The Final Release
At nine in the morning, when Dara turned his vehicle down his grandmother’s alley, he felt turmoil permeating the neighbourhood. It was going to be another sizzling day in that excruciating time of the year when the sun curves closest to the earth. A few birds flying from electric poles to the palm tree flapped their wings more hastily than usual. Under the palm tree opposite his grandmother’s house where Dara always parked his car, an army of ants were attacking the melting dates that had fallen from the tree. Waving a hand to greet the few neighbours who walked briskly about, Dara stopped the car under the shifting shade of the palm tree, covering the steering wheel with a wet cloth. When he got out of the car, he could sense chaos in the alley, realizing that even the roosters crowed with an unprecedented sense of urgency. He tried to ignore his instincts by rapping the shining bronze knocker on the wooden door in a jolly rhythm.
“Which one of you is this?” answered Zari, the septuagenarian widow who was still as quick as a sparrowhawk.
“It’s Dara, Grandma! Open!” He wiped a greasy layer of dirt and sweat off his forehead with a finger, wiping it on his flannel pants.
“Thank God you are here, darling. Hold on, I’m coming. Don’t take off your shoes.”
Zari’s voice echoed amid a rattling sound through the old wooden door.
Her children and grandchildren were used to her habit of asking them to run errands for her before letting them inside. She hoarded groceries, so as her reserves shrank, she became increasingly anxious and bitter. Everybody knew her behaviour was due to the recurring periods of war and famine she had witnessed, so they helped her to feel safe by piling up food, far more than a single person could consume even over several months.
Opening the door, Zari appeared with an oilskin army bag that used to belong to Dara’s father, who had lost his life during the war.
“Are we going to war?” Dara chuckled, but when he realized how pale his grandmother was, he changed his tone. “What’s wrong, Grandma?”
“Open it wide and hold on tight until I return, son.” Zari, who had always been incapable of talking about her emotions, handed the bag to Dara and went back inside without kissing him.
Dara thought of following her to see what was going on, but he knew his disobedience would upset the old woman. Trying to find the opening of the green army bag, he guessed what the problem might be but refused to entertain the thought. Once he opened the bag, he smelled the aroma that, as a child, he used to smell on his father’s clothes each time he got back from the front. Contemplating these remote memories, he heard a mewing followed by the roaring of his grandmother. Although the tension was making his heart race, he tried to remain optimistic about what was going on behind the door.
When Zari emerged again, she was holding Rostam under her arm with rage running like thin blood under her skin. Rostam was a twelve-year-old, odd-eyed white cat, a hybrid Turkish angora and Persian who had been living with Zari since he was a kitten. Seeing the struggling cat with her, he realized why he had sensed chaos before. The cat was all Zari talked about after the passing of her husband, Hooshang, so it wasn’t surprising to see this creature as the reason behind her joys and sorrows. However, although the old woman was known for her love-hate relationship with the cat, Dara had never seen the two of them this disturbed.
“Give me a hand, instead of just standing there like a rock with eyes.” Zari never spoke to
Dara like that.
Putting the cat in the bag, Zari tied the opening with a rope she pulled out from under her shirt. Feeling relieved to be detached from the old woman’s arms, Rostam settled calmly into the bag, but seconds later, in the darkness, he began to scream like an infant separated from its mother.
“Why are you looking at me like this, Dara? Let’s go.” Zari grabbed the heavy bag and shuffled her feet toward Dara’s car.
“Where are we going, Grandma?” Dara was puzzled.
“Get in the car, get in. Can’t you see how he’s wriggling?”
Zari got in the car, put the bag between her shaky feet, redid the knot of her scarf, and held the rope over the opening of the bag firmly in her skinny hand. As they drove through the maze of narrow adobe alleys, neither of them looked nor spoke to one another.
When the car passed over the first bump in the road, Dara looked at his grandmother and saw tears running down her cheeks. Not daring to ask any questions, he breathed heavily as he aimlessly passed through the narrow monochrome alleys that deepened the blueness of the clear sky. The old woman cried quietly as Rostam moaned like a wildebeest in the bag. Amid her tears, Zari sometimes mouthed a curse at Rostam, asking him to be quiet, and sometimes patted him lovingly through the oilskin bag.
When they arrived at the town’s only park, which exhibited a monkey who smoked cigarettes, a pair of peafowl, and a couple of ducks in a stinky pond, an old pickup truck with a couple of sheep on the back made a careless swerve in front of them. Dara rolled down his window, popped his head out and released all his accumulated frustration on the old pickup driver.
“You should ride a donkey!” Dara’s words came out louder that he expected.
“I wouldn’t want to be riding you,” the pickup driver retorted immediately.
“Watch your language, old man,” Dara said in a bitter tone.
“If I’m not beating you right now, it’s out of respect for the old lady sitting next to you.” The driver of the truck put his foot down, making the sheep in the back of the pickup bleat madly in unison.
The incident broke the silence between Dara and his grandmother, and finally Zari began to speak.
“The bastard has driven me crazy.” Zari moved the bag between her feet.
“What do you mean, Grandma?” Dara asked cautiously, not wanting to say anything that might discourage her from talking more.
“The cat has totally lost his mind. He’s been jumping at all the mirrors in the house. He darts around breaking all the glassware in sight.”
Dara remained silent.
“He has totally gone crazy. I don’t feel safe living with him anymore. Look how many scratches he has given me,” Zari said as she rolled up her sleeve.
Looking at the scars on the old woman’s arms, Dara remembered the days after his grandfather’s death when Rostam had decided to act like a wildcat, killing the pet cockatiel in a fit of rage, making Zari send him into exile in the shed for a couple of days.
“What are you planning to do now, Grandma?” Dara asked, with his eyes still fixed on the road. “Are we taking him to the vet?”
“A vet? Do you have any idea how expensive that can get? Plus, I don’t think the cat is salvageable. Once a cat is crazy, it stays crazy.” She paused for a moment and continued. “I’m going to release him.”
“But where? Are you sure he can survive on his own?”
“I have thought about that. We should release him where there is a reliable source of food. Nobody wants to keep a crazy cat at home, so I can’t offer him to anyone. This is the only option we have.” The old woman wiped the tears off her soft, wrinkly cheeks.
When they arrived at the town’s only hotel, a potential site for Rostam’s release, Zari realized that the hotel was not as popular as she imagined. After all, it was the hottest season of the year, when no tourists would be setting foot in the sizzling town. Giving up on the deserted hotel, Zari asked Dara to drive to a restaurant on the main street where perhaps they could gamble on the customers’ lack of appetite and the generosity of the restaurant’s owner.
When they arrived, however, they saw a big stray dog rummaging through a pile of garbage out front. Exchanging a glance with his grandmother, Dara rolled up his window and drove away.
They proceeded until they reached the Zoroastrian Tower of Silence that, in the old days, had been very far from the town, but had become part of it in the recent waves of construction.
Seeing the volcano-like tip of the tower, Dara slowed down to study the area more carefully. However, when his grandmother saw the modern-looking cemetery built near the tower, she would not even allow Dara to pull over. She didn’t want Rostam running around with her fellow citizens’ bones in his mouth.
Having driven past the last of the residential buildings, they reached a bare road stretched under the sun that imposed occasional mirages on the asphalt. Zari kept patting the cat under the bag, while Dara rubbed his bare arms, which were burning under the merciless sun. If the two of them had one thing in common with the cat in the bag, it was that they didn’t know where the road was leading them.
Some ten miles out of town, the old woman noticed a walled orchard on the right side of the road. Deeming the place as ideal for Rostam’s release, Dara parked opposite a big blue door. Over the wall, he could see a cluster of red pistachios among the dark green leaves. Zari studied the place through the window for a while, then got out of the vehicle with the bag in her hand and skepticism in her eyes. Casting sweeping looks around, she put the bag on the ground and untied the rope cautiously. When Rostam came out, he looked nothing like the docile, timid cat Dara knew. He resembled a fierce tiger who had just lost a cub to a pack of wolves. After taking a moment to reorient himself, he lashed out at the back of the old woman’s hand and ran up the short wall.
From the edge of the wall, Rostam gave Zari and Dara a nasty look, turning his big furry tail around his body without moving from his spot. He sat down and began licking himself with no apparent care about his surroundings. Stung by the painful scratch on her hand, Zari glared back at Rostam, picking up a stone to throw at him. She was about to toss it when the big blue door opened and an old man emerged from the garden.
“How can I help you?” the man asked in an unwelcoming tone.
“We were, we were here to, to—.” Dara stumbled over his words as he looked at the old man’s dirty work clothes and rough hands.
“We were releasing a cat in your orchard.” Zari stepped forth.
“Why would you release your cat here?” The old man had not expected to hear such an answer.
“We weren’t able to keep it anymore. Are you saying you don’t have room for a small cat in your spacious garden?”
