by Sadeq Hedayat
It was late in the afternoon. Azarasp, the mobad, chanted a few verses from the Gathas over Zarbanu's body, then closed the book and walked heavily to the cemetery gate. He descended the stairs with difficulty. The caretaker rushed to the gate and, with a bone-chilling noise, closed the iron door on Zarbanu and locked it. Zarbanu's body remained in the tower of silence among the bones and the decomposing flesh of the dead. Azarasp wiped the sweat from his brow; then he accompanied three of Zarbanu's relatives and a sobbing girl back to the city.
A profound hush filled the cemetery and the rising moon gradually lit the interior. The round yard was divided by rectangular slabs of rock. On each slab there rested a dried up or a decomposing body. Now the white shrouds which draped the bones and the flesh became visible. Next to Zarbanu lay a corpse; its eyes had been plucked out. His head higher than the ground, he lay with one hand athwart his ripped abdomen and with brown, sun-burned flesh, a grey beard and dried sockets, he viewed the empty sky. His face was attractive and cheerful. In spite of his beard, with a shaved head and crossed legs, he looked just like a fetus in the womb. The stench of rotten and scorched flesh and the suffocating odor of decaying corpses permeated the gentle evening breeze. Shin and leg bones, skulls and broken ribs shone in the moonlight. Locked teeth and fists bespoke the owners' painful last moments.
Zarbanu, the newly-arrived guest, occupied one of the stone rectangles. She had a calm face; her eyes were closed, her hair was brunette and her eyelashes were long. A painful smile had frozen into the corner of her lips.
Her white and delicate hand with its slender fingers had been placed on her chest. Within her neat white dress her small breasts were apparent. Her face lay toward the sky as though counting the stars or pleasantly dreaming. This mute assembly looked like a get-together. Far from the city, its people and its tumultuous life, the guests had gathered here for a mysterious purpose. It was only during the day that a group of vultures, with hooked beaks and strong claws, tore their half-baked bodies and, wings flapping, poked their beaks into them. Dripping with blood, they filled their stomachs with dead flesh. When satisfied, out of joy and pleasure, they would scream.
At night, from afar, the howl of the coyote terrified even the other animals. Later they would approach the cemetery and circle it but, since they could not enter, their howl would become the soft mew of a kitten kept from her morsel. The vultures, on the other hand, sure of themselves, cleaned their beaks with their wings and scorned the coyotes. Apparently these were the only activities disturbing this otherwise silent tribunal, activities that told of the continuous history of thousands of years passing over this cemetery built of lime and plaster--this silver ring thrown up on the side of the mountain. Indeed, it looked like an unchanging cauldron into which would be redeposited all the matter borrowed from nature by human flesh.
Looking more closely, however, one could see white shadows in human form; they sat on the stairs inside the cemetery or glided around it. For three days and three nights now a white shadow, hand under her chin, had sat murmuring something over Zarbanu's body and stared at the cold, decomposing corpse, at its limp hair on the forehead and its still supple breasts. But another shadow near a neighbor's corpse moved constantly and talked to itself; it said things that Zarbanu couldn't comprehend. Other shadows would approach these and go away. Then suddenly, for the first time, Zarbanu's shadow understood her neighbor's incoherent words as he alternately addressed the Godhead and the embodiment of his own evils on the earth-plane, "Oh, Ahura Mazda. I take refuge in You ...Oh what a calamity I can see all my sins before me. Everyday lasts as if it were a thousand years... What a stench! ... Go away. Get away from me. You wicked whore, you evil one, go away. Who are you? I have not seen anyone as ugly as you! What do you want from me you infernal Satan? You cannot be the embodiment of my bad thoughts, bad words and bad deeds. How did you change my sins into this form? No, never... Why?... I took care of the poor, never worshiped any one but God, and avoided anger and injustice. I took care of the water and the fire and was generous. I had never told a lie, so why am I here? ... Oh, how frightening ... Go away, get away from me..."
Zarbanu's shadow trembled with fear. She turned to her neighbor and said, "What are you saying?"
But he, now crossing the Bridge of the Separator, did not notice her. Twisting and turning, he exclaimed: "Oh what a bridge! What an awesome bridge! There is the golden-eared dog; and there comes Soroush-Rashnu. They are going to weigh my sins. Look at the demons, so many of them. Where did they come from? ... I can't breath. There is no one here to help me... I smell sulphur ... the wind, too, is cold. My bones are splitting. How wicked, dirty, putrid and filthy this place is! It is dark, the road is covered with rocks. It is horrible. How dark. What a scary way! Look at those crocodiles..."
