Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 32 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 last time Noa had visited her grandfather was when she’d turned seventeen. They’d traveled to Russia for a two–week visit, most of which they’d spent within the confines of the house. Noa couldn’t complain, because the house was hardly confined, and in fact, was so large that even two weeks wasn’t enough to explore the whole thing.
It really hadn’t been enough. This hall, where her grandfather was waiting now, was one place she hadn’t visited then.
The door opened before her as she approached, and she smiled. Something about the automatic glass door, the type that you see in every big shopping center or health clinic around the world, was hardly the same style as the elegant, heavy décor of the hall—from the dripping chandeliers, the dark table and chairs, and the gleaming wood floor, to the walls covered with heavy, tightly pleated drapes (she had no idea if there were any windows behind them). Despite the huge expanse of the hall, Noa felt stifled. She turned toward the glass and metal door, which still remained open.
“You’re smiling,” she heard Grandfather’s voice rumble. Noa looked around. At the head of the massive table that filled the hall—and which was bare except for two ashtrays—was a chair upholstered in leopard-print leather. But Grandfather was not sitting on it.
“I’m here,” he said, and she turned around in surprise. On the other side, near a small, low glass table, he was waiting for her, sitting on a light wood, high-backed chair, and studying her with a penetrating gaze. “You are smiling,” he repeated. “Why?”
Noa approached the low table. There was no second chair there. “Good morning, Grandfather,” she said carefully. “I smiled because of the door.”
“The door?” He did not turn his head. “What’s amusing about the door?”
“If I was an interior designer, I would not have let anyone install it here. It doesn’t blend in with the general look of the room; compared to everything else it looks so plain and simple.”
“So it looks that way. Who, if not you, is supposed to know that things that look one way very often are really something entirely different?”
“Are you referring to me, Grandfather?”
“Yes.” He nodded his head toward the long table on his right. “Take a chair and come here. As you recall, if you recall, I sometimes suffer from back pain. This chair is the only one I can sit in. Come.”
Elka also suffered from back pain sometimes, and although it was most incongruous to admit Elka to this place—even in her mind—Noa found herself thinking about her as she dragged the heavy chair over to the other side of the glass table. She sat down quietly and waited for Grandfather to continue speaking. But he was quiet.
“So,” she said when the silence continued, and got a bit too awkward for comfort. “I brought with me all the copies of the letters. I think they came out very good. Do you want to see them?”
“I’m sure I’ll have a chance to in time,” her grandfather said without moving his head. “Right now I have another question.”
“How can a good granddaughter hear that her grandfather is not feeling well, and continue to sit and chat without taking a shred of interest in that?”
Noa stared at her fingertips. She had always hated these meetings with Grandfather. “You are such a strong figure for me…” She chose her words carefully, and then hurried to add, “Grandfather. You’re such a strong and significant figure that…it didn’t seem to me that you needed my interest and concern. That’s all. It seemed…unnecessary to me.”
“Yes? I’m a strong and significant figure for you?”
“Interesting. I thought actually that the director of your community center is.”
“The director?” Noa found herself really laughing now. “Who, Chaiky?”
“I don’t know her first name. You mean Struk?”
“Yes. She’s the last person I would describe as ‘strong.’ She’s…”
“I wasn’t talking about her. I meant the supervisor, the one with whom you forged contacts.”
“Elka. But she’s also not a strong figure for me, Grandfather. I have expertly manipulated her from the minute I got to her community center. I mean, from the minute before I got there.”
“Stop bragging,” Grandfather said sharply, and Noa fell silent. “You are indeed manipulating her with great expertise, but the time has come to end this game. Listen to me, granddaughter,” he said, an unfamiliar tone in his voice. “Of the four grandchildren I have, you are the most talented, smart, and successful.” He leaned forward, and his large eyelids descended for a moment over his eyes in an expression of pain, and then rose again. “I would want you here, working alongside me. The monthly salary you are getting from me will quadruple, and besides that,” he smiled, “if you live here, you can pick any door you want for every room.”
Again his small valise and the suitcase from Rosenberg were lying on the counter. The clerk smiled at him a bit too amiably and began to open the zipper, as a line of police officers stood behind him with their arms folded.
Again, like always in recent nights, the cloth bags were resting not inside the gray suitcase, but inside his own valise.
“That’s not mine!” he wanted to shout. “There’s a mistake here. The diamonds are supposed to be in Rosenberg’s suitcase, not in my personal valise! And it’s just his donation to our yeshivah! He’s a Jew, a Jew with a warm heart! What difference does it make to you if he chooses to give me a check, like before, or diamonds? I can’t incriminate him…” His voice faded out. Wait, how had his voice faded if he hadn’t shouted a word, and only wanted to shout?
Shlomo raised his head from the thin mattress, staring at a spider that was strolling three centimeters from his nose. With a tired motion, he swatted away the spider—so that it could then climb up from the other side. He rose, filled his plastic cup with water from the closed container in the corner of the room, and washed his hands.
He remembered that moment so sharply, and apparently he would not be able to forget it until his final day. The second when the policeman opened the suitcase, emptied it of the toothbrushes that filled it, and took out the fabric sachets right near the bottom. He opened one of them, stuck his hand inside, and pulled it out, full.
“These diamonds are pretty good quality, but not the best,” Rosenberg had told him at their meeting. “I’m sorry, but that’s what I can give. And believe me that I would want to help more.” Even then, it had been a tremendous donation, and Shlomo groped for the right words to express his appreciation. He always knew that he had excellent speaking skills and a persuasive ability, but he didn’t know to what extent.
It was a miracle that the diamonds had been found in Rosenberg’s case and not in his personal valise. His interpreter, who had studied law, had claimed yesterday in their introductory encounter that it could reduce his sentence. Sentence. Sentence.
They had only managed to speak a bit. Avigdor had hardly asked Shlomo anything about his legal status. He’d only told him a little about himself, about the years he’d spent in Eretz Yisrael, the yeshivos where he’d learned, his marriage, and his work in the Russian court system’s interpreters’ department. He spoke as though they were getting to know each other in an idyllic, scenic setting, and completely ignored the narrow width of the corridor, the Russian flag hanging wherever you looked, the metal handcuffs that adorned the wrists of his client, and the warden who sat and gazed at them with utter boredom.
Shlomo, with the pain hammering in his head, a pain that had begun four days earlier when he’d received notice that the trial would be commencing, took interest in what Avigdor was saying. It was wonderful to speak to someone in a familiar language, face to face, and not through a small, barred opening. And he preferred to speak about Avigdor and not about himself.
“How do you manage at work, with the anti-Semitism?” he’d asked.
“Anti-Semitism? You have that everywhere.” Avigdor waved his hand airily. “It’s possible that we will move to Israel in another year or two; I dream about it. I have a two-week-old baby, and I don’t want to raise him here. Do you have children, Reb Shlomo?”
“Three, baruch Hashem.” Shlomo’s face contorted for a moment.
Four hours before Yom Tov, Yoel called from the hotel in the Austrian Alps. “The scenery here is breathtaking,” he reported. “And the food is amazing. Too bad you didn’t come with us, Chaiky. Everything is fantastic, and the hechsher is tops. There’s even babysitting service here. Believe me, it’s great for clearing the mind.”
“It’s also mind-clearing to be here,” she replied. “Ima’s almond cake, Abba’s coffee, and I have a baby-sitter right here with me. I even managed to make some order in the chest of drawers in the room where my kids are sleeping. Do you know how many treasures I found there? The letters game that I made you when I was in second grade, when I decided to be a teacher. You were two and a half—you probably don’t even remember.”
“Sure I remember that game,” he replied, amused. “We played with those cards even later on, when I got older. It was a really cute game.”
“Right. I gave it to Dovi and Naomi to play, and they were busy with it for hours.”
“Where did you get the idea for that game, anyway?”
Chaiky glanced at her parents’ bedroom door. It was closed; Ima was probably sleeping. Still, she lowered her voice when she spoke. “From Anna. She taught me all the letters when I was only three.”
“Three! And you knew them?”
“I think so. I can’t tell you if at age three I knew them all; I probably didn’t. But when I went to nursery, I for sure knew most of them.”
Yoel chuckled. “You were always talented,” he said, and then asked, “Did she make games for you?”
“Yes, but those are not in the house. Nothing is left here from her. I think Ima threw it all out.”
“There weren’t too many pictures of her anyway. She didn’t like taking pictures, to the best of my recollection. She actually did like photographing others, though. Most of the pictures of me as a girl were taken by her. On her camera.”
“That she got from her aunt and uncle.”
“How did you know?”
“Just guessing. It fits into the rest of the story.” He paused for a moment. “And has Ima come to terms with you taking Rachel in?”
“More than come to terms. They’ve become good friends.” The odor of sugar beginning to burn wafted out of the kitchen. Rachel had asked if she could make two-tone caramel ice cream for Yom Tov, and Ima had gladly given over the counter and the stovetop before going to rest. “One second, Yoel,” Chaiky whispered and set the receiver down near the phone. She dashed to the kitchen. “Rachel?”
“Yes?” Rachel raised her face from the Pesachdig pan. “Is Yisrael Meir crying? Do you want me to pick him up?”
“No, no, I just thought that something smelled like it was burning here.”
“Oh, it’s fine.” Rachel smiled, turning her concentration back to the frying pan and continuing to pour something into it from the cup she was holding. “Baruch Hashem, nothing got burned. That’s the trick with this ice cream—to get that perfect moment when the sugar is caramelized but hasn’t yet burned. The cook at my old boarding school taught me how to identify that moment.”
Chaiky flashed her a smile that Rachel was too busy to notice, and went back to the phone. “She’s making ice cream here now. I was just checking to make sure nothing was burning.”
“The main thing is that you sound great,” Yoel concluded.
“The main thing is that what?”
“That you sound great. It makes no difference if you’re in Israel or Austria, Yokne’am or Be’er Sheva; as long as I hear that you’re busy with ice cream that shouldn’t burn, then I know that everything’s fine.”
Chaiky’s fingers tightened around the receiver. She knew very well that Shlomo wasn’t getting any ice cream this Yom Tov. She was grateful for the fact that they had been able to deliver matzos and a bit of cooked food to him; based on what she’d been told, they had needed lots of permits to do it, and there had been quite a tumult because of the whole thing. Ice cream? Any other fancy dessert? There wasn’t a chance Shlomo would be getting that in prison.
Was that what Yoel was trying to insinuate? Couldn’t be.
“Yes,” she said, her voice sounding thin and weary all of a sudden. “I’m happy to hear that I sound great. Anyway, call back in another hour, Yoel—Ima and Abba should be up by then.”