FICTION (June 2018)

Gulli’s Strange Journey

by Ali Azar 

The feeble sunlight of autumn crawled over the garden. Gulli finished her morning prayer, the shortest one of the day, which became shorter since she prayed seated because of her poor feet. Morning was her favourite time of the day when she could take a brief stroll before her lower limbs refused to function and her wheezing lungs were out of breath; the heart was not doing any better.

She plodded in a narrow cobbled path along the garden. The path ended in a neglected hut, which used to be the carpenter’s workshop of her late husband, Haji Izet. Then she returned and sat on a chair, rested her hands on the cane and looked at the green landscape before her eyes. A line of apple trees was the frontier; the tall walnuts were behind. The garden was getting more dishevelled; the rebellious weeds had proliferated everywhere as their sole groomer, Izet, was no more.

‘Good morning Ms Seyid.’ Her maid, Gizbas, announced her arrival. She was a thin woman with a bony face. Being the seventh girl of the family, she was named ‘Gizbas’ – meaning ‘no more girls’ – to complain to the Throne of Allah about the disproportionate ratio of girls to boys, though, in fact, she didn’t care about her matter-of-fact name. Her age was unknown. ‘I was born in the winter that Foot and Mouth disease spread everywhere, left not a single fleshy beast,’ she said when asked.

Her wage was covered by Gulli’s youngest son, Isaac, a successful agriculture consultant, the one with the sweetest tongue among her children, who all lived in Tehran. They left their birth town for the capital many years ago, worked and bred there, and now they had their own clans that kept them too busy to visit their old mother. Instead, they insisted on her joining them, but their efforts were futile in persuading their strong-minded mother. Isaac was the most persistent one, and he kept trying whenever he visited Gulli.

‘I implore you, Isaac, not to insist! Here is my home and the place for me to die. If you go out of the house and ask the first person you see in the street if they know Sayid Gulli, they would say ‘No. I don’t want to be buried in exile like Haji Izet.’

But Isaac was irresistible and came up with new ways of persuasion every time. Occasionally he got emotional, expressing the guilt of not fulfilling his duty as a son.

‘Let’s take your wife, Ashraf. She doesn’t give a damn about me whether I come to Tehran or not. She is a city girl, and to her we are bumpkins! Over there, I will be alone Isaac!’ argued Gulli.

‘You are wrong my dear Nana,’ said Isaac, kissing her wrinkled flabby hands. ‘Ashraf loves you and will be over the moon seeing you there!’

‘Well, I haven’t seen her love for me for the twenty years of being my daughter -in-law,’ Gulli would have wanted to say to her son, but how could she dishearten him? Eventually she promised to move to Tehran before the winter.

A group of crows drew her attention, cawing inharmoniously. She liked this unpopular bird. It was getting cold and time to go inside the house.

Recently she had become a prisoner of her own house: the nest Haji Izet built for his young family fifty years before. It was built between two gardens. A stony stair, with uneven treads, connected the exit gate up to a small front garden, where another stair, with even treads, led to the main building at whose rear was a garden: an endless garden. As an immigrant villager, Haji Izet viewed towns suspiciously, so he built a fortress that would protect his family from unpredictable, urban threats.

As a member of the local council for the settlement of disputes Izet paid particular attention to his appearance, wore a snow-white shirt with rosy tie, shaved cleanly, slicked his silvery hairs back. He mingled with important people of the town like lawyers, governors and musicians, and invited them to play backgammon and drink wine, though, personally, he never found the taste of alcohol pleasant.

Many of his guests weren’t local and couldn’t speak Turkish so he had to speak the difficult language of Farsi. One day, in an attempt to compare Mayer’s dog with his own one in Farsi, he said: ‘My dog is as good looking as you,’ mixing pronoun with possessive. This made the crowd burst into laughter and reddened Mayer’s face.

‘Either I am an incompetent Farsi speaker, or this language is a hard one to learn,’ he confessed to Gulli, who found Farsi alien to her, and she never attempted to learn it, nor was she interested in doing so.

