Beneath the Surface – Chapter 8

Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 8 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.

Copyright © 2011 by Israel Bookshop Publication

Belgium, 1945

Rosa pulled back the polka-dotted curtain, and pale rays of sun beamed into the large room. “Good morning, darlings!” she chirped cheerfully, gently caressing a small cheek that was not yet dry from the night’s tears.

“How are you? How did you sleep?” She walked over to the second side of the room, partitioned off with a large cupboard. “Girls, it’s time to g—”  Her jaw dropped and then closed right away. The bed right behind the cupboard, which she had assigned to the new girl, Lara, was empty.

“She was here just twenty minutes ago!” Rosa murmured in puzzlement.

“She got up a few minutes ago. Suddenly, we heard barking from the window. She quickly got up and dressed and then left,” eight-year-old Evi whispered in a sleepy voice.

Rosa hastened out of the room and down the stairs. “Mira, please go up and help the little ones dress. One of my girls left!”

Thirteen-year-old Mira hurried up to the children’s room, while Rosa stopped on the ground floor, wondering where to go now. The door to the building wasn’t locked anymore, like it was at night, and she was afraid the girl had simply run away.

“Are you looking for that little girl? From your group?” elderly Mrs. Birenzweig asked from her perch near the table opposite the door, where she sat knitting. She served as the building’s de facto information officer, guard, first aid assistant, and a few other sundry positions. “She’s here, outside, with that huge dog. She promised me she’d stay near the entrance.”

Rosa walked out the door. “Lara?”

The girl did not raise her eyes. Rosa sighed and approached her. “You’re so quick, Lara! You got up and dressed so fast. Now come, we’re going to eat breakfast.”

Lara shrugged.

“Aren’t you hungry?” Rosa asked gently.

“He’s hungry,” the girl spoke for the first time, in a high-pitched voice.

“So come, we’ll go to the kitchen and ask the cook if she has anything for him. Would you like that?”

The seven-year-old’s shoulders, which had been taut with indignation, suddenly slumped. “Okay…” she whispered, following Rosa into the building.

“We don’t have any spare food for dogs, Rosa, and you know that very well!” the cook admonished, but she opened a top cabinet nevertheless. “The only thing I can give him is a few crusts of old bread. I threw out the chicken bones left from Shabbos, and I wouldn’t waste any of the pieces that are left and can be eaten, on a dog. We have enough mouths willing to eat them.”

“Fine, give me the bread. It really makes no difference.” Rosa looked at the girl standing silently beside her. The compassionate cook dripped a few drops of milk onto the lumps of dry bread.

“He’s not a cat,” the girl suddenly piped up, speaking slowly. “He doesn’t like that!”

The cook straightened up. “Then tell the master, my dear, that he can’t be fussy. This is what there is, and if he doesn’t like it, he shouldn’t eat it.”

Rosa followed Lara out of the kitchen; the girl clutched the wet bread in her fists. The black dog ran over to her and sniffed the food, then dropped his tail, and turned around and walked away.

Lara flung the bread onto the floor, looking forlornly at the dog growing smaller in the distance. Rosa tried to stroke her hair, but the child shrugged her off.

“Don’t be sad, Lara,” Rosa tried to console her. “And don’t worry about him. He must not be really hungry. If he would have been that hungry, he would have happily eaten what you brought. Hungry creatures eat everything, Lara…”

The girl didn’t react; she stood as still as a granite statue, staring into the distance where the dog had disappeared.

“Come, dear, let’s go,” Rosa tried again.

Lara walked back into the building silently. She walked up the stairs to her room, dimly lit by the pale sun, and threw herself onto the bed. The other children were already dressed and ready. Mira cast Rosa a questioning glance.

“Thanks, Mira,” Rosa said, smiling sadly.

“We davened already,” Mira told her.

“Good. Can you take them down to the dining room?” Rosa asked. “You’re a doll, Mira.”

When the last of the rambunctious children had disappeared, Rosa sat down on the bed near the small figure whose head was buried in the thin sheet.

“You must be very sad that he went, right, Lara?” she asked cautiously.

“You’re bad!” Lara burst out suddenly. “Bad! Bad and stingy!” The words sounded dull from the depths of the bed. “Even …even there in the house, they gave him bones. You’re bad!”

“Here we would have been happy to give you bones as well, if there would have been any,” Rosa said quietly. “But there weren’t any. If we would have known that he was coming and that you wanted to give him the bones, we would have kept them. But we threw them out already. Do you want me to tell the cook to save the bones for him from now on?”

“That’s in a long time!” Lara sat up suddenly. “And he went away. He went because he’s angry at me. Because of you! It’s your fault! All yours!”

“I’m sure that if he’s your friend, he will be back.” Rosa’s low voice was hardly audible in the large room. “I’m sure.”

The recalcitrant expression did not leave the girl’s face, but she stood up from the bed and allowed Rosa to lead her to the ground floor, where the dining room was located.

After breakfast, the children split up into different rooms, divided by age. Some of the older girls served as teachers for each group, and taught the children on their level. They learned a bit of reading and some siddur and Chumash.

“Soon this phase will be over, as well,” Rosa remarked to Mrs. Birenzweig, at her post near the entrance. Lara stood beside her sullenly. She refused to join any of the groups. “They’re talking about opening a Jewish school.”

“There was one here before the war,” Mrs. Birenzweig said hoarsely. “My children learned there, and I even had one granddaughter there.” It seemed as though Mrs. Birenzweig’s already hunched back would simply buckle under the weight of the sigh that she emitted.

