To my grandmother, and all other grandmothers whom we never treasured as much as they deserved.
On that sunny autumn Thursday afternoon, between the hours of two and seven, three unusual incidents took place. From three to five, my friends and I went to Mahtab Cinema to see Hitchcock’s Psycho. At six-thirty, Agha Baji came to our house to visit my grandmother. Fifteen seconds later, the tile floor in the bathroom collapsed and I almost fell through into the stone pit below. Apparently, these three simple incidents had nothing to do with each other. But behind this simplicity, there lay numerous complexities.
In the afternoon, we have two periods of language study. We’re sitting in the classroom, the atmosphere filled with conspiracy and intrigue. We’re about to rebel against our teacher. But remarkably the instigator of our rebellion is actually our principal. He wants to pull the rug out from under Mr. Chabok’s feet. Mr. Chabok, our language teacher, must be on a temporary contract, that’s how it’s possible to fire him so easily. He is a university student with a hefty build. He has a bony face and a protruding jaw. He always grinds his teeth.
He is an irritable teacher, but sometimes he can be very informal and friendly. Granted we’re eighteen years old, and in twelfth grade, but the day he smoked in the classroom, we all flipped. The weird part is that he was asking the kids for matches. They say he says subversive things. I don’t really get that impression. Though he once did say something that wasn’t half bad. When we were talking about the Queen of England and her husband, he said that in the end, only two kings will be left in the entire world: the king in the deck of cards, and the King or Queen of England.
Tahmures Yazdani was the first person to bring up this business of subversive talk. One day, after Mr. Chabok left the classroom, he gathered all the kids around, his eyes gleaming with excitement, and said, “Did you see the back of his coat collar?”
We all stared back at him like zombies.
He smiled indulgently as if addressing a bunch of idiots and said, “He’s got the sign of the Third National Front pinned to the back of his coat collar!”
The truth is that we hadn’t seen anything. Even if we had, we wouldn’t have understood it. Tahmures has a big head and talks big. He says his dad is in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He always concludes his essays with the famous concept of “Positive Nationalism.” Even if the topic of the essay is “Write a Letter to Your Father and Explain Why You Have Failed.” Once, a few of the kids and I asked him some questions about Mr. Chabok and his subversive discussions. But he only raised his eyebrows and said, “He is a traitor.”
So we are sitting in the classroom and whispering among ourselves. We don’t know why Mr. Chabok hasn’t showed up yet. Either he has smelled a rat himself, or else someone’s told him about the setup. The truth is that we are all ashamed to pull this spineless, nasty trick on Mr. Chabok. The head boy keeps insisting that the principal is in the loop and encourages this move. But none of us really believe that yet. Tahmures’s irritating plans fall on deaf ears until he leaves the classroom in frustration and returns, short of breath, with the principal himself. The principal looks at us angrily and says, “So why are you all still sitting down?! Get up and leave!”
Slumping in our shame, we pick up our books and leave the school. Some people go home. Some stand around at the intersection and light up cigarettes. Alexander, Abbas, and I go to Mahtab Cinema. The movie is Psycho, starring Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, and John Gavin. All three of us are movie star magazine readers, and I am a Hitchcock fan. I have memorized the list of frames in which Hitchcock has appeared in his movies far better than the extended formula of ethane and methane. I have seen almost all the Hitchcock films that have been shown in Iran. Once, Abbas cautiously compared Hitchcock to the director Samuel Khachikian. With great disdain, I advised him to quit making such futile analogies. Vertigo is the best film that I have ever seen in my life, and the best director is obviously Hitchcock.
Mahtab Cinema is almost deserted. Only three or four of the best rows are filled. After some desperate pleading, we obtain permission from the usher and sit in the front. Supposedly Hitchcock has requested the theatre doors to be shut as the film begins, but they are not. At the beginning of the film, there is a minute of silence and darkness. One or two people crack jokes and several others whistle. But the three of us are already in our own world. As if we are in a different orbit.
The film takes our breath away, from the beginning, when it focuses on a window in a building, to the very end, when Anthony Perkins is sitting in the sheriff’s office with a blanket around his shoulders, not whisking away the fly on his hand. The shower scene—well, that’s of course special, but the most excruciating scene is when Vera Miles is going down the basement stairs alone, to see what’s going on down there. All three of us are clutching the arms of our seats. We are hunched over, and are pulling ourselves back in our seats. As if we don’t want to go down with her. Vera Miles doesn’t pay any attention to us. She goes down the stairs, one by one. In the basement, she sees a woman sitting on a chair, her back to her. She calls out to her. The woman doesn’t answer. She touches her shoulder. The chair turns around. The music screams. Just like when the edge of a sharp razor is scratched across glass. Vera Miles’s hand hits the hanging ceiling lamp from sheer fear. The shaking light twists and distorts everything, blurring all lines and boundaries. Sitting on the chair is the skeleton of an old woman. Gray hair tied back, with a straight part in the middle. Some remnant dry and wrinkled skin, black eye sockets, and a void mouth.
