brutal steel slab, red paint peeling like a sunburn — sound-proof and elderly, and perchance grown unnecessary these past five years, since the gates of the Talons shut out the gendarmerie and the Okhrana. Our neighbours on Gogol Boulevard, they may harbour all manner of odd and distasteful notions about hot-house flowers and about our teplitzes, but feh, no one in the Talons finds us so objectionable as to sic the Tsar’s bulls on us. We’re obscene and loud and strange, and like, such things rate not next to the dull cruelty of the Tsar’s men, nor next to their capriciousness.

And yet … okh, caution dies hard and hot-house flowers die easy, so the discotheque’s three exits are all still barred by doors thick as well as ensorcelled; like, it’s best not to give the neighbours a chance to disappoint us, nu?

I lean my weight against the door. The metal tingles where my shoulder makes contact; its patina shimmers like a skin of mazut over rain-slick pavement; its cantrips bristle — there’s three, one to lock the door, one to muffle sound, one to avert the evil eye. Feh, were it up to me, I’d paint blue eyes on the thing for that last one, and not rely too much on goyishe thaumaturgy, but like, up to me it is not.

I close mine eyes, and concentrate: the door ought to remember me, but she may have questions, too; the red door in particular, she’s never been as chatty as her sisters, but I’ve been gone a long time, and she’s a kind one.

The moments slip by; the door does not have questions, but just at the edge of my perception, I can feel a warmth like a penny melting in sunlight. The discotheque’s red door missed me, and

thought me dead; she’s happy to have been wrong.

She swings out; pumping, scintillating music hits me like a gale-force wind.

I dive into the discotheque.

The door shuts behind me, silent as decay; mine eyes still adjusting, all I see is fog roiling close to the floor, and the darting specks of lights, crossed by the odd golden flash of a passing mazik, and the glow of starborn eyes in the darkness — amber and green and gold, and blue and violet. Something deep inside me lets go, as if a qlipeh has finally cracked and fallen; a smile rises to my lips, and hope flutters behind my ribs, a flock of sparrows settling down to sleep.

I skirt the dance-floor, heading for the side-corridor what leads to the — ahem — cloakrooms. At the end of the corridor — carpeted as lushly as the stairs — lurks a domed hallway. There, under a ceiling what bulges like a soup-bowl, I pause for a second.

See! There are two separate public lavatories here at the Peach, but nu, the signs disappeared long before the Gogol Minor Theatre became The Desert Peach teplitzeh, and none of us have ever been quite sure which one is which. I once caught Pasha Raskol’nikov backing out of one of the rooms, mortified and stammering, and it turned out he’d walked in on Eli Menelikova — the copper thorn cultivar what runs the discotheque bar — trying to salvage one of hir shirts after an unfortunate incident involving a bottle of crème de violette and Mika’s left elbow. Eli thought it was funny, and like eventually, Pasha did too.

Feh, Pasha’s always been skittish — two decades of etiquette and elocution lessons does things to a rose, even to a thorn.

While I gather my thoughts, no one emerges from either door, but a couple of violet petals flit through the corridor, steel-toed boots falling muffled on the carpet; they slip past me, and dart through the door on the left — thus cued, I take the right. Time to see how much damage the mimosa did to my lipstick.

The notionally-men’s room is empty, and it’s chilly in here and quiet: the walls have been worked over with muffling cantrips what silence external sound; they silence not the echo of my heels and walking-stick plinking against the granite floor; the grey stone, speckled like sparrows’ eggs and polished by the tread of countless soles, holds the merest shadow of my reflection, a faint silhouette in murky depths.

Placing my feet just so, tensing again from the possibility of losing my footing, I make my way to the elderly méridienne what lazes in the middle of the floor, perpendicular to the row of stalls what march along the far wall like tram-cars. There I sit down, and put my feet up on the oak foot-stool what stands guard beside it, and lean back, closing mine eyes.

A minute later, I realise I’m not tired at all, merely bored; and worse, after a brief reprieve upon entering the basement, I’m keyed up again, nerves strung tight like a fiddle, caught like puppet-strings upon the claws of the Eternal Now. I open mine eyes, and get up to take stock of my surroundings; oh, the lavatory’s not changed any in the past two years, but like, if I don’t find a distraction, I’ll start thinking about the future, and convince myself it holds only new memories and old disappointments.

Right behind the méridienne, a silk-and-wood partition screen bars my way, breaking the line of sight between the oval mirrors what hang above the copper sinks and the floor-to-ceiling mirrors what cover the opposite wall.

Those latter are ancient and foreboding, with edges blackened like singed lace, here and there splotched with greenish stains like festering blisters, elsewhere marred by white spots like the mould what flourishes on rotting citrus. Along the top edge, a row of sealing-sigils has been painted on with nail-varnish — a bare minimum needed to lock the glass, so no drunk or amorous hot-house flowers forget themselves, lean against the wall and fall through the glass into the Silver. Smaller mirrors are harder to breach, but like, these behemes, if left unsealed, they would be as open doorways.

I find a span of mirrored wall marked neither by time nor by creeping damp nor by the supernal realm what lies just beyond the glass, and look myself up and down.

My reflection gazes back mournfully, a dainty two-metre faggot in a translucent blouse and drainpipe jeans, narrow-shouldered and twiggy, a sallow, pallid, hollow-eyed yid with a mane of violently ginger hair what falls past the belt in loose waves.

