The Cuckoo Clock – Prologue

Israel Book Shop presents 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. 



Bratislava, 5704/1944


With a hungry look in his eyes, he looked out to the distance, gripping the wrought iron bars. His cheek already had a reddened imprint of a leaf, left there by the metal carvings, but he didn’t feel anything. His eyes gazed into the night in an effort to see something.

But, like every night, nothing happened.

He shook the gate and wept quietly, tearlessly and soundlessly. The gate responded with thin wails of its own. Perhaps that was why he didn’t hear the footsteps approaching from behind him.

“Gustav, what is going to be with you?”

The child shrugged but didn’t respond.

“Again you’re out here, shaking in your pajamas? Are you waiting for the soldiers to come and kill you, or do you prefer to die from pneumonia?” The man behind him laughed at his usual joke. “Maybe I need to try and leave you outside one night,” he said. “Come.” And he stuck his big hand into the boy’s small hand.

“No!” the boy objected. As usual.

“Don’t tell me no. Come!” Theodore gripped Gustav’s shoulders forcefully, and the boy writhed away, flailing his arms and legs every which way. He closed his eyes, waiting for the blow. But remarkably, it did not come.

Theodore left him alone.

Gustav opened his eyes cautiously and saw Theodore standing next to him, his eyes narrowed as he looked very far off into the distance, to the end of the fields beyond the gate.

“Are you also waiting for your mother?” the boy whispered.

Theodore looked at him with a smile, put a finger on his lips, and again, looked out into the distance. Gustav tried to figure out what he was seeing, because there really was nothing out there. No one ever came by.

“What are you—”

“Quiet, I said,” Theodore chided, annoyed. “Maybe I’m seeing soldiers who’ve come to get you. Maybe they saw in their binoculars that you’re standing near the gate. It would be better for you to go inside.”

“Don’t want to.” The boy shrugged in refusal. “And there’s no one out there anyway.”

“There is,” Theodore replied, and lifted him up. “You see there, at the edge of the fields, someone moving? He’s coming closer.” He put the boy down on the path. “Run to the Father, Gustav, and tell him that someone is approaching the back gate and that he should hide you.”

“Don’t want to,” the boy said. “He’ll put me in the cellar. And he doesn’t need to; it’s not soldiers. When the soldiers came last time, Janko told me what happened. A few soldiers came with guns to the main entrance, in the middle of the day. It’s not like now, where this person is coming like a thief in the night.”

“I see you suddenly know how to speak,” Theodore murmured, his eyes never moving from the figure advancing directly toward them. It kept falling, rising, and plodding on. “At night you usually only know how to say, ‘No, no!’ and to cry. What happened?”

“I want to see who it is,” the boy said quietly, and craned his neck.


“Because…” He fell silent and pressed his face to the bars of the gate. The figure was very close already, and it continued walking in their direction.

“Mother…?” he whispered.




Bnei Brak, 5774/2014

Elisheva wiped her hands on her apron, switched off the tape recorder, and went out to the hallway, peeking behind the brown accordion door of the study. Sudden silence from the boys could be very suspicious, because it was hard to believe that indeed, they’d all finally fallen asleep. Perhaps they’d escaped to the closed porch to see what the girls were doing?

Her suspicions turned out to be for naught. The door at the end of the dining room, which led to the girls’ closed-in porch, was closed. The girls were quiet in there, busy with their homework; they wouldn’t come out until everyone outside was asleep.

Meir, arms wrapped around his ball, was lying on the couch, seemingly in a deep sleep. Itzik slept on the pullout bed, and his foot—one of the main culprits for that evening’s bickering—was, as expected, resting above him, on the couch next to Meir. Shloimy was on the folding bed; he wasn’t quite asleep yet, but his blank gaze at the ceiling made it clear to Elisheva that he was on the verge of drifting off. Bentzy was lying quietly on the green mattress, his finger stroking the seam between the tiles closest to him, over and over again.

She couldn’t see the playpen, as it was hidden by the large desk, but the gurgling that she heard indicated that her little one wasn’t falling asleep again so fast, not after being woken up four times in the past two hours.

Quickly, before the half-awake ones would see her and become fully awake, Elisheva went back to her fleishig counter, switched on the tape again, and continued cutting vegetables. A few more minutes, and the soup for tomorrow would be ready.

Perhaps she should rewind the speech to the beginning, because she hadn’t really been able to concentrate before. She switched off the tape recorder, pressed rewind—and just then the phone rang. Miri.

