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Fiction

Flame
Short story

 


Ghazi Rabihavi
December 27, 2005
iranian.com

Note: Referring to events in 1953, following the nationalisation of the Anglo Iranian Oil Company, which set the Shah against the prime minister, Dr Mohammad Mosaddeq.

‘Ay, should I close tomorrow? No, I reckon something’s up, in the end it’ll be either the Shah or Mosaddeq’

‘What rubbish Zaal when has your human-charring kiln ever been closed now please give me my money so that I can be off... it’s night-time’

‘Here take it and throw it on Flame’s breast, what rubbish ay, I’m a political man not a womaniser like you’

Hatou snatch the coins, put two in his pocket one in his hand and said ‘Ay’ And he went his back to the kiln that had been blazing till a few minutes before, his back to Zaal the kiln-owner, he was going and carrying the head of the blaze on his shoulders.

Scattered kiln in the desert, on the desert’s salty surface each labourer had his own path never used by others since each house was far away from any other, the path leading to Hatou’s shed passed along the edge of the cemetery.

He came to a fork, facing two paths that were both his own, one path led to his silent shed and loneliness, the other to the date plantation and Flame’s tent.

He tossed up the coin, the spinning of the worn yellow line in the air, even if it came up tails he would go to Flame’s tent tonight, he snatched the coin and slapped it on the back of his other hand, it was heads, he turned towards the date plantation, he had to jump over the brook and take a stone to ward off the dog but that evening the dog had turned to stone and was just staring at him from under the lotus tree, the wind was sliding through the  dog’s fur he seemed dead except for the glaring eyes that followed Hatou around, the dog didn’t bark.

Hatou ran, he was jumping over the narrow brooks the dog’s eyes on his shoulders, a few travellers’ tents squatted in the light and shade of the date plantation, Hatou stopped.

The mouth of a jug was gulping up the water in the brook and the jug was in the hands of a girl who quickly pulled her green veil over her hair, the skin of her arm was tight soft and men-pleasing, Hatou tossed the coin in the air, the girl’s eyes moved up and down, Hatou snatched the coin, the mouth of the jug pushed the water away, the girl rose and asked: ‘What do you do?’

‘I bake bricks in a kiln’

‘Ooh no, you’re a labourer’

The girl turned on the raised platform the jug on her shoulder with legs that were bare to the ankles, the jingle of ankle-rings, long hair tied in a net.

‘I’m a peri, your coin means nothing to me’

She giggled and left or was taken like a leaf swept by the wind she slid behind a palm tree’s column then it had been her again with her slender body who had walked with Hatou along half the way but she moved quickly and fleeing and she jumped over a small brook, she had a pleasant voice,

‘If you had a piece of land on which I could pitch a tent’

Hatou said: ‘What about this then?’

His hand fell with the coin.

The girl went with a gracefulness in her hip she was no longer the damp heart had trembled in the wind.

The night’s shadow was moving closer with the gasping sound of a woman’s breaths, Hatou fell like jumping over the brook and going to look for the girl but the hot plantation night had sucked her up leaving nothing behind but a breath with the scent of carnation.

What had the girl said? She filled a jug like a human and her words had been harsh like a human’s but her going! No, that too was the way one human being fled from another, didn’t you hear her say You’re a labourer!

Hatou turned towards Flame’s tent still far away from her, Flame puts two eggs with fresh basil on a tray with three loaves of bread baked by herself, Flame’s body is hot in winter and cold in the summer, on her body you move with the river as if you lay facing north.

‘But why is it that, as I try to reach her, the palm trees columns look like cracked stones, with one collapsing every time I turn to look at them?’

Walking along the platform was safe than using other paths at night, on one side clear red water and behind the waterline the drowning tail of the sun till it sank completely to turn behind the river’s which is under the earth to circle the river and rise again the next day from the other side and if Hatou wanted to stop his gaze from turning to the menacing gloom of the plantation he had to keep thinking of the sun and river, but the plantation’s menacing gloom turned its gaze on him and a girl the colour of earth and wearing a green veil slid out with a giggle then slipped back again and was no longer.

Layers of water rubbed against the platform noiselessly, making the thin pathway tremble and Hatou was walking on his own heart now maybe. He whistled ran, the arm near the river felt cool but the arm near the plantation was burring, he ran faster whistled.

Why had the dog been like on no other night! He hadn’t seen the girl on other nights, oh holy heavens! Let Flame not have a guest tonight, he squeezed the coin in his hands, he ran swallowing up the seam between the lightness and the dark, so the girl was a sprit? Maybe I stepped on her body without realising it or upset her in some other way although their mischief human beings flowed in their blood, if the sprits had any blood.

