Fiction: All the Things We Never Were
By Samz R. Nesh
To all the voices who cry, “Woman, Life, Freedom.”
The small metal ball clanks audibly inside the paint spray as I shake it vigorously. Just one more puff and the deed is all done—finito!
My head swivels wearily on its own accord. My ears—slightly pink in the freezing afternoon air— are sharpened like an alert watchdog with the rumpled curly hair falling short of protecting them. And I absolutely refuse to wear a headscarf—or anything over my head for that matter—after what has recently turned up.
Parand is on the lookout. His indigo tie-dye hoodie hangs loose on his lanky physique, his long ponytail snaking out of the hood that is pulled down to his nose also pink with cold. But one cannot really rely on that muddleheaded dork always lounging over his game set day in, day out. If it weren’t for me, he’d be already bruised and bashed behind bars.
The final puff finally deigns to woosh out, and I trace the last letter ‘ی’, nodding at the blood-red result written boldly on the huge white-washed wall:
# مهسا — امینی
# زن — زندگی — آزادی
#Woman — Life — Freedom
I never mind danger, especially if the danger is worth it. But we are indeed putting our lives on the line just to print those few harmless words on the “ramparts” of the much-feared Basij headquarters; words that have instigated an unprecedented uprising in Iran.
A month has passed since the murder of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the religious morality police—the innocent 23-year-old girl from the province of Kurdistan, whose only alleged misdemeanor was a wisp of hair peeking out of her headscarf.
And, oh sister, hell broke loose after her sad story was disclosed to the public by two gutsy female reporters who were duly imprisoned by the authorities. Mahsa was brutally beaten to death, and had sadly passed away in the hospital. And that, had imploded the bottled-up rage of the Iranians who had had one too many of the government’s underhanded antics for over 43 years.
A madhouse! That’s what I always call our political system: a woman-hater foundation filled with backwater religious dickheads who always wear a ridiculous white (or even worst black) cabbage-like headgears, ordaining us to do their bidding. And I never had the patience for my parents’ lectures on the whys and wherefores of having such a government after the democratic revolution of 1979. I am only sixteen, for pity’s sake!
When Mahsa died, it was as if a spooky Sponge Monster landed over the country, sucking up every drip of life. In all get-togethers, in every phone call and small talk, her name was mentioned and mourned for… I don’t know how to put it in words, but something cringed inside me when I saw her photos. It felt like I was checking out my own life story in a series of gory images on the screen.
For some days, I lost interest in everything. But I was never one to sit on my butt and wail my sorrows into a pillow. I had to do something. I owed it to Mahsa, and then later to Hadis, Sarina, and many other teenagers like myself who had literally fought the police forces on the streets for a better future. I owed it to the to the first-ever feminist revolution in history.
So, I got dressed, went out, and bought a couple of paint sprays. I wanted to print her name on as many walls as I could so that the blood-sucking Sponge Monster could not wipe out her memory from our minds and hearts.
And Parand, dubbed most unluckily as my best friend (as the only son of my parents’ best friends,) had no choice but to tag along.
“Did you hear it?” his agitated voice whispers over my shoulder.
“What?” I murmur, stepping back from the wall to examine my handiwork.
I bump into him, and he catches me in his long arms. “I’m sure I heard footsteps from inside the building… Let’s go.”
“Excuse me, but whose idea was it to prettify the walls in this sketchy neighborhood?”
“You wanted to trash an important Basij headquarters, I found you one. Why are you complaining?”
“I think you’re the one who’s grumbling like an old grandpa!”
“It’s getting late anyways.”
“Late for what? Not even dark yet.”
“I-I got to be somewhere….”
This’s news to me; he always lets me in on everything.
“Where?” I squint suspiciously into his worried hazel eyes that are frowning at his smartwatch.
“Never you mind ‘where’! Just wrap it up, all right?” He huffs warm breath into his hands stained with black paint, and tucks them under his armpits. “Wait, I heard it again!”
He winces, instantly shielding me behind his back as he peers up and down the empty street.
It is a wide silent roadway flanked on either side by somber-looking government buildings. A few cars are parked here and there by the walls, and most of the offices are closed up as it is after hours.
“I don’t like it.” Parand sulkily snatches the other paint spray off the ground and shoves it in his pocket. “Better get going.”
“Don’t be silly! We still have that other wall to decorate!” My finger darts out for clarification.
But right then, a door screeches, and a hard blow is planted in the small of my back.
The spray drops out of my hand as I crash to the ground on my face.
A gruff voice spats, “You filthy motherfuckers! Got you this time, all right!” And another kick lands in my belly. “Will fuck you to death myself, you little bitch!”
Rapid spasms of unbearable pain blur my vision, but Parand’s shrieks, obviously being dealt the same cards, scrape my eardrums. This drives me boiling mad. Parand is my responsibility. If there’s anyone who can hit him, it’s me.
With tears rolling down my cheeks, I press my hands to the ground, bend one leg while stretching the other, and deliver a perfect hip-hop spin, hitting the bastard Basiji’s ankles, and swipe him down with a loud whack.
Next, I scramble to my trembling feet and bump headlong into the other Basiji who’s short but stout, taking him by surprise.
Right before he pulls himself together off the ground, I clutch at Parand’s collar and yank him up.
“Run!” I yell, hearing the two men rustle up with loud unfathomable curses.
Parand staggers a few steps, looking pale and disoriented.
“Run!” I give him another heave, blindly bounding into the nearest alley on my left.
I can hear bellows and tap-taping of heavy footsteps on our trail. I launch my sore muscles on even more, dodging and parrying a few pedestrians carrying their grocery home.
Evening winter twilight is quickly slouching over the city, making it hard to navigate within the shadowy byways. Cold sweat showers my back. My short curls stick to my forehead, but I don’t care. We need to get to the main street—which I remember is located somewhere nearby—and from there, we can easily flag down a cab straight home.
Wait a minute! Where is Parand?
I take a short break in a dead-end alley and peek an eye out the ridge of the wall. The faraway street lamps provide a faint yellowish light. But he is nowhere in sight.
