Ali Salami

The Vortex (Gerdab) By Sadeq Hedayat

Homayoun muttered to himself, his voice barely a whisper, “Can it really be? Is it conceivable? So young, she lies there in Shah Abdol Azim among thousands of other departed souls, nestled in the damp, cold earth… The shroud that envelops her. Never again will she experience the beginning of spring or the end of fall, never again days like today when she suffocates with grief… Has the light in her eyes and the melody in her voice gone out forever? She who was always so full of laughter and witty banter.”

The sky was overcast, a faint mist clung to the window panes through which the snow-covered roof of the neighboring house could be seen. Snowflakes swirled gently and methodically through the air, settling on the edge of the roof. Wisps of black smoke rose from the chimney, snaking through the gray sky and slowly dissipating into nothingness.

Homayoun, his young wife and their little daughter Homa sat in their modest living room near the heater. But unlike the usual cheerfulness and laughter that dominated their Friday gatherings, today they were shrouded in a somber silence. Even the young daughter, who was usually the center of the party, sat outside the door with her broken porcelain doll, staring blankly in front of her, as if she too sensed an emptiness, a missing piece – Uncle Bahram, who hadn’t shown up, as was his custom. She also seemed to understand that her parents’ gloom was due to him: the black clothes, the red, sleepy eyes and the cigarette smoke swirling in the air seemed to confirm her suspicions.

Homayoun stared into the flames of the stove, his gaze fixed and yet distant, his thoughts floating in another time. Involuntarily, his thoughts wandered back to the winter days of the school, when the ground was covered with a thin layer of snow, just like today. He and Bahram didn’t give the others a chance as soon as the break bell rang. Their game was always the same during this time: they rolled a snowball across the ground until it grew into a large mound and then split into teams to use it as a fortress for a snowball fight. With red, burning hands, numb from the cold, they hurled snowballs at each other.

One day, in the middle of one such game, he grabbed a wet snowball and threw it at Bahram, hitting him on the forehead and injuring him. The schoolmaster came and reprimanded him with a few sharp blows on Homayoun’s palm, and perhaps their friendship began at that moment. Every time he saw the scar on Bahram’s forehead, he was reminded of those days. Over the course of eighteen years, their minds and souls had become so close that they not only shared their most private thoughts and feelings, but often understood each other’s unspoken ones as well.

They shared the same thoughts, tastes and morals. There had never been a disagreement or the slightest resentment between them until the morning before yesterday, when Homayoun received a call at the office: Bahram Mirza had taken his own life. Homayoun immediately grabbed a car and rushed to his side. As he carefully pulled back the white sheet covering his face to reveal the blood that had seeped through, the sight of his blood-smeared eyelashes, his brains spilled on the pillow, the bloodstains on the carpet and the wailing and despair of his relatives hit him like a bolt of lightning. He followed the coffin to the funeral as the sun approached its setting, laid a bouquet of flowers on his grave and returned home with a heavy heart after a final farewell. But he hadn’t had a moment’s rest since that day, sleep had eluded him and white hairs had formed on his temples. In front of him lay a pack of cigarettes, which he smoked one after the other, incessantly.

For the first time, Homayoun thought hard about death, but his thoughts led him nowhere. No belief or theory could satisfy him. He was completely confused, unsure of what to do, and was almost driven mad at times. Despite his best efforts, he could not forget. Their friendship had blossomed at school and their lives had become intertwined. They shared joys and sorrows and every time Homayoun looked at a photo of Bahram, the memories came flooding back and brought him to life: his blond mustache, the big, raven-black eyes, the small mouth, the narrow chin, his hearty laugh and the way he puffed out his chest – all of it was alive before Homayoun’s eyes. He couldn’t accept that Bahram was gone so suddenly… Bahram had made countless sacrifices for him, especially in the three years that Homayoun was on the job and Bahram took care of his household and made sure that, as Badri, his wife, used to say, “not even a drop of water was spilled in the household.”

Now Homayoun felt the weight of life and mourned the days gone by when they would gather in this room, play backgammon and the hours would pass unnoticed. But what tormented him most was the thought: “How could Bahram make such a decision without asking me, despite our closeness and openness? What was driving him? Was he crazy, or was there a family secret?” He questioned himself again and again until an idea came to him. He turned to his wife Badri and asked, “What do you think? Do you know why Bahram did it?”

Badri, who appeared to be busy with her embroidery, looked up, seemingly unprepared for the question, and replied indifferently, “How should I know? Didn’t he tell you?”

“No… I was just wondering… I was puzzled by that too… I’ve sensed a change in him since I got back from my trip, but he never talked about it. I thought his depression was due to work… He often said that his work was draining his spirit… but he never hid anything from me.”

