The Key – from ‘Waking Dreams’ by Mohammed Reza Gudarzi – 2011

Hamid was in the back seat, squeezed in. Mahmud sat next to me, singing along with the cellphone. I was trying to stay calm, my nerves shredded by the slippery road. Father said to me ‘In the cold and snowy time you’re going to the villa…!’ Mother said ‘What are you doing? Kids!”

Snow sat on the mountain sides that no evergreens were found on. Hamid said “I took the key from maman, she said to be careful.” I said “What did she mean?” “I don’t know, probably she doesn’t know, probably just like always.”

We brought along 2-3 days’ worth of food. The road is relatively quiet and winds through the white (landscape). The closer we get to Amal the busier it (the road) got. There was no snow there. Mahmud hits the dashboard and says “this is really strange!” We had eaten a late breakfast in order to delay lunch.

We arrived at the villa at four o’clock. There was electricity but not so much that we could get the car in. I said to Mahmud “Light a fire in the fireplace until we get things working”. I was done and Mahmud was gone but only the electric heater was working. I said “Does this mean that this heat is heating the house?” “Heck no! The fireplace has no firewood! We’ll need to go fetch some from the woodshed.” “So what are you waiting for? Can’t you bring it without me?”
“Were you born 6 months ago?” We went together and he opened the woodshed, but there was no firewood in it. “What happened?” “I don’t know, we always get it from there. It must be used up.” “If we don’t have any, we’ll freeze in the cold, we’ll have to go buy some.” Hamid and I are arguing. We see an old woman in front, who looked like she wanted to come inside. Her body’s really fat and her cheeks hang down. Her dim eyes do not see us. We say hello to her and ask her “Can we help you?” “No, sonny, I was just passing by here, and I saw that the light was on,I was bringing you warm regards from Mr. Sadiqi.” “And you are..?” “I’m Mohsoltan.” When she spoke, I imagined I saw her pink gums. I said “I don’t know them but they have a son,I.m their nephew.” “What about Mrs. Shirin? Isn’t she there?” “No, they’re in Tehran.” “Do you need anything?” “Honestly, we were going to get firewood.” “Mr. Sadiqi, God bless him, always has some firewood in his basement!” Her words were hard to understand but we guessed what she was saying. I said “Basement? Is there also a basement?” “Yes, it’s in the backyard. The key to the door is under a flowerpot with a broken edge.”

You’ve done us a great favor, Mahmud is really a stranger to this villa. There’s no wood anywhere.” “I returned. Hamid laughed and said “Good luck and sense are inherited in your family. Luckily Mahmud Da’qa hasn’t gone to a neighbor’s villa.” I opened the door and said “Mahmud! Where are you?”

His hatted head appeared: “Yeah?” “There’s some firewood hidden in a basement of their house.” “Basement? What do you mean?” “Ask Mrs. Mohsultan! She said that Mr. Sadiqi’s basement is always full of firewood.” “And who is Mohsultan anymore? Which basement?” Then I remembered that we neglected to say goodbye to the old woman and didn’t know which way she went. But I would’t do it by myself and said “You can say that again. This basement is supposed to be in the backyard, and the key is under the flowerpot with the broken rim.”

He gave up and went out to the backyard. The snow covered the ground and and its not clear where the door is. But under the roof there were three flowerpots with broken edges. I put my hand under one. An icy key was there. I said “Does anyone know where the basement is?” I felt a little dizzy. As far as I knew, the villa didn’t have a basement. I’ll just give Dad a call. Probably when we were in Tehran he’d told us. We didn’t pay attention or understand.

