The Cuckoo Clock – Chapter 5

Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 5 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. 

 

Tzippy walked up the stairs as Sari Goodman from the third floor came down in the opposite direction, jangling the keys to her salon.

“Oh, Tzippy!” She smiled broadly. “How are you?”

Baruch Hashem, great.”

“Mazel tov on your new nephew and on the bris. How’s the shul’s new hall? Is it nice?”

“Yes, it’s really very pretty.”

“And what’s the baby’s name?”

“Shmuel, after my father’s father.”

“Very nice. Are they still by you?”

“No. My sister’s mother-in-law gave her a gift of three days at the kimpeturin home in Telzstone, so she’s there now.”

“Nice! So, you’re going from one simchah to the next, aren’t you… When’s the wedding? Do you have a date already?”

“In Shevat, b’ezras Hashem.”

“Wonderful!” Mrs. Goodman leaned her head forward as if she wanted to share a secret with a five-year-old, and said, “Tell your mother that it’s not smart to wait with the sheitels until the middle of the winter. After Chanukah, prices are going up. I’m having a small sale now on all my precut wigs, and if you come now you’ll get really great prices.”

Tzippy nodded solemnly. “I’ll tell my mother,” she said.

“And I have a few styles that are just right for you—very modest and refined. Do you want to come over this evening?”

“I’ll speak to my mother and we’ll see what our plans are for this week. Thanks.”

“Our plans for this week include starting to get you outfitted and ready for the wedding, b’ezras Hashem,” a voice said from the first floor. Tzippy’s mother came up the stairs, carrying her small pocketbook. “Oh, Sari, how are you? Do you think you have anything good for Tzippy in your salon?”

“Yes, I was just telling her that I’m clearing my shelves and if you come in this evening, I think Tzippy will find some styles that she likes.”

Tzippy looked at her mother.

“This evening sounds great,” Elisheva said with a smile. “When is a good time for you? Eight?”

“A little later is probably better, maybe closer to ten?”

“Perfect. Thanks for thinking of us, Sari.”

“With pleasure. What don’t you do for such good neighbors?”

 

They walked into the house, right into the hubbub of three hungry cheder children. The fact that Riki had just taken out a pot of soup from the fridge and put it on the stove to warm up did little to calm them down.

“I’m going to lie down for a few minutes, girls, alright?” Elisheva said, after listening to each of the kids for a minute. “Can you give the boys to eat?”

“I’ll make some orzo,” Tzippy said hurriedly, glancing worriedly at her mother.

“Ima, do you want to drink that special migraine tea?” Itzik offered generously. “Right your head hurts?”

“No, dear,” his mother replied. “My head doesn’t hurt. My legs hurt a little. One of the babies in my group is teething, and he cried and cried, and all he wanted me to do was walk around holding him, that’s all.” She stroked her son’s cheek. “But it will pass in a few minutes, b’ezras Hashem.”

“So, does your head hurt, Tzippy?” Shloimy quickly passed on the illness to his sister.

“No, of course not!” She laughed. “Why did you think that my head hurts?”

“Because your forehead has those lines on it, like Abba gets when a migraine is starting.”

“No, I’ll tell you why her forehead is creased,” Itzik announced. “Because she’s thinking all kinds of things. She’s a kallah, so she’s thinking about the stuff kallahs think about. I know she’s thinking about lots of stuff, because there are lots of lines on her forehead.”

“What kind of thoughts do kallahs think?” Shloimy wondered. “What she is going to name the babies she’s going to have?”

“No, if anything, it’s which cheder she should send them to.” Itzik swung his legs impatiently under the table.

“They should go to our cheder!” Shloimy jumped up and splattered the soup that Riki had just set down in front of him. “And they should have Rabbi Shlomowitz in first grade, because he’s the best rebbi in the world!”

“Last year you also said that your rebbi was the best in the world,” murmured seventeen-year-old Riki. “So the upshot is, Tzippy, that it makes no difference which cheder you send your future children to; as long as they follow Shloimy’s path, they are guaranteed to get the best teachers and rebbeim in the world.”

Behind the closed door, the voices filtered through to Elisheva, who, despite the pain in her legs, could not lie down. She sat down and opened the notebook she had taken out of her drawer, quickly scanning the few pages that were filled with names and numbers. The way it looked right now, she wouldn’t be able to write another check before the end of the month. Would Sari Goodman agree to take a check dated two and a half weeks from now? And even then, would it be okay to divide the bill into at least three payments?

She closed the notebook and sat in silence for a few more seconds. She breathed deeply and let the cheerful banter from the kitchen envelop her. She would try to feel Sari out, and in the worst case, she’d tell her they’d just come to look for now. And maybe a miracle would happen and someone would suddenly come and buy an entire case of her anti-migraine tea, and she’d have a thousand shekels in cash. The wig stylist would surely agree to take that as a deposit.

***

They sat down on the little sofa in the small but elegant room.

“I’m sorry about the delay,” Sari said. She hadn’t finished with the previous customer yet. It was another kallah who had come with her mother, and now the girl was trying on snoods and berets, one after the other. “That’s how it is around here. I want to give each of my customers as much time and attention as she needs, and it’s hard to always be tied to the clock. Do you want a drink in the meantime?”

“We’re fine,” Elisheva said. “When do we have time to just sit in the evening with our feet up, right Tzippy? Don’t worry about it at all, Sari; we’re very comfortable.”

