In the spring of the year that I was supposed to be married, a comet launched itself over the skies of my village. It was brighter than any comet we had ever seen, and more evil. Night after night, as it crawled across our skies spraying its cold white seeds of sorrow, we tried to decipher the fearsome messages of the stars. Hajj Ali, the most learned man in our village, traveled to Isfahan to fetch a copy of the chief astronomer’s almanac so we would know what calamities to expect.
The evening he returned, the people of my village began assembling outside to listen to the predictions for the months ahead. My parents and I stood near the old cypress, the only tree in our village, which was decorated with strips of cloth marking people’s vows. Everyone was looking upward at the stars, their chins pointing toward the sky, their faces grave. I was small enough to see under Hajj Ali’s big white beard, which looked like a tuft of desert scrub. My mother, Maheen, pointed at the Sunderer of Heads, which burned red in the night sky. “Look how Mars is inflamed!” she said. “That will add to the comet’s malice.”
Many of the villagers had already noticed mysterious signs or heard of misfortunes caused by the comet. A plague had struck the north of Iran, killing thousands of people. An earthquake in Doogabad had trapped a bride in her home, suffocating her and her women guests moments before she was to join her groom. In my village, red insects that had never been seen before had swarmed over our crops.
Goli, my closest friend, arrived with her husband, Ghasem, who was much older than we were. She greeted me with a kiss on each cheek.
“How are you feeling?” I asked. Her hand flew to her belly.
“Heavy,” she replied, and I knew she must be worried about the fate of the new life inside her.
Before long, everyone in my village had gathered, except for the old and the infirm. Most of the women were wearing bright bell-shaped tunics over slim trousers, with fringed head scarves over their hair, while the men were attired in long white tunics, trousers, and turbans. But Hajj Ali wore a black turban, indicating his descent from the Prophet Mohammad, and carried an astrolabe wherever he went.
“Good villagers,” he began, in a voice that sounded like a wheel dragging over stones, “let us begin by heaping praise on the first followers of the Prophet, especially upon his son-in-law Ali, king of all believers.”
“May peace be upon him,” we replied.
“This year’s predictions begin with poor news for our enemies. In the northeast, the Ozbaks will suffer an infestation of insects so fierce it will destroy their wheat. In the northwest, troop desertions will plague the Ottomans, and even farther west, in the Christian kingdoms, inexplicable diseases will disarrange the lips of kings.”
My father, Isma’il, leaned toward me and whispered, “It’s always good to know that the countries we’re fighting are going to have miserable luck.” We laughed together, since that’s how it always was.
As Hajj Ali continued reading from the almanac, my heart skipped as if I were climbing a mountain. I was wondering what he would say about marriages made during the year, which was what I cared about the most. I began fiddling with the fringe on my head scarf, a habit my mother always urged me to break, as Hajj Ali explained that no harm would come to paper, books, or the art of writing; that earthquakes would occur in the south but would be mild; and that there would be battles great enough to tinge the Caspian Sea red with blood.
Hajj Ali waved the almanac at the crowd, which is what he did when the prediction he was about to read was alarming. His assistant, who was holding an oil lamp, jumped to move out of his way.
“Perhaps the worst thing of all is that there will be large and inexplicable lapses in moral behavior this year,” he read, “lapses that can only be explained by the influence of the comet.”
A low murmur came from the crowd as people began discussing the lapses they had already witnessed in the first days of the New Year. “She took more than her share of water from the well,” I heard Zaynab say. She was Gholam’s wife, and never had a good word to say about anyone.
Hajj Ali finally arrived at the subject that concerned my future. “On the topic of marriages, the year ahead is mixed,” he said. “The almanac says nothing about those that take place in the next few months, but those contracted later this year will be full of passion and strife.”
I looked anxiously at my mother, since I expected to be married at that time, now that I was already fourteen. Her eyes were troubled, and I could see she did not like what she had heard.
Hajj Ali turned to the last page in the almanac, looked up, and paused, the better to capture the crowd’s attention. “This final prophecy is about the behavior of women, and it is the most disquieting of all,” he said. “Throughout the year, the women of Iran will fail to be acquiescent.”
“When are they ever?” I heard Gholam say, and laughter bubbled around him.
My father smiled at my mother, and she brightened from within, for he loved her just the way she was. People always used to say that he treated her as tenderly as if she were a second wife.
“Women will suffer from their own perverse behavior,” Hajj Ali warned. “Many will bear the curse of sterility, and those who succeed in giving birth will wail in unusual pain.”
My eyes met Goli’s, and I saw my own fear reflected in hers. Goli was worried about childbirth, while I was troubled by the thought of a disorderly union. I prayed that the comet would shoot across the firmament and leave us undisturbed.
