Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 18 of a new online serial novel, Without a Trace, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every week. Click here for previous chapters.
Only after the bus finally pulled out of the bus stop did Zevi allow himself to relax on the brown and blue patterned seat. He was on the way home, and he had made the bus, even though Savta had been sure he was going to miss it.
His blue tote bag on the seat beside him almost fell as the bus lurched into the next stop—which Zevi remembered as being the last. He pushed the tote back a bit and rested his hand on it, expecting someone to ask him to sit in the seat any second. But no one did. Just two families boarded and found seats other than the one next to him. Zevi leaned back, one hand on his bag and the other on the window pane, which rumbled with the rhythm of the bus’s turning wheels. Small rays of sun bounced off his freckled forearm, but they didn’t warm him at all.
Savta had said he was better off taking his bag onto the bus, and not putting it into the luggage compartment. “Someone could steal it, you know,” she had warned him as he was about to walk out of the house, two minutes after he had hung up with his mother. “And people taking their things off the bus could knock it out by mistake, and it will be left on the road.”
He really didn’t want to take the risk of getting home without his belongings. In all honesty, Zevi could not recall the last time he had lost something, if at all.
In fourth grade, the rebbi had announced to the class at the end of the year that the only one who hadn’t forgotten a notebook or lost a pencil, eraser, book, or his food the whole year, was Zevi Bloch. Some of Zevi’s childhood nightmares were about him forgetting notebooks at home, not finding things, and not having a pen to use, because everything had disappeared from his drawers. But these dreams were odd, because Zevi’s drawers were the neatest in the whole house, and he would carefully prepare what he needed for the next day on the evening before.
“Too careful,” his father would say when he was home, while lovingly pinching the freckled cheek. Once he had asked his son, “What will happen if you forget a pencil once in a while?”
“I won’t be able to write,” Zevi had replied to his father, as he peered worriedly into his pencil case. It was fine; his pencil was there.
Now, on the bus, Zevi put his hat back on his head and reached into his shirt pocket to take out the card Saba had given him. “Tefillas Haderech,” Saba had said tersely, as was his way, while smiling one of those smiles that Zevi loved so much.
Zevi clutched the little white card, but his eyes were unfocused. He looked at the sand dunes that lined the road, but didn’t really see anything.
He really could not remember ever losing anything, and that was really strange. Not the fact that he was organized and careful with his things—he had inherited that quality from his mother. But the fact that, in addition to that, he was generally awkward and bumbling—that’s what made for such an interesting combination. He would help his mother fold laundry with precision, just the way she liked it, but on the way to the closet, he would drop the pile. He would go and buy eggs, and guard the change like diamonds, but at least one egg would be missing when he arrived home—gracing the sidewalk somewhere along the way. He was the child who never left his Chumash at home, but the cover was torn by the second week of the school year because he had tripped on the leg of the desk and dropped the Chumash onto the floor.
Zevi switched on the little lamp above his head and then turned it off. A streak of misfortune had been following him since he was born—that was clear. Even Savta had said it once when she thought he wasn’t listening. Saba had objected vehemently, pointing out, “Just look at his suitcase—see how organized it is!” But Savta had said that that was not what she meant, because those born in Aquarius whose lunar sign was a lamb and whose horizon was a rainbow, as was Zevi’s, did not have to be messy with their personal belongings; it was enough that their lives were a mess.
Zevi shook off the thoughts as he tried to focus on the words on the Tefillas Haderech card. It wasn’t easy; he knew the familiar sensation that always filled him when he began to think maddening thoughts about his lack of luck. He had trouble disconnecting from these thoughts, which affected him more deeply than he would admit. With an effort, though, he forcibly slammed the little door in his brain to block out all else, and concentrated just on the printed card in his hand. Then he returned the card to his pocket, took off his hat again, and leaned back, turning to look out the window. A silver car traveling very close to the bus swerved for a second out of its lane and then immediately righted itself. The colorful row of cars stretched along the road monotonously.
