copyright 1995, 1999
copyright 1995, 1999
copyright 1995, 1999
Everyone in Shiraz knew that Dash Akol and Kaka Rostam were such bitter enemies that each would shoot at the other's shadow if he could. One day Dash Akol had crouched contentedly on the dais of the Domil teahouse, his usual haunt. A delicately-wrought bird cage, covered with a fine red cloth, stood next to him. As he sat, he stirred the ice floating in a bowl with his fingertip. Suddenly, Kaka Rostam stepped through the door. With one hand on the sash at his waist, he tossed Dash Akol a contemptuous sneer and stalked to a seat on the opposite dais. He then turned towards the tea-boy and stammered, "Bo..bo..boy, bring me a cu..cu..cup of tea!"
Dash Akol cast a threatening look at the tea-boy who, recognizing his precarious situation, decided to ignore Kaka Rostam's order. Instead, he made himself busy taking the tea glasses off the large brass tray, dipping them in hot water and carefully drying each until it glistened and screeched.
Ignored, and therefore insulted, Kaka Rostam shouted, "A... are you deaf? I'm talking to y..you, boy!"
Hesitating, the tea-boy smiled and glanced towards Dash Akol. Clenching his teeth, Kaka Rostam spat out, "Let those who have the ga..gall to face me come out tonight for a bi.. bi..bit of man-to-man business!"
As he calmly turned the ice in his bowl and viewed the situation from the corner of his eye, Dash Akol burst out laughing, suddenly and loudly. A set of pearly teeth flashed beneath his hennaed moustache.
He said, "Only cowards brag...we'll see if you can put your money where your mouth is!"
Everyone in the teahouse broke out laughing. Not so much because of Kaka Rostam's stammering--they all knew he stuttered--but, rather, because everyone in the city knew Dash Akol was one of a kind. Indeed, it would have been impossible to find a scoundrel in the whole of Shiraz who had escaped Dash Akol's fist.
Every night, after he had downed his usual quart of araq at Isaac the Jew's, he toured the Dozak neighborhood. No one, including Kaka Rostam or his own grandfather, dared challenge his authority. Kaka Rostam knew better than everyone else that he was no match for this man who had injured him twice and who had humiliated him not only by flooring him but by sitting on his chest.
A few days ago, the unlucky Kaka had come into the neighborhood and, seeing no opponent, had begun to throw his weight around. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Dash Akol had arrived to ridicule him, "Kaka? Where's the man of the house? Did you smoke an overdose of opium? Man, it has affected you! But let me tell you my friend, put these cowardly, dastardly pranks aside. You're behaving like a lout and you are not even ashamed of it! Is this a new method of begging? Why do you abuse people by stopping them on their way home night in and night out? Try it again and, by Pourya the Valiant, I shall teach you a lesson. I'll slice you in half with this cutlass."
Kaka Rostam had put his tail between his legs and had left. But even though he had been licked, he had vowed that one day he would get back at Dash Akol.
Conversely, everyone in Shiraz loved Dash Akol--even when drunk and forbidding, he would allow women and children to cross his path. In fact, he was kind to people; if anyone dared harass a woman, or tried to bully people, Dash Akol made him pay for it through the nose. He could be counted on to help people in financial distress and sometimes even to carry their heavy parcels.
But he couldn't stand the idea of anyone being superior to him--particularly someone like Kaka Rostam who smoked at least three mesquals of opium a day and who was always causing trouble. And now that Dash Akol had insulted him in the teahouse, Kaka Rostam sat back and chewed his moustache, smarting with anger. After a while, the laughter in the teahouse had died down, but the tea-boy, pale-faced, wearing a collarless shirt, skullcap and pantaloons, continued to twist and turn, laughing and making the others in the teahouse laugh. Eventually, Kaka Rostam lost control. He grabbed the crystal sugar-cube container and threw it at the teaboy's head. The sugar bowl hit instead the top of the samovar, where a pot of tea was brewing; the whole thing got knocked over, breaking a number of cups in the process. Bursting with anger, Kaka Rostam left the teahouse.
Anxiously the teahouse owner checked over the samovar and said, "Did he ever disarm Rostam! One old samovar's all we had, and he's done it in." Even though the innkeeper said this in a sorrowful tone, his allusion to Rostam fueled the laughter. Frustrated, the innkeeper attacked his apprentice, but Dash Akol, smiling, pulled out a small money purse and dashed it onto the floor. The owner picked up the purse, weighed it, and grinned.
