Prism

5,000 words

If I dream I dream of being electrocuted.

You wouldn’t believe how gently it begins.

§

First it’s in my toes, like they’re being suckled on by a mouth full of battery acid; then my feet buzz, pins and needles in my soles before a bigger, more insistent spasm shoots up my calves. It accelerates, racing up my thighs, twin lightning rods of energy converging on my crotch. The pulse doubles, then loops ’round my womb, stopping just for a second before a whip-lash lick cracks my ribcage. A thrust of energy explores my perimeters. It’s seeing how much I can take. It’s a thing. I’m certain it’s a thing with a sentience and intentions all its own, and I know it knows no limits, especially not the walls of its container.

Soon, I’m rigid, fists-clenched, jaw-locked, paralysed by a force I can taste with my teeth. Circuits surge inside me, devastating orgasms that scorch and scald as I swell, engorged with shocks, synapses stretched to capacity from this internal blue-white storm. The pulse doubles, triples, quadruples, electrifying hairs on my skin. My eyeballs roll back, muscles lock, and my fingers rap a moronic Morse code. Then I explode. I always explode like an overripe fruit before waking up, shaking in the darkness.

Afterwards, I lie there as motes of reality settle softly on my sheets. I wonder if you died instantly or whether you lay shivering, breathless and paralysed, too, basking in some strange, synthetic afterglow.

§

They brought your rucksack back, finally. After all this time, I never expected it to be returned. The day was mild, bordering on muggy, and no strange omens or elemental anomalies heralded its coming. It was close, as they say, the air was decidedly close, and I was caught off guard when the doorbell startled me from my reflections. I didn’t want to answer, but it was insistent, buzzing like some mechanised pest until I thought my head might explode.

I’ve dragged it into the studio. It’s propped in the middle of the room, slumped like a drunken obelisk upon the polished wood floor, reflected from every angle by my collection of mirrors. Curving baroque frames with gilded filigree detail, black wrought iron ovals from Budapest, a sixteenth century French mirror with an edging of carved bone and more modernist creations from the German and Scandinavian designers. They cover every wall of the house. There’s the full South-facing wall covered from floor to roof in polished pewter-backed glass, our ballet wall, redirecting the sun’s rays in a precise web of gold during the brightest hours of the day. There is no other furniture.

I spend hours staring into my mirrors, hours that bleed into days, which smear into months, examining the angles of infinity as they stretch from this anchor point in space. Their reflections comfort me, enfold me in worlds less sharp-edged than reality. They’re my sanctuary, now there’s nothing else to distract me.

I’m not looking at me—my own face deforms and distorts—I’m looking past me or rather the past looks into me. I’m searching for something I cannot place, a feeling or memory just behind my eyes and if I gaze long enough, reality’s edges soften, perspective slips. I’ve glimpsed such things after loosening its grip.

I haven’t opened the rucksack yet, but I can tell it’s disturbed the stillness.

§

The last time you came, your pupils were wide, skittish, even before that second bottle of wine. You were skinny, full of shadows, the contours of your cheeks and collarbones a chiaroscuro sketch in the half-light. I wondered if you were even real. Still, I drank you in, giddy and in awe and I didn’t care about being in your shadow, its shade was generous and familiar.

“I missed you,” I sighed as we curled yin-yang on the floor. “Why did you leave?”

“It was a weird time,” you slurred emphatically. “But India is incredible, Barcelona is gorgeous, and Berlin is just … wild! So much fucked-up, feral energy. You lose yourself, you know?”

I nodded, but I didn’t know. You hadn’t taken me with you.

“Where did you stay?” I said, feeling needy, perhaps not even meaning to ask out loud.

“Here and there, wherever I needed to be. Mother’s money made it easy to move around and there’s squats and hippie communes everywhere, if you know who to ask.” I winced at your casual mention of her. “Then I met Reuben and, well, you can guess the rest. We didn’t get out of bed for a week …” You winked with wide cat eyes, same warm hazel as mine, and I blushed. “Their dancer freaked out, bailed on them last minute, and they had a show that night. Talk about synchronicity! Reuben says I’m the best they’ve ever had. He loves how in tune with their vibe I am.” A wisp of a smile grazed your wine-tinted lips. “You know me; I make friends easily.”

