My son holds the plastic bag filled half way with water and stares with wonderment at the goldfish swimming inside. He has been watching them for the past half hour and does not seem to tire of their graceful movements. Every few minutes I ask him if the fish are fine, and he, without taking his eyes off the plastic bag, nods vigorously. “Of course they are fine,” my husband, Kuroush, says. “They are fish, they are always ok.”
We bought the fish three days ago, on Wednesday, for the haftseen. This year, Norowz fell on a Thursday morning, at 4:34 am, our time, and I was still shopping and preparing until the last minute, like my own mother used to do back in Iran. There would be so much hustle and bustle in the bazaars the week before New Years. Everyone was in a good mood, and every child could look forward to new clothes and shoes, and crisp Riyal bills from the elders. There would be bargaining for the creamiest pastries, rice and walnut cookies, candied almonds, and the freshest fruits. Everyone bought hyacinths, the sweet scent adding to the intoxication of welcoming Spring, welcoming Norowz. And they all carried home the goldfish in plastic bags, looking like slick orange slices, and poured them out into round fishbowls and set them at the center of the haftseen.
It is not the same here.
My son and I went to a pet store to buy the goldfish. We were the only customers in the market for them. As soon as we walked into the sterile, florescent-lit super pet store, Kayhan, my son, unscrewed his hand from my grip and ran to see the puppies. It took a bit of convincing to move on, and before we reached the fish, he spotted the frogs.
“Maman, can we buy a frog, Maman? Pleeeaaase?”
“We are here to buy fish, for our haftseen. Don’t you want us to have fish for our haftseen?”
“But can we get the frog too, please! For the haftseen.” He pronounces it “haf-sea.”
“They don’t put frogs on haftseens, Kayhan joon.”
“They put fish. The fish mean life, remember, like I was telling you, how everything on the haftseen means something else about our hopes for the new year?” I can hear Kuroush’s voice, telling me that I am trying to teach Kayhan too much too soon. “Now, come on, let’s go look at the goldfish.”
It took Kayhan exactly one minute to pick out five goldfish. He watched them all the way home, just like he watches them now.
My son gripping the plastic bag of the goldfish reminds me of the ones people carried home in Iran. Around the plastic his protective palms sweat, and he carefully lets go of one hand, wipes it on his pants, and then switches to the other. He barely looks out the window. He just watches the fish. It was his idea to bring them along to his uncle’s house. We are driving up to see my husband’s older brother, and his family, for the day. We have not seen them in over three months, although they only live two hours away.
At the house, in the kitchen, after the New Years pastries are washed down with tea, my sister-in-law asks me if we stayed up for saaltahvil this year since it was in the middle of the night. Our husbands are watching TV in the living room while Kayhan plays with his cousins. I tell her that yes, I did, and I intended to wake up Kayhan but I didn’t have the heart. “What about you?” I ask.
“I wanted to stay up, Shohre joon, but of course Kaveh did not. You know how he is.” She tosses her head when she mentions her husband. It’s a pregnant gesture; and I nod because I know what she means. Her and I might as well be married to the same man. “And the girls, I even bothered to let the school know that they were not coming to class the next day, that it was our new years and tradition and all of that. I even warned them that if they sleep during saaltahvil, then they will be asleep the whole year, but they slept right on through the whole thing!” We chuckle, making sounds like the dishes we are clearing.
“I know. I never spent a saaltahvil alone until I moved here.”
Kayhan runs into the kitchen, holding out something in his tiny fist.
“What do you want, Kayhan joon,” I bend down to him. “Do you want something to eat? Some water?”
Kayhan shakes his head. Then slowly he uncurls his fingers. In his tiny palm lies a goldfish. “He stopped swimming, Maman. They all did. Come look.”
He runs back to the living room. Kayhan’s cousins are bent over the haftseen, examining the fishbowl. The fish are floating at the top, their orange bodies buoyant. There is a pungent odor of vinegar. “We were just looking at the fish,” Bita, the older girl says, “and then, then…”
“Then Kayhan said they need more water,” Neda, the younger one, continues.
