Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 6 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.
“Chaiky? What?” Yoel gaped into the darkness of the room, trying to focus on what Chaiky was saying. “I can’t understand a word. Try to calm down. What happened?”
Shifra looked at her husband as he scratched his chin. What had happened to her sister-in-law? Chaiky knew that they went to bed early; Yoel had to get up very early for work. If she was calling now, it must be really urgent.
“Locked out? What?! You, too?” He was still a bit confused after having been woken up suddenly. “I don’t understand; where are you? Did you fly to Russia without telling us?” He pressed his hand to his forehead. “Oh, you’re at home?” Again he fell silent and listened, and Shifra finally saw him nod in understanding. “Oy, that doesn’t sound like fun,” he said sympathetically. “Poor you! So you finally called a neighbor and no one answered? Oy…” He fingered the phone wire. “Calm down, that’s first of all, and let’s think of a solution. Do you want us to call your brother-in-law? I’m sure that they won’t do any—are you sure?” He turned to his wife hesitantly. “And you say your in-laws are for sure sleeping already? Do…do you want us to come, Chaiky?”
“Come? To where?” Shifra asked, looking out the window at the sleepy street.
“To Chaiky. She accidentally got locked on the porch, and there’s no one to let her back into the house. Dovi and Naomi are apparently sleeping very deeply.”
“Doesn’t it make more sense for her to call her sister-in-law who lives right nearby? It will take us time to get there, especially if there’s traffic!”
“There’s no traffic at this time of night,” Yoel said confidently, and Shifra knew that he had already decided to drive out to Yokne’am.
“Can you hold on there for a bit longer, Chaiky?” Behind his back, his wife scowled angrily. “But Chaiky, remember that I come looking however I want. Unless you don’t care now because your neighbors are sleeping? …Okay, we’ll try to leave as soon as we can. Bye.”
He listened again for a moment, and his face clouded with anger. “Alright, alright. I’ll see you. For you.” He hung up and turned to his wife. “You don’t have to come with me,” he said. “Go back to sleep. I hope to be back as soon as I can.”
“Absolutely not.” Shifra rummaged around for the towel she kept near her bed. “It’s true that I don’t understand why she can’t ask her neighbors, or someone who is close by, but if you insist on being so nice and going over there now—I’m with you. This late at night, when you’re so tired, I’m not going to let you drive alone.”
He was already out of bed and getting dressed. “She said she’d already decided to stay on the porch all night, but all of a sudden it got very windy and much colder. And when all is said and done,” he said as he tied his shoes, “a sister is always a sister.”
“It’s just that sometimes, she needs to be put in her place a little more,” Shifra said with a shrug, trying to temper her criticism and not say everything she was thinking. “It’s true, she’s in a very unfortunate situation with the Russia thing and all that, but because of that you need to get up now and go to her?”
“She didn’t want to call the rosh yeshivah who lives right next door, and I understand that. The neighbors upstairs didn’t answer. And the sensitive situation with Shlomo’s family right now…well, that’s something we’re all aware of, so…”
“So her wonderful, dedicated brother dances to the tooting of her horn, goes out to rescue her in the middle of the night, and then he even has to ask permission to wear the clothing of his choice, huh?”
Yoel was quiet. “It’s not that I don’t get annoyed at her sometimes,” he said finally, uneasily. “But you wouldn’t want to be in her place, right?”
“Chalilah! How can you even talk like that?”
“So then we don’t have any right to judge her from where we are.”
It was nearly two in the morning when Yoel pushed aside the wooden panel that covered the mess of wires in the electric box on the ground floor of the building in Yokne’am, and carefully pulled out the key that was hidden there. He yawned as he walked over to his sister’s front door. A quick turn of the key, and the door was open. He skirted a small pile of whatnot on the floor and headed straight for the porch door. A slight press of the knob, and Chaiky was free.
Her face pale, she sank breathlessly onto the couch. “I have no words, Yoel,” she said after a few seconds of silence. “You came all the way here, just to let me out… You came yourself?”
“No, Shifra is in the car.”
She passed a hand over her eyes, as though trying to erase any sign of the black bags beneath them. “Don’t leave her there alone. Tell her to come inside. You’ll both take a drink and eat something before you go back.”
“It’s okay. We took coffee in a thermos and drank it in the car on the way here.”
“So then your thermos is empty by now. Come on, I don’t feel comfortable with her being outside like that. Call her in.” She wasn’t ashamed of Shifra, and not just because she was her only brother’s wife, and not just because there was no comparing the dynamics between her and Shifra and her and Shlomo’s family. It was mostly because of the fact that Shifra’s house—as she had seen more than once—sometimes looked as upside down as hers, and they didn’t even have children yet to blame the mess on.