I did know you. We knew each other inside out and back to front once. It wasn’t difficult to believe that you’d been touring with one of the world’s most notorious underground bands, or that fortune dropped it into your lap just like that. Everything came easy to you; you attracted attention like a magnet. I was just part of the backdrop.

You didn’t mention Mother again, or even try to explain why you left me on that freezing January night. Her suicide and your overnight departure didn’t compliment your new lifestyle, the charmed string of adventures you’d grabbed with both hands. Now you were a woman, a performer, the beloved of a world-famous rock god, with a hundred different personas and wisdom too subtle and strange for my understanding.

You were luminous in your skin that night, glinting recklessly in the gloom. When I woke the next morning, you’d already gone, and I was half a person once more.

§

I finally opened it, the rucksack, and there’s a diary inside, annotated in your familiar, artisanal scrawl, always slanting precariously to the left. I knew what I’d find even before I opened the cover, pages of frantic scribbling, diagrams and jumbled mandalas sketched in biro on tattered napkins and chewed-up boarding passes. I handle the book like a new born, one hand cradling its spine and the other turning its pages tenderly, piecing those missing years back together.

You travelled far in the years after she died, fleeing from the fallout of our world. From Scandinavia to Indonesia, Africa to Australia, your wanderlust seemingly as inexhaustible as your inheritance. You never stopped moving because the past you wouldn’t face was always waiting, threatening to tap you on the back.

Your drawings are intricate, celestial anatomies and freehand geometry that don’t compare to any cosmology I’ve ever seen. Deities collected from all over the world, a bestiary of the global divine. You always were the creative one, zealous and easily led. I should have guessed your natural inquisitiveness would grow into some numinous real-life quest.

There are mantras, too, calling in power and protection from gods whose names I’ve never heard. I roll the words around my mouth, recalling the rhythm of your imagination, but my pronunciations are clumsy, dull; they dribble out like a toddler’s babble and I don’t want to desecrate your pantheon.

There are other things: books, clothing, jewellery, a few vinyls, and a picture of Mother draped around some swaggering hippie. Back then, she looked just like you: same wide, amoretto smile, same careless glow of entitlement. Before the depression set in. The photo’s been ripped into pieces, then cello-taped back together as if you rejected that past before realising it was the only one you had left.

I’ve put your clothes on. Your jumper’s stretched, distended from years of being pulled over your knees, and covered in paint flecks and hot rock burns. It hangs around me in a loose orbit of fabric, and I wonder if it thinks I’m a sorry substitute too. A shade of its former owner. The wool still smells of you, can you believe that? That blend of geranium and wild orange that I’d breathe in beneath a hundred blanketed fortresses. The smell of inseparability.

The scent brought a sense of contentment I haven’t felt for decades. So calm was I in the haze of our nostalgia, I fell asleep on the studio floor, curled like a kitten in a dappled patch of sunlight, with all your things around me.

I would not usually be so careless.

In that sunny trap a new dream snuck in. No rampant energy, no devastating electricity, this dream chilled me and left me shivering from the inside. For the first time in forever, I had no idea how it would end.

It begins with me facing my mirrors in an empty room with a familiar wall full of frames of all shapes and sizes. Inside them, row upon row of dispassionate eyes stare back at me, my eyes black as a shark’s and glazed with the same indifference. The mirrors ripple gently like a cool silver sea and I realise my blinking disturbs them. They aren’t just ornaments, they’re windows for something else, something peering out, wearing my face.

The central mirror, the largest of them all, faces me. It ripples more frantically, circles fleeing from a centre that’s beginning to protrude. The mirror’s skin POPS to make a tiny hole that yawns into a wide, mercurial smile.

These planes are not shallow, they are infinitely deep like wounds, whispers a voice like thawing ice.

There are tunnels, passageways for miles behind this mirror’s smile. They writhe with a crystalline sheen, tessellating and reforming at whim. It wants me inside of it; they all do, slipping on the smooth shafts of their throats, stumbling into diamond-scaled bellies.

I think of you and they summon your image, fractured and flickering but vivid enough to hold my attention. They’ve read my thoughts and now they’re certain I would follow you anywhere.

