Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 33 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 small nightlight cast a soft, yellow glow, but the floor of the room was completely black in the darkness. It was impossible to see the interesting pattern of the tiles. Ariella ignored the dark; she’d never been particularly afraid of it. On the contrary, it helped her conjure up lots of magical ideas, interesting thoughts, and countless imaginary scenes. She tossed her soft slippers into a corner of the room and walked barefoot on the floor, creating a figure eight as she walked around the rectangular room. Numerous studies showed that doing so helped with a lot of things—she’d read that once.
On a chair near the bed was the necklace she had created under Aliza’s tutelage. She couldn’t see it clearly, but its large green stones reflected some of the yellow rays of the nightlight, and it glowed in a strange, greenish light.
The stones were strange; she didn’t think she’d ever wear this necklace, even if it would match one of her outfits. But Aliza hadn’t let her choose. Besides, there hadn’t really been anything better to choose from. Aliza’s stones were mostly quite large, colorful, lumpy, or in colors that were too bold for Ariella’s taste.
She was happy here. Yes. The freedom was refreshing, and it was helping her air out; it eased the weight that had been resting on her shoulders in recent months. Sometimes, she felt like she didn’t know what she wanted anymore, but it was Aliza who had caused her to actually put things out on the table, between her stones and threads and beads. That had been good.
Eight. And another eight. And another one. How many times had she walked in a figure eight? Eleven?
Eleven strange green stones in a strange-looking necklace. And a strange woman. Pitiable and strange.
Ariella froze in the middle of her twelfth eight. Pitiable. Strange. No, she would not bring those words here, too. Not now! Not in the middle of the night!
But the words had already filled her up, and she submitted herself to them, frozen at the crossover point in the middle of the figure eight…
The room then resembled this one, in some ways. There was also a rather high bed, like there was here, and underneath it was a folding high-riser bed. It was a comfortable bed, as she’d found in the few times since her wedding that she’d slept in it.
But then, she hadn’t been sitting on the bed. She was sitting on the low chair, across from it, and a row of women sat on the bed, or on plastic chairs along the walls.
“He was an angel,” Nosson’s mother kept repeating, shedding tears. “An angel. I have no other way to put it.”
Ariella herself hadn’t said a word. Actually, on the first day she had spoken a bit, and on the second day too. But by the third day, she’d felt like she just couldn’t anymore. The words were distant from her, and that choked feeling in her throat didn’t let her utter even a sound.
Brachi, Nosson’s five-year-old sister, had been sitting on the floor next to her, playing with a ruler with shapes that someone had given her as a gift.
“Look,” she’d said suddenly. “If we make a square, and a triangle on top of it, and small rectangles inside, it could be a house, right?”
Ariella had stared at her for a moment, and then nodded, with effort. Her own mother wasn’t there right then. She had been at the Rothman home for the first three days of the shivah, from morning until late at night. But before Ima had returned to Bnei Brak the night before, Ariella had asked her not to exert herself the next day. Her mother had tried to argue—“What do you mean? It’s my place to be at your side now…”— but she truly had been drained. She did ask Ariella to promise that if she felt she needed her, she would call and not be embarrassed to say so.
But even if Ariella would have wanted to call her mother now, she would not have been able to utter a word on the phone. So she’d sat silently and listened to the others talk, her eyes traveling along the walls and the ceiling.
“He was such a good boy…” Now Nosson’s elderly grandmother was speaking. “He always helped me during bein hazemanim. He went shopping for me, washed my kitchen floor on Friday… He would also organize my sewing box and my medicine chest. I’m sure he helped you at home, too, Ariella.”
“Ariella’s a wonderful balabusta herself.” Her mother-in-law had looked at her with her red eyes. “I’m sure she didn’t need his help… But he really did help everyone, wherever possible.”
“We all remember the way he helped out that family on the first floor,” one of the neighbors interjected. “It wasn’t something you could forget, Yehudis. And his easygoing nature…and his smile…”
“A gift for twenty-two years,” Nosson’s mother said, nearly inaudibly. “Ariella, you got him for such a short time…but it was surely enough for you to feel that it was a real zechus.”
Ariella had looked at the ceiling wide-eyed and nodded.
Again Brachi had tugged at her arm. “Look, it really came out like a house, you see? Except that there’s a space between the triangle and the square of the house. In a regular house there’s no space between the walls and the ceiling.”
And if there was sometimes space? Not just space, but a huge, gaping difference between the ground-based walls, stuck into the earth, and the roof that rose, its top reaching the heavens?
She was well aware of the fact that her husband was an angel. She had felt it from the first minute she’d met him. Maybe, if they would have had more time together, she would have also seen his more grounded facets. But in the beginning, everything is always so beautiful and refined, and there didn’t seem to be any less glowing sides to Nosson to even try to hide.
Like she had.
