Some cracks don't show for centuries
"The mirror showed a reflection that wasn't my own."
I saw the scrap of paper at the top of the desk drawer. I squinted at the crabbed writing, so like mine, but definitely not my hand. My aunt and I were very similar in a lot of ways, and our lefty scrawls were near the top of the list. I sighed as I put it in the box with all the other papers. This box would go in the van with the others, to go through when the loss wasn't so raw.
Time for a break. A tall glass of lemonade, a sit on the veranda, and a good cry.
What was I going to do with this amazing mansion? It was a second home to me. I didn't expect to inherit it all, with Mom and older siblings expecting dibs. But with Aunt Dot vanished, and the lawyer hurriedly checking her In Case Of Vanishment file - yes, she had one, and a lot more, in case of emergencies that may or may not happen. It was a family joke for years. Luckily she was loaded, so her lawyer was finally earning his rather inflated retention. "In Case of Vanishment" was clear: wait only two weeks, then assume she's dead and break out the will. So here I was. Doing it alone, since Mom and sibs had a serious case of the sulkies.
This wasn't like Dot, to just vanish. She was as reliable... well, as I was. Dependable as sunrise, we are. If a thing needs to be done, we're on it. We get the job done. So having a vanishment file was in the same category as the In Case of Unexpected Pregnancy file, with separate pages for my mom and sisters and me. And the In Case of Getting a Girl Pregnant file for my brothers, though she got rid of the sheet on my dad when he died and replaced it with In Case Some No-Good Jerkface Knocks Up My Daughter. Dot had a sarcastic sense of humor. Not many could stand to be around her much.
I was the only one who visited on the regular when we grew up. My sibs have fond childhood memories of the place, as does Mom, but for me, this was where I belonged.
And I certainly didn't like the vibe I was getting from the place now. Something had changed since I was here last, two months ago.
I felt like I was being watched. And I didn't like it one bit.
If I could pinpoint it, I'd just track it down and deal with it. I knew Dot's house and land like the back of my hand, and the neighbors too. If someone had came skulking around, they would have dealt with it. But the neighbors were just as baffled at the memorial service. It's not like we even had a body to bury, so we sat around eating seventy flavors of jello, trying to figure out what happened.
But the hairs kept standing up on the back of my neck. And it would come from various places, or from different directions. Like, for instance, right now - it was coming from my van, parked in the driveway, shining in what little bit of sun leaked through the clouds. Before that, it was from the meadow, near the ducks splashing in a vernal pond left over from the rain.
I had a thought. I grabbed my drink, headed for the library.
Dot and I always felt our best surrounded by all those precious books. There was room for two study tables, one for visitors, one for her. Our heaviest thinking was done there, surrounded by the best wisdom we could collect from the history of humankind.
One desk was clean, but hers was covered with research: a copy of Malleus Maleficarum dominated, and The Prophecies of Nostradamus, and a few of Crowley's Libri.
Well, this boded ominous.
I had been looking for clues in the wrong room.
I glanced over at the occult section. All the books were rearranged, like they had been scanned and shoved back when they proved fruitless.
As I stacked the books to the side, a bookmark in Dee's Monas Hieroglyphica caught my eye. I noted the page number as I opened the book - and the bookmark fell out.
The Ten of Swords.
And, on the bottom of the pile, hidden by all the books - another of Dot's files, In Case of Unexplainable or Supernatural Forces.
Aunt Dot, what were you into? And more importantly, why?
I scanned it. Then I plopped down rather hard for a second, more thorough read.
Well. Mirror magic?
Did that explain why the large hallway mirror was covered with a thick, heavy sheet? That was new. I hadn't moved it yet, trying to focus on the paperwork and any clues it held.
I checked the other mirrors in the house. There weren't many. It was a very old house, built in the early seventeen oughts. Mirrors were expensive then, with the silvering process by boiling mercury. Hand mirrors were even a luxury, and the house boasted three - one for our family's founder, one for his wife, and one for their only child. Each in a tortoiseshell frame, each in their respective boxes in the vanity in their proper room.
