THE MINT PASTE FACTORY WAS CLOSED. Still, the lights hummed and flickered greenish white in the smoke filled night. Sayeh knew it would be in her dreams again along with the Boy and Florescent Green No. 5, that silhouette she couldn’t unimagine, and the smell of cut mint bleeding out of her. Everything but refreshing.
She’d fallen in love, miserably, incrementally, with the Boy from the Department of Paste Texturization, when he’d spent one month among them, as part of his Onboarding, watching the girls add Florescent Green No. 5 to great spinning vats of crushed peppermint and spearmint. Sometimes Florescent Green No. 5 would stain her hands and then his hands, and sometimes when she stood naked before the bathroom mirror she’d see streaks of it across her secret places and the sight of the green glow would fill her with an unmistakable longing to be with him again, for Time to be something malleable that could be bent to a girl’s will.
The Boy’s Onboarding training eventually took him to another part of the factory, probably to the Department of Packaging, where the girls were plumper and not as bright, she thought. Maybe he’d remember her fondly. But that’s all she’d ever be to him, a memory made of a girl, a soft stroke of color, and a faint fragrance of crushed mint.
The mint paste factory was closed, and as she walked away for the night somewhere else A Life Unlike This One glimmered; a father and a mother, plaited hair and a pink frock, a school with a brick red façade, the great glow of morning sunshine, a soft pillowy woman whom she called Ms. Teacher. But it was only a glimmer, a small burst, and then a fading away. A Life Unlike This One was Before the Unmanned, which, if you saw it in time, looked like a great broken wasp bird searching the endless blue, peddling in hopeless circles, for the thing no one could give it enough of. A broken thing with an enormous want. Like the Thing Mistaken for Love. Like how she wanted the Boy and thought her love for the Boy was an immutable heartsickness that would last for an entire miserable lifetime. That was the audacity of new love. Foolish enough to want Forever. Foolish like the Unmanned searching in the sky.
SHE TOOK THE PEACEFUL VALLEY A-5 Bus home. The lights in the street weren’t working, they hadn’t ever worked, and neither were the lights inside the bus working. This was OK because this was what was Expected. The apparatus of lighting was installed but the electricity never arrived to ignite the tiny places where the flames were supposed to go. Everyone inside could see the starlight outside and no one worried about what things might get in the way on a dark road. Everyone but the workers of the mint paste factory were already home, inside where undulations of sura-sura smoke kept the cold far and away where it smiled harmlessly like the feeble thing everyone wanted to believe it was, so it was.
Sayeh left her coat on when she arrived. What used to be a Mother and a Father sat around a coal fire. The sura-sura smoke a recent memory on their breath.
“There is dinner on the stove.” A Mother’s mouth with no teeth said. The Unmanned had taken a Mother’s teeth as well as a Mother’s two sons. Sayeh didn’t think of what the Unmanned took as her brothers because when she found the rubble in the garden where the sura-sura grew there was only Delam’s left shoe and Velam’s Baseball FUS cap. Naturally, they’d gone away to make their fortunes or find their fame like all the boys in the village wanted to do. Delam and Velam were great adventurers and Sayeh chronicled their achievements in her Book: birth, survival of the Great Year of Snow, able to climb up the rusted façade of the old Merk tank in the Great Field Beyond the School and touch the bottom of the moon, able to laugh continuously from the moment sunlight touches the leaves of the Big Sura-Sura stalk until the sunlight touches the leaves of the Little Sura-Sura stalk, able to find the best and the biggest oranges for Sayeh to eat, able to help a Father gather enough fire wood to sell to the FUS combat men to keep a Mother cooking hot meals for three months straight every autumn and spring, able to tell stories about the places they would take Sayeh and a Mother and a Father when the war was over and the roads opened again, able to keep the cold away, able to keep the cold away, able to keep the cold away.
Sayeh kept her coat on. Delam and Velam would come back.
