Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 31 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.
Back to the Present, 2015
“I moved to a new place yesterday,” Ariella commented, returning her chair to its place, her session having just ended. She knew she was Sarah’s last client for the day, but for some reason the therapist remained seated. Ariella could not decide if she was looking at her directly, or half an inch above her. But the gaze was interested and warm—not pressuring.
“I’m hoping that that means new mazel,” she continued. She didn’t mean “mazel tov” when she said that, but the thought flashed through her mind that she could think of at least three women who would be sure that that was what she’d meant. It was all well-intentioned, she knew. Still, she liked Sarah’s type of intentions better: the latter merely nodded.
When the silence lingered, Sarah asked, in her American accent, “How is this new place?”
“Baruch Hashem, it’s very nice. She’s a widow, sixty-five years old, who rents out rooms. I actually thought she was younger at first.”
“And she’s nice to you?” Sarah smiled.
“Yes, she really seems lovely. She’s quiet, not intimidating. We haven’t really gotten too acquainted with each other, because I spent most of the time in my room, but from our brief encounter she seems fine.”
“What about food?”
“Look, she dresses modestly and covers her hair. There are mezuzos in the house. Besides for that? I don’t know exactly. I certainly can’t trust her kashrus level blindly. Actually…” Ariella smiled. “When I first came, she gave me a slice of cake and told me it’s kosher; that she’d bought all the ingredients in the supermarket, so she knows it’s one hundred percent kosher.”
“So what did you do?”
“I explained gently that I adhere to very strict standards of kashrus, and that I need to see the ingredients of everything that I eat first, to see what it’s made of. Or I need to see the kashrus symbol, if the food is bought.”
“Was she offended?”
“I don’t think so.” Ariella shook her head. “She just kept smiling like before. And she explained to me at length about the electricity and water and phone line in the house, and anything else I might want to use.”
“I’m sure you’re a good tenant.”
“I think I am.” Ariella tossed her paper cup into the small trash can and headed for the door. “All I want is some quiet.”
“Quiet is very important.” Sarah finally rose and switched off the light in the room.
“Yes. It gives me the chance to think a little about myself and my life…”
“Is that why you came here?”
“One of the reasons.” She was standing in the hallway now. “I have another purpose. But when I’m here, I see how the quiet that I was looking for is so integral, and perhaps even more significant, to my decision to come here.”
“So let’s go; I’m in favor of strengthening the Acco community! Should I find out if anyone is looking for a kindergarten teacher or something?”
“Oh, no!” Ariella recoiled for a moment, but then noticed the teasing smile.
“In any case, you’re not a preschool teacher, right?”
“No. Although I did take pedagogy. Um…,” she rubbed her ear, “about five years ago. Whoa, it feels like so much longer!” She blinked. “That’s how it is when the years are full, no?”
“The older we get, the fuller the years become, and time passes quicker.” Sarah also stepped out. “You’ll see.”
“Right now my life is not so full.” Ariella’s words sounded heavy, and somewhat tired. “I just took a bit of a break.”
“You’re allowed to go out to recess,” the speech therapist said encouragingly. “But you need to make sure that eventually the bell will ring, if you know what I mean.”
“I don’t mind right now if it doesn’t ring,” Ariella said. “It actually works for me now to be in this older woman’s house, much better than where I was before that. The house itself is new, but all the furniture and stuff is old; lots of antique pictures on the wall…I feel like I fit in beautifully with the ambiance.”
“Oh! I personally love antique things, and I’ve got a number of pieces of furniture in Retro style. But I’m sorry to tell you that you really don’t look suited for my collection.” She looked at Ariella and shook her head. “No, no, and no.”
“I guess it’s something more internal.”
“That too, based on my impressions of you, is not very old and dusty.”
“Alright.” Ariella smiled in apparent resignation. “It’s just the way I feel, I guess.”
“Well, you can’t argue with emotions—that’s for sure. So, you say that you like this new place.”
“Yes, very much so.”
“And besides for the lovely antique décor there, is there anything else about it that you like?”
“Um…actually, yes. I saw the landlady busy stringing all kinds of crystal beads on threads, and that is something that has always interested me. I stood and watched her for a few minutes. She didn’t say anything about it—just smiled and motioned for me to come sit next to her. But I couldn’t, because it was just now, before our session.”
“Stringing crystal beads? Nice!” Sarah nodded a goodbye to the secretary. “I have a sister who does that as a hobby. Not that she has much time now for hobbies and jewelry, with her house full of little kids bli ayin hara, but in the past she took an official course to learn how to do it professionally, for parnassah.”
“And she works in that field now?”
“Now? Now she works full-time running her house, baruch Hashem.”
“Actually, she lives today on a small developing settlement not that far from here, in the middle of a green forest. It’s a clean, natural type of place, in the middle of nowhere, with a stream flowing a few yards from their house. They have electricity from some rickety generator that serves all the residents—about twelve families or so. There’s water from a tank that her husband put on the roof, and believe me, it would be just like her to go out and draw water every day at five in the morning. She loves this kind of thing.”
“Wow. It sounds like a fascinating life… Where do her kids go to school?”
“Don’t think that they are this eccentric, disconnected family. Not at all. Her husband is in a serious kollel in Tzefas, and the children go to school there. She and the little ones are home all day. She’s a wonderful mother, and a terrific educator. Last time we spoke, she told me she’s planning to buy a goat so she can learn to make goat milk products—goat milk is supposedly easier to digest than cow’s milk. I haven’t decided yet if she’s serious or joking, but regardless, she’s a very industrious type, don’t you think?”
“The opposite of me. But it’s alright. Sisters are allowed to be different.”
“Right,” Ariella said, thinking about her younger sisters’ personalities. They were so different from each other, and from her. “What’s the age difference between you?”
“More than twenty years, so our different personalities never really bothered me much. I’m the oldest, then there are four boys, and she was the bas zekunim. But let’s go back to you, Ella. Can I give you some homework?”
“You can try.” Ariella smiled. “As a girl, I often forgot to do my homework. Let’s see how much I’ve improved on that front.”
“So I’m giving you a challenge question—actually, two of them. You have to answer one. If you answer them both, you get a higher grade.”
“On the report card also? I thought our lesson was over, Morah.”
“No matter. The homework has two questions; try to think of an answer to at least one of them.”
“Okay. What’s the first question?”
“Find another connection between you and your new landlady. Besides for the fact that you feel like you are almost her age. Maybe it is the jewelry making, which you might convince her to teach you. Or anything else, as long as it is a connection that evokes good feelings in you.”
“So our mutual widowhood is not a good answer.”
“Not at all.”
“I see. Second question?”
“Try to pinpoint when you become particularly hoarse. Does it happen when you speak and are hiding something, or when there’s a subject that causes you tension, pressure, fear, or yearning? From time to time, you become extremely hoarse during conversation—you probably noticed that.”
“Hiding?” Ariella looked at her, eyes wide in surprise. “What do I have to hide?”
“It was just one suggestion from a list of emotions and circumstances that I listed.”
“Fine.” Ariella drew out the word. “And I should note that this assignment seems like a more appropriate one from a speech therapist. The first one seems like it would be given by a psychotherapist or something.”
“Or just a speech therapist who likes her clients and takes an interest in their lives.”
“To help them?”
“Only to help them.”
“Fine, I’ll think about both of the questions.” They were heading in the same direction, yet Ariella turned to the bus stop going in the other direction. “And thanks a lot.”
Had Sarah realized that she was escaping now? Yes, it was true that “hiding something” was only one of a list of possibilities that the speech therapist had listed, but …had Osher said something about his oldest sister? Her life? Did Sarah connect Ella Rothman, her new, complex client, to Osher’s Ariella?
I sat on the beach, looking straight ahead. I don’t know why it always happens to me, but I think that in every place I’m in, I’m the one who doesn’t get along with others. They don’t understand me; I don’t understand them. I don’t know what to do about it.
Today I got annoyed at Shlomo, and I screamed at him in front of everyone, and he shouted back at me. I don’t even remember what he said, I just remember that everyone laughed, and I left, feeling worse than I’d felt in a long time. I don’t know, maybe I’m autistic; I once read a book about autistic kids. But I had so many evaluations when I was a kid, they surely would have discovered if I suffer from something like that, no?
Not every person receives every gift in the world, my mother once told me. She wanted to make me feel better about not receiving the gift that Ariella has—that she’s able to get along with everyone she meets in life. I didn’t say anything to Ima at the time, but I did try to think to myself about which gift I did receive. I mean, I’m terrible at listening, it’s hard for me to understand things because I can’t concentrate, and I don’t get along with people. So what’s left? And what’s going to be with me? Am I going to become a street sweeper? I probably won’t be able to do that either, and the one in charge of the municipal sanitation department will just end up getting annoyed at me.
