Mary secretly moves her air mattress and blanket to the Red Cross tent, where the corpses are laid out in plastic bags. Since there is no running water to give them a proper Islamic wash, someone will come tomorrow to give them ablution by earth before they are buried in a mass grave. She sets her cot by the opening of the tent and lies with her back to the dead; It is better to breathe the freezing air of the desert winter, than the odour of decaying bodies.
Two corpses—a young woman and a young man partly wrapped in white cotton sheets—share a plastic bag as if asleep side by side. Mary feels a pang in her breast and gasps. She has come from Canada to her childhood city of Bam to save those still living after the earthquake, but instead has ended up saving only the dead. She hasn’t even been here for twenty-four hours and already she has seen enough.
Mary gave an old man three shots in just two hours. That many tranquillizers in such a short time could put a camel to sleep for a week. Still he kept trying to attack his daughter’s corpse, finally tearing at the plastic with a knife, and in the end injuring himself. Even after that, the old man hobbled away, through the ruins and dust, trying to help pull out survivors from under the debris.
Now, exhausted from her struggle to quell the man’s rage, Mary can hardly keep her eyes open. She hopes that somebody got the knife from the old man. Surely by now, the tranquilizers have done their work on him. Her eyelids are heavy, but she notices something,is moving by a lone palm tree beyond the tent—like a ghost, jerking periodically and moaning like a dying animal. Mary is afraid it’s the old man. She sits up in the bed, hugs her knees, and rocks gently back and forth, listening, terrified of the darkness. After a while she lies down again and is overcome by sleep.
In her half sleep Mary sees the earth open and a hand grabs her. Then she Recalls that she’s in the tent of the dead and shuts her eyes tight hoping to disolve the vision. Even so, her heart races as she sees the old man’s sharp knife right there, behind her eyelids. She gasps. Her mouth is dry with the taste of earth and she still feels the grip on her throat. She tries desperately to touch something — anything — but can’t budge. It’s as though, with the slightest movement, her bones are going to splinter. She wakes with a start — sits upright — remembers another time: it was the moment when she bent over her own father, just before his death. He had spent all his strength in that one last breath, all the muscles of his face tensing with the effort. But he had never breathed out. Instead, a sudden shudder poured out from under his skin around his open mouth. The tremor expanded on his face from ear to ear, setting his flexed muscles free.
Mary exhales—lifts her eyes—peers into the darkness. The ghostly figure is still there by the palm tree, whose topknot sways now in the dusty night. It can’t be anybody else than the crazy old man. The same one who got Mary into all this trouble. She shouldn’t have imposed on the Canadian aid team to help him—there must have been hundreds calling out for help—but the old man reminded her so much of her own father. Even at a distance.
“Help. My daughter. Please. God,” he bawled. He was tall and lanky and had a long, thin face, brown, soft eyes, sunburnt skin, and just like her baba, deep furrows marked his forehead and face. Mary grabbed the old man by the shoulders. They felt so frail under her hands she was afraid they might break if she pressed them a little harder.
“My daughter is here, please, for God’s sake!” The man pulled away and pawed madly through the debris and broken mud bricks. “She was as dear to me as my eyes,”
Mary trembled. Her own father used to say the same thing. Every time Mary had gone back to visit him, he would sit her on his knees as if she were still a small child. His hand would move up and down the stream of her black hair. Mary’s brothers used to make fun of them so much that she finally got a hair cut, and her baba had stopped treating her as a child. Nevertheless, he had never stopped saying, “She is as dear as my eyes.”
Mary told the blond Canadian aid officer what the man had said. She translated everything except the part about the eyes. Moments later, four trained dogs in Red Cross vests sniffed through the dense rubble as the old man bustled about them. The aid officer shook his head—after a half hour of scouring the area, the dogs had not even a whiff of life—he took the dogs away.
The old man remained in the middle of the debris and threw fistfuls of dust over his head. “I should not have let her stay. I wish I had broken my leg and not gone to the wedding in Jiroft,” he wailed. His bristle-headed scalp was layered with heavy dust—his liquid eyes were bloodshot. He didn’t say anything when Mary gave him the first shot. But he resisted as Mary tried to move him out of the path of the approaching bulldozers, unearthing the dead. “I want to lift her with my own hands when she comes up,” he said in a hoarse voice.
