Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 8 of a new online serial novel, Without a Trace, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every Thursday or Friday. Click here for previous chapters.
Zevi was searching for his comb, which seemed to have disappeared. It wasn’t in his case, nor in his drawer or on the dresser. Where could it be hiding? The silence in the room was broken only by his rapid breaths. The clock—that traitor. How could it creep ahead calmly for two hours, and then suddenly, in the last fifteen minutes, run so wildly, without giving him a second to breathe?
Yehuda Levy burst in, hair wet. “Eight more minutes!” he shouted. “Do we have candles?”
“I don’t,” Zevi said, finally pulling out the missing comb from under a bunched-up pajama top in the closet. “Maybe Yisrael bought some.”
“Even if he did, I have no intention of going through his closet to find them,” Yehuda said, rummaging in his own bag. “Clean socks, where are you? Ouch!” he cried as his bandaged finger slammed onto the open zipper. “When you have a second, Zevi, run and ask someone on this floor for candles.”
“Sure,” Zevi replied, and tossed his shoe polish into the bag under the bed. His Shabbos shoes were standing like two polished soldiers, as though he had worked on them for a long time. Only the black marks on the floor were testimony to the fact that it had taken a tenth of the time that it normally took. Now he had to put the shoes on, but not when Yehuda was there. Zevi was usually ready early, and had enough time to get himself together alone, unnoticed. But today, it just hadn’t worked out.
Zevi looked at the door. He could go out into the corridor and find a quiet corner where he could change his shoes, but he had no interest in walking down the bustling hallway carrying a pair of shoes in his hands, and then walking back to his room with another pair. He sat down on the bed.
“Candles, Zevi?” Yehuda murmured, sweeping piles of unidentified objects off the dresser and dumping them into his shelf in the cupboard. “Here, I’ve made some place for them.” He spread a small napkin onto the table.
Zevi stood up and went out, wearing his Shabbos pants and weekday shoes. He felt silly, but consoled himself with the fact that with everyone so busy with themselves right now, no one would have time to notice the scuffed shoes he was wearing. That was the price you had to pay when you sat and chatted with your roommate on a Friday afternoon, losing track of time as Shabbos approached rapidly.
The line in front of the shower room was almost gone. Zevi tapped on the first shoulder he encountered. “Candles?” he asked tersely.
“Ask in my room,” the older bachur replied. He turned and looked at Zevi for a long moment, first in the eye and then slowly down to his shoes.
“I haven’t had a chance to change yet,” Zevi murmured as a blush colored his cheeks.
“Oh, it’s fine,” replied the bachur; was his name Tzvi? “Did Yehuda speak to you?”
“Yes, he asked me to get the candles because he’s running late himself.” Zevi turned, hating the warm feeling in his cheeks.
“No, I mean, did he talk to you about…well, whatever, nothing.” He walked off quickly. Suddenly, he remembered what Zevi had asked him and retraced his steps. “You wanted candles. Come to my room.”
Zevi followed the older bachur, and although he really wanted to ask what Yehuda was supposed to speak to him about, he didn’t say a word. Only after the pair of candles was virtually tossed into his hands did he murmur a quick thank you.
“Good Shabbos, Bloch,” the boy said.
“I haven’t been mekabel Shabbos yet,” Zevi replied as he ran back to his room. Less than two minutes! Yehuda wasn’t in the room. Zevi put the candles down on the napkin Yehuda had spread out and bent down over his bed. Open the laces of his weekday shoes. Take them off. And now, quick. Put the Shabbos shoes on. Right shoe—good thing these shoes didn’t have laces. And now the lef—
Yehuda walked into the room. “Did you get candles?” he asked, glancing at Zevi, bent over his shoes, for just a fraction of a second. “Great, I’m going to light.” His hands worked mechanically as he struck the match. It was a shame. They usually tried so hard to welcome Shabbos as it should be welcomed. But this time, everything seemed to go awry. He didn’t even say the brachah as he should have.
The man who had come yesterday to the yeshivah gate and sent Baranes, the fresh baal teshuvah, to call Bloch’s roommates, did not look like he had evil intentions, but it was obvious that Zevi had to know about the story. Interestingly enough, there was a resemblance between the man and Zevi; perhaps they were relatives.
It was a short, strange conversation, as the man tried to evade their questions, but at the same time probed to find out whether they had any idea about a problem with Zevi Bloch’s feet, and if they knew how serious the problem was. Based on the questions and the vague voice Yehuda remembered, this was the same person who had called the yeshivah, although the man did not affirm that. He also didn’t deny it, just evaded the question and tried to press them into answering him. They didn’t know anything, and had no intentions of finding anything out for him, even though they could see that he was frum. What they needed to do now was tell Zevi. He had to let his parents know about this. Maybe it was something serious.
So why couldn’t he just say it to Zevi? During their two hours of conversation today, they had spoken about everything else under the sun, but it had not been enough. How much time would Yehuda need in order to convey to Zevi a short sentence to the effect of, “Someone strange has been asking questions about what exactly you have on your feet”?
