Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 21 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.
“Immmmaaaa, someone’s knocking!”
“Ask who it is.”
“Who is it? Who is it?! Who is—Ima, she says her name is Rachel!”
No, she had no energy now. She just couldn’t do this. The bit of her old energy that had slowly started returning in recent weeks had all completely dissipated with the phone call from Yoel. She had no idea what exactly was happening in Russia, but it was clear that things were a big mess. Why were they looking for a different lawyer? Why was the other lawyer saying he “could not take on the case after all”? She was angry that things were being kept from her, but she also didn’t want them to tell her. She had no strength for new complications; it was enough already!
“Imaaaaa! Do you know Rachel?”
“Yes, I do.”
“So should I open the door for her?”
“Open the door and tell her that your mother is resting and can’t come right now.” A faint twinge of guilt flashed through Chaiky’s fog of helplessness. Rachel had come all the way from Haifa in order to return her earrings. It wasn’t nice to send her away like that.
“Naomi!” Chaiky raised her head from the pillow. “Tell her to come inside, and give her some juice in the kitchen. You can show her your toys in the meantime, and I hope that I’ll have the energy to get up in a few minutes, okay?” Fortunately, the kitchen was not particularly upside-down today.
She dimly heard the front door close and Rachel’s voice interestedly asking Naomi questions. Then there were footsteps, and the next noise she heard was the squeak of the kitchen drawer where they kept the plastic cups.
Chaiky closed her eyes. Soon, when she’d recover a bit, she’d get up to greet the poor girl; she’d muster up the biggest smile she could and thank her for returning the earrings. Then she’d give Dovi and Naomi supper and send them to bed, and finally she’d be able to crawl back into her own bed to rest.
When she opened her eyes, the blue hand was pointing to the ten and the brown hand was on the eight. That meant it was—ten to eight! She must have fallen asleep in the end, but for three hours?! Rachel must have given up and left long ago. It really was not nice at all. She’d call Rachel tomorrow to thank her for her efforts and apologize for disappearing on her like this.
Chaiky hastily stuck her feet into her slippers, washed her hands in the small sink opposite the door of her room, and walked out to the dining room. A strong odor of bleach hung in the air. Oh, no. She hoped the children hadn’t prepared a “surprise” for her that included washing the shutters, table, and upholstery of her eight chairs with cups of water and bleach, like they’d done last year. At least then, Shlomo had been home, and he’d helped her clean up the mess…
She quickened her pace, afraid to see what was in store.
There was Dovi and Naomi, sitting on the couch, their legs up. Both children were holding slices of bread in one hand and a cucumber in the other. They hadn’t prepared any surprise for her. Rachel was still there, and she was crouched in the corner of the dining room, scrubbing the floor near the porch door.
Rachel noticed her first. “Oh, good morning!” she said with a smile and stood up. “I hope you don’t mind that I’m using your mop and rag without permission. Dovi’s milk spilled here, and I saw that the floor wasn’t so clean anyway, so I told Naomi to sweep and I washed the floor. Is that okay with you?”
“Perfectly fine,” Chaiky said, and did not add that she couldn’t stand the strong smell of bleach and that there was floor cleaner on the shelf in the bathroom. “Thank you very much.” She suddenly discovered that she was surrounded by water on the floor.
“You can walk where it’s wet, if you want,” Rachel said generously. “I can go over it again. Go to the kitchen. That’s already dry. Should I come and make you a coffee? Do you want Tylenol or something? The children told me you’re not feeling well.”
“I’ll be fine, b’ezras Hashem,” Chaiky said. She walked to the kitchen. The chairs were stacked on the table, the floor was clean and dry, the sinks were empty, and everything emitted the smell of bleach. She couldn’t drink coffee like this in any case, not until the place aired out. She quickly opened the window and tugged back the curtain. True, she didn’t like to open this window a lot because it was almost adjacent to the Pressmans’ dining room window, but now she didn’t have a choice.
She took the chairs off from the table and sat down, supporting her aching head with her palm. It was nice of Rachel to feel bad for her children that their mother wasn’t feeling well, and to stay as a babysitter even though she hadn’t been asked. Apparently she didn’t have any pressing reason to go back to that hospital ward and that nurse there. How miserable it must be to live with the knowledge that there was no one in the world who really worried about you…
The phone rang. Chaiky didn’t have a chance to pick up the extension in the kitchen because someone had already picked up in the dining room.
“I’m just near the shelf, so I’ll get it!” Rachel yelled. “Hello? Oh, Elsa… Yes, I’m still here. I got delayed. Yes, don’t be angry. Listen, I’ll explain…Dovi, remember him? So he told me that their father is in jail in Russia and that their mother doesn’t feel well a lot of times, including today. So I decided to stay a bit and help out here. I gave the children supper, and now I’m cleaning the house. I’m not going back to Tel Aviv today anyway.”
