Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 30 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.
“As is well known, the budget for each one of the yeshivah and kollel students is fifty two thousand shekel a year. Therefore the Finance Ministry has decided to stem the unlimited flow and to divert it to other purposes…”
Yoel raised his head. “Benny!” he called. “If you absolutely must hear all these lies, don’t do it next to me, okay?”
His coworker chuckled. “Really now, don’t be naïve. Even if you come from there, it doesn’t mean you have to continue covering up for them.”
“Covering up for who and for what?” Yoel asked sarcastically. “For the soy schnitzels and orzo that I ate in yeshivah when I learned there? It would actually be interesting to find out how much I cost the Finance Ministry in those years. Today I probably cost them more. One second, excuse me.” He glanced at his cell phone and went outside. “Chaiky? Is everything okay?” If she was calling him at work, something must have happened.
“Right now, yes, but I need you to come help me, Yoel!”
“Menachem called. I have no way to know when they will come, but it might still happen before Pesach. I have to search the place before they get here. If there is something, they must not find it! Do you understand?”
“Not exactly.” Yoel moved to a corner for a bit more privacy. “Who will be coming?”
“The Russians, the Israeli government, I’m not sure who, but people from the prosecution. I’m talking about Shlomo’s trial.”
“I understand, but they are coming to do a search in your house?” He leaned on a small cabinet and mulled this over. “It sounds a bit far-fetched to me.”
“I know, but this story has reliable sources, at least according to my father-in-law.”
“And what are they looking for? More diamonds? They know that Shlomo didn’t manage to smuggle out even one diamond. They caught him with his case while he was still there.”
“Maybe they think he was an old hand at this,” Chaiky answered bitterly. She lowered her gaze to her own diamond ring. “I think that I should get my jewelry out of the house before they come and decide to check the source of the diamond I got for my engagement.”
“And we need to think about what else you have in the house,” Yoel said, stroking his chin. “We have to try to get into their heads, and think about what they are trying to find, and find it before they do.”
“That’s what Menachem wants,” she said, the bitterness still edging out of her voice, much like Rachel’s geraniums peeking through from the bare earth. “He wants to come here. With my father-in-law and mother-in-law. So, I want you here, too. Even before they come.”
“So should I come later today?”
“Yes. Because they will probably come tomorrow.”
“Do you think,” he probed cautiously, “that you have something to be afraid of during such a search?”
She was quiet.
“Do you mean that you think…that Shlomo really worked for the Russian mafia?” she finally responded.
“I’m sure he didn’t. The question is if someone here in Israel took advantage of his naiveté…and used him, promising him a huge sum of money for taking a small package, let’s say. And maybe Shlomo didn’t know who he was dealing with, and from who and to whom he was transferring the ‘innocent’ package.”
“Maybe,” Chaiky said heavily. “But I hope not. Because Shlomo is not naïve; he’s honest. And he would have recognized if it was something that smelled illegal.”
“Right,” Yoel replied, with the distinct sense that he was treading on thin ice. “Okay, so I’ll come by this evening.”
“Thanks so much.”
“With Shifra, okay?”
“Okay.” Not that Chaiky would be more comfortable with Shifra around as they searched through her personal possessions, but Shifra was certainly better than Goldie, or her shvigger.
She was so funny. One day she found herself thinking about the old geography tests from when she was a schoolgirl, and the day after that, it was her teacher in sixth grade. The teacher’s first name was Brachah; Noa could not recall her last name. She was an older woman, and most of her lessons were comprised of stories and more stories. Why was Noa remembering this teacher now? Because of a story she’d told the class, that suddenly came to Noa’s mind: the one about the king’s servant who was given the opportunity to take whatever he wanted from the king’s palace, and in his foolishness emerged merely with a plate of premium meat, which he had never tasted before in his life. It was good meat, to be sure, but there were so many treasures in the palace, and he could have had any of them.
“Use the opportunities that come your way, girls!” the teacher had urged. “Learn to take advantage of them, as they often do not come back again!”
And Noa had learned to do just that. She didn’t remember much else about that teacher, but those words had stuck. And yes, she planned to utilize the opportunity that had come her way now.
Noa glanced around the room and snuggled even further into her blanket, sticking her hand out to reach for the bottle of fruit nectar beside her. She had to utilize the opportunity. She knew as well as anyone that there were times when the tap was closed, and then it made no difference to anyone where she was and what she was doing and what she was living on. Now they were pleased with her—and she had to take advantage of it until the end.
