Photograph courtesy of Rahim Hosseini
The pale-green barracks stood in the foothills of the mountain, beside the asphalt road that curved down the narrow pass and stretched out across the desert. About half a kilometer’s distance from the road, perched on a low slope, was a white-domed Berkeh ablaze in the sun. In the desert where water is scarce, these domed structures are built over dugout holes to preserve the rainwater running down slope and keep it from evaporating in the heat. Some have quenched the thirst of passing caravans for centuries and are considered sacred and yet mysterious by villagers and the travelers who still use them. This one, almost ten meters in diameter with a huge dome above it, belonged to Buloor, a small village of low adobe houses the color of sand that from the distance looked to be one with the desert.
Inside the worn-out sentry booth at the checkpoint a soldier leaned on his rifle. If he wasn’t asleep, he was having trouble keeping his eyes open in the heat wave until he was startled by the sudden rush of a group of young women and girls returning from the Berkeh. They were not chattering like other days or carrying jars of water on their heads and kept looking back as they rushed towards the village. The soldier’s sleepy eyes followed a woman’s finger pointing urgently in the direction of the Berkeh.
In the moment it took the confused soldier to run inside the barracks and return with Corporal Asadi, the women and girls had reached the date palms by the village and only the fleeting colors of their clothing were visible in the midday heat.
Zari had been the first to see it. Standing under the narrow archway of the Berkeh, she had stared at the shadow by the opposite wall until her eyes grew accustomed to the dark of the water and she could see her reflection and that of the domed structure above. Water striders darted over the surface of the water, sending entangled webs of ripples towards the moss-covered wall. Zari could see the shadow only vaguely behind the narrow ray of daylight that extended down from a small hole in the dome and was filled with dancing dust particles. She thought it was a desert animal in search of water that had fallen in, but then she recognized some piece of clothing. Holding her breath and thinking that the place might have become the house of jinnis, she drew back and repeated the name of God and the prophet Mohammad out loud. One or two of the other women stepped closer and glanced inside, before they all rushed away, leaving their pots and jars behind.
A soldier pushed the tip of the barrack’s flagpole into the puffed up sleeve floating above the water and, carefully drawing it toward the entrance with the help of another soldier, pulled the body out.
Later in the afternoon, when the desert was giving off the day’s heat and the air was tense with the raspy sound of crickets in the low brown scrub, Corporal Asadi and a dozen soldiers stood at the Berkeh facing the silent villagers. A soldier pushed the tip of the barrack’s flagpole into the puffed up sleeve floating above the water and, carefully drawing it toward the entrance with the help of another soldier, pulled the body out. No one guessed it was Sergeant Rozegar until the body was lying face up on the ground. The water running from the dead’s man uniform sank into the soil white with caliche, making a hissing sound. The villagers whispered and gathered together more closely. Corporal Asadi walked to the Sergeant’s body and bent over it. One side of the head and face was smashed in and his eyes were open to the sky. His revolver was still in its leather holster on his hip.
Corporal Asadi stood up, droplets of sweat glittering on his forehead. He stared at the old men and women and at the boys and girls with dust covered faces. Then he waved them back and, cocking his head, spoke softly to one of the soldiers who turned and ran toward the barracks. The Corporal gazed into the distance in a thoughtful manner before starting to check the area around the Berkeh. With one knee bent to the ground, he examined the footprints and the tire-marks of motorcycles on the soft soil. He took a pen and note-pad from his breast pocket, scribbled something, and got up. He wiped the dirt off his knee before walking over to the villagers. Zari pushed locks of henna-colored hair under her scarf and tried not to look directly at the Corporal.
“When did you come here?” The Corporal asked, stepping in front of her.
“At noon, Sir.” Zari answered in a low voice, her mouth dry.
“Were you alone?”
“No.” She said, pointing to the women standing close by. “Hoori, Masomeh, the little daughter of Abbas, and”
“Did you see anyone?”
“Then what are these boot prints and motorcycle tracks?” The Corporal spoke angrily, pointing to the ground.
Zari gazed at the markings. “We didn’t pay attention, Sir.” She became quiet for a moment, her eyes turning to the dead body. “As soon as we saw it on the water, we ran back.”
“Where is Faraj?”
