The Lady of Qalat
by Ryszard Antolak
Thirty miles or so south of Shiraz, lies the little village of Qalat, situated among rich orchards of pomegranates and figs. It is a narrow, cramped Sassanian village, constructed on the side of a steep mountain streaked with horizontal lines, as if mauled by a gigantic lion.
It was a place, I had been told, where nothing remarkable had ever taken place, where poetry has been written and roses had fallen from their stems in silence, a place whose inhabitants had disguised their missions of love and hate behind the privacy of high walls and closed lips for centuries. There was really nothing to interest anyone there.
I tried hard to believe it. But every village has its secrets. We could feel it as we hauled ourselves up the steep lane that twisted between heavy-walled houses washed in faded ochre and terracotta, all of them shuttered and in various stages of dilapidation. We let ourselves believe we could hear voices coming from the thick semi-circular doors with the ring knockers of hammered iron built to withstand attack and deter intruders.
Now and again we caught sight of a figure disappearing into an adjoining alleyway. We glimpsed it more than once and presumed it was a dog that had followed us up the steep slope, curious at the presence of strangers.
Finally we reached what we had come to see: an old Armenian church that had been built (so we were told) sometime during the Qajar period. It was magnificently situated on an escarpment of rock near the summit of the village: the best preserved ruin in a town of countless ruins. But when we entered it, we found little more than an empty shell, its walls smothered in graffiti, its floors covered with the stains of countless impromptu fires.
Around the church was a crude wall that concealed not so much a large garden as a neglected orchard. Entry was via a metal door emblazoned with an Armenian cross. It groaned with gratitude at being opened. The interior was an overgrown paradise of pomegranate and fig trees. The cinnamon of pine needles and the perfumes of various blossoms hung heavy in the air. Branches rubbing on the empty windows created a melancholy that seduced that part of me that was sentimental and no-hoper. My imagination flickered to life. This was a space full of expectation, an emptiness waiting to be peopled with characters from a novel.
Because the faint whisper of trees and the murmuring of birds cast such a spell on us, it was some time before we realized we were not alone. In the far corner beneath the trees was a silent figure in a black chador. She was coming towards us, fingers of shadow caressing her body as she did so.
From a distance she looked quite young, even girlish. But as she approached she faded visibly. The woman had the face of an old child, neither young nor old. It was unbearably round and regular. She was decidedly matronly in form but comfortable and loose within her own body and dressed (as was the custom in those parts) in a many-layered skirt that trailed behind her a little across the ground.
The visitor said nothing, but only stood observing us intently. She would have cast a shadow in shadowless surroundings. We tried to offer her a few words of traditional greeting. But she did not reply, and continued staring at us as if searching for the handles of doors to some personal revelation.
Nothing could disguise for us the scent of tobacco and the odor of unwashed laundry that surrounded her. I felt uneasy in her presence and uncomfortable at the disorder of her hair which could not be contained by her ragged shawl.
My companion made a gesture to leave, and I turned briskly towards the gate. The woman called out to me in a thin grey voice, exposing the ruins of some teeth in the process. But I did not understand (or did not wish to) and merely waved my hand at her in dismissal. As we hastened down the cobbled lane of the village, I looked behind me momentarily and she was still there, following us with her large dark eyes and the great bulk of the scarred mountain looming behind her back.
I did not realize at first what gravity the encounter would have on me. It was only later, when we entered the local shop and let slip to the owner of our unusual meeting at the church, that parts of a jigsaw began to form around us. The old man came over and seated himself on a crate beside us. He was good and kind we could see, and he felt entrusted to tell us something of the woman’s history. He seemed to have an abundance of time to dispense. The stories he told were long and rambling and there seemed no order or logic to them. But we settled down for the next hour or so to listen.
If there had ever been a time when she was genuinely happy (the old man began), the war with Iraq turned everything to ashes. Her husband of only a few months disappeared in the first months of the conflict and his body was never found. No-one could tell her what had happened to him, whether he was alive or dead. So she waited for him, mourning her loss. She lived for interminable months and years waiting for a knock, looking for a sign that never materialized, clinging with inveterate obstinacy to the hope that one day, surely, he would return to her again. But no news arrived.
She no longer slept, no longer ate. In the evenings, she would spend her time standing on the veranda of her house facing the road to Shiraz, smoking endless cigarettes from a black holder that belonged to her grandmother. And with every day that passed, her body became thinner and thinner, and her thoughts began to take on an ever more corrosive quality.
I imagined her standing on the road at the bottom of the village waiting for him, the wind blowing her chador this way and that as her eyes swept the horizon. I expected candles to be dashed to the ground when doors were opened, and winds to rush down stone passages, swelling beneath the kilims on the walls around me.
During this time (the man continued), her intermittent headaches became ever more frequent and more severe. She consulted doctors in Shiraz who saw in her sleepless nights, in the shock of separation, in the daily terrors of the war, the root causes of her illness. They prescribed homeopathic medicines and cold water therapies. One of the doctors was blessed with natural healing powers and even offered to treat her for free. But to no avail.
