1. Sparrows

000 · The Night Grows Pale — part 02

1.000.02: The Night Grows Pale

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The spiral staircase down to the discotheque is a grandiose marble shtik, lit softly by wall-sconces the shape of sea-shells and the colour of meringue. The steps are narrow and stacked steep as a cliffside, their mantle of red carpet held down by brass stair-clips what gleam like gold. A few years back, when I haunted the Peach faithfully — turning up right after Ma’ariv near every night, barring Erev Shabbos — I caught Mika down on his knees, polishing these clips with an old toothbrush, and—

Oy, the White Guard, back when they called themselves the Imperial Army, they conscripted yidn as young as twelve, and like, I only escaped because my Uncle Velvel, he let me grow my hair out, and between that and the glasses, the Tsar’s men left me alone — maybe thinking me the kind of girl they’d not recruit, and wanting not to bother with a binoclard either way.

Mika’s a little older than me, I think; and I know the side of his family what’s of the nations, they are likely of a nation what has felt the weight of exile, and nu, like—

Thou asks these things not, lest you hear the answer you suspect.

I take the stairs stepping sideways, one hand clutching the rail, the other my walking-stick. Thou cannot slip on carpet as if it were ice, but thou canst trip, and I’m wobbly still, afraid I’ll unfurl — I can’t help but recall: twenty-five years ago, under midsummer’s revenant light, under an evening sky much like tonight’s, I had my first silver’d turn. The weeks just before Shuvos echo with its memory, sing of a dream of self as more than a cage of flesh, and like. It puts a queen on edge, nu?

I grip the rail tighter, focus on how the brass warms under my palm, focus on the stab of each heel into the crimson pile of the carpet underfoot. I cannot afford to unfurl. Not now.

At the bottom of the stairwell is the door to the discotheque, a brutal steel slab, red paint peeling like a sunburn — sound-proof and elderly, and perchance grown unnecessary these past five years, since the gates of the Talons shut out the gendarmerie and the Okhrana. Our neighbours on Gogol Boulevard, they may harbour all manner of odd and distasteful notions about hot-house flowers and about our teplitzes, but feh, no one in the Talons finds us so objectionable as to sic the Tsar’s bulls on us. We’re obscene and loud and strange, and like, such things rate not next to the dull cruelty of the Tsar’s men, nor next to their capriciousness.

And yet … okh, caution dies hard and hot-house flowers die easy, so the discotheque’s three exits are all still barred by doors thick as well as ensorcelled; like, it’s best not to give the neighbours a chance to disappoint us, nu?

I lean my weight against the door. The metal tingles where my shoulder makes contact; its patina shimmers like a skin of mazut over rain-slick pavement; its cantrips bristle — there’s three, one to lock the door, one to muffle sound, one to avert the evil eye. Feh, were it up to me, I’d paint blue eyes on the thing for that last one, and not rely too much on goyishe thaumaturgy, but like, up to me it is not.

I close my eyes, and concentrate: the door ought to remember me, but she may have questions, too; the red door in particular, she’s never been as chatty as her sisters, but I’ve been gone a long time, and she’s a kind one.

The moments slip by; the door does not have questions, but just at the edge of my perception, I can feel a warmth like a penny melting in sunlight. The discotheque’s red door missed me, and thought me dead; she’s happy to have been wrong.

She swings out; pumping, scintillating music hits me like a gale-force wind.

I dive into the discotheque.

The door shuts behind me, silent as decay; my eyes still adjusting, all I see is fog roiling close to the floor, and the darting specks of lights, crossed by the odd golden flash of a passing mazik, and the glow of starborn eyes in the darkness — amber and green and gold, and blue and violet. Something deep inside me lets go, as if a qlipeh has finally cracked and fallen; a smile rises to my lips, and hope flutters behind my ribs, a flock of sparrows settling down to sleep.

I skirt the dance-floor, heading for the side-corridor what leads to the — ahem — cloakrooms. At the end of the corridor — carpeted as lushly as the stairs — lurks a domed hallway. There, under a ceiling what bulges like a soup-bowl, I pause for a second.

