My mother tells me all the wrong stories.
In our hut beneath the cypress trees, my mother opens up at story time. She steps away from her apron and her broom, her heaps of marjoram and pennyroyal, her pestle and her mortar, and her ingredients for medicinal soups. She throws off her scarf, and oils our hair with fragrant sedr oil. We keep company with her stories as the wolves outside howl their song to the moon. Just as their ancestors have and as their descendants always will.
But my mother isn’t bound by what has gone before. And once she has decided this, there are no rules she cannot break. She tells me of how Zal is never abandoned by his father, and of tales where brothers are never betrayed. Lovers do not die with their love unconfessed, and in her romances passions are always requited.
I absorb these tales, not knowing any better, and she sits with her back against where the tulip tree wood of our hut has become so warped it bends with her weight. It moves with her as she rocks me to sleep (even when I am too big to be rocked), and the walls creak a lullaby to which my mother says, see, the house is magic, it’s helping you to sleep too.
Outside our hut the cypresses lean close. Above us the small animals chitter in the warmth of the grasses we have stuffed into our roof.
My mother reaches to snuff out the linseed oil lamp, and her voice goes on and on until perhaps even our washing bucket and knives and eating mat all nod off as well, and meanwhile the stream of her words carries us to stories I am certain no one ever heard before. And no one ever will.
For have you ever heard a tale about how the stepmother becomes best friends with her stepdaughter and they go on adventures together? Where the children are never abandoned in the woods? Where the dragon helps the princess escape to a place where she can break the chains and start a throneless dynasty of love?
But my forever favorite was the one I listened to as if it contained the key to the language of a lost homeland in it. It was the reason I looked forward to winter while all others who lived in huts such as ours dreaded it. For it is in winter that every night my mother tells me of how Baba Nowruz and Nane Sarma live happily ever after. No matter how cold, no matter how hungry, no matter how my fingers burned from the spices I helped my mother prepare for her stall, my mind would sing in delight as she gave me snippets of these winter tales that looked forward to spring. She speaks of Baba Nowruz, who brings children presents and is always so cheerful with his long, white beard. And of Nane Sarma, his beloved wife with whom he spends every day. Whose hands he kisses, and for whom he selects the best of presents before he leaves to herald the new year—a single flower, born on the cusp of spring.
• • • •
When they jeered at me in the schoolhouse and told me how the story goes—how it really goes—I cried and said they were lying. It’s not true, I sobbed, that they can only meet once a year, and that, too, only when Nane is asleep. No, it was not to be believed.
My mother left off her soup making that evening to wrap me in my bright-colored rug we had woven together while she had told me the story of the rugmaker and the mice. (Was that also wrong, I wondered. Were any of her stories true?) She made me qehwa, put hazelnuts for the squirrels at our window where we lured them to play, and ran her thin fingers through my hair.
“Does it matter?” she asked, and even the walls were silent as they listened. “This is our story. We choose what kind of rules the people in them live by. What world they aspire to make. Theirs is another kind of storytelling, to make the characters suffer and suffer, and for what? What truth is it saying? Pain is real, and so is happiness, yes.”
A squirrel crawled even closer. Nobody could tempt squirrels like my mother. They were considered pests by all others, but she would laugh and say, we’re not farmers, a few droppings were easily cleaned, and that true pestilence is an unfeeling heart.
“Their way of storytelling is valid, of course. It isn’t wrong, my little dukhtar. But not to the exclusion of our way. Our stories give us a map. Do not think it is lesser just because they lead you to a happy place.”
And then one day she died, and Who was choosing the rules we were living by? I sat at the waiting bottle of sedr oil and asked, and is it not bad storytelling to make people suffer and suffer, and for what?
