Dance of the Puppet – Chapter 31

purple bookIsrael Book Shop presents Chapter 31 of a new online serial novel, Dance of the Puppet, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every week. Click here for previous chapters. 

Copyright © Israel Bookshop Publications. 

She was resting much less here than in the hospital, but despite her lethargy, Adina Kotzker was satisfied. She was aware of her condition, and did not expect any major breakthroughs in just three days. Nevertheless, the feeling that she was working and progressing—even if progress meant just the slightest movement of two fingers—gave her a pleasant feeling.

But with all this, she was tired. “That’s it,” she told her husband, daughter, and son on Friday morning. “Now you’re all going home to Yerushalayim, and you’re not coming back here until Sunday. There are telephones, and you’ll be able to hear that I’m alive and well from home, too. Please don’t stay another minute.”

“Really, Ima,” Shaul protested. “You’re going to stay here alone?”

“At least let Abba stay,” Malka pleaded.

“And who will take care of him? Where will he sleep? Eat?”

“Miriam Korman lives right here in the area and has already told me that her home is open for whomever we need. She’d be very happy to host Abba.”

“Out of the question,” Adina said decisively. Her speech had improved over the past few days, even though the speech therapist had been there for only one session since Adina had arrived. “You know how hard it is for Abba to fall asleep in a strange house. He can hardly sleep in your houses.”

Shaul and Malka exchanged looks that bordered on insulted, but their mother didn’t notice. “Abba will come on Motza’ei Shabbos, and for the next week you two can come to visit whenever it’s convenient for you. You were wonderful these past three days, but now it’s time to get back to normal life, please.”

“Abba’s considering renting an apartment nearby for the next few months,” Shaul said. His father stayed quiet and looked out the window. Their father had never been a man of words, but lately, he seemed to literally be counting every word he uttered. They would have to decide where he’d be better off for Shabbos, at Malka’s home, with her nine children, or in his house, with his eight.

“Rent? Here? Nonsense. And what about the kollel? And his shiur? What will he do here for a few months?”

How did the three of them find themselves en route to Yerushalayim? They didn’t really know, but somehow, it happened. And although Shaul was very disconcerted about his mother staying alone and having to manage on her own or by calling the nurses, Malka was pleased to see her mother regaining control of things. For too long already, her mother had not been the mother she knew. Today, Malka saw a bit of the old Ima.

Adina remained in the quiet room, trying to doze. A cheerful nurse came in with a cup of tea, and Adina was pleased to discover that she remembered her name, Varda. Considering the number of new faces that constantly appeared and disappeared over the past few months, it was quite an achievement.

“Has your family left?” the nurse asked sympathetically as she stuck a straw into Adina’s mug.

“Yes. What do they need to stay for?”

“That’s true,” Varda agreed, adjusting the position of the bed. “Did you convince them that we’re going to take good care of you?”

“And how!” They both laughed, and Varda told Adina about the schedule over the weekends. “Lunch is at 12:30, in about another hour. Then we have preparation for Shabbos and rest until the rav comes to make Kiddush. Oh, I’m happy to see you already hung up pictures of your grandchildren. You look like a very devoted grandmother who is really close to them.”

Adina smiled. “Regretfully, I’m not,” she said. “I’m usually so busy… But I have really wonderful grandchildren. My oldest granddaughter sent these pictures. She insisted it would make me happy.”

“And, did it?”

“Truthfully?” Adina asked. “My son hung them up here last night, and I didn’t want to keep him any longer, but I need my head to be at a very specific angle to be able to see them. The way the pictures are positioned, it’s almost impossible for me to see them now. But it’s okay; I know the kids are cute even without looking at them.”

A simple, everyday conversation. Why did it drain her so much? Why did her face muscles and her jaw hurt after smiling for a few seconds and conversing pleasantly? Varda had already left so she could rest, but Adina did not fall asleep. Friday was a relatively empty day, with almost no physical therapy and other treatments, but perhaps the full days, when she didn’t have a minute to rest and focus on herself and on what would be with her, were better.

The lunch that she was barely able to swallow depressed Adina even more. The nurse picked up on this. “That’s how it is after a stroke, Mrs. Kotzker,” she said gently and took the tray back. “All your muscles have to remember how to work. You get your nutrition through the intravenous, don’t worry.”

But nothing was worrying Adina right now. She suddenly felt so tired, beaten, and weak. She hadn’t felt this way since those first days after she’d woken up to her new reality. She tried to curl up and sleep, perhaps to imagine that she was in a hotel that she’d come to for some rest and relaxation. But the metal safety bar on the bed, the IV pole, and the rest of the scenery marred her attempts.

And then she heard the singing.

At first she thought someone had switched on a CD player. Then she thought it was the neighbors. Only when the Shabbos songs drew closer to her room did she realize that these were real music players with instruments.

A pretty woman entered her room. “A gutten Erev Shabbos,” she chirped with a broad smile. “How are you?”

Baruch Hashem,” Adina replied.

“You’re new here, is that right?”

“Yes.”

“Since when are you here?”

“Three days ago.”

