Wednesday, July 31, 2013

In Mirrors, Darkly

This story came to me at the end of June, exactly two days before I was about to leave on vacation. Even though I worked  hard -I really did- to the last minute, I couldn't finish it then. The beach and the sea had nothing to do with it so I only returned to it when I came back home.

At just over 2700 words, it is quite a bit longer than my initial plans. Hopefully, this will not scare you away from it. Comments are welcome, as always. Thank you for reading!

a card from the Celtic Tarot of Giacinto Gaudenzi

In Mirrors, Darkly

He comes to her in tarnished mirrors, her beloved, her lover, her never found one.

She carries him in her mirrors, carefully wrapped in the softest sheep hides and wool blankets, cradled at the bottom of a sturdy wooden trunk, underneath her good dress, her beautiful blue dress.

Three mirrors have broken over the years. Only two remain. She cares for them as she cares for her eyes.

The mirrors cannot be replaced. The magic lives only in them, the ones she has looked upon when she has first seen him. She has broken the first two herself, once when she tried to give him his freedom, one night when despair had been deeper than her love for him. But he doesn’t want freedom. He wants her.

At Johnsmas, when she was fifteen, she jumped through the bonfire with the other girls; later that night, her head resting on the pillow with seven different flowers underneath –the ones the old healer woman had given her- she dreamt of a young man with dark hair and bright eyes. A handsome stranger. In the dream, he smiled to her and gave her a blue ribbon. When she woke, the ribbon was underneath her pillow, among the faded blooms.

The whole summer, the whole autumn, the faintest sound of steps had her lift her eyes in hope and lower them again with a sigh every time. The old healer woman took her as an apprentice, taught her how to choose the healing herbs, how to dry them, how to use them. Two well-to-do men, neighbouring lairds, came and asked for her hand in marriage. She turned them down, much to her uncle’s dismay. ‘We needed their protection, not their spite,’ her uncle and sole guardian told her. But she didn’t care. She was waiting for him.

He never came.

At Hallowe’en, when she ran the third time around the stackyard, for a fleeting second somebody caught her in a hard embrace. She could only see a shadow in the dark, she could only feel a cold shape in the night, but she knew it was him, the lad from her dream. Inside, at midnight, her heart and hand trembling, she lit the candles in her room with mirrors. When the last flame sprung to life, he was in the mirror behind her.

“You are here,” she said, breathless, waiting to die.

His eyes brought no terrors, only love.

“Yes, blossom. I was waiting for you. Praying you would call me again.”

His voice was equally in her mind and in the mirror. He was there, at last, and not there. The handsome stranger from her dream.  His rich clothes were dirty, his white shirt was all bloodied.

“Are you hurt?” she asked, fearful.

He smiled to her like someone who’s been kept into darkness and was seeing the sun again. He pulled his shirt open to show his unscarred chest.

“Only my heart… My heart aches for you ever since I first saw you…”

“You’ve seen me?”

“In the dream, in midsummer… But you know about it… You’re wearing the ribbon I gave you…”

He reached out as if he wanted to touch her hair but his hand stopped on the mirror’s glass. She put her hand up to touch his, palm to palm, fingers to fingers.

“Who are you?’ she whispered. “Where are you?”

Those questions he didn’t know how to answer. He couldn’t remember the answer, no matter how hard he tried. All he knew was that she had saved him. Not why, not how, only that, that had she not summoned him at that moment he would have been lost, gone forever. She had saved him in her mirrors.

Now she is an old maid, she is twenty-five, and she is still looking for him. For the body from which his soul has wandered. They are looking together.

The other lasses, her friends, have all met and married the boys they had seen in their midsummer dreams. When she rejected a third suitor, her uncle disowned her.

Now she drives her little covered cart, pulled by Billy Boy, her little donkey. In the cart, she has everything, the mirrors, the herbs, the dress, her whole life.

She is a healer now, she brings solace to the wounded, to the sick. While her potions, and ointments and poultices do their good, she asks,  “Have you heard of a boy, of a young man who is perhaps sleeping, a boy who cannot awaken from his slumber?”

Nobody has heard. Nobody knows. People look at her with wariness, as if her strange questions could attract evil upon them, as if the herbs she has just used to save their brothers, their mothers, their children could poison them instead.

“Are you dead? Are you a spirit?” she keeps asking him.

“I don’t know...” he answers, and that is the truth. What he knows is that she is the one keeping him alive with her mirrors, with her love, that he would be lost forever without her.

