The sunshine brings him to his knees. Every day he thinks, I am here, I am here, in this house that we raised above ourselves, with this woman who chose me. The girls are safe. The creatures are fed. The windowsill is pearled with dew. The spiders are friendly. We have made a life for ourselves, away from the world. We live in a church of infinite light.
In these hours, he is left soft-footed and silent, walking the hallways in the farmhouse that he built with his wife Roksha. In their bedroom, she is nosedived into her pillow, and in the other one, his daughters’ silk hair feathers around them like the crowns of little saintesses, and outside, his rust-pocked Chevy gathers morning glitter in the driveway. It is all so short. For this, it is all the dearer.
At daybreak, whatever wildness in him is briefly exhumed. He is as far away as he will ever be from himself, Ahura Yazda, the Great Extraordinary, Persia’s trickster, who once stood atop Mount Damavand for twelve days and twelve nights and caught stars like diamonds in his unhinged jaw to win the gratitude of the most beautiful woman in the world. He is a man looking at a man’s ghost, wondering where it came from, and why it hasn’t left yet.
It’s a glorious feeling, but it doesn’t last long. It never does. This time, all it takes is opening the front door.
When he steps outside, the chilly grass is slimed with blood and muscle. Not a body, but the gummy insides of everything inside a body. It forms a death trail, past the aspen skeletons knotted in mortal prayer, like sutures threaded in wine-colored viscera. All along the way to the barn.
Something, someone has slaughtered an innocent soul all over his front yard, and he knows in the kick of his gut that the shadhavar is night-roaming again.
• • • •
They came to the country in crates. Exotic pets, he wrote on the manifest. Five creatures. One for each ocean of the world, each point on a star, each prayer of the day. But this comes later. In the frantic moment, there was no rhyme to it. They were the five he saved. The five who were there.
If you bring us with you, we’ll do anything.
He said, It’s not much of a life for you.
They said, If it’s a life enough for you, maybe it’s enough for us.
When he sealed them up, he said, I can only try. Saying without saying: You have to help yourselves, too.
• • • •
It’s dusky with smoke and slippery with wet straw in the barn where his creatures live. The spidery banners still flutter feebly against the wall as he stalks past, their leaves browned of color but the cursive crawl still legible. See the zagh! Half the face of a hawk, half the face of a beautiful woman!
There was a time when the farm was open to outsiders, two dollars apiece to see the flaming djinni horse, the karkadann goring the life out of a sapling, looking for all the world like a bloodlusting rhino. The enormous simorgh, sinuous snake of a bird, her mystical feathers fanned. Roksha painted the signs, hunched in the grass with a spool of paper. Shadhavar the carnivorous unicorn! They used to call it Ahura Yazda’s Ark, back when he had a sense of humor about this type of thing. He’s not entirely certain if he’s lost his sense of humor or just misplaced it, if this country has taken it away from him. These bleary days, he feels like he is always travelling through mirrors, getting closer and farther away, older and younger all the time. Maybe misty mornings will do that to an old man.
Only the zagh is awake, hunched in the rafters like a barn owl, her bristled wings edged saffron in dawn. She turns the human side of her face towards him and swoops down.
“I thought you’d never notice,” she says. “It’s been hours.”
“You know, you could have woken me,” Ahura Yazda growls.
“Old man,” the zagh says, “it’s not my fault you’re losing your touch.”
She’s in the air before he can utter the words. Don’t call me old man, old bird. They’ve danced this dance before. In motion she becomes herself, the whip of her wings, the cut of her eyes. She does not smolder, she blisters. She turns her half-human half-griffon face upwards to the light as if to say, Here I am, what else do you possibly think I could be. Like a hawk of the Old World. She could slice a man in two, although she hasn’t done that sort of thing since they crossed the world. The zagh is his oldest, dearest girl.
The shadhavar looks like he’s been there all night, immobile and equine, sketched in midnight oil. Sunk to his knees in sleep, his horn scoring the ground before him in imprecise hieroglyphs. Only his muzzle glimmers, drops of blood stringing miniscule rubies across his sooty coat.
“What was it this time?” Ahura Yazda asks.
The shadhavar’s nostrils flare but he doesn’t move. “A dog,” he mutters.
