Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 28 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.
Noa couldn’t stand the busy hours at the library. She loved the hours when it was quiet, and she could cover books, sort, catalog, and do anything else she pleased. Even those morning hours when a few women came to exchange their books were bearable. But the noise of Sundays and Wednesdays from four till seven were a major pain for her, and recently, they had become unbearable. Already at ten to four her head began to ache.
“Young lady.” She left her desk and approached a short girl who was sitting on the floor, taking out books from the bottom shelf and stacking them next to her as she leafed through one of them. “What do you think you are doing?”
“I want to see the covers.” The girl raised a pair of innocent eyes. “Then I’ll put them all back, don’t worry.”
“Fine, but you’d better start doing that soon, because it’s already six thirty.”
“Okay,” the girl replied, her head back in the book on her lap.
“We haven’t been here in a long time,” a voice behind her said, “because Ima didn’t have the energy to bring us. Rachel, will you also take out some books? You should. There are really, really good books here for your age.”
“How do you know?”
“Because when I once wanted all kinds of books from the higher shelf, Ima told me that I’ll read them when I get older. And you’re big already, right?”
“Right. But I don’t really like to read.”
“Besides for your book about flowers. My father also knows a lot about flowers, you know. We once took a trip during vacation, before he went to Russia, and he helped us find twelve different types of flowers! Twelve!”
Noa turned around sharply. Yes, it was Chaiky’s daughter. And the older girl next to her looked like the one she had once seen in their house. Aha.
“Hello, sweetie,” she said warmly to the little girl. “Your name is Naomi, right?”
The girl raised her head to her. “Oh, you know me because you’re here at my mother’s work, right? You also once came to our house.”
“That’s right.” Noa smiled. “How is your mother doing?”
“Baruch Hashem, fine.”
“You have a new baby, right?” Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the older girl drop Naomi’s hand and walk over to the shelf with the encyclopedias.
“Send regards to your mother, okay? Is she home?”
“Sure she is. I mean, my grandmother from Be’er Sheva invited her to come to her, and Bubby Struk offered her to go to the mother-baby home, but she didn’t want to.” A proud smile crossed the girl’s face. “She said she wants to be with us, her children. And she also said that because Rachel lives with us, it’s easy for her.” She glanced at the girl who was standing with her back to them, leafing through a large encyclopedia.
“Don’t feel bad that you didn’t come to us in the end,” Naomi added candidly. “It’s very hard work. My mother uses Rachel’s help all the time, and Rachel has tons of work to do. She even bought our Purim costumes herself, from her own money, because Ima is so busy and tired and can’t make us costumes like she usually does every year. But that’s how it is with new babies; there’s nothing to do about it.” She smiled with resignation, typical for an oldest, experienced child, and trotted over to Rachel. “Another book about flowers?” she asked, trying to peek inside. “It’s so, so, so boring! Let’s go to the shelf with the comics.”
The line at her desk reminded Noa that the hour was late. She hastened back to her seat and opened the computerized card catalogue. Distractedly, she typed in the name of the family printed on the card that the first girl on the line handed her, and hoped she wouldn’t make any mistakes. So Rachel had ended up settling into Chaiky’s for a significant amount of time. In truth, it really did not seem appropriate for Noa, at her age, to stand and wash Chaiky’s dishes or scrub her floors, the way it seemed Rachel was doing. On the other hand, it could have opened a window to a plethora of opportunities for her…
Maybe that window could be opened another way, but for that, she would have to erase the spark of irritation that had flared in Rachel’s eyes when she had seen her.
At two minutes to seven, Rachel came with Chaiky’s daughter to check out the books they had taken. “Remind me what your name is again, sweetie?” Noa said, gazing at the screen.
“Naomi. But only this book is for me. This is for my mother.” She planted her elbows on the desk. Rachel looked in the other direction and kept silent.
“Hello there,” Noa said to Rachel in a friendly tone after she’d finished with the two books. “You didn’t take that encyclopedia in the end?”
“I saw you looking through something on the last shelf in aisle five.”
“I can’t take out anything; I’m not registered at the library,” the girl replied, her face expressionless.
“I’ll let you take a book for a week,” Noa said with a wink. “I’m in charge here, so I am allowed to give you permission to do that. I think you deserve it, based on what I’ve heard from Naomi. It sounds like you’re really being a big help for Chaiky. Good for you!” Her eyes were fixed on Rachel, appearing friendly, pleasant, and lacking any strange gleams. Rachel looked into them for a few long seconds until her own gaze finally softened.
“Really?” she said. “It’s okay for me to take out a book?”
