The earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there—there you could look at a thing monstrous and free.
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
On the surface, Ian looks ordinary. Nothing sets him apart from other office workers his age. He goes to work like the others. Comes home tired but still tries to squeeze in an evening of something to do, like the others. He is diligent with what he is given to do. On his days off, he gets up late and watches old movies with Sherry.
In the last few months, he has put on close to five pounds. He eats more, laughs more often. He has even begun to leave inspirational quotes on the fridge for her.
It has seemed effortless, being in a loving relationship with her. It feels as if he has slipped into a body of warm water. Not much thought or planning is required, other than the initial steps. In the back of his mind, he wonders: is this sleepy effortlessness akin to the proverbial slow boiling of the frog?
There is something about Sherry, something unexpected and fresh. Even the way she smiles or how she taps her chin with her index finger can take his breath away.
The two of them could have gone on in their semiawake state for the rest of their lives, one supposes, if not for the unexpected turn of events at Four Sisters Reservoir.
It starts out pleasantly enough that day. It is both warm and sunny out at the reservoir, with not a wisp of cloud in the sky. When it begins to spiral out of control, they have been walking for close to two hours.
At one point, Ian is surprised by the sight of a food peddler by a stand of skinny-looking trees. The man with an impressive white chef’s hat beams at them from a good distance away. Why would there be a food vendor in the middle of the reservoir? But there he plainly is. The hike has not been particularly strenuous, yet Ian suddenly feels tired. Does it have anything to do with the sight of food? Is he perhaps hungry? There have been no steep climbs so far, and most of the trails are paved.
The friends who have come along seem to have enjoyed themselves. There are six of them there that day, including Sherry and Ian. When they are within earshot, the vendor loudly inquires, “What’s wrong with him? Why is he looking so pale?”
And when Ian lies down on the ground by a large rock, they all just think that he is being playful.
“You go on ahead,” Ian insists. Then turning to Sherry, he says, “Let me just rest here for a bit. There is still plenty of daylight left.”
But there isn’t. In fact, as he speaks―with a strained smile on his face so as to reassure the others―the sun has started to go down.
“You’re scaring me,” Sherry says.
He smiles again. “I feel so sleepy.” And it is true. He can hardly keep his eyes open at that point.
The others have gathered around him. They want to know what’s wrong and to offer help.
Ian, to hide his embarrassment, laughs. As he does, with his eyes mostly closed, he drifts instantly to sleep.
Waking up a moment later, he latches on to the thing nearest to him, which happens to be Sherry’s arm. Then he wills himself to get up, only to give up halfway.
This repeats itself four or five times, at the end of which it is obvious that he is not going anywhere. It is decided then that Sherry will stay behind with him while the others go get help.
For the next two hours, he sleeps curled up on the ground by a large tree. He sleeps like a dead man as Sherry watches over him. She needs to be certain that he is safe from insects and warm under the windbreaker. She tends to him like a mother. She is motherly, like her own mother was motherly and the mother before that. She doesn’t know of any other way to love. (Even her friends have picked up on that. They told her to go slowly. They told her to look after herself. They even half-joked about his being a dreamer. So? What’s wrong with being a dreamer? But she let that go.)
When he finally wakes up, his head has cleared, and it is pitch black everywhere. It never ceases to amaze him how dark it can get after sunset. They are miles away from any city lights. But the darkness doesn’t appear to affect Sherry much. She seems to be able to pick her way forward with little effort. She leads and Ian follows. Even so, after a while, they both have come to realize that they are only getting more and more lost.
“Wait,” he says, pointing to a sign some distance away, which is illuminated by a small light. “Is that what I think it is?”
Once there they immediately begin to pore over it. It is a rather large map and it’s not easy to locate yourself on it. Between where they are and where they need to get to―which is the parking lot on the east side―are the many crisscrossing pathways. Far too many to be committed to memory. So he suggests they mentally divide up the map and each remember half of it. “Together, between the two of us, we will have the whole picture.”
