“What Do You See?”

Aidan Smith writes a fascinating tale of a simple man witnessing something beyond extraordinary. This story fits into Smith's larger collected works.

By Aidan Smith


“What do you see?” the scientist asked Mr. Bartleby.

“What do I see?” Mr. Bartleby replied. 

He was unsure. It was difficult to see much of anything from the grainy picture. Deep down, he knew it was a picture of atoms, countless atoms, all coming together to form an image of a molecule, yet that is not what bothered him so. Something about the scientist’s question disconcerted him. Surely the scientist knew as well as he that the picture was nothing more than a molecule. Perhaps the scientist was looking for an abstract approach to the image. Yet, that could not be right. Mr. Bartleby knew he was hired to proofread the documents prepared by the scientists for publication, so it could not be an abstract response the scientist was looking for. He then remembered what his job description entailed. It expressly stated that the reviewer of the documents had to provide feedback from the consumer’s point of view. How he could forget that, Mr. Bartleby did not know.

“I see a molecule of frozen water, in quite a beautiful form,” Mr. Bartleby finally replied. The picture was of a molecule of a snowflake. The scientists were studying the precise nature of these natural works of art. Something about it bothered him, though. The picture had something else in it, reflected in the ice, miniscule as it was. Mr. Bartleby adjusted his spectacles and microscope to focus in on the reflection; it was of a gnarled frame in a cloak, bearing a most hideous grin. Mr. Bartleby was taken aback by this and turned towards the scientist. “I think there is something you might be able to see in the viewfinder.”

The scientist merely responded with a shrug and looked at the picture through the microscope. The scientist did not see any gnarled figure, only the molecule, as though he was blind to anything beyond his worldview. “I just see the molecule of water, di-hydrogen monoxide. Though I do get what you mean by a beautiful form.”

This worried Mr. Bartleby. How could the scientist not see the figure? Maybe he imagined it. That made more sense; he knew that spending his days looking through a microscope did little to help his mind or his eyes. He was also quite aware that he had seen projections before, minor changes in molecular structure, atomic variations along a set axis. This, however, was striking, and Mr. Bartleby knew that. He pushed it aside, though. He knew such a projection would not affect the final product.

“Well, Mr. Bartleby,” the scientist began, going through the laboratory schedule. “It appears as though the day has finished here. Feel free to get your things and head home. I hope to see you next week.”

“Of course,” Mr. Bartleby replied as he got up from his station. He went to get his things, as he did so, he said to himself, “I hope a good weekend’s rest will do me good.”


The short commute was in part the reason why he appreciated his job. That, and the generally peaceful nature of his station—no chaos, no bothering, no pestering. Mr. Bartleby found himself lost in thought as he drove through the suburb and didn’t notice a gnarled figure following him, slowly. The figure was walking at a glacial pace, yet still it kept up with the car. The slow rate of movement, coupled with Mr. Bartleby’s thoughts, enabled the figure to remain unseen.

Mr. Bartleby lived in a simple house: one floor with an unfinished basement. There was a single car garage connected to the house via a glass pane walkway. Mr. Bartleby glided through the walkway and deposited his things in his office, located just past the walkway. He then left his office and headed to his kitchen, a meager place with a stove, a dishwasher, a sink, a mini fridge, a microwave, with a table for one. He got out a coffee mug and put it by the coffee machine, and then proceeded to make his mug of coffee, black with no sugar. Most folk would balk at such a taste, yet it was plain and simple, just the way Mr. Bartleby liked it.

Mr. Bartleby took his mug into his sitting room and picked up the day’s paper, a New York Times, which he retrieved from the mailman that morning. As he read the news—perusing over the editorials, advertisements—he couldn’t help but feel as though he was missing something. He went to his bedroom and removed his shoes and work clothes. He then put on his sitting room attire: a teal lounge shirt, tan trousers, and fuzzy black slippers. He returned to his sitting room and reclined in his rocking chair, sipping from his coffee and reading the paper.

It was half past four when Mr. Bartleby heard a knock at his front door.  As he cautiously approached the door, he could not entirely make out what was standing outside. Suspiciously, he opened the door, and there stood the gnarled figure he saw before in the microscope. Mr. Bartleby was shocked by the presence of the figure and slammed his door shut. He didn’t hear a sound from the figure, except for the same knock. He opened the door again, letting the figure in after anxious deliberation.

“Thank you,” said the figure as it entered Mr. Bartleby’s home.

“What do you want?” Mr. Bartleby asked as the figure removed its hood from its head.

“Simple,” the gnarled figure replied. “To know what you see.”

Before Mr. Bartleby could react, the figure produced emanated a sound which struck Mr. Bartleby unconscious.


When Mr. Bartleby awoke, he realized immediately that he was not in his home. He saw before him a vast tunnel with dim lights. He saw mirrors on the walls and ceiling, and he noticed he sat on a circular platform that was floating in midair. He looked around the platform and beheld the gnarled figure. It was stooped over some device that was difficult for Mr. Bartleby to make out. What he did notice, however, was that the figure had removed its cloak entirely, and now it wore a meager loincloth about its skinny waist. The figure stood to its full height of eight feet, and turned towards Mr. Bartleby. As it approached him, he found himself backing up near the edge of the floating platform.

“Would do you well to not fall off the dais,” the figure said before reaching out with a gnarled hand.

Mr. Bartleby responded with, “If you insist,” as he hesitantly took the figure’s hand. It felt like sandpaper, rough and coarse.

