I open my eyes. A narrow sliver of sun is shining on the wall, forming a diagonal line that bends at the corner and breaks. It’s a pale light. I can’t tell if it’s morning or early evening. It seems I have been asleep for years and have had nightmares the entire time.
I remember in a long dream I suffered pain, I moaned and spoke with people I didn’t know. A few times I dreamed of my son, he didn’t speak, he just cried. The hair on his temples had turned gray and he had stubble on his face. Oh, and he had become so fat. I hope the interpretation of these dreams is auspicious.
I miss him and Rana so much that my heart aches and my breath won’t rise from my chest. I hear a loud whistle. Suddenly a girl I don’t know appears next to my bed. I’m having another nightmare. My heart is pounding. The girl brushes away the lock of hair that has fallen on her forehead and she reaches under the bed and does something. I don’t know what! The whistle stops. The girl stares into my eyes, picks up something from beside the bed and puts it over my nose and mouth. “Breathe, Mrs. Saberi,” she says. “Don’t be afraid. I’m Parvin, your nurse.”
I breathe, two or three times, and my heart quiets down a little. The nightmare is continuing. Parvin is here, watching me. Her eyes are small and, I think, black. There are a few dark spots on her nose. She is talking. Her voice is warm and familiar.
“Perhaps you don’t remember you were in the hospital,” she says. “Of course, you’re now back in your own home, in your own bedroom.”
I take a deep breath and look at her. She reaches out and strokes my hair. “That’s better,” she says. “Breathe regularly for a few minutes and I will take off the oxygen mask.” And she smiles. Two creases appear at the corners of her mouth. Just like Rana. I close my eyes and open them again. I want to wake up and walk about the house, and like the past few years that I’ve lived alone, I want to talk to myself, to cook lunch and dinner at a set time and wait for my son and Rana’s telephone call. But Parvin is still standing here, fiddling with something under or next to the bed. “By the way, the whistle you heard is from the machine that’s connected to you,” she says. “It measures your blood pressure and heartbeat and if they fall or rise too much it whistles. Thank God, everything is now as it should be. Do you want me to take off the mask?” I blink, yes. She takes it off and writes something in a notebook with a blue cover. I want to speak, but no sound comes from my throat, and my arms and legs won’t move. I’m like a piece of rock. I couldn’t possibly be awake. I close my eyes again and I pray for morning to come quickly.
Dozens of small and large photographs float around in my mind. I like one of them the most. It’s a photo I took of my son and Rana on the first day of school. They’re holding hands and instead of looking at the camera, they’re staring at each other. I remember they had cried so much that their eyes were red. It was the first time they were being separated. Up until the day they had to start school, I was happy that they were twins and so much alike. But when I realized how difficult it would be to separate them, I wished they weren’t so similar. After I took the picture, I promised them I would never keep them apart outside of school. And I kept my promise. When Rana left with her husband to live in another country, I sent my son to be near her.
How many years has it been? I can’t remember. My hair had still not turned white. I looked like I did in this other photo that I sent to Rana after she gave birth to her daughter.
The sound of the telephone ringing resonates through the house. Parvin answers. I can hear her. I open my eyes. The glare of the sun bothers me. Parvin is standing next to the window. She closes the curtain and says, “She’s awake again . . . it’s still hard to tell how alert she is.” She walks over to me and holds the receiver next to my ear. She says out loud, “Speak, Mr. Saberi. She can hear you.”
I hear my son. He says, “Hi, Mom.” His voice is shaking, not a lot, but it’s shaking. I want to speak to him. I can’t. Again he says, “Hi, Mom. I don’t know what to say. I’m so sorry I’m not there.” Parvin holds the receiver a little to the side and in a loud voice says, “I can tell by the look in her eyes that she has recognized you. Go ahead and speak comfortably.” My son says, “I wish I could come again, but unfortunately I have no vacation days left. The day Uncle called to say you’d suffered a stroke, it was by chance that I managed to find a ticket. I took all the vacation time I had left and I came to see you. I stayed with you for nineteen days. Do you remember?” His voice is still shaking, but he’s not crying. I wish he would.
