Copyright © 2002 Robert G. Ferrell

The Stranger

The stranger appeared in the doorway. The doorway itself had appeared scant seconds earlier, seemingly from nowhere. The shadowy figure was no more than a vaguely human-shaped outline, and stood perfectly still as heavy mist from the moors poured in around it. The image lacked a certain anchoring in reality, and he found himself squinting as though trying to resolve it into something more familiar and intellectually palpable.

For a long moment nothing stirred in the room. Even the influx of mist seemed to have reached an equilibrium and it began to settle wetly onto the stone flooring. He held his breath; not as a conscious gesture, but almost as if to preserve his last unremarkable gulp of air for as long as possible.

He thought back to the events leading up to the appearance of the portal and found that they were hazy and indistinct, like a recent dream now fading into oblivion. His entire life prior to the here and now seemed less than real, in fact, and he wondered if this were the onset of some form of insanity. He wanted to walk over and touch the stranger for reassurance of his own objective existence, but found himself unwilling to move for fear the figure and doorway might prove to be as insubstantial as his memories.

So they stood, frozen in time and locked in an oneiric diorama from some dimly-lit museum of chance encounters. He could see, or at least fancied he could see, the barely perceptible motion of the figure's shoulders as it breathed. This comforted him in some small irrational way. Although he couldn't really separate the figure from the gloom of night fast on its heels, he decided that it was a woman. The sudden freedom to think of the stranger as something other than 'it' had a salutary effect on his psyche, as well. He began to feel more like an intrinsic part of the drama, rather than a mere bewildered observer. He contemplated breathing, and decided in favor of it. The world immediately lost some of its deep velvet haze.

Still, the enigma remained. A doorway from nowhere, a mutely immobile interloper, and a past with no sharp edges or highlights. He could feel a tension building up inside him, one that cried out for him to leap up and talk to the stranger or hug her or in some way affirm both her and his own actuality. Instead, all he could do was stare.

This paralysis of will was deeply disturbing and wholly unnatural, but he felt oddly at home with it, as though it had always been a part of him. Unbidden and completely without warning a crystalline memory etched in white porcelain fire erupted from the occult caldera of his soul. Earth, sky, floor, ceiling–all whirled around him in a tortured melange of atmosphere and architecture that could not mask the pain, the grief of a loss abruptly relived. He wept openly, yet no tears broke the stoic barrier of his eyes.

With a tremendous pulse of will he brought forth a living cocoon a thousand miles in depth that engulfed his physical body and enfolded it like a delicate glove. He was at once insulated and forever distanced from the ebbs and flows, surges and vicissitudes of the common human experience, but he could not shield himself from all that which had gone before. His memories now crowded together in jumbled panoply, no longer insubstantial and remote but looming terrifyingly large and cast in sharp relief on his mind's eye. From horizon to horizon they spread, and from their baleful glance there was no possibility of escape. He slid bonelessly to the floor.

For hours or millennia he rocked there silently, trapped and fleeing blindly through the no man's land of his own subconscious. He dodged and turned, whirled and bobbed, but slowly, inevitably, he fell. Rising, he set off again, but only a little further on he fell again. Each struggle to his feet was more heroic, each collapse more exhausting. Finally he could rise no more.

Alone, prostrate at the feet of his own towering fears and cruel fragments of hopes unrealized, loves unrequited, he ceased to struggle. His terror overtook him in an instant, but passed through without touching him. He watched it, a moving red wall of pulsing magma, until it was out of range of his perception. An unfamiliar peace settled over him then, and he did not resist its embrace. At long last he felt able to accept his life and the universe as they were. With that acceptance, the room, the window, the doorway all faded into the shadows of a distant past. He became oblivion, and oblivion was his essence.

As the full moon moved inexorably along its course, the doorway metamorphosed into a reflected window; the inscrutable stranger became the shadow of a gnarled shrub. A mouse skittered along the skeletal remains heaped in one corner of the ruins of the asylum, long abandoned. Outside, an owl took up residence in an ancient elm and called solemnly for the dawn.