A sprit is the same as an angel as to His followers by God.. this is what Zaal said:

‘After death, an angel will lie with pious men and for each night, forty years... ’

‘Have I been pious?’ Hatou asked himself.

Zaal said: ‘But when you wake up in the morning you’ll see that it’s been only one night’ He would burst into laughter take Hatou’s newly-shaved chin in his hand and still laughing gaze happily into Hatou’s eyes as if he could see two naked peris there.

Hatou came to stop, How could he be pious when he was on his way to Flame’s tent?

The tent shimmered behind the damp darkness of the date plantation, Hatou thought to himself: ‘Why do they hate the living then? They make a baker throw himself into a blazing furnace they force a love-struck fisherman to go after a shark and be ripped into a thousand pieces, so what do they want from a labourer who has to stand burning in front of a kiln day after day?’

A white cloth was hanging over the entrance to Flame’s tent which he didn’t understand the meaning of, when Flame had a guest she’d hang a red cloth up and when she didn’t a consecrated green one, but white!

Hatou could hear the occasional sound of river eddies, they were calling him but he jumped off the platform.

All around the land on which Flame had her tent ran a brook with water the colour of baked earth, shadows from date-laden branches trembled on the ground, he took another step forward, the dampness in the air lessened setting on the ground, Flame’s tent was like the heaps on which unclaimed bodies were piled till relatives came to take each several day old body to Karbala or... but Hatou’s corpse, even if he remained in Flame’s tent for years there was no one to come and claim him because he didn’t know either his father or mother and he had nothing to do with anyone else, there was just him and the other brick bakers who cooked and hardened in front of the kiln, as hard as a lonely man in a date plantation on a night in August whose eyes kept looking for Flame, the fat familiar lady so that he could ask what does this white cloth mean? Suddenly a ripe date fell on the tent and the slim outline of a tall body ran around the tent and disappeared again who was it who had shone in that way in the dark! Perhaps they were out to kill Hatou, the sound of laughter from the tent, he stopped in his track and called out,

‘Hey, Flame!’

A woman’s laughter answered, he began walking again, the roof of the plantation was covered with leaves, branches and clusters of dates like the tits of a thousand buffaloes ready to be milked, hanging bits of sky could be seen here and there between the branches.

He jumped over the brook and one foot got caught in the mud he felt scared he pulled his foot out and carried on walking, why did he keep imagining that something was wrong? Maybe they were hovering around him tonight to bring him pleasure not harm, if they had meant him harm they’d made the dog frighten him more that on all the other nights, what if something had happened during the last ten nights when he hadn’t come to see Flame, for good or for ill?

He decided to hope for the good, the sound of laughter similar to Flame’s when she was a girl- maybe- was growing louder, the green netting appeared again and was pushed inside the tent by the wind, it looked at Hatou? Said come?

Passing the coin from one hand to the other he reached the tent, the air was filled with the scent of carnation and he didn’t know when he had tripped into the tent, seeing the lit candle like all the other nights on the other side of the damp bed.

‘I was expecting you’

Then a young girl appeared on the bed, her only covering a green veil, it was for Hatou to lift off with his own hands.

Flame had a piggy bank like box near the candle into which she dropped the men’s coins.

‘Put a baby in my stomach’

It was Flame’s voice but it sounded fresh after many years.

‘Move over my body’

The girl’s hair smelled of palm hearts or was it the smell of not baked earth? The sound of the coin dropping into the box, the sound of the wind brushing against the tent.

‘Pray for our child to be a boy so that he doesn’t end up luckless like me’

‘You mean to say I’m lucky?’

‘Whatever else a man has to put up with, at least he’s a man’

Hatou was kissing the two delicate translucent eyelids that opened from time to time laughingly revealing two river with the purest black water and he rode on the river’s waves up and down gasping and the two rivers had no end, hard slippery waves were taking Hatou to an unknown land and they sometimes kicked back and slid away from under him only to flow back and be gripped by him again more desperately than ever.

‘A child’s come into my stomach’

The sound of water was rising from the skin on the girl’s face along with the singsong cries of the fisherman, Hatou slid further down and his chin rubbed against rosewater scented velvet, lower down his forehead was set ablaze, the woman’s skin was burning with flash after flash of fire, women screamed Hatou quickly lifted himself up, she laughed her lips on fire.

‘Did I hurt you?’

To prevent them from burning, Hatou had to use his tongue to wet his lips and bite on the lower one, the fisherman moaned with one voice the candle flickered nearly went out then came back to life again.

She said: ‘It’s good that you’re with me’

‘What happened’

‘There it is again’

The sound of female laughter, Hatou’s hair has fallen into the woman’s grasp, lightly and pleasurably two fishes that were her legs jumped up and fell on Hatou’s legs alive.

