From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

The Shadow in the Mirror

On Wednesday nights, I talk to my dead sister though a silver mirror.

It is always Wednesday, and always night, no matter what the season of the year. In winter, I can begin speaking to her in the early hours of the evening, after the last rays of the sun have slipped into darkness. In summer, I must wait through the evening heat, through a tasteless dinner, my eye on the mirror, until the nighttime hours finally fall, and I can see her shadow in the mirror.

Her shadow, not mine. Never mine.

On Tuesday, the mirror is just that: a mirror, reflecting my own face coldly enough, and the room I and the mirror are standing in, no less and no more. Pure silver, it is, and tarnishes easily. I spend Tuesday nights, and sometimes Wednesday days, polishing it for my nightly talks, readying the mirror for her shadow.

I do not know if she hears me, or how much she can understand of what she hears. But sometimes I see her shadow moving in the mirror and that is almost enough.

Thursdays I sleep.

* * *

I am not going to linger over her death, only say that it shattered me. For three days, they later told me, I did nothing but rest on my bed, unmoving. I may have studied the ceiling, but I cannot remember. They told me I did not eat or drink, not until that third day, when someone forced water through my lips. I sat up on the fourth day, still unable to speak to anyone around me, still unable to swallow. It was ten days before I ate, and then the food was utterly dry and tasteless.

And I began searching for her in my dreams, waking and sleeping.

I had never been a great dreamer. She was, and used to enchant me with her dreamer’s tales, some of which were perhaps true, and some of which were perhaps not. I think she changed details to shock me, sometimes. Some of her dreams seemed too clean, too linear, too easy to follow. I accused her of making them up.

Usually, she only smiled at this. But once, she replied, mockingly, “So, are you saying that your dreams contain nothing but the truth? That you do not make up a single part of your dreams?” She picked up a silver hand mirror and gazed into it.

I couldn’t remember most of my dreams. But I did not think I had made them up, either.

“They’re just dreams,” I said weakly.

“But of course,” she said, still mocking. “So, now do you wish to hear the rest of the story, or not?”

“You said it was a dream.”

“The story of my dream,” she said.

And because her dreams gleamed brightly, or because her words did, I would sit silent and listen wide-eyed to her tales. That I remembered, although when I tried to remember the tales themselves, I found I could only remember a word or two, a phrase here and there, a few strands of the enchantment she had woven. I could never tell her tales myself. After her death, in daylight hours, I remembered even less, though I remembered her, my sister: the way she had laughed, the way her eyes had gleamed as she told her tales, the way she had always urged us to walk further and further. In my daylight dreams, she laughed and danced again, and told me her tales. And I found it difficult to leave these daylight dreams.

At night—at night I dreamed more clearly, I think, and heard her tales again. But they vanished by the daylight, and I had only endless daylight dreams of half forgotten memories to help me find them.

* * *

I cannot tell you, now, when her shadow first came to me in the daylight, the shadow of the very second of her death, the shadow of her hair still suggesting its tangled state when she had died. I did not, at first, see it—or her—for what it was, no more than we ever notice shadows, unless we are staring straight at them or trying to make shadowplays and puppets to entertain children. I was not watching the flickering shadows around me. I was staring at a book, attempting to fall within its story, but finding myself falling into a dream of my sister instead.

“You must move on,” I heard the voices around me whisper urgently. “Mourn, yes, but move on—”

I chose not to listen, and instead thought of my sister, blowing music through her flute, and rested in that daylight dream, half seeing her there in the sunlight with her shadow. She played, and played well. I remembered, or didn’t remember, her endless practice on the flute, the initial hesitant, painful sounds, the endless scales, the endless replayed melodies, and heard them again as I lost myself in the dream. The flute’s song changed to something that I could not remember hearing before. Something wild and haunting and dancing. She turned in the sunlight, and her eyes laughed at me over the flute. I found myself smiling back, only half seeing the shadow of her dream self separate from her and move within the shadows of the room, hiding there.

“Forget,” the voices around me whispered again.

And once again, I chose not to hear.

My daylight dreams shifted into night and what I dreamed there, I could not say, only that I spent the night searching, searching. The morning came, and with it, my memories. I lost myself in them and did not notice that in those memories, my sister no longer cast a shadow. Not at first. Not until her shadow began moving on the wall, in daylight.

