LOOK AT THAT lamppost by the newspaper kiosk. No, not the one where the bike is locked. The other one. A woman just walked by it. A boy once leaned against it and wept.
Wherever you turn in this town, you come across reminders. You feel a bond with a place or a person, a tree or a bridge or the river itself. Then your first kiss comes back to you, or the memory of a grand disaster, the remnants of which still lurk somewhere in the basement of your mind. The trauma is so deep that every time you come upon that reminder you subconsciously change course. The lamppost does that to me. I frequently walk from one end of this town to the other. Every time I pass it by I pause, then cross the street and sit in the café and stare at it out the window. For the people of this town, this post is like all the rest, a place where the stray dogs lift their hind legs to urinate and young drug dealers lean as they sell their stuff. But for me it’s tied to Vavan. When I look at it, I relive the day my mother said, ‘Take your brother to town and help him start his military service.’
She was doing laundry in the pond when she asked me to do this. At the time, Vavan was eighteen years old. Thirteen years earlier, his twin sister got the measles and died. They took her body to the children’s cemetery atop a far-off hill and covered her grave with a heap of cement blocks. They put no gravestone on it. Vavan survived the disease. His gaunt body burned feverishly for two weeks. One morning, he woke up thirsty, crawled out of his bed and shuffled off to the spring to drink water. He was found there, unconscious. Back home, he lay under the blanket a few more days, struggling to ward off death’s assaults. He finally pulled through. When he was back on his feet, they slit a rooster’s throat as a token of gratitude to the gods who saved his life.
After the measles, he never left the village. He spent all his days playing in the dirt. My mother was constantly worried about him. ‘This poor boy has never seen the other side of these woods,’ she said.
After he found a job, he walked every day over a few hills and across a meadow to the rice factory and back home. He worked hard during his shift, and afterwards, believing it would heal his blisters, dipped his fingers into oil. That was the only other place outside our house and our street that he ever visited.
He avoided people with the same effort he brought to his work at the factory. He never attended the village weddings, which were the only occasions when all the villagers came together. ‘Vavan, let’s go to the wedding,’ boys his age would come to our door and call to him. ‘I don’t like weddings,’ he would reply. Then they would make fun of him. Each time he gave the same excuse in order to get rid of them: ‘The horses are thirsty. I have to take them to the spring.’ Then he would walk a horse out of the village and linger there until the wedding was over. Sometimes he even took the cows with him to have an extra reason to stay longer. Often, he would lie on the hillside grass until the sun went down.
‘Where have you been all day long?’ my mother would ask when he came back.
‘I took the big mare to the water,’ he would say.
My mother would raise her voice and curse him, and in response he would sulk in his room.
But he wasn’t always like that. When he was in the mood and there happened to be a wedding in the village he put on his new clothes, oiled his hair and set out – but even on those days he couldn’t quite make it there. He would walk discreetly in the evening shadows cast by the walls of buildings in order to go unnoticed. As soon as he got close enough to hear the ululations of the women, he would spin around, run towards the brown hills and sit there singing in the night. Before midnight he would come back to the village with a basket of wild mushrooms or some honeycomb he had taken from a tree.
He became particularly unbearable when we had guests from the city. As soon as they entered the house, he would sneak out of the back door and lurk around the village until they were gone. ‘I hate city people,’ he said.
Once he came back from the rice factory and sat by the window, sunbathing without taking off his dirty clothes. A cloud of flies flew in and swarmed around his ankles.
Someone knocked on the gate. I was out in the yard nearby, trimming the trees. I opened the latch. A wave of women and children swirled around me as if I were standing on the shore of a turbulent sea. Vavan didn’t have any opportunity to flee. He backed away from the window, jumped inside a closet and closed the door. He stayed there until the next morning, staring at the soft, untanned skin of the city women through the crack. At midnight I shoved some food inside the closet. When he finally emerged after they left the next day, he walked out of the house and went straight to the woods.
