Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 30 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.
“It’s true that I invited you to give you a dressing down, so to speak,” Yehuda admitted, “but that was not the only reason. I really was looking for a friend to come here with me. Clear so far?”
“And I don’t think there’s any reason to pity you, particularly. Okay,” he said when he saw Zevi’s grimace. “I imagine that you’ve experienced some tough stuff, but overall you are, baruch Hashem, healthy, and I don’t think that your foot gives you a lot of problems in your day-to-day life.”
Zevi peeked at Yehuda’s face out of the corner of his eye as they walked side by side through the pathways of the moshav. They took care to keep their voices low. Here and there, they heard an isolated moo from a cow suffering insomnia, and there was a chill in the air. Zevi shivered for a second, although he didn’t know why. He wasn’t cold.
“It’s not as simple as you think,” he said finally. “Doesn’t give me problems? I wish. You try to live with the constant pressure that people shouldn’t see your foot, and you’ll realize how complicated it is. My feet have to be covered all the time. I never go to the beach, and there is no such thing as slippers, even at home—as long as my little brothers and sisters are up.”
“I didn’t think for a second that it was a simple thing,” Yehuda agreed. “Didn’t I see how pressured you were in yeshivah? But I said that it isn’t the foot that’s causing the problem.”
“So what is?” Zevi stopped, discovering that they had reached a stone bus shelter. He entered, without saying a word, and sat down on the stone bench adorned with black scribbles. Yehuda sat down beside him.
“You,” Yehuda said simply.
“Yes, you,” Yehuda replied placidly. “No one is forcing you to hide anything. If you chose to do so, that’s one hundred percent your right, but don’t complain about it. Just about yourself.”
Anger flooded through Zevi like a rushing stream, and he hugged his knees silently. No, he wasn’t looking for pity, but a bit of basic sympathy would be nice. True, the decision to hide his deformity had been his—that’s what his mother had advised, and Aunt Chasi had always adamantly agreed with her about it. But did that mean his difficulties deserved no attention? Because he was “to blame” for them? And besides…
“If you’re looking to throw the blame on someone about this,” he said bitterly, “then you don’t have to run far. I did it to myself anyway. I spilled hot tea on myself when I was three. That’s how I ended up losing a few toes. Are you happy now? Good, so am I.”
“Ooohhh!!!” A gleeful howl rang out from one side.
Both boys snapped their heads up in surprise. The wall of the bus shelter had a rectangular window, and a wrinkled, scarred face, wreathed in a broad smile, was peeking through it at them.
“That’s beautiful, just beautiful, what that boy said!” the man said, leaping into the bus shelter and sitting down on the narrow space between Zevi and Yehuda. “And you,” he pointed a gnarled finger at Yehuda, “are not a good friend. How could you insult this nice young man like that?”
Zevi was in utter shock. He looked at Yehuda, only to see that he was smiling at the old man. Zevi found himself wishing that Yehuda could have been together with him on the way to Yerucham, when the bus had abandoned him. It would have been wonderful to have such a level-headed companion at his side at that time. It didn’t look like Yehuda knew what it was like to lose his cool, even in the strangest and most unexpected situations. He sat now, listening with a smile, to the short, thin man who was pontificating animatedly.
“Your friend has no toes, and you tell him it’s because of him? No good, my boy, no good. You have to help him!! He’s such a pitiful soul, you understand? Do you understand or not?”
“Sure,” Yehuda said amiably.
“Then why are you telling him, ‘It’s your fault’? I, in your place,” he panted as he spoke, “would help him instead of giving him all that junk!”
“That’s a good idea,” Yehuda agreed politely.
“And if he doesn’t help you,” the man now turned to Zevi, his face emitting a smell of sweat mixed with something else, “don’t be his friend, y’hear me, boy?”
“That’s also a good idea.” Yehuda was still smiling.
“Don’t you mix in!” the old man fumed. “This is a conversation between me and him. You hear, boy? I had a friend, and in 1974, he lost a leg and a hand, and I was his very good friend. Ask everyone how I treated him. I never told him it was his fault; I just came and visited him and spoke to him. He had a prosthesis—two of them, actually. Why don’t you have one?”
Zevi discovered that his mouth was still hanging open in shock, and he hurried to close it. But then he opened it again right away to answer the question. “It’s because…um…” he stammered. “It’s not comfortable…and it’s not necessary….and I think that…” The faint memory of something Dr. Schreiber had said to his mother years ago flashed in his mind. “It’s not something for me.”
“Oh, okay.” The man nodded deeply, smiling broadly. “Well, if you don’t want it, then you don’t need it; I just offered. Anyway, my friend and I were such good, good friends, and I never said to him that he was to blame for what happened, even though I thought he was a little bit guilty. He stayed in the tank when we all ran away. He thought it was safer there, and that was nonsense.” The man stretched, and Zevi sidled a little closer to the other side of the bench. “You, what did you do to lose your toes?”
