In Between Empty Hollows
By Peyman Esmaeili
Translated by Ati Everson
It’s been a week since my arrival. It’s extremely cold. I have to adapt, otherwise even these few months will turn into hell. This is close to the border. I am certain I mentioned it to you, but I wasn’t expecting it to be this close. When you pass the white snowy mountains, you will find yourself in Kirkuk.
People here keep to themselves, they are not warm. The clinic keeper doesn’t speak Farsi. He startled me on my first day here. His name is Karim. He is of slim build. He has a slight lisp. One day when I was deep in sleep, I sensed that someone was shaking me. I opened my eyes and he was standing right in front of me.
“Yes? What do you want?” I asked.
He mumbled something in Kurdish, which I didn’t get at all.
“Don’t you speak Farsi?” I asked. He just disappeared.
At night, I fill the old kettle and place it atop of an ancient looking Arj heater. Salah advised me to do this. He is the driver ferrying passengers between here and Paveh. As soon as he unloaded my luggage, he turned on the heater.
“Bring some water to boil for yourself, or else you will freeze,” he said.
The water wasn’t even half-boiled, when I heard cries and screams. I rushed out of the toilet, only half finished. Karim was shouting whilst gripping the door frame. A boy of seven or eight was at his side.
“Huh? What’s wrong with you?” I bellowed.
“He is saying you shouldn’t sleep here,” the little boy said.
“Who are you?” I asked.
Karim was so frustrated and hostile. Here they easily lose their temper. Maybe this cold weather is to blame for.
“You should sleep in the other room, the other one you see,” the little boy insisted.
“You are his son?” I muttered.
“Who let you stay here? You should pack and move to the other room right away!” the little boy added.
“This one or that one! What’s the difference? Two bare, empty rooms are not worth all this hassle!” I said.
The boy’s head was clean shaven. There were a few marks on his head. Psoriasis perhaps! I’ll take a photo and send it to you. Let me know what you think.
I ditched Karim and the boy. Guys back home warned me I’m headed for Salamanca! Who first made a tradition of using the word Salamanca? Sadegh? How the hell does he come up with this?
Apart from the cold and locals, this area is all about mountain ranges.
You won’t believe it! As if you have stumbled upon the hiking training site for major climbing competitions.
Here, work is really slow, they don’t have a habit of checking into the Clinic. They avoid me at all costs, regardless of what disease they come down with.
“It’s in their blood. They don’t let outcasts in.” Salah consoles me.
Salah is different from the rest. They respect him. I don’t know why, but he looks out for me. He’s tall and thick. He can flatten four of you in a heartbeat!
He never removes his turban. If it wasn’t for his loose baggy pants, he would have fooled me for a Mullah!
“Well, I am kind of a sheikh and Mullah here,” he chuckles.
There is an old bullet wound on his chest. Few days back he said he sensed a sharp pain in the centre of his stomach.
I barely convinced him to let me examine it. I spotted the wound the minute he lifted his shirt. He didn’t fess up how he got it. He keeps to himself.
Yesterday, we got out to explore around the village a bit. When it gets cold even the men stay indoors. End of spring and during summer, they smuggle goods to Kirkuk.
That’s how they make their living. They always anticipate spring, desperate for some good weather, so they can head for Kirkuk.
Literally within two minutes of putting the village behind, you come across a mountain. The mountains here bore no similarities to the ones close to where we live. They are all made of bare rocks.
If I wasn’t planning to return shortly, I would have invited you all to come here.
Though, I am not convinced you can handle climbing real mountains and cliffs!
They have built a shrine or something similar, on the foot of the mountain. It’s built with rocks. They are arranged in circular formation, spreading in an area around seventy to eighty metres.
I will take a photo and send it to you. Salah tells me tree soldiers are buried there. Most of Salah’s family live in Kirkuk. He has asked his cousin to bring me back a set of American hunting binoculars from the other side of the border.
They say mid-spring, when cold will ease off. I will be back by then. Pray for me that my time here will be up soon. Give Baran a kiss for me. Actually a big smooch. Just like the ones Sadegh plants!
Here, time hangs heavy on my hands. This crap of a clock kills to do its job! I shut the door at three and waited for Salah. You remember Salah, right? Few days ago we made our way to “Posht Band”. It’s on top of the mountains where water pools in holes in summer time, then from there, it flows to the valley.
On top of the cliffs there are few openings. Like caves. They are facing the rocky cemetery.
I told Salah, I am an avid climber. He couldn’t believe I would be into these kinds of things. Remember? You couldn’t believe it either.
