Spring 1996 (4.1)
A Short Story by Zeidulla Agayev
"Old Tree," by El Turan, 1973
Zeidulla Agayev first published "Solitude" in 1980. However, he believes his story is even more relevant and poignant today than when it was written. Poverty, especially among the elderly, is even more debilitating and more severe today.
On average, pensioners receive the equivalent of about $2 a month which is barely adequate to buy a daily loaf of bread for a week. As well, relationships among family members have become more fragmented as life becomes much more fast-paced and pressured.
Traditionally, Azerbaijanis have dutifully cared for their elderly within the structure of the family. In all of Azerbaijan, with its estimated population of about 7.3 million, there is only one small "old folks' home."
The author uses a minimalist approach in developing the plot, illustrating how powerful the repetition of a few carefully chosen symbols can be. The true meaning of the story comes not so much from the action of the plot as from the psychological tension that develops between the care an elderly mother expects and the care she receives-expected from her family but provided by her friends. Set in Baku during the cold months of winter, when frigid winds sweep down from the North and penetrate through to the bone, the old mother's loneliness seems even more tragic and bleak.
Agayev is the Chair of the Literature Section at the Institute of Foreign Languages in Baku.
The courtyard was quiet these days. The chilling winds had forced members of the seven families who lived in the apartment complex to move from their verandas to warmer rooms inside. No longer was it possible to sit out on the verandas and just chat. Sometimes, when the wind died down and the sun peeked out from behind the dark gray clouds, the children would appear in the courtyard and, of course, get carried away, squabbling amongst themselves. But the parents no longer criticized or blamed each other with complaints of "Why don't you look after your own child?"
It was the presence of a bulldozer, particularly, its shovel, which leaned against one of the walls in a neighboring courtyard, that filled them with hope. That's why there were no more arguments. Nor was there any need for Aunt Halima to lecture everyone. Sitting on her veranda, Aunt Halima's domineering voice could easily be heard by "Shameless Safura" who lived in the opposite corner of the yard.
Very often the women simply sat on their verandas and listened to Aunt Halima's injunctions or replied to her questions. Sometimes they just stood in the center of the little courtyard and nodded with great respect.
There were two reasons why Aunt Halima had gained their esteem. First, she was the eldest woman in the courtyard and secondly, she, obviously, was a model mother-her son was a professor at the university! That alone was proof that something was extraordinary about her. Who among the other women of the yard would not have wished her child to have succeeded as Aunt Halima's Habib had.
Aunt Halima was clever enough to understand all this, so, sitting on her veranda, she would lecture about how she had raised her son, recalling anecdotes and adding tidbits here and there about her daughter-in-law, Latifa. And the women would listen attentively, nodding their heads.
But these days the severe, cold winds blowing over the Absheron peninsula had been relentless, refusing to die down. The children no longer played in the courtyard, or quarreled or threatened each other with menacing fist fights, causing their mothers to get into arguments, too. Even if there had been a fuss, no one would have stopped it, as Aunt Halima had fallen ill and burrowed herself away in her inner room those past two weeks.
One day when the wind abated, and the sun could be seen somewhere behind the gray-black clouds, the women heard Aunt Halima's voice complaining from her veranda.
"When will this winter ever finish? I'm so tired of this cold!"
Everyone in the building had heard her and hastened to cheer her with warm words. Her appearance on the veranda meant that her illness was over. The first who appeared in the courtyard was "Shameless Safura".
"Oh, Sister Halima, I'm so glad that you're feeling better."
Zamina, who had recently become engaged, came out. As did dark-skinned Nazila. In fact, all six women of the courtyard gathered in the center of the yard within a few seconds to offer kind words of encouragement to Halima. "May you always be on your feet, Sister Halima. Be far from all disease."
Aunt Halima thanked them with the dignity that was so characteristic of mothers who had great sons. She then urged them to return to their flats as it was cold outside.
Then she glanced up at the gray-black clouds in the sky, then to the shivering bare branches on the trees, and finally towards the bulldozer. Despite the fact that the grippe had left her weak for two weeks, she forced herself to get dressed to go out. "Have to dress and go...have to go to my son's place ...I just have to go!"
