“Seeing Satan in the smoke of a burning building
          slips from pareidolia to apophenia when the viewer 
          starts thinking that Satan is giving the world a sign 
          that he is alive and well.”
                                                         — Robert Todd Caroll

          “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean 
          they’re not after you.”
                                                         — Joseph Heller, Catch-22

I’m being watched. They (capital T) lurked 
in the swirls of the mid-mod lino
in my folks’ bathroom, squinting 
sidelong at me as I sat on the can:
swarthy gents with unruly hair, 
visages fiercely planed, torsos 
sinking back into bluegreen clouds
like some god’s forgotten body.

Everyone’s seen a minimal face
in the screws of a coat-hook,
or hooded dormer eyes
above a door’s pursed lips.
I’m scrutinized also from the folds 
of sheets, shadow and angle suggestive
of an ogreish phiz, amorphous manbeast 
keeping watch, enveloping me.

Everyone’s seen cloud shapes,
mountain peak profiles 
or hilly waists and hips.
I spot skullish sockets and grins askew 
in water’s fluctuations, fir-bough
cameos animated as figures
your hand might make against a light:
is it duck or rabbit?

The beach too is a fine and public
place, as filled with phantoms
as a necropolis: boulders’ eroded eyeholes,
whole logs studded with perfect worm-drilled O’s 
or knot-holes for mouths, stubby snouts 
of snapped branch over barnacle fangs.

Sinuous ficus trunks assume human limbs
mythic and faerie. What a shock
to find an actual face carved
in a garden oak: the Green Man
auguring fertile luck or warding off ill.
Our fears and our obsessions
demand action. Someone 
reified their vision with an axe
or knife — no longer imagination,
yes we are being watched.
The belief that someone is 
out to get us, our jobs, our 
lives, we believe so hard we make it so.
Some of us buy guns to stop others 
who have bought guns to stop others, 
whose spirits may be ill or, for all we know, good. 
“Ask questions later, let God sort it out.” 
Those who watch us — neighbors, 
government, our enemies, or
those not yet our enemies, who 
we’ll make enemies by watching them, 
by seeing them everywhere. We see 

what we don’t want to see, or do. 
We even see what 
is, but our devilish minds remind
us, bring us back and inward
to our swirling mental floor.
The schizophrenic conjures
a convincing but false truth.
Magicians make us believe
what they’ve shown us. The pious 
see Jesus in their toast.
Given our suggestible brains,
it’s easy to spin and shade the world 
to sway each other. How easy 
it is to convince! I saw a UFO (no, really). 
An oasis is just over the next dune. 
Paul is dead. Jews 
secretly rule the world. 
News is fake.

Appearances do deceive, or at least
don’t hint at the whole story:
the jovial teacher turns out
to be a raving bully. The DIY furniture 
does not match the instructions.
The map is not the territory, trees
not the forest with its deadfalls
and cougars and quicksand oh my.
That aloof, snobbish guy is
merely timid. The placid, boring neighbor’s
garage bulges with machineguns.

It’s enough to make anyone
(well, some of us) paranoid, 
leave the doorbell unanswered, look 
sidelong at anyone who doesn’t look 
like us. We see malign faces infesting 
the clouds our heads are in,
there with all the other flimsy
shapes, evanescent, nebulous.

Like the carven Green Man, just because 
you’ve imagined someone out there
doesn’t mean they’re not.
But neither does it mean 
they are. Let us be 
instead astonished.

Sean Bentley | This sentence is false.
Contents | Mudlark No. 72 (2021)