One stands on the mountains of my country as if on a grave. An abandoned grave; no one knows who lies buried there.
During the winter nothing is visible. In spring when the snow has melted, the graves emerge, but they are quickly covered again with wildflowers. It is as if nature were afraid that the graves might be discovered.
When mountain climbers come across such a grave they start singing songs against the dictatorship. They approach the grave, singing. They set down their rucksacks to rest a bit and to eat.
They leave the remains of their food for the birds, for the eagles that fly high in the mountains. The birds soar over the grave waiting for the climbers to leave. Instantly they dive in a mass onto the food.
The eagles are a sort of guide for the climbers, flying in advance and letting them know where the graves are.
Standing on the highest peak of my birthplace, looking toward the northern mountain chains, you often see flights of eagles plunging down.
With the naked eye you see only the gray-blue mountains, but with binoculars you can also see the villages that lie among the crags. Small villages that, like graves, are covered in winter by snow and in summer by wildflowers.
My father was born in one of those villages, and my brother lies buried in the mountains.
I did not know that my brother had been murdered. I lived in the capital, and he had been in jail in our hometown as an opponent of the regime.
“Come immediately!” my father said on the phone. It was one o’clock in the afternoon. The message was frightening, knowing my father. “Come immediately!” meant as much as a bullet in the head.
I quickly drove to my hometown. At a quarter to five I reached it, but I could not go to my parents’ house until it was completely dark.
At three minutes to five I parked my car in the neighborhood and then carefully walked home.
My father had seen me through the window. Before I reached the house he came out.
He greeted me curtly, as always. It was as if he had not telephoned me, as if I had driven three hundred miles for nothing. But I knew him. He never showed his emotions.
He just looked at me, and by the glimmer of light from the window I could read in his eyes what I had feared. I knew the story: a corpse, a father, and no grave.
My father had picked up my brother’s body, but as it was “unclean” it could not be buried in an official cemetery. We would have to bury him silently, in secret.
My mother stood by the window, staring at me. She wore black. According to our custom she should weep, shriek, bang her head, and tear out her gray hair. I would run to her and hold her hands, and we would then cry in each other’s arms.
But that was absolutely forbidden. We could not let our sorrow be seen by anyone. No one must know that my brother had been murdered in prison.
In front of the door stood a dark-red delivery van. I knew at once who was in it, but I did not want to believe it.
“Let’s go!” my father said, and he gave me the key.
I held the key of the van in my hand. It was reality, but I had to see my brother with my own eyes in order to believe it.
So I went to the van and opened the rear door. There he lay crumpled under a white sheet. He looked cold, lying on his right side with his hands between his thighs. They had crammed him into the van. There was not enough room to stretch him out full length.
I turned on the overhead light. His head was uncovered. It was my brother, with a bullet in his left temple.
My mother was still standing by the window. Behind the glass she looked like a black-and-white photograph of a mother who had passed away.
“We have to get a move on!” my father said.
I closed the rear door and got behind the wheel.
“Where are we going?”
“Up there!” my father pointed to the northern mountains.
How could he be so coldhearted, when his son was lying behind him in the van, dead?
I couldn’t figure out what my father intended to do. I knew that he was not the kind of man to allow his son to be buried in a desolate place in the mountains.
I wanted to look him in the eye, but I didn’t dare. I wanted to speak with him about our sorrow, but he wasn’t that kind of man.
So, silent, I drove to the northern mountain chain.
My father had always been a closed book to me; I couldn’t understand him.
In my thoughts I always see him sitting on a Persian rug reading the Holy Book.
He had always read the Book fervently; after my brother’s death he read it with even greater zeal.
That’s how he was, and I, his oldest child, dared not ask him: “Father, why do you not read any other books?”
He always tried to find his own answers to his problems, and when he couldn’t find them he consulted the Holy Book. Now I wondered where he got his faith.
“Do you have a plan? Where are we going?”
“We are going to Marzedjaran,” he said.
“To Marzedjaran?” I asked, astonished.
That was impossible. The inhabitants of that village were extremely religious, and they surely supported the dictatorship. We couldn’t just ask them for a grave.
He said nothing, but it was obvious to me that he had consulted the Book. There was no point in discussing the matter, so I drove on.
