Once upon a time, there was a woman who lost her son. She sent him off, in the care of some men who smuggled teenage boys across the border out of Iran and into Turkey to help them escape military service during the war. She must have laid out his clothes carefully for him the night before. Clean socks, new shoes, a warm sweater. She packed him food. And when he went to bed that night, she sat by his bedside and watched the gentle breathing of her boy, and dreamt for him a better life. When morning came and he opened his eyes, she smiled at him with all the courage she could muster from her soul, because he would need this courage, this faith, on his journey. She held him close to her breast, kissed the crown of his head and prayed, silently, deeply, from a place only mothers know. Then, he walked away from her.
She waited. Waited sitting in a chair, waited absently stirring the pot on the stove, waited dusting the shelves, waited, awake in bed, waited in the light of dawn, waited through the changing light of the whole, long treacherous next day, waited, waited. But the phone didn’t ring.
She never heard his voice again.
He was lost. The whole group of them that may or may not have crossed the border from Iran into Turkey. No one ever heard from any of those boys again. Nor the smugglers.
She went to every prison in Iran, stood for long hours outside in crowds of weeping mothers, wives, sisters. Pleaded with guards, bribed, threatened. She wrote letters, and letters and letters. She went back to the prisons. She drove the route he walked. She stopped the car, stepped out and screamed and screamed his name.
She used to say that she couldn’t eat a bite of food without wondering if her child was hungry. She couldn’t sleep at night, thinking of her son, was he cold? Was he in pain? Was he frightened?
Years passed. Slowly. Years passed in a single day. Her hair turned white, even though she was young. Her eldest son left for America. Her daughter grew up silently in the shadow of a mother’s grief. The boy’s father wept, too, behind closed doors. Wept and bit his hands to keep from crying out loud so his wife wouldn’t hear. But the world passed, as it does, and the father grew accustomed to the pain, and the eldest son married and had a son of his own, and the daughter grew like a potted flower with too little sunlight.
The mother waited, each day, for her son to return. For a phone call, a knock on the door, a letter. She imagined pulling him into the embrace of her arms, and holding him there, and feeding his hunger, and kissing his bruises, mending his bones, quieting his nightmares. The world moved on as it does, but she kept waiting.
I visited her home one afternoon, in an old neighborhood in Tehran. She was a childhood friend of my mother’s. I knew her story and I knocked, hesitant. She opened the door. She was beautiful, with her white hair and her sad smile. She led me to her living room and bade me to sit while she brought some tea. There was so much light in that room. Natural daylight flooding through large windows that overlooked the top of green trees. And in each corner of that room, on the shelves, on the top of the TV, on the mantle of the fireplace, there was a framed photograph of her lost child. You could not turn without seeing him. He was there, substantial, a heaviness you could feel. A longing so acute, an absence so tangible, you felt it as a presence. He waited, in every corner, in all the empty spaces in between, among the illuminated dust motes that danced in the sunlight. I could have closed my eyes, reached out my hand, and almost touched him.
For years, the mother refused to leave that home. What if he should come, she told others, and not find me waiting? Her family received a visa to America, her eldest son had applied for citizenship, then hired an immigration lawyer.
“How can I leave?” she asked him on the phone.
“You have never seen my child,” he responded.
She came to America, twenty years after the disappearance of her son. A few years later, she danced at her daughter’s wedding. And shortly after, she was diagnosed with cancer. A tumor in her brain.
She spent her final days in a hospital bed, mostly unconscious, but when she’d awaken, she opened her eyes laughing, and tell her husband, her daughter, the friends beside her bed that she had just been speaking with her boy, that she had finally kissed his face. “I found my child,” she’d say, and go back to sleep, until the morning she took her son’s hand and he walked her gently out of this life, past the borders of what does or does not follow.
