Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 30 of a new online serial novel, Beneath the Surface, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every Thursday or Friday. Click here for previous chapters.
At the top of the stairs sat a young woman, looking at her with a smile-cum-grimace of pain. “I had hoped it was you,” she said in Flemish (!), “but really didn’t believe that this would be the way our meeting would occur.”
Chani gaped at her. The face was so familiar! But the tone of voice, the lilt… No, it couldn’t be her; she had nothing to look for here. So who was it?
“Could you please bring me a broom?” the girl asked as she struggled to stand up. “It was supposed to be a gift for you, but the trash can will obviously be the new recipient.”
“A gift?” Chani echoed. “For what?” Suddenly the picture came into focus. This girl—whose identity she was not sure of yet—had obviously come to see her. Apparently she had fallen and something broke. Perhaps she had been injured?
One thing was clear: the girl needed help, urgently, and instead of doing so, she, Chani, was standing and gaping at the scene and asking questions.
“First things first,” she said briskly. “Come inside.”
“Oh, so you’re not throwing me out,” the girl said with relief, limping slightly as she crossed the threshold.
“Throwing you out? Why?”
The girl turned. “If you would do so, it really wouldn’t be fair of you. After all, I did what you wanted. But then, when we spoke, you were so hostile and cold, so it’s only natural that I would be afraid of such a thing.”
“Very natural,” Chani echoed, sensing her last doubts falling away slowly. It was her; it was her voice, and she had come here, obviously as a gesture of good will of some sort.
And perhaps not? Perhaps it was all a show?
She would have to be careful.
She led her unexpected guest into the living room. What now? Should she serve some refreshments? Wait, she had to sweep up the glass in the stairwell. Someone else could fall and get hurt.
But could she leave this gentile girl here herself? Who knew what she could do in the interim?
Chani quickly weighed the options in her mind and decided in favor of sweeping the hallway quickly. What could Diana actually do in her living room? Break another vase? Look at the sefarim in the bookcase? Drag the tablecloth off the table?
With artificial casualness, she moved the chair closest to the door so that it was directly opposite the door. “Sit down,” she said pleasantly. “I just want to clean up outside so no one should get hurt.” At least she’d be able to keep an eye on the girl.
“Oh, I should really be doing it,” Diana protested, and began to follow her.
“Sit, sit,” Chani said, slightly alarmed. “You just fell. You should sit and rest.”
Diana nodded and returned to the chair. Her hand really hurt; it must have been quite a blow.
Chani went to the kitchen and returned with a plate of cookies, two cups, and a bottle of soda. “Eat something,” she instructed, and then went out to the stairwell, casting the occasional worried glance behind her.
Three minutes later she was back. The plate of cookies was as full as it was before; both cups were as dry as when she had brought them from the kitchen. So the refreshments hadn’t kept her guest busy for the last few moments. What had? She looked around suspiciously. Everything seemed to be in place.
“You’re to blame for the fact that I came here,” Diana said, clutching her wrist. If she’d rest it for a few more minutes, the pain would pass. “You asked if I believe in the World to Come.”
“You said you did.”
“Right, I do believe. Definitely. But I discovered that there are other things that are worth examining also.” She sighed. “I tried to look into them. I got all sorts of answers that confused me and I decided to come here.”
Chani observed her visitor’s face. It looked completely serious. Was this all a ploy to soften the family’s opposition to her marrying Dan?
“Have you told this to my brother?” she asked cautiously.
“Oh, no. I haven’t seen him for at least two months.”
“So why are you interested? Why does everything arouse your curiosity?” Chani hoped she didn’t sound too crass. “You know, Judaism does not accept people who choose to convert solely because they want to marry somebody.”
“I wasn’t even thinking in that direction,” Diana said, a trace of hurt in her voice. “I have no plans to change anything. I’m just interested.” She hesitated whether to add something and then decided not to play her whole deck just yet. She also didn’t reveal the letter from Menuchi. She would try to go on the offense, and if the answers would not be identical, she would simply return toBelgiumand pick up her life where she had left it off.
