Me, Marla, and Rasputin by Ahmad Aram

Translated by Arash Tahmasbi

I asked her to come closer. 

She did. She stood by the sofa, whose leather the touch of time had weathered and cracked; her hands were still shaking. Quite like a statue made of wax, oozy, impatient with the smell of castor oil, I sank into the numbing softness of the sofa. I told her it’s been an hour that her hands have been shaking. She said nothing. She was looking at me wanly. She strained her facial muscles to swallow her saliva, as if a gooey mucous had gagged her throat. Or perhaps her saliva lost its function out of fear. That heavy object in her hand had begun to shudder; one that might craft another story. 

 “Try to pull yourself together (pause) let’s finish it this time, for good. Rasputin feels nervous.” 

I said this while staring at her naked leg. I loved her pretty toes; particularly those half-grown nails that seemed somehow spare, bent askew down into the flesh of her toes. Her nails have never been fully grown. They were like fish scales stuck carelessly to the flesh; ordinary and dull. Now, I had to say it over, “let’s try to finish it, seriously.”

 I didn’t say this, but ruminated. The silence lasted for a long period of time; at last, I continued, “It’s been ages since we haven’t feared anything, we will die if we resolve to. Our generation hopes to get rid of its sore throat one day; even if it means making the sound of rolling pebbles. (pause) When you have your period, you’ll become difficult, hardly listening to anybody.”

“Even now, I’m hardly standing on my feet. Go on, talk!”

“You suffer. I understand you. I’ve been up overnight thinking about your pain. I didn’t want to leave my bed; I was afraid of letting something else happen (pause, a little longer) you tiptoed to the bathroom and back. I saw it all. I could even hear the rustling of the box which you would shove beneath your bed once a month so that you could reach it whenever you had your period. (I sigh) sigh….”

“That’s nice. Talk to me. Keep talking. When I don’t answer, it means I’m lying to you. Keep talking.”

We were taking selfies. We both liked it. These kinds of photos look more real than traditional ones with fake, unnatural gestures. You said death to the bourgeoisie. Then you laughed out loud. I held the monopod high enough to let the camera record us from above. Marla said something of insight. She said that the selfie’s mise-en-scène is more democratic. Death to the bourgeoisie. She would say that this technique automatically represented people more intimately. Now that I’m sitting on this weathered worn sofa, in a miasma of castor oil, holding the monopod handle and staring at the screen of the phone, I see it as if we were both sitting at the bottom of a well. Zoomed, and our heads enlarged. The smell of weed, mingled with that of tobacco in the saucer, wafted out. Rasputin, bent over the saucer, was sniffing. I turned the phone in his direction and took a picture. Marla turned and stared at his big eyes. Rasputin bared his canines at me. He has hated me from the beginning. I noticed when his head re-emerged after plunging it up to his neck into the trash can, there were tissues and a condom stuck on his face and snout. When he showed me his canines, the burning flame of hatred shadowed his eyes. 

I tied his leash to the table leg. He moved his neck, and the table shook. Then, just like a medieval statue, mysterious and reserved, he sat on his rear feet and did not budge. Marla could be heard whispering, “that’s nice, talk to me, keep talking. That was our agreement.” 

“That bitter afternoon, when all three of us smelled like a clinic, you hit the highway in that beat-up clunky Pride[1]. You got four traffic tickets. In all cases, you ran a red light while cameras were following us everywhere, as if they were tailgating us. Rasputin leaned against the back seat and stuck his snout out of the car window. What did I tell you right at that moment?” (I began to contemplate).  

“Remind me. Remind me quickly.”

