Without a Trace – Chapter 26

Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 26 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.

They stood in the backyard, near the darkened store. Zevi was sleeping in Shoshi’s parents’ house. He still wasn’t himself, but Ima had promised to watch him closely and to alert Shoshi if he would wake up and cry.

“A bit of fresh air, Shoshi’le—you need it! Days upon days, closed up in the house— it isn’t good for you or for Zevi!”

So Chasida had promised to take Shoshi out for a short walk around the house. In the back garden, near the window of the room where Shoshi, Chanoch, and Zevi slept, Chasida stopped.

Nu?” Shoshi stood and faced her sister in an almost combative pose. “So what’s happening with the Blum shidduch?”

“I think he’ll have to wait patiently until after Zevi’s foot heals completely and this will be behind us.”

“Why, because then we won’t be here anymore, and you’ll have a calm, quiet evening?”

“That, too,” Chasida said, “but also so that we’ll be calm and the shidduch won’t raise associations in our minds of the terrible things that happened.”

“What type of terrible things?”

“You’re very tired, sister dear,” Chasida said and stuck her hand into her jacket pocket. Something metallic was clinking inside. “Don’t you understand what I’m trying to tell you? The Blum shidduch came up at a problematic time, although it wasn’t our fault. The evening we sat down—me, Abba, and Ima—to analyze the shidduch from all sides, you suddenly showed up, as did the sweet, young Katz couple. We managed to fight with Eliyahu and injure Zevi—so you can understand why Ima isn’t really in the mood anymore.”

Shoshi looked at her sister penetratingly. “Because you were talking about the shidduch just before all this happened, you’re rejecting the idea?”

“I’m not rejecting it,” Chasida said, her lips pursed.

“So what’s the other reason?”

“Who said there’s another reason?”

“Me.” She sat down on a backless chair that had been left in the yard, carefully gathering the hem of her skirt. “I don’t think your lack of enthusiasm is only because of Zevi’s burn and the argument with Eliyahu.”

“Right.” Chasida smiled. “That’s only one aspect of it. The bigger problem is that Ima managed to find out his exact—”

“Birthday.”

Her sister waved her hand dismissively. “They gave that to us anyway, because of the Dor Yesharim tests. But Ima already knows, and don’t ask her how, the exact hour that he was born. And she asked Miroka Feingold’s daughter to check out his lunar sign and horizon.”

“That shows that the shidduch is really progressing seriously,” Shoshi remarked with uncharacteristic cynicism. “Nu, and Mr. Blum got a bad mark?”

Chasida nodded. “His signs are a Capricorn and a lamb, and that’s not very enticing.”

“A lamb? One of Zevi’s signs is also a lamb, isn’t it?” Shoshi asked. She had never been able to keep track of the whole horoscope thing that fascinated her mother and sister so much.

“Yes.” Chasida sighed. “And so is Eliyahu’s. And Eliyahu’s solar horoscope is also a Capricorn. That in itself was enough to turn Ima off even before the other signs.”

“This is really Spanish to me, Chasi. I’ve forgotten it all.” Shoshi tried to lean back, but the pokes she got from the bare metal bars reminded her that there was really no back to this chair.

“Yes, these things never particularly interested you, I know.”

“But what do they mean, if I may ask?”

“That he’s the critical type; he has a lot of demands of those around him; he’s stingy and rigid, selfish, and only interested in his own needs. I also read that the fish horoscope, which is what I am and so are you, if you don’t remember that either, simply cannot live in harmony with those born with a Capricorn horoscope.” She paused, scanning her sister’s face, and then giggled a bit shamefacedly and added, “But I really wouldn’t attribute so much importance to that, because it is also known that the fish don’t get along so well with the scorpions. And Chanoch is a scorpion, right? And you…”

“Chanoch is not a scorpion,” Shoshi said, slightly irritated. “Chanoch is Chanoch, and his English birthday happens to fall in November. But aside from that foolish detail, you are not going to tell me that you believe all this nonsense.” The glares the two sisters exchanged were just a hair short of hostile. Shoshi glanced at the dark window near them and added, “Chasi, even Ima wouldn’t want you to decide on your shidduchim according to all this stuff!”

“Of course not,” Chasida said coldly. “We just check if it isn’t too big of a risk, matching these signs together. And when it comes together with Zevi’s burn… But it doesn’t really interest you anyway, so why am I just rambling on like this?” She turned her back on her sister, but remained standing in her place.

