Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 31 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.
Had Elka seen the young woman walking the halls of the Russian villa, she would never have recognized her Noa. But it was Noa, striding briskly, and ignoring the fact that Stefana, the servant girl that her grandfather had assigned to her, was trying valiantly to keep up with her.
“Madam? Madam! Your milk!”
Only when she reached the stairs did Noa turn her head. “Really,” she noted icily, “I’ve long passed the age of needing a nanny. And even when I was that age, I didn’t have one.”
“So I should spill out the milk?” Stefana asked submissively.
“You can drink it yourself, if you’d like. And let them know in the kitchen that I don’t like milk,” Noa said as she continued walking.
“Once, Madam liked it very much.” Stefana shook her head in wonder.
Noa spun around. “What do you know about me?”
“The Master made sure that I know.” Stefana nodded her head. “He gave me a page out of your personal file to read.”
“My personal file! Ahem!” Noa lowered her voice. “So I understand that I really am filed away here like one of the employees. Tell me, Stefana, what other documents were there?”
“I don’t know. They called me, gave me a paper, I read it, and then I gave it right back.”
Noa stared at her for a long time, as if trying to evaluate how honest Stefana was, and then turned around again and went down the stairs. Stefana remained standing at the top, holding the glass filled almost to the top with white liquid. “But Madam!” she called, after a moment. “If you like milk, why don’t you want to drink this?”
“Because I’ve gotten used to the different taste of milk in Israel.” Noa didn’t look back. “Now leave me alone, Stefana, okay?” Her watch indicated that it was eight fifteen in the morning. She was going to meet Grandfather for the first time since arriving yesterday afternoon. The long corridors were empty, and even though she knew that Grandfather employed an army of servants, she didn’t allow herself to wonder about it. She was completely focused on this meeting, and with the hope that Grandfather would be pleased with her and with what she had brought.
One Wednesday afternoon five and a half months earlier, Chaiky had gone to the community center like always. It wasn’t quite like always, because she had planned to leave earlier than usual to go to the airport to welcome Shlomo. Just a few minutes before she left her office, she called her mother-in-law. She thought it was just a final call to confirm the logistics before leaving for Lod, and her mother-in-law indeed said something about a taxi. But she must have missed a word or two as she arranged a few papers in her drawer. Something wasn’t clear.
“A taxi to you?” she asked. “Shouldn’t we do it the other way, that you should leave first and pick me up? I’m much closer to the exit of the city. Why take the longer route when we’re hurrying to the airport?” Shlomo’s mother had said something about him being delayed and that they had to talk, but that she shouldn’t worry.
At the time, worrying was the last thing on Chaiky’s mind. She’d never been a very fretful type, and especially now, with Shlomo on the way back and this whole trip—which she had been most unexcited about—behind them, why should she be concerned? Her mother-in-law, on the other hand, was much more of a worrier. Perhaps that’s why it was so strange that she, Chaiky, had been strongly against the idea of Shlomo’s trip, while her mother-in-law had taken the whole idea with absolute equanimity.
That was also exactly what Shlomo had said to her at the time: “If my mother isn’t worried, then that shows that you certainly shouldn’t be, no?” He really didn’t see any reason for concern. A short trip, back and forth—what could be the problem? His mother was the paragon of anxiety in his mind; if something didn’t frighten her, it should not frighten anyone, as far as he was concerned. And because he had never believed in sixth senses, he didn’t understand that what Chaiky was feeling wasn’t just fear. It was a sense of discomfort that intensified as she heard more stories from him about the kind millionaire that he was visiting in Russia. It wasn’t simple worry or a fear of flying. Come on, she wasn’t a twelve-year-old girl who was afraid that the plane would fall out of the sky, or something like that!
She had already begun heading for the door when suddenly a thought struck her. , She quickly called back her mother-in-law—who picked up on the first ring, as though she was waiting with her hand on the phone.
“Did the plane crash?” Chaiky asked without preamble.
“Crash? Of course not. It didn’t crash, and it wasn’t hijacked. Are you coming?”
“Is everything okay with Dovi?” Dovi was supposed to be at her in-laws’ house now, playing with his ten-year-old uncles. Had he fallen? Gotten hurt? Broken his leg?