Still, when Yoel went out to get Shifra, and Chaiky went into the kitchen to boil water, she moved rapidly, hoping to have time to wipe up Dovi’s chocolate milk stains from the table. She was still vigorously scrubbing the Formica tabletop with a wet rag when Yoel and Shifra came back in.
“You also drink coffee, right, Shifra?” she asked briskly. “Two teaspoons of sugar, if I remember correctly?”
Yoel opened the refrigerator and rummaged around inside. “Is there anything in here, Chaiky?”
“There should be some cake left over from Shabbos on the top shelf.”
“Oh, you baked?” Shifra asked.
“No, I didn’t have the energy to bake myself. And because there was nothing left of that delicious coffee cake you sent me two weeks ago, a neighbor sent me some cake.”
“Nice of her,” Shifra remarked as she sat down.
“Yes,” Chaiky agreed, and carried over a tray with three cups to the table. “At least I have good neighbors.”
Yoel took the foil pan out of the fridge and sliced a generous piece for himself. “Delicious,” he said, his mouth full. “I don’t think you have any reason to complain about them.”
“Complain? The cake is good, isn’t it?”
“You know that I wasn’t talking about the cake or about the neighbors.”
“Huh? Then what were you talking about?”
“About the way Shlomo’s family is dealing with this whole issue. I think they’re doing a good job, if you ask me.”
“Of course they are doing a good job for him,” she said, fixing her eyes on her cup of coffee. “Isn’t he their son? Their brother? If they don’t try and get him out of there, who will? Besides, weren’t they the ones who sent him on that foolish trip?” She put her cup down on the table, and her eyes filled with tears. She was upset at herself for letting the tears come, especially with Shifra here.
“You know how I never liked those trips and the collecting money. I begged him to let his brother Menachem take on some of these trips, too. But he always said that, putting modesty aside, he had a much better rapport with those philanthropists and was able to get much bigger donations from them for the yeshivah than Menachem could.” She wiped her tears with the back of her hand. “And he was right. The yeshivah got a lot because of his work. But now he’s in prison there.”
“And b’ezras Hashem, he’ll get out.”
“In thirty years?”
“Chalilah. We hope it will be less than that.”
“Less? How much less? Just twenty years? When I’ll be forty-nine?”
“Menachem, your brother-in-law, hopes it will be a lot less than that.”
“Oh, you speak to each other?”
“Of course. He updates me and Abba all the time.”
She took a deep breath. “Did you hear about the fax today?”
Yoel nodded. Shifra diplomatically gazed at the large clock ticking opposite the kitchen table, counting the seconds that passed at the same pace all over the world, in Yokne’am like in Haifa; in Israel like in Russia.
“That is also why…um…why I wanted to come here now,” he said suddenly, and cut another slice of cake for himself. “I don’t know, I thought who knows how you must be feeling after…after reading the note from Shlomo, and I decided that as your only brother, it wouldn’t do any harm if I’d pop over to see how you are doing.”
Chaiky forced herself to smile.
“What did you do on the porch all this time?” Shifra asked convivially, making an effort not to look at her watch again.
“I was preparing a speech that I have to give the day after tomorrow.”
“A speech? Nice!” Shifra exclaimed. “Where?”
But Yoel, practical as always, interjected with another question before she could respond. “And there was enough light on the porch?”
“There’s a small light there, and the light from my phone also helped me.”
Her sister-in-law chuckled. “Well, at least you weren’t bored.” She stole a glance at Yoel. Why wasn’t he making any sign of getting ready to leave? His older sister really was quite the nebach now, that was true. So they’d gotten up and driven all the way over and released her from her trap. But why all this chatting at this hour? Had he forgotten that he had to get up early tomorrow?
“But tell me the truth, Chaiky—it wasn’t pleasant, I’m sure, right?” Yoel said. “To be imprisoned like that on a dark porch, alone, and to know that it would take time for someone to come and release you… What is going on here? Am I the only one eating from this cake nonstop? Do me a favor and take it away from me.”
Chaiky didn’t touch the pan. She was the hostess and she couldn’t just sweep away the refreshments from under her guests’ noses. If Yoel wanted to stop eating, he was welcome to control himself and stop.
“Yes, it really was unpleasant,” she said. “I must have sounded awful when I called you. But at least I didn’t have to be there all night, thanks to you.”
“And that’s exactly what I want to talk to you about. We spoke about this on the way here.” Yoel picked up the pan of cake, stood up, and set it down on the counter. She wanted to tell him not to put it there because there could be ants, but his remark threw her off-kilter. She raised an eyebrow.
