Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 11 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.
The hall in Yerushalayim was buzzing with excited chatter of conversations trying valiantly to make themselves heard over the thudding of the drums, the glass plates clinking onto the table, and the clatter of cutlery attempting to cut the schnitzels that had cooled down during the round of dancing which had just come to an end. Chasida sat at one of the tables, one hand sticking the last bits of the challah roll into her two-year-old niece’s mouth, and the other patting the baby’s back.
She was playing full-time babysitter this evening. Yitzchak’s younger sister-in-law was getting married tonight, and had she not promised her sister-in-law Faigy that she’d come to help her with the little ones, she would have been glad to stay at home. But Faigy didn’t have any big daughters who could help her—only big boys—and she had really pleaded with Chasida. And Mrs. Dresnick had added that there was no way Chasida could not come to Tzivia’le’s wedding. After all, she was the mechutanim’s youngest child. So Chasida had closed the store half an hour early to be able to travel to Yerushalayim.
The mechuteiniste, Faigy and Tzivia’s mother, thanked her effusively for coming and gave her an emotional brachah, but it wasn’t hard to discern the young kallah’s unease. At Yitzchak and Faigy’s wedding, more than twenty years earlier, she had been ten months old. Chasida clearly remembered the blue-eyed baby who refused to part with her mother for even a minute; when the mothers walked around the chassan with Faigy under the chuppah, Tzivia had howled so much that her mother had had no choice, and the little girl had joined the last two revolutions. And then there was the missing pacifier that half the guests spent several long moments on the floor looking for, until one of Faigy’s brothers had run to find an open store so they could buy another one.
But Chasida didn’t even dream of repeating these incidents to the young, excited kallah. They likely didn’t interest her at this moment, and besides, it’s not pleasant to see people discomfited and know that it’s because of you. This twenty-three-year-old kallah, who had indubitably endured her fair share of worrying that she would become an old spinster, did not need to see Chasida up close right now.
“Eat, eat, it’s good,” her mother told Malka’le, who kept stubbornly closing her mouth as the fork approached.
“No, I’m going to take a picture with Tzivia’le now!” the girl protested. “She told me she has to take a picture with me with my bee-yoo-tiful updo!” And off she ran, her hairdo glistening from the rhinestone pins that held it in place.
Her grandmother sighed. “What did you talk to Shevi about today, Chasida?”
“She came to ask me if we have any old dishes.” Chasida put down her fork, tired of the battle with the dried-out schnitzel.
“She’s thinking of opening a small photo studio at home. She started studying professional photography.”
“What? Photography? What does she want to photograph?”
“Children. It’s very accepted today for women to open such studios at home. They get some nice backgrounds, a few old dishes…”
“Dishes?” Her mother wrinkled her nose, but not because of the dishes. Chasida knew why.
“That’s the way it is today,” Chasida said. “Didn’t you see the picture of Sruly with the primus carriage? People like all this stuff.”
“I hardly saw the pictures of Sruly. You know I don’t like this nonsense.” Chasida certainly knew why. “But I don’t mind letting her rummage around in our crawlspace. She’s a nice girl. If she sees something she likes, she can take it.” Her mother folded a cloth napkin sharply as she spoke. One fold. Another.
Chasida took a bentcher out of her small, leather evening clutch. “She also asked me if we mind if she asks the gardener to trim the right corner of the garden in a slightly different shape than normal. She says it can be a great background for her.”
“A great background. Nu, nu.” The green napkin was a tiny rectangle by now.
“I told her that I have to ask you, but I didn’t think it should be a problem.”
When the dancing started up again and her nieces wriggled themselves into the circle around the kallah, Chasida escaped outside to where the chuppah had been held. She noticed her father standing by the stairs leading to the men’s entrance, smoking. He smiled at her from afar and came down toward her.
“It’s only the second one today, Chasida’le. You know that after traveling I need half a cigarette.”
“Half?” she asked, looking at the stub in his hand.
He chuckled. “Alright, alright.” He tossed it down to the floor and ground it with his shoe. “Ask Ima when she’s ready to go.”
“Are you also sleeping at Yitzchak’s tonight? I’m going over there shortly to put the little ones to bed.”
“I think we’ll join you. I think we’ve been here long enough.”
She leaned on the railing behind her, letting the evening breeze caress her face. “It’s pleasant here in Yerushalayim,” she remarked offhandedly. “You don’t feel the summer.”
“At night,” her father said, stamping on the cigarette again. “You know that the neighbor, Auerbach, spoke to me today?”
