Aghdass dragged her husband’s dead body out of the house, down the wet steps and into the snow-covered back courtyard. It was wrapped in blankets, stuffed in an army sleeping bag and bound around and around with ropes. The Tehran winter night was as cold as ice and Aghdass’s stomach was churning like a stormy sea. With her gloved hands tightly gripped to the end of the rope, she hauled the wrapped body of Mammad by its foot over the snow-laden ground, leaving a trail of drag marks. This was the body of a man who was once her beloved, a man who had gone to the war with Iraq and come back shell-shocked, a man with crazy eyes and uncontrollable urges.
The pallid moon sent its soft glow down on her face, once so fine and merry, but now marred by a long scar from the knife of Mammad. He had refused to divorce her and threatened to keep custody of all their children if she dared to ask for a divorce. The scar was now faint but it was still there.
A merciless wind picked up drifts of powdered snow and sprayed them up in a gust that blinded her for a few moments. She blinked to clear her eyes and shook the snowflakes from her coat. The light from the large room of the small one-story house was adding just enough light to the moon’s to see by. She turned back and looked under the snow-covered branches of the walnut tree at the far end of the courtyard. The thick wooden cover of the dried well looked like the flat head of a demon guard. Aghdass’s shallow and rapid breath blew out in clouds, but her exertion kept her warm and safe from the chill of the night.
As she wiped a snowflake off the tip of her nose, she suddenly felt the presence of an invisible being moving by her side, watching her every move. She looked up and the stars stared back at her, two by two, like the eyes of tormented spirits. Even the moon felt somber and malicious. More invisible beings began walking at her side, brushing their breath against her face, sending shivers through her body. Now there were breathing, whispering beings all around her in the dark, on the roof, in the walnut tree, in the frozen washing pool in the middle of the courtyard. She stopped and dropped the rope, covered her eyes and prayed under her breath. Begging all the saints to make these demons disappear.
She tightened her large wool scarf, readjusted her gloves and picked up the rope. Now engulfed by a sinister silence, she kept pulling the heavy sleeping bag over the snow toward the well. The grating of the stuffed bag over the snow and wind rushing against her, were the only sounds in the night air. She had been planning the murder of Mammad for several months, falling asleep and waking up with her mind full of every detail. Yet she had failed to brace herself for the terror of taking a human life.
When she reached the well, she stopped and looked up and around. Listening for any sound that would hint at the danger of her being discovered. She heard nothing. It seemed as if not a soul in the neighbourhood was not drowned in the depths of sleep. She dropped the rope and approached the well. Bending down, she brushed the sheet of snow from the top of the wooden slab, lifted it and dropped it at the foot of the tree. Panting with exhaustion, with her cheeks flushed in the cold, she picked up the rope and frantically pulled the heavy bag with both hands.
When one end of the bag reached the mouth of the well, she walked to the head end and pushed the bag into the mouth of the dark abyss. She kept on pushing until the bag overbalanced and fell inside. She listened intently for the sound of its thump on the deep dried bottom of the well. She put the wet cover back and let out a sigh of relief, which formed a ghostly cloud of mist in the frosty air.
The patch of mist took the form of a fiend, swiftly turning into a shroud of unease and uncertainty that enveloped her entire being. After so many years of her children’s torment at the hands of their father, her heart should now be unburdened, her worries should roll away. Yet it seemed as if the closing of one door of hell had opened another. She shut her eyes tightly, wrapped her arms around herself, and tried to shut her mind of what she had done. She needed to go back to the house. She needed a long refreshing sleep to be ready for her four children when they returned home from her mother’s.
The alarm-clock on the korsi went off at nine in the morning and Aghdass woke up in sudden thrust from under the quilt, all her muscles tense and aching with stiffness. Her head was heavy and a headache pounded at her temples like a hammer on an anvil. The stink of burning kerosene from the Aladdin heater mixed with the smell of the hot charcoals of the korsi had pervaded the room. She willed herself to arise and walk to the window. Her curly hair was midnight black and framed a wheat-coloured face with hazel eyes.
Out in the bright white courtyard, last night’s drag marks and footprints were covered with new snow. She peeled her gaze away with a deep breath of satisfaction. Looking sideways, she stared at a crow that was stuck on the ice over the washing pool. With one wing injured, the black bird was having trouble with its flight. Her three year-old daughter, Suri, loved the crows and threw them bread. It had been Suri’s words a week earlier about her father touching her down there and making her skin burn that had caused Aghdass enough angry courage to finally end her husband’s life. But the action had shaken up her soul and taken her to a dark place where humans dared not tread.
