Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 9 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.
Already the next afternoon, the girl from the brick wall knocked at her door.
“Your salad was good,” she told Mira, taking a step inside the apartment, “but my aunt said that she has no time to prepare such things, and if you think that it’s important for me to eat cucumbers and peppers, then you should give them to me yourself.”
The problem was that her stock of vegetables had been almost depleted, but Mira did not give up. In the drawer of the fridge she found one shriveled carrot, a small kohlrabi, and a tiny radish. “Today I’ll make you a different type of salad,” she said to Anna, and took out her cutting board. “This way you’ll get to taste different vegetables.”
The kohlrabi was especially difficult to cut; she’d never tried to cut it into tiny cubes. But twelve minutes later, she had a salad ready in a little bowl. Three minutes after that, it was gone.
“This was also pretty good,” Anna said and leaned back in her chair. “But yesterday’s was better.”
“But I’m out of pepper and other things,” Mira said. “Do you want to go with me to the vegetable store?”
That day Anna went with Mira to the vegetable store. The next day they went to the grocery together, and the day after that, when Mira returned home from work, she found the girl standing at her closed door, an accusing look in her eyes. “Didn’t you know that I’d come?” she asked.
“I didn’t know,” Mira said honestly, rummaging in her pocketbook for her key. “And I couldn’t be home today—I was at work.”
“I’ve always liked computers,” Noa said as she sat down beside Miri. Chaiky stood opposite them both. “If you ask me, the three that we have here are really ancient. That’s why the library program, for example, is making problems. The computer simply can’t handle it.” She pointed to Miri’s computer. “And this model is something you don’t see anymore. How do you work on it, Miri? I’m going to tell Elka that she should buy new computers.”
“I actually am very happy with my computer,” Chaiky said. “I don’t think it needs to be replaced. Miri, are you printing me out that list of Rabbi Weinberg’s speaking topics? The people looking into the course want to know what he’s going to speak about.”
“Sure, right away.”
“Your computer may be the newest one here, relatively speaking,” Noa said to Chaiky. “Are you familiar with computers?”
“With whatever I need to know.”
“You have a computer at home?”
“Yes, but I hardly use it.”
“Why don’t you use it to entertain your kids?”
“We believe that a computer is purely a work thing, and not for children,” Chaiky replied. She had no energy to expound on that. “My children really don’t touch the computer.”
“So why do you need it?”
Chaiky looked at the printer that had begun to blink and rumble. “I used to use it, mostly for my husband’s correspondence,” she said. “Things relating to the yeshivah.”
“Yeshivah?” Noa sipped the last of her juice out of the carton. “What do you mean?”
“The yeshivah in Yokne’am. My husband is the son of the director, and he learned there himself. He helped a bit with the administrative work and some other things, and sometimes, we needed to send out letters by email.”
“There’s no computer in the yeshivah?”
“There is, but there’s also a secretary there.” Chaiky took out the first page that the printer emitted and perused it. “And my husband really didn’t want to turn into an office worker at the yeshivah. When he went there, it was to learn. The other things, he took care of at home—or more accurately, I took care of it for him.”
She had no idea how updated Noa was about the news with her husband, and she had no interest in offering any more details. Whatever the case, this conversation was beginning to irritate her. “Thanks Miri,” she said, and turned to go back to her office. “It’s important for me to have this.”
Back in her office, she sat down with the papers and tried to read them. The lines were short and clear, but Chaiky found herself starting over for the fourth time without having any idea what she had read on the first three tries.
This didn’t usually happen to her. When she would read—she read; when she would listen—she listened, and she always was able to go with the flow of conversation and be friendly and interested. Even when things bothered her, she was always able to function normally.
But now, everything had changed. When she read, she wasn’t really reading. When she listened, she didn’t really hear, and the once-efficient Chaiky, who was always involved and on the ball, had become anxious and impatient. She had little energy to invest in trying to act pleasant. In fact, there was very little she could point to these days at which she was successful.
Ima and Abba were encouraging her, urging her not to blame herself. They told her she should get some more help, and that with Hashem’s help, everything would fall into place. But no matter what words of encouragement and reassurance they gave her, she was still very uptight. Who was she really, Chaiky Struk? A nice, successful, efficient woman who happened to be suffering pain, pressure, and distress now, and thus was unable to act her normal self these days? Or was the image she had projected until now—one of success, efficiency, and tranquility—all just one big show?
