I had heard a lot about it but this was the first time I was seeing it myself. A big trailer home with a large metal door that opened into a room with rows and rows of ugly bunk beds crammed together. There was no space between the beds so you could easily swing from one to the other and do flips. I loved doing flips. There was a long hallway between the beds lined with small green uniform cabinets. Every four people shared one cabinet. Two giant whirring vents hung from the ceiling. The sound was enough to drive you crazy. I don’t remember how long it took me to get used to the whirring and be able to fall asleep. There was nothing else there to talk about. This was to be my home five days out of the week because our village was too far from the middle school. This was the school dorm. This terrible and ridiculous place.
I was sitting in front of my cabinet in the dorm in my school uniform. I didn’t want to take the uniform off. I really didn’t want to take the uniform off. Everybody was wearing the new clothes they had bought for Nowrouz (Persian New Year). All the girls were wearing beautiful colourful clothes and showing them off to one another. I couldn’t stop looking at them. As if I was searching for something among them but I wasn’t sure what I was looking for. I inspected each of them until I finally knew what it was I was searching for. Not all of them were wearing new outfits. A few were like me. My eyes twinkled with delight and I thought thank goodness for the others like me who couldn’t buy new clothes. I wasn’t sure if it was that day or a few days later that we were supposed to have an art session in the yard with the other kids. There were a few large konar (Persian Ironwood) trees in the yard. The trees were engraved with the names and the initials of the girls and the ones they loved—M H, S D. Some of them were crossed out too. Probably because they didn’t love each other anymore. We were sitting on the ground in the middle of the yard. We had to flick the paint at the paper using the toothbrushes and the cups of water we had been given. Sara was sitting next to me. She was wearing her new skirt. A long skirt with blue and white flowers. I couldn’t stop staring at that skirt. I kept eyeing it as I was mixing the colours. The flowers were so pretty. The fabric was so soft. I dipped my toothbrush in the water and the next thing I knew I had spilled some paint onto her beautiful skirt. I quickly apologized to her in front of everyone. I told her it wasn’t on purpose but I felt a kind of joy in the pit of my stomach. I was secretly happy it had happened even though I didn’t do it on purpose. I was sure of that. There was a part of me that was a little sorry for what had happened. What if she thinks I did do it on purpose? I struggled with the thought all day. At night when darkness engulfed the dorm and I closed my eyes to sleep, I thought to myself, “Whatever, let her think I did it on purpose. I don’t care.” And I fell asleep.
I think we had maths class. The school counselor opened the classroom door and said, “Mina, your mum is here. Come out.” I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know how to visit my mum on my own. It was so rare for me to get visitors at school that I felt I was prisoner being allowed a visit after a long time. I asked the teacher and started running toward the school yard. With each step I felt closer to the kids whose families would visit often and brought them snacks. I was so happy I almost stopped running to do a backward flip. I saw my mother. She was standing under the shade of a big palm tree. The same tree the kids and I would throw pebbles at to get the dates to fall. Some of the dates would explode as they fell to the ground and couldn’t be eaten but we would fight over the rest of them. On days I didn’t have snack money I would run faster than the rest to get to the tree and find some fallen dates. She was waiting under the same tree without even knowing what that tree meant to us. She was holding a plastic bag. I ran to her, hugged her tight, and gave her a kiss. She had brought me two pomegranates and a pair of new sandals.
A lot of Wednesdays had come and gone. I don’t quite remember how many. Every Wednesday I waited for my dad to come get me from the dorm. I would rush to the dorm entrance with every sound of a car and I would tell myself, this must be my dad, but none of them were ever my dad. That was my routine. Every Wednesday I ran to the front entrance several times. That Wednesday he didn’t come to pick me up. I was sitting in the school bus and was watching the streets as we drove by. I wasn’t sure what I was dreaming of when I spotted a car that looked just like my dad’s. Yes, it was him. Yes it was him. It was my dad. I clearly remember what I thought about when I saw him. It was Wednesday and my dad had driven all the way out of town and he still hadn’t picked me up from the dorm. I leaned my forehead against the bus window. I didn’t want anyone to know I had seen my dad. I didn’t want anyone to know I was choked up with tears.
I opened the door to the house. She was sleeping. As if she was dead. Everytime my mum came back from picking gaz from the tamarisk trees she would pass out from exhaustion. She looked as if she was dead. Hours would go by and she wouldn’t move. On Wednesdays when I came back from school I would sit by her to make sure she’s alive. She worked a lot but I don’t know why we didn’t have money. What could be done. I had a thousand and one reasons. That’s why it was in one of those Wednesdays that I realised I mustn’t go back to that damn school.
It was the first time I was going gaz picking with her. I was still too tiny for this work. I still prioritized my belly above all else. We placed our stuff in our rice-bag backpacks: an extra scarf, two loaves of bread, and four potatoes. We left the house at 5 am, no breakfast, and started for a God forsaken place. Later I could identify all the roads that led to all these God forsaken places. The icy wind of the desert slashed at my face. My lashes were frozen and felt heavy. I held my hands in front of my mouth and tried to warm them with my breath. My breath was visible in the cold but the heat was not enough to warm my hands. We weren’t far from the tamarisk forests when we saw the sun rising like a perfect egg yolk in the sky. Before starting to pick gaz, we tied the extra scarfs around our necks and each placed a steel bowl inside the nook of our scarf. The sap of the tamarisk trees forms crystals of gaz that we pick. The bowl sat right under my chin, which was tempting. Because I wanted to put the gaz crystals in my mouth and not in the bowl. And that’s exactly what I did. When we reached the first tree, I started eating all the gaz I was picking. The first one wasn’t down before I would plop the second one in my mouth. My stomach was bloated from all that gaz. I couldn’t even walk. Then it occurred to me that I was here for work not for fun or filling my stomach. What could I do now? I didn’t know gaz would make me so bloated. I sat under one of the big trees and stretched out my legs. None of the other women was resting though. Every single one of them was picking gaz. Their figures almost blended into the trees. Big and strong, some of the women were still green and some had dried out. But none of them were my size. I was thinking to myself when my mum yelled, “Why are you sitting? Get up and fill your bowl”
“What should I call you, you who are better than a flower?” I murmured this song under my breath just like the doll with the puffy blue skirt. When it was wound up, it spun around and sang that song. It belonged to my cousin. I went to my cousin’s house every day to see that doll, and I secretly wished it would break because it wasn’t mine.
I got up and picked more gaz. I didn’t even eat one crystal. I filled my bowl and gave it to my mum. I wish I could know how many bowls could buy me one of those dolls. If you ask me what is the second most difficult job in the world? I would say picking gaz.
I am sitting in the corner of the house sewing a pateh* that I was commissioned to make. I can hear her footsteps from the yard. She doesn’t walk like before. She drags her feet on the dirt. She opens the door. She has bought two dozen new tea cups.
“Mina, I have bought these for you. For your dowry.”
I look at her and smile. I am careful to not say how much wedding talk distresses me. I take the cups from her and take them to the storage room. I open the dusty cream-coloured cabinet and look at all the dishes and plates she has kept for my dowry over the years. Mice have eaten away at the cardboard boxes of most of them. I stuff the cups into the cabinet and close its door causing dust to rise into the air. I close my eyes and place my hand over my mouth and scream as loudly as I can. Quiet enough to not be heard. I scream a few times. No, Mina. No one must find out. No one. I leave the house and go to the barn to take fodder for the chickens.
Am I seeing right? They’re a ways away. But I can see them. Yes, it’s Darya. With her large black eyes, her long lashes, and her hair that’s always loose and tangled. She’s tiny, energetic and loves to do flips. Just like me when I was that age. Hamid is there too. Darya is walking behind him. I can see them. I listen closely. Where are they going? What if he harms her? I run and catch up with them.
“Darya? Where are you going? Where are you going with Hamid?”
I return home and sit in my corner and pick up my pateh and continue to sew. I trace the veins in my wrist with the needle until it forms a fine red line. I resume sewing. Another line on my veins. I keep repeating to myself, “You must die, Mina.” I don’t know why I am alive. Maybe because I am the only one who knows how to do this. Maybe because I am the only one who can protect the little girls in this village. Every time I leave the house, I must pay attention and watch over them no matter how far they are. I listen carefully. Sometimes I follow them. Sometimes I run up to them and ask them where they are going. I have to make sure nothing happens to them. I return home and sit in the corner of the room. I pick up my needle and start sewing.
If you ask me what is the second most difficult job in the world. I will say gaz picking.
* Pateh is a traditional Iranian needlework art.
1 January, 2023