Aghdass walked to the old armoire in the small room and opened it to pick out a dress. The smell of her clothes yellowed with smoke from Mammad’s cigarettes brought her back to the details of the previous morning when Mammad had been sitting at the dining-cloth on the rug, smoking and waiting for her to bring him his breakfast. She had approached him from behind, and hit him hard on the back of his head with the kitchen pestle. She had frantically hit him over and over again, terrified that he might get up and crush her with deadly blows. He’d fallen on the empty dining-cloth, face down, dark blood gushing from his skull. Aghdass had slumped down onto the rug, her back to the bare wall, desperately trying to catch her breath. Everything around her had seemed to immerse in a haze. Mammad’s body and her own agile hands had faded in a mist before her eyes.
When she had dragged the body across the rugs to the kitchen, the world had still been a blur of shapes, colours and dim light. Through the haze, she had made out the designs of the rugs lifting up and leaping at her face. Then as she had stood on the kitchen floor above the bloody head, she’d caught a brief, bewildered flash of the dead man’s face, dark hair, mustache as big as his face and eyelids half shut. His strange expression had been one of anger, like that of a famished wolf rounding a sheepfold.
Hearing strange voices from nowhere, Aghdass had stopped in her tracks and listened in horror. More rasping, disembodied voices had taunted her, whispering curses as they invaded her mind. She could not remember what she had plotted to do with Mammad’s body. The world had been poking through the haze with strange shapes. She’d run from the corpse whose sight had now become unbearable.
She had run back to the large room and hidden herself under the quilt of the korsi, where she thought of her children, safely away at their Grandma’s home, believing that their mother had left for Karaj to meet with a dying relative. She had brought her head out of the blankets and fixed her gaze on the ceiling, her eyes glued to the nothingness. The world had slipped in and out of view for a long while. Maybe she’d fallen asleep. Maybe she’d fainted. All sensations and sense of time had seeped away from her body and mind, leaving her in the maze of her private hell.
Hours later, the world had still been without focus or track of time as she watched herself washing the pools and streaks of blood from the dining-cloth and kitchen floor. In time she had wrapped the tightly bound body inside the army sleeping bag. With the falling of the night, the world had come back into full view.
Aghdass changed her clothes in the small room and came out refreshed. Her black dress made the dark rings under her eyes seem larger, and her skin paler. She hurried to the kitchen, opened the refrigerator and took out a small plucked chicken. She was making lunch for seven people that day, on a teacher’s budget, wanting to secretly celebrate the beginning of a new life. Mother was bringing the children back and Zari was coming directly from her place of work. Aghdass put on her apron, moved to the gas stove and struck a match she’d picked up from a shelf. The mild smell of gas and the puff of blue flame brought back the sense of every day normalcy of life and the flow of time. She blew out the small yellow match and strolled to the kitchen window.
Outside, behind the faded chintz curtains, the second snow storm of the week had made the alley as white as a field full of daisies. Her mind flashed to her wedding day twelve years ago, just before the Revolution. Her groom had been wearing a green-gray suit with a green sweater vest, a white flower pinned to his lapel. She had been wearing a white satin gown and smiling at Mammad whom she’d thought of as a kind man, a believer with a zest for debate and a passion for justice. He had been a High school teacher of Islamic canonical laws and had loved the interactions with his teenage students.
While Aghdass prepared the meal, she thought of a time when they had their first two children, Sareh and Ali, and she had been watering the geraniums in the front hallway, waiting for her husband to return home from the war. She went over to the pantry with a pang of disappointment in her heart and came back with two onions that she put on the counter with a sigh. As she trimmed and cut and washed the chicken, she thought of the day Mammad had come back from the war front. He had been a changed man, a man with bloodshot perverted eyes and always as angry as hell.
For the first months after his return, he had been a mouthing madman, screaming, raving and fighting to get away. He had had nightmares that jolted him awake in the middle of the night, screaming in a cold sweat. Then he had begun eating hash in this same kitchen and falling asleep in a corner. He’d been even worse after he’d spent a month in Rouzbeh Hospital for the mentally ill. His black eyes had been darkened and glassy. He had been told to take two blue pills every night, but he had stopped after a week and only took to cigarettes and hashish. He had been lethargic, angry and erratic, and he could not work. Staying home for long hours everyday, he had only been going out to buy hash or to flash himself to the school children. Aghdass had been living with a total stranger who terrorized everyone.
