Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 8 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.
The wheels of the accordion cart protested as Ariella wheeled it down the street; they were not enjoying the overuse after a long hiatus. Ariella tugged the cart behind her, deliberating whether to go into the hardware store to buy something to oil them with, or if she should leave the errand for the way home from Zahava’s house.
She glanced at her watch. No, she’d better wait for the way back. Zahava’s little students were waiting. They had made up for ten o’clock a.m., and now it was two minutes past ten…
“Good morning, Ariella.”
“Good morning, Morah,” Ariella said, not looking at her watch anymore, although Morah Mayer’s voice gave her an urge to glance at it again. It was a reminder of those days when the teacher would stand at the gate of the school to greet the latecomers.
“How are you, Ariella?”
“Baruch Hashem, good. How are you, Morah?”
Mrs. Mayer chuckled. “Baruch Hashem, the usual. I’m very busy with school… So what’s doing?”
“Baruch Hashem, things are fine.” Ariella nodded as if to underscore what she said, and although she had restrained herself from doing it just a moment before, now she checked her watch again. Not because of her memories of being scolded for coming late to school, but because of the children in Zahava’s playgroup. She had promised to come play for them in honor of Rosh Chodesh, as a nice gesture to her friend, and she didn’t really fancy coming late.
“I thought about you a lot this past week,” Morah Mayer remarked.
“Thank you,” Ariella said politely.
“You’re probably thinking that I’m just being super-nice, and that’s what people like to say when they meet someone they haven’t seen in a long while. But I really did think about you a lot this past week.” Her teacher leaned on the gate, a sign that she was planning more than just a polite exchange of pleasantries.
“What did Morah think about me?” Ariella asked, not affirming or negating her teacher’s assumption about what had passed through her mind when she’d heard her empathetic remark.
“I met someone who asked about you. And I remembered suddenly, as I was telling her how wonderful you are, how fond I am of you…”
“I’ve always been a big fan of Morah, as well,” Ariella said directly. “Thank you for saying nice things about me.”
“I hope something will come of it…”
And I hope not, Ariella felt like whispering. She smiled abashedly. Her teacher showered her with brachos, and they parted ways.
Blocking out her thoughts, Ariella dragged her accordion cart up the stairs of Zahava’s building. She looked at the door of the rented apartment and remembered how she’d come with Zahava and her mother more than five years ago to set up this apartment, two days before Zahava’s wedding.
“You really came!” Zahava welcomed her friend with a grin and ushered her into the large, enclosed porch. “Thanks so much, Ariella! Kinderlach, look who came to visit us – my friend Ariella, the music morah!”
About fifteen two-year-olds surrounded Ariella, some more hesitant and others overtly friendly.
“Accordion, accordion!” one blond child shouted.
“That’s right,” Ariella replied, surprised that the word was in his lexicon. “This is my accordion. And do you want to see what else I brought for you? What is this?” She pulled out a little bag of dreidels from her case. The children were quiet.
“Wait, we didn’t learn about it yet,” Zahava said, as she walked into the room with a cup of juice. “It’s just Rosh Chodesh Kislev. There’s almost a month to learn about Chanukah. But it’s great that you’re going to get us into the spirit. Kinderlach, who knows what this is?”
The all gazed silently at the bag. Zahava took one dreidel and spun it on the low table.
“Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, I made you out of clay!” the same blond boy called out. He began to jump around. “My abba bought me a dreidel that makes lights, ‘cause I went to sleep nicely!”
“Great!” Ariella smiled at him. “What’s your name?”
He smiled in response and stuck a thumb into his mouth. Then he took it out. “Chaim’ke.”
“Chaim’ke Braun,” Zahava said lightly. “He’s a very big boy, and very smart, just like all the kids in our playgroup.”
Ariella knew Zahava well enough to know that her words contained a deeper message, but she could not discern what it was. “Well,” she said brightly, pushing it aside for later, “let’s give out our dreidels, and we’ll take out the accordion. Is that okay, Morah Zahava? Because my accordion really wants to get to know the adorable kinderlach in your playgroup!”
Within a few minutes, the accordion knew all the kinderlach in Zahava’s group. It sang and played and danced and spun, and told them about the miracles and wonders of Chanukah as everyone sang along.
“That was so much fun!” Zahava said when they finished. “Maybe you can come do this regularly—for pay, of course. Look how beautifully the children cooperated!”
“I told you already, you can do the same thing with recorded music. But you’re right, I should come here sometimes, if only for my own pleasure. I really enjoyed this, too.” Ariella shrugged off the accordion. The children crowded around her, reluctant to part from the large, wine-colored instrument.
“My abba is going to buy me an accordion!” a voice announced confidently, very close to Ariella. “He said on Chanukah he is going to buy me an accordion.”
She looked at the child. It was the same little boy as before. Could he be older than he looked? “How old are you, Chaim’ke?” she asked.
“Two and four months.”
Ariella raised her eyebrows at Zahava. “Four months! Nice vocabulary! He gets updated every month?” She laughed.
Zahava smiled. “He’s a very precocious child for his age,” she said in a low voice, while the children continued stroking the accordion even after it was packed away in its case. “And yes, a month ago, he told me that he is two and three months. And the month before that, he laughed about being two and two—months, that is.”
“Sounds like a borderline genius, doesn’t it?”
“You have a point, but I don’t really understand all these classifications,” Zahava said quietly. “Come to the kitchen a minute. I may not know much about IQ and all that, but I do think he is quite exceptional—for sure more than just a ‘very precocious child.’”