She was not expecting the question and suddenly was afraid for her husband, who should have been back the night before.
“I asked about Faraj.” The Corporal raised his voice, his stained teeth showing.
the answer was always the same, they had gone to the Persian Gulf to work while they were actually on their motorcycles going to Afghan border or on their way back with packs of opium.
Zari swallowed to moisten her throat. “He’s gone to the Gulf to look for a job.”
She knew people like Corporal Asadi were familiar with this sort of answer. When women in the area villages were asked about their men, the answer was always the same, they had gone to the Persian Gulf to work while they were actually on their motorcycles going to Afghan border or on their way back with packs of opium.
“I see,” the Corporal said. “Was he alone?”
“No, he went with Hydar, Abbas and”
“Did he go on his motorcycle?”
“Yes, Sir.” Zari said. The notion that the tire tracks could belong to Faraj’s motorcycle worried her. How could she tell whether they were his or not? Or if the tracks of motorcycles differed from one another? She had never thought about things like that before.
“Has he gone for a job or is he on his usual smuggling route?”
She looked away. This wasn’t the same calm and smiling man that had been to their house. As he went on pressing her with questions, she felt weak in the stomach and thought that any moment, she might faint and fall to the ground in front of the Corporal and his soldiers.
She tried not to look at the dead body lying only a few steps away in front of the Berkeh and under her breath prayed to the prophet Mohammad that Faraj had nothing to do with it. Maybe he had been here last night. He was due to return from his trip any day now. It seemed that she had heard the faint sound of a motorcycle the night before.
Every time Faraj came back from the Afghan border he had to make another deal with Corporal Asadi. Depending on his mood, the Corporal would sometimes be satisfied with coming for a home-cooked meal, sometimes with cash, and other times with a portion of the opium. When the Corporal came to their house, Zari would have dinner and tea ready and would prepare charcoal for the opium pipe. She would go to Hoori or Masomeh’s house, only returning after she heard the Corporal’s jeep and knew he had left for the barracks. Then she would listen to Faraj complain that Corporal Asadi wasn’t a fair person and every time asked for more. In the last three months, though, since the coming of Sergeant Rozegar, everything had changed.
The soldier sent to the barracks returned with a wooden ladder. He and another soldier picked up Sergeant Rozgar’s body and put it on the ladder. They grabbed the ends of the ladder and started for the barracks, casting a long shadow that moved over the rough surface of the desert. The villagers followed them. The dead man’s arms hanging down on either side of the ladder bounced with each step and drops of water from his sleeves pockmarked the dirt. At the barracks, they took the body in and the villagers continued on their way home.
Zari turned and looked back at the barracks. The day Sergeant Rozegar came to Buloor seemed like yesterday. In the midday sun, the Sergeant had ordered the villagers out of their houses. Barefoot boys and girls; old women in their dark clothing and old men, their heads wrapped in muslin; even the ailing ones had to gather at the village center, but none of the young men were in the village. Zari still could see the clouds of yellow earth flying out from under the Sergeant’s pounding boots and remember his eyes when he stopped in front of her and adjusted his glasses.
“I’ve come from headquarters,” he shouted, “and if I find out that your village in any form or aspect is involved in opium trafficking, I’ll strike you down in your own homes. I’ll show no mercy even to your children or your old. Take the news to your husbands, your sons, your brothers.” Marching up and down in front of the group, the Sergeant had bragged about his bravery and how he had singlehandedly smashed the smugglers in other places, killing dozens and sending hundreds behind bars to be executed.
Zari had trembled with each word and later had sworn to the other women that the Sergeant’s eyes were two different colors, one green and one black.
Zari had trembled with each word and later had sworn to the other women that the Sergeant’s eyes were two different colors, one green and one black. The same day a rumor had traveled from mouth to mouth that the Sergeant was a jinni that had taken a human form, and by evening the old women of Buloor, carrying Qurans and murmuring prayers, had rambled from house to house to expel the bad spirit from the village.
Corporal Asadi came to see Faraj a few days later and Zari heard him saying that they needed to be careful and that Faraj should stop for a while. About Sergeant Rozegar, he assured Faraj that he would be gone sooner or later. He said in his many years of service, he’d seen other officers like the Sergeant. At first, they showed toughness, but then with the pounding desert sun over their heads and the salty air cracking their lips, they eventually either gave in to the ways of dealing in this part of the country or gave up and returned to their air-conditioned offices to sip on sweet lemonade and chat to other officers about their courage in breaking the smugglers’ lines.
