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The White Circle
They say that dreams are the soul cleansing itself, washing away all the worldly fear and evil that accumulates during the day. If that’s true…
I had been sitting before the fire, enjoying my customary evening smoke before retiring to sleep’s warm and silent embrace, when a hammering came at my door. The hour was late, and I was expecting no callers, so I approached the door with trepidation. Looking through the peephole, I was shocked to see my dear friend and former student Dr. H., an upstanding citizen who ordinarily would never appear upon a man’s doorstep unannounced like this, standing on the other side. I was scarcely able to unfasten the latch before my unexpected visitor had pushed the door open and forced his way inside, evidently in a state of greatest agitation. “The circle!” He cried. “The circle, the circle! Why won’t it let me be? You have to help me, Professor!” I hadn’t the faintest idea what he was raving about, but nonetheless I tried to calm him as best I could. After the liberal application of blankets and cognac (it was a cold night outside, and he had been shivering visibly when he first arrived he finally began to settle down, nestled in the very same chair before the fire which I had been occupying until a few minutes prior, and was able to begin explaining to me the cause of his panicked late-night visit, albeit still in somewhat less than the exactingly rational language I was used to hearing from him. His voice as thin and raspy, and even with the infusions of revivifying liquor his eyes still had a sunken, haunted quality.
“It’s a circle,” he began. “A dim, white circle. Very dim. Dim and round, like a plate. Or maybe a distant planet. I started seeing it about a week ago, I think. I can’t seem to remember exactly. My thought have grown clouded and confused these past few days. I don’t think I’ve been sleeping well. I don’t dream anymore. Because of the circle. It’s strange, I know I used to dream, just like everyone else, but I’ve forgotten what it was like, dreaming, before I started seeing it. That’s when I see it, you understand, when you’re supposed to dream. When you’re asleep. But I don’t dream anymore, I just see the circle. They say that dreams are the soul cleansing itself, washing away all the worldly fear and evil that accumulates during the day. If that’s true… well, in any case, I just see the circle. It didn’t show up right away. For a night or two or three I just saw darkness. I don’t mean I would blackout. No, no.. I mean I would awaken in the morning, and remember all the darkness of the night. Not a flat darkness, you understand, like you see when you close your eyes, but a huge, timeless, infinite darkness, like the starless depths of space. I didn’t think much of it. I should have. Because then I started seeing the circle, and it didn’t feel like I was dreaming anymore. It feels like something else, something that gives me no rest. It’s so dim, I can barely see it. I probably wouldn’t notice it at all if there was anything else to look at. But there isn’t. There isn’t anything else. It barely stands out from the darkness at all. But I can tell it’s white, pure and brilliant white. It’s just in the dark. It’s like it’s painted on a wall in a room where there’s only a single candle for illumination, and the candle is somewhere behind me, and I’m tied there… but no, it’s really like I don’t have a body at all. Like I don’t have a body and I’m in a room that’s very dark staring at a wall that’s painted the deepest black you can imagine, except for this one circle, right at the center of my vision, not too large, but not too small either, just a plain white disc, and I can’t move, or speak, or even look around, all I can do is stare at this circle. Maybe it’s not a room at all, maybe it’s nowhere, but I’m trying to explain to you what the sensation is like. It doesn’t feel like a dream, like something my mind is creating for me, it feels like… something else. I would say it feels like a real place, a place I’ve visited, or perhaps heard about, except it doesn’t really feel like a place at all. It feels like a real place that isn’t really a place, or isn’t a place you or I could ever really visit. I’m sorry. I’m talking in circles. I don’t know how to explain it. I must sound mad; maybe I am mad. Every night when I close my eyes I see the circle, nothing but the circle, barely visible, but visible nonetheless. I wish I couldn’t see it at all. It never gets any brighter or any dimmer. It never moves or changes shape. It will just be there, and then I’ll find the whole night has gone by, the sun high over the hills and streaming in my bedroom window, and I’ll feel as though I’ve hardly slept a minute. As if I closed my eyes just a moment ago. I can barely think anymore, I’m so tired. It’s dreadful, Professor, a nightmare. I feel like I’m trapped in a nightmare I can’t understand. Why won’t it leave me alone? I know how absurd this must sound, but… I think it’s something evil. I mean it, Professor. You know I am a man of science like yourself, a believer in the supremacy of rationality over superstition, but when I see that circle I feel nothing but the presence of an absolute malevolence, of some horror that wishes me nothing but the very worst. I tried to deny the feeling at first, to tell myself that it was just fatigue and suggestion from that damned girl, but —”
“Hold on now,” I interjected. “What girl?”
“Oh, of course.” He blinked, and suddenly seemed to regain a bit of himself. “I guess I’m telling the thing all jumbled up. I must not be making any sense at all. The thing is I don’t know, I can’t prove it’s related, but I suppose I ought to tell it anyway. It was so very strange. And I know it must have been right before this torment started. I feel like it must be important, even if I can’t understand how.”
He took a long sip from his glass. “You see, a couple weeks ago I was unexpectedly forced to spend the night in an old farmhouse to the east of here. Do you know that part of the country, Professor? It’s a very inhospitable place. Flat, marshy, desolate. Primitive dirt roads full of roots to trip over and potholes to break your ankle in. Very sparsely populated. You can go for miles without a sign of human habitation, just endless fields and ponds and chittering creatures hidden in the weeds. I was trying to get to the city of K. I had some business there. It was nothing gravely important, just some papers that needed to be signed. I’d hoped to make the journey in a day, but I got caught in a thick fog. I couldn’t see six feet in front of me. My horses, the stupid beasts, refused to go any farther, even under the cruelest bite of my lash. They acted as though we were at the edge of some abyss that I was trying to drive them down into. Absurd creatures. I was worried I would have to spend the night sheltering in my carriage at the side of the road, but I saw the lights from a farmhouse through the gloom. They had an oil lamp hanging on the front porch, like a beacon. Or a lure.”
“The small family that lived there. An old woman, her grown son, and his daughter. They were kind enough to let me share their supper and lend me a room with a cot to spend the night in. The old woman was decrepit. Hunched and shriveled and blind in one eye. It wouldn’t have surprised me to learn she was a hundred years old, although I didn’t think to ask. I didn’t ask any questions at all. Not even her name. Any of their names. Something about their manner discouraged. It wasn’t that they were unfriendly. It just seemed pointless. The old woman didn’t seem surprised when she answered the door. I started to explain but she said there was no need. No need. She led me inside and dinner was already on the table. Waiting to be served. Like they had been expecting me. Waiting for me. Perhaps it’s something about that landscape that discourages inquisitiveness; the loneliness, the isolation. It makes idle curiosity seem unbearably trivial. There was barely a word said over our shared meal. A few times I noticed the son looking at me with something almost like sadness. I was seated directly across the table from him, with the daughter on one side and the grandmother on the other. I didn’t pay much attention to the daughter then, although now I wish I had. She was young, perhaps seventeen, and had long, unkempt blonde hair. That’s the most I can say about her. She didn’t speak. I don’t think she ever met my gaze. Not then. But that wasn’t the last time I saw her. You see, something woke me in the middle of the night, that night at the farmhouse. I don’t know what. It wasn’t that a noise startled me. The room was still as dark as a cave. Only a few moonbeams fell in through the window. I was just suddenly awake. I felt the need to get up and look out at the night. So I did. I wish I knew why, but I don’t. It just felt like the necessary thing to do at that moment, somehow. Like it was my… purpose. My fate. It must have been well past midnight. The fog had cleared. The night was clear and bright. I saw the field of weeds behind the house and the even thicker wilds beyond. A low mountain range in the far distance. Then it caught my eye. The girl, the daughter, was standing out there in the field. Her hair was hanging down over her face, hiding her eyes. Nonetheless, I felt sure she was looking straight at me. She was wearing nothing but a dirty smock, which barely covered her. It felt improper to see her in such a state, but I found I couldn’t tear my gaze away. She just stood there, looking up at me. I saw she was shaking slightly, like a shiver, although the night was warm, or like a current of energy was passing through her. I didn’t know what to do. The whole thing felt wrong. Evil. I shouldn’t even have been there, remember? I wanted to move, to escape, to do something, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t do anything at all. My eyes started to water. I realized I hadn’t blinked in a very long time. It made my vision blur. Suddenly, she wasn’t out there anymore. It was like she had just vanished. I whatever trance I had been under had lifted. I was able to sleep for a few hours, then left early. I didn’t see anyone on my way out, and I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to involve myself any further in their strange affairs. Perhaps I should have.” He was staring into the fire, distress etched in his face. “Anyway, it wasn’t until after that that I started seeing the circle, I think. Although the more I turn it over in my mind the less sure I am. Maybe it started long before that, and my mind has created false memories of dreams I never had. Maybe my encounter, or whatever it was, with that girl was itself just a dream. A bad omen conjured by a troubled mind. Maybe I’ve never dreamed at all. Maybe it’s always been nothing but the circle in the dim light and the blackness all around. Maybe that evil thing is something I’ve created myself, some part of me that I had suppressed that’s only now coming to the surface, some true, dark nature I’ve been in denial about. My very soul’s face. Maybe —”
I had to cut him off. He was growing agitated again. “Please, Doctor!” I grabbed his arm. “You’re working yourself into hysterics over nothing more than a meaningless little vision. I agree it is strange to so persistently see the same thing night after night, but it’s hardly unprecedented. The annals of medicine are full of such cases. And as to the supposed ‘evil’ or ‘malevolence’ of this vision, try to think more rationally! I mean really, what threat could such a thing even suggest, much less somehow possess in itself? It’s as benign a thing as one can imagine! Really Doctor, you’ve let yourself get quite overexcited. The human mind is a curious thing, it’s true, but nothing you’ve told me suggests anything more than the need for a good night’s rest.” I took care, in calming him, not to touch upon the question of the girl in the field. As much as I wanted to allay all his fears that very night, I knew it would be wrong to dismiss as wholly insignificant such an undeniably peculiar event. I resolved to consult some books in my collection, on pre-Christian folk beliefs of the eastern lowlands. It was unlikely I would find anything, but something about the episode nagged at me, and the research felt necessary. But that, I decided, could wait for morning. In the meantime, the important thing was to get the Doctor off to bed. Even if he had not been in such a weakened state, the hour was now late enough that it would have been my duty as a host to offer him the guest bedroom. He was reluctant at first, but the cognac and the exertion of extended speech had done their work upon him, and after some persuasion he accepted my offer. I led him to the room and bid him good night.
The next morning, after a long slumber full of obscure and troubled dreams, I rose later than usual, and was surprised not to find the Doctor already awake when I came down. While bringing my breakfast, the maid told me that the door to the guest bedroom was locked, and as far as she knew he was still asleep. When, after the meal was finished, he still had not appeared, I grew concerned, and went up to check on him. I rapped on his door repeatedly, but received no answer. Finally, I fetched the skeleton key and let myself in. There, lying on the bed, the blankets drawn up to his chin despite the warmth of the day, I found him. He was dead. His face wore the most unspeakable expression I have ever seen, and was so pale it was like blood had never flowed in his veins at all.
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