Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 13 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.
“You didn’t finish your compote, Rachel,” Elsie said.
Rachel wrinkled her nose. “Compote is such a hospital word,” she said. “In the dorm we don’t usually have dessert at the Friday evening meal. Anyone who wants can take cookies from the tea room, but they are the exact same cookies that we have on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wedne—”
“I got it, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday,” Elsie said patiently. “It’s really a shame that you have that all week. It’s just not healthy. So you don’t want to eat your compote?”
“No,” Rachel said. “If it would be the apples that you cook, that would be one thing, but this is just plain pineapples from a can.”
“If I would have known you were coming, I would have prepared apple compote for you, but I didn’t know you’d be here.”
“Don’t tell me the dorm mother didn’t call you.”
“She called, but on Thursday afternoon I don’t go shopping anymore. You know which hours I’m on shift, don’t you?”
They finished eating their meal in Elsie’s small room. “Do you want to talk about it now, or tomorrow, or only after Shabbos?” Elsie picked up a bentcher.
“I don’t want to talk about it at all,” Rachel grumbled.
“Excellent, because I don’t have a lot of time now. I have to sleep a bit before the shift change at eleven. Do you want to take a peek at Sarit and the others for me before we get ready for bed?”
“Wait, where are you running? Don’t they teach you to say Birchas Hamazon in your school in Tel Aviv?”
“They teach us, but you know, sometimes I forget, and then they don’t even say anything.” Rachel took the bentcher Elsie had placed on the table, tracing the gold stamped letters on the front with her fingers. “The teachers aren’t as religious as you, Elsie. Just a bit… It’s like…sort of…”
“And your friends?”
“Each one is something else.” Rachel glanced at a picture on the wall. It was her at age three, in the large crib, with Elsie standing beside her. It was the same bed that was still in the next room. Her crossed eyes were very obvious, much more than they were today, but she was smiling sweetly and looking at the woman next to her, and Elsie was laughing at her. “I’m definitely the most religious of all of them there. They didn’t grow up with you. What can we do…?” Her voice trailed off, and she began to bentch.
“I’m going to kiss Sarit,” she said when she finished.
“Good. But don’t wake her up. Take your nightgown with you and get ready for bed. I’ll prepare the mattress for you in the meantime.”
“Thanks.” Rachel dashed out of the room.
Elsie moved the table aside in an effort to make some space in the little room. They could have eaten in the kitchen or the dining area on the ward, but she tried to give Rachel a familial feeling. The girl had spent most of her life eating in communal dining rooms, so on the rare occasions that she came to Elsie for the weekend, Elsie tried to conduct a normal Shabbos meal with just the two of them.
She opened the closet and took out the set of linen that Rachel liked. When had Elsie given it to her as a gift? After the operation when she was six. Rachel had been leafing through the pages of a children’s magazine and noticed a photo of a furnished children’s room. She’d gazed longingly at the bed. “I never had such a blanket, with a big bear on it like that,” she’d said sadly. “Right? Only hospital sheets all the time.”
That day, after her shift, Elsie had gone to a nearby store and splurged on a cute set of linen. It didn’t have a big bear on it, but it did have shiny hearts with big smiles appearing to frolic in the ocean’s waves. The little girl’s eyes had lit up when she saw the gift the next day, and even after she recovered from the surgery and went back to the routine of being passed from one foster family to another, she’d taken it with her everywhere. Only at age nine, when she’d moved permanently into the dormitory of the boarding school in Tel Aviv, did she decide that it was too babyish and that it was better to leave it in the hospital, in Elsie’s closet.
“I’ll be coming here a lot more often now, anyway,” she’d said, “so take care of it for me, okay?”
But why wasn’t she coming now? How much time did it take to give Sarit a goodnight kiss?
Finally, Rachel appeared in the doorway.
“Rachel, what took so long? Did you go sew the nightgown or something?”
“No,” the girl said, giggling. “It’s Shabbos, Elsie, remember? But I met a mother with her son on the ward. They were sent up from the emergency room because he has a fracture of the skull. She looks very scared, so I just wanted to come tell you that I’m helping her with him, okay?”
They had given Dovi a painkiller, but the trauma, confusion, and fear, along with the strange place, didn’t let him fall asleep. Chaiky sat on the blue armchair near his bed, humming quietly, hoping that they wouldn’t be disturbed anymore.
But just a minute later, the yellow curtain was tugged aside once again and that girl from before burst inside. “I have a book for Dovi!” she said cheerfully. “It was mine when I was little. Do you want it, Dovi?”
