Two Siblings, Seven Fish
by Rebecca Zahabi
Maybe this story started when Dad inherited the calabash; or maybe when my great-grandfather ran his thumb along its rugged surface, listening to the coins rattling within; or maybe even before then, when it was still green and growing, waiting to be plucked, carved and dried.
But for me, it started with an argument with my sister, Shadi.
For a long time, Shadi and I were the only half-French, half-Iranian children we knew. Except for our shared heritage, we were very different. We always bickered, about anything and everything: the fact that she stole my books and wrote in them, the way she ate rice straight from the pot with her fingers when Mum wasn’t looking, the music we listened to in the car, the shows we watched on TV. Our big, ongoing fight was about school. I would tell her off because I felt she wasn’t working hard enough, whilst she would laugh with glee if I didn’t get top grades in my class, jeering, “So, you’re human after all!”
It was Nowruz. I can’t even remember what the specific fight was about, only that after our outburst, we were both sulking viciously. Busy juggling jobs and raising two children, my parents hadn’t prepared the sofreh haft-sin in advance. We had guests coming, so the house was a flurry of preparations. Shadi was sent to vacuum the living room, while I was tasked with cutting tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions as small as I could manage, for a salad. Mum was busy with the main course, and the smells of saffron rice, pomegranate juice, and crushed walnut filled the kitchen.
Dad was preparing the haft-sin. We celebrated Nowruz every year, and the combination of Iranian hospitality and French attachment to proper protocol around food made for long, stressful meals. Still, it would take me years to understand that the celebration was more than a lavish Sunday lunch. I gathered the clues slowly, over time — the friends coming around, always Iranian, Dad’s acquaintances; the fact that Mum cooked traditional Iranian dishes; the haft-sin, of course, photographed and shared with the extended family on social media; the longing glint in Dad’s eyes.
We celebrated Nowruz in much the same way we celebrated Easter. I never thought to question why we hunted for chocolate and painted boiled eggs in vivid colors, either. The only difference was that no one else in the village celebrated Nowruz.
I understood this difference well before I was old enough to give it a name. It could be found in the way the neighbors two houses down from us never said hello. Or the way the grumpy old man near the top of the mountain had once shouted at Dad that it was bad enough terrorists were invading his country without them moving in next door.
Even as a child, I didn’t quite fit in. Maybe that’s why I worked so hard to belong, to be dutiful. And maybe that’s why Shadi strived so hard to stand out, so that she would be picked on by the teachers for something she had done, at least.
The haft-sin was on a little side table, covered with the sofreh. Dad was kneeling beside it, arranging the items: the mirror with its wooden mosaic frame, which he’d brought me as a present the last time he’d visited Iran; the sabzeh Mum had grown in a large wine glass, its green shoots peeking over the rim, carefully wrapped in a red ribbon; an apple; candles; a silver plate.
Later, much later, I would be the one to kneel and set the table carefully, with the same mirror and the sabzeh Shadi had grown.
Eager to be relieved of cleaning duties, Shadi whipped around the room while I wept above the onions, then put the vacuum away and hovered beside Dad. I glared at her, jealous that she’d finished her assignment, yet unwilling to break the sulk, even to call her over and ask for help.
“Get me the calabash,” Dad said.
Shadi nodded, then bounced upstairs to our parents’ bedroom. Although the calabash shouldn’t have featured on the sofreh — it wasn’t one of the seven objects starting with the letter sin, and didn’t carry any sacred significance — we always included it.
It had belonged to Dad’s grandfather, our great-grandfather. He’d been a dervish, which to this day makes our family proud. His calabash was a black oblong gourd, worn by many loving hands, with a round opening to drop coins into its hollow belly, and a small chain to sling it across one shoulder. Dad had also been bequeathed his ax, a slim, well-wrought weapon that weighed heavy in the hand, with a metal handle and a rusted, decorated blade.
Shadi had called dibs on the ax for when we inherited the two precious items. Although Dad hadn’t made any promises, I was envious. Later, when faced with the sad chore of dividing this legacy, Shadi did, in fact, get the ax. But by then, I didn’t mind. I stroked the calabash, feeling the irregular sides where other fingers had held it through generations. By then, I knew it had to be mine.
Shadi came bounding down the stairs, the calabash dangling at her hip, the chain digging into her neck.
“Where is Monsieur Poisson?” Dad asked.
It was a testament to how tired he was that Dad had forgotten.
“Monsieur Poisson is dead, Dad,” Shadi answered.
We hadn’t been much attached to Monsieur Poisson, who had been won at the fair, brought home in a plastic bag, then immediately forgotten. He’d lived out his days in a fishbowl on the kitchen counter, fed and furnished with aquatic plants by Mum. Despite her care, however, he’d died a couple of weeks ago. He’d been buried, but the empty fishbowl remained.
Dad looked to the counter. “But his fishbowl is . . . ” He paused, squinting. “Ah.”
“We’ll have to do without, love,” Mum said from where she was fussing over her pans. “They’ll be there any minute now, if they haven’t got lost.”
Our village was nestled halfway up a low-ridged part of the French Pyrenees, rocks covered in moss and grass, peaks shadowed by pines. It was isolated, a struggle to access without a car. For children, who could explore every nook and cranny unsupervised, it was heaven. For guests, it was a chore to reach us.
Spotting an obvious getaway, Shadi ran to the front door. “I’ll get some fish!” She didn’t bother taking off the calabash.
Mildly, without rising from where he was seated, Dad called after her, “Where will you even find them?”
“I’ll catch them in the river!” she shouted back, undaunted.
I dropped my knife halfway through the onion. “You can’t leave!” I was stomping through the living room before I’d even finished my sentence. Shadi was already putting on her shoes and sprinting through the door, the calabash swinging wildly with every stride. Driven by the same chase instinct as a puppy, I rushed after her in my sandals before either of our parents could stop me. I don’t think they tried very hard. Having us out of the house for a bit must have been a relief.
We raced up the main road. The cars were few and far between, so we ran safely enough on the tarmac, past the old church, past the cemetery, then up into the woody area above the village, where a couple of solitary houses were scattered among the trees. We slowed down, then stopped, wheezing, beaten by the steep slope.
I was full of self-righteous big-sister anger. “Go home now!”
“Go home yourself,” Shadi said between gasps, “and finish the Shirazi salad.”
She had a point. We walked side by side, still out of breath.
“The river is farther down,” I said.
Shadi shrugged. The calabash rose and dipped with her shoulders. “There’s no goldfish in the river. I’m getting them from Alain.”
Alain was the grumpy old man who was unkind to Dad, frostily polite with Mum, and shooed Shadi and I away like vermin if he spotted us. He had made the terrorist comment. His garden, hemmed by a low brick wall, had a pond.
“You’re going to steal them?” I said, self-righteousness not quite faded yet.
Despite being younger than me, Shadi was stubborn. “You don’t have to come.”
I stayed, telling myself it was because I wanted to keep an eye on her. The thrill of going up to Alain’s garden, a forbidden, frightening place, as foreboding as the forest at night, also drew me in.
“If you’re the thief, you don’t deserve the calabash, though,” I said.
We both knew the stories. In our family, tales of the dervish always featured another character, a shadow to his brightness: his wayward sibling.
The younger brother, the bandit, the bad son. The elder brother, the dervish, the good son. Like most family myths, it was distorted, repeated every year with another variant. One rode on horseback to hunt down innocent travelers, stealing from them, ripping earrings straight off the ear. The other begged so as to learn humility, and never kept the money he was given, but always discarded it, returning it to Khoda. He lived in poverty all his life. Meanwhile, his sibling became rich off ill-gotten wares.
And yet, despite having chosen such different ways of life, they always celebrated Nowruz together.
With a huff, Shadi removed the calabash and handed it to me. “If you’re coming with me, you’re also a thief,” she said, not too loudly, in case I took up our argument again.
Having won the calabash from her, I felt generous, so I didn’t reply. The gourd was hollow, but the chain chafed against my back, and its bulky shape against my hip changed my step. We continued upwards, towards Alain’s house.
As adults, we never mentioned the incident again, except once — only once — when we were both living away from home and in different countries, me in Iran for a research project, Shadi still in France. She said to me over the phone, “Oh, and Alain died yesterday.” We didn’t share condolences. There had been no love lost between our families. “I freed his fish,” Shadi went on. “Got them out of the pond and into the river. It felt like the right thing to do.”
I understood immediately, without her saying more. We had never stolen his fish, in the end. We hadn’t needed to.
There was a long silence on the line. “Did anything happen?” I asked, picturing silver and gold scales shimmering in the shallow water.
Shadi sighed; I shared her breath, countries apart. “No,” she said. “They just swam away. Disturbed the frogs.”
And that was that. We moved on to other topics.
