I feel tricked. Sometimes it seems that you think you fell out of an elephant’s nose and that I’m just some old fool who happened to be there to catch you. Well, let me tell you—where you fell out of was my small-town dehati belly and that will never change, so kindly stop selling me so much wet wood*: Maman, we love you. Maman you’re welcome here. So you say . . . but the last time I visited, you were up to something wicked, using the telephone twice to talk to Tehranis and there was a bag packed on the bed. You’re hiding something. Sometimes I wish I could say this to you, out loud or in a letter if I could write, but you know, Bahar joon, I prefer talking to the sweeter version of you that lives inside my head. Let me tell you something else, the-sweet-Bahar-joon-inside-my-head: If you’re old enough to be somebody’s grandmother and you have no men in your house, no sons or husbands or brothers, every Hassan and Hossein thinks he can put a dupe’s hat on your head. Even your own daughter. And so here I am, hat on my head. Agha, I complain about this to the farmer who brings me chopped wood in the mornings, at least it hides the bald patch. He laughs at most things that I say, but sometimes he shakes his head and calls me mother, even though we’re the same age, and then I know I’ve said too much. Nobody wants to know your dirty business, how you feel about this or that, especially when they ask.
The house is too much, I think. I’m too old to be her caretaker, this big old mosque that leaks and hoots and cries all night long. Don’t worry, the cries aren’t ghosts. I checked using my mother’s old trick—a cheesecloth, a mirror, and a little rhyme. But in the end the cloth came out clean and ghost-free, so I went back to sleep. I never thought I’d get this old. And Maman doesn’t know what to do because, as you know, she never made it to my age. So every time I ask her, she shrugs and says eat a tangerine, which I do out of respect . . . though if you think about it, she’s not my elder anymore, is she? I will work this out later. I can’t ask you; you’re always looking for reasons to think I’m old or sick or insane. If you knew about the house, Bahar joon, I think you’d make me move. But I won’t trouble you—with your fine taste and good life in a city.
This house is a quirky old thing and we’re kindred spirits. This morning I washed the cracks in her walls, the places where reddish mud and spilled whey had caked and dried, and she groaned. Then I counted her bricks from the floor all the way up her slope, curving to her dome. I took a screwdriver to the loose ones, repositioning them with my homemade paste so they would fit tighter. I felt her settle in a bit lower, more comfortable, like a patient that has given her body up to be mended.
Sometimes as I dress, I confide in her. Are you crazy? Maman says. Stop talking to your house and go find out what your daughter is up to! You saw the suitcases. That Bahar is trouble. “Oh Maman joon, stop pecking at me,” I say. “It’s probably nothing.”
*The phrase is usually used in a slightly different manner in Persian. I have taken some liberties to suit my Iranian-American palate.
Today I’m walking to the village center and I’m bringing you, Maman, and Amir with me. Then tomorrow we will all go to Nain. Usually I leave Amir alone; he died so recently, his smell still so close, it gives me a wobbly feeling in my legs and stomach. He never talks. But tomorrow he is coming along as he used to do when you were small. Do you remember, the three of us on all those foot journeys? We must have walked across half of Iran, past wilderness dunes the color of rust and patches of fruit trees, then up the hilly parts that led to a river. Sometimes a car would clunk past and kick up desert dust. Your Baba had strong legs, and you held his hand and sang him songs with your sweet voice. Nowadays I go to Nain not only because you live there but because that is where they make the rugs—the gilims, and ghalis, and the enormous carpets for rich houses in Tehran. Once before you moved there, do you remember, you and I visited Nain and saw five sisters finish a rug that was bound for a royal lady in California, a country on the far side of the Caspian Sea. A rug like that could warm even a crumbling hut, so that it might expect visitors every day. When I said that, you gave me a strange look, as if I’d grown horns. We’re like fil-and-fenjoon* you and I, as different as an elephant and a teacup.
I set off with my dairy jars. At the end of a winding dirt road to the square, I find Javad sitting cross-legged on the ground outside his store, smoking from his broken pipe. He nods to me. I ask about his chair—where did it go? He says it was stolen by one of the local boys. “I hope they open the school again,” he complains, adjusting his felt skullcap.
I offer him nabat, my own homemade rock candy, and he refuses three times before accepting, which is only right. “I hear a new teacher is passing through soon.”
