Ali Salami

Three Drops of Blood [Se Qatreh Khun] By Sadeq Hedayat

Only yesterday they granted me solitude in my chamber. Could it be that, as the warden promised, I am now completely cured and will be released to freedom next week?

Did I feel unwell? A year has passed, and during that time my pleas for pen and paper have gone unanswered, no matter how much I begged for them.

I have often thought about the flood of words I would unleash if the day came when I had pen and paper at my disposal…

But yesterday, unsolicited, they gave me that very pen and paper. The objects of my long-cherished wishes, the focus of my patient expectation! But to what end? Since yesterday, my mind has been a barren field where not a single thought can be sown. It feels as if an invisible hand is gripping my hand, or as if my arm has gone numb. On closer inspection of the chaotic scribbles defacing the paper, the only legible sentence that stands out from the tangle is “Three drops of blood”, “Three drops of blood”

**

The azure sky, the green garden and the flowers unfolding on the hills, a gentle breeze carries their fragrance into my neighborhood. But what use is that to me? I can no longer enjoy anything; such beauty is reserved for poets, children and those who have remained childlike at heart. I’ve been cooped up here for a year now, and the nights are haunted by the disturbing cries of the cats, who drive me to the brink of madness with their agonizing whining and throat-clearing. Before dawn, we’re awakened not by the light but by the sting of an indifferent syringe. I’ve endured endless days and terrible hours here, huddled in yellow clothes in the summer heat in the cellar or basking in the winter sun at the edge of the garden, living among these strange creatures for a year. There is nothing in common between us; I’m worlds apart from them, but the moans, silences, curses, cries and laughter of these people will forever populate my nightmares with ghosts.

An hour remains until our meager dinner, which is always the same monotonous fare: yogurt soup, rice pudding, plain rice, bread and just enough cheese to stave off death. Hassan only dreams of devouring a pot of eshkeneh[1] with a few loaves of sangak bread. When he’s released, his wish isn’t for a pen and paper, but for a pot of eshkeneh. He’s one of the lucky souls here, with his small stature, his stupid grin, his thick neck, his bald head and his constantly clenched fists, which are made for the sole purpose of carrying the nava[2]. Every fiber of his being testifies, and his vacant stare proclaims, that he was born for this work. Had it not been for Mohammad Ali standing guard at lunch and dinner, Hassan might have driven us all to divine judgment. But even Mohammad Ali belongs to a world beyond that of ordinary mortals, for this place, call it what you’ll, exists in a different world from the one inhabited by ordinary people.

We have a doctor here, a true demigod, impervious to the ailments that afflict the rest of us. If I were in his place, I’d season the evening meal with poison and watch the dead being carried off at dawn with my hands on my hips. When I arrived, I was plagued by the same paranoia and feared that every meal could be my last. I didn’t touch any food until Mohammad Ali had tasted it. Every night I woke up in a panic, convinced that they were coming to end my life. How distant and faded those fears seem now… The same faces, the same meals, the same blue room with its waist-high paneling, forever the same.

Two months ago, they threw a madman into the dungeon below the courtyard. He tore open his stomach with a shard of brick and played with his intestines, they say he was a butcher by trade, used to gutting. Another gouged out his eye with a fingernail, his hands tied behind his back, and screamed as the blood dried over his wound. I know that all this madness is the work of the warden. “Not everyone here is like that. Many, if cured and released, would only end up in even greater misery. Take Saghar-Sultan in the women’s ward, for example, who has tried to escape several times. She’s an old woman, but she plasters her face with wall putty and dabs on geranium leaves as rouge and thinks she’s a fourteen-year-old girl. Should she be cured and see her reflection, the shock could kill her. Worst of all is our Taqi, who imagined he could overthrow the world because he was convinced that women are the root of all misfortune and must be eradicated in order to reform society, but he fell in love with Saghar Sultan.”

All this is the work of our own overseer. With his large nose and small, lantern-like eyes, he meanders under the pine tree at the end of the garden. Sometimes he stoops to inspect the ground beneath the tree, and any observer might pity him and think him a harmless soul ensnared by a horde of madmen. But I know him well. I know that under this tree three drops of blood have stained the earth. Outside his window hangs a cage, now empty because a cat has taken his canary. Nevertheless, he leaves the cage hanging as bait for other cats he wants to kill.

Just yesterday, he had his sights set on a tortoiseshell cat: As soon as the animal climbed the pine tree outside his window, he ordered the guard to shoot it. The three drops of blood belong to the cat, but if you asked him, he’d claim that they came from a legitimate kill.

