If you were to peel life like an onion, you’d find layer after layer of hidden meaning philosophers have debated over for centuries and will continue to do so until the end of time. Why are we here? Where are we going? Who is our creator? Does she exist and if so, how involved is she in our lives? I could go on and on about scientific and religious debates having to do with the mystery of creation, to do with Adam and Eve, the Big Bang theory, evolution, or whether our creator is nature itself. But I divert into sensitive territory.
I bring up the symbolism of the onion because research for my recent historical novel, The Last Romanov, was like peeling not one, but many boxes of onions — one box brimmed with rotten political onions, another with familial intrigues, yet another dealt with the inner politics of court, and one held sticky-layered, hard-to-peel onions that had to do with the intricacies of keeping the heir’s hemophilia a secret from the Russian people. Every under-layer revealed unexpected secrets that helped explain the social and political landscape of the time.
Every book, every page, every website, and every interview shed light on new details that illuminated how numerous small sparks gathered force to create a great explosion that ended the 300-year-old Romanov dynasty and gave rise to the Bolsheviks and, eventually, Communism. In hindsight, Tsar Nicholas II and his advisers should have paid attention to these smaller insurgencies before it was too late. But the Romanov Court was isolated inside a cocoon of denial, the truth often kept from them, concealed under a carapace of false grandiosity so thick that years of unrest, series of revolutions, and even World War I failed to alert them to the seriousness of the situation. To the Imperial family, like goldfish swimming in muddy waters, the world outside appeared opaque and unfathomable.
Talking about the mystery and allure of veiled things reminds me of our Naneh, who came to Tehran from the village of Rasht and lived with us until the onset of the Islamic Revolution. She was endowed with large breasts that were a constant source of fascination. Every now and then she dug her fist into her cleavage and fished out a hidden treasure to calm down one of the children — a plastic rooster, a clay teacup or saucer, a piece of slightly melted chocolate that smelled of the humid places she came from, a tiny plastic doll with carved yellow hair and painted, raisin eyes. Most often, she would flip out a bunch of keys to unlock our cellar, where honey dews, watermelons, summer fruits and sacks of nuts and rice were stored to keep cool. How deep was that crevice and how was it possible to fit so much in there, I wondered, fighting the urge to find out for myself?
One day I threw all caution to the wind, snuck behind her, and plunged my hand between her breasts. She slapped the back of my hand so hard my ears buzzed for the rest of that day. But I had discovered hidden in there, something cool, soft, and almost spongy, something full of promise I wanted badly. My curiosity sparked, I went on a mission, following Naneh as she huffed and puffed around the house to complete her chores. Every now and then, she narrowed her eyes and aimed a dark stare my way, cursing under her breath. I’d scurry to find temporary shelter behind a chair or door as if her stares were arrows that might maim. By the end of the day, she plopped down on a stool in the kitchen, turned to me and held me in her gaze that kept changing expression — disgust, pity, rage, even a hint of compassion. Finally, she hooked one plump forefinger and gestured for me to approach her. But instead of accepting her offer, which I had anticipated all day, I was paralyzed with fear. Those meaty hills loomed high, ready to swallow me like the Bermuda triangle. I wanted nothing more than to uncover the secret of that hidden thing in her cleavage, mysterious and inviting. But what if her breasts locked up? Clamp! Broke my fingers with one snap, or forever imprisoned my hand in its humid depth?
My imagination running wild and scared to death, I drew a deep breath and stepped forward. I stopped short of Naneh’s reach and stared down her paisley shirt. She unbuttoned two red glass buttons to further release the already loose collar of her blouse. “Ya’Allah!” She ordered, or encouraged, I couldn’t tell which. “What are you waiting for?” I pointed to her chest. “Bia! Come, get it, then. Y’Allah.” I started shaking in my tiny ballerina slippers. Even a child is able to smell a trap when it stinks to the high heavens. Still! The deliciously tempting treasure was an arm’s length away. I stepped closer, reached out and inched two fingers across the edge her blouse, tapped on one glass button, then another, testing the waters, lingering on the upper V of her breasts that felt velvety soft and gigantic under my touch. She held her breath, wiggled her nose, and suddenly threw her head back as if to avoid a slap. A thunderous sneeze burst out of her. Startled back, I came crashing over a stool and found myself splayed on the carpet. Her laughter, louder than her sneeze grated my pride. I dusted myself off, tossed a dirty look her way and threw my shoulders up, pretending that whatever she hid there no longer interested me.
“Come, my nosey little leach,” she chuckled, “Come see for yourself. See how I’m hiding the eighth wonder of the world here. Found it right under my nose in Rasht! Come closer, I said!” Her hand crept into her cleavage and reappeared with a perfectly round, pink wad of bubble gum. She stretched it this way and that then rolled it back into a ball and tossed it in her mouth, her jaws grinding like an overactive mill. She looked me straight in the eye and said: “Some things are better left hidden.”
In that she was certainly right.
*Article by Dora Levy Mossanen originally published in Zan Magazine Sep/Oct 2012 issue