Noa waited as Rachel disappeared into the darkened aisles with the books; she soon returned with one of the more boring volumes.
“Flowers?” Noa asked, typing something into the computer.
“Flowers,” Rachel affirmed.
“There’s nothing like flowers, huh?” For her, for sure. The irritating allergy that many types of flowers triggered for her had led her to abandon any types of flowers or houseplants years ago.
“Uh-huh,” Rachel confirmed enthusiastically as Naomi tried to pick up the book to see “if it’s heavier than Yisrael Meir or not.”
“Do you have a planter at home? Do you plant flowers?”
“No. I always wanted to, but it doesn’t usually work for me, so I just make do with pictures.”
Two-week-old Yisrael Meir was sleeping peacefully in his favorite spot—the carriage, and Rachel sat on the couch, rocking the carriage without even realizing it. In the other hand, she gripped the edge of the page, waiting for the moment she would finish swallowing up all the information there so that she could move to the next page.
Chaiky entered the dining room after telling the children a quick story and reciting Krias Shema with them. “Oh, thank you so much,” she said for the five hundred eighth or five hundred ninth time.
At one point, Rachel had laughingly suggested that she count how many times she thanked her, and that made Chaiky very uncomfortable. In exchange, she had jokingly offered to count how many times the kids cried, “Rachel!” and how many times she began a sentence to Rachel with, “Can you please…” And then she’d concluded, “And that’s without even counting how many times you do something without even being asked. So let’s just decide that we’re not counting.” But in her heart, Chaiky really had started to count. She wanted to make sure she was being grateful enough and not beginning to take advantage of Rachel.
True, she tried to employ Rachel’s help as little as possible, but what could she do if the girl was very active and eager to help, and even when Chaiky didn’t ask her to do something, she did it herself? It appeared that her hobbies were washing dishes, washing the floor with bleach, telling stories and playing games with the children, and rocking a crying baby. Oh, and of course dealing with flowers—that hobby Chaiky had just recently found out about.
Chaiky looked at Rachel, deeply engrossed in her book. It was nice of Noa to let her take the book out. Nice, but it was not quite clear why she had done it. They knew each other a few months already, but Chaiky still could not decipher Noa’s personality. Did she have ulterior motives, or was she genuinely trying to draw closer? Was she friendly or conceited? Was she purposely becoming close to Elka to the point of danger and trying to take control over the center, or was she just a responsible, thorough type?
“You can stop rocking him,” Chaiky said after peeking into the carriage. “He’s sleeping.”
“I would love to grow it,” Rachel replied.
“To grow it?” Did Rachel mean she wanted to help the baby grow? Yisrael Meir was a “he,” not an “it”!
“Yes, it’s amazing. It has four different shades: red, orange, yellow, or pink. It can be seen from very far away because of its strong colors, and it looks like a triangle or thick cone, just like the furry tail of a fox. It blooms in the spring and summer and can grow to height of thirty centimeters. And while it’s sensitive to extremely low temperatures, it will thrive in very dry or hot climates.”
Chaiky sat down on a nearby chair. “What’s its name?” Now that it was safe to assume that Rachel was not referring to Yisrael Meir, who was born in the winter, and who was already almost fifty centimeters long, and who did not feature strong, bold colors, Chaiky realized that the girl must have been quoting from her book.
“Foxtail. Or rather, celosia foxtail, to be exact. I was once able to grow them in a planter that Elsie bought me, but it withered when I left to the boarding school. Too bad I have never had a chance to invest the effort that flowers need in order to thrive. The few times I was able to actually grow something, I always ended up having to leave that place and go somewhere else.” She put the open book on the couch beside her and leaned back. “But b’ezras Hashem, one day, when I have a home of my own, I will have a balcony full of plants. A porch like yours, but there won’t be laundry lines or a deck chair on it. Only plants.”
“And the children I’ll have will know that they are not allowed to touch Ima’s plants. It won’t be like when I was at the Bronstadts for a year and a month, and I was six years old and I brought home a flower for Tu B’Shevat. One of their daughters—they had six girls—picked off all the leaves. Her mother said it was because she was jealous, and she gave me a chocolate bar to make me feel better. But that didn’t console me.”
Chaiky found herself also rocking the carriage, despite its occupant’s calm state. “Would you want to grow a plant here?” she asked after a moment’s thought. “I’m not planning to take the chair or the laundry lines away, but I think there’s room for one planter, as a start.”
“It’s not worth it,” Rachel declared. “As much as I like it here, I’ll end up leaving also sometime. It would just break my heart, and believe me, my heart’s been broken enough times.”
