The Gowkaran Tree in the Middle of Our Kitchen

The translator has remained anonymous for security reasons.

This book has won 2019 Creative Victoria and the Australian Council for the Arts grants.

Chapter Three

Once the votive fesenjaan and gheymeh stews had been eaten in the mosque, the lamentations of Tasua and Ashura[1] were over, and Leyla had disappeared, but before the discovery of Mithra and the Sacred Bull, after the conclusion of both the Islamic and Zoroastrian mourning ceremonies, the rest of the family and relatives gradually went back to their homes and daily lives. He went, Bahman and Iraj and Mozhgan and Mahin and the rest of them went, although before he left, Bahnam punched his father in the face and told him he was a drunken bastard, Mozhgan and Iraj in a note that they left on the kitchen table announced that they had fallen in love, that they were Communists, and had fled to the Soviet Union, whereupon Mahin immediately announced that she wanted to go to Sistan and Baluchestan province and join the government’s Knowledge Army. Meanwhile, before his departure, he, Behnam, came to my bedroom one night, woke me up, took me firmly by the hand, and, all the while careful not to wake anyone else up, led me out of the mansion, and without a word took me to a spot under the oak and common hornbeam trees in the middle of the forest. Then, as moonlight fell on his face he stood and said, ‘I couldn’t sleep at all… Your voice kept echoing in my ears. Your voice that had echoed in the mirrored room, “this is exactly the same scene I saw in my dream!” ’

At breakfast, he takes tea with a single spoon of sugar, but for afternoon tea, without sugar. He loves cream and honey, but doesn’t like honey in tea. He has long, slender fingers which distract me and claw at my heart every time they move. Dark blue suits him better than any other colour, while white makes his eyes and eyebrows and shiny black hair stand out more against his light skin. When he talks, he sticks his hands in his front trouser pockets, as if to make sure that the restless birds of his hands don’t fly away. In large gatherings, he listens, in small ones, he talks. I had understood all of this, but not how beautiful he is…. When he talked in a smaller gathering, I would stand near enough for me to hear his warm, gruff voice, but not so close as to attract his attention. I had heard him talk of the working class and social justice, without excitement, but in a confident voice. I had seen him go for a walk in the forest, at exactly seven a.m. and again at seven p.m., without drawing anyone’s attention, returning an hour later, hands in pockets and whistling. I had learnt that until he was fifteen, he had lived in London and Paris with his family. He was in his second year studying journalism at the University of Tehran, his father is Dad’s colleague and a friend of his from their student days. I had come to realize that when he walked quickly, his right shoulder was a little lower than his left one. Once when I was out riding Shabro in the forest, I saw him leaning on a tree, inhaling oxygen mixed with cigarette smoke with deep and pleasurable breaths into his lungs. That day I slowly dismounted from Shabro and sat down behind a raspberry bush, without taking my eyes off him; a little ray of light was falling on his left eye. By the time his cigarette was finished, a sparrow had sat down next to his right foot, a crow cawed above his head, and as he looked up to the crow, the sky, and the light, a leaf from a Persian ironwood tree had fallen on his high forehead, as if it were God’s signature. That day as he dragged on his cigarette, he had a smile on his lips that seemed to be saying, ah it is good to be alive. There was something about his black, intelligent eyes that took away my courage to look; gleaming, with long lashes and sharp corners. His gaze was penetrating and meticulous. He knew how to talk with his eyes, to question with his eyes, to laugh with his eyes. I had known all of this, but how had I not realized how beautiful he was? That night, for example… On that most particular of all nights in the palace, I had realised that with those eyes there was no limit to the disasters he might inflict on me… I had realised this precisely in the wine and dancing room when he told me, ‘I am your restless lover,’ but at the same time fired bullets from his eyes that wounded and killed me.

Despite all this, during all those long days he had been with our relatives, close and distant, in our mansion, I had not uttered a single word to him. At the mere idea of talking to him, my entire body came out in blisters because of the heat, my hair caught fire, and my cheeks were roasted with shame. Even the one time he walked past me and our shoulders were less than a centimetre apart, I started hiccupping out of shame and fear, the hiccups not stopping for three days. During that time, he, Behnam, had tried to get close to me and had even addressed a few words to me, but each time without even speaking I had found an excuse to slip away, like a fish, like the wind, like the mist, losing myself in nooks and crannies hidden from people and walls and trees. Just like that night in the palace when I had lost myself amid the hallways and rooms and children. As that day in the forest, timid and lacking in self-confidence, I watched him take pleasure in blowing smoke rings up into the air, I told myself that that night in the palace, that fearful night, he had certainly said what he had said to me only because he was drunk. I had no doubt about this. No, it wasn’t to be doubted at all. Wasn’t it? Now that he had taken my hand on this moonlit night and placed it beside him underneath the wide-awake trees and sleeping sparrows, I was once more unsure what he wanted to tell me. He would surely not speak of love. No! No! Because he wasn’t drunk. Surely? Whatever the case may be, I had to say something, but nothing came to mind. As usual when he was around me, my mind hesitated and my thoughts began hiccupping. But in a gentle motion, he took my hand in his and squeezed it as gently. Gripped by shyness, short of breath, frightened and inflamed, I fixed my eyes on the ground, and if I hadn’t lost the use of my legs, I would have run behind the oaks and hornbeams. My heart was beating rapidly, like the hearts of the sparrows we used to trap on snowy winter nights, until he drew his hand back in a swift movement and the sparrow of my heart stood still with shock and died.