She peeled the onions, sliced and cut them into small pieces. Wiping her eyes of tears from the onions, she heard the shouting of a peddler passing by the alley selling boiled sugar beets, and she thought of Ali who loved having them. She took a crooked frying pan to the gas stove and fried the chopped onions in oil until they turned golden brown. Cooking was such a good distraction, a calming activity. She poured the onions into a pot. Six years earlier, when Mammad had just begun talking about going to the front, she had decided that she had to go back to her teaching job at a neighbourhood Elementary school just to be able to put food on their dining-cloth.
She kept her job after her husband returned a year later. The money that the War Veterans Foundation had begun paying her family was not enough to feed them. But the worst part of not being at home, had been to leave Sareh and Ali, then six and five, with her husband. Her mother and Zari had been working side by side in a clothing factory. Father had died in a fire accident and they had to earn money for food and clothing.
She remembered how her children had become afraid of their father who would beat them for no reason at all and do even worse things to them when he had them alone. One day when she had come back home, one glimpse of Sareh’s distraught face had made her feel as if she had been stabbed in the cheek with a sharp sliver of metal. She had seen Mammad coming out of the small room, turning to face her with a malicious gaze that betrayed his secret. She had taken to pounding her head against the wall, wailing and weeping. Another day she’d noticed that Ali’s eyes had turned vacant and dim with confusion and pain. This had scorched her skin from the inside and made her nauseated. She had vomited in the sink. Ali had brought her a towel, his head lowered to avoid looking at his mother.
For several years afterwards both children had walked with their shoulders slouched under invisible burdens. Mammad had been caught setting fire to alley cats, hanging stray dogs and harming his children over and over again. Every time Aghdass had gone to the police station or the Committee for Prevention of Vice and had told the men in charge about Mammad harming the children, he had been called in and interrogated, only to be rapidly dismissed. His constant retort, that she had been a disturbed and disobedient woman who made up stories to get rid of him, had been believed with no further investigation.
Aghdass added more oil to the frying pan. She remembered the way Mammad had treated her too. Like an animal, worse than an animal, a body to be used, beaten and bruised. Sleeping under the korsi quilt or on mattresses laid on the rugs in the same room with their children, he had often forced himself upon her and managed to make her pregnant, twice. Suri and Amir came to this world three and four years ago, becoming the added victims to his list of prey.
The light from the kitchen window was now subdued and the morning shadows had disappeared. She guessed it was close to noon. She placed the sautéed chicken parts inside a pot, added a little water and a few pinches of salt and spices. She covered the pot, lowered the flame and let the stew simmer. Simmering! Like the plot that had been simmering in her mind for a long time. She had begun developing the plan after that callous basiji man in the South Tehran Committee headquarters had dismissed her complaint and told her to stop slandering her pious, veteran husband. That had been the last straw.
She was about to go to the kitchen pantry with a bowl to fetch rice when the doorbell rang. She put the bowl on the counter and wiped invisible dust from the front of her dress. Running her fingers fruitlessly through her hair, she rushed to the front door and opened it with a smile, trying to appear happy and confident. The children were standing in front of their Grandma and Auntie Zari, all dressed up in their worn-out winter coats and black galoshes, shivering and looking like little lambs on wobbly legs.
Everyone walked into the hallway with apprehension, whispering, motioning to ask if Mammad was in. Aghdass kept thrusting her chin up and clicking her tongue to say he was not in. At last they were convinced and began speaking in normal tones. She held her children in her arms and kissed them amid greetings and exchanges of affection. These were children who had either never had a life or whose entire lives had vaporized with the return of their father. Their voices should have been like a healing balm at that strange time, yet she remained somewhat impervious to them. Were they going to begin living like other people’s children?
Zari said something and followed the aroma of chicken stew to the kitchen. Aghdass stooped and freed the toddlers from their heavy outfits, her mind assessing her mother’s mood. Then she lifted little Suri up into her arms. The girl toddler, with a face that glowed like a warm sapphire, looked at her mother with luminous eyes and buried her face into her warm, silky neck. This precious soul that Aghdass loved so much, the last of her four children. She saw eleven year-old Sareh wrinkling her nose and groaning at the dull ache in her imprisoned toes, before freeing them from her wet galoshes. Sareh had plenty to say to her about their adventures at their Grandma’s place, a rented double room that she was sharing with Zari.