Then he collapsed on top of his own corpse, causing Zarbanu to rise up in fear. At the same time, one of the more curious shadows approached her and said, "Why are you shaking? Come, we are over there. There is no use looking. Come, join us."
Zarbanu answered, "You are an upright girl. Who are you?"
"I am not a girl and I am not upright! I am Nazpari."
"Nazpari! ... Tell me, am I a sinner, I who have suffered all my life?"
"How do I know?"
"Then tell me this. Are we in hell or is this heaven? This man," she pointed at her neighbor, "was screaming and talking about the torture of the Chinevad Bridge, about the golden-eared dog and about the smell of sulphur. Are we hell-bound? That can't be! I know nothing about life but pain and suffering. Aren't you an angel?"
Nazpari smiled and said, "How simple you are! I am a soul like you. This man is crazy. For more than a week he has entertained us with his words and deeds. Sometimes he thinks that he is in seventh heaven, sometimes he finds himself in the way station and sometimes in hell. Couldn't you see that he is crazy?"
"I see that now. But earlier I was reciting Afarinegan to myself..."
"Now you have seen the bad," Nazpari interrupted her. "But, let me tell you this. Don't tire yourself with reciting prayers. There are better things to talk about."
Zarbanu suspiciously asked, "You are not from Satan? You are not here to trick me, are you?"
"Don't be childish. How many nights is it that you have been here?"
"Isn't this the night when we go to your roof top? Isn't anyone reciting the Afarinegan prayer for you?"
"But you said it is useless!"
"It is amusing. We have made a habit of visiting the roof of everyone who dies... Oh, if only you knew how boring our existence is!"
"You are not saying that the holy immortals, the lower gods, the angels, hell, the way station and heaven are all lies?"
"I am not saying anything ... except that we, too, at some point, believed all this just as you do. But the universe, unlike people's imagination, is unlimited. Do you think that the life and death of a low, weak being like man would affect the universe by as much as an iota?"
"So what do I make of all the pain and the suffering that I have experienced? Has that all been for nothing?"
"Hope, that ever-present mirage, kept you going. What else do you want? I wish we, too, could fool ourselves What are we who are experienced to do when a newcomer joins us! His thoughts make us laugh."
"Oh, then was that it?"
"I didn't mean to depress you. I just came to help."
"What kind of help?"
"To put you straight. Then to talk about things."
"I only wanted to see Nahid, my adopted-daughter, and comfort her."
"Worry about yourself; the living are not like us; they are happy and free."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean they are happy and free, unlike us who are a handful of aimless shadows, falling on each other, full of dull thoughts and weak perceptions."
"So what do you do here all this time?"
"We wait... Some say we will return to the earth-plane... But, is that possible? On the earth-plane there is one hope for escape ... there is death. But here even death does not exist. We are doomed. Do you hear, doomed by a blind will. After you have been here for days, months, even years, and during long summer days, dark, cold winter nights, and gray autumn days--after you've seen your own corpse gradually decompose in the sun and the snow storms while the vultures fight each other over it--then you will recall my words."
"What a painful life, or death! You must think the way you do because of watching rotting bones and disintegrating human flesh."
At this time five other shadows joined them. Nazpari said to Zarbanu: "You don't know my friends. This is Javanshir, this is Azin, this is Vandan, this is Mehiar and this is Nushafarin. Each of the five has an idea different from those of the others and they are constantly debating. And that, of course, entertains us."
Zarbanu said, "You mean there are differences of opinion here, too?"
Nazpari said, "What a mistake! People don't change. These are the same earthlings with the same ideas drilled into their heads. If they changed their ideas then they would feel responsible for their past thoughts, deeds, and words."
Zarbanu said, "So there is reward and punishments!"
"Don't jump to conclusions yet," said Mehiar. "Nazpari said that everyone comes to this world with the same ideas that he has had on the earth-plane, meaning that no one becomes an angel and no one a devil. This, however, doesn't mean that there is a reward. Were our lives on the earthplane based on logic?"
Zarbanu said, "I still don't know whether you are serious. Or are you joking? Do you know my mother, Vehafarid? I would like to see her and ask her."
Shahram, who had just joined them, said to Mehiar, "She is new here. She doesn't know."
Javanshir said to Zarbanu, "You are really naive. People don't know each other here the way they did there!"
Nushafarin said to Zarbanu, "Let me put it this way. Twelve years ago I was on the earth and I loved Sinar. And he loved me. After his death I committed suicide, hoping to see him in this world. Now our shadows evade each other. There we were attracted to each other out of lust. But lust doesn't mean anything here. It is good only for the living, on the earth-plane. For the rabble."
Zarbanu said, "So how can you live here without any fear, hope, joy, desire or amusement?"
Nushzad, who had joined them, said, "You still cannot fathom the torture and the mental anguish of passing time. After you have spent days and years on top of the rocks of this mountain and after you have walked aimlessly by the rivers, you will learn to cope."
Zarbanu said, "All these are new to me. Do you mean that there is no God or creator?..."
Nushzad interrupted her saying, "Away with all these childish stories. They are good for putting idiots to sleep. If there were a God and if I could lay my hands on Him..."
Zarbanu said, "Now I understand. We are all sinners and we are in hell."
"You will get used to it," Nazpari said. "What kind of hope did we have on the earth-plane? We deceived ourselves with stories and tales. Nobody ever asked us about our opinion. We have been doomed from the beginning."
Shirzad, who was tall, strong and cheerful, came forward, "What's the matter now? Don't you know how to spend your time? Why are you cursing the universe? Learn from me. I used to be drunk all the time there and now, too, I have found a good place to spend my time. I spend the day in our cool cellar by the wine barrel. The dampness of the place and the fragrance of the wine remind me of my past life. You people expect too much."
Hoshdiv, who had just arrived, said, "Shirzad here has had a happy life and continues being happy. He is carefree. But me, what did I do? I suffered all my life, made money and put it into a piggy bank and buried it under a tree. Now my daily chore is to go by that tree and watch that no one takes my money."
"You just put your finger on my problem," said Mirangle. "Every day I go to the bazaar and sit beside Firuz, my partner. I am afraid he might cheat my heirs."
"Then why do you come back here at night?" asked Zarbanu.
Mirangle said, "Because we have to return to our bones. Besides, I am used to this place. We gather together and talk about our problems. It is better this way. We are not happy alone. You will see." "Here, too, everybody has a theory," Kohzad added. "We have to wait and see for ourselves. I have tried, but I haven't seen anything. Just a dark spot. Did we know on the earth-plane that we would be wandering around here like this?"
Zarbanu said, "Without joy, without amusement!?"
"Don't feel bad," said Nazpari. "You will get used to it; here we gather around and talk about our past life. Badness, goodness, shame--all are the same here. Each time a new body arrives we amuse ourselves a few days with its shadow. Often we visit the dead in other cemeteries and they tell us about their beliefs and customs. We exchange information. A couple of days ago one of them was with us. Her name was Za'faranbazi. She didn't want to leave here. She was a pleasant woman. But there are others who are quiet and who don't like to mingle with us. They are always thinking, walking around on top of the mountains. Take, for example, Azarnush, sitting on the stairs. When the new shadow arrives, she comes and looks at him with curiosity and then goes back and sits there, quiet and sad. Another one, Sohrab, walks around the wells with the soul of his dog. How nice it would be if the living were to play songs for us and to enjoy life closer to us. It would be nice for them to know that some day they, too, will die. That way they would enjoy life more."
Zarbanu asked, "what do the other dead say--the ones you bring from other cemeteries?"
"Well," said Nazpari, "we have it good here. Just like kings. Others are buried under dirt. How dirty, dark and eerie that is! Snakes and ants eat their bodies; they struggle. Some of them take refuge in our cemetery. We are free here like a ship on a stormy sea. We are together and can talk to each other freely beyond the weeping and the moaning and the lamentation. We can watch our bodies as they decompose in front of our eyes. I would never agree to be buried under all that dirt."
"I am going crazy," Zarbanu said. "I have suffered so much."
Kohzad said, "There is no doubt about that. And don't forget it. We are doomed. If you can, do change things. With our limited intelligence, we are trying to rationalize everything. What is rational? On earth, material things blinded us to reality. And from up here human beings' lives look like a game devised by a lunatic."
Zarbanu said, "I feel sad. Do we remain like this for ever?"
Rashn, along with other shadows, had approached them. Now he spoke, "We have to wait until such time as we are annihilated in the godhead."
"Don't listen to him," said Azin. "He is crazy. He repeats whatever they taught him on the earth-plane."
Rashn said, "Then you don't believe that we were reincarnated as animals or as human beings so that we could abandon matter."
"For what purpose?" asked Azin.
"To become independent souls," answered Rashn.
Azin asked, "Wasn't the soul independent in the beginning? Suppose it becomes independent, so what? Or suppose that on the earth-plane, there is a factory which manufactures souls. Come on. These ridiculous thoughts are the brainchild of small earthlings."
"You always doubt the obvious," said Rashn.
"And you always believe in the obscure," retorted Azin.
"Is all the pain and suffering on the earth-plane, or over here, pointless?" questioned Rashn.
Azin responded, "You philosophize with your emotions. You are deceiving yourself. Open your eyes. Look at Shirzad over there. All his life he has been drunk; now, too, he goes and sits by the wine barrel and enjoys himself. Hoshdiv, on the other hand, hoarded his money like the Jews. Now he watches over it and thinks about it day and night. Why is this? Neither you nor I know, so we had better drop the subject."
Rashn asked, "Do you think everyone shares your thoughtlessness? If, as you say, all the dead remain on earth, why aren't there thousands and thousands of dead people here? This cemetery has been here for hundreds of years. Where are the shadows of all its dead? Are they all annihilated in the godhead? No, only those who have a strong attachment to material life remain. By entering children's bodies these souls return to the world. This process repeats itself until they lose all material pollution. Those who no longer succumb to material inclination join the natural forces and are absolutely annihilated."
Azin said, "In your opinion, therefore, the number of human beings should be on the decrease!"
"No," replied Rashn. "While ascending animal souls enter human bodies, it is entirely possible that the souls of lustful human beings descend into the bodies of beasts. I know a painters soul, for instance, which has assumed the body of a butterfly. He avoids people and spends his time with wildflowers."
"Who told you all this?" asked Azin. "You are mistaken. Souls die, too. Those with more substantial material force will remain longer and then die slowly. How would it be possible to live independent of a body? Everything on the earth and in the sky is transitory and doomed. Why do we delude ourselves with the hope of an eternal life? These are all theories." Rashn replied, "So you are denying our very existence?"
"Not only this," said Azin. "I also deny the life of those living on the earth-plane. Do the living really exist? Are they more than mere thoughts? A handful of shadows created by the dread-inspiring nightmare of an opium addict? From the beginning we have been no more than just a trick and now, too, we are nothing but wandering shadows."
Nazpari intervened, "Rashn and Azin are arguing again. They give me a headache. Let's ask Zarbanu about her pleasures on the earth-plane. We have exhausted what the rest of you have to say."
Zarbanu, who was staring at her corpse, lifted her head and said, "More about the earth-plane?"
"Yes, of course," said Nazpari. "On the earth-plane there is music, there is money, there is wine, there is sleep, there is oblivion, there are love, hard work, hunger, heat, cold, thirst, picnics and even a hope to commit suicide, but we don't have any hope here. We were happy with the life of the living and we entertain ourselves by talking about it."
"And we do not interfere with each other's affairs!" said Zarbanu.
Nazpari said, "Not so. Not so at all. Whenever the living think about us, it makes us happy. That is why they recite the Afarinegan prayer for us and cook for us. What they do reminds us of our own life on the earth-plane. Our only fun is to accompany our friends to the roof of our houses and listen to the living reciting the Afarinegan for us. If they didn't, we would complain to Ahura Mazda through Mehr Soroush. Next week is the anniversary of my death. We will take you along. By the way, don't you have anybody to recite the prayers for you?"
"I have an adopted daughter," said Zarbanu. "Her name is Nahid. I found her on a doorstep. She recites prayers for me."
"What kind of pleasures did you experience on the earth-plane?" asked Nazpari.
"My only pleasure was in death. I hoped that I would see Farhad here, " replied Zarbanu.
Nazpari sympathized, "Poor you! ... You did say that you had suffered."
"Both my sister, Nushabe, and I fell in love with our paternal uncle's son, Farhad. Farhad loved me very much, but since Nushabe had told me about her love for Farhad I had resisted his love and when he asked me to marry him, I turned him down. Then Farhad took sick. Two months later he died before our eyes. Standing next to his corpse, my sister and I took an oath never to marry. We donned black dresses and thought and thought of nothing but Farhad. Then last year, Nushabe, too, died and I was left alone. Out of loneliness I adopted a girl. Her name is Nahid and she is thirteen years old."
Nazpari said, "But these don't count as pleasures!"
