Beneath the Surface – Chapter 29

Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 29 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.

“Brrr! It’s cold!”Sandyshivered in her fur-lined coat. “What did Adina say it was? The third right turn? Come.”

“Did you count three?” Chaya asked.

“I’m counting three: three girls shivering as they walk on a freezing Friday night,” Ditza joked. “When will we be there already?”

“We’re already on the right block!”Sandycried excitedly. “And this is the building, based on the descriptions!” Streetlights cast dim orbs of light on the dark sidewalk. Flickering candles twinkled in some of the windows.

“So, shall we go up?” Ditza urged her friends on.

“Well, what else? Another minute out here and I’ll be an ice statue!”

They climbed the stairs. “Remember? First door on the first floor, and with letters missing from the nameplate. Tell me, is Adina sure that Menuchi is here this Shabbos?” Chaya asked.

“Maybe you could stop asking so many questions?” Ditza admonished. “Let’s just knock and be over with it!”

They knocked. And they knocked again.

And again.

“I’m telling you, they’re not even home,” Chaya said ominously.

“Wait a minute. Are we sure this is their door?”Sandyasked.

“Come on, you nudniks. It’s their door. It says Ostfeld on the tab near the bell. And they’re home. Don’t you hear the baby screaming?”

They knocked again. And again.

And ag—

“Good Shabbos!” A youthful-looking woman smiled out at them as she opened the door. A red-faced baby—apparently the screamer—was cradled in her arms.

“Good Shabbos!” they replied almost in unison. Sandy first, followed by Ditza and then Chaya. “Is Menuchi Ostfeld here?”

“Sure she is. Come on in.”

They entered and discovered Menuchi sitting on an upholstered armchair near the Shabbos candles, davening quietly. She smiled at them, motioned them to wait a moment, and returned to her siddur.

“She looks a bit different, doesn’t she?”Sandymurmured into her coat collar to the other girls.

“Yes, she’s pale,” Chaya said, glancing at the large oil painting on the wall behind them.

“It’s probably from the flu, no?” Ditza said. “Nice picture, isn’t it?”

Just then Menuchi closed her siddur. “Good Shabbos, what a surprise!”

“We came to do the mitzvah of bikur cholim,” Sandy said with a chuckle as she approached Menuchi.

“You mean visiting the healthy.” Menuchi pointed to the sofa. “Come, sit here. The traces of flu I still have aren’t contagious anymore.”

“What a gorgeous painting,” Ditza repeated, reverting the conversation to the topic close to her heart. “I love those white mountains.”

The woman who had answered the door reentered the room.

“Meet the artist; this is my mother-in-law,” Menuchi said, smiling at Chani. “These are my friends from Netiv Rivka. They’re just admiring your painting.”

Yehuda Kalman squealed joyfully and grabbed at his mother’s gold necklace. “Nice to meet you,” Chani said as she took a seat on a chair near Menuchi.

“You have a lovely daughter-in-law; we all like her very much!” Ditza said, shrugging off her velour jacket.

“Thank you, we agree.” Chani’s warm laughter immediately appealed to Sandy.

“I don’t think anyone disagrees…” She turned to Menuchi, who had risen suddenly. “Where are you going Madam?”

“I think that I should go now, shouldn’t I?” Menuchi asked, setting her siddur on the table. “After all, one only says a bit of praise in front of a person, so if I go to another room and listen in on your conversation, I’ll probably hear lots of things that you won’t say when I’m here, right?”

“Sit down!” Ditza ordered in mock rebuke. “Okay, we’ve had enough of talking about you for now. We’ll save the rest for another time.” She pointed to another painting hanging on the opposite wall. “That one’s also magnificent, even though I don’t usually like scenery paintings with water. But…how should I put it? The waves in this one are very real-looking.”

“Thanks again for the compliment,” Chani said as she jiggled Yehuda Kalman on her knee. “But that one’s not mine. My daughter painted it.”

“The one who made the Monopoly board for us,” Menuchi added. “She’s very talented.”

Chani deliberately avoided looking at the expression on Menuchi’s face, even out of the corner of her eye. She assumed Menuchi was fully aware of the less-than-ideal relationship between herself and Simi, but she didn’t know if Menuchi had picked up on the fact that she, Chani, was also aware of it. She tried to replay what Menuchi had just said in her mind; it had sounded calm and tranquil and was truly convincing. And no, there wasn’t a trace of pain in her words. Was that only because she was speaking in English? And why did that make a difference?