He nods toothlessly as I walk away. Every day Javad wears that same loose grayish shirt that hangs down to his knees. No one knows his age, only that his store, this mud hut with wooden doors, has stood in this spot for thirty years. He sells some useful things, yeast and nuts and spices, but mostly it’s junk from other towns. Brittle pencils with a different color on each end. Stale gum in animal shapes. Pink erasers with that tempting plastic smell. Toy watches with false faces that peel off with a drop of water. I think he has the good opium. One day when we’re better friends I’ll ask him.
Another hassle of having no men in the house: Who do you get to fill your pipe?
As I turn to wave, he calls me back. “Come, Mrs. Naziri.” He is still cross-legged, eyes closed. “Take some school supplies. No one will buy them now anyway.”
My hand is half up to shoo away his offer—what else can I do? I still have some dignity in this town—when I think of our Sara. My only granddaughter deserves something nice; this is my thinking every time I pass a store. So I decide to accept. Why not? The problem is, accepting isn’t a skill I have. And my chador, which I tied around my ankles in two big knots this morning, has come undone. I kick away the extra fabric (maybe I curse once—or at most one and half times—I can’t be sure) and start to say, “Yes, thank you, agha”—but the old goat is sleeping! Khak be sar, did he hear me? He is leaning against the mud-and-straw wall of his shop. I clear my throat, but he starts to snore. I can’t leave without a few things for Sara, because once I’ve thought of something, that’s it—I’ve thought of it and it’s in there, jumping around like a tick in the ear. And besides, this kind of quick sleep, it must be the opium—the bastard does have the strong kind—which is bad business for him to smoke alone. Everyone knows that this sort of thing brings ill health, unless you do it in the midst of good company. Like a fatty kebab: you don’t sit around all alone stuffing your face with it.
I kick his shin hard. He jumps up and I say, “Akh, agha, what happened there?”
He mumbles, “Whatsthat?” Oh, this is embarrassing. Should I go now?
“What was what, agha joon?” I say, deciding to try one last thing. “You were saying something about school supplies taking up all your space? Your full shelves?”
He nods. His radio makes a fuzzy racket and passing tires crunch on the gravel. These things are rousing him, Allah be thanked. “Yes, come inside . . . come inside.”
*The phrase is usually used to depict differences in size, but I have taken liberties with its meaning, again to suit my own aesthetic tastes.
Now this is a pleasure, walking around looking for something I can have. I know it would be impolite to take more than five minutes, and I can’t be seen holding armloads. What will Sara need for school? I wish you were here to guide me. The you inside my head is kinder to me, yes, but doesn’t know nearly as many things. So tell me what to buy, my sweet Bahar joon. You know I haven’t been to school, and when you were young it was your Baba who thought of what you would need. My girl will go to college, he’d say, and you did, despite poverty and a godless revolution and war. Now look at you, an engineer married to an engineer, doing oil work, which is the most important field. Javad’s store is piled with notebooks and loose paper, pencils and erasers, all thrown together like shoes by a mosque door. You can see what old Javad thinks people want to buy, because the nuts are arranged separately by size and taste in perfect little pyramids. Or maybe he doesn’t even think about it. He overcharges for pistachios.
There’s a dusty television in a corner. I thank God that it’s off because television noise gives me stress. The one in your house is always on, and there are ayatollahs and men in suits going on and on in the living room. Sometimes I think I shouldn’t remove my chador in their presence; I hesitate, and you roll your eyes and turn off the television. I want to tell you that I know perfectly well they’re not in the room—that’s not the point. I have modern things too—like my tape player with two hypnotic Vigen songs that I play when I can’t sleep. But when we’re face to face these defenses fail me. So tell me then, what will our Sara need for first grade? Can she use up an entire notebook in a year? Will she need pencils or pens? In the end, I settle on twenty sheets of unlined paper, a fancy pen for calligraphy, a strange-looking device with a needle on one end and a pencil on the other, two red pens, and a large package of dried fruit. Old Agha Javad, who has no children, has trouble seeing how the fruit is considered school supplies, but I explain it to him. He puts the items in an old potato sack and hangs it around the mouth of one of my jars by punching a hole near the top. Kind man.
As I leave, I think of ways to repay him. It must have taken a lot of willpower to overcome his natural cheapness (his family’s pockets are widely known to be sealed tighter than a mullah’s ass). Good for him. I will bring a jar of fresh milk tomorrow. Some cheese too, if I don’t sell it all today. But before I’ve taken two steps out of the store, the old man calls me back. “Khanom Naziri . . . just one more thing.”
