This story takes place in the year: 1951
To relate this story with any modicum of believability, I must acquaint you with the character of a certain Leonard Pullman, who has been, in all my years of knowing him, entirely incapable of inducing any real fear in the minds of anyone who has met him. The man was physically unimpressive, round-faced, soft-skinned, socially inept, occasionally clumsy, and he spoke in a high pitch with a slight stutter that betrayed a lack of forethought in choosing his words. He was, essentially, an overgrown child. I first met him upon conscription, having shared a barrack with him in boot, and I remained in his company intermittently throughout deployment until VJ Day. The man was, bluntly speaking, stoogish as a recruit, and unremarkable as a soldier, achieving only the rank of corporal within the space of his two years of service.
Much to his own detriment, Pullman was a determined socialite, regardless of circumstances. He would often attempt casual conversation amidst shellings—oblivious to whether the whistles resonated from our defenses or theirs—most commonly on the most trivial subjects. Of all matters, he erroneously considered himself well-rounded, even when it surfaced through a little discussion that his understanding was rather plebian. There was, for example, one summer night which our unit spent crouched in the bocage, doling out cigarettes and retelling personal accounts of interest, in which Pullman fancied himself some firelight raconteur, spinning for us all tales of his own design which he assumed would shock and horrify. He had little success in this regard; however, he had, without difficulty, swayed our conversation towards the macabre. Soon, through an exchange which I was not quite involved in, it came known to every man there that I had, in my youth, submitted fictions of a similarly macabre nature to a local newspaper, from which I had received decent praise in feedback. At once, there arose an eager and unanimous voice within my unit demanding that I recount what I had written. This only served to nurse envy within Pullman, and worse, a strange kind of obsession with me—that he should surpass my knack for storytelling, and that I should recognize his superior talent and become submissively enamored by it.
He did this by progressively engaging in conversation with me more than anyone else, and at more inopportune moments than ever before, dogging me with a feigned admiration of me that thinly veiled his own desire to be admired. There was an instance when 2nd Infantry at last moved up to Brent, in which he, loping after me as I trudged through a debris-littered skeleton of a three-floored port-house, gloated about his own half-stipulated analytical criticisms of Dracula, having attended viewings of the picture on more occasions than necessary; he then went on to brag of his pretensions of fame as a screenplay writer in Hollywood. But I remained fixated upon the task at hand. Perhaps as a final, desperate attempt to win my attention, and to usurp the air of admiration about me, he made it very plain to me then how engrossed he was in all things strange. He admitted to frequenting especially startling magic shows, collecting various objects of supposed supernatural quality, and visiting soothsayers in secret. Despite all this, he revealed that was not an avid reader. He was largely unfamiliar with Poe, and Irving, and Stevenson, and Wilde, and the finer points of Greek myths and German folklore exceeded his knowledge. To this end, I remained unimpressed by him.
However, Pullman, in some sense, received his long-awaited recognition with a change of heart that came over me between our transferal to Camp Swift and the announcement of the war’s end— for I had developed a counter-obsession with him, but this was borne out of trenchant amusement, not envy. I kept stiff-lipped about it when saying my goodbyes, but in what was supposed to be my final chat with him, I learned, for the first time, that he lived with his parents just one county over from me prior to the war. Of all the men in my unit, Pullman was the only other Kansasian. I think that he must have noticed the bewildered brightness in my eyes as I heard him speak of this coincidence, but he seemed to remain blissfully amiss of the reason for my interest. He gave me his home address to write to, and we parted ways. Throughout our service, neither of us had been given an opportunity to shed blood, nor had we lost it; aside from our meeting one another, the war had been rather uneventful for us.
Unfortunately, of course, it had not been for most of the rest of the country. It seemed as if readers of the local papers had enough with horror. I no longer submitted my dreadful tales, and I resigned myself to the employment of an accountant. Soon thereafter I married, and my life proceeded without any other noteworthy circumstance.
To keep from descending into an existence of sterile boredom, I wrote to Pullman regularly, only ever asking for updates on his livelihood, and how he spent his days. In turn, Pullman only ever spoke of himself and his own incredible thoughts and doings in a blatantly self-absorbed fashion. I only encouraged this, as I preferred that my personal life remained apart from his, and as I drew derisive entertainment from reading about his eccentric escapades, and whatever self-fulfilling mishaps he found himself in as a result of his childish nature.
