The Cuckoo Clock – Chapter 2

Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 2 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. 

 

Bratislava 5704/1944

 

The woman who had materialized shook her head from side to side. “I’m not your mother, child,” she said hoarsely. Gustav gaped, fascinated, at the pathways that the tears forged on her face. “I’m…” she murmured, and lowered her eyes to the large bundle in her arms.

“You have the wrong address, ma’am,” Theodore said. “And I suggest that you get away from here before I summon our guards.”

“No,” the woman choked out. “No. They told me that here, at the orphanage of Lucius Jan, they will agree to take my child. Who can I speak to?” She pulled a small fabric sachet out of somewhere.

“With me,” Theodore said. “Only with me. And you have the wrong address. This place cannot take in another Jewish child. The problems we have with Gustav are far more than we can manage. Get lost.”

The woman ignored him and held the little sachet between her fingers. “There is payment here for you, please…” Gustav gaped wide-eyed as the woman continued to cry. “Take him, sir, and take care of him. At least he should survive…”

Theodore looked at the proffered sachet but didn’t take it.

Gustav tugged at the man’s arm.

“What?” Theodore asked.

“Theodore, Theodore, please…” he whispered. “Please! I promise to behave and not to make any more problems. Please, just take this boy. I’m ready to help you take care of him. His mother is such a poor, miserable lady. And she’s crying so much.”

“It’s not your mother.” Theodore raised Gustav’s chin with his finger. “It’s a different woman, and we cannot accept her child. He’s too young. Look.” He pointed to the large bundle. “How old is he?” he snapped.

“He’s already two and a half, sir,” the woman said, her tone still pleading. “He’s a quiet, calm child. He’s been living in hiding almost since he was born, and life has taught him to be disciplined and obedient. And here is all my jewelry. After the war, we’ll bring some more.”

“You won’t be coming back after the war.” Theodore looked at the open expanses. “And you understand that as well as I do. But fine, we’ll take him for a trial. I hope that the trial will succeed and we won’t have to throw him out into the fields.” He took a key from his big key ring and unlocked the gate.

“His name is Yosef Ludmir.” She looked at the bundle one last time. Gustav rose onto his tiptoes, but he couldn’t see a thing. The baby was wrapped very well. “Ludmir.”

The package exchanged hands without another word, as did the little sachet. Theodore locked the gate again. “Now, please go,” he said, and turned his back to her. “Gustav, come with me. You’ve been standing out here for so long, you’ve done enough time for tomorrow as well.”

But the child remained near the gate, and the woman on the other side didn’t leave either. She gazed silently at the man disappearing into the building, her bundle in his arms. Her breathing sounded labored. “You are a Jew,” she whispered.

“I don’t know.” Gustav scowled. “That’s what they tell me, but I don’t remember.”

“And you promised to help take care of him.”

He nodded vigorously.

The woman rummaged in her pocket, and took out a piece of paper. “I forgot to give this to the man…” She suddenly sounded very brisk and practical; she wasn’t crying at all now. “Give him this, or keep it with you and give it to Yosef when the war ends. These are his personal details, and the address of his uncle in Palestine. Maybe Yosef will want to go to him…”

Gustav didn’t understand much of what she said. He just nodded and stared at the piece of paper for a long time, gripping it in his fist. His pajamas didn’t have a pocket.

She stood there for a few more seconds, murmured something in a language that Gustav did not understand, and then turned her back and began to walk off. He felt an urge to call to her not to go, to stay a bit longer, to not leave him and her baby. But his lips seemed locked together. Only his eyes took in the scene of the open fields and of the woman’s figure that grew ever smaller as she was swallowed up by the expanse.

***

From when she was very little, Elisheva had always loved her father’s eyes. They were large and gray and always appeared like they were sparkling when he looked at her. Abba spoke mostly with his eyes; he hardly used his mouth.

“Is your father mute?” a girl in kindergarten once asked her.

“Of course not!” Elisheva protested. “My father is not mute at all!”

“So why doesn’t he talk? Why is it that when you talk to him, he just makes motions back with his head? And why didn’t he say anything when he paid the teacher?”

“He did say something!” another girl interjected. “He said thank you!”

“Not true.” The first girl sounded irritated. “He didn’t say anything.”

“He did say thank you!” Elisheva bristled, even though she hadn’t even been there when Abba had paid the teacher. She had run to get her coat from the hooks. “My father is very polite! He said thank you!”

“How do you know? You weren’t even there!”

“But I was there,” the second girl interjected again. “And he did say it. He has a quiet voice, a little bit hoarse, right, Elisheva?”

“A voice that hardly gets used,” the first girl jeered.

Had Elisheva been a “bad girl,” like they called it then, that would have been a trigger for her to use her hands and feet to vent her anger. But Elisheva had always been a good girl. She’d just murmured, “He does use it” in an injured tone, and then went to the doll corner. Throughout playtime, she’d sat with the only doll she found, the one without an eye that none of the girls liked, and kept to herself. By the next morning, she’d come to kindergarten cheerful as ever, as if nothing had happened.
Deep down, she knew it was true. Her father’s voice was hardly used. He mostly remained quiet. He used his voice for all the things that fathers used voices for: Kiddush, Havdalah, and brachos. But zemiros, for example, he half sang, half said, very quietly. He even learned quietly, except for the occasional hum that sometimes emerged. And just to talk? There was no such thing with Abba. He said necessary sentences here and there, or polite words, and that was it.

