Without a Trace – Chapter 9

Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 9 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.

Shevi’s mother scraped the last plate and placed it on the counter. Her daughter sat at the table, following her mother’s moves silently, in a near dreamlike state. Her mother wanted to wash the dishes? Fine. Nothing really made a difference to her right now. The dishes could dance in circles in the sink or wash one another, for all she cared.

“It’s a good thing Gavriel called me!” her mother said as she bent down to the cabinet under the sink, where, like at home in Haifa, the cleaning supplies were stored. “My daughter feels like this, and no one should help her?” She took out the bleach. “For the chagim I will buy you a dishwasher, do you hear me, Elisheva? A dishwasher! Who washes dishes these days?”

“Gavriel, sometimes,” Elisheva said weakly, and lay her head down on the table. She raised it almost immediately. The pain in her ear only grew worse in that position.

Nu, but he has his learning. There’s no reason for either of you to have to stand at the sink. If you don’t have a dishwasher, then at least use paper goods!” She glanced at her daughter. “Do you want to go lie down a bit? You’re pale.”

“The ear hurts much more when I lie down…” Shevi replied tiredly. Just a few days earlier she had parted from her parents, regretting that their visits were so rare, and now her mother was already here again.

“An ear infection,” the doctor had said in a surprised tone. Apparently he didn’t often have young women with ear infections—and in the summer to boot. Ear infections were much more prevalent among children, and in the winter. But Shevi wasn’t surprised; she knew she had always had sensitive ears that reminded her of their existence at least twice a year. Infections in the summer were not especially out of the ordinary for her.

Elinor came into the kitchen holding the broom. “Where’s your dustpan, Shevi?”

“I see that you’ve decided to really take over my house,” Shevi said with a chuckle. “The dustpan is on the porch, behind the washing machine. Thanks, Elinor.”

Her sister returned a moment later, and sat down at the table. “I didn’t realize you were feeling so awful,” she said after a moment of silence. “The truth is that I came because I wanted to speak to you about something. I thought about calling you, but when Ima said she was coming, I decided to join her and talk to you in person.”

“And here I thought you wanted to sweep my floors!” Shevi said, a broad smile lighting up her face—only to disappear a second later. The pain in her ear spread to her cheek when she smiled. Elinor would have to suffice with a solemn sister right now.

Elinor smiled back. “You know I’m happy to help you when I can. Are you up to listening to me?”

“I’m all ears. Um…oops, no pun intended; I wish I wasn’t.”

“Do you remember what grade I’m in now?”

Shevi raised an eyebrow. “Finishing middle school, right?”

“Not bad; your memory is in good shape. I thought you wouldn’t even pay attention to such things now.”

“Why, because of the infection?”

“No, because I thought my studies wouldn’t be of much interest to you once you stopped yours in the middle, you know, when you switched over to the more Chareidi place.”

“Nonsense.” Shevi didn’t laugh. First of all, her infected ear might not like it and would send her a sharp warning if she did. Second, Elinor’s words hurt too much for her to laugh at them. “Well, you’ll remember that at your age, I was still very involved in my studies. And if you thought that I left because school didn’t interest me, you’re mistaken.” Their mother, who was busy cleaning cabinet doors at that moment—something Shevi did not remember her ever doing in her house in Haifa—kept out of the conversation.

“Well, let’s not talk about that now,” Elinor said, picking up her canvas bag from the floor. “I want to leave next year.”

“Leave? Where to?”

“Not to the school you went to, but to a different one. Tzofia told me there’s a new place opening on Moshav Meir, in the Golan. It’s supposed to be great. Rav Tzur Yisrael is going to be the principal.”

Shevi could only be thankful that Gavriel wasn’t there. He would certainly object to having the title “rav” applied to the said person. Actually, she wasn’t sure. Often, he preferred to swallow what he really thought and remain silent to avoid confrontations, but she could never know. And the last thing she needed now, as Elinor opened the conversation on such a sensitive note, was to hear Gavriel’s opinion on Mr. Tzur Yisrael.

