Ali Salami

The Claws By Sadeq Hedayat

When Seyyed Ahmad entered the house, he cast a suspicious glance across the courtyard, then knocked with his stick on the brown door of the room above the cistern and called softly: “Robabeh… Robabeh…!”

The door opened and a pale, frightened girl came out: “Brother, is that you? Come up here.”

She took her brother’s hand and they entered a small, dark room whose walls were damp to the waist. Seyyed Ahmad put his stick aside and sat down on an old felt in the corner of the room. Robabeh sat in front of him. But, unusually, Robabeh’s brow was furrowed and her expression grim. After looking into her tear-filled eyes for a while, Seyyed Ahmad asked indifferently: “Where is grandmother?”

Robabeh replied in a choked voice: “The grave is her bed, she is in this room.”

“She’s sleeping?”

“Yes… Today, when I was sweeping the kitchen, my scarf got caught in the Chinese bowl, the one with the red flowers on it, it fell and broke. If you only knew what Grandma did to me! She grabbed me by the hair and pulled it out in clumps. She banged my head against the wall and scolded my mother. She said, ‘That wretched mother of yours’, and Dad just stood there and laughed.”

Seyyed Ahmad, angry: “He laughed!”

“He just kept laughing and laughing. You know, that upset him. Just like a month ago, his mouth started foaming, he went limp. Then he lunged at Grandma and squeezed her neck so hard that her eyes popped out. If it hadn’t been for Mahsoltan, he would have strangled her. Now I understand how he killed our grandmother.”

Seyyed Ahmad’s eyes gleamed green as he asked: “Who said that he killed our grandmother in this way?”

“It was Mahsoltan who went to her corpse and said that her hair was wrapped around her neck. You don’t know when she put her hands around grandmother’s neck…”

As Seyyed Ahmad looked at her, he raised his dry hands like the leaves of a plane tree, his fingers spread apart, and as if he wanted to strangle an imaginary person, he clasped his hands together.

Robabeh, noticing his gesture, backed away slightly and stared at him. Seyyed Ahmad asked again: “Didn’t Dad go to the Shah Mosque today?”

“No… He hasn’t been well, he’s been talking nonsense since the afternoon, the same stuff he preaches to people in the mosque: Ablution, purity, the afterlife. Things that invalidate fasting, menstruation and postnatal bleeding.”

“Yes… He asked himself questions and answered them. I thought he had gone mad. He said things that embarrassed me.”

Then Robabeh moved closer to Ahmad, stroked his head and said, “When are we going to run away? Didn’t you say Abbas said we could buy a cow for eleven tomans and six qerans? We’ll buy a lean animal. I’ll do laundry and earn my own money. The sooner we leave the better, I’m scared!”

“Let’s wait until the weather gets better. My leg has been bothering me for a few days now.”

“When the weather gets better, we’ll leave. It’s not like that, is it, brother? Anything’s better than here.”

Then they both fell silent.

Ahmad was an eighteen-year-old boy, tall and stocky, with bushy, knitted eyebrows, sparkling eyes and an angry face whose upper lip was just covered with fuzz. Robabeh, fifteen years old and wheat-boned, had narrow eyebrows, prominent red lips, small hands and a delicate chin, making her more like her mother, while Seyyed Ahmad was the spitting image of her father. Even the signs of her father’s dangerous illness had already made themselves felt in Ahmad.

Her father, Seyyed Jafar, was known for stirring up trouble in the Shah’s mosque. He gathered the unemployed around him and explained religious duties and jurisprudence to them in a direct manner, without evasion or politeness. He was so skilled at his craft that he had even trained a black scorpion and neutralized its venom to use in his performances. Although his business had been slow of late, he managed to earn enough to cover household expenses. Five years ago, he came home drunk one night when everyone was asleep, and at dawn his wife was found strangled to death in their room, officially declared dead because she was ill. Only Mahsoltan, Soghra’s adopted sister, blamed Seyyed Jafar for her death. Two months later, Seyyed Jafar married Roghayeh Soltan.

Roghayeh Soltan became a curse for the two orphans Ahmad and Robabeh and never spared them from torment and abuse. Surprisingly, Seyyed Jafar did not intervene on behalf of his children, but participated in their abuse alongside Roghayeh Soltan. Seyyed Jafar was one of those men who found comfort in the idea that bearing children would ensure their livelihood, believing that someone who says “There is no god but Allah” will not be left empty-handed by God, and that if God gives a child, they would celebrate with watermelon feasts.

But now, when he saw them, he was amazed that these children were his own, and he was only obsessed with the thought of getting rid of these two extra mouths and pacifying the house with Roghayeh. From that moment on, Seyyed Ahmad and Robabeh felt alienated in their father’s house and life became unbearable for them, which only strengthened their bond. To isolate them from their lives, Roghayeh Soltan assigned them the damp and dark room above the cistern, and so for two months Ahmad suffered from leg pains that did not improve despite several prayers for healing. Ahmad hobbled to the cobbler’s workshop during the day, and Robabeh spent all day doing housework and only found solace in the evening with her brother, her only source of comfort. When Ahmad came home at dusk and there was any chore to do with Robabeh, he would eagerly take it on. When Robabeh cried, he cried too, and vice versa. In the evenings, they ate together in the corner of their dark room, pulled the covers over them and shared their worries. Robabeh talked about her daily chores and Ahmad about his.

