Lodestar Quarterly

Lodestar Quarterly
Figure reaching for a star Issue 13 • Spring 2005 • Fiction

From The Quince Seed Potion

Morteza Baharloo

The household cock crowed, heralding the exact moment darkness surrendered to dawn, just as two tiny limbs emerged from the laboring woman's dark orifice. The half-somnolent state of Fatima, the Bald Doula, shattered. "I see them!" she yelled. "I see them! I see them!" she repeated, as if competing with the noisy cock.

The collective shouting of the female spectators blended with the painful cries of the woman now deep in labor and the clamor of the curious preadolescent girls observing their own procreative destinies.

As the neighboring cocks crowed in concert, the doula turned her attention from the spectators in the cramped room to the laboring woman. What she saw terrified her. Two miniature feet lurked at the edge of the orifice as if reluctantly contemplating exodus from the mother's womb. The doula cursed the infant for not following the normal instinctual birth, while gently manipulating its feet back into the womb and rotating the slippery creature. She raised her face toward the ceiling to plead for success.

"There is no God but Allah!" she shouted. Fatima's midwifery services would not be generously compensated if she delivered a dead child or if the mother died in labor. As a pious woman, she knew that the fate of both mother and fetus rested in God's hands, not her own. As such, she found the customary methods of payment unfair. Focusing on the financial incentives, she increased her vigor and administered her skills as best she could to save the infant and its mother, as well as her fee.

"Bring me the mortar and pestle and an onion. Boil some water now, you lazy girls! Tell a Muslim man to grab a young hen and bring it to me. Now, I said! Now!"

The doula's efforts to rotate the infant proved effective, and he soon entered the world headfirst, his eyes open in an expression of shock, as if destiny were asking him enigmatic questions concerning the creator and the created. As Fatima held the infant aloft, she realized he was not breathing: there was no movement of his neonatal chest and certainly no sign of the universal complaint that most infants make upon entering the world.

The doula grabbed the onion from a pregnant woman who was watching the whole scene with fear and apprehension. In the pewter mortar, Fatima crushed the onion hurriedly with its matching pestle and then rubbed a generous dose of the crushed onions on the newborn's microscopic nostrils. Weakly, the infant began crying.

Next, the doula fetched a small opaque jar of lanolin from her satchel, turned the infant on his stomach, and lubricated his rectum. She then grabbed a struggling hen just delivered by a preadolescent boy. As the hen fluttered to escape her iron grip, Fatima dipped the bird's beak into the jar and rubbed the lanolin around the beak rapidly but thoroughly. Holding the hen's head in her strong clutches, she inserted the lubricated beaks into the infant's rectum.

The doula's desire for monetary compensation was directly proportional to her vigor in pushing on the hen, whose beak was no longer visible. She willed the hen to arouse the desired response from the child by fighting futilely, ultimately forcing the exhalation of its air into the infant's lungs via his rectum. When the hen could no longer inhale air, it would reach the point of asphyxiation.

As the doula and the other women watched, the infant began to pant, a miraculous case of beak-to-rectum resuscitation, or perhaps a case of infantile perseverance, which resulted in the infant's survival and the hen's demise.

"It's a boy!" the women and the girls shouted as soon as the doula allowed them to observe the infant's genitals. The women's ecstatic screams masked the newborn's cries. Fatima immediately thought, I can finally buy that head scarf, the gauzy one. I delivered a live boy! The male infant would bring her a good bonus.

"Take him outside for some of God's air!" she commanded one of the preadolescent girls. The girl obediently took the slippery, onion-scented creature to the porch and laid him on a blanket.

The mother's sudden and intense hemorrhaging interrupted the doula's palpable relief. The pregnant woman who had brought the onion and three other women came to her rescue, but after an exhaustive effort, the doula announced, "She has entered the gate of heaven! May Allah's mercy and compassion be upon her! She has wasted away. She is gone, you miserable women! Cry, you mourners! Weep for the death of this woman!"

"I want to speak to her sister or mother," Fatima demanded authoritatively.

