Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 14 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.
“And then you’ll come, and you’ll give me more candies?” Edo asked as Emil led him along the darkened corridor. Emil put a finger to his lips and smiled at the little boy.
“And tell Gustav not to forget: before he comes, he should take his candies—you know, the ones you already gave him—out of the hiding place,” the child whispered. “He has a hiding place that’s only his, and only I know where it is. He keeps all kinds of things there, like food and candy. He always puts a little bread there for me, because there’s hardly any food, and once, the director caught him and beat him. So tell him he should bring the candies from there. He said that he’s keeping the candies for me also.”
“Shhhh…” This time, Emil placed his finger on Edo’s lips.
“Alright, I know how to be quiet,” the boy said, miffed, and fell silent.
Emil only smiled at him again. They reached the door of the building.
“Run to the gate,” the man whispered. “Quickly and quietly. A nice lady is waiting for you outside, and you should go with her.”
“Okay!” The boy forgot his injured pride and waved at the older man. “See you, Emil!”
Within three seconds, he was next to the well-trimmed tree just beyond the gate, and he stuck his head out to the street.
Ulush Cohen was there in a second. “Are you the cute little boy who is supposed to come with me now?” she asked. He nodded silently. “Come, let’s go to my house.”
They walked hastily, silently. Ulush lowered her eyes to the boy with the baby face. He was scratching his shorn head, looking very confused. She smiled at him again, but he didn’t return her smile. Had she taken the wrong child?
“Who told you to go to the gate?” she asked gently, stopping at the corner.
The boy’s eyebrows stiffened. “No one,” he said. “I just wanted to go because Emil said that you’ll give me candies.”
Her smile widened. Baruch Hashem, it was the right child. And thankfully, it was she who had asked the question and no one else. “That’s right,” she said, without knowing how she would procure candies. “I don’t have any at this moment, but afterward, you will come with me to a place where there are sweets, and good people who like you.”
He stared at her for a minute, and then shifted his eyes back to his shoes, taking step after step.
A car was waiting for them at the corner, as Janek had promised. Janek himself was seated behind the wheel, with one of his friends at his side. He waited in silence until Ulush and Edo were seated in the back seat. Only when the door closed and the car lurched forward, did he murmur, “Baruch Hashem.”
“Was it alright?”
“No one saw you? No one asked anything?”
“No one asked a thing. Did anyone see? Well, I hope not. Tell me something.” She suddenly switched to Yiddish. “Who told you that he’s Jewish? His eyes, his hair… Is Emil positive that this is a Jewish boy?”
“Emil would not have put all of us, including himself, in danger if he wasn’t sure about it. He went into the office there and checked the documents. Edo is Jewish.”
The little boy smiled at the sound of his name, but a second later, his face grew somber again. “Jewish?” He touched his blond, closely-cut hair
“Yes, what do you say about that?” Janek asked him.
The question wasn’t worded clearly enough for the child, and he retreated into silence.
The man sitting next to Janek murmured something.
“He can come to us now, right, Ulush?”
“Yes, sure,” she said. “Do you want to come to my house, sweetie?” she asked the boy.
Again, Janek’s friend murmured something to Janek.
Janek turned to his wife. “The second one also, Ulush?”
“How old is he?”
“I don’t know exactly, and I don’t think there’s anyone who does know. Something like eight, maybe less, maybe more.”
“Fine,” she said. “We’ll find them a place to sleep.”
Ulush looked at the two children sitting quietly on her pair of floral armchairs. The younger one leaned on the side of the chair so that he was closer to his older friend. “You’re not brothers, are you?” she asked in a friendly tone.
“No,” the one who had introduced himself as Gustav said.
“Because you look a bit alike. Your eyes are the same color.” She served them a plate with a few slices of cake on it.
“I’m like his brother,” Gustav said, his mouth full of cake crumbs. “And I told Emil that he’s also Jewish, and that you should take him and find his mother and father also.”
Janek approached. “Yes, Emil told me how responsible you are.” He was holding two white papers in his hand. “He took this from the office of your orphanage,” he said. “These are the only documents you have. The orphanage gave you the name Gustav, right?”
“Yes,” the boy said, eyeing the cake plate “But I don’t remember how old I was when I came there.”
