It’s the month of Iyyar, what the Ladsky call Matrimony, in the year 5780 since the Creation of the World — or at least like, since us yidn started paying attention. I’m sitting in The Desert Peach teplitzeh, smoking my fifth cigarette of the night and staring out of the window.
See, like. Ostensibly, it is night-time.
Materially, though? Nu, like— Glazurka, the sun-star of the Vyuta and Osedka plena, has already sunk into the Silver, but owing to the season and some of the, erm, oddities of the latitude, her departure has entirely failed to bless us with darkness. Through a gap in balding velvet drapes, I can see the empty sky glisten beyond the latticed windowpane, pearly and pallid as the belly of some deep-sea fish, one of those behemes what have maws like bear-traps and eyes like light-bulbs. The night never quite falls on Svet-Dmitrin in midsummer. The tzarists do love such pathetic fallacy, but like, feh, I don’t.
The sickly glow of la nuit blanche alights heavy on my skin, chafes mine eyes like bandages swaddling a burn what’s just begun filming over with new skin. It pools in my teeth, jams the gaps between my joints. It gnaws my bones and burrows under my skin, disturbing silver’d memories what nest there: dreams of chitin and feathers and many — just enough — eyes, and neither pain nor flesh. It squirms in the cavity of my chest, pushing against the ribs like a golfing brolly threatening to spring open. Ay! This light, it isn’t pleasant is what I’m trying to say, and such unpleasant things tend make a fag a little wobbly, and it is a bad idea to be wobbly here at the Peach, with its gorgeous polished marble floor — such a precious keepsake of the years the building spent working as a theatre. My spirit may be closer to the Silver than to the Bones of Mir, but like, nefil or not, my bones are still likely to break upon abrupt and velocitous contact with the ground.
There are many ways for a yid — for anyone — to die, and if I could have any say in such matters, I would rather die with a little dignity. Not too much, nu? There’s nothing more tasteless than a death the yellow broadsheets wouldn’t pearl-clutch over, but were I to die, I’d rather die with just enough dignity that they could like, hypothetically, tell my stepfather how I left this broken world and elicit a response what is something other than, “always knew he’d end badly”.
Maybe it’s gauche to brood over such things, but it’s not as though I’ve got much else to do right now. I’m here at the Peach tonight to pull, because if I don’t find a boy to go home with come dawn, I’ll be sleeping rough and, ekh — I’m stalling making an effort, because it’s been a terrible three months and I look absolutely ghastly, and I find it hard to be optimistic. In general, thou must understand, yes, but like, tonight in specific too — my chances of being found attractive after a three-month stint in the Mamka aren’t, like, fantastic. Oy, sure, a bedlam’s better than being sent to kozlostan, but only just.
I wear no yarmulkeh tonight — I took it off before entering the Peach — and maybe this might help but g-d my head feels weird without its nearly imperceptible weight. I keep running my fingers through my hair, and they tangle in the long red strands, like wrack in seaweed.
I’m telling this all out of order.
Before I tell thee about the Peach, about Svet-Dmitrin and the Talons, about all the rest of it—
Please do allow me to introduce myself. Thou’lt forgive me for telling thee just my civilian name — a lady’s rufnomen is like, a little too private to be revealed on the first date.
My name is either Lev or Lyubov — Venyaminovich or Venyaminovna, depending, and in both cases the surname’s Morgenshtern — and I’m a rose petal. Like, I guess thou couldst call me a girl, more or less, if thou meanst I’m a cultivar, one of the girls what are decreed men before we can have any opinion on the matter. Thou wouldst be not wrong, but like, thou wouldst be just as right to say that I’m yet another faygeleh, another hot-house faggot in kohl eyeliner and garish lipstick. It depends, nu? I’m as much a self-made kinda girl as an effeminate boy — a stormy flamer, among mine own with petals of both gardens and any metal, and in sorority with all our thorns.
I am a queen like the chymical queens what are femme roses first and self-made iron a distant second, like the chymical queens what are first self-made copper and always femme roses, and yet still much like the queens what are iron but not chymical, too; a delicate sister of the diesel-dykes, a foil to the thorns both copper and iron what are both violets and butches and not women but never men.
There’s no precision for me, as for any of us, no ultimate truth among the arbitrary categories of sex.
