Ali Salami

I Swear I am not a Whore by Houshang Golshiri

It was 4:30 p.m., and not everyone was expected to arrive until 5:00 pm. The table was almost ready, all that was missing was some ice, cucumber yogurt, a can opener, and the like. Moqaddasi, who lived just two streets away, could help us if he managed to come. He had the job of bringing vodka and soda, an errand that shouldn’t take more than ten minutes even on foot. He had probably taken an afternoon nap, followed by a shower. At dinner, he had hinted to Mrs. Farkhondeh that he would host a meeting but had kept the location a secret, keeping to their usual agreement.

By 4:15 p.m., Moqaddasi was ready and had put on his shoes and hat. If it only took him five minutes to get three or four bottles of vodka, about seven or eight cans of beer, and ten sodas, he should have been here by now. Mrs. Farkhondeh had inquired, “Will you be joining us tonight?” At first, he frowned, shrugged his shoulders, and plucked idly at his comb. Only when he combed the back of his head did he reply casually: “Well, of course.”

“Good, I will go to us. Join us if you’re not too late.”

He put the comb in his pocket and replied ambiguously, “I don’t know. We’ll see. Don’t wait for me.”

He leaned down and gently pinched Nastaran’s cheek. On his good days, he nibbled playfully on her earlobe. “Don’t stress mom out, okay?” he admonished

Nastaran wavered between tears and giggles, hoping for a fatherly hug and a short walk to the end of the alley and back. Moqaddasi grabbed his bag and said, “All right, tomorrow, sweetheart.”

“Tomorrow you sleep until noon as usual.”

Why should I say anything back? Their playful banter could easily last thirty minutes, maybe even an hour.

When the doorbell rang, he put the bowl of ice cream on the fridge. The package-laden silhouette through the glass was unmistakably Moqaddasi. In fact, it was he who put his bag down with a sigh.

“What’s wrong with you? You seem troubled.”

Moqaddasi picked up his bag and replied resignedly, “That’s predictable. They deliberately leave all their chores for the last Thursday of the month and even go so far as to fake the child’s illness just to thwart our plans. Eventually, they will get their way. You’ll see.”

Moqaddasi stood there, his sparse mustache and pince-nez glasses barely concealing the domestic grief that clouded him even before the first drink of the evening. But as the alcohol took effect, the clouds seemed to dissipate and Moqaddasi revived, as if he were transported back to his lively twenties.

“Come in already. Why linger outside the door? Close it behind you,” he urged.

It was as if Mrs. Farkhondeh would appear just beyond the threshold and stay awake until the barking of the dogs stopped, while her eyes fell incessantly on her watch.

Finally, he closed the door himself, but the restlessness in Moqaddasi’s demeanor, his nervous glances, and his hesitation with the package he was carrying seemed to lure Mrs. Farkhondeh into the room. Her chestnut hair fell over her shoulders, her lips were closed as if she was gasping for air after a long conversation, her gaze was intense, almost breathless as if she was searching for words that might upset Moqaddasi.

“Do you think this is a joke? You don’t know how upset she gets, how she calls around frantically when she doesn’t know where you’ve disappeared for the night. She ends up in front of the TV, biting her nails, zapping through the channels, or perhaps flicking aimlessly through a book, nodding off over the first few pages again and again. Do you realize how many times I had to clean up her barely touched dinner when I came home late?”

He continued to put the bottles away in the fridge. They each opened a beer and sat down opposite each other.

“Where’s Soltan?”

“He took care of it. Fixed himself up a bit. Then I saw her walking around and told her, ‘I’ve got it covered.”

“You’re lucky. No one cares about you, and you don’t answer to anyone either.”

He took another sip, his mind confined to the present, to this moment of solace, admiring the froth of the ale and taking in the stories of Mrs. Farkhondeh and Nastaran, with her skirt hemmed to her knees and her chubby legs. Nastaran’s braided hair danced across her pale back as she bounced around. How could he have known? He hadn’t confided in anyone, especially not on those nights when he was half awake and felt a presence on the floor moving towards him. Even when the doors were locked, it seemed to creep forward, its movements rustling like scales. This invisible being came closer as if it were all-seeing, and with no recognizable limbs, it snuggled up to him, seeking his embrace as if it wanted to merge completely with him.

Moqaddasi inquired: “Have you heard anything from the others?”

“I haven’t seen them recently, but we’ve had a few phone calls. By the way, have you heard from Meqdad? He’s been awarded a scholarship. I think it’s for a two-year program.”

“That’s great for him.”

“Great, you say? Do you think it will be a walk in the park for him? At his age, he’s going to have to work pretty hard, not to mention the nightly grind of assignments…”

With a touch of melody, Moqaddasi mused, “I wonder if the sky is the same shade everywhere?”

He continued, “Obviously not. It’s a chance to take a breath, to escape the daily grind, the overtime, the endless bills and a host of other headaches”

“But what about someone in Meqdad’s place who has to deal with people like Mr. Mostafa’s mother?”

“You’ve got a point there. My downfall, isn’t it? Poor Meqdad, is always caught in a bind. He never had a moment’s peace. So let’s raise a glass to his well-being, or perhaps to his upcoming trials. Who takes their whole family abroad? He might as well have gone to Abarqu or Ardabil. That could be his undoing. For my part, I prefer the solitude of traveling alone, like I used to. Running around freely at night and sleeping until midday. Oh, what happiness. And maybe steal a kiss from a stranger’s beauty. We’re a frustrated bunch. We spent our youth gorging on sumac or, for the daring, sneaking sniffs for fear of catching something horrible, inspecting, squeezing, and prodding each other in the restroom every hour on the hour. And before we knew it, we were trapped and robbed of our strength. That’s why when I see these young lovers, barely sixteen or seventeen, I long for my lost youth, for a walk by their side, chatting about the latest movie and the stars in the sky and lamenting their parents’ strictness. Things were different in our day. The years from twenty to thirty, even thirty-five, flew by. Perhaps it all passed so quickly, amidst storm and tribulation. Our dreams were left hanging, without love or a memory worth savoring. A veritable drought of affection. Now, in the midst of all this, trying to draw a fresh breath from her being, her talk of new beginnings, her banal flirtations, we feel quite queasy. Perhaps it’s the fear of plunging back into the marital fray, the thought of crossing those waters again, that makes us long for the simplicity of a breath.”

To divert the conversation from possible complaints about the cost of living or the expense of a short trip to the north, he took a sip of beer and interjected: “But first Meqdad has to go over for five or six months, then his wife and children will follow.”

