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The Splendour of Iran
Iran Travel

Payvand's Iran Literature ...

Short Story: The Scent of the Fresh Bread [1]

By: Saiid Abaaspour
Translated by: Roya Monajem
Edited by: Katherine L. Clark

It could be no other person. While the old woman continued hanging the blue underpants on the laundry line, she turned in such a way as to have her back pointing in the opposite direction. She knew if she turned she would see the old man's figure, that though quite bent, still filled the whole frame of the door. Hearing the key turning in the lock, she was overpowered by a feeling of horror, but as the scent of fresh bread filled the air of the backyard, she breathed a sigh of relief. The husband seemed to be kinder now and it was her turn to be a bit squeamish.

It was the same drama that had been replaying for the past fifty years, and they were both used to it by then. The old woman thought that infertility was the cause of their frequent sulking. There was not a traditional practitioner, midwife, amulet and prayer writer, or physician in the town that she had not visited with or without the old man's knowing about it; and now it was more than twenty years since they had both lost all hope. For years it seemed that the old woman could not rest without finding out the real cause of their barrenness. However, after she totally lost hope in physicians, midwives and therapists, she set off to go from one shrine to another, from one holy place to another, from one miraculous site to another.

And she continued to be restless and irritable until she finally had a dream. She dreamed that she had given birth to a double headed creature. She had dreamed that one of the heads had long fuzzy hair and the other was so ugly and hideous that the old woman opened her eyes screaming and trembling with horror. She remembered how the newborn baby had long decayed teeth and instead of having two eyes, it had just a single eye in the middle of its head that looked like an open cavity. When she actually woke up from this horrible dream, she thought that if they had had any children, they would have been somehow defective because of her husband's drinking habit; so she decided that it was much better to remain childless. On that night, her husband was as usual busy writing on the terrace. When he heard her scream, he went inside. He looked at her for a short period and then went to the kitchen to make a sherbet, and he himself held the glass near her mouth. Once she got over the terror, she recounted her dream for the man, and then she told him about her own interpretation. He said:

Jalaal Aalahmad[2], too, was childless. Your problem is that you can not understand writers or artists. Like your sister Hakimeh, you should have married a chubby police man.

The old man tried to hand the breads to his wife, although he knew that the woman would probably not take them. He put them on the edge of the terrace. With a trembling hand, he took out a knotted black plastic bag from the pocket of his coat and said:

"There was no food left for the kids. So I bought some for them, but I can't hear them."

The old woman felt irritated each time that her husband called their hens and roosters kids. Without turning her head to look at him, she replied, "I don't know where the hell they might be."

With a loud cry from the old man, a fat, black cat holding a white chicken in its mouth jumped out of the bathroom and climbed up the neighboring wall. They both ran toward the bathroom. If it were another day, the same event could produce a real row, but, now, neither of them had the willingness to go for another round of fights. The old man unfastened the knot of the plastic bag with difficulty and poured the seeds in front of the fowl. The old woman, while whispering a prayer, closed the bathroom door. While passing by the hoze (small pond), she saw the face of the old man in the water. He had just picked up the breads again, and he was holding them in such a way as though he was expecting somebody to take them from him. He then climbed up the stairs, but paused on the last step. Stretching his hands towards the old woman, he said, "Take these breads and wrap them in a sofreh (table-cloth) so they won't get dried out."

"Can't you see that I am still busy with these clothes? The soferh is where it should be, just next to the samovar," the old woman said, while shaking her wet sleeve.

And once again, she turned her head and continued straightening the clothes on the laundry line. The old man wrapped the breads in the sofreh, descended the staircase, and asked, "What have you cooked for dinner?"

With her silhouette now toward the old man, the old woman answered,

"I thought you said you would eat your dinner in your beloved coffee shop."

"Wherever there is a samovar and a cup of tea, there is a coffee shop the old man said. And with his trembling finger, he started to tap a tune on the tatty rope on which she was hanging the clothes and laughed.

The old man had periods of writing for ten, fifteen or even more consecutive nights. During these periods, he would first get agile and restless, like a child, and sometimes he would even call the old woman by the names of the personalities of his stories. The old woman did not mind it if only they were not Armenian names. Then gradually, he would calm down and withdraw into himself. He would eat and sleep less. Afterwards he would get into bad tempers and would sulk nearly all the time. And, he would not rest much until he would finally finish the story. The next day, he would get up very early in the morning, leave the house to buy his favorite breakfast, bring it home, eat it with her and then he would go out again. Each time that the publishers refused his work, he would return home angry and frustrated. He would then sulk. He could find ample excuses for that, as neither the old woman could stop grumbling, nor could he stop dumping his anger and frustration on her.

