Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 9 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.
I sat on the floor of the carpentry shop and examined the carvings in the wood. With half an ear, I heard Reb Elazar speaking. He has a regular seder, I see. He starts with the parshah already on Wednesday evening, and he has two additional shiurim on the parshah, on Thursday and on Friday afternoon. Sometimes, he gives it in the carpentry shop; other times it can be in the back kitchen, or even on the beachfront.
He happens to be a very interesting speaker, and despite the ugly hole I had mistakenly made with the machine in the middle of the word ‘V’achalta,’ his words swirled around me and apparently also found an entry point to my head.
“I really enjoyed that midrash about Yaakov Avinu,” I told him afterward. “I wonder if my father knows this midrash. He likes to tell us lots of midrashim at the Shabbos table.”
“Tell him, and you’ll find out if he knows it.”
“I don’t know when to tell him,” I muttered, and rubbed the piece of wood with my thumb, over the hole. This hole irritated me. I had wanted to craft a nice wooden bentcher holder, and now I’d have to start again from scratch.
“On the phone?”
“I called home, last night.”
“First of all, there’s no rule saying you can’t call your parents every night. But you can also wait for Friday’s phone call, if you’d like.”
“I have no such thing, a Friday phone call.”
He took the piece of wood out of my hand, and as he ostensibly studied my carvings, he asked, “What does that mean, no Friday phone call?”
“It means I don’t specifically call home on Friday.”
“You didn’t call last week?”
“When did you call?”
“And besides that?”
“A week ago, when I got here. And Rebbi, please don’t tell me to speak to my parents more often, or to go there, or to invite anyone here. I wanted to start fresh.” I took my work back from him. “Without any holes or mishaps.”
“I understand that desire to start anew very much,” Reb Elazar said. It’s fascinating how he always has a ready answer to everything. He never gets thrown off by a crazy comment, and his replies are usually articulate, clear, and confident, as though he’d spent at least three minutes thinking about them first. In reality, there weren’t even two seconds between my words and his response. “And I understood that the moment we met. But what does that have to do with your calling home?”
“Because I don’t want them to question me too much about where I am.”
“Question you?!” This time, I did manage to throw him off. But it was for a mere four seconds. “Osher? Your parents don’t know where you are?!”
“They don’t know exactly.”
“But you promised me you’d tell them,” he said. His voice was low; I had never heard him speak in this tone.
“I promised you that I would tell them that I switched to your yeshivah, so I told them that I switched yeshivos; I just didn’t tell them exactly where this yeshivah is.”
“What did you say to them?” he asked, and put a hand on my shoulder, apparently to avoid making it look like I was under police interrogation.
“That I’m somewhere up north.”
“Osher, I’m trying very hard not to get angry at you. We spoke about how you were going to have a respectful conversation with your parents, and ask them if you could come here for a week’s trial. I didn’t think that you are a child; that I’d have to call your parents for you… Oy, they are probably so worried!”
I was quiet for a bit longer than four seconds. “Nah, probably not too much,” I said finally.
“There’s no such thing as parents not worrying too much.” I don’t know how it happened, but I found myself walking with Reb Elazar on the sidewalk leading to the waterfront. When had we walked out of the carpentry shop?
Reb Elazar looked at me. “Osher,” he said. “Let’s talk to your parents together.”
“So that they won’t worry.”
“I don’t know,” I muttered. “I don’t really feel like talking to anyone right now. And I’m telling you, it’s fine, Rebbi. They are not worried.”
“That’s what you think.”
We continued walking in silence, his hand still resting on my left shoulder. At one point, it began to annoy me, and I shrugged slightly to get it off. The hand dropped, and he stuck it into his pocket and took out his cell phone. “Osher, do you prefer that I talk? Will that be easier for you?”
I didn’t reply. We stood on the edge of the dock, where the dry sand began, and I tossed my unsuccessful project down on the ground there. Then I pulled out another piece of wood from my pocket and showed it to Reb Elazar. “Here,” I said, and threw it also down to the sand. “I’m the black sheep of my family, ugly and worthless. Don’t bother calling them, Reb Elazar. It’s fine.” And with a few rapid, jerky movements, I covered both pieces of wood with sand.
“Do you remember the end of the story that you heard in kindergarten, about the prince who was a black sheep?” He smiled. “You remembered it on Motza’ei Shabbos.”
“I have no patience or interest in stories right now,” I said. “I just know that I don’t want any of them to come here.”
