Summer of 1988 – Michigan Quarterly Review

Summer of 1988

As long as he stayed inside the house, he felt depressed. When he went out onto the street, anxiety would have a turn. It was an interminable anxiety that grew so strong at times he thought his heart would pound its way up and out his throat. Fariborz was only a pretext. He knew quite well that they had lied, but this sickness stayed with him nonetheless, the sickness that caused him to turn back. He’d turn around sporadically on the street to glance over his shoulder and to look back over his life. It even happened on several occasions that he ran right into people walking towards him on the pavement, once even colliding with a man on a bicycle. Mostly they’d insult him and tell him to watch where he was going. And it was Mr. Matin, naturally, who fell down every time and got up again and before even looking himself over or dusting himself off, he’d stand up and begin apologizing.

The person would say some condescending thing or another, in the very best case something like “Eyes on the road, please, mister!”

On the street he would lose track of time. Time would disappear and, when he turned back around to look over his life, he would suddenly see himself on the park bench, the same one on which he always sat. He would sit there until the anxiety made him spring from his seat. What if Fariborz tries to call? Or . . . or what if the canaries need food or water?

Of course, the canaries had died the day before. They had fallen and lay dead on the bottom of their cage and he stood there for a long time this morning, hovering over the empty enclosure. He was expecting someone to receive his announcement of their untimely deaths. Mrs. Javahery, who had stepped onto the balcony to pick up her basket, merely said, “I’m sorry. It seems like it’s started again.”

Mr. Matin wanted to say something to invoke more sympathy from his neighbor. He wanted to say, “But they were reminders of Fariborz.” But Mrs. Javahery beat her basket against the wall a few times to shake the dust off and then she left.

The park was empty except for a woman in the distance who was sitting on a bench and knitting. At home any glimpse of his wife’s straight metal knitting needles would remind him until, finally, he would hide them in the closet along with the half-knitted fragments and wool rounds. The image of his wife that followed the sight of that woman with her needles in turn reminded him of those times after midnight, when she would wake up suddenly and sob like a child for an hour. When the crying stopped, she’d go to sleep. Then Mr. Matin’s anxiety would have a turn. Anxiety and obsessiveness, the very worst of ailments. He’d check all the doors. Unlatch the windows and latch them again. He’d press his ear against the wall and, finally, when he tired himself out, he would tiptoe to bed.

During the day, he didn’t dare go out onto the street. He was afraid of the police. He couldn’t control it. His fear made him feel as though he had committed a double homicide and was walking around with two beheaded corpses concealed among his things. Soon enough, he infected his wife with this same disease. When Mrs. Matin saw the police, she’d clutch her purse to her chest or glance over her shoulder and look for the drops of blood that might have dripped onto the ground from the terrible thing that she did not have inside her purse.

And then turning back became habitual for both husband and wife, whether out on the street or inside the home, whether police were in sight or not. They’d even turn around in the bedroom and look over their shoulders. It seemed right then, in those very moments, that they could finally uncover their lives. They’d turn back abruptly and look over their lives.

She took once again to cleaning the house, this time purging with an unprecedented and obsessive urgency. She rid herself of the potential evil that might be laying hidden in their books. She threw them all out, every single one, even the cookbooks and gardening manuals. Once she’d thrown every last book into a garbage bag and tied it up, she leaned against the empty bookcase and breathed a sigh of relief. Then she stopped buying the papers in the afternoon. It was never clear what the writers who had their pieces published in the newspaper on one day would be up to on the next. She even pulled up the old newspapers that she had used to line the bottom of the cupboards and replaced them with colored paper or plastic. One afternoon when she was busy moving boxes around, she was struck by a sudden urge to open the box that contained two old porcelain trays so that she could look at their intricate floral design. The trays were a keepsake from her mother, and she had packed them away years ago for fear that they might break. When she opened the box, her heart nearly stopped in shock. Right where the newspaper covered the surface of the tray, practically framed by the folded edges wrapped around the dish, she saw a bold black headline in the unmistakable language of the leftist guerilla organizations: Tens of Thousands Gather to Commemorate the Heroic Siahkal Uprising.

When Mr. Matin looked up, his eyes met his wife’s terrified gaze. She was standing in the doorway trembling. Mr. Matin was sure that some terrible news regarding Fariborz had finally arrived. But Mrs. Matin took her husband over to the cupboard.

