The Grand Prime Minister Ayatollah of Iran was still sleeping when Hassan tiptoed into his room with his morning tea, taking extra care not to knock the sugar cubes off their perfectly balanced lattice arrangement on the lacquered tray. He set it down gently on the thick walnut dresser and, hesitating, shook the Grand Prime Minister Ayatollah gently.
“Sir? Sir,” Hassan asked in a voice barely above a whisper.
“Mhmhph,” the Grand Prime Minister Ayatollah answered, coming out of his dreams. He scratched the night cap off his head and rubbed his eyes and then his chin. He hadn’t shaved in several days, since his meeting with the Russians, and his beard was starting to come in again. “Hassan, is that you?”
“Yes, sir. ” Hassan hesitated and wondered if he should have let the Grand Prime Minister Ayatollah sleep in.
“Good of you to wake me, Hassan. Today’s an important one. Have you got the Vizier Senior Councillor on the phone yet? We need the Majils to meet. We’re attacking Israel today. It’s a Leap Year, you know.”
Hassan furrowed his brow. In his fifteen years of service for the Grand Prime Minister Ayatollah, he’d heard of a lot of things, but a Leap Year wasn’t one of them. In his fifteen years, he’d also learned never to ask questions or look stupid. He would find out from one of the Scholars in the Ayatollyal Library what a Leap Year was.
“Your chai is ready, and your nan e-sangak is right there on the tray, sir. Call me up when you’re ready for your day. You have three cabinet meetings and then your daughter’s piano recital.”
“Thank you, Hassan,” the Grand Prime Minister Ayatollah waited until Hassan had shuffled softly out of the room and picked up his cell phone. “Abassi, good morning. Yes, I slept well, thank you. Now, about the Dog-” he broke off and got out of bed and into his dressing gown, rifling through his closet for the suits. Where would his wife keep his best one? He was lost when Firouza was travelling. ”Yes, let’s have the meeting in half an hour. We already agreed on this, remember? This is Priority Code I1. Gather all the generals. Yes, yes, it’s really happening-” and he hung up with an impatient sigh. This business of gathering the ministers was really like herding cats. Getting them to take any action took forever, even if he was technically the grand dictator. The only thing he could really control was the temperature of his chai, and even today it seemed like Hassan had let it cool a little.
He found his suit and got dressed, admiring himself in the full-length mirror by the window. Italy may have been infidel bastards, but they knew what they were doing when it came to menswear.
Hassan came in again quietly, bringing the papers,Corriere della Sera,Al Arabiyya, Pakistan Times, and HaAretz, brought in a brown paper bag, the masthead blackened out, like illicit liquor, but the Grand Prime Minister Ayatollah didn’t need to read them. He knew what they said. Israel was going to attack sometime later today. It was a Leap Day in a Leap Year, and they were going to do something new, something they’d been talking about for months. But, Iran was going to attack, too. Because it was a Leap Year. And Iran was going to do something new, as well.
The Grand Prime Minister Ayatollah folded the papers under his arm and went down the luxuriously wide staircase, the ancient Persian sunlight streaming into the large grand windows, down another flight of stairs, and down a third. The stairs were getting narrower and narrower and more of the household staff started appearing in the hallways. On the fifth flight of stairs, cobwebs started appearing on the banister, and the stairs themselves were slippery and tarnished. The Grand Prime Minister Ayatollah wrinkled his nose and pulled a hankercheif out of his pocket that he used to hold onto the railing.
Finally, seven stories down he paused and took a breath in the gloom. He turned into a narrow hallway, wrinkling his nose at the smell of mildew coming from the reams of paper in the narrow rooms. There was a pool of water steadily accumulating by a grand wooden door that stood out from the rest, and he paused a minute to check his hair in it, making sure not one had fallen out of place since his descent. Hassan came up behind him, handing him a pile full of briefing notes.
He took a deep breath and pushed in the door, which creaked faintly, but gave easily, considering how heavy it was. As he entered the room, twelve men, all equally impeccably dressed, stopped the argument they were in the middle of, and stood up. ”Good morning, Grand Prime Minister Ayatollah,” they all echoed in unison, and the greeting echoed in their teacups. Hassan came in behind him.
The room was old, it was obvious, but it was well-kept. Cabinets of books lined the sides, but the front was equipped with the latest in TV-projection technology. Computers blinked ambiently with amber light in the corners and on the table, where each ornate china cup of tea had a MacBook sitting quietly beside it. The mood was serious.
“Gentlemen, let’s begin,” the Grand Prime Minister Ayatollah sat down and there was a synchronized shuffle to find seats.
