Azar woke up with a start. Her thirst lay on her tongue like a chunk of clay. She sat up, trundling her unbearably heavy body to the side, waving her tongue about to moisten her gums. Everyone around her was sleeping, the sound of their breathing thick in the air. Their irregular silhouettes coiled up next to each other like sacks of rice. The feeble moonlight slithered through the barred window, down the naked walls, and splashed over the lumps huddled against them.
Azar had not slept for nights. She squinted at the liquid darkness and the mass of snoring shadows, looking for Firoozeh and her angry eyes. What if Firoozeh should decide to pay her back? What if she should decide to kick her belly, to kick the child inside it?
She spotted Firoozeh at the other end of the cell, by the locked iron door, lying on the ground like everyone else. She seemed to be sleeping. Azar could not go back to sleep, and placed her hands protectively on her warm, bulging stomach.
She found it hard to concentrate on the child inside her. How it looked, if it was a boy or a girl, how big it was. She could only think of Firoozeh and her vengeful eyes, Firoozeh and her menacing feet.
Everything had been fine before the news got round the prison that Azar knew how to give a haircut. Trying to remember the way her hairdresser sister had held people’s hair between straight fingers and led it to the sharp blades of the scissors, Azar had tried to reproduce her vague, unreliable memories. There were no mirrors in the prison. Her cell-mates had come to trust those memories. That was, until Firoozeh asked for a haircut.
Everyone knew Firoozeh was a tavaab, a snitch. Everyone knew because Firoozeh had been able to spend a night with her husband. She had also received a cushion softer than anyone else’s. Everyone knew because Firoozeh was nervous all the time. Her dilated eyes scanned them like an X-ray machine. Penetrating them, examining their insides, reproducing transparent images for the Sisters. Everyone knew because Firoozeh yammered on and on, like a percolator, spitting out words, first boiling them inside her and then blowing them out. Incessant.
At times, she repeated herself. At times, her words ceased to make sense. Firoozeh had been a silent woman before she turned into a tavaab. But her snitching duties seemed to have ripped something open inside her. The gush of words could not be halted. Firoozeh talked even when no one was listening. Perhaps she had gone crazy, the women said among themselves. Perhaps it was her way of asking for penitence. Perhaps it was her punishment. The endless words. The reveries of a snitch.
Azar did not wish to cut Firoozeh’s hair. She knew Firoozeh had recently snitched on her. Told the Sisters that the pregnant woman had been dancing lezgi in the cell. Dancing was not permitted. They should have been praying, not kicking their legs around and jumping to a rhythm that was only in their heads.
As punishment, Azar had been taken to the rooftop, where she stood under the rain for hours. The rain was supposed to wash the music out of her limbs, out of the limbs of her unborn child. The rain was supposed to make her understand that prison is no place to reenact childhood memories.
As she stood under rain, Azar could not tell the difference between rain drops and tears. That day, she vowed never to have anything to do with Firoozeh, to wipe her out of her mind and the space of her vision. But when Firoozeh asked her for a haircut, Azar had not been able to refuse. The fear of what Firoozeh could say about her and do to her was far greater than her anger, than her vow. Inside the walls of the prison, nothing was more terrifying than the unknown.
Firoozeh sat on a chair placed in the middle of the wet, dirty bathroom floor. Azar stood behind her with a pair of scissors in her hand and looked at the thick, curvy braid that fell lusciously to the small of Firoozeh’s back. Azar did not have a comb.
After a long moment, she laid the open blades to where the braid started, somewhere close the small of Firoozeh’s neck, and closed them. Little happened. She had hoped the braid could be cut off in one go, like snipping off a string from the edge of a skirt, but the thick, woven hair was resistant. Instead of the sharp snip she was expecting, all she heard was the painfully dull sound of the blades straining to penetrate the braid. She opened and closed the scissors again, but the hair was too strong. It only crumbled, cringing at the blades’ timid touch.
Azar kept on opening and closing the scissors. Firoozeh’s hair, slowly and painstakingly liberated from the fierce clasp of the braid, began flying about in different shapes and lengths. Not one strand of hair matched another. Azar felt the heat rushing to her face. Only now she had realized she should have unbraided the hair first.
She could not stop now. She hacked away at the hair until half of the braid, broken and rumpled, came away. Then she lifted her gaze. Her cell-mates were surrounding them, watching intently. Everyone except Firoozeh had realized what was going on. They looked on with apprehension palpitating in their eyes. The naked light bulb above their heads cast a deathly pallor over their ashen faces.
Azar turned her gaze back to the braid, hanging from Firoozeh’s head like a strangled snake. She pulled the tufts of hair out of the scissors and began once again to snip away. She cut with desperate determination, as if she was trying to resurrect a child she knew was dead. She dug in deeper and deeper. Her wrist began to ache as she approached the edge, the last tufts of hair. Silence fell as they all watched the disjoined braid drop to the floor. Firoozeh’s tousled, uneven hair struck out from every corner. Pillaged, ransacked, Azar had made irreversible shambles of it.
She looked up. The women in their gray clothes stared back at her with their gaunt faces and anxious eyes. The sound of a leaking tap filled the air.
“How does it look?” asked Firoozeh. The irises of her eyes were tiny pinpoints. Azar was afraid to look at her, at those eyes that never slept.
No one said anything. They looked from Azar to Firoozeh, from Firoozeh to Azar. Then suddenly, Marzieh, the youngest of them all, burst into a laughter so loud it crashed against the ceiling and shattered over them like gun powder. Everyone gaped at her, stunned. But Marzieh laughed and laughed, her face twisted in spasms of emotions hard to describe. Emotions that had gone beyond anything recognizable. Emotions that had emptied all their essence into that unrestrained, cataclysmic cackling sound.
As if Marzieh’s laughter was the flame to a long line of grenades, everyone in the bathroom broke into earsplitting, breathless guffaws, a whirlwind of laughter sweeping them off the ground in wild, unleashed, dizzying effusion.
Firoozeh looked at them, wide-eyed, the sides of her nose flaring. She turned abruptly to Azar. Her dilated eyes looked larger than usual
“What did you do?” she snapped angrily, lifting her body half-way off the chair, like she was about to charge at her.
Azar took a step back, still keeping a grasp on the scissors as if she was planning to cut her way out of those bathroom walls now shaking with the gales of laughter. She opened her mouth to say something, anything to console Firoozeh, to make the laughter stop. Instead, the only thing that came out was a shrill, breathless thunder that erupted from her throat.
