Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 11 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.
“Hey, there’s someone new!” Rachel said in surprise and hurried over to the baby’s crib. She put down her large bag on the floor, skirted the intravenous pole, and leaned over the high railing, peering into the crib. “He’s cute…” she said thoughtfully. “What does he have, Elsie?”
“A serious heart problem,” Elsie the nurse said from behind a tower of folded sheets. “It’s affecting his entire development. Please open this cabinet, Rachel.”
The fourteen-year-old raised her eyes. “Is his life in danger?”
“Not at this moment—otherwise he’d be in intensive care, not here. He’s recovering from his second surgery, and we are praying that he grow up to be healthy.”
“A second surgery! Poor thing… How old is he?”
“And when he gets healthy, where will he go?”
“We’ll see,” Elsie said. “But Rachel, if you’ve already come for Shabbos, I prefer you help me with Sarit. She’s bigger and needs your attention. She actually just ran out into the hallway, and I can’t run after her all day. This little one, on the other hand, rests quietly, and I’m not sure that he even realizes what is going on around him—who is with him and who isn’t.”
Rachel gazed into the crib at the baby who lay there with closed eyes, unresponsive to her stroking. “He’s not so little,” she said quietly. “And I’m worried. When you send me from one baby to another, it’s usually because you don’t want me to get too connected to that baby, because then my heart will break if something happens to him, chalilah.”
“If you understand so many things,” Elsie replied sharply, “then I expect you to understand the simple instruction that I gave you nearly fifty seconds ago and open this cabinet for me. My hands hurt.”
“Oh, I’m really sorry.” The girl hastened to the cabinet. A moment after she opened it, a two-and-a-half-year-old girl entered the room. She hurried over to Rachel, babbling incoherently, and Rachel picked her up and hugged her tightly. “Right we love each other, Sarit?” The little girl gurgled.
“I saw another baby with Down’s syndrome in the ward as I came here,” Rachel remarked as she sat down. “But she had parents. They are really chareidi. Is it true that chareidim will never leave their babies in the hospital?”
“Too bad I’m not your daughter,” Rachel said from her chair. “Then I would be able to say that my name is Rachel after my real grandmother, and not for the ‘mother of the nurse in the pediatric ward who raised me from when I was born.’ Right?”
“You know that I love you anyway,” Elsie said, glancing into the girl’s eyes.
“And if you were my mother, you for sure wouldn’t have left me in the hospital, right? First of all, because you’re also very religious.”
“Okay, I think that’s enough talking for now, Rachel.” Elsie loved the girl she had raised, but she liked her direct topics of conversation less. “Now come to the kitchen so we can get some supper together.”
“How did you know that I was on supper duty in the dorm this month?” Rachel cried excitedly. “You have no idea what yummy things I made! The girls celebrated every evening. And don’t think I had any special ingredients to work with. The housemother said that the school is really in debt and can’t afford anything too major. So we only had hummus and tomatoes and eggs and all the other simplest things to use, but still, I helped the cook make the most delicious meals. She said that now she can relax, because even if she doesn’t feel well one day or something, I’ll be able to take her place. But I told her I hope she feels well every day, because I didn’t always manage with the peeling and all that.” Her voice grew a bit sad. “My paralyzed hand can get pretty annoying sometimes.”
“One thing is for sure, and that is that your mouth is not paralyzed, thank G-d,” Elsie said. “Let’s go, Rachel. Now that you’ve come, help me and we’ll see what you can do. You’ve really grown up, my girl.”
“I want to try to invite Chaiky for Shabbos.” Dina Struk was determined, and that determination was uncharacteristic for her.
“Do what you want,” her husband said. Since returning from Russia at the beginning of the week, he was still unable to get back to himself. His son was sitting in prison, his future uncertain, so why should he care too much about the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship? He knew that it was very important to help his son’s family—that was for sure. But the subtle nuances that were now bothering his wife just did not penetrate into his conscience. “Do what you want,” he repeated wearily.
“I know she’s angry at us. And at the yeshivah.”
“And perhaps she is right.”
“What?” Dina switched off the vacuum cleaner. Maybe the noise had distorted her husband’s response.
“Maybe she is right.” Now, in the silence, the response was clear. Dina sighed and went back to cleaning the groove of the window frame. She had a guilty conscience about the subject, but she didn’t realize that her husband also felt some blame. “What is she perhaps right about?”
“It was irresponsible on my part, as the director of the yeshivah, to send a young man to Russia, even if he is my son and I know him as someone with a head on his shoulders.”
“And I think that already before he left, Chaiky really didn’t want him to go.”
Reb Ezriel nodded. “I made a mistake,” he said with a deep sigh. “Who would have believed that they would trap him like this? He told me, all excited, about the donor who had contacted him. How didn’t I realize that the whole thing was strange? Since when does a potential donor call a meshulach? In ninety-nine percent of the cases, it’s the opposite.”
“And you thought that this fell into that one remaining percent,” Dina said quietly. “Don’t blame yourself too much, Ezriel. It’s…we see that this is the hand of Hashem. There is no other way to describe it.”
“Right,” he said in a low voice that was almost drowned out by the squeak of the shutters being lowered. “So what did you say? You’re inviting them for Shabbos?”
“Yes.” Dina was happy that he was able to return to the subject that the conversation had started with, and was not completely wallowing in the swamp of his self-blame. “When this whole mess began, she didn’t call me at all. And after those first few days, when the panic lessened somewhat, I realized that she was also answering my calls very coldly. When I invited her for Shabbos, she said they preferred to stay home. At one point, she told Menachem’s Goldie that she is very resentful and prefers not to come to us. So I stopped calling.”
