by Rose Lemberg

Illustration by Lauren Rogers

Atop the City by Lauren

Atop the City by Lauren Rogers

Zelig’s grandfather liked to smoke with his window half open, even though winter’s breath melted on the old parquet. When the snow on the streets turned as porous and yellow as a matzo ball, a pigeon flew into the room. It hid under the chaise, there to await compliments or perhaps breadcrumbs.

Zelig asked, “Do you think the pigeon would like some cake?”

Grandfather examined the offering from the lofty height of his chaise: a piece of honey cake on Zelig’s outstretched palm. “A good one like that, he will want.”

The boy clambered onto the chaise and wormed his way under the blanket, close to the old man’s legs. Grandfather smelled comfortably of chicken soup, hand-rolled papirosn, violin rosin. Outside the window the abandoned cathedral still sputtered pigeons into the darkening square, and a neighboring house obstructed the rest of the view.

Grandfather said, “Do you know what Geddarien is?”

Zelig flattened a piece of cake and dropped it into a crack between the chaise and the wall. Moments later, he heard hesitant crooning from below. “No, Grandfather. What’s Geddarien?”

The old man closed his heavy eyelids. “These cities like ours, my boy, they have a life of their own. And sometimes, you should know,” he whispered, “the city dances.” Grandfather’s eyes opened again: watery gray with a thin grid of red, like railroad tracks across a thawing country. “Could you bring it to me? My fiddele?”

“Grandmother says it will only make you upset.” But he threw the rest of his cake under the chaise and jumped off. In the small polished wardrobe, the battered black case was buried under an avalanche of hats. Not so long ago Grandfather used to go out, dandy like a pigeon in his gray pinstriped suit and a fedora; but these days he could not even properly hold the instrument. His grumpy nephew Yankel now came to give Zelig music lessons.

Grandfather opened the creaky case, and inside it the old violin glowed, waiting for touch. “Your fiddele, now,” the old man said, “is only a quarter-fiddle, and newly made. But soon you will graduate to one-half, and then to full.” He stroked the large fiddle’s neck with his fingers. “To this one. My father played it, and his grandfather, too.” He took up the cake of rosin from the case, moved it slowly along the horse-hairs in the bow.

Zelig felt the sounds this movement created, a music of honey sap upon wind, melting the heart into his bones. “Grandfather, what of Geddarien?”

“Ah. Geddarien, there’s a story.” The old man smiled sadly. “The houses in this city, they do not meet. They are fixed in their places. But once in a hundred years they come all together, the living houses, and they dance.” He put the bow back into the case and took up the violin; his fingers shook. “And they need music then, so they call us, the musicians. My father played at Geddarien once, and I was there as well, you see, with my quarter-fiddle, and my big sister Bronya with her trombone. And my father had this violin in its case and I held onto the handle right here,” Grandfather put Zelig’s hand on the worn leather, “and he took Bronya’s hand, and off we went. Oh, Zelig, the music was nothing I have ever heard. The houses, my yingele… I have seen Sankta Maria spread her gray marble hands and dance, and the old Blackstone house, and this little library I used to go to, and the Town Hall — very fond of waltzing, they all seemed.”

Grandmother entered the room from the kitchen, carrying a steaming cup of cocoa on a tray. “You are not telling that old tale again, are you, Grandfather?” She shook her head and placed the tray in the old man’s lap.

“And what’s the harm in it, Grandmother?” The old man blew the thin film of milk off the top of his cocoa, closed one eye and took a cautious sip.

“There are things going on in the world more important than old stories. The war will come here… Yankel’s wife says they are going to move away.”

“Oh, the war,” Grandfather said, not impressed. “It’s going to be just like the last time. They won’t harm us. Our languages, they are almost the same, yes?” The old man took another gulp, and boasted, “I played my fiddele to the generals of three different armies!” He paused, contemplative. A soft crooning voice came from under the bed, and Grandmother tilted her head in suspicion. “Yankel isn’t going to leave this city if you paid him. He too is waiting for Geddarien. Missed the last one… What are you doing? No, no…”

Grandmother bent laboriously, and looked under the chaise. “Oy vey ‘z mir! An airborne rat in my house! Are you out of your mind?” She brought the broom from the kitchen and waged war on the poor bird.

