April 7, 2008
In 1950, a hearty healthy youth of excellent looks named Ahmad Bashiri had been an ace student at Tehran University. An outgoing, gregarious young man, he played soccer and volleyball, and was a member of as many youth organizations as there were, some working as fronts for political parties of opposing programs. He attended all their meetings, parties and fund-raisers, minding everyone's business but his own, which was not much of a business as of yet. It kept him busy with the lighter side of life. A side he wished he never had to leave.
But the early fifties in Iran were trying times, the exciting ever-changing times of intellectual and artistic activities, when everyone seemed to belong to a party, a cause, an ideology. At the junction of the oil nationalization frenzy, Ahmad graduated from college with good enough grades to land a job with the National Railroad Organization of Iran as an engineer, and since he was the first engineer ever to come out of the Bashiri stock, the title stuck to him with the glue of affection and became part of his name: Engineer Ahmad Bashiri.
Standing a head and shoulder above his peers at six four, with a head full of wavy pitch-black hair, combed upwards and away from his face, he was the sensation of the railroad organization. Hopeful secretaries and other female employees of no particular repute flocked to his office building on phony premises just to take a peep at the dashing young man whose star shone brighter than any other male in that corner of the world, and who, above all, was still unmarried. And he took his time with each and every one of them. There was an Army cot in the den of his office, a relic of camping ventures from his university days, which opened and shut noiselessly with the regularity of the moon chasing the sun. Scores of secretaries, a good portion of them married, lost their hearts there on that cot, and did not mind doing so even during regular working hours. He was wild, insatiably whonking away at them, and they responded to his fervent pursuit with their own small grunts of satisfaction.
An ideal arrangement had offered itself to Ahmad for which he was grateful. He was renting a basement near the Gomrok Intersection. His landlord was an artist, a painter of nature, who constantly sought virginal scenes of plains, deserts and snow-capped mountains. He lived above the basement, but was often away, on the road to the remote regions of the country, in pursuit of his muse. Unlike most artists of his time, though, he was void of any political convictions; just liked to take long trips to far out places in the bosom of nature to draw pictures of mountains, trees, cattle. Which presented to Ahmad an unreal proposition: with numerous colleagues of the opposite sex, he could put the different parts of the house into good, memorable use. As long as the artist was himself a single man, although advancing in age, this compromise could not have worked any better to both parties' advantages.
But in three years time, his landlord met and married a widow and, before long, had moved her and her daughter into the house. If it was not for the faithful cot in the den of his office, the damper on the philandering years of Engineer Ahmad could have been blamed on the new arrangement in his living situation. But the folding bed offered its services as generously as before. What slowed down the Engineer, then? What dampened his appetite, softened his manhood? It was not a lack of a lair that had matured him, that's for sure. Then what? It could be safely said that a new hobby had appeared in his life, which he had not foreseen nor for which had he allotted a slight chance: the widow's daughter.
Maryam was her name. A slight girl of seventeen, with a small face and curious, glittering gemstone eyes that were black with tiny streaks of orange, which could cast a spell if you were not careful. And careless, careless he was. From the moment his eyes stroked her face, that instant the sun-rays reflected her dream-like being before his eyes; from the moment his ears tingled with her melodious voice, the sound of her soft feet on the tiles of the yard, the rustle of her starched dress-from that moment his heart found a higher reason to beat in his chest: a high school student of womanly proportions.
Engineer Ahmad knew from then that he was badly in love with her, because day and night his mind was a-swim with the image of her slender figure, an image he could vanquish only with conquering of a female form. From that day, it was not the usual women that he made love to on that cot anymore. It was Maryam, in different clothes and shapes and temperaments. He had her in a variety of ways in that office of his: on her back, on her sides, on all fours from behind, on top with her hair pouring down on his face, underneath, standing behind the door, bent over the desk, astride a bench, under the desk, every which way over and over, and every time he opened his eyes she disappointed him by transforming into someone else: his boss's wife, the secretary down the hall, or any one of the other women he associated with in those days. He was disappointed again and again, and did not know quite what to do about the blaze that burned in his soul.