“Frankel’s letter. The offer sounds attractive to him, even though they’ve just moved in.”
“His wife didn’t tell me anything!” Chasida turned around sharply. The wind had become annoying all of a sudden. “She actually just told me she wants to use the garden to photograph children!”
“Yes, he asked me about whether it was possible to sell only part of the property, and to keep the side yard under ownership of two families, ours and theirs.”
Chasida didn’t reply. She looked at her father. The drums thudding from inside the hall echoed all the way into the courtyard. “I told him that we’re not too enamored by the whole idea of selling, but he did make a few points that are reasonable.”
“He’s already spoken to Frankel and the payment terms they’re offering are much more attractive than what was offered then. They will also pay our rent for the entire time it takes to build.”
“He also said that if they build the shopping center only on the lot next to us, the value of our apartments—as they are now—will go down drastically. New, five-room apartments, like we would get, will be worth much more. And the store, Chasida! You’ll have much more space for it! We can make something beautiful out of it.”
“So that Eliyahu will come and say that it belongs to him?” As it always did when this discussion came up, Chasida’s voice had become icy and unpleasant.
Her father recoiled. “He never said that.”
“And I’m telling you, Abba, that he’s behind the whole thing this time around also. I wonder how much of a profit Frankel is going to rake in from the sale, if he’s raised the offer so much.” She stopped suddenly. “Abba,” she said, taking a deep breath. Her father noticed the redness on her forehead. “This is yours and Ima’s business. What I think really shouldn’t make a difference to you. Do whatever you think is right.”
He continued looking at her, but she murmured something about Yitzchak and Faigy’s children and walked back into the hall, her brown suit disappearing into the swarm on the ladies’ side.
When five minutes passed with no response, Zevi turned and went down the steps, feeling somewhat strange. It was a feeling that bordered on despair, but it wasn’t only that. A weird type of lassitude overtook him, and the wetness that pricked at his eyes didn’t even surprise him. Why didn’t his grandparents open the door? Savta was surely sleeping at a quarter to twelve at night. But Saba? And Chasida?
The most normal thing to do would have been to return to yeshivah, but the thought didn’t even enter his mind. Go back? To his room? To Yehuda? To the other boys who surely knew everything by now?
But the locked door at his grandparents’ home didn’t leave him with too many other options. He walked out of the courtyard to the street and began retracing his steps back from where he had come. Perhaps he would go into a shul or something, and spend the next few hours there until the sun would put in an appearance. What a shame that modern-day shuls didn’t have a bench behind the oven for poor people, like they used to, but in any case he’d never be able to sleep tonight.
A white cat meowed quietly, and Zevi jumped back, glaring at the narrowed eyes fixed on him. He took another few steps and then stopped. To the shul? Now? If he would have had the head to learn, he could have had an accomplishing mishmar night. But the way things looked now, his head would just revolve around and around Yehuda-the foot-his friends-shidduchim, and he wouldn’t be able to focus on anything else. Besides, he didn’t even have a hat and suit jacket with him!
His eyes burned. Too bad he didn’t have the key to Saba and Savta’s house. At home in Yerucham, if he or his siblings were ever locked out of the house, they knew they could always stick their hand onto the high windowsill near the neighbor’s door and take out the spare key. What a shame he had never even thought of asking his grandparents if he could keep a copy of their house key with him.
Zevi suddenly stopped. Something deep in the lethargy that had overtaken him began to bubble. It was a faint bubbling, but significant. He turned around even before he had a chance to analyze the idea from all the angles, and went back to the two-story house.
Two weeks ago, Savta had told him that the lock on the metal window bars of the porch off the bathroom had broken. “The thieves don’t know about it anyway,” she had said as she took his blue sheet off the clothesline and brought the box of clothespins into the house. “Here, look.” She had pushed the grate-like door shut and stuck a broomstick through the metal loop. “Until Saba calls the locksmith, this should be enough.” And so saying, she had folded his sheet and put it away into a large bag.
Perhaps Savta had already called the locksmith, but it was more likely that she hadn’t. When something was very important to Savta, it got done right away, and if Savta decided that it could wait, then it really waited. The lock seemed to fall into the second category.
Zevi re-entered the darkened courtyard. Near the back wall, a lamp glowed, causing the trees to cast spooky, elongated shadows on the high wall where the clotheslines were strung. The clotheslines were now all empty.