“If they throw me in a dungeon, it’s going to be your fault.”
“They don’t have dungeons in this country, old man,” the shadhavar says edgily. “And I didn’t know it was happening.” He shuffles to his feet. Somewhere above, the zagh chuckles. She would never hide her enjoyment of this. “I only woke up when it was already dead.”
“You know what a smarter man would say? Next time, it will be a baby. Then what?”
The shadhavar says, “It’s in my bones and my brain. It’s who I am. I can’t fix it, I’m sorry.” He touches his nose against Ahura Yazda’s vast forearm. “You knew that from the very start.” And Ahura Yazda, the Great Extraordinary, the oldest trickster still alive, bows against the sullen form of the shadhavar and thinks: I should have brought you somewhere brined in blood. With wild dogs and tame deer. I should have taken you on another great adventure.
• • • •
Zaynab is perched on the front step, skinny arms tucked around wobbly knees, waiting for him. Were little girls this fragile when he was a boy? He could put her in his pocket if he wasn’t afraid of crushing her. She was eleven this last winter. Anam will be seven. His own two colts.
“You said I could help you,” she says, already well on her way to wheedling mode.
He sits down beside her in the sod. “Darling,” he says. “Not today.”
“But that’s what you said last week.”
“Really not today.”
“You’re going to say that for the rest of my life,” she says with the desperation of someone much older.
He says gently, “This time it’s different.”
“Papa,” she says. “If I’m going to take over the farm, I need to know.”
It takes impossible effort not to laugh. She’s serious as a dead man.
“You’re going to take over the farm, huh?” He nudges her with his elbow. Her knees buckle treacherously, but she doesn’t blink. “Maybe not while your old man is still kicking, right?”
“I have to start now,” she says. “I have to know everything. I have to know now.”
He looks down at her.
“You promised,” she mutters, compromising between a mumble and a whine.
“All good things come to those who wait,” he says.
“Yesterday you said, live every day like it’s your last,” she reminds him.
“Well, consistency was never my strong suit.” He smiles. “Only wisdom.”
She says, “Please?”
• • • •
It was Roksha who saw it the first time. She said, Ahura Yazda. Look.
This was back in the beginning. When they first touched down to Ontario soil, when the manna seeds were still entombed in the dirt in a shallow grave. The house was still an A-frame spectre ribbed wooden and gaunt and the yard dense with old, craggy pines which, when he cracked them open, sounded like titans yawning. The citron yellow sap gummed his nails for days. Roksha’s fleshy hands grew fossilized riverbeds and stony highways. At night they yanked splinters from each other’s cracked palms, the ones they hadn’t found or noticed in the hours before.
The earth in this parcel of land squirmed with worms and strange insects. A place to put things in the ground, and see what they became. A tiny acreage for this part of the world, scarcely ten acres, but theirs. She said, This will be worth it.
Do you regret it? he asked the creatures.
No, they said. Never.
Then she woke him up one night. Ahura Yazda. Look.
They slept in a tent under the vast shadow of their unfinished home. Through the slats he saw the wide brushstrokes of branches, the broad-toothed fence, the teaspoonful of starlight spilling across the open land—and the animal, crawling through the underbrush like a lit thistle, its eyes flickering silver.
It’s a porcupine, he said. Go back to sleep.
I know what it is. Listen.
Over the whispering grass, the shiftless trees, the clucking dying fire, across the distance of the yard, he heard the porcupine’s teeth clattering, an insistent tapping like a kid’s knuckles drumming on a windowpane. Its body bristled, stiff-spiked, dipped white in the faint light. Its snout was garnet red with blood.
The night fell impossibly still. The porcupine went rigid. It lowered its head and horked up something wet and furiously scarlet. Something fleshy.
Oh my god, Roksha said.
Now he could see that one of their creatures was awake, its eyes silver-bright and haunted, motionless. In the night the shadhavar was a narwhal, ghost-black, the blade of his horn dimmed in the dark.
The porcupine, writhing now in the grass, inching farther away from them every moment, sputtered blood and sticky strands of its pink insides. Guts, Ahura Yazda thought. He is spitting out his own guts.
This is not normal, Roksha whispered.
Not anymore, she meant. Not for this part of the world.
