national anthology of the best undergraduate writing 2014

On Dust, Endless Libido, and My Grandfather’s Fingers

Danie Shokoohi  • 
University of Iowa

“Do you want me to go in with you?”

He’s such a beautiful boy. His ancestors tended desert flowers, while yours were drunk on God and wine in the rose garden. Dark hair, sand-darkened skin, crescent-moon eyes. And he loves you. But he’s not a boy, he’s a man.

You can’t think of Hamid as a man, though. Men frighten you. They always have. So you think of him as a boy, because that sets your mind at ease, because you love him. But all that is behind you. You’re both leaving for college in a few days and there is grave digging to be done. Forgiveness is for the unburdened.

You hate being such a woman about this.

You pride yourself on paying for your own meals, for carrying your own weight and for your endless unfeminine libido. You hate asking Hamid to come to the mausoleum and wait there for you while you say goodbye. He calls it being supportive. You think yourself weak.

“Do you want me to go in with you?” Hamid repeats, pulling you close to his warm body, which burns because you feel cold, you feel cold all over, even if it is August. And it is August in Michigan, which means the air is humid enough to swim in. But icicle shards crawl along the roots of your veins, solidifying like a ball of iron in your womb. You want, you want and you are selfish and greedy, and even this appropriate touch in this most inappropriate of settings is enough to stir your endless, ticking libido. You have a man’s libido, and in many ways—so many unfeminine ways—you wish you were one.

“No, Hammy, but thank you. I just—I’ll be a minute.”

It’s a matter of pride for you. But it’s also more than that—you don’t need your hand held. He’s here because you were too shaken to drive yourself, and it is a sort of goodbye to him as well.

He nods. He’s always been understanding. It’s why you love him. It’s like he can sink right through your flesh. Other men would treat you like something precious, a porcelain doll on a store shelf. The thought of that—being strapped into a coffin and frozen on display behind a plastic cover—makes you terrified, hysterical. Hamid does not treat you as other men would, like a glass Christmas ornament, and that is why you love him. You yell jokes, talk over each other, wrestle, argue politics, video games, art, philosophy, the future. But he knows when to be calm, to be quiet, to let you think. Hamid makes you feel so very human. It’s an important difference.

But that is all supposed to be buried and done now, so you step away from his arms and pretend that you don’t still love him—because this shouldn’t be about Hamid. He’s just the coincidence, right, the car that brought you here? You step into the August evening and walk with more bravery than you have into the static world of ghosts beyond the mausoleum’s glass door.


Your grandfather’s tomb is in the middle of the wall, his coffin confined by peachy-cream slabs that shine dimly in the faint light. Vases sit before each slab, filled with roses and letters and love and grief. But not at your grandfather’s. No one comes to visit him. No one could stomach bringing flowers to this man. You remember from the funeral that his coffin was ornate, mahogany, engraved with roses. Now that you’re older, this makes you think of Sufi poetry in a way that is almost ironic.

You wonder, staring at his name inscribed on the stone slab, what he is now. Is he still human? Has the flesh peeled back from his bones? Have maggots burst out of his eyeballs—dark brown, if you remember right—to eat away his claw-like, wrinkled fingers? Or is it past that? Is he just bones? Has the thing that was your grandfather disintegrated into bone meal? Or is he simply flecks of dust spotting black velvet cloth? You don’t know much about the process of decomposition, but you would like to think of him as dust. An abstract nothing. That not even the smallest specks of him could touch the rest of the world.

And then, you think, maybe they should do this to all the terrible humans. The rapists and the murderers and the serial killers. Maybe they should not be allowed to rejoin the earth when they die, to feel the cleanse of fire. Maybe they should be encased in these granite capsules so nothing of their matter may touch and contaminate the world again. Maybe that’s why there are murderers and serial killers and rapists. Maybe it isn’t a genetic defect, or mental instability, but rather, eating the wrong carrot, grown in dirt that once was Jack the Ripper’s kidney. Maybe that dust, something as little and unimportant as dust, should be locked away. But it’s hard to think of him as dust, even if it is so, so satisfying.

You remember him sitting at the head of the kitchen table, with you and your stuffed animals seated around him—a bashful German Shepherd, a pompous man-sized bunny, a stout horse, and you, with your small delicate teacup the size of a shot glass, brimming with apple cider. The little glass bowls of jelly beans and M&Ms, dragged closer to him for an easier journey. “A-daa-doo, I can’t drink anymore.” He laughed his choking smoker’s laugh. “No more apple juice.”

“Then pass the jelly beans to Mrs. Woofy.”

“Which one is that?”

“Babajon! Mrs. Woofy is the dog!”

How could the same Babajon who played apple cider tea parties with you now be dust? How can he be the Babajon you loved and still be the Man who destroyed all things? Why can you hear him chanting, “A-da-doo, A-da-doo,” in your dreams every night when he is only powder in a stone prison? Can he be both Babajon and dust? The grandfather and the nightmare? How can they all be true?

Your family says you look like him. When your mother is feeling particularly cuntish, she will lob it as an insult, “You’re just like him. That’s where this art shit comes from. He thought he was a poet too. You’re just like him. Is that what you want to be? Him? It’s disgusting.”

You stand suspended in space in the still air of the mausoleum for what could be hours or seconds, minutes or years, contemplating his dust with crossed arms that couldn’t protect you from his fingers when they found places they shouldn’t have, when you were too young to know better. That was the fire that made you more steel than any girl should need to be. He was the Man who taught you to trace words with reverent fingers, the Man who gave you made-up words the way you give a child candy, the Man who gave you writing and the right amount of fuck-you self-righteous martyrdom to want to be a writer. He was the Man you loved. He was the Man you hate. He was the Man who made you fear men. He was the Man who made you hate to be a woman.

Ice builds small glaciers up your feet, bulldozing your knees. It doesn’t take long to inch its way up the ridge of your spine, to paralyze your torso. Soon you will be an icy figure trapped among the sculptures of death and dust, and silence will stretch from here to forever in the folds of the mausoleum.

Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. And nothing but the supernatural quiet.


Anyone else would have come in after you when twenty minutes passed and still you stood like stone, without crying. Anyone else would have come to offer sympathy and caged you in his arms—but not Hamid. He waits until you reach for him, and he holds you for too short a time while you try to stifle the tears that come when you are not sure how to explain the process of petrification; of pulling your blackened limbs from hungry ice under the watchful presence of purgatory dust. And even if you could explain, he couldn’t understand. If he did, he would treat you as the other men do, and you would grow frigid and fear him too. You need this memory of him, these few moments of safety with the boy who makes you forget you’re a girl. You need the untarnished memory of this. You will never speak to him


At your college in Iowa, you walk along the river path by the Iowa Memorial Building at night, chasing word fragments. Your scars are shrinking, your heart is healing, and the world is warm. The summer wanes. Hamid leaves messages on your phone, which you ignore. Other boys leave messages on your phone, some of which you don’t ignore. You trade your buckled boots, tights and flowered shorts for knee-high socks and scarves. The leaves color the air with trails of flaming cinders, and the trees undress. The cold begins to sink back into your bones, and it was as if you could sense it coming, even if you didn’t know what it was. Just a tightness in your throat that makes you shiver.

The tightness in your throat evolves into a tickle. The tadpole lodged there refuses to come out. You exorcize his shed skin in slimy green-yellow blobs that stick in your throat and make you choke. You don’t think much of it. Just a bit more Vitamin C. A couple capsules a day and a tall glass of orange juice isn’t a terrible prescription. When you were a child, you saw your grandfather choke down huge purple horse pills. You remind yourself, like the good, sensible adult you pretend you are growing into, to dress a little warmer so the cold won’t weaken your immune system. The little tickles will go away soon enough.

But the little tickles do not go away, and coughing rattles the bars of your rib cage. More and more green tadpole skins slide down your throat quicker than you can spit them out. In the mornings, the coughs choke your breath until you are dry heaving at the drain.

Now, when you cough, you taste hair in your mouth. It isn’t mucus in your throat, but something else, something different, rising from the moist soil of your lungs. Your throat expands like a snake’s. A panicked scream clogs your throat, and your coughs turn to gags. In the mirror, you see a head of steely gray hair emerge from your mouth, then a face, and then two broad shoulder blades that make your jaw stretch so wide it should shatter. And then the arms, which he uses to push himself out. One palm on your chin, the other on your nose.

You crumble, gasping and wheezing, to the floor, your lungs heaving, your veins filled with ice shards, and he kneels beside you, touching your face with his claws.

“A-daa-doo, A-daa-doo,” he chants in his craggy, smoker’s voice. “Don’t you know I will never leave you?”

Ashes to ashes

Dust to dust.

And nothing but the supernatural quiet.