I looked at the palm of my hand in surprise. There was a cavity. A vacuum. I was then so raw a lover, not having tasted all the separations of the years to come, that I imagined that this vacuum was definitely an infinite one, because just a few weeks earlier in our science lessons I had learnt that vacuums could be divided into five types. If I had known that day that I would experience the vacuum in this way, and so soon, then I wouldn’t have expended so much effort in the school yard at break-time in memorising the five types of vacuum: the low vacuum, the medium vacuum, the high vacuum, the ultra-high vacuum, and the extreme-high vacuum, the infinite one… Ahhhhhh! Had I known that this vacuum would be a prelude to a life lived with the different types of vacuums, I would have known just howwwww far off that infinite vacuum lay. That vacuum of vacuums. My hand froze from dread, pain shot up my back, my left eye leapt, and loud hiccups sprang forth from my mouth: ‘hic!’ Fortunately, it didn’t seem like he heard. ‘Maybe it’d be better if we just looked at the moon’, he said. ‘I can never get to sleep on moonlit nights’. ‘I’m exactly the same’, I thought. But the emptiness of my hand without his in it, that vacuum, that sudden cavity, had shaken my spirit so unexpectedly that rather than telling him ‘me too’, without realising I turned to him, so that I might be able to conquer my shame for the first time and look into his penetrating black eyes and ask, ‘why did you let my hand go?’ But behind Behnam I caught sight of the ghost of the gorgeous lady of tall stature, leaning against a tree under the silver light of the moon, a peacock in her arms, staring at me with her bright face, elongated, black eyebrows and eyes of infinite beauty. A little scream escaped my mouth and I drew back, terrified. ‘What happened?’ Behnam asked, concerned. As I pointed to the tree, where now leaned no ghost, a sentence sprang out of my mouth and for years afterwards I could not understand why. I said, ‘for a moment Eblis the Beautiful and I were looking into each other’s eyes’. All of a sudden there was a playful sparkle in his eyes, the puffiness under his eyes increased, and he said, smiling, ‘so you’ve said something to me at last!’

Until then I had not heard anybody say, for instance, that their lips or hands or heart are maladroit, because if I had, I would have told myself, told my lips not to be so maladroit, that they should at least start moving. Smile. React appropriately. Talk. But it didn’t happen. Not a single word came out of my mouth. The smile that I eventually presented him with was exactly the sort of smile maladroit lips offer, lips that had lost control once confronted by him, by those playful eyes of his. Then a miracle took place as he took my hand in his once more and pulled me to my feet. This time he held my hand very tightly, as if he were worried I would remove mine from his. We walked together in the moonlit forest. Then he asked, quite simply, ‘in your opinion, what is love?’

Despite the experience of having filled a two-hundred page green notebook with summaries of romantic adventures from novels and films, as well as the twenty-three not particularly successful or useful interviews on the topic of love carried out with relatives and the inhabitants of the mansion recorded in the two hundred pages of the red notebook, I knew just as much about love as about life: something vague and general. Practically nothing. Wouldn’t it have been easier if he’d asked me the names of Iran’s rivers or to list all of its peaks above 3,000 metres? Doesn’t he know that they don’t teach us anything about that in our school books? Love is one of those categories that doesn’t fit in science lessons, nor in religion and literature, nor in history and geography. It’s an interdisciplinary subject and all the sciences have evaded responsibility for defining it. Our maths and science and history and geography lessons generally pay no attention to love. As if love had nothing to do with them. Even though it does. For instance, if Marie and Pierre Curie hadn’t fallen in love, would Marie Curie have managed to discover those things for which she was in part indebted to Pierre? Or if Shah Jahan hadn’t fallen in love with Arjomand Banu, would the Taj Mahal ever have been built? The Gathas talk constantly of wisdom and the Quran of obedience. The rest of the religions pass over love with hints and allusions, and most of them consider it sinful and forbidden anyway. In literature, meanwhile, they only talk about the happy state of union with the beloved, or the sadness of separation. Meaning that none of the subjects we study in school actually explain what love itself is. In our mansion, although there is sometimes talk of someone’s love for someone else, or there are constant allusions to love and the lover and the beloved in Hafez’s poetry, or it appears in the Shahnameh’s stories about Bizhan and Manizheh or Rostam and Tahmineh, nobody has ever explained what love itself is, that it occasionally afflicts people like the plague or cholera, or that because of it, like Majnun, they leave off sleep and food and living, or like Dash Akol[2] they die, or even like Macbeth, kill.

