Excerpt from In the Walled Garden (Little Brown & Company; 2002). Set in Iran before the revolution — a world on the brink of destruction — a haunting and passionate story of a doomed love affair. Firouz was born in Tehran, Iran, and grew up there. She now lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and two children. This is her first novel.
The white Jasmine was in bloom. Blossoms were gathered in silver bowls throughout the rooms, and the scent had taken possession of the house. That night, Mother said, summer would be celebrated with a dinner party on the back veranda. They'd strung up the paper lanterns, their orbs swaying in the evening breeze. From my bedroom window upstairs I watched the garden, the curve of flower beds, the gardeners spraying the lawns, fans of water arcing out at sunset.
Dinner would be late. My brothers were having their friends, and I was having mine. At quarter to eight, Father, immaculately dressed, came out in the upstairs hall and settled down to read yet another version of the rise and fall of our history. Mother was fretting downstairs, orchestrating our life as usual. She called out to my brothers to bring the stereo system out into the garden. My three brothers, not married yet, went out often with a lot of girls and brought many of them home.
That summer of my sixteenth year, I watched them go out into the world and I watched them return. Always triumphant. I couldn't decide if it was their freedom that made them that way, or the privilege and certainties of home. I believed in never letting on how much I knew, preserving power. And secretly I longed to see my life ravaged so I could see it rise up again from its own ashes — a riveting thought.
I went out into the hall dressed in ivory muslin and pearls for dinner. A manservant ran halfway up the stairs to make a hurried announcement.
“Sir, madame says it's Hajji Alimardan! He's here with his son! They're waiting in the living room.”
Father, breaking into a smile, said, “What a splendid surprise.” My pulse raced. Reza was back for the first time. I hadn't seen him in two years.
We descended, Father telling me as usual how much he missed Hajj-Alimardan, how he'd never understand why Hajj-Ali had suddenly left his services, the properties and gardens he once oversaw now in decline. How he had been not just an overseer but a confi- dant, a friend.
They were in the living room with their backs to us when we entered.
“Hajj-Ali!” Father said, and they turned.
Our fathers shook hands with long-seated affection. Reza, even taller than when I'd last seen him, looked me over, then nodded. His father still had that strange mixture of rectitude and kindness but looked pale and surprisingly aged. His eyes were misty, like my father's as he embraced Reza.
“How are you, my son? Look at you, a man now! How old are you?”
I knew. He was sixteen; he and I had also known each other a lifetime.
Hajj-Ali had come on a private matter. I suggested to Reza a walk in the gardens, and we left, passing through the back doors to the veranda. We stepped out, the evening revealing itself in a hush.
He saw the tables set with white tablecloths and turned, pride darkening his wide-set eyes, the angles of his clean-shaven face shifting with the light. We went left up the gravel path toward the arbors, my ivory dress whiter at dusk, like a bride's. He didn't say a word. When we got to the trees, he turned.
“You haven't changed much,” he said. I smiled. “You thought I'd got bigheaded? That's why you never visit?”
“Tonight Father insisted.” I wanted to ask him why they'd left that summer so suddenly, but looking at him now, I knew he wouldn't tell. I knew he was stubborn, reticent, unwavering, that he kept secrets with tenacity and vision.
“You look nearly old enough to be married,” he said.
“This autumn I'm going away to study in England,” I said defiantly.
“Of course, England. Isn't it good enough staying here?”
“It's what we've all done.”
Suddenly he smiled. “Then what?”
“Then I'll come back, of course.”
Behind the wall of cypress, we turned into the greenhouse. Passing through the potted orange and lemon trees, he stopped.
“I think Father is gravely ill,” he said. I flinched. I thought of Hajj-Ali as blessed and immortal. He said his father was at the doctor's constantly for his heart. We wended our way out and to the far side of the rose garden. I asked about his school. He named a public school. It was a rough place and had gangs. “We're into politics,” he said, his jaw setting suddenly with this. Voices rose from the veranda, laughter, then someone put on a record. A slow, dreamy summer love song.
He stared at the trees. “You have guests. You should go back.”
“Remember when I taught you to dance?”
“That was another life.”
He said it with a quiet anger, then stared at me, the anger plucked away, his eyes searching my face. The hum of cicadas rose to a throbbing around us, the leaves above shivering with a breeze that ruffled my dress and hair. He hovered in the shadows for a moment, then stepped in close. He bent down and, gripping me, pressed his lips to my mouth with a quiet urgency, then a crushing force, and I felt shaken as if given desire and elation and life forever.
Emerging through the trees to the sweep of lawns, we saw in the distance the house rising, the veranda draped in flowering wisteria, the spectacle of guests under lanterns. We hovered like phantoms at this distant border, and I thought, That's what we are, he and I, a separate world.
“Look! Safely back where you belong,” he said. We came up along the side of the house. Mother, presiding over her guests, saw us and followed us with her gaze, watching to see if I would give anything away. She pointed over to my friends. The boys eyed Reza with that who's-he, he's-not-one-of-us look. The girls smiled and made eyes at him. He slipped past them and whispered to me that he had to leave, his father was waiting.
We found him in the library alone. “Hajj-Ali, you must stay for dinner!” I said.
“It's getting late. I get tired quickly,” he said. “We must go.”
Father reappeared and gave Hajj-Ali a large and thick sealed envelope, and we accompanied them to the door. I rushed back to the veranda.
Mother came up and whispered to me, “You look ashen. As if you've seen a ghost. The climate in England will do you good.” The moon was up, and when the music rose and I was asked to dance, I turned, looking down the lawns at the immense shadow of trees.
I saw her for the first time after twenty years, at an afternoon concert of classical Persian music in the gardens of Bagh Ferdaus. It was an outdoor concert in early autumn. Summer still lingered, the leaves of the plane trees and walnuts brown and withering at the edges. The sky was overcast, threatening rain, the afternoon unusually muggy. She wore yellow, the color of a narcissus from Shiraz. I knew it was her in a split second even after all those years.
The bus had taken forever all the way from downtown. As we crawled north, the mountains loomed closer and closer. The traffic on Pahlavi Avenue was terrible, even worse when we reached Tajreesh. Two friends who work at the National Television were waiting outside the gate with tickets. Abbas gave me one and we rushed in. He's grown a beard recently to go with his political leanings.
“Classy affair, isn't it?” he said, pointing.
“It's going to rain.”
“Lucky you didn't have to park,” said Abbas.
We walked past the pavilion — a Qajar summer palace — and down the lawns to the concert, which had already started. There was a crowd and all the chairs were taken, so we stood. Two television cameramen with headsets were recording the event, black cables snaking by their feet. I watched the old trees at the periphery of the garden and listened to the music. The santour, kamancheh, nay, the tonbak. My friends wandered and talked. They hadn't come for the music.
When the concert was over, they introduced me to colleagues who were making a film on old monuments. We strolled back up to the pavilion and stood under the porch, looking out to the gardens. That's when I saw her coming up the lawns, the yellow of her suit conspicuous in the crowd, her face unmistakable. She was talking to friends, and a sudden gust of wind ruffled their clothes. When they left her, I saw an opportunity and was happy that she'd come alone. Then two dapper men stopped her to talk, and the three of them drew together as if conferring. From that distance it looked serious.
“Coming?” Abbas asked me.
“I'll see you by the entrance.”
“Who's the woman?”
I shrugged and they left to get the car. I whipped around and saw her standing by a sapling, and she seemed distracted, suddenly distressed. A light rain began to fall and she looked up, squinting, her hair falling back, slithering, let loose, still a deep brown like chestnuts. Nothing had really changed her in twenty years. I wanted to go forward and say, Remember me? Reza Nirvani. Son of Hajji Alimardan, overseer of your father's estates. I knew she would.
The sky thundered, an eerie color; then suddenly there was hail. The garden turned gray and menacing, shrouded by hailstones the size of bullets. She came running in under the roofed porch, her hair and face wet, now just a few feet away from me.
Her eyes, hazel, familiar, were scanning a limited horizon, but she didn't see me. The crowd pressed in, keeping us apart. She dropped her program, shook her hair, leaned against the white wall, and took off her shoes, legs still slightly tanned from the long summer, toenails vivid red. The television crew jostled past us with bulky equipment. People made a dash for the gate, scrambling into cars. I waited, though I knew I'd lost the moment. Now just a handful of people remained under the porch, the hail pounding into the lawns.
I stood by a column, at right angles to her. She looked out with an expression of alarm, even dread, as if gripped by something terrible. Knowledge, premonition?
“What an afternoon!” the caretaker said next to her.
“Inauspicious,” she said, barely audible.
Then she picked up her shoes and headed for the gate. I followed her, her feet weaving past puddles until she put on her shoes by the gate. She crossed by the grocery store, got into a car in the side street, lit a cigarette behind the wheel, and just sat there smoking. Her windows fogged up. I'd heard she had a wealthy husband and two children. I stood waiting for my friends, the last to leave.
Evening fell with the streets washed down, the pavement glistening like coal. Summer was finally over