But Sergeant Rozegar in a short time proved to be an altogether different sort. He neither participated in the dealings nor let the sun and salt of the desert drive him away. With his grip on the checkpoints and his soldiers patrolling the mountain passes, he had succeeded in arresting a few of the smugglers and confiscating their motorcycles, by this means limiting the activity of several villages in the area.
Faraj was frustrated with not being able to find a way to pass his merchandise through the checkpoint without being caught. One afternoon when he was on the rooftop of his house watching a group of women with jars and pots of water on their heads pass the checkpoint and come to the village an idea came to him. As soon as Zari entered the house, he told her about his plan and said he needed her participation. Zari shivered as he went on explaining. “No, Faraj,” she said finally. “I can’t. I’m afraid of that house of soldiers.”
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” Faraj insisted. “You go through the checkpoint practically every day and aren’t afraid.”
“I am afraid. I’m terrified of those strange soldiers staring at me.” Suddenly she burst out. “It’s time to quit, Faraj. No more of this dangerous business and dragging me into it. Maybe it’s a blessing that this officer came here. It’s a good time to leave Buloor. Have you forgotten? You promised that after we got married you’d do this only for a short time to save some money and then we would move to the town.”
“I know,” Faraj said. He had never seen her react so strongly. “I haven’t forgotten. I’ve been trying, but you know that after the money this old motorcycle costs me and the bribing of the officials, there’s hardly anything left.”
In the end Faraj was able to convince Zari that with her help they would be able to save some money because he wouldn’t have to bribe anyone. He promised he would quit after a few trips and then they would take their few belongings and go live in town.
When Faraj received a parcel at the Afghan border, he would ride through the mountains and back ways, reaching the Berkeh in three or four days. Then, in the dark of night, he would pack the opium into empty Coca Cola bottles, top them off with asphalt tar, and lower them to the bottom of the Berkeh using a rope anchored under the surface of the water. The next day Zari, going for water, would pull the rope up, put the bottles in her pot, and bring them home.
A quiet and long night was passing over Buloor after a terrible day. Zari was on the flat rooftop of the house, lying on a blanket. The fishing out of the dead body from the Berkeh was in front of her eyes. When she tried to fall asleep, the two white eyes were looking at her. Fearful, she looked up at the star-studded sky, but the eyes were up there, staring back at her. She would sit up and listen for Faraj’s motorcycle, but there was only the tense sound of crickets and silence of the desert.
Faraj’s trips filled her nights with anxiety and fear. If everything had gone smoothly on this trip, he would have been back by now, but was worried and prayed that the Seargent’s death didn’t have anything to do with Faraj.
The day she was coming back from the Berkeh with the pot of water and the bottles, Corporal Asadi suddenly appeared in front of her at the checkpoint. She became so frightened that the pot rocked on her head and water splashed out, running down over her shoulders.
“I know that Faraj is still at it,” the Corporal said. “And he isn’t paying his dues. Give him my message that I’ll let it pass, but he should know that if Sergeant Rozegar ever finds out, he’ll put a bullet through his head with no questions asked.”
Trembling, Zari had hurried home and thrown the bottles in front of Faraj. “There’s a devil in these bottles. I won’t do it anymore. I’m afraid they’ll bring your death or mine. You’re putting your life in a bottle, putting my life in a bottle, and when it breaks we’ll be smoke in the air.”
“Calm down, Zari,” Faraj pleaded.
“It’s enough,” Zari went on. “What was wrong with smuggling American cigarettes and blue jeans, and Indian tea from the Gulf like you used to before we got married? Let’s go away. Let’s leave for town right now. You’ll be able to find a job there and I might too. I’ve even thought about where. Do you remember the woman we met when we took mother to the hospital in town before she died? She washed the sheets and made the beds in the hospital. I can go and find her. It will be a fine job and I’ll be doing something good. If we stay, for sure the Sergeant or one of his soldiers will shoot you, and then what am I to do?”