“Do you remember something more?”

“Crows… I remember crows… Darkness… And then only you, my beloved, my beacon in the night, your candle showing me the way…”

“Are you here in the Highlands?”

“Aye, blossom. Must be the Highlands. Must’ve been a battlefield...”

“There are battlefields everywhere...” She sighs.

She wanders through villages, through hamlets, visits lonely brochs, seeking stories about wars.  About any unusual happenings. The clans fight each other all the time. Sometimes she walks among the dead and closes their eyes before the crows can eat them. Nobody harms her. Nothing harms her, not even her despair, her loneliness, her love for him.

One night it is Johnsmas again, and she stops on a hill. They have never reached this far north. This hill is quiet but the neighbouring hills are lit with bonfires, and the laird’s castle and the mote water are ablaze with the light from the flames. The summer sun still lingers in the sky, painting it in hues of pink and gold, and everything is so beautiful that her heart sings and weeps. She brings out the big mirror, props it against the cart to face the distant bonfires. She lights a candle. He comes to her.

For a while, they watch the lights getting brighter and the skies getting darker, they watch young ones dancing and long to dance too.  He is in the largest mirror, the one that holds him whole, and she leans onto it. It is as if she leans on his chest, as if she can rest her head on his shoulder.

“It is here, blossom,” he says at last, his voice like the breeze in her hair. “This is where I lie… Not in the ground. There, inside… I… know it.” She cannot tell if there is a thrill or if there’s sadness in his voice. “But it is the final night… You must hurry.”

She doesn’t know what he means but her soul cringes.

She puts on her best dress, the one she was saving for her wedding. She hides the smallest mirror – a mere handheld trinket- inside her skirts. He is in that mirror. She takes her most potent herbs with her. She runs.

“Please, can I see him?”  she asks the guards. “Your master?”

The guards exchange heavy looks but let her pass. She runs inside.

There are people in the austere hall, but they are not celebrating like the ones outside. They have sombre faces. She passes a woman with rich clothes whose gaze pierces her. She hurries to the big staircase that occupies the far wall.

“Who are you?” the woman calls after her. She hurries more.

“Halt!” the woman shouts.

A man stops her, his hand like a blacksmith’s vice on her arm.

“Who are you?” the woman asks again, circling her slowly, scrutinizing her face, her hair.

“I’m a doctor,” she says quietly. “Perhaps your master… or someone else here… is ill… I can help him…”

The woman shudders, wariness deepening on her handsome face with a tinge of fury.

“I know you…” the woman says slowly. The woman’s fine fingers touch her hair, pluck the blue ribbon from there.

She freezes.

More people arrive, among them an old woman and an old man for whom everybody give way.  They look noble and sad. They look inconsolable.
“I saw her that unholy night when he was brought home!” the young woman shrieks. “That Hallowmas when he should have died and didn’t! I glimpsed her in the mirror! It is she! She did this! She stole him from me!”

The old woman watches her with a warm curiosity.

“For ten years the worms haven’t eaten him, yet he is not alive,” the younger woman wails. “How can this be? It is her working! She’s a witch!”

“I can save him,” she says quietly.  If I can return his soul to his body then maybe he can be saved. “I am a doctor.” Her eyes are pleading. Her soul is trembling.

“Don’t let her touch him! Nobody can heal such wounds! Only a witch! Seize her!”

The old woman, the old man look at each other, look at her and she can see hope for their son in their eyes. 

The old woman speaks at last, with much frailty.

“You are exactly how he has described you, lass. When he spoke of you, he had the light of God on his face. Can you save him?”

These gentle words ignite more anger from the younger woman.

“No! He was betrothed to me!” Two big men can barely hold the woman. “He should have died ten years ago! We bury him tomorrow! He is dead! He is dead! Better dead than with her!”

And other ungodly words that she cannot hear because she covers her ears as, at a sign of the old woman,  she is led into a room upstairs and left alone.

She is not alone.

It is not a bedroom, it is arranged for a wake. The bed is not a bed, it is a catafalque.

He, her beloved, lies on it.

She tiptoes to his side, her breathing shy, as if not to disturb him.

Aye, it is he, her beautiful one. To see him like this, in flesh, after such a long time, turns her knees into honey. She wants to just lie down next to him and rest for a while.

There is no time. They want to bury him.

