Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 33 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 moment of candle-lighting was her breaking point. Behind her, Yisrael Meir lay in the carriage, sweet as could be in one of the new outfits that he’d received as a gift at his bris. Dovi and Naomi sat on chairs in the kitchen, watching curiously as their grandmother checked the fridge for the roasted egg and zeroa, and asking her a thousand questions. Chaiky stood in front of the shelf; her mother’s candles were already lit, and hers were waiting to be lit. She struck the match, but found that she couldn’t say a single word.
The small flame quickly ate the match and inched closer to her fingers. She dropped the match to the floor when it got too hot. Then she gaped at it, glowing red-orange on the tile before it went out completely. Clumsily, she took another match out of the box.
“Is there a problem with the matches?” Rachel approached. “Your mother’s in the kitchen. Should I ask her for other ones? You know, those Chinese workers who made them probably didn’t really care if they came out good or not. Lots of times there are boxes where the matches don’t light well, especially those with the pink heads. They probably have almost none of that sulfur substance on it, and that’s why they are so light colored. Oh, I see that these match heads are really red. Do you want to try another one before I ask your mother for a different box?”
The fire kindled with a scratch of the match. Chaiky lit the five candles, and then covered her face with her hands. Behind her, Rachel said, “But I thought you only make the brachah after you light on Shabbos, not on Yom Tov. That’s what your mother did.”
True; she had gotten mixed up.
L’hadlik ner shel Yom Tov. Shehecheyanu v’kiyimanu…lazman hazeh.
The trial had begun two days earlier. No approval for a phone call had been forthcoming, and she could neither wish Shlomo hatzlachah in court or a good Yom Tov. They hadn’t spoken since the night before Yisrael Meir’s bris.
Tears spilled over between Chaiky’s fingers as she tried to think of all the important things to daven for, but everything spun around in her head in a mighty whirl. Shlomo…the children…Yisrael Meir, who had smiled for the first time last week…herself…
When she lowered her hands, Ima was still in the kitchen with the children, and Chaiky was happy that they didn’t see her scrambling for a tissue. “Here, here,” Rachel said, handing her some tissues, never taking her eyes off Chaiky. “Take. You’re…you’re such a tzaddeikes.”
Chaiky groped for the nearest chair and sat down, burying her face in the tissues. She heard another chair being dragged a few inches and then stopping right near her. A few seconds of silence passed and then, “You know? When I’ll be a mother, I also want to daven like that, with tears, for my family. I want to be like you.”
“It’s not worth your while to try to be like me.” Chaiky raised her head and stared at the blurred orbs of light in front of her. “Look for a real tzaddeikes to emulate, not someone who cries with weakness only when she gets pounded on the head with a hammer.”
“You’re being pounded on the head with a hammer? You must mean it as some type of mashal, right?” Rachel didn’t look at Chaiky, instead focusing on the set table behind Chaiky’s back. Chaiky didn’t reply. “Because if it’s a mashal, it reminds me of what I learned with Dovi last Shabbos, when we studied together for his Chumash test on the nisyonos of Avraham Avinu. And that only shows that you are an even bigger tzaddeikes, in a very high place.”
Chaiky didn’t have the energy to respond. Yes, she knew that in Rachel’s eyes she was already at the summit of the world if she cried at candle-lighting. Very nice. Avraham Avinu, no less.
“I don’t know if your nisayon is harder than mine, but I think that you crack less when you’re being knocked on,” Rachel said thoughtfully. “I’ve seen all kinds of people in my life, and you are really special. You daven with kavanah, you always act calmly and nicely to your children, and never yell at them, and you make brachos with them with kavanah, and you are so nice to so many people, even when you are not in the mood… Like now, right?”
Chaiky suddenly erupted in what sounded like a hysterical cackle of laughter, but Rachel interpreted it as another form of breaking down.
“Oy,” she said ruefully, “I would call your mother, but it’s better that she’s keeping the kids busy in the kitchen right? I already noticed that you try very hard not to be weak in front of them. Good for you. I just…I’m just sorry that I am not more supportive about these things, because it’s something that I don’t really know how to do. And I personally never could stand it when I broke down, and then people started to talk to me in this soft voice and offering me silly words of consolation and giving me pats on the back.”
There were a few moments of silence, and then Chaiky suddenly noticed that the chair beside her was empty. At one point Rachel must have gotten up and gone to the kitchen. When they had first met in the hospital, she couldn’t stand Rachel’s constant nudging. Then she looked at the charming side of the endless chatter, and realized that when all was said and done, she could enjoy the company of this girl, not to mention the help she gave her. Today, she couldn’t imagine how she would have managed taking care of Yisrael Meir, the other children, and the house, alone, without Rachel at her side. So yes, she had a lot of gratitude, and she also had a desire not to disappoint Rachel, who expected her to be perfect. But when she was sucked into her black holes, and Rachel stood over her and gushed with admiration—she needed to expend a lot of effort not to get up and mutter a snappish comment before going to her room and closing the door firmly behind her.
The aroma of eggs and fried potatoes wafted out of the kitchen. Maybe Ima needed her help? After all, Rachel was only one pair of hands.
One pair of hands and one pair of eyes and one pair of ears that followed and checked and absorbed and internalized every tiny move in the house, for better or for worse. Perhaps for that reason, she’d imposed absolute control over her external demeanor, even though inside, she felt out of control and so very vulnerable. But she hadn’t realized just how piercing Rachel’s expectant gaze would be.
“I’m going out, Stefana.” Noa took her coat over her arm, without even glancing at the loaded tray that her servant was carrying into the room.
“What?” Stefana put the tray down on the shelf near the door and remained standing there, looking with round eyes at Noa, who was getting ready to go. “Madam is going? Where to?”