But the others in the village gathered in the garden near the place where the Sura-Sura grew and had a different idea about the baseball FUS cap and the shoe. Everyone came and screamed and wailed and cursed the Unmanned. It was all Silly and Wrong, as far as Sayeh was concerned and Sayeh was mad at Silly and Wrong. Sometimes Silly and Wrong would come and blame the Unmanned and other times Silly and Wrong would come and take the school girls to the Great Field Beyond the School but not to touch the bottom of the moon. Once, Silly and Wrong came for a father and told him he should be ashamed to have a daughter in the mint paste factory. But a Father can tell Silly and Wrong to go away, something a Mother can’t do.
The day Delam and Velam left their shoe and hat behind, Silly and Wrong had had too much Sura-Sura. Sayeh yelled to them that her brothers were fine. One day they’d come back for Sayeh and a Mother and a Father and they’d all go somewhere where Sura-Sura wasn’t what you did to survive work at a mint paste factory and memory.
But most of the things Sayeh wanted to say she couldn’t.
Sometimes even if she knew something was The Right Thing it would sit at the base of her belly and refuse to come out, afraid of the way Silly and Wrong would see it in the peculiar light of the mountain valley where Sayeh lived with a Mother and a Father, and where unlike any other place in the world, the Sura-Sura grew strong in the soil beneath which lay things the FUS Combat Men were after even if what they told the People was that they were in Pela to help Keep the Peace. Sayeh didn’t remember what Before was like, but even so she thought maybe what was needed in the Mountain Valley was for the FUS Combat men to Share the Peace, to parcel it out along with food and vaccines, among the People, even Silly and Wrong, and maybe the Unmanned too.
When the night was over and morning arrived Sayeh went back to the mint paste factory. The road was covered in light snow. The bus was late, which meant it wasn’t coming. Sayeh walked because that was what you did when the bus was late. Silly and Wrong were standing around doing nothing. They were waiting. It seemed that is all they always did, wait around for some action.
“Hey Sayeh Joon, what are you doing?”
“Going to work, what are you doing?”
“Waiting around for some action,” Silly or Wrong said, she could never tell them apart.
She didn’t know if they were brothers or friends. They always appeared together and she didn’t remember ever seeing them configured in another other way but waiting around for some action, except that in the time Before, they might have been called by different names, Sayeh couldn’t be sure.
When the mint paste factory’s hazy façade came fully into view Sayeh saw the Boy from the Department of Paste Texturization. He was getting out of a car driven by someone who was probably from her part of the village. The Boy was still lovely, the way she remembered him, with FUS style belted pants and a shirt with buttons and a pocket. He carried a briefcase that said, “Minty and Fresh,” like the other boys from the fine families that helped the FUS in Pela and as a reward became the families whose boys could work in the Department of Paste Texturization and carry around special brief cases and wear pants and shirts that said without speaking, we are just luckier than the rest of you, aren’t we? We just happen to be here, where it is warmer, and you just happen to be there, in the cold. One day you might be here so don’t complain too loudly. You’ll hear your own bones break before we hear your cry for help.
“Girl joon, come here.”
“My mother needs a girl to help in the house. Go see her. You aren’t a factory girl, joon.”
“It’s good working here,” Sayeh said, and because she was feeling brave, “Boy joon.”
He smiled without showing his teeth.
“You aren’t a factory girl, joon, but you aren’t a marrying girl either. Go see my mother. She needs a house girl.”
House girls helped the Woman of the House with the Keeping of the House. House girls drew open the curtains to Let the Light In the main salon. They swept the marble thresholds clean of dust. They made sure the tea didn’t boil. They kept the secrets of the Woman of the House in safe places where their husbands and son wouldn’t find them. House girls never went to college or married boys. They fell in love from the closet or the pantry or in the garden long after everyone had gone to sleep. House girls earned no money, just the right to eat and sleep in the family home. They became a fixture of the family. Tied to their fate, passed down to the family’s children, until they became very old and quiet and were allowed to pass peacefully into Another World or be Returned to the village from where they came, changed and estranged, and with an air of superiority from a life among the Upper Class. House girls ate three meals and wore what the Woman of the House didn’t want. Families that could afford to keep a House girl didn’t keep Sura-Sura in the garden and their sons didn’t go missing on adventures or leave a shoe or a FUS cap behind. The Sons of Families who kept House girls went to work for the Department of Paste Texturization at the Mint Paste Factory or as Cultural Liaisons for the FUS Men from the Authority or became College boys who became professors (“Freedom through Knowledge”) or translators (“Freedom through Engagement”) or Generals (“Freedom through Conquest”) depending on the political persuasion of their family.
