Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 8 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.
“I thought that maybe, it will be good for me if someone moves in with us here.”
“What?” The darkness outside the bus window was so inky, Mira couldn’t even see the outline of a single tree or hilltop, and she felt like darkness was also smothering her brain. What was Chaiky talking about?
“I said that maybe it would be good for me and the children if I would find someone to live here with us. She can help me a bit, let’s say with babysitting. And in general, I won’t be alone.”
“Oh.” Mira was quiet, suppressing a deep sigh. So the idea that Chaiky was coming to terms with was Yoel’s. “Someone to come live with you?” she echoed slowly.
“Yes. I’ll find a woman or a girl who needs a place to live, even in exchange for payment or something. You sometimes see ads in the paper about these kinds of things.”
“Right, but through the newspaper it’s impossible to know exactly who the woman or girl is and what kind of story there is behind her.”
“So you make some reference calls,” Chaiky replied sensibly. “And we can always make up ahead of time that we would start with a trial period.”
“Right.” Suddenly, when the idea of Chaiky coming to live with them did not seem like the ideal solution it had seemed before, Mira found herself looking at Yoel’s idea through a different lens. Remarkably, it didn’t seem quite so bad.
But why did she still just not like the sound of the whole thing?
“You have to do a lot of research into who the person is,” Mira said, as much to herself as to Chaiky. “It shouldn’t be someone unstable, or with bad middos. Or someone whose personality doesn’t blend well with yours…” She sighed. “It’s not easy to bring a stranger into your home, Chaiky. And you don’t need more problems on your head right now.”
“But Ima,” her daughter said gently, “Anna wasn’t a stranger. You knew her very well, at least by the time she came to live with you.”
Mira took a deep breath. Chaiky had honed right in on the reason for her hesitation, even before she herself could put her finger on it. Chaiky was right: she didn’t like the idea because of Anna.
“True, Anna wasn’t a stranger,” she agreed quietly, “and I got along very well with her. And everything had been fine for so many years, and to this day I think of her sometimes…” She was silent for a moment. “You’re right—it’s probably because of her that I’m telling you to check very carefully into who you plan to take in.”
“I’m still not taking anyone in yet; it’s all just thoughts right now. I just said that I’m not as opposed to Yoel’s idea as I was at first.”
They had been a young couple. Not newlyweds exactly; four years had already passed since their wedding, but they still fell into that “young couple” category. Binyamin had been a mashgiach in a yeshivah ketanah in Be’er Sheva, where they had moved after their wedding. Mira was a preschool teacher, but on a rotating basis, which meant she was busy only three days a week. The rest of her time was free, more or less.
That morning, she’d gone out to the grocery; or was it the post office? The details weren’t really so relevant anymore. The only relevant thing was that when she came back, she found a little girl sitting on the brick wall outside their building. She had an open container of baby formula at her side, and she was digging handfuls of powder out of the box and pouring them into her mouth. The scene was so strange, that Mira must have stared at her a few seconds longer than was appropriate. The girl smiled at Mira, her lips white from the powder, and said, “It’s yummy.” And despite the brevity of the sentence, it was clear that the girl had a heavy Russian accent.
“Hearty appetite,” Mira said. And because the girl looked to her to be at least six years old, she asked, “How old are you?”
“Seven and a half.” And once again, she stuck her fingers into the box of powder.
To this day, Mira remembered how she had shifted her heavy bag from one hand to the other (oh, so it had been the grocery and not the post office!) and asked, “And you like to eat baby formula?!”
“Yes. My aunt says it’s very healthy, so I eat it every day.”
“And that’s all you eat?”
“Sometimes at lunchtime I also eat cookies, if I want.” Her Hebrew was excellent.
“And you don’t ever eat chicken or meat? Eggs? Bread or vegetables?”
“If I’m a good girl, then they take me to get a hamburger,” the girl said as she snapped the lid back on the container. “But formula is yummier. I’ve been eating it since I’m a baby.”
Mira narrowed her eyes and said, “Actually, the chicken I make is much more delicious than baby formula, I think. And so is the vegetable salad I prepare.”
