Afternoon light was petering out, slowly taking its leave from the narrow courtyard. The air felt impregnated with summer seeds. The jacaranda flowers glided to the ground in a resigned gentle somersault. The space between the cobblestones seemed to have been colored in, purple and pink and sometimes green. A crow swooshed across the courtyard, looking for something glittery to steal.
Leila entered the room holding a large basket of clothes in her arms. Her wild hair, at last free from the headscarf, flowed down her shoulders like thick slippery wires. She let the basket drop to the floor with a low thud, which made the clothes inside it tremble. She sat down and began folding the tiny shirts and pants and aprons and socks.
She was tired. In her mouth, she could still taste the dust that came up from the endless streets, with the hot asphalt and flashing windows and screaming children and history reduced to pompous slogans on grimy walls. Particles of grit crunched between her teeth. Her legs ached from walking to and from the photographer's studio. She walked because she had not been able to catch a taxi. Not with the three kids who held on to her like a life jacket and whom she vehemently kept away from the chaos. People had jumped into the taxis and disappeared before she had time to open her mouth. She seemed to have lost her efficiency in this rasping, humming, cluttering city. There were times when the city felt immense, expanding without a moment of rest, winding around her like an enormous husk. She wanted to shout sometimes just to see if her voice could overcome the relentless din.
Only three years ago, everything had been different. Nothing could touch her, block her way, bring her to an unwanted stop. She would jump in and out of taxis and buses with the agility of an experienced city girl, efficiently weaving her way through the traffic to the clothing factory where she had a job packaging hospital gowns and blankets in plastic bags to be sent to the makeshift hospitals at the front lines of the war, where she had heard there was barely room for all the injured. Although it was menial work, Leila had never been happier. She had never felt so liberated as when she punched the time clock after arriving every morning, the click of the puncher sweet to her ears. It was the click of independence, of security, of finding a foothold in a country that was crumbling, hammered down by war and the soured ecstasies of a revolution. It was punching into shape a life that had felt like molten lava.
Her colleagues were women her age or older, with husbands at war, who found themselves from one day to the next as the heads of the family, the breadwinners. Women with linear yellow faces and blazing eyes. Thin women in wide brown manteaus, like scarecrows. Full of virtue and suffering. Some brought their newborns with them, placing them in cradles at their feet under the table. They kept one eye on the child and another on the sewing machine, pricking away dull-colored fabric. At lunch breaks, the women continued to sit at the tables, embracing their children, watching the tiny mouths clamp on to the giving, swollen, blue-veined breasts. The sewing machines had fallen silent.
Leila had to quit her job when Sara arrived, just like Forugh, wearing clothes made of prayer chadors and buttons that were date stones. She could not leave Maman Zinat to raise three children on her own. Not at her age, not with her obsessions, not with the nightly anguish that gnawed at Maman Zinat's nerves like termites.
The day she left the factory, her colleagues surrounded her. She was leaving so soon, they said. They wished they could leave too. Leave this prison with its sewing machines and transparent plastic bags and smell of war. They lifted a hand and waved it in the air. A hand sweeping across the stale air that smelled of warm milk, sweat, and uncertain dreams. Leila wished she could stay, folding her hospital gowns, punching her time clock, measuring her life. But she was afraid to say so. The women thought her lucky, and she didn't want to disappoint them. She shook their hands one by one. Their dry, tired hands. Yearning eyes. Outside, on the other side of the tall brick walls of the factory, the afternoon sunlight was hazy with dust.
"When will the picture be ready?" Maman Zinat's slightly raised voice intruded into Leila's thoughts. She was sitting in the adjacent room, on the other side of the glass doors, in front of a hill of fresh herbs clumped in bunches by wet green rubber bands. Light splashed through the French windows, which opened to the courtyard, on her long salt-and-pepper braid that embraced the curve of her neck, ran along her waist, almost grazing the tight knots of the rug. The sleeves of her black dress were folded up to her elbows so as not to get them dirty. The black dress made her look old, in mourning, which she was not. She was only sad. If she could, she would have replaced her daughters in prison. She would have been happier that way, more at ease with herself.
"In about a week," Leila said. "He said he'll give us a call."
"They'll be so happy when they receive the picture. My poor girls."
Maman Zinat chopped off the mud-clinging ends of the stems without untying the rubber bands, nipping off the leaves, dropping them into separate basins. Her fingers were soiled, brown, muddy, but the rest of her almost glimmered with cleanliness, making the brown fingers look out of place.
"Leila jaan, pour a cup of tea for your father," she said.
Leila's knees made a loud cracking sound as she got to her feet and walked up to the electric samovar thrumming in the corner like a disgruntled grandmother telling the stories of a happier past. She rinsed a narrow-waist glass cup in the bowl of water next to the samovar, dried it with the towel wrapped around the kettle, and poured the red tea into it. Spirals of steam rose, settling on the samovar's tap as she added the boiling water. The room breathed a minty, nose-itching green-onion breath.
"We're running out of rice," Maman Zinat said, tossing her head back the way she always did when remembering something.
Aghajaan made a little dry grunt as he made himself comfortable on the floor, leaning against the cushions with flying sparrows and a deer with disproportionately short legs embroidered on them, his back to the fresco on the wall of white swans swimming down a blue river. He took the cup of tea from Leila.
"Already? I got some just last week," he said.
"You did. But there isn't much left. Also sugar."
"We'll have to wait for coupons. Maybe tomorrow or the day after."
The gold chain around Maman Zinat's white neck swayed to the side as she leaned forward to drop a handful of parsley leaves into a plastic basin. She flung the stripped stems onto the frayed floral blanket protecting the rug, covering her knees. "I'll get some potatoes. The neighbors say Jamal Agha has brought some."
Aghajaan's eyebrows drew close in a frown as he lifted his gaze to his wife. The curly ends of his eyebrows looped up toward his forehead. "How many times do I have to tell you not to buy from that thief? Charging everything ten times more. He's sucking our blood. That's what he's doing. Sucking the blood of people like you who go and buy his expensive potatoes."
"If there's no rice, then I'll have to buy potatoes," Maman Zinat said without looking up. "We can't starve the children, can we?"
"No one's telling you to starve the children. Just don't buy from that Jamal. He thinks war is the time to make money, not to help his people. At the end of the war, he'll be a millionaire, and my daughters will probably have to go work for him when they come out of prison."
Maman Zinat did not respond. She seemed too upset to speak. Aghajaan too fell silent, drinking his tea in one angry gulp. Leila turned her gaze away from her mother and father and let it glide on the large chunky wardrobe that no longer contained any clothes, only blankets and covers for the three children. She had never understood why her sisters had kept on fighting even though the revolution was over, a war had taken its place, and everyone was first struggling to make a new beginning and later to ward off death. But Simin and Parisa fought on, along with their husbands. They threw leaflets over walls, held secret meetings at home, read outlawed books, watched the news and jotted down how many times the name of the Supreme Leader was mentioned and how his name was taking over everything, growing louder, omnipresent, and how their own political presence — along with all the others not part of the regime — was being scratched out, their existence denied, stifled, washed clean, like a stain on a tablecloth. They sat there in front of the television screen, pens in hand, putting into numbers how they were slowly vanishing, purged from the collective memory of the country, buried alive. They were now the enemy, the anti-revolutionaries. That was shortly before their arrest, when the process of being undone came to its last strike.
Copyright 2013 by Sahar Delijani from Pages 66-87 of CHILDREN OF THE JACARANDA TREE Published by Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.