Gulli was a Seyid, a descendant of the prophet Muhammad, a person whose prayers were heard and answered by Allah. She had many visitors who came to her to end their miseries, to seek remedies for their infirmities, to break their curses; Gulli’s memory was filled with these secrets and untold stories.

As a Seyid, she wore a black turban with a dark purple dress: she was thankful for that as the dark colour made her look thinner. She listened attentively to her visitors’ troubles, never interrupted them or rushed in coming up with an immediate solution while thinking about some aspirations, finding suitors for undateables (thanks to her knowing many people). If the misery was too deep, then she had to leave the matter to the hands of the Provider, Allah, and she wrote a prayer on a piece of a paper, enveloped it into a green cloth, sutured and placed in a leather bag to be put on the requester’s neck.

Although her procedures were serious, the way she talked was full of humour. She always found time to make a joke, and her favourite topic was her body.

’I always pity my legs. You know why?’ she told people, looking at them with a serious face, ‘How have they managed to carry a lump like me this long!’ Laughter ensued among those who knew Gulli’s humorous nature and confusion arose in first-time visitor who struggled to understand why the most famous woman in the town was mocking her body mercilessly.

Izet did not intrude in Gulli ‘s business. ‘As long as you don’t do it for free, it’s fine by me,’ he said. She didn’t do so but never charge people with money; they brought her whatever they had: a rack of eggs, a bottle of honey, a loaf of freshly baked Naan.

Now, the number of her visitors was diminishing. Old times passed, and the younger generation either considered Gulli’s procedures superstitious or did not believe in God fundamentally. Besides, she was getting old, tired of dealing with people’s sorrows while she had started sensing her own ones standing out.

After her morning walk, she went inside her house and lay on her squeaky metal bed. The house was a series of rooms connected to each other like train wagons, starting from the guest room, with two wide wooden windows facing each other (through which the light flooded inside) and ended in a kitchen. There was a small room in between, where Gulli’s bed was placed so she would not miss a single event happening in her sleepy house. The room had a window, beside the bed, so that she could watch the garden while sitting in her bed, which made her take walks down ‘memory lane’ that were mainly sweet.

In summers, the season of fruit-picking, the boys from the neighbourhood sneaked in the garden to pick cherries, plums and walnuts: the luxurious products of the garden. These nimble bandits were hard to catch. The unlucky ones, grabbed by Izet, would feel a few lashes from his walnut stick complemented by some ‘You-mama…’  swearing.          

Gulli had a caller, Mashadi Abish, her neighbour, whose visits became more frequent following Izet’s death. Mashad Abish was deeply pious and nicknamed ‘crooked-mouth Abish’ for having a crooked mouth. His visits were a good opportunity for Gulli and Gizbas to have fun.

While he was talking, Gulli twisted her mouth in the way only Gizbas could see. Although having a shy nature, his head was always down and he did not notice what Gulli was doing.

One noon, during siesta, he came in and found Gulli alone. Without any introduction he started: ‘Ms Seyid! you are now lonely like me, and loneliness is only for Allah,’ he paused, while his sunken head was looking at something in the carpet. ‘I propose we get married so we won’t be alone while death approaching us.’

Gulli listened to him silently, examining the old man while he gave his short speech.

‘Actually Mashadi Abish. It is not a bad idea at all. Cursed to loneliness! I think it is possible, but I have one condition!’

‘Sure Ms Seyid.’

‘You know that I have poor legs and I can’t get out of the house, which has become a prison for me. My condition for you is to carry me on your back and take me to the street once a week. You know, I don’t remember the last time I strolled in the town. God knows how much I have missed that, Mashadi Abish!’

For the first time, Abish raised his head and looked at Gulli through his ungroomed bushy grey eyebrows. Being aware of her witty nature, he was hoping to see a sign of the humour on her face, but she looked unhumorous.

‘Alas Ms Seyid, what can I say! I am an old man whose body has dried out a long time ago. I hardly carry myself so how could I possibly carry you! Mashallah, you are a big woman!’

‘Then how dare you propose to me!’ responded Gulli. ‘Apparently, your dick has not dried yet. You swine! Shame on you!’

Abish stood up promptly and left the house without saying anything, and never came back again.

