The Moon and the Panther

By: Shiva Moghanloo
Translated by: Shima Elahi
 

I’ve closed my eyes. High speed makes me nauseous, and if it is accompanied by twists and turns, it makes me sicker. A cold evening breeze is blowing on my face, and my mother’s voice fades in the buzz of the funfair – “Merry-go-round makes you nauseous… with this acrophobia you have… it’s dangerous. Don’t go for the ride.”

I know, I’m scared, but I still go for the ride.

The jolly voice of Khatoon, the paramedic of our small mobile medical unit, disembarks me from the merry go round – “Do you see how beautiful it is?”

I can’t see anything beautiful in this darkness except for the color of darkness itself. Everybody is looking at the bumpy road through the front and side windows of the minibus in order to see how long we will be its guest. When I look outside from its side and front glasses, and from its steamy shades in the back, I notice the silhouette of three Top Model Toyota trucks driving next to us, they were packed with young armed men. It is a rally of cars coordinating among themselves and preventing one from overtaking the other. When one recedes, the other precedes, and vice versa. But we are not supposed to be afraid, they are our armed guards.
We have passed the border, and no one is responsible for our security anymore. My purple suitcase is next to the camel colored handbag of our doctor, who is a general practitioner, and it is surrounded by heavy canvas backpacks of our interpreter, and the packages of the rest of passengers are lying at the back of the minibus. It seems they are snoring as well. Although the last row of the bus is wobblier than others, yet it is more comfortable. Sometimes, when a bend appears in the highway, the edges and barbed wires lying next to it lights up. Our interpreter pulls out a packet of melon seeds from the pocket of his overcoat. He offers them to us. The cracking sound of melon seeds has filled the bus. It is night, and no one is sleeping, and there is the anticipation of arrival. The boy who has organized the trip – he is not a professional tourist guide, but you can call him a “conductor” – can’t wait to reach the city. He talks nonstop about the beauty of our destination and the joy that awaits us – a joy that will heal all wounds. It’s, however, the first time he has crossed this border, this conductor of ours. We, the relief team, are endeared guests to him – we are so dear to him that we have been sheltered beneath the security of the bayonets.
Dad says – “Isn’t it a war zone? Have you gone mad? Not a single day goes by without some news about a bomb or grenade explosion, and suicide attacks. Show your philanthropy somewhere else. No, you don’t need to go there…” A little later, he continues – “I don’t know, if you’re not afraid yourself, then you may go.”
I’m afraid, but I still go on this journey.
We haven’t eaten anything after lunch, and now it is night. As a habit, like other fellows, I keep some biscuits and chocolate in my bag. A middle-aged man who is unfamiliar to me, let’s call him a historian, is seated at the back row. He speaks our language beautifully, his style is bookish. Although he is from around here, he was still invited to join us. His peaceful demeanor appears in the way he has reclined, and, in his soft, talkative voice – he does not stop for even a second – he says: “It was a privilege for me to return to my hometown along with your group; a historical treasure lies here, and I can complete my research during the bombardment. We have numerous literary masterpieces about whom other nations don’t know anything, or, if they do know something, their knowledge is very little and shallow. Enchanting tales – what a pity most of them are oral, and they have not been written down. Obviously we haven’t found the time to record them. For example, there is a tale, an ancient one, which, according to one among our historians and scholars, is superior to Shakespeare’s Hamlet… please, just let me… yes, superior in its structure and theme. This story has at least fourteen variants of which I’m going to narrate just one rendition, the one which I think is more beautiful than the rest.”
My eyes are set on the road, but my ears are listening to him.
“Once upon a time, when this land was still a united territory, before these new borders and fragmented provinces came into being, there was a Khan, a mighty ruler, who reigned over this land. He had three young sons, and he owned green valleys, vast pastures, numerous cattle, abundant terrains, and gardens whose oranges were as big as the engorged breasts of the cows in his herd. An order had prevailed in this land, until this Khan decided to arrange his eldest son’s marriage and announce him as his successor to his land and wealth. The heads of their tribe chose a girl who would marry him and bear him a son – one who would be the successor to their dynasty. The Khan’s son is happy with this decision.”
