Ghulam Ali traded in grains and spices. He carried produce of the very best quality. Not everyone could afford it. Unlike other merchants in Golpayegan who traded on barter, or offered credit, Ghulam Ali never kept a credit ledger in his shop. He bought with cash and sold likewise. He never compromised on that principle. And perhaps that was the reason for his reputation for miserliness.
Every morning, before he left the house for work, he would call out to his wife, “Kokab, do you need anything while I’m out?”
After hearing Kokab’s reply he would close the front door.
Sometimes the sound of the door closing would be heard again after a half hour. During that half hour, Ghulam Ali would hide in the storage room at the end of the courtyard, or behind the curtains of one of the rooms in the house. He hid there to satisfy himself that his wife was virtuous, and to make sure that she stayed at home and did not go out without his permission or knowledge. Ghulam Ali was also in the habit of making surprise visits to his house from time to time. These rituals of his pleased Kokab a great deal. They were the only signs of Ghulam Ali’s love for her.
Whether or not Ghulam Ali was stingy in matters of business, he was certainly miserly when it came to expressing his emotions in actions, gestures, or words. His lips never opened in smile, his face never displayed a frown. He offered neither rewards nor punishment.
Ghulam Ali’s daily routine remained unchanged from one day to another except for the occasions when he disrupted it to check on his wife. He could be found at his store from morning to noon. At that time the shopkeepers would close for lunch. While the call to afternoon prayer rose from the loudspeaker of the neighborhood mosque, his key would turn in the courtyard door and Ghulam Ali would return home.
He almost always came carrying something for his family. He would close the door with his foot, put what he had brought down on portico, and call out to his wife:
“Kokab, these first-grade raisins arrived at the shop. Keep them for us.”
“Kokab, I have bought some fruit. Keep the bigger ones for us, the smaller ones for the guests.”
He would head straight for the pool of water in the courtyard, where he washed his hands and face, then climb the stairs of the portico to enter the biggest and best-lit room in the house, the first in a long row of rooms. There were seven of them. Ghulam Ali had built them in view of the many sons he had had with his wife. His daughters were married and lived elsewhere. Except during mealtimes, when their sons, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren gathered there to eat together, the big room was reserved for Ghulam Ali and his wife.
When Ghulam Ali entered the room, his family would be waiting for him around the food-cloth spread on the floor, and his daughters-in-law would be bringing in the lunch dishes. He would answer their greetings in undertones, and take the place of honor at the end of the room. Lunch was eaten in silence. After lunch, Ghulam Ali would open his pack of Zar brand cigarettes, light one, and smoke it, staring fixedly at an indeterminate point in space. While he smoked, Kokab and the daughters-in-law would gather the dishes from the food-cloth and start washing. When he finished his cigarette, Ghulam Ali would crush the butt in the ashtray, reach for one of the pillows from behind him, and, placing it on the floor, spread himself out for his nap. As if on cue, his sons would pick up and carry away their children to their rooms.
Ghulam Ali would return to his shop after his nap. He would place his folding chair in a shadowy spot on the sidewalk and from then until sunset he would smoke his cigarette and watch the passersby.
As the call to evening prayer rose from the mosque, Ghulam Ali would open the door of his courtyard and step inside. He would wash his hands and face in the pool of water, and then head upstairs, where his family would be awaiting him for dinner.
Once dinner was over, Ghulam Ali would turn on his small transistor radio. He would light a cigarette and turn the radio knob until he found a station which broadcast music. He would place a pillow on the floor, and his sons and daughters-in-law would file out of the room.
Kokab would ask Ghulam Ali if he had enjoyed the dinner, and which dishes she should prepare for lunch and dinner the following day. Ghulam Ali would answer her in a few words.
Soon, Kokab would spread their bed on the floor, and Ghulam Ali would carry the radio to bed .
Only after the sound of his snores rose would Kokab dare to turn off the radio.
One day, with the call of the noon prayer from the mosque, Ghulam Ali’s key opened the courtyard door, and the bleating of a lamb rang through the house. Surprised, Kokab came out onto the portico. Ghulam Ali stood in the courtyard carrying a lamb in one arm. In the other hand he was holding a pail of milk. He shut the door with his foot and put down the lamb in the courtyard. The lamb, which must have been thirsty, ran toward the pool of water.