“Shit! Shit! Shit!” I spit out loud, my hands on my waist, gasping for air.
Right then, I hear a motorcycle approaching from up the narrow street.
“I heard the bitch. I’m telling you!” A man’s growl skids over the noise of the bike.
I freeze. Quickly clasping my back to the cold structure behind, I make myself as small as possible. The bike slows down, meticulously searching the area. I try not to breathe. My heart is pounding so loud in my ears I’m afraid it will buzz the whole neighborhood.
Presently, the structure I’m leaning onto gives way, and falling backward, I’m vacuumed inside by the force of two strong arms.
The door slams shut after me. Before I can let out a hearty scream, a rough hand clamps over my mouth, and another easily holds my squirming body against a husky figure.
The bike is now in the alley. I can hear it well over the panic yelping in my brain.
“Don’t worry, sister,” a gruff voice whispers in my ear. “You’re safe in my house. Don’t worry. All right?”
My tense limbs relax a little, and I nod. The arms withdraw, and as silent as a lurking cat, I stick an ear to the rusty metal door.
“The bitch was here. I’m sure!”
“Well, you’re damned well mistaken, idiot! And now we’ve lost her!”
“Shut it! Let’s move out. The other one, the boy, we mustn’t lose that one.”
And the noise of the vehicle duly fades out.
I don’t know whether to dance or cry. Parand’s scrammed!
But this doesn’t mean he’s out of the woods yet…
O God! If you really exist—what am I saying? You must at least exist right now so I can make a prayer... Please, please keep him safe, God. He’s a jellyfish; he can’t manage on his own. If you save him, I promise not to… not to dance on religious mourning holidays… Please…
Two hands squeeze my shoulders. I blench. For a second, I have forgotten where I am.
Slowly, I turn.
A middle-aged man with a long wavy beard and mustache stares back at me. Even in the dim light, I can distinguish a pair of kind green eyes shining out of a weather-beaten face.
I open my parched mouth, but he immediately puts his forefinger on his lips, pointing at the buildings across that have a good view of his modest courtyard. Next, he jerks his head at me as he crouches toward a slanting metal staircase next to the entrance doors of his house, leading down to the cellars.
“You are safe here, sister. Don’t worry,” he repeats audibly once we’re down in a shadowed area.
“I… I don’t know how to thank you.” I stake out the long rectangular cellar peppered with all sorts of knickknacks: old discarded electronics, broken crockery and chinaware, splintered wooden boxes, big dusty satchels of tarpaulin.
“No need... Is an honor to help a fellow Barandāz, I’m sure.” He gives a smile under his bushy beard.
I smile back, still unsettled with the shock and cramp that is short-circuiting up and down my belly. “Is there a landline? I’d better call my parents to come pick me up. Didn’t bring my cellphone because of security reasons, you know…”
He cowers like a guilty child. “Sorry, sister, but I don’t have a phone… Can’t afford one, you see.”
“Never mind… Then I’d better wait a little before heading out.”
“Oh, for sure… Not wise to step out for at least a couple of hours.”
“Right.” I swipe back the damp curls off my brow and helplessly search for the following line of conversation.
“Come, sister. This way.” He sidles a couple of boxes by the wall. “Better not to turn on the lights... Nosy neighbors, you see.” He grimaces bitterly over his shoulder. “Government snitches, most of them. Godless creatures!”
We reach the end of the cellar stacked high with wooden boxes draped clumsily with grey tarpaulin like a dividing screen. He vanishes behind it, and I, after him.
The first thing I notice is a glinting metal jug brimming with water, with two metal cups beside it on the bare cement floor. I plunge down on it and pour myself at least three cups full. As the refreshing liquid slides down my dry throat, I sigh heavily and slump on a crumpled tarpaulin by the screen.
It is then that I notice two pairs of curious eyes watching me.
On my left, seated cross-legged on another crumple of plastic sheets, is a bony girl in a long grey cape. Her skin is the coolest shade of chocolate I’ve ever seen, her jet-black eyes almost dissolving in shadows that surround her like a hazy cloud. Her frizzy black hair is divided into several braids that flows down on her arms and knees. I cannot read anything on her face except that I need to watch out for myself when this one’s around.
On my right, a small figure is huddled by the wall. Her black chador is so tightly wrapped around her that it looks more like a protective armor. Her equally black-scarfed head is resting on her knees. Her plump face is pallid, her big brown eyes alarmed.
“Sisters, you are safe here.” The man’s voice shatters the silence. “Will let you know when’s a good time to head out.” He nods amiably and leaves us to our own devices.
“Wazzup, you guys?” I attempt to break the awkwardness settled after his departure. “What a day, huh?”
The girl in braids only rolls her eyes, but the other girl—obviously well-behaved—gives a faint smile with a “Yes…”
I wait. No one says anything.
Well, it seems it is up to me to zhuzh up this place a little!
“You guys, my name’s—”
“No personal info, please.” The girl in braids raises a hand. “If they arrest you, I’d rather not follow suit if one of you rats on me!”
Oh, sassy much?
I shrug. “Well, we ought to at least be able to call each other something while we’re cooped up here.”
“That’s your problem.”
At this, I bristle a little, but then decide to change tactics. “What if we choose nicknames, huh?”
The little girl in chador raises her chin.
Aha! She is interested.
“Let’s see…” I scratch my head. “Y’all can call me… Maddie.”
“You don’t say!” returns the girl in braids with a scoff.
“Why ‘Maddie’?” The mousy girl asks in a low voice.
“After my dance idol, Maddie Ziegler. I just ADORE her!” I grunt, sprawling on the floor in worship posture and yapping instantly as pain swirls in my lower region.
The mousy girl giggles. “Isn’t she the one dancing in Sia’s music video ‘Unstoppable’?”
“Why, yes! She’s heart-cringingly original. Isn’t she?” I rave on. “Her moves, her facial gestures, her choreography, it all just gives me the feels!”
“Are-are you a hip-hop dancer then?”