It’s been about an hour since I got home. I don’t even remember how I came out of the cinema or how I got back. With the book Physics and Mechanics in front of me, I am trying to read tomorrow’s lesson. The words keep moving out of focus, and the old woman’s face replaces them. I try to fade that image by shaking my head a few times. I stand; I see the neighbor’s windows. The windows go out of focus, the old woman’s face takes their place . . . I walk a few steps and stare at the flowers on the carpet. The flowers go out of focus and the old woman’s face appears in their place. I go to the refrigerator to eat something; the light bulb blinks, and the old woman’s face replaces all the containers of food. Trembling, I stand above the heater and fix my eyes on the blue flames. The flames dance around, and the old woman’s face appears among them. I try to make myself busy. I move from spot to spot aimlessly, like a lunatic. Unfortunately, no one is home, otherwise I could talk. I switch on the radio and turn it up high. The strumming of the tar and the kamanche fill the room and I calm down a bit. I am about to pick up Physics and Mechanics when someone knocks on the door.
The door of the house is wooden. It has a bronze crescent-shaped knocker. As far as I remember, no one ever uses the knocker nowadays. Everyone rings the doorbell. I don’t know why I am suddenly overwhelmed with fear. I come to the top of the stairs and listen carefully. A few seconds later, the rat-a-tat sound of the knocker comes again. The strikes are irregular—short . . . short . . . long. As if the striker’s hand is weak, without energy. I come down the stairs and turn on the hallway lights. The light bulb is only forty watts and dim. For years, it has been a safe haven for the flies to sit on and do their business. It sheds a halo of dirty yellow light. I stand behind the door, and ask, “Who is it?”
No one answers. I open the door. I expect to see a person, but there is no one there. The door frame, black and empty like a grave, appears before me. Suddenly, my heart beats faster. The hairs on my body stand on end, and my insides churn. I take a couple steps back, and ask out loud, “Is anyone there?”
A head slowly enters the black frame from the left side. Gray hair with a straight part in the middle. Wrinkled skin, deep set eyes, a pointed nose, a toothless mouth, a few strands of long black hair on the chin, all of this framed by a white scarf and covered by a black veil. My common sense recognizes this face, and says: “This is Agha Baji.”
But something else inside me erratically says: “This is the old woman from Psycho.”
Just like Anthony Perkins, who clasps his hand on his mouth when he sees the body of Janet Leigh, I cover my mouth with my hand, so that my life doesn’t jump out of my body from fear. I stumble a few steps back and hit the sink. Suddenly I lose my balance and I feel like one of my legs is sinking. I let out a loud yell, and grab the edge of the sink along with the drainpipe. I look down, and I see that one of my legs has sunk into a black hole about the area of one tile, and my other leg is stuck at the edge of the adjacent tile, which is about to collapse. With a speed unexpected of someone her age, Agha Baji enters the house and approaches me. Just then, the adjacent tile and a few others collapse. Now, the lower half of my body is in the hole, and the upper half is hanging on to the sink. Agha Baji realizes what is going on, and stops. Whimpering, I plead for her help. She takes her veil, ties one end of it to the wooden handle of the water pump, and throws the other end toward me. The water pump is a hefty cast-iron contraption. In the old days, they used it to pump water from the underground water reservoir in the cellar to the water tank on the roof. With the help of the veil, I pull myself up and collapse in the hallway. Agha Baji doesn’t get too close to me. She is a sharp old woman and must have understood that I have been frightened by her.
She goes to the foot of the staircase and calls out to my grandmother. She calls out “hey” several times. She still calls my grandmother “brother’s wife,” even though it’s been about fifty years since her brother ceased to exist. When she is convinced that no one is at home, she sits on the bottom stair. She takes out a pair of oval metal-rimmed glasses from a pouch in her head scarf. Once she adjusts her glasses behind her head with an elastic band, she looks at me with careful concern. Even though she has rescued me, she is still the old woman from Psycho.
An acrid odor has permeated the whole area. Something between alcohol and vinegar. I guess that the odor is coming from the hole that I was suspended in. It is so pungent that it makes me dizzy. Exasperated, Agha Baji looks around several times. She’s probably thinking of a solution for my condition. She takes out two pink objects shaped like horseshoes from another pouch in her head scarf and puts them in her mouth. Her face assumes shape, like a flat tire that is suddenly raised up on a jack. The pink objects are her false teeth. She can’t talk or eat without them. At this very moment, my grandmother comes huffing and puffing into the house, carrying a bundle in her arms. Her face is red, and steam is rising from her. She was probably at the public bath. Before I pass out, I glance at Agha Baji, who has now assumed a human face and is no longer the old woman in Psycho.
