That night, while beautiful and innocent Katie lay asleep in her bed, I sat there with cigarettes and beers, housing the fading echo of my friends’ laughter in my head and a more or less rotting manuscript on my hands. I remember thinking something like, “Has it really been three years?” Or I might have thought what my original idea was, or where it was born. Well, I knew that much. To write it though, I had to awaken Iran inside me. The smiles they would’ve worn if I had gone back, even for a week or two. It doesn’t matter now, but that night, I let all kinds of thoughts come and go, while beautiful and innocent Katie lay asleep.
“We’re from different worlds,” she’d said to me.
I’m not sure what my expression had been at that moment, but I whispered deep within my gut, where only my organs could hear and my blood could carry; from cell to cell I whispered, “I promise not to let you down.” There was an intense body buzz to that silence between us, the rushing whisper of a promise in my veins…or it might have been the drugs. That day, I don’t quite remember what I’d been up to. “Doesn’t matter now, but what does?” I thought. “Fucking manuscript…”
“Start anywhere,” I whispered, opening the next bottle of beer, the bottle that would ultimately turn my stomach inside out that night. Who knows what I’d been up to that day? She was asleep, and I remember thinking something like, “To watch love asleep…To forget.” Among these thoughts and the opened doors and windows and lit up corridors of my mind, flooded and drenched with thoughts of all kinds, I began to search through the clutter for Iran.
“I’ll travel to Esfahan tonight, for a short while, only a short while. Perhaps for about an hour or two, just enough time for me to reach the peak of mount Soffeh and reflect on numerous Fridays in my past. Mount Soffeh was our friend on Fridays; a natural museum of cliffs and fossils my uncle would call it. I’ll go there first, then later, if my mind allows, I may even drop in on my parents, for a short while, only a short while. I’ll go quietly; perhaps just in time to see my mother preparing lunch, or sitting at the computer, sharing the virtues of god and the pains of mothers on Facebook.”
I must’ve been dozing off. I must’ve been up for far too long, curled up with cigarettes and beers and intoxication in my eyes; the peak of mount Soffeh rising to remind me of myself, my idea, while beautiful and innocent Katie lay asleep.
I kept rubbing my fingers together, occasionally turning back to look down, watching the city as it slept; Esfahan, one green gathering in the desert…The sun had appeared, and my uncle said, “Hope you’re hungry.”
As I followed behind him, snaking our way upwards and zigzagging among the cliffs, I managed to say, while trying to conceal my panting, “Where do you want to eat?”
He came to a stop and turned back toward me, with only his right hand detached from the mountain. While climbing cliffs, one should have at least three points of connection to the rock. At least, that’s what I’ve been told. I stopped and looked up at him, again rubbing my fingers together and silently taking pleasure in the coarseness of my skin and the lines the rocks had left. I watched him and followed his eyes as he scanned the mountain, and I was sure he knew what lay around the bend to our right, or where the best spots were further above us. I was sure he knew so many paths and plateaus, and I was sure he had one chosen in his mind for our descent back down.
He said, “We have to climb left,” as he adjusted his footing slightly from rock to rock then pointed to the left and continued, “Perfect spot on top of that cliff.”
“One hell of a rock,” I said.
“Listen, I don’t want you to die, ok?”
I laughed, “I think I’ll be fine.”
“You’re a good climber, but I have to answer to your dear daddy,” he said, and smiled jokingly, as he repeated the words, “dear daddy,” and stretched them out in his own rather subtle Esfahani accent. “No, I want you to go straight, and then turn left once you reach the shade up there and meet me on top of that rock.”
“I’m pretty sure I can go up this rock here.”
“So am I, but let’s not risk it. I’ll see you there.”
Maybe I should’ve argued more. Many people I know surely would have. I don’t know what made me agree so easily. Perhaps it was the essence of Soffeh, or of any mountain, which visitors trek from time to time. Perhaps I had gotten to know these rocks well, and perhaps somewhere deep down inside, I was afraid of that straight wall of about fifteen meters.
“You’ll need to take this,” he said as he took off his bag. I strapped it to my back; must’ve been at least ten kilograms. Certainly, my hunger had grown. Out in the wilderness, one’s appetite jumps about excitedly, but one does not argue much; humility is the freshness in the air perhaps…One becomes grounded on slopes that carve weariness and thirst into one’s muscles. So many parts of me desire so many different things. Still, I did not argue with him. Standing there, gripping the straps of his camouflaged army bag around my shoulders, I watched him approach the wall, examining it with his eyes and hands, and then he was off. I wanted to watch him go all the way up.
“I can definitely climb that rock,” I might’ve thought, or something like, “Look at him go.” I may have stood there longer than I remember. As a matter of fact, I’m certain that I did. I might have felt some sort of pride. “Look at him go! He’s my uncle, at one with rocks…” Beneath the sweat quickly drying on my face and the dust that would occasionally make me squint my eyes, I might have been smiling, with pride, with hunger and thirst well deserved, and ten kilograms or so on my back.