Suddenly a man in a velvet tunic, large trousers and a felt cap hurled himself into the teahouse. He glanced about frantically. Then he went up to Dash Akol and said, "Haji Samad passed away."
Dash Akol raised his head and said, "May God bless his soul! "
"Don't you know about his will?"
"What do you take me for? A grave-robber! Go tell the ghouls."
"You don't understand. You've been appointed the executor of his estate."
It seemed as though this news shocked Dash Akol. Again he looked the messenger over and rubbed his forehead, pushing back his egg-shaped hat and revealing a bit of the untanned head. Then he shook his head, pulled out his gilded-stemmed pipe, filled it with tobacco, tapped it down, lit it and said, "May God bless the Haji. What's done is done, but he really shouldn't have. This will cause a lot of trouble for me. Anyhow, you go on ahead. I'm on my way."
The messenger was Haji's manservant. With long strides he left the teahouse. Dash Akol, puffing the while on his pipe became pensive. It was as though a sudden blanket of dark clouds had descended over the mirth and laughter in the teahouse. After emptying his pipe, Dash Akol picked up his bird cage, handed it into the tea-boy's care, and went out.
When Dash Akol reached the garden of the Haji's property, the service had already finished. Several Qur'an reciters and prayer-book dealers were quarreling over their wages. After a considerable delay by the pond, he was ushered into the main salon. Its stained-glass-doors, which overlooked the garden, were open. Haji's wife came up to the curtain separating the men's and women's quarters. She greeted Dash Akol warmly. Dash Akol sat down on a cushion and said, "We all miss Haji. May you and your children live a long life!"
Haji's wife, choking with emotion, said, "The evening that Haji took sick, the Imam Jom'eh was called and, in the presence of witnesses, Haji appointed you executor of his estate. Did you know Haji from before?"
Dash Akol said, "Five years ago I met him on a trip to Kazerun."
"Haji, God rest his soul, always said, 'There is one man around here and that is Dash Akol."'
Dash Akol said, "Ma'am, I cherish my freedom more than anything else, but now that I've been entrusted to carry out a dead man's last wish, by the light of the sun, I swear that I'll set an example."
As he turned his head, through the slit of a curtain, he saw the flushed face and the ravishing black eyes of a young girl. For a moment their eyes met, but the girl, as if coy, dropped the curtain and left. Could she be called beautiful? Perhaps. In any event, her stunning eyes had worked their magic and had turned Dash Akol's life upside down. His face flushed; he dropped his head. This young girl was Marjan, Haji Samad's daughter. Bursting with curiosity, she had come to meet the town's hero and their protector in person.
From that day forward, Dash Akol got caught up in Haji's affairs. With the help of an expert dealer, two neighborhood toughs and a scribe, he made an inventory of Haji's possessions. He disposed of what needed to be sold, and he locked and sealed the rest in a storeroom. He had the deeds of Haji's estate read to him, collected what was owed the estate, and paid its debts. He took care of all of this in two days and two nights. On the evening of the third day, exhausted, he headed for home. Reaching Seyyed Haj Gharib intersection, he bumped into Emam Qoli, the smith. Emam Qoli said, "For two nights now, Kaka Rostam has been waiting to take you on. Last night he said, 'There's a fine way to keep a deal. It seems he has forgotten his promise."' Dash Akol ran his fingers through his moustache and said, "Don't you worry about that."
Dash Akol remembered quite well that only three days before, in the Domil teahouse, Kaka Rostam had threatened to take him on. But he knew Kaka Rostam well enough to know that the latter, along with Emam Qoli, had plotted to make him lose face; he decided to ignore them. He, thus, went on his way. As he went, Marjan dominated his thoughts. He thought of no one but Marjan and could not erase her from his mind, hard as he tried.
Dash Akol was a thirty-five-year-old man, robust but rather ugly. Seeing him for the first time, most people would be repulsed. But once they sat and listened to his stories, or heard about his exploits from others, they would find themselves attracted to him. Those who were able to ignore the scars on his face found him a noble and attractive man with coal-dark eyes, black, bushy eyebrows, prominent cheekbones, a slender nose and an ebony beard and moustache. What had disfigured his face were the many wounds inflicted upon it. On his cheeks and forehead were the traces of saber cuts--cuts that had healed quite unattractively, exposing shiny pink flesh. The worst of these had produced a tuck under his left eye, disfiguring the left side of his face.
