No 13 - January 2001
It’s been eighteen years since I’ve entered this house. I wonder if, from those years, I have anything but that: “It’s been eighteen years.” Just as quickly as saying so, those years have passed. But the eighteen years I spent inside this house, well, they did not pass so swiftly.
When Musa reads the letter that says, “Please come home, Mother is very ill,” he thinks first of the vow he made eighteen years ago that he would never return to that house. He vows again that he will not do so. Two days later, with the letter like tissue in his hand, Musa packs a small suitcase and boards a plane.
After nearly two decades, you drive through the town that, in your absence, has lost its monstrous proportions, has shrunk into the diminished dimensions of a doll’s house, a doll’s town; everything the same but lifeless, without its mammoth magic. After nearly two decades, you drive through the town with the growing fear that you will be recognized by the town’s citizens, not because of any fidelity your face has kept to its youth, but because, after two decades, you still will be one of only three men here whose skin to this town’s people resembles the color of desert sand. As you drive, as the fear grows, the town regains its magic.
I glance in the rearview mirror and see there the past view of what that face looked like when last seen by my mother, my father and brother. So much has changed between that face and this one, I wonder if they will recognize it, if theirs too will have changed past recognition.
Like bumping into an old, long-lost friend, he regards the face of the house and searches for any change, anything that might be different or new (an addition by nature or by hand). But, like seeing an old, long-lost friend, he is both disappointed and reassured that the house still remains recognizable, its moods and expressions still familiar. In this way, he greets his family.
When you and your mother see one another, despite the distancing of time, your bodies lean into one another as they once did. You look for the signs of illness but you cannot distinguish between illness and the same fatigue that always owned her.
Mother, who always spent more time on her feet than in a chair, can’t stand for long. She lies back, but still she frets about feeding. She wants to get up and go into the kitchen. I say she wants; but who knows, who has ever known, what it is that Mother wants. She cooks, she cleans, she does -- but what does she want? And does she?
Musa knows that it will do no good to protest, to insist that she lie back down. So instead, without words, he sets down his bag, takes off his coat, and helps his mother prepare a meal they will all eat. After a moment, she sits and watches her son cook, advising his actions. He has not made such food since he lived in this house, since he was a boy peering just over the counter’s edge, helping his mother prepare the family’s dinner. But it is as if, as much as his mother’s words, the space itself -- the kitchen, the house -- directs his actions, as if the space knows better than he the steps involved and, gentle instructor, it guides his hands.
You prepare a dish you have not prepared or tasted since you lived here. You chop and the sounds come back to you. You fry and the smells return. You wonder, as you glance at your mother who sits, who props herself on the chair with one hand on the table’s edge, what must it be like for her to hear and smell these things and know that it is not her but her youngest son, her baby, who makes them -- her child come home after eighteen years. You see it on her face: your brother and father have not told her you are here to care for her; you see on her face they have not told her and she of course knows.
When I hand first her then my brother and father the plates of stew and rice -- perhaps for the first time reversing the serving order -- there is in each of our faces the wrongness of the scene, our mother handed a plate of food. She doesn’t look at me. She puts on glasses and looks at the food. She eats, I think, to be polite. Polite: we are strangers after all. I will write down her directions next time; I will try to follow each step exactly, each step that has never worked by exactitude but by years of practice; I will try, though fail, to prepare it as she has done for this last half-century.
She who never rested, rests now. She who dozed only fifteen minutes at a time -- like a wind-up doll that, merely from its internal mechanics, must fade out and must, after the turning, jolt back into action -- now spends hours at a time asleep. Musa takes the half-eaten plate from her hands and tells his nodding mother to just rest for a while. He returns to the kitchen and ladles more stew and rice for his father and brother who still, after these many years (why should years change anything?), do not serve themselves.
You see, looking at their silent feeding faces, that they miss her, that they notice but, politely, do not mention the difference between your food and hers. They try, between bites, to say something to you, but after so many years of not speaking, after a lifetime of not speaking, how do you begin now? How do you ask, How were the past two decades for you, when you never asked in the decades preceding, How is this time for you?
