Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 22 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.
“Good morning, Saba.” Miri pushed the carriage into the small room and entered. The carpet swallowed her footsteps, but Saba raised his head at the sound of her voice and smiled.
“Oh, Miri, hi, good morning!” Tzippy chirped. “You haven’t seen my album yet. We just got it last night, and we took it over to show Ima. So, what do you say about the layout design?”
“Design?” Miri took a step closer, parking the carriage in the corner. Ohhh, it was a digitally enhanced album, not an album with clear pockets that you slide the pictures in one by one, like hers. The tome was elegantly bound, made of glossy, gold-edged pages, and each photo was cleverly designed with various techniques.
“Here, look, there you are.” Tzippy hastily turned back a few pages. “Here are all the family photos from the beginning. And look how cute Shmully came out. It’s a good thing you brought him for the pictures!”
“Right.” Miri couldn’t help but smile as she looked at her son’s large eyes sparkling at her from the pages of the album.
“What do you say, Saba? The photographer did a great job, didn’t he? Look, he took the curtain that was in the hall and turned it into a background on all these pages. Then, for the pictures at the seudah, he played the same game with the centerpieces. See how it looks like they’re actually behind the photos? And he also used this feature to make a shadow effect.”
Saba nodded solemnly.
“You think he’s really interested?” Miri muttered as she bent over from behind them to look at the album.
“No less than the stories about the kids in your kindergartens. Ima suggested that I bring the album to show Saba, if you really want to know,” Tzippy whispered back. Her expression was pleasant; she didn’t look angry or confrontational, and her tone was also neutral. But that did not soften her words. Miri looked around. Saba was in his chair at the table, with Tzippy sitting beside him, on another chair. She brought over a plastic chair from the corner and sat down, too.
Tzippy continued leafing through the album, and Saba studied it quietly, nodding every so often. “Oh, here’s Winograd, my old neighbor,” he said suddenly. Miri tried to catch a glimpse from her seat on the side, but the album was centered between Tzippy and her grandfather, and no matter how hard she craned her neck, she couldn’t see the mostly black pictures too clearly. Tzippy must have been showing Saba the spirited dancing on the men’s side. As if that interested him either.
No, she was right; these pictures were really not captivating Saba’s interest. Probably besides for that one with Winograd, his former neighbor, there was nothing to hold his concentration for more than five minutes. Really, what was Tzippy thinking? That he had the patience to go through five hundred photos, one by one? Didn’t Tzippy notice that his eyes were closing every few seconds? That certainly didn’t happen when Miri was sharing stories with him about her preschool students.
And Tzippy kept gushing on and on—she wouldn’t stop!
Finally, after sitting in bored silence for a few minutes, Miri couldn’t restrain herself. “Okay, now let me see. Saba’s seen enough, right, Saba?”
“Right.” Saba smiled and nodded his head, just like he had done before to all of Tzippy’s commentary.
“Fine,” her younger sister relented. “You can look, but start from the beginning.” And she sat and smiled calmly as she listened to her sister’s admiring comments. Because when all was said and done, Miri couldn’t help but be complimentary. The wedding had been gorgeous, the “hall” and all the rest had been more than perfect, and in this album, it all look triple as glamorous as it had been in real life.
“Oh, this is the picture I want to frame and hang on the wall here.” Tzippy pointed to a picture of Saba leaning on his cane and standing under the chuppah, as he held the cup of wine in his right hand. “We asked the photographer to develop a few more pictures that we want to give to our parents. I also asked him for this picture of Shmully…” She turned back a few pages. “He made two copies of this one, one for Ima and one for you.”
She looked at her nephew. “He’s such a cutie,” she said adoringly. “And I’m happy you were able to buy him that outfit. I mean, at least you got something out of this whole thing, too, right?”
“Uh-huh.” Miri turned a page.
“But those reprints—you know, besides for the album—I’m not sure Korman is paying for those. It’s not really part of the wedding expenses, you know? And over the last few days, I’ve been wondering how I’m supposed to start figuring out money and these kinds of things…you understand…?” She smiled, but there was a frisson of tension in her voice.
“Yes,” Miri said and stood up. She walked over to the carriage she had borrowed from her sister-in-law, and rummaged in the old matching diaper bag. There was her wallet. “How much does it cost to develop a picture?” she asked, uber-politely.
“You need money?” Saba asked, having just opened his eyes to see her taking out her wallet. “There’s some small change in the drawer here. Take as much as you need.”
“I’m not the one who needs it,” Miri said, as she tugged the zipper open harshly. “It’s Tzippy who doesn’t have the one and a half shekels to pay for another copy of a photo of my Shmully. But it’s alright, Saba; I can deal with this hole in my wallet. I have lots of money, baruch Hashem. I even had a few hundred shekels to buy my dear sister a wedding present; I’m so generous, in case you hadn’t heard.”
She wouldn’t mention the new carriage she had dreamed about, which was now on hold, among other things, because she’d spent so much out of her own pocket—in addition to her ma’aser money—on Tzippy’s linen. She wouldn’t stoop that low. “So very generous,” she repeated as she nearly threw the two coins onto the table in the room.
Gustav didn’t move. He squinted as he pushed away the branches that insisted on poking his face, and waited. Maybe it had been foolish to leave the Cohens’ house so quickly, but on the other hand, it was his only opportunity. If he would have waited for Ulush to return, she never would have let him go. Later, when Janek would have come home, it would have been even more complicated.
It was very cold on the wet ground, and the moisture seeped into his clothes, but still he did not move. He’d change his clothes later; now it would not be wise to stand up, especially after he’d waited so long. Soon the boys would all go to sleep in the orphanage, and the path to the cellar should be clear. Even if they had appointed a new night counselor instead of Emil, he was supposed to patrol upstairs, near the beds, not near the cellar.
After another fifteen minutes of hearing chatter wafting from the big windows, Gustav finally saw the lights going out in the boys’ rooms, one after another. Only one small window at the end of the hallway remained dimly illuminated, although the entire ground floor was lit up. Gustav slowly stood up, stretching his back and his shoulders. He’d been sitting in this field for more than five hours, facing the back entrance and waiting for the right moment.
With tiny steps, he moved closer to the wall, and then pressed himself against it. After a few more seconds, he reached the locked gate. He knew the wrought iron pattern of the bars very well, and within less than a minute he was already on the other side.
Now he hesitated for a moment. It was absolutely silent, and even the wind that had filled his ears throughout the hours he had been sitting in the field, waiting for night, was now silent. He stood motionless, arms folded, not even knowing what he was waiting for. After a few long moments, he began walking toward the familiar door, which was open wide.
No one seemed to be around, so Gustav took a deep breath—and entered. Running silently and swiftly, he leaped down the stone stairs into the cellar, inhaling the smell of the plum jam and the pickled cucumbers that the cook stored down there.
This was not the first time he was doing this in the dark. Once, when he was little, he’d even sneaked down here in the middle of the night to nibble at the toast he had saved from breakfast. Theodore had nearly caught him then. He’d seen Gustav from afar, but hadn’t been able to identify which of the children he was. After a few minutes, he’d gone to make his rounds of the children’s beds to see who was awake. Theodore hadn’t found anyone up, or so he had thought. Gustav had always been able to convincingly pretend he was sleeping.
Last night, as well, when Janek and Ulush had been talking in their living room, he had heard every word of their conversation. Janek had said it was sad to start life again from zero, and Ulush had said it was impossible to know what kind of wonderful families the children had come from. It was clear that “the children” referred to him and Edo; which other children could she be thinking about?
Janek had said that this war had caused so much destruction, for years and generations to come, and who knew if it would ever be possible to repair the destruction that had been wrought. And then he had said that they all had to get out of the war, because in a lot of ways, they were really still in it. And when Ulush heard that, she had burst out crying and said that it was better for her to think about the children, and not about herself. At that point, Gustav must have fallen asleep, because he didn’t remember what happened after that.
“Is somebody there?”
Gustav didn’t move. He stood frozen in a corner, hoping with all his heart that the thin beam of light dancing on the floor and walls of the cellar would not shine on him.
“Whoever is there, come out right away! I don’t allow children to enter the cellar without permission!”
It was Theodore.
Gustav suddenly felt a rush of longing for the man.
But he didn’t move.
He willed Theodore to move on, so he could get to the next corner. Under the tile that he had been able to remove with the help of the pocketknife Theodor had once given him, were the treasures that he had forgotten to take when he’d run away from this place. The pocketknife itself was also supposed to be there, and it was a shame to leave it. It was a good one. Theodore had given it to him as a gift the first time he’d gone to their church.
“When I find you, there will be big trouble. I suggest that you come out right away and admit that you decided to come down here and help yourself to the pickled cucumbers!” Theodore paused, and then raised his voice. “Do you hear me? Whoever you are, come out right now, or you’re going to get a lashing like you haven’t gotten in a long time!”
And Gustav still did not move.
Theodore finally fell silent. The beam of his flashlight danced around for a few more minutes near the entrance. For a moment it seemed to be drawing closer to Gustav, and it flashed around in broad circles over and over, but then it faded into the darkness. The wooden steps squeaked with each fading footstep.
He remained there, in the corner, waiting. He had no idea how much time had passed, but it felt like at least ten minutes. Maybe twenty. Only then did he emerge from the corner he was in, holding his shoes in his hands. His eyes flitted in every direction as he approached the tile and removed it. Everything was waiting for him as he had left it—three colorful candies from Emil, the pocketknife, and the folded paper that Edo’s mother had given him so many years ago.
He stuck all the things into his pocket, returned the tile to its place, and began walking back to the entrance of the cellar.
The wooden stairs squeaked slightly as he climbed them, but the noise of the rain that had begun to fall outside swallowed any sounds that he made. He just had five more stairs to go…
“I’ve been waiting for you,” said Theodore, leaning on the wall of the landing, languidly peeling an apple. “For some reason I had a feeling it might be you.”