The cellphone was in the room; I called. Hamid and I go to the corner of the yard and kick a shoe around to see if we could find the basement. Mahmud returns. He’s frowning and looking sullen. “What happened?” “We should go back quickly.” “What’s that supposed to mean? What did he say?” “What did dad say you’re supposed to do here? Whose permission did you have to go? Don’t remain for one second. Return fast. Who am I to ask why? He didn’t give an answer,he just screamed. Didn’t you hear what I said?” Hamid and I laughed. “Sicko! You’re laughing?” “Uncle must be scared to go. I don’t know who this Mohsultan we saw is. Don’t worry about it; we can go back and buy a cord of firewood, not a quarter more.” We’d better go back .I was very busy thinking. Hamid said “Don’t stand there staring! Someone came and went, it’s over, don’t fight it anymore. Let’s go back, go back!” Mahmud stared across from us, quiet. “We have to do something.” Hamid said. “Reza and I will get firewood and follow up. You go to these villas with the pretext of looking for firewood, you find this old woman,do your job.” By the way Hamid says: “Tonight you can count on Mahmud.” When we return, the weather has gotten much darker. Mahmud walks into the room looking at us, and says: “What are you saying now, professors?” We’d gone to 5 or 6 villas on both sides. There are no footprints on the snow. We didn’t see any lights, no one ran outside to open the door.” “That doesn’t prove anything, maybe they took their cars.” At that moment, Mahmud’s cellphone rang. He looked at us and said:”It’s Dad; how many times has he called.”Turn off your phone or leave it on silent.” It’s getting on our nerves. I put a few pieces of firewood in the fireplace and lit it with alcohol. Mahmud thought, lifts his head and asks: “What do you think we should do?” “What do you mean, we should do?” “In the case of this old lady.” “We don’t have to do anything, we haven’t knocked all the snow out of the way yet We’ll go get some firewood; this evening, we’ll stay, and in the morning, decide what to do.” Hamid said “I agree!” I bent down to blow on the fire. It’s six o’clock. Finally, Mahmud turns off his cellphone.

Hamid closes his eyes and says: “In the end we didn’t understand what the old woman’s case was.” When he mentioned the old woman I remembered the key. I put my hand in my pocket – it wasn’t there. I tried my other pocket – it wasn’t there, though I’m sure it’s in my pocket, as Mahmud asked “Don’t you have the key?” I said “No!” “Just a joke” Hamid said. “Some thief probably has it”. The old woman was sent to suss out the situation, so it is not advisable to leave an empty house; it would be better if Mahmud called uncle tomorrow to contact the caretaker. When he came, we could leave.

Hamid said: “We’re hungry, we didn’t have lunch, it wouldn’t be bad to put something in the pot.” Mahmud said: “Someone crush the tomatoes and I’ll do the rest.” He goes to the kitchen, I go there too. The food isn’t ready yet. We heard Hamid’s cry “Stop there!” “ I went back and asked “What’s up?” He came to the doorway and said “Someone at the window, I saw myself they drew back.” “A man or a woman?” “They were just there, I just saw a shadowy shape.”

I go outside and he goes behind me. There was no one in the yard. The cold burned. We returned, and he said “Where’d he go?” I pointed at Hamid and said “They’ve come looking for uncle!”Mahmud looked at Hamid. Hamid said “Never mind!” “What’s the end?” “Nothing, man! Let’s have some fresh tea, smoke a cigarette.” Mahmud said “Maybe it was a chicken?” Go outside. I close my eyes, go outside. Soon comes the sound of screaming and breaking. I quickly get back into the kitchen. Mahmud is sitting on a chair and not talking. I asked “What happened?” He looked at the window. I went to the window and pressed my forehead against it. Nothing was clear. I put my hands on my face. Now in the half-lit white yard, I see something like footprints, footprints that wound around behind the building. I held my face. I didn’t know what to say. Hamid came into the kitchen too. Mahmud calmly said: “Someone ran to the window.” I saw his fingers clearly, they were red. When I went out, there was no one there.”

Hamid looked at me, to see if I was looking, he said “Did you see?” I said “It’d be best to go into the yard and see what’s happening.” We went outside. There were a trail of small footprints visible in the snow. We stared at the footprints, without moving or speaking. They went around behind the building, into the backyard. Hamid said “Let’s not waste time; collect the stuff and go now.”

I said “Could this all be part of a thief’s plan?” “I don’t think this is a matter of a thief. Dad himself wouldn’t say to come back soon.” I said let’s go into the backyard and take a look. And I went ahead myself. I’m trying not to ruin the footprints. Come back, see what they’re doing, make them leave by force. There was a man with a boy, 6 or 7 years old, sitting barefoot in the snow and staring at us. It is just as if their skin is cut all over. Fresh blood shines through the flesh. He silently folds his legs and gazes at us. As he shakes, and extends his hand toward us, a sound like throaty laughter comes from all three of us. Quickly we return. Our hands were prickling , without thoughts we drew in our hands. Hamid’s feet slipped and he fell, Mahmud also fell. I shout and run to the door. My mind isn’t working – I go to the side of the car so I can switch it on. They both run after me. We have one rope. My hand trembles as I try to put the key in the switch. Finally, the car turns on. I give it gas. The tires rotate in the snow and the car doesn’t move forward. The two sitting in back look behind them. Their shoulders are shaking. I give the car gas slowly this time. The car moves away from the villa. I don’t want to look behind me. But the two are there just as they look outside. At once they both shout at the same time.