Aghdass could not focus on her daughter’s stories, but she had to keep behaving as before – attentive, always interested, the same way she was with her pupils. Ali rushed to the korsi without a word. He was a year younger than Sareh, bashful and slow to develop, but once in a blue moon he would flash a wide smile. Not this time. Amir, the older toddler, was standing at her feet, contorting his small body and nagging her, vying for her affections. Mother took his hands and asked him to wait a bit longer. Aghdass thought that the children were not distraught, but their eyes still had the look of a slaughter lamb.
They all entered the large room. It was strewn with small, colourful rugs and furnished with cushions around a large korsi. The more Aghdass tried to appear calm and confident, the more a fear, a cryptic terror, sprang from the bare walls of the room to her face. Little Amir ran to the korsi and jumped on the top of the thick quilt that covered the low, round table. They all sat comfortably on mattresses around the korsi with the quilt over their laps, across from the window overlooking the white backyard. Under the low table, the smoldering balls of coals that Aghdass had placed under a mound of ash in the brazier kept everybody warm.
Soon the two toddlers curled themselves up and fell asleep. Aghdass poured hot aromatic tea in small glasses. She placed them on a round tray beside the bowl of sugar lumps, and set the tray on the top of the korsi. When Mother complained that the room was freezing and her rheumatism was hurting, Aghdass dashed to light up the Aladdin heater. Before long everyone was having tea and listening to Zari telling them an elaborate story about the boss’s second wife coming to the factory, ordering them about and behaving like a foreman. Zari was a delightful storyteller and a voracious reader, devouring book after book, magazine after magazine, even some forbidden papers that a co-worker from Rasht was lending her. But she hadn’t finished the High school because she’d been forced to drop out and go to work after their father died.
Mother and Zari asked Aghdass about Monir Khanom whom she was supposed to have visited in Karaj. She had a prepared response for them that she uttered in flowing tones, which they appeared to believe. That was a good sign. They would have jumped on her if they suspected anything wrong. She left the room for the kitchen to see how the stew was cooking and to make steamed rice for lunch. Zari followed. Her eyes were intense, her head tilted just a bit to the side, and her mouth set in a suspicious smile.
After the lunch, they spent hours having tea and pomegranate seeds and cracking and eating roasted pumpkin seeds around the hot korsi, their backs on the soft cushions, talking about neighbours and relatives and the high prices of meat, sugar and edible oil. When the night fell, Zari insisted it was time to go. Mother and Zari said good-bye and left. No one had mentioned Mammad. They all thought that he’d gone missing again. Another flight! Hopefully he wouldn’t come back anytime soon. The children were sleeping under the korsi quilt, Aghdass was exhausted and could not close her eyes. She turned all the lights off, sat on the windowsill and looked out at the big snow capped walnut tree with its fluffy white branches. Holding her knees in her arms, she gazed at it for a long while, in total silence, like a chthonic sphinx.
Hours later she heard the sound of the call to prayer from a near-by Mosque. It was just before the break of dawn. She walked to the kitchen sink for a ceremonial ablution. Then she stood in the small room in prayer, a white chador all over her body, from head to toe. When she finished her namaz prayer, she took off her chador, paced the room like a caged tiger and thought of stepping out to the back courtyard. She did not know what to do with the battle that was raging deep within her soul.
As the milky light of early dawn poured in through the window, she put on her maroon coat and, with her hands in her pockets, pushed open the backdoor with her shoulder and shuffled outside. The winter’s chill crept quickly under her skin. The whole courtyard was covered with a bluish snow that sparkled like jewels. She was struck with the mysterious sight of three rows of crows that had placed themselves along the harsh wind. Why had they abandoned the warmth of their shades? Were they here to judge her?
Standing near the frozen washing pool, she hunched her back and pressed her hands to her lips. Prayer hadn’t shed the weight of guilt, nor had it relieved the silent strife that ran through her body and destroyed her confidence. One moment her heart bled in sorrow of having taken a life, the next moment it was jubilant and sang to her in a resounding “yes!” She watched the glimmer of dawn as it chased away the purple of the eastern sky.
The rising sun flashed a shimmering gold dust onto the building tops. Her forehead ushered in a fleeting warmth as she headed back to the house, still in conflict by the thought of living like a normal person with her scarred children, living in peace, yet in remorse. Not a suspect for her husband’s disappearance, yet a taker of life in her own eyes.
In the following months, dreadful dreams haunted her. She woke up to the mysterious sounds of the night and cried. Prayer was her only weapon as she tried to stop the demons from taking over. The dried well and nearby walnut tree had become dreaded spots, places Aghdass avoided, convinced that they were haunted. The vexing bird of guilt that had perched on her shoulder weighed down on her heart like a cold, cruel mountain.
