Fiction: J. Kevin Shushtari
This story was first published in Meridian (www.readmeridian.org) and won their 2011 Editor’s Prize.
You come home from school wearing a blood-red headband and a black and white scarf. Your mother takes one look and starts to cry. Baba says it’s a great honor—“He’s a soldier of God now.”
You ride in a caravan of buses through the desert in a cloud of dust and diesel exhaust. At the front in Ahwaz, you outlive each fresh wave of Basij recruits. Before the attacks, Ink Eyes hands out plastic keys painted a shiny gold from a cardboard box marked Made in Taiwan. The keys to heaven, you tell the new boys. Wear them around your neck and never take them off.
Ink Eyes ropes the youngest together in groups of twenty, running the white nylon cord through their belt loops. He tosses out metal tubes of ointment. “For your eyes if you smell rotten eggs.” He’s saving the gasmasks for the real soldiers. “The tall one’s lucky,” an officer says as he collects rials from his comrades. They’re making bets on you to survive another march. Make them proud. Bring your father glory.
Ink Eyes gives blankets to the older boys. “Wrap around, lie down and roll.”
“Is it cold at the front?” asks the fat boy with the buzz cut.
Ink Eyes laughs. “Tell him, Anoush,” but you don’t. It’s better not to know.
You like your blanket. It protects you from the sting of exploding sand and pebbles, and cushions you from the spent ordnance scattered on the sand, still warm despite the darkness. Yours smells musty, as if it’s been stored in a cellar far away. Pictures of cool evenings in your grandmother’s garden in Esfahan, the Syoseh Pol Bridge straddling the Zayandeh River, arms crossed, palms against your chest, elbows tucked into your belly. “Just like when you get shrouded,” your cousin calls as you roll, giggling, down the hill in the dark until you’re too dizzy to stand.
The fat boy stops short, sobbing, as the others tumble across the minefield and the little ones run ahead, holding hands. He screams for you as dozens of sandaled feet stampede over him. You run toward him but there’s a burst of dirt and rock. All sound ceases. The brightness illuminates the dust floating onto the blankets, heavy with the weight of corpses. Your left foot burns as if held over an open flame. Rolling, rolling until you find a chubby hand reaching for the dirty sky. You don’t know if it’s his, but you hold it anyway. Finally, you pry your fingers loose from the stiffening grip. At least his family will get the Martyr’s Loan. Five hundred thousand tumans.
Stay awake. Listen to your mother’s voice. She practices her English, reading your favorite scary stories, wrapping her soft arms around you to keep you safe. On the Rue Morgue, the fearsome ape mangles another victim. The heart of a dead man beats wildly through the floor. The blanket holds your body parts together. Nevermore. Nevermore.
Ink Eyes collects his winnings, but this time they take you to a tent hospital near Shush. Two Revolutionary Guards stand over the bed. A blood-ribboned bandage bobs below your left knee.
The short one gestures at the stump. “We’ll have to kick Sadam’s ass without this one.”
Fridays at the market, all day waiting, and when you finally reach the head of the line the shelves are almost empty. No bread, the dairy case barren. People on the sidewalk begin shouting and an old man lobs stones that bounce off the plate glass. The shopkeeper’s son turns everyone away, and there’s just enough time before curfew to run across town to buy eggs and frozen vegetables from the refrigerated truck in the alley behind the American Embassy.
Scrape yogurt from the sides of your mother’s mouth with a tiny spoon. Run her bath. Pull the bangs of her wig low to cover where her eyebrows used to be. Roll the mascara wand upward against her lashes, which turned white but never fell out. You look pretty, Maman-Jon. She smiles and squeezes your thigh just above the prosthesis. Lie to her as Baba lies, night after night, sipping tea with gaz: all is good, the same as before the Revolution. No mention of the public hangings, the ban on alcohol, the demonstrations supporting the hostage-takers. She doesn’t know that even her hot pink robe is illegal, all bright colors condemned by the Islamic Republic, or that when the electricity goes out at night, her husband sits in the dark drinking the contraband Russian vodka he keeps in his desk.
Eight months after your return from the front, you walk into your mother’s room balancing the silver tray with her breakfast. The large windows are open, the twin minarets of the family’s mosque framed by perfect rectangles of dusty sunlight. The humid breeze smells faintly of car exhaust as the frenzy on the street below chokes to its morning standstill. Her body lies perfectly arranged on the bed, and atop the white shroud rests the picture of you, at four, a lamb sucking on your finger. From a chair in the corner, Baba rises. He sags in your arms, his weight nearly pulling you to the floor.
The aunts and uncles arrive from Shiraz and stay until the seventh-day ceremony: red rose petals scattered on the grave. The youngest cousin shares your room. On the third night he climbs into bed with you, trembling. “I dreamt I held hands with a girl,” he whispers. “I kissed her mouth and it tasted sweet.” It’s okay, you tell him. “But Anoush-Jon!” he sobs. “My dream is illegal! I’ll be punished!” Go back to sleep. They’ll never know your dreams.
