Carl was 5 years old when he first saw the man with the mirror. He was playing in the backyard when a glint from the peripheral forest caught his eye.
He looked up, scanning the trees, and spotted him: a figure in a suit, leaning out from behind a massive oak, holding a small, rectangular mirror, tilting it back and forth in the sun— the flash so bright it completely blinded him every time it passed over his eyes. He tried to get a closer look, but the figure was so far away he could barely make him out. He stood, one hand in front of his face, straining, and just when he thought he had him in his vision there came another flash and the man was gone, just like that.
The boy stood a moment longer, his five-year-old mind churning. The breeze tossed his hair and the cicadas sang in the distance. He knew intuitively that this was somehow a part of him. And he knew about his power— even at such a young age. He could feel it in the pit of his stomach at all times. Soon enough, however, he lost interest, kneeling down to his toys again, the experience already being relinquished to the myriad dreams that make up the landscapes of the young child’s mind. He wouldn’t think of it for another seven years, until he saw the stranger again.
This time it was a different experience altogether. He was on the ice rink, in full gear, playing an outdoor scrimmage game when a flash blinded him and he fell, hitting the ice hard. The puck whizzed past his head close enough to hear it whistle. The other players passed over, screaming, skates scraping the ice, but in that instant he had far too many things blast into his brain to care. It was the midst of his parents divorce and the beginning of his sexual awakening. He had been plagued by nightmares as of late and was having immense trouble with his studies in school. Until now, he had forgotten about the man with the mirror altogether. But in that one blinding moment he knew beyond any doubt who had caused the light to hit his eyes.
He stood, stick hanging loosely from his gloved hand, peering into the distance beyond the rink. It was snowing lightly, and there were a number of people milling about in the parking lot, dark figures mingling slowly in a white haze. And there he was— again, so far away he could barely make him out, appearing to be clad in a long business trench, a tall figure looking down at his wrist. As he did so, there was a glint — far too blinding to come from a watch alone — burning right into Carl’s brain—
Boom! He took a check hard, hitting the ice and sliding into the boards, his helmet nearly dislodging from his head.
“Open your eyes, motherfucker!”
A whistle blow. General commotion. Carl was helped back onto his skates by a couple of his teammates, but he shook away from them, ignoring everything and skating to the edge of the rink to look for the man with the mirror again. Too late. He was gone. As he pushed away from the boards to rejoin the game, he felt the familiar stirring in his stomach, mingling dangerously with the shadows in his mind. And though he gave it little credence, the man with the mirror would linger this time, creating a grotto for himself in the folds of Carl’s thought, until he showed up again, 15 years later.
When he did, Carl was working as a copywriter in the city, estranged from his parents and sharing an apartment with an addict/drug dealer. He spent his nights working on a novel that was taking too long and that he was slowly growing to hate. Most of his time was spent in his room, keeping a hotplate and mini fridge and barely changing his sheets. For sex, he would visit one of the campus bathrooms— a shame spot for men who still couldn’t come out, but were too weak to go without. He was fine masturbating until the urge became too powerful and he found himself in the brief embrace of a stranger yet again.
It was on one of these forays— the compulsion strong upon him —that he encountered the mirror once more. This time it was brazen, insane. He was about to turn a corner when a bum stepped out in front of him, holding a mirror half as long as his body and wide enough to hide everything but the hands that were holding it. He was so close Carl had to stop.
“LOOK!” The bum screamed. “Look, you fucking tripe cocksucker!”
The man was obviously out of his mind— there were a ton of them in the city —yet in that moment Carl felt a deep fear drop into the pit of his stomach, flooding his nervous system with a deja vu so strong it prickled every follicle on his body and weakened his bladder. He knew who this man was, how he had fallen into disrepute; he knew about his own power, how it was dormant and nearly lost— he shoved the man aside and kept on, shaking all of it from his body and beating the pavement with his boots even harder for his fear. He could hear the bum’s hollering slowly fading behind him, yet he kept on, into the night, into the bowels of the city.
The stranger wouldn't show up again until ten more years had passed, when Carl was a world-renowned author— and a full-blown addict. He was adored to the point that he had become a celebrity, and his many relationships were followed by the media relentlessly. His addiction was as yet unknown, but whispers had begun to stir. He was heavy on the nod when the stranger showed up this time— so deep into it that he thought this might be it, finally. It was out of this fog that the man stepped through, stirring Carl from the flowered fields he was lying in, the light glinting from the distant forest peripheral, as it had all those years ago. He smiled, remembering his 5-year-old child’s mind in all its fullness, greeting the stranger this time with a welcome relinquishment.
“You’ve given your power away,” the man said.
“It’s still there.” Carl replied. “I can feel it right now.”
“You’ve mingled it with poison. There’s oil in the water, and the world waits with a lit match.”
Carl said nothing. He stirred in the ecstasy of his opium dream, feeling the drug course through his body, enjoying the warmth and the colour. He needed nothing.
“I’m sorry,” the stranger said, “but the long shadow has finally begun to recede. It was all necessary, as it always is, but the dawn is upon you.”
He raised the mirror.
Carl was trapped in his own design. Just as one can never run properly in a dream, he could not move enough to get away. His struggle was slow and groggy. He clenched his eyes shut but the mirror pierced his eyelids, sliding into his brain and staying steady affront his vision.
It told him everything.
Life is perfection. All your travails are sunshine, having travelled untold distances to beat upon your brow and produce the sweat of the living. The shame you’ve clothed yourself in is the chrysalis that completes you, the doorway that opens inward. There is nothing in the material world but gifts. It is time for you to open yours.
And he knew, deep in his vision, that this was it. The mirror was here, one foot from his face, and it wouldn’t leave until he’d stepped through it. It was death. And though his body would live, he knew his self was finished. The light had always been meant to activate the powers that stirred in his stomach, to awaken them with its warmth, and now it was shining full upon them. The moulting was destined to be the most painful transformation of his life, but it was also the point of his life. His voice, which had already touched the world, had yet to fully awaken.
That’s what the mirror was for.