The Mirage


Ambrose Bierce

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The Mirage

Since the overland railways have long been carrying many thousands of persons across the elevated plateaus of the continent the mirage in many of its customary aspects has become pretty well known to great numbers of persons all over the Union, and the tales of early observers who came “der blains agross” are received with a less frigid inhospitality than they formerly were by incredulous pioneers who had come “der Horn aroundt,” as the illustrious Hans Breitmann phrases it; but in its rarer and more marvelous manifestations, the mirage is still a rock upon which many a reputation for veracity is wrecked remediless. With an ambition intrepidly to brave this disaster, and possibly share it with the hundreds of devoted souls whose disregard of the injunction never to tell an incredible truth has branded them as hardy and impenitent liars, I purpose to note here a few of the more remarkable illusions by which my own sense of sight has been befooled by the freaks of the enchanter.

It is apart from my purpose to explain the mirage scientifically, and not altogether in my power. Every schoolboy can do so, I suppose, to the satisfaction of his teacher if the teacher has not himself seen the phenomenon, or has seen it only in the broken, feeble and evanescent phases familiar to the overland passenger; but for my part I am unable to understand how the simple causes affirmed in the text-books sufficiently account for the infinite variety and complexity of some of the effects said to be produced by them. But of this the reader shall judge for himself.

One summer morning in the upper North Platte country I rose from my blankets, performed the pious acts of sun-worship by yawning toward the east, kicked together the parted embers of my camp-fire, and bethought me of water for my ablutions. We had gone into bivouac late in the night on the open plain, and without any clear notion of where we were. There were a half-dozen of us, our chief on a tour of inspection of the new military posts in Wyoming. I accompanied the expedition as surveyor. Having an aspiration for water I naturally looked about to see what might be the prospect of obtaining it, and to my surprise and delight saw a long line of willows, apparently some three hundred yards away. Willows implied water, and snatching up a camp-kettle I started forward without taking the trouble to put on my coat and hat. For the first mile or two I preserved a certain cheerful hopefulness; but when the sun had risen farther toward the meridian and began to affect my bare head most uncomfortably, and the picketed horses at the camp were hull down on the horizon in the rear, and the willows in front increased their pace out of all proportion to mine, I began to grow discouraged and sat down on a stone to wish myself back. Perceiving that the willows also had halted for breath I determined to make a dash at them, leaving the camp-kettle behind to make its way back to camp as best it could. I was now traveling “flying light,” and had no doubt of my ability to overtake the enemy, which had, however, disappeared over the crest of a low sandhill. Ascending this I was treated to a surprise. Right ahead of me lay a barren waste of sand extending to the right and left as far as I could see. Its width in the direction that I was going I judged to be about twenty miles. On its farther border the cactus plain began again, sloping gradually upward to the horizon, along which was a fringe of cedar trees—the willows of my vision! In that country a cedar will not grow within thirty miles of water if it knows it.

On my return journey I coldly ignored the appeals of the camp-kettle, and when I met the rescuing party which had been for some hours trailing me made no allusion to the real purpose of my excursion. When the chief asked if I purposed to enter a plea of temporary insanity I replied that I would reserve my defense for the present; and in fact I never did disclose it until now.

I had afterward the satisfaction of seeing the chief, an experienced plainsman, consume a full hour, rifle in hand, working round to the leeward of a dead coyote in the sure and certain hope of bagging a sleeping buffalo. Mirage or no mirage, you must not too implicitly trust your eyes in the fantastic atmosphere of the high plains.

I remember that one forenoon I looked forward to the base of the Big Horn Mountains and selected a most engaging nook for the night’s camp. My good opinion of it was confirmed when we reached it three days later. The deception in this instance was due to nothing but the marvelous lucidity of the atmosphere and the absence of objects of known dimensions, and these sources of error are sometimes sufficient of themselves to produce the most incredible illusions. When they are in alliance with the mirage the combination’s pranks are bewildering.

