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"The Calling," by Nahid Rachlin
Even after a week Mohtaram could not believe that her sister, Maryam, was really with her in the living room of her house. But there she was, her polka dot chador wrapped around her, and sitting in a patch of sunlight on the rug to warm her legs, although it was late May and the temperature hovered around the seventies. The house too had marks of Maryam’s presence. The gifts she had brought—a cloth with paisley designs covered the kitchen table, a tapestry depicting a caravan hung on a wall. The smell of rose water that she dabbed on her clothes permeated the air.
It made Mohtaram feel more at home in her own house since her sister had come. She had not really anticipated what she was getting herself into when she sold all her belongings in Iran, after her husband died, and came to America to live near her son and daughter, how much she would be leaving behind, so much would be out of her reach. She had not even known that her son she had come to be near would not be that accessible to her. She saw Cyrus only a few moments every day when he stopped in before he went to the university in Athens to teach. His two children were at school and busy with their friends. Mildred, Cyrus's wife, had not learned Farsi and her own English was not all that good and they could not really talk to each other. Feri, her daughter, who had come to America shortly after Cyrus, was studying in Madison and was married to an Iranian engineer but they were busy with their own lives and Mohtaram rarely saw them. She had a few Iranian friends who lived in town but they were all younger than her with different concerns.
Ever since she came to America five years ago she had been asking Maryam to come for a visit. She wrote to her. "You will love Ohio. It’s sparkling clean with no dust to settle on things. There are many trees and lakes and rivers . . ." Maryam had always refused, saying, "I have my prayer sessions starting next month," or "Bahman wants to get married and we're looking for a proper wife for him.” What had prompted her to come now, Maryam had told her, was a dream she had. In the dream she was searching for Mohtaram and finally found her in a wide, well-lit but empty street, scratched and bleeding. The dream had so shaken her that she decided she must see her sister immediately.
Already, in one week, Mohtaram was falling into the old interdependency with her sister. Every day they woke at dawn, prayed, cooked and ate together, went out for walks. One day they went to the shopping center, within walking distance, to buy shoes for Maryam. She had been complaining that her feet hurt. Maryam put on her chador and Mohtaram a long-sleeved dress and a head scarf. Although Maryam complained about her feet and walked rather slowly, she gave the impression of being the stronger of the two with her sturdy arms and ample breasts. Mohtaram felt thin and frail by contrast and was aware that her fairer skin had wrinkled more. It was hard to tell, she was sure, which one of them was older, even though there was a five-year age difference between them. A few passers-by turned around and looked at Maryam in her long black chador and some smiled at her but just as often they acted as if they did not notice anything different. "See, they leave you alone here," Mohtaram said. "No one interferes in your affairs."
"But it's so lonely, it's like everyone has crawled into a shell," Maryam said.
It seemed to Mohtaram that it would be more natural to Maryam if people stared or even poked at her chador and asked her what it was.
One thing caught Maryam’s attention which she liked, a pair of soft, flat shoes in the window of Payless store. "They look so comfortable. They'll be perfect for me," she said. "I keep changing shoes and never find any that fit."
They went in and Maryam tried on the shoes. They cost only ten dollars. She bought two pairs. She wore one pair on the way back. She said they felt as comfortable as they looked.
They returned home to prepare for visitors. Today Feri and Sohrab were driving in from Madison to spend the weekend in Athens, planning to stay in Cyrus’s house and visiting here during the day. They were all coming to the house for lunch today. Mohtaram had also invited the only Iranian couple she was friendly with. She had bought a side of mutton from the young man who slaughtered sheep in the halal, Muslim fashion and sold it to other Iranians in town. Maryam helped her prepare—cutting eggplants, green beans, cucumbers, soaking the rice, raisins and lentils. On the mutton they used some of the spices Maryam had brought with her—turmeric, sumac, and dried ground lemon, a combination of coriander, cinnamon and pepper. The air was filled with scents Mohtaram associated with home. As they prepared Maryam filled in Mohtaram with more stories about their three brothers, nephews, nieces and aunts and uncles all living in houses near each other in a network of alleys off Ghanat Abad Avenue.
Mohtaram though thought with all the detailed account there was something imprecise and foggy about her sister’s descriptions of people. She was filled with a longing to be with them in person.