“We make up for it with all the talking that we do,” Ima, of blessed memory, would say with a smile. “So it doesn’t really make a difference. Besides, can’t you see in Abba’s eyes everything he wants to say?”

Elisheva didn’t understand why Abba didn’t like to speak with his mouth like all the other fathers did, instead of with his eyes. Sometimes, she even wanted him to scream. But Abba never screamed. He would look at her, and that was enough. He looked at her when he was happy, when he was angry, when he was disciplining her, when he was disappointed. Not always did she understand what he was trying to convey to her, but sometimes she did. Often, he was her psychologist; she found herself talking and sharing everything with his attentive eyes, and suddenly, all her thoughts would fall into place with such clarity.

“So, Abba,” she said now, “what do you say about your first great-grandchild?”

Abba smiled and nodded. “Baruch Hashem, baruch Hashem,” was all he said.

“He’s sweet as can be, Abba. We haven’t yet decided who he looks like, but the main thing is that he is healthy and delicious, bli ayin hara. And when I think about Miri as a mother, I just can’t get over it! The truth is that I can’t get over the fact that I’m a grandmother, so digesting all the other changes will surely be even more complicated.” She stood up. “Or maybe it will be easier, depending on which angle you look at it from.”

She began to make her rounds of the room, as she usually did when visiting him. She checked that the linen on his bed was smooth and smelled fresh; she checked that the floor and the small sink were clean, and that the shelves were organized. Abba watched her as she walked around the small area, and continued smiling that familiar, tranquil smile.

“You know, Abba, I feel frustrated every time I come here.” She sat down across from him again. “Because I really would want you to live in my house. Eliyahu would also gladly agree—you know that. If we only had an apartment that was a bit bigger, you would for sure agree, too…” She sighed, and tears suddenly pooled in her eyes.

Oy, I’m so exhausted, and also stressed—that’s why I’m crying. What in the world do I do with Miri now?! Yaakov came by this morning with a cradle from the gemach, without us having discussed anything beforehand. You realize, Abba, that I couldn’t exactly tell my son-in-law how surprised I was at the idea of him and Miri coming to stay with us, and that I really don’t even have anywhere to put the cradle, never mind him and Miri! Miri never said anything to me about it before, and though of course I would love for her to stay by me, I just don’t see how it’s possible…

“I mean, Tzippy and Riki and Devoiry sleep in the girls’ room, and you know exactly how big—or should I say, how small—that room is. Chani and Esty are on the laundry porch that we closed in, you know, when we put the washing machine in the hallway… And the six boys who are home sleep in the living room. It makes it easier now that Binyamin is in yeshivah… But how can I give an entire room to a couple? Should I send the girls to sleep somewhere else?”

Her father looked at her, and she wasn’t sure whether he was listening to her or falling asleep.

“That is probably what I’m going to have to do,” Elisheva said with a smile, wiping her eyes. “Tzippy will sleep on a mattress in the kitchen—she’s a kallah; I can’t send her out of the house. And Riki and Devoiry can go and sleep at Eliyahu’s sister’s house.”

She took a deep breath. “These are such beautiful days—baruch Hashem! And I thank Hashem every minute for my wonderful family… So of course I’m happy that Miri will come to me from the hospital, and I hope she’ll be comfortable in our house.” She looked at the vase with fake flowers that was on the table. “But I hope she will realize the situation and understand that it’s only doable for a short time.”

Abba nodded slowly. Elisheva sliced a piece of the yeast cake that she’d brought and put it in front of him, but he shook his head in the negative, so she wrapped it in a napkin and placed it in the little refrigerator. Then she stood up to make him a new cup of tea.

“It’s not only that,” she said suddenly, with her back to him as she fiddled with the kettle. “We’ll manage with the space, b’ezras Hashem. The burning problem right now is the bris.”

“The bris?” he echoed. That was a sign that she had really taken him by surprise.

“We are supposed to pay for it. And I have no idea how, Abba, because we don’t have a spare dime right now.”

There was a knock at the door.

“Mrs. Elisheva? It’s suppertime now. Your father has to come down.”

Elisheva escorted her father to the elevator, following his steps closely. Since the stroke he had suffered two years ago, he wasn’t the same. He had come here because he’d adamantly refused to move in with his only daughter, and remaining alone wasn’t an option anymore. He’d managed on his own for the first few years after Ima had passed away, but then, once he’d had his stroke, he’d asked to be put in a nursing home.

Reb Zundel Krohn, Abba’s neighbor from the next room, entered the elevator. “Ah, Reb Yisrael! How are you?” he asked convivially. “It’s so nice that your daughter comes to see you. When she comes, you always eat better.” He nodded his head. “But you know, we must not be dependent on our children. We are mature enough not to let our schedules and our moods be based on their plans, eh?” And he burst out laughing.

Abba smiled, and Elisheva wondered if Reb Zundel treated Abba like a child because of the sixteen years in age that separated them.

Abba was probably the youngest person here.

But the truth was that he had always been an old man.

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