The pregnant woman replied, "Her mother is dead and her sister didn't show. I'm Kokab, her husband's brother's wife." Her own fear of coincidental death in labor became more noticeable, but the woman managed to conceal her jealousy at the birth of a male infant into her brother-in-law's family.

"Who's her husband?" the doula demanded.

"Zolfali!" another female voice shouted.

"Zolfali, the Bli--" Fatima did a lingual incision on the word "blind" and swallowed the latter half. She must not show disrespect to the person who would compensate her by calling him "Zolfali, the Blind Licker." After all, her name was likewise marred by anatomical problems. The locals called her "Fatima, the Bald Doula," a condition she suffered due to a dermatological disease. As she washed the infant in a pewter pan and poured water over him from a long-spouted ewer, she made a concentrated effort to weep. Fatima was uncertain of her fee now that one of her two patients had not survived.

The dead mother lay on the mattress covered in blood and difficult-to-classify secretions. Her long, black hair protruded from beneath her gauzy, white head scarf. Tendrils of hair wreathed her head like deadly serpents.

"Send after the young dead bride's husband!" the doula commanded, trying to render the event more tragic by referring to the dead woman as a young bride. She had no cause to worry. Zolfali, the Blind Licker, ultimately paid the doula a fee equivalent to delivering a male infant, after discounting an arbitrary sum for the postpartum death of his wife. The doula, overjoyed at earning enough to purchase her gauzy head scarf, departed from the house of mourners in the village of Madavan outside the township of Kamab, Iran, three hundred kilometers from the Fars provincial capital of Shiraz, on the tenth day of Teer, July 2, 1928.

Due to the father's ambivalence in naming his son, Barat-Ali, Zolfali's brother, resorted to ridicule by naming the infant Sarv-e-ali, after the tall cypress tree of Ali, the first imam in Shiite Islam. Unfortunately Sarveali was an exceptionally small infant and became known instead as "Sarveali, the son of Zolfali, the Blind Licker." Zolfali, although unsighted, could lick his own forehead. His tongue could eject, as he put it, like a monkey's penis, pink and fleshy, and ascend to his forehead. Depending on an individual's anatomical, physiological, vocational, sexual, or criminal idiosyncrasies in rural areas during that era, one might easily be called "Ruhullah, the Bushy Eye-Browed Youth Killer," "Mustafa, the Epileptic," or even "Hassan, the Mare Mounter." Only in the mid-1930s did it become mandatory for citizens of Iran to choose a proper surname.

Alas, Zolfali died when the child was two years old. His maternal aunt and her husband, a shepherd, raised Sarveali as their own. One morning in the late spring of 1934, when Sarveali was about to turn six, his paternal uncle, Barat-Ali, the same relative who had named him, arrived at the shepherd's house. He said he had come to repossess Zolfali's herd of goats and sheep that Sarveali's aunt had claimed after her brother-in-law's death. Barat-Ali stated that he, a male blood relative, should become the boy's guardian.

Upon hearing this explanation, the maternal aunt shouted and pointed toward the open-air barn where the herd was kept: "So now that we've had the boy for five years, you've come to take him and his herd." Barat-Ali did not reply to the woman. Instead, he thought to himself, Look at that herd! There must be a hundred in there!

Barat-Ali's rogue nature and intractable greed were well-known. "Boy," he demanded to Sarveali, "go get your stuff ready and come with me... come with me and the herd. I'm your uncle, your father's brother, Mr. Barat-Ali." Sarveali began to cry, instinctively understanding the worst.

"Don't cry, dear nephew. I'll take care of you from now on. Go and pack up!" Barat-Ali said. He smiled as he stole another glimpse of his new herd.

As soon as he, the little boy, and the herd left the gate of Nasravan, Barat-Ali began to spout orders at Sarveali. Away they went to Madavan, the village where Sarveali had been born.

"What kind of shepherd are you?" Barat-Ali ranted as the animals ran this way and that. "Can't you handle a few kids and lambs?"

Sarveali started crying again, but Barat-Ali had no intention of comforting the child. In the midst of his sadness, Sarveali was relieved that his mini-herd had come with him. En route to Madavan, Sarveali focused his attention on a young, pearly white goat, his favorite since birth. He watched the goat as it walked by a cluster of wild red anemones that had grown out of a mass of cow dung. As soon as Sarveali admired the flowers, his uncle, who was walking ahead of him, crushed them under his feet.

