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The Mangrove Mirror

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More than anything else, I am writing this as an attempt at catharsis. I don’t care if this is ever read by anybody else, and it doesn’t matter to me if I am believed, ridiculed, ignored, or if this is treated as nothing other than a work of amateur fiction, I just hope that maybe I will feel better after finally talking about it…

I have never been religious; I don’t believe in the supernatural and always thought of myself as a fairly rational and reasonable person. I always genuinely thought that everything has a logical explanation and my biggest fears were always based on real life concerns and never the superstitious. However something happened to me a little over a year ago that I can’t explain, and it has changed my perspective on just about everything. I wish that I could simply close the door on this memory, move on with my life and not focus on what occurred, but somehow I can’t, it won’t go away and I am honestly tired of carrying this fear with me.

Now, I realise that it is always a little weird when moving to any new place or home, and I know that it can all take some getting used to, odd sounds, creaks or just the feeling of isolation that comes from being in a different surrounding to your usual familiar locale. I know this because I have moved around a fair bit in my life and in keeping with this, a couple of years ago, my partner and I decided to take a chance and go traveling abroad for a time. The plan was to work our passage across towards New Zealand or Australia in a hope to see, if any, there was a place where we wanted to settle down and perhaps begin a new life together.

This plan is what brought us to Vietnam, and after a little backpacking holiday we established ourselves in Saigon with my girlfriend, Chrissy, who was working as an English Tutor in a school on the other side of town and with me working from home as a freelance illustrator. After a few ups and downs getting organised we finally found ourselves an apartment that we could call home for the next few months or so that it would take to save enough cash to move onto the next stage of our plan. It was a pretty new building, not huge, but it certainly had everything we needed to get us by, a living area and attached kitchen, also a compact bathroom all on the same level, and a small mezzanine that led off to the bedroom above. It wasn’t perfect and was fairly compact but most importantly it was clean, and it was cheap. At least economical enough that we could save while living there and make a go of it.

Like many of the places that we had stayed up until this point, it was fairly spartan, but it did have a couple of framed pictures on the walls, in an effort, I supposed, to add a little more decoration and character to the place. One in the bedroom, above the headboard, which was a standard photographic print of the city, and another in the middle of the living area wall, directly opposite a small sofa. For some reason, this picture I took an immediate dislike to. On my initial viewing there was certainly nothing that seemed overly strange or creepy about it, I just felt that it was ugly and more likely than not simply some awful, mass-produced print, probably picked up from a local market or store purely to have something to break up the bare wall. It was a disagreeable rendering of a sunset or sunrise, peaking out over some bleak, mangrove-like beachfront, bordered with a seemingly ill-fitting and untreated dark wooden frame. Now, I love art, it has always been both my passion and my vocation, so I am aware that it is utterly subjective and have always had some respect for anyone that practices or applies themselves to creating their own work, but I couldn’t help my reaction being one of lip curling distaste at this particular example for reasons that I couldn’t explain. Whatever the case, we had much bigger concerns and ends to achieve than some misguided home furnishing, and quickly set about making ourselves as comfortable as we could in this new domicile, doing our best to settle in and fall into our respective routines. Still, over the next few weeks, especially with Chrissy working increasingly long hours, and leaving me to primarily work and potter around in the apartment on my own while she was teaching, there grew in me a real sense of aversion toward this image and I found myself not wanting to look at the article directly.

Strangely, it reminded me of a book that my dad used to own when I was growing up. It was only a slim volume about movie monsters and the cover had a two tone picture of Christopher Lee in full Dracula pose, the entire image was deep blue, leaving only his eyes outlined in bright red, all standing out vividly upon a plain black background. This really wasn’t a particularly daunting depiction in any way, but for some reason it was one of the few things that truly scared me as a youth and I found that it created a palpable feeling a dread in me and if it was ever left off of the shelf I could only deal with it as long as I didn’t look at the dust-jacket directly. Like I knew it was there but it couldn’t do anything to me as long as I could pretend that it didn’t exist. Stupid childhood fear stuff, and to be honest I haven’t thought about it for a long time until trying to explain this. Well, that is how this picture, suspended simply on the wall in its nasty frame, was beginning to make me feel. I didn’t like looking at it so found myself avoiding the space that it was hung but I could always sense it was there from the corner of my vision, and it was really beginning to become aggravating that this stupid, unpleasant thing had any kind of foolish sway over me.

