Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 11 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 opened my drawer and took out the linen with a pattern of colorful squares. Nechemiah sat on a chair near the bed and drank the tea I had made for him. He watched me stretch the sheet over Yeruchem’s mattress, and wave the thick blanket in the air a few times. “So that it should be soft and fluffy and full of air,” I explained as I did it again. I remembered my father waving our blankets in the air. At home, Abba always does that when he puts on the linen. I could never do it as well as he does, but I’m getting there.
“I thought that the only way to do it is to bang the blankets,” he said, his eyes closed.
“So from now on you’ll know that you can also wave them in the air,” I said as I folded it back. “Here you go—make yourself at home.”
He laughed at my joke, but his laugh was hoarse, clearly the laugh of someone feeling ill. He got up, swayed a bit, and then slowly walked toward the bed. He just about fell into it.
“Do you want some Tylenol?” I asked.
“Yes, thanks. I think there is some in the kitchen cabinet, right side on the top.”
“I also have Tylenol.” I didn’t want to open the door into the Reinesses’ family quarters. “Take some of mine for now, and feel better.”
“Thanks.” His hand shook as he took the pills from me. “I’m like that,” he said, his eyes still closed. “A little fever puts me away. Maybe it’s because I’m spoiled.” He sighed deeply and then pulled the cover up to his chin. “And the fact that I’m almost twenty-one does not change the fact that I’m the youngest at home. What can I do? It seems to have an effect.”
I didn’t really know what to answer to his very personal remarks. Maybe that’s why I was happy when the doorbell rang. I hoped it was Nechemiah’s mother, who would quickly clear his bed in the house, and then he could move into there, instead of saying all these strange things that I didn’t really have the right answers for.
Only after I went over to the door and opened it, did I remember that his mother would not wait for someone to answer the door for her. It was her place; she would let herself in.
And after I saw who was standing there, I regretted opening the door in the first place.
“Hello there!” the Arab said, with a huge, toothy grin. He had a floral shirt in shades of maroon, orange, and blue. “Where is your Rabbi Elazar?”
“He’s down there,” I said.
“No, he’s not,” he said. His smile disappeared. “You are lying. The carpentry shop is locked.”
“Not downstairs in the carpentry shop. Down on the beach,” I said, and gripped the doorknob tightly, waiting for the second when I could close the door and lock it as hard as I could.
“You’re one of the boys in his school?”
“Sort of,” I said, and a smile escaped from my lips.
“And your school is here?” Very impolitely, he peered into the house. “Really? So small? You learn here? And eat here and everything?”
“Sort of,” I said again.
“So why is your school in such a tiny place? It’s not good to have such small and crowded quarters. Tell your teacher you want a new school building—a nice place, with a board and desks.”
I don’t even know why I answered him. “We need place for the carpentry shop, not just a normal classroom.”
“Of course, of course!” he cried. “My children have in their school a big hall for woodworking, and they make wonderful things there. Why do you have this old house? Tell Elazar you want a new, big school, a fancy building.”
Suddenly I sensed someone standing behind me, and I turned around. Nechemiah was there, wrapped in my blanket with the colorful squares. It was no wonder he had heard the conversation; our room was very close to the door.
He spoke up. “I’ll tell the owner what you said. Thank you, and goodbye.” He closed the door firmly and locked it. “Why are you talking to Arabs?” he asked me. “Ugh, now I’m all dizzy.”
“Why did you get up?” I asked.
“Because I saw you don’t know that you don’t get into conversations with Arabs, and for sure not with Abu Kassem.”
“You know him?”
“No. And that’s also not his name. I think one of your friends made up the name for anyone who comes here about the house.”
“Huh? My friends know him?”
“Either him or the others. You think you’re the first person that Abu Kassem is trying to convince to persuade my father to move out of here?”
I looked at the closed door, as if I could see Abu Kassem, or whatever his name was, through it. “Why is he trying to do that?” I asked.
“I told you, he’s not the only one.” Nechemiah inched toward his bed, carefully lifting the edges of the blanket.
“He’s not the only one?”
“It’s a valuable area. Lots of people want it.”
“The whole area, or just your house?”
But Nechemiah didn’t answer me. He was already back in bed, with the blanket up to his nose.