The artist's long absences provided an excellent opportunity for his tenant to get near his daughter, the ephemeral subject of his obsession. She was preparing for her twelfth grade finals that spring, and often she would come out to study, but sometimes, like women secure in the knowledge of their desirability, she would come out just to tease. She would sit outdoors in sleeveless shirts, or otherwise a casual dress, showing off her smooth skin, slender neck, silken hair. And she almost never failed to lure him outside. There were always thick books around her, even when she was not studying. That was what made her most comfortable, having books laying about to leaf through; something to keep her delicate fingers busy with. Or else, she would be resting on the steps leading to the yard, combing her waist-length hair that was darker than night, or polishing her self-manicured nails.
The game they played always included her pretending to be busy with her schoolwork, hair, nails, anything but engaging in this cat-and-mouse game with her step-father's tenant. His room in the basement opened into the yard by way of a series of sliding windows that covered the whole side of the room, and went under the metal steps, so that when she sat on top of the stairs, he could hear the sound of her feet on the metal. Noticing her up there, he would rush to make his appearance, always initiating the conversation by inquiring about the school; if there was anything she needed help with; if there was anything he could do to assist her. She then would stop and raise her head from whatever she was doing, and politely, with an affectation of innocence in her voice, answer his inquiries. School was usually fine, there was nothing she needed help with; she would give him a smile, a note of gratitude for his offers.
That's how they played it, safe and innocent. A conversation would follow with him not taking his eyes off her, but offering her his pack of smoke. He knew she liked to smoke out in the open air. On occasion he had seen her smuggling a cigarette inside her books and smoking it when she was sure she was not being watched. Although she felt comfortable around him, (she would even smile at his jokes) the offers of smoke she dared not accept for fear of incurring a debt she could not pay back.
Between them there were always two conversations going on at the same time: one they carried on the surface with their polite discussions of school and future plans and dreams, the other, a subtle give-and-take of coded messages, which involved trading glances, hand gestures and flirtatious tones of voice that hinted at the existence of a world of exotic secrets and sweet yearnings beyond the normal facade of life. While they both engaged in the first form out of necessity, they treasured the second, and indeed bore the first in order to benefit from the second. Thus their affection for each other grew in the most amicable of ways-not without her mother's guidance-and so did his love for her.
He deemed it sensible to await her graduation before professing his love, lest it cause any distractions during her finals. Love could be an embarrassing proposition to a woman of such a tender age, and he did not wish to embarrass her with what he was desperate to say. . . . But as it turned out, the artist did not find Ahmad suitable for his step-daughter, and straight-away rejected his bid to become his daughter's spouse. Ahmad blamed his timing this rejection, but truth be known, the artist had been preoccupied with a peculiar problem at the time: his work-in-progress. When the youngster had stopped him to talk about his heart, he had dismissed him by waving a hand and saying, "It's a ridiculous idea, son."
"But why? Am I not good enough? Don't I have a bright enough future?"
"That may be . . ."
The artist's elusiveness was perturbing to the young suitor who had no previous experience of this sort. The trick was to stick to the facts only, and hope for the best. "Don't forget that I'm an engineer, sir. I've found my way."
But even his position at the railway organization failed to impress the artist. Of course, the artist knew Ahmad was trying to tell him that he was able to support a family, and that he was by no means a bum without a future. That, however, was not what the artist was concerned about. He was presently concerned about a specific shade of orange that he had seen on his last trip, in the sky covering a village in Kurdistan. If it had been anyone else in the painter's shoes, he would gladly have allowed Ahmad marry his daughter. But the artist almost ran upstairs to hide himself in the building. That special shade of orange proved more onerous to produce than he had allowed. The truth was, he wanted his step-daughter to marry a fellow artist. "Any fool can find his way," were his last words to Ahmad before disappearing into the building. "An artist alone knows how to lose it."
Slightly dismayed but not given up, Ahmad talked his dilemma over with his brother who was wise enough to suggest recruiting the help of the family elders. His advice was not without merit. Only the elders could talk the kind of nonsense that would make sense to the artist, hopefully getting him to come around. Shortly thereafter, Ahmad sent a long message to his brother explaining, in tortuous detail, his predicament, adding that if he did not marry this girl, he might as well die because life without her would be impossible.
