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from the November 2010 issue

Mummy and Honey

During the seventh-day observance of Grandfather’s passing, paying no heed to the comings and goings of those serving tea and sweet drinks in the five-windowed drawing room, with its gilded scales glistening, it gently coiled around the bitter-orange tree and disappeared among its branches and leaves. No one saw it but the youngest brother, who had that day arrived from abroad. With eyes that from sleeplessness and a thousand thoughts had turned poppy red, he clumsily suffered through the ceremony, now and then turning to stare out at the bitter-orange tree, hoping to see again the glittering reflection of the viper. And he didn’t.

In the evening, when the house emptied of outsiders, Father summoned all three brothers to Grandfather’s room. He had already moved his belongings there. He would sleep on Grandfather’s carved-wood bed and from that man’s easy chair he would issue household orders. He spoke with conviction and fatigue. From that day on, all three brothers were to take up residence in the ancestral home or their monthly allowance would be cut off. Grandfather, to compensate for his absence in that dwelling, and so that the remaining members of the dispersed dynasty might come together again, had so stipulated in his will.  And he, their father, to preserve the dying tradition of their ancestors, desired that they obey. The youngest brother raised his voice. He flailed his delicate arms above his head and shouted that he had not completed his studies abroad, and besides, he lowered his voice, he may have plans to marry a suitable, like-minded girl. But Father, seated on that easy chair, waved his hand as if gently pushing something away, closed his eyes, and went to sleep. Stunned, the three brothers descended the stone staircase. In the cavernous kitchen, half-burned logs sputtered in wood-burning stoves. The eldest brother said they must obey and went to his quarters.

The house was sprawling. The courtyard was surrounded by a two-story structure and on each side, rooms with five full-length windows faced the large jasper-green pool at its center. Father had assigned each of them a separate wing. In their rooms, the brothers stared at the wooden beams in the ceiling until dawn and listened to the rustle from above . . . The next day, the eldest brother moved his wife and belongings to the house, but the other brothers’ quarrel with Father continued. Father would shout, “What is there left of us . . . the Zand dynasty is scattered. You took wives from breeds with new money . . . what about blood, lineage, pedigree . . . from whom will your children learn our ways . . . you indolent loafers, leave if you can. I will not give an allowance to anyone who doesn’t honor the spirit of his father’s forebearers . . .”

Out of earshot, the youngest brother mumbled, “He’s lost his mind. Opium and the death of that one-hundred-and-thirty-year-old, who fed on ill-gotten gains, have dried up his brain. I’ll bring him to his senses, you’ll see . . .” But the middle brother seemed to have been persuaded, and hoping for a temporary stay, he yielded to Father’s old-age whims and a week later transferred his belongings from the apartment he rented in the northern part of town to the house. The following night, the sound of his hammered dulcimer and his wife’s singing rang from their five-windowed drawing room. His wife was a seductress with an added veil of flesh across the curves of her body. She was one of those women with whom few men could practice restraint and endurance. Late into their nights of lovemaking, her lustful groans would penetrate even the farthest corners of the house. Father would shout, “Enough . . . enough!” But the sound of the woman’s sweat-drenched vindictive laughter would spiral around his room. And when daylight came, the woman would occupy the courtyard more brazenly than the day before. The eyes of the stained-glass windows would darken before her mercilessly voluptuous and commanding gait, and at the sound of her raspy voice hundreds of sparrows would take flight from along the narrow watercourse that circled the pool.

It was she who saw the viper the second time. She ran shrieking into the courtyard. She had seen a rope in the middle of her room and when she bent down to pick it up, the rope had with insolent reluctance slithered into the folds of the bedding. Father said, “She’s lying. She’s acting up.” The middle brother, while consoling his wife, replied, “Why in the world do we have to live here? You’re being stubborn. Why can’t we all move to a new house? We can buy an apartment building and each take a separate floor.” Father scoffed, “Even if there is a snake, what is it doing inside a room when there’s the roof and the baby pigeons, the bitter oranges and the sparrows . . .” And he bent over the brazier and opium smoke wafted into the air.

The youngest brother brought out Father’s double-barreled shotgun from the storeroom and loaded it. Mumbling something about a university degree tossed to the wind and a fair-figured lover with eyes like the ocean cast to the sea, he sat in ambush under the bitter-orange tree in which he had first seen that golden shimmer. The bitter-orange trees were great in number. They were planted in a tight row around the twenty-three-foot-long pool of unknown depth and the aged green of their leaves blended with the algaed water. The youngest brother growled, “This entire mausoleum is a maze. Where am I going to find that creature?” And he immediately grew quiet and listened.