Much of what he related to me over the course of those years, I still believe, is an exaggeration. I will preface what I know to be true: Pullman remained a bachelor, living with his parents until their eventual deaths—as they were both very old—however, they had amassed a fortune in bonds, so that their only son seemed never to run dry of funds, no matter how many small-time jobs he was unceremoniously released from. During spells of his unemployment, he would travel far and wide, seeking out locations of rumored fantasia—these were often the longest and most embellished letters I received, always riddled with clichés that outed their own fabrication, proving to me that his tastes had aged no more than his interests. At some point, however, Pullman discovered investments and claimed to find lasting employment in real estate. I concluded that he was finally telling the truth, for his letters became noticeably sparser, shorter, and duller in their content.
This disappointed me greatly. My wife, who was well aware of the numerous letters which had filtered through my mailbox and had listened as I regaled her with Pullman’s ridiculous tall-tales at their every arrival, expressed disappointment at his silence as well. But she, having an actual inkling of pity for the man, suggested I should reinvigorate our conversation with a telephone call, or perhaps a visit to his residence. Though I had owned a telephone for quite a while, I was revolted by the prospect of the idea of Pullman causing it to ring at any time he wished. Therefore, I resolved to pay him a weekend visit instead.
Pullman’s residence was only a few miles out from Wichita, and I found it quite easily along the road to Emporia. I need not stray into descriptions of his estate, but it boots to say that it was nothing short of a mansion and that it was exceptionally modernist in style. Whether by inheritance or by some stroke of luck in his occupation, Pullman was considerably wealthy; clearly, he was much better off than I. I pronounced my arrival with the gilded knocker upon his door, and, forthwith, he answered it himself, still wearing his pajamas as he invited me in, even though the hour was well past noon. I straightened my tie and entered, and, upon doing so, noticed a television in an adjacent lounge flashing with a rerun of Tales of Tomorrow. We wandered over to it in stride and conversation, and very soon my former disappointment at his reticence was replaced with the same sort of mild irritation I acquired for him in the French bocage. For despite his age, he was still the same boy who was obsessed with shallow tastes and bent upon enlightening me to his genius.
I quickly grew tired of listening to his drivel and interrupted him with a few rudimentary questions about his occupation. Pullman appeared bored and confused by these inquires, until—struck with a sudden recollection—he grew ecstatic at once, insisting without real clarity that I accompany him to somewhere at once. I did not fully understand much more than this until he led me outside and over to his automobile where it was parked in his driveway and ushered me to take the passenger seat. Hesitantly, I did so, and Pullman, still wearing his pajamas, took the wheel and reversed, rambling on about a particular property that fell into his possession which I simply must see! Between breaths of his excited barrages, I slipped my own voice, questioning him further about the nature of this impromptu adventure which I was being whisked away upon. He answered little, only assuring me that he would explain it when we got there, and that it would not take long, and that I would not regret it, and the like. I sighed and, resigning myself to his stubbornness, resolved instead to unravel his secret by broaching some related topic.
Again, I pressed questions regarding his work. We took a bend in the road which I was not quite familiar with, and he pointed out which of the houses he had supposedly bought and sold as we passed them by. My needling goaded him to confess that he had, within his acquisition, a house which was reportedly haunted—yet, to my surprise, this house was not our true destination that day. He talked of how he had procured it very proudly and openly, but with a slight air of dismissal, which prompted me directed my presumptions elsewhere.
Eventually, our conversation subsided, and my gaze drifted out the car window, looking instead to the passing environs for a clue to where we were destined. I noticed that the houses became fewer upon either side of us, and farther apart between great stretches of rolling green prairie. In time, all trace of civilization vanished from sight, save for the road, which was devoid of any other automobile except Pullman’s. At that moment, I was struck by the notion that I had become wrapped up in one of his bizarre, ridiculous letters.
Very suddenly, and without forewarning, Pullman eased the automobile, and, clutching the wheel, tore off the straight road and onto the grassy plain. I glanced at him with bewilderment, but his eyes remained focused ahead, wholly intent in this strange direction which he had taken us. More questions festered beneath my tongue, but I kept it still, knowing they would not soon be answered.
I joined him in staring ahead. From the wispy-clouded horizon, there germinated little specks of white against the prairie green, seeming to me then like a mirage of the ruins of an ivory palace once Oriental or Persian in style; however, as we approached them, I realized that the reality what I was witnessing was much stranger than that. There was a multitude of pallid structures standing closely together—all tall, striking, yet ever indeterminable in purpose or form, even as we drew near to them. As Pullman stopped the automobile just feet before them and stepped out, I remained in the passenger seat for a moment longer, still overwhelmed at what I was seeing. Pullman laughed and called it his playground.