Here it comes, says Maman. I wait, nervous, because I’m old enough to have known better. Maybe all this time he’s been oiling my bread for something bigger that he wants. Damn it, just this one time I ignored my mother’s fading voice.
“Maybe you can do something for me,” he says in a sleepy drone, his eyes moving this way and that as he smoothes the weathered cloth on top of his makeshift counter—two wooden planks on three boxes. “My nephew is a student of history in Isfahan. He finds old relics, buried things, and writes about them . . .” He raises his eyes.
I clutch the doorway of old Javad’s store, scratch it a little with my thumbnail, ask my Maman what to do. But I already know that he is asking for a piece of my house, something beautiful, or historic, something with a story, a past for his nephew to uncover. “Agha, don’t say another word. I have just the thing for you.”
“Ahh, Khanom Naziri, I am your servant.” I think I’ll bring my box and let him choose, as he let me choose a present for our Sara. Then maybe I’ll ask about that opium.
Lately I’ve been hearing a certain phrase a lot, though it’s always been there, hidden in the folds of the everyday language. Akh joon, people say when they have no words. Oh life. Oh breath. Oh vigor. It’s the deepest sigh and you hear it everywhere. As I grow older, this phrase is changing and it disturbs me. It used to be about hunger and lust, about youth. Akh joon, you’d say when desire was beyond telling, or it would come at you all muffled on those first nights of sliding under the blankets with a young husband who wanted to eat you up. Akh joon, when good lamb melted on the tongue. Oh life . . .
To most people it has no other meaning—only the sensation of, or a call for, life’s sweet center. But a strange thing has happened to me: Lately this phrase is what comes out when I try to get up and something snaps, when I hear bad news. This is odd, but I know the cause of it. Do you remember how as a child you used to mistake the meaning? You would say akh joon when you fell, when your dress tore. It was so charming and it made your Baba and me laugh and laugh. So now, more often, this phrase comes out when my own body hurts. It’s no longer a sigh of pleasure. Where did it go?
Maybe I’ve been indulging in this talk with you for too long. Not healthy. You aren’t even dead. Whose ghost am I conjuring? The sweet Bahar inside my head.
I kick and mutter all night as I think of this, and I get no sleep. Agha Javad’s request wears on me. Look, you know that I never claimed to be more than a farm widow, making my living from milk, cheese, butter. This has long been my place in this world, how I pay my way, how I return favors. But since I moved to this village, I’ve taken on an uncomfortable new face. Here, they call me the guardian of relics, a ghostly name that frightens me. No matter how often I offer to pay in cheese, how many times I call myself a two-cow dairy woman, they still connect me to my house, with the artifacts hidden inside. They still come by, uninvited, to look. They still ask if they can have a small piece of my wall for their son or cousin or friend. That’s my home, I want to say, you can’t have a piece of it. But I give it to them anyway—the ones that have a claim.
I wake early, milk the cows, gather my jars of whey and cream, and wrap Sara’s gift in a piece of an old tablecloth I got from a neighbor when I started learning the ways of cloth dying. I find much pleasure in this hobby—it is an art, Bahar joon, you should appreciate it. I’ve borrowed two enormous cauldrons from a woman down the street. Once a week I light a well-contained fire under them and fill them with red and blue flowers that I gather on my walks to the market or to your house. My home-brewed dyes are runny sometimes, and they take a long time to get through the fabric. But they work. And who wants to pay for foul-smelling chemicals when flowers are free?
Boiling flowers makes my temple smell sweet. And it’s the physical work that I need. Since Amir died I’ve put on weight. We loved each other, I tell Sara when she asks about her grandbaba. From beginning to end, my teeth itched for him. Sweet girl, she leaned over the last time and whispered in my ear, “My teeth itch for Ali Mansoori.”
I said, “You go and take a bite out of him then. But don’t tell your maman. She’s mad at me.” Bahar joon, Sara and I agree that you spend too much time being mad at us.
At the market I’m restless. I find a spot on the ground, set up my big display cloth and my jars, the ones I made myself out of clay. On any other day I would wait for my regulars, the mothers who buy everything in one bundle, paying extra for my high-quality cheese and sweet cream. But today I sell the milk by the cup, the cheese by the slice, to whoever will buy it. I collect small coins and stop when I have three hunks left, thinking a few toman isn’t worth the extra time. I’ll eat the leftovers on the road. I hide the coins in the folds of my chador, in pockets I sewed there. I gather my jars and set off on the road toward Nain, the coins rattling by my side, the jars clanking with every step.
