Ali Salami

Manifestation (Tajalli) By Sadeq Hedayat

As dusk began to weave its shadowy carpet across the sky, Hasmik pulled the brim of her hat down to cover her eyebrows and pulled the collar of her cloak closer, as if to ward off the encroaching cold. With swift, deliberate steps, she made her way home, her mind so ensnared by confused thoughts that the world around her blurred into insignificance and even the biting whisper of the cold wind was no longer perceived.

Aside from the personal affection she harbored for Suren, it was the inexorable grip of duty and the weight of a promise made that tormented her the most. The disturbing news she had received from her husband about the invitation to his brother’s house on Tuesday night had thrown her carefully-laid plans out of kilter. Hasmik was forced to forgo the rendezvous she had promised Suren. The thought of misleading Suren was unbearable to her, but breaking her word was a far more serious sin — a flaw she had never allowed to compromise her integrity. She felt that not only would it be an unforgivable mistake not to show up at the agreed meeting place or to inform Suren in advance, but it would also leave a blemish on her character.

So from dawn to dusk Hasmik had been in a frenzy, searching for Suren with a desperation that bordered on frenzy. But her efforts were in vain, her messages hit walls at every turn, and the delicate situation she found herself in was not one she could trust to others, to a message or to a third party, not even to the friend who had introduced her to Suren. She wanted to arrange a seemingly chance meeting with Suren to apologize and explain her situation. But the usual meeting places, including the concert café where Suren spent his evenings, offered no solace tonight, as he was at his violin lesson with Vasilič, the café’s violinist.

Hasmik’s last resort was to seek out Suren near Vasilič’s boarding house and give him her message in order to absolve herself of her guilt and reaffirm her reliability to Suren. This unique acquaintance with Suren was a singular, extraordinary event in Hasmik’s otherwise monotonous life, a fleeting chance at something truly remarkable.

Hasmik recalled a visit to a fortune teller a few years ago who, at the suggestion of a friend, predicted the future from the swirls of coffee grounds. The fortune teller had predicted a romantic chapter in Hasmik’s life with a tall, strikingly handsome young man. At the time, Hasmik outwardly scoffed at the fortune teller’s words, but a part of her rejoiced inwardly. Perhaps it was this prophecy that finally encouraged her to declare her love for Suren, seeing this encounter as a twist of fate that she should embrace. Now she was determined not to let this opportunity pass her by, because her husband, with his bald head, protruding belly and coarse stubble that he shaved every other day, could never fulfill her desires. He strived doggedly for wealth and piled up colorful banknotes with fervor, but he never really understood Hasmik and her aspirations. To him, she was like a piece of furniture, a domestic asset that ensured him a stable, comfortable life — a precaution against loneliness in old age that secured his respectable standing in society. He only expected her to run the household efficiently, without worrying about her dreams or desires. Even if Hasmik came up with an excuse for minor offenses, she knew that she could not evade the invitation to her brother-in-law’s house without consequences. But she also could not bear the thought of disappointing Suren or losing him over such a small matter.

As Suren’s lesson drew to a close, Hasmik planned her next steps and realized that she had just enough time to go home, freshen up and wait for Suren near Vasilič’s house, very close to her own. The sudden honking of a car snapped her out of her thoughts and brought her back to reality. She made her way to the sidewalk, near a shabby pub that reeked of cabbage and a noisy crowd playing pool. Amidst the commotion, Hasmik’s attention was caught by the sight of Vasilič, Suren’s drunken violin teacher, coming out of the tavern. His disheveled appearance, pale face and slumped shoulders, violin case tucked under his arm, caught her eye. A glance at the clock showed her that it was twenty past six. She wondered why Vasilič had not come home yet, even though the lesson was already over. But then she realized that her concern was misplaced; the student must have become accustomed to his teacher’s habits.