Even stranger is my companion and neighbor Abbas, who arrived here only two weeks ago. He has taken a liking to me and considers himself a prophet and poet. He believes that all endeavors, including prophecy, depend on fate. He claims that anyone with a high forehead will succeed regardless of his merits, while even the wisest man will fail if he doesn’t possess this physical quality. Abbas also fancies himself a skillful musician who has strung a wire across a board to create his own version of a tar, and he recites a poem or song he has composed that he believes is the reason for his imprisonment here. He recites it to me eight times a day, a strange verse:

“Alas, for night has fallen once more, casting the world in great shadows. All find peace in this hour, except me, whose sorrow increases.

The world finds no joy in its core, only death can refresh my spirit. But in that corner, by the pine tree on the floor, three drops of blood lie on the ground.

Yesterday we walked through the garden. Abbas was reciting his poem when a woman, a man and a young girl came up to him. It was their fifth visit. I had seen them before and recognized them; the young girl had brought a bouquet of flowers. She smiled at me, her affection was obvious, she seemed to be there just for me, despite Abbas’ pockmarked face, which is anything but beautiful. But as the woman spoke to the doctor, I saw Abbas pull the young girl aside and kiss her.

No one has visited me or brought me flowers for a year. The last one was Siavash, my dearest friend. We were neighbors, accompanied each other to Darolfonoon every day, discussed our lessons together, and in our free time I taught Siavash how to play tare. Rokhsareh, Siavash’s cousin and my fiancée, often came to visit us. Siavash wanted to marry Rokhsareh’s sister, but fell ill a month before the wedding. I visited him a few times to inquire about his health, but I was told that the doctor had forbidden a conversation with him. Despite my persistence, I was turned away.

I remember it vividly; it was just before my exams. One evening when I got home, I put my books and notes on the table. Just as I was about to change my clothes, I heard a gunshot at close range that sent a shiver down my spine. Our house was near a ditch and there were rumors of thieves nearby. I grabbed the gun from the drawer, went into the yard and listened carefully. When I climbed the stairs to the roof, there was nothing unusual to hear. But when I returned and looked into Siavash’s house from above, I saw him standing in the courtyard in his undershirt and underpants. Surprised, I called out to him, “Siavash, is that you?” He recognized me and waved to me, “Come in. There’s no one at home. Did you hear the shots?” With a finger to his lips and a nod of his head, he signaled calm and urgency. I hurried downstairs and knocked on his door, which he opened himself. He looked down, avoided eye contact and asked, “Why haven’t you come to see me?”

“I visited you a few times to inquire about your health, but they said the doctor wouldn’t allow it. They think I’m not well, but they’re wrong.” I asked again, “Did you hear the gunshot?” Without answering, he took my hand, led me to the jaw and pointed to something on the floor. When I took a closer look, I discovered three fresh drops of blood.

Also by Sadeq Hedayat: The Claws

Then he led me into his room, locked all the doors and I took a seat. He lit the lamp and sat down opposite me. The room was simply furnished, painted blue with paneling in a darker shade. There was a tar in one corner and several books and exercise books scattered on the table. Then Siavash pulled an old-fashioned revolver with a mother-of-pearl grip out of the desk drawer, showed it to me and put it in his pants pocket. “I had a cat called Nazi,” he began. “You may have seen it, a common tortoiseshell cat with large eyes rimmed with kohl. There were symmetrical patterns on her back, as if ink had been spilled on blotting paper and then folded in half. When I came home from school, Nazi would dart towards me, purring and rubbing against me. She’d climb over my shoulders, nuzzle her face against mine, lick my forehead with her rough tongue and demand kisses in return. They say that female cats are smarter, more affectionate and more sensitive than male cats. Nazi was particularly fond of our cook, from whom she expected her meals, but she stayed away from the white-haired housekeeper, who was pious and shunned cat hair, perhaps believing that humans, who were smarter than cats, hoarded all the treats and cozy places for themselves and that cats had to cajole and fawn to partake of these comforts.”

Nazi’s primal instincts were first awakened when the bloody head of a rooster fell into her claws and turned her into a wild beast. Her eyes widened, her claws extended and she threatened anyone who dared to approach her with her menacing growl. Then, as if to deceive herself, she performed a macabre game and treated the rooster’s head as if it were still alive. She pawed at it, feigned surprise, hid, lay in wait and then pounced on it again, demonstrating all the agility and cunning of her breed with a series of leaps and strategic retreats. When the performance wears her down, she gobbles up the blood-soaked head with relish and searches for the rest for a while afterwards, momentarily forgetting her cultivated politeness; she keeps her distance from everyone and allows neither affection nor flattery to escape her.

Even when Nazi showed affection, she maintained a fierce, reserved nature and never revealed the secrets of her life. She regarded our home as her territory and the arrival of a strange cat, especially a female, resulted in prolonged hissing, growling and whining. The sound Nazi made to announce mealtime was different from her purring; her hunger-driven howls were different from the screams of arguments, and the drunken meanderings of her frenzy all had their own sound. Each had its own melody: the first a heart-rending scream, the second a cry borne of frustration and malice, and the third a pitiful moan driven by the call of nature in search of her mate. But Nazi’s gaze was the most telling of all. It reflected human emotions so clearly at times that one had to wonder what thoughts and feelings lay behind the furry brow and mysterious green eyes.