Half an hour passes. I am upstairs and I feel a little better. My grandmother believes that I passed out from shock. She is sitting beside me and wants to force me to eat a piece of rock salt. She says God took pity on me that I didn’t fall into the pit. I put the salt in my mouth and confirm her point. By now, she has put the neighbor’s father and mother and their fathers’ fathers and all their ancestors in the grinder, and ground them up, making minced meat out of them with all her insults and curses. She has decided to go to the police station first thing in the morning and complain. The next door neighbor is Armenian. I still don’t get why she wants to complain to the police. She explains that the neighbor is using his cellar reservoir as one gigantic wine cask and is making wine in it. The wall of the well, which is the boundary between our house and their decrepit cellar water reservoir, has crumbled, and that’s why the tiles collapsed. Now I understand where the sour smell that was between alcohol and vinegar came from. My grandmother slaps the back of her hand and bites her lip in shocked disapproval. She is wondering what the hell she would have done had I fallen into the pit. I have a feeling that what she is saying doesn’t make sense. What does the collapse of our well have to do with the fact that the neighbor is making wine in his cellar? I try to dissuade her from going to the police. If she starts getting into the pure/impure discussion about wine and whatnot, there will be no stopping her. But Agha Baji settles the issue. First, she suggests we pour a sack of lime into the well to cleanse it of the wine. As for the neighbor, she believes each person will answer for his own deeds in the next world. Besides, she adds, hell needs street sweepers too! My grandmother lets it go at that and sets up the tea things. Then they sit beside each other and begin to—as they call it—mingle. I don’t really know Agha Baji that well. I only see her a few times each year. Within the family, they say that she brings bad luck. Some also think she can bring the evil eye if she is rubbed the wrong way. Her name is Gol Baji Khanum, but everyone calls her Agha Baji.
After I read a few pages of Physics and Mechanics, Grandmother calls me. She puts a cup of freshly brewed tea in front of me, and beckons to Agha Baji. Agha Baji is sitting across from me, staring at me. Maybe she is offended that seeing her frightened me so much. She says: “I’ve never seen Jonah and the whale, nor have I built the dam of Alexander, but even if the tribe of Gog and Magog had encircled me, I wouldn’t be this shaken with fear.”
Then she turns to my grandmother and complains: “As soon as your grandson set his eyes on me, he almost died of fright!”
My grandmother throws a reproachful glance toward me, and tells her in a consoling voice, “He didn’t mean to be disrespectful—you must forgive him, Agha Baji. He’s a bit prone to delusions.”
I say: “It’s . . . it’s because I saw a film today.”
Grandmother shakes her hand dismissively at what I say and replies: “Talking about film and cimnema again?”
No matter how hard I’ve tried, I haven’t been able to get her to learn how to say “cinema” correctly. I explain that the film was very suspenseful and frightening. They both become a little curious. In a few sentences, I explain the gist of the story to them. My grandmother laughs and says, “Baji dear, are your ears big enough to absorb that tall tale?”
But Agha Baji’s manner is suddenly transformed. Her look makes me feel unsettled. I have a feeling that she wants to draw something out of my insides. Without getting off the floor, she slides her legs over to me like a grasshopper and sits beside me. She asks me to tell her the whole story. I tell her the story, not from A to Z, but a summary of it. Stunned, she fixes her stare on my mouth without blinking. When the story is finished, my grandmother gives us each another cup of tea. The room is uncannily silent. Agha Baji seems to have withdrawn into herself and her stare is fixed on the flower pattern on the carpet. I don’t dare say anything else. I am afraid that she will turn into the old woman in Psycho again. To break the silence, my grandmother coughs and asks with a laugh, “So who was the operator of the film?”
She has learned from me that every film has a director. But, like “cimnema,” she confuses this word too, and always says “operator” instead of director. Before I answer her, I glance at Agha Baji, and her lips are quivering. Her crying is silent. Puzzled, I look at my grandmother in search of an explanation. She gesticulates with her eyebrows, urging me to leave the room. I get up and go back to my Physics and Mechanics.
One hour has passed by. It’s dinner time. My grandmother wants to keep Agha Baji for dinner. I hear them arguing about it from upstairs. Finally, Agha Baji comes down the stairs remarking that she wants to make halvah to take to the cemetery tomorrow to commemorate the dead. When we are saying goodbye, I try to console her about the unpleasant incident that occurred at the moment of her arrival. I whip out some fancy phrases that I have learned from grownups: “You have honored us with your presence.” “Your visit is precious to us, more precious than our eyes.” “You blessed us, your servants.” “Please privilege us again.”