My brother Reza, wiping his hands, says he must return to his family. My father leaves one chair and enters another, sleeps. The two men leave their plates, their glasses marked by their greasy fingerprints. How easily I have replaced my mother. As if it has all come to this, and was always coming to this. How easily I, rather than she, sits alone at the table, taking a moment before clearing away the dishes, wiping them, washing them, beginning the cycle over again: preparing, cooking, feeding, cleaning, over and over again. How easily I take this place. How easily my father and brother accept it as the way things are, have always been. Even after all these years.
Musa’s brother, putting on his coat, thanks him for coming. He says he couldn’t take care of her now; he has his family. And they both know without saying that their father could not take care of her. Without saying it, they both know that the care-taking cannot take care of the caretaker, It is not in him to do so. The brothers hug briefly, awkwardly, separated by the thick padding of Reza’s coat. Musa has been called back to, take up his mother’s place.
You have been called to take your mother’s place. You clean off the table, clean up the kitchen, and after you check on your father sleeping before the television, you go to your mother’s room and sit beside her. You sit beside her and thumb through a magazine. You will help her to the bathroom when she wakes. You will hold a glass of cold water to her lips when she thirsts. You will hold a damp cool cloth to her forehead when she burns. You will do these things that once she did for you.
Days pass quickly in the care of others. In this manner a lifetime can slip away. When one can care only for oneself, there is the daily question, What will I make of this self today, the next day, and then? But in the care of others, it is so much simpler. There is food to be prepared, clothes to wash, sheets to change.
In the moments she is awake and somewhat lucid, she asks and he answers how his father and brother are, if they are eating well, if the brother’s wife is feeding him well, how their baby daughter is, if she is healthy. She asks about the neighbors, the same neighbors that have lived here since before his family, and he relates to her their questions. He tries to color their detached, polite investigations with concern or something like care. She does not smile. She merely nods at the information. After two decades of silence between them, they both take up this chatting easily, as they once did, like two mares settling into the rhythm of their trot. Two mares who by their trot convey so one another the burden they each carry. Not knowing if their reins lead to the same hands or different ones.
In the moments she is awake you want to push past the easy chatter and speak with her as, perhaps, you once did. You want to learn, as you never have, who this person might be and, once, might have been. You ask her what it was like to leave her country. She responds with only a few words, because she cannot offer more or because she cannot speak of it: “difficult,” she says, “hard.” You ask her how old she was and when she tells you, you realize she was the same age when she left her family as you were when you left yours. You realize she was just a baby, both of you just babies. You ask her to continue, to go on, keep talking, but she tires. She does not answer.
She shrugs off an encroaching sleep just long enough to hold up the plate and glass, and the pose strikes me; it troubles. I take the plate and glass, breaking her pose, and I return to the kitchen.
He wants to tell her he knows what it is like to leave everything you have ever known, even if everything you ever knew was everything you ever wanted to leave. He wants to tell her he knows what it’s like to go to a strange land and be lost in a strange language. To be lost among strangers. He wants to tell her these things and he does not.
With her plate and glass you walk toward the kitchen. You pause over the place where once you kneeled before her as she told you to leave and never return. You look over at the place where your father sat then, looking away, and you see that he sits there now, even now he sits looking away, at the television screen. You walk up to him; he has fallen asleep, the television on. He spends more time asleep here than in his own bed, in his own room. Perhaps he can sleep now only in this way. You stack your father’s plate and glass onto your mother’s and, with hands full, you go to the kitchen.
I clean, I prepare the next meal. As it sits simmering on the stove, I go to my mother’s room. She is sitting up in the bed. I sit beside her. I ask her how she feels and she does not respond, she does not look at me. I cannot tell if she is embarrassed by my presence or hers. My father does not know how to take care of others; my mother does not know how to take care from others. I take her temperature. I am embarrassed as well. I should not be here like this. She should not be here like this. I should not be here at all. But where I should be, I could not say. I never could say.
