Now I See

I’m not a sentimental person, but there's something about the feel of a block of wood in my hands that makes me smile. I think it's the weight of unlimited possibility. What starts as something the unimaginative might view as an inert object can, under the correct set of circumstances, become nearly anything.

My father always believed that a man should work with his hands. He thought it was a way of connecting to the physical world, and that it could transform the person and the creation at the same time. That by molding something you could in turn mold yourself. I don't know if I buy into that philosophical stuff, but I do know that there is something endlessly satisfying about the process. I just lose myself in it completely.

And, hell, maybe I do get a little metaphysical with it all.

Before I start any new project, I like to take my raw materials and just sit with them. I like to run my hands over the wood and feel the still-lingering pulse of life in its knots and splinters. I like the way my callouses give and pull against the grain. I have to admit that there is something spiritual about it.

Some days I'd walk into my workshop with no clue what to make. I’d let the wood tell me. That communication, the back and forth between object and man, well, it's magical.

But that's neither here nor there, and besides, it's not the story I need to tell.

I was on a walk in the forest behind my house when I found it, that gnarled and dark segment of an unidentifiable tree. It's coarseness, and the many knots and gouges, suggested cedar, but the color was wrong and it felt too light when I picked it up. It might well have been driftwood, had I not lived a thousand miles from the nearest ocean. It was a fascinating find, and I vowed to do something with it when time allowed.

I didn’t have an idea of what I might do with the wood. Sometimes it can be fun to have a project that doesn't abide by rules and structure and forethought. It was my plan to start carving and sanding without intention. To see where the creative spark led me.

It seemed appropriate with this piece in particular. This strange chunk of timber, already hewn by the forces of nature into something exotic, would be the perfect canvas on which to let my imagination run wild.

In that regard, my first impressions of the work I was creating showed a success. My hands flew over the wood with a speed that I had never before known. I would only just finish one phase of the project before I would find my hands already on the tools needed for the next. It was as if I were the conduit for some creative force. My workshop, in the end, resembled nothing less than a disaster area, with wood shavings and tools strewn about in an entirely uncharacteristic fashion.

Imagine my disappointment, then, when I saw the finished product.

I had expected a work of art, something that might justify the creative frenzy in which I had immersed myself. Instead, I had created what can only be described as a child’s poor attempt at a Halloween mask.

Except that description doesn't quite fit what I had created. Though the shape and structure resembled a mask, the gnarls and knots in the wood made it impractical to hold, even after being sanded down, and it lacked in any kind of mouth or nose openings. It was a curving oblong panel, with two eye holes and nothing more. To use it, I would have to hold it continuously against my face.

What’s more, the grain of the wood, once sanded and finished, swirled in patterns of light and dark, giving the mask the appearance of facial features where none existed. Dark wood merged with blond to form hollows that resembled cheekbones, and lines formed where the wood had splintered near the eye holes. From a distance, the mask looked like an old woman’s face, devoid of nose and mouth.

I shrugged my shoulders at my creation. The human mind and its imaginative impulses are mysterious, I reckoned.

And so, without any fanfare, I placed my brand new mask to my face.

If you had been watching me in my workshop at that moment, you might have thought I was working on a comedy routine. You would have seen me tentatively put an ugly mask against my face and recoil as if I'd been burned. You would have even seen me rub my eyes in disbelief, like a cartoon character in an old Warner Brothers short. It probably would have looked quite funny.

It was not.

It's difficult to think about now, that instant my whole world changed. Even with everything that came after.

You see, when I peered through the mask’s lensless eyes, I did not see my workshop. At least, not in any form I recognized. Where the plain wooden door should have been, there was instead a gaping darkness studded with motes of light. Surrounding the black void, shadows leaned and wavered, as if lit by some unseen fire.

I wrenched the mask from my eyes. I rubbed them and blinked hard. The workshop stood as it always had. Coated with sawdust, but bright and cheery. No invisible fire flickered; no darkness permeated the wood and aluminum space.

I gingerly prodded the mask, pushing my fingers through the eye holes as I did. There was nothing there to modify my sight; it was open from front to back.

I paced around the workshop, thinking about my mental health and whether I'd been getting enough sleep lately. My eyes kept wandering to the wooden object sitting on my table. It beckoned me. Just another look. What will it hurt?