They burned the newspapers and flushed the ashes down the toilet.

She looked back over her photo albums with a new eye for detail and threw out a photo of Matin from years ago in the city of Rasht, standing in the Sixth of Bahman Square, whose name commemorated the date on which the Shah’s so-called White Revolution had begun. She checked the backs of the photos, worried that something might have remained hidden from her, a bit of writing in a corner. She even threw out all the letters she had kept her whole life, every single one, after she read in one of them, from her niece, “We are rehearsing our performance for the royal birthday celebrations.”

She didn’t want to hold on to anything anymore, not photos nor letters nor memories. Nothing. She went after her address books next, looking obsessively over all three of her little notebooks. She tore out the pages with phone numbers of anyone she didn’t know. Then, fearing that her more distant acquaintances might have given the Matins’ phone numbers to someone else in the time since she’d last been in touch with them, in which case she would know nothing of what those people were up to, she contacted every one of these acquaintances and assured herself that they had not shared the Matins’ number with anyone else and had no plans to do so. But that was not enough. How was she supposed to know what the children of her husband’s half-cousin, grown up now and off at university, were up to—what they believed in or what political movement they favored at present or in the distant past? And what of her own aunt’s grandchildren for that matter? So, she threw them all out. Every address book. Everything.

Out in the neighborhood, on the streets, she avoided people. In the long lines for bread, meat, and cheese, anyone’s efforts to strike up conversation with her would always prove fruitless. In shared taxis, she would sit so hunched over into herself that no one could possibly mistake her fellow passengers as relatives or friends.

And suddenly she remembered. Along the sidewalk of a street teeming with people and cars, a long-gone memory came back to her all at once. She was around seven or eight years old, in first or maybe second grade. She could still remember the little paper flag with its green, white, and red, clutched in her hand. She even remembered the crowded sidewalks, the iron and cement barriers lined with droves of guards while she worried about the white hair bow that she’d lost. They had brought everyone out from school. The children cheered and yelled “hurrah.” Then the event ended with a few motorcycles passing by and several big black cars.   

She looked for pictures from her childhood. She had thrown out her photo albums. But finally she got hold of one, and she stared at it for hours. Her eyes, her eyes had not changed at all. They would be able to recognize her. She bought a pair of sunglasses and never took them off, not even at home. She even slept at night with the sunglasses covering her eyes. Deprived of light, they began to become inflamed from the constant tears. Her eyes tormented her. One day as she stood in front of the mirror with her fingers readied to claw out her own eyes, her husband took her hands in his.

“Could someone have seen me that day? I remember a couple of photographers there, snapping away.”

Matin brought his wife’s trembling hands to his lips.

“What if some picture, some evidence of that day, is stored in an archive somewhere. I’m scared!”

He kissed his wife’s hands, brushed aside her damp curls from her forehead, and took her firmly in his arms. When the safety of his embrace finally seemed to settle her, Mr. Matin faced the stained-glass window, glowing deep blue in the sunset, and sobbed without making a sound.

After that, Mrs. Matin fell prey to madness. Sometimes she’d scream, break whatever happened to be lying close by, and say “Is this really how it is? They say visits have been cancelled. I just want to see him.”

Once she even walked up to a police officer, held out her open purse, and yelled “Look! Take a good look inside! Look in my bag!”

There wasn’t anything inside the bag apart from a crumpled handkerchief, a hairbrush, some makeup, that sort of thing. There wasn’t anything else. Except, of course, there was a picture of Fariborz as well.

Mr. Matin took her by the hand and pleaded with her to calm down, but when he was finally able to lead her along the sidewalk, she turned back and saw the ominous scene of her life all over again, stood facing the scene without playing any role in it.

Afterwards, she became accustomed to keeping her back against a wall wherever she went. She’d find a corner and stay there with her back to the wall. Then she even stopped sleeping on the bed at night. The empty space beneath it left her with a feeling of insecurity. She moved to a room which, unlike her old bedroom, didn’t have the basement or the greenhouse underneath it. Even so, every night she’d hear whispers that, as they say, must have been made by those full-bodied prehistoric insects which, by way of some exception and likely because they had settled in the depths of the earth’s sediments, had gained the power of speech.

Soon enough, the sound carried on through the night and into the morning. And then she started hearing the insects during the day, too. The sound was everywhere. She no longer dared to turn on the radio or television. That same mysterious and troublesome sound would find its way to her from every source, even from the neighborhood loudspeakers whose announcements and warnings reached the house. She became ever more convinced that the sound came from those insects buried deep under the house, from a very distant past.