“I said that this Mr. Sunshine would get us into trouble; eventually, the bikers would pick on us. You cursed at me, at Rasputin, and at the beat-up Pride. And soon after, you started to cry and banged your fist on that steering wheel whose rattling got on our nerves. At that speed, the yowls of the engine and the yelps of the timing belt rose in volume. The smell of burned oil was coming in through the gaps beneath our feet, gathering around our heads like greasy steam. My eyes were burning. From the rear-view mirror, I could see that Rasputin was biting the x-ray envelope between his teeth and shaking his head. You told him, ‘I can hear your monologue, Rasi darlin’… your heartbreaking sigh is killing me.’ And once again, you began to cry. I said that this poor creature finally saw what was going on (something crossed my mind). I was going to tell you something. It vanished from my mind, Marla. That day, in that oil-burning junker, at that crazy speed, I was watching a profile which didn’t belong to you, as if I was looking at someone else’s, which was messy and untidy. I told myself, ‘Oh, dear god who’s this person that is driving us to hell?!’ Those metallic necklaces hanging around your neck sounded like the percussion of a desperate orchestra, dull and shivering, creating a hellish atmosphere in my mind. I shouted at you to take off those sharp cutting rings from your fingers so that the wheel couldn’t slip out of your grasp, and what did you answer then?” 

“What did I say then, my dear stag? You tell me, tell me right now. Stop taking selfies. Toss away that monopod.” 

I leaned the monopod on the sofa and said, “you shook your head and said I’d better shut up.” 

 “I apologize. Yes, I think I said something like that. Then I asked you to light a cigarette for me.” 

“I didn’t, because the smell of gas had filled the car and it just needed one spark to blow us up. I restrained myself from saying we were paying for our sins. At last, I didn’t say that but I heard my own voice which was repeating in my head over and over again. Where in Shahrak-e-Gharb[2] were we that you drove the Pride off into a canal? Anyhow, we left the car in that state like a mule stuck in the mud, and got ourselves to the basement apartment by taxi. You dropped the x-ray envelope on the floor. Then, you went to take a shower with your clothes and scarf still on. I heard your voice shouting that you were a dolphin. Rasputin ran, stood on his feet and clapped his hands. He shook his head and let out a miserable growl from the bottom of his throat. It was a kind of desperate entreaty. Rasputin always answered positively to your mischief. Look at him! Now, he’s rubbing his nose against the saucer and sniffing. If his eyes glaze over, it means he’ll go crazy and bang his head on the door or the wall, anything. Marla, you have spoiled him.”

 Your hands were still shaking. The barrel of that heavy object approached my temple. You said, “All three of us are spoiled.” 

Marla began to hiccup. She couldn’t handle the weight of Rasputin. With every hiccup, that heavy object jerked up and down. These hiccups will screw us over. That is, they cause her hands to shake intensely. Rasputin feels anxious and stretches his head towards Marla. I told myself that he’s commanding her indirectly to pull the trigger. 

“Hey, Rasputin, stop it! Don’t poke your damned snout into the weed. We rolled it, got loaded, and you’ve got your share too. So, stop it; that shit is enough for you, bastard. Neither Marla nor I are in the mood to puff on that fucking tower together; unless something disturbs us. (Pause. His eyes pop out.) These fake gestures of yours won’t scare us, stop it; now, wait up just like a gentleman and see where this ceremony leads.”

 Marla had taken her health insurance card out of her backpack that day. It smelled like thousands of drugs. Then, she dropped it on the floor. With her bloodshot eyes, she turned to me and said, “Emo, this card can’t save me from hell and transfer me to heaven. The demons won’t let that happen, my dear.” 

 She cried; I mean she sobbed. Seeing that scene, Rasputin, growling, kicked the card. Marla loved all of his foolishness. She used to sit close to his snout and listen to the sounds coming from the bottom of his throat. Then, she would stand up and say that she loved Rasputin’s monologues. This Irish breed with a slender abdomen, droopy ears, and long feet has sharp teeth. Marla loved his teeth so much; sharp and cutting! I said, “Marla, I won’t let him sleep between us anymore.” Marla would take him to the kitchen and tie him to the gas pipe. As soon as our wooden bed began to creak and he heard our moans, his terrifying howling would shake the whole basement. 

“Talk to me, Emo. It’s just a few seconds before my fingers burn and the game is over.” 

 (We took sixteen selfies.) “My dear, when we rented this tiny dingy basement, you said we must change our names and settle down with new ones. (Marla took a deep breath and shook her head.) Do you remember? You said every place has its own unique feel, and we must accept that we would spend much of our time in this home. I know that names lose their significance after a while, and we’ll become other people. You were always saying that our behavior would take on a different form here. Even the way we would die here might be different. Just now I remembered a quote by a writer whose name I never recall. He once said that to become immortal one must die. Why did these words occur to me right now?!”

“Because my fingers are getting burnt. I’m pretty sure about what my mother is up to right now. Why do I think she’ll be back on one of these Wednesdays, Emo? It’s been years that I’ve been saying ‘on this very Wednesday.’” 

Sitting in her loose and long shirt, she was staring at me; a gray shirt with tiny blue flowers hiding her biggest bone. Honestly, she was made to wear loose-fitting strapless shirts; the ones pleated from the waist down. Whenever I saw her in those shirts, it gave me the feeling that she was free and emancipated. There were a lot of things hanging from the holes in her ears. A silver ring shone from one of the wings of her nose. And a necklace made of cartridge cases hung around her neck. When she walked, the noise made by the metal jewelry would hide the sound of her feet. Having heard that jingling, I fell in love with her and tried to tune the rhythm of my life to the cadence of those metals. Once I told her whenever she wears a leather jacket, some sort of violence runs through her body, making her special and untouchable. With sudden excitement, she exclaimed: “Let’s live together.” Okay. As soon as possible. She said the second ‘okay’ at the Octopus café while she put out the fifth cigarette and puffed smoke into Rasputin’s face. White marriage! [3] We lived in twelve homes in three years, and then, we decided to move into the thirteenth; a basement that looked deformed, distorted, and slanted. There was no window. It had a warm and vibrating floor; the boiler of the central heating system beneath it was running all the time. The living room of this basement was lit by a single hanging light bulb. It was luminous enough for us to see each other and find our way. Under the yellow beam of this light, we got used to commuting between the small rooms with their nonparallel walls and shared, kinked ceiling. Of course, sometimes we went with a candle in our hands to the cellar where the light couldn’t reach. I thought it may had been a large municipal sewer which gradually became a gloomy home with two wonky rooms. Later on, we found a wooden surface that broke open when Marla kicked it in the middle. It was then we learned that we were standing in front of a dark wardrobe. We never showed any interest in discovering what its insides looked like; only on the very same day, we dipped our hands into the moldy stale darkness to touch something; nothing. So, we decided its existence did not matter. Marla said that it was once most likely a torture chamber, and then, when its owner fled, they confiscated this place and turned it into a basement flat. Anyhow, it was a flat that seemed like a gun silencer; no sound could break outside. The first night we crawled into our bed, Marla said that now she knew how it felt to be in the grave, and then she woke Rasputin up with her loud laugh. She, an architecture school dropout, believed that the thickness of the cement floor, wall, and roof was something between 16-24 inches. An insulated home that retained all odors passed on from old times. Then, we both came up with the same question. Why did this basement smell like a pizza box? Perhaps it was once an old disco?! She believed a demon had been incarnated in her body as a cat in this basement. She was giggling, but somehow she believed it. When she couldn’t control herself anymore, she began to cry on my shoulder. She felt something was tormenting her from within; something inaccessible. After a while, the mammography taboo started to rub around our legs just like a cat that we didn’t like. Don’t cry Marla, don’t cry! She said if everyone around her knew she was dying, they would be kind to her and it would feel good.  

 A demon has stepped foot inside our home! Marla, first we need to make sure it’s true, and then proclaim such a thing. She said she is sure that the demon penetrated her body through her torso. Bitterly, she asked me to remember that fat fluffy languishing cat, because she wanted to talk about it. She was right. The first time we opened the basement door to carry in three sets of luggage, a 14” TV set, and four boxes, we saw a cat standing in the middle of living room. He never jumped while the door was opening. His eyes did not show if he was waiting for a savior. He was watching us calmly. However, by the way he looked, I surmised that the previous tenant might have forgotten to take him or had left him there on purpose. The cat was staring at Marla with his grey eyes; perhaps because of all those hanging metals that jingled at the slightest movement. Seeing the cat, all of a sudden, Rasputin growled and charged towards him so intensely that he almost knocked Marla onto the floor. The cat didn’t care and solemnly found his way out through the door without pause or fear. On his way out, he turned and looked at us like someone whose keys were taken by force. The cat had such a powerful presence from the very beginning that we felt we were hypnotized. It was after his departure that Marla said he was still there and never left! At first, I thought she said so to scare me, but she said this so seriously that her grey profile looked fused with her irises! Illusion… illusion… illusion… she made me cry out. She covered her face immediately with her hands and began to laugh, “forgive me, Emo. I’ve gone crazy. You must give me the right to become crazy.” 

Later, one night when we both were high, she grabbed my finger and rubbed it on an x-ray. Demon, demon, demon, demon. I said stop it Marla! 

Stop it Marla,

Stop it Marla,

Stop it Marla,

Stop it Marla.

Four times, very angrily, she told herself. Then, staggering, she packed up her stuff, “I don’t want this ID, you cancel it. Throw the key to that beaten-up Pride into the toilet. Give this debit card to that garbage man whose name we dunno’, but we know he’s very poor and miserable. Pack my clothes and give’em to Flora. She can keep’em for her daughter who’s twelve now. I don’t wanna go back to that clinic every week; it smells like piss and puke. Keep the hairbrush, bracelets, earrings, rings, wristbands, chains; keep’em all for yourself. Look at this, my hairbrush still filled with my hair; the very same hair for whose sake you’ve been chasing me for one week to ask if it’s natural?! Never let these things be separated from you, Emo, darlin’. You see that I don’t have a cell phone; a mugger stole the last one a few days ago. Oh, I almost forgot: tie Rasputin to the doorstep of that big-bellied womanizer’s house, let him stay there; let his fate be in his own hands. After you make sure that I’m dead, look at my broken chest for a while; just look at it! Then, listen to the rap song we both liked, “we gave you away,” and live it up. Then, if you wish, cry for me at your convenience, Emo; a lot, until you pass out. Don’t you think that I can’t hear you, I hear you, I hear you; because our voices are intertwined. After all, one of the characteristics of the tombstone is to pass the voice of the living over to the dead. So, just do it, Emo; cry out as much as you can. Promise me that you’ll never chop up my body to find that bullet. Let the cops do that.”

Then Marla, sighing, lay down on the bed; paler than ever. Rasputin reached out his long snout to her lean legs and nudged at her bare foot. Marla’s oral will and testament lasted no more than half an hour. It was as if she had said all that in her sleep, because she sat up suddenly, and once she could pull herself together, she jumped towards Rasputin, hugged him by the neck. “Rasi… Rasi… Rasi darlin’ I wish you could rid us of that damned demon.” She put away all those things that she had already packed up and said that first we had to get into that game. She said that she would like it as long as it didn’t amount to anything. I know what game she was talking about; a Chinese game which goes back to the age of the discovery of the gun. This game was very modern for its time, and today, Westerners love it for its antiquity. They said it’s like drama therapy, and the Chinese physicians once treated their patients using this method which was rooted in their ancient traditions. Once she decided to stop crying, we both, very calmly and indifferently, smoked four packs of cigarettes until the morning; then she told me let’s alter this game and call it demoncide. I nodded, meaning ‘alright, let’s call it demoncide.’

Sometimes, she would hug it for days and whisper to it. When she had no pain, she addressed it as a ‘he’; but whenever it scared her and the pain numbed her right shoulder, with a muffled and hoarse voice, she called it ‘demon’. The demon in the x-ray had a bizarre shape, and she would say that it had a profile just like that grey cat’s. On a hot afternoon, when the demon developed at the mammography clinic, she didn’t treat it in a formal manner, and in a friendly voice, said ‘now we are two people! I told her that we are four then. She giggled and as she was changing her clothes, she sang a song about a lost dolphin: 

            I am a dolphin

            A lost dolphin

            Who borrowed her color from the moon

            She likes to sneak up to the sky

            To take its place

            I am a dolphin

            A lost dolphin. 