His father had been one of the notable landowners of the Fars province. When he died, his legacy had gone to his only son. But Dash Akol, carefree and a spender, felt no allegiance to money (or to other worldly things). He devoted his life to heroic deeds, restoration of people's lost freedoms and philanthropy. He was a simple man, attached to none other than these goals. The money that he took in found its way either to those who were in greater need or to his diversions. These were to sit drinking strong brands of araq proclaim his presence at the intersections or haunt local gatherings accompanied by his retinue of followers. So much for his faults and his merits. The unbelievable thing, however, was that he had never had a great love in his life. Several times his friends had tried to set him up and, each time, he had shied away. But from the day he first became the executor of Haji Samad's estate and set eyes on Marjan, his life had taken a new turn.
On the one hand, he had made a vow to a dead friend and was bound by a sense of responsibility. On the other hand, he had fallen under the spell of Marjan. The former responsibility weighed on him more. The man who had squandered away his own property, giving it to the wind, as it were, would now get up early in the morning with the single thought of increasing Haji's income. He moved Haji's wife and children to a smaller house, rented out their home, and hired a tutor to teach the children. He put Haji's wealth to work and, from dawn-to dusk, he toiled over Haji's affairs.
From this point on, Dash Akol abandoned his usual nocturnal rounds and challenges and he ceased to mingle with his cronies. Gradually his sense of adventure died. But the scoundrels and the louts who sought to rival him, egged on by the mullahs who had been deprived of Haji's property, found some breathing space. They were the toughs now. And Dash Akol was reduced to a mere topic at the teahouses. At the Pachenar teahouse, it was rumored that they had ridiculed him saying, "Who? Dash Akol? He is an old windbag! Where is the old dog now? Good riddance! He's taking advantage of the old Haji, thinking he'll come into something. When he reaches his corner, he turns tail and runs."
Kaka Rostam with his venomous, stammering voice cried out, "He has one foot in the g..g..grave, yet he's fallen in love w..w..with Samad's daughter. His sword is hung up for g..g..good! He's pulled the w..w..wool over everyone's eyes and is living off Ha..Haji's wealth. What a lucky d..d.. dog!"
From this point on, Dash Akol lost all his clout. No one would respect him, not even the help in the kitchen.
Everywhere he entered, people began to whisper--they made fun of him. Dash Akol took this all in, but he seemed to ignore it. Marjan's love was in his veins, so much so that his heart and mind were completely absorbed.
Evenings, to push Marjan out of his mind and to keep himself busy, he drank araq. He'd also purchased a parrot to keep himself company. He would sit in front of the parrot and pour out his heart. If Dash Akol were ever to ask for Marjan's hand, her mother would be delighted to oblige. But on the other hand, he didn't want to be tied down by a wife and family. He wanted to be free as he had been born and reared to be. Besides, he felt that if he married the girl who had been his charge, it would be a betrayal of Haji's trust. Worst of all was his face. Every night he surveyed himself in the mirror: the scars, the tell-tale marks and the permanently disfigured left side. Sadly he would say to himself, "Marjan would never love me. Most likely, she'll find a handsome, virile young man for a husband ... No. This is far from chivalry. She's a mere child of fourteen while I'm forty-years old. What's to be done? This love will be the death of me. Marjan, you're killing me. In whom can I confide? Marjan, your love is killing me."
Tears would gather in his eyes and, one shot after the next, he would down more araq. Then, as he sat with a splitting ache between his ears, he fell asleep. But, in the middle of the night, at the time that the city of Shiraz with its twisting maze of streets and alleys, expansive gardens, and deep-colored wine was sleeping; at the time that the stars calmly and mysteriously twinkled in the indigo night sky; at the time that Marjan with her scarlet cheeks slept calmly, breathing smoothly, dreaming of the day's work; at this same time, the real Dash Akol, the Dash Akol who was at ease and natural with all of his feelngs and whims--a carefree Dash Akol--would emerge from the bondage of traditonal inhibitions and the confinement of beliefs imposed on him since childhood. Freely he would grasp Marjan in an embrace: the slow pulse of her heart, the fiery lips and her warm body. Gently he would kiss her on each cheek. But as he awoke from his sleep, he cursed his wretched life. Like a crazed person pacing back and forth, he spoke angry epithets to himself under his breath. The rest of the day, in order to strangle all thoughts of Marjan, he dashed here and there to attend to Haji's affairs. Seven years passed in this way; Dash Akol would have been ready to lay down his life to protect Haji's wife and family. Not once did he flee from his responsibilty.
