The Great Mirror, Part I

Image credit: British Museum.
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As a tenured faculty professor of archaeology at Stonewall University in southern Georgia, I frequently receive requests from around the world to identify old artifacts. Most of these are appraisals, heirs to personal items who hope that they’ve inherited something of value. I turn those down automatically, since I don’t want to encourage such crass demands.

On very few occasions, I do receive items from distinguished colleagues who need assistance identifying a troublesome artifact. Usually these items are small trinkets, like a stone receipt in cuneiform or a talisman depicting some Greek deity. I have no qualms with this sort of work, since it gives me steady material for scholarly papers without having to travel. Sometimes I can even let the university’s museum display the items for a time, which encourages more visitors to come down from Atlanta or up from Savannah.

However, a month ago I received a large packing crate from the estate of Dr. Ana Talmadge, one of my former professors in Mesopotamian studies. According to the letter that came with it, she’d died quite unexpectedly in a train accident near Boston. She had several items she was working on for the Iraqi National Museum, and the crate contained the largest item – a polished mirror from the time of Hammurabi. There was some eroded cuneiform along the rim of the mirror, carved into a rock that looked like obsidian. Doctor Talmadge wanted me to translate it in the event that she couldn’t, and the Iraqi government agreed with her decision. Eager to provide one last service for a dear mentor, I took delivery.

When I got the heavy crate into my basement office, I took better stock of the object inside. About two meters high, it was made out of a rock I couldn’t quite identify, chiseled into the shape of two demons holding the mirror upright between them. The reflective surface was made out of the same dark rock, but it had been restored well enough to hold a decent image. Examining the cuneiform script more closely, I determined that it was going to take some time and effort to clarify the writing and get a decent translation. I decided I’d let it sit upright in the crate behind my desk until I figured out how best to proceed.

In my excitement, I did not notice a rusty nail protruding from the edge of the crate where my hand rested. I had only looked away for a moment, but I had managed to slice open my right palm from thumb to little finger. Worse, I wasn’t looking where my hand went, and I discovered I’d actually grabbed the mirror with my bloody hand. My wound tingled in slight pain, and I thought I heard the sound of sizzling. Curiously, when I withdrew my hand to examine the damage my carelessness caused, I could not find a single blemish on the item.

I decided that I’d been reckless enough for one evening, and I left to go bandage my wound and schedule an appointment with my doctor the next day. The mirror had lasted for at least three thousand years; it could wait another day. In hindsight, I wished I’d paid more attention that day.

Mutually Assured Destruction

Photo by 2happy.
Image courtesy of Stockvault.

Samantha brought two full wineglasses over to the bed, her naked skin whispering against the silk sheets. Armand laid on his stomach, his back cooling in the night air. She handed him a glass and watched him sit up and drink half of it. Hers went on the nightstand. It was around midnight, but the wind coming off the ocean was salty and warm. They were both still hot from what they’d been doing since they got the room.

Armand sensed Samantha’s discomfort, and he motioned for her to roll over. He got up and grabbed some lotion from his suitcase, squirting some onto a massage pad. With slow, deliberate motion, he worked the scented balm into her tight muscles. Only a few minutes later, she was completely relaxed. Putting the pad away, Armand said, “I hope your husband won’t mind me spending time with you like this.”

“Mmph,” said Samantha. “He doesn’t mind anything I do anymore.” She propped herself up on her elbows. “What about you?”

Finishing off the drink, Armand slouched back down onto the bed. He said, “My wife hasn’t let me touch her in years.”

“Her loss,” Samantha said with an impish grin.

“His too,” said Armand, unable to hide a smile. He reached out a hand and intertwined his fingers with hers.

They both lay in silence for ten minutes, like a delicate spell had been cast and the slightest noise could break it. Neither lover lost their smile. Neither regretted their decision or what had transpired. Both lost consciousness peacefully, hands forever joined.

Draft Repairs: Making Sure Characters Do Stuff

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It might seem a little too obvious, but characters have to actually do stuff themselves. Despite knowing this, I can find it easy to forget when I’m trying to plan out the plot of a novel. In every novel-length story I’ve attempted, there is at least one point where I figure out that I’m changing perspective or doing something else that’s crazy to try to shoehorn the action into place. At some point, I figure out that its cause might be the fact that my main character isn’t part of the main action. Here’s a couple examples of what I’m talking about, and why they might not belong in a novel.

