I am not easily given to superstition, but the communication I received from Cy was extraordinary. I had long forgotten about him and his sister although the memory of the narrowing passage had kept haunting me–and, my readers–for many years: I had a driven urge to discover the causes of the event, bordering on obsession, although, in my mind, nothing physical is subject to any laws but physical, and the event did not make much sense, notwithstanding the narration of the old man, which was sincere and complete, yet a tale of unreasoned happenings.
I had never met Cy, nor did I have any occasion to talk to him: he disappeared some twenty-five years ago; even the old man-servant, who narrated the earlier part of “The Boy Who Invaded My Life” did not know where Cy had gone. Since he was a young boy of sixteen at the time of the first story, by my calculations he must be in his late thirties. And now, this enigmatic e-mail!
The message sounded urgent. He wrote, “I read your rather inaccurate account of my encounters with Raheem and Father's passing, neither of whom I despise or envy.” Of course, the words that Cy was denying were not mine, but his man-servant's, who swore they were Cy's exact words, or very close to his. I am sure the servant had added his own words and perceptions to the story and that he had embellished the events, like a religious tract pretending to be history–and was not; yet, there was enough sense of authenticity and authority in it that I could glean the gist of a narrative based on the story.
To my mind, I was a simple messenger, their words and my translation. I wrote and told him so, but he fired back another e-mail, “I will tell you the true story, but I reserve the right to read what you write before you publish it; I really don't trust you; I really don't trust anyone.” This was quiet satisfactory, and I hoped to exchange e-mails and letters until he finished with his story. I was especially keen to know why and how the passage way in his house simply narrowed until no one could pass through it, like the eye of a camera. I wrote him a single word, “Agreed.”
“Meet me face to face, then!” he replied.
There was no way that I would agree to go back to the Middle East or even to Europe just to meet with Cy, especially not now, with several nasty revolutions brewing in the area. I wrote, “Impossible! I won't come to you?”
To which he replied and surprised me, “I live in Chicago now, but I will travel–any place.”
That was our deal except that I wanted to meet him in his own hunting grounds, now Chicago. I felt I could get a better measure of the man–the boy I never knew–if I met him where he lived.
We met at a neutral ground, a bar/coffee shop off Lakeshore near the Medical Center. The place was almost dark even in the middle of a sunny day: a narrow, long, L-shaped room with only one entrance, dim light laboring through its two window-panes, enough to find your way to a table; otherwise, electric mock-candles cast a weak glow on each table, hardly enough to read the menu.
I still wonder why Cy chose such a place for our meeting, but I can see now that the place was quite appropriate for our meeting: considering Cy's state of mind and natural inclinations, it was a kind of recreation in Chicago of the atmosphere of the story. I could not see his face clearly, especially behind the thick, black beard and Stalin mustaches and a pair of dark glasses that totally covered his upper face. But, I recognized him right away. He was sitting in a booth, smoking a cigarette and sipping coffee; I had lived long enough with his ghost that I instinctively went to him: apprehensive, suspicious, and excited, my hands shaking and a tremor in my voice. He did not look up or say a word; with his right hand that held a string of large, amber worry-beads, he motioned me to sit down. “I'm drinking coffee and cognac; what will you have?” he said briskly with his throaty voice.
“The same, without the cognac!”
Then we settled for a long, excruciating moment of silence; in that hushed stillness the noise in the coffee shop ceased to exist, my focused consciousness exaggerating every motion of the boy-man; there were three of us: Man-Cy, I, and the memory of the thought of Boy-Cy twenty-five years earlier, the ghost that had haunted me and my readers for so long; when he broke the silence, he talked nonstop until he was finished. The conversation was in English, freeing me from the arduous task of translation although he used many Persian sentences in need of translation. There are simply certain deep emotions that cannot be expressed in any other tongue than the one we are born into. He talked, I taped his entire conversation, which took eight cassettes, at times his whole body dancing to narrate the impossible.
After the funeral and the dramatic escape from the mob, Sister and I returned home, confused, without any plans for the future. The future seemed both precarious and exciting; to be sixteen and the master of your own life was far more than I could have imagined or hoped for. Father–don't misunderstand me, I had a special kind of liking for him–was not there any more to give orders, and Raheem, he disappeared because we knew there was no room for him in our lives. I would have told him so if he had showed his face.
The day after the funeral, Sister and I came in from the front door and proceeded through the passage behind the stair case and were inside the living quarters of the house, nothing unusual: it was not until two days later that we noticed the narrowing of the passage, at first, ever so imperceptibly, then rather quickly the passage closed, preventing any traffic, like a funnel through which matter can travel only in one direction–a birth canal or an exit chute; we were forced to use the back door, the door made of solid oak, a humble but secure door, neglected for over seventy-five years, set far from the house, almost a journey to reach it through the back yard that went on forever, like a tedious argument of the revolutionaries outside our home. We did not see Raheem, hoping for his permanent absence.
“I thought he helped you!” I told Cy.
“Don't interrupt,” he said sharply. “I'll come to that.”
The servants left one by one because the discipline in the house had disappeared after Father's death and the outside world vaguely offered them a better life; when I tried to bring back the old order, they would not stand for it. The only one who remained loyal was the man who had brought me up. He stayed and became our cook, house keeper, and gardener.
But, he, too, had to leave at the end for bad health and simply old age; but of course, he has already told his story to you. There we were, Sister and myself; we learned fast, though, and using the back door, we were able to leave the house, from time to time, to shop for groceries and sneak and mix with the throngs of people moving in the streets in waves that scared us, but that was the only way we could get a pulse of ourselves and the political monotony. Come to think of it! We had a need to be out, to be able to see other human beings, to know that we were not alone, forgotten and “disappeared” from the face of this world. It is tough to know you are alive, but realize that you do not exist inside your skin!
Distances gradually extending far, becoming further as the autumn closed and winter set in and Father's rose garden burned in the ice of winter, much colder than I have ever remembered. It almost seems there was a connection between distances and the narrowing of the passage, distances and the suspended time, distances and the burning, icy weather.
The same distances were not the same distance any more: from the back door to the nearest bakery, where we had always shopped, took twice as long to traverse, a curious affair, but we really did not notice it at all because we were too busy being cautious and always wrapped ourselves in old clothes to escape any prying eyes that would mark us as remnants from the old order, “The Old Plague,” as they chanted in the streets, sending a chill to the very core of our beings.
We got to a point that Sister and I decided to go shopping individually, Sis, wearing a black wrap, and I, a simple coat and a buttoned-down shirt–no tie. Otherwise, a member of the Army of God could have spotted us with fatal consequences. It was so hard to blend in and become one of the many, so hard to lose identity outside in the street and become one of the masses who were told to be and think in a prescribed way without deviation, but with much imported devotion to the cause. I still do not understand why they did not simply storm the house and take over: all the other houses for blocks had been taken over as residences for The Oppressed Folks Association. Then I wondered if we were the invisible ones inside our forgotten home.
One day, Sis returned from shopping for food, but I did not hear her come in. She must have been very quiet, I thought, which scared me: anyone could have opened the door and come in from the back gate, exposing our haven. I needed a gun, I resolved, but I had never fired a gun in my life: owning guns during the Monarch's reign was considered dangerous to human health and a capital crime, as was reading certain books that I would not have read anyhow. A few days after the final victory of the Army Of God, my old man-servant brought me a package, well wrapped inside a chocolate box. “Here, take it,” he said and extended his right hand towards me.
Chocolate, I thought, chocolates I did not want and he knew it, yet I thought in his perversion of the times he is mocking me with a box of imported chocolates. In the old days I would have scolded him mercilessly, but the times had changed. “Thank you so very much,” I said.
“Very thoughtful of you to bring this box of chocolates–leave it on the table!”
“Take it,” he insisted firmly.
His hand was shaking because of old age or because of holding the box out to me for such a long time. I took the box and put it on the coffee table.
“Open it, Master Cyrus,” he said sternly, exasperated and annoyed.
I opened the box to find chocolate, but inside was a small hand gun. He must have seen the surprise in my eyes. “I know…I know! It's necessary now…you must….”
I eyed the gun and took it in my hand; the cold steel burned my fingers, and I dropped it. “Careful…,” he said. “Don't rush. This is in case…!”
The words weighed on my soul, the implications were grave, and I understood them even as young as I was. Would I dare to use it? As if I had training, I took the gun and pointed it at the wall but did not pull the trigger….
“You may need it if you're attacked, especially if Sister is in danger.”
“I tell you,” I said with renewed energy and the anger of a sixteen year old child-man, “I'll killed every one of the bastards who dare to come to the house.”
“No! You won't have the time. Besides, it would be useless and others will hear the shot and more will come in; this gun is not for them.”
The old man was going senile and losing his grip on life. “Then, why do I need a gun?”
“You'll know when the time comes…!”
I supposed it was the time, so I took the gun from under the sofa cushion and clicked the safety catch, as my man servant had showed me, and pointed at the door: whoever entered would get all four shots. My servant could find only four bullets, my total security and protection. The noise came from the front of the house, which was even more ominous.
I heard Sis shouting, “Cy…come, come see…”
Gun in hand, I cautiously opened the door ajar; decidedly Sis was coming from the front of the house, which delighted me both for being relieved of using the gun–that kind of noise offends me–and seeing her come from the wrong direction.
” I came through…I came through,” she was shouting. “I came through the passage!”
Sis has a way of overstating, if not lying. Without another word, I moved past her and went towards the passages. The backside was as dark as ever, and from my vision, the two slits had not changed, only a faint light-like penciling in metaphorically yellow slivers, two points that repelled and attracted at the same time, promising but denying both passage and vision, mocking the caged in the darkness by showing that light is possible, even if providential. I had had enough of her jokes; I returned, passed her without acknowledging her presence. She looked at me with dismay and shouted, “Are you blind?”
I had to dismiss her with a motion of my hand, and I went to hide in Father's room that was mine. I heard her screech as she ran to the room. “It was open, I swear it was open…I came through it, like we used to.”
I focused my eyes sternly at her, as Father used to with me, and said, “Stupidity has no limits…,” exact words of Father.
” I know what I know…. It's open from the other side. Only our side is sealed. Go look for yourself!”
Not at that time, not again; I had more pressing affairs to tend because the house was getting darker and colder. The sun was a pail, saffron color, struggling to shine, but often you saw it as shattered rays without much energy or heat. Inside the house was slowly becoming darker and light-less, a heavy atmosphere lingering, as if trapped inside a thick mist in an ancient ocean. My old servant once started to say, “This happened once before…” but did not complete his statement, and I was getting tired of his senile outbursts and asides, so I did not push the point.
For heat we had plenty of wood; large oak and ash trees, planted by my ancestors, covered our vast estate. Most of the morning hours my servant and I cut wood and split them into burning length. Although Father had in recent years imported a hot-water radiator system from Germany to heat the entire house, it used oil, a commodity to which we had little access, even in a country floating on oil. I did not think we could take the chance of purchasing oil from the government monopoly and risk being detected; besides, we were the invisible residents of the city, where we were all but forgotten, a metaphorical single grain of sand lost in a vast desert of sameness. Outside the house, we were marked and had identities, dangerous but rewarding to be recognized as human beings, unattainable as we entered the walled silence, as if of a grave. It was really my servant's idea to burn wood; I had no memory of ever burning wood. He said, “Why don't we get the old wood heaters?”
“What wood heaters?”
“We have them in the storage!”
And, from the storage we retrieved them as he talked. He wisely advised we only put three heaters up: in Sister's bed room, in mine and in his because it would have been impossible to supply wood for many more.
I remember the day I became totally aware of the desperate situation. It was my turn to buy supplies. In the cold, dim light of late morning I walked to the back door, opened it with great effort, and walked into the warm sun in the narrow alley that led eventually to the boulevard that fronted our house. It was increasingly an effort to walk in the garden, but I managed to cross it and arrive at the boulevard, where I could walk and breathe freely–for a price, of course, that I knew was set on my head by the Army Of God; I stopped for a moment to look at the front of the house. The sun reflected from it like darts of fire, so beautiful and threatening. I had a heavy coat on and a hat of lamb skin, and I felt hot inside, burning.
The stares of the people who paraded in waves in the street were unbearable: all clad in variously yellowed white shirts that buttoned to the neck, men in black beards, women covered from head to toe in black, not a single spot on their faces visible, but their cruel, merciless eyes that glowed under the dark cover like fanned charcoal of the kebab makers, who lined both sides of the once pristine boulevard. In old days they would not have dared to cross the boundaries of discretion and come up so far north from their humble places in the south of the city, near the railroad station and the red-light district, euphemistically they called “The City of Delights!”
Soon a small group was gathering around me, eyeing and whispering. Suddenly I heard the voice of authority, a boy not much older than myself, a rifle slung on his shoulder up-side-down–the barrel pointing to the ground–a vague anger shooting from his dark eyes, so sadly serious at such a young age.
“What are you doing here?”
I froze; his words had no meaning because everyone in the neighborhood knew where I lived, but he was not from the neighborhood; no one I could see belonged to the neighborhood. The blaming voice came again, “Are you with us…?”
I stammered to get a word out, to tell him and the crowd that I lived in the house across the boulevard and that we have lived on the spot for generations, patriots in wars and prominent people among prominent folk; I had a right to be where I was, but before the sound came from my mouth, I heard a familiar voice, a calm voice of equal authority to the rifle-toting boy. “I know him…!”
Heads turned to the voice, and my heart sank; an enemy or a an angel, flashed through my head. “Well! He's Cyrus…he lives with us!”
The answer was a total lie, and he knew it, but the effect was wonderful, simply wonderful, for the crowd lingered for a moment to weigh the meaning of his words, then parted, and Raheem walked towards me, not with a smile, but with a light that was reassuring and friendly. Immediately, I had a million questions to ask him; I wanted to ask him who he was?
The crowd must have known him because they dispersed and the rifle toting boy simply disappeared from the face of the earth. “Difficult times,” Raheen said sternly. “Difficult times; you shouldn't be out by yourself! What happened to the old man?”
My first impulse was to hug him, in spite of our previous relationship that was strained and hostile; he knew my intentions; he shook his head and pointed with his finger to his lips. I stopped. “You shouldn't shop by yourself,” he whispered. “Get the old man do it for you; he blends in, and you stick out like a sore thumb!
” It's my turn….” I whispered back, my eyes cast to the ground, tears momentarily staying to save face and my dignity. Was it the shame of how I had treated him or the shock of the moment that made me so humble? I don't know. I still wonder how the crowd simply disappeared when he uttered his few words. Raheem came along, and I bought our provisions from a few stores; he had to loan me some new money because the old banknotes had been rendered valueless that week: the ex-monarch's picture was etched on the old currency, and the government had replaced it with new banknotes that bore imprints from sacred places. “Don't show your old money to anyone,” he admonished. “Not worth anything, anyhow!”
He would not let me carry the provisions; he lifted two basket-full of food, one by each hand, and led me to the house, not to the back, but the front door. “The passages….” I tried to remind him. “What of it…?” he answered vaguely. Obviously, he did not need to unlock the door; he just pushed it open, and we entered the entrance, that lovely hall that I once used to play in when I was a child, a place I had not seen in months. Nothing had changed; the reflection of the beautiful late-winter sun lit it like a hall of banquets. I was so happy to be in front of the house that I did not notice when Raheem disappeared; obviously he lived there.
I moved forward and went to the left side of the passage. It was available, and I passed through it to the back of the house. The backside was dark, though, and from my vision, the two slits had not changed, only a faint light-like penciling in metaphorically yellow slivers, two points that repelled and attracted at the same time, promising but denying both passage and understanding, mocking the imprisoned in the darkness by showing that light is possible, even if providential.
Cold and dank, the house was a cage of ice; I gave the baskets to the old man and went to Father's room. Sis was sitting at my desk, in a daze; her eyes open, but without vision. “I'm here,” I announced. “Got the groceries!”
“What are you doing? Dreaming?”
She ignored me at first, slowly the glaze over her eyes lifted, and she beamed. “Did you find everything? Any one of interest?”
“Anything interesting happened? No trouble?”
“No, nothing; just bought what we needed, but the shop-keeper advised me to exchange the old money with the new!”
Perhaps she already knew it; she just smiled and left the room. I heard her shout as she moved towards the front of the house, “I wonder what has happened to Raheem…?”
During the next two weeks, my servant and I looked for her all over the house, but no trace of her; she had disappeared–as Raheem had–without a note or explanation.
Cy stopped to rest and ordered another coffee and cognac. I had my share of caffeine and excused myself to go out and breathe–see the warm sun, away from the chill that wrapped Cy like an ice cloak. >>> See Part I
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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.