“Just through these frozen cliffs, I will climb all the way up to the caves,” I told him.
At first he laughed. He thought I was joking. I started climbing just then. He started yelling, leaped and grabbed hold of my ankle.
“Do you know how many have tried to climb these cliffs before you? How many have fallen into the valley? That’s what happened to the town army teacher!” he snapped.
Two summers ago, the poor lad was trying to climb, but lost his grip and fell.
“They never retrieved his body,” he adds.
“Don’t fret, I hold national medals for rock climbing!” I said.
He wouldn’t let go. “For six months, people from the city kept coming and searching for him, interviewing everyone. They put so much pressure on Karim, he lost his mind. He has gone mad!” he said.
Looks like this fella was staying in the same room as me.
First they were suspicious of Karim, thinking he might have harmed him.
Now the little boy minds him. He is Karim’s youngest son. I believe you’re right. The marks on his scalp aren’t psoriasis. They might have something to do with this cold weather.
My only joy here are the cliffs. Before my return is arranged, I will have a crack at climbing this one! I will take a photo and send it to you. Salah must know the way up. It’s not so much that I can’t climb it on my own, it’s just that it will be safer if he accompanies me.
My father has spoken to someone in Kermanshah’s Imam Hussain Hospital to arrange my transfer.
For now I hang around the Clinic and kill time.
Salah hasn’t taken my letter to town. He’s forgotten. He said he left it in the car. He only spotted it today.
I fetched the letter back and added these few sentences so you know I am not absent minded or have forgotten to write to you. Saturday, He has to drop someone at Paveh. He will mail it then. Ever since he has worked out my plans for climbing the cliffs, he avoids me.
“Don’t go up there, these two caves are sacred to local people,” he told me.
He takes me for a fool. Locals have named them “Dou Eshkaftah”, meaning two empty hollows!
I haven’t been well for two days. I’ve caught a flu. I went to “Sar Band”. , I thought I had found a way to climb it through the southern ridge. I have sent you the photo.
After only 50 meters, the path was blocked. I was trying to cross towards the eastern ridge when I got caught! Can you believe it? I truly got stuck. I possibly couldn’t set a foot forward!
I was stuck up there for two to three hours. I thought I would freeze to death. You can’t picture the cold till you are here and feel it for yourself. It’s biting cold, so harsh. It peels your skin off.
I have no clue as to how Salah found out I was up there. I saw him passing through the rocky cemetery and walking towards the cliffs. You wouldn’t believe your eyes! He was climbing the cliffs so swiftly and smoothly, as if he was flying! As if he was soaring on the rocks. I’ve never seen anyone climbing like this! Not even in the movies.
He threw me over his shoulders, and descended through the eastern ridge. The path is etched in my head. I will take some more photos for you when I recover.
He wouldn’t speak to me for a few hours. He was utterly sour.
“What were you doing up there?” he snapped
“What’s it to you? Are you my babysitter?” I replied.
“If you only knew! You would have never dared!” he said.He bit his lips to the point of bleeding.
“How did you even realise I was up there?” I muttered.
Then he got talking about the tale of the ones buried in the rocky cemetery. He said a few years ago, towards the end of the war, some army men arrived in town. Precisely four of them.
It seemed they were headed for Kirkuk, only passing through these mountains. As they were crossing the village, one of the locals recognised one of them. They get into a brawl!
They killed three of them. One fled towards the cliffs and climbed them. From the exact spot I was climbing! Few put up a chase.
“He climbed so swiftly and hastily that they couldn’t catch him,” he added.
They hung around for two days, hoping he would climb down but he didn’t. From there on, Karim’s eldest son climbed up and entered the caves. None of them ever returned!
“Colonel wouldn’t go without his rank, he would seek his soldiers!” He murmured.
I first didn’t get it. “What will he seek?” I asked.
“Soldiers,” he said.
“He must have closed in on Karim’s son up there!” I shrugged.
“Be wary of these things. Have you forgotten the teacher?” he asked impatiently.
“But you said he fell into the valley!” I replied.
“They couldn’t retrieve his body!” He reminded me.
I ridiculously miss our climbing group. I dream of being back, resting in the chair next to the statue. Ask Sadegh to set aside some of his rolled cigars for me. I want to close my eyes, cross my legs, and let the smoke hang in the air.
“They had to build shrines for those soldiers as a way of honoring Colonel. No one else is buried there, apart from those three soldiers,” he added.
I have to climb thecliffs and hoist our flag between the cave openings! I want to make sure it’s visible from the village. Ask all members of our climbing group to sign our flag and maile it out to me.
I’m going to include you all in this honour! Then I will quit and return to Tehran.
It’s all done and dusted. Our proud flag is now hoisted atop “Dou Eshkaftah”. I only returned a few hours ago. I’m at loss with myself as to why I hadn’t noticed this path earlier. Apart from it there is no other way up. You have a good look when you develop the photos.
I checked out everything up there. “Dou Eshkaftah” is a deep cave, the end isn’t visible.
It’s not two different caves at all, only two separate entrances. Each one meter by one meter. You have to kneel to get in. When you move inside a few meters, the path opens up into a hall similar to a vintage spacious house, only made of rocks and icicles.
I took photos of everywhere, at least wherever there was just enough light. When I crossed the hall, the path got that narrow, I had to crawl few meters.
There is a spring on the north side of the hall. Surprisingly water here is not frozen.
Can you believe it? In this cold, water is running through the rocks and pours over the caves floor, then a few meters ahead it disappears once again between the rocks. Apart from this spring there is nothing of interest around. There is no sign of Colonel. I shouted after him a few times: “Where are you, Colonel?”
The echo sounded as if his whole rank were searching for him, from his Captain and Major to even his recruits!
I have to tease Salah, question him as to what sort of Colonel leaves all his troops in the cave and flees himself.
There were no writings, signs or addresses carved into the walls. Only sleek, smooth rocks. I sat quietly for half an hour in the middle of the big hall. It’s h got surreal stillness to it. I still haven’t told Salah that I’ve been in the caves. He will most probably lose his temper. Maybe by now he’s caught a glimpse of our flag.
On my way down, I passed Karim, sitting in the middle of the rocky cemetery. Staring at me, his hands placed on his head.
“How are you doing Karim? You want to join me for a climb?” I joked.
He was whispering some words while rocking his body.
“Who are you praying for?” I asked.
“Naser is up there,” he replied in Farsi!
I actually had bought Karim for not being able to speak Farsi. Clever lad!
“So you do speak Farsi! You just wanted to poke fun of me, hey?” I added.
Send me a copy of the photos once you’ll develop them, I want to hang a few of them here on the walls.
Show it to the rest of our bunch as well. If it’s possible, please also send it to the monthly university magazine. See if they’ll publish it. Just ask them to add these sentences as description or footnotes:
“Dou Eshkaftah is one of the caves located in the west side of Iran. The distinguishing feature about this cave is its spectacular rocky formation, consisting of sedimentary rocks and silica. Unfortunately, as a result of its unique geographic position, this cave has not attracted the attention it deserves from national and international climbers. This has played a major role in keeping it pristine and natural. These photos might be the only ones ever taken from the inside of Dou Eshkaftah”
Looks like my father’s friend in Kermanshah has sorted everything out. I only have to hang around here for a few days till my portfolio makes it to Imam Hossein Hospital.
Thanks for the magazine and photos. I wasn’t expecting the magazine to publish my photos so quickly! The only problem is that Dehnavi has manipulated and changed my footnotes. Why has he omitted the last sentence? When I say no one prior to me has ever taken photos from inside these caves, I mean NO ONE HAS!
I can’t understand why this scum gets to run the show!
Karim hasn’t shown up for a few days. I don’t want to tell Salah I’ve seen him (I ran into him???) in the cemetery that day.
His behaviour has changed, he is not pissed off or angry or anything.
He has become more sympathetic, softer! He brings me food.Doogh, local yoghurt and butter. Even barbequed chicken.
Can you believe it! He brought me chicken kebab placed in between fresh local bread, all arranged nicely on a huge round tray.
He has been coming to the medical centre for a chat.
“Did you come across anything up there?” he asked the other day.
I wanted to show him the pictures, but he refused.
“You shouldn’t show these pictures to anyone, it will scare people,” he said.
“Your Colonel wasn’t up there. I thoroughly searched for him,” I said.
He’s sent a young girl over to wash my clothes. She is only thirteen or fourteen. Her name is Heeva!
“Why weren’t you coming before?” I asked her.
“Mr Salah has sent me over,” She replied.
“Okay but why sending you now?” I asked.
“Because you were not like this before,” She answered.
“What’s wrong with me?” I insisted.
“You are into climbing the mountains to visit Colonel It’s our tradition to wash clothes of people like you,” she explained.
