Fiction: In a Garden
by KAFAH BACHARI MANNA
23 Dec 2010 10:58
A young man named Omid stands at the entrance to my aunt's apartment building. I remember him as the boy who hovered at the periphery of my childhood summers here, cast out and alone. In those days, Hossein, the oldest child from my aunt's building and the undisputed leader in the courtyard, spent much of his time calling Omid names and throwing garbage at him. Omid never fought back or said much. He'd hang around quietly watching the children play until Hossein showed up, then run away down an alley and disappear until the next afternoon. I usually played with my dolls near the fountain, giving them lessons in the alphabet or leading them in song. Once Hossein turned his menacing attention on me and took one of my prized dolls, dangling her over my head as I struggled to reach her. Omid pushed Hossein to the ground and held him there long enough to whisper something in his ear. Omid retrieved my toy and Hossein never bothered either one of us after that. I might have been impressed but instead I was embarrassed to be associated with Omid and angry that his unclean hands had somehow tainted my doll. I refused to take it back. Instead, I thought of the word I'd heard my aunt call Omid and his family when they weren't around.
"Najis! Get away from me!"
He looked at me and I recognized the shame in his face. I was satisfied with my power in that moment. Then he punched me in the nose. It was the first time anyone had hit me and the last time I truly deserved it.
Entering the building now, Omid's eyes meet mine and they are the same pristine green I remember. My shoulder brushes against his chest as I try to pass him in the doorway. "Hello, Abaan," he says, as the smell of jasmine wafts through the corridor. I find that I have no voice to respond to him with. I offer a smile and hurry away, surprised by the quickening of my heart. That night, I dream about giving birth to green-colored jasmine blossoms that grow in a garden, untouched by time and unburdened by history.
In the morning, I set about finding a job. My prospects are bleak. The economy is a mess. The women who interview me at various government ministries criticize the angle of my headscarf. They'd rather see me in a chador. My headscarf is government approved, yet it still connotes a liberalness they are wary of, as though they can see the green of my veins through the black of the fabric.
I come home in time for lunch, disheartened in the oppressing heat. My aunt's apartment is small. There is little furniture, but what she has is neatly organized along the walls to optimize the space in the middle. There are only two bedrooms, each just large enough to hold a bed and a small desk. There is one bathroom and a tidy kitchen.
Her husband died years ago and yet there is a sense that he'll be back any moment. She has left his things in their places. His chair near the window with the indented cushion glows with a fine layer of dust. The small table next to the chair still holds his glasses and a volume of poetry, which he consulted in the evenings as he sipped bootleg wine. His overcoat stands sentry at the door, and a well-worn pair of house slippers look warm and inviting though they must be cold. My aunt takes my handbag and shuffles me into the living room -- more like a glorified closet -- and admonishes me to stay with her.
"I need a young person like you. I need someone to help with the loneliness," she says.
I wonder if there is space for me in this box with my aunt and her husband's ghost, and I privately resolve to find separate accommodations once I am able to afford them.
Her daughters left last year for universities in Europe and America. Her son is married and expecting his first child. My aunt complains about his decision to no longer live with her.
"But there is no room, Khaleh. You can't take it personally." I try to be gentle.
"Yes, I know. But everything is changing, children are leaving their parents, old women are abused on the streets by the Basij, and I can't cook a simple meal without rationing my oil. What's next?"
She looks at me as though I have the answers. I shrug.
Later, as I lie in the narrow guest bed, I can hear her voice carry over the night sounds of moving traffic and street people from below. I can hear her recounting the details of her day to a man long dead.
On my third day of job hunting I run into Omid in the courtyard on my way out of the building. I try not to meet his gaze but he stands slightly in my way. His chest is broad and I look up to meet his eyes and see the man he's grown into.
"It doesn't look too bad," he says.
Confused, I hesitate and before I can say anything he says, "Your nose. I was sure I'd broken it, but I see now that it's a decent nose, nothing spectacular, but certainly not as deformed as I feared, certainly not something that kept you from marrying well, though it seems it couldn't keep you married either."