For my mother and I had suffered, perhaps all my life. But if she were alive and telling you the story, she would have gotten it all wrong again. We had fields of roses and the nargis, the hyacinths and the sweet grasses, all to ourselves, she might say. And laughter at the festivals, and songs at the river. The walls of the nobles were better seen from this vantage point than from on the inside, I know she would say, and how could I argue when I had never been inside them? Nor was I familiar with Naqsh-e-Jahan Square, which is what she knew from her time as a nobleman’s daughter and as my father’s wife before he took all she owned and divorced her three times. Then of course society turned its face from her, penniless and with a baby in her arms.
All the stories she had told me promised a journey with an end that was fitting. Yet I had not found any here.
I considered this, wiping my tears with her rumaal and putting the last of our hazelnuts out for the squirrels in her name to bring light to her grave. Perhaps the journey wasn’t over.
And off I went.
The Naqqalis were traveling storytellers who could reach into vast, hidden libraries of the heart and tell any chronicle, declaim any poem, sing any song that suited the moment best. But I did not frequent the coffeehouses from whose doors the melody of stringed instruments drifted and where Naqqalis stood on raised surfaces to delight and speak wisdom to audiences—indeed, as a woman, I am sure they would have expelled me from the premises. But I went to the rivers and fountains, the walls of the hammam and the mouths of the market arcades where children were to be found busy in their work of laughter and tears and play.
The children asked for stories, as they always do. And I had so many, though they were all wrong. But they liked them. They listened. And their mothers, poor though they were, would pay, when they could, in food and shelter. Happy someone was keeping an eye on their children’s safety and their hearts.
One day a traveling soldier home from the wars against Solaiman the Lawgiver slouched by a fountain after having been expelled from the coffeehouse. He watched me with crimson threaded eyes and spat at my endings, scratching the ground with the handle of his rusted sword in repressed fury with every step my story took in departing from the grooves of familiar pathways. Why, I asked him when the children went home. Why should they not be allowed this? Or must people such as we always suffer?
He tossed his head, and rolled his eyes, and he didn’t see at all that I was asking as much for myself as anyone.
Autumn came, and with it a strange realization. Something was wrong in my memory. As the skies that had previously been hospitable sunlit canopies became my foe, hostile winds driving cold sharp teeth into my face and hands, I had also turned to what I did best in the cold seasons—remembering my favorite winter tale: the one of Nane Sarma and Baba Nowruz.
I could recall my mother telling the story, but in my rememberings her voice glides too quickly over the flower.
“He leaves her a flower,” she says. And tells me its name.
But which flower? I wondered as I roamed the lands, failing to remember.
• • • •
At the foot of a mountain, some fruit sat in a basket. When I looked up at the nearby alchemist’s stall inquiringly, they told me an old woman had been shopping at the market and had forgotten it.
“A pity,” the apprentice said. “She lives a great way up high.”
“I can give it to her,” I said. “I don’t mind.”
And I picked up the basket and followed the winding path up the mountain.
Though I had volunteered gladly, I was relieved to see the house finally appear. But as I grew closer, I saw a man crouching at the window, picking up a heavy stone. He intended to break in, I thought in shock. Why must women who lived alone be considered easy targets? It is not as though this poor woman would have anything worth stealing.
I dropped the basket. In a pouch at my side I kept freshly burned white rue seeds. While not as powerful as seeds in the moment they are fed to the flame, they could still do magic if the right formula was said.
But as I took out my pouch, a cry left his lips, which was cut off as if by a knife.
What followed was the loudest silence I have ever heard. The silence you hear when snow blankets the world, and everything is waiting for something, and the light itself is a blade slicing through the world, suggesting in its brightness silhouettes of the unseen realms.
I crept closer.
The thief turned blue where he stood. A strangled cry left his throat, and something came out of his mouth.
Pouring, dripping to his feet, a translucent layer of water gushed forth. Ice crystals danced within the growing stream, scattering light. He fell back, his gargled cries cut off by the ice crystals growing larger, joining together, until in no time at all he was engulfed in a solid, frozen block.