The pain that suddenly intensified silenced her thoughts. The dull ache in her arm suddenly became a sharp, searing spasm. “This is extremely painful,” she said, biting her lip.
“It doesn’t look good…” Chani looked carefully at the swollen arm. “I think it might be broken.”
“I also think so,” Diana groaned. “So, we can’t say that our conversation started off on the best foot because it didn’t really start. Do you have any idea what I have to do now?”
“You’ll have to get to a hospital and take an x-ray. They’ll decide what to do after that.”
“What are the terms for tourists?” Diana could barely speak by now.
“I don’t really know. It’s been many years since I came here as a tourist. But let’s see, do you have travelers’ insurance?”
Diana nodded in affirmation. She tried to lean back in the chair, unsuccessfully.
Chani breathed a sigh of relief. “That’s already good. Look, you have to get admitted.”
“Will there be anyone who speaks Flemish there?”
“There’s no way to know that, but there will certainly be English speakers. I’m just wondering how much time it will take you to find them.” She weighed the situation, and a vague, unexplained sense of responsibility motivated her to sit up straight and say, “Okay, I’m coming with you.”
“To the hospital?” Diana was scrimping on her words. Her wrist was taking up all of her attention and she could hardly focus on forming coherent responses.
“For the admittance procedure, until you can manage on your own.”
“Why are you doing that?”
It was the same question Chani was asking herself. Diana could just take a taxi and worry about interpreters herself when she got to the hospital. Still, with a broken arm and a strange language, it would probably not be a pleasant experience.
So? Who said you have to be the one to take care of her? Does the mitzvah of chessed even apply to non-Jews?
Chani considered replying to Diana’s direct question with an equally candid response, something like, “Believe me, I really don’t know.” But instead, she just smiled. The fact that she didn’t know did not lead to any hesitations. She called Simi at school and told her to come home at one to pick up the children. In the time it took for her to get Simi to the office and give over the instructions to her, Diana sat on the edge of her chair, gritting her teeth.
Almost an hour had passed. Yitzi and Yehudis had finished eating, built a Lego tower, taken it apart, and had a loud fight, replete with screaming and wailing. Simi had to separate them before it became physical.
“Enough, Yitzi!” she cried impatiently. “Stop annoying her and go do your homework!”
“She’s getting angry for no reason!” Yitzi said, his face clouded with anger. “I didn’t do anything to her, and a whole day—”
“Okay, okay,” Simi said impatiently. “You should try to understand her. She doesn’t like it when—”
Now it was his turn to cut her off. “Maybe she should try to understand me once in a while?! Monday is finally here, the day that I like best because Ima picks me up from cheder. And suddenly, she couldn’t come today. Why? Where did she go?”
“I told you that I don’t know myself,” Simi said with irritation, and went to take out some papers from her schoolbag. She had really hoped to continue translating with Menuchi today, and instead she was spending her afternoon mediating between bickering siblings. “Someone here needs my help,” Ima had said on the phone. Who was that someone? Who could it be?
“Oh!” she cried with relief as she heard the doorbell. “It must be Odelia! Yehudis, go open the door!”
“Od-d-delia d-d-doesn’t c-come on Monday!” Yehudis chided her. “Only S-Sunday!” Today it’s S-sari!”
“Excellent, so go open the door for Sari.”
As soon as the volunteer came in, things calmed down a bit. Sari sat down to do Yehudis’s homework with her. Itizk, naturally, dragged his briefcase to the same room, and Simi was able to sit in the kitchen, where it was quiet. Yehudah Kalman cooed softly, and she deliberated whether to try and progress with the story. Suddenly the fax machine hummed to life.
She walked over to the machine and took the sheet that it had emitted, with a swoosh. The page was covered in large, familiar handwriting. Savta Weingarten’s writing.
“What’s doing, dear Ostfelds? I tried to call yesterday and no one answered. Dan popped in for a quick visit. No special news, which is also good. It snowed here all night, and I miss you all, and your warm country. Perhaps I’ll come visit. I really enjoyed my last stay. Love, Savta.”