Now that his glass was empty, he poured himself another and toasted: “Here’s to Meqdad’s success! He’s finally making something of himself. Six months on his own. That’s a great story, I have always said. So here’s to the health of our reticent Meqdad as he embarks on his journey to a foreign land.”

As they clinked glasses, the doorbell rang. Moqaddasi speculated: “That could be him.”

“I doubt that. He’s sold his car, he’ll have to take a cab.”

But it was indeed Mr. Moqaddasi (accented with a short ‘i’), the esteemed translator and writer. His smile was barely visible in the tangle of his black beard, occasionally flecked with gray and white near his ears, and he was clutching a bottle of whiskey. Perhaps he was in search of a more refined drink than the usual fare, not unlike Jamshid Pour, who had recently abstained from alcohol because he claimed he could not hold his liquor. This was their first concession. Perhaps it was just an excuse, like his early departure, his occasional lateness or his absence, which often coincided with the monthly gatherings, so they either had to lament his absence or abandon their long-standing tradition.

Moqaddasi asked, “You haven’t been gossiping about me, have you?”

Moqaddasi replied, “Isn’t it enough to be cursed in the newspapers?” And with that, they hugged. It was their usual exchange: a few jibes, a cooling-off period, followed by drunken debates, and finally… It was those conclusions he dreaded, the late-night brawls, the task of collecting every one of them, which was akin to picking up their scattered pieces.

“So, who is this young lady you have not introduced me to yet?”

Until her presence was highlighted, Moqaddasi had not taken notice of her. She stood out with her dyed blonde hair, large, stylishly thick-rimmed glasses, and skirt cut just above the knee. Yet it was the delicate structure of her lips, mouth, and chin that hinted at a vulnerability, as if she might succumb to tears at any moment, perhaps stamp her foot in distress and then fall to the floor sobbing in her fancy blouse.

Moqaddasi hurried to correct the oversight and introduced her: “Oh, excuse my manners. Ladies and gentlemen, this charming young lady is Akhtar. Gentlemen, before you are Mansour Moqaddasi and the distinguished Mr. Jamshid Aziz Nasab, illustrious members of the great league of madmen.”

Akhtar greeted her in a hushed voice: “Pleased to meet you,” her handshake was gentle but tentative, as if she were on the verge of despair, and Aziz Nasab’s supportive grip gave her reassurance.

As they settled down, Moqaddasi asked, “Do you happen to admire Mr. Moqaddasi’s literary contributions?”

Akhtar removed her glasses, revealing strikingly large, black eyes tinged with green, framed by elegantly curved lashes and finely shaped eyebrows. Her expression was an enigmatic mixture of potential mirth, as if she might burst into unrestrained laughter at any moment or, conversely, impulsively cover her face with her hands and inexplicably set the room in an uproar.

Moqaddasi remarked with a playful warning, “Curiosity killed the cat.”

Then he offered her, “May I get you a drink?”

She declined with a palpable tension: “No, thank you,” and her gaze flitted back and forth between Moqaddasi and Aziz Nasab before she abruptly picked up her handbag and excused herself. Moqaddasi hesitated, beer in hand, wondering if he should follow her, but was interrupted by the door. He turned angrily to his namesake: “Can’t we have a moment’s peace?”

Confused, Moqaddasi stood up and said, “I didn’t say anything inappropriate, did I?”

He sought confirmation from Aziz Nasab and then whispered, “Who has arrived now? This was not part of the plan.”

Their murmurs filled the corridor, with Moqaddasi leading the conversation. Firmly, he declared: “I’m leaving now. I’ve had enough of these games, I am just looking for a quiet evening.”

Despite his assurances, it was clear that he had no real intention of leaving. Suddenly, a sharp retort broke the tension: “Am I a whore?” The words seemed to have been deliberately amplified so that the men were unable to understand Moqaddasi’s subsequent mumbled pleas. The woman’s cries grew louder, prompting Moqaddasi to stand up.

“Forgive the disturbance. I assure you, it was not my intention to offend you. I did not say anything wrong, did I?”

His question, which was probably directed at Moqaddasi, was answered with an attempt at appeasement: “Please, don’t be alarmed. It seems that Mrs. Akhtar misunderstood our intentions and thought I… Well, we could be leaving at any moment. You see, Mr. Moqaddasi is deputy director, and Aziz Nasab is really a stand-up guy, a real sweetheart. Our monthly meetings are an opportunity to relive our younger days, to relax and chat. I thought it would be nice for you to meet her.”

The need for a drink was now undeniable. But before he could reach for the fridge, the doorbell rang again, probably announcing Meqdad’s arrival. But it was Mirzai who entered, presumably with Nasrin in tow. Her laughter echoed through the hall as she draped her chador over a chair.

The evening progressed and Aziz Nasab’s attention was drawn to a lipstick stain on Moqaddasi’s cheek. Panicked, Moqaddasi rummaged for a napkin, haunted by the memory of Mrs. Farkhondeh’s reaction the last time she spotted blond hair on his collar, which had resulted in her child being sent away for an extended stay with relatives.

Caught between obligations, he stood in the doorway, Akhtar’s hand in his and Mirzai’s in the other, when a voice cut through the confusion.

“Why are you just standing there?”

“Where is Aziz Nasab?”

“Right here,” came the reply, not without a hint of jest.

“Ma’am is for your mother, you scoundrel. Let’s take a look.”

Under other circumstances, he might have held back, but with his hands full, he opted for a quick kiss and immediately realized his faux pas when Nasrin latched onto him. Despite the awkward embrace, his eyes sought out Akhtar, who smiled, though her expression hinted at possible tears.

To defuse the situation, he pushed Nasrin aside and motioned for her to consider Akhtar’s newness to their circle.

“New? She’s experienced,” Nasrin replied, dismissing his concerns.

He tried to claim that Akhtar was off limits, but Nasrin’s laughter at his obsession eased the tension as they rejoined the circle, now arm in arm.

The room was quiet, and Moqaddasi talked quietly with Akhtar. The ringing of the doorbell was interrupted, probably announcing the arrival of Meqdad, laden with gifts.

Nasrin, now seated next to Akhtar, watched intently as Moqaddasi’s attempt to familiarize herself with him was rebuffed by Akhtar with a firm “hands off”

The greeting was interrupted by the presence of Meqdad in the doorway. His mute mouth went unnoticed while Nasrin took control of the situation by taking care of the gifts and delegating the greeting to Moqaddasi.

