Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 28 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.
Now, fourteen years later, Eliyahu watched as Chanoch and Shoshi approached. He stood up straight from the wall he’d been leaning against and walked toward them. His steps were confident, his hand outstretched to Chanoch. Shoshi hung back and observed the exchange of half smiles and handshakes between the two men, followed by the inevitable awkward silence.
“Shall we sit?” Eliyahu asked, motioning to some armchairs in the lobby.
“Good idea,” Chanoch agreed and fell in step beside him. Shoshi followed behind them. The carpet that swallowed their footfalls contributed to the loaded silence.
They took their places, the silence broken only for a moment by the rustle of the threesome settling into the chairs, before once again enveloping them as before
Eliyahu leaned back, knowing that they were both waiting for him to speak. This was it. The time had come.
“I wanted to speak to you about Zevi.” His expression was serious, far more so than Shoshi ever remembered seeing it. “You haven’t heard from me all these years, because I didn’t know what…”—he hesitated for a moment—“what actually happened to him. I thought there was no permanent damage from that incident, but recently…” He paused again.
From her place in an armchair off to the side, Shoshi observed him. He had definitely filled out over the years, and was significantly heavier than she remembered him. That, together with his longer beard and more serious features, made him look more mature than the last time she had seen him. She wondered what Chavi looked like today. She and Chanoch probably didn’t look the same as the last time Eliyahu had seen them, either. When had that been? She couldn’t remember. The two men spoke in low voices, and she observed them from the side, feeling detached.
“Please understand; we don’t bear any grudge against you,” Chanoch said emphatically.
“You always had a good heart, Chanoch,” Eliyahu said, sounding just a tad impatient. “But your son doesn’t have to keep suffering just because his father’s a tzaddik.”
“It makes no difference!” Chanoch protested. “We wouldn’t have to work on our middos in order to forgive, and I wish we would have done it the right way. I mean something else.” He fell silent for a minute. “The story is that you don’t even know the whole story.”
A small muscle twitched in Eliyahu’s forehead. “I don’t understand,” he finally said.
“Zevi could have emerged from the whole story without any lasting scars. The problem is that we didn’t notice that something was going wrong on his foot, and we used a problematic cream, something that wasn’t Health Ministry approved.”
Shoshi swallowed as she watched Eliyahu absorbing the information.
It didn’t take Chanoch more than two short sentences to summarize what happened to us during those terrible days, she thought morosely to herself. It was nice of him to include himself in everything that happened: “we didn’t notice” and “we used.” He always firmly insisted that the responsibility for what had happened was his no less than hers, but she knew the truth. Zevi didn’t.
Shoshi looked straight ahead, squinting at the decorative lights on the wall facing her. She saw Chanoch’s lips moving as he spoke to Eliyahu, but didn’t hear a word he said. Nor did she hear Eliyahu’s response. Were they suddenly whispering, or were her ears just not open to absorbing conversation right now?
She squinted again, harder, and a small tear slipped down onto her fabric purse. She would have given her right leg to give Zevi back what he didn’t have, but that wasn’t a viable option. She had no physical means to give him back what he didn’t have. True, years had passed until she realized that her anguished guilty conscience would do nothing to help Zevi, and she had learned to suppress it all inside her. But when it all rose to the surface, like today, she truly had no idea how she would ever be able to face Zevi and tell him, “It’s all because of me.”
Her thoughts blurred, and then she heard Eliyahu’s voice clearly again. “Cream?” he asked. “From Uncle Zalman’s store?”
They both nodded in unison, and Shoshi rummaged around in her purse for a tissue. Oh, those silly tears.
Chanoch wrinkled his forehead. “I don’t remember the name…”
“Coldar,” Shoshi whispered.
“Yes, that’s it. It was made by a private person, an agent who had previously worked with a company and then stopped, after which he started to create his own creams using their company name.”
“And that’s what did it all?” Eliyahu sounded doubtful. He didn’t know whether to believe Chanoch’s story or not. A cream? From his uncle’s store? Since when did Uncle Zalman carry unauthorized products? Aunt Minda would never let him do it, and it didn’t seem to fit his highly honed sense of responsibility.
“Well, that’s not what did everything.” Once again, it was Chanoch who spoke. “The doctors assumed that the problems began earlier, but the cream made it deteriorate very quickly, and by the time we got to the hospital—after applying it only four times—there wasn’t much left to do. The necrosis was severe.” He was quiet for a minute. “He lost a significant part of his foot.”