And then the silence flowed away, down into the valley to pour into the depths of the streams for the villagers to drink.
I ran towards him. One of his arms was untouched by ice, sticking out as if beseeching me for help. When I got closer I saw it still held the stone aloft with which he had meant to break into the old woman’s house.
The chill disappeared, leaving me, the dead man, and the chirping, squirrely sounds of mild autumn all around.
The village was far away but I could see it here from the side of the mountain. Smoke twirled contentedly on the breeze from busy hearths. The market would be full of the chatter of ordinary people, voices rising and falling in excitement and frustration, happiness and grief, buying oils for their lamps and nuts for their gatherings. Perhaps a pomegranate to tuck under their arm and ink to write proud but misspelled letters to wealthy relatives in the city.
Normal people doing everyday things.
I felt someone behind me and turned.
A woman older than my mother stood on the step of her house, weary eyes scanning the horizon as though unaware of the man frozen to the ground between us. Her unadorned hand trembled on her walking stick as she shuffled towards us.
“He will melt away,” she said dreamily, a frail but deft hand retrieving the stone. As she tossed it aside, that limb too became covered in frost. “Away, quite away. And rain down as tears in time.”
Down in the village people were using a similar tone of voice to discuss fated things like the tides and the Shah’s policies, and to give each other platitudes over the children whose marriages weren’t working and the toomans their business partners swindled them of. She has not even looked at me.
But then she did, and the story had ended, because another one had very much begun.
I could not see. Everything turned to shadow, pressing upon me, shush, shush, go to sleep, like the time when I was a child, and my mother and I were snowed into our hut, snow coating the windows to make everything gray. My heart gave an inexplicable hitch. I thought of the gleam of forlorn heaps of rabbit bones left by famished foxes. Of the nighttime clatter of horse hooves on icy roads, growing loud and then fading away, carrying messages to places I would not ever see. Perhaps to my own father, the nobleman. Pomegranate trees laden with snow, bending over as hungry animals searched for food—waiting. Waiting.
And the death of all the flowers my mother had ever loved. Dead nargis and nilofer, dead roses and hyacinths. Dead and dried and desiccated.
Perhaps it was being reminded of the past, or perhaps it was the sadness emanating from the woman herself that made my heart heavy as well. But then I felt most distinctly, as if into this fabric of grief, a golden thread of sunlit fascination was weaving something I had never known before, something I had been waiting all my life to know. A word woven into all the sadness I had ever felt. I peered at it, and wondered if it would tell me my true name.
“Thank you, Khanom,” I said. She made no reply but made an impatient motion of her head as if I was incredibly daft as she climbed the steps to her little house and disappeared inside. I stood looking at the open door, my muscles burning from the weight of the basket and the long climb. I tried to tell myself I was making a mistake, but another, foolishly rational voice coaxed me.
Look, you, I said to myself. Is she not like any of a hundred old women?
Her hair, escaping in wisps around her stiff, square scarf, still holding on to its inky black. Her lips, creased in a thin line. Her skin, delicate as if she could readily bruise, and her strawberry pink cheeks. She gave the effect many elders did of being innocent and unable to see more than one aspect of an issue at a time.
Yet that deftness. That murderous silence, the victim of which was still a solid block outside.
It was her, you fool. Who else did that which was done not two moments ago? Yet I was determined not to think on that.
Meanwhile she had gone inside, and she hadn’t said anything, but she did leave that door open, is what I always think. She must have known.
I stepped inside and placed the basket down.
“Look,” she said, “I need help. If you can make the fires, sweep well, and help me make my Haft Seen spread ready at the beginning of spring, I will feed you.”
“I know stories,” I said.
“I know all of them,” she retorted.
“I have questions,” I said.
She pretended not to hear.
• • • •
Indoors was a fire that had me untie my scarf in an instant, though the warmth never reached the walls of the house, the furnishings.