The walk to your house is three hours, so I have some time to tell you a story about this house and me, its keeper. Some years ago, on the day your Baba Amir died, I met a rich businessman as I hauled the two cows I had left from my old home. The house was being taken by Amir’s male relatives—the bastards were quick to claim their rights and forgot to wonder where I would live. The businessman asked to see my husband, and when I told him the news, he seemed sad, honestly, like his stomach burned for me. Somehow it brought out my own pain, and I cried for the first time, right in front of this expensive-looking stranger. He said he wanted to help, led me to a run-down house nearby made of stone and old bricks. She looked abandoned. Built with a modest maroon dome for a roof and several layers of paint peeking out from behind each other, the house was the withered and discarded old mother of the street. Right away I felt a kinship with her. She stood by herself, far from the scattered mud houses that, like weeds, seemed to have sprung in random order, zigzagging along. None were painted, but they were lived in and warm, some marked by a half-finished rug, a gilim, tossed on the gravel like a welcome mat, with brooms and sandals arranged beside the walls. There was no road, so the rare passing car could roll right over a rug, barely missing the house. It struck me that the other houses had low, flat roofs, a contrast to the dome atop this wreck. Again she reminded me of a crazy old lady, decking herself out when she had no place to be showy.
“This property belongs to me,” the man said. “It isn’t fit to live in anymore. It’s old and drafty, and parts of the foundation have been destroyed.”
“You should sell it then,” I said, trying to sound wise.
“It’s the oldest house here, and even in Nain.” He looked carefully in my eyes, probably trying to assess my character, whether I could be trusted. I tried not to smile, because smiling is a sign of cunning. He leaned close, his hands folded behind. “It’s filled with artifacts.” What’s an artifact, I asked my dead mother who had only recently taken up residence inside my head. She didn’t know either. The man went on. “It used to be a mosque, and before that it was the home of a cleric, and before that, three generations of my family. Before my family acquired it, it was a Zoroastrian temple. This house, in fact, has been a place of worship for three different religions over four hundred years.”
I told myself to be impressed, but I was distracted by one of my cows taking a shit in front of this expensive man. I tried to position my body to give her some privacy. “Then you should sell it,” I said, thinking what a price the old house would get.
“Impossible, Khanom,” he said. The animals were agitated, pulling on my arms, and I wanted to get going. “Who’d buy it? Builders would only pay for the land, which is worth much less than what’s inside. It’s unsuitable as a private home. The only ones interested in this house are scholars. And they can’t afford more than one relic at a time.”
“I’m sorry for you,” I said, my mind still somewhere with my dead husband, in our old house, and with you, Bahar joon, in the days it was just the three of us, do you remember? I wondered when I’d be allowed to go, to look for a bed with a neighbor or maybe to begin the long walk to your house in the city.
“Khanom Naziri, I’d like for you to watch over the artifacts in this house. Protect them from robbers. In exchange, you can keep your cows in the large room at the far end. It’s already been picked clean by two archaeologists last summer. What do you say?”
Well, I did need a place for the cows. I needed a place for myself too. “How will I watch the house at night?” He waved his hand like it was nothing, said something about hiring a night worker. I saw then that he wasn’t asking me to live there, only to visit from time to time. I stood dumb again, stroking the more fidgety cow, looking around as if the answer would come out of nowhere, carried by the wind or strapped to a bird. My head was elsewhere in those days. Then, in a moment of good thinking, I grew bold and said, “I could stay here, watch your things day and night . . . maybe even build a fence.”
That’s how I came to live in my own private temple, the old mosque with big-big patches torn away from the ceiling and decades of secrets hidden right in its walls. For my cows, I made two stalls in the room at the far end. Every afternoon I sweep away their dung and give them fresh hay, soaking wet to release the scent. Every morning I take their milk and divide it into three parts. I save some for me, churn some, and put the rest in my clay jars and bowls for selling. I sleep in the room next to the cows, and all the other rooms I’ve closed off. I prefer it that way—small spaces are cozier, not so empty-seeming. In my tiny sanctuary I cook, wash, clean my linens, and sleep well enough. And when I leave the house, I make sure there is no sign of me except my sheets folded in one corner and my pots in another.
