Soldiers Fight Better without Hope

You stroll toward the river, and you realize that the city has started a new game. The river is big, serene, and cold, and you feel the steam from your breath on your face. You’re hungry and empty. You walk along the river toward Si-o-Seh Pol. The bridge’s stone abutments are resting on their own shadows on the water, and through its row of thirty-three uniform brick arches, you can see the cloudy sky. The first time you crossed the bridge’s lower walkway, you were sixteen. You liked to imagine that the labyrinthine brick porticos were a kind of gateway through time so that, when you stepped from one to the next, you turned into a different person. Seventeen years have passed since that day, and it’s no longer strange that you have become a different person. You play with the empty cigarette packet at the bottom of your overcoat pocket and think of the photos of that other man, the photos you saw this morning on the wall of that light-filled bedroom. The big fountain in the middle of the river is still working, and the white column of water is still tumbling down in an arc in the wind. And you still like to think that these labyrinthine arches on the water are gateways and that, as you pass through them, lost memories will shift around in your mind, images and faces will change, and people you once knew will turn into other people.

At sixteen, traveling by bus to a city you’ve never seen seemed like an attractive adventure. You were looking out of the bus window; the ridged mountains around the city blazed in the winter sun. You had your set of beliefs about life; in your rucksack, you had a novel by Arthur C. Clarke that told a tale of Earth being taken over by creatures from outer space and a collection of poems by Mehdi Akhavan Sales, whose verses spoke of profound human hopelessness. When the bus entered Esfahan, you were profoundly happy. You kept telling yourself that a hopeful life is only possible when you are unencumbered by hope. This was the gist of Akhavan’s poetry. His collection of poems had remained in your rucksack from when you were in the eighth grade. You thought again about Mitra and your final break-up the previous week on the banks of the artificial lake in Park-e Shahr. It seemed heartless that neither of you had felt any urge to cry, even for an instant. You’d now added to your set of beliefs a new belief, that love is like an iceberg: if you collide with it just after it has broken off and begun to drift in the ocean, it can sink a big ship, but later it shrinks so much that you can put it in the palm of your hand and watch it disappear.

You stepped out of the bus and were invigorated by the fresh, freezing air. You headed for the taxi stand. The fact that you did not resemble any other sixteen-year-old boy, were traveling alone, had escaped in one piece from a bitter break-up, and knew the world’s secrets filled you with glee. You climbed into a taxi and asked to be dropped off at Si-o-Seh Pol. You arrived on time. The last rays were shining on the bridge’s towering walls, and the reflections of the crimson arches on the ancient river were losing color as darkness spread under them. You tossed your rucksack over your shoulder and headed toward the shadows under the bridge. As you passed underneath the first arch, you realized for the first time that cities can play games with people. On the other side of the arch, a girl was standing at the foot of one of the abutments, looking at the water as it flowed from the light of the dusk sky to the shadow of the bridge. She was standing exactly where you had been meaning to stand. One of her cotton sneakers had an orange shoelace, and the other, a light blue one. She lifted her head and looked at you. Then she stared back at the dark water under her legs and said:

–Do you think it’s possible to cross over through the water?

Instantly, you stepped into the river. It flowed quick and cold. You tried to stay upright on the smooth, slippery stones. The girl was looking at you, amazed. Her eyes were bright gray, or that’s how they appeared at dusk. When you reached the other side of the arch, you realized that an iceberg had broken off in the ocean and begun to drift …

You play with the empty cigarette packet at the bottom of your overcoat pocket and think of the photos of that other man, who drowned three years ago at midnight. A narrow stretch of shiny seashells glowed on the dark sand in the moonlight. The barefoot man passed over them and moved slowly into the sea … You throw the empty cigarette packet into a waste bin and stop near the bridge’s stone abutments. In the deep bit in the middle of the river, freezing ducks have huddled together in a white mass. In between the distant trees on the other bank, shadowy figures stroll through the thin fog. Over the past seventeen years, you’ve had enough time to discover new secrets about the world: love may be like an iceberg, but even if it’s only floating in your mind, it can still sink a real ship after so long. You sit on one of the metal chairs near the bridge’s stone causeway and order a hot, thick soup. After the time you spent in that small apartment overlooking the river, with the orange sheets, you’re empty inside. You need warming up. The temperature has dropped, and the fog hides half the bridge and, now and then, the other bank.

This morning, when you noticed that someone was following you, the air was clearer. Before the hotel restaurant opened for breakfast, you stepped out for a walk in the city’s streets in the morning hush. The shops around Naqsh-e Jahan Square were just beginning to open their shutters. The square was filled with light, and its vastness was dizzying. On the horizon, at the other end of the square, Masjid Shah’s blue dome and minarets blazed in the pale sunlight. In the crook of a portal, you drew a hand over bricks that had become worn-down and black over the centuries. Along the square’s pedestrian walkway, you strolled past the leisure carriage horses as they nodded off in the winter sun. You took out the half-full cigarette packet from your overcoat and searched for the lighter in the other pocket. Life was slowly starting to stir in Naqsh-e Jahan Square when you sensed that you were being followed. You looked behind you. A young woman quickly turned her head and gave the impression of looking in the window of an antique shop. You stopped and looked at the enamelwork, goblets, and vases in another shopfront. The woman didn’t move. You started off again, and she followed you. Ahead, the sun was shining through the clouds on the black pillars of the tall portico of Ali Qapu’s palace, above your line of vision. You stopped and glanced back. The woman’s eyes were still fixed on you. They did not resemble the gray eyes of seventeen years ago. Whoever it was, it was not her, the girl whose face you’d only seen in the final moments before sunset, the girl with the different-colored shoelaces. You still remember clearly how the sky was darkening quickly. You were standing in front of her, and your toes were growing numb in the water. You said:

–Would you like us to cross over like this together, under the bridge?

The girl laughed and eagerly took your hand. You moved along the lower walkway from one domed, four-columned archway to the next. Then to the next, and the next. The cold water had soaked your trousers and hers to above the knees. You told her that building the bridge this high was a trick used to reduce the water pressure on the abutments, and that you liked to think that as you passed through each archway, you would turn into a new person. The girl laughed and squeezed your hand tighter …

You took another cigarette out of the packet. You walked past Masjid Shah’s massive doorway and the big stone pillars of the gateway to its ancient polo field. The young woman was still walking behind you and staring at you. On your third visit to Esfahan, in a covered bazaar, you saw the reflection of a woman’s eyes in an antique shop window. She was standing next to you and looking at a set of engraved goblets. You were breathing in the cold, bitter scent of her perfume. The woman headed toward the closed end of the bazaar, and you followed her. You were twenty-one. You were certain that you didn’t know this woman, but following her among the multicolored goods hanging along the shops’ entrances eased a needless sorrow …

The woman was following hard on your heels. After smoking four cigarettes on an empty stomach, you were feeling nauseous. Life is a joke that sometimes makes you take it seriously in a frightening way. You considered stopping and asking her what she wanted from you, but you kept walking. Asking is against the rules. Seventeen years ago, too, you had thought the rules of the game determined that, on the other side of the river, you would stand face-to-face with the gray-eyed girl under the last archway, silently. In the wintry river, you could no longer feel your legs below the knees. It had grown dark, and you couldn’t see the color of her shoelaces under the water. You were holding her hands. The water was rushing between your ankles. The memory of brushing the lips of a gray-eyed girl, even at sixteen and in the labyrinth of an ancient bridge’s pillars, would fade were it not woven into and altering with the architecture of the city. When the girl drew her hands out of yours and laughingly climbed the steps to the bank, you thought you would find her again the following morning amid the pillars and archways. With your heavy rucksack, you headed for the small hostel where you’d reserved a room. You showered and read Akhavan Sales: A group of shackled people turn a huge boulder in order to read the secret written on its other side. But on the other side, too, they find the same phrase: “Turn me, and thou willst discover my secret on the other side!” You thought that this must be another game, with its own rules: turning a huge boulder to read a secret that doesn’t exist. The next morning, you had breakfast at the hostel and went back to Si-o-Seh Pol, but you didn’t know who to look for. You walked back and forth a few times through the short passageways at each end of the bridge. You’d gaze at people’s faces, searching for gray eyes. A girl with a blue rucksack looked familiar from behind. You followed her all the way across the bridge. The girl suddenly stopped and looked at you in surprise. Then she turned and walked away …

At the end of Naqsh-e Jahan Square, you stopped again and played with the lighter at the bottom of your pocket. The young woman was closer now. You could smell her warm, sweet perfume. You strolled toward Chehel-Sotun Palace and didn’t look behind you anymore. You wondered if the city had changed the rules of the game yet again. You walked through the old plane trees toward Chehel-Sotun’s portico, its roof visible above the tall trees. The reflections of the crimson columns and the mirror-works above the palace’s entrance trembled on the pool’s green water. Already seventeen years ago, as you roamed around Esfahan, you realized that you were strolling around a city of mirror-works and reflections: bridges reflected on a serene river; twenty crimson columns mirrored by twenty columns on a pool’s surface; domes reflected in the pool in the middle of Naqsh-e Jahan Square; and the image of two gray eyes reflected only in your mind. You climbed the steps to the palace’s main portico and passed in between the seated stone lions, with the wooden, crimson columns resting on their backs. In front of a big depiction of a battle scene covering the wall all the way up to the high ceiling of the palace’s central hall, you became certain that the rules of the game had changed. In the display window of a cabinet containing three ancient swords, you saw the eyes of the young woman standing beside you.

–Is it you?

You looked at her, dazed. This is exactly what you had wanted to ask her. You probed her big, black, moist eyes. They showed no signs of that gray color at dusk. You said, softly:


She stared at you silently. Then she lowered her head and went toward the grand hall. You caught up with her on the palace’s portico.

–Who am I supposed to be?

–It’s not you … Your voice is different.

Your voice was different from someone else’s; just like this young woman’s eyes, which were different from those gray eyes. The woman walked past the stone lions and the long, crimson columns and went toward the portico’s stairs. You went with her, and she walked more slowly. You both stopped at the edge of the palace’s big pool, next to the stone statues of naked, music-playing girls. Your reflections trembled side by side on the water’s green surface.

–Now that I look closely, I see that you don’t even look like him.

You didn’t look like that other man, the young woman’s lost husband; the man who, three years ago, passed barefoot over the shiny seashells, pressing on into the sea’s dark, gentle waves, so that the woman gradually stopped hearing his laughter-filled voice as he spoke of the pleasure of swimming at night. The woman was still lying on the damp, black sand, looking at the picture of the moon on the bottle that her husband had finished drinking a few minutes ago … You asked the woman’s permission and lit a cigarette … You didn’t look like that other man enough to be mistaken for him, but today, in the pale morning light, when you were drawing your hands over the bricks in the crook of that ancient portal, you were, inevitably, that other man; the man who made a habit of drawing his left hand over that same portal’s bricks, with the woman watching him in enjoyment …

The soup is hot, thick, and tasty. It fills you and warms you. The fog on the other side of the river has lifted, and the people strolling along the bank can be seen clearly. For a moment, the sun shines on Si-o-Seh Pol. The shiny reflections of the brick archways appear briefly on the water and then sink into the fog again. The river continues to flow through the gaps between the bridge’s abutments … In the morning, when you crossed the river with the young woman along the bridge’s upper walkway, it occurred to you that people fall into one of two groups: those who spend their whole lives waiting and those who play. The woman said she could show you the other man’s photos. The light from the clouds was shining on the river’s broad surface. From the window of the woman’s apartment, too, you could see the sky’s reflection on the water. The woman showed you the photos she had taken with her husband three years earlier. In the last photo of his life, the man is standing under an orange tree wearing a broad-rimmed, crimson hat, fanning skewered pieces of chicken on a barbecue. He’s smiling, but he’s not looking at the camera. In one corner of the picture, there’s a glimpse of the sea. You saw the plates that the couple had used for their meals and a bed with orange sheets in a room that looked out onto the riverbank. You were surprised by the color of the sheets. They were soft and comfortable. The woman opened the curtains and the bed was bathed in light. She said:

–You don’t mind the light?

–No, leave them open.

… In the light, the clouds shone. The thin fog filled the space between the arches. The clouds’ shadows passed over the wavy, orange sheets and, somewhere over the desert’s bare mountains, it was snowing … Wrapped in the orange sheets, the woman played with your hair and kissed you. And as she climaxed, a few moments before finishing, she suddenly cried. Her tears moistened your lips. Then, you saw that she was smiling. You thought about the iceberg floating in your mind, and you told the woman she had beautiful hands.

–Do you want me to show you our wedding album?

You looked at the woman’s profile as she was still smiling, looking toward the ceiling, and you said that you’d like to see her wedding album. You were empty inside, and you felt light on the sheets. On the opposite wall, there were two photos of the man and the woman. In one of them, both were standing underneath the arches of Si-o-Seh Pol, holding hands. Their jeans were wet to above the knees. In the other, the woman was wearing a pink, open-collared lace dress, smiling at the camera. You suddenly remembered that the novel you’d read by Arthur C. Clarke was called Childhood’s End. Then you showed the woman a picture of your daughter, and she said:

–She has beautiful gray eyes.

You said that your ex-wife and daughter had left Iran nine months earlier and that you hadn’t seen them since. You went to the bathroom, showered, and looked at your reflection in the mirror above the sink. Contrary to what the woman thought, you did look like the other man: the same lips, the same cheekbones. It was as though you were seeing yourself in a mirror for the first time …

The huddled ducks shift about in the gentle current. You search for another cigarette at the bottom of your overcoat’s deep pocket, but you don’t find anything. It’s cold, and the joint in your left leg has swollen up again. You call the boy selling the hot soup under an archway and leave the money for the soup plus a tip on the table for him. You climb the steps to the bridge’s entrance. The long path across the bridge stretches into the distance between the two rows of uniform arches. You haven’t checked out of the hotel yet. As you were leaving the woman’s apartment, you said that you might be coming back to Esfahan in a few months’ time and that you would visit her. You look at the laughing girls who pass by. One of them has gray eyes; another is wearing white cotton sneakers with orange shoelaces. The broad, shiny surface of Zayandeh-Rud, reflecting the cloudy sky at dusk, is a deep gray. You head for the other bank underneath the arches along the bridge’s walkway, and your reflection passes over the water below.

Translated from the Persian by Nilou Mobasser (1959-2012)

Alireza Mahmoudi Iranmehr is a Tehran-based writer and literary critic.
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