What was she really?
Margalit called just as Elka and Noa were sitting down to eat supper on Elka’s porch. A cool breeze was blowing, and Noa leaned back and looked at the plate in front of her, which was full of pretty, thin slices of radish, cabbage, and lettuce in garlic dressing. She slowly speared a piece of radish with her fork and raised her gaze to Elka.
Just then Elka’s phone rang.
Elka glanced at the screen. “My sister from Tel Aviv,” she said apologetically. “You don’t mind if I pick up for her, do you?”
Noa shook her head, and continued eating, gazing at the stars twinkling over the Carmel Mountains in the distance. Elka’s house offered very pretty scenic views.
“Hi, Margalit,” Elka said. “What’s doing?”
“Baruch Hashem, things are great. How is it going by you?”
“As usual, working hard. You really have to come visit. Our community center has really come a long way since you last saw it.”
“You’re still there, this late in the evening?” Margalit sounded shocked.
“No, of course not!”
“Oh, it’s just that by the way you are speaking, it sounds like she’s next to you or something.”
“You’re right about that.”
“Oh, you invited her to your house?”
“For the fifth time already.”
“Very nice. Maybe we should talk about something else now, so she doesn’t figure out that your short, ambiguous sentences have anything to do with her.”
“Right again. How was Shabbos by you?”
“Really beautiful. My two youngest married couples came, and it was lots of fun. Who was by you?”
“Dovi and Sara’le.”
“And how is their little one?”
“Oh, a real sweetie pie.”
“Wasn’t it hard for them with all the traveling?”
“No. And then they had a very restful Shabbos. True, they needed to travel with two little children, but Sara’le said it was worth it for her. No cooking, no cleaning up, and here I don’t let her lift a finger.”
“What a shvigger, really! It’s not like that by me. My daughters and daughters-in-law know that if they don’t help me, I don’t invite them.”
“Well, to each her own.” Elka was losing her patience. “Even if we’re sisters, Margalit, we’re allowed to have differences of opinion here and there.”
“True,” her sister agreed. “Anyway, now that we’ve hopefully distracted her, I can get to the point, Elka.”
Without noticing it, Elka’s eyes turned to Noa, who was sitting on the white plastic chair and deeply inhaling the cool evening air. “Nu?”
“I understand that they are hearing from her wonderful things about your community center, but it’s very competitive and they are also getting good reports about the other places.”
“So what do you suggest I do?”
“I don’t really understand your line of work, but I’m sure you know how you can impress her more. Think about something major, maybe promote her or something.”
“I see…” Elka said thoughtfully.
“I think that the fact that I got this information is a miracle for you, Elka’le. You should utilize it to your benefit.”
Elka took a deep breath. Then she scratched at her snood. “Right,” she said slowly. “But it’s getting more complicated. Ummm… Do you know how much apples have gone up in price, Margalit? Here, by us, they cost twelve shekel a kilo! The fruit stores are really going over the top this time.”
“Apples,” her older sister echoed with commendable patience. “Nu?”
“The only reassurance I have is that they probably won’t raise prices anymore after this. It can’t go up more than it has already. How high will they go? I’m telling you—you can’t take more than this.”
“Well, regarding the apples, I hope you won’t be disappointed to discover one day that it’s possible for the stores to charge fifteen shekel a kilo, too,” Margalit answered placidly. “And as for what you’re hinting at—there’s always more that can be done.”
“There isn’t, except for being very nice.”
“Oh, for sure you need to continue being ultra nice to her—on that point I trust you one hundred percent! But I think you should also consider giving her a promotion, or some kind of important project. You’ll please her with that. Give her reasons to give good recommendations about your community center!”
“I don’t think there is.”
“You don’t think there is what? Reasons for her to give good recommendations?”
“No,” Elka said cautiously. “More to give her.”
“Why can’t you give her a promotion? Has your manager been working full-time lately? It doesn’t sound like it, poor thing. I think you should explain to your manager nicely that you are releasing her for a short vacation so she can focus on the technical arrangements relating to her husband. And then—give Noa her job.”
