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Short story

By Sanaz Fotouhi
January 14, 2003
The Iranian

When she was twelve her mother had started borrowing money to buy household items for her dowry: sheets, tablecloths, plates, cutlery sets and everything else that a house required. It took her mother up to three months or three years to pay for each item. She had forgotten to buy one thing: band-aids.

It was the evening of the fourth day. Night had almost drawn its starry blanket over the city streets. It was late and husbands and fathers were coming home from work carrying a loaf of hot barbari or sangak under their arms. But it was early enough for children to play one more game of football in the street before their elder sisters were sent after them. The women had come out to sit on the steps of their rooms in the courtyards, amusing each other with their daily dosage of gossip as they cleaned vegetables and rice for dinner.

Zary was no longer a girl who had nothing to share with the women sitting on the steps. She was a woman now, no longer an unbroken egg or a sealed vessel. The subjects of womanhood were open to her if she chose to talk about them.

The three-day party was over and she was officially a housewife now. She was one of them: zan, the hens, they called them. In other words, married and no longer a chick.

She had done her share of housewife duties for the day: she had cleaned, and cooked, arranged and rearranged plates and cutlery sets on the side of the room in the supposed kitchen. She had rolled up the woolen mattress and stacked it up on the side of the cracked wall and swept the carpeted floor. She had even finished cooking dinner. Now there was nothing to do but rearrange the cutlery set and plates for six again.

Faati, her sister-in-law, and her family of seven, took up the room across the courtyard. The day had started when Zary was woken up by Faati's curses.

"You children, I hope you all get kids like yourselves, pissing and vomiting on sheets and all over the place. Ya hear?" She rubbed the sheets and shouted. "Where is that Zary? Why did we bring her here? So she can hide in the little room all day long? She has not even opened her window. It's almost noon."

"Mom, she has just moved here. She is shy. Probably sleeping. That poor girl must be so tired." One of the elder girls spoke up.

"Shy? Tired? When I moved in here with your father and grandmother twenty years ago, I started washing and cleaning and serving them like a proper woman, like a servant, on the first day." Faati paused. "I'll tell you, if your grandma was here, she would have knocked her straight."

Zary had rubbed her eyes.

"I remember they treated me like I was their slave. They asked me to cook dinner for their entire family on the fourth day." Faati looked at her daughter expecting a reaction. She went on rubbing the sheets in the bucket. "Did you hear that? On the fourth day! They acted like I was brought here just to help them. I was just a kid girl. I was only fifteen. And your father was a druggie. I have told you this so many times." Faati got up, fixed her scarf and went into the room.

"Times have changed Maman."

Such had been the events of the fourth day: Faati talked, shouted, screamed and cursed outside the window like a tiger in pain from dawn until dusk. She told and retold the story of her marriage. Her patient children responded in mockery each time.

Zary did not dare walk out of the door all day long. She had not opened the window or turned on a light. When someone had knocked on the door at lunchtime, she had not answered. She still had not washed any clothes. Her nails were still as crisp, fresh, long and red as on her wedding day and she intended to keep them that way for as long as possible. Already they had chipped, and the cheap red nail polish was peeling off, forming patterns on her nails.

Now, as night was caving in, she took a break from rearranging the dishes for the third time and looked at her nails. How pretty they looked. What a pity she had to cut them off today before Jamsheed got home.

On the night of their wedding, when she had been totally alone with him for the first time, before he had started undressing her, the first thing he had told her was her nails were too long. "They are dirty and attract too much attention. A proper housewife should not be able to keep nails that long." She had apologized like a shy schoolgirl in front of a teacher.

But now it was time to cut them off. Jamsheed was going to be home soon and she didn't want him to be angry. All the parties were over and she had no excuse to keep them long. A good housewife was never able to have long nails.

Faati could no longer be heard outside. It was safe to turn the light on and welcome night. Zary turned on the light and found the new nail clipper in the drawer and began clipping the red long nails one by one. Tears rolled down her cheeks. She cut off all the ones on her left hand.

"Zary, come out here. I know you are awake now. Zary!" shouted Faati.

She left the nail clipper, wiped her tears with her sleeve, put a scarf over her curly hair and opened the window. "Hi. Yes, sister? You have done a lot of washing today." She looked at the unexpected number of sheets hanging on the lines all over the courtyard. "I am sorry I wasn't feeling too well and I just woke up."

