Aphelion Issue 279, Volume 26
December 2022/January 2023
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The Secret

by Ioan Alexandru Despina

It was a warm summer day. The Sun seemed to fill the sky and the fields were lazily dancing under its scorching rays. A lone bird sang a simple melody: a handful of notes, repeated every minute or so.

Vasile had just finished mowing the section of the field he had chosen to work on that day. He had bought the land some time ago after one of the neighbors from down the river had moved on. He shielded his face with his hand and squinted against the indolence-inducing light to look upon his land.

For him it wasn't enough to live among the villagers. He wanted to be like them, to work side by side, to dress like a real farmer, although few real farmers dressed like that anymore. But what he wanted the most was to speak to them, to share his thoughts and opinions. To fit in. He admired the country people; he had he read a lot about them when he was young. So when he had the chance, he had left the city to start anew.

On his way into the village, he greeted some old men who were nodding off in the shadow of a walnut tree. Then he laughed with some children who were going to the river to swim and play with the clay of the riverbank.

But when he tried to cross the iron road that divided the village into not so equal halves, he suddenly felt his scythe trembling and twitching, and then suddenly an unexpected tremor passed through his body, clenching his hands to the wood and contorting his face in a horrible grimace.

Everything went dark.

He woke up at dusk in the ditch filled with overgrown weeds, bundles of nettles and sheaves of wormwood. His numb arms were covered in ugly, purulent blisters; his chest was hurting as if he had a terrible weight on it, and when he tried to get up his muscles started to throb and his body to ache. He staggered away to his home, trying to figure out what happened. There was no one in sight, only the indifferent sunset, the swaying trees and the dogs madly barking at him for some crimes only they understood.

Finally, after he stumbled a couple of times, he reached the gate and tried to go into the courtyard.

His wife Florica had been waiting for him on the threshold for a couple of hours, ready to start a fight with him because of his tardiness. She didn't like the country life and least of all the fact that she had to spend all day sitting alone in the house and doing nothing.

But when he laid eyes on her, Vasile let out a strangled scream and retreated in fright, dropping the water bottle he always carried when he worked in the fields.

Concern replaced anger in his wife's eyes, and she tried to run to him, but Vasile ran from her as fast as his aching legs could carry him.

He returned after midnight and stopped in the empty barn. He tried to fall asleep but he just couldn't. He kept tossing and turning, wondering and worrying.

What had happened to Florica? What were all those dark threads that were bursting out of her body, filling the air and twisting like snakes and then sliding back into her?

After thinking for some time, haunted by terrible thoughts, he went out on the field, sat near some beautiful smelling wild flowers and looked at the dark, cloudless, sky. From thousands of years away, through the emptiness of space, the strange stars were palely sparking, coldly sending down their lights that seemed to lock away some distant old worlds.

When the rosy dawn spread its arms, conquering the horizon and covering it in its warm surreal colors, he tore a branch from a tree and tiptoed onto the veranda. His nose wrinkled at the smelled of burnt wood, a scent that seemed to rouse some long forgotten memory.

He tried to open the door but just then one of his neighbors passed by and greeted him with a friendly smile. But there was something wrong with him, like but unlike whatever had happened to Florica. Vasile dropped the branch and ran to the back of the house and then to the hills.

After he caught his breath, he started walking on the path along the back of the gardens and followed with wide, horrified eyes as the people started their early morning routines, heading to the fields to work. There was something different about them, something terrifying was living inside them, some tremendous, skeletal creatures that were communicating to one another through intertwining black arms, curled up rows of dark strands thin as synapses.

He looked at his own hands, his legs, his feet, he touched his face and temples, smelled his hands, trying to understand them, to see beyond them, beyond the flesh and bones. He was still himself; these dirty hands, these half bitten nails, this sick old body that he had grown attached to were still the same.

But they, they were no longer themselves, the people he trusted, that he had taken for granted. His world was breaking apart before his eyes. It was their fault, not his. He could see, as he watched them harvesting the grains and drying the sheaves, separating the beans from the nettles, that there was something wrapping around them. He couldn't tell when all of this had started, but somehow he understood that this wasn't something new. Something had changed yesterday that allowed him to see what had been hidden before.

Something was there, lurking, communicating through pestilent dark threads, black emanations that filled the cold morning air, meeting, intertwining, then separating and going back under their skin.

No, he wasn't crazy, he knew he wasn't, although he wanted to be! Oh, how he wanted to be...

"Illusions," he said to himself, "simple hallucinations of my weary mind" and then started to dig his nails into the flesh of his palms until he reached blood. As evening draw near, the threads became paler, the beams dimmer. In the absence of them Vasile finally gathered enough courage and dared to show his face.

The people sitting around the pub were carelessly talking and spitting tobacco on the ground. Vasile crossed the street, took of his hat as a greeting, letting them know that he was fine but that he didn't want to talk. He was just carrying on with his business.

He was calmer, his heart wasn't beating so fast, his fear slowly fading away, but yet he didn't dare to enter his house. Vasile walked in his garden without a noise and looked through the window. His wife was sitting in a chair, waiting for him at candle light. He took a last glance and then he left with a sigh.

After a few days, tired of his strange behavior, Florica decided to leave him. She had found him sleeping in the barn, she had tended to his wounds, she had talked to him and he seemed to understand, but he still refused to step foot in the house. So one day she packed her clothes and left

The people started talking.