“What did you speak about?”
“That you have to find a solution to this way of life. You can’t stay here yourself with the children.”
Elka was exceptionally surly the next morning. She muttered a sullen “good morning” in Chaiky’s direction after Chaiky had arrived forty minutes late, and then disappeared in the direction of the library.
“Is Noa here already?” Chaiky whispered to Miri after she’d put her bag in her office and come over to find out if there were any messages for her.
“Yes,” Miri replied. “She’s been coming even before eight o’clock lately.”
“How does she get in?” Chaiky didn’t have a key to the main door. Only Miri did. As much as Elka had always appreciated the director of her center, keys were her weak point. “Why do you need a key to the front door?” she’d asked when Chaiky had once requested a copy. “As the director, you don’t have to open the door in the morning and lock up in the evening, right? And between you and me, you really don’t do that.”
Chaiky had agreed, without even becoming offended at the not-very-veiled rebuke. Even back then, when things were normal, she wasn’t one to arrive early or leave late. Even during the busiest times, she didn’t come to work any earlier than her position required. As it was, she spent many long hours at the center, and saw no reason to take upon herself a single extra minute. “So Miri, who needs to open and lock up, has a key,” Elka had declared in conclusion. “For you, though, I think it’s unnecessary.”
It really had been unnecessary, and that’s why Chaiky had accepted the decision without complaint. But what was this with Noa? If Noa arrived even before Miri, did that mean that she had a key?
“Yes, she does have a key,” Miri replied even before Chaiky could ask. “She told Elka that on days when she works here in the morning, it is better for her to start early and finish early because she goes to school right afterward.”
“Does she really leave early on those days?”
Chaiky was loath to admit that this Noa was piquing her interest more and more. She was about to go back to her office, but something kept her at Miri’s desk, asking more questions to satisfy her curiosity. She tried to sound as indifferent as possible as she asked casually, “What are these courses that she’s taking?”
“Some type of engineering, I believe.”
“Where is she studying? In the university in Haifa?”
Miri shrugged. “Maybe,” she said.
“But I would have thought she’d have completed a degree years ago already,” Chaiky said, looking at the distant door of the library through narrowed eyes. “She’s not particularly young.”
“Maybe she’s studying in their advanced training program, for some kind of higher degree. There’s no age limit for this kind of thing, you know.”
“Maybe, instead of two women standing and gossiping about a very fine girl, each one should go back to doing her work?” Where had Elka suddenly appeared from? “I think you both have what to do this morning. And if not, you would be better off using your time to think about how to help a girl who is trying to become more observant. I would expect that especially of you, Chaiky,” she looked at Chaiky, “as the one in charge here.” And she continued walking briskly toward the main entrance.
Miri and Chaiky watched her go, and then glanced at one another.
“Well, she happens to be right,” Miri said sheepishly, and opened her drawer.
Chaiky couldn’t even respond. True, Elka had hastened to couch her harsh words in a vague compliment regarding Chaiky’s position, but after everything was said and done, she had stood there and rebuked Chaiky for not joining the song and dance of admiration around Noa. That was how it was; when a new horse joins the pack, you sometimes forget the qualities of some of the older horses. Elka was still convinced that Chaiky had to abandon her personal plans for tomorrow to accommodate Noa, the new horse.
Someone emerged from the library just then and approached them. “Is Elka here?” she asked in a low voice, looking around.
“She left a few minutes ago,” Miri replied as she raised her eyes from the screen.
“Oh, great.” Noa looked at Chaiky and Miri alternately. “So…I hope maybe you can help me.”
Only now did they notice the packaged Danish she was holding in her right hand, as if trying to hide it.
“With pleasure, if we can,” Miri said. Chaiky remained silent. There are some people who only remember that you exist when they need you. And each time you encounter them, it boggles the mind as if it was the first time.
Noa cast a cautious glance at the main entrance and showed them the clear package. “She brought this to me earlier. Lately she’s been bringing me such a Danish every morning, and I simply can’t stand them. They are full of carbs and sugar and fat… I told her thank you but there’s really no need for them—but she keeps doing it! How can I explain to her that these Danishes are unnecessary and really a waste of her money?”
“You mean Elka?” Miri asked, looking at the Danish.
“Yes. I don’t know what to do with it now.”
Suddenly she looked like just a confused girl seeking advice, and the barriers of resentment that enveloped Chaiky weakened somewhat. “I think you can honestly tell her that you try to eat healthy food. She should be able to relate to such a thing.”
