Michelle Quay translates Bijan Najdi

pool of nightmares

After twenty years away, Morteza was arrested his very first day back in his hometown on charges of murdering a swan (they’d seen him holding a dead swan by the feet, its long neck hanging down, beak dragging in the white snow). Neither of the town’s two police officers cuffed Morteza on their way to the station. The dirt path was covered in a thin layer of ice, which occasionally broke, filling the officers’ boots with water.

The police station courtyard evoked a prison, though it didn’t smell like one. An old, toothless woman with red gums was yelling, “Where are you? Mash Isma‘il?” 

Morteza stopped to examine the woman more closely.

“Move along,” one of the officers said. “She’s off her rocker.” 

“Is Mash Isma‘il still alive?” the other officer asked. 

“If Mash Isma‘il were alive…” she replied. “If Mash Isma‘il…” 

Morteza reached into his coat pocket and fished out a pack of cigarettes. He lit one in the hallway, sitting down on a wooden bench. Now the officers cuffed him. Just to take a drag from his cigarette Morteza had to bring both hands up to his scruffy, smoky-black moustache. By the time he had finished it, the snow was falling again. The sergeant went out to the steps so he could escort the head officer across the yard under a plastic sky (that is, he was holding an umbrella). The lieutenant brushed the umbrella aside and took off his hat. Flakes of snow were melting in his hair. 

“That woman here again?” he said. 

“She went to the coffee house and was telling people, ‘If you give me ten tomans, I’ll show you my ears.’”

“She really did that?” the lieutenant asked, taking the stairs three at a time. 

“Yes, sir,” the sergeant said from behind him. 

“Leave her be,” he said. 

The lieutenant was so tall the sergeant practically had to run to keep up. Walking through the entrance, the lieutenant asked, “What’s the deal with this murdered swan?” 

“Over there, sir,” the sergeant replied. 

The lieutenant stopped and looked around for the corpse of a swan: “Where?” 

The sergeant pointed to Morteza on the bench and said, “Get up, let’s go.”

Morteza was staring at the radiator, thinking a heater without a flame wasn’t worth a damn thing.

The lieutenant came in. He laid his hat on the table and ran a hand through his hair as he stood next to the window, which looked out on the pond. The pond was so far away only the vague blackness of a bridge – which looked nothing like a bird – stretched from the near side of the pond to the far side. 

The swan report was lying on the glass desk, while on the pink shelf the fan had its back to both window and winter. 

The lieutenant sat behind the desk and scowled like old times at the sound of the squeaky chair. He stared at the ringing phone so long that eventually the sergeant picked it up.

“It’s the mayor, sir.” 

The lieutenant took the receiver. “Yes, it’s me. Of course…. No … Yes, he’s been arrested… It’s just as you say. That swan belonged to all of us… We’ll dispatch officers to patrol the pond immediately… Rest assured… You too.” 

As soon as he hung up he yelled, “Sergeant! Bring him in.” 

Morteza came into the room with all the buttons on his coat undone. He held his handcuffed palms out like he was trying to offer someone a handful of air. His eyes, it seemed, had adjusted to the darkness around him, or perhaps he’d been looking at a lot of bright lights at once. He opened and closed his mouth like a freshly-caught fish, or like someone asleep, breathing noisily. 


Morteza sat on the nearest chair. 

“Hungry?” The lieutenant asked.

“No… I mean, well, now that you mention it, I think I am.” 

The sergeant opened the swan file. Morteza listened as an ambulance in the distance turned on its siren and faded even further away. 

“So? You were saying,” the lieutenant prompted. 

“Me? No, I wasn’t saying anything,” Morteza replied.

“Did you mean to sell the swan? Or… eat it?”

“Sell the swan? Eat it?” 

“You were seen,” the lieutenant said. “Let’s be civilized, now. Didn’t you kill the swan?” 

“Yeah… I mean, I guess so. I killed it. It just happened. How can I explain? All of a sudden I saw the body in my hands.” 

That morning, just as Morteza had stepped off the bus in his hometown after twenty years away, the smell of the tea gardens hit him, wafting up from the open collar of his coat. Even though the weather was cold and tasted like rain, Morteza headed towards the hostel on foot. He entertained himself by reading the flyers on the walls. A young soldier was smiling in a funeral announcement. The sound of a man praying emanated from the window. Morteza arrived at the hostel and rang the bell. He was extending his finger to press the button again when a sleepy old man opened the door and said gruffly:

“Yeah? What is it?”

“Do you have any rooms available?” Morteza asked.

“Rooms? What kind of rooms?” 

