Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 54 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.
Noa had always liked the scent of strawberries. There was something calming about it for her. When Mira Brodsky had wanted to treat her, she would look for little strawberry scented soaps for Noa to decorate her room with.
Noa clearly remembered the last soap she had received. It was big, shaped like the Eiffel Tower, and its scent was so strong that little Chaya’le had been sure that it was a giant candy and had bitten off the tip.
The bitten-off soap had accompanied Noa to the Yadovsky household, and even when she fell out of favor with them and began her many wanderings, she took it with her. When had it disappeared? It was hard for Noa to recall. It had been several years since she’d lost it, but when its scent or something similar tickled her nostrils, it evoked in Noa memories of Chaya’le wailing, “Yuck, it’s so bitter! It’s so bitter!”
Now, as well, she was flooded with memories. The faint scent of a strawberry air freshener filled the car. Eyes closed, she breathed deeply. The car was parked on the side of the road, waiting with its occupants for Grandfather’s decision: Were they to believe his granddaughter and travel to Yokne’am, or perhaps this was yet another evasive tactic? But Grandfather could not be reached. He secretary promised he would call them back in a few minutes.
Noa tried to prevent a small, babyish smile from spreading across her face. It was the smile of a girl who enjoyed seeing how, once again, like always, she was able to get people to listen to her, to pay attention to what she was saying, and to think about what she would want and how she would behave. If they never made the effort to do these things for her sake, then they did it for their own sakes.
There was only one place in the world where she had been a good girl and hadn’t had to force people to remember her, and that was in the Brodsky household. Before arriving there, while living with the Yadovskys in Be’er Sheva, she hadn’t been an easy child at all. And when she’d left the Brodskys and gone to Tel Aviv, where everyone treated her so sweetly and she had gotten off to such a promising start, she had constantly tried to evaluate how much they all cared about her.
It wasn’t a lengthy test. There was no need. It wasn’t long before she was back to spending endless evenings alone at home, except that now they seemed longer than what she remembered as a young child, because, as Irena had told her, “You’re not a baby anymore, so please take care of yourself.” What Noa basically did that year was study and study some more. She was quite alone during that time, and it took her a long time to get used to a new society, which was drastically different from her eighth grade classroom in Bais Yaakov in Be’er Sheva. But she always remembered to tell herself that Sarah Schenirer had established Bais Yaakov schools for Jewish girls, so that they should not have to study in the company of non-Jews. Well, then, of course it made no sense for her to be learning in a Bais Yaakov anymore.
But while she was socially isolated, she did very well scholastically. It’s a universal rule that teachers like students who invest effort and excel, and that was what she had done.
And Grandfather had been pleased.
“Very good, very good,” he’d told her in one of the handful of conversations when she’d been instructed to take the phone and speak to him politely. She hardly knew him, yet he told her, “You’re a good granddaughter. Continue learning well and getting high grades like you did in the boarding school, and you’ll see that it was worth it. It always pays for my grandchildren to be studious and diligent.”
At the time, she hadn’t realized what boarding school he was referring to. Then Irena had motioned to her wildly with her hands, and Noa realized that she had to be quiet and not express any puzzlement. Only after the call had ended did Irena tell her that Grandfather did not know she’d been living with the Brodskys these past few years, because he would never have allowed them to leave her with a Jewish family.
“But because I saw how happy you were there, I didn’t want to force you to come back. So we told him you were in a boarding school for gifted children all this time,” Irena had said. “Now we need to make sure he doesn’t find out the truth.”
She hadn’t shared details of where all the money that Grandfather had sent to fund her studies had gone; Noa had discovered that answer herself, several years later.
It had come out during her first fight with Grandfather. Noa smiled to herself without opening her eyes; her family history was one long cycle of have contact-fight-have contact-fight with Grandfather, and it would be interesting to see how this whole thing would finally end. Her first fight with Grandfather was about her name. In the school in Be’er Sheva, all the teachers and her friends called her Chana. At the Brodskys, she was sometimes called Chana and sometimes Anna, with no particular rule. But after two years at the Yadovskys, she suddenly felt an urge to change her name. “Anna” wasn’t Israeli enough for the school she was attending, and “Chana” was even less appropriate.
