It was Friday and the offices were closed for the day. In keeping with tradition, I paid a visit to my venerable companion. He was sitting alone at his desk, which was also his sleeping quarters, and was busy examining a shoehorn lying in the middle of the desk. After a brief exchange of pleasantries, he returned to the shoehorn and left me to my own thoughts.
To my great astonishment, my gaze was drawn to the shoehorn. On the surface, it looked no different from an ordinary shoehorn, perhaps an heirloom with ancient motifs or inscriptions in cuneiform along its length. When I took a closer look at it, I realized that it was fairly mundane and had no features worth mentioning.
I gently placed my hand on my friend’s shoulder and asked in a soft tone: “What is it about this shoehorn that fascinates you so much, my friend?”
As if he had awoken from a deep slumber, he turned his attention from the shoehorn to me and explained: “I am dissatisfied with this tiny object.”
In disbelief, I asked, “Have you lost your mind or are you under a spell?”
He replied, “Don’t you know that I am a seyyed and that it is not uncommon for seyyeds to be afflicted by such conditions?”
I rejected his claim and replied: “You’re not bewitched, you’ve simply lost your mind.”
He pondered: “Is there really a difference between possession and madness?”
I admitted: “I can’t say for sure, but I am sure any sane person wouldn’t get into a fight with a shoehorn.”
He insisted: “If only you understood the frustration and anguish this object causes me, you might reconsider your stance and understand the logic and purpose of this confrontation.”
Skeptically, I objected: “Are you kidding? No matter how wildly you let your imagination run wild, it’s absurd to think that you can argue with a simple shoehorn. The truth remains, as I said before: you’ve lost touch with reality”
He countered with a quote: “Did not Rumi say: ‘The true madman is he who remains sane; when he sees the night watchman, he does not venture out.’ But we, the confused denizens of the modern age, cannot lay claim to such noble madness. One must be a Dhul-Nun to attain true madness, and we dare not claim that.”
I replied, “I do not care about your condition, but arguing with a shoehorn is foolish. Surely there is more than meets the eye, invisible to those in the know.”
He waved it away: “Sit down, I’ll explain. Tea will be served soon and you must listen carefully to understand the turmoil in my heart.”
When he invited me to tea, I settled down, fully attentive, eager to absorb the insights he wanted to share with me.
“Take a good look at this shoehorn,” he instructed me, “then I will reveal my sorrow to you.”
I looked at it closely. In front of me was a modest shoehorn, barely ten centimeters high. Its handle, which had become smooth from frequent use, lay on the desk like a withered, rolled-up leaf. It stood still, embodying the serenity and detachment that yogis in India and our own ascetics and saints laboriously seek but rarely achieve.
Confused, I replied: “I do not understand what you are getting at. Maybe it’s wiser to call an ambulance to take you to a mental institution where you can have endless debates with whoever or whatever.”
“Do not make jokes,” he warned. “This matter is far more complicated than you realize. Do not rush to judgment. Make inquiries before you decide. Should I reveal my anguish to you, you will realize that my mind is not as impaired as you suspect.”
“Your fixation on this shoehorn is trying my patience,” I admitted. “I have no intention of making fun of you, but if there really is nothing to hide, why are you hesitating? Tell the story. After all, my finances dwindle like a cleric’s barren brow towards the end of the month, and even beggars get arrested in our city.”
“Take part,” he urged. “This very shoehorn, which my late grandfather, a merchant, gave me seventy years ago at the Russian market in Nizhny, served him faithfully for a quarterof a century. After his death, it was bequeathed to my father, who accompanied him for thirty-three years until his death, after which it became mine. Over the course of twelve years, it was repeatedly misplaced and rediscovered. This cord, tied around his neck, marks its place on the door and serves as a guardian of the chamber. You too must have noticed it countless times. My younger brother, Manuchehr, had a particular fondness for it and longed to possess it. His persistence led me to let him have it. But when typhoid mercilessly ravaged this innocent soul and threw our lives into turmoil, I got it back and put it back in its rightful place. Years later, under the influence of a bitter evening and half a bottle of vodka without a sip, this shoehorn, which for some unknown reason was lying on that desk, began to speak to me. At first I dismissed it as a figment of my imagination, but gradually I realized that it was really talking. The household was shrouded in silence, the only exception being this wall clock, which had fallen silent despite my daily winding, as if it were mute or muffled. I sat on my bed, in this room — my office— – and rubbed my eyes, leaning forward and listening intently. To my astonishment, it spoke and I understood its words, which sounded like this: “Why do you wonder? Is language such an anomaly?'”
