The Dark House
copyright 1995, 1999
copyright 1995, 1999
The man who boarded our bus one night on the way to Khunsar had carefully wrapped himself in a dark blue raincoat and had pulled the broad brim of his hat clear down to his eyebrows. It was as if he intended to insulate himself against the outside world and the people therein. He carried a parcel under his arm and he sheltered it with his hand. During the half-hour ride he took no part in the conversation between the bus driver and the other passengers. His aloofness cast a pall on the group. Whenever the light in the bus or an outside light permitted, I stole a glance at his face: it was pale. He had a small but straight nose and his languid eyelids looked all but closed. A deep wrinkle at each side of his lip bespoke a strong will, as though he had been carved out of stone. At times he would wet his lips with the tip of his tongue; then he would rejoin his ruminations.
Our bus stopped in Khunsar in front of the Madani bus terminal. Even though we were to travel throughout the night, the driver and all the passengers disembarked. I surveyed the inn and the terminal; they did not seem particularly hospitable. Then I approached the bus and, to make sure that we were here for the night, said to the driver, "Apparently we are staying here for the night!"
"Yes," he said. "The road is not good. We will stay here for the night and will leave early tomorrow morning."
Then suddenly I noticed the man in the raincoat approaching me. In a deep but calm voice he said, "I doubt that you can find a suitable place in which to spend the night. If you do not have any acquaintance around here, why don't you come and spend the night at my house?"
"Thank you. But I don't want to inconvenience you."
"Nothing of the kind. I hate ta'arof. I don't know you and I don't wish to know you. There is no favor involved. Recently I built myself a new room, and since then my old room has been unoccupied. I thought it would be more comfortable than the inn."
His simple and unceremonious words affected me and made me realize that I was not dealing with an ordinary man. I said, "Fine. Let's go!"
And, without any hesitation, I began to follow him. He produced a flashlight from his pocket and turned it on. A column of bright light appeared before us. We passed through several alleyways winding amid mud-brick walls. Everything was still, still enough to penetrate one's being. Often we heard the murmur of the water and could feel the breeze on our faces. Then I noticed the lights that were burning in a couple of houses in the distance. I did not say anything for a while and walked with him in silence. Then, in order to make my unknown friend talk, I said, "This must be a pretty town."
He seemed to have been startled by the sound of my voice. After a while he said, "I preferred Khunsar to all the other cities that I have visited in Iran. Not so much because it has plenty of fields and orchards, but because it has retained much of its ancient charm. It has retained this medieval atmosphere in its alleyways, among these mud-brick walls and underneath those tall trees. It is so tangibly hospitable that, in its byways, one can feel the comfort felt by its past inhabitants. The whole area is secluded--a factor that assures it a poetic flavor--and it is away from the newspaper, the car, the airplane and the train which plague this century--especially the car that, along with its noisy horn and the dust it raises, carries the conductor mentality to the tiniest hamlets of the land. It pushes all these new, albeit half-baked, thoughts, skewed opinions and stupid imitations right into every conceivable hole in the wall."
He threw the light of the flashlight onto some of the windows of these houses and said, "Look. This place has windows with beautiful woodwork and independent houses. You can smell the ground, the newly harvested alfalfa as well as the less palatable odors. You can hear the sound of the birds chirping. The simple but cunning way in which its inhabitants go about their work recalls a lost world--a world away from the hubbub of the nouveaux riches."
Then, as if suddenly remembering that he had invited me to his house, he asked, "Have you had supper?"
"Yes. We supped in Golpaygan."
We passed several streams until eventually, near the mountain, he opened the gate of a garden and we entered. We reached a newly-finished building. We entered a small room which had a rollaway bed, a table and two armchairs. He lit the kerosene lamp and entered the adjacent room. A few minutes later he returned wearing a pair of pink pajamas. He brought in another lamp and lit that. Then he unwrapped the parcel he had brought with him. It contained a red lampshade which he placed on the lamp he had brought in from the other room. After a long pause, as if he were not sure whether he should say something, he said, "Would you like to come to my private room?"