The lobby around them was almost deserted. A tall man dragged two suitcases some distance away from them; the door to the dining room opened and slammed shut; and in the little corner where they sat, no one spoke. Eliyahu drummed on the low coffee table, Chanoch leaned back in his upholstered chair and looked at the moldings on the ceiling, and Shoshi played with the edge of her belt and tried to breathe as shallowly as she could.
“So what you are trying to tell me is that I’m not the only one to blame,” Eliyahu said lightly after a few seconds. “But nevertheless, I began all this in a moment of carelessness, so please, if you don’t mind, let me feel responsible for what happened.”
“We’re all responsible for what happened,” Shoshi blurted.
“And Zevi knows that?” Eliyahu couldn’t help but ask. He was very curious to know what kind of monstrous image of him Zevi had developed in his mind over the years. The threatening cousin who had spilled boiling tea on him. The man who had gotten angry and screamed just at the minute that he had innocently approached to show off his album of photos.
“He knows almost nothing about the incident,” Chanoch replied. “He doesn’t remember it at all. He once asked how his whole foot injury happened, and we told him hot tea had spilled on him. Since then, he hasn’t asked.”
“Well, I’d like to meet him.” The words came out, clearer than Eliyahu had envisioned them to emerge. “I need to ask his forgiveness.”
“Not before we do it also,” Chanoch said quickly, and Shoshi glared at him for a second. Ask Zevi for forgiveness? Tell him exactly what had happened? Is that what Eliyahu had wanted to meet them about? So that they should have to return to that terrible night, after the surgery, of crying and guilt?
“But my apology is just a minor point in the story.” Eliyahu smiled, but it wasn’t a happy smile. “I have a friend, an Israeli who moved to Germany. His wife is a giyores, and she’s a very successful plastic surgeon. I…” He paused for a minute before forging on. “I spoke to her and told her about Zevi. She’s ready to give you a free consultation, after you take some x-rays.” The threesome sat in silence, and Eliyahu hurried to finish. “Of course, the consultation is just the preface. Afterward, I want you to have him treated, if you don’t mind…on my account.”
Chanoch and Shoshi stared at him silently, and he already began preparing his insistent response to their firm objections that he was sure would be forthcoming within seconds. But to his surprise, there was no objection.
The next page read:
Three times I said I’m sorry to Chasida, and she didn’t forgiv me, so Hashem dosint forgiv her, and that’s it. Shoshi did forgiv me the first time I asked her, and she even told Chasida to forgiv me, but Chasida is stubbern like a cokroch that no matter how much you screem at it, it dosint move from its place. I told her that and she said that now she won’t forgiv me even more—forever and ever. Kobi said I shoud come live in his house, but I don’t want to becuz even though Aunt Minda gets angry at me a lot, she’s still nice and saves me lots of peeces of cake with the most choclate. Kobi’s mother never makes choclate cake, only cakes with apples and cheese that aren’t even good.
And the next page:
I didn’t even rite why Chasida has to forgiv me, and it’s not really that importint, becuz all I did was hide her pensil, and Aunt Minda screemed at her that she alredy lost five and she wasn’t bying her a new one now, even if her teacher got very angry. I hid Shoshi’s eraser, too, but she didn’t loos one even onse this year, so her mother didn’t screem at her and gave her a new one from the droor. I think that Shoshi is happy becuz the eraser that I hid was small and gray and dirty, and becuz of me, she has a new one, and maybe that’s why she forgav me and Chasida didn’t.
(But in the end Aunt Minda gave Chasida a new pensil, even though she said she woudn’t. Aunt Minda always screems a lot, but really she dosint punish so much. I know her very well.)
He made a wrong move, and the skewer full of meaty chunks fell onto the grass. Eliad Fine, Shevi’s brother, was left with an empty pita.
“You see, ‘Liad!” Don shouted at him from a few feet away. He was sitting on the grass, his hands empty. “It’s a sign that you don’t have to sully yourself with all these things. Come here, take a cucumber. I dragged them over here myself from the kitchen and cut them up properly.”
“Eliad won’t eat any stupid cucumber now!” one of the soldiers standing next to the metal contraption that was billowing smoke snickered. “There are enough cucumbers at the base, Don. Don’t fill Eliad’s head with all the nonsense you have in your head. They finally let us out for a day off; you can also air out a bit from your strange eating habits. What happened, Eliad? Want another pita?”
“I don’t want anything,” Eliad muttered and sniffed at the empty pita in his hand. For a change, Don was right; that was the problem. His father also claimed that grilled globs of meat full of smoke were one of the least healthy things in the world. Eliad hadn’t planned to avoid the meat, but if it had already fallen, so be it.
The park that they had gone out to with the whole unit was full, as could be expected on a summer vacation day. The uniformed group congregated in one area covered with pale grass and trees. Some of the soldiers were sprawled out on the grass, while others sat around chatting; every so often, one of them tried unsuccessfully to break out in a song.
