Translated By Michelle Quay
Today, Two Lines Press releases Elemental: Earth Stories, the third title in its Calico series. The collection features writing by eight international authors whose work explores humanity's complex relationship with the natural world. In Farkhondeh Aghaei's story "Dog Rose in the Wind, the Rain, the Earth," which appears below in Michelle Quay's translation, a violent rainstorm alters the course of a young woman's life.
On a languid afternoon in Tehran, we passed through the quiet, leafy backstreets of Shemiran and down lanes of upscale, modern houses. As we neared the Ghodsian estate, Father explained one last time, with a frown, that I could turn around right now if I wanted to, that he didn’t care if I got married at all. The image of Hormoz came to mind for a moment, in the Rome airport as he nervously ran around taking care of things, lips trembling as he tried to find the words to say goodbye. From then on, much to my annoyance, he’d been calling me day and night. But what could I say? We entered the Ghodsian house in silence. Reyhaneh, the housekeeper, showed us into a beautiful parlor where Mr. and Mrs. Ghodsian were waiting for us. Mrs. Ghodsian was wearing head-to-toe black, which showed off her pale-white, moonlit skin in a particularly elegant way, and she had carefully arranged her jet-black hair in an updo. She barely looked at me once—very cursorily, like I wasn’t there. She shook Father’s hand, made small talk, and asked why it had been so many years since he had come to see her.
Mr. Ghodsian was a thin, tall, elderly man with bony cheeks. Dressed in clothes slightly too big for him, he didn’t move throughout the entire visit, sunken into the couch. Every once in a while, he repeated mindlessly, “Yes, just so. Just so. Yes.” The fact that he was a businessman and, rumor had it, very wealthy didn’t seem to fit with his appearance.
Reyhaneh brought some tea in on a silver tray and offered it to us. Mrs. Ghodsian bit into her sugar cube in silence, then idly sipped her tea. I heard the sound of the sugar dissolving in her mouth and the tea slipping down her throat. During the hour I was there, no words of any particular significance were spoken. When Father moved to get going, Mrs. Ghodsian asked him, as if she’d just remembered, whether he had plans for continuing my education. After a brief pause, Father said that if it wasn’t possible to enroll me in a university here, he was ready to send me abroad, although he had no specific country in mind just yet. That’s all that was said about me, and after saying our goodbyes, we left the house with an air of assumed dignity.
The entire time we were inside, I’d been expecting to burst into tears the moment we got into the car. Instead, I started to laugh and made Father crack up with my impression of Mrs. Ghodsian drinking tea. Right then and there I decided never to go back to that house again.
Hormoz called from Italy as usual that night. He was dying to hear how my meeting with his mother had gone. He almost yelled his question: “Mother didn’t behave too badly, did she?”
“Was she supposed to?” I replied.
“No, no,” he said, embarrassed. “But she always acts a certain way, I mean, it seems like she... So what did she think?”
“You’re going to have to ask her.”
I met Hormoz completely by chance in Italy. We’d gone there for Father’s treatment, and Father recognized him by his family name. He was one of those distant relatives that Father said he didn’t really want to associate with. Hormoz was a young, well-known businessman who’d benefited from his father’s years of hard work. A father who now had trouble breathing and could only say, “Yes, just so.”
The last few days of our trip, Hormoz spent almost all of his time with us. He said he was lonely. Father asked him why he didn’t get married.
“Italian girls are stylish and good-looking,” he responded. “They’re really great, all things considered, but when you look into their eyes, you realize they don’t love you.”
After we got back to Tehran, he started calling, insisting we get married.
“Small rivers of rainwater flowed down our arms.”
The day after we met the Ghodsians, Father told me that Hormoz’s mother had called him at work to invite us over on Wednesday afternoon. In the very same call, she gave him the address of a tailor and remarked that she didn’t want to see me in an outfit made at the bazaar. When I told Father I didn’t want to go, he paused, then said it didn’t matter to him, that I had to decide for myself.
That night, as I tried to keep my voice steady and rational, I explained to Hormoz that I would prefer not to meet with his mother again, and that for now the question of marriage was off the table. That made him nervous. He asked me if there’d been some offense, and to at least give him one more chance.
