“Firefly”—a short story by Alireza Iranmehr

5 July, 2024,
An Iranian conscript keeps disappearing from duty. The natural world leaves clues of his whereabouts.


Alireza Iranmehr

Translated by Salar Abdoh


I was deep into the book I’d been reading when I looked up to see the province’s serial AWOL standing awkwardly between our barrack’s rows of bunks, his dusty duffel bag on the floor and another half torn sack lying next to it. It was Márquez’s A Chronicle of a Death Foretold I had in my hand — the novel’s protagonist, the dying Santiago Nasar, trying to hold onto his spilling guts on just another dreary enlisted afternoon. 

And now “Djinn” was here, back among us lowly recruits. His boots had no laces, which told me they must have sent him straight from detention. His wide, clown-like lips made you wonder if he was laughing or crying. Then there was his visible hunch, his thin, overlong neck, and those empty eyes that made you imagine the moment of seeing for him was also the moment of forgetting. They said it was he who had bitten one of Major Ahmadi’s ears half off. Twenty-seven and counting was the number of times he’d escaped service and twenty-seven times they’d caught him back in his village at his mother’s house. The man refused pissing in a proper toilet, but rather did his business at places like the military parade ground, in the pantry, and in the archives where judicial cases were filed. You name the space and he was sure to have urinated on or in it. And each time they slapped another four months to his service. By now, even if they gave him a break and halved his draft period, he’d still be a lifer. Nevertheless, you couldn’t keep him in one company for more than a week. Turn around and he was gone. Which is why the name Djinn had stuck. 

The bunk underneath mine was empty, though it didn’t have a mat. Djinn made straight for it, dragging his bags along. He smelled of smoke and ginger, and all I could think was how his presence immediately changed the mood. It was as if Márquez was teasing me and I might have been sleeping in a room in a hotel with the number 26 attached to the door and suddenly I was awake and found myself in room 27. That was when I saw the firefly for the first time. It circled around my head for a while and landed on the edge of the bunk’s metal head next to my toe. The creature had thin, prismatic wings and a pair of eyes that reminded you of the head of a matchstick. 

Djinn slept for hours on that naked bunk with its rubbed out, greasy planks. The firefly hung around too, flying here and there and flapping its wings over the large plastic bags on the metal cabinet near us. That night the sergeant-in-charge took one look at where Djinn had installed himself and wrote our names alongside each other. Was there a worse piece of bad luck than having the only empty space under me? Now I was going to be doomed to guard duty with Djinn, pacing up and down the shoreline past cellars filled with rice and alongside empty rental rooms and villas with thin shadows quivering behind drawn curtains. What this assignment really would be was to make sure Djinn did not escape for the 28th time. They said that when he’d taken that chunk off Major Ahmadi’s ear, the major had vowed he’d never fall for Djinn’s play at insanity and that he’d keep him serving forever if he had to. 

Later, at weapons’ check, I saw my firefly resting — almost thoughtfully — on the muzzle of an AK. Then I breathed something nasty from behind. It was the base commander with a mouth that hinted he’d been chewing garlic all night. 

“If Djinn escapes, I’m adding days and weeks to your service.” 

Something was happening here. What? I didn’t know. All I knew was that once Djinn and I started our walk that night, my AK’s magazine was full and the trigger ready; one wrong move from him and I was going to start shooting straight in the air until every single navy officer in the vicinity woke his ass up. I wasn’t about to get days added to my military service.  

We hadn’t gone but a few paces when I saw that Djinn was digging in the sand looking for something. I readied my weapon and came closer. He’d found something and was looking closely at it. This outlandish soldier had found a red rose buried in that sand. I looked about us. In that darkness the only thing that really caught your eyes were the waves’ white foams that appeared and disappeared. How had he found the flower? No doubt two lovers had been here before us. It was the kind of thing you saw while on shore patrol but pretended not to see, silhouettes lurking here and there, usually knotted into one another and being extra quiet. Major Ahmadi had stressed we should leave them alone and we obliged. 

Djinn began walking again and I continued behind him. Near a villa lit with outside blue light I saw that something was gleaming over Djinn’s cap. A firefly. Wings spread, but not moving. I wanted to say something or at least tap Djinn on the shoulder and point to the luminescent creature, but I decided against it. He went on walking with the thing on his cap and I followed after him. A little further on he found another red rose in the sand. The shock of this second blossom made me anxious. Something was definitely up tonight. Now I watched as Djinn made quickly for the waterline to where the seashells demarcated how far the waves reached. 

He bent down into the sand and shells and found his third rose. 

The firefly stayed with him. 