She was tired, tired of wandering around so much. So now that she had found a bit of fulfillment, she didn’t want to leave it all and move on. It was good that they had finally understood that, and instead of pressuring her, were trying to find a way to extract more use of her from where she was.
When Yoel and Shifra arrived early in the evening, Rachel volunteered to go out for a walk with Yisrael Meir. Chaiky blessed her in her heart; she didn’t have the patience for Rachel to be present while they searched, asking her endless questions. Of course, Erev Pesach was an excellent excuse to empty closets, but Chaiky was still afraid that they would not be able to make it convincing enough that they were actually cleaning.
Shifra was the one who appointed herself over the cleaning act. She walked into the bathroom, took a washing cup full of water, some all-purpose cleaner, and a rag, and marched straight to the dining room. She headed for the right cabinet, whose contents Chaiky had emptied onto two chairs.
The cabinets mostly contained wedding presents, some of them not usable and others too ugly to use, but on the bottom shelf were two maroon binders.
“Looks ancient,” Chaiky said, glancing at them. “I think they are from even before we got married. From the days when Shlomo managed the cheder in the yeshivah.”
Yoel opened them. “Lists of donors,” he said after a moment. “In alphabetical order.” He leafed through the pages of the first binder and then closed both of them, shaking them out. “There are last names here until the middle of the alphabet, and it doesn’t look like anything is hidden here.”
Meanwhile, Shifra had opened all the various boxes, emitting the occasional exclamation of excitement or disgust. “Why don’t you use this?” she asked in surprise, and Chaiky saw that she was holding a glass wine decanter that was so ornately designed that it was dizzying to look at. “It’s so nice!”
“Take it,” Chaiky said without thinking. “There are no diamonds in any of these gifts, right?”
“Not in any of the boxes so far,” Shifra said, carefully inserting the long-necked decanter into its bubble wrap. “Thanks, Chaiky, I really appreciate this. When we were in Turkey, we bought an expensive metal one, with Swarovski crystals, but it rusted after we used it twice. Are you sure you don’t want this one? I know glass decanters are not so ‘in’ anymore, but there’s something very contemporary about this one.”
“Oops!” Yoel raised his head. “Tell me, does it not say ‘Rosenberg’ here, by any chance? Is this a zayin or a lamed? I can’t read Shlomo’s handwriting so well.” He handed Chaiky the second binder.
“Yes,” she said after a minute’s perusal. “It’s a zayin—it says ‘Rosenberg.’ Why, do you think it’s him?”
“I don’t think anything. I’m just showing you what I found.”
“If I remember correctly, Shlomo had a friend from Yerushalayim by that name. These must be his parents. There, I was right. The address is in Sanhedriah.”
Yoel nodded but continued to scan the page with narrowed eyes. “I’m taking this out,” he said decisively. “A one-time donor, a current donor… It’s not a good idea for the Russians to see this.”
“So do I have to search the whole house now to see where there’s something that says ‘Rosenberg’ on it? What about phone books?” Chaiky was mildly amused.
“We’ll get there.” Yoel, in contrast, was serious.
“We’re getting there now.” Chaiky opened the next cabinet in the row, leaving her sister-in-law to clean and return the things to the first one.
They opened phone book after phone book to the letter R. The Bnei Brak phone book, the Yerushalayim one, and the one for the northern region. “Again,” Yoel said, with a trace—just a trace—of triumph in his voice. “Someone made a star on the top of this page.”
“But that was me,” Chaiky protested, pulling the book away from her brother. “I was looking for Mrs. Rosenfeld, Naomi’s preschool teacher. And it’s an old star, from last winter.”
“Go tell that to the Russians, and wait for them to believe you.” Yoel took an empty bag from the table and stuck the phone book inside. “You’ll get it all back, don’t worry.”
They had finished the bottom cabinets when Rachel returned with Yisrael Meir. She was somewhat bashful at the sight of the guests, and handed the baby to his mother and went into her room.
“Can I get you a drink, Rachel?” Chaiky called after her.
“No, thanks,” the girl replied from inside the room. “I’m not thirsty.”
“Do we have to go through each sefer, one by one?” Yoel raised his eyes to his brother-in-law’s bookcase and sighed theatrically. “How do we do that? Why did he buy so many sefarim?”
