A Story of Blood

"A Story of Blood" won the Elias Canetti Prize for Fiction in the 1998 National Sephardi Literary Contest.  On the fiction jury were Victor Perera, Ilan Stavans and Jordan Elgrably.

by Gloria De Vidas Kirchheimer


In Louise Maimon's home, one of her father's favorite pastimes was to point out the rich and famous among the Sephardim.  On Saturday afternoons, a broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera performance of Carmen might bring Salvo running into the living room even though his taste in music stopped with John Philip Sousa, an Ur-American whose music made his chest swell with pride. Carmen, with its Hispanic rhythms and castanets, would not have been enough to hold him for five minutesóbut if Regine Crespin was singing---well, then!  Crespin was one of ours, "de los muestros," no doubt related to Salvo's childhood friend from Izmir, Alberto Crespin, otherwise known as "peppino" or cucumber.  Regine Crespin justified raising the volume in a house where a taste for classical music was usually deemed a sign of a daughter's snobbery.  Salvo's former business partner had purchased a subscription to the opera, which led Salvo to fulminate against the pretentiousness of a man who had had to be instructed in the use of cutlery.  The partner had gone from pushcart peddler to philanthropist, signing checks with abandon, a man who, according to Salvo, did not even know how to read let alone write his name.

Speaking of los muestros, which they were always doing in Louise's house, there was the Utah Symphony Orchestra which, to a man like Salvo, who was singularly devoid of interest in symphonic music, was assuredly the finest orchestra in the United States because it was conducted by Maurice Abravanel.  And how could they forget the designer and illustrator, a Mr. Benghiatt who had a typeface named after him, and whose work hung in the Museum of Modern Artówhich did not excuse the insult allegedly delivered by an elder Benghiatt to great-uncle Jacques Maimon half a century earlier in Istanbul when the Benghiatt in question had refused to invite him to his daughter's wedding.  And did they not also have Chief Justice Benjamin Cardozo and other luminaries, not least of whom was Christopher Columbus himself, about whom there might be controversy among scholars but not among those who knew, incontrovertibly, that he was de los muestros.

It is not common knowledge that a woman sailed with Christopher Columbus.  We find references to her in the peculiar mélange of languages Columbus sometimes used in his diaries.  This from a marginal note in his second Viaje:  "Et mulia tiene moltos sognos [cares or dreams?] sed mare [or madre--ms. unclear] non fecit." Perhaps she was of noble family, in hiding because of her religion (Jewish) or her pregnancy or both. 
 In the manner of Anastasia, women have come forward over the centuries, claiming to be descended from Columbus and his mysterious companion.  With the exception of one Eli Cicourel, formerly of Izmir, Turkey, and later of Astoria, Queens, no other male has made this claim.

Louise Maimon's mother, Regina, had been born a Bar-David in Alexandria, Egypt.  The official on Ellis Island, hearing the name Bar-David, wrote it as Bar Doved (having come across a little Yiddish in his time).  The French word for dove is colombe, and one can only conjecture that Louise's mother, a woman of great beauty and culinary prowess, did not fail to note the singular coincidence between the bird and the explorer.  She had been primed by Arab fortune tellers to believe that she was a princess and would cross the sea, as she had in another life, accompanied by an admiral.  She had indeed crossed the sea, accompanied by a porcelain salesman, her new husband Salvo Maimon.  Perhaps while correcting the spelling of her maiden name, Regina showed the harried official the tiny cruciform scar in the crook of her left elbow, a small disfiguration with calligraphic indentations at each of the four extremities (north, south, east, etc.)

Her daughter Louise also bore this mark and assumed that, like buck teeth, it was a hereditary flaw.  Regina had not revealed the scar's significance, this being one of the many mysteries Sephardic young women were expected to unravel through their own efforts.

Louise Maimon grew up surrounded by innuendo, learning to translate almost before she could speak.  Her mother's invitation to a guest to loosen his necktie could be translated as:  "Louise, open the window, I am dying of the heat."  If Salvo said to Louise, "Correct me if I'm wrong," it meant that any disagreement between father and daughter would seriously undermine the very foundation of Jewish life and might well be the leading cause of heart attacks in Nassau County.