On the forty-first day, you visit the family’s favorite café, run by an elderly Armenian couple. Large black letters on the front window: RELIGIOUS MINORITY. The old woman bows. “We say prayers for your mother.” She serves plates of kuku sabzi, your favorite, but the aroma of egg and garlic sickens you, and you’re startled when she claps loudly. A white SUV blocks the sidewalk. Morality Squad. A teenage boy dashes to a table across the room, away from his girlfriend. Four armed Revolutionary Guards, two men and two women, throw open the door.
One of the men points to Baba. “Red necktie! You look like an American.”
Baba tries to stand but the guard pushes him down. “My wife’s mourning period just passed. It’s bad luck to continue wearing black.”
“Take it off, you idiot!”
“Why are you wearing that T-shirt?” a female Guard asks. She’s young and pretty; a wisp of black hair escapes her hijab, falling over one eye and down her cheek.
You pinch the cotton and pull the shirt outward: Rolling Stones World Tour 1979. A gift from your cousin two years ago. The guard raises his black baton. “How dare you look in the eye of a Muslim woman you don’t know.”
Baba drops to his knees. “Please, sir. He lost his leg in the Holy War.”
Get up, you tell him, ashamed that you were once a member of the Basij.
The guard strikes him across the face. “Infidels!”
You exaggerate your limp and hobble toward the guard. Your father is Sayed, a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed and a true Muslim. You point at the Armenian couple: you’re not like them.
The guards walk out without a word. The others watch silently as the old woman glares at you and wipes the blood from your father’s face.
That night, Baba calls you into his study. Dark blood crusts his nostrils. He slices a lemon, and on a separate saucer waits a small pile of sugar. From the nearly empty bottle of vodka he pours you a shot. “Freedom offends them,” he says, raising the bottle. “To undreamed shores.” Follow his lead and dip the lemon in the sugar, suck on it, and then have your first taste: a burning, medicinal crispness on the tongue, and into your nose.
Days flatten into weeks at Immigration. Each time they ask for something different: birth certificates, proof of Muslim identity, bank statements, names and addresses of family members, payment equal to one year’s salary. But they never grant even a passport, let alone official permission to travel abroad. Over several months, Baba sells everything. He empties the bank accounts. Be ready at a moment’s notice.
Before dawn, you board a train together, all your belongings in a heavy canvas satchel. In Tabriz, you sleep on watermelons in the back of a truck until dark. “We must be on guard,” Baba says. “Some guides are informants and will lead us into the hands of the militia.” At the old Khatoon Bridge in Khoy, an Azerbaijani man dressed in Bedouin robes waits with three donkeys. Ten days, and he hardly speaks. From the mountain path at sunset, several soldiers man the official Endere Crossing checkpoint. On the Iranian side, the bearded face of Ayatollah Khomeini, twenty feet high, is lit by spotlights anchored to rock ledges. You speak softly to your donkey as Baba lifts the coiled barbed wire. Its ear snags, but you keep tugging, leaving a clump of flesh dangling from the sharp metal prongs. When you’re at last on Turkish soil, the guide turns and points to a large sign on the road below: Well Come In Iran. He spits on the ground. “Imbeciles.” The snowy summit of Mount Ararat shimmers several miles to the north. “Don’t trust anyone,” the man calls back as he leads away two donkeys. Give him your donkey, you beg Baba, but he shakes his head. No crying. You’re almost seventeen. You bury your face in his neck until he pushes you gently away.
In Ankara, a few days at the Otel Konagi to rest. You wake to mosquitoes biting your left calf, but when you reach down, feel only the damp, tangled sheets. Now the last push—the bus to Esenboga Airport—where you board a flight for New York. First time on a plane, your stomach tumbles as you brace yourself during take-off, leaving behind all you know.
The INS agents don’t kick or hang you upside down or threaten your life. Two months in a juvenile detention center in Brooklyn, the African Muslims with their kufi skull-caps milling in the exercise yard. Nobody bothers you. Your bunkmate has spread the word: he’s a known revolutionary, blew his leg off for Allah. But you know you’re a fake, just like the golden key you still wear around your neck. The mullah who comes on Fridays preaches jihad: all true Muslims should prepare for holy war.
The judge sits like a queen, without even a headscarf for modesty, as she explains that keeping you locked up is a burden on the American taxpayer. “He was a boy soldier,” the court-appointed attorney argues. He lifts the leg of your jeans to show her the prosthesis tucked into the high-top sneakers your mother bought long ago, the only shoes you have. The judge agrees to a three-month sentence at a state farm while the lawyer works on getting Official Refugee Status.