The sting of his knowing about my failed marriage doesn't bother me too much, but I immediately reach up to cover my nose protectively.
"You are very rude," is all I can manage through the muffle of my hand.
"I've been accused of worse."
A new sadness rises in my chest. He seems to notice it and his demeanor softens.
"Abaan, I'm sorry to hear about what has happened to you," he says and his hand touches mine, and the next long breath drawn is my own.
"I'm on my way to the Azad, a newspaper where I work. They are looking for a secretary, in case you are interested."
He doesn't wait for me to answer. He sets off down a crowded street, his shoulders rubbing against passersby, and I watch as he recedes into a sea of human bodies moving, constantly moving.
I navigate my way to the paper later in the afternoon. Omid was right, they need a secretary, a person who will take notes and answer the phone and perhaps occasionally provide some journalistic insight to the madness unfolding in the city. The man who interviews me has beautiful hands and his eyes look straight into mine. I explain that while I've never worked before, I did attend a secretarial course in my hometown the year my parents thought I might never marry. He smiles, then worries aloud that occasionally there won't be funds to pay my wages and that, truly, they are looking for someone ideologically committed to the mission of the paper and who can weather the closures and reopenings and turmoil of running an independent press in Tehran. It isn't that I don't find their cause compelling, but I can't see myself as a street urchin clothed with nothing more than noble ideals. I need wages and the things wages provide. The editor nods sympathetically.
As we talk, Omid brings in tea on a tarnished tray. I've never seen a tray so tarnished and it occurs to me, this little newspaper, this office, this small, smoke-filled room is populated by men alone, and men don't know how to properly keep silver from tarnishing.
"Thank you for the tea, Omid," the editor says as Omid walks away. He turns to me. "Well, there is a lot of work that needs to be done if you want the job. It can get pretty chaotic around here and it is risky working for a newspaper like ours, which is considered occasionally subversive or revolutionary. You'll need to keep your wits about you and your headscarf tied correctly. We don't want unnecessary attention."
"I gave up wearing the chador when I left Astara." I tug on the loose ends of my state-approved headscarf. I want to remind him that I am not interested in a job that only occasionally pays, but instead I collect my things. His smile remains unchanged as I make my way out of the office. Omid stands at the entrance smoking a cigarette. His eyes are large and expansive and there is a scar that is carved out from the corner of his left eye, like a question mark, that wasn't there when we were children.
"Have you managed to make any friends since you arrived?"
"I've been busy looking for work and looking after my elderly aunt."
Omid offers a small laugh. "Abaan, she seemed fine before you came along. I'm sure she can bear some hours of the evening alone while you live a little. No?"
I smile, thinking about the freedom of an evening on my own terms.
"Yes, it would be nice." I say, and I am suddenly aware of my nose in his line of vision.
"You never met my little sister. She's a writer and will be reading a piece from her collection of poetry at an underground literary gathering." He scribbles the address and time on a piece of paper and presses it into my palm. "This will be a nice way to get to know some people," he says.
"Thank you," I say, and my nose feels huge and heavy on my face as I speak.
Omid reaches out and touches my arm lightly. "Be cautious when you come tonight. We aren't doing anything wrong, but still we'd rather not draw attention. If you can, memorize the address and throw the paper away."
"Why can't you take me yourself?"
"That is simple. I don't want to be seen with you."
I give him the finger as he walks back into the office. The door closes and I look at my palm and at the edges of the torn page, delicate and white and fragile against the brown of my skin. I walk towards home on borrowed joy and get lost almost immediately. The streets crowd into each other and there is the sound of chanting from many directions. I come upon a crowd of young men standing at the corner. Some of them are on scooters. Others stand in groups of two or three. They look as though they are waiting for something. They are young, but they look menacing, and I try not to catch their attention as I silently go past towards a shop.
I slow down but continue to walk, hoping it's not me that is being told to stop. I turn and one of the young men runs towards me. I see now that he is holding a club.