“Chasi, can I ask you a personal favor?”

“Depends.”

“You’re going to meet this Blum guy this week, without thinking about any Capricorns or lunar signs or horoscopes or suns or I-don’t-know-what-else. Please, Chasi! Did you hear good things when you made inquiries?”

“Yes.” Chasida pursed her lips again.

“Good. So you’ll go on a date and you’ll see for yourself. If you have even the slightest sign that any one of the traits you listed exist in him, you won’t continue. But why reject it ahead of time?”

Chasida was quiet.

“Okay?”

Chasida grimaced impatiently, and Shoshi smiled and stood up. She glanced at the open window once again. Silence. Zevi hadn’t cried or even moaned. “I hope that the night will pass calmly,” she said to herself and to her poker-faced sister.

“I hope so, too, for your sake,” Chasida said, putting her hand in her pocket again as she followed Shoshi toward the house. She toyed with something in her pocket and that dull clinking sound could be heard again.

“What’s making that noise?” Shoshi asked distractedly. If Chasida would get all hooked up on the nonsense that they had been busy with as girls, she’d be single for the rest of her life! Even Ima didn’t take it so seriously. For goodness’ sake, who chose a spouse based on horoscopes?

“The keys,” Chasida said and took out a small key ring. “Abba’s keys. I closed the store this evening.” She continued walking, but Shoshi remained standing.

“Chasida?”

“What?”

“If we’re already talking about giving Blum a serious chance, I think it’s worth trying to give a chance to someone else.”

“To who?” Chasida’s eyes bore into her own.

“To the agent of the cream that you told me about, for the burns,” Shoshi said excitedly. “I’ll pay you, really! Give me the number of someone who bought it. If I hear everything went smoothly, I’ll buy it.”

“You want to do that?” Chasida asked her twin doubtfully, the keys clutched between her fingers.

Shoshi nodded.

***

It was a shame Eliyahu hadn’t come himself to find a gift for his cousin’s son. He probably would have stood for four minutes, made a quick selection, paid, and gone. But he hadn’t wanted to go and asked her to go and buy a toy for Zevi. Hadn’t he realized yet that his wife had a very hard time when it came to making decisions?

For many long moments, Chavi faced the packed shelves. What could she buy for a three-year-old boy? She sighed and pulled a random box off the nearest shelf and looked at the pictures on the box. A small doll smiled at her, waving a tiny bottle in her plastic hand. She put the box back. Zevi didn’t need dolls, but who knew what he did need.

“Can I help you?” the salesgirl asked, after finishing her phone conversation and noticing the young, helpless-looking woman staring up at the shelves in the store.

“I’m looking for…something for a three-year-old boy,” Chavi mumbled. She hated choosing. She didn’t like having to decide.

Truthfully, she really didn’t have to be so uptight; the toy itself was not even so significant in this whole saga. Zevi had enough toys. He didn’t need the gift that his mother’s cousin wanted to send him. Eliyahu had explained that to her when she had suggested buying Zevi a gift.

“So what?” she had insisted. “We can’t just ignore everything. I’m telling you, it’s important, Eliyahu, really!”

He had sighed.

“It’s to show that we are…alive and kicking.”

“It won’t really make them feel any better,” her husband had said bitterly.

She had laughed; he had not.

“I mean that we have to show them that we care about what happened…” she tried. “That we’re sorry. And if we go, then it’s much easier to go with a gift than with empty hands.”

“I’m not to blame for what happened,” Eliyahu said with a scowl. “I imagine that all the courses for beginner parents warn you to keep children away from hot drinks. Why were Chanoch and Shoshi letting him wander around so freely? Why did they let him get his hand so close to my cup? And barefoot!”

“I didn’t say you’re to blame,” Chavi had said quietly. He didn’t respond, just said that if she wanted, then it would be very nice if on her way home from work she could pass by the toy store and find something for Zevi. And then she asked him if he didn’t prefer to go on his own; he did not respond.

The salesgirl smiled politely and quickly took out various boxes in different sizes. She chattered on and on about each item, but her spiel passed by Chavi’s ears like a bubbling brook. Eventually the salesgirl moved on to help another overwhelmed customer, leaving Chavi at the counter full of toys. Chavi took a closer look at all the boxes and almost panicked. There were cars, puzzles, building blocks, toys that built skills.

Shoshi, what would you like? she thought. And what about your sister? And your mother?

At home, Eliyahu thanked her for the effort, glanced quickly at the box of blocks, and said, “So, what do you suggest we do now?”