The road lay deep in snow. It was impossible to see, except for the tracks made by the tires of the village buses. Driving on, I tried to remember the last time I had seen my brother, but I couldn’t. It was as if all my memories of him had disappeared with his death. In their place an image appeared in the blaze of our headlights: A group of men were leading him to the firing squad. They had tied a black cloth over his eyes, and his hands were shackled behind his back. He held his head high and shouted something. I couldn’t hear his voice, but I could see his mouth move. It looked like an old silent film. He was shot three times. I could tell by the convulsions of his body. Then he got a bullet in his left temple. His head fell forward, like that of a dead bird.
I looked at him in the rear-view mirror. He lay there with cold eyes. What color eyes did he have?
Blue? Gray? Blue-gray?
There he lies now with his hands between his thighs, and I can’t give him a book anymore.
What was the last book I had given him?
We were almost at the village. I could see the outline of the houses. No lights were burning; it was as if light had not yet been discovered. When we drew near, I saw the smoke from the bathhouse, the only sign of life.
In a village like this, people always wait: Somebody comes, somebody leaves, a child is born, somebody dies. The sleepy village always waits for something to happen; then it comes to life.
We drove into the village. We did not have to announce ourselves; a car in the dark meant certain action.
Who would be roving about the mountains in winter? No one but a resistance fighter, someone on the run, or someone lying dead in the back of a van.
We had just what they needed for a long winter: a body with bullets in it.
Suddenly I heard barking. I quickly turned off the car’s lights, but to no avail. The dogs had picked up the scent of death, and they ran toward us through the snow. Then I saw the men: three heavily dressed men with sticks.
“Allah!” my father called out.
The dogs, barking, blocked the way. The men approached us.
“Stay in the van!” my father said, and got out.
He went up to speak to the men, to tell them that he was a friend of the Imam of the village. He stretched out his hand to them, but they rejected it and came toward the van. They looked at me angrily and walked toward the rear door. My father ran to them. The dogs began barking again, hard. I got out too quickly. My father pushed the men to the side and stood with his back to the door. One of them grabbed him by the sleeve and pulled him away. The others opened the door. A dog jumped into the van. I quickly seized a jack that was lying there and hit the dog hard on its back. It yelped loudly and jumped out. Furious, I pushed the men out of the way and stood there, ready to defend the body with the jack in my hand.
The men threw themselves at me and started beating me. My father shouted, “Allah!” and tried to push them off, but they pushed him roughly into the corner.
I heard more people arriving. They wrenched me away from the men and pushed them back. I looked about in fear. The whole village had come out.
They had formed a circle around us and were staring at us silently. Suddenly my father broke the stillness. He reached out to them and cried: “I beg you for a grave . . . I have my son’s body in the van.”
There was no reaction, no answer. It was as it they were made of stone, petrified people staring at us full of astonishment.
The men approached us again.
“Be gone, sinners! No grave for you!” one of the men shouted.
“I am begging you for . . .”
“Away with you!” the man shouted wildly and ran toward my father.
I raised the jack again, but my father snatched it from my hands and said: “We will go away!”
I returned to the van. Tears burned in my eyes, but I could not cry, since my father was there. I got a grip on myself, but then suddenly broke into sobs.
When we were far enough from the village, I looked at my father. I was shocked. He sat next to me, a broken man. I could tell by the way he was sitting that he had asked the Book for guidance and it hadn’t worked. He was like a bird with clipped wings.
I could not bear it.
I drove aimlessly through the mountains, waiting for him to get his strength back. After a long time he drew a deep breath and said: “Allah is testing me.”
Deep in thought, he pulled the Holy Book out of his pocket and started looking for guidance.
It was too dark to read, but he didn’t need light. He knew the whole book by heart. He read like a blind man; touching the pages, he knew where he was.
It took him some time to figure out. Then he put the Book back in his pocket and said calmly: “We will go to Saroeg.”
I disagreed with him. I couldn’t see the difference between Saroeg and the village we had just escaped from. We could go to a hundred villages, but the result would always be the same. He wouldn’t bury his son secretly. He wanted a formal grave, and that was impossible. He had to accept it. We needed to talk to each other to find a solution, but for him that was inconceivable.
