Zahra was lying on her left side, her right arm rising and falling with her breath. As always, her feet had liberated themselves from the bed sheet. Her knees were bent, her left arm tucked under the left side of her face. The girls’ backs were pressed against one another and Ylenia’s eyes were open. She was facing the window where the moon’s smothered light crawled through a cloud. She had woken up suddenly, and something about the severity of the silence prevented her from falling back asleep. She pressed her back slightly into Zahra’s. Waking up at this time of night, when everyone else was sleeping, gave her a terrible anxiety, a sense of being unprotected. It wasn’t so much loneliness as it was concern that no one else was alert, that this was the perfect time for something terrible to happen, and that by virtue of being awake she was somehow more vulnerable to it, to witnessing its approach and onslaught. She tried vigorously to fall back asleep, to join the oblivious safety of the unconscious dreamers, but the stress of trying to make herself sleep only made her more alert, her temple’s pulse agonizingly audible against her pillow, emphasizing the relentless silence of the house. Not satisfied with the feel of Zahra’s back against her own, she turned her body to face her friend’s. She crept closer until the bend of her two knees was neatly tucked under Zahra’s. Then she inched her torso forward and draped her right arm over Zahra’s stomach, just under the arm that rose and fell with each breath. Ylenia tried to synchronize her breathing with her friend’s, hoping that emulating a sleeping person would coax her body into sleep. An unfamiliar panic began to writhe fetally in Ylenia’s abdomen. She leaned forward and touched her forehead to Zahra’s neck. Was the moon still trapped under that massive lingering cloud? Shining through it? She didn’t turn to look. Earlier in the day, she’d seen two fishermen arguing over a boat. The men co-owned the boat and operated on an agreement that allocated particular days for each man’s use. There’d been some disagreement about whose turn it was that particular day. The older of the two men had a deeply creased face that had made him look, to Ylenia, like a sorrowful mask, all the lines and shapes ultimately arching down like countless frowns. He was missing about two thirds of his teeth, and from both his ears protruded long, horizontal strands of hair. The second man had been younger, and there was something about him that Ylenia didn’t like, something about his anger that she perceived as dangerous, some poisonous schizophrenic caterpillar that crawled in it. It had made Ylenia fear for the older man’s safety. But no one in the growing audience showed any of the concern that Ylenia felt. The older fisherman was upset, but his anger wasn’t belittling like the younger man’s. On the older man’s throat clung three tiny dots of tissue where he’d cut himself shaving that morning.
At one point, the younger man grabbed the older man’s collar with his fist and lifted him slightly so that he couldn’t get his heels down on the sand, and two of the tiny napkin-bits had grown unstuck and fluttered down, disappearing. Two other men had stepped in, trying to physically force the younger guy’s hand open. The older fisherman’s body had begun to quake, and even after the two men had been separated, his collar had remained wrinkled upward as if clutched by a bullying ghost-fist. He’d stood there, trembling, repeating something inaudible over and over. That’s when Ylenia had turned and run away from them.
All she could hear now was Zahra’s breathing and the pounding of her own pulse in her head. She tilted her face upward, resting her lips at the juncture of Zahra’s lower neck and upper back. Her lips grazed the skin and Ylenia’s face was inundated with the perfume of purple flowers. Without contemplating it, she began sucking in with her lips, gently, like a baby kissing, like a small creature drinking. On one hand, Ylenia felt calmer, but her heart also began to race with a new intensity. The rhythm and quality of Zahra’s breathing remained unchanged. Without removing her lips, Ylenia began to curl and uncurl her fingers on her friend’s stomach, feeling the soft cotton of her dress. She focused with fiery attention on Zahra’s breathing, monitoring it for any changes.
Her hand then slowly, without rising from Zahra’s body, but also careful not to exert too much pressure, began to descend, crossing over the belly button, one grazing finger at a time, and going down further, so that Ylenia had to press her body closer to reach all the way down, her arm fully extended, her fingers outstretched…
Suddenly, Zahra’s head jerked upward and around, so that her neck was twisted and her eyes were lasered-in on Ylenia’s. Her expression was fatally clear in the moonlight. Inside Ylenia, a flagless flagpole surged industrially upward, constraining her lungs, forcing its way up her throat, its metallic end tickling her brain. The expression on Zahra’s face tore a new, cold door into the night. There was no anger there, but something worse, a kind of loss. Zahra’s eyes remained staring this way, like a terrible photograph, until Ylenia finally turned her body around and closed her eyes. Gradually, Zahra turned and lowered herself. She lay flat on her back, her eyes wide open. Their bodies were no longer touching. Ylenia felt her friend’s awakeness all around her, even after night wrested from itself a cold, gray light, and birds blissfully erupted through the branches.
Shabnam Piryaei’s novel “Forward” was published with MUSEUM Books. You can order the book and learn more about the story here.