Mirror, mirror.

I will never forget the day I saw the impossible.

Pete and Julie had just moved in to a new house and I was exhausted with the effort of carrying his stuff. I took some liberties, a personal tour around his house while he tried to unpack his stacks of boxes. I was jealous.  The place was spacious and pretty, Victorian I think, each room more elaborate than the last. The kitchen was enormous, the bedrooms were tall and spacious enough to fit a four poster bed with ease and the garden seemed to go on forever. It wasn’t a country house any more, the city had grown and squeezed in around it, but it still proudly towered over the nearby buildings, a beacon of elegance in a functional world.

The only part I didn’t like at all was the living room. There was a comfortable settee, a couple of arm chairs and even a chaise longue by the tall sash windows, the wallpaper was light and delicately patterned, the television tucked into an unobtrusive corner and the log fire was clearly in full working order. But there were two huge bookshelves carved from pitch black wood flanking that awful mirror.

It was huge, easily six feet across and four feet high and the frame it was in was so charred it must have been damaged by a catastrophic fire. It seemed to leer at at the room, it must have warped somehow, perhaps in the heat, because everything in that reflection was off. There were no right angles, little distortions as you moved and sometimes when you thought you hadn’t. I could barely take my eyes off it at first, it was so strange and out of place. It felt like all of my vision was taken up by a stranger, darker world. I looked at my own reflection, saw that my face was ever so slightly uneven, saw my breath mist over my reflection’s mouth, I looked into my eyes. I looked at the rippling surface as my reflection followed me. I saw my reflection blink.

I walked away shaking my head. I was convinced, convinced, that I had seen it, but I needed coffee after my exertion and in the rippling madness of that uneven surface I could have seen anything. For the rest of that day I was quiet, not quite dazed but not quite willing to speak. I sat on his sofa, drank my tea and stared, dream like, into the distance. I kept hearing things, quiet things, the scuff of a shoe against carpet or the clink of a glass from the next room. It was only later that I found out they had spent hours in the bedroom upstairs unaware that I was still there. It creeped me out a bit when I slipped into sleep and dreamed of seeing myself standing over me, looking down, looking angry.

I bade them farewell and went home, expecting the promised few pints with Pete in a week or so when he had settled in. It was nice to have him in the city, back somewhere he could live rather than his failed attempt at survival in the countryside. I went back to work, got back on with my life, and dreamed of myself standing over me, a little further away each night. I didn’t sleep well, seeing hatred in my own eyes every time I went to bed.

I met up with Pete on a Friday, he was late to the pub and when he got there he didn’t seem to even recognise me. He was distant and withdrawn, daydreaming his way through the crowd. It was worrying, even when he was stuck in the middle of nowhere on the farm he singularly failed to renovate he was always full of life. We sat in a corner on some comfy chairs, sipping through the thick head of our stout, waiting to see who would speak first.

It was me, I asked him how he was finding the new house. He replied that it was okay and said nothing more. He looked uncomfortable, as if he wanted conversation to flow as seamlessly as it always used to but he could no longer find the words. We didn’t know about each other any more, we had been too long apart.

It didn’t upset me for long, I figured out how to draw him out of himself and the answer, as always, was alcohol. Good God how we drank, like our lives depended on it, like we were eighteen again and had no cause to fear the morning after. First the words stuttered and then tumbled from us, first questions, then nostalgia, then filthy jokes, then philosophy. As we stumbled back to Pete’s new house to crack open his whiskey and scarf down our kebabs he paused in front of a naked mannequin in a dark shop window.

‘D’you ever wonder about them?’

‘Dummies?’

He looked at me, then looked back at the mannequin and chuckled.

‘No, no… reflections. It’s not right, you know? They’re not right.’

I had no idea what he was talking about, I just stood still and furrowed my brow.

‘It’s not what you look like. It’s really not. It’s flipped over, you think you look like that but you don’t, you’re the other way around and you don’t even know it. If you see a photo or a bit of film with you in it then that’s what you look like. Mirrors and dark glass? That’s not you, that’s something else.’

I think I was laughing then, I felt chilli sauce stream down my thumb and on to my sleeve. Pete wasn’t laughing though, he was staring at the mannequin, looking angry and getting more furious. He hurled his food at the window, smearing it with grease and whispered; ‘it’s not me.’

We sat in Pete’s front room and I tried to keep my food off his furniture. I was sobering up a bit by now and that damned mirror was right opposite. They’d put a couple of candles on the mantelpiece on either side and filled the bookshelves but it hadn’t helped. It still dominated the room and loomed over everything. If you spent too long looking at it you could almost feel you were inside a shimmering, wobbling world.

Pete kept looking at it. I couldn’t figure out what he was so fascinated by, I was doing everything I could to keep my gaze away. He was babbling, relaxed all of a sudden in a way he hadn’t been all night. It felt like I had him back then, my old friend, just as he had been years ago. I sipped my whiskey and listened to him speak, talking about glimmering things and reflections, about the false self image we all have, how a reflection is like you but not you. It was dull after a while but he kept talking. I let the words wash over me and drifted off in the face of that rippling, warped reflection.

The dreams I had were terrifying. Every time I exhaled my breath misted in the air in front of me. I was disoriented, trying to find my way home but everything was backwards and nothing I touched would move. I couldn’t open the doors and all their handles were on the wrong side and finally I slumped back on the settee I had found so comfortable. I blinked and I saw Pete standing over me with another me standing next to him. I felt myself standing up, facing my double and looking into its eyes, seeing my reflection there ad infinitum. When he moved I would move, where he looked I would look and as my double capered I could not help but imitate his movements. I was the puppet of an angry thing. As it leaned in closer, as we both grinned, I saw my breath mist on his face.

I spent the first part of the next morning cleaning chilli sauce out of Pete’s antique carpet. Pete didn’t really seem to mind. He didn’t seem to be anything really, he barely registered my presence. I blamed the hangover. I wish I could still blame the hangover.

I didn’t like spending time under that mirror, it was too big. Too out of place. Too damaged. I was taking my time with the scrubbing though, it was an expensive carpet and I felt bad about spilling my food all over it. Plus I was feeling quite delicate, we really had drunk like there was no tomorrow.

Then Pete and Julie came in. They ignored me completely, making a beeline for the mantelpiece and gazing into that monstrous mirror. They stood stock still, holding hands and smiling at their own distorted images. As the winter dawn shone its light on that warped surface I saw them reach out. I saw that the barrier wasn’t there, understood that maybe it had never been there. I heard the grinding of glass on glass as twisted doppelgängers began to climb into the real world and Pete and Julie fell out of it. I saw my reflection walking closer, reaching up towards me.

I ran for my life.

I never went back to that house, maybe I should have. I wanted to stay as far from that damned mirror as possible, as far from all that weirdness as I could. I saw him once though, at a supermarket picking up his groceries with a heavily pregnant Julie in tow. I tried to think of something to say to them, to apologise for running away or just to convince myself I’d made it all up. I could hear them speaking, nattering away about the best groceries to buy, the best offers, the best schools in the area. I backed away, hid, and as they clasped their hands together I heard the shriek of glass against glass.

Horror Distilled.

 

I couldn’t go in there. How do you enter a room so utterly empty? The man in there… I caught glimpses of him in the gloom. He was the wrong shape, I don’t think he was even standing on the floor, and there were lumps on the dusty ground that used to be my friends. You can’t get closer to a thing like that, it was like looking at history, all the worst parts rolled in to one. It looked like the crusades, or the holocaust, it smelled like famine and sounded like an apocalypse of dry bone. I watched it rotate, holding Ellie to its mouth, I saw her shrivel as it drained her.

Above him the swarm of bats circled. They screeched into the night sky, deafening and piercing, singing a song of triumph. He was wreathed in billowing, black fog, a thing of absolute nothingness. I couldn’t go in.

I wanted to, of course, we just needed somewhere to sleep and the building was derelict. It felt more and more like a bad idea the deeper we got, more and more like something dreadful was there. We should have turned back when we saw the old bloodstains. We should have turned back before then, when we felt the little tug in our souls, driving us away, but we carried on. It’s so cold out, you see, and we have nowhere to go.

Then there was that room, looking through the open doorway and seeing oblivion. It wasn’t darkness, darkness doesn’t have an edge, it doesn’t hypnotise you, it doesn’t make you walk forward when you want to run away. Such total silence spreading out, and inside was death.

I knew it was death. I don’t know why. I lined up quietly and patiently with the others, watched them walk in one by one and knew they could never come out. I saw my friends walk through that door and knew that it was their final threshold. There was something in there. There was nothing in there.

I think it must be what the people of Nagasaki felt when they saw that blinding flash, or what the passengers on crashing planes feel as they see the ground rushing closer. It was total certainty, I can’t explain it fully, but a total certainty of death. Futility. In that room there was the end and I could no more walk away than I could stop the moon from rising. It wasn’t personal, it wasn’t going to change its mind or stay its hand, it was the end of me and there was terrifying peace in that.

It wasn’t death though, not death itself, just someone very close to him. I think it wore black rags and scraps of rusty armour. For the most part it was a ravening blur, a suggestion more than an object, but when it turned its gaze upon me and spoke its words rang with cold truth. I can’t remember them, I don’t think they were words we’re supposed to hear, I can remember its voice but only because I can still feel it echoing through my bones. It wasn’t full of hatred or love but it did have passion, I was a tool to it, just a person.  Insignificant.

I ran away and heard it laughing. I felt the dark lunge and follow me and heard it hum its satisfied tune. I don’t think I can run much further, I hope you find this. It’s not stuck there any more, behind the walls with the bloodstains in little dark room where it delivered my friends to emptiness. It’s not a man, it’s a gap in the story of the world, it’s a space where something should be. I think it’s going to eat me soon. I don’t want to die.

Goddess of the Meroe.

A legionary stands in the baking desert heat. Today he is a bodyguard for the Prefect, today the Prefect is an ambassador to the divine.

‘I’m so bored. I hate the desert.’

‘Shut up, Diodorus.’

I hate Diodorus. I hate the way he whines about everything. He is that special kind of dead souled cynic who spends his life pouring scorn on all glory. I can’t even look at him right now.

There are two hundred of us standing on the sand in the beating, midday sun at the southern tip of Egypt and we are here to come to terms with the Candace Amanirenas of Meroe. The fighting yesterday was fierce but one sided, as it always is when the legions march, and we have left Meroe with no choice but to sue for peace. In front of me and to the side stands Prefect Publius Petronius, the new governor of Egypt, and he is about to enter negotiations with a God.

Diodorus is fidgeting, he clearly needs to empty his bladder. I have no sympathy at all, he knew he wouldn’t have the chance once we reached the Second Cataract.

I am nervous. The men of Meroe, fearsome in their zeal to the last, are wily and cunning warriors, they struck deep into Roman land and carried away good Roman citizens for their slave pens. They are a proud and strong people, they will not take their defeat lightly. Yesterday they gathered in front of us, thousands of them, chanting and dancing and wielding their axes before we met and left them scattered across the sands. I was in the heart of the cohort and failed to find opportunity to strike a blow, all I could do was march and hear the screams of the dying and the distant, wailing trumpets. That’s why I was chosen to accompany the Prefect, my armour is clean and undented, all of us appear to be fresh men.

I walked across the battlefield when it was all over. There was a young man there, barely out of his childhood, clutching his hide shield to the gaping wound on his chest. He looked at me without fear, without remorse, with a single minded hatred that I cannot understand. I found myself wondering if this was how all the men of the Candace look upon Rome? Are we objects of hatred to them? There is a cloud of dust in the distance, moving closer.

Octavian is now ‘Augustus’ and we are told that he is a God. We are told, also, that his father, Caesar, is a God. I respect the Gods wherever I find them, if Augustus is a God then I shall treat him as such, but these men of Meroe… is this what a God on earth does to men? Does it turn them into vessels of its will? Is this what will happen to Rome now, shall we become insular and mad and fanatical?

Diodorus is pissing on the floor next to me. He will not make eye contact, he is trying not to laugh.

I am troubled. I have seen the ecstatics parade through the streets of Rome, the worshippers of Isis shrieking and dancing in a frenzy for the death of Osiris and his resurrection. I have seen the vastness of the pyramids and marvelled at the determination it must have taken to build them in days long gone. Is this zeal now to be expected of us? Are we to be ordered to tear at our hair and froth at the mouth for the first citizen of Rome?

Perhaps I have it wrong. Perhaps it is not the proximity of Gods that is to be feared, but their distance. The followers of Isis say she is unknowable, compassionate and motherly and as distant as a mother to a child. The builders of the pyramids would never have seen their king, never petitioned him or queued to vote as we do on the field of Mars. Their Gods are present but not present, they are with them and far away. Is that what this fervour is? Is it merely a child’s scream for attention at a distracted parent?

I can hear chanting now. The cloud of dust is getting closer. Diodorus is kicking sand over the puddle under his sandals and the Prefect has rested his hand on his sword hilt.

There is a God approaching.

I am fearful for the future of Rome. I am afraid of what such an Empire will become. The Jews in Palestine have been revolting for some time now, they are rioting because the Senate tells them to sacrifice to the Emperor in their temple. They cannot hope to win and they know it, yet still they fight. Is that the future of the Empire? Picking battles that cannot be won? Infighting and intrigue hidden behind a gossamer thin lie of unity? The old Gods are retreating, the mystery cults and the fire of the Persians are winning out. The temples of Rome are crumbling, all the money has gone to building the new Pantheon so that his shrine can be seen on equal footing with Jupiter Capitolinus and Mars and Minerva. The Gods are not respected now, they are used. Soon, I think, they shall turn their backs on us, we shall decay behind lies and deceit. There shall be no more room for honest worship when the Gods are politicians.

I have been staring at the sand, lost in my own mind, but Diodorus has gasped beside me. I look up and see the Candace of Meroe, a God on earth, before me. There are thirty men in tall, pointed hats around her, they are chanting prayers and holding great sceptres with golden asps coiled around them. She sits atop her war elephant, ochre smeared over its huge forehead, its tusks plated with gold leaf. She is huge, built like a man and holding an axe with a look of absolute authority. She has three scars on each cheek and wears a patch over one eye. Her ankles, her arms, her fingers and her neck are encased in gold and her tasselled robe flows down the side of her mount like water. The sun gleams and shimmers off her in the baking desert. All worries are chased from my mind, all fears, all doubt.

I am in awe.

The year was 20BC and the invasion of Southern Egypt, then fully a Roman Province, had been driven back. The divine warrior Queen of Meroe has come to the Second Cataract of the Nile to offer terms to the new Prefect of Egypt. She was one of the last true God-Monarchs to walk the earth (the Imperial cult, not for want of trying, never quite moved past worship of the office of Emperor). I believe that the upheaval in the Empire, started by Julius Caesar, began a process of cack-handed and often half hearted religious reformation which led, indirectly, to the collapse of the old Roman religious system. It is impossible to overstate how enormously important the religious upheaval in the Empire actually was, not just to the history of Rome but to the history of the whole world.