“Is it possible that this was your real name?” Janek placed another slice of cake in Gustav’s hand.
The boy’s forehead creased. “No,” he said slowly, “because Theodore once told me that he had a little son whose name was Gustav, and that he died a long time ago. The director told him to call me by that name.” He looked at the cake in his hand. “He found me near the gate and saved my life, and gave me a new name, Gustav.”
“Who, the director?”
“No, the director wouldn’t have saved me. Theodore.” He took a big bite of the slice of cake, and then another one. When he’d finished the piece, he added proudly, “He also agreed to take Edo in, and to watch him. It was only because I begged him to take Edo.”
“Good for you!” Janek smiled warmly at him. “So you really are like Edo’s brother. You saved his life! But before we talk about Edo, tell me some more about yourself. You say that you once had another name?”
“And how old were you when Theodore found you?”
“Theodore says I was about three.” Gustav gazed at him with his gray eyes.
“That’s what he writes on the form. Do you think that he ever met your parents?”
“And do you remember anything…” Janek paused for a moment. Ulush hastily whispered something in Yiddish, and he answered her. Then he continued: “Do you remember anything about your father or mother? What they did? What your family name was?”
Gustav was very quiet for a long minute.
Janek leaned toward him. “Did you have sisters? Brothers?”
Still the boy was quiet. He stuck his hand out to the plate to take another slice of cake.
“I don’t know,” he said finally, dully. Ulush said something again, this time louder, and Janek’s leathery hand stroked Gustav’s cheek gently. He stopped asking questions.
Something about the ringing of the phone heralded bad news as soon as it broke through the silence. Elisheva didn’t know why, but it made her freeze in her tracks. A moment later, the gears of her brain seemed to thaw, and she reached out to answer it.
“Hello?” Her voice sounded a bit tremulous.
“Hello, this is Chanan Braunstein from Bank Pagi.”
“Yes?” She could barely get the word out.
“Can I ask for an explanation about your exorbitant spending in recent weeks?”
“What?” she whispered.
He raised his voice. “I’d like an explanation for these exorbitant expenses. Large withdrawals, checks that we have no choice but to send back, and in four days, your overdraft has inflated to twenty five times your regular credit line. You realize that we will not allow this to continue even one more day. I am asking you to come in urgently, today, with at least eighty thousand shekels in cash, and to make order in this account so that we don’t have to take any measures that are unpleasant for all involved.”
“No…no!” Elisheva found her voice. “It…it can’t be!”
“What can’t be?”
“Five days ago, one hundred and eighty thousand shekels were deposited in our account, and even with all the expenses, we should still have a nice amount of money left there.”
“What?” Something in the hardness of his voice and the intensity of his confidence wavered for a moment. She heard the tapping of a keyboard. “I see no such thing.”
“On…it was on Monday. No, wait, maybe it was Tuesday…”
“Ma’am, no such amount was deposited in your account, not on Monday, not on Tuesday, and not on any day in the last month or the last year. You’ve been hovering around zero for a long time already.”
“Maybe my husband withdrew the whole amount this morning?”
“No.” The bank clerk’s patience was wearing thin. “There was never any such sum, Mrs. Potolsky. No one withdrew it, because it was never deposited. It just didn’t happen.”
“But we called the bank ourselves and heard that it was there! It was a special grant, and yes, it was very unusual for our account, but I am sure that it was deposited there!”
“I don’t know who managed to hoodwink you like that—” something about his tone softened suddenly—“but it must have all been some kind of trick. Now I am asking you to come right away and take care of this mess.”
It’s a dream. It’s a dream. It’s a bad dream.
“It can’t be,” she muttered, in total shock. But Mr. Chanan Braunstein had finished saying his piece and hung up.
She had to call Eliyahu. And to reach Tzippy, who had gone out with the other girls to a gown rental. And the mechuteiniste. She wondered what was happening in the Stockhammers’ account.
She just had to remember not to mention specific amounts, because Peretz’s mother did not know that they had gotten three times as much as the Stockhammers had received. Actually, it seemed they hadn’t gotten anything, but you don’t take chances with your future mechutanim’s feelings. Resentment about the “imbalance” could fester for a long time.
And as she was planning the words that she would and would not say to her mechuteiniste, Elisheva woke up from the nightmare.