“Not even your older sister, who you told me about?”
“Not her, either.” Suddenly I felt cold. “I don’t want to see her either right now, Rebbi. If anyone from my family comes to this place—I’m out of here.”
“Is that a threat?” he asked quietly.
I looked at the sea and breathed in the windy air. “I don’t think so. It’s just the reality.”
Ariella opened the door and let Zahava in. “Come in,” she said. “What can I get you to drink? Coffee? Tea?”
“Without the games, please, Ariella.” Zahava put a canvas satchel on the kitchen table. “I brought you some mushroom soup,” she said. “With lots of soup mix and lots of mushrooms, the way you like it.”
“Thanks, but you’d better heat it up, because otherwise I’ll burn your pot, too.”
Zahava looked at her. “Don’t tell me that this is all because of a silly pot!”
“No, it’s just one of the pieces of straw.”
“That are on the camel’s back?”
“Something like that.”
“What came before it?”
Ariella didn’t reply. She sat in her kitchen and watched Zahava turn on the fire and set down the pot she had brought. She watched her open one drawer, and then the next, and finally take a spoon out of the third drawer. “Can I use this to stir? It’s a pareve pot.”
“I also brought a few plastic soup bowls with me. If you don’t mind, I’ll eat with you, because judging by the smell of the soup, it came out really good this time.”
“Are you sure that the mess and grime in this kitchen won’t ruin your appetite?”
“Ariella!” Zahava said, and brushed a pile of things off the table, onto the nearest chair. “Tablecloth, please.”
“On top of the fridge.” Ariella did not move.
“At your service, ma’am.” Zahava bowed slightly. “Your meal is ready. A cup of water, please?”
“I’m not offering; I’m asking for myself. And you did offer me a drink when I first came.”
“There’s cold water in the fridge.” Ariella waved off the attempt to get her to do something. “And I still don’t get why you came. I told you that I don’t want any phone calls in the near future.”
“Yes, but you didn’t say that you don’t want my soup either.”
“I actually do want that.”
“So I can go?”
Ariella smiled in spite of herself. “First finish eating,” she said with a sigh. “I don’t have such terrible manners.”
“No,” Zahava agreed. “You’re not that bad.”
The two friends made their brachos and ate the hot, thick mushroom soup. Zahava finished hers first, while Ariella toyed with her spoon and the bowl.
“You know,” Zahava said, “I need to apologize if my comments about my husband’s relative destroyed your mood so badly.”
“Comments about who?”
“Chaim’ke Braun. His father is my husband’s cousin.”
“It’s not because of what you said.” Ariella shrugged. “Because your comments make no difference to me.”
“Thanks for the compliment!”
“It’s not because of Braun, or any other shidduch suggestion; it’s because…” Ariella raised her eyes and looked at the mess all around them. “It’s hard to believe that Osher cleaned up here just two weeks ago,” she said suddenly, sounding a bit bitter. “He even washed the floor, sort of. Look what is going on here! I don’t understand what you want from me right now.”
“You don’t understand? I don’t understand.” Zahava moved into the chair next to her friend’s. “Are you depressed because your apartment is a little bit messy?”
“Two strikes,” Ariella said with that bitter chuckle. “I’m not depressed, and it’s not a little bit messy.”
“So it’s very messy. Do you want to come see some other houses, Ariella? Where the mess is ten times worse than this?”
“And how many children do they have there?”
“It doesn’t matter. If the woman of the house can come to terms with the mess, then everything’s fine.”
Ariella wanted to say something, but she stopped herself and then nodded. “Okay, but enough, Zahava, please. I have no energy for this.”
“Should I go?”
Ariella didn’t reply.
“I’m leaving, but first of all, you have to tell me that the soup was good.”
“The soup was good.”
Zahava giggled. “Even though you’re in a mood, Ariella, you’re still so sweet. So should I go?”
“Maybe I’m the one who should leave,” Ariella said suddenly. “I should go away a bit. Far away. What’s wrong? I can tell my students that there are no math or accordion lessons for the time being, and I can take a break.”
“You just came back from vacation in Belgium less than two weeks ago,” Zahava protested, valiantly trying to lighten this very dismal conversation. “Again a break?”
“You know exactly how much of a non-vacation it was,” Ariella shot back. “And apparently, it was even harder than I thought. Now it’s all coming out. My parents were so hopeful… It actually looked promising; very promising, in fact.”
“So what happened?”
“I ran away at the last minute. I just couldn’t go through with it.”