To You!
You girls dancing, —laughing brides, —mothers at play,
—This book belongs to You.
From the apex of Your lives may You hear down to the nadir.
From the light of Your lives direct Your gaze into darkness.
May You feel  —where You have long judged.
Stop to think —where You have too long passed by.
And let Your empathy greet with grace these You have offered up for Your
Good fortune.


1 — Black Katerine

If I were a wife at home and had what I need,
I would be true to my man and happy, cuddle and kiss him.
This is what, among some common songs, a wench sang
To me in Venice, and never have I heard a more devout prayer.

Just behind the glittering street, a center of social concourse in the big city, on its wide sidewalks of clean asphalt where, daily, hundreds of elegant gentlemen and adorned ladies — people out for a leisurely stroll — smile at each other and greet one another, right there, suddenly and without warning — in an almost too abrupt change — the realm of darkness begins. When you turn the corner at the Louvre de Luxe, a high building in a sleek, modern style, and go a few steps along the elegant, unadorned side of its façade, and make a second sharp turn you are standing at the entrance to a cul-de-sac whose upper end is closed by a high garden wall. When twilight falls and the dull, pleasant gray of the evening sifts over the roofs of the big city, our small side street sinks immediately into miserable night. The little houses shrink together — the arches of the gates become lost in shadow — and while the main street is putting on its glistening evening attire, here in the alley only one red lantern is burning. It enfolds its immediate surroundings in a ring of blood. Hands that know their business put smoldering oil lamps in some of the small, low windows.
The small, pale flames, blown by wind from cracks and holes, jump about and lure and beg. — They are the silent signposts. . .
The main street grows quiet and even more quiet, shops close, the elegant people on their leisurely stroll have returned home, and one after another the sputtering lanterns start to glow, and the gray draperies cautiously cover up the finery and the sheen and the luxury. Behind them life awakens and opens, hungrily, its sleep-filled eyes. Windows open, rusty door hinges creak, the air is filled with questions, chatter, laughter. There are clouds of musky perfume, the fragrance of violets; silk rustles, silver wheels clatter, as figures in bright clothing, readying their petticoats, emerge from nameless, dark alleys.
There they are!
Painted lips upon which a gay tune blossoms. Swaying hips deformed by tightly laced corsets! Gleaming eyes that struggle with the light . . . And the easy laughter entombed in a grimace. This is how the train of women moves onto the nice main street. The market of love is open:
The stalls of good fortune are made ready, and the peddlers call out to their clients. They do not have to wait long. They come from their mothers — or from their brides — from wine or from serious books, from the dance floor or from church — all one and the same — they find their way here, join in the dance. . . Now the evening rustles her black skirts, a greeting, giggles and hasty calling begins. Numbers are thrown out between whispers and curses. An adverse agreement is struck between sighs of desire, and the prostitute’s obstinate insistence wins out over the unrestrained lust of the one pleading. The men, collars turned up, follow as the women lead,  — they hurry back into the nameless alley, and the red blood of the lantern drips only a short moment, haltingly, over the strangers’ faces.
Then darkness covers what it had paired up in her realm.

© Stephanie Ortega, 2021. All rights reserved.