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Why would I repent?

October 30, 2001
The Iranian

Excerpt from The Bathhouse, a new novel by Farnoosh Moshiri (2001, Black Heron Press). Like the young male protagonist of Moshiri's first novel, At the Wall of the Almighty, the high-school graduate remains nameless as she tells of her time in an old bathhouse used as a prison. Moshiri grew up in a literary family in Tehran. She worked as a playwright and fiction writer in Iran, before fleeing the country in 1983 after her play was banned and its director and cast arrested. Winner of the Barthelme Memorial Fellowship at the University of Houston, she now teaches creative writing and literature.

Nothing was unbearable after the stoning. Nothing was painful or scary. How simple and easy was our life in the Bathhouse. How calm was everyone. How well we slept, well we ate. Roya was missing for a whole day, then she returned to our cell with black and blue body. Her bald head was bandaged and she was sedated, absolutely absent. The guerilla fighters went for interrogation and came back, one by one -- bruised, or bandaged, but none of them moaned or cried. That first meeting was their last meeting, though, a Raven resided in our cell, permanently.

I was hoping that Roya wouldn't come back and when she did I became worried. I didn't want her close to myself. She would hang on me, stick to my skin like a leach. I didn't want her to sleep next to me, resting her head on my shoulder. I didn't want the Raven to see us together. When she came I tried to keep my distance, but Roya followed me around the room, quietly, ghost-like. Wherever I sat, she sat next to me, making herself into a ball close to my belly. I sat up every night in case the Raven woke up and checked on us. I didn't have my peace anymore, that letting go, that quiet time with myself. Roya became my torment. Sleeping for a short time in the afternoon, I dreamed about us, Roya and I, rolling naked in the pool of dirt and blood, the guards and inmates stoning us. I woke up with horror not being able to sleep anymore.

So when after a few days they took us to the barn again, I felt relieved. Jamali, Soghra, and the man with military suit -- Brother Hosseini -- came and blindfolded us. Maybe that was when I should've called Jamali's attention to myself, reminding him who I was. Maybe I should've said, "Brother Jamali, remember me? I'm that little brat with those stupid journals. I'm not an armed guerilla or anything like that. Why should I be punished with them?" But I didn't say a word. My tongue felt heavy, as a wet brick and my voice didn't come out. The cell was crowded and with our identical black uniforms we all looked alike. I was one of the guerilla fighters now and they took us in Brother Hosseini's van.

Jamali said, "I'll let you all rot in the boxes," And I didn't understand what he meant. What boxes? Where? But when they pulled us out of the van and shoved us inside these cardboard cartons, I realized what he meant. They made us each sit in a box, which had barely enough space for one person; the front was open. We sat all day with our blindfolds on and at first it wasn't that bad -- only sitting in the dark, that's all. But at night they opened the blindfolds and let us eat. I tried to find something to look at, but there was nothing, except a dry lot in front of us. The sky was cloudy, no stars or moon were visible.

I wasn't sure if this was the same location where I stood once until morning. The first time I'd heard toads and toads were always where trees were. But now I just saw an empty lot with no walls around. Of course I couldn't bend forward to see my right and left, maybe I'd be able to see trees around. If this was part of the Bathhouse, I didn't know. The van had driven us a short time, as if taking us from one part of a camp to another. The first trip had been short, too.

At night, my body began to ache. Not only my legs were sleep and millions of sharp needles pierced them, but my back, neck, shoulders, and head hurt. I wanted to stretch my legs, but I couldn't. They'd told us if we moved they'd shoot us. The worst thing was not being able to see each other. I knew that our boxes were all in one row, seventeen boxes. Fifteen guerilla fighters, Roya, and I.

Once I heard a male guard shouting at someone, cursing her and insulting: "If you move your fucking legs one more time, I'll shoot you! Sit straight."

"I need to use the bathroom," the girl said.

"Use it!" A woman said. "This is your home, go to toilet!" the guards laughed.

"I'm serious, I need to --"

"I'm serious too. Shut up!"

It was quiet for a long time, then I heard someone weeping. I wasn't sure if it was the woman who wanted to use the bathroom or someone else. I hadn't used the bathroom, either. No one had. They took us early morning before the toilet time. I decided not to make this into a big issue. If I needed to empty myself I would. I didn't want to develop kidney or bladder disease like I'd heard some women had.

A while later my toad sang in the dark and made me smile. I breathed deeply and listened to him. Then suddenly the clouds became luminous as if a torch was flaming underneath them. The clouds moved rapidly and became thinner in some parts, thicker in others. The thin clouds veiled the iridescent moon like transparent silk. Oh, it's not bad at all, I thought, only if I could stretch my legs. Just once and for a few minutes. This sky can amuse me forever and my toad is singing.

But the thick, dark clouds won and the torch died. Everywhere became dark. The toad didn't sing anymore and I heard rain drops on the cardboard roof of my box. It rained and the guards murmured something to each other and came and went, asking Brother Hosseini what to do next -- keep us in the rain or not. I knew that the girls were hoping that Hosseini would cancel the punishment and send us back to our cell. But we sat in the boxes and it rained on us. The cardboard boxes became wet and soggy and the rain dripped on us. Water ran under the boxes and in a short while we were all soaking wet.

Now I was biting my lips. The pain in my legs was intolerable. They wouldn't really shoot me, would they? I tried to stretch my right leg, but I couldn't. I was paralyzed. I tried more, again I couldn't. Either my limbs were not working anymore, or I wasn't trying hard enough to move my legs from the fear of shooting.

The rain stopped just before all the cardboard boxes collapsed on our heads. Thin clouds showed again and I saw the moon moving behind them. When the moon became more visible, I saw that it was round, but not quite round. It was like a chipped porcelain saucer. Now the whole disc came out, luminous but shadowed. This was the silhouette of a sea, the sea of tranquility. I remembered Leila saying, "this shadow is a sea ... a sea. ... "

I heard my neighbor sighing; I sighed the way she sighed and this way we talked to each other. The moon moved right in front of us and now someone screamed, "I can see it! I can see it!"

"Shut up!" a guard shouted.

"I can see the image of the Great Leader. It's the Holy Leader!"

The guards and repentants all talked at once and I sensed chaos. The girl kept screaming, "Believe me. It's Him. It's his Holy Image!"

Then I heard Brother Hosseini's voice ordering the guards to take the girl to his office. She kept swearing and crying. This was Roya. After weeks of silence she was talking.

For a while after they took Roya to the office, the guards and repentants looked at the moon and debated. Some said the girl lied to get out of the box, the image appeared only on the full moon, but a few others said they saw the image too, the girl didn't lie, she observed it and she must be blessed and forgiven.

This conversation ended soon because of the problem that I created. I felt dizzy and weak. I hadn't slept well since the stoning incident and hadn't eaten a meal for twenty-four hours. So I swayed first, then fell forward a few times and finally fell on my right side. I knocked my neighbor's box, she knocked her neighbor's, and all the boxes collapsed like a house of cards. The guards started to beat us with the butt of their machine guns. We were in the puddles of rainwater and the blows were coming on our body from everywhere. Now Brother Hosseini came and stopped them. He ordered them to make us sit again, with or without the boxes. He said that Jamali's order was to make us sit for a week and this was only the end of the first day.

After that I lost track of time. I remember they brought us food. I remember rejecting the food and just drinking water. I remember peeing in myself. I remember the foul odor rising from other boxes. I remember sobs, crazy, delirious murmurs, girls talking to themselves. I remember slaps and kicks, sudden hysterical outbursts, "Don't beat me! Don't!"

The moon kept growing fuller; no one could watch it anymore.

Shortly they brought us new boxes. These were TV cartons. In the dim light of the night I recognized pictures of TV sets on them. I don't remember what exactly happened after the new boxes. The whole thing is foggy and confused: Eating, drinking, emptying, dozing off while sitting. Sitting. Collapsing. Being beaten up. Day. Night. Blindfold at daytime, clouds and moon at night. The moon rounder, bigger, yellower.

I didn't hear Roya's voice anymore. I felt a vague joy thinking that she had repented and was lying down in a clean, dry cell now. Wishing I could do the same, I began to consider the possibility. But how could I pretend? I wasn't a good actor. At school performances I was never picked for major roles; I was always in the crowd, feeling awkward and self-conscious, hiding myself behind the other students. How could I scream now, pretending that I was seeing a picture on the moon? But what if Roya didn't act, what if she believed that she saw the picture? I didn't believe in anything now. Absolutely nothing. Even that old, kind, fatherly god, that patient and generous old man that I had created for myself to ask him silly things, was long dead. He died the first day in the Bathhouse when I heard the iron mountain falling. The old man vanished a long time before I stoned my inmates to save my life.

"The moon is a piece of rock, separated from the earth, rotating the earth, rotating the earth, rotating the earth --" I whispered to myself in my dark box. "The silhouette on the moon is a sea, the sea of tranquility, tranquility, tranquility --" How could I say that it was the picture of a man? And why would I repent? Who was I to repent? Karl Marx? Che Gevara? Rosa Luxemburg? So I just sat and sat and sat and sat and the moon became rounder and rounder...

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