Seeing me shiver, my father wrapped a lamb’s wool blanket over my shoulders, and my mother took one of my hands between hers and rubbed it to warm me. From where I stood in the center of my village, I was surrounded by the familiar sights of home. Not far away was our small mosque, its dome sparkling with tile; the hammam where I bathed every week, steamy inside and dappled with light; and the scarred wooden stalls for the tiny market that sprang up on Thursdays, where villagers traded fruit, vegetables, medicines, carpets, and tools. A path led away from the public buildings and passed between a cluster of mud-brick homes that sheltered all two hundred souls in my village, and it ended at the foot of the mountain and the rutted paths where my goats roamed for food. All these sights filled me with comfort, so that when my mother squeezed my hand to see how I was feeling, I squeezed back. But then I pulled my hand away because I didn’t want to seem like a child.
“Baba,” I whispered to my father in a small voice. “What if Hajj Ali’s predictions about marriage come true?”
My father couldn’t hide the concern in his eyes, but his voice was firm. “Your husband will pave your path with rose petals,” he replied. “If at any time, he fails to treat you with honor . . .”
He paused for a moment, and his dark eyes looked fierce, as if what he might do were too terrible to imagine. He started to say something, but then stopped himself.
“. . . you can always come back to us,” he finished.
Shame and blame would follow a wife who returned to her parents, but my father didn’t seem to care. His kind eyes crinkled at the corners as he smiled at me.
Hajj Ali concluded the meeting with a brief prayer. Some of the villagers broke off into family groups to discuss the predictions, while others started walking back to their homes. Goli looked as if she wanted to talk, but her husband told her it was time to go home. She whispered that her feet ached from the weight in her belly and said good night.
My parents and I walked home on the single mud lane that pierced the village. All the dwellings were huddled together on either side for warmth and protection. I knew the path so well I could have walked it blind and turned at just the right moment to reach our house, the last one before our village gave way to sand and scrub. My father pushed open our carved wooden door with his shoulders, and we entered our one-room home. Its walls were made of packed mud and straw brightened with white plaster, which my mother kept sparkling clean. A small door led to an enclosed courtyard where we enjoyed the sun without being seen by other eyes.
My mother and I removed our head scarves and placed them on hooks near the door, slipping off our shoes at the same time. I shook out my hair, which reached my waist. For good luck, I touched the curved ibex horns that glowed on a low stand near the door. My father had felled the ibex on one of our Friday afternoon walks. Ever since that day, the horns had held a position of pride in our household, and my father’s friends often praised him for being as nimble as an ibex.
My father and I sat together on the red-and-brown carpet I had knotted when I was ten. His eyes closed for a moment, and I thought he looked especially tired.
“Are we walking tomorrow?” I asked.
His eyes flew open. “Of course, my little one,” he replied.
He had to work in the fields in the morning, but he insisted he wouldn’t miss our walk together for anything other than God’s command. “For you shall soon be a busy bride,” he said, and his voice broke.
I looked away, for I couldn’t imagine leaving him.
My mother threw dried dung in the stove to boil water for tea. “Here’s a surprise,” she said, bringing us a plate of fresh chickpea cookies. They were fragrant with the essence of roses.
“May your hands never ache!” my father said.
They were my favorite sweets, and I ate far too many of them. Before long, I became tired and spread out my bedroll near the door, as I always did. I fell asleep to the sound of my parents talking, which reminded me of the cooing of doves, and I think I even saw my father take my mother in his arms and kiss her.
THE NEXT AFTERNOON, I stood in our doorway and watched for my Baba as the other men streamed back from the fields. I always liked to pour his tea for him before he walked in the door. My mother was crouched over the stove, baking bread for our evening meal.
When he didn’t arrive, I went back into the house, cracked some walnuts and put them in a small bowl, and placed the irises I had gathered in a vessel with water. Then I went out to look again, for I was eager to begin our walk. Where was he? Many of the other men had returned from the fields and were probably washing off the day’s dust in their courtyards.
“We need some water,” my mother said, so I grabbed a clay jug and walked toward the well. On my way, I ran into Ibrahim the dye maker, who gave me a peculiar look.
“Go home,” he said to me. “Your mother needs you.”
I was surprised. “But she just told me to fetch water,” I said.
“No matter,” he replied. “Tell her I told you to go back.”
I walked home as quickly as I could, the vessel banging against my knees. As I approached our house, I spotted four men bearing a limp bundle between them. Perhaps there had been an accident in the fields. From time to time, my father brought back stories about how a man got injured by a threshing tool, suffered a kick from a mule, or returned bloodied from a fight. I knew he’d tell us what had happened over tea.
The men moved awkwardly because of their burden. The man’s face was hidden, cradled on one of their shoulders. I said a prayer for his quick recovery, for it was hard on a family when a man was too ill to work. As the group approached, I noticed that the victim’s turban was wrapped much like my father’s. But that didn’t mean anything, I told myself quickly. Many men wrapped their turbans in a similar way.
The front bearers got out of step for a moment, and they almost lost hold of the man. His head lolled as though it were barely attached to his body, and his limbs had no life in them. I dropped the clay vessel, which shattered around my feet.
“Bibi,” I whimpered. “Help!”