The pain blazed through her like the fiery end of a bullet. She was sitting up, her hands by her side. With each stab of pain, she clasped the blanket harder, gripping so hard her knuckles turned white. She pushed the blanket aside, revealing her purple shirt, with its white and pink flowers. The colors were so bright that they glittered even in the darkness of the night, moist with the breathing of more than twenty garnered noses and mouths.
She propped the pillow behind her and lowered herself slowly on her bent elbows. Another stab of pain. She unbuttoned her shirt and watched with fear and fascination her belly contracting and straining, purple in the dim darkness.
The pains came steadily, like the strikes of a clock, but she could not tell how frequent they were. Every five minutes? Every seven minutes? The only certain thing was that the contractions would not subside. They rose and rose and then fell, only to rise again.
Azar watched the streaked purple of her stomach. She had no choice but to wait for daybreak, when the Sisters woke for the dawn prayer. The prisoners had been given a card to slip under the iron door whenever they needed to use the bathroom or when someone did not feel well—whenever something was wrong. They were not allowed to shout. They were not allowed to batter the door. They had a card and it replaced their voices, their strengths; their pain and their anger. A card that meant anything and everything.
It was the middle of the night and Azar knew she could slip a hundred cards under the door and no one would come to her aid. She knew that nothing about her pain was powerful enough to wake the Sisters on the other side of the iron door.
She sat on the corrugated iron floor of a van, huddled against the wall. The blindfold on her eyes was damp with her sweat. The undulating street made the car sway side to side, swinging her this way and that like a flag on a broken pole.
Azar clasped on to something that felt like a railing or a fence. With every turn, she was thrashed against the walls. With every bump and pothole, her body was sent flying toward the ceiling, the child in her belly rigid, cringing.
The muffled din of the city waking up intruded into the car from a tiny window somewhere above her head. Through the window, she could also hear the intermittent sound of chatting and laughter coming from the front of the van. The words were not clear. She could only hear the guffaws of Sister at something one of the Brothers had just finished recounting. She found it all stifling—the chatter, the laughter, the diesel-fumed heat, the indifferent clamor of the streets, the pain of a body flaring open, closing shut.
For a while, she lay stiff on the narrow space of the van, trying to bear the swaying and lashing of the car. She let the chador slide down her head. She undid the tight knot of the headscarf under her chin. She lifted her head, opened her mouth wide, and tried to gulp down the air seeping through the window. She breathed so hard, her throat burnt.
A current of pain shot through her like a thousand blades ripping through her spinal cord. Azar winced and jerked her body back. She tried to sit up, bristling at the thought of having to give birth right there, on the iron floor of a van, on these bumpy streets, the shrill laughter of Sister in her ears.
She tightened her grasp on the railing, took a deep breath and pulled in. The child, the urge of erupting, the pain. She was determined to keep the child inside until they reached the hospital. And then just as she tried to lie back, she felt a sudden gush between her legs. She held her breath, concentrating on the uncontrollable trickle that ran down her thigh, wetting her pants. She pushed her chador aside.
When the van stopped, Azar turned around so sharply like she could see. Although the grumble of the engine had fallen silent, no door was yet opened. Azar’s hands crept up to her headscarf. She tightened the knot, swept the chador over her head, ready to leave. Sister’s gales of laughter once again burst forth into her ears. Soon it became apparent to Azar that they were waiting for the Brother to finish telling his story. She waited for them, her hands trembling on the slippery edge of her chador.
After a few moments, she heard the doors open and swing shut. Someone fiddled with the lock on the back of the van. Her hand clinging onto the railing, Azar lugged her body forward. She was at the edge of the car when the doors were drawn open.
“We’re here,” Sister said, “Get off.”
Azar could barely stand on her legs. She staggered. Something was pulling her down, toward the ground. Her legs felt empty, like old ropes, decayed from the inside. A pair of hands held her from the shoulders, pulled her, unfolded her, straightened her out. She lumbered along, engulfed in the darkness fastened around her eyes. Her wet pants sticking to her thighs.
After a few moments, she felt a pair of hands behind her head untying the blindfold. She found herself standing in a dimly lit corridor, flanked between long rows of closed doors. From behind some of those doors came the muffled chorus of babies wailing. Azar listened carefully, as if in their endless, hungry cries, there was a message for her, a message from the other side of time, from the other side of her body and flesh.
A few young nurses hurried past them. She watched their brisk, soundless steps disappearing down the corridor and her heart throbbed with an unexpected joy. There was something beautiful in having her eyes out in the open, her gaze hopping hurriedly, freely, from the green walls to the doors to the flat neon lights embedded into the ceiling. She watched the nurses in their white uniforms and white shoes, fluttering around, opening and shutting doors, their faces flushed with the excitement of work.
Azar felt less exposed now that she could see and somehow on equal grounds with everyone else. Behind the blindfold, she had felt incomplete, mutilated. Bogged down into a fluid world of physical vulnerability, where anything could happen and she could not defend herself. Now it felt as if with one glance, she could shed her stunting fear, the fear that hacked away at her, that made her feel less than whole, less than a person. Without the blindfold, in the dim corridor surrounded with the bustle of life and birth, Azar felt she was beginning to claim back her humanity.
After a while, a nurse came to a halt in front of them. She was a portly woman with bright yellow eyes. She looked up and down at Azar and then turned to Sister. “It’s a busy day. I don’t know if there’s any room available. We’re trying to cope with the Eid-Ghorban rush.”
Eid-Ghorban. The holy day of sacrifice. When Abraham put a blade to his son’s throat to prove his faith to God.
What a day to give birth! Azar thought.
The nurse led them to a flight of stairs. Heavy, in pain, Azar climbed the stairs with difficulty. Every few steps, she had to stop to catch her breath. The nurse walked ahead of them, as if she was avoiding them, this prisoner with her baby and her agony, the perspiration glistening on her scrawny face.
They went from floor to floor. Azar hauled her body from one corridor to the next, one closed door to another. Finally, the doctor in one of the rooms motioned them in. Azar quickly lay down and submitted herself to the doctor’s efficient, impersonal hands.
The baby inside her was as tense as a knot.
“We can’t keep her here,” the nurse said once the doctor was gone, the door swinging silently behind her. “She’s not part of this prison. You have to take her somewhere else.”
Without asking any questions, Sister signaled to Azar to get up.
Descending stairs, flight after flight, floor after floor, Azar clasped onto the banister, tight, stiff, panting. The pain was now changing gear. It gripped her back, then her stomach. She gasped, feeling as if the baby was being wrung out of her by giant hands.
For a moment, her eyes welled up, to her biting shame. She gritted her teeth, swallowed hard. This was not a place for tears—not on these stairs, not in these long corridors.
