The First Day
The doctor knows about my love of writing. She brings me a handful of white paper and some sharp pencils. I sit at the table and am frozen. What should I write? How? Where should I begin?
August 1988. Psychiatry Clinic, Ville-d’Avray. Near Paris.
What am I doing here?
Disheveled people with cardboard faces and guarded eyes sit next to each other on wooden benches. Ravaged people with worn hands.
I am scared of these blond, white-clad nurses; of the quiet, alien garden; of the mournful trees with their long gray shadows; of the orderly, straight boxwood hedges—all one height, all one shape, standing one next to the other like soldiers ready to serve.
I think of the garden in Shemiran, of the poplar trees that were my playmates; of the plaster statues in the little garden and the chubby sea fairy that stood at the foot of the pool. I see my father sitting in his armchair under the sycamores, next to a little stream, his enormous shadow extending to the end of the garden.
He says, “I want a big house with a garden and a pool and stone statues surrounding the courtyard; I want sunny rooms and a cool basement for hot days; I want a wide veranda for reading underneath the clearest sky in the world.”
Last night I dreamed of him. We were in one of the ancient cities of Egypt. On his brow shone a golden star, like a piece of the sun, and his penetrating eyes were staring at a far point on the horizon. Perhaps he was gazing at the destinies of his children; or perhaps he saw the destruction of the garden in Shemiran; or perhaps he saw me here, imprisoned among strangers.
His voice rings in the back of my ears: I am made of steel, and steel never rusts.
I cling to his vision and to the magical power he seemed to possess; to the strength of this man of steel, vanquisher of illness and enemy of the weak.
I say to myself, “I have to get out of here, right now, before it’s too late.”
But my feet are stuck to the ground and my body doesn’t seem to be under my control. My thoughts are scattered and words seem to escape me. Everything is multiplied in my head: shapes, numbers, sounds; the wrinkles in the sheets and the ticktock of the clocks. Faces pass before my eyes, fall atop one another, change shapes, and disappear. I am spinning between past and present and can’t stop it, not even for a second.
The doctor is walking in the garden. She comes toward me and puts her hand on my shoulder. Her hand is cold; the hand of a stranger. It’s my first day here. She writes down my name.
She asks, “Nationality?”
“Place of birth?”
The sweet sound of that name, of that known city, whirls in my head, and the Shemiran garden, like a green dream, rests behind my eyelids.
Tehran—with that mischievous r that rolls on the tongue and that drawn-out a like the alluring entrance to a colorful bazaar—pulls me into reverie. Someone calls my name from afar, someone on the other side of the ocean and mountains. The neighbor’s son is standing in the lane, waving at me. I am in love with this boy, but I don’t even know his name. He puts a lot of sticky pomade in his hair to make it stand up straight, the height of a Persian melon, on his head. His cheeks are flushed and his shirt is unbuttoned almost to his waist. I say to myself that I will love this boy forever, to the last day of my life, but two days later, I’ve already forgotten him.
Tehran—with that mischievous r that rolls on the tongue and that drawn-out a like the alluring entrance to a colorful bazaar—pulls me into reverie.
The church bell, along with the sound of the ambulance’s siren, brings me back again to the strangeness around me. Where am I?
A young man, thin as a tendril, with a white face and big black eyes, stares at me. I don’t like the looks of him. He talks to himself loudly and laughs and laughs. He puts his finger to his lips and blinks at me significantly to make me understand that I must be quiet.
I say to myself, “No. I am not like these people. It’s not possible. I must talk with the doctor. I must make her understand that there is a reason for my present instability. A logical, comprehensible reason.”
An old woman comes toward me. She wants to stroke my hair. She has an iron comb in her hand. I move away, further and further, and sit on the first empty bench I find. But she won’t give up. She pulls the comb through my hair. Her clothes give off the fragrance of olive oil soap, the perfume of cool, fresh pillows: the scents of the bedclothes of my childhood.
THE CLOTHESLINE IS HUNG along the back of the roof. I hide myself among the drying sheets. However many times they call me, I don’t answer. They come looking for me. They’re dragging the pool with a rake. They are searching in the lane. I hear their voices at the back of the garden. But I like it when adults worry about me. I know I’m going to get it when they find me, but I don’t answer anyway. I’m afraid, and the fear lulls me to sleep.
The nurse takes my elbow. She stands me up and guides me toward a cement building. I am shaking, and anxiety, like a bodily ache, twists inside me. I go up the stairs one by one. They are endless. I enter a half-dark, half-empty room: a narrow white bed, blue curtains, a small desk, and a single chair.