… I guess the word I’m groping for here is “bigender”, though like, who knows how soon the taxonomy what’s in vogue will shift again, nu? The chymical girls of either garden may call me “she”, and fellow fags and boys what like boys may court me and call me “he”, and to all other hot-house flowers, I’m sie/hir in the vernacular, or fae/faer, if thou prefer’st.
And to heters, well— akh, forgive my rudeness, but if thou art inclined neither to horticulture nor to botany, nor to the tending of hot-houses, and thou’rt not one of the rare individuals what gets such things without ever participating, I’m a “mind your own fucking business”.
But like, I’m not anyone in particular, thou must understand. It hadn’t always been so — oy, once I had learning and good deeds both, and got called “Rabbi”! Nu, such a season passed as all seasons pass, and now I’m just a shlimazel what has no fixed address. I write — horror and fantastiks, mostly short pieces, though I did write novels once, and ekh, I may still commit such crimes against language again.
I turn thirty this year — on the second of Markheshvan according to my calendar, and in the month of Occult according to the Ladsky. But like, between me and thee? I don’t know if I dare assume I’ll live to see it.
Feh, enough about that! Do let me tell thee where I am — broadly, pedantically and specifically — and about how mine evening’s going.
Broadly speaking, I’m in Svet-Dmitrin, the notional capitol of Imperial Vsemlada, but like, to be pedantic about it, I’m in the Talons — there’s something of a difference between our ghetto on the Vyuta Plenum, and the city proper. It’s colder out there, upon Osedka, where the golden steeples of rıbak churches loom high over the roofs of the town-houses, far away from the shuls and the minarets and the music-halls, far away from the factories and the docks, far away from where consequences make landfall—
—half a decade ago, consequences came to Osedka. Half a decade ago, in the month of Febrile, the Red Guard stormed the Winter Palace and arrested Tzar Nikolay and all his courtiers and all his lackeys and all his Inquisitors — or at least, all the ones what chose to surrender and live.
Borukh Dayan HaEmes, and yasher koyakh to the Red Guard.
Half a decade ago, in the summer month of Jubilant, Tzar Nikolay II Romanov, may his name be forgotten, was tried and executed.
Half a decade ago, in the month of Desecration, on orders of Gosudarınya Anastasiya Nikolayevna, acting as regent on behalf of Tzar Aleksey II Romanov, the White Guard marched up the frozen River Demeter into Svet-Dmitrin and shut down as many co-ops and workers’ councils as they could get to and cut a swath through occupied Osedka and half of Vyuta — and stopped at the gates of the Talons Ghetto, held back by the walls.
May HaShem avenge the blood of all our martyrs, and may the memory of the White Guard be blotted out—
But nu, like.
To be specific and like, relevant, rather than merely geographically correct, I’m on the ground-floor of The Desert Peach, in the tea lounge, sitting in a booth just to one side of the tiny bar — I think it used to be the concessions stand, back when the local luvvies and regisseurs came here to make art rather than like, to gossip and fuck and backbite without getting paid for it.
The Peach’s a grand place, a little tatty around the edges, but with all the gauche dignity what comes to any true diva as she ages, and her tea lounge is a marvel, bedecked by carnival-glass gas-lamps, draped in velvet, spangled with brass tshotshkes. Here, thou canst sit on a low divan, or recline on a méridienne and smoke qalyan — hashish and poppy both available, but mere tobacco’s an option too. It’s dark in here, the drapes drawn and the gas-lamps kept at the merest suggestion of a flicker, and it’s quiet — the music’s turned down low, to permit conversation more sophisticated than the basics what precede intimacy — though like, if thou hast the urge but not the patience to relocate to the back room in the former orchestra pit or to a private room upstairs, the tea lounge does have booths with remarkably high partitions, and nu, the horticulturally-inclined patrons of the Peach, we all share a certain understanding regarding soft noises what are none of a bystander’s business.
The lounge is nearly empty tonight; all the action is downstairs at the grinding workshop — in the basement discotheque; if I’m to have any hope of pulling, that’s where I ought to go but … ekh, I’m foggy tonight, between the psychosis and the opioids for the pain what likes to haunt nefilim and the horse pills they made me take at the Mamka — nu okay, I skipped tonight’s dose so I can drink but like, neuroleptics don’t let go that quick — and as the brainfog settles on my thoughts, it turns to hoarfrost and my will seizes up like a rusty hinge.