Another floor. Another flight of stairs.
Before leaving the hospital, Sister made sure the blindfold was tied hermetically over Azar’s bloodshot eyes.
Back on the corrugated iron floor, the doors slammed shut. Azar lugged her body to the end of the van and clutched the railing. The van smelled of heated steel and violent suffering. As soon as the car started, the chattering of Sister and the Brothers picked up where it had left off. Sister sounded excited. There was a flirtatious edge to her voice, her high-pitched laughter.
But the outside world was quickly fading away as Azar’s pain grew worse. She could no longer hear anything. She was no longer aware of what was around her. The warning heat waves of pain had swept up her back and hurled her into a space where nothing else existed, nothing but an agony so acute, so unbelievable, that it felt no longer part of her, but a condition of life, a state of being. She was no longer a body; she was a space where everything writhed and wriggled, where pain, pure and infinite, held sway.
Azar crouched on the floor. She bit her tongue. She bit her lips. She could taste the blood blending into her saliva. She bit into her whitened knuckles.
The pain swallowed her. She was shocked at its ferocity. It was pain she had never thought possible. She was losing herself to it. In the battle between pain and the body, the former was galloping triumphantly, pillaging through her, undoing everything.
But not now! Not here!
With every bit of force left in her, Azar tried to press her legs together against a violent force that pushed to prize them open. Then just as suddenly as it had begun, it receded. She waited. The pain did not come back. Instead, she felt a sudden languor descend upon her. Readily, she surrendered her body to the painless undertow and went limp in a state of sweet exhaustion. Under the blindfold, she blinked the drops of sweat out of her eyes.
The painlessness felt so absolute that she could not believe she had been in agony just a few moments ago. It seemed unimaginable, that pain, now so far from her body, from that state of tired relaxation into which her body reveled. Soon she forgot there had been any pain, as though it was something she had merely witnessed. She stretched her legs and took a deep breath. Her arms lay slack next to her on the floor. She slouched slightly in her fatigue and closed her eyes. She desperately needed sleep.
But the blissful state did not last long. The pain returned roaring and crushing. Azar lurched forward, clasping her stomach. It felt as though a screwdriver was twisting deep inside her. She dug her fingers into her thighs, her body turning and twisting in agony. The knot in her belly stuck up in a large, taut lump.
And yet, that pain too came to an end just as suddenly as it had begun. Azar was once again thrown into that state of pain-free lassitude. In a matter of moments, she was launched from one state to another. From agony to painless exhaustion and back. She was two bodies in one. One that writhed and wriggled, the other that lay still. Each state made the other seem impossible, far, from another world.
She was half-conscious when the van stopped and the door was swung open. This time, her blindfold did not come off. She remained in that world of underground, pain and darkness as she tottered alongside Sister and Brothers down what felt to be another long corridor.
They must have entered the labor ward for soon the sounds of women’s moaning and screaming filled her ears. She felt the brisk passing of people, perhaps nurses, their soft shoes thudding down the corridor. Their bodies running past raised a quick breeze to her face.
She was led into a room and told to sit down. She lowered herself on a hard wooden chair, exhausted. Sweat dropped from her forehead and dripped into her eyes. As she sought to make herself comfortable, the far echo of pain slowly began to advance. Soon the doctor will be here. She tried to console herself and wondered why they had not taken off her blindfold this time.
She stroked the tense knot in her belly. With each stroke, she sought to quell the trembling of her hand, the tremor inside. With each stroke, she sought to unravel that tight knot of the child that seemed to be cowering inside her, quailing into a frightened, stiff lump.
But soon Azar realized that it was not a doctor she was waiting for. From beyond the closed door, she heard the slip-slap of plastic slippers on the floor approaching, growing louder and louder. The slip-slap stopped behind the door and Azar’s heart sank. She brought her hands to her face as though she wanted to press the fear out of her mouth.
The door squeaked open. The slip-slap dawdled across the room, pulled the chair raspingly over the floor, and sat down.
Azar’s body grew tense against the ominous being that she could not see, but felt with every molecule of her body. She grasped the sides of her chair. The knot in her stomach squirmed and twisted.
“Your first and last name?” asked a male voice.
Azar gave her name in a quivering voice. She then said the name of the political party to which she belonged. The name of her husband. How long he had been in prison. How long she had been in prison. Whom she knew. Whom she did not know.
Gritting her teeth against the pain that rushed up the column of her body in regular spates, Azar tried to remember all the right answers. All the answers she had given from one interrogation to the next. Not a date, not a name, not a piece of information or lack of it should differ from her previous answers. Clasping her hands tighter and tighter around the edge of the chair, she tried to concentrate.
The questions rolled down the interrogator’s tongue mechanically, like he was reading from a list he had been given and knew nothing about. There was certain aggressiveness to his voice, aggressiveness stemming from the deep and dangerous boredom of an interrogator who had grown tired of his own questions.
Azar felt a violent strain inside her as she answered. The room was very hot. Under the coarse layers of her manteau and chador, she was soaked in sweat. The wave of pain spouted from somewhere in her backbone and flared through every particle of her bones and flesh.
I must keep calm. She thought to herself. I mustn’t make the child suffer. I must concentrate.
The pain soared and crashed inside her, like a firestorm, devouring everything on its way.
Keep calm , she repeated to herself while she answered the questions and gripped the chair, shutting herself against the fierce urge to scream. With every stab of pain, fresh and all-encompassing, she thought she could die, she thought her heart would stop beating, she thought she would drown in her own blood.
Keep calm . The child must not suffer.
But soon, defeated, surrendering, she no longer cared about seeming weak and bending double with agony. She no longer cared that she was not in control. She no longer cared she was writhing and wriggling in front of those who had taken it upon themselves to turn this miracle into the most tormenting experience of her life. In that moment, all she wanted was for her child to not feel this torment, for her child to disentangle itself, for the knot to unwind. In that moment, all she wanted was for her child to be born intact.
For in the face of her suffering, there was only one image that persisted in the eye of her mind. The image of a child. Her child—deformed, broken, a sight of irreversible agony.
Like the children of Biafra .
She was on a narrow bed in a room full of people. The wall on her right side was dazzled by the afternoon sun. Sister stood next to her, speaking to the doctor whose head was lost from view behind Azar’s straddled legs. Skilled hands once again burrowed inside her.
Azar had no pain left. Inside, she was quiet. Like an abandoned house. The pain had suddenly died in her. The taut lump that had once appeared somewhere close to her belly button now looked as if it had climbed up to the space between her breasts.
“The baby’s head is far too up,” the doctor told the midwives, who looked on in silence with their squashed, sour little faces. “We have to push it down. I don’t know how it’s got up there.”
The two midwives came closer. Their faces and their hands reeked of the province, of remote villages at the bend of narrow, muddy roads, of waking up at the call of the cock, of counting the blinking lights in the star-laden sky. Where had they come from? These women.
They carried torn pieces of cloth in their hands. They tied Azar’s hands and legs to the bed railings. Azar watched the smooth skin of sunlight on the wall and submitted herself to those moist, calloused fingers that tethered her to the bed like a goat.
Then she was told to push.
The doctor waited at the threshold of life, in front of Azar’s spread-out, tied-down legs. The midwives interlaced their fingers and placed their hands somewhere close to her breasts. They took a deep breath, preparing themselves, like boxers gathering their strength before a fight. Then, wide-eyed and prim-lipped, with those hands that perhaps had once squeezed the swollen belly of a cow or tugged at the trembling legs of a lamb, they gave the lump, her child, a hard shove.
For a moment, Azar froze with the excruciating violence of that shove. Then a scream, wild and unknown, burst forth from her throat. A scream so forceful her entire body shook with its echo.
The women seemed not to have heard Azar’s cry. They pressed harder against the lump, straining to jostle it down. Their hands thrusting her innards. It felt as if they were squeezing her heart out.
Azar shrieked in agony, squirming on the bed. She tossed and turned. Like a piece of rubber burning in flames. Something was being torn inside her. Torn open. Apart.
The lump was resistant. The women rammed their hands against it. Their faces and fingers flushed with the pressure of those rough, interlaced fingers. Sweat glistened on their brows, along the lines of their noses. Their mouths twitched as they pressed.
“Push!” The doctor shouted.
Azar’s entire body had grown cold with pain. She was shaking, flinging herself about.
This was a different kind of pain—blinding, deafening, insatiable. She writhed and wriggled against the cloths tying her down, jerking her head back and forth. And her belly with its angry, rigid lump.
Sister grabbed Azar’s hand. “Scream! Call God! Call Imam Ali! Call them now at least!”
The women squeezed. Their hands plumbing her depths. The pain soared through her, cold and dark.
Azar let out a wail, pure and primeval.
She did not call anyone.
The room was empty when she opened her eyes. A cold breeze wafting in through the open window made her shiver. She tried to draw her arms in. But something was holding them back. She looked up, then down. She was still tied down to the bed. Her legs, spread open, high in the air, had lost all sensation. Her damp hair lay pasted to her face. Her feet hurt like there was a layer of broken glass in them. Underneath the green hospital gown, she could see her slack belly lying around her, like an empty sack.
She no longer had anything inside her.
There were only her dying legs and her arms, stiff, aching, spread open across the bed as if she was lying wretched and bedraggled on a cross.
She knew nothing of her child, of the lump that had resisted for so long.
She could only feel the cold air curling around her, her feet with their sharp splinters, and the legs that were no longer there. And her belly, now empty like a collapsed tunnel.
Azar did not know how long she had lain there. Hours. Years. An eternity. She heard the door creak open. When her eyes cleared, she caught a glimpse of Sister. Azar opened her mouth to say something, to ask of the child, but her lips were so dry that the corners of her mouth cracked.
Sister sauntered up to her bed, gathering her black chador around her. She looked so comfortable in her chador. They all did. Those Sisters. They walked, gestured, handed food, tied blindfolds, locked and unlocked doors, with such agility that it seemed as if the encumbering, slippery cloth did not exist. As if it was not wrapped around them like the wings of a sleeping bat. The chador was their mainstay. Without it, they tumbled. With it, they seemed to have grown in size. It was like a weapon, or a shield, or a certificate of authority—absolute, unquestionable in every fold.
A long, slippery cloth of moral superiority and power.
Behind Sister, the two midwives barreled into the room, their wrinkled faces like dried cherries. They rolled Azar’s bed out of the room, down the corridor and into another room, where the window was closed.
They untied her hands and legs, carried her legs like lugs down to the bed. Azar drew her arms and legs in. A tremor had taken hold of her. She could not stop shaking.
One of the women left the room to bring a blanket. Azar coiled her body into a lump underneath it, straining to absorb the heat from its every corner. Sister left the room, the two short, stocky bodies straggling along.
They closed the door silently behind them.
Azar pulled the blanket over her head and tried to breathe in the warmth. She closed her eyes and rocked her body side to side. Waiting for the heat to take root, for the calm to settle in. She stayed there under the blanket for a long time, a shapeless heap of battered humanity.
Gradually, the heat began oozing through her body. Azar poked her head out, then her shoulders. Next to her, on the other side of the room, there was an empty bed. Ruffled sheets. A dip in the pillow. The body seemed to have been removed recently. The bed had not yet been made.
Azar clambered onto the window sill to lift herself up and look through the closed window. She wanted to know where she was. Through the sparse, grayish leaves of the sycamore trees, she saw a bridge clogged with afternoon rush-hour traffic. The sky was heavy with smog and the last heat of the summer and the edgy echo of car honks. She saw a flight of birds soaring through the sky, making a great loop and perching on the branches of the trees.
The city looked different. Everything seemed to have been whitewashed. Stainless. Glossy. The white splashed on concrete buildings hurriedly, as if in a rush to hide something. Blood, soot, history, war—a frenzied attempt to camouflage the devastation that breathed ever more closely down everyone’s neck.
For five months, Azar had not seen the city. Although not born there, it had always been her city, where she had felt she belonged, where she had thought she could change things. Where she could fight. She loved the city with its traffic and its soiled white buildings and its overpowering chaos. She loved it so much she once had thought she could change its destiny.
But the city had abandoned her. It did not come to her rescue when she fell. Her city was now a city of whitewashed make-believe and death.
The traffic huffed and puffed slowly across the bridge. Although far from her window, Azar could still see the tiny, agitated faces in the cars, the restless bodies impaled on the motorbikes with not enough space to maneuver their way through the jam. Above the traffic, hovering over it like a gigantic cloud, was a billboard with one of the maxims of the Supreme Leader written in careful, elegant cursive. Our revolution was an explosion of light. Painted next to it was the depiction of an explosion, like fireworks.
That was the way the regime worked. It breathed out fear but spoke of light and insisted that it held heart-felt, jolly loyalty. It brought winter and spoke of spring. It filled mass graves behind prison walls and wrote eulogies for martyrs of the war on the city walls. It brought devastation and spoke of roses and tulips.