"Sister, that area is off limits. You aren't allowed to go in that direction. Turn around and go back home." The other men stand at a distance and out of earshot but looking at us.
"But my home is in that direction." I don't look into his eyes. His chin is covered in thin, new hair, and his voice rings with the tin of eternal youth. I remember Javad, as he was when we were young and newly married. Like this boy, he was convinced of his power, his infallibility.
"Sister, can you call your father or brother to come escort you home?"
"I can not do that, Brother. My father died last year. I don't have any brothers."
"Then a husband?"
I shake my head no. I notice that he puffs his chest out some, as if to indicate his eligibility.
"I can call my aunt, but Brother, if you'll let me pass I can be home soon, instead of standing here with you on the street."
He sighs. The other young men head in our direction. Panic prickles along my spine. I don't want to be further detained or questioned.
"No one is allowed to cross here. Those are my orders. And I would personally be concerned for the well-being of a good Sister such as yourself among these rough immoral demonstrators." He lowers his voice. "Yesterday they shot a young woman just like you."
"I understand, Brother. Thank you for your concern. My intent isn't to cause you trouble. I'll just go back in the direction I came." I try to walk back but the others are upon us.
"What is the delay here?" says a blue-eyed man. He stands straight, but even so is shorter than me and wide. His stomach bulges at the waist of his pants and the bones of his wrists are mealy knobs under rolls of fat.
"Sir, our Sister has no secure means of getting home."
"If I may interrupt," I begin and the others look at me as though they are surprised I speak. "I can easily make my way home in the direction I came. There are no problems and I must not delay you any longer from your vigil."
The blue-eyed man blocks my path. His eyes narrow. "Sister, where are you coming from?"
"I've just left the market." I pause. "And now I need to get home." The scrap of paper in my hand wilts.
"You aren't carrying any shopping bags. What did you purchase?"
"I didn't find what I wanted."
The men look away from me and towards the blue-eyed man, wondering how he'll counter.
"But which market did you visit? There are no markets in that direction."
Just as I am about to answer, I hear someone yelling my name. I turn back and see it is Omid.
"Abaan, sister jan, where have you been? We've been waiting for you at home, you were due back hours ago."
Omid has a pained look. He turns towards the blue-eyed man.
"Sir, thank you for stopping her. My sister has a habit of getting lost and we've been terribly concerned given the climate around here."
"Come on now, sister, let's get home. Father is very sore with you." Omid gently leads me away, and the blue-eyed man huffs his approval.
I look at the young man. His face doesn't look as young now and his eyes are great big saucers of knowing, yet he says nothing.
"How'd you get into that mess?" Omid whispers as we turn down an alley.
"I was just walking and this guy suddenly stopped me and started asking me where I was going."
"Well, I'm glad I saw you. Who knows what they would have done to you?"
"I would have been just fine getting out of it alone," my voice trails off.
We walk quietly for a time down a cool alleyway. Omid stops in front of a metal gate along the concrete wall. A stray cat with matted hair crosses our path, and trash and dust swirls around us as a passing breeze cuts through the passage.
"This is my friend's house. You are welcome to come in and join us for tea. Or I can call a car to take you home. It is safer than walking." Omid touches my hand. When he looks at me I look away, but I want him to keep looking, to keep seeing me.
"You can stay for dinner."
"I should go home. My aunt will expect me soon."
He nods. I want this to be the part where he kisses me tenderly, the way kisses were tender in the bootleg American movies I watched as a girl. Javad didn't like those movies. He'd fast forward over those parts to get to the sex scenes.
"Okay, let me call a car for you, Abaan. It's safer, especially now that it is getting dark." I nod and give him the scrap of paper, the ink ruined from the sweat of my palms.
At home I tell my aunt that I might have found a job. She says it's a pity.