She moved about adding fruits to a cupboard, her thoughtful eyes flecked with russet; her hair as she let it down was inky as if she had put on a hint of henna. Not so old, I thought. Yet her thin form was heavy with an absence. She would do well to have a companion, I thought.
“Khanom, do you not have a husband or children?”
“I have no children. And better call me Nane, as I am old enough to be your grandmother.”
“As you say, Nane, but what do you do in this house all alone? Beautiful though it be, it is far away from all who may wish you well.”
“And who would those be,” she snarled, “who wish me well? The summertime chicks? The young gentleman dead outside? You?”
She regarded me as if she hadn’t had the opportunity to yet.
“Who are you? It is better for a young woman to ask herself where her husband and children are, instead of a grandmother like me.”
“I have none,” I replied lightly. “I travel and tell stories.”
“You, a Naqqali?” She said in some surprise.
And then the matter rested as I got used to the house. And to Nane.
Her cabinets were neat, though sparse. On the shelf of one cupboard lay nothing but a single forgotten seed. There were no signs of any other person having ever lived here, though there were plenty of blankets and rugs.
I missed my hut, but I found a restful peace with Nane. The walls of her house did not creak lullabies, but they still comforted me like my mother’s hut did. Nane’s house had a way of absorbing sound, the way snow in the wilderness does the scream of the grouse before the fox’s jaws crunch through its feathers. And it was more than sound they absorbed. The unsettled feeling I’d had since my mother had died less than a year ago was taken gently by the walls into their stable selves. I saw that the flowers I thought were dead were only asleep. The poppies of heartbreak, the lilies of grief, all rested as they slept in the shadow of Nane’s house, and all cries of grief were subsumed by her walls, like the blue amulet takes away the evil eye.
One evening we sipped tea.
“So you think you know stories. Tell us some.”
So I told her of the children who were not left in the wood, but who slipped into the hut where the village headman’s registers were kept. They found out how matters were being mishandled, and it was the headman who had to leave. Nobody in the village ever starved again.
I told her of the Simurgh, who blessed Zal’s father for loving his son, and how ever since then wisdom ruled the lands, and so must all fathers cherish their sons.
I told her of the three princes whose father turned into a dragon to test them for the kingdom, but instead of fleeing or fighting amongst themselves, they stood together, never thinking to be rivals.
I told her of the lion who didn’t need the mouse to help him to realize everyone deserves help when they need it.
She spat. A bitter gust blew the curtains up before vanishing as if it was never there.
“These are empty tales. You need the betrayal. The enemy. The danger.”
“Danger, yes,” I said. “But there is enough danger without us turning on each other. Without evil stepmothers and murderous brothers.”
“Fool,” she said. “If the tale has a truth, it endures. It may be for fun, for sorrow, for a ruler’s fickle pleasure or a man’s last minutes before execution. But if it holds truth it will become a well of wisdom for the thirsty, and will outlast you and me.”
“I agree. But there are stages of wisdom, are there not? What do we do if we wish to build a world without betrayal and enemies and danger? Can we not try and make a . . . a map? Hopeful stories for hopeful futures?”
“Hope.” She said. It was only later I realized, she hadn’t said it as someone with a disdain for it. But like somebody who had been burned.
As time went on she slowed down. Lines appeared on her face. Her hands shook and she grew forgetful. Her voice became hoarse. She is dying, I thought, remembering how my mother had gotten frail before her end. I will not leave her. I will bury her, here just by the hut. Who else does she have, poor lady.
I kept her company on Yalda, the longest night of the year, pretending to divine from poetry books we did not have. I mimed opening a book.
“Ah, yes.” I told her. “We will both live very long. So it is written.”
“Too long.” She smiled. I passed her the cut watermelon I had saved by burying it beneath leaves in the cold ground, and wondered how many lonely Yaldas she must have spent on her own with nobody to think of these things.
Then close to spring, she woke me in the early morning.