Eliad sat on the outskirts of the group, his legs folded, chatting with a few friends and stubbornly ignoring Don. He had begun to grow sick of Don’s interest in him. Don was a nice, friendly guy, and usually well-liked by the others, but for some reason, he had decided to take him—Eliad—as a personal project, and it was really beginning to get on Eliad’s nerves. It was all fine and good that they went together to Sol’s lectures; the man really spoke well, and there was truth to some of what he said, but not in everything. If Don wanted to follow the naturalist blindly, he was welcome to do so, but he didn’t have to drag Eliad forcefully into things Eliad had no intention of keeping. Don was definitely a bit manipulative and controlling.
A flying insect buzzed around Eliad’s head, twitching at his cheeks. “Want to take a run?” someone asked him.
“No, thanks,” Eliad replied, and leaned back on the grass. He hadn’t eaten so much and did not feel an urge to run and burn off a few extra calories. He did enough of that during training. What was wrong with lying a bit under a tree, with his eyes closed? It had been a long time since he’d had the opportunity for a peaceful doze in the fresh air, without a care in the world. Well, the truth was that there wasn’t much fresh air there, what with the strong, smoky odor, but the sun was pleasant, and there was even a faint breeze…
He didn’t bother opening his eyes. Don. Again.
“Are you coming with us?”
He shook his head lazily. Silly thoughts of that pre-sleep daze danced through his mind.
Go with the others already, Don…
“Okay, don’t know if the rays of the sun are worth as much as those of the moon, but I hope it will do you some good nevertheless.”
Let it do you some good also… Just leave me alone a little…
“Maybe you should move over to somewhere less shady? Okay, I see I’m talking to the wall.”
Seven of the soldiers remained lying on the grass, while the rest went for a short run around the park. Eliad fell into a deep sleep, full of strange dreams. First Don was forcing him to cut the grass into tiny, symmetrical pieces, and then he had to wash all the pieces at the nearby fountain. He tried to get out of it with the excuse that there were lots of stalks and he would never finish, but Don said he had to. Then the park was suddenly replaced with his house—and Elinor was screaming that the grass pieces he had brought home were dirtying the floor and the walls, and if he didn’t speak to her nicely, he could go back to the base. She threw an old piece of moldy schnitzel at him that hit him squarely in the face and stuck to his forehead. “Really!” he said, rubbing his forehead angrily. “What horrible behavior!”
Then he awoke. He looked all around him through squinted eyes and slowly sat up. Nat was snoring very close to him, and from the distance, he could see some of his friends coming back.
“Slept well?” one of them asked. “We’ve got to start packing up, don’t we?”
“I guess so,” Eliad murmured and yawned. For some reason, he had the feeling that the schnitzel from his dream was still stuck to his forehead, itchy and irritating. Absently, he put his hand up to his forehead, carefully feeling around the right eyebrow. There was nothing there.
On the way home, he still felt that strange sensation on his forehead, which slowly became an itchy patch that didn’t stop bothering him. Eliad was fully awake now. He took part in a stimulating conversation, seated as far as he could be from Don, and wondered for a minute or two what Elinor would say when he told her about his dream. She would probably laugh and say it was a good idea for the next time he got her annoyed.
Every few minutes he touched around his right eye, rubbing it vigorously. Did it feel swollen, or was it just his imagination? The itch grew steadily worse.
“Hey!” the soldier sitting next to him suddenly exclaimed. “Did someone punch you, or what? You’re swollen above the eye.”
“I think it’s some kind of bite,” Eliad mumbled as he continued rubbing. “It itches like crazy.”
“You, too?” Nat shouted from the other side of the van. “Look at me!” He stuck out a swollen hand.
Within a few seconds, it became clear that all seven guys who had remained behind to sleep on the grass were bitten up in different places. Eliad looked at his fellow victims. The bites looked awful, and he imagined he didn’t look much better than they did.
“You slept too close to the water fountain,” Don said in an accusing tone. “There was probably contaminated water there, and lots of flying creatures. Who knows if you didn’t all get some terrible infection?”
“I hope not,” Eliad said and got off the van, which had stopped by then. Don followed him.
“I realized on the spot that you had chosen a really bad place to sleep. Didn’t you notice all those bugs that came to feast on our leftovers?”
“If you’re such a good friend,” Eliad groused, “why didn’t you tell me then? Why did you only remember now?” He could hardly peel his fingers away from the right side of his forehead.
“Straight to the infirmary,” the non-commissioned officer said when he saw Eliad’s face. “You, too, Nat. All of you.”