I open a pack of crackers, and offer the first one to our interpreter, then to the conductor, and to the silent journalist who is lying down two rows behind us. Then I offer it to the historian, he picks the whole pack from me, and starts eating them without even looking at me or offering them to anyone else. He continues talking, and nothing is left for me and Khatoon.
“The bride is as beautiful as the sun, beautiful like the long, narrow reeds which tremble gently in the morning breeze of our meadows, like the crack of dawn from behind the high mountains… like the very same mountains which are lying in front of us on the right hand side; they are the emblem for this region.”
When I look to the right, I see the bride with long, untied hair on a saddleless horse, riding next to our minibus, she laughs and waves her whip in the air. The strap of my hat has loosened. I fasten it.
Khatoon is the liveliest of all. She chats and laughs with whoever is sitting next to her. If only I felt like sitting next to them… but I don’t. Being alone, I swallow my anxiety and despair.
My colleague is yelling at someone over the phone – “Why there? Your clinic has invited you, so what? It isn’t worth it even if they were to give you a fortune… you should have told them, “no” … like many others did. You’re insane!”
I tell her that our security is guaranteed, that the city is safe. How can I make her understand that I have come all the way to see things, and to leave things behind, besides the felling of regret would have never left me had I not come here … I could not get snacks to eat, and the chewing gum has become bitter in my mouth. As my eyes get weary of the night and the story, one of the patrol cars suddenly moves in front of us and stops our bus.
Another patrol car closes the road from behind, and the third one – we soon figured out – had gone ahead of us a few minutes ago, our driver has already halted the bus, with a hard brake. The bulletproof car of our hosts who has escorted us from the very moment we crossed the border also stops. Someone come out of the car. The bride doesn’t wait for us though. She keeps riding and vanishes in the dark.
The driver asks us to be calm in a language we don’t understand, so those who have stood up sit down. While one could tell from the whispers in the bus that everybody is scared, we still pretend everything is alright. I have sunk deep into my seat, waiting for whatever is going to happen. The historian is still talking, and his confidence smells like the earnest and righteous kindness of teachers in elementary schools.
“Everybody is happy with their selection of bride, the succession and wedding. They are getting ready. They gather in the Khan’s castle and celebrate. But something strange happens on the day of wedding. The son of Khan who loves hunting and is the best shooter of their tribe, feels the temptation to go out and hunt a fawn. He leaves the house for hunting but never comes back.
No one sees him again, nobody knows what has happened to him… the wedding turns into a mourning, and there are gossips in the air. Some say that Khan’s enemy has kidnapped him, others claim that wolves have eaten him… this region still has wolves, you can hear them howling if you listen carefully. Maybe he didn’t like his bride, maybe he was in love with someone else but didn’t have the guts to say no to his father, and he wanted to run away like this. Maybe he has escaped to some foreign land and he is living there with his beloved wife whom he has loved eternally.”
I listen with greater attention, and I overhear them more clearly. Perhaps there is a howl perching at the end of a meadow, or a hen sitting at the next turn… the conductor is excited, and somehow happy. He says “I really hope something happens here. I love adventures. Have you seen the movie Traffic? That scene in the movie when a police chases the car carrying cocaine?” The white-haired surgeon, the head of our convoy, looks at him kindly. He recites a poem in a whispering voice, I could catch just one phrase in his poem – “the sad traveler”. And then there is someone who get up, there is a noise of someone coughing, and someone is lighting a cigarette – its flame is the only light around us.
Absolute stillness and darkness. We are not allowed to get out of the minibus. They say it’s dangerous. They say it’s safe. There is no danger, but there is danger. The second patrol car also starts driving down the road. The same person whom I saw getting out of our host’s car, is walking up and down the road. I am trying to make sense of his authoritative but inaudible voice and his firm stature.
