Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 39 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.
“I don’t want to ruin any of your plans,” Ariella said, clasping her hands together. “It’s enough that I delayed you until now. If…if you could just bring me to the train station, and accompany me inside to make sure I get on the train and everything is alright, I’d be very grateful.”
“I hear,” Sarah said calmly, “but I’m not sure there is a train now. And, by the way, you didn’t ruin any of my plans. A neighbor put my sister’s children to sleep, and the key is waiting for me on the windowsill. So it doesn’t really matter when we get there.”
“To my sister’s children. She lives in a new development, and her oldest is in the hospital right now, so she and her husband are with him.”
“Oh.” Ariella closed her eyes. So what did Sarah plan to suggest? That she go back to Miriam, her first hostess? She really, really didn’t relish the idea, and besides, Miriam went to bed very early. Calling her now would be like calling someone in the middle of the night.
“It’s not nice to wake up my first hostess…” she murmured, “but that might be what I’ll have to do. I…she’ll probably understand. I imagine that after she hears what I went through this evening, she’ll understand.”
“I’m sure she will,” Sarah agreed.
Ariella pressed her lips together for a minute. “And is it alright for me to ask you to take me there now, before you go to your sister’s children? Because I’m really afraid to walk in the streets now. I…” She lowered her voice even more. “Tell your husband that I’m ready to pay you to take me there.”
“Really!” Sarah didn’t even try to hide her smile. “But I thought of a different solution. You can come with me, to my sister’s house. There’s room there for you.”
“B-but…a guest can’t bring a guest…” Ariella stammered, knowing as she did so that her protest was hardly convincing.
“I’m not going there now as a guest, so let me handle my sister.” Sarah patted her shoulder, and the car began heading toward the development town.
Ariella huddled in her seat in silence. She wasn’t usually like this. It was her basic nature to be independent. And yet, in her present situation, being so vulnerable and yes, dependent on others, all she felt regarding Sarah’s offer was tremendous relief. She didn’t even try to hide it.
She leaned her head back and closed her eyes, not even bothering to look out the window, check signs, or take in the scenery as they drove. She had no idea where they were or where they were going. It amused her that she was now putting so much faith in the people that had led her to Acco in the first place.
But therein lay a problem… She suddenly froze in her seat, and her hands tightened around her handbag.
She was trusting them, indeed. Yet Sarah was also trusting her—Ella, her dear client. But she was a fraud. No, not really a fraud, just an imposter. Perhaps it wasn’t as bad, but she didn’t feel any better about it.
Every passing second in the pleasantly warm car began to make Ariella feel stifled, physically. She took a deep breath, wondering if the best thing right now would be to ask them to stop so she could get out of the car.
A quick glance out the window made it clear that her plan was not practical at all. They were on an intercity highway, and it was pretty dark. Even if they would be in Acco, she probably would not be able to just get out of the car. What would she do? Spend the rest of the hours until sunrise on a bench in some public park, trembling at every rustle or noise?
“Are you alright, Ella?” Sarah asked quietly. “You still don’t look good.”
Ariella nodded, looking at her fingernails. “I-I think so. It’s just that…things are not so simple for me right now, in a lot of ways.”
“Do you want to talk about it? Or maybe you’d prefer to talk when we get to my sister’s house?” Sarah thought quickly. Bassi would be very busy in the coming days, but if it was possible, she would be the best person to host Ella, providing, of course, that they clicked when they met. Bassi was easygoing and a great conversationalist, and Sarah was sure that Ella would feel very comfortable with her.
Maybe that would be a good solution for them both. While Bassi would be with Yisrael Meir in the hospital—which would probably be for some period of time going forward—Ella could run the house. Perhaps Bassi could pay her, or Ella would receive room and board in exchange. Truthfully, Bassi needed this kind of help even in normal times.
Reb Elazar turned on some quiet music, and the delicate voice of a child singing a solo spilled into the car. Ariella didn’t even notice the words. The Reinesses were trying so hard to be helpful. And she was taking advantage of their kindness with every moment that she sat here; after all, was her whole story not a bald-faced lie?
