Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 41 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.
He has a communication problem.
Reb Elazar Reiness did not know where those words popped into his mind from, but he woke up with them in the morning. It was no wonder that he was thinking about Osher when he arose. Because when you talk about a person for nearly an hour, and then fall asleep for two and a half hours, it’s likely that that person will dominate your thoughts both when you’re asleep and when you wake up.
Rabbi Reiness did not recall having any special thoughts about Osher while he was asleep; apparently, the one hundred and sixty minutes he had gotten had been devoted exclusively to recharging himself. But the minute he opened his eyes and bent down to wash his hands, he saw Osher in his mind’s eye.
“Are you going now?” he heard Sarah’s sleepy voice ask.
“Yes, b’ezras Hashem. What did Bassi and Aryeh make up with you? They probably want you to be here all day, no?”
“Yes. I canceled my appointments today at the Bnei Brak clinic. I’ll stick them in next week somehow.”
“We’ll talk. I’m thinking about leaving Ella—uh, I mean Ariella—here. But I need to speak to Bassi about it.”
He was silent for a long moment. “Among all the diagnoses she told you about, did anyone mention anything about a communication problem?”
“She didn’t say anything like that to me.”
“Not Asperger’s, or something mildly on the autism spectrum…?”
Sarah’s voice was much more alert now. “No. At least, not that she told me about. Maybe he does have such a diagnosis, but they’re keeping it a secret.”
“Hmm. So maybe I’ll go to Bnei Brak today, instead of you.”
“Bnei Brak? Why?”
“To meet with Osher’s father. This child is falling between the cracks, and it’s a shame.”
Sarah was quiet. She didn’t ask if this was the first time he had encountered, as a mechanech, a child falling between the cracks, or whether he would jump into the car and travel all the way to Bnei Brak for any of his other students. She said nothing, because she knew that Elazar was very devoted to each one of his students. She also knew how much frustration Osher managed to elicit from him, and how bothered he was by that, especially because there seemed to have been some chemistry between them from the first moment they’d met.
“Have a good morning and a nice day,” he said, before leaving the room. “From what I’m hearing, your sister’s crew is already up and about. Good luck!”
“Amen,” she said, and got up hastily.
But as she soon discovered, she really didn’t have to hurry. When she emerged into the little hallway, she discovered five of Bassi’s children dressed and sitting obediently at the kitchen table, and Ariella walking out of the kitchen with hot drinks on a tray.
“I haven’t yet taken care of the babies,” Ariella said apologetically when she noticed Sarah. “Based on the noises from their room, it sounds to me like the bigger one is up, but she’s calm for now. And there’s also one boy who didn’t get up yet, and even all his sisters’ screams didn’t wake him. So, who wants tea?”
“Her name is Malka,” said Bracha. “And she’ll probably want her cereal soon.”
“Who?” Ariella asked.
“The one you said got up,” Shulamis—Bracha’s twin—explained.
“So we’ll prepare it for her in a few minutes,” Ariella said. “And what’s the name of the tiny baby in the cradle?”
“Kreindy,” Baruch replied. “And she’s not so tiny. She’s nearly four months old. When she turned three months old a few weeks ago, we made her a birthday party on Shabbos.”
“What kind of magic wand did you wave here?” Sarah asked, smiling broadly at the energetic children who stood up to take a cup of tea, and then obediently returned to their chairs.
“Oy, don’t use that word,” Ariella said. “I’ve had enough magic for the rest of my life.”
“Oh, come on, she didn’t really use magic.” Sarah went into the kitchen to boil up the water for two-year-old Malka. “But you still haven’t told me the secret.”
“Yes. How were you able to get all these children ready so beautifully?”
“The older ones helped me. And besides,” Ariella followed Sarah into the kitchen, “I promised to tell them the story of the black sheep prince.”
“The black sheep?” Sarah echoed slowly.
“Yup. I started after they said Modeh Ani, and I promised to continue the story for whoever hurries to get dressed and is quiet and doesn’t make a mess in the house.” A trace of a smile crossed her face when she said those last few words. It did not look like anyone could make more of a mess than there already was here. Aside from the small living room, which was relatively in shape, the house seemed like one big jumble of clothes, toys, shoes, and kitchen paraphernalia. But the children seemed rather comfortable with the mess; Ariella suspected that they were quite used to it.
Indeed, she had no idea if Nosson, alav hashalom, would have survived such a mess, but it was interesting that one could raise even…seven? or more? children in such disarray.
“So, what is the story about the black sheep prince?”
Ariella smiled. “Let Rabbi Reiness ask Osher about that. Whenever we went to the grocery together, we would make up stories. Osher liked the aisle with the different colorful soaps and cleaning materials best, and that aisle was the perfect backdrop to our stories. Not that we bought any of the interesting-colored soaps—my mother uses very specific cleaning agents, because my sisters are sensitive to a lot of different soaps and scents. But imagining something can’t cause an allergic reaction.”
