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Pickled things
There is no denying it: it's a red alarm, code for a bombing raid

By Azin Arefi
June 6, 2002
The Iranian

I have one very clear memory of the war. Just one, because I was very young when we moved to America. I was at my grandmother's large house in Tehran, with my mother and my grandfather. We were sitting in the front room, while my mom cleaned up the dinner she had laid out on the floor.

The dinner was light as usual: hard-boiled eggs, cut in half, red ripe tomato slices, plenty of fresh basil, fetta cheese and bread. The eggs looked like daisies, the tomatoes were like roses, and the basil were the leaves. We ate flowers that night.

My grandfather had already pulled back and was paying full attention to the radio. A man in a booming voice was reporting on the state of our army, our many young brave volunteers who were out fighting the evil Saddam Hussein and his evil army in the name of Islam.

My grandfather reported the news back to us as if we did not hear it along with him. I did not fully understand the man with the booming voice but my grandfather's commentary was helpful.

"Shahab, are you sure you don't want any more?" my mother asks me as she picks up my plate.

"Look, you did not even eat that much. Are you full?"

"Yes, Maman." I squat away, closer to the heater that is churning heat in the corner, holding on to my blankie. It was not technically a blankie; it used to be a robe, my mother's robe. It was dark blue with white flowers blooming all over it. It was the robe my mother wore at the hospital when she brought me into this world. It was the robe she wore when she nursed me.

My first picture taken hours after I was born is of me, wrapped up in white cloth like a cocoon, and in the background is the blue robe. That means that I am in my mother's arms. She is holding on to me. I claimed that robe as my security blanket. I can still feel its satin softness between my fingers if I just rub them together. And its scent never leaves my nostrils. It smelled like my mother's milk.

"You don't eat enough, my son," my mother says.

"You hear that?" Grandfather asks. "They are sending a thousand more men to the front, as early as next week."

My mother rises to go to the kitchen. I do not want her to go out of the room because it is cold outside these four walls. When she leaves I get up and pick up the remains of the dinner and follow her out in the dark and cold. I run to the kitchen, my little feet thumping.

"Oh my God, child!" my mother is surprised to see me right behind her. "What are you doing out here? It is cold." She takes the plates from my hand. "Go back, go back into the room, you will catch a cold. Go." I run back to the room.

"And they are saying the British are --" Grandfather turns around. "Oh, I thought you were your mother. Did you go outside?"

"Yes, I was helping." I sit by him on the floor, hugging my blankie.

"Oh, good boy."

I watch my grandfather listen to the news. The door opens and my mother walks into the room, with a tray of tea, steam rising, rising.

"Here you go, Aghajaan," she says as she sets the cup in front of Grandfather.

"Ah, thank you, thank you," Grandfather tosses two sugar cubes on his tongue and starts sipping.

"I brought one for you too, Shahab," my mother announces. "But watch out, it's hot." She puts the small cup in front of me. I take three sugar cubes. "Uh-uh. One is enough for you." She holds out her palm. I clinch my fist around the cubes. "Your teeth will rot." She always wins with that. I give her back two of the cubes and plop the other one in the golden warm liquid. I watch it disintegrate.

Grandfather turns down the radio, and faces us.

"I heard at work that they hit Ahvaz again," my mother says. "Did the radio say anything about that?"

"They hit Ahvaz a while ago. They hit Khorramshahr recently."

My mother shakes her head. I stare at the sugar cube in my cup, disappearing. "Drink it, Shahab joon," my mother says as she drops a teaspoon in my tea. "It has cooled down now."

I swirl the spoon round and round in my cup, creating my own tea whirlpool. The spoon hits the sides and chimes like a bell, dlang, dlang. As I bring up the cup to my mouth it comes on, the distinct sound of an alarm, like the siren of an ambulance. It is coming from the radio.

Grandfather and my mother look at each other, transfixed for a second, as if making sure the other one is hearing it too, hoping that they are not. Grandfather reaches for the volume and turns it up. There is no denying it: it's a red alarm, code for a bombing raid. The sound engulfs the whole room, cutting the heat like a blade.

"Let's go," Grandfather says. He puts his hand on his knee and stands up just as my mother rises, and grabs my hand. Suddenly the lights go out. It is pitch black, but I have my mother's hand around mine. "Come on, Shahab joon," my mother pulls me. I feel my blankie getting caught and then the sound of glass falling on the tray, and the crisp smell of my tea. The jingle makes my mother start. I feel her hand tighten around mine.

The sound coming out of the radio is more piercing, more urgent in the dark. The three of us walk quickly out of the house, go down the steps into the yard. Mother and I follow Grandfather to the basement. As we go down the steps of the basement I hear engines roaring, distant, but roaring. Grandfather opens the door and ushers us in.

Inside it is cold and even darker. We are assailed by the pungent odor of vinegar and salt from the many many bottles of pickled things my grandmother has made, all neatly displayed on the shelves. Pickled eggplants, cauliflower, carrots, celery, garlic, all swimming in vinegar, sitting in still jars.

We work our way through the clutter of the basement and get as far away from the windows that border the ceiling on one side. During the day that is the only source of light for the basement and it is plenty. Now they hardly let any light in, in the pitch dark of night and blackout.

Grandfather sits down on a box. The muscles in his face look clenched. My mother sits down too and then draws me into her lap, presses me to her bosom. I squeeze my blankie to my chest; its corner feels wet and warm. It is the tea.

The roaring gets louder. It means they are closer. Closer to the ground, closer to us.
"La ella ha el Allah" my mother prays.

Faintly there is the swishing sound of something falling. Then the sound of the earth being disturbed, rattled, destroyed. It shakes in protest. The jars of pickles move, awoken from their nightly slumber. They jiggle, hitting each other, getting closer to one another out of fear. Dling dling. Once again something falling, then the earth screams again. This time the sky lights up, an orange glow bursting. Dling dling dling.

My mother puts her hands over my eyes and my ears but I move them away. I want to watch. Falling, boom, boom, and light at the window. "Don't be scared," my mother says. "Don't be scared." Her hands cover my ears but I still hear the jars rattling in fear. I keep fending off her hands, covering my eyes and ears.

I should have been scared. I should have been frightened and clinging to my mother's bosom. But I wasn't. The pounding in my chest was not fear.

Then the roars take their anger somewhere else. They become faint again. Mother's hands rest around my torso. She pulls me in, her face in my neck. "See, that was nothing. It's over."
"I should have brought the radio" Grandpa's voice says in the dark. "To know where we got hit."

I feel my mother breathe out. "It's over."

I pull up my blankie to my nose. It smells like me. Like my mom. The vinegar smell of the recovering jars still comes through.

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