Fountain

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November’s first snow fell overnight. Outside the city, the mountains gleamed powdery in the morning sunlight, but the snow did not stick on the streets of Dushanbe. By the time Parviz Rajabi stepped down from the bus on Rudaki it had mostly melted. He was a news reporter. He was fifty and did not comprehend the source of his anger.

You must do something.

Parviz had no thoughts, hiking the kilometer to his office, unless snow were a thought, or mountain. He would have said he had no feelings, but the sight of Sher sweeping the concrete in front of the office gates aggravated him. It was the officious way the man held the broom. Sher was eight hundred years old and had more beard than face. His Peace be unto you was cause for criminal complaint if only the justice system functioned.

The old man followed Parviz onto the compound, a lair of mostly empty offices that used to be apartments back under the Soviets. In the bright grass a fountain of blue tiles projected cheer but no water. An Indian myna perched on the edge of the fountain, head down, wondering where the water went. Parviz shared the bird’s frustration. Each month he placed a call to the landlord to register a complaint. There was no reason the fountain should stay dry. The landlord neither took nor returned his calls.

It was not clear who owned the office building. It was not entirely clear who owned the paper Parviz worked for. If he took the time he could put together a list of things that were not clear.

Sher shuffled ahead of him to unlock the door to the Mountain News suite, although suite was too grand a word for Parviz’s workplace. An anteroom with a desk meant to accommodate a secretary they did not employ. A computer room where a boy from the university—actually, several boys in rotation—uploaded Parviz’s stories to the Web site. And Parviz’s office. It had high brown walls, a blue sofa, a desk with graffiti carved in Russian on two sides, an air conditioner so loud in the hot months it prevented him from thinking.

He closed the door after himself and sat behind the desk. He turned on the computer. He waited to be annoyed by the clogging sound of Sher’s heels serving tea. But when the door swung open it was not tea he brought, it was a woman. An American woman.

You must do something.

Her name was Millicent. She was tall, which seemed to be the American way. She had healthy skin, long limbs, an assertive manner. Behind her, Sher mumbled, flustered by the foreign guest and worried the interruption would anger Parviz, whom he addressed as Newsman as though it were a title.

Standing to receive the American, Parviz blurted, “How did you find me?”

In good Russian she told him, “I looked you up on the Internet.”

“Tea,” Parviz ordered Sher, meaning also chocolates. That much the codger could handle. He pointed to the sofa.

Millicent sat, instantly comfortable, taking up considerable space.

“I came to tell you I don’t mind if you use my name in your article.”

He nodded. Vexation over the waterless fountain crowded out other reactions, except that he felt a surge of helplessness.

“Have you learned any more?” she wanted to know.

As though she had a right. A muddy impulse made him see her for a moment as a woman. How her skin could possibly feel. The temperature of her lips. But he mastered the fancy before he responded to her question. She was older than his daughter Muvzana, but not by many years.

“I am looking into the situation,” he lied.

Yesterday he had gone to the Tea House. It was a massive edifice, crowned by chaste blue domes that made the eye giddy with delight. Seeing it in the sunlight, one thought of heaven not as a place of longing but of memory. There were dozens of columns, there were alcoves, and grand flights of stairs leading to porticos. A young woman stood on the steps facing Somoni Avenue. She was protesting the expense. The government had spent sixty million dollars on yet another presidential vanity project when the nation lacked the basics. Jobs, schools, roads, hospitals.

This was news. Parviz was a newsman.

The young woman protesting at the Tea House was the age of his daughter. She did not last long on the magnificent steps. Parviz watched three policemen climb the stairs. One clubbed her in the stomach. She slumped, and the other two dragged her down. They threw her into a police vehicle and drove off. No siren necessary. Everyone watched, no one saw. Except for an American woman who happened to be passing down the avenue. On a whim Parviz went up to her. He introduced himself as a reporter and asked her to tell him what she had just seen. This was how newsmen worked.

Three policemen climbed the stairs. One clubbed her in the stomach.

Millicent was a careful observer. Parviz was stunned when she recited the number of the car in which the police had hauled the protestor away.

One thing Parviz disliked about himself was his habit of picturing other people’s situations. Only too well he saw the woman in a cell. The taunts, the abuse of her body, the torture of her mind. Her fear, which would be unrelenting.

Now, to change the subject, he asked Millicent how it was she spoke Russian.

“I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Kazakhstan. They taught me.”

“I see.”

For a moment he thought she must be a spy. The spies were the ones who mastered languages. But even as the thought glanced off him, he knew it was unfair. She was an idealist. Just as dangerous, perhaps. He wished she would leave. But here came Sher with tea on a tray and a plateful of chocolates individually wrapped in plastic. He placed the tray on the little table in front of the blue sofa, and Parviz had no choice but to leave his desk, sit across from Millicent, and drink tea with her. Sher wished he could stay and watch this curious business but knew better and bowed his way out, hand on his heart to suggest they had done him a favor, allowing him to serve them.

