Da (Mother) 55

The Memoirs of Seyyedeh Zahra Hoseyni

Seyyedeh Zahra Hoseyni
Translated from the Persian with an Introduction by Paul Sprachman

2023-7-24


Da (Mother)

The Memoirs of Seyyedeh Zahra Hoseyni

Seyyedeh Zahra Hoseyni

Translated from the Persian with an Introduction by Paul Sprachman

Persian Version (2008)

Sooreh Mehr Publishing House

English Version (2014)

Mazda Publishers

 

***

 

She approached me with a look of apprehension on her face. She probably doubted she could do such a thing. Finally politeness overcame her reluctance, and she wrapped her chador around her waist. She bent down and took Shahnaz by the legs. I tried to lift her by the shoulders, but that was impossible. I was forced to take her arms. I looked at Mrs.Vatankhah and signaled to her that we should lift the body together. But her arms were trembling. “Scared?” I asked.

“No, my heart’s aching.”

“On three, okay?”

She nodded and, after saying “Ali!” I got her body off the ground about a meter, but I saw Mrs. Vatankhah had let go of the feet. All the weight fell me, and I couldn’t stop the body from slipping through my hands. Before I knew what had happened, I found myself holding one of Shahnaz’s arms in my hand. It had apparently come out of its socket. I shuddered and a horrible feeling came over me as the world went dark. It was impossible to breathe. I dropped the arm and, without thinking, ran headlong into a wall. The thought that I had caused Shahnaz more harm drove me insane. My heart was beating so hard it seemed it was about to burst from my chest. The grief I had felt about Shahnaz apparently was not awful enough; I had to feel guilty about dismembering her on top of it. I turned and looked at the body from a distance. My legs were shaking so much I sat and leaned against the wall. I couldn’t stop weeping. No matter what I did, I couldn’t keep my emotions in check. I had always been aware of how others viewed me and never wanted to show weakness in public, but now I didn’t give a damn about anyone or anything. I rubbed my hands together and began to slap my face frantically and grind my teeth together. Why, I asked myself, why does it have to be like this? What if Shahnaz’s mother and sisters were here to see this? Think of how they would have felt. Why was I such a weak sister that I couldn’t even manage something as easy as lifting her body from the floor? Was this the way I showed how good a friend I was to her? Then I began to ask her for forgiveness. This was the last thing in the world I wanted to have happen to her.

The psychological pressure on me was beginning to tell for the first time. I wanted to shriek but up until now there was no opportunity. I clamped my hand over my mouth. What I wanted most at that point was for someone to come and embrace me and say, “It’s not your fault.” But the morgue had suddenly emptied out; even Sabah’s mother was gone.

A voice calling me to come outside interrupted my thoughts. “Come and help us unload the truck.”

I willed myself back to the present. If you don’t have the stomach for this, I told myself, you might as well go back to the city. There’s no reason to stay. Even if you could help, wallowing in grief is not the answer. How long do you want to sit around mourning? Get up. God has helped you get to this point; you’ll have to rely on His greatness. These words helped me get my nerves under control a little. I walked to the entrance to see what was happening. There were several people standing by the pickup listening to the driver. I also heard a child crying but couldn’t see him. The driver said, “This boy is all that’s left of the family.” Then he pointed to the bodies in the back and said, “Fourteen people, I’ve brought them from Taleqani.” The crowd looked at the corpses sorrowfully.

I needed help to move the two Shahnazes. There was no sign of anyone—even Mahmud Farrokhi, who had promised to help. I just wanted to get them off the floor. So I shouted to them, “I need help.” Several men turned toward me. To the women I said, “If it’s not any trouble, could you come with me?”

A nurse and one of the women separated from the group and asked me what I needed them for. I pointed to Shahnaz Hajjishah’s corpse and said, “Come and help me put her on a stretcher.”

“Why is she on the ground in the first place?” the nurse asked.

This put me back on the verge of tears, but I managed to remain composed. “They want to take her away.”

Too ashamed to take Shahnaz by the head, I asked the nurse to do it. To the other woman I said, “You take her by the waist.”

I placed Shahnaz’s other arm over her chest. Then I took her legs and said, “Let’s try to be gentle, okay?”

“What difference does it make?” the woman asked.

“She can’t feel anything. Why are you so touchy about this?” the nurse asked.

I managed to say, “Well, she was some mother’s darling girl. You shouldn’t speak about her that way. Let’s treat her the way her mother would.”

As we were lifting Shahnaz, I said, “Please be careful, I beg you.”

My eyes were wild with fear as we struggled to get her on the stretcher, but we finally managed. I breathed a sigh of relief. I rearranged her chador and placed her arm beside her. I was in the process of straightening her headscarf when the nurse asked, “So why were you so upset? What’s she to you?”

I was so choked up I couldn’t answer her. Noticing how my lips were quivering, she asked, “Was she family?”