See! There are two separate public lavatories here at the Peach, but nu, the signs disappeared long before the Gogol Minor Theatre became The Desert Peach teplitzeh, and none of us have ever been quite sure which one is which. I once caught Pasha Raskol’nikov backing out of one of the rooms, mortified and stammering, and it turned out he’d walked in on Eli Menelikova — the copper thorn cultivar what runs the discotheque bar — trying to salvage one of hir shirts after an unfortunate incident involving a bottle of crème de violette and Mika’s left elbow. Eli thought it was funny, and like eventually, Pasha did too.

Feh, Pasha’s always been skittish — two decades of etiquette and elocution lessons does things to a rose, even to a thorn.

While I gather my thoughts, no one emerges from either door, but a couple of violet petals flit through the corridor, steel-toed boots falling muffled on the carpet; they slip past me, and dart through the door on the left — thus cued, I take the right. Time to see how much damage the mimosa did to my lipstick.

The notionally-men’s room is empty, and it’s chilly in here and quiet: the walls have been worked over with muffling cantrips what silence external sound; they silence not the echo of my heels and walking-stick plinking against the granite floor; the grey stone, speckled like sparrows’ eggs and polished by the tread of countless soles, holds the merest shadow of my reflection, a faint silhouette in murky depths.

Placing my feet just so, tensing again from the possibility of losing my footing, I make my way to the elderly méridienne what lazes in the middle of the floor, perpendicular to the row of stalls what march along the far wall like tram-cars. There I sit down, and put my feet up on the oak foot-stool what stands guard beside it, and lean back, closing my eyes.

A minute later, I realise I’m not tired at all, merely bored; and worse, after a brief reprieve upon entering the basement, I’m keyed up again, nerves strung tight like a fiddle, caught like puppet-strings upon the claws of the Eternal Now. I open my eyes, and get up to take stock of my surroundings; oh, the lavatory’s not changed any in the past two years, but like, if I don’t find a distraction, I’ll start thinking about the future, and convince myself it holds only new memories and old disappointments.

Right behind the méridienne, a silk-and-wood partition screen bars my way, breaking the line of sight between the oval mirrors what hang above the copper sinks and the floor-to-ceiling mirrors what cover the opposite wall.

Those latter are ancient and foreboding, with edges blackened like singed lace, here and there splotched with greenish stains like festering blisters, elsewhere marred by white spots like the mould what flourishes on rotting citrus. Along the top edge, a row of sealing-sigils has been painted on with nail-varnish — a bare minimum needed to lock the glass, so no drunk or amorous hot-house flowers forget themselves, lean against the wall and fall through the glass into the Silver. Smaller mirrors are harder to breach, but like, these behemes, if left unsealed, they would be as open doorways.

I find a span of mirrored wall marked neither by time nor by creeping damp nor by the supernal realm what lies just beyond the glass, and look myself up and down.

My reflection gazes back mournfully, a dainty two-metre faggot in a translucent blouse and drainpipe jeans, narrow-shouldered and twiggy, a sallow, pallid, hollow-eyed yid with a mane of violently ginger hair what falls past the belt in loose waves.

I brush my grown-out fringe out of my eyes, attention briefly catching on the ocelli upon my forehead — three silvery-lilac eye-spots, three bright stars, beauty-marks right out of Pushkin; a feature common to nefilim and shogges both — especially like, us what fit the lovek bauplan. My ocelli had grown dull in the Mamka, but now they’re perking up, flickering like hopeful little candles.

Or like, is that wistful thinking?

Oy vay iz mir.

I shake my head to buck off the thought, and lean forward to check my make-up, trailing a searching gaze over the steep angles and the narrow planes of my face. Heart-shaped glasses — thick pink lenses in a thick bakelite frame — half-hide deep-set eyes, violet like autumn rain, neurotic and bright even in the glare of quicksilver-and-phosphor lamps. A long hook of a nose curves down to a knife-sharp tip snared by a septum ring; two matching silver spikes sit as snakebites under soft lips—

—oy, lipstick’s smudged. Kohl and eyeshadow — and, mercifully, foundation and contour — remain where they ought to be, but nu, lipstick’s smudged, and blue mascara’s left streaks on the lenses of my glasses. Tsk! I’d have worn doll lashes, but like, it’s been too long since the last time — if I weight my eyelids down so, I risk my vision doubling, and nu, when my vision goes wonky, I get migraines, and right about now, I need one of those like I need a hole in the head.

