Ali Salami

Abji Khanum, The Spinster by Sadeq Hedayat

Abji Khanum was Mahrokh’s elder sister, but anyone who did not know their background would hardly believe that they were sisters. Abji Khanum was tall, slim and had a wheat-colored complexion, thick lips and black hair; overall, she was considered unattractive. In contrast, Mahrokh was short, fair-skinned, with a small nose, date-colored hair and enchanting eyes. Whenever she smiled, dimples appeared on her lips. Her behavior and manners were also very different. Abji Khanum was irritable, quarrelsome and unsociable since childhood and even argued with her mother for months. Her sister, on the other hand, was sociable, kind, cheerful and always smiling. Her neighbor, Naneh Hassan, had nicknamed Mahrokh ‘Lady Favorite’ Her parents also favored Mahrokh more because she was their precious darling. Since her childhood, her mother scolded Abji Khanum and nagged her, but in front of the neighbors and other people, she apparently expressed her concern for her, wringing her hands and saying, “What should I do with this unfortunate girl? Who will marry such an ugly daughter? I’m afraid she’ll end up an old maid! A girl who has neither wealth, nor beauty, nor excellence. What poor soul would marry her?” After hearing such remarks again and again, Abji Khanum had become completely hopeless and had given up the thought of marriage and devoted most of her time to prayer and devotion. It was as if she had completely given up the idea of marriage, especially since no suitors had come forward for her. Once an attempt was made to marry her off to Kal Hussein, the carpenter’s apprentice, but Kal Hussein did not want her. But wherever Abji Khanum sat, she said: “I had a suitor, but I turned him down. Pah! The husbands of today are all drunkards and good-for-nothings who can only hide in the bushes! I will never get married.”

She obviously spoke like this, but it was obvious that she loved Kal Hussein deeply and really wanted to marry him. However, since she had heard since the age of five that she was ugly and no one would marry her, and she believed that she would be denied the pleasures of this world, she wanted to at least earn the rewards of the hereafter through prayer and devotion. So she found comfort in this belief. After all, what is there to regret in this fleeting world if you cannot enjoy its pleasures? The eternal world would be hers, and everyone, including her beautiful sister and others, would envy her for it.

When the months of Muharram and Safar came, this was Abji Khanum’s time to shine. There was no mourning gathering where she was not in the forefront. She would secure a place in the religious performances from early afternoon and all the preachers knew her and were eager for Abji Khanum to be part of their sermons as she would add to the atmosphere with her weeping, wailing and lamenting. She knew most of the mourning sayings by heart and since she had heard so many religious sermons and was well versed in many religious matters, the neighbors often came to her for religious matters. It was she who woke up the household for morning prayers by first kicking her sister’s bed and saying, “It’s almost noon, when are you going to get up and tie your prayer belt?” The poor sister woke up, sleepily performed ablutions and got up to pray. With the call to prayer at dawn, the crowing of the roosters, the morning breeze and the whisper of prayer, Abji Khanum was seized by a special spiritual state that made her proud of her own conscience. She thought to herself, “If God doesn’t take me to heaven, who will he take?” For the rest of the day, after tending to the house and finding fault with this and that, she held a long rosary in her hand, its black beads yellow from constant use, and sent blessings. Her only wish now was to make a pilgrimage to Karbala and settle there.

But her sister paid no particular attention to these things and was always busy with housework. When she turned 15, she went to work as a servant. Abji Khanum was 22 but still at home and secretly harbored jealousy of her sister. In the year and a half that Mahrokh was away working, Abji Khanum never visited her or inquired about her well-being. When Mahrokh came home every fifteen days to visit her relatives, Abji Khanum would either mess with someone or extend their prayer times by two or three hours. When they sat together, Abji Khanum would make derogatory remarks and start lecturing her sister about prayer, fasting, purity and other religious matters. For example, she said, “Since these fashionable women have come up, the price of bread has gone up. Anyone who does not fast will be hanged by his hair in hell. Gossips will have heads as big as mountains and necks as thin as threads. In hell there will be snakes that people will prefer to dragons…” and so on. Mahrokh sensed this jealousy, but never showed that she let it affect her.

One day, late in the afternoon, Mahrokh visited her house and had a quiet talk with her mother before leaving. Abji Khanum, who was sitting at the entrance of the opposite room, puffing on her hookah, felt a pang of jealousy. Despite her curiosity, she did not ask her mother about the subject of the conversation with Mahrokh, nor did her mother give any information.

When her father returned from his masonry work that evening, he wore his dust-covered hat and, after changing his clothes, went up to the roof with his tobacco pouch and pipe. Abji Khanum, who had only half finished her work, joined her mother with the samovar, the cooking pot, the copper bowl, the pickles and the onions. They sat down together on a carpet and her mother told her that Abbas, the servant from the house where Mahrokh worked, wanted to marry her. That morning, when the house was empty, Abbas’ mother had come to propose to him. They planned to marry Mahrokh off the following week, with a dowry of 25 tomans, a marriage portion of 30 tomans, a mirror, jewelry, a Quran, a pair of ursi (mirror frames), sweets, a henna bag, a chador, taffeta, pants and chintz cloth with gold thread.

