Ali Salami

Abbas Maroufi : A Moonlit Night [A Short Story]

About the Author

Born in 1957 in Tehran, Abbas Maroufi was raised and educated in Tehran. He studied dramatic arts at Tehran University while teaching at schools and writing for the newspapers. He served as the editor in chief of the literary Gardun magazine from 1990 to 1995. His first published work was a collection of short stories entitled ‘Into the Sun’. He also wrote a few plays which were performed on stage. In his ‘The Last Superior Generation,’ he touched on social themes. His last collection of short stories, ‘The Scent of the Jasmine’ was published in the United States. The following story has been translated by Ali Salami.

Abbas Maroufi came to prominence with the publication of The Symphony of the Dead (1989) which is narrated in the form of a symphony. The novel provoked a slew of criticisms from the critics. Some saw it as a great masterpiece in Persian literature; still some others relegated it to a sheer imitation of William Faulkner’s Sound and Fury. Yet, the novel proved so influential that it came to be imitated by other writers. In this novel, Maroufi uses the stream of consciousness technique very effectively. The Year of Turmoil and The Body of Farhad are among his other works. Maroufi died on September 1, 2022 in Germany. Some of his works have been translated into German.

A Moonlit Night , which follows in English translation, narrates the story of a shepherd boy called Mandal who is deeply in love with Nilupar. In this story, the writer touches on a main theme in a traditional society where a man finds it impossible to express his love to his beloved; rather he prefers to keep his love to himself and burn in the cauldron of his passionate love, albeit, there is more to it. Psychologically, Mandal is a sort of voyeur who spends his time secretly watching the naked body of his beloved, thereby gratifying his sexual urges. Voyeurism is a sexual perversion but the hero resorts to it because he cannot achieve his object of desire. Mandal is not the kind of character the reader may wish to identify because he is weak and undecided. There are moments in the story where he can open his heart and divulge his long-harbored secret. Yet, he prefers to keep it to himself as if he takes delight in inflicting pain upon himself as if we were faced with a masochist.

A Moonlit Night

Mandal was once again haunted by restless dreams that pulled him relentlessly under their spell. His heart pounded in his chest with a fierceness that emphasized his agitated state, and his body was drenched in cold sweat. From a distance, the sound of a dog barking penetrated his consciousness, a haunting refrain that seemed to echo the turmoil in his head. He saw himself plunging down a precipice, into an abyss of unknown depth, and the darkness enveloped him like a shroud, leaving him unable to find his footing. And then he was swept away by a sudden gust of wind, uprooted and thrown into the branches of a tree that stood in the middle of a valley ravaged by floods. He had often carved the name “Nilupar” into the bark of this tree with the tip of his knife.

As he tossed and turned restlessly in his bed to recover from the torment of his dreams, he strained his eyes to see the faint light coming through the gaps in the canvas. At that moment, his mother appeared with an oil lamp in the tent next to him.

“Mandal, why were you talking in your sleep?” she asked, her eyes scrutinizing him with concern.

Mandal sat up and surveyed his surroundings in confusion. “Mm-m?” he groaned.

His mother was adamant and refused to leave him alone. “You were delirious, mumbling about tying someone up. Where did your mind wander to?”

“I do not know,” he mumbled, though the truth was otherwise. His mother raised the lamp higher and cast its flickering light on the yellowed muslin bandage around her wrist, evidence of months of applying a poultice of turmeric and goat’s tallow to help heal her broken bone.

“Are you not feeling well?” she asked persistently.

“No, no. I am fine,” Mandal replied in a strained voice.

“Have you been arguing or fighting?”

“No,” he said with downcast eyes.

“Then why do you seem so restless, my child?” asked his mother, her voice filled with tenderness.

“Tell her that you are in love with Nilupar and that’s it,” Mandal thought to himself, but he remained silent. Impatience and dejection had taken hold of him. The days and nights dragged on and left him exhausted. A permanent lethargy had taken hold of him.

“What’s wrong with you?” she asked.

Mandal looked down at his hands, buttoned his left cuff, stretched out his arms, and pulled the comforter over his head. “I do not know,” he replied.

“Very well, then do not. You’d better get some sleep,” she remarked and blew out the lamp before leaving.