Barat-Ali's greed was defined by his name, which meant "promissory note bestowed by Imam Ali." His own father gave him his name at birth in an effort to encourage kismet to bequeath prosperity on the family. Barat-Ali had spent his entire life, according to his own proud confessions, attempting to gain prosperity by means of theft, deceit, extortion, and other charlatan acts. In this same rogue manner, Barat-Ali successfully gained guardianship of his nephew. Sarveali, in essence, was to become his uncle's "barat," a means of bringing him prosperity through the herd of sheep as well as any future wages the boy might earn.


As soon as the jingling of bells and the baaing and bleating of the herd sounded in Madavan, Barat-Ali's family appeared to welcome their leader, returning successfully.

"Get me some food, woman! I brought this whole herd all by myself." He managed to force the herd into an open-air pen at the back of the house, while his wife, the same pregnant Aunt Kokab who had witnessed Sarveali's birth, rushed to serve her husband. "Gholi, hey, Gholi, here's the boy, ummm... I mean your cousin," Barat-Ali said.

Following behind his uncle, Sarveali saw the woman his uncle had addressed. Kokab returned Sarveali's smile without a smile, not even a sham one. Sarveali then observed a fat boy close to his age, eating a flat loaf of bread rolled into a tubular shape. The first words the boy spoke to Sarveali were "I'm Gholi. Your baba is dead; mine is alive -- hee hee." A hot tear ran down Sarveali's cheek, but before his sobs could develop into full-blown weeping, the entire family started at the screech of another child.

"Shut up, Yazgulu!" Kokab yelled as she turned toward a swinging hammock on the front porch. She walked toward the little girl and picked her up. The child's light henna hair and huge blue eyes terrified Sarveali. He had never seen a child with eye color that wasn't brown. He decided to minimize contact with this cousin, imagining she was a djinn.

The following morning, Sarveali started work. For three months, Sarveali's mornings, afternoons, and nights continued monotonously. Out with the goats and a shepherd in the morning, dried bread for lunch. Fat Gholi, who never accompanied Sarveali and the shepherd, made his cousin's life miserable every day before bedtime.

Close to autumn, Barat-Ali and Kokab heard a loud shattering noise on the front porch next to the swinging hammock. The noise was immediately followed by shouting and crying.

"He beat me, baba!" Gholi yelled.

"He called me 'fatherless'! And I did not beat him. He beat me," Sarveali replied defensively. As soon as he uttered the word "fatherless," his crying intensified.

Barat-Ali was not interested in mediating the squabble. He was merely interested in identifying the culprit who had broken his man-sized water vat.

"Who broke that vat?" Barat-Ali demanded.

"Sarveali! Sarveali did!" Gholi shouted.

In his mind, Barat-Ali instantly calculated the worth of the clay vat. His anger, directly proportional to the vat's value, caused him to strike Sarveali so hard on the chest that the child fell backward down three porch steps, landed on his buttocks, and skidded across the gravel. Defeat, pain, and humiliation coursed through Sarveali's veins. As if his tear ducts had been shattered, he began another long campaign of crying.

After the squabble, Barat-Ali and Kokab prepared for bed. Kokab could still hear Sarveali's sobbing. "Get rid of him," she said. "You should've let him stay with the other relatives! All you wanted was the herd!"

"Well, that fat boy you delivered can't do any shepherding!" Barat-Ali replied, as he fondled his wife's breasts. Feeling his penis stiffen, he said victoriously, "I know exactly where to take him, and I'll take him tomorrow!" Barat-Ali moved closer to his wife, but Yazgulu's violent screams from her hammock shattered the moment. Barat-Ali, frustrated by a seemingly intractable erect phallus, thought of an ersatz satisfaction. He surreptitiously fetched a jar of petroleum jelly, left the room, and entered Sarveali's chamber.

"Does your butt still hurt?" he asked solicitously.

Sarveali's response was incomprehensible.