She appeared in the silence that follows the evening azan. She walked towards me on the sidewalk, on a carpet of crimson and orange sycamore leaves. At first, I couldn’t register what I was seeing. Her hair, uncovered, was cut short like a man’s. She wore a man’s gray suit, rumpled, dusted with soot, smeared with what looked like black tar. Her body thin, hard, gaunt. I would have thought her a man, dressed like that, without hijab, but her shirt had been torn open, exposing her breasts.
Her arms hung limply by her sides as she walked. Her face distant and beautiful. Her eyes empty. She didn’t see me, or the crowds, or the sycamores and their falling leaves. She walked empty-eyed, in a straight line, past me, past others. Some women stopped to watch her pass, but no one said anything. Perhaps they, like me, thought she was a phantom, an apparition born of their own thoughts, materializing some unknown feeling, a forgotten memory, some terror hidden in the folds of the mind. Some didn’t see her at all, and others stopped briefly, baffled, and turned to look again to make sure they had seen what they thought they had seen, but no one sounded the alarms. The police did not come running with their brutal batons. No old woman stepped forward to admonish her for lack of shame. No man whistled, nor approached her with lecherous intent. She walked unseen, unseeing.
They say when the ships arrived from the Old World onto the virgin shores of the New, the natives couldn’t see them, those tremendous galleons made of steel and wood, behemoths floating a swim’s distance from their sands. And since the natives had never before seen anything like those ships, their minds could not register the apparition before them, and so the conquerors disembarked and paddled to the shore unhindered.
I am ashamed to say what I thought. I turned to look after her, searching for an explanation, and there were ones too horrible to consider, so my mind settled on this, the way she walked reminded me of a model, in New York, or Paris. Her body intentionally gaunt, her soot colored skin a trick of makeup, her hair the work of diligent stylists, her suit, rumpled, torn, the latest fall trend.
She drifted away, down the street, uninterrupted.
She appears, from time to time, in my dreams, rising from a place I cannot comprehend. She walks past me unhindered, and I watch her with awe and terror until she dissipates once again into the unknown.
I sat in a car, in the deadlock of Friday night traffic on a wide avenue. A sea of red taillights ahead of me, a stream of gold headlights gridlocked on the other side. There was an intimacy in that traffic. Most of the cars on either side of mine had their windows rolled down, too. It was something to do, to hang your arm out of the open window, to smoke a cigarette, to make eye contact with the stranger in the car beside you. I watched taxi drivers with angry passengers, tired men and women driving home from work, groups of young folks, with music playing loud enough to be heard. Young men smiled at young women, exchanged words, catcalled, whistled. People cursed one another. Children hung out of back seat windows, reached out their arms. Women adjusted their headscarves in the evening heat. Busses passed. Trucks passed. Motorcycles, impatient, looked for room enough. We were all passing through, when, in the background of all that noise, I heard a howling.
I could make out that it was a man’s voice. And as he came closer, I could hear, precisely, what he was yelling. Over and over, with the same rhythm, the same volume, the same intensity of anguish, he yelled help me, help me, help me.
I heard him well before I saw him, walking on the center divider, illuminated in the headlights of the cars. In his fifties, he wore only a dirty, white undershirt, pants, the type of sandals people wear in their homes. He was covered in sweat, his face smeared with black grease, his eyes full of a desperation. He walked past the open windows of the cars without looking in, where we, the people trapped in traffic, sat frozen, watching him with wide eyes, mouths agape, shocked into silence. He walked with his arms raised to the starless night sky, and continued to yell, without pause, help me.
I have never heard, not before, and not since, such naked, raging helplessness in a man’s voice. I fell into the trance of his plea. It grew faintly, and with his approach, drew me in, until I saw him walking toward my car, until he was right outside of my window, until he walked past my car and the next, and the next, until his voice became fainter and fainter the farther he walked away, before disappearing completely into the black well of the night.