The dagger of the Boy’s kindness didn’t pierce her coat or the fair skin beneath it. She wasn’t any kind of work girl. She was Delam and Velam’s sister. She was a brothers’ girl.
“The work here is good.”
And the Boy smiled without showing his teeth.
Inside the factory Sayeh pulled her regulation coverall over her coat. The Factory Super gave her an extra large coverall so that she could leave her coat on; as though putting up with her eccentricity would earn him the Right to be Loved in Return. Sayeh didn’t know if the rules of mathematics worked in Matters of Love. As far as she could tell the equations were all lopsided and nothing added up properly on both sides. The Factory Super was an effete man, tall and angled to the left, but not otherwise crooked, just odd. Sayeh would never love him the way she loved the Boy. But she relied on his kindnesses, and came to think of him as belonging, in some small, rare way, to her, as though the afflicted belong to each other by disposition.
“Girl joon,” the Factory Super said, “the mint has arrived from Surastan. Can you unpackage it today, so that it can be crushed tomorrow?”
“Are the roads open again?”
“Long enough, this time, for some goods to pass.”
If the roads to Surastan were open enough for mint to pass, Sayeh thought, maybe Delam and Velam could steal Safe Enough passage to Return and come Home from their Adventure.
“Not long enough for people to pass, Sayeh,” the Factory Super said.
When he walked away she forgot to count the echoes of his steps and looked at the clock on the wall instead, it’s time moving forward in fixed calculations. The blade in her hand sunk effortlessly into the cheap plastic tarp covering the mint bundles and the smell of spearmint and peppermint burst into the air and burned Sayeh’s eyes for the rest of the afternoon.
IN THE FAR PLACE WHERE THE MEADOW CURVED downward into a deep valley before rising up into the Great Mountain, Delam and Velam blinked their eyes open for the first time in a fortnight. They’d been Blown to Bits by the Unmanned and Reassembled. The Men who Fight from Behind the Great Mountain had found their pieces and painstakingly replanted them into fertile earth so that they might enjoy a second life in the Great Mountain Country, where no FUS Combat Men had yet arrived. They’d done a fine job, except that Velam thought his hands might have been mistakenly planted with Delam and Delam suspected Velam had his much loved perfect ears. In any case, upon gaining consciousness, their first thoughts, after their first blinks and first tears, were to wonder aloud about Sayeh and a Mother and a Father. And the Greatest of the Men who Fight from Behind the Mountain assured them that the odds were one day they’d be Blown to Bits by the Unmanned and brought here to be replanted and assembled with some parts missing and some parts replaced. “But how many times can a person be broken before they break?” Delam and Velam asked aloud.
And the Greatest of the Men who Fight from Behind the Mountain shrugged. “Not all of what is planted in this place can grow.” And Delam and Velam knew Truth when they heard it, even if their ears were on wrong.
“Can we go back?”
“Oh yes,” said one of the men, “you may always go Over the Mountain but it is harder to come back each time, to be replanted and reassembled, to grow. Each time the fractures are greater, more deeply felt.”
“We must go back.”
“One more thing. Going back means you must fight. No FUS men will allow you to pass from this place. If you go, you must go with your weapons drawn.”
“We’ve never fought. We’ve never used weapons. We will walk. We will speak to the FUS men and tell them we are only Returning Home.”
The Greatest of Men who Fight from Behind the Mountain laughed. Great rolling laughter. The kind that shook the firmament above and the ground below. The kind that wasn’t because something was funny but was because something was deeply sad, irrevocably broken. Delam and Velam looked at each other and saw fear, for the first time in their boy lives. They thought of Sayeh. She would be waiting. She would wait for them to Return. They thought of a mother and a father in the haze of smoke from a homegrown Sura-Sura cloud.
“We will Return. We will talk to the FUS men. We will make them understand.”
“Speak with this,” the Greatest of Men who Fight from Behind the Mountain gave Delam and Velam a large egg, reddish and warm to the touch, “if your tongues cannot save you.”
