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Her father's portrait
Short story


May 12, 2007

Homa opened the door of the house to her father. He was standing at the threshold, a bouquet of white narcissi in his hand, smiling. Homa's mother took her apron off, tidied her fluffy black hair, and rushed softly along the corridor towards him. Father came in and locked the door tight. It was March twenty first, 1960, in tranquillized Tehran of Imperial Iran, and Homa was eleven.

"Let's not fight on New Year's Day, this first day of spring. It brings bad luck for the rest of the year." Father handed the spring flowers to mother. He didn't offer them to her alone. They were meant for the entire household.

"Gosh, they smell wonderful! Early messengers of the spring! Aren't they lovely?" mother asked Homa without talking to her daughter, her entire nose into the flowers.

"Where is that flower vase?" father's loud voice invaded the house. "Place them in the crystal vase and make sure that the water is pure and fresh," he ordered mother and faded into the living-room.

Homa followed her father, in fear, despite his sweet announcement of the cease-fire. The room was at its cleanest. The busy design of the large Persian carpet shining under the cozy brightness of the midday, incense burning on the top of the fireplace, perfuming the sensitivity of the atmosphere. Father sat on the clean carpet, beside the boiling samovar, waiting for mother to serve him a cup of black tea on their silver tray. Homa sat quietly in a corner, trying to remain invisible, well behaved. She looked at her father's arrogant look, his healthy slender body, and his strong hands. "Why can't he serve himself a cup of tea? Why is it so crucial for him to be served it by mother, even though he has to wait until she finishes with the flowers?" Homa deliberated in derision.

With his head lifted, father stared at his own portrait, a huge brownish picture of his earlier years, framed neatly and tastefully, hung high on the middle of the opposite wall. Mother, seated, poured him a cup of black tea, in silence. She, then, rose, walked and bent towards him, her two hands holding the silver tray, the garland of white jasmine around her neck flirting with the rim of the tea cup.

"Are we visiting my parents this afternoon?" mother asked father as if there was no need of asking, just to have said something. Father picked up two sugar cubes, before putting down the china saucer while holding the full cup of tea. He forgot to let go of the saucer.

"Not so keen to visit them today, first hours of Nowruz Festival", father readjusted his delicate eyeglasses, "Your folks have no respect for me. Your mother insults me... whenever I go to their house. Never, ... they've never, in their hearts, wanted me as their son-in-law."

Mother put the tray back behind the samovar, went towards the mirror above the fireplace and busied herself with the ringlets of her hair.

"You're cold and unfriendly with them. Say something nice to my mother. Compliment her. It doesn't lower you."

Father gulped the rest of his tea, then struck hard the empty cup to its saucer.

"Want me to be nice to a woman like that, ... who turns my daughter against me? She told Homa that if I were killed dead, ... they would be able to take out a pretty doll from behind the mole on the back of my neck!"

Apprehensive, as if afraid of father noticing the mischievous smile in her eyes, mother didn't stop playing with her hair, didn't turn back to face father.

"What an awful thing to tell a child. My mother is mean! Real mean! But, ..what do you want me to do with her? Fight? Can't fight with her. Forget about her? Can't stop seeing her. She's my mother!"

"And I'm your husband, for God's sakes. Your concern... your primary concern should be your husband and your children, not your father and mother."

Mother stopped playing with her hair, upset. Homa's brother was rushing towards mother, crying, his shaky knee bleeding, covered with the alley's dust and mud. Mother cleansed the wound with a clean piece of cloth dampened with the hot water from the samovar.

"Primary concern, ha?" mother despised father's grandiloquence, "And tell me. you! How can I choose between you and my children on the one hand, and my own family, on the other?"

Homa had always wondered who her mother's real family were. If mother's parents, brothers and sisters, were her real family, then who were her children to her? Whose family did Homa and her two younger brothers belong to? Why weren't they mother's real family?

Homa strode towards her mother and glued herself to her warm protective body. Mother withdrew from Homa, as if the girl was disturbing her. She, then, opened a drawer, moistened a piece of cotton with mercurochrome, applied it to the boy's wound, and gave him a pretend spanking, sending him back to his own world, outside the house.

Father's blue eyes, containing the sad and stifled scream of "How-Come-Nobody-Loves-Me", were obstinately fixed on his handsome portrait.