He stood up. What he meant to do, he had no idea. It was always like this.
Hey! he shouted.
The porcupine turned to look at him. Ahura Yazda froze. It was looking right at him. Eye to eye. Dribbling blood and tendrils of glistening intestinal meat.
Ahura Yazda? it gurgled, in the shadhavar’s voice.
And then it shuddered in the dirt and stopped moving. The shadhavar closed his eyes. Roksha exhaled.
When Ahura Yazda shook the shadhavar awake, he was groggy and uncertain.
What in the world just happened? Ahura Yazda demanded. What was that?
What was what?
That. He jabbed his finger at the porcupine, a prone hump in the grass. What was that.
The shadhavar sat up with a start. His eyes went wide. Every wisp of hair on end.
He said, Oh no. Oh no.
He said, I thought I was dreaming. I swear to you.
• • • •
Every year they grow the mystical crop in the fields. Manna, he calls it. Although in full harvest, it’s wheat-gold, sheaves thick as straw, pale green buds. The silky-stiffness of damask to a touch. Used to be, the creatures would help them. Except the djinni horse, who could flame a field with the accidental brush-by. A couple of years ago he dug into his bank account—probably the oldest trickster still alive, and he has a bank account now—to buy used farm machinery.
Zaynab wants to learn how to drive the tractor.
“Why don’t we start with just watching,” Ahura Yazda says.
When she scowls and grumbles nonsense words at the ground, he says, “Maybe you want to drive in the truck with your mother.”
The manna gets sent to scientists back in the city. Twice a year they come with electrical equipment that crackles and bleats, yellow notepads, silver-wire spectacles, analogue cameras, and trays of sparkling beakers, and they squat in the fields, scooping dirt with their fingernails, jotting notes with fervor. Their intensity makes him itchy, always.
The sod is still icy, unyielding from the winter, the grass still blunted and gray. This is the time of year when it’s all a waiting game, before the last frost, before everything changes again. He looks at her and his spine aches. Don’t grow up, not yet. If he could trap her in this moment beneath a water glass, looking like a gravely ponderous vizier at eleven whole years of living, he does not know if he could find the strength to do it. If only he could take himself back through time to the very start, before they leave the old country. Would he be brave enough to do it all again?
“You’re being weird,” Zaynab says, side-eying him with suspicion.
“You’re a mind reader now?”
“You look weird.”
“Never judge a book by its cover,” he says with a smile.
“You’re pretty weird on the inside, too,” she says.
• • • •
It’s one of those nights where fog billows in organza clouds across the grass and the moon is smeared and adrift in the hazy sea above, and the air is damp and dreamy with the promise of rain, doom, and gloom. It’s glorious.
The instant he enters the barn, he can smell their sour adolescent boy odors, the liquor pickling their breaths, the sweat hot on their necks, and now and again their nervous smothered laughter floats toward him. When he bellows, “Who’s there?” they all take off in a flock, hooting and hollering. He grabs a fistful of polyester and drags the last one back. The boy squirms and cries out. He must have only a few years on Zaynab but already she has an older face than him.
“I just wanted to see,” he yelps, thrashing uselessly.
It happens all the time. Teenage boys, courage by way of their parents’ cabinet of spirits, a burning curiosity about the strange farm on 110 Road. The creatures watch benignly. He has an inkling in this moment that they might miss the days they were on display.
“Calm down,” Ahura Yazda says. The boy slumps. Only then does he let go.
“Next time,” he says, “don’t be an idiot. Just come to the front door like a civilized person.”
The boy shrivels under his gaze.
“You want to get split in two by the karkadann? That’s what you want?” Ahura Yazda demands.
“I just wanted to see,” he mumbles. This one, like his daughters, is bony, brittle, with chipped shins and arms like bent dandelion stalks, a mop of dark hair pluming above his pallid forehead. Hollows under his eyes, in his clavicle. He’s white. Of course. Will his daughters only meet white boys in this country? Clumsy morons like this one? Does it matter? Or what, does he truly want them to meet Persian tricksters who drag them to the ends of the Earth?
“Fine,” he says. “What’s your name?”
“Callum,” the boy says.
“You really think I’d hurt him, old man?” the karkadann calls from nearby, sounding wounded. The boy whips around.