“We must prepare the Haft Seen spread,” she said. “I have laid down the mat. It is time to collect the things.”
“Of course,” I said, happy to indulge her. My mother and I always set a little table for Nowruz, no matter how much or little we had.
“I have to go to the village.” I saw she had already tied her ribbon around her square headscarf and was wearing a pair of sturdy shoes.
“I will do everything, Nane,” I held her hands and bade her sit. “You sit and instruct me.”
Though truly, I didn’t need any instruction. Every child knows the mat for Nowruz must carry seven things:
Sprouting vegetation. Wheat, we had always used. Representing new life for the new year.
Dried lotus fruit for love.
Vinegar for patience and wisdom.
Garlic for medicine.
Apples for beauty and rosy health.
Sumac for the red sunset of the new year.
And Nane made the pudding herself, which was for happiness, refusing any help.
“It must be made by my hands, you see. It cannot be any other way.”
She also added more fruit. Where she got them from, I do not know, for even the village market would not have had these. But a second mat next to the Haft Seen was brought out and laden with cherries and plums and peaches and pomegranates.
She also placed a mirror on it.
“For reflection,” she said, “though I have never done so before.”
And as we both stood before it looking in, she shrugged and moved away, as though she did not wish to think on it too long.
The night before Nowruz I set out two new sets of clothes to welcome the new year.
“We will look a smart pair, Nane,” I called out to her as she stood looking out the window. “The time of the year demands it.”
She did not respond but remained with her back to me, twisting her hands.
“The lime pickle is ready. And I will make the fish with herbed rice,” I continued, joining her. “And the noodle soup, of course.”
Something about her silence troubled me.
“Shall I sit up with you?” I asked, placing a hand on her arm.
“No,” she turned in alarm. “Not at all. To bed.”
“No. To bed. Now! This is the part you must not witness.”
“What do you mean?”
“Lie down. And no matter what you hear, you must not do anything.” she said, agitated. “No matter what you see. I’ve been a fool,” she sighed. “I am losing track of time, of all things. Everyone knows if you take your eyes off the seconds, the hours will trip you. I should have sent you away.”
“I can go right away,” I said, nettled. “I might just go right now.”
She stared at me, lips working, but not able to speak.
She didn’t mean it, I told myself. These are times of the year when memories gone rancid with time rise to the front of our minds. She has a right to solitude.
“I won’t go, Nane.” I patted her hands. “And tomorrow will be a lot better. First day of the new year, after all. First day of spring!”
“I hope so,” she said, and there was a sudden flush of pink to her pale cheeks. An astounding surge of hope, so fierce even the walls couldn’t swallow it.
As I retired, I thought on it. Such a wild and fabulous yearning she had been hiding for something she had not once mentioned to me. Perhaps she wished to stay up in prayer. The elderly harbor untold stories that have no escape except for in prayer and song.
Nane came to check on me. She waited, seeing if I would move.
After a while she went away.
• • • •
I hid behind the tapestry. Of course I did. I knew, really, what was happening. You always know magic wrapped in waiting, no matter how it masquerades as grief.
Nane sat on one chair, opposite the empty one. All the lamps were on, and the fire was well lit. She sat up straight and smiled. She folded her hands in her lap, and turned her gaze to the crackling flames.
Such a long time passed. Too long.
The figure was so large, he had to bend to enter through the doorway. His white beard reached his belly. His pink cheeks were still visible, though a white mustache curved cheerily under his nose. The smell of clover and growing grass filled the room in his wake, and a cloak trailed behind him like the color of a sunny sky. There were no wrinkles on his face, and everything about him was of newness and magic.
First he smiled in pleasure at the fire, removing his round hat. He nodded appreciatively at the fruit laid out. And finally, he took in the tired old woman sitting on a chair, who had fallen fast asleep.
