Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 4 of a new online serial novel, The Cuckoo Clock, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every week. Click here for previous chapters.
Copyright © Israel Bookshop Publications.
“One second. Quiet,” Elisheva said.
The family was sitting around the kitchen table in the midst of quite a rowdy supper that included the new parents, Miri and Yaakov; Binyamin, who had popped in from yeshivah to get his quilt; the older girls; and fourteen-year-old Shuki.
Everyone slowly quieted down and then…cuckoo! Cuckoo!
“It’s the clock again!” Elisheva dashed into the hallway and then into the dining room. “Can someone tell me what is going on here? But quietly, please, so the little kids don’t wake up.”
“The clock!” Binyamin exclaimed. “Did you decide to invest the money to fix it, Ima?”
She laughed. “Not at all! The clockmaker who checked it out told us that it would cost a few hundred shekels to repair, so we decided to skip it.”
“And you haven’t been here the past few weeks,” Shuki told his older brother. “This is the third time that clock has come to life, out of the blue.”
“Fourth,” Miri, the kimpeturin, corrected him. “Yesterday morning, when just the baby and I were alone in the house, the cuckoo bird popped out and began to chirp.”
“You mean, to call,” Riki corrected her. By this time, the cuckoo bird had stopped chirping or calling, so the grammatical nuances were pretty superfluous. The bird receded back into its place, and the little door slammed shut.
“Strange,” Elisheva murmured, as she walked back to the kitchen. “The food is getting cold, everyone. And it’s already 11:30. Shuki, you need to go to sleep.”
Her fourteen-year-old wrinkled his nose. “I need to bentch with a mezuman, Ima,” he said, trying to stifle a yawn.
“I’ll bentch,” Yaakov announced, and stood up to get his hat and jacket. “Because I think I’m also going to sleep, Shuki. So don’t think you’re going to be missing much here. I have to make up a few hours from last night. I didn’t know that babies are so exhausting.”
“You can tell you’re one of the youngests in your family,” Binyamin teased. ‘When my oldest child is born, b’ezras Hashem, I’ll have plenty of experience.”
In time, the meal wound down as each member of the family drifted off to do his or her own thing. Only Binyamin, Tzippy, and Elisheva remained in the kitchen.
“I’ll take down your blanket in just a minute,” Elisheva said. “Too bad you didn’t tell me in the morning that you were coming. I would have taken it out earlier and let it air out from the mothball smell. I know you don’t like that smell.”
“Eh, I’m not as spoiled as I used to be,” her son replied. “I was so cold last night that I had a hard time sleeping.”
“You’ve always suffered from the cold,” Tzippy remarked as she scraped the plates. “I don’t even use a thick quilt. I think the only time I used one was when we were kids and we went to Zeidy and Bubby Potolsky in Yerushalayim. It’s really cold there, but I love it like that.”
“So it sounds like you’d prefer living in Yerushalayim than in Bnei Brak,” Binyamin said with a chuckle.
Tzippy grinned. “When it comes to the weather, yes. In other ways, I’m not sure.”
Elisheva went to get the blanket from the top shelf in the bedroom closet. Binyamin knew there was no point in trying to offer to climb the ladder and get it down himself. The perfectly organized closets were exclusively their mother’s domain. “In such a small place, I need to keep track of what’s going on all the time,” she would say. And the kids never stopped marveling about how much their mother was able to store in just one closet.
“Now seriously, where are you going to live?” Binyamin asked his sister quietly.
Tzippy turned on the water. “I don’t know,” she said, after a minute. “Not in Bnei Brak or Yerushalayim. I can start with renting in Pardes Katz, like Miri did, but I can also try from the start to settle someplace where I have a better chance of staying long-term. Maybe Yerucham or Rechasim…I dunno…one of the cheap places. Not that I know much about these things.”
“Cheap places,” her brother murmured. “Nowhere is cheap. What’s cheap? An apartment that costs only NIS 400,000 and not NIS 800,000 or a million?”
Tzippy was quiet.
“And where will Abba and Ima get four hundred thousand from?”
“You’re right,” Tzippy said. “I heard them talking last night. Ima said she has no idea if Miri and Yaakov are expecting them to help pay for the bris, because if they are, she has no idea where the money will come from. And Abba told Ima that he is anyway going to the gemach today, so he’ll ask for that also. And Ima said that—”
“What Ima said and what Abba said is none of your business.” Elisheva stood in the doorway holding the quilt and looking from one to the other. “Really, Binyamin, I’m surprised at you. Why do you need to talk to Tzippy about this? Just to make her feel pressured? What do you want from her? That she should come and tell us that we shouldn’t give what we have to give and are happy to give?”
Chastened, Binyamin rubbed his chin. “But really, where is the money going to come from?” he asked.
“It’s not for kids to worry about,” Elisheva replied firmly. “And don’t look at me with those big eyes, my mature, eighteen-year-old-to-the-chuppah boy, because right now, you are still a kid. And when your turn does come, b’ezras Hashem, we’ll happily give what we can to you, too. Relax, okay?”
She dropped the blanket onto the table and went over to Tzippy. “And you also,” she said. “It’s nice that you and Binyamin are thinking about me and Abba, and it’s good to be realistic, but b’ezras Hashem, everything will be fine.” She lowered her voice. “And everything will work out with the bris, too. A thousand shekel more or less…we’ll manage.”
Tzippy and Binyamin exchanged glances but remained silent.
Elisheva spoke up again. “And I’m asking the two of you, please, not a word about any of this to Yaakov or Miri.”