Zarbanu continued, "Well, one night, and only one night, I had fun and enjoyed myself. The rest of my life revolved around that night and sustained me. That was the night when I was alone at home and Farhad entered unexpectedly. He insisted on leaving but I wouldn't let him. Our house has a big yard and three rooms and a balcony on the far side as well as a garden in front. In the middle of the grass there is a pergola made of grape vines. It so happened that that night the weather, too, was mild and agreeable; the moon was out and a nice breeze was blowing. Farhad and I sat on a log in the pergola and he told me of his love as he squeezed my arm. I will never forget that night."
"Then you don't have anyone to recite the Afarinegan prayers for you?" asked Nazpari.
"But yes," Zarbanu answered. "I told you that my adopted daughter will do that for me. She loved me dearly."
"So let's go up on your roof and watch her. Will you take us with you?" asked Nazpari.
Zarbanu said, "Let's go."
The neighbors all got up and held hands. Nazpari took Zarbanu's hand and they glided into the air. When Zarbanu pointed at her house, they landed on the roof. In the balcony a light was burning. A bottle of wine and a basket of cherries, too, had been put there. The garden in front of the balcony had been swept and sprinkled with water. And under the light of the moon the dark green grass resembled velvet. The air was balmy with the fragrance of jasmine, violets and roses. Trees had spread their shadows on the grass; a deep silence covered everything.
Nazpari said, "Apparently no one is at home."
Hoshdiv commented, "The living have no concern for the dead."
Shahram said, "Wine and a basket of fruit instead of prayers!"
Nazpari asked Zarbanu, "Is this the daughter you thought loved you? She is out on the third night of your death!"
Azin said, "It was a long way!"
Nushzad said, "You can't expect more than this from an adopted child."
"How do you know she is a Zoroastrian?" asked Azin.
Mirangle said to Zarbanu, "Does she have a fiancé?"
"You mean Nahid?" asked Zarbanu. "Never. She is a good girl; don't accuse her."
"Then, where is she? "asked Mirangle.
Zarbanu said, "She is a single girl; maybe she has gone to buy something. She will be back."
Mirangle said, "The living: lucky they who can think about us."
Zarbanu turned to Nazpari and said, "Look, that moonlit night was just like tonight. Do you see that pergola? Farhad and I sat right there. Farhad held my hand and said, 'Why are you so sad? What is happening to you? You weren't like this before. Do you know what will happen to me if you refuse me? ... No, I can't bear it. Do you love someone else, Zari? Tell me, I only want your happiness in life. If you want to marry someone else, just tell me.' My head was lowered and I was listening to him. If you only knew how I felt!"
Nazpari said, "Each of us has a thousand of these stories. What happened to the recitation of the Afarinegan prayers?"
"We are wasting our time," said Hoshdiv.
Shahram said, "We shouldn't have been fooled this easily."
Rashn said, "We will complain to the godhead."
"To Whom did you say you will complain?" asked Azin.
"She must know that we don't need her Afarinegan," said Rashn. "If she had prayed for us, we could easily reciprocate by cleansing her body and soul."
"Don't be childish," said Azin. "If we didn't need it, then why did we come here. And now, why do we want to complain? Besides, if we could avert evil, why didn't we avert it from ourselves?"
Hoshdiv said, "Let's go back. Waiting is useless."
Everyone was ready to leave. Although she had come eagerly, Zarbanu, too, now ashamed and crestfallen, rose to go. Suddenly the door opened and two shadowy figures clad in white entered the garden. It was Nahid accompanied by a young man. They whispered and laughed intermittently. Nahid closed the door; the young man put his arm around her waist and together they glided towards the pergola. Their shadows grew longer, merged into one, separated, and merged again. The shadows on the roof watched their every move. Unaware of the shadows, they went into the pergola and sat on the log. The trembling leaves of the trees covered them. The moonlit jasmine bushes and large yellow sunflowers also trembled in the gentle breeze. This event was so unexpected that it petrified the shadows on the roof.
Azin said, "They didn't say the Afarinegan prayers!"
Nazpari suggested, "Let's get closer so we can hear them better!"
But Zarbanu grabbed her saying, "No, don't spoil it! Let's go back. This is enough. It reminded me of a happy moment in my life and I am afraid that getting closer will destroy that happy memory. Love, you see, is an enchanting melody, a distant, pleasant song sung by a hideous singer. You mustn't get too close or accost him. That would destroy the pleasure and the joy of his song. So this is enough. This reminded me of the best moment in my life and I enjoyed it more than any Afarinegan that could have been recited for me."
Then they all went back. Zarbanu returned to her corpse and sat there propping her chin in her hand. She refused to speak to the others. Absolute silence returned. The shadows sat around astounded. The howls of the coyotes and the jackals could be heard from afar.
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