Historical Fiction

Manijeh Khorshdid,


The Dream

It was twilight time. Two riders, a woman of young age and an aged man, have been galloping through the forests for the last few hours. Those who were following them were out of sight for the time being. They stopped, dismounted the horses, and let them rest. They realized soon that they are still in danger and cannot linger there for a long time. But first, they had to find out where they were and seek shelter.

The dim light of a lonely farmhouse in the distance brought a ray of hope to them. But the dwelling question in their mind was that should they reach out to the farmer and ask for help and possibly shelter? Could they trust anybody in this blood-thirsty hunt for them? Whatever they decide, it was clear to them that they could not stay there because it was close to the main road. And sooner or later, those who were after them would catch up with them. 'We'd better move on, putting our trust in God and seek help from the farmer,' the older man says gently. Thus, mounting their horses, they took a narrow passage toward the farmer's house far away from the main road and disappeared in the forest spread on the slope of the mountain.

Two weeks before this day, the young woman had joined a conference in the vicinity of the Caspian Sea. Its location remained a secret to the public. The year was 1848. Only the eighty-one people invited to this most sought-for and historical event knew of the date and place. The participants were enlightened people who were advocating human rights and improvement of the life of the mind. They were the frontiers of courage and imagination. They evoked the transcendent sentiments of oneness in the human's mind. They did that in a society where women were invisible and had no rights. A culture in which no one dared to be an independent thinker. A society suffocated with bigotries and prejudices.

Against this background, this group met and set a path of trailblazing ideas to progress and open-mindedness for years to come. Those participants in the conference were well aware of the danger to their lives. Their mere presence in that space had put them in the front line of wanted people by authorities.

The young woman, against the wish of her family, had decided to join the gathering. She, a student of learning and seeking, needed a fresh visage of reality. She, a reformist at heart, envisaged progress and open door for everyone, especially for her gender. She could not find the answer to life's questions in the abusive dogma and traditions of her ancestor's culture. No, it was not working for her. She, as a teenager, was able to debate and prove her points with much older debaters. How many times she had heard from her loving father that he wished she was a boy.

Her fame of opposing the old centuries and blindly accepted rituals had spread all over the country. The harassment of her well-known family had no end. Her notoriety had reached way beyond her town and the province. While they loved her, they wanted her to stay quiet. Like any other woman, she was supposed to stay in the background and be mute.

She lived in dichotomies. She carried the love and, at the same time, the opposition of her family. Many admired her look and intelligence, and at the same time, many more had envy and enmity towards her. They feared her existence. They abhorred her brilliance. A woman who could read, write, and think independently, was not wanted in that society.

One of her quiet supporters was her mother, who knew her daughter's love for liberation. The love of mother stayed with her, the mother who saw in daughter her own freedom. The worrisome mother could see dark clouds in the future of her daughter. The mother hoped to bring safety to her child by restraining her. An ever-existing contradiction even in the expression of love. On the day of her departure for the conference, did the mother and daughter ever knew that it was their last meeting in this first life?

Thus, one August night in the mid-nineteen century, in the company of her maidservant and a trusted older man as a guide, she left town with discretion through the gate of the city and headed to the north. Their stops close to the streams and creeks winding through the shrubs and trees were restful for the soul of an injured young writer. She would hear no accusation or insult from the serene and accepting nature. The trees, blossoms, brooks, and the birds were all true to themselves and transparent. She heard the ode of love and the song of encouragement in those secluded respites along the way.

In those moments of transcendence, she saw herself as an evanescent and a part of the whole. What ecstasy she felt to have the warmth of the rays of sun on her skin, to see the streaks of light through the tall and majestic trees descending upon her, to have the gentle wind waft on her face. She found the strength to write again. Her voice echoed in nature, and her pen with the ink of adoration unceasingly danced on paper. Her wings of joy had taken her to the realm of the most creative sphere of her being. It took a few days to reach their destination. And she wrote in abundance at every opportunity of rest.

Those were the days of traveling before she went to the conference. And now, she was running to an unknown place. The rain started to come down. The farmer's house seemed to be farther than she thought. She was tired, wet, and hungry. Maybe they should stop to rest, but she knew they had to continue riding. They were forging ahead. It was dark now. The light from the farmer's house was getting closer. They stopped outside the wooden fence surrounding the front of the farmhouse. The guide asked her to stay behind, and he approached the house.

Suddenly the front door of the farmhouse opened, and a tall man with a pick-ax appeard on the porch, asking 'Who are you?' and 'What do you want?"

The guide replied that they were travelers in need of food and shelter for tonight. ' I have a woman in my company who is tired and weary.' He said.

This explanation seems to have a calming effect on the farmer. 'They cannot be bandits or outlaws.’ He thought to himself.

That was the time of highway rubbers attacking traveling caravans and fording the farmers to give shelter to them. That was the time of looters attacking farms to steal cattle and livestock. So, a woman in a traveling group would bring an impression of safety to others. Women were the weak and needy strangers and not the aggressive strangers.

The farmer with his pick-ax came closer. With the lantern in his hand looked at the white-bearded face of the traveler. There was a dignity in that face that earned his trust.

Where is the woman? He asked.

'She is waiting for my signal, outside the fence.' The aged man explained gently.

That settled the affair. The farmer seemed to be satisfied and said, 'Go ahead and bring her in.'

Later that night, in the silence of forests, the travelers ate wheat soup and homemade bread prepared by the farmer. He seemed to be kind and well off. They shared the tea with sugar cubes and sweet dates after dinner. The farmer's simple offerings but clean surroundings were pleasing to the woman. He offered the best corner of the house to her to rest and sleep. He and the older man ventured to the barn to sleep. But why was he so accepting and accommodating? It was a mystery to the woman and her aged guide.

How well the young woman slept that night. Waking up with the rooster's crowing, she saw the farmer preparing breakfast. The tea was brewing, and the farmer brought fresh goat cheese and bread. She went to the back part to wash up and freshen up, to remove the dust of travel. The morning breeze of late August with the radiance of the morning sun galvanized her creative energy and stimulated her poetic mind. After breakfast, she sought out her papers and pen case. Those were indeed her most intimate friends. The most trusted companions. She breathed through the words by reading them and writing her own syllables.

Later that morning, she observed the farmer and her guide talking outside the house. At dusk the aged man said farewell to her and disappeared from her sight. He left the trust in his care, the woman whom many sought her extinction, to the care of a stranger. The woman knew the aged man had no other choice but to leave her behind. He had to go to help others in need of assistance. His knowledge of the area was a great asset for those who came to the conference. He could help to provide safety for them for a while.

The farmer came to the house and let the young woman know that she could stay there as long as she wished. Astonished by this offering, she thought how anyone in the right mind would be willing to help her? Her face betrayed her state of mind and puzzlement. So the farmer shared with her that he had a dream the night before. And that was the reason he gave her shelter. But he seemed reluctant to explain it.

The guide had told the farmer that she was on the run. After the conference, an upheaval rose. The locals found out about the gathering and attacked its participants. It became a witch hunt. She had to let go of her servant despite the reluctance and tears of the maid who had found freedom in serving her mistress. The young woman had considered her maid as her equal. That was why the maid could not bear separation from her mistress. But this had to be done for the safety of the maid. The woman knew that from then on, nobody is safe with her. 'Maybe one day we become reunited again, God willing.’ were the last words the maidservant heard from her loving and beautiful mistress.

The farmer told the woman that he knew about the conference too. He even shared with the writer that he cursed all those who participated in the gathering. He had vowed to kill any of them if he would see them. After all, he was against any change in the status quo. But his dream changed his heart. He had a moment of awareness and the presence of the divine. The writer knew well what he was going through. Many of those who had gathered in the meeting had the same kind of strange and transforming dreams.

The experience of a heart filled with judgment and hostility suddenly transmuted to one suffused with love and radiance. She had this inner encounter with the spiritual phenomena too.

Fall soon arrived, and the woman continued her walks for hours in the surrounding woodland. As if she was in the state of prayer at all times. Meanwhile, the farmer provided comfort and safeguarded her. Those days became the days of loneliness, isolation, and yet safety and creativity. How much she missed her family but not their oppositions to her ideas. How much she yearned to be with her enlightened friends but did not want to endanger their lives.

Her thoughts wandered freely on the joyous days of the conference. There were no barriers in her mind, and she did not have to watch her surroundings for safety to travel in her mind. On her reflection, the woman, saw herself in the gathering of friends. On that summer day when she and her maid arrived at the campsite, she found energy and inspiration had filled the air. A tent pitched for her. She had brought her treatise and essays to share and read. An unheard venue for women at her time. A unique opportunity for her to be considered a protagonist and equal to men. She recalled the essays and profound thoughts that others offered. And then, she remembered the attack of the locals causing her and others to flee.

A few months into her staying in that farmland, a stranger came to the farm inquiring about her well-being. At first, the farmer denied her being there, but later, he realized he was a friend. The stranger updated the woman with the events and the aftermath of the gathering. The hostile locals had killed many. Others dispersed and scattered around. He advised her to stay on the farm until better days arrive.

Putting her pen on paper that night, she knew well there would be no better days. She started to write about gratitude for every moment of her short life. She saw love in enmity and justice in injustice. She saw affliction as bounties and suffering as the mercy of God. She saw death as life itself and felt closer to death than ever. These were all new experiences for her.

The winter on the farm with the forest behind it took her soul to awe. Her insatiable thirst for solitude was such that she did not notice the passing of time. To be close to nature, the master artwork of her Creator was an abundance for her. She ignored all the other shortcomings of her exiled life on the farm. In her eagerness to help the farmer, she earned many cuts and bruises. But all in her eyes were joy and ecstasy. After all, she had the freedom to pray and write. She became an expert in pickling the fruits in the summertime. She made a lot of dried fruits for the winter. She helped the farmer to gather wheat from the land.

The farmer knew well how undomesticated she was. She had come from a home with servants who provided her with her needs. But she insisted on helping the farmer and labor in the land. The farmer made a case with chestnut wood for her papers.

On a sunny day in late summer, while she was sorting the dry rice and storing it for the wintertime, she heard a loud voice arguing with the farmer. She withdrew from the window instantly and pulled down the curtain. The angry man left soon. The pale-faced farmer rushed in to tell her that they have discovered her place. Not knowing how they found out, he concluded that it had to be one of the few contacts that he had trade with them. Rattled by the sudden development, he had to act fast. Taking her to another farm maybe would be the solution, he thought. Hence, He begged her to gather all her papers and belongings as soon as possible.

It was near the sunset now, and she seemed calmer than ever and unperturbed by the immediate threat. As if she knew it was coming. She had a dream a few nights before. Oh! Those dreams of hers. She could see the future in them, hers, and others. She started to change into her best clothe and arrange her hair. She was getting ready for a grand departure. The farmer, astonished, could not believe his eyes. He still had hope in persuading her to leave and insisted that time is short. She'd better take his advice. After all, he knew the people better, he said. They would kill.

His persistence was to no avail. Frustrated, he said, I have failed my promise to my Lord. What promise? She asked. The night before you arrived, I dreamed about a trust given to me by God. In the presence of my Lord, I promised to take care of His trust. You were that trust. I am ashamed to confess that if I had encountered you one day before my dream, I would have harmed you. I was like others. Never deciding for myself, and always following others. But I promised, and I finally made my decision to stay true to my promise.

The sound of angry people howling and riding toward the farm reverberated the mountain. The silence fell between the writer and the farmer. How a choice in sheltering and not denouncing this woman had changed the life of the farmer. The words of the young woman on life's purpose had penetrated his soul. He was not afraid of death either. They sat with contentment while they heard the axes breaking the door and windows.

They dragged the farmer to town and hanged him the next day. But the woman, the writer, was too great a catch to kill in a small town. They boastfully sent her to the Capital city to meet her dreadful punishment. As she had more influence on people, she had to have a more dramatic ending. The denunciation had to be with greater intensity. The King himself had to get involved! Two years after her capture, they killed her.

Up to this day, there has been no trace of that chestnut case containing the young woman’s papers of poetry and essays, which she wrote in that farmhouse where she lived for more than a year.

May 22, 2021 05:53

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