I am going to die here, behind this closed window, under a rainy sky.
I scream, the kind of silent scream that remains in your throat. Like someone dreaming, I run and stand still at the same time. They take off my clothes and put me in a loose white gown. I lie down on the bed. A hand draws the curtains. It pats my own trembling hand. Someone says something to me in an alien voice. I feel a needle going into my arm. The doctor counts my pulse. My eyelids grow heavy, and a feeling of warmth and sleepiness washes over me.
MY PILLOW seems full of the chirping of sparrows in the Shemiran garden. I can sleep as long as I want in the morning. Tomorrow is a holiday and we will eat lunch in the garden, next to the stream. Hassan Agha rolls out the carpets over the ground and leans the bolsters against the bodies of the trees.
Auntie Azar is constantly preoccupied with the color and softness of her skin. She flees the sunlight and always wears a white silk cloth, like a mosquito net, over her face so that the sun won’t turn her skin to leather. After being outside, she cuts a watermelon in half, empties it out, then pours half of the water from the melon over her face so that her skin will stay limpid and fresh. She says she learned this ritual from a magazine article about American beauty pageant queens. (It included the recipe.) Whenever she laughs, she purses her lips so that wrinkles won’t form under her eyes or around her mouth. She also puts a band around her nose at night to shrink it and make it turn up. She says she learned this from the article about the American beauty queens, too.
EVERY MORNING WHEN I open my eyes, a voice in my ear counts off the days of the week. The voice sounds like the old radio waves—sometimes loud and clear, sometimes distant and thin. The voice tells me that I have to get up, take a shower, change my clothes, and sit at the table to eat my breakfast.
I turn my face to the wall and go back to sleep.
The voice asks me things and tells me that two weeks have passed since I came here.
The doctor gives the order that my chair is to be put by the window. No one bothers me, and no one has permission to see me.
A new order comes down: I must take a walk every morning in the garden and eat lunch with the others. I say No! and pull the sheets over my face.
The nurses, at first with kindness and solicitousness, then by force and firmness, get me out of the bed. They help me change my clothes, put on my shoes, splash water on my face. Left to my own devices, I wouldn’t have moved. Sleep and escape and forgetfulness—those are the only things that I want. I fear the light of day and wish it could be dark all the time.
I plead, “Wait, can’t we wait until tomorrow? Or a few more days, maybe?” It’s no use. They’ve heard it all before. We go into the hall. They’ve got me under the arms. My body is a hollow shell. When they let go of me, I fall down. I cling to the railing of the stairs.
When we get to the garden, they release me. I sit down on a wooden bench, far from the others. The old woman with the iron comb sees me and starts my way. She sits down behind me. She wants to comb my hair. I don’t move. I give in. She takes the pins out of my hair and combs gently, then begins to braid my hair.
WHAT A LOVELY FEELING it is to have a kind person braid your hair, button up your coat, and tuck a piece of bread with jam into your school bag. They’ve signed me up to begin at the Firuzkuhi School. But I must hurry up. My mother is braiding my hair and puts a spoonful of fish oil in my mouth. To make up for its nasty taste, she puts a handful of hard candy into my pocket. My patent leather shoes squeak and my stiff coat gives off the smell of starch. My bag is full of new notebooks and colored pencils.
We stand in line while the headmistress looks at our hands and nails. The dirty children are sent aside and have to stand at the back of the line. The ones who are not only dirty but also haven’t buttoned the top of their coats, or have forgotten their schoolbags, are sent to a corner of the schoolyard to stand on one foot with their hands above their heads in the air. The ones that cry are sent to the dungeon of the basement.
The schoolmistress asks my name. I’m sucking on several pieces of hard candy and can’t answer.
She orders me, “Open your mouth!”
I shake my head. I try to swallow the candy by force. The headmistress’s face is turning red with anger. She sticks a finger in my mouth. The candy is stuck in my throat and I’m close to choking. I start coughing. Now my place is in the dungeon. I chew the candy and cry. The thought of being sent to that dark basement makes the hair on my head stand up. I flee and get as far as the corner by the water barrels. They send the cleaning woman after me, and she drags me back by my collar.
She says, “Stupid child, shut up! If you don’t, I’m going to wedge a pencil between your fingers.”
I bite her hand, and with a kick to her ankle, step on her foot. The bigger girls, the teacher’s pets, grab my shoulders and drag me down the steps. They have the keys to this dungeon. They open the door and throw me in. They deal me a nasty kick in the pants, then lock the door. I am frightened and scream.