“Hi, Ima?”

“Hi, Miri, what’s doing?”

“Everything’s fine, baruch Hashem.” Her daughter sounded exhausted.

“So why do you sound so tired?”

“The kids in the kindergarten tired me out. It’s so hard to get them back onto a schedule after Yom Tov. They forget what circle time is, and what a teacher is, and what picking up toys is all about, and what it means that their mother is leaving but that she’ll be back to pick them up at the end of the school day…”

“I really understand you,” Elisheva said as she filled the soup pot with water. “Not that the babies in the day-care center are trying to run away from circle time, but they are also confused and crying a lot. Gitty, my coworker, says that they are usually much calmer, but they’ve totally forgotten their schedule at day-care.” She chuckled. “And I’m not even talking about myself. But I’ll get used to it also.”

“I actually forgot to ask you about that, Ima! How is it going for you at work?”

Baruch Hashem. The staff is wonderful, and the little ones are very sweet. Sometimes there are hours that are difficult, because, like I told you, the babies cry a lot at this chaotic time of year. But…” She listened for a minute in the direction of the kitchen door. What was that sound? Was it one of the children making noise, or was it coming from the street?

“But what, Ima?”

The noise stopped. Maybe it was the ringing of someone’s newfangled phone as he walked in the street. Elisheva went back to her pot with the water, and forgot what she’d wanted to say.

“But baruch Hashem, everything’s fine,” she concluded.

“I’m sure you’ll do well,” Miri said to her mother sincerely. “And are the kids in our family getting used to it?”

“They have no choice, and when all is said and done, it’s not too bad. There are so many children in the world whose mothers work, you know.”

“Yes, when I was Meir’s age, you still worked,” Miri recalled. “I remember how I couldn’t stand Mondays, when you wouldn’t get home until close to four o’clock, and I had to play nicely with Tzippy all that time. How’s she doing? Still in the clouds?”

“She doesn’t have time to be too much in the clouds. It’s very intense in school right now…” Elisheva laughed. “But she’ll take off again, I’m sure, b’ezras Hashem.”

They spoke for a few more minutes about Tzippy, the kallah, and all the preparations for her wedding that had to be done, and then they hung up.

Elisheva wanted to turn on the shiur again, but then Nati called her from the study. She hurried over and saw his head peeking out from behind the desk. He was standing in the playpen and smiled when he saw her, but then his gaze turned puzzled, as though he was remembering something.

“Birdie!” he said. “Here!”

“Where is there a birdie?” Elisheva asked, trying to find a way to get to him. She unintentionally stepped on the edge of Bentzy’s mattress, but by now he was fast asleep, and he didn’t stir.

“Here!” Nati repeated, looking in the general direction of the big window. Elisheva followed his gaze. The shutters were closed—how could he see a bird through them? Or hear one, at this busy time of evening?

He lay down with resignation as Elisheva approached. “Good boy!” she said with a smile, and picked up his pacifier from the floor. “Good night, sweetie.”

“Birdie,” he insisted, and pointed at the window yet again. Elisheva stroked his cheek and went over to open the window. As expected, all the neighborhood birds were safely ensconced in their nests at this hour; not a one was in sight. “There’s no birdie here, Nati’le,” she said, and wended her way out of the room, taking care not to wake any of the sleeping children.

“Cuckoo! Cuckoo! Cuckoo! Cuckoo!”

Elisheva recoiled and spun around sharply. There was that noise again, and now it didn’t sound like a cell phone ring from outside. It was coming from here, from somewhere in this room. And it was such a familiar yet far-off noise…

She stood frozen in place. Meir shifted and muttered something, but none of the other children moved. After all, the noise was not very loud, but it definitely gave her a jolt.

She looked toward a certain point at the end of the room, near the window. Her eyes opened wide. In a flash, she dashed by the sleeping children and stood in front of the broken cuckoo clock in the corner of the room. She stared at it, at the old clock that her father had given her when he’d moved into an assisted living facility. The old clock that hadn’t worked in more than twenty years.

The wooden cuckoo bird stood in the tiny doorway and cuckooed loudly, over and over again. Elisheva was unable to tear her gaze away from it, though she felt rather detached from the stormy reality that had just enveloped her. A faint sense that something was about to change flashed through her mind for a second, but she didn’t have time to dwell on it. The cuckoo bird called, “Cuckoo!” for the tenth time, and then it slowly closed its beak and retreated into the little box, disappearing behind the red wooden door.

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