By Mansoureh Sharifzadeh
Translated by: Roya Monajem
Edited by: Katherine L. Clark
"If only you knew how happy I felt when I heard you had come back."
The scent of tuberoses filled the air. Nahid put the flowers in a crystal vase. Maryam hung her raincoat in the cupboard.
"Mahmud's commission is over and it’s been a couple of weeks since we have returned," I said.
"When you called, I couldn't believe that it could be you."
Maryam sat on the armchair. Nahid went to the kitchen: "Let me bring you a cup of tea to refresh you."
Her thin legs seemed skinnier in her black transparent stockings. The soft sound of a tar could be heard from afar. In a loud voice, Maryam said, "By the way, why did you move here?"
"I was forced too. You know how much I hate apartment buildings. Last year when my brothers came they sold our father's house," Nahid replied in a loud voice too. Holding the tray, Nahid returned to the room:
"Tea served in the traditional way, in the old golden-brimmed estekans with narrow waists. You still remember, don't you?"
Nahid put the tea in front of Maryam, who thanked her. Nahid sat down, took a cigarette and said, "Good girl. You still don't smoke?"
Maryam smiled. Nahid lit her cigarette:
"This is my only fun. No matter how hard I try, I can't quit it. Why should Izrael touch me sound!"
She took a deep puff: "Did you say that your sister is married?"
"It’s been four or five years now; she is in love with her husband. She is infertile. They want to get divorced."
"Just because of that?"
"There is a lot of pressure on them because of that; they are going crazy."
"Was this the only goal of their marriage, to have a child?"
"I have no idea."
"I am surprised that her husband is acting like that, you said he is a psychologist, didn't you?"
"Does it make a difference?"
Nahid shaped her fingers in the form of a gun: "They should be shot in the head. Just imagine, they are the so-called educated people."
"They are all the same. Just look at me, having to work outside with two kids and, god forbid, if I do something wrong, his voice reaches the heavens."
"Even Mahmud? Wasn't he crazy over you?"
"That was before our marriage."
"To tell you the truth, I never understood why you married him."
Maryam smiled and said, "We worked in the same office."
"I had heard of that."
"Mahmud read a lot. He always talked about books, poetry and the arts. I always fancied men who were book-readers. You remember how much I loved Rumi's poetry book, Shams. I knew most of the poems by heart."
"What beautiful poems. I enjoyed them so much."
"Later I found out that he used to think that Shams had written those poems!"
Maryam burst out laughing, "You are kidding."
"Not when he got married to me, but when he was young."
Nahid got up and held the fruit basket in front of Maryam. Maryam picked up an apple and thanked her.
"You still are as hospitable as ever."
Maryam sipped her tea. "Where did you leave the kids?" Nahid asked.
"Don't say kids, say naughty devils. I left them with my mother."
"I envy you. You have such a nice mother. What beautiful embroideries she used to make. By the way, does that little stream still pass in front of your house?"
"No, it dried up. It is covered by apartment buildings now."
"How much we loved to sit by that stream on hot days and stick our feet in it. What days they were, the days of childhood."
"And do you have that talking doll still?"
"I have put it on the top shelf of a closet." Nahid put a chair in front of the closet and brought down a box and took the doll out of it. The doll opened its eyes. Nahid pressed a button: "Mum, Mum."
Maryam pushed away its hair gently. "How much I used to love it."
Nahid handed the doll to Maryam: "You have it. Give it to your daughter."
"Keep it for your own daughter."
Nahid laughed and said, "What daughter? I did tell you that I am not going to have a child. I am too old for that now."
Maryam looked at her with her honey colored amazed eyes. Her curly long hair made her look more beautiful than ever.
"What do you mean by 'I am too old,' how old are you?"
"Isn't thirty considered old? I am afraid you still think that we are those fourteen year old girls sitting and planning for our future."
"Do you remember? You always used to say that you wanted to marry a tall, robust artist."
"My mother used to laugh and say, `I am afraid that you’ll end up marrying a short bald man because of your fussiness.’"
They both laughed, and then Nahid sadly pointed at a picture frame hanging from the wall and said, "Where is he now? Everyday you lose one of your dear ones. You take your dearest to the grave and bury them. You see."
She got up and walked toward the picture. "This is me in my father's arms. See how little I was."
Maryam got up and stood beside her. Nahid put her finger on another picture and said, "This is my mother. These are two of my brothers. You know they are living abroad now. Now if I decided to take a picture, I would stand all alone."
Tears filled her eyes. She looked around and said, "I feel everything is on the verge of death and degeneration. As long as they were around, I never felt lonely. I thought it would always stay the same, but now what? I am only living with my past memories. It is only depression and boredom. Sometimes when I am alone, I really get depressed. Like a nightmare, grief overwhelms me. It is as though I am sewed to the floor. I feel metamorphosed. I can't explain it.
