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Part Of The Book: Crystal Garden (English)

Fri, 13/09/2013 - 16:12

Writer: Mohsen Makhmalbaf
Layeh was familiar with labour pains; this wasn't her first time. Twice before, when the time had come, her spine had slowly begun to hurt, as though nothing imminent was about to happen. The pain was gentle and long-lasting. Little by little it had increased. It came and went. A few minutes of pain, a few minutes of relief until her babies were born. These are the facts. Every woman, even if she has never given birth, knows them. But why now? Why so unexpectedly?
Try as she may, she could not understand her untimely pain. The previous times she had lost count. When life is sweet you do not count the days. But these months filled with sorrow and loneliness, with each day long as a lifetime were hardly likely to make Layeh lose count. She could calculate. She could calculate quite accurately in fact. When her husband, may God rest his soul, had left, she had missed her period. When the news of his death reached her, she was three months pregnant. She came to this house after two months, and however much time had gone by, however big her tummy had grown, one did not give birth at seven months. Even if she were in her eighth month, it was still too early for labour pains! So her pain was perhaps due to her having caught cold.
She went to her wardrobe. Out of her marriage chest and from under the children's clothes, she brought out an old tchador and wrapped it around her waist and stomach. She shouldn't even have to think about it. She was no child. In the last couple of days it had grown so cool that she must have caught cold. It was her own fault. Knowing that she was pregnant she ought to have dressed more warmly. She should have done the same for her children: "Just look at those sleeping angels! Aren't they beautiful! How madly mother loves you!"
She felt ashamed for having been so mad at them at noon that she had wanted to raise them up in the air and throw them with all her might on the floor. But what could she possibly do? The little pests were like two fireballs. And now with the third one on its way, Layeh had better lie down and die. "What if tonight's the night?"
Even if she did have a cold, this pain was something different. She felt a tremendous pressure on her lower vertebrae as if her waist was about to burst. This pain could not be caused by a cold. It steadily came and went. It was and it wasn't. by itself it was nothing but it heralded something. When her mother was alive, she used to tell her, "Pain is not a sickness in itself, it just announces one." But now Layeh was witnessing that when pain came, it was far worse than any imaginable illness. 
"I wish illnesses came unannounced. Even unexpected death would be more welcome."
For a moment it occurred to her that she might be having these thoughts because she was lonely. Since that morning she'd been alone in the house. Souri and her children, Mashadi1 and his wife Alyeh had gone out visiting and only Mashadi was now back. Khorshid khanom2 too had left her opium-smoking husband Ali at home and gone out. Handicapped Hamid and his wife Maliheh could be in or out it was all the same. Even when they were in it was as if they weren't.
Now the pain had decreased. To take her mind off it, Layeh made herself busy. She took the tea tumblers to the small pool in the garden and washed them again one by one. Then, with great care, she immersed the expensive saucers in the water and took them out. She went to her room and rearranged the bedclothes on the floor and laid down. The room was clean but she knew that if she took to the broom she could raise the dust of the entire universe. This room somehow could provide dust till eternity. "I must walk." Her mother had told her, "A woman in labour must walk." She got up. For her first baby, her husband had helped her walk to facilitate childbirth although initially he had said: "Layeh, darling, don't walk!" But once told that it was good for her to walk, he did not let her rest one moment. He kept saying: "Darling, walk! Walk, my sweet Layeh! Walk on my eyes!" How keen he was to have a child, and so was she, by God! Indeed she was, but not so soon. And now where was her husband to enjoy the tomfoolery of his kids? He had left her all his dreams and was gone.
Excruciating pain took hold of her. She felt her insides being wrung. But this time the pain went away quickly. Layeh knew the meaning of this: birth was imminent. The faster the pain came and went, the nearer childbirth. She stood in front of the mirror. Her face was covered with freckles. Something or another always betrays a pregnant woman. Freckles, irresistible cravings, her big tummy and her awkward walk. Layeh had all four characteristics. Every time she had been expecting she had had an urge to eat salt. But this time she had given way to it even more than the two previous times. Worse still had been her craving for scrambled eggs, pickles and earth. And now she knew that she had to pay for it all.