If one of Haji's children fell ill, day and night he would hover over the child like a nervous mother. Little by little, he found himself strongly attached to them, but his feelings for Marian were something else--no doubt it was his love of Marjan that helped him remain so calm. Little by little, the children were ready to leave the nest. And then, that which should not have come to pass came about: a suitor asked for Marjan's hand--and on top of it all--who was the husband-to-be but a man older and uglier than Dash Akol himself.
He tried not to let on the depths of his sadness. On the contrary, he tried hard to occupy himself with the gathering together of the dowry. For the evening of the marriage vows, he pulled together a great feast and brought Haji's wife and children back to their home. The large entry hall with stained windows to the yard he assigned as a salon for receiving the gentlemen. And he invited all the important men of Shiraz, including the merchants and the city fathers. At 5:00 p.m. that day, when the guests crowded ear-to-ear in the halls and covered the finest carpets and when sweets and fruit had been laid in front of them, Dash Akol appeared in the same way as before with half-tousled hair. He wore a quilted cashmere tunic that reached below his knees, cut across by the shoulder-strap of his cutlass, a cashmere belt, black-twill trousers, hand-woven cotton shoes and a brand new felt cap. Three men carrying various-sized ledgers followed him. Everyone stared at Dash Akol as with long strides he walked over to the Imam Jom'eh and said, "Your Reverence, Haji--may God rest his soul--made a will and for seven solid years has kept me in no end of trouble. His youngest son who was only five is now twelve." Pointing to the three men with ledgers who had followed him, he continued, "These show Haji's assets and belongings. All the expenses to date, including tonight's, I have paid out of my own pocket. Now it is time for each party to go his separate way.
At this moment he could not go on for a sob choked his throat. Without adding anything, nor waiting for an answer, he dropped his head and, with tear-filled eyes, walked out of the house. As soon as he was out, he took a deep breath. He felt he had been set free, that the burden of responsibility had been lifted off his shoulders. But deep down, his heart was broken. With long strides he wandered aimlessly until he recognized Isaac the Jew's house. Without hesitation, he crossed over the damp bricks into the interior of the decrepit, polluted courtyard which, surrounded by filthy hovels and a myriad of small windows, resembled a giant beehive. A coat of green slime covered the small pond in the courtyard. A sour smell hung in the air. Laughing artificially, Isaac the Jew--thin, with a soiled skullcap, goatee and greedy eyes--approached him. Dash Akol, not in the mood for small civilities, said, "Upon both halves of your moustache, give me a bottle of your finest brew to refresh my throat."
Isaac the Jew shook his head and headed down the cellar stairs. After a few minutes, he returned with a bottle. Dash Akol took the bottle from him, dashed its neck against the wall to open it, and quickly downed half the bottle. Tears gathered in his eyes and he began to cough. He stopped himself from coughing and, with the back of his hand, wiped his mouth. Isaac the Jew's son, a sickly jaundiced child with a distended stomach, a gaping mouth and a crusted-over nose, stared at Dash Akol. Dash Akol reached up for the salt jar on the shelf above him and, with his finger, scooped up a bit of salt and licked his finger. Isaac the Jew came toward Dash Akol, tapped him on the shoulder and said, "Lutis take their drinks straight--no relish!"