Nevertheless, Chaiky found herself one morning in a flower shop, looking for something for Rachel to grow. The children were in school, and Rachel was in Haifa for a meeting with her social worker, who had suddenly called the day before and scolded her for not reporting the change in her life. Chaiky had decided to use the morning to do some errands with the baby.
“Um…I’d like a plant that’s nice,” she said when the saleswoman asked her what she was looking for. Remembering the boldly colorful photos in Rachel’s book, she added, “With flowers, I think. And something that grows fast.”
“To grow flowers you need patience, ma’am,” the saleswoman said. She was a wrinkled, elderly lady with a South American accent. She appeared to need a walking stick, but for some reason, she didn’t have one. Only when she started walking around in her flower empire did Chaiky realize that her movements were remarkably agile and that she needed no help getting around.
“But I’d still like something that will grow quickly,” Chaiky repeated. Maybe after the conversation with the social worker, this would be a goodbye present for Rachel. Who knew how much time she would have to nurture her flowers somewhere else?
“This,” the saleswoman declared, and returned with a small, flat plant that was covered with leaves. Or perhaps that was the planter. Chaiky looked at it. “What is this?” she asked after a moment. “What is supposed to grow here?”
“Geraniums. If you look, there are small buds. The flower is very simple, but nice. It will be great for you because it is just about ready to begin flowering, in the spring, and it is not a plant that needs to be pampered too much. It grows well even in harsh conditions, so it’s good for people who don’t have patience for flowers.”
“Oh,” Chaiky said, unsure of herself now. She didn’t understand the first thing about flowers. Her mother loved them, and whenever they went to Be’er Sheva for Shabbos, they made sure to stop on the way to buy her a bouquet. Once, Chaiky had chosen a bouquet of pink flowers, whose name she didn’t know, but once they arrived and gave the bouquet to her mother, she noticed Ima mother discreetly removing lots of withered leaves from it. The bouquet shrank to a third of its size. Another time it was a bouquet of purple flowers that had looked very nice, but by Shabbos morning, nothing of its beauty remained. Then there was the time she’d chosen white lilies, like she’d had in her bridal bouquet, but despite the salesman’s promise that “they will last at least two weeks, trust me!” Ima had told her on the phone on Tuesday that the flowers were no more.
How was she supposed to understand anything about flowers? Her mother had never grown flowers, despite loving them. She said that growing flowers at home could cause allergies.
“Right that’s for Rachel, Ima?” Dovi, her sharp one, exclaimed as he stood next to Naomi in front of the locked door, waiting for her.
“That’s right.” Chaiky took the key out of the diaper bag. “Were you waiting long, darlings?”
“Yes,” Naomi said.
“Not true. I came five minutes ago, and Naomi came one minute ago.” He waved his hand, bearing the watch that Bubby and Zeidy Struk had bought him for Purim.
“You don’t even know how to tell time!” Naomi was indignant about how he’d just contradicted her.
“Yes, I do! Right, Ima?”
“Shhh….” Chaiky herded them into the house. “Don’t fight. You waited for me very nicely and patiently, and now I’m here.”
“Too bad Rachel isn’t back from Haifa yet,” Dovi said, his eyes shining. “Then we wouldn’t fight, right, Naomi?”
“Sometimes you do fight, even when she’s here!” Naomi returned.
“So what? So do you!”
“But not a lot.”
“I don’t do it a lot either!”
“Ima,” Naomi turned to Chaiky, “if both of us don’t fight a lot, could we have a prize? We’re really, really trying to be good.”
“I notice, and you are very good children.” Chaiky wiggled her fingers that had finally been released from the tight grip of the handles of the bag that held the planter. She’d never thought dirt could weigh so much. “Now, let’s go eat. Don’t forget to make a nice brachah even if Rachel isn’t here. Hahsem is always here, you know.” She had just managed to turn the flame back on under the pot of chicken when the phone rang.
“Hello, is this Mrs. Struk?”
“This is Avigail from V’chai Achicha. Do you remember me?”
“Oh, yes, of course.” Chaiky leaned back as much as the hard kitchen chair allowed her. She hadn’t spoken o Avigail in a long time. V’chai Achicha was the organization that took care of Jews in trouble around the world. But while she hadn’t spoken to Avigail in a long while, she hadn’t forgotten what a pleasant person she was.
“First of all, mazel tov on the birth of your son. You had a little boy, right?”
“That’s right. Thank you.”
“How are you managing at home? Did you go to a mother-and-baby convalescent home?”