I could feel the menace oozing from each open drawer. I took it as fact that the mirrors were there. I slammed the drawers shut.
I suddenly wanted a bath very badly.
Here, ablutions are a morning thing. The bathrooms are on the eastern side of the house, to catch the morning sun and hold it for best visual self-examination. Small medicine cabinets had been installed when the more modern plumbing was added by my grandfather. Oh, yeah, those had mirrors too, didn't they? I never thought of them as "real" mirrors, like the antiques I'd heard stories about.
I had noticed, when I arrived, that my bathroom had been rearranged.
Now, checking Dot's - it was a disaster.
Canisters broken, contents scattered. Powders, perfumes, gels, didn't matter. All were mixed into a slippery mess on the floor. Luckily the marble tiles weren't broken.
I got a mop from the closet, and a bucket. I set the bucket in the tub and turned on the water. And the feeling of being watched intensified tenfold.
It was coming from... the bucket?
When I turned off the water, I could swear the bucket had eyes, and they were glaring straight at me. When I plunged the mop in, it was like the intensity got... Disturbed? Interrupted? It returned gradually as I mopped, till I plunged the mop back in. Lather, rinse, repeat. Hmm. Interesting.
I cleaned up the slop, then poured the dirty water down the tub drain. The glare vanished with the water.
As I walked out of the bathroom, I glanced at the mirror in the medicine cabinet.
The mirror showed a reflection that wasn't my own. And the force of the glare coming from those eyes nearly knocked me over.
I got out of there fast.
Thick sheets, hunh?
I grabbed some of the extra winter flannel bed sheets from the hall closet, and a big roll of duct tape. Magical substance, that tape is. Secure as a lock. I didn't even look at the mirror, I just held it before me like a shield, and wrapped that sucker around the edge of the cabinet frame. The fabric rippled as I wrestled with tape and slippery fabric. Another jar crashed behind me, and the cabinet itself creaked like it wanted to open up and spit toothbrushes at me.
I made sure that sheet was secure, then did the same in my bathroom.
That one didn't put up nearly as much fuss, but both sheets were waving like they were flags in a high head wind.
What was going on here?
I swept up the jar debris, thinking. Dot and I... well we're about as far from magic and superstition as could be. STEM careers, both of us. Logic. Reason. Rationality.
But just because I'm good in an emergency doesn't mean I wasn't quivering inside.
Now that the crisis was over, I was shaking. I needed a good sit down again.
Where could I go where whatever-that-was couldn't glare at me?
My bedroom was dark. I peeked in - no glare. It felt safe.
I curled up in my wingback chair, put my feet up on the ottoman. No better place for a good think, except maybe the library.
I hadn't eaten dinner. That glass of lemonade seemed like a lifetime ago. And once the shaking stopped, I didn't want to move or think.
Before I knew it, it was morning. I was starving, and still dusty and sweaty from yesterday's actions. The sunlight was streaming in the window, and the glass of water by the bedside was glaring at me.
I firmly shut the curtain, and the glare dimmed to that of an insect.
Into my bathroom, and I shut that curtain too. It was easier to take a quick bath that way, though I could feel things trying to move as soon as I stepped into the tub. I scrubbed fast and with very little water, and got out quickly. Things stopped moving as I dried off.
Downstairs, and a big breakfast. Hard to do with curtains closed and shiny surfaces. It was like being in a room full of mosquitoes - open the fridge, the light goes on, you're glared at from every shiny surface. Close the door, it goes away. I decided on cereal. I couldn't take the thought of eggs glaring at me as they cooked. It was bad enough to keep the surface of the milk agitated as I stirred it constantly.
I could feel something trying to grab my spoon, my bowl. It was both strange and satisfying to hear the crunch of the cereal in my teeth. I wasn't sure, but I thought I could feel something flinching inside my mouth when I did.