Back at the base dawn was approaching. My eyes were burning from keeping such close watch on Djinn, but by now I could tell he wasn’t thinking of escaping. The next morning I had to pull guard duty at the local bank. Yet no one came to shake me awake, and I sure wasn’t going to open my eyes until the bed’s shaky foundations started rattling. No rattling and no sergeant-in-charge to shake me awake. I slept till noon. It was almost lunchtime when I got up and saw that all the conscripts had been sent to their chores and in the 40-man quarter there were only three others still sleeping. I looked beneath me and saw that Djinn too was asleep. Outside in the yard the day shone bright over the faded mosaics. A conscript sat shining his boots next to the concrete platform of the raised flag. I reached for the air-conditioner hose and took a sip of water from it. My mouth was still dripping when I noticed the base commander standing in the doorway of his room and pointing at me to come in. 

In his room the air felt cooler and less stuffy. He took his cap off the wireless and spun it around his fingers. His hooked nose appeared to shine from some delight. Now he zeroed in on my disheveled uniform and chirped, “I took a day off your service.” 

“Sir, thank you Sir!” 

“Because of what you did last night.”

“Sir, it was my duty Sir.”

“From today on, every time you do guard duty with Djinn and don’t allow him to escape, I’ll put you down for one less day of service. Tell me, how much time do you have left?”

“Sir, eight months Sir.”

It was like having sugar cubes melt inside my mouth and heart. That’s how sweet it felt. For every day that I held onto Djinn, I had one less day to serve. My sour deal had turned into a fortune.

“But if he escapes, I’m going to add a month to your service. Understood?”

“Sir, I will keep an eagle eye on him Sir.”

And this was how the duo team of Djinn and me got our start. That very day they sent us to the bazaar of the fruit vendors. Already keeping a watch on Djinn had become the single most important goal of my life. It was a treasure that I must not squander. I wouldn’t let him leave my side; I shadowed his every move, every step. Nor did it look like he wanted to escape. He looked more like a kid who has come to the market with his mother and is curious about everything he sees. He smiled at the gaping faces of people who stared at his strange appearance. He even took an apple from a stand and bit on it, and all that the merchant could do was stare at Djinn in something between disbelief and fear. I saw another firefly flapping around his cap and resigned myself to the firefly presence from then on. Once we came out of the fruit-sellers’ market, a little girl made straight for Djinn. The girl had quickly twisted out of her mother’s grasp and with her outstretched hand was offering her red balloon to Djinn who reached over and took the balloon’s string from the girl. I expected the child, looking with surprise at the soldier on patrol duty, would start bawling. Instead, she simply laughed and ran back to her mother. 

Now I had to do our patrol in town with a bizarre looking conscript holding a red balloon. As we left the market, people looked at us with even more curiosity than before. Djinn’s utter weirdness now included me in its orbit and the townspeople were laughing at us both. I didn’t care. I was ready to roll naked in a tub of honey and feathers and do somersaults in all the streets of the city as long as my days in the military were halved. Getting laughed at was nothing I couldn’t handle. 

Once we got back to the garrison, Djinn stopped in front of an old brick wall and stared and stared. His action seemed suspicious to me and I unshouldered my weapon and waited. What Djinn did next nearly made me drop my gun; he reached into a small hole in the brickwork and in an instant was holding a real, if slightly worn red rose. 

When time for the night watch came I was awakened not by the sergeant-in-charge, but the barely perceptible flapping on my foot which by now I was becoming familiar with. There was no need to shine a light to see the firefly. We had to pull watch on the street where the town’s only cinema was. On the sides of the step to the cinema were two lion statues whose yellow paint had begun to flake off. As soon as we got to the lions, Djinn found a little plastic doll by the paws of one of the lions. Next he found a spool and strings by a garbage bin and spent the entire rest of our shift playing with his newfound toys. 

Everything was going well. Escape seemed like the last thing on Djinn’s mind. One day doing our shift, he came to a stop in front of a spread of old knickknacks laid out besides a small ruin on the way to the market. A pair of socks, some old broken toys, and a bunch of reels and more spools was all that lay in front of a little girl as white as rice and so small you could have placed her on top of the toy lorry she was selling and dragged her along with a piece of string. I wanted to move along, but Djinn wasn’t moving. That was when I noticed the odd thing about the girl. She was no girl at all, but a grown woman whose face seemed to have been frozen in time. She may have been 18 or 80, I could not tell truly. Djinn was staring at her and she stared back and suddenly a sound came out of her not unlike a parrot’s. For a moment longer Djinn watched her in what might have been bewilderment and then he started laughing. 

From that day on Djinn refused to go anywhere except the little woman’s spread next to the ruin. I never left their side, and after a few days reported the new development to the base commander who laughed. 

“If he’s no longer wanting to escape, so much the better. Let him stay right there. I’ll tell the sergeant to always post you guys on that same street.” 

Major Ahmadi whose half ear was the talk of all the garrisons in the province was especially determined that Djinn did not escape. He wanted to prove to everyone that he, and he alone could keep Djinn from running away. Little did he know that this honor was actually mine and my entire job now was to sit still for hours by the side of the tiny stream next to the ruin and watch Djinn and his new sidekick watching each other in silence. Even if our so-called patrol was to be a full half-day, the two of them sat there gazing at one another to the last second. Once in a while the woman would make one of her sounds and Djinn would laugh — a laughter that was barely discernible from crying. Djinn was at peace at last and his only enduring rebellion was the pissing he did on the town walls and anywhere inside the camp but the latrines. Old timers talked of how at some point Major Ahmadi had ordered soldiers at battalion headquarters to force Djinn inside a toilet and show him the proper way of relieving himself. To no avail. Each time Djinn would scream and bite and kick until they had to let him go. Toilets were the one place he would not step in. Often I’d watch him take a piss on the walls of the ruin where the woman laid out her rubbish. After a while those sooty walls took on a striped look from Djinn’s discharges. 