He sat himself in silence and ate his food. He is a monster, I thought. A deity. He is an elderly uncle. A kindly saint. He is a man, and a man’s stomach is its own animal, and he ate and ate the whole mountain of fresh fruit. He stood up and brushed the crumbs from his blue cloak. Cleaned his hands in a basin. He rumbled his approval.
Now he got to work. He stoked the fire so that it might last until morning. He made himself a small cup of tea. He drank this and looked straight at the tapestry behind which I hid.
When done, he stood up and considered Nane. My heart wrung itself out at the sight. Finally he opened the bag I had thought was empty at his side.
From the bag, he removed a flower. Which one? I have often asked myself. And I can never recollect.
He placed the flower in her lap. Kissed her with a tired reverence. And left with an abrupt twist of the head, stumbling at the threshold as if his vision had gone blurry.
For a moment I stayed still. Then my feet were unglued and I raced behind him.
“Come back!” I screamed. “Come back!”
In vain the walls tried to swallow my shrieks. I flew after the man, but he had already mounted his horse, and was off.
I should have been careful not to trip on the rocky terrain as I pulled my long chemise up and ran, but I didn’t have to. The way was smooth.
A deer raised its head and looked in sorrow. A dev crept past. A cloud of peris flew overhead. This was not the mountain, and yet it was. I knew the sky above me, yet it was new.
Here I was, and ahead he rode, and I bolted, willing my feet to adopt the swiftness of the deer I had passed. And strangely, it worked.
I caught up to him, to Baba Nowruz, and I grabbed onto the reins of the horse he rode.
“Let me ride,” he said. “Else I will not be able to bring spring to the cities. Or do you wish to see the world in endless winter?”
I stood there, shoulders shaking. Crying tears with all the hopelessness I should have had when my mother died, when children played with their fathers and I realized I had none, when I figured out that stories did have sad endings, and I didn’t want to accept they had their share of truth as well.
“But this is truth,” his voice reverberated like the humming of a beehive, or the rumbling of a distant earthquake. His hand reached forward to cup my chin.
“The bud is destined to rot even from the moment it swells to life. The butcher’s knife winks at his side while the new lambs take their first, shaky steps. This is what Nane teaches, but you have not learned, child.” He lets go of my chin. “This is mercy, or else the result is death. Do not rush truth. She and I are already together in destiny.”
I stood heaving like the child he considered me to be, wondering at where I was and who I was speaking to. It occurred to me that someone like my mother would have fit here quite well, in the shade of this mountain that was surely Mount Qaf. In fact, now that I recalled it, how would she snuff out the lamp at the other end of the room while she sat with me on her lap? How did she anticipate her customers’ needs before they even knew? Why did she make enough food for a journey before lying down to sleep, me curled against her for one last time?
I measured my next words for they could be my last.
He reared at me. Baba Nowruz, has anyone spoken to him such before? What happens when you challenge the harbinger of the year? He is an enraged stag made up of constellations. He is an oak tree with roots piercing into the earth’s heart.
He is a trapped bear beaten by its trainers and forced to perform tricks. And now I had shown him the mirror.
“Do not challenge my love for her. She is for me, and I am for her. We would be under one roof and one coverlet. Spending the Yalda night eating seeds and nuts and whispering. Were there a way to do it, I would have done it centuries before you were born. Fool! Go and do what your kind does best. Yearn. Rut. Rot. While I,” his voice trembled, “am rotting to let others live. She and I were one. Before the sun, before the seasons, before the earth was a thought. But no more. For should I do as you suggest, then surely the world will end and she will die—yes, die—along with all my love.”
• • • •
Back at the hut the old woman was gone. A young woman paced dreamily, smelling a rose? A poppy? A tulip? A pomegranate blossom? She sang a song and springtime sang back.
“He loves me so much, he never wakes me,” she says. She laughs and there are tears in her eyes. She blushes. She sings. She brushes her hair with sweet smelling oils.