As further long, solitary nights passed, turning into even longer and lonelier weeks, this circumstance began to upset me more and more. I hated the idea of anything making me act like a frightened child, and was more than aware that this was more likely than not, my own way of dealing with the vagaries, homesickness and remoteness that I was experiencing being at this unstable and unpredictable point in my life. So, I decided one afternoon to force myself to study the thing properly. Walking over to it, I immediately noticed that firstly it was an original work and certainly no print, you could see the untidy and coarse brushstrokes that made it up, and I recognised that it was seemingly no more than a badly realised depiction of some kind of coastal landscape, as I mentioned before either at dusk or sunup. As I considered it further I could perhaps see why, employing my “professional” opinion, that it had made me feel a so uneasy, the palate was sickly, greens and yellows. There was no true black, but the shadows were strangely affected, artificial somehow and bruised in tone, almost purple and murky rather than any solid colour making the whole thing give off this strange feeling that it was somehow greasy, if that makes any sense at all? The dark vines of the mangrove and its roots were bloated and unnatural, and the entire composition just felt, well, off. I’m not sure how long I looked at it, perhaps longer than I really wanted to, but I was also making a point that it no longer held any influence over me but while making myself really look at the horrible damned thing I must have truly spent far too much time in doing so, as I swear that I could continue seeing the image of the fat sun, peaking its way just below the horizon on the clean white walls of the apartment for half an hour afterwards. I was almost impressed in a perverse kind of way, that somehow the artist who had created this had purposefully designed the piece to be an optical illusion in some way, but it unnerved me that I could still see it every time that I blinked for a time subsequently. It’s funny but I almost felt better after that, my mind had found a logical reason why I was finding this artwork so distasteful. It was like a portrait designed to follow you across the room with staring eyes, or a Hawksmoor chapel, specifically constructed to give one the feeling of looming, intimidating power when stood in its cool shadow, this painting was specifically designed to make the observer feel uncomfortable. With newfound sureness, I no longer allowed this canvas any influence and despite still having a slight feeling of not wanting to view it directly, I tried to put it all to the back of my mind, after all, this was obviously what the thing had been originally devised to do in the first place, wasn’t it?

But then two days later came the sounds.

I don’t know if any of this is connected, hell, I don’t even know if this isn’t all just in my head at the end of the day, but have you ever heard a sound so faint that you have to turn your head to try and get a focus on it? Something really low, but still persistent and just when you think it has stopped, you settle back only to hear it again, somehow only picking it up from a certain angle? Like a neighbour’s telephone ringing or some whine from outside that seems to create a mental echo that you can still perceive even when you are positive that it has stopped?

Well, that is how this new irk began. An almost imperceivable humming that seemed to carry across the room. I mean, Saigon is not a quiet city, there is always some sound from traffic, people or just the constant din of the metropolis that creates a constant background murmur, but this was different, and every time I would attempt to settle into working or even sitting back to relax I could somehow feel this noise even though I could not pinpoint it. Finally, it became vexing enough that I cocked my ears and made a concerted effort to single out the damn drone properly. At this point I honestly assumed that it was probably just bad wiring somewhere, some outlet that hadn’t been fitted correctly, or maybe an internal sound within the house, perhaps even shoddy plumbing that I had still not become familiar with yet. I can’t say that it actually scared me but there was a definite sense of foreboding that washed across me when I noted that it was apparently coming from the same direction as that horrible picture. The very fact that this noise had forced my eyes to pass back across its repulsive, cloying appearance made me a little upset. Until then I had done quite a good job of not sparing it any more thought, while still being aware of its presence out of the corner of my eye whenever I glanced across its general direction.

I am an only child, so I have always been very comfortable with my own company, or being left alone with my thoughts. It takes quite a lot to freak me out and in my entire life I have never been one to spook myself with silly thoughts, but sat there alone opposite the unappealing landscape, that was now seemingly emanating a mysterious hum I felt the hairs on the back on my arms begin to raise. Refuting this, and trying to get a firm grip on myself, I brushed my arms and stood, approaching the image again, an effort to show it a second time that I was not so easily frightened or suggestible.

It took only two or three paces to cover the small room toward the wall where it hung but with each one the humming definitely became louder. A tingling chill ran from the base of my spine to the nape of my neck, making the bottom of my head twinge and before I even took the last step to face the thing, the fearful part of me that I was attempting to control somehow won out and had already decided that I needed to spin this horrific picture around in its distorted frame and put it finally out of my mind. I think now, looking back, that I already knew there was something other than the plain, wooden backing to the canvas that by all accounts should have been there, as my anxious, trembling hand fingered the frame to reverse the picture.

As I turned it on its own weight, my heart skipped, I jumped without leaving the spot and was suddenly transfixed. I don’t have the words to fully explain the next part, but as I turned it around by its edge a figure was revealed. My figure. The reverse was glass, a dark mirror that’s natural place had been to face the wall for some reason. My hand fell to my side and as I looked on I just somehow knew that what I saw wasn’t really me. It just wasn’t me. I was staring at my own reflection but my likeness felt as wrong to my eyes as the artwork on the opposite side. The angles were wrong, the shadows were too long, too menacing and I stared back at myself with wet, wide eyes. I was unable to move and through sudden, clammy sweats that had broken out across my body I felt claustrophobic, unable to even take new breath. I wanted to check my pulse, but I could hear my blood rushing in my ears, it was so loud and encompassing that it had become the only thing drowning out that terrible vibrating purr that came from the area behind the reflection. How can I describe the misted light within that glassy, moving likeness that felt somehow dark, and the sensation of somehow tipping, face first into a crystal-still lake, with a pulsing throb that made my head ring like a clarion bell.

