I didn’t plan on posting anything this week, but I had to. The image below, titled Soul Reflection, was created by the wonderful Happi Anarky, and from the moment I saw it a few days ago, I had this story lurking in the back of my mind. In honor of this artwork, I share my story with you now.
Here There Be Monsters
“Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, step right up! Don’t be shy, boys and girls. Come on up and witness the amazing eighth wonder of the world! Not to be found anywhere else! Delve into the mystery of the human soul, decode the ancient puzzle of good and evil, look into the face of your true self! Atta boy, young man, what’s your name?”
“Timmy, sir,” he replied, chin low, innocent eyes turned up to glance the proprietor in the eye. Only a moment, not too long. Just long enough to see his walrus whiskers ruffle up as he smiled indulgently at the waif before him.
“Timmy, eh?” The man’s voice, before loud enough to carry across the vast expanse of the carnival space, lowered to a conspiratorial murmur. “What’s a handsome face like you doing in these parts alone? Have you no parents?”
Timmy shook his head.
The boy flushed and ducked his head lower. He crossed one foot over the other guiltily, trying hard not to betray the shiver of dread running down his spine.
“And no friends, either, looks like.”
Timmy hunched his shoulders, shrinking in on himself. He ought not be here. The orphanage nun had forbidden her wards to leave the grounds under any circumstance. If she found out that Timmy had defied her, she’d lock him in the coal room again. Timmy hated the coal room. The furnace always roared with a blazing fire, making the air hot and thick with smoke, too dangerous to stand too close, but he dared not go farther. The darkness hid evil things, feral creatures with fangs and glowing eyes. They hissed at him and darted at him until he screamed in fright.
“Here now! What’s this eighth wonder of the world?” demanded a young dandy in a crisp suit, his cravat so tight at his neck he had to look down his long nose to see anything. “What manner of creature do you have chained up in there?”
The proprietor dismissed Timmy in favor of the gentleman with a quiet, fair lady on his arm. “No creature, milord, none at all, save that which walks in on its own. Care to take a look?” He fingered the red-and-white striped curtain enticingly, tugging on the edge just enough to pull it aside an inch.
The gentleman craned his neck, but there was nothing to see there, except darkness. When he leaned farther to the side, the proprietor let the curtain fall back into place, tipping a respectful bow. “A pound sterling, milord, for the both of you.”
The gentleman scoffed, tossing up his walking stick and catching it again by the middle. With the polished brass top, he pushed the rim of his dapper hat up a bit higher. “That’s highway robbery!”
The owner shrugged. “All magic has its price, milord. I can only give you my word that what lies behind this curtain is well worth ten, nay, twenty times that sum. But if you think my humble miracle is beneath you, then mayhap it’s for the best after all.”
“Begging pardon, milord, I meant no offense.”
The gentleman clutched his walking stick so tightly his arm shook and Timmy drew away, out of arm’s reach. But just as he was certain that blows would fly, the gentleman pulled his quiet companion around. “Come, Henrietta, we shall find ourselves a sweeter amusement elsewhere. I won’t be extorted by a two-bit haggler!”
“God be with you, milord,” the proprietor called after him. “You chose the safer course, to be sure!” To himself, he added, “my magic is not for everyone.”
Timmy looked up at him, curious about the weary look in the old man’s eyes. Noticing his regard, the proprietor smiled down at him. “What say you, braw lad? Brave enough to walk past the curtain?”
“But I have no money.”
“Bah!” The man made a face and waved his hand as if money was of no import. “Children go in for free. Haven’t met a seed bad enough to…”
“Beg pardon.” Timmy flinched away from the woman suddenly standing too close to him. The dandy’s quiet lady friend, Henrietta. Her voice was soft, fitting her gentle, refined features. She looked like an angel flown down to earth on golden wings.
“Milady,” the proprietor greeted with a courteous bow. “How may I be of service?”
“I… I should very much like to…” She indicated the curtain, blushing prettily. She withdrew a shiny coin from her beaded reticule and held it out. “Might I take a look inside?”
The proprietor smiled widely, accepting the coin. “As milady wishes. Step right in—”
“Zounds! Look at it, Grandmama, a tent as big as a house! Can we see inside? Can we?” The boy shoved Miss Henrietta aside and had dragged his grandmother almost to the curtain before the proprietor stopped them. They made an odd pair, the two of them. The boy’s cheeks were smeared with chocolate, his clothes straining at the seams to contain his bulk. He was ruddy-faced, his golden locks matted down with sweat.
