The Cuckoo Clock – Chapter 26

Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 26 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. 

 

Bratislava 5708/1948 

“Mazel tov, Ulush!” Tessa Lieber kissed her on both cheeks. “Show her to me! Oh, she’s so adorable and chubby!”

“Yes…” Ulush Cohen smiled and gazed at her two-day-old daughter who was sleeping in the cradle next to her bed.

“When are you coming back?”

“Four more days, I think, if everything is alright.”

“Everything is alright, yes?” Tessa studied her face closely.

“I hope so.”

“Because you look like something is not.”

Ulush burst into tears again, which she’d been doing a lot lately. “I didn’t manage to see Edo before he left.”

“Left?”

“Yes, the orphanage we’re connected to suddenly received certificates, and they decided that because he is in danger, he would join the others going. He left yesterday, and as much as Janek tried to arrange for him to visit here first, it didn’t work out.”

“Don’t worry, in another few months you’ll also get to Eretz Yisrael, b’ezras Hashem, and you’ll meet him there.”

“First of all, I’m not so sure we’ll be able to leave. It’s becoming more complicated from week to week. And besides, what will be with him until then?”

“There’s Someone Who is worrying about him more than you, Ulush, dear.” Tessa pulled over a chair and sat down, remembering belatedly to lower her voice. Besides Ulush, there were six other women lying in beds in the room.

Ulush nodded and wiped her tears with her sleeve.

“I brought you food.” Tessa reverted back to her usual, practical self. “Hot soup and steamed cabbage.” She glanced around. “How are you roommates? Are they all Jewish?”

“Seems to be,” Ulush whispered in response. “I don’t think that other women would come to a Jewish hospital.”

“So, have you become friendly with them?”

“A little. Most of the time we are all busy.” A smile lit up her weary eyes. “With our babies. Or we’re sleeping.”

“You really do need to sleep a lot,” Tessa cautioned, as though she’d suddenly recalled this important detail. “I’m leaving now, and you try to sleep. But before that, I want you to please eat. Oh, and I just remembered—your husband told me to tell you that he’ll be coming at seven this evening, and he asked if you can wait for him in the corridor.”

“Sure,” Ulush said.

But seven o’clock came, and Janek didn’t. She stood with the baby in her arms, waiting next to the door of her room. But a minute passed, and then two, and then ten and fifteen, and still there was no sign of Janek. The lights in the room behind her were already off, and she felt her legs shaking a bit. She looked around, trying to see if there was an abandoned chair so she could sit down, but the corridor was empty. Just when she’d come to the conclusion that Janek had not been able to get there, and it was a waste of her time to stand there waiting endlessly for him, she saw her husband. His face was red as he hurried in her direction.

Oy, I’m so sorry. You waited a long time for me,” he said guiltily. “And with the baby in your arms!”

“It’s alright.” She smiled weakly.

“No, go inside and put her down in the cradle,” he suggested. “She’s sleeping anyway.”

Ulush didn’t object. When she returned to the corridor, she saw him standing and staring at the pale yellow wall.

“He’s here,” he said quietly. “I found him in the pediatric ward.”

“Who?”

“Gustav. They found him a week ago, lying in the street. He has a bad case of pneumonia. He’s in…quite serious condition.”

“Gustav?!” If Ulush’s legs were trembling before, now they totally buckled under her. She gripped the wall. “Where is he? I’m going to see him now!”

“You’re going to your bed now,” her husband objected. “You won’t be allowed in to the ward now anyway. I had to sneak in there. Tomorrow, bli neder, I’ll try to come back, and if they let me in then, I’ll call you to come.”

But Ulush was insistent. “Why won’t they let me in?”

“Because, think about it: what are you to him?” her husband whispered back. “As far as they are concerned, he is a street child, although the one who found him was a Jew. He realized that it was a Jewish child, so he brought him to this hospital, but they don’t know anything about him. The children’s ward here is very well guarded; they don’t let just any person in. Tomorrow I want to come with Rabbi Walkin and a few documents that will show that the child has a connection to us.”

“Us?”

“The Jewish community. I’m not going to say he was in our house, in case the police link him to the abduction from the other orphanage. Not all of the staff here is Jewish, so we can’t trust everyone one hundred percent. Fine, let’s talk tomorrow,” he said. “You should go to sleep. Good night!”

“Good night,” she murmured with a wan smile, and plodded heavily into the room. One of her roommates shifted in her bed, while another breathed heavily as she slept. Ulush sat down, fingering the edge of her thick blanket. Poor Gustav. What had happened to him? Why had he run away, and where had he been planning to go? Too bad she hadn’t asked Janek what exactly “a week ago” meant. Was it the day after they left their house? Two days?

Who was with him now? Was he lying there alone, or had those people from the Christian place tracked him down and come to the Jewish hospital to make sure he didn’t slip away from them again?

She breathed slowly and then pulled the cover over herself. Soon the baby would wake up and want to eat, and she hadn’t yet slept to regain some of her strength. She hadn’t even said Krias Shema.

Three whole hours later, a little wail woke her up. Twenty minutes after that, the baby fell back asleep, but Ulush was not able to do the same.

She lay in bed, gazing at the ceiling, and thought about Gustav lying somewhere in one of the wards above her. Or maybe it was below her? Where was the pediatric ward in this building? She wouldn’t even know where to find him.

Somehow, she found herself softly stroking the feathery head in the cradle beside her, as she slid her feet into her slippers and padded out of the room. She almost bumped into a short nurse who was striding down the corridor carrying a wooden tray with a few vials of tightly capped medications. “You need to sleep now,” she told Ulush sternly, as though Ulush was a five-year-old. “Why are you walking around at this hour?”

“I can’t fall asleep,” the younger woman said, and fixed her gaze on one of the glass vials standing near the edge of the tray. “Maybe if I do something I’ll be tired enough to fall asleep. Can I help you?”

“No,” was the extent of the nurse’s response. “Go to your room.” As she finished her sentence, the vial landed on the gleaming floor. A small clear puddle began to spread. “Pffftt!” the nurse exclaimed, glaring at Ulush as though she had taken the vial, hurled it to the floor, and shattered it into a million pieces. “Go bring a broom! And a rag.”

“Where from?” Ulush asked meekly.

“From the room behind my desk.” The nurse continued walking and entered one of the rooms. Ulush hurried forward to the desk in the corner of the corridor. She entered the small room behind it and easily found a broom and a floor rag.

“Good,” she heard the nurse’s voice behind her bent back. “Wipe up the whole mess so that no one slips.” Was she just imagining that she heard the nurse hissing an anti-Semitic word? Perhaps, and perhaps not.

In silence and with great effort, Ulush finished cleaning up the spill and the shards of glass, feeling the exhaustion spreading through her every limb as she did so.

She rose once the floor was gleaming again, and leaned on the wall for a few seconds to recover. Then she dragged herself to the nearest garbage and shook the rag over it so all the shards tumbled inside. One more deep breath, and she went back to the little room. The nurse was already seated behind her desk, drinking a cup of tea. “You cleaned it up?” she asked.

“Yes,” Ulush said, returning the broom and rag to the room. As she headed back out again, the nurse glanced at her. “You’re a bit pale,” she said. “Do you feel okay?”

“Yes.” Ulush remained standing near the desk.

“Good. So what do you want now?”

“Do you need any more help?” Ulush asked with a smile that she hoped would banish her pallor; otherwise the nurse would not believe her.

The nurse turned her lips up into a smile a quarter as bright as Ulush’s. “Help? From you?”

“Yes.” Ulush nodded vigorously.

“Well, I don’t want your help.”

“Oh…” Ulush murmured and turned her face away. Then she turned back to the woman behind the desk. “I just wanted to ask you something.” It was for this moment that she had worked so hard to help this anti-Semitic nurse. “Where is the children’s department in this hospital?”

“One floor above us. Why?” the nurse muttered into her tea glass.

“Thanks.” Ulush turned to go. No, she wouldn’t take the baby when she went upstairs, but she could not leave her alone either.

She was very happy to see Ronia, the woman in the bed next to hers, awake.

“Can I ask you something?” Ulush asked. Ronia stared at her in silence and nodded.

“Can I put my daughter’s cradle here, next to you? I just need to go out for a short time, and I want someone to take care of her if she cries.”

Ronia continued staring at her silently.

Ulush groped around for some more words. “She doesn’t need to eat. She ate a short time ago. And if you want, tomorrow night, I’ll watch your baby so you can sleep. She wakes you up a lot, doesn’t she?”

Ronia nodded.

“Thanks.” Ulush breathed and hurried to pull the cradle over to her neighbor’s bed. Then she turned and left the room, purposely choosing the other side of the corridor, where she wouldn’t have to pass the desk of the nurse in charge.

At the top of the stairs was a closed door with a glass pane. She knocked lightly and tried to peek in through the window. Besides blurred moving figures, she couldn’t see a thing.

Suddenly the door was flung open, and a tall female doctor stood in the doorway. Ulush wanted to start stammering an excuse, but the doctor simply passed her by and walked out, leaving the door open. The young Jewish woman slipped inside to the silent ward and closed the door behind her.

She found herself in a large room with five doors. What now? Where could she go? In the middle of the room was a desk with three figures sitting at it. It was much more active here than the corridor she had left behind, downstairs.

From where she was, she studied the desk. She had no chance of going from room to room to look for Gustav without the women there seeing her and asking questions. What would she say then? “I’m looking for the boy who was staying with me until a week ago”? Or perhaps, “I’m looking for the boy I helped abduct”?

The first room was very close to her, and with one rapid stride, she crossed the threshold. It was dark, and only a small light glowed from a high window that was open to the main room, casting weak rays on seven beds. There was no adult in the room. Ulush went from bed to bed, closely scanning the sleeping faces. No, none of them was Gustav.

She hurried to leave the room before a staff member could enter and find her there. If there would have been parents there, she could have pretended to be the mother of one of the children, but apparently no one was allowed to stay the night with patients. Or perhaps none of these children had mothers…

She surveyed the path that separated her from the next door. No, the light was too strong. She would be seen walking from door to door.

In fact, she had already been seen. One of the nurses or doctors caught sight of her from the desk and stood up. Ulush forced herself to stand calmly. She hadn’t done anything wrong by coming here, and if she wouldn’t mention Gustav, no one would connect her to his abduction. At worst, they’d scold her for wandering around in a hospital at night and going into places where she didn’t belong.

The nurse approached her rapidly. “Who are you?” she asked. Ulush relaxed a bit when she heard the tone. It wasn’t suspicious, just questioning.

“I’m a patient here at the hospital,” she whispered.

“What do you have?” the nurse asked. “You can’t come in here and infect the children with other illnesses.”

“I don’t have anything contagious.” Ulush managed a smile as she leaned on the wall behind her. “I had a baby girl; I’m in the ward downstairs.”

“Actually, right now I see that you are here, in this ward. Do you want to get sick? And infect your baby with typhus or other diseases?”

“No, no,” Ulush said hastily.

“So why did you come up to the pediatric ward?”

“I heard there’s an abandoned child here,” Ulush whispered. “He was found in the street with pneumonia.”

“So?”

“Do you really not know anything about him?”

“Nothing. One person asked about him and said he’d check into things—but we haven’t heard back from him.”

“I might know him.”

“The boy? How?”

“A week ago, an orphan child disappeared from the Jewish community. I helped take care of him.”

The nurse didn’t ask, “What happened to his parents?” There was no need. She looked at Ulush for a long moment before finally saying, “Come.” Then she turned and walked into one of the rooms.

But the child lying in the bed there was a blond boy of about three.

“It’s not him,” Ulush said quietly, overwhelmed with disappointment.

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