Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 37 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.
“It’s fine, don’t worry about it. It’s our pleasure, really!” Riva Margulies firmly rejected all of Chaiky’s attempts to thank her. Chaiky was sitting in the back seat of their car, holding Yisrael Meir in her arms. Riva’s husband had put Chaiky’s beige suitcase into the trunk and closed it, and now they were ready to head for the Margulies family’s home.
“One second,” Chaiky said suddenly, her eyes glued to the window pane. “How do you open this window, Riva?”
“With the button on the left.”
Chaiky quickly pressed the button and the window slid down elegantly. She took another look. Yes. What she had seen through the clear plastic was exactly what she was seeing now, through the open window. Could that girl walking on the other end of the parking lot really be her?
She squinted. Before the figure turned away and moved on, Chaiky managed to get a pretty close-up look. Those were definitely Noa’s features, and that was Noa’s way of walking… The person really did look just like Noa!
But on the other hand, it wasn’t possible. Noa, despite her strange background, still dressed like a proper frum girl. There was very little similarity between the figure growing more distant by the minute and the girl who had taken over the community center in Yokne’am even before Chaiky had gone on maternity leave.
“Hey, that’s Noa,” Riva said, following Chaiky’s gaze. “If we understood correctly, you gave her the phone number of our organization, right?”
“Right. Did she contact you?”
“She did, and the office gave her our address. She and her friend were with us for the first days of Pesach.”
“And how was it?”
“Great. She’s very pleasant, just a bit quiet.”
“Yes.” Riva chuckled. “Maybe she isn’t quiet in her normal environment, but she is shy when she is in a new setting. Do you know her well?”
“You could say so.”
“For a long time?”
“If you call half a year a long time, then yes.”
Riva looked thoughtful. “I think that’s enough time to get to know someone. Very good, so I can find out some information about her from you. I’ve got my eye on her for someone from here… First, though, I’ll let you recover from your trip.”
Chaiky didn’t notice the streets they were passing. She lowered her eyes to the sleeping baby, stroking his forehead with her pinky. He was wrapped well, and it was comfortable in the car. Riva wanted to ask her about Noa…her, of all people.
“So she was with you for the first days?” This time Chaiky began the conversation.
“And how…how was she dressed?”
“Like…well, you know, like someone just starting to become a bit more observant. I know she received some guidance at the office about the basic stuff, but I didn’t expect any more from her than that. You know how it is with these distant Yidden—they have no idea… Nu, you just saw her from far; I really don’t have to tell you.”
“And the shidduch you wanted to suggest for her?” Chaiky wondered what the Margulieses would think of her. She was supposed to be totally focused on her imprisoned husband, and here she was asking details about Noa, busy with other people’s marginal affairs. She herself didn’t know what to think of her behavior!
“A good boy, someone becoming more observant. Maybe a bit stronger spiritually than she is. So they’ll learn together.”
Chaiky looked out the window with the same squinted gaze as before, as though Noa was still there, twenty yards away from the Margulieses’ car. “It’s strange,” she said slowly. “Noa has been in the Chareidi world for at least half a year, and she has quite a lot of knowledge about many concepts. She isn’t just a beginner encountering the Jewish world for the first time.”
“Even better.” Riva sounded pleased to hear this.
Chaiky fell silent. No, it was not better, but she couldn’t explain why. Maybe it was also better for her to speak as little as possible, before Riva began thinking the same thing Elka thought—that she had a personal, subjective view regarding anything related to Noa Rose.
Noa released her seatbelt and leaned back. She closed her eyes, feeling heady with this renewed sense of freedom. It had once been such a natural state for her, but after ten days with Grandfather, it was refreshing, special, and very different.
She needed to remember that he wasn’t just a grandfather, but a grandfather who was used to having absolute control over hundreds of people. She should not allow herself to get back under his boots. She was foolish for having come. Now she would probably pay the price, but she couldn’t turn back the clock. At least she had worked according to her rules.
She opened her eyes. Through the window of the plane she could see only gray, soupy fog broken up by fragments of orange-ish clouds. The future didn’t look all that dismal. If Grandfather thought that during the time he had been infusing her with cash she hadn’t foreseen the future crisis, he was mistaken. His treatment of her had seen its share of ups and downs, and this time, she had been smart enough to plan her future steps before it was actually upon her. She had opened another account in another bank and had discreetly deposited money there.
Even if she would find out tomorrow or the next day that her credit card had been cancelled, with no advance notice, she would not find herself with nowhere to go and nothing to do. The horse had learned from experience and had prepared an alternate water source.
