On the cold morning of December 24, 1981, all I wanted to do was watch the cloud that had turned pink at sunrise. We were walking in formation up a hill and I was looking at the sky when suddenly a shower of bullets pierced my chest. I fell on my back, my lungs burned and filled with blood, and three minutes later, while still looking at the now orange and pink cloud, I died. I never did see the soldier who shot me from behind the boulders on the hilltop. Perhaps he was only twenty years old, because if he’d had any experience, he wouldn’t have chosen to shoot a private when there were three sergeant majors and two lieutenants in our column.
My father always hoped I would go to Australia and become a doctor like my brother. But perhaps I didn’t have the aptitude for it. At the end of the summer, right after I received my high school diploma and had to report for military service, Tehran’s airport was bombed. War had started. Mother kept me locked up at home for nine months. She bought the newspaper for me every day, and occasionally a few books. Finally one day I got tired and fed up of being caged and made plans to meet Parvaneh in the park. I had known her since the second year of high school and in our senior year we had promised to be faithful to each other forever. Parvaneh had beautiful red hair and always wore glossy copper-colored lipstick. I saw her hair for the first time during our third year in high school, when one afternoon for the first and last time I snuck into her house and saw her without a headscarf.
I still hadn’t given her the giftwrapped bottle of perfume that I had bought on the way to the park and the letter that had taken me nine months to write when the volunteer patrols arrested us. Up until the moment they forced us into the back of their SUV, I hadn’t fully grasped the gravity of what had happened. And then I just sat there and stared at my fingernails so that my eyes wouldn’t meet Parvaneh’s gaze.
With a lot of fuss and commotion, they handed her over to her parents. When they took her out of the car in front of her house, one of their neighbors was watching through an open window. The woman was still there when we drove away. They took me to a detention center somewhere south of the city; I wasn’t quite sure where it was.
Someone had used a sharp object to carve a large heart on the wall in my cell. One side of the heart was lopsided. For two days I sat on the floor with my legs stretched out and stared at the door. Finally, they came and took me to a police station on the outskirts of the city. It was surrounded by brick walls with barbwire on top. Together with a large group of men with shaved heads, I was put on a bus heading for an army training camp. Sixteen hours later when we got off the bus in front of the camp’s gates, a sergeant lined us up and made us run around the compound so many times that afterward I limped for an entire week. We were all young men who had dodged military service and were considered soldiers absent without leave. At night, after they gave us a watered-down lamb shank soup, we again had to stand in line and they distributed our uniforms that were as big and baggy as a sack.
The last time I saw my parents was when the bus was going around Azadi Circle on its way to the training camp. They were standing next to one of the flower beds. They waved to me and I waved back. The other soldiers waved to them, too. My parents smiled and took a step forward. We all half-leaped out of our seats and continued to wave. I don’t know how they knew what time our bus was going to pass through the circle.
Five months later when the bullets pierced my chest, the letter that had taken me nine months to write was still in my pant pocket. They had confiscated the giftwrapped perfume bottle at the detention center.
For hours, I remained on the ground next to a dried-up bush that looked like a horse’s head and a large odd-colored boulder. The pink cloud gradually turned orange and yellow and then it disappeared. Our column had gotten lost deep in enemy territory and when the barrage of bullets started, no one was able to carry me back as they retreated. In the afternoon, the Iraqis came and put me in an army truck and took me to a morgue. They stripped me naked and searched my entire body. They must have mistaken me for a spy or someone else, because they decided not to bury me.
For four weeks I remained in a metal drawer with a florescent light inside it. Every time they pulled open the drawer, the light went on. They brought many people to look at me; some had handcuffs on, others didn’t. But in the end, no one recognized me. They all shook their head and walked away. It was on one of my last days there that they brought two other men and put them in the drawers next to mine. They had no fingernails and their skin was full of dark blue burn marks. Three days later they put the three of us in an ambulance with its windows painted over and took us to a desolate graveyard. Our place had been prepared ahead of time. They threw me in a hole and two Iranian prisoners of war wearing yellow uniforms threw dirt over me. Then, on top of me, they created a mound that matched my height. It was surrounded by countless other mounds. There were no names on the graves. Instead, sticking out of each pile of dirt, there was a green plaque with white numbers etched on it. A long line of eucalyptus trees cast their shadow on the graves. In his letters, my brother always wrote, Australia is full of eucalyptus trees and there are no other Iranians here.