The minutes passed. Zevi had no idea how much time they had been traveling, because he hadn’t looked at his watch when they had finally pulled out of Bnei Brak. Was his life all mixed up? It was a strange question that he didn’t know how to answer. What was clear was that his life did not have an abundance of—
A sudden noise from behind him cut off his thoughts. Zevi whirled around in alarm to the last row of seats and discovered that it was empty. Empty? So where did that noise come from?
He wasn’t the only one to turn around. Almost all the passengers were looking toward the back with surprise bordering on panic. “Maybe it’s a bomb!” one kid piped up excitedly. “Maybe Arabs put a bomb on the seat, and tomorrow they’ll have a picture of our bus in the paper. Right, Ima?”
The bus swerved sharply to the side, and Zevi’s hat tumbled to the dirty floor.
“All passengers, off the bus,” the driver said, and his announcement was met with hysteria. “I’m asking everyone to get off. It’s not an attack or anything like that—just a small problem with the engine. I’ll take care of it in a snap. Get off the bus, take a breath of fresh air, and pick some flowers.” The balding driver then bounded off the bus. “There are only thorns here, but it doesn’t matter!” he yelled back up to the passengers. “Let’s go, ladies and gentlemen, off the bus, please!”
Zevi went down the back stairs slowly, stepping into the dry sand on the shoulder of the highway. How apt that the bus he was on would break down; this would never have happened to his brother Yossi, for example. Was it really because he was born during one mazel and not another? And what about the other passengers? Why were they to blame? And what about the driver?
“Well, we’re not expected to stop now and offer assistance,” Arthur said. “It would be strange. Let’s continue.”
“Until Yerucham. We aren’t illiterate; from here we’ll surely be able to find it ourselves, don’t you think?”
“I guess so…” Eliyahu laughed, clearly uncomfortable. “But what interests me is a red-haired kid who sat one seat before the back; there, he’s getting off now. It’s important for me to see where in Yerucham he gets off.”
Arthur muttered something unintelligible. He pressed down on the gas and overtook the bus parked on the shoulder. They drove in silence for a few seconds, until he said, “Anything for you, Rabbi Eliyahu. We’ll wait for them near Rahat. Is that okay with you?”
“One hundred percent.” Eliyahu smiled, watching Arthur’s large hands on the steering wheel. “You’re a most courteous driver, Arthur.”
Arthur laughed by way of response. With one hand, he drew a cigarette out of his pocket and toyed with it for a few seconds before sticking it into his mouth with a sigh. He sucked on the fat roll for a whole minute without saying a word, and then pulled it out and said, seemingly out of the blue, “Tissa doesn’t want me to smoke on Shabbos.”
“That’s a big thing,” Eliyahu replied.
“Not near her, at least.”
“You can never lose out from being considerate to others.”
“Do you think I can do it?”
“You?” Eliyahu glanced at him for a second before turning back to look at the road. “You’re a strong guy, Arthur. I believe you can do anything.”
Arthur laughed aloud again. It was impossible to know what he was thinking. And then he said suddenly, “You look alike, you and that red-haired kid.”
“Yes, I’ve been told that.” Eliyahu pressed his lips together. When Zevi was just two days old, Aunt Minda had decided that they looked alike. The eyes, the hair, and a few other things. “And his lunar sign is also a lamb, just like yours,” she’d said with a sigh. “Not exactly the same sun sign as you, Eliyahu, but you have the same lunar sign.”
“Did you already figure out his birth map, Aunt Minda?” he had laughingly asked.
“Not me, but Miroka Feingold called and told me that her daughter would check it for me if I want, and that I should tell her when exactly he was born. Well, it’s not exactly professional, but she easily found me his lunar sign and his horizon.”
“And his solar sign?”
“Well, that I know. He’s an exact Aquarius; his birthday is February 16.”
“And which horizon is he?”