I cross my arms over my chest. “I can dance anything: hip hop, Latin, ballet, Kurdish, you name it. But my favorite is freestyle. I just need to close my eyes, let the music in, and let go.” And humming a rhythm, I perform a series of modern/contemporary drills I have recently put together.
“That’s so c-cool.” The mousy girl claps excitedly.
An idea strikes me, then. “Do you like Sia, by the way?”
“I… I love her.” She blushes, adding quickly, “I-I mean, I love her voice….”
“Then let’s call you Sia!”
Her face flushes even more, but she nods a couple of times.
“Now you’re the odd one out!” With a wide display of teeth, I turn to the girl in braids.
Nothing has changed in that icy face of hers as she silently weighs me up.
I notice her hands moving ever so slightly underneath her cape over her waist area. “Hey, what you got there?” I swoop down beside her on one knee. “Can I see?”
Something glints in her doe-like eyes—a sort of an amused spark that was not there before. She glances at Sia, who is also snooping. Then with a shrug, she swipes her long cape aside.
“Holy shit!” I exclaim giddily.
Three handmade bongo-like drums are attached to a thick brown belt that’s fastened around her waist. The biggest one in the middle is the size of a handball, and the other two, are each one size smaller.
They are not normal bongos. I knew it from the first look. The animal skin is tightly stretched over the various-sized wooden frames with delicate handwoven ropes, oozing some sort of something… like magic.
“What are they?” Sia drops bashfully.
“Call me Zara,” The girl in braids announces suddenly, her bony fingers drumming lightly on the middle bongo, which produces a surprisingly formidable sound. “And these are Zār drums.”
“No shit!” I stretch an arm for a feel.
Zara slaps my hand away. “No touching, Miss Nosey!”
“What is Zār?” Sia inches closer.
Zara’s head tilts to one side as though choosing her words carefully. “The island I come from, Sia, is full of old myths and legends believed to live and walk among us… One of these myths is the Afro-Indian wind spirits. They have the ability to possess people and cause them such mental and physical harm that no modern medicine can cure… Zār, to simply put it, is a kind of healing ritual led by holistic practitioners, who can rid the affected people from these wind spirits.”
“I know! You’re from the Island of Hormuz,” I blurt with a puffed-up chest. “Been there once. With the whole family. We even swam in the Persian Gulf in our bathing suits. Can you believe it?”
Zara gives me such a glare that I’m possibly going to melt at any time.
“And the drums?” Sia slowly releases her wrapping chador, her posture now relaxed as she sits cross-legged. “What do they do?”
“Well, these are miniature versions of the actual drums. You could say I’m an apprentice.” Zara’s hands draws circles on the drumskins. “The practitioners—we call them Mama Zār if female, or Baba Zār if male—play the drums in a special ceremony, believed to drive the wind spirits away.”
“But… why do you carry them?”
“As I said, these beauties have the power to drive away malicious mighty winds. I wanted to try them on those bastard Arzeshi goons who easily outweigh anyone or anything in maliciousness.” Her eyes flash dangerously. “I wanted to scare the shit out of them. I wanted to see if I could make them beat it with their tails between their knobby legs!”
“And did you?” I butt in with much interest.
“Didn’t get the chance, I’m sorry to say… Only minutes after I joined the protests, the crackdown unit attacked us. Many got trampled under their boots, many arrested, beaten to death right in front of our eyes…” Her knuckles whiten around the drums. “But don’t you worry. They’ll have their fair share of these drums sooner than later.”
“C-can you play for us?” Sia swallows hard.
Zara shakes her head briskly. “No, Sia. I’m sorry. I’m not a party performer. They kind of call to me when the time comes. And it's only then that I play.”
“Has the calling ever come at a wedding party?” I wink.
“I told you. They’re meant for sick people... Although, if we go about it the right way, a bride is also sick to the core with stupidity.”
“Why? Just because she’s getting married?”
“Hell yeah! You’re already half a man’s worth in Sharia law. When you get married, it gets even worst. You basically hand in all your rights as a human being to your husband on a silver platter!”
“But guys our generation are not like that.” Parand’s dorky image comes to my mind out of a sudden.
Quickly, I banish it with a snort. Why him of all people? He’s just my buddy. Nothing more.
“Your guy is not like that, I presume?” Zara’s eyebrow shoots up over a knowing stare.
“Well, he’s not ‘mine’ so to speak... But I’m sure Par— I mean Benedict, let’s call him Benedict—is not like that at all. He won’t dare.” And I let out a hearty laughter imagining the goof in a groom’s suit.
“Why Benedict?” Sia catches up with a giggle.
“After my crush in Bridgerton series. Have you watched it?’
Sia nods. “I love Daphne! I-I mean Daphne’s story.”
“He might seem like a lamb to you now, Maddie girl.” Zara’s warning has a tinge of the spiciest cayenne pepper I’ve ever tasted. “Just you wait and see when he gets a ‘yes’ out of you. Only then he’ll show his true face.” A scoff. “Trust me. I’m speaking out of experience.”
I narrow my eyes. Zara doesn’t look old enough to be married.
“I know what you’re thinking,” she returns with a grimace. “No… I’m not talking about my experience. Rather… rather my sister’s...” Her eyes drop. “In Hormuz, apart from the meager tourism-based income, fishing is the only way to earn a living. And there’s not much left in the sea due to the illegally fishing of the neighboring countries. Girls tend to get married young to unburden their families. At only sixteen, my sister tied the knot with a well-off old widower who promised her an academic career as she wanted to become a teacher and educate girls back home…” A prickly sigh leaves her mouth. “I’m sure you can guess the rest. He bullied her, beat her, and didn’t allow her to continue her education. After giving birth to a daughter, without her husband’s knowledge, she took the university entrance exam and got in. But, of course, he was bound to find out… She ran away with her baby and came home to us. And my father, being a man of honor (according to himself!) handed her right back to her husband. That was the last time I saw her…” A thick sheen of tears drapes her eyes, and her head snaps away.
“W-what happened to her?” Sia asks with a sob.
“Her body was found a week later in the sea…” The tears are now freely speeding down Zara’s cheeks, but those menacing eyes are still flashing. “That’s why I’m here today to fight this battle till my last breath. To get rid of this rotten prehistoric system….” The back of her hands dabs quickly at her face. “I want to take custody of my niece when I’m of age. I want her to grow up learning about her mother’s legacy … I’m a freshman at Tehran University’s law school and want to become a family court judge one day… I want justice for-for women like Aida….”
“Is that your sister’s name?” I’m struggling to swallow down the big lump that has popped up in my throat for some time. “I like it... It suits her.”
Zara’s eyes turn on me. They are not icy anymore.
Sia wipes her face with her scarf. “But girls can’t become judges here…”
“Sia dear, by the time we’re done with these male chauvinists, we’ll establish a constitution where women have the freedom over their bodies, their careers, and their future.”
“I’ll dance to that!” I click my tongue.
“Why are you here, Maddie? Hm?” Zara grins. “I’d never take you for someone who cares to join a protest.”
After a short meditation, I grin back. “Because of Looli.”
“What’s a tramp got to do with it?”
“Not a tramp, girl!” I crack up. “Looli is my mongrel puppy dog I love to the bone. A few days after Mahsa’s incident, Looli led me out to a gnarly cedar tree he usually pees on and protects with gnashing teeth. Right then, I thought to myself if a tiny mongrel can defend the tiny piece of land he thinks he’s got first dibs on, why can’t I stand up to those who trample our rights to this ancient land we call home?”
I glance from one to the other. “I felt I owed it to her, you know… to Iran, I mean. We call her motherland, don’t we? She’s our mother, isn’t she? That’s what my Maman Joon always said…”
Maman Joon’s memories never fail to make me vulnerable—my awesome quirky grandma, who taught me to never hold back my tongue for anybody’s sake. I miss her terribly since she passed away a year ago. But somehow, whenever I think of her, I’m instantly back in the ancestral green rice fields of Gilan, and a cool breeze instantly brings her scent of orange blossoms to my nostrils.
I suppress a choke.
“Eternal is the one whose heart has awakened to Love…” Zara quotes Hafiz, Maman Joon’s favorite poet, and I shiver with a feeling I don’t recognize. “Our loved ones are always with us one way or another. That’s the nature of true love.”
“How old are you, granny?” I give a croaking laugh.
“Eighteen.” She throws her long braids over her shoulder. “And mind you, Miss Nosey, it’s not age that brings wisdom, but experience… and from what I see, you shouldn’t be more than twelve!”
“Sixteen, thank you very much!”
Presently, a hooting “din dong” rings nearby, and we all jump.
My breath hitches in my throat and I perk up my ears to the hurried footsteps shuffling in the courtyard towards the door.
A muffled stream of conversation creeps into our hideout. I peer at the others. Zara is stiff and Sia has pulled back to the foot of the wall, her black chador fully swathed around her like the armor it once was.
I quickly get on my tiptoes and inch to the small barred window. Zara’s hand grabs at my ankle, but I wave it off with a silent gesture of reassurance.
I secure one foot after another over a battered old wooden chest conveniently located underneath the window and slowly raise my head. The moon is high up, and I see our host closing the door.
“Sheesh! That was close.” I breathe, hopping down.
“Wrong address probably.”
“Are-are you sure?” Sia squeaks. “What if it’s-it’s them? Going door to door looking for us?”
“Doubt it.” I bite at the corner of my lips. “Anyway, nothing’s doing but wait and see.”
“I miss my mom.” Sia rubs the back of her hand over her eyes. “She must be worried to death by now.”
I instantly think of my parents, who must be driven to all sorts of crazy resorts. They can’t even reach Parand. He, too, left his phone at my place.
I peer at Sia, who still looks pale and disoriented. It’s time to take this girl’s mind off her troubles. “What’s your game, Sia? Huh?”
As if punched in the face, she startles, her eyes flickering rapidly in their sockets. “I-I… well… same as you… I want freedom too… freedom of hijab…”
“Now, that’s a story I’d like to hear.” I crawl on my hands and knees to her side.
“Well…” she jots a quick pleading glance at Zara, but she gives her an encouraging nod. With a deep breath, she begins, “I… well, I’m originally from Qom. I’m fourteen. And…I-I don’t like wearing a chador. But-but my family is hardcore religious and they’d rather shut me in the house for ever than let me out and about chador-free…”
‘Why don’t you cuck it now?” I suggest airily.
She hesitates. “I’m so used to it. It’s not easy not to wear it all of a sudden. I-I’d feel naked…”
She gingerly glances at our faces. Next, with a wobbly hand she slowly unfastens a knot under her chin, removing her oversized black scarf.
A cascade of long straight brown hair tumbles down to her back. She hastily combs it with her fingers.
“Holy guacamole, girl! Why have you been hiding this?” I grab a fistful and wave it at Zara. “Isn’t it awesome?”
“Wiser to cover your hair up before Maddie pulls it out one by one.” Zara chuckles, and Sia and I titter along.
“I-I’ve got something more awesome, Maddie,” Sia says in her small voice, but her eyes pulse with gusto. “I-I can sing.”
“Are you kidding me?” Her speaking range barely toes the mark.
“You want to hear?” she asks, a bit worked up, as if reading my mind.
“Hit it!” Zara hunches over curiously. “The stage is all yours.”
“What should I sing?”
Sia brushes off some loose strands from her face, takes a deep breath and clamps her eyes. The moment she lets out the breath, the whole room rumbles over our head:
“I’ll smile. I know what it takes to fool this town. I’ll do it till the sun goes down…”
The words roll out in a passionate flow, warm and weighty like autumn rain.
“I’ll put my armor on, show you how strong I am. I’ll put my armor on, I’ll show you that I am….”
Her voice, wild and free, pitches higher and higher. I have goosebumps all over. This creature in front of me singing, is Sia no more. She is transformed into a mighty dark sorceress, casting a spell over anyone who dares to listen.