He definitely planned to speak with his mother. When Wednesday came around, we went to the Ghodsian house at four in the afternoon. In response to her request, I wore cheap clothes on purpose. Unlike last time, Mrs. Ghodsian welcomed me kindly and even tried to smile at me. In every kind gesture, I could see the results of Hormoz’s pleading and threats. Father stayed by Mr. Ghodsian’s side while Mrs. Ghodsian laid a cold hand on my shoulder and took me to see the ornate guest parlor. It wasn’t a large room, but it had a certain elegance. I hadn’t seen anything like it before—curtains of navy velvet with vibrant flowers; old paintings; delicate crown molding; mirrorwork next to delightfully patterned pieces of matching furniture; sets of latticed china that, according to her, were washed several times a year by foreigners; and most eye-catching of all, a giant tan carpet with large red flowers in the center of the room.
As we walked through the parlor, Mrs. Ghodsian said, “I’ve always hoped that Hormoz’s wife would receive our guests in this house.” Then she pointed out the red flowers on the carpet and said, “Remember to walk only on the flowers; this carpet gets dirty very quickly.” A few weeks later, in that same parlor, I received some guests who had come for the one-year anniversary of the death of Akbar Ghodsian, Hormoz’s uncle. The entryway and the great hall were full of bouquets Mrs. Ghodsian had ordered. I stood stiffly on the red flowers of the carpet, wearing a dress sewn for me by the tailor, and tried not to go outside the bounds of the area that had been assigned to me. Mrs. Ghodsian was sitting in the first chair inside the parlor door, wearing her beaded black dress and natural makeup that showed off her clear, moonlit face. She kept watch over it all without looking directly at the guests.
Half-rising out of her chair as each guest walked in, she directed me with a nod where they were meant to sit, and I guided them in. The parlor was practically full when the sound of a young woman’s voice echoed in the entryway. She cried from the great hall, “Akbar! Akbar dear! You’re gone! Oh, my beloved Akbar, where have you gone?” A tall, heavy-set woman, she ran from the hall toward the parlor shouting, “Akbar! Akbar!”
Mrs. Ghodsian got up to wrap her in an embrace, but the woman slipped on the marble stairs and fell. Short of breath, with her arms and legs flailing, she kept gasping, “Dear Akbar, dear Akbar!” A few women rushed to help her, while her husband, a few steps behind, yelled, “Take off her corset! Take off her corset!”
His voice reverberated in the entryway. A few people laughed, as others worked to unzip her tight, clingy dress. Meanwhile, her husband, red with humiliation, tried to drag her into the entryway and, from there, get her to the bedroom.
Her face pale, Mrs. Ghodsian practically screamed at the guests that they should get ready to go to Beheshte Zahra Cemetery, then hurried into the entryway to tell Reyhaneh to put the flowers in the car. Minutes later a caravan of fancy cars set out toward Beheshte Zahra carrying stylish men and women and a mountain of beautiful flower wreaths. I was sitting next to Father. The huge basket of flowers he had ordered took up the entire back seat.
It was drizzling, and the sky was obscured by black clouds that grew blacker, closing in on us with every passing moment. As we entered the main gate of Beheshte Zahra, the rain started coming down hard, and before long it turned into a downpour, combined with a windstorm that grew stronger by the minute. Members of the Ghodsian family got out of their cars, and everyone followed Mrs. Ghodsian toward the funeral hall. Their umbrellas buckled instantly in the raging wind and rain. It was a violent storm that tore clothes away from the body and swallowed legs up to the knee in mud. As rain soaked my clothes and hail pelted me, I covered my head with my arms and tried to keep up with everyone else. Everyone wanted to get to the funeral hall as quickly as they could, but the storm wouldn’t allow it. It drove us back, and as water streamed down our faces, we tried again to penetrate the downpour and move forward. Small rivers of rainwater flowed down our arms. The women grabbed onto each other in groups of two or three and forged on. The men held their coats over their faces and pushed ahead blindly. Some of the younger people, who were trapped behind the rest, took the elders in their arms and helped shuffle them forward. I couldn’t pick Father out of the crowd. I thought he’d gone to help Mr. Ghodsian and was pulling him along with the other men. The journey seemed endless, as though the ground were stretching out before us, and I lost track of Father. When I finally reached the funeral hall, exhausted and disoriented, I saw a group of people who must have arrived before the downpour. They were waiting in the hall and staring out the large, plain windows. It was an enormous hall lined with metal chairs and rickety tables.
“The ground beneath my feet softened and shifted without warning.”
I threw myself onto one of the chairs and tried to rearrange my hair. The women entered in small groups with their hair in disarray and clothes soaked through. Most of the men took their shoes off as they came in, poured the water out, and put them back on. The speaker was at the mic, telling us about the pious and devout life of the dearly departed and offering his condolences to the grieving family. The women stealthily tried to press the water out of their hair or wring out the fabric of their skirts. Thin rivulets of water flowed under the chairs toward the front door, where they pooled into a small puddle.