“Bring it to them,” she said spontaneously.

“Yes?” He took a deep breath and asked, “Will you come with me?”

They both walked from their rented apartment to his uncle’s house. It wasn’t a short walk, but Eliyahu wanted to go by foot. “I need some time to prepare,” he said. She wasn’t sure if he was joking or serious.

The old yard welcomed them with the last rays of sun and the green leaves that glowed yellowish-red.

“Wait a minute.” Her husband stopped suddenly. “Did you hear that? Listen carefully.”

One didn’t have to listen too carefully to hear the wails that emerged from the window closest to them. Chavi clutched the bag with the wrapped gift tighter and looked at Eliyahu. He had fixed his gaze on a far-off spot in outer space. Casually, he said, “So we’ll come another time.”

“After we came all this way?” Chavi was taken aback. “Why, Eliyahu? If you think now is not a good time, we’ll sit here on the bench and wait. I hope that he’ll calm down soon and we’ll be able to go in.”

“And find them all exhausted after hours of Zevi screaming, and then be stared down by Aunt Minda? No,” Eliyahu said firmly. “Should we leave the gift on the steps?”

“But we didn’t write anything with it!” Something didn’t sit right with her. This was not the husband she knew. He was very tense, even a bit panicked, and the change that had come over him scared her. She looked at him, as he turned toward the gate and then stopped suddenly.

“If you want, we can peek into the store,” Eliyahu said, his voice low. “See who’s there now. If it’s Chasida, we turn back, but if it’s my uncle…”

Chavi walked quietly, taking care not to step on any dead leaves. No, she didn’t want to meet Chasida now, either. How would they be able to explain what they were doing near the store, or near the house, for that matter? That they had come to visit, but Eliyahu had suddenly grown shy?

Chavi stopped a safe distance from the glass door that was plastered with advertising posters. Her eyes discerned a short beard bent over the counter, and she saw no other movement. She didn’t go in, just turned back to Eliyahu, who waited in the shadow of one of the trees. “It’s your uncle,” she said. “Should we go in?”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes.”

“Only him?”

“One hundred percent.”

She followed him to the store, saw him enter and get a hug from his uncle, and then she also entered. “Hello, hello,” Uncle Zalman said when he saw her. “It’s good to see you again.”

Nu, nu,” Eliyahu said, the gray bags under his eyes looking blacker in the store’s dim light. “How’s Zevi, Uncle Zalman?”

Baruch Hashem, we’re hoping for better,” Uncle Zalman said as he locked the cash register. “Sit down, Eliyahu. Why are you standing?”

“No, no, we didn’t come to sit,” Eliyahu protested. “We came to give a gift to Zevi.”

Zalman looked at the flat package his nephew had placed on the counter. “You won’t come up to the house?” he asked. “Why, Eliyahu?”

“Just because.” His nephew shook his head. “Give it to your sweet grandson, okay?” So many nice words of apology had stood in his mind when he had planned for the moment that he would see Chanoch and Shoshi and Zevi, but now he couldn’t utter a word. Well, he didn’t have to ask Uncle Zalman for forgiveness. No tea had spilled on him.

***

“There isn’t a word written here!” Minda fumed when she examined the meticulously wrapped box. “What did he say? Did he apologize at all? He can’t even pick up the phone, this nephew! Gifts he buys. Who asked him to, anyway?”

Zalman deliberated whether he was allowed to change the facts for the sake of peace and say that Eliyahu had expressed his deepest apologies. But he wasn’t being given a chance to talk, anyway. She was so angry, and the girls also contributed their opinion. And, truth be told, he was also deeply pained by Eliyahu’s behavior. The way he had stood in the store this evening, cold and stiff, the way he gave the gift without saying much, and then disappeared with his wife…how did that fit in with the chinuch they had tried to instill in him?

“The Dresnick family coalition,” Chanoch remarked as he entered the dining room. “Maybe the time has come to break it up? It’s almost twelve midnight. Eliyahu’s present can wait for the morning. I don’t think Zevi’s in the mood of playing with it right now, anyway.”

“What? He’s up?” Shoshi started, and ran to their room.

Minda took the wrapped package and stuffed it into the corner cabinet. “If Shoshi decides that Zevi needs to play with this thing, we’ll take it out then,” she said to Chasida as she kept an eye on Shoshi and Chanoch as they disappeared down the short hallway. “Right?”

“And if it would be possible to send it back to where it came from, that would be even better,” Chasida muttered.