So here I sit, half-hidden in a booth, staring into the half-light of the lounge, hands trembling, heart fluttering like a panicked bird, ankles tangled up in the straps of my shleptop bag and handbag.
If I don’t catch anyone’s eye, there’ll be nowhere for me to sleep tonight. Not indoors, in any case — the two Upsilon boarding houses in the Talons Ghetto want payment up front, and like, I’m not exactly solvent right now. There’s a Deliverance shelter over in the Fangs District what’s free, but nu, it’s too close to Osedka for comfort, and besides, it’s a rıbak shtik — no place for a nice yiddish fag.
Like, don’t get me wrong, not all those of the nations are equally goyim about it! Our sages do tell us, whether B’ney Yisroel will require cultural autonomy, this is yet to be adjudicated, and like, who am I to argue? Gules is always gules, but feh, it’s not all been a parade of Homans and Torquemadas — there’s been enough of a Koresh Two or a Sasha Makedonskiy what have had the decency to only place a perfunctory foot on the neck of their Inner Others. Nu, I hear that in the Orm, yekkes get to volunteer to take part in maintaining the engine what is crushing us, which is like, certainly different from how things are here in Vsemlada.
But the goyim what call themselves the Knights of Deliverance, they profess to love us, to feel responsible for us, especially for that part of us what continues beyond this mortal coil and while the sardines aren’t inclined to proselytise with torch and sword in hand, they are inclined to give me a choice dying a yid or living a goy and like, all things being equal, I can’t imagine just how desperate I’d have to be, to willingly flake on the Covenant, nu?
And even if they don’t like, twig that I’m a yid, and even if the worst they could do to a yid like me in the space of a couple of nights is kettling on about the Unconquered Sun, son of a god what has as much to do with HaShem as I do with a kumquat, they’re still like, apt to get narky about, nu, well … the little issue of my brazen and shameless violation of both parts of the Section.
So like, either way, I would prefer not to deal with the Deliverance shelter and nu, I suspect that all things being equal, the Deliverance shelter would prefer not to deal with me.
Dwelling on all this is only making me freeze up all the more. The longer I think about it, the likelier it is I’ll totally lose my nerve.
I need a drink.
I need money and a future and a body what’s not riddled with arthritis before it’s even entered its fourth decade and like, for that matter, I need to get railed by someone what would want to stick around in the morning, but right now, I just need a drink.
My first attempt at standing up nearly ends with me faceplanting into the polished mahogany tabletop — I forgot to untangle myself from my bags — but I manage to stay upright and balanced the second time. I resettle my glasses on my nose — resisting the urge to rub mine eyes, I’m wearing makeup and nu like, I’d rather not wreck it — pick up my handbag and the shleptop bag, take up my walking-stick and make my way to the tiny bar, hair swinging, hips swaying.
With every step, I’m conscious of how easy it’d be to slip again, how easy one can lose traction, how quickly ankles and fortunes turn, and my heart hammers a counterpoint to the click-clack-click of walking-stick and stiletto heels upon the marble floor—
And then the heel of my hand meets the edge of the bar; I let it take my weight as I lean forward. The hypotheticals what crowded the prior moment slink off to skulk out of sight of my mind’s eye.
I was expecting to see Wolf at the bar, but tonight it’s his partner, Zhenya. She’s a copper cultivar near as tall as I am, broad where I’m spindly, soft where I’m flat and bony, with a wide face flanked by heavy black hair, straight and long and loose.
Her name’s Ladsky, but she’s a yid. I think her papa was Tatar from one of the plenum just West of Vyuta — and her mama was posh enough to send Zhenya to the kinda prep school what teaches the pupils not just how to fence, but how to fence well enough to end up with a graceful scar somewhere conspicuous, yet out of the way of any major wiring — Zhenya’s darts across her left cheek, stark white against fawn skin. She bothers not to cover it — and she bothers not to cover the tattoos she got back when she was with the Zakon, before she went chymical, before she met Wolf, before she went before a beys din and joined Undzer Shtik.
She’s turned away, double-checking the bottles arranged at the back of the bar, and arguing with the odd-job iron thorn — a wiry fag called Mika, what works down at the docks in the autumn and the spring, and leaves for the Ghetto when Glazurka’s rising and setting wobble out of sync with our civic notions of day and night.