Sometimes when I have a minute between chores, I look around, try to understand what it is about these walls that makes them valuable. Some of the bricks have religious writings etched across their surface. Others can be removed to reveal holes dug on the other side. Some pieces of the floor and ceilings have the names of imams and prophets scrawled beautifully in the stone or tile—names your Baba taught me to read. I admit, Bahar joon, that sometimes I question the wisdom of sacred places. What makes a house holy if no one lives in it? If it shelters no children and provides no one warmth? No . . . no, I’m being foolish. This house is full of blessed history; the names of imams, the smell of long-dead clerics, and thousands of their prayers hover over me as I sleep. Still . . . Maman often wonders aloud why anyone would pay money for pieces of a wall. Why anyone would ruin a perfectly good house, dig holes in it, just to find these useless nothings—worthless compared to food and clothing and all the other necessities money buys?
Over the years, I put a few of the relics away in a box—things I like, beautiful or eye-catching things. On days when scholars or the expensive man visit, I ask if my favorite items are worth anything. Sometimes they say yes, and I return them. Sometimes they say no, that the items are too damaged or ordinary, and I keep those. So far I have the name of a minor imam scrawled in a cracked brick, colorful stones from inside a back wall, a five-inch piece of burgundy ritual cloth, and a thimble made of copper with a Zoroastrian name engraved on the side. Aside from my box of scraps, I never let anyone take anything without a paper with the loops of the owner’s signature at the bottom.
Through the glare of sunlight, in a stretch of wasteland halfway to Nain, I spot Mam’mad, the migrant worker who spends his summers killing birds with a slingshot. He is sitting by the side of the winding dirt road, plucking feathers from a carcass too small to be worth the trouble. His motorcycle is parked nearby. It smells like fuel, a thick red donkey saddle on its back. I call out to him and he runs over, taking a jar from my arm and shouting greetings in his thick Afghani accent. “Thank God for you,” I say because my legs and arms are numb and sweaty. “Visiting your daughter again, Maman joon?” he shouts. I think he is going deaf. “Your big-city daughter . . .”
Now I know Nain is no big-big city. Not like Isfahan or Tehran. But why correct the man? Stories of your new life amuse him. Vai, you don’t even know, Bahar joon, he spins them into such crazy tales for his simple wife. As I ask him about his bird sales, his health, I am overcome with pride in you, your education. He asks if I still live in a museum. Then he takes out a frayed cloth bundle the size of a finger. He presents me with the two extra-long sewing needles he promised last time—for a trade.
Today I promise myself (and Maman) that I will finally ask you what plans you’re hiding from me. I will be brave and I will settle the matter. I am the mother, after all. I won’t mention my own affairs. I will keep my mouth shut about the cows and the relics and Mam’mad. You haven’t been back home for so long, I assume you don’t want to know. But if something bad is to happen, I should prepare.
After crossing a narrow stream, I reach the shrine where I have prayed for you for ten years, during hundreds of journeys between our houses. The shrine is a small mosque, the burial place of the illegitimate son of a minor imam, a place considered holy by villagers. People come from nearby towns to see the tomb. They place money in the shrine, pray, nod to the sleeping guard, and leave. Some stop at the tree outside, tying pieces of green cloth to its branches to represent their prayers. Since I have no money to spare, I don’t go in. I pray at the tree instead. I make sturdy knots, and I ask for good things to happen to you, that happiness will get you under the stomach. But today I’ve forgotten to bring green, the holy color. I’ve colored almost everything I have red or blue. Does it matter? How much pull can the bastard son of a minor imam have with the Almighty? I ask Maman and she says, Not much. I reach inside my chador, remembering the greenish patch I used to lengthen my shirt hem. I tear off the sweat-drenched patch, tie it around the branch, and pray that you don’t notice my damaged garment.
I have been waiting on a stoop outside your house for half an hour. Your street is almost completely paved, the white houses lined up in a perfect row, protected from cars by sidewalks almost a foot off the ground. None have a dome though. At first I was grateful you weren’t home. It gave me time to stash the clay jars in an alley behind your house so you wouldn’t see and look at me the way you do. Then you turn a corner, holding Sara’s hand, and I want to jump up. But I don’t. Seeing you, I always feel somehow unready. I try to fix myself—pull down the torn shirt, wipe the henna sweat from my brow. All attempts fail, so I shout out to you. “Bahar jooooon!” You don’t respond till you’re closer, able to speak without raising your voice.
And then when you do speak, you say, “Maman, what are you doing here?”
I tell you that I’ve been waiting for half an hour. “It’s Friday,” I remind you.
