In front of me, in the middle of the desert, in that silent wasteland, there is a secluded garden sheltered by white walls. A half-open door summons me. I peek in. There is no sign of a human being. There are two rows of tall poplars flanking the surrounding walls and four aged cypress trees in the middle of four flower beds thick with wild red poppies and desert flowers. In the middle of the garden there is a pool brimming with crystalline water and the blue of the sky. The cobblestone walkways are coated with a thin layer of dust. No footprints, no signs of disturbance, no remnants of an intrusion. On the north side of the garden, at the top of a stone staircase, there is a sprawling veranda. Above it sits a white, celestial house. It is so dazzling, so pure. Perhaps it is a vision. Perhaps a dream.
Slowly, with cautious steps, I move forward. I am afraid the house might disappear if I take my eyes off of it, or it may crumble if I breathe too hard.
I sit on the edge of the pool and wash my face. What pleasure! The reflection of the house shimmers deep in the water and the green of the trees floats on its marble-like surface.
The water’s cool scent is tempting. I take off my clothes and slide deep into the pool. I open my eyes. The blue sky has spread in the depths of the water. I feel as though I am floating among the galaxies. The water’s breath blows away the thousand-year-old dust from my soul. My spirit quivers with pleasure. It is as if invisible hands are giving me ablution in the spring of eternal life. I lie floating on the surface. The sun has climbed halfway down the wall and in the fading light the cypress trees have grown taller. Again, I turn my eyes toward the house. How simple and unassuming, how noble and immaculate. It reminds me of someone close but forgotten, someone at the tip of ancient memories. At the edge of a sweet dream.
I climb out of the pool. I shiver. Dusk in the desert is cool and refreshing. I get dressed. I pick up my shoes and set off barefoot. I count twelve stairs. Someone had been praying on the veranda and has left behind a prayer stone. I step onto the veranda. It is an empty space with plain, unadorned walls. The windows are framed with modest cut-mirror designs. On either side of the veranda there are two half-open doors that lead into a room that is adjacent to a hidden alcove. Dim, labyrinthine hallways and spiral staircases draw me to themselves.
I am breathless by the time I reach the top floor. From here, I can see the four corners of the world. The sky is only a step away and the desert stretches as far as the horizon. I sit. For a long time. What point in time is this? Where am I? A sweet slumber hovers behind my eyelids, but it doesn’t reach my brain. The stars have one by one appeared. My gaze floats in space and my thoughts, like runaway ripples on water, have no constant or defined shape.
I cannot feel my arms and legs. My body has lost its physical bounds and boundaries. I feel like I am an extension of the house, of the garden, of the desert, and that my eyes are suspended from the stars. I float in space. Weightless. Empty. How removed I feel from everyone and everything, from the geometric relationship of objects and the logical symmetry of things, from the tyranny of time and the exactitude of numbers, from the massive slate of law and the heavy tome of ethics. How far away I am from the validity of matter and the authenticity of history, from the invariable legitimacy of ideas and the conflict between the haves and have-nots, from the rituals of purification and the ceremonies of shrouding and burial.
I wake up. It is dawn. Bewildered, I look around. I get up. I am hungry, yet I feel well. I feel light and rested. There is a pleasant breeze. A rooster is crowing in the distance. A small village, down there, at the foot of the mountain, is awake. I put on my shoes. I hear footsteps. I climb down the stairs. An old man is sitting on the edge of the pool, performing his morning ablutions. His long, bushy beard is white. I say hello. He nods. He is praying.
When I reach the garden door, I stop and look back. In the half-light of dawn, the house looks like a vision, a luminous manifestation of a divine presence. It says something to me, something unspoken. I understand, and a sense of calm and confidence settles under my skin.
The way back is no longer unknown to me. The desert is quiet and still and void of daunting temptations. When I reach the green meadow, I take a shortcut and walk through the fields. Back on the road, a truck stops and the driver offers me a ride. He is a young man with a black beard and sunburnt skin.
There are dozens of pictures of ayatollahs taped to the windshield. I get out at a teahouse near town. Only now I realize how hungry I am.
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Translated from the Persian by Sara Khalili
Goli Taraghi’s beautiful stories, shortly to be published by Norton in a selection entitled The Pomegranate Lady and her Sons: Selected Stories, manage to combine sensitive and compassionate observation of contemporary life in Iran, icy political rigor, and the potent irony of a critical woman’s vision on a world set up for men. She was one of the first women writers to be published and achieve recognition in modern Iran. We first published “Grand Lady of My Soul” as the first installment of our Cultural Center of Our Own series, attempting to respond to the defeat of the downtown Islamic Cultural Center with our own renewed attention to Muslim literary life. We found the story in Reza Aslan’s then-new anthology Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East, published in cooperation with Words Without Borders.
Read a Bookslut interview with Goli Taraghi here
Goli Taraghi was born in Tehran in 1939. She has been honored as a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres in France. Sarah Khalili has translated a number of works of Iranian literature, most recently Kissing the Sword: A Prison Memoir, by Shahrnush Parsipur.
Reprinted from The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons: Selected Stories by Goli Taraghi. Copyright © 2013 by Goli Taraghi. Translation copyright © 2013 by Sara Khalili. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.