“We won’t do that,” Zalman said tersely. He didn’t want to say it wasn’t polite, because he could just imagine the vocal response he would get. And they would be right; that’s what hurt him so much. Where were Eliyahu’s manners? A bit of heart? Some feeling? He wasn’t even expecting hakaras hatov from him now, but this kind of behavior from Eliyahu…it was simply unacceptable.

You were angry; that’s right. You were spoken to harshly, true. But you can’t ignore the fact that you did a very terrible thing. A bit of apology, regret, something!

Nothing.

Chasida looked at her father standing silently next to the window, looking out at the yard. She didn’t profess to be able to read people’s thoughts, but there were times she could imagine just about what was going through her father’s mind. “Don’t take it so to heart,” she said as she walked closer to him. “What did Chavi say?”

“Not much,” he replied slowly. “‘Hello’ at the beginning, ‘goodbye’ at the end.”

“Strange. She’s usually okay, even more than me.” A second of silence. “Well, she never speaks to you much, anyway. Too bad she didn’t meet me.”

Too bad? Zalman thought to himself. A miracle from Heaven was more like it.

In her room, Shoshi tried to maintain the nighttime atmosphere of quiet and darkness, but it wasn’t doing much good. Zevi wasn’t up, but Shoshi sensed that in a few minutes he would be. He tossed and turned constantly in bed and groaned in his sleep.

“Go to sleep,” Chanoch suggested to her. “I’ll take care of him if he wakes up.”

“You know he’ll want only me, anyway.” Shoshi smiled tiredly. “You can go to sleep, Chanoch. I’ll manage here, b’ezras Hashem.”

“It’s a shame you didn’t go to sleep until now,” he said quietly. “Eliyahu did apologize, didn’t apologize…who cares, between me and you? I don’t, and neither does Zevi. What he needs is not for Eliyahu to come and get down on his knees and apologize, but for his mother to be alert and have energy.”

She didn’t respond. Quietly, she puttered at the desk that looked more like a mini pharmacy. He was afraid he had offended her, but she didn’t look chastened when she turned back to him. “Did you see this?” she asked, taking out a small, white box from behind a stack of sterile bandages.

“No, what is it?”

“Coldar. A cream for burns. Chasida gave it to me last night, but I didn’t want to use it until I heard from someone who’s used it that it’s good.”

“So who did you hear from?”

“The neighbor upstairs, Miriam. She buys a lot of products from this company.”

***

Fourteen years earlier, Rochel Kurzman had also been very assertive. “Enough of this wasting time!” she scolded Chasida over the phone. “Yes is yes. What am I supposed to tell Blum—today? Tomorrow?”

“In two more days?” Chasida tried.

“No. If you’ve decided to give it a try, then do it quickly. Today?”

“Tomorrow,” Chasida said. Zevi had been especially cranky this morning and Shoshi would not be able to get ready to take him home. By tomorrow, one of two things would happen; either’s Zevi’s pain would ease or—what seemed more likely—Chanoch and Shoshi would pack up and go home. Then she could have a quiet evening, although Shoshi had promised that if it would become necessary, they wouldn’t hesitate to come back.

“So tomorrow,” Mrs. Kurzman said, and then a second later, Chasida already heard the dial tone in her ear. Rochel Kurzman wasted no time. She wouldn’t let the amazing opportunity of having Chasida say “yes” slip out of her fingers.

“Tomorrow!” she repeated the magic word to Devorah Blum when the latter picked up the phone. Details such as a time and place would be clarified later on, but first of all, she had to let Devorah know, so she should feel the happiness, and besides—in the event that Chasida would have second thoughts, it would be much harder for her to act on them if she knew that the Blums had already begun to prepare emotionally for the date. Tomorrow.

The next evening was gray and very rainy. Shoshi paced up and down the dining room of her own home with Zevi in her arms. She was breathless from the effort. True, he was a skinny boy, but after two hours of him insisting that she hold him, even thirty pounds can feel as heavy as two hundred. She sat down on the nearest chair. They didn’t have a sofa yet. Her parents had wanted to buy her one for her birthday, but she had refused. She didn’t want them to spend even a single penny on her. Not when Chasida was still waiting around, and the store was not in a particularly great state. Every extra penny her parents had should go toward Chasida and her wedding expenses, b’ezras Hashem. Oh, if it would just happen already!

