Mothers and Sisters by Shideh Etaat
Mothers and Sisters
by Shideh Etaat
“She loved silence. It was the most beautiful sound in the whole world. After Rostam left it was the only thing that kept her sane: silence looking at the sky, silence in a dark room where she could pretend she didn’t exist at all, silence after her mother pestered her about finding a husband, about smiling more, about counting her blessings.”
Mothers and Sisters
by Shideh Etaat
T he fat woman at the hammam scrubbed Minoo’s body so hard she thought she was going to bleed.
“Too much puss,” the woman told her. Minoo could barely hear the woman because everyone was being so loud. It was the day before Vida was getting married and Minoo was nervous. Her sister didn’t seem worried at all though. Why should she be? Vida sat while her relatives gathered around her naked body, rubbing henna on her palms for good luck, clicking their tongues to make a loud and horrible sound. The hammam was filled with plates of food: dates, dolma, cubes of cheese and mountains of bread. The attendant was hurting Minoo, but she didn’t mind it. She knew she deserved this and more after what she had done to Vida.
“Turn over,” the woman told her, “look at your sister, thin like a branch. What happened to you?”
Minoo just smiled because the lies were like a thick, slab of concrete that had covered her whole body for years, and she felt like this woman was trying to cleanse her from it. She didn’t know how to tell her it was an impossible task.
“You look old too,” the woman said, “she’s so young and you’re so old. You have many kids?”
“No,” Minoo told her, “I don’t have any kids. I never got married.”
“Why? You can be pretty if you try,” the woman said, now scrubbing Minoo’s throat and chest. She looked down for a second to make sure there was no blood and then poured hot water all over Minoo.
All of their cousins and Vida’s friends were gathered around, waiting for a bit of henna to be rubbed on their palms to ensure that God knew that they were ready for their own husbands too. No one called Minoo over.
Twenty years earlier, in 1950, Minoo was sixteen and in love. She didn’t know what to call it then, because no one had ever taught her about the word love. She didn’t know love wasn’t always a choice, but an instinct, and she certainly didn’t know that love, when acted upon, had its own consequences.
His name was Rostam.
He was their family’s nohkar, or houseboy. He cooked. He cleaned. He made sure to bring tea when it was time for tea. He was twenty years old and from a small town near Isfahan. He wasn’t Muslim like Minoo’s family, but Zoroastrian, although they both jumped over the fire to cleanse their souls before Nowruz. He came to Tehran when he was eighteen and started working for Minoo’s family and was quite good at his job. He didn’t ask too many questions and kept to himself, was kind and thoughtful, and had a small room at the back of the house.
When she turned sixteen Minoo started noticing that Rostam’s eyes were the color of the sea and that he seemed nervous every time she was in the room. He didn’t talk much and as Minoo’s parents talked incessantly about nothing to fill the space up, she appreciated his silence. She wondered what he was thinking—did his thoughts overwhelm him or was there peace inside him? Her breasts had just sprouted and one day, when Rostam was serving them dinner, Minoo caught him staring at them.
“Pass the bread,” Minoo’s mother said, but Minoo sat frozen under Rostam’s gaze. No one had ever looked at her like that before.
“Minoo-jan,” her mother snapped and Rostam hurried out of there like a freshly discovered cockroach.
Before school started the next day she found her friend Azadeh who smoked cigarettes in the bathroom and who she had seen kiss a boy once, and asked her why Rostam was looking at her like that.
“He likes you,” Azadeh told her between puffs, “he’s imagining you naked.”
Minoo thought about it for a second and then whispered back.
“It excites him. If he could, he would touch you.”
“Has a boy ever touched you before?”
Azadeh closed her eyes then and nodded yes, with a smile on her face like she was floating inside the dream of that touch. Azadeh didn’t need make up to look beautiful and her long neck made her seem graceful at everything she did. Of course boys wanted to touch Azadeh, but Minoo didn’t think the same of herself.
At home after school she found Rostam cleaning. Her mom was at her weekly gathering with friends and her dad was at work. Rostam was hosing down the garden and making sure there was enough water in the fountain at the center of their courtyard. She stood and watched him and tried to imagine his naked body, but she couldn’t see anything. All she knew was that Rostam was tall, didn’t need a ladder to pick the lemons off the highest branches, his hair was buzzed short which made his blue eyes pop, and he had hands that were gentle enough to sew buttons and firm enough to chop wood for their fires during the winter. He turned around with the hose on and not knowing Minoo was there, sprayed her with water.