She walked toward the table and lit a cigarette.
Maryam broke the silence, "What happened to your cousin? Wasn't he your fiancé?"
Nahid stared at the window. The sound of tar could still be heard from afar.
"He seemed very different from all the rest of the children of the family. He behaved well. He was a man of poetry and music. Everybody regarded us as a couple. He went abroad to study. I always used to say that if there is one good understanding man in the whole world, it is him. When he returned, he had changed completely. He married a rich girl, and I cursed myself for making such a terrible mistake. I threw away all the poems I had collected. It is true that my father wasn't rich, but what was my fault? He poisoned my life with what he did."
A few tears dropped on Nahid's cheeks. Maryam said anxiously, "Please Nahid. Stop it. There are lots of good men.
Nahid wiped her face with a handkerchief. Maryam tried to change the subject, "By the way, I went to a concert a few nights ago."
Nahid raised her head and Maryam continued, "I wished you were there too. It was a tar duet, like the song of two birds."
"Can you believe that it has been so long that I don't even appreciate music?"
"What are you talking about? Have you forgotten how much you loved your father playing his tar?"
"That was a long time ago. I no longer like to get attached to anything."
"What about your neighbor's son? The one who used to play the flute very well?"
"They moved to another neighborhood..."
"You made a mistake to refuse him."
"In those days I was so preoccupied with books."
"You wanted to be a philosopher, no?"
"Have you forgotten what an avid book-reader you were yourself ?"
"By the way, does Mahmud know about it?"
"No, he is very sensitive towards this sort of thing. I never tell him anything of that kind."
"What about him?"
"You know how men are. All women in the world can be dying for them, but God forbid if they find out that somebody fancies you."
"For the purpose of provoking him, I think it wouldn't be a bad idea to."
"No. In a married life one should pretend that nobody has ever been worthy of being one's husband and he is the only one in the whole world that you care for."
"I don't believe in that."
"You are not experienced enough. Wait till you get married, then you'll change your mind."
They fell silent and the gentle sound of tar filled the room.
"Let me go and bring you another cup of tea."
Nahid rushed toward the kitchen. Maryam got up and walked toward a small gold colored cage hanging from the wall. A little lovebird was sadly sitting in a corner. Nahid entered the room holding the tray. She put it on the table and walked toward Maryam.
"See how beautiful it is! Last week when I went shopping, I saw this man holding the cage, beseechingly."
"Lovebirds die when they are alone."
"What can I do?"
"It is easy. Buy her a mate."
The sound of tar was louder now. It was a familiar piece.
"Persian Miniatures. Is it a tape?"
"No, it is our neighbor's son. He lives with his old mother. Everyday at this hour, he plays this same tune."
"Does he know that you like it?"
"One of the days that he was playing, his mother was here. I told her I loved this tune."
"You naughty girl. Say so."
"For God's sake, leave me alone."
"What does he do?"
"He is a music teacher."
"Has he wooed?"
Nahid looked down and rubbed her finger along a pattern on her dress. The sound of tar was increasingly getting louder and lovelier.
"Don't be a fool. You always liked artists."
"That belongs to the past."
"You are just ruining your future with your stubbornness."
Nahid pointed to the tea, "It is getting cold."
They sat opposite each other. Nahid looked at the gold ring with a little ruby stone on Maryam's rough hands.
"Why your hands."
"Because of all the work I do; it is even worse now."
She then pointed to Nahid's fine hands that looked more beautiful with her sapphire ring and said, "As far as I can remember you always had beautiful hands."
"Doesn't Mahmud help you?"
"Even if he does help me a little bit, he always makes a big deal of it."
Maryam picked up her tea. Nahid held the plate of pastry in front of her, "Eat some of it, I cooked it myself."
Maryam took a piece: "Praise to our artist girl!"
"Mahboobeh taught me, you remember her? The girl who got married in our junior year."
"Well, if she didn't finish university, she is at least a good pastry-cook now."
Nahid walked toward the table, put the pastry plate on it, and while sitting back on her seat, her foot hit against the chair and the doll fell, "Mum, Mum."
Maryam picked up the doll, "Yes my dear. We were lucky that it didn't break. Do you remember that each time we wanted to play with it, your mother said, `Be careful not to break it’? We used to be so worried."
"She was so kind. Whenever I had a headache or didn't feel well, she got worried and made fruit juice for me and cooked soup. Now what? A few nights ago my blood pressure went high; I was suffocating. Fear of loneliness, of death, if only you knew what a dreadful feeling it was."
Deep wrinkles covered her forehead. She pushed back a tuft of hair with her slender fingers, "As long as they were around, I never felt lonely. I was free as a bird. It was as though I didn't walk on earth. I flew. Then one by one, they disappeared."
"Well, don't sit at home, get out. Go to a friend's house, a relative, you have so many of them."
