Tell Us More

 Fariba Vafi
Translation by Saghi Ghahraman

Women tend to acknowledge the meaningful facts in life through details. Most of them don’t bother with generalities, but details linger in their mind, like pearl inside the sea-shell, so they can make a necklace out it if they find a tread.

Men, or men like my aunt’s husband, babble for hours about inflation, and depression when they hear the news of someone’s suicide. And if they hear of some wife’s divorce, they hand you a roughly account on divorce rate in society. His audience therefore continue cracking watermelon seeds; or if scheming through the newspaper, they sink their faces deeper in the pages, nod occasionally. The most tactless ones, dose off.

 

But my aunt wraps up the generalities quickly, and gets to the details; each detail glittering like a red spark in a dark night. Women abandon their chores and stare at her mouth.

My aunt says that in mourning receptions, women shed an ounce of tears, and then they begin their enquiry. Not why that person died, but how. How he died is more important. My aunt says, women don’t feel like leaving the service if don’t find out what the person said before dying, or if they don’t hear about a relative of the deceased having a vision, and how the vision was linked to the death. Death will walk shoulder to shoulder with them on their way home, if they don’t hit upon pieces of worthy details, urging the women to chat with it.

My aunt says nothing about the real news, which is a little girl’s putting herself alight. She talks of the flames flying high up. And of the next-door neighbor’s wife, who asked her man when she noticed the flames: “Are they boiling pitch next door to insulate the roof?”

Cats jumped on the roof, mewling. And then the stench filled the whole world, the stench of human flesh scorched in fire.

The women slap the back of their hand; their eyes fill with tears which drenches the eyelashes and do not drip.

Auntie points with her hands at the girl’s nylon dress spread in the air when fire caught on, and the pieces of dress landed on the branches of the walnut tree. The girl screams.

Auntie lowers her voice: “Patches of the girl’s skin was stuck to the mosaics in their yard.”

The women say: “Stop it … don’t say.. ”

Mesmerized under the spell of fire, the women narrow the circle ‘round auntie. Like a witch, she has hypnotized them.

Neighbors stick one end of the hose in to the water-tap and hold the other end over the girl.

Auntie says: “Have you seen a broom? The girl had turned into a dripping broom.”

The women slap their kneecaps.

Auntie leaves the room, and walks back in. Her grim face full of creases, she brings down palms of her hands to her scull, whacking her head: “oooy, oooy, I’m ruined, oooy, ooy!” This is how the step-mother looked and acted when she saw the girl’s scorched body.

The women say in a collective voice: “May god burns you in the heart, woman!”

Auntie says that in the way to the hospital the step-mother pressed her purse to the girl’s body, and the driver banged his fist on the wheel and said: “Damn you, you don’t even leave her wounded body to rest.”

The women wail bitterly.

Auntie’s husband has been in the room for sometime: “They had wrapped the child in a blanket; step-mother’s purse couldn’t have touched her wounds.”

The women look at Auntie’s husband, and then look at auntie, meaning: “How do you put up with him?” The thought suspends in the air, everyone felt it. The women want to know what the girl’s father did.  And auntie is not a fool to finish her tale with a simple he cried!

The father hits his head hard to the tree trunk. Auntie says it was the same tree still sputtering with blazes. The father weeps a tearless cry. “I did not know.. I did not know… I left in the morning and came back at night. I didn’t know what was happening to her.”

A woman in black chador swallows her tears, and wails: “How would you not know? She was so sallow!”

Another black figure pours out: “If you’d looked at her hands, you’d know.”

The courtyard is buzzing with the voices now: “You’d know if you looked at the rags she wore..”

“If you looked at her hair, at her eyes..”

An earsplitting fight between the husband and wife is nothing more then forecasting rain. It goes from one end to the other in the block, from wall to wall, door to door, and no one pays much attention. But, if you peeped from the keyhole and saw the baby having banana-milk shake while the girl washed the dishes, thirsty, and parched-lipped, you’d be sure to sell the news in the neighbourhood. News of the girl being pulled by the bunch of her golden tresses is like the news of the storm bringing down trees in the town. The husband, the wife, and their baby taking their threesome stroll in a sunny day could be received while cooking a meal. But the girl fallen on her aunt’s feet, begging, called for the T.V. to hush down.

The women grow quiet to hear the girl’s crying: “Mother… my legs are burning.. Mother..”

The wailing following it pierces into the backrooms of every house.

None of the men pays any attention to the father whacking the girl. The red stamp on the report card is so big everyone can see. But the women see, even in their sleep, the girl pressing her burning body on the walnut tree in the yard.

The new bride of the neighboring house weeps: “Why didn’t you draw the match while still in the room, to burn the rugs down with you? Why didn’t you burn your step-mother with you? Why didn’t you burn her house down?”

Auntie’s voice is louder then the neighbor’s daughter-in-law: “Before she pours gasoline on herself, the girl sweeps the house spick and span, washes the baby’s diapers and hangs them on the tree branches.”

Auntie remembers to mention at the end, that the edges of the diapers burned by the flames.

On the fortieth day of the girl’s death, the women come back to visit auntie. The step-mother has come back to her home. From the men’s point of view, all is well now. The womenfolk cook; send the kids to school; mend their husband’s socks, and think about what would it be like now the husband and wife start over. They come to auntie. She is the only one who wouldn’t say: “It’s over, the little girl is gone, she put herself on fire..”  She says: “For two whole days, the step-mother’s sisters washed and cleaned the house. You could hear them from behind this wall, sweeping and scraping the yard. They chased the cats off the roof top. Planted a couple of violets in the patch of the garden, which withered at the end of the day… The father came home in the afternoon, and stared at the blackened leaves of the walnut tree, which the sisters could do nothing about. The wife talked none stop. No one could decipher what she was saying, but she was heard.

The narrow alley had become all quiet; it hadn’t witnessed a heavier silence then on that day. Then a wailing was heard.

The neighbor’s are divided.

Some say: “The father is suffering…”

Some say: “Be a woman, and a step mother…”

Auntie’s husband says: “They hit the road; won’t be back till late at night.”

Auntie is sitting in the yard: “They won’t be back.”

She listens to the voices the wind carries from home to home. The walnut tree smacks its brunt branches on the wall, and hisses. The cats mew. Auntie strikes her chest with her fist, swinging with the rhythm of the mantra.

Day after the women come to visit auntie. Auntie’s husband opens the door as wide as his belly, and blurts: “They’re moving out any day now… the rental office sent two people over.”

Auntie’s neighbors’ throw a look at Auntie’s husband, and another look which carried a different meaning at Auntie, and go home empty handed.

 Fariba Vafi : “Tell Us More”, published in Even When We’re Laughing, Markaz Publications, Iran
Translated by Saghi Ghahraman, 2002