Hasmik remembered another evening when she had seen Vasilič in a similar state as he left the tavern to approach a woman on the street. The woman with the heavily made-up face had brusquely rebuffed him and laughed scornfully at his advances. Vasilič had walked away in shame, passing Hasmik, who was only a few steps away. He gave her a guilty look, as if he had made a mistake, and quickened his pace into the darkness. Vasilič recognized Hasmik as a regular at the concert café, where she applauded enthusiastically at every performance, and he nodded in polite gratitude. Perhaps this familiarity was the reason for his embarrassment.

That evening Hasmik marveled at the paradox of the man who, while playing the violin in the café, played with the emotions of his listeners and drew them into enchanted realms with the mere glide of his bow across the strings. How could someone who could evoke such heavenly experiences be subject to the worldly needs of ordinary people? When Vasilič held his violin in his hand, he seemed almost like a god to Hasmik with his stern demeanor and haughty smile. Yet the incident of that night did not diminish Vasilič’s standing in their eyes, but revealed an insight into his misery and confusion, emphasizing that it was impossible for someone who had created worlds beyond the imagination of others to partake in the simple pleasures that were considered permissible for the common man. Instead, he seemed to seek a phantom pleasure in the remnants of the pleasures of others. That night instilled in Hasmik a complex sense of pity and admiration for this wayward soul — a man who, in the heat of playing csárdás, seemed to pour out all his sorrows and confusions in a plaintive cry from the strings of his violin, momentarily forgetting his own pain. But as soon as the violin case slammed shut, he became a mere mortal, plummeting from his demigod stature into a state of misery and incapacity, as if the violin had become an instrument of his unhappiness, carrying his burdens and emotions in its black case like a coffin into every pub and dive.

What did such a rootless wanderer care whether he came home early or late? What expectations could one have of a man who casually invited every woman he met? Hasmik watched Vasilič’s carefree steps from a distance, hoping to catch a glimpse of Suren near Vasilič’s boarding house and find a way to get a message to her. Vasilič turned a corner and disappeared into his house, leaving Hasmik disheartened by Suren’s absence. She suspected that Suren might be waiting inside for his teacher. The lighted window of Vasilič’s room suggested that someone was indeed there – probably Suren. Hasmik lingered, trying to peer through the window, but her efforts were in vain; she could hear nothing but the sound of the violin.

By the Same Author: Buried Alive

Resigning herself to the fact that Suren would probably show up soon to fulfill his obligation at the café, Hasmik decided it was best to go home, finish her preparations and come back. She hurried home, quickly got ready, slipped in her silk stockings, polished her nails, dabbed perfume on her neck and chest, powdered her face and reddened her lips. When she looked in the mirror, the scent of heliotrope perfume made her slightly dizzy. She fastened the collar of her coat, carefully put on her hat and, after one last scrutinizing look in the mirror, walked away with a satisfied smile. But as an afterthought, she returned briefly to instruct her maid to tell her husband, should he come, that she had visited an old school friend.

Only ten minutes until seven o’clock, and Hasmik emerged excitedly. As she approached Vasilič’s guesthouse, whose window was still lit up, the sound of a violin came to her. She walked hesitantly down the alley, the silhouette of each passerby making her heart race with the fear of a familiar encounter, forcing her to hide behind tree trunks or in the shadows of a nearby narrow, dimly lit alley. What was she to say when faced with an acquaintance at such a critical moment? The thought of the mischievous, gossiping women peering with prying eyes through door cracks and behind window panes to damage someone’s reputation, and of the countless malicious souls who delight in the misfortune of others, weighed heavily on her.

Hadn’t her neighbor Shushik maliciously noticed how she flirted with Vasilič every evening in the café? The potential scandal of being seen loitering outside Vasilič’s house could completely destroy her reputation. At this thought, Hasmik felt her heartbeat accelerate and fear coursed through her veins.

A figure emerged from the inn. Hasmik approached with bold steps, only to see a stranger before him. At that moment, her curiosity mingled with impatience, and she discovered a new feeling within herself. Despite her fear of passers-by and the agony of waiting and uncertainty, she felt a strange, genuine pleasure in the experience. Was this thrill related to her anticipation of Suren? She felt reminded of one of those gripping novels she had read, full of twists and turns and adventure. Now she felt as if she had become a character in one of those stories, experiencing the thrill of anticipation, fear and secret romance for the first time. She had never had the opportunity for such escapades in her youth; she had been engaged from an early age to her current husband, a man who knew little of the intricacies of love. At that moment, Hasmik felt like a young girl again, the protagonist of an enchanting and incredible story.

