:: Article

The Waterfall Illusion

By Alex Mattingly.

My doctor calls it the waterfall illusion. This is a good name. If you want to try it yourself, the first thing you could do is find a waterfall. You could also do it with a good, hard rain, and sometimes even by turning on the bathroom faucet.

You watch the water fall for a while, and then you look away. Everything in your field of vision now appears to be flowing upwards. Rocks, clouds, the shower curtain, whatever. This happens because the receptors in your eyes that detect downward motion are exhausted, and their counterparts, the ones meant to detect upward motion, are still full-strength. They’re so much stronger, in fact, that your brain confuses it for a signal, and up, up, up goes the world.

Something similar happens when you stare at a bright light. Look away and you’ll still see a bright patch of color, but different than the one you were looking at. Our eyes are a carefully balanced system of sensors, but throw that balance off and the brain loses its shit.

My brain doesn’t know it’s confused, even though I see the waterfall illusion constantly. It’s like watching a landscape eternally simmering, trying to boil away. I don’t know why it started, but I know when. It began three days after my birthday, and it made me feel old.

“Nothing to do with age, Darren,” said my doctor. “There’s nothing physically wrong with your eyes. Are you getting enough sleep?”

“No,” I told him. “But it’s not exhaustion. I’m not missing that much sleep. They just started rerunning Night Court late at night, and sometimes I stay up to watch it.”

“Good show,” he agreed.

I liked that my doctor understood me.

“But start taping it, okay? I’m going to prescribe you some sleeping pills as well for the next week, and I want you to come back in after that. If this persists, we may need to do an MRI.”

“For my brain?”

“Yes,” he said. “For your brain.”

I didn’t like the news, but I did what he told me and took the pills at nine o’clock each night. I always fell asleep watching the portable television, because I was a little afraid and didn’t want to be thinking about it.

After a week of getting proper rest, nothing changed. I told my doctor. He chewed his pen.

“An MRI then,” he said.

I think he was more optimistic than I was. I spent most of my time in the machine thinking, don’t be cancer, don’t be cancer. My doctor was thinking, be something, be something. Because, he explained, if it was something, even cancer, it could be treated.

The results came back, and I won, he lost. The scan came up clean.

“You believe me, don’t you?” I said.

“Of course I do,” he said, putting a hand on my shoulder. He handed me another prescription. “I want you to keep up with the pills. Don’t exceed the dosage; there’s a chance of dependence.”


“Let’s not split hairs.”

I’d gotten used to driving by this time. You learn to make do. The red lights might flow upward with everything else, but I still knew to stop.

After another week, my eyes seemed to be getting better. The flow had slowed, and sometimes seemed to stop entirely. It was on the drive to tell my doctor the good news that I saw it: a blazing meteor as bright as the sun that sliced the sky in half, leaving a glowing green tail lingering for minutes after.

The car behind me swerved and honked.

“Don’t you see that?” I shouted, but he couldn’t hear me.

I drove slowly the rest of the way, dialing through radio stations and waiting for the breaking news of a flaming space rock blowing up half the town.

My doctor didn’t know anything about it. “We didn’t see anything here, Darren. Are you sure you really saw it?”

“It was huge! Of course I really saw it. It was as bright as the sun.”

“But no one else reacted.”

“Everybody was trying to drive,” I said, but I didn’t really believe it. I’d been driving too.

“Describe what you saw,” he said.

“A huge meteor,” I said. “Bright green, more of a greenish-white, almost. It flew over my car and into the horizon.”

“Could you see it? Even through your roof, I mean?”

I realized I had. Somehow I’d seen the meteor through the roof of my car. In my memory I was looking up at the sky, staring at the light.

“This is all very strange,” I said.

“Yes,” he agreed. “I think someone should come pick you up.”

I called my friend Vonya from his office. I told her where I was, and then my doctor took the phone and sent me out to the waiting room where I sat feeling sad. I wished I smoked. It seemed like exactly the right time. I understood why nurses are always smoking. What else can you do when you leave a doctor’s office feeling sad?

Vonya pulled up in her car, a little fuel-efficient two-door gumdrop of a vehicle. She unlocked my door and pushed it open for me. “You okay?”

“No,” I said. “And I don’t know why.”

She didn’t say much on the way to my apartment. I stared out the window. Over a tree I saw what I thought was a plane, until it grew a long, bright tail. It was another meteor, getting longer and keeping pace with us.

“Vonya,” I said, “do you see anything out my window?”