She needed to wind up the whole story with the “Culture and Community Foundation” and to see where she went from there. Elka would be terribly disappointed, but that was life. It wouldn’t be a bad idea for Elka to learn for next time to be a bit less naïve and not to believe every story her sister told her. And that sister had just read a few letters and heard a few words—and already she had built a big tower of a story. It was nice of the sister, of course, to tread exactly in the path that she had been led on, and then to drag Elka along with her, but next time, she should learn her lesson. They both should learn their lesson.
Noa rummaged around in her bag for something to eat, and wondered if there was a small part of her that actually felt bad for Elka. No. Couldn’t be.
She took out an apple and passed a hand over her eyes, trying to erase the image of Elka’s face smiling as she handed her that Danish loaded with margarine, sugar, and chocolate. But when Elka disappeared, replaced by the short, rounder Stefana, with her indifferent, blank expression, Noa felt a sudden preference for Elka.
After all was said and done, that religious woman had been very nice to her.
A broad smile—too broad—peeked at her from the next row. “Hey!” the woman bedecked in an array of jewelry and gemstones said. “You look familiar. Are you by any chance Sveta Demanjuk?”
“Certainly not,” Noa said, biting into her apple and turning her face back to the window.
“Oh, too bad. I thought you were a relative of mine. I’m Svetlana Demanjuk.” She giggled to herself. “So you are not Peter’s daughter?”
“Certainly not,” Noa replied again, leaning her head back.
“Oh, right, I got mixed up. I know who you are—you’re Rosenberg, right?”
“I’m Noa Rose.”
“Rose, Rosenberg. You look very much like your grandfather. So it makes no difference which name you use—everyone will always notice that you are his granddaughter. Since when are you Rose? And why did you change your family name?”
Noa turned to her. “Can you leave me alone?” She wrapped the core of her apple in a napkin and stuck it into her tote, pulling the zipper closed sharply. “I prefer to use my flight time to rest and not to be interrogated.”
“Sure,” the stranger said generously. “Rest as much as you’d like.”
Chaiky didn’t usually chase her children to eat, but her mother-in-law did, according to the stories Chaiky had heard and based on what she saw. Even after her children had married, Dina Struk continued to plead and cajole with them to eat as much as possible, whenever possible. As soon as they would walk in the door she would ask, “What can I warm up for you?” “Look in the fridge; see if there’s anything you’d like.” “Shlomo, you’re so pale! I am putting up some soup right now and you’re staying until it’s ready, okay?”
To her credit, she always included her daughter-in-law in all her kind offers to Shlomo. The thing was that Shlomo did not at all have a poor appetite, and his wife had a hard time watching how, as the years passed, his mother constantly “pushed” food into him, as if he were a skinny one-year-old baby who needed to gain weight—although he was long past the baby stage, and he couldn’t be described as skinny by any stretch, and the last thing he needed was to gain weight.
Maybe that was why Chaiky was the antithesis of her mother-in-law in this area. She never asked Shlomo if he was hungry. She prepared, cooked, and served food in abundance, but the whole song and dance surrounding the subject was something she avoided. Her husband ate well, thanked her for the food, and sometimes took doubles, and that was the end of the story.
But now, it was her first question. Where had she read somewhere that “a woman cannot stand it when her husband is hungry”?
“How are you managing with food, Shlomo?” she asked. Through the narrow bars and her veil of tears it was hard to see well, but you didn’t need perfect vision to see that he had lost at least ten or fifteen pounds. What a diet.
“Fine, baruch Hashem,” her husband replied. In the green prison garb he looked so different, but his voice was the same. “But tell me about you. What’s doing at home? How are you managing?”
“It’s better now, baruch Hashem. At first it was really…” She groped for the right word but couldn’t find it. “Now I’m trying to be stronger. And to daven. And to wait.” She tried not to look to either side, where four burly guards stood in the room, piercing her back with their gazes and making her very nervous. It was a miracle they were here alone, without any other prisoners or visitors.
“It’s important for the kids,” he said in a whisper. “And I daven from here that Hashem should give you strength, Chaiky. How was your flight?”
“Baruch Hashem, it was good.”
“And how did you get here? The Margulieses brought you?”
“Yes, they’re waiting outside for me.”
“Was it very hard to come in yourself? Were you able to communicate with the guards?”
“Yes, at the office by the entrance a female warden came over. She had a very scary face, but she was actually courteous and spoke a decent English, and she escorted me here.” She glanced tensely behind her again. The white ceiling was so low that the head of the tall guard standing at the door almost touched it. “And she also checked the package and let me bring it in.” Chaiky pointed to a canvas bag at her feet. “How can I pass it through?” They were separated by a wall that was made up of bars from floor to ceiling.