“What is love but this?” she demands. “I am content.”
• • • •
No. I tell a lie. I tell too many lies.
“She will sleep,” he had said, as I left. “She will sleep for half a year. More. Be good to her. The way you think I’m not.”
But she was not asleep when I had returned. Tears streamed down her face as she curled up on the ground. Then, slowly, her eyes fell shut.
As she slept I wrote. I swept and I cooked. Outside the sun blazed. Spring was here. The walls of the house were no longer cold, but it had nothing to do with the sun, I knew.
The sky was a turquoise curtain. Life came in through the window in roars and coos and bleats and whinnies. The sound of music rose from the village. I visited and sometimes sat with the villagers. Getting to know them.
I found pounded goat hair so I set to embroidering it using combinations of patterns my mother had taught me. I embroidered a flower, one I had never seen before and whose name I would have to make up myself.
Patterns. If you want something to stop repeating itself, you have to break the pattern. I remembered Nane putting a mirror on the Haft Seen table, and her wondering out loud how she had never done such a thing before.
So maybe how it all ended was due to her all along. Willing something with her hope.
In the latter part of the year Nane started to sigh. The walls of the house started to feel cool to the touch again. A chill filled the air. She talked in her sleep.
“I knew he would not stay,” she once said, her eyes closed. “He never does. He never will.”
The seasons turned. The leaves turned red. And finally, she woke.
I greeted her.
“And how are you, Nane Sarma?”
She snorted and threw me the same look as she had the first time I’d met her, as if I was entirely daft.
“It is too early for such audacity.”
I waited for her to eat and to have a day of peace. And then I told her the plan.
“Oh, yes?” She retorted. “And who will do it?”
“You? And what of the springtime. He will not come for you.” She said with a young—and might I say, prideful—toss of her auburn shadow hair.
I bowed my head and said things like yes, Nane, you are right. No, Nane, I won’t speak of it again.
Time flowed on.
• • • •
The night before Nowruz, and it all happens again. I watch. He feasts. She sleeps. So similar to last year, embroidered to a faultless pattern.
Then I step smartly out from behind the curtain and he leaps to his feet.
“Shh,” he puts a finger to his lips.
I go to Nane and he watches in horror as I take her mantle off from where she’s tucked herself in. Her eyes fly open.
He sees her. She sees him.
They stare at each other, and Baba Nowruz, he stammers something unintelligible. But of course. He has not spoken to the woman in an eternity. He blushes.
Outside his horse whinnies and he’s off like a spring breeze.
Nane jumps to her feet.
He stops at the door. Reaches for his bag.
“I forgot—I have to give—”
“Here are seven things,” I interrupt him. I wrap myself in her mantle, almost absentmindedly, for I have stepped briskly outside as they stare at me. I want the sky to witness what I do next. “I give you seven gifts. A Storyteller’s Haft Seen.”
I pause, looking at them.
“The first—a tale of autumn. Nane Sarma and Baba Nowruz spend all autumn planning the gifts for springtime. Baba collects the blessings and returns them to the people. And Nane is at his side helping him.
The second—a tale of water. Nane bends and whispers into the rivulets. Be patient, my dears. Springtime will come.”
Nane steps forward. Almost outside the house. A squirrel lured to a window with hazelnuts from my mother’s hand.
“The third—a tale of winter. In winter they work harder. They roam the earth and note what gifts they must bring for the children who are good. Which means they must plan for all of them, because there are no bad children.
The fourth—a tale of Yalda. On the night of Yalda, they cuddle by the fire, and roast nuts and read poems. Baba Nowruz declaims them in his loudest voice, and Nane laughs and makes up her own poems to see her beloved chuckle at her wit. On Yalda she reigns supreme.
The fifth—a tale of bonfires. They hold hands like children and jump over the fire with the children as people bang spoons and break pots on Scarlet Wednesday.