She leaned over and glanced, looked back at the road, then looked out my window, longer this time. “See what?”

“Nothing,” I said, staring at the meteor. Or, more precisely, staring at the meteor through a hallucinated wall of motion, feeling sorry for myself and the neurons that were surely short-circuiting somewhere beyond the view of the MRI machine.

At my apartment Vonya followed me up the stairs. I think she worried I might fall. I hadn’t told her what was wrong with me, or my symptoms. Things were complicated enough between us. I didn’t want to add to it.

She stayed and had some coffee. I spilled a little on myself, so I went into the bathroom to change my shirt and douse the spots in stain remover. There was a cockroach making a slow circle on the middle of the floor. It looked like it was dying of old age. I stepped on it anyway.

“That’s a nice shirt,” said Vonya. “Is it new?”

“No,” I said.

We drank more coffee. I turned on the television, because Vonya wasn’t saying much, but she wasn’t trying to leave, and I needed the distraction. The picture was very bad. Edges kept blurring, then they disappeared, scattering the color across the screen. A blue luxury car made a sharp turn around a mountain, but the blue continued straight off the screen and disappeared through my living room wall.

“Did you see that?” I asked.

“See what?”


She put a hand on my knee and I braced for a question, but it didn’t come. Instead she squeezed my leg and said, “Your doctor told me everything. I’ll be ready.”
Ready for what I didn’t know, since she moved her hand away and we watched more television.


She left, eventually, and I went back into my bedroom with a glass of water and my sleeping pill. I turned on the light and saw that the dead cockroach was gone. I decided against it being a hallucination. I’ve had dead cockroaches clean themselves up before. It’s why I like them better than mice.

When I woke up, the sun had found a narrow slot in my blind, laying a finger across my eyelids and turning my black sleep into a furied red. I put an arm over my face, but it didn’t help. I lay facedown on the pillow. The light was everywhere, and it kept getting worse. Somehow it found the crack between my eyelids and poured in, rushing over my eyeballs.

“Ow, ow, ow,” I said, rolling out of bed and onto the floor. I kept one hand over my eyes and felt my way around, moving forward, slapping across the ground more like a crippled seal than a crawling infant.

Eventually I stopped and stretched out flat. I still had my hands over my eyes, but it was pointless. If I’d gone blind, I might be able to make my way to a phone. I could estimate distances, take baby steps and work things out. But this was the opposite. I was seeing too much. There wasn’t room to think about the distance to the door, or how to dial the phone, because all I could think about was the searing light.

It stopped around noon.

I mean, it really stopped. No pain, no after image, no smoking retinas. The edges of my world were crisp, the colors bold. Everything had stilled; my surroundings strangely frozen. Whatever was wrong in my head, the light had purged it, as though through some optical fit of vomiting.

I called my doctor. He scheduled me in right away.

“It sounds like the sleep helped,” he said, satisfied. “These things take care of themselves sometimes.”

I thought I’d call Vonya with the good news. As I walked toward the phone I saw a man in white, standing in the doorway between me and the bedroom.

“Hey,” I said. “You’re not supposed to be there.”

The skin of his face grew over his features, and he silently levitated through the ceiling.

I called Vonya.

She came straight over and sat on the couch while I illustrated where the man had been. I pointed to the spot in the ceiling where he disappeared. I could still see a faint green glow, like a water stain from a burst pipe.

Vonya watched and nodded.

“Did you call your doctor again?” she asked.

“No. I have an appointment soon enough,” I said. “I need you in the meantime. I need some deputy eyeballs.”

“Okay,” she said. “You say when you saw this man, it took you a moment to realize he was a hallucination. You weren’t scared of him.”

“Right. He was plain as a houseplant.”

“So maybe there are other hallucinations here right now. For instance, on this coffee table, what do you see?”

“Coasters. A mug. That book on England I never read. The remote controls. Your feet.”

“Nothing else? No parakeets or glowing men or sun-ripened tomatoes?”

I looked harder. “No. Definitely not.”

Vonya stood. “Good. Now what about over here?”

We proceeded around the house until we’d been through every room. It took a while. Vonya kept a log of the things I saw that weren’t there. Every time she pointed out something that didn’t exist I got a jolt, like waking up another degree from a dream.

The log included: a blue frog, a man’s shadow across my bathroom ceiling, a shrubbery, a levitating fish, and a coil of smoke moving slowly around my bedroom.

“That’s kind of a lot,” Vonya pointed out.