Don snickered behind the officer’s back, but Eliad paid no attention.
If Don finds it funny that we’re going to the infirmary because of a bite of some kind—let’s see him be so macho. Next time he should get stung and then he could talk, Eliad thought spitefully.
At the infirmary, the staff didn’t think much of the bites. They glanced at the red, swollen welts and said, “Put cold compresses and ice on them. If you can’t sleep at night, we have some Vaseline. That can help you. And if you think it’s getting worse, then come back.”
“At least we’re off until tonight,” Nat murmured.
“Off until tonight…” Shuki dragged his legs heavily as they trudged out of the infirmary. “And I planned to get some sick passes. That arrogant sergeant …”
“Sick days for some silly stings? You really thought you’d get away with it?” another one of the bitten-up soldiers asked with a laugh. “You really don’t know the tough guys here!”
“Silly stings?” Shuki fumed, scratching himself more than all of them. He had gotten stung by the anonymous insect on his neck, cheek, and hand. “You call these silly?”
“I guess you’re the sweetest of us all,” Eliad consoled him. “My father always told us that when we got mosquito bites.”
“Where are you going?” Shuki asked.
“Kitchen. I want some ice.”
“I’m coming with you.”
The few hours until the evening hardly passed pleasantly. Eliad sat in his room, pressing a wet towel to his forehead and reading a boring book, the only one in the room. He didn’t have much of an appetite for supper, especially when the mirror showed him that his face looked positively repulsive. He hoped he had enough good friends who would come and see how he was doing, and then he’d ask them to bring him something to eat.
“You didn’t come eat.” Don walked into the room. “What’s up, ‘Liad? How’re you doing?”
“So-so.” Eliad took off the towel and peered into the little mirror. “It doesn’t look any better to me.”
“The swelling over your eye is going down a bit.” Don looked him over carefully. “Can you see well?”
“Good. Should I bring you something to eat?”
Eliad hesitated. Suddenly it didn’t seem so enticing to convey the image of being weak and sickly and needing constant help. True, this was a special situation, but there were those who would never forget how Don had taken a tray of food to his room, especially since Don always made a big fuss about food. And he surely wouldn’t miss an opportunity to point out that in order for the bites to heal, Eliad had to be even more careful to adhere to Sol’s rules about cutting vegetables and other such things.
“I don’t think so,” he said finally and got up. “I want to go out for Minchah and Maariv anyway, so on the way I’ll stop at the dining room to see what you guys left me.”
“Whatever you want.” Don waved goodbye and disappeared.
He didn’t have much of an appetite and his stay in the dining room was very short. From there he continued to the base’s shul, and by the time he headed back to his room, it was getting dark. Someone called him from behind.
“Yes?” He turned around to Nat.
The other boy’s face was twisted into a grimace. “I’m going back to the infirmary,” he said. “You coming along?”
“You think it got worse?” Eliad asked and looked at his friend’s swollen fingers.
“No, but I’m going out of my mind from the itching.” Nat looked behind him and then said very quietly, “The truth is, why are we continuing to suffer and why are we embarrassed to go back there and ask for Vaseline or whatever else they have there?”
“I’m not ashamed!” Eliad protested.
“Yes, you are. You’re afraid they’ll say you’re acting like a whiny little kid who runs to the infirmary for silly things. Tell me, why do you have to walk around for hours with half a face that looks more like a tomato than a forehead, instead of going back to Mr. Infirmary and telling him, ‘Excuse me, give me something to ease this impossible itching’? Can you answer that?”
“Can you clench your fingers together?” Eliad asked by way of an answer.
“Yes, but barely.”
They went back to the infirmary and were rather pleased to discover three more of the bitten-up soldiers there. The on-duty medic gave them small packages of Vaseline, and soothed them again, answering the questions of the worried ones.
“It’s fine. Yes, I’m taking responsibility. It’s obviously an insect bite. No, I don’t know which insect. Yes, if the swelling gets worse, you can come back. Although,” he added, “I think the swelling is going down already. By all of you.” Some of them agreed with him, some not, but they left the infirmary slightly more upbeat.
“Okay, to bed,” Shuki announced.
“If we can fall asleep,” Eliad said pessimistically.
A figure approached them, walking rapidly. “Oh, here you are, Eliad. I was looking for you.”
“I thought you’d long be back in your room! But I couldn’t find you in the dining room, the shul, or anywhere!” Don said, joining the little group.
“Pshhhhh, you went into the shul? That’s news,” Eliad said.
“I wanted to give you something,” Don said with a smile as he looked around at the little group. “To all of you, if you want. You can throw that Vaseline straight into the garbage.”