Mika works not down by the water, nor near where the water runs Silver — but in the warehouses what loom just beyond the Ghetto wall, so even fresh off the trade, he’s as pale as the marble underfoot, delicately veined green and blue, hollow-eyed with black hair what can’t decide if it ought to wave or curl, and a shnoytz what like, makes me want to ask nosy questions. Last we talked, he was clean-shaven, but now he sprouts a boot-brush moustache, perfectly symmetrical and left to its own devices, encumbered not by wax — nu, Mika’s a fop and a faggot, not like, l’hovdl, a barin.
In the gloom of the lounge, their eyes glow softly — Mika’s green, Zhenya’s amber. I don’t think either would like, say they’re a nefil — lovekn also carry Silver mist in their eyes.
It’s been nearly two years since I’d last seen either of them.
I clear my throat to get their attention, and Zhenya half-turns her head, then abruptly spins around to face me, eyes wide, and nu, I know she’s not angry, I know I’ve done nothing wrong, but still I flinch.
“Lyubushka!” she exclaims. “Lyubka Morgenshtern, thou’rt alive!”
Mika clicks his tongue.
“Why wouldn’t he be?” he says.
“She stopped coming just as the Hundred started nosing around,” Zhenya says to him, not taking her eyes off me. “One never wants to assume the worst, but oy, one still thinks it.”
“Of course I’m alive?” I say, and I thought it’d be beyond me to be anything but curt and flat, yet the words flow easily; I lean on the bar, hips cocked. “Like, we all know I’ve got a deathwish, but di fashistes, do they know that, nu?”
Zhenya shakes her head; she’s smiling, and Mika’s beaming too.
“Is Wolf around?” I ask, and Zhenya’s face abruptly falls. My heart sinks into my stomach, dread and shame pooling in the crevice it left behind my ribs.
“Wolf’s ill,” she says, and she sounds worried. Mika busies himself with rinsing the pristine glasses stacked behind the bar.
“Oh,” I say, and the shame rises like a tide. “Er, I’m sorry—”
Am I sorry he’s sick, or am I sorry I asked?
I bat the thought aside. It’s not helpful.
“Feh! He’s been in bed all week, the drama queen,” Zhenya goes on. She tries to sound light and fond, but it rings a little false, a little too forced. I bite my lip. “It’s probably just a summer flu; we’re not due a cholera season for another couple of years.” She intercepts a glass Mika’s been turning over and over, and sets it down out of his reach. “He’ll be back on his feet — when he gets bored playing the consumptive barıshnya.”
“Kaynahore,” I say, and knock on the granite bar. Zhenya snorts, and then gently takes my hand. Her nails, long and sharp and acid green, brush delicately over my fingers, tracing red knuckles what in recent years have been looking less prominent and more and more knotted.
“Vos makht a yid?” she says, tenderly, and I suddenly want to cry. I look up at her and Mika — Mika’s looking at me with his brow furrowed, lips slightly parted. His campy kazatshok ‘tache quivers like steppe grass in a breeze.
I consider lying.
“Nu well, I got out of the Mamka just this morning?” I reply, tapping my collarbone with my free hand. “So like, right now, I’m fabulous, thanks.”
“The fuck wert thou doing in the Mamka?” says Mika, though from the way he says it, I think he knows.
“Well, like,” I say, and then pause. “Thou’rt remember like, Gilya? Gilbert?”
Zhenya clasps my hand; Mika scowls. I decide I don’t need to elaborate on what exactly my bougie ex-boyfriend has to do with my two-year absence, or my stay at the Mamka.
“Gilya’s barred from here,” Mika says, and then glances at Zhenya, since he’s just the odd-job thorn, and not the one running the place. Zhenya raises a pencilled eyebrow at him and he grins. Like she would pass up an excuse to bar Gilbert sın Danzig from the premises, should he decide to grace the Peach with his presence.
“Wouldst thou like a drink?” says Mika, cutting through the tangle of suspicions what was gathering at the back of my mind. “Thou canst drink, yes?”
“Nu like, sure?” I say, and before I can specify what I’d like, Mika hares off to mix me a drink. Zhenya gives me a sly sideways look and I stare ahead all stoic and proper, pretending to be neither a faggot nor acutely aware of Mika’s galaxy-size crush. Zhenya giggles at the ruse.
