Vısotzkiy Prospekt, tram-bearing, is an old street, paved not save for a central median where steel tracks bed down in poured concrete. Rows of coppiced poplars and unkempt hedgerows shield the boardwalks from the dust of thoroughfare; their leaves rustle as we pass. Something creaky and avian pipes up from the mess of dark greenery and something else avian squawks back, as if chiding its companion. Wings beat the fragrant air — I catch a flash of pink and white and black from the corner of mine eye — and then all falls silent again. The wind blows itself to an exhausted sigh.
We reach the tram-stop platform without no incident — by luck, by HaShem’s loving-kindness, by sheer stubbornness, I manage to turn not mine ankle on the uneven ground, despite the pleather shpilkes and the crunch and grind of my joints with every step. Nyura supports me by mine elbow — oy, such a touching gesture! Pity ’tis one what does rather less than either of us would prefer. Discounting the both of us wearing heels, I’m two metres tall and Nyura is about the usual height for an ostyid — nu like, a metre sixty, sixty-five, if that.
The platform is the same bare concrete as the rest of the meridian, grey and unadorned. Gogol Boulevard, what used to lie just beyond the long-gone first Talons wall, may merit coquina paving-slabs, but a tram-stop upon Vısotzkiy Prospekt? Feh! ’Tis a miracle the tramway were built in the first place — the late Kolya’s transport minister must’ve been rather sentimental to condescend to build it, though like, not so sentimental as to waste good limestone on the ghetto, nu? And in the six years of the Talons Sovyet, we have found not the time to do more than get rid of the ticket machines and keep the tracks in good repair.
Beside the lack of a ticket machine, the tram-stop shelter stands leaning to one side, empty steel struts with a ragged edge of quick-glass clinging on like torn lace. The concrete platform underneath is clean of shards, though stained with blotches of a Silver’d lichen; and while the stone bench beside is intact, the side closest to the shelter is marred with spots of black paint, not quite dry — pliant like a fresh scab. Nyura frowns at the sight.
“Nu, that’s a recent development,” he murmurs, half to me, half to the wounded shelter. He lays a hand upon one of the struts, and the last of the quick-glass on that side comes loose, tumbles up, flies away as shimmering cranes no bigger than a hand-span. The empty sky swallows them. Nyura laughs.
“Okh, we ought to tell the sovyet, nu?” he says. “If glass is taking wing, there must be a lacuna nearby.” He clucks his tongue, scrutinising the shelter. “Oy vey, I do hope she’s notdead.”
A breeze rises.
I shiver, hug myself. The shelter slumps silent; my breastbone keens like a tuning-fork, vibrating with the sickly, hollow whine what I can only name a concussion, though a shelter has no head to concuss. I bite my lip, and sway, and my eidos rises with my gorge. My throat tightens as the larynx stretches and writhes, shedding its voice reeds; they spiral down and coil around my bronchi, knitting into a new, familiar shape.
Nyura’s hand is upon my arm; I lean on him, will myself to hang together, to stay a thing of flesh. My voice-box convulses, gives up on its acrobatics; the nascent syrinx splits apart into voice reeds and recoils back up my throat. I begin to cough.
“I’m fine,” I say, hoarsely. “‘M fine. Shelter’s not, but I’m— I need to just like, sit down?”
Nyura shepherds me to the bench — taking care to avoid the paint-stains, I collapse upon it. Even through denim, the polished granite bench is slick and cold; it jolts me, calls up a childhood admonition — sit not upon the cold ground, nor upon stone nor cement, lest thou catch a bladder infection and die, and leave thy poor mother alone in her old age, leave none to say kaddish for thy crippled old uncle. A burden placed upon my sisters and upon thine truly, but like, never upon my step-father’s son, nu?
Nyura perches beside me; he slings an arm around my waist and takes my hand. I lace my fingers through his.
“Thou’rt …” he begins, falls silent, tries again. “Ah, darling, I really mean not to be indelicate, but, nu—”
“Yes,” I say. “Like. Uhm. Isn’t everyone?”
Nyura frowns at me, head cocked to one side, forehead creased.
“Nu, sweetness, how shall I put this?” says he. “At an infirmary, in a morgue, at those dire parties Osedka hospitals throw for physicians what marry and fuck off to Krym and Sibir to play at being playwrights and landlords, yes, everyone is a transistor in such places! But at a yeshiva? Nu—”
“Like, Rashi’s a physician,” I say, sulkily.
“Oy, Rashi is also Rashi, my dove,” says Nyura. “Thou wert not snatched up as soon as thou took’st up talking to cold spots and radios?”
I shrug in response, look away from him, down the tracks. No tram looms in the distance.
“None save mine uncle believed me,” I say at length. “My mother’s husband, he—” My breath catches in my chest, and I choke on the next word. Nyura squeezes my hand.