"Why did you come here? You moved here to just claim my brother? You don't even bring enough things to support yourself? What am I supposed to do? What is he supposed to do?" She shouted.

"I am very sorry, I don't understand."

"At least his first barren wife came out and helped until the day she moved out."

"I don't understand."

"Of course! You have never washed clothes. I should have known with those nails." She moved up her hands in the air. "You should cut them before he comes home tonight."

Tears filled up Zary's eyes and she went in. No one had told her that his first wife had moved out.

Just then Jamsheed walked into the courtyard. He tumbled on his own feet. Came to a sudden stop and like a log dropped down and sat right in the middle of the courtyard.

"What's the deal?" he asked.

"You come home," Faati paused taking a deep breath "to your new bride half drugged? Don't you have any shame? You bring shame to this family Jamsheed. That poor girl's been sitting in that room all day long and you come home half drugged?"

"The hell with you. Who do you think you are? Get out of my way." He lit a cigarette, and took off his shoes and socks. He threw the socks across the courtyard at a basket and walked to the little room.

"Hell is where you are going," screamed Faati after him.

One of the girls walked across the courtyard and pulled her mother into the house. The courtyard was quiet. Nothing could be heard except the sound of children laughing and the occasional summer cricket singing.

Jamsheed opened the door and walked into the room lit by a naked bulb. He sat down right by the door.

"Hi, how was your day?" Zarry asked unenthusiastically.

"Good. Get me dinner. Later on, some of the guys are coming over." He rubbed his feet.

"Jamsheed, what happened to your first wife?" she asked casually as she went to get him some food.

"She died. I told you." He sounded annoyed.

"Faati said she moved out. Is that true?" She handed him a plate of rice. He took it and threw it across the room.

"Faati has a big mouth, doesn't she?" he screamed. She started weeping. She took her right hand and dug it deep into her left arm. Blood poured, indistinguishable from the red nail polish. It was the first time the plate set has been used and already one was broken. Her mother had probably not finished paying for the complete set. She had not finished cutting her nails.

"You still have those nails? What did I tell you?"

She got up opened the drawer to look for some band-aids. There were none. She went into the courtyard.

Jamsheed shouted after her, "Get me dinner woman. Get me dinner." Some of the neighbors' men ran out and went in to calm him. "Should have never took you to bed with those nails."

Zary sat by the side of the little pool in the courtyard and poured some water over the wound on her right arm.

One evening Zary had woken up when her father came home demanding his wife make dinner, anticipating the arrival of some friends for a game of cards. Zary pretended to sleep in the next room. Her mother had whispered, "I told you I don't want any of your friends over here.'

He explained that it was only Jamsheed. She said, "Listen, for the last time, I don't want any of your friends here. Do you hear?"

"They're just coming over for some tea and a game of cards."

"No tea, or game of cards in this house. I don't want people to see grown men coming and going into my house. It is a bad name for the girl. Specially your friends."

He demanded to know what was wrong with his friends and she had replied that they were a bunch of losers like himself.

"Look, there's been some people interested in Zary. Good people, decent people," she had continued.

"This is not the time woman. I am hungry." He raised his voice but when threatened with no lunch he closed his mouth and pretended to listen.

"There are some women at work who are interested in the girl. They have good boys, one is a college student, the other is a soldier."

"So? What do you want me to do?"

"And... they have even come around and seen Zary. But once they go asking around the neighbors about the kind of father and people who come around here, they never come back." She started sobbing.

"So, let them not come back. My daughter is a good girl. She doesn't need their degree or their kind of family," he said coldly. "Now where's my lunch?"

Her mother got up, went to the stove, picked up the pan of stew and threw it across the room. "There's your lunch, you pig."

Later in the day, Jamsheed had come with some friends. Her father insisted that Zary bring tea for them. Her mother insisted that she not. Her father won.

A week later, Jamsheed called again with a bouquet of flowers, a box of shirini and a big grin on his forty-four-year-old face to ask for Zary's hand in marriage. Her mother fainted. Her father was delighted. A date was set.

They were told that Jamsheed's first wife had died four years ago during childbirth along with the baby.