Grandfather was not happy when she’d called him, at age fifteen, and introduced herself as Noa. He’d ignored this information and continued calling her Anna, like always. But when she corrected him time and again, he got irritated and refused to speak to her, “until you realize that you can’t do whatever you want.”
After three and a half months of her refusing to accept the family’s authority, and not calling to apologize and promise that Anna was her true name and that she’d never change it, they’d reached a compromise: she could introduce herself as Noa to whomever she wanted, but she would not correct any member of the family who called her Anna.
Then she’d ceremoniously called Grandfather and waited to hear him call her Anna; when he had, she’d restrained herself from correcting him. He’d went on to ask about her grades and about when she would fax her report cards over to him, and the conversation had come to an end without fanfare.
Only later had she overheard Irena saying, “It’s a miracle they made up. I thought he’d see this as our failure and would send her to a boarding school, but without sending the payment through us.”
For Noa, with her sharp mind, that was enough to make her realize exactly what the arrangements had been when she was in the “boarding school for the gifted,” also known as, of course, the Brodskys.
Apparently they’d begun driving again, because they were in motion now. Had Grandfather spoken to them? Noa did not know, and decided to decide that she didn’t care. She wanted to continue her walk down memory lane now, and especially to remember the fact that, despite all the fights she’d had with her family, at the end, she was always the one who emerged victorious, having attained what she wanted. Maybe the same thing would happen once again now, so she could save herself and the Struks…
A year after that fight about her name, when she was already officially not getting along with her aunt and uncle and had left their house in defiance, she had ended up in an institution/boarding school for homeless girls. This time, although Grandfather had been told that Noa was back at the “boarding school for gifted children,” he hadn’t sent any funding; he had heard that Noa had left the Yadovskys because they’d had a fight with each other, and he was angry at both parties. He claimed that they were all wasting energy on nothing by not getting along. But later, when he’d admitted halfheartedly that she’d been right in that fight with them, he’d given her generous amounts of pocket money, enough to cover the “unpaid tuition of the elite boarding school,” plus more as compensation; perhaps he assumed the school had given her a hard time when they hadn’t received the money due to them.
That’s how it went on, with up times and down times, up and down.
During one of the “down” times, shortly after she’d turned twenty, she had become so angry at Grandfather that she had officially changed her family name. The reconciliation took place a few weeks later; fortunately, Grandfather did not know at the time about her name change, and again worked to reach a truce of sorts by paying her a generous sum. It was then that she’d finally realized why her family was investing so much into her: they were expecting her to work for them—and to work well. Grandfather had simply invested in the granddaughter he intended to make into his liaison for his business affairs in Israel.
She began doing all kinds of things for him, and by then it was clear that she was brilliant at computer programming. She was very efficient about her work, too. But at the same time, she was also very irritating to Grandfather, especially when she didn’t fulfill his expectations to the T, or when he ultimately discovered that she had abandoned his family name.
And like this time.
But this time, it looked like much more serious business. Grandfather was genuinely furious at her, frighteningly so.
When had he ever sent anyone to pursue her like this?
Noa opened her eyes. The car was traveling on an intercity highway, and there were no signs in sight.
“Where are we going?” she asked, for the third time that day.
“To Yokne’am,” the woman beside her hissed. “And I really hope, for your sake, that this is not another one of your games.”
The driver muttered something.
“Ah, yes,” the woman said. “The notebook. Where is the notebook?”
Inside, Noa smiled broadly, but externally, she put on an expression of fear and confusion. “That’s exactly the problem,” she said quietly. “And that’s what I want to talk to my grandfather about.”
“He refuses to speak to you until you cooperate. You can tell us what the story is.”
“No.” Noa sounded like a baby even to her own ears. “It’s something that I can only tell him.”
“First you’ll do what you have to do, and then we’ll see.”
“Yes,” Noa said. “I really will do my part, if that’s what you want, and I really hope that what he discovers after that won’t be too terrible.”
Of all the times that he had met any one of his lawyers, this was the first occasion that they had been permitted to go out for a walk together in the prison courtyard, instead of meeting on two sides of a partition in the visiting room.