I stepped out of the automobile and stood beside him. I was breathless, saying nothing—but Pullman remembered all my questions from the drive, and indulged in an explanation at once. Due to my stupor during that moment, I was scarcely attentive to the details of his account, but I shall recollect them as best I can. According to him, a certain old recluse who owned a great deal of the land hereabouts had died rather unexpectedly, so his property—much of which was all grassy prairie, without a single structure ever registered or even known to have been built upon it—was passed down to a scattering of agnates, most of whom assumed what they were told to be true. So, having little reason to scour these vast tracts of land to recalculate the value, a fair number of them opted to have the empty property sold to whatever realtor would offer for it. Upon one such immeasurable and long-unexamined tract stood this playground, as Pullman called it, and, according to him, not a single relative of the old recluse had ever seen nor heard of its existence. This discovery was wholly within Pullman’s possession, now, and not another soul alive except he and I knew of it.
Clichés and exaggerations were, of course, Pullman’s first language, and I do not consider this account to hold much weight, even now, after all that has happened. I shall, however, attempt to describe this playground of his.
All manner of structures stretched out across the grasses before us, situated solidly upon the earth just a few feet apart from one another, never straying far apart. These structures varied in shape and size, so that each one was unlike the rest, but maintained certain characteristics that ensured a stylistic cohesiveness: to exemplify, none appeared to be taller than four times the height of a man, nor were any of them very voluminous, as they were often perforated or hollow in shape. Arches of every angle abounded within them, as did sharp bends and flat surfaces. Asymmetry was present in every part of them, yet so pronounced were these asymmetries that they appeared thoroughly measured and wholly intentional.
Purpose, in any of these structures, was difficult to distinguish. Some formed walls, though many were distorted by strange curvatures or tapering, and seldom had adjoining ceilings or floors to form anything resembling a room. Odd, serpentine pillars twisted and occasionally branched out like a limb from a tree, even as there was nothing remotely vegetable about them. Stairs were everywhere; steps both large and small wound around nearly every somewhat-vertical surface, sometimes ascending to nothing at all. Spaces like corridors slithered across the prairie, leading nowhere at all. Some were halfway-hallways—long but ending abruptly with a few other ill-placed structure midway through it that blocked passage entirely. There were even bridges, but these appeared more contorted than the other structures, bridging gaps between inaccessible heights, narrowing and bending without reason, or ceasing to continue entirely after a certain length across. At some point, Pullman jokingly described this architecture as Seussian, which, I admit, may have been the truest sentiment I have ever heard from him. But there the similarities ended.
What perturbed me so much, I believe, was the material of these structures. To say the least, their surfaces were smooth, flat, and white. Initially, I presumed a clay or ceramic material, but the texture was entirely without roughness. There was not the slightest chip or crack of degradation in them. In fact, the abnormal perfection of each edge and corner of these structures struck me as more jarring than their indeterminable forms; more than this, the color of them shocked me. They were not only white, but white without blemish—as if never touched by rain, or earth, or discolored by sunlight. A thought crossed my mind then to pluck a blade of prairie-grass and smear it across the surface of the structure nearest to me just to assure myself that this material could be begrimed just like any other, but some urge within me forbade it, likening it to the sensation of sacrilege. Despite the smoothness of the structures, their surface produced no reflection at all.
Pullman kept talking. Goosing his legs, he stepped over the long prairie grasses and passed into the playground, beckoning to me with one hand and pointing unto the numerous sculptures with his other. Unconsciously, I followed him in. Only then did I revert my attention to his rambling; now, he was going on about how he planned to make an attraction out of this place, and how he would charge ten cents per visitation, and how he would hire a contractor to erect concessional buildings, and the sorts of phrases he planned to spell out upon gaudy billboards and banners, and the various holiday events for Easter or Hallowe’en, and so forth, at which point I interrupted him.
“You ought to paint it, then.”
I had not spoken these words with much forethought. In truth, the only thought in my head was concerned with the unnatural cleanliness of the white surfaces of the structures around us. I was still reluctant to mar them myself, and in retrospect, I think that, subconsciously, I wished that Pullman would do so himself so that I would be released from this strange notion. Pullman turned, glanced at me, and blinked.