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A cube of sugar sat upon the kitchen table, a small shining king adored by three musicians, two old and one young. This summer the war had reached the city of Luriberg. “This war’s nothing at all like the last time,” Yankel grumbled; but grandfather shook his head and smiled, sipping his unsweetened tea. “You see, Zeligel, war is like this, that you drink your tea looking at the tsuker. It feels as sweet, melting in your mouth, but it doesn’t go anywhere.” He winked, and Zelig smiled back, his hands busy sewing a blue star onto the old man’s second-best jacket.

Yankel fidgeted in his chair. “You’re a mishige, old man. Haven’t you seen the loons marching in their uniforms and their eyes all steely, not caring, not seeing…”

“What are they, not people?” Grandfather shrugged. “They’ll take off their uniforms and they will have parties. They’ll want music. Just like the last time. I don’t remember his name, that big guy who married. And a groiser bandit he was… remember?”

“They all were banditn.” Yankel stared at his hands.

Grandfather turned to Zelig. “Yankel and I had played them the wedding music, the freilakhs, so jolly they gave us a big piece of lard to eat.” The old man fingered the sugar cube and looked plaintively at Grandmother, busy at the stove.

“Stolen from some peasants, no doubt.” Yankel murmured.

“You weren’t supposed to eat it, old man.” Grandmother peered into a bubbling blue pot. Potato steam rose above it, reminding Zelig of the times when he had a stuffy nose and she made him lean over this very pot, and covered his head with a towel, and told him to breathe in, deep, deep, my Zeligel, neshumele, my little soul.

“What did you want, for us to starve? We were hungry. We ate it all night.”

“It was good lard,” Yankel sighed, “with plenty of garlic.”

Grandmother fished out a potato and banged the plate down onto the table in front of her husband. “Well, here. No lard. No butter. We’re lucky to have the kartof’l.”

The potato broke on the plate, yellow and mealy, puffing out sweet healing steam. Grandfather dug into the salt-cellar. He rubbed the salt between his fingers, and it made a secret sound, like a door opening in the night, like the smallest movement of bow against strings. Zelig looked up, and his grandfather said, “Do you hear it?”

“Yes,” Zelig whispered.

Yankel said, “Hear what?”

“How can anyone be upset,” Grandfather said, “when the whole world makes music?”

Grandmother slammed the lid and sat down heavily. Before the war, her blue pot was magic; it cooked ‘pigeon rolls’, cabbage with filling of meat and rice; and twice a year, gefilte fish…

Yankel said, “I will tell you how. Yesterday they made some yidn kneel by the Opera theatre, in the street, just like that, and the passers-by pointed fingers and laughed. That’s what those blue stars mean. Now I am asking you, is that right?”

“What did the Opera theatre have to say?” Grandfather’s eyes sparkled in the dim light.

“Nothing. What could she say?”

“That’s not right,” said Grandfather.

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When the snow curdled again on the ledge of Grandfather’s window, they came to make all the yidn move to the ghetto. Grandmother did not want to go. She did not want to leave her blue pot. You can take the pot, they said. She said in the other room there was a big cardboard box of her old theatre dresses, smelling of must and love letters and music sheets. You cannot take the box, they said. You don’t understand, she said, I played the oldest daughter of Tevye the Milkman…

They shot her in the belly.

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In the ghetto they lived in a single room: Zelig and Grandfather, Yankel and his wife. The windows had no curtains. Steely wind wailed outside, and the horse-chestnut scraped its frozen fingers on the glass. The neighbors came to whisper of all the old people who had disappeared; a woman with bruises for eyes said they had all the grandparents shot on Peltewna street because they couldn’t work, and please hide your grandpa, it’s a miracle he’s still alive. She brought them a blanket that smelled of heart medicine and cinnamon, an old woman’s smell.

There were only two beds; Zelig and Grandfather huddled in one, and sometimes in the night they’d pretend not to hear each other cry. In the evenings Grandfather made Zelig take out the old violin and play doinas. The fiddele wept in his hands, in an old man’s voice, in a boy’s voice, in its own voice; it sang of a shtetl, the girl with the loud voice betrothed to a rich man, that girl who fell for a fiddler, and how one night they ran away on a bumpy road in an old cart drawn by a horse that loved to eat sugar. Some evenings Yankel would play second fiddle, his fingers stiff from working in the construction sites in the cold.

