A Mirror Turned Backwards
Tavis Moon had never planned to return home. He had never planned to walk again those dusty Appalachian roads that wisped like phantoms through his mind. At sixteen the road had called his name and he had answered as best he could: he slipped away beneath a harvest moon with that musty, sagging house at his back and the world at his face. Twenty years and a dozen jobs had removed much of the Appalachian homeliness from his voice, but it could not remove entirely those chill mountains from his memories. Granny Harwick used to say that the Appalachians always called to blood; she said those mountains spoke a language no man could recall, but one no man’s heart could forget.
It took Tavis twenty years, but as his car rumbled along those winding roads, he acknowledged to himself that perhaps Granny had been right. He’d been doing all right for himself as a sailor, his world vastly removed from the rambling hollows and woods of his youth. The ocean air had washed him clean of so many rustic memories as if baptizing him in salt and mist and the name of the future.
Then one night he dreamt and that dream took him inland into the world of childhood. It was a short dream: he was a boy in faded overalls that scratched against his bare chest. A hound dog pup gamboled at his dirt-worn feet. The boy Tavis stood in the house with every piece of furniture just as he remembered from long ago days. He held the door open, preparing to call out to somebody in the house, when there was a sharp cawing and a frantic rustle of wings. A bird brown as the earth came flapping and shrieking right above the boy. Up jumped the hound dog pup, giving chase. The bird careened through the house and beat itself against the ceiling in a shower of feathers and spattered blood. The dream ended then with the boy standing amid a swirling of feathers and the screaming of the bird echoing through a house that Tavis knew was empty.
Sweat trickled down his face like the lingering chill of phantom fingers when Tavis awoke. He had dreamt of a bird in the house. He had dreamt of death. A gentle thrum in his veins, a quickening of his blood. They were calling and Tavis had to answer. The boss man just sighed when Tavis said he was leaving, but it didn’t bother Tavis over-much; the boss man wasn’t from that part of the world, he could never understand. But Tavis had seen the bird in that house and he knew it was time to return.
Four days later, Tavis’ car shuddered down the final stretch of road. Just like when he left, the night sky gleamed clear and crisp above him and the moon illuminated the roads that dipped and rose through hollows and coves and refracted with an eerie luminescence through the dust.
“Twenty years and you’d think I’d never left,” Tavis said to himself as he studied the road. A wriggling nervousness took hold of his spine as he fancied for a moment that perhaps he had never left, that maybe he had always been on the farm and had never lit off down that road. Perhaps he only imagined the past two decades in a waking dream on a hot summer night, or concocted it while out following the old plow horse. Tavis shook his head. What ridiculousness. He had lived those years; he had bled and sweated through that toil. Granny was right as hell, them mountains did something crazy to a man.
Then he was back home at last. Moonlight had led him away and moonlight led him back. The front porch still sagged, the dirt road still lay traced with wheel marks, the weeds still jutted in the same high patches here and there. Only one difference now: a light flickered in a downstairs window and that cold slithering was back tickling his spine. The light burned in the window to the left of the door. In his time away, Tavis had come to know that outside people had scrubbed clean a lot of the unsavory bits of life. In other houses, that room would be called the living room. Outside people saw it as a room for coffee and light conversation. But Tavis had grown up without the world being scrubbed raw, and to all the local families, that was the death room. It was a place for a casket and flowers and respectful mourning. Stepping from his car, Tavis knew there would be only one reason why a light glowed in that window.
A man answered his measured knocking. Thin and deep-eyed, the man stood in the doorway blocking the view of the house behind him. Indulging in a nervous gulp and taking a quick guess, Tavis said, “Evenin’, Shade.” The man with eyes like cisterns started and then peered closer, looking Tavis over from boot tip to hair.
“Well now, if this ain’t a right surprise,” Shade said, his voice calm and slow and reverent but those eyes of his lit deep down. “I reckon h’it’s been awhile, huh, Tavis?” Twenty years but blood knows blood and Tavis could never forget the deep-eyed face of his older brother.
“You sure came back at a strange moment, brother,” Shade said and tilted his head just slightly towards the room with the light.
“I dreamt of a bird in the house,” Tavis said simply and Shade’s solemn nod brought relief that here was one person who wouldn’t laugh at this expense. “I knew then that I had to come on back.”
