At the south end of Rastegan, a small town at the foothills of Mount Damavand, twenty-five kilometers east of Tehran, there is a paved road, the only one out of the town, which turns into gravel as it winds through the forest, and becomes a rugged trail as it leaves the shade of the pines and the cedars behind. At the end of this road lies a vast field with no flowers or trees or bushes or weeds, but with hundreds of bodies, whose graves are not marked with fences or paths or gravestones. On a rock at the side of the cemetery farthest from the forest sits Nader, the old gravedigger. Beside him a pale young man has half-risen from his grave, his body covered with scars, his gaze fixed on the rugged trail leading to the forest.
Every day, after Nader finishes tending to his goat and his chickens, and the small vegetable garden in front of his shed, he comes to the graveyard and talks with the young man. Over the years, Nader has grown fond of his companion, who never fails to rise from his grave before dawn to stare in the direction of the forest all day and return to his pit at dusk, when Nader covers him with soil for the night.
‘We make good company, don’t we? You and I, all alone,’ Nader says. He rolls his cigarettes and offers one to the young man, knowing his offer would never be accepted or rejected. He recounts tales of his past, his village, and his father’s youth, as old men do, but he never mentions the day the trucks arrived and dumped their loads on the field. Nor does he mention the two months that followed, when Nader and five others dug holes and put the bodies in, only to find them half-way clawed up from the graves the next morning – some wailing, some crying, others chanting in the direction of the forest.
Two gravediggers ran away; the three who stayed grew tired after weeks of digging and wrestling with bodies that refused to be buried. One tried to talk sense into them. ‘It’s hopeless. Just stay where you are.’ Another cried in anger, ‘We are doing our jobs. We want to go back to our families.’ ‘What about us?’ The bodies’ and the grave diggers’ voices echoed each other.
Nader continued his work in silence. Every morning, as he left the nearby shed that housed him and the other gravediggers, he heard less wailing, less crying and saw fewer bodies, which had managed to scrape up the earth and heave themselves upright. The small mounds of soil beside the holes began to disappear, and the wind and the gravediggers’ steps soon smoothed out the surfaces. One by one the bodies gave up except one. By then, everybody had left, except Nader; not quite knowing why he could not leave this last body. At rst, it was his curiosity and disbelief in the last man’s persistence. ‘I’ll wait a few days more until he gets tired and stays under,’ he said to himself thinking he would be on his way soon. But day after day, the young man with his pale face, his back scarred from hundreds of whiplashes, and a hole through his right temple drew the old man back to the field. Nader sat beside him; soil had blown onto the young man’s face, settling above his lip in a thin line that resembled a mustache. He could have been handsome with his high forehead and delicate features. An old man with neither family nor a job, Nader decided to stay a few more days and kept postponing his departure as days turned to weeks and weeks turned to months and months turned to years.
‘One of these days, I’ll go to the town. Once they know, they’re sure to come,’ he says, as he always does before burying the man at dusk. He never says when he’ll go because he is not sure whether he wants to go. Nader is used to his goat and garden and new life at the shed neighbouring the unmarked cemetery. The young man is all he has – his friend, his family, a life- long companion who would never desert him. Sometimes Nader thinks about giving his friend a name, but he never utters a word about it to the nameless man out of respect and sympathy.
The night before the New Year, Nader dreams that all the bodies have risen, as they had years ago. This time he is among them, hip-deep in the ground and pleading. He has crossed to the other side without anyone ever knowing about the bodies. He wakes with a groan, unable to shake off the horror. He is convinced that his time is coming soon.
‘I’ll go there today. I’ll tell them. I will. And they’ll come,’ Nader says to the young man at dawn and sets out in the direction of the forest.
He walks all morning and in the afternoon arrives at Rastegan. The sound of a soft, happy melody comes from inside the first house. Nader knocks on the door. A little girl appears, stares at him, and leaves the door ajar before retreating.
‘Who was it?’ A woman’s voice.
‘An old beggar,’ the girl responds. Nader frowns, but says nothing. ‘Shush, it’s not nice to say that. He may hear you,’ the woman whispers. After a few minutes, the girl returns with a tray, a plate of rice with
saffron, a meat stew, and a glass of water. Hungry and tired, he squats down on the step and eats the food and drinks the water. The child comes back with a plate of pastry and tea and takes the tray away. He drinks the tea and eats the pastry. When the little girl returns, he asks her to call a grown-up. A beautiful, middle-aged woman comes to the door. He thanks her for the food. The woman seems very happy. She doesn’t ask him where he is coming from, but says they are preparing for a wedding. He offers his best wishes, and pauses before pointing to the path that leads to the forest. ‘You know, behind the forest...’ The woman’s eyes turn cold, unforgiving. He thinks she has misunderstood him. ‘Right there, there is an un-kept cemetery –’
The woman steps back, pulls the child inside, and shuts the door.
Puzzled, Nader rubs his chin. He walks to the next house. He knocks. A man opens the door and, though he too takes Nader for a beggar, greets him kindly.
‘Can I get you anything? Sorbet? Food?’
‘I want you to come with me to the cemetery,’ Nader says, pointing in the direction of the forest. When he turns back, the man is gone, and the door is shut. ‘He is waiting, he is waiting,’ Nader says.
‘Go away,’ the man says from inside the house.
It is late afternoon now, and Nader has knocked on every door in the village. What doors eventually opened were soon slammed in his face.
‘They know,’ Nader murmurs to himself all the way back. ‘They know.’
Before dusk, he arrives at the cemetery. The young man is waiting, half- risen from the grave. But this time his gaze is turned to Nader, who is at a loss for words. Nader rolls a cigarette, thinking he will tell the young man that the town is abandoned, that there is nobody to inform. When he holds one out to his friend, he notices a change in the young man’s eyes – determination fading to acquiescence. Nader feels a huge hollow in place of his innards.
‘I’m tired. I have to sleep now. Tomorrow I’ll tell you what happened. Nothing to worry,’ he says and crushes his unsmoked cigarette under his foot. Before dawn the following day, Nader leaves his little hut and rushes to the cemetery. There is no sign of the young man. All day long, Nader cries out by the unmarked grave, ‘Don’t lose hope. I’ll go again. This time they’ll come. I’ll bring them.’ But despite Nader’s shouted promises the following day, the following week, the following month, the young man never rises from his grave.‘May your soul rest in peace,’ Nader says, on the day of his own death.
He thinks he hears hums from the forest, but it is only a slight gust of wind, which blows over the field, sweeps up a thin layer of earth, and spreads it over his grave.
A snowstorm falls and covers the field with layer after layer of white flakes. One evening a writer on his way to Rastegan glances across the barren field, smoothed out by snow. Nothing but endless white, spread seemingly from one end of the earth to the other. He thinks this must have been the way it was at the beginning when there was nothing. Or is it the end when there is nothing again? A goat bleats in the distance. He follows the sound to an abandoned shed and decides to spend the night there, sleeping next to the promise of a blank field.