Zevi glanced at Yehuda, who sat on the other side of the old man, with his eyes closed and a slight smile on his face. He looked like he was enjoying every second of this. “I spilled boiling hot tea on myself,” he said tersely.
“How old were you?” the stranger asked interestedly.
“Oh, very young. Which foot?”
The man clucked his tongue and bent over, examining Zevi’s tightly laced-up shoe. Zevi was sure he was about to ask him to take off the shoe, and he wasn’t sure what he would do if that happened. But the man didn’t ask him to do anything; he just continued staring.
“Zevi, should we go?” The passive Yehuda abruptly opened his eyes.
A new thought suddenly popped into Zevi’s mind, one that bothered him. How hadn’t he thought of it until now? No, the man had no gray ponytail, but that didn’t mean that he hadn’t been sent by the person who had taken a sudden interest in him in recent weeks.
“The man with the red beard?” he said almost to himself and swung his foot under the bench. He had had enough. If the stranger wanted to continue looking at his foot, he was welcome to lie down on the floor for a bird’s-eye view.
“I don’t think so,” Yehuda said thoughtfully. The man straightened up and looked at them both.
“I don’t have a red beard,” he said defensively.
“I didn’t mean you.” Zevi stood up. He wanted to get out of there, to get as far away as possible from this bus stop where strange people jumped out at him from nowhere and began grilling him about his foot. How had it happened? How had he offered so much information without suspecting a thing?
“You can relax,” Yehuda said, as he stood up, too. “It’s not that type at all.”
The man stretched himself across the entire bench. “Okay, go,” he said with a yawn. “Will you come back tomorrow?”
“We’ll see,” Yehuda said, and pulled Zevi out into the darkened street.
“Hey, you there, without the toes!” the man called from his prone position on the bench. “Come here and take a kiss from me!”
“I don’t want to,” Zevi said in a low voice, so that only Yehuda could hear, and began walking faster. “Really!” he exclaimed a few seconds later. “What a crazy experience. How are you so sure that that guy doesn’t belong to the guys who followed me in Yerucham?”
“I know him,” Yehuda said in a firm whisper. “He’s a weird character who’s been wandering around the moshavim here for years already. Calm down, Zevi’le, okay?”
“I think he is connected,” Zevi insisted. “Who said that Mr. Red Beard didn’t contact him? He finds all kinds of weirdos to help him, like the guy with the ponytail, or—”
“Me, for example,” Yehuda said cheerfully. “One of the strange creatures who was asked to help with the investigation. What’s up, Zevi? Are you afraid of red beards? Be careful; the day is not long in coming when you might begin to be afraid of yourself, you know!”
“I’m not afraid,” Zevi said in a low voice. He remembered that when his father had heard the story about the man, he hadn’t seemed worried. “But you’ll admit that it’s not exactly fun.”
“That what—that someone yells at me that I’m not a good friend for you, and also checks out how well you polish your shoes?” Yehuda probed.
The few minutes with the strange man flashed through Zevi’s mind, from the second he had leaped in on them and just sat down on the bench, to his questions and parting words. Suddenly, Zevi felt his face contorting as he tried to refrain from laughing. Yehuda was already laughing quietly. It was a good thing they were right near the hut, because a few seconds later, just as they had entered the hut and closed the door behind them, they both burst into paroxysms of uncontrollable laughter that grew louder and louder until they were gasping for breath.
The echoes of their laughter wafted down to Yehuda’s grandmother’s window, and she opened a sleepy eye. “Those kids are happy over there,” she muttered and pulled the blanket over her shoulders. “That’s good, but I’ll have to tell them tomorrow to keep their giggling for the daytime, when people are awake.”
When Eliad didn’t rise early the next morning, Don was not surprised. It had already happened before that Eliad had preferred to stay in bed while the other religious soldiers had hurried to the shul for Shacharis.
But this morning began strangely because Eliad didn’t only skip davening. He didn’t get up for roll call, either. There were less than five minutes left for them to get ready when Don tapped him on the shoulder. “Hey, buddy!” he called. “What’s up with you? You want to get a penalty, or what?”
Eliad muttered something, moaned, and turned his head to the other side.
“Fine, if you don’t want to get up, don’t,” Don said, having just arisen a few minutes earlier himself. “It’s your problem, ‘Liad. I have too much to do to get busy with you.” He grabbed the edge of his military blanket and waved it in the air. Folding blankets had never been his strong point, and this strange obligation was one of the things he hated about army life.
