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Henna House

By
August 1, 2014

I knew that the Confiscator was a bad man. I knew that my father hated and feared him.

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Image by Maya Bloch, 2010, Untitled, acrylic and oil on canvas. Courtesy the artist

“What is wrong with the girl’s eyes?”

“Nothing, she sees fine.” My father cleared his throat and looked down at his work—a single broad piece of leather lay over his bench—the flap to an ordinary market bag.

“But they are too big for her face.”

“If you say so, sir.”

The Confiscator moved closer, coming in front of my father’s bench. I’d ducked behind my father, peeking out from behind his supply shelves. The stranger was tall, thick-shouldered, and had a face so long it seemed to drip down to his belly. He absentmindedly touched the hilt of the jambiya sheathed on a belt around his waist. The ritual curved scimitar was exquisite—the blade a gleaming threat of forged iron, the hilt a mellow-yellow Eritrean ivory, overlaid with two jeweled serpents wrapped around the handle, a band of rubies at the thumb point, and an embossed hawk’s head on the lip of the hilt, representing both mightiness and honor. He wore an expensive maroon silk galabaya with a black turban, his beard carefully tended.

“Eyes like that either see too much of the world or too little of it. And the color—greenish gold? Pretty and ugly at the same time. What is her name?”

My father opened his mouth and then shut it again without speaking.

“What was that? Her name, sir. Surely the imp has a name.”

“Adela…” Almost a whisper

“I have no daughters, only sons.”

“Sons are a blessing.”

“Indeed, they are.”

My father coughed, a wet and phlegmy cough. He took out his handkerchief, blew his nose and studiously avoided the man’s gaze.

“Your health, sir?”

“My health is fine.” My father coughed again.

“Eh…fine?”

That was his job, to pluck children out by the roots from the soil of their birth and replant them in a different garden.

And again, big grating hacks racked my father’s body. The Confiscator’s eyes narrowed, he stepped back until he was halfway out of the stall and screwed up his face in distaste—no he wouldn’t catch this plague, not if he could help it. And yet my father’s obvious weakness clearly gave the Confiscator pleasure. A smile played on the corner of his mouth. He tipped his head foreword to get a better earful of the miserable sound. And still he stared at me—looking at me, seeing me live a different life. For that was his job, to pluck children out by the roots from the soil of their birth and replant them in a different garden.

I stared back at the wealthy stranger. I wasn’t afraid of him yet. I was really only afraid of my mother. No one’s wrath or whims—not even the Confiscator’s—could scare me by comparison. Even then, at only five years old, I saw him perfectly for what he was: a thief, an evildoer, and a descendant of Amalake. I wanted to spit at him, but I knew I would be punished for it in this life and in the World to Come.

“But I am not here to discuss your daughter’s, A—del—a’s, un—for—tu-nate eyes.” He drawled on my name and the word “unfortunate,” stretching them out. “No. I am here to order a pair of bashmag sandals for my wife. She sent me to your stall because her friends say you make shoes that do not hurt before they are worn in. She must have three pairs. She insists that you, and only you, make the shoes she will wear to her sister’s wedding. And clearly I have been put here on earth for the sole purpose of seeing to her pleasure.” He waved a beringed hand. His nails were long, manicured. “Here are her foot measurements. I will be back in two weeks to collect them. And…” the Confiscator nodded in the direction of my hiding place behind the shelves, “make sure the girl is here when I come to pick them up. Yes? You understand me? Good good. It is good that we men understand each other.”

My father didn’t ask why the Confiscator wanted me to be there, and he didn’t ask what would happen to either or both of us if I were elsewhere on the appointed morning. Instead, he asked the Confiscator a few questions about color, texture, and adornment, and then recorded the order in his big ledger.

When the stranger left, I came out from behind the supply shelves. My father placed a hand on my head and patted me softly. He didn’t say, “That man is of no importance,” because it would have been a lie, and my father was not a liar. Instead he murmured a snippet of scripture, referring to the miracle of sight and the clarity of spiritual vision. Then he picked me up and put me on his workbench and kissed my nose, before giving me scraps to play with as he began to ply the leather—making it supple with the caress of his tools.

I knew that the Confiscator was a bad man. I knew that my father hated and feared him.

But it was only later that I understood that he was a bringer of nightmares, a kidnapper. History, religion, and politics had conspired to make him such. What did a little girl know of such subjects? But my father was wise—nothing like his ignorant and innocent daughter—and that is why a tear came to his eye as he tucked an errant lock of hair into my gargush when we left his shop that afternoon. He knew what I was to learn in the coming years—that his lungs were weak and his health fragile, and that as a consequence I was in danger of being stolen away from my faith and family.

