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 the 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 is currently living in Germany with his family. Some of his works have been translated in 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 a 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 a 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 again beset by uneasy dreams, their grip on him unyielding. His heart thrashed about in his chest with a violence that bespoke his tumultuous state, and his body was drenched in a cold sweat. From the distance, the barking of a dog wafted into his consciousness, a haunting refrain that seemed to mirror the turmoil within his mind. He beheld himself tumbling down a precipice, into an abyss of unknown depths, with the darkness enveloping him like a shroud, rendering him unable to find a hold. And then, in a sudden gust of wind, he was carried away, uprooted and cast into the branches of a service-tree that stood amidst the vastness of a valley ravaged by floods. Many a time, he had etched the name “Nilupar” onto the bark of this very tree with the point of his knife.

As he turned restlessly in his bed, seeking respite from the torment of his dreams, he strained his eyes to discern the faint light filtering through the gaps in the canvas. At that moment, his mother, bearing an oil lamp, appeared in the tent that adjoined his.

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

Mandal sat up, surveying his surroundings with a disoriented air. “Mm-m?” he groaned.

His mother was insistent, refusing to leave him be. “You were delirious, muttering about tying someone up. Where was your mind wandering?”

“I don’t know,” he murmured, though the truth was otherwise. His mother raised the lamp higher, casting its flickering light upon the yellowed muslin bandage that encircled her wrist, a testament to the months of application of a poultice of turmeric and goat’s suet, meant to aid in the mending of her broken bone.

“Are you unwell?” she persisted.

“No, no. I am fine,” Mandal replied, his tone strained.

“Have you had any quarrels or fights?”

“No,” he said, his eyes downcast.

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

“Tell her you’re in love with Nilupar and be done with it,” Mandal thought to himself, but he remained silent. Impatience and despondency had taken hold of him. Days and nights dragged by, leaving him drained of energy. A permanent lethargy had taken root within him.

“What’s the matter with you?” she asked.

Mandal looked down at his hands, buttoned his left cuff, and stretched out his arms, drawing the quilt over his head. “I don’t know,” he replied.

“Very well, then. You had better get some sleep,” she observed, blowing out the lamp before leaving.

The tent was plunged into darkness once more, and moonlight filtered through its crevices in needle-like rays. Mandal’s heart began to palpitate as the mountains and rocks seemed to close in around him, threatening to crush him. He fixed his eyes upon the black wooden pole, unable to keep it still or stop it from receding into the distance. And so he shut his eyes.

Ever since his father’s passing, Mandal’s life had revolved around sheep, mountains, and the desert. At dawn, he would drive the flocks to the mountains and spend his days alone with his thoughts until dusk. Entrusting the sheep to the night shepherd, he would go to collect firewood. He couldn’t recall a time when anyone had returned to the dark tents before the evening star had appeared. When he returned, he would remove his leggings, scratch his body, gulp down one or two glasses of tea, and yawn until his mother served him food.

That night at dinner, they had not spoken a word as usual. Crawling under the quilt, Mandal allowed his mind to drift back to Nilupar. In his half-sleep, he dreamed of an immense flood sweeping down the service tree of his previous dreams. When he woke up, he racked his brain trying to interpret the dream, but to no avail. At that moment, he felt that nothing in the world would bring him more pleasure than sleep. How delightful it would be to slumber in a warm and cozy bed! And how tiresome it was to toil up and down the mountain paths after the flocks, with his chukha falling over his shoulders.

Before he drifted off to sleep, Mandal entertained the notion of turning over a new leaf. But then he banished the idea from his mind, saying to himself, “I’ll do something about it in autumn.”

At last, autumn was upon them. The tribe prepared to make the arduous journey to Sangsar, while the shepherds signed their annual contracts with their masters. And as they settled in their new location, Mandal knew that he would soon have to depart for eight long months in the desert.

“Oh, for the spring!” he would lament.

Seasons passed in swift succession, with the daily toil of tending the flocks and enduring the harshness of cold, snowy days occupying his mind. Time slipped by unnoticed, and before he knew it, Mandal had reached the age of thirty. His skin bore the marks of sunburn, and his forehead was dotted with tiny pimples and a few stray white hairs in his mustache. Despite his broad, unused shoulders, he had no wife to embrace, leaving him in a state of perpetual longing.

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

Despite spending years in close proximity to her, Mandal had only managed to engage in a single conversation with Nilupar. It was a brief exchange, taking place while her mother cooked oatmeal in front of their tent, and his father chatted with the shepherd dealers. Mandal himself was occupied with moving goatskins of yogurt into the tents.

“May I trouble you to turn the carpet loom for me?” Nilupar had requested.

“And you needn’t take off your chukka boots,” she added.

