War and Woman

Arad Niksefar

© Copyright 2021 by Arad Niksefar

Photo by Levi Meir Clancy on Unsplash

                                                    Photo by Levi Meir Clancy on Unsplash
I was busy playing on the family farm when I heard the sounds. A boom, shots firing, fear and Parisa’s mother screaming out her name. Sounds that are never heard in the village of Boustaan. I could hear fear, chaos and the need to escape in the sounds around me. The loud noise of bullets firing sounded like pop-corn bursting in the fire. They sped past the terrified villagers and once in a while someone would fall to the ground. I saw a bullet rip through a woman’s stomach the impact knocking her to the ground groaning. Blood was pouring slowly out of the wound and shining bright red in the warm afternoon sunlight. The woman was a wonderful mother and a great role model in the village. She was renowned for her hospitality, cheerful nature, and strong faith. She lived her entire life as a Bedouin woman in a tent with her family. That was the last afternoon in the summer of 1980 and the first day of the war.

When the airplanes appeared in the sky, my father roared out “bouyeh”* as if a fire had been lit in his mouth. My mother was trying to take my sister, Maryam, who could not take her eyes off the sky, inside the house. In that moment of fear and bewilderment; my mother, unlike my father, fluttered like a candle flame. She grabbed the scarf, which was the colour of faded bricks, between her teeth so her hair could not be seen. A voice crying and screaming filled the air; it was Parisa, our neighbour. Suddenly in all that mayhem a loud whistling sound, like a jet taking off, drew near and finally there was a tremendous explosion that knocked everything everywhere. Our reed house, where we sheltered crashed down over our heads. Then another frightening whistle sounded and with a swift and destructive descent, landed a little further away, this was followed by yet another whistle and then I didn’t hear anything else.

I was woken by the voices and whimpers of my mother and Maryam and the smoke and smell of the burnt and destroyed village that now laid around me. I got up with difficulty, covered in blood and stumbled towards the sound of my mother moaning and groaning. From far away I could see Parisa’s mother running towards me, crying, splattered with blood and carrying Parisa in her arms. My mother lay there fallen on top of my brother and Maryam, soaked in blood and wailing. I let out a loud scream of horror after noticing pieces of people’s corpses lying around me amidst the ruins and took cover in Parisa’s mother’s arms.

The village elders made a decision: to send the women and children out of the village, while they would stay and defend their home.

In the darkness of that same night, following the Karkheh River I left the village with my brother, my sisters, our mother, grandmother, Parisa’s family and all the women and children who had survived the day. Parisa was on her mother’s shoulder staring back with her big, brown eyes, I kept my own eyes on the ground, with pursed lips and a bandaged head, careful not to slip. My mother was holding Maryam’s hand and pulling her along with hunched shoulders, as if she was protecting herself from the winter cold. Looking back towards home from afar we could see the flames of our burning village silhouetted against the night sky. This was the last we saw of our village. After that we never returned to Boustaan.

After two nights and two days of walking and starvation, we were transferred to the city of Ahvaz with the help of the army. Father was happy to have moved us to relative safety, but the war slowly crept through all the southern cities of Iran and displaced millions of people. The sound of the war and the shadow of death did not leave us for eight years.

Five years after the start of the war, Parisa’s father was killed and his wife suffered severe trauma. I remember those ill-fated days well, when pain was running like a river through Parisa’s mother’s body and soul, and with all its brutality, like the ravaging desert wind aged her face day by day. At the same time, the pain caused a peculiar sense of restlessness and frustration that took root in Parisa’s spirit and little by little haunted her. In the years that followed, whenever Parisa remembered her father, a mixed feeling of weakness, despair and the need to cry would claw at her and she would always say: “Dad should still be alive today.”

Even though her mother had many suitors she never remarried and tended to the raising of her three children. During that time, whenever I saw her, her face reminded me of a silent sea.

Fifteen years after the end of the war and on the eve of the anniversary of the Iranian government accepting the United Nations Security Council resolution 598 to cease fire, I married Parisa.

She was beautiful and unique, and lived like a free bird, unrestricted by the rules of others; she followed her instinct and took a romantic approach to life. She would always kiss me before leaving the house and straighten my shirt collar. She would stare into my eyes and jokingly say: “I love you for the time being.” It was as if this sentence was her catchphrase and in response, I would say: “I’m crazy over you for ever.” She always looked tidy, even if she was cooking. Even in plain Arabic clothes she looked like a model. Her big eyes resembled her fathers and she kept a photo of him in her room with a thin, black ribbon diagonally across the top right corner.