But she says nothing.
Is the plan not to her liking? “For heaven’s sake, Sherry, you got any better idea?”
He turns around to look at her. There is no word to convey the fear that grips him. Her voice is the same. The way she carries herself has not changed. But this woman is not Sherry.
He has not had a good look at her until now, under the illumination of the map light. As he stumbles away, the chilled evening air pierces his lungs. Questions whirl around in his head, none of which, however, is sufficient to address the gathering horror. “What,” he haltingly inquires, “have you done with my woman?”
“What are you talking about?” she says, coming at him with both of her hands raised.
“Stop! Don’t come any closer.”
But he has already turned and fled.
It gets tricky running in the dark. A few times, he even thought that she had caught up with him. He saw shadows darting back and forth behind the trees which added to his fright.
But miraculously, he has not fallen or even stumbled. He has the general direction of where he ought to get to in his head; after all, he did look at the map. But he does not have the whole picture. It is his own damn fault, of course. He wanted to remember only half of what he needed to know. What a brilliant idea that was.
Thinking that he has gotten far enough away from her, he stops by a large rock to catch his breath. He puts a hand on it for support as more wild thoughts swirl in his head. What can that woman be? A phantom? A ghost? No, I shouldn’t have run. I should have stood my ground and found out what she had done with my Sherry. What kind of a man was I to run off like that? Didn’t that make me a coward? He bristles at the thought. He has never thought of himself as cowardly, but what else can he call himself for doing what he did? And where is she? Where is Sherry? Is she in danger? Is she in pain? Something must have happened to her while I slept. They took her. Somebody did. And left me with …
“Wait for me!”
Ian freezes. How did she find him so quickly? No, not she … it.
“What are you doing?” the woman demands. “Why did you run off like that?”
God, he says to himself, let this be the real Sherry and not the imposter. Slowly, mustering his remaining courage, he turns around.
There is no mistaking it. She has his girlfriend’s voice, but she looks nothing like her. Sherry has soft flowing features. This creature has a sharp, angular nose, and her lips are thin and cruel.
But this time, he does not back away. “Who are you?” he demands, his voice stern, even as his knees are near buckling.
The creature looks as though she has been wounded by that simple question. “Stop it, Ian.”
“How do you know my name? What have you done with my Sherry?”
“It’s me, Ian. I am her.”
“No,” he says, shaking his head, “you are not her.”
“Wait. Don’t go. What is it you want? Why are you doing this to me?” Choking with emotion, she stammers, “You … you fainted and fell; you must have hurt your head.”
For a while, the two of them just stare at each other. It seems neither of them can think of what to do or say next.
“Where was I yesterday?” Ian breaks the silence.
“Tell me. After lunch, where did I go?”
The woman knows exactly where.
“What time did I come home after that?”
She knows that too.
He asks her who his favorite musician is. She says the subject never came up.
“What about the apartment? Do you know when we moved in and how much we pay for utilities each month?”
The woman answers those and similar questions with little difficulty, and it goes on like that until Ian gets quiet again.
This time, when she again tries to put her arms around him, he does not resist. He even lets her put her face on his shoulder. Not only does she talk like Sherry and sound like her, she even has a scent that is unmistakably hers.
So, accepting her hand, he falls in next to her. As far as he can see, he has no other options. Maybe he did hurt his head when he fell. That’s possible, isn’t it?
It gets easier after they get back on the main trail. He is thinking that once he is out, there will be others who can tell him who she really is. It turns out the parking lot isn’t that far away at all. They only need to move along a field of grass and up a small hill to get there. The last part of the trail is even illuminated by the occasional streetlamps and is wider, less overgrown with vegetation.
At the parking lot, an ambulance awaits. The others all come around to greet them. They want to know how Ian is. They tell him that they have been just putting together a search party. “You two have walked away from where we left you.”
“I am all right,” he assures them and thanks them as he looks surreptitiously at the way the others are regarding the woman. But they treat her no differently than if she really is Sherry. None of them seems the least bit troubled by how different she looks.
