Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 2 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.
Ariella gripped the note that she’d pulled off the magnet board. Osher’s handwriting danced in front of her eyes.
“This time, he didn’t really disappear,” her mother said heavily. Her voice sounded weary.
“He left us a message.”
Me, too, Ariella wanted to say.
“The mashgiach called to say that Osher came to tell him thank you and good bye, and that he was transferring to a different yeshivah. Then we saw the note. He wrote that he…” She fell silent for a moment. “That he loves us, and that we shouldn’t worry about him, because he’s going to a better place.”
“Last time, two summers ago, he didn’t leave a note, right?”
“At least he learned something since then.” Ariella’s lips curled into a ghost of a smile. “Let’s hope it’s a good sign.” She was quiet for a moment. “He told the mashgiach he was switching yeshivos?”
“And he didn’t write anything to you about the new yeshivah?”
“No. Just that it’s ‘a better place.’”
“What kind of paper did he write the note on?” Ariella whispered.
“The note. Which paper did he use for it? Is it green?”
“Fluorescent green,” her mother affirmed. “With blue and black leaves. How did you know?”
“He left me a note also,” her daughter said. She opened the fridge. “And milk. And a cheesecake. But he didn’t write a word about his plans to go anywhere.” She glanced around her own house. “He washed my hallway floor and put a fake flower in my vase, too.”
“What did he write?”
“Technical stuff. What he did, more or less. And…” she sighed, “that he’s davening for me.”
“He asked for your key last Motza’ei Shabbos,” her mother recalled. She didn’t seem to have heard Ariella’s last few words. “Lakey, Osher asked for Ariella’s key after Shabbos, right? Check if he put it back.”
“No,” Lakey reported back, a few seconds later. Ariella heard her voice in the background. “At least it’s not in its regular place. Maybe he put it somewhere else.”
“And maybe he took it with him.”
“I’ll copy it so you should have another one,” Ariella said, and pressed the button to switch on the hot water kettle. “I prefer that you have a spare key to my house. Do you have any idea where he could have gone, Ima?”
“A vague idea. If it’s the truth, of course.”
“If what’s the truth?”
“What he told Shoshi. He called on Monday morning, and spoke to Shoshi for a couple of seconds. He told her he’s up north and that he will call before Shabbos, and we shouldn’t worry.”
“North could also be Finland,” Ariella muttered.
“Or the North Pole,” her mother agreed with a mirthless smile. “But apparently it is here in the country. At age sixteen, he doesn’t have too many ways to leave the country just like that. He also got to “the north” pretty fast.”
Ariella distractedly poured three teaspoons of sugar into her coffee. “When did it all happen?”
“On Sunday evening he went over to the mashgiach, and right after that, the mashgiach called Abba. The next morning, Osher called here, for that five-second conversation with Shoshi.”
“And he was here on Motza’ei Shabbos,” Ariella said thoughtfully.
Her mother was also enveloped in her thoughts. It was silent as the second hand on Ariella’s kitchen clock ticked a whole revolution. Then her mother said, a bit tremulously, “Ariella?”
“I…I’m worried about Osher.” Her voice was very low, almost inaudible.
“So am I,” Ariella said. “Ima, I’ll try to see what can be done.”
“You’ve always gotten along well with him.” Ariella’s mother took a deep breath. “And you have something special about you, something that connects to him. I…I’m relying on you.”
Gad Shimoni remained standing in the darkening yard, observing as the figures filed in. Three youths of a variety of ages passed him by without even giving him a glance. The fourth stopped next to him. “Hi,” he said cheerfully. “Can I help you?”
“I’m looking for your principal, Elazar,” the guest said.
“He’s on the beach.”
“When is he supposed to be back?”
“Later. I don’t know if he’ll have time for you.”
The sentence sounded somewhat cheeky, and the man’s face clouded. “Are you Yeruchem, perhaps?”
“No,” the boy said with a chuckle, but his laugh lacked even a trace of defiance. “What, you came for him?”
There was no point in denying it. “Yes.”
“I figured that out right away. I’m eighteen already, so all these officials don’t come for me anymore. Only for Yeruchem. Until what age exactly does the compulsory education law apply?”
The man smiled. “You’re a guy who’s interested in learning, I see. What’s this? You sleep here?” He looked at the open workshop door.
“Our apartment is down the block. This is the carpentry shop.”
“And Elazar lives upstairs?”
“Reb Elazar,” the boy clarified. “Yes.” From inside the carpentry shop came a distant call, and the boy shifted in his place. “I’m sorry I can’t stay and schmooze with you, but I’m on kitchen duty for supper, okay?”
“Is Yeruchem also on duty tonight?” the man asked, glancing doubtfully into the lit-up space, where a few figures were moving around. None of them appeared to be thirteen.
“No, he stayed on the beach with the Rav. Do you want me to take you there?”
“Yes, but only after I finish making supper.”
“Oh, I’m not going to wait until then.”