Savta wanted to come again! Simi placed the paper on top of the fax machine. She remembered only three visits from Savta, once when she was in kindergarten, another a few years ago, and this year for Shragi’s wedding. Savta loved her daughters and their families, but wasn’t happy about their choice of where to live. “Why did you have to leave Belgium?” she’d asked Anne and Betty disappointedly. “We also have very Orthodox communities. Isn’t that enough? And your summers are so hot!”
Now she wanted to come again. She had enjoyed the last visit. Apparently the differences between the two countries had also become more pronounced to her recently.
Simi returned to Yehudah Kalman’s carriage and her pages in English. Then the door opened.
“Hello!” Ima sang out as she walked in. “I had a guest,” she added in response to the question mark on her daughter’s face. “She broke her arm, it seems, so I took her to the hospital to make sure she’s managing. Now she’s waiting on line for the arm to be set and put into a cast,” she explained breathlessly as she took off her coat.
“Broke her arm? A guest?” The question mark only grew bigger.
“Yes.” Chani paused for a fraction of a second. “Diana Molis.”
“What? The lady that…” And then, “No, it can’t be her. Her granddaughter? The one that Dan…?”
“Yes,” Chani replied and slumped down onto the chair.
“Why did she come here?”
“That’s the point. I’m not quite sure that I know.”
Chani entered the living room. “This small bag is hers,” she said. “She remembered in the hospital that she’d left it here.”
“So she’ll be back,” Simi stated with certainty as she eyed the bag nestled on the sofa. “Ima, should I go to Menuchi now?” She suddenly remembered what she had been busy with before.
“Why not?” Chani turned to her. “It’s only 2:30. You made up to go at three, didn’t you?”
“Yes, but to schlep on the bus now… I thought I’d go straight from school, not have to come home first and then go back in that direction.”
“So call her and suggest that she come here, either before or after work. That dorm is not too far from here.”
“What’s the problem?” her mother probed. “You don’t want her to?”
“I’m just trying to decide…” Her daughter sighed. “I’ve already learned that before I take any single step—even if it looks really simple to me—I have to think a thousand times if she’ll like it or not.”
“I think natural behavior is the best way to improve the problematic communications between the two of you,” Chani said gently. “Imagine that Rachel, your friend, would be your sister-in-law. What would you do in this case?”
Simi laughed bitterly. “If Rachel was my sister-in-law…? Not that I’m making light of Menuchi, but whenever I tried to imagine my future sister-in-law, I envisioned someone like Rachel, more or less, and…”
“Enough,” Chani cut her off. “Menuchi is your sister-in-law, and she has her own positive attributes. Let’s go, make that call.”
The bus finally appeared and Diana climbed the stairs, grateful for the woman who informed her that the 2 line would take her closest to where she wanted to go. Her backpack was strapped on and her right hand was free to support the cast-encased left one. Someone on the bus promised to show her when she had to get off, so Diana was free to allow her thoughts to roam.
At the hospital, she had told Anne that she had forgotten a bag at their house and would come back to get it. “No problem, gladly,” Anne had said. “Maybe tell me where you’ll be and we’ll get it to you,” she had even offered.
But Diana hadn’t told her. First of all, for the simple reason that she herself had not had—and still didn’t have—the faintest notion of where she’d be sleeping that night. She would look for a simple, inexpensive place to stay. Anne had explained to her gently that she wouldn’t find what she was looking for in Bnei Brak. Well, then, she’d have to go back to Tel Aviv. That wasn’t so bad. She could tour the city tomorrow, just like she’d planned to do. That’s what she liked—not to be dependent on any organization or group and to be able to decide herself where she’d sleep tonight and what she’d do tomorrow.
But the main reason she didn’t share her whereabouts with Anne was because that would defeat her purpose. She had left the bag there intentionally so she’d have a reason to go back. She had a lot to speak to Anne Ostfeld about—and Diana had found her to be a very pleasant person. She just hoped they wouldn’t peek into that bag, because they’d probably wonder why she was coming back for a well worn, totally empty wallet. They didn’t know her, Diana; otherwise it would have been clear to them that when Diana Molis set a goal for herself, she reached it in most cases.