Looking back now, Gulli thought that, had she married Abish, she might have stayed in her beloved town.   

Darkness fell, and Gizbas had gone home. Gulli had had her dinner a while previously, but her appetite came back. So, before going to bed, she popped into the kitchen, fetched a slice of halva, brought by one of her visitors, the aroma of the halva having circulated all over the house. Her doctors had prohibited it as too fatty for her. But she took another slice and swallowed it without thinking, after which came the awakening of her conscience: the pleasure immediately replaced by guilt. But this did not last for long. With a pleasure in her belly, she looked forward to a comfortable sleep.  She lay down on the bed and closed her eyes.

Rolling on her mattress, Gulli couldn’t sleep. There was an unfamiliar feeling of lightness in her body. She got up and sat on the edge of the bed, looked at her feet. Then, she stood up on her feet, grabbed her cane and walked along the side of the bed. There was no pain in her feet and this surprised her as, normally, by her third step, the pain from her incompetent lower limbs, her exhausted muscles, usually announced their presence.

She passed the guest room where moonlight patterned the trees of the garden on the carpet. Reaching the door that opened to the garden, she still didn’t feel a slightest ache, so she decided to have a little wander in the sleeping green plot. It had been her childhood habit to sneak out from the house and wander in her father’s vast garden when the moon was least shy.

‘And it is He who made the night a covering for you.’ 

(After marriage, she got caught in one of her nocturnal adventures by Izet who looked terrified. As a young bride, she had to behave and quit her odd habit.)

Occasional clucking from the birdhouse in the corner of the garden and a distant dog howling (sensing a threat from foes behind the mountains) could be heard. Gulli looked at the path lined with trees on both sides and walked it with such a pace that she quickly reached the wide lawn at the bottom of the garden. A bench and swing, made by Izet, were in the centre. Gulli admired her husband’s skill in making such craft that had lasted until now. She sat on the bench, stretched her arms and examined the rope of the swing to see if it could hold a hundred something kilos of weight. It looked solid. She cautiously sat on it, pushed it back with her feet and swayed slowly, looking up at the sky abundant with shining stars.

“Nana! Some of those stars have died many years ago but their lights are still visible,’ enlightened her grandson, Ghader, one day.  Gulli hadn’t understood what he meant apart from the death part, and since then sky-gazing saddened her.

A white object sitting on the bench drew her attention; it was a figure wearing a white shirt. His palm was resting on his knees, his silver hairs shining under the moon… and he was smiling at her.

‘Haji, is it you?’ asked Gulli. 

‘How are you, Gulli? You look wonderful! The dress you are wearing,’ he said, pointing at Gulli’s dress with his big index finger, ‘is the one from Laylah’s wedding, isn’t it?’

She looked down at herself. It was a floral dress with red poppy pattern. She wore it for the wedding of her eldest grandchild, Laylah.

Looking toward the bench while tears clogged her throat, she saw no one: all of the surroundings were in deep sleep. The bird house next to the lawn drew her attention. It was time to pay a visit to her dear birds. She opened the wrecked front door gently so as not to disturb its residents. Among the birds were a few buffs and reds, and one barred – all  on their shelves – occasionally cackling and clucking. Gulli closed the door quietly.

The weather became chillier: dawn was approaching. Time to go back inside. Gulli saw a square pool that she had demolished many years ago. Her eyes caught a girl who sat like a frog beside it, digging the ground with something. It was her daughter: her late Rugheye. A flood of emotion torrented through her, and tears rushed to her eyes.

‘Forgive me my dear. I should have been more careful. That damned pool should not have been filled with water. You were too little to be left alone,’ she said loudly in a gravelly tone. Rugheye glanced at her mother, smiled and dashed into the dark.

Dazed and pained, Gulli plummeted to the ground and howled as loudly as she could, but it didn’t last long. The silence of the garden hushed her.

‘O Allah, Al-Rahman Al-Rahim. The Most Merciful, free me from this torment and take my sinful soul from this earth.’ 

Tears were rolling rapidly down her cheeks as if they would never stop. She cried till she became tired, then raised her elbow to wipe her sobbing eyes with her sleeves. As she did this something sharp penetrated them. She rubbed her eyes with her hands and found a spiky object stabbed her eyes again: something wasn’t right.

By blinking she forcibly cleared her eyes to see that a pair of claws were now where her feet were supposed to be, that tent-like structures had replaced her hands, and that a long beak had taken the place of her delicate nose. Examining herself thoroughly, she concluded she had become a crow. 

Terror ambushed her. She thought this must be an ultimate punishment by subduer Allah, but her God-fearing feeling was soon replaced with curiosity about her new body: light and agile.

Birds were her favourite creatures; pigeons for their approachability and humbleness, tiny sparrows for their beauty, swallows (whose migration made her sorrowful), and owls, masters of the darkness. Crows were different. She probably was the only person in the town who fed them. At dusk, Gulli, holding her skirt chock-full of breadcrumbs, arrived at the oldest tree of the garden, an old walnut, where the crows congregated. While whistling, she threw crumbs on the ground and the cawing crows promptly landed, surrounded her and hastily pecked the crumbs.

Now she was one of them.

Gulli wondered if she could fly.

She walked towards the ladder rested against the trunk of a tree. Climbing from one step to another, she reached the fourth, then dived into the air while clapping her wings as hard as she could.

Soon, not only she was floating on air, she started ascending. Wobbly in the beginning, she quickly managed to balance herself. The garden was shrinking, and a faint light of sun was visible on the horizon. Below her, the box-like houses were barely lit up.

Cock-a-doodle-doos came far and wide as cockerels started competing. Gulli flew over the garden, passed above Mashadi Gurban’s store, then Haji Hossein’s majestic garden, the most beautiful one in the town thought Gulli (though she had never told this to her husband). ‘That tailor doesn’t understand gardening’ Izet had said.

To her left, Mount Savalan was standing up singly, undermining the other surrounding charismatic mountains. To her right, the Beige Moghan mountain chain, yonder behind a curtain of dust.

The cemetery below her was notable for its haphazardly laid out graves. It was a good opportunity for Gulli to say farewell to her parents and to Rughaye. She landed on their dusty graves and prayed Fatih.

‘You alone do we worship and You. Alone do we ask for help.

Guide us to the straight path.’  

Meanwhile the roaring of cars announced the awakening of modern life.

Gulli reached the bazaar with its imposing emerald Minaret mosque. Merchants were lifting the shutters of their shops. Aromas of freshly-brewed tea were coming out of the cafés. The fragrances of baking barbari from bakeries were maddening. Hungry queuers were impatiently waiting for bakers, beaten-up by oven heat, to throw the bread on metal boards for them.

Next to the bazaar was Chaypara, the biggest neighbourhood of the town, where the town gathered in its square during Ashura, Gulli’s favourite religious ritual, to mourn Husein’s death in the Battle of Karbala. The men,wore black, beating their chests, marching from their neighbourhoods toward the square while sombre songs were sung. In the tail of the parade, a man, with an incompetent megaphone, encouraged the mourners to mourn more passionately, particularly when other parades passed by: rivalry is human nature, even in grieving.

Gulli, like other women, children, elderly people, non-believers and lovers, was a spectator of this mourning. She went to the parade with her female companions and entertained them with her jokes. They all giggled under their chadors but mourned when the dirge started.

The sun was now above the Savalan, and she had to return home. Cars were honking with rage; children, swinging their bags, trotting wildly to schools, their cursing parents following them. Approaching the neighbourhood, Gulli descended. A bunch of young boys came into her sight. Their shaved and scarred heads were a sign of menace.

‘Look at that fat old crow!’ she heard one of them say.

‘It is time for it to meet Azrael’ said another.

‘The angel of death put in charge of you will reclaim you.

Then to your Lord you will be returned.’

Gulli beat her wings hard, toward the sky this time, then glanced again at the earth. She saw one of the boys holding a slingshot charged with a rock bullet, aiming at her: the experienced hunter taking his time to ensure the shot would not miss.

* * *

‘Ms Seyid… Ms Seyid.’ Gulli heard a familiar voice. It was Gizbas, with her mousy eyes, shaking her shoulder. 

 ‘Are you OK?’

Gulli looked around with confusion. A pain struck her, leaving her no option but to howl.

‘Gizbas, bring my drugs. My feet are killing me! Better them cut off to free myself!’

Gizbas, with panic, rushed into the kitchen and came back with a bag of drugs.

‘Hurry up! give me two of those red pills.’

Gulli put both pills on her tongue, swallowed them and drank a whole glass of water, then waited for another a couple minutes.

‘Call Doctor Aziz, I can’t bear it anymore,’ she finally said.

Gizbas grabbed the phone, looked at Gulli to tell the numbers.

‘Give me that goddam phone,’ Gulli said and dialled the phone numbers.

‘My child! Put me through to the doctor. Tell him it is Seyid Gulli,’ she told receptionist.

‘Just a minute please,’ the receptionists replied.

‘Hi auntie! how are you doing?’ It was the doctor’s voice on the other end of line.

‘Come here Aziz with your strongest painkillers, I am dying bit by bit.’

‘What has happened, auntie?’

‘This isn’t one of my typical pains. Just come here now,’ Gulli said. Aziz said he was coming, not asking any further questions.

Doctor Aziz’s late mother was Gulli’s close friend. He was a well-known doctor, nicknamed ‘Mad Aziz’ after being seen loudly swearing and chasing the patients who made him furious for various reasons. He arrived in less than an hour with his big worn-out leather bag.

’Poor Aziz! He is getting fatter and bolder,’ Gulli thought in the middle of her torment when she saw him. He stood in front of her bed. His wild eyes smiled and asked what had happened.

‘My feet, Aziz!’

While physically examining Gulli’s white naked feet his smile was replaced with seriousness. ‘Your feet and knees have become unusually swollen! Walked a lot recently?’ he asked.

‘No. How can I!  A few steps a day at most.’

‘I will make an injection into your joint. It is going to be painful for a bit, but soon you will feel better,’ said Aziz while digging his bag.

The excessive pain in her knee didn’t allow her to feel the injection. Aziz waited until Gulli’s groaning subsided, then told her he would come back in the evening to check on her.  He gave Gizbas some sedative pills in case Gulli’s pain came back.

‘Tell the instruction to me Aziz. Gizbas can’t even remember her own medicine!’ said Gulli. He obeyed her. All she wanted to know was that the route for the delivery of the drug delivery and nowhere else. Aziz then packed up his bag and left; he was never keen on unnecessary conversation. Soon, the pain disappeared from Gulli‘s body and she fell asleep .

The rumbling of her stomach awakened her. Gizbas brought her a bowl of doga, yogurt broth flavoured with coriander and tarragon. Gulli grabbed a piece of Naan, started spooning the bowl fast.

‘It will burn your mouth Ms Seyid,’ said Gizbas. But Gulli couldn’t feel burning: her mouth was sedated too. Once finished, she leant back on the bed and tried to gather her breath after the exercise of the eating.

‘Did you go outside last night Ms. Seyid?’ asked Gizbas.

‘Me, of course not! Why did you ask?’

‘The garden door was open, and your chair was on the path this morning!’ said Gizbas.

‘What are you saying? There was not anyone with me last night.’

‘I checked everything. Nothing has been stolen,’ she added.

‘That is really creepy, Gizbas,’ Gulli said, but in an affectionate way that showed Gizbas her mistress’s good mood had returned: her pain masked, her stomach – and her mind – filled.

Now she had strength to figure out what had happened to her. Gizbas reappeared from the kitchen with a big glass of tea.

‘Did Jalal pay his rent, finally?’ Gizbas said.

“Jalal! What Jalal?”

‘Yesterday! Don’t you remember? He finally came to see you: to pay the rent, I suppose. I doubt that loser would do so, though,’ added Gizbas.

Gulli was still silent, busying herself with sipping the tea. Gizbas knew if she was going to ask one more question, she would be bitten off by Gulli’s sharp tongue, so she retreated to the kitchen, left Gulli in her thoughts.