Near dusk, the sparrows suddenly flew off in fright from a tree a short distance from him. He tore towards the tree and aimed the shotgun at the dense leaves that in the fading light of early evening were no longer green. A bloated, rotting bitter orange left over from the previous year fell to the ground and he fired. Dust rose in the air and petals fell from the blossoms, but no viper came into view.

And then Father walked down the stone stairs, rinsed his hands in the pool, and said, “I’m telling you . . . leave that snake alone. If it develops a grudge against you, it will even cross the ocean to hunt you down.” The youngest brother moaned, “But why, Father? I promise to return when I finish my studies. I owe only a small sum over there . . . support me for one more year . . . Why do you insist that I rot in these cellars and storerooms? I’ll die here.” Father pointed to the weeds growing on the clay and straw rooftops and said, “You’re dead already . . . look . . . listen!” In the pallor of the last light of day, unearthly gossamer  waves with a faint trace of vermillion floated down from above the walls and across the dark windows of the second floor, and the black swifts darted about amid their folds. Father said, “They observe our actions, ready and alert . . . the moment you turn your back to them, you’re dead . . . why don’t you come sit beside me and savor a smoke? . . .” The son, disgusted and crippled by hatred, escaped to his room and closed the door.

In the days that followed, although the fear of a viper that could be anywhere swelled in the seven cavities of their bodies, they were more preoccupied with discovering a means of escape from an oppressive eternity in that house. And all this time, the eldest son’s wife was silent. Every afternoon she would sit on the stone edge of the pool and stare at the murky water with her doe-like eyes that bore the gravity of an unspeakable secret and the gleam of determination. In the early hours of dusk, when the water no longer mirrored the sun’s radiance, in it one could detect the ghostly passage of large algae-encrusted fish. Small worms, red and pearly-colored, would swim up and cling to the surface for an instant and then, with amusing twists and turns, they would sink. Occasionally, the late-afternoon breeze would coat the water with bitter-orange blossoms. The layer of petals would ripple and the watchful woman would imagine a snake floating beneath it. The next day, when the sodden clusters of translucent petals had sunk into the water one could again see the shadowy trace of the old fish.

Doe-Eyes placed bowls of salted water all around the house. “Snakes like it. The snake will drink it and when it does, it will feel beholden to us and won’t try to hurt us.” One early morning she jolted awake with her eyes wide open and, moved by the dream she had had, she said, “Blood will be shed in this house . . . I am certain of it . . . Dreams that come to me in the early hours of the morning always come true.”

After the fortieth-day ceremony of Grandfather’s passing, no kin set foot in that house again. Father was convinced that everyone was lying in wait to somehow plunder his inheritance. His calculated ill temper had driven them all away. And in return, relatives resolved to drive his sons away. They were left with only an old half-breed albino who together with his mute wife maintained the house and cooked.

Father liked all of them to gather together for meals. The women, with the help of the mute hag, would bring in the food and the faience plates on ornate copper trays and they would all sit around the dinner cloth spread on the carpet and eat without looking at each other. One day the youngest brother kicked his plate aside and growled, “If I am to die in this damn house, then I won’t eat another bite, for it to be over sooner .  . .” And he got up and walked out. Father, unperturbed, crawled on all fours over to where his son had been sitting and carefully gathered the rice that had spilled from his plate. “He’ll come begging when he gets hungry.” The middle brother’s wife burst into tears and covered her face with her hands.

That afternoon, in response to an attempt at mediation by the eldest brother, Father’s shouts reverberated all through the house. “You, shut up! . . . What is their right and rightful share? . . . They have no share . . .” The eldest brother, with his shoulders slouched, descended the stone stairs. The courtyard was flooded with the scent of bitter-orange blossoms and the black swifts glided above it in all directions. Then everyone, even the youngest brother who was up on the roof lying in wait for the viper, heard the sound of Father’s sobs.

