Chapter 13 – Black mirror

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Understanding the old language became increasingly challenging over time, and the hopes of making heads or tails of it diminished, even for Mary, who, despite the unfortunate circumstances of her birth was an unbridled optimist. She spent endless nights, risking her aunt’s chastising, trying to decipher the meaning of the fragments they had translated, and it felt more and more like trying to mend an intricate tapestry after it had been torn to shreds, its big picture forever lost.

A puzzle with a million pieces, no two alike, without recognizable match lines, color themes or continuing patterns. As adept as she was at weaving together seemingly incompatible snippets into a cohesive flow, a skill she had mastered early in her childhood, she had to admit defeat after a while: what good does it do one to reconstitute something one can’t possibly understand?

At the end of each week she threw in the proverbial towel, swearing to dedicate her efforts to more productive endeavors, of which Mrs. Gentry’s list was never lacking, and every time the week began again she went back to the now so familiar puzzle, only to become disillusioned as the week progressed.

It was Wednesday, the day that usually split time, like a sharpened blade, into hope in unveiling the mystery and wretchedness about realizing she will never be able to solve it, a particularly unnerving day for Mary, and one she found especially taxing that week. Irritated by a continuous sequence of failures, she threw the papers at the wall, grateful her aunt wasn’t there to scold her for such unacceptable behavior, and made her way to the Council Hall to pick up the in-basket and bring it home for Lucille to sort through. The community had the custom of dropping suggestions for improvements, lists for public purchases and checklists of completed tasks in that basket, and at the beginning of each week one of the Council members selected the work tasks.

Mary entered the large room quietly, relieved to find it empty, and reached for the basket, only to notice, to her surprise, that it contained no papers, just a bundled package that looked like a plate wrapped in a towel. She reached to grab it and almost dropped it, because what peeked out when the towel slid open was a black mirror!

Mary had obviously never seen a black mirror, yet she recognized it immediately, and keen excitement mixed with sheer terror put a nervous shiver through her whole body and made her hands shake. She couldn’t resist touching it, and asked herself what could possibly go wrong if she did, it was just an object after all, and as she tried to rationalize her forbidden use of a cursed item she caressed the smooth surface lightly, barely touching it. The mirror lit up, instantly brightening the dark reflection of her face for a second, and then her features disappeared altogether and a sprinkling of tiny symbols showed up on the surface instead. Mary jumped back, startled. The little symbols wiggled for a second, as if unsure whether to go or stay, and then settled down, poised under the shiny surface. Mary, whose emotions and curiosity didn’t stray too far from those of a child, extended a probing finger and poked at one of the symbols, to see if she could make it start wiggling again.

“Good morning,” the mirror said.

Mary looked around, terrified that somebody might have heard that, grabbed the cursed object against all wisdom and started running. She ran all the way to the cave and didn’t stop until she was safely in the back room, with the boulder securely closing the tunnel behind her. She laid the mirror on a flat stone and poked at the little symbol again.

“Good morning,” the mirror said again. “What should I call you?”

“Mary,” the girl responded in a tiny flat voice, shaking like a leaf.

“Nice to meet you, Mary. How can I help you?”

Mary had heard that magical objects sometimes granted wishes, only to follow them with terrible hardship, as if to punish the audacity of the inquirer. She wasn’t going to risk being turned into a frog, a worm or a cockroach, so she didn’t answer. She pondered the situation for a while, wondering how she was going to tell her aunt that the mirrors didn’t need spells after all, not to mention her blood to open them up, and then she tried to reassure herself that touching the mirror was relatively safe and poked at another symbol, with more confidence this time. Its colorful companions started a weird little wiggle dance across the screen.

“Are you sure you want to delete that, Mary?” the mirror asked. The girl didn’t know if it was safe to answer the question, so she did nothing, frozen in fear. The little symbols continued their strange wobble for a while and eventually stopped without her intervention. They remained on the screen just a little longer, floating right under the surface like the tree blossom petals she used to pick off the surface of the pond and just as colorful against the black background, and then the surface turned dark again.

“What am I going to do with you?” Mary whispered, not realizing that she had said the words out loud.

“I’m not sure I understand the question,” the mirror responded.

Mary was about to respond when she heard a soft scratching sound, followed by her aunt’s voice from the other end of the tunnel.

“Mary, are you there? What on earth are you doing, girl, I’ve been worried sick! I sent you to the Council Hall two hours ago, who are you talking to?” she emerged grunting from the tunnel.

“The mirror,” Mary answered simply.

“No!” Lucille gasped, watching the black surface in disbelief.

“It talks back,” Mary replied, as if this was normal.

“What do you mean it talks back? Without the old language?” Lucille frowned, skeptical.

“You have to poke it,” Mary explained.

“What would possess someone to poke at a cursed object? The image is very dark,” Lucille noted, looking at her own reflection in the black glass. Mary took a moment to notice that her aunt wasn’t in any way daunted by seeing her own reflection; this prompted the girl to draw her own conclusions, all of which she kept for herself.

“You have to touch it,” she said.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Lucille hesitated.

“It’s quite safe,” Mary reassured her.

“So, all the secrecy and the danger around the tome our ancestors hid for so many generations was for nothing? I find that hard to believe!” Lucille protested.

“Why don’t you ask the mirror?” Mary suggested.

“Ask it what?”

“What the Que’d is for, for instance,” Mary offered. The mirror didn’t understand the question. “Or about my blood,” she continued, in a softer whisper, concerned not to annoy her aunt with a subject that had always been taboo.

“Why don’t you?” Lucille passed the question back to her.

“Can my blood open you?” Mary asked the mirror, immediately aware of the logical inconsistency of the question, since the shiny surface was already animated. The mirror didn’t understand the question.

“My blood. Blood.” Mary insisted.

“Just a moment,” the mirror asked, and then started reciting “1. blood is the fluid that carries oxygen and other elements to the tissues and carbon dioxide away from the tissues through the heart and vascular system.”

“What is a vascular system, aunt?” Mary whispered in Lucille’s ear, but her aunt shrugged her shoulders, looking almost as puzzled as she was. The mirror continued enumerating, impassible, “2. the vital principle; life. 3. a person or group regarded as a source of energy.”

“You think it sees me as its source of energy?” Mary shuddered, too tired to be scared.

“Let’s hope not!” Lucille stared her straight in the eyes. “How do you do this, Mary! How on earth did you get a hold of this object when the entire village swore on their lives there wasn’t one left working?”

“I found it in the in-basket,” Mary responded.

“At the Council Hall!??” Lucille couldn’t believe her ears. “I wonder who brought it there,” she mumbled, more for herself than for her niece. “And why does it work without the old language, this makes no sense at all, I know that a lot of the mirror lore is usually superstition and tall tales, but there is always something in them that rings true and makes logical sense. Why would it mention your blood?” she insisted. “Wait, maybe you touched the wrong symbol! How many of them did you open?”

“Just the two,” Mary answered.

“Does the other one talk?” Lucille asked.

“No. It points north.”

“Without a magnet?” Lucille started to worry.

The sun was almost setting and the cave turned dark.

“Goodness, I lost all sense of time. We need to head home, I don’t want to walk through the desert at night,” Lucille prompted.

“What about the mirror, aunt?” Mary asked.

“Bring it, we’ll take it into Council tomorrow morning. I’m sure Rosemary will be as excited as we are that we found it,” Lucille smiled, contemplating the perplexed look on Rosemary’s face in her mind’s eye, if only for a moment.