All this is not to say that he was dour or insufferable. Quite the contrary. When he was with me and my mother, he was as funny as they come. During the long, cold winter nights he entertained us for hours. We would sit around the hearth where the burning oak wood filled the house with a pleasant, earthy aroma and listen. He made up stories about everyone in the village and was an excellent mimic of the people we knew, especially the old men. I believe he fixated on them because they terrified him. When he ran into an old man he got flustered and his shoulders tilted sideways. Now I realise why he did all the household errands except for going to the bakery. He brought wood and took care of the horses and everything else, but he never bought bread. Just the sight of the old baker scared him out of his wits.
Vavan became a subject of gossip the day they came to pick him up for military service and he escaped them through the back door and disappeared. The news somehow spread around, and soon every household in the village was discussing his situation. ‘If this kid stays here they’ll catch him and throw him into jail,’ someone said. ‘They’ll skin him alive if he keeps hiding from them,’ someone else predicted. ‘You are not a man unless you do the service,’ a third person butted in. ‘If he doesn’t go, no girl will marry him.’
ALL THIS GOSSIP reached my mother. She stayed put in the house, waiting for Vavan and crying. One day she lost it and took it out on me. ‘Get out of here and go look for him!’ she yelled. ‘And don’t step into this house again until you find him.’
So that morning I asked a couple of his friends for help. Together we left the village. We yelled, ‘Vavan! Vavan!’ in the woods. We yelled ‘Vavan! Vavan!’ in the valleys. Not a trace of him anywhere. We searched the area for a whole day and came back home before dark.
He was sitting in the kitchen, eating beef stew.
‘No need to come after me,’ he said. ‘I’m not afraid of military service. I’ll go when I want to go.’
When he finished his food, my mother brought a bowl of hot water and a razor. She shaved his head, collected his hair in a copper bowl and dried him off with a towel. Then he went up to the roof and lay there staring at the stars.
‘I put these sweets in your bag,’ my aunt said to Vavan. ‘Eat one piece a day. You don’t get good sweets in the Citadel.’
Vavan and I left the village for the city as my mother cried. Old men and women came to see us off. I was tasked with keeping him company all the way there and presenting him for the training camp.
We walked up the mule path over the hill and reached the dirt road. An old American car emerged from the dust and we got in.
For the first time in his life, Vavan saw the vast meadow behind the woods and the dusty mountain range on the horizon at the foot of which the city lay. He didn’t say a word during the ride, just as he hadn’t spoken the night before or through the morning. His eyes remained fixed on the forest of fig trees, which grew thinner as we got farther from the village, as if the journey were diffusing his childhood into oblivion. The driver noticed his uniform and asked which brigade he served in. Vavan did not answer. Then the driver told him an elaborate story about his own time in the military. Vavan didn’t bother to acknowledge him with even a tilt of his head. The man looked at me in the mirror. ‘What’s wrong with this kid?’ he asked. I had no answer.
From a distance, the city looked calm and serene. It stretched up far into the mountains, its northern half populated by tall, white buildings that stuck up from the ground like a blanket of needles. A thick layer of grey clouds lingered over it.
We got out of the car on a wide, tree-lined boulevard.
‘Where is your backpack, Vavan?’ I asked him. He looked at me like a boy caught stealing chocolate.
‘Where is your backpack?’ I asked again.
‘Where is my backpack?’ he said, then looked around and rubbed his eyes.
‘Where is your backpack?’ I raised my voice.
The driver of the American car returned. He braked dramatically and dropped Vavan’s backpack out on the grass. ‘You left this behind, young man.’ He shook his head. ‘Soldiers today,’ he said. He spat out of the car window and took off.
‘You have to be very careful, Vavan,’ I said. ‘The city is like a sea. As soon as you get distracted, you’re lost.’
We walked off. He pressed the backpack to his chest. Even when we sat on a bench on the boulevard, he didn’t let go of it.
‘You have to learn where the trains are and where the taxis pick up passengers.’
‘Are you listening to me?’
‘I think we should eat Aunt’s sweets.’
‘That glass tower over there,’ I said, ignoring him, ‘is downtown and the central train station is under it. Every time you’re lost, you return to that tower and you’ll find your way.’
‘I prefer taxis.’
‘You can find taxis there as well. You just ask around when you get there. Every time you get lost, you ask questions. If there is no one around, look at the signs and arrows. They are everywhere.’