“Stop it!” Kokab shouted. “We make ablutions and wash the fruit with the pool water.”
“It’s a lamb. Not an unclean dog.” Ghulam Ali answered, engrossed in watching the animal. “Bring me an old teapot and the jar of honey.”
Kokab brought an old teapot and the jar of honey from the storage room. She put them on the portico floor and looked inquiringly at Ghulam Ali. Meanwhile, the lamb kept running around the pool.
Ghulam Ali silently mixed honey and milk together in the old teapot, and carried it to the lamb, rattling the keys on his keychain. He held the lamb in his arms and put the spout of the kettle to its mouth.
Unable to restrain herself any longer, Kokab spoke up. “Whose is it?”
Ghulam Ali kept feeding the lamb with the teapot with great patience. Afterward he put the empty teapot on the portico floor, washed his hands and face in the pool water, and as he was climbing the stairs to the room, finally answered her: “Kallay Hasan from Margh came to make his purchase at the store. He was short of cash. He left the lamb instead.”
When the lunch was over, Ghulam Ali said, without addressing anyone in particular, “Throw the pieces of naan from the food-cloth before the lamb.” He took a cigarette from his packet and went out onto the portico. Kokab gathered up the food-cloth and threw the leftover naan on the floor of the courtyard. As the lamb went toward the food, Ghulam Ali rattled his keys.
When the lamb finished eating, Ghulam Ali returned to his room. After his nap, while leaving for his shop, Ghulam Ali called out to his wife, “Take care of the lamb.”
At the time of the sunset prayers he returned to the house. He opened the door and placed the packets he was carrying in his hands on the portico floor, put his hand in one of them, and brought out a fistful of candies. He turned toward the rooms and called out, “Kokab, I have brought candy. Take it inside to serve with tea.”
Carrying the candies in his hand, he went toward the lamb, rattling his keys. He carefully opened his hand before the lamb and patiently stood there as the lamb ate the candy and licked the palm of his hand. Ghulam Ali washed his hands and face in the pool and headed in for his dinner. Kokab put fresh naan before him. She removed the lid from the aab-gousht dish beside her. First she filled Ghulam Ali’s bowl, then their sons’, their grandchildren’s, and lastly, the bowls of their daughters-in-law. She ladled a nice piece of meat into Ghulam Ali’s bowl. He tore a piece of it with the naan and put it in his mouth.
Kokab said, “When will he take it away?”
“Who?” Ghulam Ali asked, chewing with relish.
“Never. I want to keep it.”
Spoons and mouths stopped moving. Kokab began nervously pressing the digits of her left hand between her right thumb and index finger. She started with the left thumb and moved to the little finger. She did that a couple of times. A few times she opened her mouth but nothing came out.
“Eat! Food’s getting cold,” Ghulam Ali said to her severely, and went on to loudly slurp the aab-gousht from his spoon.
Ghulam Ali would feed the lamb the mixture of milk and honey twice a day. Once before he left for his shop, and once when he returned in the afternoon.
One morning, after he finished feeding the lamb, Ghulam Ali put the empty teapot on the portico floor and called out, “Take care of the lamb!”
Before Kokab could open her mouth to say what she wanted while he was out, Ghulam Ali shut the door.
When he opened the door again in the afternoon and entered, he called out, “Kokab, bring the teapot with honey and milk!”
Kokab answered from the kitchen, “I fed it the leftovers from breakfast. Have your lunch. It will get cold.”
“Will you bring me the teapot or not?”
Lunch was eaten in silence, as usual. Ghulam Ali, who had put the soft pieces of his naan beside his plate, gathered them and went out to the portico to smoke. When he rattled his keys, the lamb ran toward him from the far end of the courtyard. Pleased by the sight, Ghulam Ali said, “God be praised! God be praised!”
He stepped down and opened his hand before the lamb, who ate the pieces of naan greedily.
One day, as Ghulam Ali sat down for lunch, he said to Kokab, “I told you last night to make vegetable quiche for lunch.”
