Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 1 of a new online serial novel, The Black Sheep, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every week. Click here for previous chapters.
Copyright © Israel Bookshop Publications.
Nestled among Arab houses, both new and old, on the corner of the alley near the sea, was a house surrounded by an opaque fence. The gate was open, and a two-story structure with winding stone stairs around the side came into view.
The visitor, Gad Shimoni, crossed the neglected yard to the metal door on the ground floor. He set his black case down on the ground and knocked lightly. Aside for the echo of his knocks, there wasn’t a sound to be heard. He turned right toward the stairs, beneath which rested a pile of broken boards, bent out of shape due to the rains and humid, salty sea air. The smell of the sea blended with the faint smell of sawdust.
Shimoni climbed the stairs. The higher he went, the more he could see parts of the boardwalk across from him. The tiny area that separated the top step from the door of the apartment was covered in some type of cheap, synthetic grass, and the heavy door bore a modern-looking nameplate that said “Reiness.” Here, too, his knocks did not draw a live soul to the door.
He retraced his steps and had reached the bottom when he heard the gate open. He put on his most official and professional smile. Were the man and his boys coming back?
They met at the bottom of the stairs, but this was certainly not Elazar Reiness. “Oh, good evening!” the new arrival exclaimed when he noticed Shimoni. He stuck his hand out in a friendly gesture. “Did you also come to meet Reiness?”
Mr. Shimoni politely shook the man’s hand. He was clearly Arabic, and his face was familiar. “Yes, I did come for Rabbi Reiness,” Shimoni replied. “Do you know him?”
“A bit. Not much,” the Arab replied. “But I know you, Mr. Shimoni. Truant officer, aren’t you?”
“Yes, indeed, and you?”
“I’m Hussein Abu Abed Al-Alami, the principal of Abu Usmia. You’ve visited us in regard to a number of our students…”
“Now I recognize you.” Gad Shimoni smiled. “We also met at committee meetings of the Municipal Welfare Department. So, how is everyone? Are they attending school regularly?”
“Whoever comes, comes,” Hussein Abu Abed said philosophically. “And those who make problems will forever make problems. That’s how it is with everyone.”
“They say it’s not like that with him,” Shimoni said, jutting his chin toward the empty house. “Reiness is able to work wonders with his boys. By the way, if we’re on the subject, aren’t they supposed to be here now?”
“The carpentry shop is closed.” The other man looked at the closed door with narrowed eyes. “It closes every afternoon for a few hours.”
“So where are they?”
“I don’t know. Maybe they went to catch some sun on the beach?”
“Sun.” Shimoni turned around to glance at the sea. All that remained of the golden sun was a vague, reddish glow.
“So, moon.” The principal chuckled. “I wonder when they’ll be back.”
“You are in touch with him?” Shimoni inquired.
“Interesting; his place is really religious. They don’t even learn math there. They don’t do matriculation exams, or anything.”
“Yes, yes.” The Arab nodded knowingly. “They learn only Talmud. But I’ve been thinking about opening a vocational track, like he has, and I wanted to consult with him about it.”
“Oh, the carpentry shop.”
“Right. I thought maybe we could do it together,” Al-Alami said. “I have a nice, big building, much better than this hovel… Maybe he’ll want to use a wing in our building.”
“And share the rent with you, of course.” The truant officer chuckled. “But I don’t think he’ll agree. He likes this place, across from the sea. He was offered a lot of money for the house by developers who wanted to build a major construction project here.”
“And he didn’t want it?” the Arab principal asked.
“He didn’t want it.”
With the handle of her suitcase in her right hand, and a bag of Chinese pecans in her left, Ariella was poised to enter her house. But a sixth sense stopped her. She tensed.
Someone had been here. And it was not her mother, whom she’d just parted from downstairs.
An aromatic smell of unfamiliar floor cleaner filled the house, and the lace Shabbos tablecloth was on the square table near the front door. She had left it bare.
Well, it was unlikely that thieves would make any effort to spread tablecloths, and they certainly would not put out a vase with a tall silk flower that tried to pass for a white lily. So it didn’t look like the intruder had entered with the purpose of stealing. In any case, he wouldn’t have come out with much, if with anything at all.
Still, despite this calming thought, Ariella found herself bending down to the bottom cabinet in the dining room and making sure that the silver was still there. Yes, it was all there.
With a sigh of relief, she straightened up and went back to the front door, locking it behind her.
Again she stood in the same pose, as though she had just entered the house and noticed that someone had visited and taken the liberty of doing as he pleased. Perhaps it had been Ima, but that made no sense. Her mother didn’t come into her house without advance notice—that was first of all. Besides, her mother wouldn’t open her cabinets to find the Shabbos tablecloth, and she didn’t like the smell of lavender, she had even less of an interest in artificial flowers, and—what was this? Ima would never have left a cheesecake like that, open, on the table in the kitchen! And she certainly would not have left a fluorescent green note with black and blue leaves on it.