I found myself in an extraordinary situation. I rushed out of the room into the courtyard, plunged my head into cold water and stayed there until shortness of breath urged me to resurface. After taking a few deep breaths and gazing at the starry sky, I re-entered the room, enveloped in a unique form of trepidation. His boisterous laughter was the first thing that reached my ears. In between bouts of laughter, he mocked, “Your naivety is astounding. You can not silence a voice with ice-cold water, but you believed that if you submerged your head, I would fall silent. How innocent!” His laughter continued with even greater force.
The story was fantastic and bordered on the unbelievable. We were familiar with stories about inanimate objects such as the talking pillar of Hananah, but a talking old shoehorn was an unprecedented phenomenon. Its voice was as quiet as the chirping of a cricket or cicada, but its slow, deliberate words could be heard clearly. I could not sleep and sat there, wrapped in a veil of confusion and fascination, listening intently. She challenged me: “Who ordered a shoehorn to be silent? Silence is not synonymous with incapacity. We choose to be silent, not because we lack the ability to speak. Do you not remember how your own Rumi articulated our feelings when he declared, ‘We hear and see, yet we remain silent to those who are unfamiliar to us’?”
“Did not Saadi of Shiraz proclaim: ‘Mountains, deserts and wilderness all sing a song of praise, but not all ears grasp these mysteries’? Even if there are no mysteries or glorifications, we have countless memories, but we choose silence. Our destiny is muteness. Have you not come across numerous instances in the sacred texts where beings and objects that were considered mute have spoken profound truths?”
The voice gained strength, its message sounded clearer. The shoehorn on the desk seemed to transform into a red, living tongue that articulated ideas far beyond its physical form. As he invoked Rumi and Saadi, I interjected, “Such expressions are considered ecstatic utterances. They evoke awe, but few accept them as truth.” She countered, “Many realities, though difficult to accept, demand our belief. Have not you learned that as the speed of life increases, so does the human lifespan? This principle, known as Einstein’s theory, may defy belief, but it is considered truth.” The shoehorn was now trying to teach me a science lesson, which only increased my annoyance. I longed for sleep, but how was I supposed to find rest amidst the persistent sound of the squeaking of leather shoes? I switched off the light, but the shoehorn continued to talk. In the veil of darkness, his voice became clearer, his statements more direct. He said: “You may claim that I am your property because you see me as mere metal, but think about it: Did not your grandfather perish while I survived? Your father died too, but I stayed. Think about your own mortality. You too will go, leaving me to the next generation, who will also meet their end while I endure. Have you thought about the irony? You pride yourself on your intellect, wisdom, experience and authority and believe that a simple string will give you dominance. You make plans and strategies, but in the end you will leave and I, an insignificant object, will continue to exist.”
Overwhelmed, I banged my fist on the table and begged for silence, for the persistent murmur of the shoehorn had driven me to the edge of the abyss. Suddenly the door flew open and my wife, clutching a candlestick in alarm, inquired as to the cause of the commotion, fearing an intruder or a mishap in the room.
Perplexed and frustrated, I groaned: “Why can’t you leave me alone? I want to talk to myself and it’s none of your business. Please, go back to your slumber and leave me alone…”
The shoehorn had stopped whispering too, and slowly sleep enveloped me and drew me into its depths. But it was a fitful slumber, haunted by nightmarish visions of the shoehorn morphing into a snake with a sharp, sugary sting in its tongue, hissing and quivering ominously. When I woke up in complete fear, I switched on the light and gasped for air. The shoehorn lay motionless in its usual place, the string dangling lazily. I hung it back on the nail on the door and retired to bed, where this time I slept peacefully and undisturbed for five hours.
The next morning, I put on my shoes with the same shoehorn and went about my daily routine. However, I refrained from telling anyone about this strange episode for fear of ridicule and accusations of insanity.
When I returned that evening, my first task was to inspect the shoehorn. It hung there, embodying innocence and integrity, challenging any belief in its earlier utterances and threatening admonitions. Dinnertime passed, we enjoyed a satisfying meal and I retired to my chamber for the night. The shoehorn remained in place and I deliberately averted my eyes to avoid the resurgence of disturbing dreams.
Before I could fall asleep, the familiar creaking of the shoehorn sounded again, this time coming from the floor. Startled, I looked into the room and sure enough, there it was — the shoehorn. It had tumbled onto the desk and resumed its strange monolog. The situation astounded me. Despite my skepticism about prayers or talismans, I found myself instinctively reciting the Ayatul Kursi and spreading it protectively around me.