Kokab put a big helping of the scrambled eggs in his plate, and pushed the pickle jar toward him.
Ghulam Ali put the first morsel in his mouth. It was a large one, and he was busy chewing it when Kokab answered, “The animal has eaten all the roses in the flower garden. It has also eaten the shoots of the plants. The salad garden is its favorite grazing ground.”
Ghulam Ali struggled to chew.
Kokab continued, “It has left not a single leaf for me to make the quiche.”
Finally, swallowing with difficulty, Ghulam Ali said, “Well, it was hungry. I will ask someone to bring it fresh grass starting tomorrow.”
He took a second bite, smaller than the first.
As he put it in his mouth, Kokab, who had begun pressing the digits of her left hand between her right thumb and index finger, asked, “And what about the salad garden?”
Ghulam Ali gulped down the half-chewed bite, and answered, “Starting tomorrow I will pick up salad on my way home.”
From the next day, fresh grass came daily for the lamb from the farms. The twice-daily feeding of milk and honey also continued. And yet the lamb did not lose its interest in the flowers and the salad garden.
One day, when Ghulam Ali returned home in the afternoon and rattled his keys, the animal, instead of running toward him, bleated from the far end of the courtyard.
Ghulam Ali shouted, “Why did you tie up the lamb?”
Kokab answered from the kitchen, “It litters the whole courtyard with its droppings. It looks disgraceful when people come to visit. I don’t have the strength to clean his mess every day.”
Ghulam Ali untied the rope from the animal’s neck and said, “Well, ask your daughters-in-law to take turns doing it.” With that he tied the rope into a knot and threw it with great force onto the roof.
The following day Ghulam Ali made one of his surprise visits to the house. He had not done so for some time. Kokab quickly arranged her hair, smoothed her dress, and happily rushed out from the rooms onto the portico. Ghulam Ali ignored her as she stepped down, and headed for the center of the courtyard. He rattled his keys and the animal ran toward him.
Kokab looked on dejectedly as Ghulam Ali produced a fistful of dried apricots from his pockets and held it out.
After the animal ate the apricots, Ghulam Ali petted its back As he headed back for the door, he called out, “Remember to feed fresh grass to the lamb.”
“Lamb!” Kokab said unhappily, “It’s as big as me now.”
Ghulam Ali inspected the animal from top to bottom, said, “Well, sheep then! What’s the difference?” and shut the door behind him.
Ghulam Ali repeated his surprise visits, but each time it was to make sure that the sheep was free, and not, as in the past, to check on Kokab. Just as Ghulam Ali was beginning to regain his peace of mind that the sheep was kept untied, one day when he returned home at noon, and rattled the keys, the sheep again bleated from the far end of the courtyard.
Before Ghulam Ali could demand an explanation from Kokab, she ran out onto the portico carrying the milk and honey-filled teapot, and said, “Today Tooba Khanum from Margh came to visit. She has the evil eye. The animal is quite big now, God be praised. I tied him behind the trees at the end of the courtyard, so that he remained hidden from the evil glances of strangers.”
Ghulam Ali took the teapot from Kokab’s hands and headed toward the sheep, rattling the keys. As he came close the sheep became restless. Ghulam Ali held close the head of the sheep, which now came up to his stomach , and put the spout into its mouth.
In the evening, after dinner, he put on his coat and called out, “Bring the jars of chickpeas and raisins!” When Kokab brought them, he took out a few fistfuls of each and filled his pockets with them. He picked up his transistor radio and turned the knob until he found the music channel. Then he headed for the courtyard.
Ghulam Ali untied the sheep. Holding the radio to his ear with one hand, and the free end of the rope with the other, he and the sheep went out into the street.
That was the beginning of Ghulam Ali’s nightly strolls with the sheep. He would walk with the radio held to his ears while the sheep followed him, now by his side, now behind him. Every now and then the sheep would push Ghulam Ali from behind, and he would turn and give the sheep a fistful of raisins and chickpeas.
When he returned from his stroll, Ghulam Ali would tie the sheep behind the trees in the courtyard and go straight to bed. To Kokab’s usual queries he now gave even briefer replies.
One day, Tooba Khanum showed up at Ghulam Ali’s store. Something was moving inside the folds of the chador with which she covered herself. Ghulam Ali was smoking a cigarette. He looked at Tooba Khanum’s chador from the corner of his eye and asked, “What would you like to buy?”
“One kilo rice and a half-kilo of split peas,” Tooba Khanum answered. Then, casting a critical glance inside the folds of her chador, she added, “And a quarter-kilo of turmeric and thirty grams of green cardamom.”
Ghulam Ali again looked suspiciously at Tooba Khanum’s chador and kept smoking as he filled the paper packets with cardamom and turmeric, and placed them by the counter near the bags of rice and split peas.
Before he could reach for his abacus to add up the total, Tooba Khanum opened the folds of her chador to produce a rooster, putting it on the counter beside the scales. The legs of the rooster were tied. It began wildly flapping its wings when it was put on the counter.
Ghulam Ali puffed out the cigarette smoke and said, “What’s that, Tooba Khanum?”
“It’s for barter.”
“I don’t barter.”
“Then why did you accept the lamb from Kallay Hasan?”
“The one who is now a sheep this big!” Tooba brought her hand up to her chest.
Ghulam Ali lighted a new cigarette with his old one.
Tooba continued, “The one with whom you stroll in the street at night, and for whom you play the music.”
Ghulam Ali began emptying the packets and bags of turmeric, cardamom, rice and split peas into their respective containers.
He folded his chair and brought it inside the shop, and said, “The shop is now closed, Tooba Khanum. Come back when you have the money.”
He filled a small packet with sugar candy, sent Tooba and her rooster out of the shop, locked the shutters, and went home.
When he rattled the keys upon entering the house the sheep bleated loudly. He took out some sugar candy from the packet he had brought and went toward the sheep.
Kokab called out from inside, “Dinner’s getting cold.” Ghulam Ali ignored Kokab, untied the sheep, and began walking around the courtyard. The sheep followed him. Every few steps it would push its head against Ghulam Ali and he would hold out some sugar candy from the packet. After the packet was empty, Ghulam Ali washed his hands in the pool and went upstairs to eat.
During dinner he said, “Leave the sheep free at night. Tie it up in the mornings.”
He turned on the radio earlier than usual that night and put his pillow on the floor. When the family left the room, Kokab asked, “Aren’t you going out tonight?”
Kokab began pressing the digits of her finger, going from the thumb to the small finger. After she did it a few times, she asked, “I have made some fresh tea. Shall I pour you some?”
“No. Make my bed.”
The following day when Ghulam Ali arrived home for lunch, the food-cloth was not laid out. He waited for a few minutes at his usual place, but no food arrived. He said to one of his granddaughters, “Nedda, go ask Grandmother, what is the delay with lunch?”
Nedda returned and replied, “Grandmother says just a few minutes longer.”
Ghulam Ali stayed leaning against the pillows until the cloth was laid out and Kokab came in with the food.
“Why was lunch delayed, Kokab?”
“May its legs be severed! The animal smashed the jar of vinegar and the vats of pickle in the storage room. Lunch was delayed because we were cleaning up.”
Ghulam Ali looked at the food and said, “What’s for lunch?”
“You know I don’t like that,” Ghulam Ali said irritably.
“You didn’t tell me last night what to make today.”
“Just bring me naan and yogurt.”
“There’s no yogurt. I forgot to tell you: The animal broke the yogurt bowl, too.”
That night, as he was stepping into his bed carrying his radio, Ghulam Ali said to Kokab, “Don’t make vegetable-and-egg soup for lunch tomorrow. Make some fresh yogurt with the milk I brought today.”
Kokab, who was already in bed, mumbled something and turned her back to Ghulam Ali.
One morning a week later, soon after Ghulam Ali opened his store, Tooba Khanum descended on him carrying a basket. She pointed at the sack of grade-one roasted chickpeas and asked, “Why is it so expensive?”
Ghulam Ali removed the cigarette from his mouth, flicked the ash outside the shop, and answered, “Well, there’s grade two.”
“I have dried these large apricots myself,” Tooba Khanum said, opening the basket to show Ghulam Ali, who was following a buzzing fly in his store with his eyes. “Take them as payment for the grade-one chickpeas.”