“Come on,” Ahura Yazda calls back. “I’m trying to make an impression, don’t ruin it.”
The surprise of young people always makes him giddy. Those looks of wonder. When the boy sees the djinni horse wreathed in fire, his face gives way. This is how it should be. The lovely zagh perches on the boy’s emaciated shoulder. The vast simorgh preens. It would astound the kings they knew, the corsairs they befriended, to see her this way. She is resplendent in her own pride. Only the shadhavar refuses to see him. “Not now,” he says.
When the boy’s gone, Ahura Yazda returns.
“I have to tell you something,” the shadhavar says. “You’re not going to like it.”
“What’s wrong? What happened?”
“Nothing.” The shadhavar shuffles in his place. “That’s the thing. I don’t think I can stay here anymore.”
Ahura Yazda stares at him.
“You’ve been very good to me, I know,” the shadhavar says gruffly. “I will always be grateful.”
“You can’t go,” Ahura Yazda says. “Where will you go?”
“I don’t know yet. That’s part of the adventure.”
From nearby, the zagh says, “He’s made up his mind.”
“Did you know?” Ahura Yazda turns to her. “All of you?”
“I’ve been thinking about it for a long time,” the shadhavar says. “I have to see the world for myself again.”
“And what? You’ll just leave, it’s that easy?”
“I can’t stay here forever,” the shadhavar says. “One week. That’s all I need.”
“A week, a month, it doesn’t matter. I can keep you busy.” He’s fumbling. “It’s a different world out there now. You don’t know.”
The shadhavar leans forward and butts Ahura Yazda’s shoulder with his forehead. Such a gentle motion, his horn is a whorled line pressed against Ahura Yazda’s face.
“Ahura Yazda,” he says. “You are the kindest man I know.”
• • • •
When it starts to rain, Ahura Yazda goes looking for lightning.
The mist dissipates. The ground disintegrates into mud. He could run barefoot for years and never get tired. He sheds his sodden shoes and flings them into a sumac bush, whooping to think if his wife could see him now, how she might gawk. The sky is bloodless, blurred blue and black like a healing bruise. He is soaked in seconds. Wet to the bone and back again. He grins like a maniac. The first flicker of light frissons the sky, and he’s off, off in pursuit.
In the rain, he is not a man divided. This downpour punishes uncertainty. It is only him and the lash of the water on his face, the bristle of righteous fury in the sky. Here, there is room for nothing else.
If he has to die, let it be like this, on a night without stars, delivered from the world by the heavens themselves, in a blaze of electricity, in thunder and blood, with a storm pounding at his ears. Certain of himself as he’ll ever be. Let this be the way. A trickster’s goodbye. His girls are old enough to remember him, his wife is strong enough without him, the manna will go for years, the shadhavar is still here, his mind is still aglow, the sleet in his beard has not yet turned to snow. Everything is on the perfect precipice. Lightning splits the sky. He howls at the universe and when it howls back, everything is made of spectacular blue flame.
He finds the tallest, oldest, wickedest tree and he stands underneath it with his arms outspread and his jaw stung raw from smiling. He thinks, Come and get me.
• • • •
There are chicken feathers plastered in the grass in the morning, slick, rain-spattered. Gobs of wobbling, grapefruit-pink flesh. The wan corpse of a muddy rooster drowning in the yard, looking like a burst fruit. Picked clean from the inside. He scrapes it out of the grass while Roksha and the girls still sleep. He hasn’t told them yet. Not yet. If he tells them, there is no backing away.
The shadhavar is waiting for him by the pickup truck, speckled with rain and slurred soil. His eyes are shadows. He says, “I didn’t know it would happen again. I swear to you.”
“That’s what you said last time.”
“In my dreams, I don’t know that I’m inside of them,” he admits. “I’m walking on a road I don’t remember. I see a stranger’s sky. I never realize that I’m looking at the same old places I always see. I’m sorry, I can leave tonight.”
“We’ll find a way to fix it,” Ahura Yazda says, suddenly angry.
“If I could stop it, I don’t even know that I would,” the shadhavar says. “Would you change the way you were?”
“Haven’t you noticed?” Ahura Yazda says. “I already did.”
The shadhavar smiles his laziest smile. “But that’s not true, of course.”