“Maman, we talked about this.” You sigh so big, it’s like you need all the wind in your lungs to blow your meaning toward me. “Sara’s in school now.”
“Right, but . . .” The truth is, I forgot.
“We said the first and third Friday of the month, remember?” I hate it when you ask whether I remember things, as if I’m stupid. Yes, I remember. I remember all the way to when you were in diapers, two years longer than other babies. “It’s the second Friday.” My thoughts are a jumble and every joint and muscle hurts. I have blisters on my feet. I’m too old for this. I lean down and kiss Sara, squeeze her apricot cheeks. A new pain shoots up my back. “How was the trip, Maman joon?” you ask. “Your landlord drove you?”
“Yes,” I answer, relieved, “he drove me almost the whole way. Kind man.”
“And did he fix whatever was causing that draft in your house?”
“Oh, yes, yes . . . don’t worry, azizam.” Later I will ask forgiveness from Allah, or whoever, for all the lies I’ve told you, though lately Maman has been whispering that there’s no one living up there.
You do some battle with the lock and ask if I’ve eaten. You have a good heart. I tell you that I’ve brought Sara a present, and you politely chastise me for spending my money. You ask how much longer your Baba’s pension money will last. You still believe the cheesecloth-thin pension story, despite your big education.
“Who knows these things?” I say, “It lasts.” I wish you’d just leave me alone with Sara. When you go to get tea, I gather her onto my lap and show her my present.
“What’s this?” you ask just as I’m figuring out how to arrange Sara’s fingers on the fancy needle-pen thing. For a second I think you will be impressed. But you look through the package and you say, “Maman joon, they don’t use protractors in the first grade . . . caligraphy pens either.” You take the pen out of Sara’s hand so she won’t dirty the couch. Then you shoo her off my lap, telling her not to disturb me. To me you say, “Maman joon, we’ll save these things for when she’s in the fifth grade.”
I look down at my parcel, now no more than a few sheets of paper and some red pens. Then I remember the dried fruit and hold them out to you. “Be sure to put some in her lunch every day. Children need sugar to stay sharp . . . it helps the brain.”
I can never get comfortable on your chairs, in your house—the too-white walls, the hard floors, the way the furniture seems to create so much useless space, dictating where a person can sit. In my house the floor is made of soft soil and fabrics, and I can sit anywhere. Every inch of her ground has cradled my body at some point, every bit of space used for something. In my house the light isn’t so bright, and the air doesn’t smell so much like medicine. I miss the comfort of her, the smell of boiling dye and ripening cheese, even the odor of wet hay and cow dung and sour milk.
When you say you’re going to the store, I invite myself along. I’m too old to wait for you to do it, or to care if you want me around. The merchandise in your local store is arranged in neat rows, not piles—nice. As soon as we enter, you get down to business, my good hardworking girl. Sara and I entertain each other while you take care of things.
“How would you like a little present?” I ask Sara.
“Another one?” Her eyes widen; it warms me because, yes, my first gift counted.
“A better one. How about this?” I pick up an abacus among a row of children’s toys. “They misplaced it. I’ve seen people use these for math… for counting.”
“I can count to a hundred!” Sara says, sticking up her little fingers.
“Akh joon, those fingers,” I say, unable to contain myself. “Watch out nobody eats them!” I pretend to nibble her fingers and she laughs and shrieks.
I take Sara to the counter to pay. You are already there. You eye the abacus and I know what you’re thinking. Before you can criticize me, I say, “It’s for math. I’ve seen lots of people use it for math.” You ask where I’ve seen this and I tell you “Everywhere” because—because how did my own daughter turn out so full faced? Speaking to her mother with so much gall. Also, I don’t remember. I untie the cloth bundle that holds my coins. I have hundreds of copper riyal coins, but no bills, so I start to count in riyal instead of tomans. Once in a while a dried mulberry or sunflower seed falls out among the coins and I ignore it. But you stare at each flower petal like it’s a pregnant cockroach in your rice. Why, Bahar joon, does your face always look like someone is beating you with a meat mallet? I look up at the store owner and begin to suggest a trade, as I do with Javad, with Mam’mad for birds, with everyone.
But your hand flies to your mouth and you whisper, “Akh joon, Maman!” as if you’re a little girl falling in the dirt, reaching for the wrong words. Then you hurry to add, “I’ll pay for that. Agha, please put it on our tab.”