A familiar knock at the door was the response. Chaiky looked at the door and then at the bookcase. “I think Menachem came to help you,” she said as she went to open the door.
Menachem and Goldie stood in the doorway, surprised to see the others.
“Hello.” Menachem was the first to proffer his hand. “We were just passing by, and we decided that maybe we shouldn’t leave it all for tomorrow, especially as we can’t know when they will come…”
“You came at the right time.” Yoel overcame the awkwardness. “That’s exactly why my sister called me today, and I’m trying to figure out where to start and what to do with all the sefarim.”
“I think we should take out the sefarim, shake them out, and look if there’s anything special there, that’s all.”
“Excellent,” Yoel agreed, and without too many extra words, the two began to work together.
“How can I help, Chaiky?” Goldie asked. With all her complaints about Goldie, Chaiky could never say that she was unpleasant or pushy.
“Maybe we should check this closet in the hallway,” she said, somewhat uneasily.
“No problem. Shifra, will you help me?”
There was something fascinating about her two polar-opposite sisters-in-law working in tandem. Shifra, elegantly dressed in her best, took piles of games off the shelf while Goldie, in her gray tichel, took them from her hands and laid them on the floor.
It was so strange that Chaiky found she had no idea where and how she was supposed to integrate herself into the rhythm of the work the two were doing. So it was no wonder that she fled to the kitchen, from where she called to Rachel to come eat supper.
“Rachel’s room has only her bed, the children’s chest of drawers, and a computer table. And I’ll do it tomorrow morning, b’ezras Hashem. It shouldn’t take more than twenty minutes. And I cleaned my own room for Pesach three days ago.”
“So we only have the kitchen left to check,” Yoel said. He chuckled. “Early bedikas chametz.”
Chaiky didn’t like his strong odor of cigarettes, especially not when he was standing near the open window at one in the morning, and all the residents of her building and the next building—or whoever was up at this hour—could smell everything.
Menachem and Goldie had already left more than an hour ago; Rachel had fallen asleep in her room. Shifra quietly returned the last few things to the cabinet in the children’s room, and Chaiky prepared black coffee for her brother. “In short, we didn’t find anything major,” she said.
“Are you disappointed?” Yoel asked with a laugh.
“No, I’m worried.”
“Worried? About what?”
“That we didn’t find what they are looking for.”
Yoel shook his head. “We turned over almost everything, and you don’t have to worry—if there’s something that might incriminate Shlomo, it’s here, in this bag.”
Chaiky glanced at the counter. The large bag contained the telephone book along with the contents of the two drawers where Shlomo kept his papers. It made no difference that as far as she knew, they were phone and electric bills, and other stuff of that genre, but, “We won’t be able to go over everything,” Yoel had said an hour earlier as he turned the drawer over right into the bag. There were a few other letters, documents, and receipts relating to the yeshivah, and any jewelry that had a stone of any type, even Naomi’s silver ring dotted with tiny clear chips, was put in the bag.
Chaiky nodded, just as Yisrael Meir emitted a long, thin wail. She began walking toward him when suddenly she turned back again. “We have to tell them at the yeshivah!” she said, her eyes widening. “Maybe the office should be prepared to be searched. I have no idea what is there.”
Yoel took a sip of his coffee. “Since when did Shlomo sit in the office?”
“He really was hardly there, but when there were lots of phone calls to make to donors, he did do some of his calls from the office. And if they suspect that somehow there’s a connection to the yeshivah here, it’s only natural that they will want to search there as well, no?”
Yoel shook his head doubtfully. “I don’t know how much they believe that Shlomo was just a messenger who came to collect donations for the yeshivah, so I’m not sure they even connect this whole accusation to the yeshivah at all. But I’ll tell your father-in-law. Let them check if there’s something suspicious.”
The next day Sebelia, the cleaning lady, arrived and spent the day scrubbing the kitchen cabinets with Chaiky. A day later she came again, and they finished the refrigerator and the oven. Chaiky was planning to go to her parents for the Seder, and Rachel, who was literally a savior during these hectic days, was also invited there.
The house was completely clean, and most importantly, devoid of any shred of evidence that could serve as proof of the accusations against Shlomo.
But no one came to search for anything.
Three days before bedikas chametz, Noa arrived, somewhat abashed, and laughingly apologizing for not bringing her gift until now.
“The salesgirl was right when she told me not to buy something too small,” she said, “because I think that very soon, this is also going to be too tiny for your baby.”
