Translated by Ilana Kurshan
My grandmother is what is known as a colorful woman. There are many elements that contribute to her colorfulness: black shawls draped over her body like witches’ capes; great fans with lace trims, sparkly polish decorating her sharp long nails; an oversized brass ring adorning her fourth finger; and a necklace of pearls from the Sea of Casablanca that accentuate the gleam in her eye, the gleam of one who can see into the future.
Savta’s name is Sarah, a simple and down-to-earth name that hardly befits her mischievous nature. The name of her twin sister who died, Zahara, suits her much better.
The walls in our home are mostly bare, but Zahara’s photo hangs in the hallway, and her eyes follow anyone who passes by.
She is a woman whose splendor is apparent even in black-and-white. Her photo is staged, with Zahara leaning against some sort of wall as if to minimize her height, which was considered “unacceptable” there. She directs her eyes to the camera. At the bottom of the photo, just above her shoes, a peeling sticker bears the French name Elias.
“The best photographer in Casablanca,” Savta would tell us. In the photo Zahara is wearing white heeled shoes and a hand-embroidered caftan. On good days, Savta showcases Zahara’s wardrobe. Her shoes are too big and she had to send a caftan to a seamstress to shorten, but she prances around in them like a Berber queen.
My twin sister Effie and I grew up with this photo. If there were any other photos of Zahara, we never found a trace of them. But the more we examined this one, the more details we discovered. For instance, Zahara’s delicate skin. She had skin as thin and as wrinkled as silk, which according to Savta was the source of her strength. Savta would direct our gaze: “No, look around her body,” she would tell us. “Don’t look too hard.” Slowly we learned to let our eyes hover over the photo, and indeed, after a few minutes of staring, a sparkling halo would envelop Zahara’s body. Her eyes would extend towards us, as if confined only by the frame of the photo, and if we continued to stare, her strange gaze began to appear hollow. Aside from a small mole underneath her right eye, there was no resemblance whatsoever between the two sisters.
Savta would insist upon our absolute admiration for Zahara. “Tell me, is she beautiful or is she beautiful?”
Even in the black-and-white photos, Zahara’s brilliance was apparent. Effie resembles her. But the two of us, well-trained, would shake our heads. “No, what’s so beautiful about her?” We knew that Savta was preparing to tell a story, and there was no point in trying to stop her.
Effie would ask, “What did she die of?” And Savta would answer, “Of witchcraft.” And she would add, “Zahara did not know how to deal with demons.”
“Who knows how to deal with demons?” I would inquire.
And Savta, the knowing expert, would pound her fists on her chest and declare, “I do.”
The story never changed. Savta has several stories that rise like dough each time she retells them, but not this one.
Zahara and Sarah were born in a village. “Next to Kativa,” she rebuked Effie when she opened an atlas. “You’ll never find it, because it’s such a small village that if it were to appear on a map, your eyes would have to pop out of their sockets to see it. Even the king never reached it to collect taxes.”
She continued, “Everyone loved her, except for me. I knew her dark side. Everyone called her the Miziyana.”
And here, Savta would stop and give her audience a chance to confess that we did not understand. “Miziyana?”
“Beautiful one. But I know that she was as terrible as she was beautiful. She left me to do all the dirty work. We would walk to fill up jugs of water, and I would carry the jug the whole way, like this, on my head,” she demonstrated. “She would always run off just before we got to the river.”
At this point, Savta would pause to give us a lesson in geography. “The river was very wide. Just before the river was a spring where we used to fill our jugs with water, next to an almond blossom that never had any almonds. We were forbidden to go alone to the spring, because all sorts of bad things happened there. But Zahara would wait for me to bend down to fill up the jug, and then she would suddenly disappear. She would always run off and leave me to fill the jug by myself. And it was not a small jug either; it was this big.” Savta would point to the full depth of the space in which we were sitting.
“This big?” Effie would gape.
“OK, maybe a little smaller,” she would concede, and then continue. “Once I left the jug next to the river and followed her. Zahara dug in the earth and took out something shiny as a coin. At that moment, her face twisted into a strange contortion. “
She would sigh and go on, “Miziroba. Black-face. All the Miziyana couldn’t help her. One needs to know how to conduct oneself in the presence of demons.”