Back when we were still children, when we still slept in the same bedroom and shared the same desk, when it seemed impossible we would ever miss being crammed against each other, Shadi led the ascent towards Alain’s house. She took the shortcut, a narrow footpath off the main road, which hikers used to get up the mountain. The dirt track was even steeper than the official, asphalted route. To keep my mouth busy, I plucked a blade of grass to chew on.
I’m not sure how we got lost. Maybe the bracken and brambles had camouflaged the official markings, and an animal trail had opened an alternative way. But if that was the case, I never found the wrong turn we took; I never managed to retrace our steps.
We followed a path strewn with loose gravel, until a coolness lifted in the air, a change in temperature that made us both slow down.
“We should be high enough,” Shadi said. But when we glanced around, the trees were too tall, growing too thickly, for us to see where we were.
“Just a bit higher,” I said, pointing to an area where, it seemed, the trees gave way to low ferns.
We scaled a big rock that left white dust on our hands. I had to push the calabash into the small of my back so it wouldn’t graze against the stones. At the top, we discovered the mouth of a cave. In the noon heat, it was a welcome shade. Its cool walls could be felt several steps away from its threshold. It had a low, circular entrance, which seemed natural.
Shadi jumped in excitement. “I don’t know this one!”
The Pyrenees are like gruyere cheese, dotted with grottos. We’d named the ones we could find, depending on their size, what had been found inside, and whether they smelled funny.
Before I could even think of holding her back, Shadi had hurried inside this new, unknown cave, and she was calling me over, yelling something about water and a tree.
I stopped in my tracks. Even then, I think, I knew. The sun against my neck beat down harder than before; the moist, damp grass tasted of sand. The air was crisp, dry. The calabash hung heavy against my side. I traced the lines and knots like old wood across its surface, to give myself courage. I could hear a sound in the distance that wasn’t the tolling of the church bell, but rang in the air just the same — a lonely, melodious call, which resonated like a human voice.
Slowly, I followed Shadi inside.
The cave was a natural formation, but the ground had been smoothed and flattened by a human hand. A tree was growing in the center, a straight silhouette of black bark and dark leaves that reached above us, through a crack at the top of the cave. On the farthest wall from the entrance, a hole too neat to be natural let a square of sunlight slip through. On the opposite side, hugging the inside of the mountain, hidden in shadows, the stone was wet. The same spring that fed the river was seeping in from the top, slicking it in a clear, thin sheen.
This was where Shadi stood. A flickering light danced across her face, making her eyes too bright. As I crept closer, I realized there were candles. Only a few, three or four of them in small glass cases, placed inside the shallow waterfall, where the rocks created natural little balconies and alcoves. They were still burning.
“It’s so cool!” Shadi said, clapping her hands.
I didn’t answer. I wondered who had lighted them.
I walked around the tree, towards the rectangular hole, which turned out to be a window carved into the stone: a long opening, with a large stone rim that could serve as a bench, which had obviously been made just above the sharpest incline, so people could watch the mountain dropping away into the valley.
Shadi skipped up behind me. “Can you believe we’ve never been here before?” She stopped abruptly. She’d seen the view.
It wasn’t the right landscape. The mountains were barren and bronze.
It would be years before I visited Iran, and weeks into my trip before I drove down to Yazd with Dad. We only found the Zoroastrian temple because a friendly man saw us admiring the sights and pointed us in the right direction. We nearly gave up on the way, because we were driving between bare peaks, growing only gnarled shrubs and dust, dust, dust. It was summer, and I was too sweaty, tired, sure we’d never find a village in this golden emptiness.
But the village was there, nestled high in one of the otherwise untamed mountains. It was isolated, impossible to access without a car. For bandits and dervishes, no doubt, it was heaven. Nobody was out in the late afternoon, with the heat still rising from the ground. We climbed to the top, panting from the slope. We entered the Zoroastrian temple and soaked up every detail: a tree growing out of the center of the natural cave, with a floor of green marble arranged around it; a wall seeping water, with multiple candles burning in alcoves, their glow reflected across the cascade; and, finally, a view of the sky.
Dad misunderstood my emotion. He squeezed my shoulder and whispered, “It’s beautiful, isn’t it? And it’s your country, azizam. Don’t forget that.”
But the reason I wiped my eyes, trying not to cry, as I stared out at the blue sky, the yellow mountain, the purple shadows, was because I recognized it. I thought, At last.
With Shadi, I didn’t realize this would be my only glimpse in years. We were stunned into silence. Gone were the green woods, Alain’s red rooftop, the stocky stone church. We watched these unknown mountains, we breathed in the dry summer breeze, we wondered at the sapphire sky set in a crown of burnished, jagged ridges.