I’m thinking, this habit isn’t cute anymore. It’s a shame now. You’re far too young to be using that phrase for anything but an afternoon of rough business in the backroom. How did I raise you so wrong? So lifeless?
You’re still looking at me strange.
“Ei Vai,” I say, realizing now what I’ve done to cause that look, that you don’t do trades here. But what’s to be done? What kind of dirt should I put on my head, my gherti-perty daughter? I’m not good at arguing with you, so I keep counting. I try to go faster.
Then I see the owner making marks in his notebook. What is he doing? I see him writing the price of the abacus under what looks like your name. How strange to keep a list like that, an inventory of those in your debt. It seems almost cruel to tabulate every disgrace instead of just rubbing yogurt on it like a normal person would. You seem to think nothing of the list, but I don’t want to add to your tally, so I refuse. Bahar joon, you need to learn that money isn’t bear grass scattered around everywhere.
You sigh. I keep counting. You say, “Maman, if you want, we can stop by a bank and you can change your money into bills.”
I know I’ve embarrassed you. Ever since you were a girl, you had the hardest heart. Your love so conditional, won only with tears and considerable back pain. I relent, but you should know, Miss Fancy-bazi, that no one at home has any use for big bills. There will be no one to break them for me, and how will I buy meat and bread and make change when people pay for their dairy? They will move on to the next stall and I’ll be left with three jars of spoiling milk. I clutch my bundle of coins a little too long, thinking of this, and you roll your eyes and pay for the abacus with your bear grass money.
Back at your house you deliver the news. “Maman, we’re moving to Tehran.” You say that your husband has a new job. That you were going to tell me next week.
I barely hear your explanations about the buses that go to Tehran every week and how you will pay for me to visit. I sink onto your couch, pushing aside the scattered clothes that you are obviously packing. I motion for Sara to come and sit on my lap. “It’s your life, Bahar joon. Do what you want. I just wanted to make my business clear.”
“Maman, don’t do that,” you say, “don’t make me feel guilty. It’s not easy getting jobs since the revolution. It’s better for us in Tehran.”
I’m in no mood to argue with you. I ask you for a cup of tea and play with my granddaughter. Then I feel myself getting up—I’m not sure why; I never leave before you ask me to. I move to the door like a leaf pushed out by a light broom, my weight no obstacle to the momentum of your life and chores and Friday plans. I feel tricked.
Maybe she doesn’t want you because of me, Maman whispers and I know she’s right. How did I raise a daughter like you? So self-assured, so full of plans, and cruel. And what will become of me? What if I really do go crazy, as they say? What if my body fails, as it is threatening to do now? Amir had a good four days when his body was broken, and he relied entirely on me to preserve his dignity until he went.
“Goodnight, my girl,” I say, thinking of the day you turned five, when you demanded to be dressed up like a bride and marry your Baba. I gave in, charmed, thinking that you wanted to be me. You kiss my cheek and I think, Oh life and breath.
After the visit to your home, I decide to teach myself to read. I will do this using the etchings on my walls. I start with the words I already know, Mohammad, Ali, Hassan, Hossein, the names of imams carved deeply into tile and brick so that the history students who pass through here have to chisel them out with hammers and picks. Some bring only a screwdriver and a brick, jolting the makeshift chisel back and forth to dig out the tiles. Every week my home shows new signs of these visits—fewer holy names, more tiny caves for rats and insects. At night I stand in front of the names and try to decipher the common shapes, matching them with common sounds. The h in Hassan and Hossein. The invisible ah in Ali and Hassan. Now I know how to write all h’s and all ah’s. Usually I don’t last longer than a few minutes. My feet hurt and my mind wanders. Why would any sane person put holes in the walls of a perfectly good house just to get at these old scribblings?
I return early from the market to check on a celery stew I’ve left bubbling in a corner. My door is ajar and there are people talking inside. I follow the voices to three men, two in their twenties, one older, maybe their teacher. They carry the dust of the road on their clothes and notebooks tucked under their arms. One of the young ones is making a pencil rubbing of a tile in the back room, a room I had closed off. The older one greets me. “This must be the caretaker. We’ll just collect our artifacts and be on our way.” He shows me a letter from the owner whose signature I have memorized. The rest of it could be a love letter to the ayatollah for all I know or care.