When snow started turning to sleet on its way to the ground, Zelig’s doinas became livelier. Yankel listened, frowning. “Soon you will want to play wedding freilakhs, boy, shame on my gray hairs. Have you been to any weddings of late?” No, even funerals now were haphazard affairs, and hushed.

The winter exhaled the last snowy breath and died. The horse chestnut plastered its newly hatched leaves on the window outside, and the neighboring house sent pigeons to clap their wings when the fiddling was done. Yankel’s wife brought out her stash of tea to celebrate the spring, but there was no table to sit around, and the magical sugar cube was lost.

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One late afternoon Yankel’s wife did not come home. There was a party at one of the uniformed big shots’ place and you can play waltzes, they said to Yankel. They turned to Zelig too, but Yankel said, quickly, “This boy is my student. He’s good for nothing, something horrible.”

The door closed.

“Grandfather,” Zelig asked, “Why didn’t he want me to go?”

The old man spoke with eyes closed. “Some things, my Zeligel, your eyes are too young to see.”

Darkness fell, but neither Yankel nor his wife returned, and the neighbors came by to whisper, whisper, whisper, until it was past time for bed.

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“Wake up!” Grandfather was shaking him.

Zelig murmured, “Is Yankel back yet?” Thin music waved in the air, an outmoded waltz melody that made his feet want to move. “Is it Yankel?”

“No, give a look!” The old man pointed. Lights flickered through the dark chestnut leaves outside the window. He put his feet down. The floor shook slightly, as if invisible dancers were whirling on the unpolished parquet. “Another bombing…”

“No, silly. It is Geddarien!” Joy melted in Grandfather’s voice like raspberry syrup in tea. “Now, quick, you must help me dress.” Grandfather looked alive, for the first time in months, as if miracles bubbled right under the surface of his wrinkled face. Zelig swallowed a lump in his throat. They would have to brave the dark streets, chasing… looking for something that wasn’t quite there. He grimaced when he thought of returning, and Grandfather’s face parched and empty like the bruised-eye woman’s. Better not to think about it.

He helped the old man pull the pants over his white kaltsones, and then the shirt, the suspenders, the jacket… “Hurry, Zeligel, please, take the violin.” Grandfather slid from the bed into Zelig’s waiting arms; “how good that you’ve grown so tall,” but in truth it was Grandfather who had become little, little and white like the sugar. They were almost to the door when Grandfather slapped his forehead. “My hat! The city will not approve otherwise.” Zelig topped the old man’s white head with the fedora, and arm in arm they made slow progress down the stairs. Nobody was awake. Outside the front door, the drain pipe dripped with the memory of rain, and an echo of music beckoned them further into the empty streets. There was no electricity in the ghetto at night, and yet the lanterns gave off flickering blue warmth. “Gas,” the old man said, “Just like in the old days. We must find us a living house…”

Zelig soon understood what this meant when a three-storied gray building stepped out of the street’s row. It stomped and pranced on the cobblestones, as if impatient to be gone. Zelig rubbed his eyes with the back of the hand that held the case; it swung awkwardly in front of his nose. Grandfather took off his hat and bowed.

“Good evening, Mendel’s house!”

The dark double doors swung open, and Zelig, still disbelieving, helped Grandfather in. The hallway was covered with murals, and the boy’s young eyes made out pale figures, a bride with a rooster for a crown and two leaping sheep. The stairway shook and danced. Grandfather urged Zelig up to the roof, where parasite maples grew through rain-painted tiles. “Play, Zeligel,” Grandfather said, and the boy took the warm fiddle out of its case. He adjusted the pegs and lowered his chin to the chinrest. The polished blackness of it creaked gently under his face, and with his ear so close, he heard the sound of the still strings waiting for music. Mendel’s house moved, and the bow flew up in his hands, and lured the melody out of the night into the polished planes of the fiddle. The house jumped over the ghetto’s border, broke into a gallop on the sleeping streets, leaving behind it a trail of plaster.

They found the city’s Geddarien in the Market square. The arrangement of streets had been discarded, and houses large and small whirled round, embracing their dancing partners with hands of stone and glass. And there, by the dried-up fountain, two human musicians sent silver and feathered honey into the night: a young cellist whom Zelig did not recognize, and Grandfather’s friend Velvl with his clarinet. “Finally!” Velvl cried, “We need violins…” Zelig sat Grandfather down on the fountain’s edge. He smiled and swung his bow, and the waltz poured from under his fingers.

