by SHOKOOFEH AZAR
My mother used to say, ‘To dry flowers you have to … hang them upside down … for three days, just three days and you’ll see what beautiful dried flowers you have. Or no … lay them … in a tray full of salt … like this. Are you paying attention to me?! Lay them … in a tray full of salt … like this … and if you put the tray in a dry place your flowers will turn out better. Or if … if you don’t have a lot of space … or a lot of salt … you can …’
I was a child and, wide-eyed, I would watch my mother from hidden corners of the house as she incessantly set about drying fresh flowers that she had bought or had been delivered. The house was dark and their scent did not escape through a single window. My mother never left the kitchen. The kitchen was her rightful domain and it was under her strict command that it was governed. I was small enough to crawl underneath the bed or table and watch her for hours as she, with her crown of fresh herbs and dried flowers, and her onion skin cloak, was truly queen of the house—that part of it, at least.
The kitchen walls, greasy from years of cooking three meals a day for seven people—breakfast, lunch and dinner—became, in the last years of my mother’s life, and as the house was emptied of its members, her house for dried flowers.
Before going crazy for Forget-me-nots, my mother was crazy for cooking. She would get up at five in the morning, and, as she prepared scrambled eggs and eggs over easy along with cheese, fresh basil, and cucumbers for seven people, she would already be soaking the rice for lunch so that it could swell properly. Then, while everyone was at the breakfast table, thinking and talking about everything but breakfast, and while feeding me—the youngest member of the family—she would be peeling eggplant, cutting it up, salting and frying it. Her hands would still be greasy from the fried eggplant of lunch when she would be removing the stems of the fresh herbs, washing and chopping them for dinner’s rice and fish. ((1. Ma¯h¯ı polo¯)) And, with nobody yet at the dinner table, chewing the nail on her right thumb, my mother, leaning against the kitchen cabinets and staring into space, and without paying attention if anyone was there to hear her, would ask, ‘How was lunch? What should I make tomorrow?’
In all the years my mother was crazy for cooking she didn’t know she was making food day-in and day-out for six people, only for each and every one of them to leave her and not even look back. Now that my mother is crazy for Forget-me-nots she looks at me, not more than a child, and says, ‘I know what you have up your sleeve, but this time I’ll be leaving before you … you’ll see’.
My father was always the first to finish his meal. He ate loudly and, already standing as he ate his last spoonful, would say goodbye and run towards the door. Then it was my older brother’s turn. At the same time as he put on his socks and complained about his hard college classes, he would let egg yoke run down the corner of his mouth. He always left without saying goodbye. Then it was my oldest sister’s turn. She who always did her homework at the breakfast table, the same place where she drank sweet tea and every single time spilled some of it or a bit of scrambled egg onto her notebook. She would give mother a kiss as she left, but for the delicious breakfasts she never once, not once, remembered to say, ‘thank you’. After her it was the twin boys. They ate breakfast together, then without even looking at mother, would both say a cursory ‘thank you’, grab their school bags together, put on their shoes together, and together go out the door without saying goodbye.
Then … the house … was empty of commotion.
I was only three years old. More or less. I don’t know.
I would sit there on the chair in the kitchen while my mother calmly ate a piece of bread with cheese and fresh basil, and stared into space at something. I never made the slightest sound. I just wanted to see her. She, who worked herself to the bone so that just one person, one member of that seven-member family, might take her into their arms and say, ‘I appreciate all you do, thank you.’ That just one person might, for one minute, sit down across from her, take her always burnt and greasy hands in theirs and say, ‘You burnt your hands again for us?’, and maybe out of affection, kiss them …
Years passed. I don’t know how many. Ten years. A hundred years. A thousand years? I do know that I am still small, and maybe I’m not meant to ever grow up. I do know that the house is empty and that the kitchen table is surrounded by unused chairs that nobody sits on anymore, nobody complains, or puts on socks, nobody does homework.
It’s been so many years that recently mother became obsessed with Forget-me-nots … consumed by them.
Every week, bouquet after bouquet of the tiny blue flowers that she had ordered arrived in damp brown packages, and for several days she would pin them in her hair and on her chest. She would stand in front of the full-length mirror and decorate her hair with them or obsessively change her clothes. She would pull me, the last remaining member of a once seven-member family, out from underneath the wardrobe or table, and with a blue dress and made-up face, she would stand in front of me and ask, ‘Look! How do I look?’
