Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 36 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.
Ariella sat on a bench in the local park on Sunday morning. It was completely deserted at this early hour. Right opposite her was the wall that had already become familiar, to the point of it being boring; behind her was an inviting grassy lawn. She didn’t move toward it. Instead, she sat on the bench like every other mature woman her age, and wondered if Rabbi Reiness would bring his boys here this morning. It hadn’t been this mild and sunny in quite a while.
She fingered the green necklace she’d made with Aliza last week. She had no idea why she’d pushed it into her pocketbook a minute before she’d left, as if these stones could shed some light on the very cloudy picture named Aliza.
She’d spent her Shabbos closed in her room, eating the food that she’d bought. It was actually just fine, not any worse than it had been the previous Shabbos in the Abramov home. Yet she felt like the four walls were choking her. Aliza had hardly been home, neither on Friday afternoon nor on Shabbos, and when she was home, there was no way to discern that it was Shabbos. Which traditional woman did not light Shabbos candles? It was quite bizarre: the woman covered her hair but didn’t light Shabbos candles?
And it wasn’t like there was a shortage of matches in the house or anything; Aliza had had plenty for her orange candles… Ariella’s lips twisted into a wry smile at the memory of that surreal incident. Now, a few days later, the whole thing seemed rather amusing to her. But when it had occurred, it had been most unpleasant.
So what should she do now? Start looking for a new place again?
Zahava had called last night, Motza’ei Shabbos, to ask her again about that shidduch, the widower with the child in her playgroup. She noted that Ariella sounded good, much better than she’d been sounding lately. Her little prelude was clearly meant to soften Ariella up, because immediately after that, she admitted that her mother-in-law was nudging her about the shidduch.
“And his son is so sweet,” she’d said. “You just saw a small part of him when you were here on Rosh Chodesh. He’s not only clever, Ariella, he’s also got a heart of gold, really!”
“I’m happy to hear that,” Ariella had responded flatly. “But do you think his father is the only widower in the world? The second-time-around market is full, unfortunately… But thanks for thinking of me.”
“And him,” Zahava had pointed out.
“Put it however you want,” Ariella had said with a chuckle. And in contrast to the last time Zahava had discussed the matter with her, she had not hurried to end the conversation and hang up the phone. Instead, she’d listened to the outpouring of words and praises with relative patience, and then she’d elegantly segued into a rapt description of the breathtaking scenery in Acco.
Ariella placed the necklace on the bench beside her, and straightened it into a long line. Perhaps she needed to rent a small studio apartment, just for herself. This way, she didn’t have to depend on the good will of others, and their overly congenial or inscrutable personalities. She could have a kitchen to herself, and all the privacy she wanted—really, everything that she had in her little home in Bnei Brak.
But if she was planning to actually settle here for a while, she’d have to think of a way to earn an income. It wasn’t fair to have her parents fund her stay here, especially as she’d already seen that the Reinesses were very fine people. Her parents were much calmer now, and Osher had even called them himself two or three times, so everything was actually good on that front, at least for the time being. The fact that she was not going back was her own personal choice. True, while she was here, she was trying to learn more about the Reinesses—but that did not mean that her parents had to support a daughter who had decided to abscond to Acco simply because she loved the distance and the placid nature of the place.
They’d always said that Osher was a lot like her.
Bassi went out to the ropes strung between two trees in her yard. Winter rays of sun cast bright circles on the exposed ground, but apparently they were not strong enough to dry the laundry. The clothes hanging on the line were still quite damp; only the socks at the edge were dry. Bassi took them off the line and tossed them into the basket, only to realize that very little space and very few clothespins had been freed up for the new load. A dryer might not be a bad solution, but just the thought of the static electricity on her hands when she emptied the dryer gave her the chills. All those dryer sheets—and she’d tried quite a few brands—were useless. Her dryer had stood idle for years, and she’d given it away before they’d moved.
But in her last apartment she’d had a sun-drenched porch, even in the winter. Here, in the shadow of the trees, the winter sun could barely penetrate. It was really because of the shade that they’d chosen to build their house here; without that shade, Aryeh had told her, they would be hot most days of the year.
She chose the items she needed most urgently, and crowded them onto the laundry line. The rest of the clothes would have to wait. She’d put some of them on the radiator in the dining room, and spread the rest over nearby chairs.
A short wail broke the silence, coming from the house. She hurried toward it. The baby was sleeping deeply; it must have been a cry in her sleep. Bassi smiled; if she would not have been familiar with this from her other children, she would have been sure it was some abandoned animal cub that Gadi had decided to adopt.
“Bassi?” Her neighbor Miriam was holding a full laundry basket in one arm, and waving out the window with the other.
“Hi, Miriam!” Bassi waved back. How are you?”
“Baruch Hashem, great. I just wanted to tell you that I got a delivery, so I’m restocked with sage. You asked me to tell you when I get some more.”
“Oh, right,” Bassy said, and then was quiet. She had read a lot about sage and its properties, and for a long time, she’d doggedly given Gadi teaspoon after teaspoon of the stuff. But what could she do if nothing compared to the miracles they were seeing as the result of the tiny pill that Gadi had begun to take each morning?
His appetite wasn’t great, that was true, but it had never been. So he was still short and very skinny, but now at least he could sit and learn, and in general just keep himself in line. It wasn’t that his character had been altered; there are some things that even pills can’t do. But the boy was starting to get used to new habits that no one would have believed he could possibly do.
So there were two large containers of sage in her closet; she’d stuffed them in there in a moment of frustration. (She’d probably forgotten about them when she’d asked Miriam for the stuff.) And she gritted her teeth each morning as she gave her son a non-natural, non-plant-based pill, because she knew that this was what she had to do.
Perhaps she should continue giving Gadi the sage, and she should give it to the other children also. The plant had many other positive qualities, aside for improving concentration. She needed to find that brochure Miriam had given to her, and to read it from beginning to end instead of focusing only on the parts that applied to Gadi. The ones that reminded her of herself.
Just then her phone rang. It was Aryeh. But why would he be calling her at this hour of the day?
“It’s Yisrael Meir,” he said, before she even had a chance to ask. “He fell in cheder. I’m on the way to the emergency room.”
Night came earlier than usual, even in this season. Or perhaps compared to the clear day, the cloudy night seemed gloomier and darker than usual. Ariella, who was leaning on the gate in her regular spot, glanced one last time at the two-story house with the lights in the windows. Since the boys had eaten supper in the carpentry shop, nothing interesting had happened. Most of them had gone out, as usual, and walked down the alleyway, apparently to a rented apartment where they slept. Osher was not among them. She had already realized, from previous evenings, that he and another boy—or two?—slept in the Reiness home.
It was very quiet on the small street. A window on the second floor lit up, and a shadow passed by. She wondered if it was Osher. The shadow suddenly returned and stopped right at the window.
Ariella took a deep breath. There was Osher, in the flesh, and if she was not mistaken, he was looking in her direction. He wasn’t focused on her, but if he would notice the figure leaning on the wall near the beach, and looking in the direction of the house…he might get suspicious. And might try to identify her. And possibly succeed.
She turned around calmly, gazing intently at the dark, agitated waves. Then she stood up straight and sauntered away. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw that he was still standing at the window, but she could not see if he was still looking in her direction.
A moment later she crossed the street and began to double back. Finally, she could see him, standing in one place, like in a storefront window, as if waiting for her to study him from head to toe and decide whether she needed to worry or not.
Right next to the Reinesses’ fence was an old aluminum hut, perhaps from the days of the Ottoman era. Ariella leaned on it; it partially concealed her from view. She looked her brother over carefully. He was wearing the same velvet yarmulke as he wore at home, the same glasses, and the same sweater that Ima had purchased for him last year. True, she could not discern the collar that was peeking out from the sweater, but it was pretty clear that it was a white, button-down, yeshivish-style shirt.
Unlike some of the other boys who had left the house earlier.
Wait, who was ironing his shirts for him?
She often used to do it. Actually, he also knew how to iron, and in any case, in the winter, when he wore a sweater, the ironing didn’t have to be a perfect job anyway. Still…
Osher moved suddenly. He leaned outward a bit, as if trying to get a better look at something specific. Ariella quickly turned her head to the side and again stared out at the sea. A moment later, attempting to appear natural, she retreated entirely behind the aluminum hut.
She kept close to the wall for a few long moments. Then, just as she was about to peek out cautiously to check if he was still there, she heard a familiar voice saying in the stillness, “I’m going downstairs for a minute to check something. I’ll be right back.”
Ariella did not wait for that minute to pass. She quickly slipped into the alleyway, walking briskly and quietly, ignoring the sounds coming from the Arab homes she was passing. This was not Aliza’s street; it ran parallel. But with her good sense of direction, hopefully she’d find a way back to her rented room without having to come face to face with Osher. She’d have to hurry, though, because he was faster than she was.
And if he would see her and get upset that she’d followed him, and would then disappear again, she would not be able to forgive herself.