He looked more ridiculous than ever, standing there in his pajamas in the mid-afternoon sun, prairie grass reaching up to his knees, arm still outstretched to some purposeless and pathetic structure at his side.
“Paint it? My god, man, why would I do that? Can’t you see that it’s just fine how it is?” He laughed sheepishly as he said this. He must have said something afterward to the effect that the whiteness of the structures functioned better in presentation, and that it would attract more visitors if it were perceived as being phantom-like, and that painting the structures would require too many work hours and undoubtedly many more in preserving the coat, but I did not hear him.
The acknowledgment of these words was the last time I ever paid attention to Pullman. I cannot determine exactly why, but at that moment, I truly began to hate him. As I have said, there was nothing frightening about Pullman at all; there was no dark thought that had ever crossed his childish mind that had already crossed mine, and there was no dark deed he could do to me that I could not do to him. He could not have been responsible for the existence of this playground at all. But there was something especially pretentious about his naïveté, and that was a frightful thing—that he stood there, amid that pointless, pallid ruin, oblivious to its naked abnormalities, yet still, he pontificated on and on about it as if he possessed some masterful understanding of it, an insight unattainable to any other man that beheld the same simply because he was imbued with a special sense. I no longer wanted to scoff at his embellished antics from afar. I wanted him to drop dead.
I nodded, muttered some incomprehensible praise, and broke away from him to gaze again upon the structures. Listlessly, we sauntered to and fro throughout the playground, eyeing the winding, reaching ends of the structures up and down like curious guests examining sculptures at an art exhibit, nearly forcing ourselves to be fascinated by these things, now, as if that was the sociable thing to do. However, it seemed, the farther I strayed from Pullman, and heard less of his delusional drivel, the more I forgot my hatred for him, and, as if to relax me, an eager curiosity took its place. I suppose that after a moment or two of relative privacy, I became accustomed to the initial strangeness of the structures and their color. Instead, I looked upon them in a new way, as if a genuine, scientific fascination had finally taken me.
I was startled, and moreso impressed, by the continual perfection that I witnessed as I wandered about. The arches and curvatures, which were so rife in these structures, impressed upon me a degree mathematical precision; indeed, as if there was a greater purpose to every bend and rise, far beyond what I perceived as stairs, or corridors, or bridges. On the contrary, I felt, in their presence, what I presume an aboriginal savage would feel when presented for the first time with a disconnected telephone. Perhaps these shapes held a higher function.
On several occasions, I observed a bizarre phenomenon—I am reluctant to call them geometric impossibilities, as, at my every inspection of them, I discovered that their shapes were well within the normal laws of physics—the phenomenon of illusory geometric possibilities. First, they came as misperceived prisms in the periphery of my vision, which I then attributed to a lack of shadows as the daylight was very bright. But these illusions would soon appear closer to me. There was one certain structure, something akin to an Indian totem-pole, except perforated in several places and constricted in several places by a spiral staircase, and, for as long as a minute, I could not trace the ascent of the steps directly at all. Yet suddenly, by some means, I finally did so, and the true shape of the structure became so clear and unmistakable to me that I immediately forgot how I had perceived it beforehand. This is typical of the way the mind responds to solving an illusion, I suppose, but to me then, the difference felt so drastic that it was as if the shape of the structure had changed without motion. The illusion of depth was the most pervasive. There were several instances in which I found myself shuffling between narrow walls or ducking beneath low arches, simply because I had misjudged their proportions. It was, indeed, like a playground, as Pullman had called it.
Eventually, Pullman and I found our way back to his automobile. I do not recall having consciously decided to return to it, but the space of the plain occupied by the structures was so small that returning to it was inevitable, regardless of which path I took. I do not, however, remember whether Pullman had returned to it at the same moment that I had, or that he had been waiting for me there, or that he had beckoned me back to it; in fact, I do not remember him speaking at all during the drive back to his residence. I was still immersed in thoughts of the playground, silently attempting to decipher it—to discover the meaning of the shapes, the illusion, and utter perfection.
I did not say goodbye to Pullman. As soon as he pulled into his driveway, I had opened the door of the car to hurry over to get back into my own. I made it home by the early evening, just in time for dinner.