I brush my grown-out fringe out of mine eyes, attention briefly catching on the ocelli upon my forehead — three silvery-lilac eye-spots, three bright stars, beauty-marks right out of Pushkin; a feature common to nefilim and shogges both — especially like, us what fit the lovek bauplan. Mine ocelli had grown dull in the Mamka, but now they’re perking up, flickering like hopeful little candles.

Or like, is that wistful thinking?

Oy vay iz mir.

I shake my head to buck off the thought, and lean forward to check my make-up, trailing a searching gaze over the steep angles and the narrow planes of my face. Heart-shaped spectacles — thick pink lenses in a thick bakelite frame — half-hide deep-set eyes, lavender like autumn rain, neurotic and bright even in the glare of quicksilver-and-phosphor lamps. A long hook of a nose curves down to a knife-sharp tip snared by a septum ring; two matching silver spikes sit as snakebites under soft lips—

—oy, lipstick’s smudged. Kohl and eyeshadow — and, mercifully, foundation and contour — remain where they ought to be, but nu, lipstick’s smudged, and blue mascara’s left streaks on the lenses of my specs. Tsk! I’d have worn doll lashes, but like, it’s been too long since the last time — if I weight mine eyelids down so, I risk my vision doubling, and nu, when my vision goes wonky, I get migraines, and right about now, I need one of those like I need a hole in the head.

I fumble in my handbag for a tube of lipstick — lilac, to match mine eyes and ocelli — and carefully apply it, steadying my shaking left hand by holding the wrist with my right; then I sit back down on the méridienne and spend three minutes ransacking my handbag for the little bottle of fixative liquid; I find it not, so I tap both lips with mine index finger, and seal the lipstick with a cantrip instead.

How to undo such thaumaturgical overkill is like, a problem for future me, one who’s hopefully indoors and rested and g-d willing, fucked ’til satisfaction with assurances of an encore. The me what’s in the present has more pressing matters to worry about, and foremost among them is like, ensuring there is a future me to regret using a cantrip rather than put up with re-applying lipstick.

I get up again to twirl and preen at the mirror, trying to wake my vanity; my movements are stiff, cautious and circumscribed by a curious involuntary restraint, a stupor seeded by the bloody horse-pills. Just as I shake my hair out, the door creaks open, letting in another burst of music, and the faint faraway chuff of the fog machine, and the dusty smell of the hallway carpet.

I look up as Pasha Raskol’nikov bounces in, bleach-blond curls tousled, leather hot-pants sliding off his hips and absolutely no shirt in evidence. He’s fresh off the dance-floor, pale face flushed pink and red, squinting in the bright light, chest heaving.

Since the last time I saw him, he’d stopped waxing everything but his chest and face — a light dusting of auburn hair lays on broad forearms and sculpted thighs, and trails down over the curve of his stomach, down to where he’s left the top button of the hot-pants open.

He casually leans on the mirrored wall — oy, am I glad for the seals up top — and looks me up and down, grinning, and I, grown feral during my sojourn on Osedka, just stare at his right hand as he moves it down past the jut of hip-bone, then towards his inner thigh, stopping just short of an artfully arranged bulge. My breath catches in my throat; my cock shudders awake, a cobra roused by noonday sun. Remembering myself, I press my thighs together and look up to lock eyes with Pasha. He grins up at me, and winks.

«Lyovka Morgenshtern, right?» he says, af yvonish; his gaze runs over me, unhurried and tender, sizing me up. Then his face suddenly crumples, and he bites his lip. «Wait. I’m in the right bogs, right?»

Oy vay.

«Well, like, I always use the men’s when I’m at the Peach?» I say, and like, I sound more careless than I feel. I watch Pasha’s face, trying to keep mine expression neutral and affectedly bored, a deliberately sloppy disguise of naked interest.

But nu, for all that Pasha’s a goy, a goy can be a mentsh — he grins again, brief fragile moment over and forgotten. He moves just a little closer, and then turns his head away, deliberately breaking eye contact. When he glances back, we lock eyes again; I cock my head to one side, and smirk just a little.

Maybe tonight will end well. Maybe like, it’ll turn out okay, and I and some other rose will need to have an awkward conversation with each other in a week or two, just to establish that no, by the time we like, got to the bedroom, mine ulterior motive was not the primary one, and I’d like to stay regardless of whether there’s anywhere else for me to go.

Unfortunately like, I’m a tart and proud of it, but Pasha’s still haunted by a past of private tutors and family expectations, and this time he baulks rather than follow through. He flushes a deeper red and turns away, mumbling something about how he’ll see me around later, and dashes back through the door, into the hall.

Oy fucking gevolt.

I take a moment to steady myself, take a deep breath — come on Lyuba, are we really going to moon over Pasha bloody Raskol’nikov? — and follow him out of the lavatories.

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Author’s Note

Well! I don’t actually have any commentary here; if I come up with something to say, I’ll edit it in later.

Thank you for reading — please do feel free to comment either here, or

on Twitter. Gite vukh, and see you next Sunday!

(Before the site restructuring, this Author’s Note for Chapter 000 Scene 03 originally appeared on Part 02 of Chapter 000. The first scene of the former Part 03 is now filed as Chapter 000 Scene 06.)


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The Bitter Drop © 2014–2023, Isak Bloom; licensed under