After many years away from home I had gone back to visit. I was sitting in Aunt Maryam’s living room (she instead of my mother had raised me). She was drawing vivid pictures of people I had known growing up.
“Do you know Farogh has three children now? Her oldest son was killed in the war and poor Farogh has been fainting at least once a day ever since. Everyone says it is because she stopped praying after God took her son away.”
“Remember Hassan? The truck he was driving turned over and he died instantly. His face was smashed, his body shredded. No wonder, he was an evil man.”
Maryam’s stories left nothing to chance. Yet all the complexity and elusiveness of my years growing up echoed through her words. I thought of the starry nights I had lain beside her on the roof and she telling me stories about what went on inside of those shiny planets, and the heavy silence of mid afternoons when everyone was asleep and the pigeons stood drowsily in their cages, of the inexplicable excitement I felt as I lay beside my cousin on a sofa, listening to him telling me about his adventures in the neighborhood. The picture of people renting rooms from my aunt in rows on two sides of the courtyard came back to me—the woman who hid in our rooms to escape from her abusive husband, the young girl who was forced by her parents to marry a man twice her age and had killed herself on the wedding day. Then I remembered Fatemeh, a tall slender woman with thick black hair, braided in several strands. Because of her striking beauty she had once been a candidate to be the late Shah’s bride. I recalled her soft touch as she handed me things—a plate of food, a bouquet of flowers. I recalled the mystery about her not being married.
“She finally married someone her own age, a handsome, young man working in an office,” my aunt explained. “…then he began to bring boys home with him… He must have had a spell on her; she never tried to leave him. But one day he left, disappeared. With all the pain he had inflicted on her, she pined after him. She searched for him everywhere, even in Tabriz, where he came from, but she never found him. Then she stopped the search and never mentioned his name again. But she had changed. Once she tried to drown herself in the reservoir. Another time she jumped from the roof, but was unharmed because she fell on the mattress that I had spread on the ground to dry out. One afternoon she began to throw out all her belongings into the street. Her sister, living across the street, and their brother came over and put her in a sanitarium. When she was released they kept her in chains in her sister’s basement. She is still there, now tied to a pole.”
That afternoon as I was standing at the edge of the roof, looking at Fatemeh’s sister’s house, its gables filled with pigeons, I had a glimpse of Fatemeh being brought onto the porch. Her hands were tied behind her with a chain, the end of which was held by a young girl I assumed to be her niece. Fatemeh was stooping, and her chin touched her chest. The black strands of hair had turned to a mass of unkempt gray. Even from the distance I could see the frightened expression on her face, expressing all the blows she had received and expecting new ones. Only in her large dark eyes could I see her as she had once been but even they seemed crazed. I watched the girl tie the chain to a column. I moved away when Fatemeh began to shriek as if she were being whipped.
I pressed my brain for a lesson that might be learned from her downfall, but I could not honestly accept any that came to me.
When Shamsi and her two small children moved into some rooms in my aunt’s house, they looked very poor. My aunt, the owner of the house, took pity on them and reduced the rent by 30 toomans a month. Wherever Shamsi went her children followed her. One of her daughters, Zahra, the smaller of the two, was blind in one eye, and her other eye could only see vague shadows of things. In the mornings her eyelashes were covered with pus, and the whites of her eyes were lined with red veins.
No one knew how Shamsi suddenly began to acquire new possessions. She bought new clothes for herself and her children. She bought copper pots and pans which she polished every day. And a faint smile began to light her sullen face. Then Zahra disappeared. No one saw her in the mornings or at any other time, and the smile on Shamsi’s face also disappeared.
One day in my presence, Shamsi confessed everything to my aunt. There was a man who was intererested in marrying her but would not put up with a blind child. Shamsi had taken Zahra to a desert at the edge of Tehran and left her there. Zahra had resisted her destiny by crying after the receding silhouette of her mother. Shamsi ran and got into a jeep full of soldiers. The soldiers teased and flirted with her, but she had covered her face under her chador.
I picture Zahra standing in the vast desert, listening to the vanishing echoes of her mother’s footsteps. Then waiting desperately for them to appear again until other frightening images and echoes sweep over her.
Our servant Ali would sit before me with his head bent, his back hunched, while I read from Amir-Al-Salaam, a long, heroic tale of a brave man in pursuit of his beloved. The book was very old and had been bound several times. As I read Ali would gasp or thrust his body forward at the hero’s mishaps or would smile triumphantly, revealing his crooked teeth, at the hero’s good fortune. Because he had a very small stature, sometimes I would imagine him to be a child and myself his mother. He would never tire of my reading, and when I put the book aside he would thank me profusely and shake his head up and down, still tantalized by the book’s flowery language and Amir’s adventures. Then he would take the book from me very gently and mark the page with a pigeon feather. On a warm starry night, I was sitting on the porch watching the green frogs jumping and out of the round pool in the courtyard, the bats traveling back and forth in straight lines under a canopy and I suddenly became aware of Ali standing inside of his room near the doorway. In the light of a kerosene lamp in his room I could see him bending and straightening up, his hands gesticulating widely. Then I saw the glimmer of a knife he was holding. I got up and walked towards his room. I coughed and made noise with my wooden slippers, but he did not seem to hear me. He threw the knife on the floor with an élan uncharacteristic of him and knelt before an imaginary figure. “I’m Amir, Amir the fearless, the brave,” he chanted. “I’m here to free you.” I walked away, wary of being seen by him. After that night, he did not ask me to read to him. I had glimpses of him while he washed clothes in a pail or prepared meals. His face was tense with thoughts, his gestures had acquired grandeur. He never was aware of anyone even when they came near him, and he often whispered unintelligible words.
© Nahid Rachlin
[This piece was selected by John Haggerty. Read Nahid’s interview]