All round them the bright Market Square kept unfolding, a dance-floor for hundreds of houses, for churches and bakeries, palaces, libraries, humble graystones with their windows a-flapping, revealing inside sleeping figures tucked into their beds. The stone dancers moved one two three, one two three, one two three, and they whirled and they turned, swinging trees from the rooftops, and pigeons kept balance pretending to sleep, but they secretly flapped one two three, one two three, and in Zelig’s hands music was magic.

The golden spiral of the waltz died down, and through the wild thumping of blood in his ears Zelig heard Grandfather speaking to someone. “It is too soon, my city, my Luriberg. I know. I counted. I wasn’t supposed to live long enough to see another Geddarien.”

“I am afraid…” someone said, making words into old-fashioned shapes, “that soon there won’t be any musicians left, and what kind of Geddarien is it without music?” The speaker was a warm glow wrapped around the Council Tower, and its face was the shining face of an ancient clock. “When Zbigniew rode up this hill to lay my first stone, Reb Lurie was riding behind him with a fiddle in his hands.” The city itself was speaking through the tower, Zelig felt; Luriberg’s face wavered, as if concealing tears. “I wanted a dance, one last dance from my yidn musicians before they’re all gone.”

Other houses came closer now. Good riddance, one said, and another one added, the yidn people are pigeons, thieving and dirty, and the Opera theatre said no, the music is too fine to die, but a sharp-roofed one said, there’ll be music without them. Other houses wanted more waltzing and why did you stop, we don’t care what kind of people they are for as long as the dancing continues.

Grandfather said, “Where is my Yankel?”

“He is not well enough to play here,” said the city, “but if you want, I can invite him.”

Grandfather said. “Please… He waited all of his life.”

A black building approached, its stones finely chiseled; it was crowned by a lion that stepped on a book. Zelig inclined his head to the famous Blackstone house, and he thought that it nodded back at him, but the building did not speak. The Council Tower that was the city swung its doors wide, and the musicians waited in silence. The houses shuffled their feet.

Then a voice cried out on the tower’s doorstep. Yankel’s face was a doina that stopped in mid-wail. He could not walk properly. His left hand that used to hug the fiddle’s neck so tenderly now hung useless at his side, and his good right hand was empty.

“Yankele, what’s with you?” Grandfather pushed Zelig gently in the ribs, and the boy ran up to Yankel and helped him wobble over and sit by the old man.

“You want to know? Then I will tell you. They took all these people to kill…” He took a gurgling breath and leaned over, put his face in his hands. “They made me play Hava Nagila.”

Grandfather pulled him close. “Your wife?”

It was some time before Yankel whispered, “Yes.”

The cellist crouched and took Yankel’s good hand. “Have you seen my girl there? My Gita?” No, the fiddler whispered. She might still be all right.

Luriberg’s light dimmed. “Can we please have the last of the music?”

“Everything’s gone.” Yankel said. “We need to run. There’s nowhere to run.”

The Blackstone House edged closer; its lion spoke. “I can guide you to a place of safety.”

“I know what you have in mind,” the city said, “But they must not go yet. I have waited for eighty years.”

The cellist said, “Well, I am not going, not without my libe. Later we’ll try to escape together.”

The clarinet-Velvl said, “I also will stay. Whatever happens, happens.”

Grandfather said, “I will stay if you let my Zelig go.”

“You’re too old to play,” the city replied, “and what kind of dancing is it without the fiddle?”

“You’ll see.”

The boy knelt by the old man and put his hands on Grandfather’s cheeks. “How can I ever leave you?” It seemed that the old man was melting under his hands, his wrinkled warm skin insubstantial like a memory.

“You must go,” Grandfather said. “This fiddele wants to meet your grandchildren.”

“Come with us then. Yankel’s going, and you…”

“I cannot.”

“Please. I will help you…” But Zelig wasn’t sure he knew how. Grandfather seemed translucent, and his shadow merged with the fountain’s water that spilled over to become a modest river that ran through the Market Square. Strange, Zelig thought that the fountain was dry before.

Grandfather’s eyes crinkled. “It’s all right. I want to play again, here in my shining gray city.”