She opened her eyes and looked to her left. The car had turned onto a wide path that looked like it had been forcibly torn from the main road and stretched into the thicket of trees on the side. The darkness grew thicker, like a dense black canopy, as they drove between the trees.
“You remember where to turn?” Sarah addressed her husband, leaning forward. “It’s the third right.”
“Yes,” Rabbi Reiness murmured from behind the wheel. “It’s just that in the dark, everything here looks the same.”
“You could get lost in the light also,” Sarah said, smiling at Ariella. “But in the dark it’s much worse. You have no idea if you drove into the little development, or if you’re just getting deeper into this forest. Hey, there’s a light, on the right. They put up lighting?”
“Looks like it. Rather improvised, I will note, but at least it makes the whole place look a bit more welcoming.” Rabbi Reiness turned the wheel toward the dim light that shone between the trees. Ariella studied the wooden sign hanging under three spotlights that swayed in the wind: Peninat Hagalil.
Sarah, who was also studying the sign, grinned “Sounds like the name of a fancy hotel, no? But I think you’ll like it here, Ella.”
“It looks like a cute place,” Ariella said, her voice cracking. Her regular hoarseness was even more pronounced than usual tonight.
The drove another four minutes or so, and then the car slowed down.
“Let’s take our things and go quickly into the house,” Sarah said, as she and Ariella stood shivering outside the car. “Brrr…it’s much colder here than in Acco!”
But Ariella did not move to follow her. “I want to tell you something,” she said. Her eyes were fixed on the handle of her suitcase. “Then you can decide if you want to host me here, with you.”
“What?” Sarah chuckled and pushed the gate to the yard open. It looked like a loving hand had colored it orange, and added various geometric shapes to it. “First thing, we’re going inside, Ella. Whatever you have to tell me, I’ll be happy to hear it inside.”
“I’m not so sure you’ll be happy to hear what I have to tell you.”
“It makes no difference now if I’m going to be happy to hear it or not.” Sarah turned her head back for a moment as she walked toward the house. “Even if you tell me that you stole the Statue of Liberty, you’re coming inside. Once we’re there, I’ll decide if I’m calling the police or not. The last thing you need is to get pneumonia now, right?”
“No, I don’t need any more troubles right now,” Ariella said. The wind whipped at her, and she felt herself wishing she could fly away with it; she didn’t care to where. But she obediently followed the older woman into the heated foyer of the house.
“I don’t think I’ll go back to Acco now; it’s very late,” Reb Elazar said. He stood with his hands clasped behind his back as he faced his brother-in-law’s sefarim shelves. “I assume that Aryeh allows me to use his sefarim?”
“Bassi commanded me to feel at home and that we should take whatever we need.”
In the end he found the Gemara he was looking for on the shtender. “I think that I’ll go to sleep soon. I want to get up early and get back to the bachurim in time for Shacharis.”
“Fine. I’ll prepare the beds in that room, but it will take me some time to get to bed myself.” She nodded toward the kitchen, where Ariella had stationed herself. “Looks like I’ve got quite a conversation ahead of me.”
“Remember that you have quite a day ahead of you tomorrow, too,” he said as he picked up the Gemara. “Your sister’s children have got lots of energy, bli ayin hara.”
“So do I,” Sarah rejoined with a laugh. “So let’s hope it will go well with us together. Do you want a hot drink?”
“No, thanks.” Elazar opened the Gemara, and Sarah went to the kitchen.
“Did the kettle boil yet?” she asked the figure sitting hunched at the small table.
“I think so,” Ella replied, without raising her eyes.
“There’s no coffee in my sister’s cabinets, Heaven forbid, but she has all kinds of herbal brews. Do you want something?” Sarah opened the cabinet. “Chamomile, ginger, citrus and mint, passion fruit and coastal plants—what is that?—rose with a touch of fennel, and Chinese green tea. You want them all together?”
Ella responded with something that slightly resembled a smile.
“Fine, I’ll prepare for you what I’m making for myself. This coastal plants-with-passion fruit sounds the most exotic to me,” she said cheerfully. She spent a few moments fussing over a pair of cups, and then carried them to the table.