“But I may bring in dust?” Mandal had inquired.

“Never mind. I will sweep it clean,” she replied.

What a magnificent carpet she had woven! Delicate, carmine-colored, with a design of blue flowers. It was then that Mandal realized that he was deeply in love with her. A long-held love that he had kept hidden from everyone. A mere glimpse of her or the sound of her voice was enough to pull him back into the vortex of his nightmares. Mandal fought the inevitable fate, speaking in his sleep until he was startled awake by the sudden jolt of falling onto the service tree. Sleep would then elude him until morning, haunted by the recurring nightmare of falling from a precipice, triggered by the passion of watching Nilupar’s naked body in the mountain stream.

During the day, he shepherded his flock to the mountain, from whence he could survey the encampment, the long black tents, the indolent dogs, a few diseased sheep, and a group of people toiling. He knew well when the women congregated to go to the mountain stream. At noon, when the sun beat down mercilessly, the women would trudge to the stream with their bundles hoisted onto their heads, babies pressed against their bosoms. Even with her back turned, Mandal could distinguish Nilupar from the forty-odd women from a distance. Mandal had been watching her for twelve years, from the time she was eight until she turned twenty-eight. He then realized that Nilupar, instead of placing her bundle on her head, would drape it over her shoulder with her fingertips. Before they entered the stream, Mandal would conceal himself in a snowy hollow on the mountain.

There, lying prostrate on a black mass of rock, he would stare avidly at the stream. The one who poured water over her head with cupped hands, splashed the others, swam daringly in the cold water, called out the loudest, and seated herself on the sun-warmed rocks, leisurely donning her green dress and wringing out her hair, was none other than Nilupar. At the mere sight of her, a shudder would ripple down Mandal’s spine, paralyzing him. A sense of exhaustion would then overcome him, and an indescribable agony would so twist his stomach that he would remain in a state of perplexity for hours on end.

As a result, he would suffer a frightful dream that very night. But what could he do? Marrying Nilupar had never been a possibility, for the simple reason that he had once served as a shepherd under her father in those early years. Moreover, he lacked the courage to ask for her hand. Nonetheless, he longed for her, and now that Mandal owned his own flock, Nilupar was engaged to an untrained shepherd by the name of Gelverdi. Mandal’s passion burned even hotter, leaving him in a perpetual fever.

His eyes ablaze with a fiery torment, Mandal tossed and turned in his sleepless state. Unable to bear the agony any longer, he donned his trusty chukka boots and draped his chukha across his shoulder. With a moonlit night casting an eerie glow upon the landscape, Mandal set out towards Nilupar’s tent. The rushing water and mournful bird calls filled his ears as he crept along, the sounds of her family’s snores and moans drifting out from within.

As he reached the foot of the mountain, Mandal felt a sudden surge of pain in his eyes. The rims burned with an intensity he had never felt before, as if a red-hot iron spit had been thrust into them. Though he had stayed awake through many a night, wandering the mountains until dawn, never had he felt such a crippling affliction. Surely it was his spying on the naked women that had caused this torment?

With the image of Nilupar’s bathing form bobbing in his mind, Mandal was overcome with a vertigo that sent him staggering. His eyelids felt like they were on fire, threatening to split apart at any moment. His temples throbbed with an insistent beat, as if tiny creatures were burrowing 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 overtook him, his knees gave way and he collapsed onto a stony slab. The corners of his eyes felt as though they were tearing apart, his vision obscured by a veil of darkness. The sounds of sheep bleating and dogs barking echoed in the distance, the cries of a child and a man’s voice ringing faintly on the wind. Mandal lay helpless, unable to move or escape his pain.

He yearned for one thing only, and that was the sweet embrace of sleep. His mind had gone blank, and he longed to return to the peaceful dreams he had had before. Struggling to see through the veil of darkness, he gazed out at his surroundings. Everything was blurred and misty, the steep mountains looming in the distance. He tried to resist his blindness, but to no avail.

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

With great effort, he rose to his feet and began to make his way down the mountain, without the slightest idea of where he was going. All he wanted was to reach somewhere, anywhere, that was safe. Suddenly, he found himself caught in a thicket of aloes, their sharp leaves cutting into his skin. Desperately trying to protect himself, he stumbled into the shade of the thicket and collapsed onto the ground.

As he sat there, he realized that the rims of his eyes had swollen into large blisters, rendering him completely blind. Panic set in.

“Oh my God, have I really gone blind?” he cried out in terror.

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

“Save me!” he implored.

Driven by his religious passion, his hands began to work automatically, and he untied his leggings, tying himself to the petiole behind him, which served him as a shrine. The sun beat down relentlessly, scorching his skin and making him feel as though he was on fire. His mind drifted back to his father, Shir Agha, a simple and honest man who had made his living by cutting wood.

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

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

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

His father had hesitated. “You know, it’s hard for me to ask. Misfortunes are raining down on us. How can I go to Himeh to cut wood in this blizzard?”

As his father recounted this dream, Mandal – for that was his name – remembered a sudden knock at the door. He had been only seven or eight years old at the time. Mirza Ali Akbar had arrived with a laden ass, carrying sacks of flour, sugar, tea, and rice.

“Shir Agha, I saw you in my dream last night,” Mirza had said. “I asked how life was treating you in this ungodly year, and you said, ‘God is merciful.’ Now, don’t let anything trouble your mind. I’ve brought you some flour, rice, tea, and a few odds and ends. We’ll reckon up, and you can give us some firewood in the new year.”

“Is there any other way I can repay you?” Shir Agha had asked, overwhelmed with gratitude.

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

But it was a girl, and she was named Noresa. That spring had been a desperate one, with many sheep perishing and Russian Cossacks roaming the countryside.

Bread was a rare sight in those desolate alleyways still dusted with snow. Each morning, Shir Agha set out to Khoreh to gather wood, accompanied by his faithful but famished dog. One day, as he loaded the panniers of his donkey, he sharply reprimanded his companion: “Begone from us, you starving beast!”

The dog, accustomed to joining Shir Agha on his wood-gathering excursions, could not understand his master’s outburst. But as the sight of the emaciated creature grew too much for Shir Agha to bear, he resolved to tie it to a tree. Imagine his surprise when, upon his return home, he found the dog sitting placidly on his doorstep.

The next day, Shir Agha cast the dog from the cliff’s edge into the frothing river below. Yet, to his dismay, the creature’s pitiful whimpering tormented him and his family throughout the night, depriving them of restful slumber. As dawn broke, Noresa was born.

“I shall become a shepherd tomorrow,” Shir Agha vowed. “There is no use in waiting for better fortune.”

Until that moment, the family had lived a settled life. But from that day on, they took to a nomadic existence. Mandal, meanwhile, tightened his leggings about his waist and fell to his knees in supplication, like a pilgrim bound to a sacred shrine.

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

Tears streaming down his face, he repented his past misdeeds and promised never again to gaze upon the naked women swimming in the stream. He pledged to lead a pure life and depart this world with a clear conscience, worthy of the esteem in which his father had been held.

He resumed his prayers and gradually sank into a trance-like state, oblivious to the world around him. It was then that he heard footsteps approaching, but he could see no one. His heart racing, he felt a rising sense of terror and nausea. Despite his dizziness, he sensed the figure drawing nearer.

Raising his head, he beheld a figure draped in a diaphanous gown of dark blue. He had the impression that it was a woman. “Wh-wh-who are you?” he stammered.

The figure remained mute. “I am Mandal,” he ventured with a tremor in his voice. Still, the figure said nothing. The hem of her gown fluttered in the breeze, streaming off into the distance.

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

In the wake of his enigmatic encounter with the mysterious figure in blue, Mandal found himself utterly overwhelmed. He was left bereft of speech, struck by a tremulousness that shook him to his core. The figure reached out and placed a gentle hand upon his forehead, and as she did so, Mandal felt something inside of him take flight. He was seized by a feeling of having passed into death, of being nothing more than a piece of meat, until the touch of her hands reached his eyes.

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

Untying himself, Mandal put on his leggings and rose to his feet, feeling light, tranquil, and free from pain. He gazed around him, taking in the beauty of his surroundings with newfound appreciation. Overhead, the sun shone down, while a bracing north wind blew through the trees. Mandal climbed the slope and lay down on the lofty mountainside, gazing out at the bank of cumulus clouds in the distance.

Down below, he could see the tents and the flock of sheep making its way up the mountainside. The men were heating milk, while the women and young girls were heading to the stream. Among them was Nilupar, with her bundle hanging from her fingertips over her shoulder. Mandal murmured to himself, “Fate!”

In that moment, he felt a surge of pleasure wash over him, recalling the feeling of the figure’s hand on his face. With a smile of fulfillment, Mandal slipped down the mountain, invisible to all, and hid himself on a massive rock overlooking the stream. The long tents patterned the mound, like leeches clinging to the udders of cows. On the hillside opposite, Gelverdi was driving his flock, 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 undressing her child. Nilupar plunged into the water, her head surfacing briefly before she looked up at the cliff face where Mandal was hiding. Suddenly frozen, Mandal was unable to move, his heart pounding in his chest. Nilupar pointed up at him and let out a peal of laughter, and Mandal felt as if he were falling from the cliff, unable to gain any hold.


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