“Today is Leap Day, gentlemen,” he said, “It’s time to do something we’ve never done before. Today is the day we stop talking rhetoric and regain the glory of the Persian empire. It’s time we stop being emasculated by the world with silly sanctions and back-room politicking. Today is the day we attack Israel. But it’s Leap Day and we’re not doing anything the same way, and we won’t do it the way they expect. Yes, we have our nuclear weapons, but they’re waiting for that.”
Abassi raised his thick eyebrow. “So what are you suggesting, Grand Prime Minister Ayatollah?” He asked, with a trace of nervousness. The room shuffled uncomfortably.
“Gentlemen, as we speak, there is an army of ten thousand of Iran’s finest soldiers amassed on the border of Fazedahstan and Iraq, ready to march across Jordan and into Israel. The Syrian civil war provides a nice diversion, and-”
“But I thought Fazedahstan didn’t exist anymore! That country was wiped out of existence during the Third Gulf War?” Kazemi burst out, almost standing up in his excitement.
“But it does. And that’s where we’ve been training our Warriors,” the Grand Prime Minister Ayatollah said evenly, but with a note of triumph. ”They can march all night and all day, and then there are the SuperFords we got from the American government. They’ll be in Tel Aviv in notime-by sundown-and we’ll have gotten rid of the Zionists once and for all.”
There was a general hubbub of excitement and all of the Vizier Cabinet Members started shouting out questions, as much to each other as to the Grand Prime Minister Ayatollah, and Hassan used the moment to slip away quietly. He went up two sets of stairs, to the left, down a short hallway, and into a room so small no one seemed to notice its existence. Hassan looked around the hallway and disappeared into the room.
It was windowless and filled with stale cigarette smoke. A bucket stood in the corner to catch leaks and three file cabinets tried to make room for each other. Camouflaged among the bureaucracy was a man so handsome you’d be startled to think he belonged among the cobwebs.
“Yesh baiyah,” Hassan said to the man curtly in Hebrew. There’s a problem.
“Ani yodea. Gam lanu yesh baiyah.” I know, the handsome man said, we also have a problem.
“What is it,” Hassan asked.
“Tel Aviv is marching on Iran tonight,” the handsome man replied.
Hassan didn’t blink. “Iran is marching on Tel Aviv as soon as they finish the meeting.”
The handsome man looked at him with piercing black eyes.
“Then we have no time to waste.” He reached under the desk for a pistol he’d been waiting to use for months.
Hassan moved to block his arm. “No, not today. Today is a Leap Day, and we must let the events unfold as they will. ”
The handsome man wrinkled his perfect aquiline nose in distaste. “What is a Leap Day?”
Hassan hesitated, for the first time in his life. “Mahfouz in the library says it’s opposite day, doing something new day, a day for risks. The Grand Prime Minister Ayatollah announced that today was the day to take Tel Aviv instead of just talking rhetoric about it. There are ten thousand men in-”
The handsome man toyed with the gun impatiently. “That’s what the Knesset Minister Deputy Friend said, too. But I’ve never heard of this…Leap Day. What happens if you violate the rules?”
Hassan shifted his weight to the other leg. “I don’t know-” and paused in mid-sentence, a horrified expression coming over his face. The handsome man noticed it, registered, and fear started creeping over his face for the first time in his life.
“The Hebrew calendar doesn’t have a Leap Day, ” he said, just as Hassan said, “The Persian calendar doesn’t have a Leap Day,” at the same time.
“There will be millions of people killed if we don’t stop this,” the handsome man said, regaining his composure. He shook his head, as if clearing his brain. “Where did you say they were marching from? You can send a signal to the Base Camp Operation Leader-he knows Esfariadzeh-and stop it from your side. I’ll have to get through to Golani somehow and tell him to call it all off. We really went too far with this one-”
“Fazedahstan,” Hassan said, and composed himself as well. He would have a monumental undertaking ahead of him. He glanced at his watch. Fifteen minutes until the meeting let out.
“Fazedahstan,” the handsome man said, exhaling unsteadily. “That’s where the Israeli troops are, too. They’ve been training in secret in Fazedahstan for the past-”
“-four years,” Hassan completed his sentence.
They looked at each other in a silence that seemed to last for decades.
The handsome man opened his mouth. “Run,” he mouthed more than said, and they both seemed to reach the door at once before they were halfway down the hallway, down four flights of stairs, and into an elevator. Hassan heard the meeting letting out behind him, but there was no time.
The elevator went quickly, past floors that Hassan knew existed in theory, but had never tried out. They reached floor fifty and opened the door to the roof in a howling wind. The sun was shining oddly over Tehran and Hassan saw the Alborz mountains more in his mind than around him. There were four helicopters on the roof and Mahmoud was nonchalantly cleaning one of them for the Grand Prime Minister Ayatollah’s arrival that afternoon.
The handsome man shot Mahmoud quickly and the little janitor went down without a sound. Hassan looked at the handsome man, terrified. “You didn’t have to,” he said as the handsome man rifled nonchalantly through Mahmoud’s key ring, careful not to get his fingers in the blood pooling on Mahmoud’s shirt. The handsome man found what he was looking for and stepped over the body, not looking at Hassan. “Ten million lives are at stake.” He broke into the gleaming new Maseraticopter and gave Hassan a hand.
Soon they were over the Persian Gulf, glimmering under the sun, and the sharp ridges of Tehran gave way to the gentle sloping fields of the breakaway republic of Fazedahstan. Hassan looked grimly over the scene, expecting to see the two armies locked in combat then and there. There was not a soul on the ground, but the plains did seem to be dotted with houses more than he remembered. He looked at the handsome man. The man’s expression hadn’t changed, but Hassan could also tell he was confused. How had two countries completely lost two armies as easily as they lost nuclear weapons?
The handsome man piloted the helicopter to a wooded copse near a group of thatched houses and reloaded his gun. He adjusted his military boots and motioned for Hassan to come with him. “We have to find out what’s going on. Where are the armies?” Hassan followed him out of the vehicle and wished, not for the first time, that he had brought his own gun.
The handsome man knocked on the first door of the group of houses. A woman with deep brown eyes and hair in curlers opened the door, and seeing the handsome man, dropped the coffee cup she was holding.
“Yair,” she said simply.
The handsome man stood still.
“Yafa,” he said. “You’re dead.”
“You’re dead, too,” she said.
“That’s what they told me,” Yair said. “They said you died in Operation Twisted Branch.”
“They told me you died in Gaza,” Yafa said.
“What is this,” Yair asked.
Yafa looked at him, eyes full of the passage of time, and pulled him down to kiss her. The handsome man put his fingers in her hair as they embraced and held her for eternity. At that moment, a baby started crying.
Hassan, at first cautious, was now more confused and alarmed than ever.
Yafa looked around and ushered them into the house.
“What is this, Yafa,” Yair asked, stunned. The baby continued to cry in the background.
“It’s Operation Twisted Branch,” Yafa said, simply, her hands folded across her lap.
“That was in Iraq,” Yair said.
“What used to be Iraq,” Yafa said. ”Now it’s Fazedahstan. They sent us here four years ago, all ten thousand of us. “Do you remember the day we said goodbye-” she broke up and looked away from him.
Yair softened. “I should have left the army when they said we couldn’t be married and serve together. Them and their bullshit rules,”
“That’s not why, Yair,” Yafa said, softly. “They planned this operation on the last Leap Year. They were going to invade Tehran, they said on Leap Year, you do everything different, everything new-”
Hassan was beginning to understand,” But that’s when our troops left, too, at the same time-”
Yafa nodded. “And we met in the middle. And the commanders decided that instead of fighting each other, we would marry each other, for the sake of the Leap Year. And here we are, a leap year later, married, ” she sobbed.
Yair stood up with rage. “So this whole time, you’ve been married to another man, having another man’s children, with no word to me of any of this-”
“How could I tell you?” Yafa bawled, losing her composure. “I didn’t know where you were. I thought you were dead. They held a gun to my head as I married Hossein, and now we have a child, neither Persian or Israeli, neither of anything. We’ve negated each other as a people,just so we follow the Leap Year. ” she broke down into hysterics, and Yair paced the room.
“You know there’s no such thing as Leap Year in either the Hebrew or Persian calendar,” he shouted at her, getting angrier as he paced. “They’ve been making you live a lie for the last four years, Yafa. ” Her eyes became wide and hollow and hopeless.
“And this year, they were going to have you march on each other and kill each other, just for fun.”
“Let’s stop this, Yair. Put an end to all of this so we can all go free and go home. Make the government let us live in peace.”
Yair held her, stroking her hair for a long time.
“These governments and their damn Leap Years and their plans. Ruining whole lives when they don’t know what they’re doing. We’ll fix this, Yafa, right?” The unadressed question was addressed to Hassan, who was becoming more disgusted and startled by the minute.
“Yes. This is wrong.”
At that minute, Hossein walked in. Hassan gasped. It was his brother.
“What are you doing, Yafa,” Hassan asked calmly.
Hossein looked at Yair, at Yafa, and at Hassan, and, without a moment’s thought, shot Yair neatly in the heart.
Yafa’s face became expressionless.
The Grand Prime Minister Ayatollah walked in behind him, dressed nattily in full military regalia.
“Glad you’re here, Hassan,” he said, adjusting his cufflinks. ”Looks like the reversal of the last Leap Year plan is beginning smoothly, just as planned.”
“But there is NO leap year in the Hebrew and Persian calendars,” Hassan heard himself saying as he heard shots ringing out from the open window, including the one from Yafa’s gun to his head.