Ariella walked into the kitchen and stared at the white cake. It was already a bit moldy on the edges, and a small fly was resting on the side, trying to nibble at the green growth.
Then she looked at the note.
I bought you a new tablecloth, just like yours, because of the wax that I once dripped on yours during Havdalah. And I saw that your vase is empty, so I bought a flower for it. I washed the floor with a cleaner that I took from your neighbors across the hall, because everything was dusty. Hearty appetite!
P.S. I davened for you.
Ariella gazed at the words written between the blue and black leaves, and then affixed the note to the magnet board over the milchig counter. She pulled the dry erase marker out of its holder, and under the heading “debts,” she wrote: Ask Breuer how much floor cleaner I owe them.
In the kitchen, the clean floor smell was weaker. Either that, or it was overpowered by the odor of the spoiled cheesecake. She took a bag, and, trying not to inhale, grasped the cake from the plastic tray it was on, and slid it inside. Then she closed the bag and threw it into the garbage bin.
It was unlikely that her mother was aware of the surprise that was waiting for her daughter, in the form of a moldy cheesecake. On the trip, the two of them had talked about a hundred things, but not about Osher. He was not usually a successful topic for conversation, especially when those conversing were tired and just wanted to talk about neutral, easy, non-pressured topics that didn’t take you to dark, unpleasant corners.
There was a container of milk in the refrigerator. Had Osher bought that also? The sell-by date was in another day. She wondered if he had bought it together with the cheesecake.
Ariella gave the electric kettle a good rinse and mused that it would have been typical of Osher to also boil the water for coffee for her, and then put the milk on the table to wait for her. She took her favorite mug out of the drainer, and while the water was boiling, called her parents’ house.
“Ariella!” Lakey was happy to hear her big sister’s voice. “How are you? I really missed you.”
“I missed you, too! I bought you some great stuff from Antwerp. What’s doing?”
“Baruch Hashem, nothing much. Ima walked in about five minutes ago.”
“Of course; I said goodbye to her about eight minutes ago.” They both laughed. A bit more chatting, and then Ariella asked cautiously, “So, how’s Shoshi?”
“Baruch Hashem. Busy with her new friends.”
“Nice. And you?”
“I just spent a whole minute telling you about the test-free week our teacher gave us as a prize!”
“Oy, right. And how’s Osher?”
“Do you really think I know how Osher is doing?”
“I absolutely do—why not? If I can ask him how he’s doing, why can’t you ask him?”
“First of all, because he answers you. And he doesn’t answer me.” There was something seething in her words, but the tone itself was restrained. “Besides, even if he would usually answer me, I can’t ask him anything now.”
“Why can’t you? What’s so hard, when he comes home at night, to open the door for him with a smi—”
“Ariella, are you making fun of me?” Lakey sounded offended, disbelieving. “Or do you really not know?”
“Not know what?”
“That Osher is not…” Lakey stopped suddenly.
Ariella listened silently to the quiet, and heard whispers on the other end. She waited patiently, but when no voice continued talking to her, she said gently, “Lakey?”
The silence continued, cut off suddenly by a dial tone.
Ariella stared at the receiver for a moment, and then dialed home again, her eyes fixated on the green note on her magnet board. In her mind, she broke the message down to letters. I-b-o-u-g-h-t-y-o-u-a-n-e-w-t-a-b-l-e-c-l-o-t-h…
Her younger sister picked up, sounding miserable. “Hi.”
Ariella took a deep breath. “Lakey, what happened to Osher?” she asked.
My mother wanted to call me Osher.
She always dreamed of a son who would bring happiness to her life, and Osher, in Hebrew, means happiness. But two years before I was born, she and Abba became ba’alei teshuvah, and Abba—who was more integrated into Chareidi life than she was—was not at all happy about naming a son Osher. “I don’t know how such a name will be accepted in Bnei Brak,” he’d said. “Look at Ariella. There isn’t another girl on our whole block with a name like hers. Do you want him to stand out—in a negative way? And that’s even before the actual name. I don’t know… Asher, I can hear, but Osher…?”
My sister Ariella was already six when they made the changes in their lives, and perhaps there really wasn’t another Ariella in her whole school. But it made no difference to her. Things like that never bothered her.
But there are eight-plus years between me and Ariella, so it’s hard to say that we’re alike. We have lots of things in common, but in general, the two of us are very different, and it’s a miracle that the attendance list in cheder didn’t say Osher on it, because as it was, I didn’t always get along with my classmates. So it was very good that Abba had explained to Ima that it was better to choose a more “regular” name for me. And it was good that I was born the week of Parshas Vayeitzei, so they named me Asher (pronounced Uh-sher), for the son of Yaakov Avinu. And all my rebbeim and mashgichim in that cheder called me Asher.
But Ima calls me Osher (pronounced Oh-sher), and outside of cheder, that’s the name that stuck to me.
And I want to think that she’s happy and that I bring her happiness, but the truth is…I know that that’s usually not the case.