The sixth—a tale of spring. And away Baba Nowruz goes. He must be quick—there are so many presents to give to all the children. Nane would come too, but spring time makes her sleepy. And she has been working all winter, after all. So she brushes Baba’s blue cloak, kisses him on the nose, and tells him he will be successful, for she’d wished for his happiness on the night of Yalda. And he kisses her on the forehead and tells her, not more successful than she, for her happiness was what he’d wished for himself. And then he is gone to spread joy and happiness, and to bring back stories to his wife, and then spring time and summer are theirs to dream together in the grass.
And as for the seventh—” I pause.
They both peer at me through childlike eyes. Eternity is stripped away by hope and want, fear and helplessness. By now Nane is outside with us, without her mantle, shivering in the cold. Baba has tears in his eyes or he would have noticed.
“The seventh? A tale of destruction.”
Baba winces and puts his arm to his face. Nane goes to him and he covers her in his blue cloak. Wraps her all up.
“I hereby destroy you. You are no longer part of the story. No more will winter need to sleep, and spring need to race away in loving heedlessness. You may go—anywhere you like.”
“But how,” Nane whispers.
“I’m very sorry about this,” I feel an unexpected embarrassment. “But . . . I own the house. This building, here.” I point.
And I did. I had sold spices and soups all winter until I had made enough to pay the village council the price of the house. They were glad to give me a deed to it, seeing as how nobody had ever thought to make money from something in such an inhospitable location before.
“So you are not tied to it. In fact, you do not have a right over it.”
You don’t need to know all that was said between us. But it didn’t take very long.
And as I settled into myself, they sat together on the horse and galloped away to who knows where.
• • • •
If it were that easy, Baba Nowruz had said, they would have done this centuries ago.
• • • •
It is still winter.
I find the seed that lay lonely and forgotten in the cupboard.
“I am only winter,” I tell it. “But listen to me. For it is only when the first frost licks the berries that they gain their sweetness. And until the orchards are tended to by the cold, the apples lack in flavor. Little seed, it is only under winter’s blanket that the flocks of sheep and goats mate with each other, making their bargain for new life in spring. And when the foxes burrow under the snow, they grow warm, not cold.”
While talking so, I walk with it to the edge of the village.
And as I bury the seed at the border, I tell it the story of the pumpkin child and how much love she was worth. And I tell how when the horse of the hero Rustam destroyed the farmer’s crops, and the farmer complained, Rustam never fought against him and the farmer never had to raise an army, but they worked together, hero and farmer, and the land was cultivated anew. And maybe I forget myself and tell it the story of Nane Sarma and Baba Nowruz.
I lie down next to it and sing songs and tell stories out loud, until I go to sleep.
When I awaken, spring has happened all at once. And I myself have changed.
My hair is thick and black as a raven’s feathers. There is a strength at my core that allows me to leap and bound like a bear that has never been trapped. My mantle has turned green and buttercup yellow. I can sing like a lark and laugh like a babbling brook. And I do, frequently. Tending to wild lambs and picking cherries to give to the villagers I know and love.
And when the day of Nowruz comes around, the children all get presents. There is never any sign of who is the giver besides horse hooves in the dust, a flash of blue, and a woman’s contented laugh.
• • • •
Outside my door, all the way from the border of the village, someone with a head full of pollen-stained lust lingers. With green flecked eyes, I know, and a near-magic song that could have called forth the springtime. Something is placed at my door. Something I can tell has been plucked from the branches of the very first seed I had called forth into spring.
And I sigh despite myself, because the ancient stories move hard. They want to have their way.
But I am wise and I am cunning and I will not trap that beautiful young person into becoming a godling. I am sufficient, I tell myself. I will never open the door to a living soul.
Yet, as I hear the figure slipping away, I cannot stop myself from this one pleasure.
I wait a bit, then ready myself to open the door in delicious anticipation.
Because I know what I will find on the other side—a flower that can be anything.