All of Louise's childhood illnesses were attended by the evil eye ritual administered by her mother.  Who can say that it was not effective?  Chicken pox and measles had left no trace on that olive-skinned, slightly surly countenance.  Sitting at her daughter's bedside and clutching an ounce of salt in her right hand, Regina would recite her incantation, a mixture of begats and blessings, partly in Hebrew and partly in Ladino, the ancestral language still spoken in the Maimon home.  If the spell was working, Regina found herself yawning uncontrollably.  While Louise mimicked and giggled, Regina would continue to wave her hand over her daughter's head, never missing a word and smiling occasionally through her yawns.  The incantation over, Louise was forced to endure the application of a little salt to her palate while the rest was thrown away over her left shoulder.

Once, during a break in her advanced topology class, (she was in a graduate mathematics program) Louise made the mistake of enacting the ritual for the amusement of her friends in the NYU cafeteria.  She poured a handful of salt from the greasy salt cellar and proceeded to wave her hand about, reciting whatever she could recall.  To her astonishment she found herself yawning violently.  Spilling the salt all over herself she vowed never again to attempt the demonstration. 

She had not learned the ritual by asking her mother to teach it to her, since that was forbidden.  Only by over-hearing the mother perform it could the daughter learn the spell. Louise knew her family considered her a failure: no husband at 30 nor any prospects of one, and no hobbies.  She found it difficult to make decisions but attributed this to being ambidextrous. 

Enter a young man called Timothy Ezratty, a fledgling doctor from Los Angeles whose parents were neighbors of  Louise's uncle Marco and his Ashkenazi wife, Helen, a woman who wore harlequin-shaped eyeglasses and lacked what the Sephardim called "pimienta" or pepper.  After 40 years in the Maimon clan she still hoped that working with Chicano ladies would endear her to the family. 

To Louise's father California signified madness and blood.  People who barbecued all day and drove 100 miles per hour on their freeways and who buried their pets with benefit of clergy were bound to be mad.  Blood, on the other hand, meant family and family was holiness.  To Salvo, the shortest distance between New York and California was the number of relatives one could count on for accommodations.  Blood was not always a guarantee of amity, however.  During his brother Marco's last visit,  the two men had nearly assaulted each other over the privilege of picking up the check at the International House of Pancakes.  Each had flung upon the table an awesome wad of bills; Salvo's face had turned purple, his veins stood out, a veritable Noh mask of rage.  Each brother had cursed the other in his zeal to convey the depth of his familial passion but the proprietor had intervened and the check was split.

And now, here was a Timothy (what kind of name was that for a Sephardic boy?  Was there tainted genealogy here?)---Timothy asking to come and visit for a most urgent reason, armed with a letter of introduction from Salvoís brother. 

The two young people sized each other up, favorably, while being plied with Reginaís famous borecas, fritadas, boyos, courrabies, and biscochos---just a snack, Regina said fondly.  They were in the sun porch of the Maimon's house in Long Beach, a place known for its salubrious sea air which, as everyone knew, cured all maladies. 

Regina interrupted the conversation periodically to inquire whether everyone was breathing. 
 "We would be dead if we werenít breathing," Louise said. 
 "But we have an eminent doctor with us," Salvo said jovially pointing to his guest.
 "Not yet, not yet," Timothy said.  "That's why I'm here.  Why are there no doctors in your family?  After all, Maimonides was the great healer and your name is Maimon." 
 "We canít stand the sight of blood," Louise said.
 "The name is just a coincidence," Salvo said.  "Besides, Maimonides was a radical."

 "We are registered Democrats," Regina said, offering round yet another tray of food.  So what if Leon Habib came and found it all gone.  It would serve him right, the moocher.  Leon was Salvo's old school fellow from Turkey, a present-day miser and probably celibate.  On Sundays he dropped in for lunch at the Nahums, coffee at the Sebags, dinner at the Maimons.  Everyone vied for his company.  Regina because of her reputation as cook; the Soninos because, known as "the Vatican," they felt an obligation to those less fortunate; the Hamaouis because they cheated Leon's  family two centuries earlier in Iraq. 

This is what Regina's life had come to, after all those promises made by the fortune tellers of her youth.  What good had it done her to be descended from Christopher Columbus?  She was lucky if Salvo condescended to take her out in a fishing boat. 

