July 1, 2007
Mohtaram and Narghes (fiction)
Even after a week Mohtaram could not believe that her sister, Narghes, was really with her in the living room of her house. But there she was, her polka dot chador wrapped around her, sitting in a patch of the sun on the rug in the living room to warm her legs, although it was late May and the temperature hovered around seventy. The house too had marks of Narghes' presence—the presents she had brought. A cloth with paisley designs covered the kitchen table, a tapestry depicting a caravan hung on a wall. The smell of rose water that Narghes dabbed on her clothes permeated the air.
It made Mohtaram feel more at home in her own house since her sister had come. She had not really known what she was getting herself into when she sold everything she had in Iran, after her husband died, and came to America to live near her son, how much she would be leaving behind, how much would be out of her reach. She had not even known that the son she had come to be near would not be that accessible to her. She saw Cyrus only a few moments every day when he stopped in before he went to the university in Athens to do his teaching. When his children were younger she saw them every day but now they were at school and busy with their friends. Mildred, Cyrus' wife, had not learned Farsi and her own English was not all that good and they could not really talk to each other. Feri, her daughter, who had come to America shortly after Cyrus did, was studying in Madison and was married to an Iranian engineer, but Mohtaram rarely saw her. She had a few Iranian friends who lived in town but they were all younger than her with different concerns.
Before Narghes came, Mohtaram had spent days preparing for the visit—dusting every corner, washing the bedspreads, curtains, tablecloths, scrubbing pots and pans, buying a side of mutton from the young man who slaughtered a sheep every few weeks in the Muslim fashion and sold it to other Iranians in town. For years she had been asking Narghes to come for a visit. She wrote to her. "You will love Ohio. It is sparkling clean with no dust to settle on things. There are many trees and lakes and rivers..." Narghes had always refused, saying, "I have my prayer sessions starting next month," or "Bahman wants to get married and we're looking for a proper wife for him.” What had prompted her to come now, Narghes had told her, was a dream she had. In the dream she was searching for Mohtaram and finally found her in a wide, well-lit but empty street, scratched and bleeding. The dream had so shaken her that she decided she must see her sister immediately.
Already, in one week, Mohtaram was falling into the old interdependency with her sister. Every day they woke at dawn, prayed, cooked and ate together, went out for walks.
Mohtaram took Narghes to the shopping center, which was within walking distance, to buy shoes for her. She had been complaining that her feet hurt. Narghes put on her chador and Mohtaram a long-sleeved dress and a scarf on her head. Although Narghes complained about her feet and walked rather slowly, she gave the impression of being the stronger of the two with sturdy arms and ample breasts. Mohtaram felt thin and frail by contrast and was aware that her fairer skin had wrinkled more. It was hard to tell, she was sure, which one of them was older, even though there was a five-year difference in age between them. People occasionally turned around and looked at Narghes in her long black chador and some smiled at her but just as often they acted as if they did not notice anything different.
"See, they leave you alone here," Mohtaram said. "No one interferes in your affairs."
"But it's so lonely, it's like everyone has crawled into a shell," Narghes said.
It seemed to Mohtaram that it would have been more natural to Narghes if people stared or even poked at her chador and asked her what it was.
One thing though caught Narghes' attention which she liked, a pair of soft, flat shoes in the window of a dime store. "They look so comfortable. They'll be perfect for me," she said. "I constantly change shoes and never find any that fit."
They went in and Narghes tried on the shoes. They were imported from Japan and cost only five dollars. She bought two pairs. She wore one pair on the way back. She said they felt as comfortable as they looked.
When they got back they began to prepare lunch. Today Feri and Sohrab were driving in from Madison to spend the weekend in Athens, planning to stay with Cyrus and visiting her during the day. They were all coming to the house for lunch soon. Mohtaram had also invited an Iranian couple living nearby too to come for lunch. Narghes helped her— cutting eggplants, green beans, cucumbers, soaking the rice, raisins and lentils. They used some of the spices Narghes had brought with her— tumeric, sumac, dried ground lemon, a combination of coriander, cinnamon and pepper. The air was filled with scents Mohtaram associated with home. As they prepared, Narghes filled in Mohtaram with stories other than the ones she’d already told about the relatives, the brothers, nephews, nieces and aunts and uncles all living in houses near each other in a network of alleys off Ghanat Abad Avenue.
