Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 54 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.
“Tomorrow, Abba’s going to take us to the sofer, and we’re going to see the almost-finished sefer Torah,” seven-year-old Yitzy informed his brother, who had come home from yeshivah for Shabbos. “Do you want to come with?”
“I’ll see it at the hachnasas sefer Torah, b’ezras Hashem.” Binyamin smiled and parked his wheelie suitcase near one of the beds in the large boys’ room. It was the first time he was coming home for Shabbos since the new furniture had arrived and the final arrangements of the rooms had been made.
“You’ll sleep with Shuey, Meir, and Yitzy,” his mother had told him a few minutes earlier when he came home. “Put your things in the second room—the big one, and then come back here to have a drink.”
Something about her voice was a bit loaded, and he looked at her quizzically. Then he went to put his things down.
“This is the room with the most kids!” Yitzy explained to him proudly. “We’re four. Ima gave the little kids a different room. And the girls got the really tiny rooms—Riki and Devoiry in one room, and Esty and Chani in another. Poor girls. It’s so boring to be with just two people in the room.”
While Yitzy was talking, Meir, who was older than him, stood there and gazed at Binyamin.
Binyamin stared back. “Is everything okay, Meir?” he asked.
“Yes. Just that Ima said that if you don’t want to sleep in the room with us because it’s too crowded, then she’ll give you the last room, near the one that will be Saba’s. It’s empty now; we just dump stuff in there.”
“Nu?” Binyamin asked.
“So, do you want to move to there?” Meir’s lips protruded in a pout; he already seemed offended.
“No,” his eighteen-year-old brother soothed. “I’m sure I’ll enjoy it here with you very much.”
“And you won’t feel too crowded?” Shloimy, who suddenly burst into the room, asked. Binyamin chuckled. “If we all slept together in the old dining room, and it was just fine, why should it suddenly be crowded for me now?”
“I heard a neighbor here saying that she heard that before we moved here, we had a ‘miserably tiny house.’ She was talking to another neighbor.” Shloimy rubbed his chin. “I’m not sure what that means, but I know what ‘tiny’ is, and I know what ‘miserable’ is, right?”
“Right,” Binyamin affirmed.
“So, I heard it while walking up from the fourth floor to the fifth, so when I got to the top of the stairs, I went over to her and said that we actually had a very big dining room, and we were weren’t miserable at all.”
“Hmmm!” Binyamin responded. “She was probably very surprised to hear you saying that.”
“She was a little confused,” the little boy admitted. “So was the neighbor. But then she said she was very happy to hear. And her face got redder and redder, and she opened the door that said…well, it doesn’t matter which name it said on their door, because it’s lashon hara. And she went inside quickly. But right we weren’t miserable, Binyamin?”
“Of course not.”
“Abba told me that money is not what makes people happy,” fourteen-year-old Shuey said. Until now he’d been sitting on his bed with his nose in a book.
“But if you can buy things with money, then you get happy,” Meir said.
“No,” Binyamin said. “That’s not true.”
“Why not?” Meir asked.
“Because it’s not true,” Binyamin repeated.
“Abba said that if you answer ‘because,’ that means you don’t have an answer,” Meir said triumphantly.
“It’s not that there is no answer,” Shuey argued back, siding with Binyamin, “but when you grow up, you’ll understand.”
“That’s worse than no answer,” Meir grumbled. “And I think that if I would have money to buy all sorts of things, I would be happy.”
“I have money,” Binyamin said, without thinking, “and that doesn’t make me happy.”
“Because it’s not really money,” Meir scoffed. “It’s just coupons for sefarim. I saw what you get from yeshivos bein hazmanim and all that.”
“No, we get a little bit of real money for tests. I also have some other money,” Binyamin said, not sure what he was trying to prove or why he was trying so hard. “I have almost fifteen hundred shekels. Believe me, Meir, that it doesn’t make me particularly happy.” And not only because he had hoped to save up a larger sum of money before going back to that building to look for the owners of the envelope—and to hear how much money had been in there.
Elisheva leaned on the door of the room. “The cake and coffee are waiting for you, Binyamin,” she called, smiling at him. Was he only imagining that she was blinking more than usual?
He followed her to the kitchen and sat down at the table, which was covered with the Shabbos tablecloth. Everything was gleaming, and the aroma of Friday lunch wafted from the stovetop.
“I overheard what you told the boys,” his mother said, sitting down across from him and pushing a small plate with a slice of cake toward him. “Nearly fifteen hundred shekels is a nice sum of money. Can you make that much from learning Mishnayos at night?”
He raised his head from his cup and studied her; her face was expressionless, or rather, was trying to look expressionless.
“It only happened a few times,” he said, in a restrained tone.