Millicent seemed to be in no hurry. She savored her tea.

“In the civil war,” Parviz told her, “we lost my brother.”

“I am very sorry, Mr. Rajabi. I have two brothers. I don’t know what I would do if we lost one of them.”

He shook his head, marveling that he had touched the subject. In the family they did not speak of Rustam. Their mother forbade it. Her pain was as fresh as the day they learned the monstrous fact. What was it about this American woman that she goaded him into confiding private business?

Millicent said, “How was your brother killed?”

“He was fighting with the resistance, against the government.”

She nodded. “You have not written the article about the woman the police took away.”

It was an accusation. Or was he being sensitive?

“We are a weekly newspaper.”

“But you have a Web site. You can post things whenever you like. The longer you wait, the more dangerous for that young woman, don’t you agree?”

He offered her a chocolate. The sound it made as she unwrapped the candy was out of all proportion to the importance of the action. He sipped his tea. He was thinking.

“In Tajikistan,” he began, “things do not function as they function in New York.”

“I’m from Montana.”

She showed him pictures on her telephone. Her beaming parents and her two intact brothers were framed by American mountains. In a meadow behind the family, well fed horses looked alertly at the camera.

“Do you have a picture of your home?”

Of course she did, but she would not show him. Quite right. It would be unbecoming to flaunt a picture of her family’s mansion. She may have learned some manners in Kazakhstan. He eased her out of the office with a promise to call her when his story was posted.

At the gate, Sher watching open-eyed, Millicent shook Parviz’s hand as a man would.

“Do you know what I remember, Mr. Rajabi?”

“What do you remember?”

“Her scream as the police pushed her into the car.”

Parviz nodded. When she had disappeared down the block he went back to his desk. He sat for a moment, not thinking. Then he picked up his phone and dialed the landlord’s number. There was no answer.

They had learned through the years not to argue over important things they could not change. Money. Their children’s teachers. The quality of the doctors who treated them. (Doctors were better under the Soviets, who knew how to educate people.) Each evening Parviz and Tahmina asked one another what had happened at work that day. Trivial tales, but never mind. This way they avoided antagonism. Tahmina did not deserve the tongue-lashing he gave her. He stopped himself as soon as he was able to.

At some point he had stopped being deferential and become obsequious.

On the balcony, cooling off in the gathering night, he was aware of laundry drying on railings, satellite dishes staring in obnoxious ignorance at the sky. It was a Khruschev building, not built to last. It was lasting. After a few minutes Muvzana quietly joined him, wondering but not asking if he was still angry. She took after her mother. Short and round. Upper-body strength a man might envy. A handsome face on which laughter constantly threatened to break out.

“This boy,” he said.

He meant Maruf, to whom she was engaged. It was a good match. Maruf’s father had a trucking business in the south. He was prospering. There was no reason to think the boy would not prosper with him.

“Yes, Father.”

“You are pleased with your fortune.”

Lately when the subject of the wedding came up Muvzana pretended dismay, which was appropriate. It was a sign of the modesty that fathers and mothers encouraged. For some reason, however, Parviz’s conversation with Millicent made him suspect his daughter might not be faking it. When she did not answer he said again, “You are pleased.”

“I do not want to marry this person.”

“Why?”

The direct question startled her, and she slipped back inside. Later, in bed, Tahmina made an unconvincing effort to snore. He shook her arm.

“The girl does not want to marry this Maruf.”

“Yes, she does.”

Parviz heard the ticking of a clock. It was quite loud. There was no clock that ticked in their bedroom. There was none in the apartment. Two things were clear. His wife forgave him for speaking sharply at dinner, and she would not discuss Muvzana’s engagement. He could not sleep. It took time to figure out the new thing that was eating him. He had been treating Maruf’s father with deference, smoothing the way for the union. But he had gone too far. At some point he had stopped being deferential and become obsequious. In the dark, the shame burned.

In the morning there was no gas to heat water for tea. They had run out. An oversight, the sort of thing that could happen to anyone. On her way out the door to work, Tahmina reminded Parviz that she was taking Muvzana to buy a wedding dress that afternoon. They would be late. He would find beans in the refrigerator. Parviz’s mind had ceased to work the way he was accustomed to it working. The word ‘beans’ set him on the path to Millicent’s place of work, which he found in a block of offices not far from his own. Beneath an image of a loaf of bread, the sign said ‘Leaven’ in Tajik and Russian.

She met him at the door as if she were expecting him. Her healthy face looked worried. “Oh, Mr. Rajabi. Do you want to come in?”

