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The Yellow of Newly Ripened Lemons

by Faraj Sarkohi

translated from the Persian by Nilou Mobasser


He couldn’t even hit his head against the cement wall. A murderer, was he? If, as he squatted on the cold tiles, he could lean back for a moment against the yellow-coloured wall, if he could sense the one-by-two-inch rectangle of light which was his portion for two hours on the days when the sun was out, if the contraction of his muscles would loosen up, maybe he could go back to the writing of stories in his mind that had filled up his five years of solitude. But all the familiar images of the past five years had been lost somehow. He could only bellow silently. And, each time, in the basin of his fevered head, the bellow of a wounded cow would end up like the sorrowful bleat of a helpless lamb. A murderer, was he?

He hadn’t been able to see Maryam’s face in the photograph on the front page of the newspaper. The bullet had probably hit the mouth or chin. The lower half of the face was completely gone. There was only the long forehead and a lock of hair which might have been wetted by either sweat or blood. The eyes in the photograph were open. Many years ago, when they were being handed his executed uncle’s body for burial, his father had stared at his younger brother’s eyes and said that people’s eyes register forever the last image that death does not allow the brain to receive. What could the last image in Maryam’s eyes be? The finger that’s squeezing the trigger? A scrap of sky that, in that last instant, must have seemed stubbornly blue? Or the frightened eyes of a soldier who is trying to think of something else as he fires the gun? Maryam’s hazel eyes are turned upward in the photograph. Maybe from the terror of death or the bullet’s searing pain. Maybe something up there, on top of the tall plane tree in the photograph for instance, had drawn her eyes at the last instant. But the eyes in the photograph had no image. The newspaper had written that all four of them had been executed. They hadn’t let him look at the photograph and the report for more than a few minutes, but he could recreate the details of the incident in his mind. They were often very similar. Next to the report and in the left-hand corner of the big photograph that showed Mary-am’s body on the paving stones, there was also a small picture of her. The sort of pictures that people get for passports and IDs. They comb their hair, straighten their collars, and stare at the camera with a pale smile. Just enough to make one look serious and kind. Two black tresses had fallen onto her chest on either side of her round face. Exactly where the hollow of the chest points to the breasts. In the eyes in the photograph there was also a slight hint of the mix of coquetry and peevishness that you always saw in Maryam’s eyes. They’d gone to the photographer’s shop together. Five and a half years ago. Their first year at university and less than a month after they’d met. She’d sat in front of the camera for the photo for her student ID. Maryam had been really fed up with the fuss the old photographer had been making. He was determined to have Maryam smiling in the photograph. On that day she didn’t feel like it. The tip of her nose in the picture was bent slightly to the right. The necklace in the picture was a gift from him. The Afghan woman had said it was genuine emeralds. You could tell from a mile off that it was a fake, but Maryam had fallen in love with the big beads and the Afghan woman’s seductive eyes. In the picture, Maryam’s eyes weren’t as big as they usually were. But the colour was hazel. Then they’d gone to a cafe so that Maryam could, like always, have two coffees with milk straight in a row, and he a tea. Maryam had said she’d leave the necklace with her mother so that, if she was arrested, she could keep it. She’d said, You can look at it from time to time and see me in its big beads. Then she’d laughed out loud and said, or maybe you’ll see the Afghan woman’s seductive eyes. Then they’d bought some sweets for Maryam’s mother and gone to hand out the clandestine leaflets in some of the city’s quieter alleys and streets. They’d even stuck a few up on the wall outside a high school. Then they’d gone to see a Fellini film, and Maryam had eaten all the sweets. It was 8 1/2 or maybe Road. He couldn’t remember, but Maryam had cried halfway through. Now her ID photo had been published, and it would just stare at history forever out of its thin black frame until one day maybe a historian would leaf through the newspapers in an archive and look at the photo of a 25-year-old girl who’d wanted to change the world. He’d probably write Young Idealists or Romantic Fools. Or maybe he’d write some-thing else, or maybe he wouldn’t write anything. What difference would it make to Maryam now that she was dead? Of what use was it to him now that his existence had only been personal stubbornness for the sake of preserving a belief the meaning of which he’d forgotten?