“God have mercy on his soul! He was so lively and cheerful, it wasn’t like him at all.”

“No, on the surface it seemed that way: sometimes he changed drastically. Especially when he was alone… One day I came into his room and hardly recognized him, lost in thought, his head in his hands. When he saw my shock, he laughed it off with a joke to distract me. He was a great actor!”

“Maybe he had something on his mind that he was afraid would make you sad if he shared it with you. After all, you have a family to think about, a life to lead. But he…”

He shook his head meaningfully as if to indicate that Bahram’s suicide was of no great significance. Their silence again gave way to deep thought. But Homayoun sensed that his wife’s words were artificial, a mere concession to time. This woman, of all people, who had idolized him eight years ago, who once had such tender notions of love, now seemed to trivialize Bahram’s memory and arouse his contempt. He felt repulsed by her now that she was materialistic, pragmatic and sedentary, caring only for worldly possessions and comforts and unwilling to feel grief. Her justification? Bahram had neither a wife nor children! Such a base thought, as if his renunciation of this shared joy made his death unworthy of mourning. Could the value of his own child in this world outweigh that of his friend? Never! Was Bahram not to be mourned? Would he ever find someone like him again?

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Bahram had to die while ninety-year-old Mrs. Heffalump, trudging with her cane through the snow and cold of Pachenar, visited Bahram’s house to partake of the mourners’ sweets. This was God’s will, in the eyes of his wife, of course, and she, Badri, would one day become just like that old woman. Even now, without her make-up, she had clearly changed, her eyes and voice were different. When he went to the office early in the morning, she was still asleep and wrinkles were forming around her eyes, she was losing her freshness. Maybe she felt the same way about him, who knows? Had not he changed too? Was he still the same kind-hearted, obedient and handsome Homayoun from before? Had he cheated on his wife? But why were these thoughts popping up now? Was it the insomnia or the painful memory of his friend?

At that moment, the door opened and a servant, holding the corner of her veil between her teeth, brought in a large, sealed envelope, handed it to Homayoun and left. He recognized Bahram’s short, disjointed handwriting on the package, opened it hastily and pulled out a letter to read it: “Now, one and a half hours after midnight, on the fifth of October, I, Bahram Mirza of Arjenpour, of my own free will and desire, bequeath my entire estate to Miss Homa, daughter of Mah Afarid.”

Homayoun read the note again, and his astonishment left him speechless as the paper slipped from his hand.

Badri, who had been watching him discreetly, inquired, “Whose letter was it?”

“From Bahram.”

“What did he write?”

“He left his entire estate to Homa…”

“What a noble man!”

This exclamation, which was underlaid with feigned surprise and affection, increased Homayoun’s contempt for his wife. But his gaze involuntarily lingered on Bahram’s photo, then wandered to Homa. Suddenly he shuddered with a frightening realization. As if a veil had been lifted from his eyes, he saw that his daughter Homa bore an uncanny resemblance to Bahram, without the features of her parents. Her eyes were nothing like either of them, her small mouth, her narrow chin, every aspect of her face mirrored Bahram’s. Homayoun now understood why Bahram had adored Homa so much and why he had bequeathed his fortune to her after his death! Could this child, whom he loved so much, be the result of a secret affair between Bahram and his wife? His friend, with whom he had shared a soul, whom he trusted unconditionally? His wife had been with him for years without his knowledge, had cheated on him, mocked him and now sent him this will as a posthumous insult. No, he could not come to terms with all of this. These thoughts shot through his head like a bolt of lightning, his head hurt, his cheeks flushed with anger, he stared at Badri and asked, “What are you saying? Why did Bahram do this? Didn’t he have any siblings?”

“He loved the child too much. When you were in Bandar Gaz and Homa got the measles, he looked after her day and night for ten days. God rest his soul!”

Homayoun replied angrily, “It’s not that simple…”

“How can it not be that simple? Not everyone is as detached as you, who leaves his wife and child for three years. When you returned, you came back empty-handed, not even a pair of socks for me. Love demands that you give, wanting your child means wanting you. He wasn’t in love with Homa. Couldn’t you see that he loved this child more than anything else?

“No, you’re not telling me the truth.”

“What do you want to hear from me? I don’t understand…”

“You’re pretending you don’t understand.”

“What do you mean? Someone else has taken their own life, someone else has given away their possessions, am I supposed to be responsible for that?”

“All I know is that you should know!”

“What you know, I can’t understand. Get treatment, you can’t think straight. What do you want from me?”

“You think I don’t know?”

“Then why are you asking me?”

Impatiently, Homayoun exclaimed, “Enough! You’ve fooled me long enough!”

In a fit of disbelief, Homayoun crumpled up Bahram’s will and threw it into the furnace, where it caught fire and turned to ashes.