“Oh, I hope we won’t be meeting each other often, because you’ll get well quick,” the woman said. “I’m from the Refuah V’simchah organization. Is there something you need or want that you don’t have?”

“A bit of happiness,” Adina said candidly.

“That’s exactly what we try very hard to provide,” the woman replied.

Adina knew that on a regular day, she probably would find this woman distasteful, with her broad smile and her rapid speech and slightly patronizing tone. But now, all the rules of the game had changed.

The woman stuck her head into the corridor and called, “Brim! Please call Dovi Brim!”

She went back to the chair next to Adina’s bed and sat down. She didn’t get up even when a very young bachur appeared at the door with a musical instrument. Without waiting for instructions, he began to play. Adina didn’t know what the instrument was called; her proficiency in music was very sparse. A flute, perhaps? The boy played familiar Shabbos songs, and even without understanding music, Adina knew that he was an excellent musician.

He played so nicely that it tugged at her heart. The last thing Adina wanted was to cry next to the warmhearted volunteer, but nevertheless, a tear rolled down her cheek and stopped near her chin. Adina forced the tears waiting in line to stay in check.

She looked at the boy out of the corner of her eye. There was something familiar about him. It wasn’t the way he was standing, or his playing, or his voice—because he hadn’t said a word to her. So why was she feeling a distinct sense of recognition?

The boy played for a few more minutes, and then put down his flute, nodded to her, and said, “Have a refuah sheleimah.”

“One minute,” Adina said. “Can I ask you something?”

“You can stay here another minute or two,” the volunteer said to the boy as she stood up. “I’m going to get my husband to gather everyone together. Be downstairs shortly, alright?”

“I won’t keep him long,” Adina said. “Just…what’s your name?”

“Dovi Brim,” the boy said hesitantly.

“Oh,” she said as the penny dropped. “Brim. From America, right? From Yeshivas Shaarei Aharon?”

“Yes.”

“And Rabbi Weinstock knows you’re playing here now?”

Dovi suddenly felt very strange. “Yes,” he said in a near-whisper. “He knows.”

“And he allows it?”

“The principal’s husband spoke to him…” Dovi stammered. Why was he even sharing these details with this strange woman, who, weirdly enough, knew everything about him? Why did she care if he was allowed to play his flute or not? “They spoke, and he said he thought it would be a good idea for me to play on a volunteer basis.”

“The principal’s husband? From the high school?”

“Yes. And Mrs. Levinsky, the principal, also thought it was an excellent idea.”

“Oh,” Adina replied, and a ghost of a smile touched her lips. “You know, I’d like to speak to you more, another time. Now, though, I think they are waiting for you downstairs.”

***

“You called the ringleaders.”

“Yes.”

“And Malka Mann knows about this.”

Something inside Yaffa hardened. “She doesn’t have to know,” she said. “In any case, she’s been very busy lately, and took another few days’ vacation. Her mother was moved to a rehab center in Petach Tikva.”

This last sentence distracted Chaya from the purpose of Yaffa’s call. “You have to visit the principal,” she said. “The time has come, Yaffa. It’s really horrible to ignore her like this.”

“She doesn’t want me to. What am I supposed to do?”

“One day, when you visit Abba and Ima, call Malka and ask her if you can pop in to her mother.”

“I hardly visit Abba and Ima.” Yaffa rubbed her cheek with the edge of her pen. “So what do you say, Chaya? Should I bake cookies with them?”

“With the thirty girls who…”

“Who are spearheading this major fight, yes.”

“Yaffa, tell me. What’s with you? You’re the principal!”

“Not really.”

“Not really, but yes really. How can you just put on an apron and bake cookies with them? What do you think, it’s a Home-Ec class?”

“So what do you suggest?”

“That you have a heart-to-heart talk with them. Tell them something. Abba’s got tons of stories.”

“Maybe I’ll invite him,” Yaffa said thoughtfully. “I’m not good at stories.”

“Invite Abba to speak? He’ll never agree.”

Yaffa wanted to bristle at Chaya’s dismissive attitude, but she couldn’t allow herself the luxury—because she knew that Chaya was right. Her father would never agree to come. But why should she get upset? She’d called Chaya to ask for advice. How had Elchanan put it? You have a sister in Yerushalayim; she’s older than you and is smart. Why don’t you ask her? “So, what should I do?” she asked submissively.

Chaya was quiet. She wasn’t the one who had invited thirty girls to her house before she knew exactly what she was going to do with them. But if Yaffa had gotten into this mess, she had to help her out. What else did a person have an older sister for?

“Do they all know that their nemeses are also invited?” she asked.

“I don’t know. I called a few groups into my office and invited them without offering details about who or what would be there. I asked them not to tell anyone about the invitation. Maybe some of them discovered that other girls were also invited, and maybe they didn’t.”

“What made you think of inviting them?”

“Yael told me that when such things happened in the past, the principal would summon the girls to her office and speak to them. I know that I don’t have the kind of power she had, but I thought that if I invited them to come to my house, it could make a serious impression. It can draw us closer.”

