I loved the subjects English and maths. But I don’t quite remember if it was English class or maths class that day when I opened the door and saw the blackboard. On the blackboard, in bold large letters the message read: Samira and Ahmad. I threw my bag to the side, clenched my jaw, balled up my fists and slammed on the blackboard with all my might, and yelled: “which one of you jerks wrote this?” Zohreh got up and without looking directly at me whispered: “Negar and Sara.” I walked over to them still angry and yelled, “what is all this nonsense you’re spreading around?” Negar didn’t even flinch. She didn’t even get up. Just stared back right into my eyes and said: “You don’t even know? You’re getting married off.”
I was sitting on my backpack by the entrance to the school and waiting for bus back to my village. Azam was standing outside and loudly announced the arrival of each bus, ushering the students in. Bus to Jabr Abad* — Bus to Jabr Abad. I got up and dragged my backpack behind me on the ground. I got on and found an empty seat. I furrowed my brows as deeply as I could to show the others I was still mad at them for their stupid joke. I peeled off the dirty red curtain of the minibus and rested my forehead against the cool glass of the window. We were halfway to the village when the answer to a complex maths problem came to me. I sat bolt upright. There was a glint in my eyes and I wish I had a marker and board to write out my problem. Stupid Sara and Negar. They were always pulling these stupid pranks. Samira and Ahmad, really? Ahmad is my pesardayee (maternal uncle’s son). The prank was so ridiculous it almost made me laugh. But I kept the frown, I didn’t want them to know. I leaned back into the chair and stared up at the bus’s dirty ceiling. Samira, all that matters is that you and your sister are no longer promised to your pesaramoos (paternal uncles’ sons). Do you remember those fights between dad and your amoo (paternal uncle).
The little girl couldn’t wait. She was sitting on the class bench and was waiting for the teachers to read the grades out loud. She was tapping her heels on the floor and was peeling off the skin from her chapped lips. Her eyes were fixed on her teacher. She had thick dark eyebrows and wore her glasses low on her nose so she could look over at her student as she loudly announced the students’ grades. The little girl willed herself to stay strong. She closed her eyes tight and waited. She wanted to review her mum’s promise if she got full marks. She preferred to keep her eyes shut and picture the pretty blonde doll her mum had promised to buy her instead of the teacher’s scary face. She imagined holding the curly haired doll in her arms and smoothing the wrinkles in her dress. The teacher yelled: “Samira, 20. Come get your paper.”
She shot up and yelled: “Hooray!” She grabbed her paper and planted a kiss on the grade in the corner of the page right there, in the middle of class. Her palms were sweaty from excitement. She kept wiping the sweat on her uniform. She had to keep her paper clean and intact to get it to her mum. She kept looking at the full marks. She couldn’t sit on the school bench much longer. She only had one wish now. For the school bell to ring and for her to run to her house.
The bell finally rang. She picked up her backpack and started running with all her classmates. As soon as she got out of the school building she lifted off her scarf and swung it behind her head and started her usual game with the wind. She stood back to the wind letting it blow through her hair, not caring that it tangled her already frizzy hair. Then she turned around and let the wind blow the hair away from her face and style it however it wanted. The wind didn’t attack her like her mum would after each shower, detangling her frizzy hair with a fine-toothed comb. The wind was gentle.
The floodway marked the path to her house. She was more than halfway home. She took off her shoes and balled up her socks and stuffed them in her shoes. She pulled up her trousers and walked through the river. Her small legs couldn’t support her against the rush of water. She couldn’t run anymore. She couldn’t even take bigger strides. But nothing mattered. She focused her energy on not falling into the river. If she fell, her paper would surely get wet or worse, taken away by the current. She bit her tongue at the thought.
She passed the river. The water had taken too much of her time. She put her shoes back on but did not bother with the socks and started running again. She stopped when she got to the orange orchard. Her heart was beating fast. Her lips were chapped. She peeped through the opening under the fence. The farmers ran the channel through that opening when they watered the orchard. The opening was just big enough for her and Negar to crawl through. Before school they would crawl through the opening and pick a few oranges to eat as snacks in school. The taste of sweet and sour oranges made her mouth water. No, Samira. No oranges today. You can pick two tomorrow instead.
The door of her house was wide open. She stood in the middle of the yard. The glass doors and windows were broken. The yard was full of discarded pieces of sticks and stones, scene of a fight. It no longer looked like the house she had run all this way to reach. With the last remaining bit of her strength, she cried out: “Mum! Mum! Dad! Dad!” No one was there. She threw her bag to the ground and sat on the corner of the garden and burst into tears. She doesn’t remember how long she remained like that but the sun was slowly sinking. She slowly lifted her head and looked around. She could taste her salty tears around the corners of her mouth. She looked up at her empty house. Nothing was where it should be. What if no one came for her? Where would she spend the night? The little girl is used to sleeping in her mum’s arms at night. Sometimes she tied the corner of her dress to her mum’s chador to wake up if her mum left her in the middle of the night.
It was dead silent. The howling wind gnawed at her. The wind wasn’t like her mother. She wrapped her arms around her torso in a tight hug and started to talk out loud to herself. The words were not important. She just couldn’t stand the silence any longer. Maybe she wanted to tell the wind she was not afraid of it.