He’d tried for five years in the cells of this or that prison to forget Maryam, to forget every image and memory. In prison, links with life make you grieve. At sunset especially. The unending parade of memories and images that clash with the towering walls stir up longing. Grief guts you and breaks you. Grief in the nights of solitude lead to madness and in the days of torture, surrender. The warmth of the kind fingers of friendship on your bent back, the night when you’d cried your grief into her hands. A telephone call that invites you for a chat or a drink. The kind of invitation you don’t accept but that breaks the chill of solitude and leaves you breathing more easily. The flame of pride in Fa-t her’s eyes the first time he took you to the barbershop when you were seven. He said to the barber, “He’s a big fellow now. Cut it like you would a groom’s.” The familiar glint of love in Mother’s eyes when she shows off to the woman next door the bracelet you’ve bought her. The streets of your youth where the first loves bloom. The spicy taste of the hot dishes you liked. Young people’s confidence as they define the world in the endless nightly arguments at their favourite haunts. The films you’d seen several times. The novels whose fictional heroes you’d grown up with. The poems you’d write in your notebook before memorizing them. Writing. The pleasure of having something published. Savour-in the words of someone speaking to you after they’d read your book. And Maryam. Every memory is a link. But with memories, enduring prison is impossible. From the very day he’d been sentenced to life and they’d begun conquering his mind to break his identity and prepare him for rebuilding, repentance, and surrender, he’d proceeded systematically and according to plan to forget everything other than the two-by-three-foot cell, going to the toilet three times a day, eating three times a day, ten push-ups in the morning, interrogation and re-education sessions, and the writing of stories in his mind. He’d progressed step by step to sever the links with everything in the past and everything that he had. Forgetting some of the beautiful images was hard. “The resistance of memory in the face of forgetfulness.” But he’d found a way. He’d glare at them until he could see some black spots in them. Any slight thing that could tarnish the beautiful images. He even discovered faults in Maryam that he’d never noticed before. And in writing. When they started losing colour they were easier to forget. He’d erase a few from his mind each day. Where did they go? He didn’t know. Probably somewhere in the nether regions of the mind. It was harder at first, but, with practice, it became increasingly easier until there was only him and the cell and the stories that he wrote in his mind.

All the stories were narrated by God in a distant and impossible time in the future for a green-eyed fairy whom He’d loved since time immemorial. At the end of the world, when there wasn’t anything or anyone left, there was only Him and His fairy and the eternal night. They had nothing to do other than for the fairy to sit and look at a Creator who now, in the boredom of His retirement, would tell her stories about angels and fairies and monsters and spirits and humans who’d lived in a distant time, in an antiquated and forgotten era, in a world created by Him. He’d withstood five years in prison by writing God’s stories in his mind in the company of an ever-increasing number of fictional heroes who generated his great novel with their relationships and feuds. He even continued his work at the preachers’ re-education sessions and in the interrogation chamber. And on the torture bed. They wanted to rebuild him. With compulsory debates, blows with a cable, suspension from the ceiling, and, at times, sleep deprivation. They were trying to empty him of what he was and what they knew of him. They couldn’t. He’d killed his identity along with his memories. He was nothing but the author of the stories of a retired God. It became harder when the interrogators and preachers discovered his secret. They realized that his resistance was not out of strength but out of forgetfulness and the loss of interest in life. They tried to re-kindle his memory. They’d show him pictures of his family and friends. Maryam’s letters and photographs. Sometimes they’d force him to read passages from his published books and his unpublished hand-written notes. They’d give him published critiques of his works for him to read in the cell. He wouldn’t. He didn’t have time for such things. There were even a few times when they’d driven him through the city’s streets, handcuffed, in a Benz belonging to one of the interrogators, only to find to their despair that he couldn’t see. Shadows, everything.