I feel I can touch her soul through the rise and fall of the thundering notes. My arm jerks out as if by an invisible pull and I’m drawn up to my feet.
And I dance and I dance and I dance… I’m Maddie. No. I’m better! I’m me.
I’m unstoppable today.
“I’m unstoppable. I’m a Porsche with no breaks. I’m invincible. Yes, I’ll win every single game!” Sia sings, a thick trilling rasp in her deep voice.
Presently, something vibrant rides over the song. A couple of hefty ‘dudumms’ and I freeze mid-performance.
Zara’s hands are dashing over her Zār drums, left and right, center and back. Her eyes are shut, her body pulsing with the beat, this way and that, forward and back, as if in a trance.
And now… the magic is complete.
I don’t know how long we were absorbed in the alchemy of sound, rhythm and form but the noise of frenzied claps gives me a start. I make one last pirouette and when I straighten up, I see our bearded host by the wall, clapping non-stop with a huge smile on his face.
“Sisters, this’s priceless.” He takes a few steps into the room.
Sia hastily clutches at her scarf that’s lying under her feet and dumps it clumsily over her head.
“Oh, sorry. Didn’t mean to…” the man instantly drops his gaze and turns to leave.
“Please, don’t go.” The scarf is once more lying at Sia’s feet, her cascading hair boldly on display. Her face is flushed, but the shadow of the mighty dark sorceress is still lingering. “I… I can sing something for you if you like.”
A gashing smile hops up the man’s dry lips to his green eyes. “Can you sing the song ‘Rāvi’ by Dame Hayedeh?”
Sia nods, and we all take our seats. As if on cue, Zara opens up the piece with the drums, and Sia’s vervy voice fills the room:
“The messenger has brought good tidings.
Where’s my wine goblet? Where’s the wine bearer?”
The man snaps his fingers with the beat, a wistful expression on his weathered face as he sings along:
“Now that I’m too old, my beloved is back.
God works in mysterious ways. And this is my fate….”
The moment the song ends, we all clap and whoop, but his applause is way louder. Two wet lines are rolling down his tan skin into his beard, and he makes no effort to wipe them off.
“You know, sisters, this was the song of much happier days. My Mat used to sing it to me.”
A ghost of happy dreams romps behind his dazed eyes. “‘MenChok, soil has memory,’ she used to say. ‘It records every single step stamped on it, and one day, gathers them all and hurls them back in a Noah’s typhoon at the oppressor, be it king, prophet or man. And that day will only come when women once more sing and dance freely on this piece of land…’”
His shoulders drop. “Ay, MenMat, how I wish you could see that this day has finally come; that our women, young and old, are dancing once again on this tired soil…” Here, he buries his face in his calloused hands.
“Please, take this.” Sia holds out her black scarf.
The man raises his swollen eyes and after a brief pause, accepts the offering. He first brushes each eye with it, then he presses the scarf to his forehead.
A sudden chirpy peal of the doorbell tolls us out of the sweet stupor.
Our host springs up, glancing nervously out the window. “Who can it be? Stay here, sisters.”
No one moves a muscle, all eyes anxiously glued to the window.
“Chill, you guys.” I snigger halfheartedly. “Must be a neighbor or something.”
But the doorbell keeps ringing nonstop. Right then, heavy footsteps bound toward our hideout.
“Sisters… hurry up… It’s them.” His words barely sink in over the vigorous banging on the door. “Neighbors must have snitched. You must leave.”
As if bitten by fire ants, we all scurry to our feet and bolt to the stairs. Once out in the open, he presses a finger to his lips, although there’s no need to hush us up as the kicking and loud cursing of the furious police force throb achingly in every cell of our flesh.
He ushers us to the back of the house, where a rickety ladder is leaning against the wall. “Use the ladder to get down.” He helps me up. “Dump it right after.”
“But, but what about you?” I look down at him, bewildered.
“You need a head-start. Will stall them as much as I can.” A series of savage kicks butt the creaking metal door. “For God’s sake, hurry up.”
I outstretch an arm to Sia.
“Thanks for everything, brother.” I see Zara squeezing his arm. “Hope to see you soon in Azadi Square  to celebrate our victory!”
“God willing.” The man’s face lights up for a second in the gloom of the night, and with one last smile, he disappears.
The moment Zara’s feet touch the gravel of the back alley, we hear the door crash open.
Thundering pattering and bellows swarm in the courtyard.
“Come on.” Sia tugs at my black hoodie’s sleeve, but before I can order my legs, an earsplitting holler jinxes us dead in our tracks.
“There’s… no one…. here…” Our host, lets out a heart-wrenching cry in intervals as if being thrashed continuously. “Look… for…. yourselves.”
I can’t think; I can’t move. I only know I must zip back to the house and deliver a punch or two at those bastards.
A decisive hand grabs at my collar. “He’s sacrificed so much for us already.” Zara’s compelling whisper fills my ear. “We can’t disappoint him by getting caught.”
I hastily dab a hand at my eyes and numbly follow Zara into the bends and bowers of the looping alleys. We startle at every single shadow that scuttles by, at every single oblivious passerby, and all the while, our heads swing back on our shoulders for any unwanted tail.
Finally arriving at the main square of the neighborhood that is scantily occupied by home-goers and cars, we take a long-relieved breath and study one another.
“Well… that’s it, folks…” I ruffle my once-again-damp hair.
“Well…” Sia parrots out.
“I guess… it turned out all right,” Zara observes the area, her long jet-black braids hugging her frame, the drum belt hung over one shoulder.
The phrase blinks in neon colors on the background of my mind as I shift my weight from one foot to the other, for once—maybe for the first time—lost for words.
“Woman, life, freedom!”
“Woman, life, freedom!”
“Woman, life, freedom!”
The famous slogan blasts in all directions as a big group of at least fifty people, all masked and dressed in dark shades, appear from the other side of the square, stopping cars and encouraging the drivers to hunk in solidarity.
“Best get going then…” I hear a note of reluctance in Zara’s remark as I watch the crowd.