I looked at him shyly out of the corner of my eye, he who was looking at me with that same kind smile that made the puffiness under his eyes bigger. ‘I like the fact that you don’t talk much,’ he said, ‘although it’s confusing. Even though you’re always around for our discussions and you listen very carefully, or you’re there behind a raspberry bush even when I’m having a smoke… you never talk. But the bad side of this is that I see you do sometimes talk to other people, but you never talk to me’. He said ‘me’ with great emphasis, as if this had really got to him. Then he asked, again emphatically, ‘whyyyyyy?’

‘Wouldn’t it have been easier to answer his first question?’, I wondered. The thought made me smile. ‘What are you laughing at?’, he asked. I put my head down and shrugged. No doubt I had gone red to my earlobes again. He put his hand under my chin and gently nudged my head back up, then asked me once again, but this time insistently: ‘you have no choice but to answer one of these questions: one, in your opinion, what is love? Two, why do you always run away from me?’

For the first time I looked at him from that breath-arresting close distance where our warm breaths collided. The same thing happened again; pain shot down my back, my tongue stammered, and my thoughts hiccupped. My chin still resting on his hand, I looked at the surroundings out of the corner of my eye. I had either really to run away and lose myself behind the trees, or finally give an answer. The trees and bushes were far off, so I mumbled an answer. ‘The answer to both questions is the same: I don’t know’. I gently moved my head away from his hand. He sighed and stood staring at the surrounding trees, then after a brief pause said, ‘But I am starting to realise certain things. For example, the first thing I realised was that when I see one person in particular, without me knowing, my heart starts beating like this…’ He pressed my hand on his heart. I was flushed, hhhottt. I looked at the surroundings out of the corner of my eye. If only I could run behind the trees, a little that way, over there… He continued: ‘Another thing I realised is that I cannot breathe when I’m far away from her. What’s worse is that I can’t breathe properly when I’m next to her either.’ ‘I’m the same way’, I thought to myself helplessly. ‘In my opinion love is a kind of state of uncertainty’, he said. ‘A sort of state of suspension, restlessness, indecisiveness. Love is living on the border; the border of life and death, the border of dreaming and waking, the border of truth and illusion’. Then he stuck his right hand into his hair, sighed unhappily, and said with irritation, ‘mostly it has the symptoms of a chronic illness’.

I thought that I must remember to note down the things he said in my second notebook. But perhaps I might not remain alive so long… I felt like I had caught on fire inside and was going to die… It felt like my heart was not so much beating as pounding and breaking and spewing molten lava everywhere like a volcano. At last he went on. ‘It’s as if love confronts you with loneliness and the massive vacuum inside you. As if you all of a sudden realise how empty and meaningless your life was until now without that particular person… you…’

The vacuum… the vacuum again… I must remember to name today ‘Vacuum Day’ on my desk calendar.

‘Has anything occurred to you yet?’, he asked.

No… nothing had occurred to me. He continued. ‘Something else I’ve realised is that I had no say in choosing that particular person. My heart’ — with his right hand he tapped a few times on my hand which he was still holding over his heart with his left — ‘fell in love of its own accord’.

Without thinking, I looked up at the sky above me and, in order to distract my attention, to distract his attention, from those intense feelings, those eyes, those words, those two volcano hearts… ‘Shall we look at the moonlight?’ And I calmly took my hand away from his, but he took it back, and as he brought his face closer to mine, and from his black eyes flung arrows and fire and bullets and stones and shells and all manner of other cursed things at my eyes and heart and soul, he said imperiously, ‘no!’ And he pulled me towards him, placed his lips on mine and kissed them.

Pyiouufff… my skin was torn into pieces, my heart melted, the warp and weft of my being unraveled, and my lips… oh, my lips! Is this what a kiss is? Ahhh! You birds who stand in witness, do you realise what just happened? You crows? You sparrows? You owls? Did you see how in an instant my heart melted and forever lost its shape and essence? Moon, moon, O moon… Did you see how my soul was wrenched from my body and did not go back under my skin? It occurred to me that my lips were extremely small and knew nothing of kissing.[3]

He took his lips away from mine, looked at me with his innocent, besotted eyes, and murmured softly in my ear, ‘are you alright?’

Was I? I felt so good, I felt bad. There is always one bird singing and flying solo in the still of the forest night, passing by. As if to say, ‘why are you asleep? Wake up. Help me. Don’t you realise what’s happened to me?’ That night I was that frightened bird.

