Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 23 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.
The rain continued to fall outside, but that wasn’t why Gustav was trembling. He stood at the top of the stairs and stared at the knife peeling a long strip off the apple.
“I see that you’re dressed well.” The knife stopped. “The Jews are taking care of you, huh?”
Gustav nodded wordlessly as he scanned the last two stairs that remained and evaluated if he could break into a run, dash past Theodore, and continue outside.
“What’s his name? Walkin, huh? Where did he hide you when I came with the policeman?”
“You didn’t come there with a policeman,” Gustav whispered. “You didn’t come there at all.”
“I don’t know where they hid you that morning, but I came to the Jewish orphanage the morning after they abducted you. They didn’t tell you?”
“I’m not in a Jewish orphanage.” Gustav cautiously ascended one step.
“So where are you?”
“In a house.”
“Emil kidnapped you, didn’t he? Is he a Jew?”
Gustav looked at the opening to the black void outside and remained silent.
Theodore assiduously chewed the piece of apple, swallowed it, and sliced off another piece. He offered it to Gustav. “Want?”
“So what do you want?”
“To go.” The boy’s voice was low, but Theodore heard it.
“To go…” he repeated slowly. “You left here once already, right? I guess I only imagined that I once saved your life. But forget that; let’s not talk about it now. You left here already. So why did you come back?”
“I wanted to take something with me.”
Gustav didn’t know what would least irritate Theodore: Edo’s paper or the pocketknife. Or the candies from Emil. Or all three.
“What do you have in your pocket?”
Biting his lip, Gustav pulled his hand out of his pants pocket, taking with him the first thing his fingers grasped.
“Hmm, the pocketknife that I gave you,” Theodore said calmly. “Well, do you still go to church?”
Gustav was quiet as his eyes flitted every which way.
“Put it back in your pocket. What else do you have there?”
Gustav pulled his hand out a second time. A candy glinted between his fingertips. “Oh, the type that Emil liked to give to the children. Do you live with him?”
Gustav shook his head in the negative.
“And what else are you hiding there?”
Out came the last two candies from his pocket.
“Come, let’s go upstairs. The director isn’t here now, but I’m sure he’ll be happy to see you in the morning.” Theodore chuckled. Sure… Farash, happy to see Gustav? No way. On second thought, perhaps he would be happy—to mete out a punishment.
Gustav stood with his foot on the last stair and his hand gripping the railing. He looked at the curled apple peel that had dropped near his shoe, not moving a muscle.
And then he took his hand out of his pocket, leaving the folded paper inside. With effort, as though his leg muscles had turned into a rusty lump of steel, he climbed the last stair. He glanced fleetingly at Theodore, who continued eating his apple wordlessly. There was a little smile playing on Theodore’s lips. It wasn’t his regular smile; it was a distinctly unpleasant one.
But he didn’t say a word when Gustav continued walking right past him.
Gustav didn’t look back; he slowly marched toward the entrance, estimating constantly how many steps he had left.
“Are you planning to leave?” Just before Gustav reached the door, Theodore’s voice stopped him.
Gustav did not respond. He simply walked out, and then, finally, he felt as though something had oiled his rusty steel legs, and they were able to move again. He broke into a run, and in less than twenty seconds, reached the gate and gripped it with his hand. He quickly climbed to the top, and only then, before jumping down to the other side, did he turn around. Theodore was standing at the entrance of the building, staring at him. Then he stepped outside.
With frightened, gasping breaths, Gustav slid down the other side of the gate, and with a jump that twisted his knee, he was back in the field.
He ran, groaning as he did. His knee ached with every step on the wet ground. After a few minutes, he turned to look at the orphanage once again. The gate was open, and Theodore was walking out calmly, a ring of keys jangling in his hand.
He could run very, very fast, through the fields, and get to Janek and Ulush’s house, but Theodore had a car. He would follow him and see where he was going. Then he would catch him again, together with Edo, and poor Janek and Ulush, kind souls that they were, would be sent to prison.
Gustav stood on the top of a mound of rubble, crouching behind a large slab of concrete. He strained his eyes, trying to see the in the dark. Theodore’s car was nowhere to be seen. He wasn’t even sure that cars could get into this destroyed street. Once, half a year ago, the orphanage had taken the children on an outing, and from far, they had seen the destroyed streets. The teacher had explained then that there were parts of the city that had been destroyed in the bombings during the war and had not yet been rebuilt, even though three years had passed since the end of the war.
How long did it take to rebuild houses? Apparently a long time.
He abandoned the cover of the concrete slab and began carefully picking his way through the rubble. It wouldn’t be a good idea to fall, because it might be his final place. He didn’t think people ever came here. The darkness was thick and inky, and he was alone. But Gustav wasn’t afraid. He preferred to be here alone than with Theodore, or with other people from the orphanage.
His knee was aching a bit less now, but he was cold. The wind whipped at him from all directions, and he wondered if it was safe to enter through a gaping hole in the wall in front of him. It seemed as though there was a room that had remained intact behind that wall. Carefully, he stepped inside, feeling the walls. They looked strong; in fact, they had even withstood the bombardment when everything else around them had crumbled.
He looked up. The room even had a ceiling! Wonderful; this was an excellent place for him. Suddenly, he bumped into something soft, and bent down to feel it. A bed! A small child’s bed, the perfect fit for him! It even had a mattress on it. Perhaps it was a bit torn, but you could feel that it was a thick, good-quality mattress.
Gustav sat down on the bed and looked around. Slowly, his eyes grew accustomed to the darkness. The room wasn’t entirely intact; the ceiling on the other side had caved in, and he could see a few stars through it. There was also a large hole in the facing wall. But next to him, lower down…hey, it was a faucet! He quickly got up to examine the faucet. As expected, though, not a drop of water flowed out of it, and that was when Gustav realized how thirsty he was.
It was alright; tomorrow morning, after Theodore would give up on finding him, he could go back to Janek and Ulush. They would give him as much water and milk as he wanted. True, it would take him time to walk, because he was very far from their house now, but it was alright. He wasn’t afraid of walking.
The child went back to the bed and stretched out on it, licking his parched lips. He hadn’t eaten or drank anything in hours; come to think of it, he’d put nothing in his mouth since that morning. But he wasn’t spoiled. He would eat tomorrow.
Yes, he really was fine. Tomorrow he would eat and drink; it wasn’t that bad. But one thing he couldn’t wait for tomorrow for was a blanket. And a heater. He was terribly cold right now! He had gotten used to being hungry from his years in the orphanage; often the food wasn’t quite sufficient. But they had never been cold there. There had always been large heaters keeping the rooms warm, and besides for one winter, when there hadn’t been enough wood to fuel the heaters, and they had crowded all the beds into one room, it had always been pleasant and warm and clean there.
Janek and Ulush’s house was also always pleasant and warm. For the past few days Ulush had baked potatoes with butter in her oven, and Gustav had eaten them when they were broiling hot. That way he’d been warm inside and out. If only he had just one such potato right now, even a small one, so he could warm himself up…
Maybe he should just go back right now?
The thoughts tumbling around in Gustav’s brain confused him; they engulfed him and almost choked him as he lay there on the bed. Too bad he didn’t have a small potato…a really tiny one…hot…boiling… He lay trembling on the bed, drained from the exhausting and turbulent day he’d experienced, stiff with cold. His cheek stuck to the moist mattress. Perhaps there were a few rags here that he could wrap himself with?
With effort he opened his eyes and scanned the room a second time. The moon had slipped out from behind the clouds in the last few minutes, and its pale rays shone through the hole in the ceiling. No, the room was empty; there was nothing to cover himself with.
Gustav arranged his coat around his shoulders, tugging the collar as high as it would go. He licked his dry lips again, and in his semi-frozen stupor, fell asleep.
Cold water wet his face, filled his mouth, and woke him up all at once. He shook off the drops, confused, and sat up. It wasn’t yet morning—it was still very dark—but the sound of the strong rain drumming on the remains of the ceiling above his head was what had woken him up.
And the water.
The boy stood up. Yes, the water was seeping in not only where the ceiling was broken; it poured in over his head as well, forming a puddle on the floor of the room. Apparently the ceiling was cracked even in the places where it appeared whole. Alright, what was he to do now? Should he leave? Outside would be worse. If he could find a slightly more intact refuge, that would be good, but wading around in the muddy rubble, when everything was wet and slippery and he was being doused with pouring rain…no. He was better off here.
He curled up in the corner of the bed, but quickly discovered that the mattress was saturated with water. He stood up and walked over to the furthest and driest corner, and stood there, gaping at the water pouring into the room. The rain didn’t appear ready to let up any time soon, based on its noise. And even if it would, he wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep now. He didn’t have a normal bed anymore.
He stood there for a few more minutes, and then, exhausted and weakened by hunger, he crumpled to the floor, gazing with large eyes at the puddles filling the room. Fortunately, the floor was also broken, and a lot of the water seeped down into the cracks, so it wasn’t pooling high enough to reach him. He closed his eyes, listening to the sound of the rain. Too bad Edo wasn’t here. Together they could build paper sailboats, like Theodore had once taught them to do. They would set them sailing on the water, and maybe they would even be able to get into one of those boats and sail far, far away from here. To America, maybe.
He fell asleep as the freezing water slowly but steadily filled the floor of the room, inch by inch. The water finally reached him, puddling around his socks and the hems of his pants. His shoes, left next to the bed when he had gone to sleep, had long been carried away by the water.