The Night Shift*

by Reza Jula'i **
Translated from the Persian
by Farzin Yazdanfar

Persian painting

Persian painting: The Bird of the Soul
Artist: Mohammad Hossein Maher
Ink & Acrylic on cardboard
32cm x 25cm

Right after midnight, when the lights in the hallways would go off and the janitor would finish mopping the stairs, I would gain the peace and quiet that I longed for. After a few long and short coughs, the janitor would turn on the dim lights in the corridors and go to his own small room. That was exactly when the clock on the upper floor would toll the hour and a mild breeze blow through the branches of the trees. At last I could have the silence that I desired. I would open my books and listen to the quiet, slow whistle of the kettle placed on the coal-burning heater.

I was a medical student in those years. Every night I was on call in that nursery where I was both a doctor and a watchman. After the clock would sound, I would go to dormitories one and two to check on the kids. Persian caligraphy All of them were asleep. Sometimes one of them would move or say something incomprehensible in his sleep. Afterwards, I would always go to the end of the corridor to the retarded children's ward. The room was small and there was always an unpleasant smell in the air. It was like the fetid smell of a decaying corpse. After having dealt with diseases and having examined dead bodies for so many years, I still could not stand that smell. Was it the odor of a decaying body or that of a helpless soul? Or was the smell the product of my imagination? There were two or three twelve-year-old kids in that room. Every night while the kids were sleeping, I would untie their hands and feet to let them sleep comfortably. I would stare at their slim, crooked hands and feet and would curse their fates or their parents who had made them so miserable. For days, or sometimes for years, these children would sit or sleep in their cage-like room and pass the time, making compulsive body movements or uttering unintelligible words. They were as lifeless as a piece of meat and were doing nothing but eating, drinking and easing nature wherever they could. In a rare moment, one of them would open his eyes and stare at a visitor as if coming out of his own world, and ask for a loaf of bread or a piece of candy. But when the visitor brought him whatever he had asked for, he would not even care. Instead he would keep himself busy with what he was doing as if, once again, the window to his world had been shut.

Occasionally, one of them would die. His compulsive body movements would stop and he would grow quiet. The nurses would bring me the news, "Doctor, patient #3 is in bad shape." I would go to visit him. He would stop his pendulum-like movements and, with his neck bent, he would stare at a blank spot on the wall. His misty eyes would roll up; he would stop eating. After a few days, his eyes would become blurred, and feeding him in the usual way would become a futile effort. It was as if he had decided to die, an irrevocable decision which human knowledge and experience could not influence. His bed would remain unoccupied for a while until another patient would arrive to occupy it.

On the first days of my job, I decided to communicate with some of those in whose faces I could detect some intelligence. But I should say that no permanent contact with them was possible. There were four of these creatures in the retarded children's ward.

After visiting this ward, I could return to my own room and open my books to study before going to bed. But that night was one of the nights toward the end of March when spring had just arrived, the blossoms had just bloomed, the silvery moonlight had covered everything and nature had breathed its icy breath upon the branches of the trees. One of those nights when one would desire a woman, or would like to walk among the trees and feel the earth under his feet - a night when one would like to read poetry and do everything but sleep or die.

I had barely opened the book when I decided to close it. I poured myself a cup of tea and cranked my old gramophone. I had just received a new symphony from Europe. I do not recall its title, but I remember that I had been fascinated by even its first bars. I turned up the volume. The music was like a tune coming from the depths of an unknown universe, beyond the boundary of being and nothingness.

The music transfixed me. I did not even touch my cup of tea. I had never heard such a beautiful and powerful piece of music. All of sudden, I heard a noise coming from behind. I became scared because I was not expecting such a noise in the midnight silence. I got up very quickly and turned towards the door, where I saw a scene that I could not believe: those retarded children were all sitting by the door, turning their huge heads in the direction of the gramophone. They had become entranced by that heavenly tune and were paying no attention to me or anything else. I could see the effects of those melodies upon their faces. It was incredible. One of them was crying. Tears were pouring down from his eyes. A spark of intelligence had connected them to something unknown in those melodies. They had turned into human beings like you and me, or perhaps into beings higher than us. After a short while, I realized that my face was wet, too; we all were crying.

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Translator's Note:



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