“Ariella!” Her father got up from his place when he heard the croak through the phone. “What happened to you?!”
“Just pressure,” she managed to squeak.
“Pressure?! In your throat?”
“Something like that.”
“I guess I haven’t heard you in a long time. Or is it something sudden?”
“Both,” she whispered.
“You need to go to the speech therapist again, the one who treated you last time you were hoarse like this. Find out why it keeps coming back. That polyp on your vocal chords disappeared a long time ago, didn’t it?”
She shrugged, as if to say, Don’t know, don’t remember—not that he could see her anyway.
“You can’t neglect yourself,” he said sternly.
“I know…” She sighed.
“What are you doing about it?”
“I made an appointment.” She could hardly get the words out.
“For a speech therapist? Good. And you canceled all your private lessons?”
“Do you want Shoshi to come and help you out? Or Lakey? Dishes, laundry, whatever?”
“It’s fine,” she whispered. Her throat was on fire. “Being hoarse doesn’t affect my washing machine.”
“I could have waited to hear that pearl of wisdom until you feel better,” he said chidingly. “It’s not worth exerting yourself to say it. So I’m hanging up now, Ariella. I don’t want you to exert yourself to answer me.”
“Wait,” she whispered. “Osher.”
“What about Osher?” her father asked. He did not hang up.
“Nu, what’s the story?” She tried to use the least amount of words possible.
“You’re asking me?”
“Ima looked into it, and so did you. I also tried, but so far I haven’t been able to get any information.” He was quiet. “What can I do?” Now it was his turn to sigh deeply. “We’ll think about what to do. We’ll probably go to him—Ima and I—to see who and what this is about.”
“No,” she blurted out.
“No? What no? Wait, don’t answer me.” He paused. “We’ll talk and then decide what to do. Somehow, it doesn’t sound as bad as some of the other places he’s landed up, those other times.”
“Yes,” she said thoughtfully.
“I asked you not to answer me! Good night, Ariella. Make yourself a cup of hot tea with lemon and go to sleep early. And tell your speech therapist that you need to get to the root of the problem. We can’t have this hoarseness coming back all the time.”
She obediently hung up the phone and went to boil up the kettle. B’ezras Hashem she would tell Rivi, her speech therapist, that she needed something to get to the root of the issue. Rivi would certainly agree with her. The question only was whether the root of the issue was something within Rivi’s ability to treat.
That was surely clear to Abba as well. He was a thorough person who always tried to get to the root of things. But they both knew very well that the best solution was not always to expose the roots, to drill into them and clean them out. Sometimes, roots prefer to be covered and kept dark, concealed from the rays of sun and from any digging shovels.
Ariella stirred her tea. She couldn’t stand tea, but it did provide some relief for her aching throat.
True, that was just treating the symptom, not the real problem. If only she could finally learn to speak properly and to utter all the different types of sounds, then the problem of her hoarseness would be resolved permanently. That’s what Rivi kept saying. The question was, why, after she’d learned to “speak properly,” was she going back to those same mistakes in how she uttered certain sounds? That meant that the hoarseness was only a symptom.
So they would be back to digging around the roots. No thank you. She did not want to think about the Belgian shidduch she’d turned down, and about her life that was stuck, and about Osher, who was just as stuck. The worst thing would be to think now about Osher. He was so like her, and all his failings were actually an enlarged reflection of her own failings.
She could think about him, if she really wanted to, but she would stick to sweet thoughts, like the question of whether he’d taken with him to Acco the relatively new linen that she’d bought him, with the colorful patchwork of squares, and if he was using it, and if he even remembered that she’d bought it for him. She could, of course, call and ask Shoshi to check the linen closet to see if he’d taken it or not. But Abba had asked her to go to sleep early tonight.
When Nechemiah’s mother returned, he was sleeping very deeply already. She preferred for him to “sleep well, because it’s the best medicine,” so she didn’t wake him up to transfer to his regular bed. Shlomo and I got into bed very quietly so as not to wake him up, either. Not that we usually schmooze much; we don’t really have what to talk about. But this time, we didn’t even say the regular, “Do you mind if I shut the light?” Meaning, Shlomo didn’t say it, so I didn’t have the chance to reply, “A few more minutes, please.” He just shut the light without asking.
So I didn’t say anything either, and just did my own thing: I got up and turned the light back on. Shlomo did not get up to switch it off again; he just gave me a look and then pulled the blanket over his eyes.
I sat for a few moments and thought about how disgusting it was that Shlomo didn’t think about me; he’d just shut the light, leaving me to find my pajama shirt in the dark. It had disappeared, as usual. I looked around the bed, and thought about how I needed to teach him to be considerate of those around him. Although I’m definitely not the best teacher for this type of thing.
Then I got up to search some more. It took me a good few minutes before I found my shirt inside the pillowcase; I have no idea how it got there. I went over to the switch to turn off the light; I know how to get dressed in the dark.
I had an urge to keep the light on, just because. But I switched it off.
Shlomo didn’t react, although it didn’t look like he’d fallen asleep. I decided to stop thinking about him.
I lay down and tossed and turned from side to side for what felt like a long while. Finally, I got up and went over to the window. I don’t know, I usually fall asleep very fast; I’ve been doing that since I’m little. My mother says that I live in a very tiring way. She’s right. I’m usually exhausted at the end of the day, and I fall asleep easily, if I can just manage to lay still for a few minutes.
But when something bothers me, I can’t fall asleep.
The windowsill was old and wooden, painted in light brown. Something about it reminded me of the Shabbos before Ariella’s wedding. Actually, this whole room reminded me of the room in the apartment where I’d stayed when we went to Yerushalayim for Nosson’s aufruf. I don’t know where Ariella was then; she must have been staying with a friend or something, but the rest of the family went in for the simchah. We were put up in a small, very tidy apartment, and Ima asked me not to touch anything.
Abba and Ima slept in the bedroom, Shoshi and Lakey in the crowded dining room, and I—who had just turned eleven that Shabbos—got the little room near the bedroom. I think old people must have lived there; to this day I remember the horrible smell of mothballs that disturbed me from sleeping. So pretty early in the night, I was standing at the windowsill that looked a lot like this one.
It was in Cheshvan, right after Yom Tov. I have no idea how Nosson knew it was my birthday. On second thought, it really was just like Ariella to tell him about it. Right after we washed for the Friday night seudah, Nosson asked to speak. He announced to everyone that there was another “chassan” present who was no less important than he, and he began to sing “Siman Tov U’mazel Tov.” After everyone finished singing with him, he called me over and gave me a gift, a comic book about the meshalim of the Dubno Maggid.
Ariella was very excited when we came home and I showed her the book. She doesn’t know that I’ve since lost the book, and I hope she never asks me for it. It’s been a long time since it disappeared; it happened around the time Nosson was niftar. I was so stunned by his passing. Until then, I had not known anyone who was alive and then died. My grandfather passed away when I was three, but I hardly remember anything from that age, especially as I had only met him about four times in my life. There was also the older man from shul who would give out chocolate to the kids; he was niftar when I was six or seven, but I didn’t know him that well either. I remember that we learned Mishnayos for him, and I wondered if before he was niftar he had asked someone to take over his job of giving out chocolate. Well, either he didn’t ask anyone, or that person did not carry out the instructions, because we never got chocolate after that. So maybe I was a little sad that he passed away, but I don’t know how much of that was because of him and how much was because of the chocolate.
With Nosson, it was different. He passed away very suddenly. The truth is that it wasn’t so sudden; there were about two and a half weeks between the accident and when he was niftar. But I think that even if it would have taken twenty weeks, it would not have been enough time to absorb such a thing. Ariella had hardly had a chance to be his wife. Ima even told me that there were things they hadn’t yet taken from our house to theirs.
Now I’ll have to wait a long, long time until Shoshi gets married, to have a new brother-in-law. I mean, I guess I could get a new brother-in-law sooner, through Ariella, but I can’t imagine her getting married again.
Once, she was a really successful girl, and I was the one who was stuck, a good-for-nothing. Today she’s also stuck, poor thing, and it’s such a shame. Because at least I got used to it already.
But it’s really not my problem. That’s what Abba and Ima would tell me if they would know what I was thinking about.