“So what do you think? Should I go to the new place?”

“Do you have any friends going there?”

“Tzofia wants to go, but she can change her mind a thousand times till then, so I can’t really rely on that.”

“Anyone else?” Shevi swallowed carefully.

“Not that I know of.”

“It’s an hour-and-a-half drive from home,” Ima said suddenly, and walked out of the kitchen.

Elinor looked at the spot where her mother had been standing a moment earlier. “I don’t think Ima wants me to apply there, because it means moving into a dormitory. She and Abba keep telling me it’s not a good idea to get into a new school that may fail. They are leaving the decision up to me, but I’m getting the impression that Ima is not happy about the idea in general. She wants her baby at home.”

Shevi mulled this over. “I can understand her,” she said slowly. “But maybe you should ask her straight out before you make any decisions based on your assumptions?”

“And if she tells me that she doesn’t want me to go?”

“Then you’ll have to make a list of pros and cons for why you think you should or shouldn’t go, and decide based on that.”

Her sister sighed. “Can’t you just make the decision for me?”

“No, my dear.” Shevi smiled wanly. “I don’t know anything about the place; how can I decide for you?”

“You know my school in Haifa,” Elinor said, taking a mint candy out of her bag. “Do you want one? Oh, forget it, it’s not Badatz. Okay, I’ll ask Ima and then decide. Thanks for your help.”

“I helped?”

“You helped, and you saved yourself, too.”

“Saved myself?” Shevi did not understand what Elinor was referring to. “From what?”

“I was sure that you’d tell me either one of two things. Either you’d tell me that these places are no good and that I should go to the school you went to, Tiferes, or you’d tell me that if Ima doesn’t let me go, then it’s a matter of kibud horim,and I should just continue studying in Haifa.”

Shevi looked straight into her sister’s eyes. A moment of silence ensued, followed by another one. Then she asked, “And what would you have answered me?”

“That you went yourself to Bnei Brak, so you shouldn’t preach to me. As for the first thing, I don’t have a good answer for you yet.”

Shevi swallowed again, carefully; her ear had expanded its painful influence toward her throat. “I see that you’re convinced that Bnei Brak transforms people into witches. No, I didn’t dream of answering either one of the things you thought I would.”

***

Chasida was happy to discover that it was almost time for her to get off. In another minute she’d disembark, and get rid of the horrible crowding and Mrs. Kurzman all in one shot.

“Excuse me? Here’s your baby!” she said to a woman who was sitting a few seats away, surrounded by a brood of little children. She proffered the baby, who until that moment had been sitting on her lap, alertly following her every move while she gave his mother a temporary reprieve. “I am getting off now.” She smiled at the baby, who kept gazing at her from his new perch back on his mother’s lap, and turned to Mrs. Kurzman. To her surprise, the other woman was also standing.

“You’re terrific with children, I’m telling you,” Mrs. Kurzman remarked, following Chasida.

Chasida didn’t reply. She just alighted onto the sidewalk and, now sure there weren’t any curious ears listening in, took a deep breath. Then she turned again to Mrs. Kurzman, who was following her doggedly, and said, “So what?”

“So I have just the thing for you.”

“What exactly is ‘just for me’?” One of the less pleasant things about returning from an accountant’s office after finding it closed and learning that you had gone out for nothing, was boarding the most crowded bus you had ever gotten onto and meeting Mrs. Kurzman, smiling at you from ear to ear and declaring with satisfaction, “Either we don’t see each other for years, or all of a sudden we meet twice in one month! How nice; you saved me a phone call!”

To the shadchante’s credit, she didn’t say a word the entire ride, and restrained herself until they were off the bus. But now, she was all back to business. “I have two wonderful suggestions for you, Chasida dear. Are you writing them down?”

“Not exactly,” the “dear” replied as she walked beside her. A car honked loudly, effectively drowning out Mrs. Kurzman for the next few seconds.