"Turn around and take off your pajama bottoms. I'll put medicine on it."

Sarveali felt something greasy on his behind, then a queer pain between his buttocks; it was a pain much worse than the blow he had received earlier.


The following day, Barat-Ali delivered six-year-old Sarveali into indentured servitude. Sarveali always remembered that painful day -- emotionally painful because he was told to offer his pet white goat as a gift to the Great Khan, the ruling landowner on whose estate he would be employed, and physically painful because he still felt a strange ache inside his anus, which was exacerbated by frequent waves of nausea.

After two hours of walking with the snowcapped Zagros Mountains in the distance, they reached the Great Khan's estate. Barat-Ali grabbed the door-knocker and beat its triangular-pointed tip solidly against the steel circle mounted on the wooden door. Sarveali observed the knocker's semicircular movement, followed by a succession of loud metallic sounds that vibrated against his eardrums. A guard opened the door and allowed them to enter the vestibule of the guardhouse. Once inside, Barat-Ali asked for permission to speak to the head factotum of the estate. As they waited, Sarveali noticed a juniper-lined road that led from the guardhouse and disappeared around a curve. On both sides of the road, hundreds of young green fruits hung from citrus trees in the estate's orchard. From around the curve of the orchard, a dark-skinned, narrow-mustachioed gentleman approached. When he arrived, he raised his visored hat for a moment, scratched his head, and replaced his hat. A khaki shirt, trousers, and knee-high brown leather boots completed the factotum's attire.

"Mirza Sheikhak, salam!" Barat-Ali exclaimed. He grabbed Sheikhak's right hand and kissed it. Sheikhak grimaced and said nothing.

"Mirza Sheikhak, please protect this orphan, the son of my dead brother, Zolfali; he has no one and nothing in the world, except for the Great Khan's generosity," Barat-Ali wheedled, determined to simultaneously rid himself of Sarveali and secure financial gain. So it was that holding the neck of the pearly white goat, Sarveali was first exposed to the word "orphan" while being introduced to Mirza Sheikhak Yazdani, the head factotum of the estate.

Sheikhak's grimace intensified. Barat-Ali decided to increase his efforts and heighten Sarveali's status as an object of misery. He yelled, "Kiss Mirza Sheikhak's hand, you insolent idiot of a child!" At that moment Sarveali finally released the pearly white goat and proceeded to kiss his hand, which was extended at Sarveali's eye level.

Sheikhak nodded in a wry gesture that indicated he wished for Barat-Ali's disappearance. He was wary of Barat-Ali's peculiar looks, particularly his deep-set small eyes, features he had commonly seen among pederasts. He seemed to remember Barat-Ali had a reputation as such. I could use this boy as Teimour Khan's personal servant; he must be about the same age, he thought. At least I can free the orphan from this boy fucker!

Barat-Ali continued, "His kismet is firstly in Allah's hand and secondly in yours, Mirza Sheikhak. Make him the servant of the Great Khan's household. Let him grow up, become a man, marry, and die here. All the boy wants is to serve you and your masters. " He thought of Sarveali's future compensation and added, "Whatever Allah, the khans, and you think is right for his salary, you can forward to me for safekeeping..."

"What did you say, child seller?" Sheikhak harshly interrupted. Although he had no inclination to hire Sarveali initially, he realized the boy would become prey to his uncle's pederasty if, of course, he had not already. Reluctantly, he surmised that Sarveali would be better off employed by the estate.

"Well, Mirza Sheikhak, I beg your forgiveness. I know a midget orphan brings nothing to the grand estate. Please forget his salary, if you don't wish to pay. It's better for him to be under the shadow of your kindness than wandering about in the wilderness."

"Bite you tongue, you blasphemous one! Do you think that the Great Khan and his dynasty are in need of gratis servitude from the likes of you?" the factotum cried. "Don't worry, we'll send you his salary." He was appalled at the greedy relative who would receive Sarveali's full salary, but knew he could do little to reverse this onerous practice.

"What's your name, boy?" Sheikhak asked Sarveali in a theatrical manner. His intention was not only to cheer the orphan but also to demonstrate his hierarchical superiority.