At first I thought it was just another dream, just another vision I’d created to keep her memory alive: if she could not live, at least her shadow could, in my memories. Easy enough to believe that the shadow of her hand was actually the shadow of a tree branch, of a cloth dancing in the wind, a sullen piece of furniture. Even if had the shape of a woman, and even if it moved against the wall although no one stood near enough to cast it.

It moved, and reached its hands out towards me.

It is only a dream, I thought, and about me, I heard the voices say, “You must forget, you must forget…”

A cold finger pushed forward and touched my neck. I jumped with the chill—and turned, to see her shadow against the wall, hair wild and disheveled, as it had been—

My breath caught in my throat. I closed my eyes. It had only been a shadow, I told myself. Only a shadow. The other shadows, of ordinary things, did not move.

That night I searched for her again in my dreams, and found only other shadows.

In the late morning, I arose and blinked against the sun. I heard the voices of well meaning people urging me to forget, to heal, to move on. But I could find healing only in my memories. I retreated again to sunlit dreams, remembering my sister on the flute, practicing—

This time I could not ignore it. My sister, in my daylight dreams, in my memories, had no shadow.

She had had a shadow, surely, when she lived. Everything has a shadow, when it lives. But when I tried to remember, when I tried to reach back and find the actual memory of her with a shadow, I could not.

On the wall, something moved. Gripped within my memories, within my desperate search for any memory of her with a shadow, I did not immediately pay attention, until it moved again. And then my eye seized on it. My sister. Or a shadow of her, at least. I stared. The shadow nodded, one, twice, three times.

Then it moved from the wall and began to walk towards me.

I could not breathe. My throat and chest tightened, even as my mouth opened, searching for words. I stumbled backwards. She—it—took three firm, light steps forward and stretched a shadowy hand towards my neck, brushing it lightly. I stumbled back still further, slamming against a wall. The shadow’s chill remained on my neck. The shadow tilted its—no, her—head, then spread out its arms before suddenly moving them in again. The shadows of her arms and hands faded into the shadow of her body. I could not see what her shadow hands were doing. But I could guess, and I felt my throat tighten, almost if her – no, its – hands were already about my neck. She was a shadow. Insubstantial. She couldn’t—

The chill in my neck deepened, and my breath began to hurt. She could.

Light. Light could defeat shadows. “I’ll fill this place with light,” I threatened. “I’ll burn every light I have here and I’ll find more.”

A mirror rested on the table next to her shadow. The shadow tilted her head, mockingly, I thought. I looked about. The room had only the one light, casting shadows throughout the room. I reached out and took the light into my hand. The shadow’s head lifted. I moved forward. Behind me, shadows clustered.

My sister’s shadow slipped into the mirror, and I heard it—her—scream.

It was a Wednesday.

* * *

I ran. Of course I ran. That very night I gathered my things and left my house – our house – with the scream of her shadow still echoing in my ears. I do not remember where I ran, but I remember the feel of the ground beneath me, the pounding in my legs; I remember remembering everything I had left behind.

And still I ran.

I did not dare stop; I did not dare dream. I thought—I thought – her shadow followed me, although when I turned, it would be gone, or turn out to be only the shadow of something else—a tree, a tower, a street sign. Or shadows firmly attached to other people, and those, those I could ignore as I ran. I do not even remember where I ran, only that I ran until I collapsed to the ground, my bag falling at my side, and fell into a dream.

In my dream, I stepped upon a bridge over a deep black lake which reflected the night sky. I walked, until the bridge vanished, sending me plunging into the water. I fell, feeling the seaweeds and vines of the deep rolling up my legs, wrapping themselves around me. I felt the small bites of fish. I tried to scream, and felt seaweed and water fill my mouth and slide down my throat. This was a dream: I could not taste the water or the weeds, but I could feel their slickness in my throat. I tried to scream again.

In my dream, I fought, and watched the water shimmer, showing me my sister’s shadow. It tilted its head at me, perhaps smiling, I thought. And then the shadow reached out through the water, and, solid in dreams, pushed me further down into the sea.

It was only the first time she would kill me in my dreams that night.

* * *

I cannot recall the next days clearly, only that I stumbled onwards, trying to forget her shadow, or to remember other things, trying to lose myself in day or night dreams of the times before her death, before her shadow. It never worked. In the day, I flinched at the movement of any shadow. In the night, I died again. And finally, exhausted, I could no longer run.