Cyrus arrived first. He came into the living room and said, "Mildred had a cold and couldn't come but she sent this." He held out a large platter. "Apple pie, especially for you Aunt Maryam."
"You all have been so kind to me," Maryam said.
Cyrus walked into the kitchen and put the pie on the counter. He took out packs of beer from a bag he was holding also and put them in the refrigerator. He was only sixteen years younger than his mother, had alert brown eyes, curly hair and muscular arms from lifting weights every day. He came back into the living room and sat on the semi-circular sofa.
Maryam gathered her legs under her. "I ache all the time. I'm on the way to my grave."
"Don't say such things," Cyrus said. "People here get married at your age.”
Mohtaram went into the kitchen to fry the potatoes she had sliced, but she kept her eyes half way on Maryam and Cyrus. She wanted to make sure no misunderstanding would develop between them,—a few days ago when Cyrus dropped in, Maryam had told him bluntly that unless he had had a Muslim wedding ceremony his marriage to Mildred was not valid and Cyrus had flushed and had not answered. Mohtaram had explained for him, "I made sure to marry them with the Qu’ran myself. I said the words and they both went along with it. I converted her first into Islam and gave her the name Effat."
"Tell me all about Uncle Mohsen and Uncle Hoveida," Cyrus was saying to Maryam. "I haven't had any news from them for years."
"What’s there to say about them?" But she went on to talk about her brothers at length. Uncle Mohsen had retired from his job as a clerk in the City Hall and spent his days going to the mosque or on pilgrimages with his wife. Uncle Hoveida had a gall bladder removed.
There were some sounds outside—a car pulling into the driveway, and then footsteps.
"It must be them, Feri and Sohrab," Mohtaram said from the kitchen and went to open the outside door. "Come in, come in." She kissed Feri and Sohrab and they all went in. Feri went over to her aunt and they embraced and kissed. Then she introduced her and Sohrab to each other.
"You’re still as pretty as when you were a little girl," Maryam said to her.
"Thank you. I've been counting the days to see you,” Feri said.
Then they all sat down. In a few moments Maryam took out from her purse two matching gold pendants with Allah inscribed on them in Arabic and gave one to Sohrab and the other to Feri. Feri and Sohrab thanked her and put them on. Mohtaram thought the pendants looked a little strange on them with their short haircuts and jeans and wild looking T-shirts. Sohrab engaged Cyrus in conversation while Maryam and Feri talked between themselves.
"Have you thought of children yet?” Maryam asked Feri.
"I've been too busy to think about it," Feri said.
"You don't want to end up childless like me."
"Yes, Aunt Maryam, tell her that," Sohrab said, turning to them.
Feri laughed and leaned against his chest. He stroked her cheeks and then let go.
"Let's play some records," Cyrus aid. "Persian music for the occasion. Do you mind, Aunt Maryam?"
Maryam looked into space and nodded her head ambiguously.
He searched through the small stack of records next to the phonograph and put one on. A soft, nasal female voice began to sing… Oh, my love, you're like a wild flower on the hills, out of my reach, out of my reach.
A car pulled into the driveway. "Here they are, Abdul and Marzieh," Mohtaram said.
Momentarily Abdul and Marzieh came in. They glanced around the room, greeting everyone. Abdul was holding a basket with two chickens, their legs tied with strings. The chickens lay placidly in the basket.
"I brought these so that we can slaughter them in the halal way for Maryam Khanoom."
"Thank you, please put them on the porch," Mohtaram said. “We already have a lot to eat.”
“You can save the chicken for later.”
"May God pay you back for all your troubles," Maryam said. "I can't thank you enough."
Abdul went out through the screen door and laid the chickens on the porch. The chickens began to cluck frantically as if they knew they had little time left to live.
Mohtaram and Maryam brought over the food and put it on the dining table—broiled mutton, two kinds of rice, a yogurt and cucumber salad, sharbat to drink, halva and the huge apple pie Cyrus had brought for dessert. "Let's sit down and eat," Mohtaram said.
After they finished eating the main food, Mohtaram served the pie. Maryam refused.
