Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 52 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 pupils shone as they gazed at Ariella, who smiled back. She put her finger into the tiny palm, waited for the fingers to close around it and sat still, just she and Kreindy.
Kreindy’s unbelievably calm nature was a bit of a problem sometimes. If not for the angelic sweetness that came along with being a baby, barely anyone would notice her. She hardly cried. Even when hungry, she would moan delicately, and after receiving a few ounces of her bottle, she smiled dreamily and fell asleep.
It was strange that a child of such an energetic mother, in such a busy household, could be the polar opposite of them all.
All? Ariella reminded herself that she didn’t really know the father at all, and from hearing stories about the oldest son, who was in the hospital, she’d figured out that he was a pretty placid kid. Kreindy seemed to also have inherited the calmer genes in the family.
“She’s so cute,” a voice whispered behind Ariella. She didn’t turn around.
“Shulamis, go to sleep already,” she said, with a tinge of impatience.
“But I’m bored in bed.”
“So make up a story there.”
“I don’t know how to make things up.”
Even without looking at her, Ariella imagined the familiar shrug. Was this what tired mothers felt like at the end of the day? Her first instinct was to raise her voice. What more did this child want from her? She had been with them all day, they’d picked flowers, colored, had contests, made a fun supper together…what now? Couldn’t Shulamis let her have a few quiet moments with Kreindy?
But she didn’t have the privilege of giving Shulamis a good scolding. After all, she wasn’t the mother here; she was just a long-term babysitter.
“I’ll start the story,” she said with a yawn. “But then you really have to go to sleep, Shulamis, okay?”
Ariella looked at Kreindy lying in her arms, toying with the nipple of the half-filled bottle with her tongue. “Once, a girl woke up, and heard a noise coming from her family’s toy closet. She looked at her two-year-old brother to see if he’d gotten out of his bed and was playing around, but he was sleeping deeply. The noise continued, and the strangest thing of all was that the closet door was completely closed. Only the teddy bear’s ears peeked out from underneath it.” Ariella fell silent.
“And now I have to make up the rest?”
The girl sighed deeply. “It’s a waste of time for me to do it. Doesn’t it make more sense if you tell me what happened there? You know how to tell a story much better than me.”
“That’s because at your age, I practiced making up stories.” A few drops of milk dribbled onto the baby’s chin, and Ariella wiped them away. “If I do all the work for you now, when you’ll be my age, you won’t be able to tell your children anything.”
“Or I’ll tell them yucky stories, and they’ll just have to manage with that.” Shulamis giggled at the thought, and then moved one step toward her bedroom. “My mother says that Hashem gives mothers exactly what their children need from them. So maybe Hashem sent you to us so that you can teach us how to make up stories, because I like doing it. And Ima does lots of things really well, but with stories, she’s not that great. Okay, g’night!”
Had Hashem sent her here so that nine-year-old Shulamis should grow up with a knack for story-telling?
Clearly. The question was, what else had she been sent here for? Hashem hadn’t wanted her to spend a month and a half of her life in this place for nothing—that much was certain. She was happy here, and her conversations with Bassi and her sister Sarah gave her a tremendous amount. Some parts of their personalities were so similar to hers, and they dealt with those aspects so much better than she did.
“Do you really think that having an organized house is the most important thing?” Sarah had chided her yesterday. “You manage somehow! So it’s not so neat or sparkling clean all day and all night. Who cares? The main thing is that the home should be a calm and happy place to be.”
“An organized house?!” Bassy wondered at the term. “Do you mean to make me laugh, or was that a mistake, Ariella? Do you realize what a miracle it is that I didn’t turn out to be a square, boring mother with a million rules? There are a few children in this family who would not have been able to handle me at all!”
Ariella stood up and paced around the big room, with Kreindy’s head nestled on her shoulder. Her parents didn’t have a million rules, but their house was very organized and regulated. Nosson’s parents also hadn’t had a million rules, but they were very tidy and organized people, and their son had been, too. If not for his good nature, which made him accept the mess with understanding, who knew what would have happened? And maybe it wasn’t just understanding? Perhaps there was some quiet expectation that with time, she would learn to be more structured, and would adapt herself?