The cemetery of Saroeg lay just over a mile from the village. It was a bare, icy place.
“You can wait here. I’ll go to the village myself,” my father said.
I stayed alone.
The moon was shining, but to me that was no comfort. I was deep in thought. My father was right! I suddenly realized why he was adamant about finding a formal grave, in spite of the great danger.
I was ashamed that it had taken me so long to understand. We had done nothing wrong. I grabbed the jack, thinking that men and dogs would come again.
This time I would guard my brother at all costs. I wouldn’t let anyone approach the body. He had fulfilled his task; now it was my turn. He had to be buried properly. When one day my children ask what we did against the dictatorship, we can show them the grave and tell them about the burial.
I felt like a wounded tiger, a tiger with a bullet in its neck. I was ready, tooth and nail, to tear dozens of men to pieces. I waited for the men. I waited.
I heard people approaching. Five men carrying lanterns. I shook with rage, but they were old men, and my father was walking in their midst. They had no dogs with them. I understood. We could not bury him here. I could see it by the way they walked. They were friends of my father. All they could do for him was walk him to the end of the village. They wanted to show him that they felt for him. They knew the spies of the regime and were aware of what could happen if they let my father return alone. They were as religious as he was. Perhaps they hoped that they might find a solution as they walked him back. They approached me, to greet me, to offer their condolences, but I couldn’t face them. I opened the door of the van and got behind the wheel. My father bade them farewell and got in.
We were driving off when we heard someone calling.
“Wait! Stop!” my father shouted.
I stopped the van. He rolled down the window. One of the men came running up, out of breath, and stuck his head in with its long white beard.
“You . . . must . . . go to Rahmanali!” he said. “Rahmanali is the only one who can help you.”
My father nodded a couple of times in agreement.
The man then looked at me.
“My condolences, young man! Be calm! You must resign yourself; this is Allah’s will.”
I looked into his old eyes and silently bowed my head.
“Drive to Djeria!” my father said. “We shall look for Rahmanali.” I drove to Djeria, where my father had been born, my grandfather had lived, and my great-grandfather was buried.
For a moment I had to think where I had heard the name Rahmanali. I knew him. He was a small old man with a long gray beard. I met him a few years before in Djeria when I had been looking for my roots. I had wanted to find out more about my great-grandfather who lay buried in the mountains of Djeria. His tomb was a shrine. He was known as a saint, but my father denied that. At home the subject of my great-grandfather was taboo. Through this silence we had gradually forgotten him. But I had wanted to know, and on a warm summer’s day I went into the northern mountains to Djeria to find him.
Arriving at the mountain where he was buried, I saw groups of pilgrims with mules climbing to his shrine. I also saw many eagles in the air.
I was astonished. I had not expected this.
I joined the pilgrims in the climb. I was curious to see the grave and expected a traditional shrine—a tomb with burning candles, full of fragrant incense and covered with colorful tapestries. But it was just a simple grave, without even a headstone. A lonely grave at the foot of an enormous gray-blue boulder.
“Why is he buried in such a lonely place?”
No one could say, but people told me what they knew about him.
“He was shot. A bullet in the head.”
“He was a resistance fighter on the run. He was alone, and they were many. He escaped into the mountains. They cornered him and shot him dead.”
“And what happened then?”
“They left him to be devoured by wild animals, but he was secretly buried.”
Everyone told a different story, but in every story there were bullets, escapes, and men stalking.
A wise man told me: “If you want to know the real story, you must go to Rahmanali. He knows everything. He knew him, and it was he who buried him.”
I was told that Rahmanali went to the mosque every day at five, and that I would meet him at the village square. I went to a teahouse in the square and sat on a bench by the door to wait for him. At five on the dot, all the men in the teahouse ran outside. I stood up.
“What’s going on?”
An ancient man with a long gray beard came up the square toward the mosque. He had a stick and walked straight. He looked as if he came from another time. The men from the teahouse walked up to him, knelt, and kissed his hand.
He was 104 years old and was known as a saint. Word had it that he could perform magic and had brought dead children back to life.
When I saw him, I lost all desire to meet him. I did not want to kneel in front of him. He was venerable, a symbol of old age, of religion, like a figure out of the ancient tales of the village. He was unapproachable. I went back to the bench and finished my tea.
