Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 25 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.
It was normal for new mothers to not be able to fall asleep, right? They have so much going on in their heads… And if your roommate was named “Nur Faiza,” and her whole clan was clamoring around her, then it should be even more normal. And if your husband happened to be detained in Russia, and you were not even sure you’d be able to speak to him before the bris—then it should already be very, very understandable why you were unable to fall asleep, tired as you were.
So when the curtain was pushed aside to reveal twinkling eyes and a wide smile at two in the afternoon on Friday, it didn’t really disturb Chaiky. After all, it’s not possible to wake someone who isn’t sleeping.
“I didn’t bother you or anything, right?” Rachel asked warmly. “And don’t worry—I’m not planning to come back again today. Elsie warned me to let you rest. I just wanted to wish you mazel tov.” She stepped hesitantly into the room. “I bought you flowers in the shop downstairs. Do you like flowers?”
“Yes, very much.” Chaiky sat up, looking at the large bouquet that was totally disproportionate to the tiny plastic container it was sitting in. “They’re beautiful. Thank you so much! I really, really like flowers, and these are such pretty ones!” The night table beside her was empty. Yoel and Shifra had come last night, just after she’d been moved into the ward. They’d brought a bag full of expensive chocolates and a cute outfit.
“What an adorable baby!” twenty-year-old Shifra had enthused, like a little girl. “I saw him! I snuck into the nursery—no one even stopped me. He’s so sweet, and looks so much like Dovi!”
“You spoke to Shlomo’s parents, right?” Yoel had asked. “What did you tell them? That you want them to visit you?”
“I didn’t tell them anything,” Chaiky had said weakly. “I just called to tell them about their new grandson. We hardly spoke.”
“They asked me if they should come visit, and I didn’t know what to say.”
“Call them and tell them I have no strength, and that they shouldn’t make the schlep to come all the way to Haifa. They can visit me at home. Hopefully I’ll be back on Motza’ei Shabbos.”
But today, when Chaiky was feeling a bit better, the hours stretched ahead of her, long and boring. She couldn’t fall asleep next to Nur, the Arab woman, and her family, and something about the noisy tumult right near her bed highlighted the empty silence that enveloped her. So while she spent lots of her time visiting the nursery, when she did get back to her bed, all she wanted to do was to cry.
Rachel came closer to the edge of the bed. “You look a bit…are you sad?” she suddenly asked. “Because of your husband?”
“I’m not sad,” Chaiky said quickly. “Chas v’chalilah. I can’t be sad when I got such a gift from Above.”
“And a perfect gift, no less. He’s a healthy baby, right?”
Chaiky swallowed. “Baruch Hashem, yes. But it is true that there are things that are hard for me to think about right now.”
“Like what will be with the bris, for example…”
“Oh, you’re not allowed to do it if the father isn’t here?”
“That’s not the problem. Of course we make a bris, even if the father isn’t here.” She fingered the edge of the blanket. “But it will be good, b’ezras Hashem. Now tell me, what is happening at home? How did you manage at night?”
“Fantastic. You should have seen how the kids jumped when you called! You heard their screaming, but you couldn’t see them jumping around. Oh, and I bought them some candies in the grocery today, on their way to school. Dovi said we could write it down on your account. That’s okay, right?”
“Yes, sure. You’re wonderful, Rachel. What would I do without you?”
“That’s called casting your bread on the water and then getting it back. You agreed to host me, and you benefitted from it.” She sat down on the chair near the bed, and then immediately leaped up. “No, sorry. I promised Elsie not to be a nudnik today. I’ll be going now. Should I put some more water in the flowers? By the way, don’t think this plastic container is my taste. I think it’s really ugly—” Chaiky silently agreed— “but I didn’t know if I’d find something here on the ward to put them into, so I just bought this thing. At home put them in a real vase or something.”
“You’re wonderful, Rachel, really.”
“And you don’t have to worry about how you’re going to rest once you get home. I’ll come live by you, and this way you can get all the rest you need. It’s definitely better for you than that Noa, right?” She moved the chair closer to the night table. “I’m going!” she announced. “See you!”
Chaiky walked down the hall to the place set aside to light Shabbos candles, pushing the transparent Lucite cradle ahead of her. When she arrived, two women were standing in front of the candles, so she sat down on a nearby chair to wait for them to finish lighting. There were still more than ten minutes to candle-lighting time.
“You are such a miracle, little one,” she said to the baby, who had opened his eyes and was squinting up at the fluorescent lights on the ceiling. She gazed at his perfect little fist resting on the polka-dotted sheet. “You’re such a miracle. But why is no one going to be happy in your honor this Friday night? Why don’t you deserve a regular shalom zachar like any other baby boy? And why won’t your father be at your bris?”
A new mother is allowed to be unable to fall asleep, and she is also allowed to cry. And that’s exactly what Chaiky did.
