Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 66 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.
“I’m having lots of different feelings, Abba.” Elisheva tasted the soup, nodded to herself, and rinsed the spoon. Her father sat at her kitchen table, after they had been to the orthopedist together. “When this good fortune began to smile on us, I was very surprised. I was happy, of course, and I thanked Hashem, and that was it. Then I began to suspect that something was going on, and after that I assured myself that I was just being suspicious. But then, after a day or two, I decided that my suspicions were actually very well founded. And I started to feel frustrated and annoyed that someone was playing around with us like this. Then I decided to look at the whole thing as just very funny.” She served her father a bowl of soup, with minimal salt as per his diet. “So what do you think, Abba?”
“It’s always good to laugh,” he said hoarsely. “It took me time to learn… Thanks for the soup.”
“You, Abba? Learned to laugh?” When had her father last laughed?
“No?” He was surprised at her answer.
She was quiet for a minute, thinking. “A bit,” she admitted. Her father was not, and had never been, very talkative. He certainly did not have a highly developed sense of humor. But…yes…he was almost always in good spirits. He was perpetually optimistic, and, come to think of it, he certainly had a very distinct laugh, whenever he allowed it to emerge. It was like a short, endearing burst of laughter, and even the children liked to imitate it.
“I began my life at the end of the war, you know,” he said suddenly. “I hardly remember what was before that.”
“During the war you were in a dormitory or something, right?” She knew so little about her father! And that was a lot compared to what he knew about his father. Or his mother. Or about himself. Nothing, and more of nothing.
“Yes. It was actually a Catholic orphanage. I had a friend there. A Jewish boy.” He breathed deeply. “The only other Jew besides me. We were smuggled out together.”
“To Janek and Ulush Cohen’s house?”
“Yes.” He turned the spoon over in the bowl, like a child refusing to eat. “Then we got separated.”
“A short time after they took us out of the orphanage. We each came to Israel alone.”
Elisheva nodded, treasuring these rare moments when her father, of his own accord, just sat and spoke, without her having to extract every detail and every word.
“And for me he was…the only one from the past.”
“Was he a relative?”
“I don’t think so.” He took a few spoonfuls of soup before he continued, “But he was my link to the past. When he left, I was just…” He surprised her with a metaphor which, although clichéd, was very apt: “Like a leaf without roots.”
“So why didn’t you try to meet? To keep up with each other?” Elisheva looked at her father, who had risen to put his bowl in the sink. She ignored the incessant ringing of both her house phone and her cell phone.
He didn’t respond; he just sat back down to make a brachah acharonah. “I thought he wouldn’t want to,” he said heavily, when he finished. “But maybe I made a mistake about that.”
“And you never traced any roots.”
“No. You know that.” He raised his head as though he wanted to tell her something else, and then lowered it again, apparently regretting it. And then he added in a low voice, “But my rebbi taught me to be happy this way, too. Because when a Jew does what he has to do, it doesn’t matter through which branch he draws his strength.”
“Because we’re connected to the ground this way, too.” She nodded, familiar with this idea, and then asked, “This metaphor, that the branch doesn’t really matter, also comes from your rebbi?”
“No. Ima, alehah hashalom, told that to me.”
“Your mother was good with words like that.” And with that remark, a smile – and even a short laugh – he ended the conversation. He went into the little room, which would become his own private suite whenever he decided to officially move in with them, and Elisheva was able to check her phone.
“I have news that is more urgent than urgent!” That was one of the four messages that Blumi had left her, after three calls that had not been answered. “Get back to me right away, Elisheva!”
Elisheva went over to the vegetable drawer to get potatoes to cook up for mashed potatoes, calling Blumi as she went.
“What’s doing, Blumi?”
“Baruch Hashem, baruch Hashem. Listen, they got back to me from the private investigator’s office. Did I tell you two days ago that I contacted them?”
“No. A private investigator? I didn’t mean for you to invest so much in this, Blumi.”
“Don’t worry about it. It’s chump change for me. I also didn’t ask for any serious investigation or surveillance, just for some answers to a few of my questions.”
“First question: exactly how lucid was Alexander Korman in his last year of life? Second question: were his deceased parents really named Peretz and Tziporah Genendel? And third question: were they killed in the war?”
Had the potatoes she was holding have been cooked, they would have long been turned to mush between Elisheva’s fingers. “Nu?!”
“First answer: not at all. Second answer: not at all. Third answer: not at all.”
Magdiel, Israel, 1949
Batya returned to Magdiel alone.
Gershon returned four days later, together with the boy.