“I know, Frau Birenzweig,” Rosa replied. “We are rebuilding. Isn’t that what we are doing here constantly? Reestablishing what was lost?” Her eyes darted over to the seven-year-old standing just a few feet away, her eyes fixed on the doorway.

“Yes, I know.” The older woman’s voice trembled. “But there are some things that we will never be able to resurrect.”

“No…” Rosa echoed. “No … I know that we won’t.”

***

“Then no, and that’s it!” Minna’s voice was shrill. “What do we need this for? B’ezras Hashem there will be other suggestions as good as this one.”

It was almost one o’clock in the morning. The three of them—father, mother, and daughter—were still sitting around the table in the kitchen.

“We have to look into to it and find out if it is really so bad…” Reb Shimon murmured. “Because if it’s not genetic, then what’s so bad about it?”

“First of all, who said it’s not genetic? What exactly did he say she has?” Minna tried to keep her voice down, but by the time she finished the sentence, her tone had risen again.

“He said that the lack of oxygen during the birth caused some damage. He didn’t specify exactly to what extent.” Menuchi had been sitting in the same position for close to half an hour: elbows on the table, and hands clasped together, supporting her chin.

“He said.” Minna laughed bitterly. “I mean, he could hardly be considered objective here, so I don’t think we can rely on his opinion.”

“I don’t think he would lie,” Reb Shimon remarked.

“Especially since he mentioned it in passing, as though it was obvious that I knew about it…” Menuchi added.

Minna rose. “I don’t know. We have to check. We have to find out. And even if it’s not genetic, what will it do to our family’s reputation? A shidduch with a family … that’s not, um, so chashuv, and besides—or the main point of it—they have a sick child…”

Reb Shimon closed his eyes tiredly, and then opened them and looked at his daughter. Her eyes were thoughtful. “What do you think, Menuchi? In the event that it’s definitely not genetic, of course?”

“I don’t know, Abba. I don’t know.” She glanced at her mother for a fraction of a second. “On the one hand, it certainly doesn’t attract me, but we have to find out how it affects the house, the rest of the family. Because all the rest seems … pretty good. And if life in their family is happy, normal, and healthy despite everything, then maybe it won’t bother me.”

“And you don’t care what people will say when they hear about such a shidduch?” Minna was standing at the counter, closing and opening cupboard doors randomly. “They’ll be sure that we also have some type of problem!”

“I think,” Rabbi Feder’s voice was measured and serious, “that we have to do the following: We’ll try to find out more about what exactly the issue is there. But we won’t decide anything yet. If the other side comes back that they’re willing to continue, and our inquiries are satisfactory, then Menuchi will decide what to do. After all,” he took a deep breath, “this is really all about her.”

Minna gasped. “It’s not only about her, Shimon. We have other children after her. Don’t forget that people ask about mechutanim, as well. What will people think about us in the future if they hear about this?”

“Oh, Minna, really. You think that a special needs child in a mechutan’s family can ruin future shidduchim for us? That alone doesn’t seem like a reason to me to take this suggestion off the table, especially since the boy is so outstanding. Everyone who I asked was simply gushing about him.”

“Well, they’re not our mechutanim yet.” It seemed like Minna had suddenly capitulated. “Let’s see what kind of answers we get over the next few days. Then, like you said, we’ll have to decide.”

Belgium, 1945

Diana Molis tugged at the thin cord and pulled the lace curtain aside.

“I’m going out, Diana. Are you coming with me?” Bob asked as he stuck his arms into his suit jacket.

“Oh, I don’t think so. I have a bit of a headache, and I’d rather stay here and rest. Will you be back for dinner?”

He wrinkled his forehead. “Most likely, but it depends on how long this meeting takes. When it’s dinner time, go down to the dining room. Don’t wait for me. If I come, we’ll meet there.” He left the room, and she could hear the rapid staccato of his footsteps echoing on the polished parquet floor.

Diana looked out at the street under the hotel, a thoughtful expression on her face. Once, before the war, they could have allowed themselves to stay at more posh hotels when they came to visit. When had it been? A thousand years ago? A thousand light years ago?

She wasn’t complaining. Even now, they lacked for nothing, thank G-d, but there were certainly differences in their lifestyle, and when they came for a long and often indefinite stay of two weeks or more, then they had to suffice with something on a lower standard than they had become accustomed to.

She stepped back into the room, planning to settle into the comfortable armchair with a thick book, but a small figure running across the street suddenly caught her eye and riveted her to the window. She rubbed her forehead. What? Was it her? The black dog trotting briskly behind the small figure dispelled all doubts.

Diana left the room quickly and slammed the door most uncharacteristically as she hurried down to the first floor. A shadow of a smile crossed the small face when she saw the woman stride out of the hotel entrance.

“You’re here?” Diana asked as her eyes narrowed. “You ran away from there? How did you get here?”

“He brought me.”

Diana’s face unwittingly turned to the large dog that stood with his head a bit lowered, as though he understood. She averted her gaze from the dog, feeling the same revulsion she had felt on their first encounter. “It’s not good that you ran away!” she said. “They are good people who want to help you! Did you tell anyone that you went?”

The light-haired head shook from side to side.

“So they must be worried about you. We have to tell them that you are here!”

“No!” the girl cried. “They aren’t worried. They’re bad. Bad and stingy. They didn’t want to give him food! You will give him, won’t you?” The theatrical pose of the girl waving her thin finger accusingly brought a slight smile to Diana’s lips.

“I can ask the hotel kitchen if they have some leftover scraps for him. But wait here outside. Meanwhile, I’ll send a message that they shouldn’t worry about you.”

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