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I. Sparrows

001 |Walking With Strangers, scene 06

Upon the worn cobblestones of Feldskver, our shpilkas strike a steady metronome beat. My head swims, with alcohol and with lust, and Nyura’s grip around my wrist, firm as a silver cuff, is mine only tether to Oylam HaZeh. I stumble after him, mine ankles leaden, my head full of haar. The night air cools me not, but the movement sends my blood back to my limbs, back to my head; back to the head what — at least like, in theory — stops to think before I go sticking it anywhere particularly adventurous.

Above us, the sky is white and shroud-sickly; splotched with grey clouds like linen with tzoraas. Street-lamps glow not — gas is too precious to burn in the streets in midsummer, and the

Gecko loathe to waste it, loathe to squander it lest the next winter comes a-howling as loud, as cold as the winter prior.

Nyura leads me to the mouth of a side-alley, through its narrowing throat towards the ditch what slopes down into the catacombs, down into the Ghetto’s cold stone belly.

But first we stop short of the ditch’s bank, by the bright izba of the Feldmesterin — two storeys tall not counting the basement, a hundred years young not counting the age of the foundations. The izba’s logs lie hidden beneath a parquet of birch slats painted yellow; a warm and rich gloss, the yellow of Glazurka’s winter light, of the gas-lamps in the Peach. A narrow side-window peers from between sea-blue nalitshniki; a cyclopean eye sunk deep in its shadowed socket. Half a fretwork panel’s missing from the left side, knocked off in the weeks before Sasha Two’s statue came down. Feh. ’Tis untidy, a flaw like an acne-scab upon a face, begging to be worried at.

Feh. To me, in any case, nu? Like, chances are, others noticed not the injury; the Feldmesterin carries no foreign superstitions, and those in the Ghetto who may, they what pass the window on the way to the good and happy place of the blessed remembered, they have other matters on their minds.

Below the window is a bench, full of crooked nails and splinters. I sit upon it anyway — like, nu, why wear denim, if not to shield one’s arse from the consequences of sitting upon poorly-finished wooden boards? Nyura says nought; he leans against the izba’s flank, and rifles through his handbag for cigarettes. His silver cigarette-box glints between long fingers.

I gesture to him — as much as it is an offer, it’s also like, a

request — and Nyura looks down to meet mine eye; he holds my gaze for a spell. A smile sweetly cruel plays on his lips, and in his eyes. He bites his lip, pinning down such a lustful smirk, and turns over to me the cigarette-box and the holder. His hands tremble, as if with anticipation — akh, what a compliment! I kiss the back of his right hand; his skin is warm against my lips, the barely-perceptible heat of a samovar on Motzey Shabbos.

The cigarette box swings open; Nyura leans forward, his eyes fixed upon my hands at their task. I twirl the holder between my fingers, unite its orifice with a slim cigarette — the moment of penetration graces me with a soft click. I place the holder’s tip between his lips, and light the cigarette with mine own silver lighter. He takes a long drag, blows out a long plume of smoke, and leans back against the izba’s flank. My duty thus discharged, I watch him smoke, study the curve of his cocked hips.

Absent-minded, mesmerised, I snap the cigarette-box shut; its hinges catch a sliver of the web between my thumb and forefinger — the pain jolts my head; my pulse beats a military tattoo upon my eardrums. A pathetic whimper slips between my lips, and Nyura looks at me, concern and desire knitting his brows. He alights beside me on the bench, pries apart my fingers to take charge of the cigarette-box again. I blush, look away. He strokes my cheek, the cigarette-holder still clenched between his teeth.

I raise my hand, hesitate — like, I’m many untoward things, but okh, no one’s ever had cause to accuse me of bravery — and then I lay my hand upon his knee, grope my way up his thigh. Nyura makes a soft noise of satisfaction, almost a purr, and blows white smoke out through his nostrils. I draw him closer, but let my hand linger short of its mark; I want to beg his permission, be granted leave to touch him, be ordered about— but the words freeze in my throat.

The silence lingers a beat, two—

“Nu, is like, Pushkina still the Feldmesterin?” I say, for lack of anything erotic coming to mind. Nyura, caught mid-exhale, laughs and the smoke in his throat makes him cough; he sputters out whispy coils of vapour, a zmey with his rage and fire spent, an iron kettle left too long on the stove.

“What a thing to bring up, ziskayt!” he exclaims. “Okh, kitten. Nu, she’ll be the Feldmesterin ’til her heart fails, or her wits. Who’ll tell her otherwise?” He leans back, and looks up at the pale, pale sky. His eight eyes and eye-spots shimmer with the reflected light. “Her eyes have not burnt out yet, though she’s— oy, she’s never said how old she is,” he looks askance at me, mouth twitching in a fond smile. “Eli and I suspect, that she … ah, well. If thou must know, we do rather suspect she was born early enough to have been a grandmother by the time of the Besht. No, darling, she’ll be the Feldmesterin when the Moshiakh comes, at this rate.”

I look up along the izba’s wall, to the injured fretwork over the narrow window; in recalling Koschey Pushkina’s habitual insomnia and her eyes, the bright and heavy-lidded eyes of a nesher, undimmed even in her old age, my stomach drops like a stone. But the heavy drapes behind the windowpane are drawn tight, and no indoor lamp-light peers through the gap between, where the tulle curtains have been left exposed.

“The bobes and the akusherkas, they won’t hear a word against her, nu?” Nyura says, distantly. “Her hands are too crooked now, she says, to deliver babies and and clean pressure ulcers, but still — she, ah, commands a certain respect.”

“I’ve like, heard she lost the kaiser’s license? Years ago,” I say, carefully. “Know’st thou—”

Nyura shakes his head, “no, treasure-mine, I know not. When such things went down …” he pauses, and shrugs; his face is a careful, neutral mask. “Ah, nu. Such things, they were none of my affairs, then.”

We both fall silent. Nyura’s features relax, lose that ghastly cultivated stiffness, the same stiffness I had seen upon Gilya’s face all too often. He finishes his cigarette, and grinds the stub under his heel, and then he rises from the bench, and helps me rise, and then he stops mid-step, head cocked to one side, eyes cast upwards to the pale sky.

“Oy fucking vey,” he mutters under his breath, and then swears in Ladsky, in a manner what still gets one fined on Osedka, whether one be in finery or in peasant sackcloth. I look at him with some alarm; he hooks his arm through mine, pats my thigh with his other hand.

“Nu, hush, darling,” he says. “’Tis nothing. Okh. We’re being followed.” He looks alarmed not — merely irritated, as if best by a pair of meddling eams. “What a time to pick! Bloody fuck.” He spits, and gives me no gloss. “Pay it no mind, sweetness. Nu, ayda.”

I follow him to the end of the alley, to the bottom of the ditch, to the yawning mouth of the catacombs; hand in hand, we descend into the catacombs, into the house of eternity, our heels ringing on the rough-cut coquina steps.

End of Chapter

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Author’s Note

And that’s the final scene of Chapter 001! This chapter ended up shorter than the preceding, but not by much overall. Chapter 002 will begin soon, most likely after Sukkos and Simkhas Torah are done. Git Shabbos, ale!


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The Bitter Drop © 2014–2024, Isidore Bloom; licensed underCC BY-NC-SA 4.0