“Won’t you join us for supper? Take into account that Reb Elazar will invite you to eat with us, and if you are the fussy kind who won’t eat anything if you’re not sure exactly where it comes from and how it was made, then come and see how we prepare the food, and you’ll be assured that everything is clean and neat.”
“I’m afraid I don’t have time to stay.”
“But by the time you go down to the beach, they might have come back already, and you’ll miss them. Or, they might still be there, but you wouldn’t necessarily find them, and I’d have to come and help you track them down, in any case. So if you’re afraid you don’t have time and all that,” he emphasized the words, “then you’re probably better off waiting for Reb Elazar here.”
“Fine,” Shimoni said, after a moment’s thought. “Thanks for the invitation.”
“You’re welcome,” the boy said, with surprising graciousness. “What’s your name?”
“Come, Gad.” He led the man inside to the carpentry shop. Again, the odor of sawdust assailed Shimoni’s nostrils; he was rather aghast at the mess. They passed the piles of planks and boards, and he stopped to gaze at a massive table. There was a large, scary-looking device on one end.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“We cut the wood planks with that.”
“It looks very dangerous.”
“It is very dangerous. It can cut anything in a flash,” the boy agreed, with a trace of malice.
“So how do you keep such a thing here?”
“You need a license for it, Mr. Truant Officer,” the youth replied. “And Reb Elazar has one. And so does Shlomo, the professional carpenter.”
“What about Yeruchem, though? Who says he won’t try to touch it, or switch it on?”
“I say,” the boy declared. “Reb Elazar doesn’t let him, and that’s enough to keep him away from it.”
“And he obeys?”
“Why did I invite you to the kitchen?” the boy muttered. “Who needs all these questions? …Yes, he obeys, if that’s the word you prefer. We didn’t come here to fight with Reb Elazar, you know.” He said the last sentence in a loud voice, just as they arrived at the kitchen door. The three boys who were there already raised their eyebrows at the pair.
“Nice of you to remember to come in, Dovid,” one of them said. “The frying pan is waiting for you. I already diced the onions.”
The shelf of cleaning materials in the grocery had always been one of Ariella’s favorites, since she’d been a little girl going shopping with Ima’s list. The array of colors, sizes, shapes, and promises of heady aromas captivated her. She didn’t really like taking Osher along, because he always opened the bottles and smelled them, and it embarrassed her. He would also arrange the soap bottles in step-like formation on the shelf, according to type. The store workers would give him a pinch on the cheek at the same time as she chided him to stop.
But often, she took him along anyway, and when she was in an especially patient mood, she would weave charming tales for him about a magical garden that they were walking through. Each bottle on the shelf was a flower with a different promising scent. They would muse about which flower to pick from the array, and Osher would—almost always—gaze dreamily at a tall, narrow, green bottle that was impressively named “Dream Forest.” He would invariably ask her to buy that flower—er, floor cleaner.
But Ima liked the Fantastik brand better, and they both had no choice but to land right back into reality. Ariella would promise Osher that one day, she’d buy him an entire bottle of Dream Forest, and he could sniff it as much as he wanted—day and night.
Then the tall green bottles disappeared from the shelves. Perhaps their manufacturer had closed down. Anyway, Osher had grown up and lost interest in the gorgeous garden made of cleaning-material bottles.
This morning, she suddenly noticed the bottle standing on the shelf, as though it had always been there. It was relatively expensive for the small quantity, but she took it off the shelf anyway. She also picked up some bread, jam, and pickles, and then went to pay.
“Hello, Zahava!” Ariella turned around, grinning broadly. Most of her smile was genuine, and the little part inside of her that didn’t really want to meet a friend—even Zahava—joined in with the smile anyway.
“Baruch Hashem, all good.”
“You came back from Belgium?”
Ariella smiled. So did Zahava. “Yes, I know that if you’re here, you are not there. I meant to ask if you’re here because you’re back, of if you never went.”
“I went, and I’m back, baruch Hashem.”
“Nice.” Zahava was quiet, and then asked, “Are you last on line?”
“No, I think you are.”
Zahava positioned her full wagon behind the register counter. “What about work, Ariella?”
“What do you mean?”
“Are you continuing to give private lessons?”
“Yes. I’ll send my students a message today that I’m back.”
“Would you…would you want to play for my kindergarten?”
“I like you, Zahava, just so you know.” Ariella never blinked when she complimented someone, and certainly not when that someone was her good friend. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but you didn’t consider hiring someone to play until the second you met me, right? And we both know that running a private pre-school in our area is not exactly super-profitable. Forget it; you don’t have to pay for me to play for you. Just turn on some Rebbe Alter CDs for the kids, or tap something out on your old keyboard. It’ll be enough.”
“Oh, you can’t compare!” Zahava protested.
Ariella didn’t respond. She was too busy putting her items on the conveyer belt. Only after she paid and took her bag from the counter, and Zahava started putting her own things there, did Ariella say in a very low voice, “It wasn’t for me, Zahava. But at least I got a trip out of it.”
