by Steve Carr
Soroush was seven years old when his father, Afshin, said to him, “From today on you are in charge of the goats. You must feed them, give them water, and milk them every morning before school, and take them out in the fields in the evenings to get exercise.” His father clapped him on the shoulder with his large, meaty hand.”Today you are a man.”
Soroush didn’t feel like a man, and although his father’s face was beaming with pride and his eyes sparkled with expectation, Soroush only thought of how he would have less time to play football with his friends or to study, which would result in getting poor grades and reprimands from his teacher, Mr. Jafari, who would call him stupid in front of the entire class. He knew his parents needed the goats for their milk, meat, and cheese more than they needed an intelligent son, but they had never witnessed the effects of being angrily and threateningly called stupid by an adult waving a paddle as he had witnessed it happening to his friends. Once you have been seen peeing in your pants, it can’t be unseen.
His new role as goat herder began that morning, before school. It wasn’t a large herd, only twelve countings the 9 does, 3 kids, and one billy, Farbod. Farbod was 14 years old and mean. He ruled his harem like a tyrant and treated humans with disdainful head butts, bites that drew blood, and sharp kicks. Afshin had often claimed he would have severed Farbod’s head from his neck years ago except Farbod sired a kid with almost every doe brought into the herd.
Soroush finished his bowl of haleem, put on his jacket, and went out the door. The cold air immediately caused his cheeks to tinge with a reddish hue. He clapped and rubbed his hands as he walked to the barn where the goats and chickens shared the space. His mother, Farah, oversaw the chickens; feeding them, collecting the eggs, and twisting the necks of those that would end up in the stew pots. Farah thanked Allah for every egg, named every chick – never seeming to run out of names – and hummed the funereal Dige Dire as she plucked the feathers from their dead bodies.
The inside of the barn was warm despite the loose boards in the walls where cold air seeped in and the holes in the roof, under which his father placed buckets any time it rained. Fixing the roof never seemed to occur to him. Soroush gathered up armfuls of fresh hay from the bales kept out of reach of the goats and tossed it into the stalls where the goats were separated by their age, lactation, maternity, and their place in the queue for being slaughtered. Farbod had his own stall where a doe was brought in long enough for him to impregnate her, which seldom took more than a few days, at most.
Soroush then milked those goats that were lactating and carried the pales of milk into the house. By the time he grabbed his bookbag and sack lunch and went out the door, he was already late for the start of the school day. Mr, Jafari boxed his ears for being late, but the rest of the school day passed without any further complications
After school, while lying on the floor working on his spelling assignment, he was reminded by his father that the goats needed to be taken out for their exercise. Reluctantly, but not wanting to disappoint his father, especially since it was his first day as a man, he got up from the floor, put on his jacket, and left the house. Blowing across the yard were leaves from the wayfarer tree that grew near the house. He looked down to see that one of the leaves had stuck to his pants cuff. He bent down and plucked the leaf from his cuff and stared at it in amazement. It was a color of a leaf he had never seen before: bright blue from stalk to the apex. The veins were slightly darker but of the same color. He turned it over several times, examining it, then looked about on the ground, and at the tree, to see if there were other leaves of the same color.
There were none. He had never seen another leaf its color. He knew it was just a leaf, but he felt it was something of value, a piece of treasure. He carefully folded the leaf along the midrib and carefully slipped it into his back pocket, and then proceeded to the barn. The goats were rambunctious, anxious to leave their stalls when he opened the stall doors. Knowing the way to the field, they ran out of the barn, across the yard, and up the hill to the large field that was their daily playground. He ran behind the goats, not giving them much thought, still dwelling on his good fortune of having a leaf-like no other. He was certain his classmates and Mr. Jafari would be impressed. He had done nothing or possessed anything before the leaf entered his life, that had set him apart from the other students and his friends or drew praise from Mr. Jafari. He was certain the leaf would change his entire life.
He sat down on a boulder and with little interest watched the goats as they frolicked about or grazed on grass or the leaves of shrubbery. Lost in thoughts of fame he ignored the first nudge against his backside. The second much harder nudge awoke him from his fantasizing. He turned his head about to see Farbod behind him, the blue leaf grasped between his teeth.
Soroush jumped up and turned around, separated by the boulder, he held his hands outstretched. “Please, Farbod. Do not eat my leaf. Give it to me.”
Farbod stared at the boy. As if knowing every word the boy said, and he probably did, the goat quickly drew the leaf into his mouth, took a few quick chews, and then swallowed it.
Soroush, screamed, and then collapsed across the boulder, crying.
The goat watched the boy for a few moments, bleated loudly, and then sauntered off in search of one of the does.