Badri got rid of the purple cloth she had been holding, stood up and said, “Are you trying to annoy me? Can’t you even spare your own child?”

Homayoun also stood up, leaned against the table and said mockingly, “My child… my child. Then why does she look like Bahram?”

He bumped the inlaid frame with Bahram’s picture with his elbow and threw it to the floor.

Homa, who had previously suppressed her tears in silence, now wept openly. Badri, pale and with a threatening tone, asked, “What are you implying? What are you trying to say?”

“I’m saying that you’ve been making a fool of me for eight years. Mocking me. For eight years you’ve been nothing but a sham…. not a wife…”

“For me…? For my daughter?”

With a bitter laugh, Homayoun pointed at the broken frame and gasped, “Yes! Your daughter…. Your daughter… Look at that. I mean to say that my eyes have finally opened. I understand why he left everything to her; he was a loving father. But you say that for eight years…”

“In your house. I endured every humiliation, resigned myself to your misery, kept your house for the three years you were away. Then I heard that you fell in love with a slutty Russian girl in Bandar Gaz. And that’s my reward now. You can’t find any other excuse, so you say my child looks like Bahram. But I refuse to stay….

“Not another minute in this house. Come, my dear… let’s go.”

Frightened and pale, Homa trembled as she witnessed this unprecedented and bizarre conflict between her parents. Sobbing, she clung to her mother’s skirt and they both walked to the door. At the door, Badri pulled a bunch of keys out of her pocket and threw them with full force at Homayoun’s feet.

Homa’s screams and their footsteps faded in the hallway. Ten minutes later, they were carried away through the snow by the crunching of the wheels of a carriage. Homayoun stood there dazed, afraid to lift his head and unwilling to accept the reality of these events. He wondered whether he was insane or trapped in a nightmare, but one thing was clear: from now on, this house and this life would be unbearable, and he could no longer bear to see his daughter Homa, whom he loved so much. He couldn’t kiss her, couldn’t caress her. The memory of his friend had been sullied. Worse still, his wife had cheated on him for eight years with his best friend and sullied the sanctity of their home, all behind his back and without his knowledge. Everyone had played their part well and only fooled him. He loathed his whole life and was disillusioned with everything and everyone. He felt deeply alone and alienated. He had no choice but to take up a distant post in a faraway city or southern port and spend the rest of his life there, or end it all. To go somewhere where he would see no one, hear no one, lie in a pit and never wake up again. For the first time, he felt a terrifying gulf between himself and all those around him, a gulf he had never noticed before.

Homayoun lit a cigarette and paced the room before leaning back against the table. The snowflakes fell evenly and indifferently through the window, as if dancing to a mysterious melody in the air, and settled on the edge of the roof. His thoughts involuntarily wandered to the happy days he had spent with his parents in their village in Iraq. He lay in the grass under the shade of a tree, where Shir Ali lit his water pipe, and sat on the threshing floor while his daughter waited for him for hours in her red scarf. The plaintive creaking of the wheel crushed the golden wheat husks. The oxen, their backs wounded from driving, circled with their broad foreheads and high horns until dusk. His current plight mirrored these oxen.

Now he understood what these animals must have been feeling. His whole life had been a blind, circling toil, much like a draft animal tied to a mill: just like those oxen threshing grain, he remembered the monotonous hours he spent in the small customs office endlessly blacking out papers while his colleague occasionally glanced at his watch and yawned before continuing his laborious scribbling, checking figures, adding up totals and leafing through ledgers. Yet for once there was comfort in this routine, for he knew that despite the gradual fading of his sight, his thoughts, his youth and his strength, the evening would bring Bahram’s smile, his daughter and his wife, and banish his weariness. But now he despised all three of them. They were the ones who had brought him to this dire situation.

Seemingly on impulse, he went to his desk and sat down. He pulled open a drawer and took out the small revolver he always carried with him when traveling. He checked it; the bullets were in place. He looked down the cold, dark barrel and slowly pressed it to his temple, but Bahram’s bloodied face haunted him. Finally, he stowed the gun in his trouser pocket.

Homayoun got up again, put on his coat and galoshes in the hallway, grabbed his umbrella and stepped out of the house. The street was deserted and the snowflakes swirled gently through the air. He walked aimlessly, not knowing where he was going. He just wanted to escape the confines of his house and the agonizing events. He came to a cold, white and melancholy street, its surface marked by the uneven tracks of the carriage wheels. His steps were slow and deliberate. A passing car splashed mud and sludge on him. He stopped to examine his clothes, which were now soaked in mud, as if the world wanted to comfort him.

