Wednesday's predawn call from the State Department landed like an anvil on the Fattal family of Elkins Park.

"We were so hopeful," said mother Laura Fattal. "I always see a silver lining, but at the moment I'm a little bit blocked. I need to see relief."

The terse telephone call notified Laura and her husband, Jacob, that a scheduled second hearing in the drawn-out espionage trial of their son Josh, one of three American hikers imprisoned 21 months ago by Iran, had been postponed.

Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer of Minnesota, both 28, did not appear for the closed-door hearing in Tehran on Wednesday, and Iranian authorities offered no explanation, which left the hikers' families to contemplate the worst.

"As a mother, I am hysterical" with worry about why they weren't brought to court, Laura Fattal said in an interview. "It's very clear that Iran uses time as a tactic. It is cruel and inhumane."

"Are they on hunger strike?" said Josh's brother, Alex Fattal, 32. He said that maybe "physical abuse" kept them from court. "Deep in the recesses of our minds, it prompts all the worst fears."

In a statement, the Fattals and Bauer's mother, Cindy Hickey, said the delay was "another example of the arbitrary treatment Shane and Josh have been subjected to. The Iranian authorities continue to play games with their lives and the constant uncertainty . . . is ruining our lives as well."

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the United States was trying to get more information through Switzerland, which represents U.S. interests in Iran. Swiss envoys last saw the two men on Oct. 26, said Toner, adding, "We are concerned about their health, given their prolonged detention, which is another reason we think they should be released."

Although letters from immediate family are delivered to the hikers, they are not permitted to reply. The last phone call the Fattals had from Josh was six months ago, for five minutes.

Josh Fattal, Bauer, and Sarah Shourd, who met as students at the University of California at Berkeley, say they were hiking near a waterfall in the relatively safe, tourist region of Iraqi Kurdistan when they were apprehended by Iranian guards near the border on July 31, 2009.

Initially, Tehran accused them only of illegal entry, but it later added unspecified espionage charges.

Shourd, 32, of California, who got engaged to Bauer while they were in prison, was released on $500,000 bail in September and returned to the United States. Shourd, who has post-traumatic stress disorder after having spent more than 400 days in solitary confinement, has also been called to trial but has refused to return to Tehran.

The trial opened Feb. 6 with a hearing at which Fattal and Bauer maintained they were innocent, and then court was quickly adjourned. State media publicized Wednesday as their next court date. Supporters and consular officials were on alert.

Masoud Shafii, an Iranian lawyer hired by the families to represent the hikers, told the Fattals in a conference call Wednesday that he filed a complaint with the court about the delay.

Authorities did not immediately respond to Shafii's complaint or reschedule the case.

Shourd said Wednesday that she was "devastated" that Fattal and Bauer remain in limbo inside Evin Prison.

Tehran's chief prosecutor, Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi, has alleged, without elaborating, that the Americans had "equipment and documents and received training" consistent with spycraft. A conviction for spying could bring a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.

The hikers and their supporters say that if they crossed the unmarked border, it was inadvertent. Some accounts, including one published last year in The Nation, suggest they may have been lured across the border by Iranian guards.

Using the website FreetheHikers.org, an international coalition of supporters, including celebrities, has pressed their cause.

In July, on the one-year anniversary of their imprisonment, President Obama issued a statement that the hikers never worked for the U.S. government and were just "open-minded and adventurous people who represent the best of America and the human spirit."

The Iranian prosecutor's allegations about spying would be laughable, said Laura Fattal, if the stakes weren't so high.

Bauer is a photojournalist, she said, so he was traveling with cameras. Shourd is a language teacher. Josh Fattal is an environmental activist "who wasn't even carrying a phone," his mother said.

"Sarah said they had a tiny plastic compass. It was like something you could buy at CVS," Laura Fattal said. Prosecutors "know they have nothing except total lies," she said.

As she prepared for another television interview Wednesday, Laura Fattal explained that "we are doing all of this media because we think maybe, maybe, the kids will hear, through the most roundabout ways, through a prison guard or some other way," that their parents are working ceaselessly for their freedom.

"If Josh and Shane can hear anything that we do through the stone walls of Evin Prison, and it lifts their spirits," said Alex Fattal, "that's what we can hope for right now."

Contact staff writer Michael Matza at 215-854-2541 or mmatza@phillynews.com