The Woman Behind the Door (1950)

Kenny has been translating old Iranian short stories into English in his free time in the hopes that more readers will be able to enjoy these intriguing stories. This is his latest translation. 

Originally in Farsi by Ahmad Shamlou

Translated by Khashayar Mohammadi (Kenny)

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Photo from WallpapersCraft

 You would take me as a madman if I said that I couldn’t recall the cause of this event… thus I will do my best to recall everything-exactly the way it happened to me-and write it for you. You would have to make your own judgment after you read it. You will break it down and make something of it. Thereby I hope to find some sense of reality within this fiendish event… Thereby I hope to understand this adventure of mine…

Imagine a mirror. A mirror with its mercury scraped off.

I have said this once before, I will always say it, because unfortunately there is nothing in this world I live in, that resembles me more than a mirror with its mercury scraped off…

I will always say it, because the only image that I possess, from this frail spirit of mine, is what I have just mentioned to you…

Imagine a mirror with its mercury scraped off and therefore, the mirror no longer reflects thoroughly.

The only thing that has kept me like a mirror all these years, is the tolerance of my soul, is the endurance of my mercury, not the bluntness of the gruesome dagger that is “destiny”.

In dream, or reality (I can’t recall if I was asleep, or if I was awake. I can’t recall if someone narrated this to me or if I was the skeptic protagonist of this adventure) anyhow, this is the tale that I will now describe for you.

I can’t recall if I dreamt of this event, or if I was the drunk protagonist of it, in this sober, lucid world of yours. Maybe someone has whispered the tale in the depths of my subconscious.

I don’t know…

I don’t know…

Like I said before, they have scratched my soul; they have scraped the mercury off of it. When they saw they couldn’t defile it, when they saw they couldn’t taint it, they scraped the mercury off of it. So you shouldn’t be surprised if you see that the only thing reflected from the leftover shards of this rotten, shabby mirror of mine, is an unreal, irrelevant, vague image.

No Wonder…

No Wonder…

It wasn’t my first night in this stone crypt, deep in the heart of the forest, far from humanity, hidden in this disoriented forest full of thorns and raspberry bushes that could smother you to death. It wasn’t my first night. But life was treating me so well out there that I had completely lost track of months, weeks, days or even hours.

I had a small chalk candle that I didn’t want to light.

I would spend the night in darkness, thinking. The darkness helped me fall into a deep trance… Why not? Day and daylight didn’t let me think. My eyes would always seek what daylight showed me, and before I knew it, I would forget my purpose, I would become oblivious, I would diverge from myself, and I would go towards the unknown, towards the outside, towards what was no longer “Me” and it was only connected to “Me” through thought. I would become distant from myself… I would leave myself… Leave… and the day was over!

It was only night that my eyes would stop exploring and return to me. My eyes would return to me and throw me into the depths of “Myself”.

Therefore, my chalk candle was left in its bronze candlestick, right next to my bed. Completely useless.

Apart from this chalk candle, I had an axe in this crypt of mine.

This axe was the only thing I possessed, my only property.

This hideous axe had a brown spot on it. One drop of blood had dried on its blade. It was impossible to get rid of that horrible little stain. I had tried to get rid of it many times; with grindstones, with chemicals, with all kinds of legendary medicine that could only be found in ancient books of witchcraft and wizardry, but… nothing worked.

Nana-who was actually my mother’s nanny-came to me one day. I had wasted the whole day trying to get rid of that ridiculous little stain. She came in the room and said sarcastically:

“Don’t waste your time! This is all you have in the world. This axe with the stain on the blade… everything happens for a reason my child! When your father-may he rest in peace-doubted that you may be the neighbor’s child-you know, the next door neighbor’s good looking boy who would get drunk every night and sing ballads under your mother’s window-we were all trying to convince him that he was wrong but he just wouldn’t listen! He was watching you closely! One day he went mad and tried to strangle you in your sleep. Luckily your mother came with this axe and got rid of him quietly… then both of us dragged his body to the basement and dug him a grave with a hammer and a dustpan! And then we dropped his corpse in that god forsaken hole, without any prayer…Its all your fault! The instant you opened your mouth, the first thing you said was this poem that you would always sing in the basement:

May god strike me down with resentment

Where do they bury me? Right in the basement”

From that day onwards, I didn’t want to see Nana anymore. My most prized possession became this axe to which I became dependent…this axe with this stain on the blade…

I said “my possession” but I should have said “my history”, “my destiny”, because from that day onwards, I didn’t need to go back to the shelf, or look at the nail on the wall, or at any other place that the axe might have been, I just knew that the axe IS THERE, like a determined fate, like an order, like an eternal sentence. It is there as surely as I know that I am there…It exists as inevitably as I exist, and I realized that my heart was beating intensely, on the threshold of this confusing, puzzling palace, full of corridors and chambers to which there is no master!