“What? Dovi? Baruch Hashem, everything’s fine. He’s not even here right now; we sent him with the twins to play at Menachem and Goldie’s, because we need it to be quiet so we can talk. Don’t worry, but please, just come.”
Don’t worry, don’t worry, she said, but the minute the worry had been granted the slightest permit of entry, Chaiky could not relax. If everything was so fine with everyone, and all that they had to tell her was not to worry, then why did she have to go to her in-laws’ house “to talk”? If there were delays with Shlomo’s flight, shouldn’t she go home to bake the cake she hadn’t had time to put together this morning? She had already bought some baked goods, and the fridge and cabinets were thankfully full. The house was also sparkling; the only thing she hadn’t gotten around to was baking, and that was too bad. Shlomo loved her rich chocolate cake, her mother’s recipe.
She remembered the cake the Sunday after, when she arrived with the children, sapped, panicked, and confused, at her parents’ home in Be’er Sheva. That was exactly the type of cake waiting for them in the fridge, and Ima poured a cup of grapefruit juice for her and urged her to make a brachah and eat something.
“You’re totally dehydrated,” she’d said. “I don’t even recognize your voice.” Her daughter’s normally staid and measured voice had suddenly become hoarse, and her sentences were rapid and fragmented.
It took Mira Brodsky a full week to get her daughter’s voice somewhat back to its normal state, and even that success was only partial. Chaiky and the children returned to Yokne’am after a week, somewhat recovered—but only a bit. Her parents had asked Chaiky to stay, but she refused. “The children need to be in their schools,” she’d said, and Ima knew that it gave stability not only to the children, but also to her daughter, who thrived on structure.
Since then, they hadn’t come, except for one Shabbos.
But today, Erev Pesach, a bit more than five months later, they were here.
Chaiky’s mother could not help but admit that the structured life had been good for her daughter, despite the difficulty of being so far from her parents during this harrowing time. Chaiky was sitting calmly in the Pesachdige kitchen, her voice sounding like it always had, and except for something in her eyes that remained dull when she smiled, she looked like herself.
Chaiky tucked the tails of Dovi’s shirt into his pants and raised her gaze to her mother. “So what can I do to help?” she asked.
“Nothing.” Mira Brodsky smiled. “While you were sleeping, Rachel helped me peel all the vegetables for the soup, and that’s it. There’s really nothing left to do.”
“So I can just go back to sleep?” Chaiky joked.
“Yes,” Rachel chimed in. “We’re getting along great. You have such a nice mother, do you know that?”
This was not how Shlomo had envisioned the beginning of his trial to be. In all the images he’d painted in his mind, the trial would take place in a large, ominous hall. The judge would bang his gavel over and over, and move things along quickly, and all the glances sent in his direction would be full of hostility. But the reality was very different: the courtroom was of average size, the judge didn’t bang with a gavel at all, and everything took a very long time. Just reading out the list of witnesses, the cross-examinations, and the evidence took nearly an hour. His new lawyer, selected in place of Morchov, and the veteran lawyer, were asked a few technical questions, and they asked him nothing other than confirming his personal details. Then, after an hour and a half, the first session of his trial came to an end.
He was assigned a pleasant interpreter, a young man named Avigdor whom Eliyahu Margulies had recommended. Avigdor spoke fluent Russian, English, and Hebrew, and his very presence was comforting to Shlomo, who hadn’t been able to communicate much with his lawyers. They didn’t sit close to him, and during the actual hearing, they were not allowed to converse. In any case, he could only speak to them in English; the Hebrew of the Jewish lawyer was poor, and the new one, who had joined the case just a week earlier, was not Jewish and thus did not speak any Hebrew.
“He’s an excellent lawyer,” Avigdor had told him. “I’ve heard a lot about him.”
“Still, I’m not comfortable with the fact that he’s not Jewish,” Shlomo had replied.
This conversation took place before the hearing began. The prisoner’s vehicle had come to the courtroom early, and Shlomo and the warden who was accompanying him were asked to wait on a bench in the corridor until the hearing began. And that’s when Avigdor had arrived, wearing a blue peaked cap. He had come right over to Shlomo, his hands behind his back. “I understand that you’re my boss now. Nice to meet you. I’m Avigdor Brutzky, your interpreter.”
The “boss,” his hands cuffed, smiled wanly.
The young man turned to the warden and introduced himself in Russian, and then naturally took a seat on the bench beside them.