Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 4 of a new online serial novel, Night Flower, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every week. Click here for previous chapters.
Copyright © Israel Bookshop Publications.
In the end she said yes. She needed to make every effort to preserve the remnants of the regular, successful, vivacious Chaiky. She could not allow herself to become more of the confused, tense Chaiky who had a hard time noticing small details. When was the last time she’d stood before an audience and spoken? More than half a year ago, when they’d planned a Rosh Chodesh party at the community center and the guest speaker had cancelled at the last minute. Elka had given Chaiky the job of taking over.
“I know you can speak powerfully,” she’d said, not giving Chaiky an opportunity to decline. “So let’s go—we may as well enjoy your talents!”
And they’d enjoyed, baruch Hashem. Shlomo had prepared a nice idea about the parshah for her, and she’d connected it to something current that had happened that month. What month had it been? She couldn’t remember right now. It was hard to remember what she had even spoken about; it was hard to remember what the Chaiky of those days—whose life was flowing along so smoothly—had thought and felt. But she did remember that the speech had been a success.
And now she’d agreed to speak for an audience again. So what? When she would have some free time tomorrow or the next day, she’d open a Chumash with Ramban and look for a fitting concept that was easy to grasp, and that older women could also relate to and enjoy.
What would be with the children when she’d go? Well, Yael had said the event was scheduled for eleven o’clock in the morning, when Dovi and Naomi were in school. She’d arrange with her sister-in-law Goldie, or one of the neighbors, to take the children in the afternoon, even though she really didn’t like asking for favors. She’d be back a few hours later and would pick them up. Maybe she’d buy them a treat in Petach Tikvah, if she’d have a few minutes to drop into a store.
Chaiky sat motionless and stared ahead for a full minute. Then she put down the phone and stood up. She went to the kitchen to take a yogurt from the fridge. Somehow, she felt a bit different.
And even…yes, even if someone in the family had concocted this whole plan and sent Yael to ask her to speak, all in order to get her out a little—she didn’t really mind that it had succeeded. It wasn’t a bad thing for others to worry about her a bit now; she was allowed to concede that it was hard for her to handle things all by herself. And if her family’s concern was now causing this feeling of vitality that was coursing through her veins—well, that was for sure a net gain.
Six days passed, and Sunday arrived. There was no memory of Sebelia’s visit—she was supposed to come again tomorrow. Still, Chaiky’s breathing was relatively relaxed. She put two Chumashim with different commentaries on her night table, along with another sefer of essays on the parshah and inyanei d’yoma. She hadn’t had a chance to look into them yet, but it was good that they were there, ready for whenever she was.
That evening, she was actually in a very good mood. She cut up a salad for Dovi and Naomi, prepared omelets that “smell like you used to make them,” as Dovi said, and even made a cup of coffee for herself and sat down to eat with the kids. She had to come to terms with the fact that for the foreseeable future, there was no reason for her to wait until nine-thirty at night to eat her own supper, just because that’s what she was used to doing for so many years. No one was going to be coming home then, and there was no one to clean up the kitchen for or set the table for again. If she was hungry, she could eat with the children at the same messy table where they were eating. And you know what? Despite the jam that Naomi smeared on the table, and the chocolate milk that Dovi spilled, it was actually a very nice meal.
Then the children went to bed and fell asleep easily, and Chaiky went back to the kitchen to bentch. She put down the bentcher and looked around, wondering if she had the energy to clean up the mess, or if it could all wait patiently for tomorrow. Then her cell phone rang. Elka.
Chaiky bit her lip as she answered the phone. The relationship between them the past two weeks, since Noa had been hired, was not the same. When Elka came to work, she preferred to spend most of her time in the library, deep in conversation with Noa; she hardly spoke to Chaiky or Miri, save for a few terse words like, “Everything alright? What’s doing?”
At first it irritated Chaiky; then it made her tense, but eventually, she began to come to terms with it. Elka had apparently taken Noa on as a personal kiruv project, and she was taking it very seriously. She’d even invited Noa for Shabbos last week, and Noa had related on Sunday how much she’d enjoyed it. “My neshamah yeseirah felt wonderful,” she’d told Miri. Chaiky, who had passed by just then and overheard the comment, had deliberately not responded.
“Tell me, Chaiky, can you go with Noa this week to buy some new books for the library? She probably doesn’t know yet how exactly to choose chareidi literature, and I think the time has come to refresh our inventory a bit.”
“Fine,” Chaiky said politely. Not that she understood why she had to take Noa along on her regular trip, and why it was being presented as “her going along with Noa,” instead of “Noa coming along with her.” But she decided not to dwell on these minor details. She was getting used to the idea that the library was becoming more and more Noa’s purview, and, that being the case, she would be better off seeing the bright side of the situation—that some of the load of her technical responsibilities was being lifted.