"Your husband should be looking after you, that brute. I told your mother not to marry you off to him. I told her my husband's nephew was more of a man for you. If you'd married him you'd have at least five children by now. Instead, look at you. Abandoned, childless, forced to work in a strange office among strangers. Waiting in vain for some pittance to start your life."
Everyone knew about Javad's beatings. I returned to my parent's house plenty of times with broken noses or bruised ribs, and there wasn't much I could hide in our small family.
But I didn't tell anyone about the babies.
"It isn't a pittance. He'll pay the money because I know he wants to get remarried this year. He'll pay and I'll be able to take care of myself."
"He won't pay you and he'll remarry this year too. Remember, he's saying you are infertile, and a judge might allow him to take another wife without your consent based on your infertility or just divorce you without having to pay the mehriyeh."
My aunt sets the small table for our dinner. She prepares a salad with diced tomatoes and finely chopped raw onions. Over this she pours oil and vinegar and sprinkles of salt and pepper. She squeezes a lemon into the small bowl, and its juice pours through her tired hands causing her to wince as it burns the cracks in her knuckles. She catches the pulp and seeds and throws them away in a tiny waste can.
When my uncle was alive, my aunt never worked outside the home. She looked after their children, kept her home tidy, cooked legendary meals. Now, in exchange for rent, she cares for the landlord's children three days a week. Occasionally, she helps at her cousin's vegetable stand in exchange for tomatoes or eggplants. Often, she relies on her son and what's left of her husband's pension from the Ministry of Education for the rest.
I take the rice from the stovetop. It smells clean, and each puffed white grain looks like an un-bloomed jasmine blossom. The yogurt is already on the table, and when my aunt finally sits down, I serve her before putting a small portion of rice and yogurt and salad in my own plate. We eat in silence, and when we finish I insist that she go to bed while I clean up. She pulls herself up and sighs. The wrinkles around her eyes are pronounced, but the green of her irises shine through, illuminated by the florescent kitchen light.
"Maybe it's a good thing, working in the world when you are young. Then you won't ever be like me. Forced to learn new ways when you are old."
The evening is cool, but it isn't quiet like the seaside. Cars and motorcycles and pedestrians battle for hegemony in the streets, at the crosswalks. The shop windows are bright. There is an insistent buzz emanating form all corners of the city, a constant hum and pop, a low rumble below my feet. I walk quickly, taking careful note of my surroundings and street signs.
For the reading, people have gathered in an apartment above a bakery. The room is full of women with their hair long and braided or short in a bob or curled and colored yellow. The men sip whiskey and I am offered a glass of wine. I don't see Omid, but a young woman approaches and introduces herself as his sister.
"Omid told me to expect you." Her eyes are bright and they shine despite the dim lighting. "Welcome to my house. Please make yourself comfortable. We'll start soon."
I take a seat near the window. Outside it is starting to rain, and flashes of lightning momentarily illuminate the emptying streets below. Somehow the darkness is darker after the lightness. Omid takes a seat next to me just as a quiet expectancy settles over everyone. We turn to the front of the room. There, near an old desk and in front of a commanding bookcase, is Omid's sister. She speaks.
The sea is swirling, angry,
hungry for some offering.
Approaching the water,
I let go of my chador.
The breeze takes hold of this
length of cloth,
this cloak of our times,
this garment of modesty,
a humiliation as familiar as the smell of
my own skin
and casts it aside.
The wind against my bare arms and legs.
The act of letting go.
I touch the edge of the water with my toes.
I am engulfed in the rushing tide.
It feels natural.
The cold, the motions,
and the way that the sea
draws me closer
to its centermost point.
The sand breaks apart under my feet
and there is nothing left to hold me
The icy coldness breaks the bond that cements
my soul to my body
and I begin an ascent into a precious mile of sky.
I see my body glowing white
beneath the laughing moon,
float and bob and slip away.
