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The wedding
Short story

By Reza Ordoubadian
January 18, 2000
The Iranian

Grandfather was 108 when he died - grudgingly - and he made it no secret that he was not very pleased to live a celibate life. He considered a woman in his bed as necessary to his metabolism as food and air to his living; so, he wanted a third wife urgently, before he became too old to enjoy married bliss to the fullest, he said; as a matter of fact, he had already picked the woman he wanted to marry.

"Your Mother - she has been dead for how long, now?" He pondered for a moment, framing Aunt Gammar with his squinting eyes just to shake her up. "Two years yes, two years, I say," he roared from his bed one evening, pointing his crinkled, steady index finger at his daughters.

"You hear? I say two years!"

"Yes, Da-da; but we never... " the older daughter started to say but was silenced immediately by the old man's voice. He had never liked her much, preferring Aunt Aysel, the younger daughter.

"Of course not; you tell me: where is my woman?"

"You've had two already, Da-da."

"Two you say, two? Two dead women! My heart turns to ice in the cold of winter."

"And and the other women" Aunt Gammar dared to say in a whisper.

"You're not listening, girl; when winter comes and you two go to your husbands and the snow closes the pass, tell me now, tell me, who will warm my bed?"

The winter was hard that year, and snow capped the mountain that grew from the earth like a giant. Grandfather was fond of looking at the mountain, trying to remember his childhood. He had seen it for one hundred and eight years. There was still newness in the view, each snow-year leaving its own stamp on the scene, but really, the mountain had changed: it was less clear to his failing vision now, and the snow on the top looked like shades of blurred gray; but grandfather would never admit to his infirmities. He was still fighting the Russian soldiers who had stolen his paradise fifty years earlier. "Da-da, you can live with one of your children."

"Impossible!" Grandfather whispered, as if to a ghost, then continued louder, "It's settled, then; go ask the hand of the Armenian Herbalist's widow for me!" Grandfather said this resolutely, then with a faint smile he added, "She's still young!"

"Da-da, she is twenty-four; she's too young!" The older daughter objected.

"Young! You say young? Old enough to bear sons!" Grandfather snapped back.

"You already have four sons!"

"The last was born when I was ninety-four; no, ninety-three which, girl?"

"You've got seven children!"

"Allah willing, even more, if you bargain the Armenian woman for me! But, make sure she won't cost me much!"

I believe he would have more children, but the winter was cold and snow heavy; death took grandfather for a seedling that very winter and planted him in the midst of the field. They had to burn half a drum of Russian oil to melt five fingers of ice before digging the grave. Then, there was a hump on the ground with more snow than any other place in the field. I really don't think Grandfather died that year: he just made a pact with the devil to disappear, and he will come back again, some day, to fight the "yellow-haired bastards," the Russians!

Forty-four years earlier, he had to flee a bunch of cut-throats, he said, the Tzar's soldiers, who thought Grandfather's mountain might be a good place to hitch their tents on; they liked the wine and the grapes and the brown-eyed women in the valley and thought it might not hurt if they cut the head off grandfather's first wife and first children. It must have been a thrilling sight for the soldiers to kill the little children and then declare, "By the authority given us by Tzar Nicholai, we take this land and this mountain and these trees and these vineyards from you." Or, they might have even fought the Holy Wars all over again, saying, "By the authority given us by our loving Savior Jesus Christ, who suffered on the cross to redeem the world from its sins, we kill you Moslem dogs to sanction the blood that stained our Savior's palms as he suffered in the hands of the Jews and the Romans for our salvation." And, they killed the first Grandmother and the first aunts and uncles, and then they ate their meal and drank Grandfather's wine and cast lot to divide the spoils afterwards.

But, Grandfather had a pact with Death; his body, stained with blood and his arms riddled with buck-shots, he simply mounted a horse, took his muzzleloader, and rode fast - so fast that the soldiers did not see him, or else thought they might as well let an old man of sixty-three escape and marry again and have more children. Then, they might find his new mountain, and then they might get him once more. This time they will be sure he suffered in the valley so that both heaven and hell admired their soldiering.

* * *

He picked two large pieces of sugar and put them in his hot tea served in a tall glass. Slowly, he brought the tea to his eye level and looked through the henna colored hues into the world beyond. His gaze caught across the window and settled on the mountain far away and he felt abandoned. "My spirits are low," he complained; "Where is everyone?" Who was everyone? Grandfather knew but would not tell. Everyone on top of the mountain or in the valley, where he now lived. "I really need a wife or, something!" he continued since his friend remained silent. "Yes certainly" his new friend replied vaguely as he drag a deep breath from a long manna-wood pipe, his hands stained yellow with wet tobacco. "I know a good one, a good match-maker; that's it: a good match-maker, if you want to know. I'll send for her if you want; yes, we'll see what she's got for you, a good wife."