Just then, Menuchi continued: “And meet Simi, my sister-in-law, the artist.” Chani immediately discerned the regular tone of Menuchi-Simi conversations creeping even into the English words. So it wasn’t the language that made the difference. She raised her eyes to her daughter standing in the doorway. “Good Shabbos, Simi. Meet Menuchi’s friends and students.”

Menuchi quickly introduced the girls.

The shortest of the three smiled and said something to Simi.

“What? I…um…don’t understand…,” Simi said. “I don’t speak English so good.”

“Thanks for the game,” the girl repeated in heavily-accented Hebrew. “It was so nice.”

“Oh, all the credit goes to Menuchi; I just followed her instructions,” Simi said.

”What?” Again, Simi’s choice of words in Hebrew was too advanced for the American girls’ rudimentary grasp of the language.

“I said that the idea was from Menuchi, not me.”

“Oh, Menuchi. Menuchi is something special; she teaches so well. Again you’re standing to go?”Sandywagged her finger at Menuchi. “You sit down right now! Now!”Sandydeclared in her pidgin Hebrew.

Chaya, who was sitting on the edge of the sofa, added, “She’s probably a very good sister-in-law, right?”

“Very,” Simi replied.

“Yes,” Sandy said. “She didn’t even come on our trip because…”

“Enough, Sandy; why does that make a difference now?” Menuchi asked with a solemn expression. Sandy smiled and fell silent.

After another moment, Simi left the living room. The girls had offered sincerely—very sincerely—that she stay, but she saw no point. Her English was really quite poor and made her feel completely out of the loop. Also, something was niggling at her. Yes, she’d passed the state test in English, but how could it be that a simple world like “trip” had slipped her mind? What did “trip” mean? What “trip” hadn’t Menuchi gone on because she was her sister-in-law?

Her father always said that when you forget something, it’s not worth trying to chase after it; it only runs further away. You’re better off distracting yourself with other thoughts.

But she couldn’t distract herself. The word “trip,” with its English spelling, danced merrily in her field of vision, with the conversation in the living room providing the background noise. Menuchi sounded so confident, friendly, and outgoing. And she had three older students, who were also so friendly, and yet, they fell silent and listened attentively every time Menuchi’s quiet voice was heard.

***

Menuchi went to bed uncharacteristically early after the seudah. “This flu is still leaving its mark on me,” she told her mother-in-law after she helped her get Yehudis ready for bed. Simi was in the kitchen putting the leftover food away.

“Of course, go, go. You have to get your strength back. Fever as high as you had for three days weakens the body.” And Menuchi went to sleep.

Shragi remained in the living room with an open Chumash, as did Simi. She had three more perakim in Navi to study and she wanted to finish at least one of them tonight. Shragi’s voice rose and fell in a quiet singsong, and Simi realized she could not concentrate on a single pasuk. She leaned back on the sofa and stared at her brother’s swaying back for several long moments. He finished and then stood up.

“Shragi,” Simi said hastily before he left the room, “do you have any idea what a ‘trip’ is?”

He turned around in surprise. “An English word?”

“Yes.”

“So ask Menuchi or Ima. Couldn’t one of them help you?”

She was quiet for a minute. “So let me put it differently. Is there something—a place, event, or program of some type—that Menuchi missed because of me, or because we are sisters-in-law, that can be called a ‘trip’?”

“If ‘trip’ means a tiyul, then that’s what it’s about.”

“Yes!” She sat up straight. Shragi’s eyes focused on the darkness beyond the window. “Now you reminded me. That’s what it means. How could I have forgotten such a basic word? When did Menuchi have a trip? And what does it have to do with me?”

“There was a trip on Monday.” Shragi replaced the Chumash on the shelf. A dry branch clattered to the sidewalk beyond the window. “The day Yehudis was in the hospital.”

“But I found another arrangement for the children! I saw how hard it was for her!”

“I don’t know if it was that hard for her to give up going on the trip. She insisted on staying back and coming here to watch them.”

“So why didn’t you say anything to me in the morning? If I would have known that she had a trip, I wouldn’t have agreed that she stay behind! And in the end, it was all for…nothing!” Simi was ablaze now and her words came pouring forth, all concluding with exclamation points and sharp question marks. Shragi was speaking in calm sentences as he made one remark after another, quietly. And with some disappointment.

***

“Monday? Will that be okay?”

Arnon raised his head from the plate. “What?”

Diana stood there with her hands folded. I asked if Monday was okay,” she repeated deliberately.

“Okay for what?”

“For my day off.”

Arnon emitted a loud, artificial sigh and returned to his fork and knife. “Come to the office this afternoon; when I eat, I don’t remember anything from the register.”

“Yesterday afternoon you didn’t have an answer either, and that was in the office, near the register,” Diana said coldly. “I want to know now.”

