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The Salt Covenants-Chapter 1 Excerpt


I have broken Mama’s heart.

That thought has festered a fortnight. Our physician, Hernando Diaz, would call it a lingering agitation, the kind that upsets the bodily humors. He is full of such vague assertions. I am not as vague. I picture sores, like the ones on Catalina’s legs, marring the fabric of my brain and robbing it of peace.

The soft shuffle of Mama’s feet pulls me from my thoughts, and I turn from the cupboard. Please . . . look at me. But she does not. Her eyes have not met mine in weeks. And the silence between us is as thick as the Pillars of Hercules. It is strange, this silence, so foreign to us who once discussed the writings of Maimonides and Rashi for endless hours. I have the power to repair this breach but I will not. Even now that knowledge overwhelms me, and I wonder at the wisdom of my confession. I have learned too late that confessions are not always the satisfying exercise one anticipates, unless they are made to God.

 “I have checked the larder for mold, and bunched the sage.” I wait for Mama’s response, but she just raises her knife in the air. The metal glints as it catches the light coming through the small overhead windows. In one swift motion she drags the blade across the edge of her thumb nail. A sliver, like an almond chip, flies across the room and disappears. My heart flies with it, for I know she is testing to see that the knife conforms to halakah, to Jewish law.

Oh Mama.

A rivulet of sweat works its way down her cheek, then her chin, then follows along the hollow of her neck, and ends at the large emerald hanging below her throat. Grandpapa’s gift. She has not worn it in months. Many claim emeralds bring success. Does she wear it now hoping to successfully turn me from my course, from the course I have foolishly revealed to her?

My stomach churns as I remove the ring of keys pinned to my bodice. The keys are a trust, an honor bestowed, for they secure all that is valuable in our home. It is a privilege reserved for the woman of the house or a trusted steward. I am neither, though Papa says I am better than any steward he has known. And Mama says my skills and good sense have earned me the honor.

But that was before Eastertide.

I unlock the spice cabinet; then take out a cone of sugar, all the while keeping Mama in my line of vision. She is busy stoking the embers beneath a large clay pot. Already the aroma of galingale and grains of paradise fills the room. Because she uses the large pot and not the one hanging from the tooth iron rack, I know there will be guests at our table tomorrow, and I am encouraged. Perhaps they will bring laughter into our sad home.

But my feelings of hope plummet when I notice the large leg of lamb sitting on the woodblock. Mama will certainly purge it to make it ritually clean. I watch her slice the lamb lengthwise, remove the vein, then begin to remove the fat. The back of my neck is a tangle of nerves as I glance around to see if anyone is watching. A foolish gesture. It is, after all, Friday, and as usual all our servants have been sent to the groves.

I squeeze the sugar tighter as Mama works. I must not speak. But even before the thought becomes vapor, I blurt, “Inesita Garcia was burned at the stake for purging her meat like that. You must stop this. Eventually someone will see. Eventually someone will tell.”

Mama looks up and finally meets my gaze. Her eyes are as blue as the rivers of Galicia, testifying that Ashkenazi blood intermingles with the Sephardic. Surprisingly, there is no anger in them, only shame for what I know she considers a cowardly remark. But I cannot stop now. I have opened this wound, and that took as much courage as Mama opening the lamb, though I doubt she would see it that way.

“We must be careful, now that Catalina has been discharged.”

Mama blows the tendril of hair that has escaped her netted halo-like headdress, and I notice, with surprise, how gray she has become. “Am I a child that you need to caution me? Do I not always send the servants away and prepare the Sabbath meal myself?”

“More than one person has been called to the Holy House because of the testimony of a vindictive servant.”

“She had to be discharged. This is a respectable home. The scabs alone condemn her.”

I carry the sugar to the table where the mortar and pestle sit. A month ago I overheard our physician call Catalina’s scabs, las buas. These days las buas is as common as cankers, and I am old enough to understand how they are passed between a man and a woman when the oil lamps go out.

I also understand Mama’s objection. Catalina is not married.

“I do not question your action. I only remind you of its danger.”

“Danger?” Mama stops working the meat. Her long linen apron, newly made from the quarterly allocation of household fabric, is still unstained. In it she looks like a large sail blowing out over the deck of her kitchen. “Danger?” she repeats. “When you have been through as many pogroms as I, then speak to me of danger. Besides, what has changed? Why are you so worried now?”