No, she wasn’t going crazy. She could really hear footsteps. She listened harder. Someone was really getting close to their house. She looked around. She had to make a decision, quick. Where to hide? The henna bush, which wasn’t a bush exactly. It was big enough to be a tree. She pushed away the dried branches making sure not to tear her clothes on their jagged ends and hid behind the fresh green branches with their fragrant cascading flowers. She positioned herself in the henna tree but made sure to keep a view of the front door. Her mouth had gone dry from fear. She wished she had picked that orange. She could take a big bite out of it now. She was holding her breath. She musn’t make a sound. The footsteps were getting closer. A person walked in. The little girl couldn’t believe her eyes. It was Zahra Khanoom. She flung herself into Zahra Khanoom’s arms. Zahra Khanoom remained silent. She gently smoothed Samira’s frizzy hair. They knelt by the hose in the yard. Zahra Khanoom washed the dried up tears with her rough and callused fingers that were more likely to scratch the little girl’s face. Zahra Khanoom worked a lot. Zahra Khanoom knew everything, but Zahra Khanoom didn’t talk much.
We closed the front door and went into the alley. That alley was heaven to me. The narrow alley was lined with orange orchards and date palms on both sides, wooden doors and fences adorned with palm leaves. Orange trees extended their branches into the alley bearing their orange and green fruits that I couldn’t reach. I had fallen behind Zahra Khanoom. I don’t know why she was walking so fast. All that abundance of beautiful oranges didn’t matter to her. She kept walking past them and I had to run to keep up. Zahra Khanoom worked a lot. Zahra Khanoom knew everything but Zahra Khanoom didn’t talk much. Zahra Khanoom quickened her pace and I yelled out: “Zahra Khanoom, where is my mum? What happened to my dad? Where are they?”
I was anxious, most of all for my youngest brother. He was only 5.
-“Zahra khanoom, did my dad and amoo (paternal uncle) have a fight again? Why won’t you tell me? Just say something.”
-“Don’t worry, my dear. Your brother and the rest are at Bibi’s (grandmother). I will tell Yadollah to give you a ride to Bibi’s house.”
I was chewing my nails and running to keep up with Zahra Khanoom. I was starving. My stomach was making weird growling noises similar to the ones Yadollah’s beat-up motorcycle makes when he tries to start the engine in the mornings. When we got to Zahra Khanoom’s house, Yadollah’s motorcycle was ready by the door. I got on the motorcycle and placed my bag between Yadollah and myself. It seemed like Yadollah was given the important mission to get me to Bibi’s house as soon as possible. He was speeding and I held onto his shoulder to keep myself steady. I mustn’t fall. That will make everything even worse. We got to the riverbed between our village and Bibi’s. Yadollah slowed down and I leaned my head on his shoulder and closed my eyes to avoid seeing the river. Every time we passed that riverbed, my brother stopped and pointed to a hole in the ground, “look Samira, that’s where demons live.” So I kept my eyes shut as we drove through the riverbed.
He stopped the motorcycle, and I opened my eyes. Bibi was standing by the door waiting for me, her eyes wet with tears. Zahra Khanoom was right. My brothers and sisters were all at Bibi’s house. My cousins too.
I don’t remember how many days had passed. I don’t even remember if it was in the evening or at night. I just remember being half asleep when I heard my mother’s voice. Was I dreaming? I struggled to open my eyes. It was her. My mum. I sat up straight and wrapped my arms around her. I looked up at her but couldn’t reach her face to kiss her cheeks. I took a couple of steps back. She had a black eye. I heard my dad’s voice from the hall where my grandpa always sat. I ran to the hallway and saw him. His forehead was bandaged up. I could see the stitches and the streak of dried blood across his face. I walked back a few steps then ran to the storage room and hid under the line of laundry Bibi used to divide the space to form a wardrobe for her clothes.
The bus stood in front of our street. I got off. I was dragging my feet on the ground and a cloud of dust rose behind each step. I slowly swung open the big rusted front door and crept into the yard. I didn’t want anyone to know I was home. I didn’t want anyone to know about the other girls’ stupid prank. Maybe if mum or dad found out about it they would frown like I had or maybe they would start a row with Negar and Sara. I pulled aside the curtain and was about to step into the room from the hallway when I heard hushed voices. It was my dad’s voice talking to my mum. Why were they whispering? Were they going mad? I pressed my ear against the wall and listened in.
-“Ahmad is a good boy. She’ll marry him but the wedding can wait until after she gets her diploma.”
I sat next to him on a bench facing a large spread of sweets, candles, mirrors and a Quran. Those who saw it said it was beautiful, but I couldn’t look at my reflection in the mirror that sat a few feet from me. A big white chador was covering my face and I sat under. Alone. Just like the day I sat under Bibi’s line of laundry. I am wearing a long white dress embellished with pearls and white flowers. A silver tiara rests on my hair and a long white veil with sparkling stars hangs loosely behind. Why have they fastened so many things to my head and body? My head droops down from the weight of it all. I am murmuring one of my favorite songs under my breath. Open your eyes, Dad is here and he has brought a beautiful doll…
As I’m muttering the song, I scratch the red paint off my nails. Bibi holds my shoulder firmly and says: “Samira, can’t you hear? Say ‘I do’”**
I looked at the burn mark on my hand and repeat the words Bibi has uttered.
* Loosely translated as “Compulsionville”
** In Persian, the word “Yes” (Baleh) is used for the consent ritual.
19 December, 2022