"It's just flour, sugar and apples," Mohtaram said, knowing what her sister was worried about. The first night she had arrived, Maryam had inspected everything in the house and asked her to read the ingredients in packaged items—crackers, cookies, bread—before she ate them. She had explained to Mohtaram that a young man in their neighborhood in Teheran had told her that they used pork fat in everything in America"
Maryam took a slice and began to eat it. "It's very good. May God give strength to your wife," she said to Cyrus.
Cyrus smiled. "I'm glad you like it."
After lunch the men sat in one corner and started to drink beer and talk while the women had tea. They talked rapidly and intensely, their voices occasionally rising above those of the men in the living room. Abdul was bragging about how much he won every time he went to the horse races, one hundred dollars last time. Sohrab talked about his engineering firm, how the salesman always went after girls when they traveled, and, he added in a whisper, some call girls were arranged for them by the customers' companies. Then Abdul said to Cyrus, "You college teachers have all those young girls available to you. They want to be in your favor . . ."
Mohtaram was thinking how much closer she felt to her sister than to her children. Her children seemed aloof by contrast to Maryam. There was something offhand about them, even when they were trying to be nice. Their attitude toward the occasion, it seemed to her, was that of amusement. When children, they had been like all other Iranian children, dependent on her approval, thriving on her warmth, her cuddling and kissing them, but they had changed. They were cool and independent and egocentric. Maybe I have changed also, becoming a little like them. The knowledge hitting her for the first time really upset her. Then she thought maybe it is Maryam who makes me feel this way. I must be seeing things through her eyes, for this is how she must be viewing my Americanized children as she sits there looking on.
"There is this student in one of my classes,” Cyrus was saying. She always sits in the first row, crossing her legs and . . ." He paused and then added something that Mohtaram, even though she strained, could not hear. Then the men began to giggle about something, a private joke maybe.
After a moment Abdul said, "They don't think of that as being loose morally. I used to think every time a girl smiled at me she meant something by it but that isn't necessarily the case."
The other two laughed again.
"American girls think nothing of such matters," Cyrus said. "And why should they?"
Mohtaram was aware of Maryam shifting tensely in her place. Just then Maryam broke her silence but with an unexpected remark. "Mohtaram, why did you do this to me, making me eat the unhalal food." Her face went white, her dark eyes rolled upward as if she were delirious.
"Oh, sister, what’s wrong?” Mohtaram asked.
"I heard what they were saying in the kitchen."
She must be referring to Feri and Marzieh, who had gone into the kitchen to do the dishes.
"What did you hear?"
"The pie Cyrus brought over had been cooked in pig's fat."
"Who said that?"
"Feri said it."
"Feri, come over here," Mohtaram called urgently.
Feri came to the doorway.
"Did you say that the pie crust was cooked in pig's fat?"
"What did you say then?"
"I was talking about a pie I took to a picnic. I used bacon and ham in it. It was a quiche Lorraine, a French dish."
Marzieh came into the doorway also. "Yes, Maryam Khanoom, that's what Feri was telling me."
"Apple pie in pig's fat?" Cyrus said.
"All the sinful talk in this room and the beer dripping on the rugs where we pray," Maryam said, in a near whisper, looking from face to face.
"We just finished the last beer so there won't be any more of it," Cyrus said.
"I'm spoiling the day for you. I should go back home soon,” Maryam said.
"If you go back so soon we all will be heartbroken," Feri said.
Maryam lowered her face, in deep contemplation.
Everyone was quiet, enveloped in the tension hanging in the air. Then Cyrus got up and said, "I have to go home, I have a lot of work to get done. And Mildred is left alone." He said goodbye to everyone and left.
"We have to leave also," Abdul said. "I'll slaughter the chickens first. I brought along a good knife." He went out through the screen door to the porch. Then he came back and put the chickens, all cleaned up, on the counter. He washed his hands and he and Marzieh left. Then Feri and her husband also left to go to Cyrus’s house.
“The light is fading. We'd better pray,” Maryam said, now alone with Mohtaram.
"Let me put away the food first," Mohtaram said, going into the kitchen.
Maryam followed. "See how these chickens are lying there, dead and helpless? That's how we will be one day," she said, giving out a sigh. "And imagine if you get ill, who's here to take care of you? You know the dream I had that prompted me to come here. Maybe it meant something. You ought to go back with me. Put up this house for sale. We'll return together. Everyone will be happy to have you back. You could buy another house there or if you want the two of us will live together in my house."