He sits beside her and opens a book. Her eyes do not close. She says, It was hard here for you, in this town. He thinks, This town. Stillwater, Texas. He smiles at the telling name; he has not thought of it in years. He says, It wasn’t so bad. He does not say more. There was a time he would have. There was a time he wanted to tell her how it really was. A time he would have shouted it if he thought she could have heard. But she never asked, and he never said. Now she asks, and it is too late for answers.
There was a time you wanted to say. You thought it in your mind so many times that the thought itself became time. But that time has passed and you no longer want, as you did then, for her to ask you. You want instead to ask her: Tell me what it was like. To come to a different country. You want to know you were not alone after all, that the men did not succeed in making you alone.
She sits there and she asks me what it was like, growing up in Stillwater, Texas. “Growing up.” I want to tell her she cannot do that, she cannot ask me that now. I want to tell her it was the same, it was all the same, whether it was Stillwater or any other name. I thought it would be different but I was wrong, everywhere the people were the same: they were part of a whole and you were not and they hated and feared you for that, or they were not part of a whole and you were not part of their apartness, and they hated and feared you for that. Why didn’t you tell me, Mother? Why didn’t you tell me what it would be like? Why didn’t you tell me that it wasn’t just you, it wasn’t just father, or Stillwater? Why did you let me leave thinking that somewhere else would be different, would be better? Is that what you thought then, Mother? When you left your own family, your own country -- did you think it would be better, or at least, at the very least, different? I want to ask her these things and I do not.
He says, It wasn’t so bad, Mother, it was just a town. We grow up, you know. We all have to grow up somewhere. It’s not the end of the world. In our life together, there was no accounting it; now, in sickness, still there is no accounting of life. And why, now, should there be?
You see she is eating more. You are becoming more skilled at reproducing her dishes. You take her plate and glass. Again her hands lift up the plate and glass to you and again the pose troubles. Then it recalls: a time when it was you who held your hands up to her.
She strikes me across the face.
She strikes him and the small boy leaves her, crying, his hands held out before him. His open arms reaching out, he turns from her and wails, but through the tempest in his eyes, he sees his brother who laughs and his father who says, At last she is giving you what you need. There is nowhere else to go, nowhere but his mother. He circles, then returns to her, his arms open. There are no arms to turn to but hers.
She looks at you with even more disgust when you return to her. Your brother laughs louder.
I take the plate and glass from her. Her hands lower onto her lap. I go to the kitchen. I begin the next meal.
He sets down the plate and glass in the sink and, unlike his mother (he imagines), he does not directly begin the next meal. He looks above the sink through the window at the backyard. Stillwater, Texas. The land in winter, bare and bitter. Bitterly he smiles. He hears his father’s movements in the next room and, like his mother (he imagines), he responds mechanically to the sound.
You go to your father then and sit beside him. You pick up a magazine and turn the pages, catching a headline or a photo of a face. You cannot bear them. You close the magazine. You sit with your father and you both stare at the television. You see there the small boy now older, your mother’s face twisted by loathing as she spits on his face and tells him to leave and never come back. As she tells him that she would rather hear of his death. As she tells him that when he does die, as he soon will, when he becomes sick and is dying, and he will, do not come back to her, she will not take care of him. He leaves that night and for eighteen years does not return, to their town, to their state. Becomes, as he always has been, a stranger to the world.
After some time, after I begin to follow the storyline on the screen, I turn my head to my father and see that his head lolls to one side. I leave him and go to the kitchen. I open a cupboard. I take out a sack. I pour. I rinse. With each movement the air surrounding my arm thickens, retards its actions. With each movement the thought coils more tightly: in her denial of me, it was also she who was turned away, who turned herself away, and now, herself ailing, it is she who turns back to me, with nowhere but my arms to look for comfort.
He sits beside his mother. She sleeps, or she does not sleep, but dreams. She speaks. With eyes closed, she speaks. He listens. From her language he catches a word, a few. Son. My boy. My man. They took my boy. They took my man from me.
You want to tell her, They didn’t take your boy, Mother, your man.
I’m here. I’ve come back. I’m here. They didn’t take from me what you know as your son. What you made as your son. I’ve come home.
