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I. Sparrows

001 |Walking With Strangers, scene 05

Nyura helps me descend the tram steps, propping me up with grace nigh-chivalric. His hand upon my the small of my back is firm, the hand ‘neath my elbow is steady. My heart leaps like a frog emerging from the River what bisects the narrow place, and hammers like hail upon sandstone slopes — okh, ’tis been so long, so long since I have been treated like a precious thing, since I’ve had anyone I’d kneel for.

Nu, well— like, anyone in Oylam HaZeh.

With both feet planted firm upon the pavement, I lean on my stick to catch my breath. My hair hangs down like a tallis, half-obscuring my vision. Behind me, the tram clatters off; I turn to follow its retreat, watch its empty windows glow golden in the pale night, honey’d slabs like the panels in the fabled Amber Room, silhouettes of passengers obscuring not the view. And all around us, Feldskver lies silent.

A hesitant breeze bats ice-cream wrappers and crushed paper cups around the base of

an empty stone plinth at Feldskver’s heart. The plinth once carried a grand romantic statue to the great benefactor of our Ghetto, Tzar Aleksandr II Nikolayevitsh — soft old putz prone to fits of charity. Feh. No Sasha Makedonskiy, he! Nu like, unlike our Sages’ favourite dreamboat tyrant, Sasha Two sat upon a destrier like a sack of shit sits in a hand-cart, and the poor shmuk what cast the statue had clearly had a fit of honesty the day the bronze was poured.

The statue survived not; the destrier’s claws still cling to the granite of the plinth, half-buried in the guano from the steed’s flighted wild kin, but Tzar Sasha is long gone, rusting in a bog on the outer shards of Vyuta, waiting for the Silver to come and reclaim the labour hands long dead had lavished upon such vile effigy.

Downwind of the plinth, a disused Okhrana budka slumps like an outhouse against one side of the tram-stop shelter. Blue paint peels off its rotting wooden slats, rendering incomprehensible the graffitti; scraps of the Romanov coat of arms yet cling to the door. I flip off the double-headed eagle, spit thrice at it — feh, a petty gesture, but Nyura laughs, high and shrill. He leans against my side, gropes mine arse. The scent of his peach pomade tickles my nose, and his body lies hot against mine. Oy! Under such a circumstance, what cause is there for me to regret my pettiness?

“Thou’rt drunk, ziskayt,” Nyura says, dreamily. I throw an arm around his slender shoulders.

“Nu,” I reply, and say naught else, preoccupied as I am by the ache of lust in my heart and ‘twix my legs. I pull him closer, closer, hold him tight, and cast mine eyes across our surroundings, searching for somewhere for the both of us to lean on — I’m an airhead, and I may be a fool, but like, no one, not even my mama’s husband, has ever had cause to accuse me of

stupidity, nu?

On the tram-stop shelter’s other side, a mere metre from us, a vast concrete pillar rises, an overgrown bollard with charging sockets marching up one side, like the seam on a silk stocking — a Litfaß charging column, a hub to recharge the kitchen batteries, stuck all over with posters bright and informational and sometimes relevant. This one’s out of service: the sockets are muzzled, blindfolded by wooden outlet covers painted a sickening slick yellow-green. The paint is chipped, the bare wood revealed thus weathered; the whitewash peering bleakly in the gaps between poster edges is greying, smog-stained — the column’s been mere decoration for some time.

Still, the posters upon its flanks blaze fresh and lurid — impelled by habit, I scan them. Mine eye roves over a scene right out of a rag-mag, reinscribed seventhfold across the column’s pockmarked concrete flank — black caskets strewn upon ochre ground, stacked up against a lurid yellow wall, leaning precariously against the rest; broken limbs in a palette of ashen hues jam open predatory lids. Decorously abstracted fluids drip from fingers and angles, pool upon the ground beneath the piles. Daring, feh! By Osedka’s standards.

Underneath the grisly tableaus glare admonitions in the languages of the Ghetto.

Cholera stalks the streets, Friends, boil all drinking water!

The top row of posters is in Yiddish and in Ladino, in Tatartsha twice upon the same scene — once inscribed in the Naskh calligraphic script, for the middle-aged merchants and the elderly scholars, for Zhenya’s papa, for mine uncle’s father, and once printed in Kirilitza, for like … nu, for mine uncle, for Zhenya, oy, if it comes to such, for mine own faint recognition.

Below, yet more posters: one in Imperial Ladsky, one in the sister language spoken West and North, one for the sister language spoken West and South; the words differ in shape, but I can read all three, though the row under that one gives me pause — the languages of Knaan, of the plena what drift ever closer to the Orm, of the North where the Litvaks sojourn, in an alphabet inherited from centurions, from the masters of gladiators … and then all alone towards the bottom, stuck on crooked as a hasty signature, a poster in Ormic. I squint at it, and elbow Nyura in the ribs.

“Nu, like,” I say a little thickly, once he rearranges himself so he can both look at the Litfaß column and remain in mine arms. “For whom?”

