The Glass Marbles
By: Pari Mansouri
The man hurriedly opened his black briefcase, taking out the papers inside. He looked at them carefully, one by one, and quietly put them back.
The woman, who had followed him to the hallway, asked anxiously, "Were you looking for something?"
"No," he said, "I just wanted to make sure I had the files of the two critically ill patients with me. I brought them home to study last night."
He then put on his black coat and, with a worried look in his dark eyes, said "So much snow! I tried to start the car first thing, but the engine’s frozen. I called for a cab while you were in the kitchen. Hassan Agha, as usual, was flattery itself, but he said, ‘You know that we are devoted to the doctor, but this damn snow makes it impossible for the cab to get into your road.’ He is right too. Anyway, I have to walk to the top of the road now, and wait for the cab."
"But it’s too early now. I have made breakfast. Come and eat," the woman said with sympathy and kindness. "When is Hassan Agha sending the cab?"
"Simeen, I haven't got the time to eat anything," he said. "The cab is coming at 6.30. It is such a cold day and the snow is badly frozen over. I hope you won't have any excuse for leaving the house today."
She noticed that, as usual, he was in a world filled with his own problems, and did not realize that to ensure there is food on their table, she had to spend hours in different queues everyday. She was silent, but indignant.
The man, who sensed that something was wrong, said in a self-righteous tone, "Please...I don't want to have to worry about you too. Just look after yourself and Taraneh."
Then as he was about to leave, a little girl of about four or five came out of one of the rooms. In her woolly nightdress, she was like a white rabbit as she hopped towards him and said, "Daddy, wait! Don't go now! I want to ask you something."
He picked her up, and stroked her shiny brown hair, saying, "Why are you up so early? Now ask your question, my dear, because I have very little time. I have to leave earlier this morning. There are many sick and injured people waiting for me at the hospital. Please ask your question, dear."
"When will these sick people get better, Daddy? They are always sick!", she said sadly.
"No, Taraneh, they are not always sick my dear. Some of them get better and leave; but there is a war; so, every day many injured people arrive at the hospital from the South."
"I know", she said. "I have seen them on the television. They are always dropping bombs there, Daddy. Will the bombs come here too?"
He held his breath in horror at the thought, and hugged her more tightly saying, "No! No. They will not come here. They won’t dare! But what did you really want to ask me? Have you forgotten it?"
"I wanted to know if you had ever seen a rainbow?" she asked hesitantly.
The question confused him. He had not expected it at such a time. He was not even sure if he had heard her properly. "Yes dear, of course I have seen it; but, why do you want to know now?"
Her eyes lit up as she said, "Banafsheh was here yesterday. She has a really pretty book with her, full of nice pictures. It had a rainbow too Daddy. Banafsheh told me no one has seen a rainbow."
There was a brief silence, as he put the little girl down slowly, and kissed her again. "Banafsheh is wrong, my dear. Everyone has seen a rainbow. I’m sure you and Banafsheh will see it too someday. But, now I really must go. I’m sure your mum can answer any other questions you might have."
The man was walking carefully across the frozen ice and snow, trying to keep his balance; but his daughter’s question seemed to linger in his mind, haunting him. How could she know a rainbow, if not through pictures in a book. In this polluted city of concrete, with its sky of smoke, his own memory of a rainbow had become like a distant mirage. His heart was heavy with a sad longing, as he finally reached the top of the road.
Akbar Agha, the cab driver, knew him. He quickly got out of his cab, to open the door for him. Once they were seated, and he was back behind the wheel, he said with humility, "Good morning to you, Doctor! I hope you are feeling fine today. Please have the heart to forgive me for not picking you up at your door. It’s this wretched ice and snow."
"Don’t worry, Akbar Agha, a little walk is good for me. Tell me, how is your stomach? Did the last tablet I prescribed, help you at all?"
"Oh yes", said Akbar Agha, "I’m much better. I pray that God will always keep you for us! God knows these are troubled times, Doctor. Everyone's suffering; it’s stomach complaints and stress. I put it down to all the worry. You have to work like a dog, just to feed your wife and kids. Last month, my eldest son volunteered and was sent to the front. He is only fifteen. His mother has been crying and worrying the whole month. These last few days, she has had a fever and the shivers. Her face is as yellow as turmeric. I really want to try and take a day off, Doctor, and bring her to your hospital. Is it malaria? Maybe it's TB? What kind of fever could it be?"
"Please don’t worry", the man said, "Make sure you bring your wife to the hospital tomorrow morning. I’m sure she’ll recover very soon."
The cab moved slowly along the road. There were chains on its tyres to stop it from slipping; but, it was still very hard to control. Akbar Agha was managing very well to drive the cab, talk constantly of the cruel times, and sing the doctor’s praises. Yet, the doctor did not hear every word. He was deep in his own thoughts. His daughter’s question, and the image of the rainbow, kept creeping back into his mind.
He realised suddenly that everything had changed; he had changed so much himself. He remembered, years ago, he knew what Nature was. He rarely stayed in the city during the weekends, and with his friends, spent many happy hours in the mountains. They used to set out at dawn, and when the sun’s first rays had gloriously spread through the sky, they would be at the peak of Tochal. How sweet was the mountain air that filled his youthful lungs; while the music of the water and light, the birds, and life itself, embraced his whole being.
It was ten years ago when he first met Simeen. He had been working as an intern in the hospital, and Simeen was finishing her last year at the college of music. He could recollect clearly the night when the students of the college of music were performing Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, and Simeen was playing the clarinet. He fell in love with her instantly, and a year later they were married.
He then recalled the day, all those years ago, when together they went to the village of Demavend; but before they could start climbing the mountain, suddenly, thunder and lightening shook the sky, and it started raining heavily. Yet, it stopped as soon as it had started, and the triumphant rays of the sun pierced the clouds and painted the most beautiful rainbow on the turquoise sky. They stood in awe at the wonder of it all.
That was the last time he saw a rainbow.
His mind then wondered to the time when he was four years old. He was with his elder brother. They were in the garden, and it was filled with the scent of summer roses. They both had some colourful glass marbles, and they were swapping them with each other, one by one. Then, closing one eye, they held them up against the other eye in the bright sunshine, and in those crystals of light, they saw thousands of merging rainbows.
He was swapping the last glass marble with his brother in his mind, when suddenly, a terrifying explosion tore the cab from its place, embedding it in a gaping hole in the ground. He could hear Akbar Agha crying out twice, "Oh, Ghamareh Bani Hashem! Oh, Ghamareh Bani Hashem!"
Then there was silence. He tried to get up and help him. He mustered all his strength; it was no use. A metal rod had pierced his side, from where he could feel the gushing of a warm liquid. His eyes were closed. He felt extremely weak. He opened his leaden eyelids with great difficulty. Blood slowly trickled down from his forehead and covered his eyes and face. He struggled to think what had happened, but he had no control over his mind. He felt his whole existence filtering into the depths of a black void. Then, suddenly there was a horrific storm, and every molecule of his body was thrown into a vast field. Through his waning eyes, as though in a dream, he saw a crystal and bright sunshine spread over this field. Simeen and Taraneh were by his side, and together they could see, boys with large glass marbles strapped to their waists. They were happy and content and started to jump and skip through the field; but, with every jump, a rainbow emerged. Then, the whole field was adorned with thousands of rainbows, and the boys disappeared.
Light and dust mingled and rose up high; so very high, becoming one with the clouds, the sun, the moon, and the stars. Now, everything started to fade, dim and dimmer. The black void was engulfing him. It was as if from a distant land, on the other side of the world, at the beginning of time, or perhaps at the very start of creation, he could hear the sound of the sirens; and all was fading still ... and then, the whole universe stood still.
*Published in the Persian Book Review, Volume V1, No. 22 Summer 1996
*From the Persian book of short stories "Entertainment in Exile"