The middle brother beat the delicate hammers on the dulcimer strings. His wife threw open all five windows of their drawing room and the instrument’s centuries-old echo of secrets and murmur of malice silenced the swallows and sparrows. The old half-breed and his wife came up from the kitchen and sat in the courtyard leaning against the stone reliefs that skirted the walls of the house and gazed at the open windows of the drawing room. The doe-eyed woman turned her eyes away from the pool. Then the brazen minx appeared in the frame of the first window and with a sly smile on her face she unleashed a dance that was shorn of dancing. She leaned back and in concert with her swaying arms, the quiver of her proud breasts poured across the courtyard. Amid the gleams of light floating in the air, there was a slithering streak. It twirled and emerged in the frame of the second window. The beat of the music grew faintly more rapid. The youngest brother shouted from the rooftop. The woman’s arms reached up, coiled around each other like two snakes, and the scent of a carefree spirit mingled with the perfume of blossoms. The woman puckered her lips, raised her eyebrows, and winked at the dark, closed windows of the other three wings of the house. She swayed her body, stomped her feet, and the jingle of invisible ankle bracelets reverberated among the branches and leaves. The woman was in the third window and the tempo of the music increased . . . A mysterious smile spread across Doe-Eye’s lips and the half-breed albino bared his festering, toothless gums in silent laughter. The dulcimer strings trembled. In the fourth window, the minx’s unearthly limbs, writhing and restless, swung to all sides. The bitter-orange blossoms rained on the pool. The woman ululated. Her drenched hair spilled onto her shoulders, its curls sprang open with stinging leaps. Loud and venomous, the sound of the dulcimer echoed in the rooms and antechambers and seeped out from the structure’s countless pores. A few strings snapped and lay crimped at the edge of the instrument and the man still struck the blistering hammers . . . The fifth window was wrapped in dusk and the specter of the woman’s vengeful figure undulated in the dark . . . In the end, she cried out and fell in a swoon.

All this time, Father’s shadow lingered behind the green, garnet, and agate stained-glass windows of his room. That night, their customary dinner spread was not laid out. They each took shelter in the darkness of their own wing and listened to the minx’s rapturous gasps that were more blatant than ever before. But at midnight, other than the youngest brother, who remained on the rooftop in a gale of moonlight and noxious stars, no one heard Father’s painful cry. “G . . . Go . . . God . . . why are they doing this to me?”

Two days passed with the fevered hallucinations of the starving youngest brother. Armed with the shotgun he searched every crook and corner of the house looking for the viper. He pushed aside ghosts that crossed his path with a curse and one by one he swung open the doors and advanced. The eldest brother drew in the opium smoke, lay down, and stared at the ceiling, crowded with bright-red phantasms that rippled into each other. The minx sat by the pool, dipped her feet in the water and in response to the sparrows’ chirping, smiled cunningly, aware of Father’s eyes behind the windows of his room.

On the third day, they had just sat down to lunch when the youngest brother’s delirious shouts rang out from the cellars. The middle brother cautiously said, “He will die of hunger . . .” Father sneered, “No one in our dynasty has ever died of hunger . . . he won’t either.” Then he turned to the women and in a conciliatory tone asked, “Why aren’t you bearing children? My father hoped to see his grandchildren and great-grandchildren in this house. And I want to see his great-great-grandchild.” Doe-Eyes blushed and looked down. The eldest brother said, “Children are nothing but a headache. This house is crowded enough as it is . . .” And he got up.

That afternoon, sitting by the pool, the minx saw a golden glow from the corner of her eyes. She turned and screamed. The youngest brother came running. He lowered the gunlock’s catch and aimed, but wavered. Before his fevered eyes, under the jasmine bushes, outstretched and wondrous, slithered cold conceit and spellbinding doom. The defeated man moaned. The woman stomped her feet and screamed in horror, “Kill it! . . . Kill it! . . .” The flickering gleam, visible and invisible, was moving toward a cellar stocked with firewood. The woman beat her fists on the dazed man’s shoulders. “Kill it! . . . Kill it! . . .” The trigger was pulled. Slugs shattered against the flax-colored bricks bordering the flower patch and dust rose in the air. The woman howled and the man fired again. Lead pellets ricocheted off the bricks. The viper turned to face them. “Kill it! . . .  Kill it! . . .” The youngest brother clumsily reloaded the shotgun, but he didn’t have time to shoot. All he could do was move the woman and himself out of the way of that golden gleam that sprang at them. Behind them, the hiss from an ungratified jaw moved away. Father shouted, “Idiots! . . . You fools! . . . You’ve injured it. Who in the world kills a house snake? He will not let you off . . . He’ll kill you.” The minx leaned her forehead against the wall and burst into tears. The youngest brother dropped the shotgun and looking dazed, he went toward the vestibule. “I will leave this place . . . I will leave and never come back . . .”

The eldest brother grumbled. The middle brother took his anger out on the bushes on that side of the courtyard, pulling them all out by the roots, but there was no sign of the viper. The eldest brother said, “The earth is under the rule of the snake. If the snake wants, the earth will open up and hide it.” Nights and days fraught with fear lay ahead of them. With each step they took, they anticipated a vengeful bite. The arabesque motif on the carpet suddenly appeared to be a snake. Under the chests, there was enough space for a helix lying in wait. Each time they walked into a room, they rediscovered their own wretched ankles and calves. Cabinet doors were shut tight on an infinite darkness, somewhere in which glistened a pair of crimson crystals.