Is this what Aunt Dot went through? It must have driven her mad. What happened to her?
Why didn't she call me?
Well, I knew the answer to that. For the same reason I wouldn't now: I didn't want anyone getting into the same mess I was in. Also because I didn't want anyone locking me up, thinking I'd lost my mind.
But what to do about this mess?
No, I wasn't panicking. Not yet, anyway. Something was bubbling deep inside, that would eventually froth over and bring on quite a screaming gibbering breakdown. I was always like that. Existential crisis? Medical emergency? I was calm, cool, collected, like ice. When it was all over, then I'd collapse into a pile of quivering protoplasm, preferably in some private corner.
But Dot was like that too. And she wasn't here.
I considered my options. And what I knew.
My aunt had been researching mirror magic. From her file notes, I'm guessing weird things started happening, and she tried to figure out what was going on and stop it. She wasn't the type to suddenly try occult practices, then call up something she couldn't control.
She disappeared at full moon. I inherited at new moon. Logically, I had two weeks, but if this thing was this strong now, I only had a few days.
I wondered if burning the place down would contain it. I shivered at the though of the ash drifting away, contaminating the neighbors downwind.
I wondered why here and now.
Dot didn't leave any experiment notes. Had she gotten to try anything, only to find it didn't work? Or made it stronger?
I found myself in the hallway, staring blindly at the thickest flannel sheets Dot could find. I fought a sudden urge to tear it down. That scared me - the urge wasn't mine. Was something getting stronger?
But that got me thinking about weaknesses.
Everyone had them. I knew what some of mine were, of course. I try to be as self-aware as possible, hopefully work on my faults. Evolve, as it were.
So, what were Dot's faults? I knew her better than anybody. What made her tick, what were her blind spots?
I could name some. She was so proud of this house, her ancestry. I liked it, but I knew it was built on blood and sweat that wasn't ours. Some ancestor was kind enough to apologize by carving up the land for the slaves freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. As expiation. I wasn't so much proud of my family as disgusted that our comfortable living came on their broken backs. My ancestor didn't free them before he had to, now did he? And I'd say as much, to be uncomfortably hushed. Didn't make me better by much, since I hadn't done anything extra to fix that.
She was proud of some of the historical features of the house, so much that even getting a new coat of paint had been agonizing. Luckily the fridge, the gas stove, had all been put in by her father, and there were stories she'd pitched a rather epic fit at the tender age of five over those. The commodes were an earlier change, taking some of the bedrooms and dividing them to install the water closets. Pull chains, gravity feeds, all the antique style. Awesome, really, but not very threatening.
The mirror. The monstrosity. Six and a half feet tall, five wide, silvered glass just like the hand mirrors, carved imported mahogany frame. Pegs and cubbies incorporated into the whole design. Commissioned of imported materials, handsomely paid for, and unwieldy as you-know-where. A monument to pride if ever there was one.
Aunt Dot loved it immensely. I wondered how many people had been bought and sold to pay for it, and how many were punished trying to manhandle it into place. They would pay in blood for each scuff, dent, or chip.
It must have pained her to cover it up like this.
Now, staring at it, I noticed the dark stains on the carving right at the bottom corner of the glass. The sheet covered the mirror, but not all the frame's carvings. It could be moved by a strong enough wind.
I needed to think.
I took to the porch, grateful that the sky was overcast again. Even the beads of water on the outside of the glass weren't enough to draw attention as I stared unseeing at the porch and balustrade.
I thought I was seeing the shape of this.
I could scribble up some notes, put them in the van when the sun wasn't shining. Or in the mailbox, addressed to the lawyer. Along with a will. My family was annoying, but they couldn't handle this at all. Maybe it was already too much for me, but I'd be dipped in a dye vat before I let them inherit a problem this huge. It would eat them alive.
That last thought made me shiver violently.