At long last, the day came when Ahmad, in the company of his brother and Uncle Farrokh went up the stairs to the artist's home to ask for the step-daughter's hand. The artist had just come back from a trip to the south, and was full of anecdotes with which he set out to entertain his guests for three hours. Protocol suggested that the guests sit patiently through his dull observations, until he ran out of things to say. A moth flew about aimlessly, colliding with the walls. He had seen the flock of oil workers and their demonstrations for higher wages, and had painted a few landscapes of the ocean. Palms and dates, and Arab women with their black masks. The humidity, the bitter salt-water, barefooted children in the dusty alleys, the inoffensive foghorn of the oil tankers that had been prevented by the British to load the Iranian oil as a protest to Mossadegh.
When finally Farrokh veered the conversation toward the purpose of their visit, the artist threw his brows upward, and closed his eyes to convey he did not take it lightly. He told the guests that on the surface he had no problem with Ahmad marrying his daughter. What better son-in-law than an educated young man like his tenant? Where else could his daughter find a better man? "But I can't speak for her, you see. She's the one who must decide."
Presently, Maryam's small figure came to life, standing by her mother, grinning widely, eyes on the floor, mumbling something to the effect that yes, she would choose the man before her to be her husband-a progression the artist had not included in his forethought. But if that was what she had chosen, then there was only one other obstacle he could throw in their way: "What had the gentlemen in mind about the dowry?" A question well-timed and fatherly put. "As the father of the bride, I demand a dowry of sixty kilograms of mosquito-wings."
A peculiar deadpan silence fell upon the room. As to the nature of this bizarre bid nothing could be said except the reaction it invoked among those present. Not a regular silence, mind you, in which human sounds of breathing, moving uncomfortably and such could still be heard, or the clink of silverware against a china plate. Nothing of the sort. Not the kind commonly referred to as the lull before the storm, either. This was a silence of confusion, because nobody moved, breathed, or even allowed his pupils to wander. All eyes basted the artist's face in disbelief. Had they heard him correctly, or had he gone insane in the span of a few minutes? No one even attempted to get into the artist's head during that short interval to see why he had said what he had said.
Even Uncle Farrokh, who had been especially summoned for his quick wits and clever remarks, was dumbfounded. All he could think of was to ask the host to please repeat himself, just to make sure that his ears had not betrayed him. "Aarreh baba, the dowry," triumphantly came the response. "And I hope you're not of the belief that dowries are a thing of the past, because we're not. Sixty kilos of mosquito-wings, please."
Now that it was established that the artist was completely out of this world, the suitor and his company looked at each other and tried to formulate their response without having to excuse themselves to the privacy of the adjacent room. They tugged and pulled at the proffer put forward, and tried to conjure up the ulterior motives behind such an unusual request. Time was running out. Something had to be said there and then, but what? The compounding pressure proved too much for Ahmad, who became red as a lobster and left the room. Maryam, who was still standing beside the door, let out a loud sigh and followed him, banging the door shut on her way out.
If a notion of the man and his character was had by those present, a window into his mind could be found. Perhaps then it would have been reasoned out that in his convoluted inference, no man could come up with sixty kilograms of mosquito-wings, therefore no future son-in-law would take leave of his daughter should she lose her excellent features to the passing of her prime. But as it stood, that jewel escaped them like a wild animal. All they knew, based on their inadequate knowledge of dealing with the art community, the man's demand was a farce. Sly and artful, in the worst sense of the word.
As Ahmad left the room among the peehs and poohs and sighs and the final bang of the door, the solution came to Uncle Farrokh slowly, slowly. He calmed everyone down, and it was seen in his composure that he was in full control of the parley. His final remark, which was just as crazy as the demand itself, astonished the artist even further. "That's fine by us. We accept; no problem. And please call our lovebirds in. We have much to celebrate." Although at this point Ahmad was happy about the prospect of marriage, he was still low on account of the terms of the dowry to which his uncle had accorded on his behalf. If it had been money, or jewelry, he would have no objection. That would have been expected. But, sixty kilos of insect-wings?