Explanatory dialogue.
Imagine reading a Sherlock Holmes story, and Watson takes up a whole chapter talking with a constable about deductive reasoning. There’s a reason why this doesn’t (usually) happen; Doyle did a fairly decent job of having Watson know just enough to be quiet. Whenever the doctor spoke, it was supposed to help deliver information a reader wouldn’t otherwise get.

The more complex a plot gets, the more there’s an urge to have people talking about world – or galactic – events. With so many different moving parts, it’s hard to make sure one’s story has disclosed enough information to be fair. So, some people do and say stuff that takes up time that could have been spent doing something heroic.

To be fair, some people might not think this is a bad thing. However, it robs most readers of the joy of figuring things out for themselves. Why tell people about an evil corporate empire when that evil corporate empire can just kick off the novel with a supreme dick move? The latter tells every reader what they need to know without having to find out every awful thing that company has done over the years.

Breaking perspective.
This is the thing that I’m guilty of. I have a book filled with scenes from one character’s perspective, and suddenly I find the need to jump to something else happening. Sometimes I’ll get the protagonist to overhear the important thing, but all this does is create boring exposition.

Most likely I get this from watching too many fast paced movies where the antagonists get cut scenes interspersed between the protagonist’s scenes. Some movies do this very well, and the occasional book will get away with it too (think about how the Game of Thrones books are organized). But what I’ve discovered the hard way is that it’s often a crutch. If something is important enough to break perspective, that new character should be as important to the story as other protagonists.

The main reason I find this important is that it makes a story better when the problem gets fixed. Action will almost always be more interesting than quiet dialogue. By moving the story to other perspective, it also runs the risk of losing your hero’s agency. That’s a big deal, because at that point a story becomes pointless (think Raiders of the Lost Ark; Indiana Jones actually didn’t accomplish anything).

Divine Intervention

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Eric swatted another large mosquito, smearing its corpse over his oily skin. He’d been out for three hours in the bush with two other members of his church’s annual mission trip. Amanda was seventeen, a year older than Eric, and was the one who first heard about the mysterious northern tribe from one of the southern locals. From what she heard, it wouldn’t be that long of a hike, maybe an hour tops. “How much further?” Eric demanded, a little out of breath.

Kevin, the senior youth pastor and leader of the youth mission this year, hacked at another branch crossing the narrow jungle trail they followed. Having just turned thirty, he was considered young for the job. He had a lot to prove to the old folks back home, and leading an expedition to convert a new tribe would go a long way to do that. “It’s not that big of an island,” he said. “We should almost be there.”

“The southern locals just gave me a general location,” said Amanda, lifting a drooping fern. She turned to look back at Eric and caught him staring at her shorts again. Amanda let the plant go, hitting him right in the face. “Sorry,” she lied.

Eric brushed the prickly leaves aside. He turned his head to the left to avoid the longer fronds, and in the underbrush he caught two dull, red orbs, about the size of softballs. They blinked. Then, they disappeared. “Did you guys see that?” he asked, darting to catch up with the other two.

“No,” Amanda said with a groan. “You see someone?”

“I-” Eric snapped his mouth shut. There wasn’t any way he could explain what he saw, at least not without sounding mental.

Up front, Kevin sighed. “You’re not seeing monsters again, are you? Remember what pastor said about them last time?”

“The only real demons are spiritual ones,” Eric muttered. He couldn’t forget that sermon; it was directed solely at him.

“Right,” said Kevin. “We’re out here to help bring the light of truth to people who haven’t seen it. Do you think they’ll give up their superstitions if they see you have them too?” Eric was quiet.

A few feet ahead, the leaves rustled. The trio stopped, and a short man came walking out of the jungle. He wore loose trousers that went down to just above his ankles but no other clothing or jewelry. Intricate trails of ritual scars and tattoos covered his skin, including a large drawing of two red eyes on his chest. His eyes twinkled, but Eric couldn’t quite tell why. Kevin stepped forward, offering the man a smile that didn’t quite convey politeness. The man returned the expression, which made Eric’s skin crawl.