“Miroka’s daughter said a rainbow.” She had sighed again. “Not so good together, eh? Aquarius with a lamb, and with a rainbow… He’s going to be a real shlemazel. You’ll have to keep a really close eye on him, Shoshi’le. Here, look, he’s already scratched himself.”
“It’s okay, Shoshi,” Chasida had said, walking in at that moment with a huge package, the first gift in a long string of gifts that she had given Shoshi’s children since then. “A lamb, an Aquarius—the mazel makes no difference, as long as it’s lots of good mazel!”
“Really, Chasi, you went overboard! What is this giant…thing?”
“A sheet, blanket, and pillow set for my nephew,” Chasida said, bending over the cradle. “Today he looks like Chanoch!” she exclaimed, looking at the infant from an angle as he lay sleeping. “Yesterday he reminded me of you, but he changes all the time.”
“Only his hair doesn’t change,” a younger Eliyahu had piped up triumphantly from the corner of the room. “Orange as your carrot salad, Aunt Minda.”
“Sure he’s red,” Minda had replied. “Like you were when you were born, Eliyahu.”
“And did you forget me, Ima?” Chasida sat down on the edge of the couch and turned her face into a mock scowl.
“Nonsense,” Minda snapped. “You, Chasida’le, weren’t like this when you were born. You were totally bald.”
Zalman had entered the room just then, his eyes glowing with that special glow reserved just for his grandchildren. “A yarmulke,” he said, and pulled out a tiny velvet yarmulke. “The smallest one the store had. It’s a segulah for yiras Shamayim, Shoshi, and it’s worthwhile to keep it on his head not only for the bris.”
He looked at his daughter, who nodded, and then he approached the cradle and placed the yarmulke on the baby’s tiny head. Two-day-old Zevi had squirmed, throwing a closed fist into the air. That was how Eliyahu remembered him to this day—a small red mouth, short red hair glistening under a large yarmulke, and a fist in the air.
Had Zevi’s fist been aimed at him? The man who would ruin his life?
Eliyahu didn’t know when they reached the Rahat junction, or how much time they waited there. He was wrapped up in his thoughts, his hands in his lap. Arthur didn’t disturb him. He hummed a rhythmic march to himself, apparently engaged in his own thoughts.
“Here’s the bus!” he shouted, when the taller vehicle passed theirs. Silence hung in the silver car as they picked up their pursuit of the bus.
Then Eliyahu took another look and said, “We panicked for nothing. It’s not this bus.”
“What?” Arthur didn’t understand. “Yes, it is!”
“No,” Eliyahu said. “His seat is empty.” They were driving on the left side of the bus.
“Oh, our kid. He must have moved to a seat on the other side of the bus.”
“Why?” Eliyahu was clearly distracted.
“Ask him when you meet,” Arthur said with a chuckle. “Unless you have more important things to discuss with him.”
“Let’s pass them, okay?” Eliyahu requested. “I want to try to see if he’s really sitting in another seat.”
“Maybe he’s not,” Arthur said casually. “Maybe he’s not on the other side.”
“So where is he?” Eliyahu asked, staring at the windows of the bus which were right above him.
“I don’t know. I’m trying to think.”
They had forgotten him!
Zevi leaned against a big boulder, his face to the far-off road. One car had stopped for him, and the driver had shouted, “Do you need help?” but Zevi had answered that he didn’t. Hitch-hiking? He would never do that, especially not after all of his mother’s warnings. Get into a car with a person he didn’t know?!
Truth be told, he wasn’t sure it wasn’t worse to be standing in the middle of the desolate highway, not knowing what to do. He saw a few little huts on the horizon, and the sounds that the wind carried from that direction did little to calm him. That tent camp was very interesting to observe from the window of the bus, but not now. Not from here. The odor of horses and dry sand hung in the air, and a few grains got into his eyes. He blinked rapidly. He had been forgotten here!