Those were the years of the war, the sacred war, the sacred defense. And in the clamor of the bridge, erupting and self-consuming, that although bustling remained stagnant and seemed to go nowhere, there remained the traces of a terrorized, crippled country.
On the sidewalk, underneath the billboard, a man was standing and staring at the cars, dazed. He looked tired, much older than his age. The sun struck fully at his sallow, haggard face.
When Azar saw him, her heart skipped a beat. Her pasty complexion suddenly lit up. She opened her mouth, flabbergasted. “Baba!” she screamed, banging on the window with the open palm of her hand.
Her father did not hear her. He did not look up. He put the bags down on the ground and slipped a handkerchief out of his pocket to wipe the sweat off his forehead. His wiry body looked hunched by something that was not age.
Tears streamed down Azar’s face. Never in the past five months of prison had she felt her father to be so far, so unreachable. Never had she felt so alone. Never had she been so afraid of what was to become of her.
“Baba!” she cried out with the last vestiges of strength that was left in her. Her voice was nothing but a throaty whimper. It barely travelled beyond the thick glass of the window.
Her father picked up the bags and began walking away. He never lifted his head. His tall, stooped body dwindled into the hazy afternoon light as Azar watched, wide-eyed, panting.
The traffic began moving. Azar’s hand lay motionless on the window, against the reflection of shabby leaves and empty nests and a black billboard that spoke of light.
The doctor in her white uniform smiled at Azar as she checked her blood pressure. The bluish pouches under her eyes looked out of place in her round, welcoming face. Sister was standing on the other side of the bed, her arms free and unbound in her black wrapping. Her face stuck out of the opening like an old crow with its beak open.
“She has a tearing inside that could get infected.” The doctor stopped inflating the cuff around Azar’s arm. “She must stay for at least two days.”
Sister tossed her head in a clumsy attempt to seem haughty. She opened her chador like the black crow opening its wings, preparing to fly, and then closed it again. There was, somewhere in her large, slightly crossed eyes, in the thick fold of her lower lip and the missing tooth revealed in a rare smile, the poverty of the dust-blown city outskirts, of languid afternoon gossips with the neighboring women on door steps, of not making it to the end of the month, of sleeping on the roof in summer nights, of weekend excursions to the nearby shrine of one Imam or another, of watching boys play soccer in dusty streets and wishing for a color TV, of not continuing beyond sixth grade.
And here it was, that woman of the poor outskirts, the queen of the plebeian, spreading her big, black chador over the city and its privileged city girls. Sister was slowly learning to be proud of that poverty, just as she had learned to be proud of her chador.
“We have everything there,” she asserted in a cold, flat voice. “We can take care of her.”
Under the covers, Azar’s bony hand edged across the bed. When she reached the doctor’s leg, she pinched the flesh with all her might.
“We have to kill the bacteria inside her.” The doctor looked directly at Sister. She betrayed no reaction to Azar’s pinch. “That’ll take a few days.”
“No. We can do it there. We have everything. Doctors. Hospital. Medicine.”
Azar wanted to shout out that they didn’t, that Sister is lying, that they will leave her with the tearing inside her, that the infection will spread, that she will rot from inside. She pinched the doctor’s leg again, harder than before. Almost clinging.
“I’m telling you that she needs care, professional care, inside a hospital,” the doctor insisted. She seemed to have understood the meaning of Azar’s pinches. “We have to monitor her condition. She’s been torn inside.”
Sister hurled an angry glance at Azar. As if the tearing inside her had been her fault. Azar’s hand went limp on the edge of the bed. Sister beckoned to the doctor to follow her outside.
Before the doctor moved away from the bed, Azar grasped her hand.
Doctor placed a hand on top of Azar’s desperate clasp.
“She’s fine. Don’t worry.”
She. It was a girl.
On the floor next to the unmade bed, there was a plastic plate, the rice and green beans inside it half-eaten. Azar hauled her weak legs across the bed, tugged at the blanket entangled around them, and tried to stand up. Her knees gave way. She saw her body crashing against the other bed like a hammered-down trunk of a tree. She clasped into the sheets, pulling them down with her. On the cold floor, ravaged and stunted, she dragged herself toward the plate.
The rice was cold and dry. As she gulped it down, she felt the sharp grains scratch her throat. She felt nauseous with hunger, with the image of herself gobbling down someone else’s stale leftovers. With the tormenting thought of soon having to lift her body up and back on her bed.
She wanted to finish the rice before anyone got there, before they took it away from her. Her fingers worked fast, gathering the rice and the beans, lifting them to her mouth, her teeth that hurt, her tongue that could not taste anything. She chewed hurriedly, the rice spilling down her fingers.
The next time the door swung open, Sister was alone. The doctor was not there. The midwives with their squashed faces were not there.
Sister had won. It was time to go.
She was carrying Azar’s clothes. The shirt’s white and pink flowers looked withered in her hands. She put them down on the bed.
“Have you seen Meysam?” Sister’s foot hit the empty plate and made it rattle noisily on the floor. She was standing directly in front of Azar, her eyes fixed intently on her.
“Yeah, the tall Brother, with black eyes. The good-looking one.” Sister’s linear eyebrows pulled into an excited frown. “He was there with us earlier.”
Azar knew who Meysam was. He was the Brother who told stories in the car, the recipient of Sister’s prurient guffaws. Visibly older than him, Azar had seen Sister, frustrated yet unrelenting, follow him around in the dark corridors of the prison and the concrete-laden courtyard. She had heard the ring of that laughter across the hall. She had seen Sister bring him gifts: plates of food, woolen gloves. She had seen her bribe the younger man, the young Brother, in a desperate hope to lay claim to his body.
“Have you seen him?”
Azar stared back at Sister. She suddenly realized that Sister’s insistence on leaving the hospital today had nothing to do with security, with regulation. With protocol. It had nothing to do with Azar’s life or death.
Sister was simply lusting after Meysam.
“No, I think he’s gone.” Azar lied. She could barely remember anything. She might have even seen him. But in that moment, looking at this spinster’s face sprinkled with the stains of the irregular shadow of the sycamore leaves, disappointing her gave Azar a pleasant thrill.
Out in the corridor, Sister left momentarily to bring the child. Barely able to stand, Azar leaned against the wall. Naked bulbs hung from the ceiling, giving off a feeble, hazy light. Her eyes burnt.
The corridor was empty save for an old woman standing outside a closed door, her hands folded on top of each other, apparently waiting for something or someone. A child, a grandchild. The news of birth or death. She looked oddly neat and unperturbed in her grim surroundings.