In a tortured voice I said, “A friend. But what difference does it make? Let’s just say she was my sister.”

After they had left, I cradled Shahnaz’s head in my arms and kissed her through the scarf. I caressed her face, expecting her to open her eyes and with that cheery voice of hers ask, “Zahra, when did you get here?”

But it was no use. Shahnaz was gone. Taking her hand in mine, I asked her to forgive me again for what had happened. Then I brought my face close to hers and said, “Say hello to father. Tell him not to forget us.”

Now I spoke to her only with my tears. I recalled the first time I saw her. It was at the school during Ramadan, the ceremonies held to mark the time when the Quran was revealed to the Prophet. After the ceremonies were over I saw her running about preparing the meal for the morning breaking of the fast. She worked with enthusiasm and excitement as she laid out the food for the guests. I could tell then she was no ordinary person.

People outside were calling for help again. I forced myself to say goodbye to her saying, “Remember what I told you—especially the part about saying hello to father.”

Then I looked at her face for the last time and left.

Several people were standing behind the pickup, helping a man in the back, who was unloading bodies. They put the corpses on stretchers and carried them into the morgue. “Let me help,” I said to the man. I climbed up and pulled the bodies of the women forward. I asked the women in the yard to come and help. The bodies were horribly mutilated. Some were hit in the head or chest by shrapnel. Only the faces of a few of them were unmarked. There were people of all ages: men, women, and children. There were several women in Arabic head cloths, their faces stained with mud and blood. The blood-soaked tresses of another woman were coiled around her head. Most of the women had their eyes wide open, as if they were in a state of shock with no inkling they were about to die. What was more horrible to me than anything was the body of a girl no more than ten. The innocence in her face, which clashed with the tattered rags she had on, made me lose my composure. I remember that her headscarf had been opened and her hair had spilled out in every direction. She was wearing hand-me-down, boyish clothing, which was woven from a green, wooly yarn. From the way the sleeves bulged, you could tell her shirt was too small for her. She also wore a skirt and pajama bottoms; it seemed that her family was insistent about keeping her covered up. I had seen the kind of scarf the girl was wearing; it was made of artificial white silk decorated with colorful butterflies. The butterflies were now floundering in the girl’s blood. The scene was heartbreaking. What did this girl have to do with war? Had she ever thought about war, even in her wildest dreams? Why didn’t the people who started this war give any thought to the women and children it would kill? What crime did they commit to merit the horror of war?

The pressure growing in my chest was again so unbearable I thought I would go into the street and shriek, “LORD! LORD!” until I died.

The lone child survivor of the family in the back of the pickup was still crying, which made me feel worse. I begged the women in the yard to quiet him. They held him in their arms and patted his back, but it did no good. I sensed that he was just hungry and frightened, crying out to his mother. They passed him around in an attempt to calm him, but the child only became more upset and shrieked until he fainted. His head rested on the shoulder of the last person to hold him, but suddenly it popped up as if he had forgotten something or had suffered an attack. He was screeching so much his eyes shown crimson against his brownish face. I remembered how the newborn Sa’id would move his arms and legs in the cradle when he saw father. Unable to take any more of this, I jumped down from the pickup. I walked toward a nurse, who had just begun to hold the baby, and said, “Give him to me.”

The woman, who was impatient to be rid of the child, handed him to me without hesitating. I gave him several hugs and kissed him. I looked at his face. He was about ten months old, with sparse light-colored hair and dark brown eyes. He only had two teeth. His face was reddish from screeching, and tears tracked down his cheeks. Dried milk was caked at the corners of his mouth, which told me that he was still nursing. I put my fingers near him and he tried to suck on them. Addressing no one in particular, I said, “Can we get something for this child to eat? He’s starving.”

“There isn’t anything,” they said. “He needs milk.”

I walked toward a bluish hose lying in the garden and opened the spigot. Thank God there was water. First, I washed my hands of the dirt I had used to get the remains of the old man off them. Then, cupping my hands, I filled them with water for the baby. His shrieks died down as he brought his mouth toward the liquid, but he quickly turned his head away and began to howl. I washed his face and put the pacifier hanging around his neck into his mouth. He screamed and pulled his head back. I got choked up again seeing there was nothing I could do. The baby was in agony; he had no refuge and all the people who could take care of him were dead. I felt helpless with nothing to do but sob. Then I climbed into the pickup and sat looking at the faces of the dead women. Which one was his mother? Was it the one with hair caked with blood framing her face? Or the one whose half-opened eyes still looked out at the world blankly? Then it hit me: What if the child were to see his mother’s face? Would that calm him? But then I thought better of it. I took the baby’s head in my arms and the lump in my throat burst. Both of us were orphans. The baby’s shrieks drowned out the sound of my sobbing.

 

To be continued …

 



 
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