“Wow, thank you very much, Noa.” Chaiky tried to hide her shock as she led Noa into the dining room, and served some fruit and drinks. “It’s so nice of you!”
They sat in silence. Noa sliced a piece of an apple, murmured something quickly, and bit into it. “I wanted to come with Elka,” she said, “but she told me that she doesn’t have time these days and that she already gave you her gift at the bris.”
“She warned me that it might not be a great idea for me to pop in now, because it’s probably not a good time for you either.” She looked around. “But everything here is so organized; it doesn’t look anything like the upheaval going on by her now.” She grimaced. “I saw it.”
Chaiky had to smile. “There’s no comparing. Elka is staying home for the Seder, so she has much more work than I do.”
“I’ll be at my parents’, b’ezras Hashem.”
“I’m also traveling,” Noa said, taking another piece of the apple. “Out of the country, to be exact. Tomorrow morning. That’s why I decided to come now despite Elka’s warnings. I didn’t want to postpone the visit and the gift for when I get back.”
“Where are you going?”
“To my grandfather.” Noa swallowed the bite of apple. “He lives in Russia.”
“Russia?” Chaiky fell silent for a moment. “I might also be flying there, but only after Yom Tov. I don’t yet know exactly when.”
“My husband is there.” She chose to keep it brief. Noa probably knew. And even if she didn’t, she had no energy to start talking about it right now.
“Oh, right. I forgot that he was in Russia.” She suddenly raised her eyes. “Do you want to send anything with me? Maybe I can try to find a way to get it to him.”
Chaiky looked at her in surprise. “It’s very complicated to get packages into the prison, especially on a private level. And there is an organization that is taking care of whatever he needs for Yom Tov, so at least I know he won’t starve. But that’s very nice of you to offer, thanks.”
Noa seemed to want to say something, but she didn’t have the chance. The door to the house opened, and Rachel entered with the children.
“Nu, so what happened in the end, after he smelled something special?” Naomi didn’t even look at her mother and her guest sitting in the dining room, so intent was she on the story Rachel was telling her.
“He went out to the garden,” Rachel was dramatic, “and slowly walked among the flowers and trees. He went from tree to tree, from flower to flower…”
“Did he have a flashlight?” Dovi asked. “You said it was at night!”
“Of course he had a flashlight. He shone the light all around and searched to see where the wonderful smell was coming from…” Only then did Rachel notice the other two women. She stopped mid sentence. “Oh, hello there.”
“Ima, you don’t know what an amazing story Rachel told us!” Naomi gushed. “Ask her to tell it to you also! It’s about… What is that flower called, Rachel?”
“It has all kinds of names. It’s a type of jasmine, actually.”
“Okay, so go on!” Dovi begged.
“I think we’ll continue tomorrow,” Rachel replied.
“Fine, but don’t forget where you’re up to.” Dovi turned to his mother. “We already ate supper outside, Ima, and I’m tired,” he announced. “Hey, what’s this? A present? She brought it?”
Noa stood up hastily, leaving the gift and its fancy packaging on the table. “Use it in good health, Chaiky,” she said. “See you. Have a chag same’ach.”
“You, too,” Chaiky said. She looked toward the other woman who was already standing at the door, and something in her back seemed suddenly stooped. Chaiky, who hadn’t felt any animosity toward Noa for some time already, perhaps because she was not at work right now and was thus removed from the internal politics going on there, suddenly felt pity rise up within her. She hoped that she and her children would have a happy Yom Tov, despite her torturous thoughts about her husband far away in a Russian prison. But what about Noa? As far as Chaiky knew, her family was not really observant. What kind of Yom Tov awaited her? What kind of challenges would she be facing?
“Look, Noa, there’s an organization called V’chai Achicha,” she said hastily. “It’s the organization I mentioned before. They help Jews who are in any kind of need. Their headquarters are here in Israel, but I can give you the number of their branch in Russia. When my father-in-law was there, they took care of his accommodations and everything he needed, and I’m sure they’d be happy to help you with anything you need—matzah, charoses, marror, kosher-for-Pesach food…”
Noa looked at her for a long moment, and Chaiky was afraid she’d offended her. Maybe Noa had already prepared everything for herself—which would make sense, knowing her—and this suggestion was being taken as an insult?
But Noa just shrugged her shoulders and said lightly, “That’s a good idea. I’d be happy to take down their information. Thanks.”