After the formalities were completed, Nasrin distributed the flowers and inspected the culinary offerings. As she did so, she assured Akhtar that the group had harmless intentions and the monthly tradition of enlivening their gatherings with female company.

As she prepared to serve, Nasrin emphasized the casual nature of their gathering. She filled the glasses with an openness that, despite her initial hesitation, extended to Akhtar as well.

The gesture of pouring Akhtar and herself a drink symbolized a welcoming, if unconventional, community as she announced, “Let’s go then,” inviting everyone to share in this moment of conviviality.

Nasrin exclaimed, “My girl won’t touch whiskey. She claims it’s foreign to her. Pour me some, I want to let off steam tonight.”

Mirzai was the first to reach for his glass and pour a few ice cubes into it. He turned to Meqdad and asked: “You seem down. Do you have something on your mind?”

“Just the usual, nothing serious.”

They formed a ring, each holding his glass, and their five glasses met in the middle with a soft clink.

“To good health!”

Their toast lacked the unison, the harmony and the lively echo that should have united them. Instead, their voices scattered like the beads of a broken rosary rolling away. Still, they drank a single sip. The moisture in their eyes was not from drinking. They had come together once again, putting aside worries about work, family, office life and even Jamshid Pour, who had ventured into filmmaking. Gathered around the table, they passed the bottle, exchanged ideas and vented. Mirzai confessed: “I’m exhausted from all the running around. Finding a good typesetter is like a goldmine these days, and the bookbinders? They are so overworked that they barely nod in greeting.”

Moqaddasi interjected: “I’ve heard that the books are flying off the shelves.”

“And now he’ll probably hint at when the third edition of ‘The Howling Wolves’ will be published, with Mirzai always skirting the issue. He’s already pleaded, ‘Let’s refrain from lawsuits tonight’.”

Moqaddasi agreed: “Fine, let’s keep it to drinks and love stories.”

He then asked Meqdad, “How is your friend?”

“That’s a personal matter,” Moqaddasi intervened.

Meqdad was already on his way out, his early departure a familiar routine. “To Nasrin, the master! She could drink up thirty like this.”

Nasrin shot back, “Watch your mouth, you scoundrel!”

She stood framed in the doorway, balancing two plates of rice.

“I was just singing your praises, my dear.”

“Save it for your dear mother.”

Then she turned to Akhtar, “Come in, dear, no need to hold back.”

Akhtar entered smiling, her fruit in hand, her makeup pale as if tears had preceded a touch-up.

Nasrin announced, “Let the fools take the rest. You, my dear, take the place of honor, I will take my seat here. The rascals can take their places next to us — no mischief under the table.”

With that, she slapped Moqaddasi’s hand away.

They all made their way to the kitchen. Aziz Nasab was preparing a drink for Nasrin, straight whiskey. He offered Akhtar: “Shall I pour you one too?”

Nasrin interjected: “Don’t be stingy, of course you will.”

Akhtar waved him off: “No, thanks. That’s not for me. It always gives me a headache.”

Nasrin waved her off: “Ignore her. Just some ice cream and lemonade for her. As for me, I’m planning to get thoroughly drunk tonight.”

When everyone had found a place at the table and were holding their glasses, Nasrin raised her glass and declared, “To the last Thursday of the month. Anyone who dares to bring up work or domestic concerns, or ventures into literature, can expect a good spanking from me.”

Everyone clinked glasses with him, including Akhtar. At first, she sipped tentatively, as if to gage the drink, then she put her glass down and picked it up again for a few more cautious sips.

As the conversation picked up speed, Moqaddasi spoke up: “Did you know, ma’am? Meqdad is planning a trip to the West.”

“As if he’s traveling to his doom? Then advise him to keep his innocence. I’ve heard stories of laundresses and café attendants at Western airports who prey on the innocent and lure them straight into marriage.”

Moqaddasi laughed: “Innocence and Meqdad in the same breath? Have you forgotten who we’re talking about, ma’am?”

“Don’t give me ‘ma’am’. And look at him, he’s all red. But he’s still untouched, isn’t he?”

“Physically, maybe. But mentally, well, that’s another story,” Moqaddasi joked.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Meqdad asked, his face glistening with sweat.

Moqaddasi, who wanted to lighten the mood, replied: “Just a joke, nothing more.”

“But it didn’t sound like that,” countered Meqdad, who felt emboldened by his drink to disagree.

“I assure you, it was a joke,” Moqaddasi insisted.

Meqdad, unconvinced, suggested: “So you’re alluding to the old crib and trough story again?”

“Perhaps,” Moqaddasi agreed half-heartedly.

“And you, who aspire to be the esteemed author and translator, flaunt it? Sure, you’ve written a few stories and translated a handful of books, and now you bask in these small successes as if they were academic titles or legacies from your ancestors.”

Nasrin tried to steer the conversation away from the argument and interrupted herself: “Didn’t I make it clear that work and arguments are taboo tonight?”

She stood up, ostensibly to reprimand Meqdad, but instead, she playfully put her arm around his neck and teasingly loosened his tie. “What’s this gallows trick, you silly man?”

She would probably continue her playful attack, perhaps ruffling his hair or even playfully biting his ear and risking a joking punch if Meqdad did not remain vigilant. Still, Meqdad was cautious, holding Nasrin’s wrists gently, perhaps trying to distance himself from her overpowering scent.

Moqaddasi tried to steer the conversation, “I was in the office when…”

Meqdad cut in, “What shift? Morning, afternoon, or night shift?”

Frustrated, Moqaddasi asked, “Have you had too much to drink? Why does not anyone point this out to him?”

Meqdad gave him a look that said, “Leave it,” accompanied by a dismissive shake. As Meqdad tried to articulate his thoughts, Nasrin interjected, “Moqaddasi, is your house now a refuge like your grandmother’s after dark?”

Meqdad broke free of Nasrin’s playful reticence and joked, “I didn’t know you worked there on the side. How did you get this job?” His laughter indicated that he had just escaped Nasrin’s attempt to silence him. Moqaddasi tried to keep the peace by saying, “Let’s not go down that road. We’re all in the same boat, aren’t we? It doesn’t matter where we work. Many of us juggle multiple jobs or have a side hustle. Sometimes…”

Before he could continue, Meqdad interjected, “We feast at the trough and…” but was quickly silenced by Nasrin.

When Meqdad was able to speak again, a glass of brandy and a bite to eat were ready for him. Nasrin announced: “Let him talk. I’ll keep his mouth busy with food.”

Akhtar, feeling left out, asked, “Won’t someone pour for me too?”

