The Magic In Her Fingers

Sometimes survivors are the more unfortunate victims

She bought barberries. She had enough saffron at home. A twenty-kilo sack of smoked rice was still untouched in the kitchen cupboard. She was going to kill the fattest chicken by the fountain, let it bleed out and skin it right there on the mustard mosaics. She was going to disintegrate the bird in four: two legs and two breasts, marinade it in her magic mix.

“Magic” he used to call it. It is just a few spices and butter, she’d protest, what’s so magic about it? Your fingers, you’ve got magic fingers, you touch anything and it becomes the yummiest. Saffron, turmeric, cumin, that was it really. But he called it magic.

Half a kilo of barberries. A bit excessive, perhaps, but he liked his rice really sour. He would have a big slice of chilled watermelon afterwards for dessert. Sometimes two. They would sit on the floor, spread the cloth between them, set the food in the middle, punctuate the space with round bowls of yogurt and cucumber salad. Iced water in a blue, crystal jug would sit on his right side. He liked to pour it. He liked calling the cheap glass crystal. If it was a Friday lunch, they would eat late so that they could listen to the 2 o’clock story-reading on the radio.

Did she have enough cumin? Cumin, was it? Enough? Any at all? What was that again? What did she have enough of? She checked the contents of the red, plastic basket. Barberries. Why did she buy barberries? Didn’t she want courgettes? What was she going to do with the damned barberries? She gave the plastic bag back to the man behind the till. I need aubergines, not damned barberries, I hate barberries, she almost screamed. We don’t sell vegetables, but if you take a seat I’ll go fetch you some from next-door, said the man. Damned barberries, she said and headed out of the shop. Your money, shouted the man, you didn’t take it back. Not again, he said under his breath and ran after her with the crumpled notes.

Who was she? Why was she wandering in the streets that she didn’t recognise, with air so thick she felt she was choking? Why was she in that ugly, dark, black coat? Why wasn’t she wearing her miniskirt that was the colour of a spring’s sky? Why was she carrying that cheap, plastic basket? What happened to her leather handbag? Had she forgotten to put on perfume? Why did the city look so different? Was she walking in a nightmare? She would give anything to wake up from it.

* * * * * *

It was for him that she had changed her life. She wore a facade of piety for him, with a dash of revolutionary ideology. It was for him and him alone. Sit and eat on the floor? Keep chickens in the garden? Wear the chador? She would never have committed such incivility if it weren’t for him.

She didn’t care much for her husband. As a responsible child, she knew she had to do it, the family business depended on the marriage, so did the reputation of her father. She looked at it as a project with an end date and she soldiered on. She wanted to get pregnant as soon as possible so that none of her attention nor her mental space were given to the husband.

Mazdak was born in the summer. Dry heat clutched at Tehran’s throat. The hospital was not far from the mountains in the north. In the morning that he came out of Leila’s womb, a breeze played with the willow’s branches outside the window. Leila couldn’t stand the scene. Shut the curtain, she screamed. Mazdak, in her embrace, began to cry before the nurse had the chance to comply. Leila had hated weeping willows ever since. It was a day to be celebrated not eulogised. Stupid trees, she would say every time she walked past one of the family.

By the time the revolution happened and the Ayatollah took over, Mazdak had already bought his first razor, his legs already hairy, his voice coarse, his father removed from the picture for a few years. But the changes were not just in his appearance.

Just a couple of years of the new regime and Mazdak had already turned into an enthusiastic supporter of the Islamic Republic. Leila found it difficult to comprehend. That was not her son’s upbringing. She knew she had no chance if she fought him, so she played the acceptance card. Made changes to the way they lived. Put the dining table in storage and conceded to sitting on the floor. The gramophone was discarded along with the wine glasses. Luxurious china sets were replaced with all that was cheap and cheerful. The house started to look like a bloody seminary, she thought.

* * * * * *

She fried the chicken with saffron and let it turn golden. She took a couple of spoonfuls of rice and mixed it with the barberries in a bowl, sprinkled a few drops of brewed saffron over the concoction. She liked serving in individual plates instead of big trays. She made a hill of rice in Mazdak’s plate and added a layer of berries on top. The chicken would accompany in a separate plate. Lunch is ready, Mazdak-jaan, she called out. He’d been too quiet since coming home.

It was halfway through lunch that he made his announcement. Leila felt the earth open its mouth and gobble her up. She could not hear anything. The room around her moved with such speed that she felt sick. She tried to get up, but life had left her muscles. Why hadn’t she seen this coming, she pulled at her brain.

After she felt better she wanted to scream and shout, slap Mazdak in the face and forbid it. Tell him she would never give him permission. That he was not allowed to take his life in his hands and take it to the frontline. That she couldn’t bear the thought of his body torn by a land mine, or perforated by the careless shrapnels of a grenade, by bullets fired from a rickety kalashnikov. She did not. She sat there on the floor, numb, and stared at her child. The son that was her everything.

 * * * * * *

She entered the store with her red, plastic basket. The owner looked at her in despair. Have you got any barberries? The good ones. The really sour ones. I’d like half a kilo. The bag of barberries that he had weighed just half an hour ago was resting by the till. Why do you want so many barberries, he asked. It’s for my son’s lunch. He loves Zereshk Polo. There you go, he handed her the bag, knowing that the son’s body was never found, that the last Zereshk Polo made by the woman was thirty years ago.

Leila paid for the dried berries and left the shop. She had enough saffron and the bag of smoked rice was still untouched in the cupboard. She was going to make Mazdak his favourite, magic meal. She still didn’t know why he called it magic.

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