"Sarveali," the six-year-old replied in a barely audible tone. Sheikhak laughed thunderously.

"Was there a drought of names when Zolfali, the Blind Licker, named you?" "Sarveali," he enunciated and continued. "God, give mercy to the garden, whose 'sarv' is this pale, midget soul... What a name!"

The child's threshold of humiliation collapsed, and he burst into radical weeping. His tears, combined with a greenish nasal discharge, created a salty amalgamate that Sarveali tasted as it ran into his mouth.

"Don't cry, my boy, I was teasing!" Sheikhak changed his cadence into a poetic tone. Fear of Sheikhak's loud chants compounded Sarveali's sadness. He started to hiccup.

"Dear boy, our business will not be consummated if you're going to be such a fragile sissy." Sheikhak patted Sarveali on the head and, as his preceptor, ordered the new apprentice to follow him to the servant's quarters. Sarveali followed Sheikhak into the kitchen, where they found Barat-Ali squatting in front of a tray full of food on a short-footed stool.

"Are you still here? Get lost, you greedy child seller!" Sheikhak growled at Barat-Ali.

Sheikhak ordered the cook to prepare some food for Sarveali. The plate contained steamed, saffron-infused basmati rice: some grains were dyed light yellow, some amber, and some orange from saffron. Pistachios, walnuts, and raisins, exuding an exotic aroma and taste, mingled with the rice. This dish so impressed Sarveali's virgin palate that the mere mention of its name, keshmesh polo, caused his mouth to water. Later in life, it would become his culinary specialty.

Sarveali ate furiously, as if he feared that the joy of feasting might halt without warning. His gastronomic pleasure was so great that he almost forgot the persistent pain between his buttocks.

After the rice, Sheikhak handed Sarveali something that looked identical to chicken feces. But Sarveali trusted the factotum, and his taste buds were immersed in yet another delicacy: baklava from the central city of Yazd. The sweetness carpeted his tongue and throat while cardamom, jasmine, and clove lifted his soul.

The factotum's directive quickly brought Sarveali back to reality: "You are to be in the service of Teimour Khan, the young prince. You understand? If he tells you to eat shit, you do it! If he tells you to go get water from Daghestan, you do it! If the khanzadeh desires butterfly kisses from Kandahar, you get them! If he orders you to walk on fire, you do it! If..." Sheikhak interrupted himself and asked Sarveali, "Do you understand?"

Although Sarveali did not know where Daghestan or Kandahar was, swallowing the very last bit of baklava, he replied, "Yes, Mirza Sheikhak."

"Now follow me, and you'll learn your first assignment." Sheikhak, carrying a plate of baklava, walked away from the kitchen and toward a grand two-story edifice on the same juniper tree-bordered path surrounded by citrus trees. They removed their shoes, placed them on the kilim doormat, and entered. The marble foyer felt cool on Sarveali's bare feet.

Inside, multicolored rugs imprinted with images of goats, chickens, flowers, faces of lovers, strange beasts, and lions stared up at him. Half-naked women winked at him from the wallpaper. They walked toward the rug-covered stairs and up to the second floor. As Sarveali surveyed the foyer from his aerial view, he realized he had never been so high in his life.

Sheikhak opened a gigantic double door, and heaven exhaled its perfumed essence on the face of the novice servant. In a moment of astonishment, Sarveali saw thousands of stars glittering and glowing at him. He later realized that what he had interpreted as a grand cosmos were merely hundreds of crystal clusters hanging from an Austrian chandelier.

Further into the room, soft velvet armchairs shaped like obese women offered a welcoming embrace. The Great Khan, lord of the estate, lay on a sofa, reading from a stack of oversize papers as tall as Sarveali himself. Later Sarveali learned that they were newspapers, written in Persian, from Shiraz, Tehran, Baku, and Bombay. Sarveali surreptitiously touched the corner of a sofa; the softness galvanized his small body.

Sheikhak placed the baklava dish on a round table in front of the sofa and introduced the boy to the Great Khan as "the son of Zolfali, the Blind Licker," without mentioning Sarveali's actual name. He told the Great Khan that Sarveali would be Teimour Khan's new "small servant." The Great Khan did not cease his reading, but that did not keep his nose from registering the boy's body odor.