Agha Baji waits until my gibberish is finished. Then she says, “Will you take Agha Baji to observe this show some time?”
I don’t understand what she means. I worry that I am about to offend her at the time of her departure too. But what she actually means is the simplest among all the different scenarios I could conjure. She wants me to take her to the movies to see Psycho. I can’t believe it. To avoid committing a gaffe, I give her a neutral answer, I say: “Please, whatever you say.”
She nods her head, and disappears in the dark.
When I tell my grandmother about it, she isn’t really surprised. She says: “Don’t judge Agha Baji the way she is, now that she’s like a marshmallow. Once upon a time, the earth used to tremble beneath her feet!”
I become curious, and inquire about her more. After dinner, she tells me Agha Baji’s life story.
At night, as I lie down in my bed, the old woman from Psycho is about to pop into my mind again. I think of Agha Baji to distract myself. Her life is more like a film than reality.
When she was fifteen, the Governor of Karbala asked for her hand in marriage. (I later discover that this happened at the time when Iraq was still part of the Ottoman Empire.) No one knows where the Turkish Pasha who was governing Karbala had heard tales of her beauty: of the long tresses of hair like embroidered flowers in a tapestry, down to the curve of her waist; a brow as smooth as marble; eyes brown as the eyes of a gazelle; bow-shaped eyebrows; nose like a chickpea; lips parting in a smile like the shell of a pistachio; and the dimple in her chin–an abyss for lovers to plunge into. Hard as I try, I can’t make Agha Baji’s face correspond to such features. Most awkward of all is her current chin, full of grooves and wrinkles with long hairs growing on it; nothing whatsoever to do with a pretty dimple.
The Turkish Pasha had offered many gifts in return for her hand, one of which is a fully-grown white horse the size of a pony with horseshoes made of gold. Miss Baji took her wedding vows with the groom in absentia. Riding among twelve camels transporting her dowry, accompanied by soldiers wearing fezzes, she set off for the border. (It is the threshold of the First World War. The end of the Qajar dynasty in Iran and the Ottoman Pashas in Turkey is near, and everything is in turmoil.)
On the way, the news reached them that the hapless old pasha had left this world. The fifteen-year-old Miss Baji was left alone with a number of lusty befezzed Arab soldiers, the gifts of the unfortunate deceased governor, and twelve dowry-laden camels. That night she sewed all the Persian and Ottoman gold coins into the lining of her dress, and early in the morning she fled back to her father’s home, riding her golden-shod horse.
Ten years later Miss Baji became a bride again. This time, her husband was the leader of one of the tribes of Lorestan, a sunburned nomad, about six feet tall, whose brutality and greed inspire my grandmother to say that he would “eat the donkey along with its load, and the corpse along with the grave.” His name was Ja’far Gholi, but he was called “Jeff.” (Was this a memento from British friends, or a personal choice? No one knows. This was the Pahlavi era, the time of the forced settlement of tribes and nomads. The plan was to make them pay through their noses for all the havoc they had wrought in the last hundred years.)
Jeff was a one-armed man. When his right arm took a bullet in battle, he cut it off himself with a Cossack sword. He was a bitter man with a broken spirit, who confronted all life’s disenchantments two ways: smoking opium and tormenting his wife. And in both of these he had fastidious and distinctive taste.
On the night of the wedding, he established who was boss. He returned the young bride with her white dress and uncovered hair to her father’s house. She was holding an unstained handkerchief in one hand, and a “mouse” lamp in another. (According to my grandmother, a “mouse” lamp is something that looks like a teapot with a wick coming out of its spout. The wick soaks up and burns up the oil that is inside it.) Before the sun was up, Miss Baji had been turned into “Mouse Lamp” Baji. Her father had a heart attack from shock, and in his sickbed accepted the demands and conditions of his mendacious and greedy son-in-law. He paid his daughter’s inheritance in full, in advance, along with six kilos of superior saffron from the Ghaenat region. The sun had just reached the wall when “Mouse Lamp” Baji changed into “Saffron Baji,” and this was how they began their married life together.
Jeff had a heavy hand (as he should have; since he only had one hand, his body wasn’t well balanced), and he responded to every mishap with a jab in the mouth, a slap, smack, or strike. My grandmother says a man who is an opium addict only has two ways of preventing his wife from going on the prowl. Either he must father so many children that his wife won’t have time to scratch her head, never mind be tempted to do anything else, or in the midst of the warm and tingly feeling of the opium high, when the pipe is ready and he is feeling good, use the pretext of the wife’s earache to give her a puff, so that the next day, the wife would make up the excuse of a toothache for another puff, and so on and so forth, until the day comes when they both sit on opposite sides of the opium stove and scratch their noses, and talk rubbish in their opium-hoarsened voices. However, Mrs. Baji did not show talent for either of these two scenarios. She gave birth to seven children, six of whom died, and opium, alas, did not suit her constitution. But as she came to her husband’s home in a white dress, she could only leave in a white shroud. So she suffered and stayed.
On moonlit nights, she tied her baby to her back and headed out with Jeff to Sofeh Mountain, a rocky ledge towering over Takht-e Poulad, which is Isfahan’s cemetery. Watched over by her husband, she rubbed the opium in the radiance of the full moon. In those times, they would rub opium either in the vicinity of fire, or under the sun. But Jeff the opium addict believed that opium rubbed in the radiance of the full moon induces a high that is out of this world. The full moons come and go. Moons become new and old. Crescents develop into full moons, full moons into crescents . . . until one night Jeff cut the trip short and died right up there under the moonlight. In the morning, the assembly of mourners realized something strange. Jeff’s healthy hand—the same hand that he used for slapping his wife—had been cut off at the wrist.
Questions, investigations, and inquiries led nowhere. The family and relations made some lukewarm protests, and finally, the body was put to rest. Moreover, what did it matter if a one-armed man lost the other when he died, especially if he had never done anything good with it?
Mrs. Baji was left with a few pots and pans, a couple of worthless kilims, a ten-year-old daughter, and the need to keep up appearances in spite of her dire state.
A few weeks later, Mrs. Baji sold the furniture and the house, and disappeared with her daughter. Five or six years passed by. There was news that she had a charming little house and lived in Tehran. She was probably clever enough to have secretly saved a few of the gold Ottoman coins in the lining of her dress. Her daughter grew up. She managed to give her a respectable wedding and dowry to take with her. The girl became pregnant, but died during childbirth. To prevent her grandchild being brought up by a stepmother, Mrs. Baji came to an agreement with her son-in-law. She took in the baby, tended him for years, and brought him up.
Now that she has been old for a long time, she is respectfully called Agha Baji.
I still can’t fall asleep. Hard as I try, I can’t understand why Agha Baji wants to see Psycho. Maybe it’s just an old woman’s whim and will be forgotten tomorrow. I am not frightened of the old woman in Psycho anymore. I replay the basement scene in my mind and go to sleep.
A few nights later, when I get home, I see that Agha Baji’s grandson is there. She named him Siavosh. (Which ordeal has he successfully triumphed over? Which fire has he overcome? Maybe the story of Siavosh invokes the tale of her own tribulation.) Siavosh is a medical student and an intern in a hospital. He’s a quiet, heavy young man with straight hair and a way of speaking that sounds more like humming. After the initial rubbing of his hands together in silence, he curiously asks about the film that I have promised to take his grandmother to see. I get nervous again. The truth is that I am embarrassed to take Agha Baji to the movies. Maybe because my friends show off and say that they’ve been to the movies with their “girlfriends,” and here I am having to go with Agha Baji. He starts laughing when I tell him about what happened that day with the film Psycho and the ordeal that followed with the bathroom floor. He says, “You started it, you have to finish it! Really, it’s all your own doing!”
He reaches into his pocket and gives me 20 tomans. I want to pass the buck to Siavosh and make him take her, but I feel too shy to do it. He’s probably very busy, otherwise he would have thought of it himself. My grandmother eggs me on. I console myself with the thought that this is a good deed, although I doubt that any angel is going to keep track of it up there in heaven. Siavosh has a cup of tea, and we make the arrangements for the next day. He thanks me shyly and leaves.
The next morning, I go to my appointment. It’s the first trimester and classes are not that serious. Agha Baji is ready and sitting there waiting. She is wearing her party dress. A silver-colored veil with little white polka dots and black plastic boots up to her calf fastened with a zipper instead of laces. We take a taxi, and get off at Shah intersection. I am still embarrassed. But I realize that no one is taking any notice of us. So we don’t seem unusual. I take her arm and bit by bit we head down the street.
When we get to the cinema she perks up, as if she was sleepwalking until now, and she has suddenly woken up. She looks at everything very carefully. She is watching my every move. As if she is collecting memories. Or uncovering a secret or cracking a code. I buy tickets and we enter the cinema. She stands in the middle of the lobby and stares around as if in a stupor. To get her out of this state, I motion to the refreshment stand and ask if she would like something to eat? She shakes her head. I carelessly ask would she like to go to the rest room? I immediately regret that. I guess that was an offensive question. Besides, going up and down the stairs to get to the bathrooms at Mahtab Cinema knocks me out, never mind Agha Baji.