On the other side of the slender trees there was a two-story cement building. The people who occasionally peeked out of its windows could probably see the green plaques. On the opposite side of the graveyard there was a large farm with barbwire delineating its boundaries. Every morning a tractor-trailer brought prisoners of war dressed in yellow to work there, and in the afternoon, as they passed the graveyard, I could hear snippets of Persian being spoken. On the eighty-seventh day, at dusk when the shadows of the eucalyptus trees stretched all the way to the end of the graveyard, three prisoners who had been brought there to dig new graves secretly came over to mine and planted a tulip bulb next to my green plaque. I wondered where they got the bulb from. Surely they had mistaken me for someone else, for someone very important that planting a tulip on his grave would give them great satisfaction and pride. From that day on, the prisoners of war who worked on the farm would all discreetly turn and look my way as the tractor-trailer drove by.
Gently, slowly, the bulb spread roots and its stem sprouted out of the dirt. Seven days later, three Iraqi soldiers with their boot laces tied around their pant legs came and stood on top of my mound and pulled out the tulip bulb. They took out the green plaque, too. They even ordered bulldozers to uproot all the eucalyptus trees. Perhaps they wanted to do away with what had become a shrine for the prisoners of war. This entire time, there were shouts in Arabic and Persian, one growing louder than the other, coming from the cement building. In the end, they brought mechanical shovels and dug all of us out of the ground and threw us onto several trucks. When the trucks drove off, I could still hear the bulldozers smoothing over the resting place. One finger from my left hand remained there forever, in the dirt.
The trucks drove nonstop until late afternoon. Before dusk, we arrived at a remote military outpost. The trucks parked in the courtyard. The walls surrounding it were painted white with a mixture of water and lime. The setting sun, shining through the outpost’s gates, had created a crimson square on one of the walls. We were left there for two days and at every sunset the crimson square appeared on the wall. On the morning of the third day, the trucks again set out. The road was steep and rugged and at times we even fell behind the donkeys walking along the shoulder. Close to noon we arrived in a deep valley surrounded by forested mountains. There, they threw us in a long deep ditch that looked like a canal. It had been prepared ahead of time. Late that afternoon other trucks arrived and hurled a group of people who had recently been shot by a firing squad on top of us. Their loose-fitting clothes were riddled with holes and covered with blood, and some of them were still oozing fresh blood. Then bulldozers arrived and covered the pit with dirt.
A woman’s head had fallen on my neck. Her reddish brown hair had twisted around her face and covered her eyes. A man’s pale scrawny legs lay across my chest and another man’s gaping mouth was pressed against my stomach. I had fallen sideways on a man’s chest; his ribs had shattered. Our tangle didn’t last long. Sixty-five days later a group of soldiers and officers came and, in a frenzy, dug into the dirt to find us. Then some of them, with handkerchiefs covering their mouths and noses, quickly tossed us into trucks. Perhaps someone had leaked our location to some organization and now they had to erase any sign of us having been there. By the time the trucks drove off, the soldiers were filling the long empty hole with old tires and covering them with dirt.
That night as the trucks drove along mountain roads, there was a pleasant fragrance in the air. Somewhere a shepherd had lit a fire. Further ahead, on a different slope, a row of wooden beehives sat in the moonlight. The air was filled with insects and the scent of wild flowers. If Parvaneh and I were there together, we would have stayed up all night. We would have stretched out on a bed with clean sheets and watched the twinkling of the night-glowing bugs that had flown into our room through the open window.
The sky turned cloudy and then it started to rain. I was on top and my bones got wet. In the morning when the deep red sun was rising from behind the trees on the mountaintop, we arrived someplace where people were waiting for us. The trucks went down a hill and an open plain appeared in the faint light. The countless holes that had been dug in the ground made the place look like a honeycomb.
As the sun rose, men wearing masks arrived and threw us in the graves. They were repulsed by having to touch us. They had long shovels with which they pushed us along until we fell into a hole. They tossed someone else’s hand inside my grave. There was a rusted ring on its ring finger. The dentures of the man who had been next to me on the truck had fallen out of his mouth. One of the soldiers hurrying by kicked it with the tip of his boot and it, too, fell in my grave. The dentures had turned black and were crusted with dried blood. The nails on the hand bearing the ring had turned dark blue. A short while later they also threw in someone’s shinbone. There was a small bump in the middle of it, as if it had been glued together. Whoever it belonged to must have broken his leg at some point. But I never broke anything, because my mother was obsessive and from the time I was a little boy she was careful not to let me play dangerous games.
It was obvious that the graves had been dug in a hurry. In mine, one of the walls was lopsided and the floor was uneven. If they had taken out just a few more shovelfuls of dirt, they would have surely discovered the ancient burial ground that was less than a foot deeper in the ground. Right beneath me was the resting place of an Assyrian prince who with both hands was clutching a bronze sword to his chest; if he were to raise it just a little, its tip would end up right between my pelvic bones.