And then she would sit quietly for a few minutes. We would absorb what she had told us, each in her own way. My mother, who often joined us, would fix her gaze somewhere on the ceiling, and I was suddenly seized by a chill, as if the cold water from the jug had been poured right on to my head. And Effie—it was always Effie—would ask, “But what did she die of?”
“I told you,” Savta would say, increasingly angry. “Of witchcraft. Demon, like humans, love gold. They won’t come and say: Excuse me please, can I have a bit of gold?”
“But what caused her face to contort?” I would ask. Savta would sigh, turning her gaze to invoke some invisible presence to explain to her hopelessly uncomprehending granddaughters.
“How can I explain it? It was like lightning struck her face,”
Effie would knowingly ask, “Maybe she was bitten by a snake? Snakebites are known to turn the skin black.”
But Savta was insistent “She died of magic. That’s what it was. Not a snake and not a scorpion.”
After that, she ran and called her father.
“At first he yelled at me and asked me where the water was. I tried to explain to him about Zahara, but he kept repeating, “Where’s the water?” Then, when he realized that something had happened to his Miziyana, he abandoned everything and came with me.
Savta would pause for a dramatic intake of breath and then continue with an expression of contentment, “And there was Zahara, thrown upon the ground. Her face was black and hard, and all of her Miziyana was gone. And I understood that I had an important role to play. They had chosen me, but I knew that in order to succeed, I would need her name. And so I stole it.”
The notion that our Savta was chosen, and that we, as her granddaughters, were by extension also chosen, sparked our imaginations. Effie would insist that Savta explain what role exactly she was chosen for, and in which world; but this was where the story ended. Savta never agreed to elaborate on the nature of the important task for which she was destined.
In our room or in the kitchen, in the living room or on the roof, the story was always the same; each time, it was only the atmosphere that varied slightly. In the basement, when darkness enveloped us like a thick blanket, we felt suffocated. The long limbs of the story reached out and seized us from the four walls of the basement. On the roof, at night, the pale light of the moon beamed forth from among the clouds and penetrated our hearts. Always we would sit and listen and plead with Savta to continue. But a good storyteller knows not just how to tell a story, but also when to stop.
Savta believes fervently in the underworld. She knows how to handle demons, and every so often she invites Lilith to our home. We have yet to meet Lilith, but Savta promises that the day will come; in the meantime, she trains us to do magic in the basement. The basement is cold and dark, with only a few lights illuminating the space. The walls are of uneven texture, and we sit on the floor on a colorful rug.
Savta pours dust into a bowl. The dust is gray and smells of talc, and its composition changes each time. Generally it is made up of the ground bones of birds.
“This dust is very expensive,” Savta emphasizes. “It is leftover from the market in Kativa.” She pours in a liquid that looks like carbonated water. When the batter rises, she turns to the window, sighs, and mumbles under her breath.
Savta holds on to Effie—it is always Effie—and with her free hand, she holds the bowl and spins it around on top of my head and Mother’s head. We stand there with serious expressions on our faces and wait to see what will happen.
Nothing happens. At least not immediately.
But sometime after the ritual is concluded, someone’s luck changes for the better. We are accepted to a new school. Or I get a job offer. Or mother returns home with a more cheerful look on her face. Or Effie finds meaning in one of the many self-actualization workshops she attends.
“What does Lilith look like?”Effie or I would inquire.
And Savta would answer, “She is very pretty. And red. But her appearance changes. You can identify her only by her legs. She has chicken legs. Lilith loves nice legs. That’s how it is; everyone loves what they don’t have. But with Lilith, you really must be careful. Anyone who spends too much time with her risks losing one of three things: Sight, sons, or a spouse.
“What about you?” we would inquire, worried.
“Me?” She would laugh or wave her hand dismissively. “I already voluntarily gave up on two of the three. Lilith doesn’t need to do me any favors.”
Sight, we’d think. That explains the hollow look in Zahara’s eyes.
With every fabric of her being, Savta despises Ashmedai, the male counterpart to Lilith.
“He is a man disguised as a demon,” she explains. She forbids us even to speak his name. As if we had nothing better to do all day, Effie and I, than to summon Ashmedai.
The brass ring on Savta’s finger belonged to her husband, and with it one could defeat any man. This talisman is wasted on her.