I nodded, but I was having a hard time paying attention. Vonya could see I was bothered, and comforted me. She pointed out that none of my other senses were collaborating on the hallucinations. I couldn’t smell the smoke, couldn’t feel the shrubbery, couldn’t hear a plop when the blue frog leapt from the desk to the floor. It was comforting because it meant I could test the reality of a thing, if I managed to suspect it.

That’s why Vonya’s log was terrifying. It seemed I was surrounded by imaginary details I never would have noticed. A waterfall illusion I could learn to live with.
Maybe even the meteors. But an entirely untrustworthy environment demanded a cure.

I called my doctor with the bad news. He agreed to make a house call, then asked to talk to Vonya again. She stared at me while giving him a lot of one-word replies.
Then she hung up, and we waited, Vonya pacing and making coffee and lighting cigarettes. Again I wished I smoked.

When he arrived, Vonya poured my doctor a cup of decaf. I had one as well.

“So you’re getting worse,” he said.

“Yes, doctor. Frankly, I think I preferred things before you gave me the sleeping pills.”

“I called the manufacturer. They’ve never heard of these side effects. The most common is a stomach cramp, maybe a little diarrhea.”

“But you think it’s the sleeping pills?” asked Vonya, taking my hand.

“Yes,” said my doctor, unequivocally. “You should stop taking them immediately, and drink lots of water. That should flush it out.”


After a couple days without the pills, I started feeling better. Vonya took a regular inventory of my apartment, and fewer and fewer objects were imaginary. Those that were were far less striking. Instead of a shadow, my bathroom had an imaginary shampoo bottle, and so on. It was progress.

Vonya also came up with new suggestions. “You should think about getting a pet,” she said. “Talk to your doctor. Pets are good for mental health.”

Vonya had never implied I was going crazy before, but of course there was no other conclusion. I doubted even my doctor believed it was the pills, but he had to do something. During my next appointment, I suggested the pet idea.

“You’re still off the pills?”

“Yes,” I said.

He shrugged. “It’s a nice thought. I’d also like to set you up with another doctor, someone who can make in-home visits. As you improve we’ll need to keep a close eye on you.”

“You don’t think I’m crazy, do you?”

“Not crazy. A little stressed, maybe.”

When I got back to my apartment and went inside I noticed a layer of fog rolling slowly across the floor. It was densest by the doorway to my bedroom, where droplets of moisture fell from the ceiling and vaporized on the floor. It was the same part of the ceiling the faceless man had floated through. The residue he’d left behind was getting on all my stuff.

I thought about lighting a match to try and burn it off, but thought breathing it was probably a bad idea as well, so I brought the collar of my shirt up over my nose and went from room to room opening windows. Some of the gas wafted out, but mostly it stayed low to the ground. In my closet I found a box fan, and I set it facing outward by the window. That helped a little, but I only had the one. I decided to call Vonya, yet again.

“You what?”

“I don’t know how else to get this fog out. I haven’t even touched the ceiling yet.”

“Darren, listen to me. There’s no fog.”

“Yes there is,” I said. “Well, I guess you could call it a mist.”

“You’re sure?” she asked suspiciously.

“I’m not trying to trick you,” I said, “I just need a hand over here.”

“Okay, Darren.”

I paced while I waited, back and forth from the living room to my bedroom to my kitchen and then over again, waving my hands through the fog each time to try and shoo it away. Wisps followed me from room to room. The ceiling continued to drip, the flow getting heavier. Maybe the faceless man had broken something. The liquid was running down the wall now, and some of it was beginning to pool instead of evaporate. At the same time the fog was rising quickly, and I went to check the windows again.

When I came back to the living room it was too thick to see. There was a knock, but I didn’t know where to find the door.

“Come in!” I called. I hoped Vonya would let out some of the fog.


“Over here!” I shouted. She grabbed me a second later. “You found me!”

“I did,” she said.

“Can you get me out of this?”

“No,” she said.

“All right then.”

Vonya took my hand and found her way to the couch. She navigated very well. “I called your doctor,” she said.

“Oh good,” I said.

My doctor is smart. He’ll know what to do.

Vonya pulled me closer. I thought she seemed afraid. “He’ll be here soon,” I said, laying my head on her chest. She didn’t say anything, so I closed my eyes and listened to her breathe, listened to the soft beating of her heart, listened to the closed world of reliable sound.


Alex Mattingly lives and works in Indianapolis, Indiana.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, October 27th, 2007.