Nasrin replied with warmth: “Of course, my dear. Aziz Nasab, make sure she gets a drink. And another one for me, please.”

The drinks were freshly served and they were ready for another toast. Meqdad, still chewing, was unable to join in immediately. When he was ready, the glasses were raised and everyone clinked glasses: “To health!”

After Meqdad had managed to swallow, he raised his glass: “To Nasrin and Akhtar, whose openness surpasses ours.”

Akhtar asked, puzzled: “What do you mean?”

Mirzai tried to distract him: “Don’t worry about him, my dear. Just concentrate on your food. Meqdad has just eaten a little too much.”

But Akhtar pressed on: “No, I want to understand. What did he mean by that?”

The air became tense and Akhtar’s confident tone indicated that she was about to confront Meqdad more aggressively. Mirzai tried again to defuse the situation: “It’s nothing. Meqdad sometimes speaks off the cuff.”

But Akhtar persisted: “It was directed at me, wasn’t it? You were implying that I…”

Nasrin intervened to reassure her: “Please, sit down, my dear.”

“It was also a reference to you,” Akhtar continued, “He was implying something. I’m not like her. Yes, I can feel the alcohol, it’s true, I’m not used to it, but I… Mr. Moqaddasi can confirm that. I am sure you have all noticed that I’m different. You, sir, have made a serious mistake. I met Mr. Moqaddasi at an event. We were introduced through a mutual friend. Just yesterday he invited me and suggested I come along if I was not otherwise engaged. I had no idea that this was our destination.”

Nasrin gently coaxed Akhtar back to her seat, settling herself on the arm of the chair and stroking her hair tenderly, murmuring words that could have been in agreement, though Akhtar’s raised voice overshadowed hers at first. As Akhtar’s fervor waned, Nasrin’s presence became clearer. She began with a gentle tapping of her nails, which grew into a hum and grew louder until it eclipsed the remnants of Akhtar’s despair.

“Careful with my handkerchief, my dear, it’s made of silk,” Nasrin teased, a remark that elicited laughter from everyone but Meqdad.

Meqdad protested seriously: “I assure you, I meant no offense, on my mother’s honor. What I meant was…”

He broke off, struggling with a hiccup instead.

Moqaddasi, seeing a chance for reconciliation, suggested: “Come on, admit your mistake. Let’s not hold it against him, young lady.”

Meanwhile, Nasrin, who had resumed her quiet humming, meandered around the table, offering a touch of comfort here and there, before finally settling down to eat with an urgency, as if to prevent any stray words from escaping her, filling her mouth with food instead. Meqdad, sitting next to Akhtar, searched for the right words. His gestures were a desperate attempt to express what his words could not. Had it been a matter of logic or science, his explanation might have been flawless. Akhtar’s softer expression and the cessation of her accusatory gestures indicated a reluctant understanding.

The time had come for another round of drinks. As Meqdad filled the glasses, the room fell unexpectedly silent, not because he was afraid, but because all attention was focused on Nasrin. She was the center of attention, amusingly struggling with an overly ambitious bite of the food as she prepared to tackle a large pickle next.

The room erupted in laughter, Akhtar included, breaking the tension. Moqaddasi seized the moment: “A toast to the graceful ladies among us!”

“To good health,” replied the chorus.

Meqdad was caught eating and realized that a chopstick was sticking out of his mouth and his search for the glass was hampered by slippery fingers. His eyes twitched, betraying a mixture of embarrassment and the need for air, which triggered another wave of laughter.

At that moment, Meqdad’s inner monolog reflected the scene, “This is us, through and through.” He longed to share this realization aloud, but chose to remain silent to acknowledge his own integral role in the ensemble.

Akhtar, now visibly more relaxed and swaying slightly with joy, waved the whiskey bottle in one hand while holding a filled glass with the other and declared, “You are all treasures.”

As he approached Nasrin, he gave her a tender kiss that lingered on the fullness of her lips. He set the bottle aside and carefully removed the chicken leg from her mouth with a napkin, then tenderly wiped her lips before handing her a glass. “Have a drink, my dear, for my sake,” he urged her.

Nasrin, noticeably drunk from secretly drinking when her attention was elsewhere, revealed the empty bottle. She opened her mouth and tried to take a bite of meat, rice, eggplant, bread, herbs and possibly cheese to accept the proffered drink. With a conspiratorial wink, she informed him, “All good,” followed by an implied nod towards the upper floor, indicating, “You’re mine tonight.”

He toasted, “To your wonderful health, ma’am.”

She replied playfully, “Accompany me upstairs and I’ll show you who’s really the madam here.”

Meqdad, swaying slightly with intoxication, interjected: “Indeed, the upper floor is reserved for Nasrin’s company…”

His posture betrayed his drunken state, his tolerance had been exceeded by the evening’s indulgence.

“But you know, we all, the five of us, —spend our days working. It’s not so much work as it is a constant back and forth, from queue to queue, from store to store or bank to bank. It was in this hustle and bustle that the five of us and one other person, who has since left, found each other. Aziz Nasab and I have known each other since we were children. Amid the chaos, like six bears trapped in a cage, we found each other. No words were exchanged, at least I do not remember them. That was twenty years ago… And now look at us. Mirzai, who once dreamed of creating masterpieces, now only takes care of print jobs. And me? What has become of me? And our esteemed author over there now spends his days critiquing and retranslating works he deems inferior to ensure his name eclipses the original author’s on the cover. His handful of stories are merely vehicles for someone else’s praise… I beg your pardon, of course.”

Realizing he had to intervene, he stood up, but it was too late. Moqaddasi’s patience was exhausted. His fist hit the table with a loud bang. “Enough is enough. All month long I’ve been insulted by everyone, and now, in these few precious hours when I can relax with my drink, you keep tormenting me. I am as tired of myself as you are, and yet I am trapped in this existence…”

Resigned, Moqaddasi sank back into his chair and admitted: “All right, I understand. Meqdad is not entirely wrong. But what’s the alternative? To be honest, I’m overwhelmed. I barely have time to skim the headlines from my car, let alone keep up with movies or books. I’ve piled up so many unread books, even though I used to be an avid reader, remember?”

Meqdad leaned forward and criticized, “I am sorry, but you brought this on yourself. Who asked you to take on a proxy role? What was wrong with just being an employee? And do you really need to spend your evenings with…”

“Need to? Do you want to know the real reason?”