A period of long sleeplessness began. She doubled and even quadrupled her sleeping pills. It made no difference. After days without sleep, she would finally pass out in some corner of the house. Mr. Matin would muster all the strength he had for the undertaking and carry his wife’s frail body to the bed. He covered his face with his wife’s hands and when he was sure that she was fully unconscious, he cried with all his heart.

“May I sit here with you?”

Mr. Matin suddenly found himself facing a boy, somewhere around ten or twelve years old, who was looking at him through a pair of old-fashioned spectacles balanced on his nose. He was using both hands to caress the slight bend in a girlish parasol, the shiny metal handle of which rested on his shoulder. Mr. Matin pulled himself together. He gave the slightest nod of his head or possibly gestured with his hands or feet in such a way that the boy took it as an affirmative response.

The boy closed the parasol with a certain finesse and sat down at one end of the bench before he said, “Nothing afflicts me quite like loneliness does.”

He had a magnanimous tone. The seemingly meaningful consideration that he put into that word “loneliness” gave a gravity to his tone and appearance. Mr. Matin turned his head and looked the boy over. The boy was neatly dressed. He was wearing long wool socks and when he sat down only a narrow band of skin showed between his socks and his black shorts.

The boy said, “This morning I had to leave them.”

Mr. Matin said, “Who is that?”

The boy placed the tip of the parasol on the ground, rested both hands on the handle, and said, “My father and stepmother.”

Mr. Matin nodded uncertainly.

The boy seemed restless. He took a slight pause and then said in a pained voice, “They’d only given me until tonight to rid the house of the canaries.”

Mr. Matin nodded again uncertainly. But a moment later, he felt compelled to say, “Ah . . . I understand.”

With his peculiar emphasis, the boy said, “But this all is so unfair.”

Now Mr. Matin took an interest in the situation and replied, “How painful!”

The boy drew his head closer as though divulging a secret to a stranger and said in a hushed tone, “But I’m going to resist.”

Mr. Matin smiled. He waved his hands in the air and said, “I approve.” He stroked the parasol. “You seem older than your years.”

The boy leaned against the high-backed bench. He seemed to look at the tips of the tree branches and let out a sigh. “That’s the main source of my troubles.”

Suddenly he faced Mr. Matin and screeched in a high-pitched, feminine tone, “You tell me, what am I supposed to do?”

Mr. Matin shrugged his shoulders. “Nothing. You have to do what they say.”

But the boy stared off into the distance and said with a poetic sorrow, “They’re nothing but a couple of innocent little birds.”

Mr. Matin said, “Anyway, it’s not a major problem. You can always sell them.”

“Sell them? What a joke. They’ve gotten used to me.”

“Or you could give them to someone else.”

“I can’t even think about that. There’s no one who would take care of them like I do.”

And then with the same poetic tone he said, “They’re nothing but a couple of innocent little birds.”

This time it was obvious he was about to cry. He gained just enough composure to stop his nostrils from twitching and he pressed the parasol between his legs.

Mr. Matin said, “Excuse me. I know this is a personal question, but your stepmother is probably the one to blame in all this, no?”

The boy shook his head. “No . . . not at all! She’s just a regular person.”

Mr. Matin shrugged. “What about your father? What I mean is, how is your relationship with him?”

The boy said with obvious indifference, “I don’t like him. He’s a dictator.”

“I’d like to ask you another personal question.”

The boy stared with surprise at Mr. Matin. He gathered his thoughts and while looking carefully at the boy with lowered eyes said, “What about your mother? I mean, where’s she?”

The boy snapped, “I don’t like to talk about her with anyone at all.”

“Sorry. I’m really very sorry.”

The boy’s lips started to tremble again, and he whispered, “They’re nothing but a couple of innocent little birds.”

He turned toward Mr. Matin and stared into his eyes. “I hate him. He’s a real dictator. He doesn’t even allow me a little privacy in the afternoons. You know . . . how can I say this? There’s a spot in the corner of the garden, next to the basement window, under the branches of the quince tree that reach almost all the way down to the ground. I’ve made myself a cozy little corner there. I like to sit there in the afternoons and think a bit. Sometimes I take my canaries’ cage with me. I can close my eyes and all at once enter into another world. I can see the foals walking along the bank of a river that passes through our orchard . . . or a silk handkerchief, filled with apples, hanging there of its own accord in a space between the ground and sky. It’s in that place where I can speak with everything. Even with the stones. And they answer me there, too. You understand? The stones answer me.”