The pregnant cow bellows so loudly you get out of bed, buckle on your leg, and climb down the ladder to the stall. Unchained, she’s shifted her backside into the corner. Your feet slide in the damp straw as you yank. If you wake old Edie, she might give you a demerit in her next report. No choice, so you trudge up the hill to the trailer. You’ll never get used to the cold in Elmira. Heard stories the South is warm—palm trees in Florida—but you doubt it. Knock. Nothing. Slap the rusty metal siding, push a milk crate up to the only lighted window.
A girl! You haven’t seen a girl in months, not since Juvie, and those girls cursed and slept with the guards and had dirty hair. This one’s hair is shiny and blond, curls looped over the pillow as she lies reading. Legs long and slender emerge from a big T-shirt lettered B.U. Track & Field. What is Edie doing with a girl like this? She shifts and the white triangle of her panties shames you, a virgin, never even kissed.
The cow’s moos carry up the lane. You hop off the crate and pound with a fist on the dented metal door. It finally opens and there’s the girl, pulling a fuzzy pink robe tight across her chest.
“Are you the guy from prison?”
Edie appears behind her. “Trouble?” This morning she threatened you with the cow shears—“If you don’t cut that kinky hair, I’ll shave it off myself!” Her white wig is on crooked: Edie’s lost her hair just like your mother, but swears she’s getting better. Is even cancer easy in America?
The girl comes out and starts the pick-up. “Jennifer,” she says. “The granddaughter.”
Edie stands on the front step as you climb into the bed of the truck. “Don’t be taking nobody hostage now,” she says before slamming the door.
“What are you doing?” Jennifer yells. “Get up here with me.”
She glances sideways as the headlights sweep the narrow gravel lane. “No wonder I haven’t seen you. Nana says you don’t leave the barn after work.”
You don’t tell her that you never cross the fields unless you have to. Hate the cold, you say.
She goes straight to the tack room and returns, stripped down to her flannel shirt and overalls, carrying wide leather straps over each shoulder. Together you manage to get them around the cow. She climbs into the truck, revving until the chain is taut and you ease the cow away from the wall. Jennifer squats at its haunches and reaches inside with a bare hand, grabbing hold of a front hoof. Within minutes, the calf slides out. She wipes away the wet birth sac, her scarlet nails glistening against the white coat.
She winks. “We did it,” she says, even though you did nothing but stare. The newborn sucks your finger.
You don’t see her again until a week later when you’re backing the empty manure spreader into the lean-to behind the barn. She’s carrying a plaid blanket and a paper grocery bag.
“A picnic.” Red-cheeked, Jennifer looks up at the milky gray sky as freezing rain begins to fall. “In the loft.”
The bales of hay are stacked halfway to the ceiling, and you both climb to the top. Can she smell the cowplop steaming off you?
“You hurt your leg?” she asks, shaking the curls from her hat.
There is no leg.
“You mean it’s wooden?” She sets out sandwiches, potato chips, and apples.
More like metal and rubber.
“You get around pretty well, considering.”
Your mother said it shouldn’t be a handicap.
You lean back comfortably on your elbows and bite into a sandwich, studying the weave of the worn blanket. You lift a corner to your nose and breathe in the damp wool. Silence, and when she asks what’s wrong you want to tell her, but as you look into those wide blue eyes that have seen nothing bloodier than the birth of a calf, you laugh.
Blankets are warm. Good to get under. She moves closer and you realize she doesn’t think you’re strange.
“We read a story in English class about a girl with a leg like that.”
You watch her polish an apple against her jeans. She crunches into it. Juicy, you say, as you reach for yours.
“There’s this bible salesman who kisses her.” She pauses. “In a hayloft.”
You sit up. And then what happens?
“The guy steals her leg.”
What kind of story is that? You stand so fast you almost fall over. You have to clean the stalls, you tell her. Thanks for the sandwich. She starts to say something but you’re down the ladder as fast as you can go, hating the thump of your prosthesis against the rungs. Let her sit in the loft and make up more stupid stories.
The fat boy leads you by the hand to the stall where the calf was born, dragging his blanket behind him. He points to the fifty-pound bags piled next to the blocks of salt lick. You empty the fertilizer into a trashcan and mix it with gasoline. Remove the lattice that covers the cinder block supports just below the girl’s window. Ease the trashcan onto its side and roll it under the trailer. Scratch a large X on the metal siding. Your mother stands in her bare feet, her bald head gleaming against the snow. “American dreams,” she hisses.
You stump to your room, and when the girl’s light comes on, aim the .22 just below the X. Pull the trigger. The blonde hair glows like sunset against your golden key, and the long and perfect legs melt away from her body. In a field of scattered helmets and combat boots, you sit like a beggar, staring straight ahead. You see the calf on the sooty horizon as it struggles to stand, and decide not to shoot it.