I picked the mask up again, and once more placed it against my face.

The world around me looked as it had before. Darkness enveloped the familiar shapes of my workshop, as shadows danced and tugged at the edges of my vision. I turned in a full circle, fighting the dizzy uncertainty as I went. I could just make out the well-worn benches and tables in the overbearing fog of gray.

I looked up at the ceiling. Tendrils of black radiated from a corner of the workshop like mold. As I watched, they pulsed nearly imperceptibly as they spread out, inching across the metal roof. I began to take note of a smell, dank and earthy, as if I were breathing compost.

I leaned against the workbench and pulled the mask from my face. All around me, the workshop remained the same as it had been earlier that day. Only the smell lingered to give evidence to my experience.

I should have left it all behind then. I should have destroyed the mask and forgotten about the whole thing. I didn't.

Instead, I brought it into my home.

I'll admit that I let curiosity get the better of me. Pragmatism has never been my strong suit. Perhaps that's why I've always loved woodworking: it's a world where creativity and structure meet. They depend on each other and can never truly be disentangled.

I tried not to look through the mask once I brought it into the house. I really did. But I gave in to my curiosity more quickly than I'd like to confess.

I stood in my kitchen, running my hands across the sanded knots of the mask and tracing the swirls of color. I thought I felt something warm humming through it like a pulse, but I dismissed the notion as a paranoid fantasy.

As I once again brought it up to my eyes, I was gripped by a sudden fear. What if I wasn't seeing the world through some sort of distorted prism? What if I were inviting something in that wasn't there before? I held the object still in my hands while the lump in my throat grew larger and more insistent.

I took a deep breath and looked through the wood.

The crushing gloom had returned to the world around me. Familiar sights were distorted and warped. Where the straight lines of the refrigerator once stood, there now were oozing, dark undulations that moved and twitched languidly. The refrigerator appeared to sway back and forth in the dim gray kitchen.

I turned to look out of the window. Light had flooded in through it in the moments before I put the mask to my eyes. That light was replaced by the same blackness that had proliferated the space where the woodshop door had been. Motes floated in front of it, both sparkling and dull at the same time. Shadows surrounded me, just outside of my periphery. I moved my head to follow their path, only to find an unmoving, uniform darkness in their stead.

Something skittered next to my feet, causing me to jump. I thought I heard the sound of insect-like clicks across the floor. I listened more intently but heard nothing. Not even the sounds of the suburban daytime that I had taken for granted mere moments before.

Out of the corner of my eye, movement. The skittering began again, seconds behind. Every impulse in my body told me to take the mask off. But I didn't. I held it tightly to my face as if paralyzed.

I backed slowly into a corner of my kitchen, suddenly aware of my vulnerability, my forced tunnel-vision. Around me the shadows wavered, black on dark gray on light gray, throbbing like a heartbeat. I recognized the smell from earlier, the musty, organic smell that had invaded my nostrils in the workshop. It seemed stronger somehow in the darkness of the kitchen.

I heard a sound then, muffled as if through water, from my front door. It was a knocking, muted and faint. I walked slowly, one hand extended in front of me, the other clamping the mask to my face. When I reached the front door, I pushed the curtain back from the window to look out. Tendrils of blackness clung to my fingers as I touched the fabric. Their dark lines extended from my hands to the curtain, drawing a connection between my body and the blackness. I looked down at my fingers with some interest before turning my attention to the window.

Through the blinding darkness I could see a figure. It swam into focus, walking towards me through a dense fog. I could barely hear its voice call out to me.

"Hey buddy, I need a signature on this package."

It pushed its head toward the window, and I recoiled in horror. The face was gaunt and hollow, with gray skin stretched across a broad skull. I could see that pieces of skin were missing, torn away to reveal only darkness underneath.

I wrenched the mask from my face and flung them across the room. The mailman stared at me quizzically through my living room window, before shrugging his shoulders and setting a package down on my front porch.

I couldn't make sense of what I had just seen. It was as if someone had painted another world atop my own. Maybe I was hallucinating? Or maybe the mask distorted my perception. That must be it, I concluded. The wood must be interacting somehow with my visual system. I'm no scientist, but it made a kind of sense to me. Maybe I had released some sort of chemical in my sawing and sanding.

I gathered up the mask from the corner of the room where I had thrown it. It seemed perfectly harmless in the mid afternoon light. I laughed at myself for being so silly, and told myself that I'd leave it be.

But, as I'm sure you are well aware, curiosity is a dangerous thing. Days passed, and I ignored the wooden creation, giving it little thought as I went about my life. Slowly, though, I began to think more about it. Perception is fascinating, and wouldn't it be worthwhile to immerse myself once again in an altered state? What would be the harm?

Little by little, day by day, I wore the mask. First, it was five minutes, just to see what my yard looked like. The darkness was claustrophobic, but still I pressed on. By the time a week had passed, I was wearing the mask for hours at a time. I watched the television, marveling at how an angry, buzzing static replaced the talking heads on the news. I spied on my neighbors through the window, watching their skeletal figures dance through the undulating darkness. I watched as pieces of my house fell away, revealing nothing but blackness underneath. All the while, I ignored the smell of decay that seemed to permeate my entire house.

It was midway through the second week before I worked up the courage to look at myself in the mirror through the mask. I had been afraid, yes, but it was more than that. Something about seeing myself as the mask saw me felt definitive, like I was leaping off a cliff into something unknown.

I was right to be afraid. I was right to feel a sense of finality. I faced the mirror, expecting to see the mask, in whatever form it took, in front of my face. Instead, I saw through it. I saw myself, without the mask. The face staring back at me was gaunt and pale. It illuminated the darkness around it, casting off sparkling motes of light in the black. A deep slit ran from cheek to cheek, widening the mouth in a grotesque mimic of a smile. I leaned into the mirror, looking at my own eyes. They were hollow and black and empty of anything at all. The whole face was twisted as if in agony, and I realized that I was screaming. I could hear myself far away, under an ocean of crushing gloom.  

At that moment the weight of my experiences came crashing down on me. I hadn't been to work in two weeks, had I? Had anyone called? Had I called anyone? I must have eaten, but I couldn't remember what. Had I even left the house? I clawed at my memories, but I couldn't recall anything other than the inside of my house enveloped in darkness.

I burned the mask in a barrel behind my house. It went up quickly, turning the orange flames a dusky brown before evaporating into a pile of black soot.

This is not a horror movie; it did not return, unharmed, to my kitchen table.

I attempted to put my life back in order. I explained to my boss about an extended and pernicious flu, and though he was angry and skeptical, I was able to keep my job. I worked to gain back the five pounds I lost in those two weeks. I settled into my regular routine, though I no longer had the urge to do any woodworking.

It all became perfectly normal again, except for the spot on my wall. And the smell.

I noticed the spot the day after I burned the mask. At first, I thought it was mold, that small black mark on my kitchen wall. It looked like mold and spread its spidery wisps across the surface just like I imagined a fungus to do. But when I got close to it, I could see it pulsing ever so slightly. And it smelled. It smelled of an organic rot that nearly bowled me over.

I scrubbed it and scrubbed it, but it only ever got bigger. And when I touched it with my finger, those tendrils clung to my skin. My hand is still stained with that pulsing blackness, though no one has mentioned it. No one seems to notice it spreading up my arm, a little bit more each day.

I don't know what happened to me, or why the darkness has now taken over my kitchen entirely. But I know it will eventually take over my house and my world, stripping the light away entirely.

It reminds me, somehow, of an optical illusion that I saw when I was a kid. You know the one with the rabbit and the duck? At first, you only can see one, and it makes perfect sense. It's orderly and right. But then you see the other animal. Once that happens, you can never see it as you once did, no matter how hard you try.

It's a symptom of being human. We rely on what our perception tells us is true, and we don't doubt it. How could we? We'd never be able to live if we second-guessed every single element of our world.

That perception is comforting. More than that, it allows us to have lives of real or imagined meaning, should we so choose. But it is just perception.

I know now. I'm certain of it. There is a world that lies just beneath our own. Or perhaps what we see as our own world is nothing more than a pleasing illusion painted atop the real one. Either way, I've peeked behind the curtain. I've recoiled at the layers I never knew existed. You don't want to see the world as it is.