“Very resentful.” Reb Ezriel played with a little ceramic house, one of the knick-knacks on the shelf in the dining room. It had light snowflakes on it, very different from the snow in Russia, which was gray, heavy, and depressing. “And were you angry about that?”
“Yes,” his wife replied quietly. “I didn’t like it that in such times, instead of being a team and getting through these difficult days together, she was busy with petty complaints about who sent him and why he listened to us and not her. After all,” she took a deep breath, “she’s his wife, that’s true, and I realized that it is very hard for her. But I’m his mother!”
How fortunate it was that there were vacuum cleaners in the world. They could be switched on at just the right second to drown out sobs. No, Ezriel didn’t need to hear his wife crying now. He was having enough of a hard time as it was.
The grooves were clean already, but she went over them again with a q-tip and a Fantastik-soaked rag. Only when she felt that her voice was calm and stable again did she turn around. He was still standing there, in the same position, playing with the small ceramic house.
“Now I feel that we can’t just let it continue like this. I was wrong for coming to terms so quickly with her withdrawal into herself. Her parents are far away, and she’s alone here with the children. She doesn’t want to go to Menachem and Goldie either. Why do she and the children have to be alone each week for Shabbos? The kids are so little, and their father is so far away… I think that I have to try and invite them again.”
“On one condition,” her husband said, finally putting the little house down in its place on the shelf. “That if she refuses—you don’t take it to heart.”
Chaiky sat down near the bags that she had just put on the floor of the kitchen and wondered tiredly if she’d really intended to cook all of this now. Baruch Hashem she’d had enough energy to go shopping, and baruch Hashem she had money for all these things; but the fresh chicken, the ground fish mixture, the vegetables, and all the other ingredients that were supposed to be turned into Shabbos food in the coming hours—they all suddenly peeked out of the bags at her threateningly, and made her feel stressed out. Why hadn’t she started last night? Why did she leave the shopping, and then all the cooking, for Friday morning? What morning—it was already a quarter to twelve! In twenty-five minutes, half hour at most, the children would be home. And she had so much to do besides the cooking!
She wished someone would invite her for Shabbos.
But there was nobody to invite her, certainly not on Friday at this hour. Menachem and Goldie had stopped trying. Her mother-in-law certainly wouldn’t do it. Her parents had called yesterday, as they did every week, and she had gently refused, as she did every week. Yoel and Shifra never invited her; they didn’t even try. She and Shomo had actually hosted Yoel and Shifra several times in the past, but there was an unwritten agreement between them that while Shlomo and Chaiky would gladly invite the couple from Haifa, the reverse was not a viable option. So there was no one to invite her now for Shabbos. If she wanted to go anywhere, she’d have to invite herself and her children.
After the wave of energy that had galvanized her to go out this morning to shop extensively, Chaiky now felt totally depleted. She just sat and gazed at the shopping bags, thinking about the fish that was slowly defrosting and shedding tears of melted ice. Hashem, please, let someone invite me for Shabbos!
The phone rang.
“Chaiky?” It was Shlomo’s mother.
Shlomo’s mother! How long had it been since they’d last spoken, since she’d sent that message with Goldie? Three months? Less? More?
“Oh, yes, hi…”
“How are you, Chaiky?” She didn’t sound very natural, either. Well, there really was no point in pretending that they’d spoken just the day before yesterday for at least half an hour of convivial chatting. The reality was what it was.
“Baruch Hashem. Uh…how are you?”
“Fine, baruch Hashem. Trying to be strong and have faith in Hashem… You know, Abba just came back from Russia, and he’s planning to go back in another week.”
“Yes, I’m up to date,” she answered in a weak voice.
“Do you…ever get regards from Shlomo?”
“Indirectly. Two weeks after he was imprisoned, we spoke briefly by phone, and about two weeks ago, I got a fax from him. That’s it.”
A moment of uneasy silence followed.
“And how are the children?”
“Baruch Hashem, sweet as always…” So why was she calling? To sniff around as to how her daughter-in-law was managing, or not? Thanks.
“Yes, they really are sweet.” Another awkward pause. “It’s been a long time since we saw them.” Another second of silence. “And you…”
“Yes, true…” Chaiky murmured.
“Would you…would you want to come to us for the meals on Shabbos? We’d be so happy to have you.”
Chaiky looked at the bags still on the floor where she’d dumped them ten minutes earlier. The truth was that no, she had no desire to be a guest at her in-laws’ table for Shabbos. She couldn’t imagine how she would sit by the table with just the children, without Shlomo there.
But his mother had done it—she had taken the step and called.
And just a few seconds earlier, she, Chaiky, had pleaded with Hashem to send someone to invite her for Shabbos.
And He had done just that.
Was it nice now to refuse this invitation? When things were hard for her, she knew how to ask for help. And when things were doing more or less okay? So even if it wasn’t the most comfortable thing in the world for her, and she wasn’t excited about the idea, how could she refuse the woman who was waiting silently and patiently on the other end of the line?
“I…I think so,” she said, and then, with the sense of “If I’m doing this already, I may as well do it graciously,” she continued, with effort, “The truth is that it would really be a big help for me, because just now I realized that I really have no energy to start cooking.”
“You work too hard,” Shlomo’s mother said admiringly. “And we’ll be very happy if you come.”