“No. I took in someone to live with me, and she takes care of the children and does light housework.”
“Wonderful, so hopefully you can rest up. Do you think you’ll need financial assistance to pay for this person?”
Chaiky looked toward the door of the third bedroom; she could see Rachel’s messy bed. She usually was quite neat, but this morning she’d been in a hurry to catch the 7:30 bus. “I don’t think so, baruch Hashem. We only made up that she’d get a weekly allowance for pocket money, not a serious amount. The truth is, she would forego even that, but I didn’t feel comfortable not paying her anything at all..”
“And is everything working out okay with the National Insurance? Did you get your maternity leave payment?”
“It’s a bit of a problem…” Chaiky stood up and walked to the counter. “The last few months I wasn’t really at my best, and the average wage on my wage slips is rather low. But they said that I could submit a special request, due to out-of-the-ordinary circumstances, and it is possible that the National Insurance will agree to take my pay slips from earlier months.”
“Oh, really? That’s good to know. I do hope it comes through for you.” It was quiet on the line. Chaiky could hear the muted voices of her children from their bedroom. “And how are things with you in general? How do you feel?”
“Baruch Hashem.” Here, as always in these kinds of conversations, Chaiky retreated a bit. Technical assistance was welcome. But “emotional support,” or whatever they wanted to call it, was less welcome for her, Avigail’s goodwill notwithstanding. “Baruch Hashem,” she repeated, to herself and to the kind representative on the phone.
“Right. It’s good to know at such a time that we are in His hands.”
“We’re always in His hands,” Chaiky corrected her quietly.
“Of course, but at times like this, we feel it more.” Avigail paused for a moment. “You know, I can tell you something that happened to me. A few months ago, I had a serious problem with one of my children. I tossed and turned for nights on end because of him, and I’m not exaggerating. Baruch Hashem, the situation is now almost completely resolved, and I hope that very soon it will be all fine. And what can I tell you…?” Again she paused. “My tefillos during that time… My tefillos today don’t look anything like them. Of course, even now, I don’t forget to daven, but when it comes from a less…” She cast about for the right word. “When it comes from a less desperate place, then there’s a much lesser connection. Do you know what I mean?”
“Yes,” Chaiky replied. “Absolutely.”
Again, a moment or two of silence ensued, and when Avigail realized that she was not going to get a more detailed answer from Chaiky, she moved on to the subject she’d actually called about.
“Look, Chaiky, Rabbi Weiss, the chairman of our organization, suggests that you should travel to Russia to visit your husband. Even if until now it was not feasible for you, now might be a good opportunity.”
“Now? What, for Pesach?”
“Maybe. Or right after.”
“Can I fly with such a small baby?”
“Yes, of course. Would you want to? Have you thought about it?”
“I’m thinking now…” She stood up heavily. “The idea scares me on the one hand, but I think that I do want to go, actually. Do you think they’ll let me see my husband there?”
“That’s what we are hoping. I wouldn’t recommend staying too long, because there’s not much you can do to help there, but a short visit will surely do you good—and your husband.”
“And if, let’s say, I do want to go there…” Chaiky said hesitantly, “what do I have to do?”
“Just tell me you want to go,” Avigail said with a friendly laugh, “and we’ll arrange everything, b’ezras Hashem.”
“I’ll…I’ll think about it.”
“You have my number, right? And I once gave you my cell number as well? Good, so if you decide that you want to go—just call me and we’ll arrange it all, b’ezras Hashem.”
“Thank you very much,” Chaiky said sincerely, her voice warm again. “I’ll give you an answer very soon.”
She wanted to go.
No, she didn’t.
She wanted to think about what Avigail had said before that.
No, she didn’t.
As if she didn’t feel it herself.
“Ima, I’m hungry!” Dovi kvetched.
“Okay, okay,” she said distractedly as she opened the paper goods cabinet to take out some plates.
“Hi, everyone!” Rachel called into the house. “What a delicious smell!” She walked into the kitchen and set down her bag, not yet noticing the large planter standing in the corner of the kitchen.
“How did it go?” Chaiky asked, setting down the ladle in her hand.
“Did she say she doesn’t let you live with us?” Dovi demanded to know. “Tell her we don’t let that! You have to stay here!”
“What do you think?” Rachel’s eyes were dancing. “I told her that by law, I don’t have to be in school anymore, and that I have no interest in the boarding school in Tel Aviv. We decided that she will let me stay here for now and I have to find a new school. She’s ready to help me with that, but I’m not sure if…”
And that’s when her eyes spotted Chaiky’s gift.