I knew my axe was there, with the brown rusty blood stain that has decorated its blade, and that was all I needed to know. That was enough for me.

I EXISTED and my axe EXISTED too. It MUST exist, because one day, when a man-who insisted that no one but HIM was my father-tried to strangle me to redeem himself, it was this axe that was raised and quietly proved that I MUST EXIST.

That is why when I moved to this stone crypt in the middle of the forest, I brought my axe along like a necessity, like an ancestral curse, like my ridiculous fate, and the first thing I did was to nail an iron peg to the stone wall and hang the axe from the angle between the handle and the blade.

***

            I told you about the little chalk candle, but I can’t recall where it came from…

I also told you about the axe, also about the brown stain on the blade that wouldn’t go away, not with a grindstone, or any chemical whatsoever… but I didn’t tell you about my bed.

My bed was a stone bench with a cavernous surface, in the left corner of the crypt. It was carved right out of the crypt. I mean, it was carved right from the stone that the crypt was carved out of, as if someone had planned it before carving the stone.

It was a cavernous stone bench which was filled with straw and stubble. It was steep to a point that, in my first orientation of the crypt, I found out that when you sleep in it, it feels like you have been positioned towards the south. But this feeling wasn’t new to me, Nana once told me that when I was born, my feet were pointing to the south…

Nana once told me something even stranger than this:

“Son! The night that your father-may he rest in peace-and your mother were engaged, your grandmother-your father’s mother-was hitting herself and cursing everybody. She said: why did you use the room above the reservoir as a bridal chamber? and we all said: what’s with all the fuss? Its better if its pointed towards the south! Its good luck! But she said: No! Its bad luck! Don’t you remember what the fortune teller said? That gypsy woman? I asked: no, what did she say? And she wouldn’t tell me at first, but I insisted until she gave up and said: The gypsy has told me if they get married pointed to the south, their son would marry a dead woman!”

I started laughing. But Nana bit her hands nervously, frowned at me and then stormed out of the room

***

            That is all.

I was never superstitious, I never believed in destiny or fortune telling, but when I saw that my bed was pointed towards the south, even though I was not a stranger to this phenomenon, I couldn’t help but get suspicious. It seems like my feet were actually pointing to the south when I was born, my parents actually got engaged in the room above the reservoir that was pointing to the south, It seemed like I have spent my whole life in rooms pointing to the south, always sleeping towards the south.

Look, there are some things in life that can not be called “empathy” or other ridiculous words of this sort… I only started thinking about all these events long after they all happened. When these events actually happened, I didn’t spend a single minute thinking about any of them… it was only now that I had realized this stone bench was pointed to the south that I recalled all these pieces of information, that I was born towards the south, or the night of the engagement, my parents were in that damned room above the reservoir, or that I have spent all my life in rooms, and in beds pointing to the south!

***

            One other thing:

In the stone crypt, there was a big floor standing clock with a big pendulum, with its hands frozen on 2:13

I don’t know why I just remembered the clock, How could I have forgotten about the clock when I was talking about my dark fate?

Undoubtedly the heartbreaking story of my life, my dark destiny, has been written by the hands of Satan. It seemed like I had accepted living in this crypt by Satan’s personal order… I can feel his deceptive shadow, the seductive state of his existence, every single night. I am alone with him, and its only with him that I find company. The bitterness of my destiny poisons everything around me. I poison my time. My caresses are possessing. Everything sickens me and nothing cures me. To escape loneliness, I will search every corner…

Alone…

Alone…

Alone…

Listen you fools! This is the sound of my heart! This is the sound of my destiny!

I slowly become addicted to sedatives and tranquilizers, and I slowly add another pain to my painful life… One night, I spoke to Satan about this. He laughed and said: “there is a door that you need to open. That is your main task. That is your duty. You were brought to this world for this purpose. Don’t try to escape it.”

His voice was frank and steady, like destiny’s command.

***

            It was exactly 2:13

I woke up to the sound of the ticking of the old floor standing clock that was in the corner of the crypt, the one with its hands frozen on 2:13, I woke up to the sound of the clock.

