We all remake ourselves, her grandfather said. We don’t use other people to do it.
The mirror was a piece of polished copper, dented and discoloured. It caught the pale light from the open window and showed Ann as a wavering reflection, with only her blue eyes looking clearly back from the uneven image. She could make out the fading edges of her jaw and nose, though, and the curling brightness of the hair falling loose over her shoulders. The table was marble and iron, empty but for the copper mirror and a white ceramic bowl of washing-water. Ann sat there while the sun came up, marking out the firmness of her skin with her fingertips and feeling carefully around the hollows of her eyes where there had been wrinkles less than an hour earlier.
She could probably have found a better reflection in the water bowl. Her grandfather made it difficult to use water in place of a looking-glass, though.
You could have used stone or earth, he said. You should have done.
The marble tabletop, when Ann’s hand brushed against it, was as dry as cloth or metal on its iron frame. A thread of life still hummed in the pinkish veins, but it had been carved from the living rock long ago and in a different country. This stone no longer sang. There was not much stone in the town either, since it was a poor place built largely of wood and cob, surrounded by endless plains of golden wheat. The sooner she left it, Ann thought, the better. She was very far from the mountains here, far from the granite and the ancient dreaming slopes of her childhood.
A white eyelash clung like a crack to her cheek. She brushed it away. Behind her, the man on the bed filled his lungs with a jagged, shaking breath and coughed it out again, sobbing.
Ann touched her lips thoughtfully. She could still taste the coppery edge of his death in her mouth. She had breathed it out of him, all of it, all the hundred thousand thousand of the vivid tiny deaths that fuelled that long, continuous dying that was being alive, and she had breathed none of it back. She hadn’t even meant to do it. The realisation that she was ageing had struck her so suddenly that she had acted without thinking. This one was sensible. She had meant to keep him longer.
She smoothed her palms over her newly youthful face again. Everything tasted sharper now. More metallic. She could feel her blood pulsing at her temples and against her throat.
He didn’t deserve it, said her grandfather. That was particularly selfish, Ann, even for you.
His words should have bubbled up from the bottom of the bowl and burst on reaching the surface. His reflection in the water was a match for hers in the mirror. She had never realised before how alike they looked. He could have been her brother.
He hadn’t spoken to her for almost a year. She caught him watching her from wells sometimes, or cups, or rivers, or almost any other sort of water. When his mouth moved, the water in the bowl moved too, breaking him into countless shards that shimmered and cohered again into her grandfather’s disapproving face.
Lifting the bowl broke up the reflection too. Ann carried it over to the window and tossed the water into the street, as if emptying a chamber pot. It splashed on the rutted mud and cobbles below. She thought she still saw her grandfather’s eyes staring up at her, although it might have been just the sun.
The man in the bed was gaunt and yellow. When she sat down beside him and touched his face, he tried to smile and produced only a pained rictus of uneven teeth. She had an odd feeling she was lying there too, imprisoned in his bones, struggling for breath that brought no release. Perhaps she should have breathed his death back into him after all. He was going to lie here and rot and fall apart and never realise he was already dead. She had no wish to experience that with him. She could tell already that he was not going to get up.
She went down to the street. There was nothing to be seen in the puddle now, not even a gleam that might have been a pair of watching eyes. Ann trod in it deliberately anyway. Just as her foot disturbed the glassy surface, the world’s new sharpness fell abruptly away, startling her so much that she lost her balance and skidded unceremoniously onto her backside in the mud. The tang of copper went out of the air and the dull ache of the man undying in the room above vanished from the back of her head. He was properly dead, she realised. Overhead, the open shutters creaked in the breeze.
Ann looked up and saw her grandfather looking down. He leaned out of the window and drew the shutters shut without saying anything. It was still very early and the sounds of the town waking up had only just begun.
“As if you couldn’t have stopped me,” Ann said aloud. “As if you didn’t watch me do it!”
It was time to leave, she thought again. She had spent long enough in this town.
Copyright © Julia August 2013.