At times I feel like I can still hear the echo of crows cawing. The cawing of crows will forever be snapping me out of stupor. Forever, like the smell of Tehran in my nose. These days, I yearn for coarse fingers, and scratches and wounds from which I learned how to rise properly. But did I learn, really? The crows don’t know, the crows don’t care, and I gotta learn to stay on topic. Events seem to have faded; sure, I have let them hide, but heavy still, they are here, nearby.
Once I reached the shade, I turned left as he had told me and saw him standing on top of a rock, his chest out like that of a mountain goat or ibex, leading his young herd. For a moment I thought he was going to start pounding his chest with his fists and roaring down the cliffs, or howling at the horizon. He only turned, waving at me and shouting, “Well, get over here kid!”
What a spot it was. I gave him the bag and we set up our breakfast on the rock.
“Coffee or tea?”
“Cheese and bread in the bag,” he said. I took them out. “Boiled some eggs for you as well…” I smiled. He poured me a cup of coffee and patted me twice on the back. “Well done boy!”
“I really wanted to climb that rock with you.”
“I know,” he muttered.
“Didn’t seem that hard…I…”
“You’re a good climber, but there’s a time for everything. There are many trails in this mountain. Some of them have claimed numerous lives. Some of them are straight walls and narrow passes. We will climb them all, in the right time, with the right equipment.”
“I feel like I could’ve…”
“Okay, okay,” he exclaimed, “After we eat, you can pick our route to the top. Happy, cliff hanger..?”
I laughed, while spreading some feta cheese on a piece of pita. “I’ve come a long way. I was made to climb.”
“After we eat, I’ll need you to write a note for you father, and sign it, just in case you do die. It’ll make it easier on me.” I burst with laughter. “Boy thinks I’m joking,” he sighed. I continued to laugh.
“How about those eggs?”
“You and your eggs,” he exclaimed, reaching into his bag and pulling out a small container with four hardboiled eggs inside it.
“Also,” he said, reaching into his bag once more and pulling out another container of the exact same size, “Quail eggs…”
“What?” I shouted, “Quail eggs?”
“What? You’ve never had quail eggs?”
“Poor Canadian boy! Just eat your eggs and shut up!”
I laughed and ate, turning my glance to the horizon after each bite, to the sun rising slowly, to the city below waking up.
Halfway through our breakfast, half a dozen quail eggs later, he was pouring his second cup of tea, glancing at me occasionally from the corner of his eye. “What’s on your mind boy?”
“Just thinking about a friend.”
“Oh, poor Canadian boy misses his friends!” He roared with laughter, patting my back once more. “This mountain is my friend.”
“Hell of a friend.”
“Many people come here, some of them are professional climbers, but none of us should ever think that we have conquered these rocks. Do you understand? They are not ours. We’re all visitors. I think of this mountain as a kindhearted friend, who accepts us, who has been here long before us, and will be here long after we depart.” He sipped on his tea and let out a sigh, casting his eyes on the horizon, on the sun now wide awake, over his beloved Esfahan. “Yes,” he sighed, “Only visitors.”
“What a beautiful bird!” I exclaimed, drawing his attention to the rock beside us and the chubby grey bird with the skinniest legs; curious looking fellow, staring right at us, tilting its head…and then it began to chirp.
“Nightingale, it’s a nightingale.”
“Such a beautiful bird,” I repeated, still in awe at how close it was to us.
“Don’t tell me you’ve never seen a nightingale. Don’t they have them in Canada?”
“Not like these.”
“Poor bastards,” he muttered.
The nightingale, still staring at us and tilting its head from side to side, inched closer and closer. I crumpled a piece of bread and scattered the crumbs, but it wasn’t interested. Soon enough the nightingale landed on the blanket we were sitting on and another, even chubbier nightingale took its spot on the rock. “There’s his friend,” I said. “And he’s got a bee in its beak!”
“Ah, they’re carnivores!” my uncle sighed, leaning forward and cutting a corner off our block of feta cheese and whipping it at the rock. Instantly, two other nightingales arrived and I excitedly reached for the feta, watching the chubby, skinny-legged nightingales hopping around and over each other.
“Will they eat an egg uncle?”
“Maybe, but don’t waste your eggs.”
“Such beautiful birds,” I said, throwing another piece of feta on the rock.
“This is their home. I can’t believe you’d never seen a nightingale.”
Sitting there with him, watching the nightingales feast on feta, enveloped in cliffs and the distant echo of cawing crows, I knew for certain that a short story would come from those moments. I didn’t know when, I didn’t know where I’d be; never would’ve thought that four years later, I’d be sitting in my drunken shell in Toronto, watching the love of my life sleep, rubbing my fingers together to remember the rocks, the summit that taught me so much about myself.
“Only visitors,” I hear him saying still.