“So I took the water,” Kayhan points at the glass decanter, “and I poured it for the fishees. But then, but then –“
“They all stopped swimming,” Neda says.
“Can you make them swim again, Maman?” Kayhan’s eyes beseech me.
I wrap my arms around his waist. “Kayhan joon, you gave them vinegar, not water. That’s vinegar on the haftseen, remember, I was telling you about it?”
“See, I told you that was not water,” Bita slaps Neda’s arm.
“So you can’t make them swim again?” Kayhan’s eyes are still pleading with mine. My husband had warned me that I shouldn’t always give Kayhan what he wants, because one day he’d ask for something I couldn’t give him.
“Are you sure you don’t wish to spend the night?” My sister-in-law asks one more time. We cordially refuse again and thank her and her husband.
“Where is Kayhan?” Kuroush asks. “Kayhan, come down, Baba, we’re leaving.”
“Maybe you should go get him,” I say.
“The kids have so much fun together,” my sister-in-law says. “Reminds me of me and my cousins when we were little. We would spend whole summers together playing. Those were good days.” She exhales heavily; almost heavy enough to send her breath and soul all the way back home, all the way back to her childhood.
“He’s not up here,” my husband’s voice comes from the landing. “I can’t find him.”
“What do you mean?” my brother-in-law asks.
“Where are the girls? He is with the girls,” my sister-in-law says.
“They say they don’t know where he is.”
My heart jumps to my throat. I run up the stairs. When I pass Kuroush he says “Don’t panic, he is here somewhere.”
Time seems to have slowed down and sped up simultaneously. I run in and out of rooms, not really looking, not really seeing. The image of the dead fish floating on the water clouds my mind and I pray that it was not an omen. I hear the muffled voices of my sister and brother-in-law but I can’t decipher their words. They sound like they are yelling at their daughters and then start to call Kayhan. I am back in the hallway and Neda and Bita stand there. They look like matreshka dolls, one the smaller version of the other, both with the same expression. I kneel down and grab their shoulders. “Where is Kayhan?” I ask almost in a whisper. I know that they know, but I am scared that they are too afraid to tell me what has happened to him.
Neda says, “I’m telling.”
“No, don’t!” Bita says.
“We are hiding him,” Neda blurts out.
“Oh, great,” Bita hits her sister on the arm. “How are we gonna keep him now?”
“What is going on?” I ask.
“Well,” Neda looks at Bita for approval. She does not get it, but continues. “Well, we wanted to keep Kayhan. He wanted to stay. So we thought if we hide him then you’ll just go home and he can stay with us.”
“We were gonna give him back, “Bita reassures me, “I swear.”
“Shohre, we found him,” my husband walks into the hallway, carrying Kayhan. “He was hiding in the closet, the little devil.”
“Boys will be boys,” my brother-in-law follows him out. “When we were young, do you remember the hell we would put our parents through?”
I grab Kayhan and hold him tight in my arms. The girls seem to be waiting for me to tell on them. They look at me with the same eyes Kayhan did when he wanted me to bring the fish back to life.
I want to hold the girls in my arms too, and let out the cry that is lodged in my throat. I want to hold them and tell them that I am sorry that they don’t see their cousin enough, that they feel they need to trick us into being a family. I want to tell them I am sorry that their Norowz will never be like the ones we had when were kids in Iran. But I also want tell them that despite growing up thousands of miles away from where Norowz started, where their ancestors grew wheat grass and brought in goldfish from their fountains, they understand the real meaning of renewing oneself and one’s relationships during the birth of Spring, and wanting to hold your loved ones near.
“Yes, boys will be boys,” I say.
“Can you all spend the night, Shohre joon?” Neda wants to know. “We promise not to lock you up in the closet!”
Subscribe to The Iranian newsletter
Sign up for our daily newsletter to get the top news stories delivered to your inbox.