The unwelcome pain was back again, more savage than before. This time it was trying to split her spine as if her spine was a superfluous pillar in her back. Layeh wrapped herself in her tchador and went out into the garden. Who could guess what wounds were hidden under that veil? Did she herself know what pain Souri might hide under hers? Or the broken heart Mashadi had under his dark shirt? There was no way Layeh and the others could communicate with each other. Perhaps only a sigh now and then betrayed what went on in their hearts. Perhaps their own feelings were a clue to what the others might be feeling. Mashadi was in the garden. Layeh asked after Souri.
"She is not back yet, Layeh khanom."
Layeh quickly returned to her room as though she had forgotten for a moment the torture of her body. Her thoughts drifted as if it were six years ago and she was roaming in the fields of the countryside like a young girl in pursuit of a lamb or a ewe gone astray. Those trouble-free days of youth! Those days when she could single-handedly clean the house, bake bread, scrub pots and pans, milk the cows, spin wool and take the sheep to pasture. And she would gather the smallest lamb in her arms like a baby and run joyfully in the field as if dancing. The village girls, the brides-to-be, even the old maids snatched the little lamb from each other as though their rightful from the claws of the wolf.
"I dare you to catch me!"
Layeh, hands on waist, walked the length of her room. Pain. Pain. A ewe giving birth. The girls stood by worried. A ewe was in labour. It wasn't right to interfere with the miracle of life. A ewe in a flock yet giving birth alone. She had to suffer and bear it alone. Pain. Pain. Then a moment's relief. Time to graze and forget the pain. Then pain again. More intense than before. Muscles contracting. Feeling weak in the legs. The sheep lies on its back. The sickness and helplessness of the ewe. Layeh is in such pain that she lies on her back. And when pain reaches its height, another lamb is born: "Now you are in this world, it's all yours! Be happy! But only for a short while, decapitation is not far off. Graze and become fat!" Humans and beasts suffer pain alike. Both give birth in the same manner.
Stars were now rushing out of Layeh's eyes. The galaxy was caving in. Lights, bubbles of lights came and went before her eyes. Then the girls, leaping and jumping about would play at stealing the baby lamb from one another. Layeh, the smallest and the fastest of them all, would always in the end win the prized baby lamb. The lamb under one arm, the other arm waving in the wind, she would run in the dancing fields. The tall stalks of wheat held Layeh in their embrace. The warm lips of the sun kissed the rows of wheat. Layeh hot, red and pouring with sweat continued to run. The other girls ran after her until they reached the spring. Then the kindest people, the women and the young girls, washed the lamb as they would a baby in the spring water and dried it in the skirts of the most motherly among them: "Here, put my skirt round it. It's windy. Here is my handkerchief, be sure to dry it well. It's cold. Here 's my scarf, how pretty it looks!" 
Layeh moved faster a few times and had taken the lamb with her. She had run for so long that the other girls had lost track of her. Then, out-of-breath, like a sparrow fleeing from the hawk, she had fallen under a tree exhausted. "Baa!" My God, what a tiny little lamb, "Baa, baa!" Don't cry my little one. You want your mummy? I'll be your mummy, my poor little one. You want some milk? Here's some milk, here's my breast! Layeh's nipple, filled with maternal love, is in the lamb's mouth. Generous giving of oneself: "Oh! My God! Not so hard! It hurts! Oh! It's killing me! Oh!"
The pain was back causing havoc. Layeh felt feverish. It was so hot! Now her soul was burning in the oven of her body. She is delirious. She raves. She talks nonsense. She utters irrational words. "My little lambs, do you want me to give you a baby? Sareh, dearest, do you want me to give you a lamb so you don't ask for a big doll?"
The children woke up. Sareh sat up stupefied as though continuing to dream. She looked about her in the room and glanced out at the garden. Night had advanced as far as the threshold. The wind teased the door. Layeh got up and switched on the light. The blue neon light flickered on and off until finally it poured into the room and filled it. By now the lights were on in all the occupied rooms of the house. Everyone was back home. Whom should Layeh call for? Certainly not Hamid's wife Maliheh. She had to attend to her invalid husband. And what's more, she was still a virgin. Virginal modesty would be manifest in her eyes. How could she help Layeh now that pain overcame modesty? Souri and her mother-in-law Alyeh were quite hopeless at such times. This was indeed Khorshid's job. After all she'd seen the ups and downs of life, had lost two babies when she was young and had raised two. 