“Hello,” Amanda said from behind Kevin. “We come looking for the Frog Tribe.”

“You said they’ve never talked to outsiders before,” said Eric. “How are they supposed to know what you’re saying?”

The islander licked his lips. “It is a good question,” he replied in passable English. “We are not as cut off as the southern tribe thinks we are. We know of your people, and the gods that you bring.” He thrust his chin at Kevin’s cross.

“We’re only bringing one with us,” Kevin replied, keeping his polite smile. “I am Kevin, this is Amanda and Eric. We came this way to share our faith with you, if you’re interested.”

The stranger mirrored Kevin’s body language. “My people always like visitors from far off. Come,” he gestured, waving for them to follow. “I am Rangi. The village is not far, and we can talk much better there.”

“Pleased to meet you,” said Amanda, who spoke slowly. The missionaries followed their new guide, but something in the back of Eric’s mind made him hesitate. Amanda sensed Eric wasn’t behind her anymore, and gave him a withering glare. “Be polite,” she mouthed. Cowed, Eric caught up with the others.

Rangi took them quickly through the widening jungle trail until they arrived at a vista overlooking a large, turquoise lagoon. On the left, huts with pointed, thatched roofs dotted the shore, with dozens of people playing outside in the sand. At the opposite end of the lagoon, the ocean rolled gently against two small hills and a thin barrier formed from blackened rock. To the group’s right, the visitors saw more villagers dragging logs from the jungle. Eric asked, “What are they building over there?”

Rangi smiled. “Yes, they are preparing for the religious festival. You came just in time.”

Something in the underbrush shook violently, and Eric jumped behind Kevin and Amanda. “What was that?” he squeaked.

Rangi laughed, fixing his eyes on Eric. “There is no need to be afraid. It is just a jungle animal. They are everywhere here.”

Eric turned red. Kevin grimaced. “I’m sorry if he’s offended you.”

“It is no problem,” said Rangi, motioning for them to follow him to the huts.

Amanda shook Eric off. “Could you tell us more about your festival?”

Rangi looked at them in a way that made Eric’s skin crawl. “It is a celebration of thanks. Our god gives us what we need to live, and we show our gratitude in the way he has taught us.” They made their way down a sandy path to an immense hut, large enough to easily hold every person they saw. Two sets of tables and benches ran the length of either side of the wooden floors, all covered in the culinary bounty of the island. The breeze shifted direction, and wafted the delicious scent of the feast to the three hungry travelers. “Please, make yourself at home. Eat to your heart’s content.”

“Thank you,” said Amanda and Kevin, who eagerly took spots next to each other on the nearest bench. Kevin said grace, and they dug in.

Eric wrinkled his nose when he sat down across from them and asked, “How long has this been sitting out?”

Mid-bite, Kevin glared at the youngest missionary member. “You’re being rude,” he scolded.
“There is no offense taken,” replied Rangi. He sat down with the missionaries. “In truth, the food has just been finished. The others set it out just as I met you three.”

“What amazing timing,” said Amanda, grabbing some white meat from a bowl. It felt oily like fish meat, but it tasted like it had been dipped in butter.

“This is so good,” said Kevin, talking with his mouth full.

Rangi got up and grabbed a clay pitcher. He found three cups and filled them for the visitors. “You all must be thirsty,” he said. “Here is some juice from a fruit that grows on the island.” Kevin and Amanda eagerly accepted the drinks, gulping them down violently. Eric smelled his and set his glass over close to Amanda.

“When does your festival start?” asked Eric. Out beyond the hills, the sun was hanging low in the sky. “We got here a little later than we were supposed to,” he explained, apprehension creeping into his voice. He expected Kevin to scold him, but the youth pastor had his face buried in his plate, like a pig at a trough.

“It will start very soon, when the sun goes just below the horizon,” Rangi explained. He pointed to the villagers hauling logs. They stacked them up against each other in about eight piles, stuffing leaves and other dry foliage in between them. “We will light fires to welcome our god to shore, where he will give us his blessing. He only comes out after dark.”

Kevin and Amanda didn’t pay any attention. They’d finished their food, and sat quietly, staring into empty space. Eric asked loudly, “What sort of blessing do you get?” Kevin didn’t even react.