“Well, then, I didn’t save myself the call after all. I’ll call you this evening to give you exact details. The first is an American bachelor who’s 43 and learns in the Mir. I heard that he’s something special, but I hardly know him, so you’ll have to make lots of inquiries yourself. You have no objection to foreign boys, right? The second boy also comes from a foreign family, but he grew up right here in Israel. I know him better.” She paused for a moment. A pigeon that passed right near her leg caused her to veer off to the side for a few steps. “Ugh, these pigeons. And you know them also.”

“The pigeons?”

“No, the boy I want to suggest for you.”

Chasida looked at the sidewalk and then raised her eyes with interest. “Nu?”

“Yerachmiel Blum.” She stopped at the gate outside the Dresnick home, looking at Chasida with a triumphant smile.

Chasida was quiet for a long time, long enough for Mrs. Kurzman to being wondering if she had to provide some explanation. At the minute she decided that Chasida must have forgotten who she was talking about, Chasida asked tonelessly, “Oh, does he have children?”

“Of course not! He hasn’t gotten married since then.”

“So then why did you say that…” She didn’t finish the sentence, because the shadchante waved her hand, as though flicking away an annoying fly.

“I just said it, you know, in principle. Everyone wants a woman who knows how to devote herself to children. So, what do you say about Blum? Should we try?”

Chasida smiled politely, forcing herself to sound upbeat. “We’ll see, Mrs. Kurzman. I’ll think about it and let you know.”

“But do it quickly!” the woman called to Chasida’s receding back. “You know, as each day passes, we don’t get any younger!”

***

There are many minhagim among Klal Yisrael, Shoshi mused as she opened the brown album. Shloimy’s birthday fell out on the eighth of Tammuz, but they would wait until after Tishah B’Av to cut his hair. In any case, if he would have been born two weeks later, after Shivah Assar B’Tammuz, they would have waited. There are some who specifically give the first haircut only on Lag B’Omer. To this day, she remembered one of the neighbor’s children who kept his long ponytail for more than six months after his birthday, until Lag B’Omer. It wasn’t his fault he was born in Cheshvan!

So Shloimy would also wait, until his father came back from South America. It was a good thing it wouldn’t be too long after his birthday, because Shoshi had no patience for another half a year of combing Shloimy’s hair in the morning—and the wails that inevitably came along with it.

She looked at the tangled curls in the first photo. They were soft and still a bit wet from the bath, and tumbled down over her little boy’s shoulders. Shloimy smiled at her tearfully from the picture, and all at once she remembered Zevi, just as she had remembered him while standing in the photographer’s house and trying to tempt Shloimy with a red jellybean.

Zevi had also cried through his pre-upsherin photography session. The photography place had been a small store at the end of an alley in Bnei Brak. Zevi had refused to stand beside the picture of the Kosel, had pushed away the small shtender, and didn’t even glance at the open sefer Masores. That was all the photographer had had at the time—a Kosel background, a shtender, and a sefer Masores. Fourteen years later, there was a plethora of new accessories and backdrops for the photos. She turned the page. Shloimy with a bouquet of flowers, Shloimy holding a guitar. Shloimy on a bike, and Shloimy wearing a large straw hat. How nice.

Shoshi suppressed a yawn as she put the album down on the armrest. The small hand of the clock showed her that it was past one o’clock. She had a full day of work ahead of her tomorrow (or was it today by now?), and she wanted to go to Bnei Brak after that. She tried to visit her parents occasionally, but her plans did not always work out. She’d been planning this trip for two weeks, but each time, something else cropped up that precluded her from going. Shloimy had fever, Aryeh had a dentist appointment, Yocheved had a big test and couldn’t babysit. But tomorrow she would go, b’ezras Hashem.

She heard a short cry from the children’s room, followed by quiet. Shoshi stood up, praying that she wasn’t in for a whole night of crying, because she just didn’t have the strength. She walked slowly, deliberating whether to take off her slippers that tapped the floor lightly with every step. She stood at the doorway of the children’s room, looking at each bed. No one was moving. Someone must have cried in his sleep.