Suddenly halfway to the mosque he stopped, turned round, and came directly toward me. I quickly stood up again. He stretched out his ancient hand toward me and looked me in the eyes. I took his hand respectfully, but I did not kiss it.
Who could have known that three and a half years later I would be kneeling before him to kiss his hand?
Who would have thought that on a wintry night I would run through the streets of the village looking for Rahmanali’s help?
My father and I drove to Djeria.
“When one leaves one’s birthplace, one never knows how one will return,” my father said. “I would never have thought that I would be linked with Djeria again, but now I have to bring my son’s body here.”
I couldn’t understand how Rahmanali could find a grave for us, a formal grave. In Saroeg the old man had told me to resign myself to my fate. What else could I do? I waited for “Allah’s will.”
As we approached the village, I again turned off the headlights.
“I will go to find him myself,” I said.
We didn’t want to ruin our last chance. Everyone here knew my father; if he were seen, people would immediately know what was up. My father agreed that I should go. He told me that Rahmanali lived in a small street near the square, opposite the mosque.
I knew where the mosque was, and I also remembered the street.
The best way to get there, I thought, was to go along the river. That way I could reach the square with a minimum of danger and without having to cross the whole village.
“Till later,” I said and started off toward the river.
“Wait!” my father called.
He ran toward me.
“If you run into trouble, call out Rahmanali’s name. When he hears you, he will appear and you’ll be safe.”
I had to hurry. We didn’t have much time. I started running over the frozen snow. The dogs would not be able to hear me yet.
It was cold and the whole world looked frozen. The river was completely covered with ice. I ran, thinking of my father’s words: “When Rahmanali hears you, he will appear and you’ll be safe.”
I had to find Rahmanali before the men of the regime could grab me.
If they grabbed me, I would shout “Rahmanali” so loud that even if he were in the deepest sleep, he would wake up.
I entered the village cautiously. After four or five streets I arrived at the square. A foreign scent in the middle of the night in winter could only mean trouble. The dogs had smelled me. Behind me, one of them began to bark. The whole village was about to wake up. What was I to do? Run, or walk as if nothing was wrong? A big dog jumped over a wooden fence in the street in front of me. Now or never, I thought to myself, and started running.
Throughout the village, dogs started barking. The big dog raced after me. I ran harder and saw startled villagers in front of me in the street. A group of men tried to stop me, to grab hold of me. I pushed them away with all my force and shouted out: “Rahmanali!”
Tears filled my eyes. I ran blindly toward the square.
Everyone knew now where I was heading.
Now or never, I thought, and shouted with all my might: “Rahmanali! Help! I’m looking for help for my brother.”
Suddenly an old man with a long gray beard appeared. He wore a long white nightshirt. I quickly knelt before him and grabbed his lean hand. He pulled me up without letting me kiss his hand.
“Be calm, my boy! You are safe,” he said in his old voice. The dogs barked no more. They hung their heads low and wagged their tails.
The villagers went home.
When someone went to Rahmanali, everyone had to disappear. He was the holy man of the village.
He took me into his house. I told him who I was, but he had already recognized me.
I did not have to explain. He knew exactly what I wanted of him.
All I said was that the van stood outside the village and that my father was waiting for us.
He went to the stable to get his mule.
A little while later we were going through the village streets. All the lights were out. The village had fallen back into its winter sleep.
My father had heard the barking of the dogs. When he saw me with Rahmanali, he hurried toward us, embraced Rahmanali, and for a few seconds held him tight.
“Let us be off!” said Rahmanali. “It will be daybreak soon.”
I opened the rear door and heaved my brother onto my shoulder. My father rushed over to help me. We laid him over the mule’s back.
I got the shovel and the pickax out of the van and shut the rear door.
“Let us go!” Rahmanali called.
The mule started for the mountains.
My father looked at me in surprise.
Where are we going? I could read in his eyes in the moonlight.
I was about to say something when I heard the sound of wings. I looked up. A large flock of eagles was flying ahead of us.
READ MORE: January 2018 Issue, “Singular and Universal,” Stories of Parents and Children
From De adelaars by Kader Abdolah. Copyright 1993 by Uitgeverij De Geus bv, Amsterdam. Translation copyright 1994 by The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved.