As he had walked aimlessly, the boy had crossed the border of Gorbstan, the country of cats.

The patrols found him half-dead, licked his face, and took him to the city. He slept for two more days before he opened his eyes. The city was built around a large pond surrounded by low hills. The biggest of the houses was still shorter than the boy. They were mostly painted light rose interspersed with yellow, blue, or green. Palm trees had grown here and there among the well-tended verdure, all enormous compared to the small houses. Some of the roofs were domed, others were flat. He roamed around enchanted with the city and the cats who ignored him as they caught their daily fish from the pond and lay in the shade. The next day a young woman with long hair and a broad face appeared from behind the hill and wrapped the boy in a hug. She had lived there for some years since, like the boy, she had lost her way in the desert when she was very small and landed in Gorbstan by chance.

The cats gathered behind the woman in the plaza in front of their cat palace.

She was their translator. As the boy recounted his story, she explained it to a large white cat with long hair and a flat face who sat on its hind legs in the gilt balcony, looking up at her sternly. When the woman was finished, the king of cats lowered his blue eyes to the boy whose clothes were torn and his face and neck red with sunburn. He was barely half as tall as the woman. The king of the cats opened his mouth in a long yawn, then let out a meow before he got to his feet and ambled slowly and graciously back into his chambers. The woman smiled at the boy and welcomed him to the city. The cats hailed him with celebratory meows and a kitten rubbed its hazel ear against the boy’s bare ankle. The woman was glad to see a human being after so long. The boy was also happy to see the woman after an arduous trip.

Having no way to go back and no family to return to, the boy stayed with the young woman. She took care of him in her shack behind the hills. As the years passed and the boy grew into a stout young man, they started to feel bored of being alone with no one around them but cats. So they decided to make a baby. The baby boy made them so happy that they wanted another. The next year they had twin girls. They busied themselves with their children. The babies were never bored since they always had many kittens around to play with. When two years later, the man and the woman made another boy, their old home was no longer large enough for the six of them. Out of the wood from the trees, the man built a new, bigger house with seven rooms. Two years after that, another set of twins was added to the group. So it went on for some time: every year or two new members joined the family. With the help of the older boys, the man made another house for his growing family right beside the first. The older children resided in the newer house and the younger were divided between both houses so that in each house, either the parents or the older siblings would tend to the youngsters.

When they decided they had had enough of fish and date fruits, they started gathering the date seeds and grinding them to make flour and bake small discs of bread in a tandoor they dug outside. As the babies kept being born, they also had to add to the palm trees. They planted a grove near their houses. The girls brought water from the pond every day. Some of the cats began to worry about the humans who lived so close by, right beyond the hills, as the family grew even bigger. There were now five big houses and a well dug for their domestic use. Voices rose in protest asking for the humans to be banished from Gorbstan.

The couple’s children and grandchildren said this was their native home and they didn’t want to go anywhere else. The woman, who was the only one able to speak cat tongue, tried to keep the conflict from escalating.”

Two years passed. When the first house appeared at the crest of a hill, many said the humans had crossed the line. A group of cats went to the settlement to talk to the woman who was now in her forties. The number of fish in the pond had dwindled, the vegetation was growing sparse, and the level of water was going down fast because of the bucketfuls the big family drew for their date-palm farm. After she translated the cats’ concerns for her husband, the man said there was nothing to do but to try to live in peace and harmony with one another, man and cat. The cats, though, said there indeed was something to do: they wanted the people to leave. The man said they didn’t know the way out, but the cats had guides ready to show them the way across the desert to the first human town. The couple’s children and grandchildren said this was their native home and they didn’t want to go anywhere else. The woman, who was the only one able to speak cat tongue, tried to keep the conflict from escalating. She told her family that the cats in the end would be satisfied with them using a few less fish and buckets of water every day and that otherwise they had no problem with the family staying there. To the cats she said they needed some time to rectify things and get ready for their exodus.

Another year passed, but not only was the family not showing any signs of pulling back, two more boys were added. Now in the streets of Gorbstan there were always a couple of small children roaming around, playing with the kittens, or going to the pond with a fishing pole, a bucket, or with empty hands just to swim and play in the water. The water had gone down and catching fish had become more difficult. One day, two little girls were playing at the pond. One of them splashed at a cat who was lapping at the water muddied by the girls. In a sudden fit of anger, the cat leapt at the girl and scratched her face.

Two of the girl’s brothers took revenge by bagging a kitten that had strolled away from the others and beating it with thick sticks. The cats made it harder for the family to access the pond: they would attack the little ones and the bigger, stronger boys could get to the water only if they moved in groups and carried sticks. A boy lost an eye when a black cat sprang at his face from a rooftop. The boy’s brothers got together and knocked down houses with their sticks and furious kicks. This intensified for another two years, by which time what was left of the cat city was no more than ruined houses, scorched walls blackened with soot, and littered streets.

One day, five cats laid ambush on a three-year-old boy who was playing on his own and scratched him until his cries died away and his blood dried on the sand. His brothers found his body and made a pact. That night, a group of young men raided the palace. They broke the gate and fought with the guards. They received scratches and wounds, lost eyes and ears, but when the sun rose, the body of the king of cats lay on the ground in the yellowed lawn, unmoving, with his blue eyes open as if looking on the destruction of his country. All of this would have been redeemable somehow if the pond hadn’t gone almost dry. The little water left at the bottom of wells was murky and smelly. The place was no longer fit for living. The thousand-well oasis was lost.

From The Immortals of Tehran (Melville House, £20)

 

Ali Araghi is an Iranian writer and translator. He earned his MA in Ancient Cultures and Languages at the University of Tehran and has translated Samuel Beckett into Persian. After completing his MFA from the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, he is now working on his PhD in Comparative Literature, International Writers Track, at Washington University. He won the 2017 Prairie Schooner Virginia Faulkner Award for Excellence in Writing and has published stories and translations in Prairie SchoonerThe Fifth Wednesday Journal, Asymptote and Hayden’s Ferry Review, among others. He lives in St Louis. The Immortals of Tehran is published in hardback and eBook by Melville House.
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