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Hunted by Angels (Short story)

To Negin, my four-year-old daughter: 

My daughter stood by the window in the kitchen. I was chopping onions while she watched the snow falling with her round eyes. From her gaze, I could tell she was enjoying the sight of the snowflakes descending gracefully and splendidly toward the ground. The snowfall enchanted her. She tugged at my skirt and asked, “Who sends down the snow from the sky?” I involuntarily replied, “Angels.” She didn’t quite understand. I continued, “An angel from the sky brings down each snowflake.” 

She asked, “What’s an angel?” 

“A fairy,” I said. 

It had been a few days since my daughter turned four. She had a relatively vivid image of fairies in her mind. She had seen illustrations of fairies in the picture books I had found for her here and there; she had seen the image of a beautiful, dreamy creature with white wings. In disbelief and wonder, she asked, “Each is brought down to the earth by a fairy.” I said, “Yes.” 

She couldn’t quite see the snowfall properly beside the window. She ran over, brought cushions, stacked them, and stood on them. Her height increased. Leaning against the window glass, she joyfully observed the snowfall. She was silent. I struggled to open my eyes, still stinging from the onion scent, and looked at my daughter. It seemed to me that she saw a beautiful and dreamy being descending with its white wings towards the ground with each snowflake. In her perception, the distance between earth and sky was filled with beautiful, dreamy creatures with white wings, each embracing a snowflake. She turned around and asked, “Don’t they get tired?” I said, “No.” 

Then she said, “I wish I had white wings; I would fly up and bring snow; how fun!” And then she giggled. I enjoyed her laughter. 

As I chopped the onions, I went back twenty-five years. I remember asking my grandmother this same question, and she said, “Each snowflake is brought down to earth by an angel from the sky.” I had been puzzled and asked, “Don’t they get tired?”  

My grandmother had answered, “No.”  

I asked again, “What’s an angel?”  

My grandmother had first been perplexed about what to say; then, she had regretfully said, “We can’t see the angels. They are everywhere.” I immediately looked around me and saw nothing. My grandmother continued, “Right now, as you’re sitting, there’s an angel in front of you, one behind you, one on your left shoulder, one on your right.” 

I immediately looked in front of me, turned to look behind me, to my right shoulder, and then to my left shoulder. I had seen nothing, yet I had been terrified by this overwhelming invisible angel presence around and ahead of me, inscribing unknown and fearful things about me without my seeing or knowing. My grandmother said, “If someone does good deeds, the angel standing over their right shoulder writes down their good deeds, but if someone does bad deeds, the angel on their left shoulder writes them down.”  

I was scared. It seemed that invisible beings were seated around and ahead of me, inscribing without my seeing or knowing, and it was frightening. I asked, “What do they do with all those inscriptions?”  

“They record whatever a person does in his/her entire life.”  

‘What are those records?’  

My grandmother, stringing prayer beads, looked toward the sky. The sun sky wasn’t visible. As snowflakes slowly and splendidly descended to the ground, she said, “It’s the same thing that will be presented on Judgment Day, a record. All of a person’s deeds are written down: good deeds lead a person to paradise, and if bad deeds are abundant, they lead to hell …” Then she sighed and said, “God forbid, in hell, sinners are poked with fiery iron rods. They become torn apart, and then ants gather every fragment, put it in one place, reconstruct the person, and they will be met with fiery and fury. The person becomes fragmented again … The person burns from thirst and screams for water, but no one gives them water.” 

And I had imagined hell as a vast torture chamber where burned and torn individuals were scattered everywhere. Torn and burned hands, torn and burned feet, torn and burned skulls … It was terrifying, and from that moment on, my relationship with the angel on my left shoulder, with my left shoulder itself, deteriorated completely. It seemed to me that this angel on my left shoulder, like a secretary, wrote and tried tirelessly to send me to hell from dawn to dusk, from evening to morning.  

If I didn’t greet elders. If I didn’t obey rightly or wrongly. If I did things without reason. If I drank a glass of water, forgetting to say, “Thank you, you lord.” If an elder entered and I didn’t stand up straight. If I didn’t kiss the hand of an elder. If I knew my actions were wrong and did them anyway, I knew my case was being built, and the angel on my left shoulder, as a dutiful secretary, would write and record all my sins, making my distance to hell closer and closer. Sometimes, out of fear, against my own will, I turned myself towards my left shoulder and forced a friendly smile. I wanted to tell the angel on my left shoulder that I loved them so our relationship would be good, at least unjustly or out of stubbornness; they wouldn’t write anything negative about me on that record. 

It had become a nightmare for me, the angel on my left shoulder. During the day, I wasn’t very aware of its presence in any way, but at night, as I got into bed and pulled my blanket over me, being alone with my thoughts, I pondered over the angel on my left shoulder and what it might have written. I could hear my breathing and the beating of my heart, and I would think about all the sins I had committed that day, pleading to God, the angel on my left shoulder, to not unjustly write anything, to not write out of stubbornness, not to write anything out of spite about me. 

