Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 50 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 windows in this stairwell were built in a very strange way—narrow and high, covered with shutters that partially blocked them. The dust that had accumulated over the years took care of blocking the rest. When the light went out suddenly, Noa found herself groping in near darkness as she made her way down to the entrance. She could not recall how exactly she’d left the house. She’d shamefacedly murmured something; Mira had nodded and halfheartedly asked how she was doing today, and offered politely to keep in touch.
But that was just it—Noa didn’t really want to keep in touch. Not after she’d discovered almost with certainty that Chaiky Struk of today was the cute Chaya’le of then. That was also why she hadn’t spent too much time apologizing—because when Mira would find out who she really was, the whole story of their disastrous parting in the past would pale in comparison to what she had done to Mira’s daughter these past few months.
Only after searching all her pockets did she remember that the new phone that she’d bought as soon as she’d arrived in Be’er Sheva was resting deep in the bottom of her bag. She’d wanted to spare it the same fate as its predecessor, which was now resting—intact or not—on the floor of that strange store next to the bus station in Tel Aviv.
She leaned on the wall of the stairwell and switched on the phone. The memory was empty of numbers, of course. She didn’t even have Adi’s number! It was a good thing she knew her grandfather’s number by heart.
Because, indeed, the time had come to talk to him.
“Grandfather?” she asked, when someone picked up on the other end.
“No,” a metallic voice replied. She then heard a few muffled words, but she could not make them out.
“I ask that he return my call.”
Again she heard some noise and talking, and then the voice came on the line again: “Where are you?”
“Tell him to call me back on this number,” Noa said. “Tell him I’m sick of running.”
“You’re sick of running?” Mira, who had come down the stairs with a bottle of grapefruit juice and cup, could not know how much she had startled Noa.
“You understood what I said in Russian?”
“After years of teaching in preschool, with many children from Russian families, and after the courses that you gave me, did you expect me not to recognize the words ‘I’m sick’ and ‘running’?” She smiled a bittersweet smile and proffered the cup and bottle to Noa.
“I’m sorry, Anna. I was so shocked to see you again that I wasn’t really too nice. There’s enough juice here for you, if you get thirsty on the way. Do you want to come back up to eat something first?” She looked at Noa, as though seeing her for the first time. “Do you have where to go?”
Noa/Anna looked at her. “So you recognized me the first minute that I came.”
“Not the first minute, but the second.”
“I didn’t realize how hurt you were by me. Even though I was only thirteen at the time; even though I really thought I wasn’t Jewish; and even though I was only a foster child in your home, while my aunt and uncle were promising me a real family…”
So the guilty party was turning into the accuser. Nice. “And did they fulfill that promise?” Mira asked. “Were they a real family to you?”
“No, not at all.”
“And the matter of your identity, so I hear, is once again in doubt.”
“That’s right. It seems I am Jewish, after all.”
“So the only thing that is clearly correct about your complaints about me is the matter of your age at the time.” Mira took a deep breath. “True. I should have treated your actions the same way one treats all the nonsense from thirteen-year-olds; I should have thought of it as the actions of those children in my classes who said, ‘I’m sick of it,’ and that they want to ‘run away.’ But what can I do? I had a hard time doing that, especially as I didn’t understand how you could obediently swallow everything your aunt and uncle fed you.”
“You mean the baby formula?”
“Not particularly.” Mira smiled without meaning to. “I assume that you’ve stayed as smart as you were then, and that you understand what I mean. Did you really feel like ‘only a foster child’ by us? And did you really think that your aunt and uncle would start doing for you what they had never done, and excuse me for saying this, what we did do?”
“You’re right,” Noa said, staring at the entrance to the stairwell. “I was foolish. You were very good to me, but I really wanted to believe that this aunt, my father’s sister, cared about me. In any case, don’t worry, Mira. I got my punishment, my just desserts, you might say. Since I left you, I’ve spent my whole life on the run. And I’m sick of it. Yes, I’m sick of running away.” And she said the words “sick of running away” in Russian.
“I didn’t want you to be punished,” Mira said. “Absolutely not. I think that if—”
“And you should also know,” Noa didn’t let her finish her sentence, “that I really thought I wasn’t Jewish.”
“When did you hear otherwise?”
“Two days ago. And by the way, tell me, what is Chaya’le’s married name?”
“Oh.” Noa toyed with her cell phone without raising her eyes to Mira. Then she jumped as it began to ring. “Sorry, I have to answer this,” she blurted. “Maybe we’ll meet again, Mira…” And then she dashed off, leaving the juice behind along with a trail of guilt and old memories.
