Memorial Day A short story by Peyman Esmaeili Translated from Persian by Shima Houshyar Courtesy of ASSOCIATION FOR THE STUDY OF PERSIAN LITERATURE Release Date: February 2017
I saw Farzin in front of the entrance of the dormitory. He wanted to start chatting when I told him that I didn’t feel like it. He said how foul‐tempered I am. I said I feel like shit. I saw Nazanin in front of Ismail’s store. She rushed out of the entrance to the girls’ dormitory, crossed the street, and came straight up to me. She pressed the palm of her hand on my stomach as if she meant to press something into it. She said why aren’t you in front of the university entrance like everyone else. I lit up my cigarette and stared into her eyes. She and Sahar had been in the same room for three years. I wanted to say whom were you screwing that night when Sahar hanged herself from her scarf. But I didn’t say anything. Her eyes were tear‐soaked. Ismail was standing right next to me and I was aware that he kept raising his eyebrows at Nazanin. I took two drags and blew the smoke in Nazanin’s face. Ismail said Ms. Nazanin you go ahead, I’ll accompany him. Nazanin said what are you staring at her empty room from here for? Sahar’s room is right up there. Directly across the street, behind the fences, third floor. I said I’m not staring. I shouldn’t have said it. Why did I even have to explain myself to Nazanin? She said stop blowing into my face. I took another drag and this time I let all the smoke into my lungs. Nothing came out at all. Ismail kept pushing something cold into my chest. I slapped his hand away and when I heard the breaking noise, I figure out it was a drink. He said don’t worry about it. It’s not a big deal. Don’t worry about it. Nazanin said aren’t you going to get going? I said what the hell should I do? She said you mean it doesn’t matter that someone has choked Sahar? I said now that you all have gathered in front of the university gate shows that you care? She had the same look on her face that she did when she lost all her senses. Once she had punched Farzin in the face in the same state. This time she didn’t move. She tightened the knot of her scarf under her neck and said someone had jumped over the fence into the dorm that night. Kamalvand had seen it from the second floor. I said who the shit is Kamalvand? Ismail grabbed my hand and dragged me toward the store. He said Ms. Nazanin you go ahead, the two of us will come later. I said let go of my hand, Ismail. He quickly withdrew his hand. Nazanin said if we make some noise maybe someone will think to find the killer. I said to hell with you and your friendship! Screw you!
Something from Sahar’s room is connected to my head. Like a rope. When I move away, it loosens. It swings around and with it, my head swings as well. Nazanin is walking behind me. I can’t see very well but I can hear the sound of her steps. I say why are you following me? She responds to make sure you don’t do anything to yourself. Why the hell would I do such a thing? How would I even do anything to myself? Now that Sahar is dead, how can I rid myself from this nagging feeling that has taken over my whole being? I remember Farzin. I ask where is Farzin? He catches up and stands in front of me. He takes my hand. I don’t withdraw mine. With my left hand, I take out a cigarette and smoke it, unlit. I say I have to smoke something right now. I have pain. He says let’s go somewhere else. You’ve circled the dormitory three times now! I’m not paying attention. I have to smoke something. I take my hand out of his and go in through the entrance to the boys’ dormitory. I see Nazanin from afar who is standing in front of Ismail’s store. Asghar Kamali looks up from inside his security guard kiosk. He waves his hand and his head droops down again. I want to pass through and go to Farzin, but I can’t seem to go through. I open the door to the security guard’s kiosk. It stinks of cigarettes. Cigarettes and the smell of socks. I say it smells like piss here, Asghar. Wash yourself up with soap. I then quickly step out. I don’t wait to hear his curses at me. He knows that his body smells. And he is sensitive about it. I finally yell what the hell do you even do here? They’ve seen someone jump over the fences into the dormitory. I say all of this as I’m walking. His voice trails off. I pass by buildings eight, six, and five. There is a cafeteria pick–‐up truck parked in front of building four. Two cafeteria workers are placing the large pot for lunch from the back of the pick–‐up truck in front of the door. I ask where are you coming from? They’re dumbfounded as they’re holding the two sides of the big pot. One of them says from the cafeteria. We’re distributing lunch. He has a Kurdish accent. I lift the lid of the pot a little bit. He tells me to stop. I tell them then why aren’t you wearing the restaurant workers’ uniform? They put the pot down. He says what does it look like we’re wearing? It belongs to the restaurant. I say whatever idiot wears one of these green uniforms is from the restaurant? They look at each other. They’re pretty big and look rough. But it doesn’t matter. The same one responds so what should we be wearing for you to approve? I say any bastard can just walk into this courtyard. They have choked some poor girl in the dormitory. Right here. You can see if you look from here. Third floor, toward the street. He says you mean the one who committed suicide? I kick the pot of food hard. The pot sways a little and the lid falls lopsided. The one with the Kurdish accent jumps toward me. But the other one grabs his arm midway. On his thick wrist there are old knife wounds that have healed. He says you are right. She was your classmate. Then he takes out a creased card from his shirt pocket and holds it in front of my face. I see the university insignia on it. He says this is our workers’ ID. From the restaurant.
There are a lot of shoes in front of Farzin’s room. The sound of laughter can be heard from the room. I knock on the door. Someone inside screams. I jiggle the door knob a few times. The bastard has locked the door from the inside. I yell Farzin, open the door! But it’s too crowded. I kick the door with force. A half–‐naked small–‐framed boy pokes his head out from the next room. He looks like a hedgehog. He has hair everywhere on his body. He says what are you doing, buddy? You almost broke the door. He has something in his right hand that he’s hiding behind the door. When Farzin opens the door, the boy goes back inside. For a moment, my eyes survey the room. They are sitting in a circle, playing cards. An old man is also among them, distributing the cards. He must be the father of one of them. I say give me some weed. He pushes his hand against my chest. He must be afraid of the old man to act this way. He says I don’t have any. I raise my voice: give me some weed before I lose it! The old man has placed the cards on the floor and is staring at me. They’ve all shut the hell up. Farzin goes back inside the room, whispers something in the old man’s ear and grabs his coat. He says come, let’s see what the hell is wrong with you. He stands in front of the staircase. He says I don’t have any weed. I say I’m not well Farzin. I have to calm myself down. He says we’ll get some from Abbas. I say I don’t have any money. He grabs my hand and pulls me toward the stairs. Abbas has a computer repair store. Two streets up from the dormitory.
Farzin says you stay behind. Nazanin doesn’t like Farzin but she is still following us. Sahar wasn’t like that though. She used to say that Farzin is crazy and that’s what makes him cool. I feel nauseous. Nazanin is leaning against the cement wall of a house and is looking at me from under her eyes. How is it possible that no one heard anything? There wasn’t even a sound? Dying always makes a sound. It’s not as if you can wrap a scarf several times around your neck and be done with it. Someone must have covered Sahar’s mouth. So as to prevent any noise when she’s dying. Not even a sigh. I didn’t see what Sahar was wearing that night. I had to see the body. By the time I arrived the ambulance had left. I didn’t see how she had tied her hair. I didn’t see the colour of her lips. Farzin bursts out of the store and stuffs two rolled cigarettes into my fist. But his mind is still on the store. As if he has left something behind. He says don’t show up around here. Abbas has really lost it. I lit one of the cigarettes. He says if Abbas sees that he will get nasty. I deeply inhale the smoke. I say let him. He says someone is on Abbas’ case. They’ve figured out that he has drugs. Don’t start any trouble. I start heading toward a side street. When I look back, Farzin isn’t there. Nazanin is standing right behind me. I say do you want to smoke?
I’m sitting on the ground amongst the other students. In front of the university entrance. After I finished the cigarette Nazanin had hit me in the chest, hard. She had said that it’s not fair to Sahar for you to be so callous. I didn’t say anything. I wanted to have something to roll around on my tongue, but all that was left was the bitter taste of hash, and a blue line in the sky, right under the horizon. Then I had followed Nazanin to the university gate. I didn’t like to be there. I should have gone to Ismail’s store, picked up his butcher’s knife and gone after Abbas. It didn’t matter why. Or perhaps it did. He didn’t like me hanging around his damn nest. Farzin was full of it when he said that someone is on Abbas’ case. Abbas didn’t like me. I didn’t want Abbas on my mind. I didn’t like the fact that he throws the five–‐gram stash on the table and stares into my eyes. I should have said I’m paying for it, you son of a bitch. It’s not as if it’s free. I put my hand inside my shirt pocket and the cigarette finds its way in my hand. The person next to me elbowed me in my side. He says are you stupid? Where do you think you are, Amsterdam? I say is there a point? He pulls the cigarette out of my fingers and returns it into my pocket. Then he gently taps his finger two or three times on my pocket. He says, what’s the point of what? I say gathering like a herd here. Then I stand up and look at the students who are sitting row after row in front of the university gates. Nazanin isn’t there. I lost her when we joined the crowd. He says what point? The poor girl was choked to death. I look at him. His hair is long, just like my own. But has it tied in a ponytail. His stomach, just like mine, sticks back to his spine. He says it wasn’t a suicide in my opinion. I sit back down next to him. I say how is it possible that no one has heard anything? In such a large dormitory? He shrugs his shoulders. He reminds me of a ballpoint pen tube when I look at him. His teeth look as if he has rubbed coal on them. I ask how many packs a day do you smoke? He replies two packs. I say does this roll do it for you? He laughs, takes the roll from my hands and puts it back. Then he reaches into his pocket and pulls out his fist. There are two keys and three white pills. He picks up the pills and throws them in my pocket next to the roll. He says I’m trying to quit since yesterday. I’m supposed to play in a movie. I take one of the pills out of my pocket and throw it in the back of my throat. I feel like it has a sour taste. I say so you’re all set. He says I don’t think the director is anything special. He’ll probably screw up the movie. He was just looking for a dipshit like me who wouldn’t ask for any money. But I want to play in his film. Noise rose up from the students. In front, everyone stands up suddenly and as if wind has taken over the crowd, they all swing around. He says it seems as if the head of the university security has arrived. I say do you have the lead role? He says I’m the friend of a dipshit who steals a car to impress his girlfriend. And the girl is also a college student in some hole in Tehran. And I just pray and don’t eat any food until I drop dead. I say so you have a suicide role. Up front, the head of security has unbuttoned his jacket and is pointing his finger at a few students, indicating that they should go inside the university. Someone jumps on the hood of the Iran Khodro Peugeot.. He is tall and his tight jeans catch the eye. He says some things that are inaudible. He says dying from hunger is fucking stupid. In some ways, it’s even religious. I should just stick my head into the gas pipe and end it. Something like that. I feel sleepy and my head spins. I want to stretch my legs on the ground, which is not possible. I push against the back of the students who are seated row after row on the ground. One of them turns around and says what’s your problem? Another one throws his fist in the air, which doesn’t reach anywhere. I say above her left breast there was a burn spot, like a cigarette burn. A fresh wound. He shakes his head and says I don’t think it was a suicide either. Dying this way is fucking stupid. I say I have to say two rak’at of prayer.1 Then I stand up and dust off the back of my pants. He says only two rak’ats at noon? He laughs and stretches his body. I say let’s go to the mosque. We’ll do two rak’at, to get close to God.
I lean my head against the mosque wall and push the container of prayer stones forward a little bit with my feet. Then I take out the pills from my pocket and swallow the two. I close my eyes to sleep a little. Even for just ten minutes. But it’s not possible. The mosque is too crowded and the air is stuffy. All these people have crammed like chickens in this tiny space. The pen tube is nowhere to be seen. He left the mosque without saying his prayers. As if he was running away from someone. I look at the others, the people who have entered at noon. There was a lot of them. I picked up a small prayer rug and wiped my sweat off. Someone said the murderer is roaming around freely and these people don’t care. I said someone jumped over the fences into the girls’ dormitory. One said I talked to the students myself. It wasn’t like that. A few people stood up in front and walked outside. They were huge and bearded. One of them who had a long snout like a stork’s said no one chokes herself with a scarf. Especially her own scarf. The one who had talked to the students stood up from the front row and said how do you even hear that this is what happened? He had shaved his head like soldiers do and blinked rapidly when he talked. I say everyone in the dorm knows how she died. What do you have to say? The other one took his prayer stone and gently put it in the box of stones. He said, that poor soul has passed away now, but there are more than a few rumours behind her back. I say loudly what rumours are behind her back? My whole body feels hot. A red shadow has fallen in the sky that makes the air hot. He says what I mean is, it’s not like we can just say that someone has jumped inside the dorm. The sound reverberates in my head. I yell how fucking dare you spread rumours? Someone’s voice says don’t use profanity in the house of God. The red shadow becomes more red. It turns black and covers under my eyelid. I yell this son of a bitch is overstepping his fucking boundaries. Someone grabs my elbow and pulls it down. He says you’re in a mosque right now. It’s sinful. I say what about that poor soul who’s six feet under? He says who are you anyway? Do you have a student ID? I say 1 Rak’at refers to a cycle of Muslim prayer which consists of certain movements and words. It is customary to pray after someone dies. Who the hell are you? He pulls my hand toward the door. I say let me go. He nods his head at someone behind me whom I can’t see. I pull my hand away. This time he hangs on to my wrist. Someone says what do you want with him? When he squeezes my wrist harder, I instinctively punch him in the chest. He lets out a sigh and falls from behind on top of the stork and those sitting around him. My head spins and my shoulders are suddenly on fire. Someone has hit me hard from behind. So much so that my whole body turns, and between the air and the ground, my face rubs against the wall of the mosque. Pain spreads in my stomach. My head sticks to my legs and the taste of blood finds its way under my teeth.
We should both play together. I’ll kill myself with gas and you don’t eat any food until you die. You said he’s going to screw up the movie. I didn’t say it. It doesn’t matter. This is all for later. Now what should we do?
When I open my eyes I see his large shadow over me. I also see his boots that has some dust settled on it. From his stomach up everything is black. I see feet that surround him. Then his boots scurry around quickly on the prayer rugs. I drag my hand on the ground and the box of prayer stones finds its way i my hands. I pick up the box quickly and throw all the stones on the prayer rugs. Heavy, clay prayer stones. I pick up the corners of the prayer rug in my fists and stand up. All that remains is just me and him. In the heat. With all of these black lines that have filled my eyes. With Sahar’s scarf that has nailed her head to her bed.
The moment he turns his head, I pummel him in the face. In one moment, everyone moves away from him. I see the blood splashing in the air of the mosque. His body sways around on the prayer rugs and spins the blood around everyone.
It’s nighttime and I am still sitting behind Ismail’s fridge. Ismail has pulled down the blinds of the store and is making something to eat. I said I’m not eating. He says you really messed up that guy. They’re looking for you now. Then the sound of something being fried rose up from the pan. He says you got away tonight. They’ll find you tomorrow. I stand up and go around the fridge. I pull the blinds and light splashes into the street. He says stay here tonight. Tomorrow we’ll go to the police station. I say someone was seen jumping across the university fences into the girls’ dormitory. That night. He says why do you have that prayer mat stuck to your chest? Leave it here. The clay prayer stones weigh heavily in the mat. I have only just felt their weight. The street is empty. Dark and desolate. And silent. A few lights from the dorm are on here and there and cast a slight brightness on the street. But there is no sound. I go into the street and pull the blinds from behind. I take a few steps forward in the street and look at the darkness of Sahar’s empty room. My head spins a little but I feel good. A cool breeze rests upon my skin and the wound on my face stops burning. I lean against the wall to soothe the pain in my shoulders. One of the lights in the girls’ dormitory blinks and quickly turns off. Three rooms down from Sahar’s room. Once I turn around, I see Nazanin who is leaning against a tree two or three meters away. I say why are you still out? In the dark? She says the police came to the dorm, looking for you. I tell her you should go back. I’ll go to the station with Ismail tomorrow morning. She takes a few steps forward and holds my hand. She says why did you start a fight in the mosque? She squeezes my hand. She comes closer and gently places the palm of her hand on my chest. I say he was talking behind Sahar’s back. Her body has a nice smell. Her body or the smell of her clothes. Her eyes are large. Larger than what I had always thought. She says Sahar is dead now. She’s not here. What difference does it make? I say why doesn’t this street have any lights? She distances herself a little bit but doesn’t let go of my hand. Her scarf has loosened and her hair has fallen across her face from underneath it. She grabs the wrinkled prayer mat with her other hand and pulls it from my grip. The prayer stones fall to the ground and roll under our feet. In the dark where I cannot see. I say Sahar and I used to sleep together. It had been about a year. I look at her face. I know that she has realized everything. It’s been a long time since she has realized everything. I say the night before there was a burn on her chest. Shaped like the end of a cigarette. Right here. She didn’t want me to see it. Her lips open up to speak. But she doesn’t say anything. Her teeth are white and straight. The corner of her lip trembles and then she closes her lips. She says it doesn’t matter. Then she gently pulls my hand toward her. She steps onto the sidewalk and her body disappears in the darkness. In the dense darkness of the trees. I then feel her skin. Skin that is warm and her breast that softly moves up and down under my fingers. Her breathing quickens and she places her lips gently on my neck. I feel like I’m naked and the wind rests lightly on my bare skin.
About the Author
Peyman Esmaeili was born in 1977 in Tehran. He studied electronics engineering at Iran University of Science & Technology, meanwhile he was a member of the university’s poetry club and manager of the founding board of Nationwide Students Literary Society. He is a published writer with two short story collections Snow and Cloud Symphony (winner of Mehregan, Golshiri and Press Critics & Awards) and Reach Your Raincoat Pockets (praiseworthy finalist of Isfahan Literary Award), and a novel titled The Guard (2014, 2nd). Siamak, The Guard‘s protagonist, commits murder and is consequently drawn to an incandescent white limbo in the South of Iran where he has to shoulder the weight of guilt and remorse. The magic setting of the novel – ripe with a sense of horror and fear, amalgamated with a narrative in-cold-blood – recently won him the first “40 Literary Award” (an award annually granted to the under-forty Iranian writers with a future).