Shimon and Nachman walked out of the beis midrash at the end of night seder. As usual, they had all recited two perakim of Tehillim for the release and rescue of Shlomo ben Dina, but it was hard to say that the tefillos were recited with the same stormy fervor and pain that they had been said with two and three months before. Somehow, most of the bachurim had just become inured to the situation, regretful as it was.
“It’s terrible,” Shimon said. “I can’t imagine Reb Shlomo sitting in prison. He’s so…alive, vibrant, energetic. Can you imagine what he is going through?”
“They say that lots of bribes have changed hands and through protektzia he is under reasonable conditions,” Nachman hastened to point out.
“Sure, reasonable. As reasonable as can be in a Russian prison.”
“I didn’t say things are easy for him. But I hope he’s managing to keep himself together somehow. He’s such a special guy, so pleasant, always taking an interest in everyone…”
“Yes, and that’s why I can’t figure out how such a person could fall into the mud like this.”
Nachman felt an inexplicable urge to come to Shlomo’s defense. “What do you want? They pulled a fast one on him without him realizing it. He couldn’t have known that the donors he was going to meet were Mafiosos.”
“A person needs to verify things before he just believes stories…” Shimon said, and Nachman didn’t like the conceited tone. “Did you see his father, Reb Ezriel? He came home two days ago, and I heard he’ll be flying back in a few more days.”
“Yes. I hope that the way he looks isn’t connected to this situation. Because he looks awful.”
“The situation is pretty awful,” Shimon said knowingly. “They say not less than thirty years. I have no idea what exactly is in the case against him, or what was in the bag they gave him, but I heard Bravinik say that those documents could put a person in prison until the end of his life.”
Dreadful, absolutely dreadful, Nachman thought. But why do you sound so excited to talk about it? Because it’s juicy, hot news? “I hope it’s not quite so bad,” Nachman said carefully.
“I’m telling you it is! Bravinik was very clear about that!”
“It seems to me that the worse the situation will be, the more enthusiastic you will be about it.” Nachman turned toward the dormitory. “Other people’s troubles are never supposed to become fodder for our desire for action, even if the news is very juicy. In any case, how did a wise friend of mine put it just five seconds ago? A person needs to verify things before he just believes stories…”
Chaiky neared the house; from afar she could see her children waiting for her at the gate, waving enthusiastically. She’d actually wanted to come home early today, but Elka had held her up a bit. It would have been one thing if the conversation would have been a pleasant one; she could have tolerated it. But today, Elka was singing a different tune. First of all, the expected visit by municipal officials. Well, Chaiky wasn’t afraid of them. Despite everything that was going on in her life, the center was running perfectly. But—
“I hear that you’re not really using the computer that I gave you two years ago, Chaiky, and I see it for myself, too, truth be told. You haven’t sent any material into the office from home recently, have you? You do all the office work only here. So it’s a good idea for you to bring the computer back, because Noa’s really complaining about the old computer in the library, and I want to try and give her that one.”
“And Miri’s computer?” Chaiky had asked coldly. “That isn’t old?”
“It’s actually fine. And I don’t have money right now to buy new computers.”
Actually, to Chaiky it seemed that the computer in the library and the one at the front desk were more or less the same age, but if they would be improving something, it would be for Noa. Of course.
But she had no one to blame but herself. She should have known that she couldn’t say an extra word in front of Noa. Even casual inquires about her home computer and her reply ended up with this, even though throughout the conversation yesterday she had not mentioned that the computer that she had at home happened to belong to the community center. Apparently Noa had quickly repeated the conversation to Elka, and Elka had woken up.
Chaiky didn’t really need the computer right now—it was true. And, after all, it wasn’t hers. Really, it was ironic that she was even annoyed about giving it up. But all the correspondence she had done for Shlomo over the years was in the Outlook on that computer. So it was true that she could save the letters somewhere else, and she could cancel the email account, but it was just annoying. People still sent messages for Shlomo here and there; what would happen to them now? What would happen if, for example, someone wanted to share some important information? Would that person’s email bounce back to him?
She knew full well that this was all nonsense. There were lots of ways to reach people and convey important messages if necessary. What angered her here was the story with Noa and Elka. For two years, the computer had been in her house. Elka had given it to her so that she could sometimes work on it at home, and she had given Chaiky explicit permission to use it for personal matters as well. Until now, it appeared that no one needed it; it seemed no one even remembered that it existed.