“It will be easier when we show you,” said Rangi, who replaced an empty bowl of meat with a full one. Kevin and Amanda continued eating in silence. A chilly wind blew in from across the water. Eric shivered, cold sweat rolling down his back. “Can you hear our god stirring? He touches all who gaze upon him.” Kevin and Amanda grunted.

From somewhere in the dense jungle, in the growing shadows pursuing the retreating sun, a guttural and deep noise came forth. Eric froze. “What was that?” His instincts told him to flee, but the sound came from between him and his refuge miles southwards.

The other two missionaries did not break from their stupor. Rangi just turned and offered Eric the same smile he’d been giving them since they met. “It is nothing to worry about,” said Rangi. He got up from the table. “You really should eat and drink your fill. It will make the festival more bearable. I must leave to prepare some other things, and then I will come back for you.”

When Rangi got out of earshot, Eric tugged on his friends’ sleeves. “We need to get out of here now.” Neither of them said anything. They finished their food and stared blankly at their empty bowls, their tongues lolling to one side. “What’s the matter with you?” he hissed, shaking them more violently. They ignored him.

From the lagoon, something under the water shifted. Eric couldn’t explain it, but it felt like something old and intelligent stirred beneath the water. He tried remembering the sermon pastor gave, but then he saw Kevin and Amanda stupidly turn their heads in unison to stare behind him. Eric lost the last ounce of his courage and shame, and tumbled off the bench. He picked himself up, and he decided to make the attempt to head back to the safety of the southern part of the island.

There was still just enough sunlight to find the trail leading south. Despite the things that had to be lurking nearby, Eric could try to move fast enough to get home. The sun had almost set, so he paused to get a flashlight out from his satchel. In that brief, quiet pause, Eric saw a great light flickering off the leaves around him. All throughout the jungle, a chorus of animal noises rose in unison.

Eric turned back around, and he was still close enough to the village to see they’d lit the signal fires. In his rational and natural senses, he knew none of this should be happening. He desperately wished for his legs to carry him back south, but to his dread he found they would not obey. Instead, he felt tethered to the lagoon, and a primordial urge demanded he bear witness to whatever terrifying thing the village worshipped. Against his common sense and his earnest desire to flee, Eric made his way back to the water.

He found a secluded perch behind a small section of cleared trees. He saw the entire beach lit up by bonfires, and the entire village stood there on the sandy shore, facing out to the lagoon. The villagers shifted, and then Eric saw Rangi standing next to Kevin and Amanda, his back to the water. He was saying something to them, not loudly enough for him to hear above the growing wind. Whatever it was, Eric saw both missionaries walk slowly into the lagoon until immersed up to their shoulders. It reminded Eric of his baptism in a country river the previous year.

The water in the lagoon changed color. Eric believed it must have been from the bonfires, but the water itself appeared to glow. It went from turquoise to a purplish hue, and Eric shuddered when he saw Kevin and Amanda’s shadows pointing towards the fires.

The ground shook like it had been hit by an earthquake. All the villagers gave out a cheer, followed by a rhythmic chant. Every fifth beat, the ground shook, and Eric saw Kevin and Amanda struggling to keep their balance. “Get out of there,” Eric breathed. They could not hear him.

The water turned a deeper shade of purple and quivered, shuddering as whatever underneath the waves undulated towards its thralls. The villagers stopped chanting. They fell to the sand, averting their eyes. Wind whipped through the trees. Two green orbs opened like eyes underneath the water, and they appeared as if they were staring right at the hidden missionary. The entire beach quaked, like the island was about to be sundered. Eric buried his head behind a log and trembled.

Just as soon as everything seemed to fall apart, the entire beach went quiet. Eric poked his head out, amazed he was still alive. Kevin and Amanda were nowhere to be seen. All of the bonfires had gone out, save for a larger one in the middle. The villagers parted in half, allowing two figures to hop out of the water on squat legs. Their skin was a sickly grayish white, glistening with slime. Four red orbs shone in the light. Each pair blinked, and one of the creatures let out a cry that could not have been human.

And Eric responded – in kind.

Image courtesy of Stockvault.