"Enough, enough!" Grandfather interrupted him as he was putting down the tea glass in the brass tray by his side. "I won't marry just anyone; I'm still young and strong, you know!"

"Yes. Certainly! She's good, the match-maker, old and experienced. Three wives for me already! But, she charges awful much she really does, and you may have to promise her a ram and two pyramids of rock sugar for three years, every new-year eve in Noruz bayram, but she'll find you a fine one, alright?"

Grandfather did not reply immediately; he closed his eyes to ponder his friend's suggestion. From where he came from, you did not need a match-maker. You just picked the girl and then negotiated with her father: simple and easy. The thought of a match-maker appalled him. "It is hard to sleep in a cold bed at night," Grandfather whispered, as if trying to convince himself. "Winters, I mean winter cold is hard. You curl into yourself and cover the kursi with an eiderdown and set a pot of glowing charcoal underneath, and you sleep for a while. But, if the mountain whites and the sun yellows, the north wind will go through the fire and chill your bones; no - you need a young woman's heat to feed your veins and ward off the cold: I will pay her price!" Then, louder he said, "Send for her, my friend!"

The winter was cold, but grandfather had his second wife; she was thirteen years old: short, petite, with red hair and light, blue eyes, the color of the sky over the snow capped mountain, Grandfather's old mountain, where the bodies of his family nurtured the grapes that gave life to robust wine.

"I will marry you for six lengths of calico, two lengths of cotton muslin, five pyramids of rock sugar, and the promise to love, cherish, and keep you pregnant for years to come," so vowed Grandfather to his baby bride - and, Allah.

"I accept your calico, muslin, sugar, and the promise of sons," answered the Grandmother, as she was instructed by the match-maker. And so, they promised to start a life together at the end of the month. I was somehow with Grandfather and Grandmother; I do not have red hair or blue eyes, but I know a part of me desperately wants to understand something - but cannot: a little girl in the bed of a sixty-four year old husband. Yet, she was happy: she did not have time to be unhappy, and her blue eyes ashened, and her complexion turned into an earthen color just to give birth to seven children; or was it eight? I think one died at birth. For her, the dead child was alive, and she counted him among her accomplishments.

"What do I do, mother?" Grandmother begged to know ahead of time. "The old man, he has the blackest beard; scary face of a devil!" She called him the "Old Man" ever after.

"Go to him," her mother advised. "When the time comes, you'll know what to do!"

"But, what if ... ? A foreigner; they say he's killed two thousand men; Tzar's soldiers."

"All idle talk, girl!" Her mother consoled her. "Maybe half a dozen, I would say! Certainly, no more. Besides, men kill - it comes natural." Grandmother was afraid of the Old Man. It was spring, and the little crystalline brooks danced down the mountain to River Aras below, gathering momentum as the waters washed the green moss and wild mint from the adjoining rock-growths. The brooks had their birth in the snows of Grandfather's mountain; they danced and bubbled down, and the three-piece band played the wedding songs, bawdy, but passionate.

Her two older sisters took Grandmother to the village bath; they washed and scrubbed her with a coarse wool-cloth and scented soap. One sister used a piece of pumice to scrub her feet white; they blended the saffron color of henna with her delicate, fair skin: on her hands, her feet, and a dot on her forehead. She was being prepared for the wedding beautifully. The bathing lasted for six hours: henna had to take, and the oldest aunt and the match-maker had to find time to teach the little girl a woman's tricks! She only half understood their words. "That's foolish talk, too," the match-maker said. "He will kiss you alright, but you must not - you must not let him touch you - no not at first!"

"Touch me!?"

"Yes! He will undress you eventually, yes, yes," her aunt said rapidly, averting her eyes, a girlish embarrassment. "But you must not let him touch you; no, not until he gives you the gift, a gold coin - at least."

"At least!" the match-maker confirmed. "More if you persist."

"A gift?"

"Don't be dumb, girl. You exchange gifts: he gives you a coin and you offer your virginity," the aunt mumbled impatiently.

I doubt if Grandmother understood all that talk -perhaps, she did, but it did not matter. They left the bath and went to Grandmother's house. The match-maker would make her up and dress her into a beautiful child-woman. The henna on her hair was now glowing like the sun on the top of Grandfather's mountain; her older sisters washed her once more, but this time the rinse was rose water: her mother had distilled the rose water from ten measures of rose bundles, and the day she was distilling, she had wished that her youngest daughter would use the essence soon, use it on her wedding night. She had said, "Simple wishes have a way of coming true."