Their conversations often revolved around the topic of escape, as they had decided to flee their father’s house. The person who encouraged them in their plan was Ahmad’s friend Abbas Arangeh, who worked with him in the market during the day and had described to him the simple and rich life in Arangeh. Ahmad was so fascinated by the image of the village houses, the women in red pants, the green mountains, the refreshing springs and the life there as described by Abbas that he shared his escape plan with Abbas, who praised the idea. Finally, they decided that all three of them would go to Arangeh and start a new, free life.

Every evening, Ahmad told Robabeh about their escape plan, which was always the same, and Robabeh marveled with shining eyes at her brother’s intelligence and imagination. Since the only journey she had ever made was a pilgrimage to Seyyed Malik Khatun, at the mention of Arangeh, Robabeh remembered the day they had packed Ash Reshteh, her mother was still alive and she had fallen and injured her forehead while chasing Tajie, the neighbor’s daughter. She imagined that Arangeh was like Seyyed Malik Khatun and promised her brother that she would spare no effort to help with the costs. So far, Ahmad had saved eleven tomans and six qerans from his daily wage. With another six tomans and four qerans, he was able to buy a cow and two female goats. Then they went to Abbas’ house and spent their days tilling and harvesting the land while Robabeh milked the goats and made yogurt. They dried mulberries, and in winter Ahmad continued cobbling. According to Abbas, they were able to own land and a house within two years through their own hard work.

Autumn, winter and spring passed. Ahmad continued to stockpile his savings and dreamed of their escape, while Robabeh carefully packed every little thing and kept it in her old drawer to take with her when they fled. At night in bed, their conversations revolved around nothing but Arangeh and their escape plans. But then something unexpected happened: one day, Mashdi Gholam, the butcher at the end of the alley who had noticed Robabeh, sent his mother to propose to her. It was clear that both Seyyed Jafar and Roghayeh Soltan were delighted. However, this development had a negative effect on Ahmad’s mood. To show Ahmad that she wasn’t interested in Mashdi Gholam, Robabeh became even more affectionate towards him, making Ahmad tired. Another thing that worried Ahmad was his worsening leg pain, which made him increasingly quiet and depressed.

On one day of the pilgrimage, when Seyyed Jafar and Roghayeh Soltan were going to spend the night in Shah Abdol Azim, Robabeh was happier than usual in the absence of her stepmother. She even adorned herself a little by smearing some of her stepmother’s Safavid from Tabriz on her face. But Seyyed Ahmad came home later than usual that day. Although Robabeh’s efforts to beautify herself seemed different to Ahmad, it pained him to think that Robabeh now considered herself free and the future wife of Mashdi Gholam, and that she had been deceiving him all along with talk of escape. He gave up his escape plan, thinking that now that she had a suitor, she’d stay. When Robabeh saw her brother, she rushed towards him and said:

“I was worried and boiling like vinegar. Why are you so late today?”

“I was with Abbas.”

“They’re not coming tonight.”

“I know.”

“Your breath smells, why do your eyes look like that? Are you not feeling well?”

“No, I’ve had some wine. Abbas forced it on me.”

“Have you taken any medication?”

“What can I do with this crippled leg?”

“Haven’t you heard what our father used to say about wine?”

“That was his profession. You said it yourself, quoting Mahsoltan, that he was drunk the night he strangled our mother. You know all this talk is just for his business. When people buy good buffalo shoes from the neighbor’s store, I find a thousand faults in them to sell our own goods. But doing business and telling the truth are two different things.”

“Maybe the healer gave them to him.”

“Why wouldn’t the healer give it to me? I’m young, and I’m in worse shape than he’s, he’s sixty. He had all the fun, you know? Then he gave his leg pain to me. If wine is good for leg pain, why shouldn’t I drink it? It’s all lies. All these conversations are lies.”

“Aren’t we going to Arangeh?”

“Why shouldn’t I drink? I can’t move in my condition, it’s getting worse. In two days you’ll be going to Gholam’s house. I’ll be alone, I’ve had enough of this house. When I come back in the evening, it’s as if I’m being dragged by a club. I want to get away, out into the wilderness. Why shouldn’t I drink?”

Suddenly there was silence between them. A few minutes later, they ate dinner and slept in their bed next to the pond.

Robabeh was playful, crunching sunflower seeds and singing, “I want to go to Arangeh, limping on a donkey’s foot,” and laughing heartily. But Ahmad was thoughtful and reserved because he thought Robabeh was making fun of him.

Robabeh said again: “Tonight we’re alone. It’ll be like this every day when we go to Arangeh. Grandmother isn’t there, only we’re alone, aren’t we, Ahmad?”