Aside from Lilith, Savta also has dealings with holy men. If there are men who can come to her aid, then why not, she reasons. The ancient rabbis—our sages of blessed memory—are often the objects of her harassment.
Rabbi Shimon is summoned nearly every day: When a loaf of bread burns, when the chicken dries out in the oven, when beet juice splashes on the wall – as invariably happens when Savta tries her hand at anything in the kitchen.
Rabbi Meir, master of miracles, is one rank above Rabbi Shimon. He is summoned in times of trial, when money is tight or someone is in need of assistance.
Rabbi Akiva is summoned only as a last resort.
Savta wants us to be religious. Our monastic life allows for a close connection with the Holy One Blessed Be He. Given that there are no men in our lives, we observe the dictum that “the honor of the king’s daughter is within.” The television is always broken anyway. Moreover, a woman who can sort beans can surely master the art of keeping separate dishes. And is it really so much to ask of one who summons demons to keep the Sabbath? Savta lectures us on the prohibition on kindling fire on the Sabbath: “Fire and water are very dangerous elements. There are days when it is best not to light a match.” But every Friday night the smoke from her cigarettes filters down the stairwell. Savta smokes thin “Vogue” cigarettes through pursed lips, and God is so afraid of her that He overlooks her offense. And not just God. The entire underworld is afraid of Savta, to the extent that there are no voices of protest when she cuts her fingernails at night.
“Would you want someone to throw dirty fingernails on your head?” Savta would rebuke Effie, who would always make a point of cutting her fingernails at night. “The night is their time.”
I never had a problem with this. I am a professional nailbiter. As soon as a millimeter of nail grows, I cut it off with my teeth.
Effie would grumble, “What is the difference between night and day?”
And Savta would respond angrily, “I already explained it to you. At night the demons rule. That is how God ordained it, so that we would not get in each other’s way. Your fingernails contain all the material that comprises your being. Would you want them to use your fingernails to create another Effie?”
And I would think, “to create another Effie,” “to create another Talush.” These were the magic words that explained the phenomenon of duplication.
Savta taught us that everyone has a shade, a sort of reflected image. “Sometimes they go out to wander, and then,” she cautioned, “it is very important not to relate to them. Demons are like dogs. They can smell fear.”
The shades were our greatest terror: the notion that we might meet someone identical to ourselves, and that someone might get confused and send us—instead of the double—into the bowels of the earth, and from there to flow through the disgusting sewer pipes. From the bowels of the earth one had to run terrible errands: kidnapping children in their sleep, seducing married men, drowning girls in the sewers. At night, we were especially terrified of encountering our shades, and so we never went to the bathroom alone.
Across from the bathroom hung a great mirror, which was the source of much debate. Was it better to pee with the bathroom door open, but thereby risk glimpsing ourselves in the mirror? Or perhaps it was better to close the door, so that the silence would close in on us. Ultimately, with time, we found a solution. One of us would pee with the door open, with the other standing with her back to the mirror, and the third person, generally Mother, would stand guard in the hallway.
Meanwhile, Savta would sleep peacefully upstairs. She was never afraid to go to the bathroom at any time of day or night.
We were also forbidden to pour boiling water into the sink. There was no problem with pouring sulfuric acid to unclog the drain, but boiling water was strictly off limits.
“To pour boiling water on those below can lead only to trouble,” Savta would declare.
But all the while, she would cut her nails freely and pour water down the drain with abandon and peer endlessly at her reflection in the mirror, and the creatures of the underworld would observe without objection, as usual.
Savta had her own private entrance, which would have made our lives a bit more comfortable, except that she never used it.
Next to this door was a ladder which we used to climb up to the roof of our home. The ladder annoyed Savta. “Why do you leave a ladder there?” she would criticize my mother. “Why not just offer the robbers food and set out a welcome mat?”
“What is there to steal?” mother would ask each time anew.
In the winter we would gather in the living room, the red carpet spread out before us.
“With this carpet,” Savta would narrate, “my family arrived at the village. Before then, in Cera, a Muslim man fell in love with Zahara. To prevent him from kidnapping her, we all sat on this carpet, took off, and landed in the village.”
“But there isn’t enough roof on this carpet,” Effie objected. Mother, in one of her rare interjections, responded, “That’s what bothers you, that there wasn’t enough room? What about the fact that the carpet could fly?”