Mary noticed his burned eyelashes and felt like crying. She left the man and ran over to the tent to shed her tears. Six years earlier, in Bam, when her own father was at death’s door, she had rushed away in the same way—past the trees in the yard—stumbled thirty-two steps into the dark basement, and sat by the pickle and jam jars where she used to hide as a child. There, she had cried as loudly as she wanted. Then, as had been her childhood habit, she had opened a jar and fingered some jam into her mouth. She had returned to her father’s side with red eyes, a wiped mouth, and sticky palms.
Mary lies on the inflatable mattress. The beginning of the day seems lifetimes away now: As soon as she arrived from Canada ,Mary went to the cemetery. The pallid, dead brilliance of the winter sky had made her dizzy for a while. She wandered around. Nobody was there. All the tombstones were broken, and the graveyard was nothing but churned ground. Mary found some bones regurgitated by the earth, but, thankfully, they weren’t from her father’s grave. Now, all of Bam was one big burial ground. All around were chunks of broken adobe, limed cement, and mortar blocks. A crumpled mound of mud-bricks was all that remained of her childhood home. The base of the walls mapped out where the rooms had once been.
When she saw most of the trees toppled beneath the rubble, Mary didn’t even want to enter the yard. But she wanted to see if the palm tree her father had planted for her when she was born,,was still standing. She walked into the yard, towards the entrance to the basement, now clogged by debris. And there, near the entrance, half uprooted, her palm tree still stood.
She remembered how the tangerine trees bloomed every spring, even after the death of her mother, when Mary and her brothers had returned to pay visits to their father. They always found him sitting in the garden on a threadbare carpet he had spread beneath the palm. A brazier sat in front of him, and an opium pipe in his hand. As they approached, the air of orange-blossoms changed to the smell of opium. Her brothers couldn’t hide their disappointment and scolded their baba who had shrunk to the size of a child. “What kind of life is this, sitting here all day and smoking taryak?”
“I have nothing better to do,” he said.
To Mary, he had been right. If only her mother had been alive then, she would have kept him busy picking orange blossoms for her, which she would make into jam to send over to Canada. Nevertheless, he always abandoned his pipe and opened his arms as soon as he saw Mary approaching.
“Maryam,” he called, using her Persian name, “Maryam Banoo.”
To Mary, the house was the place where the memories of her father dwelled—a place she could always return to, even if all other doors were closed to her. The place where her palm tree still breathed. But after his death, their house sold quickly. Mary was the only one who hadn’t wanted to sell. Her objections made no sense to her brothers. They wanted their share of the money. There was no point, they’d said, in keeping the house after their parents had died.
Mary looked in disbelief at the barren yard. Everything was covered by a thick coat of dust. She was startled by a cracking noise as a young man came out from behind the tree. He stumbled by the stairs, got up, looked at the ground and stirred the dust with his heels. Grainy bits and pieces crushed beneath his feet as he walked towards Mary. He was wearing a long and loose sac-like robe, fastened with a rope at his waist, and his long straight hair fell on his shoulders, all coated by heavy dust. His garment had the same dull hue as the white-tinged sky. His eyes were brown and suffering Mary thought, and he had a long horse-like face. The soft skin under the stubble on his face seemed burned.
Later, recollecting memories of her palm tree, Maryam dazed and fatigued,found herself hugging a bundle of clean sheets used to wrap the dead. She was surrounded by medical equipment; dozens of blankets and cans of food that two helicopters had brought in earlier that day. She wiped her face on the bundle of sheets and got up. What was she doing? Oh yes, medication. Go out there, help that old man. She wondered if his daughter had been found by now. She took two syringes from a black plastic bag and walked outside to give him another shot in case he fainted at the sight of his dead daughter.
“Please be careful. She could be alive. Don’t injure her body.” The man screamed as the bulldozer moved forward.
The blue-eyed aid officer wanted Mary to ask the man if there was only one person in the house. His eyes were clear against the dry background of earth.
“Yes,” the old man replied emphatically.