“Fold the blanket!” he huffed for perhaps the thousandth time since his first day in the army. “Really! Why, are battles only won by soldiers whose blankets were folded well before they went out to the front?” He plumped his pillow, tucked back under some errant blanket fabric that had snuck out, and announced, “Have a good day, ‘Liad.”
“What do you want; don’t you see he doesn’t feel well?” one of his other roommates chided. He was a solid, quiet guy. Everyone was already waiting outside, lining up in rows to the beat of the soldier on duty who was working to get his fellow cadets into formation.
“The commander will be there in another minute!” Don exclaimed. “Eliad, I’m running. But I’ll be back as soon as I can.” He ran, but the commander wasn’t there after a minute, or even after two. When he finally appeared, he didn’t stay for long, just glanced at them quickly, informed them what their training exercises were for that morning, and instructed them to move on to barrack inspection.
“A few are missing,” the on-duty cadet reported when the soldiers scattered to their rooms.
“I saw. Who?”
“Ben Yaakov, Kagan…”
The officer stopped him. “Ben Yaakov? He’s in the infirmary. He was seriously stung yesterday.”
“Oh,” the private said, a bit confused. Nat Ben Yaakov was his roommate, and he had come back from the infirmary the night before grumbling about how they hadn’t taken him seriously. What had happened overnight to make him return to the infirmary that morning?
“A few others were also stung at the park yesterday,” the officer said. “Are they the other ones missing?”
“Could be,” the cadet said apologetically. “I have to check.”
“Let’s review the barracks first,” the officer said. “Give me the list of the missing cadets afterward.”
Then went into the rooms, one after the other. Each soldier stood beside his made bed, but the officer didn’t do more than glance at them for a second. When they reached one of the rooms, he stopped. It was common for soldiers to be late for line-up and roll call, but he had never seen a cadet continue sleeping even after the officer was in the room already.
“What is going on here?!” he thundered from the doorway, barely containing his anger. But after a second, he fell silent. The image of Ben Yaakov’s hand, which he had seen when he’d dropped in at the infirmary earlier that morning, rose in his mind. It hadn’t looked like an insect sting; it had seemed much worse than that. It looked like it was broken, or that it was infected due to a serious case of blood poisoning. If all that could come from a mild sting, who knew what this boy’s condition was?
“What’s with him?” the commander asked, knowing full well that he sounded more like a fretting grandmother than a military officer. Whatever it was, it certainly didn’t look good.
“He was also bitten,” one soldier standing stiffly next to his bed offered. “He couldn’t get up. Half his face is all swollen.”
The sleeping soldier gave no sign that he was aware of the conversation about him. The commander feared that he was unconscious, but then he thought he heard a groan. He wanted to approach, to peek at the kid before sending for the on-duty medic, but just then, someone else spoke from the doorway of the room.
“They’ve ordered an ambulance for Ben Yaakov, Kagan, and a few others,” the private said, swallowing his words. “And they want to know what’s going on with the others who were stung. Dr. Minzer is afraid of an allergic reaction.”
The ambulance that came to the base to take the boys who had developed a strange allergic reaction to the sting drew closer to the entrance. Eliad couldn’t even get up from his bed to go to the vehicle. He wasn’t sure there was anything in the world right then that he was capable of doing. He could hardly breathe or see, and his head burned with pain. He thought maybe the cream from Don could help him, but couldn’t even ask for it. He had used it several times during the night, but at one point, it had just stopped helping.
The paramedic was the one who noticed it. “Hey!” he said, looking at the unmarked container that was open near Eliad’s bed. “What’s this? Did you get it in the infirmary?”
Eliad was barely able to move his head from side to side. Don wasn’t in the room.
“You used this?” the paramedic asked.
Eliad nodded slightly, afraid that his neck was going to disconnect from his shoulders. The paramedic made a split-second decision to take the container with them and stuck it into his pocket. Maybe it would interest the staff at MeirHospital.
In all, five soldiers were taken to the hospital in Kfar Saba that morning, and no one knew the reason for their sudden deterioration. The two other boys who had been bitten, too, but who were now more or less okay, could not figure out why they were different from the others.
“I don’t think they were stung more than me,” Bentzy replied impatiently to the worried medical officer’s questions. “Nat was stung on the hand, and I was bitten near my ear. What’s the difference?”
“It’s strange,” the officer said. “Seven guys get stung, they all react more or less normally in the first few hours, and twelve hours later, five of them develop infections and swelling, some of them apparently life-threatening. What does this mean?”
“First of all, it means that we aren’t to blame,” Dr. Minzer replied. “No one can sue us for malpractice.”
“Fine, but what is it?”
The military doctor shrugged. “Don’t know,” he said, frowning. “I don’t know.”