My mother came outside, brushing flour from her clothes. When she saw my father, she uttered a piercing wail. Women who lived nearby streamed out of their houses and surrounded her like a net while she tore the air with her sorrow. As she writhed and jumped, they caught her gently, holding her and stroking the hair away from her face.
The men brought my father inside and laid him on a bedroll. His skin was a sickly yellow color, and a line of saliva slid out of the corner of his mouth. My mother put her fingers near his nostrils.
“Praise be to God, he’s still breathing!” she said.
Naghee, who worked with my father in the fields, didn’t know where to look as he told us what had happened. “He seemed tired, but he was fine until this afternoon,” he said. “Suddenly he grabbed his head and fell to the ground, gasping for air. After that, he didn’t stir.”
“May God spare your husband!” said a man I didn’t recognize. When they had done all they could to make him comfortable, they left, murmuring prayers for good health.
My mother’s brow was furrowed as she removed my father’s cotton shoes, straightened his tunic, and arranged the pillow under his head. She felt his hands and forehead and declared his temperature normal, but told me to fetch a blanket and cover him to keep him warm.
The news about my father spread quickly, and our friends began arriving to help. Kolsoom brought the water she had collected from a spring near a saint’s shrine that was known for its healing powers. Ibrahim took up a position in the courtyard and began reciting the Qur’an. Goli came by, her boy asleep in her arms, with hot bread and stewed lentils. I brewed tea to keep the warmth in everyone’s body. I knelt near my father and watched his face, praying for a flutter of his eyelids, even a grimace—anything that would assure me life remained in his body.
Rabi’i, the village physician, arrived after night had fallen with cloth bags full of herbs slung on each shoulder. He laid them near the door and knelt to examine my father by the light of the oil lamp, which flickered brokenly. His eyes narrowed as he peered closely at my father’s face. “I need more light,” he said.
I borrowed two oil lamps from neighbors and placed them near the bedroll. The physician lifted my father’s head and carefully unwound his white turban. His head looked heavy and swollen. In the light, his face was the color of ash, and his thick hair, which was flecked with gray, looked stiff and ashen, too.
Rabi’i touched my father’s wrists and neck, and when he did not find what he was looking for, he laid his ear against my father’s chest. At that moment, Kolsoom asked my mother in a whisper if she would like more tea. The physician lifted his head and asked everyone to be silent, and after listening again, he arose with a grave face and announced, “His heart beats, but only faintly.”
“Ali, prince among men, give strength to my husband!” my mother cried.
Rabi’i collected his bags and removed bunches of herbs, explaining to Kolsoom how to brew them into a heart-enlivening medicine. He also promised to return the next morning to check on my father. “May God rain His blessings on you!” he said as he took his leave. Kolsoom began stripping the herbs off their stalks and throwing them into a pot, adding the water my mother had boiled.
As Rabi’i left, he stopped to talk with Ibrahim, who was still in the courtyard. “Don’t halt your praying,” he warned, and then I heard him whisper the words “God may gather him tonight.”
I tasted something like rust on my tongue. Seeking my mother, I rushed into her arms and we held each other for a moment, our eyes mirrors of sorrow.
My father began to make wheezing sounds. His mouth was still slack, his lips slightly parted, and his breath rasped like dead leaves tossed by the wind. My mother rushed away from the stove, her fingers green from the herbs. She leaned over my father and cried, “Voy, my beloved! Voy!”
Kolsoom hurried over to peer at my father and then led my mother back to the stove, for there was nothing to be done. “Let us finish this medicine to help him,” said Kolsoom, whose ever-bright eyes and pomegranate cheeks testified to her powers as an herbalist.
When the herbs had been boiled and cooled, Kolsoom poured the liquid into a shallow bowl and brought it to my father’s side. While my mother raised his head, Kolsoom gently spooned the medicine into his mouth. Most of it spilled over his lips, soiling the bedroll. On the next try, she got the medicine into his mouth, but my father sputtered, choked, and for a moment appeared to stop breathing.
Kolsoom, who was usually so calm, put down the bowl with shaking hands and met my mother’s eyes. “We must wait until his eyes open before we try again,” she advised.
My mother’s head scarf was askew, but she didn’t notice. “He needs his medicine,” she said weakly, but Kolsoom told her that he needed his breath more.
Ibrahim’s voice was starting to sound hoarse, and Kolsoom asked me to attend to him. I poured some hot tea and served it to him with dates in the courtyard. He thanked me with his eyes but never stopped his reciting, as if the power of his words could keep my father alive.
On the way back into the room, I bumped against my father’s walking stick, which was hanging on a hook near the door to the courtyard. I remembered how on our last walk, he had taken me to see a carving of an ancient goddess that was hidden behind a waterfall. We had inched our way along a ledge until we found the carving under the flow of water. The goddess wore a tall crown that seemed to be filled with clouds. Her shapely bosom was covered by a thin drapery, and she wore a necklace of large stones. You could not see her feet; her clothing seemed to swirl into waves and streams. She stretched out her powerful arms, as big as any man’s, which looked as if they were conjuring the waterfall at will.