“You were in an accident?” Dovi asked in response. “Is that why you walk that way?”
“Wow, you can talk!” the girl marveled. “How old are you?”
“Six and a half. Were you in an accident?”
Chaiky swallowed and tried to think if the jet plane painted on the curtain would interest Dovi now. But the wheels in her tired brain were moving very slowly, and by comparison the two children were talking at the speed of an express train.
“No. I was born like this.”
“What, you were born with a bent-over back and those eyes and a limp?” The boy had sharp eyes. “Poor you. So why don’t you daven that it should get better?”
“Who told you I don’t daven?” She drew closer with the book, and Chaiky quickly took it from her hands.
“Thanks, Rachel,” she said, and opened the drawer of the white night table. “Dovi needs to sleep now, but I appreciate you thinking of us.”
“You’re welcome. But don’t forget to give it back to me tomorrow, okay?”
“No problem.” We’ll do it as fast as we can.
Rachel looked at the blue chair. “Do you want to sleep?” she asked. “Because you can lean this armchair back. You’re allowed to do it on Shabbos. It’s not electric.”
“Yes, the nurse showed me how to do it.”
“Oh, but she’s an Arab; she didn’t know to tell you about Shabbos.”
“Thanks for telling me.” Chaiky smiled again, even though her facial muscles felt stiff from exhaustion. “After Dovi falls asleep, I’ll make it comfortable and try to get some sleep myself.” What time was it? Nine-ten. What would she be doing at home at this time? Once, the answer was simple: she rested on the couch with a book she’d taken from the library, until she fell asleep with it.
But she hadn’t been reading much lately. She had no patience to read, especially because in order to read, she needed a book. And for that she needed to go to the library. And in the library she’d need to tell Noa what she was taking and what she was returning. In short—no thanks. So Friday nights these days, she usually just wandered around the house, checking on a sleeping Naomi and Dovi again and again, reading the newspaper’s Shabbos supplement if she found something there that interested her, going to make sure that the door was locked, and eventually, falling asleep somehow.
“So if you need something, and you don’t want to ask the nurses, don’t be ashamed to wake me up. You make a right at the nurses’ station, and there’s a little hallway. At the end there’s a door that says ‘staff only’ on it, but you can come in. If it’s before a quarter to eleven, try to be very quiet so you don’t wake Elsie. After eleven, she’s already on shift.”
Chaiky closed the drawer of the little night table. “I don’t understand,” she said. “You sleep in the staff room? Why aren’t you in a regular room?”
“Because I’m not hospitalized.” Rachel smiled forgivingly. “I’m just a guest here.”
“Oh.” Chaiky wasn’t any smarter.
“So, good night. Feel good, Dovi, sweetie.”
The boy smiled, his eyelids heavy. He finally seemed on the verge of drifting off to sleep.
Four minutes later, during which Chaiky sat silently and rubbed the back of his hand, he was actually asleep. The bruise was bandaged, his tears a distant memory, but Chaiky discovered a drop of dried blood on his chin. She tried to wipe it gently, but when she saw him shift in his sleep, she abandoned the idea. It didn’t seem to be bothering him; his mother, who didn’t like the sight of blood, would simply have to overcome her aversion. She would close her eyes and try her best to relax. After all, it had been a very difficu—
The curtain was pulled aside again. Gently, this time.
“Excuse me.” Rachel’s smiling face peeked through the slit. “I just wanted to ask—did you eat already?”
“Yes, dear. They gave us cake in the emergency room,” Chaiky whispered.
“Oh, the volunteers from Refuah Sheleimah? But they usually give out all the food for the seudah; they didn’t give you that?”
“They did.” Chaiky glanced over at Dovi. “I just didn’t want to eat.”
“And you’re full?”
“But how, if you hardly ate anything?”
“Because I had time to eat before he fell.” Chaiky suppressed a sigh.
“Oh, at home?”
“No,” she heard Dovi’s clear voice. “In my grandparents’ house. That’s where I fell.”
“Hey, you’re not sleeping yet?” Rachel asked in surprise. “It’s very late for a boy your age!”
“Right!” Chaiky said with commendable patience. “H really does need to be sleeping already. Good night, Rachel.”,
“Good night.” And the curtain closed once more.
A minute later it moved again. The nurse had come to take Dovi’s pulse and blood pressure.
This time, it took ten whole minutes for Dovi to fall back asleep. Chaiky sat and hummed until she felt her voice losing steam, like a tape recorder whose batteries were beginning to die. “Good night, Dovi,” she whispered to him and to herself.
