Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 27 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.
“Welcome!” Mr. Shikovitzer said warmly. “Binyamin, it’s so good to see you! We haven’t had a visit from you since Pesach. I’m sure the whole family was happy that you’ve come, huh? When did you get back from yeshivah?”
“At night? You weren’t afraid?”
“We left in the morning, and the automobile was escorted by a British policeman.”
“The fellahin are cowards, Abba,” Zelig added scornfully.
“That’s not exactly true,” his father said, glancing outside. “In any case, you should speak a little quieter. Nu? Did you bump into Mahmoud?”
“He bumped into us.” Zelig chuckled, and took his regular seat on the right side of the table. “He already told us there’s a delicious Polish soup for lunch. When will he remember once and for all that it’s a Russian soup?”
“Good question…” Mr. Shakovitzer rubbed his blackened hands on the large, blue apron that he wore, and pointed to the big metal oven in the corner. “It stayed hot especially for you.”
“You look worried today, yeshivah bucher’l.” Zelig’s father patted his son’s friend on the shoulder. Binyamin’s normally cheerful expression was more thoughtful than usual, and he was staring blankly in the direction of the large oven.
“Binyamin?” Zelig asked. “Is everything okay?”
“B’ezras Hashem,” his younger friend answered with a forced smile, so different from his usual broad grin. “Thank you very much,” he said, as a steaming bowl was set before him.
“Start to eat before it gets cold,” Zelig’s father said. After serving his son a portion, he sat down at the table. “So your parents were happy to see you, Binyamin, or what?”
“Baruch Hashem, they really were.”
“Do they feel well? Your father has been looking a bit pale in recent days.”
“I think he’s fine, baruch Hashem.” Binyamin made a brachah and slowly sipped the soup. “It’s a bit hard for him with the work, and the weather is very different from what he was used to at home,” he said.
“Well, of course.” Shikovitzer wiped his brow. “It makes no difference if you’re out on the open sea, or working next to a hot oven: the hot sun of Eretz Yisruel is much hotter than the sun on the banks of the Black Sea… And your brothers at home, they were certainly happy when you came home, I’m sure… Will your younger brother go to yeshivah, like you?”
“We’ll see.” Binyamin stirred his soup. “But for now, he’s too young to travel so far away.”
“You know, I saw him. He helps your father with the fishing, right?”
“The port has stopped growing a bit in the last year or two,” Zelig’s father said. “Since the Haifa port grew. I hope it won’t affect the parnassah here in the city. And what—”
A sudden move by Zelig cut him off. The youth leaped out of his seat and grabbed his bowl and spoon. “Abba, I wasn’t here,” he said, from the closest window. “You ate only with Binyamin, alright? That’s what you should tell them.” And with a hasty jump, he disappeared through the window.
His father stood up. “What was that all about?” he asked.
Binyamin did not know who he was asking, so he remained silent.
“Who’s he running away from?”
Binyamin shook his head. What did you do to me, Zelig? Do you really expect me to stay quiet now? That’s a terrible option. Or do you expect me to be the one to tell your father everything? That’s an even worse option than the first one.
Mr. Shikovitzer was quiet for a few long moments “I don’t hear anything,” he said, after the heavy silence. Even their spoons were not clinking in their bowls. “What scared him so much? Do you hear anything?”
Binyamin shook his head in the negative.
“Still,” Shikovitzer said as he glanced at the empty window, “even if he can persuade me that he wasn’t here, he won’t be able to persuade Mahmoud, who met you outside.”
“You can tell them that he came, but that he left a while ago.” Binyamin could barely get the words out.
“Them?” Shikovitzer’s deep eyes did not leave Binyamin’s face. “Who?”
“Whoever he meant,” Binyamin whispered.
“Let’s be quiet now,” Shikovitzer said, suddenly becoming very practical. “Eat the soup, Binyamin, eat. What’s the matter—it’s not spiced enough?”
Anything I’ll eat now will taste like mud, Binyamin wanted to say. Instead, he stirred his soup some more, and smiled wanly at the worried man. “It’s excellent,” he said finally.
“Good, I’m happy.” Shikovitzer straightened up in his chair and dipped his spoon into his own bowl. “So how’s your younger brother, Binyamin? Is he also going to learn in Chevron?”
“He…” Binyamin wasn’t sure what to say. They’d already had this conversation, just a few minutes ago! “He’s still too young. But maybe he’ll follow me some time in the future.”
“Good, I’m happy for your parents,” Zelig’s father said. His voice sounded a bit funny. But Binyamin could not dwell on trying to figure out what was unusual, because by now they both heard the English voices from the yard, mingling with the neighing of the horses.
They glanced at each other for a quick second, and then the older man stood up and walked to the doorway.
“Mahmoud’s dealing with them,” Binyamin said quietly.
“What?” Mr. Shikovitzer stopped.
“Mahmoud is talking to them. And it won’t look good if you suddenly go out to them. It will look too…defensive.”
“You’re right,” Shikovitzer said, and returned to his seat. His face was gray, and Binyamin couldn’t bring himself to look at the older man. Instead, he forced himself to sip his soup until the bowl was finished.
“Hey, Yitzchak!” Mahmoud’s voice wafted in from the yard.
“What?” Shikovitzer shouted back, standing up again. Binyamin watched him turn to the door.
“This officer wants to fix the wheel on his carriage. Something on his horse’s hoof isn’t good either!”
“Oh, so they just came to get some service,” Binyamin murmured.
Shikovitzer turned to him. “I’m not so sure,” he murmured back. He quickly stepped out of the house.
Binyamin remained at the table, wondering if he should leave now. Perhaps not; any extra movement could attract unneeded attention. He pushed aside his empty bowl and swayed back and forth in his chair, a habit he’d had since age five, which he’d never been able to kick. The oven was steaming, and he could see reddish pieces of iron inside it. Would they not get too burned? He stood up and grabbed the large wooden tongs, which were blackened from years of fire. Should he take the iron pieces out? If he understood correctly, it was a carriage shaft in the oven. Zelig’s father had been an expert blacksmith back in Europe, and fortunately, his skills were no less in demand in this small, hot land where they now lived.
The already dim room suddenly darkened even more. Binyamin turned to the doorway, tongs in hand, and saw what was blocking the light: Mr. Shikovitzer and four British soldiers. One of them looked to be of a higher rank than the others.
All eyes were on Binyamin.
“Who is this?” the high-ranking officer asked, pointing to Binyamin.
“A neighbor’s son,” Zelig’s father replied. “He sometimes helps me. No, Binyamin, don’t take it out yet!” The officer murmured something in English, and one of the soldiers replied; he seemed to be translating the exchange.
“Alright,” the boy said, and dropped the tongs.
The Brits entered with their trademark arrogant strides. Without a word, they stood in a row in front of Binyamin. Only the high-ranking officer sat down; he took the chair Mr. Shikovitzer had vacated just a few minutes before. “Your name!” he barked.
The officer murmured something to the other soldiers, and one of them took over the questioning. “Where do you live?”
“On Salah-a-Din Street.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I came to visit my neighbor.”
“Were you born in Palestine?”
“No, in Russia.”
The soldier turned to Shikovitzer. “You as well?”
“Did you know each other from there?”
“No,” Binyamin and Shikovitzer said together. The officer said something in English, and the soldier studied the man and the boy.
“Come here,” he said. They both approached, and the soldiers stared at them closely. Then they exchanged a few words in English.
“Make sure that horseshoe and the wheel are ready quickly, very quickly!” the soldier finally barked. Without another word, the four marched back out to the yard.
“He’s a Jew,” Shikovitzer said thoughtfully, looking toward the doorway through which the men had disappeared.
“Who, the soldier who was doing the translating?”
“Yes. On Yom Kippur he came into my shul for a few minutes for Yizkor.” Then he shook his head. “Go home, Binyamin,” he said somberly. “If they are looking for Zelig, it’s not a good idea for suspicion to fall on you instead of him. And I’ll be glad to see you at Minchah by us. Where did you daven Shacharis?”
“In the Ramchal shul.” Binyamin smiled and stood up obediently. “I missed it.”
“Um….” Shikovitzer suddenly stopped him. “Can I send you on a small errand? Normally I wouldn’t want to use a talmid chucham, but this might be pikuach nefesh.”
“Just check if Zelig is at Wanunu, his employer. Whether he is or isn’t there, leave a message in my name that he should not come home this evening, or to here. Let him find somewhere else to stay until morning, just to be safe.”