“Yeah…” I mumble.
“It’s getting late…” Sia adds in her small voice.
I watch Zara as she wears the drum belt around her waist. Next, I gaze into Sia’s ever-sparking eyes, lifting my brows in a silent question. Next, we hold hands and without a word, step into the welcoming throng of protestors, screaming at the top of our lungs,
“Woman, Life, Freedom!”
“Woman, Life, Freedom!”
We’re not done yet. And if we want to call it a night, I swear, we’ll end it on a high note.
There’s this contagious rush of excitement that latches from one person to the other in a crowd, a seamless sort of unintelligible tremor of courage that envelopes those who yell out their demands, their rights. It’s not like one of those jam-packed metro lines that everyone shoves and elbows their way out. Here, everyone is mindful of the next person, keeping enough distance and watching each other’s back.
The three of us walk still hand in hand. A woman, probably my mom’s age, with a half-moon smile, hands out three black masks. I struggle with the elastics as I try to plant it safely on my face, but right then, someone grabs my arm, jerking me around.
“What the hell are you doing here?” A hooded and masked figure looms over me with a shout above the ringing slogan.
I can recognize that voice anywhere!
“You knuckleheaded dork, you’re alive!” and I sling my arms around his thin bony waist.
His arms snake tight around me, but then he holds me at arm’s length, grousing, “I thought you already went home. Why the hell are you still here? Who’re these?” He jots his chin at Zara and Sia, who are eyeballing us suspiciously.
I begin to walk on, “Long story.” And I point him out to the girls with a loud “Benedict.”
Zara rolls her eyes with a shake of her head and keeps on walking ahead with Sia, who is showing off all her teeth at me.
“Who’s Benedict?” Parand snaps.
“Never you mind. How did you know I got away?”
“You obviously roasted those Basiji bastards well. Were still damning you when they came after me.”
“You bet I did.”
“Must tell me all later because you’re going home right now.”
With a curse, he drags me off to the sidewalk. “Please just for once, listen to me.” He pinches the bridge of his nose, then levels his mouth to my ear. “I shouldn’t talk about it… But you remember I had to be somewhere tonight? The thing is, we hacked one of Sepah’s intelligent service databases and located an underground lockup in this neighborhood. They’re keeping ten prisoners there, all going to hang them tomorrow at 5 a.m.! This specific protest tonight in this area is a decoy to lure the guards away from the hideout so that we can rescue the prisoners. It’s downright dangerous. And I want you. to go home right now. You hear me? Right now!”
I just zoom in on him, open-mouthed, not believing what I hear. “How long have you been mixed up in all this?”
“Will let you in on everything. I promise—”
“I thought you never kept anything from me… I thought I was your best friend…” I bite my lower lip hard.
Parand pushes down his mask, lifts his hand, and after a brief pause, cups my face in ice-cold fingers. It feels strange and yet… and yet right. A heated sensation spreads on my cheeks. My eyes prickle for some unknown reason, and I quickly drop them.
“Look at me.” He pulls up my face to his. “I’m so sorry to have kept you in the dark. I really am… and… and you must have guessed by now that… that you’re much more than just a best friend.”
I’ve never seen the jellyfish Parand like this: so sure of himself, so grown up, and, what’s more, looking at me the way he is right now.
“Promise me you’ll go home. I can’t function if I keep worrying about you.”
I yank at his collar. “You’d better come home in one piece. Because I’m gonna beat the shit out of you!”
He laughs, but the sound dies out as he bends over and brushes his lips on mine.
A whirlwind of unclear emotions roller-coaster in my belly and without knowing, my arms hook around his waist again, drawing him closer.
Deafening screeches of robust tires escalate nearby. We instantly pull apart, my heart racing like crazy. A giant menacing water cannon followed by at least ten SWAT vehicles skid to a halt fifty yards away up the street, and the crackdown squad, in black body armor and helmets, spills over the square like molten lava. A hubbub breaks out as the protestors hurtle off in retreat, still screaming various slogans in whatever order coming to mind.
“Shit, shit, shit.” Parand growls, hauling me in a sprint as far away as possible from the commotion.
With an acid “Scram!” he shoves me into a nearby alley and gallops off.
I just remember that I have forgotten to breathe for a long while. As I refill my pulsing lungs, I glance up and down the street for the girls, but no go. Although the area is flanked by various lamplights and the police cars are glaring their headlights, finding anyone in that hullaballoo is impossible.
The guards form a line, holding up their riot shields and sticks at the ready. A couple of guys and girls pick up bricks and stones from the street curbs and fling them at the unit. Some others pitch two big burning dumpster bins at them.
Presently the water cannon goes off and the dumpster bins receive a good batch. Some protestors at the frontline get fully doused and thrust to the ground. I quickly leave my safe narrow alley and slip into the crowd.
I look here and there for the girls, but I’m almost lost in the sea of hustling, drenched bodies.
“Down with Khamenei!”
“Down with Khamenei!”
The murmur of the slogan catches fire and multiplies in an uproar. Now tens and tens of people, man and woman, young and old, are shooting up their fists and snarling out the very name of the Lord Voldemort of Iran.
“We fight, we die, we’ll take back Iran.”
“We fight, we die, we’ll take back Iran,” I shout out along.
Our legion, as if energized by the power of words alone, moves up toward the battlefront. This’s not something the guards expect, and in a blink of an eye, a couple of gunshots hoot the air.
Hell breaks loose with shrieks of terrified dissidents. Everyone backs off in a sprint. As I swing on my heels to follow suit, I bump into a guy, and we both tumble down on one another. Hastily, I pounce on my feet, darting out a hand to the guy who must be around Parand’s age.
“Owe you one,” he says, grabbing my hand.
And as a couple of more bullets flutter to our hearing range, he shields me with his frame and lunges me ahead of him.
“You… crazy? You’ll get… shot... Let me go.” I manage to say as we run.
“This’s the… revolution of ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’... I’m here to protect you and lay down my life if necessary…” He ducks a bullet, forcing me to keel along, adding, “Iranian women have suffered enough. It’s now our turn to stand up for them.”
