Not Too Small, ch. 3: Zahra Ghorbani

Monitoring: Zahra Ghorbani
Tehran, Province of Tehran, Iran

11:25 p.m. Iran Standard Time
Saturday, March 8th, 2014
7:55 Coordinated Universal Time
Saturday, March 8th, 2014

Fast forward—

The room is quiet and dim, with a floor half-covered with dust and splattered with blood. There was a squatter here a few months ago, but since they left Zahra has been the building’s only visitor. She won’t be disturbed.

Zahra sets down a massive pot, heavy with a bag full of apricot kernels. On the floor she unrolls a sheet of blue plastic holding a number of knives and a thermometer. Everything else that she needs is already here. As though they are vestments for going out to war, she dons a surgical mask and plastic gloves, and then she drags out the tank of water and miniature oven that she had hidden in the closet.

It’s time to cook.

Muhammad had spoken about wealth and duties to the poor. Zahra is more familiar with Jesus Christ and the words that her family had read to her in the dark since she was little, but it was impossible to not pick things up by osmosis. She doesn’t see how either of them would stand for the way of things in Iran, where national officers and their friends make billions of rials while Zahra’s family and their neighbors scrabble or starve. As they are not present, though, it falls to her to act.

She cannot attack the root of the problem, but she can alleviate the symptoms. This talent with which she was blessed, and which once seemed so useless to her, still has some uses. If nothing else, she can feed the hungry.

As she waits for some of the water to heat, she spreads the plastic sheet across the floor and sets small stones to weigh it down. Shortly thereafter, the water has reached sixty degrees Celsius and it is time to add the apricot kernels. This is by far the most tedious part of the procedure. It is not terribly expensive, because nobody eats apricot kernels, and it isn’t too time-consuming to collect them from around the neighborhood. It’s honestly harder to get the small amount of citric acid that gets mixed with the water.

All of this must be done alone. There are no other Christians in her neighborhood, so the dietary laws apply to the neighbors whom she is going to feed, and even her own family would look askance at this. She does not think that she is tricking any of them into breaking their laws, however, for it had been written in the Quran, “Whoever is forced by necessity, neither craving it nor transgressing, there is no sin upon him.”

The pot is not terribly large, which means that she must repeat this step several times, each time taking a little more than two hours to complete it. She could speed things up by taking more pots, or leaving some here, but she is worried about attracting attention and cannot justify permanently taking a pot.

Each time that the process is completed, she filters out the water. Zahra scrapes out the minute residue that is left, and starts over again. Eventually she has a little more than half a gram of powdery white crystals. If she were anyone else, she would mistake it for sugar.

Not for the first time, Zahra is grateful that God blessed her not only with a miracle, but also with a talent for chemistry.

Now comes the hardest part of all.

When she was first given this talent, she was hardly appreciative. It was, she thought, useless. There are many things that can be done with the power to duplicate your body, but they don’t work if that body vanishes as soon as you are no longer touching it. Eventually, though, frustration gave way to determination and she discovered that there was a loophole.

Do these bodies share a soul between them, or will she, when she goes to Heaven, see her face there several times over?

Zahra takes out a piece of sangak flatbread from the inner pocket of her jacket and sets it on the floor directly in front of her. Beside it, in a little pile, is the half-gram of amygdalin that she extracted. Others would be content with calling it cyanide.

Kneeling, she closes her eyes, holds out her hands, and wills that her talent be used. No sooner does she will it, than someone is holding her left hand.

Once, she was tempted to do this a third time and form a circle. She is not sure whether it would be a temporal reflection or blasphemous mockery of God’s threefold nature to do so, and she has so far held back. Still, she cannot help but feel that she is closer to God now than at any other time.

Finally, Zahra opens her eyes. Both of her gasp at the same time, one out of horror and the other out of sympathy. She has done this several times before, always wondering what she would see this time and now… She almost falls to the floor, but the other Zahra, the one who is still sitting in front of the sangak and the amygdalin, catches her.


“Hush,” whispers the other Zahra, the one that is going to live. “Do not fear: I am with you,” she quotes softly. “I will strengthen you, I will help you. I will uphold you with my victorious right hand,” she says.

It happens every time, and she knows from experience that there is nothing to do but ride out the shock. “R-Remind me,” she whispers.

“We do it for our friends.”

Fear is just more chemistry, but her shoulders shake anyway. “Remind me.”

“God is with us.”

It is never easy. She knows, for she remembers, that it’s hard just to watch and be left behind. Her faith, however great it might be, is not enough for her to face death without any fear at all. But she can do this, and so she must. Her fate is sealed, anyway: if she lets go of the first Zahra, then she will simply vanish. The only way to keep her body from vanishing is to make it something other than herself, which is to say: she has to die. Then there will be just a corpse, because her soul has gone to Heaven or rejoined the other Zahra, and the corpse will remain.

In her heart she offers a prayer to God: to thank Him for this talent that He has bestowed upon her, to ask for forgiveness if she is misusing it, to ask for the strength that she needs to see this through. “I am ready,” she says.

Her left hand is still held by the first Zahra, but they each have one hand free. Together they take the sangak and break it into two parts. “This is my body, which will be given for you; do this in memory of me,” they say together. “This is the bread of life, and he who eats it will never die.”

As it was recorded in the Gospel of John: Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these. She cannot sacrifice herself for the whole world, but her body can be butchered, prepared, and offered up to save a few–and was it not said, that whosoever should save one, it is as though the whole world had been saved?

She can do this thing, and so she must.

“What reason do I have to be afraid of death?” she asks as she spreads the amygdalin on her half of the sangak. “God is with me, and I am merely going home.”

“In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful,” says other Zahra.

It is sour and bitter, with a hint of almonds.

4 thoughts on “Not Too Small, ch. 3: Zahra Ghorbani

  1. Typo:
    “that it hard just to watch and be left behind.”
    Maybe “that it’s hard”?

    Also, holy shit this chapter was intense. Congratulations for writing such a thing and thank you for sharing it with us.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh no, typos! Thank you for pointing that out.

      And thank you so, so much for your feedback (and for so many comments, too; you’re my new favorite person right now!). I’m very happy that you liked this chapter.


  2. As a highly rational and also deeply religious person, wouldn’t she be concerned that she’s damning every copy she makes to hell? Suicide is a sin that can’t be confessed away.

    I’m also skeptical that a 14-year-old would be able to repeatedly butcher their own body. But this is a cool enough chapter, and Zahra is an intense enough girl, that I can accept it.


    • What I was trying to get across (and will make clearer in a future revision, since I evidently failed) is that she views herself as a martyr rather than a suicide in the sinful sense. After all, Jesus killed himself (via inaction and, arguably, setting up the circumstances of his death) and he turned out fine, and she’s intentionally following his example.


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