NEA Literature Fellowships

Barbara Moss

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(2006 - Prose)

From the short story "Rug Weaver"

His daughter-in-law is always wheedling him to leave his rooms over the garage and join her on the patio, but when Ebrahim Nahavendi hears her knocking on the door, his eyelids drop involuntarily. It is not just the southern California sun that makes him squint - this he attributes to his months in a dark cell as a guest of the Revolution – but the sight of so much unabashed skin, so casually displayed. Years of gazing at shrouded women have permanently dulled his eyes. Like the receiver of tablets before him, he doesn't dare to look upon naked glory.

Today she is wearing a cut-off T-shirt and tiny shorts. The long length of her is damp from her daily run, her yellow hair sticking to her neck and shoulders. "A Persian treat is waiting for you," she says. "I stopped at Trader Joe's after dropping the girls off and raided the place for dried fruits – peaches, apricots, plums, dates, figs. The catch is, you're not allowed to eat them in this smoky cave." She brushes by him and moves with mock exasperation through the kitchenette into his bed/sitting room, raising blinds, opening windows, extinguishing his cigarette in the ashtray balanced on the arm of the couch.

"As soon as you leave, I'll make it dark again," he says. But she is so soft and diffused in her blondness, so much like light herself as she passes through the room, that he allows himself to be swept into her orbit and led outside.

She insists that he sit in the chaise while she showers, and again he complies, although he dislikes looking at his stretched-out legs in their somber trousers. His feet, too, are overdressed, a pair of immigrant dandies in silk socks and braided sandals. For her sake he tries to adjust his back to the slump of the chair. He hopes she won't tell him to relax. He has no natural talent for it, and ends up contorting himself in postures of exaggerated ease like the boneless princes in Persian miniatures.

"We live out here," she had said, showing him around for the first time. Over the last month, he has seen that this is true. The patio is as lush as the interior of the house is spare, filled with green plants, potted flowers, and menacing cacti that she calls succulents – an oddly sensual word for such bristly growths. Toys and games are scattered on the redwood table; the children's bathing suits dry on the backs of rustic chairs. Against the stucco wall is the imposing gas grill, an altar on which, most nights, his son Yousef burns an offering. His daughter-in-law will eat no meat; it pollutes the system, she says. He has imagined with pleasure the sunny corridor of her insides: peach-colored, moistened with delicate washes of herbal tea.

She reappears in one of Yousef's shirts and an ankle bracelet, carrying a large silver tray heaped with fruits, which she sets on the low table at his side. He takes an apricot from the tray – it is a Seder plate that belonged to Mina, his dead wife, and the apricots have been carefully arranged in the gully meant for the roasted egg – and holds it briefly on his tongue before shifting it to the pouch of his cheek.

"Is it good?" she asks. "Is it like the old country?"

"Dried fruit is dried fruit, here or in Iran." The words, flatter than he intended, measurably dim her luster. When you are that fair, he thinks, the slightest pressure leaves marks.

Barbara Klein Moss received an MFA in fiction from the Warren Wilson College Program for Writers. She is the author of a collection of stories and a novella, Little Edens (W.W. Norton). Her fiction has appeared in New England Review, The Georgia Review, The Missouri Review, Southwest Review, and Best American Short Stories. She has been the recipient of a MacDowell fellowship and two Individual Artist awards from the Maryland State Arts Council. She lives in Haverford, Pennsylvania, where she is currently at work on a novel.

Photo by Kevin Spangler

Author's Statement

The NEA grant is a wonderful and unexpected gift that came, like winter bounty, at a time when it was much needed. Eden has been a potent metaphor in my fiction. My story collection dealt with a variety of idealized worlds subtly inhabited by serpents, and the novel I'm working on explores another aspect of the myth: naming and language. Since my characters' obsessions tend to become my own, I will be doing research on Paleolithic cave art, a Romanesque statue of Eve, and the long, eccentric quest for the roots of language. But mostly I'll be writing – with a much lighter heart, thanks to this grant. I'm immensely grateful for the practical help, which will mean so much to my family, and for the encouragement. The root of that word is "courage." Those of us who spend our days painstakingly constructing worlds vivid enough to live on the page can always use a little of that.