“What’s your name?”
Through the ongoing rattle of footsteps and bellows, I hear another bullet whoosh by, and this time, I duck alone. Before I can check in on him, I receive a sudden heavy load dropped on my shoulders, and we both fall headlong to the ground.
“Nima, you ok?” I try to roll on my back and look at him who is sprawled on top of me.
Horror claws at my inner organs as I lift his face. His eyes are closed. I shake him. Still no answer.
People are running by. Bullets jingle. And no one seems to notice us. I give one forceful jolt and sit up. His torso falls on my lap, and I see a big blood stain rapidly growing between his shoulders.
“Nima!” I scream, giving his limp body another lurch.
A man kneels beside me, panting. He presses two fingers to Nima’s neck.
“NO!” I bark at him. “No. He’s fine. Just wounded. Must take him to the hospital.”
“My dear, he’s gone.” The man tries to unfasten my arm clenched around my guardian angel.
I wriggle free with a jerk. Anger is boiling in my veins. I don’t know where I am anymore. My blood-stained fingers clasp into fists as I stand up. Tears smear my vision, but my eyes are dead-focused on the momentarily-ceasing-fire crackdown unit.
Rage has deafened me. Crimson has blinded me. I’m suffocating on a sob. And like a raging bull, I charge toward them.
“Hold off!” The man attempts to grab me, but I’m too quick for him. “You’re walking straight into their arms!”
Snatching a trampled scarf from the ground, I quickly wrap it around a stone and set it on fire through a small fading bonfire on the sidewalk. I swing back my arm as much as I can and pitch the fireball with all my might.
Many things happen at the same time in slow motion.
As the ball leaves my grasp, it takes a curved flaming route in the air and approaches the nearest sharpshooter, who is aiming his gun at me. The light of fire momentarily illuminates his face as he dodges, and I clearly see the man smiling—no, grinning; a vengeful nasty grin that will happily give me my just deserts.
Next thing I know, he secures this aim, and his finger pulls the trigger.
And the whole world stoops down in darkness.
I collapse with an unbearable burning that eats at my right eye. I smell blood and something even more foul. Someone is howling nearby, and I suddenly realize it’s me. With trembling fingers, I reach the area of my right eye, and soon as I touch the numbed area, my fingers sense blood—blood that is rutting down my throat.
For one moment, I lose consciousness. But the comfort of four hands that tackle my waist and legs, carrying me away, gives me a brief sense of presence.
I half-hear people speaking to me, but I can’t make out anything. I just want to die and end this monstrous pain. My other eyes throbs and itches so badly that I don’t dare to open it.
“Quick. Must bind the wound,” someone says beside me.
“Zara?” I moan, fumbling blindly around for her.
“Shhhh. It’s ok.” Her fingers weave into mine, her voice empty of her usual snark.
“Zara, I can’t see anything. I can’t see anything!”
“It’s, Ok. You just have to stay calm. We’re going to take you to the hospital. Don’t worry. All right?”
“My mom. Find my mom. Please find my mom.” I try to sit up, but the forceful hands keep me still.
The ambient yells and shrieks have let up; no more tumult of slogans or escaping patters.
I tug at Zara’s hand. “What happened? Where’s everyone?”
“Here, take this.”
Something round and hard, like a small pill, is pinned to my mouth.
“It’s painkiller. Always carry one for my period surprise,” a woman I don’t recognize says.
I swallow it down with some gulps of much-needed water offered to me in a plastic bottle that squeaks in their grip.
“Zara… tell me… Where’s everyone?”
“The shots scattered them away. The good thing is the guards are leaving too. Just bare it a little longer and we’ll be on our way to the hospital.”
“My car’s parked down the street.” The same woman says. “I’ll take you.”
At this I bristle, momentarily forgetting the eye-splitting torture. “No! We mustn’t let them go. We have to keep them here.”
“Maddie, what are you talking about?”
“Are you out of your mind?” Zara sweeps back my curls on my forehead. “You can’t keep losing blood like this.”
“There are many others in need of urgent care,” Sia says begrudgingly. “I hope those murderers go directly to hell.”
“No. No. No.” My throat is dry again, my whole body bathing in cold sweat. Just half of my face functions; the other half is fully paralyzed. I roll my tongue on my chapped lips. It tastes metallic and pungent but I don’t care. “Please, listen to me. We must stall the guards as much as we can.”
“Listen!” I hiss with all the strength left in me. “There’s some sort of an underground operation going on in this neighborhood. This protest was a smokescreen.” And I lay out Parand’s story.
“But, Maddie… Your eye,” Sia says with a catch in her voice.
“It’s their life, Sia.” My hand gropes clumsily around and finds her wet cheek. “They’ll be hanged in a couple of hours. We have to help them. And besides, I feel a bit better. The pill has done its bit.”
“But how?” comes Sia’s exasperated reply. “What can three teenagers do empty-handed?”
“Who says we’re empty-handed? The three of us, we’re a team.” I squeeze Zara’s hand, still tangled in mine. “We can bring people back. We can unite them with our act. We can bust these bastards, together.”
“The hell with the act, Maddie. You can’t possibly think of dancing in your condition!” Zara spats.
“That’s the nature of true love. Remember? We can’t let those people hang, Zara. You know it as well as I do.”
“Sia?” That’s all Zara says, and I hear cloth being torn.
Presently, someone lifts up my head, and a piece of cloth is bandaged tightly around my right eye.
I try to blink and open the left one, but it proves very difficult. My lashes are stuck with dried blood and tears. I carefully rub it with a finger and take a peek. Zara is tying back her long braids with a scrunchy. Now she takes off her cape. The drums, oozing magic, are ready for their cue around her waist.
Rising dizzily, I hang onto both of them, squinting at the surroundings. The square is empty. Even the cars have scooted to avoid trouble. On one side, the guards and the crackdown machinery are positioned, and on the other, the people—or a handful of them, to be exact. I slowly let go of the supporting arms and manage to stand on my own feet.