But she only allowed herself to fall apart for a minute. Then she collected herself and approached the spot that one of the women had vacated. It was time to bentch licht.
After lighting candles, a few women, on various levels of mitzvah observance, sat there, looking at the flames. Chaiky sat with her siddur closed on her lap, lightly rocking the cradle in front of her. She gazed at the candles she had lit. Amid the very weekday noises that filled the ward, she closed her eyes, and inside her closed lids, the small flames she’d been staring at grew to bright rays of light, so strong that they were almost blinding.
Nur Faiza, her roommate, passed by and smiled. “Nice, nice fire!” she remarked as she pushed the cradle with her sleeping son inside.
At the end of a Shabbos meal beautifully arranged by the Refuah Sheleimah organization, Chaiky returned the baby to the nursery. She emerged to find a surprise awaiting her.
“Yoel! Shifra! You walked all the way here?”
“It’s no big deal; it only took us an hour and ten minutes to walk,” Yoel said, smiling at his sister’s obvious elation. “The truth is that we were afraid you were tired and had already gone to sleep.”
“You don’t know how happy I am that you came,” Chaiky replied. “All of a sudden…I felt so empty, so lonely… And I also thought about how no one was even making a shalom zachor for my new son.”
“So it’s bashert that we came,” Shifra said softly.
“We really did come to celebrate a shalom zachor, but we couldn’t bring anything with us, of course,” Yoel said practically. “But if you take us to a quiet corner, then I’ll bless him with Birchas Kohanim.”
Chaiky hurried back to the nursery, and was relieved that no one objected when she asked to take the baby she had just brought back. The three of them found a relatively quiet alcove near the Shabbos candles, which had already gone out. The baby’s uncle, a kohen, placed his hands on the baby.
For a moment, the thought flashed through Chaiky’s mind that the baby’s father deserved to be the first to bentch him, not his uncle. Nice as this was, Yoel was just an uncle, and one who looked so different than the way she hoped her own children would grow up to look.
“Shalom lecha, zachor,” Yoel said with an amused smile, and proffered his hand to shake the tiny fingers of the new baby. “Welcome to this world of falseness that we live in. Was it hard for you to part from the world of souls to come down here? But don’t feel bad, it’s for the best, and it’s only so that you should do a lot of good things. You know it says that one hour of good deeds in This World is better—”
“Of teshuvah and good deeds,” Chaiky corrected.
“Right, one hour of teshuvah and good deeds is better than all of the World to Come. So I hope you really will do it, and I wish you that you merit to have your bris on time, and that you grow to Torah, chuppah, and good deeds.”
“Amen,” Chaiky replied as she looked at her brother out of the corner of her eye. He sounded so…so like Yoel, her little brother of long ago, before something came over him at the end of yeshivah gedolah. She wanted to ask him if this was also what he would wish for his own son, and if Torah and good deeds had remained the main thing in his eyes, but she knew she wouldn’t ask. Not before he indeed had a child of his own.
“So he did have a shalom zachor in the end, you see?” Shifra smiled at Chaiky. “You were worried for no reason.”
“Right.” Chaiky returned the smile with one of her own. “Thanks, really. I see that only you thought of it. I’m very touched.”
What she did not know was that at that very hour, at her in-laws’ house, a small shalom zachor was also taking place. Actually, the intention had been to keep it small, but it ended up being quite big. The entire community poured into the Struks’ home to wish the director of the yeshivah mazel tov on his new grandson. In the same breath, the men wished him that his son, the baby’s father, should merit to return home safely, to be able to raise the new baby to Torah, chuppah, and good deeds.
Chaiky’s mother hadn’t had the time to tell her about it before Shabbos, but in Be’er Sheva as well, there was a shalom zachor. Chaiky’s father had hung a note in their building on Friday, and a few neighbors came in to wish mazel tov, to taste a piece of cake and drink a l’chaim.
And…yes, in Moscow, too.
Shlomo received a package just before Shabbos. Eliyahu Margolis had paid a lot of money to get this package to its destination before sundown. He had also asked that Shlomo be given an oral message about his son’s birth, but the information had gotten lost somewhere on the way, between the clerk and the warden, whether for anti-Semitic reasons or just due to lack of interest.
The warden brought the package into Shlomo’s cell, and a very surprised Shlomo had time to sign for it and open the knot on the packaging before he hastily davened Minchah and lit a pair of candles.
After making Kiddush on two heavy brown loaves, he washed his hands and cut the bread open. Then he examined the strange package he had been given. It didn’t feel hot, but it wasn’t cold either, and it smelled like black pepper.
Shlomo opened it with trembling hands, and discovered two boxes of fresh arbes, cooked that very day. He gazed at them for a long time, and something began to drip in his heart—perhaps tears. Another long pause, and then the edges of his mouth curled upward.
And so, far away, without guests or family, Shlomo celebrated the fourth shalom zachor for his son.