Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 53 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.
“Hello.” Elisheva was sitting on the porch, breathing deeply. One of the gifts Eliyahu had bought her for Pesach was a cordless phone. The cord on her regular phone had reached almost every corner of her old house, but in this apartment she could hardly stretch it from the fridge to the counter in the kitchen.
During the evening hours, Elisheva discovered just how wonderful Eliyahu’s gift was. She could make her daily calls to her daughters on the porch, seated on one of the old dining room chairs that had been banished from the dining room in favor of the new, elegant, wooden and upholstered chairs—a gift from U’shemartem.
“This porch looks like a junkyard like this,” Riki had grumbled, when she saw that only six of the old chairs were going to the garbage, and the others were being moved to the porch. But when she also discovered the wonderful experience of sitting and watching the twinkling lights in the darkening city spread out before her, she didn’t say another word about it.
But now, the porch belonged entirely to Elisheva. Riki and Devoiry were finishing with cleaning up the kitchen, and she was taking a break to hear about little Shmully’s latest antics. But the phone call was not from Miri. Instead—
“Hello? Hello?” The woman on the other end sounded impatient.
“Yes, hello, I hear you.” Elisheva replied.
“Good, good. Is this the Potolsky residence?”
“Yes, it is.”
“Are you the ones from the sefer Torah?”
“I’m sorry?” Not that Elisheva did not know what she was referring to, but the sentence was worded so strangely, and the tone was so accusing, as though she was asking, “Are you the ones from the famous robbery?” or something like that.
“Well, ‘sorry’ might be a very good thing for you to say, but we’re not up to that yet. Let’s start like this: are you the donors of the sefer Torah?”
Her syntax had improved somewhat, but the tone was the same—somewhat aggressive.
“Who is calling?” Elisheva asked as she leaned back. This chair was the only survivor of their original set of six, purchased twenty-one years ago. It was actually in excellent shape.
The caller was silent for a moment. “Why?” she asked.
“Because something about this call sounds strange to me, so I’d like to conduct it in a normal way, step by step.”
Again there was silence. “You’re right,” the woman said, the slightest bit contrite now. “I am very angry, but it is possible that you’re not the one I’m angry at. So, my name is Blumi Hartstein. I wanted to know if you are donating a sefer Torah to the Yotzei Eretz Chanichei Hayeshivos community in Romema?”
“It’s actually an acronym for Aram Tzova. You know, the Halabi community.”
“Oh, yes. That’s us.” Elisheva stood up and went over to the railing. “How did you get to me?”
“Dweck, their gabbai, gave my husband your name.”
“I see. So, how can I help you, Mrs. Hartstein?”
“Do you have a son, a yeshivah bachur, about twenty or twenty-one years old?”
“I have an eighteen-year-old son.”
“Eighteen? Um…could be. Does he go learn Mishnayos for niftarim at night?”
“Does he learn Mishnayos for deceased people at night? You know, when the levayah only takes place the next morning.”
“Not at all.” This phone call was getting more bizarre by the second.
“No?” The singular syllable was enough to indicate to Elisheva that the woman’s voice had faltered somewhat. “No…?”
Until now, Elisheva had felt under attack, without knowing why. But now, she suddenly sensed something weak and fragile about the caller. “No,” she repeated in a gentle tone. “I’m sorry.”
“You’re sorry? What about?”
“That I can’t help you.”
“Well, maybe you can still help me, even if it’s not your son.”
“Who is not my son?” There was clearly something not right with this woman.
“The bachur who I gave the envelope to.”
“Yes. You don’t know anything about it?”
Elisheva tried to remember. “No,” she said calmly.
The woman’s voice sharpened again. “Then how did our silver yad ‘mysteriously’ make its way to you, Mrs. Potolsky?”
“One mystery has been resolved, but only partially, in my opinion.” Elisheva leaned on the couch and sorted men’s shirts for ironing. “So, it seems that one of our old neighbors’ sons got the envelope from this woman, and his younger brother or sister must have found it and then went down to play by us with it one afternoon. You know, we often hosted lots of kids in the afternoons in our house…”
“Yes,” Eliyahu said, listening attentively.
“And it’s possible that the bachur did not see our ads about the yad that we found, because he’s in yeshivah. And his parents didn’t know about it. And the little boy or girl doesn’t know how to read.”
“Okay.” Eliyahu shook his head slowly from side to side. “But it’s also possible that the bachur himself read the ads, but just didn’t know that that was what was in the envelope that he had been given.”
“But he should know that he hadn’t returned the envelope to its owner, no?”
“He must have lost it.”
