International Writers Magazine: Desert
in the Negev
Michael Chacko Daniels
repeatedly dreaming that centuries ago he was a famous Bedouin healer
in the Negev, Abdoul, son of Cochin Cohn, saw himself living in
the Negev and nowhere else, if he were to remain in the land of
on his thirtieth birthday, this descendent of an ancient line of
South Indian Jews, collected a few personal items from his parents
Jerusalem home and walked toward the Negev on his powerful little
legs until an immigrant from Chicago gave him a ride.
A year passed.
Ab came to love the rocky desert, its wadis that bloomed wildly during
the brief rains, and the Bedouins, but he still wasnt at ease
in the sandpaper air. He felt it grind away at him, indiscriminately
offering up gobs of his hair and bits and pieces of his skin wherever
he went in the desert. It got worse during the weeks his young relatives,
Miriam and Motek, were in his care.
Not even you are spared this detritis! Ab remonstrated silently with
his India-made naga statue in his little, dune-shaped, sand-colored
home. The seven-headed brass serpent, an excellent listener, was a parting
gift from his father. Ab recalled Papa Cohn saying in his native Malayalam,
his wheat-colored face wet with tears, If you have to go from
Jerusalem, my son, to make your own way, and where you have to go is
that hazardous dust bowl, nothing like our native Kerala, then, go with
my blessings. But take the Kerala naga with you . . .
As Ab burnished each curve and fold of the ancient statue, his lungs
relaxed into a deep breath and he felt at peace with the world and he
wanted to sing hosannas to Papa Cochin Cohns wisdom for giving
him the naga for company despite Mama Cohns references to the
evil First Serpent. But the thought of his mother shut down the hosannas
rising from his heart and made him turn dutifully to check on Mira and
Moti. They sat at his rough wooden dining table, food still uneatenand
he returned to worrying about them.
Just then, Mira slapped the dark table with spidery fingers, powdering
the faint light streaming in from above the half-curtain. She murmured
into her brother Motis ear. Ab blocked Mama Cohns angry
words from spilling out of him. His very large right pinna strained
to catch what Mira was saying, but nothing came through that was intelligible.
He wanted to do something, anything, to get them to eat. But what? He
knew if he opened his mouth, hed stammer, at a loss for words.
Deposit them at a kibbutz dormitory, he heard Mama Cohn saying.
Thats a good idea, he thought. Yes, that will solve all my problems.
Not my youngest brothers children, he heard Papa Cohn saying.
Mira and Moti are only tease-testing you.
The girl and boy didnt respect him, thought Ab. At nine and eight
they were already taller than him. To them he was just a dwarf hermit,
a wifty one at that. The layers of socks that he found to be so comfortable
from days of wear would have to go. No question. Mira and Moti would
be making fun of his second skin for years; no matter, hed
put such worries aside and concentrate on how hed get them to
eat. When it came to children wasnt that the first responsibility
of an adult taking care of them? Had no one taught them that they could
do permanent damage to their growing bodies? Maybe, if he had added
sugar to their food, like the Gujaratis of Western India, theyd
have sopped it all up by now.
Naga, with them loose here, my privacys broken. Bombaywallahs
and Bronxwallahs will hear about me jut-put now that Im mother
and father to Papas younger brothers children; soon, Hindus
in Bombay will cry foul that Ive violated your ritual sanctity.
Little do they know that you wont forsake me, that you make allowances
for lifes many ecdyses. The corrosive air is the deserts
biggest gift to me: Soon, I wont have any hair left for Mama Cohn
to say, Your bit of inheritance from the New York Family Stein,
the only praise for me that crosses her lips when I visit her in Jerusalem,
although she probably intends it more for the Family Stein than for
The Bronx-n-Bombay kids waved their hands over the food.
What are they doing? Ab wondered. Blessing? Or trying to make the food
Ab jabbed his black beard with short, powerful thumb and index finger,
staring at the serpents fourteen red bead-eyes. Abs curls
coiled into the air. He shook his head and knelt to brush the naga.
Maybe, one of the heads would grant him a boon. Werent the eyes
flashing green? he wondered, and immediately he heard Mama Cohn saying,
What a lot of wishful thinking! Get over this hermit-worm-in-the-ground
life! Get back into the world. Go to New York. Go visit your Aunt Esther
in San Francisco.
Peacock cries pierced into his hole in the ground. Sliding shoeless
across the stone floor, Ab got to the hole in the wall and lifted the
bright-yellow half-curtain: A hot dry wind swept light-brown sand over
low, pearly-white buildings; the sun blurred. Where were the peacocks?