“No.” The girl was emphatic. “You only think that. If you would eat formula, you’d see that it is filling and the most delicious food, and most important—you don’t have to work hard to prepare it. Do you have children?”
“So when you have them, give them formula all the time. It’s also healthy. This way you won’t have to work hard to cook all kinds of meals for them. My aunt says that the best thing she did was to teach me to eat formula. This way, she doesn’t have to stand in the kitchen all day and make food for me.”
Mira swallowed. “And what does she eat?” she asked, trying to sound casual.
“Dunno. They hardly eat at home because they’re hardly ever there.”
“Who is ‘they’?”
“My aunt and her husband.”
“Where do you live?” Mira expected the girl to point to one of the prefab buildings down the road. She knew that lots of Russian immigrants lived in those housing projects.
But the girl said, “There, in the house behind the bus stop.”
From where they were standing, Mira couldn’t see which house she meant and wondered if the girl meant one of the modern, spacious homes that had been built there over the last half a year.
“Nice,” she said. “And I live here.” With a sudden urge she added, “And I think you should come and taste the salad that I made for breakfast. There’s a bit left over. When you see how good it is, you can ask your aunt to make some for you every morning. Besides formula, a girl also needs to eat vegetables.”
“Nonsense,” was the polite reply.
Mira smiled, shifted the bag she was holding back to her right hand, and walked into her building. As she began climbing the stairs, she heard footsteps behind her. When she turned around, she saw that the girl had followed. She smiled to herself and turned back to the stairs. The girl followed her to the third floor.
And that was how Mira got to know Anna.
He didn’t know how much was being paid for him to get this room and the privilege of being alone. He just knew that without this, there would be no chance of him surviving here. The first week and a half in a shared cell, and the few subsequent encounters after that, had been enough to make it clear that he could not live in another cell with all the others.
“Zhid.” Just that regular call was enough to send the chills down his spine each time he heard it. He didn’t know if the wardens here meant to insult him particularly, or if it was just what he was in their eyes, but “Zhid” had horrible connotations.
From another cell, a prisoner began singing loudly; the warden’s call must have inspired him. Shlomo didn’t understand a word aside for the term “Zhid” that kept repeating itself in the song. He knew this tune; each time he was taken out of his cell and came face to face with some of the other prisoners, he heard it. And it didn’t sound like the words expressed lots of admiration or appreciation for the Jewish nation.
“Da,” he replied obediently. The warden, who didn’t know a word of Hebrew or English, opened the bars on the window in the door and threw a torn package inside. He stuck in a yellow pad with a pen; Shlomo already knew where he was supposed to sign his name. The warden said something in Russian, took back the pad and pen, and with a slam, locked the bars again.
Shlomo picked up the small package, a box inside a torn black bag, and sat down on the mattress in the corner. He knew he was fortunate. His two lawyers were doing whatever they could to ease the terms of his incarceration here at Lefortovo, the notorious prison, and it could be said that they were being successful. During the days of the NKVD and the KGB, political prisoners were kept here, and they endured interrogations and torture. Masses of opponents to the Soviet regime, among them many prisoners of Zion, knew this place well. Shlomo imagined that if they would have been told then how his days looked here now, they would not have been able to comprehend such a reality. A cell alone, without anti-Semitic cellmates? Kosher food three times a day? Just a few interrogations that included “mere” screaming, but no beatings or worse? An entire mattress, and a pretty thick one at that, with a sheet and blanket that he had gotten from the outside?
He met with his lawyers at least once a week, which served as his only connection to the normal world that continued to exist beyond the walls of the prison. Sometimes, he returned to his cell in a good mood. Other times, he felt very dejected; it depended on what they had said about any progress or preparations for the trial, his chances for things going this way or that, and dozens of other things that he’d never known about firsthand.
He? Shlomo Struk, detained in a Russian prison?
He thanked Hashem for everything, because he had also read stories about imprisonment in Russia years ago, and he knew very well that even today, his life could have been very different if not for the intense work of his lawyers and the local frum community.
But that didn’t mean it was easy for him.
It was hard, so hard that it was suffocating.