He took a big bite and chewed it as he hedged. “Monday? Well, let me think. Monday…?” His idle chatter irritated Diana, as did the foot-dragging in the offices. Everything was handled so sluggishly; it didn’t look like the details were really important to anyone around here.

Now I understand why all the young people are running away from here! she thought angrily. She also planned to leave in the near future and find somewhere else to go. Was the situation the same on all the kibbutzim? Sleepy, sluggish, and going in no particular direction? On the outside, everything seemed to work like clockwork. The barnyards, the factories, the orchards—they were all reasonably managed. But behind the sparkly screen, the picture was drastically different.

“Yes?” she asked shortly. “So is it okay?”

“Whatever, fine,” he replied impatiently and dried his mouth with a napkin. “Will you be back on Tuesday?”

“I told you the day before yesterday that I’m taking a two-day vacation,” she said in the same cold tone.

“Oh, I see. So you’ll be back on Wednesday. Fine…so be it.”

Diana left the dining room, fuming. It seemed that everyone had forgotten that she was here on a volunteer basis!

“What a repugnant person! It’s a good thing I’m not an anti-Semite,” she said to Golda as they sat in the apple orchard and shared orange segments from a bag. “Otherwise I would say that that’s what Jews are like. But I know other ones as well, and they’re much nicer people. Oh, I’m so sorry! I forgot for a moment that he is your son. I hope I didn’t offend you.”

“I’m not offended,” Golda said, her forehead creasing. “I’m his mother and know him myself. But you should know that it’s not entirely his fault.”

“Well, you are his mother, so at the end of the day you are going to defend him.” Diana chuckled, helping herself to another orange segment. The wind whistled between the trees behind them.

“The Israeli education system is completely to blame; they raised our children to be like this.”

“And you wanted to give him a different education? Like the one you had?”

“I didn’t want to,” Golda said with an inscrutable expression. “At the time, I also thought that that was a good way to raise children.”

“So you’re also to blame?” Diana asked in jest and got up to rinse her hands in the nearest sprinkler. But Golda didn’t laugh. Not a trace of a smile was evident on her face.

“Yes, you’re right. I’m also to blame,” she said.

Menuchi’s perspective:

At first, when Simi came in, I was very uncomfortable. After all, I don’t think she’d been to our house more than two or three times since the wedding. We sat down in the kitchen with a few slices of cake left from Shabbos. We tried to chat a bit, but it just didn’t work, and she noticed it, too, because after two minutes of ridiculous small-talk, she took out a sheaf of papers written in small, close handwriting.

“This is the story of my grandmother,” she said as she took out a notebook and pen and waited quietly. I went to get my little electronic dictionary in case I’d get stuck on any words, and read a few lines quietly. It really looked like a fascinating story!

“Write,” I instructed, and began to dictate slowly. “I’m writing these pages for you, dear Lara. I don’t know if you’ll remember the events when you grow up. Maybe they won’t be of much interest to you. I don’t know if the bond between us will continue, but I still felt that it was a good idea to write everything to you.

“It all began when we were inBelgiumlast month, in light of Bob’s serious business situation. I went out for a walk on one of the first days, observing my surroundings…” This paragraph then launched into a description of the Belgian streets after the war.

“That could be amazing scenery!” Simi said with a dreamy expression. “I’m beginning to imagine dreary cathedrals, lit with yellow bulbs…”

“I don’t know if there was electricity there,” I remarked.

“You’re right,” she said, and even though I had contradicted her, she looked pleased. “So without bulbs. Ruined buildings in the background, narrow alleys, all gray. What do you say?”

“It really sounds nice, but I’m not the big maven on scenery,” I said, going back to the pages.

Another hour passed as I translated. I read about the girl saved from the street fight, about the cold, fat woman, and about the black dog in the street. The writing was full of vivid descriptions, with lots of fancy English words. Every so often, I pressed the tiny keys on my dictionary in order to translate unfamiliar words, until Simi exclaimed, “Whoa, it’s so late! Thanks a million, Menuchi. I’ve got to run now. When can we continue?”

“Any day, but not between four thirty and seven,” I replied.

“Tomorrow, maybe?” Simi suggested. “I finish at three on Monday. Is it okay if I come here after school?”

“No problem. You can leave the pages here, so I can move along on my own.”

“Oh, I prefer not to,” she said. “Now I want to read over what we translated and see if I understand it better. It’s great practice for me.”

“Whatever you want.” I shrugged. True, I was rather curious to read more, but I wasn’t that desperate that I couldn’t wait until tomorrow.

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