History, politics, and religion. I dip my stylus in the dark mists of time. The Confiscator worked for Imam Yahye. Imam Yahye wrested power from the Turks, and had become ruler of the Kingdom of Northern Yemen in 1918, the year of my birth. My family and all of the Yemenite Jews dreaded the Imam’s many decrees. The day the Confiscator first came to my father’s stall, I couldn’t have told you a lick about politics, but I could have reported how often my father and brothers came home stinking like shit, death, and piss, because they had been conscripted to carry dung, cart off sewage, and haul dead animal carcasses. The Imam’s Dung Carriers Decree relegated Jews to the jobs of refuse and carrion collectors. The Donkey Decree forbade the Jews of the north from riding horses. Instead, my father, brothers, and our friends could only ride donkeys, and they couldn’t even ride our donkey, Pishtish, like hearty men—instead they were forced to ride sidesaddle, which limited their ability to travel. There was also the House Decree, which forbade us from building our houses as tall as the houses of our Muslim neighbors. And the Walkers Decree, which forbade us from walking on the same side of the street as a Muslim.

But the worst by far of all the imam’s decrees was the one that brought a tear to my father’s eye the day the Confiscator paid us a visit: the Orphan’s Decree. It called for any orphaned Jewish child to be confiscated, converted, and quickly adopted by a Muslim family if a father died. This meant that Jewish children were ripped out of the arms of newly widowed mothers. That’s why the Confiscator had lingered in my father’s stall—because of my father’s cough. The Confiscator had a quota to fill. Perhaps he had heard that the shoemaker was sickly.

Perhaps he had had his eye on me for a long time already.

That night my parents fought. My father banged his fist on the breadboard and growled, “You must engage Adela—the bastard came to my stall sniffing around for children to put in his pocket. It is your duty as her mother to find her a husband.”

This is how it came to pass that my parents were arguing about my marital status when I hadn’t even lost all of my milk teeth.

I was the youngest of nine, the only girl, and my mother’s last and least-favored child. I was a bitter afterthought—a thorn in the side of my mother’s old age. She would have neglected to betroth me at all, leaving my fate to the whims of chance, but my father, who loved me well, intervened. That night, he reminded her that it was her duty to find me a husband in order to protect me from confiscation. The Jews of the Kingdom engaged their children as toddlers and married them off the moment they reached maturity. Once a child was married, he or she couldn’t be confiscated. This is how it came to pass that my parents were arguing about my marital status when I hadn’t even lost all of my milk teeth.

“If you don’t, I will,” my father threatened, “and for a man to make inquires of this sort is unseemly. But I will do what I must if you refuse to do your duty.”

“My duty?” My mother arched her back, stuck out her slackened breasts and made a crude gesture toward her own sex. “If I had refused to do my duty we wouldn’t have a daughter or eight sons for that matter. Mmph. Don’t speak to me of duty. Now take your dirty hand off of my breadboard. Leave me in peace.”

“But Suli, she is already five years old.”

I was a spinster by our standards. A girl three doors up was engaged when she was two.

The goat-cheese maker’s daughter was engaged while still in the womb. I was like Methuselah, older than time and still unattached.

My mother wiped her nose with the back of her hand. “Leave me in peace if you expect dinner.” As father stalked out, she muttered after him, “What a bother, what a ridiculous bother.”

*                      *                     *

The next time the Confiscator came to my father’s stall, he didn’t mention my eyes, and for most of the exchange he ignored me completely. But even though he didn’t glance in my direction, I felt his gaze upon me. Not his “this-lifetime” eyes, as my Auntie Aminah called them, but his “next-lifetime” eyes—the hooded eyes of the soul that can see into the heart of a small girl. And that is when I learned to fear him. When he saw right through me, making me feel simultaneously naked and invisible.

I crouched in the back of the shop. I was suddenly so afraid that he would take out his jambiya and kill my father with a nick to the jugular or a swift downward blade to the heart that I was almost sick when he finally said my name, “A-del-a, A-del-a, don’t hide little one. Come out and show your face.” I emerged clammy and pale as a ghost. He knelt down so that the folds of his galabaya pooled around his feet. Then he pointed to a beautiful pair of shoes on the shelf, maroon with little embossed florets around the ankles. I had helped my father with the florets. He was teaching me how to press and stamp and glue leather. He didn’t mind that I helped him, even though it was unusual for a girl to help her father in his stall. My mother never cared where I was, as long as I wasn’t bothering her. “My Adela works better than any boy,” my father would brag, but my brothers would hear and torment me for the compliment—with pinches and slaps, and cunning knuckle punches in places where the bruises wouldn’t show.

The Confiscator smiled, “My aren’t they little masterpieces? Maybe when you are older your father will make you a pair like this. Perhaps even for your own wedding? No?”

My father produced the shoes he had made for the Confiscator’s wife. The Confiscator reached out, grasped them both and dangled them by the heels. In front of my eyes, the shoes grew tails, ears, and whiskers, turning into rats that the Confiscator could feed to the snakes on his knife.

“Ahh, the shoes are lovely. You are indeed a master of your trade.”

“Thank you, sir, thank you for your compliments.”

“But I suspect this will only whet my wife’s appetite for such luxuries, and I will be forced to visit you again and again, rather than listen to her berate me for denying her her due.”

On the way out the Confiscator turned, pointed a beringed finger at my father at the exact moment that my father let out a big phlegmy cough.

