Tell me what to do with your stories, a boy says to his father, and I’ll listen to all of them.
Why not take all of it, all the works and news of humankind, all the business of the people and what was going to become of them, countries and nations, Cold Wars, Third Worlds, revolutions—why not take all of it and instead join the lakes and rivers of this country in knowing surrender? I was 16 years old and I heard the trees say, We know what your father says about economic and political systems is true and just; it is why we can blend with his words. They smiled and offered themselves to me. But I was a boy and I found myself soaring away from America and towards it at unimaginable speeds at once, and because I didn’t know any better, I thought that was what you did with a country.
I thought you clenched your fist toward its predations, and I thought you got down on your knees to see the way its creeks ran over little rocks. I thought you drew yourself as far as you could from its flag and as near as you could to its gray afternoons.
Now of course, it wasn’t just our country that they did this too, my father said as we rounded the last turn before the creek. Behind us in the distance I could hear Americans talking, and I had to admit that his voice knew these trees better.
There was Guatemala in 1954, there was Chile in 1972, he said. Ah, we are coming up close to the creek.
A whining voice in me said, What do you want me to do? Do you want me to love this country or to hate it? But it was a whining voice and the woods were no place for whining.
We could smell the cool water and we took pride in knowing that the woods did not need a sunny day to be beautiful. That was one thing we shared with the Americans on the trail.
It was England first of course in our country, he said. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. There was nothing Iranian about it. Except for the oil. And the poverty of the people.
And what would you want to do? I thought. Would you want to not know? You have seen the not-knowers at school. There is nothing for you there.
I looked up at the sky through the trees and I thought that this place was not meant to be a retreat. I fit too well. It would make my whole life a retreat, and it scared me to think of it that way.
Surrender was not retreat. It stood its ground and did not hide. It did not make a fight of its life.
And yet my father’s voice was the voice of a man who knew his fight with certainty. I wanted my voice to move like his someday. To wind among the trees and rocks like it knew them, like his fight had taken them in. I listened to the American voices in the distance. How easily they had this place. They spoke the way kids spoke at school, though I could hear they were men. What was the fight that they were speaking at the other end of? Where was it, where did it lay?
Of the three of us—myself, my father, and the creek—the creek was the most American and my father the least.
Here we are, my father said, like he knew his heart and remembered mine. The creek was only a little thing in late summer. But I saw it through time, and saw myself growing in this place. Of the three of us—myself, my father, and the creek—the creek was the most American and my father the least. The creek and I understood each other as growers here.
My father became quiet. In the presence of the creek, there was no need to discuss the events leading up to the 1953 coup d’état in our country. Still, it was quite clear that any and all beauty the creek possessed was on the side of the people.
The Americans showed up behind us through the clearing and we waved. We each wandered in our own directions for a while. Some part of me that I did not like looked at my father and wished he did not look so natural here. If he was going to be so far from American in his political thought, I wanted to see some reflection of that among its wild places. But he looked more a part of the land than the Americans did. That was never going to be me, I thought. I didn’t know how he did it, but I felt I was going to have to choose.
On the other side of the creek, a dog barked. We looked up and saw an old man coming down through the trees with his dog. I didn’t think there were any people on that side. He looked as though this was his home. I imagined a little cabin over the hill on the other side. Just him and the dog. We watched them walk down and saw the dog drink from the creek.
Now see, that makes sense, I thought. That makes sense as a way to go in America. Let the creeks and woods be all of your America. It was possible that the old man had a room in his home filled with books that named and described American imperialism, but he still looked like he had one America: the natural country. It looked very clean to go that way.
I watched the old man and dreamed of the cabin and his life there. It seemed like you had to live and work and be disillusioned by America before you could get at that life, but I wanted to skip all that because disillusion had been here since our arrival. America is where we are now, but America is also the reason we had to leave, my father said. How were you supposed to dream yourself into this country starting from there? The old men in their woods had believed once, but what did you do if you had never believed? Could you build a life for yourself out here right after high school?
Here are the good stones for skipping, my father said. He picked one up and demonstrated. I sighed and joined in.
There was a girl who loved this creek as much as I did. That dream was still alive at least. She dreamed of a cabin in the woods as well. She was like me—utterly surprised and unsurprised at once by the sight of the creek in the afternoon, because she had been looking all over for herself and here it was, right where she thought it would be. I didn’t think she was as disillusioned as I was, but that was all right. I could keep quiet about that part of it. She’d know that the gray afternoons of America took in all that disillusion, my own and everybody’s, and hushed them quietly to sleep.