Until Noa came along.
So the computer wasn’t hers, and neither was the community center. Even though she was the manager of it, she was just Elka’s employee, and she could not forget that.
Although lately, there were enough people making sure she did not forget that…
After lunch, Chaiky’s head ached so much that, as much as she didn’t like doing it, she asked her children to keep themselves busy “until Ima gets up, even if it’s in two hours.” She took a Tylenol and went to rest.
Two and a half hours later, she awoke with a start, panicked. It was totally dark outside, which meant that the time when she usually served the children supper had long passed.
She found Naomi and Dovi in their room, with only a lamp on, playing with Clics and speaking quietly. They raised their eyes when she walked in—was she just imagining it, or were their eyes reflecting hunger and neglect?
“What’s doing, my sweethearts?” she asked, and switched on the main light in the room. “Why are you playing in the dark?”
“Because it’s a surprise!” they both shouted, and stood up in front of her. They were both wearing pajamas, their beds were ready for them to get into (she noticed that Dovi’s sheet was inside out, but didn’t say anything), and aside for the Clics, which were only in one corner of the room, there was no sign of the big mess that had reigned there yesterday.
“And we also ate supper already!” Naomi declared proudly, grasping her hand. Chaiky was a bit apprehensive about what awaited her in the kitchen, but she let her daughter lead her there. The table was clean, and so was the floor, and it looked like someone had tried to straighten the messy pile of papers on the counter into an organized stack. The two sinks were full of dishes.
“It’s because you don’t like it when I wash dishes,” Naomi said, following her mother’s gaze. “So I just rinsed the two knives I had used to spread tuna for me and butter for Dovi. And that’s it. And he poured us milk in plastic cups and didn’t spill even a drop!”
“You are so darling and wonderful,” Chaiky said, stroking their cheeks. “Ima’s tzaddik and tzaddekes.”
“So tell him, okay?”
“Who?” She looked at Naomi and then at Dovi.
“Tell him that now we were good.”
“Who should I tell, sweetie?”
Naomi smiled abashedly; she looked like she was having trouble uttering the word.
“Abba?” Chaiky tried to help her. Were the children afraid to mention him for some reason? Were they embarrassed? Had one of their friends said something? That wasn’t good.
“No,” Dovi said, raising his eyes to her. “Not Abba. Tell Hashem!”
“Yes.” He lowered his eyes again. “Because yesterday…you told Him that we were making a big mess.”
“I told Hashem that?”
The children nodded in unison, and Chaiky looked from one to the other.
Then she sat down heavily in the nearest chair.
Yesterday afternoon, she’d had some energy and she’d cleaned up the kitchen properly, deciding not to wait for Sebelia to do it. When she’d finished, she’d been rather pleased with the results. But then she’d gone into the children’s room—and she’d recoiled. It looked like they’d done everything possible to turn the room upside down. Every teddy bear, doll, and board game was piled on the floor, all mixed together. The children were sitting on the bed cutting up paper.
“Oy, Hashem!” she’d exclaimed when she’d seen the utter chaos. “What happened to you kids? What did you do here? Why did you make such a horrible mess?” They’d tried to explain the game about forests and bandits and the Jew that was rescued, but she had no patience and had cut them off, telling them to quickly clean up or she’d get very angry. They’d pushed the games and toys around from here to there, picked up some paper money they’d cut out for the poor Jew, and returned the two bandits—or stuffed bears, in this case—to the closet. By the time they went to sleep, the floor looked decent. And today, it seemed, they’d decided to right their wrongs…
So that was what Dovi meant when he said she’d told Hashem that they’d made a big mess?
Dovi looked at her. “Abba told me once,” he said, “that just like I tell him when…it doesn’t matter who, it’s lashon hara—hits me, I need to also tell him when everything is good and we’re friends. So tell Hashem also when we’re good and you’re happy, okay? Don’t only tell Him when you’re sad.”
Don’t only tell Him when you’re sad.
Her innocent child’s words pierced her like an arrow. Of course, she was a Torah-observant Jewish woman, tzniusdig and righteous, and scrupulous about halachah. She davened twice a day and made brachos. But when had she really, truly—when she was happy, as Dovi said—actually spoken to Hashem?