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The International Writers Magazine: Desert

Naga in the Negev
Michael Chacko Daniels

After 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 Israel.  So, 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 wasn’t 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 Cohn’s wisdom for giving him the naga for company despite Mama Cohn’s 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 uneaten—and 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 Moti’s ear. Ab blocked Mama Cohn’s 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, he’d stammer, at a loss for words.
Deposit them at a kibbutz dormitory, he heard Mama Cohn saying.
That’s a good idea, he thought. Yes, that will solve all my problems.
Not my youngest brother’s children, he heard Papa Cohn saying. Mira and Moti are only tease-testing you.

The girl and boy didn’t 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, he’d put such worries aside and concentrate on how he’d get them to eat. When it came to children wasn’t 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, they’d have sopped it all up by now.

Naga, with them loose here, my privacy’s broken. Bombaywallahs and Bronxwallahs will hear about me jut-put now that I’m mother and father to Papa’s younger brother’s children; soon, Hindus in Bombay will cry foul that I’ve violated your ritual sanctity. Little do they know that you won’t forsake me, that you make allowances for life’s many ecdyses. The corrosive air is the desert’s biggest gift to me: Soon, I won’t 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 me.
The Bronx-’n-Bombay kids waved their hands over the food.
What are they doing? Ab wondered. Blessing? Or trying to make the food disappear?
Ab jabbed his black beard with short, powerful thumb and index finger, staring at the serpent’s fourteen red bead-eyes. Ab’s 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. Weren’t 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, Ab’s focus returned to his little home in the Negev, Mama Cohn’s voice ready to shoot one word out of him: Eat!

Mira’s voice broke into his thoughts. What was she saying? Did she think that because he didn’t 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 wasn’t used to talking to people, least of all to children.

Instead, Ab said to the little naga, silently, If M & M’s parents extend their visit to the Quaker-supported group in Jordan one more time, I’ll lose my mind.
To the girl, Ab said, “I’m 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, wasn’t I able to put away twice as much, and that, too, in India?
Mira’s 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 Israel’s Cochin Jews,” Ab said, “Egypt’s camels, India’s snake worshipers, even how to make money on America’s commodity markets.”
Mira puffed her cheeks at the untouched rice, dal, chicken tikka, and aloo gobi.
It was the only food she said she’d eat, and although he was a strict vegetarian, he’d complied.
She smiled.

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, Mira’s junior. He looked warily at Ab’s bristling beard sprouts and raised eyebrows; he pushed his full plate away. “‘Chotta chokra’? What’s that?”
“That’s ‘little boy,’ Moti,” said Mira. “Even better: little rascal! Not you, brother boy. You’re 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 you’ve eaten.”

What yarns could he pull out of spinning dust to interest two children who wouldn’t eat until he cooked and served a story? Not a single one.
Ab puffed up his body. “See how clean my plate is!” he said. “I’ve eaten every grain, every vegetable tikka, every cauliflower and potato!”

He moved from M & M’s negotiating range; his gaze fled to sand-veiled sunlight on the outside. He was happy he hadn’t 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? He’d 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 won’t be a Liar, Fool, Fabricator. Storyteller? Not now, not ever. I’m 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? he’d wondered. “Won’t 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 eyes bubbled.
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. Ab’s eyes filled.
“Protection, too, if you have a mind to seek . . .”

Black skirts billowing, Mama Cohn appeared suddenly, as if from a parellel universe.
Papa Cohn looked at his piles of Sanskrit and Hebrew volumes.
Mama Cohn dims the old man’s luminosity, thought Ab. When she’s 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 he’d burst.
“Where have you been hiding that seven-headed monstrosity?” Mama Cohn said in her New York-accented English. “So many years on Israel’s 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 Cohn’s head rose; he shook it fiercely, as if he was shaking a snake at her. “Don’t 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. “Don’t play that record for me again.”
Papa Cohn didn’t flinch, although she’d come close to striking his nose, and Ab thought, All Mama’s movements are so predictable.

She lowered her arm and smiled. “I’m glad Ab’s 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 won’t have to hear that impossible-to-understand language in this house again. Now, now, no need to retreat into your silent, fragile tomes. I’m 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 neighbor’s 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 wife’s words. One day she and the world will be saved because of what is in these books . . . both Hebrew and Sanskrit.”

Mama Cohn’s 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 with cat-tongues.”
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.
“We’re 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 . . .”
He paused.
Mira and Moti leaned forward.
“. . .there was a little girl in Nagercoil, the serpent king’s temple town in the princely South Indian state of Travancore-Cochin. She got no supper until she’d 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 own language.’”
“Ten? Correctly?” said Mira.
Ab nodded.
M & M’s eyes grew large, lined up with his.
“Including: floccinaucinihilipilification.”

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, “She’s sad . . . ”
Moti jumped UP, down. “No, no, I tell you, she’s happy . . . ”
Ab remained motionless, except for a wiggling right ear.

Mira and Moti’s words weaved in and out. Like his naga, Ab remained silent, motionless—listening. 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

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