My father had been tired that day, but he had marched up the steep trails to the waterfall, panting, to show me that wondrous sight. His breath sounded even more labored now; it crackled as it left his body. His hands were beginning to move, too, like small, restless mice. They crawled up his chest and scratched at his tunic. His long fingers were brown from working in the fields, and there was a line of dirt under the nails that he would have removed before entering the house, had he been well.
“I promise to devote myself to tending to him, if only You will leave him with us,” I whispered to God. “I’ll say my prayers every day, and I will never complain about how hungry I am during the fasting month of Ramazan, even silently.”
My father began clutching at the air, as if he were fighting his illness with the only part of his body that still had vigor. Kolsoom joined us by the bedroll and led us in prayers, while we watched my father’s hands and listened to his anguished breath. I told my mother how tired he had seemed during our walk in the mountains, and asked if it had weakened him. She put her hands on either side of my face and replied, “Light of my eyes, it probably gave him strength.”
In the blackest hour of the night, my father’s breathing quieted and his hands stopped doing battle. As my mother arranged the blanket over him, her face looked calmer.
“He will get some rest now,” she said with satisfaction.
I went into the courtyard, which adjoined our neighbor’s house, to bring more tea to Ibrahim. He had moved to a cushion near my turquoise carpet, which was unfinished on my loom. My mother had recently sold the carpet to a traveling silk merchant named Hassan, who was planning to return later to claim it. But the source of the turquoise dye that had pleased Hassan’s eyes was still a tender subject between me and my father, and my face flushed with shame when I remembered how my visit alone to Ibrahim’s dye house had troubled him.
I returned to the vigil at my father’s side. Perhaps this terrible night was nearly over, and daylight would bring a joyful surprise, like the sight of my father’s eyes opening, or of him being able to swallow his medicine. And then, one day when he was better, we would take another walk in the mountains and sing together. Nothing would be sweeter to me than hearing him sing out of tune.
Toward morning, with no other sound than Ibrahim’s river of prayers, I felt my eyelids grow heavy. I don’t know how much time passed before I awoke, observed that my father’s face was still calm, then fell asleep again. At dawn, I was comforted by the sound of sparrows breaking the silence with their noisy calls. They sounded like the birds we had heard on our walk, and I began dreaming about how we had stopped to watch them gather twigs for their nests.
A wheeled cart creaked outside, and I awoke with a start. People were beginning to emerge from their homes to begin their chores at the well, in the mountains, or in the fields. Ibrahim was still saying prayers, but his voice was dry and hoarse. My mother was lighting an oil lamp, which she placed near the bedroll. My father had not moved since he had fallen asleep. She peered at his face and placed her fingers under his nostrils to feel his breath. They lingered there, trembling, before they drifted down to his slack mouth. Still searching, they returned to his nose and hovered. I watched my mother’s face, awaiting the contented expression that would tell me she had found his breath. My mother did not look at me. In the silence, she threw back her head and uttered a terrible wail. Ibrahim’s prayers ceased; he rushed to my father’s side and checked his breath in the same way before dropping to a squat and cradling his head in his hands.
My mother began wailing more loudly and tearing out her hair in clumps. Her scarf fell off and lay abandoned near my father. It was still tied and kept the shape of her head.
I grabbed my father’s hand and squeezed it, but it was cold and still. When I lifted his heavy arm, his hand dangled brokenly at the wrist. The lines in his face looked deeply carved, and his expression seemed aggrieved, as if he had been forced to fight an evil jinn.
I uttered one short, sharp cry and collapsed onto my father. Kolsoom and my mother let me remain there for a few moments, but then Kolsoom gently pulled me away.
My father and I had both known that our time together must soon come to an end, but I had always thought I would be the one to leave, festooned with bridal silver, with his blessings alive in my ear.
THE DAYS AFTER my father died were black, but they became blacker still.
With no man to harvest the fields that summer, we received little grain from my father’s share of the planting, although his friends tried to be generous with theirs. And with little grain, we had little to barter for fuel, for shoes, or for dyes for wool. We had to trade our goats for grain, which meant no more cheese. Every time we gave up a goat, my mother cried.
Toward the end of the long, warm days, our supplies started to diminish. In the mornings, we ate the bread my mother made with cheese or yogurt brought by kind neighbors, but it was not long before our evening meals became less and less plentiful. Soon there was no question of eating even a morsel of meat. My mother began trading my father’s belongings for food. First went his clothes, then his shoes, then his turbans, and finally his precious walking stick.
Other people would have turned to their family for help, but my mother and I were unfortunate in having no elders. All of my grandparents had died before I was old enough to remember them. My mother’s two brothers had been killed in a war with the Ottomans. My father’s only relative, a distant half brother named Gostaham, was the child of my father’s father and his first wife. Gostaham had moved to Isfahan when he was a young man, and we hadn’t heard from him in years.