“I will be back, Mr. Damari,” he croaked, “you can be sure of it. My wife, precious little frog, how can I help but spoil her? You understand how it is with pretty girls. Who are we weak men to resist their wiles?” I buried my face in my father’s legs—though at the last minute I pried myself loose and glared at the Confiscator, a fatal mistake which turned me into a pillar of salt, like Lot’s wife. “Sha sha,” my father ran his hands through my hair. I was cold but sweaty, my gargush askew. “Sha sha, little rabbit, all will be well, sha sha,” he murmured.

*                      *                     *

Despite my father’s pleas, my mother had no interest in “doing her duty” and finding me a groom to protect me from the imam. She knew my father was just blustering when he said that he would take up the task of betrothing me. It wasn’t a man’s job. He wouldn’t have known how to begin. No, my father would just have continued to occasionally bother my mother about it, but she would have continued to ignore him, and me, for that matter, as she had done since I was born. But then my father’s cough worsened and worsened, and he took to his bed. The Angel of Death hovered over our house. He lay ill for three Sabbaths. At the start of the fourth week of my father’s illness, my mother sent me to the market for green onions and turnips for stew. I was making my way home when I saw the Confiscator gesturing to me. He was standing by one of the spice seller’s stalls. I almost turned and ran, but his jambiya pulled me forward, the jeweled serpents on his scimitar twisted around each other, tugging me closer, closer. I was in their thrall. They were alive, their emerald eyes looking deep into my heart, as the hawk on the hilt opened its beak to murmur into my ears, a wild bird-whisper that came to me in a language I knew but didn’t know. The air was heavy with the midday exhalations of the market—cardamom, pepper, saffron, curry, and a curdled whiff of clarified butter from the cheese maker’s stall, an undernote of fly-buzzed slops and fermenting rinds from behind the fruit sellers’ stalls. Somewhere a dog was crying, horrible howls as if he were being beaten. The Confiscator bent down to speak with me. Smiled genially; clearly this was a man used to speaking with children.

Before I could get away, he reached out and touched my face, to the right of my right eye, and then winked at me.

“Your father is ill? Eh? That cough sounded like bad business. You’ll tell him I asked after his health. Won’t you? Won’t you… A—dell—a?”

I took a step back, and then another. But before I could get away, he reached out and touched my face, to the right of my right eye, and then winked at me. In my heart, I heard him speak without words: We are one and the same you and I. We are not strangers? Are we? No, of course not… Where his fingers grazed my forehead, I felt a burning pain. He turned on his heals, his galabaya swishing after him.

How did I get home? I don’t remember. I burst through the door, my heart crazy with extra beats.

“What is it daughter? What happened?”

My gargush had slipped back over my braid. I panted, holding on to the doorpost. My legs would barely hold me up.

Coughing, my father struggled up from his pallet.

“Daughter, what is it? What happened?”

“The Con—fis—cat—or,” I stretched out his name like he had stretched out mine, breaking it. “What?” My mother came in from the back room. “What did you say?” I repeated myself. Her face blanched. She grabbed me by the elbow, and made me sit down on her lap. I don’t remember ever sitting down on her lap, either before or after that morning. She patted my head, and whispered, “Sha sha, little girl,” into my ear as I sobbed with the aftermath of my terror.

But she quickly grew tired of comforting me, tipped me off her lap, snorted, and said, “Stop mewling and see to your chores.”

That night I didn’t sleep. A hot wind had descended on the mountains. It was an uncommonly warm spring, when the rains were few, and the sun seemed to be coming closer, day by day, as if intent on collecting some debt from the dust and sand. That whole season men climbed up to their roofs and slept in the lightest of garments. Women too shrugged off their modesty and joined their men on the roofs, desperate for a cooling breeze. That night, on the roof with my parents, I lay hour after hour staring at the stars—the stars that seemed to rearrange themselves into constellations that frightened and rebuked me. Serpents and hawks and other angry animals were all perched on twinkling knife blades, hanging in the firmament above me precariously, threatening to fall. All night long I heard my father’s rasping breath, punctuated by coughs that wracked his body. I thought about the Confiscator. I wondered not if he would take me but when. My fear was a red-hot fire behind my face, stoked all night by the waves of coughing that made my father groan and wheeze. My fear was justified. My father seemed deathly ill. Worse than ever before, and the Confiscator had looked straight into my heart—why, he even knew my name. A-del-a, he had said, breaking my name into jagged little pieces.

G

Excerpted from Henna House by Nomi Eve. Copyright 2014 © Nomi Eve. Reprinted with permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Author Image

Nomi Eve is the author of The Family Orchard, which was a Book of the Month Club main selection and was nominated for a National Jewish Book Award. She has an MFA in fiction writing from Brown University and has worked as a freelance book reviewer for The Village Voice and New York Newsday. Her stories have appeared in Glimmer Train Stories, Voice Literary Supplement, and The International Quarterly. She lives in Philadelphia, PA, with her family.
Image by Patrick Snook

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