Returning to the naga, Ab bowed his very large, round head, body softening
as he raced back to the day in Jerusalem that Papa Cohn had given him
the beloved statue that Papa had hand-carried during their migration
from South India almost two decades earlier.
Nine-year-old Miriam Cohn rocked in her chair. Distracted, Abs
focus returned to his little home in the Negev, Mama Cohns voice
ready to shoot one word out of him: Eat!
Miras voice broke into his thoughts. What was she saying? Did
she think that because he didnt have much to say, he had trouble
hearing? She was holding a finger aloft. Before Moti and I eat,
you must tell us a story, Uncle Ab-doul.
A story? Ab felt stumped. Words scurried here and there in his head.
Finally, he raised thick eyebrows and he managed: Stories, Mira?
What he wanted to say was, What has got into you? Why are you preferring
stories to food? That is what Mama Cohn would have said. But, he wasnt
used to talking to people, least of all to children.
Instead, Ab said to the little naga, silently, If M & Ms parents
extend their visit to the Quaker-supported group in Jordan one more
time, Ill lose my mind.
To the girl, Ab said, Im a . . . a . . . fact trader.
His voice was louder than usual. Stories, no. The effort
made his throat hurt, his head ache.
At their age, naga, wasnt I able to put away twice as much, and
that, too, in India?
Miras red braids whipped the dry air. Not true!" she
cried. "Cousin Din Cohn of Toomsuba says you told him many, many
stories when he was just a chotta chokra in Cochin. Tell
us those stories. No stories, no eating.
Ask me about . . . about Israels Cochin Jews, Ab said,
Egypts camels, Indias snake worshipers, even how to
make money on Americas commodity markets.
Mira puffed her cheeks at the untouched rice, dal, chicken tikka, and
It was the only food she said shed eat, and although he was a
strict vegetarian, hed complied.
Look at her! Just look at her, naga. The desert air will suck up every
last bit of moisture out of the food. What will future archaeologists
say when they examine my garbage?
Yes, Uncle Ab-doul, you must, said Moti, Miras junior.
He looked warily at Abs bristling beard sprouts and raised eyebrows;
he pushed his full plate away. Chotta chokra? Whats
Thats little boy, Moti, said Mira. Even
better: little rascal! Not you, brother boy. Youre for everyone
Motek, The Little Big Pearl and The Fat
Girl. One name, two meanings. Forever and always!
Ab thought: Surely, their parents will say, My children, after
visiting the Promised Land famine-stricken Indians!
He struggled to settle his brows and ears, ease lines of three decades,
allow a smile to emerge. Darlings, he said, ask again
after youve eaten.
What yarns could he pull out of spinning dust to interest two children
who wouldnt eat until he cooked and served a story? Not a single
Ab puffed up his body. See how clean my plate is! he said.
Ive eaten every grain, every vegetable tikka, every cauliflower
He moved from M & Ms negotiating range; his gaze fled to sand-veiled
sunlight on the outside. He was happy he hadnt taken Mira and
Moti out to eat: the last storm had sandblasted every exposed centimeter
of his skin.
What strong hungers stirred Mira and Moti? Hed have to lace and
embroider a boring life to fabricate a story. Children could be critical.
Even severe. He had been.
Ab promised himself: I wont be a Liar, Fool, Fabricator. Storyteller?
Not now, not ever. Im comfortable in my skin.
No! Ab had cried in his father tongue when Papa Cohn
had given him the naga. How would Papa sleep without the naga? hed
wondered. Wont you moan all night long without your favorite
India memento? he said. Will I be here? Will you have anyone
but dogs to keep you company?
Anything and everything for my son, Papa Cohn said, face
beaming, hands pushing aside not only personal discomfort but the whole
world. He drew back his hands, fingers pursed. Sleepless? Me?
You worry too much. I have my books. Take the naga. A symbol: our interconnectedness,
our all-in-one universal force. Take it. For company . . . His
My father, a Cochin man forever, thought Ab.
A little bit of India . . . as you walk to your new home. Never
forget, my son, that for centuries India provided Jews, every color
and nationality, a safe harbor; the safest: Cochin.
Ab remembered that Papa Cohn had written in his will that he wanted
to be buried in Cochin alongside his parents. Abs eyes filled.
Protection, too, if you have a mind to seek . . .
