Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 40 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 train car from Haifa to Tel Aviv was half empty, and Noa was able to place her many packages on the seat opposite her without anyone asking her to clear the space.
She leaned back and closed her eyes, ignoring the ringing phone a few inches from her left hand. She heard footsteps beside her; they paused and then continued. Someone must have been wondering why she wasn’t picking up her phone. Let them wonder as much as they wanted. She didn’t owe anyone in the world an explanation or anything.
True, her grandfather would be angry, but he would learn a lesson. He would be on edge, he would turn over the world looking for her, and then she would demand that he promise to leave her alone because they just could not work together. Then she would finally take care of what he was asking her to do, and she could disappear to the other end of the world. Maybe to America, where she’d begin the next chapter in her life.
And maybe it would be more successful than the previous ones.
But until she got there, it was a good thing there were friends in the world.
When her phone finally fell silent, she picked it up and dialed a number, not bothering to check who had just called her. “Adi?”
“Noa? Is that you?”
“Kudos to you for recognizing my voice.”
“Kudos, indeed. After two and quarter years of no contact, you suddenly pop up out of nowhere.”
Noa suddenly remembered that she had heard something vague about Adi having gotten married, and then less than a year later, tragically widowed. She was assailed by guilt. “Oh, Adi…I remember we really haven’t spoken in a long time. Umm…how are you?”
“I’m fine, thank G-d. Do you need someplace to sleep or something like that?”
Noa smiled but felt herself flushing, even though the only company she had facing her were inanimate objects. “Bull’s eye.”
“Fine. If you’re calling, then obviously that’s the reason.”
“But I understand that…it really might not be…such a good time for you right now,” Noa whispered. Call waiting interrupted her.
“Don’t worry—you can come.”
“Really, it will be fine. Hapalmach 8.”
“Thanks, Adi. You’re the best.”
“Witness for the prosecution, Gregory Yosopovich.”
A man in his forties came up to the witness stand. Chaiky looked at him without understanding a word that he said. Riva Margulies, seated beside her, whispered the crux of what he was saying in her ear. “He’s reporting now about his work as a tax clerk in the airport. He swore to tell the truth and only the truth, and all that. Nothing interesting.”
Chaiky sat on the bench tensely. This was the second hearing she was sitting in on without understanding a word. She was scheduled to return to Israel the next day, leaving Shlomo alone to endure these long hearings and interrogations…and, eventually, the verdict. She had no idea what was happening. The lawyers told her nothing, neither good nor bad; all they would say was, “We’re working on things.”
Riva Margulies tried to encourage her by telling her that this was a very good sign. “What would you prefer? That they should present all the prosecution’s evidence and then cut things short? It’s dragging out with no clarity, and that shows that everything is still open.”
The interrogator was asking the witness a question. “Do you recognize the person who is sitting there, Mr. Yosopovich?”
The witness looked toward Shlomo and nodded.
“When and where did you see him?”
“On November third, at the airport. Two hours after we received a warning that prohibited diamonds were about to be smuggled.”
“Were you the one standing at the inspection point?”
“No, I was the shift supervisor, and the clerk there motioned for me to come over.”
“And what did you see when you got there?”
“I saw him standing near a small gray suitscase, which was open on the counter. It was full of toothbrushes that my clerk began to take out. There were a few policemen there.” He gazed at Shlomo, who was staring at the floor. “Under the toothbrushes were a few fabric sachets. We took them out, opened them—and discovered the diamonds.”
“And how did Struk respond to this?”
“He said…” The man laughed. “He said, ‘It’s fine, they already took care of the customs.’”
“Yes, and then he took out a fake document showing a customs payment.” He wrinkled his nose. “But it was for custom duties on a shipment of cigarettes.”
“And what did he say when you told him this?”
“We didn’t even point it out, because it wasn’t the customs duties that we were interested in at the time.”
“Do you have anything to add? To describe?”
The man thought for a moment, and Chaiky, although not understanding a word of what he was saying, felt herself despising his voice. “Yes. When one of the policemen asked him in English why he was hiding the diamonds so well if everything was fine, he said”—here a broad smile crossed his face—“that he was very afraid.”
“The witness is available for the defense.”
Yuli Andropov, Shlomo’s lawyer standing on the other side, looked straight into the witness’s face. “What Struk told you about the customs already being taken care of—that was his first response?”
“Were those words said in a tone of panic?”
“No, he seemed ready for any scenario.”
“Excuse me, I didn’t ask for your opinion. Answer me with yes or no—was he alarmed when the diamonds were discovered?”
“I want to ask you to please put your personal opinion aside for a moment. Do you think you can do that?”
The man glanced fleetingly at Shlomo and then back at the lawyer. “Yes.”
“In the event that the defendant believed that he was transporting diamonds absolutely legally—would his response be acceptable to you?”
Yosopovich looked again at Shlomo and took a deep breath. “When I think he—”
“Acceptable or not?”
“Did he speak to you in Russian?”
“No, he didn’t understand a word we were saying to him.”
“And he knew how to read the customs document that was entirely in Russian?”
“I don’t know.”
“He couldn’t speak to you but he could read Russian fluently?”
“I expect an intelligent person who relies on an official document to find out what that document says.”
“In theory, is it possible that he was deceived?”
“Lots of things are possible in theory.”
“I repeat the question, Mr. Yosopovich. Theoretically—is it possible that the person who told him what the document said deceived him?”
Such wind in the spring? Noa shivered, and her gaze lingered on the leaves that flew to greet her with the gusts of wind. The fresh green spring leaves seemed out of sync with the turbulent weather that tore them off their branches and launched them into a dizzying dance. Few people were out on the quiet street this late at night; there was only one young woman walking on the other side of the street, also examining the buildings.
Noa’s cell phone, ringing without letup, kept flashing with international phone numbers, which changed every few minutes. Noa was sick and tired of it. She put the device on silent and stuck it into her pocket.
“Noa.” Adi opened the door; she was a mix of the old, familiar Adi and a new one.
Noa’s eyes sized her up in surprise. “Adi!” she exclaimed, and put her bag down on the large dark tiles. It was an old-fashioned apartment, tiled with a red and black patterned floor.
“Good to see you again, Noa.” A dull smile crossed Adi’s lips. “Have you eaten supper?”
Noa wanted to say that she hadn’t eaten anything in hours, but something about the tone of the question stopped her. “It’s fine,” she replied. “I’m not hungry.” When she glanced at the darkened kitchen to her right, she added, “But I wouldn’t mind something cold to drink, if you have. Were you on your way to bed already?”
Instead of an answer, a baby’s cry tore through the silence.
“A baby!” Noa said in surprise. “Yours?”
“Yes. A girl.”
“Wow! So you’re already a mother, Adi!”
“How old is she?”
“Two and a half months.”
Noa looked at her friend. “It must be so hard for you,” she said sympathetically. “To experience such a tragedy at a young age, to be left alone, and now to be raising a child under these circumstances.”
Adi’s gaze lingered on Noa’s face for a long moment, and then she turned toward the sound. After a moment she returned with a pink, screaming bundle in her arms.
“This is Chana,” she said tiredly.
“Chana,” Noa echoed the name slowly.
“Yes. My husband asked me, before he passed away, to name our baby after his mother. And it’s a special name; Chana was one of the prophetesses. Did you know that?”
Noa sat down on the nearest chair without being invited to, and fell silent for a few long moments. She massaged her fingers, which were stiff and aching from carrying her heavy load. “You’ve changed, Adi,” she said finally, looking at her friend differently. “I never thought you’d want to give your daughter a name like Chana, and that you would know exactly how that name connects to the history of…the nation.” She’d wanted to say “your nation” but then decided to use a more neutral pronoun. She didn’t remember what Adi did or didn’t know about her background, and preferred not to raise the subject right now, certainly not when Adi suddenly sounded like she was interested in the history of the Jewish nation.
Adi looked at her with narrowed eyes. “I’ve changed,” she said. “Yes, there’s something to that.”
“Allow me to tell you, Noa, that you haven’t changed at all.” Adi sat down across from her, holding her daughter’s clenched fist. “You’re the same Noa that takes whatever she can from every crossroad in life, but in a different sense.”
Against her will, Noa found herself becoming defensive. “I don’t know much about your childhood, Adi, but I learned the hard way that if I didn’t take care of myself, no one would take care of me.”