He approached and looked up. A few long seconds passed until he discerned the form of the old broom handle. He tried to reach it, but the plastic frame around the clotheslines didn’t allow him access; he would have to get past it. His feet groped slowly, searching for the space between the lines, until they finally felt firm ground. Now he was standing very near the window, but he realized he was still too low. Funny, when he looked out of the window from inside the house, the ground looked so close! Apparently, it was an illusion. Zevi looked up, to the lock, and knew he would have to climb. Not a lot; less than two feet separated his hand from the broken lock, but…
Zevi hated climbing, but that was the only option now. He swung his right leg, and rested it on one of the lower curved bars of the railing, and with two hands, pushed his body upward. His left foot scrabbled to find a spot, but the other openings in the metalwork were very low down. If he would put his foot there, he still wouldn’t reach the height he was aiming for. There were a few curvy metal bars that were higher up, but they were too narrow for him to stick his foot through.
He breathed slowly, scanning the shutters opposite him. The metal bars cast a distorted shadow on them, and Zevi reached out to touch them. An idea was germinating in his mind. As he tried to banish the image of Aryeh climbing easily up the tree in the yard in Yerucham, he stretched out his hand and moved the left shutter aside. It squeaked loudly as it slid down the rusty track. Now Savta’s porch was open for Zevi to see, dark and full of oddly shaped objects. But best of all, he could now reach the windowsill. Zevi slipped his left leg through the bars and placed it on the dark sill. There, he was done. A minute later he was already standing on the sill with both legs, from where he was able to remove the broom handle, which had been serving as a temporary lock, out of its place. The stick fell. Now all he had to do was get down carefully, open the grates properly, and step inside.
Why did his left leg always cause problems? Zevi muttered a quiet, “Ugh!” when he heard the sound of ripping fabric. His right leg came off the windowsill uneventfully, but when the left leg wanted to do the same, the cuff of his pants got caught on one of the metal bars as his leg hit it. Not only was it painful, but the bar stayed stuck in the fabric.
Zevi tried to release the fabric, but the grate wasn’t cooperating and his efforts only caused him to nearly lose his balance. A second before he tumbled to the ground, he managed to grab the bar. He hugged it tightly, breathing heavily. A minute later he tried again, first with his hand, and then by shaking his leg. His shaking grew wilder every second, like a fly trying to extricate itself from a spider’s web.
Nothing helped. The only development was that on the final shake of his leg, Zevi’s shoe hit the windowsill and fell into the porch. Now Zevi was hanging on the bars, one foot on the row of openings and the other inside the porch, barefoot. Zevi didn’t know whether or not he should be happy that this wall didn’t face the street. If someone would have seen him like this, it would be terrible, especially as his left foot was now shoeless. But at least the person would have helped him get down.
You didn’t want to go to shul? Now you’ll be doing mishmar here on Savta’s porch bars.
She was trembling, but Gavriel wasn’t answering his cell phone. For how much longer was he planning to dance at his friend’s wedding? She didn’t dare approach the window, but she knew that it was only a matter of time until the intruder would get to her house. Right near the Dresnicks’ bathroom window was a pipe that led directly to her bedroom window. And she didn’t have bars!
Gavriel’s mother was always telling them that they should install window bars because of Miri, but it wasn’t urgent. The stage of Miri being half a year old and beginning to crawl, climb, and then walk seemed to Shevi as far as the drive from Haifa to Bnei Brak, and perhaps even a round trip. But now, it looked like bars on the window weren’t only important for her chubby little darling who currently didn’t do more than gurgle and wave her hands when she saw a toy. What Shevi would now give to have listened to her mother-in-law!
She walked quickly out of the bedroom, closed the door, and locked it with a key. What a joke. How much time did an intruder, who could get through the metal gates of her neighbor’s porch, need to open an old wooden door? She ran to the dining room, grabbed Miri out of the carriage and tried to think what to do. Running away from the house didn’t come into question. The robber was in the courtyard; how could she go down there? Miri slept on in her arms, oblivious to the fact that her mother was clutching her more tightly than usual.
Shevi tried to dial Gavriel’s phone again. No answer. Was he still in the hall? What should she do now?
She hung up for the umpteenth time, and with her finger trembling even more now, she dialed another number. One. Zero. Zero. She had never had anything to do with the police, but she had also never seen an intruder trying to get into her neighbor’s window, six feet below her. Who knew where he was up to by now! She wanted to go to another window and try to peek out, but just then a voice came through the line: “Police, hello.”
“Um…there’s an intruder!” she cried hoarsely. Her legs trembled, but she was afraid to move a chair to sit down. “Can you come fast? Very fast?”