Later on, at a restaurant, he sees, in between sips of water, that the creature is crestfallen, and she is talking to her friends and has a look about her that can only be read as pity. Is she somehow feeling sorry for him, for his confusion?
Three months have gone by and a sort of truce has taken hold between the two of them.
Ian sits in the spare bedroom most nights, accompanied by little more than a drink and some books, while she smokes on the balcony.
Neither of them wishes to bring up the incident. But it is there, like a wedge or a wall.
The woman has been steadfast in her role as his own confidence crumbles. Can this all be medically explained? he wonders. Perhaps she is right after all, and his problem is rooted in something as mundane as a small blood vessel having burst, or in some minute changes in brain chemistry.
Those photographs of hers nearly push him over the edge. They were taken shortly after they moved in together, as well as during their first trip to the coast. They all bear the image of the creature. Even in the pictures taken when she was younger, she looked more like the woman he is with now than she did the real Sherry! How is one to resolve a conundrum such as this? No, it cannot be resolved. It can only be tolerated. Sometimes you come up against something so strange, you have no words for it. You cannot talk about it with anyone. You can only turn your face away and do that until you can’t do it anymore.
Her friends have only just now started to drift back into their lives. They must have sensed that things are, more or less, back to normal. When he picks up the phone, they are always polite as they ask for her. But he can tell that they are on guard. How much do they know about their trouble? He would not be surprised if she had confided in them.
Acceding to the creature’s wishes and being half-curious himself, he has begun to make visits to the doctors. He thought they might have something to say about his state of mind. But, to his relief, none of them can say for certain what is ailing him, which, to his mind, is the same as there being nothing wrong with him. They send him for X-rays and CT scans, and all of them come back negative.
So, if it isn’t brain chemistry, then what is it? He has tried to look it up himself on the internet. He tries to match how he feels with the listed symptoms. But there are just too many possibilities, and he gives up in the end.
What distresses him most, and it is happening more frequently, is how he has problems recalling the face of the real Sherry. It seems every time he sleeps with the creature, his memory of her fades a little.
Once, he grabbed the impostor from behind and sank his teeth into the back of her neck. The woman screamed so loud that his ears rang for the rest of the night. He kept away from her after that for a time. It was his way of conveying to her his hatred, but all he could really feel afterwards was shame.
Finally, he comes to a deeper understanding. He is at a clinic, awaiting his turn at the X-ray machine, and it is busy there, which is unusual for a summer Monday. A man in his fifties comes in through the doors. He appears to be in considerable distress. A woman nearby gets up to offer him a seat, but he ignores her and heads straight for the reception desk. He hands the clerk some papers. When she returns them to him, he does not take them back but begins to laugh. It is disconcerting. He is laughing but without making any sound. His body shakes, his lips tremble, but there is only silence.
Soon he is laughing so hard, his whole body is quivering. With his head down, he looks as though he is trying to twist his own arm behind his back. Then his knees buckle, and he hits his head on the edge of the counter, so hard that Ian can hear it all the way at the back of the room.
Unable to restrain himself any further, Ian bursts out laughing. It is a most ludicrous sight, to be sure. But as he looks around, he quickly realizes he is the only one laughing, as no one else appears to see the humor in it.
Can it be that they are all too preoccupied with their own troubles to appreciate this display of levity?
This puzzles him. As he lowers his head to avoid their collective gaze, he wonders about what he may be missing. Why is he the only one amused?
Meanwhile, the clerk has come out from behind the counter to tend to the fallen man. As they help him to a chair, Ian can see that the man is, in fact, foaming at the mouth.
Alone in the study that night, he goes through in his mind’s eye the sequence of the day’s events. He goes over them scene by scene. How could he have mistaken seizure for levity? He still cannot fully grasp it. His failure in judgment seems grotesque in retrospect. The fact that he could get it so wrong can only mean that his perception is somehow faulty.
He begins to wonder who or what it is that is the witness of events. How do we see? How do light waves and photons turn into colors? Or waves of vibration become sounds? Which neurons in our brains turn green or become words of encouragement? Even if we can pin down the specific green or red neurons or the neurons for empathy, who or what it is that sees or feels the colors or emotions that the brain purportedly produces?
Who or what is this mysterious witness that is so intimately ours, that is at the core of our perception but has remained elusive and amorphous?
And if we do not know what it is that perceives, how can we trust in the veracity of our perception?
How often have we marveled at sunsets, yet that which beholds the sunset does not even garner our passing interest?
What if the perceiver isn’t what we think it is? What if we have conflated it with the thoughts in our heads or with opinions offered by others? Is it part of us, or is it beyond us? What if the perceiver isn’t even human?
Seated at his desk, he can hear the woman’s breathing in the adjacent bedroom. She is already sound asleep. Is it possible that she is right after all? That something in his head did break that night at the reservoir?
He gets up from his chair and runs a hand through his sweat-soaked hair. It is an exceptionally warm night, and there is not the faintest hint of a breeze to be had, even with the windows wide open. Why did I think like that? he wonders again. Could it be that he was looking at the fallen man in a way that wasn’t quite human? The sick man wasn’t at all laughing when he thought he was. Probably he didn’t twist his own arm either but was simply seizing up.
It’s like he was looking at the man from a radically different angle or with a pair of eyes that weren’t quite physical, but spiritual. Yes, spiritual would not be so bad, but what if they weren’t spiritual but evil?
He surmises that somehow in the reservoir that night, as he passed out of awareness, his mind was cracked open and had let in more light than he knew how to handle, so that he can no longer see from the human angle, not consistently at any rate, but has to make do with a nonhuman angle, an antihuman angle.
Is the mind fragile? Is that what happened to him, that his mind has been damaged and can no longer reflect on reality in the normal way? It is as though a necessary filter has dropped off. What he hears and sees now have changed. Something has reared its ugly head.
Is that what I am suffering from? An inability to properly see? Has it come to this, that even unpleasant things look comical because my mind has broken? Has the mind that tells itself stories stopped doing so? Has it been ostracized by the usual flow of life? Without stories, does consciousness become pure? Is pure consciousness alien and strange because it isn’t couched in the usual stories? How about my feelings for her … the woman in the next room who is supposed to be my girlfriend? Is our love suspect, in its being contrived and storied?
While this may sound like a fearful prospect, to perceive in such an unfiltered and pure way, is it entirely a bad thing? Isn’t truth preferrable?
And has the granite that is human perception been finally broken in Ian? Is there an opening in front of him, into which he can put his face and breathe deeply? One that will help him transcend the prison of his own mind? Is this a sort of bargain with the devil? A bit of one’s rational mind in exchange for perceptual freedom?
It’s as though lightning has entered the room at that point. His consciousness is left silhouetted against the sudden illumination, as a shudder passes through his body.
He can feel the sweat on his palms as he waits for her to come home. He is impatient, for there is a lot of ground to cover, and he does not really know how to do this other than just come right out and say it. Does she have any idea what is coming? Likely not. He is just learning about it himself. How will she react to it? Will she feel vindicated? Will she ridicule him or expect him to show remorse?
When Sherry gets in, he quickly takes her to the dinner table. Then he sits down next to her, and before he knows it, he has started recounting the incident at the clinic.
She listens intently. She tries hard to understand his troubled mind, for that’s what the problem is, is it not?
“Yes, yes, you are right about that,” he says, the eagerness in his voice rising.
He tries to explain his still-tenuous grasp of his faulty perception. He naturally fumbles and calls it a blessing and then a curse. “It’s something completely different from anything I have known. I am not seeing what I used to see. I have heard that some people have suffered the same problem. Some of them said they had had mini-strokes. I don’t know what I had. I have had a headache and a persistent fever. I don’t know if that’s the reason. But this isn’t hallucination either. It’s like something that you have known for so long, and then one day you realize it isn’t what you thought it was, not because any of it has changed, but that a whole bunch of new light has rushed in, forcing you to see from a completely different angle.
“You see,” he continues, a little breathlessly, leaning further forward so that his face is only a few inches from hers. “I didn’t know. All along I thought it was you. I thought it was something you did or didn’t do, this distance, this … this problem that I had with seeing you but not recognizing you. But it was me. It was my mind. It was as though it had cracked open. You were right all along. I am sorry, the pieces that didn’t fit … it was because it really wasn’t me looking at you. Not the usual me. It was from something deeper. Something raw and rough. This may sound like I am making excuses, but I assure you it isn’t like that. It was I who had changed, not you.”
We are always changing, aren’t we? Very few of the things we set out to do will remain. Even our likes and dislikes will change over time. If we had any original thought in our heads, it too would get pushed out because of the people around us or the circumstances we found ourselves in. After a time, we will not know how it feels to have an original thought in our heads. All we have are a series of likes and dislikes, and the mental ledger of what wrongs we suffer continues to grow longer. It is a subtle infiltration. Like pollution, only much worse. You might have liked mathematics at one point, for example, and then, over time, your simple and pure affection for it is replaced by the need for accolades and recognition. Or you might have loved somebody simply a long time ago. And then that simple love is changed over time by subtle judgments or minor grievances.
“And since that night at the reservoir, nothing has been the same. Suddenly this old me, still harboring an original thought or two, had come back. I felt naked. It felt as though all the familiar threads of my life had been stripped away. I even smelled funny because of it. Did you notice that? I suddenly had this smell that reminded me of an old wooden bridge. And it didn’t want to just sit in the back of my mind. Instead, it took over my eyes, it took over my feelings. It was like an alien entity had taken over my mind and body. Only it wasn’t alien at all. It’s mine. It’s me. But I had forgotten about it. It’s something unfamiliar and a little frightening. And I am afraid to look at it, because deep down, I fear that it is something monstrous and free, which I have no human way to accommodate…”
While he is saying all this, in the back of his mind, a doubt grows. He begins to question his own sincerity. He wasn’t even sure he would say all of this or how he would say it until after he started.
Is this the truth that they say shall set us free?
“I tried to give it a name. But it has no name. It existed long before there were names or words. And it was making me see things in a way that I was not used to. It wasn’t what I wanted to see. I had no control over what I was seeing. And because of that, I could not see you as you are.”
She gets up at that point and walks away from him with tears welling in her eyes.
Or maybe she doesn’t. Maybe she bends over and buries her face in her hands.
“But Sherry …”
Looking down at his own body, he sees that a very subtle shift has taken hold. It is hardly noticeable at first. It seems he has become a little less concrete, a little less defined.
And then Sherry is back at his side, this time wearing her own face, with all her soft features restored.
“My God,” he exclaims, “you are here. You are back. And you are looking just right!”
She doesn’t say anything but simply puts her arms around him.
Does that mean that somehow his own perception has been restored? But how? And why is this happening now? This is better, is it not? He is back to his old way of seeing. The confusion is gone, it seems. At least for now. And isn’t that a good thing? What would he―a mortal man with a limited mind―do with this nonhuman perception?
He knows that he exists. He knows that Sherry probably also exists. But he has no confidence at all about what may lie beyond their tiny bubble.
He is nearly holding his breath by now, realizing that his grasp of reality is at best tenuous, and it can all be blown away in an instant.
Gently now he reciprocates her embrace.
He does not wish to disturb the water of his perception. The ancient awareness within may not care for this momentary display of tenderness. He imagines it being lolled to sleep by the stream of nonessentials that now flows from their lips. What is straight is now straight again. What is warped is also straight. Pitiful, distracted creatures such as we are, we must take relief wherever and whenever it offers itself up to us. The weight of self and of the everlasting is momentarily forgotten in the simple gestures of love.