The wizard stared at the mirror’s warped surface in disbelief. What had happened was not possible. He had planned everything so carefully, overseen every step of the process. What had gone wrong?
The mirror’s edges were still glowing with that awful bluish light – a light so... so wrong that it made him ill to see it. Faint wisps of smoke were still curling languidly from the surface. If he looked closely enough, his practised eyes could just make out the girl trapped inside, like a life-like paper doll encased in a thick block of ice. And when the light hit the mirror at just the right angle, he could see that she was still screaming.
At first glance, there was nothing special about the room. Four walls, two windows opposite each other and a small built-in closet. It was one of those boy’s quarter affairs where the shared bathroom was located at one end of the building with the kitchen at the other, both connected by a broad verandah that ran past two rooms.
Nothing special, but it was everything I wanted: ridiculously cheap, roomy, clean, and most importantly, quiet. Well, there was that mirror on the outside of the door, but I resolved to change that as soon as I could.
It was my need for quiet that had drove me from my parent’s house in Lagos. I had returned to Nigeria to work on my book, but it had been two months and I had made little progress. If it wasn’t my mother shouting at the maid at 6 a.m. every morning, it was the screams of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer five times a day, the cries of the hawkers, the near constant hum of traffic, or the diesel-soaked gargle of the generator at night.
I had been to Abuja as a kid, and I still remember how quiet it had seemed to me. How green and peaceful. My father’s friend, an old general whom he had served under during the war, had built a lovely house on the outskirts of the city when he retired. I persuaded them to let me stay in there for the rest of my yearlong sabbatical.
I had covered the floor with a lovely wine-colored carpet. I had a bookshelf that held my research volumes, some knick knacks and picture frames, and a small radio/CD player. A white two-seater couch that folded out to a bed sat under one window. Next to the closet, I had a set of two plastic chairs, a table and a small fridge.
I never did get around to changing that mirror, though. Every time I walked up to my door, I felt a frisson of irritation. Catching sight of my reflection as I approached always made me think there was someone standing at my door waiting for me. But as soon as I entered the room and closed the door, it was as if I had entered my own little world.
I had never thought to ask why this room, with all its advantages, had remained empty for so long. My neighbor, an up-and-coming young marketing executive named Oniye, told me no one had lived in there in the nearly seven months since she had moved into the compound, but she was reluctant to say more. The other neighbors, those who lived in the main house, would not even speak about the room.
Only David, the guard, ever asked me about the room. About a week after I moved in, I was returning home with a load of groceries. He came out to meet me at the compound’s gate and helped me carry the heaviest bags inside.
“Auntie, abeg, make you tell your visitor not to dey shout so,” he said after loading the bags on the verandah in front of my door. “Madam say she no fit sleep for house.”
“I don’t have any visitors,” I said. He looked at me strangely, as if he had just remembered something terribly important. For a moment, he seemed frightened.
“Maybe I left the radio on.”
“Ok, yes. Na so, na so,” he nodded quickly. He was suddenly eager to be away, not even waiting for his customary 20 naira tip. I watched him hurry back to the front gate, bemused. My people are a superstitious lot, given to exaggeration. It was not the first time I had been warned away by tales of witchcraft and sorcery, men turning into goats, women who could fly. I was a professor of African religions and philosophy, believe me, I had heard them all.
One evening, about a month later, I returned home late. The conference had gone on too long. The chairman had insisted on giving one long rambling speech after another before every event on the itinerary. What was slated to be a dinner engagement produced no food. By the time I arrived home, I was hungry, tired and very irritated.
So, I dismissed what I saw as a product of my overactive imagination. Only after I had eaten and was drifting off to sleep, did I remember. Coming up to my room, I had seen a woman reflected in the mirror on my door. And it wasn’t me.
Some time that night I awoke. The power had gone out and the room was stifling. The digital alarm clock on the bookshelf was blinking at 12:00, as if the outage had shorted it out – though it was battery operated. A strange blue light was leaking from under the front door. It seemed as if someone had lit a hundred florescent lamps in the shared hallway.
But I knew there was nothing out there except a single naked bulb hanging from the ceiling. The cold hand of fear gripped my throat. My skin erupted in goosebumps. I burrowed under my blankets, hoping perversely that if I ignored it, the strange light would go away.
BANG, BANG, BANG! A knock on my door. I bit my lip to suppress a scream. I didn’t believe in the diabolical. I was too rational for that. There were no such things as witches, spirits or ghosts. But there was someone or something knocking on my door in the middle of the night, amid a light that should not be, and I was afraid.
I suddenly realized that I was all alone out here. I could call the police, but this was Nigeria. There was a good chance they wouldn’t come on time – if they came at all. My neighbors were all single women like me, and not likely to try to take on intruders on their own.
Suddenly, it was quiet. I waited for the knocks to continue, but nothing came. Cautiously, I peeked out from under the covers. The light was gone. I closed my eyes as waves of relief washed over me.
The next morning, I got up as usual. I fished my bathing bucket from out of the closet and headed out to fetch the water I would heat for my bath. I opened the door and stepped out.
My name is Marcel. It is April, 1925, in Paris. I live in a shabby flat above a bakery in the Student’s Quarter on the Siene. People see me as a well-dressed man about town, slim, dark-haired, pencil-thin moustache. But they do not know the dark desires that drive me. The things I have done in the heart of the night. They do not know of the sighs, the screams, the pleas. They do not know…
Ma name’s Ella Mae Brown. It is 1944, August in Savannah, Georgia. The heat is almost alive, a thing onto itself. ‘Been singin’ at a spot in the negro part of town. It don’t bring in much, but I make it up in other ways. Pekoe been askin’ me why am still in this dump. Says with ma voice I could be playin’ the Cotton Club in New York or sumpin’, but I knowed I ain’t that good. Don’t know how to tell him, but bein’ up on that stage’s the only time I feel alive. Don’t get to feelin’ like that noplace else. Not even with him…
You can call me Lel. My true name doesn’t matter. I have been running for so long, I don’t remember what it was like before. I don’t even remember my crime. I have escaped them in every way, but still they come. I have stabbed them with knives, burned them with brands, drowned them, ripped them limb from limb and still they come. I am beginning to think that they will never give up, that it does not matter whether I run or stay and fight. But I will escape. I must. They will not drag me down with them. They will not win…
A wordless, keening scream filled with more agony than any human can endure. As if all the grief of every age and time were contained in it. It continues without respite, without end.
The door slammed shut and I was standing in front of the mirror. I had dropped my bucket, but I don’t remember doing that. I am shaking. The voices are still echoing in my head. I can still feel the detritus of their lives, the smells, the tastes. I look at my reflection and it as if I have aged decades. My hair has turned completely white; there is something haunted about my eyes. My hands are still my own, though.
“Anne!” Oniye calls out my name. I turn, startled. She is shocked by my appearance. “Ah! What happened? Anne?”
I try to tell her what happened, but my voice is gone. Stolen by the lives inside me. I walk up to her, she shrinks away. They tell me that I started running and that they found me half-naked in Garki three days later. But I don’t remember that and I’m not sure I believe them.
I’m back in the States now. In a nice room here. Very quiet. They say I’m not allowed to go outside and I laugh. Because I can go out anytime I want. Paris, Georgia, New York, even places that have no name yet. Because in my room, anywhere is possible.