“Thou owe’st me no answer,” he says.
I pull him closer, hoist him up onto my lap. He perches side-saddle upon my thighs, his head laid upon my clavicle. I kiss his temple.
“Nu like,” I say, stroking his back, “not to like, be indelicate in turn, but … thou knew’st? Thou knew’st—”
“Thou’rt Rabbi Morgenshtern?” Nyura finishes for me.
“Nu,” I say, thickly. My hand comes to rest at the small of his back, and I notice for the first time the unmistakable rigid membrane of an orthopaedic corset.
“Okh, darling,” says Nyura; there’s a lilt to his voice, teasing without rancour, “of course I knew, nu? Did I not say, boys such as thee, we are rather short on?” He leans away, just far enough to catch my eye. “Well, yidn, in any case, if not boys—”
I lay a hand against his cheek, tilt his chin up, brush my thumb lightly over the sharp curve of his jaw. His make-up is tacky like fresh paint, and velvety. I tell myself I should bother not — like, what need have I, to trouble Koschey Menelikov’s tact? What gain for me, to spill my heart in cruising?
Nyura raises a brow; his eyes gleam gold and blue in the twilight. I bite my lip.
“Treat me not with kid gloves, nu?” I say, softly. “Did I like, not say already, to thee I’m a boy? I’m neither bride nor wife, only a rose and a sister. If I’m a different kind of sister to Maks and Zhenya … nu, what thou callst me bears not on it.” A ragged edge glints beneath my words, not altogether intended, not altogether unfelt. In the far distance, Gilya whispers in my ear, reassuring me he understands as he draws a border between us — here is me, and here, opposed, is thee — as though iron wert a noble metal, debased in amalgam.
Nyura lowers his gaze, and takes my hand in his.
“Okh, darling,” he says, “pretty boys such as thee, nu, we are short of those in the Talons! Thou stick’st in memory.”
He plays with my hair, winding a long strand around his spindly fingers, a spider weaving shelter. I look over his shoulder down the tracks; he turns his head to look too. We see no tram. Nyura sighs, brow creasing in impatience.
“But nu like, Reb Doktor,” I say to him, “thou’rt a necromancer?”
“Oh yes, darling!” he purrs, the carelessness a little too affected to be genuine. He looks at me, biting his lower lip to stifle a proud smile. “I am a Koschey! The attendant of the malekh ha-moves, nu? I attend at births, and at deaths, and whenever I get called in ’twixt the two.”
“I knew the old necromancer of the Eastern Quarter,” I tell him. “She what haunted the Burial Society and made midwives cry—”
“Oh, Lara Pushkina?” Nyura says, and smirks, but not without a certain fondness. “Tsch, she was a terror.”
The tense he uses, it lands like a blow; Koschey Pushkina looms in the halls of memory, standing besidethen-Rebbetzin Morgenshtern, arms bloody up to the elbow. She cradles our second mourner, what arrived two months too early, feet first, wearing a caul like a bridal veil.
“Was?” I say, lips numb, stomach sinking. “Be she dead herself?”
“Okh, hardly!” Nyura says, “she’s merely old and sick. Nu, ketzeleh,” he peers up at me with some worry. “Thou look’st shaken—”
I look away, sheepish.
“She were the necromancer of the Eastern Quartal,” I tell him. “She–” I hesitate; like, ’tis hard to keep a wife secret, when she’s the Rebbetzin, nu? If Nyura knows me as the young Rov of the Eastern Quartal, he knows my Rivka. “Well, nu. She— she delivered both my kids.”
Nyura cocks his head to one side. He lays a hand against my cheek, toys with my forelock.
“Koschey Pushkina lives, sweetness,” he says, softly. “Worry not, nu? She’s old enough to have dragged goats to the Temple on Yom Kippur, but she lives. But, ah—” He looks up, makes eye contact. His eyes are wide and serious. I shiver.
The air between us is near-electric, swelling with desire, with the ache of trust. Nyura looks away; he seems to be about to say something when the tram tracks begin to sing. The spell cracks like a shot-glass filling with water just off the boil.
Nu, bloody fucking typical.
Nyura sighs and gives me a crooked smile.
“Nu, Rabbi,” he says. “Let us go, then. Vulnerability and disclosure, they can both wait ’til we’re in my bed.”
We climb the narrow metal steps into the tram; I slump down onto a hard pleather seat, and lean my whole body against the wall, my head against the window. Nyura perches beside me, hooks his arm through mine. And so cradled within this idyll, I throw one last look upon the maimed tram-stop shelter — and my gaze alights on a smear of black paint on her steel flank, a broken cross within a broken circle, glistening tacky and wet under the glare of the sleepless midsummer sky. My blood runs cold; Nyura gasps in mine ear.
“The Hundreds,” I say, flatly. “Good thing we stopped to like, talk to Maks, nu?”
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