There is another little girl imprisoned with me. She laughs at me. She has a flashlight and shines it on me. Her face is hidden in the darkness. She isn’t afraid of the spiders and cockroaches in the basement. How did she get this flashlight, and how did she hide it from the headmistress? I go toward her. Her mouth is full of food. She pulls off half of the fruit leather she is chewing on and hands it to me. We sit down next to each other and I feel my fear dissipating. My eyes gradually adjust to the darkness and I see her face in the light of the flashlight. Her short hair gives her a boyish look. I think to myself, “This girl, whose eyes shine like a cat’s in the dark, who isn’t afraid of the basement, will become my best friend.” We take the vow of sisterhood then and there and divvy up my hard candy. We talk, we laugh, and are happy we have been imprisoned together and don’t have to go to class. The headmistress doesn’t know that she’s made me the happiest girl in the school, and like a person in love, my heart beats faster. Before classes are over, we are freed. I take my little friend’s hand and my fear of study-ing and of school falls away.
OFTEN, THE DOCTOR asks about my experiences of love.
I think of my little friend, of the eternal vow we took together. My lying friend. My heart, after all these years, is broken again by the memory of her, and the tears well up and fall from my eyes unbidden.
My first love?
Who, where? I don’t remember. Dozens of images, like photos fallen together, appear before my eyes: the boys of Mahmudiyeh, the bus drivers, father’s old and balding friends, film actors, passersby in the street, imaginary people, writers whose pictures appear in the paper. I’m in love every day of the week, and God knows with whom. It doesn’t make any difference.
Mr. Saqi, Mr. Baqi, Mr. Hasami? I don’t remember his name. Whoever he was, he was one of my uncle’s friends. Every time we have a party, they tell him to come so that he’ll sing and play the santur. He looks like death warmed over. He has stringy hair and there are dark shadows under his eyes. His skin is the yellow of turmeric, and he looks like the consumptive hero of the last book I read. When I look at him, I blush and my heart pounds. I watch him from afar and sigh. I am sure that he will die soon, and I weep at the thought of it.
He’s an addict. He keeps a bit of opium under his bottom lip and sucks on it like hard candy. (I know because I’ve heard from the grown-ups.) When he plays the santur, he sweats, and the odor of his body fills the room. Mother pinches her nose and frowns, and from where I watch in the doorway (I’m not allowed to go into the room), I swear that this sad singer, this hopeless addict, will be my beloved forever.
Later I hear that he has locked himself in his room and hanged himself. I feel sorry for him, and then the last bit of his memory is cleansed from my mind.
THE DOCTOR INSISTS that I have to take my meals with the other patients in the dining room, be sociable, talk, pay attention, and begin to understand who and where I am. I must put some distance between myself and the past and return to the present. I must get to know the “me” that I am now and to begin to imagine this person living both tomorrow and in the future.
I can’t. I’m afraid of the future, and “today” is an empty and suspended time that is attached to no place. Only the past seems real, like mother’s flowered skirt, in which I used to hide myself.
The dining room is large and full of light. Spotlights hang from the ceiling, showing the bitter lines of the faces within. It resembles an interrogation room. Or at least it does to me. But I’m not sure of my own point of view anymore, and I know that the world outside isn’t the way I see it.
The other patients sit quiet and stupefied around the table. Everyone, altogether, stares at me. One stands and offers me his spoon. A few others imitate him. Their hands reach toward me, offering spoons, forks, plates.
The nurse comes to my rescue and takes my elbow. It is as though I have amnesia and must learn again how to sit and how to eat. I perch on a bench, ready to flee. A man sits next to me and stares at his plate. He is dumbstruck and his mind is somewhere else.
A nurse claps her hands. She shouts, “Quiet! I have good news for you. On Sunday we’re going to have a party.”
Everyone except me claps and cheers. They clink the sides of their glasses with their spoons and laugh.
On holidays, there is usually a small party in the garden or in the inner parlor. Sometimes a musician who used to be a patient here returns to see his old friends and to play the piano or violin. The idea of his return is hopeful and helps the others take heart.
Before the party, I make clear to the nurses that I will not take part in the festivities. It’s impossible. The doctor, who knows about my nasty temper, gives the order to let me go.
The party is in the garden. I watch it from behind the window. It’s a party of ghosts, lost spirits that circle each other, immersed in their thoughts of past loves and desires.
The party is in the garden. I watch it from behind the window. It’s a party of ghosts, lost spirits that circle each other, immersed in their thoughts of past loves and desires. Two women have grabbed each other’s waists and stagger around together. Their eyes are closed. They sway their heads to the music and smile from time to time. It’s as though they are asleep and dreaming a sweet dream.