In Iran we would go to the mountains for days, my father said. It was the only place we could talk freely. We would talk about what kind of country we would have after the Americans left. Those were my best memories of Iran.
Do you think he lives out here?
The old man with the dog.
He was back in the mountains again, and the cold air at night was nothing when they had the fire of their songs and revolutionary poems.
I could tell he was still back in the mountains and I felt bad. Tell me what to do with your stories, a boy says to his father, and I’ll listen to all of them. Am I supposed to miss something, or long for something, or rejoice in its long-ago presence? Does it speak to my future, or is it only a dead past? Do I look for myself back there, when I barely know who that is here today?
I listened to my father’s stories and didn’t know how to use them here. As far away from the source of those stories as we were. Among the people who did not know for a moment what a vital role their country played in his stories. The disillusioning had begun early, as soon as I could look around and wonder about America, and I felt ashamed because I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
I threw rocks into the creek and wished my father would say, I know that you have to grow here, I know that it is pulling you in two different directions to hear my past. Because the truth was I wanted to be pulled like that. I pitied the boys at school who thought that life only moved in one direction. I only wanted some acknowledgement.
I looked at the two men who’d been behind us. They sat on a boulder eating their lunch. See, I wanted to say to my father, Americans can be quiet and thoughtful too. They did not have a past like he did, but they had a future. Who else’s future was I supposed to have here but theirs? I couldn’t have his. America was a second act for him. It was a beautiful act, because he knew well how to be onstage, but I needed it to be first.
The story started up again as we walked back—he was back in the mountains again, and the cold air at night was nothing when they had the fire of their songs and revolutionary poems. Men who would die for each other laughed at the cold. There was a little boy in me who loved the stories, and there was a young man who hated them for how they gave me nothing I could touch or feel. The two of them fought it out on the way back down.
In America the creeks were as close as I could get to dying for a cause. They held the same essence. I didn’t know how. I felt like a very old man listening to my father. The creeks were my only chance, and so it was going to be a life of quiet study and contemplation for me. My father had youth—he had youth the way a person was supposed to have it: comprising in his entire body and soul the fire of revolution in the country of his birth, all the burning purpose of a clean line running through his understanding of a place. It was how a boy was supposed to be young. What did I have? Nothing that could compare. The only thing that came close was that I looked at him and saw that his love for me came from there too, it came from the country they would have built up in those mountains. The best part of me was far away from me too. It was somewhere I would never know.
A year ago, I would have delved that sorrow on my own, but now I felt a man ought to face it out loud. It was the creek that gave me enough belonging to do it. This is the only land at 16 you’ll ever know. It is necessary to imprint yourself upon it as much as it is imprinting itself upon you.
If we are going to talk about these things, let us talk about them. These are not adventure stories to me anymore.
What did your mother and father say when you told them about the cause? I said.
My father was sick by then.
What did your mother say?
She was a religious woman. She did not know about these things.
But you told her. You told her that you were joining the cause.
I wanted him to face that sorrow too. I wanted him to think about what a man did in telling these stories to his son—that he was accepting the possibility that one day his son might come to him in the same way.
Yes, I did.
Did you tell her that you could die?
He studied me and I hoped my face said: I am not a boy. If we are going to talk about these things, let us talk about them. These are not adventure stories to me anymore.
Yes, he said.
That ought to have been enough. My point was made. But I wanted to claim a belonging to this land as deep as my father had had with his mountains. I wanted to go to the very heart of the creek, every rock that lay under it, every tree alongside its banks.
Did she cry?
He was quiet. He knew what it was now. He did not hate me for it. I do not have those men, I thought. I do not expect to have them in America. I do not have the men who possess the one thing people can possess to match this nature. I have to figure out what I am going to do about that. Once I do, I can return to these stories.
It was true, but I didn’t need to show it. I could have held it in myself, listened to his stories and smiled, left alone the question of his mother’s tears. Or rather, kept them some place where they weren’t alone, the same place where I kept the creeks and rocks and gray afternoons of this country.
Siamak Vossoughi is a writer living in Seattle. His first short story collection, Better Than War, received a 2014 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and his second collection, A Sense of the Whole, received the 2019 Orison Fiction Prize. He has had stories published in various journals and magazines.
Header photo by Darkdiamond67, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of Caprice Garvin by Elizabeth Barbato LaPadula.