I. Sparrows

001 · 01 Walking With Strangers

The murk of unconsciousness thins; heels click on a marble floor, a hand grasps my wrist, a voice rises and falls — a susurrus like distant traffic, like howling gale. I try to speak and okh, the effort of it is too much — it pushes me under. The murk congeals, gets in my mind’s eye, clogs my memories. I resist it not — mere effort brings not reprieve, nor wakefulness.

I drown.

A distant echo calls me by my rufnomen, a malekh of the ghetto seeking me in the World of Action — but oy, though I am sought, I am not upon the Bones to be found. The echo grows frantic, ringing in the silver’d darkness — and then it fades; all is silent, but for my heartbeat, and all is haar and hoarfrost, and all is numb.

Pain in my feet rouses me, a dull heat throbbing where my parade heels had clamped down their leather jaws. Feh! Typical. A swooning fit, so full of romance, so full of pathos, ended by a flaw what is inherent to garments of flesh — and like, by one what doubles not as a badge of honour. Callouses upon a musketeer’s sword-hand — such flaws are dashing, nu? But blisters on a rose’s feet, left by shoes last worn three years ago? Nu like, those are at best tiresome and unworthy of remark.

Oy, at least I wake. Like, the waking up, it is never a guarantee. Many a nefil has taken a fit and sunk into the Silver, and emerged not. We count our blessings, such as they are.

Someone speaks; the sound resolves—

“Leyb! Leyb, ketzeleh, canst thou hear me?” Nyura, calling my name. His voice is soft, breathy; the pounding of my heart near drowns it. “Thou’rt safe, golubushka. Thou’rt safe.”

I open mine eyes, and see naught but blue and gold stars in a threadbare darkness; the vault above is dark, so like, it cannot be the sky and we must be still inside the Peach.

Music plays softly and no feet tread upon the floor — we remain not downstairs in the discotheque.

Nyura takes my hand, lacing his fingers through mine, and presses our palms together. His hand is warm, so much warmer than a lovek’s; deep in the part of me what drowns in the Silver even in waking, I hear the flames dance ‘neath his skin — the ebb and flow of a yid’s neshomeh what burns defiant in exile. He squeezes my hand again; I hear the blaze of a peacock’s golden fan, the brush of a cobweb against my cheek.

I coax my stiff fingers to bend, to clasp his hand in turn — desperate to like, respond, to lapse not into numb disaffection, into the clutches of the Eternal Now. Dread rises in my throat; I push it down and cling like grim death to Oylam HaZeh.

Breaking not our handclasp, Nyura takes hold of my shoulder, helps me haul myself upright; my head lurches like a dinghy caught in a typhoon. I plant my stockinged feet on cold marble, hug myself with my free arm as I shiver. The sleeve of my blouse is soft under my palm; my shoes may have gone astray, but the rest of my clothes are all intact, all accounted for — nu, an eidos be not more than a dream, and receding it leaves not a trace, no evidence but eyewitness memory.

“Nu, here, ziseleh—”

The blue and gold stars blur in movement; I smell peach pomade and perfume, and — faintly — formaldehyde and disinfectant. Nyura gently sets my glasses back upon my nose, and our present context snaps into focus.

We are upstairs in the tea-lounge, in one of the booths; I sit upon a méridienne, and Nyura perches beside me, back straight and legs crossed daintily at the ankles. His expression is serene, and where my fingers rest upon his wrist, I feel his pulse beat in double-time.

He smiles at me, all eight eyes shining in the gloom.

“Sholem-aleykhem, Tzarevna Lebed,” Nyura says.

“Aleykhem-shulem, Reb Paveh,” I reply.

Nyura brushes my fringe out of mine eyes, and strokes my cheek. He’s taken his claw-rings off — his nails are filed short, painted black on his right hand and white on his left. I smile, and he smiles back; his eyes glitter and his ocelli gleam upon sharp cheekbones, and oy vay, I feel myself falling for him — falling like a stone, like a suicide, thrown off the precipice by the force of his ruakh, beguiled by the light and heat of his neshomeh.

“Happen they often?” Nyura asks, softly. “Thy silver-turns?” I shake my head.

“Like, not since I was young, nu?” I say, a reply what covers not the whole story. “Um. Where are my shoes?”

“Under the méridienne, ziseleh, with the bags and thy walking-cobra,” says Nyura. “Nu, let me—“ he ducks down to retrieve them — his movements are deliberate, stiff. He rises up, my shoes in one hand and two handbags in the other — one mine and one like, presumably his.

“If, ah, thou prefer’st to end the night now—” he begins; I place a finger against his lips, shushing him.