On the seventh go, the bulldozer’s scoop turned up the girl’s body. Wailing, the old man ran towards the two aid workers who took the corpse from among the rubble. He stood transfixed when he saw her naked body. A man’s blunt arm was in the scoop, too. The old man’s face went as blank as his dead daughter’s, and his pupils widened into the same shape as hers. Mary’s knees started trembling. The man stumbled forward, and Mary reached out and held him by the collar of his long khaki garment to prevent him from collapsing.
Her own father had looked this way before his death. He had shivered like the leaves of Mary’s palm tree in the wind. “I’m sorry, Baba. I shouldn’t have taken our mother to Canada,” Mary had choked.
“It’s OK. The past is behind us all. Look into your future.”
“I’ve talked to my brothers. We are going to come back here forever and live with you.” A sudden cough had shaken her father. She waited until it had passed. “Here is better for me. I can work as a doctor. In Canada, I’m only a nurse.”
“You can’t live here again. Your future is somewhere else. But your childhood stays here with me. My kids have never left me. They are here and never grow up. You still roam in the rooms and run in the garden and hide in the basement.” He had taken her hand in his own, very soft, nearly translucent to the point that Maryam could see blue veins knotted together under the skin.
Maryam knew she had gone too far. Her father had let her to go to Tehran to study medicine. Had he ever imagined she would emigrate to Canada after finishing her degree? He had thrown a big party for her graduation but when she announced her plans, he left the party and hadn’t come back until it was over.
Then Maryam had gone further still. She’d dragged her brothers to Canada. The entrance exam to Iranian universities had become harder every year. “What kind of job are they going to get in this city? What are they going to turn into without university education? Drug addicts, huh?” her mother had asked her father, “You want that? This garden doesn’t need any more caretakers other than you.”
“Don’t worry,” her mother had told their baba after they’d left, “I made them swear to my milk to come back after graduation,”
Not only did her brothers not come back after finishing school, but Maryam’s mother soon left. “I want to be with my children,” she had said, “I spent all my life raising them and now I have nothing to do in this house. I am no one without them.” She’d pursed her lips. “My home is wherever they are.”
Maryam’s baba let her mother remain with them so that her wish could come true. She had died, surrounded by her children while Mary’s father stayed back to die in his own home—in his orange grove, among the scent of tangerines—and to be buried in Bam’s cemetery beside his ancestors.
Now it was Mary who came back to her ancestors’ town only to help an old man who bore a shocking resemblance to her own baba. Even though in reality he was the father of this dead girl, laid at his feet, naked and defenceless. Mary sat the old man down and turned him away from his daughter’s corpse. A man’s arm torn at elbow, which had turned up in the same scoop with the dead girl, was stuck between two mud bricks, and the girl’s body, turned on her right side, was leaning on it. Like a lever, the dismembered arm supported the corpse’s weight, keeping it up and preventing the dead girl from falling face down. Her small breasts hung, touching the ground.
“I think your daughter was taking a shower at five o’clock before the call for prayer when the earthquake happened,” Mary said. She sat beside the man and gave him the second shot.
“We didn’t have running water at home.” The old man lowered his voice to a rasp. “We went to the public bath house once a week.”
“These men who are working here are all doctors. They don’t look at your daughter as ordinary men look at women but I’ll go and wrap her in white cloth.” She tucked a wisp of hair on her brow under her scarf. “I’m a Muslim woman. My father was from here. We used to live in the street behind the Arg.”
The man didn’t seem to listen. Crouched, he was rocking back and forth, mumbling something under his breath. Mary waved to the Canadian aid workers to take the corpse out of the man’s sight. The aid officer walked over to Mary.
“Are you sure your daughter was alone at home?” Mary translated the aid officer’s question.
“I don’t know. She never came with us to Jiroft,” the man stammered, biting his lips.
The bulldozer ran full-throttle again, and a young, naked man rolled out from under the debris. He was missing an arm. The old man jerked up onto his feet and stared at the unearthed figure. He buried his face in his hands. “I’m destroyed,” he said, “dust on my corpse. My dignity is ruined.” He shuddered like the earth itself. His teeth hit against each other as he spoke.
Mary thought he would be better off dead. If only he hadn’t seen what his eyes dared see. On an impulse she turned and embraced him, as tightly as she’d held her own father—nothing but a bag of rattling bones the last days of his life. She didn’t want to let go. The old man pushed her back; She was not a family member: a Muslim woman should never touch a man, except for her husband, her father, her brother, or her uncle.