By the time it started to become fiercely cold, we were living on a thin sheet of bread and pickled carrots left over from the previous year. I felt hungry every day, but knowing that there was nothing my mother could do, I tried not to speak about the pains in my belly. I always felt tired, and the tasks that used to seem so easy to me, like fetching water from the well, now seemed beyond my ability.
Our last valuable possession was my turquoise rug. Not long after I finished knotting its fringes, Hassan the silk merchant returned to pick it up and pay us what he owed. He was startled by our black tunics and black head scarves, and when he learned why we were in mourning, he asked my mother if he could help us. Fearing that we would not survive the winter, she asked him if he would find our only relative, Gostaham, when he returned to Isfahan, and tell him about our plight.
About a month later, a letter arrived for us from the capital, carried by a donkey merchant on his way to Shiraz. My mother asked Hajj Ali to read it aloud, since neither of us had learned our letters. It was from Gostaham, who wrote that he felt great sorrow over the losses we had endured and was inviting us to stay with him in the capital until our luck improved.
And that’s how, one cold winter morning, I learned that I would be leaving my childhood home for the first time in my life and traveling far away. If my mother had told me we’d been sent off to the Christian lands, where barbarian women exposed their bosoms to all eyes, ate the singed flesh of pigs, and bathed only once a year, our destination could hardly have seemed more remote.
Word of our upcoming departure spread rapidly through the village. In the afternoon, women began arriving at our home with their smallest children. Pulling off their head scarves, they fluffed their hair and greeted the others in the room before arranging themselves in clusters on our carpet. Children who were old enough to play gathered in their own corner.
“May this be your final sorrow!” said Kolsoom as she came in, kissing my mother on each cheek in greeting.
Tears sprang to my mother’s eyes.
“It was the comet,” Kolsoom added sympathetically. “Mere humans couldn’t defeat a power that great.”
“Husband of mine,” my mother said, as if my father were still alive. “Why did you announce that life was going so well? Why invite the comet’s wrath?”
Zaynab made a face. “Maheen, remember the Muslim who traveled from Isfahan all the way to Tabriz to try to outrun the angel of death? When he arrived, Azraeel thanked him for meeting him there on time. Your husband did nothing wrong; he just answered God’s command.”
My mother’s back bent a little, as it always did when she felt grief. “I never thought I would have to leave my only home,” she replied.
“God willing, your luck will change in Isfahan,” said Kolsoom, offering us the wild rue she had brought to protect us from the Evil Eye. She lit the herb with a coal from the oven, and soon its acrid smell purified the air.
My mother and I served tea to our guests and offered the dates that Kolsoom had brought, for we had nothing of our own to serve. I brought a cup of tea to Safa, the eldest villager, who was sitting in a corner of the room with a water pipe. It bubbled as she drew in smoke.
“What do you know of your new family?” she asked as she exhaled.
It was such an embarrassing question that it quieted the room for a moment. Everyone knew that my grandfather had married my father’s mother many years ago while he had been visiting friends in our village. My grandfather was already married to his first wife, and lived with her and Gostaham in Shiraz. After my grandmother bore my father, he visited occasionally and sent money, but the families were understandably not close.
“I know very little,” replied my mother. “I haven’t seen Gosta-ham for more than twenty-five years. I met him only once, when he stopped by our village on his way to visit his parents in Shiraz, the city of poets. Even then, he was becoming one of the exalted carpet designers in the capital.”
“And his wife?” asked Safa, her voice tight from the smoke in her lungs.
“I know nothing of her, except that she bore him two daughters.”
Safa exhaled with satisfaction. “If her husband is successful, she will be running a grand household,” she said. “I only hope she is generous and fair in her division of work.”
Her words made me understand that we would no longer be mistresses of our lives. If we liked our bread baked dark and crisp but she didn’t, we would have to eat it her way. And no matter how we felt, we’d have to praise her name. I think Safa noticed my distress, because she stopped smoking for a moment to offer a consolation.
“Your father’s half brother must have a good heart, or he would not have sent for you,” she said. “Just be sure to please his wife, and they will provide for you.”
“Insh’Allah,” said my mother, in a tone that sounded unconvinced.
I looked around at all the kind faces I knew; at my friends and my mother’s friends, women who had been like aunts and grandmothers to me while I was growing up. I could not imagine what it would be like not to see them: Safa, with her face crinkled like an old apple; Kolsoom, thin and swift, renowned for her wisdom about herbs; and finally Goli, my truest friend.
She was sitting next to me, her newborn daughter in her arms. When the baby started to cry, she loosened her tunic and put the child to her breast. Goli’s cheeks glowed pink like the baby’s; the two of them looked healthy and contented. I wished with all my heart that my life were like hers.
When the baby had finished nursing, Goli placed her in my arms. I breathed in her newborn smell, as fresh as sprouting wheat, and whispered, “Don’t forget me.” I stroked her tiny cheek, thinking about how I would miss her first words and her first halting steps.
Goli wrapped her arms around me. “Think of how big Isfahan is!” she said. “You’ll promenade through the biggest city square ever built, and your mother will be able to choose your husband from thousands upon thousands!”