That was not a good start. But he followed her into a cluster of rooms around a dark central cavern with a long table. A glass vase with no flowers sat on the table next to an untidy stack of magazines. The drabness of the place puzzled him. He had understood that American money was behind the organization. From behind a closed door came the sound of a woman rhythmically moaning, as though every moment another item of bad news were reaching her. When Millicent closed her own office door, inviting Parviz to have a seat, the sound faded but did not go away entirely.

“Her husband beat her,” Millicent explained. “She was pregnant. She lost the child.”

“What is she doing here?”

“We are here to support this country’s development. To empower people, although we can’t very well say that. Your government would object to such a mission. Nor can we announce that we have taken in a battered woman. This is an unusual situation, Mr. Rajabi. We are feeling our way. You know better than I how few women ask for help. When one does, we cannot turn her away.”

Parviz cursed the quality of mind that forced him to envision the life of the wailing woman. The husband, the home, the stillborn child. It seemed wrong that this foreign woman witness such national disgrace.

“You have a daughter,” Millicent said.

He nodded. He was irked. Why did this American understand him? He told her, “What I said yesterday, about my brother.”

“Yes?”

“It was a lie.”

“What was his name?”

He responded too quickly. “Rustam.”

“I see.”

The idea of introducing Muvzana to Millicent came to him. He sent it packing. No good thing would come of such a meeting.

The woman who had lost her baby shrieked. To Parviz it sounded perversely like a woman in labor. This poor soul was delivering death. He had come intending to tell Millicent the truth. He could not write the story about the woman taken away from the Tea House steps because he feared the government’s retribution. There were monitors, people paid to scour Web sites all day long looking for objectionable news. He would get a furious call from Mr. Mavlyanov terminating his employment. Or worse. A scene in the park in spring sunshine came to him. A wedding. In her white dress, posing for pictures, Muvzana was miserable. The source of her sadness was doubled. She did not want to be married to Maruf, and her father had vanished.

The scene changed Parviz’s mind for him. His unreliable mind took another baffling leap.

“You should be more careful.”

“What do you mean?”

“You do not know me, yet you confide sensitive information in me. If they heard such things as you have just told me, they would deport you. They would ban this organization you call Leaven. You have no reason to trust me.”

He waited for his message to sink in. She nodded. It was clear that her mind was on the woman she was protecting.

“Would you like tea, Mr. Rajabi?”

Yes, he would very much like tea, having left home dry. But the conversation was over, and she escorted him out as he had done for her the day before.

On the street he called Jurabek. They had been to school together, getting the same substandard education everyone else got when Tajikistan ceased being a Soviet republic. Jurabek was skilled with people and wound up in a good job with the police. He had his own office and never spoke about his work. He was affable and not afraid to show the good heart his mother bequeathed him. They had a short conversation. Parviz told him what he had seen at the Tea House. After a significant pause, Jurabek warned him off.

“This is not a story for your newspaper, my friend.”

It was Parviz’s time to pause. “Do you know the girl’s name?”

“What kind of question is that?”

“Just tell me.”

“Kandikov. First name, Shemsiya. Don’t be foolish, Parviz. Promise me you will be reasonable.”

Parviz promised. Back at his office, he wrote a story about wedding traditions in Tajikistan. A historical look. When the university boy stuck his head in to ask if there was anything to post, Parviz snapped at him.

Why Parviz could not stay away from Millicent was beyond him. His lack of control, if that was what it was, embarrassed him. Yet there he was next morning in the Leaven office accepting tea and being confounded by the woman.

“I thought about what you said yesterday,” she told him. “You’re right. In the future I will be more careful what I say about our work.”

“And the woman who lost her baby?”

Tears came to Millicent’s eyes. Had she earned them? Could she ever possibly earn Tajikistan tears?

“Last night she chose to go home to her husband.”

Parviz saw the woman in a hallway. The overhead light had burned out, so she was feeling her familiar way to the door. As she touched the handle she was aware of the violent man on the other side. She smelled his intimate breath.

As if it followed, he told Millicent, “During the civil war, we took turns standing in line overnight for bread. One loaf, sometimes two. My father, my sisters. I remember the smell of coal smoke in the winter. At night it was thicker.”

No response from Millicent, which was the correct response. Such a quiet office, everyone busy at a computer. There was a sense of purpose about the place that he found appealing. His mind wandered, something it never used to do. Tahmina had come home last night out of sorts with Muvzana because the girl had refused to express an opinion on any of the wedding dresses that were in the family’s price range. What was that birdy sound? It was only in Parviz’s head. His memories were all body, no brain. They ran around on shaky legs bumping into each other and confusing him.

After just the right interval Millicent said, “That story about the bread line. I have the feeling that was not the one you wanted to tell me.”

He was a schoolboy caught out. He shook his head.