Picking up the lamp with the red lampshade, he passed through a labyrinthine, dark corridor with an arched ceiling and a floor covered with dark red, cloth mats. Then he opened another door. We entered a room that resembled the inside of an egg. It did not seem to have any openings to the outside world except, of course, for the door that gave onto, the corridor. Devoid of any geometrical configurations, the concave inner walls, the ceiling and the floor were covered with deep red velvet. Inhaling the dense perfume that permeated the room, I felt somewhat lightheaded. He placed the lamp on the table, sat on his bed which was in the middle of the room and motioned for me to rest on the chair by the table. On the table there were a glass and a pitcher of duq. Astounded, I looked around me thinking that the man must be a mental case and that this room must be his torture chamber. The walls were the color of blood, I thought, so as to camouflage the blood of his victims. Thus he could not be easily caught. Besides, the place did not have any opening to the outside world. No one would know about what transpired in there, let alone come to another's assistance. I was waiting for a club to hit me on the head from nowhere or for this man to attack me with a knife or a hatchet, but with his usual calm tone he said, "What do you think of my room?"
"Room? I am sorry. But this is more like being inside a plastic bag."
Not paying the slightest attention to what I had said, he went on, "My diet consists of milk. Want some?"
"No. Thank you. I have had dinner."
"A glass of milk will do you good."
He said this and placed the pitcher of milk in front of me. Although I did not feel like having any, I poured a glass and drank it. Then he poured the rest of the milk into his glass and began to sip it. Every now and then he would wet his lips with his tongue. His lips were glistening and his eyelids were almost closed--he seemed to be searching for some distant memories. Under the red light, his pale, young face, his short but straight nose and his meaty lips were lustful and attractive. A large dark vein stood out on his broad forehead. His long brown hair covered his shoulders. As if talking to himself he said, "I have not shared the pleasures of others. A disturbing feeling, a feeling arising from misfortune, has always placed itself between happiness and me. This feeling of misfortune arises from the pain of living, the difficulties of coping but, most importantly, the perils of dealing with people. The plight of a degenerate society, the need for food and clothes, these are the things that have suppressed the blossoming of our true existence. In the past I entered the ordinary man's world and imitated his miserable ways, but soon I realized that I was making a fool of myself. I examined all their pleasures but found them quite unpalatable. I felt throughout that I had been abandoned--left alone--an alien to their world, you could say. I could not create any meaningful relationship between myself and them. I could not make my life compatible with their lives. I constantly told myself, 'I shall leave this society and I shall live in a hamlet or a distant place in seclusion.' But I did not intend to use seclusion as a means for fame or personal gain. Neither did I want to place myself under anyone's guidance or imitate anyone. All I wished was to find a place in which I could explore myself, a place where my thoughts would not dissipate. I was born lazy. And I believe that work belongs to the unfulfilled--to those who wish to fill out a lack they feel within themselves. Work belongs to the beggarly, the ignoble. My forefathers, too, felt this emptiness. But they worked hard, thought hard and observed events. Since these wants no longer beset them, the burden of their accumulated laziness fell squarely on my shoulders. I do not take pride in my ancestors. Beside, the people in this country do not fall into the distinct ancestral lines that encompass the people of other nations. Analyze the genealogy of any of these dowla's and saltana's and you will see that only two generations ago they were thieves, highway robbers, court jesters or money-changers. And if we were to insist on digging into my ancestry, like everyone else's, would we not reach the gorilla and the chimpanzee? The thing is that I was not born to work. The nouveaux riches seem to be the only ones who can lay claim to existence. They have created a society compatible with their own greed and lust. To take even the smallest of steps, the others will have to swallow their imposed rules, just as they would swallow a pill. The nouveaux have named this servitude 'work,' and everyone has to earn his living by begging at their gate. Only a bunch of thieves, shameless fools and sick people are allowed to live in this environment. Those unfit for thieving or baseness and those not given to flattery are pronounced 'unfit for living!' They cannot fathom my pain; they cannot feel the burden of the inheritance under which I bend! My ancestors' fatigue is in me and I can feel their nostalgia.
I wanted to find a hole in the ground and, like a hibernating animal, get lost in my own self. In this way I could discover myself. There is much in human beings that is gentle and hidden--suppressed by the weight of daily concerns and the bustle of life. But given a chance the same aspects can surface and, like a picture that takes shape in the photographer's pan, appear to us in the dark. This darkness was within me; yet in vain I was trying to make it dissipate. I regret that I should have mingled with people at all --even for a short period. Now I realize that the most precious part of my life has been this same darkness and its accompanying silence. This darkness is part of every living being, but it does not appear to us until the time when we abandon the phenomenal world and sink within ourselves. Ordinary people, of course, try to escape this loneliness and darkness. They try to cover their ears so that they will not hear the call of death--they try to annihilate their being amid life's clamor. I am not like the Sufis, who are expecting 'the light of truth to dawn'. On the contrary, I am expecting the devil to descend on me. I want to awake in myself as I am. The bright but empty speeches of the enlightened repulse me. I do not wish to lose my dignity by begging a bunch of thieves, smugglers and gold-worshiping fools for a living.