The old woman stole a glance at Azar, only to immediately avert her gaze. It hurt how the woman looked away. There was fear in those gray-green eyes. Fear and foreboding. Was there something in Azar’s face that spoke of her destination? Was there something in her face that warned of iron doors and handcuffs and interrogation rooms? She brought her hands to her face, touching the bony cheekbones, her small chin. She must be looking gaunt. An unwanted specter.
She looked at her own loose, gray pants. At her black chador, half of it dragging, sweeping the floor. The prisoners were not as skilled with the chador as the Sisters. They fussed and fumbled with it, like children trying to put clothes on a doll for the first time—a broken doll with a hanging arm and dead legs. The chadors dragged on the ground half of the time.
The old woman continued staring at the closed door, prim-lipped, her wizened face set and unchanging. She seemed determined to not look at Azar. There seethed under the shriveled skin of her face the unspoken, the unspeakable. The fear that had spread beyond cities and neighborhoods like a plague. It had crawled under everyone’s skin. It had turned political activists into snitches; revolutionary students into stunted prisoners; young, courageous brides into cringing, quiet mothers.
Old women into shadows that saw nothing but shadows.
Those were the years of war and mass graves. And there it was in that corridor, where eyes could not be trusted—the aftermath of a revolution.
Soon, Sister appeared holding a bundle in her hand, a tiny body swaddled in a coarse red blanket.
Azar gaped at Sister and the bundle in her hand. She winced at the rough blanket in which her child had been swathed, utterly naked, unprotected against the coarseness that clamped its teeth into her tender, newborn skin.
Her eyes brimming over with tears, Azar stretched her arms out toward her child. She could not speak. She knew if she opened her mouth, nothing would come out but a shrill, twisted wail.
“You’re still too weak,” Sister said as she strutted to the elevator. “You’ll drop her.”
Azar could not tear her eyes from the bundle in Sister’s hands. She imagined snatching her from Sister and racing off down the corridor and into the streets and across the bridge, where somewhere under the shadow of a tree her father would be waiting for her.
With the child in her arms, Sister’s face lit up looking at something or someone down the corridor. Azar followed her gaze. It was Meysam walking up to them, his slippers proudly slapping the tiled floor. His white polyester shirt hung loose on his black pants. He walked slowly, triumphantly, his head held high, adhering fully to his role of the guardian of the revolution. One of the new men of the country, omnipotent in their intentionally modest clothing. The beard he insisted on wearing was sparse and greenish. Not an adult beard yet. His gait was that of a man who seemed to have just won a war.
Beaming, Sister quickly freed one of her hands from underneath the child to tug a strand of hair inside her scarf. She lowered her gaze to the ground in a ghastly act of timidity.
Modesty, chastity, virtue, and the hejab—the fundamentals of the post-revolutionary country. These things Sister followed to the letter whenever Meysam was around.
Azar looked apprehensively at Sister’s uncontrollable arms. With every move Sister made fixing her headscarf and chador, Azar’s hands almost shot forward for her child, lest Sister, gripped by passion, dropped her.
Along with Meysam, another man walked into the elevator. When his gaze met Azar’s, his jaundiced eyes widened with recognition and astonishment. Azar hurled a quick glance at Sister, who having forgotten her scripted coyness, had turned her body away from Azar and spoke animatedly to Meysam. Azar edged closer to the man whose appearance had changed since the last time she had seen him. His face had hardened. His beard made him look old and severe. He had buttoned up his white polyester shirt all the way to his Adam’s apple like the dressing code for the pious demanded. Just like Meysam, he wore plastic slippers.
As she slinked closer to him, Azar wondered if he still lived next to her parents’ house in that dead-end street, if he still went over to their house for the evening tea, if he still informed her father of available government coupons for sugar and vegetable oil. Or had his authoritative beard and plastic slippers and hardened face set him now apart? He was now a man of the revolution. A guardian. A constructor. A man who could decide and punish. A man who could pass judgment.
There was shock in his eyes when he looked at her. Obviously, her parents had not told him about her arrest. Azar was not surprised. Out there beyond the prison walls was just like inside of it. Everyone carried their fear with them, like a chain. Carrying it in the familiar streets, under the familiar shadow of the sad, glorious mountains. And by carrying it, they no longer spoke of it. The fear became intangible, unspeakable. And it ruled over them, invisible and omnipotent until it became a condition of life.
Azar held the man’s bewildered gaze with her eyes. “I’m fine. Tell them I’m fine.”
Boggled, the man nodded. Another of Sister’s guffaws dovetailed Azar’s whisper. It spun through the closed elevator, bouncing off the walls and the neon lights.
Azar turned to Sister. “Let me hold her. I can handle it.”
Sister hesitated a moment before she placed the coarse bundle into Azar’s arms. The child was sleeping. Tiny breathing hovered over the pink parting of her mouth. Azar wished to squeeze her to her heart, that small, soft body. She wanted to squeeze it so that the pressure would make it real. That mouth, that pink, wrinkled skin. The thin black hair covering the forehead.
She was too weak. She only held her, feeling the tough skin of the blanket scratching the palms of her hands. The blanket barely enclosed the edges of the child’s body and bit into her tender skin. Azar felt the rush of sorrow and guilt rise up the column of her body. What had she done by bringing her into this world? Where not the mother but her wardress first held her.
Azar hid her face inside the bundle and inhaled the sweet aroma of her child. She kissed her forehead and her shoulders and her chest. She kissed and inhaled deeply, glutting herself with the proximity of her body. The child made a tiny move with her shoulder and opened her eyes.
Black as the night. The white of her eyes looked almost blue. The child opened and closed her mouth and looked around. Azar watched her with bewilderment, those large eyes that rolled around the elevator with a gaze so penetrating like she wanted to arrest someone.
It almost frightened her, that gaze. That sharp look in her child’s black and blue eyes—severe, unsparing, much like Sister’s. Azar’s heart almost skipped with fright. She lifted a tremulous hand and held it over her child’s eyes.
There was an effusive buzz in the cell with its distempered walls that shone because so many heads and backs had rubbed against them. The buzz that could only happen once—when life was about to change shape.
Life was no longer going to be about following the crow-like Sisters to interrogation rooms or picking up the corpse of a fly from the floor and having to wait until bathroom time to throw it away. Nor was it going to be about the loudspeakers that emitted the call for prayer five times a day. Nor about the screams of agony and breaking-down coming from closed rooms that everyone heard and yet no one spoke about.
Life was going to be different now. It was going to be about a child.
Seething with excitement, the women awaited the arrival of the newborn. They had cleaned everything, scrubbed the walls, washed the carpets. That day, no one had been allowed to exercise lest they raise dust. One of the corners was decorated with all the windblown leaves found in the courtyard, gathered in an empty aluminum jar. The iron bars of the window cast thick, linear shadows on the lemon yellow headscarf that hung as a curtain.
The women had carried their excitement around with them all day. They were restless, barely able to stay put. Since daybreak, when Azar was first removed with her taut, throbbing belly, the women, unable to hide their glee, had suddenly grown nicer to each other. The hostile silence had burst open and words were spurting out, even between enemies who had despised each other’s political parties, and thus each other. They seemed to have put a pause to the wrathful rivalry and the usual sinking into ideological lagoons, at least suspending for a day their belief that the other was to blame for a revolution gone astray.
Good morning! They said to each other without reserve.
Their usually haggard, dismal faces were aglow with anticipation. It was not their shower day, but they preened themselves nevertheless, braiding each other’s hair, singing songs. That day, even Firoozeh’s nervous ranting had come to an end. She seemed unwilling to betray the peaceful elation that had descended on them. She barely exchanged a word with the Sisters.
They were all wearing their best clothes, like it was the New Year. Packed away and unworn for months, the sharp creases hung awkwardly over their bony shoulders and shrinking breasts. They constantly ran their hands over the fabric to unfold the creases.
At the sound of footsteps and the muffled cry of a child, they all ran to the door. They laughed, clapped, patted each other excitedly on the shoulder. Joyful shouts erupted when the door opened and Azar walked in with her bundle, like the happy cries bursting forth at weddings.
Sister frowned, shouting at them to quiet down.
Azar laughed when she saw them, when she saw their best clothes, the scrubbed walls, the scarf curtain. Her body reverberated with their cries of joy. Surrounded with their happiness, she forgot about everything. She forgot the sharp gaze in her child’s eyes. Forgot the pain, her torn insides, the fear. She felt suddenly, unexpectedly, at home.
They clustered around her with glimmering eyes and expectant hands, their voices mingling with each other, colliding, dovetailing. They passed the child from one embrace to another, their bodies growing warm holding her, wishing to cradle her longer, reluctant to pass her on to where another pair of hands itched to hold her.
Hold onto her.
They saw her nakedness, the roughness of the blanket, and their hearts sank. But they said nothing. They unwrapped the blanket and swaddled her instead in a soft chador with tiny daisies. They looked at the child and at Azar’s eyes. If they concentrated enough, they could see her torn insides, the fear that still hung from her eyelashes, the disbelief that lay on her chapped lips: her child was alive. She was alive.
They brought the fresh bowl of water they had been keeping in the corner next to the stray leaves in the aluminum jar and washed her face.
“It’s over,” they said and rubbed her hands.
“You’re safe now. You’re with us,” they said and massaged her shoulders.
They feared for her so much that they closed their eyes so as not to see how she had been torn inside.
“What’s her name?” One of them asked, taking the bundle cautiously from Firoozeh.
Azar took a deep breath. “Sanam,” she said and involuntarily clasped her hands together.
She mouthed the name a few more times. Each time, the child grew more solid in her reality. Each time, the memory of that severe gaze faded further away. Each time she said the name, the child became more hers, entirely hers. There was a magical hand at work that reconciled her with the child, with her surroundings, with time, with herself. She felt no longer to blame. Instead, she was filled with a feeling so empowering, so unwavering, that she could only call love.
At last, holding Sanam in her arms, she gave in and felt lighter and lighter as tears rolled down her cheeks.
They were sitting and watching the white handkerchief rise and fall to the rhythm of the child’s breathing. In the corner of the cell, Firoozeh was exercising, parting her legs and arms like scissor blades. Her face was flushed. In the corner, jumping up and down, with her arms and legs straddled in the space of less than a meter, it looked as if she had been running for miles. There was little air in the cell. She panted heavily.
Azar had placed the handkerchief on top of the child’s face to keep her from inhaling the dust raised by Firoozeh.
“I’m sure they’ll organize a meeting with your husband before they send her out,” said Marzieh in a dreamy voice and lifted her green eyes to the child’s few pieces of washing hanging on the rope above them.
A month had passed. The pinkness of the child’s face was petering out. The wrinkles were unfurling. The unsteady gaze of her eyes became more stable. And the milk, which was watery at first, had begun to thicken.
Azar basked in her newfound motherhood. She carried her swollen breasts around gloriously. Even in the interrogation room, she felt a thrill as her breasts swelled beneath the skin with milk. As if somehow her milk-laden breasts protected her, made her strong, invincible. The warm liquid oozed out of her nipples as the interrogator repeated the same questions in a different order, hoping to catch her at something. At what, he seemed not to know himself. She would barely listen to him. Instead, she would hand herself fully to the warm seeping of her body that craved for the child, sweet and sticky like the nectar of a tree.
We all have a tree inside us. She thought to herself, keeping out the interrogator’s voice. Finding it is just a matter of time.
The other women watched Sanam's every move, her every struggle for milk and air. Her every wail. Her every smile. Every closing and opening of her tiny, exquisite fist around their fingers.
They made clothes for her from their husband’s boxers and their own prayer chadors. They exempted Azar from washing dishes so that she could use the few minutes to wash her diapers. They washed the child in the basin of warm water. They read letters for her. They played with her. They sang songs for her.
Everyone dreaded being transferred to another prison. They did not wish to leave this cell where a child’s voice rang like a siren of life. Their world was now one with coming and going, with breathing and eating, with draining and suckling. A world that meant something that was no longer a black hole.
But they all knew it would not last. Every day could be the last day.
“Maybe they’ll let you take the child to your parents yourself. You’ll have a day to visit and leave her with them,” said another as she fiddled with a loose button on her shirt.
Azar listened with a sad, skeptical smirk on her lips. She could hear the slip-slap of slippers passing through the corridor, chadors sweeping past the door, chattering voices bouncing back and forth.
“None of this is going to happen.” She lifted a hand to check if the clothes were dry. The rope was low. There was no need to get up. She pulled down the shirt with its tiny blue flowers and began folding and unfolding it.
Of the clothes her parents had sent for the child, only a few had reached her. Those and a bag of tea. Azar was sure they had sent more. She was not convinced by Sister’s words that those were the only gifts her parents were able to put together. She knew Sister was lying. Every time she went to the interrogation room, from underneath her blindfold, she could see a large bag abandoned next to the bathroom door. Azar was sure that bag was hers. She was sure it was filled with toys and soap and diapers and clothes for her child. But no one gave her the bag. She waited for it every day, until one day it was no longer there.