Of course, my wife asked me about the visit. She was very curious, having heard so much about my time with Pullman and the letters which I read to her, but never having met the man himself. I do not know how, but I had returned to my former state of mind before I had even registered that it had changed over the course of the afternoon. I was back to laughing; scoffing at Pullman as I usually did when his name was mentioned, and I recounted—a version—of what had happened. I do not know how or why I decided to lie to her, as it was that I, truthfully, recollected what I remembered at the time, yet even then there was a sense of guilt in me for lying, one that I was worried that she would notice. Yet, in the clarity of retrospect, I realize that I had lied—somehow conjuring up lies from thin and believing them as quickly as most people would in remembering the events of the day. It was a strange thing; I had forgotten what had really happened, but I felt that I knew the truth and that I must lie about it.
The changes in my story were subtle: I told her that the old recluse whose property had been sold to Pullman had been a collector of wax sculptures, which, by some means, had been misidentified by a troop of thick-headed movers, and left out on his property in the event of his untimely death, which thusly terminated their contract. Having been left out in the summer heat, the sculptures melted beyond recognition, resulting in a variety of bizarre and disturbing shapes, which Pullman—superstitious man that he was—had sworn to be sheet-cloaked specters. But upon our closer inspection, and perhaps a handful of suggestions from myself, he recognized them as otherwise. I told her also of Pullman’s extravagant plans with the property as well, which she, kind soul, lauded.
A somberness descended upon me between my leaving the table and my retreating to my study. Brandy in hand, I slumped down upon my chair before the fireplace, feeling dizziness even before I had so much as smelled my glass. I reflected upon the fiction which I had told my wife and the strangeness of my mood throughout that afternoon. However, these observations yielded to the return of those unshakable questions which had been conjured up in my mind while Pullman and I approached the playground. Perhaps it was because of the blackness of the night outside my study window, but these thoughts were newly incensed by a stark feeling of dread. What had really happened there? What was that place?
This sensation of unsettling did not dissipate, but it became less pronounced with the oncoming of drowsiness. Having drained my glass, I retired to my bedroom. I did not quite fall fully asleep, nor do I think that I dreamt at all, for I laid on my bed, shifting restlessly between indistinguishable states of half-slumber, kept gruelingly lucid by a nagging urge to continue puzzling over the playground without end, reviving memories of that afternoon which played out somewhat differently every time I inwardly reviewed them. The ordeal was, essentially, a nightmare. I am unsure of how, amidst all my tossing and turning, I did not wake my wife beside me.
When morning came, I wrenched myself out of bed, feeling clearer in the head, but not rested whatsoever. A singular resolution had struck me: I should return to Pullman’s playground, and determine what it was about those structures that had so unrelentingly barred me from rest, and had placed such an impressionable spell of confusion upon me that the events of yesterday could not be laid out forthrightly in my thoughts. I isolated myself in my study for most of the day, remaining planted in my chair, filling and gradually emptying my glass several times as I mulled over how I should go about my return to the playground—or, rather, I waited until the late hours, which I had very early on decided that I should elapse before I acted. For my plan was simple, if it was to be considered a plan at all—I would drive down that road which Pullman had taken me, and diverge from it to cross that grassy plain, undetected by the dark of night and the sheer desolation of that place. What I would tell my wife if she discovered my absence was secondary, and I did not worry myself with it at all, given that my fiction of the previous evening had been believed without question. If Pullman himself, by chance, discovered my trespass, I doubted he would be more than amused by my embarrassment upon admitting that I was, truly, fascinated with something of his, and at the very worst he would charge me ten cents for the visitation.
Come nightfall, I retraced the route of yesterday with ease. The lingering of the brandy, I think, assuaged me until I had reached the limits of suburbia, but upon my egressing, there immediately washed over me that familiar sensation of dread from the prior evening. I looked out to the prairie on one side of the road, dumbfounded; I had not quite remembered at what distance it was, exactly, that Pullman had steered off the asphalt. I drove onward for a little while longer, becoming no surer of myself until the worry that I had passed the place overweighed the notion that I had not. I slowed my car and steered off the road.
Now, that night, a full moon hung over the earth, and all the grasses of the prairie were dark and glossy in its light, rippling and churning with a faint wind which crossed from one side of the horizon to the other. Scanning it as I drove farther out, I, to my surprise, located the structures again rather quickly. They stood out like an Arabesque Stonehenge in the moonlight, faintly aglow with the sheer whiteness and spotlessness of their make, floating fairy-like amid the vast blackish-blue sea of prairie grass. I brought the automobile to a stop and, just as I stepped out of it, my fear relented to wonder at the sight. I had brought an electric torch, but, having no use for it in this enchanting luminescence, I forgot about it entirely.
