The Little Sugar Beet Vendor
By: Samad Behrangi
Several years ago, I was the teacher in a village. Our school had just one room with a door and a window to the outside. It was no more than a hundred meters from the village. I had thirty-two students: fifteen in first grade, eight in second, six in third and three in fourth.
I had been sent to the school toward the end of fall. The children had been without a teacher for two or three months; they were excited to see me and raised a hubbub. School didn't really get going for four or five days. Finally I was able to gather the students from the barren hills, the carpet-weaving workshop, and from wherever else they had wandered when school shut down, and bring them to class.
I hadn't been in the village more than ten days when it started to snow and the ground froze. We stuck paper in the cracks in the door and window so the cold wouldn't come in.
One day the sun came out and the snow grew soft and sticky. From the room where I was giving dictation to the third and fourth grades, I could watch the first and second graders as they played. I noticed that the children had gathered around a stray dog and were pelting its head with snowballs. In the summer they went after dogs with stones and hunks of dirt, in the winter with snowballs.
A little later, my dictation was interrupted by a thin voice on the other side of the door. "Yes, I've brought sugar beets, my friends! ... I've brought hot, sweet sugar beets! …"
I asked the class monitor, Mash Kazem, who's that?"
"It must be Tarvardi, Sir ... He sells sugar beets in the winter ... If you want, I'll tell him to come in."
I opened the door and Tarvardi came in with his earthenware pot of sugar beets. An old cotton shawl was wrapped around his head. On one foot he was wearing a rubber boot and on the other an ordinary man's shoe. His jacket was much too big for him and reached his knees, his hands in its sleeves. The tip of his nose was red from the cold. He was no more than twelve years old.
He said hello, put the pot on the ground and asked, "Will you let me warm my hands, Sir?" The children drew him over to the stove. I offered him my chair, but he didn't sit down. He said, "No, Sir. I can sit on the floor."
The other children had come in from the snow at the sound of Tarvardi's voice, and the classroom grew disorderly. I settled them all in their places. When Tarvardi was a little warmer, he asked, "Would you like a sugar beet, Sir?"
And without waiting for my answer, he went to his sugar beets and pushed aside the dirty, colorful handkerchief covering the pot. A "Sardari" horn-handled knife was on top of the sugar beets. Tarvardi selected a sugar beet and gave it to me saying, "It would be better if you peel it yourself, Sir ...Maybe my hands ... After all, we're villagers ... We haven't been to town ... We don't know good habits."
He spoke like a wise old man. I peeled the sugar beet in the palm of my hand. The dirty skin came off, and the bright beautiful red emerged. I took a bite. It was very sweet.
From the back of the classroom, Noruz said, "Sir ... No one's sugar beets are as sweet as Tarvardi's ... Sir."
Mash Kazem said, "Sir, his sister cooks them and he sells them ... His mother is sick, Sir."
I looked at Tarvardi's face. A manly, sweet smile was on his lips. He had unwrapped the cotton shawl at his neck - his hair covered his ears. He said, "Everyone has a trade or occupation, Sir ... This is what we do."
I asked, "What's wrong with your mother, Tarvardi?"
"She can't move her legs," he answered. "The village headman says she's paralyzed. I don't really know what happened, Sir."
"Your father ..."
He interrupted me. "He's dead."
One of the children piped up, "They called him Asgar Aqa the Smuggler, Sir."
Tarvardi continued, "He was a good horseback rider. Finally one day he was shot at the top of the mountains and died. The gendarmes shot him. They shot him from the back of his horse."
We talked a little of this and that; he sold two or three rials of sugar beets to the children and left. He didn't accept money from me but said, "This time be my guest, next time you can pay me. See, we are villagers, yet we know some manners, Sir."
As Tarvardi moved through the snow toward the village, we heard his voice calling, "Ay, sugar beets! ... I've brought sweet, hot sugar beets, people!" Two dogs hung at his side, wagging their tails.
The children told me many things about Tarvardi. His sister's name was Sulmaz, and she was two or three years older than he was. When their father was alive, they had owned a house and lived comfortably. Then they became penniless. First sister and then brother went to work for Haji Qoli Farshbaf. Almost all of the children went to Haji Qoli Farshbaf's workshop when they weren't otherwise occupied. The quickest ones earned ten or fifteen rials a day. This Haji Qoli had come to the village from town because town workers demanded pay in advance, receiving a minimum of forty rials a day, while the top wage in the village was thirty-five rials. Tarvardi and his sister had a dispute with Haji Qoli and left.
Reza said, "Sir, Haji Qoli annoyed his sister. He looked at her with dishonorable intentions, Sir."
Abol Fazl added, "Ah ... Sir ... Tarvardi wanted, Sir, to kill Haji Qoli with a weaver's knife, ah…"
Tarvardi stopped by school once or twice every day. Sometimes when his sugar beets were gone, he came and sat in class and listened to the lesson.
One day I said to him, "Tarvardi, I heard you had a quarrel with Haji Qoli. Can you tell me what happened?"
"It's all in the past, Sir," said Tarvardi. "It'll only give you a headache."
"I really want to hear from your own tongue what happened," I replied.