“For God sake, Zari.” Faraj raised his voice. “You believe I don’t think about these things? Or try to figure out what to do? We can’t just go. We have to have some money. You think we can get it by selling the few kilos of dry dates that these old desert palms produce?”
During the nights Zari waited for Faraj, she often thought about her mother, who never liked the opium trade or seeing the young men of Buloor become involved in it. She was always afraid of the barracks and its soldiers. “My dear Zari,” she would say. “This smuggling never has a happy ending. Your father lost his life over a few packs of cigarettes that he was bringing from the port, and my youth disappeared in a blink. What dark years. Who wished it upon us? I was pregnant with you and your father would go away for months. In those days, no one smuggled opium and there were no motorcycles. The men traveled by mule to the Persian Gulf to bring merchandise. I was waiting for your father the night the sound of gunshots came from the Berkeh. How many were shot and who they were we didn’t know and had to wait until morning to find out. I’ll never forget that night. It was like the sun decided never to rise.”
Zari knew the story word for word.
“The only man shot was your father. His mule was shot too. The men had stopped at the Berkeh to drink and wash before coming home and were attacked by the gendarmes right where the barracks is now. The gendarmes overran the village, going house to house. Some of the young men had to go to the other side of the water—to Dubai and Qatar. They risked being drowned or captured by coast guards. None of them returned, except for Abbed.”
Abbed was an old suitor of her mother’s, but her grandparents had opposed the marriage.
Zari had no image of her father, but as a child remembered Abbed, a white-haired, half-blind old man who had lost his sight keeping his eyes open under the saltwater of the Gulf when he worked as a pearl diver for a rich merchant.
“People whispered that Abbed had conspired with the gendarmes to harm your father, but I never believed that. It was destiny. After Abbed came back, he still wanted to marry me, but I didn’t want to, not after your father.”
Zari had no image of her father, but as a child remembered Abbed, a white-haired, half-blind old man who had lost his sight keeping his eyes open under the saltwater of the Gulf when he worked as a pearl diver for a rich merchant. He would sit in the square telling tales of his adventures to the villagers in the shade of the date palm—they said the palm tree was the oldest palm in the village and had never born fruit.
Zari’s eyelids were growing heavy when she heard footsteps and a shadow moving at the edge of the roof.
“Don’t be scared. It’s me.”
It was her man. Boney, tired, and dust covered he lay down beside her. She pressed herself to him, thinking it had been a long time since she had slept comfortably next to him. Anxiety and anticipation were constantly present. She was tired of Buloor and its salty water and date palms rustling in the hot desert wind. She wanted to be in town, to rent a room in a house with running water and a garden. She wanted to be in the crowded streets, to go into the busy bazaar and gaze into the shops that shined under electric lights. She wanted to go to the cinema, like the time Faraj took her when they were engaged. She wanted a big glass of ice water.
The warmth of the desert night was wearing off and their bare skin was absorbing the coolness of the passing breeze.
“Why were you late?” Zari asked and sat up in bed. “Why do you do this to me? I’ve been waiting and waiting.”
Faraj was quiet.
“I can’t help you anymore,” Zari went on. “I can’t go to the Berkeh anymore. Let’s go away right now. Let’s leave before the sun comes upyou don’t know what a day we had today”
Faraj was half asleep, but sat up next to her. “I know,” he said. “I saw everything.”
“What do you mean?” Zari asked sharply.
“Calm down, womanI was watching from the desert. I saw all of you at the Berkeh.”
“Did you go there last night? Maybe it was you. Maybe it was the tracks of your motorcycle that Corporal Asadi was looking atOh God help us”
“What’s with you, Zari? Calm down.”
“Maybe you killed the officer. Allah help us. What are we going to do?”
“Me? A murderer? No. Not me.” Faraj became quiet for a moment and looked away from her. “I’m not a killer. It was Corporal Asadi.”
“What are you saying?” She said, staring at him. “Asadi killed the Sergeant?”
