Announcements of all kinds, from notices of death to ads for used household goods or floral design lessons at the lowest prices, have an assigned place in our neighborhood: on the wall outside the police station at the corner of the main street and Ninth Alley, this same narrow road where my family has lived for the past twenty-seven years. Every morning, before buying their bread from the bakery that sits in the shadow of a sour-orange tree whose roots have penetrated the street gutter, the residents of the neighborhood stop and take a quick look at the flyers. Consequently, over the years the corner of Ninth Alley has turned into a sort of wall newspaper, a free source of information.
I see the notice announcing Mr. Moadab’s death posted on the wall newspaper in the half-light of dusk one evening toward the end of March, after the New Year, when people are either visiting friends and family or hosting parties at home. There’s a picture of him from when he was young, with a smile that seems to have crinkled in the corner of his mouth by force.
The hospital uniform weighs heavy on my arm. It has been raining since early morning. The alley is empty and quiet and the damp air is filled with the scent of wet sour-orange leaves. A wrinkled hand, warm and alive, runs over my face. A slimy wetness spreads on my neck and the warmth of blood, urine, and sweat trickles down my inner thighs and onto my knees. My shoes feel like heavy weights hanging from my feet. A young girl is playing hopscotch in the alley. Her hair is flying in the air behind her. She kicks a piece of broken brick forward, it stops on six and the girl screams, “My cat is pretty.”
Mr. Moadab is a fat, sallow man who wears thick glasses with black frames, shoes that are two sizes too big, and a four-pocket vest that knows no winter or summer. He has a small haberdashery and odds-and-ends shop near the corner of Ninth Alley. A small shack under a staircase, with ribbons, lace, bobbins, and elastic bands hanging from the ceiling, shelves, and every nook and corner. He is a harmless, surly man who every day pulls up his storefront gate before the rest of the local shops open, and every night goes home carrying his empty lunch box after everyone has already gone. His house is two alleys away. He doesn’t mingle with the people in the neighborhood. But whenever the locals run out of things to talk about, they talk about Mr. Moadab. About the fact that he used to teach at the school for the deaf and was politely forced into retirement after he tried to molest a retarded girl, about the fact that no one has ever seen his wife’s face. Some say half her face is paralyzed, others say she comes from Pass-Koohak and shuns people. Whatever the truth, until the day they move away, no one ever learns anything about what is tucked away in the coffer of Mr. Moadab’s life.
The taxi driver complains about the high price of gas, about its impurity that has choked the air with smog and soot, about his wife who only recently had to have one of her lungs removed. He points to the uniform I’m holding and, looking in the rearview mirror, says to the passenger sitting next to me, “The lady knows what I’m talking about.” There’s a cold wind blowing and the window won’t roll up. The man next to me is pressing his fat thigh against my thin, freezing leg. Mumbling under his breath, he reads an SMS on his cell phone and, ignoring the driver, bursts into laughter. I huddle and squeeze against the car door like an ailing cat and I let my burning scalp cool in the air. A wrinkled hand creeps through my hair and a voice whispers, “It’s like silk . . .” I smell a moldy wall, I smell a man’s lust. The raindrops coming through the window dampen my clothes. My shoes are wet. The stench of urine and the smell of menstrual fluids waft from the seat. The car up front skids on the wet asphalt. There is gridlock up ahead.
I play hopscotch with my friend. Her house is at the end of the alley, at the very end of the dead end. She is one year ahead of me in school and knows things that I’m oblivious to. She tells things to the kids and I look at her, stunned and with my jaw hanging. “You’re stupid,” she says, “really stupid.” It’s the third time she and I have walked up to Mr. Moadab’s shop and I haven’t had the courage to walk in. I’m supposed to ask him for a red ribbon and then I have to go behind the alcove curtain. My friend says she already got three red ribbons and wants to go again. She says, “If the stone lands on six, I will go. If it doesn’t, you have to go. You must.” I want to know what goes on behind the curtain. My hands shake and my heart races. A crow perched above me on the elm tree shrieks instead of crowing. The stone stops on the line between five and six. “You’re a cheater,” my friend says. “You have to go there tomorrow.” Then she whispers in my ear, “There’s nothing to be scared of, silly.” Tomorrow is my sister’s marriage ceremony.
I ask my mother for money to buy a few sheets of the paper we need to write our school exams on. She is preparing the traditional marriage spread and asks me to pick a few leaves from the sour-orange tree on my way so that she can decorate the candles and the bowl of sugar-coated nuts. Mother has sewn a pleated pinkish-yellow skirt and a ruffled pink shirt for me. The shirt has shiny pink pearl buttons and a row of pleats on the cuffs. All I’m missing is a red polka-dot ribbon. It snowed last night. I drag my rubber boots on the ground and mix the snow and mud. I stack the bitter orange leaves in my hand and at exactly 7:35 I close the wooden door to Mr. Moadab’s shop behind me.