Her mild, feminine scent was so seductive to me that even if she gave me the dirtiest look, once I was in her arms, I became like a nineteen-year-old boy who for one night had been deceived by the beautiful hotel receptionist. Then I would forget everything and in that moment I could think only of how I could kiss that look away. She didn’t say much, but despite the sorrow inside her from her father’s death, she had her own mischief. When she made morning coffee she would sweeten mine according to how many times I called her “golam”* or “azizam”.* Her smile was like a window full of light. She never was repetitive for me, and I felt like I had all the women in the world. In marital bickering she was very sensitive, innocent and would go silent. If she ever complained, I would be so pleased that I would say something to stir her even more and watch her innocent face, then I would open my arms for her to run into my embrace.

Nine months had passed since our wedding when her only brother was arrested and imprisoned for political activism. He was trying to reclaim the family land which was held by the government after the war. This was another blow to her already lean and thin body and she became closer to me and more dependent on me. Throughout her brother’s incarceration rather than anger her face showed a kind of distress, like a woman who was forever burdened by the laundry. I felt that soon something was going to change in her life dramatically, but I couldn’t imagine what it might be. I had no way of guessing. Around the same time, I had become very busy at work and had less time for her than before.

One night it seemed as if she was frustrated or she wanted to speak with me. I was going over the presentation I had to give the next day. I was in my room. She knocked and asked if she could come in. She wouldn’t usually disturb me when I was working. She stood in the doorway with her head to one side and a small smile bowing her lips.

I was wondering if you could take the day off work tomorrow?”

I looked up from my papers: “Please leave this for later.”

These few cold words were what she heard in response to her question.

In that moment I saw something in her face that is impossible to explain. She looked like a painting, the colour drained from her frozen face. In a kinder but firm tone I said:

I have a very important business meeting tomorrow and there’s no way I can take the day off.”

I also emphasized that I would be receiving a big promotion soon and that I had to be at the office the entire week. I knew she had the right to make such a request but I expected her to understand my situation and wait for the right opportunity to present itself for a serious discussion. I remember that day she had gone to the beauty salon. Her make-up was subtle and her eye’s looked tired.

She left the room and I heard her brewing tea. Thirty minutes past before I left my room. She was standing by the window gazing out. She was frowning and without a word from me, heavy hearted, she said: “I’m tired.”

I thought it was probably just a passing mood swing. To escape the depressive atmosphere, I took a glass of water to drink from the jug in the fridge. My back was towards her. With some uncertainty I said:

Everything I do is for our future.”

She replied:

I wish I wasn’t a part of your life so I wouldn’t get in your way.”

When she said this I got upset. I moved back a bit and thoughtlessly retorted with a sneer:

I hope you’re gone by the morning.”

These were the words that came out of my mouth.

The force of her feelings rose in her throat, her lips trembled but no words came out of her mouth. She was stunned. The light in her eyes immediately went out. I couldn’t tell if she was crying or not. She stood there, looking out of the window for a long time, taking deep breaths. Then she turned towards me again and stared at me. Looking at those innocent eyes was really difficult at that moment in time. I opened my arms for her to run into but instead she ran into the bedroom and closed the door. Her reaction made my whole body shiver. It had been my responsibility to choose the right words. I was drowned in my work and so saturated in her love that perhaps I had begun to take it for granted. Before her no woman had ever been so attentive to me.

It had become a bitter night. The house fell into a deep silence. I felt my words, like arrows, had pierced her heart. It was not a pleasant feeling. And so I decided it was best not to pursue the matter any further.

I went to her father’s picture to calm myself. I knelt and prayed. Her father’s eyes were cold. My head started spinning, like the dizziness you sometimes feel when you stand up too quickly. I turned around and moved away from the picture. Half an hour later I put on my pyjamas and went to sleep by her side. Every night she would sleep in my arms, even when she was angry at me. I do not know why but that night her whole body was wet with sweat and she had become numb. Her expression was cold and her eyes devoid of feeling. I moved her long hair from across her face and held her in my arms. She put her head on my chest, sighed and we both slept.