She said: ‘Come deeper in’

Where was the wind that blew her long hair into Hatou’s face coming from?

The sound of something exploding again and again and the popping sound of a live palm tree burning, a finger brushed down Hatou’s spine, two pebbles on the tips of her breasts made him tremble.

‘From tomorrow morning, you’ll have eternal life’

‘What’

‘I mean you’ll never die, even if you pray for death forty times a day, never’

‘Being alive is a pleasure when being is with a woman like you’

‘You’ll always stay young, but God help you if you ever hear a bad news or lose a loved one’

The sound of a young man screaming rose from her stomach.

‘My sweet’

Hatou pulled back his tail end remaining inside her, the screaming stopped, the callused palms of Hatou’s hands lay steady on either side of the mattress, she laughed and the smell of perfume and camphor spilled out of her mouth.

‘Did you ever pay’

It was Flame’s question and now with Flame’s voice, that’s how it was sometimes, in the middle of pleasure her mind would go to her money.

‘You put it in the box’

Her laughter burst in the darkest depth of river and water filled with dead fish poured into another river which was totally empty and couldn’t be filled with any amount of water, the fish stayed on the muddy riverbed, turning over she moved away from him, she sucked her thumb smiling.

Hatou felt unwell: ‘Why is my liver burning’

She said: ‘It’s from the heat of my body’

Laughing they fell together again becoming one on the bed, Hatou didn’t want to let his mind wander to tomorrow when he’d have to stand in front of the kiln again his body baking along with the raw bricks, but when the sun has circled the river overnight and has reached a point when it must emerge from behind the waterline... what Hatou do?

Who’s responsible for the coming and going of the night? Whatever a night may be it’s never as painful as a day, the day belongs to the blazing kiln and to Zaal who tests the coins with his teeth, he says with his rasping voice: ‘The night belongs to the dead’

With a muffled scream she said: ‘It’s morning’

‘No’

The cock didn’t crow, the tent’s tarpaulin didn’t up, the wind was blowing but the leaves and branches didn’t make any sound, Hatou hid his face in her stomach, a heart was beating under her navel and sank deeper into the soft hollow, a stomach that didn’t have feminine skin anymore, layer upon layer of seaweed that filled a dry waterhole, passing through her now cold body his body sank into the seaweed, if the tent was still over him where was the wind blowing from that was stinging his head.

The wind became warmer, it had taken hold of a patch on his head and was stinging it, warmer still, biting, the warm wind stopped slithering and turned into a steady spear aimed from far away to strike fire into Hatou’s head, he tried to struggle out of the seaweed and the smell of rotten fish, a frog stared straight into his eyes, Hatou wriggle again he reached with his hand towards dry land his fingers sank into a crack in the earth and his other hand into another crack, he crawled outwards, the disintegrating tricolour flag fell to pieces as he moved and dissolved into the green seaweed with only a few white and red patches remaining, the sound of people running with heavy boots, raising his head from behind a curtain of seaweed he saw men who seemed to be looking around on the ground for lost coins and from tie to time one of them would run towards him screaming, their clothes were the colour of baked earth and their legs black.

Hatou threw himself on dry land, the sun’s spear pierced his eyes, the seaweed-filled waterhole which was slowly filling the cavity left by his body was only the size of a mattress in the middle of dry land without any outlet for water to come in or go out. A plain sky came into view, pale in colour, but where were the leaves and branches of the palm trees? The clusters of dates? He sat terrified, the palm trees were bare columns without the slightest patch of green, like countless thick spears their tips dipped in grey poison ready to be thrown at the sky.

The sound of wailing came from a distance rose up looked around, the soil in the date plantation was dry and cracked, n water for years, there was no sign of travellers’ tents, the big brook that had broken away from the river and flowed to the end of the plantation was still there but it bore no resemblance to last night’s brook, empty like the gaping mouth of a grave in which you could put a thousand bodies.

At last he found a small pool with some clean water, he sat down to wash himself brushing the seaweed off his body but hard as he tried he could not wash the taste of mud from his mouth, he began walking alongside the brook, there no wind, the sultry heat had buried everything under its humidity, scattered men wearing boots were looking around, the newly-dawned sun, moving towards the kiln, the place where he had to work every day, with a heart that beat like a drum or maybe the sound of the drum was coming from the middle of the women’s wails.

First he saw the shed and then the shed-dweller who was a hunchbacked man with dishevelled white hair, he was looking around on the ground for dry wood but last night’s wind had taken away all the leaves and branches burnt the palm trees and left only cracked earth.

