I. Sparrows

001 · 02 Walking With Strangers

Despite the late hour, the trams of the Talons are running still. Like, the buses run not — benzin’s hard to get, and we need the mazut in winter — but like, feh! What meshiggener wants to take the bus? A bus stinks, and rocks as it winds down the streets, and punctures its tyres upon the debris strewn about by the White Guards. A tram, nu, a tram is a metal comrade, what grinds down White Guard khazerim — and the unholy racket she makes as she comes scares off the feral pigs what don’t deserve such a fate.

The tram what would take us to Feldskver stops just around the corner from the chief entrance to the Talons Ghetto, which lies close to the Peach — okh, a little too close, considering the old Talons Barge to Osedka lies just beyond it. Unlike most of the Ghetto, unlike half of Osedka, the gate is made not from the local limestone, but from marble, imported at great expense less than a century back, a grandiose fucking waste of money and life meant to shame us members of the unternationale into like, having been born Ladsky rıbaks.

The old barricade, sister-in-arms, stands before the gates, flanked by the stove-in guard booths, and wrought iron lamp-posts — the gas globes aglow despite the midsummer twilight. Two red flags jut from the barricade’s flanks, one each side, and a banner inscribed with am yisroel khay stretches across her belly, facing in, into the Ghetto, proclaiming to the yidn and the gerim toyshavim the persistence of Oylam HaZeh, the possibility of Oylam HaBah.

Upon the barricade sit two mounted quads of Maksim guns, and a squad of Nostalgines dangling their legs and gossiping — boys and girls just old enough to volunteer without tacking on an extra year to their age, in jeans and hi-top sneakers, and grey Nostalgine summer jackets; most wear linen

bogatyrkas, and a couple wear yarmulkes, and two of the girls are in scarves — one in a tikhel and one in a kalfak.

Tonight’s squad leader is Maksimilian, a short and fat violet thorn, a rock-solid balebosteh what wears magenta work-boots and shaves her head bald to show off the tiled pattern tattooed upon her skull — an intricate filigree blooming scarlet upon ochre skin. She stands upon the pavement just in front of the barricade, hands thrust into the pockets of her plaid trousers, an unlit cigar clenched in her teeth; her big honest forehead is creased in concern, her gaze faraway. Maks and I were never like, close, but she was the first copper cultivar I knew, and like, such things stick in a faygeleh’s heart, nu?

One of Maks’s boytshiks glimpses Nyura, raises his hand in greeting.

“Koschey Menelikov! Anzu Tamiratovitsh!” he calls, voice cracking in half across Nyura’s full civic name. “A gitn ovnt bay aykh, Reb Doktor!” His voice carries, shaking Maks out of her trance. Maks looks up and squints at us; recognition sparks, and Maks grins so wide her cigar falls out of her mouth. She catches it absent-mindedly, and waves at us, jumping up and down.

I raise an eyebrow at Nyura. He delicately covers his mouth with a languid hand, hiding a smile.

“Okh, bravado have the Nostalgines aplenty, but discretion? Such a virtue’s in short supply,” he says. “But! Mind’st thee, darling, if ah, we should stop to debrief the night’s watch?”

“Oh like, I mind not,” I say. “Reb Doktor.”

Nyura shoots me a stern look and smiles. He lets go of my hand to lightly pat my arse; once, twice — and then lands a stinging blow what makes me squeak and sway like a willow caught by a gale.

“Keep up such a tone, ketzeleh, and I really will spank thee as soon as we get to mine,” he says.

I try to say something, but start giggling instead. Nyura bites his lip, ducks his head, blushes harder. I glance at the barricade, afraid the Nostalgines are watching, but they are watching not — and like, Maks would care not, if she saw.

“’Tis more fun, nu?” I say, “if I think I deserve it.”

We approach the barricade; the one what called — tall and broad of shoulder, with skin like burnished copper and black curls barely held down by his bogatyrka — looks up and grins. He bows to Nyura from the waist, hair bouncing vigorously enough to nearly dislodge his cap. I go still, hold myself rigid, expecting his khaverim to mock him, but they incline their heads to Nyura, solemnly intone, “gitn ovnt, Reb Doktor” and «добрый вечер, Анзу Тамиратович».