“God’s earth is vast. You could release him anywhere. I don’t have anything against it if you pick this place. He won’t be the only cat here, but the thing is, I’ve heard that when a domestic cat is taken away, it eventually comes back to where it lived before.” The old man brushed some dust off his shirt as he talked.
“It doesn’t make any sense. We’ve come a long way. There is no chance the cat will ever find his way back,” Dara said. He was about to thank the farmer before his grandmother interrupted him.
“His name is Rostam. I thought you might want to know, now that he’s here with you. Have a nice day, sir,” she said, then returned to the car.
Through the windshield, they saw the old man closing the big blue door behind him as Rostam sluggishly walked toward the far end of the wall and disappeared behind the tops of the pistachio trees.
On the way home, Zari cried quietly while Dara listened to the rattle of his car on the bumpy road and tried not to think about anything. The car stank so much of the cat that he had to roll down the window, even though it let out the cool of the air-conditioner. The old woman coughed and coughed between her long sessions of sobbing and sniffling as they drove back to the house, passing by the cemetery, the restaurant, the hotel, and finally through the maze of narrow adobe alleys downtown. As they reached Zari’s house, Dara could feel that nothing would be the same after that trip, but he chose not to speak about it.
The next few days were extremely tough for the old woman. She was agonized by the continuing series of coughs that began the moment they drove away from the cat. Her life had been narrowed into short, torturing intervals between the coughs that shook her frail body. Dara thought there must be some kind of link between the cat scratch and her coughs, but a medical checkup the next day proved him wrong, and Zari was sent back home with only cough medicine and a few tranquilizers.
Two days after the release of the cat, Zari asked Dara to take some food for Rostam at the garden. Busy, and unwilling to drive in the tormenting heat, Dara declined by reassuring her that there was plenty of natural food for Rostam in the big garden. If the cat failed to find his own food, Dara added, the old man wouldn’t allow him to starve. Although the argument didn’t please Dara himself, Zari stopped insisting.
By the third day, Zari was overwhelmed by a devastating feeling of shame for what she had done to her pampered cat. She couldn’t take the coughs, which continued to torment her, any longer. Dara felt the same, so when he went to visit his grandmother in the morning, they agreed to take a trip to the pistachio orchard to check on the crazy, exiled cat.
Parking opposite the big blue door, they observed a group of men loading a truck with large bags of fresh pistachios. The bitter scent of the squashed soft, pink pistachio peels was in the air. The men had covered their faces with a checkered cloth to protect themselves from the sunshine and the allergens in the crops. Dara and Zari were not able to find the old man among them, so they went to speak to one of the loaders.
“Good day, sir. I was wondering if you have seen a Persian cat around.” Dara felt intimidated by the masked man.
“A cat?” The man pulled down the cloth over his mouth, showing his thick mustache.
“Yes,” Zari said. “A white, Persian cat with odd eyes, one blue and one gray.” Zari’s coughs interrupted her several times.
“Do you think I look every cat I see in the eyes, madam? Do you think we have time for watching cats here?” He lifted the cloth back over his mouth and returned to the orchard to bring out more bags of pistachios.
Giving up on the loader, Dara and Zari entered the orchard without asking permission. Inside, they realized it was so big that they probably wouldn’t find Rostam even if he was still there. They were desperately looking around when Dara saw the old man emerging from behind a harvested tree.
“You are the people with the cat, right? What made you change your mind then?
Suddenly feeling sorry for him?” the old man asked with a grin.
“Please tell me if you’ve seen my Rostam, sir?” Zari put her hands together, ready to plead with the old man.
“No. Last time I saw it was moments after you left. Didn’t see it again. I’m too busy to look after cats here. It’s harvesting season, as you can see.” He picked a big bunch of pistachios from the tree and offered it to them. “Here, have some fresh pistachios. The crop is exceptionally good this year. You can pick more for yourself if you’d like.”
The man left them, moving on to fill his red basket. After wandering the orchard for a while, Dara and Zari gave up and left.
On the way home, Zari looked around restlessly to see if she could spot Rostam as she continued to cough heavily. Dara nervously opened pistachios with his teeth, piling the shells in an ashtray until they got back home, hopeless and desperate.
Within the next couple of days, Zari almost lost her voice. She felt as if every time she coughed, a chunk of her guts came up in her mouth. Despite her deteriorating health and general weakness, she had set herself the task of boiling the lamb lungs Ali the butcher put aside for her for the stray cats in the alleys. She went out around the neighbourhood, laying out her homemade cat food on sheets of newspaper before noon. Hungry cats left their hiding places to fight each other over those tasty lung chunks. For Zari, it felt like atonement, but for the stray cats in the neighbourhood, it was simply a heavenly offering that they accepted with enthusiasm.
When she was not feeding the strays, she sat on her floral quilt at the corner of her tiny living room, holding her long, marble prayer beads and chanting atonement spells all day. She spent her nights suffering from disturbing nightmares. Once, she dreamed that the old farmer in the orchard had put her in a bag, taking her to the mill where the pistachios were ground. All she had to do to free herself was to tell the old man that she wasn’t a pistachio, but her constant coughs wouldn’t allow her to speak.
Deep down, she was content with the torturous days, because she felt they were deserved. She thought the more she suffered, the sooner the burden would be lifted from her soul. She looked at herself in the mirrors that crazy Rostam had been so desperate to throw himself into, touching the growing wrinkles on her skin and observing with dismay the diminishing flame of life in her eyes. When she recalled how she’d wanted to throw the stone at Rostam on the garden wall, beads of sweat formed on her skin, filling her with an excruciating sense of guilt.
Mani’s morning visits lifted Zari’s spirits a little, but as soon as he left she went back to her cave of agonies, dwelling on the gloomy destiny she had brought upon herself. Dara offered to adopt a new cat for her, but the old woman no longer saw herself as deserving companionship.
On the seventh day after the release of Rostam, the strays in the neighbourhood had figured out exactly where the old woman lived. By the time the sun rose, a group of hungry cats had gathered at her door, howling out of hunger and hope. Zari was lying in bed with her mouth and eyes wide open. The curtains in her living room danced gently in the hot wind that found its way in through a broken window. Zari would no longer have to worry about her coughs, her guilt, or the fate of the cats outside her door.
When Dara came to visit before work, he saw the old woman lying flat on her quilt with her prayer beads in hand. Within an hour, the small house was open to everyone. Neighbours and relatives all appeared, bringing with them the hot air that had been struggling to enter the house for a while. Mournful women swished the floor with their long black veils as they came to bid her farewell. Men quietly sobbed, standing in the corners as their shoulders shook gently. The sound of children playing in the backyard intertwined with the weeping of Zari’s close relatives and friends. Dara cried quietly with his head against the harsh adobe wall, pressing his grandmother’s prayer beads firmly in his fist.
The chanting of mournful religious verses echoed over the neighbourhood. The summer sun didn’t discriminate between old or young, dead or alive, those who have lost somebody or those who have not. It burnt everything without mercy or exception.
Dara was thinking about the narrow width of the muddy alleys that were in most parts smaller than the length of a coffin that was supposed to carry his grandmother. The thought filled him with a deep, sudden sorrow and a pain in his chest. The stray cats, who once again had filled their stomachs with boiled lamb lungs, were full and content. They wouldn’t worry about food anymore if they knew how they had been provided for in the old woman’s will.
A few steps from all the drowsy cats who were now resting on their full stomachs, a white cat curled his tail around his exhausted body, sitting like a member of the royal family under the shade of the palm tree, licking dirt from his body.
Dara doubted at first that this white cat could be Rostam. However, as he walked cautiously toward it, he realized the cat had recognized him. Excited and aghast, he bent down and invited it into his open arms. When he felt the warmth of that familiar body against his chest, he recalled what the pistachio farmer had told them. Smiling through his grief, he lifted Rostam and pressed his cheek into his long, dirty fur as tears rolled down the white fur.
As Dara held the heavy cat, ripe, sweet dates dropped from the palm tree with every blow of the warm morning breeze. Mournful melodies could still be heard inside the old woman’s house. Four men stepped through the narrow wooden door, carrying the coffin, eager to ensure that Zari’s funeral not overlap with the peak of the day’s heat. Immersed in the softness of Rostam’s fur, Dara whispered to the cat in a soft, regretful tone as they followed the mourning crowd, “We’re going to release Grandma today.”
About the Writer
Erfan Mojib (MFA, Creative Writing, UNB) has published a number of translated works of fictions to/from English including Reza Ghassemi'sThe Spell Chanted by Lams, Simon Van Booy's Love Begins in Winter and The Illusion of Separateness, as well as Gene Bell-Villada’s García Márquez: The Man and His Work, Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot and Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion. His children’s books have been translated to several languages including Persian, Russian and Chinese. His collection of short stories in Persian is forthcoming from Markaz Press winter 2018. He is the recipient of Tehran School of Art Short Story Award and David Walker Prize for creative writing.