I mumbled “ Allah is indeed the best protector” and listened as the shoehorn, who could neither see nor feel anything, continued to talk. I stopped my incantations, but he continued to speak unabated.
His words were crystal clear. “Our conversation was interrupted last night by your wife’s interference. We were thinking about the transience of people in contrast to my permanent existence. They fade and are forgotten while I endure. If man were not so careless, I could discover brothers of mine older than the pyramids in Egypt and the ruins of Persepolis. They equate death with the departure of the soul from the body and consider us immortal because we have no soul. Therefore, you must grant us our immunity to death. I am but a shoehorn, but I share the permanence of Mount Alvand, the Great Bear and the Red Sea, though true eternity eludes all. Consider: am I not right? The monuments of Zoroaster and Ardavan Ashkani are gone, but the artifacts of their eras endure. The horseman has disappeared, but the horseshoes of his horse remain. Like your ancestors, you too will pass away and leave me behind. The majestic Chinar of Imamzadeh Saleh in Tajrish withers; the Arch of Ctesiphon crumbles like a rotten maw. The Minar Jomban in Isfahan, although held in honor, is on the verge of collapse. The Qabus Tower of Ibn Voshmgir is facing a similar fate. But a shoehorn like me can survive millennia unscathed. The French ‘immortals’ of the academy have perished, despite their title. The ‘immortal’ guardians of ancient Persia have dissolved into dust. This pattern of transience versus our permanent nature is unalterable. We who cannot express ourselves, who are insensitive and considered insignificant — made of copper, brass, iron or occasionally silver— – guarantee our permanence unless we are deliberately destroyed or wear out through use, which itself lasts thousands of years.”
My friend’s words resonated deeply and left me in stunned silence. Overwhelmed by the weight of his revelations, I couldn’t help but cry out loud, a reaction perhaps all too familiar to those familiar with the classical Isfahan temperament. Our old house, known for its unwelcome scorpions, seemed to mirror my despair. Sakineh, our maid, rushed in with a bottle of scorpion antidote, mistaking my outcry for a sting. In my frustration, I scolded her unjustifiably and asked her to leave, unfairly labeling her as the real ‘scorpion’ disturbing our nightly peace.
Years have passed since then, but the memory of that tiny, eyeless shoehorn continues to haunt me, robbing me of sleep and peace of mind. Sometimes its presence is so painful that I am tempted to smash it with a hammer and free myself from its burden. But a deep-seated fear of conjuring up misfortune, reminiscent of old wives’ tales, holds me back. The most disturbing realization is the undeniable truth in his words, which have instilled in me a deep sense of worthlessness and robbed me of all motivation and vitality.
For four years, six months and seven days, this ordeal has tormented me, making even the simple act of swallowing water a challenge. The incessant whispering of the shoehorn with its bland voice ceaselessly confirms its truths and haunts me day and night. Strangely, I am drawn to his words, addicted to the aching clarity he brings, even as I feel myself wasting away.
My decline has not gone unnoticed. Friends and colleagues question my dwindling figure and spirit and lament the loss of the vibrant soul I once was. In a recent meeting with a friend from the customs department, he was visibly shaken by my poor condition and his concern was clearly audible in his voice. The once cheerful and sociable me has retreated into a shell, avoiding company and suffering in solitude.
There seems to be no end to the dilemma with the shoehorn, its relentless grip on my psyche is slowly draining my vitality. My friend finished his story visibly shaken, leaving me to reflect on the gravity of his situation.
In a moment of compassion, I grabbed the shoehorn, stashed it in my pocket and offered to share his burden. “Friend, allow me to share in the wisdom of this loquacious artifact. In the spirit of friendship, let me also benefit from its insights and may it bring good to us both.”
As my friend’s protests escalated, I remained unfazed. His attempts to physically retrieve the shoehorn were met with my firm resistance. “The day you were as strong as I was, you were not yet afflicted with the curse of that shoehorn. My resolve has grown stronger” since then,” I declared adamantly.
He was lost in thought, his gaze was lowered and he did not seem to notice my presence. I took the opportunity and quietly left the house without saying goodbye, the controversial shoehorn safely in my possession.
When I reached a familiar roadside pit, —common in our landscape, I paused. With full intent, I pulled out the shoehorn and hurled it into the void. The force of my throw gave the object a semblance of life, transforming it into an exiled, poisonous creature. Overcome with a mixture of anger and relief, I spat into the pit and cursed the shoehorn with a finality: “Now you must endure the taste of eternity.”
© Ali Salami 2024