A tiny sliver of sunlight pierced the clouds, and illuminated a shiny object lying in the grass. The glare returned, then faded as the hole closed. It started to rain. I went to the closet, grabbed a towel. It didn't take long to scoop up what had glinted at me - a shard of glass, from a broken bottle on a pile of dirt. Well, mud, now.
That's right, Aunt Dot had said something about having to dig at the foundation last month, something about roots and a busted old pipe in need of repair.
The rest of the bottle was emerging with each raindrop that hit it, and I pulled it out. In the bottom I could make out a sludge of rusty bent pins, some cloth, and broken pieces of pottery.
A witch's bottle!
And things became clearer.
Well, now I knew the how and why, and why it happened now.
I didn't know if I could fix it, but I could warn others.
I wrapped the evidence up carefully, took it inside. Then I went back to the office, got out a stack of paper, and a good stout pen, and scribbled furiously for what seemed like hours.
Everyone knows everyone around here. Small town, few people. So when Hank, the mailman, appeared exactly at two P.M. at the end of the drive, I was waiting for him.
One packet for the lawyer. One packet for Sam, the next door neighbor. He was a smart man, and he'd want to know what happened to us.
One packet for the sheriff, in case everything went sideways.
Then I tried to think. How to fix it? Could it be fixed? It's not like old houses came with a box labeled In Case Of Occult Emergency Break Glass!
Hunh, wait a minute....
I found it ironic that usually in literature, the nighttime is when supernatural forces get stronger, and they fade with daylight. Not this whatever-it-is.
I'd gone out to the tool shed, and brought in a sledgehammer. Then I thought some more, and got two hammers. Thought a third time, then got a sturdy thick plastic face shield.
I'd missed lunch. I made myself a double bowl of cereal for dinner. The milk was still jiggling, but not as badly as before. Maybe it didn't like being bitten?
I sure hoped so.
I suited up in my room. Long flannel sleeves and jeans seemed best. And the face shield. And a hammer.
I figured I'd start in Dot's bathroom. It seemed... Logical? So far, that's where I'd gotten attacked the worst. If it worked, then my bathroom. I could just bury the hand mirrors, couldn't I? Or lock them away, so they'd never see light again. I'd have to think about the future, if I got one. Living in a large house with no shiny surfaces was going to be unpleasant without a game plan.
My hands started to shake. I fiercely told them to knock it off. Nothing was even remotely close to being over.
I distracted myself by looking at Dot's bedroom. I hadn't touched anything in here, so it was just like Dot left it. Well, after the sheriff had rummaged a bit. He didn't do any damage, just moved some stuff around.
I unlocked her jewelry cabinet. I know where she hid the key.
We never really had much in the accessory department. Fans were the most important thing here in the south, and they tended to be utilitarian. One was from France, painted silk, no spangles, but imported, so it was treasured. No one in our family had had enough money or prestige to be chosen as Mardi Gras Queen, so we didn't even have a set of high-end paste in bronze to show for the honor. I knew the intricate cameo on a silk velvet ribbon was an old piece, and the earrings were parcel-gilt. Their worth was in their pedigree, not actual metal or gem content.
The ring box was new.
I opened it, more out of curiosity. It glimmered in the sunset light, but I couldn't feel any evil rising from it like the other shiny things today. That was strange. Dark gray, almost black. The facets came to a sharp point above the gem, not below. I turned it over - it was flat on the bottom. Classic rose cut. My college roomie took a lot of shop classes, and jewelry was her favorite. We swooned over color and clarity instead of potential mates.
This was a honking big diamond. Too bad it was also the lowest grade available. My roomie had called it "gravel grade" in a sneering fashion.
It also fit my finger perfectly. I let it stay, for luck.
Well, now or never. I needed some light to see what I was doing. I couldn't trust candles, or a flashlight.
I opened the curtain in the bathroom. The setting sun was on the far side of the house, but enough light was reflected into the room to feel the hate come pouring out of the mirror. I'd swept up or moved all the moveables, but even so, the curtain rippled unpleasantly. A doorknob rattled.