Moqaddasi interrupted him and pleaded for brevity: “Let’s not dwell on it. Life is hard, the expenses are endless and the problems are numerous. But what Meqdad is getting at is…”

At that moment, Nasrin stood up, her actions not only affectionate but playfully intimate as she stroked Akhtar’s face and neck, her hand wandering before abruptly stepping back. Akhtar’s laughter as she shook her head and legs added to the convivial mood in the room. Nasrin moved towards the hallway with a mischievous look, hinting at an escape upstairs. Pausing at the threshold, she joked, “These guys are hardly a match, maybe I’ll take you instead.”

The gathering, with everyone lost in their interactions, formed a tapestry of laughter, jokes and a shared struggle to find balance amidst the turbulence of life. Their camaraderie, a testament to their resilience and mutual support, was evident in their playful banter and the warmth of their interactions.

As the energy shifted, the group rose and gathered around Nasrin in a collective desire to participate in the dance. She in turn animated the gramophone, and they surrounded her with joined hands in a joyous dance. Akhtar, standing aside with a supportive smile, watched Nasrin with an admiring gaze, mesmerized by her effortless grace. Nasrin’s dance was a spectacle of fluidity and lightness, her movements reminiscent of the natural swaying of a branch in the wind. With every twist and turn, her skirt flirted with the air, hinting at hidden charms. Her body moved in a harmony of waves and swirls, her silhouette framed by her swirling hair, creating an enchanting aura around her.

As the melodies from the gramophone became quieter, applause broke out, mingled with Akhtar’s clapping. Gradually, the lively atmosphere calmed down and everyone made themselves comfortable on the sofas while their attention was captivated by Nasrin’s performance in the heart of the room. Her dance was a mesmerizing performance, her movements poetic — her hair flowing over her shoulders like a waterfall, the tips of her toes lightly touching the floor in a delicate ballet that combined the elegance of her neck with the glimpse of a thigh. Her arms unfolded, inviting the space around her to dance. Her gyrations drew everyone into her rhythm, her gaze sharp and commanding, as if she were balancing a precarious vessel on her head, embodying both the servant and the served in a dance that was both an offering and a feast.

Moqaddasi could not help but express his admiration: “You are extraordinary, Nasrin!”

In a moment that felt like a scene from a whimsical autumn fairy tale, Nasrin shivered as if caught by a playful breeze, her body reacting like a tree shedding its leaves, only to rise again with a grace that seemed to beckon Moqaddasi with an invisible force: “Your turn, show us what you’ve got!”

Despite his enthusiasm, Moqaddasi’s dance was less about grace and more about a serious attempt to join in. His movements were an endearing imitation of the dance, characterized by an exaggerated sway of the hips and a comical gesture that suggested a familiarity with the rhythm that he didn’t really possess. Though lacking in finesse, his dance was filled with a heartwarming attempt to keep the joyful spirit alive. His feet barely moved, as if to say, “Here I stand, rooted in joy”

He then generously took on the role of host and poured drinks for everyone, with Nasrin and Akhtar first in line. As he handed Akhtar a glass, Moqaddasi playfully pulled her into the embrace of the dance and then, breathless and glistening from the exertion, took his place again.

Akhtar, now in the spotlight, danced with a mixture of remembered grace and spontaneous movement, her dance woven like a tapestry of threads from the past and the present.

Nasrin, the encourager par excellence, called out with a mixture of admiration and jest: “Darling, keep that movement up, it’s a gem!”

Akhtar’s performance was remarkably well executed. She used her entire upper body to fan her hair. But instead of the desired fan effect, her short, blonde hair merely fluttered and bobbed up and down around her head.

When Mirzai reached out to hug her, Akhtar’s heart began to race. Without being able to see his face, she could only make out the wheat-colored hair at the nape of his neck and feel the enveloping pressure of his arms around her waist. Her movements finally led her to sit on Mirzai’s feet.

“Brilliant, darling,” he praised her and kissed her on the shoulder.

“What does that mean?” Akhtar inquired.

She skillfully freed herself by first releasing his arms and then turning and landing her hands confidently on her hips. Mirzai was taken aback.

“It seems, sir, that my message didn’t get through. This scene is not for me,” she explained.

As she prepared for another action, she added, “However, I recognize that it was my own choice to be here…”

Nasrin interrupted her abruptly, not allowing Akhtar to finish her thought or complete her movement. The sound made it clear that Nasrin had struck her, and with considerable force.

“What about me, mother?”

There was a commotion in the room. Meqdad, who was now holding Nasrin, was also in a dilemma. He held Akhtar’s glass in one hand and his own empty glass in the other and wasn’t sure who he should help. Akhtar, now seated, showed a reddened cheek where Nasrin’s fingers had made contact. Mirzai tried to explain something to her, but Moqaddasi’s voice overrode his. Nasrin, still fixated on reaching Akhtar, mumbled something unintelligible. Meqdad decided to speak to Nasrin. She turned to him, her expression suggesting a sneer or a challenge, as if to say, “Did you see what I did?”

She asked, “But what now?”

Meqdad stepped closer and handed her the glass, having apparently put his own aside. He whispered to her, “You’ve gone too far, Nasrin.”

“Me? Just wait. The real drama has yet to unfold,” she countered with a hint of defiance.

With her left hand now free of Meqdad’s grip, she took a sip from the glass and pulled him back into the circle of company with a tug. Both Mirzai and Moqaddasi were engrossed in conversation along with others, and the dynamics of the room shifted with the unfolding events.

“I am not one of them, I made that clear to Mr. Moqaddasi. I have spoken out about my past, but it seems they have forgotten,” explained Nasrin, her voice a mixture of defiance and resignation. She navigated through the group of men with dramatic flair, her left hand slicing through the air and dismissing them. “Enough, gentlemen. Step aside, this is a gathering for women.”

As the men followed and retreated to their seats, Nasrin’s confident hand grabbed Aziz Nasab’s wrist. Amidst the changing atmosphere, Akhtar’s quiet sobs could be heard. Nasrin, who sat down next to Akhtar on the armrest, leaned forward and whispered with feigned sternness, “Really, Mother, you don’t think I’m the one to do this, do you?”

Her tactic visibly unsettled Akhtar and made her wrestle with her feelings under Nasrin’s scrutinizing gaze.

“Ms. Nasrin, please understand that I wasn’t referring to you,” Akhtar replied with a hint of exasperation in her voice.

“Oh, so your comments were about your grandmother, were they?” Nasrin’s tone was sharp, her grip firm, signaling Aziz Nasab to be careful. He sat down next to Nasrin and gave her his undivided attention.