One of the most grotesque and least comfortable of my experiences with the magicians of the air occurred near the forks of the Platte. There had been a tremendous thunder-storm, lasting all night. In the morning my party set forward over the soaken prairie under a cloudless sky intensely blue. I was riding in advance, absorbed in thought, when I was suddenly roused to a sense of material things by exclamations of astonishment and apprehension from the men behind. Looking forward, I beheld a truly terrifying spectacle. Immediately in front, at a distance, apparently, of not more than a quarter-mile, was a long line of the most formidable looking monsters that the imagination ever conceived. They were taller than trees. In them the elements of nature seemed so fantastically and discordantly confused and blended, compounded, too, with architectural and mechanical details, that they partook of the triple character of animals, houses and machines. Legs they had, that an army of elephants could have marched among; bodies that ships might have sailed beneath; heads about which eagles might have delighted to soar, and ears—they were singularly well gifted with ears. But wheels also they were endowed with, and vast sides of blank wall; the wheels as large as the ring of a circus, the walls white and high as cliffs of chalk along an English coast. Among them, on them, beneath, in and a part of them, were figures and fragments of figures of gigantic men. All were inextricably interblended and superposed—a man’s head and shoulders blazoned on the side of an animal; a wheel with legs for spokes rolling along the creature’s back; a vast section of wall, having no contact with the earth, but (with a tail hanging from its rear, like a note of admiration) moving along the line, obscuring here an anatomical horror and disclosing there a mechanical nightmare. In short, this appalling procession, which was crossing our road with astonishing rapidity, seemed made up of unassigned and unassorted units, out of which some imaginative god might be about to create a world of giants, ready supplied with some of the appliances of a high civilization. Yet the whole apparition had so shadowy and spectral a look that the terror it inspired was itself vague and indefinite, like the terror of a dream. It affected our horses as well as ourselves; they extended their necks and threw forward their ears. For some moments we sat in our saddles surveying the hideous and extravagant spectacle without a word, and our tongues were loosened only when it began rapidly to diminish and recede, and at last was resolved into a train of mules and wagons, barely visible on the horizon. They were miles away and outlined against the blue sky.

I then remembered what my astonishment had not permitted me closely to note—that this pageant had appeared to move along parallel to the foot of a slope extending upward and backward to an immense height, intersected with rivers and presenting all the features of a prairie landscape. The mirage had in effect contracted the entire space between us and the train to a pistol-shot in breadth, and had made a background for its horrible picture by lifting into view Heaven knows how great an extent of country below our horizon. Does refraction account for all this? To this day I cannot without vexation remember the childish astonishment that prevented me from observing the really interesting features of the spectacle and kept my eyes fixed with a foolish distension on a lot of distorted mules, teamsters and wagons.

One of the commonest and best known tricks of the mirage is that of overlaying a dry landscape with ponds and lakes, and by a truly interesting and appropriate coincidence one or more travelers perishing of thirst seem always to be present, properly to appreciate the humor of the deception; but when a gentleman whose narrative suggested this article averred that he had seen these illusory lakes navigated by phantom boats filled with visionary persons he was, I daresay, thought to be drawing the long bow, even by many miragists in good standing. For aught I know he may have been. I can only attest the entirely credible character of the statement.