She broke into a jog, and a loud guffaw from one of the houses—which was all adorned with colorful, blinking lights—galvanized her to move even faster. She reached the corner of the street, and remembered that she should make a left there. She took a deep breath and glanced quickly behind her. Aside for two Arab girls chatting with each other, the narrow street was empty.
At the next corner, she turned again, but she could not continue further: a wide metal gate suddenly opened right in front of her, almost slamming her in the forehead! She recoiled in shock, and almost gasped when she saw a number of people dressed from head to toe in black emerging from the courtyard behind the gate, speaking in hushed tones.
It was a guttural Arabic, which she recognized, despite the low tones.
And then she noticed someone else, even though it was only her profile.
She was the only one not completely dressed in black, and she was also the only one holding a glowing candle in her hands. An orange candle. She stood with the other women around her, murmuring something in Arabic. Her friends answered together in a singsong voice, and then fell silent. Again she said something, and again they answered her.
Sweat poured down Ariella’s face, despite the evening chill. She began to retreat, carefully, and then, after two steps, she turned on her heel and fled. I don’t care if I meet up with you, Osher. I don’t care if you know that I’ve been in Acco for a while already. I don’t care about any of it! Right now I just need to get away from this…this…this Arab witch?
Who are you, Aliza?
She got to a corner and stumbled into the street, as she continued running. Then she made a right. She would not make a mistake. She wouldn’t. She had a good sense of direction; everyone had always said so. She would find the right way. She would get to the house even before that creature would get there. She’d take her things and disappear.
Ariella didn’t know how, but she suddenly found herself in front of the right house. She took another deep breath and climbed the stairs, suspiciously glancing at the mezuzah on the doorpost. Where are you, key? Her fingers trembled as she rummaged in her bag, and it took her a long moment until they closed around the key. She stuck it into the keyhole, opened the door, and hurried into her room. First she slammed the door and locked it, and then she quickly began tossing all of her possessions onto the bed. She stuffed them haphazardly into her suitcase, in no particular order, while constantly looking around the room to make sure she hadn’t forgotten anything.
At the last minute, she pulled the green necklace out of her pocketbook, holding it with her fingertips, as if it was bewitched. She placed it into the drawer of the night table. Maybe it was bewitched. Perhaps Aliza belonged to some type of Arab cult. Maybe she was just a member of a group of eccentric people. But how was it possible? Aliza, who spoke a perfect Hebrew…the mezuzos…her overall views on things…
Although truthfully, Aliza didn’t really have so many views on things. And when Ariella thought about it, Aliza’s speech also had a foreign ring to it… And her clothes? There wasn’t anything necessarily Jewish or Arabic about them. She didn’t wear a hijab, but rather a strange kerchief that enveloped her completely, and a dress that reached the floor.
And the fact that she spoke Hebrew? Well, if she’d grown up here in Acco, there was no reason she shouldn’t know Hebrew.
Ariella closed the zipper of her suitcase and looked around one more time. There, it was all done. She would depart quietly and leave the payment on the table at the entrance, and the keys under the mat. In the hopes that Aliza, or whatever her real name was, was still out on the street, chanting in Arabic, waving her orange candle from side to side as she cast light into the darkness of the night.
Ariella smiled to herself as she opened the door of her room and stepped into the dark, silent house. Suddenly the old phone on the table near the door rang, its sharp peals shattering the quiet. It continued to ring and ring, while Ariella quickly counted out the bills and placed them on the table. Finally the ringing stopped, and she heard a long beep.
Then came a voice message:
“Aziza, Aziza, it’s a shame you are not picking up the phone, and you’re not paying attention to the messages I am leaving you.” A moment of silence, and then, “It’s Ya’ela Brinkler again, and I wanted to remind you that you haven’t paid your rent for three months already. I’m sorry I need to speak this way, but my husband says that if the payment is not made, we’ll have to involve the police. Do you remember that our contract expires in a month and a half, and we’re coming back? So let’s finish this well.”
Ariella grabbed the phone. “Hello?” she gasped into the receiver.
“Aziza?” The voice sounded very taken aback.
“Azi—? No, this is her tenant.”
“Her tenant? But she’s our tenant.”
“Yes, I heard your message, but she’s not here now—only I am. Is this your house?”
“Yes. We rented it to her for a year.”
“Are you Jewish? I mean, you must be, because of the mezuzos.”
“That’s right,” Ya’ela replied, still sounding very puzzled. “But I don’t understand what—”
“Is Aliza also Jewish? Uh…I mean, Aziza?”
“Totally not,” the voice said with a chuckle. “And who are you, please?”