He had remained at the feverish boy’s bedside for three days. During the day Gershon had paced around the room; on rare occasions he went into the hospital courtyard to smoke. At night he had dozed on the chair near the bed. On the third morning, the boy’s fever finally went down, the coughing eased, and toward lunchtime, his eyes began following Gershon as the latter paced around the room while keeping a close eye on the bed in the corner.
“You are not Janek…” the boy said in a hoarse voice, when Gershon returned to him.
“Janek?” Gershon pulled back the wooden chair that served him faithfully day and night. “Who is Janek?”
“The man from Bratislava…”
“Are you from there?”
The boy did not react. He closed his eyes again.
“Sir, are you from the orphanage?” A short male nurse entered the room. “The boy is being released tomorrow morning. Please tell the management that he needs good food and rest, and make sure that he gets it. Will you be able to give him a quiet room and some good care until he recovers completely? He came back pretty fast after last time.”
“I’m not from the orphanage.” Gershon stroked the boy’s cool forehead. “And I have no idea what they can do. But it is possible that I will be able to arrange a quiet room and good care for him. I need to speak to the director there about it.” He sat down on the chair and leaned forward. His fingers played with the edge of the boy’s blanket. The child – Yosef? – stared back at him. He wasn’t totally focused, but there was some alertness and interest in his gaze. The nurse left the room and Gershon shifted on the chair, rocking back and forth, humming quietly. Did Ernie, Hashem yinkom damo, also used to sing their father’s Kah Ribbon?
No reaction. The boy had closed his eyes weakly again.
What do you want? he chastised himself. Even if Ernie sang this song at home, and even if this Yosef is really his child, he was too young to remember the tune. True, music is something that penetrates very deeply, but if the boy was born in the middle of the war, which is likely, his father probably did not have time to sit and sing to him.
Nothing more happened that day; the boy did not make any sign that the tune was familiar, nor did he offer any more information. But by the next day, Gershon had obtained permission from the orphanage to take the boy home with him, and the two set out for the house in Magdiel.
“I couldn’t leave him there,” Gershon told Batya late that night, when the boy was safely ensconced in a soft, warm bed. Gershon had spread two thick woolen blankets on the wide wooden bench for himself. “And in the hospital they warned me not to burden him with anything that could slow his recovery. So I haven’t asked him anything yet, but—” He tugged at his left ear. “He’s a sweet boy who is so alone…whether he is Ernie’s son or not. And my heart tells me that he is.”
Batya nodded. She didn’t point out that the country was full of sweet, lonely children. Why bother? Gershon wanted to take care of this boy for now, and if that would quiet some of his anguish, then of course she would support the idea.
A sharp cough came from the boy’s room, and Gershon abandoned his bench, letting the blankets slide to the floor.
The boy was lying there with his eyes open, staring at the figure that had entered the room. “You are from Bratislava,” he said in Slovakian. He looked more alert than any other time they had conversed.
“That’s right,” Gershon said, as he straightened the boy’s pillow.
“Do you know me?” The boy’s eyes shone, and his forehead was not burning up.
“I …I think I might know you.” Gershon spoke cautiously, following the boy’s reaction. “Or more accurately, your family.”
Gershon’s breaths became rapid. “Maybe…maybe your father.”
He sat up at once. “My father? Where do you know him from?”
“Maybe we’ll talk about it tomorrow. You should rest a bit more now…”
“No. Not tomorrow.” The boy reclined again. “Please tell me now.”
Gershon sat down on the edge of the bed and held the pale, thin hand in his own. “My name is Gershon Ludmir,” he said quietly, acutely aware that it might be better to do this in another day or two. But he just. Could. Not. Wait. And the boy, apparently, couldn’t either.
“Ludmir!” The boy’s eyes grew round. He stared at Gershon, and suddenly burst into tears. “Your name is Ludmir…” He gasped. “That’s why you said you know me? And…how did you know to come to the hospital?”
“Because you said…” Gershon whispered, noticing out of the corner of his eye that Batya was peeking into the room. “You said, ‘Yosef Ludmir.’ Do you remember?”
The boy didn’t react. He just sat there, sobbing hysterically. Slowly his weeping began to subside, until suddenly, he became totally silent and put his head back on the pillow. He lay with his eyes closed and breathed deeply, as though he had fallen asleep.
“Are you alright?” Gershon asked, stroking the child’s cheek with his finger.
The boy didn’t move. He just opened his eyes for a minute and then closed them again. “Ludmir,” he said.
“Do you know Yosef Ludmir?” Gershon softly pressed the boy’s palm. “Maybe…it’s you?”
A long silence hung in the room, which remained unbroken even when, an endless few seconds later, the boy nodded.