I see you, naked and frozen, crystallised in the throes of some revelation, and I rush forwards because death has not withered you and you’re a beacon in this blizzard of dream. You are rapturous, majestic, everything I have never been, and your lips move but I don’t hear words, just the wind that slaps my cheeks with the bluntness of its chill. I strain to listen, but the gale is rising and flings your voice around like its plaything. You need something, that’s unmistakable. You need me! I cling to that thought like a life raft.

Your fingers twitch, so I reach out to touch them, but you can’t withstand my eagerness for contact. Fingers shatter, then wrists, arms, and chest in a cascade that tumbles to the floor. You’re all shards now, a torrent of edges and I’m shrieking as you cut through my arms. The bullying wind is pushing me backwards, and you are nothing but a stack of ruined glass.

The dream is hardening, pushing me out. I smash my fists and forehead against it, but it’s no use. Its sealing shut and I’m not asleep anymore; I’m slamming my forehead into an Art Nouveau antique, and the pane is broken but there’s nothing behind it. No passageways, no broken glass, just the cold plaster of the studio wall.

I’m sobbing now, pounding the empty space where you once were.

§

The next day I meditated in a circle of salt, hoping to reach you on my own terms. This time, I was more prepared. I traced the mandalas from your books onto every mirror on the walls in the hope that it would draw you back and keep us both safe. I left your belongings in the same positions as last time, untouched from the day before. I rubbed orange oil and geranium onto my temples and wrists, opened myself up and loudly invited you in.

Eventually, concentration dropped, and images came from the darkness. Memories, not mine but vividly real. I let go and let myself sink in.

The audience are feral tonight, their limbs a flailing sea of flesh, and above them the stars are aligned. I wonder if they feel it, too, this same primordial itch. It’s the last night of a month-long tour, momentum primed and rooted deep. Tonight is the night, and this cannot be repeated. I will not let us down.

Music pours from the speakers, fidgety riffs and tribal beats made by the four men around me and I stand, centre stage, holding a flaming torch, spitting mouthfuls of petroleum. I look to the guitarists, both deep in the jam, amulets hanging from fretboards, symbols painted on their instruments. Only Reuben watches me, leaning on the mic stand licking sweat from his top lip, the coils of a serpent tattooed around his neck. His pupils are wide from the brew we’ve all taken, and I can feel him urging me on. I breathe in, wiping petroleum from my hands onto my thighs. I’ve performed this trick a dozen times, if not more, but never with a real black mirror. Never with the addition of a second.

I drop the torch in a bucket of sand and unwrap my blade, the usual prop exchanged for my sharp ceremonial knife. I hold it high, then draw it across my palm. The audience gasps. My body’s their body; this art their only religion. Reuben’s chanting, feather-smooth incantations over a bassline that throbs. I present my hands, one to the moon and the other to the earth. As Above and So Below converging in my body. Reuben sings, a tantric language we have perfected inside each other, and the memories whet me to our purpose.

The black mirror appears, ascending through a trap door behind me, swallowing light instead of reflecting it. Tonight, we have substituted the flimsy Perspex prop for the real deal, a thing of beauty it took months to track down and charge up.

Reuben howls, punctuating the moment with an operatic slalom of notes while a Stratocaster moans in time. The crowd explodes, half-mad with adrenaline and the mirror dwarfs everything around it.

Any other night, the stagecraft would begin now, dry ice and hidden lights, projected spectres on the prop mirrors’ cloudy surface, me conjuring with offerings of corn syrup. But tonight, there’s no trickery, no roadies behind the scenes. My blood is as real as the moon-fed glass and the mirror is a vortex, an obsidian oval of anti-light, swallowing light instead of reflecting it. Tonight, we summon something eternal and divine.

For the first time, I hear the mirrors’ voice, the timbre of glaciers humming beneath the band’s set. A second mirror hangs at the back of the arena, camouflaged amongst a grey-black tangle of wires. It faces its twin and doesn’t need to be seen by anyone. The mirrors bear their own witness.

The audience churns and we stoke them, letting jagged chords spill over them whilst they clap and scream in time. Some are dazed, some are breathless, some try to push their way free, but they are held in this sweltering spell and there is nothing beyond the now. Nothing but condensing energy and will.

Time is flattening. Contracting.