Then, straightaway, we went to Octopus’s to eat a vegan meal. We lit four candles on the table. Marla joined her chair to mine and cried on my shoulder saying it would be the last time she cried. Although she’d recently been disheveled, since the day the doctor said he would rather stop thinking the tumor was benign based on false hope and it would have been better to say the tumor was malignant from the beginning, Marla shrewdly chose that Chinese game; that is, to kill each other over and over again. And I, in order to consort with her, accepted that half of the demon which resided in her body was seeded in my head, growing bigger and bigger. She was delighted to see we had a common pain now. Then, we laughed out loud and I drove the Pride all the way back home; and she snapped her fingers and shook her torso in a dance move. That night, once we arrived in a hurry to our basement, she went to the shower with her clothes on again, closed her eyes, and shouted that she was a lost dolphin. Rasputin snarled. 

Last month, when it was Marla’s turn, she sat on this very leather sofa and took forty-seven selfies with the monopod. She wanted us to record our emotions at the moment. Then we began to play the game. I put the gun to her head. 

“Speak up, Marla!”

“If they opened a funeral home in this city, I would apply for it, immediately. But the Easterners are scared of death and don’t care about these kinds of enterprises as long as they are alive. But, having a tribe of morbid philosophers, Europeans are not afraid of death and everything is justifiable for them.”  

I grabbed the gun by both hands. Knowing that it was my turn, I had prepared myself bravely right from the beginning; I laid a big towel on the chair’s arm with a few packs of cotton swabs and bandages ready at our disposal. I had bought a lot of them. We had anticipated every contingency; we were only afraid that Rasputin might make a fuss, because he was sitting on his rear feet and leaned on his nervous, trembling arms. He was anxious, shaking his snout, and splashing his saliva around his face. I was listening to the remote and creepy sound coming from the bottom of his throat. This sound was an alarm signal, some sort of howl fading in and out like a siren. Then, the fracas began. With a ferocious impulse, Rasputin untied the leash from the table leg. He jumped at me with his heavy body, and landed on my chest like a cannon ball. I fell on my back. His warm belly spread on my torso, and his warm wet breath ran over my face. His canines were just inches from my throat. Instantly, I shoved the gun’s barrel into his mouth. He bit it with his teeth and struggled to snap it out of my hand. I couldn’t breathe. I told him, “Hey, Rasputin, jackass, we are just playing a game; game of demoncide.” Marla was draped across the leather sofa taking selfies. Rasputin was pulling at the gun, and I was pulling back. I was afraid the whole time that I’d fire the last bullet I’ve kept for years into his mouth. As if he recognized that I wasn’t kidding him, a howl came out of the bottom of his throat. His ears stood straight up just like a pair of horns. His eyes turned red from anger. He was about to swing at my face with his right paw when Marla was heard saying: “Rasi… Rasi darlin’.” Rasputin, as if he was ashamed, released the gun’s barrel, retreated, lay down, and rested his snout on his hands. For the first time in my life I said ‘oh, my god’, and sat. The game was left unfinished once again. I wrapped the gun in a towel and put it away in a dark corner for the next game. 

“Marla, now everything is ready to be shot.” 

The gun’s barrel was higher than my temple, drifting toward my head to reach half of the demon. I was pretending that I was taking selfies. So far, the instructions for the game of demoncide were flawlessly followed perfectly. I imagined if the gun was fired, its noise would be terrible. I read somewhere that most of the noise caused by shooting a gun comes from gas expansion. Marla was pressing the gun’s barrel relentlessly and whispering at the same time, “If we kill ourselves, we will be stuck at the same age forever; me at 28, and you at 40. But others will age and shove their heads into death’s mouth, little by little. We were to kill one of us with the gun, and then, the other who was left alive would cut his or her wrist with a razor and walk around the house until they fell down beside Rasputin, after the last drop of the blood was spent. And then, Rasputin would eat both of us; he wouldn’t have any other choice. All of sudden, she started sweating, trembling, and panting. The gun fell from her hand, “It’s better to have a cup of coffee; my wrist is aching.” 

Oh, my god. It was the second time that the game was interrupted in a half-assed kind of way. Marla lay on her back and declared the date for the next game, “twenty days later, Game of Demoncide.” 