A young man talks with himself and makes a face at me, circles the others, and talks faster and faster. They say he is a poet and has published two volumes of verse.
SOME NIGHTS WE GO to Café Naderi where Auntie Azar and her husband dance. They have both taken a European dance class and dance so well that people clap for them. Nirvana Khanom and Minerva Khanom are my mother’s cousins on her father’s side. They play the accordion and the piano, and every time they come to our house, they put on the old gramophone and convince everyone to dance. Mother is shy. She doesn’t know how and tries to hide in a corner.
Yazdan, Minerva’s son, is crazy. He climbs the walls. He’s broken his arms and legs and hands. He has a slingshot and is a master at killing sparrows. When his mother and father leave the house, they tie him to a chair with rope so that he doesn’t get into any trouble or set the house afire. When he comes to our house, they tie him to a tree. Sometimes he’s hungry or thirsty, and then he screams. Nirvana holds a cob of corn in front of his mouth and turns it as he chews. Mother says this is a cruel and ugly thing to do and orders that he be freed. But as soon as he’s freed, this boy is like an arrow released from its bow and shoots up, knocks over the samovar, upsets the fruit plate, and everything tumbles to the ground. Mother shouts to get him, and he is tied up to the tree again anew. Now the ropes are tighter.
Father doesn’t have the patience to tolerate this kind of guest. He stays in his own room and works. Every time I look his way, he is writing. I love his study. It is full of books and newspapers and a desk as big as my bed. I wrote my very first story sitting at that desk. How old was I? So little that my head barely reached the top of the desk.
I know that my father is a writer and I mustn’t disturb him. Noiselessly, I go to his room and stand behind him, trying to peek at what he is doing. His pen hesitates over the white paper. He nods and chews on the end of his pen. From his pen pour fine little things, like a thousand ants, that arrange themselves on the paper. He knows I’m standing behind him and calls out my name. I want him to write something for me. His pen dips into the ink bottle. He writes some strange figure and then says, “Look! This is your name.” Once again he dips his pen in the ink. Then he holds the paper under my nose and says, “And this is a cream puff.”
A cream puff! My stomach growls and my heart melts. He dips his pen in the inkpot a few more times and draws for me a picture of a butterfly, a ball, and a cucumber. Everything on earth is contained in that magic inkpot. It’s full of toys and lovely things to eat (including cream puffs). It’s full of the stories that Father tells me and of words that I want to invent.
Afternoons, when Father is sleeping, I make my way to his desk. I can’t find his pen, so instead, I dip my finger into the inkpot and rub it on a piece of paper. The scent of the ink makes me feel drunk and happy. I rub my inked hands into my clothes and dip my fingers again, one by one, into the inkpot. I jostle it and it overturns. My hands and head and face and clothes are covered with blotches of ink. Ah, what bliss! If they’d let me, I would paint on every white wall. I wish for one hundred bottles of ink and one hundred pens and one hundred fingers and a room full of white paper. I have become like father now. I am a writer! I want to show him the story I’ve written, but a hand grabs my collar from behind and Mother’s angry voice echoes in my ear, “Filthy child! Look what you’ve done to your clothes!”
My hands and head and face and clothes are covered with blotches of ink. Ah, what bliss! If they’d let me, I would paint on every white wall.
THE DOCTOR KNOWS about my love of writing. She brings me a handful of white paper and some sharp pencils. I sit at the table and am frozen. What should I write? How? Where should I begin? I hold the pencil in my fingers and chew on the eraser at its tip. My face is glued to the blank page, and I run my tongue over its sharp edges. My heart beats faster. I close my eyes and stay that way for some time.
The doctor comes to my aid. She says, “Madame Author, write down your dreams. You are always talking about the past—now write about it!”
I write. Then I scratch out what I’ve written. I search for the right words. My thoughts are scattered and my sentences have no beginning or end. I’m like a lazy stu-dent who has fallen behind in class—I’ve even forgotten the fundamentals of grammar and how to write dictation. My room is full of crumpled-up bits of paper, and I’ve sharpened all my pencils ten times. I’ve gnawed down each of their erasers bit by bit. I write and cross it out, write and cross it out. My memories, vivid and disorganized, come to my mind and, like rings in the water, turn and turn until they are invisible.
Some days, hopelessly, I stop writing and give myself over to the abyss. Some mornings I can’t get up and spend the whole day sleeping. But the urge to write always starts nibbling at me again from within. The words won’t leave me alone. They come to me in my sleep, too, like an army of ants, creeping over my lips and eyelids. My struggle begins to diminish and I’m on the mend. I can walk by myself in the garden and read a page or two of the newspaper in the morning. Writing a few short sentences, describing a simple occurrence, gives me a new sense of power. I’m stirred by this feeling, encouraged to go on.
Some days, hopelessly, I stop writing and give myself over to the abyss. But the urge to write always starts nibbling at me again from within. The words won’t leave me alone.
I say to myself, “If I can write, I can get better.” And suddenly, that is what I want. I want to get better. I will not accept myself in this condition, sick and disabled. I know that this stranger who has made a home in my soul is an unbidden guest, and that she won’t be staying long.
I write everything that passes through my head. It’s not important if it’s confused or disorganized. It doesn’t matter that it has no beginning or end. This is only the beginning of the work. My cure is in the writing of these thoughts, feelings, memories. I must firmly knit together words, expressions, and points and pull myself out of this dark well, this well of sleep and forgetfulness. Words swim in the air like planets released from gravity and circle about me. I grab each one that comes near me and paste it to the page. I am inventing a secret language, like hieroglyphs, whose meaning must be deciphered.
The doctor has faith in my work and encourages me to go on. The nurses leave me be. They let me wander among words, to take them in my arms, to fall in love with them, or else, to beat them, to pull them apart, and tie them up head to toe. With colorful knots I weave a flying carpet and travel to the farthest days of the past, to my first memories: getting into my uncle the colonel’s car.
My mother and my uncle’s wife sit in front and I stand up in the back. My head doesn’t reach the roof of the car for miles. Mother’s and Auntie’s shoulder pads stand out stiffly, as though there is a bundle under them; they’re in the way of my view. It is strangely quiet as we pass through the dark, unlit street.
Mother is afraid of this street. She says, “We shouldn’t have come here. The Karaj River is where thugs and knifers hang out.”
Uncle’s wife has heard that two people were killed here. Uncle just laughs at these fears. He is an officer of the army, and thugs should watch out for him! I’ve seen his sword. It hangs from a wall in his room. His shoulders are full of metal stars and gold threads. The stars twinkle as if as if they are making rude faces at me. They sit on Uncle’s shoulders and leer at me. They are cheeky, obnoxious stars, and as soon as I can, I grab one and pull. But it won’t come off. Uncle shrugs off my hand.
He says, “Hey, kid, what are you doing? Sit down.”
Mother says, “Don’t play with the lighter.”
But I play with it anyway. I push on the button. One minute later, it pops out. The tip is hot and red. The stars on Uncle’s shoulder are staring at me. It’s as if they’re afraid. I put the lighter on Uncle’s raised shoulder, right smack on two stars. One of the stars makes a small crackling sound and begins to burn. A thin smoke is rising. I know that I am doing the worst thing in the world. I want someone to grab my hand and tell me to stop.
Uncle smells something. Sniff, sniff. Mother turns and looks at me. She has turned into a wolf. Auntie turns to look at me, too. Her mouth is half open. Her incisors have grown longer. My scream is louder than Uncle’s or Mother’s. The inside of my head goes black, like a lamp that suddenly burns out. I pass out.
The first stories I write are confused scribblings, unfinished things. But slowly, like a growing plant, they grow along the walls and corners of my mind. Every time I begin a story again, it is better, more complete, and I have taken another step forward. I have found a reason to get up each day, and in the frightening vacuum of the mornings, a little light burns steadily.
The first stories I write are confused scribblings, unfinished things. But slowly, like a growing plant, they grow along the walls and corners of my mind.
The doctor regards the appearance of this little light as a sign of good fortune and says that something positive is going to happen to me. I have found Aladdin’s lamp, and I rub it in hopes that it will help me write again.
Before one month passes, I have written four stories. Oftentimes, I wake up at night and see that a familiar face, from the bottom of faraway memories, has come to visit me. Sometimes these faces are so real and alive that I feel the tip of a finger on my face.
Last night Aziz Agha, the driver of the Shemiran bus, came to see me in the shape of a ghost. He looked at me with his tired and puffy eyes and let me know that he had not forgotten me and that the pact we made still stands. With the passing of each memory, another appears. Mister Ghazni, the English teacher; Giti Khanom, the neighbor’s bad wife; my uncles—happy, healthy people; sad and broken people; they visit my dreams until they have all found a place in my writings.
I close my eyes and see the Shemiran bus approaching from afar. Its driver flashes the lights for me, and my heart beats faster from joy.
I repeat to myself, I will not board any bus except Aziz Agha’s.
The doctor brings me the last dose of medicine for the night. I want to find a story I have written so that I can read it to her. But she turns off the light and says, “Leave the rest for later. For tomorrow.”
Translation from the Persian