Gulli wetted a sugar cube in tea and put it in her mouth and drank a gulp of the tea. Now, Jalal was added to the last night’s puzzle. He was Gulli’s long-term tenant who used to be a truck driver. After years of working for others, he owned his own truck, a short-bonnet Mercedes Benz. It didn’t take long before he had an accident, destining the vehicle for the scrapyard. He couldn’t get back to work, his family left him, and he became an outcast. He lost a lot of weight and dark pits grew below his eyes.  He didn’t pay his rent regularly and then stopped. A few times Gulli sent messages to him as reminders, but his response was hostile. She was advised to take legal action but refused to do so.

‘Say, Whatever charity you give is for the poor, God is aware of it.’

Yesterday, Jalal came to see her. He was wearing a shabby coat.

‘Ms Seyid, I heard you are leaving,’ he paused, ‘I haven’t come here to pay the rent’ he said while looking at Gulli indifferently, ’I am here to thank you for not kicking me out to street, for not treating me like an animal.’

Gulli smiled motherly and said: ‘Why do you use that shit? it is poisoning you. You used to be a decent man, Jalal!’

‘You know Ms Seyid, life has never been kind to me and finally broke my back in the way I could never stand up again. Ms Seyid, all I want is to be forgotten. The harm for me is this damned town’s gossip behind me, not the drug. These people made me ‘Junky Jalal’ before I became a junky,’ he said. His conviction silenced her.

‘This, what you call shit, keeps me numb and free of pain!’ he finished, followed by bouts of hoarse coughs.

‘Listen Jalal,’ Gulli said while making sure Gizbas’ sharp ears were not around.

‘What do you mean by saying ‘free of pain’: no pain at all?’

Jalal looked at Gulli and grinned, showing his few surviving rotten teeth.

‘Ms Seyid, you feel nothing. Numb. No pain at all!’

’Is that what you drink, that blue thing?’ asked Gulli; Gizbas once saw Jalal drinking a blue liquid while she was sneaking on his yard.

Jalal laughed faintly, shaking his head.

‘No Ms Seyid, what I mean is a pill. You take it and see effect immediately. The blue thing is something else anyway.’

Her gaze fixed on the carpet, and she decided not to ask any further questions.

Jalal neared his dishevelled head to her.

‘I know you have a lot of pain Ms Seyid… shall I bring you some?’

‘No! No! I didn’t mean that. Don’t mention it,’ she said.

Jalal’s smile vanished.

‘Ms Seyid, don’t ever think I intended to harm you. I only want to help you. Allow me to bring you some very good quality stuff, not the crap I usually take. This will make you as if you are in heaven.’

Meantime she remembered what the neighbourhood women were saying about the wonderful effects of opium. Jalal abruptly stood up and left without saying anything. He shortly came back, with a black plastic bag.

‘Ms Seyid, I have brought you a few balls, pills, I mean. They are tasteless, don’t chew them, just swallow them and use one at a time.

‘I can’t accept that. That is not right!’

‘I will leave it with you. If you don’t want it, throw it away. Please accept it, so I could at least feel I have returned some of your favours. I won’t tell anyone, though I don’t see people.’                                                

He left without waiting for Gulli’s response.

‘Wait, at least let me pay you,’ she shouted, but Jalal had gone.

That night, she opened the plastic bag. There were three black balls, just bigger than sugar cubes. For the sake of her old nocturnal habit, she decided to go for it and tried the pill; the worst case was death, which she would welcome. She took one, waited for a couple minutes and saw no effect, then had another one despite Jalal’s instruction, and nothing happened again. She swallowed the last one and sat on her bed. Soon, she felt a craving for something sweet, so she popped into the kitchen and fetch some halva.

Pain flew from her body… and Gulli’s strange journey to her beloved garden began.




Ali Azar was born in the small town of Meshginshahr, Iran. Ten years ago he moved to the UK. He currently works as a scientist in Edinburgh. Five years ago he took up an interest in writing. He says: ‘The essence of my writing are people, my people, who are under-represented because of the shadow of politics. I write about their characters, their temperaments, their perceptions of life, their myths…’

Follow Horla on Twitter @HorlaHorror