That night, the musicians sang:

Our bride is scented, her body ready to receive;
The lucky groom in passion,
The lucky groom in passion.

And, the tiny girl was led by her hand to the room where Grandfather was waiting. "You'll like her; her mother has a real body; she'll grow to it, you'll see," the match-maker assured Grandfather.

"I will not pay your wages if she doesn't fatten," Grandfather threatened. "Listen to me: if she doesn't grow top and bottom you're ruined; I'll see to that!"

Grandfather had dyed his beard with henna, his woolly face shining with the glow of desire and wine. No! Nobody was going to see that his beard was beginning to gray. If he could, he would pull the gray beard: one hair at a time. This was one of the very few times that his will simply could not overcome the order of the universe.

Grandmother sat on a cashmere cushion in the middle of the room; she could barely see through her heavy veil. She heard the crowd around her, pushing and pulling, crowding her terribly. Two women held a piece of white cloth over her head, a third grinding two pieces of rock sugar against each other; the powdered sugar rained on the cloth above Grandmother's head, light like angel feet. "Sweet sugar, sweeten her life," the woman was singing, magic words for the fairy child about to become a woman.

"Do you accept, do you accept, do you accept," the Mullah repeated three time, "him to be your husband?"

She was told what to say and how to answer, and to please her mother, she was intent on performing correctly. She was not to answer immediately, but she could not bear it any longer and hurriedly whispered, "Yes yes - yes!"

Then, her mother was in tears; the guests smiled knowingly and made cheerful noises. Was it finished? Could she now go and collect her gold coin?

"Do you accept, do you accept, do you accept her to be your wife?" the Mullah continued-this time, more ceremoniously.

"I guess so! Yes! Certainly!" Said Grandfather absent-mindedly. The Mullah recited verses from the Koran, and everyone said they were man and wife.

"Now, I could go and get my coin," she thought. But, not yet; they nudged her on to a room on the second floor of the house. The match-maker and the two older aunts removed her veil, took her peacock-colored half-vest off; they laughed and joked, and they were bawdy; they said things that Grandmother did not understand.

A kerosene lamp on a tall, pink marble-stand flickered, casting a saffron-colored glow on the bed. The bed was rolled on the carpet: the thick mattress covered in purple silk with two bolsters for pillow on one end and a twice-folded purple calico eiderdown on the other. She was left alone momentarily. Inside, the high ceiling pressed against her heart like a mill-stone; she gasped for air. Outside, Grandfather's friends were firing their guns in the air to celebrate the conquest, but she could never get used to the noise of gun fire, and the constant bursts scared her witless. She ran to the eiderdown and hid underneath. Soon, Grandfather entered the room and locked the door from inside; the two old aunts remained motionless behind the doors, ears glued to it. How long would they have to wait, they wondered? True, it was a part of the ceremony, yet the guests had a right to know the truth immediately: that was the custom.

"How long will it take?" Asked the younger aunt.

"He's strong; it shouldn't take long," answered the older aunt.

"Praise Allah! She knows all about it, doesn't she?"

"Don't worry! She won't shame us."

The Old Man took off his long, dark-brown cassock and eyed the little girl with passion. He had a way of squinting his eyes when he tried to take an aim with his rifle - or, his mind. I guess it takes a whole lot of concentration to kill a man with a bullet and to woo a woman with eyes. It all amounts to the same thing; you are either spilling the stuff or planting the seeds of life. It happens that night Grandfather was planting seeds: he will plant eight seeds and want to do more. Grandfather went to the bed and sat squat on the mattress. "Sit up, woman," he ordered Grandmother in a soft voice. "Now I've got a question for you. What do you know about men?"

"I have two brothers, Old Man. They say father was a tall fellow; they say, like you, he had arched and thick eye-brows, like a bow for shooting gaze-arrows; but I wouldn't know: he died before I was born!"

"Get up, I'll teach you more about men."

"I know," she replied hurriedly. "You are going to give me a gold coin."

This girl was not timid at all, and she was happy to outwit Grandfather: she showed him she wasn't just a child. But, this was the first and last time that she ever thought so: the Old Man would not be bested by anyone, least by his wife!

"So! They've been talking to you! Who told you about a gold coin? Listen," he said with a stutter as he was fumbling inside his pocket. "Here I've got two silver pieces, but I won't give themuntil you tell me what I want!"

"My gold coin," she whispered shyly.

"Hush, no!" Grandfather cut her short; "You don't get my coins unless you prove you're a virgin!"

"Old Man! I was going to tell - give me the coin, and I'll!"