The government had begun a fierce campaign against malaria in Mauzandaraun and Geelon, drying the marshlands and swamps, establishing vaccination programs, and setting up clinics that admitted hundreds of patients throughout the northern plates. Not to say that success was imminent, but there was progress, and the promise of swift justice for the killer mosquitoes. Farrokh Bashiri was a lawyer for the Health Department, on extremely good terms with the top ranking executives. "I can even collect a hundred kilos," he said. "What're you worried about? But, inshallah, you will marry this girl and stay with her forever." A point the artist could not have agreed with more.
Theirs was a story of requited love that ended in marriage. With a ring symbolizing his eternal love for her, which she wore to the day she died, and the odd terms of the dowry that caused quite a few eyebrows to take an upward swing. Things seemed to go smoothly for a few years. Taken for granted were the regular promotions that came his way and the children that came hers, first the twins, then a girl. For some time she had wanted to find work outside the home, but the new family additions pretty much determined the fate of her ambitions.
As years burned by, the olive Army cot had remained in the den of his office, unused, until he moved up to a managerial position, changed his office and gave it away. A huge desk occupied his new office, and the rest of the room was taken up by cameras, surveying tools and tripods, a transit and a level, rolled maps and aerial photographs and small doll-size renditions of trains and locomotives on a set of tiny railway tracks.
If anyone had asked him what was the most immediate concern in his life, he would undoubtedly mention the names of his twin boys and his daughter for whom he would lay down his very life. His love for them coupled that of his love for Maryam who was a model of a mother and spouse by anyone's standard. But as stories go, a distraction appeared in his life (or there would be no story).
Into the bliss of his marriage walked one Miss Yakobi, the widow; the new secretary who was, on top of her normal responsibilities, a first rate typist and a recent graduate of the secretarial school, who could churn out immaculate letters befitting an up and coming manager. Her skills in the office aside, the day she was hired would be known as the end of the calm. For Miss Yakobi was, in many ways, a reminder of his bachelorhood: curvaceously formed, lusciously behaved, vivaciously spirited, voraciously countenanced; in short: sensuous to the eye. She was not that young, or that naive, or coy by any stretch of the imagination. She gave off the scent of wild African flowers, which revealed as much about her as the cleavage-bearing clothing she chose to wear to work. Her femininity was not exaggerated in them or in the make-up she wore which concentrated around a pair of tiger eyes, full firm lips and high cheeks, but exuded in the way she held her head up and maintained a look that would be characterized as one of a decisive hunter. It was the lack of a trite femaleness that attracted aggressive and power-hungry men.
Equipped with all devices of allure, she was a man-trap disguised as a secretary. Thus the stage was set; no hope left for the Romeo in Ahmad's heart. What he did: for the second time in his life, he fell in love. When? Sixty-five days, to be exact, after Miss Yakobi started working for him. How come? Need not ask, but the evidence was there, in his own bedroom; he became empty of all desires for his own wife, to the point that she had to beg him for love-making. Maryam's desire for him no longer carried a weight, much like the wings of the mosquitoes he had promised in the dowry settlement. There she would sit at the foot of the bed and weep her eyes out, enumerating the number of weeks they had not been intimate with each other. "We haven't made love in such a long time, I feel like I don't know you anymore, Ahmad." And all he could do was to blame the workload and fatigue and God-knew what.
Oh there were pockets of resistance in his being, to be sure, no one claims otherwise. Days in which he scorned himself for even thinking about Miss Yakobi. Days in which he regretted having hired her in the first place, or in which he regretted not having considered getting rid of her at first chance. But the cunning Miss Yakobi deflated each and every lament by appearing before him with those long legs of hers, a swing of her hips, an accidental brushing against his shoulder of her brimming chest. If he were to lean in the opposite direction of her advances, this would not dissuade the ruthless predator that Miss Yakobi had resolved to be. She would thrust her bosom further in his way, as if saying, Can you resist these? Can you not touch? Can you not want to bite?