Time had become a memory and I simply stood there alone in the hot darkness, staring at my own likeness. My vision was swimming and I badly wanted to cry like a babe but no tears would come. I felt drained, as if my knees were about to buckle at any point, through jumbled thoughts I vaguely recall wishing that they would, allowing me to interrupt my own alien gaze so that I didn’t have to stare into that twisted looking glass anymore. How long I had been doing this I did not know, but I was truly scared, feeling as if I was battling for my life somehow, and then without seeing what it may have been in the other, twisted reflection that I was locked into powerlessly gawping at, there was a small tug at my arm and the sensation of being pulled, allowing a gasp of humid air to fill my lungs as if I were suddenly dragged to the surface from beneath slick water, and with this ability to once more breathe again, dizzied and feeble I could feel the world tumble from my left as I began to slink to the floor on weak, bowed legs...

Just before my descent was complete, I swear to you that I could still see my imitation in that blackened window to somewhere else, but my other self did not fall as I did. It simply smiled, and as my consciousness tumbled away from me that grin was still clear in my addled mind.

I awoke with a start to find a nervous and visibly upset Chrissy pushing a glass of water towards me, I had not been out for too long but lay in a crumbled heap up against the wall, being too heavy for her to move on her own, she had propped me up and was one digit away from calling the emergency services. I could still feel the presence of that thing above me and crawled across the floor towards the kitchen, a stuttering lie about just wanting to be nearer the bathroom in case I was sick tumbled out of me and came easily for some reason. I caught my breath in shallow rasps and could taste the iron tint of my own blood from the lip that I had bitten through as I hit the ground, but I managed to reassure her that I did not need a doctor or an ambulance, after all, what the hell could I possibly say? I didn’t (I couldn’t) allow my gaze to look back up to the wall however, and tried to make some excuse as to why we should maybe stay somewhere else for the next night or so, that it may be prudent to perhaps be nearer one of the Western hospitals in the city just in case. Chrissy agreed and after anxiously watching while she threw a few things into a bag we were soon traveling to a hotel, en route she explained how badly I had scared her and that she had returned home to find me staring intently at that picture, I trembled and murmured, blind to her presence and only stopped when she touched my arm in increasing alarm to the situation. There was no mention at all of her having seen some secret mirrored side herself or to the painting even having been reversed.

She had worked even later that night than expected, and had already been worried when receiving no reply when she had text to inform me of the fact she would be home late. She asked how long I might have been stood there for, but I had no real answer and given that she had messaged me in the afternoon and I had no recollection of this, my worry is that I had lost hours to the awful experience. Out of a combination of humouring me and her own relief that I seemed to be okay after that night she didn’t question my dubious reasons for wanting to find somewhere else to live for the final weeks that remained of our stay in Vietnam and after that night we have never really spoken about what had happened again properly, with me talking it away as either heat-stroke, or some kind of built up stress and maybe that’s all it actually was but if I’m honest that is not what I think at all. Maybe it was all in my head or maybe I had some kind of breakdown, but as far as I can really fathom I saw something that I can never truly explain. We returned to that flat a couple of days later, foregoing a week’s rent just to be out of the place, to pick up our bags and belongings and as I tried to pretend that I wasn’t terrified, throwing my stuff hurriedly together, despite myself I shot a last furtive glance at the wall. The picture was gone, apparently replaced with another off-the-shelf, photographic canvas of a Saigon park. Raising more questions than it answered I wasn’t going to query this fact and if Chrissy noticed it herself, then she certainly didn’t let on.

I know that this is a fiction site, and the stories here are posted to give folk a bit of entertainment so you can take my story with a pinch of salt and throw it in with all of the other tales, but for anyone that genuinely has their own unexplained happenings or simply can shed some other insight I have one last thing to add of my own that I can find no thread to follow or other information about, after having searched on the internet extensively for an explanation…

After our time in Saigon had finally come to a close, we bundled into a taxi to the airport for our flight to the next destination, and by chance we drove across the entrance to the alleyway that this former apartment could be found down, and I saw one last, somewhat disturbing thing. It may or may not be connected, but across the door to our former building someone had splashed a huge amount of red paint and hung small bunches of dead flowers along the metal gate that protected the front door. I didn’t mention this to Chrissy as we travelled away, but it somehow felt too coincidental and more than a little strange. Either way it made another icy, nervy chill run across my body. I caught my likeness in the glass of the car window and I hastily broke off my stare to look at my feet for the rest of the journey to the airport. I wish that I could simply put it all to the back of my head and it genuinely pains me to admit this but after that horrible occurrence I have done my utmost to avoid catching my reflection ever since, even the slightest notion of seeing my other self smiling back at me still terrifies me to this day.

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