The sound was very flat and abstract; but it was hitting my eardrums like the sound of pieces of pearls rolling on a slippery slope…

Tic…

Tac…

Tic…

Tac…

I woke up and sat on the top of the stone bench, right on top of the bed of straw and stubble.

The crypt was illuminated by a ray of moonlight that didn’t create any shadows. I looked at the clock; it was exactly 2:13. I felt a pleasant ecstasy running through my nerves. There was something other than blood flowing in my veins. I felt venom had penetrated my whole existence. I was enjoying being poisoned in the dream state that I was experiencing… The pleasure was in the sound of the ticking of the clock hitting my eardrums, in the blur light that didn’t create a shadow behind any object, in the thirst in my throat and in the only shadow moving in my room which I knew was the shadow of Satan himself, and I even felt pleasure in the fact that I was completely oblivious towards the presence of Satan in my room…

Satan’s shadow lines would disappear and reappear constantly.

The clock was ticking with all of its power.

Again I felt the delightful tingling ecstasy that was running under my skin, and Satan said to me:

“There is a door that needs to be opened…”

I laughed out loud until Satan started to laugh along with me, I laughed until tears came to my eyes.

Again, Satan said:

“There is no rush, but you will have to do it one day… You should make it your main duty in life. Don’t turn your back on it.”

I wiped my eyes-which were tearing due to the excessive laughter that I had done earlier-with the corner of my sleeve and said:

“I know.  I don’t want to hurry JUST to be done with it earlier. I don’t want to escape this task JUST to mess with you but… I’m scared! The truth is that an unnecessary fear has gotten hold of me. Maybe I’m scared of you… Not always, but sometimes it feels like I’m scared of you. Maybe its YOU that scares me… I deeply wish this door is opened soon. I wish for you to get out of this world that bores you beyond imagination, so that I can go my own way… look, I want you to try something, see if you can behead me with this axe… just try and see if you can do it…”

I can’t remember how long I must have talked… but I remember enough to know that I suddenly came to myself once I heard that the pendulum of the big floor clock suddenly stopped… I could still hear the ticking of the clock from somewhere outside the crypt, as if someone was dragging the clock away from the crypt.

And when I glanced towards the door I felt like there was an unknown ghost-like presence, a person, who is dragging his last remains after him, like a mummy that was brought to life with a spell, he was walking, and the bandages were being dragged behind him.

I looked at the clock, and I could hardly tell that the hands were frozen on 2:13

A small cloud passed over the little hole on the top of the crypt and revealed three stars-forming a triangle-that were shining in the dark night sky.

A gypsy rooster screamed from a distance.

The air was thick and full of sorrow.

With an extensive force-that certainly came from the fountain of my fear deep inside my soul-I ran towards the door but the door was closed. I remembered locking it before going to sleep. I recalled closing the latch for additional security.

I turned around and rested my back on the door. All my strength was taken away from my knees. I no longer saw anything inside the crypt. The crypt was pitch black. I saw gorgeous yellow spots with blue margins before my eyes. That was all I saw in this dark void. My legs started shaking and suddenly, I broke down on my knees. I tried to maintain my balance for a moment but… it was useless! My entire body leaned forward while I was waving y hands helplessly to find support…

***

            In the back of the crypt, there was a tunnel that went to the basement through a rotten, shabby staircase.

I should have mentioned this earlier, because these are the details of my life.

There were lots of useless items in this basement: a pile of sorcery equipment, a big rusty knife, a human skull, a dried crab and lots of other items…

I slowly explored all of these items.

There was a book no longer readable. For all I know it could have been Hebrew or Chinese or Indian…

There was a long chest that looked like a coffin. When I emptied the contents of the chest-mostly straw and stubble-I noticed that there was a statue of a naked woman underneath, sleeping safe and sound, like nothing extraordinary. First I wanted to break it, maybe because I was annoyed by its tranquility and peacefulness. But I realized breaking it would be futile if I was destined to marry a dead woman… After all this is nothing but a statue…

I filled the casket with all the straw and stubble again.

But that night, after Satan left, I ran to the door and fainted by the doorstep, in my last moments, I extended my arms to grab onto something, and I grabbed the knees of that same statue, the statue of the naked woman… I mean I suddenly realized that what I was holding was the knees of that marble statue of the naked woman.

A chill went through my spine and sweat poured out of my forehead.