The tent was plunged into darkness again, and the moonlight filtered through the cracks in needle-like rays. Mandal’s heart began to pound as the mountains and rocks seemed to close in around him, threatening to crush him. He stared at the black wooden pole, unable to hold it still or stop it from moving into the distance. And so he closed his eyes.

Since his father’s death, Mandal’s life had revolved around sheep, mountains and the desert. At dawn, he drove the herds into the mountains and spent the days alone with his thoughts until nightfall. When he entrusted the sheep to the night shepherd, he went to collect firewood. He could not remember anyone ever returning to the dark tents before the evening star appeared. When he returned, he took off his leggings, scratched his body, drank a glass or two of tea and yawned until his mother served him dinner.

That evening at dinner, as usual, they had not spoken a word to each other. Mandal crawled under the covers and let his thoughts wander back to Nilupar. Half asleep, he dreamed of a mighty flood rolling down the service tree from his earlier dreams. When he woke up, he racked his brain and tried to interpret the dream, but to no avail. At that moment, he had the feeling that nothing in the world would give him more pleasure than sleep. How wonderful it would be to slumber in a warm and cozy bed! How tiring it was to run after the herds on the mountain paths while the chukha fell over his shoulders.

Before he fell asleep, Mandal toyed with the idea of turning over a new leaf. But then he banished the idea from his mind and said to himself: “I will do something about it in the fall

Autumn had finally arrived. The tribe prepared for the arduous journey to Sangsar, while the shepherds signed their annual contracts with their masters. As they settled into their new location, Mandal knew that he would soon have to leave for eight long months in the desert.

“Oh, for the spring!” he lamented.

The seasons passed in quick succession, and the daily work of tending the herds and enduring the harshness of the cold, snowy days kept him busy. Time passed unnoticed, and before he knew it, Mandal had reached the age of thirty. His skin showed signs of sunburn, and his forehead was dotted with tiny spots and a few stray white hairs in his mustache. Despite his broad, unused shoulders, he had no woman to embrace, which left him in a state of constant longing.

It was a comfort to hear his mother’s prayers, and Mandal followed them. Still, he could not shake the memory of the rocks and the eerie darkness that had once haunted him. Even during prayer, his thoughts involuntarily revolved around Nilupar. The memory of her walking, lisping and swimming filled his mind with fantasy.

Although he had lived near her for years, Mandal had only managed to have a conversation with Nilupar once. It was a brief exchange that took place while her mother cooked oatmeal outside their tent and his father chatted with the herdsmen traders. Mandal himself was busy bringing goatskins with yogurt to the tents.

“May I ask you to spin the carpet loom for me?” Nilupar had asked.

“And you do not have to take off your chukka boots,” she added.

“But I can carry dust in?” Mandal had inquired.

“That does not matter. I will sweep it clean,” she replied.

What a magnificent carpet she had woven! Delicate, crimson, with a pattern of blue flowers. At that moment, Mandal realized that he was very much in love with her. A long-cherished love that he had kept hidden from everyone. A single glance from her or the sound of her voice was enough to pull him back into the maelstrom of his nightmares. Mandal fought against the inevitable fate and talked in his sleep until the sudden jolt he suffered from falling onto the service tree woke him up. Sleep would then elude him until morning, haunted by the recurring nightmare of falling off a precipice, triggered by the passion of seeing Nilupar’s naked body in the mountain stream.

During the day, he drove his herd up the mountain, from where he could overlook the camp, the long black tents, the lazy dogs, a few sick sheep and a group of people toiling away. He knew exactly when the women gathered to go to the mountain stream. At midday, when the sun burned down relentlessly on them, the women trudged to the stream with their bundles on their heads and their babies at their breasts. Even when her back was turned to him, Mandal could distinguish Nilupar from the forty or so women from afar. Mandal had watched her for twelve years, from the age of eight until her twenty-eighth birthday. Then he noticed that Nilupar did not put her bundle on her head, but draped it over her shoulder with her fingertips. Before they entered the stream, Mandal hid in a snowy hollow on the mountain.

There he lay down on a black boulder and stared longingly at the stream. The one who poured water over her head with her hands, splashed the others, swam boldly in the cold water, shouted the loudest and sat down on the sun-warmed rocks, put on her green dress comfortably and wrung out her hair was none other than Nilupar. The mere sight of her sent a shiver down Mandal’s spine that paralyzed him. Then a feeling of exhaustion overcame him and an indescribable agony twisted his stomach, leaving him in a state of helplessness for hours.

