“No, no, no. I will never be able to walk this way,” Davoud muttered to himself as he struck the ground with a short yellow stick, using it as a crutch to ease his laborious progress. His face was a terrible sight: a sunken head between narrow shoulders on a protruding chest. His gaunt and drawn features looked hollow and repulsive – a visage of dried lips, arched brows, drooping eyelashes, sallow complexion and protruding cheekbones.
But as he trudged along the dusty road, Davoud cut a striking figure, his long and disproportionate limbs wrapped in a cloak that concealed his hump and a wide-brimmed hat pulled low over his eyes. With a solemn expression, he repeatedly struck the ground with his stick and struck a pose that might have provoked laughter had he not looked so pathetic.
He had left Pahlavi Avenue and was now walking along a path that led out of the city towards the government gate, while the light of the setting sun cast a vague glow on the landscape. On the left, the mud-covered walls and brick pillars loomed as mute testimony to the passage of time. On the right, a recently filled-in ravine could be seen, dotted with half-finished brick houses.
The road was sparsely populated, with only the occasional car or hackney carriage passing by, and even then they kicked up a little dust into the air, even though the road had been watered beforehand. Saplings had been planted along the gutter on both sides of the road, perhaps in an attempt to beautify the otherwise desolate landscape.
As he trudged along the dusty road, Davoud’s thoughts were consumed by bitter memories of a life as an object of ridicule and pity. From childhood, he had been an outcast, shunned by those around him and regarded with contempt.
His mind wandered back to a history lesson in which his teacher had mentioned that the inhabitants of Sparta used to kill deformed children. At that moment, all eyes had been on him and he had felt a strange and unwelcome feeling. But now he wished that such a law had been enforced everywhere in the world, or at least that syphilitic people like his father were not allowed to marry. For he knew only too well that his own deformities were the direct result of his father’s recklessness.
The memory of his father’s death was deeply etched in his mind: the pale, bony face, the sunken blue eyes and the half-open mouth. His father was an old syphilitic man who had taken a young wife and whose descendants had all been born blind or lame. One brother had survived, but was mute and an idiot before he finally died two years earlier. Sometimes Davoud caught himself thinking that perhaps they were the lucky ones.
Now he was alone in the world, worn down by his own existence and shunned by everyone around him. He had become accustomed to a life of seclusion, where he was excluded from sports, jokes and other childish amusements that brought joy to his classmates. Instead, he sat in a corner of the schoolyard, book in hand, watching the other children from a distance.
In his pursuit of knowledge, Davoud worked tirelessly day and night, hoping to achieve some measure of superiority over his classmates. But even when he excelled, his classmates only feigned friendship in order to copy his problems and mathematical solutions. They were more interested in socializing with the handsome and well-dressed Hasan Khan.
Only a handful of teachers had paid him any attention, but even that was out of pity rather than admiration. Despite all his hard work and sacrifice, Davoud was empty-handed, shunned and ignored by everyone around him. He could hear the whispers of women as they passed him by, making fun of his hump and deformities. And that filled him with a burning anger that was stronger than any pain he had ever known.
Twice in recent years, Davoud had dared to ask for the hand of a beautiful girl. But alas! Both times he was met with scorn and derision. By a twist of fate, one of these maidens, Zibandeh by name, lived near Fisherabad. They had run into each other several times and had even exchanged a few words. In the afternoons, when he came home from school, Davoud would make his way to her doorstep. The only thing that stuck in his mind was a tiny birthmark above her lip. However, when he sent his aunt to ask for her hand in marriage, the same girl laughed at him: “Are not there enough men I can marry so I have to take a hunchback as my husband?” Despite her parents’ rebuke, she stood firm and repeated: “Are not there enough men?” But Davoud’s love for her remained unshakeable and was the most beautiful memory of his youth. To this day, whether knowingly or unknowingly, he often wandered into her neighborhood, and memories of the past flooded his mind again. He was disillusioned with everything.
He wandered the streets in solitude and avoided company, for he suspected that every whisper and giggle from the people around him was directed at him and mocked him. With his piercing brown eyes and grim expression, he stretched his neck and upper body and strode forward with a haughty expression. Every sense was attuned to the opinion of the others, every facial muscle tensed. He longed to know what others thought of him.