“So how did he not try to search for it? How come he didn’t get back to Mrs. Hartstein, at least to apologize? Let her know? Why did he just disappear?”
“As long as we don’t know what happened, how can we judge him? The main thing is that the yad was now found. She gave you some signs?”
Elisheva smiled. “Yes, but she’d already seen the picture of it.”
“One small, blurred picture. But you said that she knew the exact size, and that it’s smaller than the standard yad.”
“Right.” Elisheva became thoughtful. “This story is so strange.” She placed one of Binyamin’s shirts in the pile. “I’m trying to think who from our old building could have done it. There are three bachurim of the right age, but it’s certainly not Brody’s son. His parents wouldn’t let him do such a thing.”
“To go learn by dead people in the middle of the night…”
“He’s twenty-three already, isn’t he?”
“Still. I don’t think it’s a place for a yeshivah bachur, and I’m sure that Chaya Brody agrees with me about that. Their home is one with a very strong chinuch. Not that I mean to say something about the others…”
“So do you want to call the other two families?”
“Why? The yad will be returned to its owner.”
“And we’ve found one solution to one of these recent mysteries…” He chuckled and stood up. “You know, it’s likely that the other things are as simple as they seem, and there’s nothing mysterious about them.”
She looked at him questioningly. “Are you sure?”
“Sure? I can’t be sure about something I don’t know. But I imagine so.”
“Maybe you’re right.” Through the glass doors to the balcony, she could see an inky black sky; from this angle, Elisheva could not see the twinkling lights across the city. She imagined they were mostly streetlights, because how many houses had the lights on at two-fifteen in the morning?”
“Did you talk to the girls this evening?”
“To Tzippy, yes, but I didn’t get to Miri. I’ll call her from work tomorrow, when the babies are sleeping.”
At exactly one-forty-five, when the second of the Dvir twins finally joined his sleeping friends, Miri called her.
“What’s doing, Ima?” she asked, sounding a bit breathless. “I just came home. I picked up Shmully from the babysitter, and I’m warming up some lunch.”
“How was your morning at work?”
“Baruch Hashem. The girls in this kindergarten are really cute.”
“Were you there yesterday also? We didn’t end up speaking.”
“No, I have this class only on Wednesday. I guess it was just a busy day for both of us yesterday. What’s doing at home?”
“We might have solved the mystery of the silver yad!” Elisheva said, sounding a tiny bit triumphant. “I mean, the mystery isn’t really solved, but now we know who it belongs to.”
“A woman from London named Blumi Hartstein. She’s originally from Bnei Brak, I think, or maybe that’s where her brothers live now…I’m not sure exactly.”
“How did you get to her?” Miri asked, mashing the potatoes she had cooked yesterday.
“She got to me.” Elisheva walked carefully around the room, checking the cribs of each of the sleeping babies, before sitting down to eat something. Gitty, her coworker, was already sitting at the table with some cookies, throwing expectant glances at her every few seconds. Elisheva knew that Gitty was expecting her to join her, as she usually did at this hour. But she could not keep this strange story bottled up anymore.
“She saw the picture of the yad in the newsletter of the Halabi community. They wrote about the sefer Torah and asked us for a picture of it and of the silver yad. The yad belonged to this woman’s father.”
“But how did it land under our fridge?” Although more than a year and a half had passed since her marriage, Miri still called the refrigerator in her parents’ home “our fridge.”
“Do you know her, Ima? Has she ever visited?”
“No, I don’t know her. I’m not sure how it ended up in our house. This Mrs. Hartstein told me that she gave the yad in a closed envelope to a bachur who came to learn Mishnayos in her parents’ house the night before her father’s levayah. The bachur later disappeared, and she has no idea who he is or how to get hold of him.”
“Nu?” Miri suddenly sounded tense, strained. Strange.
“It was funny; the first thing she asked me was if I have a son who learns Mishnayos at night for dead people.” Elisheva smiled to herself as she mentally replayed the call, which had started off so badly but ended with good wishes on both sides. “She was very disappointed to learn that I do not, but was encouraged when she realized that it doesn’t change the fact that the yad is apparently the same one we found. How it got to us? That’s a question we still can’t answer.”
“But you do have one, Ima.” Miri’s voice sounded even stranger.
“What do I have? An answer?” Elisheva took out her container of cut-up vegetables from her bag, hoping that Gitty would pick up on the movement from a distance and realize she was on her way to sit down and eat next to her.
“No,” Miri said. Standing in her kitchen, she tightened her grip on the potato masher. “You have a son who learns at night next to niftarim.”