The smell of burning dates filled their hohsh. Ezra skillfully flipped
over a ras-ib-adjway1 on the brass plate and rubbed his hot fingertips against
the side of his pants. “Pauline!” he called to his sister. “You burned the
In the kitchen, Pauline sagged, and her puffy cotton dress sagged with her. The
smell of Turkish coffee boiling over sent her running to the stove. She wiped
her hand across her sweaty brow and grabbed the pot with the side of her apron.
“Everything is always my fault!” she yelled through the open counter that
connected the kitchen with the dining area. “If the food burns, if Margo needs
to be changed, if Margo decides to wander off! It didn’t rain all week. Is that
my fault too?”
Ezra glanced back at his sister. He raised his eyebrows and pinched his nose.
“Sorry, you probably didn’t know that the baker cooked them already. All you
need to do is warm them.”
Pauline turned her face away from Ezra and reached for a spice box hanging on
the wall. She walked back and forth, shaking the silver box from right to left,
sprinkling clear droplets about. The scent of rose water filled the air.
“There!” she said smugly.
I hope she doesn’t cry again, he thought, reaching into the kitchen drawer for a
knife. It had been that way since she met with the marriage broker. With the
back of the knife, Ezra scraped the burnt spot off the date cake. Then he blew
the black dust off the plate. He watched the dust blend with the many patterns
in the Persian carpet below.
Eliyahu Shamah hurried in from the study, shuffling his papers. He headed
straight for the kitchen and popped open the top cabinet. “The extra key to the
hohsh is missing. Did any of you see it?”
Pauline plopped into a chair in the hall, opposite the kitchen. “Maybe Hagar put
it in one of those drawers when she cleaned up this morning. Where is Hagar
“The servants are afraid,” said Eliyahu, searching through the bottom drawer
now. “They want to stay away from Jewish homes until things calm down.”
“But Mother is due next week,” Pauline told him.
Eliyahu Shamah slammed the drawer and shot her a look. “I am well aware of that.
But let’s not forget, your mother is depending on all of us. And let’s also hope
that Hagar is our worst problem. Kabir hasn’t shown up today either.”
With all the servants gone, not being able to find the key was not good news.
But to avoid panic, Eliyahu dropped the subject for now.
Across from the dining area, Ezra followed his father down the stairs to the
sitting room. Through the windows of the sunken room, Ezra had a clear view of
the courtyard. He waited for his father to light the coals on the nargeeleh2 and
smoke his tobacco. Instead, Eliyahu walked right past the pot with the snakelike
pipe and eased himself into the sofa. He rested the back of his head on its top
edge, knocking his tarboush3 against the wall behind. His eyes stretched wide
open as he smoothed his curly black eyebrows. When he did that, you could see
the lines running across his forehead. His bronze sun- weathered face shone
around gentle eyes.
Afraid to disturb him, Ezra inched beside his father. Most of the time, Eliyahu
lived the expression; Children are most enjoyable when they are seen and not
Something about the key triggered an image in Ezra’s mind. That big key to the
metal door. Where did he see it? Like a gazelle, it skipped across his thoughts
until he trapped it. Then, forgetting his subtlety, he blurted it out. “I
remember! The key — It was tied to a string. Kabir has it!”
Eliyahu looked up from his glasses.
Ezra continued. “He walked behind the trees in the courtyard, spinning it around
his finger. He said he needed it for his own privacy on the nights he slept in
the courtyard. Sometimes, like when he cut the bushes, he tied the key to his
ankle. The rope was turquoise. You could see it hanging from his ankle because
his robe was always too short.”
“Did you see him return it?”
“No. Now that I think about it, I also saw him wearing it after the Shabbat4
dinner, when he came to put out the cooking fires. But it was strange because
later he was not wearing it.”
“When was that?” his father asked.
“The same night when he returned to shut the lights before we went to sleep.”
Ezra shifted on the sofa, crunching up his father’s papers.
Eliyahu pulled his papers out from under Ezra. “I should have made rules about
that key,” he huffed, smoothing out the papers.
1. ras-ib-adjway — (Arabic) date cake.
2. nargeeleh — (Arabic) a water pipe with a flexible tube for smoking tabacco.
3. tarboush — (Arabic) a flat-topped brimless hat, usually red but sometimes
4. Shabbat — (Hebrew) the Sabbath.