Without removing his eyes from the fly, Ghulam Ali said, “Take them to the bazaar, Tooba Khanum, sell them, bring the money and buy the chickpeas.”
He reached for the fly-swatter.
Tooba, who was still looking at the sack of chickpeas, said, “At this price you could only feed them to your sheep. You could never sell them.”
Ghulam Ali brought down the fly-swatter heavily.
“Good-bye, Tooba Khanum.”
That afternoon, as Ghulam Ali was opening the door to his house, he ran into a neighbor. After the exchange of greetings, the neighbor asked, “Ghulam Ali, where’s your sheep? We don’t see you walking around with it anymore. Kallay Hasan told us that when he gave it to you, it was a lamb this small.” The neighbor brought his hands together as if holding a melon. “But now it’s quite big and fat, God be praised. What do you feed him?” The neighbor stared fixedly at the packets of food Ghulam Ali was bringing home.
“Would you like to come for lunch?” Ghulam Ali asked.
As Ghulam Ali was opening the door while the neighbor took his leave, the loud bleating of the sheep could be heard.
Ghulam Ali hurriedly got inside and shut the door behind him.
The minibus from Margh came to a stop at the intersection outside Ghulam Ali’s shop. Three old women got off. Ghulam Ali watched them silently as they headed for his shop carrying baskets in their hands. He lit a cigarette.
The women entered his store. The one who was older than the rest said, “Agha Ghulam Ali, I have brought a basket of double-yolk eggs from my farm to barter.”
“See these fine herbs I have gathered myself from the fields and dried,” the second put in.
Before the third woman could speak, Ghulam Ali exhaled the smoke with force, and pointed toward the recently hung sign above his counter.
“I can’t read,” the oldest woman said. “What’s written there?”
Emphasizing every word, Ghulam Ali read out in a loud voice, “No barter done here!”
The old woman, who was hard of hearing, put her hand to her ear and shouted, “What?”
“No barter done here!” Ghulam Ali shouted even louder.
“But Kallay Hasan himself said that . . .”
“May Kallay Hasan rot in hell!” Ghulam Ali yelled at the top of his voice. He reached for the sign, took it off the wall, and put it in the store window so that it was the first thing people saw when they entered the shop.
“Let’s go!” the oldest woman said to her companions, moving toward the door. “There’s nothing a beggar can offer anyone!”
When Ghulam Ali returned home, he rattled his keys but the sheep did not answer. Panicked, Ghulam Ali rushed toward the trees where it was tied. It wasn’t there either. He ran to the portico and shouted, “Kokab, where’s the sheep?”
Kokab answered, “It must be in the courtyard.”
“What do you mean it must be in the courtyard! It’s not here. It couldn’t have grown wings and flown away. Didn’t you tie it up in the morning?”
“I thought you had done it. The door was open. It may have gone out.”
Ghulam Ali anxiously headed out. He took the same route he used to follow on his nightly strolls with the sheep. He found the sheep at an intersection, grazing on the grass at the foot of a wall. As it saw Ghulam Ali, it came toward him, bleating. Ghulam Ali caught hold of it by its rope, and searched his pockets. He found a few small raisins. He returned home with the sheep. He fed the raisins to the sheep at the entrance, and pushed it inside, closing the door.
He called out to his wife, “Before you kept the sheep tied up to guard it from the evil eye. Now you let it go outside in broad daylight for everyone to see?”
Kokab answered from inside the room, “The only person who has not seen the sheep is your deceased father, may God bless his soul. Come now. Your lunch is getting cold.”
The next time Kallay Hasan showed up at Ghulam Ali’s shop, after many months, Ghulam Ali first satisfied himself that Kallay Hasan’s hands were empty.
“Agha Ghulam Ali, give me a bag of tea leaves and two kilos of tobacco.”
Ghulam Ali pointed at the various bags of tea in his shop and said, “Take the one you want.”
Kallay Hasan took a bag of tea leaves and put it on the counter while Ghulam Ali measured out the tobacco and packed it.
While Ghulam Ali was still adding up the total, Kallay Hasan stuck his head out of the shop and called out, “Mujtaba! Mujtaba!”