I brightened for a moment, as if my old hopes were still possible, before remembering my problem.
“But now I have no dowry,” I reminded her. “What man will take me with nothing?”
The whole room became quiet again. My mother fanned the rue, the lines in her forehead deepening. The other women began speaking all at once. “Don’t worry, Maheen-joon! Your new family will help you!”
“They won’t let such a fine young girl get pickled!”
“There’s a healthy stud for every mare, and a lusty soldier for every moon!”
“Shah Abbas will probably desire your daughter for his harem,” said Kolsoom to my mother. “He’ll fatten her up with cheese and sugar, and then she’ll have bigger breasts and a rounder belly than all of us!”
At a recent visit to the hammam, I had caught my reflection in a metal mirror. I had none of the ripeness of nursing mothers like Goli, who were so admired at the hammam. The muscles in my forearms stood out, and my face looked pinched. I was sure I could not be moonlike to anyone, but I smiled to think of my thin, bony body in such a womanly form. When Zaynab noticed my expression, her face twisted with mirth. She laughed so hard she began pitching forward over her stomach, and her lips wrapped back over her teeth until she looked like a horse fighting its bit. I flushed to the roots of my hair when I understood that Kolsoom had only been trying to be kind.
IT DIDN’T TAKE us long to pack our things, since we had so very few. I put one change of black mourning clothes into a hand-knotted saddlebag along with some heavy blankets to sleep in, and filled as many jugs as I could find with water. The morning of our departure, neighbors brought us gifts of bread, cheese, and dried fruit for the long journey. Kolsoom threw a handful of peas to divine whether it was an auspicious day for travel. After determining that it was excellent, she raised a precious copy of the Qur’an and circled our heads with it three times. Praying for a safe journey, we touched our lips to it. Just as we were setting off, Goli took a piece of dried fruit out of my bag and slipped it into her sleeve. She was “stealing” something of mine to make sure that one day, I would return.
“I hope so,” I whispered to her as we said good-bye. It pained me to leave her most of all.
My mother and I were traveling with a musk merchant named Abdul-Rahman and his wife, who escorted travelers from one city to another for a fee. They often journeyed all the way to the northeastern borders of our land, looking for musk bladders from Tibet to sell in big cities. Their saddlebags, blankets, and tents smelled of the fragrance, which commanded princely prices.
The camel that my mother and I shared had soft black eyes that had been lined with protective kohl, and thick, bushy hair the color of sand. Abdul-Rahman had decorated his pretty nose with a strip of woven red cloth with blue tassels, a kind of bridle. We sat on his back atop a mountain of folded rugs and sacks of food, and held on to his hump. The camel lifted his feet delicately when he walked but was ill-tempered and smelled as rotten as one of the village latrines.
I had never seen the countryside north of my village. As soon as we stepped away from the mountains’ life-giving streams, the land became barren. Pale green shrubs struggled to maintain a hold on life, just as we did. Our water jugs became more precious than the musk bladders. Along the way, we spotted broken water vessels and sometimes even the bones of those who had misjudged the length of their trip.
Abdul-Rahman pushed us onward in the early-morning hours, singing to the camels so they would pace themselves to the cadence of his voice. The sun glinted off the land, and the bright white light hurt my eyes. The ground was frozen; the few plants we saw were outlined with frost. By the end of the day, my feet were so cold I could no longer feel them. My mother went to sleep in our tent as soon as it was dark. She couldn’t bear to look at the stars, she said.
After ten days of travel, we saw the Zagros Mountains, which signaled our approach to Isfahan. Abdul-Rahman told us that from somewhere high in the mountains flowed the very source of Isfahan’s being, the Zayendeh Rood, or Eternal River. At first, it was just a pale blue shimmer, with a cooling breath that reached us from many farsakhs away. As we got closer, the river seemed impossibly long to me, since the most water I had ever seen before had been in mountain streams.
After arriving at its banks, we dismounted from our camels, for they were not permitted in the city, and gathered to admire the water. “May God be praised for His abundance!” cried my mother as the river surged past us, a branch flowing by too quickly to catch. br>
“Praise is due,” replied Abdul-Rahman, “for this river gives life to Isfahan’s sweet melons, cools her streets, and fills her wells. Without it, Isfahan would cease to be.”
We left our camels in the care of one of Abdul-Rahman’s friends and continued our journey on foot on the Thirty-three Arches Bridge. About halfway across, we entered one of its archways to enjoy the view. I grabbed my mother’s hand and said, “Look! Look!” The river rushed by as if excited, and in the distance we could see another bridge, and another gleaming beyond that one. One was covered in blue tiles, another had teahouses, and still another had arches that seemed like infinite doorways into the city, inviting travelers to unlock its secrets. Ahead of us, Isfahan stretched out in all directions, and the sight of its thousands of houses, gardens, mosques, bazaars, schools, caravanserais, kebabis, and teahouses filled us with awe. At the end of the bridge lay a long tree-lined avenue that traversed the whole city, ending in the square that Shah Abbas had built, which was so renowned that every child knew it as the Image of the World. My eye was caught by the square’s Friday mosque, whose vast blue dome glowed peacefully in the morning light. Looking around, I saw another azure dome, and yet another, and then dozens more brightening the saffron-colored terrain, and it seemed to me that Isfahan beckoned like a field of turquoise set in gold.