His grandmother, on the other hand, was the most self-possessed person Timmy had ever seen, aside from Miss Henrietta. Dressed in a severe gray gown, prim white lace at her neck and a riding hat atop her head, she seemed pleasant enough, but there was something sharp, brittle in her smile when she tugged on the boy’s hand. “Now, John, we do not run across the carnival like savages. You are a marquis, and you must always act the part.” She acknowledged the young Henrietta with a look, but dismissed her immediately to address the proprietor. “Lord John and I would like to view this eighth wonder of the world. What is the entrance fee, pray?”
Timmy opened his mouth to say Miss Henrietta had been there first, but the proprietor laid a hand on his shoulder to silence him. Timmy flinched away, shocked at himself. Talking back to a noblewoman? What demon had possessed him to dare even think of doing such a thing? “One pound sterling for the both of you, milady,” the proprietor replied politely, but his eyes were hard and his smile far from pleasant.
“Hmph.” The noblewoman produced the coin and handed it over.
“Let’s go, let’s go!” Lord John bounced on his feet, squealing with delight, yanking on his grandmother’s sleeve to propel her forward.
Timmy looked to Miss Henrietta and saw her head lowered in a deferential bow.
“One at a time now,” the proprietor said, drawing the curtain aside to allow the lordling inside. “One at a time,” he repeated when the grandmother would have followed.
With a put-out harrumph, she stepped back to wait.
Timmy’s belly tickled with nervous butterflies. Something was wrong. He felt as if whatever was inside that tent had woken up and wasn’t pleased to find the lordling in its enclosure. A cold draft seeped out from beneath the curtain, chilling Timmy’s feet to the bone. “Sir,” he whispered to get the proprietor’s attention. He was ignored, the proprietor too busy watching the noblewoman. Anxious now, Timmy looked to her, to somehow tell her that her grandson was in danger, but she was just as preoccupied staring the proprietor back down.
The only one still aware of his presence was Miss Henrietta, who gave him a wry smile and a shrug.
An audience began to gather around the tent’s entrance, passersby eager to hear what the boy would report upon exit. They were curious, desperately so, but unwilling to part with their hard-earned money for such an expensive exhibition and risk being disappointed.
Suddenly a shrill scream came from inside the tent, followed by another. The sound was filled with so much terror Timmy shrank away from the proprietor’s podium and into Miss Henrietta. She steadied him, one hand on his shoulder, the other at her mouth.
“John!” the noblewoman cried. She rushed forward and was once again stopped by the proprietor.
“One at a time, milady. I cannot let you in until he’s out.”
“Step aside, this instant! John!”
Tilting his head toward the tent and the silence within, the proprietor allowed the woman to enter.
No sooner had she disappeared into the darkness than the boy came stumbling out from the same way she’d gone in. Oblivious to having passed his grandmother, the boy ran from the tent, screaming for her, his face gone deathly pale. He barreled into the crowd, fought through them to get free and kept running as if the Devil himself was chasing him.
The crowd around the tent hummed, then rumbled, then several stepped forward, demanding to know what had happened to the boy. They cursed, they shouted, they threatened, shoving forward until Miss Henrietta and Timmy were forced aside and the proprietor disappeared in the middle of an angry mob.
“Silence!” he bellowed, and in that instant, the crowd quieted and stepped back. “If you wish to know my secrets, you’ll have to see for yourself. And you’ll have to pay.”
Just then, the curtain moved aside, and the noblewoman emerged. She was hunched, her face streaked with tears, shaking, she reached out blindly and braced herself on the podium. With a heart-wrenching wail, she broke into wretched sobs, sinking to the ground. “Oh, my Edward! My dear Edward!”
So concerned was everyone over the old woman’s agony, they never noticed the proprietor leaving his podium to join Timmy and Miss Henrietta. “Sad wretch,” he said, shaking his head in sorrow. “She ought not have gone in.”
“Sir,” Miss Henrietta said, “What is inside that tent?”
He smiled at her, his eyes gleaming with decades of unshed tears. “Merely a mirror, milady. A looking glass, naught more. A special one it is, though. Shows a person the truth of their soul. Her ladyship saw the love of her life, died long years ago, aye, but so cherished he became part of her. He’s with her still. Suspect he always will be. Poor, sad wretch.”
