Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 34 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.
Sarah Reiness wound down a long and amusing phone call with her younger sister, during which she’d heard about the latest developments in the fledgling community. A playgroup had opened in one of the houses (with four children) and that had made it much easier for Bassy; the phone lines that had made lots of trouble over the last two weeks had been fixed; the residents had gotten a permit to construct a drainage system after the last two houses on the slope had flooded; and Gadi continued to dream about foxes, but sufficed with all the abandoned and injured birds that he found. And he had a knack for finding them.
She put the cordless phone into the base and walked into the small dining room, deliberating whether to pick up with the oil painting she had started or to cook lunch for tomorrow, her weekly day at the clinic in Haifa.
She found Elazar standing near the back window, his elbows leaning on the sill.
“Didn’t you tell me that you can’t see the lot from here?” she said as she walked toward the table where her started painting and the oil paint set sat.
“I’m not trying to see the lot,” he replied. His voice was strained.
“So what are you trying to do?”
“I’m trying to think.”
She didn’t ask what about; there was no need. In recent weeks, his thoughts had been racing constantly, all on the same subject. The only time he left everything behind was when he was with his students. Sarah admired his ability to do that; she was not the type who could push major worries into the corner of her mind.
“Can I help with anything?”
He pressed his fingers to his forehead. “I just got off the phone with Menashe Karni.”
“Yes, the mediator. He’s supposed to be tops in mediating between Jews and Arabs. He grew up in the north and is very familiar with the Arab mindset.”
“Yes, yes, I remember all that. But we spoke about this ages ago, like last year.”
“Right, and he and I made up to speak again when the date draws nearer. There are less than three months left.”
She put the painting down on the floor, on the side. It wasn’t the time for it now.
“I called him earlier, as we made up, and he heard the story briefly again, and even went to check the copies of the documents I’d sent him ten months ago.”
“Then he asked me a few questions, and asked me to write them down, so that I can come to the meeting with the answers, or at least with a direction for a plan of action.”
“Nu, so do you have the answers?”
“In principle, I’ve always had answers; you know how many times I’ve turned over this issue and thought about plans of action. But when it’s all suddenly looming so close, and I start to think about the details, one by one, I realize how complex it all really is.”
“You never thought it would be simple.” Sarah stood near her husband, the closed set of oil paints still in her hand. “Is he trying to make things look even gloomier for you, just for the fun of it or something?”
“No. But he’s a very reasonable person, and like I told you, he knows the Arab head and how they think.”
“Your father, alav hashalom, also knew them well. And so did the other man, Shikovitzer. And still, they drafted this agreement.”
“That’s right. It was a ‘no choice’ kind of agreement.”
His wife sat down at the table. “Maybe tell me the questions that you feel so anxious about.”
He closed the shutters. “First question, to what extent am I protecting the back room right now? Second question, how do I plan to bring the Al Almi family here? Third question, who of them is authorized to discuss the subject with me? And fourth, what do I plan to offer them as an alternative?”
“As an alternative?! Why do they deserve an alternative? The land belonged to Shikovitzer, alav hashalom!”
“Do you really expect them to be honest in these matters, Sarah?”
“Fine, so if it’s impossible to expect anything, then there’s no chance for anything to work out. I realize that also from the first question.”
“Yes. He claims that if they are the ones behind all the offers to buy, then they know the importance of the room in this whole story.”
“It was clear to you, wasn’t it?”
“Right. But I never thought they’d resort to actually damaging the site. I wanted the room for the future meeting, and I was happy that this house met the needs of my boys. And who knows if the fact that I came here did not arouse all the sleeping bears.” He paced the room nervously, crossing from right to left and left to right, from the front door to the kitchen door and then back.
Sarah opened the blue paint and sniffed it; then she gently screwed the cover closed. She raised her eyes to her husband. “Will it help if I remind you that you didn’t come here on a momentary whim? That it happened after lots of deliberations over more than five years, and consultations with rabbanim and, l’havdil, professionals? That there are numerous brachos and tefillos of great people standing behind you?”
He was quiet for a long moment. “It helps,” he said. “Of course it helps. But I need to come up with good answers for Karni, not because I feel like an irresponsible student in front of his teacher, but because these questions are really significant.”
“I’m ready to help you remember the answers, because as you already said, you thought about this for so long, and so many times, even if you didn’t work out every single detail. The main thing is that you can’t let the professional, polished Mr. Karni pressure you.”
“Maybe that’s his job right now.” Elazar smiled. And even though it was a slightly bitter smile, she was happy to see it.
“So my job right now is to calm you down.”
Elazar continued smiling, even when he opened his little notebook again. “Wait, I didn’t finish detailing everything yet.”
“When is the meeting?”
“Fine. When a teacher gives so much homework in one day, you can push some of it off for another day.” She smiled too, as the image of Ella Rothman, her charming new client, rose in her mind.
Ariella finished davening Shacharis and climbed back into bad, curling up under the feather quilt. After a sleepless night, she was seeing double—unsurprisingly.
It was raining outside and she realized that if it would be stormy and wet today, she wouldn’t have where to go. She’d just go for a short outing to buy some food for Shabbos, and that was it. True, the house was comfortable, and the fact that she was not bothering anyone was the most attractive part for her. But there was a heaviness here, and it was kind of burdensome. She didn’t know what it was; it definitely wasn’t the fact that it was an “older person’s” home, because Aliza was actually very active for her age and sometimes even talked a bit too much for Ariella’s taste. Before Ariella had come to live here, Aliza had given the impression of being an interesting, wise, pleasant woman, but now Ariella wasn’t always so sure she appreciated Aliza’s personality. In any case, since she’d come here, Ariella had been spending a lot of time outside.
What would she do for a whole day in the house? Sit with Aliza and learn some more jewelry-making? Wonderful. But how much of that could she do?
Ariella turned over to the other side, leaving the large glass window with its view of the cloudy, gray, early morning sky behind. She was usually still sleeping at this hour, and when she got up at around eight, Aliza was already puttering around and humming to herself. She usually made a large omelet for herself (Ariella had once counted six eggshells on the counter) and invited Ariella to join her for breakfast, as if she didn’t yet know that her guest would politely decline and that she’d have to consume the huge omelet herself.
Ariella raised her head. No, the smell wafting into her locked room now was not of frying eggs; it was something else. More scented…elusive…something that was evocative of strong blossoming and maybe other things too…
Ariella tried to fall asleep, thinking about the omelet that would not be offered to her this morning, because she planned to get up at ten or eleven. But the scent grew stronger, and she turned over to the window with a sigh and opened it. The smell was cloyingly sweet, heavy and choking. What was it? Was Aliza frying flower omelets for Shabbos or something?!
Fresh air blew into the room and neutralized the sickly sweet smell a bit, but it also made the room freezing. Ariella tried to fall asleep again, but now the quilt wasn’t enough; she was shivering.
She suddenly sat up and rubbed her eyes. She was tired; so what? If she would have had a baby who had been up shrieking all night, it would have made no difference how tired she was the next morning. She would have had to get up anyway to send the baby’s older siblings to school. Or to go to work. Or to prepare breakfast for her husband. Or to make Shabbos. After all, it was Friday today.
So she’d get up now and go out, and she’d tell Aliza that the smell was bothering her.
When she opened the door, she almost bumped into the older woman, who was standing next to the large flower stand in the corner of the hallway. The plant itself was resting on the floor on the side, and in its place there were four orange candles burning on the metal stand, with high, elegant flames.
Ariella gaped. “What is this?” she asked.
Aliza turned. For a moment, she appeared uneasy, as if she’d been caught doing something wrong. But a fraction of a second later, a broad smile crossed her face. “Wonderful!” she exclaimed, clasping her palms together, and at that moment, Ariella thought of a witch. “I see that you came at exactly the right minute. Come here, bend over and take a deep breath; this way it will be even better than I thought. Breathe in all the special power that is here in the air. Do you see the burning candles? Do you notice the big change all around? It’s for you, it’s just for you.” She reached for Ariella’s hand. “Come, come,” she urged. “You won’t regret it. It’s for your soul, it’s directed to your soul, it’s for the change that you need.”
Ariella took a step backward, shaking off the other woman’s hand in a distinctly rude manner. “What are these candles?” she asked. For her soul! This didn’t sound good. Apparently Aliza had really taken the situation of her boarder to heart, but what she was doing did not smell right. Or rather, it smelled too much. “Since when do we light orange neshamah candles?” she asked, almost aggressively. “Is this in memory of someone or something?”
“Not neshamah candles,” the woman said in a low, almost resonant voice. “Not at all. It emits powers. The light, the smoke, the fire… Don’t be ashamed, say that you feel it. Do you realize how it is going into you? Do you see the change coming closer? The power of the wondrous universe reaching you?”
Ariella went back into her room. “Sorry, Aliza, I’m really tired,” she called over her shoulder, impressed with how matter-of-fact she sounded. “I think I’ll go take a little nap, and that will give me strength, b’ezras Hashem. But the smell of those candles is bothering me. Can you please take them away from here?”
“Take them away?” Aliza stared after her.
“I don’t mind if you put them out, if you want,” Ariella said. After a pause, she added, “Please.”
“What do you mean, put them out?” Aliza picked up one candle and brought it close to her face. “Do you want to extinguish the force of the universe?”
Ariella stared back at the woman for a long moment, and then closed the door to her room and locked it. She stood and gaped at the open window. She could decide from today till tomorrow that she never wanted to label people, but when people behaved in delusional, strange ways, they were labeling themselves. This Aliza was strange; that much was clear.
Or perhaps she was demented? What if she let the whole house go up in flames with her candles?
But she’s not that old, and until now, she did make a normal impression, even if she’s not run-of–the-mill… Ariella countered to herself.
The strangeness was picking up speed.
Ariella pulled the key out of the door and bent down to peek through the keyhole. The woman was still standing there, leaning on the wall with a strange, crooked smile on her lips.
Alright, so she was a woman with superstitions. So what?