I fumble in my handbag for a tube of lipstick — lilac, to match my eyes and ocelli — and carefully apply it, steadying my shaking left hand by holding the wrist with my right; then I sit back down on the méridienne and spend three minutes ransacking my handbag for the little bottle of fixative liquid; I find it not, so I tap both lips with my index finger, and seal the lipstick with a cantrip instead.

How to undo such thaumaturgical overkill is like, a problem for future me, one who’s hopefully indoors and rested and g-d willing, fucked ’til satisfaction with assurances of an encore. The me what’s in the present has more pressing matters to worry about, and foremost among them is like, ensuring there is a future me to regret using a cantrip rather than put up with re-applying lipstick.

I get up again to twirl and preen at the mirror, trying to wake my vanity; my movements are stiff, cautious and circumscribed by a curious involuntary restraint, a stupor seeded by the bloody horse-pills. Just as I shake my hair out, the door creaks open, letting in another burst of music, and the faint faraway chuff of the fog machine, and the dusty smell of the hallway carpet.

I look up as Pasha Raskol’nikov bounces in, bleach-blond curls tousled, leather hot-pants sliding off his hips and absolutely no shirt in evidence. He’s fresh off the dance-floor, pale face flushed pink and red, squinting in the bright light, chest heaving.

Since the last time I saw him, he’d stopped waxing everything but his chest and face — a light dusting of auburn hair lays on broad forearms and sculpted thighs, and trails down over the curve of his stomach, down to where he’s left the top button of the hot-pants open.

He casually leans on the mirrored wall — oy, am I glad for the seals up top — and looks me up and down, grinning, and I, grown feral during my sojourn on Osedka, just stare at his right hand as he moves it down past the jut of hip-bone, then towards his inner thigh, stopping just short of an artfully arranged bulge. My breath catches in my throat; my cock shudders awake, a cobra roused by noonday sun. Remembering myself, I press my thighs together and look up to lock eyes with Pasha. He grins up at me, and winks.

«Lyovka Morgenshtern, right?» he says, af yvonish; his gaze runs over me, unhurried and tender, sizing me up. Then his face suddenly crumples, and he bites his lip. «Wait. I’m in the right bogs, right?»

Oy vay.

«Well, like, I always use the men’s when I’m at the Peach?» I say, and like, I sound more careless than I feel. I watch Pasha’s face, trying to keep my expression neutral and affectedly bored, a deliberately sloppy disguise of naked interest.

But nu, for all that Pasha’s a goy, a goy can be a mentsh — he grins again, brief fragile moment over and forgotten. He moves just a little closer, and then turns his head away, deliberately breaking eye contact. When he glances back, we lock eyes again; I cock my head to one side, and smirk just a little.

Maybe tonight will end well. Maybe like, it’ll turn out okay, and I and some other rose will need to have an awkward conversation with each other in a week or two, just to establish that no, by the time we like, got to the bedroom, my ulterior motive was not the primary one, and I’d like to stay regardless of whether there’s anywhere else for me to go.

Unfortunately like, I’m a tart and proud of it, but Pasha’s still haunted by a past of private tutors and family expectations, and this time he baulks rather than follow through. He flushes a deeper red and turns away, mumbling something about how he’ll see me around later, and dashes back through the door, into the hall.

Oy fucking gevolt.

I take a moment to steady myself, take a deep breath — come on Lyuba, are we really going to moon over Pasha bloody Raskol’nikov? — and follow him out of the lavatories.

Back in the gloom of the discotheque, I leave my handbag and walking-stick in an empty booth — I don’t have any money and my mobilnik’s two years old and the screen’s cracked, and like, nu, somehow I doubt that anyone at the Peach will want to nick a walking-stick, even if it is neon pink with silver stripes, and even if the handle’s shaped like a cobra.