When I woke up in the morning she was not beside me. Like a puppy yearning for the warmth of its mother’s body, I went looking for her. I saw her next to her father’s picture. I said hello, but her reply was dismal. Disappointed, I took a shower and went to the office without breakfast.

By two in the afternoon I had tried to call her at least twenty times, but there was no answer. Before the meeting I went to the café in the office building and ordered a coffee. I sat there and sent her a few messages. Worried, I stalled for time sipping my coffee slowly, with cold anticipation, but still she didn’t reply. Would there be no end to her silence?

I knew the rules of this game. I had to give her some time. As soon as the meeting ended I went home without delay. I unlocked the door and went in. With a kind tone, elongating her name I called out Parisaaa ~ Parisaaa!

She lay beside her father’s picture, along the shaft of light that shone from the window. As if the light was kinder to her.

Eight years have passed since that night and in that time I have not had a proper night’s sleep, not even once. I am calm but my heart is still troubled. During these years hundreds of questions have disturbed and occupied my mind, hundreds of questions that I have not been able to find answers for.

I have asked myself a thousand times. Is it possible to kill a person with just one stupid sentence? What are the chances of someone’s heart stopping from hearing a few harsh words?

Parisa slept forever, she had a heart attack, and the cause was never clear. Her death was a secret that ate at me from the inside out and had no cure. Throughout this time I have not yet met a woman with such delicate feelings and nor do I want to ever again.

I can remember her well at parties and celebrations, when she shone and stole the looks of all the men: men who wished she was theirs, and I would just stand by her side with a smile, indifferent to her beauty. 

Before I fled Iran and became a refugee I had sold our house, moved to another city, and never fell in love again. About two years after I arrived in Australia my mother sent some of my old books for me containing Parisa’s memory. One night while I was putting the books on the shelf, I came across an envelope filled with dried roses. I opened it and discovered the result of her pregnancy test, which was positive. The date of the letter was twelve days before her death. The whole world came crashing down around me for the second time. I guess her mother had requested the legal practitioner not to tell me to save me from even more devastation at the time of her death. 

The loss of two loved ones destroyed me completely. 

I imagined that night she had asked me to take the day off work so that she could spend a special day with me and congratulate me on becoming a father. Not only was I an incompetent man, I was also the worst father on earth. After that, I always felt ashamed of myself for not accepting her request. Sometimes I wish I could go back in time and be the father she had expected. Like her father who never let the war take her. 

On Wednesday nights I go out and have dinner in a café in her memory. In my past I was caught up in the talons and terror of war and now I am in the grip of exile and memory. Today, I’m sitting in a faraway café in York. I have opened her little music box which I have kept as a keepsake. I do not hear the song “Gole Sangam”, but instead I hear an odd sound from outside the window.

The sound of a scream, the sound of gunfire, the sound of a child crying, the sound of a woman wailing… 

With each sound, my eyes dart around the room. I have the feeling of someone who is trying to figure out a magician’s tricks. In my state of confusion, words have frozen in my mouth. I stand up and listen to the sounds. Slowly and in short steps, I distance myself from the window. Frightened, I walk around the backyard of the café building. I search everywhere. I do not find anything. I stand still again and slowly close my eyes. I’m trying to find the path to the sounds. I hear the voice of an eight-year-old child from the street: 

Dad, Dad…” 

The voice seems to travel through a mysterious mist. As if the child has been locked up in some distant place and is calling out to me. Like the damned my eyes flick open and I step backwards. Wave-like echo’s ringing in my ears, making me dizzy. These auditory hallucinations lead me to the painful and unpleasant realities of the past which are only a hairs breadth from my present reality. The weight of the world lies on my shoulders, my feet are leaden I don’t know if it is I who walk or somebody else in my place. I go to the street and start walking with a racing heart. The sound possesses me. I search all the streets over and again. 

But behind no window, no child can be seen.

*bouyeh ~ my son

*golam ~ my flower

*azizam ~ darling

Arad now lives in Tasmania, where my author friend Karen met him at a local marker.  She says he makes and sells Persian goodies, mainly using dates, rose water, almonds and that sort of thing.  He is a refugee from Iran, who left his whole family behind.  Karen and her friends have encouraged him to write of his experiences, and he told her recently that he has actually won a couple of small writing prizes in the past year or two. 

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