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|June 11, 2019

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National Bestseller This extraordinary, gripping debut is a rags-to-riches-to-revolution tale about an orphan girl's coming of age in Iran. "Aria is a feminist odyssey, about a girl in a time of intolerance as the revolution in Iran is breaking out . . . a…

The baker and his wife were still talking when Mehri picked up the baby and stepped out through the back door. In the snow, she loosened her veil and pulled out her hard, blackened nipple. Her breast ached in the frozen air. She brought it to the baby’s lips, but the milk dripped away. She was cold, but the baby’s skin was even colder. Above, a cloud hid the moon. A veil of snow had begun to cover the city. She felt wet blood dripping down her legs. It made a trail behind her. Amir could find her if he followed it, like a lone wolf trailing its prey.

But Mehri knew how to outmanoeuvre him. As a beggar-child she had made her way in Tehran’s northern streets, where the rich lived, and where some of them had given her something to eat. Most days she had received nothing, unlike her brother. But he was the boy.

When she reached Pahlavi Street, which connected the south to the north and divided worlds and existences, she found it changed from what she remembered: almost empty, almost silent, its ghosts were speaking and its rich were long asleep. By the light of the street lamps, she could see the snowy roads that rose to the tips of the Alborz Mountains, twenty kilometres away. As a child, she had dreamed of reaching those mountains. She would open her arms and fly to them, just like the phoenix in the old tales. She used to wonder if, from up there, one could see the city’s secrets. Once past the city’s valleys, did the mountain people breathe more freely? She would imagine the rich on their picnics along the mountain’s slopes and beside its rivers.

After three hours of walking, she was somewhere in the city centre. Her legs shook. They ached and ached and ached to the beat of war drums, her muscles pounding against bone. Her entire body ached. Her sex ached most. She wondered what would happen if the baby fell from her arms. Would it freeze and become a message to the future world: beware of birth, beware of life, beware if you arrive and are unwanted? If the baby fell, would its skull explode? Would all its bones break? Or, just like it had done in birth, would the child overpower everything around her and force her body into the world?

As Mehri walked, the city revealed itself to her. Structures and freeways unfolded and laid bare the world of the privileged. Here, in the city centre, the buildings grew taller; seen this close, they were as vast as the mountains that framed them. On one side of the street stood the tallest building she had ever seen. There was a picture of an old man on it: the prime minister, Mossadegh. She recognized him. Everyone knew his face now. She looked at it for a while, then carried on, past the parked cars and the few vehi­cles driving gently through the night. Even the shapes of cars had changed since last she had been here, she thought. They were more streamlined now, and in colours she hadn’t seen before.

Now the streets and sidewalks widened. Mehri’s toes hurt from the cold. The baby was oddly silent, as if she knew what her mother was about to do. Mehri touched her sore thighs, shuffling her hand past and through the veil’s three layers, one for piety, one for culture, and the third for warmth. She picked up a handful of snow, cupped it under her veil to where she had been torn open and tried to wash the stain off, but the cold only stung her more. Blood stained her fingers. She put her nipple into the baby’s mouth again, but the baby still wouldn’t drink.

She walked another hour before reaching the centre of a major intersection. At the edge of the street, strands of grass tried to push through the snow. Mehri looked around. Everything was new here, everything was modern.

From this cross street there were four directions in which to go. She could walk back south, go north, or stay here on the streets that led east and west. To the west, there it was again—the picture of the old man, this time on newspaper pages glued to brick walls. Eastward the street was narrower, flanked by small trees that had lost their leaves for winter. One was different. It was a mulberry tree, which she recognized from her childhood, having spent hours picking fruit from one with her brother. They would collect thou­sands of mulberries in tin cans and leave them to dry and turn sweet before selling them. By nightfall they would have enough money for food—perhaps some meat to keep their muscles working.

Mehri had never imagined herself becoming a mother. Life had never seemed as if it could last that long. But now life had sped toward her, crashed into her, developed in her organs, between her muscles and veins, month after month, and then exploded out of her in the form of the being she now held in her arms. She wanted badly to bring the baby closer, even to kiss her. Instead, she touched her hand to the bark of the mulberry tree and felt its grooves. The baby whimpered for the first time, as though in pro­test, as though begging for some mercy.

Mehri walked on. She saw another mulberry tree, and beside it, an open alleyway. From within the alley came a stench of waste. She covered her face with her veil and entered. Paper garbage bags had been left out on either side. Holding the baby in one arm, she walked between the rows, searching for the right place. She felt nothing and had no awareness of time. The baby hardly stirred as Mehri placed her on the ground. For several minutes, neither mother nor child moved. Moonlight shone on the infant’s face, and for the first time Mehri looked clear into her eyes. She and her baby shared the same eye colour, as Fariba had said. She bent down and caressed the baby’s cheeks, her chin and brow. In the moonlight she saw that blood from her fingers had stained the baby’s face. But there was nothing she could do about that now.

At last, Mehri stood and turned around. She walked away—so far that not even the moonlight could help her see her daughter again.

Trucks rumbled along the gravel road in the dead of the night, vibrating like a line of ants, thick tarpaulins shaking as engines whirred and wheels lifted dust, fogging the cold February air. Behrouz Bakhtiar closed his eyes. A film of dirt coated the skin covering the thin bones of his face. He watched by moonlight as four eight-wheelers filled with young men from the provinces rolled away.

He would not be driving the young men home as usual. This was the first night of his four days off. He would instead place a cigarette in his mouth, light it with the last match he had in his pocket, and walk home down the red mountain, where earth min­gled with snow, then stride through the city from north to south. This was his Tehran, and he was its secret guardian, the angel perched on the mountaintop counting buildings, trees, lights, and people who walked about like insects, unaware of being watched.

Strange how people are, Behrouz thought, the cigarette between his thin lips. And he began his walk down and through the city just as he had planned, just as he had been anticipating all day. He slid down the slopes effortlessly, taking a drag from his cigarette every once in a while. He whistled when the mood struck him. He had walked this path many times, since he had first learned to drive up the mountain. How old had he been, seventeen? He was thirty-three now, so that made it sixteen years. With time off mul­tiplied by sixteen, that made about four thousand times he had walked up and down the slopes of Darakeh.

Sometimes, of course, the generals gave him permission to drive down and save himself the three-hour walk. And when Behrouz first got married, the general in command had not only encouraged him to drive, he’d let him off early to encourage hus­bandly duties—but not without reminding Behrouz how old his new wife was. “Think that wife of yours’ll be able to handle fresh little you?” the general had said.

Behrouz had married Zahra when he was nineteen, upon his father’s urging. “The Prophet was a boy, his wife was forty when he took her,” his father had said. But Zahra was no prophet’s wife. She was thirty-six, had never married, and had a son, Ahmad, who was the same age as Behrouz. Ahmad hadn’t come to the wedding. That night, when Behrouz asked his new wife where her son was, Zahra replied, “Somewhere in the prison halls.” Then she had forced herself on him.

When he’d first started driving trucks in the army, Behrouz had been more talkative. The soldiers liked him. They would reveal themselves, telling him about their lives on the farms or in small towns. If they were Tehrani boys, they talked about their schools and their girlfriends. The only one who had never opened up was a member of the royal family—a cousin of the king. But Behrouz supposed that was different. He had been ordered not to look the boy in the eyes.

Behrouz had begun learning to drive at sixteen because he wasn’t strong enough to fight, or smart enough to read. His father had taught him the basics. He could have sold bread on the streets like his father, or worked the oil mines like his uncles. But the one time he had suggested this, his father slapped him so hard, Behrouz saw stars for days. And that was the end of that.

Now, as he walked, the red dirt beneath his boots remained frozen. Three nights ago there had been a storm. But now the snow had settled and was packed along the path. The walk wasn’t as bad as he’d expected. He swiftly made it down Darakeh, to the northern tip of Pahlavi Street. Here there were cobblestone roads and the houses were old. He’d heard that the king’s father once lived here.

He walked past the old car parked along the street, searching his pocket in vain for another smoke. A man was walking toward him.

“Could I trouble you for a cigarette?” Behrouz asked. He had learned how to speak politely, like the people did up here. The man pulled out a single smoke from his pack. Behrouz took it and placed it between his lips. The man held out a lighter, its flame flickering in the slight breeze.

“Thank you,” Behrouz said, and began to walk away.

“No money?” the man said.

Behrouz waited.

“No money?” the man asked again.

“You want money for the light?” Behrouz said.

“What do you think?”

Behrouz searched both pockets awkwardly.

“Only kidding. Stupid man.” The man laughed as he walked away.

Behrouz stepped up his pace and cut through alleyways. He knew he was somewhere in Youssef-Abad district, midway through the city. He normally walked the main street, but tonight he felt like a change. Streams of sewer water ran in the gutters, but blos­soming mulberry trees flanked the roads. This district was one of his favourites. He liked the corner shops and the cinema and cafés, which were old but patronized by rich people.

He was staring at the letters on the front of the cinema when he heard the cry—like a cat in pain. He walked closer to where he thought the sound was coming from, but water gurgling in the gutter muffled its location. He crossed into another alley—nothing there. He continued to move from alley to alley, jumping over gut­ters. The more he found nothing, the more urgently he searched. His only help was the moon; there were no lights in the nearby homes; it seemed the rest of the world was asleep.

He finally reached the mulberry tree, which was flanked by rows of garbage. Staring up at him was a pack of wild dogs. He imagined them tearing the tiny creature who had made the sound limb from limb.

He grabbed a stick from the ground and charged. But none of the dogs moved. How long had they been there? As he neared, the dogs sat and watched quietly. At last, Behrouz bent down and lifted the baby into his arms. The dogs sniffed his feet, turned and left.

He sped toward the edge of town, past abandoned buildings in which the poor secretly lived, past stacks of cardboard where the even poorer slept. He wondered how long the child had gone without food. The stores were still closed, but his wife must have bought some milk, he thought frantically.

