Where the Sky Is Silver and the Earth Is Brass

She held her breath as the demon struck the match, but nothing stranger than the smell of sulfur rose to meet her; it lit the candles like anyone, left to right, and placed the shammes in the center of the small brass menorah when it was done.

They glowed quietly and a little ironically on top of the varnish-scratched dresser, the creamy points of their flames limning the mirror as if it gave back the image of a star’s dressing room, not the empty drawers and hanger-bare closet of a transient hotel. Two weeks and she was still living out of one suitcase, packed and unpacked as meticulously as it had been aboard the St. Clair, on the train to Bremerhaven, behind the DP wires of the American Zone. Boston beyond the rolled-up window blind was photographic with snowfall and streetlight silvering faintly into the darkest blue sky; she had turned her back deliberately on the black zigzag of the fire escape. The radiator hissed too softly to drown out the jazz record in the next room. As matter-of-factly as she had told the translator from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society that she needed no help finding her own lodgings, with the same hard beat in her throat, Chaye said to the demon, “I was wondering if you could do that.”

In reflected candlelight, it looked very little like a denizen of the other world, more like the youngest and skinniest of her uncles, the one her mother had always said could get lost in a pickle barrel, so long as she kept her eyes off the wall where its shadow stirred and fretted to itself. “What did you expect, I’d disappear in a puff of smoke? Melt? You’ve been around goyim too long.” For that matter, it sounded like her uncle, the same airy aimlessness that had charmed creditors all through her childhood and even in the ghetto never paid for its own drinks and not stopped a bullet any more than her father’s pragmatism or her mother’s steel. Even the gesture with which it tossed the book of matches back onto the dresser was familiar, but it set the demon’s shadow rippling through the darkened room as through deep, chill water and she closed her eyes; there was something of soft wings in the movement, something of smoke, nothing of family. “Ah,” the demon said then, so awkwardly that it did not sound like any of her uncles. She heard it moving around the narrow space, a crunch of mattress springs when it finally settled; when she opened her eyes, it was sitting at the foot of the bed with its arms around its angular knees, holding itself as compactly within the ordinary shadows as it could. Its dark coat still trailed too far over the dusty, starchy coverlet, but she could tell herself that it was only that she could not see the hem. Its face was a candleflame, bright and drawn. “Sorry.”

In her partisan years, she might have taken even an apologetic demon in stride. The world had burned then and she had burned with it, with fear and anger, with fever and cold, with short nights in pine forests and long days on dusty roads, and in the end she had been no more surprised to hear of her parents’ deaths than she had been to take the lives of men who might have ordered it, men who might have known nothing about it, men who had done little more than wear the uniform that said she was for killing and Chaye Roznatovsky responded in kind. She dreamed of good rifles and thick soup and slept with the wintergreen bitters of birch bark under her tongue; she sang never say that you walk the last road and through valleys and over hills and named her bullets after her brothers, the older and the younger who had always looked more like strangely split twins than the undisguisable dark girl dropped between them, the last of her family of whom even the tunnel escapees had never been able to bring her certain word. From the mirrors of cloud-grey streams and black alder swamps, she would have believed a demon looking back at her with their raw fair hair, their wide grey eyes. In America it seemed as absurd as a burning bush on the tracks of Scollay Under. She had accustomed herself to skirts, to carrying a purse over her shoulder instead of an M91/30; where no one spoke Polish, Niewiem looked like a last name. If she had been going to bring home anyone from the bar of the Hotel St. Moritz, they should at least have been a woman and alive. But she had seen the barman’s reflection a beat behind the brisk rhythm of the cocktail shaker, his shoulders in the brassy light as restless as feathers beneath his pastel-blue shirt; she had watched her own hands move like a stranger’s within the dusk-shadowed glass, setting each pale stick of wax upright in the reverse order of the Other Side. She had not even screamed when they reached for the same book of matches. She had always assumed, if she ever went grief-crazy, she would shoot herself without starting to see things first.

At least she could talk to her craziness like a sane person, or maybe that was worse: “I suppose you light them the other way, in your country? Do you daven backward, too? Do you name the nights for sins?”

“My country.” The demon’s voice was wry, as if it had something to say on that subject; then, as if thinking better of it, “You know sin is as holy as anything else of God’s.”

“I didn’t know you had An-sky on the other side of the mirror.”

She had not meant to sound so interested. The demon returned gravely, “Oh, we have everything. Only organized a little differently,” and she could not tell if it was mocking her. So carefully collected, it looked more like the sketch of a person than a person themselves, a few narrow lines for shoulders and knees, its face tipped back to her like an empty inkwell. She kept seeing claws in its linked fingers, spurs at its heels; then it shifted its weight and she thought that all it needed was a paper label on its lapel to pass for any of the displaced persons she had taken ship with, all in hats and scarves and overcoats, all their worldly possessions in a suitcase or two. She had not even noticed it was speaking Yiddish until she heard, like a little gulp of surprised breath, its accent on medine. She wondered if she were crazy enough to invent, not a demon that spoke Yiddish, but a demon that spoke Yiddish like they had in Lodz and Warsaw, not Vilna or Novaredok.

The sky beyond the fire escape was pearl-black now, the hundreds-and-thousands light striped icily across the bed so that the demon’s shadow, despite its best efforts, shivered a little in her sight. New and low among the rooftops, the moon looked as bright and flimsy as a leftover strand of New Year’s tinsel. The candles were burning down in time with their reflections. Chaye shivered, all at once unable not to think of other candles, other moons, other windows half-sequined with frost; it was the same stifled movement as the shadow and she asked before she could be sorry for the answer, “What are you doing here?”

For a long moment she thought the demon was not going to answer her: she had broken the rules of the game, or offended it, or in some reflex of sanity ceased to imagine it at all. When she heard its voice at last, it was as steady as her own had been, three years ago in the transit camp: “We live in your mirrors. Where else would we go?”

“Palestine,” Chaye said automatically, and then remembered, “Israel,” but the look the demon gave her would have been reproachful by any name.

“They have their own . . .” She could not imagine it was bad luck for one of its own kind to say sheydim, mazzikim, but it finished the sentence, “Troubles,” and shrugged a little irritably, hitching itself up against the end-rail of the bed. “Did you go for a soldier in a desert you’d never seen—or even to drive a tractor and plant trees? So, neither did I. I lived where I was born, like all of us, between your dreams and your nightmares, in the land where the sky is silver and the earth is brass and all windows are mirrors, all mirrors are doors. It turned to broken glass, like yours did. Where you don’t stay, we can’t, either.”

Once in the forest where demons would have made as much sense as neighbors turned executioners, occupiers turned allies, she had dreamed of something she had thought must be Ashmedai, blond as an officer with wolf-blue eyes: he had laughed at her, crisp and casual in his field greys as a portrait of the new Germany, and she had woken sick with the sound of it. Surely Lilith who feasted on children was growing fat and fussy, Ketev Mriri who treasured lies had been surfeited long ago. What smoke-stains of shtetl yetser-hora could have called out these fire-ridden days? In the West End of Boston, Chaye shut her mouth on the grinding words—why didn’t you fight?—but she was standing away from the wall before she realized it, arms uncrossed to leave her hands free, watching the demon at her bedfoot as narrowly as she might have her youngest uncle with his absentminded excuses, his bones bullet-cracked in a green and sun-washed field.

She said, because it was more important than any other question, “Did you know?”

A thin and burning figure in a coat of black wings, the demon said, “Did you?”

The sharp dry smell of smoke startled them both. The candles were small and cheaply bought, the first lit already puddling into clear wax; she watched its reflection unplaiting, the fingernails of white fire eating at the dark. With their afterimages across her eyes, Chaye thought of shattered storefronts and smashed spectacles, of breaking cat-ice to wash in water as sharp as a slap, of soldiers marching through the market square, first Russian, then German, then Russian again.

“We don’t daven backward.” The demon said it irrelevantly, as if they had not said anything worth remarking in between her question and its answer. It had stretched out its legs on her bed, its arms over the back of the rail; it looked like one of her brothers, a little self-conscious and harmless, not at all like them. “We’re not—not-you. We’re, on God’s Other Side, your other side, you see? We mourn our dead. We celebrate our survival. And yours.”

“Ours.”

“Oh, yes.” In the face of her half-skepticism, it looked for the first time as she would imagine a demon, brows arched in mischief, shadow curling and flickering like a thousand bad ideas. She knew then that she would not ask it to leave, shroud her mirror as if she mourned, take her craziness to the shul on North Russell Street and demand an exorcism even in America of neon advertisements and elevated trains: “Who would we tease and torment without you? The Seleucids were no fun, believe me.”

Perhaps there had been demons in the wet places of the forest after all, in the winter marshes and the crackling fields—brass cartridges, tin plates, the portholes of a troopship on the tide. Anywhere a reflection glinted, until the right door opened on safety at last. It was not the same thing as home, but then where was? Her neighbor’s jazz record was going round again. By the lights of the last night of Hanukkah, Chaye said equably to her demon, “I give as good as I get.”

 

for Jeannelle M. Ferreira

 

© 2019 by Sonya Taaffe. Originally published in Machinations and Mesmerism: Tales Inspired by E.T.A. Hoffmann. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Sonya Taaffe

Sonya Taaffe reads dead languages and tells living stories. Her short fiction and poetry have been collected most recently in the Lambda-nominated Forget the Sleepless Shores (Lethe Press) and previously in Singing Innocence and Experience, Postcards from the Province of Hyphens, A Mayse-Bikhl, and Ghost Signs. She lives with her husband and two cats in Somerville, Massachusetts, where she writes about film for Patreon and remains proud of naming a Kuiper belt object.

Photo Credit: Rob Noyes

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