On that particular day, the old woman was sitting on the balcony and was grinding hardened yogurt, kashk (dried yogurt) in the mortar when the old man knocked at the door, once, twice, trice. The old woman licked her fingers and said,

"I am coming. Have you brought a cut head with yourself to be so impatient?"

And after opening the door, she asked, "Don't you have keys? Why do you always have to make me walk on these ailing feet all the way to the door?"

The old man spit and said, "It is not going to make the world end, is it?"

"So that is the story, then say so; they must have refused your work again. You are disheartened once again. Once again they have called your horse an ass."

The old man stood by the staircase and looking at his wife; he said, "The spectacled jerks! They consider such great writers as Tolstoy, Hedayat and Choubak [3] as their ancestors while they don't know a word about art. They are merchants, not publishers."

The old woman shifted the handle of the mortar. "Damn you and those creepy book printers. Your feet are on the edge of the grave, but you act even more childishly than children. Day and night you sit and waste all those papers for them, and they keep on discouraging you. And just because you do not have the power to confront them, you take it out of me. Dogs should piss on such a life."

Without waiting for his wife to finish her sentence, he left the house. The woman knew that he would return around sunset. She knew that if it were the month of Ramadan, he would return with a box of the special sweets, zolbia-baamieh; otherwise, he would come with some seasonal fruit, a watermelon, a few pomegranates or something like that. And if he had no money, he would just buy some fresh bread with sesame seeds on it, which was his wife's favorite bread.

The woman would at first act indifferently. The man, even if he couldn't see, knew that his wife had definitely spread the blanket on the floor of the balcony, but maybe not the thin mattress that she always laid on the blanket when they were on good terms. He knew that the samovar would be boiling, the dried tea would be ready in the teapot, but the woman would not intend to brew it.

She would often say, "A man should know that his good and bad tempers do make a difference."

The man would pour hot water into the teapot from the samovar and then turn on the record player. Whenever he was in a good mood, he would say that his wife had a voice similar to that of Ghamar's. And he would claim that when he himself was younger, he used to sing Daryoush Rafii's song, Zohreh, in such a way that the girls used to actually take him as Daryoush Rafii. Whenever he reached this point the woman would lose her patience and say, "One should have a little bit of shame in oneself, particularly you who have your head in books most of the time! By saying such sinful things, going to Avance's coffee shop, and drinking spirits, do you still expect God to bless us with His grace?"

During these fifty years, only once had the old woman reached her limits and left. On that particular day, because one of the publishers had promised the old man he would publish one of his stories; he had bought fried chicken for lunch to celebrate the occasion. The woman had at first refused to eat, "The last thing I would want in my life is to eat foods cooked by Armenians," she had told her husband. But she had surrendered after the old man assured her that he had not bought the food from Avance. When they had finished eating, it just slipped his tongue that Avance did his job beautifully. He cleaned chickens in such a way that one could eat it even raw.

Or perhaps he had said it on purpose.

"Shame on you! You are such a liar, such a blasphemous man you are!" Afterwards, she had said nothing more. She had just tidied up the sofreh, washed her hands and mouth, filled her basket with her little, odd stuff, packed her sac, put on her chador and left. But before going out of the door, she had put her basket down and said,

"I had promised myself to leave your house in the white coffin as I entered it in a white chador. I hope you will die of grief, for you have killed me with grief. I hope you will become homeless as you have made me homeless."

The old man knew that she would go to her sister's house. Even though he didn't like his brother-in-law, just a few nights later, with the excuse of inquiring about the conditions for exemption from military service, he went to their house. He had thought that if they asked him why he wanted to know about the conditions for exemption, he would say he was asking for one of the heroes in his stories. He could not remember whether they ever talked about the subject or not. The only thing that had been engraved in his mind from that night was the loud sound of laughter from his fat brother-in-law and the moment of leaving their house. Without saying a word to his wife, he shook hands with his brother-in-law and left. The woman picked up her basket and sac, and without saying a word, she followed her man. Never again did the man buy anything from Avance's shop.