Eventually I managed to control myself and a hesitant smile appeared on my lips, its meaning unclear to me. Pleasure? Embarrassment? Fear? Security? Love? So was love this kiss? I must remember to write in my second notebook that love was a kiss. As simple as that.

I wanted us to keep walking. For that reason, I turned my back on him so that we would get moving, because otherwise I would have out of haste once again said, ‘shall we look at the moon?’ My breathing had not yet gone back to normal. I looked up. I was trying to catch sight, between the branches and leaves, of that one wandering night bird, or perhaps I was on the lookout for my fugitive heart and soul… Where are you? My heart? My soul? The innocence of before the discovery of the kiss? Will I ever control you fully again? But he stood there without moving. He was still holding my hand in his. I turned round and looked at him inquiringly. The ghost of the tall-statured woman carrying a peacock appeared behind him again. This time I could make out the head of a snake on her left shoulder, emerging from between her long black flowing hair. A smile was on her lips. How beautiful the woman was, and how reassuring her smile… Although her beauty was not of this world, and was mingled with sadness… Yes, this time I could make out a certain, deep sadness in her wide eyes. When I saw that sadness in her eyes, I lost my fear of her, and unlike on the previous occasion, my heart felt strong. As if with those infinitely gorgeous and sorrowful eyes of hers she was reassuring me that I should set out with all my being on the path of no return. I calmly took my eyes off her. Without even realizing it myself, in between taking my eyes off Eblis the Sorrowful and looking into Behnam’s eyes, I turned into another person; into somebody that had grasped exactly and swiftly that her life was henceforth divided between before and after that kiss. I turned into that bird who, in the nocturnal solitude of the alien forest, feels that it has arrived at its destination. I looked at Behnam, who pulled me towards him again; he kissed me firmly and with complete faith in what he wanted to do. We sat down on the dry leaves and let our kisses become so passionate, dizzying, and natural, that not even the air could pass between our lips, between the outlines of our faces, through the distance between our young bodies. We had killed distance. We slaughtered the sheep of fear beneath the feet of Eblis the Sorrowful.

In the breaking light of dawn, when we reached home, he escorted me in silence to my bed, hand in hand, he gave a goodnight kiss to the end of a tress of my long hair and left. Before leaving, he whispered in my ear, ‘I shall see you again here soon’. But I came down with a fever in that very moment of saying goodbye, and was unable to get out of bed for another three days and nights. I could not even bid him and the others goodbye the following day. As usual Dad, who was yet to be cruelly killed, sent for the doctor, while at Mum’s behest Maryam burned wild rue over my head. ‘Wild rue, grain by grain. Wild rue, thirty-three grained. May the jealous and envious and stranger eye burst!’ But it was Khanom Joon who, as soon as she came into my room, ordered everyone else out and sat by my bed for three days and nights and recited ancient Zoroastrian prayers over me. I was delirious and in my half-waking state probably calling on Behnam or Eblis as Khanom Joon washed my feet and forehead with cold water and moved her Ball of Light around my body again and again so that she might heal me with her mysterious energy.

On the third day, in a delirious dream I saw Behnam being taken into the mouth of the snake, the snake taken into the mouth of the peacock, the peacock into the mouth of Eblis, and Eblis the Beautiful kissing me, and as she did, she had his eyes, the peacock’s beauty, and the snake’s mysteriousness. I woke up with a jolt and in the darkness of my room, my body drenched with sweat and shaking with fever, I turned to Khanom Joon and cried out, ‘wasn’t this the meaning of love?’

[1] Two days of religious mourning: Tasua is followed by Ashura, the tenth of Muharram, which marks the death of Hussein, grandson of the Islamic prophet Muhammad (680 CE).

[2] A story of the same name by Sadeq Hedayat.

[3] From the oldest extant Sumerian text on kissing.

Shokoofeh Azar is an Iranian-Australian journalist and writer. After being arrested and imprisoned for journalistic activities in Iran, she became a refugee in Australia in 2010. She has been working primarily as a fiction author in a magical realism style, albeit with social-political overtones and on the base of true stories, since she moved to Australia. Azar began her first novel, The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, in 2012 and published it in 2017 by Wild Dingo Press with great acclaim. This novel was shortlisted for the Booker International Prize, The Stella Prize, PEN, National Awards and The University of Queensland Literature Award.
Azar recently completed her second novel, The Gowkaran Tree of Our Kitchen, which will be published by Europa Editions in the United States of America, England, and Canada in late 2024 and simultaneously in Italy, Australia and New Zealand.
She is now planning for her third novel, Mona and Her Abandoned Tree, about the suppression of Iranian women under the protection umbrella of Sharia Law.
Azar’s background study is a BA in Persian Literature, Journalism and visual arts.