Luckily it was a smaller mirror for a medicine cabinet. I removed the shroud, then looked. The face glared at me in naked rage. I couldn't see much behind it, but the room didn't look like a reflection of this one.
I swung the hammer with everything I had.
The look of shock on the face was refreshing, and then the mirror turned onto splinters of light as it shattered. A thin screeching, like nails on a chalkboard, came from the larger pieces.
The mood in the room lightened. I took that as a sign of hope.
I ran to my bathroom. I hadn't even noticed the few shards of mirror that had clung to me, but I heard them tinkle when they hit the hall's floor. I was going to owe this place a good sweeping - if I survived.
I opened the curtain, and ripped off the cover. The face was here too, and though the rage was still there, there was something else. Like concealed pain. Was it wounded? Could it be hurt? I swung the hammer again.
Another spatter of glistening shards, and more screaming.
I could hear it coming from the other bathrooms on this floor, too.
I hadn't bothered with the other bathrooms. No one went in them anymore, they weren't needed unless someone visited. I'd been the only visitor for a good decade. So I ran from one to the other, two more on this floor, two downstairs, swinging my hammer and dodging baskets and other tchotchkes collected over time. The china dogs wouldn't be missed, and neither would the chalkware. Whatever this thing was, it was still strong, and those "objects d'art" were being aimed at my head.
Should have thought to wear some kind of helmet...
I had a few holes in my clothing now. I could feel some nicks, and a trickle or two of bleeding. I had to end this fast.
I saved the hallway mirror for last.
I pulled off the cover, grabbed the sledgehammer.
And dropped it when I saw the room clear for the first time.
Whatever this thing was, it was wearing a southern belle dress and dark gloves to the elbow. The background looked like a parody of this room - an Oriental carpet with a pattern of squirming snakes, pictures on the walls with skeletons leering, wallpaper that seemed to writhe when you stared too hard. All of that was disturbing, but what made me drop my weapon was the person bound hand and foot at its feet.
I said some bad words.
It laughed. It may have tried to look human, but you could tell it wasn't. The eyes weren't right, and the mouth was too wide. The teeth were too pointed. And Dot looked terrified.
Was it getting dark in here?
It felt like light was being sucked out of the world. It concentrated on two things: its gloved hands, and mine.
Specifically, on the ring I was wearing.
My roomie hated diamonds. She loved color - deep, saturated. Things that shimmered were what she loved best. She'd forbidden her boyfriend from getting her a diamond engagement ring. She'd warned him, she'd use it as a glass cutter, and nothing else. She'd even demonstrated how to use it to cut plate glass.
I held it up, and grinned right back at that hateful thing.
It looked nervous.
With my fist, I put the point of that lovely rose cut right up against the glass, pressed in, pulled down hard. A dark line appeared in the surface in its wake, and it made an unholy shriek that the thing almost matched in volume and intensity.
I made another.
By the fifth parallel line, the light was returning. It spilled out of its hands and back into my world, oozing through the cracks I made. By the seventh, I started chanting, "Give her back, you monster, or I'll keep doing this over and over and OVER!"
And I fitted words to actions, making more and more scratches. The thing put its hands up to its head and was keening wildly.
Dot began inching towards the mirror.
The thing was losing its shape.
I kept distracting it, making more and more gouges in the surface. Each one seemed to hurt it, and it staggered about. The hands turned to claws, the dress melted away, the hair shrank to scales. The screams turned to hisses.
Dot was up against the glass. I reached with my other hand, and I went right through where the glass should have been. I saw my hand appear near Dot's elbow, grabbed ahold, and yanked hard just as she launched herself right at me.
She came through.
Then the thing realized it lost its prisoner. I was still in mid pull when it lunged. My other fist came up, with the ring on it, and scraped across the snout trying to come through.
Another scream, and it pulled back. Black blood dripped out of the cut across its face.
I hollered at Dot to curl up. She did her best, but I couldn't wait. I let go of her and grabbed the sledgehammer, spun, and swung hard. I didn't play much baseball as a kid, but I knew there was no second chance.