But he was trying to behave normally, in spite of all the horror during the day, and the fear at sunset, he was trying. He told himself that it was all a big misunderstanding. His sight was deceiving him, his eyes must have been affected by some unknown, or some poison was affecting his mind. But what if the things he saw were real? What then? What could it mean? Would he find himself forced to live the rest of his life in constant fear and hiding?

One night, the neighbor down the r grabbed his hand and started talking with him, trying to find what was wrong with him.

Vasile took this unsolicited opportunity to try to tell someone about his problem. The fact that the darkness made everything seem normal again made it possible to control his revulsion at the thought of being so close to the black threads or tentacles.

Forcing a smile, he said: "Ah, Yvgeny, I don't know what's the matter with me! Really, I don't. During the day I don't see properly, do you understand? It seems that you , and my wife, for that matter, are... I don't know how to say this... infested. No, not like that, more likely possessed by something, something very dark. No, it's just quietly lurking. I don't know, just my thoughts. I can't tell them to you, do you understand? No, it's not that, but I'm still scared. Of the light, of what it reveals during the day."

But this revelation only made Yvgeny more determined to rescue Vasile from his madness. Waiting would only make things worse. So he insisted that he knew how to cure Vasile's illness, and he finally managed to bring his neighbor to the informal gathering near the pub, where during summer nights all the garrulous men of the village assembled to drink and talk.

The villagers, pleased to see Vasile apparently well after so many days in hiding, happily assured him that they were still themselves; they even told some dirty jokes to convince him.

They managed to make him drink a few glasses, and little by little, in the general merriness Vasile's fears subsided. and he started talking. He was relieved that everything had been only a hallucination and gradually he began to feel comfortable among this group. He wiped the sweat from his forehead and had another shot of booze. "I've been so stupid. I must have been insane, sneaking around and hiding from everybody all day long. Do you know where I've been sleeping for over a week? In the barn!"

Everybody started laughing and some younger men even threw their hats on the ground in amusement.

"You're such a coward, brother!"

"Oh, you can't even begin to imagine! But only during the day. I'm all right at night."

"You still haven't told us what this is about", a bold old man said.

"This is the funniest part", answered Vasile. He continued: "Everything started when I was young. I used to stay on the field watching the stars all night long. I thought this world didn't exist. I mean not in the way it presents to us. It was something that gave it away. Small differences that if I looked for them hard enough seemed to be obvious. Little cracks through which you could see, how should I say this, like a badly woven material. I was the only one that existed, the only real thing, made by some sort of beings that were planning something that eluded me, and they were only using me as a test subject to see if I could figure it out."

"What -- the whole universe was created just for you?" asked one of the younger men.

"No, no, no, you don't understand! Vasily said. "The universe exists only in my thoughts, but not as a tangible thing. You know what tangible means, yes? This existence is nothing but a bubble around me. These beings wouldn't waste so much effort."

"What do you mean a bubble'?"

"I mean... how should I say this?... What I see is only for the eyes, an illusion, like a painted backdrop for a play. It doesn't have any substance. It's just a mirage so long as it is out of reach, but as I get closer to it the shape becomes sharper, and when I try to touch it then it becomes real. But in order to save energy, as things become real ahead of me, everything behind me becomes less real."

"And what kind of substance is this that can take any shape so fast?"

"I don't know. I remember I tried to figure it out when I was a child and I reached some sort of conclusion, but it's long forgotten. It's a sort of darkness that retains the projection of my thoughts. This is what helps it to take the same form again."

"But what happens during the night?" asked a villager.

"When I sleep, you mean? Well, nothing exists then, only me."

"Are you trying to say that I, as some joker said, I don't do anything with my wife!?"

All let out a guffaw in their small gathering under a sky so vast that the stars seemed like mere dots of light.

"And why were you so afraid to tell us this folly?" asked Pavel. This old man, Vasile knew, rarely spoke unless he had something important to say.

Vasile frowned. "Because if these creatures find out that I know, that I've figured out their secret, they won't be needing my body, my thoughts, and they will quickly get rid of me."

The villagers laughed and Vasile drank another shot that somebody shoved his way. Then, his thirst satisfied, fearing that he had said too much, he got up and excused himself. "I must go, my friends. Thank you for letting me explain myself -- and for the drinks, of course! But I haven't slept well lately and the alcohol is making me light-headed.

The neighbor from down the street offered to go with him, but he refused. He wasn't afraid anymore. He had behaved like a fool and the people were entitled to think that he was mad. But he was happy now that everything had passed and that he managed to get closer to them. He could say that now they were a bit fond of him. Yes, they were fond of him and his humor.

He went staggering, his feet barely holding, mumbling drunken words. When he was to cross the iron road a train speed by and hit him in the right shoulder, throwing him in the same weed filled ditch where he had fallen eight days ago. How come he hadn't heard it? How come he...

From his warm body, along with the blood that flowed in the bunches of wormwood and mandrake, some dark emanations were festering from his dark wounds. They reached out like arms twisting and entwining and then disappearing in the earth.

With his last breaths and with eyes wide open he watched as the stars died out one by one in icy depths, as the trees merged with the hydro towers in a thick, profound, darkness and as the fence melted away in the foggy air. The barking that kept following him all this time, which he nearly forgot, transformed itself humbly into darkness.


© 2011 Ioan Alexandru Despina

Bio: Alexandru Despina is a native of Ploiesti, Romania, who graduated from the University of Bucharest in 2008 with a double specialization, Geography and English Language and Literature. Several of his stories have been published in different Romanian publications (Nautilus, Visul, SFera, Roliteratura etc).

E-mail: Ioan Alexandru Despina

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