Type
Fiction

Kohl

I have a hearing problem. I can hear the smallest movement of water as if it were the sound of an ocean. I’ve often wondered if it’s because I was born nearly three weeks late. I was delivered by a midwife on the cusp of the forty-third week of mother’s pregnancy.

A new package arrived by post yesterday morning. It was a cardboard box covered with clear masking tape. I opened the box with a knife and carefully pulled out a Kats Extractor for removing foreign bodies from nasal cavities. We already had one in the surgery, but it was old, and we needed a new one. I had also ordered a pair of Asch’s Septum Forceps which my husband Omid, an otolaryngologist, uses to work on his patients with deviated nasal septum. In a separate package there was an aural syringe, an instrument for preventing blood flow by compressing the blood vessels, as well as three head mirrors with head bands and two forceps.

After inspecting each item, I carefully put the products back in the box. They were expensive, especially with our currency. There was also a catalogue. It was in the English language. It was part of my job to translate this catalogue into Farsi for Omid so he could keep up to date, but I put it to one side.

It was lunch time, and I was hungry.

When we were first married, Omid discovered he didn’t care much for my home-cooked meals, so we ate out in local eating houses called Jigaraki. They had only a choice of one or two items; sheep kidneys or livers roasted over charcoal. The smell of it, as if your own kidneys and liver were on fire. We would sit inside at one of the small tables which each had a small vase with plastic bouquets of red and pink carnations.

We married just after my husband finished medical school and qualified as an ENT specialist. I became his assistant and secretary as well as his wife.

At that time, his surgery—I mean, our surgerywas a small room in front of our old small house in central Tehran. My reception desk was in the very corner of the room, right beside the four chairs for waiting patients. Behind a wooden partition that divided the room in half were his desk and the examination bed. Behind the surgery was our living room divided into a dining room and our bedroom, divided by another wooden partition, was at the back of the house. With my own money, I bought a dressing table with a mirror at a second-hand shop and put it in the bedroom.

After Omid had risen for his morning walk, I could stay in bed an extra hour before the patients arrived. Before going to the surgery, I always looked at myself to make sure my hair was pinned back, my foundation light and my eyes kohled.

‘Presentation is important, especially for a woman, for a doctor’s assistant,’ was how Omid put it.

He always wore three-piece suits and shaved with a cut-throat. He looked in the mirror more than I did, fixing his tie, combing his hair with the palm of his hand and adjusting his rimless glasses.

‘I think it would be good to have two mirrors, one for you and one for me,’ once I suggested. ‘What?’

‘Because we both have to get ready at the same time and you need the mirror as much as me. I think it would be good to have two dressing mirrors,’ I said.

He walked out without responding.

He was a new doctor and we were new in the area. Most of our patients were men, mainly old men, but sometimes patients who though young, were going deaf. Almost all the old patients wore thick rimmed glasses. Those who needed nasal examinations had to take off their glasses to make it easier for my husband to examine them. I usually stood at the top of the chair, behind them, holding the tray of various forceps. I used to watch patients close their eyes when the corner of the metal levers reached them to press their nostrils open. At the top of their noses they all had a rim print, an arc, like a skin bridge between two eyes. Sometimes I imagined one eye walking out of its socket, crossing the bridge of the nose and overlapping the other eye. As if the top eye was watching the bottom eye but the bottom eye couldn’t watch because it was closed by the top eye.

Hearing aids were new to the market and my husband was good at implanting them. Beside his work as a specialist, he also imported medical devices, such as stethoscopes, pen torches and forceps to then distribute to other doctors at a slight profit. In those days, as a result of working with people with hearing problems, my tone of voice had risen three times higher. I was constantly shouting at the patients, as they held the palm of their hand curved to capture the air which carried the sound. Have you seen the shape of the palm that people with hearing problems make? They bend the palm of their hand as if it were a trumpet. The first hearing aid was called a trumpet.

My husband had a poster of different hearing aids on the wall. He brought it with him when he came back from medical school in India. Many people who couldn’t afford to go to medical schools in Europe would go to either India or Turkey to complete their education. In Mumbai, he treated dozens of people with hearing loss every day, but mostly he syringed wax.

My hearing problem wasn’t fixable with a hearing aid. ‘It is more in your head than in your ear,’ my husband told me. One day when the business was doing better, when Omid and I were sitting in the park after eating our charcoal chicken livers and kidneys, he said that after he returned from his medical conference in Turkey, we would go on a cruise from Istanbul to Europe. ‘This is a good way to deal with your problem. Trust me. It will help to stop the water slapping in your head.’ I just looked at him.

Once he wanted to clean a patient’s ears to remove excessive wax. He said, ‘Dear, please prepare the tray. We have to irrigate Mr L’s ears.’ I had read about the procedure and I was confident I could help. But as soon as my husband started to use a stream of warm water, I fainted. I could hear an entire ocean storm inside, something that had started as no more than a whisper in childhood, like when you put a conch to your ear, but that since my marriage to Omid had reached gargantuan proportions. After that event, I couldn’t eat properly for a few days. Anytime I wanted to chew my food I would hear the storm again. I never heard the ocean with those patients who needed their noses examined. For example, I never heard a storm when my husband was cauterising nasal cavities or removing polyps.

Little by little, we increased our patients. Now women came too as well as their children. I wanted to assist Omid, but that storm wave re-emerged any time I saw my husband getting close to someone’s ear or throat. Once when examining eighty-five-year-old Mr M, Omid asked me to hold the pen torch for him. We knew Mr M very well. His shop was in the middle of an arcade in the bazaar. Anytime I walked past his shop to go to my parents’ home on the other side of the bazaar, I passed through the steady banging of artisans engaging in Galamzani. They supplied the embossed copper plates and trays to the local restaurants and Jigaraki in the area. Mr M was the master. Before he sat on the examination table, he gave me a copper tray embossed with grapes and dates. I pressed my hand against Mr M’s hand. I knew he didn’t have money to pay for his visit. Ghalmanzi was dying in the area as most restaurants had started using china and the Jigaraki used plastic and melamine plates. I put the plate on the table, and then helped Mr M ready for his examination.

Mr M complained about a wheezy noise in his ears. ‘Now Mr M, I can see that the canal in the middle ear is infected. The transfer of seda waves has been affected and that’s the reason you feel a sound in your head.’

My husband reached for the medium-sized forceps, a torch, some cotton and a bottle of alcohol and asked Mr M to keep his mouth open wide. He asked me to keep the torch closer to the patient’s mouth. Omid also had a torch on above his head on his medical hat. ‘You know, what I see is that the tympanic membrane has been affected too.’

While Omid was talking I could see inside Mr M’s throat, the lines on his upper and lower parts of his mouth, arcs of flesh. I could see a dam was breaking inside his mouth and felt the rising torrent of a tidal wave above me. I lost the torch.

When I woke up, it was evening, I was in my bed and my husband was sitting beside me. ‘What happened? Did you have the water sound issue again?’

‘I am sorry dear.’

‘No, I am sorry. I shouldn’t have asked you to help me with Mr M.’ He brought me some rice with potato and charcoaled kidney and liver. I hadn’t eaten for a few days. But when I brought the flesh to my mouth the sound of water in my ear came back.

‘I am not hungry.’

‘But you should eat something. You can’t go on like this.’

I watched his fingers combine the liver and potatoes. He tried to hand feed me. ‘We need to have someone to help us. Poor Mr M thought you fainted because he squeezed your hand too hard.’

‘But I am ok. I will help you.’

He left the room without answering.

Ψ

One day a big box was delivered by post, much bigger than our usual packages. It was a glass aquarium. Inside the box there was an air pump and electrical wires. There was a catalogue describing codes of the glass type, electricity specification for artificial lights, and description about aeration, filtration and how to heat the water.

Omid went out at lunchtime that day and brought home two tropical fish in a plastic bag. I was looking at him while he was setting it up—the glass box, the plastic trees, and the sand. I watched as he plugged in the electricity, the bubbles coming out of the pump, the red and green lights turning on. Then he filled it with water. I tried not to close my ears. I tried not to let the sound of water scare me.

When the water was warm enough, he took two tropical fish from the water in a plastic bag and dropped them in the aquarium. The two fish danced against each other and hid behind the plastic trees. We both watched them for a while.

‘Do you like it? I set the aquarium on your dressing table, close to our bed.’

‘Why?’

‘Because when the room is quiet, you will hear the water and its movements and gradually you will get used to it and because you are safe, lying down in the bed next to me, you will see that the sound of water can be peaceful.’

I tried to focus on the fish, watching these two little creatures move around, kiss the wall of the glass with their little red lips and run away and hide behind the plastic tree. My husband checked his face in the mirror and combed his hair upward with the palm of his hand and adjusted his glasses on the arc of his nose. He touched his shaved jaw and went out.

For the first few weeks I didn’t sleep. The sound of the water inside the aquarium was running inside me, not only into my ears but also into my body. As soon as I closed my eyes, I had this feeling as if I was drowning. I shifted closer to my husband, feeling that if one side of my body was blocked from the water I would be safe. Months passed and gradually I learnt to sleep with the aquarium in our bedroom.

I think I was improving. Still I couldn’t assist my husband in the surgery. We both decided that it was better that I focus on the purchasing and distributing of the equipment and the translating of the medical brochures.

One day, an old woman came in. She had dishevelled hair and stank. She wore a long green floral skirt, a red wool top, and a coloured patterned jacket. She looked like a charity box.  She couldn’t speak Farsi and from just two words she said ‘Doctor, pain,’ I knew that she was Azari. So I spoke with her in the Azari language. My husband started asking questions and I translated. She was perspiring so badly it was as if there was a shower on in her body. She also said she was very thirsty. I brought her water which she drank in one go. I heard the water in her throat. After many questions and translations it turned out that she was in the wrong surgery. She had chest and heart pain. My husband had to refer her to another local doctor.

After she left, I started to hear the water again and the image of her drinking water and the sound of it possessed me.

Ψ

He hired a new assistant. A young girl from our neighbourhood.

I spent hours on product catalogues: hearing aids, torches, and forceps. I was in contact with many doctors and suppliers. I heard the storm less and less.

One day, my husband and his young assistant were busy in the examination room and I was busy in my own little corner with my catalogues. I had finished my translation and a sample of a new glossy catalogue had arrived from the printer. It looked good but they had missed some of the photos I had asked them to include. For example they forgot to print the photo of the old stethoscope. The old one was amazing; it was like a large drain plunger I use in the kitchen. I thought that photo should be printed parallel to the new one.

We didn’t have time to close the surgery for lunch any more. More businesses were coming to the area and the area became very crowded and everybody had to wait a long time in the queue for Jigaraki or restaurants to eat lunch. As a result of missing lunch more frequently I was losing weight and my husband was losing his temper more often.

One day, the young assistant came with a piece of paper in her hand. ‘Look, we have Take Away in the area now.’

We stared at her.

‘It’s very common overseas. Last year I went to America with my parents and I found out how good this Take Away is. They also have Home Delivery.’ She showed us a brochure, like our medical brochures, I thought.

‘This is a Take Away menu.’ ‘Menu’ back then was a new word for me. It was a list of different foods categorised into different sections: meat with rice, pasta with different sauces, seafood.

The young assistant was looking at us as if she had discovered a possible cure for a disease. ‘How about gazaye-daryaei?’

My husband and I looked at each other and decided to leave it to her to do the order. After a few short sentences exchanged with someone on the phone, she said ‘It is done.’ Fifteen minutes later our food arrived. While she put the napkins, plastic cutlery and soft drinks on the table, she said, ‘This is snapper, very delicious, it is like our Mahi sefid from the north. I’m from the north and I like fish from the north of the Caspian Sea, but god it’s very expensive these days.’

I was staring at the fish; its head and eyes burned by the charcoal flame.

She took the whole body of the fish and laid it on a big tray. First she made a hole on the upper layer of the skin and then sliced through the middle of the body and removed the line of bones. We started eating. The young assistant moved her long fingers into the body of the fish, excavating the flesh. Omid took off the burned skin off from the middle of the fish and ate some of it with hand. I squashed the flesh between my fingers before putting it in my mouth, but on my second mouthful I felt a bone lodge in my throat. I wanted to cough it out but I couldn’t. My breathing was blocked but my eyes were clear and they followed my husband and his new assistant as they rushed to get the forceps.

‘Wider, wider darling,’ my husband exhorted. I did open my mouth, to the point of feeling that my jaw was dividing. I knew what the next step was, I have seen how professionally and delicately he used his equipment.

I felt the taste of cold metal in my throat. I could see within my mind’s eye the two hands of the metal open and reach for the foreign bone stuck in the arc of my mouth. I felt my husband’s forceps secure the bone, then heard him exhale. The new assistant looked at him with admiration. He dropped the bone into a silver tray and then he guided me towards our bedroom. My husband and I napped. When I finally woke up, my husband was gone.

Ψ

I walked to the front surgery and saw the young assistant. She sat where I used to sit when I was an assistant. She was posting items and our correspondence. When I walked in she didn’t raise her head. I looked at her and then I realised—I couldn’t remember her from when my husband and I interviewed for the position.

‘I can’t remember you.’

‘Sorry, what did you say?’ Her eyes were still on papers and letters. I watched her finger the letter opener.