His son Mujtaba hurried into the shop. He was carrying a pair of chickens in each hand.
“What’s that, now?” Ghulam Ali asked.
Kallay Hasan made a sign to Mujtaba who put the chickens on the counter, and picked up the bag of tea leaves. Ghulam Ali snatched it from his hands and put it down close to him.
Kallay Hasan said, “They are home-raised, Ghulam Ali. Just look at them!”
“I don’t do barter.”
“But you accepted the lamb. God be praised, now it’s a sheep this high!” He brought his hand up to his shoulder.
“Give me the money and I will give you a lamb, Kallay Hasan. Then both you and I will have peace of mind.”
“You are killing me, Ghulam Ali. You are killing me. Take these chickens home. They will lay eggs for you, the chicks will hatch, and you will have many more chickens. Let me have my tea and tobacco.”
The chickens on the counter began moving restlessly and flapping their wings.
“Pay me money and purchase what you like.”
“Don’t do that, Agha Ghulam Ali. You’re killing me. Come now! Let my son carry the chickens home for you. We don’t want to miss the afternoon minibus to Margh. ”Ghulam Ali, who had lighted a fresh cigarette just a moment ago, crushed it in the ashtray with a grinding motion, and said, “For the sake of your fathers, Kallay Hasan! Take your sheep away and leave me in peace!”
“What would I do with a sheep this high, Ghulam Ali!” Kallay Hasan brought his hand up to the level of his eye.
One of the roosters crowed loudly.
“May God curse the untimely rooster!” Ghulam Ali said and, picking up the chickens from the counter, pushed them into Mujtaba’s hands.
“The shop’s closed now, Kallay Hasan! The shop’s closed!” Ghulam Ali began pushing Kallay Hasan and Mujtaba toward the door.
“It’s still morning, Ghulam Ali,” Kallay Hasan protested. “Come on! Don’t give me such a hard time!”
After herding Kallay Hasan and Mujtaba out of the shop, Ghulam Ali continued to curse them under his breath as he locked up his shop and headed home.
When he turned the key in the lock and entered, the sheep did not show any reaction. It had had its feeding of milk and honey not too long ago and was now busy grazing on the fresh grass.
Kokab rushed toward the door, arranging her hair.
“What made you return so early?”
Ghulam Ali said, “Kokab, bring me the packets of rock-candy.”
When Kokab brought the rock-candy, Ghulam Ali emptied a large quantity into his hands, and held it out to the sheep. The sheep began eating. Once it ate the candy, Ghulam Ali untied it and went out of the house with the sheep while Kokab kept staring at the open door.
Early in the afternoon Ghulam Ali turned the key in the door and entered.
He called out, “Kokab! Kokab!”
There was something in his voice which made her rush out from the room where she was resting. Even her daughters-in-law came out. They saw a boy enter behind Ghulam Ali pushing a laden cart.
“Keep the shoulder chops and the legs for us,” Ghulam Ali said. “Divide the rest between our daughters and send their shares to their houses.”
Stunned, Kokab and her daughters-in-law kept standing on the portico.
“Where should I empty the cart,” the butcher boy asked Kokab.
Kokab stared at the cart as if she hadn’t heard the question.
Ghulam Ali pointed the butcher boy toward the kitchen, and said to his wife, “Move! Move!”
As she finally stepped reluctantly toward the kitchen, Ghulam Ali said, “Send the tail of the sheep with one of our sons to Margh to Kallay Hasan’s house with the message that it is from the sheep he gave me. It is an offering. He may give it to any needy person in his neighborhood.”
The following day Ghulam Ali made a surprise visit during the day. As she heard him come in, Kokab came out from inside with an uncertain look on her face.
Ghulam Ali took a look around and prepared to leave. As he was leaving, he asked Kokab, “Do you need anything while I’m out?”
Kokab’s face lit up. She smoothed her dress, arranged her hair quickly with one hand and said, “You brought everything yesterday. Come early today. I have invited our daughters and sons-in-law. We have prepared kebabs for lunch.”
Ghulam Ali said, “Prepare the liver separately. I’ll have it for dinner,” and closed the door behind him.
© Elham Eshragi. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.