“Why? I actually offered you the sofa to sleep on before you asked.” Adi’s eyes were smiling. “See, I worried about you before you could worry about yourself.” She peeked into the kitchen. “If you change your mind and decide that you want supper, I’ll be happy to give you. I’m going to sleep. This little girl didn’t let me sleep much last night. Make yourself at home, okay?”
“More than okay,” Noa said, following Adi with her eyes as she disappeared into the bedroom with the baby. She must have forgotten about her guest’s request for a cup of water.
But what difference did it make? Noa could take the drink herself. Adi had said to make herself at home, right?
The refrigerator was nearly empty, besides for a container of milk, a small covered pot, and a bottle of cold water. Noa immediately remembered the two containers of milk she’d schlepped from Haifa, and the other things that needed refrigeration or freezing. She went to bring in her bags, and then placed all the perishables in Adi’s fridge and freezer. She deliberated whether to warm up a few slices of pizza for herself, but the oven in the kitchen didn’t have a door, and Noa suspected that it just served as a base for the stovetop. On the stovetop sat a small pot with milk and some dried remnants that smelled sour. Near the oven stood a rectangular table with a red Formica tabletop.
Noa smiled to herself. This antique kitchen, with its black countertops, yellowing lace curtains, red table, and relatively late-model fridge, was a strange cocktail of colors and styles. She opened the bottom cabinet—there were no top ones at all—and as she’d imagined, it was empty. She bent down and filled it with packages of cookies, snack bags, canned goods, and everything else she’d emptied from her cabinets in Haifa. The second cabinet actually had some things in it, but she added her dishes, both the regular ones and disposables, and quietly closed the door.
Just then she remembered that she was thirsty. She opened the now-full fridge, and decided that it might be a good idea for her to live here with Adi, and take care of the food in lieu of payment. She had no idea if Adi had recently been working or not, but based on the way the kitchen looked, she clearly didn’t have a penny to spare.
There was a lone, open package of cookies at the bottom of the bag. Noa took it into the small dining room, where she was supposed to sleep. She sat down on the sofa, which was covered with a sheet, and gnawed listlessly on cookie after cookie. Along the wall facing her was an old, peeling wooden bookcase. It had probably once displayed pretty serving dishes or other knickknacks. Today it was bare and covered with a thin layer of dust. Next to it was a low wooden table, upon which sat a tiny cactus plant. Beyond the table were two ancient armchairs covered with a striped fabric. Even without checking what was hiding beneath the sheet on the sofa, Noa imagined to herself that it was made of the same fabric. Something about the entire apartment made it look like it had been frozen in time forty years back, and hadn’t thawed since then.
She wondered if the apartment belonged to Adi, or if she rented it. It probably wasn’t her own. Such an apartment in Tel Aviv, old and small as it was, cost a fortune.
Noa crumpled the empty cookie package and went to take a drink of water. She passed by the front door and looked at the picture of the baby affixed to the back of it. A red, wrinkled, and not particularly pretty baby, probably at the age of one or two days. A colorful note was attached to the picture, and Noa moved closer to be able to read it: Dear Adi, Available for you twenty-four hours a day, Racheli. Don’t forget that you belong to the strong flasks.
Strong flasks? Don’t forget?
Noa read the flowered note a second time, scowled, and was about to continue to the kitchen, when noises behind the door made her pause. Someone was going up or down the stairs, and it sounded like he was stopping just at this door. Noa tiptoed closer, to be able to peek through the peephole, and saw the light switch on in the stairwell. Indeed, someone was standing there. She could not tell if it was a man or woman because the person was standing too close to the door. The figure lingered there for a few seconds, fiddling with something, and Noa quickly reached for the key to make sure the door was locked. But as her fingers touched the key, the figure apparently finished whatever he or she was doing, and disappeared down the stairs.
Noa remained standing for a few moments and then opened the door. Indeed, no one was there anymore, but there was a note there, written in sloppy, rather deformed Hebrew letters. A few short words were enough for her to figure out who had sent this note.
You’re not a baby, so please, no games. Deal with it now and we’ll finish nicely.
Yes, she hadn’t thought about the fact that her grandfather would not let her change her place of residence without reporting her new address to him. And so, they’d been following her. She figured it was to be expected; too bad she hadn’t thought about it before she’d set out.
Her eyes glanced again at the note from the anonymous Racheli; she didn’t know why it annoyed her. A note inside, a note outside. A plague of strange notes, indeed.