“Hush,” I say. “Worry not, nu? Oy like, if I called off hook-ups for every turn and seizure—” I trail off, my point made. Nyura bites his lower lip, suppressing a smile.

“Well, ah, if thou’rt sure, dearest—” he says, and in response, I kiss the tip of his crooked nose.

A knock on the partition makes me jump, makes Nyura twitch; his nails, short as they are, dig into the side of my hand. Pasha leans into the booth; he looks pensive, punctured almost — all his habitual bounciness bled out like the air from a deflating tire. Behind him stands the stranger thorn I saw up here in the tea lounge — hours ago, on the bank of midnight what lies proximal to yesterday, and not to the coming dawn.

«Lyovka awake?» says Pasha. Nyura tilts his head to one side, a cruel bird contemplating his prey. He casts his gaze towards me.

«Art thou awake?» he asks me, raising a quizzical eyebrow. His Ladsky’s nasal and cracked, the vowels creaking like a fiddle, the rhotics rolling in his throat like thunder.

«Nu, I sleepwalk,» I say; Nyura bites down on a smirk, and Pasha frowns at me. «I’m like fine, Pasha?»

«You had a turn,» mumbles Pasha, shifting from foot to foot. He looks not at me, nor at Nyura. Behind him, the stranger thorn sighs, leaning on the partition. This close to him, I can see his blond hair is shorn not, but worn in a braid, and I can see he’s sloppy with the razor in the mornings; his eyes shine amber in the low light of the tea lounge.

«Pasha,» says the thorn, heavily. «Such things, they happen to nefilim. Nu, is the petal made of glass?»

“No, of silver and of bone,” I say, distantly. Nyura cocks his head to one side and hides yet another smile; the thorn gives me a sharp look; Pasha merely frowns again, comprehending not. «Um, like, I’m glad ye two intervened, nu? Thou and Nyura. But, like—» I shrug. Nyura has relinquished my hand not — he presses our palms together now, strokes the ridges of my knuckles.

«Nu well, if you’re sure you’re okay?» says Pasha; what remains of my patience collapses, a rotten bridge giving up under the boots of a White Guard brigade, worn down by their breeding, their etiquette, their elocution.

“Oy fucking gevolt,” I snap. «Pasha, Pasha. Pashen’ka. For what dost thou treat me with such contempt, nu? Are we two such strangers, for thee to you’st me twice in the same sentence?» I break off, shuddering, and rub the bridge of my nose under the saddle of the glasses. My mouth is dry, my heart twitches like a dying beetle. «What am I — a heter? A bull? Thy governess?»

Pasha blanches; at my side, Nyura sighs. He presses our palms together again.

“Ah, ziseleh,” he says, bothering not to whisper. “Be not so harsh to the poor boy, nu? He is a thorn to us, for all that his papa tried to make him a prick.”

I bite my lip again, chastised. The stranger thorn, stoic witness, coughs as if hiding a laugh. Pasha stares at the floor in incomprehension, ears going red.

Nyura pats my thigh, turns to Pasha.

«Art thou all right, dearest?» he asks.

«I’m fine,» Pasha says, a little too quickly, eyes still fixed on the floor. Nyura raises an eyebrow at him. Pasha withers under such an onslaught.

«I pulled a muscle in my back,» he concedes, looking up at Nyura. «And I mislike … mislike seeing such a thing. The bastard’s gone, Mika and Eli tossed him out, but nu—»

He continues not; he need not, nu? Nyura clicks his tongue in sympathy. I try to speak again, and after a couple of false starts, Nyura rests a hand on my thigh to hush me. I squeeze his hand for reassurance; he squeezes back. Pasha and the stranger thorn watch this charade with neither commentary nor much judgement. Pasha knows what I am — like, such knowledge is hardly esoteric, one needs only to look at me to glean it.

«I thank thee for nu like, stepping in?» I say to Pasha. «It could have turned ugly—»

«’Twas ugly already,» Pasha says, flatly. «You— thou needst not thank me?» I open my mouth to apologise some more, and Nyura, as if reading my mind, daintily fishes a nail-tip claw from his handbag and drives its point into my thigh. I bite my lip to suppress a squeak, and say nothing more.

Pasha bows and bids us to take care; the stranger thorn inclines his head, a strange kind of smile flickering on his lips. The two of them take their leave of us, and a deep shame comes to me in their stead. Like, what if I came off like a putz? A conceited icy bitch, with no room for gratitude in his heart?

“Was I?” I say, before I can think better of it, “like, was I too harsh on him?”

Nyura cocks his head, looking at me through lowered lashes.

