Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 20 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.
“What does that mean, he disappeared?” Rabbi Walkin stopped abruptly en route to his chair.
“When my wife returned from a shopping trip, she found only Edo at home. He told her that Gustav told him that he had to go, and he just went. And he hasn’t come back.”
“How many hours have passed since then?”
“Now it’s already almost two o’clock, so it’s a bit more than four hours, I think. We looked for him in every possible place. I asked Rothstein to even sniff around in the municipal hospital, but we’ve turned up nothing.”
“Did he leave you a note? A message? Did he say something yesterday or this morning?”
“Do you think he was kidnapped?” The orphanage director pressed his hand to his forehead.
“No. I’m afraid that he went back there of his own accord.”
“Back? To that other place?”
“I was there just now, meeting with the assistant director, the one who came to look for them here.”
“And you think that if I’m right, and Gustav is there, he would have told you about it?”
Walkin didn’t answer right away. “I’m trying to replay the conversation with Heinke in my mind. Even though he didn’t make the effort to be particularly nice, I also got the impression that they are groping around in the dark as much as we are. I can’t imagine that the boy returned to them just a short time before…” he said slowly. “It just doesn’t seem that way. On the other hand, I can’t be sure. Maybe he’s a good actor or an experienced liar. But why do you think that the boy would run back there?”
“He’s been acting very…lost these past few days.” Janek sat down opposite Rabbi Walkin, pushing aside the half-filled ashtray. “We felt that he wasn’t finding himself.”
“Like lots of children in his situation.”
“Yes,” Janek agreed. “But he once tossed the idea out at us in such a matter-of-fact way that it made me bristle. He didn’t understand what we can possibly offer him if we aren’t his parents and we have no idea how to bring him to them.”
“And he was happy in that place?”
“Based on his stories, they seem to have treated him nicely.”
“My question is,” Walkin thought aloud, “that let’s say you’re right and he went back there. How much time will it take for them to extract from him the identity of the person who smuggled him and Edo out, and where Edo is right now?”
“Well, he won’t mention you at all because he’s never met you. Or anyone else from the committee. He knows only Emil, and he’s long gone.”
“Right, but if Heinke connects the dots between my visit and the abduction and the child’s return, he won’t need much to prove that our orphanage, along with all the members of the Va’ad Hatzolah, are involved in this story.”
Janek nodded. “Indeed, my wife is very afraid. We want to leave.”
“Yes.” Janek’s gaze was direct, steady, and very open. “I can’t put myself at risk, and I certainly can’t do it to my wife. She’s the only one left from her family, and I am the only one from mine.”
“Very understandable,” Walkin said. “And what will we do with Edo?”
“If we can’t find a better place for him, we will take him with us.” Janek’s voice did not sound confident at all.
“No, there’s no reason that you should take the risk now, if indeed Gustav might be, at this very moment, giving over the relevant information to the management there. The last thing we need is for you to be caught while traveling with Edo. You won’t be able to deny anything.” He was thoughtful for a moment.
“Go,” he finally said. “Go with your wife. I suggest that you travel to Senico; Aryeh Lieber lives there, and he’ll be happy to host you. A few Jewish families like us have settled in the city, and you’ll be comfortable there. I’ll speak with Benny, and we’ll continue the cautious searches by ourselves. We’ll update you about any developments. If necessary, we’ll send Edo to you there. He acclimated well with you, didn’t he?”
“Baruch Hashem, yes. He really did.”
Shaina Rosen, the principal of the Zichron Elchanan school, vacillated whether to go to the wedding or not. In the end she decided to go. She didn’t think that her presence there would embarrass the mechuteinistas; after all, although she’d given them permission to use the school gym, it wasn’t like she owned the building or anything. She also didn’t think they would suspect that she was there to make sure they were taking care of the place properly. It was just natural for her to come and wish mazel tov at a wedding being held there.
She left the house and headed for the bus stop, her thoughts on the wedding the whole time. She hoped that the tablecloths being used were long enough and nice enough to conceal the fact that the “tables” were just students’ desks. It was a good thing the school had lots of plastic chairs and that most of them were new; what hashgachah that they had just replaced their stock of chairs at the end of last year! She just hoped that someone had arranged a better chair for the kallah. While it was true that with those nice chair-covers, even a plastic chair could look quite elegant, it still wasn’t regal enough for a kallah. Too bad she hadn’t asked the Stockhammers more details about what they were planning. Perhaps she could have helped out more…
“Shaina?” Nechama Kagan tapped her cousin on the shoulder as she was a few minutes away from the hall. “So good to see you! Are you on the way to the wedding?”
“Yes. I guess you are, too?”
“Yup. I’m so glad I met you. I wanted to apologize for having worried you for no reason, apparently. If I understood correctly, that story about the chassan being sick is not at all true. Not that I’m sure what the real story is, but—”
“They said they got a special grant, but only if they would get married today.” Shaina stuck to the story that Mrs. Stockhammer had told her on the phone. If that’s what she had been told, as far as she was concerned that was the truth. She wasn’t going to nose around to try to find other versions of the story, juicy as they might be.
“Could be that it’s really true. From what I understand, they bought a huge apartment in the center of Bnei Brak.”
“Could be.” Shaina remained unmoved. “I didn’t ask her a lot of questions. I just apologized that the walls of the gym haven’t been painted for more than two years, and that it’s quite old. I hope it’s not bothering them too much now.”
“Anyone who gets a hall for free says thank you and doesn’t look at the peeling walls,” Nechama said. “Although it’s hard for me to imagine Bayla, the mechuteiniste, marrying off her son in a hall with peeling walls… But I guess sometimes you have no choice about these kinds of things.”
“Oh, look over there; I see they put signs up where the men’s and women’s entrances are.”
Shaina Rosen knew her school yard quite well. It had an odor that changed from time to time. During the stormy winter days, it smelled of water, mud, and wet leaves. At the peak of the hot weather, there was the smell of dryness and heat, almost a scorching smell. At the beginning of the year, there was a scent—and Shaina was positive that it was something real, not imagined—of crisp new clothes and briefcases and shoes. But this smell of spicy fried chicken and steamed vegetables was not something that she ever remembered smelling there.
Those mouthwatering smells, together with the band’s music and the tinkle of silverware emerging from the windows, as well as the crowd of women standing on the right side of the courtyard, really generated the happy image of a regular wedding hall.
“Doesn’t look like your familiar school, does it?”
How was it that Nechama was always able to put her thoughts into words? That was something that had always drawn them to one another in the past. And it was this same something that also caused their relationship to constantly hit ruts.
“It really looks like a simchah hall,” Shaina agreed. “I’m happy for them. I was afraid it would look more like a school function. I’m glad that the guests’ first impression is that of a regular simchah.”
Nechama strode toward the right side of the school building, with Shaina behind her. She didn’t glance at her own locked office or at the darkened classrooms. She didn’t recognize any of the women who passed her on the stairs, but some of them apparently recognized her and nodded in greeting.
The drumbeats of the band grew stronger, and to her unprofessional ear, the music sounded very professional. She hoped that at least the band would be able to compensate for the not-very-pretty décor of the old gym. And that the photographer would skillfully choose decent backdrops for the pictures. One of the windows in the room had an okay curtain, but it was also rather old…. Shaina was suddenly very embarrassed to enter the “hall,” like a mother who is ashamed to walk into the classroom on PTA night to speak to her rambunctious daughter’s teacher.
“Hello, Mrs. Rosen,” a woman greeted her at the entrance to the “hall,” and moved aside a bit. “And mazel tov!”
“Simchos by all!” Shaina replied. “Are they in the middle of the meal?”
“No, they finished the main course a few minutes ago.”
No more excuses, she told herself. Just go in and see your gym in all its shabby shame. Against the backdrop of the simchah inside, the peeling walls and plastic chairs probably stand out even more, but at least you can console yourself with the fact that because of this hall—and to your credit!—the chassan and kallah are receiving some financial support…
She entered, automatically turning her head to the right of the door, where the inside knob constantly slammed into the wall, creating a large and ugly hole. From there, she knew, there was a long strip of peeling paint that reached all the way to where the old Chanukah chagigah signs from the past few years still hung.
But the hole wasn’t there, and beyond it, the colorful signs had also disappeared. In their place was a large piece of fabric in hues of blue and silver, draped from the ceiling along the length of all the walls. It was topped with a regal looking blue valance that was at least ten feet high. Shaina raised her gaze—yes, someone had managed to go all the way up in order to cover the entire wall in this fabric.
She lowered her eyes again. The hall was divided with a lattice-wood mechitzah, but she imagined that the other side of the hall was a mirror image of this one: dark carpets covered the scratched parquet floors, and “her” plastic chairs were encased in glittery blue and silver chair-covers. The oval tables—which were certainly not hers—were covered in silver linen tablecloths, and rising from the center of each one was a massive candelabra, covered with blue flower balls, with dozens of little candles twinkling inside elegant glass cups in it. Now that the meal was over, the tables were full of dirty place settings, but even from just glancing at them, Shaina could see that all the tableware was top quality.
Along the wall that faced the door was a three-tiered bar, but she could not see it well from where she was standing, because a mass of women stood between them.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, her cousin Nechama Kagan appeared at her side.
“It’s amazing what they did here!” she said. “It’s like a real banquet hall! I’m telling you, this place is no less gorgeous than the fanciest halls that I know of! Come, Shaina, let me introduce you to Bayla Stockhammer, so you can see firsthand the person you did this chessed for.”
“Chessed…” Shaina murmured, but her sotto-voce remark was drowned out by the thudding drums.