The TV set was on, showing static. We used its light to light the bedroom. I don’t know why Rasputin was staring at Marla all day! I told Marla, who was lying on the bed. She looked at him and said that he was looking at the demon inside her. She said he is more advanced than us when it comes to senses! I stood by the bed and grabbed her hand, “You’ve got a fever, Marla!”

“Why can’t we kill each other?”

“You shouldn’t throw your medications in the toilet.”

 “I am a lost dolphin.”

“Let’s go out. It’s been so long that this basement door’s been closed. What would our neighbors think, Marla?”

“Emo, I don’t know. You go, take a walk around, and come back soon! Dear Rasi is sleeping, too.”

“Not without you.”

“Let’s look at our tattoos again, Emo. I forgot what they looked like! What was it again?”

“Yours is a dolphin, and mine is a stag.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, baby.”

 “So, why would I see a stag in my dream every night?”

 “I also see a dolphin in my dream.”


“What is it, Marla?… Marla… Marla… Marla…”

I sit on the worn leather sofa, and guzzle the bottle of castor oil. I need to go to the clinic for a colon x-ray. Whenever I swallow that damn stuff, I become just like an oozy mummy statue. Rasputin, howling, comes to stand before me. I know what he is saying. I look at his pleading eyes. I see my distorted image in his watery eyes. I stand up and get my backpack. I take out the gun that I’d wrapped in the towel, and shove it into my backpack. There is nothing valuable to collect. I lean on the wall for a moment to cry. I can’t, but I hear myself calling Marla… Marla… Marla. I look over my shoulder to see the darkness behind me through the door frame. I don’t have time to listen to “We Give You Away.” From the depth of the bedroom’s darkness, I can only see Rasputin’s eyes shining constantly and dreadfully. When I get out, I don’t close the door. I climb up the staircase, and then, all of a sudden, the light of the landing window hits my face; it feels as if a bit is drilling into my iris. I can’t stand the light. I turn back to the basement. There, Rasputin is banging his head on the metal door. The door closes. I don’t want to go in. I sit behind the door with my head between my legs. I lower my snout as much as possible to rub it on my seat. Still, light is coming from other parts and digs into my iris like a spear. The light is going to hurt me. I can’t hide my head any better than that. 

[1] A type of car made by Kia Motors which is the cheapest and most common car among the middle class in Iran; infamous for its low quality make and safety.

[2] Meaning ‘Town of West’, a planned town built as a massive project of modern and luxurious apartment buildings and very expensive villas in the north-western part of Tehran. 

[3] Not to be confused with white wedding. It has different meaning, in fact, as opposed to what white wedding means in the western culture, it refers to a couple living together without official marriage which is illegal and taboo under Iranian law and culture. However, it has become more common over the past decade despite all outcries against it. 

Ahmad Aram, born in 1951 in Bushehr, a coastal town in southern Iran, was in love with cinema from early childhood. This was the main reason for his involvement with theater. His first theatrical work, “The Downfall” was performed at the cultural center in Bushehr in 1970. At the same time he was writing short stories. His short story, “Reflection” was published in 1969 in Ferdosi magazine, the well-known intellectual literary periodical. His post-secondary education is focused on dramatic arts, in which he received his master’s degree. His collection of works includes 18 novels, short story collections, and plays. Many of his books have been short listed by reputable literary awards in Iran. Though he occasionally paints and directs his own plays, he primarily considers himself a writer. His favorite writers are Kafka, Faulkner, Marques and Fuentes.

Arash Tahmasbi, born in 1976 in Amol, a small town in northern Iran, was interested in literature and English since his early teenage years. While studying biology at university, he started to translate scientific articles. He started his professional career as a translator in collaboration with Iranian journals and newspaper, focusing mainly on film and literary articles. He received his master’s in molecular biology from Razi University.

He studied two years in a master’s program for communication and media studies in Cyprus. He moved to the United States in 2015 and currently resides in San Bernardino, California, studying molecular biology at California State University San Bernardino (CSUSB). He has translated more than 20 books in a variety of subjects (economics, novels, science, linguistics, history, memoir, etc.) and continues translation as a hobby. This is his first published translation from Persian to English.

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