When Ahura Yazda dumps the rooster’s body in the ground, the zagh drops down beside him. “Maybe it’s good that he’s going,” she murmurs.
• • • •
“Let me ride the djinni horse,” Zaynab says.
He wants to say, No.
He wants to say, I can’t lose you, too.
But today, the fight is gone from him. He says, “Okay.”
In the open pasture behind the barn, the manna fields, stripped and bare-earthed, lie before them in wet black stripes. The djinni horse leaves singed grass and gray ash in his wake. The horse says to Zaynab, “When you were a baby, I used to take you up in the arms of your pop. Do you remember?”
Zaynab looks at Ahura Yazda. “Really?”
“Your mom knew,” he says. “If that’s what you’re asking.”
When she climbs the djinni horse, his fire dims. Something primal clenches Ahura Yazda, to see his daughter atop a mountain of flame. She’s still a child, but what was he doing when he was eleven?
He calls to the horse and to the girl, “Don’t do anything stupid.” Zaynab leans forward, fists full of molten mane, her face aglow. She’s his girl, all the way through. More than anything, it’s this that terrifies him.
When they reach the end of the pasture, the djinni horse steps into the sky. It’s as if Zaynab, too, is turning into smoke. As small as she is, there is something about her on the blazing horse in their slow ascent that makes her fearsome. They torch the sky in flame, spitting sparks and cinders in their wake. She howls with joy, haloed in fire that doesn’t touch her, her face shining an unbearable light.
This is where it all starts, he thinks. This is where it ends. I am old, old enough, old as a man like me should ever get.
• • • •
After the dishes are rinsed and Roksha takes over the kitchen table with her paints, he stops by the barn with the girls in hand. The creatures are raising a din fit to skin the hairs off the dead. They are tipsy with glee or arrack, it’s a toss-up. Even the dyspeptic karkadann has emerged from his stall, flinging wrathful glares at anyone near enough to catch them, which is his rendition of affable. In the center of it all stands the djinni horse, his coat burning a banked evening glower, and the shadhavar, dark as the last night on Earth.
Anam, who is still antsy around them, squeezes the pulp out of his fingers. Zaynab already has her head buried in the djinni horse’s side, her small face bearded in tendrils of flame. Overhead the zagh flits like a vast moth through the watery light.
He sits Anam on an upturned wire crate. “I’ll be back,” he says and she nods, eyes enormous. Even then he hangs at the fringes of the group, looking in. The simorgh waddles over, a dragon of a bird, almost as big as he is, her citrine tail floating gently behind her.
“I guess you won’t see this again,” she says.
“I suppose not,” he says.
She looks at him with her yellow eyes. “Dearest boy. If you don’t want to get your heart broken, don’t go playing with heart-breakers.”
“It’s funny,” he says. “I always figured I was the heart-breaker.”
“Don’t flatter yourself.” She laughs. “You were always the mark.”
The karkadann charges through the creatures with a joyful roar, scattering them. Ahura Yazda’s hairs go white in the moment it takes Zaynab to spring onto the djinni horse, out of the way of the karkadann’s goring horn. They laugh and stamp their feet in approval. She’s pink with pleasure.
“You should know,” the simorgh says. “The rest of us, we’re going with him.”
He doesn’t say anything for a moment. He can’t say anything for a moment. “When were you going to tell me?”
“I’m doing it now, aren’t I?” Gently, she says, “This is not the end, boyo.”
Zaynab slides off of the djinni horse, her eyes shining. She is bonded to the horse forever, he knows this already. She would ride into the end of the world with him.
“They won’t be around forever either,” she says.
“I know that too.” His voice is hoarse.
“When they grow up, we could come back for you.” She turns to him. “You could pluck one of my feathers and live forever. It could be the next great adventure.”
He bows his head. Zaynab bolts towards him, her hair a flurry of dark knots. He could watch her grow old. He could nurse her until the very end.
“I can’t,” he says. “I wouldn’t know how.”
• • • •
He tells Roksha that night. Maybe he thinks they will concoct a plan, he and her, or maybe he knows better. She says, “It’s not wrong for them to want something new, Ahura Yazda. You’d begrudge them what we chose ourselves?”