My ear-which was close to her thighs-could hear the blood running through her livid veins, and the hateful throbbing of her heart beneath her heavy skin… I had a vision that she would grab onto my neck any minute; she could move her arms to avenge me any minute, for the lifetime she has spent in deprivation. Any minute, the vengeance of a thousand captive desires would penetrate my chest and squeeze my liver between her claws…

I woke up screaming, dropped the marble statue on the ground, crouched on the bed full of stubble, covered myself with a quilt, and listened to the shattering of the marble statue-that was moaning from the pain of exclusion and failure- until the sun came up, until I could hear the cry of the cows on their way to the meadow.

I said to myself:

“Who would ever believe this? Is it even important if anyone believes this? No! Tomorrow, when the sun comes up, I will collect the shards in a basket, and I will go to the swamp and dump everything there! To hell with her! I don’t care if no one believes me! I don’t even care if Satan doesn’t believe me too!”

But when morning came and the nightmares went away, when sunlight penetrated the crypt through the wooden planks and shined in my eyes through the slim fabric of my quilt, I threw the quilt away, and there was nothing left in the crypt! Nothing! As if nothing happened last night! The latch was in its place. I went forward and kicked the old clock. The pendulum hit the sides of the clock-through the cobweb-and made a hideous sound. A big spider ran away in fear and disappeared through the crack in the ceiling.

Was it just a nightmare? Do you think what I experienced was just a simple nightmare?

That day, I thought it was only a nightmare. I thought I just had a bad dream. Especially when I went to the basement to find the marble statue sleeping soundly under layers of straw and stubble. I was relieved. I laughed at myself and said:

“Its ridiculous! Everything is ridiculous here! Both my surreal thoughts and the things that Nana said to me!”

But I was tortured with this nightmare for eight years.

I escaped from the crypt many times and spent the night under the tall maple trees by the swamp. But even by the swamp, upon the arrival of the night-that decorated the night sky with stars-what I called nightmares would come to me again… that is why every time I went  back to the crypt, I would surrender to the terror of my painful fate.

I was locked outside the door.

My destiny has been written by Satan’s hands. What choice do I have but to tolerate it? I know that nothing can help me escape from this victimizing, persecuting prison, not god, not prayer nor anything else.

My hair grew and so did my fingernails. I had the appearance of a monk!

When the lumberjacks passed by my crypt, they would bite the back of their hands and say prayers, and if they saw me in the forest, they would change their path.

They would make up stories about me and my crypt.

They said I was a wizard. That my basement was full of bandaged corpses, that I was sleeping with fresh corpses of women that was brought to me by Satan from lands far away, that I got high on opium and hashish and spoke to unholy ghosts.

They said:

“In the night, he goes to the swamp in the search of a plant whose elixir gives eternal life”

Unfortunately, it was nothing of this sort! I am just a cursed being left alone by the person all of you call god. I was enslaved by Satan to act in the play of my own life. I must continue this play and-if the fortune teller was right-marry a dead woman in the end.

***

            One night-the last night-I said to myself: I will end this story. I will no longer be Satan’s weak puppet:

“Damn you all!”

I was awake the whole night, sitting on the edge of the stone bench, until the first movement of the pendulum of the big clock echoed in my ears and the crypt glowed in the moonlit night; and maybe until a certain time after that, until I felt the unholy domination of Satan in my veins, I was shouting repeatedly:

“Damn you all! You sinful shadow of Satan! Even you night-walking statue! Even this crypt, with this antique clock with its hands frozen on this damned eternity! Damn you all!”

Satan said:

“Your product has arrived! Your fruit! It’s time for harvest! You have achieved! You have accomplished!”

I laughed out loud. I laughed with all the pain that I had, with all the hate that I felt. I looked at him with grudge, squeezed my teeth together and said:

“Satan!”

Satan said:

“This is the last scene. It’s time for harvest…”

“You stubborn shameless bastard! I will break your spell! You have been torturing me with this boring, painful game for eight years… Tonight I will either end this, or I will end myself! One death, one burial! From this night onwards, either all, or nothing! Can you hear me? Either all or nothing!”

I took the little chalk candle that was besides my bed in its bronze candlestick, lit it and took it with me, I also took my axe and went to the basement through the tunnel:

“I will break your damn spell! Yes! I will break your damn spell!”

He came down with me to the basement. He repeated a sentence twice relentlessly:

“May you grow old with pride my son! Tonight is the night. It took some time. You were right. Yes. But there was nothing to be done, everything in it’s right time.”