“How many people live here?” my mother asked, raising her voice so it could be heard above the din of passersby.
“Hundreds of thousands,” replied Abdul-Rahman. “More than in London or Paris; only Constantinople is bigger.”
My mother and I said “Voy!” at the same time; we could not imagine so many souls in one place.
After crossing the bridge, we entered a covered bazaar and passed through a spice market. Burlap bags overflowed with mint, dill, coriander, dried lemon, turmeric, saffron, and many spices I didn’t recognize. I distinguished the flowery yet bitter odor of fenugreek, which set my mouth watering for a lamb stew, for we had not tasted meat in many months.
Before long, we reached a caravanserai run by Abdul-Rahman’s brother. It had a courtyard where donkeys, mules, and horses could rest, surrounded by a rectangular arcade of private rooms. We thanked Abdul-Rahman and his wife for escorting us, wished them well, and paid for our lodgings.
Our room was small, with thick windowless walls and a strong lock. There was clean straw on the floor, but nothing else for bedding.
“I’m hungry,” I said to my mother, remembering the lamb kebab I had seen grilling near the bridge.
She untied the corners of a dirty piece of cloth and looked sadly at the few coins remaining there. “We must bathe before seeking out our family,” she replied. “Let’s eat the last of our bread.”
It was dry and brittle, so we endured the emptiness in our bellies and lay down to sleep. The ground was hard compared with the sand of the desert, and I felt unbalanced, for I had become used to the gentle tipping motion of my camel. Still, I was weary enough from our long journey to fall asleep not long after putting my head down on the straw. In the middle of the night, I began dreaming that my Baba was tugging on my foot to wake me for one of our Friday walks. I jumped to my feet to follow him, but he had already passed through the door. I tried to catch up; all I could see was his back as he advanced up a mountain path. The faster I ran, the faster he climbed. When I screamed his name, he didn’t stop or turn around. I awoke in a sweat, confused, the straw prickling my back.
“I’m here, daughter of mine,” my mother replied in the darkness. “You were calling out for your Baba.”
“He left without me,” I mumbled, still caught in the web of my dreams.
My mother pulled me to her and began stroking my forehead. I lay next to her with my eyes closed, but I couldn’t sleep. Sighing, I turned first this way, then the other. A donkey began braying in the courtyard, and it sounded as if he were weeping over his fate. Then my mother began speaking, and her voice seemed to brighten the gloom:
First there wasn’t and then there was. Before God, no one was.
My mother had comforted me with tales ever since I was small. Sometimes they helped me peel a problem like an onion, or gave me ideas about what to do; other times, they calmed me so much that I would fall into a soothing sleep. My father used to say that her tales were better than the best medicine. Sighing, I burrowed into my mother’s body like a child, knowing that the sound of her voice would be a balm on my heart.
Once there was a peddler’s daughter named Golnar who spent her days toiling in her family’s garden. Her cucumbers were praised for being crisp and sweet; her squashes for growing into large, pleasing shapes dense with flesh; and her radishes for their fragrant burn. Because the girl had a passionate love of flowers, she begged her father to allow her to plant a single rosebush in a corner of the garden. Even though her family was poor and needed every morsel of food she grew, her father rewarded her by granting her wish.
Golnar traded some vegetables for a cutting from a rich neighbor’s bush and planted it, uprooting a few cucumber plants to make room. In time, the bush pushed forth extravagantly large blossoms. They were bigger than a man’s fist and as white as the moon. When a warm wind blew, the rosebush swayed, dancing as if in response to the nightingales’ song, her white buds opening like a twirling skirt.
Golnar’s father was a liver-kebab seller. One afternoon, he returned home and announced that he had sold the last of his kebabs to a saddle maker and his son. He had bragged about what a good worker his daughter was—not a girl who would fall ill at the rancid fumes of tanning leather. It wasn’t long before the boy and his family paid a visit to the liver seller and his daughter. Golnar was not pleased: The boy’s shoulders and arms were thin, and his small, beady eyes made him look like a goat.
After some tea and an exchange of compliments, the girl’s parents urged her to show the boy her garden. Reluctantly, she led him outside. The boy praised her healthy vegetables, fruits, and herbs and admired the rosebush’s beauty. Softening, she begged him to accept a few blossoms for his family and cut several long stems with her shears. As the two reentered the house, their arms filled with white blossoms, their parents smiled and imagined them on their wedding day.