"I went to Bahareh's house a few times. She married a medical doctor. They live in the upper alley. Then I felt she didn’t like it. You know? When one is single."
Blood rushed to her face. Maryam looked at her watch, "I must go; the kids wear out my mother. If Mahmud wasn't on call, I would have left them with him. Mother is not as patient as in the past."
"Don't talk about leaving. After all these years. Particularly now that Mahmud is on call."
Maryam smiled and said, "It would have been better if he wasn't. I did say that he likes me visiting my friends. He doesn't mind looking after the kids."
"How kind of him!"
"To tell you the truth, he does have some positive traits too. It was our wedding anniversary a few nights ago. He bought a shirt for me. It is the one I am wearing. He put a red rose on it too."
"And you love roses."
Maryam nodded her head. Nahid asked, "By the way, what happened to those rose bushes at your parent's house? Did they remove them too?"
"No, my mother didn't let them touch the garden. We should go there one day. Once summer arrives..."
"What beautiful flowers they were. I still haven't seen roses as velvety as they were."
"My mother says that my father planted them in the first year of their marriage. She is crazy over them."
"These kinds of men don't exist anymore. You remember my father; he was madly in love with my mother. If she would get a headache, he would be so depressed that we all went crazy. He was such a perfect man. I compare everybody with him."
"Men like your father are exceptions."
"And, perhaps my mistake is that I am looking for a perfect man."
"This is selfishness. Of course I don't want to insult you, but nobody is perfect."
Nahid peeled an orange and put it in front of Maryam, "Thank God, there is somebody to defend men's right."
Maryam burst out laughing and said, "You should ‘dismount the Devil's ass’ as the proverb says. Accept somebody before getting too old. You remember how much I was against marriage. Because of having to deal with all these problems I only told you about them. It is not a good feeling; it is as though we always lack something."
Nahid picked up an apple and took a bite. Maryam continued, "I think life is like a road. When you are alone, it appears long and tiresome."
"You still talk in maxims."
"You are being sarcastic, aren't you? It was always you talking in poetry. Now you say I talk in maxims."
"I didn't want to hurt you. I am not a fool. I agree with you to some extent. But what can I do, I am scared."
"Look here girl. People don't say anything as long as they are happy, but God forbid if something, no matter how insignificant goes wrong in their life, then they turn into a chatterbox. And you get the impression that this is what marriage is."
"For me who has been free all her life it is very difficult. If one of our friends hadn't married, perhaps, I don't know. Everybody is so preoccupied."
"So you should do the same; you understand what I mean, don't you?"
"For God's sake, leave me alone."
"You still escape such a conversation as you used to turn into a thousand colors and blush when you heard a joke. But, unfortunately, one cannot deny reality for long."
"I have trodden on this reality."
"You don't wish to become a nun, do you?"
Nahid smiled. She threw back a lock of hair in her eyes with a nod of her head, " Wouldn’t you be more comfortable if you hadn't married?"
"I don't understand what you mean by more comfortable. I just know that life would still be difficult without Mahmud."
"So say that you Madam."
"I promise you I am saying the truth. I realized that when last year Mahmud went abroad for work for a month. You might not believe it, but I even missed his complaints, commands, and affronts. I didn't say anything in front of the kids, but when they slept at nights, I felt extremely sad. It was as though somebody was calling him from inside me. I was restless."
Nahid blinked: "You naughty girl. You betrayed yourself very well. So Madam is quite in love."
"No, it is not a matter of love and that sort of thing at all. You took me wrong. I wanted to say..."
"That without the Lord, your life would not be sweet enough."
"For God's sake."
Nahid held the pastry plate in front of Maryam, "Come on, have another piece to make life sweet for these couple of hours that you are not with him."
Maryam took a piece. "You are still quite a cynic."
They fell silent. Maryam was biting the pastry slowly. Nahid was staring at the floor. The sound of music was still filling the room gently and it penetrated the depth of their souls.
Maryam looked out of the window and said, "It is raining, I should leave before it gets worse."
"I asked you to stay longer."
"You know that I would like to sit here forever."
Maryam put on her raincoat. The lovebird had put its beak into its turquoise colored feathers.
"How lovely this bird is."
She took her bag and walked toward the door. Nahid picked up the doll, "Give this to your daughter. I am sure she'll love it."
"No, my daughter already has a lot of them. You keep it. Listen to me. Don't let it get too late."
Nahid pushed the button on the doll's back.
While Maryam was putting on her shoes, she said, "She is so lovely." She then hugged Nahid, "You better listen to me. Be a good girl."
Nahid smiled. Maryam opened the door and left. While pressing the doll against her chest Nahid waved her hand. Maryam shouted, "Buy a mate for that lovebird, otherwise its going to die out of loneliness."
Nahid cried back, "O.K. I'll try."