He wants to tell her but he does not. A word he has never heard parts her lips: Mahdi.
You ask softly: Mahdi? Me? Musa? But again the word, clear, comes: Mahdi.
I ask: Musa, Mother? Musa?
Mahdi, she says. As her eyes shift behind their lids, her hand reaches up to her head. Mahdi, she says. A tear rolls over her cheek. She stirs but does not wake.
When your brother pays his visit, you say to him, Why didn’t you tell me she was dying? Reza says, How could I tell you? Would you have come? You do not answer; instead you say, There’s nothing-? and he answers, Nothing. You say, Really there is nothing? or is it just easier for you and Father that way.
He says, Easier for us? He grins angrily: Are you forgetting who left two decades ago? She’s been dead to you so long, if it’s easier for anyone it should be you. I
tell him, I left? Is that how it is? Are you forgetting then who really was left, while you were off at college, are you forgetting who was left without a thing? Left with nothing? The two brothers do not speak.
You say, finally, Reza, I want to ask you a question. Reza nods and you ask, Have you heard the name Mahdi? Reza repeats the word, Mahdi? Yes, you say, have you ever heard Mother mention that name before?
Reza shrugs his shoulders and sips his tea. No, he says. I ask him, Are you sure? A relative? A childhood beau maybe?
Perhaps, Reza tells him, but none of her relatives is named Mahdi, none of Father’s relatives either. Why?
You tell him, The other day, she called it out in her sleep.
Is it maybe a version of my name? Of Musa?
Reza says, Could be. Who knows. And after a moment he places the cup on its saucer and stands. He says to his brother, Do you need anything here? Is there anything?
You ask your brother, Anything? Yes, Reza, you tell me, is there? Tell me, is there nothing we can do? Your brother answers, You are doing it, Musa. Everything that can be done, you are doing it.
After Reza leaves and again returns to his own family, his own wife and child, Father returns to his chair and to the trance his chair provides. Are you forgetting who left? I take my father’s elbow and slowly pull him off the chair. Eh? he says. I say, It’s late, you should be in bed. Mother has performed this action every night for so long that he cannot himself go to his own bed unless prompted in this way. In this way I lead Father, already half-asleep, to a room opposite Mother’s, to Father’s room.
His mother has pulled down the quilt for so long that his father’s body cannot enter a covered bed. He pulls down the quilt on his father’s bed. His father, snoring, snores the word
Mahdi. You, yourself sleepy, awaken: Mahdi your father says again. You attend: your father raspily breathes in air, raspily exhales a word, a name: Mahdi.
In sleep my father’s hand touches his head. My father breathes out: head. As my parents sleep -- one whose every waking and non-waking moment has always depended upon the other’s continual wake and work; and the other who, now approaching unbroken rest, finally gets what she could never get enough of -- as they slumber, I open drawers and pull out boxes. I search through the remaining evidence of lives I have never known and have always received, my parents’ lives before me.
Yellowed and grayed photographs of his parents’ faces before his birth then during his childhood, faces of fewer years than his now: they were young then. They were, at his leaving, not so much older than he is now, as frightened by the world as he is now.
You search through the yellowed and grayed, tattered-by-time photos, and find an infant’s photo that could be you, or could be your brother, until you turn it over and see on its back the name, barely legible, “Mahdi.” A baby, Mahdi. A baby that in the photographs does not age. I look for more traces of the child but there is only the one photo with the one word whispered on its back: Mahdi. I smile at the child’s smiling face. I thought my mother approached death by denying it, by not speaking of it or to it. But the photo in my hand says otherwise; it tells me that she approaches death not by returning, as I have, to the only life I have ever known, but to another life that she has known without me.
In the morning, photographs, passports, certificates of birth of immigration of citizenship, have been put away. In the morning, as he spoons loose tea leaves into a pot, he hears a sigh. He looks up as if to see his mother standing at the doorway, as if in a moment she will tell him he’s put in too much tea or not enough; but she is not there, it is his own sigh he hears. He places tea, feta cheese pita bread raw onion, on the table for his father. He takes a tray to his mother, adding to the tea medicine that she will not willingly take; medicine to trick away the pain; she does not believe in it, and perhaps she is right. Perhaps she knows better than all the world’s scientists how to deceive pain.