The figure then took Mr. Bartleby over to the controls, for that’s what they were. Of that, he had no doubt now. Yet as to what they did, he dared not hypothesize. The figure pulled a grand lever. The dais shook, then it began to move. It was slow at first, then it sped up very quickly. A handlebar rose from the controls, and the figure motioned for Mr. Bartleby to grab onto it. As the dais sped faster and faster, going forwards down the hall,  it began to reach speeds that broke the laws of physics. He worried a great deal as he saw everything around the dais turn into a blur. Eventually, he realized that the dais was not in the tunnel anymore but had breached into outer space. He looked on with awe and wonder as countless galaxies sped past the dais. The gnarled figure did little by contrast; it was focused on the controls, and did not reach for the handlebar in the slightest.

Eventually the dais stopped with a sudden abruptness, and Mr. Bartleby stumbled and fell on all fours. He got back up and looked at the figure. It was adjusting some control. It was then that Mr. Bartleby noticed something. Where there had been stars and galaxies just a second before, now there was nothing. Void, empty nothingness stretching out across the infinite reaches of the cosmos. He grew anxious and moved towards the figure.

“What is this?” he asked.

“This…” The figure motioned with a wave. “This is nothing, pure void. It is where we shall see if you see what you need to see.”

Mr. Bartleby was confused yet remained still. He did not want to do anything that might make the dais malfunction. Clearly, it had some sort of gravity system and life support. Eventually, the figure stood up and turned to face Mr. Bartleby.

“We shall see what you see, not what you see, yet what you see.” The figure said with emphasis as it turned towards the nothingness, keeping a steady hand on the controls. It waved its hand over the nothingness and revealed a sight that Mr. Bartleby could not understand, could not even fathom the slightest bit. Then, a chill and currents of some ethereal matter seeped around the dais. The figure asked with a monotone voice, “What do you see?”

Mr. Bartleby looked on in awe as he saw before him something he could not fully grasp.

“What do you see?” The figure asked, as monotone as before.

“I…I see…I see the universe,” Mr. Bartleby said. “I see the galaxies, the lights, the stars. I see the inherent beauty of existence, the structure and design of such things. Oh God, it’s so beautiful, so beautiful.” Mr. Bartleby began to cry tears of joy and of awe. He went on: “I knew it was big, bigger than I could possibly fathom, yet here, it looks so small yet so grand.” He continued to utter similar words as he could only do so before such grandeur. The figure was calm and patient, not showing one bit of awe or wonder at the universe. It was as though the figure had seen it a trillion times before and would do so a trillion more.

Mr. Bartleby noticed the figure wave its emaciated hand again. A curtain of opaque glass fell away as the dais sped backwards, and the pair beheld the Multiverse. Mr. Bartleby was shocked at this. He began to cry even harder as he witnessed it all.

“What do you see?” the figure asked again in a monotone voice.

“I, I see the vast compendium of possibility before me,” Mr. Bartleby responded. “I see the infinite majesty of probability and the beauty of existence.” He paused in order to collect himself, before continuing: “It is so big, so many universes, so many existences. Oh God, why me, why me?” He uttered this over and over again, his awe and wonder increasing, yet these feelings were laced with confusion, curiosity, and an urge to know how, why, who. “How is this possible? Why would you choose me to see this? Who would do all this? Who could make all this?” His voice filled with emotions of awe, tears of joy running down his face. The figure did not respond to his questions; it merely waved its hand again.

The dais sped further back, far, far back, and yet another layer fell away. It was then that Mr. Bartleby beheld the Omniverse.

“What do you see?” The figure repeated, monotone as ever.

“I….I,” Mr. Bartleby, stuttered before falling on his hands and knees, sobbing, awe and wonder at the precipice, new emotions in him stirred: love, hope, fear, dread, and anger. He loved whoever, whatever did this, for such an intellect and compassion must be grand indeed. He hoped with all the hope he had that this meant something important. He feared and dreaded the meaninglessness this signified for his life in one universe, in one multiverse, in an omniverse. He felt anger, anger at the figure, for how could it not reciprocate the feelings he felt then and there.

Mr. Bartleby managed to get up onto his knees, and then he said, “I see so much.” He paused, trying to hold back tears, yet he could not. He sobbed uncontrollably as he continued, “I see the universes and multiverses stretch out across all time and space, ever continuing, ever expanding.” He continued to sob such tears of joy, of awe, of wonder. He could hardly comprehend what he was seeing, yet there it was. Existence, in all its beauty and majesty. The cosmos unfurled before the pair. It was too much for the man. He collapsed and slowly his tears began to dry. He could hardly utter a word as he saw the figure wave its hand a final time. What Mr. Bartleby beheld then shook his reasoning and rationale to the core.

“What do you see?” the figure asked once more in that monotone voice.

Mr. Bartleby could barely bring himself to speak, yet he managed to exclaim, “I see dimensional planes in infinite amounts! I see planes of existence beyond our own! I see realities merging and collapsing! I see it all stretching across the infinite cosmos of creation! Oh God, oh God, oh God!” He could say no more, and as his tears had dried up, he could only whimper. He felt so many emotions, the entire gamut of the human emotional spectrum. He could not speak, he could not cry, he could only whimper before the vast majesty of it all. It was all too much for him, and he fainted.

When he awoke, he was somehow, by some act of something beyond him, sitting in his recliner. The shock was immediate. And so were the emotions. He did not know what he would do or say, yet he scrambled about his home in search of some modicum of proof that it was all true and not a dream. He found a letter on his bed stand. He opened it and found it bore only the words, “It is true,” followed by a question that made Mr. Bartleby cry out in pain and in anger: “What do you see?”

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