His expression was serious. I couldn’t tell what was going on deep inside him, but he looked serious. Still, he looked a bit suspicious, like he wasn’t completely sure. He kept snooping around in circles. Sometimes forward, sometimes backwards. He had a vision of a terrifying accident that was about to happen any minute, but he just couldn’t believe it. When I arrived at the bottom of the shabby staircase, I felt like he wanted to say something, but when he saw me charging towards the coffin-like chest, he understood. He jumped in front of me, faced me, and said (while he was walking backwards, trying to block my path):

“Think my son! You don’t want to create trouble do you?”

“I will end this tonight. I will get rid of it TONIGHT. Tonight, either all or nothing!”

He said: “Listen son! All your life has led to this night. I have taken care of it in a way that you would get something out of this. Its unpleasant for me to think that all you got for spending all these years in agony-for me!-was just an eternal void… I have thought about it. I have taken care of it. Your reward would be worth tolerating a thousand years of agony. You will see! I did all of this just so that you would open this door for me, so that I can finally be liberated of this grief-stricken house of god. From this smelly, dark room that god has made for all you sinful beings. It could only be done by a person born towards the south…”

I looked upon his dark stature with hate. He turned around and his voice came from a distance saying:

“Thank you my son! Your reward will be love. What the enemy is deprived of and therefore, is scared of! Just open the door and collect your reward my son! May you grow old with pride!”

I emptied the chest from the straw and stubble. I felt a hellish force in my arms. An infernal river was flowing in my arms and legs.

I repositioned the handle of the axe in my hands.

He twisted around like a tornado, and his tall dark stature stood between me and the chest: “Don’t waste your time touching this statue! If you scratch it your whole life would be hell!”

I roared; “Worse than this?”

“Don’t ruin your life for nothing my son!”

I roared: “Worse than this?”

He twisted around, twitching and shouted:

“This is hatred my son! The poison brought by hell’s minions, be wise and spit this poison!”

I was ridden by the delightful pain that I was experiencing. I squeezed my teeth together and raised the axe.

“STOP!”

I hit the statue with all the power that I had in my body.

With the distant noise of the shattering of the statue, I heard a disappointed moan come from the bottom of the basement. Oh, how I have heard this moan from the depths of my heart and soul all throughout the long nights of my life.

Satan sighed and said:

“Shame on you son! You didn’t take my advice seriously. Shame on you! The reward I had for you was the joy of tasting the fruit that Adam couldn’t take from heaven to earth. The person who tastes the fruit will no longer accept this egoistic injustice… Yes son! His work can never be fully comprehended. With the hatred that he put inside you he made you chop the roots of your own luck! Now you can take the bag of your torment and wait for him to reward you many times more. Because now, you are also Satan’s assistant!”

I ran to the end of the basement unconsciously. He was there before me, he was standing by the tangled roots and it looked like he was crying.

I put the candlestick on the ground and started chopping the roots with my axe. I had no other choice. I had nothing else to do.

For centuries, stems, leaves and flowers of these roots, both inside and outside the crypt had become entangled, getting its strength from the light and the weather of the forest.

I was busy cutting the roots for hours. It seemed like Satan had given me all of his strength. Eventually (I can’t remember what time it was, if the sun had come up, or was it already past the meridian) A giant gilded bronze door appeared through the long entangled roots and weed.

I threw away the remainders of the roots. I passed the handle of the axe through the keyhole, grabbed it with both hands, and opened the door with one big push.

A damp chill came out, and something rolled under my feet: A woman completely naked. When I brought the candle light closer, I noticed a deep cut in between her breasts, as if someone had hit her with an axe.

When I brought the candle light close to her face, I noticed that she is the woman that the marble statue is made out of.

When she saw me, something fell back behind her clueless, heavy breasts. She closed her eyelids and her head fell to the side.

Satan said:

“You killed her. But there is still amnesia, there is still oblivion. The conjurer’s work is always deliberately planned, or else this wretched house wouldn’t stand for a single day! What a graveyard! My heart goes to you… thank you my son! I will now go through this door. your cure is ready: Oblivion! Try not to be so hard on yourself.”

I didn’t say a word.

There was no sound in the empty basement.

I heard the door close behind him; I listened to the sound of the water dripping from the slit in the roots.

The candle died with a buzz.

I lied down next to the dead woman, and I just couldn’t hold my tears back. I felt like I have loved her for a very long time.

2 thoughts on “The Woman Behind the Door (1950)

  1. Very Edgar Allen Poe-ish, but very interesting. Liked the irony at the end too. Creepy when the coyotes decided to yap outside my window at a most crucial story moment…almost made me jump lol. So how long did it take to translate from Iranian to English?

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