“Of course,” Binyamin replied automatically. “Isn’t that understood?”
His mother threw him a gaze that said, I should hope so! and then quickly changed the subject.
Bratislava – 5704/1944
More than two years passed, and Slovakia—essentially a satellite of Nazi Germany—seemed to breathe a sigh of relief. After a period of deportations of Jews in 1942, Rav Michoel Ber Weissmandl was able to reach temporary agreements with the Nazis to suspend them.
But the calm did not last. On Erev Sukkos 5704, the Hlinka Brigades went from one Jewish house to the next. The Jews were taken with no advance warning, as they prepared for the holiday. The meat was still in their pots; here and there, half-started sukkahs could be seen abandoned in yards.
It was only the opening salvo of the renewed deportations.
On Motza’ei Yom Tov of the first days of Sukkos, little Yosef Ludmir’s mother came with her two-year-old son to the orphanage. Theodore finally accepted him, much to the displeasure of Farash, the director. But Theodore gave him half of the contents of the fabric sachet that the Jewish mother had given him, and the director promised to be quiet.
This time, he did not interfere in the selection of the name, and Theodore chose to call the child Edo. The director did not ask who he was named for. He just gritted his teeth and waited impatiently for the war to end.
And end it did.
And more than two years passed.
No come came to look for the children, not for Edo and not for Gustav.
“No one even knows about Gustav,” Theodore said confidently. “And Edo’s parents were for sure sent to the concentration camps; they won’t ever come back. The children are ours now, Farash.”
“I’m thrilled,” the director grumbled. “At least it doesn’t endanger me and my status in the party that was but is no longer. Too bad; we did some good things, but the Soviets couldn’t care less.”
A child’s head popped into the room. “Sir,” he said.
“Gustav is not here. The teacher said to come and tell you.”
The director and Theodore both stood up at once.
“What does that mean, he’s not here?” Theodore asked.
“He’s not in class, and he’s not in his bedroom or in any other room, nor in the dining room or in the yard.”
The director muttered something under his breath while Theodore ran to the door of the office. He looked right, then left, and then strode down the corridor. Janko ran after him.
They came to the gate; it was ajar.
“Who is the last one who saw him before the lesson?” Theodore asked the boy.
“No one! And who saw him at breakfast?”
“And who saw him when you got up this morning?”
“All the children.”
“Aha,” Theodore said, and shaded his eyes with his hand to look out toward the fields, those same fields that, until a short time ago, Gustav would stand and stare at, night after night. After Edo arrived, for some reason, his nocturnal outings had dwindled, until they stopped completely. “So he slipped out after he got dressed this morning. Tell me, Janko, over the last few weeks, when you played in the yard, did you notice Gustav talking with any stranger?”
The child frowned, clearly puzzled. “No.”
“No one passed by the gate? You didn’t see Gustav hanging around near the wall a lot? Or near the main entrance?”
Theodore turned toward the main entrance, around the other side of the building. Again, Janko ran after him, but they were not the only ones to get there. The teacher and seven other students were also standing there.
“What’s going on?” Theodore asked.
“That’s the issue; nothing’s going on.” The teacher looked at him. “The boy didn’t turn up for class. When I sent someone to look for him, and began to delve a bit deeper into the matter—”
“You discovered that he’s been missing since the morning.”
“Since this morning?” the teacher gasped.
“Yes. But before we give up, let’s just do one last search of the whole property. Not that I believe he’s here, but…”
Theodore Heinke was right. Gustav wasn’t anywhere on the grounds of the orphanage.
“He went back to his people, the Jews,” the director said when he heard the results of the search. “Very good. You wouldn’t have been able to raise him here as a faithful Catholic anyway, not when our Slovakia is becoming just another little crumb in the Soviet Union.”
“I am capable of a whole lot, just so you know,” Theodore said churlishly. “And this whole thing is getting me annoyed. Very, very annoyed.”
He looked out the window. The sun was beginning to dip on the horizon of the fields, when he saw a small figure running up the winding path that cut through the fields.
“So you’re back, Gustav.” Theodore opened his arms in greeting, but the boy slipped out of his grasp and walked away, his head lowered.
“Did you meet anyone interesting?”
“No one,” the boy murmured. Then he suddenly shouted at Theodore. “She didn’t come back, Edo’s mother! And neither did my mother! He and I are both left with no one in the world!”
“That’s not true,” Theodore said. “You have me.”
The boy didn’t respond; he didn’t even look at him. “There were lots of people in the street, and I walked for a long time, but not a single woman approached to tell me she was my mother or Edo’s mother. Finally, one man asked me why I was walking around a whole day and where I lived, and when I told him that I was looking for my mother who disappeared during the war, he started asking me lots of questions, until I got fed up and ran back here.” He collapsed onto the grass, his heels digging into the loose earth, and began to kick his feet.
A shadow suddenly fell over him. The director was standing behind him.
“Listen, boy,” he hissed, ignoring Theodore’s looks. “And listen well. You are a little ingrate, that’s what you are. You wail day and night, and disappear without permission—and that is something I will not tolerate in our orphanage, do you hear? The next time you try it, you’ll find yourself outside, with all your Jewish brothers—for good. And even before that, you’ll be getting some well-deserved wallops from me.”
“Never.” Theodore’s lips formed the word soundlessly. Farash sounded so decisive now that he could not overtly contradict him.
It was a good thing that Farash was the one who was good at talking, while he was the action-oriented one.