Morteza looked up at the sign above the door which read, “Iran Hostel.”

“Is this not the hostel?” he asked. 

“It was, son… it was. It definitely was, once.” And he closed the door. The clink of washing glasses and plates was coming from across the street. Morteza went into the coffeehouse.

The lieutenant asked, “How did you end up by the pond?”

“I wasn’t trying to go to the pond, I was headed to pay my respects at Aseed Hosayn’s resting place. They’ve paved over some of the roads and I couldn’t find it. I asked a woman I bought some bread from…”

The woman pulled some sangak bread out from under her veil and pointed him towards the glossy white at the end of the street, where snow and morning seemed to merge into one. That was where Morteza heard the sound of the swans, on the corner of that street. He turned and saw lights encircling the pond, still on for no reason, as if they imagined there was still a bit of night left. The pond was the same size and shape it had been twenty years ago, except now there was a fence around it. They had gotten rid of the roses and heather, and nothing was reflected in the water but the image of the light posts. Well, except for the sky, but it was so cloudy you couldn’t see it anyway. 

“So where were the swans?” asked the lieutenant. 

“On the other side,” Morteza said. “I was on one side, they were on the other.”

The pond was so deserted only Morteza’s footprints walked on the snow. The water was silent. Step by step, he moved to go sit on a bench beside the pond. It was so buried in snow, you couldn’t tell if it was made of wood, stone, or cement. Morteza quickened his pace. He even ran a few steps. 

“Why did you run?” the lieutenant asked.

“Because the sound of my footsteps was behind me…. I liked it. It had been years since I’d walked in front of myself like that, let alone run a few steps. It might have been the distance from your desk to the window there. You can hardly call that running, can you?” 

He looked at the sergeant, who was taking notes.

“Sir, should I record that too?” the sergeant said. 

“These days you can’t understand what people are saying, or what they want,” the lieutenant replied. 

Morteza turned toward the window and said nothing. The window was sweating. You could write a note in the condensation and put the date under it. The lieutenant was so quiet Morteza turned back around to look at him. In the interval he’d been thinking, “If this old guy had been killed (how old was he again?), there’d be a swan sitting on the chair across from me instead of this skin and bones in a coat.”

“It’s so much easier to talk to swans,” he said. 

“What?” said the sergeant.

Morteza heard the sound of a door opening. He saw a white teacup on a tray, headed for the lieutenant. Just as the tray was set down on the desk, the lieutenant motioned for it be put in front of Morteza. The teacup was lifted from the desk, and the scent of the tea gardens circled the room. Morteza’s throat was like sandpaper; there was a cough tickling it. With the promise of a hot cup of tea and cigarette before him in a few moments’ time, he completely forgot about the pond, the swan, and cuffs tight around his wrists. 

“Uncuff him, Sergeant,” the lieutenant ordered. 

The ceiling lamp lay upside down in his teacup. Even after the sugar dissolved in Morteza’s mouth, it was still white. As the hot tea went down, Morteza could feel the warmth tracing down his throat, through his chest, and into his belly. Leaving his tea unfinished, Morteza struck a match for his cigarette and closed his eyes with the first drag. 

“What did they do with the swan?” the lieutenant asked the sergeant. 

“They put it in the parking lot, in a plastic bag,” he replied. 

“What did you kill it with?” the lieutenant asked. “Hey, I’m talking to you!” 

From behind a cloud of smoke, Morteza said, “With an oar. At least I think it was with an oar, I don’t know.” 

“What do you mean you don’t know?” said the lieutenant. 

“It was full of oil out there,” he said. “Gasoline.” 

To see the swans up close, Morteza had to walk half way around the pond. There was a boat overturned in the snow. Between the path and the pond, a man was kicking the tire of a semi cab and occasionally blowing on his hands. The open hood of the truck had spilled the guts of a big box of wrenches onto the snow. A broken bottle (it looked like brake fluid) was face down in the water up to its neck. Gasoline was being spewed into the pond like vomit from the tipped-over plastic gas cans next to the fence. The water was greasy; the oil moved slowly with the lapping waves. Patches of gasoline, grey and purple, continually grew larger. When Morteza looked out at the mess on the water, he could see the swan too. The lieutenant thought of a bird he’d seen on the news that scrambled out of the mire after an oil spill on the Persian Gulf and dragged itself on its belly across the sand, but the lieutenant couldn’t recall its name. 

Morteza said, “Then I…” 

“Wait!” cried the lieutenant. “Hold on just a minute. Don’t say anything.” 

He turned his back to the room and looked out the window at the long bridge which straddled the pond. The sergeant paused to look at the lieutenant’s thin shoulders, or at Morteza, or at the shiny brim of the hat sitting on the table. The warmth of the room didn’t match the snow falling outside. The lieutenant undid one of the buttons on his uniform and without turning around said, “So?”

Morteza pointed his finger to his chest and quietly asked the sergeant, “Is he talking to me?” 

The sergeant nodded. 

Morteza continued, “I waved my arms at the swan and yelled out, ‘Don’t come any closer! Please, for the love of God, don’t come closer.’ But it’s like swans can’t hear or something. Or at least this one couldn’t. It didn’t see me at all. That was when I went towards the boat…” 

As Morteza turned the boat over, put it in the water, and rowed toward the swan, the lieutenant paced back and forth across the room, back and forth, and the sergeant tried to take down Morteza’s every word. 

“I was approaching the swan, and the oil and gas were closing in on it. By that time, I’d completely forgotten I’d wanted to visit the grave. My fingers were around the oar, but I couldn’t grasp it. I was frozen. With the paddle, I pushed the swan so it would move away or turn around. It had its neck bent over the water like a person… like a person looking down at a photo album. ‘It hasn’t seen me,’ I thought. I hit it with the paddle, then hit it again. It moved slightly away from the oily, nasty water, but then the gasoline surrounded the boat. Then… then the gasoline slid under the swan’s belly. Now I, the boat, the filth, and the swan were all mixed up.”

The lieutenant was pacing. The sergeant had fallen behind in his notetaking. The oar came out of the water and went back in. The swan was flapping wildly in the water. Morteza leaned over the edge of the boat and stretched his arms out towards the swan. 

“Suddenly I grabbed it and dragged it into the boat. I don’t remember if I grabbed it by its wing or its neck. I pulled it onto my leg. It flailed so frantically my clothes got soaked. My coat still smells like oil…. I mean my entire body smells like an oil wick!”

The lieutenant stopped walking. He stood over Morteza, and Morteza said with his hands outstretched, “That’s when I saw it lying in my hands; the body was in my arms and its head was lying on the floor of the boat… the floor of the…  the floor…”

It was raining outside the police station. Morteza’s face was wet. Beside the pond, a boat was filling up with water. 

“Why are you crying?” the lieutenant asked.

“I’m not crying,” said Morteza. “I have cataracts. It’s been happening for a while.”

The phone rang, and the sergeant picked up.

“Hang up that phone, Sergeant,” said the lieutenant harshly.

Morteza wiped his face with his hand. In the station parking lot, the swan in the plastic bag had no idea it was dead. The pond didn’t realize one of its swans was no more. The lieutenant said something under his breath.

“What did you say?” the sergeant asked.

“I said let him go.” 

Morteza left the room. Outside the town, a semi – one of those eighteen-wheelershonked at some ducks that were crossing the road. They scattered, terrified.

Translator’s Note:

In the very first sentence of Bijan Najdi’s “A Pool of Nightmares,” we are informed that our protagonist, Morteza, has done the unthinkable – he has accidentally murdered a swan. While at first blush a comical satire on small-town life in provincial Iran, Najdi’s tale develops with unhurried fascination into a meditation on everything his country has lost between the Iranian Revolution of 1979, through the devastation of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), and the narrative’s present, circa 1994. Among those things lost are a sense of order, and a sense of the individual’s ability to take action in the face of slow-moving, inevitable disaster. Najdi’s stealthy narrative device of shifting between past and present highlights the gaping chasm between the town of his recollection and the reality of the present moment.

The greatest challenge in translating this piece came in attempting to render Najdi’s unique style of description, which is often purposefully indirect and presents as a bit of a puzzle. For example, the description of a lamp reflected in a cup of tea is described as though it were ‘[lying] upside down in his teacup.’ I attempted to retain the intriguing style of circuitous description without making it impossible to follow the action.

Michelle Quay is currently Assistant Instructional Professor in Persian at the University of Chicago. She has taught Persian at Columbia University and the University of Cambridge. As a Gates Cambridge Scholar, she undertook her Ph.D. research on Classical Persian Literature, and was awarded her doctorate from Pembroke College, University of Cambridge, in 2018. Her literary translation work has appeared in such publications as Asymptote JournalWorld Literature Today, Exchanges and others.

Bijan Najdi (1941-1997), from Lahijan, Iran, was an experimental poet, fiction writer, and pioneer of postmodernism and surrealism in Iranian literature in the 1990s. He had a late-blooming but very successful literary career, and his collection Cheetahs That Have Run with Me (1994) in particular generated considerable popular and critical acclaim for its fresh use of modern literary techniques in Persian.