Hammer and Nail by Siamak Vossoughi

When he became a father, the only thing that Massoud Havadesi was scared of was the opportunity it presented him with to impose his own will. He was not scared of the love he felt for his son and he was not scared of the uncertainty of how he would provide for him, both of which were considerable. The only thing he feared was the presence of a power that he had always fought against, the power to tell another man who to be.

He would look at his son when he was a boy and he would feel a thing that he had seen in kings. Kings and generals and church leaders and company presidents. A thing he had even seen in the warden of the prison he had sat in for defying them all. It was a thing that took a hammer to what was inside another man. It came from a belief that a hammer was the tool to be used for that, to shape him permanently.

The world was a hammering place, a man could tell himself, and so when he used it on a boy, he was helping him to see what the world was. He was helping him to see what it was as gently as he could. Massoud never raised a hand to his son. The power he felt coming up in him at those moments of disobedience or disrespect was enough. He wanted to make sure that if that power was a hammer, he did not swing it wildly. And he did not swing it to rid himself of the feeling of being swung against.

And so in those moments his son saw the power and the gentleness as well. He saw authority in the way his father had sought to be the author of a new story, apart from kings, wholly disregarding of kings of any kind, kings of countries and kings of households, because a king was a man who had stopped trying. When his father raised his voice, Massoud’s son saw that he had been trying very hard that day. He could hear the battle in his father’s voice, the same battle he had fought against men who believed they were already on the victors’ side before anything had even happened yet, men who believed they lived on the victors’ side, meaning that the inhabitants of the other side were just as bound to theirs.

There was something beautiful in those moments when his father addressed the boy’s behavior, because his whole story emerged, and the boy saw that that story was just as alive even when the days of revolution and prison had passed. It was just as alive and he was a part of it. He felt included in something greater than their block and their house when his father reprimanded him, because the reprimand had a weight to it that went back to nations and their destinies. And the boy saw his father’s fear, his fear that all his heat that was meant for shaping one nation’s destiny would come out to a little boy.

It’s all right, the boy wanted to say, I know that fire is directed towards the world, not towards me.

What Massoud was really saying to his son each time was: This is no way to start a new and decent country. And that is the only thing worth trying to do. Even after they left their country for a new place, the principles were the same. Massoud did not know where a man was supposed to start if not with his son. And yet for all that, Massoud watched his son and saw that he was his own man. He watched the boy look at birds and trees and ants, and he saw that on the other side of that fire was a great silence, a silence that respected the mystery and wonder the boy felt towards life, and that served as a home for his hopes and dreams by being accepting of them whatever they were.

And the boy watched and saw that a man was not a hammer. At least that was not all he was. He saw that a man kept his heart alive by the way he stayed suspended between a hammer and a nail. There was what Massoud said – which was that the world was a hammering place, especially the new place they had come to, and the boy ought to think practically of his life and his future – but there was more importance for the boy in what Massoud did – which was to stay suspended between those two more gracefully than anyone he had ever seen. I want to make something of that grace, the boy thought, so that it will be recorded in time, and men will know that it is possible to make a nation out of that. If it is possible to make a man out of it, then it is possible to make a nation out of the notion that a man is not a hammer or a nail.

He did not know what that nation would be, but he knew that it would be a place where anything that was worth communicating was first demonstrated, where there wasn’t a single expectation placed on anyone by someone who didn’t expect it of themselves first. And the boy knew that if he was going to do it, he had to start with himself first, which meant art.

He wanted to make something, to have something to show them as a way of saying what a man could be. The purpose of art was to catch that space between a hammer and a nail, to freeze it, in order to show that it was vast, and that it could be made vaster, as long as it had everyone’s effort.

He didn’t know at first why everyone was of such concern to him. You write a book, or you paint a painting, or you act in a play, and a certain number of people see it, but that number is very small compared to everyone. And yet they were foremost on his mind when he sat down to work because he wanted to live up to them. What was so great about everyone? He didn’t know that it was the thought of everyone that had saved Massoud when he was in prison. There was a certainty to prison in the way it was the furthest a man could go for everyone short of death. He had needed everyone to get through.

Was a man a hammer or a nail in prison? Certainly the world had thought of him as a nail. But he had never laughed the way he had there. He had never loved the way he had there. He had never seen another man as his brother simply for sharing the same space as he had there.

When the boy set out to make something, he felt the world laughing at him for being a nail as well. The boys who were on their way to being hammers were already working on it. It was easier at that time for the boy to know what he wasn’t, and he knew that he was not a hammer like them. It was when he looked at his father that he saw that the last thing that meant was that he had to be a nail.

So the boy went into his own kind of prison cell, self-imposed, and in there he learned about laughter and love and seeing another man as his brother. He became a young man in there, and in there he learned why something he made ought to live up to everyone. That was the only time they were devoid of hammers and nails. If his work could include everybody and exclude nobody, then he was keeping that nation alive.

Massoud worried for his son. This new place that we’re in, it doesn’t care about these things, he told his son. I have seen how it treats those who don’t understand this. I have seen how it treats those who try to follow art.

His son smiled. Even in his worry his father was thinking of those whom the world saw as nails. He loved them and did not want his son to join them at the same time.

I can’t tell you how strong I’ve felt in that room by myself, his son thought. I can only try to show you. And he tried, and Massoud did see that his son cared about the same things he cared about. And sometimes he saw it in his son’s work, and he felt very good and he hoped that it would all come to something, but it was difficult to keep that belief going because he knew how hard it was.

His son stayed in his room as his own youth went by. Massoud watched him and thought that he should not have watched him all those years ago when the boy would look at birds and trees and ants. He should have brought him inside and made him learn something useful, a trade or a craft, something that people actually needed. He should have done what other men he knew had done – tell their sons that their choice was to be a doctor or an engineer. How were they supposed to know what they should be doing? Those boys were just boys.

He kept those thoughts to himself, until one day when he tried again with his son, this time without any power, only with gentleness.

Do you know, he said, that I never wanted to be one of those fathers who acted like a dictator in his home?

Yes Pop, his son said, I know.

Maybe I was wrong, Massoud said. He said it to the world, not to make his son feel guilty. They were past that now.

I don’t think you were wrong, Pop.

I knew some men like that. They would tell me about it. I would just smile and listen.
I’m lucky for that.

I don’t know. Massoud smiled.

For what it’s worth, Pop, you gave me a lot in not being that way. You gave me plenty.

I don’t know. Anyway it’s you I’m worried about. You are letting your days of being a young man go by. You shouldn’t be spending them alone in your room like this.

There are some people who have to figure a few things out before they can do all that other stuff, Pop.

What do you have to figure out?

What a man is.

What a man is? You can’t figure out what he is in your room. You have to go out and do it.

What do you think he is?

A man? A man is nothing by himself. He is everything with others around him.

Thanks Pop.

Make that space between a hammer and nail big enough for everybody, the boy thought. Treat them as though that is where they want to live too, even if they don’t know that they do. You have been very lucky to have known a man who lives there. You have been very lucky to have had him as your father. Now take that space and stretch it. Every day. Stretch it until they see how easy it is to step inside of it themselves. And if they do, it won’t be unfamiliar to them. They’ll remember it from somewhere. They’ll remember that they go back to before hammers and nails. And so they might go ahead to after them too. It’s the place your father was working for. Keep at it, the young man thought, and hopefully he will see that it is the place you are working for too.
Siamak Vossoughi was born in Tehran and grew up in London, Orange County, and Seattle. He lives in San Francisco. He has had some stories published in Faultline, Fourteen Hills, Glimmer Train, The Missouri Review, and Washington Square. He is a recipient of the 2014 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. His short story collection, Better Than War, will come out in September 2015.