We never spoke. Maybe we would have broken our silence after a time, but for the two men.
They were chatting below us, where the river wove its way out of the cave, a silver thread that glided down to the white, flat-roofed houses. One man was tall, broad, with a booming laugh, Shadi’s flick of the head when he talked. The second man was shorter, quieter, with a deep voice and even deeper eyes. The calabash at his side was worn already, black already, dried and varnished and tended to for years. He was taking coins out of it, throwing them into the river. Gold flashed between his hands.
They were speaking Farsi in a low rumble. We shouldn’t have been able to recognize them from the stories we had been told, yet we did. The dervish and the bandit.
The younger grinned. The elder’s tone was soft, affectionate. The dinars slid between his fingers and sailed into the river, cast aside — a gift, an offering. I fancy he threw seven coins away, but maybe I imagined it, or only convinced myself afterwards.
Neither noticed the two small girls peeking out of the window above. Neither glanced back as they descended the mountain, returning to the village.
They slung their arms over each other’s shoulders, hugged each other close. The younger patted the elder’s back, said something teasing; the elder shook his head, only smiled.
Shadi and I watched them go, craning our necks until they were out of sight. Without thinking, moved by intuition, I made my way back through the cave, towards the entrance. For once, she followed.
Had I known, I would have lingered longer. I would have watched the candles, the way fire and water blended, the way cool underground and stark outdoor light had been brought together, the weaving of roots and branches through stone. Had I known, I would have done what I did later, with Dad; I would have lit my own candle, breathed in the sky, touched my palm to the knotted bark. I would have prayed, like others before me, for the bright, brittle flames to never burn out.
When we exited the cave, there were ferns outside, and trees, and lush, wet grass. I circled the rocky formation, searching for the window, for the river. The calabash at my side was heavier than before; my shoulder ached. I wonder now if I was guided by instinct, luck, or blood.
The river emerged from the ground like a spring, having found its way out of the cave. We heard it before we saw it, a happy gurgling of water over mud.
“The coins!” Shadi gasped.
She knelt at the water’s edge. I stood beside her.
But it wasn’t money. Small globular fish shimmered in the stream, each scale as bright as gold, with silver lines flashing when they swam. Seven of them.
These fish would live much longer than Monsieur Poisson. They inherited his bowl, but not, I am happy to say, his fate. Year after year, we would put them back onto the haft-sin come Nowruz, and tend to them while they grew, never losing their shine, never swimming with anything but quick, easy grace. Mum fed them, then I did, then Shadi when I left to travel. We moved them from a fishbowl to a large aquarium as they lengthened. Every person in the house gazed at them with wonder from that first day, when Dad forgot to tell us off for running away — so in awe was he of our catch — up until the later days, when my nephews and nieces had children of their own who invited their friends around just to gawk at the fish.
I crouched, bringing the calabash between my knees.
“You’ll never catch them,” Shadi said, her voice uncertain.
We watched them for a while. They were beautiful, vivid, impossible creatures.
“Hey,” I said quietly. “For before. I’m sorry.”
She spoke quickly, interrupting me. “No, I’m sorry.”
“Let’s not fight,” I said.
In our silence, the stream sang over the stones. A fish leapt to the surface, flicking opal drops of water over my hands.
With all the care I would use from then on when moving them, with all the patient love I would show Shadi in the years to come, with all the slow, ceremonial deference I would put into preparing the haft-sin, I dipped the calabash into the water, and collected the goldfish.
About the Author
Rebecca Zahabi is a mixed-heritage writer (a third British, a third French and a third Iranian, if the mix is of interest to you). She started writing in her home village in France at age 12 – a massive epic which set out to revolutionise feminism. Since then, she has slightly re-jigged her expectations of what she can achieve with a keyboard and a blank page. After honing her craft in a variety of genres – playwriting, short stories, interactive novels – she hopes to write books that can make a difference. Her adult debut, The Collarbound, was longlisted for The Future Bookshelf program at Hachette UK before being acquired by Gollancz. It will be released on May 10, 2022. You can find her online at rebeccazahabi.com.
About the Narrator
Dr Mahtab Chenevix-Trench is a Persian living in London with her family. This is Mahtab’s first podcast and now has a real love for it. In her day to day life, she is a consultant, a mother, a wife and in love with her labradoodle (which she had way before covid). Her passions are cooking, recipe developing, reading to her son and playing the piano.