Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 49 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 took two days for Noa to recover from her frenzied getaway from Tel Aviv, during which time she did nothing but rest in the room she had found, in a small, cheap hotel. No one seemed to be looking for her either. After two days, she went to visit the old street, a visit that was actually the purpose of her trip south.
The street and the building remained much the same, but there were a few things that had changed. For example, the gate. Noa smiled to herself when she remembered her first encounter with this building, when she’d walked up the path and entered the stairwell with the high ceiling. Now she climbed to the top floor, and discovered that the nameplate on the door had also been replaced.
Her knocks yielded no response. She stood near the door for another minute, suddenly feeling overcome by exhaustion, and wondered if a dark-haired two-year-old, tottering on her two chubby legs, would suddenly burst out of the house. It was funny; she’d known her from age zero till about six or seven, but the image that remained etched in her memory, strong and tangible, was that of Chaya’le as a toddler. Sweet Chaya’le, who, from all the things Noa had found so hard to part with at the time in favor of Yadovsky, had been the most difficult.
The door remained locked and silent in her face, and Noa finally grasped that there was no point in standing there. As she walked back down the stairs, she wondered if Mira was still a preschool teacher. Maybe she could ask the neighbors what time Mira usually came home, and if she was even in town right then. What if Mira was out of town, or even out of the country, at the moment? If that were to be the case, she would have to come up with another plan.
She stopped near the door on the first floor, just as the sound of footsteps echoed from the entrance of the building. Someone was on the way up the stairs, and she was talking on the phone. Noa tensed.
“I’m your mother, and I’m worried about you. You know that I was never excited about you undertaking this kind of project to begin with. My experience with Anna was so bitter, and I was afraid that this kind of thing wouldn’t be a success for you either. As good and gentle and refined as Rachel is, the energy that you need to invest in someone who, most likely, will leave you in the not-so-distant future—are not justified. Look what is happening now, and you don’t even have the authority to put her in her place. Don’t you see what I’m saying?”
Noa stared blankly at the Illuz family’s door and tried to make sure her profile wasn’t visible from the stairs. Mira Brodsky passed by behind her.
Suddenly she stopped. “Do you need something from Mrs. Illuz?” she asked Noa in a friendly tone.
“I just wanted to ask her something,” Noa said, keeping her gaze fixed on the door.
Mira nodded politely and continued her ascent. Only once she was a full floor above Noa did Noa glance at her fleetingly, in order to get another look at the woman she had known so well years ago. Yes, among the things that had not changed in the past twenty years, she could include Mira Brodsky—pleasant, decisive, knowing what was ahead of her…and possessing a good memory.
And her memory of Anna, apparently, was not a very positive one.
“Listen, sweetie.” Mira continued talking as she climbed the stairs, and Noa found herself advancing silently behind her. She didn’t know why—perhaps in order to hear her for a bit longer.
“You hear, Chaiky? Now you have to forget, to ease up, let go. Let that nice nurse who took care of her all these years step back into the picture again, and you be busy now with your house and your family.” The jangle of keys. “You have a little baby, you have children, you have a husband in prison in Russia, and you need to preserve whatever energy you have, for them.”
Noa found herself suspended in mid-stride, with one leg in the air, when the door on the floor above her closed, swallowing the rest of the conversation inside.
The hum of the washing machine had always been a comforting sound for Chaiky, awakening inside her energy and strength to dive into action, to get things done. Even on her worst days, following Shlomo’s arrest, there had always been clean laundry at home. Maybe it wasn’t folded, put away, or ironed sharply, but the children never had to wear dirty clothing.
Now Chaiky leaned on the wall near the machine and gazed at the clothes tumbling inside it in a colorful, cheerful jumble. She could identify a few of the items as Rachel’s; when Rachel had left, she hadn’t bothered to collect her dirty clothes from the hamper. She’d only taken what had been convenient for her to grab, and then ran off to Elsa. Chaiky sighed and turned toward the porch. There, too, on the line, Rachel’s clothes hung among the other things.
Shlomo’s mother had called that morning to apologize again for the mess she’d unintentionally made, and to ask what was happening and what could be done. Chaiky had told her that it was fine, and that for now nothing needed to be done. Deep inside, of course, she thought that a bit of caution wouldn’t have harmed anyone. But when she thought about it some more, she had to concede that Shlomo’s mother wasn’t to blame, and that had she known about a family connection, she was not sure she would have been able to keep it a secret from Rachel, either.