I move further inside. More bricks are missing, more tiles ripped from the walls. Maybe I’m old and growing sentimental, but it saddens me, another piece of my house gone, carried off by a stranger who knows only a part of its history, not the part where I washed it, where it taught me a common letter and a common sound, and where that brick he is fondling there kept at least two or three bugs out of my mouth in the night. One of the men is cradling my favorite jar, the biggest one that can hold an entire day’s milk. “Agha joon, that isn’t one of your relics . . .” I point to the jar like a crazy person.
He ignores me. Did I say it loud enough? Does he think the jar is an artifact?
“I made that,” I say, hoping he will understand. But again I fail with the words.
I don’t have the strength to try again, so I show them out and they disappear with their finds. I turn to my stew and to the dye from yesterday. I still have to pay back Agha Javad for the school supplies. Tonight I will take my box of treasures to him and let him choose something for his nephew. I squat by my pot and stir the stew, releasing the aroma of turmeric, my favorite spice. My spoon catches on something. I lift out a chunk of brick that seems to have fallen in. I toss it aside, but there’s another. Now I notice that a large hole has been dug directly above my stew, where I keep my box of treasures. I begin to worry, and it takes me a while to approach my hiding place behind a loose brick.
God damn it, they’ve taken my box. I curse only three times in the presence of the holy imams all around. They’ll have to understand. Maybe they’re trying to remind me that none of my things are really mine. I shouldn’t become accustomed to them or I will suffer. I don’t mind. I’ve accepted the price of living in this house. But without my box, how will I repay Agha Javad? I cannot, will not, take a piece of the house without the man’s permission. That would be a violation of her, of her history, and I am her guardian. Whether or not there is somebody up there watching, whether his spirit ever entered this wasted old mosque, she is still sacred, more than just a pile of bricks to tear apart.
I try to sleep, but the groans of the house keep me awake. I get up, wrap myself in a blanket, light a dusty oil lamp, and feed the cows. Around dawn I am convinced that a robber has entered, looking for the owner’s artifacts, and so I stand vigil by the door holding my lamp for half an hour. Probably it’s only the animals shifting around, but this is my job, and so I check again each time a noise interrupts my sleep.
In the morning I set to work on a big red stain in the back corner of the main room. I practice words on the walls as I scrub. Hassan: Heh-sin-noon. Is there an Alef in there? Heh-alef . . . I try to be gentle with her old body, but I’m tired and angry and I knock another brick loose. Or wait, was that already loose? I remove it, stick my hand far into the wall. I feel something cold, plastic, a little wet. It frightens me. I pull it out and can hardly believe my eyes. The house, she must have heard my complaining, and here she is providing me with a bag of not just opium, but beautiful little balls of hashish. When you’re all alone, I often think, who is there to fill your pipe? And look, the house is taking care of me like a husband might. I scuttle to the corner where I keep most of my possessions and grab Amir’s pipe. I pack the pipe and light it, but before my third puff, I have a thought. The house doesn’t want me to waste this gift. I throw away the watery celery stew. I make a decandent beryooni instead: fatty lamb fried up nice and oily on triple-oiled lavash bread. I click the big button on my tape player so I can hear my two Vigen songs as I eat and smoke.
Vigen sings about the moonlight.
I adjust my body on the floor, pull my skirt tight across my haunches where I balance the beryooni, about to bring that first greasy bite to my lips. Then I think, it isn’t healthy, sitting around indulging in good things all alone. I will go see if one of the neighbors wants to join me. I start to get up; I’m a little wobbly.
Then I think to pray before I go. Not to the bastard son of a minor imam but to the spirit that may or may not have inhabited this house. I pray for you as usual, that you learn to love yourself, your place in life, but mostly I pray that I find my box. Maybe it will come back to me, I confide to the walls, so that I might pay back Agha Javad without more embarrassment. I pray and I pray until I hear something other than Maman . . .
He doesn’t care, azizam, my Amir speaks for the first time in so long. Hello, Amir joon. How is your sleep? Old Javad will forget the debt, he says. You forget it too.
Okay, my dear friend, if you say so. How is it there—where you are? Will I like it when I arrive? Did you know that Bahar is moving away and taking our Sara with her? Should I follow them? There is a bus that goes to Tehran, and I can figure it out if I must.
He doesn’t say more. Maybe it hurts him to speak. Sometimes I want him so much that words fade and all that comes out of me is a series of noises, nothing but sobs and grunts and gasps. But Amir’s breath moves closer and hovers around me through the smoky room, and I know he will speak again. I think to ask, do you miss me? and he whispers, as if he can’t gather the words, Akh joon.