Every summer in the past, she had spread a rug under the tree, placed their samovar and a crammed tea tray on the rug and spent Friday afternoons with her children. She used to sit down on the rug at the foot of the tree, watching the children play hide-and-seek around the well. But now she did not venture there for fear of being attacked by the demons. She prayed for the fight to end, but she knew the battle was still within.
One early evening at the end of the following summer, Aghdass took her children to her mother’s home, told Sareh and Ali to go over there after school, and put the toddlers under the care of her mother who had stopped going to work because of a recent lay-off. The morning after, she walked into the headquarters of the South Tehran Committee for Prevention of Vice, confessed, and was sent to Evin Prison.
One long year of uncertainty passed. On a September Friday morning, Mother left the children with Zari and came to visit Aghdass in prison. They sat on the sun-baked ground in the prison’s airing courtyard and talked. Aghdass told Mother how much she missed her children. Wearing a long, worn-out cerulean scarf that was printed with white lotus flowers, she was wan and faded, her face drawn with lines of pain. She told Mother about her lawyer Mr. Torbati wanting to declare her an insane woman before the judge.
A tiny spider scurried under the sun and into their shadow. Aghdass had rejected her attorney’s defense approach. She was not crazy. The wind picked up and gently whipped her hair over her face. At the time when she had struck her crazy husband’s head with the kitchen pestle, she was completely sane. Mother laced her rough fingers into Aghdass’s hair, pulled a white strand and sighed. What else could she have done to save her children? She played with one end of her scarf and let the other end blow in the wind. She was not rich and could not afford to pay a trafficker to take her children and herself out of the country, a last-ditch solution that was open only to the rich. Rocking herself back and forth, Mother listened and sobbed in silence.
When the rains of late October began, Zari came to see her sister in Evin. She already knew that Aghdass had just been sentenced to ten years of incarceration and a fine of 100,000 toumans. This was a light sentence for Islamic Iran, everyone agreed. But everyone also knew that Aghdass had complained about her husband over fifty times, to no avail. Either she had not been believed or Mammad had denied having ever laid hands on his children, calling his wife “crazy.” No one had sent the children to a doctor; no one had asked them a question that would probe what their father had done. And Mammad’s threat to keep custody of the children? How much more obscene could things had turned? When Aghdass sat with Zari, she told her about planning on paying her fines by carpet-weaving, the only paying job available in jail.
Throughout Zari’s visit, Aghdass seemed to be holding something back. She looked more miserable than any other time. She was as sad as a lonely teardrop on an orphan’s face. Then, when it was time for Zari to leave, Aghdasss spoke in a low, deep voice. She had grave news. She had now a private complainant, a woman who wanted her dead in retaliation for Mammad’s murder. What did you say? Yes, it was Mammad’s second wife. What did you say? Yes, unbeknown to everyone, Mammad had taken a second wife and they had two small children, a boy and a girl. The woman had appeared in the corridors of the Criminal Court a few days ago and blamed Aghdass for having deprived her of her only breadwinner and her children, of their only protector.
Zari gazed at Aghdass, her eyes bulging at what she had heard and her mouth moving wordlessly. A somber silence had fallen between the two women. The prison guard approached them and barked orders at them. Zari shifted her feet. Aghdass still had a far-away look in her eyes. How could any woman wish another woman to be stoned to death? Didn’t that woman think that Mammad must have molested her children as well? Aghdass uttered the words, which echoed in Zari’s head like a sad song she could not forget. Zari kissed her sister goodbye without a word and left the prison, thunderstruck with terror.
Outside, it was still raining. Walking to the Evin village to take a bus home, Zari got soaked like a melancholic scarecrow. Didn’t Aghdass know that the male God to whom she bowed was the same one who had ordered the laws of retaliation and stoning to death? Zari whispered in anger. Then a sorrow, as dark as the sacred book’s sinister behest, clung to her skin like a wet blanket. She wiped rivulets of rain off her face, out of her eyes, with the fringe of her scarf. Whatever would happen to Aghdass now?
Halfway through her path, the rain ceased as if a faucet had been turned off. Zari kept walking like a dead woman to her last meal. As she stopped and bent down to take a stone out of her shoe, she was distracted by the sight of something glowing on the low grass beside the road. A tiny, brilliant twinkling light in the dark. It disappeared and glowed again. Curious, she looked eagerly into the grass before her feet. It was a lone glow-worm perched on a grass leaf, flashing on and off. She picked it up, put it on the palm of her hand and disappeared into the cold, wet darkness of the road. Comment