Parvin takes the receiver away and speaks into it. “I’m sorry, but she shouldn’t become excited.” And she walks out of the room.
I look at the walls, the ceiling, the curtains. I want to scream, but I have no voice. My lips open and close, parched and silent. I bite my tongue and believe that I’m awake, awake enough to taste the saltiness of blood in my mouth.
I hear someone calling, “Leili.” Someone who’s not nearby. They must be outside the window. Parvin walks back into the room and the minute she sees me, she runs toward the bed. With something, perhaps a handkerchief, she wipes my lips. She looks inside my mouth and says, “You scared me, Mrs. Saberi. But you and I still have a long way to go together.”
She sits in a chair at the foot of my bed and once more writes something in the blue notebook. Again I hear someone calling, “Leili.” The voice is familiar, but I can’t remember where I’ve heard it. Parvin raises her head and looks at me. Her eyes remind me of someone I knew many years ago. Who? I can’t remember.
Parvin comes over and just like a doctor examines me from head to toe, listens to my breathing, and then reaches for the telephone. She dials a number, walks away, and talks to someone. I can’t hear her. Perhaps she doesn’t want me to know what she’s saying. She comes back and asks, “Mrs. Saberi, can you hear me?” I blink, yes. Talking into the telephone, she says, “She recognizes me, but the rest of the indications are not good. I better have her identity card at hand . . . Where should I look for it?”
I think, What does she want my identity card for? Perhaps she wants to know how old I am. By the way, how old am I? I can’t remember. From those long-ago days when I was a schoolgirl until the time when my husband died, I used to look at my identity card several times a year. Every so often, something was added to it. I remember when I turned eighteen, my photograph was added, at twenty, my husband’s name, at twenty-two, my children’s names, and at thirty-eight, the date of my husband’s death. After that, I never went looking for it again. But I know it’s somewhere in this house. Parvin will find it. She’s a clever girl, I can tell from those dark eyes. The telephone is ringing. I count the rings. One, two, three. What comes after three? I can’t remember.
Parvin answers it. From the tone of her voice, I gather it’s my son calling. I’m happy. She puts the receiver next my ear and says, “Mr. Saberi has some good news.” I concentrate and listen. “Mom, Rana is coming to Iran,” he says. “Her flight took off two hours ago. I drove her to the airport myself.” His voice isn’t shaking anymore. He is talking with that same calm that was in his voice ever since he was a small boy. I’m relieved. He says, “She will arrive at five-thirty tomorrow morning. She was waiting for her daughter’s school holiday to start. I pray you’ll be better by tomorrow.”
Parvin takes the receiver and walks out of the room. I hear her say, “It’s very unpredictable. It may be another hour or a few more months, or she may remain in this state . . . I don’t know.”
Again I hear someone calling, “Leili.” The voice sounds so close to me. I look, but there’s no one there. I don’t know why I suddenly remember my first day in school. I was wearing a blue uniform and brand-new white shoes with five-petal flowers on them. I still didn’t have a schoolbag. I was standing on line with a few other girls who were the same height as me and a fat woman was reading our names out loud from a sheet of paper. My heart was pounding. I was ready to hear my name. I hear a whistle. It’s my turn. Parvin runs over and puts the oxygen mask on my face. “Breathe, Mrs. Saberi. Breathe deeply and calmly.”
I breathe, two or three times. I’m relieved that the whistle has stopped. Parvin strokes my hair and says, “I found your identity card.”
Again I hear someone calling, “Leili.” It must be the fat woman who called my name as I stood on the line for first grade. Her voice and eyes resemble Parvin’s. She says, “Leili Gharib.” My heart is still racing. I take a step forward and say, “Present.” Parvin shouts, “Breathe!” Again I hear, “Leili.” I look. My husband is standing next to my bed, and with the calm that was always in his voice and is now in my son’s and Rana’s voice, he whispers, “Leili!” Parvin screams, “Breathe!” I take one breath, deep and peaceful. I smile at my husband. I hear a whistle.
"كسي صدا مي زند ليلي" © Noori Ijadi. By arrangement with the author. Translation © by Sara Khalili. All rights reserved.