Nyura salutes them, limp-wristed, and turns to Maks — with no pre-amble, Maks grabs him in a bear hug and lifts him off his feet. Nyura shrieks with laughter, the sound echoing off limestone façades like a marble careening from skirting-board to skirting-board. Maks sets him down – Nyura kisses her twice on each cheek, clasps her shoulder. Maks rounds on me — she hugs me and hoists me into the air as if I weigh no more than a kitten. I burst into shrill, nasal giggles as Maks spins me around and puts me back down onto the pavement, not letting go until she’s sure I am standing steady.

“Lyubka! Lyubka Morgenshtern!” she exclaims, shaking her head. “The fashistes got thee not!”

Nyura looks up at me, cocking his head; I bite my lip, and wonder just how much my surname tells him, just how long he’s been in the Talons; my heart hammers in my throat. I steel myself, try to will myself out of dizziness, out of dread. Nyura rises on tiptoe, puts a languid hand upon my waist, lets it slip down to my arse. The index finger of his other hand alights upon my lips. Nyura smiles, and meets my eye.

“Hush, ketzeleh,” he says. “I know thou’rt the young Rav of the Eastern Quartal. Star or no star, two-metre tall red-heads, of those we have few in the Talons, nu?” I stroke his cheek, grateful. Maks slaps me on the back.

“The whole Talons knows thee, Lyuba,” she says. “From the yeshivas to the hot-houses. I mean, fuck, half of Osedka knows thee, or they would, if they had any taste.” She looks to Nyura. “Shan’t keep the two of ye long, shall I? Surely ye’ve got things to do, maybe even things what aren’t each other.”

Nyura rolls his eyes, quashing a smug smile.

“Oh dearest, I’ve got absolutely nothing else to do!” he says. “Well, ah. Not ’til Gigi gets back, nu?”

“Nu, really?” Maks replies, her eyebrows going up. “The two of ye back on, then?” Here she makes a suggestive gesture, making Nyura smirk. He shakes his head.

“I make no double entendre here, Maksimushka!” he says. “Nu, we’re close, but our friendship … ah, involves no sexual intimacy, these days.” He shrugs, spreads his hands. “But she is busy, and she’s taken Shlomovitsh with her. ’Tis just me and Oneg, back at the kommunalka.”

“Oh? Whither have they gotten to, then?” Maks says, taking the bait with relish. The two of them dive into small-talk what means nothing to me.

A couple of Maks’s charges watch the three of us with careful poker-faces; they say naught, and I struggle to imagine not reproach in their blank expressions. I swallow my unease down, remind myself I care not what they think, as long as they merely think it; and maybe ’tis not disgust they hide, but jealousy. Maybe they hide naught but simple curiosity.

The boy what called Nyura over and the two girls in scarves, now they make a big show of not looking, of being unfazed by the sight of an old dyke and two young queens. Their perfect indifference is almost comical. Okh, my heart fair breaks for the three of them — Maks can protect them, Maks can show them herself and her fellow hot-house flowers, but like, Maks cannot walk their path for them, and nor can I.

I look away from the young Nostalgines, away from Nyura and Maks, look at the marble gate. In this brief lacuna, and with my thoughts already drifting to gloom, it occurs to me again: I have told Nyura naught of my situation. With every second I pass in his company, I grow ever more certain I cannot — nu like, were I to tell him, he would worry! He would wish to help! And then where would we be? We would be where I was with Gilya, and oy—

Oy vay iz mir.

I like Nyura too much, to do that to him, to burden him with the mess I’ve made of my life. ’Twill be better for the two of us to part with him none the wiser; it will be better for me to leave before there’s anything between us, anything what I could wreck.

Nyura squeezes my hand to get my attention; he and Maks have wrapped up their gossiping. Maks hugs him again, then me. We bid her goodnight, salute her squad again, and head for the tram stop. In the distance, out of our sight, sparrows chirp. Nyura lets go of my hand, wraps his arm around my waist, leans his head against my side. I put my arm around his shoulders, and banish from my mind all thought of our inevitable parting. A light breeze rises, chasing pamphlets and ice-cream wrappers across the coquina slabs, across the boardwalks dark with age and with damp.

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Author’s Note

A massive thanks to my dear friend Aster Rowan for helping me with the geology and geography of the Talons Ghetto — a little of it has already obliquely come up in this scene, and there’ll be more to follow soon.

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