Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 13 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.
Ulush Cohen was wiping the small kitchen table when she heard her husband’s footsteps outside, accompanied by another set of footsteps. She quickly opened the pantry to see if they had enough ingredients for lunch.
When she heard the knock, she closed the pantry and hurried to the door. “Welcome,” she said, and then moved aside. Janek walked in with two guests; she knew them already from previous visits. He saw the look of distress in her eyes as she glanced at the pantry, and quickly murmured, “They won’t be eating lunch with us.”
“I can run down to the store,” Ulush replied quietly.
“No, no, this is really a short meeting relating to something we’d rather not discuss in the office.”
“I understand.” She went back to the kitchen and her wet rag, glancing over her shoulder. From the doorway she could look into the living room and see the edge of their floral armchair, as well as some of the dining room table. Someone sat down on the chair, and an ashtray was put on the table.
“It’s two days already…”
“The lists are closed….”
She tugged at her kerchief, opened the window to try and ward off the cigarette smoke that would inevitably waft in very soon, and took a few potatoes out of the pantry. Her husband didn’t share information about his activities and various smuggling operations, and it was better that way. He explained to her that this way, both of them were safer. But now things sounded really serious. They’d never come here to plan their next operation.
She passed a hand over her forehead as she thought about the certificates that had been promised to them but had not yet materialized. She wanted to leave. She was afraid for Janek. It wasn’t that she was paranoid by nature, but it looked to her like he was taking too many risks lately. She saw him coming home in the middle of the night, dirty, sweating, exhausted, and pale, and sometimes literally trembling, but he always smiled. And when she asked, “How was it?” he said only, “Baruch Hashem, it ended successfully.”
A chair suddenly scraped back, and Janek entered the kitchen. She shuddered, as if afraid that she had uttered her thoughts and questions aloud, and he had come in to try to answer them.
“This time we will need your help, Ulush,” he whispered. “Can you close the window?”
“My help?” She quickly pulled the shutters closed.
“Yes. It seems to be about two children who need to be smuggled out of an institution here in the city. Tonight. We need a woman to take the younger one. A woman with a child will arouse less suspicion than a man with a child.”
“Yes,” she said, focused.
“Emil got a job at the place; he’s been working there for five days already.”
“Where is it?”
“An orphanage in the eastern part of the city. It used to be something officially Catholic; today they’ve lowered their profile a bit.” He leaned on a chair. “It’s not supposed to be dangerous,” he said. “Emil will bring the child out, and you will continue on with him, as though you are his mother and the two of you are taking an evening walk together.”
She nodded, wide-eyed. “And if they chase after us?”
“I don’t think anyone will chase after you. Emil is the only adult there at those hours. One of our cars will be waiting at the corner.” The car wasn’t part of the original plan, but he had added it of his own accord, this very minute. While it was true that in theory, Emil was watching the children at those hours, what would happen if the assistant director, who was so overprotective of his charges, happened to be out, and he would meet Ulush and recognize the child with her? She couldn’t be put in such danger.
Ulush wasn’t all that brave, but she wasn’t cowardly either. “Fine,” she said, and took the knife to cut the first potato. “I think I’m ready.”
“I’ll give you clearer instructions later, but that’s the plan in general terms.” He was about to go back to his friends in the living room, but then he turned back to her. “If someone catches you, say that you found the child in the street and that you’re looking for who he belongs to. He is also being told to say that he went out himself for a walk and that no one sent him specifically to you.”
She smiled. “Fine,” she said. “It will all work out, b’ezras Hashem.”
“You will go to a place with a lot of candies,” Emil said, as he leaned on the row of faucets that protruded from the metal pole running along the wall. He brushed the child’s wet hair out of his eyes. “The gate will be open, and you’ll just walk past. A nice lady will wait for you outside, and she’ll take you to a good place, a better place than this.” Around them, the children were running around boisterously and throwing towels at one another. It was so noisy that Emil and Edo could converse easily without being heard. “And if someone catches you in the courtyard or on the street, what will you tell him?”
“That I’m going to look for candies, because I want some,” the boy replied obediently.
“Very good. It’s like I didn’t tell you to go.”
“And Gustav?” the little boy asked, wiping his face with a towel. “Will he also come with me?”
“No.” Emil searched with his eyes for Gustav, the eight-year-old whom he had just gotten to know two days ago, but whose trust he had already acquired. It was a miracle that it was so easy to get these children to trust him; with Gustav, it seemed that he had been waiting all these years for something just like this to happen, for someone to come and take him from this place, “to my mother,” as he said.
“Umm…” Emil had stammered, not wanting to shatter his dream. They didn’t talk about the subject again; they only spoke quietly about leaving. Gustav was the one who had told him about Edo, the second Jewish boy in the orphanage, and a quick visit to the locked office during the evening hours affirmed the story. There were two Jewish children here. Two children without a name or identity. The only details recorded about them were their approximate age upon arrival, the date, and the names that Theodore Heinke, the deputy director, had given them.
Edo was also easy to persuade, because of his young age, but Emil had only approached him this evening, due to the risk that he would blurt something out.
“Gustav is also going, but not with you. You’ll meet later on.”
“He told you that it’s a good idea to take me also, right?”
“So why won’t he come with me?”
“Because the nice lady can’t take two children in the street with her.”
“Oh.” Edo mulled this over and then added, “When will I go?”
“I’ll tell you when. You lie down nicely in bed, but don’t fall asleep. I’ll come in like I always do to tell everyone goodnight, and then I’ll talk to you.”
“And I shouldn’t tell anyone, right?”
“Right. You’re a very smart boy.” Emil smiled, and then he abruptly raised his voice. “Max and Berno, what are you doing over there? Do you know that in five minutes you have to be in bed? Pick up the towel, Max, because if it gets wet, you’ll have to be up early to wash it yourself, along with some other towels, you hear?” He patted the boy on the shoulder and sent him toward the door of the washing room.
“In five minutes I’m starting to walk through the rooms, my friends.” He clapped his hands. “Anyone who wants to miss the last chapter of my suspense story—should make sure not to be in bed by then.” He sincerely hoped that the last chapter of his suspense story would have a very happy ending indeed.