“I’m so sorry, Minoo-khanoum,” he said.
“It’s my fault. I should have told you I was standing here.”
He came towards her trying to help, but her navy blue blouse was wet now, and stuck to her body, and her breasts were even more visible so Rostam stopped before he got to her and put his hands inside his pockets.
“You should go change,” he said looking down at the ground.
“Are you staring at my breasts?” Minoo asked him which was the most honest question she had ever asked in her life.
“No, Minoo-khanoum. I’d never do such a thing.”
He wouldn’t take his eyes off the concrete and the smell of the wet flowers all around them started to make Minoo feel dizzy.
“You don’t think I’m beautiful?” she asked, not sure where all her confidence was coming from.
“Of course,” he said looking up now, “but I have the utmost respect for you.”
Minoo walked closer to him. She liked that her shirt was wet and that Rostam had done it, and that now her breasts looked even bigger. She liked how nervous he seemed. She stood the closest she had ever stood to him, so close she could smell the musk of his body, the dirt on his hands. She grabbed his hand out from his pocket and placed it on her chest. He didn’t resist it.
After the hammam, everyone went home and Minoo sat outside drinking tea in their courtyard with her mom and Vida. She thought of that day with Rostam in this same courtyard. The fountain was gone and the lemon tree was gone and Rostam was gone, but the memory of that day would live on forever.
“We have to be at Pari-khanoum’s salon at one,” her mother told Vida. She had a notebook in her hand with a list of things that needed to be done before the big day tomorrow.
“Minoo, she will do your hair first and then mine, and then Vida’s. Vida-joon, the Soheilis and the Sadeghis are coming now so I called the hotel and I told them to add another table. They said they can’t fit more than forty tables in the salon and I told them no one’s going to die if we make it forty one.”
Their mother was short, less than five feet, but she was a powerful woman who could command anyone’s attention. This wedding had been her mother’s dream all along, only it had never happened with Minoo so now it would be extra special; the only chance her mother had to show what a good job she had done raising her daughter.
While her mother rambled about meaningless things, Minoo hoped she would just stop talking. She didn’t care how many people were coming, Minoo just wanted to make sure Vida was fine, that she felt calm and relaxed. Minoo lifted her sister’s bare feet up and put them on her lap and started massaging them.
“What if I don’t know what to do?” Vida asked. She was effortlessly beautiful. Her blue eyes helped, but it was also something else; this feeling that it didn’t matter to her if she were beautiful or not. She was marrying Mazdak, a man she had only met months ago. His father had done business with Vida’s father and had introduced Mazdak to him with the hopes of arranging a meeting. Minoo didn’t believe he was good enough for Vida; he was handsome, but not overwhelmingly so and Minoo worried he wouldn’t appreciate Vida in the way she deserved. Vida seemed to like him though. She told Minoo he was kind and seemed like he had a good heart. He was also an Iranian who lived in Germany, so he wanted to marry the beautiful woman his father had introduced him to before he had to go back. It was decided without any of Minoo’s input that Vida would marry him and move to Germany.
“What do you mean?” Minoo asked her now.
“You know…” she said and yes, Minoo did know, because it was obvious Vida was a virgin, but she wasn’t sure she could talk about this in front of her mother.
“Well, Mazdak will help you. Just ask him to be slow and gentle and that you want him to help you.”
“I have to talk to him?” Vida asked.
“Of course,” Minoo said.
“No, no talking. You must be silent. Just let him do what he wants and it will feel good eventually,” her mother said.
“It’s OK to talk to him,” Minoo insisted.
“Don’t listen to her. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about,” her mother barked, as if Minoo had never had sex in her life, “just make sounds like it feels good and soon it will be over. The first time will hurt.”
“Not always,” Minoo said.
“Always,” her mother said.
Vida yawned and then said she was ready for bed. She kissed Minoo and their mother and thanked them for all their help. Minoo stayed outside, drank the rest of her tea while her mother made more useless notes in her notepad about things that needed to be done tomorrow.
“I want to tell her,” Minoo said.
“Don’t be crazy,” her mother responded.
“She needs to know.”
“Never. There’s nothing more selfish you can do, especially right now,” her mother said and snapped her notebook shut and went inside.