Away up at the headwaters of the Missouri, near the British possessions, I found myself one afternoon rather unexpectedly on the shore of an ocean. At less than a gunshot from where I stood was as plainly defined a seabeach as one could wish to see. The eye could follow it in either direction, with all its bays, inlets and promontories, to the horizon. The sea was studded with islands, and these with tall trees of many kinds, both islands and trees being reflected in the water with absolute fidelity. On many of the islands were houses, showing white beneath the trees, and on one which lay farthest out seaward was a considerable city, with towers, domes and clusters of steeples. There were ships in the offing whose sails glistened in the sunlight and, closer in, several boats of novel but graceful design, crowded with human figures, moved smoothly among the lesser islands, impelled by some power invisible from my point of view, each boat attended by its inverted reflection “crowding up beneath the keel.” It must be admitted that the voyagers were habited after a somewhat uncommon fashion—almost unearthly, I may say—and were so grouped that at my distance I could not clearly distinguish their individual limbs and attitudes. Their features were, of course, entirely invisible. None the less, they were plainly human beings—what other creatures would be boating? Of the other features of the scene—the coast, islands, trees, houses, city and ships hull-down in the offing—I distinctly affirm an absolute identity of visible aspect with those to which we are accustomed in the realm of reality; imagination had simply nothing to do with the matter. True, I had not recently had the advantage of seeing any such objects, except trees, and these had been mighty poor specimens, but, like Macduff, I “could not but remember such things were,” nor had I forgotten how they looked.

Of course I was not for an instant deceived by all this: I knew that under it all lay a particularly forbidding and inhospitable expanse of sagebrush and cactus, peopled with nothing more nearly akin to me than prairie dogs, ground owls and jackass rabbits—that with these exceptions the desert was as desolate as the environment of Ozymandias’ “vast and trunkless legs of stone.” But as a show it was surely the most enchanting that human eyes had ever looked on, and after more years than I care to count it remains one of memory’s most precious possessions. The one thing which always somewhat impairs the illusion in such instances—the absence of the horizon water-line—did not greatly abate the vraisemblance in this, for the large island in the distance nearly closed the view seaward, and the ships occupied most of the remaining space. I had but to fancy a slight haze on the farther water, and all was right and regular. For more than a half-hour this charming picture remained intact; then ugly patches of plain began to show through, the islands with their palms and temples slowly dissolved, the boats foundered with every soul on board, the sea drifted over the headlands in a most unwaterlike way, and inside the hour since,

like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes

He stared at the Pacific, and all his men

Looked at each other with a wild surmise,

Silent upon a peak in Darien,

I had discovered this unknown sea all this insubstantial pageant had faded like the baseless fabric of the vision that it was and left not a rack behind.

In some of its minor manifestations the mirage is sometimes seen on the western coast of our continent, in the bay of San Francisco, for example, causing no small surprise to the untraveled and unread observer, and no small pain to the spirits of purer fire who are fated to be caught within earshot and hear him pronounce it a “mirridge.” I have seen Goat Island without visible means of support and Red Rock suspended in mid-air like the coffin of the Prophet. Looking up toward Mare Island one most ungracious morning when a barbarous norther had purged the air of every stain and the human soul of every virtue, I saw San Pablo Bay margined with cliffs whose altitude must have exceeded considerably that from whose dizzy verge old eyeless Gloster, falling in a heap at his own feet, supposed himself to have sailed like a stone.

One more instance and “I’ve done, i’ faith.” Gliding along down the Hudson River one hot summer afternoon in a steamboat, I went out on the afterguard for a breath of fresh air, but there was none to be had. The surface of the river was like oil and the steamer’s hull slipped through it with surprisingly little disturbance. Her tremor was for once hardly perceptible; the beating of her paddles was subdued to an almost inaudible rhythm. The air seemed what we call “hollow” and had apparently hardly enough tenuity to convey sounds. Everywhere on the surface of the glassy stream were visible undulations of heat, and the light steam of evaporation lay along the sluggish water and hung like a veil between the eye and the bank. Seated in an armchair and overcome by the heat and the droning of some prosy passengers near by, I fell asleep. When I awoke the guards were crowded with passengers in a high state of excitement, pointing and craning shoreward. Looking in the same direction I saw, through the haze, the sharp outlines of a city in gray silhouette. Roofs, spires, pinnacles, chimneys, angles of wall—all were there, cleanly cut out against the air.

“What is it?” I cried, springing to my feet.

“That, sir,” replied a passenger stolidly, “is Poughkeepsie.”

It was.

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