Akhtar took a sip from the glass Nasrin held to her lips and tried to explain, “It’s just that… well, I’ve never been in a social setting like this, since my husband is not around…”

“So these conversations took place over the phone? A different man every day, was it just that?” Nasrin probed further, her question was pointed.

“We were just friends,” Akhtar insisted.

“A ‘personal friend’ then?” Nasrin’s skepticism was palpable.

“Yes, a friend. He had promised to marry me,” Akhtar admitted with a hint of vulnerability in his voice.

“And then he left, didn’t he? Maybe he even turned up. So who was next in line?”

Nasrin’s attention was focused on Akhtar. She played almost playfully with the hem of Akhtar’s skirt, twirling the fabric around her finger. She lifted the skirt teasingly, exposing the pale skin of Akhtar’s thighs, before letting the fabric fall just above her knees. Akhtar diverted her gaze, probably more out of fear of Nasrin’s rebuke than disinterest.

“Don’t upset her, Mama,” Akhtar murmured, a plea in her soft tone.

Nasrin’s voice softened as she inquired further, “And what happened to the next man who approached you?”

“Who are you referring to?” Akhtar’s confusion was obvious.

“The one who called and claimed to be a friend of Mr. So-and-so,” Nasrin clarified, asking gently yet persistently.

Akhtar’s demeanor then changed; her head dropped, signaling that the tears were coming again.

Nasrin continued, “It’s a familiar story that begins with an unfortunate soul. It’s harmless at first, but then another one follows.”

Akhtar persisted, “I’ve never been with anyone. I’m not like that.”

Nasrin’s next question was even more explicit: “Did he give you money too?”

The question stunned Akhtar, her face a mixture of surprise and indignation: “Money? For me?”

Nasrin, aware of the sensitivity of the subject, corrected herself: “Sorry, I forgot. First they offer gifts, like a bracelet.”

Her gaze wandered to a bracelet on Akhtar’s wrist: “Was that from him?”

Akhtar replied sheepishly: “No, it was the first one who gave it to me.”

Meanwhile, the room was dominated by conversation, with Mirzai’s voice standing out as he loudly defended his stance and lamented the costs and difficulties associated with printing forms and the scarcity of materials such as folders due to government projects. His complaint highlighted the day-to-day challenges he faces.

Meqdad agreed with him, “That’s exactly what I’ve always said”

But when Mirzai challenged him directly, he said, “You say that, but what about your own actions?”

Meqdad was at a loss: “I…?”

Meqdad was taken aback for a moment as he pondered his exhaustive syllabus and moved from one class to the next. He was about to argue that as an individual he should stay his course despite the direction the world was taking when he was interrupted, “What kind of argument is that, especially coming from you?”

Nasrin had approached, her posture indicating frustration, probably with a dramatic gesture of disbelief. Meqdad couldn’t see her face, but he imagined her exasperated expression.

“If we can’t make this work, we might as well give up,” she declared.

Mirzai replied lovingly, wrapping his arms around her and kissing her gently on the neck: “I’m here, mom.”

Moqaddasi, confused by the tension, asked, “What’s the reason for this sudden flare-up?”

Undeterred, Nasrin said, “I don’t belong to this group and after a few more encounters like this, even divine patience would be at an end. If you are brave enough, prove it now.”

With these words, she led Mirzai to the exit and told everyone to pack their things. “Go ahead, I have to get some ice,” she announced and distributed the drinks to Meqdad and Moqaddasi. When she noticed Akhtar’s hesitation, she smiled conciliatory: “I’m sorry if this meeting didn’t live up to your expectations.”

Akhtar’s smile in response was radiant and left a memorable impression even as it faded. She took the ice bucket and assured, “I’ll take care of it, Mr. Aziz Nasab, please go ahead.”

But he stayed and went to the sink with another bucket. Akhtar continued, her tone a mixture of admiration and criticism: “Nasrin is remarkable, but sometimes she gets it wrong. She assumes that every social event means more than it is. Friendships develop, people get married, travel, life changes… You see, I’m well educated. I was about to graduate when an admirer showed up. He wasn’t older, just two decades older. I later learned he was a widower looking for someone to take care of his children. And his nightly returnees…”

Interrupted by Nasrin’s voice from the kitchen door: “How old was the neighbor’s son again?”

The interruption was unwelcome. Meqdad, overwhelmed by the evening’s events, thought, “They were talking about their spouses.”

Nasrin urged him, “Go on, tell my story too. Make sure she understands my past. You do remember, don’t you?”

In a moment of spitefulness, Meqdad replied, “Yes, Nasrin’s husband was tragically hit by a vehicle and forced her into this lifestyle to support her children.”

Nasrin’s response was a mixture of anger and resignation: “Damn it.”

Nasrin’s movements suggested a mixture of joking and genuine frustration as she feigned an attack on him, causing him to instinctively brace for impact.

“That story belongs to your aunt,” he corrected, trying to defuse the tension.

Akhtar, however, remained firm: “I’m being honest, please believe me.”

Nasrin, leaning against him slightly drunk to support him, hinted at further revelations, “Shall I tell you the rest?”

As Akhtar busied himself with the ice, Nasrin’s words flowed with the weight of her drunken state. “Then came a moonlit night when you and a sheltered young man…”

Akhtar interrupted himself and confessed, “I was in love with him. He promised me freedom from my marriage, a new life…”

Nasrin gushed with a hint of mockery: “Ah, now I remember. Weren’t you the couple who were caught and exposed in the newspaper?”

“Was that in Hamadan?” she speculated.

“We didn’t elope,” Akhtar defended himself.

“Then I stand corrected,” Nasrin conceded.

Akhtar repeated, “That’s exactly why I said it was a misunderstanding. My connection with Parviz was honorable.”

“And what came after that?” Urged Nasrin.

“What happened after you left that impostor?”

Akhtar remained silent, prompting more questions.

“Sweets and pomegranates!” Nasrin exclaimed, changing the subject as they climbed the stairs while Akhtar carefully balanced the ice bucket. Aziz Nasab’s playful tickling almost caused a mishap, but his supportive embrace from behind ensured their stability. Nasrin’s intervention, a light but firm grip, made him cry out in pain and caused him to let go of Akhtar.

Now sandwiched between them on the stairs, Akhtar revealed, “He was a student.”

“The first?” Nasrin asked, wanting to know more.

“Not my husband,” Akhtar clarified. “My beau was still at school and perhaps just graduating. His infatuation with me led to his academic downfall; he failed five subjects.”