It has fled.

The mirrors have locked and a low drone hums between them, a flowing anti-hymn I feel in my skin, and there’s no turning back, no powering down. Reuben’s conducting, getting the crowd to form a whirlpool. Their energy propels the current as he turns it upon itself. 

The eager ones lead, dragging others with them, and within minutes a circle pit has formed, stretching from the stage to the back of the arena. They’re echoing Reuben’s words, verses pulled from secret tomes, prayers to lend us the ears of the Immortals.

I close my eyes, transform the sensations around me. The heat, smell, rhythm, words, all unite. I bid them, Enter me. Use me until my body is primed for release.

It rushes in like kundalini fire, flooding my soul with inchoate octaves. I breathe in deeply, then push it back, a column of light through my ribcage and shoulder blades, which feeds the waiting glass.

The music is deafening, but now I can’t hear it. Sweat streams down my face and slickens my palms. I open myself wider, trying to harness the current and bend it to my will, but it surges through me and hurtles back out into the night. I expand purposefully, my mind spreading like vines in all directions. I’m not my body anymore; I’m a rippling network of circuity.

I will not let us down.

The mirrors have finally engaged, and I don’t see it, but I sense it: something widening to bridge the gap between them. It’s a tunnel, an endless stretch of hollow space reflecting the crowd, the sky, the stars, the stage, and me. It spins infinitely, a kaleidoscope of energy, and something is crossing it, one thing or maybe many things, maybe many things in one. I try turn to Reuben, but my neck is locked. Surely he sees it too!

Breathing is a struggle, but I persist, desperate to prove my worthiness. It’s huge, an energy of formless mass, and the flow’s pooling. Yes! It must acknowledge me!

The audience howls, thrashing and stampeding, delirious inside this fever-spell. Lightning jumps off them into the mirrors and traces illuminated veins into clouds. Something’s arrived, all brittle limbs and chattering teeth, a majesty of living glass. It seeks the One who has called. I falter, this is no angel, no God; it’s a frenzy of razor edges and cutting angles.

Where’s the music? Is Reuben still there? Things are exploding around, and this isn’t what we’d planned.

The energy runs riot, a carousel on fire, and my mind is too small to contain it. Sparks are flying, and flames burst around me as it scans me with a hundred mirror-shard eyes.

People are scattering, literally, their features running away from their faces, and it suddenly occurs to me that there was never a plan beyond this moment.

Everything’s melting.

Everything is on fire.

And I am alone before what has been summoned.

Beholding the chaos, it leans in to measure my worth. I’m just a foolish girl in its merciless glare, abandoned and alone and empty behind my eyes. It shows me my fears, the parts I will not face, the demons that dance on my mother’s grave. It shows me my shadow sides and all the selves I’ve left behind, wandering in limbo worlds.

This broken heart can’t buy me passage and now there’s a price that must be paid. I’ve seen too much and there’s no going back, no returning to sanity after coming this close.

I beg for mercy before it drags me into the glass, and I’m swallowed by a maw of myselves.

The mirrors bend, and time distends into a hundred beginnings and ends.

§

I am myself again, eyes wide, pulse hammering, as the truth breaks over me in waves of shock. I knew there’d been an electrical fault that night onstage, suspected you’d been too strung out to escape, but who could have possibly guessed the rest? You did it! You summoned a deity, one too big and powerful to contain.

Adrenaline pounds through me from living out your death, and I know now where you are. The mirrors are connected, they must be, and they tricked me, so I take the meat hammer from the kitchen and find my release. I smash, and I smash, and they shatter like the inanimate objects they pretend to be. I can’t stop because I know what they are hiding, and soon every room is littered with shards.

When I tire, I take your diary and clear a space among the wreckage. The dream was real, you were trying to reach me. Somewhere inside them, you’ve been held all these years.

There must be more, something in your diary, some ritual or clue that will led me to you. I sit down, refocused and fired up. I re-read every half-born idea and sideways scribbled scrawl …

§

… Nothing in your diary is linear, but neither is it random. What I thought was just a doodle around the edge of every page is actually a symbol, copied so much it looked like a border. You write that you found it in some book about the I Ching, that it’s the Egyptian hieroglyph for neter, or “God,” and an ancient Chinese character for “door.” It’s also similar to the Gemini symbol but turned inside out and flipped on its side. Twin lines, slightly concaved, facing each other like empty parentheses, closing or invoking some invisible significance. Is this what gave you the idea for the second black mirror? You knew that combined, they’d create a temporary path!