Then he slipped his hand under Dash Akol's tunic material and said, "What are you wearing? This tunic's completely out of fashion. Whenever you want to part with it, I'll gladly take it off your hands for a good price." Dash Akol smiled sadly; he took some money from his pocket, placed it in Isaac the Jew's palm and left. It was almost dusk. His body felt warm, his mind was muddled and his head ached. The alleys were still damp from the afternoon rain and the smell of the straw in the mud covering the walls blended with the perfume of orange blossoms in the air. Frozen in his mind were Marjan's face, flushed cheeks, black eyes with long eyelashes, and soft curls framing her forehead. His past memories flashed before his eyes one by one. He remembered his trips with his friends to the tombs of Sa'di and Babakuhi. Sometimes a smile touched his lips; sometimes a frown wrinkled his brow. The thing that was the clearest to him was that he was afraid of his own home; his present situation was unbearable--he had lost all interest in it. He wanted to go away, far away. The thought of drinking all night and pouring his heart out to his parrot crossed his mind. All of his life seemed useless--shallow and without meaning. A poem came to mind--in a fit of impatience, he murmured:
I envy the getting together of prison inmates, The sweetmeats of their gatherings are the links of their chains.
He remembered another poem which he recited even more loudly:
I have gone mad, people, Bring a remedy.
Bring a madman's only remedy, Bring a chain!
He recited the poem with grief, disappointment and bitterness; then, as though losing patience, or because his mind was elsewhere, he fell silent. It was dark outside when Dash Akol reached his usual corner, Sar-e Dozak. Here was the same square he had spent most of his time defending during his youth. No one had dared to come forward to challenge him. Without thinking, he walked over to the front stoop of a home, sat down and pulled out his pipe. He felt that the place had deteriorated; people, like himself who had become old and broken, had changed. His eyes swam in front of him and his head throbbed. Suddenly, a shadow approached him. Then he heard a voice, "C..cowards sneak ou..out at n.. night!"
Dash Akol recognized Kaka Rostam. He stood up and moved his hand to his waist. He spat and said, "Son of a coward! You consider yourself a Luti? Let me tell you, you are about to meet your match now!"
Kaka Rostam laughed jeeringly and stammered, "It..it's been a long t..time since you've been around. Tonight there's a w..w..wedding at Haji's. Didn't they let you in?"
Dash Akol cut him off, "God knew you well when he gave you only half a tongue. Tonight I'll cut the other half out."
He put his hand down and drew his cutlass. Kaka Rostam, who looked like Rostam painted on the wall of the bathhouse, also pulled out his cutlass. Dash Akol jammed the tip of his cutlass into the ground, stood by and ritually lowered his head to his chest saying, "Whoever considers himself a luti can try to pull this cutlass out."
Kaka Rostam suddenly lunged for him. Dash Akol struck Kaka Rostam's wrist with such force that his cutlass flew from his hand. Their litany had drawn a crowd, but no one dared come forward to break them up. Dash Akol laughingly said, "I let you retrieve it this time. But I warn you... hold your cutlass tight. This is the night for settling our account once and for all."
Kaka Rostam approached Dash Akol with clenched hands. Each lunged for the other and began tussling. For half an hour they rolled on the ground, sweating profusely, but neither could claim a victory. In their struggle, Dash Akol's head suddenly struck the pavement and he nearly lost consciousness. Kaka Rostam, too, although fighting for dear life, was losing his strength. Then he saw Dash Akol's cutlass jammed into the ground. With all his strength, he drew the cutlass out of the ground and stabbed it into Dash Akol's side. The force of the act rendered both combatants motionless.
The onlookers dashed up and tried to help Dash Akol stand. Blood dripped from his side. Dash Akol put his hand over his wound and tried to stagger against the wall, but he fell again. Soon after the onlookers carried him home.
The next day, when news of Dash Akol's injury reached Haji Samad's household, Valikhan, Haji's oldest son, came to visit. When he reached Dash Akol's side, he saw that Dash was pale and wan. Bloody saliva dripped from his mouth and his eyes wandered as he painfully drew each breath.
Even on his deathbed, Dash Akol recognized Valikhan. With a trembling voice that choked in his throat he said, "In my life, I had only this parrot, only you... hold him dear... Give him to ..."
He fell silent again. Valikhan took out his silk handkerchief and wiped his eyes. Dash Akol lost consciousness and died one hour later. Everyone in Shiraz grieved for him.
Valikhan took the parrot's cage to his home. That afternoon Marjan put the cage in front of her and stared at the bird's multi-colored wings, hooked beak and round tired eyes. Suddenly the parrot, in a voice that echoed Dash Akol's, said, "Marjan... Marjan... you've killed me. Whom can I tell? Marjan, your love has killed me."
Tears ran down Marjan's cheeks.
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