That evening when Afshin returned from plowing his wheat fields, and the family sat down to eat, he saw the glum look on his son’s face. Making his son unhappy by giving him an adult responsibility made eating his wife’s delicious chicken stew poured over a large mound of rice hard to swallow. He recalled feeling just as Soroush must be feeling when he was first given the same adult responsibility of caring for the family’s goats when he was a year younger than Soroush. He knew that Allah had looked after him then just as Allah was looking after Soroush now, but it did little to ease his guilt. When Soroush said he could eat no more, leaving half of his meal yet to be eaten, Afshin didn’t scold him about not appreciating the food he was given, and to Farah’s dismay, excused his son from the table.
“Why did you do that?” Farah said to Afshin as soon as Soroush left the room.
“Didn’t you see how unhappy Soroush is? Maybe he’s not ready to be made to carry a man’s responsibility.”
“You told him to care for the goats, not build us a new house,” she replied, annoyed and perplexed. “He’ll adjust to working as all children who live on farms do.”
Afshin nodded in agreement, but he couldn’t erase from his mind the look on Soroush’s face. He ate his meal and what Soroush had left of his to appease Farah’s anger, but he suffered acute heartburn afterward.
That evening before going to bed, Soroush finished his spelling homework, although each of the words didn’t stick to his mind for more than a few minutes afterward. At bedtime after reading a few pages of the Qur’an, he said his prayers. He hoped that what he had been taught – that Allah was always listening – that Allah heard his prayer that Farbod would be slaughtered soon and end up cooking in one of his mother’s stews.
The next morning, he awoke earlier than usual, fed and watered the goats, feeding Farbod last and reluctantly before eating his breakfast and heading off to school.
The school was even more bleak than usual. He spent the time in Mr. Jafari’s classes daydreaming about how his life would have changed for the better had Farbod not eaten the leaf. Possibly the news of the leaf would have reached far beyond his school, bringing wealth and family to him and his parents. He imagined people would have been pounding on the door of his home wanting to give him great sums of money just for a glimpse of the miraculous blue leaf, but with it now in Farbod’s stomach, or even worse, already digested and crapped out, those fantasies were never going to happen.
Not in a hurry to get home and take the goats out, after school he kicked the football around for a little while in the schoolyard with his friends, and then leisurely sidetracked through the village’s main street on the way home. In the window of the hardware store, there was a stack of small cans of paint. He had been in the store a number of times with his father and knew it well.
Mr. Rahimi, the store owner, was behind the counter waiting on a customer when Soroush entered the store. He sauntered down the aisle with shelves of paint and saw the small sized ones he’d seen in the window. He grabbed a can of blue and a can of black, and a paint brush, the type used for crafts, stuffed the cans and brush in his jacket pockets, and then exited the store. From there he rushed home, hid the cans and brush under the hay in the barn and then took the goats to the field.
After an hour out, he returned the goats to the barn, giving Farbod a swift kick in the rump for good measure as the goat entered its stall.
It wasn’t until the next morning, as the sun begin to rise, before either his mother or father had gotten out of bed, that Soroush sat on the ground by the door in the front of his house and opened the two cans of paint. He had learned the basics of drawing and painting in school so what he did next was a combination of learning and instinct, along with the image of the leaf being seared into his consciousness. He drew the outline of the leaf and its stalk in black as if seen in a horizontal position, then filled the inside of the leaf with blue. He then finished it by painting the midrib, and six veins, three extending out of the midrib on each side, with black paint. He sat back and looked at his creation. It wasn’t shaped exactly like the treasured leaf he had possessed for such a short time, and the blue wasn’t nearly as vibrant or alluring, but he accepted that nothing would match the real thing, so he put the lids on the cans, wiped the paint from the brush with a rag, and carried everything back to the barn and placed them in their hiding place.
He then fed and watered the goats, gleefully splashing water in Farbod’s face, and then went back to the house. He was sitting at the kitchen table working on math problems when his parents came in.
“Are you okay, baba jân?” Afshin asked his son as Farah began preparing breakfast.
“Yes, father. I’ve taken care of the goats and hope to do well on my math quiz today.”
“You’re such a good boy.”
“Yes, man,” Afshin replied, hesitantly.
It was on the fifth day, after Soroush had painted his fifth leaf, all in a row, as exactly alike as he could paint them, that while he was in school, Afshin drove into town to buy some nuts and bolts at the hardware store. Mr. Rahimi, was sorting items on a shelf when Afshin walked in.
Seeing Afshin, Mr. Rahimi, brushed off his apron, and approached him.”Ah, my old friend and trusted customer these many years, has your son confessed his sin yet?”
“The robbery of two cans of house paint, one can of blue, and one can of black, and a paint brush. He came in and went straight down the paint supplies aisle and walked out with the cans and brush stuffed in his pockets. He thought old Mr. Rahimi didn’t see him, but I see everything.”
“Are you certain of this?” Afshin asked, his stomach suddenly twisted into knots.
“Most certainly. I checked the shelves against my inventory list. Your boy committed a robbery.”
“It’s hardly a robbery,” Afshin replied, defensively. “He pocketed some cans of paint and brushes. He didn’t steal your cash register.”
“Thievery is still a crime. A thief is a thief, no matter what name you give it.”