She says good morning and, as she has every morning you ever awoke in this house, every morning but the one you spent on a bus heading north, she asks you how you slept. You say, Fine, Mother, and ask her how she slept. She says, Good. After she drinks from the tea and nibbles at a fold of bread and cheese, she returns to sleep. She returns to Mahdi, leaving you, her hand on her head. She speaks, skin. Her fingers, clawed, pull down through her hair. From her mouth, Mahdi … head … skin. From her eyes, tears.
There is no language in which my parents and I might speak, not mine, not theirs. Neither language could conceive what such speech might become. Thus from their sleeping-bodies, from their sleep-talk, I must read a life they cannot tell in any other way. I must do so, I do so, not to save another’s lost life, some distant life, but to save my own, so that I myself might live. In an unspeakable language, a voice like my father’s will say:
There, in our country, our own country, before we came here. A child, a son, a baby.
The voice will say, A little boy. The voice will break over the word, Mah-di.
Yes, a beautiful little boy. So alert. His eyes, alert always. So happy, always. Smiles, laughter. -- I will smile at the remembrance.
They took us, one day. Your mother and myself. And Mahdi. They took us.
Yes, they: government, police, SAVAK. They.
For before, when we were younger. Your mother and myself. Before we met. For back then. Communist, they said. They said we were. -- The voice like your father’s will laugh emptily, it will say, We had forgotten even. We had to remember.
They took your mother and myself. They -- hands like my father’s will gesture, not knowing the word -- over my hands, over my -- the hands will gesture -- legs. Then your mother too. Your mother, she watched.
What they did. Every half-hour, they come. They come and they say, Now you will speak. Now you will tell us. I do not know what they want. I do not speak. I say, Tell me. I beg, Tell me and I will say. They laugh.
They -- I could not, I did not know. What they wanted. I thought, Dear God, what is it they want? Let me know. Just tell me. His hands go to my mouth, they pull at my mouth, like – like -- animal, like animal.
Your mother watched. They say, Your wife will speak if you do not. But she does not speak. Only, she watches. I begin to think, Maybe she knows. Maybe she knows and does not speak. I do not know. I tell them, Just say, say what you want. I will say. Just tell me.
They laugh and spit at my face. I kiss -- I kiss the hand, the hand tears at my mouth, I kiss the hand. I beg. They laugh.
They laugh and they bring the child. Mahdi. They hold up Mahdi and Mahdi, little Mahdi, Mahdi dearest, sweetest, who all the time laughs, he is crying. They hold him up by his hairs, his little hairs. They hold a knife to his head, above his eyes. Your
mother screams, she says, I will tell you, anything, it was me, I did it, I will do it, anything you want, anything you want, just say, just say,
but they do not listen, they laugh at her and do not answer, they
the skin at -- the voice’s hand will gesture, the voice will not have the word
for skinning --
his head, they cut along here, here, his head, they pull back the skin, your mother screams, she screams and I, I do not know what I do, I do not know -- still the baby cries, they throw it at her feet, they free her hands, she -- the hands will gesture -- the skin back, tries to put it back, still the baby cries, and…
and then is silent.
The voice like my father’s will silence, as if placing its hand over its mouth.
He will say, You never said…why didn’t you say?
A voice like your father’s will say, I do not know why I did not say, why I did not say, I did not know, I did not know what they want --
I will say, Why did you not tell us?
The voice will say, I would have said, I would have told them –
The voice will cease; it will impart no more. After some time, you will sleep.
It is morning. It is many mornings since my return to this house. I spoon tea leaves into a pot, I prepare a light meal for my father, another for my mother. I go to her. I listen to her as she sleeps. There are things there that I must hear, things she can tell me only this way. She speaks. My parents, at last, speak; this futile speech. Boy. My man. They took my man. I kneel beside her.
I say, Forgive me, Mother.
They took your man and not me, he says. They took him and I lived. Forgive me, he says. He asks her to forgive and he remembers.
You ask her to forgive because you remember
the revolution. Weeks before the revolt of my own departure, there is a revolution. In the papers, on the radio, the television, from everywhere the word comes at us, as if the nation had become prophetic of the person: revolution. With that word, my mother and father, for once, agree and are happy together. I am repelled by the strange sight, the two of them, happy, agreeing. The revolution, they say, they nod, is good. But I say,
How can you say that, how can you say the revolution is good. Look, fascism. Look, he tells them, look. But they say to him,
No, the revolution, it is good. Now the old way is over, the American way is over. Puppet government, they say. Over.
But I tell them, How can you say the American way is bad and now, now the new way, the old way, the way of Islam is good, how do you say that? Where do you live? Go back then. If their way is good, go back there.
But they do not answer him. They nod, they look at the television, the American flag burning, and they say, The revolution is good, for the good of the people.
You kneel beside your mother, and you remember: the news that came after the revolution. People dying. People killed. People killing. Torture. Again. The same. The still image of a headless child. You remember: your parents do not believe. They do not believe and you do. You say, Look, look, I told you. This way is good, eh? Look. -- But they say only, So they say.
I touch my mother’s hand. You were betrayed, Mother. They betrayed you. They promised a revolution, then they did the same. -- From her stubborn mouth, only, Mahdi?
They did the same. You thought they would avenge you. But they did the same. They killed him again.
Mahdi? And I did also, Mother? Take your son? Your man?
I know what it means, Mother, to be promised a revolution, and be given the same: different people, the same. There is a language that will speak; it will say: All right, Mother, all right then, I’ll tell you. One day a teacher looked at me and pointed to her chest and pointed to the other children and said “we,” then pointed to me, looking at the other children, and said “they.” So I left in search of my own we and found instead men who looked at one another and said “we,” who looked at me and choked on the word “we? we?” so settled on “they.” You didn’t even know
the difference, Mother, between us and them, not till they took your son did you know you were ever part of an us, an us that had already become, in your learning of it, them. So you never believed, and I did. The language will speak; it will say: You never believed you could find your own. You left your country knowing that in giving you an us, they had taken it from you, and you would not find it again. Why didn’t you tell me, Mother? Why did you let me leave thinking I could find it?
In this language you will speak; a son will say to his mother: So your own country’s betrayal wasn’t enough; this new country gave you a son who one night looked at your face and said, through a grin, that men fucked him. The skinned baby wasn’t enough. Now you had a son from whose face you could never detach the image of the male organ. One child from whose head a man had torn away a flap of skin; another child into whose head other men place their own flaps of skin.
In this language I will speak: So they tortured Father. But only when they tortured your son, your man, only then did you speak, scream, plead, and Father could never forgive you for that, for revealing then that you loved the child and not him.
And you, Mother, could never forgive Father the fact that you did not love him. You could never forgive him that. You both could never forgive one another for that. The language will struggle, then fade; it will become mute once more... And then she will speak...
Then you will speak, Mother…
My mother awakes, and she asks for tea. I tell her there is tea beside her, still hot. As she sips, I tell her, Mother, tell me -- about back then.
Carefully she places the tea cup on its saucer; she sighs. Through heavy eyes and cracked lips, she says slowly, Back then? -- The question of that time pulls her away from it, tugs her back into this moment.
Your own country, you say.
Oh, yes, (she smiles) my country.
Mother, why have you never said, what it was like there.
There? Oh. (She fingers the quilt’s edge.) How could I tell you? You were not even alive then, and then, later you were just a boy. Just a boy when…you left. How do you talk of such things to a child?
I was a child -- or I was American? Was that it?
No, you’re not. You’re not American. Musa, she says, saying my name for the first time since my return, looking at my face for the first time since the night she spat on it, Musa, she says, It’s in you, you can’t change it. You can’t be like them.
But now, my mother says, let me sleep. Just for a moment, just a moment. All right, Mother, I say, I’ll let you. I keep watch over her in her many retreats, her many returns. There is nothing now for me to do but keep watch and remember. Nothing but memory and memory’s voice, which cannot be spoken or shared:
She stands over his fetal-curled body and says, Why couldn’t you wait till our deaths, why did you have to tell us. We will be dead soon enough. -- But that was eighteen years ago, Mother. And you did not die.
You did not want the knowledge, Mother. You could not bear the knowledge that it was your hand, now it was your hand not theirs, and they whose hands took your son were also yours. They who had destroyed your life, taken your only love, they were now you, you they. Because you hoped at least to maintain an I that was not they (if never a we that was not they). And my life took even that possibility from you.
I silence the memory, its maddened voice, maddening. I take leave of my sleeping mother. (You thought you understood her, neatly -- loveless marriage, loveless life -- and understood only a fragment, but understood that fragment to death. And now you have no more than what you ever did: a fantasy of her.) I leave the dishes, the kitchen, and I sit beside my father who has eaten and now dozes. In my time here, the question taunts, has anything changed, has anything been gained. Day by day I pass between my mother and my father, through the kitchen, from one room to another. From one death bed, I realize, to another. I take my father’s wrist in my fingers and feel there for movement. But nothing pushes back at my fingers pressing for life.
When Musa calls his brother and tells him of their father’s passing, the news registers but does not shock. Unwittingly, they have readied themselves for it. How else could it have been: their father had life only by their mother’s hands, she who fed him, who kept him alive. Without her, he could not survive. Musa could not, after all, replace her. Together they will tell her.
You allow the strange men into the house. Perhaps since its construction, strangers have not entered this space. They place your father on a strange bed. They take him away to where strangers’ hands will slice and probe his body, searching for whatever it is that will appease them, that will confirm for them, regardless what this life might have been, this death was a natural one.
I tell my brother it is wrong that he should be buried here, in this soil, among these people. He agrees, but we both know nothing can be done, nothing altered. We both know that when our father came here four decades ago, here our father would wait out his life, and now ... now ... We will tell her.
The two brothers, one brother’s American wife, their daughter, go to their mother. They place the infant in her hands and, as always, she holds it kindly, but not as if it were her own, not as if it came from her. That possibility, fulfilled or not, has long passed.
Before you say it, she sees it in your eyes.
Released is the final shedding of tears that long ago gathered in her throat: the sound once given her first born; what else could have been given him but this sound. Holding my brother’s American daughter, my mother cries out for the only Iranian child she ever had, the only child truly of her, ripped from her life. She cries out at the news of Father’s death.
His brother takes from their mother his daughter and gives the child to his wife. His brother stands beside him. The two brothers stand beside the bed, witness and cannot share their mother’s grief, in a language they do not speak, in a time they have never lived. She is now, without Father, alone.
There is a way you want this story to end. You want to believe that at your Father’s death, your Mother’s life begins anew, with you. You want to believe that your love can save her, can return her to the living.
I want to see my mother getting up and then, tossing off the sheets, getting out of bed, asking me and my brother if we are hungry and then, whatever we might answer, preparing a meal too large for the two of us, as if preparing also for another son who will never, as I have, return home.
He wants the conclusiveness, the tidiness, that death may promise, but never gives. He wants life for her to begin, and by hers, his own. He wants to go on believing that it was Father, that it was a loveless marriage, a loveless life. He wants to go on believing that it was something within his comprehension or desires. But the bond that held her to his father, though not love, was just as strong, just as life-sustaining.
You do not want the only knowledge you do have, final, incomplete, that you have returned home to bury both your parents, that once they tore you from their lives so that they would not live with their own hands at your life, so that it would one day be your hands at their remains, and not theirs at yours. That what you gave them was a way to end, and not to begin.
But what I want now does not pertain. Here lie two strangers' lives into which I have been cast, which have been cast into mine. My brother and I stand over our parents, the etchings of their tombs forever surrounded by foreign names. He will return to his family,
and he will never leave. He will remain there, in Stillwater, Texas, homeless home, as his mother and father did before him.
- 10th Muse
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- Coffee House, The
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- Modern Poetry in Translation
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- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
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