Haji sat by himself in the garden with his notebook and a freshly sharpened pencil. It was a surprisingly humid morning in Shiraz, after considerable rain. Unable to think of anything worth writing—either in the vein of his usual poetry or of his new attempts at postmodern short stories—he busied himself with slapping mosquitoes dead on his skin, wiping the blood away with napkins.
After an hour or so he had nothing to show for his labor except a few mosquito bites on his legs where he failed to kill them in time, along with several napkins full of dead mosquitoes.
With only 30 minutes left until relatives would arrive for the Friday afternoon and evening of dinner, backgammon, and conversation, he tore out a blank piece of paper and opened his divan of Hafez to his favorite ghazal.
Choosing his favorite couplets from a favorite poem by his all time favorite poet, he lightly copied the text in pencil. Next, he carefully peeled dead mosquitoes from the course napkins, trying his best to arrange broken wings, crumpled legs, and remnants of blood, onto the letters of Farsi scripted on the page. As he swallowed hard to avoid throwing up out of disgust at this labor, he thought how unforgiving his wife would be of yet another attempt to be so eccentric in the name of art.
Far from a perfect rendering, he at least approximated the verse he had selected enough so that any reader familiar with the 14th century Sufi poet would recognize the poem. To preserve his work, he tore a decent sized sheet of plastic wrap kept in the kitchen of the garden home—typically used to keep cut watermelon fresh and free from flies—pressing it onto the meticulously arranged mosquito lettering.
Ever the self-hating artist, inclined to doubting himself, as he filed the page in his own blank notebook, he thought, “How perfect that I should merely copy out a masterpiece by a poet truly touched by they divine. This is ultimately who I’ve become and all I’ll ever be: A parasitic writer…now writing with parasites.”
Another ethnic-aren’t-we-all-so-interesting-yet-how-dare-they-treat-us-as-exotic writers’ panel. The requisite South Asian tells his go-to story about how once in a poetry workshop they all turned to him to confirm the verisimilitude of an elephant in a poem by an American peer. The amazingly talented Belarusian woman references how Poets and Writers Magazine insisted on photographing her in the kitchen of her apartment, as if she were some common babuska, despite the fact that she never cooked and her incredibly tall athletic husband did more than half of the housework and child raising.
Given his 15 minute turn to lecture and briefly read exemplifying verse to make his points, Haji plopped his backpack onto the table, unzipped the main pocket, and pulled out a wet feathered mass stuffed into a gallon zip lock bag. His fellow participants were visibly affected by the smell, and within the next minute, so too were most of the 200 or so audience members in attendance. As he plugged his iPhone into the sound system—playing a recording of himself performing a slow dirge in minor keys on guitar and sadly singing, in Persian, “Man, bayyad, avorddam” (“I remember a long time ago”)—he unfolded the dead nightingale onto the white tablecloth. The crowd gasped in disgust and delight, taking out cell phones to record the incredulous.
With the music playing and the nightingale laid out like the crucified messiah before him, Haji unzipped the smaller compartment of his back pack, removing a rather large syringe, the kind the nurse uses at the doctor’s office to draw blood, only twice the typical size. “Oh hell no!” Haji refused to acknowledge the voice of his young graduate student, as if staying in character, though there was no character beyond himself, the poet and translator as others knew him. Sticking the needle deep into the breast of the matted white feathered body, as if trying to reach the heart, Haji pulled back on the syringe, sucking up thick, purplish blood. With the music and the voice on a loop “Man, bayyad, avorddam,” he turned to the screen behind him, left down after the last presenter’s slideshow of her native Tibet. In an uncannily perfect calligraphy, he wrote these opening lines from Rumi’s “Nightingale Under the Snow,” first in Persian, then, in parenthesis, in his own English translation.
گاهی اوقات من تعجب می کنم، شیرین ترین عشق، اگر شما
یک رویای صرف در یک شب طولانی زمستان بود،
(Sometimes I wonder, sweetest love, if you
Were a mere dream in a long winter night).
As the blood dried on the screen, Haji turned off the music and sat down, facing the audience in their stunned silence.