Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 43 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.
“It’s hard,” Elisheva’s father said suddenly.
“What is hard, Abba?” She bent over him. “Does something hurt you?”
He shook his head from side to side.
“So what is hard?”
“It’s hard,” was his answer. He sighed.
Again, a negative shake of the head.
“Being in the hospital?”
“So what is it?”
“But Eliyahu was here all night, Abba,” she said, almost pleadingly. “He just went down to shul for Shacharis. I know it’s not easy to be alone, but I really tried hard to come early…”
He waved his hand weakly.
“Not that?” she asked.
“When I was a boy,” he said, “and I was alone…”
All at once, the few photos she knew from that time flashed through her mind. Photos from her father’s childhood. Two were from Europe; the rest were already taken here in Eretz Yisrael. He gave the impression of being a calm, worry-free child, and in some of the pictures, he was also surrounded by friends.
“Did your friends have families?” She slid her finger along the metal railing of the wide bed. “Most of them probably didn’t.”
“They had names…” he whispered, and closed his eyes. “They knew who they were.”
“And you didn’t…” She lowered her tone automatically—either taking his cue, or because her father’s roommate was suddenly wheeled in, surrounded by relatives who were making quite a racket.
She and Eliyahu had gotten to know some of the roommate’s children over the past three days. Look, even in the postwar generation, the differences continued: Abba and Ima had only one daughter—her—and they remained a small, somewhat solitary family, with hardly any relatives except for two of Ima’s cousins. None of Ima’s close relatives had survived the war either, but at least she had a name, an identity and a past. She was ten when she was sent to hide with gentile neighbors, and she took her memories with her.
But Abba had nothing.
Today, though, Hashem had compensated them with a large family, and Abba was living to see the nachas. Perhaps he would reconsider and agree to come to them, so he could bask in that nachas all the time? Maybe that was the reason he had suddenly raised the topic of his past?
She peeled back the foil cover of a yogurt, wondering if she should say anything more on the subject. Behind the curtain she could hear the voices of the roommate’s three children. Their tones were a bit elevated; they seemed to be disagreeing about something. Elisheva wondered what it was about this thin curtain that made people think that it was made of soundproof cement.
Her phone rang.
“Ima?” two voices chorused together. They must have been arguing about who would speak, and then decided to use two handsets at the same time.
For a second, she felt like putting her phone on speaker, just so there would be some noise on her side of the curtain, too. “What’s doing?” she asked. “No, I can’t hear anything like this. Only one person at a time, please.”
“Ima.” It was seventeen-year-old Riki. “Don’t ask what we found under the refrigerator!”
“Maybe I’d better ask what you didn’t find…” Elisheva chuckled. The bottom of her fridge was very low, and a miscellany of odd items always accumulated in the space between the floor tiles and the fridge. It was only possible to retrieve those items by moving the fridge, which happened only rarely, when she was giving the fridge a good cleaning. “Hmmm…your silver ring?”
“No,” Riki said, sounding dejected for a moment. “I hope we’ll still find that.”
“B’ezras Hashem. So what did you find?”
“Besides for lots of dirt and torn pieces of paper and some old kindergarten arts and crafts projects, there’s this silver yad, with a pointing finger. You know, the type used during Krias HaTorah.”
“What? That sounds to me like another project someone brought home from preschool.”
“Project? It’s not made of cardboard, Ima.”
“I think I once saw such a thing made out of plastic in a store for craft items. Maybe the teacher spray-painted it silver when they were learning about a sefer Torah?”
“But it looks like real metal, Ima,” Shuki interjected on his extension. “And it also sounds metallic when you bang it. It’s a little smaller than what we have in our shul, but I think it’s real silver. There are even black stones on it.”
“Really? Strange… Who found it?”
The facts here seemed fuzzier, because she got two conflicting answers at the same time. Riki said, “Shloimy” at the same second that Shuki said, “Bentzy.” Then an argument broke out, and a few of the other children joined in the background.
“We moved the fridge together,” Riki finally said. “But we didn’t get behind it right away. First we went to get shmattehs and cleaners and all the things we’d need. In the meantime, the little ones climbed in behind it to find the usual treasures, and suddenly, they brought this to us.”
“What does Abba have to say about this?” Elisheva asked as she stood up to close the crack between the curtain and the wall. Not that it would lower the arguing voices coming from the other side, but perhaps she’d feel a bit more of a sense of privacy—and she could only hope that those on the other side would feel the same way.
“He just went out to buy some bulbs; he hasn’t seen it yet.”
“Okay, sounds interesting,” Elisheva said. “Put it on a high shelf for now, and show it to Abba when he gets back. No one at home knows what it is? Or how it got to us?”
“Did you ask everyone?”
“Except for Abba and Esty, who is at the neighbor downstairs.”
“Okay. Maybe they will know something.”
Elisheva leaned back, studying her father. He had finished eating his yogurt and was now in the middle of bentching. No, she would not raise the subject again of where he should go home to. It would probably just irritate him. Maybe he would agree to come to them for the first days of Yom Tov. In the meantime, though, she would not badger him. After all, if she was to be honest with herself, he would probably get more rest in the nursing home than in her house, big as it might be. But a week or two after Pesach, she would ask him again to move in with them. Permanently.
Bratislava – 5708/1948
The nurse who entered the room found the boy standing next to the bed, holding onto it and swaying unsteadily.
“You got out of the bed?” she cried angrily, “Without permission?”
He gazed at her, and she wondered how much he was actually seeing.
“Come,” she said, in a gentler tone. “Come lie down again.” She lowered the metal bar so that he could sit, and then she turned around and looked at him. “Wait a minute. How did you get down?”
He was silent.
“You climbed out!” she declared. “Do you know how dangerous that is? Now get back into bed, quickly.”
He didn’t move.
“Quickly!” she repeated, raising her voice. “Come on!”
He arched his knees and climbed onto the bed, but didn’t lie down. “Where are they?”
“Who, Janek and Ulush Cohen?”
“Your pants? Here they are. You’re wearing them.”
He lowered his eyes. “No. My pants.”
“A big boy acting as stubborn as a baby! You mean the clothes that you came to the hospital with?”
“Oh, they took everything to the laundry.”
“I had things there,” Gustav whispered. “In the pocket.”
“I’ll check who the doctor and nurse who admitted you here, and we’ll ask them what they did with those pants. Now you are going to lie down here like a good boy, right? And don’t get off the bed without permission. It’s dangerous. Your legs are still weak.”
She was about to leave the room when she heard him whisper again: “And where are they?”
“The pants again?”
“No, Janek and Ulush.”
“I don’t know. Ulush was here with you at night.”
“Janek didn’t come today.”
“Right. Maybe he’ll come tomorrow.”
“But the police came instead.”
“And you were sleeping. How do you know?”
“I know,” Gustav mumbled. Of course he knew. Janek had told him that whenever people like that came in, he should make sure to be asleep. There was no need to explain what people “like that” meant; he understood perfectly. So this morning, he had “slept,” and the police had marked down that he was there, but he didn’t know what exactly they had written. He knew that Janek’s friends had come up with a new name for him, and had handed all kinds of documents to the hospital, but he didn’t remember which name they had given him.
“So today the police were here when you slept, and Janek might come tomorrow when you won’t be sleeping,” the nurse repeated.
“And maybe Ulush will come at night,” he whispered hopefully.
But Ulush didn’t come that night. And Janek did not come in the morning. Instead, two Jewish men came, but they hardly spoke to him. They just conversed between themselves, patted him a bit, and then left.
The next day again, Janek and Ulush did not come. Again, the two Jewish men came, and he just hugged his thick pillow with dry eyes, gazing out the long, high, rectangular window in the corner of the room. What had happened to Ulush? Had she gone to Edo? But he was in Eretz Yisrael. Had she also traveled to Eretz Yisrael? Together with her new baby? And left him here alone?
The next morning, the same nurse came in. She had a scary face, but Gustav knew that deep down she really had a good heart.
“I found it,” she said secretively as she slipped a hand into the pocket of her white coat. “It wasn’t so easy, because they almost threw it out; they are afraid of infection. But in the end, it stayed here in a box. But—” She took out a rusty pocketknife. “This knife really has to go straight to the garbage now. It’s dangerous, especially since it’s rusty. If you cut yourself with it, it can get you very sick.
“Oh, and you also had a paper in your pocket. The people here on staff and the man who found you in the street tried to read what it said. They wanted to know who you are, but the water washed out the words and turned the paper into mush. So they had no choice but to throw that out.”
“So the paper was thrown out?” the boy asked.
“What am I standing here and telling you for the last five minutes?” the nurse snapped. “There’s no paper. Finished. It was torn. Destroyed. Thrown out.”
“But maybe I remember what it said,” he whispered hoarsely. She was already gone. “Yosef Ludmir, from Petrozhelka 10…” He gazed out the window. He could not remember the names and addresses of his uncles in Eretz Yisrael. He had never been able to pronounce the strange words.
He hoped that Edo would find them like this, anyway. Or that they would find him.