Someone whispers that a car stationed a few turns away, as if it were waiting for an ambush. No car was supposed to enter his highway today.
Now we are all silent, as if we were conceding to an unsaid agreement. Our taciturn doctor comes forward, and he sits next to my feet on the steps. He rests his head on the bar next to the door and says – “Ernesto, Ernesto.”
“Who is Ernesto?”
“My dog. An ugly wolf dog. I got stuck with him accidentally, he once came to me and he didn’t leave. He sleeps on my blanket at night. Anyway, now I can’t leave him alone.”
Khatoon and a middle aged man, who has been an ambulance-nurse, are whispering among themselves. Both of them are more experienced than us, and they say that it’s not serious situation, unless we hear a gun shot. “Once I went to a mission for a week, I left him at my friend’s place. When I came back, he threw himself at me with such rage that I fell on the floor. My arm was about to break. He was so angry that I had to leave him alone, he is so attached to me.” And it seems that he doesn’t think about anything except Ernesto.
The interpreter plays with his cellphone uselessly. His companions cast a questioning gaze at him, he retorts – “You know cellphones don’t work here.” He murmurs to himself – “I can’t sleep at night if I don’t talk with my two sons every day. We should sit and talk about what ever has happened today. Especially since the older one has engaged recently.” And something shakes the tone of his voice.
I think about your crepe-like lips, and my heart trembles. Since the day I saw you first, my heart has been trembling like this. Now this sensation rises up and it spreads everywhere. I rub my legs together.
The historian is still narrating his story. And I’m wondering about the new lens which the journalist is fixing to his camera – whether it is suitable for the camera, how much light does it need, and how far it can shoot, and what kind of shot it can capture. Meanwhile he says – “I’ve told the agency that this is a personal trip, they shouldn’t expect any photo or report. I’ve come here only to have an experience.” And he cleans the lens carefully.
Khan wants a grandson. Everyone in their tribe is mourning, but life goes on. The bride bears their name, and she must not marry a stranger. Since the elder son is lost, it is advisable that the second son should marry the bride. The wedding ceremony starts again. Young people are playing Choobazi1 and elders are burning espand to ward off the evil eye. They spread a dining-cloth on the damp grass, all of these preparations are made before the beginning of the marriage ceremony.
Musicians tune up their instruments. You know… our local instrument is a tar, like yours, it plays the same melody, but with four strings, it has always been like this. Well, our story goes on like this, the second son doesn’t like the bride, he doesn’t want to marry her at all. He looks at life in a different way. He doesn’t think much about his succession as well. His spirit disdains such shallowness. When the wedding day comes, he leaves the tribe in the morning to go hunting, he too was a competent hunter. Those who still remember the misfortune of last wedding try to stop him, but he beguiles them and tells them he will be back soon.
But he won’t return. He goes to a cave in the mountains, yes… the very same mountain lying on our left side, there is a crypt there where hermits live. I think it’s still like that. We haven’t seen it, but we know they live there. The second son never comes down. “
There is a generous river next to the road which is made up of twists and turns and which has accompanied us since the beginning of this trip. Its waves quiver under the moonlight. There is a faint sound of splashing water. My eyes are used to the dark. I see the bride who is joyfully swimming in the river. Her fair skin appears under the black veil of her hair. She lies on her back and chest, she splashes the water. She has passed on her sorrows to the hands of water.
The old surgeon is thinking about smoking another cigarette. I wish I too had something similarly soothing that I could put in the corner of my mouth. Suddenly the driver gets out of the pilot seat, and he exists without any explanation. And we don’t ask where he is going. We stay alone, along with our panic and sweat, and the tablets and pens in our bags. Then he comes back, he is armed now. I close my eyes… as I open them…when I open them, I witness the most horrifying scene in the world that the most expansive vision could ever accommodate in its sight on the other side of the window. The scene spread like a hive full of wild bees. They sting me. I remember the silhouette of their owner’s face that I saw for a second at the border as well as, a few minutes ago, when he stepped out of his car.