Shlomo took a deep breath. Spring in Russia was nothing like spring in Eretz Yisrael, yet it was still spring. The frost that he had suffered from throughout the winter was gone, and small white flowers were blossoming on a tree nearby.
Yuli Andropov walked slowly at his side, keeping his gait the same as his client’s. He thought about the issues they had to discuss, but let Shlomo have a few minutes to breathe, to think, and maybe even to begin the conversation.
Shlomo was quiet. For many days after the interrogations had ceased, he had spent hours on end alone in his cell, wondering if perhaps the guards had forgotten that he was there. Every so often, he would check if his voice was still working—he tried to say a few words to the walls of the room, to call out the names of his family, to sing a bit. But there were days when, aside from his tefillos and his learning, he didn’t utter a word; he’d just let the silence envelop him and slowly seep inside him. He had never liked too much quiet, but recently he had come to terms with it, simply for lack of any other choice.
He had no idea how many years of silence lay ahead for him.
Yuli Andropov finally began to speak, in English. “First of all, Shlomo, today we can speak a bit more openly than usual, because as far as I know, the yard is clear, more or less, of bugs and recording devices. Of course, the bench is probably one big listening device, and I wouldn’t trust the trees and the walls. But as long as we walk only in the middle of the courtyard and keep a distance from objects around us, I want you to tell me only the truth.”
“Truth?” Shlomo looked at him.
“Look, during the initial interrogations, you denied any connection between you and the Mafioso Rosenberg.”
“In a sense, it might have been better for you to throw most of the blame on him and to admit what you had between you. Perhaps if we prove that he used you as a courier without telling you that you were carrying something illegal, it will make you look better. Did you think about that?”
“As it is you are trying to get the court to understand that I was used without knowing about it, right?”
“That’s right, but if we throw it onto Rosenberg, it might be stronger. He is known for being involved in these things, if you know what I mean.”
Shlomo bit his lip. “It’s out of the question.”
“I can’t incriminate other Jews, even if they—”
“Jews? Which Jews did I ask you to incriminate?”
“Shlomo, you’re not facing an interrogator now, and there are no listening devices here. Everything’s fine. Now tell me the truth: who don’t you want to incriminate?”
Shlomo fixed him with a stare. “Abraham Rosenberg.”
“Who is Abraham Rosenberg?”
“The Jew who twice donated to our yeshivah in Yokne’am—once with a check, and the second time with diamonds. Problematic diamonds.” He sighed.
“Sure. I said that already, and you didn’t correct me.”
“Of course, because I thought that that was what you decided to make up, and I didn’t want to change your version when there were listening devices around. But did you really think he’s a Jew?”
“Yes,” Shlomo replied simply.
“And what did you hear me say about the subject?”
Shlomo tried to think. “I hardly heard you talking about this person, and even when I did, I couldn’t believe much of what you were saying for the same reason that you didn’t take what I was saying seriously.”
“So you really thought he was Jewish?” Andropov rolled his eyes.
“Yes,” his client answered simply.
The lawyer laughed, but it was a frustrated laugh. “The man has easily evaded punishment in your merit. Do you still think he’s Jewish?”
Shlomo didn’t like the laugh. It wasn’t the first time he’d been accused of naiveté, but he didn’t have the luxury of getting offended now. “If you say that he’s not…” he began hesitantly.
“I’m telling you he’s not. This Rosenberg is a pure-blooded Russian, actually of German descent, who decided to make you his unwitting smuggler.”
“It sounded like he knew things about me.” Shlomo stared at his palms. “He knew things about the yeshivah and the institutions in Israel, he knew when I was coming to Russia and when I was supposed to leave…he knew everything!”
“There’s no doubt,” the lawyer said somberly, “that he has agents everywhere. It is possible that he knew about you long before you stepped onto Russian soil for the first time, and marked you as someone who could service him without you even knowing about it.” He was silent for a long moment. “Well, the line of defense we have chosen claims that you have no significant contact besides the check he gave you at the hotel. It’s a bit weak, and I don’t know how much the judges will believe that the diamonds came from someone else, but we’ll stick to it. It would be worse to backtrack now.”