“Diplomats, dearest, I’d imagine,” says Nyura, tilting his head up at me. He looks at the tip of my nose, and I look him not in the eye. “We’ve got a few stuck here now that the blockade’s enforced again, and ah. I suppose, to look silly now is worth it, for the paper-pushers to make it back to their Republic on two legs and with all their guts still inside.”

I frown at the poster; in the halls of memory, in some distant bright vestibule, Gilya answers mine enquiries in the mother tongue with crisp Ormic diction turned out like a hussar’s shiny brass buttons. Here in Oylam Hazeh, I close mine eyes and set my jaw; my knees go weak and all at once, the fight goes out of my spine. I lean against the Litfaß column; it rotates a scant few degrees, the concrete grinding against the metal pole what skewers it. The movement jolts me, the sound knocks loose an awareness of a lingering drunkenness. I lay my cheek against the column’s papered flank, and breathe the smell of cheap ink and potato glue.

Nyura touches my shoulder. I look down at him, at his two-tone wide eyes full of concern, at his parted lips behind which lies a tongue as impliant as mine own — oy vay, had he like, truly sojourned in the tzar’s court, his speech betrays it not.

“Maybe a little cholera would like, do them good, nu?” I say, taking care to clip the shvas, to speak through my nose, okh, taking care to sound as common a yid as Gilya feared I am. “Remind them how the rest of us live.”

Nyura snorts, ruefully.

“Okh, ketzela,” he says, in the rhythms of a khazzan, and takes hold of mine arse again, “suffering ennobles not, nu? They’ll only go home to their Republic to write about what awful barbarians we are—”

He taps his index finger against my arse, as if for emphasis. My jeans offer little protection from his nail-rings, but his touch remains light, too light to distract me from the gloomy tack I’ve chosen.

“Feh, they’ll like, do that anyway?” I say, and the bitterness in my voice takes me aback. Nyura silently raises his eyes to meet mine; the force of his gaze occludes his intent. Any further commentary withers in my throat. I sway.

Nyura rises on tiptoe to kiss me and tightens his grip on my arse — his nail-rings dig in. I gasp against his mouth, shudder and sway, and sway.

I want, I want—

I want him to like, bend me over, torment me, fuck me, yes, yes—

But more, I want his hands — delicate as the hands of a fiddler, steady as the hands of a scribe — to claim me as his instrument, to shape me as his masterwork, to hold me firm and make of me demands I’ll fill in gladness. I tremble before him, my heart aflame, and in my trembling is the echo, sweet and filigreed, of trembling in dveykus.

Nyura pats my leg with enough force to return mine attention to concerns more material, though like, no less intoxicating; jolted out of the very depths of submissive reverie, I make a faint and undignified squeaking noise. Nyura laughs, and I blush and squirm, and bite down on my lower lip to stifle flustered giggling. All neurotic chatter has been swept from my skull, and there’s only Nyura, and my volition in his hands.

“Spread thy legs, kitten,” he says. Obediently, I part my thighs — he sighs, coos, “good boy,” in mine ear, and my mind is soft static, morning mist lit by a tender pink dawn.

The breeze makes its return, slinking back through Feldskver on its nightly rounds; its ghostly fingers slip under my shirt, raising gooseflesh on my belly, brushing softly against the vinyl pasties. I take a shuddering breath, another. Nyura’s hand comes to rest between my thighs. The pulse in my cock throbs against his finger-tips.

His fingers curl.

The wind is cool upon my feverish face.

“The budka’s abandoned,” I say. “We could—”

“We could not,” Nyura says, very seriously; he’s let go of my cock — his long fingers now rest against my neck, not quite taking hold, not yet. I can’t like, think, nu? But my disappointment, it drives me to speak without thought.

“No one is here,” I say, and ay, ay, ay, I sound so desperate, so wanton. Nyura laughs. My heart sinks.

Darling,” he says. “Oy, ziskayt! Think’st thou I carry my cock around in my handbag?”

I whimper, as much in relief as in frustration; Nyura pats mine arse; and then he smacks me, lightly. The impact hurts not — but it’s like, full of a promise of deeper pain in my near future. I close mine eyes, and I think of belts and hairbrushes, and of my wrists bound with a silk scarf. All mine inhibitions pass from my mind.

Nyura steps back from the Litfaß column, giving me just enough room to pitch myself forward and fall on my knees before him. I take both his hands in mine, and I speak not — all words have gone up in smoke upon my tongue.

“Okh, ketzela,” says Nyura, stroking my hair. “Be patient, be patient—”

I press my face against his thigh and whimper. Nyura heaves a sigh in response.

“Ayda, darling,” he says, seizing me by the wrists, pulling me to my feet, “for thee to kneel, we can find better places than the pavement. Ayda. Ayda to bed.”

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The Bitter Drop © 2014–2023, Isak Bloom; licensed underCC BY-NC-SA 4.0