Now I also look at him striding past my window. His authoritative behavior reminds me that there is a high rank officer among our guards. He has been with us all the way. He doesn’t have a gun, or if he has I don’t see it…maybe he has hid it under the long dark rain coat which has fitted his body.
They are frowning, yet they are kidding around with each other. They swing their guns slowly, like when I swing my sunglass while walking on the streets of my city. The bride says – “They will swing their guns till a day comes when the girls of their city can walk freely on the streets. They are waiting for the investigation group to come back and bring news to them. Our conductor murmurs in my ear – “They haven’t eaten or drunk anything, or even taken a seat, from morning till now. It will be the same until we cross the highway. They are men of war. They are used to hunger and cold. Their lives have been like this.” I don’t listen to him anymore.
Other eyes too are set on me. Small eyes and big eyes, but not as big as those eyes of Khatoon. She is worried, she asks me – “Are you ok?”
I tell her honestly – “No.”
She talks, loud and clamorous, from her seat, as if she is talking from her desk in the military headquarters. “Take her hand. It helps in these situations. It gives energy. Hands can do miracle.”
I just say – “You don’t need to.” I know my hands are so cold that they make other hands lifeless. The bride walks next to our minibus. The coins in her headgear jingles, but no one asks her to keep quiet. She smiles at me with a mix of surprise and contempt. This stranger is afraid of night and gun?
The lights of a car coming from the opposite side pours into our eyes. Are they friendly forces or enemies…? In this situation, you don’t look for answers. I haven’t accepted help from anyone, and I don’t have any stamina to think anymore… a few minutes pass by when the door opens swiftly. The same hive gets in and hustles people away. The seat next to mine is empty. He sits there without fear or shame. He takes my hand and says something, whose precise meaning I don’t quite follow, but I still get him. I make sense of his intentions without any need to know the language… like a panther in ambush, he leans forward and say something to the driver. The driver puts his gun aside, starts the minibus, the engine roars and the lights go on. I don’t look at him.
I’ve stepped out of the bus, and I walk through some sparse bushes lying on the bank of the river, hand in hand with the bride. We walk fast and we begin to pant, and I swallow the light breeze. Sometimes I slip, sometimes I stumble, but the bride’s faith in the soil she is walking upon makes me calm. In a language that I understand, she says – “Don’t be afraid of anything in my land. These are normal happenings to us. Guns will never bring back your loved ones. If your man is a gunman, you have to wait all your life. We have always been waiting in this tribe, waiting for our loved ones to come back, even for the bad news to arrive” My body is getting warm. Honey is circulating in my veins. I look at him. I still don’t see his gun, but I’m scared. I wish I could dip my lips in the honey of his eyes, and let myself loose the rest of your memories. I smile at him and gently draw my hand out of his.
The bride laughs aloud.
He hesitates for a second, then he stands up, with a strange, broken accent he says – “Don’t be scared.” Then he goes and sits on the seat next to the driver, and stares at the road… and he remains there and keeps stares at the road until we arrive at the destination.
I can hear a nurse’s voice from somewhere close to me, he knows their language – “Well, thank God, it’s nothing serious. A car was carrying a patient and it breaks down on the way. They had seen its lights. God bless these guys. They’re very careful.” And he points in his direction and says – “Apparently he is to stay with us from now on. He says it’s better not to leave us alone.”
I finally lie back, and I place my hands close to my underarms. I want to preserve its heat which they borrowed a moment ago, until the end of our trip. I can hear the historian’s voice again.