Fortunately the cinema is not crowded and everyone is doing his own thing. Agha Baji is startled by the sound of three or four chimes a few minutes after we sit down. They open the theatre doors and I get up. She throws me a questioning glance. I hold her under her arm, and guide her to the door of the theatre. We ask the man at the door if we can sit up front. He gives us both an inquisitive look, but says there’s no problem. As we enter, Agha Baji stiffens. Standing there with an open mouth, she stares at all the empty seats. A few more chimes bring her back to motion. We go ahead and sit, seven rows from the screen. I steal a look at her. She is sitting cross-legged on the seat, adjusting her veil. The lights go off, and for about a minute, everything is covered by darkness and silence. Moments later, the glare of the usher’s flashlight falls on us. He probably thinks we are up to something and wants to catch us at it. As Agha Baji turns her face toward the light, the usher switches the light off right away. Relieved, I lean back and wait for the beginning of the film. I am sure that I am not going to be scared of the ending. Agha Baji is by my side.
For the entire duration of the film, she does not utter a sound. Not a cough or a sneeze, or a yawn, or a sigh, a groan, a movement. Nothing. Hunched over, she is staring at the screen like a statue. When the shower scene is finished, I look at her. She is still motionless. I suspect that she has fallen asleep. I bend forward a little to see how she is. She turns towards me, frowning. Embarrassed, I lean back and become immersed in the film again. I had decided to watch her in the basement sequence but I got so nailed by the film that I forgot. Towards the end of the film in the part where they take Anthony Perkins to the sheriff’s office, I cautiously throw her a glance. The only difference is that she is now grabbing the seat in front of her with both hands.
The lights go on. I take a deep breath and get up. I put my hand on her shoulder and call her name. She moves her head a few times, as if she is talking to herself. I politely explain that the movie is finished and we must leave. She pulls herself toward the front of the seat a little. She puts her feet down and gets up. On the whole, she looks tired and drained, but her eyes are shining. As we exit the cinema from the side street, she covers her face with her hand so that the bright light doesn’t bother her. Then she looks this way and that a few times, as if she has forgotten where we are. It’s one of those days when the sun is shining and everything seems brimming with life. A cool, pleasant breeze is blowing. Boys and girls from the Hadaf schools pass us by. The sparrows chirp and twitter as they frolic among the branches of the trees. I am suddenly overcome with a feeling of immense joy. I put my arm around her shoulder and elatedly ask, “So, Agha Baji, did you like the movie?”
She gives a faint smile and nods her head to signal yes.
I ask, “Did you figure out the story?”
It takes her a few moments to answer,
“Yes, but I haven’t figured out the way of the world yet.”
It’s cramming time before the final exams. Early mornings, I walk back and forth in a side street behind the Swiss Embassy on Pasteur Street. I curse at the books and I curse myself. Whenever my grandmother sees me, she angrily says, “You’re going to get the runs! You’re going to get a cough! Look at him! He’s thin as a rake! Eat something! Sleep a little! You’re going to get sick!”
I can’t deal with this kind of talk now. My lips move all the time like people mumbling magical incantations, or like old men with false teeth. I am reviewing all my subjects. Physics, Chemistry, Algebra, Animal Biology, Plant Biology, Evolution, English . . . Oh . . . oh! What was the formula for the friction of bodies on a flat surface? . . . Damn the effect of hydrochloric acid on methane . . . How to draw an ellipse on coordinate axes? . . . What kind of protein can be found in the hemocyanin of invertebrates? . . . What does suberification in plants mean? . . . Archaean, Alconican, Cambrian, Silurian, Devonian are the Precambrian and first eras in geology . . . Hamlet, whose father is dead, is the chief character in the play . . . Everything is badly jumbled up in my mind.
One morning at seven-thirty I see Siavosh in Pasteur Square. I am not in the mood to say hello, but we run directly into each other, so there’s no way I can get out of it. Several times, back and forth, we ask “How are you?” and several times, back and forth, we thank each other.
I suddenly remember Agha Baji. I feel close enough to my fellow cinema-enthusiast to ask after her. In a gloomy tone, he murmurs that she is the hospital. What is her illness? He just says, “Old age.”
That night, when my grandmother hears about this, she makes me promise to go and visit Agha Baji at the hospital. She herself has a bad leg and can’t take one step forward. I moan and groan a little, but I agree.
The next afternoon, she has wrapped up a bundle of gifts in a cloth for me to take for Agha Baji. I lift the cloth layers and take a look inside. There’s a bag full of sugarplums, a few pieces of rock candy with a dizzying fragrance of saffron, a set of fine blue prayer beads, and a travel-size water pipe with its crystal water jar and a bag of tobacco. I didn’t know Agha Baji smoked a water pipe too. My grandmother says, “She had quit, but now it doesn’t matter any more.”