“I brought cookies from home, even though my sister’s sesame cookies are almost not bad. The problem is that I sometimes need a cookie dipped in lots of chocolate, and nothing else will do.” She reached into her little suitcase and pulled out a bag, emptying it onto a brown glass plate. “Now, onwards,” she said, as she rubbed her hands together. “But maybe you should eat something first. You certainly don’t want me to throw you out into the cold while you’re hungry, right?”
“If you throw me out, you’d be very right, and it doesn’t really matter how you would do it.” Ariella looked at the floor and the carpet of crumbs under the table.
“Nu, so what do you want to tell me? That you’re a dressed-up Arab woman, and Aziza sent you? That you are the one who knocked my nephew out of the tree, and that’s why he got so badly injured? That you’ve been spying on me, and that the whole thing with the hoarseness is just a good cover story?”
“Which of the three options?”
“The last one.”
“You’re not serious, right?” Sarah broke a cookie in half. “You’re forgetting that you’re speaking to a speech therapist, Ella. Your hoarseness is real, and you can’t fool me.”
“It’s the only real thing about the whole story.” Ariella looked at her glass of tea but didn’t touch it. And not only because of its unappetizing greenish-brown color.
“So, what’s not real? Is your name not really Ella?”
“It’s a nickname that my grandmother gave me, but who uses it?”
“Well, I do. And Rothman?”
“That’s my real last name. Oh, it’s also real, I forgot.”
“I see. So, we’re starting to discover some positive points for our spy-woman here,” Sarah said in a deep, throaty voice, but quietly, so as not to bring her husband to the kitchen. “And sorry for asking, but do you have a husband?”
“No.” Ariella almost smiled. “I really am a widow.”
“Oh, so that part is true, too? One second—I want to make a brachah on my tea.”
Ariella looked around the kitchen as Sarah calmly sipped her tea. It was an interesting kitchen: a mix of new cabinets and gleaming faucets that looked like they had just been installed, alongside a collection of objects that were more typical of an antique, country-style kitchen. Some of those objects were a black, sooty kettle that stood on the stove; spice containers in almost every available corner on the countertop; clusters of garlic and jalapeno peppers hanging on the wall near the window; and a large shelf with bulging fabric sacks that contained—Ariella didn’t stand up to peek, but the labels on them clearly stated their contents—rice, wheat, lentils, and dried split peas.
The kitchen wasn’t orderly. At all. And perhaps that’s why she found herself liking it so much.
Sarah finished her tea, along with three cookies, and Ariella was still quiet. When Ariella opened her mouth, Sarah stopped her: “From what I heard so far, I understood just one thing—that you are confused, hungry, and tired. So maybe you should eat something, go to sleep, recover a bit, and then we’ll talk in the morning?”
“No, I can’t wait for tomorrow.”
“Fine, but I refuse to wait any longer for you to drink your tea and eat some cookies. If you think about the last time you ate something, you’ll see that I’m right.”
Another two minutes of silence ensued, during which Ariella forced herself to put something in her mouth, even if just to appease Sarah. She had no appetite.
“So, it’s true that I didn’t really lie to you,” she said, after her own teacup was empty. The taste of the tea was decent, surprisingly enough. “But I really did not come to Acco for you to treat my hoarseness.”
“We understood that already. So why did you come?”
“To spy on you.” Ariella rubbed at a crumb of chocolate that had landed on the table.
“To spy on us!” Sarah grinned widely. “And who is your boss for this spying mission? The president of Syria?” But suddenly, a thought popped into her mind, and she struggled to keep her smile in place as she asked: “Oh, that Arab hamoula (clan)? From Shikovitzer’s property?”
Ariella looked at her. Despite Sarah Reiness’s grin, there was something serious about her question. “No,” she replied quietly. “My parents sent me. Or maybe I volunteered, and they just agreed—I don’t really remember.”
“And what did you want to discover? Professional secrets from the carpentry shop? But you wouldn’t find those in my clinic—nor with my husband. He’s the manager in description only, not really on a practical level.”
“No, the carpentry shop didn’t interest me so much.” Ariella stared at the dregs of her tea and took a deep breath. “I’m Osher Erenbaum’s sister.”