One day, she went into her bedroom and took out the beautiful wooden chest her husband had given her in which she kept her wedding clothes and other items from their life together. She brought them out one by one and laid them on the floor beside her. There they were: the yellow love letters, the locks of hair, the handwritten pages of poetry, the sepia photographs enlarged to ridiculous proportions….and she became overcome with such inconsolable grief that she could not weep enough over the enormity of her loss.
Now began the darkest season of her life. From that day onwards, she withdrew into the protective walls of her house and emerged only at night. She began haunting the town in her black chador like a living ghost, searching the blizzards of memory for any vestige of him. There followed interminable months of wandering through unremembered villages, sleeping in the ruins of deserted buildings, eating any piece of rancid food she could find to quench her hunger. And each time her family found her, they brought her home and nursed her to health.
Finally the doctor told them what no longer needed telling: that the woman had broken her mind on the memory of her loss, and retreated into an innocence where no-one could reach her.
It was then that the war of the cities began, and the woman found herself caught up in a tide of refugees fleeing to escape the bombing. She found herself in Mashhad where the golden cupola of Imam Reza, the marble courtyards of pilgrims, the mirrored hallways bejewelled with divine art made such an impression that they returned her (briefly) to life. She spent her days among the pilgrims waiting to enter the tiled halls or else wandering through the shaded walkways where the cripples lay outstretched on the floor, chanting their prayers. Each evening she would bring them all home with her in her head, and fall asleep to the music of their rhythms.
In her youth she had written poetry. Now, in the silence of her cramped Mashhad dormitory, she found she was writing again, insatiably, on any scrap of paper that presented itself. It consumed her to such an extent that there was no time for anything else. All she had not lived was written down in paper and in ink. Her failures took shape too, but in mountains and flowers and in words of love she had never expressed before and which, for that reason, had the honesty of innocence. When the poems were finished they were burning on the paper like a lighted torch.
One morning, long before dawn, she made her way to the holy precinct and pushed her way to the front of the assembled crowds. As she drew nearer to the grave of the Imam, she stretched out a hand towards the marble tomb and by some luck or providence, managed to grasp hold of a corner against the seething crowd. She held it tightly with a desperate hand while with the other she searched inside her pocket and produced the bundles of poems she had written in her room, and squeezed them through the railings of the holy tomb. Then she took out her husband’s letters too, his photographs and everything else that was precious to her and forced them, one by one, into the sepulchre of Imam Reza saying as she did so in her fragile voice, “Take this too, and this. Take all of it!”
But they would not fit. An elbow from the crowd nudged her hand, spilling the items like confetti across the marble floor where they were churned and trodden under the feet of whirling pilgrims. She lost her grip of the tomb and was carried of a wave of worshippers out into to the adjoining hall where she was left, unceremoniously, against a wall.
It was only then, as she lay on marble floor of the Azadi courtyard before the golden dome and the tiled minarets of the imam that something in her lit up (at last) like the striking up of a match. She felt a joy begin to run through her hair like fire. She found she was laughing at herself infectiously, loudly, ridiculously, in a way she never done before.
There was more that the shopkeeper had to tell us. But I didn’t want to listen. The room was too confining. I needed to get outside. To breathe. I stood in the desolation of the abandoned street and continued thinking about the haunted woman. Her story pursued me as I retraced my steps up the village lane. It laid traps for me in the shadowy doorways that lay on either side. It gave me no rest.
I reached the narrow staircase of the Armenian Church and stood once more before the graffiti on its scarred walls. She was like this empty church (I thought), burned out, defaced, open to all the winds. What would have become of her, I wondered, if she had married again, raised children, nursed grandchildren? What would have happened if Love had touched her once again and opened up the woman in her? Instead of which, Time and circumstance had marooned her among these ruins of Sassanian houses that couldn’t be demolished because UNESCO wouldn’t allow it, and couldn’t be repaired for lack of money: a living ghost.
I set out to look for her in the walled garden, to apologize for my error, to ask her forgiveness for my actions. I found her standing where I had left her. Seeing me approach, she turned towards me and opened up the swollen leather of her hand to show me what she had. There, wrapped in the folds of a colored handkerchief were fresh figs, the delicate down still clinging to them like fine dew. I took the fruit, washed them in a nearby stream and returned immediately to share it with her.
We ate greedily. In silence. The woman closed her eyes for a moment and attempted to remove a strand of hair that had lodged on her lips. The operation, delicately performed, allowed me to look at her more properly without being observed. The glow of a distant youth seemed to emanate from her presence. She must have been beautiful in her youth, I thought. There was a great spaciousness of soul in her, a purity of being I could not quite convert into terms of my own reality. But I felt it. The varieties of love are so manifold, I thought, that we do not possess adequate words to define them.
Our eyes met suddenly and we started to laugh, as if we were partakers of some guilty secret. It seemed as if our minds branched out and touched high above our heads. And at that very moment, something in me shifted and opened like a green metal door in a high wall. I wanted some of that freedom she had: the freedom to expand and burn like a candle flame in straw, to be emptied and vanish into nothing.
It was good to be a little mad, I thought.