“Doors always lead to somewhere, and mirrors must have something to reflect,” you’ve written, underlining it twice in thick red marker. Mirrors, infinity tunnels, demons from other worlds. I have to sleep soon … but I’m only just starting to see.

§

When I woke, I gathered all the broken mirror pieces together, swept them from every room and arranged them by relative shapes and sizes. Then I placed them carefully onto the studio floor to make a bigger, purposeful design. It took hours, maybe days, I have no idea, but now a map spreads from wall to wall. This is my magic circle, adapted from your workings, but instead of seeking to summon a god, I only have to find a way to find you, then bring you back.

Three concentric circles frame the perimeter, around a square with four fractal chambers of overlapping miniatures of the whole. It’s complex in its simplicity, and if my understanding is correct, then I have bound the mirrors in their own magic.

§

An album’s playing from Mother’s old record player, popping and hissing through plastic speakers. Reuben’s voice is low, too low, and the tempo’s warped, but I know these melodies in my bones. I start moving slowly, following the outer circle, heel to toe, toe to heel, as if I am practicing balletic steps. Be fluid, relax, let go! But I’m stiff, much stiffer than I’ve ever been, and this body is running on fumes. When did I eat last? Does it matter? Appetite gives me a sharpness I haven’t felt for years.

Focus on emptiness. The weightlessness of body. The hollow of stomach and the space between breaths.

Did the ground just slope … ever so slightly?

Something’s murmuring. Perhaps the shards are waking up …

Slowly but surely, the circle turns, grinding like tectonic plates. It sinks into the floor. I gasp, giddy with surprise, but excitement gives way to uncertainty. The house has gone now, and there’s no going back. This is my only chance.

The circle’s a ledge now, a shelf of ice overlooking a maze at the bottom of a valley. The wind buffets me as I balance, searching for paths that might lead me down.

The maze is fringed by a wasteland of ice, all jagged edges and winking spikes, and inside it, things are moving, points of light with sentient intent. The mirror’s world. I have to be lighter, no I have to be light to get inside, but before I work out how, a gust pushes me over, hurling me into the air. I’d cry out, but the breath leaves my lungs as fast as my soul flees my plummeting body. Flesh is dense, but my soul is quicksilver. It glides instinctively inside.

Within the walls, there are hundreds of us, thousands, skimming inside a labyrinth. I don’t walk, I flit like they do, from one facet of glass to another in an effortless dance. I should be concentrating, memorising the paths I have taken, but it’s hard to stay grounded in this bodiless flow.

A sound comes, a deep droning “O,” that echoes round the glass-walls and somehow harnesses my thoughts. It weighs me down, changes my course, and steers me down corridors of deeper shadow. I don’t want to follow it, don’t want to leave the collective of light, but it pulls me away. I feel a pang like the sting of withdrawal.

Shadows are spreading as the droning grows louder. I’m sliding faster and deeper into the dark and I have no mouth to scream, no hands to catch myself.

There’s a whip like a rip in time.

And I am somewhere.

Anywhere. Nowhere.

It doesn’t matter because you are with me too.

I see you! My dream made flesh, but something stops me before I get too close. I’m slammed against some unseen slab before a second pins me from behind like an amoeba on a laboratory slide.

I’m only body again, not intuitive light or free-flowing thought, and I can’t move, as you couldn’t when the mirrors opened up, when they froze you in that soul-wrenching spell. My muscles tense as laughter erupts. I don’t believe it, but I see them: a legion of me in a precise yet diminishing line.

You are not One but one, they shriek and titter, one sliver of the Infinite. The futility of these heroics hits and hammers me because without them, I’m only the layer with a face.

You’re pinned opposite, only a few feet away, and our prisons mirror each other exactly. You’re suspended, fingers splayed and toes en pointe, but it isn’t beautiful; your skin is taut and tinted blue and grey with rot. Like me, you’ve an army of duplicates, a spectrum of selves spreading out behind the first.