Mohtaram, though, thought that with all her sister’s detailed accounting, there was something imprecise and foggy about her sister’s descriptions of people. She wished she could see them herself.
Cyrus arrived first. He came into the living room and said, "Mildred had a cold and couldn't come but she sent this." He held out a large platter. "Apple pie, especially for you Aunt Narghes."
"You all have been so kind to me," Narghes said. "It makes me…ashamed.”
Cyrus walked into the kitchen and put the pie on the counter. He took out packs of beer from a bag he was holding also and put them in the refrigerator. He was only sixteen years younger than his mother and had alert brown eyes, curly hair and muscular arms from lifting weights every day, one habit he had kept from his adolescent years in Iran, Mohtaram had noticed. He came back into the living room and sat on the semi-circular sofa.
Narghes gathered her legs under her. "I ache all the time. I'm on the way to my grave."
"Don't say such things," Cyrus said. "People here get married at your age and start a new life."
Mohtaram took the potatoes she had sliced into the kitchen to fry them but she kept her eyes half way on Narghes and Cyrus. She wanted to make sure no misunderstanding would develop between them, like when, in a previous visit, Narghes had told him bluntly that unless he had had a Muslim wedding ceremony his marriage to Mildred was not valid. Cyrus had flushed and had not answered. Mohtaram had explained for him, "I made sure to marry them with the Koran myself. I said the words and they both went along with it. I converted her first into Islam and gave her the name Zobeideh."
"Tell me all about Uncle Mohammed and Uncle Ahmad," Cyrus was saying to Narghes. "I haven't had any news from them for years."
"What is there to say about them?" But she went on to talk about her brothers at length. Uncle Mohammed had retired from his job as a clerk in the City Hall and spent his days going to the mosque or on pilgrimages with his wife. Uncle Ahmad had a gall bladder removed. There were some noises outside of the house, a car pulling in, and then footsteps.
"It must be them, Feri and Sohrab," Mohtaram said from the kitchen and went to open the outside door. "Come in, come in." She kissed Feri and Sohrab and they all went inside. Feri dashed to her aunt and they embraced and kissed. Then she introduced her and Sohrab to each other.
"You are still as pretty as ever," Narghes said to her.
"Thank you. I've been counting the days to see you. I had final exams or else I would have been here much sooner," Feri said.
Then they all sat down. In a few moments Narghes took out from her purse two matching gold pendants with "Allah" inscribed on them in Arabic script and gave one to Sohrab and the other to Feri. Feri and Sohrab thanked her and put them on. Mohtaram thought the pendants looked a little strange on them with their short haircuts and bluejeans and wild looking tee shirts. Sohrab engaged Cyrus in conversation while Narghes and Feri talked between themselves.
"Have you thought of children yet? You're almost thirty, time is running out for you," Narghes said to Feri.
"I've been too busy to think about it," Feri said.
"You don't want to end up childless like me."
"Yes, Aunt Narghes, tell her that," Sohrab said, turning to them.
Feri laughed and leaned against his chest. He stroked her cheeks for a moment and then let go.
"Let's play some records," Cyrus aid. "Persian music for the occasion. Do you mind, Aunt Narghes?"
Narghes looked into space and nodded her head ambiguously.
He searched through the small stack of records next to the phonograph and put one on. A soft, nasal female voice began to sing, "Oh, my love, you're like a wild flower on the hills, out of my reach, out of my reach."
Mohtaram and Narghes went back and forth into the kitchen, carrying things. They spread a cloth, with hand-blocked designs of camels and trees, on the living room floor and then they set the dishes and silverware on it.
Feri said, "This is interesting, an all-Iranian lunch."
Some footsteps sounded in the driveway again. "Here they are, Mehdi and Simin," Mohtaram said.
Mehdi and Simin came in. They glanced around the room, greeting everyone. Mehdi was holding a cage with two chickens. "I brought these for you. I’ll slaughter them the Muslim way for Narghes khanoom."
"Thank you, please put them on the porch," Mohtaram said. “We already have a lot to eat today.”
“You can save them for later.”
"May God pay you back for all your troubles," Narghes said. "I can't thank you enough."