“It makes no difference. I’m going out. I’ll be back in a couple days. We’ll see.”
“You can’t do this.”
Noa glared at her. “Who decides here what I can and can’t do?”
“Not me, Madam.”
“Actually, it seems that you don’t know that.”
“But it’s not you either, Madam.”
“Maybe instead of saying ‘Madam, Madam,’ all the time, move out of the doorway and let me pass, please?” Noa stood at the door. Just this morning, after speaking to Elka for a long time—which immediately carried her back to the atmosphere in which she’d spent the recent months—she decided to call the number that Chaiky had given her. The director of the V’chai Achicha branch gave her a detailed timetable of when the Yom Tov started. If she didn’t leave very soon, she’d get to her host family after Yom Tov began, and that would make things very awkward.
“I can’t have you just go without telling anyone, Madam.”
“Who said I’m ‘just going’? Maybe I’m going out on a two-day trip with my grandfather? How do you know who I told and who I didn’t tell, and since when do I have to give you a reckoning of each and every thing I do?” Noa’s fury was mounting. Her fingers drummed on the doorpost. If she wouldn’t be so polite, she would have just pushed Stefana out of the way and left.
The servant shook her head, left, right, left. “I’m sorry, Madam,” she said submissively. “I get explicit orders from Mr. Rosenberg about you. If this would have been a planned outing, I would know about it.”
Noa’s hands dropped to her sides. “You. Get. Explicit. Orders. From. My. Grandfather. About. Me?”
Noa took a few steps back and sat down—or rather sank down—onto the large upholstered cushion in the corner of the room. “So you are actually my jailer,” she said after a moment.
“No.” Stefana was still standing in the same place with a polite, somewhat bashful smile on her face. “Because you are not a prisoner here, Madam. Although I have no idea how you planned on getting out of this complex, exactly. Didn’t you see when you arrived how complicated it is to pass each gate?”
“To get in.”
“Getting out isn’t so simple either.”
Noa stood up to her full height in front of the much shorter Stefana. “And if I want to go out anyway?” she said. “Come on, if you’re not my jailer, then please let me pass, because it’s late. And I have no problem if you go and tell my grandfather that I left. Tell him that it’s not for more than one day and that he shouldn’t worry.”
“I can’t let you leave like that.” Stefana’s features remained almost expressionless.
“Again, with your ‘like that.’ What does it mean to leave ‘like that’? How can I leave not ‘like that’?”
“‘Like that’ means alone, without us knowing where you are.”
Noa folded her arms. “Oh, alone is the problem?”
“And if you come with me?”
“Then it’s probably fine,” the young Russian woman said reluctantly. It appeared that until now, she had done everything she could to refrain from presenting this as a viable option.
“So let’s go. Please hurry and pack your things,” Noa said, not particularly feeling bad for the other woman. “And inform anyone whom you need to inform, but quickly, because we’re already running quite late.”
She waited impatiently, swinging her overnight bag back and forth at a rapidly increasing rhythm. But the waiting finally paid off when Stefana appeared and informed her tonelessly that a car was waiting for them outside. Another form of surveillance, Noa thought, but she didn’t protest, because it was the only way she had a chance to arrive at the time she’d been asked to come.
The two sat in silence for the duration of the ride, and only when they stopped at the home of their host family did Noa lean to the right and say quietly, “This is a Jewish family, Stefana, do you understand? And they don’t know I’m bringing someone else with me. I didn’t tell them ahead of time. So what I’m asking you to do is pretend to be my friend, a Jewish woman, of course, and don’t talk too much. Alright? You’ll give the impression of being the quiet, reticent type, maybe even a bit indifferent. Let me manage the conversations and the talking. And if they ask you, then you are Jewish but you have no idea what that means, and you are really not interested in religion—but I dragged you here. Clear?”
Stefana nodded. It was very clear to her that, after all was said and done, the description was almost accurate. Or rather, very accurate.
“They left.” Eliyahu Margolis turned around from the window.
“They were actually very pleasant, no?” His wife collected the Havdalah plate and the besamim from the table. “Not a bother at all.”
“I meant the two black cars.”
“Which cars?” She was distracted.
“The two cars that were parked here for the last day or two. It reminded me a bit of how things were twenty-five years ago.”
Mrs. Margolis walked over to the window. “Were people sitting inside?”
“Some of the time.”
“Nu, so someone from one of the buildings around here attracted a bit too much attention for some people. After all, don’t forget we are in Russia.”
“The question is if it was people from one of the other buildings, or from this building.”
She pulled back the curtain. “Throughout the time you’ve been busy with Struk, we didn’t see even one strange car here, so what are you afraid of now?”
“I’m not particularly afraid, but I’m curious about it.” He walked away from the window. “So what do you say about the guests? What was your impression?”
“That they were very easy, quiet, refined girls. Too bad I didn’t quite grasp where they live—Russia, Israel, Russia…I got confused. One hardly said ten words the whole time she was here, and the other one said almost nothing about herself. But she is very inquisitive.” She also turned away from the window. “And you’ll laugh if you know what I’m already thinking.”
“I imagine that, as usual, you are getting back to the same point.”
“Of course.” She smiled. “After exchanging just five sentences with Noa, I knew that I had a good shidduch for her.”
“I probably could have sufficed with four. She’s already over thirty, and I saw right away what I’m dealing with.”
“Nu, I have to remember that I’m talking to a shadchante who has fifty-seven successful shidduchim in her repertoire.” Eliyahu Margolis smiled. “So who were you thinking of for her?”
She was about to go to the kitchen with the Havdalah paraphernalia, but paused to hear his reaction to her words: “I’m thinking about Zalmanowitz’s son. I already mentioned it to her, and she smiled.”