It was quiet for a moment. Then—“Of course not. I told you already that I’m sick of Ilana and everyone else there! By the way, how did you find the Struks’ number? Oh, the same way I did! Okay. Don’t worry so much. I’ll be back before your shift finishes. I have a bus at ten. I found out already. See you.”
Chaiky heard the phone being set back in its cradle. Then Rachel peeked into the kitchen. “I hope you’re not offended by what I said about your husband being in jail and all that,” she said, looking nervous. “But if I would have told her that I like it here, that would not have been a good enough reason for her to let me stay. When she heard that I wanted to do a chessed, she agreed more easily. And it wasn’t a lie. After all, you really don’t feel well, right?”
It took Chaiky a few seconds to find her tongue, which, in her shocked state, seemed to be glued to the bottom of her mouth. “Yes, right,” she managed.
The girl smiled with relief. “Good. I was afraid that you might have been offended. Now I’m going to make sure that Dovi and Naomi bentch nicely, and then I’ll prepare some supper for you. Do you want?”
“No thanks. I’m not really used to eating a real meal at night.”
“Oh, are you on a diet?” Rachel asked curiously. “But you’ll drink a cup of coffee, right? You know, Elsie is against all these diets. She says that you have to eat healthy and not starve yourself.” She tilted her head. “And you look to me like someone who pretty much starves herself,” she said critically. “Maybe that’s why you don’t feel well so often?”
Chaiky smiled weakly and got up to close the window. A freezing wind was blowing inside; she couldn’t leave the window open any longer. The bleach smell had dissipated somewhat, and she’d have to try to ignore whatever was left of it.
“Ima, someone’s knocking!”
Chaiky turned her head toward the kitchen door. “Ask who it is!” she called to Naomi. Why did she feel a sense of déjà vu—that this had already happened today?
“Who is it? Who? Oh. Ima! She says her name is Noa!”
In a flash, Chaiky was at the door. Whether she’d played this scene out today already or not, she had no intentions of letting Noa enter her house.
Dovi was lying on the couch, half asleep, and Naomi was jumping around barefoot near the front door. Rachel was standing near the kitchen door, the mop in her hand, looking around curiously. Chaiky opened the door. “Hello, Noa,” she said. “Uh…what is this?”
“I came to give you back the computer,” Noa said with a smile, and bent down to the processor that was resting on the floor next to her. “Where can I put it?”
“Give it back? Why?” Chaiky did not even realize that she was filling the whole doorway in her effort to keep Noa from entering the house.
“After I saw that this was also quite old, I convinced Elka to buy a new computer for the library.” Noa was breathing heavily with exertion. “It’s about time. So this is coming back to you now. Where should I put it?”
“Here, on the table.” Chaiky moved aside to let Noa put the computer down, but she refused to expose her to the huge mess in the third room. Elka was one thing, Rachel was another, but not Noa.
Noa entered, lugging the computer. “No, you don’t need to schlep the screen,” she objected when she saw Chaiky go out into the hallway for it. “It’s not your fault that I made Elka crazy about this whole thing.”
Chaiky wanted to ask, Since when are you so worried about me? or better yet, What is the occasion that you are being so nice to me? But instead, she just said, “How did you get all of this over to here?”
“In a taxi.”
“Where do you live?”
Noa shook her arms out, as if to loosen them from the heavy load she’d been carrying, and leveled her gaze at Chaiky. “I move around a lot,” she said simply. “Since I became more religious and it doesn’t work for me to live with my family, I have no choice. I move around from one little room to another, from one house to another. All the time. And I have to be honest and tell you that that is why I was very excited to hear that you were looking for a boarder.”
“What’s a boarder?” Noami, who was holding onto Chaiky’s skirt, asked.
“Someone to live here.” It was Noa who replied, because Chaiky was silent.
“But we live here!” the girl argued.
Chaiky opened her mouth but wasn’t able to reply, because Rachel was suddenly standing next to her, still holding the mop.
“If Dovi’s mother is looking for someone to live with them,” she said forcefully to Noa, who was at least a head taller than her, “then it’s me, if anything. Because I got here before you!” She turned to look at Chaiky. “You’re looking for someone to live with you?” she asked. “So why didn’t you tell me?”
“I’m not quite sure what exactly I am looking for,” Chaiky replied slowly. “That’s why I didn’t think of you.” She then turned to Noa and added, “Or of you.”
“Okay,” Noa said, but Chaiky didn’t like her tone of voice. “So think about it. And I’d be very happy to get a positive response.”
“Me, too!” Rachel jutted out her chin.
Noa ignored her. “Bye, Chaiky,” she said. “See you tomorrow.”