That night, after returning from supper at her parents’ house, where she’d sat and listened to all of Shoshi’s high school experiences and the tumult about the parts given out for Lakey’s bas mitzvah performance, she began to unpack her bags.
She took out the slim green bottle and put it on the shelf in her small bathroom. She began walking out, but then reconsidered and went back to the bottle. She pulled off the cover and sniffed it slowly. It had a pleasant smell, but she’d definitely smelled better stuff. She wondered if Osher had smelled the bottle’s contents before choosing it the first time, or if it was just the name that captivated him.
With a quick motion, she put the bottle back in its place. Let it wait there.
She finished unpacking the rest of her groceries, davened Maariv, made a few phone calls to her accordion students and her math students, said Tehillim, did a quick load of laundry and hung it to dry, rifled through a book that Shoshi had urged her to read, promising it was fantastic, and got ready to go to sleep.
It was already eleven-thirty. Once upon a time, that had been an active evening hour for her, but these days, she preferred the early morning hours. Sunrise and the moments that followed were much more beautiful to her than the stars and the darkness.
The phone rang.
She picked up. “Hello?” Perhaps it was one of her students.
“Ariella?” the voice on the other end whispered.
“Well, hello to you, too, absentee brother. Where are you?”
He was quiet for a minute. “Up north,” he said finally.
“Seriously.” She sat down on her bed. “I heard that joke from Abba and Ima already. Or Lakey…I don’t remember who told it to me first. Nu, Osher, where are you?”
“In a nice place.”
“I heard that too,” she said, and automatically lowered her voice to match his. Why was he whispering?
“Really,” her sixteen-and-a-half-year-old brother said. “Really, Ariella! It’s a nice place, I feel good, and…everything is fine with me.”
She was quiet. “Is there a forest there?” she asked, after a minute.
“A forest, where you are.”
“Because I thought you like dreamy forests, and that’s why you decided to go up north. Northern Israel, Northern part of the world… Besides, if you’re interested, I bought you a bottle of Dream Forest. Remember that?”
He didn’t answer her, but she got the impression that he did not remember. “Well,” he said suddenly. after a moment’s silence, “I need to go, Ariella.”
“One second, what you told me isn’t enough. Who are you with? What is this place?”
“I’ll call you again, b’ezras Hashem,” he said. “And tell Abba and Ima not to—”
“Worry. I heard that also already,” she filled in somberly. Then she realized that she hadn’t cut him off. He had been the one to hang up.
I quietly put the ancient black telephone receiver down on the table in the hallway, and padded barefoot back to the room. Yeruchem didn’t move, but I think he was saying something in a sleepy voice. I stopped near the door. I didn’t want him to see me.
He continued lying there with his eyes closed, and I slipped back into bed.
The others all slept in a different apartment a few houses down. Rabbi Elazar had rented it for them. But Yeruchem, Shlomo, and I sleep here. Rabbi Elazar said we still need a real house, because we are young; Yeruchem is a kid of just thirteen and a half, and Shlomo is seventeen.
Now I’ve joined them. They gave me a folding bed near the wall, and that’s my place. I saw the others’ apartment, and the truth is, I really couldn’t imagine myself living there. I’m too used to Ima’s clean floors and white walls. What is going on in that apartment doesn’t begin to compare. They try to keep it somewhat neat, and to clean it a bit, and Rabbi Elazar speaks to us a lot about how order on the outside helps make order inside. But it looks like a real bachurim apartment, where the definition of “neatness” is very different from how our mothers would define it.
I closed my eyes, but for the longest time I couldn’t fall asleep. First I thought about Ariella, and about Nosson, zichrono l’vrachah. He had barely been my brother-in-law, but I think if he would have remained in This World, he would have understood me well.
Then I thought about Yeruchem, and about that truant officer who is really not pleased that Yeruchem left his school before finishing eighth grade. He was pretty obtuse, that Gad guy. He sat with us at supper and stared at us from the side, as though we were lepers or something. He spoke to Reb Elazar in an irritating tone. The Rav answered him very calmly and didn’t get angry or anything. He just talked and talked and hardly ate anything himself. When we cleared the table after the meal, and sat down in a circle for our regular conversation with the Rav, they were both still talking. Meanwhile, Mayerson, I don’t remember his first name, brought out a guitar, and Yonatan sat with his darbuka drum, and they started a little kumzitz. I didn’t sing; my voice is too hoarse.
After a few minutes, the truant officer called Yeruchem over, and Reb Elazar gave them some privacy and came to join our singing. Finally, the guy left, and Yeruchem came back, looking a bit dejected. He said that there was going to be a visit next week also. Poor guy. His friends tried to reassure him that there was nothing anyone could do to him. What, they’d take him away in a patrol car? But he was pretty nervous and wasn’t really up to listening to reason just then.
Then I thought about the carpentry shop and the cubby that I’m trying to build, and about the ugly hole that I made by mistake with the drill. And the edges that Dovid has to teach me how to do tomorrow…
Then I thought about how people who know how to listen like Reb Elazar are really rare these days. Then I thought about other people I know, and about my family…and then I fell asleep.