Isfahan, Central Iran – February 1980

Kerrin O’Sullivan was a 2016 Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship recipient. 

During her time at the Wheeler Centre, Kerrin worked on a novella as part of a collection of travel-themed short stories exploring longing, the meaning of home, dislocation and alienation, cultural displacement and identity. The novella follows the story of a disparate group of young travellers backpacking overland from Kathmandu to London in 1979 who travel into Iran in the early days of the Islamic Revolution. This is an extract from the work in progress.

It was still pitch black when they drove out through the gates to search; the dawn had not yet broken. In the Kombi’s rear vision mirror, the campsite was as empty as when they had arrived, as empty of tourists as the whole of Iran had been since the revolution, since the Shah had fled and Ayatollah Khomeini had returned from exile to rule – or so Hassan, the campsite manager, had said when he’d checked them in. Only the second Kombi remained, incongruous in the deserted car park, awaiting their return, beside the old concrete washhouse.

Once on the open road, Roy hit the accelerator, following the ribbon of cracked asphalt out towards the desert, peering through the gloom for the turn-off to the Atashgah ruins.

Once on the open road, Roy hit the accelerator, following the ribbon of cracked asphalt out towards the desert, peering through the gloom for the turn-off to the Atashgah ruins. They were weary from the previous evening’s search, and ragged with worry; no one had slept. And now, drawing nearer to the site of their friend’s disappearance, there was an adrenalin of panic.

The headlights of the Kombi swept a golden arc in the blackness as Roy swung a U-turn, pulling up sharp, and skidding in the loose gravel.

‘Easy, easy,’ came a voice from the back. ‘You want to kill us?’

‘No, mate. Nearly missed it,’ Roy said, nursing the van as it bumped along the beaten earth. ‘It’s not as if there are streetlights. Or signs.’

‘Anyway,’ Mackie added. ‘If it was you stuck on a mountain all night, reckon you’d want us to fang it.’

They followed the rutted furrows of what had once been a track, and stopped, with the engine running. Spindly trees were cast otherworldly in the headlights’ gleam; straggly shrubs, misshapen. In front of them a hill rose sharply above the surrounding plain.

‘That’s where we started searching,’ Mackie said. ‘Till the darkness beat us.’ The headlights illuminated rough stone steps and a path winding up the hillside in deep shadow.

The headlights illuminated rough stone steps and a path winding up the hillside in deep shadow.

‘Must have been hairy coming down,’ Roy said, cutting the engine. The headlights dimmed and the path vanished again into the gauzy charcoal of pre-dawn.

One by one, the five of them clambered from the van; the chill stinging their cheeks as if slapped. ‘It’s bloody freezing,’ Mackie said, stamping his feet on the stony ground. He jammed his fists into his pockets. ‘Has to be sub-zero up there.’

The others nodded. Somewhere, unseen, a night bird screeched – a flurry of beating wings, then stillness again. The group gathered close, staring up at the peaks, their bloodshot eyes adjusting to the dark. Reluctant to start the climb, they stood, unspeaking, shifting from one foot to the other, rubbing their hands together in a ritualistic play against the cold. Gazing up to the inky crags that obscured the pinnacle where the Zoroastrian temple lay slowly disintegrating, where holy fires once burned in its towers on the sacred hilltop, a sort of desert lighthouse guiding the ancient caravans of the Silk Road through the velvety Persian night towards Isfahan. No fires burned now, no embers glowed. No guiding light beckoned in the night sky, to show them the way. Even the stars failed to flicker, smothered by cloud.

Reluctant to start the climb, they stood, unspeaking, shifting from one foot to the other, rubbing their hands together in a ritualistic play against the cold.

‘Okay,’ someone said. ‘Spread out.’

Torches clicked on, flickered grainy light.

‘No,’ Mackie said, his breath raspy. ‘Stick together. Till it’s lighter.’

Shards of icy crystal feathered the soil making the already steep track slippery. The scrape of boots on shale broke the silence, the glassy crunch of ice. Frost-covered gravel gave way under foot and little cascades of pebbles showered down in rivulets, on those behind. In single file they trod the path of the previous evening, then veered off towards unsearched territory, changing formation like fighter planes, re-aligning to ascend the slope in a line search, as someone swore they’d seen police do on TV news bulletins, back in Australia, combing forest for a lost child or a bushwalker gone AWOL. Little by little, within arms reach of each other, they circled the hillside, higher and higher. Blocked by boulders, escarpments, the soft collapse below their feet of what they could not see, they retreated, tacking backwards like a yacht in a race, then pushing forward again.

Every so often the swing of a torch’s yellow beam caught in its arc a face pinched and pale – or vapoured wisps of breath, gasped into visibility in the frozen air. Voices bleated, calling the name of their missing friend. Calling, listening. Calling again. Faint echoes of their own voices boomeranged back, bouncing off the silence. A frail wind whistled.

Faint echoes of their own voices boomeranged back, bouncing off the silence.

On a rocky shelf they came to a standstill and regrouped in the black cold, catching their breath, weighing risk. Ahead, the track ascended sharply, skirting a cliff edge and falling away to nothing.

‘There,’ Mackie said, pointing, his voice thin and high. ‘Over there.’ The watery yellow beam of his torch waivered above the crumbling track, skipping off stones and rock, then steadied on something. On the lip of the bluff, a glimpse of aqua.

‘Oh god,’ Roy said, edging closer to the ridge, dropping to a crouch. ‘Oh my god.’

Across the darkened valley, from a distant minaret, the wail of the muezzin rose, severing the dawn, ushering in the first blush of daybreak.

Portrait of Kerrin O’Sullivan

Kerrin O’Sullivan is an award-winning writer with a love of short fiction, creative non-fiction and faraway places. Her writings have appeared in various journals including Award Winning Australian Writing, Westerly, Kill Your Darlings, Southerly, The Victorian Writer, The Tishman Review (U.S) and Aesthetica (U.K); and her travel features in The Weekend Australian and The Age.

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