The Metaphysician’s Mirror
by Matthew Wanniski
In a park full of painters, he possessed a gallery of mirrors. My friends and I first noticed him three days ago as we passed by on the way home from school, near a stand of black poplar and hawthorn: a strange little man in a threadbare suit, with vivid eyes that glittered with an unearthly spark in his smooth face. He said his name was Coddling, of Kin Mill.
It wasn’t just the mirrors that made him odd. It was his ideas about them. He called them ‘pathways to other worlds.’ He even denied they were his mirrors, but claimed they were God’s own. Blasphemy!
“Why is it blasphemy?” he asked in a strangely-accented voice that flowed like silk across satin. No one from Kin Mill spoke like that. “The great and devout poet William Blake wrote of seeing an entire world in a grain of sand. Mirrors are formed by a million grains of sand. Think then of how many worlds are contained within a single mirror!”
“There is but one world,” I said. “There are no others. God made the earth for us. It is His gift, and you desire others. Greed is a cardinal sin, sir.”
“And vanity is not?” he replied. “You look in a mirror and see yourself alone. Your scope is too narrow. Do you not know that every mirror keeps within it every image that has ever been reflected upon it? Every face, every wall, every sky — all lies hidden behind our reflections.”
“I have discovered,” he continued, a bit too proudly, “the means to access those hidden reflections, those other worlds.”
He looked at us. “You think me mad. Allow me to show you.”
He stretched out a hand. “I chose this green park because it is the fairest in all of London, and the least visited. Its conditions are perfect.”
His voice became soft, as if he feared to be overheard. We gathered closer to listen. “I will show you that I can enter the world beyond the mirror. It is easiest to accomplish when the reflection is the most recent, and best to do so when the shadows are longest.” He looked at me. “I can only do this for a moment, but it should be enough to prove my sanity.”
“Humph,” I said, crossing my arms across my chest. “We’ll see.”
He nodded. “Fair enough. Please stand over there. I don’t want your reflections to distract me.”
We did as we were told, although it seemed he didn’t want us to be too close to see how the trick was done. He was an odd sort of magician to be sure. He did no card tricks, nor did he produce any doves or rabbits from out of the air. He proposed only to make himself disappear from a deserted park, with only a few incredulous schoolboys as witnesses. Odd indeed.
Arranged beneath a hawthorn tree were four overlapped mirrors which appeared to have been taken from someone’s parlor. Mr. Coddling stood at one end, just beyond the first mirror.
“Why are you standing there? Aren’t you going to walk through them?” asked William.
The man looked surprised and answered in an obvious tone of voice. “And be torn apart by the combined gravity of a hundred million worlds? I think not! No, it is better to provide some resistance when attempting to cross through. The best way, I have found, is by walking past. That way, the pull isn’t as great and the passage is much smoother.”
“Oh,” said Tom. The rest of us didn’t know what else to say to that.
The man took our silence to mean that we were satisfied with his answer. He closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths, remaining still for several long minutes. Was he in a trance, or asleep on his feet? We were growing restless, and were definitely late for home. Yet we were rooted to the spot. We couldn’t take our eyes off the strange man.
The mirrors shimmered. At the same moment the man began walking. With eyes still closed he passed in front of the first mirror. Nothing happened.
He passed the second mirror. Again nothing.
When he passed the third, he disappeared. It happened in the blink of an eye. One moment he was there, the next he was gone. His reflection remained in the last mirror.
His sudden reappearance was just as startling. He was hunched over, gasping and gulping for air as one who’d been struck hard in the gut. When he straightened up and turned to us, he looked much paler than usual. His eyes appeared almost colorless. Even his clothes seemed less substantial. His whole being appeared in danger of unraveling, as if somewhere beyond the mirror invisible threads were being pulled from his soul.
“Whoa!” said William.
“Oh!” gasped Michael.
“Brilliant!” said Tom.
“It is difficult coming back,” the man spoke in a hoarse whisper. “Part of me must remain behind.” He looked at me. “Are you convinced?”
“Bollocks,” I said. “I’ve seen better tricks at the traveling faire.”
He frowned. “It’s no trick, lad. It isn’t ‘magic’ I show you, but the true nature of the world.” Some color had returned to his face and his voice was marginally stronger. “What we see in the mirror is not merely a reflection of our own, but an infinity of other worlds. We can go there, as I have just exhibited. Why be content with one world only?”
We had no ready answer.
He sighed as if he expected as much. “I will bring the rest of my mirrors here, which I have assiduously collected over the years. But I will need more. Bring some with you tomorrow,” he said, as if he were issuing a royal decree.
“Right!” my three friends said in unison.
The walk home was agony.
“Cor, did you see that?!” asked William. “He disappeared right in front of us!”
“Did you see his reflection in the mirror?” asked Michael. “It winked at me!”
“Oh, go on!” said Tom. “But it was bloody brilliant.”
“Drat! I’ve left my lunch pail in the park,” I said. “I’d better go and get it or I’ll never hear the end of it. Father always says ‘an idle mind leaves sense behind’.”
I bid my friends good eve and returned to the park, which was disappearing fast into the deepening gloom. There was no sign of Mr. Coddling. I located my lunch pail and was about to head home once more when I caught sight of him as he was making his own way home.
