Fiction in Translation

A Pool Full of Nightmare

By September 11, 2022No Comments

Morteza was arrested for killing a swan, on the day of his return to his hometown after twenty years. (He was seen carrying a dead swan by its feet, its long neck dangling down, its beak drawing a line over the white snow.

Neither of the policemen – there were only two of them – handcuffed Morteza as they escorted him to the police headquarters.

The track was frozen all the way to the building – here and there thin layer of ice broke and water filled in the officers’ boots.

Although it didn’t smell like one, the courtyard of the police headquarters looked so much like the backyard of a prison.

An old hag with bright red gums and no teeth shouted: Mash Esmael? Where are you?

Morteza paused to give her a good look. One of the policemen said: Keep walking, she’s loopy.

           The other policemn said: Is your Mash Esmael still alive? The woman said: “If he was…! If Mash Esmael was alive . . .”

           Morteza pushed his hand into his long winter-coat’s pocket and pulled out a stick of cigarette.  He lit it in the hallway of the station and sat on a wood bench. Here, the policemen handcuffed him. To take a drag, Morteza had to lift both hands up to his oldster mustache, once black, now overcome by cigarette stain. By the time he finished smoking, snow had started to fall again.

            One of the sergeants walked to the foyer to usher the officer in-charge under a textile sky across the yard — the sergeant was holding an umbrella.

             Lieutenant brushed away the umbrella and took off his hat. Snowflakes, none fallen on his hair, were melting.

He said: That woman is here again!

            The sergeant said: She’s been to the teahouse. “I’ll show you my ears if you give me ten bucks”, she’s said.

             Lieutenant said: Now, did she really do that?

             He climbed the stairs three at a time. Behind him, the sergeant said: Yes, sir.

             He said: Let her go.

             Lieutenant was so tall that the sergeant had to run to keep pace with him. In the corridor, the lieutenant asked: What’s the deal with the killing of a swan?

             Sergeant said: Over there, sir.

Lieutenant paused and looked around for the swan’s corpse: Where?

             Sergeant pointed at Morteza sitting on the bench, and ordered: On your feet!

              Morteza was looking at the radiator, thinking without flames, braziers aren’t worth a god’s damn curse.

              Lieutenant walked into his office. Put his hat on his desk. In the windowpane overlooking the pool, he brushed a hand over his hair. The pond was so far away that only a shadow of the bridge, stretched from one edge of the pond to the other, and not resembling any birds, could be distinguished.

             The swan’s file was on his glass-top desk. The fan in the pink niche had its back to the winter and to the window. Lieutenant sat down at his desk and, like all the other days, puckered his face the chair screeched. He stared at the ringing phone for so long the sergeant finally picked it up.

           “The mayor, sir.”

           Lieutenant took the receiver.

           “Yes. Speaking. Of course . . . no . . . he’s been arrested . . . yes . . .”

           “You’re absolutely right . . . the swan belonged to us all . . . right away, I’ll assign officers to patrol the pond . . . rest assured. And you have a pleasant day, sir.”

The officer shouted when he hung up: Bring him in, sergeant.

           Morteza walked in wearing his winter jacket with buttons undone. He had his handcuffed hands palms-up in front of him. It looked as if he was offering a handful of air in the room to someone. He had the eyes of someone not yet used to the darkness; or of someone who looked at sudden spark of many lights at once. His mouth opened and shut like a fish just caught; he breathed noisily like someone in a deep sleep.

                 “Sit down!”

           Morteza sat on the nearest chair. Lieutenant asked: Are you hungry?

           Morteza said: No . . . but yes, now that you mention it, I think yes, I am.

           Lieutenant opened the swan’s thin file. Morteza listened to the siren of an ambulance, faraway, shrieking, and driving further away.

           Lieutenant said: Well? You were saying…

           Morteza said: Me? No, I wasn’t saying anything.

           Lieutenant said: Did you want to sell the swan . . . or eat it?

           Morteza said: Sell the swan? Me? Eat the swan?

           Lieutenant: They’ve seen you. What you did was cruel. Didn’t you kill the swan?

          Morteza: Yeah, it looks like it . . . yeah . . . I killed it, just so, how can I say . . . suddenly I saw its corpse in on my hands.

That morning, when Morteza stepped out of the bus, after twenty years, and set foot on the ground of his hometown, the smell of tea fields reached his shirt from the open collar of his winter jacket. Even though it was cold, and the air tasted like rain, he chose to walk to the motel. He kept busy, reading graphite on the walls. A young soldier smiled from a funeral photo. From inside a window, a man was overheard saying his prayers. Morteza reached the motel, rang the bell, and extended his finger to ring again when an old man, sleepy, opened the door and grunted.

                Yeah? What is it?

           Morteza said: Do you have vacant rooms?

           The old man said: Rooms? What rooms?

           Morteza lifted his head to look at the sign, Iran Motel, and said: I thought it was a motel.

          The old man said: It was, buddy, it was! And shut the door. Across the street, the clattering of washing teacups and saucers was heard. Morteza walked into the teahouse.

          Lieutenant asked: Why did you go to the pond?

          Morteza said: I didn’t want to go to the pond. I was heading to A’saed Hosein, to the cemetery. There are new streets in town, so I couldn’t find A’saed Hosein. So, I asked a lady who’d just bought bread . . .

          The woman poked the hand holding Sangak from under her chador and pointed at the white edges of a street at the end of which morning and snow were bunched together.

When he got to the corner of that street, he heard the swans. He turned and saw the lights around the pond burning indolently, thinking there remained a bit of the night.

             The pond was the same breadth and length it was twenty years ago, but they had run a fence around it. It looked different, looked shabby, and save for the reflection of the lamp posts, nothing was on the surface of water . . . but yes, the sky was there too, only it was so clouded couldn’t be distinguished.

Lieutenant said: So where were the swans?

               Morteza said: On the other side . . . I was on this side; they were on the other side.

The pond was vacant, only Morteza’s footwear was treading on snow. The water couldn’t be heard. Every step of the way, benches sat by the pond; snow didn’t let one see whether they were of wood, stone, or concrete. Morteza hurried up. He even ran for a few steps.

Lieutenant said: Why were you running?

               Morteza said: Because I could hear my own footsteps coming from behind . . . I liked it . . . it’s been years since I walked ahead of myself like that, and besides, I didn’t run more than a few steps. Maybe from your desk, for example, to that window. That’s not running really, is it?

He looked at the sergeant who was taking notes.

Sergeant said: Sir, should I write that, too?

               Lieutenant said: One can’t figure out what anyone says. . . or wants nowadays.

                Morteza was facing the window, keeping quiet. The glass panes sweated; one could write souvenirs and date it, over the fog. Lieutenant remained quiet until Morteza returned his gaze. Meanwhile he thought if this old man was killed – instead of the flesh and bones inside that coat, there would be a swan sitting on the chair in front of me – how old was he anyway.

                  He said: It’s easier to talk with a swan.

                  Sergeant said: What did you say, sir?

                  Morteza heard a door open. He saw a white cup on a tray float towards Lieutenant. As soon as the tray bearer placed the tray on the desk, Lieutenant motioned for him to take the cup to Morteza. The cup took off from atop the desk and the tea-orchards took a trip around the room. Morteza’s throat felt like sandpaper. A cough was trapped in his gullet. Dreaming of a few seconds later when he’d gulp down the hot tea and light a cigarette, he forgot about the pond, the swan, and his hands trapped in the handcuffs.

                   Lieutenant said: Take off his handcuffs, sergeant.

                   The light bulb was hanging down the ceiling, upside down in the teacup. The sugar cube stayed white even after melting in his mouth. As the hot tea went down Morteza traced his own throat, ribcage, and a patch of his stomach. Right after the last drop he drew a match for his cigarette and closed his eyes on his first drag.

                    Lieutenant, asked the sergeant, what did they do with the swan?

                    Sergeant said: It’s in the parking lot, in a plastic bag.

                    Lieutenant: What did you kill it with? I am talking to you!

                    Morteza, from behind a screen of smoke, said: With the oar . . . I think with the oar . . . I don’t know.

                    Lieutenant said: What do you mean you don’t know?

                    Morteza said: The pond was full of oil . . . full of gasoline.

To look closer at the swans, Morteza had to walk halfway around the pond. There was a boat upside down on the snow. A man, somewhere between the pond and the road was kicking at the tire of a tractor-trailer; every couple of minutes he puffed his hot breath into his cupped hands. The trailer’s hood was lifted, innards of a toolbox was laid on the snow. A broken jar – brake oil, maybe – floated neck high in the pond. Gasoline, like vomit, oozed out of the plastic gas cans fallen by the fence, were mixed with the water. Water was greasy. Oil glided over tiny waves. Gray and purple rings of gasoline expanded more and more. Morteza saw the swan when he was looking at the grime on the surface of water. Lieutenant remembered a bird he had seen on TV dragging itself out of the slime, crawling on its chest on the sand after the oilwells of the Persian Gulf were blown up. He couldn’t remember what kind of a bird . . .

                 Morteza said: And then, I . . .

                 Lieutenant shouted: Wait. All of you. Keep quiet for God’s sake. Don’t talk.

He turned around and through the windowpane, looked again at the pond and at the long bridge thrown itself on the pond. Sergeant wondered whether to look at lieutenant’s thin shoulders, or at Morteza, or at the shiny edge of the hat on the desk. The heat in the room clashed with the snowfall outside. Lieutenant undid a button on his uniform and, without turning his head, said: Well?

Morteza pointed his finger at his own chest and whispered to the sergeant: Is he talking to me?

                  Sergeant nodded.

                   Morteza said: I waved my hands towards the swan and yelled, “Don’t come closer, for the love of God, don’t come closer.” But either swans can’t hear or that one didn’t. It didn’t see me at all. That’s why I went for the boat . . .

While Morteza flips the boat over, pulls it in to the water, and paddles towards the swan, lieutenant paces the room from one end to the other and back. Sergeant struggled to take notes in pace with Morteza.

                “I was nearing the swan by then; oil and gasoline was nearing the bird, too. I forgot I was going to the cemetery. My fingers, round the oar, didn’t hold tight. It was freezing cold. With one oar, I pushed the swan away, pushed him away so he’d go back. He had bent his neck over the water just like a man . . . a man . . . like a man peering at a photo album. I told you; he couldn’t see me. With the pad of the oar, I hit him, hit him again. It took him only a notch away from the greasy water, and then gasoline circled the boat and then . . . gasoline went under the bird’s belly. Now the boat, and I, and all that shit and the swan were thrown together.

              Lieutenant paced the room; sergeant had fallen behind Morteza’s words. The oar was pulled out and pushed into the water again. The swan made splashes. Morteza bent out of the boat, stretched his hands out to the swan.

Suddenly, I hugged him and pulled him into the boat, whether I was holding him by the wings or the neck, I don’t remember. I pulled him up on my lap; he struggled so hard my clothes got dripping wet. My winter jacket reeks of oil . . . see, I smell like a wick all over!

Lieutenant stopped walking. He stood behind Morteza and Morteza said with outstretched hands: Only then did I notice his corpse was lying in my hands . . . his body in my arms his head on the floor of the boat . . . floor of the boat . . . floor of the boat . . .

Outside of police headquarter rain started.

                Morteza’s face was wet.

                Rain filled a boat lying by the pond.

                Lieutenant said: Now, why are you crying?

                Morteza said: I am not, it’s my eyes; I’ve had cataracts for some time.

               The phone rang. Sergeant picked it up. Lieutenant snapped: Put it down, sergeant.

               Morteza wiped his face with the palm of his hand. In the police headquarters’ parking lot, the swan, inside a plastic bag, didn’t even know he was dead. The pond didn’t know one swan was missing. Lieutenant mumbled.

               Sergeant said: Sir?

               Lieutenant said: I said, let him go.

Morteza left the room. In the outskirts of the city, a tractor-trailer honked at the ducks crossing the road. Horrified, the flock scampered across.

Bijan Najdi

Translated by Saghi Ghahraman

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