“Soroush isn’t a thief. I had no idea he took anything from you, but I’ll pay you for what he took and talk to him about it.”
“In some circumstances, they cut off the hand of a criminal who steals. The Qur’an says, for the man who steals and the woman who steals, cut off their hands in retribution of their offense as an exemplary punishment from Allah. Allah is mighty and wise.”
“Soroush is a seven-year-old boy and not a criminal.” He took out his wallet, pulled out several rial,s and handed them to Mr. Rahimi. “That should cover it.” He turned and left the store, forgetting why he had gone there to begin with.
“Make your boy read the Qur’an,” Mr. Rahimi called after him.
Driving home faster than usual, without stopping to talk to Jalil Nouri about the cattle he was thinking of buying from him to start his own small herd and had been looking the cows over every chance he got, he arrived home in record time and came to a screeching halt. House paint! What could Soroush want with house paint? had been on his mind the entire way.
He got out of the car and first scanned the front of the barn and then turned his attention to the house. Then he saw it! The five blue leaves. Distressed, he wondered how could he have been so blind as to not see them before that moment. He rushed into the house, found Farah scrubbing the kitchen floor, grabbed her by the arm, and pulled her with him out the front door as she loudly protested.
“Soroush has been painting leaves on the house with stolen paint,” he said, pointing at the leaves. “You see, it was too much pressure on him to be made a man so young. I have cracked his mind.”
Farah stared at the leaves for a few minutes before saying anything. “He stole the paint?”
“Yes, from the hardware store. Mr. Rahimi suggested Soroush should have his hands cut off.”
She peered at the leaves more closely. “I didn’t realize he had this talent.”
“What does that matter?”
“It doesn’t. I just never realized it.”
“What are we to do about this?”
“Since you just began taking him to the mosque to pray with the adults, it may be a good idea to talk to the imam.”
“Yes. That would be a wise thing to do.”
The mosque was cool and quiet, except for the cooing of pigeons who had roosted in the crevices in the dome ceiling.
Afshin sat cross-legged on a pillow across from the imam who was also sitting on a pillow.
“I broke my son’s mind,” Afshin said, trying to control his nervousness. He had never been so close to the imam before. The old man’s breath smelled of goat cheese, an odor Afshin was very familiar with.
“Praise be to Allah,” the imam said. A young mind is a fragile thing. Tell me more.”
Afshin told him everything, stifling the urge to sob by the time he got to the point of telling of finding the blue leaves painted on the house. “Have I offended Allah by telling my Soroush that he’s a man?”
“Praise be to Allah,” the imam said. “Your son is too young to have reached puberty, and so therefore he isn’t yet a man, but you meant no harm, and in giving the boy responsibilities you are acting as a good parent should. Allah be praised.”
“But what about the theft of the paint and painting the blue leaves?”
“Teach him while he is at such a tender age that stealing is not the Islamic way to obtain what he wants, and as for the leaves, the color blue represents heaven. There is no sin in that. Allah knows best.”
Afshin left the mosque feeling better but not convinced he hadn’t damaged his son’s mind. The trouble began soon after he told Soroush that he was a man. There could be no other explanation for his son’s sudden change of behavior. Of that he was certain.
Soroush sat on one side of the table. His parents sat across from him.
“Soroush, you’re no longer a man,” his father said to him with great solemnity.
“I’m not?” replied the boy. His lower lip began to quiver. “Did I do something wrong?”
“I know you took paint and a brush from the hardware store,” but that isn’t why you’re no longer a man.”
“No. Your mother and I also saw the leaves you painted on the house, but that isn’t why you are no longer a man either.”
“No, it’s because you haven’t yet reached puberty?”
“I haven’t?” Soroush scratched his head. “What’s puberty?”
“That is for another time,” his father replied. “I’m sorry that what I said led you to feeling as if you needed to express yourself by painting the leaves.”
“Oh, that awful goat Farbod . . .”
Afshin waved his hand, interrupting Soroush. “The goats too can be discussed another time. I now want to repair the damage I have done to your mind. I will pay you in cans of blue and black paint, and brushes when you need them, in exchange for the duties you perform, which will soon include milking cows, until you are old enough to earn money. You can paint as many leaves as it takes to return your mind to good health.”
Farbod lived seven years more, finally dying after being kicked in the chest by a doe he was trying to mount.
In those seven years, Soroush painted a new leaf every day and stopped painting them the day Farbod was killed. The 2560 leaves covered the outside of the house from the base to the roof. It was such a beautiful and unusual sight that people came from long distances to see it. It gave Soroush a degree of fame and strangers left gifts and envelopes with money on the doorstep. Soroush seemed happy and showed no other signs of having a broken mind, so his father never again questioned it.
Allah be praised.
About the Author:
Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 580 short stories – new and reprints – published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews, and anthologies since June, 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories published. A Map of Humanity, his eighth collection, being published by Hear Our Voice LLC Publishers is due out in January, 2022. His paranormal/horror novel Redbird was released in November, 2019. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice.