Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 26 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.
The young woman walking in the park with her cell phone pressed against her ear didn’t attract any particular attention. Even when her voice rose a bit, no one noticed. The path on which she was walking was empty at this early morning hour.
“Listen to me, Aunt Irena,” she said, “I’ve long passed the age where you can be on top of every little thing I do, and may I remind you that at the age when it was possible, you were not the one who took care of me? And as time went on, you did not exactly become more devoted to me.”
“Don’t get me started, Anna,” the aunt replied. “Even if at one point you moved in with those Jews, whatever their name was, most of your education is to my credit.”
“I’m not arguing about that,” the young woman replied with a trace of irritation. “And by the way, her name was Mira. I’m only saying that you can’t decide things for me today.”
“I’m not deciding. I’m just asking if you don’t think it’s time to get married already. You’ve been thirty for five years already, have you noticed?”
“Four and a half.”
“It’s an old age by any standard to establish a home. You know that Grandfather very much wants to see you establishing your own home.”
“While I’m in the middle of my career?”
“Which career, of all your careers, are you referring to?”
“All of them. I haven’t reached the final stage of any of them yet.”
“Well, you’ve apparently inherited your unsettled nature from your mother; you’re not from our side,” her aunt said. “But it seems to me that you are being rather successful at your most recent one.”
“Not at all.”
“No?” The aunt was surprised. “You think you’ve failed? Grandfather won’t be happy. He is investing a lot of money in you, you know.”
“I know.” Anna found herself a bench opposite the lake, where there was no barrier separating the lake from the paved path. “But it’s fine. Grandfather will consider what I have done to be successful.”
“So for whom is it considered a failure?”
“For me. But forget it—you won’t understand me, Aunt Irena.” Anna watched a mother duck wading out of the lake, with four little ducklings waddling behind her in a row.
“Something has happened to you recently, Anna.”
“True,” she conceded. “A whole lot of things have happened to me.”
“Like what, for example?”
“Like my meeting Mira in the street two days ago.”
“Mira? The woman you lived by?”
“And if you met her, so what? You’re thirty-five years old already, Anna. Don’t start acting like a baby now, getting swept up in all kinds of old emotions. What, she said something special to you?”
“The truth is that she didn’t recognize me.” The ducklings continued walking along the length of the bench with their tottering gait, keeping a safe distance from the young woman. “So we didn’t speak at all. But I recognized her.”
“Well, it happens,” Irena said dismissively. “She must have aged.”
“Not any more than you have.”
Her aunt laughed. “Back to our subject, Anna. What’s bothering you? Is it all because you met that Jewish woman from Be’er Sheva?”
“I’m just wondering what happened that all of a sudden, the family is taking such a personal interest in me. You, Grandfather… Something happened, and it’s not because you suddenly started becoming more family-minded.” She bent down, offering a leaf to the mother duck. The duck didn’t even turn her head. She just continued walking, head tall and proud, with her family following behind.
“It was to be expected. I’m not even worth a glance from a duck, and if not for the fact that I don’t know how to write at all, I would compose a song about myself and my sorry situation,” Anna said into the phone. But there was only silence on the other end.
She remained on the bench for several long moments, motionless.
The children who had gathered for the “Krias Shema leining” were very excited, less perhaps by the ceremony than by the paper masks they were going to get, together with their candy. Rachel had gone with Naomi and Dovi to buy the treats for the evening, and she had also asked Chaiky for permission to add the masks, at a shekel each, in honor of the beginning of Adar, the happiest month of the year. Chaiky had agreed. Just seeing Dovi’s shining face now made it all worth it.
She stood watching the scene, Naomi in front of her, Rachel and Shlomo’s mother on her right, and her own mother on her left. Her parents had arrived just that morning, and they were planning to stay over until after Shabbos.
Just then Menachem, her brother-in-law, entered with his two sons. They were a few minutes late; by now the children were almost finished saying Shema. Menachem’s boys quickly joined in for the last few words of Adon Olam.
Chaiky noticed that Menachem had a large bag with him. What was in it? Treats to distribute to the children? She felt the indignation rising inside her. Had they really thought she hadn’t remembered to take care of that?
With effort, she diverted her eyes to the group of children crowded into the dining room, around the carriage that her father had taken down from their storage crawlspace and that her mother had scrubbed clean. In a minute, Dovi would start distributing the candy and masks, Menachem and his children would take out what they had brought, and a real scene would ensue. Abba wouldn’t understand why she hadn’t coordinated with her brother-in-law ahead of time, and Goldie would even have the nerve to be insulted as to why she wasn’t being thanked for taking care of what needed to be done. What a mess!
But then Chaiky stopped herself. Why are you getting so uptight? Nothing even happened yet!
How many months had it been since she’d heard those words from him? Apparently the same number of months that had passed since the dreadful, and fateful, decision had been made about Shlomo’s trip.
