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Seda: Voices of Iran

Monir Shahroudy

Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian was born in 1924. She now lives and works in New York.  Zara Houshmand is an Iranian American writer and theater artist. She lives in Austin, Texas.

Excerpt from Chapter One of A Mirror Garden

Farmanfarmaian, Monir and Zara Houshmand.  A Mirror Garden (Anchor, 2008).

The evening sun was melting through the stained-glass windows when my nanny spread the bedding out on the carpets. Nanny was old and, under her scarf, completely bald. I had seen her in the bathhouse, bald as an egg. She was beautiful nonetheless, with white skin and big, deep blue eyes, like the china doll my father had brought my sister all the way from Russia when the czar was still king. My grandfather had fallen in love with Nanny, the other servants whispered, but what could they know? They took turns falling in love with her themselves. But I knew that she loved her cats best of all, and everyone else would have to wait in line.

I pulled my quilt a safe distance from my brother Hassan, so he couldn’t steal it after wetting his own, and stared at the ceiling to calm my excitement as I waited for Nanny’s story to begin. Lines of gold and black traced nightingales and roses on wooden panels of cobalt blue, the color of the night sky. I followed the winding stems of the roses across my wooden sky and counted the nightingales one by one, until Nanny spread her skirts on the carpet beside me and began.

“Once upon a time there was, or maybe there wasn’t, a girl who was just as big as you are now. She was dark-skinned and not very pretty, and oh! she was trouble, as naughty as a girl could be.”

“They cut off her head,” Hassan decided summarily.

“Who’s telling this story? No, she kept her head, and a good thing too, because she had to be very clever to get out of all the trouble she got into after she fell down the well.”

For seven nights I lived with the fear that met the trouble-prone heroine at the bottom of that dark well. Each night I followed her into another of seven dark rooms. Each room lay behind a locked door that needed its own key, and each of the keys was held by a different jinn, or worse: a bear, a giant, a tiger. The tiger was the worst of all. When I could not bear it any longer, I dashed downstairs, across the courtyard, around the pool, taking a shortcut through the flower beds and down the stairs to the toilet. The tiger waited for me to finish and pull up my pants: it crouched on top of the wall at the far end of the courtyard, ready to spring. Its muscles rippled silver in the moonlight, just like the silver circles spreading slowly over the courtyard pool. I stopped in my tracks before risking one terrified step, then another. The tiger waited still, as inscrutable as one of Nanny’s cats. The moon itself was its accomplice now, stalking me, moving only when I moved. I bolted for the safety of bed and the promised reward of the story’s seventh night, when tigers and bears and jinns dissolved in the glow of a treasure chest spilling jewels. My courageous double grabbed the jewels and escaped through a hole in the side of the mountain, where she was snatched up and carried home, treasure and all, on the glorious wings of the Simorgh, king of the birds.

I hid my hard-earned treasure in the basement storeroom next to the kitchen, where so many other treasures were stored. It would hardly be noticed by jealous brothers there. The jars of pickles, quinces in syrup, and petals suspended in jam captured the few dusty rays of underground light, glowing like jewels. There were huge trays of golden baklava and cookies baked in batches big enough to last for months. My mother’s precious bowls of deep pink crystal stood by, ready to be filled the moment guests arrived.

The storeroom stretched under half the house. The most wonderful spot in the whole room was the floating bed where the bread was kept safe from mice and bugs. A platform as big as a boat hung from the ceiling by four thick wires, a swing beyond imagining. I balanced on the ladder and stepped across space. Swaying on the edge, I surveyed my kingdom. It was autumn, and a city of giant beehives was growing from the ground below me: ceramic rings, wide enough at the bottom for two men to stand inside, were stacked into conical towers and filled layer by layer as the harvest came in. One tower held chickpeas, another one lentils, another almonds, another pistachios. A little door in the bottom ring dispensed a day’s measure onto the cook’s brass tray, and each one had its own sound, from the shushing of lentils headed for soup, to the snappy clatter of pistachios. I knew that the towers of nuts were only a fraction of what our orchards produced in the villages surrounding Qazvin. I had climbed up mountains of pistachios and rolled in avalanches while the workers rubbed off the red and green skins and sorted: this pile for roasting and that to be ground up for baklava, and sacks and sacks to be sewn up and sent off to Russia.

