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I. Sparrows

002 |Ashes In A Vase, scene 01

Electric lamps blaze within the catacombs — quicksilver, newfangled and unsteady, powered by a battery rack what's chronically hungry of charge; born of such ill-favoured light, our shadows flicker on the walls, marionette-like dance up on the ceiling and upon the floor. We have descended mere oblique fathoms, not so deep as to touch the skin of the plenum's underside but nu, deep enough to feel — alongside the damp, chalky chill of the cellar — the sickly chthonic undertow of the Silver tugging at our breath. Nyura blinks all eight of his beautiful eyes; a stubborn pinfeather itches upon mine arm. I attend to it not — once we climb out of this pit, the feather will be gone, yet any wound I leave in trying to pry the sheath off will stay and like, I wish not to deal with such phantasmal nonsense, not tonight, not on, of all nights, this night.

Our steps ring sharp and bright upon the coquina floor, a merry click-clack of cat-claws upon parquet, upon flagstones; they echo back, and then their echo must echo back again — though I hear another set of footsteps behind us, no one is there when I turn to look.


I duck my head out of the way of the low ceiling and look down, concentrate on where I’m putting my feet and my stick: the quicksilver lamps’ cold glare is near-painful after the ghostly midsummer night, and ekh, like! It helps not none, mine ankles being weak, nor my balance being poor. Nyura props me up by the elbow with one hand; the other he trails lightly on the wall, running the tips of his nail-claws over the chalk-marks and the painted words, and the occasional deep gouge. We walk slower than upon the surface, mindful of the uneven slabs underfoot. Something scampers, mouse-like, out of sight along the edges of the walls.

“Again, someone in the walls,” Nyura says. “Again!”

“’Tis like, mice,” I say. “Rats, at worst. Nu, in the corners?” I believe myself not.

The scratching resumes, sharpens, focuses itself, becomes a tapping — a throbbing code beat out on the pockmarked flanks of the catacomb. At the end of my perception a ghostly sense gathers force, as the clammy fingers of a silver’d understanding brush against the back of my neck. The tapping speaks in the language of the land, in the formal yvonish of the school-room and the broadsheet; it tells me of the riches buried in the Bones upon which the Talons recline, of riches metallurgical and mineral sunk deep into the plenum; and it says, these are the riches what capitalists dream of, yes, but yet they are the riches of craftsmen too, riches what need not become labour stolen from the hands what labour.

“Nu! Erudite mice, darling,” Nyura notes, drily. “Mice with revolutionary zeal and class consciousness.”

I spare him a glance, though mine eye grows dim with the effort of holding myself suspended between the realms. His look is likewise glazed—despite his jokes to the contrary, he is a nefil, and like I, like I he hears the tapping.

The tapping speaks on, speaking of the extraordinary clarity of the gems, of their suitability for priestly breastplates, of silver and of gold, languishing unworked and unfinished.

“Feh. ‘Tis a pity these hands of mine are like, good for naught but for the labour of clerks and the work of scholars,” I say, and earn a puzzled look from Nyura. I raise my chin, and tell the walls, “What good are gems in the rough, to one who cannot cut them, nu? Like, do I look like an artificer?”

The tapping and the ghost of dialogue, and that ghost’s clammy hands vanish all in an instant, though I had half-expected a challenge.

But wert thou not a sofer stam, Rov Morgenshtern?

I pull a face; nu, I’m no snob about my calling, but like— I hold no illusions about what use yet remains in my limbs, nu? A pen, a stylus can I still hold. And though I’ve not tried for too long a time, I do not think I’ve altogether lost the skill of writing klafim and gittin. Yet, ekh. A chisel, a lathe, a lens-grinder, nu, these are only writing implements in the broadest sense — one what applies not to thine truly, not in light of the ghastly tremor of his hands.

“Gems?” Nyura is saying in my ear, bewildered by my outburst. I look at him, wanting not to look at the walls, at the stained and slimy floor. “Nu, darling. The, ah. The mice,” he bites his lower lip, but the smirk twitches at the corners of his mouth, “they spoke of old bones, and of history buried. Not of metallurgy, nor of the jeweller’s art.”

I frown, and shiver. But why indeed gems? What have I to do with the Kohanim and their adornments? The bas-Kohen who had birthed me had not passed on the Kohen’s yoke. Nyura squeezes mine arm.

“Pay it not no mind, ketzeleh,” he says. “These catacombs, they swell with such voices. Pay it not no mind.”

By now we, have come to a stop before forking tunnels; a damp and chalky smell lays about the passageways, like a haunting presence of the marketplace dozing in the shade of a cistern. The air is still, stagnant—the air under beds in shut-up hotel rooms, of cupboards in abandoned houses. The tunnel to our left is dark; a faint electric light flutters in the depths of the other, the one we’re to take.

The light, beyond all osteal reason, beyond telluric logic, threatens more than the darkness. Shall I lie to thee? Shall I say that the pangs of apprehension in my breast are more than an irritation? Like, I could lie. I could always claim to be more prudent than I am.

Belatedly, I say, “Wait, like. Nu. The voice, the tapping, ’tis not the first time—?”

“Feh! Not the sixtieth, ziskayt,” Nyura says, his jaw grimly set. “These tunnels— oy.”

“Haunted?” say I, and ‘tis hard to hide the irritation now. I scratch absent-mindedly at a pinfeather upon my arm; the sheaf and the barbs dissolve beneath my touch, and the shaft drifts down. When I look to see where it fell, there is only bare, rough coquina, and the slime and muck of an underground passage neglected.

“Hah! No, sweetness,” says Nyura, unhappily. “No. Nu, that’d be too easy. No, worry not, ketzela. The good place is built well. This, this mice vanguard, I fear it is a matter altogether different.”

He walks on; I follow him, and look not behind us, and two sets of footsteps ring out, and then two more follow behind, and a quartet of echoes follows after that.

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Author’s Note

I had expected to get this update up much sooner, but I’ve had a very busy six months since attending to some medical matters that ought have been resolved a decade ago. While I’m recovered by now, Peysakh is coming up in just a week, and thus I cannot guarantee any timeline on anything not directly to do with cleaning my flat or attending the ten billion seyders I’ve been invited to and/or am helping organise.

Thus, khag Peysakh sameakh, when it comes, and when it comes, may you have a happy, khometz-free seven/eight days, however many days of yuntif your community keeps; to the non-Jewish readers—a belated Eid Mubarak, a belated happy Easter to the Christians who hold by the Georgian Calendar and a happy Easter when it comes to the ones who hold by the Julian Calendar; a belated happy Spring Equinox to those that celebrate it. I’m well aware I’ve likely missed someone, not out of malice but simple ignorance.

Updates will keep coming, at whatever pace—I have far from given up on the story.

On another note, I’m trying out commenting on the actual story here: whatever is trying to contact Lev/Lyubov and Anzu seems to have mixed them up, or at least might not have a very clear idea of the nuances of Kohanim, Levi’im and the fact that the one tribe lineage we’re still remotely sure of is conferred patrilineally, like the other tribe lineages. Weird, huh.


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