“And the boy?”
He heaved a sigh. “Haven’t met a seed bad enough to spook looking in my mirror. Until tonight. What monster he must have witnessed in his reflection no one will ever know.” He regarded Miss Henrietta with a measuring look. “Will you still step inside and see the glass yourself, milady?”
She shrank away a step. “I… I’m not sure.”
The proprietor shrugged. “Got your half-pound right here, case you change your mind. Your gentleman friend might not have fared much better than our spoiled little lordling, but I reckon you’ve little enough to fear. Will you brave it?”
“Nothing in there, save your own reflection. If you can’t face that… well…” He shrugged as if no more needed to be said.
“Miss Henrietta, don’t,” Timmy entreated.
She smiled at him. “I’ve spent my entire life being afraid. Perhaps it’s time for me to find my courage. Take my word for it, young sir, a life lived in fear is not worth living.” To the proprietor, she said, “Yes, I believe I will go in.”
He bowed to her and offered his arm, leading her through the dispersing crowd to the striped curtain. Someone had retrieved the grieving noblewoman and whoever was left loitering was too preoccupied spreading inflamed rumors to notice another person going in.
Timmy rushed back to the podium, but his feet stuck there, refusing to take him further. Gripping the edges, he held his breath, waiting to hear more screams.
But there were none.
When Miss Henrietta emerged, she was pale, her eyes glittering, but her head was high and when the proprietor met her at the entrance, she even smiled at him and inclined her head. “Thank you,” she said, and walked away.
Rather than silence the onlookers, Miss Henrietta’s dignified exit seemed to inflame them even more. They drew closer, drawn by the mystery of the tent, but none brave enough to step up to see for themselves.
“Well, my lad, what’ll it be? In or out?”
Timmy looked up at the proprietor. There was a quiet challenge in his eyes, but also laughter. He almost reminded Timmy of his own Grandfather before he died. The old man had been the only family Timmy had had, a kindly, wizened old man with a library of books and a box of pipe tobacco that never got used.
“In,” Timmy whispered, surprised at the sound of his own voice. His knees turned weak with fear, his palms became slick with sweat. He stared wide-eyed as the proprietor pulled the curtain aside for him and chuckled good-naturedly at his hesitation.
Finally, Timmy made his feet move. He stepped through the threshold into darkness, shuddered when the heavy curtain swished closed at his back. No more going back. Only forward. He shuffled his feet forward, unsteady in the soft light of a dozen candles. In the center of the large tent the looking glass stood upright with no apparent means of support, as tall as a man, the frame intricately carved out of chestnut wood and inlaid with aged gold filigree.
Timmy circled warily, feeling the same cold he’d felt outside seep out of the mirror. He could almost hear it breathing in great, whispering sighs, poised, waiting for him. Timmy felt as if a thousand gazes followed him from the shadows, but none as piercing as the unseen one inside the mirror.
Timmy squeezed his eyes shut as he came close, opened them just enough to see the bottom edge of the mirror through the veil of his lashes. When he finally stood before it, all noise stopped, as if the mirror held its breath the same way he did.
Hands curled into the loose ends of his old, frayed coat, Timmy counted to three and opened his eyes.
The boy in the mirror was a scrawny thing with big blue eyes and matted brown hair. His hat was crooked, his face smudged with dirt. His clothes hung on him, the bulky layers still not thick enough to fill the oversized coat and pants that trailed the hems on the ground. Toes stuck out of holes in his shoes, one lace untied, the other gone completely. He looked desperate, bedraggled, a street urchin only lacking a hand outstretched for scraps.
A little orphan boy, exactly as he always looked.
Timmy firmed his mouth against an embarrassing quiver.
All that fear for this?
He thumped his fist against his thigh and raced back outside. “You lied to me!”
The proprietor looked down at him, twirling his moustache, a kind smile playing at the corners of his mouth. “How so?”
“There’s nothing in there, just a plain old mirror!”
The man shook his head. “I didn’t lie, master Timothy. The mirror reflects the truth of your soul. Child, you saw yourself, because that is who you are. Nothing more, nothing less. Neither good, nor bad, merely human.”
Flushing angrily, Timmy stomped his foot. “Then what did Miss Henrietta see?”
Sighing, the proprietor looked across the crowds, seeking some unknown thing far in the distance. “I suspect she saw her wings.”