He strolled slowly along the edge of a stagnant rivulet, poking around in the murky water with his stick while his mind was flooded with troubling thoughts. Suddenly, a white dog with long, matted hair lifted its head, startled by the tapping of the stick against a stone. The animal looked sickly, as if it was about to die and could not move. His gaze lingered on its own, and a strange thought came over him. It was as if he had met such a serious and humble look for the first time. They were both outcasts, he and the dog, unwanted and abandoned by society. He longed to take the poor creature in his arms, to hug it to his protruding chest, but the fear of ridicule held him back. Dusk had fallen. He walked through the Yusef Abad Gate and looked at the glowing, luminous moon that had appeared in the calm, sad evening sky. His gaze lingered on the unfinished houses, the stacked bricks, the sleepy backdrop of the town, the corrugated iron roofs of the houses and the distant, blue-colored mountain. Blurred, gray curtains of thoughts enveloped his mind. Not a soul was to be seen, near or far. Soft singing drifted over to him from the opposite side of the gorge. He lifted his head with difficulty, feeling exhausted, desperately unhappy, his eyes burning with fatigue. His head felt too heavy for his body. He left his walking stick at the edge of the ditch, walked to the other side and hiked to the rocks, where he sat down at the side of the road. Suddenly his attention was drawn to a woman in a chador sitting nearby. His heart began to race. The woman turned her head and said with a smile: “Hushang! Where have you been all this time?” Her friendly tone startled him, and yet he felt a sudden surge of joy. It was clear from her question that she wanted to talk to him, but what was a woman doing here at such a late hour? Was she serious? Perhaps she was in love. He decided to take a chance and thought to himself: “Come what may, at least I have someone to talk to.” As if he could not control his tongue, he blurted out: “Miss, are you alone? I am alone too. I have always been alone, all my life.”
His words faded into the air as the woman, shielded by her sunglasses, turned her head once more and spoke, “Then who are you? I thought it was Hushang. Whenever he graces me with his presence, he tries to be funny.”
Davoud struggled to follow the woman’s train of thought, but he didn’t mind. It had been ages since a woman had spoken to him, let alone one as striking as this one. Cold sweat trickled down his body as he forced himself to reply. “No, miss, I’m not Hushang. My name is Davoud.”
The woman’s smile widened: “I can’t see you properly – my eyes are bothering me. Ah, Davoud! Davoud the Clueless…” She paused and bit her lip before continuing, “I am Zibandeh. Surely you remember me?” The strands of hair framing her face moved and Davoud’s eyes caught sight of the black birthmark on the edge of her lip. A lump formed in his throat as he struggled to catch his breath. Drops of sweat beaded on his forehead and he cast a furtive glance around. No one was there, but the singing had come closer. His heart was pounding so hard he felt like it was going to burst in his chest.
Without saying a word, he rose unsteadily to his feet, his whole body shaking with sobs. Davoud grabbed his stick and trudged back the way he had come. With each step, his voice became hoarser and more ragged, his whispered words barely intelligible. “That was Zibandeh! She didn’t see me … maybe Hushang was her fiancé or husband … who knows? Never…I have to close my eyes…no, I can’t take it anymore…”
He dragged himself over to the dog he had noticed earlier, settled down next to it and laid his head against its chest. But the dog was dead.
About Sadeq Hedayat
Sadeq Hedayat was an Iranian author whose contributions to Persian fiction mark a clear departure from the traditional literary style. Hedayat is considered one of the most successful Iranian writers of the 20th century and was a pioneer of modernism, which continues to influence contemporary Persian literature to this day.
Hedayat was born into a prestigious family and received his early education in Tehran. He later studied dentistry and engineering in France and Belgium, where he came into contact with prominent European intellectuals. This contact prompted Hedayat to abandon his scientific ambitions in favor of a career in literature. Sadeq Hedayat is known for a large number of short stories that have been widely read by Iranian readers. Some of these stories are: Dash Akol, The Stray Dog (Sag-e Velgard), Three Drops of Blood (Se Qatr-e Khun), The Whirlpool (Gerdab), Seeking Redemption (Talab-e Amorzesh), The Doll Behind the Curtain (Arusak-e Posht-e Pardeh), The Claws (Changal).
All of his stories have been translated into English by the Iranian scholar Ali Salami.