Mehdi went out through the screen door and laid the chickens on the porch. The chickens began to cluck frantically as if they knew they had little time left to live.
Mohtaram and Narghes brought over the food and put it on the cloth— two stews, two kinds of rices, a yogurt and cucumber salad, sharbat to drink, halva and the huge apple pie Cyrus had brought over for dessert.
"Let's sit down and eat," Mohtaram said.
They sat around the cloth and started to eat. Then the pie was served. Narghes refused. Mohtaram said, "Mildred is scrupulous. She must have rinsed everything several times." Narghes still looked hesitant.
"It's just flour, sugar and apples," Mohtaram said, knowing what her sister was worried about. The first night she had arrived, Narghes had inspected everything in the house to make sure it adhered to the Muslim laws. She asked her to read the ingredients in packaged items—crackers, cookies, bread— before she ate them. She had explained to Mohtaram that a young man in their neighborhood in Teheran had told her that they used pork fat in cooking in America.
Narghes took a slice and began to eat it. "It's very good. May God give strength to your wife," she said to Cyrus.
Cyrus smiled. "I'm glad you like it."
After lunch the men sat in one corner and started to drink beer and talk while the women had tea. Feri and Simin went into the kitchen to do the dishes. They were talking rapidly and intensely to each other, their voices occasionally rising above those of the men in the living room. Mehdi was bragging about how much he won every time he went to the horse races, one hundred dollars last time. Sohrab talked about his engineering firm, how the salesmen always went after girls when they traveled, and, he added in a whisper, some call girls were arranged for them by the customers' companies. Then Mehdi said to Cyrus, "You college teachers have all those young girls available to you. They want to be in your favor and so..."
Mohtaram was thinking how much closer she felt to her sister than to her children. She observed how aloof her children were by contrast to Narghes. There was something off-hand about them, even when they were trying to be nice. Their attitude toward the occasion, it seemed to her, was that of amusement. When children, they had been like all other Iranian children, dependent on her approval, thriving on her warmth, her cuddling and kissing them, but they had changed. They were cool and independent and egocentric as she imagined most Americans to be. Maybe I have changed also, becoming a little like them. This knowledge, hitting her for the first time, really upset her. Then she thought maybe it is Narghes that makes me feel this way. I must be seeing things through her eyes, for this is how Narghes must be viewing my Americanized children as she sits there looking on quietly.
"There is this student in one of my classes,” Cyrus was saying. “She always sits in the first row, crossing her legs and..." He paused and then added something in a whisper. Mohtaram, even though she strained, could not hear him. Then all the men began to giggle about something. Was it a private joke, Mohtaram wondered.
After a moment Mehdi said, "They don't think of that as being loose morally. I used to think every time a girl smiled at me she meant something by it, but that isn't necessarily the case."
The other two laughed again.
"American girls think nothing of such matters," Cyrus said. "And why should they?"
Mohtaram was aware of Narghes shifting tensely in her place. Just then Narghes broke her silence but with an unexpected remark. "Mohtaram, why did you do this to me, making me eat the unclean food." Her face went white, her dark eyes rolled upward as if she were delirious
"Oh, sister, what’s wrong?” Mohtaram asked.
"I heard what they were saying in the kitchen."
"What did you hear?"
"The pie Cyrus brought over had been cooked in pig's fat."
"Who said that?"
"Feri said it."
"Feri, come over here," Mohtaram called urgently.
Feri came to the doorway of the room.
"Did you say that the pie crust was cooked in pig's fat?"
"What did you say then?"
"I was talking about a pie I took to a picnic. I used bacon and ham in it. It was a quiche Lorraine, a French dish."
Simin came into the doorway also. "Yes, Narghes khanoom, that's what Feri was telling me."
"Apple pie in pig's fat?" Cyrus said.
"All the sinful talk in this room and the beer dripping on the rugs where we pray." Narghes looked from face to face. "It was a mistake for me to come to America."
"We just finished the last beer so there won't be any more of it," Cyrus said.
"I'm spoiling the day for you. That's why I shouldn't have come at all. I will return soon," Narghes said.
"If you go back so soon we all will be heart-broken," Feri said.
Narghes lowered her face, in deep contemplation.
Everyone was quiet, enveloped in the tension hanging in the air. Then Cyrus got up and said, "I have to go home, I have a lot of work to get done. And Mildred is alone." He said good bye to everyone and left.
"We have to leave also," Mehdi said to Narghes. "But we'll be seeing you again. I'll slaughter the chickens first. I brought along a good knife." He went out through the screen door to the porch. He came back after what seemed like an eternity and put the chickens, all cleaned up, on the counter. He washed his hands and he and Simin left. Then Feri and her husband also left to go to Cyrus’ house.
“The light is fading. We'd better pray,” Narghes said.
"Let me put away the food first," Mohtaram said, going into the kitchen.
Narghes followed. "See how these chickens are lying there, dead and helpless? That's how we will be one day," she said, giving out a sigh. "And imagine if you get ill, who's there to take care of you? You know the dream I had that prompted me to come here. Maybe it meant something. You ought to go back to Iran with me. Put up the house for sale. We'll return together. Everyone will be happy to have you back. You could buy another house there or if you want the two of us will live together in my house."
Mohtaram could see clearly now how lonely and hollow her days had been before Narghes came. She began to cry, tears just trickling down her face as if a dam had broken. "My life has been empty without realizing it," she said. "If I had any sense I would go back with you."
Soon the two of them knelt together, chadors on their heads, facing the East, bowing and touching their heads on the mohr they put on the floor.
Mohtaram had a hard time concentrating on her prayers. Her mind kept wandering to her childhood— she and Narghes sitting together in the hollowed-out trunk of a sycamore tree in their courtyard, going to the bazaar running parallel to their street, sleeping on the flat roof of their house, talking, looking at the shapes the clouds made, the lit kites circling in the sky, the bright stars. As a child she had been the more gregarious. She recalled Narghes withdrawing into a secluded corner of the courtyard and playing alone with her dolls, saying endearing things to them, picking them up and kissing or spanking them, but Mohtaram would intrude and insist on being included.
Narghes had been haughty and very pretty with greenish-hazel eyes and wavy brown hair, striking against her olive skin. Mohtaram was shorter with smaller bones and less striking features. When the time came, Narghes married a jeweler and made the best of her marriage. She herself married a distant cousin, an accountant, she had always had a crush on, and they were happy together. He was hard working and intelligent, the only educated person among a family of merchants. He was healthy and energetic, hard to believe he would die young, from a stroke. Mohtaram still could recall vividly that morning waking up and finding him staring with unmoving eyes into space. She touched him and he was ice cold and rubbery. She screamed and ran out to Narghes' house, a few doors down on the same alley. Narghes had kept her there for days, trying to comfort her...
That night Mohtaram lay in bed awake for a long time. Memories hit her again, more strongly and vividly in the dark. She saw Narghes and herself in their house, in the hollow of that tree. Now she recalled how the two of them used to sing together, a rhyme they had made up. "I belong to this tree, to this house, to this street, and will never leave them as long as it is in my power to stay."
She wished she could break out of the prison of this new, Americanized self, and be reborn again into the old one. She fell asleep and each time she woke she thought the same thing: "Narghes is going to leave soon and the house will become impersonal, barren without her, one of the many houses on the street and yet quite isolated from them.”
Near dawn, when she woke, she thought very clearly, “I must return with her. This is my chance.”
Nahid Rachlin’s publications include a memoir, Persian Girls (Tarcher/Penguin), four novels, Jumping Over Fire (City Lights), Foreigner (W.W. Norton), Married To A Stranger (E.P.Dutton), The Heart's Desire (City Lights), and a collection of short stories, Veils (City Lights). Her short stories have appeared in many journals and publications, including Virginia Quarterly Review, Prairie Schooner, Redbook, Shenandoah and the anthologies Matters of Gender (McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited), and Stories From the American Mosaic (Graywolf Press). Ms. Rachlin has also written for Natural History Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, and has an essay in How I Learned to Cook and other writings On Complex Mother-Daughter Relationships (Penguin), which is currently in press. She has taught at Barnard College, Yale University, and presently she teaches at the New School University. She will be teaching at Geneva Writers Conference, in February 2008. For more information, please visit www.nahidrachlin.com. Nahid Rachlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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