This is the ninth installment of Duessa, a 12,000-word allegory (of sorts). I’m posting a new installment on each of the twelve days of Christmas, wrapping up on January 5th. See the previous eight here.
The next instant she opened her eyes, she was on the floor of the mirror room. Dizzy, leg changing color– eyes fixed, not on the still-mysterious sides of the room, not on the painting, but on the yellow eyes of the lizard glaring up at her, still clenched around her leg.
On the floor beside her was her fragment of the globe. In her left hand was a bottle of water. In her right was a jar of the balm. Around her waist was the sword belt. The three objects were reflected in the “outward” mirrors but not the “inward”; she wondered whether and where they could be seen from the central mirrors. The candles were still bitterly debating the nature of their fate and its cause.
She drew the sword awkwardly, and, without a moment’s pause, plunged it into the lizard. Lizard and sword vanished in a flash of light. She wondered what to do about the wound — should she use the balm or the water, which she had already used? But perhaps the water could help the candles.
“What if I douse you?” she asked. “Will that be better than if I blow you out?”
She received several differing answers: they did not know. She noted one that wished her to try it, a woman who looked about her age.
She opened the jar of balm and spread it on the bloody tooth marks. Several different kinds of pain disappeared. The wounds closed up into scars, her leg grew smooth and natural in color. It smelled of many herbs and beeswax — but she could not fix the smell into anything she knew.
Finally, the water. She pulled that woman’s candle down, doused it in the water. She wished the balm had not “cured,” if a cure it was, her vision of the candles, because she just barely imagined that a delighted female shape flashed in white in her vision as the candle went out. The water had not disappeared either, and when she used it on the next few candles she had the same impressions.
Quite possibly her imagination. Quite possibly — probably — all the candle people were. Saving only the candle she was holding for light (it had never seemed to sprout a face and an identity), she extinguished every candle, fighting foreboding — after all, _he’d_ called it the room where the candles were always kept burning.
When the last candle went out, there was a perfectly audible chatter full of malicious laughter, but she could not see who was laughing until her candle flared bright enough to reveal gray human shapes that looked like they were mummified in the gray paper of bees’ nests -with holes for dark eyes. They circled around her just outside the light of her candle, waving their hands half-mockingly and half as if to try to extinguish her candle, which, thank everything, seemed to be maintaining its feeble glow. They no longer spoke a language she could understand — was that because they were free or because she was no longer poisoned? — but she heard them croaking and rustling at each other.
Then she tried to reach down to pick up the piece of the globe on the floor and discovered that she could barely move, and the darkness itself was attempting to press in around the glow of the candle — and that depriving the room of light had begun to deprive it of definition. When she reached a hand behind her to touch the table, she felt it wink in and out of existence as her candle flickered, and she herself was scarcely more than a pale outline that occasionally solidified.
The darkness around her was not still, nor without mass. She saw — felt, it was too dark by definition to see — it writhe. It called to her in a cold, slow, dead voice that stirred something in her. Bitterness–she was offered strength, size, freedom from the shackles–the shackles of what? This fragile joke of a human form, for one thing. Demands, for another, and needs–more generally, of definition and limitation. Soon, she knew, the candlelight would disappear entirely and then the mirrors themselves would cease to be real.
And what if she did cease to exist? .
She shivered. It was stretching toward her–having said no to it once, she could not help but flee. The three gifts from the picture were long gone, so she just moved toward the brightest candlelight she could make out when she held crossed through mirror after mirror, but the light from the real candles, while it still flickered in some of the rooms, seemed not to be getting stronger, or at least not quickly enough. In the rooms that did not hold candles, she struggled to catch sight of the candelabras, which at first had ceased to exist, but in more central rooms retained the slightest of real substance. These, she lit, barely imagining that she would have heard screams if she had still been suffering from the lizard’s poison.
Yet she continued, heavy and slow, trailing gluey darkness. The candle grew brighter from reflection to reflection, until the chambers she entered had solid, touchable candles of their own that illuminated their surroundings, however feebly. Then she could move freely, and the darkness gathered itself into forms, smaller and more distinct, less pure.
Its offers grew pleading and frenetic–a black river offering true forgetfulness, a weapon she could not quite make out to hurt what hurt her, a misty gown that could conceal her and a black-stoned necklace that could disguise her, a mirror insidiously like to the ones on the walls that would grant her the embrace of her desires, and finally some snarling horned beast the size of a small dog shackled to the corners by candlelight.
She was so absorbed in fleeing from the darkness that she almost missed the second piece of the globe. When she did, she realized she was a few mirrors ahead of it and backtracked. As she lifted the second piece and tried to adjust it to fit with the first (she wondered how she would handle the weight), the two began to melt into a single object — and she was lying in bed again.
A…more nuanced…treatment of evil will ideally appear in a sequel. This story is supposed to be one-dimensional in certain ways.