With little forethought, I resumed my wandering through the structures, gradually passing under one pale arch and the next like some meditative monk circling a cloister. Nothing was how I remembered it to be. Of course, the color and material of these structures, as I have said, was indistinctly the same, and all the structures appeared to have maintained the same outlandish architecture style, yet not one shape among them was familiar to me. Perhaps I viewed them all from a different angle than previously or had entered them from an alternate direction; regardless, I was overcome with the notion that I had never been in that place before. Had I, by my own misdirection, discovered an entirely separate playground?
To quell these questions within me, I decided—not without playful curiosity—to scale the highest structure that I could find and perceive the whole place with the special clarity that was sure to come from a vertical vantage. Soon, I came to an intersection between structures, where I laid eyes upon one which, from my perspective, appeared taller than the rest. Just as many of the other structures were, this one was entwined by a wild and untamed flight of stairs, which, though daunting in its precarious ascent, seemed climbable enough. I set my foot upon the first step, gripped the pronounced edges of the structure, and scaled it.
The ascent was not as easy as I had imagined it—if, indeed, I had at all. Many of the steps were strangely spaced apart, and inclined in odd directions, and all of them were so uncommonly smooth and foreign to friction. I clung to the structure deathly tight, daring not to look down until I had reached the very height, for even as it was not so very tall, by other standards, there was that same illusory depth with plagued the structures around it and caused my nerves to feel as if I was much farther from the earth than I really was. The cool prairie wind groped at me, sending shivers through my limbs so that my climb was doubly arduous. Exhaling an airy chuckle, I finally reached the highest step, embracing a certain pillar-like protrusion which rose just a little higher than that. My tie whipped about in the wind as, guardedly, I cast my eyes down, sinking from the endless silhouetted horizon to the innumerable pallid peaks of the shorter structures.
For long, I studied them, unsure of what to make of them. There was, undoubtedly, some method to their arrangement upon the earth, but I could not distinguish any recurrent pattern, nor could I any more fathom the reason for it. The concept struck me then that there was something to be interpreted in their placement as if to relay a kind of message, though I could not determine any legible letters or numerals formed by the lay of the walls. Then, an even greater thought crossed my mind—that all the structures within that playground were, cohesively, pieces that fit together to form one great titanic illusion, only if the proper distance and angle were discovered to view it all from. A euphoric sense of relief washed over me at this realization, comforted already by the prospect of some sense being found in the presence of this pale ruin, even though I had confirmed nothing at all. I laughed. This Pullman did not know, nor could he know.
As if to rebuff me for my haughtiness, a particularly potent gust of wind swept past me then, nearly toppling me from the height of the tall structure. Thrust into a state of urgency at once, I gripped the pillar-like protrusion with twice the ardor of before and gazed down upon the world with much more pertinent questions flooding my thoughts. I noticed then that the enchanted glow had vanished from the structures. Perhaps a cloudy film had been drawn over the moon at that moment, but its light was dramatically dimmed, and shadows lengthened from every pale crease and corner of the structures. I could no longer see the earth below me, as the grasses there were blackened beyond perception. A sharp pang of fear pierced my throat, and I shivered now with more than the chill of the nightly air.
There then arose a distinct sort of low howl in the wind as it flowed through the orifices of the playground; it was horrendously stretched out, so much so that the change between the rising and falling of its pitch was scarcely noticeable at all. It rang on for so long that I did not anticipate an end, yet abruptly, the howl was extinguished by a singular beat—which I can only describe as being a lack of sound. At this interval, there was utterly no other sound at all, but there was something striking about how sudden it was that it became its own noise, a kind of drumming. The wind resumed its over-extended howl, only to be unexpectedly punctuated by this beat once more. To my shock, this continued. I remained perfectly still and listened, measuring the howls, counting the drum-beats, growing more fearful with each one passed, dreading the next, knowing that despite the initial sound of it, this pattern of noise could not have been natural.
Eventually, my attention withdrew from what I heard to what I saw. Perhaps it was a trick of the new shadow, or merely the strange proportions of the structures, or the panic which had set in with the blowing of the wind, but the structures suddenly appeared to be far more expansive, their white forms reaching on every side of me unto the black brink of the horizon. I no longer surveyed a shrine of pale shapes, but a city of them—a marble metropolis of Roman proportions, bathed in a tangle of shadows, structures as numerous as the grass blades of the prairie had been. Without conviction, I reassured myself that this was just another illusion, and turned my gaze downwards, as this was now the less frightful sight.
