One of the pleasures of editing North Dakota Quarterly is seeing authors return to our pages. In our next volume, we’ll have a couple of returning voices and hopefully we’ll get to celebrate them here on the blog.
This week, I’m posting a short story by Kareen Tayyar titled “Through the Window.” It appeared in NDQ 87.3/4. The story offers a brilliant and poetic window into the narrator’s past and uses it to frame personal and collective traumas, life events, and his own future. The story is compelling, political, and personal and has weighed on my more than its 1000 some odd words should allow.
I’m running this story now because we’re planning on publishing some of Kareem Tayyar’s poetry this fall. Check it out in the next issue of NDQ.
As you likely know, these days are particularly challenging for many cultural institutions, publishers, and little magazines. So even if NDQ doesn’t float your boat, If you can, consider buying a book from a small press, subscribing to a literary journal (like our UNP stablemate, Hotel Amerika), or otherwise supporting the arts.
Through the Window
Through the window he can see three girls turning pirouettes in Eram Garden. One of them wears a red backpack. Another wears red shoes. He thinks of the film he saw as a child at the local cinema, the one where a tornado has blown the heroine thousands of miles away from her home. He thinks of the dog, and the road full of yellow bricks. He thinks of the flying monkeys that frightened him for months afterwards.
Through the window he can see his mother kneeling at his bedside, telling him there is no such thing. Still he asks her to leave the light on and to make sure the window is latched. He asks about tornados, and if the weather in Shiraz is anything like Kansas. His mother tousles his hair. She tells him maybe one day he will see Kansas for himself.
I’ll need some red shoes, he tells his mother. You will indeed, she answers.
Through the window he can see the cinema burning. He can see an old man on the street telling anyone who will listen that it was Allah’s will. He can see his father taking his hand and leading him away from the fire.
Through the window he sees himself holding up a sliver of charred film stock that he has picked up from the street. He sees the silhouettes of a man and a woman kissing.
Through the window he can see the dome of the Lotfollah Mosque. He can see his father kneeling in prayer. He can see himself kneeling beside him. He can see the carpets that the two of them are kneeling on. He can see himself as he was then, a young boy who still believes that, at any moment, one of these carpets might fly away.
Through the window he can see his grandfather answering the door just as the family has sat down for dinner. He can see his grandfather returning to the dining room and saying he needs to step out for a few minutes. He can see his parents watching with concern as his grandfather exits the house flanked by a trio of men in dark clothes.
Through the window he can see the nude body of Elaheh, his first love. He can see the two of them, still a year away from graduating high school, lying on the bed of a house a few blocks from Azadi Park. The house, which belongs to a friend of his older brother’s, has no furniture in it other than a bed and one large bookshelf. His brother has told him, before giving him the key, to keep the curtains drawn and to only enter from the alley. He has told him not to use the lights. He has told him that if the phone rings twice and then stops that means the two of them need to leave at once.
He can see himself moving his lips to her neck, then to her breasts. He can see Elaheh afterwards, her head upon his chest, telling him that tomorrow she will leave this country. He can see her lifting her head from his chest, looking him in the eyes, and saying that he should do the same.
What he cannot see is what is actually here. It is 2 o’clock in the afternoon. It is the middle of summer. He is sitting in the dining room of his Victorian house in the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco. There are three parked cars across the street. The postman is placing parcels into the red mailbox of one of his neighbors.
He cannot see these things because he is too busy seeing so much else through this window of a house located in the country that he arrived in thirty-eight years ago. His parents did not come with him. Neither did his brother, who joined the newly-formed National Army instead. His younger sister, two months prior to him leaving, fled to Istanbul, where she married a painter and with whom she had three children, the youngest of which died when the bomb someone had planted in the department store where he was working detonated precisely twenty-seven minutes into his shift.
So the window.
Through it he can see his sister at the funeral, which has been held in Pangalti Cemetery because her husband is Christian. He can see his sister place three white flowers upon her son’s coffin before it is lowered into the ground. He can see himself reciting a favorite poem of their grandfather’s after the priest has blessed his nephew’s memory. He can see the sculpture of an angel that stands less than a hundred feet from where his nephew is being buried, wings outstretched against the sky.
When he turns back to the window he can see San Francisco as it was when he first arrived. The cable car that he liked to ride all the way to North Beach. The bookstore near Fisherman’s Wharf whose second-floor loft featured authors who’d been banned in their home countries. The drum circles in Golden Gate Park frequented by young men who believed in the divine spirit but not in wearing shirts, who believed in the language of the body but not in the language of power, who believed the earth was their mother but that no government was their father.
Through the window he can see his wife, which amazes him, given that he knows she is in the next room as I write this, sitting on a sofa and reading from a book by Borges. His wife who has always insisted that he sings songs in his sleep that are lovelier than anything she has ever heard on the radio. His wife who has always wondered where it is he goes when it is clear that he is no longer present.
Anyway, through this window he sees his wife, though she is not yet his wife on this particular night. She is wearing blue jeans and a white blouse, and she is standing beneath a doorway in Telegraph Hill and waiting for the rain to stop. He opens his umbrella for her and asks which way she is headed. By the time they reach the BART station they have agreed to meet the following evening for dinner at an Italian place near the university she is attending.
Through the window he can see the face of the Ayatollah, looking out on a large crowd in Arjantin Square.
Through the window he can see the face of his grandfather, refusing to answer questions.
Through the window he can see the face of his older brother, dying on the second day of battle on the outskirts of Shalamcheh.
Through the window he can see a gas station in the Tenderloin, owned by a cousin of his who’d arrived in America only a few months after him. The cousin leans against the hood of an automobile he is in the process of fixing, a blue Mercedes with chrome hubcaps. The cousin who in 1994 will leave America for Toronto. The cousin who in 1999 will sit in his car with the garage door closed and then turn the ignition.
Through the window he can see his own daughter, on her fifteenth birthday. He can see her blowing out the candles on the cake which her mother and two of her mother’s friends have baked for her.
He can see his daughter, after the party is over and she is preparing for bed, coming back downstairs to tell him what she has wished: “I wished for you to someday be able to visit the grave of your parents.”
Through the window he can see that he is dreaming. He can see this because there is no way he can be seeing all of these things at once.
Yet the dream continues; the window remains open.
Through it he sees himself earlier this year, sitting beside a man much older than him on the bus. The man is reading a magazine whose cover features the title The New Middle East, beneath which is a photograph of an American soldier in combat fatigues holding a high-powered rifle. Above the man is a sky so blue it seems as if it might have been painted by Van Gogh or Monet. The old man, several minutes later, closes the magazine, looks at him, and shakes his head from side to side.
Through the window he sees himself as he sits at this very moment. A fifty-seven-year-old man with more gray in his beard than black, in a dark blue dress shirt and khaki slacks. A bald man, with brown eyes the color of the olives his mother used to grow in the garden of his childhood home.
The garden where he used to sit and see his father sitting beside their dining-room window, looking out on the garden, looking at him.
Kareem Tayyar’s novel, The Prince of Orange County (Pelekinesis), received the 2020 Eric Hoffer Prize for Best Young Adult Novel, and he is a recipient of a 2019 Wurlitzer Poetry Fellowship.