I’ve lost sight of Pasha; standing on the periphery of the pulsing throng, straining to pick out any individual person, looking for Pasha, for someone — anyone — I’d known before I met Gilya, I realise I’m once again stalling, once again trying to talk myself into doing nothing, into choking down the part of me what wants, what wants to live, and what wants not to die. The music thuds like a heartbeat in my ears, and the lights dance like a mirage; the air smells of sweat and hairspray and perfume, and spilt vodka.

Before I can catch myself again, before I can lose my nerve and slam the gates shut against desire, I close my eyes and step into the crush of bodies amid the glittering fog, as if diving into a mikveh; I dance— okh, I dance badly, letting the Eternal Now carry me from moment to moment, half-oblivious and utterly carefree, the hope of some day landing in Oylam HaZe rekindling.

I only open my eyes when some stranger’s hand brushes over the small of my back — on purpose? on accident? — to smile and play the coquette and lock gazes for just a second—

And then I forget what I’m here for, I forget I have nowhere to sleep, I forget the last two years, and the narrow place upon Osedka — because the petal what caught me by the waist is stunning, a louche queen resplendent in organza and black velvet, entwined in a harness of black leather crossed over a flat chest, cinched tight around a figure what curves like a fiddle.

Like! The kind of rose I’d never dare talk to first, afraid of making a complete shmendrik of myself.

He smiles back at me, and raises an eyebrow invitingly, cocking his head to one side as if to show off his nose, beautiful and crooked, elegant like the prow of a longboat; the discotheque lights trace a silver halo around the fractal edge of his hair, a cloud of black curls backlit as if by a setting sun-star, held down by—


—held down by a black yarmulke in the Bukharan style, embroidered silver and gold.

He gestures up at my hair, at the crown of my head, and says, vowels flat and clipped, “bistu a yid, ziseleh?”

And he laughs even before I can reply, because the answer’s obvious, and steps back just a little, waiting for me to offer an invitation.

Borne on a rising tide of hope and sudden, giddy lust, I raise a languid hand to beckon him; he catches it and I draw him in close to me, twirling him—

And then he spins around again, and his arm’s around my waist, his thigh’s pressed against my thigh. He looks up at me all wide-eyed and faux-demure, eyeshadow shimmering in deep orbits, neon pink and violet against matte umber skin.

I place a hand between his shoulder-blades, and he arches his back as I dip him low, and then we’re nearly nose-to-nose; this close I can see his irises are two-tone, pupils ringed deep gold and amber, shading out to stark blue rims; each sharp cheekbone bears two ocelli, outer gold, inner blue; the two eye-spots between his eyebrows shine two-hued, like shot silk — he’s a nefil. He smells of an aftershave strong and sweet as perfume, and of peach hair pomade.

His lips are lilac, the lipstick glossy like lacquer: I’m not the only faggot vain enough to risk sealing make-up with thaumaturgy meant for outdoor paint. I tap a finger just to the side of one of my snakebites, and mouth, “we match!”

He laughs in response and lifts a hand to cup my cheek; nail-tip claw rings prick my skin like cold drizzle just around Peysakh, a sweet and light pain far from unwelcome. He quirks an eyebrow again, pouting, and taps a finger against his cupid’s bow. I bow down lower, folding near double — he’s a whole foot shorter, and high heels are no good to him when I’m on stilts too — and he rises to meet me, and we kiss.

I’m caught up in him, in the feverish glee of our closeness, in the pointed feeling of my cock growing hard against his thigh. My face flushes hot, and my head spins; I burn as if in ice, and drown in flames and okh, he kisses me harder. I kiss him back, and all I know is his tongue in my mouth, both his hands on my arse, and our hips grinding together.

And the Eternal Now yawns before me, a bottomless abyss, a merciless void, and its edges fray, and its grip slackens, and before I can quite register what’s happened, I’m upright again, and the litvak flamer has got me by the hand, leading me to the booths lining the far wall; I nudge him in the direction of the one where I left my stuff.

I collapse on the pleather seat, wincing at how it squeaks under my jeans. He perches beside me, legs crossed, hands resting in his lap; his fingers are long and slim, elegant as the limbs of an orb-spider.

“Thou canst—” I begin, but I’m out of breath, and like, I can’t quite get the words out; I gesture instead, and he leans against me, breathing hard.