How much time? Days, perhaps months. And maybe he would never be able to tell this to Zevi. Not after what he had just seen now.
Zevi chewed the dry challah without any appetite. He was still full from Shabbos, and his appetite was never anything to write home about. But at home they had always been punctilious about melaveh malkah—so here he was, eating his kezayis of challah for melaveh malkah.
Sitting at the table with him was a lively group of bachurim, but he was just an observer. Someone passed behind him and patted him on the shoulder in a friendly manner. Zevi didn’t need to turn around to know that it was Yehuda Levy, hurrying to the next table.
“Zev, what’s doing?” Nachum Cohen, his first-seder chavrusa, asked. “You look kind of out of sorts this evening. Everything okay?”
“Baruch Hashem,” Zevi replied, trying to focus. “Yes, everything’s fine.” Either it was or it wasn’t. That was the problem; he didn’t know. Maybe he had to come out and ask Yehuda directly what he had wanted to tell him on Friday.
It had already happened, around two months earlier, that Yehuda had stammered and stuttered around a thousand different things until he finally told Zevi that recently, someone had been calling yeshivah and asking all kinds of questions about Zevi Bloch. Zevi had asked him for more details, but Yehuda didn’t remember—or didn’t want to remember—exactly, and they hadn’t spoken any more about he subject. Zevi, who had been rather alarmed by the anonymous caller, convinced himself that it must have been a mistake. Who called to inquire about a boy who was not yet seventeen and a half?
Now Zevi began to wonder if perhaps it hadn’t been a one-time mistake. Maybe Yehuda’s roundabout conversation yesterday was connected to the same subject. Could the man have called again? And if so, why was Yehuda so afraid to tell him this time?
Zevi looked at the plastic cup in his hand, filled halfway with orange-colored punch. The blue walls of the cup reflected in the juice, making it look dark purple. Maybe he had to approach Yehuda and ask him straight out what he wanted. His roommate had wanted to tell him something but didn’t know how to go about it; that much was clear.
He quickly drank the punch, which was nauseatingly sweet. His eyes focused on the large windows facing him, which didn’t let even the slightest bit of air into the room. It was hot, despite the air conditioning.
Zevi stood up and went over to the water fountain. He couldn’t taste anything anyway, and he was in no mood to sing. The heat was exhausting, and when he knew that he had a long, sweaty night ahead of him, his feet began to itch. The heat was even worse in the dormitory rooms, where they had to suffice with fans that frequently blew all the electricity in the building because so many of them ran at the same time. But none of the other boys had the right to complain. None of them had to sleep—even on the hottest nights—inside their quilt cover.
How careful he had always been! From when he was a young boy he knew that no one in the world was allowed to see his feet—or more accurately, his left foot. In his younger years, it was pretty simple. He always wore closed shoes, even in the sweltering summers in Yerucham. Pools or beaches were out of the question, and only at home could his feet have a bit of a break from the oppressive shoes. The truth is, that wasn’t so accurate, because even at home, Ima always asked him to make sure the younger kids wouldn’t notice anything.
“They talk a lot,” she said, “and we have to be careful. People have long memories, Zevi, and it isn’t good that a shadchan will remember in ten years time that his daughter told him at age four what one of the little Bloch girls told her about her brother.” Zevi would silently nod, internalizing the fact that already at the age of ten he had to be concerned about shidduchim, and probably wouldn’t be totally free of those thoughts until after the stage had passed for him.
Was it any wonder that he became nervous when Yehuda told him about the strange inquiries?
But Yehuda had also said that the stranger had specifically told him it wasn’t for shidduchim!
So he claimed. Aunt Chasi always said that you shouldn’t believe shadchanim.
Zevi washed his hands and took a bentcher out of the holder hanging on the wall. He walked slowly back to his seat, smiling wanly at Yehuda, who waved. When Yehuda had spoken to him two months ago, he had assumed it was a mistake. He had hoped it was. He had convinced himself that that was what he thought, and when there was no continuation to the strange story…he had let it settle into an out-of-the-way corner of his brain.
Now Yehuda was stammering in conversation with him again, and he had a feeling that that meant that chapter two of the story was beginning to unfold.
On one of the high shelves in Chasida’s room were old notebooks. Chasida’s, Shoshi’s, and Yitzchak’s notebooks, and perhaps even one or two that belonged to Eliyahu. Over the years, Minda had found some of his possessions that had been scattered all over the house, but no one had touched that upper shelf for years. Who really cared about those childish notebooks?
On the end of the shelf, very close to the wall, was a dog-eared notebook. The first page was blank. The second page had four large, childishly printed letters written by someone who had wanted to write the acronym for “Cherem D’rabbeinu Gershom,” but didn’t know exactly which letters to use for it. In any case, the words that followed, “Do Not Read,” reinforced the fact that the writer did not want anyone other than himself to see the contents of this notebook.