Mr. Matin said with amazement in his voice, “That’s unbelievable. You have such a beautiful imagination.”

The boy said, “That’s just it! That’s exactly what you all say. But you think of me as a little boy, and a quirky little boy at that.”

Mr. Matin said, “It’s not that way at all. Or at least it doesn’t seem that way to me.”

The boy said, “Sometimes through the lace curtains of my eyelashes I can enter an orchard. The flowers from our garden are there; each one has a glowing window. I can pass right through these windowpanes. There’s a sun on the other side, and after that a crystal basin where you wash your feet at a courtyard pool.”

From around the bend in the short gravel path that ran up to their bench, a woman suddenly appeared and shouted, “Asghar! Goddamn you, where the hell have you been?”

The woman had her hands on her hips in a threatening way. The boy drew his head in closer and said, “That old hag’s my mother. God have mercy on me.”

The woman approached the bench. “My God, look at him. Where did you get those clothes? Whose umbrella is that?”

The boy leapt up from the bench. He threw the parasol on the ground. Rolling his eyes, he let a whizzing noise escape his throat before he turned and fled.

The woman watched the boy until he disappeared from view. Then she put her hand on her chest, closed her eyes, and in a pained voice began to wail. “May God strike you down. You’ll be the death of me!”

Mr. Matin stared at the woman in disbelief.

She opened her eyes and asked him with an apologetic look, “He didn’t ask you for money, did he?

“Absolutely not. Please have a seat. Tell me what is going on. He strikes me as a prodigy.”

“You all say the same thing. All of you. He’s a wicked little boy, a stubborn little liar.”

Mr. Matin said, “I’m completely lost. What is the matter?”

“He’s wicked and insane. He’ll kill me eventually.”

“That’s hard to believe.”

“He murders the sparrows. Every afternoon he lies in ambush in a corner of the garden with his bow and arrows. He butchers any sparrows that land in the trees, tears them to bits. Now he’s locked up two wounded sparrows in a cage and no one dares to lay a finger anywhere near them.

Mr. Matin suddenly felt anxious and insecure. If only his wife would come now and take him with her. Take him to that quiet, far-off town. He looked down the path and inescapably heard that same irritating and troublesome sound of the ancient insects. But what about Fariborz? Maybe he’d call. He leapt up. Which way was he supposed to go? He hurried off, the clamor of the sparrows behind him. He was afraid to turn back. He ran all the way home, stood out of breath in front of the house but couldn’t find his key. He dug through all his pockets and finally opened the door. The phone was still ringing.


“Mr. Matin’s residence?”


“You are instructed to come down here at once.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Is there a problem with the line? You are instructed to come down here at once.”


“I said, come pick up his personal belongings.”

The sound of the insects grew loud again and stains appeared everywhere, the stains that the two of them, husband and wife, had been searching for all these months. He was scared. The stains scared him. He leaned his back against the wall. But the wall offered no security. He leapt out of the house like a madman. He was outside the house but . . . no. This couldn’t be. A gentle breeze blew towards him from every direction. He narrowed his eyes and passed through the lace of his lashes. A silk handkerchief, filled with apples, was hanging between the ground and sky. The stones. The stones lining the path were all murmuring something to him. The walls all turned green and a milk-white mist flowed over the ground completely. The flowers opened their windows. He saw his wife on the other side in the sun. She was smiling at him through the lace veil hanging from her hat. She looked so young and beautiful in her summer linen dress suit. There was a flower on the brim of her hat and a bird. His wife waved. She was jumping over little streams. She was coming towards him. She wasn’t walking. She was flying. White swans were swimming in the silvery lake and the flowers spread a warm mist in the air. Mr. Matin joined arms with his wife and, filled with the fragrant scent that had surrounded him, he finally saw, at the end of the path, a boy submerged in that same mist that was rising from the asphalt. The boy was approaching him with a cage in hand and Mr. Matin could hear the canaries clearly.

Story by Amir Hassan Cheheltan

Translated from the Persian by Samad Alavi

For more from the Spring 2022 special issue of MQR, “Decades of Fire: New Writing from the Middle East and North Africa,” you can purchase the issue here.

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