When would the hospital release them? She hoped the staff would take their observance into consideration and wouldn’t do it on Shabbos. Did they understand here that she didn’t want them to desecrate Shabbos because of them, and fill out and sign needless forms? She wouldn’t be going home until Motza’ei Shabbos anyway.
Chaiky’s thoughts became fuzzy, and she felt like she was observing them from the side, through the webs of sleep that were slowly enveloping her. What was with Naomi? She didn’t have a nightgown at her grandparents’ house, because the plan had been to go home to sleep. But Chaiky’s mother-in-law had closets full of things, and whatever was needed was usually found easily in those closets—from newborn-sized stretchies that had belonged to Shlomo, to women’s robes of all kinds. It was all very organized and clearly marked, just like Shlomo’s trip had been so carefully planned and organized, so why was she worrying? They would find pajamas for Naomi. And if—
The curtain moved yet again.
And it was Rachel.
“Can I come in?” she asked as she slipped inside.
Chaiky made a supreme effort to smile, and pointed to Dovi, who was sleeping. For now.
“I brought you some water and cups,” Rachel whispered. “Anyone who isn’t familiar with this ward might get lost looking for the water machine. And if you’ll get thirsty in middle of the night…”
“Thank you very much, really,” Chaiky murmured. Who was this girl? What was she doing here in the middle of the night? And where had she gotten such a huge dose of peskiness? “Aren’t you tired, Rachel?”
“I’m tired, but I never sleep when I’m here. Whatever, it doesn’t matter. Good night.”
Rachel placed the bottle of water and the cups on the night table and disappeared once again.
Now the webs of sleepiness were much further away, and Chaiky had trouble achieving that state of relaxation again. She changed positions three times, but couldn’t get comfortable. In the end she decided that she must be thirsty. With a sigh, she opened the bottle of water and filled up a cup. If she was only up now because of this water, she should at least drink some of it.
From the corridor she heard the noise of metal wheels squealing down the polished floor, until they suddenly stopped. Low voices could be heard, followed by brisk footsteps. “Room 620,” an authoritative voice said. “There are two empty beds there. Rachel, what are you doing here now?”
A murmured response.
Someone pulled the curtain aside again. It was a nurse with sparse gray hair. Her expression was inscrutable as she checked the small paper tag at the end of the bed. “Dov Struk,” she read, and raised her eyes. “Are you his mother?”
“Yes,” Chaiky replied.
“I see,” she said and stared at her for another long moment, before turning her head. “Carefully,” she said to someone. “People are sleeping here.” Again, the wheels of a stretcher being rolled into a room squeaked. A moment later, the nurse came back to Chaiky. “How does he feel?”
“I think okay,” Chaiky replied. “They took his blood pressure before and said it was fine.”
“We’ll take it again soon,” the nurse said. “In the meantime we’ll let him rest.” She closed the curtain.
Chaiky went back to listening to the noise filling the corridor outside. Someone cried quietly, and another person offered water. Then someone giggled, a nurse said something, someone asked for a cookie, there were more cries, and then soft laughter. Hushed voices spoke, a cell phone (Shabbos!) rang, some talking, and then quiet.
And then there were footsteps entering the room, and “their” curtain was pulled aside for the umpteenth time. It was the girl again, and Chaiky immediately closed her eyes. Perhaps if Rachel would see that both Dovi and his mother were sleeping, she’d just go away?
In the past, Chaiky had read descriptions of how “even without seeing, he felt eyes scrutinizing him.” She had never understood what that meant. How could someone :feel a person’s eyes on him, without seeing it? And it was safe to assume that in recent months, more than one pair of eyes had been fixed on her—and she hadn’t felt it. Now, however, although her eyes were closed, there was no question in her mind that the girl was standing at the slit between the curtain and the wall, gazing at her. Yes, she felt it! And then she heard breathing and footsteps coming closer.
Chaiky continued to keep her eyes closed, wondering if Rachel wanted the book she’d given Dovi, or if she just wanted to put something on the night table. She had just better not be waking Dovi up! Chaiky was about to open her eyes to make sure that wasn’t happening, when it started.
Quiet, heaving sobs. Chaiky’s folded arms froze in place. She slowly opened her eyes a crack and then closed them again. Yes, it was Rachel. She recognized the pink slippers by now.
“But why…?” the girl wept in a whisper. “Why??”
Chaiky felt almost cruel to be sitting motionless, with her eyes closed, beside someone so despondent, but she felt it would be even crueler to show Rachel that she was awake and hearing everything…