Carefully, I lowered myself from the tall structure, placing each foot with the utmost caution, bracing myself for the chill of rushing winds between the continuous drum-beats. My fingers became numb and I clenched my teeth. The eventual brushing of grass at my knees came as a surprise to me. Still shivering, I steadied myself on the ground, glancing about rapidly for any shape of familiarity. Again, the structures around me were not as I remembered. Which way had I come from? The howls of the wind emanated through the white walls on every side of me.
Now, in casting my eyes down a certain alley between several structures, I observed, for the first time, a motion amidst the shadows; this was not evident until after a moment of intense regard. Soft, dark shapes spread and shifted across the whiteness with a casual slowness which seemed no less natural than the grasses which trembled in the nightly breeze. But their forms were undeniably unnatural and impossible to identify. Aside from my shivering, I was petrified by the sight. Within my being, there arose a kind of suffocation imposed upon me by the mere motion of these shadows, which became increasingly lively around me, even when I did not approach them. These shadows waxed so large that, several times, I expected some hideous and savage beast to step out from behind one of the structures—yet, nothing appeared, and the shadows waned, matching the alternating pitch of the howling wind.
I strode forward, certain of only what was before me, and dreading to witness what may have been lurking outside the periphery of my vision. My strides were troubled, wavering, and weighty, and there was an acute agony in my movements which I could only attribute to being brought about by an extreme fear which I had never experience before. All around me, the air grew increasingly chaotic with shadows, spangling my sight with hypnotic flashes, making my heart rattle dangerously within my chest. I felt that I was drowning.
Without fully realizing it, there materialized a being in front of me. I did not know where it had come from, nor did I observe any sudden motion prior to its sudden appearance—as if a veil of shadow had merely been pulled back from it—but I recognized that its naked form was humanoid. Horror mounted within me as my already-frantic mind gradually registered its presence, and my dazed eyes soaked in the sight of it. It was not a man, but shapes in the form of a man—perfect shapes, most of which were unnatural to biology, and only brought about by Man. The top of its head, for example, was a half-sphere, its nose was a triangular prism, and its eyes were perfect ellipses. So, too, was the rest of its body composed of perfectly distinct shapes. I did not even realize it then, but the strangest element of its appearance was its material—white, unreflective, and smooth, just like the structures—it was wholly inorganic. Yet, it moved.
It turned its head toward me with the elasticity of skin and the tug of muscle tissue. Its elliptical eyes bored into mine—wholly unsurprised, unconcerned, and unblinking, as if I was not there. In truth, there was a palpable impact in its gaze, which placed in my mind the odd notion that I was not. I remained still, unable to move, awestruck my being before me, lost in gawking at it. It crouched, and, like some gamboling imp, leaped away from before me, vanishing behind a shifting shadow. The melancholic drum-beat continued.
I shuffled onward, pulled forth by my own stupor. The maze of structures was bristling with little motions now; I caught glimpses of movement whenever my gaze strayed unto the shadowy perforations in the walls, or the ends of corridors, or the spaces between arches. I passed another being that was only identifiable as such once I had circled it; it stood against a pillar, watching me with a pharaoh-like smile creasing the shapes of its cheeks, dully undefined in emotion. I staggered away from it, taking refuge in the shade of an arched corridor which somewhat resembled a tunnel. Despite the darkness of it, I pressed farther in, hoping that this was not one of the many halfway-hallways, which would surely ensnare me.
I glanced back and saw that one of the beings had followed me—though, there was no distinction in its movements to betray that it was prowling upon me rather than taking the same path by coincidence. Its form was silhouetted against the brighter end of the tunnel, stretching its arms across the width of it, seeming nothing other than fanciful in its motions. I kicked harder against the tall prairie grasses to hurry away, but the shivering weightiness in my legs could not be shaken off. There was a strange ratio of celerity within this place; it was governed by the howling and the beating of the wind, and just like the shadows, I was bound to it.
At long last, I came to the end of the tunnel. Another being was waiting for me there, and I felt a kind of sheepish guilt in its presence as if I had been caught while attempting to hide from it. Yet, there was no condescension or reprimand apparent in its shaped features—it merely looked beyond me, just as the others had.
Now, I came to what I can only describe as a plaza. There was a relatively open space between several structures, and—to my desperate delight—I realized that I had arrived at the very fringe of the playground, as, in one direction, the heights of the structures were missing from the night sky. The only egress from this plaza and back out onto the open prairie was, I observed, a certain wide structure awkwardly wedged between two others, which had—in its formation—combined the elements of a bridge and a staircase. The moon was low in the sky and just beyond it, illuminating it well so that it was without shadows. I made haste to climb it.
However, upon the onerous ascent of this bridge-stair, I discovered, to my overwhelming dismay, that it did not descend to the ground; rather, it ended abruptly, arching so high above the ground that, again, I could no longer discern it from the darkness, and I was afraid to fall. I searched for a means of climbing down, but there were none. With great hesitation, I looked back, and a new height of fear surged through me. The beings which frolicked about in this tortuous playground had cornered me.
There were countless numbers of them, now; all climbing about the structures, darting in and out of the hollowness, dancing horas to that dreadful, droning howling and drum-beating in the wind, almost mechanically, like music-box figurines—all seemingly unaware of my presence, yet chasing me all the same. I watched their convergence, horrified and helpless, hurting with the agony of that place. But only then did I recognize the great illusion.
Now, throughout this while, I had presumed that illusions occur only from one position in relation to the observer and that it would cease to exist if any other position had assumed. However, I had not considered the reverse scenario in which the illusion is maintained by any other position but broken only by the observer assuming one certain position.
I noticed that there were no shadows where I stood, as I was upon the brink of the playground, between the structures and the light of the moon.
Earlier, I concluded that, given a certain position, the illusion would appear, giving purpose to this playground, so that there was relief in reason. Yet now, I stood upon that same certain position, and I saw that this playground was illusory from all others, for only now did I perceive these structures for what they truly were.
The structures were beings—and the beings themselves were the structures, only at different stages in motion. Like looking behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz, I watched these beings leap and play, solidifying suddenly while the structures near them became animated, carrying on where they left off, continuing this mad moonlit Bacchanal without cessation. The howls and the beats dictated their clockwork metamorphoses. There was no lesser purpose in these living than there was in Man.
This realization did not banish my dread; rather, it multiplied, as I considered the overwhelming scope of that playground, the impossibility of the transfigurations of this race of beings, and the unbreakable command of the wind that ruled over this place. I feared that my immediate peril had been adjourned, only so that some greater punishment should be determined for me, as I had glimpsed that which should not have been seen—it was sacrilege, a blemishing. Entranced, I watched the motions of the beings until the whiteness of that place was replaced with the white rays of my automobile headlights as the road passed beneath me. I have no memory of climbing down from that bridge-stair, nor do I remember finding my car and the road again. A great, unconscious lapse in time had occurred to me, and I, still with my foot upon the gas pedal, and gaze set resolutely ahead, refused to stop for even a moment to acknowledge it, or what else might have occurred in that missing space of time. I did not consider myself fortunate for having left that prairie.
My wife must have recognized the colorlessness of my face, for she did not scold me when I came home so late. I stepped out of my car and looked at her for a while before passing wordlessly inside, my legs still trembling and my teeth still clenched from what had happened. I do not remember much else from that night.
We no longer spoke of Pullman. He did not send any more letters, and I refused to visit him. Perhaps it was cruel not to warn him, but not only had I hated him and blamed him for showing me the prairie playground, I wished not to speak of it at all for a very long time, almost superstitiously afraid that some ill madness might resurge within me. I have not heard any word of his livelihood at all—few others knew the man, so this itself is not cause for alarm, but I am certain that he is gone.
Though I did not suffer so much as a scratch from that night, I have, undoubtedly, suffered psychologically; since then, I have been diagnosed with shellshock, a dreadful, constant feeling of impending death which—my psychiatrist told me—was likely induced by my experiences in the French bocage, as many men my age suffer from. I tried to explain to him how little the events of the war affected me, and how I was no dainty novice to tales of horror, but I could not bring myself to speak of that night on the prairie, so I quietly accepted his diagnosis. My wife has since compelled me to allow for renovations of our house, as she suspects that the old European style of it reminds me of the debris-filled skeleton-houses that I cleared with my unit in Brent, opting instead for the new modernist architecture, which has sprung up in many places throughout Wichita. To this, I very reluctantly conceded, as she would not listen to my reassurance that I had no problem with it. The renovators have utterly transformed every part of the house.
I write this account from my study, for the sensation of impending death is upon me again—this time with such a potency that I feel that I must record all that I remember about the playground before my life ends, despite my great discomfort in recollecting it. But I have finished; that is all that can be said of it. I now gaze out of my white-arched study window at the moonlit grass, merely waiting for what is to come.