A bit later, the men brought in Mr. Ghodsian. Apparently, he had changed his clothes in another room. He was now wearing a boyish brown outfit. His trousers stopped just below the knee, and his long, skinny arms stuck halfway out of the sleeves of his jacket. The last member of the party to arrive was Mrs. Ghodsian. Her done-up hair was a mess and her face had turned yellow, like a bruise, the signs of plastic surgery all too apparent. She tottered on her high heels, which were caked in mud, and tried to remain calm. Hobbling and dripping, she reached the center of the proceedings and looked at the women. When the speaker called for those present to mourn—allowing the spirit of the departed Akbar Ghodsian to find peace Mrs. Ghodsian locked eyes with me and let out such a wail, the entire hall trembled. She writhed in anguish. She beat her head with her hands, tore out her hair, and threw herself on the muddy floor of the hall. Women flocked to her, trying to calm her down.
The hall door opened and in came Father. Ribbons of water streamed down his face. He’d brought the large flower basket as an offering from the car, carrying it gingerly in his hands and wiping his dripping chin with his arm. All that remained of all those flowers were a few metal stakes and green stems. He set the basket aside, sitting down next to Mr. Ghodsian. The service was adjourned quickly thereafter, the guests dispersed, and I left with Father. The weather was now pleasant and humid. A listless sun shone down. We strolled toward a flood channel that was nearby. Under our feet were puddles, and alongside us the muddy water had risen so high it was rushing past, level with the canal wall. I wanted to walk on the canal’s edge. Father said it was dangerous and I shouldn’t, but I wouldn’t listen. I thought it must not really be dangerous, since the wind and rain had stopped. Father stood away from the edge and took my arm as I walked along the canal. I wanted to look at the coursing, muddy water. It excited me. It seemed like it was taking things along with it.
“I saw a woman’s hair bobbing in the water for a moment,” I told Father.
“Could be,” he replied. “Wouldn’t be surprised.”
He seemed preoccupied, lost in thought. Suddenly the current intensified. The ground beneath my feet softened and shifted without warning. I tried to move toward Father, but the water was dragging me with it. He had a strong grip on my arm, but I couldn’t keep my balance. The water pulled me in. As I screamed, I heard Father’s voice in the distance. The water quickly whisked me away, tossing me around and pushing me onward. I kept tumbling headfirst, and water filled my mouth and throat. Casting my arms in all directions, I made contact with nothing. While hurtling forward, I suddenly felt that it was all over, that I could forget about everything, even Father. Then an unexpected calm washed over me.
When I opened my eyes, I was cold. My hair was caught in some moss along the bank of a river, and I could hear the gentle, monotonous gurgling of the water. With my fingernails I freed my hair, then sat halfway up. I was on a wide, sleepy plain. Ancient willows with imposing trunks cloaked the riverbanks in shadow. I thought I would be exhausted, but when I stood up, I felt as though I’d just woken up from a pleasant sleep and was completely fine. I waded through the water, which was clear and shining, flowing with an even sound. You could see signs the river had flooded a few meters in either direction. Mud, slime, and moss covered the willow tree trunks. All along the river, I saw women covered up to their throats in moss, asleep. At first I thought they were dead, but they weren’t. Occasionally they’d open their eyes and look at me. Sometimes their hair was so full of moss, I couldn’t tell what was moss and what was hair. I told one of the women lying in moss and weeds that I could help her get out, if she wanted. But she said she was comfortable, pulled the moss over her naked body, and went back to sleep. She didn’t want to talk to me. However far I walked down the river, I continued to see more and more women lying in the debris, either on their own or in small groups. Much farther on, I saw a woman who looked like Mrs. Ghodsian.
“Did the canal bring you here too, Mrs. Ghodsian?” I asked her.
She said she’d been living here for ages and didn’t know anyone by the name of Ghodsian. I came to the middle of a field. A harsh sun was beating down, but the heat didn’t bother me. Hard as I tried, I couldn’t remember Father, Hormoz, or the red flowers on the carpet. They were vague memories, fading into obscurity.
"Dog Rose in the Wind, the Rain, the Earth" by Farkhondeh Aghaei, translated by Michelle Quay, from Elemental: Earth Stories, published by Two Lines Press, 2021, as part of the Calico series. Reprinted with permission from the author and translator.
Published Mar 9, 2021 Copyright 2021 Farkhondeh Aghaei