I’m ten years old. I’m wearing a short pleated skirt and knee-high rubber boots and I’ve used a rubber band to gather my hair in a tight ponytail. Mr. Moadab is standing in front of a kerosene heater, facing the door, and as usual he is counting his ten-tuman bills. He stuffs them in a box and takes two sheets of exam paper from the bottom shelf and puts them on the counter.
My mouth is dry. My bladder feels full.
I tell him I want a red ribbon. I hear my voice rippling in the air.
Mr. Moadab’s eyes seem to laugh behind his eyeglasses.
“It will suit your hair very nicely,” he says. “God bless you, it’s like silk. You know, you little devil, I always see you through the shop window . . .”
He runs his fingers through my ponytail and moves his hand all the way up to my scalp.
He locks the shop door and goes behind the curtain.
I hesitate, I regret having come. Mr. Moadab pokes his head out and snaps, “What’s the matter? What are you waiting for?”
I put the sour-orange leaves on the counter and I automatically follow him.
The small storeroom is right under a staircase. It’s where Mr. Moadab eats and naps, and it’s separated from the front of the shop by a grimy tarp curtain. There are stacks of cardboard boxes half filled with ribbons, elastic bands, tape, and crepe paper.
I rummage through a box and pull out a gold-trimmed red polka-dot ribbon. A warm wrinkled hand creeps up and down under my skirt. Terrified, I swing around. With his eyes bulging, Mr. Moadab murmurs, “It’s like silk . . .” I shriek like a wild animal and I dig my teeth into his fingers.
I clutch the polka-dot ribbon and the sour-orange leaves in my fist. My rubber boots feel like heavy weights hanging from my quivering legs. I huddle under the sour orange tree with my back to the street corner and I feel warm liquid oozing down my legs and into my boots.
I put my wet shoes in the closet and I leaf through the unit’s log. From eight in the morning until seven at night two complete pages have been filled. Forty-seven out-patients, twenty-five in-patients. I think, In the midst of all these accidents and incidents, what color is the tragedy of my life? Red, burnt blue, or chocolate brown? Dr. Sardari is sleeping in the doctors’ lounge. Until three in the morning, one after the other, I line up X-rays and tests and medical histories on sheets of paper, small and large, white and blue and yellow. The room smells of men’s sweat, of their pungent frothy urine. I take the disinfectant spray from my handbag and spray it on the desk and in the air. I put the stethoscope over the scar on the inside of my left wrist to listen to my pulse. It stubbornly beats, gentle and regular. According to the second arm on my watch, there are seventy-seven beats per minute. My uniform is covered with splattered blood, filth, and urine. I take it to the laundry department and go to the lounge.
Dr. Sardari’s eyes are drooping. He puts his tea glass on the bed and leans back on the sofa behind the curtain.
“Damn the New Year and the holidays,” he grouses. “Everyone goes mad.”
He gets up, takes his dirty stain-covered uniform, flings it over his shoulder and says, “It’s all crap. What kind of life is this . . . constantly buy sweets, buy pastries . . . new clothes for the kids . . . new clothes for the wife . . .”
I’m tired. I need to sleep. The lounge reeks of Dr. Sardari’s cigarettes and the bedsheets reek of women’s perfume. I wake up with a start. Mr. Moadab twists a sharp knife in my stomach and murmurs, “It’s like silk . . .” Tiny insects crawl around on my hands and feet, on my stomach, on my legs that are cut and bleeding. With their sharp teeth they are slowly eating my flesh, and no matter how many times I brush them off me, every time I open my eyes, they’re back where they were. I said I tripped and fell in the street gutter. At home no one is paying attention to me. I’ve washed myself in the bathroom and crawled under the bedcovers. The vague sound of the women guests singing marriage ballads has merged with Mr. Moadab’s laughter and the sound of my body tearing.
They say I have jaundice. Some say it’s typhoid. My hair has become so thin that Mother can’t even put it in a ponytail. My face is so yellow it looks almost green. My tongue tastes bitter in my mouth and I eat nothing but vegetable broth.
“Your friend has stopped by to see you more than ten times,” Mother says.
I don’t want to see her. With a horror-stricken look in her eyes, we part ways. She goes to the end of the alley and I take the shortcut home, a narrow path that goes through the open plain behind our house.
Me, a high-spirited obstinate girl who would show up at home only for fear of my father, have buried my nose in my books, as if the only thing that can save me is the magic of those parallel lines and side-by-side columns.