 "Oh my goodness," she exclaimed inverting her Turkish coffee cup and peering into the grounds.  "What do I see?"
 "I don't know," Louise said rhetorically, "what do you see?"
 "I don't see the sugar," Salvo said, waving his spoon.
 "Louise is going to be very lucky." Regina studied the dregs.
 "That's what you told me last time, Mom."
 "What nonsense," Salvo said.  "You call yourselves liberated women?  Isnít there any sugar in this house?"
 "Louise is going on a trip," Regina said.
 "I stopped tripping in high school."
 "Make fun," her mother said,  "I don't mind."
 "Remind me to show you my blue stone," said Louise.  "It's supposed to keep the evil eye away from me."
 "It seems to be working so far," Timothy said.

The young people went to the boardwalk for a stroll.  Timothy seemed well-balanced for a person from California, Louise thought.  Then he explained why he had sought out the Maimon family in New York.  While he was premed, an angel had appeared to him one night in a dream and confirmed what he had always suspected: his next-door neighbors, the Maimons, were descended from Moses Maimonides, the great physician.  In the dream the angel held the caduceus in one hand---that winged staff with the two snakes coiled around it, the symbol of the medical professionóand in the other hand, a jar of yogurt.  (Yes, Louise remembered, the pioneer who had brought it to America had been de los muestros).  The angel had commanded Timothy to found a clinic based on Maimonides' teachings.

 "But how did the angel know you were premed?" she asked---then caught herself.  "Of course there was no premed in Maimonides time," she added.  But they did have mathematics, she thought with a sudden nostalgia of infinite and irrational numbers, the glimpses she'd had into charmed quarks and astrophysics.  Dreamily she rubbed the scar on her elbow.

 "This has been on  my mind for a long time.  I wanted to get a feel for the whole family," Timothy said, not touching her, not yet.  "I thought it might help me focus."  For the longest moment they stared at one another.  Around them people seemed to be breathing in a satisfactory way.  The smell of knishes wafted out of the concession stand behind them.  It became suddenly clear to Louise that if Timothy could investigate the inner workings of the body, she could explore the outer reaches of the universe, either as an astronaut or more likely, as a cartographer of outer space. 

 In the meantime there were earthly delights to contemplate since Timothy had promised to stay in touch. 
 When after a year it became evident that Louise's frequent trips to the West Coast showed no sign of letting up, and no other man was spoken about save her thesis advisor, Regina was overjoyed. Perhaps this Timothy Ezratty-was he not related to the dentist Ezratty who had almost gone down with the Titanic?---perhaps he was the scion of some great family from another golden age in another land.   Surely the union between this young man and the putative descendant of Christopher Columbus deserved to be recorded in History rather than merely in the Long Island Daily Press. 

And it came to pass in one of those wedding palaces off the Sunrise Highway in Long Island that the rabbi proclaimed in suburban Hebrew the authenticity of the marriage contract drawn up several thousand years ago in the original Aramaic (holding it up for viewing) and now validated in Roslyn Heights.  But once the bandleader had ordered all those couples who married for sex, for love, for money, out on the floor, and when he had done with asking for applause for the happy couple (a quick glance at his notes for the names) then blood took over, the blood of the Sephardim.  It fired up the instrumentalists, and cowed the rabbi and the small Ashkenazi contingent on the groom's motherís side, and music erupted.  The women threw back their heads, coins plastered to their foreheads.  Men, aged but smoldering, fell to one knee, provoking their women with white handkerchiefs.  The Greek guests did their decorous ceremonial dance. There was even a belly dancer, Uncle Marco's present, quivering her body as men stuffed dollar bills into the back of her G-string and into her sequined bosom.
 Louiseís mother insisted that her daughter wear around her neck the hand-shaped talisman, the hamsa, she had received from her own mother before coming to America.  Within the amulet was a piece of parchment with faded Hebrew lettering. The words, if ever read aloud would not be Hebrew but Ladino: "El Almirante estaba enamorado de.. .[blurred] mujer, hija de David."  The admiral loved . . .[?] woman, daughter of David . . .

As with the evil eye spell, Louise would have to make this discovery unaided. 

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Order your copy of Goodbye, Evil Eye from Holmes & Meier Distribution, 800-698-7781. 

Gloria De Vidas Kirchheimerís short story collection, Goodbye, Evil Eye is published by Holmes & Meier Publishers.  She is the author, with Manfred Kirchheimer, of We Were So Beloved: Autobiography of a German Jewish Community(University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997).  Email her at .