The minx never set foot in the garden again and the nights in her five-windowed drawing room grew silent and bleak. In the middle of the night, she would wake up screaming from the touch of something cold. She would cower on top of the ice chest and, while vomiting her horror, she would make her husband search their bedding and every corner of the room. Doe-Eyes increased the number of salt-water bowls. They called a snake catcher, a grimy-looking man with cold, steady eyes. When he saw the house, he said it would be difficult to find a snake in that sprawling compound; he had to move in for a few days. He started with the rooftops and made his way down to the courtyard. Wherever he found a hole, he would blow snake-charming breaths and incantations in it and a short distance away he would squat down and stare at it. Father watched his actions with contempt and said, “I told you . . . I told you to leave that poor thing alone.” The snake catcher replied, “There’s opium smoke in this house. The snake is probably hooked. There’s no way it will leave.” And he went on smearing his yellowed saliva around gaps and along cracks until one morning when they found his darkened corpse in one of the cellars. There were fang marks on his jugular, blood and dark foam had oozed from the corner of his mouth and there was a white snake’s egg in his fist.

Father laughed out loud, the eldest brother increased his daily dose of opium, and the minx started to speak again. She paced up and down the five-windowed room and repeated over and over again, “Go away . . . go away . . .” When she grew tired she sat but she would quickly jump up in a panic and look around. Occasionally they heard terrified shrieks from the sparrows’ nests under the eaves. Panic-stricken birds would fly into the air and everyone would know that the viper was devouring their chicks. The middle brother, when he wasn’t carrying a stick and searching the house, scoured the streets in search of the youngest brother and took measure of the cold and unkind conduct of their relatives. Discouraged, he would return home only to face his wife’s distraught laments. “Why did you leave me alone in this viper’s nest?”

One day the half-breed albino said he had seen the snake with its head in the stewpot. The minx cried, “It wants to torture us to death! That creature is intelligent . . .” She pointed to Father’s drawing room. “He will kill us all! He wants us to spew blood, turn blue, and die.” Then with her eyes wide, she suddenly grew silent and listened. There was a rustle in the roof, in the walls, too; golden scales floated in the air . . .  “It wants me. It wants to bite me before it bites the rest of you . . .” And she clung to her husband’s legs. “Let’s leave this place . . . let’s go away . . .” The man gnawed at his moustache and burning with blind hatred, he growled, “With what money? Have patience. I’ll burn this house to the ground. I’ll send that snake and its venom up in smoke . . .”

They sometimes saw tufts of feather, pluckings from the massacre of sparrow chicks, fall from the eaves. And just then, on the other side of the courtyard, at the foot of the spear-wielding stone soldiers of the wall reliefs, a stream of molten gold would sink into the log-filled cellar. They slept with the lights on. One night the minx opened her eyes and saw a half-ray of sun on the ceiling. The woman lay still and surrendered to the horror. Right above her, the viper was hanging from a wooden beam, staring at her with dead eyes. Mesmerized by the snake’s steady gaze, she felt a crippling cold spread from her neck down to her limbs. Her hands went numb, then her middle and her legs. Scale by scale, the chill of death spread across her. She opened her mouth and in the same voice that she used to beckon her mate on carousing nights, she whispered, “Come to me . . . come . . .” In the morning, she had no recollection of how many hours she had remained motionless beneath that cold blade, staring up at the viper’s jaw open in an eternal sneer. In the doorway of the vestibule, the middle brother took the woman’s hands and begged, “Don’t go . . .” The woman’s eyes were sunken, her white crystalline skin had turned haggishly sallow and dehydrated and she kept flicking her tongue over her lips like a snake. She said nothing and, dragging her small suitcase behind her, she disappeared into the darkness of the vestibule.

The house took on the quiet that Father had decreed. The old man laid his hand on the middle brother’s shoulder and said, “That harlot wasn’t good enough for you. All the better that she left . . .” On the now blossomless bitter-orange trees young green fruit were plumping. Once in a while one would fall onto the Cossack bricks with a muted thud and it would bounce and roll away like a ball. Early evenings, the defeated sound of the middle brother’s dulcimer could be heard from behind the five closed windows of his drawing room. Doe-Eyes would sit by the pool, stare into the gaping mouth of a stone lion, and gently run her fingers through the water. A little farther away, the half-white half-black old man would splash water around the courtyard with a copper watering can and the bricks would sizzle, a mist would rise, and the intoxicating ancient dust would blend into a fog with the dulcimer’s ancient sobs and the woman’s dark gaze on the water.