Between the time of the engagement and marriage, her father had come home half stoned a few times asking for money. Zary always retreated into the room knowing that every time he came stoned there was a fight. Usually the conversation began with, "Woman, give me some money. I am your husband and I just gave you an order." It ended in her mother crying, "I am not going to give you any more money. You walk into this house drugged every night, smelling like shit, and you expect me to give you more money." At this point she would push a plate of eggs, rice, stew, or a loaf of bread across the table. "You have one more grown daughter. She is getting married and her dowry is still not complete. I started fixing her dowry when she was twelve, you pig. Some things we -- no, I, am still in debt for." Then she would sob, "We are in debt. We have no money."

He would eat greedily and then prepare to leave the house. She would say "The hell with you. Get out of this house, now. And go smoke your life. Go kill yourself. Now!" He would get up, put on his hat, leave and not come home until early in the morning, singing and cursing.

Tonight Zary saw her father in the mustached man sitting on the side of the door demanding his dinner in a semi-conscious state. She saw herself like Faati, washing big sheets with coarse hands, complaining while her children gave her awkward answers. She wiped her tears with the side of her scarf. The stars were out. The moon was shining. Her fate had doomed her to a life of slavery.

All the neighbors had gone from the courtyard. Some of the men were still in the room with Jamsheed. From the sounds of it, they had a hookah running and were laughing and having a good time.

Faati came out and put some dishes in a little basket by the side of the pool. "Go back inside. It is late," she said as she sat next to Zary on the ledge of the pool. "Are you happy?" Faati asked in a whisper. "I am not happy. This is no life. My husband died from an overdose. None of my children are educated. And my brother is a druggie married to a beautiful girl."

Zary smiled. Faati screwed up her face.

"Of course he deserves someone better. More housewife-like. Someone mature. You are just a baby and no good for this household." She put her hand in the pool. "When I first moved here, I was just like you. I had no friends to guide me. No one liked me. You will not get used to it. You will have no friends here. His first wife left him."

Zary tilted her head back and looked at the moon. Then she got up and started walking back towards her room.

"This life here is hell living with a bunch of drugged-up people. Hold on a minute," Faati gestured Zary back.

Zary walked back obediently holding her arm.

"I see your arm's bleeding."

"Yes. I want to go buy some band-aids from the store. I think they are still open."

"So your mother didn't give you that either?" Faati said mockingly. "Incomplete dowry. It's late. Aren't you scared you might get lost or kidnapped?" She looked her in the eyes. "Fate is undetermined."

"Get lost or get kidnapped?" Zary looked scared. "This is a very safe neighborhood."

"So it is. But if you do get lost, there's a taxi stand three streets up." Faati looked in the pool at the reflection of the moon. "You walk up the road and you count three streets." Zary sat erect attentively. "In the fourth one is a twenty-four-hour taxi rental. If you get lost you can ask them to take you home to Mrs. Khaleh. She is a very kind school teacher who will bring you back home to us."

"Why would I get lost, sister?"

"I know you are a very smart girl but I also know the streets around here are all alike. It is easy to get lost at night. In case you get lost you know what to do." Faati got up to leave.

Zary sat there for a minute and got up to go inside. She was called back by Faati shouting "Hey Zary, you no good girl, get me some cough syrup while you're out there. Will you? That kid's been coughing all day long."

"Oh, come here I want to give you the money for that."

Zary turned back and walked up to her. Faati put her hand in her pocket and brought it out empty. In a graceful, easy move she pulled one of her gold bracelets off her fat wrist and put it in Zary's palm. "Thank you, sister. You are a good girl."

Faati walked off. Zary put the bracelet in her skirt pocket.

On her way in, Faati bumped into Miriam, who was coming out to put some dishes in the basket. "Hey Miriam, that no-use Zary is going to the store to buy my sick child some cough syrup. Do you want anything?"

"No thanks. Isn't it kind of late for her to be going out to the drugstore. It's kind of far."

"She's a smart girl. She can take care of herself. Plus this neighborhood is safe." Then she shouted, "Don't be too late girl or we'll start to worry."

Zary went in. Dressed. Told her husband that she will be back in a while. He grumbled that the men wanted chai and she said she would be back to serve them soon.

She left. She did not come back. Not that night or any other night. For the rest of her life Faati was blamed for having caused her to go out that night. Her body was never recovered. Some said she was kidnapped. Some said she had run away into prostitution. Others swore they had seen her teaching in a school. Faati had told them not to be silly. Meanwhile she cursed and washed the sheets while her brother brought home a new wife.


Sanaz is a graduate student in English literature at the University of Hong Kong.

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