News of Solomon the Man’s engagement to Peacock, the daughter of Joseph the Winemaker, spread faster and incited more animosity in Esfahan and Juyy Bar than any other incident in recent memory. In the ghetto, mothers of eligible young women dug their nails into their cheeks and mourned. Matchmakers ran to each other in a fury as they tried to discover which one of them had made the deal. Young men despaired at the thought of having Solomon removed from the circle of womanizing and debauchery that had become the object of all their fantasies.
Ever since Joseph the Winemaker had announced her engagement, Peacock had cried and begged and sworn she would not marry. It was preposterous—that Peacock should refuse the man everyone wanted.
He sent to Kashan for his mother to come and take charge of the festivities. She arrived a week later, a big woman with light skin and nothing of the good looks that had blessed her son. She sat in the carriage she had hired with Solomon’s money, complaining of the heat and the dust of the desert. She arrived at the city’s gates and was forced to disembark for no Jew could ride through town. She had come with her daughters, all eleven of them, and with another, darker than the rest and even uglier, whom she claimed was an orphan she had raised from childhood.
Ghadereh Khanum—the Able One—stayed in Solomon’s house for a week and held court. She sat with her daughters around the receiving room. In Kashan they had been rug weavers. They had lived in a hotel and worked from the age of three, sitting cross-legged in front of wooden frames onto which they tied minuscule knots of wool and silk. And they would have worked till their eyes were blind and their lungs rotted from inhaling wool, except Solomon the Man had made them rich. Now they sat in his house and snubbed the visitors who came to offer their welcome.
At the end of the week of greeting, the Able One and her daughters paid a surprise visit to Peacock’s house. As was customary, they arrived early in the morning, before Peacock could have a chance to comb her hair or hide her faults in deceiving clothes.
The Able One and her daughters stayed all morning. They inspected Peacock, commented on the thickness of her skin and the darkness of her gums, remarked that her hips were so narrow no child could ever come through them alive. They made Peacock walk from one side of the courtyard to the other so they could see her stride, examined her knees and complained that she was too thin—not fed well by her parents.
To the people of Juyy Bar, Peacock’s wedding to Solomon the Man marked the end of the Great Famine of 1871. For although the earth did not yield a healthy crop for another decade, and although their poverty would become worse in the years to come, the three days and nights of celebration at Solomon’s home managed to create in the minds of even the harshest of skeptics a lasting illusion of comfort, and a collective memory of never-ending wealth.
It began at dawn on a Monday, and did not end until after midnight on Wednesday. In between, the men gathered in Solomon’s house and ate and drank and danced to the music of seven groups of entertainers he had imported from as far as Tehran and Rasht. They ate eggs and honey and sweetbread and halva for breakfast, drank cool essence of cherries and snacked on apples stewed in rosewater until noon, then feasted on roasted lamb, bread, rice, and golden cookies for lunch. In the afternoon, bands of musicians played, acrobats danced in the courtyard, and old storytellers recited verses from the book of kings while poets repeated the verses of Omar Khayyam. Before sunset, Joseph the Winemaker walked from room to room and poured Persian wine and Russian Vodka into everyone’s cup. By the time Homa the Ricemaker served dinner, the men were all drunk.
On the women’s side, the celebrations were more solemn but just as extravagant. As tradition dictated, they gathered at the house of Joseph the Winemaker, where Solomon the Man had paid all expenses. The Able One and her eleven daughters hosted the affair. On the first of the three days of celebration, they took Peacock for a marriage bath.
They left in the dark, equipped with food, nuts, and candy, jugs of cool drinks, and, most important, chunks of henna. In the bath, the Able One took Peacock into the well and watched as she performed the rites of purity. Then everyone came inside, around the pool, and undressed. A band of female musicians, courtesy of Solomon the Man, performed in the nude. Pari the Henna came forward, clicking her tongue to sound a cheer that echoed through the bath until it became deafening. She gave Peacock a dimpled smile and a reassuring pat, admired her beauty and remarked on her youth, then set about “turning her into a woman.”
She tied the ends of two long threads around her thumb and forefinger, put the threads to Peacock’s eyebrows, catching each hair and plucking them, until she had created two arched lines. Then she plucked Peacock’s legs and thighs, the hair on her vulva and armpits. Finally she prepared a mold of henna, which she placed on the bride’s fingernails and toenails, and on her hair. The other women, cheering, began to dye their own hair.
On Tuesday the women gathered at the winemaker’s house to bless the bride. They brought Peacock into the courtyard and put her in a translucent chador made of gold thread. Grudgingly, while her daughters shed tears of envy, the Able One extended to Peacock the gifts Solomon had sent for her: a dozen gold chains, a sapphire necklace, turquoise earrings, and a diamond bracelet. Everyone gasped in awe. The Able One took out a bag of gold coins and placed a crystal bowl into Peacock’s lap. One by one she pressed the coins against Peacock’s forehead, letting each one stick momentarily—for luck, so that from now on the bride’s forehead would be marked with joy and prosperity. Then Peacock bent her head and dropped the coin into the bowl as coal stoves burned wildrue seeds and smoke filled the air.
On the third day a delegation of women visited Solomon’s house to arrange the bridal room. They spread the bed toward Jerusalem—ensuring that a son would be conceived of the first intercourse. Inside the sheets they sprayed rosewater, spread jasmine and rose petals. Above the pillows they put a white handkerchief that Solomon the Man would have to rub in Peacock’s blood and present after the intercourse.
In the afternoon, Raab Yahya called at Solomon’s house to perform the first half of the ceremony. Solomon the Man was bathed and shaved, dressed in a Western suit and hat. He repeated the vows and then raised his cup in celebration.