Ahmad forced himself to smile, which Robabeh assumed was due to the pain in his leg. She continued, “You know, once we escape and get to Arangeh, I’ll take care of you. Your leg will heal. Didn’t Mahsoltan say it was from the wind? You need to eat warm things. What if your leg hurts at the crucial moment and we can’t walk?”

“No, my leg is fine, but what do you care? You’re getting married!”

“With my grandfather, no! I’ll never be the wife of Mashdi Gholam, I’ll come with you.”

The moon had risen, and the little stars twinkled in the depths of the sky. Robabeh spoke freely and laughed, her cheeks flushed. Ahmad had never seen such a lively expression on Robabeh’s face and looked at her in amazement.

Ahmad asked mockingly, “What news about Mashdi Gholam?”

“May his corpse be cursed, may his mother be buried in the mud!”

“No, you want him.”

“With my grandfather, no. I love no one but you.”

“You’re lying!”

“By God, I’m not lying. The moment you decide, I’ll come with you.”

“Next week… no, the day after tomorrow, then we’ll go.”

“With this leg…!”

“You see… you see… I knew it! I knew it from the beginning, you were making fun of me. I’ve become a laughing stock for you.”

“You think I’m lying. Let’s go right now.”

“You see… but you’ll want to get married there. There are strong, young, handsome men in Arangeh. You’ll want to…”

“I haven’t seen Abbas yet, really.”

At that moment, Ahmad’s cheeks were flushed, he was breathing heavily, his fingers were trembling and his mouth was dry. Robabeh, who didn’t notice his condition, continued with her explanations.

“I swear on my grandfather’s grave if I become Mashdi Gholam’s wife. Shouldn’t I say yes after all? I won’t… Besides, he’s old and ugly. Mahsoltan said he already has two wives, I don’t want him. I’ll come with you… Is Arangeh very far away?”

“No, it’s behind the mountains. And we’re going with our belongings.”

“I know the blue mountains that you can see from our roof, they’re covered in snow. I even know how to freeze yogurt. What are the women like there, huh? They’re nomads, I remember Naneh Nadali used to visit our house, remember? When my mother was still alive, yes, she was from the village too. She spoke of the mountains. Brother, tell me, if we buy a cow, I don’t know how to milk it.”

Ahmad stared at her insistently. Robabeh continued: “I’ve packed my new mirror and a bracelet my mother gave me with three stones on it. You’ll be sewing mirrors in winter, won’t you?”

Ahmad nodded in agreement.

“Are you going to take a villager too?”

Ahmad looked at her strangely. Robabeh sensed his changed attitude but wanted to provoke him further out of stubbornness, rolled over and began to sing, “It’s I, the lost nightingale, returned from hills and valleys, mother unkind, killed me, father cowardly, consumed me. Sister compassionate, washed my bones with rose water, buried under the flower tree, I’ve become a nightingale: flutter flutter flutter.”

It was the same song they had sung together three years ago in the room above the cistern, but tonight it seemed different to Ahmad and only annoyed him more. It was as if she was implying that she was going to get married and leave, while he’d remain motionless and her escape plan would fail.

Robabeh turned back in bed, faced him and said: “The night is cool, give me your hand.”

She took Ahmad’s hand and placed it on the back of her neck, but his cold fingers began to tremble, like a snake reviving near warmth. At that moment his vision blurred, he was breathing fast, his temples were hot, and involuntarily he raised his right hand and clutched Robabeh’s neck tightly.

Robabeh said, “I’m scared, don’t look at me like that.”

She squinted her eyes and mumbled, “Oh… the eyes… you look like my father!”

The rest of her words were nipped in the bud because Ahmad’s hands grabbed two strands of Robabeh’s braided hair with a peculiar dexterity, wrapped them around her neck and squeezed hard. Robabeh cried out, but Ahmad grabbed her by the throat and slammed her head against the edge of the pond. Bloody foam came out of her mouth and she fell lifeless onto his lap. Then Ahmad stood up, walked a few steps with the help of his stick, then, as if all his strength had been used up, he slumped to the ground again.

In the morning, their bodies were found in the courtyard, next to the pond.


© Ali Salami 2022

About Sadeq Hedayat

Sadeq Hedayat was an Iranian author whose contributions to Persian fiction mark a clear departure from the traditional literary style. Hedayat is considered one of the most successful Iranian writers of the 20th century and was a pioneer of modernism, which continues to influence contemporary Persian literature to this day.

Hedayat was born into a prestigious family and received his early education in Tehran. He later studied dentistry and engineering in France and Belgium, where he came into contact with prominent European intellectuals. This contact prompted Hedayat to abandon his scientific ambitions in favor of a career in literature. Sadeq Hedayat is known for a large number of short stories that have been widely read by Iranian readers. Some of these stories are: Dash Akol, The Stray Dog (Sag-e Velgard), Three Drops of Blood (Se Qatr-e Khun), The Whirlpool (Gerdab), Seeking Redemption (Talab-e Amorzesh), The Doll Behind the Curtain (Arusak-e Posht-e Pardeh), The Claws (Changal).

All of his stories have been translated into English by the Iranian scholar Ali Salami.

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