Then she would bend over until her hair was near my pale face and continue, ‘Do you know what these are called? The flowers, I mean! … Forget-me-not! Just think! That’s what their name is: Forget- me-not!’ And then the next day, as she was pulling the wilted flowers out of her dishevelled hair, she said, “But really … these flowers are so small it’s hard not to forget them, don’t you think?’ And without ever waiting for an answer from me, she would turn from me or the mirror and walk away.
The last day of her life, with the refrigerator, with every shelf, vase, and even every glass, plate, pot, pan, tray, bowl and pitcher in the house filled with clusters of fresh, wilted or dried Forget- me-nots, she sat on the floor in front of the fireplace and, one by one, tore pages out of a diary that I hadn’t known she kept, threw them into the fire and said to me, staring at her wide-eyed from behind the thick curtains, ‘You know, the house has become really cold … I can’t handle the cold anymore …’ Then she threw some more pages into the fire and said, ‘Remember! Are you listening to me?! Remember that it isn’t as hard as you think. Not forgetting these small blue flowers, I mean—I figured it out today. Can you believe it?! Today … you have be attached to something—love it. Do you understand? Attached, do you know what that means?’ Then, as if trying for the first time to talk so that I could understand, slowly she said, ‘You have to … get used to watching out what’s under you. Do you understand? You shouldn’t just jump into the garden to play. You have to watch out … ’cause they always … quietly … you know! Pay attention! They always grow quietly right where you don’t expect them to …’
My mother died that same day. Just like that. On her bed among tiny blue flowers, fresh, wilted and dried, and the smell of mould. When she died the last pages of her diary were still burning in the fire. I opened the door to her room, which I had never been allowed to enter, a crack and saw that she was dead. I went and sat on her bed, where for years she had slept alone. Then I laid down next to her. When I laid down my little body sunk into the wilted blue flowers.
It’s been years since my mother died. Now I’m gown up. Grown enough to be able to give orders. I don’t write anything though, no diaries, because nothing happens in my life. Sometimes I just throw my mother’s onion-skin cloak over my shoulders, wave a large leek in the air, and while her dried flowers have mostly turned to dust and mixed with the stuffy air of the house, I give instructions on the drying of Forget-me-nots. Sometimes, in the midst of this, I suddenly close my eyes and listen to a sound—the only sound. The sound of a cow chewing its cud, its head stuck in among the small, tender vines of Forget-me-nots growing up the walls of the house, and this sound … pulls my day … out of its lethargy.
Shokoofeh Azar is an Iranian journalist and author of a children’s book and a collection of short stories. Forced to leave Iran, she is now living and writing in Perth. Rebecca Stengel is a freelance Persian-English translator, who completed an MA in Ancient Iranian Studies at the University of Göttingen in Germany, and lives in Lyon, France.
Rebecca Stengel writes:
Shokoofeh and I met through a mutual friend when I was living in Tehran. She was working as a journalist and I was at the university studying Persian. We became fast friends and when I decided to travel overland from Iran into Afghanistan and Central Asia, it was something we decided to undertake together. We traveled together until Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan where we parted ways, each continuing on our own. It was a journey that deeply effected both of us and though it does not figure in the two stories published by Westerly, it is nonetheless a recurring thread running through much of Shokoofeh’s work. The shared experience makes translating them both all the more moving and intimate; I too know the landscapes she describes.
Although I have worked as a Persian-English translator for a long time, Shokoofeh’s work is the first opportunity I’ve had to translate fiction. This is an incredible pleasure as it is in fiction, and most famously in poetry, that Persian really stands out as a deeply lyrical almost painfully beautiful language. For a translator, converting the emotion conveyed by Persian’s linguistic imagery is difficult and, despite my best efforts, I have most certainly failed in some places. Shokoofeh’s stories are filled with cultural references that may be lost on readers unfamiliar with Iranian society, its history or for example the geography of Tehran. Yet for all of the cultural references, they are unpretentious stories capable of speaking to an international audience.
Another of Shookoofeh Azar’s stories, The River Woman, is published in Westerly 58:1.