“Rostam killed his son Sohrab in battle,” Rostam told Minoo one day as they sat in the living room and he read to her from the Shahnameh, The Book of Kings.
“Why would he do that?”
“Well, he didn’t know Sohrab was his son. He was looking for his horse who was lost and met a princess from a different tribe and had a child with her. He left and many years later he ends up battling the same tribe, and kills Sohrab. He realizes too late it was his own son.”
“How sad,” Minoo said. It had been days since Rostam had touched her. They had been spending more and more time together, Minoo coming straight home after school, Rostam hurrying with his chores so he could greet her when she did.
Their knees touched as they sat flipping through the thick book with its beautiful, elaborate drawings of battles and enormous birds inside.
“This is the most beautiful thing I own,” Rostam told her. Something changed inside her when he smiled. She liked that he loved this book and its stories so much and that he was willing to share it with her. She wanted their bodies to touch, but wasn’t sure how to tell him. She pressed her knee into his and he looked at her.
“Will you kiss me?” she asked.
He laughed like a nervous little boy.
“You don’t want to?” she asked.
“Of course I do,” he said, “it’s not that easy, Minoo-khanoum.”
“Just call me, Minoo, please.”
“It’s not easy, Minoo.”
“Sure it is,” she said and she brought her face closer to his and looked into the vast sea of his eyes, “you have to kiss me.” He pecked her on the lips like a timid bird. Minoo touched her lips with the back of her hand and laughed. “Use your tongue, Rostam.” Azadeh had raved about the tongue when kissing and Minoo didn’t want to be kissed without it.
“But I have the utmost respect for you,” he said, “and I will get in trouble.”
“But I’m in love with you,” she said. It was a powerful word and even though she felt it was true, she immediately regretted saying it because she realized he might not feel the same way. She noticed tears in the corners of his eyes. They were too beautiful to look at so she looked down and noticed something sticking up in his pants. She put her hand on it without a thought.
“Akhhh,” Rostam said, half-pleasure, half-pain.
“Did I hurt you?” Minoo said, pulling her hand back.
“No, that felt good,” Rostam said.
“What did it feel like?” she asked.
He smiled at this, not a little boy smile, but the smile of a man who knew what he was doing.
“Like this,” he said and he pressed his hand in between her legs, gently but with enough pressure that Minoo thought for a moment she might die from the joy of it.
For several days after school they would sit next to each other on the couch, read from the Shahnameh, and then Minoo would suddenly stroke the hardness between Rostam’s legs, and Rostam would press his hand into the heat between Minoo’s legs. It was as if they were breathing life into each other’s bodies, their hands moving at the same speed, slow and then faster, and then so fast it seemed they would tire from it, and then they would both explode. It was the most wonderful feeling Minoo had ever had. Rostam would always excuse himself right after and then come back with a new pair of pants on and Minoo never asked him why.
One day she told him,
“I want to really touch you. Underneath your pants.”
“Minoo-khanoum,” Rostam said with obvious apprehension.
Minoo got up. She liked when they touched each other, and she had told Azadeh about it, but Azadeh said it was nothing like having someone inside of you.
Minoo had asked her what she meant by inside of her. Azadeh had drawn her a picture and Minoo asked her if she had ever done it. No, she told her, but she knew someone at her old school who had done it and told her about it. When she asked her what had happened to the girl, Azadeh told her that her dad had caught the girl and sent her to Shiraz to live with her grandmother.
“Where are you going?” Rostam asked.
“To your room,” Minoo said. She knew this would get his attention because she had never stepped foot in his room. He followed her and tried to move faster than her.
The room was tiny, less than half of Minoo’s room, with little light and nothing but a bed, a carpet and a couple of books stacked by his bed.
“It’s not very nice,” Rostam said.
“I like it,” Minoo said. She lay down on his narrow bed, not enough space for two bodies to lie side by side. “Take off your clothes,” Minoo said. Normally she hated telling Rostam what to do. She never told him to clean after her, or bring her more of anything, but this felt different. He didn’t hesitate and as he took his clothes off, so did she. She loved the way he looked at her, like he wanted to paint her, like he wanted to swallow her and pretend they weren’t two different people, but one. The thing she had been touching was ugly, but the rest of him was beautiful. She didn’t say another word because soon Rostam was on top of her, and soon he had spread her legs wide so that the pulsing only got louder in her brain, and soon like Azadeh had explained, she could feel him entering her. She was so slippery that it didn’t hurt too much, and the deeper he thrust himself the louder their moans got, the wider she spread her legs, until finally his whole body began to spasm uncontrollably and she could feel herself welcoming this tremor, until it took over her whole body too and she screamed so loud that it turned into wild and ugly laughter.
It wasn’t jealousy Minoo felt the night of Vida’s wedding, but a deep sadness. She didn’t want Vida to leave, especially not without telling her the truth. It was like any Iranian wedding; a spectacular feast for four hundred of their closest friends and family. There were white flowers hanging from every corner of the ballroom, women dressed in sparkling gowns, so much food that the tables were overwhelmed. She wished she had gotten a chance to be alone with Vida, but the salon that afternoon had been crowded, and every second until Vida and Mazdak had finally sat at the sofreh so they could exchange their vows, someone had taken Vida’s attention away from Minoo. Minoo believed it was her mother’s fault; that she had told everyone to make sure Vida was kept busy so Minoo was unable to have a private moment with her.
Minoo’s parents looked happier than the bride and groom. They were dancing so hard inside a circle that had been created for them, that they were sweating. People handed them napkins and they waved the white cloths in the air like nomads. The bride and groom soon joined them and the music was so loud and the clapping only made it worse, and so when Minoo was dragged into the circle to join she could only last a minute before she had to go out into the hall where there was silence. She loved silence. It was the most beautiful sound in the whole world. After Rostam left it was the only thing that kept her sane: silence looking at the sky, silence in a dark room where she could pretend she didn’t exist at all, silence after her mother pestered her about finding a husband, about smiling more, about counting her blessings.
She took her heels off now and began to rub her feet. What would she have done with a life filled with the unnecessary noises of another man? She liked that she could leave her house without telling anyone, go sit in a corner of a park where there was barely anyone, close her eyes and just be in silence. She was thirty-seven now, well passed the age where women would pass by her and tell her, Inshallah, one day a husband for you. That night everyone left her in her silence.
At first Minoo thought she was just getting fat. Her pants no longer fit her. Her breasts ached. Azadeh looked at her one day as she smoked a cigarette at the back of their school and said,
“It’s better if you’re a little careful with what you eat.”
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’ve been eating what I always eat.”
“You look big, Minoo. Maybe you’re pregnant,” she said, laughing as the smoke escaped her mouth. Minoo had told her about her day with Rostam and the months that followed. She explained in detail the pleasures she experienced with him. She told her about the stories from the Shahnameh and described his penis for Azadeh and the joy she felt ordering him around in the bedroom.
“When was your last period?”
“I don’t know. I can’t remember,” Minoo said with eyes now widened at the thought of it and Azadeh stopped laughing because they both knew there could be no other explanation than this.
Azadeh took her to see Marushka, the Russian woman who sold potions and performed secret abortions. The woman with the yellow bandana on her head had put one hand on Minoo’s belly and had nodded.
“Yes, ten weeks. And it’s a girl,” Marushka told her.
She told Rostam immediately because the thought of not telling him made her vomiting increase. He wept and Minoo knew it wasn’t coming from a joyous place.
“Let’s run away,” Minoo said, “all we need is our love. We can go anywhere. Be anyone.”
“You’re a lunatic,” Rostam said, “I have to leave here immediately. Your father will murder me.”
“What are you talking about? You can’t leave me,” Minoo yelled at him as Rostam started throwing his books and clothes in a bag. “Don’t you love me?”
“Of course, of course. I love you so much. You are the only girl I have ever loved, but I don’t want to die, Minoo,” he said in a panic. He hugged her, and she could feel how fast his heart was beating. How scared he was. It was true. Her father would find a way to kill Rostam, or at least torture him in some way, and because she really did love him, Minoo let Rostam go.
When she could no longer hide her belly she told her parents.
“If there wasn’t a child inside of you, I’d beat you so hard you would have to struggle for breath,” her mom had yelled through her tears that seemed to have no end.
Her father who always had something to say, now said nothing, but sat on his favorite burgundy velvet chair with one leg crossed over the other and smoked a cigar. Minoo told them it had been Rostam and her father walked up to her and smacked her across the face.
“You’re a disgrace to this family,” he told her with an even voice.