No, not since the decision. Even on the day he had traveled, that very morning, he had repeated those words: Why are you getting so uptight? Nothing even happened yet!
“I know,” she had replied testily at the time. “But what can I do if I just can’t help but feel this way?”
“But think about it—you have absolutely no reason to be uptight or nervous,” Shlomo had argued. “I’m traveling, I’m going to collect some money, and then I’m coming back. And whatever I accomplish, and whatever the yeshivah gets out of it, is all to your credit. Really, you can relax. You know how many people do this?”
“Yes,” she had replied, defeated. “Lots.”
The argument had ended there, and that was already an accomplishment for him. Because the first few times, when she’d heard about the idea of Shlomo traveling, the argument had continued far beyond that point. She didn’t like the response about how many other people went traveling to collect money. “No, I don’t know how many other people do it, and I really don’t care! I just know that you are being sent, and not Menachem,” she’d replied. “Why can’t he go? Because Goldie can’t stay for a week and a half by herself with the children? Only I can?”
“Maybe I’m going, and not him, because I’m better at this than he is?” Shlomo had said. “Why do you think about side reasons that are totally unconnected? Why don’t you just think it’s a compliment to me, because I’m better at speaking to people and am simply more persuasive?”
But he hadn’t persuaded her. She hadn’t wanted him to go until the final minute.
They had gone to his parents for shalosh seudos. After Havdalah the subject came up again, and it was discussed as a done deal. She stood on the side, busy tying Dovi’s shoelace, and waited to see what her mother-in-law would say.
“I’m sure you’ll do a great job, Shlomo,” she enthused, ever the devoted mother. “You’re a real ‘people person’—you know just what to say to the other person, and that’s the main criteria for a good collector. What do you say about the trip, Chaiky?”
“Hmmm….” was her reply. “I’m a bit afraid. It’s one thing when he’s collecting money here. But overseas is something more major, and it’s scarier.”
No one understood her fear; it wasn’t something she could clearly explain, not even to herself. Shlomo wanted to travel and to succeed. His father, as the administrator of the yeshivah, certainly wanted him to do it, and his supportive mother had put her full faith in her darling son. They all tried to calm Chaiky with platitudes and clichés, telling her she had nothing to worry about.
“And of course, you’ll be with us the Shabbos that he’s away!” her mother-in-law had promised. “We’ll help you with the children. Yaakov and Yisrael will be thrilled to spend a whole Shabbos with their niece and nephew. It won’t be hard for you at all.”
“There are at least three more weeks until I leave,” Shlomo had said cheerfully. “It really doesn’t make sense to make plans now and just get uptight and nervous ahead of time. Let’s wait and see.”
It doesn’t make sense to get uptight and nervous ahead of time. We’ll wait and see.
That’s also what he’d said when they spoke by phone four days after he landed in Russia, and he told her about the Jewish philanthropist who had contacted him to make a generous donation to the yeshivah.
“Strange. Why didn’t he invite you to his house?” she had asked. “Why did he want to meet you in a lobby somewhere?”
“First of all, it’s offensive to call the Cosmos Hotel lobby just ‘a lobby somewhere,’” Shlomo had said with a chuckle. “You should see what the place looks like… And why not in his home? I don’t know. Maybe he doesn’t have extra time to spend hosting, and he prefers to wrap the whole thing up on his way to work or something?”
“Alright, maybe,” she’d said, somewhat mollified, even though she didn’t like the phrase ‘wrap the whole thing up.’ A donation to a yeshivah was not something one should want to get over with quickly. People wanted to wrap things up when they were bad. Scary. Evil.
Or all three together…
“Do they always dance like this?” Rachel touched her arm, pulling Chaiky out of her dismal thoughts. Only now did Chaiky notice the circle of boys wearing masks and dancing merrily around the baby’s cradle.
“No.” Chaiky said and smiled. “It’s probably because the masks put them in an extra happy mood.” She looked for Dovi’s shirt among the masked dancers, and found it. He was dancing between two boys who were taller than him, wearing a yellow chick mask. His eyes sparkled through the too-big holes, and his steps were overly energetic.
One of Menachem’s boys approached Chaiky with the mysterious bag. “My mother sent this,” he said through his mask. Rachel had been generous and purchased more masks than the number of boys in Dovi’s class, so there had been enough to go around.
Chaiky took the bag and peeked inside. A pillow for the bris! She had completely forgotten that her sister-in-law had promised to take care of it for her! “Please tell your mother I said thank you so much!” So Menachem and Goldie hadn’t bought treats to give out here. It really hadn’t made sense to get uptight and nervous ahead of time, just like Shlomo so often told her.
Maybe it would have been better not to have gotten uptight and nervous back then as well, if in any case the plans for the trip were not up for discussion.
But in retrospect, back then it had turned out that she had been right; her uptightness had been for very good reason.