I prayed for it to write down exactly what I had done. What would happen if it didn’t understand the meaning of this action or that? I wished it would ask me … As I lay under the covers, I made a promise to myself that from tomorrow onwards, I would greet all elders, not look straight into their eyes, obey rightly or wrongly, do things as I am told, and if I drank a glass of water, I would surely give thanks to the Almighty. If an elder entered, I would stand up straight. I would kiss the hands of all elders, and again, I would question myself: what if this angel on my left shoulder wrote everything unjustly and out of stubbornness, and on Judgment Day, it stood proudly and read its notes about me aloud? What would happen? 

I thought it would bring down fiery iron rods upon my head, reconstruct me, and I would desperately ask for water. No one would give me water; again, it would fragment me with fiery iron rods. I trembled with fear. Sweat poured down my face. My pillow would get wet, and I was taken over by fear and trembling every night before I fell asleep. 

I busied myself in the kitchen with oil, onions, rice, and meat. The aroma of the cooking filled the air. I saw my daughter carrying cushions from under the window and going from this room to that room to watch the snowfall more. 

I saw her opening the window, pulling her hand out. Snowflakes landed on her palm. She shouted, “An angel is sitting on my hand.” She came running. Her fist was clenched. She asked, “Can you imagine an angel in my fist?” And she opened her fist. A tiny drop of water slid on her small palm. She said, “It flew. Did you see it?” She went to bring more snow and then again asked, “Did you see?” 

I said, “No.” 

Insistently, she said, “I did.” 

She grabbed my skirt and said, “Buy me two white wings.” 

I said, “Okay, we’ll buy.” 

“When?” 

“Tomorrow morning.” 

She asked, “How much do they cost?” 

I answered, “I don’t know.” 

In a hurry, she delved into her coat pocket. A tiny coin emerged, and she said, “I have my penny. Let’s go now.” 

I said, “I told you we’d buy tomorrow.” 

She tilted her head to the right and impatiently said, “Okay, it is morning! Let’s go now.” 

I said, “Alright, let me finish my work.” 

‌My daughter burst out in joyous laughter. I watched her with a sense of longing. She ran off to another room. Perhaps I, too, looked at the world with hope, where everything might be possible, and thoughts about everything could be possible. Saying everything might be possible, a world where an infinite tomorrow exists. Tomorrow is today; it’s right now. Numbers are mere concepts. My heart felt heavy. 

*** 

I remember when she was in the front of the window, had the window open, and was engrossed in hunting angels. I feared she might catch a cold and cough at night. I called from the kitchen, “Close the window, or you catch a cold.” 

She answered assuredly, “No, I’m not.” 

I said, “I am telling you to close the window.” 

“No, I’m not. I’m watching the snow fall.” 

With my oily hands and frowned forehead, I went to close the window and returned to the kitchen. I heard my daughter open the window again. I don’t know why I remembered my grandmother or her story about the angels that were everywhere. 

I didn’t say anything. I don’t know how long she stood before the opened window, capturing the angels in her fist, and letting them go. Whether my daughter caught a cold or got tired, she came to me without saying a word. I was glad she had forgotten about buying white wings at the market. She once asked, “What did you say before?” 

I asked, “What did I say?” 

She said, “You didn’t say angels. You said something else.” 

I said, “Did I say ‘fairy’?” 

She said, “Yeah, fairies. Is ‘angel’ another name for a fairy?” 

This time, involuntarily, I told her the story of the angels. I told her there was an angel in front of everyone, an angel behind everyone, an angel on the right shoulder, and an angel on the left shoulder. I told her that if people do good deeds, they go to heaven; if they do evil deeds, they’re sent to hell. I told her that if someone doesn’t obey elders, doesn’t kiss elders’ hands, does things without a good reason, drinks water without thanking the Lord, doesn’t stand up straight when an elder enters, the angel on their left shoulder writes it all down in their record. They would be sent to hell. I told her the story of fiery iron rods that fragment the sinners into pieces, the story of ants, the story of thirst and burnt lips, the story of asking for water, the story of not receiving water. 

When my stories ended, my daughter was still lost in thought. I looked at her round face and her long hair falling on her shoulders. Her mouth remained open. Once, she went to close the other room’s window. She didn’t say anything else. She was quiet and had lost her agility. She ate her food silently and didn’t fuss like every other night. 

When she felt sleepy, like every night, she came to me. I changed her clothes, kissed her forehead, and recited a prayer I had made for her sleep. Before she went to sleep, I gently stroked her lengthy hair every night and whispered in her ear: “May the sun and moon come to your dreams … may the flowers and grasses come to your dream, and may I come to your dreams.” She chuckled and said, “You always come to my dreams.” Then she stretched out in her bed. I pulled the blanket over her, and she was left alone. 

*** 

It was late in the night. I finished my nightly tasks, went to bed, and checked on my daughter. I noticed she was restless under her blanket. On other nights, when I put her to bed, I would cover her with the blanket. She would fall asleep as soon as she laid her head on the pillow.  

I removed the blanket, and she stirred, unable to sleep. Anxiety was evident in her sleepy eyes … Perhaps she was worried about the angel on her left shoulder, thinking about her deeds that the angel might have written unjustly or out of stubbornness. 

22nd August 1983 

*Spozhmai Zaryab was born in Kabul in 1949 and is now a writer living in France. Her stories are considered prominent examples of contemporary Persian storytelling. This story was completed on August 22, 1983.