“H’it’s Jeremiah who’s all a-laid out in there,” said Shade and his voice held no change in emotion, but his forehead furrowed up like a field.
“Jeremiah?” exclaimed Tavis in a whisper. “But he can’t have been much more than a boy! He was a little fellow when I left. What was he then? Five? Six?”
“Five,” said Shade. “Lord calls us all in His own time, Tavis.” The words were ones Reverend said from the pulpit, but Tavis noticed an uncertainty in his brother’s tone as if maybe Shade didn’t think Reverend knew what he was talking about.
So Tavis just replied quietly, “Just like these mountains; callin’ us home in their good time, too.” Shade didn’t seem to hear and said, “I was a-sittin’ up with him. You fixin’ to go and sit for a spell with him, too?”
Tavis wasn’t sure he wanted to. He had nothing in particular against the old ways with the open caskets and the all night vigils, but he wasn’t sure he could bring himself to see his baby brother all grown up and all dead just lying in the casket like that. Jeremiah had been so little, so wild, when Tavis had left and he wanted to always see him like that. He would never be able to reconcile the image of the laughing youngster with the stiff corpse of a young man. But that dream had called him home and this was why.
“I suppose that I should. But you’d better tell Mama that I’m here, or we’ll need another casket if I just go waltzin’ in there,” Tavis answered.
Shade’s mouth turned down quickly, a brief tug at the ends of his lips, and Tavis knew what was coming next. “Mama passed on nigh on ten years ago. Went quiet-like in her sleep. We had no way to reach you, Jeremiah and me.”
Mama’s dead, Tavis thought with a cold vacancy. Mama died and I never knew. The woman that birthed me and I had no idea. But that dream . . . that bird. Why now?
“I’ll go and sit with Jeremiah for a while,” Tavis said almost like an apology and Shade just nodded again.
Tavis stood over the casket. Jeremiah looked a lot like Pa, that same wild hair and straight nose. Tavis couldn’t remember if Jeremiah had Pa’s eyes, but he guessed he probably did. He would have looked asleep, provided that anybody ever put on their Sunday best for a nap and laid down with hands all folded. It was that pretense of a nap that made Tavis shudder suddenly. The candlelight guttered in a draft and the shadows spun on the corpse’s face, making it appear as though the skin was moving, as if Jeremiah really was only napping and would flutter open his eyes and pull himself to his feet. At that moment, Tavis remembered that he didn’t like this tradition. He hadn’t liked sitting up with Pa. It was a horrible mockery of life and his muscles itched to close the casket lid.
Maybe Shade knew because he said after a while, “I reckon h’it’s been a long drive. There’s a room all a-fixed for you, if you want. Jus’ up the stairs.”
“It’s all right. I can -.”
“Don’t fret on it, Tav. You’ve been away.” Was that resignation in his brother’s voice? No, it was something deeper. It was a hesitant concern that Tavis couldn’t reconcile. But the tone was clear enough: Shade wanted him to head on out. Yes, that made sense. With Shade’s Appalachian superstitions, he wouldn’t want Jeremiah to rest uneasy and Tavis was now the sort of person who could disturb the dead’s slumber. With a certain amount of shame, Tavis obeyed and left the room. Twenty years away and he was now an outsider, a “furriner” as the locals said.
The bedroom was small but clean. Dust coated the bed posts and the dresser, but no obvious signs of mice or spiders. It would have been like the day Tavis left except for one thing: the mirror on the wall was turned backwards, the reflective side hidden against the wall.
“Crazy superstition,” Tavis muttered and reached up to turn the mirror proper. But as his hand went out, that candlelit visage of his brother rose into his mind. Slowly, Tavis drew back his hand. No, he didn’t believe all that cock-and-bull about the unburied dead haunting the mirrors, grasping out for the living souls. But then, he’d always known the Appalachians played by a different set of rules. He left the mirror alone and went to sleep.
“Tavis! Tavis, you idiot!” Tavis woke to Shade’s rugged face leaning over him. “What are you trying to do?”
“Do? Whatdaya mean?” Tavis mumbled as he tried to shove his brother away.
“I mean that! Look h’it, I know you don’t hold with our ‘folksy, ol’ timey’ traditions, but you was raised on them, too, boy, and I won’t have you disrespecting them.”
Following Shade’s outstretched arm, it took Tavis a moment to collect his thoughts. Then he realized it: the mirror on the wall was facing them. On its dusty silver surface, Tavis could see his own bedraggled face and tousled hair, could see the wild horror in Shade’s cistern-eyes.
“I didn’t do that, Shade. I swear it!” He succeeded in brushing Shade away and sat up. “Listen, I thought about flipping it around, sure, I did, but then I felt really weird about doing it. I mean, well, look, the Appalachians called to me – to my blood – and I don’t want to go provoking things, Shade. Honest. I didn’t even touch the mirror.”
Tavis knew Shade did not believe him; but his brother wasn’t going to have fighting in the house with a corpse all laid out. Turning to walk from the room, Shade said, “Well, I reckon you best set h’it to rights, brother.” Then the older man crossed out of the room and closed the door.
Shivering in his light boxers, Tavis stumbled to the mirror, muttering half-finished curses against the old superstitions. Tavis reached for the mirror and his reflection reached, too. As he grasped the mirror with his right hand, Tavis stopped. The reflection was also using its right hand. Gasping, Tavis recoiled and so did the reflection. Then, through the dust and the fading silver, the reflection grinned. It was for a moment, a blink of time. Maybe it was the angle or the dust or . . . No, that wouldn’t explain the reflection using the wrong hand.
“Shade?” he called tentatively. Then with volume: “Shade! Come on, man! What the crap is this?”
Tavis looked back at the mirror again. Normal. He raised his right hand, the reflection raised its left. He smiled, it smiled. He blinked, it blinked. It did what a mirror was supposed to do and nothing more, no more creative liberties. Except . . . wait. What about those shadows? That dresser, its shadow stretched away at the wrong angle. So did the bed. They were longer and thinner in the mirror. It has to be a trick. It’s some crazy optical illusion, Tavis thought. He looked wildly around the room and then back at the mirror.
“Holy flaming hell!” he yelled and, despite himself, staggered backwards. He was gone from the mirror. There was the room with its dresser and bed. But there was no Tavis. Hot bile rose into his throat, but Tavis swallowed deep. He was a man among men, a sailor who braved the weather and bars and all things in between. He was not going to run like a whipped dog pup to his brother. Slowly, his motions calculated and determined, he moved towards the mirror. As he did so, the angle changed and he saw the room differently.
It wasn’t empty. There was a boy that Tavis couldn’t see until he got closer, a boy too short to reach the top of the mirror. Tavis looked behind himself, expecting to see a child right beside his leg. Nobody. But in that mirror, the boy was clear as daylight. He wore a dark suit that tugged on the shoulders and pants that rode too high at the ankles. The boy looked upwards, peering into the mirror with eyes a vivid gold-flecked hazel against a red, teary face.
“Pa?” the boy said, voice uncertain and thin. “Please, Pa, is that you?” The child reached towards the mirror. No, towards Tavis who was in the mirror. The little hand stretched closer, fingers still chubby with the last traces of toddler fat trying to extend to the mirror.
“What are you doing!” a voice yelled, feminine and sharp. The boy drew back from the mirror and his voice became an apologetic, plaintive lament.
“Ma! I was trying to see Pa. I found him, Ma! I found him!” The lady came into view then, a bustling of black clothes and gray-streaked hair. Focused on the boy, she never turned her face to the mirror as she flipped it around, but Tavis recognized her. “Ma!” the man called and he made a dive for the mirror. But as his hand extended and ought to pass into the room beyond, Tavis slammed against the solidness of the glass. His room was back in the reflection with the shadows at their real angles and his own face peered back at him. No teary-eyed boy pleaded from the world beyond the glass.
“Ma! Come back!” Tavis shouted. “Where did you go?” But he knew. They had left the room, that meant they would be going down the hall. Yes! The mirror in the hallway!
Tavis sprinted from the room, still wearing only his boxers. He expected the mirror to be turned backwards, but it wasn’t. How had Shade missed that? But there it was, reflecting back the golden afternoon sunlight. No, that wasn’t right. It should be morning. But that reflection was so clear with the light coming in from the western window. Tavis ran towards it only to find that the boy and the woman were not there. Only his reflection occupied the tall looking glass. No, it couldn’t be his reflection. Tavis stood chill in loose boxers and the man in the mirror wore a clean suit.
Tavis gawped at the man in the reflection. Hair going gray, face lined with age. It might have been an older Shade. Except the eyes were wrong. These eyes that stared back from the glassy depths were hazel. Shade’s eyes were blue, like water in the deep cisterns. Hazel eyes – like the boy’s, like Tavis’. The reflection reached, the arms coming up, coming towards Tavis as the boy had done. In that moment, Tavis felt a cold surge behind his ribs. He did not want the man reaching for him. He did not want the boy reaching for him. Their grasps seemed to him too final, too demanding.
He bolted down the stairs then, running in search of Shade and not caring what noise he made in a house with a corpse. There was a mirror downstairs and Tavis tried not to look as he passed it, but his eyes darted like foxes for just a moment and an old lady in delicate lace and simple clothes held out her hand. Gentleness was on her face as her hand reached and Tavis remembered: The Appalachians call to blood. He darted into the kitchen where Shade sat in a suit and tie, face fixed on the world outside the window.
“Shade!” Tavis called. “The mirrors!”
“I know,” the older man said quietly. “I know you didn’t turn them, and I’m right sorry I called you an idiot. I’m sorry, Tav. I truly am. I reckon I’m just selfish.”
“I don’t -,” Tavis began, but Shade continued on in that steady voice with all the solemnity of the mountains themselves.
“You see them as you last recollect them, don’t you?” Shade said, eyes focused far away from Tav. “The people in the mirrors. That’s right, ain’t h’it?”
“You’ve seen them, then?”
“No, I don’t suppose I have. I hoped that with the mirrors all backwards-like, you wouldn’t see them, either. But they know, Tav, they know. And they know h’it ain’t right for me to be selfish.”
“Selfish? I don’t get it. You’re not selfish. Look, you stayed when I left. I’m the one that lit out and left you all right after Pa passed. But you stayed on and looked after everybody. Why you think you’re being selfish?”
“Because,” Shade said and the pity hung heavy in his voice, “I tried to keep you. I don’t want to be last, Tav. I jus’ don’t want to be last.”
“Keep me? Come on, man, I’m not going anywhere. I’ll stay and help on the farm if that’s what you really need. I’ve seen enough of the world, I suppose I can look at settling down and doing right. I’ll work the farm and not go anywhere, Shade.”
“H’it’s too late; you already have.”
Shade finally looked at Tavis. “God, how you do look like Pa,” Shade said softly. “Same eyes, same set jaw. Yore his image, you know. But I can’t keep you here, brother. H’it ain’t yore home no more.”
“Come on, Shade. Don’t be like that. Look, I apologize for running out. What more can you want? You keep calling me ‘brother’, so how about treating me like one?”
“’Cause yore dead, Tav.” Four words, calm and soft and deliberate.
“Yore boat went down. They couldn’t find yore body. Nothing for us to bury, nothing to bring back home. I got a letter, all official-like and everything. Few days ago, jus’ afore Jeremiah passed.”
“But, my dream -.”
“The Appalachians call to blood best they can, Tav. I reckon that was yore bird you saw a-flyin’. Appalachians called you home to family only way they could.”
“So I -?” The question hung unfinished in the morning light, standing huge and unavoidable between the brothers.
“Yep. You is.”
Tavis turned, could see the mirror in the hallway past the open kitchen door. The woman and the boy, the man and the old woman: Ma and Jeremiah, Pa and Granny Harwick. All of them stood there with quiet expectation. They had found each other, now they needed him. “An’ here I am in just my underwear,” Tavis said.
“Well, you was never one to stand on ceremony,” Shade said with that lop-sided grin Tavis remembered from his youth.
“Shade,” Tavis began, “don’t turn the mirrors backwards. Make sure when your time comes, they understand to leave the mirrors alone. I promise I’ll come for you, brother. Word of honor, I won’t leave you in this house alone.”
“I ’ppreciate that. But you best git a-goin’ afore people come to see off Jeremiah and get all afire with questions. And you tell ’em that I miss ’em, won’t you?”
“Course I will.”
Shade nodded once and Tavis turned quietly for the mirror. The outstretched arms were still determined and their embrace seemed final, but now Tavis understood that he needed it, that he wanted their arms pulling them into their midst. So Tavis Moon who had been away for twenty years, stepped into the embrace of the mirror and into the peace his restless body had never known. The Appalachians had called to blood and blood had responded.