The mirror shattered, exploded.
I felt the cuts. Dot got some too; she was only in a nightgown.
The shrieking rose, rose some more, then began to fall and fade.
Sam found us the next morning on the porch. I'd been fixing up Dot's wounds as best I could, and he scolded me as he helped me with my own. At least I had finished having a good old-fashioned shaking meltdown earlier.
The large gash on Dot's leg bothered me the most. I assumed she'd gotten it when she was taken. That was her dried blood at the corner of the mirror, I was sure of it.
Sam then helped me clean up so many shards of glass. All over. And we talked.
He knew about the witch bottles, since his ancestor had helped place them there. They were at all the corners of all the buildings, put there by the slaves. They didn't like those white man buildings, and wanted to give themselves some protection from their jailers.
He showed me how to make a new one, to replace the broken bottle, and how to place it.
I kept saying how sorry I was, that my family was arrogant enough to enslave his.
We left Dot on the porch to drink lemonade and recover. She still wasn't talking, and Sam said she may well never speak again. But I would stay to take care of her, so we'd take our healing as it came. She was smiling when she saw me return, so that's an excellent sign.
I decided on a few things. One, I was writing a book to put in the library, about what happened and how to make witch's bottles for future problems. Two, I was writing our family's history. The good, the bad, the ugly, and from my own perspective. Preservation of outdated traditions almost killed us. Who else would it have taken, if I failed? I was betting Dot had figured most of it out, but just couldn't bear to break the mirror that was her pride and joy.
Three, I was going to commission a stained glass window to replace the mirror. Time for some new traditions, that brought new blood into our home. Sam knew a rather talented artist who could do the work.
I saw him take a piece of the mirror with him. It was the biggest piece left, with the scratches from the ring carved deep into the surface. He said he was going to give it to his friend, to incorporate into the new design.
A reminder, he said. And he winked.
You know, there's lots of room here. Maybe I should build an artisan barn, get some equipment, invite crafters from all disciplines to have residency here. My college roomie was at loose ends; she could come. Sam knew all kinds of local interesting people, from woodcarvers to painters to metalworkers. I likely owed a blood debt to some. Might as well start paying back, you know? Get plugged back into the local network.
Maybe I should write up this story, tell it to people. It's just a story, right? It's a good warning, if you read between the lines. It couldn't happen in the real world.
About the Creator
Mix equal parts anthropologist, biologist, geologist, and artisan, stir and heat in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, sprinkle with a heaping pile of odd life experiences. Half-baked.
Very well written. Keep up the good work!
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
Easy to read and follow
Well-structured & engaging content
Original narrative & well developed characters
On-point and relevant
Writing reflected the title & theme
I’m shocked this doesn’t have more comments, because it’s a very well crafted story with strong characters and plot. I also love that you included mirror magic. I just wish I could’ve known what the aunt’s notes said about it! But very nice work.
Completely engrossing. Perfect pacing. Filled with details that are never extraneous or for their sake alone, always advancing the story & filling in the background. A masterpiece of storytelling. Just a few editorial notes: In the paragraph beginning, "But the hairs kept standing up...," you have a phrase "in a vernal ponds...." I'm not certain what you want, but I'm guessing you intended "pond" in the singular. In the paragraph beginning, "I could feel the menace...," you have a phrase "I took is as fact...." I'm pretty sure you intended "it" rather than "is". Finally, in the paragraph beginning, "I could name some," you finish the sentence with, "but I knew it was build on blood and sweat that wasn't ours." I'm pretty sure you meant "built". That's all that I could find. They are the only & tiniest of incremental improvements in your story I can possibly imagine. Incredible storytelling. Congrats on top story!
Such a great story, kept me riveted throughout!! - Anneliese
Very imaginative story! Beautifully written; excellent job! If you have some time, I would appreciate your feedback on my submission - The Boy in the Mirror, as well. Looking forward to read more of your stuff.