Early morning the next day, Nazila's son would come to buy her bread, yogurt and "sabzi" (fresh "greens" such as basil, mint, tarragon, and spring onions, which traditionally accompany meals). Aunt Halima would have to give him some money, but she didn't have a single coin. And it would be several days before she could expect her pension. She had never asked neighbors for money before, nor would she do it this time. What would they, those strange people, think of her-Aunt Halima, whose son worked at the university?
After dressing, she moved slowly to the corner of the room, picked up a little box, took great pleasure in looking at the multi-colored little toy tank inside and placed it into her once-beautiful bag. She then closed the door and went outside.
It was as if the wind had been waiting her arrival. It pounced on her from every different direction. The cold penetrated her bones. She stood motionless for a few moments, leaning against the frozen stones of the wall. She wanted so badly to return to her flat, but remembering Nazila's son, she pushed forward.
Finally, she arrived at her son Habib's door, a good distance away. She paused a moment to calm her pounding heart. She put her shivering finger to the door bell, but withdrew it immediately. She knew that her daughter-in-law didn't like long rings. She had become weak from the strenuous walk. It was so cold. It had taken all her strength to resist the winds and stay on her feet, but she composed herself and managed a smile by the time Latifa finally opened the door.
"Come in, come in," Latifa offered, looking at her in amazement. "What is this? How did you come in such weather?"
"Weren't you expecting guests?" Halima's voice was so weak she could scarcely speak.
"Guests in this storm? Are you crazy? We'll invite them on Saturday...Why don't you take off your coat?"
Halima was very tired from her walk. Her heart was pounding and she knew that she didn't have much strength, so she sat down on a chair in the kitchen.
"Let me catch my breath."
"What's the matter with you, Khanom (woman)? You look so pale," Latifa observed.
"I've been feeling badly...for two weeks...in bed...I was..."
She couldn't bring herself to admit that she couldn't afford to buy medicine and that she was lonely in her damp room with its empty walls.
"It's difficult to live in the dampness. Simply, I...have to take it easy."
"Haven't they pulled down that apartment yet?" Latifa asked, putting the kettle on the gas stove.
"In fact, we've been watching the bulldozer pull down neighborhood houses. But don't you see the weather? After they finish pulling those others down, they'll issue orders for ours."
"Such good news!" Latifa smiled.
Aunt Halima reached for her once-beautiful bag on the floor, opened it, took the multi-colored tank out and placed it on the kitchen table.
"For Elgun. May he become great like his father."
"Thanks," Latifa said, glancing at the toy for an instant. "Habib bought one just like it from Moscow last summer."
Little Elgun appeared at the kitchen entrance with sleepy eyes, muttering something. Latifa wanted to take the child to the toilet but suddenly Elgun ran in and took the toy from the kitchen table. Aunt Halima embraced her grandson heartily.
"Say, who bought this tank for you?" she asked.
"For my birthday."
"Oh, good boy! Do you know how old you are?"
But their conversation was interrupted. Latifa took the toy from her son's hands, put it on top of the refrigerator and took Elgun to the bathroom. A few minutes later, she returned.
"But you haven't taken off your coat," she told her mother-in-law.
"I'll be heading home." These words came from Halima's lips quite suddenly and unexpectedly. She had intended to take her coat off, to take the tea offered by her daughter-in-law, to chat with her son and grandson, even with Latifa. In a word, to spend these sick, weary, stormy days with her nearest relatives. But then these words had suddenly tumbled out. Nor had Latifa insisted.
A minute or so passed. Aunt Halima was the first to break the silence.
"What time is it?"
"A few minutes past three," replied Latifa.
"Will Habib be late?"
"Why do you want Habib? He finishes his lecture at five, then he must go to the TV studio. He's giving a speech on TV this evening about raising children. Pity, that you haven't got a TV set. You can watch him at your neighbor's."
At that moment, Elgun ran into the kitchen.