The operator asked a few questions at a maddeningly slow pace, recorded the answers with disinterested apathy, and promised to send a patrol car to investigate. Shevi sat down on the floor, right near the phone hanging on the wall, and listened to the sounds from outside. It was pretty quiet, but every few seconds, the Dresnicks’ gates swung again, and Shevi, in a moment of courage, got up and fled to the kitchen, locking the door behind her. There. The thief couldn’t get her there.
But a minute after she locked the door, leaving the phone in the hall behind her, it began to ring through the door.
“Shevi? Speak up—I can’t hear you!” Naturally, Gavriel raised his own voice. “Did something happen? I see you called me six times!”
Reb Eliyahu Katz’s car stopped for a red light. They were on the way back from the wedding of one of the guys from Reb Eliyahu’s kiruv center, a boy whom Gavriel had been close with. At the end of the wedding, Reb Eliyahu offered to take Gavriel home. It was only then that Gavriel noticed how many times Shevi had tried to reach him. The phone’s soft ringtone had apparently gotten drowned out by the band.
Shevi’s tear-filled voice trembled. “The police didn’t get here yet. Come quick, Gavriel, please!”
“There’s a robber downstairs, Gavriel. He got into the Dresnicks’ house!”
Gavriel looked at the road. The light, as is always the case when people are pressured, remained red. “I’m almost there, Shevi. Hashem will help. Where are you and Miri?”
“I just came into the kitchen with Miri. I’m trying to lock the door, but it’s a bit hard with the phone cord…there, I got it.” Shevi felt a bit safer in the locked kitchen.
“Good. I’m almost there. Daven.” Using a few brief words, Gavriel described the situation to Eliyahu, who pressed down on the gas without even understanding what he had heard. An intruder in the home of Gavriel Auerbach’s neighbors—that meant Uncle Zalman and Aunt Minda! Where were they?
Eliyahu deftly maneuvered the car between the high volume of traffic on the main road. He had planned to probe gently about what was happening and what Gavriel thought about building, but now he was being thrown into an old battlefield. What would his role be now at the Dresnick home? Would he appear as the valiant rescuer along with Gavriel? Were his aunt and uncle even home?
A tense silence hung in the car as the minutes ticked by. Only when Eliyahu stopped in front of the small, oh-so-familiar house, did Gavriel break the silence. “I don’t see a police car here.”
“Police? It takes them time,” Eliyahu said with a mirthless laugh. “They’re not especially swift, you know.” He got out and stood in front of the two-story house. Gavriel joined him as they tried to listen to the sounds of the night.
“I don’t hear anything,” Eliyahu said, wondering if it was all a figment of Gavriel’s wife’s imagination. “Should we go around the back?”
Gavriel pressed the buttons on his phone. “Shevi? Are you home? What’s going on? Uh-huh, yes, I’m here, outside the house. Fine. I’m going to look around here with Rabbi Katz to see what the story is. Yes, we’ll be very careful. Don’t worry.” He disconnected the call and entered the courtyard behind Eliyahu, who walked ahead, taking care to be as quiet as possible.
They huddled near the bushes, peering in every direction. Eliyahu walked quickly, his head pounding. This dark courtyard had once been his home, and he loved its every corner. Strange. He was already an adult, with his own family and children, the oldest of whom was already bar mitzvah. Yet when he stood here, he suddenly felt like a little boy all over again. It was amazing how quickly the memories came rushing back, even after he had worked so hard to suppress them for so many years…
He was climbing after Kobi Frankel onto that crooked tree to pick some interesting leaves for Shoshi’s autumn notebook…
He was stamping through a puddle in the corner of the courtyard with the new boots his mother had sent him. Then, barefoot, he was washing the boots under the faucet so Aunt Minda wouldn’t get mad…
He was building a hammock for Chasida, and then running inside when it collapsed together with its occupant…
He was gathering snails for Chasida and Shoshi’s birthday, and the snails were crawling in every direction as he tried to organize them into a formation that read “mazel tov”…
He was sitting and practicing his bar mitzvah speech that Yitzchak had written for him, and somehow managing to lose the first page of it…
He was running, collecting, jumping, fleeing—
Just then, a hand grabbed his arm, and he jumped.
“Reb Eliyahu,” Gavriel whispered, and said nothing more, because Eliyahu’s eyes had already followed Gavriel’s finger, stopping at Aunt Minda’s bathroom window. The window was slightly illuminated by the garden lamp, and on the big grates the two men could clearly make out a tall figure struggling with the bars.