“The day they decide I’ve had enough,” she continued, “they’ll just open the door a little and take her away.” She opened her hands slightly to show the narrowness of the opening.
Groans of disagreement gyrated round the room. Azar and her fastidious pessimism.
Under the handkerchief, the child made a small noise and moved her head. All the heads turned toward her. They had all heard the noise, had seen the movement of the head. The child had woken up.
She began letting out hungry wails as Azar removed the handkerchief and lifted her to her arms. She offered her heavy breasts proudly to the steady suckling of the pink mouth.
“But who says they’re going to take her away anyway?” said one of the girls with small eyes and a thick mono-eyebrow. “I’ve heard of people who kept their child even for a year, until they were released.”
Everyone turned to look at her, wide-eyed. “Really?”
“Of course. You don’t have to send her away if you don’t want to.”
For a moment, joyous voices filled the room as they discussed this possibility. Even Azar’s eyes sparkled. The sad smirk vanished from her lips. She felt a gleeful tugging at the pit of her stomach.
The tiny creature with its round head and beautiful black and blue eyes cuddled so comfortably, so trustingly against her that it quelled any doubts in her about being good for it, good to it.
“I want to keep her for as long as I can. Do you think they’ll let me?”
It was early morning in the cubicle. The silvery light of dawn slipped through the window and onto the sleeping faces. It was raining. Somewhere in the courtyard, raindrops drummed incessantly on something hard, like a corrugated roof.
Azar pulled the blanket up to her chin. It was no longer the yellow and brown blanket she had been given soon after she came back from the hospital. That blanket was soft and warm like those at her parents’ house. As a child, Azar used to love the moment her mother brought down the blankets from the attic. It meant the cold season was soon going to settle in. It was a sweet, cozy moment, like when the streetlamps came to light against the bluish haze of the evening.
The blanket had been the only thing she was given for her torn insides, for the infection. And once in a while, some antibiotics—but too little of it, and too late. She could feel the tearing inside her rotting. She could feel the infection encroaching upon her. There was no pain, but she knew it was there, like a leech sucking off blood, getting fatter every day.
After a week, the blanket was taken away.
Next to her, the child was sleeping with her mouth open. Her dark eyelashes sitting in a neat, thick row across her lids. Azar listened to the child’s breathing and watched the silvery glow of daybreak on her face. Anxiety rose in her like a tidal wave. The anxiety of separation, of once again falling deeper and deeper into the bottomless void, when the child was gone.
She had been told that the child was going to be taken away. Someone had snitched on her, had told Sister that Azar wished to keep her child for a long time, for as long as possible.
Sister could not accept that. If Azar wished to keep her child, it meant Azar was happy. It meant Azar was so happy that she could not keep her happiness to herself, that she had to share it with everyone else. That she had to express herself. That was too much happiness in a tiny cell with a barred window.
This was not a place for happiness. It was a place for fear. Brooding, boiling, steaming fear. If Azar wished to keep her child, it meant that Azar was no longer afraid.
It was time to take the child away.
Azar’s eyes fogged over. The child’s face became blurry. Like a badly remembered dream. She hid her eyes behind her hand.
The anxiety caused everything around her to slip away like sand.
She felt she was beginning to lose her faculties. She could no longer see, no longer hear. Her milk had a strange, immaterial feel to it. Things had begun to lose their reality. She could not hold onto them.
The only thing she held onto was every new day. She clung to it like it was the last day of her life. As if she was awaiting death with one arm around her child, the other wrapped around herself.
She continued to breathe while her life was coming to an end.
Everything seemed to have become part of a faraway past—the child’s eyes, the parting of her mouth, the thick eyelashes, the hair that stood up like young grass.
The past was what could keep Azar together.
Why are they going to take her away? She asked herself over and over again. I still have milk.
A few days ago, she had been called to Sister’s office. A room with a table, a chair, a picture of the Supreme Leader with his long, white beard on the wall, and an electric heater. Behind Sister, there were cabinets full of paper. Documents, files, each with a life of its own.
“You cannot keep your daughter for too long,” said Sister, drumming her fingers on the table. In her eyes, there sparkled the gaze of a woman who still marveled at her own acquired power, of where she had been and where she was now, of how far her words, once limited to doorsteps, could go.
A woman who saw herself galloping, and bodies trampled on the ground.
“You’ll have to give her away soon. What if she catches a disease here? This is no place to keep a child.”
It was no place to keep the child, but it was a perfect place to keep them. To keep them small. Because one remained small when there was no sky to look at. Since that day, they had stopped giving Azar the basin of warm water to wash her child.
It was just as she had foreseen. They opened the door slightly, enough to receive the child. Trembling hands edged out through the opening. First they were holding a tiny body that carried life. Then the hands were empty. They were pushed away, back into the cell so that the door could be closed.
Azar slid down the wall like a rain drop gliding down the window glass. Her head slanted, fell on her shoulder. Her heavy breasts swayed to the side. Her shirt was soaked with milk floating in a tide. Her arms were empty. The iron door next to her was firmly shut.
Silence held sway; silence of mourning. A few women tried to hoist her up. Their faces flushed as they struggled to throw her lifeless arms around their shoulders. She was heavy like a corpse. Her milk streamed down to her stomach. The milk that was supposed to be her child’s. It now belonged to no one. Orphaned milk. Warm, sticky, disgusting milk.
A voice rang out through the cell. A song, quavering with grief. Broken. The voice smelled of memories and of being uprooted, torn apart.
There were no more trees inside them.
The voice surged up to the ceiling and sprinkled over them like snowflakes.
A woman walked up to Azar, her face twitching as if she was being beaten from inside. She had a chador in her hand. She lifted Azar’s milk-sodden shirt and wrapped the chador tightly across her breasts to stop the flow.
Sahar Delijani was born in Tehran, Iran. She has a BA in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Berkeley, and lives in Torino, Italy. Her works have appeared in The Battered Suitcase, Tryst, Slice Magazine, Perigee, Phati’tude Literary Magazine, Border Hopping, The Beginning Literary Magazine, Berkeley Poetry Review, and Sangam Review. She has been nominated for the 2010 Pushcart Prize. She is, furthermore, a regular contributor to Iran-Emrooz (Iran of Today) political and cultural journal, and has a blog at sahardelijani.wordpress.com. Her novel, Children of the Jacaranda Tree, is forthcoming from Atria Books/Simon & Schuster June 2013, and will be translated into 24 languages. Visit her on the web at http://www.sahardelijani.com/en/.
© 2011 prickofthespindle.com