That night, after the boy and his family had left, Golnar was so tired that she fell into a deep sleep rather than visiting her roses. The next morning, she arose with a feeling of alarm and rushed outside. The rosebush drooped in the early-morning sun, its flowers a dirty shade of white. The garden was silent, for all the nightingales had flown away. Golnar pruned the heaviest flowers tenderly, but when she removed her hands from the thorny bush, they were streaked with blood.
Penitently, the girl vowed to take better care of the bush. She poured a bloody bucket of water she had used to clean her father’s kebab knives onto the soil around the bush, topping it with a special fertilizer made of tiny pearls of liver.
That afternoon, a messenger arrived with a marriage proposal from the boy’s family. Her father told her that a better boy could not be found, and her mother whispered to her coyly about the children they would make together. But Golnar wept and rebuffed the offer. Her parents were angry and puzzled, and although they promised to send a letter of refusal, they secretly sent a message to the boy’s family asking for time for reflection.
Early the next morning, Golnar arose to the sweet music of nightingales and discovered that once again her roses stood large and proud. A wealth of blossoms had opened, nourished by the organ meat; they shone in the still-dark sky like stars. She clipped a few flowers from the bush, tentatively at first, and the plant caressed the tips of her fingers with its silky petals, exuding a musky perfume as if it desired her touch.
On the morning of the family’s annual picnic to celebrate the New Year, the girl had so much to do that she failed to water her rosebush. She helped her mother prepare and pack a large picnic, and then the family walked to a favorite spot near a river. While they were eating, they happened to see the boy and his parents, who were picnicking, too. The father invited them to drink tea and share a meal of sweetmeats. The boy passed the finest pastries to Golnar, a kindness that surprised her now that she had rebuffed him (or so she believed). At their parents’ urging, the two took a walk together near the river. When they were out of sight, the boy kissed the tip of her index finger, but Golnar turned and ran away.
When she and her family returned home, it was already dark. Golnar ventured into the garden to give the thirsty rosebush a drink. As she bent forward with a bucket of well water, a sudden wind whipped up and tangled her hair in the bush’s stems; the bush embraced her and held her tight in its long, thin arms. The more she struggled, the tighter its thorns gripped her, slashing her face. Screaming, she tore herself out, blinded by blood, and crawled back to the house.
At the sight of her in the doorway, her parents howled as if she were an evil jinn. At first the girl refused to let them touch her. Her father grabbed her flailing arms and held them down so her mother could treat her wounds. To their horror, they discovered a fat black thorn lodged in her index finger as firmly as a nail. When her mother pulled it out, it left a hole that bled like a fountain.
With a great roar of rage, her father rushed out of the house. Within moments came the sound of an ax as it struck the bush, cracking it at its core. With each blow, Golnar shuddered and tore at her own hair in the fury of her grief. Her mother put her to bed, where she stayed for several days, burning with fever and crying out in delirium.
At her parents’ insistence, she was married two weeks later to the boy who looked like a goat. The two lived together in a room in his parents’ house, and the boy came home every afternoon stinking of the blood and rot of the tannery. When he reached for Golnar, she turned her face away from him, shuddering at his touch. Before long, she became pregnant and bore him a son, followed by two daughters. Every day, she arose in darkness, dressed herself in old garments, and clothed her children in hand-me-downs even more ragged than her own. She never had time to grow her own flowers again. But sometimes, when she passed the walled garden where she used to tend her rosebush, she would close her eyes and remember the smell of its blossoms, sweeter than hope.
When my mother stopped speaking, I rolled this way and that to free my legs and back from the prickling straw, but I couldn’t get comfortable. I felt as distressed as if a buzzing bee had gotten stuck in my ear.
My mother took my face in her hands. “What is it, daughter of mine?” she asked. “Are you ill? Are you suffering?”
An unhappy sound escaped my lips, and I pretended I was trying to sleep.
My mother said, as though thinking aloud, “I’m not sure why I told you that story. It poured out of me before I remembered what it was about.”
I knew the tale, for my mother had told it once or twice in our village. Back then, it hadn’t troubled me. I had been anticipating a life with a husband who paved my path with rose petals, not with a boy who smelled of rotting cowhides. I had never thought that my fate might be like Golnar’s, but now, in the darkness of a strange room in a strange city, the story sounded like a prophecy. My father could no longer protect us, and no one else was duty-bound to do so. My mother was too old for anyone to want her, and now that we had no money for a dowry, no one would want me. With the first pass of the comet, all my prospects had been ruined.
My eyes flew open; in the wan streaks of light creeping into our chamber, I saw my mother studying me. She looked frightened, which made me feel sadder for her than for myself. I took a sharp breath and forced calm into my face.
“I felt ill for a moment, but now I’m better,” I said.
The relief in my mother’s eyes was so great that I thanked God for giving me the strength to say what I did.
Excerpted from THE BLOOD OF FLOWERS © Copyright 2011 by Anita Amirrezvani. Reprinted with permission by Back Bay Books. All rights reserved.
The Blood of Flowers
- Genres: Fiction
- paperback: 400 pages
- Publisher: Back Bay Books
- ISBN-10: 0316065773
- ISBN-13: 9780316065771