Her father, fanning himself and sipping his tea with a sugar cube between his teeth, nodded and casually agreed: “Very good, they are blessed, no problem.” He seemed indifferent, perhaps even fearful of his wife. Abji Khanum, who was filled with envy when she heard the news, could not bear to hear any more of the preparations. She pretended to be ill and retreated to the room with the five doors on the first floor. She looked at herself in the small mirror and felt old and dejected, as if these few minutes had aged her by years. She noticed a wrinkle on her forehead, plucked out a white hair and stared at it in the light of the lamp without feeling it burn.

In the days that followed, the household was in turmoil with wedding preparations. They went to the market and bought two sets of gold-twined dresses, a vase, glasses, needlework, a rosewater atomizer, a drinking bowl, a brass samovar, curtains and various other things. Her mother, who longed for it, put aside every little thing she could find for Mahrokh’s dowry, even the Termeh prayer rug that Abji Khanum had repeatedly asked for.

Abji Khanum, who was quiet and thoughtful these days, watched everything with a heavy heart. For two days, she had feigned a headache and stayed in bed. Her mother often scolded her and said, “What good is a sister if not for days like these? I know it’s out of jealousy. Ugliness and beauty are God’s will, not mine. Remember when I tried to set you up with Kalb Hossein, but you were rejected. Now you are pretending to be sick so you don’t have to help? I’m the one who has to sew with my blind eyes!”

Abji Khanum, filled with jealousy and self-pity, replied from under her bed covers, “Time heals all wounds! And what a groom you have found! People will make fun of me if I have this lame Abbas as a brother-in-law. It’s well known what Abbas does. Let’s not talk about the fact that Mahrokh is already two months pregnant. I saw her big belly but I didn’t say anything. I don’t consider her my sister anymore…”

Her mother got angry, “God make you mute, may your composition be ruined by death, may your sorrow remain in my heart. Shameless girl, go away, do you want to leave a stain on my daughter? I know these are all just excuses. You will die alone because no one will marry you with your looks. Well, it says in the Koran that liars are sinners, does not it? God has been merciful that you are not beautiful, otherwise you would leave the house every two hours under the pretext of attending sermons and people would gossip about you even more. Go, go, all your prayers and fasting are not worth Satan’s curse, you are only deceiving people!”

These arguments had been going back and forth between them over the last few days. Mahrokh watched this conflict in silence and said nothing until the night of the marriage contract came. All the neighbors and women with painted eyebrows, rouge-whitened faces, in glittering chadors and with braided hair had gathered. Naneh Hassan was among them. She sat coquettishly with her neck bent, smiling as she played the drum and sang whatever came to her mind: “May your union be blessed, God willing, may it be blessed.” She repeated this over and over and people came and went past the pool where bowls of ashes were passed around. The air was filled with the scent of Ghormeh Sabzi, someone was shooing a cat out of the kitchen, another needed eggs to measure, and some children were sitting and standing in a circle playing a game. Copper samovars that had been rented for the occasion were lit. Word had spread that Mahrokh Khanum would be attending the wedding ceremony with her daughters. Two tables were set with sweets and fruits, each with two chairs. Mahrokh’s father walked around pensively, worried about the expense, but her mother was determined to put on a puppet show that evening. Amidst this hustle and bustle, there was no mention of Abji Khanum, who had been gone since two in the afternoon and no one knew where she was, probably at a sermon.

By the time the lamps were lit and the wedding ceremony had taken place, everyone had left except Naneh Hassan. The bride and groom had been brought together and sat side by side in a five-door room with the doors closed. Abji Khanum entered the house. She went straight to the room next to the five-door room to open her chador. When she entered, she saw that the curtain of the five-door room was drawn. Out of curiosity, she peeked through a gap in the curtain and saw her sister Mahrokh through the window, dressed up and more beautiful than ever, sitting next to a groom who looked to be about twenty years old, in front of a table laden with sweets. The groom had his arm around Mahrokh’s waist and was whispering in her ear. It seemed they had noticed her, or perhaps the groom recognized her, but to tease her, they laughed together and kissed each other’s faces. From the courtyard, the sound of Naneh Hassan’s drum could be heard and her singing “May your union be blessed…”. A mixed feeling of disgust and jealousy came over Abji Khanum.

She dropped the curtain and sat on the folded bed against the wall without opening her black chador, propped her hands under her chin and stared at the floor. She was fixated on the patterns and flowers of the carpet, counting and looking at their colors as if they were something new to her. She didn’t notice anyone coming or going, nor did she look up. Her mother came to the door and said, “Why aren’t you eating dinner? Why are you sulking? Why are you sitting here? Open your black chador, why are you acting so threatening? Come and kiss your sister, come and look at the bride and groom behind the glass, they are as bright as the full moon. Don’t you have any wishes? Come and say something, everyone is asking where your sister is. I don’t know what to tell them.”

Abji Khanum just lifted her head and said, “I have eaten.”

It was midnight, everyone had gone to sleep, remembering their own wedding nights and dreaming sweet dreams. Suddenly, a splashing sound, as if someone was wriggling in the water, woke everyone up in a panic. At first they thought a cat or a child had fallen into the pool. They lit a lamp and searched everywhere, but found nothing unusual. As they were about to go back to bed, Naneh Hassan saw Abji Khanum’s slippers near the water tank. When they brought the lamp closer, they saw Abji Khanum’s body floating on the water. Her black braided hair was coiled around her neck like a snake, her blue dress clung to her body and her face had a majestic and radiant expression. It was as if she had gone to a place where there was neither ugliness nor beauty, neither marriage nor mourning, neither laughter nor tears, neither joy nor sorrow. She had arrived in paradise.

© Ali Salami 2024

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