I am not certain if by tradition she means the nonsensical superstitions they believe in or something else? Recently the locals’ have been spying on me. I woke up at midnight to use the toilet, saw a few of them leaning against the wall in a line. One of them was smoking a pipe, then passed it on, I asked them why in this cold they were sitting there. They bent their head low and didn’t reply. I am certain they speak Farsi. But they act as if they can’t understand me.
They were all wearing long scarves as turban and long loose black robes with wrapping scarfs around their waists.
They all had the same exact ochre American style overcoats on. Can you believe it? It’s strange as to how they’ve got hold of so many identical overcoats.
I’ve asked Salah to bring me newspapers to cover all the windows.
Someone has climbed “Dou Eshkaftah” and has removed the flag. It was there till yesterday, but it’s missing this morning. Not to worry. I thought they wouldn’t tolerate it up there.
The weather is still poor. I can’t predict how long it will be snowing.
Salah has unexpectedly gone to the city. I went to look for him. His mother was home. She is about eighty. “Where is Salah,” I asked. “He is gone,” she replied.
I stayed to ask if he would return. She came in with a few plates of food on a round tray. I insisted I wasn’t hungry, she cornered me and was pressing the tray against my chest. I barely freed myself.
I descended the mountains and came back to the valley yesterday. It wasn’t hard at all. It’s so much easier than climbing.
100 meters below, I reached a flat area. Then 50 meters down, I reached the bottom. There is a narrow path down underneath. If you follow it, most probably it will take you to Kirkuk.
Maybe Karim has done the same, descended into the valley and fled to Kirkuk.
It’s so chilled down there, more icy than up here. There’ll be no hope of him returning if he has headed to Kirkuk.
I touched the branch of one of the dwarf trees. It shattered like a piece of glass and scattered on the ground. I saw a rabbit too. I couldn’t tell when it had died. I brought it back to the medical centre with me. One more thing. When I was returning, there were a set of footprints,in the snow just next to mine. Larger than mine. They looked like a set of mountain climbing shoes.Someone must have followed me all the way to the bottom. I haven’t seen anyone around here with this sort of shoes. I wish there was a phone I could use to call you. It’s so unbearable being disconnected.
Salah hasn’t returned yet. It’s been an interesting turn of events. The locals don’t follow me at every corner anymore. I don’t know why, but it’s been some time since anyone has spied on me at the medical centre.
I went out this morning; the weather hadn’t improved. It was snowing heavily. I went to the village, all the doors were shut. I couldn’t hear a peep from anyone as if they were all dead.
I am not sure when you’ll receive my letter. There is no sign of Salah yet. I discovered something today. About the shoeprints in the snow. Early this morning, as I was heading to the medical centre, I checked them more closely. I originally thought they were from mountain climbing shoes, but they weren’t. They are from army boots. They have the zigzag pattern of the soles of those boots. They are around the size forty five. Wherever I go they follow me. The prints are there but I can’t spot anyone.
Every day, food is placed for me outside the door by someone who hides away. It has been about one week since I’ve spotted anyone. Do you know what I think? I think I’m like those Japanese soldiers. The ones who are bound to keep a lookout at a certain spot their entire life.
Everywhere is laden with snow. Salah is yet to come back. I’ve searched all the houses. There isn’ta single person left in the village. There are boot prints everywhere. Sometimes they approach me. When I run fast, they chase me closely. I have locked all the doors, tied all window handles together with ropes. I can’t possibly see “Dou Eshkaftah”. Heavy fog has settled on that area.
I have taken a photo of myself. Develop it!
Peyman Esmaeili was born in 1977 in Tehran. He graduated in Electrical engineering from Iran University of Science and Technology (IUST) in 2000 and penned his first short story collection in 2005 with Qoqnoos Publishing House: Search Your Raincoat Pockets, which won him the Isfahan Literary Award in 2006. His second book, “Snow and the Cloudy Symphony” a collection of seven stories was released in 2008 by Cheshmeh Publications and won: – Houshang Golshiri Literary Award for the best collection of short stories in 2008 – Mehrgan Award for the best collection of short stories in 2008 & 2007 – The Critics and Journalists Award for the best collection of short stories in 2008 – Rozi Rozegari Award for the best collection of short stories in 2008 – “Isfahan Literary Award” and “The Book City Award” for the one of the short stories in this collection Animal Disease and In Between the Empty Hollows.
“Let’s go back to night” has been published in 2018 by Cheshmeh Publications which won “Ahmad Mahmoud” literary award for the best short story collection in Iran in 2018.