Something stirs, causing ripples in the void. A formless other emerging from the dark.

“Please!” I whimper to the rest of me, feeling the current of Its awakening.

“Pll.e…e.e..eEEe…..aAAAeee….ooooooooOOOo..w..ww…..z.Zzz.zZZ..z..e.e..e…e” My selves yowl back, ignoring the growing current. There’s a quickening like a cyclone taking shape in a churning maelstrom of glass.

The ones in the distance panic because they see it first. The cyclone tipped onto its belly and baring its teeth. It eats them with a dislocated patience because it knows I feel every crunch. The panic spreads, a domino-cascade of terror, and when the other selves realise, they start pleading, jostling and jabbering. None can hear above the din of their own fear.

This failure is monumental because I walked freely into this trap. I remember this despair from your memory and I see you, captive and paralysed, held by everything you chose to ignore.

For the first time, I feel pity for you instead of jealous awe. You’re afraid, afraid and uncertain like me, shutting out the things you cannot bear to face. Things that will not be ignored.

There’s no difference between us. We are the same.

And I can’t believe how gently it begins.

First it’s in my toes, like they’re being sucked on by a mouthful of battery acid. Familiar sparks bring static spasms to my neck and back and crotch. Euphoric pricks jab at my fingertips, spike my joints with white-hot hurt. It speaks in tongues of electric sensation, my nightly familiar, imprinted in pain that’s always been my own.

Your skin glows, each cell reigniting because the current remembers its home and energy pools inside us both, making a pillar of light in our spine.

I know what’s coming and this time I do not fear it. I welcome it. It flexes muscles of chromatic brilliance and prepares for the final leap.

This revelation of wholeness blasts the glass around us, exploding our prisons apart.

The circuit closes and the disconnect shatters as the space between us surges with matter.

§

Light flashes, left to right, right to left, startling me awake. Someone hovers over me, torch tip pinched between latex gloves. There’s glass and blood and too many peering faces, but I feel impossibly alive.

“Try not to move,” a woman soothes, voice low, tone purposely calm. “There’s been an accident and we’re taking you to the hospital. You’re one lucky lady, let me tell you.” She says something else, but I don’t hear. My mind is still a swarm of spiralling parts. I’m lifted, carried away and there’s people pointing, swooning.

“Let me go with her!” Someone shouts, stirring something ancient but familiar inside me.

“And you are?”

“The singer … her boyfriend. Please!” He pleads.

“Put these on,” she commands. “There’s a risk of infection and the burns are third degree. Right now, she probably can’t feel a thing.” She’s right, I can’t feel anything, but behind her I see a husk that was once a burning stage.

I’m rolled inside an ambulance and the doors clank shut. Something metallic pierces my arm. He takes my hand and leans in closer, his face obscured by curls.

“I’m sorry, baby, it went too far,” Reuben whispers, tears splashing on exposed nerves like glittering kisses. I want to sit up and study him, but my arms are strapped down, and for a second I panic that the mirrors have tricked me again. But this is real, his warmth and this love can’t be denied. I will not slip back into madness.

“The mirrors …?” I ask, blood bubbling round my mouth.

“Exploded, glass was everywhere. I tried to pull you away, but you wouldn’t move.”

I see now, from every angle and all possible threads. Pasts and futures transparent and undistorted. I look down and see my body, a landscape of red-raw burns, but I’m alive and can’t stop myself from laughing. There will be pain, but I will heal and this time nothing gets left behind. There is so much I will tell him, now I’ve solved the mirror’s riddle and I know this life is mine.

 

Stefanie Elrick is a writer, artist and performer from Manchester, UK. As a performance artist she’s blood-lined love poetry onto her body during ‘Written in Skin’ www.writteninskin.com and been strapped to a 12ft spinning timepiece for ‘KAIROS’ www.kairosophy.com. She returned to her first love, fantasy horror, in the winter of 2015 and made her debut in Martian Migraine’s Press Cthulhusattva: Tales of the Black Gnosis. She also features in Comet Press’s 2017 anthology, The Year’s Best Hardcore Horror. www.stefanieelrick.com.

Stefanie Elrick is a SAGITTARIUS ruled by the planet Jupiter in the 5th House.

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