Then Tarvardi began, saying, "Forgive me, Sir, My sister and I worked for Haji Qoli from the time we were children… I mean, my sister went there before I did. I worked under her direction, she got twenty rials, and I got a little less. It happened two or three years ago. My mother got sick again. She didn't work, but she wasn't bed-ridden either. Thirty or forty other children were in the workshop-are now too-and we had five or six master workmen. My sister and I went in the morning and returned at noon. My sister wore a veil in the workshop but didn't cover her face ... There were the master workmen who were like fathers to us and the other children, and Haji Qoli was the owner.
Sir, near the end of our time in the workshop, Haji Qoli would shamelessly come and stand over the two of us. He would stare at my sister and, sometimes placing his hand on her head or my head, would laugh for no apparent reason and pass by. I didn't think anything of it as he was our employer, and I thought he was just being kind. Some time passed. One Thursday when we were getting our weekly wages, he gave an extra ten rials to my sister and said, "Your mother is sick, spend this on her."
"Then he laughed into my sister's face in a way I disliked. My sister seemed frightened; she didn't say anything. And the two of us, Sir, went back to our mother. When she heard that Haji Qoli had given my sister some extra money, she thought for a moment and said, "After this, don't accept extra money."
"From the next day on, I saw that the master workmen and other children whispered among themselves and spoke into each other's ears as if they didn't want my sister and me to hear.
"Sir, the next Thursday we went to get our wages after everyone else. Haji had told us to come and see him and said, 'tomorrow I'm coming to your house. I have something to say to your mother.'
"Then he laughed into my sister's face in a way I disliked. My sister grew pale and lowered her head.
"Forgive me, Sir. You told me to tell it all-I threw Haji's fifteen rials at him and said, 'Haji Aqa, we don't need extra money. My mother doesn't like it.'
Haji laughed again and said, 'Don't be a fool, my boy. It's not for you or your mother to like or dislike it ...'
Then he picked up the fifteen rials and was about to thrust them into my sister's hand when she drew back and ran out. I began crying in anger. There was a weaver's knife on the table. I grabbed it and threw it. The knife cut Haji's face, and the wound started to bleed. Haji shouted for help. I ran out, and I don't know what happened after that. I went home. My sister was there crouched at my mother's side crying.
That night, Sir, the village headman came. Haji Qoli had complained about me and had said, 'I want to become a part of their family; otherwise, I'll turn the boy over to the gendarmes and they'll fix him.' The village headman went on, 'Haji sent me to ask for the hand of your daughter. Yes or no?'
"Haji Qoli's wife and children are in town, Sir. He has concubines in four other villages. Excuse me, Sir. He's just like a huge pig - fat and squat with a short black and white beard and artificial teeth, some of them gold, and a long string of worry beads in his hand. God preserve you from ever being like him-a huge pig, old and decrepit.
"My mother said to the village headman, 'Even if I had a hundred daughters, I wouldn't give one of them to that hyena. We've suffered enough. Headman, you yourself know that kind of person isn't really interested in having family connections with us villagers ...'
"The village headman, Sir, said, 'Yes, you're right. Haji Qoli wants a concubine. But if you don't consent, he'll kick the children out of his workshop; then there's the problem of the gendarmes and so on ... You should take this into account, too!'
"My sister, crouched behind my mother, said between her sobs, 'I'm not going to the workshop any more ... He'll kill me ... I'm afraid of him…
"In the morning my sister didn't go to work. I went alone. Haji Qoli was standing at the door, fingering his worry beads. I was afraid, Sir; I didn't go any closer. Haji Qoli, who had bound the wound on his face with cloth, said, 'Come on inside, boy; I'm not going to hurt you.'
"I very fearfully went closer to him and was just about to go through the door when he grabbed my wrist, threw me into the workshop courtyard and fell upon me, hitting and kicking. Finally I struggled loose and ran to pick up the weaver's knife from the table. He had beat on me so much that my body was aching and bruised. I screamed, 'You dirty pimp, now I'll show you who you're dealing with ... They call me Son of Asgar Aqa the Smuggler ...'"
Tarvardi took a fresh breath and went on again, "Sir, I was about to kill him right then and there. The workers gathered around and carried me home by force. I was crying in anger and throwing myself on the ground and swearing. Blood poured from the spot on my face where Haji had hit me ... At last I grew quiet.
"We had a goat. My sister and I had bought it for two hundred rials. We sold it and got through the next month or two on the bit of money we had saved. Finally, my sister went to work for the woman who bakes bread, and I did whatever work was available ..."
I said, "Tarvardi, why doesn't your sister get married?"
"The son of the bread baking woman is her fiancé," he replied. "My sister and I are preparing a dowry so they can get married."
This summer I visited the same village again. I saw Tarvardi out on the barren hillsides with forty or fifty goats and sheep. I asked him, "Tarvardi, did your sister's dowry turn out all right?"
He said, "Yes. She got married, too…Now I'm saving money for my own marriage. After all, since my sister moved to her husband's house, my mother has been without help. She needs someone to give her a hand and talk to her ... But I'm being impolite with all this chatter ... Forgive me, Sir."