Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 17 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.
“Miri, do you have paper clips?” Elka was in a big hurry. “No, not those small colorful ones—the big metal ones. Do you have any?”
Miri opened another drawer, her lips pursed. “No,” she said a moment later. “This is all I have.”
“Are you angry at me, Miri?”
Miri looked up in surprise. “I…” she stammered. “No. I mean… Maybe Chaiky has what to be angry about. I was always just a secretary.”
“You were never ‘just’ a secretary,” Elka vouched warmly. “You are a very special and dedicated worker, Miri, and I’ve told you that more than once. And Chaiky? Chaiky has no reason to be angry at me.”
“There’s no reason. I’m assuming this would be because of Noa coming to work here, right? Well, Noa is a very special girl, and I don’t know how much you appreciate her sacrifices and the steps she has taken, and that she is still taking…” She hesitated for a moment. “And without speaking lashon hara, Chaiky is not functioning at her full capacity right now, so it’s very convenient for me that Noa is around.” She looked toward Chaiky’s small office. Today it was locked. Chaiky wasn’t in there and neither was Noa, whom Elka often asked to “take care of a few things in the system” and “to make a few phone calls that Miri doesn’t have time for.”
“And you should know that Noa is actually very considerate.” Elka didn’t look directly at Miri, but rather at a small flowering plant on her desk. “For example, I never thought that maybe it bothers Chaiky that when she’s not around people go into the room that ostensibly belongs to her. But this morning Noa told me that she prefers not to do it anymore, because it might cause tension between her and Chaiky. She has the new computer in the library now anyway, so she can work on that from now on.”
Miri nodded noncommittally. She didn’t know why, but Noa’s “kind consideration” didn’t quite impress her.
“In any case, Miri, once we’re on the topic of Chaiky, do you know of a woman who’s looking for a place to board? They’re trying to find someone to live with Chaiky. The situation there is pretty complicated… One minute, that’s my phone. Hello, Noa’le?” she spoke into her cell phone. “Yes, I’ll be right back with you. No, she doesn’t have the paper clips you want. Should I go buy you some? No? You’ll manage? Fine. So do you hear, Miri? Someone who would be shayach to living with Chaiky. If you think of someone, tell me, alright? And ask your parents, too—maybe they know someone.”
She coughed suddenly and then fell silent. “What?!” she said into her phone and then listened for a long moment—too long.
“You?! You think that makes sense?” she asked, sounding totally confused. “Umm, we’ll speak in a few minutes. I’ll come to the library. So, Miri, you don’t have those simple big paper clips? Okay, no. I’m coming, Noa.” She finished the call and remained fixed in her place for a few seconds.
Miri continued to busy herself with her work, and only looked at Elka out of the corner of her eye. Elka was rubbing a hand on her forehead and muttering nervously something that sounded to Miri like, “Really, now!”
At the nurses’ station in Pediatrics, there wasn’t a moment of quiet. Doctors passed by, giving instructions and comments; parents or children came and asked for things. “And here comes Rachel to cheer us up. How are you, sweetie?” Olga asked as the girl approached.
“Rachel?!” Elsie, bent over a drawer, stood up, eyebrows raised. It was one thing when Rachel came for Shabbos when she wasn’t supposed to, but when she suddenly appeared the following Wednesday, unannounced…
“I had a fight with Ilana, and I really just had enough of it,” the girl said placidly, putting down her backpack under the desk. “So I decided to take a vacation for a week or two.”
“Really. A girl in ninth grade can’t just decide to take a vacation in the middle of the year like that!”
“Sometimes she can,” Rachel said. “How can I help you, Elsie? Do you think they need me in the kitchen?”
“If you would know how to get along with your friends the way you know how to avoid talking about things you don’t want to, it would be wonderful. The kitchen is locked now, but it won’t do any harm to make some order over here. This backpack, for example, does not belong here.”
“Fine, I’ll take it away. What else? Should I make you some tea?”
“It would be good if you’d sort the mess in these drawers a bit. Don’t throw any papers out, even if something looks old or not important.”
“Okay. Hey, what are those earrings?”
“You can close that drawer; it’s the lost and found.”
“But I know whose they are! They belong to that Struk lady, Dovi’s mother!” Rachel slammed the drawer closed with sparkling eyes. “We have to tell her they are here. Do you let me call her?”
The call caught Chaiky just as she was braiding an excited Naomi’s hair. “Naomi, this is the last time,” she told the wriggling little girl. She undid the braid. “Do you want a braid for the siyum? If yes, please stand still. You don’t want a crooked braid, do you?”
“No way!” Naomi shook her head. She was beyond thrilled. Savta Brodsky had come all the way from Be’er Sheva to Yokne’am for this siyum, and Bubby Struk had called to say that she was leaving in ten minutes, and that Dovi had already arrived at her house and was playing with the twins, and that everything was fine.
“She’s calling again!” Naomi exulted. “Maybe she wants to come now already, Ima! Could it be that grandmothers also don’t have patience?”
Mira Brodsky, sitting on the couch, smiled at Chaiky, who reciprocated with a smile of her own. Due to the circumstances, her mother had offered to make the long trip in for Naomi’s siyum, and Chaiky was happy for her daughter—and for herself. They could all use the boost.
Chaiky answered the ringing phone. “Hello?”
“Is this the Struk family?” a girlish voice asked.
“Yes, it is.”
“You’re Dovi’s mother, right?”
“Right.” Chaiky raised an eyebrow and took a bobby pin off the shelf to pin back a few errant hairs that had evaded Naomi’s braid. “Who is this, please?”
“I’m Rachel—do you remember me from the hospital?”
Chaiky didn’t need even another second. “Sure,” she said. “How are you, Rachel?”
“I’m fine, baruch Hashem. Do you know that you left your earrings here?”
“What? Oh, right, you’re right. I took them off that night in the hospital and forgot about them. How did you know they were mine?”
“I looked at you so much that night when I thought you were my mother, so of course I noticed your earrings. I was actually trying to think if someone had bought them for you as a gift when I was born, but then I decided that people probably don’t buy gifts for new mothers who don’t want their babies, right? In the end, it turned out that you’re not my mother, after all, but it doesn’t matter—I still remember your earrings well. Do you want to give me some signs to identify them, just to be sure?”
Oops, that was a problem. Until that moment, Chaiky had made sure not to mention the word “earrings” in front of her mother, who had bought them for her when Naomi was born. She would not be pleased to hear that her daughter had left them in a drawer in the hospital. “Can we speak a bit later, Rachel?” Chaiky asked carefully as she patted Naomi’s cheek fondly. “I have to get ready now to leave the house.”
“Too bad. I wanted to bring them to you now. The truth is, I don’t even know which bus goes from Haifa to Yokne’am, but maybe you can tell me. So I shouldn’t come now? Do you prefer I come in the evening? Or maybe a different day is better?”
“Don’t trouble yourself. I’ll ask someone to come and get them from you.”
“No, don’t send anyone. I’ll come. And it’s not a bad thing for me to have a little trip. Elsie will be happy not to have me underfoot all the time. When I told her that I’d let you know that we found your earrings, she said I should be careful so you shouldn’t think I’m clinging to you too much, and I wondered if she wasn’t hinting that maybe I’m clinging to her too much. Fine, it doesn’t matter now. So when is a good time for me to come to you?”
If she wanted to so badly… “Tomorrow afternoon, alright? Call me at lunchtime, and I’ll tell you what time is good for me and which bus line will bring you to the stop closest to my house.”
“Great, thanks. I hope you don’t think I’m too much of a nudnik, but the fact that you have the same last name as me makes me feel connected to you, you know what I mean?”
Chaiky took a deep breath and looked at the clock. “Sure I understand, Rachel. Don’t worry about it.”
“You don’t think I’m too much of a nudnik?”
“I think you’re a very nice girl. Let’s finish this conversation now, Rachel, alright? Tizki l’mitzvos. And call me tomorrow.”
“No problem at all,” the girl replied cheerily.
Shlomo’s mother was already at the door. Chaiky left the two mechuteinistes to shake hands warmly, and their granddaughter to frolic around them, while she excused herself and hurried to finish getting ready.
“A siyum for a class in Bais Yaakov!” she heard her mother-in-law exclaim. “It’s so exciting for me! I never had this experience as a mother, because I only had sons…”
Chaiky opened her closet to get her shoes. Yes, the Struk family had Menachem, the oldest; Shlomo, born a year and a half later; and Baruch, who was eighteen. And the twins—eight years younger than Baruch.
Of course there was no connection. The Struks only had sons, no daughters. So why was it that as she cleaned her shoe with a baby wipe, she saw Rachel in front of her eyes? And when she washed her hands, took her wallet, and went out to greet her mother-in-law more properly, she just kept seeing Rachel in her mind’s eye?
It had happened too often already: as soon as he’d descended the four floors from his cell to an interrogation room, he was sent right back up because “it wasn’t his turn yet.” Then, when he returned to his cell, the escorting warden’s radio crackled with an order to go right back down again. And twice, when he reached the interrogation room the second time, he was sent back up because the order had “been given in error.” Right when they got to the cell, the warden received a message that one of the interrogators had suddenly become available.
But today was the first time that Shlomo had gone down, come back up, gone down again, come back up, and gone down yet again—before being sent back to his cell. He was wheezing heavily, and his breath whistled as he sank down onto his wooden chair. Before he’d had time to think about how much four floors time seventeen stairs times six times was, the warden’s radio came to life.
The warden didn’t seem interested in the message; he dropped the ring of keys he was about to use to lock the door and shouted something into the corridor. A younger, smiling warden entered, fresh as a recently plucked flower.
“Hey, Zhid,” he said in English. “We’re going down. You have an interrogation now.”
Shlomo panted. “No, I don’t,” he said hoarsely. “It’s a mistake. They told me three times that I was being interrogated now, and each time I went down for nothing.”
“So pray to your G-d that it’s not for naught now, Zhid,” the young warden said cheerfully.
Shlomo deliberated whether to note that if he fainted, he wouldn’t be able to answer any questions in any case, but then decided to remain silent. “Can I have a cup of water?” he asked and stood up, swaying slightly.
“Yes, of course. Downstairs.” The anti-Semite smiled maliciously as he pushed Shlomo toward the door.
That meant they had what to surprise him with.
And this thought made Shlomo even dizzier, so that he almost fell over. At the last minute he managed to regain his balance and arrived in relatively good condition to his four-hundred-and-seventy-sixth stair for the day.
And that was without the sixty-eight stairs that he had to climb back up—hopefully not in the immediate future.
No, it didn’t happen. He was taken into the room and ordered to sit. This time, he wasn’t made to wait even one minute. The regular translator was there, and at his side was an unfamiliar interrogator. As usual, there was a thick file of papers in front of them on the table.
“So, we’ve already concluded that you received the bag in the street.”
“Yes,” Shlomo replied quietly. Why were they getting back to this point?
“From a motorcycle rider whom you do not know.”
“How did he look?”
“He had a helmet covering most of his face; I only saw his eyes.” These words were all recorded for the protocol already. He had said them twenty times already. Not twenty, a hundred. And they hadn’t asked him about this for a long time already. They had recently been moving along in other directions. What had happened? He had to report this to his lawyers; they had told him to relate any unexpected turn in the direction of the questions.
“Remind me, what were his exact words?”
Shlomo was silent for a moment before responding. “He said, ‘You are the emissary of the yeshivah in Yokne’am?’” Shlomo felt like a broken tape recorder, repeating what he had heard from the motorcycle rider back then and had said so many times since. “‘So this is for you, a gift from a donor.’”
“And the protocol says…” The interrogator, whose name Shlomo did not know, drew the file closer to him and leafed through it slowly, “that you don’t know who this donor is who gave you this gift. You have no idea, huh? Here is your signature.” He pushed the page toward Shlomo and showed him the signature. He had signed it even before he’d met his lawyer, who told him that he shouldn’t write even another letter without the lawyer being present. “They have no right to sign you onto anything,” he’d said, “and in normal countries, you can also maintain your right to remain silent when your lawyer is not present. Here, though, it is preferable that you don’t.”
“Is this your signature, or what?”
“Yes, it is.”
“You signed that you have no idea who the donor is who decided to suddenly contribute diamonds worth an astronomical sum to your yeshivah. Well, then, let me give you something to listen to.”
Shlomo’s knuckles were tense and white, and he gazed at them, noting that the veins were pulsing rhythmically. Silence hung in the room, and then—
”Pleased to make your acquaintance. My name is Rosenberg, and I got your name from friends. I understand that you are coming to Russia to collect money for your institution in Israel, correct?”
“Good, I’m happy to hear it. I live here in Russia. I am also a Jew, and my heart likes to donate to Jewish institutions. I imagine you won’t object, right?”
“Object?” (Uneasy chuckle)
“Right, so I knew you wouldn’t. So when can we meet, Rabbi?
“Whenever you’d like, Rabbi Rosenberg…”
“Oh, I’m not a rabbi at all. Abraham Rosenberg, to you.”
“Thank you, Reb Abraham. The truth is that I am very surprised by your call. I’ve hardly managed to contact anyone in Russia yet…”
“Oh, my Jewish heart is always looking to make contact. So when should we meet, Reb Shlomo?”
The conversation faded out. The interrogator switched off the device and laughed.
“This conversation took place less than forty-eight hours before the motorcycle rider stopped you in the street,” he said. “And you think that we are so foolish so as not to connect the two things?”
Now Shlomo’s whole body began to feel the effect of the hundreds of stairs he’d climbed and descended that day. But when he looked at the interrogator, he tried to keep his gaze steady. “I don’t see any connection between the two,” he said quietly. “And I don’t know why you do. Mr. Rosenberg wanted to meet me, that’s right, and we really met. He is not the motorcycle rider, if that’s what you mean.”
“We know he is not the rider.” The interrogator chuckled. “Rosenberg has enough such people who work for him. But that is what he made up with you, that the motorcycle rider would wait for you in the street two days later, right?”
“No, not at all.”
“No. He told me that he wants to contribute money to the yeshivah.” Shlomo wanted to lean back, but his chair had no back. “We made up to meet for that. If you’ll listen to the rest of the recording, sir, you’ll find that there are no secrets.”
But the interrogator did not have the rest of the conversation; the interaction between Rosenberg and the Zhid was cut off. For some reason, no one on the interrogation team had received the entire recorded conversation.