The doors of the Blackstone house wavered. Yankel hauled himself up somehow and grabbed Zelig by the hand. “Come on, come on, come on.”

Zelig got up, then leaned over and kissed Grandfather’s wet cheek. “But how will you play without an instrument?”

The old man’s lips turned up. “Oh, like this.” He brought his palms sharply together, and announced, “Patsch Tants!”

The doors of the Blackstone House swung gently behind them. Outside, the clarinet swirled into the lantern-lit night, and the houses stomped their stones in tune with the music of Grandfather’s soft white hands.

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Blackstone house was a respectable building once, a palace of commerce; he had traveled wide between Luriberg and other free living cities. In his rooms he kept shells and dark wooden commodes inlaid with mother-of-pearl; mermaids looked coquettishly out of aged oil paintings. Blackstone opened all doors wide, and swung his stairs down. “Underneath me,” he said, “there are roadways of old wood and brick that lead south and west to the land by the sea. Always take right turns until a living city speaks to you from above. If you do not hear her voice, do not go up.”

“Thank you, Blackstone,” Zelig bowed, but Yankel was strangely docile, not complaining, not even frowning. Slowly they descended the stairs. The catacombs under Blackstone were dry and warm, and the brick floor felt reassuring beneath their feet; the walls sported a dark-red paint splashed with little gold dots. After three right turns the brick began to lose shape and the paint on the walls to chip; there were other hours and turns, and clean water that seeped through the ancient floor-slabs and pooled in the cracks as they walked. “Enough of this,” Yankel suddenly said, and Zelig made him sit on the drier stones by the wall. The fiddler was out of breath, if not out of words.

“I was wrong to drag us down here. There’s no point in walking further. There’s nothing here. We’re as good as dead. Everybody’s dead.”

Zelig sighed. “Well, Grandfather is still in Geddarien…”

Yankel looked at him strangely. “He is gone, my boy. There never was a Geddarien. I came back to the room and found you both… He died of starvation. White and empty.”

“No, Geddarien really happened.” Grandmother had died, but Grandfather was still there, where the houses whirled in the last waltz; Zelig could hear them inside his violin case if he brought it close to his ear. Like a shell that caught the whole ocean inside it, the violin caught the city, and if he were to play it again, the houses would spill from under his fingers and dance. “Geddarien is here, Yankel. All here inside.”

The fiddler petted him on the head. “You are delirious with hunger. Perhaps tomorrow we’ll have some mazl and find us a bisele to eat.” He bent his legs awkwardly, as if they were soft and filled with rags. “I don’t know where this tunnel leads,” he whispered, “I do not remember how we got here…”

“I do,” Zelig said. He put a hand on Yankel’s forehead. It felt furnace-red, but still real. “You should try to sleep.”

He curled on the cold tiles himself, but rest did not come. He cradled the violin case and listened to Yankel’s kettle-thin snores, and after a while it seemed to him that he heard music come from inside the black case, a slow and sweet melody that covered his back in Grandfather’s gray pinstriped jacket, and Grandmother’s face leaned over and whispered to him, shluf, mayn kind, and he sank into the goose-down of sleep.

In the morning, Yankel was cold to the touch and did not wake, no matter how much Zelig shook him. He just sat there with his face all sharp and his mouth open, revealing teeth. Zelig put both hands on the wet wall just above Yankel’s head, and brought himself up somehow, fearful to touch the cold flesh. Zelig’s feet came to life then and carried him away, away, further down the tunnel.

A rat darted between his legs and tripped him, and he fell face first into the dirt. He lay there for a while, empty of feelings, empty of himself. ‘He died of starvation. White and empty’. He should have at least covered Yankel’s face and said shma. But he could not go back. Yankel was… no longer human. And what if he lost his way? No, no… but he hugged the black fiddle-case tightly and backed out into a crawl, then clambered to his feet. The water still seeped on the floor, and he traced it back, hoping that back was back, hoping that he had not taken turns.

A tiny drumming sound grew alongside him, like chubby old fingers on glass, like rain on a coffin. He would here die, too, somewhere underneath living cities too large and important to bow down and take a look. He heard tiny squeaks now; and suddenly Yankel swam back into view, still propped against the wall, but now his half-solid form was surrounded by diners. Rats. Dozens of them, hundreds, with naked pink tails and shifting, beady eyes. Zelig could not even muster a scream; the horrors boiled over in his heart. He opened his case. The fiddle was cold under his cheek. It played nameless dances, the music of might-have-beens. It licked sounds from the semi-transparent red candy of childhood, it scraped on the residue of loss; it vibrated along the frosted windows of winters, tip-toed over rooftops to glide the bow over the moon.