It felt like the place had become our second home. 

Then it happened. The garrison commander called me in one day looking grim and angry. 

“Tonight you have to get back to patrolling the shore.” 

It appeared that a snitch had reported our fixed spot to the major and he was livid. There could be no favoritism among the conscripts, the major had apparently screamed. Djinn was to carry his weight like everybody else. 

That night when we got to the shoreline the sea felt blacker than ever. There was no moon but the stars shone faintly across that vast sky. After a while of walking on the wet sand, Djinn headed toward the sea. I could hear the sound of shells being smashed under our boots. The long white line of the shells would suddenly merge with the waves foaming out of the dark and retreating. Djinn stood on the shells’ boundary and stared out. I felt my boots getting wet and retreated a bit. Then I got tired and sat down and gazed into the impenetrable dark of the water until my eyes grew heavy. I fought the urge to sleep by rubbing my burning eyes and thumping my head against my knees. 

The sound of something falling jerked me awake. My gun had fallen on the retreating seashells. I jumped up and it took a few seconds before I understood what had happened. Djinn was nowhere in sight. I called out to him and then began running, first in one direction then another. Once I realized it was no use, I cocked my weapon and began firing — one, two, three. The night sky momentarily lit up around me. 

The garrison commander ordered that I be put in detention. While I was undoing my laces to hand over to the sentry, the commander himself came up and stuck his red hot nose through the bars. “I’ve given you two months extra service.”

I wanted to kick him in his hideous face. 

Three days later when I was released, I was walking with my laceless boots toward the sink area when I heard soldiers talking about Djinn. His body had been found. But he hadn’t drowned in the sea. He was frozen. I came over and huddled next to the others and asked what the story was. What had happened was that the next morning the garrison commander had sent out a unit to collect Djinn from his mother’s house. He wanted Djinn returned before the major found out about it. But unlike all the other times, Djinn was not at his mother’s. The commander was set to dole out collective punishment for everybody in the camp until word of the frozen Djinn reached the barracks. A truck driver had found him among his load of frozen meat. Djinn had not been alone though; they said a strange looking little girl was frozen next to him. The two of them had been hiding among slabs of hanging meat in the back of the semi, iced over and unmoving. The poor driver of the vehicle was still in shock and refused to talk to anyone. No one knew what those two were doing in the back of the truck and whether they’d wanted to escape to another province or were just hiding there. 

The next day the major had the truck brought into town for inspection. Naturally I needed to go over and see for myself. The huge doors of the 18-wheeler’s trailer were open and its refrigeration system was off. I stepped inside. I wanted to see exactly where Djinn and the little woman had been found. Inside, it was vast and empty. Hooks hung from the ceiling. Something caught my eye. On the tall metal door a firefly sat still, its transparent wings glowing from the shafts of light that speared inside the trailer. The firefly remained quite still with those matchstick, crustacean eyes looking at me and I … well, I looked right back at it. 


Alireza Iranmehr’s short stories “Buenos Aires of Her Eyes” and “Arrival after Dark,” translated by Salar Abdoh, have been published in The Markaz Review.


Alireza Iranmehr is a writer and essayist, who has received numerous honors and awards for his fiction. His first fictional work, Berim khoshgozaroni  [Let’s Go Revel] (Roshangaran Publishing, 2005) was followed by Safar ba gerdbad [Traveling with Tornado] (Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults, 2006), re-reading of the poems by the 16th-century Iranian poet Saib Tabrizi. Iranmehr’s short story collection, The Pink Cloud (Candle and Fog, 2013), was translated from Persian into English by Sara Khalili. His essays and book reviews appear regularly in Iranian literary magazines and journals. Iranmehr has also written screenplays for films, including Raz [Secret] (2007), Delkhoon [Heartbreak] (2009) and Azadrah [Freeway] (2011). He is a contributor to Stories from the Center of the World: New Middle East Fiction, edited by Jordan Elgrably (City Lights Books, 2024).

Salar Abdoh is an Iranian novelist, essayist and translator, who divides his time between New York and Tehran. He is the author of the novels Poet Game (2000), Opium (2004), Tehran at Twilight (2014), and Out of Mesopotamia (2020) and the editor of the short story collection Tehran Noir (2014). His latest novel, A Nearby Country Called Love, published last year by Viking, was described by the New York Times as “a complex portrait of interpersonal relationships in contemporary Iran.” Salar Abdoh also teaches in the graduate program in Creative Writing at the City College of New York at the City University of New York.

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