“I was going to work one day. This was in the worst of the bad years. Along Somoni Avenue, not far from where the Tea House stands today. In those days we were accustomed to seeing vehicles on the streets with no license plates. They had those dark windows so that you could not see inside. There was a young woman standing on the sidewalk. I remember her tranquil face. She wore a blue dress, very modest. One of those dark cars stopped. Two men snatched her. They put her into the car and drove away.”

“I am so very sorry about all of this.”

“Two days ago, the morning that the protesting girl was taken, I got a phone call.”

“Who was it?”

“I believe it was her father. He told me where to find her. He said, ‘You must do something.’ This man thought . . . he must have been thinking, a journalist can protect his daughter, if no one else will.”

“Who is the father?”

“He did not tell me his name.”

Against his will Parviz took his telephone from his pocket. He scrolled through the display and called the number of the man he believed to be Shamsiya Kandikov’s father. He spoke in Tajik, not to hide the conversation from Millicent but because the man preferred it. Twenty minutes later Parviz and the American were in a taxi. Twenty minutes more and they stepped into a sundries shop in old Dushanbe.

The man behind the counter was blind. He wore a white brimless cap and looked devout in the old-fashioned way, the way of a man who remembered doves in dovecotes, almonds in paper cones, the whispering of girls strolling arm in arm. On the floor in front of the counter a small boy played with two marbles, one big and one small. It was his job to make sure no patron took advantage of Bahodur Kandikov’s blind eyes.

“May we speak Russian?” Parviz asked him. “I am here with a foreign friend who does not know Tajik.”

Bahodur spat on the floor. “Russia.” He pointed to a locked door. The boy on the floor rose quietly and tapped on the door. A furious voice hollered something that was intelligible in no human language.

“My son,” Bahodur said. “Komil. Last year he went to Moscow because there was no work for a young man like him in this country where he ought to live. He got a job working for a gold merchant. Each week the man held back Komil’s salary. ‘Next week, always the next week you will be paid, Tajik boy,’ says the Russian. Just enough to eat, that’s what he gave him. After three months this seller of gold called the immigration police. They deported my son with nothing. It hurt his mind, his heart; every part of him.”

The boy tapped the side of his head, face grave, to illustrate his brother’s problem. He went back to his marbles.

“What happened to Komil, it hurt his sister Shamsiya, too,” the blind man said. “She was upset. It led her to do . . . the thing that she did.”

The conversation was long. It contained heartbreak and a father’s despair. All the time they talked, a feeling of powerlessness flapped around the shop like a filthy bat, soiling each of them. No wedding dress for Muvzana, someone whispered in Parviz’s throbbing ear.

“I changed my mind,” Millicent told Parviz when they left the sundries shop, walking in the luminous cold air of the city.

“About what?”

“I don’t think you should write the article about Shamsiya. It’s too dangerous for you. And it will change nothing.”

This was the end for them. They would go separately back to their places of work. Parviz hailed a taxi for Millicent. It came too soon. He wished he could be fatherly, or wise. He wished he could tell her that she had obliged him to see his daughter differently. None of that came. They shook hands.

“Goodbye, Mr. Rajabi.”

He said something trivial, and Millicent got into the taxi.

Parviz spent far too long getting back to his own office. When he finally arrived he fired up his computer. He opened the word processor. He wrote, On November 7, police detained Shamsiya Kandikov, 22, at the Tea House on Somoni Avenue in Dushanbe. He stood up. He turned off his phone. He went out into the yard and told Sher to go home. In all of recorded history no one had ever told the man to leave work early. He thought it was a joke. When he realized it was not, he assumed Parviz was displeased with him and went unwillingly.

Most of the other offices were vacant, and none of the handful of tenants was around. That seemed to be a good thing. Parviz looked at the blue fountain. He went up close and inspected it. From a storeroom he hunted up Sher’s box of tools. Around a pedestal in the center of the fountain there were seven narrow tubes from which water was meant to flow. Each of them was capped with a thin metal screen. One by one he removed the screen from each of the tubes and dug out an accumulation of muck and dead leaves. He replaced the screens. He took Sher’s toolbox back to the storeroom.

No hurry now. In an odd way, everything that wanted to happen had already come to pass. He unbolted the front gate. There was no sense in its being damaged by somebody in a hurry to get at him. When he was ready, he found the water pipe and turned on the spigot. It was deeply satisfying to watch water flow in the fountain at last. He took in the pleasant splash, and the pure look of water rising and falling in sunlight. He lingered in the hope of seeing a bird light on the fountain’s edge. Sooner or later that too would happen. When he had looked his fill, he went back inside and sat at his desk.

Mark Jacobs has published more than one hundred stories in magazines including The Atlantic and Playboy. You can find him at markjacobsauthor.com.  

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