“So I thought you’d go and—”
The house phone rang, and Chaiky heard Dovi shifting in his bed. “Elka, let me call you back soon, okay? I have to take an urgent call.” It was probably Tamar from across the street, returning her call after Chaiky had looked for her all day.
She was right.
“You need me to have your kids over on Tuesday afternoon?” Tamar was full of good will. “Sure, no problem. My boys will bring Dovi home, and Naomi can come back with my Naama, right? Naama will be thrilled to have a friend to do homework with.”
“Thanks a lot, Tamar. I really appreciate it.”
No sooner had she hung up with Tamar than the phone rang again. This time it was her father. “Did you get the fax already, Chaiky?”
“Fax? Which fax?”
“Oh, you didn’t get it yet? The lawyer met with Shlomo this morning and was able to get a note from him.”
Again it was happening. Again Shlomo’s family was doing, speaking, organizing—and forgetting that he had a wife. If she couldn’t speak to the lawyers to move things, did that mean she no longer existed? How had they forgotten to send her such an important fax? It was a miracle they had taken the pains to tell her father.
“When did it come?” Strange that it was her speaking. Her voice was so placid, as though this had nothing to do with her. As though they had forgotten to update someone else about a subject as important as one’s husband who had been detained in Russia, under harsh conditions, for three months already. As though it were someone else to whom they were not conveying important, significant details. As if.
“Menachem, Shlomo’s brother, called me just a minute ago. He is right now in the office of Rabbi Weiss, from V’chai Achicha. That’s where Morchov sent the note to.”
As if in coordination with the end of his sentence, the fax machine in Chaiky’s home suddenly began to buzz. “Oh, I see something is coming now,” Chaiky said hastily. “Thanks, Abba. I’ll go see what it is.”
A little voice buzzed in her head that, Look, no one forgot to send you anything, but she quashed it deep into that place where all those things she didn’t want to think about were buried. She couldn’t deal with that voice now. Now she was waiting tensely to see her husband’s handwriting.
The fax machine, as always, beeped and growled loudly, and the squeaking of the bed from the children’s room became more frequent. The page was still only halfway printed, so Chaiky hurried to close the door to the children’s room. Otherwise, both kids would be on their feet within ten seconds.
And she had a feeling that she would want lots of silence over the next few minutes.
Everything is okay with me. Waiting for yeshuos very soon. Shlomo.
On the faxed page she could clearly see the tiny scrap of paper on which Shlomo had written the words. It was about two inches by three inches. Had giving over this note to the outside world through his lawyer been a risky move? That was unlikely. His family and lawyer were very cautious, to the best of her knowledge. The mess Shlomo was in now was enough; they weren’t looking to make it worse.
Aside for one time that his father had received permission to see him, Shlomo wasn’t allowed any visitors. As a prisoner, he had no rights. The only connection he had with the outside world was through the lawyer, who baruch Hashem had been able to obtain permission for Shlomo to receive kosher food from the local community. “He’s not hungry there,” they promised Chaiky, and she hoped she could believe them all.
The situation had been going on without much change for the past three months already. The trial did not even seem to be coming up on the horizon—just more interrogations and more investigations. The lawyer said that was actually good, as it enabled them to buy more time and be better prepared for whenever the trial would be held.
Chaiky glanced at the paper again. Everything is okay with me. Was that true, or was Shlomo writing it only to pass the censorship that surely was exercised over every single word spoken or written in the prison? Was he really okay? The lawyer had worked hard to arrange for him to have a cell with relatively decent people, but as long as it was detainment and not a permanent sentence, the situation was very fragile; it could change at any time. Today, your roommate is so-and-so, and tomorrow he is taken for an interrogation somewhere else, and they bring a new person in. And besides, what did “decent” people in a Russian prison mean?
And even if Shlomo did have a reasonably safe cell, a warm blanket, and kosher food—was that enough for a person to feel “okay”? After three whole months in prison, how did a normative person who had been thrown in there one clear day feel?
Chaiky took a deep breath and folded the page. She was not surprised to see that it had been dampened by her tears. The sign of life from Shlomo evoked the torrent of torturous thoughts that had plagued her at the beginning of this whole ordeal. She had taught herself to block them, but apparently, her barrier was quite flimsy. Look, they were back, inundating her again.
She strode to her bedroom and stuffed the page into the night table drawer, trying, with her sharp movements, to regain her composure. There wasn’t a tissue to be seen, so she wiped her tears with the back of her hand.
Just then she caught sight of the sefarim she had put on the night table. She picked up the top one. Keeping her mind, and her soul, busy right now would be the best thing she could do to help herself. Especially since she was still succeeding in blocking out the most troubling of all her thoughts, and she really wanted to keep it that way.
Because there was absolutely no purpose in her rehashing the torturous doubts that had pummeled her mind:
After all was said and done, was Shlomo really guilty?