She touches his face. In her, he sees himself, the way that time has snuck up on both of them. She has always been the one to adjust. He has always been the one to get dragged by his heels, fighting and floundering, into the here and now of it.
“You know, I always thought the night-roaming was a one-time situation,” she says. “The anxiety of being in an unfamiliar place and an unfamiliar time.”
“They’re still strangers here,” he says. “Aren’t we?”
She says, “If it’s still happening, they should leave sooner. What if he slips up before the end of the week, and it’s Zaynab? Or Anam?”
He is quiet. “It never occurred to me.”
“No,” she says. She does not sigh, but it seems implicit. “It never does.”
“Just one more day, maybe two,” he says. Wheedling, like Zaynab. “That’s it. And then they can go wherever they want.”
• • • •
Ahura Yazda stirs in the night when the house is abed, fretful, restless, feeling like one of those vengeful phantoms that haunt old grounds like these. The floor creaks beneath him. “Don’t stay up too late,” Roksha mumbles into the pillow, her cheek mottled with peeling paint. He kisses her head.
He can smell the rain when he steps outside. The air is pregnant with its promise. Clouds shift and boil up above. Not yet. Not yet.
He sees the boy in the moonlight, skulking over the fence. Sometimes they dare each other, as if wresting a fistful of feathers from the simorgh will be as easy as the spotty courage that runs through their young veins. He wants to say to them, Just wait until you see her in the wild. Just try it then.
This boy is clumsy and familiar. He skitters when pebbles rattle underfoot, his skinny arms flapping nervously. That unruly mop, he saw it only days ago. Callum, that’s what he said his name was.
“Hey!” He doesn’t want to give him the dignity. “Boy!”
The boy jerks his head up, looking stunned. His eyes are brimming with silver. A trickle of blood drips down his mouth.
Ahura Yazda goes stiff.
“Shadhavar,” he says. “Wake up.”
The boy looks blankly at him. With the shadhavar’s voice he says, “Is this a dream?”
“A very bad one,” Ahura Yazda says. “Wake up.”
“I can see through his eyes,” the shadhavar says. “I’m doing it again. It’s happening.”
The boy coughs and doubles over, spraying blood on the ground.
“You’re hurting him,” Ahura Yazda says. “You’re going to kill him.”
The boy stands and wipes his mouth. His silver eyes are hooded with sorrow. “Did you ever think it would turn out like this?”
“Never,” Ahura Yazda says. “Isn’t that a good joke?”
Ahura Yazda says, “Wake up.”
The boy slumps into the grass. Ahura Yazda dives down beside him, wrestling his shoulders, praying to a merciful god, an almighty god, to anything that moves beyond the stratosphere, that the boy will open his eyes, that the boy will live.
And when he coughs and spits blood and opens his eyes full of tears and trembling, Ahura Yazda carries him home, so the gratitude inside of him won’t split him in two.
• • • •
He drags Roksha out of bed that drizzly morning, the windows blurred with rain, the trees gurgling, their branches bent double. He sits her down beside the girls, who brush their hair out of their eyes and look at him. The three of them look at him, waiting.
“It should be you, not me,” Roksha says.
So he tells the girls that the creatures are leaving. He tells them with dry eyes and a clear voice, but they look at him anyway as if he is about to come apart. Zaynab says, “When?” quietly. Anam doesn’t say a word, her eyes as big as planets. If they start to cry, he will start to cry, but they are stronger than he knows.
Roksha takes his one hand and Zaynab takes the other, and they bow their heads so that they do not have to speak, so that they do not have to look at each other. The simorgh was right. They will break his heart before he breaks theirs. They are already breaking it, these wonderful fragile beings.
• • • •
When he steps outside, it is cold and bleary with rain, and the wild feeling inside of him has not yet left. In moments, he is drenched, numb to the bottom. The rain elbows away his grief. There is no space in this temporary hurricane for anything but joy.
He thinks, I have everything in the world.
He thinks, I have lived every version of every life I have ever wanted.
He thinks, The creatures are fed and safe in the barn, but only for now. The girls are young, but not forever.
Everything hangs in beautiful balance, for just this moment. Just this moment. So soon to be gone.
He thinks, Come and get me.
And off he goes, looking for lightning.