“Bring her to me,” he toasted.
Then Pari the Henna left Solomon the Man’s house to carry the bridal gown to the bride.
But in the house of Joseph the Winemaker, Peacock’s mother Leyla was running from room to room, flushed and frantic, the other women were searching every corner, and rumors had begun to circulate that the bride was missing; she had disappeared sometime before noon, and no one could imagine where to look for her.
Joseph the Winemaker paced every inch of the ghetto and at last found his daughter in Mullah Mirza’s basement which had been empty and abandoned since Muhammad the Jew’s Massacre. Peacock sat there terrified by her own defiance, terrified also by the walls that reeked of poison and the smell of Mullah Mirza’s dismay. Still, when Joseph grabbed her, she held his hand and begged that he call off the marriage.
“Solomon the Man,” she cried, “will leave me.”
Joseph the Winemaker took his daughter home and dressed her in a pearl-embroidered gown and a veil—a gift from Zil-el-Sultan’s harem—made entirely of silver and gold threads. He saw her wear the jewels Solomon had given her, and fought back his own tears of joy.
“Believe in luck,” he whispered to Peacock as he took her before Raab Yahya.
When the wedding ceremony was over, a caravan of women walked from the winemaker’s house to that of Solomon the Man. Peacock rode in front, mounted on Solomon’s black horse. At the top of the alley leading to the house, she stopped and waited for messengers to announce her arrival to the groom.
“What if they know she ran away?” Leyla asked Joseph, who trembled at the possibility.
But in Solomon’s house the sound of music and laughter had never ceased, and the matter of the bride’s disappearance was quickly forgotten. When they heard that the bride was about to arrive, the men cheered and all seven bands of musicians played at once as women burned espand seeds and threw sugar-laced almonds on the bride’s path. Peacock was led into the house and straight to the bridal room, where she would wait for the end of the reception. Leyla took her inside and kissed her good-bye, and then, suddenly, Peacock was alone.
She stood erect, looking ahead, and tried to gather the courage she had lost along the way. She told herself she was not going to stay, that no one could force her to stay. She reminded herself of the dream she had had; an old woman, alone and brokenhearted, walking the streets of an unfamiliar town and crying.
Solomon’s name. In the dream, Peacock knew that she was the old woman.
She looked around the room. The walls were plastered white, the ceiling decorated with hand-painted moldings. There was a window in this room. Peacock remembered the house of Muhammad the Jew.
“But I won’t stay,” she reminded herself.
She could smell food from outside.
“When he comes in, I will tell him he has to send me back. ‘You keep whores,’ I will say. ‘I don’t want a man who keeps whores.'”
She waited, but hours passed and her legs became numb from standing, and still the sound of laughter had not ceased in the house. She sat on the floor, her chador around her, and found herself admiring the softness of her dress, the shine of her jewels, the beauty of her veil. She put her head on a cushion away from the bed and fell asleep.
She dreamt that the door opened and a man came into the room. He was tall, with long arms, and the smell of rain on his clothes. He brought with him a piece of the moonlit sky.
She dreamt that he stood above her, looking, then bent down and lifted her from the ground to place her on the bed. She thought he was about to unveil her, that she should stop him, but he touched her and she was not afraid anymore. He took off her veil.
He stared at her—his eyes submerged in the blue light of dawn—and then he reached to the bottom of the bed and pulled a white sheet, as cool as the wind that came before every rain, over her body. He left. Without him the room was vast and empty.
Peacock sat up, jolted by the sound of the morning namaz, and looked about. She was still burned from last night’s anger. She remembered her dream. She saw the white sheet that covered her. Solomon the Man, she realized, had seen her.
She stood up on the mattress and searched her clothes for blood. She looked on the sheets. There was no stain. She breathed with relief; he had not touched her. Then she realized why: he had seen her face, and decided she was too ugly to touch. She picked up her chador and walked out.
“Good morning,” a voice greeted her on the porch. Solomon’s eyes were full of sleep. His face was unshaved. He sat on the steps, smoking his water pipe and watching the sunrise.
“You wake up early,” he said.
Peacock froze. She was disarmed by his casual manner, his smile. She thought his eyes played with her.
“I sent everyone home last night,” he said. “I told them, ‘My wife is asleep and I will wait for her.’ Your father insisted I do the job. He’s afraid I will change my mind about the marriage.”
Peacock took a step back.
“No need for that,” she answered. “I will go myself.”
He raised an eyebrow and smiled.
“Anywhere.” But she had already lost her conviction. “Somewhere. I can’t stay here. You keep whores.”
Solomon the Man laughed and reached for her. She thought she would pull away, but she could not.
“You have married me.” He picked her up off her ground. “You can’t just leave someone you married.”
He opened the door and walked in. She wanted to fight him, but he put her down and slowly opened the braids of her hair, undoing the string of pearls and letting each one fall into the bed of withering roses and dying jasmine, and then he took off her shoes and her gown, and lay her naked on the sheets and made love to her as if she were indeed a woman—as if he had chosen her knowingly, as if she were pretty, and desired, and worthy of his touch. Afterwards he lay next to her and watched her cry—from the shock of encounter, perhaps, or the relief of being accepted, and then he kissed her and pulled the sheets back over her and told her to sleep.
“You are beautiful.”
She heard his voice and wondered if he had lied and prayed she would never know. She saw him leave and missed his smell and his touch and the sound of his laughter. She fell asleep and dreamt of his eyes and loved him all her life.
From Cry of the Peacock by Gina Barkhordar Nahai. Reprinted by permission of Crown Publishers, Inc. © Gina Barkhordar Nahai, 1991