“Well… for the reasons I mentioned, now it’s the third son’s turn to marry the same girl and keep the tribe. How can strangers understand how great of a deal it is for these people to let their tribe continue the generation of their dynastic lines? However, Khan who has been alerted by the last two incidents, decides to join his son for hunting and bring him back after it is over, as this son also insists to shoot a fawn on the wedding day. Long story short, they ask the tribe member to take care of the wedding preparation, leave the bride with beauticians, and go for hunting. This son has blonde hair, and the front part of his hair bore the color of a fragrant and delicate musk of gazelles, and it wavered like the crest of fawns swayed by the wind when they jump around in the valleys. The son searches for the prey amidst the bushes, he appears and disappears; and once he appears, the Khan loses his control of his judgment and mistakes the hair of his son for the gazelle’s crest and he shoots at him. And we know that the Khan never misses a target.
I don’t want to listen anymore. I hold my hands together tighter, I make an excuse for myself that I’m in search of this city’s knowledge, and I lean forward. From here I can only see a part of his profile and sometimes a glow of the honey.
“Well, the story ends here. You see what an incredible tragedy it is… indeed superior to Hamlet. You see that there is not a single female persona in the story, not even a word or an action from a woman. It’s all by men about men. How beautiful.”
Now the bride, the everlasting virgin, sits next to me and opens the buttons of her vest carelessly and rubs her shoulder. There is a large green gemstone in the middle of her vest’s filigrees. How sad that her dream hasn’t come true after all these centuries. She points to the bullet wound on her left shoulder. The light in the green gemstone dances.
I’ve come here to stop thinking, and to let myself forget whatever anxiety and hope I harbored about the crepe-like lips of yours and mortar bombs. I’ve surrendered myself to the fast, honeyed waves of the river running next to us endlessly.
After the last turn in the road, the city-lights run invariably over the landscape of the valley, and along comes the happiness on everyone’s faces. The city is safe, safer than the highway we had just crossed. Now the road moves fast, and streets faster. I don’t look at them, hoping they don’t pass so fast. The driver slows down in front of an old motel’s garden since its back part has run down… passengers cheer. We get out of the minibus, and he gets out before everyone else. We look around, there is an order for the men, and he places a hand in his hair… and he waits for all of us to get out. The conductor pulls his bag on the grass carelessly “from now on, soldiers – local guides will accompany us, we should tell them if we have any problems. Oh gosh! What a hotel! Hurry up, or there is no dinner left.”
It seems we are done. We have reached a place of safety and peace. They carry the bags, and someone may bring my luggage to the hotel as well. But the bride doesn’t come with us. She steps backward with her gazing eyes. Where will she rest on her wedding night?
His eyes look in all directions but not at me. He doesn’t pay attention to me anymore. I feel relieved. The late night’s cold breeze reminds me of life, and we hope to move forward. The white cobblestones end in front of an open glass door, and we go in.
There is the excitement of our companions… there are questions for the local people… they are calling home… when will they finish all of this? We wander around till they send us to our rooms in the hotel. He gives his last orders, assigns two guards for us, runs his finger through his hair and gets out of the door carelessly. He doesn’t stay with us.
The peacefulness of coffee and the softness of ragged cushions of the hall last for half an hour. I’m silent. I’m satisfied. I don’t call anywhere. And I climb the stairs after everybody else, there is no elevator here… now, in the absence of the surgeon, interpreter, general practitioner, and journalist, and hometown, I can find out how much I have managed to forget about your red lips. Suddenly I am utterly cheerful. I laugh aloud. No body’s here. I hop on the stairs. Two more steps…and then, in the landing of the first floor, someone calls me from behind – “Miss!”
I turn around, and I know, I’m not surprised by what I see. As if a long black raincoat is the most ordinary thing in the world. Now the anticipation of what lay on our way has come to an end, although this moment of being on the road will come back soon. I look into his eyes, and the bees have calmed down. He reaches and takes my hand. Again, the same color circulates in my veins. He puts something in my palm in the silence.
He bends his head, turns and leaves. I stay there, until I don’t know when. I put my fist in the pocket of my overcoat. I turn the key in the lock, and I wonder why everything, the key and the lock and my eyelashes are dewy. In the room, in front of the mirror, I open my fist. The light dances on a large green gemstone on my palm.

A traditional dance.

The Moon and the Panther

 

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