“Yes, he did. Last night. I had just tied the bottles and sent them to bottom of the water when I saw a car’s headlights in the distance coming towards the Berkeh. I jumped on my motorcycle and headed out into the desert. I thought for sure someone had found out about our hiding place. The car stopped at the Berkeh and two people got out. They were shining their flashlights around, searching. After a while I heard a scuffle and then a voice. ‘You think you can turn my bread to stone.’ It was Corporal Asadi talking. After the car drove away I went to check the bottles and my flashlight fell on a body on the top of the water. He was face down, but from the uniform I could see it was the Sergeant. I was so scared and shaken that I headed back into the desert. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to go to the barracks but thought that they wouldn’t believe me and Corporal Asadi would accuse me of killing the Sergeant. That’s the reason I didn’t come home last night. I’m sure Asadi has already sent a report to headquarters and vowed to find the murderer. He could very easily prove that I was there last nightI’ve been thinking about this all day. I think I have no choice except to go away for a while.”
She listened, hugging her knees. He had said everything and was starting to repeat himself.
She knew what it meant for a woman to have her man go to the other side of the water. In the memories of Buloor’s women there were too many of these departures.
“Dear Zari, there’s no way out. I’ve got to go away. I’ve got to go to the other side of the water. If that son-of-a-bitch accuses me of murder, he’ll send me to prison to be hanged, if he doesn’t shoot me.”
Zari wiped her burning cheeks. Faraj had come home not to stay, but to say goodbye. She knew what it meant for a woman to have her man go to the other side of the water. In the memories of Buloor’s women there were too many of these departures. She knew she couldn’t be like Hoori, who after so many years was still waiting for her man to return. Or Masomeh, married only six months earlier, who sat on the roof every day, watching the desert for her husband.
“What am I to do, Faraj?” she said, staring at him. “Tell meYou can’t just leave me and go away?”
“But I’ll be dead if I stay—I know it. What good am I to you then?”
“I won’t let you go. I’ll come with you. I don’t have the patience to wait, to watch the road everyday”
Faraj took her hands in his. He kissed them and pulled her closer. She remembered their wedding night, how calmly and quietly he had held her hands, the only man ever to touch her.
He kissed her. “My dear Zari. If wish I could put you on the back of the motorcycle right now and head out into desert. But it’s possible They may be out there waiting to shoot me and you too. I promise as soon as I go over the water and settle, I’ll either come for you or find a way to have you come.”
Dawn was spreading over Buloor. The sound of the motorcycle speeding away had died out long ago. Zari was sitting up in bed, holding her knees and racking back and forth. Her temples were throbbing and she felt feverish. She stretched out on the bed and started to murmur a lullaby. Her mouth was dry and soon she stopped and sat up. The horizon was slowly lighting up but the village was still asleep. Zari put on her dress and went downstairs. She unearthed a few coins from their hiding place in the corner of the room. She had saved this little money by selling last season’s dates from their few palm trees. She picked up the small mirror and the wooden comb left to her by her mother, then folded her chador and the saffron-colored scarf Faraj had brought her from Afghanistan on one of his trips. Finally she took a string of dried dates, wrapped everything in a bundle and put it under her arm. Not hesitating, she stepped into the alley, hoping no one would see her. She had never seen Buloor so pale and silent. She walked to the cemetery and found the tombs of her parents’ among the low dirt graves. Many of the dead and the way they had died were known to her since it was the habit of the villagers to visit the graves every Friday and listen to the elders talk about the departed ones. She sat between her parents’ tombs and, after touching them and saying a prayer, wiped her tears and got up. She didn’t let her mind dwell on Faraj. For an instant she wanted to go back to the village and say goodbye to Hoori and Masomeh but was afraid their pleading might stop her from leaving.
Ahead the whitish dome of the Berkeh and the outline of the barracks were taking shape in the early morning light. Zari knew no women had left Buloor in this manner and that it wasn’t usual for a young woman to travel alone. She felt scared—it was a new kind of fear—but assured herself that it would pass. She looked at silent Buloor and the vast desert that stretched south for many kilometers to the Persian Gulf, then, squeezing the bundle under her arm, turned and hurried to reach the asphalt road that snaked north through the mountains on its way toward the town.
Ali Hosseini is an Iranian-American who came to the US in the mid-’70s as a student. His novel, The Lemon Grove, will be published by Northwestern University Press. His short stories have appeared in American Letters & Commentary, Puerto del Sol, Ararat, Hawaii Review, and most recently, Epoch. He has had a novel and two short story collections published in Iran and some of his short fiction has been published in Persian in the US in Par Monthly and Persian Book Review.