The baby didn’t look more than three days old. His head hurt. The stars whirled in the sky. At last, not far in the distance, he saw the pale outline of his house.

For three hours, Behrouz sat in his living room, trying to feed the child. He had woken a sleeping neighbour, who had found some milk, though the baby threw up most of it. Now, once again, he dipped the cap of his fountain pen into the bowl of milk beside him on the floor. He held the tiny vessel to the baby’s lips, careful not to tilt it too far. The milk flowed onto her lips, but only a few drops got in. He wiped her face clean with the back of his pinky finger. In a minute, he would try again.

Zahra was sleeping. Her son, Ahmad, out of jail only two days, had left his dirty boots on the kitchen table. He’d landed in prison for cutting someone’s fingers off, and Behrouz knew he would already be back to stealing.

By morning, Behrouz was struggling to keep his eyes open. From the north-facing window, he watched the rising sun. The rays crept toward him, along the floor. In the bedroom, his wife still slept soundly. He got up, walked into her room, and stood at her bedside, the baby to his chest. Zahra lay tightly wrapped in her blan­kets. She was fair-skinned, with straight, fine hair that turned a shade of light brown in summer. She liked to curl it these days, using little plastic rolls.

He returned to the living room and laid the baby gently on the floor. Then he walked quietly back to the bedroom.

“We have to talk,” Behrouz whispered.

Zahra covered her eyes to block the sun. “You’re home. Figured you’d be killing yourself with opium all night.”

“Come with me.” He pulled her out of bed.

In the living room, the baby’s arms and legs shook and she struggled like an overturned insect.

“I think she’s hungry,” Behrouz said. “I gave her some milk, but she hardly drank. She needs to suck it, I think.”

Zahra backed away from the infant. “Where did you find it? Is this some mess of yours we have to fix?” Her voice was sharp.

Behrouz picked up the baby. “Nothing like that,” he said. “Last night in the alley, there was waste all around her. I found her in Youssef-Abad.”

“That’s the North-City,” Zahra said. “What were you doing with those people? Listen to me: You put that baby where you found it so the trash who are her people can take it back.”

“There were dogs around her. I don’t know what they wanted, but—”

“Get it out of my house. And I know you do your own nasty business. You never touch me—as if I were made of fire and would burn you. But men are men. You must be touching somebody.” Zahra grabbed the baby’s face. “Did you take a look at its eyes? They’re blue. I swear on Imam Hossein you’ve brought a blue-eyed devil into my house.”

“Her eyes are green,” Behrouz said.

“No. There’s blue in them. You’ve brought evil into this house, Mr. Bakhtiar.”

Behrouz listened silently as Zahra walked away and into the bed­room, still shouting at him. Fourteen years with her and the rage had only worsened. He looked at the baby. Zahra was right. There was blue in those eyes. He couldn’t think how to comfort her. It had been so easy when he’d been a little boy and would play pretend. He would rock his baby, feed his baby, just like the neighbourhood girls did. And he’d been careful to never let his father know. But now, here was a real baby. The only thing he could think to do was speak to it, human to human. Not human to doll or master to slave. Yes, he would do what humans had always done, from the first crack of life.

“Want me to tell you a story?” he whispered to the little girl. Her wrinkled eyelids were shut tight, as if she would never want to face the world. “Want me to tell you the story of the Tooba Tree?” Behrouz said again. And so he began, hoping to drown out Zahra’s shouts. “Past the clouds and the sky, way up in heaven, there is a tree, the Tooba Tree, from whose roots spring milk, and honey, and wine.”

“I curse the day I married a boy,” Zahra yelled from the other room.

Behrouz kept on: “Milk to nourish you, honey to sweeten you, wine to take you to the land of dreams.”

Zahra yelled louder. “Think you were my saviour, Mr. Bakhtiar? You only made hell last longer.”

Behrouz lifted the baby closer to his lips and whispered in her ear. “The Tooba Tree belongs to the orphans of heaven, for there is nothing that matters more, my little one.”

He stopped and listened for Zahra again, but she had finished her rant. The baby had opened her eyes but was falling back asleep. “You sang to me from that alley,” he whispered to her, “and I heard your song. Yet if I hadn’t, and if you had not been saved, the Tooba Tree would have been waiting for you and you would have been all right just the same.” Behrouz paused. He wondered if saving the little girl had been the right thing to do after all. But, since he had saved her and forced her into this thing called life, there was one more thing he needed to do.

“I used to love music, you know, when I was a little boy,” he said, putting his pinky finger in the baby’s mouth so she could suckle. “I used to sing, in secret, so my father wouldn’t know. I used to sing arias. Know what they are? Little tales, cries in the night. If you sing an aria, the world will know all about you. It will know your dreams and secrets. Your pains and your loves.”

Behrouz heard Zahra throw a pillow against the bedroom wall, and paused. After a few moments, hearing nothing more, he kept on. “I’ll name you Aria, after all the world’s pains and all the world’s loves,” he said. “It will be as if you had never been aban­doned. And when you open your mouth to speak, all the world will know you.”