Welcome to His Brother’s Keeper, a fictional mystery series set in 2000, in New York. I’ve decided to periodically lend my blog to a friend, Eva Hirschel. Eva doesn’t have a social media presence but she does have a mystery that she wanted to publish serially on-line, so I’m giving her a hand. (If you’re just tuning in now, I suggest that you start at the beginning). Here is Part I, Chapter 16. Enjoy!
The soil in the orchard was a deep, rich brown. I breathed in the loamy sweet-sour scent and exhaled. What a difference a one-hour drive north made. We were in the countryside, surrounded by apple trees and the fertility of the natural cycle of growth and harvest. These were small apple trees, not fully mature but just right for the four year old farmers currently grouped around one particularly well-endowed tree. The owner of the orchard had just finished explaining how he raised the trees, and they were discussing the relative merits of Delicious, Macintoshes, Granny Smiths, and Jonathans. Now the children were gazing up in wonder as the farmer demonstrated the proper picking technique and explained how the apples were sorted according to size and quality. A good part of it went over their heads, but they listened attentively and asked questions.
As the farmer continued to speak, I sat down on the ground behind the children, avoiding the overly ripe apples that lay on the ground in puddles of sticky, fragrant mush. The sun was unusually warm and I took off my jacket. Tilting my face up to the heat, I closed my eyes and enjoyed the stolen moment of peace. How good the sun felt on my face. It was an easy cliché that city dwellers didn’t know where their food came from, but there was truly something to it. It was so simple when buying an apple at the store, even at the coop, to forget the miraculousness of it, to forget that the apple came from a tree tended by a farmer, fed by water and sun, grown from a seed. Yes, there was photosynthesis and genetics and biology and botany and chemistry and fertilizers behind all of that, but beyond the science there remained the miracle that set it in motion. We knew enough to understand the how, but we still didn’t understand the why, and maybe that was where God came in to the equation. It was truly an incredible thing, an apple, a thing of glory and wonder. And at that moment I suddenly understood what I had read about the Chasidic idea of the miracle of the everyday. I understood the need to say thanks for the miracle of an apple, and the need to say a prayer before eating such a miracle. It wasn’t just to say thank you to God for having created the apple and providing it to us for food, but it was also a way to sanctify the moment, to stop and notice the miraculousness of God’s creation rather than taking it for granted. How better to praise God than to notice these everyday miracles and rejoice in them.
I opened my eyes and looked at my daughter. She stood between her two buddies Jonah and Zoë. As they listened to the farmer, she and Zoë held hands in the unselfconscious manner of young children. Her curls bounced as she shifted her weight from one foot to the other, her dark eyes bright with excitement, her upturned cheeks glowing in the sunlight. Talk about miracles. It was still amazing to me that this little creature, who had emerged from my body looking like a hairless elf now not only possessed a mass of dark curly hair and an enormous vocabulary but friends of her very own. It was fascinating to watch her interact with her peers, especially when she was too absorbed to know I was watching.
Hannah had been independent practically from the moment she was born, trying to push herself up in my arms into a sitting position at three weeks old so that she could see what was going on around her. She crawled at five months and walked at ten, always in pursuit of what to explore, always pushing the limits of how far she could go before I would call her back. When the other mothers in my mothers’ group were complaining about separation anxiety and clinginess, I would have nothing to say, wishing silently that my brave daughter would show signs of either occasionally, if for no reason other than to reassure me that our love affair was mutual. I came to realize that as the mother my job was to reassure her when she needed it, but that it was not in the nature of things for her to reassure me about anything. She showered me with kisses and hugs when she felt like it, and was happy to be hugged and kissed and cuddled when she was tired or not feeling well, but the rest of the time she was simply too busy investigating the world as fast she could to be content sitting in my arms.
At four, she was as independent and self-confident as she had been as a baby and toddler. She had emerged in the last year as a real person, with likes and dislikes and her own way of seeing the world. Now that she had left babyhood behind, Simon and I were enjoying her in a whole new way. The intensity and drive in her personality that we saw in her as a baby was still there, and was channeled into what she was learning and doing at school. She hadn’t been the kind of baby who was happy just being held, but now she couldn’t get enough of sitting with us and telling us about the differences between an apotosaurus and a T-rex, what animals lived in Australia, or how to make the color purple. It was absolutely delightful listening to her talk about her day, and analyze the various intricacies of preschool social dynamics. It had come as a shock to realize that I was going to enjoy interacting with her more and more as she got older, and that that was really what parenthood was about, not whether you started with solid foods at four months or at seven, or whether you nursed for three months or two years, or not at all. It was the ability to accept and appreciate your child as a person, to teach and guide and raise that person while all the time acknowledging that the person he or she was had already formed inside.
A jarring vibration at my side jolted me out of my reverie. Damn. I was always annoyed on field trips when other parents spent the whole time on their cell phones. What was the point of coming if you weren’t really there? But I could see that it was Shuki, and I knew he wouldn’t have called if it wasn’t important. My left leg had fallen asleep, but I got up as gracefully as possible and walked a little bit away from the group in to an empty part of the orchard.
He had met with success. Once again I marveled at both Shuki’s skills and the power of cash. Holding a fifty dollar bill in his hand, he had convinced the super of Sarah Gelberman’s building on Second Street to talk to him about Sarah. It was looking likely that the young woman was for real, as the super had a copy of her credit report and driver’s license, even though he wouldn’t let Shuki see them. But the combination of cash and a promise to share any contact info he found convinced the super to give Shuki her parents’ phone number, which she had given him in case of an emergency, and her license number. The lease wasn’t up until June, and it looked like Sarah, who had moved in sixteen months ago, had cleared out in a big hurry, without any prior notice and without paying the last month’s rent. Needless to say, the super wasn’t happy and welcomed a chance to track her down and collect his money. But he did report that until she left, she had been a model tenant, on time with her rent, quiet and neat. For a little additional cash, Shuki was allowed in to the building, where he managed to speak to Sarah’s former next door neighbor, a musician who, as luck would have it, was home during the days and worked at night. He hadn’t seen Sarah move out, but he had noted that about two months ago, when he was coming up from doing his laundry, he had seen Sarah entering her apartment with two of what he called “chasids,” who he described as being in their twenties, with beards and black hats, wearing black suits with white shirts. More specific than that he couldn’t be, but he remembered being struck by how incongruous they looked here and wondering what business they had with Sarah. He had seen a similar man again, last Thursday night, around 8:00 at night. He remembered, because he was getting ready to go to work when he heard noise in the hallway. He had looked through the peephole, and saw a man pounding on Sarah’s door and yelling at her to open up. Sarah opened her door and immediately slammed it, but the man hadn’t let up. Finally, just as the neighbor was about to intervene, she opened the door again and let the man in. The neighbor had remarked to Shuki that he thought it was unusual that a girl like Sarah would have one of those guys for a boyfriend, but that in this city anything was possible.
I thanked Shuki so profusely I think I embarrassed him. This was extremely helpful information, but probably not good news. It also made me more worried than ever about Sarah Gelberman’s well being. Where had she run to, and why? Who was this man at her door, and what did he have to do with all of this? And still, the biggest question of all, what was this case about anyway? Just a nice foray into genealogical research, as Sarah had told me, or was there something else going on here, as Mr. Shapira and Mrs. Freiburg seemed to think?
At this point, there seemed to be only one sane thing to do, and that was to pay a visit to a mysterious man living in Winter Park, Florida. I had done a lot of circling of the target. By now I was sincerely worried that Sarah was in danger. It was time to go to the source. There was too much going on that I didn’t understand. But first, I had one more visit to make in New York.