At first he had gotten off the bus and onto the shoulder of the road, along with the rest of the passengers. When he got sick of listening to everyone’s grumbling, he walked off a bit into the barren landscape, taking a closer look at the sparse trees that stood there. The trees did not provide much shade, and the sun beat down on him, so he stepped behind a large mound of dirt, hoping to find refuge from the heat. He imagined that the bus repair would take some time, so he allowed himself to sit down on a boulder and daydream.
After just a few minutes of thinking about his mother and everyone who was waiting for him at home, he heard the rumble of the motor from the road. Quickly he got up and began to retrace his steps back around the little hill, until he emerged on the other side…only to discover that he was too late. The bus has left—without him.
The seventeen-year-old youth looked uneasily at the Arab village behind him. There were bachurim who would enjoy this kind of an experience, he knew; not all were cowards like him. After all, it wasn’t especially dangerous—he was on a highway in Israel, close to a Bedouin town, yes, but not a town that was known to be dangerous. And just behind it was Beer Sheva. The highway wasn’t deserted, and the sun was shining brightly; what was there to be afraid of?
What was there to be afraid of?! What was there not to be afraid of! How would he get home now? Could he hitch a ride? Walk until Beer Sheva and take a bus from there to Yerucham? That didn’t seem to be such a bad option, other than the fact that it would take him at least an hour to walk. And when was there a bus from Beer Sheva to Yerucham? When would he finally get home? And his mother would be so worried!
Zevi rose, abandoning the boulder he had been leaning on. It was so characteristic of him to be in such a situation! He walked closer to the road, his feet kicking up a few small pebbles, as he pondered his bad luck. Where did he get this talent to get into such constant messes?
He started walking slowly along the shoulder, his eyes studying the ground. All the good things about him weren’t worth anything now. True, in the society where he had been raised, a person was not judged according to the fact that he always dropped things, got stuck on window bars, or missed a bus on the way to Yerucham, but still, why did all these things happen to him? Was it really because of his mazel,the fact that he wasn’t born on the same date and at the same time as say, Yehuda Levy, who was good at everything?
Only when he heard a loud braying did Zevi stop and take notice of the large donkey that had appeared from nowhere and was walking causally alongside him. He veered to the left, into the road, and then immediately jumped back when he heard the loud honking of a passing truck. Zevi stopped, slightly alarmed. Donkeys weren’t wild, to the best of his recollection, unless they were attacked, but who knew if this donkey would interpret a careless move of his as an attack, and deliver a well-aimed kick at him because of it… He stood still, waiting for the donkey to continue on its slow-paced walk.
The donkey also stopped.
“Get out of here!” Zevi whispered fiercely.
The donkey lowered its head to a thorny bramble on the ground and then straightened up again. “Aiya!” it said to Zevi.
Zevi stared at the road stretching endlessly ahead of him and continued walking. The donkey gave him a glare and began to walk again also.
Zevi walked carefully, trying to keep as much of a distance as he could between himself and the animal, which trotted alongside him placidly, stopping every so often to sample the brambles on the ground, but always immediately catching up to its new master.
“Do you think you’re mine?” Zevi asked, growing sick of his walking partner. His heart was pounding a little faster than it had been earlier.
“He thinks he’s mine,” a breathless voice came from behind them. “Why did you run away, Hanji?”
Zevi spun around and discovered a boy standing barefoot in the brambles. He tried not to show his revulsion. “Is this your donkey?” he asked the little Bedouin. “Then please take him away from here.”
“Sure I take him,” the child said, his black eyes laughing. He grasped the rope that hung from the animal’s neck. “He’s ours, not yours. He ran away from my tent. Now he comes back, right, Hanji?”
With the same placidity that the donkey had walked beside Zevi, it now turned and followed the barefoot child holding the rope. Zevi recoiled when the short tail whipped the air right near his waist, and then picked up his trek, trudging exhaustedly.
Hanji and the little Bedouin disappeared behind him.