Black skirts billowing, Mama Cohn appeared suddenly, as if from a parellel
Papa Cohn looked at his piles of Sanskrit and Hebrew volumes.
Mama Cohn dims the old mans luminosity, thought Ab. When shes
around, all he wants is to bend his neck among his books.
Ab took a deep breath, pumped up his dwarf body until he felt
Where have you been hiding that seven-headed monstrosity?
Mama Cohn said in her New York-accented English. So many years
on Israels holy soil, yet the gods of India, a god for every occasion,
still rule your mind.
Ab felt the energy swoosh out of him.
Papa Cohns head rose; he shook it fiercely, as if he was shaking
a snake at her. Dont forget, my dear, he replied in
English, a language he occasionally tolerated on his tongue, some
historians say the Brahmins of India are our Semitic cousins. I have
devoted my life to finding the similar in the dissimilar. We are all
part of the same universal force. Now, that naga is . . .
Enough! Mama Cohn said, thrusting her right palm in front
of his face. Dont play that record for me again.
Papa Cohn didnt flinch, although shed come close to striking
his nose, and Ab thought, All Mamas movements are so predictable.
She lowered her arm and smiled. Im glad Abs going.
Carved images! Best to have miles between you and him. Let it not be
said anymore, like father, like son. Maybe in the Negev, Ab can clear
his mind of all this nonsense. She raised her eyes and hands toward
the ceiling. I thank God I wont have to hear that impossible-to-understand
language in this house again. Now, now, no need to retreat into your
silent, fragile tomes. Im not going to destroy your false god.
You should be thankful the optimism of the Family Stein runs in my veins.
She closed her eyes. I can see Ab stationing that Indian dragon
in his garden. I see wandering nomads, desert rats, and the neighbors
peacocks flee in terror. I remember how that stupid piece of devilry
almost frightened New York out of me the first time I saw it in the
land of the Hindus.
Papa Cohn retreated to his books. Nothing new, he said in
Malayalam. Nothing new in my darling wifes words. One day
she and the world will be saved because of what is in these books .
. . both Hebrew and Sanskrit.
Mama Cohns words can kill, Ab thought. A little more than thirty,
and the curse of exhaustion follows me no matter how far I try to get
from her words.
Loud mastication punctured his thoughts.
Ab gripped his chin-serpents, now reddish-black, and looked at the naga.
The sun interrupted, embraced him. He felt a flutter: inside him, dragonflies;
outside, peacock feathers, iridescent despite blown sand. Story time?
Large eyelids half-closed, he probed the light, now blinding.
Ab switched on the overhead light and shuttered the darkening desert.
Uncle Ab-doul, said Mira, we licked down our plates
Not another one of their magic tricks, thought Ab. His large, round
eyes searched the room.
Like this, Mira said, raising the blue-speckled enamel plate
and running it against her tongue, up and down, left and right, impressing
a mustard-colored, curry cross on it.
Another test, thought Ab.
Were done. Your turn. Tell us our story. Now!
Yes, Uncle Ab-doul, said Moti, see how clean they
are! No need for you to wash them.
Ab whispered, finally, Once upon a time . . .
Mira and Moti leaned forward.
. . .there was a little girl in Nagercoil, the serpent kings
temple town in the princely South Indian state of Travancore-Cochin.
She got no supper until shed spelt ten new words correctly.
Ten new words? said Moti.
Sand stormed against the shutters.
Understand: Her father wanted to drive the British out of India.
He told the little girl, The best way: Beat the English at their
Ten? Correctly? said Mira.
M & Ms eyes grew large, lined up with his.
Now, their eyes were giant desert mushrooms after a storm of tears and
Ab felt his extra-large left pinna quiver.
Is she sad? Is she happy? he asked.
His widened eyes transfixed Mira and Moti physically, but he sensed
their minds fly, time and space bend.
Mira said, Shes sad . . .
Moti jumped UP, down. No, no, I tell you, shes happy . .
Ab remained motionless, except for a wiggling right ear.
Mira and Motis words weaved in and out. Like his naga, Ab remained
silent, motionlesslistening. The story of the little girl who
got no supper in the town of the serpent king grew and grew.
And now, the Storyteller, Abdoul, son of Cochin Cohn, thought, I must
offer the naga a few drops of milk and honey the way Papa showed me
before I left Jerusalem. But first, I must put on a fresh pair of socks.
Outside the sand continued to weave its own stories with the peacocks.
The shutter shuddered, but held.
© Michael Chacko Daniels November 2008
M C Daniels
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