As late as it was, I couldn’t leave him just yet. I followed him as he crossed one wide avenue after another, finally turning down a dank lane. He paused before the door to a dreary cottage. There were no lights to illuminate its sad windows. Mr. Coddling looked much like the house himself. He had sagged during his walk home. His shoulders, so straight earlier that day, now slumped as if from an unseen weight.
I hurried home thinking if he could do such extraordinary things, why does he live like a pauper? Or was this more sleight of hand?
The next day I could hardly keep my mind on my lessons. All I could think about was the lunatic with his mirrors. By now I’d decided that he very clearly was insane, but cleverly so. He was charming in his own way, like a favorite old uncle spinning yarns about his misspent youth.
But the Devil can take a pleasing shape, and I was afraid my friends were walking into a trap. So it wasn’t curiosity that sent me back to the park the next day with them. Someone had to protect them, and I determined it would be me.
The man was happy to see us, and happier still to receive the mirrors that William, Michael, and Tom brought for him.
“This is from the guest room of our house,” said William.
“Splendid,” said Mr. Coddling.
“This one hung in my family’s drawing-room,” spoke Michael, holding a mirror with a heavy, ornate frame. “Mother and Father bought it while on holiday in Venice.”
“Excellent!” Mr. Coddling replied.
In short order, mirrors of all shapes and sizes decorated the wood-bound glade. Somewhere along the way, I too succumbed to the madness. My father had an old shaving mirror that he kept in a box with his razor and brush, which I found and brought to the man in the park. He took it with his long, slender fingers and gave me such an avaricious smile that I instantly regretted my decision.
“This belonged to my father,” I said. “He carried it when he served in the Crimean War. He is a pastor now. His church stood on Bread Street. Or rather, it used to be there. It burned down in a fire last winter.”
His smile fled and his face darkened. He handed the mirror back to me coldly. “Take this away from me. I have no wish to visit such worlds as this mirror has seen.”
He turned to the others. “I sincerely hope that you all have more sense than your friend exhibits. I daresay his upbringing has fettered his mind. None of your parents have served in the military, or” — he paused and shuddered — “are in the clergy?”
He eyed each of them. “No? Good. Return here on the morrow, and be my witnesses to history.” His eyes brimmed with resignation. “Pity that you too cannot escape the strictures of this sad and menial world.”
My friends and I left together. They were full of praise for the man’s brilliance, but I remained silent. I didn’t like him. He was no gentleman but a presumptuous, ungodly fraud. I didn’t care if I had offended him.
We parted ways, and I turned down my lane. Autumn leaves crinkled and crackled beneath my feet. As they scattered, I was reminded of the fire that destroyed my father’s church. The authorities said it was an accident, but Father believed it was the work of anarchists.
A thought struck me: was the man in the park an anarchist too? His ideas certainly ran counter to what was commonly accepted. I doubled back and returned to the park. The man was gone, but the mirrors remained, covered with a canvas tarp. With some difficulty, I managed to wedge the shaving mirror underneath it and between two larger ones.
The next day there happened to be a solar eclipse. My friends and I had never seen one, though we knew they were considered omens. Usually bad ones. The school let us out early to see it.
The best place to view it was the park, so we hurried straight there. Mr. Coddling was leaving that day, he told us, in the darkness of the eclipse.
He tipped his hat in greeting, saying, “Hello lads, I’m glad you made it.” Then he examined a small silver pocket watch, oddly marked with what appeared to be Greek letters. “It’s almost time.” He snapped it shut and placed it in his pocket. His suit had the look of a storm about to break.
We looked at the sky, but it was clear. The ivory disk of the moon was closing on the blinding sun. Mr. Coddling motioned us to step back from the improbable bank of mirrors he’d diligently assembled before taking his place at its nearest end.
As before, he closed his eyes and breathed deeply. His eyes flew open again a moment later. Something troubled him. His eyes darted about the clearing, on the mirrors, on the sky, on us. I held my breath. Did he see my mirror? Tom’s face was flush. Michael fidgeted nervously. I was braced for anything.
The moon drew across the sun like a blanket, and we were swallowed up in shadow. The man relaxed and closed his eyes once more.
A black hole surrounded by tendrils of pale fire hung where the sun formerly stood. It stung my eyes. I rubbed them, and gasped as the mirrors shimmered like before. No, not like before. They flickered and wavered crazily as if inhaling the umbral light. My heart thundered in my ears as the man started walking. In three steps he was gone.
His reflection turned and winked at us, before walking into the mirrored distance.
Moments later, sunlight filled our vision as the eclipse was over. I stared at the mirrors. There was no sign of the man. Had he traveled through the mirrors and into another world? Or was the eclipse simply a distraction so that he could slip away by quite ordinary means?
We ran home without a single blessed word between us.
Later that night I stole out of my bed and dressed quickly. Like a furtive mouse, I stole out of the house and made my way to the dozing park.
The mirrors gleamed silver-bright under the fairy-light of the full moon. All was quiet. It was just me and the deer, which ran when I threw the first rock at the mirrors. When the noise did not draw the attention of the park constabulary, I proceeded to destroy the remainder until all that was left was my father’s shaving mirror, which I carefully wrapped in a handkerchief and carried home. My father won’t touch it anymore. He believes it is haunted, and I am certain he is right.
When I look into the mirror now, I see the shadow of a small man lurking behind my reflection with a madman’s seductive eyes and a secret smile beneath the echo of a million worlds. If he’s right, if I hold infinity in the palm of my hand, it has only become his prison.
Copyright © 2010 by Matthew Wanniski