Their laughter filled the stairwell as they reached a room where an unusual scene was unfolding: everyone was sitting in a circle, scantily clad. Moqaddasi, who was busy with the gramophone, did not seem to notice the smoke coming out of his nostrils. Nasrin challenged the group with a gesture that encompassed both her and Akhtar: “And what about us?”

Moqaddasi, distracted for a moment, said noncommittally, “Of course…” as he fiddled with the gramophone, trying to set the right mood. Nasrin nudged Mirzai with her characteristic mixture of humor and sarcasm: “Summon the spirits of your aunt, dear. Let’s see how you get on with the drinks.”

She found her seat next to Mirzai and let herself fall into the convivial atmosphere. Meqdad and Moqaddasi, meanwhile, were busy with their own ritual, toasting with their glasses. Meqdad took a thoughtful sip and ventured a more personal revelation: “I’ve been meaning to say…”

Moqaddasi, as always the interrupter, interjected with a knowing “I know, my dear, I know,” but Meqdad continued, expressing a sense of disconnectedness with himself, “It’s as if something has taken hold here,” he gestured towards his heart, “sometimes I don’t even recognize the person looking back at me from the mirror. I question my own identity, laugh for no reason and feel completely alien among the people I teach every day.”

Moqaddasi offered his own perspective and drew a parallel to his everyday life, which is characterized by endless queues, traffic lights and the monotony of desk work. He painted a vivid picture of existential toil, likening it to a ‘mill donkey’ trapped in a Sisyphean task, aware of its futility but toiling doggedly nonetheless.

Meqdad acknowledged this shared sense of self-imposed burden and thought aloud about the choices that led them here. His vulnerability was evident as he sought reassurance, “You’re not mad at me, are you?”

Nasrin leaned gently towards him and spoke comfort to him, “No, my dear. Meqdad, our experienced educator, would not hold a grudge.”

Seeking comfort, Aziz Nasab took Nasrin’s hand and guided her to a more relaxed position on the pillows so that she could rest her head on his shoulder.

On the other side of the room, Mirzai, perhaps seeking his own form of escape, was fixated on pouring himself another drink. His earlier indulgence in smoking indicated a desire to blur the boundaries of reality, to speak freely without the constraints of sobriety. “Meqdad, one for me too,” he asked, his voice a mixture of demand and plea.

Nasrin, as always the motherly figure, admonished: “That’s enough”

“Just this one more, mom, then I’m going to sleep,” Mirzai negotiated, his voice carrying both a hint of defiance and a childish need for comfort.

“All right, but remember, if tears come, there’s no shame in seeking comfort here,” Nasrin offered.

Mirzai remarked, “It makes you wonder why we turned out the way we did. We wanted to change the world, and now… do you remember? Yes, Mrs. Akhtar, the five of us were on fire, and now we are scarred by these protruding bellies.”

He stroked his belly.

“Our hair is thinning, too. Still, we have fulfilled our roles. I am still trying hard. If even one of the ten or twelve books I read a year is worth mentioning, that’s twenty, maybe ten in twenty years. That is remarkable. But we are not the only ones to blame. We lack a real thinker, sociologist or psychologist with original ideas. Most of them are just hybrids: partly translators and who knows what else. And our translators are inferior, rare at best. They are all busy, swamped with tasks and working to produce bulletins. They have become mere subordinates or interpreters. The number of writers is decreasing, but their command of the Persian language is inadequate. There is an abundance of topics, but their works often lack substance, they focus too much on form.”

Moqaddasi interjected: “Dad, with your analyzes, it’s as if we have a corpse but no grave to put it in.”

Mirzai replied, “No, you misunderstood. I meant to say…”

He stopped listening and closed his eyes. The buzzing of thousands of bees was deafening and prevented him from grasping his own thoughts, the fears he dared not voice, or how it came to be that Nasrin knew this was the moment she would start crying. The friends’ chatter now resembled an incessant humming and buzzing, occasionally punctuated by a sharp pain in his ribs. Despite their journey, they seemed to be at the starting point, or as if they had not set out at all. And these companions, Meqdad, whom he had known since childhood, and the others… took turns walking up and down. Jamshid Pour was making molds out of dough. Every time Mirzai approached the door, he peeked through the upper crack and watched. When Moqaddasi was finally brought in, all five gathered around him, trying to ease his discomfort or, as Moqaddasi put it, share his suffering. Suddenly they clutched Moqaddasi’s numb hand and he awoke, barely conscious. Without saying a word, their solidarity was palpable. They exchanged glances and clenched their fists. When he saw Moqaddasi, a tear glistened in the corner of his eye, offering more comfort than words could. The pain was communal and it seemed as if their veins were connected, the life of Moqaddasi’s hand circulating through each of them: from Moqaddasi to Mirzai, who blushed and looked away, to Meqdad, who had a tear running down his nose, through Jamshid Pour’s slender neck to Moqaddasi, and finally from Moqaddasi’s large vein back to his heart to begin the cycle anew.

Moqaddasi inquired, “Do you want to smoke, Aziz Nasab?”

He held it to his mouth as if it were a pacifier and replied, “Not now.”

Thinking Nasrin was fast asleep, he carefully tried to free himself without disturbing her. As he laid her down, Nasrin’s eyes fluttered open and she murmured, “Shall we go?”

He didn’t know where else to go. The alcohol, perhaps, or the discussions about a book or two that degenerated into bared teeth, backbiting like a pack of wolves that had starved for weeks and were now turning on each other to maintain their ferocity or sharpen their teeth. To what end, he could not tell. This was the legacy of their generation: they circled each other with swollen, bloated figures, limbs broken, fixed and bandaged, staggering or dragging themselves. He murmured, “Go to sleep, I’ll wake you.”

He massaged his neck. Akhtar often lamented the lack of family support, saying, “What a father, what a mother? My brother hated the sight of me and threatened to hurt me if he ever found me. But what was I supposed to do when old friends wouldn’t even acknowledge me? Parviz had turned his back on me. Whenever I went to see him, the answer was: he’s not here, he’s never home or maybe he’s hiding. When we finally met, he claimed his reputation was at stake and offered money to send me away.”

“And how much did he offer you?” Nasrin inquired, propping herself up on her elbows.

Akhtar replied: “I refused the money, threw it back at him and suggested that it would be better spent on his sister and his mother.”

“And the sum?” she asked.

Moqaddasi interjected: “Leave her alone, Elder. Akhtar speaks the truth. I intend to write down her story. I’ve already started and made a lot of notes, really

His tone betrayed a hint of his own skepticism. Nasrin asked somewhat provocatively, “And the title?”