The room in the hospital has two beds. The bed closer to the door is empty. Agha Baji is lying down on the bed next to the window, looking at the sky. Siavosh is sitting on the only chair in the room, reading a newspaper. I enter and say hello. I have been smart enough to buy three white carnations. Both of them are surprised and delighted to see me. Siavosh walks around the room nervously. He finally finds a glass and puts the flowers in it. I put the bundle on Agha Baji’s lap and give her my grandmother’s greetings. She opens the bundle with interest. She takes out the gifts one by one with appreciation. When she gets to the water pipe, she beams with happiness. Siavosh throws a look of displeasure in my direction, and warns his grandmother against smoking the water pipe. He’s about to throw the bag of tobacco in the wastebasket under the bed. But he doesn’t do it. He probably thinks I would be offended. He explains that smoking a water pipe would be dangerous for Agha Baji. He spices up his explanations with a few medical terms to drive the point across. Then he concentrates on serving me refreshments. I thank him and say that I have to go. He insists that I sit down, stay a few minutes and eat something. Then he glances at his watch and says that he is late for his class. He gives a few major and minor recommendations to his grandmother. He shakes hands with me and leaves. There are a few moments of silence. I glance at Agha Baji. She points to the water pipe with her eyebrows. She winks encouragingly towards me and invites me to take part in the forbidden act. Happy to collaborate, I get up and remind her of everything Siavosh said. Nonchalantly, she shakes her head and says, “One should be one’s own doctor.”
I fill the jar of the water pipe halfway and I give it to her. I adjust its wooden body on top of the crystal water jar. She wets the mouthpiece of the pipe with her mouth and adjusts it in the hole. She takes a puff and gets the bubbling action going. It seems that there is too much water in the jar. She blows into it and about half a cup of water spills out from the pipe to the ground. She puffs again, and this time, the water is exactly right. Under her supervision, I take a handful of tobacco. I wet it under the sink in the room several times, and then I squeeze the tobacco so that it absorbs the water well. Then I arrange it on top of the water pipe. Suddenly both of us discover that we have forgotten the most important thing: charcoal, where can we get charcoal? Upset by this obvious oversight, she looks around a few times. She thinks of a way, and asks, “Aren’t there any coffeehouses around here?”
I take the head of the water pipe, and leave of the hospital. She had guessed right. In the side street next to the hospital, a few people are sitting under the shade of a weeping willow and drinking tea in front of a coffeehouse. I enter and ask for hot coal. The coffeehouse waiter delicately places a few pieces of hot coal on the pipe head. I want to pay him, but he doesn’t accept the money. On the way back, I keep blowing on the coals to keep them burning. I enter and give the pipe head to Agha Baji. She puts the pipe on her knees and sits up straight. She swallows her saliva, and puffs her chest out. She puts the mouthpiece in one side of her mouth and begins to puff. Standing directly in front of her, watching her, I am engrossed. When the smoke begins to come out of the pipe, her lids get very heavy. She closes her eyes and bends to the left and right like a pendulum. She hums a song under her breath that I can’t understand. It’s probably in the Lori dialect. Although I can’t understand the words, it sounds sad.
Suddenly the door opens and a short, fat nurse rolls into the room. With her eyes popping, she stares at Agha Baji and says, “Say what!? We might as well have called Samia Jamal for the party too!”
With a touch of indifference and a trace of mockery, Agha Baji stares straight back at the nurse. Then she openly breaks out into song, “If you had told me that you would visit me by my sickbed, I would not have foregone the pleasure of illness, for this world or the next . . . “
The nurse narrows her eyes and shakes her head several times. Then with contrived anger she grabs the water pipe from Agha Baji’s hands and says, “When water flows upward, the frog sings an abu-ata song.”
She empties the pipe head into the garbage bin under the bed and pours out the water from the jar. When she’s done with that, she wheels a carriage from behind the door into the room and fills a syringe with a red medicine and distilled water. For the first time, she glances at me. I go to the window and look outside. Not too far away, a flock of pigeons is flying around. One of them is pure white and is flying higher than any of the others. I had meant to look away only until the nurse is done with the injection, but I become completely engrossed in the pigeons and lose track of time. Alone or in groups the pigeons sit on the roof of a two-story house on the opposite side of the street, except for the white one, which is still in relentless flight. I feel compelled to watch it until it settles. As if the pigeon knows this, it keeps on dipping down, only to fly higher again. I tell myself that if the pigeon alights after I have counted up to three hundred, then Agha Baji will get well and go home. I start counting. But in the middle, I forget whether I had said that Agha Baji will go home safely if the pigeon settles before I count to three hundred or after I count to three hundred. Now I don’t know whether I should count slow or fast. I am afraid that Agha Baji’s life may be hanging on my counting. Suddenly I panic and my heart beats faster. I regret making this deal with myself. I worry about the pigeon. The closer I get to three hundred, the more I worry. I close my eyes and stop counting. I imagine Agha Baji in her youth. I haven’t seen it but . . . long tresses of hair, like embroidered flowers in a tapestry, down to the curve of her waist. Her brow smooth as marble. Eyes brown as the eyes of a gazelle. Bow-shaped eyebrows. Nose like a chickpea. Lips parting in a smile like the shell of a pistachio, and the dimple in her chin-an abyss for lovers to plunge into . . . I open my eyes. Having done a few spectacular somersaults as a finale to his flight, the pigeon finally settles among the other pigeons and is lost from sight. I turn around to find Agha Baji’s tired and teary eyes. I smile and to break the silence I say, “Agha Baji, do you remember we went to the cinema together?”