But this time luck was on their side. They’d taken him to the interrogation chamber. They’d removed the blindfold, and the interrogator had placed the newspaper in front of him. The big headline said that Maryam and her friends had been executed. All four of them. There was a photo of Maryam’s body as well. First he’d turned his head and gone back to his familiar world. Just as his eyes fell on the photo, in the story of the retired God, a thirsty fairy had returned from a mission to the other side of the universe, had dipped her head into one of heaven’s brooks, and was gulping down the crystal-clear, refreshing water. As he’d turned his head and looked at the fairy so that she could tell him the story of her mission, he’d seen the newspaper in her delicate hands and known that the game was up. He’d turned back to look at the newspaper again, but the interrogator had removed it and said—Dead. Yesterday. You saw. Five years ago, given her address, had you, she’d be alive now. She was a simple member. In those days. She hadn’t done anything. She’d have been sentenced to one or two years. Max. Would have saved her, her father would. You didn’t say a word. You saw. She grew in the group. Her file became much more serious over the past five years. Arrested three days ago. And yesterday, finished. You read. Dead now. You always knew what would happen. In the end. You wanted to be a hero. You wanted not to spill the beans. You didn’t. Pride. Selfishness. Vindictiveness. Delusions of grandeur. Fixed morality. Were in love with her, too. Supposedly. Got her killed. Twenty-five years old. Sentenced her to death, you did. How many times did I tell you, you’ll kill her with your silence. You’re a murderer, too, now.

They’d taken him back to the cell. The retired God and His fairy weren’t there anymore. It was he who’d introduced Maryam to the group. Feverish years. They’d spent their time handing out clandestine leaflets against the dictatorship. Copying and distributing banned pamphlets, books, and tapes. And sometimes taking part in organized debates and student demonstrations. They were a lively generation, with their hearts set on great ideals. Theirs was the most active group. Ten to twenty 18- to 25-year-olds who wanted to transform the world. Now the last four were dead. It was over, was it? They’d lost, had they? A murderer, was he?

He’d been the first to be arrested. It had cost him six months of torture and a life sentence. He’d published his first book at eighteen. A collection of four stories. Maryam had read it. It had been her who’d broken the ice in their very first few days at university. Just as Maryam was speaking about the simplistic clichés he’d inflicted on his stories and saying, “ The pressing call of heroism, the fiery thrill of being different, the powerful urge to leave a mark on the world in the captivated soul of one of the heroes of the story,” he’d seen something in her eyes, in the left-hand corner of her chin, and in the curve of her lower lip that had tied him to Maryam forever. He fell in love. Just before spring, he was arrested. The group hid Maryam. They knew he knew the ad-dress of the hideout. He did know it. The blows of the cable had made him talk. He’d told them some things. But not Maryam’s address. They hadn’t left a stone unturned. Even bringing Maryam’s father into the prison. The general had spoken to him in the interrogation chamber. He’d asked for Maryam’s address and said that he could do something to make them pardon her. He pleaded with him. “Let her live, if you love her.” He’d even cried a bit. “ You can play God for Maryam now. Be merciful like God.” He’d kept his mouth shut. He had no wish to play God. And Maryam wouldn’t forgive him. Now Maryam was dead. A murderer, was he?

The blank eyes in the paper weren’t saying anything. Was Maryam peeved? The retired God and His green-eyed fairy had gone with all the stories. Were they peeved with him? If he could lift his head or lean back against the yellow-coloured cement wall, if he could cry out loud, maybe the drum that kept beating on a painful question in his mind would fall silent. They were coming. Wave after wave of images and memories that he’d spent so much time and effort driving away. Somewhere in his mind, in a place that was forgetfulness, they were awakening and bursting out uncontrollably. His mind was betraying him. They had gone mountain climbing. Maryam had laughed all the way. Just before the peak, she’d kissed his frozen cheeks and swallowed mouthfuls of the clean white snow. When her teeth had started aching from the cold, she’d drunk the whole flask of tea. Maryam had said that she’d spend the night on the peak. They’d gone down in the evening after he’d insisted. That’s how she always was. She melted into one with anything that she liked. When she was excited, the nervous dancing of her fingertips and the redness of her inflamed cheeks made it clear from a mile away that she’d be talking all day. The lemony tang of the ice cream Maryam had bought him on the day they’d met had returned. Maryam was crazy about the yellow colour of newly ripened lemons. The world was turning yellow now. Yellow.

 

Faraj Sarkohi was born in 1947 in Iran. Two collections each of his short stories and his literary critiques have been published in Iran. He was chief editor of the Iranian literary magazine Adineh for eleven years until he was arrested and sentenced to death for his writing. He was arrested and tortured under both the Shah and Ayatollah Kholmeini. He now lives in Germany; his writings have been translated into French, German, Danish, and Swedish. (2001)

Nilou Mobasser is an Iranian translator currently living in England and an occasional contributor to the Index on Censorship. She is the translator of Ehsan Naraghi's From Palace to Prison (I. B. Tauris, 1994). (2001)


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