We are silent at the conclusion. Other writers and artists take turns performing. Some play music. Omid and I excuse ourselves during an interlude and go out onto the balcony. The rain has slowed and small drops ping and plop onto the metal awning above our heads. I learn then that Omid and his sister are Baha'i. The Islamic Republic of Iran officially considers members of the Baha'i faith to be infidels, and as such denies them many rights, including the right to a proper burial upon death. When his mother died Omid had to drive her lifeless body to the outskirts of the city in a borrowed car. There in the desolate plains and in the belly of unconsecrated earth, he laid her to rest after digging the hole himself.
I touch his hands. They are cold, even in the sweltering warmth and wetness of the air. We stand together for a time exchanging sighs. When he asks me why I came to Tehran, I begin with my babies and the coldness of the earth in winter. I tell him how I can still feel the dirt under my nails and their bodies like air, light and fleeting, tucked into the ice and earth.
"Javad would accuse me of betraying him if he knew, but each time it felt like an act of mercy."
We look out across the sullen rooftops of the nighttime landscape. A sweet humming chant emanates in waves from all around us. Men and women and the high-pitched song of children calling out to a god of redemption.
"Allah-o Akbar," they chant.
"There can be no betrayal or mercy without love," Omid says.
He whispers my name and pulls me into his arms.
"Abaan," he says, "listen."
And we listen to the chanting as it grows, as it comes near and travels far, and back to us again. We listen until the sun rises and casts its light across the concrete structures populating the horizon.
The following week I take a job as a low-level clerk in a governmental aid office. I agree to wear a full-length chador and my boss, Kimia Khanoum, an elderly woman with red-rimmed eyes, takes it upon herself to salvage what is left of my soul.
"Separated from your husband? God forbid you don't intend to continue in this state of affairs." Her voice is thick. "If you can't have children, give him the divorce so he can have a family."
It sounds simple. Just let go of Javad. Let him have his way and his divorce so he can remarry without complications. When we first met, I didn't want to marry him. I didn't like the smell of the oil he used to slick back his hair. I found his talk of God at odds with the heavy gold band of his watch and the way he left the top buttons of his shirt open wide to expose the tuft of hair he'd carefully groomed on his chest. He came to our home each Friday before the afternoon prayers to court my family. My mother would fuss over preparing tea and serving fruit. After all, he was the first man to show an interest, since the last one I'd scared off the previous year. He wasn't educated, but his family owned a chain of jewelry stores that my mother was certain would provide some kind of a life. If she let me make lunch, I'd overcook the eggs into a leathery mess or add turmeric when the recipe called for tendrils of saffron. He ate heartily. He laughed too loud at my father's jokes and he looked at me with too much expectation.
"I don't want to get married this year," I'd tell him each Friday.
"I am a patient man, Abaan." I remember seeing a kind of longing in his eyes. I wanted to believe that it was about me, that he was longing for some partner to bear the beautiful chaos of life. I wanted to believe that our life together would be a cooperative effort, aimed at acquiring the things that made a person happy: a house to populate with children, a room to collect memories in, a man to trust with my life. I wanted to believe that I would have a measure of freedom as a wife that I wasn't allowed as a dutiful and unmarried daughter living in a small town along the sea with my aging parents. I imagined that Javad would be proud to send me to university, to allow me the pleasure, useless though it was, to study art and literature, so that one day, I could count myself as having accomplished something. To this end, I extracted declarations of support from him, promises that he would not prohibit me from pursuing an education. He agreed. He swore upon the heads of all of our future children that he would never keep me from getting an education, so long as it didn't interfere with the production of children. So long as I gave him children, I could go to school.
Actually, the longing I saw in his eyes had been a singular longing for sex. It was the grand focus of our new life together, once we eventually married. He'd heard from his friends all the tawdry details of what delights married life would provide him. On our wedding night, he was gentle and kind, even a little scared. But then he began to want to do things that pushed my accommodating indifference to outright horror. I couldn't fathom how to execute his requests. Ultimately, he reasoned that if he couldn't act out his fantasies with a willing participant, he'd act them out with an unwilling one.