The truth is, recently I’ve been doing very well with the Mishnah shiurim; even Reb Elazar says so. He claims that the air of Acco must be doing good for my ability to concentrate. Could be. It certainly isn’t helping my problems with my peers, though. Maybe it’s because I’m the youngest one here, but I don’t think it’s only that. Even when I learned in a regular class, I had problems with my classmates. In Daas Torah, there was a time when I got along, more or less, with the others, but it ended pretty fast. That’s me—I always get myself in trouble.
The wind was strong, and there wasn’t a single boat in the water. The water came up to me and then retreated, over and over again, growing steadily more turbulent by the minute. I moved back a little, because the sand I was sitting on began to get wet, as did my shoes.
Behind the place where I was sitting was a small, red and blue boat. It did not appear to be tied down, and I saw that the wind was moving it. I got up and walked a little closer to double check that it wasn’t tied down somewhere—but it really did not seem to be. It was just resting there. Lots of amateur fishermen leave their boats overturned on the sand, I knew; that’s probably what had happened here.
I deliberated about what to do. I didn’t know if what was happening now was high tide, because I don’t really understand much about geographical terms, but it was clear that in a few more minutes, the place where I was standing now would also be covered in water. And a few minutes after that, this boat would be swept out to the sea. Wasn’t it a shame? Poor fisherman who would lose his boat. True, it was irresponsible of him to leave it this way, but I hate when irresponsible people are left to “learn their lesson” instead of being spared before the unpleasant lesson arrives.
The waves crested higher, and I grabbed the nose of the boat and began to drag it back, further from the water line. It was very heavy and seemed to be embedded into the sand. I was able to move it just a few inches, and even that was a huge effort. Maybe my bitten leg was still weak.
“Hey, boy!” someone said behind me. I turned. A man stood behind the fence, smoking a cigarette, and he smiled at me. “Nice that you’re trying to steal that boat.”
I looked at him, confused. “Steal? I’m not trying to steal it. I’m trying to save it before the water sweeps it out to sea.”
“Oh, I was joking,” he said. “But it’s fine—it’s tied down.”
“Where is it tied?” I was puzzled.
“It’s resting upside down on a small pole that it’s tied to. There are a few of those poles along the beach here; you didn’t realize that?”
I looked at him and then at the boat. If it was tied to a pole underneath it, then how was I supposed to know it was tied down? Maybe it was something I was just supposed to know, especially after seeing that I could not drag the not-very-big boat. I don’t know, sometimes I have no idea what I’m “just supposed to know” and what not…
“What’s your name?” the man asked as he pulled the cigarette out of his mouth.
“Nice name. And I really appreciate that you tried to save my boat.”
“Oh, it’s yours?”
“Yes.” He stuck out his hand over the gate for a shake. I looked at him with a half-smile; first he called me a boy, then he accused me of stealing—it didn’t matter if he was joking or not—and now he thought we were going to shake hands like two adults? Come on, really.
The water was already lapping at the boat and at my feet, and I took a few more steps back. I knew that I had to get back to the Reinesses’ soon, because based on the way the sea looked now, very soon all the sand would be wet, till the fence. And if the waves would continue to be very turbulent, the water might also spray the sidewalk on the other side. I’d already seen that happen, one evening last week.
I recognized Reb Elazar’s voice from behind me, and I also discerned the anger in it. I didn’t turn my head. I just slowly walked to the left, ignoring both the man still standing by the fence and Reb Elazar. Tuning everything else out, I focused instead on the water ahead of me, as if it was the most interesting thing I had ever seen in my life.
That’s how I am. When things aren’t good, I run away.
I glanced down at the footprints my shoes had made in the sand. It was nice of Reb Elazar to come and make sure I hadn’t drowned, and it was nice of his students to tell him that I’d gone; I assumed that’s what had happened. But I was sick and tired of all these people already. Too bad there wasn’t a deserted island in the middle of the sea that I could escape to every time I messed up…
My leg suddenly bumped into something hard. I thought maybe it was a big stone that I could throw into the water. You read all the time descriptions of irritated people standing in front of the empty sea and tossing stones into it, to defuse their stormy emotions and all that. But when I picked up the object, wanting to toss it into the sea, I saw that it was just a dirty, black piece of wood that had been covered almost completely by sand. Underneath it, there seemed to be a drawing or letters of some sort. I blew on the sand, but because it had already gotten wet and dried off a few times, the sand hardly moved off it. I didn’t look at Reb Elazar, who I could sense was getting closer to me. I just stood there and scraped at the piece of wood with my nails until I saw the letters etched into it.
And all at once, I remembered them, the words that I myself had etched in the first week I had come here.
Black sheep that I was.