Tzippy laughed. She did feel very comfortable, baruch Hashem. She’d watched in consternation earlier in the afternoon when Ima had disappeared into her room. As much as she was being asked to relax, she knew that their financial situation had never been rosy, and things had only gotten tighter recently… But Ima had emerged from her room after a few minutes acting like her normal self, so Tzippy had reassured herself that there was probably no reason to worry.

“You can look here on the shelves in the meantime,” Sari suggested. “Try to get a feel of the styles and see if you like any of them. What was that?” She turned back to the other customer. “Bronze? No, I don’t have that snood in bronze. Silver isn’t good?”

A few more questions, trying on, and deliberations, and the mother and daughter departed with their purchases.
Sari locked the door behind them.

“The truth is, I could barely contain myself.” She turned to Elisheva and Tzippy with a smile. “But I didn’t want them to hear. We had a very funny phone call this afternoon. Someone wanted information about you.”

“About us?” Elisheva dropped the snood she had picked up from the basket and tried to imagine Tzippy wearing it. “About who? Riki? She’s only seventeen. It’s not for me…”

“And how old is your son?” Sari asked, as she took a broom from the corner of the room. “He’s older than her, isn’t he?”

“He’s eighteen. He might think he’s old enough to get married, but I’m telling you, there’s nothing to talk about right now.”

“Right, so my husband was quite surprised, because he didn’t remember that you had anyone in line after Tzippy. Look at this one, Tzippy.”

Nu?” Elisheva asked.

“But then the guy—he introduced himself as Rosenblatt or Rosenblitt, or something like that—started asking my husband if your daughter who is engaged is named Tziporah, and if she has another name, and if the chassan’s name is really Peretz.”

“What?”

“Strange, isn’t it?” Sari’s smile was a bit sheepish. “My husband came to ask me. He remembered the name Peretz, but he wasn’t sure about the kallah’s name, if it’s Tziporah or not, and he certainly had no clue whether or not she has a middle name. But I remembered the Genendel, because of the story of that shidduch that I tried to redt with Green… Anyway, I was upset at myself for just giving information over the phone to a stranger, but…well, names is something that anyone can easily find out, right?” She tried to sound confident, but her tone was just the opposite.

“Right,” Elishava affirmed. A moment later, she raised her eyes to Sari. “Tachlis, what did he want?”

“I don’t know,” Sari said. “At this point, we realized that he wasn’t asking about shidduchim, because he knew your daughter was already engaged. But something about this shidduch, especially the names of the chassan and kallah, seemed to interest him a lot. Oh, he also asked us when the wedding is, but by then I had already caught myself, and I told my husband to tell him that if he wanted more details, he should ask you himself.”

Tzippy and Elishva looked at her.

“He said it’s a good idea, and that is just what he will do.”

***

Bratislava 5708/1948

The two children sat on the cold floor of the corridor, observing the staff running to and fro.

“They’re taking down pictures,” the younger one noted curiously.

“They’re pictures that the new soldiers don’t like,” the older child, all of eight years old, explained.

“The soldiers who don’t let us go to church?”

“Yes.”

They both watched the other children in the orphanage flitting from one place to the other. All the children had freshly washed faces, and were jittery with excitement, as the teachers kept ordering them to move from here to there and then back again.

“I’m clean already,” the little one said. “And so are you.”

Suddenly they heard a piercing whistle, and then dozens of legs began stampeding toward the stairs, in the direction of the dining room. The two children stood up and joined the stream.

“I don’t like his whistle,” Edo said.

“Neither do I. No one likes it.”

They joined the rows of children lined up against the wall of the dining room, looking straight ahead.

“Is there someone,” the director began, “who doesn’t like this place?”

His question was met with silence.

“Because the soldiers are going to come see how things are managed here. And if you want to stay here and not be thrown out to the street, you have to say two things…” He grimaced, and although he tried to conceal it, there wasn’t a single child who missed the expression. “Firstly: what is the most important thing in the world?”

“The Party,” all the children replied obediently.

“It’s not loud enough, not convincing. What’s the most important thing the world?”

“The Party!” they all shouted together.

“Good. And who takes the best care of us in the whole world?”

“Comrade Stalin!”

The director nodded. “And the second thing you have to tell the soldiers is that you love this place. Here, you are growing up to be a vital part of the workers of the nation, and you don’t want the orphanage to be closed down. Is that clear?”

“It’s clear,” all the children echoed.

“Maybe we should give them an example. Gustav…where is Gustav?”

The child standing at the edge of the row, peeling a piece off the already peeling wall, stepped forward. A small hand stuck itself into his, and Edo appeared with him at the front of the dining room.

“Tell me a minute, Gustav,” the director said, his smile even more fiendish than his ubiquitous scowl. “If the soldiers ask you if you like this place, what will you tell them?”

The boy only nodded.

“Very good. So why did you once try to run away?”

The boy looked around and saw a sea of faces gazing at him. He did not reply.

“Oh, he just wanted to look for his family.” It was Theodore, sitting on a chair at the side and watching the assembly.

“But he already realized it’s not so simple. I’ve told you, Gustav, that your family was sent to the East during the war, and will probably never come back. But listen,” he continued with a laugh, “the soldiers coming here today are also from the East, from the glorious Soviet Union. You can ask them if they saw your mother on their way.”

The director guffawed loudly. So did the other teachers.

But Gustav actually took the joke seriously.

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