Father resumed allowance payments to the two older brothers. He showed that he could be magnanimous. “Go buy whatever you want for yourselves . . . There’s enough to last us seven generations.”

But the ever-present ghosts were not gratified for long. After noontime prayers, lunch had been laid out and they were wallowing in the perfume of rice and tallow when the youngest brother walked in. Disheveled and ragged, he sat down, tucked the baby rabbit he was holding in the crook of his knee, and without uttering a word he pulled the platter of rice toward him and began wolfing down the food as if he had not eaten in all that time. Father watched him with an innocent and forgiving smile. “You see . . . in the end we all come back here.” That afternoon, the youngest brother snapped the rabbit’s neck and left it at the foot of a bitter-orange tree. The next morning, there was no sign of the dead animal. “This was a peace offering . . . If we feed it, it will probably forgive us and leave us alone . . . may the spirit of our great ancestor bless       us . . . Amen.”

In the days that followed, with the shotgun in his hand and a mysterious glint in his eyes, the youngest brother sat in ambush in a corner of the courtyard and as soon as a flock of sparrows gathered along the watercourse that circled the pool, he would shoot. The commotion of wounded chirps and fluttering wings would rise and he would run and snap off the sparrows’ heads, leaving their carcasses here and there around the house. Doe-Eyes secretly wept for the sacrificed, and, terrified of the scheme that was brewing in whispers between the younger brothers in the alcoves and recesses of the house, she prayed to the prophets for help. The youngest brother said, “The day will come when we give this side of the house to the viper. We have fed and fattened it. It will settle in the drawing room. We will no longer fear it and it will no longer spite us. We will confide in it, we will celebrate with it, sleep beside it. An old twenty-two-foot-long viper . . .”

With the weather warming, they spread carpets over wooden platform beds they had set up by the pool and they ate dinner there in the shelter of the bitter-orange trees. The gillyflowers had bloomed by the hundreds and the timeless house was filled with their fragrance. Father, delighting in the coming-together of the family, would reminisce about Grandfather, his forebearers, lands and estates, old conflicts and feuds. “This peace and comfort is the fruit of the battles and braveries of the men of our dynasty. Be grateful and honor them. We are of them and live for them.” Then everyone would grow silent and listen to the breeze waft through the bitter-orange trees . . .  

At midnight, when the house became the realm of ghosts Father conjured, the youngest brother would go to the rooms of the middle brother and they would talk in the dark until the early hours of the morning. And one afternoon when the residents of the house became certain the viper was not alone, the two brothers showed no surprise. Undaunted and with a confidence rooted in their subconscious, they watched the viper’s consort. On the bed beside the pool, the two were engaged in a mating dance. An inaudible tune dictated their movements. They brought their heads together, withdrew, and close to one another they half-rose and craned back and forth to the left and right of each other. Father let out a spirited laugh and said, “They will bear children . . . It is a good omen. A snake is a harbinger of good. Its spine brings sympathy, its brood brings bounty . . .” And together with the eldest brother, they took to the opium brazier and smoked more than ever before. The youngest brother whispered to the middle brother, “It’s time . . .”

That night, having made certain that everyone was asleep, the two walked out into the courtyard. The flickering glow of the kerosene lamp in Father’s room stretched as far as the pool. Barefoot, the two climbed the stone stairs up to his room. The youngest brother had said, “Just a few drops . . . he sleeps so soundly when he’s high and delirious, it’s as if he’s dead . . . We’ll put only a few drops in his ear . . . he’ll sleep forever . . . may God forgive the dead . . .” The middle brother quietly opened the door. Like ghosts, they crept in. Father, heavy and regal, was sleeping at the far end of the room, his steady breaths the essence of time. The two brothers took a step forward but then froze in place. At the foot of Father’s bed, a pair of vipers raised their heads from their coil the instant they sensed the warmth of their presence. They opened their jaws and hissed. The brothers, with deadened heart and drenched in bitter sweat, forever retreated . . .

Many long years remained until Father’s one hundred and tenth year, and the day of his passing, when they would unseal his last will and testament to learn that with the same stipulation as Grandfather’s, their inheritance had been entrusted to the eldest brother.

Translation of "Moumia va Assal." First published in Moumia va Assal, Niloofar Publications, Tehran, 1997; 2nd ed., 2001. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2010 by Sara Khalili. All rights reserved.

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