“Let’s assume that they are sick and tired of fighting,” Chaya said slowly. “I’m not sure that’s the case, but maybe they are also looking for a way to climb down from the tree. You know what?” She suddenly had an idea. “Don’t say a word about the fight. Have a nice evening. If there are girls who play the guitar or some other instrument, ask them to bring it along. Sing, chat, eat something, and maybe even give out a little memento.”

“Okay, that sounds good,” Yaffa said, relieved. Somehow, the idea of her making pizza before the girls came, and letting them sing and chat in her home, seemed more palatable than her having to deliver a lecture to them. When all was said and done, it had been a good idea to call Chaya.

***

The fax machine in the school office began to work overtime, as it always did at this time of year. Chana the secretary filed the list that each elementary school sent, in a special binder. In about a week, more or less, the picture of applicants would be clear, and the administration could begin going over the lists.

Chana was happy that she didn’t have the job of deciding who to accept and who to reject. As it was, she was sometimes put under pressure, although she understood perfectly why that happened.

“Don’t tell me that you have nothing to do with admissions; school secretaries are connected to everything.”

“Just one word to the principal, Chana, one word. That’s all I ask, alright?”

“Please try and find out what’s doing with my daughter. They said it would be fine, that she’d be accepted without a problem, but I’m not reassured about it.”

“Chana, we’re relying on you, okay?”

And that’s exactly what Chana didn’t want—that people should rely on her too much. She always mentioned the names of those who pressured her, but when Mrs. Kotzker felt that someone was not suited to their school for whatever reason, nothing Chana would say could budge Mrs. Kotzker from her decision.

This year, it was still quiet, and it was clear why. People didn’t know who exactly they needed to speak to. The assistants? Mrs. Samuelson, the registrar? The young substitute principal? The board members who were not directly connected to the whole subject?

Malka had told her that someone had called her parents’ house and asked for “Mrs. Kotzker’s cell phone number.” Chana, who hadn’t yet visited the principal, and didn’t know exactly what her condition was, had tried to read Malka’s expression. “And you told them that was out of the question, I imagine?” she probed cautiously.

“Yes. My mother asked to be totally left alone. She needs to recover, and until then, she doesn’t want to hear about anything.”

“Yes, she has to rest,” Chana said in a knowing tone tinged with relief. It was good to hear that the principal was not dealing with anything, not because she wasn’t able to, but because she didn’t want to. “She really should rest as much as she can.”

The brown binder grew fuller, and Chana began to wonder who would actually peruse the lists in detail, name after name, and learn the stories behind each name. Who would mark the approved girls with a check, and feel the pain of the ones who would be disappointed? Malka? Yael? The ninth-grade coordinator? Yaffa Levinsky? It was strange to think about it, but it was strange to think about others things that had turned out to be possible. Everything was possible, apparently.

***

They walked in one after another, with shy smiles and awkward giggles. Some of them fixed their eyes on the floor, while others looked at the girls around them with barely concealed fury. Some had discovered downstairs in the lobby that their opponents in this fight had also been invited, and had even considered leaving. But the temptation of actually visiting the principal’s house was too much, and despite the muttered grumbling, they all came upstairs. Yaffa scurried from the dining room to the kitchen with the trays of pizza she’d baked through the afternoon; some of the girls got up to help her. She didn’t even know if they belonged to Afar or Ruach, and it really made no difference.

She asked the girls to start a song. One accordion emerged from a box, and it was joined by a guitar on the other side of the room. The girls didn’t sing much at first; they just hummed along with the music. The fact that Yaffa had miscounted, and that thirty-three girls had actually shown up, wasn’t a big problem; they all managed to somehow crowd onto the sofa, onto the chairs that Elchanan had schlepped over from a gemach, and onto Bentzy’s blanket, which had been commandeered as a rug for the evening.

“Now, listen up, everyone!” one tenth grader said boldly as she suddenly stood up. “We’ll fight later; now everyone sings!”

A few girls muttered furiously in the corner of the room, and the accordion fell silent. Yaffa offered up a whispered tefillah.

Another girl got up. “Yeah,” she said, looking like she was forcing herself not to meet the gaze of the first girl. “Let’s sing.”

Apparently this girl was a big force among the others, because, amazingly enough, the angry murmurs died down, and soon silence reigned. The accordion player began to play something that must have been well-liked by all the girls, because almost all of them joined in, some loudly, some more quietly.

They sang one song, and then another.

Then everyone fell silent.

Then a few brave girls began eating, and another several joined them. And then a few more.

Then two girls shared a chair so that Yaffa would have where to sit.

Then they sang a bit more, and began to chat, and even argued a little, and took drinks.

Then a few of the girls asked to turn off the light, and someone who had a beautiful voice began to sing.

And then one brave girl from Afar asked to hear Ruach’s theme song, and they sang it. And then someone from Ruach asked to hear Afar’s theme song, and they sang it, too.

And then they all got up, thanked Yaffa sincerely, and in one big, noisy ruckus they collected the plastic tablecloths and dirty napkins, while one girl picked up Bentzy who had begun to howl, and they thanked Yaffa again and went down to the street, talking and laughing.

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