She wondered what would have happened if she would have been the one sitting on the bus for that trip, and he would have been sitting shivah for her now. First of all, no one would have said she was an angel. Sure, there were lots of good things to say about her, especially if someone was looking to say them. But people wouldn’t have said the same accolades about her that they were saying about Nosson—and definitely not the neighbors.
As for Nosson himself…she wondered what he would have thought.
Would he have remembered the mountain of dishes that he would wash very quickly, with a smile, half an hour before Shabbos?
The laundry that he sometimes hung, because if not, it would have stayed in the machine for two and a half days, and likely gotten moldy?
He had only nice things to say to and about her, of course. A woman is not only her home and her dishes and laundry and floors. But sometimes, Ariella felt, those matters take up so much space that they overshadow all of a woman’s other virtues.
She rose. She could not continue sitting there. She was no angel, so what could she do if sitting for too long was just not for her? How had she sat like that, unmoving, for the past three days? That was the surprise. Apparently, electric shocks work much better than all those prescription medications.
“Come, Brachi, let’s go to the kitchen,” she whispered. Suddenly, she was able to muster up her voice from somewhere. “I’ll show you how to put the ruler on a piece of paper so that the walls and roof should be connected.” And meanwhile, I’ll also take my little pill; I didn’t think I’d need it this morning, but I do, and how.
“Be back in a minute,” she murmured to her mother-in-law, and with Brachi’s hand tucked into her own, she made her way out of the crowded room. Words hovered there like flies, buzzing and floating and bothering her even if she didn’t understand them all. It was just like fifteen years earlier, when, if there’d been a whisper from a friend on the other side of the classroom, it would completely eradicate her calm state and concentration.
In the kitchen, she found a small blue stool and put it near the counter, but not before she’d taken the little package out of her bag; her mother had hastily packed it four days earlier. Brachi didn’t notice; her eyes were fixed on her paper.
Ariella made a brachah on a cup of water and drank. The water still made her feel like she was choking, like every other liquid she had tried to swallow these past few days.
She sat down on the little stool. “Brachi,” she whispered, and gently tugged the ruler out of her sister-in-law’s little hands. “Brachi, do you remember Nosson?”
“Of course!” She looked at her older sister-in-law with injured eyes. “Just two weeks ago you came to us, and then the accident happened! We davened for him in gan the whole time, you know?”
“And do you remember him before he got married?”
“Of course!” the girl replied again. “You had a wedding, and I wore a puffy light blue gown, and I had pretty diamonds in my hair…”
“Do you remember Nosson from before our wedding? When he was a bachur?”
“Yes, of course,” Brachi replied. But this time, her ‘of course’ was more hesitant, and she bent her head back over to her page of sketches.
“Was he always so…good?”
Brachi looked confused for a moment. Then she said, “He picked me up from my morah a lot of times when he came home from yeshivah, and he said that even though he was going to learn Torah, at night, when he went to sleep, he sometimes thought about me and davened that I should do well by Morah.”
“And sometimes,” Ariella lowered her voice, “did it ever happen…that he wasn’t so good? That he didn’t behave so nicely? That Abba and Ima… maybe got a little bit angry at him?”
The child pulled the ruler back. “Dunno,” she said, as she stuck the pen into the square in the ruler. “I don’t think so. He always listened to Abba and Ima. Not like Chezky—Abba sometimes gets angry at him when he goes late to daven and we can’t wake him up. But I think Nosson was always a tzaddik. That’s why Hashem wanted Nosson next to Him, you know? My teacher told that to all the girls in our class, the day after he was niftar!”
Ariella sat with her eyes closed. Silence gripped her on all sides.
“Ariella, are you feeling okay?” An unfamiliar voice spoke to her from the kitchen doorway. “Your mother-in-law asked me to check up on you. You looked pale when you left the room.”
Ariella raised her eyes for a minute, surprised to discover that she was curious to know who was speaking. A woman had to have a big heart, and some courage, to agree to do such a favor. She didn’t deserve to get a biting response, even if, in Ariella’s opinion, noting her paleness was quite foolish and unnecessary. I mean, what did they expect—for her to look pink-cheeked and fresh?
It wasn’t one of Nosson’s aunts, or one of the two neighbors who had come in on Friday night to meet her after her engagement. It was a total stranger, perhaps just a family friend or a Rothman relative whom she did not remember. “Thanks,” she whispered from her perch on the stool. “I…I’ll be alright, b’ezras Hashem.”
“We were just talking about Nosson,” Brachi piped up. “And Ariella asked me if Abba and Ima ever got angry at him because he didn’t listen to them, and if he ever didn’t behave like a good boy.”
The woman hadn’t actually murmured the words, “Pitiable…strange.” Ariella had convinced herself of that years ago. But whoever the woman was, she had certainly thought it: it was written all over her face.