"You've already chosen your family over me. I see no respect for me coming from you," his eyes travelling from his portrait to mother's face, and back, a couple of times. "It's been more than six months that... you've been making fun of my portrait on the wall. In front of the children! You hate me that much?"

Mother, who had grabbed the knitting needles and the skein of wool from the brighter corner of the room, was now sitting in the same corner, knitting the rest of an azure sweater for Homa's baby brother. She pulled the right-hand needle out of the row of loops and pointed it upwards, at father's portrait.

"Admit that it's a rather amusing picture. Look at those glasses you are wearing. Those thin and round glasses. And your eyes, so icy. Look!... Just look! ... No moustache! ... Round glasses! Say, just like a fish! Ha, ha, ha!"

Father's face turned red, and his watery eyes thirsted for bringing mother's tongue under fire. He, then, rose up abruptly, having lost his temper.

"I can't take it anymore. I'm sick and tired of you bashing me around, trashing me away, smashing up whatever is left of my honour in this house."

"Your honour? What about my honour? What about you bashing me around, trashing me away all the time? Have you forgotten about... about all those years you used me like a faithful slave? Hum? I shouldn't have married you. No. I shouldn't have married anyone. If I hadn't married you, I would me studying medicine now. Yeah, ... like my brother!"

Father had listened, but hadn't heard anything. Exasperated by mother's tone of voice, he had attacked his own beloved portrait, trying to bring it down, while listening to mother's complaints. Struggling with the cardboard on the back of the picture, he finally succeeded in laying his hands on the picture, exhausted. He, then, tore it length-wise and broad-wise. His intensity was utterly undiluted.

"Happy now? All torn! Satisfied?"

Mother was standing now, in the middle of the room, astonished, her face pale.

"Why did you do that? I wanted... I was only being facetious. You've got no sense of humour. It's so... What a childish thing to do. Baby boy!"

Father dashed out and pushed his all-torn and crumbled portrait right to the bottom of the paper basket in the corridor and came back in the living-room, less furious.

"First, I'm ridiculed for my picture. Then, I'm called names for having destroyed the picture. It's... There is no end to you suppressing me!"

"What???!!! ... My whole life has been suppressed by you! My body has been! My soul has been! If I hadn't married you, had no children, I'd be studying medicine. Instead, what am I doing? I have one hand in greasy dishes or the baby's diapers, and my other hand... have it stretched towards you, ... almost begging for a bit of cash to buy myself some dress materials."

Mother didn't miss a single occasion to nag about her shattered dream of becoming a doctor, about her father having been more conscientious in regard to her younger brother's education. Homa told herself how so very right mother was in all she had been saying. But, the girl still couldn't understand why her mother had shown, for the last several months, such an intense and unceasing hatred for her father's gracious portrait instead of for the man himself! Be that as it may, to her great delight, on that special day, First Day of Spring, the contempt for her father's portrait had been acknowledged by himself, through the destruction of the picture, as contempt for his person, a challenge to his authority.

Father sat back in his habitual place on the carpet, perfectly serene, beside the boiling samovar, waiting for mother to serve him tea.

"That's enough for today... Let's not fight anymore", father breathed deeply.

"O.K.", mother said sheepishly.

"I didn't force you to marry me, did I?" father was exploring a well-known territory.

"No, but..."

"Right! ... You agreed to marry me. Isn't that true?"

"Yes, but I was only sixteen! A naive and blind-minded sixteen year-old girl of the World War II period. I had caught a glimpse of you only once, and I was thinking of marriage as a game... loved the idea of wearing a white and pearled gown with a long tail, and a shiny crown on my head, like a princess!"

"But, confess that you fell in love with me the very first moment you laid eyes on me! Confess it, my dear sparrow!"

Mother smiled. Father pushed his cup and saucer towards her. Mother laid aside her knitting kit, picked up the teapot from the top of the samovar and poured him a cup of black tea. She, then, rose and walked gently towards him, bent her knees down, and served it to him on their silver tray.

Father's manhood having been mended in his mind, he caught everyone's eyes snobbishly, pleased with himself. And in the puzzle of that twisted moment, Homa reposed the picture of her hope for a sweeping change of their sorry home in the frame of the future, and placed it right over the absence of her father's portrait on the wall! Comment

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