She narrows her eyes and shakes her head as she remembers. She asks, “Why do you think the son kept his ma’s skeleton?”
I hadn’t thought about Psycho from this angle. I wanted to explain that every film has a distractionary gizmo. The mother’s skeleton is the distractionary gizmo in Psycho. But I figure that this explanation is too long and complicated. So I use Hitchcock’s own term and I say, “Agha Baji, the mother’s skeleton is the MacGuffin.”
I instantly regret having said it, showing off my knowledge, to Agha Baji of all people. Filled with shame, I look at her. Her face, furrowed from the sheer incomprehension of what I had said, suddenly opens up. She smiles bitterly and nods her head knowingly. She looks at the sky through the window and says, “Yes. You are absolutely right! The last nail in my coffin . . . the final touchstone!” I now see that the matter has become even more complicated. When I said MacGuffin, Agha Baji heard “my coffin.” I let the matter go, pondering what Agha Baji’s MacGuffin could possibly be.
Agha Baji does not survive the hospital. A month and half later, when my grandmother returns from the burial service, she is in a foul mood from the heat and rage. I put a pitcher of water with ice and a fan next to her and leave the house to get out of her way. When I return at night, I see from her red eyes that she’s had a good cry. Dinner is made up of leftovers. We sit in silence on the floor around a tablecloth. I linger, taking little mouthfuls so that she’ll begin talking. She finally lets out a long sigh, and says, “What is a human being? Sighs and blood . . . God rest her soul—no one respected her will—either when she was alive, or when she died. I hope at least they’ll respect her will in the next world.”
Curious, I look at her. She recounts that according to Agha Baji’s will they were supposed to bury a box beside her, but the gravediggers refused to comply. The matter was referred to the higher authorities. They too opposed it, claiming that it was against regulations. Finally, they put all their heads together, and the matter was resolved by buying another grave site next to Agha Baji’s and burying the box there. Astonished, I ask, “Box? What box?”
She says that it was metallic, somewhat larger than a candy box; it had a lock, and was sealed on three sides. But what was in the box? She thinks for a few moments and says, “God knows.”
I feel my hair standing on end. I get up and begin pacing this way and that. I say, “MacGuffin, MacGuffin was in the box!”
As if she has heard an insult, she screws up her face and says, “What was in there?”
I say, “The final touchstone . . . Jeff’s hand . . . don’t you remember?”
She freezes. Without blinking, she shifts her eyes from side to side, probably rummaging in her memory for details of the past. She looks as if she suspects something. But then she shakes her head several times, as if she is erasing something unpleasant from the tablet of her mind. She waves her hand towards me dismissively and says, “Oh go on, go and get your head examined! This is all worthless hot air . . .”
She can’t accept what I’ve said, or maybe, she just doesn’t want to.
That night in bed, I decide to go and visit Siavosh the next day. But then I change my mind. What would I tell him? Give him the good news? And anyway, how do I know that my speculation is correct? There could have been anything in the box. Anything, including Jeff’s hand. By the way, “Why did the boy keep his mother’s skeleton?” I don’t know, but I think that in a world this big, and among the three billion people who live in it, only Agha Baji, and possibly Hitchcock, could have known the answer.
Translator’s Note: This story takes place in the mid-1960’s, during the reign of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. Much of the political subtext and the allusion to the Third National Front (a faction of the nationalist opposition to the Shah) refers to the atmosphere of political persecution and fear that accompanied the royal dictatorship. Subversive talk is implicit political talk, and an indication of opposition to the Shah’s regime. Secret police informers are among students and in the school administration. I owe special thanks to Safdar Taghizadeh and Asghar Elahi for granting permission to translate this story which appeared in their anthology Short Stories by Contemporary Writers from Iran and the World (Tehran, 1973).
Translation © 2003 by Nahid Mozaffari. All rights reserved.