I found a quiet room—where, I cannot tell you. But it was quiet, and it had a bed and a nearby bath, and little else mattered. I washed my face and hands, and then my body, and in my waking dreams, heard my sister’s voice, telling of her dreams. I shuddered, and found myself slipping and falling in the bath. I jerked myself up seconds after the water covered my face, woken by my body’s instinctive desire not to drown, and blinked as the water ran down my face.

A shadow seemed to move in a mirror hung near the bath. I shuddered, splashing water, and stepped from the tub. I dried myself and moved back to the room and its narrow bed. A small silver mirror rested on the bed. I stood by the bed, looking down at it, hesitating. The exhaustion in my body spoke for me. I could not move past this bed, not that night. I reached forward, grasped the mirror and placed it on the table next to the bed. As I moved the mirror I saw only my own reflection. I felt something lift in my chest, and fell into the bed.

Her shadow killed me four times that night, at least that I remember. Some of my dreams are difficult to remember.

It was Sunday.

* * *

I could not run further. Indeed, the next morning, worn out by my multiple dreaming deaths, I could barely rouse myself enough to eat, before falling back to escape into short day dreams where I was sitting by my sister again, hearing her tales—

—to find myself falling into nightmares where her shadow self killed me.

“No more,” I begged. “No more.”

But in day and night, her shadow still stalked me, until I huddled in the rented bed, legs drawn up against my body, blankets pulled around me, my eyes darting here and there. It was Wednesday, and night was falling. Soon enough, I thought, I would fall back into sleep, into nightmares. And even that was better than the thought that she, or the shadow creature, would be stepping outside my nightmares again.

I waited and watched the lights. Perhaps, I thought, I should turn them off. If the room was entirely dark, surely she could not cast a shadow, and no shadow could move within the room? But the room had a window, and this night, the moon and the stars both shone, as did lights from nearby houses. I did not know if I could make the room truly dark. And if I did, how could I see her shadow?

I reached to the lamp beside the bed, to make it brighter, keeping my wary eye on the shadows on the wall. As I did so, I caught a glimpse of the small silver mirror, still on the table beside the bed, where I had left it—two, three, four days ago? I counted. It had been four days, yes. I turned up the light, then picked up the mirror, staring inside it—

—and felt the scream rip through and leave my throat.

For I could not see myself in the mirror. I could only see a shadow, the dancing shadow of my sister. My chest tightened. For a moment, I thought I felt cold gray fingers grasp my neck and squeeze—and then I felt nothing but coldness. I shut my eyes, and opened them.

It might perhaps have been another dream. I could not know. What I did know was that no matter how long I stared in the mirror, it would not show my face. Only a shadow, first of a dancing woman, then a shadow of a face, and finally that same woman, my sister, sitting on—I could not tell. I grasped the mirror, unable to look away.

“What do you want of me?” I rasped.

The shadow slowly turned in the mirror. Behind her, I thought I could see other things—a window, a wooden chair, the faint outline of a shadowy bed or couch, but as she moved, those things shifted and were gone, no more than shadows. The shadow turned around, and placed her hands around her neck, and then dropped them, hopelessly, then slowly spun again, occasionally stroking her neck. She had been my sister for too long for me not to guess her meaning, but I did not say it aloud.

Instead, other words poured from me, endless words, as if some fountain of conversation and poetry and words had been triggered in my throat, gushing forth so strongly that I could not have halted them, even if I had wanted to. And sometimes her shadow seemed to hear me, seemed to stop in its slow shadowy dance, and pulled its hands in, away from me and my own fragile neck.

The next day, I slept without dreams. The next day and night, the mirror showed only my own reflection, aged, but, I thought, a little less tired than it had been. Perhaps. I slept again, and again, for a full week, without dreams. The mirror showed me my face a little less tired each day, the dark circles in my eyes retreating.

And then, it was Wednesday night, and I had to place my hands around my own neck to keep from screaming.

* * *

On Wednesday nights, I sit and talk to her, and remember the feel of her fragile neck underneath my hands, the way it bruised so easily, so softly, without a scream, the way it snapped, so harshly under my hands, the way that unheard scream continues to echo in the silver mirror. And I talk. Oh, how I talk. Until I cannot bear the sound of my own voice, and slowly gather the mirror to my chest, remembering again.


Mari Ness worships chocolate, words and music, in no particular order, and has a second career as cat furniture for two adorably cute cats. Her work has previously appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Aberrant Dreams, Coyote Wild, and several other print and online places. She keeps a blog at mariness.livejournal.com.

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