"Tell the boy to bathe and give him one of these baklavas."

Sheikhak chuckled and led Sarveali from the room as he whispered, "God's grace is with you today, boy!"

The Great Khan had suffered from extreme melancholy since the postpartum death of his wife. Their marriage had been the only one in the family to experience a genuine foundation of conjugal love, as most of the Great Khan's cousins and relatives had entered into loveless, contractual, and clan-based marriages.

Sheikhak told Sarveali that the Great Khan's marriage had produced only two offspring. The birth of the first son, Changiz Khan, had planted the seed of paternal resentment and competition. It became apparent that the Great Khan and his elder son experienced only one mutual feeling in their father-son relationship -- resentment of the second son's birth. That tragic labor caused the loss of a lover and goddesslike mother. As a result, Teimour Khan, the younger son, was born hated and despised by his father and only brother.

Outside the Great Khan's chamber, Sheikhak ordered an attendant to take Sarveali to the bathhouse. The attendant barely spoke to Sarveali en route to the hammam. As soon as they arrived, the attendant ordered Sarveali, "Take off your clothes and put this around 'that place,'" handing Sarveali a red loincloth. Sarveali did so, but with a queer anticipation of pain. The attendant lifted him into the warm-water reservoir; the soapy solution irritated and intensified the pain in Sarveali's anus. The attendant had already noticed Sarveali's rectal bleeding, so he applied a soothing, cooling salve before taking Sarveali back to the manor house. Immediately Sheikhak led Sarveali to another room, where he met Teimour Khan, a handsome, light-skinned boy his own age. The young khan's combed-back, light brown hair crowned his face, which was adorned with two rosy cheeks. When Sheikhak greeted the young Teimour Khan, the boy merely looked at the factotum blankly and then returned to gazing out his bedroom window at his father's 1932 Packard as the uniformed chauffeur washed it. Sarveali was almost paralyzed with excitement and could not say a word beyond his initial "hello." He noticed that although master and servant were of the same age, wealth had made one beautiful, fair, soft, and alert, while poverty had left the other ugly, dark-skinned, and confused.

As for Sheikhak, he knew that the young Khan felt peevish but was not certain about the cause. He theorized that his young master dreaded starting school that year. All he desired, lately, was to cruise the boulevards of Shiraz in the Packard. Also, Teimour Khan envied Changiz Khan, his brother, eight years his senior, who was now attending Zagros School, a preparatory school in Tehran. Changiz Khan preferred to stay in Tehran and showed little interest in visiting his brother.

In the midst of Sheikhak's ruminations regarding his masters' fraternal conflict, Teimour Khan spoke, "Tell my father I want to be driven to Shiraz now! Why is it that I can't be taken in the Packard to Shiraz right now?!" The six-year-old stamped his foot and crossed his eyes at the factotum. He ignored Sarveali completely.

"I will tell your father, my Master," Sheikhak assured him. "Does the young master have any orders for his new servant?"

For the first time, Teimour Khan noticed the other little boy, and the first stage of a boyhood bond began with Teimour Khan granting Sarveali the privilege of fetching him a glass of water. Sarveali, in ecstasy at his first task, proudly accompanied Sheikhak to the kitchen, where he poured water into a tall glass and placed it on a silver tray.

Upon serving the water, the first gulp of which caused an ephemeral smile to appear on Teimour Khan's face, Sarveali received a reward so potent that it eradicated his pain. His bruised soul was soothed, at least temporarily, by the approving smile of his master.


From The Quince Seed Potion. Reproduced by permission of Bridge Works Publishing Co., Bridgehampton, New York.

Morteza Baharloo was born in Iran in 1961, emigrated to the United States in 1978, and now lives in Houston. He is chairman and cofounder of Healix, Ltd., a Texas-based international provider of pharmaceutical and healthcare services. Baharloo returns periodically to Iran, where he is restoring rural estates built by his grandfather and great-uncles in the 1920s. More info: Morteza Baharloo.

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