The Old Man was now assured: No! She could not possibly be damaged. She was so simple, so brashly simple! For a moment Grandfather thought of his first daughters who were buried in the vineyard up on the mountain; for a moment he almost saw his daughters in this frail girl, and he extended his hand towards her as if pleading "Please, be my daughter; don't be dead." But, the vision was too vague and the pictures, the ghost-images spun from the depths of his memory, faded fast; not fast enough, though; he was now holding Grandmother's hand in his large, wrinkled hand. The leap from daughter to wife was sudden; for the moment he would not allow the pain of the past mar his present desires!

"Woman, take off your bodice!" Grandfather ordered her. "You don't need to cover your body. I'm your husband: the Prophet allows you to bare your body and delight me with the touch of your skin."

"I couldn't!" she answered.

The two aunts behind the doors stirred; No! They had taught her well! She was going to resist him. But, Grandmother thought she should keep her clothes on because she had never slept naked; she feared the chill of April when the cold frost deceives even the farmers and one night unexpectedly steals down the mountain and forms crystal blades across the brooks and sharp ice-needles on the eves of the mud houses. Her oldest sister died because the frost wrapped himself around her chest and choked her to his bride: that's what they said. She would not allow this to happen to her.

"Woman!" Ordered Grandfather, "Take off your bodice!"

"But the frost, the frost might come!"

"I'll cover you with my body; I'll protect you!"

"Old Man, for a foreigner you're kind," she thought as she was slowly removing her bodice, but he wanted her naked. He wanted to smell the freshness of the spring wild violets and musk buds from her skin. He would not be pacified unless she were naked. The blood surged to the surface of his skin, and his heart filled with a feeling of past memories, something heavy which could not be lightened unless he unburdened himself. He was willing to bargain now, and he was willing to conquer her for all the riches he had.

"Woman, I'll give you two pieces of silver now and the gold coin after."

"After what?"

"After I drink honey from your lips."

Grandmother understood only half of the proposition. Before she was lead to the "wedding chamber," her sister had rubbed her lips with a pomade of virgin honey and the fat from the heart of an unborn lamb. She understood he was going to lick her lips to take the honey off. It should not hurt if he did it gently with his tongue. Yes, of course she will let him drink honey from her lips.

One-by-one, she took her garments off, and in the flickering flame of the lamp the pile of her clothes looked like a pyramid, like the peak of Grandfather's mountain. Her body had never seen the sun, and the contrast of the tanned skin of her hands and face with the porcelain skin of her body in the dim light seemed to belong to two different persons, one from the valley and the other from the mountains. She felt a chill in her spine, and she felt the palms of the Old Man's hands cup her small breasts. She was puzzled at first, but she felt a sweet sensation start from the top of her head and spread through her body.

This was something she had always known without being taught. She understood the sensation, the sweet sensation inherited from the first Mother Eve, and she knew that it burned, that it cured and killed, and that the order of the universe depended on it; she was led to the waters and ordered to obey and drink from the river and give life so that life might pass from darkness to light and back to darkness again. She turned: the narrow lips of the Old Man caressed her honeyed lips; he drank the potion and tasted the sweetness of her mouth. She blossomed and opened like the petals of a rose, and he dared to wash the rushes with the scent of life.

The old women at the door stirred, old hands in the old game; they knew that the life had passed on, and they pounded at the door before Grandmother knew she was a woman.

"Don't! Please don't open the door," she begged.

"Open the door!" he ordered.

"But, the shame of it."

"There was no shame in it! You were a virgin!"

The Old Man fumbled in his pocket and took out a worn purse of burgundy velvet and carefully picked a piece of gold coin. He kissed the coin, recited verses from the Koran, and offered it to his wife with both hands stretched towards her, both appealing and resenting. This was not the first time for him, and it did not make sense giving gifts like that.

She took the coin and never parted with it.

"Open the door, Old Man; open the door," the aunts were shouting. "The guests, they're waiting."

"Wait - just wait," he shouted from inside "You'll get your rewards."

"Yes, the lot of a door-keeper is only a veil, a white veil," the aunts mocked and bargained. "You had a virgin!"

"I'll give you both a veil and two measures of saffron," in a generous mood, he promised! "Now, be silent!"

"Bless you! Bless you. Tell us now; tell us if she was."

The lock clicked open, and Grandfather appeared at the door, smiling and triumphant! In his hand he was holding a white muslin cloth stained with blood, and the signs were right, and the act was done: in celebration, the men began shooting their rifles in the air.

©All rights reserved by the author Reza Ordoubadian

Reza Ordoubadian holds a Ph.D. degree in English and linguistics. He has held a professorship at Middle Tennessee State University and Visiting Professorship at Umea University (Sweden). He has published numerous pieces of fiction and poetry as well as scholarly articles and books on both sides of the ocean. He was the editor of SECOL Review for 18 years.

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