She lowered her eyes to the tablecloth, as though there was nothing more interesting going on right now than the white lacy designs there. After a long moment, she raised her eyes. “Perhaps we’ll talk about that another time. But Mrs. Hartstein feels terrible about the whole story.”
“The woman from the silver yad.”
“The silver yad?”
“That we found under the fridge.”
“Huh? What does that have to do with the Mishnayos that I went to learn?”
You mean, with the money that you went to earn, she wanted to say. Instead, she answered, “That’s what was in the envelope that Mrs. Hartstein gave you.”
“The silver yad was in the envelope?! And it was in the house the whole time?!” He didn’t touch his cup of coffee. “In the house? I was sure it had fallen out in yeshivah or on the street, and that someone had found it while cleaning up and had taken it!”
“Well, no, it was in our old house.”
“But how did it get under the fridge? I’m sure that I didn’t take it out of my jacket as long as I was in the house, and my jacket wasn’t in the kitchen at all. It was that day that I caught the flu, remember?” His tone was apologetic and confused all at once.
“You know how the little ones like to play with your jacket, Binyamin. They must have taken it to the kitchen. I need to ask whichever child it was who found the yad—it was Bentzy, I think—how it got out of the envelope.”
“The envelope probably tore.” He stood up, then sat back down.
“Come on, eat,” his mother said.
“Yes…” He made a brachah and tasted a few crumbs.
“The question is why you didn’t go back to Mrs. Hartstein. She gave you something to watch, that something disappeared—and you don’t go to ask what it was? To apologize? To speak to them about what to do next?”
“I wanted to save up some money before going back there. So I should have what to go with. You know, Ima, according to halachah I was a shomer chinam, which means that in case what I was watching got lost, I would be exempt from paying it back. But I would have had to pay anyway, because in order to be exempt I would need to make a shvuah.”
“You don’t need to pay or to make a shvuah now,” his mother said, and some of her trademark warmth and softness returned to her voice and movements. “The yad was found. But you can’t disappear from someone like that, Binyamin,” she added quietly. “It’s not the way to do things. Why didn’t you come to me about it?”
“How could I have done that?” He swallowed. “I should have burdened you and Abba with this problem, too?”
“Which hand do you choose?” Janek Cohen asked.
Ulush raised a pair of surprised eyes to him. Suri had cried all night, and only at dawn had Ulush reached the conclusion that it was not hunger (the baby had pushed away the bottle), and not the cold (there was enough wood in the oven, and the small blanket was heavy enough), and it wasn’t thirst or fever. It was her mother’s mood, which undoubtedly was having an effect on the ten-month-old tot.
This loneliness, the isolation that felt even worse among millions of people, was intolerable.
Janek’s cousin had turned out to be very kind when they’d come to New York seven months earlier, exhausted from their journey. He had hosted them in his home for a week and a half, but his wife had begun to show signs of irritation, which only mounted as time went on. One afternoon, Ulush had gotten up, packed their two suitcases, and asked Janek to go and find them a room to rent. He understood her.
What was there for her to look for in this city? She had only Janek and Suri. Not a single person from Slovakia lived anywhere near them. When she went out to the street, she didn’t know a soul—and no one knew her.
“Which hand?” Janek repeated patiently.
“Right,” Ulush chose.
“A letter.” Her husband smiled. “You chose a letter from Edo.”
“Edo sent another letter? How lovely! I love reading what he writes!” She took the envelope and turned it over, slowly reading the Hebrew words on the side of the sender. Suddenly she noticed that Janek was still standing in front of her, his left hand behind his back and a mischievous spark in his eyes.
“You didn’t tell me I could choose another hand, too,” she said, smiling.
He ceremoniously handed over another envelope.
“A letter from…Gustav?” she asked, in shock.
“Yes. Two letters came at once. Read it; I’ll hold Suri.”
She opened Edo’s envelope; out of the corner of her eyes, she noticed her baby giggling in Janek’s arms. Her eyes scanned the lines, and a smile slowly spread across her face.
“Sweet,” she said, when she finished reading it. Her eyes glistened. “I would bring him here to us, if I could. He writes so nicely, and thanks us again, as if it’s the first letter he’s sending. Oy, if I would have money, I’d buy him a ticket to come to us right away; I see that he’s lonely there in Israel.”
“And what does Gustav say? Where did they send him from the ship?”
She put down one envelope and picked up the other.
“He’s also so alone there…” she said with a sigh, a few minutes later. “They sent him to an orphanage in Jerusalem. But he has a nice counselor.” She perused the letter. “He was disappointed that Edo wasn’t there, because he wants to meet up with him. Maybe we can try and arrange something from here, to put them together? Why is each one of them alone?”