“I am sorry,” Mary said. The old man didn’t seem to hear her. He had his gaze fixed on his own daughter.
The aid workers brought two plastic covers from the tent. As they lifted the girl’s corpse to place her in the bag, the old man suddenly jerked forward and ran over. He ripped the plastic from the body, and kicked his daughter’s corpse back into the ruins. “Leave the girl who mortified me, here, to rot.”
The girl’s corpse fell on its back, her big brown eyes wide open.
“She has no shame,” the old man gave a strangled yelp, “look how she is looking into my eyes.” He pushed the girl’s face onto the ground with his right foot. Then he yanked at the young man’s dismembered arm, pulled it out from between the mud bricks, and tossed the stump into the rubble. The arm fell down on its severed end; the hand, stiff with rigor mortis, was turned up toward the low desert sky, its fingers wide open. The old man grabbed the arm and pushed it back into the earth the other way up,, so that the cut end, instead of the fingers, stood out.
Next, the old man attacked the boy’s corpse, grabbing his testicles in one hand and squeezing, while, with the nails of his other hand, he tried to pop out the boy’s open eyes. The aid officer grabbed the man’s arms and pulled him back. Mary gave the man a third shot. The other two aid workers lifted the girl’s corpse again and placed her into the same plastic bag as her lover’s.
The plastic the old man had ripped from his daughter’s body drifted on the ground among the rubble until a sudden breeze lifted it up into the air. It caught on the boy’s torn arm where the meat and veins twisted together into a knot, and flapped in the dusty air. With its brown skin peeling, the stump looked like the trunk of Mary’s palm tree, half uprooted by the earthquake. She shook her head at the bizarre idea.
Maryam had put the roots of her half-fallen palm back in a hole she’d dug in the soil. Using her weight then, she’d pushed the trunk up. It was a mature and heavy tree now. And the young man who had startled her—long hair and the white robe fastened with a rope at waist—had come to help her with the replanting of the tree.
Mary first stood unmoved staring at the arm’s stump, spellbound by the old man’s rage: He knocked the aid officer aside and clawed his way back to the corpse. But then, she ran after him, grabbed his arms from behind, and yanked him back. He fell on his back and then she pressed the man down and dug her fingernails into his arms as he struggled to get away. “You should let me tear her up,” he cried. “You said you are a Muslim woman.”
Mary released his arms. He rolled over and quickly grabbed a kitchen knife gleaming among the rubble. Mary’s heart lurched as the man pushed himself up from the ground and ran. She quickly jumped forward and got herself in between the old man and his daughter. In the split-second before the knife’s reflection caught her eye, she saw the Canadians running towards them. “No!” Mary shouted and threw herself on the girl’s corpse. Then she felt the man’s hands grip her throat. She quickly turned and grasped at the boy’s torn arm, using it to push the old man away. Finally he fell on his side. Mary let go the arm and tried to pull the knife out of the the man’s grasp. Again he pushed her back but Mary grabbed the old amn’s wrist and twisted. They struggled until her Canadian co-workers separated them. Only then did she see that the man was bleeding from his side. There was a cut on his side where his shirt was torn and soaked in blood. She tasted salt and earth, and blood in her mouth.
“You have become like these blond outsiders who don’t have a God. I bet you have done every wrong you desired abroad. Good your father did not see you disgracing him like this.”
The man got up and spat on his dead girl. “She is not my daughter.” Mary sat in silence. Seeing her unmoved, he turned and left.
Now in the early morning, Mary stirred. Gazed into the dawn. The suffering figure was gone from outside and all was peaceful. She lay on her back and thought about her father. If it weren’t for him, Maryam would have run after the wretched old man but this time only to throttle him. She wished to God he hadn’t looked so much like her father, with his same tone of voice, soft liquid eyes, and a long thin face marked by furrows. She rolled onto her side and thought about the robed man who had helped her by holding up the trunk of her palm tree as she scraped fistfuls of soil into the hole and then evened out the earth at the base of the tree. They hadn’t even spoken. Not a word to each other.
Previously published in Descant 137, Volume 38/2 (Summer 2007).