The skies peeped at her through the window, black and starless. She wondered what was going on at her parents’ house now. Chasida had promised to call her right after the date. Well, it was only just after ten; it must still be going on.

Zevi began to cry again. She leaned over him. “What is it, darling?” she asked wearily, and then sat up at once. He could not feel her exhaustion. She had to remember that as hard as it was to hear a child cry almost constantly for two weeks—it was much harder to be in his situation. She hurriedly hugged him, full of guilty feelings over her slight impatience.

“I want the gray cream,” he whimpered in between sobs. “The cream from Aunt Chasi.”

“Okay, Zevi, okay.” She got up with him. Her arms ached. Yes, the Coldar was really excellent. Even Zevi felt the relief that it brought, but she wasn’t calm. Something didn’t sit well with her. True, deep cuts along with a serious burn were not a simple situation, and the healing process would take time. But how much time? Even Chanoch, who had insisted in the first few days after the burn that he was seeing improvement, had said today that he must have made a mistake. They had a checkup the next day, in any case. They’d see what the doctor said.

Half an hour later, the respite was over, and Zevi began to cry again. Between a candy and some juice, between a game and the promise of ice cream (where would she find ice cream in the middle of Adar?), Shoshi managed to hear the phone ringing. It was eleven o’clock.

“Hi, Shoshi. How’s Zevi doing?” If her sister’s interest wouldn’t be so in place, she would have been angry at Chasida for keeping her in suspense.

Baruch Hashem, I’m hoping it will get only better,” she answered hastily. “Nu??”

Baruch Hashem.” Chasida laughed, but something in her tone was very unclear. “We’ll see. Maybe it’ll get only better here, as well.” Her answer was very ambiguous. There was a trace that portended good things, but there was also something of the opposite.

“What do you mean?” Shoshi asked heatedly.

“That I don’t know.”

“What does that—”

“That means,” Chasida interrupted, blinking rapidly athough Shoshi couldn’t see her, “that I don’t know. I have to think.”

“Thinking is always a good thing,” her sister agreed. “The question is, how long do you need to think for?”

Chasida smiled but didn’t respond.

“What does Ima say?”

“That the decision is mine.”

“I imagine. And Abba?”

“The boy made a good impression on him.” Chasida spoke slowly, and her pace grated on Shoshi’s nerves. “But he also said the decision is mine.”

The conversation ended, leaving Shoshi no smarter than before it had started. Chasi was keeping her impressions to herself, without thinking of her sister who was exploding with tension and curiosity. She was like a lone bird that liked to analyze things herself, to think things over with herself, and to decide on the bottom line by herself. Shoshi hoped that things would be clearer tomorrow—either way.

Chanoch arrived and looked worriedly at the weeping Zevi. “He has fever,” he said when he put his hand on his son’s forehead. “Didn’t you notice?”

“No.” I didn’t notice; what kind of mother am I? One date of my sister’s throws me so off track that I don’t realize that my son has fever? She hurried to the bathroom to find a bottle of Acamol.

“Very high fever,” Chanoch said, having followed her with Zevi in his arms. “Should we give him Acamol?”

“What else?” She turned back to him in surprise. The winds were howling outside.

“I don’t know.” His forehead was creased with worry. “Maybe we should go to the hospital so they can look at his foot. Maybe there’s a connection.”

“You think so?” Shoshi put the bottle on the edge of the sink and turned to Zevi. Yes, he was burning up. “But now…it’s almost midnight!”

“So what? The hospital is always open, you know.”

She didn’t smile. “I don’t feel comfortable asking my father for a ride now.”

“I didn’t think we’d ask him. We’ll take a taxi.”

“A taxi?” She stretched her arms out to Zevi. He didn’t react. “It will be very expensive, Chanoch!”

“I know, but I think it’s something we have to do.”

“And if we discover that the fever has nothing to do with the burn? Maybe it’s just the flu?”

“So then we can be calm.”

Shoshi glanced at her husband’s face for another fraction of a second, and didn’t need more than that to turn toward the bedroom.

“All the medical papers are in my suit pocket,” he called after her. “You get ready, and I’ll order a taxi, okay?”

It was strange to hear Chanoch so decisive. She was usually the one to be afraid and worried; it was his uncharacteristic alarm that galvanized her to quickly put her sheitel on, run a comb through it, and switch her slippers for her shoes. Then she dashed out of the room. “I’m ready, Chanoch!”

“We’ll wait for the taxi downstairs,” he replied. Zevi was moaning on his shoulder. “It’s five after twelve already.”

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