“I told her that pretty clearly already.” Noa shook her head and put the Danish down on Miri’s desk. “So do me a favor and take it, so that it doesn’t have to stay by me. She doesn’t understand why it sits on my desk and why I haven’t eaten it yet.”
“You can put it in your pocketbook, you know.” Miri wasn’t enamored by the idea of serving as Noa’s garbage can.
“That’s what I did yesterday, and the day before. Today I left my bag at home. I would throw it out, but the trash can is clean and empty. She’ll see it there for sure.”
“Fine.” Miri sighed reluctantly and stuck the Danish into one of her drawers before turning back to the computer. A second later, she glanced at Chaiky, giving her a pointed look. If Elka was already buying Danishes for Noa…
Both Chaiky and Miri had raised the assumption the day before that maybe Noa was simply a relative of Elka’s, and for whatever reason, the two of them had decided to conceal that fact. Of course, it was possible that the new worker had simply charmed her employer to no end, but that still did not fully explain what was going on here.
“Alright, I’m going back to my office,” Chaiky said cheerfully. “Is everything okay in the library, Noa?”
“Oh, yes,” she said, and followed Chaiky. “The program manufacturers sent me a better version, they say, but something is still not right. I’m beginning to wonder if the computer in the library is the problem, because it doesn’t let me use all the functions that are supposed to be active there.” Chaiky opened the door to her room and entered, with Noa on her heels. “But meanwhile, I’ve learned to manage with the old card catalogue.”
“The paper cards?”
“No, the computerized one. Until a few months ago, you had a different computer program that you used. Miri showed it to me. Besides for the new books that were bought, and a few new families that recently made subscriptions, all the information is in that program as well.” She glanced at the walls. “Well, it’s not as sophisticated as the new program, but it also makes much fewer problems… Are these your children?” She stood up and approached a photo taped to the side of the tall file cabinet.
“Very cute.” She gazed at the photo for a few long moments and then turned to Chaiky. “Your daughter looks like you,” she remarked.
“Yes, people tell me that.”
Noa continued to look at the picture, and Chaiky sat in her seat and looked at Noa.
The door opened. “Oh, Noa, you’re here?” Elka stuck her head in with a friendly wave. “Chatting in here, are we? Very nice, Chaiky, I see you finally understood me. Maybe you’ve also changed your mind regarding the outing tomorrow?”
“I have other plans tomorrow,” Chaiky said in a no-less-friendly tone. “Sorry, Elka, we discussed this already.”
“I see. In any case, once I have the two of you together, I wanted to tell you, Chaiky, to give Noa the schedule of courses for this year, okay? She’s going to design a nice brochure for us.”
“That’s usually Miri’s job, isn’t it?” Chaiky asked delicately.
“Everyone has enough work to keep them busy.” Elka, as usual, minced no words. “And you also have what to keep busy with here, Chaiky. You know that.”
Chaiky’s back was rigid. “Yes, I know that.”
Noa stared at the window, pretending not to have heard a word.
“So tomorrow, you’ll go to the Rosenblumsneighbors at lunchtime,” Chaiky concluded. “And you can play with their parakeets until I get back.”
“And you let?” Dovi was overjoyed. “You let me touch them?”
“Yes. After we come home, you’ll remember to scrub your hands with soap. And behave nicely there, okay? Whatever their mother says, listen to right away.”
“Sure,” Naomi and Dovi chorused.
“Okay, goodnight, sweethearts.”
She’d already done Kriyas Shema, a story, and a song with them. The house was sparkling because Sebelia had left a mere half hour ago, but Chaiky knew that if there would be no significant change in the very near future, the clean state wouldn’t last longer than two days.
She needed a change.
Yoel had tried to talk to her yesterday, and although she had vigorously objected, she knew, somewhere in her mind, that the solution he had suggested might be an idea to consider. No, it would not resolve her loneliness; as far as she was concerned, that wasn’t even a problem. True, her parents were also worried about her being alone here with the children, but there really was nothing to worry about. Even if there were some unpleasant things about this situation, such as coming home from work full of frustration and feeling that there was no one for her to talk to, or that minor incident with the porch yesterday, she definitely felt strong enough to deal with it.
But the house…the house…
If she took someone in to live with her, like Yoel had suggested, the house would be kept clean, and wouldn’t only look this way on Monday evenings, after Sebelia’s departure.
It was sad, perhaps, to think about how many thing she did only because of the outside impression, to the extent that she would agree, seeing no other alternative, to bring a stranger to live in her home just so that it would galvanize her to keep the place in order. But who said that we always have to fight against our less positive traits? Sometimes, it can be better to utilize them for the good.
Like in this situation.