Shoshi continued to her bedroom, and only when she entered did she notice that she was still clutching the brown photo album. She switched on the light and closed the door, taking pains to remain as quiet as possible. All of her children were such light sleepers that even the shaft of light coming out of her room was liable to wake them up. She put the album on the night table, knowing that it would remain there tomorrow, when she traveled to Bnei Brak. She wouldn’t take it with her, even though she wanted to. There was nothing to take it for.

When she had brought Yossi’s pre-upsherin pictures to Abba and Ima, less than four years after the evening that she had presented them with Zevi’s photos, her mother was very edgy. “Where’s Yossi now?” she had demanded.

“At home,” Shoshi had replied.

“Sleeping?” her mother asked.

Shoshi nodded. “I hope so,” she added after a moment. Yossi was her biggest screamer at night, and he could wake up even seven times in one night. She had once counted.

“Is Chanoch with them, or a babysitter?”

“Chanoch.”

“Good.” Her mother had relaxed somewhat. “So he knows to be careful.”

“What does he need to be careful about especially today?” Abba had asked. Did he really not remember, or was it an attempt to pull the worries back to normal proportions?

“You know, Zalman,” Mrs. Dresnick had replied shortly. “No, Shoshi’le,” she hurried to add when Shoshi proffered the album a second time. It was a small white album, and there was a clear, round window on the cover. “I don’t like photos.”

Silently, Shoshi replaced the album in her bag. Yossi still smiled at her from the clear window on the cover before disappearing into the depths of the bag; for a moment, it looked like the cute smile that wreathed his face became contorted in offense.

She wasn’t offended. She knew why her mother was worried about Yossi that evening that she had brought over the pre-upsherin pictures. It was all part of the way they had been raised.

If you fell on the way to visit a sick friend, that was a sign that the other child was contagious and you shouldn’t have been going there. If you sing while you eat—you’ll be poor when you grow up. If you stand on a table, you’ll only get married in ten years (had Chasida climbed up onto a table in the last decade?). Every single thing in life carried a symbolism of some type. Every sign was significant. There were sayings that Ima had made up herself according to the circumstances, and there were some that she had brought from Hungary. Aunt Liebchu claimed that some of them weren’t even accurate. There were bitter fights that developed over the different versions, until Abba would raise his hand and say quietly, “Superstitions, Minda, these are all superstitions.”

He wouldn’t say it about everything. There were some things that he said did have some substance and were brought down in Torah sources. Still, when all was said and done, they always honored their mother’s wishes; as she said, even for things she didn’t really believe, you could never be too careful.

And therefore, they came home and stayed home if they missed a bus, because maybe that was a sign that there was a terrorist with a bomb on the bus. And that’s why Chasi hadn’t gone to a party at a friend’s house, because at the last class gathering in that girl’s house, Chasi had cut her head. And that’s why Yitzchak didn’t go to the yeshivah where a child from the next block had drowned a year earlier, and Eliyahu was asked not to bring cats into the house of any shape or size, because a cat at home was a sign of pain and wailing. (He had brought them anyway, and indeed there was wailing—Shoshi’s and Chasi’s.)

And that’s why she wouldn’t bring the pictures of Shloimy to her mother tomorrow. Her mother wouldn’t be calm and would want to call every half hour to know how Shloimy was doing. If Ima wouldn’t enjoy looking at the photos, then why bring them? For Chasi? Nu, Chasi could come herself to Yerucham to see her nephews and their pictures.

Shoshi looked around the empty room. When they had bought the apartment, she had told Chanoch that the master bedroom was tiny, but since then she had changed her mind a thousand times. The room was too big. Big and cold. And during the long, quiet nights, it was doubly empty.

So why couldn’t Chasi come and keep her company in her house? What would happen to her sister if she would spend a bit of time with them in Yerucham? It would be so nice to go to sleep now knowing that Chasi was there with her…

But Chasi always wanted to be with Abba and Ima, and with all the unglamorous loneliness that came along with doing so—and Shoshi couldn’t help but admire her for that.

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