The third page contained the following:
Chasida has a notbuk that she calls her jurnal and she dosint let me look at it and I don’t look, only sumtimes. She rites a lot of silly things about frends and teechers that always punish her. I also get punished but not all the time, only sumtimes. I think that it isn’t fair that Kobi Frankel gets wild with me but almost never gets punished, becus he always smiles nisely at the teechers. Aunt Minda says that behind those frekels are hiding all sorts of things. And then Uncle Zalman tells her that’s lashon hara.
Chasida says that there are things hiding behind my own frekels, and I tell her that when sumwon says sumthing about sumwon else it’s becus they have the thing more than the other person, so it must be that she has more frekels than me.
The fourth page said:
I also wanted a notbuk like Chasida, but I won’t rite Dear Diary like she does. It’s really funny. The notbuk is very cheep, and not dear at all. So why, even if it dosent cost a lot of money, did Aunt Minda say when I asked her for a notbuk that she’ll cut one in half for me becus that’s enuf? I said no and when my mother came to visit she said I could have a whole notbuk. Uncle Zalman said it’s good for me to write a lot becus he thinks I really like the letter alef. I don’t really like it becus it always comes out crooked. Now Aunt Minda is screeming that I should come and eat already. She’s screeming for a long time already but I’m just finishing to rite now so I can go to the kitchen. But I won’t drink their milk. At home, Ima always took the stuff off the top, and Aunt Minda won’t do it and Chasida says I’m spoiled and Unlce Zalman tells her not to say that to me.
The next page:
Yesterday, after the fire truck left, Uncle Zalman was very angry at me. Everywon was very angry at me. I told them that I didn’t mean to burn Yitzchak’s room and I just wanted him to have a warm bed, but now he doesn’t have a warm bed. He and me don’t have any bed. The candle I put in the morning fell and burned the bed and some of the doors of the closit and made the walls and the seeling black. Uncle Zalman said he will ask my mother what to do and I told him that I know already that we have to call the painter. So he got even more angry at me, and so did Chasida. Shoshi cried and Yitzchak just looked at what was left of his room and said he was so sad. I also think it’s sad, espeshully since his bed was new, so I said I was sorry and Uncle Zalman and Aunt Minda hugged me, but Chasida still made faces at me. I think she’s already nine so she’s very big, but she still acts like a baby. We’re sumtimes good frends but sumtimes we fite a lot. Too bad.
And the page after that:
Last night, Ima left and before that Kobi helped me collect a lot of snails, but Ima said she didn’t need them so I put them on Chasida and Shoshi’s window to dekorate it. Shoshi got very scared from the snails and Chasida threw them all outside and I’m very angry at her for that. Ima told Aunt Minda that Chasida picks on me and I said that was true and maybe the Dresnicks had an uncle and aunt where Chasida could go live. Chasida got very angry at me but then I told her it was a joke, so she gave me a napkin that smells nice and she is talking to me again. At night, before Ima left, they sent me to sleep and also Chasdia and Shoshi went to sleep so the adults talked in the dining room. Ima said all sorts of things and Uncle Zalman said a lot of things and Aunt Minda added more things. I went near the door becus I couldn’t fall asleep anyway and I heard Ima saying to take her money also and they said “of course not” and it’s not worth it, and then Ima said that it’s also a bit for the fire I made, and then I heard noise and I saw that Chasida also came to lissen.
The yellow light bulb cast an orange glow over the two heads.
“You! You…!” nine-year-old Chasida whispered fiercely. “Why are you listening to the adults talking, Eliyahu?”
“So are you!” He inclined his head mockingly. “Why are you listening to the adults talking, Chasida?” he mimicked.
“It’s my house!”
“It’s mine, too!”
“Not tr—” She stopped at the last second. Abba and Ima never let her tell Eliyahu that it wasn’t his house, even when he was acting so annoying, which happened a lot.
They looked at each other like two roosters getting ready for battle.
“Listen, Eliyahu.” Chasida recovered first, taking care to whisper. “You know that you’re supposed to listen when adults tell you to do something?”
“So I’m almost nine and you’re only seven and a quarter, and I’m telling you to go to sleep right now!”
He snickered loudly, and the adults on the other side of the door fell silent at once.
“Look what you did!” Chasida hissed furiously as she scampered off to bed.
“Eliyahu’ku!” Liebchu emerged first and discovered her son, trembling near the wall. “Oy, my eideshkem. You can’t fall asleep? Is the mattress too thin?”
“I think that the door here is too thin,” Zalman said ironically. “Why are you listening to other people’s conversations, Eliyahu?”
“Chasida was, too!” the boy protested. “Not only me!”
Zalman strode over to his daughters’ room. “Chasida?” he asked. She lifted her head from the pillow. “I’m angry.” Her brown eyes lowered to the flowers decorating the pillowcase. Her father remained silent for a moment, deliberating whether to add anything. Then he sighed. “Good night, Chasi. This better not happen again.”
In Eliyahu and Yitzchak’s room, Liebchu sat on the edge of her son’s bed, holding his cold hands in her larger, warm ones and singing a lullaby.
The seventh page had just one line:
In the morning, me and Chasida were frends agen.