There was a man who used to walk the same stretch of the road between Tehran and the Caspian Sea. In the flat expanse of a valley, after the highway wound down from the mountains and before it climbed back up, there was a long stretch of farms, and bee hives, wooden boxes full of bees and glistening honey. Maybe he lived off the honey, maybe off the charity of the farmers, but those who saw him all said that they never witnessed him put anything to his mouth other than a cigarette.
He was tall. Lean to the point of skeletal. Bearded. He had black eyes, dark around the sockets, with a dogged determination in them. No one knows why he walked that stretch of highway, back and forth, back and forth. But without fail, whoever drove to the seaside or drove back to the city would see him walking, arms at his side, rigid back, in his unchanging stride.
It was customary to give him a pack of cigarettes. A car stopped, and the designated person jumped out and caught up with him, and called his name, “Baradar Sadegh.” Righteous Brother. That was the name the travelers gave him, the name he was known by. “Baradar Sadegh,” the designated giver said and held out the pack of cigarettes. The man paused for a moment, then he accepted the box. He studied it in his hands, opened it, tapped out a cigarette, put it to his lips, and resumed his journey.
Baradar Sadegh never spoke a word. And other than to say his name, neither did those who stopped to make their offering. His silence was complete, an entity perhaps more substantial than the flesh and bones of the man who walked endlessly, without explanation, along that stretch of road. That silence was sanctimonious, a holy thing, and so the travelers never asked, Who are you? Why do walk this highway? What have you lost? What brought you here? Where are you going? When will you rest?
A few years ago, drivers coming back to the city from holiday started reporting that they hadn’t seen him. For a while, there were speculations, but in the end, no one ever found out what came of him, if Baradar Sadegh reached his destination, if he found there a home.
I stood among a crowd of people who were trying to pass one another in a particularly congested part of Bazaar Tajrish. The sidewalk was tight and the bus stopped there, too, so for a long time, I stood still, in one place, anxiously searching for a way through. The sun was setting. A somber greyness colored the world. The men, the women, the children, grey. The streets, grey. The buildings, the trees. Everything muted, a longing so unanswered, the light of it had dimmed.
The mosques broadcasted the evening azan. Then, the silence that followed the prayer. And in that silence, the bus arrived. Its doors opened and even more people pushed into the suffocating mass of those still waiting for a way out. Then, he appeared in the door of the bus. Dressed in a tweed sports jacket, pressed slacks, silver in the black of his hair beneath a tan fedora, a cigarette between his lips. He had on the dark glasses of the blind and, gently, he tapped his cane down each step, searched for the sidewalk, and stepped off the bus into the crowd. He stood a moment, listening unhurriedly, then took a deep drag from his cigarette and dropped it onto the concrete.
He had a small box strapped to his back.
Reaching back, he took hold of a microphone, switched on the amplifier and started to sing. He sang, in a clear voice, an old protest song written during the revolution with the intention of being mistaken for a song about love.
The scent of wheat, for me, everything I have, is yours,
A handful of earth, for me, everything I plant is yours.
A small space opened in that throng of broken and weary people, and he stood there, among the phantoms of men, women, children, and he sang for them.
I am from this plagued tribe of the East,
You are a glass traveler in the shadow box of a foreign and fantastic city.
You dream of jungles of steel and buildings that scrape the sky,
I dream of a room the size of you in which to sleep.
He started walking, tapping his cane on the pavement, as the crowd parted for him slowly. We listened to him, our bodies pushed together, our bodies, a momentary animation of earth, our bodies, the thirstiest of thirsts.
PARNAZ FOROUTAN is the author of the critically acclaimed novel Girl from the Garden (Ecco 2015) which received the PEN Emerging Voices Award and was named one of Booklist’s “Top 10 First Novels” of 2015. Her memoir Home is a Stranger (Chicago Review Press 2020) is about her journey back to Iran as a young woman, two decades after her family fled the rise of the Islamic Theocracy.
Read more by Parnaz Foroutan:
Essay at NBC News online
Essay in The Sun Magazine
Essay in LARB