‘May God give you strength Old man’

The old man turned his head glanced at him for a moment then went back to looking again.

‘You weren’t here last night, your shed wasn’t here’ Hatou said.

The old man said sullenly: ‘Are you the one who’s going to wreck my shed this time? Where am I supposed to go and die then?’

‘No, just tell me what are these men doing here?’

‘They’re looking for the bones of their fellow soldiers’

Then maybe the old man saw a piece of wood because he ran off. the sound of the man’s steps frightened Hatou, he too ran in the direction from which he’d come the night before.

His eyes fell on a khaki shirt and pair of trousers, the same colour as the clothes the men were wearing, hanging on the dry branches of the lotus tree, he stood still peeled off the thin layer of skin that had once been his clothes and put on the uniform which had been hanging from the branches, he felt the heat of the soil on his skin, he carried on walking.

The desert was covered with nothing but salt, scattered black spots marked places where things had been set on fire, smouldering furnaces under the salt and all the paths that had been there the night before were now hidden by the layer of salt the whiteness of which hurt the eyes there wasn't even any sign of the path Hatou had taken himself last night, there wasn't.

The sound of chanting women could be heard from the cemetery, one woman singing solo and the others replying in chorus nothing remained of all those furnaces but a few rumbling mounds, if he wanted to ask someone what was going on he had to go to the cemetery, he went.

A group of black-clad women had formed a ring around a bit of earth and as they circled it they wailed and beat themselves on the face, away from them men and women in separate groups wandered desolately among motionless banners, green white red, there was just one woman on her own at a distance who had thrown a green veil over her head.

Hatou approached her, the old woman turned around suddenly and said: ‘Who are you’

She was blind and she smelled of carnation, suddenly the wind fell under Hatou’s face and the skin stuck to the bones and there was a shooting pain in the back of his neck, what on earth was happening to his ankles?

The old woman knelt turned around again and sniffed at white stone then she slid along on her knees to reach another stone she sniffed this stone as well.

‘I’ve been looking for him for several years, on that first night when I was giving his headless body I buried him somewhere here, when I woke up in the morning I saw that it was black everywhere because I hadn’t cried’

And she moved towards another stone.

‘I put a white stone over his grave but all the stones I sniff now are black’

She cried, Hatou turned his eyes away, his head spun badly, he realised that his neck that had been long and straight a moment before was now old and wrinkled with his head buried deep in his shoulders.

All the stones were bright and white on the level graves and each stones marked a grave but there wasn’t even one black stone to be seen.

‘Won’t you help me find my white stone?’ The old woman said.

The black-clad women in a ring were now sitting silently around the same mass grave.

‘Where’s your husband then?’

The old woman stirred: ‘Huh, who was that? Husband, it wasn’t my husband, it was a man better than the rest, he went away on the same night he put this baby in my stomach, went where, nobody could say’

Hatou pointed to one of the white stones near the old woman and said: ‘There it is’

The old woman rose, waved her hands in the air, Hatou stepped forward he could hardly keep his balance as he walked, he took the end of the old woman’s sleeve and pulled her towards the stone, the smell of rotten rosewater stung his pressed his hand on the old woman’s shoulder and sat her down.

The stone was like all the other stones but with a small red stain, a blood stain from years ago.

Sitting, the old woman searched for the stone with her hands, Hatou took her hand and placed it on the stone, two wrinkled old hands slid over stone, a woman’s hand and a man’s.

The woman bent and sniffed the stone, several times.

‘Thank God, I’ve found you again my sweet’ She said with tremendous relief. She hugged the stone.

‘Huh!’ Hatou said.

The old woman went on talking to the stone: ‘If Flame loses you again, she will burn in a fever of grief and die’

A chest tore open, the scent of carnation spilled onto the ground, a male pair of legs broke at the knees, Hatou fell on the ht earth, hands brushed the soft soil on either side, the sound of a heartbeat came from afar, his forehead hit one of the stones, the sound of a heartbeat coming from the earth mixed with the sound of Hatou's own heart in the tightness of his ribcage and empty-empty ravine opened deep in his mouth.

He raised his face, a mass of hair weighed heavily on head, lifting his old hand he pulled a handful of the hair in front of his face, white like the blood-stained stone in front of him that now had a fresh drop of blood on it as well, he stood up twisting painfully, the neckless head was still pressing down into his shoulders, the old woman said something to the stone again and laughed, Hatou wanted to say something too but he couldn’t form the words in his toothless mouth.

He brushed his hands across the limp layers of skin on his face, turned away and went where? Dragging his old feet on the salty ground he began to walk around the cemetery to circle it and to pray for death forty times a day.

* Tehran 1993, from Iranian four seasons 

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