Shlomo turned his head and said something in Russian. Only now did Chaiky notice that there were three more guards stationed behind him. One of them said something in response and then he came over and opened a panel of the bars that was connected with hinges to the wall. He said something else, and the other guards guffawed. Chaiky noticed a muscle twitching in Shlomo’s jaw.
One of the wardens who were standing in her part of the room approached, picked up the package, and tossed it through the opening. The one standing on the other side said something again, laughed, and then locked the bars, kicking the package in the direction of the prisoner.
“What did they say?” Chaiky whispered anxiously, her shoulders hunched.
Shlomo sighed. “It makes no difference.” He bent to pick up the package that had landed just at his feet. When he straightened, she saw that the slight grimace had disappeared from his face. “You don’t have to think about it.”
“Something like that, but nothing out of the ordinary here. You can relax.”
She was quiet. He glanced into the bag, and apparently recognized the plastic box she always used to freeze cake. He smiled. “Thanks for the cake.” When he saw her looking behind her once again, he said, “Ignore the guards, Chaiky, it’s fine. They bark, but they don’t bite.”
She smiled wanly, still pale. “I wanted to bring you a few sefarim, but the lady guard took them out of the bag and said that they weren’t allowed. So all that’s left is the cake.” Her lips contorted. “The one I wanted to bake for you when you were landing but I didn’t get to it.” She didn’t know why she said that. “I also brought pictures of Yisrael Meir’s bris. He’s outside. They didn’t let me bring him in. So the Margulieses are watching him.”
Just then the female warden entered the room. “Hey, you, your time is up! Come out now.”
“My baby,” Chaiky said. She wanted to catch the woman’s gaze, but she could not meet her sharp eyes. “Can we maybe bring him in for a few minutes?”
“No,” her escort barked. “No one spoke to me about a baby. Another time, if you get the permits ahead of time for a baby, then you can bring him in. Now, nothing. Out!”
Chaiky tried to turn and see Shlomo one more time, but he was also being led out already and all she could see was his back moving away.
She was sure she would break. That she would collapse from this horrific meeting inside a prison. But it didn’t happen. She sat in the car, clutching Yisrael Meir and whispering words of Tehillim. Riva Margulies spoke quietly and gave her the space to remain enveloped in her thoughts.
Tomorrow there was another court hearing. Chaiky would be able to see Shlomo again, and maybe somehow, she’d be able to let him see the baby.
Josef Podernik had reached the limit of his endurance. He threw the little chip with the most recent pieces of information onto the table and squeezed his eyes shut. “It doesn’t make sense,” he said after a moment, his voice icy. “Our biggest computer experts don’t have immediate results? Nothing?!”
“The family apparently tried to destroy the evidence,” his assistant said with feigned calm, leaning on the desk. “If until now you didn’t know how great Rosenberg’s influence is—now you know. Verniyev Kazanchekov wasn’t able to get anything out yet?”
“No. If they would have just deleted it, then half an hour would have probably been too long for him. But there was no deletion here; it was an external sabotage. When someone takes a hammer and destroys the hard drive, it has nothing to do with computer experts. It’s material for the garbage men.”
“And the searchers didn’t see that the disc was broken when they took it?”
“Fool. That was just an example. What they actually did, I have no idea. On the outside everything looks okay, but in actuality it is functioning like a piece of plastic with absolutely no electric current.” He went back to his chair and sat down. “Kazanchekov claims that he thinks it’s some type of moisture on the inside, and the only thing that can be done when electronics get wet is to let them dry completely. Just a few drops in the most sensitive places are enough to cause the circuits to short in an irreversible way.”
“So dry it.”
“Yes, with clothespins,” Podernik grumbled. “I wanted to submit the material for the hearing that will be at the beginning of the week. For that I needed to see it this afternoon. And the way things look now, despite all the technology that Kazanchekov has, the material will not be by me before tomorrow night.”
In the evening, Podernik picked up the phone and called the computer department at the C.K.P. “Any news?” he asked.
“I’m transferring you to Verniyev Kazanchekov,” the clerk replied.
After three long minutes, Podernik heard a voice. “Yes, Podernik?”
“Right. Well, did it come up?”
“Yes,” Verniyev said slowly. “It did.”
“Whatever is there.”
“All kinds of things. We’ll look a bit more. Be here tomorrow morning at ten.”
“I can’t.” Podernik was annoyed. “I have a court session. If only you would have finished a bit earlier!”