“He must be an oldest, and his mother spends all day talking to him and teaching him things.”
“Actually not.” Zahava took a deep breath. “He’s an orphan, Ariella. His mother passed away a short time after he was born.”
“Really,” Ariella replied. And instead of walking into the kitchen, she turned back toward the playgroup room.
“Come here a second, Ariella!” Zahava hurried after her. “I don’t like it when you shut down and run away in the middle of a conversation. Why do you do that?”
“Oh, maybe because I don’t think that you have to marry someone just because he has a gifted son.”
“Did I ask you to do anything? Did I talk about marriage? It’s true that I wanted you to get to know Chaim’ke because of his father, but it was only by way of an introduction…”
“Zahava.” Ariella sighed. “Please. Leave me alone for now, alright?”
“What do you mean?”
“Let me recover from my visit to Belgium.”
Zahava opened her mouth to say something, but then closed it. She toyed with the handle on her oven door. “Fine,” she said eventually. “Do you want a drink? That’s why I called you into the kitchen. It’s dry outside. And you sang and exerted yourself.”
Her friend was quiet for a moment. “Okay, thanks. Although we both know that you took me to the kitchen to tell me quietly that Chaim’ke Braun doesn’t have a mother and that it’s a big mitzvah to raise an orphan.”
“I didn’t plan to tell you about the mitzvah aspect.” Zahava smiled without meaning to.
“Because I didn’t give much hope that the conversation would get that far.”
“You’re right.” Ariella put her empty cup down on the counter. “Thanks, Zahava. And thank you for the opportunity to visit your playgroup. Maybe I need to switch from being a private tutor to being a music teacher in preschools. The kids are beyond adorable.”
“I agree with you.”
“And I mean all the kids in your playgroup. Not just the one who is two years and four months old.”
“Fine, fine, I got it, Ariella.”
“Good.” Ariella went out and grasped the handle of the accordion cart. “Goodbye, kids!” she called out, and left.
She strode briskly down the street, as if running away from something. What was it with people today? People meaning Morah Mayer and Zahava. At least her parents were not pressuring her about this right now. They were too busy with Osher.
She raised her eyes. The street had darkened at once; a large, low cloud had slipped over the sun. She didn’t like winter; she’d always been a spring girl. And despite it being Kislev, the day had started off so beautifully…
But not all days that start off nicely finish that way. She knew that from experience.
And it seemed to be happening yet again… What was that acrid smell in her stairwell if not the mushroom soup she’d cooked for herself, burning because she’d forgotten to turn off the flame before she’d left the house?
The kitchen was cloudy with smoke. She groped her way to the stove to turn off the flame, before tossing the disposable, now-blackened pot straight into the garbage.
Drops began to spatter on her window. Ugh. She felt bad about the few shekels the pot had cost, but she was even more upset about the soup. What could have been better on such a day than a bowl of filling, hot soup?
It would probably be better for her to just crawl into bed, switch off the phones, and burrow under the blanket that blocked her off from the whole world.
And that’s exactly what Ariella did.
Wait a second; if Ariella didn’t know that I’m in Acco now, then how did she send me the lemonade?
So maybe it wasn’t even her.
No one was in our room. I went over to the Reinesses’ ancient telephone and dialed Ariella’s number. But she didn’t pick up, neither at home nor on her cell phone.
I deliberated for a moment, and then I called home. I didn’t want Abba or Ima to answer. I didn’t want them to ask me where I was exactly, because I doubted they’d suffice with the answer that it’s only a trial so why bother telling them anything about it, but if I end up staying here I’ll tell them more. But I knew that it was more likely that one of the girls would pick up, either Shoshi or Lakey. Abba and Ima know that most of the calls are for them anyway.
“Osher!” I was right; it was Shoshi. And I couldn’t decide if she was excited that I was calling, or disappointed that it was me and not one of her friends. “How are you, Osher?”
“We…” She paused for a second. “We miss you. Where are you?”
“I’m someplace. It’s only for a trial. If it doesn’t work out here, I’ll go back to Da’as Torah.”
“How can you do this? Don’t you ever think about how Abba and Ima are going out of their minds with worry about you?”
“So tell them it’s a trial and maybe I’ll be back next week. And if I decide that I’m staying then…well, then I’ll give them more details.”
“Nice. They’re supposed to wait patiently for another week, huh?” She spoke as if she was my older sister. “And in the meantime, what? Do you know how worried they are?”
“You can see for yourself,” I answered her quietly. “They’re not calling the police, right?”
“So why not?”
She didn’t answer me.
“Because Rabbi Steinhaus once told Abba that he can trust me.”
“And they know that you sometimes disappear for short periods of time…” She couldn’t help herself.
“Right,” I answered, irritated. “And if I am chased, then I run even further. Now tell me, is Ariella by you?”
“Do you know if she sent me lemonade?”
“Sent you lemonade? To where?”
“If she doesn’t know where you are, how can she send you something?” Shoshi asked logically. And then she said suddenly, “Wait, so she does know?”
“No, she doesn’t know,” I answered.
But it didn’t help. Things only got worse.
“Oh, Ima’s just coming in,” Shoshi said. “Ima, do you know that Ariella knows where Osher is?”
I didn’t want to hear what Ima answered. I didn’t want to hear how yet again, they misunderstood me, whether it was my fault or someone else’s. I didn’t want to hear Ariella get in trouble because of me.
I hung up the phone.