It is in this room that I can live within myself so that my energy is not spent in vain. I need this darkness and this red light. I cannot sit in a room with a window behind me. In such an environment my thoughts disperse; besides, I don't like light. In the sunlight, everything appears frivolous and ordinary--whereas fear and darkness are the real source of beauty. Take the cat, for instance. During the day he is familiar enough, but at night his eyes glow, his coat shines and his movements become mysterious. A sickly, flowering bush littered with spider webs likewise assumes a special and mysterious aura at night. Light awakens all beings and makes them alert; they become cautious. It is at night and in darkness that all ordinary things develop a mystery. Then latent and lost fears awaken. One can sleep in the dark, yet hear things. One is awake. Real life begins then. Base instincts and foolish whims are left behind, and man enters a spiritual dimension. He recalls things he had never known or even imagined."
After this eloquence, he fell silent. It was as though with this lecture he meant to exonerate himself. Was he the bored child of a rich family, tired of living, or was he afflicted with some strange malady? In either case, he did not think like an ordinary human being. I was perplexed. How to react to all this? The line at the side of his lip had hardened and a dark vein had appeared on his forehead. When he talked, his nostrils flared. Under the red light, his pale face looked tired and melancholy--quite at odds with the face I had seen in the bus. When he lowered his head, a fleeting smile would touch his lips. Then, as if suddenly realizing it, and throwing me a sarcastic look, he said, "You are traveling and must be tired. I monopolized the conversation!"
"We all talk about ourselves. We are the only truth that ever existed. We talk about ourselves quite involuntarily, even when we express our feelings and observations in someone else's words. The most difficult thing is to express oneself in exactly the terms one should."
I wished that I had not ventured a reply. What I had said was quite meaningless, useless and out of place. I don't know what I was trying to prove. Perhaps I was indirectly flattering my host. But he, without paying me any attention, gazed painfully in my direction. Once again his eyelids closed. And, as if in a different world, ignoring me altogether, he continually rubbed his tongue along his moistening lips. He was saying, "I always wanted to design and build a place of my own. Houses and rooms built by others did me no good. I wanted to be by myself and delve into myself. To this end I turned all my wealth into hard cash. Then I came here and had this room built according to my own specifications. I brought all these velvet curtains with me. I have personally attended to every detail in this room. The only thing that I had forgotten was a red lampshade. I sent the design and the size to Tehran. They made me one, and today I went and picked it up. That's why I was traveling; otherwise I don't leave my room and try not to mingle with people. As for food, I have placed myself on a milk diet. Since I can drink it sitting or lying down, I'm spared the trouble of preparing meals. I should also say that I have vowed to take my life the moment I run out of money or the moment that I feel a need to return to society. This is the first night that I will sleep here in my own room. I am that lucky man whose every earnest wish is fulfilled. A lucky man! How difficult it is to envisage such a being. I could never have imagined this state. Yet, right now, I am a lucky man!"
Once again all became silent. To break the silence I said, "The state you are seeking is that of the fetus in the mother's womb where, without need for struggle, flattery or coping, one can lie in the red, cozy organ, feed on the mother's blood and enjoy the fulfillment of wishes and needs without any effort. Or perhaps you are seeking that lost paradise which rests in every man's subconscious, that place where everyone lives by himself and in himself. Then again, perhaps you are looking to make a voluntary death?"
As if he didn't expect anyone to interrupt this private discussion, he cast me a sarcastic look and said, "You are traveling. You'd better go and get some sleep!"
He picked up the light, accompanied me as far as the end of the hallway and showed me the room in which we had first arrived. It was past midnight. I breathed the fresh air and felt that I had just left a cold and sickly spot. The stars twinkled in the sky. I was wondering whether I was dealing with a man obsessed with cleanliness or with an homme extraordinaire.
The next day I woke at about ten. To say goodbye to my host, I went into the corridor and, like an infidel approaching a temple, gently rapped on the door. The corridor was dark and silent. Stealthily I entered the room. The light on the table was still burning. My host was still in his pink pajamas. He was lying in the fetal position and his hands covered his face. I approached him and shook him by the shoulder. He had become petrified in this position. Terrified, I left the room and went to the bus terminal--I did not want to miss the bus. Had he run out of money, as he had said? Or, afraid of the loneliness he had so eloquently praised, had he, for that last night, wished to have someone with him? Or perhaps he was a lucky man who had wanted to keep his good luck to himself and this place was his ideal room!
Sadeq Hedayat's Corner
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