“And there’s also something to the claim that when you want something that is out of reach, it’s easy to dream all kinds of things about it,” Sarah suggested. “Think about what would have happened if you would have once bought the cleaning solution that you really were drawn to… I have no idea what kind of imaginary things you made up, but imagine that from a prince dressed in beautiful clothes, he became a simple bottle that contained dishwashing soap or floor cleaner—nothing more.”
“That’s true,” Ariella said “Yes, kids, I’m coming! In any case,” she turned back to Sarah, “the bottles were not the princes. They were the guards in uniform, the waiters, or the flowers in the beautiful gardens. Osher was the prince, the black sheep prince.”
“And you?” Sarah quickly rinsed out the baby bottle she found in the full sink.
“Me? I didn’t have a specific role. I was just Osher’s sister.” Ariella stood in her place for another moment. “In a certain sense, that’s what I still am, to this day,” she said, before disappearing off to the children.
Sarah poured soy milk into the clean bottle and glanced at the empty kitchen doorway. She heard Ariella’s voice from the living room, rising and dropping dramatically. She thought she remembered her husband once mentioning “the black sheep prince.” She would ask him; it would be interesting to hear Osher’s story.
Her phone suddenly rang; it was Bassi. Yisrael Meir was going to be taken in for a complicated operation in half an hour. Sarah wished her the best, and gave her heartfelt brachos. After she hung up, she hurried to give Malka the bottle and to wake up Gad. It was no wonder the boy was sleeping so deeply; he’d been up till who-knew-when last night.
When Gadi finally began to show signs of stirring, she went back to the living room. “Ariella, kids, it might be a good idea to take a break from the story now,” she said as she walked over to the bookcase. “Let’s say two perakim of Tehillim together for Yisrael Meir. His operation is starting soon.”
After davening, Reb Elazar gave his regular morning Mishnayos shiur. I was a little bit tired from my night’s activities and the patrol of the yard with Shlomo, and as I sat in my corner of the room, I dozed off. Reb Elazar also looked pretty tired to me. Suddenly, I woke up and saw two people looking at me.
“Stop it!” I said, and stood up. Did they think it was nice for a person to wake up and discover eyes fixed on him?
I think Reb Elazar tried to call my name, but I ignored it. I went outside through the carpentry shop, and when Yehuda Matari asked me to hold something for him for two minutes, I decided that I was too tired to even hear him. I walked out to the street.
Suddenly, I sensed someone looking at me again. I was sure it was one of the boys, or even Reb Elazar, but it was that man who had once thought I’d wanted to steal his boat, when I was really trying to save it.
I didn’t say anything to him. Instead, I turned around to the gate and fixed my eyes on the sign telling everyone that there were cameras here—as if there was nothing more interesting in my life than this sign.
“It’s funny,” the man said suddenly.
“What’s funny?” I shot back.
“This sign is funny,” he said. “Cameras? Why would anyone put cameras in such a yard? What are they guarding so closely? Diamonds? Or you, the students?”
“Dunno,” I told him. “I don’t get involved in my rabbi’s decisions.”
“Oh, Elazar is your rabbi? Nice. Tell him regards from Yosef. I was friends with him when we were children. We learned together until fourth grade.”
I looked at him. He didn’t look religious at all, and it was strange to think that Reb Elazar and this man had once learned together. Fine. There were ba’alei teshuvah in the world, and on the other end, unfortunately, people who went off the derech. Still, it was strange to think that this short guy had once been a little boy sitting in class with a young Reb Elazar.
The man chuckled at me. “Yes, yes, everyone changes, huh? Did you stay the same as you were at age ten?”
“Could be,” I said, and turned back around. Sometimes I had the feeling that lots of things stayed the way they were when I was a little child. But I did not have to share such personal things with a stranger, even if he was my rabbi’s childhood friend.
“Tell him I said hello. He came back to Acco permanently?”
“I wanted to come up a few times, to welcome him, but every time I came, he either wasn’t there or I was in a hurry. So you’re saying that he’s only here in Acco for a short time?”
“I don’t know. But I don’t think it’s permanent.”
“If so, I really need to make sure that I meet him. It will be so disappointing for me if, say, tomorrow he suddenly gets up and decides to move away again, without us ever having the chance to meet up after all these years.”
“Nu, so go over and meet him,” I said, as I started to walk away.
“What, he’s really moving out of the city tomorrow?!”
“No, I don’t think tomorrow…”
“Wait, is he here now? I’m kind of in a rush, but if you tell me he’s leaving very soon…”
“I don’t think he’s leaving soon,” I said. I don’t know why, but my voice sounded more irritated than I had intended it to. Apparently his questions were really annoying me.
“So when will he be leaving?”
“Whenever he finishes taking care of what he has to do in Acco.” I turned to cross the street, toward the beach. Hey! He was following me!
“Hmm, he has things to take care of? For that he dragged his wife and all of you over here?”
I stopped answering him. Instead, I looked pointedly in the other direction and leaned on the gate, breathing very deeply.