Then the inevitable happened as the inevitable usually does.
One day when she had gone to his office looking for a file, their eyes met and he became a sobbing confessor of love. To his sorry shape she reacted with utter skepticism. "Na, na boss. That kind of talk isn't becoming of you. Not agreeing with your character." She had done, as it appeared, a little investigation around the office; there were old colleagues and past paramours who were more than willing to dump the beans. The National Railroad Organization of Iran's female employees had long memories, and longer tongues, which left no secrets unrevealed. For the sake of Engineer Ahmad's new object of fascination, they had recalled forgotten stories of indecent trysts that followed unmet vows, empty words before triumphs, high talk that preceded unchaste deeds and misdeeds.
Miss Yakobi was no actress. She wanted no victim part to play. She would be the culprit if anything. She wanted that talk done away with. So she found Engineer Ahmad's supplicating a turn-off - do it but don't name it. "Control yourself, boss," said Miss Yakobi with obvious delight. "I'm just a typist, na? That's all." She was delightful and therefore unfair; she giggled the kind of giggles that bespoke intrigue, while seductively offering this or that limb of her fair frame to his hungry touch. The truth of the matter is that she did not mind the touch of it, only the talk of it. As though naming spoiled her pleasure of the illicit deed.
That day, as the air grew sticky with aroused desires, he gave in to her instruction, and felt and groped different parts of her well-developed form in a perverse silence; the whole time wondering about her and himself in that awkward position. A ritual established itself out of that encounter. She followed him around the office when they where alone, and, fully clothed, availed herself to his transgression without going all the way. His advances went further as days went by and, as long as they were made in silence, each day she let him discover something new, filling him with unsatisfied urges that came and went beyond an outright obsession. In this she observed two rules: never baring her skin, and never, ever letting him have his way with her. Now what man could stop or reject that proposition?
Three weeks of that, and there was the question of being discovered. Also: the idle time in between their touching sessions that was spent in anticipation contributed to an immense work pile-up. Above all, the muteness of it killed him, and the lack of resolve. She still held back, though, denying him even a taste of her lips until he was able to prove his love.
"God knows I love you. I haven't loved my wife even, the way I love you."
"Sorry, boss. Na. Been burned before. Can't trust men. Bye-bye."
"Don't go, yet. Stay here. What do you want me to do to prove that I mean what I say? What? You just, just name it."
Na, na. She would not speak it. As for the question of resolve, he said he would kill himself if she did not offer herself completely, without restraint. But it did not soften her heart. Then he threatened to kill her. Still, when she heard the distinct sound of a zipper, or felt the warmth of his hand anywhere near the Danger Zone, she would dash out the door without notice. And when he threatened to fire her, she stared at him icily, and said: "Na, na. Plenty at stake. There's much your wife and I could discuss over a glass of herb tea and almond biscuits." The daunting realization that he had brought down his own house poured over him like a cold bucket of water.
Ravishing Miss Yakobi, who looked like a sex-kitten ready to be pounced, had turned a winning hand. She had him in her clutches, and knew it too. From that day on, she acted around the office as though she were the only pebble on the beach. She appeared not to care anymore about the day-to-day operation of his office. Whole files were misplaced, messages were lost, phones were allowed to ring longer than necessary before earning her attention, the boss's tea did not come on time, or came only when it was cold. She still availed herself to his probing fingers, though, just to fuel the magic. But even that came by less frequently.
What did she want him to do? Pound water in a mortar? Whatever it was, somehow he figured it out on his own. With his final decision regarding his marriage, theirs became a story of requited love that ended in marriage that ended, pure and simple. Engineer Ahmad Bashiri left his wife of six years and married Miss Yakobi at the city hall, period.
What became of the dowry settlement? Facts are not conclusive. To save time, the following fact is reproduced here without interpretation. An anonymous truck unloaded a nightly cargo over the wall surrounding the house of an artist located on Gomrok Intersection. The content of the cargo . . . appeared to be . . . sixty kilograms of insect-wings . . .
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