‘I mean, I can’t remember seeing you in the interview process. I remember those young girls came in for interview but you were not one of them. Am I right?’

‘Yes, you are right.’ She put down the letter opener and rose up, fixing her white coat’s hem which had rolled up her thighs as she sat. She then walked over and stood in front of the mirror, fixing the corner of her short black hair with her long fingers.

‘Why weren’t you there? How did you get the job?’

‘Mr Doctor employed me.’ She opened the medicine cabinet. The smell of alcohol and metal came into the air.

‘My husband employed you without me being here?’

She put an alcohol bottle and some cotton balls into a tray.

‘Yes. The day I came here you were not here.’ Then she stooped, walking around and faced me.

‘Mr Doctor told my father he needed an assistant. My father was his patient and he told Mr Doctor about me.’ As she was speaking, she moved to the area behind the partition. She put some flakes into the aquarium. I watched the tropical fish come out of their hidden area behind the plastic tree, nibbling the food with their red lips.

‘When I came Mr Doctor didn’t interview me. He just started to explain my duties.’ She sat down at my desk again and took out a patient’s files.

I looked at her. She lowered her eyes.

A little later that day, I decided to go for a walk. I crossed the surgery room. Behind the screen, my husband was working on a patient’s throat. The assistant was standing behind the patient with a tray of forceps and torch in her hand. I didn’t say anything.

I walked through the bazaar to my father’s home. In the late afternoon, some shop keepers were closing up. The gegaraki was arranging his chicken kidneys on a tray. His young assistant lit new charcoals, a few sparks flew went into the air. I stopped at another shop and bought some nuts for my father. I pointed and the shopkeeper took a pile of hazelnuts, pistachios and almonds and poured them inside the paper bag. I watched his wrinkled hand submerge deep into the hessian bag and emerge holding the mixed nuts, like hands that offer food on holy days. I walked past the shop where my mother used to send me to have the kitchen knives and scissors sharpened. The shopkeeper shook his head towards me to say hello. I stayed for a while with my father, drinking black tea with sugar cubes, eating the nuts from a tray. I walked back through the bazaar and came back home in the evening.

I entered our living room. Early evening light was coming through the window. I called my husband’s name quietly, no answer. I took my jacket off and looked at the pile of mail. It was strange that there wasn’t the usual sound of the aquarium. It was the time to feed the fish. For a while I watched the two tropical fish swim around the plastic tree, I took a glass of water from the fridge and drank it. My hunger had returned and I felt like eating out with my husband, just the two of us, alone.

I went to the surgery and I started cleaning up, putting the equipment into the alcohol to be washed for tomorrow. I put the plug in the sink and turned on the tap. One by one I put some plates and glasses inside the sink to wash them, but slipped the Kats Forceps into the pocket of my lab coat, instead of dropping them into the alcohol.

On the table, there was some lunch left over and the bone my husband took out of my throat was still sitting in a tray. I wrapped all of it up into the take away paper and threw in the package into the bin. All of a sudden I heard the sound of water. I returned to the sink which was overflowing, the water running over the sink and onto the floor. I turned off the tap.

Then I remembered I hadn’t yet fed the fish, so I returned to our room and took out a pinch of the flakes from the brown bag. Standing over the aquarium, I let the flakes fall from my hand, far too many for two small fish. For a while I watched the bubbles the fish made in the water, watched them feasting on the food floating on the surface, getting heavy and sinking. Deep in my lab coat pocket, the forceps were heavy against my thigh. I reached down into my pocket, my fingers feeling for the forceps, pulling them out. Without looking at the instrument, I felt thin metal handles between my fingers, I found myself opening and closing the forceps so their tips clanged surely but gently, raising the forceps to the height of the fish tank, poising the tips so they kissed the surface of the water. The thin coldness of the metal on my skin. The fish with their red lips gorging themselves on the food. The forceps in my fingers with a will of their own.

Read the rest of 237.5: autumn fiction edited by Allan Drew

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Nasrin Mahoutchi is a writer and art practitioner. Nasrin writes in Farsi (Persian) and English languages. Her short stories have been published in anthologies such as HEAT, Southerly, and Meanjin. Her works has been broadcast on ABC Radio, Radio Eye, and on Persian Radio. She has a doctorate of creative art (DCA) degree. Her creative component is a novel based in Iran and her exegesis is a series of essays covering topics of exile and displacement, writing in English as a second language, private and public, and the meaning of home. Her short story, ‘Standing in the cold’, was selected for Best Australian Stories 2016.

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