The violin melody occasionally faltered, then resumed and at times remained so persistently in a single refrain that it strained Hasmik’s nerves and made her restless. The absurdity of repeating a note a hundred times annoyed her. But the thought that it could be Suren playing calmed her restlessness. Could it be Suren who had his violin tucked under his chin and was guiding the bow over the strings with his long, nimble fingers? Were his eyes sparkling with intensity? How did he hold his violin? Did he lean forward or stand upright like a statue? Surely he should be playing soul-stirring, romantic melodies, not this incessant repetition. Could those same passionate fingers, she wondered, caress her skin tenderly? Could his lips touch hers with longing, and could his magnetic presence envelop her and whisper thousands of sweet nothings in her ear? Lost in thought, Hasmik bit her lip and shook her head in a mixture of impatience and longing.

“Why is the lesson not over at seventeen minutes past seven? Why does Vasilič not retire to his café, to the ebb and flow of his own life? Maybe he’s missing a timepiece, but that cannot be the case. But what difference does it make to this carefree man whether he goes to the café or not? Could it be that he had resigned himself to a fate beyond the mundane? He looked around and approached Vasilič’s window. He noticed a shadow in the room, but it was so faint! He listened intently – silence. No murmuring could be heard, perhaps he wanted to venture out, so he stepped aside. His caution was unwarranted, because the melody of the violin soon filled the air again. The notes, scattered and messy, played a familiar tune. Was it Suren at the bow, or his master? Had he not come? And why not? Perhaps illness or an unforeseen event?

If only someone could be found to peek in under some pretext and bring news! Why could he not take this task into his own hands? Was it not better to stay in the alley?

Hasmik approached the door of the inn with caution. A glance showed her a long, dark corridor and a small glimmer of light in the poorly fitted door of Vasilič’s room. If only she could take a peek inside, just to be sure! Footsteps echoed in the courtyard and she drew back once more. No one was in sight. She looked at her watch – what did that mean? Seventeen minutes past seven. Such long minutes! She had not realized how slowly time could pass. Could she stand this tension for another ten minutes, another half an hour? What if Suren and his master showed up together? What if they left together? How could she approach them, get her message across? In that case, all her efforts would have been in vain.

A force stronger than willpower, the preservation of dignity and all the social constructs that had ensnared him, propelled Hasmik through the corridor of the boarding house. She entered with measured steps and an unexpected composure. She wanted to peek through the keyhole, but found the key inserted from the outside. As she listened at the door, the proximity of the violin left no doubt that Suren was the player, repeating a passage to hone his technique – an exercise that Vasilič would hardly need with his mastery.

Assuming she opened the door and found Vasilič, her goal would still be achieved. She could apologize for her intrusion, claim it was a mistake, and leave with Suren. After all, in his inebriated state, Vasilič would hardly notice his sluggish, involuntary movements amidst the sound of music.

Driven by the fervor of her determination, Hasmik pushed lightly against the door. It seemed to turn on its hinges for a moment and opened halfway. There stood Vasilič, his gaunt face looking her in the eye, a gaze so intense that Hasmik momentarily forgot her intention. She stood rooted to the spot, her knees trembling with fear as she could see no way forward or back.

Vasilič stopped playing and her eyes remained fixed for a few seconds. It was a special kind of look, reminiscent of the furtive glances Vasilič had given her in the café, which Hasmik had always thought were accidental. At that moment, however, these glances took on a new, deeper meaning.

Vasilič carefully placed the violin on the bed and gave Hasmik a bow – a hurried, unpracticed gesture. Then he said, “Please… come in,” as if he lacked words of greater hospitality. With a gesture and a bow, he concluded his invitation. Without questioning her own motives, Hasmik entered the room with cautious steps, almost involuntarily, and sat down on an armchair near the door. She scrutinized the room; Suren was nowhere to be seen. Vasilič closed the door behind her.

The room, a barren and cold space, was furnished with a rumpled bed whose patterned sheets had not been changed for ages, two rickety chairs and an old table cluttered with papers, scores, apple peels, cellophane, pipe ash and a photograph of a disheveled man who appeared to be a composer. A soot-covered alcohol lamp and two bottles stood on the shelf. A faded photograph of a woman adorned the wall of the room. The floor was covered with a dusty carpet, and from the whole room and its owner, who wore a worn, black robe shining with excessive wear, emanated the deadly odor of poverty and misfortune, a mixture of burnt alcohol, tobacco smoke and the pungent smell of sweat.

Hasmik’s gaze suddenly fell on the bed, where she noticed Suren’s name tag, which read: “Dear Master! I came on time, but you were not there, I will come back next time.”

A few agonizing minutes of silence passed. As if seized by a sudden thought, Vasilič took a small glass from the door and placed it in a saucer on the armrest of Hasmik’s chair. He poured vodka from a bottle into it, then filled his own glass with vodka and said, “Please, have a drink. Is it cold?” He clinked his glass with Hasmik’s and drank it down in one gulp. Hasmik brought the glass to her lips and the scent of the spirit hit her nose. She sipped lightly and wiped her mouth with a handkerchief. The warm, burning vodka slid down her throat.

Vasilič approached, his hand trembling as he tried to refill Hasmik’s glass. When he realized she hadn’t finished her drink, he poured the rest of the vodka back into his own glass. He leaned against the table and his eyes sparkled as he spoke in fragmented sentences, as if to an imaginary being, “Forgive me, madam… I had nothing to offer you… I didn’t know if it was possible for someone to think of me? Forgive me, madam!” He ran his hand over his forehead. “How can that be? Everything is visible in a dream. Everything is possible in a dream… Years ago, when I was in Sofia, this girl” he pointed to the photo on the wall, “No… I don’t want to remember… Her profile resembles hers… I always look at your profile in the cafe… How strange! I remember seeing this girl in a dream… I was playing the violin and she came into my room… She came very close, I took her hands, she sat down, and we spoke words that can only be spoken in a dream… Just a minute, it was just a minute.” Hasmik moved uneasily. Vasilič said hurriedly, “Perhaps you passed by and heard the sound of my violin… just now… Allow me to play the violin… To your health, madam.”

Vasilič raised his glass and took a sip. Hasmik, who felt compelled to do so, brought her glass to her lips. Vasilič assumed a dignified posture, carefully lifted the violin, placed it under his chin and began to play. It was Schubert’s Serenade – the trembling of the violin strings sent a shiver down Hasmik’s spine, as if it were reviving her numbed senses. Vasilič’s bow danced on the strings, bending, lifting, as if he was putting his whole being into the instrument and trying to convey to Hasmik through the music what he could not convey to her with words. His wheat-gold hair, tousled and wet with sweat, framed his face; his profile with the prominent, ashen and gaunt nose, emphasized by dark circles under his eyes, his intense gaze and the slackness of his lips, which tried in vain to meet, offered a haunting image. But suddenly his expression changed, as if he were wandering in a magical, unknown realm, escaping the misery of his life. Perhaps he was really living at that moment, playing for an old love or for someone who understood and appreciated his art, perhaps he was reliving the dream he had once had while awake.

He was playing with all his might, perhaps the best play of his life. But when he turned around to gage the effect of his music and his feelings on Hasmik, he found that she was gone. The door was ajar; Hasmik had left. Vasilič lifted the violin from under his chin, stepped forward and saw the slightly less full vodka glass, Hasmik’s lipstick marking the cigarette butt in the ashtray, and the bluish smoke still wafting through the air!

Vasilič threw the violin on the table, covered his face with his hands and collapsed on the bed with a fit of coughing.

 

© Ali Salami 2020

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), 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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