He replied: “That’s still undecided. I won’t think of the right name until the last dot is set.”

“So you want to document the life of Mrs. Akhtar?”

“Not directly. I will adapt it and incorporate my own experiences and observations…”

Nasrin warned, “If it resembles me again, I will object…”

As she got up to leave, she was stopped by Moqaddasi’s laughter: “No, rest assured, it’s not about you.”

Nasrin replied, “The characters in the books you made me read — black hair, tall, with almond-shaped, deer-like eyes and arched eyebrows. That’s me, isn’t it, you stubborn soul!”

Mirzai added: “Is that so bad? It gives you immortality.”

He longed to say something, to stop the incessant grinding of this mill that turned endlessly and crushed nothing. But he simply lay down, knowing that it was Meqdad’s turn to speak his thoughts. Hindered by the intoxication, Meqdad struggled to articulate his words. To an outsider like Akhtar, his ramblings were indecipherable, but the group guessed and understood the essence of his forthcoming words:

“What if you write it? What’s the point? You wanted to write the most beautiful stories in the world, to tell our stories, with your own drawn hand, and your mother, with her gaunt face and deep-set, scrutinizing eyes, flitted back and forth between us, dabbing her eyes under her black chador and attempting a smile.”

Moqaddasi interjected: “The essence of a story should not be limited to these themes. In our circumstances, we might dwell on a handful of topics as if existence were divided by a mere line. Sometimes we might fall in love, only to retreat to our comfort zones, our so-called sacred vows, when we are exhausted. We claim to be familiar with sociology and Freud, to dabble in mysticism and philosophy. But what is that? Is that the sum total of our culture?”

Meqdad replied: “Is that why your translations are all second-hand?”

Mirzai, sensing the tension, intervened: “Here we go again.”

He offered Meqdad a pacifier: “Come on, “Meqdad, take this, relax. Then watch as the dark clouds disperse, revealing a bright blue sky dotted with cheerful clouds. And when a light breeze stirs…”

Akhtar burst into tears, overwhelmed: “None of you really hear me.”

Her tears prevented her from speaking any further. Nasrin comforted her and said: “It’s just the name that seems off-putting at first. You assume it’s derogatory, but then you realize it does not require capital, a storefront, or education…”

Akhtar, regaining his composure like a defiant cat, sat up and clenched his fists: “You do not understand, my dear. Apart from forgiveness, you may give up your body, but your soul remains sovereign. Perhaps out of necessity, but what remains for you, for us, is subject to your whims, your desires, but as for me…”

Moqaddasi rose to join them, cigarette in hand, and pleaded, “Please.”

He kissed Nasrin tenderly on the cheek, “Can you dear ladies stop this argument?”

He also kissed Akhtar: “And let’s not insult our elder.”

Akhtar and Nasrin moved closer and shared a conciliatory kiss. Akhtar confessed, “It was not my intention to insult Nasrin. She’s like a sister.”

Meqdad, trying to make amends, said, “I apologize, Mrs. Akhtar, but perhaps Nasrin is right. Think of my own experience: Initially, I had a single nail painted, an insignificant act born of laziness. Then a finger, harmless. But in time, a slip of the brush led to a fully painted hand, even disfigured, and now look at me. You might wonder where my soul lives when no part of me is mine anymore? Where could it possibly hide?”

Mirzai, the quintessential cynic, replied: “You never had a soul

Resignedly, he added: “Then I might as well stick a plaster on it.”

To avoid confrontation or verbal expressions of frustration, he spent his days in the office, a mere formality to fulfill his attendance obligation, which earned him little. In the evenings, he hurriedly visited Mirzai’s stall and earned a meager income by correcting typos in books he considered completely uninteresting. But without this small task, his mood darkened. He felt trapped, with nowhere to turn, his hands as unresponsive as severed limbs, which perhaps made him want to smoke or rest and snack at a quiet table.

Akhtar affirms, “I don’t take money, from anyone. I never ask for payment or get involved in negotiations like some do.”

Nasrin explained her approach, “I sort out financial matters in advance and am aware of the actual cost, even for things as trivial as a ladybug or the upfront payment a tailor requires for a custom-made shirt. I make sure that payment is arranged in advance to avoid disputes later on.”

Overwhelmed by his emotions, Akhtar recounted a harrowing experience: “My brother had threatened my life, as I was warned. When he showed up, I was shaking uncontrollably and was stunned at how he had found me. He threatened me with a knife and asked me for my identity. In desperation, I denied any family connection, but he accused me of cheating to increase my worth. He held the edge of the knife menacingly close to my face and suggested marking my forehead with distinct lines for easier identification, mockingly offering me the choice between an ‘x’ and a ‘y’. I fainted and threw myself on the floor in front of him, kissing his feet and hands, tearfully protesting my innocence and insisting that it was a case of mistaken identity and that I was simply looking for work. Unimpressed, he took my bracelet, necklace and earrings and rummaged through my wallet. His intimidation escalated when he hinted at an even more invasive search and the blade of the knife grazed my chest. I begged him to come to his senses and direct his vengeance at the real culprit, the one who had cheated me out of my promise of marriage and left me completely alone.”

Nasrin wept and asked desperately: “Am I dead?”

She was gently lifted up by the armpits, her hair tenderly stroked and reassured: “Don’t cry, dear. What’s the point?”

“Take her to the bedroom, Nasrin, and cover her up. You know how to do that, do not you?” she was instructed.

Nasrin glanced back and watched as they stood there with a dejected attitude, relying on Akhtar, who, after suppressing her tears, rummaged through her handbag. “Nothing there? No one?” she inquired.

Turning to Akhtar, she confirmed: “Look, there’s no one here. Let’s go back ourselves. I’ll take you home. You may not feel present, but I am. I’ve been here for a decade and a half.”

Their gazes were fixed elsewhere, possibly only to their ankles, and they stretched out on the floor like fallen pillars, mesmerized by the sight, oblivious to their hands or the hitched-up skirt.

As soon as the door closed behind them, they shuffled onto their butts and gathered in a circle around the fire. Meqdad warmed his hands on the flames, expecting the others to do the same. But the others held back, their hands resting idly at their sides while Moqaddasi looked at his watch. Had Jamshid Pour been there, he would have sat between Meqdad and Moqaddasi, but his absence marked the first wavering of their unity. From then on, the camaraderie they had once shared, the intertwined fingers and supportive grips, vanished, leaving only a jumble of unconnected limbs.

 

© Ali Salami 2024

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