Written by Baroj Akray
Translated by Alireza Taheri Araghi and Mohammad R. Ghanoonparvar (poetry)
Illustrated by Siamak Pourjabbar
The traffic light turned green the moment he lit his cigarette. He tucked the box under his arm so he could shove his hand into his raincoat pocket. He crossed the street. The gas station lights were on. If it were Iran, he thought to himself, I would see the No Smoking sign now. He didn’t. He turned the corner. His shadow fell into a gutter with frozen water. The box seemed distorted. He stopped; tossed his cigarette into the ditch where his shadow was broken up. In front of him, an old woman was approaching with a dirty, disheveled dog. The dog was small and furry. It was running in front of the old woman who had its leash in her hand. As if it was the dog who was hauling the woman with the leash. They stopped when they saw the man. They stood staring at the man in such a way that the man had to say, “Hej.” “Hej,” the woman answered looking at her dog. She then raised her head and said something to the man in a tired voice. The man didn’t understand it. “Jag vet inte,” he shook his head. The old woman asked him again the same thing in the same voice. The man repeated the same sentence in the same tone and went away. The old woman’s voice said something else. The man turned to the voice; the old woman was looking at the dog and the dog at the ground.
The alley was quiet. The man decided to fill in a few minutes by humming a tune. Nothing came to his mind. He lit another cigarette. He thought of a tune he had heard and sung many times before. It was about a fairy that hadn’t been seen around lately and the singer seems to be looking for her and . . . “Where are you?”
At the door to the building he tossed his half cigarette into the snow. He cocked his ears to hear it hiss. He didn’t. He opened the door, and climbed up the stairs. On the third floor, he took a breath. He stood at the first door. He rang the bell and hid the box behind his back. He rang the bell again. “Who’s there?” a little girl’s voice asked. The man drew closer and leaned his head against the door. “It’s Daddy.”
“Wait,” the girl’s voice said from a distance.
The mail slot opened a crack. “Daddy, Mommy is not at this home.” The voice was now clearer. “She may come back now wait.”
The man bent down to face the slot. He saw the girl’s black eyes. “How are you, sweetie?”
“I’m fine,” she said. “Wait!”
“Can’t you open the door?” the man forced a giggle.
“But, Daddy, I’m not strange like you and Mommy,” the girl said.
“Strong, honey,” the man said. “Not strange!” And he laughed.
“OK,” she said.
The man didn’t say anything.
“Daddy,” the girl said. “I’ll go get a chair to look at you through that hole that’s for the eye, OK? Because my head gets tired this way.”
The slot closed. Then there came the sound of a chair moving behind the door. The man was still standing.
“What are you hiding behind your back, Daddy?” the girl asked.
The man held the box in front of the slot.
“Daddy, I’m looking from up here, why are you showing the box down there?” the girl said. “Am I down there?”
“Can’t you open the door?” he said holding up the box. “It’s not hard.”
“Daddy, our door is not slow like your door . . .,” she said. “Is it a doll? Will you take it out for me to see it?”
“Why did Mom lock the door at all?” the man asked opening the box.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Because she went to buy things. Oh Daddy, it’s so beautiful. . . . Wait!”
He leaned the empty box against the wall. The slot opened. Four of her fingers slipped out, “Daddy, is her hair soft? Can I touch?”
The man spilled the doll’s golden hair onto the girl’s hand. “How cute, isn’t it, Daddy?”
The man squatted down and held her fingers. “Yes. It’s very cute. . . . Now see if you can open the door.”
“OK. . . . Wait!”
The fingers disappeared and the slot closed.
“Won’t open. I can’t.”
“Look up there, honey,” the man said leaning his forehead against the door. “There’s a key hanging in a clip on the door. It’s the police key. Can you take it out and pass it to me through the slot?”
The slot opened. “But are we allowed to touch the police key, Daddy?”
“Yes darling,” the man said. “We’ll put it back later.”
“OK. Wait!” she said.
The slot closed. The man put the doll at the door and waited. He heard the chair move and the girl’s hand hit the door.
“Watch out so you don’t fall!” he said.
“But I can’t. It’s not slow,” she said.
