Das Unheimliche (“The Uncanny”)

The following is a short story of suspense…

 

 

It was sometime after midnight when Tobin realized that the reflection looking back at him through the outside bay window wasn’t actually his reflection. Now one might think that such a revelation would have been deeply unsettling, or at the very least startling, but as a pragmatic, dyed-in-the-wool Yankee with little patience for things beyond the realm of the rational, Tobin was unfazed, at least at first.

I’m finally losing it, he thought. Anne-Marie’s been gone but seven months and I’m plum gone crazy.

As a recent widower, Tobin was still adapting to the emptiness of the house, the spaces once filled with the presence of another living being with thoughts, feelings, dreams and heartaches now echoing with memories of what once was, and now would never be. It was a period of adjustment, and although old, Tobin was no fool, and at least intellectually understood the grieving process.

That would explain why a perfect likeness of himself was staring back at him from across the field, wouldn’t it?

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Tobin tentatively placed his hand up to the window, as if the glass was the only thing separating him from his reflection which was not really a reflection, judging from the distance Tobin knew in every bone of his body separated the house from the rail fence. His reflection which was not really a reflection tentatively mirrored the gesture, raising a hand in silent greeting.

Well, I’ll be da—. No, under the circumstances, maybe I ought not to go down that path, Tobin thought.

This was by far the most passing strange event he could recall in a long, some might say well-lived life. Even hunting in the deep woods over the years, and the occasional inexplicable whistles and screams that locals insisted with just a little too much vigor were the cries of catamounts, except for the fact any damn fool knew all too well no big cat was capable of whistling, had never quite presented him with such an experience.

For several long moments, Tobin and the reflection which was not really a reflection silently regarded each other, separated by a distance whose exact measurements and nature defied easy explanation. Raising the glass of single malt whiskey which glinted in his free hand, Tobin silently toasted the figure, which he noticed with some grim satisfaction lacked a similar libation, and knocked back the peaty liquid, the whiskey’s smoothness dispelling the chill creeping into this bones. Without a backwards glance, he turned and went upstairs to bed.

***

Tobin’s life, some might say, had more or less shifted to auto-pilot when his wife of fifty-two years, Anne-Marie, had finally crossed over, although whether or not Tobin would agree with such an assessment was debatable. Like most marriages, their relationship had endured peaks and valleys, although Tobin liked to think that the peaks that they had scaled, individually as well as together, counted more than the occasional valleys of loneliness, recrimination and even despair. Their boy, Ethan, was out on his own and doing well, something to do with technology and consulting which had him traveling much of the time, although he and Tobin were close enough that the boy regularly checked up on him and visited whenever he could.

If pressed, Tobin might admit to a tinge of loneliness, although in stoic fashion, he wasn’t one for complaining or focusing much discussion on himself. He filled his days keeping up the property and continuing to do his woodworking, a hobby which had filled much of his time since he was a young man. Most mornings, he’d meet up with some of the locals at the Battenkyll General Store, enjoying the scents of freshly ground coffee beans and just out of the oven baked goods. These interactions, as far as he could tell, helped keep him grounded and some of the loneliness at bay.

Let’s face it. You spend the better part of a lifetime with someone, their absence once they’re gone is something not easily ignored. And in your case, Tobin, you’re simply projecting something which isn’t really there, not really at least, seeking comfort in the familiar.

Of course, whether this explanation really could hold water was not something that Tobin cared to contemplate too deeply, especially after witnessing the same over the span of three nights. By now, this silent acknowledgement and toast to the reflection which was not a reflection across the span of his field had taken on the significance of a ritual, albeit one that Tobin was not fully comfortable embracing.

So far, each night had pretty much gone the same. Tobin was a man of certain habits, and while as evening would set across the autumnal fields, the sun sinking low over a forest filled with a riot of crimsons, golds, oranges and yellows as leaves turned with the passage of seasons and the inexorable cycle of birth, death and renewal that governed all living things, he kept a weather eye out for his doppelganger. Thus far, the post fence and field always remained empty until night was well ensconced upon the land, and the midnight hour had come and gone.

Tobin was also an educated and literate man, and as such, knew his share of mythology and folk traditions. Perhaps a younger man, or one of a more timid and fearful disposition, would be alarmed at the repeated sight of his own doppelganger, or reflection which was not a reflection as Tobin had come to prefer to term this phenomenon, given what such a sighting might portend. Seeing one’s doppelganger, at least in some traditions, was often considered a harbinger of ill luck, and some would go so far as to say imminent death, but Tobin couldn’t be bothered with such magical thinking.

When one’s time comes, it comes. Although I only wish Anne-Marie’s time had come after mine.

Still, Tobin had also noticed over the past couple of days that the hoots and cries of a Great Horned Owl as it diligently hunted, death on silent feathered wings, seemed more pronounced as of late. He had always had a fondness for owls, and appreciated how they kept the rodent population down, yet whether or not he should take this development, coincidental or not, as some accompanying omen still remained to be processed.

On this fourth night, his tumbler filled with a couple of fingers of single malt and just a splash of water to open it up, Tobin composed himself by the large bay window and looked out into the darkness. This time the reflection which was not a reflection, his doppelganger if you will, was not outside of the fence line but halfway across the field, closer to his home. Tobin felt the icy tendrils of unease grab hold of his body, despite the comforting warmth of his nightcap. Perhaps on some level he had expected, even anticipated this development, but that did little to lessen the shock of actually seeing it.

This time, Tobin couldn’t even be sure if he raised his hand in silent salute first, or the figure halfway across the field did so first. Had he had someone immediately available to recount this experience to, he might have even expressed some puzzlement, or even dismay, that the wind, blowing harder this night than previous ones, had kicked up many of the fallen leaves, and even as he tipped back his head and allowed the last of the whiskey’s warmth to coat his throat, the reflection which was not a reflection seemed to dissolve amid the swirl of cast off leaves, as if fleeing from the hint of coming winter.

***

On the sixth night, Tobin treated himself to an extra couple of fingers of whiskey, figuring that with his nightly visitor, welcome or not, he might as well be somewhat sociable. The thought had occurred to him of pouring another tumbler, perhaps even as some token offering even if this entire experience was some figment of his imagination, the fanciful nighttime neurons firing of a lonely widower with too much time on his hands and perhaps not enough to occupy it any longer, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to do so.

He had dreamed the night before, or at least, he was pretty sure that he had dreamed, watching from a literal bird’s eye view as a beautiful horned owl soared on the night’s currents, wings outstretched as it glided between the trees, alert for prey which trembled in fear from what it instinctively knew stalked it, silent and unseen.

Even more peculiarly, he had awoken with a short phrase on his lips, which he had diligently transcribed into the journal that he kept beside his bed, a longstanding habit he had cultivated since his youth. He had written those words down, diligently reciting them from memory, their vaguely ominous undertones chilling him even as winter crept closer.

That which is nameless shall be named.

            And that which is formless shall be formed.

            And surely the twain must never meet;

            For then thou will surely die.

Not exactly the most heartwarming sentiment to wake up to. It had sounded vaguely biblical, but Tobin could find no reference in any online searches of popular editions of The Bible, and even a search of books of the Apocrypha had failed to turn up a match. He had contemplated reaching out to Ethan, but he didn’t want the boy to start worrying about him, thinking his old man had finally gone ‘round the bend, crazy with grief or maybe the onset of dementia.

Tobin approached the bay window with some trepidation. It was a cold night, and the chill of the night air and the relative warmth of the house had caused condensation to form on the glass.

Using the sleeve of his arm, he wiped away the mist, and nearly recoiled in shock, only the steady hands which he still prided himself on retaining preventing him from sloshing his drink all over himself and the hardwood floor.

The reflection which was not a reflection, his doppelganger, was now separated from him by only the pane of reinforced glass, gazing back at him with as much surprise as he looked upon him, or it, or whatever it might be. As he recovered from the shock, he noticed that while indeed a strong likeness, this thing, this doppelganger, this reflection which was not a reflection couldn’t indeed be said to be exactly identical. No, the resemblance, if you truly looked, was more akin to a fraternal twin, a very good likeness indeed, with similar build, but the eyes (oh, those eyes!) would never be mistaken for his, as Tobin’s were unmistakably a vibrant green like a storm-tossed sea and his counterpart’s were a deep gray, the depths of which swirled with as many unanswered questions as Tobin was sure he himself had.

As Tobin placed his free hand upon the cold glass, separated from That Which Stood Just Beyond His Reach, his gesture was matched with uncanny precision, the palms and outstretched fingers of Tobin and The Other separated only by the cold, slick surface. For how long they might have remained, locked in some silent commune, if not understanding, Tobin couldn’t for sure say, because he awoke later that night on his favorite lounge chair, his finished drink beside him, with no recollection of having stepped away from the window, much less fallen asleep in the chair.

Throughout that seventh day, he fretted, his mind awash with what could only be felt, and what seemed to defy a rational, convincing explanation. He again thought about calling Ethan, but what would he say to his son?

I need you to come quick, because I’m seeing things that aren’t there? That can’t possibly be there? I need you to be burdened with the silly stylings of an aging mind, a man who is growing fearful of shadows and approaching winter nights?

Tobin couldn’t bring himself to do it, and he felt that he owed it to Anne-Marie to maintain half the grace and composure with which she had conducted herself, even as the drawn out end had approached.

But was it really the end? Wasn’t it true, if energy could neither be created nor destroyed, that whatever form one might exist in, whether in this world or some other, that while the form might undergo change, the underlying spirit or consciousness or soul or whatever you might term it would endure?

As the hours ticked off and midnight drew near, Tobin felt apprehension, and perhaps an underlying current of fear, but he would not let this deter him. If nothing else, he felt alive in a way he hadn’t in the months since Anne-Marie’s passing, and that was something he wasn’t sure he would ever feel again.

This time, reason be damned, he went ahead and poured out another tumbler of whiskey, figuring it surely couldn’t hurt. As he made his way from the kitchen towards the bay window in the study, the site of these puzzling hallucinations (if that’s what they were), or half-awake dreaming, he unexpectedly froze as a rap on the front door echoed through the empty house, followed by two evenly spaced accompanying raps.

Tobin approached the front door, straining his ears to hear whatever might be standing on the other side of the doorstep. Only the wind, which had been steadily mounting for several days, could be heard above the steady thrumming of his heart.

Unlocking the door, Tobin slowly swung it open.

As he expected, indeed, as he knew it would be, his reflection which was not a reflection, his doppelganger, his just after midnight companion of the past six nights stood silent on the step, steadily returning his gaze.

“Who are you?” Tobin heard himself ask.

In response, the Other held out his hand, the flicker of a smile on an otherwise welcoming face. Strangely, or perhaps not, Tobin felt no fear, no panic, no remorse. As if a child responding to a parent’s request, he reached out, and felt the coolness of the hand take his as they stepped out into the night, the door quietly swinging closed behind him.

Tobin could feel the earth beneath his feet, his moccasins molded to this world, even as they walked in silent lucidity across the field, and if some other sentient being was watching (as indeed a Great Horned Owl perched on a nearby maple was), and if said being could be graced with all the burdens and privileges of human speech (which alas it could not), surely it would have recounted how the two figures stepped off into the night, until the swirl of fallen leaves discarded in anticipation of coming Winter all but hid their passage from this world and into Whatever Lies Beyond.

Bereft of human speech, but wise in the ways of all things, the Great Horned Owl sounded a hunting cry and took flight, keen eyes seeing into the gossamer separating two worlds, content that all was as it was meant to be.

 

THE END

(c) 2018 Jonathan Samuel Ross

All rights reserved.

Photo Credit: “Autumn” by Philipp Medicus. Flickr Creative Commons.

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Categories Fiction, Storytelling, writing

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