“No, Ima, we don’t want her!” a sleepy Dovi announced from his place on the couch. “Rachel is better. Rachel can also help you, just like she helped today when you were sleeping, okay?”
Naomi, a bit more tactful, glanced at Noa, who was already outside the door. It was impossible to know if she’d heard what Dovi had said or not. Then she turned her head back to her mother. “Yes!” she declared in a whisper. “I don’t like this Noa!”
“And she’s not even frum,” Rachel said, leaning the mop against the wall.
“What?” Chaiky closed the door.
“I know her. She was once the English tutor in my school in Tel Aviv. She wasn’t my tutor, but I remember her face. She taught a lot of my older friends.”
“An English tutor?”
“Yes, she came in the afternoons and helped girls do their English homework. She would bring games with cards and boards, interesting stuff. The girls loved studying with her, and I also wanted to, only I wasn’t allowed because I was in a younger grade. But once, when there was no one else to help me and my friend, she did teach us. I don’t think she remembers my face, though; it was a long time ago. But I remember her face. Why is she pretending to be frum? I don’t think it’s a good idea for her to live with you.”
“The tutor in your school…was also named Noa?” Chaiky asked, a fine line connecting her two eyebrows.
“I don’t know what name she went by then; she taught the older grades when I was only ten. But I remember her face well. Now she’s all tzniusdig and everything, but I know her. She’s not like this at all.”
“But she is a baalas teshuvah, Rachel.” Chaiky shook her head. “So it’s very possible that she’s changed since she worked in your school.”
“I don’t think so, ” Rachel insisted, “because her face hasn’t changed. It looks exactly the same as it did then.” She scratched her cheeks. “Does it make sense that someone could get closer to Hashem but have his eyes stay exactly the same as they were before…? I didn’t want to say anything to her, but when she began to talk about how you’re looking for a boarder, and I saw that you weren’t happy at all about the idea of her living with you, I came quickly and said that I come first.” She smiled. “But you don’t have to if you don’t want me.” And with that, Rachel bent over to the bucket standing in the corner and carried it to the bathroom.
Josef Podernik sat at his desk, his head resting on his hands as he gazed at the information streaming onto his computer screen. Who are you, Ilya Antonovich? You sent the recording to the Financial Crimes Investigation Unit, and claimed that it was generated in error. In other words, the surveillance was intended for another person and by mistake also caught Shlomo Struk. You have no idea what cut off the conversation and why it cannot be heard in its entirety. That is what you have and that’s what you’re giving us.
Let’s get acquainted, Ilya Antonovich. So you’re married, a father of three, children aged five, eight, and eleven. The son of Stephan and Alana Antonovich. Brother of…
Josef gaped at the screen. So this Antonovich was a brother of Vasily Antonovich, the famous reporter from Segodniya, who was killed a short time ago in a car accident?
“Sasha?” He picked up the internal telephone. “Do you remember the name Vasily Antonovich?”
“Sure,” the secretary replied. “He was fired or something from the newspaper where he worked, wasn’t he? And he was recently killed in a car accident? I think they said that just a few days before he was killed, he had been re-hired by that same newspaper.”
“Aha,” Podernik said, and got up at once. “One minute, wasn’t he the one who wrote the expose about Rosenberg?”
“That’s exactly who I’m talking about,” Sasha affirmed calmly. “Should I get you material on it?”
“Yes. About the article, Rosenberg’s lawsuit, and Antonovich’s dismissal. And about the accident. Everything you can find.” Josef stood up and walked over to the tea machine. He selected green tea and waited patiently for the cup.
“Finally, you look calmer,” said someone who came to the tea area at exactly the same moment. “The investigation is going well, huh?”
“You could say that,” Josef agreed. “I might be on the verge of a serious breakthrough in discovering a Jewish gang. But be careful, Pavel—you and your questions are getting on my nerves already.”
“I’ll be careful, okay,” his neighbor said with a chuckle. “Green tea again? What do you like about that Chinese stuff?”
“What do you care about what I’m drinking?” Josef huffed, and took his cup to his glass cubicle. Pavel stared after him.
Fifteen minutes later, Eliyahu Margulies and the lawyer Morchov were sitting in the lawyer’s office. Eliyahu Margulies was in the midst of an animated explanation as to why it was not wise for Morchov to drop Shlomo Struk’s case, when the phone rang.
“One minute.” The lawyer raised his hand to stop Margulies’s monologue, and picked up the phone. He listened in silence for a few seconds, and then said, “Thank you” and hung up.
He fixed his eyes on Margulies’s face. “There’s nothing to talk about,” he said, and brushed his desk to get rid of dust that wasn’t there. “I’m not taking this case. It’s a lost cause.”