I bury my face in the pillow. It smells of a man’s body, of stale food, of worm-infested flesh. Someone is running behind the door. A man whispers, “Damn their hospital.” A woman moans, “My arm, look, it’s broken here.” Dr. Sardari twists his sharp knife in his wife’s stomach and along with her small intestine pulls out a long red scarf.
The glow of the florescent light has spread over my eyes like a thin sheet. The scent of women’s perfume is enmeshed in the fabric of the pillow. I press my face against it, but there is nothing resembling tears in my eyes. I don’t want Mr. Moadab to die. I want him to suffer just as I suffer. I can’t tell months, weeks, and years apart. Why should it be Winter Solstice tonight, or New Year’s Eve? I know I’m different from the children I sit with in the same classroom, on the same bench, and I know what separates us is our dreams and fantasies.
During the years that seem feverish and long, I see him only once. Before walking to school, I hide behind the alley wall and look, in case he’s outside sweeping in front of his shop or pulling open the gate. During all these years, my only partner is the wall of Ninth Alley. We share the same pain. It knows my secret and understands. Every day its body is slashed with razors and fouled with glue. Unrewarded and silent, it conceals secrets. At times it looks so shabby that even the locals don’t want to post their notices on it. But they always come back. Perhaps they know they won’t find any place better than this. I stand in front of it, read the fliers, and cool my burning hands and cheeks against its grimy, sticky, soot-covered surface. One day, before reaching the corner, I see Mr. Moadab standing there with his nose almost touching the wall, trying to read something with his far-sighted eyes. I hide behind the wall and wait until he limps across the alley and closes the shop door behind him.
The emergency room is quiet. A few patients are sleeping on gurneys in the hallway. I tell Dr. Sardari to go get some sleep. “Fooled!” he says. “Everyone was fooled. We were fooled, too! What kind of a job is this? Why deal with these people, a bunch of long-eared asses. Build a high-rise, make ten times more money than we make. Look at him, he’s barely sixteen, and instead of being out there living it up, he’s here . . . it makes me want to cry . . .”
He picks up his germ-infested tea glass and leaves . . .
Through the barred window above me, the orange light of early morning is shining on the leaves of the potted Indian coleus on the windowsill. In a few days I have to take the board exams. I take the physiopathy textbook and leaf through it. Fifteen million people worldwide suffer from Hepatitis D. The hepatic antigen virus remains in the patient’s body for the duration of their life and it can transform into various forms of entrovirus hepatitis. Every year, one million people die from one defective icosahedron virus that has a strong tendency to multiply and attach itself to a host cell.
I’m sixteen. Six years have passed and my breasts have grown and my straight, shiny hair flows down below my shoulders. I have twice slit my wrists with Father’s razor blade and once I have overdosed on aspirin. It tastes better than all the other pills in his first-aid kit. Twenty-five pills. The dosage is low. They pump my stomach all night long. I look at the yellow and green sticky liquid that pours into the bucket and suddenly my pain subsides. The next day I smear on Mother’s pink lipstick and wear a tufted hairdo under my headscarf. Using a dropper I drip acid into a small bottle of liquid fever reducer and I tighten the cap as much as I can. With shaky hands and knees, at exactly 7:35 on a December day six years later, I open the door to Mr. Moadab’s shop. He is frowning and talking loudly on his ancient black telephone. He ignores me. I say, “A red polka-dot ribbon . . . like this one . . .” And I put the frayed ribbon on the counter. A smile puckers in the corner of his mouth and he points behind the curtain . . .
Urine and blood ripple in my ankle-high shoes and my hands shake. I sit under the sour-orange tree at the corner of Ninth Alley and I press my back against the cold rained-on wall. I take the vial of fever reducer out from between my breasts. I can’t open the cap. I hit the top against the wall. Shards of glass shine like diamonds on my skirt. The splattered acid leaves sharp smelly streaks on the wall. I caress the dripping wounds with my index finger. The scent of blood and of the disintegrating flesh on my fingertip makes me nauseous. I spew the bile in my stomach over the young, green sour oranges that have fallen from their branch.
I close my textbook. I think about the icosahedron cell that somewhere in my veins is circulating among the red and white blood cells, in plasma or diluted in platelets, so that one day or one night, in a matter of three seconds it can multiply into two, four, sixteen, and infinite deadly cells.
I take the announcement of Mr. Moadab’s death out of my handbag and I lay it open on the desk. I color his eyes with a red pen and draw a large X across his face. But the patriarch of the Moadab dynasty still ogles me with a vulgar sneer on his face. I purse my lips, look around, and with all my might I spit at his smirk that is now hanging over the edge of the desk. Saliva streams down his lips and wets my feet . . .
"سبز نارنج" © Neda Kavousifar. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by Sara Khalili. All rights reserved.