On the way, he came across a boy selling matches. Homayoun called out to him and bought a match, but when he saw the boy’s blond hair, thin lips and crow’s feet in his eyes, he was reminded of Bahram, shuddered and continued on his way. Suddenly he stopped in front of a shop window. He leaned in, pressed his forehead against the cold glass and almost lost his hat. There were toys on display behind the glass. He tried to wipe away the condensation with his sleeve to get a better view, but it was in vain. A large doll with rosy cheeks and blue eyes smiled at him. The thought of how happy she would have made Homa did not leave him. The shopkeeper opened the door and asked Homayoun to move on. He wandered past two more alleyways.

He passed a poulterer sitting next to his basket with three chickens and a rooster, their legs tied together and shivering from the cold. Nearby, on the snow, there were bright red splashes of blood. A little further on, in front of the porch of a house, sat a bald boy with his arms sticking out of a torn shirt.

He noticed all this without recognizing the area or the direction he was going, indifferent to the falling snow and the unopened umbrella in his hand. Entering another deserted alley, he sat down on the steps of a house as the snowfall intensified and finally opened his umbrella. Overwhelmed by fatigue, his head became heavy and he slowly closed his eyes.

The voice of a passer-by woke him up; he got up and realized that it was already dark. The events of the day ran through his mind again, as did the bald boy in the vestibule with his arm sticking out of his torn shirt, the wet, red legs of the chickens shivering with cold on the basket, and the blood spilled on the snow. Feeling slightly hungry, he bought some sweet bread from a bakery and ate it as he wandered the streets like a shadow, drifting aimlessly through the alleys.

When Homayoun entered his house, it was well past midnight. He dropped into an armchair, only to wake up an hour later from the biting cold. He lay down in bed fully dressed and pulled the comforter over his head. He dreamt that he was in a room where the match seller was dressed in black and sitting behind a desk on which stood a large doll with smiling blue eyes. Three figures stood in front of him with folded hands. His daughter Homa came in with a candle in her hand, followed by a man in a bloodstained white mask. The man took the boy and Homa by the hand, and just as they were about to leave, two hands with a revolver appeared from behind a curtain. Homayoun woke up in a panic, his head throbbing with pain.

This was his life for two weeks. He went to the office during the day and returned home late at night to sleep. Sometimes in the evening he would find himself near the girls’ school Homa attended, hiding behind the wall on the corner for fear of being seen by Mashdi Ali, the family servant. He watched the children leave the school, but he never saw Homa among them. Eventually his transfer request was approved and he was offered a job at the customs office in Kermanshah.

The day before his departure, Homayoun took care of all his affairs, even visited the garage to check and disconnect his car and bought his ticket. Despite the garage owner’s insistence, he decided to leave for Kermanshah the next morning instead of the evening, as he had not yet packed his bags.

When he entered his house, he went straight to his study. The room was messy, cold ashes were scattered next to the radiator. The purple embroidery fabric and Bahram’s envelope with the will lay on the desk. He picked up the envelope, tore it open and noticed a piece of paper he hadn’t seen in his haste that day. After arranging the pieces on the desk, he read:

“You must receive this after my death. I know my sudden decision will surprise you, for I have never done anything without asking you. But to leave no secrets between us, I confess that I loved your wife Badri. For four years I wrestled with myself, but finally I overcame the demon that had awakened in me and killed it so as not to betray you. I leave a modest gift for Miss Homa and hope that it will be accepted. – Yours sincerely, Bahram”

Homayoun stared blankly around the room for a while, for he was now certain that Homa was indeed his child. Could he really leave without seeing her? He read the letter over and over again, then put it in his pocket and left the house. On the way, he entered the toy store and impulsively bought the big doll with the rosy cheeks and blue eyes, then made his way to his father-in-law’s house. When he got there, he knocked on the door. Mashdi Ali, her servant, greeted him with tear-filled eyes and called out, “O Lord, what misfortune has befallen us? Miss. Homa!”

“What has happened?”

“Sir, you can’t know, Miss Homa has been so restless without you. I took her to school every day. It was Sunday, and now it’s been five days since she ran away from school in the evening. She said she wanted to visit her dear father. We were all so desperate. Didn’t Mohammad tell you? We called the police twice; I came to your house.”

“What are you saying? What happened?”

“Nothing, sir, it was late at night when they brought her back to our house. She had lost her way. She got sick from the cold. Until the moment she died, she kept calling for you. Yesterday we buried her in Shah Abdol Azim, right next to Bahram Mirza’s grave.”

Homayoun stared at Mashdi Ali, stunned. The doll’s box slipped from under his arm. Then, like a madman, he pulled up the collar of his coat and headed for the garage, having given up the idea of packing his bags. He decided to leave by car that very afternoon, hoping to get away as quickly as possible.


© 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), 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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