I put an arm around his shoulders, and he leans his head against my chest, and there we sit, entangled in a golden moment.

The booth’s only lightly ensorcelled, just enough to push the music of the discotheque into the background; thou canst still hear what song is playing, but speech drowns not in the noise. I can feel the living roots of Oylam HaZe just out of my reach, waiting for me. All is still, and the future bodes no disasters, and my head spins.

“What do they call thee, darling?” says the rose pressed up against me. His voice is a breathy baritone, fluttering like a pennant in the wind.

“Well like, thou may call me Lev,” I say. “Leyb. But like nu, Zhenya? She calls me Lyubov.” My resolve falters, and so does my faith in the clarity of my own shtik, and thus I add, “um. I’m like, a rose, nu?”

I peer at him, anxiously. He smiles, lifting just one corner of his mouth — his eyes are warm.

“Oh, I can tell, ziseleh,” he says, laying a hand on my thigh. He cocks his head, and grins. “I am too, if thou had any doubts! I’m called Anzu. Nyura, to thee.

I want to say something witty, something charming, something what would anchor the delicate thing what may yet grow between us, but like— I can’t think of anything.

I want him, I want him so bad. I want to give my heart to him, raw and bleeding and scarred as it is, all its ugliness laid bare; I want him to take me as I am, all my flaws and all my failures accepted, all of me beloved—

I want to take him, to know him imperfect, to know I care not, to hold all of him beloved.

And in the halls of memory, Gilbert sın bloody Danzig takes my hand, and smiles at me, shy and reserved and full of hope, and I remember I’d felt this longing then, I remember how it felt to love, to want to love, to be loved—

To be betrayed, and found wanting, and to sojourn in lonely exile beside a boy I’d called my basherter.

My head rings empty as a bell; I shiver. Nyura’s face falls, and shame thumps in my throat; how needy, how ugly, to fall so hard after one kiss—

“Art thou quite all right, dearest?” Nyura says, his voice cutting through the fog. He leans forward, eyes wide and full of concern. “Thou lookst a touch faint–”

“Just … just tired,” I lie. He squeezes my shoulder, looking at me with unbearable tenderness. “I’m sorry—”

“Hush. No sorries,” he says. “Needst thee water?”

“Probably,” I say, and lean forward, holding my head in my hands. “I—”

I fall silent, and my awareness ebbs; the present moment stretches out, tense and full of dread, shame rising and falling like a tide. Then Nyura coaxes me upright again, and presses a glass of water against my hand. He helps me lift it to my lips. I drink, and the water’s cold against my teeth. There’s a ghastly knot what had been my heart just moments before, and it starts to loosen.

“I like … I think I need to get some air?” I tell Nyura, and then add, hastily, “no like, actually get some air. Thou canst come. Um. I’d like thee to come—”

He helps me get up, and helps me find my walking-stick, and holds my elbow as we climb the stairs up to the ground floor lounge. We slip out of the Peach, into the side-alley what borders an abandoned townhouse. The sky’s still white as a hospital sheet, but the air is cool, the breath of the city caressing my cheek. I lean against the wall. Nyura unclasps a small cigarette box from his chatelaine — his hands tremble just a little, and I notice for the first time how stiff his fingers are as they move.

Nyura proffers the cigarette box; I nod. He fishes out a cigarette — slim, filter-tip — and tenderly places it between my lips, and lights it with a click of his fingers. I take a long drag, and blow white smoke out through my nose, and sigh.

“Um, thanks,” I say. “I mean, like. Not just for the cigarette—”

“Oh, don’t thank me, darling,” he says, carelessly. “Thou shouldst know, I’ve got a hell of an ulterior motive here!”

“Nu?” I raise an eyebrow at him. “And here I thought, thou wert grinding on my cock for reasons both selfless and chaste.”

Nyura bursts out laughing, and I laugh too, and the hideous shame drains away. I finish the cigarette; Nyura takes my hand, and we go back into the Peach together, our steps already falling in sync.

Author’s Note

Well! I don’t actually have any commentary here; if I come up with something to say, I’ll edit it in later.

Thank you for reading — please do feel free to comment either here, or on Twitter. Gite vukh, and see you next Sunday!