But she hadn’t learned and hadn’t adapted. There was no one and nothing to do it for. Maybe if there would have been, she would have tried to learn, but chances were she would have earned very poor grades in that area.
How had Shulamis put it? “Hashem gives mothers exactly what their children need from them.” Apparently He also gives husbands what they need. And if those husbands go on to a better world, where there are no physical needs, then their wives, or widows, will battle their problems until Mashiach comes, and it won’t bother them at all.
A tinny voice pushed Ariella to revisit this thought, but she ignored it. Because if the voice was coming to tell her that she didn’t have to stay this way until Mashiach comes, then she really didn’t want to listen.
I sat on my bed and looked at him. He was very tall and had a black beard—not a very short one—and long, curled peyos in front of his ears. His pistol stuck out of his belt like a lighthouse.
“You know,” I began, “it’s a little funny to have someone who is twenty-eight come to learn in a place where the oldest student is twenty-three.”
“You know,” he replied in the exact same tone, “it’s a little funny to have a sixteen-year-old boy talk so rudely to someone who is twelve years older than him.”
“Fine, I didn’t mean it.”
“But I did.” Doron Nachman opened the little cabinet and stuck his backpack inside. Then he turned back to me. “Yes, I did mean it that I’ve come to learn here, in addition to being the security guard. What difference does age make? Have you ever heard of Rabi Akiva?”
“Nu? So the age difference was bigger there, right?”
“No. I mean, yes. And it would be better if you didn’t ask me math questions if you don’t want to fight with me, okay? It’s my weak point. Or rather, one of my weak points.”
“It’s actually one of my stronger points,” he said pleasantly. “I was very good at math, but it’s not always easy to find parnassah in that field.”
“Are you a baal teshuvah?”
“So is my father. And he’s also good at math.”
“Oh! And are we similar?”
I looked at him. “Totally not. You’re a Breslover, right?”
“So you were chozer b’teshuvah, you became a Breslover chassid, and then you became a security guard,” I said to him.
“That’s like reading the last line of a very fat book,” he said with a laugh. “But yes, you’re right. If you skip over all the messy chapters in my life, then right now I am a security guard, and it probably is not my last stop.”
“It’s a bit nerve-racking to live in a place that needs a full-time security guard,” I said, as I looked out the window. Since the fire in the yard the day before yesterday, I’d been looking downstairs a lot. “I kind of feel that something may happen any minute.”
“‘If Hashem does not guard a city, then the watchman keeps vigil in vain,’” he reminded me. “I don’t think you need to be afraid. As I understood from Rav Elazar, no one meant to do anything to you. The problem is the place, this house. That’s what they might want to damage.”
“In the back room.”
He looked at me. “What?”
“The back room,” I repeated. “The whole problem is with the back room downstairs. That’s our shiur room. Come on, as if you don’t know!”
“I do know,” Doron Nachman said slowly. “The question is how you know.”
“Oh, Reb Elazar told me a little bit, and I figured some stuff out myself.”
“You?” He looked me up and down, and fingered his beard exactly the way my fifth grade rebbi used to. Which made me laugh.
“Yes, me. Why is that surprising?”
He looked at me again, but suddenly, his gaze held a lot more respect than I ever saw in my fifth grade rebbi’s eyes. “Good to know,” he said. He took out two plastic cups and a cup of strawberry-flavored soda. “What else did Reb Elazar tell you?”
“That his father had a will,” I said. “It’s connected to the back room, and all that.”
He handed me a cup filled with red bubbly liquid. “Nice. So you’re all up to date.”
“Not all,” I said. “I just know about a few details, that’s it.”
“And everyone here knows what you do?”
“I don’t think so. Or maybe they do? What do I know? He told everyone to pay attention if anything strange happens or if we see suspicious activity. I think the Rav speaks to me personally more than he talks to the others, but maybe he speaks to the others when I don’t notice.”
For some reason, Doron Nachman thought that was funny. “Maybe,” he said. “In any case, Reb Elazar told me that this whole thing is a very sensitive subject.” He made a brachah and drank.
“Of course,” I said. “It’s not a topic we discuss randomly over supper or in the carpentry shop, if that’s what you thought I meant.”
He laughed again and tossed his empty cup into the garbage. “It’s really the kind of thing that’s better not to talk about. I’m sure that you are careful, Osher.”