She went back into the clean house. As always, the noise of the spinning washing machine made the tips of her fingers tingle to do something, to move things, but now she had no patience to scrub the floors or polish the silver—and truthfully, there was no reason to do any of that, as her mother-in-law had scoured the entire house before Chaiky came home. Actually, what Chaiky was really itching to do was to talk to Rachel. Now.
When she’d been speaking to her mother on the phone five minutes earlier, she had asked her, “Ima, if you would have been given another opportunity to speak to Anna at the time, what would you have said to her?”
“I wouldn’t have said anything. We’re not allowed to persuade a non-Jew to convert.”
“Imagine that she was Jewish,” Chaiky had pressed. “Imagine that the whole story about the forged ID papers was only so that you shouldn’t convince her to stay with you.”
“Then I don’t know what I would have said to her,” Chaiky’s mother had said. “I’m not good at games like this, going back twenty years in time, especially when it was not about what really was, but about what I want to imagine was. Alright, Chaiky, someone’s at the door—let’s continue our conversation another time.”
Ima did not know what she would have said in such a case, but Chaiky now felt that she did know.
And she planned to say it to Rachel right now on the phone.
Mira opened the door, and all of a sudden, that familiar smell assailed Noa’s nose. Was it possible that Mira still used the same floor cleaner to this day?
“Hello,” Mira said with a smile that clearly indicated that she had not identified her visitor.
“Hi. Um…can I come in?”
Mira looked her up and down. “What’s this about, exactly?” she asked.
“I wanted to…give you over a message. Someone, um, named Anna Rosenberg, Rose, asked me to speak to you.”
The smile disappeared off Mira’s face. “Anna?” she repeated, her eyebrows drawing close to one another. Noa waited a second. “Fine,” Mira said, pressing her lips together as she moved away from the doorway.
Noa entered. She knew exactly where the living room was, but didn’t make any movement in that direction. She stood in her place until Mira, with her lips in that same position, motioned leftward and then walked there as well.
Noa followed her and stood near the table.
“Can I get you a drink?” Mira asked her guest.
Mira left the room and returned half a minute later with a bottle of grapefruit juice and a single cup. “You can sit down,” she said with a polite smile.
“Thanks,” Noa said, and sat down. Wasn’t that the chair that five-year-old Chaya’le had etched all the letters of the alef-beis into, using a pin—the letters that Noa herself had taught her? She couldn’t check for sure, because Mira was looking at her questioningly, waiting for her to speak.
Noa slowly opened the bottle of juice and filled the cup halfway. “Mrs. Brodsky, I have heard from Anna how much you did for her years ago.” She smiled one of her sweetest smiles. “And how indebted she is to you to this day, and cannot forget your dedication.”
“I understand that she is trying to forget.”
“Oh, no, I don’t think so. Throughout her life, the memories of the home you opened to her have remained with her, as has the pain she experienced when she had to leave because of her uncle’s lies.”
She knew this would pique Mira’s curiosity, and sure enough, Mira leaned forward and asked, “Which lies?”
“It turned out that she is Jewish, after all. Until recently, she didn’t know it. Only over the past few days, half a year after turning thirty-five, did she find out from her aunt that she really is Jewish. Her mother was Jewish.”
Mira was silent.
“So…that’s it. She asked me to let you know that she’s very sorry about all the years that have passed without her contacting you, and to tell you that she misses Chaya’le and Yoily. She asked about them…how are they today?”
Something thawed in Mira’s expression. “They grew up,” is what she said.
“Chaya’le must have gotten married.”
“Yes, baruch Hashem.”
“Does she live here in the area?”
“No.” Mira’s hands were folded. “Up north.”
“Wow, she went so far? Where up north?”
“Yokne’am.” Mira moved her chair back. “Is that what Anna wanted to tell me?” she said as she stood up.
“Oh, she also just wanted to see how you were doing.” Noa also stood up. “And has Chaya’le kept her cute nickname?”
“So how is she called? Chaya?”
“Her name is Chaiky, but I don’t—”
“Chaiky? What an interesting name. Where did she pick that up?”
“When she was ten, she read a book about a girl by that name and decided she liked it. But I don’t understand the point of all these questions. Anna left this house in a way that was most unpleasant for us, and Chaya’le, or Chaiky, should not be interesting her anymore.”
“So that’s it—she does interest her. And so do you, Mrs. Brodsky,” Noa said, ignoring the little step Mira had already taken toward the door. “She asked me to ask you if you would agree to meet her directly so that she could ask your forgiveness.”
“Tell her we have already met,” Mira said, not looking at her. “And I even served her some grapefruit juice, because I remembered that she liked it. But for real forgiveness, I will have to work a bit harder.”