“It’s good to see thee,” she says. “We did really think thou wert … gone.”
Before I can think of a graceful reply, Mika comes back over holding a champagne flute. He sets it down in front of me with surprising delicacy. The contents is bubbly and golden; an orange slice hangs rakishly off the rim. I blush — Mika remembered my usual.
Zhenya clucks her tongue.
“Mimosas are more of a morning thing,” she says, but there’s no bite to her words.
I pick up the flute, feeling the damp chill of the glass against my skin, sharp and immediate and passing, a reminder of time what proceeds in an orderly fashion, an anchor yanking me out of an unbearable eternal Now and back into Oylam HaZeh. And I raise the flute to both my khaverim — “L’khayyim!” — and like? Just in this moment, the toast is not a question.
I leave my shleptop bag with Zhenya behind the bar, glad that the rest of my luggage — a vintage carpet-bag and a tatty leather suitcase — are far way, sealed in a metal storage locker at the General Post Office so neither Mika nor Zhenya can see them, see that I’ve got nowhere to put them, nowhere to sleep.
Slinging my handbag over one shoulder, I make for the basement discotheque. The mimosa’s gone to my head, loosened the hold of terror, and I’m suddenly starkly aware of how my chiffon blouse lies against my chest, where it brushes the vinyl pasties — heart-shaped — I stuck on not so much for modesty but, ah, to signal that I’m aware the blouse’s see-through — like, I’m flat and I intend on staying so, and a bralette under gauzy fabric doesn’t scream “I’m a tart” quite as loud when thou hast nothing to put in it, nu?
It’s been a long, dreary dry spell, and oy, before the Mamka there was life with Gilya — a long, dreary, dry lesson in when loneliness is a narrow life with a boyfriend what lingers like a census-taker over the notch where the bris inscribed the Covenant upon thee and stays silent when thou kvetshest.
I pause just at the top of the stairwell, and I think about Gilya, and I think about the apartment we shared back on Osedka, the apartment what used to belong to his grandparents, where beside the front door, just under the door-bell, lingered a light rectangular patch set at forty-five degrees, and four empty holes where nails had been gouged out.
I lean against the doorjamb, and I take my yarmulkeh out of my handbag, and I fish the bobby pins out of the side-pocket, and I pin the yarmulke back in place, where it belongs, and then I tell myself, I’ll die a yid. I’ll die a yid, and Gilya can frown all he likes, in the halls of memory, where a part of me will always sit at our kitchen table, under Gilya’s sad gaze, as he calls me by the name on my Ladsky paperwork, and I drink vodka out of his great-grandmother’s silver kiddish cup.
The handbag’s clasp twists in my fingers as I fumble to latch it shut, still leaning on the doorjamb. It’s cool in the Peach, but I run hot; a feverish resolve grips me. I double-check my chatelaine, making sure I’d remembered all the bead colours and silver charms what would tell any hot-house flower what cared to look what kind of late-night mutual activity I’m looking for, because like, nu, I have my preferences when it comes to such things and tonight I’m not in a temper to deal with any more roses what would baulk at fucking me up the arse or for that matter, feh, don’t take it that way themselves.
I run my fingers over the main strand of beads — strung on a leather cord, with a silk tassel, just to indicate the basics — and make sure I’d remembered the large silver beads both at the start and the end; I pause to fidget with the top one — okay Leyb you’re a kombayn but when’s the last time you didn’t bottom — and then decide to leave it.
I pause to collect myself; I feel a presence behind me, and the tug of a sign, a missive from Infinity—
I glance behind myself, but there’s just a sulky thorn — pallid and flushed, birchwood stained with blood — what looks only vaguely familiar, drinking beer and not even looking in my direction.
I shake myself. The veil of premonition does not lift, but it loosens. Feh. False positive.
I descend to the basement discotheque.
And so, we begin. The Bitter Drop has been a long time coming — as you can probably tell by the copyright date — and has gone through a couple of different media before I settled on static prose for good.
Updates will be going up every Sunday for now. There’s an RSS feed for those of you who use those, and updates will be announced on Twitter: @TheBitterDrop.
Eventually — hopefully soon — there’ll be illustrations. Stay tuned for that, and thank you for reading!