“Are you ok?” Zara asks apprehensively.
“Oh, Maddie.” Sia chokes.
“No time for this, Sia. Not now.” I outstretch both arms and close one eye. “Sing, Sia. Sing like you’ve never sung before.”
“Here? In front of all these people?” She backs away a little from me. “I-I don’t know—”
“Sia,” Zara says softly. “Do it for us. You got this.”
I take in a big gulp of cold air, and before I release all my cooped-up emotions to a nonexistent rhythm, Sia’s strong voice torpedoes the air,
“Rise up, for ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’… Rise up for ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’.”
Vibrant echoes of drums, sensational and primitive, fall in with her singing, raising hair at the back of my worn-out neck as they get louder and louder and louder.
“In the name of Woman, in the name of Life,
We’ll free ourselves from the yokes of slavery,
Our dark nights will dawn,
Lashes on our bodies become axes in our hands…”
The song is a Farsi version of the famous Chilean resistance march that had taken the world by storm in the 70s. I stomp my feet one after the other with each word at the beat of the drums. Next thing, my body takes the lead.
Blood is soaking through the bandage, streaming down my cheek, but I’m numbed with an anesthetic beyond substance. All my anger, my suffering, my rage is transformed into this act, into this haka—my war dance.
A cool breeze hums in my ears, bringing a faint scent of orange blossoms to my nostrils. Instantly, the sound of my march on the cold asphalt fades out, and I’m back in the rice fields, twirling and twirling.
The damp northern air nestles warmly on my skin, and the green of the rice plants swaying this way and that glares both my eyes. And when I blink twice, I see the colorful stripes of long Ghasemabadi skirts twirling all around me. They’re all there: Maman joon, my mom, my aunts, cousins, female paddy field workers, all whirling in their sequined costumes of red, yellow, orange, and blue, and the wind is singing, and we are all dancing, painless, thoughtless, free. The soil underneath our steps is alive. I feel it beating with a heart as my feet shuffle over it… And I know that his Mat was right, that this soil is gathering our imprints to conjure a Noah’s typhoon.
Sia’s voice follows me in the vastness of evergreen Gilan, hoisting me back where I’m needed most.
“We swear on the pure blood of our martyrs,
We swear on this revolution of tears and kisses,
That through this ceaseless rein of suffering,
If you summon us, oh Motherland,
We’ll lay our lives at your feet…”
And I dance… for me, for mom and dad, for Parand, for Zara, for Sia; for all the dances we never danced; for all the songs we never sang; for all the kisses we never kissed; for all the bikes we never rode, for all the plains we never flew; for all the judges we never became… for all the things we never were.
I swing and march with the melody, and I suddenly hear something more than mere rebound of my own steps.
“Rise up, for Woman, Life, Freedom,” sings a man’s voice from somewhere behind.
“Rise up, for Woman, Life, Freedom,” sings along a woman on my right.
“Me, you and them, we’ll become one again,” sing many many voices, a gigantic choir of a thousand free spirits, more than I can ever count.
Fifty? Sixty? A hundred? Two hundred?
I just know that the space is so populated that the whole street is trembling under our feet. Our songs, united, one, are soaring the skies, lashing down on anyone who stands in our way. With much difficulty, I snap open my left eye and gingerly swivel my neck.
The area, as far as I can see, is filled with people who are marching arm in arm. Right across, the water cannon, SWAT vehicles, and the guards are awaiting their cue as they inch deliberately toward us.
Less than forty yards away... Now, thirty yards away.
I glance back again. People are still there, singing. The troops are now twenty yards away, their skin pale under their helmets, their guns taking many jittery trajectories until they lock on target.
The girls and I are at the frontline. But this time, my heart is not racing off in a Formula One circuit. The pulses are steady, as I am; as we all are.
On my right, Zara’s torso sways to and fro, her hands deftly fleeting over the drums that have truly succeeded in scaring the shit out of the crackdown unit. On my left, Sia’s angelic voice is trilling huskily in multitudes, her long brown hair wafting bold and daring—once more the mighty sorceress of that small cellar.
They both smile at me, each hooking an arm in mine, and with our heads held high, we look the enemy in the eye.
And they open fire.
 The last letter of the Persian alphabet, equal to the letter Y.
 One of the five forces of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
 A northwestern province of Iran.
Niloofar Hamedi and Elaheh Mohammadi
 Subversionary, dissident.
 If a subversionary is arrested carrying their cellphones, all of their social media accounts are closely inspected by the police for any evidence of dissident posts or activities, leading to a range of judicial sentences such as years in prison or an execution.
 A large piece of cloth worn by Muslim women that is wrapped loosely around the head and body.
 In the cultures of the Horn of Africa and adjacent regions of the Middle East, Zār is the term for a wind spirit assumed to possess individuals, and to cause discomfort or illness. The so-called Zār ritual or Zār cult is the practice of exorcisingsuch spirits from the possessed individual which includes several percussion instruments and chanting.
 Hormuz is a southern Iranian island in the Persian Gulf, located in the Strait of Hormuz.
 Staunch supporters of the Islamic Republic Regime, mainly the members of the IRGC.
 Tramp, bum
 A northern province of Iran.
 Qom is one of the holy cities in Iran and the world's largest center for Shi'a scholarship.
 Ma'soumeh Dadehbala (1942 – 1990), known professionally as Hayedeh, was an Iranian singer with a contralto vocal range. She has been widely described as one of the most popular and influential musicians of all time.
 My son
 My mother
 A gesture of respect when receiving a holy offering.
 Azadi Square, meaning Freedom Square, is one of the most prominent landmarks of the capital
city of Tehran.
 Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
 “El Pueblo Unido, Jamas Sera Vencido!” by Quilapayún.
Samz R. Nesh is an arts and culture journalist and editor with over eight years of experience. She has received a B.A. in fine arts, and a M.A. in international communications, with several pieces of art journalism published both nationally and internationally. Her debut short story was included in the anthology volume Divided America, and her second one has won House of Zolo’s Editorial Contest.