“Thou wert harsh, darling,” he concedes. “But ah … I would say thou wert neither unfair nor unjustified. Dwell not on it, nu? Thou’rt the one what got groped, not Pasha. If he seeks thy gratitude over thy safety, well, nu. Let that be his problem, ziseleh.”

He tilts my chin up, and kisses my temple. Oy, ’tis hard to sulk in such circumstances.

“Didst thou ever see the shaygetz before?” I softly ask Nyura. Nyura mock-frowns at me.

“Pasha? Nu, darling, I see Pasha damn near every night—” he says, and I smack his thigh, since like, the way we’re arranged just this second, I can’t quite reach his arse.

“I meant like, the … nu, thou know’st,” I bite my lip. “The chaser.”

“Ah, nu,” says Nyura. He sighs heavily. “Oh, treasure! Ask me not, lest ah— lest thou compelst me to answer.” He looks up at me, deliberately makes eye-contact; his eyes are jewel-bright and wide, and in their depths, I see sorrow and unease what are twins to mine own. I bow my head not and place my hand upon his shoulder and draw him near. He giggles in surprise and lays his head against my collarbones. His hair brushes the edge of my jaw; perfume and the scent of peach pomade and the ghosts of formaldehyde and disinfectant slink up my nose.

“Let me take thee to Gor’kiy Val,” Nyura says, his voice drawing aside the spell like tulle. “We can ride the tram to Feldskver, and cut through the catacombs, nu?” He leans away, cocks his head to one side again, waiting for my input on such a route.

“Nu, thou’rt like, cavalier about the beysoylem,” I say and for some reason, Nyura giggles again. I frown and raise an eyebrow at him.

“Thy dialect, ziseleh,” he says, coming over bashful all of a sudden. “Thou soundst like a plucked violin. Ah,” he bites his lip and looks down at our entwined hands, at our thighs pressed together. “’Tis hot, nu? Thou’rt a beautiful instrument, treasure-mine, body and voice.”

Okh like, what can a faggot do, confronted with such a beautiful boy? I kiss the corner of his mouth, lean back reluctantly, clap a hand on my thigh.

“Nu, ayda then,” I say, “To thine?”

And then we leave not, because first I’ve to put my shoes back on, and fish the walking-cobra from the floor, and then we must go fetch the shleptop bag from Zhenya’s custody — sweeping dramatic exits, nu … such things are for those what are waited on hand and foot since birth, for the lords and ladies upon Osedka. Us what were born clutching tin spoons, we have to wipe our own arses.

Once we have collected ourselves and our things, and taken our leave of Zhenya, we step out into the lingering heat of the pale night. All is still; no breeze disturbs the air. Gogol Boulevard stinks of benzin and horse manure, of dusty paving-slabs and rotting boardwalk.

A feral pig, piebald like a kinofilm cow, roots noisily in the gutter; a pair of gamayun — a lammergeier, a cruel bloody vulture of the cliffs, and a sacred ibis, hir wings the same sickly-pearl colour as the sky — perch upon the pig’s back. The ibis stands on one foot, head and long beak tucked away under one wing; if sie sleeps not, nu, sie certainly tries.

The lammergeier stands guard, watching us with some distaste — and like, I fault him not, nu? He is a sovereign of the sky, the crusher of bone. He may look upon us any way he wishes. All his cruelty and bloodlust, all his sovereignty, feh! They compare not to the tzars, to the White Guard, to the goyim what took up holy sword and righteous flame to wash the plena of Sefarad clean of us, to the goyim in Orm what hollow out our mentshen and bury their dust in shallow graves.

The pig moves slowly, deliberately, loathe to disturb his companions. The ibis raises hir head, and fixes hir eye upon us. The empty heavens loom bright and painful above; the coquina paving-slabs lie upon Vyuta’s Bones like fallen clouds gone stale.

Oylam HaZeh takes my hand, and Nyura leads me out of the Peach, into the summer night.

Chapter/Scene Navigation

Author’s Note

Finally, Chapter 001 begins!

First up, credits where credit is due, since this chapter was rather frustrating to get off the ground: A huge thanks to my friend Clay Dante for their invaluable editing assistance; thanks to, among others, Chrysoula, Jenna Katerin Moran and Izzie Melakh for their help untangling a particularly convoluted passage and helping me make it flow better.

Kibitzing related to scheduling and whatnot can be found

on the shiny new author blog.

Apologies for keeping ye all waiting; as I hint in the relevant blog post, I’m loathe to make any more promises about when the next update’s coming, and I am unwilling to make any firm promises about when regular (i.e. weekly) updates will resume, for fear of jinxing it.

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