I tried to let go of all the hope I'd accumulated in my foolish heart. I cooked to please him. I dressed to please him. I stopped asking about going to school to please him. I survived each evening to serve him hot tea each morning. I believed that one day he might learn to consider my desires as well as his own, but it never came to pass. Eventually, I stopped recognizing the chimera of my own reflection in the mirror.
Our children remained nameless, and I populated the winter earth with their small bodies, bodies I purged from my own. I couldn't bear the prison of motherhood, alongside the prison of being Javad's wife. And there, in Javad's garden, the children stood sentry over the rage in my heart.
I left Javad for the oblivion of a city life and he filed for divorce, though he refused to pay me the mehriyeh he agreed to in our wedding contract on the basis that I was infertile. Proving my fertility would cost me dearly and I wouldn't be able to pursue my studies without the mehriyeh.
Kimia Khanoum hands me a hot glass of tea. I notice her fingers are stained with ink, though her job is to oversee the filing of papers.
"You look like you are thinking very seriously about something. It isn't a good thing, Abaan jan. You'll give yourself wrinkles."
I suppress my laughter and her frown breaks into a broad grin, exposing her jagged and gaping teeth.
"My mother used to tell me that all the time, I listened to her until I was married. Then I couldn't help thinking so much. Have you been thinking about your husband again?"
The tea scalds my lips and then my tongue. She's added too much sugar and my mouth feels sticky and my jaw aches.
"I'm thinking about how I'll manage my studies one day."
"What is it that you want to study?"
"Art, literature, philosophy. Everything."
"You might consider the lessons life will teach you instead. You might consider your freedom in exchange for your pride a small price to pay."
Kimia Khanoum turns back towards her stack of files and begins to work. I ask her why her hands are stained with ink. She looks at me from over the top of the box she's pulled onto the desk.
"Abaan, my girl, my hands are stained with wine."
After the summer rains finally end and the sun emerges unscathed and proud, Omid takes me to the Zahra Cemetery to sit among the gravestones and mourn the living. Omid spends a lot of time in cemeteries "defiling," he says, "the pious dead" with his heretical presence.
Omid spreads a picnic blanket near an old tree whose branches stretch upwards and outwards creating a canopy over our heads. The air carries on it the smell of the city and though I am content with my new life, I miss the salty breezes of the seaside home I knew once.
"I called Javad and told him that I would agree to his terms for the divorce. I am going to admit to being infertile and he can keep the mehriyeh."
I don't tell Omid that when I told Javad he laughed a low sweet laugh. He told me that I would never be able to forget him or erase his presence from my body.
Omid looks up and faces the sunshine streaming through the ancient tree's branches in shimmering columns.
"He'll move on, Abaan. He'll marry again and have other children. And you might never have the chance to pursue your studies in this country."
"Yes. In the end, I might be left with less than what I began with."
I look out across the cemetery. The trees here are lush, luscious. They are loose and heady in the breeze that caresses them. The trees along the shore, along the place where I come from, aren't like these Tehran trees. My trees are turned inward. Their bark is boney and exposed. They battle the wind, resist the sun. They have forgotten. They want to forget. Here, in the graveyard of the city where the dead sleep, I can remember.
"Did they have names?" Omid asks.
"No. But they had faces and their eyes weren't closed and in my heart, I could hear them speak."
For a time we sit sipping tea. Omid unties my headscarf and the wind through my hair feels like rebirth. He can see me now as I truly am and he keeps on seeing me, even as I stand to walk away.
In many places, the earth is freshly churned to make room for the newly dead. There are many newly dead in the city now. I walk among the tombstones with bare feet. Small pebbles and dirt stick to my soles. Along a solitary path, far away from where Omid sits, waiting with our tea and bread, I notice great upheavals in the ground, mounds that stretch out and swell. These are the unmarked graves. I imagine the men and women that lay beneath the new earth. I can hear their screaming whispers. They propagate fire.
Kafah Bachari Manna is an Iranian American writer. She is currently at work on a collection of short stories and a novel. Artwork by Hadi Ziaadinin.
Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau