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Almost human
Short story

By Ali Sadri
October 1, 2003
The Iranian

Sleepless night, third in a row. I sit in my room, staring at the wall. Above the mattress hangs a Persian miniature illuminated by a solitary candle. It is a window to a flower garden enveloping a single cypress tree. In the foreground sits a young woman with her ankles tucked beneath her fleshy thighs. Her arms are extended holding a bowl of something, which she is conceivably offering to an out-of-frame lover. Her eyes are large and shaped like almonds. Her eyebrows are exaggeratingly arched and meet in the middle. Her lips are shaped like a rose bud.

I hesitantly turn and look in the opposite direction as though checking for a ghost and find the long shadow still stretched on the wall. The sight of it makes my spine tremor. "You're still here," I begin to speak to it, lie down, and curl into a fetus position.

"I do not recall my age. I must have been no more than four feet tall when you became ingrained forever in my memories."

"Though I sit here alone, I am not really alone for your shadow is stretched on the inner wall of my very existence. If I am speaking to you now, it is because I no longer can numb my senses with wine nor bring about artificial sleep with pills. Nor can I pretend I do not feel your incessant stare as I trudge along this life's razor's edge. How many times have I sought answers within myself to no avail? Now you must face these questions you might have even asked yourself in secret, however infected and repulsive they may seem. You must face the flesh behind this fluttering light -- the flesh that we both remember, and that which had once seemed without a soul."

"Many years have gone by, much has happened, but not all can be told."

"I read a story in the paper one summer day, when still in Tehran, and when I was no more than nine years old: My neighbor and playmate brought the front page of Kayhan and pointed to an ominous photo of a man who was large and horribly scary. It was a child rapist and murderer who had escaped from prison. The police were looking for him, and through the newspaper they warned parents and begged for information on the fugitive. Contrary to my friends, I was not the least frightened. Newspapers, scary movies, strangers, dark alleys, old toothless men, witches and sorcerers all seemed harmless, remote and fantastic. I did not believe in genies, and with slightest worry, I simply shrugged my shoulders for strangers were the least of my worries."

"One must admit that even a shadow was once innocent and free of impure thought. How much impurity does a child have? A boy with wondering eyes, hopes, and promise -- an Iranian child, hair thick, black and wavy, eyes shaped like almonds, lips like a rose bud. I've been gazing at this old black-and-white photo where a suppressed smile fights to brake through."

"You are deluded. Delusions imbued in one who is oppressed and caged where religion infects every molecule of the brain and every cell of the body."

"Does this dark image on the wall resemble an animal; a cat, a dog or an ape? From my point of view it looks almost human. Did I not see you standing upright, gazing at the moon? One who carved Ten Commandments into a stone? One who is given a choice? But how often have you found yourself stooping low, crawling under rocks, eating dust? I see and remember all, and that is my curse."

"You are diseased, disease of conceit, disease of deceit. You are an imposter, a robber of youth, a pillager of innocence, and an incurable cancer that eats at my soul. All of your belated good deed is in vain. Good mixed with evil is still evil, and no matter how much one begs to recompense, one will always remain a monster. And turning to God and religion does not wash away sins."

Multitudes of sin are kept hidden behind curtains, whispered only through tiny cracks. Religious oppression is rooted from its theoretical core, lies that flooded long ago from the desert by the sword, and through wide-open gates, only to exit painstakingly through a needle's eye. Culture uprooted, language displaced, thought desecrated. Everything sacred was lost.

"Your shadow although a product of shame, and who is now stretched on the wall like an alien beast, is quivering with self-inflected pain. You have only yourself to blame for your sorrow, your dark past, and your disease."

"I indulge in the fantasy of 'justice-will-prevail', not in the next world to come but in the current. That which we see, feel and breathe. The one we're accountable for."

"It is not up to you or I," a hollow voice rose from the wall making me shiver through and through.

"I paid for my mistakes," he continued.

"My conscious is clear and I am free except within your imagination."

"Free how?" I said, horrified.

"Free of guilt," he said.

"But you've never been forgiven," I said.

"I've been forgiven by God," he said.

The shadow has now moved onto the opposite wall and has increased in size and agility, as if he were delivered from years of bondage. His voice carried an air of conceit and pretentiousness as he uttered his words with complete confidence.

"How can transgressions directed at me be nullified by another?" I asked.

"It is not your place to forgive," said the shadow. "You demand a trial inside an emotional court that doesn't exist. You hold on to things, but your holding on will only make me stronger."

"Your words do not deceive me," I said to the shadow as my eyes followed him creeping across the ceiling with suppleness of a snake. He paused far over on the left side of the wall, fidgeting restlessly as if he were adjusting endlessly his balance. He spoke again with an air of arrogant precocity:

"My concern is the domino effect that you impend."

"I impend nothing," I said and began pacing the room like a mad man. "The domino effect that you speak of is in essence your ripple effect that permeates each successive day of my life. I am a prison for your disease, soon to become its grave. You fabricate your innocence by calumny. Your superficial convictions are as hollow as your shadow on the wall."

Indifference and insincerity defies clemency altogether. If one has caused afflictions by an impulsive detachment of the soul, by slipping into a wolf's skin at a moment's notice, and all for a fleeting moment of mere deliverance, well, then one must not entertain the slightest possibility of reconciliation with not only oneself, but also with any God of any religion. As if turning to primeval myth frees us from our inhumanity?

"Do you see the miniature painting above my bed?" I reach up, yanking it off the wall, waving it violently in the air. "It is nothing more than a Shahrzadian fantasy conjured up by repressed minds. Those who are deluded by them are bound for disillusionment. Some absolve themselves and rise to a higher level, but others let themselves be driven by primitive impulse and stoop as low as an insect. The latter become permanent shadows on walls."

He closed his eyes, and with his arms extended in anticipation, he stepped forward and touched gently the surface of the wall. He applied pressure. It gave way and his palms broke through. There debris fell softly, and he smelled damp concrete and cool earth. A burning light permeated his flesh, and the darkness inside his eyelids turned to a kaleidoscopic interplay of bright red, yellow, and blue.
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