Just like the first time, they made a mound on top of my grave about the same height as me and shoved a plaque with white numbers into the top of the mound. It rained the next day and two weeks later plants started to grow. Wild weeds died and regrew many times. I remained there for two thousand eight hundred and sixty-four days. The roots of wild flowers were hanging from the walls inside my grave and the Assyrian prince was still clasping his sword to his chest. Then one day, again, a group of men carrying shovels arrived and opened up the graves and threw us into white sacks and pinned numbers on them. They piled the sacks on yellow trucks and drove all night. We were going back home. We were still on enemy soil, but Iran’s sky was visible out in the distance. It was dark by the time we reached the border. At an outpost on Iranian soil, several large trucks were parked under spotlights mounted on tall poles. They were waiting for us. If father or mother or Parvaneh knew that I was returning, they would have been there to greet me. But there was no one there. It was just like the time when we gathered wood for small bonfires to celebrate the last Wednesday of the year, but it started to rain in the afternoon and the wood got wet and everyone went home. There was no one there.
They stacked us on the trucks and drove us to the airport. They put me on a plane, with all the excess weight of the strangers’ bones that had been thrown in with me, and we took off. When we landed in Tehran, the sky was cloudy. They took us to a large hangar at Mehrabad Airport—the same place that was bombed the day I received my high school diploma. Then they closed the hangar’s large doors and took us out of the numbered bags. The hangar was crammed with identical coffins and soldiers started to carefully put us inside them. There was a small crowd standing to the side, crying. When they were finished transferring us, they draped a large flag over each coffin and pasted a photograph at the head of each box. They stuck the photograph of a young man with a thin moustache on mine. I had never in my life grown a moustache. Clearly, somewhere on enemy soil, I was given the wrong number.
Officers in uniforms that were not loose-fitting and had fringed red epaulets on their shoulders carried the coffins one by one and arranged them in the wide open space outside the hangar. A large crowd had gathered there. Many were crying and some were holding up framed photographs of young men. My parents were not among them and there was no sign of Parvaneh. If I still had a face perhaps someone would recognize me. There were many cameramen filming everything. There was a man standing on a high podium behind the coffins, delivering a speech to the audience.
There was one familiar face—it was a photograph of a smiling young man with chestnut hair. It was a photograph of me. An old woman wearing a brown headscarf was holding it up above her head. I realized she was my mother. She had shrunk and grown so old. Father wasn’t there. They had been together the day they waved to me in Azadi Circle. Father must have died, otherwise he wouldn’t have let mother come there alone.
When the speech and the filming ended, they put the coffins in SUVs and drove off. As the cars went around Azadi Circle, passersby stopped next to the flower beds and watched the procession. They took me to an old house with a reflecting pool in its front yard. A wooden bed had been put outside for me and it was surrounded by so many pots of geraniums that their scent could make even a bee dizzy. Until nighttime, people came, laid their forehead on the coffin, cried, and left. It was only an old woman who stayed there the entire time. Her large nose had turned red from crying. She didn’t look all that different from my mother when she cried. Perhaps all people look alike when they shed tears. Every few minutes the old woman would get up and kiss the corner of my coffin. A few times she tried to open it, but people grabbed her and sat her back down on the black leather chair.
The following morning they put my coffin back in the same SUV and took it to a beautiful hill surrounded by aged trees outside the city. They had dug large, majestic graves for us. Before putting me in mine, they opened the coffin. A few people were holding the old woman, but it wasn’t necessary, she wasn’t moving at all. She was staring at the rusted ring on the finger bone of that other hand. She wasn’t even crying.
They buried me with great care and laid a beautiful black stone that was the same height as me on top of the grave. Then they placed a framed photograph of the young man with the thin moustache on a stand at the head of the grave. The old woman was still standing there, staring at the stone. They had brought a chair for her to sit down; she must have had rheumatism. Just like the day before, a large crowd had gathered and cameramen were filming the ceremony. There was a podium, too, and someone gave a speech. It was a cloudy day and the flash from the cameras glowed in the air like lightning. Then everyone left. They took the old woman with them.
From up here, you can see Tehran in the distance. It is so far that I can’t find Parvaneh’s house. The letter that took me nine months to write may still be filed away somewhere in Iraq. The bottle of perfume is surely buried somewhere in a garbage dump. If one day Parvaneh comes around here for some fresh air, I will find out if she still wears that glossy copper-colored lipstick or not. It’s a pleasant season. The weather is sometimes sunny, sometimes rainy. There is a large cloud in the sky, its top has turned pink. An orange butterfly is sitting on the yellow wildflowers. Now it will fly off toward the old trees.
“ابر صورتی” © Alireza Mahmoudi Iranmehr. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by Sara Khalili. All rights reserved.