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I. Sparrows

001 |Walking With Strangers, scene 04

The tram’s deserted, except for the driver and a middle-aged dame way to the back, sucking on the weathered stem of a long wooden pipe — the smoke drifts towards us, curling like lazy Leviathan’s tendrils; it smells not of tobacco. The dame doesn’t look like no one in particular — a broad-faced old broad, olive-skinned and yellow-eyed, long hair long since gone to grey. She could be Ladsky with a peasant’s tan, or a retired book-keeper from the steppes or one of the Karaim like Zhenya’s papa, or nu, like, she could be from the Talon’s South-Eastern Quartal via one Sultanate or another — one of my khavrusa’s charges.

She pays us no mind; her eyes have alighted upon the placards near the carriage ceiling — a little faded, legible still — what remind us, the citizens of the Talons, that we may still be the Talons Ghetto, but we are now the Talons sovyet too — the workers of our ghetto and the peasants on outer shards of Vyuta are beholden not to the tzar, nor to the White Guard, nor to the Okhrana.

I follow her gaze to the placards; in my peripheral vision, the old dame shimmers as if she’s Fata Morgana, no more substantial than the smoke what wreaths her. I glance back — she solidifies. ’Tis merely fatigue, or maybe like, the alcohol, or the lingering grip of the horse pills from the Mamka.

I look away, leave her to her contemplation and her pipe-weed. Beside me, Nyura’s rummaging for something in his handbag; a black cigarette holder — a good six inches long — is clasped between his teeth, sans cigarette. His shoulders are raised, his brow’s furrowed. In light of such a posture, I think better of disrupting his archeological efforts and instead check mine own bag for my pillbox — the one what holds mine emergency opiates. I may have need of them, if Nyura and I get particularly adventurous tonight — or nu, even if we get only like,

moderately adventurous.

After some frantic fishing among old prescription slips, condom wrappers both empty and full, tubes of lipstick, kohl pencils and other miscellaneous indispensable attributes of faggotry, I pull the errant pillbox from my handbag and give it an experimental shake or two — it rattles merrily.

Satisfied I’ve got more than a couple of pain pills left, I relocate the pillbox to a zippered inner pocket, where it can rest isolated from the general chaos of my handbag. The pocket’s otherwise unoccupied, except for something small and pointy swaddled in a scrap of fraying scarlet silk. I pick the bundle up and carefully unwrap it — and like, given what arthritis’s done to my hands, that’s how I nearly drop my great-aunt’s pearl earrings onto the floor of the tram.

For a beat or two, I stare at the earrings, mesmerised by yet another phantom looming up from the halls of memory — not

my great-aunt, but Gilya, Gilya again. Gilya who’d been so worried about mine earlobes being pierced, of what may transpire if someone took exception to seeing me in earrings, Gilya who’d fussed and sulked and badgered me until I had relented, and let the holes in my lobes close up.

I wrap the earrings in the scrap of silk again, and place them beside the pillbox, and zip the pocket closed. My head spins, spins to a stop.

Beside me, Nyura’s found what he’d been looking for, and has lit a cigarette. He looks off into the middle distance, eyes half-closed. I want to say something — nu like, anything — but my mind is blank. I study Nyura’s lovely pensive profile, watching him smoke, and wish I was at all interesting, at all as charming as he thinks I am.

“I have been, ah, not altogether honest with thee, ketzeleh,” Nyura says, startling me back into Oylam HaZeh. “I had intended on telling thee while we waited for the tram, but ah,” he pauses, takes the cigarette holder out of his mouth and twirls it; smoke trails swirl in the wake of the cigarette’s glowing tip. “Nu, the chance rather got away from me.”

I look at him, uncomprehending. A dozen lurid scenarios crowd in my head, none of them quite squaring up with the elegant faggot in front of me. Nyura bites his lip; the cigarette holder trembles.

I lay a hand on his shoulder.

“Thou needst tell me nothing,” I say. “Not like, tonight—”

“Need? No, darling, I need tell thee nought,” he concedes, and takes another nervous drag on the cigarette. “But, well, ah. I want to. I feel … nu, I feel ’tis only fair, since I know who thou art—”

I say nothing; I find his free hand and clasp it. Nyura closes his eyes.

“If thou wishes not to ah, associate with me,” he says, at length, “I shall arrange transportation for thee, as soon as we get back to Gor’kiy Val. And if thou believ’st me not … nu. Of those who’d vouch for me, there are plenty. Maks certainly would.”

He squeezes my hand, as if for courage.

“Like, how bad could it be, nu?” I say. “Art thou a Frankist? Did the goyes make thee convert before they let thee take an apprenticeship? Art thou secretly a Rothschild?”

Nyura starts giggling. He lets go of my hand and throws his arms around me, drawing me close.

“Are those the worst things thou canst think of?” he says. “No, no, darling, I’m no apostate, and my family were not rich … nu, at least not to such extent. ’Tis something more than that, I fear.”

He takes a deep breath.

“I used to be a courtier,” he says. “Well, nu— rather more than merely a courtier—” his courage fails him, and he falls silent; he holds himself stiffly in mine embrace, as if bracing himself. I pull him onto my lap.

“Nu, and?” I say, softly. “The earthly tyrants, they’ve always had us serving at court. Why art thou worse than the Sages what studied Torah by the banks of the Tigris? Nu, art though like … worse than Moyshe Rabbeynu?”

“Paroh was hardly Kolya Romanov,” Nyura says, darkly; he leans against me, idly tapping his cigarette holder against the pleather seat. Ash rains down onto the scuffed floor. “I’m no Meyshe Rabbeynu, ziskeyt, I’m a Court Jew.”

“Wait like, this?” I gesture, taking in the interior of the tram car, “This, to thee, is a tzar’s court? Nu, standards must’ve fallen badly upon Osedka.” Nyura makes an indistinct noise against my shoulder, a muffled laugh collapsing into a sob. I bend down to gently kiss his temple.

“I care not, nu?” I say. “Thou’rt like, hardly the first in the Talons to have been posh once. Thou’rt here with us now—”

Nyura sighs. He looks up at me; his painted lips are parted, his eight two-tone eyes wide and round and shining; he’s the most beautiful boy I’ve ever seen.

I duck my head down to kiss him on the mouth, long and soft and deliberate. He kisses me back, and when we break apart, he slumps in mine arms again, trembling. In the window beyond his shoulder, the empty monument plinth upon Feldskver rolls into view; the tram begins to slow, the wheels grinding upon the tracks. The tram car shudders, rattling mine entire skeleton.

“Nu, ayda, Reb Doktor,” I say. “Like thou told me, vulnerability and disclosure, they can both wait ’til we’re in thy bed.”

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Author’s Note

This scene as it originally went up looked a little different — the second half has been rewritten; if you read the first iteration … well, don’t worry, the things said will come up again soon enough. If this is your first time reading this scene, don’t worry about it.


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