The result was that he had a terrible dream that very night. But what could he do? Marrying Nilupar had never been an option for the simple reason that he had served as a shepherd under her father in those early years. He also lacked the courage to ask her to marry him. Still, he yearned for her, and now that Mandal had his own flock, Nilupar was engaged to an unskilled shepherd named Gelverdi. Mandal’s passion burned even hotter and sent him into a constant fever.

With eyes glowing with agony, Mandal tossed and turned in his sleepless state. Unable to bear the agony any longer, he put on his trusty chukka boots and slung his chukha over his shoulder. In the moonlit night that cast an eerie glow on the landscape, Mandal made his way to Nilupar’s tent. The sound of rushing water and the plaintive bird calls filled his ears as he crept along and the sounds of their family snoring and moaning emanated from within.

As he reached the base of the mountain, Mandal felt a sudden pain in his eyes. The edges burned with an intensity he had never felt before, as if a red-hot iron spike had been thrust into them. Although he had stayed awake many a night and hiked through the mountains until dawn, he had never felt such paralyzing suffering. Had he been spying on the naked women who tormented him so?

With the image of Nilupar’s bathing form in his mind, Mandal was overcome with a dizziness that left him reeling. His eyelids felt as if they were on fire and threatened to burst at any moment. His temples throbbed with an incessant rhythm, as if tiny creatures were boring into his eyes. An inexplicable sorrow consumed his soul as he reached out to touch his inflamed and blistered eyelids, filled with a deep sense of fear.

As exhaustion overcame him, his knees gave way and he slumped onto a stone slab. The corners of his eyes felt like they were tearing apart, his vision obscured by a veil of darkness. The bleating of sheep and the barking of dogs echoed in the distance, the cries of a child and the voice of a man sounded faintly in the wind. Mandal lay there helplessly, unable to move or escape his pain.

He longed for only one thing, and that was the sweet embrace of sleep. His mind was blank and he longed to return to the peaceful dreams he had had earlier. With difficulty, he tried to see through the veil of darkness and looked at his surroundings. Everything was hazy and foggy, and the steep mountains loomed in the distance. He tried to fight his blindness, but it was in vain.

“Oh my God, I have gone blind,” he said to himself in despair.

With an effort, he picked himself up and began to descend the mountain, not knowing where he was going. All he wanted was to get somewhere safe. Suddenly he found himself in a thicket of aloes, their sharp leaves cutting into his skin. In a desperate attempt to protect himself, he stumbled into the shade of the thicket and collapsed on the ground.

As he sat there, he realized that the edges of his eyes had swollen into large blisters, leaving him completely blind. Panic spread.

“Oh my God, have I really gone blind?” he exclaimed in horror.

In his desperate hope for salvation, he began to pray fervently, reciting the words of his religious ritual without thinking about their meaning.

“Save me!” he pleaded.

Driven by his religious fervor, his hands began to work automatically, he untied his leggings and tied himself to the leafy stem behind him, which served as his shrine. The sun burned down on him mercilessly, scorching his skin and making him feel as if he were on fire. He thought of his father, Shir Agha, a simple and honest man who had earned his living by chopping wood.

He remembered how his father had had a strange dream in which he had gone to Mirza Ali Akbar’s store.

“Mirza, this famine will end one day, and so will our worries,” his father had said. “Besides, life is short. Tell me, does it please God to see my wife and children sleeping on an empty stomach?”

“Shir Agha, have you ever asked for something that I have denied you?” Mirza had replied.

His father had hesitated. “You know, it’s hard for me to ask. Bad luck is raining down on us. How can I go to Himeh to chop wood in this snowstorm?”

While his father was recounting this dream, Mandal – for that was his name – remembered a sudden knock on the door. He had only been seven or eight years old at the time. Mirza Ali Akbar had come with a loaded donkey carrying sacks of flour, sugar, tea, and rice.

“Shir Agha, I saw you in a dream last night,” Mirza had said. “I asked you how life was treating you in this godless year and you said, ‘God is merciful Now do not let anything upset you. I have brought you some flour, rice, tea and a few little things. We will settle up and you can give us some firewood in the new year.”

“Is there any other way I can return the favor?” Shir Agha asked, overwhelmed with gratitude.