There was a path that cut its way through the Great Mountains. It was filled with jagged stones and boulders, trees high as heaven, and a canopy of leaves and vines so gnarled and tangled that in some places it was night, even in the day. Delam and Velam and the Red Egg and a basket of bread weaved tenderly through the path. It would have been more convenient to be blown to bits by the Unmanned and reassembled in the lush meadow of the Valley of the Great Mountains than to endure this treacherous journey. Delam and Velam nodded together as they walked, sharing the thought and the hardship, leaning on each other when the ground became uneven or if the canopy opened up to the high heat of a noon day and it seemed there would be no water to drink for years. But there was water. Here and There a stream would bubble up from the rich heart of the softened earth beneath them. And Here and There something would be provided, an apple, berries, some nuts. They gathered their small treasures and sat Here and There in clearings or in the cool shade and shared their meal as the Red Egg sat beside them and watched. Sometimes it buzzed or vibrated gently. Delam and Velam would pat it, gather it in a bed of leaves, calming it into a kind of wide-awake sleep with their sing song voices and their benign observations of the Observable World.
“It’s got no eyes but it watches.”
“It’s watchful and waiting.”
At night they found high branches in which to make crude nests to sleep in. Below they could hear the slither and creep of Things that Wake in the Night. They held each other and the Red Egg between them.
“If anything comes for us, the Red Egg will stop it.” And it was true. The Red Egg vibrated gently until Delam and Velam were lulled into a kind of deep asleep sleep. When they woke up the world looked new in the sunshine above the canopy. They could see Peaceful Valley in the distance and the bright blush of the Sura-Sura stalks and the smoke rising from the Mint Paste Factory and in some places a FUS tank or a checkpoint and the lazy movement of horses and carts and people going about the beginning of a day filled with a limited handful of possibilities.
“If we keep to the East we will come upon the Great Field Beyond the School. Then we will be home.”
“If we arrive at first light, the FUS Men will be changing guard and they may miss our passage from the end of the path to the beginning of the field.”
“We should leave the Red Egg behind. We should bury it at the end of the path, so that we cross the Great Field Beyond the School as children and not fighters.”
They buried the Red Egg when they reached the end of the path. The day was still some hours away and the light from the starlight struck the glint in the improvised stone they used as a shovel, to carve a place deep inside the earth for the Red Egg to be laid finally.
“We can’t take you with us because if we are caught you will be taken first.”
“First they will take you and you may be exploded or explode.”
“Here you will be safe. You will stay warm. You will remember your time with us like a peaceful dream.”
The Red Egg hummed approvingly. It wanted the earth, deeply. But not for the reasons Delam and Velam gave.
They entered the Great Field Beyond the School and saw that the moon hung low there, as it always did, and if they had time they might have climbed a tree to touch the bottom and laugh as they had but that childhood seemed very far away and what they rushed towards and hoped for was to make it across Without Detection and find their way Back Home just as Sayeh was just getting up and the smell of burning Sura-Sura was heady like the new morning fog. And that is just what they did as the Red Egg waited patiently like time before clocks for The Right Moment when it could crack open and bloom purple and white fire into the clear air above and show its truest love to the men whose bodies it craved. And what is love more than a devouring; a thick smoke that smells of cherries and hay that cools your hot fears and says everything will be quiet again if you breathe deeply in to; or a conflagration the likes of which you’ll never feel but once in the embrace of the one you loved first so many centuries ago; or the thing that pulls you towards the Great Field Beyond the School one morning when the meadow in the new light reminds you of the home you left behind to serve the FUS and you mistake the tick tick for your own heart beat—and it might as well be your own heart ticking in the soft earth of a strange land—when you find yourself full of love for the thing that craves you completely, and without judgment, and for once you step upon Creation without fear and say no farewell longer than an abrupt sigh.
Kafah Bachari was born in Iran and raised in Texas. Her writing focuses on issues of memory, myth, identity, religion, and history within Iran and the Iranian American diaspora. Kafah is currently at work on a novel which follows the lives and fractured memories of a Baha’i family from Tehran. Her stories have appeared in Ploughshares, the Tin House blog, and elsewhere. Kafah lives in Pearland with her husband, two sons, and their dog.