Mohtaram began to cry, tears just trickling down her face as if a dam had broken. "My life has been empty without realizing it," she said. "If I had any sense I would go back with you."
Soon the two of them knelt together, chadors on their heads, facing the east, reclining and touching their heads on the mohrs they put on the floor.
Mohtaram had a hard time concentrating on her prayers. Her mind kept wandering to her childhood—she and Maryam sitting together in the hollowed-out trunk of a sycamore tree in their courtyard, going shopping in the bazaar running parallel to their alley, lying in a mosquito net on the flat roof of their house, talking and looking at the shapes the clouds made, the lit kites circling in the sky, the bright stars. As a child she had been the more gregarious. She recalled Maryam often withdrawing into a secluded corner of the courtyard and playing alone with her dolls, saying endearing things to them, picking them up and kissing or spanking them, but Mohtaram would intrude and insist on being included and Maryam would be open to her.
Maryam had been haughty and very pretty with greenish-hazel eyes and wavy brown hair, striking against her olive skin. Mohtaram was shorter with smaller bones and less striking features. When the time came Maryam married a jeweler and made the best of her marriage. She herself married a distant cousin, an accountant, she had always had a crush on, and they were happy together. He was hardworking and intelligent, the only educated person among a family of merchants. He was healthy and energetic, hard to believe he would die young, from a stroke. Mohtaram still could recall vividly that morning waking up and finding him staring with unmoving eyes into space. She touched him and he was ice cold and rubbery. She screamed and ran out to Maryam's house, a few doors down on the same alley. Maryam had kept her there for days, trying to comfort her . . .
That night Mohtaram lay in bed awake for a long time. Memories hit her again, more strongly and vividly in the dark. She saw Maryam and herself in their house, in the hollow of that tree. Now she recalled how the two of them used to sing together, a rhyme they had made up, I belong to this tree, to this house, to this alley, and will never leave them as long as it is in my power to stay.
She wished she could break out of the prison of this new self, and be reborn again into the old one. She fell asleep and each time she woke she thought the same thing: "Maryam is going to leave soon and the house will become impersonal, barren without her, one of the many houses on the street and yet quite isolated from them.
Near dawn, when she woke, she thought very clearly, I must return with Maryam. This is my chance.
Nahid Rachlin went to Columbia University Writing Program on a Doubleday-Columbia Fellowship and then went on to Stanford University MFA program on a Stegner Fellowship. Her publications include a memoir, PERSIAN GIRLS (Penguin), four novels, JUMPING OVER FIRE (City Lights), FOREIGNER (W.W. Norton), MARRIED TO A STRANGER (E.P.Dutton-Penguin), THE HEART'S DESIRE (City Lights), a collection of short stories, VEILS (City Lights) and CROWD OF SORROWS, (Kindle Singles). Her individual short stories have appeared in more than fifty magazines, including The Virginia Quarterly Review, Prairie Schooner, Redbook, and Shenandoah. One of her stories was adopted by Symphony Space, “Selected Shorts,” and was aired on NPR’s around the country and two stories were nominated for Pushcart Prize.
Her work has received favorable reviews in major magazines and newspapers and translated into Portuguese, Polish, Italian, Dutch, German, Arabic, and Persian. She has been interviewed in NPR stations such as All Things Considered (Terry Gross), P&W magazine, and Writers Chronicle. She has written reviews and essays for New York Times, Newsday, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. Other grants and awards she has received include the Bennet Cerf Award, PEN Syndicated Fiction Project Award, and a National Endowment for the Arts grant.
She has taught creative writing at Barnard College, Yale University and at a wide variety of writer’s conferences, including Paris Writers Conference, Geneva Writers Conference, and Yale Writers Conference. She has been judge for several fiction awards and competitions, among them, Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction (2015) sponsored by AWP, Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award sponsored by Poets & Writers, Katherine Anne Porter Fiction Prize, University of Maryland, English Dept., Teichmann Fiction Prize, Barnard College, English Dept. For more please click on her website: website: http://www.nahidrachlin.com