The rats were gone. Zelig’s soul poured viscous and heavy, back into his hollow clothes. The boy put the fiddle back home and said shma for Yankel, but his voice rang inhuman after the fiddle’s.

The corridor stretched before the boy again; endless, lightless. He put his right hand on the damp wall and walked where it guided.

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Days later — or was it weeks? months? — he heard a voice, a gentle voice from above. Caro mio, não percas a esperança. A woman was speaking. Was that the city? Her voice of stone mingled with salt water in his eyes, and Zelig walked on blinded, trailing fingers over the wall. Light blinked uncertainly; he dragged his eyelids open. A square of sunlight spread its promise on the floor by his feet.

“Here you are!”

Zelig tilted his head up. The movement made him suddenly dizzy. A girl’s face peered through the grating. “The city sent me to look for you.” Zelig sheltered his eyes against unfamiliar sun, but he could not make out her features. The girl shouted to someone, “Boruch! Borya! Come here quick!” He heard the long scrape of the grate being moved. He wanted to say something, anything, but could not draw a breath. The world tilted.

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When he came to, he was sitting on a small piece of cloth under a white awning, overlooking the ocean. Everything was full of sound; in the harbor, ships spoke to each other in a language of metal and rope, and the breeze played a lazy melody tilting small boats in the water. Gulls and pigeons strutted on the pier, waiting for pieces of bread, pieces such as he held in his hand. He bit into his bread hastily, afraid that the world was unstable yet; but it was real enough.

“And a good day to you.” The girl that had found him now sat by his side. She was older, maybe sixteen, seventeen; she had a nose like a potato, and laughing brown eyes. The most beautiful girl in the world, he thought, but said nothing, his mouth full of bread. “I am Reyzl, and this is my brother Borya.” The youth beside her had the same face, only sadder and thinner somehow. “Is that your fiddle?”

“Yes,” he said. “I am Zelig. From Luriberg. Where are you from?”

“Oh. Malin.” Into Zelig’s confused eyes she added, “It’s a small town near the border. We’ve never been to Luriberg, but we heard…”

“How did you escape?” Zelig asked, a bit more harshly than he intended.

“Malin’s kosciol sheltered us. Her name is Sankta Elzbeta.”

Zelig gulped. “A church saved you?”

“Yes, us and some others. We hid in the basement. Malin is a small town, you see. Only four living buildings. Luriberg, now, Luriberg must be so big. I heard that once every hundred years there is a thing called Geddarien…”

Zelig interrupted, his mouth dry. “How many yidn survived in Malin?”

“More than half, I think. Two hundred are here now, waiting to sail to America.”

The serious boy spoke up for the first time. “How many survived in Luriberg?”

“I… I don’t know about anyone else.”

Reyzl frowned fiercely, and said, “Well, you’re coming with us, of course. I play the clarinet, by the way, and my brother is a fiddler like you.”

Borya said. “I lost my fiddle…”

“Maybe it’s for the best,” Reyzl said, “It’s not good for you to play. He gets too excited, you see, and he has a bad heart,” she explained to Zelig.

“… but I can sew pants.”

“Our grandfather went to America once,” Reyzl said, “he came back, said it was a poor country. He brought back a sewing machine and he taught us.”

“I will work hard and buy me a new fiddle.”

Reyzl sighed. “But who knows if they even need musicians there…”

“What are they, not people?” Zelig shrugged. “Everybody wants music.” Even the people who kill do, he thought, yes, even the stone-clad cities.

“Everybody wants pants,” Borya said. “That’s for sure.”

“Would you like to play a bit now?”

Zelig nodded. “Of course! Anything but Hava Nagila.” When he saw Borya’s haunted expression he added quickly, “I can show you this melody. Patsch Tants for clarinet and hands.”

He took Borya’s palms between his own to teach him his grandfather’s music.

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Geddarien © 2008 Rose Lemberg
Originally appeared in Fantasy Magazine
Atop the City © Lauren Rogers