She got up again to go out to the garden. The children followed like the tail of a kite. "And where do you think you two are going?"
Layeh went out alone. The night was ghostly. There was a breeze. The moonlight slid over the top of the tiny waves of the small pool to multiply a thousand times in the folds of the water and become one again once the water was still. 
Layeh manged to get herself to the window of Khorshid's room. Khorshid was getting ready to sleep. Her husband Ali's bedclothes were spread out beside his opium Paraphernalia as usual. They went to bed early every night. Layeh stood to the side of the window, Khorshid must be tired. She felt she about calling out to her. She walked a few times round the trees which were playfully moving in the breeze trying to make up her mind. Someone was approaching from the unoccupied part of the house at the dark far end corner of the garden. The sound of footsteps on the gravel approached and stopped by her. No-one was there. Her imagination was running wild. Layeh fled to her room. Her running had scared the kids. She was out-of-breath. She stood before the mirror. She was as red as could be. Sweat was pouring down from under her scarf. Her lips were parched. It was so hot! So hot! Such untimely heat. Something was turning around inside her. She felt the entire world inside her trying to get out. A beast had awakened within her. She took wide steps to go to her bedclothes spread on the floor and sat herself down with legs wide open. Her eyelids closed and opened restlessly. She placed her hands on her tummy. She didn't quite know what to do with them. Should she stroke her stomach or press hard on it? When pain increased or rather when it decreased? Previous experience is of no help to a woman in labour. When pain comes it sweeps you away with it. You're at its mercy while it claws at your insides and makes you go dizzy. The experienced woman knows that there is no way out. So her cries are useless. Layeh muffles her shrieks. She doesn't want to frighten the children. "Oh… It's nothing, kids, you go to sleep. Mother will manage."
She felt dizzy in the head as if riding on a merry-go-round. Rather like the sensation of spinning while asleep. And another thing, the baby had burst its water bag! The chick had broken its shell from within. Pain and endurance. It won't be long now. The kids were scared. Layeh was on the floor. Everything spun around her. She saw Sareh and Salman go up to the ceiling and come back down. Invisible hands from all sides rejected her outreach for help. Layeh got rid of her scarf. She then ripped her dress down to the waist. The frightened children ran to a corner of the room. Layeh had often beaten them when in that state. At first, she would stand in front of the picture of their father who no longer came home now and she would talk to him while crying and then she would beat herself and the children. Once she had picked up her small boy Salman, raised him up to her head while facing the mirror, and then had thrown him on the floor. Blood!
The floor was covered with blood. Sareh had never seen so much blood in her life except when a sheep had been decapitated. Layeh was fidgety. "My love, would you do something for mother? Go fetch the small basin from the balcony."
Sareh was petrified by the darkness outside. But a glance at her mother, and another at the door, persuaded her there was no time to lose. She ran out and returned with the basin. "Sweetie, those rags, those rags by the bedclothes…" 
Sareh ran to the closet and brought them to her mother. Now the pain was so intense that Layeh could no longer muffle her cries so as to hardly hear them herself. Something inside her was turning and being pushed forward leaving her behind. She was being divided in two from the waist. The pressure inside was making-her crazy. What was the pain like? 
She had once caught her hand in the wheel of a cart… No, this was different. Now she was trying to escape from her own self. She was being crushed by her own force. A part of her ran away from the pain. The pain due to multiplying. The pain caused by the separation of two souls from a single body. Separation. Separation from one's own self. Everytime Layeh gave birth, she multiplied herself.
Her body shattering into pieces remained an undivided whole. Both children were crying at the sight of their mother in pain. Layeh thought of sending Sareh to fetch Khorshid, but whatever for? It wouldn't be long now. She told Sareh and Salman to go to the little ante-room and Layeh set to work. She was going to play midwife to herself: "Oh God! Oh! Oh! God!"
Hands on her tummy while holding her breath, she pushed with all her might. "Oh!…"
Hands on her sides while holding her breath, she pushed. Life itself seemed to leave her body but not the baby. Was she paying for some dreadful sin she had committed? What was she guilty of? Of being a woman. The pleasure of being a female, a wife, a mother. The sentence: excruciating labour pains. All the pleasures of the universe were now dirt in her eyes. All maternal love vacated her heart. Now pain made her grind her teeth. She was swelling up inside. A corpse was being blown up. A balloon was being blown beyond capacity and yet not bursting. Push. Push. Push…
"Oh, God, where is your death?"
She sat up. She lay down again. She sat up. She didn't know what to do. She felt dizzy. Sareh was looking at her from the little ante-room: "For shame! Oh, God…"
She felt that she had lost all dignity. She managed to turn the other way so the children could not see and moaned: "Oh…" 
Not being able to withstand it anymore, the weeping children ran towards their mother. Layeh shouted them out of the room: "For God's Sake, get out! Sareh go get someone!"
Sareh ran out. She fell down three times before she reached Souri's room: "My mother… My mother… Souri khanom. My mother's dying… my mother, all blood!"
When the women rushed into Layeh's room, the baby's feet were protruding. Khorshid shouted in terror: "The baby's going to suffocate, God help us!"
And she ran to Layeh directly, threw aside the tchador, pushed in the baby's feet, thrust her hand inside Layeh's stomach and turned the baby around. Layeh felt the baby turn inside her.
Mashadi was on the roof calling the faithfuls to prayers. That must have been on Alyeh's instructions. Still the baby was not coming. Layeh's legs felt numb and weak with pain. The sight of the huge jar of pickles which had fed her cravings for so long now made her sick. She threw up a few times and remained with her mouth gaping. She had no strength left to help with the birth of her baby. Sareh was crying quietly in a corner while staring at the scene. Khorshid said, "Alyeh khanom, dear, kindly boil some water."
And she went on with her task, "Why didn't you at least alert us on time? You're not an easy one to handle. You should be giving birth at the hospital." 
Maliheh said, "She didn't have a soul to take her there, did she? The poor thing doesn't have anybody to look after her."
Alyeh said, "It's her own fault. She's taken a vow of silence. How on earth could we have known?"
Khorshid said, "She's not strong. I knew of a peasant woman who gave birth by the spring, cut the umbilical cord and continued with her washing."
Alyeh said, "I don't believe it. I've always heard that peasant women die in childbirth."
She put the kettle on. Khorshid said, "Now then, you must help yourself. Gather up all your strength and when I press your stomach push with all your might. The longer you take the worse it will get."
Maliheh did not have the heart to look. She went to the window. Her husband was sitting in his wheelchair on the verandah listening to Mashadi's call to prayers. An ivy was trying to get into the room through the window. what was Layeh going through? 
The magic of the spectacle stunned Souri. She could now witness what she had gone through twice. At the same time she was experiencing pain too. When a woman is in labour, all women give birth. Layeh was screaming and every time she pushed, Souri squeezed her hand and reddened in the face witnessing someone else's agony. Khorshid was confused, "Damn his father! I don't know what keeps him inside. Come out, baby, come out!"
And then all of a sudden she got scared. She'd heard of women dying in childbirth. She'd even seen one die herself. That was when she was about to be married. Before her bewildered eyes she'd witnessed a birth and a death. Life's eternal cycle. 
It was the large size of her babies, which made it so difficult for layeh to give birth. She had said herself, "Both my babies at birth were as big as calves."
"She's been eating so much that she's grown as big as a cow. Push hard!"
Mashadi had finished his chanting. Alyeh shouted from the courtyard for him to continue. This time, as if sharing Layeh's pain and suffering, Mashadi shouted with all his might, "Allah-o-Akbar"1
Layeh's by now swollen face was as red as molten copper and all twisted. With pain worse than death and longer than eternity even babies were born looking old. Their faces creased and ugly.
Now Layeh's nostrils were filled with the smell of camphor. The smell of the morgue. Two ugly women were pouring cold water on her warm body and stuffing cotton you not help but fall for them? Look at my perfect eyebrows. Aren't they pretty? Look at my nose, how tiny, how shapely."
"May she bring you joy and happiness!"