Mira trudged heavily toward the doorway of the building and stopped there, gazing at the woman pacing back and forth on the sidewalk across the street, speaking with animated hand motions. She observed her for a long time before she retreated into the building and heavily climbed the stairs, one by one.
“I’m sick of it, and I wanted to run away. Yes, to run away. Am I not allowed?”
The sentence was bitter, but Chaiky smiled. “No one is preventing you from running,” she said. The wind pushed the empty swing across from them back and forth.
“You are preventing me. Calling me again and again until I had no choice but to return to Yokne’am.”
“Well, I guess you are important to me.” She looked at Rachel. “Now, I don’t think that my house is the only place in the world where it will be good for you—I’m sure it’s wonderful by Elsa—but I still felt it was important for me to speak to you.”
“Because I’m a big help to you, and it’s free labor, huh?”
Chaiky tore away a thorn that insisted on pushing itself up between the slats of the bench they were sitting on. “No,” she said placidly. “It is very, very nice of you to help me in the house, but I can always hire a cleaning woman to come once or twice a week, without giving her a private room and meals.”
“Oh!” Rachel said with fire in her eyes. “Oh! You want to tell me that…” She suddenly fell silent. “Fine, so what did you want to say?” she asked after a few seconds, sounding almost defeated.
“I want to tell you just one thing,” Chaiky replied in a quiet tone. “And that is this: I don’t know where you will get to in your life, but you don’t turn over your world and leave the place you are living, based on something you want that minute. You have to learn to manage in life with all kinds of situations. Running away the second something doesn’t go the way you want it to…is cowardice.”
“Oh, so you’re saying I’m a coward?”
“No, I’m saying that you are not a coward, and that is precisely why I expect you to apologize, and then I will be happy to have you back.”
“Apologize? What for?”
“It’s not the way to behave, Rachel,” Chaiky said. “You don’t just leave like that, especially not from a place where everyone is trying so hard to help you, even if not everything works out like you expect it to.” She smiled at Yisrael Meir, who was watching them with his big eyes from his carriage. “And there’s something else you will have to do if you want to come back.”
Rachel didn’t say anything; she just rubbed the back of the bench with her pinky.
“You have to go back to school in the morning, just like every other girl your age.”
Twenty-four hours after the panicked phone call from Noa, Adi and Racheli decided to pick up the suitcase from the bus station. Throughout those hours, she had not contacted them again, and they couldn’t get through to her on her cell phone. Before contacting the police, despite Noa’s hasty remark that it was not necessary, they wanted to first check the bag to make sure it didn’t contain a possible solution to the mystery.
Racheli’s two-and-a half-year-old, Elisheva, had woken up with an eye infection that morning. “She won’t be able to go to playgroup like this,” Racheli said. “We’ll take her with us.”
So the two set out, with two carriages, to the bus that took them to Tel Aviv.
“I feel so uncomfortable next to you,” Adi said.
“Why? What is it about me that makes you uncomfortable, can I know?”
“Well, the fact that Elisheva is sitting in your old orange carriage, while you gave my Chana’le this stunning one.”
Racheli chuckled. “First of all, Elisheva is just fine about this. Do you think a two-and-a–half-year-old baby cares about which carriage she sits in? It only matters to the baby’s mother.”
“Well, I told you I’m uncomfortable about it. You’re giving me your nicest carriage, while you go out with this…”
“You’re so funny. For me, this orange carriage, which I used for Tzira, Ruti, Avigail, Chavi, Esther, Yehudis, and now Elisheva, is the most precious carriage in the world. That maroon and cream one is not even mine. My uncle donated it to the gemach, in memory of his mother, my Savta.”
“Savta!” Elisheva howled from her perch on the faded orange upholstery. “My Savta!”
“How are we going to schlep that suitcase back?” Adi thought out loud as she smiled at Elisheva. “It’s huge.”
“If your friend managed with it herself, I think that two women with two carriages can manage it somehow.”
But when Racheli saw exactly how big the suitcase was, she appeared cowed. “It really is huge,” she said, looking it over. “Are you sure they’re going to give it to us?”
“That’s what the clerk here told me yesterday,” Adi said as she leaned on the counter and peeked inside. “Oh, there she is.”
“Is that you, the lady from yesterday?” asked the woman, who seemed to have materialized from nowhere. “Did you find your friend?”
“No,” Adi replied. “And I came to take the suitcase.” Suddenly she felt a frisson of panic that they wouldn’t give it to her. That they would make problems. That maybe this woman was part of this veil of confusion that separated her from the absentee Noa.
But the lady just said, “Show me your ID card.” And after a moment, she pushed the enormous valise into Adi’s arms, almost pushing Adi over from its weight.