There only one logical, face-saving way to salvage the situation, according to her parents, so that Minoo could still find a husband and have a chance at a real life. Minoo would have the baby. They would go to the north, where they had a villa, stay there for a year, and when they came back, they would say the child was theirs. It wasn’t an impossible occurrence. Minoo’s mother was only thirty-three years old. The child would be raised as Minoo’s sister and no one would ever tell her who her real mother was.
She had refused to hold Vida the first two years of her life and stopped speaking all together. Her aunts and cousins who didn’t know about their secret worried about Minoo, but her mother dismissed it as a phase. She just wants attention, she told them. Words just felt useless to her. But even in that silence, and with arms that didn’t dare touch her daughter who was now her sister, she had fallen in love with Vida and she soon understood that this secret was the truth now and she had to become a part of it, or she would lose this love forever.
The first few months Vida was gone, the only thing that kept Minoo and her mother from killing each other was the same sadness that filled both of their hearts: their daughter was gone. They talked on the phone with Vida every week and Vida wrote letters about how beautiful Germany was, but also how she missed home. Minoo and her mother would read the letters and weep into them.
“I hate you,” Minoo told her mother one day as they sat in the courtyard eating watermelon slices.
“I hate you equally,” her mother said as she spit out the black seeds onto the concrete.
“I want to go to Germany and visit,” Minoo told her mother.
“Leave her alone. I know you want to tell her. You want to ruin her life? If you were a good mother, you wouldn’t dare.”
“But I’m not a mother,” Minoo said, “I never got the chance to be a mother.”
“Oh, stop feeling so sorry for yourself. We were helping you. It’s not our fault you decided to not give another man a chance. You chose this life,” her mother said and then got up and left.
Minoo stared out at their depressing courtyard; the dried out flowers, all the weeds, the dying branches, the fountain that no longer worked. After Rostam left her father had take it upon himself to do the gardening work and this was the result. She hated it, but sometimes it felt as if the courtyard was the only thing that had ever acknowledged what Minoo had lost.
But now perhaps a part of her believed that she deserved a different ending. That after all this time, Minoo had been through enough and she deserved for Vida to know, and to finally be a mother.
Six months after Vida left Minoo called her and told her what had happened.
“Maman is gone,” she said, “she had a heart attack and died last night.”
Vida came two days later without her husband, who was too busy with work to make the trip. Much to her surprise, Minoo noticed her thin sister was a bit heavier. Her belly was plump and her breasts larger than normal. Their father was out dealing with arrangements for the funeral and when Vida entered their house she broke down, got to her knees and started crying.
“I should have never left. I broke her heart,” Vida said. It was a ridiculous notion, but also a common one: that a child leaving her parents’ home would create so much sadness and depression that the parents would soon die of grief.
“Don’t even say such things, Vida-joon. This has nothing to do with you,” Minoo got down on her knees too and started rubbing Vida’s back.
“I’m pregnant,” Vida said.
“I know,” Minoo said.
“Is it that obvious?”
“No,” Minoo said, “but I know you so well. I know when something is different about you.”
Vida hugged Minoo who knew now that love wasn’t what someone called you, or the belief that you came from their body; love was hard work and protecting someone no matter where they went in this world. Love was a choice, something that had to be learned over and over again, even in spite of the exhaustion, pain and shame of it.
“Maman will never meet my child. She’ll never be a grandmother. She told me the day of the wedding that the only thing she wanted before she died was a grandchild.”
“She lived a good life. She was so proud of you.”
The two held each other’s hands and looked into each other’s eyes and were silent for a very long time. But Minoo knew silence, understood it better than anyone she knew, and she understood now that no matter how beautiful and important and easy it was, it could never be enough, and she opened her dry and long-imprisoned mouth so she could finally speak.
FEATURED IMAGE BY Lindsey LaMont via UNSPLASH
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Shideh Etaat is a Los Angeles-based writer and educator. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. An excerpt of her work can be found in Tremors, New Fiction by Iranian Americans, and she has published short stories in Day One and Foglifter. Her memoir piece “Forget Me Not” can be found in My Shadow Is My Skin: Voices from the Iranian Diaspora. She is a 2015 James D. Phelan Award recipient and her first novel is about grief, Tupac, and an Iranian-American teenager exploring her love for girls in the San Fernando Valley in the 90s.