"Robabeh! Haven't you seen that big blue record? The one that I had written on it 'Ghamarol-moulouk Vaziri, Ghamar, and The Song in Dashti?'" He asked the question just for the sake of having said something. He knew his wife could not read and write and she would prefer to simply sit by the samovar and listen to the sounds of the children playing outside, wishing perhaps that one of them were her own child! And probably the old man read her mind when he said with a doubtful tone in his voice:

"Children bring along their own peculiar types of headaches!"

He seemed to have given up the idea of turning on the record player. Instead, he started to pace the terrace. The woman was now sitting not very far from the Samovar and was playing with her wet sleeve. They were both silent, as though they wanted to listen to a symphony, as the old man would say in such situations. Without even opening the door to look outside, they knew that boys of different ages were playing football under the streetlight, and a bit further down the alley, the girls who were allowed to stay out until that rather late hour of the night were playing the popular girlish game of yek ghol do ghol under that berry tree with its very suspicious branches. Each time the old man turned to walk back the length of the terrace, his eyes stared at the small tea glasses with their narrower waists, estekaans[4], and he craved not just one but a few estekaans of tea, one after the other. The same was true with the old woman. But at such times, neither of them would take the initiative to pour tea, for whoever did it would be forced to pour tea for the other one too; and they were adamant not to do so because that would have meant taking the first step toward reconciliation.

Whenever Robabeh was on good terms with her husband, she would not blame him for his habit of drinking. Sometimes she would blame herself and sometimes she would curse Fate. When she was alone, she would think, I can't really blame him. It is better to have a Blind, bald child than none at all. If I had ever become pregnant, he wouldn't have to appeal to drinking. And, as she knew that her husband was a good man, she thought that God would order the angel dwelling on his left shoulder to not to keep a record of his sins.

And, once while she was sitting beside the hoze splashing water on the tobacco, she saw a dwarfish little man with hoofs emerging as though out of the waterbed around the hoze and telling her, "Your husband is a human being, and human beings inevitably make mistakes. As your husband is an innocent, good man, we, the jinni, force him to drink spirits." After saying that, he had shrunk in size again and disappeared into the earth. The hoofed man had not lied. The more she thought, the more she realized that her husband was a good innocent man. If he didn't perform the ritual daily prayer, it was because his mouth was unclean. She also thought that the root of his blasphemies must lie in drinking, too. And regarding Rafii's song, Zohreh, she thought that he simply lied. Perhaps it was just the effects of the spirits making him paranoid.

The wind started to blow. An old undershirt fell on the ground from the laundry line. Before the old woman found the chance to get up to deal with it, the old man had already climbed down three steps. He bent down to pick up the shirt. His feet were like two columns trembling slowly in an earthquake. He handed over the undershirt to the woman and returned to the terrace. The woman put it on the rope hung in a corner of the terrace, but then she picked it up again and put it on the windowsill. The old man was now holding the lid of the teapot and looking into it. He poured two estekaans of tea, leaving one near the samovar, and putting the other one in front of himself. He smelled the tea and without grumbling, he got up, washed the estekaan and the teapot and brewed some fresh tea again. Then it was Robabeh's turn to pour the tea and put an end to the whole thing, until the next time.

The old man drank his third estekaan of tea and got up. He descended the staircase, walked toward the door through the yard and stood behind the door listening stealthily. The boys were quarrelling: "So what that it is red. Your number is not seven." He opened the door. Now the old woman could only see his hunch back, his white hair and his wide tall neck. One of the boys said stuttering, "I, I must either play as Ali Parvin or I refuse to play." Another one said, "The ball is mine and I will play as Ali Parvin." The old man looked at the other side of the alley where the girls were playing and he saw that one of them was crying because the pebbles were apparently too big for her hands. He turned to go back inside when he noticed something behind the wall of the neighboring house: near the dustbin, there were white feathers and some crushed bones of a chicken. While yawning, he heard, "We have Gheimeh Rizeh for dinner. Would you like to eat yogurt with it or torshi[5]?"

1. From the collection of short stories "The Bitter Scent of Coffee," Naghsh Khorshid Publishing House, Isfahan, 2001. This is the first collection of Saiid Abaaspour's short stories, reprinted three times in a year.

2. One of the most well-known Iranian writers who has had a great influence on his contemporary generation.

3. The last two are again well-known Iranian contemporary writers.

4. Small glasses made in different shapes and designs mainly for drinking tea.

5. A kind of pickle.

The Ant and the Honey

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