‘So we’re not eating sweets?’
I got up and walked. He followed me.
‘When are we going to the Citadel?’
‘We’re heading there right now.’
I flagged down a taxi and sat in the front. Vavan sat in the back and put his backpack in his lap. I kept looking at him. With that shaved head, his eyes and ears looked larger. He had glued his forehead to the window and was staring at the tall buildings and the street vendors. At the red light, a motorcycle almost hit the taxi. ‘Fucking animal,’ the driver said. ‘He almost broke the mirror. People are idiots.’
We arrived at the central tower. Without moving his face away from the window, Vavan slid his forehead upward against the pane to take in the full sight of the glass monster. Down on the street, government workers and bureaucrats in suits were milling about.
At the next light an old lady waved. The taxi paused and she got in. Vavan moved aside to make room for her. A few blocks ahead the old woman said, ‘I am getting off here.’ The taxi stopped. She paid and got out. The car went on.
‘Did you notice that the soldier jumped out of the car without paying? I don’t hold it against him. Soldiers are paid peanuts.’
‘The young guy in the back. He got out with the old lady.’
I looked around. Vavan wasn’t there.
‘Stop the car!’ I yelled.
GREY CLOUDS HAD thickened above the city. A flock of crows flew over the sidewalk. I spotted a young soldier with a backpack and ran after him. I jostled and elbowed through the crowd, screaming, ‘Vavan! Vavan!’
He turned around. It was a young man with blue eyes.
I went to the square and circled it. The gutter was filled with putrid water. The cats were staring at me, as if they knew what I was doing there. Maybe he had gone to the Citadel, I thought. Maybe he followed my instructions and had entered the glass tower and taken one of those trains. Maybe he was a passenger on the one that just went by.
A bus stopped near me. In the last seat, a red-headed man was reading a book. His ears were big and flat, and his fingers were long, thin and yellow like chicken legs.
AN OLD MAN pulled a cart full of stale bread, which he would sell as cattle fodder.
‘Sir,’ I called him, ‘have you seen a soldier with a shaved head?’
‘All the soldiers have shaved heads. And no, I haven’t seen any.’
Further down, where the water in the gutter flowed, I saw a bag passing by that looked like the one my aunt put inside Vavan’s backpack. A few pieces of sweets came after it, leaving yellow traces in the water. Those were followed by an orange peel.
The grey clouds came down, rubbing their chests on the top of the glass tower. It began to rain. The crowd broke apart and people ran around for shelter. The cars honked and the motorcycles zigzagged through them. I hurried under a bridge. A street vendor was there, singing. A group of homeless people were smoking opium in daylight. More people who had left their umbrellas at home joined us. I ended up standing next to an old man with a woven sack on his shoulder.
‘Have you seen a young boy in uniform with a backpack?’
‘I am blind,’ he said.
I stood under the bridge until the rain stopped, then I ran back to the main street. The clouds retreated quickly towards the mountains, and they already looked far away. The street and the cars and the glass tower glittered under the sun.
I got to the tower and stood in front of it. I looked like a rooster that had lost a fight. I stared at the tower for a while, then wandered around the street. I stumbled into a café, this café, where I am sitting now, looking at the lamppost across the street.
I ordered coffee with cream and asked the barista, ‘Have you seen a soldier around here?’
‘We see soldiers all the time,’ he said.
‘He is a young boy with a freckled face, very skinny, carrying a big backpack. He is my brother.’
‘No, I haven’t.’
I took my coffee and sat down in a corner, the corner where I am sitting now, because from here I could see the square. A mother and daughter were sitting at the table next to me.
‘What did he look like?’ the mother was asking.
‘A very skinny soldier, Mom.’ The girl pointed at the lamppost across the street, next to the newspaper kiosk.
‘Why was he crying?’ her mother asked.
‘I don’t know. He was just looking at me and crying.’
‘Excuse me,’ I jumped in. ‘Did he have a backpack?’
‘A backpack?’ the girl said. ‘No, he didn’t have a backpack.’
This story was originally written in Kurdish. It was translated from the Persian by Amir Ahmadi Arian.