"Give me my tank, Granny!"
Aunt Halima stood up, took the toy from the refrigerator and handed it to the child.
"Oh, are you leaving? Why? Sit a bit. Tea will be ready," Latifa mumbled.
But Aunt Halima wouldn't sit down again.
"I...I didn't even switch off the gas. I must return ...um...I only came to greet my grandson."
At the entrance, Latifa suddenly asked, "You said that you'll be given a new flat?"
"Yes, God willing. As soon as the weather...the bulldozer...."
"They'll be giving you a two-room flat, won't they?"
"Of course, why not? I'm not alone on the list. Elgun is also with me, you know."
Habib had come up with that idea. By listing his son as living with his mother, they would be able to qualify for a two-room flat. It was for this reason that Aunt Halima had continued living in that miserable damp flat.
Latifa went on, "My sister lives in Yassamal with her family. They are renters now, you know. Habib says that we'll give the new flat to them. Then you can live with us, you know..."
It was very difficult for Aunt Halima to hear Latifa's words. Nazila's son was standing before her eyes. Tomorrow morning Halima would need some bread, yogurt and sabzi.
"My daughter, I need some money. My pension will not arrive for a few days."
"Oh, I see," Latifa whispered. She stalked to the bedroom and returned a minute later, extending a small bank note. Halima took the money with trembling fingers.
"Woman, you're old and diabetic, we know. You don't eat meat, no sugar. It's so strange. How is it that you manage to spend all your pension?" Latifa complained.
Aunt Halima wanted to say something, but she could only gasp. The pounding of her heart sounded so loud in her ears. The bank note slipped out of her weak, trembling fingers. She left without a word. The door closed behind her. The sound echoed in her ears. Aunt Halima took some steps, leaned against the wall while the stairs became blurry through her tears.
Fortunately, the cold and frost had chased everyone inside their flats. Nobody was on the stairs as she left. Nor did Halima want to be seen by anyone now. What would they think about her wretched son, Habib, now? The grief and sorrow which had been deep in her soul for years, turned into bitter tears and sobs.
She was weeping for herself, for her dry dignity. She had always praised Habib and this Latifa to her neighbors, to those ordinary women in the little courtyard. In the meantime, she was suffering there in that damp flat for this Latifa and this Habib! The hope which the shovel of the bulldozer had always brought evaporated with Latifa's words "my sister with her family...renters..."
Aunt Halima slowly descended the stairs and headed out into the empty street of the windy city. Every step was torture. She inched along groping for the trees, bracing herself against the walls of houses along the way. The severe wind attacked her from all sides at every corner. And now the empty, once-beautiful bag flew up and hit her in the face.
Suddenly, she felt dizzy. She longed for her damp flat, her old bed in the corner. She moved ahead, inch by inch, passing near the bulldozer with its shovel. Suddenly, everything blurred as she reached the entrance to her little courtyard. When Aunt Halima opened her eyes, she didn't know where she was.
"How are you, Sister Halima?"
It was "Shameless Safura." They were in her flat. Halima was suddenly sorry for having branded Safura with that name, "Shameless."
"How are you, Sister Halima?"
The question came from everyone's lips. Aunt Halima looked up into the faces of the six women standing around her bed.
"Where are your husbands?" she asked.
"They're playing dominoes in your flat, Sister Halima." And Safura added, "You'll stay with us until there's a new flat. Yours is too moist and damp."
With great difficulty, Aunt Halima managed to hold back her tears. Yet still a surge of pride allowed her to overcome the truth.
"Everything happened so suddenly! Habib, my son, the professor..."
"Oh, we know him."
"He saw me off, up to the door of our courtyard, and went away. He had to go to the TV studio. Switch on the TV. We'll see. Yes, he left! What happened to me when I entered the courtyard? I don't remember. Maybe the ground was slippery or something..."
The six women said nothing as they listened to Halima's words. And they nodded, understanding everything.
Translated from Azeri by the author.
From Azerbaijan International (4.1) Spring 1996.
© Azerbaijan International 1996. All rights reserved.