He leaned his forehead against the door. “First you have to press that clip and then pull the key out.”
There came the sound of the chair moving. Then the slot opened. “Daddy, what did you say I have to press?”
“The clip . . . press that clip,” the man said.
“What does clip mean, Daddy?” she asked.
The man tried to make the shape of a clip with his fingers to show the girl. He couldn’t. “The thing the key is stuck in.”
“OK,” the girl said.
The slot closed. The man pushed the flap open and saw the legs of the chair behind the door.
“Daddy,” the girl’s voice said from above. “I’m doing the thing you told me, but it doesn’t work.”
“All right. Come down,” the man said. “Go and watch TV. I’ll sit here until Mom comes back.”
The legs of the chair disappeared and the girl’s eyes appeared behind the slot. “Don’t you go, OK?”
“No, I won’t,” the man said. “Go watch TV.” He let go of the flap and sat down at the door. He hugged his legs to his chest and rested his head on his knees.
“Daddy?” the girl said from behind the door.
“I am looking from this hole that is for the eye, but I can’t see you,” the girl said. “Can you sit or stand somewhere I can see you?”
“But you’ll get tired,” he said.
“But Daddy, if you tell me a stony will I still get tired?” she asked.
“It’s story, not stony,” the man laughed. “How many times did I tell you that before, honey?”
“OK. . . . Now you tell me?”
The man pushed the slot in. He saw the legs of the chair. “Go get a blanket,” he said. “It’s cold on the floor.”
The girl climbed down the chair. “Daddy,” she said lowering her head, “do I get a pillow, too?”
“Get a pillow, too,” the man said watching the girl’s feet receding.
There came the clatter of something falling down. “What was that?” the man asked putting his mouth to the slot.
The girl’s feet appeared. “Nothing, Daddy. . . .” She bent down and her eyes were shining. “My foot hit the phone. It fell down. But didn’t break.”
The feet went away. Then they returned. “Me . . . no, when you still hadn’t come, Mommy’s Mom and Dad did ringa.”
“Well,” the man said. “Did you talk to them?”
“But they don’t talk. All they say is, Are you fine? . . . I’m like, Yes. Then they’re like, How are you? . . . Daddy, isn’t it that in Iranian ‘Are you fine’ and ‘How are you’ are alike? . . . I said “fine” all the time!” And she laughed.
“Not in Iranian,” the man said. “In Farsi!”
“OK,” the girl said and her feet went away. They reappeared. “Daddy, huh . . . do you know why Farsi mommies and daddies live together?”
“Not Farsi,” the man said. “Iranian!”
“But whenever I say Farsi, you say Iranian, I say Iranian you say Farsi,” the girl said.
The man looked at his shoes through squinting eyes.
“Do you know why, Daddy?” she asked.
“No, I don’t,” the man answered.
“Isn’t it that there isn’t enough house there?” she asked.
The man bent down to see the girl’s eyes through the slot. Her feet could be seen. “I don’t know,” he said. “Who told you that?”
The girl’s toes clenched. “Me, myself, when I was tenkaing I told myself . . . Daddy, isn’t it that when you tenka you talk to yourself?”
The man didn’t answer.
“No, Daddy?” she asked.
“Yes, yes. . . . Now go get something,” he said.
The feet stepped aside and the running sound faded away.
The man let go of the flap. There came a sound from down the stairs. He got up. It was a young couple climbing the stairs; the young man was holding a can of beer in his hand and kept talking nervously.
The man was about to avert his eyes when the woman said in a cold voice, “Hej.”
“Hej,” he answered.
Without slowing her pace, the woman bent her head and pulled a bunch of keys from the purse hanging over her shoulder. The young man was still talking. The woman opened the door. A cat peeped out from behind the door. The woman bent down. She seemed to whisper something to the cat before scooping it up in her arms. The young man waited until the woman took her shoes off. The woman tripped as she started to walk and the young man slammed the door close.
“Daddy, what are you looking at?” the girl asked.
The man turned around. He pushed the flap in and saw the girl’s eyes. “You’re back?”
“You know Daddy,” the girl said, “this man is very dum i huvudet?”
“Why?” the man asked, although he didn’t understand.
“Because this man,” she answered, “he doesn’t like this cat. He always wants to kick him out. He tells the other one who is very snäll they have to give the cat to somebody else. Well, aren’t you dum i huvudet this way?”
“Yes . . . I don’t know,” the man said. “Did you bring the pillow?”
“Yes . . . but Daddy, will you say what we call it?” the girl asked.
“Call what?” he asked.
“My mean is what should we call this doll?” the girl asked.
The man thought a little. “I don’t know. Whatever you like.”
“It’s me who has to like all the time,” the girl said. “Wasn’t it you who was support to give a name this time?”
“Well then . . .,” the man said, “we’ll find her a name later.”
“OK,” she said, “but I want on you to wait for to name.”
The man sat down. “Now sit down and I’ll tell you a story,” he said holding his mouth to the slot.
“What stony?” she said putting her hand on the pillow. The man saw the girl’s hair covering half of her face. “Huh?”
“What do you like?” the man asked.
The girl brushed her hair aside. “What do you want to tell?”
“What do you like?” the man chuckled.
“Well . . . The Fairies! But Daddy, is it OK if I lie down while you tell it?”
The man nodded, and before he could say a word the girl went on, “But Daddy, you have to be a little loud.”
The man shifted a little. “Is it all right if I close this and tell you the story from behind the door? My fingers get tired this way.”
“No Daddy,” the girl said, “because also I want to see you.”
“All right then,” the man said. “Once upon a distant time . . .”
“Under the sky of a distam clime,” said the girl.
The man looked at the girl’s clenched toes and went on, “Stark naked, as the day was done, / sat three Fairies all alone.”
“Daddy, the Fairies were so beautiful, weren’t they?” the girl asked.
“Yes,” the man answered, “now listen. . . . Bitterly, bitterly cried the Fairies / Like clouds of spring cried the Fairies. . . .”
“Daddy, isn’t it that crying is not good?” the girl asked scratching her cheek.
“Not good?” the man asked squinting his eyes. “Who says that?”
“Mommy says,” the girl answered. “Daddy, sometimes when Mommy is crying I want to cry, too, but she quickly goes to the bathroom. Then she comes and says good girls don’t cry. And then she wants to play with me all the time.”
The man shifted again to see the girl’s face better; she had covered her eyes with her hands.
“Well,” he said, “I was telling a stony, where were we?”
With her eyes still closed, the girl rolled around. “Where they cried bitterly, bitterly,” she said with her back to the man.
“Yes . . .,” the man said. “‘Oh, dear, dear Fairies sweet / Why do you so bitterly weep? / What is this ah, ah-ing of yours, / Wailing of yours, oh, oh-ing of yours? / Aren’t you scared that it might snow? / Aren’t you scared that it might rain? / Aren’t you afraid, Fairies three? / Won’t you come to our town with me?’”
He stopped. He knew he had messed up the lines of the poem. “Well?” the girl said, still with her back to the man.
“The Fairies said nothing / Bitterly, bitterly cried the Fairies / Like clouds of Spring cried the Fairies.”
The girl rolled around. “Daddy, isn’t it that this stony in that book is for an age man that has white hair?”
“Yes honey,” the man said. “But that man is not age. He’s old.”
“Well, that old man, who is not age, didn’t he write why the Fairies were crying?” she asked.
The man forced a chuckle, “It’s just a story, darling.”
“But don’t they say in stonies why some people cry?” she asked.
“Well, in some, they do. And in this one . . . now listen up.”
The girl rolled over again. “Well?” she said with a distant voice.
The man heard a door open behind him. He turned around and looked. It was the young couple’s door. A man’s hand pushed a cat out and the door closed. The cat stared at the man for a while, then turned around and looked at the closed door.
“Daddy, what was it?” the girl asked.
“Nothing dear,” he answered, still staring at the cat. “Now listen: Oh, pretty, pretty Fairies fair . . .”
“These pretty, pretty Fairies are very naughty, aren’t they?” the girl asked.
“Yes,” the man said.
The cat spread itself out on the floor, staring with eyes half closed. The man averted his eyes from the cat and turned back to the slot. “‘Oh, pretty, pretty Fairies fair / With naked bodies, feet all bare! / You had enough to drink and eat, / With tea and waterpipes at your feet, / Who told you to come to this world of ours / To this topsy-turvy world of ours / Our world is filled with many a thorn . . .” He turned and looked at the cat. The cat was still staring. ” Snakes fill its desert parts / And those of us who’re in it born / Know about it in our hearts. / Our world is open so that he / Who wants to know can come and see: / Our world is just the way it’s set, / What you see is what you get!”
The cat scratched its ear with its claw.
“Well?” said the girl’s distant voice.
“This is our world—yea, yea, yea! / Chasing fire—hop, hop, hop!” the man went on.
The girl didn’t say a word.
The man looked at the cat. “If you want fire, jump and play / Till your heels crack and pop . . .”
The girl didn’t say a word.
With his head resting on his paws, the cat’s stomach filled up and emptied out.
“The Fairies said nothing / Bitterly, bitterly cried the Fairies / Like clouds of Spring cried the Fairies,” said the man.
The girl didn’t say a word.
The man removed his finger from the flap. The slot closed. He turned around. There was no sound. He saw the doll face down on the floor. He reached his hand to roll it over. Then he changed his mind. He sat with his back against the door. He pulled his knees in closer and rested his head on them. There was music pounding rapidly somwhere in the distance. Someone was climbing up the stairs. The man looked and waited. A young firl appeard, hastily. She had a pack of promotional brochures in her hand. “Hej,” she said with a suspicious smile. “Hej,” he answered reaching out to take the brochures.
The young girl left, slipping some pamphlets into the slots of each apartment. The clink of the flaps opening and closing woke up the cat. It let out a big yawn and stretched itself. The young girl glanced at the cat and went down the stairs. “Hejdå.”
The man didn’t answer; he looked at the cat instead. The cat averted its eyes and again scratched its ear with its claw. Without looking at them, the man put the sheets down next to the doll. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the lighter. He looked back at the cat and saw it had raised its head and was now staring at him. He slid the lighter back into his pocket. Someone was coming up the stairs. It must be one of the neighbors again, he thought, to whom he had to say a “Hej” and from whom he had to hear a “Hej.” He rested his head on his kneecaps.
“You asleep? . . . Oh, what a shame. I did mean to come earlier!”
The man raised his head. “No! . . . No problem,” he said, staring at the woman’s hair so not to look at her eyes.
The woman looked for something in her purse. “I didn’t know you were coming. I called. You weren’t home.” She pulled a bunch of keys from her black bag. “How are you?”
“Fine.” He picked up the doll.
The woman separated a key from the bunch.
“Hold on,” the man said, “she’s sleeping behind the door.”
“Behind the door?”
The man ran a palm over his days-long stubble. “I told her a story. She fell asleep.”
“On the floor?”
“No,” he answered, “she got a blanket and a pillow.”
The woman bent down. She put her purse on the floor and pushed the flap open with her right hand. “Mamak!”
“Call her quietly, she may panic,” the man said. “Step aside, let me call her.”
“Isn’t it better to ring the bell?” the woman asked.
“It may startle her.”
The woman held her mouth to the slot. “Mamak!” She saw her turn over. “Bunny . . .,” she called.
The girl opened her eyes. She looked around a little. “I’m here . . . behind the door,” the woman said before she closed her eyes again. “Get up so I can open the door.”
“Mommy, Daddy was here,” the girl said looking through the slot.
“Daddy’s here,” she said. “Look what he brought you!” She let go of the flap.
The man turned around and looked at the cat. The cat was yawning. The woman opened the door. The girl was standing, sleepy. The woman swept the blanket and pillow aside with her foot. The girl took the doll from the man. “It’s one of those that sleeps, isn’t it, Daddy?”
“Yes, dear,” the man said.
“I want it to sleep in my arms. You also too.”
“Don’t you want to eat?” the woman asked coming out of the kitchen. She then turned to the man and said, “Aren’t you hungry?”
“No, I have to go,” he answered.
“But before, you sleep with me a little, won’t you, Daddy?” the girl asked.
“Yes . . .,” he said.
He took the girl to her room and put her in her bed.
The woman came in. “Aren’t you going to brush your teeth?”
“Daddy, can I brush my teeth tomorrow?” the girl asked.
“Saw your dad again?” the woman said.
The girl lay down and said, “Daddy, you on this side. And she . . . Daddy, what do we call her?”
“I don’t know,” the man said. “How about Paria?”
“But not the Paria that cries.”
“But dolls don’t cry,” the man said.
The girl pulled the quilt up over her chest and said, “Then why do the Fairies cry?”
“Now you lie down a little, and I’ll go to the kitchen for a smoke, OK?” the man said.
The girl put the doll on her chest. “But come back soon.”
“OK,” the man said taking the girl’s cheek between his thumb and index finger.
In the kitchen, with the fridge open and her back to him, the woman asked, “Sure you’re not hungry?”
The man sat on the chair. “You say it as if I’d be ashamed. Where is the ashtray?”
The woman put the tomato and the cheese on the table. “Let me empty it. Here it is.”
She emptied the ashtray in the trash can and put it on the table.
“Did you get your lawyer’s letter?” the man asked blowing the smoke toward the window with snowflakes sticking to its panes.
The woman looked at him. “Lawyer?”
The man placed his cigarette in the ashtray. “About the divorce.”
She cut the tomato in half. “Why? Didn’t you get yours?”
The man tapped the cigarette to shake the ashes off. They didn’t fall off. “Yes. . . .”
The woman sliced the tomato. The man was staring at the wet redness of the tomato when the woman put a slice in her mouth.
The man took his eyes off her. “Mamak said your father and mother called from Tehran when you were out.”
She was spreading cheese on the bread. “Just my luck! What did they say?”
“Nothing.” The man turned and looked at the legs of the table. “They said, ‘Are you fine?’ she said, ‘Yes,’ then they said, ‘How are you?’”
“Don’t start again!” she said setting the bread on the table.
“She said it herself. Ask her later.”
“I’d better ask now. She’ll have forgotten it by tomorrow.” She took the bread and went toward the bedroom. “Mamak!” She placed her hand on the door frame. “She’s fallen asleep!”
The man got to his feet. He put out his cigarette and took a look at the pillow and the blanket dropped by the door.
The woman closed the bedroom door. “Are you in a hurry?”
“You know how far I have to go,” the man answered.
The woman looked at the clock on the wall behind the man.
“Well then,” the man said and went to the bedroom. He opened the door and the lamplight flooded the bed. The girl’s face was in the dark. He returned and put on his shoes.
“But you didn’t eat anything,” the woman said.
The man opened the door. “Good-bye.”
The woman was eating the bread. She nodded and stepped forward to close the door behind the man.
The man stood with the door closed behind him. He looked for the cat. It wasn’t there. He saw the empty box, bent over and picked it up. On the stairs, he saw the cat by the main door. He went down. The cat moved aside and went up the stairs. The man opened the door.
Outside, it was foggy . . .
Baroj Akray was born in 1963 in Kurdistan, Iraq. In 1975, after the civil war in Kurdistan, his family moved to Iran. Fifteen years later, he moved to Sweden. Akray is a writer, a poet and a translator (often from Persian to Kurdish). He has published five collections of poetry in Kurdish and two collections of short story stories in Persian. (Updated Apr. 2012)
M. R. Ghanoonparvar is Professor of Persian and Comparative Literature and Persian Language at The University of Texas at Austin. (Updated Apr. 2012)
Born in 1976, Siamak Pourjabbar is Creative Manager at Eshareh Advertising Agency and a member of the Iranian Graphic Designers Society. He has participated in several international exhibitions including the Hong Kong International Poster Triennial (2010) and the Chicago International Poster Biennial (2010). He has won a number of national and international prizes including second prize at "4th Block," the 7th International Triennial of Eco-Posters, Kharkov, Ukraine (2009), and prize for Poster for Tomorrow, Freedom of Expression (2009). (Updated May 2012)
This story was originally published in Persian, in:
Akray, Baroj. Something Like That [Chizi dar hamin hodud]. Tehran, Cheshmeh, 2008.