When I leaned and pumped to set the platform swinging, the rhythm echoed the memory of the baker bending, again and again, to slap a cushion of dough on the oven wall. She would bend again, iron rod in hand, to peel off the hot sheet of bread and send it flying to the cloth. The bread, wrapped in bundles at my feet, remembered too. When I swung too hard, it grabbed the chance to fly through the air again. The broken bundles on the basement floor betrayed me to the cook first, who gave me a familiar scolding, and then, with Hassan as eager messenger, to my mother. The second scolding from her only confirmed the hopelessness of my ever keeping out of trouble.

Hassan, just three years older than I, was my most immediate and predictable tormentor. I could compete with him, or with any of the boys, at climbing trees, racing on donkeys, or setting traps at the neighbors’ doors. But Hassan’s knowledge of the world at large left me a straggler. When Nanny put on her best veil and herded us through milling crowds of mourners to see the taziyeh performance of the martyrdom at Kerbala, I promptly fell asleep in the black silk folds of her lap. So I had to rely on Hassan’s authority for a blow-by-blow description of what I had missed: the martial feats, horses racing through the crowd, chanting mourners flinging chains over their shoulders, blood dripping onto white robes.

Nor could I argue when he cast me in the villain’s role. Our stage was the wooden platform in the courtyard garden, where on summer nights quilts were spread for us to sleep. Hassan found a makeshift torch, a kebab skewer wrapped with a kerosene rag that the gardener used, with a sieve on his head, to smoke out the bees’ nest under the stairs. Marching solemnly at the head of our two-man procession, torch blazing aloft, Hassan proclaimed the imminent death of the evil usurper, Yazid. Yazid, of course, was me. I echoed Hassan’s howling vowels in cooperative ignorance. But when he followed through, flinging the torch at my head, and the blood was suddenly real, my screams brought the house down.

The bleeding continued despite all efforts to stanch it, despite even the appearance of my father, routed from his office next door. As long as the blood flowed, I continued screaming. As a final resort, Nanny gathered spiderwebs into a small sticky blob to plug the wound. Both bleeding and screaming stopped. The novelty of this miracle cure and the superior knowledge I now held gave me a delicious sense of advantage: so much so that I could beg my father to spare Hassan a beating when he dragged the guilty actor out of his hiding place in the basement.

The other demons of my childhood were more elusive. They came at me not with fists flying as Hassan did, but in the form of a tightening feeling inside that had no name, and the only thing I knew for sure was that I fully deserved my fate. I was ugly, dark, and graceless, while all three of my sisters were almost as fair-skinned and lovely as my mother. When my mother had nursed me, her youngest, at the bathhouse, other women asked if I was indeed her own. I knew that I was, no matter how many times my eldest brother, Ali, insisted that I was adopted. Indeed, Ali might well have been a foundling my mother picked up in the street after losing her first two children. (We argued this into the ground, but I was secure in the knowledge that no one would have claimed such an ugly child as me if the burden weren’t natural.) Worst of all, I had straight hair. No amount of combing or wishing would make it curl like my sisters’. Obviously I was destined to spend my life in the shadows.

The one person who ever challenged this verdict was my mother’s youngest sister. She was dark like me. I called her Auntie Aziz-jan, my dearest, and she called me her little black bug. “Monir is ugly,” she conceded, “but her eyes have a sparkle that comes from the heart.”

I could dream of no greater compliment. Whenever she came to visit, after the flurry of greetings, the lifting of veils, the kisses all around, I would rush down to the basement to make sure that the very finest cookies filled the pink crystal bowls. Once my mother sent for grapes to be picked fresh from the vines that grew in the courtyard. How could she know that Hassan and I had already stripped all the best fruit we could reach from the ground? In collusion for once, we had not betrayed each other as yet. But even this fragile alliance would lead to trouble if Auntie Aziz-jan were denied the best. I ran up the stairs and squeezed through the balcony railing. Hugging the trunk of the old vine, I leaned for the plumpest bunch, the worthiest gift, all the sweeter for being the hardest to reach. I pulled, but the vine pulled back, and I crashed through the leaves to the ground.


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