She takes the mirror out. Her heart cringes when she catches in the mirror the look of horror on his face at the sight of his own body. On his beautiful face, his eye sockets are gaping wounds.

He nods to her.

“I’ve seen you heal worse,” he says. “Do your magic, blossom.”

She smiles to him, but her heart is heavy.

“Soon, my love,” he says holding his hand for her to touch it as he always does. The mirror is so small, it barely shows his hand. She kisses it. Then she breaks the mirror.

She starts cleaning his empty eye sockets and humming the old song. She cannot help that her tears fall on the herbs and on the ointments and mix with them. She moves to the deep gash on his chest, the gash that hasn’t rotten for ten years, the gash that shows his still heart. While she sews him with the thread of herbs, her tears trickle down her lips where the old song is, and fall on his heart, and she sews her tears inside him. She never stops singing to him.

When she is finished, it is dawn again.

She leans in one more time and kisses his new eyelids. She puts her ear to his chest and listens. His heart’s beat is steady, quiet, but she knows that he is not in there yet; she has to return to her cart and break the last mirror. Free his spirit so it can return to his body.

She steals into the corridor, down the stairs. The hall is empty, apart from a sleeping guard. She hopes to go unnoticed, at least until she is far outside in the hills. The rustling of her skirts seems thunder, twin to her heart.

Behind her, she hears hurried steps, whispers, voices that grow with trepidation.  She doesn’t turn.

She is almost at the gate when she hears what she fears most.

“Stop! Stop the witch!”

She is seized and held. She kicks, she scratches, she pulls. They hold her, they hit her, they shove her to the ground. Pain explodes in her shoulder, in her head. A woman’s shoe pushes her painful cheek, turning her face upwards. She whimpers, stricken by the dark terror that now she won’t reach the last mirror anymore.

“Please,” she says. “Please… He will be fine now… He is yours… Please, I only need to-”

“No! He is dead. And you will burn next to his pyre, witch.”  The woman laughs, a gritty, wintry laugh. “So fitting, isn’t it? Take her!”

She is bound and dragged, her beautiful blue dress torn in rags and tatters on the stone floors. She wonders if he would hear her if she screams now. But they are inside and the last mirror is far on the hill. Where is the old woman, the one who has spoken to her so gently? The old man who had his hopes in her?

They’ve crossed the courtyard, she can see the grass, the hills. She still waits, hoping to get closer. And if he hears her? What can he do? How can he escape that accursed mirror that has been his salvation and his damnation?

The guards haul her in a cart, tie her with heavy chains.  More people gather. They only look at her with cold curiosity. The woman looks at her with hatred, making sure she sees the blue ribbon in her hair.

“Please…” she says.  “He will be well…”

She looks at the guards, trying to find a flicker of compassion in their eyes. She thinks she can see something.

“Please, save your young master…”

A man comes from inside, running.

“The Old Master has taken ill. He cannot bear the thought of saying goodbye to his son…”

Please, he doesn’t have to say goodbye… I can-”

“Proceed without him,” the woman says. “The sooner this ends, the better. And shut her up even if you cut her tongue. She will not need it anyway.”

That’s when she starts screaming, she screams his name, the name no one here knows because she chose it for him when he couldn’t remember his name, she screams, she bites their hands, and screams until they tie the gag and then she can only sob as they take her away because this is a bad goodbye, this is just an awful goodbye.

The stake is already there. They tie her.

The ties don’t have to be so tight but they are and they bite in her flesh. The guards don’t look in her eyes. She cannot speak but she tries speaking with her eyes. Nobody looks in her eyes, nobody except for the woman whose eyes are pure hatred, the woman who wears the ribbon that belongs to her.

They pile more wood at her feet while they wait. While she waits, she wills herself to die, before she can see the flames.

She barely notices the new clamour.


There are shouts but they aren’t angry. She hears scattered cheers.

“Cease your crimes!”

Is she dreaming this voice? Is she dead already, in Heaven?

She looks up. It is he. He walks leaning just a little onto the old man and the old woman. Guards follow them, keeping the eager crowd at bay.

It is he.

Only the ropes keep her from falling. When the ropes are cut, it doesn’t matter for she’s in his arms.

“Blossom,” he says, and her knees turn into honey. He strokes her hair, he kisses her eyelids. He cannot stop. He won’t stop. “Blossom,” he says, laughing softly. “This Billy Boy… When I heard you, I urged him to start the cart, to knock down the mirror. He listened to me, for once…”