The shocking incident took place in the spring of last year. You know, at this time of year all living things seem to go into a frenzy, as if the spring breeze instills a wild passion in every living thing. Nazi also felt the stirrings of love for the first time and trembled all over with a deep, mournful moan that attracted the attention of the surrounding tomcats. After fierce fights and arguments, she chose the strongest and most melodious of them all as her mate. Scent plays a decisive role in the animals’ mating rituals. This is why the well-groomed, clean domestic cats aren’t attracted to their female counterparts.

In contrast, the lean, scrappy and hungry street cats with their authentic breed scent are much more attractive to the females. Nazi and her chosen mate spent days and especially nights loudly proclaiming their love, their bodies intertwined in a courtship dance, arching and bending like arches in joyful cries until dawn. Then Nazi returned, disheveled, exhausted, but satisfied.

The nocturnal escapades of Nazi and her lover robbed me of sleep. Finally, when I could bear it no longer, I stood at this window and worked. I saw the lovers strolling in the garden. In three steps I was within firing range and emptied the revolver, as you saw. The bullet hit Nazi’s buddy and probably broke his back. He fled the scene with a high jump, without a sound or a whimper, collapsed and died on the garden wall.

The entire path he traveled was littered with drops of blood. Nazi searched for a while until she found his trail, sniffed the blood and went straight to the place where her companion lay dead. She kept watch at his side for two nights and two days. Occasionally she touched him with her paw, as if to say, “Wake up, it’s early spring. Why are you sleeping during our lovemaking? Why aren’t you moving? Get up, get up!” Nazi didn’t understand death and couldn’t comprehend that her lover was gone.

The next day, Nazi and her boyfriend’s body had disappeared. I searched everywhere, asked everyone, but it was all in vain. Did Nazi have a grudge against me? Had she died or had she gone in search of another love? And what happened to the body of the other one?

One night I heard the unmistakable howling of the cat again, which continued until dawn, and again the following night, but his cries died away in the morning. On the third night, I picked up the revolver again and shot aimlessly at the pine tree next to my window, guided by the glow of his eyes in the darkness. He let out a long groan, and then his voice was silent. In the morning there were three drops of blood under the tree. Since that night, he has come every night and cried in the same voice.

The others are fast asleep and don’t hear it. They laugh when I tell them, but I know for sure that it’s the voice of the cat I killed. I haven’t slept since that night; wherever I go, in whatever room I try to rest, that merciless cat howls all night with its terrible voice and calls for its companion. Today, when the house was empty, I went to the place where the cat howls every night and shot it, recognizing its location by the glow of its eyes in the darkness. As I emptied the revolver, I heard the cat howl and saw three drops of blood fall from above. You saw it with your own eyes, you’re my witness, aren’t you?

When the door to the room opened, Rokhsareh and her mother entered. Rokhsareh was holding a bouquet of flowers. I stood up to greet them, but Siavash said with a smile, “Of course you know Mr. Mirza Ahmad Khan better than I do, no introduction is necessary. He can testify that he saw three drops of blood at the foot of the pine tree with his own eyes.”

“Yes, I’ve seen them.”

But Siavash stepped forward, laughed heartily, took the revolver from my pocket, put it on the table and said, “You know, Mirza Ahmad Khan not only plays beautifully on the tar and can recite poetry well, but he’s also a skillful hunter, an excellent shot.” Then he gestured in my direction and I stood up to add, “Yes, this afternoon I came to borrow some school notes from Siavash. We took a few shots to the jaw for fun, but those three drops of blood didn’t come from a cat, they came from a partridge. You know, the partridge that ate three grains of wheat from the minor’s share and cries every night until three drops of blood fall from its throat. Or maybe it’s from a cat that caught the neighbor’s canary, was shot by someone and happened to be passing by. And now I want to sing you a new piece I’ve composed.” I picked up the tar flute, harmonized my voice with the instrument and sang:

“Alas, for night has fallen once again, casting the world in great shadows. All find peace in this hour, but not I, who have so much sorrow.

The world finds no joy in its core, only death can refresh my spirit. But in that corner, by the pine tree on the ground, three drops of blood lie on the floor of the earth.”

At this point, Rokhsareh’s mother left the room with a look of despair. Rokhsareh raised her eyebrows and said, “He’s crazy.” Then she took Siavash’s hand and they both laughed heartily as they left the room and closed the door behind them.

In the courtyard, under the lantern, I saw them hugging and kissing behind the window pane.

© Ali Salami 2012

[1] Eshkeneh is a classic but unpretentious soup with fenugreek leaves and eggs.

[2] a wooden vessel used to transport clay or earth on construction sites

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