Mirza had smiled. “Listen, my wife is expecting a baby very soon. If it’s a boy, we will name him Mirza Ali Akbar.”

But it was a girl, and she was called Noresa. That spring was a desperate year when many sheep died and Russian Cossacks roamed the land.

Bread was a rare sight in these desolate alleys, which were still covered in snow. Every morning Shir Agha, accompanied by his faithful but hungry dog, set off for Khoreh to collect wood. One day, as he was loading his donkey’s panniers, he sharply rebuked his companion: “Get away from us, you hungry beast!”

The dog, who was used to accompanying Shir Agha on his wood-gathering excursions, could not understand his master’s outburst. When Shir Agha could no longer bear the sight of the emaciated creature, he decided to tie it to a tree. Imagine his surprise when he saw the dog sitting peacefully on his doorstep on his return home.

The next day, Shir Agha threw the dog from the edge of the cliff into the foaming river below. But to his horror, the animal’s pitiful whimpering tormented him and his family throughout the night and robbed them of their restful sleep. As dawn broke, Noresa was born.

“Tomorrow I will be a shepherd,” Shir Agha swore to himself. “There’s no point in waiting for a better fate.”

Up until this point, the family had led a settled life. But from that day on, they led a nomadic existence. Mandal, meanwhile, pulled his leggings tighter around his waist and fell to his knees to pray, like a pilgrim bound to a holy shrine.

“Dear God, my father died when I was only fourteen,” he cried. “For his sake, forgive me! Dear God, oh dear God, dear God….”

With tears streaming down his face, he repented of his past misdeeds and promised never again to look at the naked women swimming in the river. He vowed to live a pure life and leave this world with a clean conscience worthy of his father’s esteem.

He resumed his prayers and gradually sank into a trance-like state in which he was no longer aware of the world around him. Then he heard footsteps approaching but could see no one. His heart was racing and he felt an increasing sense of fear and nausea. Despite his dizziness, he could feel the figure coming closer.

When he lifted his head, he saw a figure clad in a dark blue, transparent robe. He had the impression that it was a woman. “W-w-w-who are you?” he stammered.

The figure remained silent. “I am Mandal,” he ventured with a tremor in his voice. But the figure said nothing. The hem of her dress fluttered in the breeze and flowed into the distance.

“I have gone blind,” Mandal said, his voice barely higher than a whisper.

After the mysterious encounter with the mysterious figure in blue, Mandal was completely stunned. He was speechless and was struck by a tremor that shook him to the core. The figure reached out and placed a gentle hand on his forehead, and as it did so, Mandal felt something inside him flee. He felt like he was to his death, like he was nothing more than a piece of flesh until the touch of her hands reached his eyes.

Then, suddenly, all feeling seemed to disappear. The coolness of her touch, gentle as a summer breeze, brought a deep sense of calm to Mandal. For a moment, he thought it was all just a dream. But when he blinked, he realized that he could see everything around him with perfect clarity. Looking down at his hands, he saw the calluses on his fingertips and remembered how he had tied himself to the tree. But now there was no one there.

Mandal undid his bonds, pulled on his leggings, and rose to his feet, feeling light, calm, and free of pain. He looked around and took in the beauty of his surroundings with new appreciation. The sun shone above him as a strong north wind blew through the trees. Mandal climbed up the slope, lay on the high hillside, and gazed out at the cumulus clouds in the distance.

Below, he could see the tents and the flock of sheep moving up the mountainside. The men were warming milk while the women and young girls went to the stream. Among them was Nilupar, who had her bundle hanging by her fingertips over her shoulder. Mandal muttered to himself: “Fate!”

At that moment, he felt a wave of joy wash over him as he remembered the feel of the figure’s hand on his face. With a smile of fulfillment, Mandal slid down the mountain, invisible to all, and hid on a massive rock above the stream. The long tents lined the hill, like leeches clinging to the cows’ udders. On the hill opposite, Gelverdi drove his herd, and the laughter of young girls echoed in Mandal’s ears.

And then he saw them. A group of women were swimming in the stream and one was taking off her baby. Nilupar plunged into the water, her head surfacing briefly before she looked up at the rock face where Mandal was hiding. Mandal suddenly froze, unable to move, his heart pounding in his chest. Nilupar pointed up at him and let out a roar of laughter, and Mandal felt like he were falling off the cliff, unable to find his footing.

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